by Leonard J. Lehrman
MY WIFE Helene Williams and I were in Russia and Belarus twice this past year, June 8 to July 7 and October 27 to November 7, visiting museums, attending plays and operas, giving concerts, making recordings, taking thousands of photographs, and speaking and performing at the November 6 commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the liquidation of the Bobruisk Ghetto, in which 10,000 Jews were killed by the Germans, including fifteen of my mother’s mother’s relatives.
On a number of occasions, most notably at a synagogue in Minsk, the Music Conservatory in St. Petersburg, and both the U.S. Embassy’s American Center and the University for the Humanities in Moscow, we had a chance to hear what folks over there were thinking, and fearing, about the United States.
Russian appreciation of American culture includes a historical acquaintance with composers like Ives, Copland, Cowell, and Cage; a vague awareness of minimalists like Riley, Glass and Adams; and a thorough knowledge of (including dissertations on) Bob Dylan. Pre-Cold War efforts towards Russian-American friendship on the part of figures like Ilya Ehrenburg, Marc Blitzstein, Elie Siegmeister, Ned Rorem, and Leonard Bernstein are almost unknown, or even considered suspect, as having been too comfortable with Stalinism. One need not have been a Stalinist, of course, to have strived for Russian-American friendship and cooperation, but those who did so in 1945 (as, for example, the American-Soviet Medical Society or the American-Soviet Music Society) were stigmatized by the U.S. mainstream in the 1950s, and then, sad to say, by many Russians in the post-Soviet period as well, up to the present.
PAUL ROBESON is remembered — as is his friend, the great actor/director and head of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, Solomon Mikhoels. My mentioning that my mother had been Mikhoels’ first U.S. interpreter, in Boston and throughout New England, in 1943, elicited the most explosively positive responses imaginable. And an initially frosty response to a Russian-American friendship theme for our November 2 concert at Moscow’s Scriabin Museum melted into a warm welcome as colleagues dubbed us “carriers of culture” that “transcended politics” (see speech by Museum Director Vladimir Dobrovolsky, in Russian, with English translation).
The press release that our pianist colleague, Pavel Shatskiy at the Scriabin Museum, sent his superior at the Department of Culture about us, and our concerts on the theme of Russian-American friendship, was peremptorily rejected with the words: “Friendship? No! They’re our enemies! They have missiles!” The initial thought had been to invite folks from the U.S. embassy, where we performed November 1, to the Museum for our concert there on November 2. But that had to be jettisoned in this context.
Pavel phoned us in a panic and said he would have to rewrite the press release (which we had written and sent him in English and in Russian, as per his request) entirely, emphasizing our contribution to the dissemination of Russian culture, which was fine with us. In fact, that is how our interviewer at Russia TV Channel One, the most nationalistic and chauvinistic (also the most watched) of all the Russian TV channels, managed to get her segment about us on the air, after months of efforts, after the English-language premiere of Dargomyzhsky’s “Rusalka.” She emphasized that my mother had been what she called a “propagandist” (which is actually a positive term in Russian) for Russian culture. The woman was thrilled when her editors/censors finally passed the segment for airing.
SO WHAT DID WE think of Clinton and Trump, the young people all wanted to know. To them, Trump appeared to be a cartoon character, a businessman no more corrupt than their own recent leaders, especially Boris Yeltsin and various oligarchs. At the Novodevichy Cemetery, we heard a guide at Yeltsin’s grave say (in Russian; I translate): “It is a Russian tradition not to speak ill of the dead. But at the end of his life, Boris Yeltsin asked the Russian people to forgive his many errors.”
What about Clinton? “We are terrified,” said a young man at the Minsk synagogue, “that you will consider us in Belarus a ‘failed state,’ and do what you and NATO did in Bosnia, under Clinton. That is the last thing we need.” (The Russian expression is: “Like a dog needs a fifth leg.”) A discussion in Bobruisk with the German ambassador confirmed this: “These people, unlike so many others in this region, are at peace with all their neighbors. Heaven forbid that that change. There is an image problem here.”
Assessing what influence the Russians may have had on our recent election, it is important to remember their perspective: It was the U.S. that sent an expeditionary force to try to reverse the Bolshevik Revolution (100 years ago next fall). It was American money that propped up the drunken Yeltsin against his electoral opponents. And it is the West’s sanctions that are blamed for the halving of salaries in nearly all of Russia this past year. (Theaters are full, but the best restaurants are nearly empty, and taxis are very cheap -– for foreigners.) So how does it feel now, with the shoe on the other foot, so to speak? Russian hacking is alleged to have helped lead us to one-party rule, for better or, much more likely, for worse.
Recalling the Kennedy-Nixon election of 1960, one remembers how the allegedly more liberal Democrat threw the more conservative Republican off balance by complaining about a “missile gap” with Russia, thus attacking him from the right. Trump’s apparent warming toward Russia seems to have had a similar effect on the socially more progressive Democrats, by attacking them from the left — although whether Russia today can be considered “left” is of course more than a bit problematic.
Leonard Lehrman has been contributing articles to Jewish Currents since 1981. He is the composer of more than 200 works, including eleven operas and six musicals. Click here to view his YouTube videos.