Worshippers in Russian Orthodox church (from
left to right), woman in traditional dress holding
decorated eggs, and Bolshoi dancer.
Writers (below) Pushkin, Dostoyevsky
In the summer of 1967, Frank and I lived on Coronado Island in San
Diego Harbor. His ship was based on the other end of the island, at
North Island Naval Station, and we had a small apartment within
walking distance of beach, yacht club and bay. A short walk inland
past the park took me to the library, where I spent a lot of time that
That was the summer I read Russian novels—those big, thick books
with their big, broad emotions and lists of characters with three names
each that require a long, leisurely time to read and lots of flipping
back and forth just to stay clear on who's who.
I began to wonder if their size and scope weren't somehow related to
the vast vistas of the physical landscape of Russia.
Russian novelists wrote about the big, basic opposites of life—War
and Peace and Crime and Punishment. Dostoevsky became one of
my favorite writers that summer, when through his understanding of
what it means to be human, I became aware for the first time of my
own capacity for even the greatest of sins. Never again were sinners
"those people out there." They had become "these people in here"--
myself and the people I knew.
Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837) was father of the Golden Age of
Russian literature and an influential Romantic poet. The son of a
retired major and the granddaughter of an Ethiopian general, he
became involved with liberal politics and was exiled to the Caucasus
where he wrote poetry and novels. including the verse novel, Eugene
Onegin. He died romantically--of injuries sustained in a duel.
Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821-1881) was a novelist, journalist and
short-story writer and member of a radical group of socialist
thinkers. The author of Crime and Punishment and The Brothers
Karamazov, he influenced modern writers with his psychological
insights and his thoughts about the Christian conflict between body
Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) was the son of a count who tried to run the
family estates and fought in the Crimean War. But he found his real
success as the author of the sprawling epic War and Peace and the
passionate Anna Karenina, which was made into a movie just last
Russia has contributed more than just literature to the culture of the
world. What would Christmas be without Tchaikovsky's
Nutcracker Suite? or Easter without decorated eggs ranging from
traditional painted wood to bejeweled Faberge?
Music is another field where Russians have made their mark in the
world. Composers such as Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky and
Stravinsky have given pleasure as well as insight into the Russian soul.
Peter Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) wrote romantic ballets such as
"Romeo and Juliet," "Swan Lake" and "The Nutcracker." He also
wrote an opera based on Pushkin's Eugene Onegin.
Last year, my husband Frank and I saw the L. A. Opera production
of the story of the country girl, Tatiana; her neighbor, the romantic
Lensky; and his friend, the heartless Onegin. Set against the
backdrop of a Russian country estate in contrast with a rich ball in St.
Petersburg, the plot includes love letters, a European waltz, Russian
folk dancing and a duel.
Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881) wrote heavy, typically Russian
music like "Night on Bald Mountain," which used wild themes to
describe a gathering of witches and demons; the opera "Boris
Godunov"; and "Pictures at an Exhibition." He challenged German
and Italian dominance of music.
Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) helped introduce contemporary music
with such ballets as "The Firebird," based on a Russian folk tale;
"Apollo"; and "The Rite of Spring."
The first Russian ballet company, the Imperial School of Ballet, was
founded in the 1740s in St. Petersburg. The Kirov (now Mariinsky)
and Bolshoi are two current companies that influence dance styles
around the world.
George Balanchine, who founded the New York City Ballet in 1948,
brought Russian ballet--with its strict discipline, fluid lines and athletic
leaps--to the United States. Rudolph Nureyev and Mikhail
Baryshnikov are famous Russian dancers who joined U.S. troupes.
My brother-in-law, Perry Silvey, longtime stage manager for the
NYCB, helped expose me to Russian ballet.
Composers (below) Tchaikovsky,
|Bolshoi ballet performing Tchaikovsky's "Sleeping Beauty."