Sunday, September 14, 2014
Them Russians are so misunderstood
I don't understand Russia. Churchill called the country a riddle inside a mystery wrapped in an enigma. Many of us Americans and Europeans who grew up during the Cold War agree with his assessment. Winston was, you know, right about a lot of things.
Russia is a complicated place; it's probably as complex as it is big. One fact that is, however, very simple about Russia: it is very cold there, dangerously cold.
Recently, I read Helen Dunmore's excellent novel The Siege,
http://www.amazon.com/The-Siege-Novel-Helen-Dunmore/dp/0802139582, which is a story about the gruesome ordeal suffered by the the people of St. Petersburg (aka Leningrad, Petrograd) during the winter of 1941. Hitler had broken his pact with Stalin and then sent the army of the Third Reich to surround the city and starve its residents to death.
It was terrible time, tragically fatal for thousands of people. I would not want to wish such misery and hunger as Helen's story describes, on anyone. To have survived such a winter as that one in Russia is beyond my comprehension. I don't understand how the Russians who did survive did survive. I don't even understand why human beings would live so far up north.
As I was saying, I don't understand Russia.
In 1917, right in the middle of a damned world war (the first one), the Russian Bolsheviks deposed the czar, instituted a revolutionary communist government and began the long, torturous process of trying to restructure, from the ground up, the government and administration of the largest country in the world.
Although their program of godless communism was fundamentally flawed because it was too idealistic, they might have made a go of it if it hadn't been for one very cruel, heartless dictator, Josef Stalin.
Later on, in 1956, after both world wars, and after Stalin had died, Nikita Khrushchev initiated the process of thawing Russia out of its brutal gulag-ridden Stalinist icepack straightjacket. Khrushchev skittishly let it leak out in 1956 that yes, indeed, Stalin and his secret police and party goons had been inflicting terrible crimes against the people of Russia for the last twenty years or more. And Khrushchev seemed to be signaling that they should to do something to eliminate, or at least correct, the systemic horrible abuse that Russian leaders were inflicting on their own people, not to mention the Ukrainians, Poles, Latvians, Lithuanians, Czechs, Hungarians, Romanians, Moldovans, Kamchatkans and God-knows-who else, and oh yeah, the East Germans.
Speaking of the East Germans, during that time, the 1950s and 1960s, the Russians, under their hyped-up mantle called Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, were throwing their newfound weight around there in the eastern (Soviet-occupied after WWII) part of Germny. The Soviets were trying to run the place after The Allies had divvied up the territories formerly terrorized by those contentious Third Reichers.
A few years went by and our President Kennedy visited Berlin and told the citizens there "Ich bin ein Berliner!" which meant, figuratively speaking, that all the world was watching you swarthy Ruskies since you went and built this obscene wall around Berlin (long story) and we did not like it (paraphrasing) one damned bit!
By n by, after another twenty or so years went by, US President Reagan came along, visited Berlin and updated the saga of the Berlin Wall by publicly demanding that "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!"
Then after a few more years, in 1989, the wall did come down. Praise God! And also a thank you to Mr. Reagan, for his bold challenge, although we do understand it wasn't entirely his doing that the Russians decided to take his advice. It was a great line though: "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall." We could use some of that spunk these days, like Mr. ISIS, tear down your . . . caliphate!
After that, the Russians did undertake the sticky business of tearing down their "evil empire."
Now if we ever dismantle our own abusive reprobations maybe we can have some real peace and freedom. Good luck with that.
Now fast forward to 2014. We've got new mystery Russian, Vladimir Putin. Now there's an enigmatic guy. You betcha. What the hell is he up to?
I certainly don't know. (I do not understand Russia.) But I do seem to remember this: the Russians have had a naval base at Sevastopol since. . . forever? There's no way in hell that NATO should presume to abscond it. As far as this American is concerned, they can have the place, if that's what a majority of the Crimeans choose. As for the Russian-speakers in eastern Ukraine, whadya say we just convince all parties concerned to have another referendum about the East Ukraine situation, this time internationally supervised.
Now I want to end this thing on a positive note. Although I do not understand Russia, I do understand music. I feel it.
To fully grok this, let's harken back to the year 1909; that's when the Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff wrote his amazing Piano Concerto No. 3.
I do understand how a man could create such an intricately woven musical opus. Yes, I understand it about as well as I can understand Russia. This piece of music boggles my mind.
The pianist is Olga Kern, 2001 winner of the Van Cliburn prize (among her many triumphs.) Watch her lively treatment at the Steinway while conductor James Conlon propels his skilled musicians through Rachmaninoff's delicate blending of strings, horns, and of course piano, evoking lush orchestral harmonies that modulate back and forth between soft and strong on a colorful tapestry of raw, though exquisitely channeled, Russian passion.
Performed by an American orchestra! The Fort Worth orchestra. Who'd have thought a bunch of Texans could so tenderly interpret a Russian's music! Watch the musicians' faces. To witness their polished performance is to behold a work of visual art in progress. I think these people do understand Russia! Or at least that one particular Ruskie, Sergei Rachmaninoff.
If you've got 43 minutes to listen or watch the Rach 3, you will be amazed as I was. When you see/hear Olga pounding out the last four minutes of the piece, you will understand what the Romantic movement in music was all about. (It's much more potent when viewed from the musicians' perspective than what you see in the movies.)