The banks and the ruble have collapsed, the president has a 3-percent approval rating, criminal organizations control much of the national economy. And at the Young Spectators Theater in Moscow, director Kama Ginkas has staged a remarkable play that transports audiences to a new level of appreciation for one of the great tragedies of Russian history, the death of Alexander Pushkin.
Across the city at the Taganka Theater, Yuri Lyubimov, still energetic and inventive at 81, has put on Peter Weiss's "Marat/Sade," a play about philosophy, madness and the French Revolution. Lyubimov has staged it as a modern musical with contemporary Russian resonance--a breathtaking production. Tickets are as scarce as giant pandas.
At the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory, this city's magnificent 19th-century concert hall, gifted Russian virtuosos play nightly concerts for sellout crowds. Young musicians have helped revive famous old ensembles from the Borodin String Quartet to the Moscow Chamber Orchestra. Jazz saxophonist Alexei Kozlov has arranged and recorded ear-bending fusions of jazz and classical forms with the Shostakovich String Quartet.
Thousands of young people are reading the new novel by Viktor Pelevin, the leading writer of the post-Soviet period, called "Generation P." Is this the Pepsi generation? The Pelevin generation? Or just a sendup of the modern Russian intelligentsia coping with the invasion of English, the loss of traditional values and the rise of materialism?
Russians talk of this end-of-millennium moment as another "time of troubles," a reference to the chaotic years of the early 17th century when no czar could rule the country. Now, as then, Russians have no idea what tomorrow may bring. But despite the crises and the uncertainty--or perhaps because of them--this new Russia is in the midst of a cultural boom, one of the great surprises in today's Moscow.
Theaters that were half empty a few years ago are now full, and the plays are not just high art of the kind Ginkas and Lyubimov create. Sentimental romantic comedies performed by well-known actors draw huge crowds despite relatively high prices. Rock music is thriving along with classical music and jazz. The institutes and conservatories that train actors and musicians are popular again after losing some stature in the first rush of consumerism that followed the collapse of communism.
The current cultural boom "is some kind of safety valve," said Lyubimov, a theater director who put on plays all over the world, including Arena Stage in Washington, in the late Soviet era, when he felt unwelcome in Moscow. "Freedom has whacked people on their heads," he added. "Life is so complex now." Perhaps art helps people sort it out.
The cultural revival "is a wonderful sign," said Andrei Melville, dean of the Moscow State Institute for International Relations, who is holding that and three other jobs to support his family in these difficult times. "It shows that a nucleus has been preserved"--that Russia's great cultural tradition has survived again against long odds.
The boom is selective. It includes the opera, most notably in two small opera theaters, the New and the Gelikon, that opened in recent years in Moscow. It includes rock music, which is big business in Russia. But it doesn't include the movies, which in Russia are nearly dead, largely for financial reasons. Ballet at the Bolshoi Theater has become a favorite entertainment for the "New Russian" elite, the newly rich entrepreneurs who are disdained by the old intelligentsia.
There is an odd boomlet in architecture, because real estate developers have been putting up office and apartment buildings in kitschy modern styles that play off the architecture of old Moscow but are flashier than their antecedents. In the visual arts there is interesting activity, especially from creators of installations with sociological and political messages, but no boom, for want of money.
Ginkas, the author and director of "Pushkin. Duel. Death." at the Young Spectators Theater (known here as TYuZ), isn't sure that the current popularity of the the stage should be called a boom, though Moscow's 63 dramatic theaters are often full these days, and weren't a few years ago. Ginkas explained the crowds as an attempt by Russians to find some meaning in their new freedom: "A person has to find a place where he feels free and can react freely."
Ginkas himself feels free in an extravagant way that would amaze his counterparts in America or Western Europe. He freely put on this play--whose every word is drawn from diaries and letters written by Pushkin's contemporaries just before and after the poet's death--at the theater in a tiny room with seats for just 42 spectators. A dozen actors play the parts of Pushkin's friends and fans, the men dressed in black formal wear and the ladies in black and white gowns. At one end of the white room in which the play is performed, the actors meet around a big table. At the other end the intimate audience sits in steeply rising rows of seats.
Ginkas wrote the play in the Soviet Union in 1983, when he was out of official favor. He produced it this spring in honor of Pushkin's 200th birthday, a great national holiday (whose elaborate, months-long celebration was itself a reminder that the Russians have remained true to their cultural roots).
The power of Ginkas's play is not connected to contemporary conditions in Russia but to the classic Russian tragedy, Pushkin's death at age 37. Ginkas's characters struggle with the realization that the poet is trapped in intrigues he cannot escape, finally confronting the reality that a spat over honor and jealousy put Pushkin into a duel with a young French officer who wounded the poet gravely. Then they must come to terms with his death at the height of his magnificent powers as (still today) the greatest master of the Russian language.
As they struggled one could feel the human impact on members of the audience, many of whom seemed moved to the edge of tears.
Ginkas is one of three directors whose work is just sensationally good, according to John Freedman, an American scholar of the theater who has been living in Moscow for the past 11 years after getting his PhD from Harvard in Slavic literature (he is married to a leading Russian actress). The others are Valeri Fokin (whose "A Hotel Room in the Town of NN" played at the Kennedy Center last month) of the Meyerhold Arts Center here and Pyotr Fomenko, director of the Fomenko Studio. "It's amazing to see what's going on" in the theaters of these three, Freedman said.
But they have numerous talented colleagues in other theaters here. And all of them are working against staggering economic obstacles. Every theater operates on a shoestring, subsidized by the city of Moscow. (Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, a Mussolini-like figure famous for rebuilding Moscow and keeping the streets clean, is enormously popular among theater people for maintaining the subsidies in difficult times.) Ginkas's actors earn between 800 and 1,400 rubles a month--the equivalent of $32 to $56. Tickets to his theater cost less than $2, so a sellout performance of the Pushkin play takes in about $80. Performing abroad (which the company does every year) is the only way to make serious money. Ginkas also earns extra cash for his theater by renting space in its centrally located premises to a private business. The theater occupies its building rent-free.
Dasha Yurskaya, 27, an actress at the venerable Moscow Art Theater (just completing its 101st season), explained what it is like for young actors today. She earns 500 rubles a month--$20. "Working conditions are bad, the pay is bad, it's very hard to find a place in a company." But she can't imagine doing anything else. She attributes the theatrical boom to "bad times," recalling that in the excitement of Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika in the late 1980s, the theater nearly collapsed. "Theater shines in bad times," she said.
According to theater scholar Freedman, who is a critic for the English-language Moscow Times and author of "Moscow Performances: The New Russian Theater 1991-96," the boom does not include many works by new playwrights, though several interesting writers have appeared. He named three--Olga Mukhina, 28, Oleg Bogayev, 29, and Mikhail Ugarov, 44--whose work he considered particularly interesting. None writes on political themes, he said.
Pelevin, the popular novelist, does have a political sensibility, and also a bitter and ironical sense about what has happened to Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union. According to one young reader of his novel "Generation P," Anna Masterova, 18, "it's very hard to describe anything concrete about the book" because "its form and its content do not coincide. What's important about it isn't the action, or the text, but the associations that arise when you're reading it." And those associations, she confided to an older visitor from America, are so rooted in current Russian realities that she didn't think she could adequately explain them.
She did list the basic questions she thinks Pelevin is addressing in the book, which is a bestseller: "What is Russia today? What was Russian society in the Soviet era, and what is it today? What values does society embrace? What is the cost of all this? And what happens next?"
Pelevin's main hero, Vavilen Tatarsky, started life as a typical member of the Soviet intelligentsia, enrolling in a technical institute whose principal attraction was that it kept him out of the army. At 21 he transferred to a "literary institute" where he began studying the "languages of the Soviet Union," with an eye toward becoming a translator. But just at that moment "they decided to renew and improve the U.S.S.R. It improved so much that it ceased to exist." So he needed a new career idea.
Eventually he moved on to the nerve center of Russian life, the "Institute of Agriculture," which is responsible for creating the virtual reality Russian citizens think is their politics. The institute invents all Russia's politicians out of electronic whole cloth.
Whether "Generation P" is great literature remains an open question, but it is certainly living literature that resonates for Russian readers, particularly younger ones. It is part of a revival of satire, an important literary tradition here since Gogol. The book has, amazingly, sold 185,000 copies. In the first years of post-Soviet Russia, only pornography and detective stories sold well, so Pelevin's success in the marketplace heartens intellectuals who hope art can help Russians cope with their new circumstances.
Much of what succeeds in the marketplace is far removed from art, of course. Tatyana Tolstaya, a noted writer here who spent a decade teaching in America, said in an interview that "a lot of people are writing junk in pursuit of money. Sometimes they write poorly on purpose." Detective stories and Harlequin romances remain extremely popular. "The mass taste is bad," she noted.
One of the most successful painters in the new Russia is Alexander M. Shilov, who paints portraits, quite often of himself and his wife, but also of maimed veterans, prominent Orthodox clergymen, the wives of wealthy "New Russians," idealized women and old peasants. Shilov has excellent technical skills and creates a cloying, romanticized art that is almost kitsch. His clergymen are weighty and self-consciously profound; his women are good-looking but in a cheap, brittle way; his veterans and impoverished peasants look noble and serenely all-suffering.
Viktor Pivovarov, a prominent member of the "Moscow Conceptual School" of avant-garde artists of the 1960s and 1970s, said Shilov's saccharine work was a distressing example of the way many Russians now want to see themselves.
One, apparently, is Mayor Luzhkov, who has converted an elegant town house in the center of the city into a personal museum for Shilov. Besides his paintings, the elegantly restored residence is lined with photographs of the artist, his hair swept back to cover his ears, posing with prominent personalities. In one photo of him standing beside Luzhkov, Shilov's nose is literally pointing up into the air.
Several miles and several worlds away, on the Taganka Square, Dmitri Malko, 28, has opened a jazz venue called Le Club, a great spot, roomy, furnished with French-made oak tables and chairs, with brick walls and a colorful ceiling of billowing cloth.
The man principally responsible for the music here is a jazz saxophonist who played Washington's One Step Down this spring, Igor Butman. At 37, Butman is married to his fourth wife. Two were American, two Russian. He emigrated to the United States in 1987 to play jazz, but has now moved back. On a recent Monday night his big band, an ensemble of 16 musicians, jolted Le Club with the music of Duke Ellington and Igor Butman--good music, wonderfully played by a young group of talented artists. The youngest, a saxophonist, is 15. The club was filled with young Russians who listened appreciatively to the music. After the set Butman explained his ambitions to make this a real center for jazz, with different groups playing regular engagements. "There's so much going on here!" he exulted.
Butman's music isn't novel or unique--he is relying on American standards even as he writes his own, familiar-sounding compositions and improvises from familiar texts. In that regard his work is typical of the cultural boom in Moscow, which is rich but not revolutionary.
The last time Russians enjoyed relative cultural freedom, in the decade after the first representative Duma was elected in 1907, a great artistic revolution occurred in this country. Kandinsky and Malevich in art, Stanislavsky and Meyerhold in the theater, Prokofiev and Stravinsky in classical music, Bely and Blok in poetry, and many more besides, made Russia a center of modernism in the years before World War I.
Then modernism was bursting forth all across Europe. Nothing comparable is happening in the trying circumstances of the late '90s, in Europe or in Russia. The Russians involved in this cultural renaissance seem proud simply to preserve their cultural traditions when money is short to nonexistent, and an old order that prevailed for three-quarters of a century now lies in ruins all around them.
CAPTION: In St. Petersburg, Oleg Khokhlov's "Autoportraits-200" honors poet Alexander Pushkin's 200th birthday.
CAPTION: "Self-Portrait," by Alexander M. Shilov, one of the most successful painters in the Russian cultural revival.
CAPTION: When not reciting Alexander Pushkin's poetry, Russians were dancing in the street earlier this month in celebration of the cultural icon's 200th birthday.