Culture Clash

Jason Dick
Posted October 31, 2012 at 1:11pm

The rich heritage of Russian music and dance was on full display at a lush gala at the Library of Congress last week, culminating in an otherworldly ice skating performance in the Thomas Jefferson Building’s Great Hall to the sounds of Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake.” But turmoil in Russia over free speech and artistic expression cast a minor pall over the festivities, providing a contrast between the event’s celebration of classic art and President Vladimir Putin’s crackdown on punk rock.

James Billington has been the Librarian of Congress since the Reagan administration, the custodian of the United States’ repository of knowledge and culture since 1987. And he’s never seen anything like the Role of the Arts in International Relations, sponsored by American University’s Initiative for Russian Culture and the Mariinsky Foundation.

“It’s once in a lifetime,” Billington, a longtime scholar of Russian culture, said late in the evening on Oct. 25 as 4,000 guests mingled in the Library. He spoke from the vantage point of the balcony, looking down on the transformed winter wonderland that the Great Hall had become, with four “ice dancers” plying to “Swan Lake” on an acrylic surface standing in for actual frozen water.

The skating was just one part of a particularly plush program that featured artistic luminaries such as Valery Gergiev, the artistic director of the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg, Russia, and Denis Matsuev, the hulking pianist known around the world as “The Siberian Bear.”

The event comes at a time, however, of rising tension in Russia over free speech, with Putin’s government coming down hard on critics of his regime. And though the event organizers preferred to keep the attention on classical music, it was a different kind of Russian music that threatened the program’s careful planning — punk rock protest tunes.

At a question-and-answer session, Gergiev bristled when asked by a reporter from Radio Free Europe about his thoughts on a Russian court’s recent decision to send members of a Russian punk rock band to penal colonies.

In February, the band Pussy Riot performed a song in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour protesting Putin’s hard-line tactics and the relationship between church and state. They were arrested for “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred.”

Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova reported to prison camps last week to serve two-year sentences. Another member of the band, Yekaterina Samutsevich, was freed by an appeals court.

“I was, myself, not so interested in hearing how the court [would decide],” Gergiev told the RFE reporter, continuing, “I thought that maybe they will find time in their lives to spend, I don’t know, maybe a few months, maybe a few weeks, in one of the monasteries, and maybe they will come out of this experience, in case they find it important, slightly different persons.”

Gergiev’s fellow panelists at the session, including Russian Ambassador to the United States Sergey Kislyak, former U.S. Ambassador to Russia John Beyrle and Susan Lehrman, advisory chairwoman for AU’s Initiative for Russian Culture, looked pained. But the maestro continued.

“Why [do] you have to do something in the biggest church of a big country? If you want to do something artistically or politically motivated, you may do it in some other place because Russia is a country where many, many churches were destroyed.” 

‘More Russian Is Always Better’

At almost the same time, on the other side of the world, Putin was providing fuel for the fire. 

At a dinner he was hosting for journalists at his estate in Novo Ogaryovo, Russia, Putin said about the band: “We have red lines beyond which starts the destruction of the moral foundations of our society,” according to Reuters. He added, “If people cross this line, they should be made responsible in line with the law.”

Putin’s positions would go unchallenged, at least from the panel at the Library of Congress.

Still, if contemporary Russian politics intruded, the overall program was an extravaganza for Russophiles, even compared with last year’s event, which featured a scaled ice sculpture of the Kremlin in the Great Hall.

“This year is far superior in every conceivable way. More people, more Russian. And more Russian is always better,” said Elliott Kaduck, an undergraduate at George Washington University studying international relations.

In addition to the ice skating and musical performance by Matsuev, the Library had on display an exhibit, “The Russian Influences on Music and Dance in America,” which featured installations on, among others, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Igor Stravinsky, Irving Berlin and Aaron Copland.

The multitiered experience, combined with the free-flowing booze and stacks of Russian desserts — such as the swan-shaped cream puffs covered in chocolate and the Birch Tree ice cream cake log — gave the evening a bit of an over-the-top feeling for some.

“You’d never find the German embassy doing this. Too inefficient,” joked Julia Broemmel, a German Fulbright scholar and American University broadcast journalism graduate student. She is a writer of the “D.C. and the Germans” blog hosted by AU.

Asked whether he could imagine such a thing as the skating transpiring in, say, the Kremlin, Kislyak merely gestured to the ice dancers. “Spectacular,” he said.

Not everyone was transfixed, particularly as “Swan Lake” played on a loop and the skating program continued late into the night.

“I want to shoot myself,” said one caterer who wished not to be identified. “If I hear this one more time,” the caterer said of the never-ending Tchaikovsky, “I’m going insane.”