RUSSIA – AN APPRECIATION
WHAT HAVE THE RUSSIANS EVER DONE FOR US?
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 and culture?
In literature? Nothing! Except Pushkin, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, etc.
In music? Nothing! Except Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Mussorgsky, Stravinsky, Rachmaninoff, Shostakovich, etc.
In Ballet? Nothing! Except Nijinsky, Diaghilev, Pavlova, Nureyev, Ulanova, 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.
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.
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. Putin’s government imposes 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 see it.
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 1991, halting the Red Army tanks and reversing the communist counter-coup in 1991. The light of liberty still shines, albeit diminished, in the land of the Tsars and the Commissars.
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 30, 1999)
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 all.
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 Victor 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 Bernstein.
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 year).
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 disappointing).
During the intermissions, we had long conversations with Victor 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 unthinkable.
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.
Copyright 2014 by Ernest Partridge
Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He has taught Philosophy at the University of California, and in Utah, Colorado and Wisconsin. He publishes the website, "The Online Gadfly" (www.igc.org/gadfly) and co-edits the progressive website, "The Crisis Papers" (www.crisispapers.org). Dr. Partridge can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org.