A Night at the Bolshoi, and meeting the fanaty of the ballet


Russian football fans, the fanaty, are notoriously passionate, unruly and often violent. (Like the Brits, and the Italians, and the…). Now, no one threw any flares, or wielded iron bars, but there was an interesting kinship to be found with them in the audience at the Bolshoi. Let me explain.

Earlier this month, I made my first trip to the ballet, and to see Swan Lake at the Bolshoi, at that. I was expecting the theatre to be sumptuous, and it absolutely was, a dazzlingly imperial palette of red and gold. The staff, in classic Russian style, ran the gamut from friendly and helpful to decidedly neither (not least the cloakroom attendants who snarled us away when we dared approach them, given that we had unaccountably and selfishly failed psychically to divine that their coatracks were full).

The performance was visually stunning, and the sheer physical conditioning of the dancers amazing to someone who, let’s be blunt, had never really devoted much thought to the matter. But I must say–and not to minimise the spectacle of theatre and performance alike–what surprised me the most was the audience.

Largely done up to the nines, as one would expect, but younger than I had anticipated. Lots in their 20s and 30s, and not necessarily groups or couples, but also two or three girls or, sometimes, guys. More to the point, though, was the exuberant enthusiasm and, I presume, expertise they displayed. Accustomed more to restrained Anglo-Saxon audiences, where polite applause between acts is the norm, I was taken aback by the often uproarious applause and calls out, not even just between scenes but in the middle, when a dancer completed presumably some especially difficult move or pulled it off with unwanted aplomb.

Thinking about it, in their genteel and well-dressed way, this felt more like an audience of sports fans at a match. Passionate about the process, well-versed in the players and the game, able to see and appreciate a particularly good kick, throw or move, and not shy about recognising it. The fanaty of the Bolshoi, an unexpected extra find on my first venture into the realms of the ballet.



It’s the Infrastructure, Stupid!

Snow!Yesterday, 12 January, serious snow finally hit Moscow, bringing real winter to what had been an unusually mild season. Suddenly the city is virginal in its snowy gown, but not for long, and the speed with which Moscow returns to normal says something about Russian attitudes to state, society and priorities.

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Dozer blade on the front, rotating on the back. The poor snow doesn’t stand a chance

A citizen of the United Kingdom (where infamously trains have been stopped by “leaves on the line”) and who works for the most part in New York (where even the lightest drizzle sees panicked locals donning rubber boots and scurrying under cover, as if convinced they are water-soluble), I have always been impressed by the efficiency with which Moscow deals with snows that would paralyse London or New York. Men and women are out in all hours shoveling pavements, pushing dangerous accumulations of snow off roofs, and operating a weird and wonderful array of machines, from quotidian mini-earth-movers to mechanical beasts built to shovel snow into their maws or mulch down slush with rotating brushes. Icebreakers ply the Moskva, for heaven’s sake!

The very fact that dozens of flights in and out of the city had to be cancelled itself speaks to the conditions. Other airports may shut down at the lightest icing-sugar dusting of snow, but Sheremetevo and its siblings are typically made of sterner stuff.

Of course, a city which faces a lot of snow would be expected to learn how to cope. It also helps having a reservoir of cheap, hard-working Central Asian guest workers on whom to turn. And, needless to say, Moscow is by Russian standards a very rich city (though London and New York are hardly impoverished by any meaningful standard).

However, I think it also speaks to national and cultural priorities and expectations. In the main, the Russians ‘do’ infrastructure. Sure, the national road system is in a pretty poor way; a 6-hour drive I once went on to and from the Seliger lakes probably represents one of the more dangerous and uncomfortable things I’ve undertaken for a while. But in part that reflects the sheer task of maintaining a little less than a million kilometers of road, especially given often-destructive weather patterns and, in particular, the massive levels of embezzlement in the highway building and maintenance sector.

Separate the problems which relate to legacy (cheap, nasty bridges built in the 1960s and 1970s, for example), to a lack of resources, to corruption, and to scale, and Russia’s record is not at all bad. On an urban level, it is actually pretty impressive. Of course, Moscow has its rightly fabled metro, but generally Russian cities tend to a high level of urban public and private transport, are clean, and when one comes to the intangible infrastructures of internet and cellphone, again the country comes out ahead of many richer Western nations.

By comparison, the United States, a country of phenomenal capacities in so many ways, from technological innovation to philanthropy, has rubbish and expensive cellphone coverage, abysmal city-cleaning standards, and a railway system which can politely be described as an embarrassment. Amtrak trains are comfortable, but woefully slow, and delays abound. Why? Many of the USA’s roads are also of indifferent quality, so even Americans’ (in)famous love for their cars may not be answer.

I suspect that in part it may reflect fundamental assumptions about the role of the state and the importance of collective goods. Infrastructure is, pretty much by definition, a common good, and doing it well tends to involve elevating the collective over the local and the individual. Today’s Russians are hardly Soviets, but they have a more European notion of the importance of the former, while the Russian state is much less bound by legal and other constraints in how it goes about doing its job of governing.

Setting aside the military, the US approach is that as much as possible should be handled as locally as possible, and if it can be on the back of sponsorship and philanthropy, so much the better. Hence, Amtrak: the challenge is not buying faster trains, it’s the fact that upgrading the line is a legislative nightmare, not least because of local interests – and I don’t see Bill Gates looking to sponsor a few hundred miles of railway.

If the US approach is to get out of the way and let locals do it – whether or not they can – then the Russian approach is much more to get the locals out of the way while the state does it. Sometimes that works very well, but it’s also, as is evident, a recipe for massive corruption, inefficiency and political string-pulling (Moscow does so well to a considerable extent as a vampire, sucking the blood out of much of the rest of European Russia).

Still, as the snow continues to fall, I’m happy enough to see the legions of city employees out clearing it as quickly. Usually when people are looking for examples of Russian excellence they look to mythologised determination in war, culture (ballet, Dostoevsky, Tchaikovsky, and so on), or maths, computing and hard sciences. But let’s not forget coping with the snow, building metro systems, and operating fast, excellent, cheap internet, too!

Paroxysms of Patriotism: the Victory Day gallery

I’ve posted some pictures of the preparations for the actual 9 May Victory Day (Den’ pobedy) parade elsewhere, but it is striking the extent to which this is a celebration which still covers the city and its inhabitants with posters, flags, banners and ribbons. In part this can be explained as the mobilisation of past glories for political purpose by the authorities, but that doesn’t explain why people plaster their cars with decals, tie St George’s ribbons to their rucksacks and baby buggies, put flags and posters in their windows and generally get in on the act. This is still a very real, very present event and even while one could sniffily talk about a people who believe their glory days are past rather than ahead of them, here in Moscow it’s hard not actually to be rather impressed by the genuine passions the event arises, which are patriotic but not–at least in my experience–nationalist or xenophobic.