More observations on Russia today

In this installment I offer both an observation that may be characterized as totally relevant to the ongoing war and an observation that is timeless and relates to what Russian society and behavior is all about. What these have in common is that they are firsthand observations, based on what I see and hear from real people in St Petersburg during this visit.

The first item comes from a 20-minute chat with a fellow who has been one of my best sources of information on the war thanks to his personal relations with siloviki, meaning in this case military intelligence officers, that go back to his college days and to his initial service as an administrator in the penitentiary system.

As many readers are aware, my pied à terre is a one bedroom apartment in the outlying Petersburg borough of Pushkin, which in pre-Revolutionary times was known as Tsarskoye Selo, literally, the tsar’s hamlet. Just 200 meters from our apartment complex is the Catherine the Great summer palace and park, which is a major attraction for both domestic and foreign tourists.

This area today is also home to an important military school which has students from Africa and other developing world regions enrolled alongside native Russians. There is a training base for helicopter pilots nearby. And there is a military hospital of national importance. It is from the latter that today’s news comes.

My acquaintance tells me that the hospital is now filled with wounded Russian soldiers from the Ukraine campaign, and in particular with maimed POWs who were released by the Ukrainian authorities in prisoner exchanges. The hospitalized include a good many traumatized soldiers who were savagely castrated or otherwise disabled by their Ukrainian captors.

If publicized, these cases would be far more inflammatory in broad Russian society than the horrendous video which circulated in social media a week ago showing the brutal execution of a dozen disarmed Russian POWs by jubilant Ukrainian soldiers. Clearly, the Kremlin is holding this back, lest detailed knowledge of the Ukrainian brutality unleash violent emotions in the Russian public.

In these circumstances, I call attention to the very difficult balancing act required of the Russian President. The man has nerves of steel. He is surely under great pressure from the patriotic hard-liners in the Kremlin who are au courant about the castrations and other evidence of Ukrainian depravity. One nod from Vladimir Vladimirovich and Kiev would be leveled to the ground in a matter of hours.  It is tragic that Washington and Brussels confuse this restraint with incompetence, fear and other nonsense.


My second item comes from my visit to the Mariinsky-2 opera house last night to see the star-studded cast performing Verdi’s Otello under the baton of maestro Valery Gergiev.

The evening was interesting in many ways, starting with the top of the house seats we occupied because we placed our orders only the day before, when most everything had already been sold out and went for eye-popping prices. Indeed, apart from our top balcony seats, all seats at the opera yesterday evening went for between 8,000 and 9,000 rubles, meaning 120 to 135 euros.

 By an ironic twist, our second row balcony seats at 3200 rubles, or 45 euros, corresponded one-to-one to the seats my wife and I used to buy for $3.50 each at New York’s Met during my grad student days at Columbia in the late 1970’s. Those seats, like the ones we had last night, were very high but also very close to the stage, if off to one side, which is never popular with the general public  but is loved by professional music critics both for price and comfort. The Met seats came with a little table and light for the occupants to read their scores. The Mariinsky seats were simply more ample and more comfortable than what Americans would call Family Circle seats facing the stage directly.

However, what I wish to emphasize is who sat up at the top. They were more uniformly well dressed and even chic than the public in the parterre at ground level or in the loges and lower tiers, where we normally would be sitting for an opera performance. Why is this so?  Because the Mariinsky gives out a goodly number of orchestra level seats free to university students, pensioners and the socially disadvantaged, and they, by definition, are not swell dressers. The people who laid out 45 euros for the top of the house all paid from their own pockets and came dressed in the high fashion apparel that is still the cultural norm, even if it disappeared in the USA thirty or more years ago, when folks attending High Culture events just ‘came as they are,’ as if they were at the cinema. This dressing down took hold in Europe more recently, but it is widely seen there today.

Why do I call attention to dress codes?  Because there is a great deal more in clothes than snobbery. Dressing down, coming to the opera in torn jeans and sloppy sweaters, is an unmistakable statement that the rest of the world can go to hell, that one is concerned and absorbed only with Number One.

Not so in Russia. The old saying that Russian girls are born in high heels remains utterly true even in the midst of the present dull mood driven by the war in Ukraine. And during the break in the three hour twenty minute performance, our balcony cohort did not whip out home-made sandwiches and drink from concealed flasks. No, they stood in line to buy caviar sandwiches and éclairs together with flutes of Russian sparkling wine at very fancy prices, though matched by superb quality of the products themselves. This evening was an event, and Russians love to party.

Earlier in the war, I remarked that the Mariinsky was likely having financial difficulties now that it had lost its substantial audience of well-heeled foreigners from London, Paris and New York. What I see now as I enter the Mariinsky Theatre website to order tickets is that they are filling every seat in the house this holiday season for performances of The Nutcracker or opera performances like last night’s Otello at 140 euros a seat. And the audience is 100% Russian. A new equilibrium has been established and Russia’s High Culture has met the challenge of the foreign exodus.

It bears mention, that notwithstanding the high prices practiced at these most sought-after shows, the audience had a surprisingly good balance of old and young, including those who clearly are not students. Moreover, the old are not as decrepit as in the Met, nor were there medics in the wings for emergency aid, as we saw at the Arena di Verona this past summer. The balance of men and women was also fairly close, which is not to be taken for granted in the musical world at large.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2022

See below the translation into Italian (Roberto Pozzi), German (Andreas Mylaeus), Brazian Portuguese (Evandro Menezes) and French (Youri)

Altre osservazioni sulla Russia di oggi

Due osservazioni oggi, una pertinente alla guerra in corso, l’altra piu’ generale e che riguarda la società e la cultura russa. Ciò che le due osservazioni hanno in comune è che si tratta di osservazioni di prima mano, basate su ciò che ho visto e sentito da persone reali a San Pietroburgo durante la mia visita.

La prima osservazione deriva da una chiacchierata di 20 minuti che ho fatto con un amico, una delle mie migliori fonti di informazioni sulla guerra grazie ai suoi rapporti personali con i siloviki, gli ufficiali dell’intelligence militare, rapporti che risalgono sia ai tempi dell’università che al ruolo che poi ebbe nel sistema penitenziario russo.

Come molti di voi sanno, il mio pied à terre consiste in un piccolo appartamento di una camera da letto nel quartiere Pushkin, a sud di Pietroburgo, che in epoca pre-rivoluzionaria era conosciuto come Tsarskoye Selo, letteralmente il borgo dello zar. A soli 200 metri dal nostro complesso di appartamenti si trova il palazzo d’estate e il parco di Caterina la Grande, una delle principali attrazioni turistiche di Pietroburgo.

Oggi quest’area ha anche un’importante scuola militare che accoglie studenti provenienti dall’Africa e da altri paesi in via di sviluppo oltre che russi. Nelle vicinanze si trova una base di addestramento per piloti di elicottero. E c’è un ospedale militare di importanza nazionale. È da quest’ultimo che proviene la notizia di oggi.

Il mio conoscente mi dice che l’ospedale ora è pieno di soldati russi feriti durante la campagna in Ucraina, e in particolare di prigionieri di guerra mutilati che sono stati rilasciati dalle autorità ucraine durante gli scambi di prigionieri. Tra i ricoverati ci sono molti soldati traumatizzati che sono stati barbaramente castrati o altrimenti resi invalidi dai loro rapitori ucraini.

Se resi pubblici, questi casi farebbero infiammare la società russa molto di più dell’orrendo video che è circolato sui social media una settimana fa e che mostrava la brutale esecuzione di una dozzina di prigionieri di guerra russi disarmati da parte di soldati ucraini esultanti. È chiaro che il Cremlino non vuole che la notizia circoli per evitare che prove della brutalità ucraina scateni emozioni violente nell’opinione pubblica russa.

In queste circostanze, faccio notare il difficile gioco di equilibrio richiesto al presidente russo. Quest’uomo ha nervi d’acciaio. È sicuramente sottoposto a forti pressioni da parte dei nazionalisti piu’ intransigenti al Cremlino, che sono al corrente delle castrazioni e di altre prove della depravazione ucraina. Un cenno di Vladimir Vladimirovich e Kiev verrebbe rasa al suolo in poche ore.  È tragico che Washington e Bruxelles confondano questa moderazione con incompetenza, paura e altre sciocchezze.

La seconda osservazione di oggi riguarda la mia visita al Teatro dell’Opera Mariinsky-2, ieri sera, per assistere all’Otello di Verdi sotto la direzione del maestro Valery Gergiev.

La serata è stata interessante sotto molti punti di vista, a cominciare dai posti in prima fila che abbiamo preso avendo comprato i biglietti solo il giorno prima, quando quasi tutto era già esaurito e a prezzi da capogiro. Infatti, a parte i nostri posti nella seconda balconata, tutti i posti all’opera ieri sera costavano tra gli 8.000 e i 9.000 rubli, ovvero tra i 120 e i 135 euro.

Per ironia della sorte, i nostri posti in seconda fila a 3.200 rubli, o 45 euro, corrispondevano in tutto e per tutto ai posti che io e mia moglie compravamo per 3,50 dollari l’uno al Met di New York durante i miei studi alla Columbia alla fine degli anni Settanta. Posti come quelli che avevamo ieri sera non sono generalmente apprezzati dal grande pubblico, perche’ in alto e laterali rispetto al palcoscenico, ma sono invece apprezzati dai critici musicali professionisti sia per prezzo che per comodità. Le poltrone del Met avevano un tavolino e una luce per leggere gli spartiti. Le poltrone del Mariinsky erano semplicemente più ampie e più comode di quelle che gli americani chiamerebbero “Family Circle” e che danno direttamente sul palcoscenico.

Quello che mi interessa notare e’ una nota di stile che a mio parere e’ rilevante per comprendere la cultura russa di oggi, e quindi quella occidentale. Gli spettatori della balconata e della galleria (quelli seduti piu’ in alto) erano, in generale, meglio vestiti e più eleganti del pubblico nel parterre o nelle logge inferiori, dove normalmente ci sediamo anche noi. Il Mariinsky offre gratuitamente un buon numero di posti in platea a studenti universitari, pensionati e altre presone che non possono permettersi di pagare, e nessuno di questi si veste bene. Le persone che hanno sborsato 45 euro per un posto di tasca propria, vengono vestite come si faceva una volta nei teatri di ogni paese, norma che è scomparsa negli Stati Uniti trenta e passa anni fa, dove si va a teatro o ad eventi culturali di qualunque genere “come si e’”, moda che da qualche tempo si è diffusa anche in Europa. 

Perché richiamo l’attenzione sui codici di abbigliamento?  Perché nel vestire c’è molto di più che snobismo. Il “dressing down”, venire all’opera con jeans strappati e maglioni sciatti, è una dichiarazione inequivocabile che il resto del mondo può andare al diavolo, che ci interessa solo l’attrazione principale dell’evento, la celebrita’, il Numero Uno.

Non così in Russia. Il vecchio detto secondo cui le ragazze russe sono nate con i tacchi a spillo rimane assolutamente vero anche oggi, nonostante l’atmosfera sottotono causata dalla guerra in Ucraina. E durante la pausa delle tre ore e venti di spettacolo, la nostra coorte di balconi non ha tirato fuori panini fatti in casa e bevuto da fiaschette nascoste sotto la giacca. 

No, i russi si sono messi in fila per comprare panini al caviale e bigné con flutes di spumante russo a prezzi davvero stravaganti, anche se di superba qualità. Questa serata era un evento, e i russi amano fare festa.

All’inizio della guerra, pensavo che il Mariinskij fosse in difficoltà finanziarie avendo perso il suo consistente contingente di pubblico straniero, i benestanti provenienti da Londra, Parigi e New York. Quello che vedo ora, essendo stato sul sito web del Teatro Mariinsky per comprare i biglietti, è che in questa stagione natalizia stanno riempiendo tutti i posti a sedere per lo Schiaccianoci e anche per opere liriche come l’Otello di ieri sera, a 140 euro a posto. E il pubblico è al 100% russo. Ne deduco che si è creato un nuovo equilibrio e che l’alta cultura russa ha raccolto la sfida dell’esodo straniero.

Va anche detto che nonostante gli alti prezzi di questi spettacoli il pubblico aveva un buon di mix di giovani e vecchi, aldilà’ del numero di studenti. Non solo, ma gli anziani a teatro non erano tanto decrepiti quanto quelli del Met di New York, né ho visto medici dietro le quinte per prestare pronto soccorso come abbiamo visto all’Arena di Verona l’estate scorsa. Anche il rapporto tra uomini e donne era abbastanza equilibrato, il che non è scontato nel mondo musicale in qualunque parte del mondo.

Weitere Beobachtungen in Russland von heute

In dieser Folge biete ich zwei Beobachtungen an: die eine kann als äußerst relevant für den derzeitigen Krieg betrachtet werden und die andere ist zeitlos und bezieht sich auf die russische Gesellschaft und deren Verhalten insgesamt. Was diese gemeinsam haben, ist, dass es sich um Beobachtungen aus erster Hand handelt, gestützt darauf, was ich bei diesem Besuch in St. Petersburg von realen Menschen sehe und höre.

Das erste Beispiel stammt von einer 20-minütigen Unterhaltung mit einem Menschen, der eine meiner besten Informationsquellen über den Krieg ist, weil er persönliche Beziehungen zu siloviki hat, was in diesem Fall bedeutet zu Militärgeheimdienstoffizieren, die bis in seine College-Tage zurückreichen und in die Zeit, als er ursprünglich in der Gefängnisverwaltung gearbeitet hat.

Wie viele Leser wissen, ist meine Zweitwohnung ein Apartment mit einem Schlafraum in der außerhalb von der Stadt gelegenen Gemeinde Pushkin, die in vorrevolutionären Zeiten als Tsarskoye Selo bekannt war, was wörtlich „das Dörfchen des Zaren“ heißt. Nur 200 Meter von unserem Apartmentkomplex entfernt liegt der Sommerpalast und Park von Katherina der Großen, welche eine wichtige Attraktion für heimische und ausländische Touristen sind.

In dieser Gegend befindet sich auch eine wichtige Militärakademie, in der Studenten aus Afrika und anderen Entwicklungsregionen der Welt neben gebürtigen Russen eingeschrieben sind. In der Nähe befindet sich auch eine Trainingsbasis für Helikopterpiloten. Und dort ist auch ein landesweit wichtiges Militärhospital. Aus letzterem stammt die heutige Nachricht.

Mein Bekannter berichtet mir, dass das Krankenhaus jetzt mit verwundeten russischen Soldaten aus dem Ukrainekrieg gefüllt ist und insbesondere mit verstümmelten Kriegsgefangenen, die von den ukrainischen Behörden im Wege vom Gefangenenaustausch frei gelassen wurden. Unter den Hospitalisierten befinden sich eine ganze Reihe von traumatisierten Soldaten, die von ihren ukrainischen Fängern in grausamster Weise kastriert oder anderweitig versehrt wurden.

Wenn das veröffentlicht würde, wären diese Fälle noch viel aufrührerischer für die breite russische Gesellschaft als das horrende Video, das letzte Woche in den sozialen Netzwerken verbreitet wurde und in dem die brutale Exekution von einem Dutzend entwaffneter russischer Kriegsgefangener durch jubelnde ukrainische Soldaten gezeigt wurde. Es ist offensichtlich, dass der Kreml diese Informationen zurückhält, damit nicht durch die detaillierte Kenntnis von der ukrainischen Brutalität gewalttätige Emotionen in der russischen Öffentlichkeit angefacht werden.

In diesem Zusammenhang weise ich auf den sehr schwierigen Balanceakt des russischen Präsidenten hin, der von ihm gefordert ist. Der Mann hat Nerven aus Stahl. Er steht mit Sicherheit unter enormem Druck seitens der patriotischen Hardliner, die wegen der Kastrationen und anderer Beweise für die ukrainische Verderbtheit außer sich sind. Ein Wink von Vladimir Vladimirovich und Kiew wäre innerhalb von Stunden dem Erdboden gleich gemacht. Es ist tragisch, dass Washington und Brüssel diese Zurückhaltung mit Inkompetenz, Angst und anderem Unsinn verwechseln.


Mein zweites Beispiel stammt von meinem Besuch des Mariinsky-2 Opernhauses gestern Abend, wo von der mit Stars gespickten Besetzung Verdis Otello unter dem Dirigenten Valery Gergiev gegeben wurde.

Der Abend war in vieler Hinsicht interessant, beginnend damit, dass wir nur noch Plätze ganz oben im Haus bekommen haben, weil wir unsere Bestellung erst am Vortag abgegeben haben, als schon fast alles andere bereits zu schwindelerregenden Preisen ausverkauft war. Tatsächlich waren außer unseren Plätzen ganz oben auf dem Balkon alle anderen Plätze der Oper gestern Abend ausverkauft zu Preisen zwischen 8.000 und 9.000 Rubel, was 120 bis 135 Euro entspricht.

Ironischerweise entsprachen unsere Balkonplätze in der zweiten Reihe zu 3.200 Rubel, oder 45 Euro, eins zu eins den Plätzen, die meine Frau und ich seinerzeit für 3,50 Dollar das Stück in der New Yorker Met in meinen Studententagen an der Columbia in den späten 1970ern gebucht haben. Diese Plätze, wie wir sie gestern Abend hatten, waren sehr hoch oben aber auch sehr nah an der Bühne, wenn auch auf der Seite, was bei dem allgemeinen Publikum nicht, bei den professionellen Musikkritikern jedoch durchaus wegen dem Preis und der Bequemlichkeit beliebt ist. Bei den Plätzen in der Met gab es einen kleinen Tisch und ein Licht, damit die Besucher ihre Musikpartituren mitlesen konnten. Die Plätze im Mariinsky waren einfach geräumiger und bequemer als was die Amerikaner Plätze für den Familienkreis nennen würden, gerade vor der Bühne.

Jedoch möchte ich hervorheben, wer da oben saß. Sie waren alle besser gekleidet und sogar schicker als die Besucher im Parterre im Erdgeschoß oder in den Logen und unteren Rängen, wo wir normalerweise bei einer Opernaufführung sitzen würden. Warum ist das so? Weil das Mariinsky eine ganze Reihe von Plätzen weiter unten gratis an Universitätsstudenten, Pensionäre oder andere sozial Benachteiligte abgibt, die definitionsgemäß nicht so gut gekleidet sind. Die Leute, die 45 Euro für die Plätze ganz oben im Haus ausgegeben haben, haben das aus eigener Tasche bezahlt und kamen in der gehobenen Bekleidung, die hier noch immer die kulturelle Norm ist, auch wenn dies in den USA vor etwa 20 oder 30 Jahren verschwunden ist und die Leute bei Besuchen der Hochkultur lediglich kamen „wie sie waren“, als ob sie ins Kino gingen. Diese Abwertung hat auch in Europa Einzug gehalten und man sieht sie heute hier häufig.

Warum richte ich die Aufmerksamkeit auf die Kleiderordnung? Weil das sehr viel mehr als nur Snobismus bedeutet. Diese Abwertung, in zerrissenen Jeans und schlabberigen Pullovern in die Oper zu gehen, ist eine Stellungnahme gegenüber dem Rest der Welt, dass diese sich zum Teufel scheren kann und dass man nur mit der Nummer Eins beschäftigt und davon absorbiert ist.

Nicht so in Russland. Das alte Sprichwort, dass russische Mädchen mit hochhackigen Schuhen geboren werden, ist sogar mitten in der derzeitigen tristen, vom Krieg in der Ukraine gedrückten Stimmung absolut zutreffend. Und während der Pause in der drei Stunden und zwanzig Minuten dauernden Vorstellung hat unsere Balkongruppe nicht etwa selbstgemachte Sandwiches ausgepackt oder aus versteckten Flaschen getrunken. Nein, sie standen in der Schlange, um Kaviarsandwiches, Eclairs und Flutes mit russischem Schaumwein zu fantastischen Preisen zu kaufen, die der superben Qualität der Produkte jedoch entsprachen. Dieser Abend war ein Event und die Russen lieben Partys.

Am Anfang des Krieges hatte ich bemerkt, dass das Mariinsky wahrscheinlich finanzielle Schwierigkeiten bekommen könnte, weil es einen substantiellen Teil des Publikums verloren hat, das aus gutbetuchten Ausländern aus London, Paris oder New York bestand. Was ich jetzt sehe, wenn ich die Website des Mariinsky-Theaters besuche, um Karten zu bestellen, ist, dass sie alle Plätze des Hauses in dieser Feriensaison für Vorstellungen des „Nussknacker“ oder Opernvorstellungen wie die gestrige des Otello für 140 Euro verkaufen können. Und das Publikum ist zu 100% russisch. Es hat sich ein neues Gleichgewicht etabliert und die russische Hochkultur hat die Herausforderung des ausländischen Exodus gemeistert.

Wichtig ist, dass das Publikum trotz der hohen Preise bei diesen beliebten Veranstaltungen eine überraschend ausgeglichene Mischung von Alt und Jung aufweist, wobei es sich bei den Jungen durchaus nicht nur um Studenten handelt. Zudem sind die Alten nicht so gebrechlich wie in der Met und es gab keine Sanitäter für Erste Hilfe in den Gängen, wie wir das in der Arena di Verona im vergangenen Sommer gesehen haben. Auch die Verteilung von Männern und Frauen war ziemlich ausgeglichen, was in der Musikwelt im Allgemeinen nicht selbstverständlich ist.

Observações adicionais sobre a Rússia hoje

Nesta parte, ofereço uma observação que pode ser caracterizada como totalmente relevante para a guerra em curso e uma observação em geral que se relaciona com o que é a sociedade e o comportamento russos. O que eles têm em comum é que são observações de primeira mão, baseadas no que vejo e ouço de pessoas reais em São Petersburgo durante esta visita.

A primeira observação vem de um papo de 20 minutos com um colega que tem sido uma das minhas melhores fontes de informação sobre a guerra, graças as suas relações pessoais com siloviki, ou seja, neste caso, oficiais de inteligência militar, que remontam aos tempos de faculdade e ao seu serviço inicial como administrador do sistema penitenciário.

Como muitos leitores sabem, meu pied à terre é um apartamento de um quarto no bairro de Pushkin na periferia de São Petersburgo, que nos tempos pré-revolucionários era conhecido como Tsarskoye Selo, literalmente, o vilarejo do czar. A apenas 200 metros do nosso condomínio fica o palácio e parque de verão de Catarina, a Grande, que é uma grande atração tanto para turistas nacionais como estrangeiros.

Esta área hoje também abriga uma importante escola militar que tem alunos da África e de outras regiões do mundo em desenvolvimento matriculados ao lado de russos natos. Há uma base de treinamento para pilotos de helicóptero nas proximidades. E há um hospital militar de importância nacional. É deste último que saem as notícias de hoje.

Meu conhecido me disse que o hospital agora está cheio de soldados russos feridos da campanha da Ucrânia e, em particular, de prisioneiros de guerra mutilados que foram libertados pelas autoridades ucranianas em trocas de prisioneiros. Os pacientes incluem muitos soldados traumatizados que foram brutalmente castrados ou incapacitados por seus captores ucranianos.

Se divulgados, estes casos seriam muito mais incendiários para a sociedade russa em geral do que o horrendo vídeo que circulou nas mídias sociais há uma semana mostrando a execução brutal por soldados ucranianos jubilantes de uma dúzia de prisioneiros de guerra russos desarmados. Claramente, o Kremlin está segurando isso, para que o conhecimento detalhado da brutalidade ucraniana não desencadeie emoções violentas no público russo.

Nestas circunstâncias, chamo a atenção para o ato de equilíbrio muito difícil exigido do presidente russo. O homem tem nervos de aço. Ele certamente está sob grande pressão dos patriotas linha-dura do Kremlin, que estão informados sobre as castrações e outras evidências da depravação ucraniana. Um aceno de Vladimir Vladimirovich e Kiev seria nivelado ao chão em questão de horas. É trágico que Washington e Bruxelas confundam essa contenção com incompetência, medo e outras bobagens.

Minha segunda observação vem de minha visita à casa de ópera Mariinsky-2 ontem à noite para ver o elenco repleto de estrelas interpretando Otello de Verdi sob a batuta do maestro Valery Gergiev.

A noite foi interessante em vários aspectos, a começar pelas poltronas de cima da casa que ocupamos porque compramos nossos ingressos apenas no dia anterior, quando quase tudo já estava esgotado e com preços exorbitantes. De fato, exceto por nossos assentos na varanda superior, todos os assentos na ópera ontem à noite custaram entre 8.000 e 9.000 rublos, ou seja, de 120 a 135 euros.

Por uma reviravolta irônica, nossos assentos no balcão da segunda fila a 3.200 rublos, ou 45 euros, correspondiam um a um aos assentos que minha esposa e eu costumávamos comprar por US $ 3,50 cada no Met de Nova York durante meus dias de estudante de graduação em Columbia no final dos anos 1970. Esses assentos, como os que tivemos ontem à noite, eram muito altos, mas também muito próximos ao palco, embora afastados de um lado, o que nunca é popular entre o público em geral, mas é amado pelos críticos profissionais de música, tanto pelo preço quanto pelo conforto. Os assentos do Met vieram com uma mesinha e luz para os ocupantes lerem suas pontuações. Os assentos de Mariinsky eram simplesmente mais amplos e confortáveis do que os americanos chamariam de assentos Family Circle, voltados diretamente para o palco.

No entanto, o que gostaria de enfatizar é quem se sentou no mezanino. Eles estavam uniformemente melhor vestidos e até mais chiques do que o público no parterre, no nível do solo ou nos loges e níveis inferiores, onde normalmente estaríamos sentados para uma apresentação de ópera. Porque isto é assim? Porque o Mariinsky dá um bom número de assentos de nível de orquestra grátis para estudantes universitários, aposentados e socialmente desfavorecidos, e eles, por definição, não se vestem bem. As pessoas que pagaram 45 euros pela cobertura da casa pagaram do próprio bolso e vieram vestidas com roupas de alta moda que ainda são a norma cultural, mesmo que tenham desaparecido nos EUA trinta ou mais anos atrás, quando as pessoas frequentavam os eventos da Alta Cultura simplesmente ‘vinham como eles estavam’, como se estivessem no cinema. Este despojo tomou conta da Europa mais recentemente, mas é amplamente vista lá hoje.

Por que chamo a atenção para os códigos de vestimenta? Porque há muito mais nas roupas do que esnobismo. Vestir-se discretamente, ir à ópera com jeans rasgados e suéteres desleixados é uma afirmação inequívoca de que o resto do mundo pode ir para o inferno, que a pessoa está preocupada e absorta apenas com o Número Um.

Não é assim na Rússia. O velho ditado de que as meninas russas nascem de salto alto permanece totalmente verdadeiro, mesmo em meio ao atual clima monótono impulsionado pela guerra na Ucrânia. E durante o intervalo da apresentação de três horas e vinte minutos, nosso grupo de varanda não preparou sanduíches caseiros e bebeu em frascos escondidos. Não, eles ficaram na fila para comprar sanduíches de caviar e éclairs junto com taças de vinho espumante russo a preços muito caros, embora combinados com a excelente qualidade dos próprios produtos. Esta noite foi um evento, e os russos adoram festejar.

No início da guerra, observei que o Mariinsky provavelmente estava passando por dificuldades financeiras, agora que havia perdido sua audiência substancial de estrangeiros abastados de Londres, Paris e Nova York. O que vejo agora, quando entro no sítio do Mariinsky Theatre para comprar ingressos, é que eles estão ocupando todos os assentos da casa nesta temporada de festas para apresentações de O Quebra-Nozes ou apresentações de ópera como Otello da noite passada a 140 euros o assento. E o público é 100% russo. Um novo equilíbrio foi estabelecido e a Alta Cultura da Rússia enfrentou o desafio do êxodo estrangeiro.

Vale mencionar que, apesar dos altos preços praticados nestes espetáculos mais procurados, o público teve um equilíbrio surpreendentemente bom entre velhos e jovens, incluindo aqueles que claramente não são estudantes. Além disso, os velhos não são tão decrépitos quanto no Met, nem havia médicos nas alas para socorro de emergência, como vimos na Arena di Verona no verão passado. O equilíbrio de homens e mulheres também era bastante próximo, o que não deve ser dado como certo no mundo musical em geral.

Autres observations sur la Russie aujourd’hui

Dans cet article, je vous propose à la fois une observation qui peut être qualifiée de tout à fait pertinente pour la guerre en cours et une observation qui est intemporelle et qui se rapporte à la société et au comportement russes. Leur point commun est qu’il s’agit d’observations de première main, basées sur ce que je vois et entends de la part de personnes réelles à Saint-Pétersbourg dans le cadre de cette visite.

Le premier élément provient d’une conversation de 20 minutes avec un homme qui a été l’une de mes meilleures sources d’information sur la guerre grâce à ses relations personnelles avec les siloviki, à savoir les officiers du renseignement militaire, qui datent de ses études et de son activité initiale en tant qu’administrateur du système pénitentiaire.

Comme beaucoup de lecteurs le savent, mon pied à terre est un appartement d’une chambre à coucher dans le quartier Pouchkine dans la périphérie de Pétersbourg, qui, avant la Révolution, était connu sous le nom de Tsarskoïe Selo, littéralement, « le hameau du tsar ». À seulement 200 mètres de notre complexe d’appartements se trouve le palais d’été et le parc de Catherine la Grande, qui est une attraction majeure pour les touristes nationaux et étrangers.

Aujourd’hui, cette zone abrite également une importante école militaire qui accueille des étudiants d’Afrique et d’autres régions du monde en développement aux côtés de Russes autochtones. Il existe une base d’entraînement pour les pilotes d’hélicoptères à proximité. Et il y a un hôpital militaire d’importance nationale. C’est de ce dernier que proviennent les nouvelles d’aujourd’hui.

Ma connaissance me dit que l’hôpital est maintenant rempli de soldats russes blessés lors de la campagne d’Ukraine, et en particulier de prisonniers de guerre mutilés qui ont été libérés par les autorités ukrainiennes lors d’échanges de prisonniers. Parmi les personnes hospitalisées figurent un bon nombre de soldats traumatisés qui ont été sauvagement castrés ou autrement mutilés par leurs geôliers ukrainiens.

S’ils étaient rendus publics, ces cas seraient beaucoup plus susceptibles d’enflammer la société russe que l’horrible vidéo qui a circulé dans les médias sociaux il y a une semaine, montrant l’exécution brutale d’une douzaine de prisonniers de guerre russes désarmés par des soldats ukrainiens en liesse. Il est clair que le Kremlin retient cette information, de peur que la connaissance détaillée de la brutalité ukrainienne ne déclenche des réactions violentes dans le public russe.

Dans ces circonstances, j’attire l’attention sur l’exercice d’équilibre très difficile auquel est soumis le président russe. Cet homme a des nerfs d’acier. Il subit sûrement une forte pression de la part des patriotes du Kremlin qui sont au courant des castrations et autres preuves de la dépravation ukrainienne. Un signe de tête de Vladimir Vladimirovitch et Kiev serait rasée en quelques heures.  Il est tragique que Washington et Bruxelles confondent cette retenue avec l’incompétence, la peur et autres absurdités.


Le deuxième article est tiré de ma visite à l’opéra Mariinsky-2 hier soir, où j’ai vu la troupe de stars interpréter Othello de Verdi sous la direction du maestro Valery Gergiev.

La soirée a été intéressante à bien des égards, à commencer par les sièges du haut de la salle que nous avons occupés parce que nous n’avons effectué notre réservation que la veille, alors que la plupart des places étaient déjà vendues et coûtaient des sommes astronomiques. En effet, à part nos places au balcon supérieur, toutes les places de l’opéra hier soir étaient vendues entre 8 000 et 9 000 roubles, soit 120 à 135 euros.

Par une ironie du sort, nos places au deuxième rang du balcon, à 3 200 roubles, soit 45 euros, correspondaient exactement aux places que ma femme et moi avions l’habitude d’acheter pour 3,50 dollars chacune au Met de New York, lorsque j’étais étudiant à Columbia, à la fin des années 1970. Ces sièges, comme ceux que nous avions hier soir, étaient très hauts mais aussi très proches de la scène, même s’ils étaient sur le côté, ce qui n’est jamais populaire auprès du grand public mais est adoré par les critiques musicaux professionnels, tant pour le prix que pour le confort. Les sièges du Met étaient accompagnés d’une petite table et d’une lumière pour que les occupants puissent lire leurs notes. Les sièges du Mariinsky étaient tout simplement plus amples et plus confortables que ce que les Américains appelleraient des sièges de type Cercle familial faisant directement face à la scène.

Cependant, ce sur quoi je souhaite insister, ce sont les personnes assises tout en haut. Elles étaient plus systématiquement bien habillées et même plus chics que le public assis dans le parterre au niveau du sol ou dans les loges et les gradins inférieurs, où nous serions normalement assis pour une représentation d’opéra. Pourquoi en est-il ainsi ?  Parce que le Mariinsky distribue gratuitement un grand nombre de places au niveau de l’orchestre aux étudiants universitaires, aux retraités et aux personnes socialement défavorisées, qui, par définition, ne sont pas très bien habillés. Les personnes qui ont déboursé 45 euros pour accéder au sommet de la salle ont toutes payé de leur poche et sont venues vêtues d’une tenue de haute couture qui est encore la norme culturelle, même si elle a disparu aux États-Unis il y a trente ans ou plus, lorsque les personnes assistant à des événements de haute culture se contentaient de “venir comme elles sont”, comme si elles étaient au cinéma. Ce phénomène de banalisation est apparu plus récemment en Europe, mais il est très répandu aujourd’hui.

Pourquoi est-ce que j’attire l’attention sur les codes vestimentaires ?  Parce qu’il y a bien plus que du snobisme dans les vêtements. S’habiller de façon décontractée, venir à l’opéra en jeans déchirés et en pulls négligés, c’est affirmer sans ambiguïté que le reste du monde peut aller se faire voir, que l’on ne se préoccupe que du Numéro Un.

Ce n’est pas le cas en Russie. Le vieux dicton selon lequel les filles russes naissent avec des talons hauts reste tout à fait vrai, même au milieu de l’humeur maussade actuelle provoquée par la guerre en Ukraine. Et pendant la pause de la représentation de trois heures vingt minutes, notre groupe du balcon n’a pas sorti des sandwichs faits maison et n’a pas bu dans des flacons dissimulés. Non, ils ont fait la queue pour acheter des sandwichs au caviar et des éclairs, ainsi que des flûtes de vin mousseux russe à des prix très élevés, mais correspondant à la superbe qualité des produits eux-mêmes. Cette soirée était un événement, et les Russes aiment faire la fête.

Au début de la guerre, j’ai fait remarquer que le Mariinsky avait probablement des difficultés financières, maintenant qu’il avait perdu son important public d’étrangers fortunés de Londres, Paris et New York. Ce que je vois maintenant, lorsque j’entre sur le site web du théâtre Mariinsky pour commander des billets, c’est qu’ils remplissent tous les sièges de la salle en cette période de fêtes pour des représentations de Casse-Noisette ou des spectacles d’opéra comme Othello d’hier soir à 140 euros la place. Et le public est 100% russe. Un nouvel équilibre s’est établi et la haute culture russe a relevé le défi de l’exode des étrangers.

Il convient de mentionner que, malgré les prix élevés pratiqués pour ces spectacles très prisés, le public présentait un équilibre étonnamment bon entre jeunes et vieux, y compris ceux qui ne sont manifestement pas des étudiants. En outre, les personnes âgées ne sont pas aussi décrépites qu’au Met, et il n’y avait pas non plus de médecins dans les coulisses pour les secours d’urgence, comme nous l’avons vu à l’Arena di Verona l’été dernier. La répartition des hommes et des femmes était également assez équilibrée, ce qui ne va pas de soi dans le monde de la musique en général.

26 thoughts on “More observations on Russia today

  1. Thanks a lot for your insight! The last time I visited Russia was in 2006 and it just so happened that my closest relatives are on the very pro-Western side of things, so your зарисовки из жизни help me balance it a lot.


  2. If only there was something Russia could’ve done, or not done, to avoid having its soldiers become POWs in the first place.


    1. Well, such possibilities would have existed.
      Only then Ukraine would look today as, for example, North Korea did in 1951, after it came into the enjoyment of bomb carpet patterns crocheted by the Americans.
      In a German documentary from 2010 one spoke there already once of ” extermination of a culture, a civilization “.


  3. > One nod from Vladimir Vladimirovich and Kiev would be leveled to the ground in a matter of hours.

    No one doubts this fact, not even Ukrainians. The real question is why? Why do foreign delegates and even heads of state continue to meet Ukrainian officials in Kyiv in the middle of a war? Imagine Winston Churchill going to meet his colleague Paul Reynaud in France during the Nazi invasion? Unthinkable. Yet Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak were in Kyiv recently. I find it bizarre. It’s as if the reality of war has not yet sunk in yet for Europeans who think themselves invincible. Perhaps it is this knowledge of the benevolence of VVP that makes the Ukrainians so outrageously brazen. Russians do love Ukraine, after all, they say that Kiev is the mother of all Russian cities.


    1. “Imagine Winston Churchill going to meet his colleague Paul Reynaud in France during the Nazi invasion? Unthinkable.”

      Hardly unthinkable That’s EXACTLY what Churchill did, five times during May and June of 1940, prior to Dunkirk. Do you know any history whatsoever?

      The situation today is completely different — there are no British forces officially deployed in Ukraine. Churchill was directly conferring with his French Allies. The French wanted more Hurricanes and Spitfire squadrons and Churchill pressed the RAF, to no real avail. Just as well considering the Battle of Britain happened several months later.


  4. I richly appreciate these riveting and revealing vignettes of contemporary Russia. Scores of ordinary news articles seldom provide me with that deepened understanding I derive from these few perceptive paragraphs. Thanks.


  5. Thanks for that. I seem to remember that the neighbourhood you now have your flat in is described in the first chapter of Peter Kropotkin’s memoirs. He spent his youth there.


  6. The sadistic treatment of the Russian POWs is frightening, especially as the perpetrators know perfectly well that it won’t be publicised in the West, and that, even if it were, few Westerners would care. (The consistent and long term Western demonisation of Russia and Russians has lead to this.) As you say, this is depraved behaviour. Nearly 10 years ago I found myself in a St Petersburg hospital and the rest of our tour group left Russia before my wife and myself. We had both been embarrassed by the boorish behaviour of many in our party and to our “surprise” discovered that the hotel staff spoke English perfectly adequately only when the others had gone. Because my wife was on her own for a few days they even celebrated her birthday by giving her a beautiful platter of fruit. Sadly, I cannot imagine a Russian tourist being treated like that in Sydney.


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  8. “The old saying that Russian girls are born in high heels remains utterly true” – the modern version is that in most of the world, the first word that a baby girl says is мама, whereas in Russia, it is мода.


  9. Thank you again for your invaluable posts. This one was horrific in part, but again invaluable.

    I guess that the only faintly relevant comment I can make is to call attention to an article buried in the bowels of the Wall Street Journal entitled “TSMC’s Arizona Chip Plant, Awaiting Biden Visit, Faces Birthing Pain”. It’s behind a paywall I assume, and it’s not worth reading in its entirety. Suffice it to say that the importance of this major chip manufacturer’s opening a factory in Arizona is sufficiently critical to the US, that Biden himself will attend some sort of faux opening ceremony.

    What is important are the following quotes,

    “‘A range of construction costs and project uncertainty in Phoenix makes building the same advanced logic wafer fab in Taiwan considerably less capital intensive,’ TSMC said.”
    Note the extraordinary circumlocution which could be translated as, “We’re throwing a ton of money away by building this factory in the United States.”

    “TSMC executives have said it isn’t easy to re-create in America the manufacturing ecosystem they have built over decades in Taiwan, drawing on local engineering talent…TSMC has invested more in recruiting after struggling to find new engineering graduates in the U.S., said people familiar with its efforts. Engineers hired in the U.S. are sent to Taiwan for a year or a year and a half of training, they said. The company is also sending Taiwan-based engineers to Arizona to augment staffing, luring them with doubled salaries and other benefits, according to people familiar with the matter.”

    And then the coup de grace, “In addition to the U.S., TSMC is expanding in Asia to help countries that want to strengthen local semiconductor production out of national-security concerns… **However, it is keeping its most advanced manufacturing in Taiwan.**”

    Do the neocons sincerely believe Taiwan will not be absorbed without a shot being fired by China?


  10. Thank you, Gilbert for such diverse reports on life in Russia at this critical time. People dress up and enjoy the opera, eat caviar and drink fancy wine. Culture continues, despite the terrible war in Ukraine forced on Russia by treacherous America and NATO allies.
    Terrible to think of what the tortured and injured Russian soldiers have had to endure. I understand one of the major US papers has published and verified the murder of caputred Russian soldiers
    by Ukranian military, which they also videoed and sent out for public vieiwing.. hard to believe western people and government are not condemning this.
    Astounding what Russia’s great President Putin has to contemplate in all this.. including nuclear war. It would be much easier to just raise Kiev to the ground with missile strikes, with or without horrid western leaders being there at the time.
    When will they open their minds up to the truth of what’s going on…


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