After 50 years of underground creativity, Soviet artists and writers, filmmakers, scholars and musicians have emerged blinking into the post-Cold War sunlight. Quicker than you could say "Socialist realism is dead," they've set about coping with the brave new world they found.
Filmmakers are looking for Hollywood deals. Artists' studios are empty -- it's all been sold to Western galleries. Writers can publish anything. Composers are free to embrace musical forms that once would have been labeled "formalist" or worse, "revisionist." American impresarios fear a glut of Soviet orchestras and dance companies. There are even Soviet rockers.
For them, the pace of change has been dizzying. For us in the West, the possibilities are dazzling. Two cultures are being remarried, and no one can predict what the offspring of that union will be like.
"Several years ago, Soviet culture seemed to be a very boring field," says Lazar Fleishman, a Soviet-educated professor of literature in Stanford University's Slavic studies department. "Now we see the clash of different opinions. We see the rapid polarization of ideological camps and artistic forces. ... Now we can find writers and artists to virtually every taste."
The opening of the East means that the trickle of Soviet dancers, musicians and artists -- the Baryshnikovs and Rostropoviches -- could become a torrent.
In 1974, when cellist-conductor Mstislav Rostropovich and his wife, singer Galina Vishnevskaya, left the Soviet Union, "it was for life," he told the propaganda magazine Soviet Life recently. "We thought that no return would ever be possible."
Rostropovich's life sentence lasted 16 years. In February he conducted Washington's National Symphony Orchestra in a performance of Tchaikovsky's Sixth Symphony in Moscow.
"Soviet music started intruding in American culture many years ago in the form of the mass immigration of Soviet musicians," says Fleishman, "and I think that this process will go further, because of the freedom of immigration."
Even Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the Soviet Union's only living Nobel laureate in literature and a harsh critic of Western society since he moved to Vermont, could return if he wanted to, now that his own condition for ending his exile has been met: Almost all his books are being published there -- "and are being published in enormous quantities," according to Fleishman.
As Soviet writers and artists go with the flow, the world is seeing:
American universities hold out their arms to Soviet scholars and writers such as Viacheslov Ivanov, an ethnologist and a deputy in the Congress of People's Deputies, who will join the Stanford faculty this fall.
Soviet museums open their collections, enriching American shows with long-hidden Gauguins and Matisses. Last month Tair Salakhov, first secretary of the Union of Artists of the Soviet Union, helped judge an art contest in Ruidoso, N.M. Moscow sees that show in September, and next year Soviet artists will enter the competition for Texas tycoon R.D. Hubbard's $250,000 purchase grant.
Soviet filmmakers scramble for Western themes, technology and bucks. When a film called "Little Vera" landed its star on the cover of the May 1989 Playboy (and won a prize at the Chicago Film Festival), it signaled a new game in town. Hollywood-Moscow co-productions are in the works, although "the hidden purpose," says Roger Simon, an American screenwriter, is that the Soviets are "looking for Hollywood financing for their movies."
The flow of literature is also being reversed, now that the dam of censorship has broken.
Americans have long been able to read important Soviet writers whose works were forbidden to Soviet readers. Now, "all of these formerly proscribed writers are being published in full," says Stanford's Edward Brown, author of "Russian Literature Since the Revolution."
"This is a great advance for contemporary Russian culture," he says, "because what they're doing is playing catch-up with their own literature."
The land of Pushkin, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky and Chekhov is a place where writers figure far more prominently than in the United States.
"The role of the artist is much more central to their society than it is here," says Simon.
American novelist Martin Cruz Smith, the author of "Gorky Park," says: "It's one of the very few places on earth where poetry is a major form, taken seriously by every stratum of society."
There are "tremendous quantities" of Russian popular literature, says Simon, who also says he doesn't believe it will be published here. "The amount that we translate of any culture is small. More of our stuff gets published abroad than vice versa."
But some translations are finding an audience. Viewers of the documentary "USSR: Art," recently shown on American public television, are treated to the spectacle of critic Dmitri Prigov shouting his poems, in Russian, to a well-heeled audience in a New York gallery, while Allen Ginsberg, at his side, reads translations.
In music, Soviets are definitely rocking and rolling more to our sounds than to their own.
When concert mogul Bill Graham took a bunch of American rockers to Moscow in 1987, he found that all the Soviet kids knew one word of English: "cassette." By the time he left, he recalls, they had learned another: "laminate," which is rock slang for a backstage pass.
But that doesn't mean they can play the Western music very well. "Jazz played by Scandinavians and Russians is technically very proficient," says Graham, "but that's not their soul. Neither is rock-and-roll."
"It's heritage. Rock-and-roll is not their heritage. The youth will argue with you," he says, "but I doubt if Russia will ever produce a Jimi Hendrix. They might produce a Bob Dylan, but not a Jimi Hendrix."
Official U.S.-Soviet cultural exchange agreements have been in place, with some interruptions, since 1958. But with the ending of the Cold War, private enterprise and private arrangements are the norm on both sides.
The stumbling block is money. The Soviet ruble is worthless in the West, while dollars, of which one economist estimates the Soviet Union earns only 30 million a year, are too precious to spend on entertainment.
Simon was paid 10,000 rubles for his novel "Raising the Dead" and managed to spend most of it on three Central Asian carpets. Smith, whose "Gorky Park," about a Moscow homicide cop, got him banned from the Soviet Union until last year, allowed the novel to be published in magazine form but is holding out for hard currency before he signs a book deal.
Graham, who had to bring in almost all the equipment for his rock show from the West, says flatly: "You can't make any money over there. By the time you get finished paying for everything, there's very little left." If entertainers continue to tour the Soviet Union, it'll be for the "lure of adventure," he said, "or for social-political motives."
The West has been delighted to lay out hard currency for Soviet art -- nearly 3.5 million pounds sterling in Sotheby's July 1988 Moscow auction -- but the artists themselves are troubled by a Western value system that rates art according to price.
Unofficial art was a world in which an "exhibition" was when someone came over -- someone you trusted -- to see the new painting. Anything else and you invited the sort of criticism that Moscow propaganda chief Vladimir Yagodkin wrote with a bulldozer in 1974, when dissident artists tried to display their works in public.
"We just sat in our basements and worked and didn't think about selling or not selling," says painter Irina Nakhova in "USSR: Art."
Another artist, Eduard Schteinberg, says he knows he could make it commercially in the West -- but he couldn't paint there.
Writers, too, may be a little confused, and not just because they lack the skills to cut a deal, Western-style. "This is a very different, transitional, collapsing Moscow," says Smith, "and we're seeing a new society ... camping in the ruins of the old." It's great material, but Americans who want to see it transmuted into art may have to be patient until the information revolution supersedes the Bolshevik Revolution.
The new, improved Soviet Union lacks some fairly basic skills. Everyone wants to be an entrepreneur, says Simon, but no one knows how to keep a set of books. The kids love rock music, says Bill Graham, but there are no drum teachers, no guitar teachers. Soviet moviemakers love science fiction, says Anna Lawton, but they don't have the technology to create it.
What they do have is energy, the gift of melody, a love of color, a passion for ideas, a joy in the Russian language. Many observers fear chaos, economic and political; but chaos can be fertile soil for art.
Smith thinks so. He's resurrecting his Soviet homicide detective and sending him back to Moscow, to find -- what? Smith isn't sure. But he knows this, he says: "It's too interesting not to do. It's too important not to do."