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Better Living Through Art:
Can Russia's rich tradition of art save it from it from ruin?

By 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 were more important than millions of starving human beings" [Middle East Times].

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.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990s, a flood of artists left the country. Popular destinations included Israel, where hundreds of musicians emigrated, enormously enriching that country's musical culture. New York was another popular destination, and the Russians have made their mark there as well.

Conductor Vladimir Spivakov, one of Russia's most accomplished violinists, transplanted his entire chamber orchestra - the renowned Moscow Virtuosi - to Barcelona, where it made its new European base.

Other artists who opted to remain behind found it tough going. The Shostakovich String Quartet, one of the world's finest, already had a thriving career in the West, but though they chose to continue living in Moscow, they found their concerts there cut back to almost nothing. In a time of destabilized prices and shortages of food, few had money for concert tickets.

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. In this 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 Telegraph].

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 may emulate.

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] and Brazil [Newsweek].

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]. Their joint venture in Las Vegas [LATimes] has attracted most attention, not least because of the participation of architect Rem Koolhaas, but other, larger undertakings may follow.

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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