Cultural managements

Cultural experiences in the former Soviet Union sparked hope now shattered by war [Unscripted column] | Entertainment

As I watched the grand final of the Eurovision Song Contest on May 14, with the emotional and popular victory of “Stefania”, an ode to the mothers of Ukraine by the Kalush orchestra of that country, I was as much struck by what the competition lacked as I was by the glitzy, folkloric and sometimes corny performances brought to the competition by countries in Europe.

It’s the first time I’ve watched an entire afternoon of the competition – Quarryville native Johnny Weir, as host of the US show on Peacock, was a draw this year – having mostly watched performances individuals on YouTube in the past. But I still missed seeing an entry from Russia, which has done well in the competition for the past three decades but was banned this year due to its government’s brutal invasion of Ukraine.

It reminded me of a sunny afternoon in Moscow 30 years ago this month. During the last of my four trips to Eastern Europe, all of which included visits to the Russian capital, I stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Muscovites and other travelers from the Atlanta-based interpersonal exchange group, Friendship Force International, in a park in Moscow. , at a rally for ‘peace and friendship’ as relations continued to thaw between two Cold War rivals.

We were so filled with hope – naive hope, I realize now – that the breakup of the Soviet Union into independent countries and the previous few years of “glasnost” (openness) under Mikhail Gorbachev would lead to a coexistence more peaceful between Russia and the Soviet Union. West.

I was so quick to hope because of the experiences I had during those four visits to Moscow, between 1978 and 1992 – both meeting many warm, wonderful, philosophical people and generously sampling the arts , entertainment and culture of this part of the world. .

I wanted more of those experiences and I wanted other Americans to have them. And I thought that the warming of relations between the Russian government and the West would facilitate that.

Music, dance, art

My first trip to Moscow was during a tour of five Eastern European countries that I did in 1978 with my parents, while my father was attending a scientific conference at the University of Moscow. I clearly remember my first glimpse of the architecture of Red Square from our tour bus – including the shimmering, multicolored domes of St. Basil’s Cathedral and the red, star-spangled Spasskaya Tower rising above the walls. of the Kremlin – and the feeling of being on a movie set. Our tour group saw a ballet performance in a theater inside the Kremlin during this trip, and I could tell by the multiple roaring ovations from the audience that the ballet dancers were true cultural heroes to the crowd local.

During this trip we also heard a Roma band in a restaurant in Budapest, saw a folk music performance in Warsaw and strolled through the amazing Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque architecture of Prague in the homeland of my great -parents – what is today the Czech Republic. I felt grateful and privileged to experience every castle and cathedral, and hear every note of music, in this unique time behind the Iron Curtain.

I remember how much the inhabitants of this region were at the time eager for culture beyond their borders; in a Romanian department store, the same two ABBA songs were played over and over on an endless loop – evidently the ‘A’ and ‘B’ sides of the only 45 rpm record the managers could get their hands on.

Two police officers patrol an almost empty Red Square, with Saint Basil’s Cathedral, in the center, and the Spasskaya Tower in Moscow, Russia, Monday, April 20, 2020.

Traveling in 1988 and 1990 with a Lancaster County Friendship Force group to Moscow, St. Petersburg and the Soviet-era Republic of Moldova (now Moldova – a largely Romanian country hosting refugees from the neighboring Ukraine and considered a possible future target for invasion by Vladimir Putin’s army), I had a wider variety of cultural experiences.

I was in the front row for a show in a Moldavian fashion house and I attended a Russian circus where the artists alternated between demonstrative exploits

aerial skills and animal taming and breaking into that 1980s dance craze, the lambada. I attended an opera at the National Palace in the Moldovan capital of Chisinau – with no idea of ​​the plot due to the language barrier – and met its local star tenor, Mikhail Muntyanu. I saw a modern ballet based on the story of Adam and Eve, which included legions of angels on pointe and a tail-twirling Lucifer.

I’ve watched talented high school students demonstrate ballroom dancing at a school recital, and I’ve seen guys in Michael Jackson-style military jackets sing American Top 40 tunes in a hotel lounge. And there were plenty of folk music and dance concerts, including one celebrating the harvest, performed by Zhok, a Moldovan national folk group that has been performing performances of traditional songs, dances and customs since the mid-1940s.

I visited the Pushkin Art Museum in Moscow and had two precious hours to view a tiny percentage of the breathtaking art collection of the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg in the spectacular green Winter Palace and white.

I stood, looking towards the Black Sea, on the steep steps of Odessa, Ukraine – another city in Putin’s crosshairs – where, in 1925, Sergei Eisenstein staged the famous scene of the fleeing pram in his silent film “The battleship Potemkin”.

While staying with host families and visiting their friends in Moldova and Ukraine, I watched precious home-recorded tapes filled with Beatles music passed from person to person, and I listened to albums by the popular Russian rock band Aquarium on stereos. .

All these close cultural encounters impressed me so much that they remain living, almost photographic images in my mind, even after more than 30 or 40 years.

Hearing about shows recently scheduled by Russian dancers and others now canceled around the world due to their government’s military actions fills me with sadness for these performers – and for those who will miss seeing them.

Among my contacts with the Russian arts, one is the most vivid of all: the final scene of a superb performance by the Bolshoi Ballet of Sergei Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet” which I paid $22 to see in the theater adorned with the dance company in 1988.

As the ballet ended, the stage bathed in indigo light punctuated by the “flames” of fake torches, a funeral coffin was hoisted by several dancers, carrying the bodies of the hapless young lovers whose dance had been so passionate a while ago. has a few scenes before.

I remember the tears streaming down my face through my applause, as I considered the Capulets and the Montagues and how their stupid family feud cost the lives of two youngsters.

I now cry watching the scenes of carnage and destruction in Ukraine every night on my television. The hope I once had for peace and friendship with Russia, and the kind of sense of camaraderie engendered by shared cultural experiences and philosophical vodka toasts by warm, welcoming hosts, now lies middle of the rubble.

But I feel even luckier to have had these experiences while I still had the chance.

“Unscripted” is a weekly entertainment column produced by a rotating team of writers.