How culture continues to bring Russians and Americans together

In an RBTH exclusive, Mary Ellen Koenig, Cultural Attaché to the U.S. Embassy in the Russian Federation, writes about the special unifying bond that culture can provide between Russia and the United States even in times when official relations between the two countries are tense.

Click to enlarge the image. Drawing by Alexei Iorsch

At the height of the Cold War, a 23-year-old Texan, Van Cliburn – who had studied piano in the Russian romantic tradition – won the Soviet Union’s first International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition, earning him worldwide recognition and a special place in the hearts of both those Americans and Russians who appreciate great performers.

Culture has a way of transcending political differences, bringing together Russians and Americans who may differ on issues but who appreciate outstanding music, dance, drama, literature, film and visual arts.  As the U.S. Embassy’s cultural attaché for the last two years, my goal has been to help show the depth and diversity of American culture. At the same time, I have developed a deep respect and admiration for the traditions of Russian culture and its impressive array of arts institutions.

Among the highlights of my two years here have been performances that involved collaboration between American and Russian artists. This year, for example, one of the great U.S. ballerinas of the 20th century, Suzanne Farrell, brought her troupe to Moscow to partner with Ballet Moskva to perform ballets choreographed by the great Russian-American, George Balanchine.

In February, Grammy Award-winning trumpeter Terrence Blanchard performed with famed Russian saxophonist Igor Butman. Young American and Russian opera singers from the Bolshoi Theater and the Metropolitan Opera in New York performed at the Bolshoi and at the U.S. Ambassador’s residence, Spaso House.

Another high point was last summer’s New Orleans/Moscow 2014 festival, which brought music, food, and photography from the American South to the Usadba Jazz Festival in Moscow. Last weekend, I went to the latest Usadba festival to enjoy the performance of the Jones Family Singers, a gospel singing group from Texas.

When our musical and dance groups travel throughout Russia, they always draw enthusiastic, knowledgeable and appreciative audiences. There is a genuine interest in American culture here in Russia and we are often pleased to partner with outstanding Russian institutions such as the Bolshoi, the Moscow Art Theater, the Moscow Conservatory, the Multimedia Museum and the Documentary Film Center.

Last fall, the Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Music Theater hosted several nights of contemporary American dance. The Lumière Brothers Center for Photography displayed a well-attended exhibit of images of the young Elvis Presley and the long-lost photos of Vivian Maier. And our annual AmFest film festival always attracts big, movie-loving crowds at Moscow’s Gorizont Theater.

It is always a pleasure for me to attend events featuring American artists at Russian cultural institutions, whether or not the Embassy is involved. The Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts and the Calder Foundation in New York recently collaborated on the first-ever retrospective in Russia featuring the works of the great American artist Alexander Calder. And Moscow’s exciting new Garage Museum of Contemporary Art opened with a fascinating exhibit about the American National Exhibition [held in Moscow’s Sokolniki Park in 1959 – RBTH].

Over the years, culture has played a remarkable role in our nation’s overall diplomacy with Russia – in particular, when the political dialogue is difficult. In the Cold War era, some of the most memorable moments of U.S.-Soviet communications occurred at cultural events. Van Cliburn’s stunning performance at the Tchaikovsky Competition made headlines worldwide in 1958.

The following year, Vice President Richard Nixon and Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev held impromptu “kitchen debates” at the American National Exhibition. And Russian music lovers packed the Moscow Conservatory in 1986 to witness the return of the great Russian-born pianist, Vladimir Horowitz. This month, young American pianists have performed well in the latest Tchaikovsky Piano Competition – 57 years after Van Cliburn’s triumph.

The United States and Russia share a long history, having maintained an official relationship for more than 200 years. That relationship has at times been turbulent – as it has been in the past year – but Americans and Russians set aside such debates when they have the opportunity to enjoy the best in one another’s culture.

Mary Ellen Koenig is Cultural Attaché to the U.S. Embassy in Moscow.

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