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Tuesday, December 05, 2006

The Horror of a Russian Night at the Ballet

The Economist documents the horrors of a Russian night of "culture" in all their glory:

EIGHTEENTH-century England found the dénouement of Shakespeare's “King Lear” too bleak, preferring a silly adaptation with a bogus happy ending. For 21st-century Moscow the original is evidently not bleak enough. The other night I saw a celebrated “Lear” from a renowned director, Lev Dodin. All hints of redemption, however fleeting and illusory, had been excised. The characters normally portrayed as good were bad; the conventional baddies were ambiguous, but not enough to compensate. It was a depressing night at the theatre.

But not, mainly, because of the play, which was exhilarating, brave and searching, in the best Russian tradition. It was the audience that was depressing.

At the end they whooped and bravoed, as Russians often do at the end of operas and plays, suddenly morphing into Italians in a way that is always surprising and endearing.

But before that we were a rabble. There was a violent scrum to get into the building, in which both I and a friend almost came to blows (not with each other). Then, as there almost always seems to be in Russian theatres, there were other people in our seats. They were not as meek-looking as the cunning babushki who normally try this trick—I wonder whether they get in by paying backhanders to the doormen—but they relinquished the seats fairly readily.

At the interval there was an enormous queue for the buffet, all inedibly sweaty fish and Russian chocolate, but, unusually for any Russian social event outside a mosque, no booze.

When we got back to our seats, new people were in them. This time they wouldn’t budge.

“These are our seats,” I said.

“No, they’re ours”, said one of the three offenders.

“Show me your tickets, please,” I said.

“No,” they said; “show us yours.”

As it happened, my partner had them, and she was stuck in the even more enormous queue for the toilets. By the time she arrived, my Russian had run dry of objections that didn’t amount to outright challenges to a duel. We showed them the tickets, but they were obdurate. “We stood in the first half,” one argued: “now it’s your turn to stand”. We were eventually rescued by an usher as the lights went down; the interlopers left, mumbling intentionally audible unkind remarks about Americans.

Why did I find this routine Russian theatre-going experience so upsetting? Partly it was the fact that the raw Hobbesian struggle that is life in Russia had extended even into this sanctum of culture. Maybe because the seat theft reflected some deep and important Russian ailments: little regard for private property, and a sort of warped egalitarianism that has become a pretext for rackets. But mainly because it confirmed a big disappointment of my time in Moscow: that many of the people in this city with whom you might expect to have a natural affinity, based on their interests and views, turn out to be impossible to get along with.

Despite his or her vocal commitment to human rights and the rest, the Russian intelligent is often fractious, cold and abrasive—much less fun then the business crowd, however questionably the latter might have come by their wealth.


jheisel said...

wow, the Economist sure is on top of things! Maybe their next article will be about Russians answering their cell phones during movies.

La Russophobe said...

Thanks for the link! I think we need to be reminded as often as possible that Russians aren't even getting high culture right, that thing for which they are most famous among us for being good at. So if that's so, dare we imagine how bad they're actually doing with the things we already think they're bad at . . . perhaps if we were reminded a bit more often we wouldn't be so surprised when people start getting killed . . . or maybe we'd even be able to prevent it.

La Russophobe said...

UGLY SCUM OF THE EARTH: The Russian passport is a common characteristic of the people who choose to live under KGB rule and choose to allow their cultural institutions to atrophy just like their government. It's a common characteristic, in other words, of people who freely choose failure over success. Whether it is the cause or not is a matter of no consequence to me.