Saturday, December 23, 2017

Two Russias?

The view of Russia in the mainstream media these days is rather negative. I have seen it described as "Zaire with permafrost" or as a country with an economy the size of Italy, but with a lot of nuclear weapons ruled by a dictator whose political opponents tend to meet with terrible accidents. Of course a lot of this is a hangover from the days of the Cold War, but there is no denying that Russia does not have a great public image in the West.

But I see rather a different Russia. From the point of view of art and culture, Russia is profoundly impressive. If we just list a few Russian writers this becomes very clear almost immediately: Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Solzhenitsyn, Pushkin, Turgenev, Chekhov, Gogol, Pasternak--one could go on and on. A list of just the important Russian composers would include Glinka, Balakirev, Borodin, Cui, Mussorgsky, Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Kabalevsky, Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev, Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Scriabin, Schnittke, Ustvolskaya, Gubaidulina... Then there are the great Russian pianists: Vladimir Ashkenazy, Lazar Berman, Yefim Bronfman, Emil Gilels, Vladimir Horowitz, Evgeny Kissin, Sviatoslav Richter, Grigory Sokolov--and those are just the really big names. Great Russian string players: David Oistrakh, Gregor Piatigorsky, Mstislav Rostropovich, Jascha Heifetz, Isaac Stern (both born in what was then part of Russia) and so on.

There are extraordinary Russians in other fields as well, but much less known to me. One example that comes to mind is Grigori Perelman, the great Russian mathematician who has been awarded and refused, in succession, the Fields medal (equivalent to a Nobel Prize), the Millennium Prize (accompanied by a million dollar award) and the prize of the European Mathematical Society. That doesn't happen very often.

How do we explain this? I'm pretty sure I can't! But one thing seems clear: Russians, as individuals are an extremely impressive people, very creative and very serious. But they have always been plagued by really horrible governments and administration. Perhaps these two things are just not very compatible. We might compare with Canada, a well-governed land with a mild and complacent populace that is not particularly known for great artistic creativity.

I want to end with two clips. The first is of a little traffic dispute on a road in Russia:

Oh, I recommend turning down the sound a bit as someone added a rap track. So that's one side of Russia. And here is another side. For a long time, Rostropovich hoped that Shostakovich would write a cello concerto, but Shostakovich's wife always advised never to mention it to him! Finally, one day, Rostropovich received a phone call to come over and was given the score of a new cello concerto. Four days later he came back with his accompanist to play it for Shostakovich. He was offered a music stand and, in what he said was the proudest moment of his life, Rostropovich replied, "no thanks, I have it from memory!" The whole concerto. In four days. This is just the beginning:

UPDATE: A commentator left me a terrific example of Canadian "road rage" and it is so appropriate, I'm going to embed it below.


Christine Lacroix said...

Canadian Road Rage:

Bryan Townsend said...

That is so funny! Canadians are the folks that, if you step on their toe, they apologize.