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{Published in the Colorado Springs Gazette, 2-5-09}

The dancers fly through the air as if gravity didn’t matter. They move with a grace and agility that does not seem humanly possible. They’re also covered in red leather from head to toe and wearing red gas masks. Guess I only thought I had seen everything.

Moscow is very different from St Petersburg, where I currently live. A city of over ten million people (compared to St Petersburg’s five), it’s what New York would [be] if it had more people and they all spoke Russian.

Although a plane flight is only about an hour and isn’t that much more expensive, I thought I’d try the train.  Trains run all the time between the two cities, with a variety of services and prices. I asked the cashier for a “café” ticket, which got me nothing but a look of scorn. The word I needed was “coupé”, which gets you a place in 4-bed compartment. Hey, at least I knew the word was French.

I boarded the “Yunost” train (“youth”) at Moscovski Vokzal (Moscow station), eight hours from Leningradski Vokzal at the end of the line (stations are named by where their trains go). My coupe-mates Georgi and Yuri were curious about life in the US, whether America was going to collapse as a result of the financial crisis (I said “nyet”), and what I thought of Russian life. We sipped our tea, nibbled on the uninspiring but free lunch, and chatted for a while. Sharing the same space for eight hours definitely creates a bond between strangers.

Still, it’s hard to escape the feelings that come from being a foreigner here. The Russian term is “chuzhoi”, which roughly translates to “alien” or “stranger”. The opposite is “nashe”, which means “ours” or “one of us”. America doesn’t have something similar, we simply say that we’re Americans. We talk about buying American, American culture, American life, and so on. Over here, though, it’s all about buying from “one of us”, “our culture”, “our life”, and so on. I have plenty of Russian friends, but as an American I’ll probably always be “chuzhoi”.

Watching the forests and small towns roll past the window, you get a sense of how impossibly huge this country is. The eight-hour trip southeast to Moscow is less than a tenth of the 4,700 miles you’d need to get to the eastern border. The sense of a vast, unconquered frontier that America no longer has is still very much alive here.

There’s not much point in going to Moscow without seeing something at the Bolshoi, so I set an evening aside to go downtown. A ballet was on the schedule, with a score by the great Russian composer Dimitri Shostakovich, whose symphonies our own Philharmonic plays from time to time. I bought a ticket and went inside.

The Bolt” is a classic example of what happens when the state controls every aspect of life, especially art, and the absurd things artists have to do in order to survive in such a world. Written in the 30’s, during Stalin’s heyday, it takes place in a factory. The villain takes an unauthorized lunch break, gets fired, gets drunk, and decides to place a bolt into the factory’s new machinery as revenge. He manages to put the blame on the hero, until a homeless child turns him in.

Then, because of course this makes perfect artistic sense, the ballet ends in a dream sequence involving the Soviet Army, Navy, and Air Force. Hence the red leather and gas masks. Still, I have to give the Russian government credit. They are trying to honestly portray a difficult part of their history that the country is still trying to come to terms with.

More importantly, despite the absurdities of mixing the oil of art with the water of politics, great art still shines through in works like “The Bolt”. Bolshoi ballet dancers are some of the finest athletes in the world. They make impossibly difficult ballet moves look as easy as walking, and the music alone was worth the price of the ticket. “The Bolt” will never be performed in the West, so I’ll never hear the complete score again. Still, I’ll never forget it.

All in all, a phenomenal evening, with only one disappointment. As I was wandering around downtown before the show, I asked three different people how to get to the Bolshoi.

Sadly, nobody said “practice”.

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