RUSSIA – AN APPRECIATION
Ernest Partridge, Co-Editor
The Crisis Papers
March 15, 2014
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
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,
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
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"
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
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
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
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
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