Saturday, February 12, 2011

On Russian "Kultura", Ballet, PD, & Stereotypes

If you haven't heard yet, Russia's renowned Mariinsky Ballet was in town this week, performing Adolphe Adam's "Giselle". Certainly, an occasion not to be missed! We braved the cold and the somehow prohibitively expensive ticket prices to enjoy two hours of "high culture" on Tuesday night... which, I should say, I am very happy about!

Image courtesy of New York Times.

Of course, given my (perhaps biased) unparalleled admiration for Khatchaturian when it comes to ballet, I should not be trying to share "comparative" impressions of "Giselle", especially since the period and the genre are completely different. So I will express my great appreciation of Mariinsky performers' technique and exuberance (oh, and the costumes! beautiful!), and my sincere hope that I will get to see another performance by them some time soon.

This week I also had the great opportunity of hearing PD blogger-extraordinaire and former FSO Dr. John Brown talk about his work as a Cultural Attaché in Eastern Europe and later Russia (he was among the distinguished guests at our PD class this week!). In his talk, he put a special emphasis on the striking differences he saw in the importance of high culture in the region, and the contrasting disregard for it by Americans. If interested, you can watch (and read) his thoughts on the subject from a little more than a year ago: a similar presentation, which he gave at AU's First Cultural Diplomacy Conference (November 2009). Very insightful, and oh so true!

(Before I go any further, I wanted to share the following compilation of Tchaikovsky's greatest works, by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra)

Louis Clark - Hooked on Tchaikovsky

To sum up some of Dr. Brown's key points:

- "Seeking the meaning of Russia outside of culture is pointless." Culture lies at the core of "Russianness."

- While, as a contrast, Americans define themselves essentially in terms of ideas: democracy, dignity, liberty, etc.

- This also impacts the way these nations see their contribution "to the civilization of mankind": Russia in terms of its high culture, while America in terms of ideals like democracy and free-market economy.

- Certainly, has major repercussions for the way they conceptualize public and, especially, cultural diplomacy. Can sometimes go disastrously wrong.

I will take the liberty to take this "train of thought" a step further and suggest that perhaps the "exclusiveness" of high culture is not perceived as "democratic" enough by Americans, which also helps explain the underlying general disapproval and dislike of initiatives that involve "high culture" in one way or another. Yet, as R.S. Zaharna says, public and cultural diplomacy need an "in-awareness" approach, if they are to have an impact - i.e. they have to resonate with the other culture, appealing to its ideals, values and interests.

According to Dr. Brown, American public diplomacy has largely failed to do that, especially when it comes to cultures such as the Russian or the Chinese, for whom their own "high culture" and great heritage are of paramount significance. Yet, I should say that the Russians (although the Chinese, too) have not learned that very same lesson themselves, in the sense of finding the right "values" to appeal to through their own public diplomacy. And here I will go back to ballet, which I can confidently say, is perhaps one of the few exceptions to this rule.

The tickets to "Giselle" sold out within days almost a month in advance (especially the more affordable ones), the hall was packed, and although I heard much more Russian and Chinese than I normally would on the streets of Washington, I also saw many Americans, quite a few of them with their children! Obviously, the Russian ballet has not lost its charm. However, it is still very limited in its reach, and as much as I dislike saying it, Russia needs to invest in (the production and export of) appealing pop culture, too.

Image courtesy of Russian Washington-Baltimore.

But before I get into more detail on that, I wanted to point out that Russia Today TV had - smartly - been featuring Mariisnky on their website for days, now. They also proudly hosted the following piece, revealing the theater's plans "to seduce the Americans" while on this tour. Fair enough. I think those who had the opportunity to see it, were indeed seduced. But what about the vast majority who didn't? And/or never will? A prominent popular culture is indispensable in this sense, especially when operating in a multi-media environment where attention spans are extremely short, while innovation and progress seem to be valued much more than age and recognition.

Very select few are generally familiar with the Russian "pop culture" scene outside of Russia itself (and, certainly, the former Soviet/Socialist space), unless of course an artist or a movie make it to international contests, such as the case with t.A.T.u. or the "Night Watch". And although the Russian so-called "estrada", as well as its movies, TV shows, radio programs, etc. have come a long way over the years in terms of "pop quality", they cannot even begin to rival American or European ones, especially internationally.

Funnily enough, Russia Today TV does not provide any programming of this kind at all. The only thing I have come across so far is this "Moscow Out" episode from last April. I thought I'd share it with you here:

Oh well... (Can we go back to the ballet, now, please?!)

This said, I will end by returning to Dr. Brown's reflections. As he described (quite rightly, I believe), throughout the Cold War, the American pop culture was like a "forbidden fruit" for the Russian people (and especially, for the intelligentsia). However, during the 90's, "[...] as the Russians started consuming more and more of this forbidden fruit, they got indigestion." He said he had never seen so many bad American movies in his life, as in the 90's in Russia: they flooded the Russian (and post-Soviet) "cultural space", inevitably creating a negative and fairly misplaced image of America. Meanwhile, the American government was oblivious to this problem. (Great point!)

However, what struck me most was the following question from the audience (and here I'm paraphrasing):
"Would you say that the Russian government played an important role here, deliberately importing these bad movies to tarnish the image of America among its public?"


...Well, what can I say? Although the former USSR is notorious for its tendency to embrace conspiracy theories, it seems that when it comes to Russia, any conspiracy can sound credible to the American mind.

Way to go on public diplomacy, Russia. Way to go...

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