Russia Then & Now: A Tale of Two Visits

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Author: John C. Wohlstetter

In 1985 I spent 13 days in Russia — then officially the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (U.S.S.R.), but which I will call Russia for reader convenience. I traveled with 100 others, under the august auspices of the Smithsonian Institution. After 32 years and countless tectonic intervening events, I recently returned to what — no surprise — is a very different Russia, along with three dozen capitalist comrades, under the equally august auspices of the National Symphony Orchestra. (Full disclosure: I served on the Board of Directors of the NSO for 22 years and am completing my third year on the Board of Trustees — the directors are mostly local to Washington, D.C.; the latter mostly from outside D.C., hence upon relocating from D.C. to Charleston SC I shifted boards.) This article is the second of two reports about the visits (here is the link for Part I: 1985).

My 2017 Russia visit, March 24–April 4, ironically came sandwiched between horrific terror bookends — the March 22 terror attack in London on Westminster Bridge and the April 3 suicide bombing on a subway train in St. Petersburg. When I landed in London late-morning March 23 I walked to the Sofitel London Heathrow — connected to the all-British Airways Terminal 5 — and spent the afternoon watching the aftermath of the prior day’s carnage. I proceeded the next day on to Moscow. The St. Petersburg blast came but two hours after with my Russian guide and I had ridden the identical route, part of Russia’s newest subway line (completed in 2014). I had just finished lunch and then walked to my hotel, where the staff told me I should stay inside. I accepted local advice, cancelling my dinner plan to walk to a nearby restaurant. Not literally a true close call, but way closer than I ever wish to be. Once again I found myself staring blankly at the TV, bummed out, but this time interrupted by several calls and emails from concerned friends old and new (my wonderful guides). I arrived on April 5 in the States, and next I knew President Trump launches five dozen cruise missiles to let Syria’s genocidal ruler that WMD attacks are no longer to be tolerated. The emergence of a “new sheriff in town” angered none other than Vladimir Putin; with the ensuing public chill hovering over American tourism in Russia, at least for the time being. Timing is often everything.

March 24: Moscow. I arrive mid-afternoon at Domodedovo Airport, one of three Moscow ports of international aerial call. DME, as the airlines know it, is Russia’s largest airport. In 2000 it handled 2.8 million travelers; in 2015 its volume had jumped to 30 million. Located 42 kilometers (26 miles) south-southeast of Moscow, it is massive, and a stark contrast with far smaller Sheremetyevo Airport, where I departed from Russia in 1985. The older airport handled few planes in 1985, and was then, as with Leningrad’s airport, ramshackle and dirty. DME is modern, and if not a model for airport aesthetics, clean and spacious. Passport control takes over an hour, but whereas in 1985 our flight had been the only planeload landing, now there are several, so longer lines are predictable. A look at 2015’s top 30 busiest airports shows Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport as number one, handling 101 million passengers. George Bush International Airport in Houston was 30th with 42 million visitors, so DME has a way to go to make the list. Moscow is 15th on the list of the world’s most populous urban areas at 16 million, versus Atlanta 75th at 5 million, but nevertheless Moscow’s ascent is impressive. Rush-hour traffic gridlock makes for a 90-minute ride to my hotel, with the last mile taking at least 30 minutes. Some NSO musicians were to fare far worse when they arrived several days later, with one group taking 2-1/2 hours to cover the distance, so I am lucky. My hotel is the sumptuous Four Seasons Moscow, located adjacent to Red Square. One immediate pleasure: there is no dizhurnaya on each floor, with prison matron looks and charm to match, to take my room key each time I depart and return it each time I come back. That evening I dine at the hotel’s flagship restaurant, Quadrum, serving classy Italian international cuisine and with dazzling views of the Kremlin at night. I will eat much better than in 1985, for sure. I begin with the vodka variant — this is Russia, Amerikanski — of the classic gin Negroni, a cocktail that is traced to Florence in 1919, when Count Negroni asked the bartender at a restaurant (two name changes later, still reportedly in business) to spice up his Americano cocktail by substituting gin for soda water. The barkeep then replaced the original drink’s lemon garnish with orange, to signify a new creation.

March 25: Moscow. Partly sunny, I ride with my guide out to Klin, 85 km. (53 mi.) outside Moscow, to see the last residence of the great composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky. The ride is on open road, but takes 90 minutes due to the 60 kmh (38 mph) speed limit. But Saturday there is no traffic, as not only is it a weekend, but also locals avoid the new roadway to avoid paying toll. The house is charming, with much of the furniture original. In a separate building there is a concert hall, with more memorabilia. Ironically, as recounted in a new book, Moscow Nights: The Van Cliburn Story — How One Man and His Piano Transformed the Cold War (2016), pianist-author Nigel Cliff (my source of all Cliburniana in this piece) tells the story of the First Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition, staged in Moscow in 1958. He notes that the piece that first won Van Cliburn world acclaim was Tchaikovsky’s storied 1st Piano Concerto. His win netted Cliburn a Broadway ticker-tape parade and countless honors. Alas, Cliburn never matched his mega-triumph of 1958. Yet the author notes an artistic oddity: While PT’s 1st was made for Cliburn’s skills and musical temperament, and was wildly popular from the outset in the States, it was for a long time not very popular in Russia. In an amusing end to my tour, I am taken to a room where there is a CD player, and invited to select a favorite composition of the composer, to listen for ten minutes. I choose the first movement of PT’s 1st, only to be told that the museum does not have a CD of it! My guide, Marianna, tells me in the car that looking back on her life, its high point was when as a child she was taken by her parents to see Cliburn play in the 1958 Competition. She still has the ticket. Her father having been a scientist and her mother a musician, they were entitled not only to a private apartment, rare in those days, but also free tickets to cultural events, where she was entranced by the great Russian music, dance, and theater classics. Returning to the city there is time for me to visit the Cosmonaut Museum, with its soaring monument in front; the museum honors major U.S. space achievements as well. That night I dine with friends also in before the Monday start of the tour; we go to Café Pushkin and enjoy a phenomenal Russian meal in a gorgeous setting. Because of the placement of street barriers and right turn restrictions, the same trip takes over 20 minutes to the restaurant, but less than ten coming home.

March 26: Moscow. I try the hotel’s blini. They are feathery light, unlike the ones we usually get in America. Under a deep blue sky my guide takes me to Trinity Lavra of St. Sergius, a medieval monastery 71 km. (45 mi.) away. (A Lavra is a type of Greek monastery.) I get photos of rare beauty, showing Orthodox onion domes galore bathed in bright sunlight. Upon my return there is time to visit the Tolstoy House Museum, after a heavy Russian lunch at Saava, in the legendary, renovated Hotel Metropol. I have tea with a guide who had shepherded me in 2013 on a memorable Silk Road rail trip through three of the five “stan” countries. (The five are collectively called by wags “Jennifer Annistan.” Here is my TAS piece on that trip.) That evening I dine with Charleston pals who had just arrived.

March 27: Moscow. My dining partners last night join me for a day of sightseeing, as the weather in Moscow turns colder and gray skies move in, with a shower or two, after the glorious weekend. Moscow weather at this time of year is not that bad; it was as cold in D.C. the day I left as it is now in Moscow, about minus 5 degrees Celsius (+23 degrees Fahrenheit). We do not complain, as exactly 49 years earlier Van Cliburn spent his first full day in Moscow, getting ready for the competition that would make his name a household word; days before he arrived the outside temperature had been -23 degrees C0 (-12 degrees F0), and it was still well below zero C0 (+32 F0) when he landed. We visit Novodeviche Convent and Cemetery (“New Maiden”); the latter is final resting place for a cavalcade of Russian and Soviet heroes. Originally a fortress dating to 1524, the site of battles during Tsarist times — it was saved by the nuns from Napoleon’s legions — the convent was turned by the Soviets into a museum, though the Assumption Church was later re-opened. A cemetery built next to it houses mostly Soviet-era notables, though Anton Chekhov is buried there. Its grandees include two heads of state (Nikita Khrushchev and Boris Yeltsin), two famous composers whose artistic work was circumscribed by Stalin (Serge Prokofiev and Dmitri Shostakovich), and NSO alumnus Mstislav Rostropovich, who was allowed to emigrate to join his fellow dissident, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, in the mid-1970s. Khrushchev was a major figure to me, having run Soviet Russia from 1957 to 1964, a period spanning Sputnik, the Cuban Missile Crisis and two visits by NK to the U.S. In 1959 he did not visit Manhattan, where I grew up. His visit included Disneyland and a lunch with Hollywood royalty. He was seated next to Marilyn Monroe while his wife, Nina Khrushcheva, was seated between Bob Hope and Frank Sinatra. Nina charmed her tablemates, but NK did not do so well with Monroe. Did she find NK, hardly a Joe DiMaggio clone, attractive? Marilyn said certainly not. (Uh, Marilyn, had you lived in Russia you’d not have had free choice.) NK visited Manhattan in Sept. 1960 and banged his shoe on the rostrum of the UN General Assembly (thereby raising the level of debate typical in the GA). But NK is best remembered among Boomers for his inclusion in the theme song of a buddy-cop comedy, “Car 54, Where Are You?” As for Rostropovich, Slava, as he was known, was conductor of the NSO for 17 seasons (1977-1994); he was a charming man and nonpareil cellist. As NSO music director (conductor) he selected half the orchestra’s musicians, thus raising their performance level. We visit some of Moscow’s most celebrated Metro stops including the classic Mayakovsky Station near our hotel (likely I saw these in 1985). That night we dine with the full NSO friends group (35, mostly trustees) at Turandot, specializing in Asian cuisine. It is an elegant space, near Café Pushkin with the same owner: it has a white piano on the ground floor. As we enter, As Time Goes By is playing on the sound system; I raise a vodka shot-glass in tribute to Rick, Sam, Ilsa, and Casablanca.

March 28: Moscow. On a morning with the nastiest weather encountered on my trip — raw, rainy, with sharp wind gusts lashing open umbrellas — I have no desire to become the trip’s Marya Poppinski — we traipse around the interior of the Kremlin. The Marquis de Custine wrote Empire of the Czar (1839) — it has been compared to Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America (1835). Therein he called the Kremlin “a satanic monument” and “a habitation that would suit some of the personages of the Apocalypse”; Custine added: “Like the bones of certain gigantic animals, the Kremlin proves to us the history of a world of which we might doubt until after seeing the remains.” Our visit, thankfully, is more tranquil. We tour the spectacular Kremlin Armory; we see the interior of the Cathedral of the Assumption, seat of the Russian Orthodox Church; at a visit to the State Diamond Fund, we gape at the 190-carat Orlov Diamond given Catherine the Great (ruled 1762-1796) by her most famous paramour, Count Orlov. We walk around Red Square, and then walk over to the modern Bolshoi Restaurant for snazzy Russian fare. After lunch we get a backstage tour of the fabled Bolshoi Theater, watch a ballerina being rehearsed, and tour its exquisite upstairs rooms. I tell our theater guide that in 1914 my Aunt Helene, then 8, saw legendary prima ballerina assoluta Anna Pavlova perform in NYC. She smiles. We munch on victuals that eve at Spaso House, the opulent residence of the American ambassador, after a lovely duet by NSO musicians (pianist Lisa Emenheiser & violist Daniel Foster). Dan plays the violin part of Rachmaninoff’s beloved Vocalise (by Slava, 6:52) as if he’s played it for years; in fact he plays it tonight at first sight. I meet Olga Rostropovich, daughter of Slava; she is, I tell her, as lovely as her late mother, soprano Galina Vishnevskaya — and just as charming as her parents. The NSO is the first American orchestra ever invited to play in the Rostropovich Festival since she started it in 2009. Enter Van Cliburn yet again: In 1958 he was invited by young superstar cellist Slava to dine with him and his wife Galina; Van accepted. They talked about opera and piano (which Slava also played). Slava passed along to Van Chopin’s self-revealing aphorism that a piano “is not ten fingers but ten beautiful voices.”

March 29: Moscow. The morning brings my second visit to the Tretyakov Gallery, 32 years later; it’s still a treasure. Then a late lunch at Zhivago, flagship restaurant at the nearby renovated and vastly upgraded National Hotel (I stayed in the old one in 1985) yields a superb chicken Kiev. The place sports four supermodel-gorgeous hostesses — in P.C.-free Russia, no hostess looks like a prison guard. But the pièce de résistance is the evening’s concert. Held at the storied Moscow Conservatory with its pitch-perfect acoustics and resonance, it features NSO cellist Alisa Weilerstein playing Shostakovich’s fiendishly difficult Cello Concerto No. 1 (29:29). Alisa, who once played for Slava, offers an encore. The crowd is elated. Russian audiences prefer rhythmic clapping to a cacophony of shouted off-key bravos. An elegant upstairs reception is the evening’s capstone.

March 30: Moscow/St. Petersburg. We depart for the train station, to board a high-speed Sapsan (Peregrine Falcon) train that will cover the 635 kilometers (400 miles) to St. Petersburg in 3-1/2 hours, with but two stops. The train can hit 250 kmh (155 mph). The ride is smooth, service attentive — its website tells us “service is far removed from any of the Soviet-era gruffness, with attendants providing a modern level of friendliness and courtesy.” (For Soviet service today one must, I guess, fly the not-so-friendly skies of United.) I pass the time viewing the snowy countryside. But several thick glass windows on the other side are rife with spider-web cracks, suggesting at one point a kinetic event affecting only that side — not kids tossing rocks. Upon arrival, we ride along much of Nevsky Prospect, now jammed with traffic, vehicular and pedestrian, and sporting fancy shops. Very unusual for St. Pete, we have blue skies, which gives me a chance, after we check in to our Four Seasons St. Petersburg rooms, to go outside and photograph the landmark Admiralty Building that sits at NP’s west end; I capture the gleam of the bright sunlight on the Admiralty’s soaring spire. We take an after-hours tour of the legendary Hermitage Museum; what a visual treat to view the HM’s two dozen Rembrandts without a cluster of tourists milling around. We dine at the Marble Palace. I wangle a piano mini-gig, serenading our group as they enter the dining room. I play As Time Goes By, Stardust and the Russian folk classic, Ochi Chyornye (literally, “black eyes” but commonly translated as “Dark Eyes”). A local group treats us to folk music.

March 31: St. Petersburg/Pushkin. Another bright blue sky — we are on a weather-winning streak. The Catherine Palace, which I first visited in 1985 when it was under extensive renovation, is now mostly completely refurbished. We see the exquisite Amber Room, and are given a tour of an amber restoration workshop. A late lunch at the U.S. Consulate caps the day; I chat with locals and discuss how much Russia has changed in 32 years. The evening brings us the NSO’s farewell concert, at St. Pete’s all-white Philharmonia Hall, with acoustics to match those of the Moscow Conservatory. The evening features the hour-long Shostakovich Eighth Symphony, after which the NSO offers a final encore, the “Valse Triste” (6:22) by Finland’s greatest composer, Jan Sibelius (1867-1957).

April 1: St. Petersburg. Our NSO group’s last day together, we begin a partly sunny day by touring the spectacular 18th century Peter and Paul Fortress Cathedral, on an island across the Neva River, where also lies the Peter and Paul Fortress, prison for many prominent dissenters during Tsarist times. We see the grisly-named Church of the Spilt Blood, the site where in 1881 the “Tsar Liberator,” Alexander II (who freed the serfs), was ambushed by anarchists. No good deed goes unpunished. We lunch atop a tower at Mansarda, where we get an April Fools dessert; our menu reads “Stone and Sand,” but in reality we get of ice cream. After lunch we visit spectacular St. Isaac’s Cathedral. We cap off our six days/seven nights together with a tour and stellar dinner at Yusupov Palace. Named for the prince who led the assassination of the “Mad Monk” Grigori Rasputin. The starets cast a spell over the last Tsarist empress, Alix. She fervently believed only he could cure the hemophilia afflicting the Tsarevich Alexis, sole male heir of the Romanov Dynasty. (Promiscuous intermarriage exacted a fearful toll on Europe’s royal families.) We are treated to a small but lovely show: a pianist and two opera singers from St. Pete’s fabled Mariinsky Theater. We dine at the Palace, with a local pianist playing what might be called classical cocktail music — mostly Chopin waltzes that enhance fine dining. At eve’s end I take it upon myself to offer a final piano serenade to my comrades — on a white grand piano named Red Oktober, no less — Debussy’s Clair de Lune.

April 2: St. Petersburg. Our NSO tour ends. On my own again, I tour museums dedicated to Dostoyevsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Pushkin. The guide at the Dostoyevsky Museum tells me that 16-year-old students in Russia read the author’s classic Crime and Punishment. I ask if this is only students at elite schools and am told that it is fare for non-elite schools as well. I am very impressed. I wonder if even elite K-12 students in America’s broken public school system can read it. At the Rimsky-Korsakov site the guide allows me to play a piano the composer once played. I have not studied the composer’s music — lovely though it is — save for a “Song of India” (2:30) arrangement over 50 years ago, long forgotten. I play instead Rachmaninoff’s C# minor Prelude (4:54), to my pleasure well received by the staff — and my final venture into piano diplomacy on the trip. This prelude was the public’s favorite piano solo piece by the composer, nicknamed by critics the “Bells of Moscow” where 1,600 churches then existed (composers rarely name their creations). Its creator grew to hate it, because every audience wanted to hear it. That eve I see the classic late-19th century ballet, “La Bayadere,” at the venerable Mariinsky Theater. It is a visual and musical treat.

April 3: St. Petersburg. I tour the exquisite Fabergé Museum. Carl Fabergé made about 50 eggs for the last Romanov Tsar, Nicholas, and his family; another 11 were made for other customers. Then with my guide, Julia, we go to the St. Petersburg Metro. I take a gander at St. Pete’s oldest subway station, built in 1955 (Moscow’s first stations opened in the late 1940s). My touring ends with a visit to the Vodka Museum, after which I lunch at the Vodka Restaurant & Bar. The five shots I consumed fortify me for the awful news I received upon my return to the hotel (see above). There is even a Kalashnikov vodka, bottled in glass shaped like the designer’s iconic AK-47. Not good. The family should stick to making guns. My personal nomination for the best vodka I tasted is Beluga Gold.

April 4: St. Petersburg/Pavlovsk. Packed and off to an early lunch in Pavlovsk with one fellow member of the NSO tour who also stayed over. Anne and I dine at a rustic cabin restaurant, Podvorye, Vladimir Putin’s favorite eatery. It is a gem of a place; we enjoy a five-course Russian meal, chef’s selection. It is 30 minutes from stylish, modern Pulkovo Airport. We depart for London. My Russia 2.0 is over.

Russia 2017: Observations. Accommodations were luxurious; facilities — most notably, bathrooms — were a vast improvement. People were approachable, smiles all around us, laughter abounded. Yet one reason for this intercultural smile deficit was, our lovely St. Pete guide Ekaterina told us, is language: Russian consonants are mostly spoken through pursed lips; English consonants are mostly spoken with open lips. Yet Ekaterina smiles more than I do. Then again she is pretty and far more charming. Historic restoration has been lovingly pursued, with myriad upgrades of historic sites. The great classical arts have been zealously preserved. Russian audiences are sophisticated and disciplined. After the big Shostakovich symphony in the final concert, NSO conductor Christoph Eschenbach held his arms aloft for 20 seconds, and then took another ten seconds to lower them, before signaling the audience that the performance had ended. The crowd remained hushed, absorbing the immense mass of sound just presented. I heard not one peep from the audience. Any American audience would be very hard pressed to match this. In all, our geopolitical discord notwithstanding, many Russians are better off than in 1985. Yes, much of Russia surely has changed less than its two largest cities since 1985. But the process of fully modernizing a huge country spanning 11 time zones after 75 years of Bolshevik tyranny is a task for generations. The Russians have made an impressive start.

Russia 2017: NSO’s Cliburn Coda. With 15 of 17 jurors voting for Van on the final ballot — including superstar Russian pianists Sviatoslav Richter and Emil Gilels — victory seemed assured. Except it was known to the jurors that the powers that be expected a Russian to win this new, prestigious competition. So the jury sought a ruling from the Ministry of Culture. Still too hot, the decision was punted to Khrushchev himself. The culture minister told NK that the problem was an American pianist who “plays very well.” NK asked: “What do others say of him? Is he the best?” Replied the minister: “He is the best.” NK issued his order: “In that case, give him the first prize.” Van was called back to the concert hall at 11 PM to record before a select audience his two final pieces, his twin showpiece concertos: the Rachmaninoff No. 3 in D Minor and the Tchaikovsky No. 1 in C Major. It took four hours to get the Rach 3 (47:07) done; the Tchaikovsky 1 (40:34) was finished at dawn.

I think it can fairly be said now of the NSO musicians that they feel what Van Cliburn felt in 1958 when he told the Russian public:

I have walked where Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Scriabin and other great musicians have walked. I am touched by the cordial reception that was given to me. It is a great pleasure to play for the Russians who are such fine lovers of music. The friendliness of the audience inspired me, and one felt as if one was playing better than usual.… I am happy to be in the homeland of wonderful Russian composers for whose work I have great respect.

I think the same can as well be said of the chorus of NSO friends old and new who were lucky enough to accompany the orchestra on its triumphal celebratory tour honoring their fourth musical director. Slava exemplified supreme musicianship coupled with abiding love for family, friends and for humanity. The great music he left us, and the American orchestra he helped transform, carry on the civilized Western classical musical tradition at the highest artistic level.

 

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