Aphrodite bends over Stalin

John Lloyd writes about the confusing state of the arts in Russia

Russian high culture has failed to flourish since the Soviet Union’s collapse. Though there are now signs of recovery, and though its magnificent base has not been destroyed, it is clear that the overwhelming feeling is still one of loss. Nothing can be done in the short term: the great institutions exist in suspended animation, the great figures age, pass from the scene, or get rich; the new names do not so much make great careers as find niches, very often abroad. In the theatre, incomparable acting is confined very largely to productions of the classics – Chekhov, Dostoevsky, Ostrovsky – in studios or rehearsal rooms before restricted audiences. At the opera, the repertoire is (usually) sung well, though the sets were made thirty years ago. In avant-garde art, the main reference point remains Ilya Kabakov, whose pre-eminence was established in the Seventies and who lives in Paris. Serious music – what there is of it – is as hermetic as anything in the West.

Even were money available, it could not recreate the infrastructure on which Soviet art depended. Soviet art, no matter how propagandist, always had a degree of autonomy, a space in which the practitioners could claw back a measure of freedom from the ideological controllers, but none, no matter how opaque, could avoid submitting in one way or another to the system.

The most ‘Russian’ of the arts, the one most closely identified with the state, is ballet, and Moscow is still regarded as its capital. But for many ballet-lovers and critics, Russia’s period of dominance has ended. For the ballet, as for space exploration and the arms race, money was once no object. The Bolshoi in particular was a Soviet hothouse, a showcase for visitors and sometimes an ambassador for the USSR abroad. Its most famous director, Yuri Grigorovich, who ruled the Bolshoi for 30 years, was prised from power in 1994. He was opposed by many of his leading performers, though not by the majority of the staff, who liked a conservative regime: more important, he failed to get backing from the Kremlin (which continues to have the last word where the Bolshoi is concerned) because of his opposition to a contract system of employment, designed in part to cut the huge cost of the theatrical army. The business manager, Vladimir Kokonin, defeated him in a fashion unthinkable in Soviet times. ‘People are going to have to start justifying their salaries,’ Kokonin announced. ‘We don’t want time-serving civil service types.’

Grigorovich has gone with dignity: not so Oleg Vinogradov, chief choreographer of the Maryinsky (the old name was restored for domestic purposes, but the name Kirov retained abroad, the anti-Communist gesture taking second place to market strategy). In October 1994, Vinogradov was arrested and charged with corruption, along with the theatre’s newly appointed director, Anatoly Malkov: he’d been in his post for 18 years. The police investigating the charges announced that Malkov was ‘just small fry. It is Vinogradov who is behind all the bribes’ – which they alleged to be worth many millions of dollars. John Cripton, a Canadian impresario who had booked the Maryinsky/Kirov on foreign tours for ten years, said that Vinogradov used to demand additional payments on every contract. Vinogradov denies everything, and – now out on bail – has continued to work at the Maryinsky. Even those activities which he has been open about suggest that the stars are able, and eager, to enrich themselves while the bit players struggle – a trend not confined to the ballet. Vinogradov took a house in Washington in order to be close to his Kirov Academy of Ballet, funded by members of the Unification Church (the Moonies). He is also consultant to a Japanese ballet company modelled on Kirov lines, and when asked if he would like to start other Kirov affiliates in Germany and Ireland gave a typical post-Soviet answer: ‘Why not?’

In ballet, opera and classical music, the companies and orchestras who survive are heavily dependent on figures like Vinogradov or Kokonin, who can secure foreign tours and earn hard currency. This means, in turn, that their repertoires tend to ossify, with the ‘favourites’ being played over and over again; there are rarely guest conductors and tours are longer and more debilitating than any equivalent Western company would allow. The St Petersburg Philharmonic appears for barely half the year in its home city. One of its two principal conductors, Mariss Jansons is chief conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony and principal guest conductor of the London Philharmonic; he also has a contract with the Oslo Philharmonic.

The absence of stars is striking by comparison with Soviet times. Defections were once intermittent. Under Gorbachev, the trickle became a flood, as performers realised what (relatively) high earnings were available even on minor international circuits. The Moscow Conservatoire, until the Eighties the best musical school in the world, producing a high proportion of the century’s most gifted pianists and violinists, still has an impressive list of professors, which includes many of these performers, but few give more than one or two classes a year on the rare occasions when they visit Moscow. The result, as the pianist and Conservatoire professor Nikolai Petrov put it, is that ‘we are very near the end of what we were most proud of – the Russian style of playing. The professors work so little with their pupils you cannot tell if it is a Russian playing.’

‘Near the end’: the theme of exhaustion recurs again and again. The great centres were and often still are under the control of an all-powerful director: Vinogradov has been at the Maryinsky/Kirov for 18 years, Grigorovich was at the Bolshoi for 30 and the late Yevgeny Mravinsky ran the St Petersburg Philharmonic for an astonishing 50 years. Such regimes were naturally conservative and authoritarian, but they created a disciplined environment in which talent could be nurtured. For Russian audiences, the conclusion is obvious: capital accumulated in socialist times is now being disbursed in foreign markets without any attempt being made to replace it.

In 1992 a Russian-American businessman, Tristan Del, began negotiating with the state TV and radio companies for the right to market its enormous archive of recorded classical music. He finally struck a deal last year, involving the UK marketing company Telstar, to issue selections from 400,000 hours of music, which include Shostakovich (playing as well as being performed), Prokofiev and Stravinsky, with performers like Gilels, Richter and Rostropovich. Del claimed the archive was worth as much as $9 billion – a huge exaggeration. But its value is great and the deal is being protested by Nikolai Petrov and the Ministry of Culture, among others. It is nonetheless going through. Del says he has invested some five billion dollars. He has clearly driven a hard bargain, but he is committed to making material available which might otherwise have been left to decay.

The greater exhaustion is ideological. The tyranny of the long-lived directors paralleled that of the state: their repertoire was a mixture of preserved classics and approved propagandist works such as Spartacus, scored by Khachaturyan and choreographed by Grigorovich – a conventional ballet expressing the Soviet Union’s liberating mission. Danced at full stretch, Spartacus is an astounding event – especially its climax where the hero is raised to the roof on the tips of spears – but is regarded by the ballet world as an ageing curiosity. ‘Only the Bolshoi could have danced this ballet ... and only the Bolshoi would have wanted to,’ Luke Jennings wrote in the New Yorker. Grigorovich, the central postwar figure in Russian ballet, was innovative at the start, seeking, for example, to stage Swan Lake with its original tragic ending. In the event, however, Ekaterina Furtseva, the Minister of Culture – decreed that the conventional happy ending had to stay. Soviet ballet was ferociously conservative; but it was a conservatism of a kind which required the strongest of defences, and no one was strong enough to prevent the escape of some of the finest performers and the infiltration of much that was subversive. By the end, the fortress was crumbling, both inside and out.

Killing ballet is not easy, however, as the Russian critic Vadim Gayevsky explained. ‘Ballet in Russia is very badly injured but it is not dead yet. The interest is still there as are the amazing schools that reflect that interest. Ballet is an art with a past and a future but with no present.’ That socialist artistic capital is being squandered is obvious, and perhaps inevitable as Russia joins the international cultural circuit. That its star figures should be trying, by every means, to get rich is also inevitable: they have after all long been envious guests on their foreign colleagues’ estates and in their palatial apartments. Lacking the old means of coercion over its artists, Russian musical society is faced with having to fund its institutions and find the money with which to hold onto its stars. There are some small signs that it is doing so: fees in Moscow, St Petersburg and other musical cities like Odessa are now closer to international levels. The state recording label Melodiya has been broken up and one part has concluded an agreement with the German company BMG to market its archive, with much larger fees being paid to the performers. On the other hand, as orchestras from Russia and other former Soviet republics pour onto the world market, they are putting great pressure on the international fee structure. For the moment it’s impossible to tell whether the barriers will go up or whether the hungry Easterners will be allowed to lower the price of classical and modern music, and add to the growing popularity of both.

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[*] The Penguin Book of New Russian Writing, edited by Victor Erofeyev (Penguin, 416 pp., £8.99, 29 June 1995, 0 140 15963 6).

[†] Harvill, 144 pp., £7.99, 7 September 1995, 1 86046 064 X.