A Tale of Two Cities: Cultural Life in Brussels and St Petersburg during Covid Wave 4

In my recent online lecture to the Prince George Golitsyn Memorial Library in St Petersburg presenting my newly published book Russia in the Turbulent 1990s, I remarked that one of my main conclusions from living in Russia at that time of economic collapse and generalized misery for the population was that the Performing Arts remained at top international levels despite it all and even underwent a renaissance.  I noted that High Culture was clearly a defining element of modern day Russia, and went on to say that today, in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic calamity this remains true: the cultural life in Russia’s capitals is far richer than in any European state or than in North America.  This very point was hammered home two days ago when I received an email from the Mariinsky Theater setting out its program of events on its three stages of downtown Petersburg over the coming six weeks of the holiday season.

Having spent a couple of weeks in Petersburg at the end of October – start of November, and having attended evenings of ballet at the Mariinsky and at another theater hosting the Diaghilev Festival of dance, I know full well that these establishments were securing the welfare of visitors, perfomers and staff by requiring QR codes from all ticket holders and requiring the wearing of masks at all times once inside.

 I also know that  the current Wave 4 of Covid-19 has hit Russia hard, in particular, its most densely populated cities, St Petersburg and Moscow.  If we compare infection rates per 100,000 population, hospitalizations, ICU units occupied and the like, the situation in Petersburg over the past several weeks to present has been roughly similar to what we have been experiencing in Brussels.  The big difference has been in “outcomes”: mortality is substantially higher in Russia due to the still low rate of vaccination.  Only in the past few days, under very great pressure of media and imposition of what is effectively a lockdown on unvaccinated seniors, has there been a rush to vaccination centers. As of today, the rate of vaccination in Petersburg among adults approaches 55%, roughly comparable to that in Brussels, if way below the levels in Flanders and Wallonia.

Meanwhile, the way institutions of Culture are being shabbily treated in Belgium speaks of cowardice of our elected officials and pandering to prejudices of the N-VA leadership, if I may be allowed to point fingers.  The decisions reached on Friday at the latest session of the Consultative Committee of the federal government meeting with the leaders of the Kingdom’s three Regions, were a disgrace as they pertain to the cultural establishment.  Theaters were placed under a strict limit of two hundred ticket holders even given the requirement of masks and Covid Safety Passes, meaning proof of full vaccination or recovery from the virus. Such limits can only aggravate the already dire financial situation of these houses after 18 months of negligible revenue.

To their credit, the Directors of the Royal Theater La Monnaie, of the Bozar complex which includes concert halls, of the National Theater of Wallonia-Brussels and of the Royal Flemish Theater have issued an Open Letter to the public flatly rejecting the illogic of the latest government restrictions. I refer the reader to the opera house website to read the details of the measures these establishments have put in place to assure public safety and prevent spread of infections in keeping with the recommendations of Science: https://www.lamonnaie.be/fr/mmm-online/2234-les-maisons-de-la-culture-plaident-pour-une-vision-a-long-terme.  Moreover, you do not have to be a genius to follow their argument that imposition of a limit of 200 persons means half of the normal occupancy for one hall while it means one-sixth of occupancy for another hall; in other words, the one size fits all approach of this Government is patent nonsense.

I say “bravo” to Peter de Caluwe at Monnaie and to his colleagues for their brave stand.  May they prevail over the policy of malicious disregard for the Performing Arts being pressed on the federal government by the Minister President of one region only, Flanders.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2021