In a recent appearance on Bill Maher’s "Real Time,"
professional smart-ass P. J. O’Rourke had this to say about Russia.
Let me explain Russia... You have this
country where you have western civilization and then this other country
over here, sort of on the edge of western civilization.
They never had the Reformation. They
never had the Renaissance. They never had the industrial revolution.
They never had anything except this stinky commie revolution. And so
they kind of missed out on everything...
Besides being out in the sticks
culturally, it is literally out in the sticks. What you have in Russia
is basically the Middle Ages.
After all, what has Russia contributed to world civilization
In literature? Nothing! Except
Pushkin, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, etc.
In music? Nothing! Except
Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Mussorgsky, Stravinsky, Rachmaninoff,
In Ballet? Nothing!
Except Nijinsky, Diaghilev, Pavlova, Nureyev, Baryshnikov, Balanchine, etc.
In Painting? Nothing!
Except Repin, Roerich, Chagall, Kandinsky, etc.
In Science? Nothing! Except
Lomonosov, Pavlov, Vernadsky, Mendeleev, and a roster of Nobel Laureates
second only to the United States (many of these foreign born).
In Technology? Nothing! Except
Sputnik, Soyuz, and the T-34 – the best battle tank of World War II.
And what did Russia sacrifice to the struggle against of
Naziism? Merely the lives of twenty-five million Soviet citizens -- one
sixth of the population.
Mr. O’Rourke: It’s past time for you to go back to school.
The recent Sochi Winter Olympics have prompted considerable
Russia-bashing in our media. An eighty billion dollar extravaganza, we were
told. No mention that fifty billion of that was for permanent infrastructure
in the region.
The opening ceremonies were a technological marvel with
thousands of intricate devices and programs operating without a hitch. All,
that is, but one: that snowflake that failed to morph into a ring – about
which our media reminded us repeatedly. "Proof," of course, that Russia is
still "an engineering backwater."
I am second to none in my contempt of Soviet Communism. That
contempt is compounded by my appreciation of how my Russian friends and
their forbearers suffered under that regime. As I have often said, if you
want to meet an anti-communist, talk to a Russian.
Accordingly, justice demands that the Soviet governments be
distinguished from the people, Russians and others, that suffered under it
and eventually overthrew it.
Similarly, the present Russian government must not be
confused with the people who suffer under it. Boris Yeltsin
established, and Vladimir Putin perpetuates, an
oligarchy upon a people who have never known democracy. Not unlike the
American people who once knew democracy, casually allowed it to slip away,
and now also endure the rule of an oligarchy – if only they had the eyes to
P. J. O'Rourke exemplifies an appalling American ignorance of
Russian culture and history. For example, Ronald Reagan often said that the
Russian language has no word for "freedom." Had he taken the trouble to pick
up his phone and ask his State Department, they would have told him that the
Russian word for "freedom" is "svoboda" (свобода).
In fact, despite brutal repression, the Soviet Union and now
Russia somehow manage to produce heroic champions of liberty such as
Aleksandr Solzhenitzen, Yuli Daniel, the brothers Medvedev, Oleg Kalugin,
Aleksandr Nikitin, Aleksey Yablokov, Yevgeni Yevtushenko, Andrei Sakharov
and Elena Bonner. Add to these the thousands of Soviet citizens who crowded
the streets of Moscow, St. Petersburg and Vilnius in August, 1991, halting the Red
Army tanks and reversing the communist counter-coup. The light of
liberty still shines, albeit diminished, in the land of the Tsars and the
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, there were active
movements in both Russia and the west to forge bonds of respect,
communication and friendship – "mir i druzhba.". And I can report
that in my several visits to Russia, I found widespread interest in American
history and appreciation for American culture and political institutions.
Though diminished, an opportunity remains for mutual cultural
enrichment, provided we dismiss, on both sides, the chauvinistic bombasts of
ignoramuses like P. J. O’Rourke.
THE SOUL OF RUSSIA
I can personally testify to the profound Russian devotion to
artistic culture, particularly to music. Of this devotion the late Russian
violin virtuoso, Isaac Stern, observed:
Russia is a place where music is
as necessary as bread... The Russians are willing to wear their
hearts on their sleeves with abandon, and with a natural fervor
which is basic to the Russian soul. ("Weekend Edition," NPR, October
I encountered numerous expressions of this Russian "soul"
during my several visits to Russia. Two are especially vivid in my memory.
In 1991 I was in Moscow during what turned out to be the
final summer of the Soviet Union, I discovered then that Soviet Moscow could
be a rather drab place for the clueless American visitor.
My friend Slava came to my rescue with a timely phone call.
"Some of my friends are having a party," he said, "would you
like to come along?"
"Of course," I immediately replied.
When we arrived at the apartment, we traded our shoes for
slippers (Russian style), and proceeded to the living room. Soon thereafter,
three of the guests stepped forward, one with a violin, another with a
cello, and the third sat at the grand piano, whereupon they began to play a
Bach trio sonata – supremely well. That was followed by a Brahms Cello
sonata. Failing to hear a single wrong note, we settled back and enjoyed the
performance, confident that Brahms was in very good hands.
To close the recital, a tall and angular young man (he
couldn't have been more than thirty) picked up his violin, grinned at his
pianist and the audience, and proceeded to dive into the devilishly
difficult "Sziganne" by
Ravel. He clearly believed that he was equal to the task, and immediately
proved to the rest of us that he was indeed. Brilliant, dazzling, yet
completely under control.
Ravel would have been pleased.
And then, midway through the second movement, a string broke.
With scarcely a lost beat, the violinist attempted to continue by
re-fingering ad lib on the remaining three strings. However, he soon
realized that this was hopeless.
He then searched his case for a spare string. There was none.
And so, sadly, the recital came to an abrupt end.
Think of it! All that talent, and not enough spare change to
afford an extra set of strings!
There were no night clubs in this city of eight million,
affordable to these young proletarians. The Bolshoi Theater and Tchaikovsky
Concert Hall were closed for the summer. What was one to do for an evening?
"Why, let's have a recital at our apartment!"
And so a few friends got together in a private apartment, and
put together a recital of a quality worthy of the stage of Carnegie Hall.
I've been to innumerable parties in the States, far more of
them forgotten than remembered. This is one "party" I will never forget.
The scene shifts nine years later to Saratov, a regional
capital on the Volga River.
Our hosts, the Russian Chapter of the International Society
for Ecological Economics, arranged for us to attend a performance of
Mozart's "Marriage of Figaro" at the city Opera House. The orchestra, though
not the caliber of those young Moscow recitalists, performed capably. The
cast, however, was inspired and inspiring. Fully aware that the this was a
"comic opera," they were entirely in control and clearly having a rollicking
good time of it.
"Suzanna" was a stunner! A gorgeous raven-haired young woman,
with a voice both sweet and strong. "Figaro" carried his "straight man" role
with dignity amidst the horseplay. But "Count Almaviva" (coincidentally the
Director and Manager) stole the show with his antics. A fine time was had by
The following night, the participants of the Saratov
conference attended a banquet at an elegant pre-revolutionary mansion (the
property of the city, of course).
And who should appear as the MC of the floor show, but "Count
Almaviva" himself – one Vadim Demidov. In fluent English, Demidov
introduced a lovely young singer, who performed a superb medley of Gershwin
songs. Damned if it wasn't
"Suzanna"! (Tatiana Coboleva).
This was in celebration of the Gershwin centennial.
George Gershwin, by the way, was the son of Russia
immigrants, as were the famous American composers Aaron Copland and Leonard
Also featured that evening was a jazz combo consisting (with
one exception) of faculty members at Saratov University – members, not of
the Music but of the Science and Engineering Departments. At our request,
they played several Ellington numbers (it was also the Duke's centennial
Good news! Jazz
is alive and well in Saratov, Russia! We haven't heard live jazz of this
quality for several years – not in New York or San Francisco. Not, at least,
since we heard Gerry Mulligan, Charles Mingus and Charlie Byrd among others
at the Village Vanguard in New York City over four decades ago. (Our recent
searches for quality live jazz in San Francisco have usually been
During the intermissions, we had long conversations with
Vadim Demidov, who demonstrated that his command of English was authentic.
Obviously pleased at our astonishment at and enthusiasm for the eclectic
performances of his colleagues – classical, popular and jazz – he explained
how the Saratov musicians have struggled and persisted, despite the loss of
state support for the arts. A Russian city without music, he explained, was
Demidov was one of the most charming and immediately likeable
persons that we have ever met in the dozen or so countries that we visited
during the Nineties.
I offer these stories as validation of Isaac Stern's
observation regarding "the soul of Russia." Truly, to the Russians, "music
is as necessary as bread." And I would further suggest that if one fails to
hear the soul of Russia in the compositions and performances of Russian
musicians, one will, like P. J. O’Rourke, be ill-prepared to recognize that
soul anywhere else.