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Culture Clash

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call
Turmoil in Russia over free speech and artistic expression cast a pall over a Library of Congress celebration of Russian music and dance, providing a contrast between the events and President Vladimir Putin’s crackdown on punk rock. The Library transformed its Great Hall into a winter wonderland: four “ice dancers” plying to Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” on an acrylic surface standing in for actual frozen water.

“I was, myself, not so interested in hearing how the court [would decide],” Gergiev told the RFE reporter, continuing, “I thought that maybe they will find time in their lives to spend, I don’t know, maybe a few months, maybe a few weeks, in one of the monasteries, and maybe they will come out of this experience, in case they find it important, slightly different persons.”

Gergiev’s fellow panelists at the session, including Russian Ambassador to the United States Sergey Kislyak, former U.S. Ambassador to Russia John Beyrle and Susan Lehrman, advisory chairwoman for AU’s Initiative for Russian Culture, looked pained. But the maestro continued.

“Why [do] you have to do something in the biggest church of a big country? If you want to do something artistically or politically motivated, you may do it in some other place because Russia is a country where many, many churches were destroyed.” 

‘More Russian Is Always Better’

At almost the same time, on the other side of the world, Putin was providing fuel for the fire. 

At a dinner he was hosting for journalists at his estate in Novo Ogaryovo, Russia, Putin said about the band: “We have red lines beyond which starts the destruction of the moral foundations of our society,” according to Reuters. He added, “If people cross this line, they should be made responsible in line with the law.”

Putin’s positions would go unchallenged, at least from the panel at the Library of Congress.

Still, if contemporary Russian politics intruded, the overall program was an extravaganza for Russophiles, even compared with last year’s event, which featured a scaled ice sculpture of the Kremlin in the Great Hall.

“This year is far superior in every conceivable way. More people, more Russian. And more Russian is always better,” said Elliott Kaduck, an undergraduate at George Washington University studying international relations.

In addition to the ice skating and musical performance by Matsuev, the Library had on display an exhibit, “The Russian Influences on Music and Dance in America,” which featured installations on, among others, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Igor Stravinsky, Irving Berlin and Aaron Copland.

The multitiered experience, combined with the free-flowing booze and stacks of Russian desserts — such as the swan-shaped cream puffs covered in chocolate and the Birch Tree ice cream cake log — gave the evening a bit of an over-the-top feeling for some.

“You’d never find the German embassy doing this. Too inefficient,” joked Julia Broemmel, a German Fulbright scholar and American University broadcast journalism graduate student. She is a writer of the “D.C. and the Germans” blog hosted by AU.

Asked whether he could imagine such a thing as the skating transpiring in, say, the Kremlin, Kislyak merely gestured to the ice dancers. “Spectacular,” he said.

Not everyone was transfixed, particularly as “Swan Lake” played on a loop and the skating program continued late into the night.

“I want to shoot myself,” said one caterer who wished not to be identified. “If I hear this one more time,” the caterer said of the never-ending Tchaikovsky, “I’m going insane.”

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