Can Russia's rich tradition of art
save it from it from ruin?
Jack Miles and Douglas McLennan
“Russia Is finished,” proclaims May’s
cover story in The Atlantic Monthly. “Within a
few decades,” Jeffrey Tayler writes, “Russia will concern
the rest of the world no more than any Third World country
with abundant resources, an impoverished people, and a corrupt
government.” Russia’s population, currently 146 million, may
drop below 100 million by mid-century, Tayler writes, comparing
the erstwhile superpower to Zaire under Mobutu.
If Russia’s population begins dropping by roughly a million
a year starting now, will the world care? According to a letter
sent out by the International Rescue Committee while the May
Atlantic was still on the newsstands, the population
of Congo (no longer Zaire) has been dropping at that rate
for nearly three years — 2.5 million dead in thirty-two months
— “as the world pretends not to see.”
In Congo as in Russia, according
to the IRC, violence claims only a fraction of the lives taken
by starvation and the total collapse of the health system
Russia, however, has something that might interrupt its downward
fortunes – namely, its art. In Afghanistan, another country
spiraling downward toward social catastrophe, world notice
was recently galvanized not by mass death but by the Taliban’s
destruction of the colossal Bamiyan Buddhas.
The outcry over this destruction prompted one observer to
comment bitterly: “After the world’s reaction over the statue
issue, many in Afghanistan might ask whether the stone statues
important than millions of starving human beings” [Middle
The truth is that for some in a position to help, some art
does indeed matter more than certain starving hordes. Is it
possible that Russia, with more such assets than either Afghanistan
or Congo, could turn its artistic heritage if not into economic
salvation, then at least into the mitigation of catastrophe?
In 2000, the New York-based World Monuments Watch put seven
Russian sites [CNN] on its
list of the world’s 100 most endangered landmarks. Among these
were such world famous structures as the Bolshoi Theatre in
Moscow, the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, and even the
Kremlin itself. These sites are well known in countries where
there is both the capital and potential philanthropic inclination
to undertake the kind of rescue that can, in the long run,
save people as well as buildings.
One of the biggest obstacles is that in crossing from communism
to capitalism, Russia has exchanged a criminal regime for
a regime of criminals. As Tayler puts it, “In most countries
organized crime affects principally illegal trade (narcotics,
prostitution, gambling), but in Russia the mob can take over
any business — not only because most businesses have to break
the law to stay afloat, and thus leave themselves vulnerable
to extortion, but also because so much economic activity takes
place in untraceable cash…. A country with a $340 billion
economy and no reliable banking system or financial sector
makes a poor investment, to say the least….”
Though Tayler says not a word about
art, the Russian art “business” surely cannot escape this
brutal truth about the whole of Russian economic culture.
Thus, Swiss firms who did a $300 million renovation of the
Grand Kremlin Palace may have paid
handsomely for the contracts [CNN].
The matter is being investigated, but in Russia investigations
of corruption are themselves easily corrupted.
If this state of affairs tends to deter Western philanthropies
and Western art institutions from coming to the rescue of
immovable Russian artistic assets, movable assets are another
matter, beginning with the artists themselves.
For much of the
20th Century, artists of the Soviet Union were among the world's
best, and the Soviet style of art was much revered and copied
in the West. Soviet artists who did leave their country during
the Cold War were celebrated worldwide for their talent.
The prosperous Shostakoviches, wealthy (by Russian
standards) from concert fees earned on tours in the West,
soon found themselves targets of kidnappers and crimminals.
Theatres, cut loose from public subsidy, had to completely
reinvent themselves, and many folded. Orchestras and dance
companies found themselves destitute and living hand to mouth.
Many feared the exodus of artists and the lack of money to
keep up the country's cultural institutions would decimate
the country's proud artistic legacy.
Ten years later, Russian art seems largely undiminished.
year’s Van Cliburn Competition, 11 of the 30 pianists
chosen are Russian or from former republics of the USSR as
against only two from the United States. This week’s competition
finalists include four formerly-Soviet pianists out of six.
Clearly a noble performance tradition has remained alive
in Russia, whatever the obstacles ranged against it. As for
the pianists themselves, while remaining Russian, at least
a few can hope to exploit the assets of talent and training
and bank their earnings in the West.
What good does the flight of capital in the form of artists’
earnings banked abroad, however minor, do Russia? (During
the mid-1990s, according to Tayler, Western aid of $10 billion
per year flowed into Russia, while Russian capital of at least
$20 billion per year flowed out.)
One answer is that preserving Russian pianism is a good in
itself, whether or not the Russian economy as a whole is much
benefited. A more hopeful answer is that every instance of
above-board, uncriminalized economic behavior linking Russia
and the West pushes Russia just that much toward the decriminalization
and cultural normalization of its economy.
Not all artistic activity is as simple, in economic terms,
as the individual pianist on tour. In July 2000, the Kirov
sent a troupe of 500 performers to London to perform five
ballet and five opera programs over a five-week period. The
performances, to sellout crowds, won rave reviews. Valery
Gergiev, director of the Kirov, was hailed as a prophet teaching
the West that the old notion of the ballet or opera company
still had meaning.
Yet this was a triumph that could easily not have happened.
Covent Garden required a £350,000 deposit, which the Kirov
could not make. Fortunately, a British investor, Harry Fitzgibbons,
stepped in. Fitzgibbons also fronted £480,000 for the hotel
where the performers stayed and posted a bond of £300,000
for the import of the sets and costumes. No mean risk for
even a wealthy patron, but at the end of the run, having paid
all its bills, the
Kirov cleared between £750,000 and £1 million [The
The Kirov as an economic engine for the recovery is not to
be compared with Gazprom, the Russian national gas company,
but the fact remains that the Kirov is a business —
by Russian standards, an exceptionally honest business, and
this fact may yet count beyond the opera and the ballet.
A paradox begins to emerge. In the West, art becomes suspect
when it becomes too commercial. Its services, beyond those
intrinsic to art, are located in such intangibles as national
pride, social protest, community solidarity, and the like.
It is not honored for providing a model that other businesses
But in Russia, art may provide its greatest social service
by providing a model for business emulation. The Bolshoi Ballet
is beginning to franchise ballet schools as far
from its home as Australia [The Age]
The Hermitage and the Guggenheim Foundation have closed a
deal to share their collections, collaborate on exhibitions,
and help each other develop a
worldwide network of museums [NYTimes].
venture in Las Vegas [LATimes]
has attracted most attention, not least because of the participation
of architect Rem Koolhaas, but other, larger undertakings
The Hermitage-Somerset House collaboration
in London [The Telegraph]
is yet another coup for Mikhail Piotrovski, the director of
the St. Petersburg Museum, a man who speaks eleven languages,
including Arabic, and whose entrepreneurial vision seems to
match that of the Guggenheim’s Thomas Krens stride for stride.
Is Russia finished? The most efficient, hygienically uncorrupt
societies have not always provided fertile soil for the flower
of art, but total social collapse kills everything. At the
present juncture in Russia’s difficult history, perhaps the
entrepreneurs of the Russian art world may find ways to save
their own traditions while being prophets of a rather unexpected
sort for their afflicted nation.
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