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The rich heritage of Russian music and dance was on full display at a lush gala at the Library of Congress last week, culminating in an otherworldly ice skating performance in the Thomas Jefferson Building’s Great Hall to the sounds of Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake.” But turmoil in Russia over free speech and artistic expression cast a minor pall over the festivities, providing a contrast between the event’s celebration of classic art and President Vladimir Putin’s crackdown on punk rock.
James Billington has been the Librarian of Congress since the Reagan administration, the custodian of the United States’ repository of knowledge and culture since 1987. And he’s never seen anything like the Role of the Arts in International Relations, sponsored by American University’s Initiative for Russian Culture and the Mariinsky Foundation.
“It’s once in a lifetime,” Billington, a longtime scholar of Russian culture, said late in the evening on Oct. 25 as 4,000 guests mingled in the Library. He spoke from the vantage point of the balcony, looking down on the transformed winter wonderland that the Great Hall had become, with four “ice dancers” plying to “Swan Lake” on an acrylic surface standing in for actual frozen water.
The skating was just one part of a particularly plush program that featured artistic luminaries such as Valery Gergiev, the artistic director of the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg, Russia, and Denis Matsuev, the hulking pianist known around the world as “The Siberian Bear.”
The event comes at a time, however, of rising tension in Russia over free speech, with Putin’s government coming down hard on critics of his regime. And though the event organizers preferred to keep the attention on classical music, it was a different kind of Russian music that threatened the program’s careful planning — punk rock protest tunes.
At a question-and-answer session, Gergiev bristled when asked by a reporter from Radio Free Europe about his thoughts on a Russian court’s recent decision to send members of a Russian punk rock band to penal colonies.
In February, the band Pussy Riot performed a song in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour protesting Putin’s hard-line tactics and the relationship between church and state. They were arrested for “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred.”
Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova reported to prison camps last week to serve two-year sentences. Another member of the band, Yekaterina Samutsevich, was freed by an appeals court.