By Ellen Warren
The Russo-Ukrainian War rages on, now entering its second year. A few months into the conflict, the city of Mariupol was captured by Russian forces. For a musician in that beleaguered city, help was on the way from an unlikely source.
Nadia Sayed picked up the violin at age four. Now 10-years-old, this accomplished fifth grade musician and artist, a Roslyn resident, has already performed with prestigious strings festivals and children’s orchestras. Nadia likes how music bridges people of all religions and geopolitical backgrounds. With her parents, Nadia often visits relatives in India and travels to experience countries and cultures around the world.
While reading TheStrad.com, an international resource for the string music world, Nadia’s mother, Aruna Talapatra, showed Nadia a story about Oleksandr “Alex” Smykovskyi, Ukrainian luthier (violin maker) who lost everything when Russia bombed Mariupol. After his home and workshop were destroyed by Russian forces, Alex left his city with only a backpack and the clothes he was wearing. He had an arduous journey through occupied territories, and eventually found shelter in Vinnitsa. Alex was later able to find and relocate his elderly parents and uncle, but his aunt was killed in the bombing. For Alex and his family, daily survival means adapting to constantly changing conditions. Nadia told her mother she wanted to help Alex.
TheStrad story described how U.S. violinist Gary Sinderovsky had donated one of Alex’s handmade violins to an auction, to raise funds for Alex. Born in Ukraine just south of Kyiv, Gary began violin at age six. He then studied at a music college in Moldova until 1979, when his family left the former U.S.S.R. and entered the U.S. as political refugees. Gary could not bring his Ukrainian violin. As a U.S. resident, Gary built a career in IT, but kept playing violin. He now lives in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, and performs with a local orchestra. In the early 2000s, finally able to purchase a violin from the “old country,” he found Alex online. Alex sent Gary a new violin with a trusting message that said, “If you like it, send me the money.” Gary kept the violin and began a friendship with Alex, helping him sell violins to U.S. customers, mostly in New York and Philadelphia. In March 2022, Tarisio included Gary’s donated violin in its New York June Fine Instruments & Bows Auction, waiving their fees. Gary sent the proceeds to Alex and helps when he can, but internet service is sporadic in Ukraine. Under the story, a comment suggested that someone start a GoFundMe campaign.
Aruna contacted Gary, who explained more about Alex’s desperate situation. He agreed that GoFundMe would be the best way to help Alex. Gary introduced Aruna and Nadia to Alex via email. Nadia does not use the internet, so Aruna shared Alex’s replies. As they developed a relationship, he described how he was finally able to move his family, ages 79-84, through occupied territories and humanitarian corridors to join him. “They are finally free,” wrote Alex, “but they are very damaged after two months of living in the basement without light, heat, hot food, and any medical care.”
In April 2022, Aruna created a GoFundMe fundraiser for Alex. She shared how Alex had lived his entire life in Mariupol and opened his violin making business in 1996; how on February 24, 2022, after more than 5,000 Mariupoli civilians were killed by Russian forces, he was forced to flee with nothing.
Alex had told TheStrad: “My home and my violin shop are completely destroyed, including all my tools, my woods, all instruments including five new violins in various stages of completion. Like many of my countrymen, I am a now a displaced person, a refugee without any basic belongings or means of livelihood.”
To date the GoFundMe has raised more than $18,000. Aruna transfers funds to Alex, and she and Nadia email him as often as possible. Sometimes weeks or months will pass before he can reply. He recently wrote, “I’m sorry for the long silence, but a lot of complicated circumstances all around, and under such conditions, it is almost impossible to fully control your own life.”
Nadia hopes to raise at least $25,000 in support of Alex. She knows that before he opened his workshop in Mariupol, he was invited to apprentice with renowned violin makers in Padua and Cremona, Italy, and that many violin shops around the world would welcome him, but he cannot leave Ukraine. She believes that although she and Alex are different in many ways, they are connected by their love for the strings. He makes violins, she plays them.
Aruna sent Alex a video of Nadia playing her violin. Alex replied gratefully, writing, “You know, we will definitely and more than once talk about music, and I am sure that one day we will see each other…Now I miss the world in which I lived, the world of beauty and harmony, and when I watched Nadia play I returned to it again.”
Nadia and Alex look forward to the day when they can meet in person. When it will be safe for Alex to live in Ukraine, and rebuild his workshop, if he can ever find a way. When Nadia and her parents can travel there to visit him and she can play one of Alex’s violins.
Donations for Alex in any amount are welcome on GoFundMe.