russia blog

Days 1 & 2 (April 11-12)
Flying over St. Petersburg International Airport, we can see that the weather is not warm and sunny like London only three hours earlier, as there is a powdering of snow on the bare fields below. The first surprise on landing is that we rotate 180° to taxi back up the runway instead of turning off after slowing. Another point of interest is the signage on two buildings in both Russian and English that say "Leningrad" on one and "St. Petersburg" on the other. So the old Soviet name of the city persists in some places.

Nearly first through passport and customs controls, I see my daughter, Andrea, immediately on entering the old airport building. She sheds a few tears as we hug, and we are both happy to be together for the first time since September. The Union of Composers has sent her with a car and driver to meet me, a thoughtful and helpful gesture on their part as she lives some distance from the airport, a distance we traverse in what seems like record time—through potholed streets and intersections without working stoplights. But on the way, we drive past the Hermitage, glorious in early evening light, a rich consolation for the hair-raising taxi ride. 

Her apartment is on the 7th floor of a drab grey building amongst many similar ones.  There is a 3-digit security code at the entrance and uncarpeted concrete floors inside with stairs and a small elevator.  The lights in the hallway are on a timer but frequently don’t work as people steal the bulbs so the entry is dark and a bit frightening.  The apartment is small with a tiny bathroom and kitchen and a living-dining room filled with technical books belonging to her landlord.  The rent is $20 per month, considered high at the time.


Passage Department Store

Passage Interior

Andrea & Elizabeth

The Composers' Union

Composers' Union Hall

Day 3 (Tuesday, April 13)
After a leisurely breakfast, we leave Mushka, the cat, and visit a couple of markets.  People bring their own containers if they want honey or cottage cheese and bring extra paper or bags for wrapping meat.  We see potatoes, eggs, meat and milk and cans of vegetables, fruit, juices and jams.  The state stores are dark and very basic, some containing shoes and other clothing as well as food.

Heading into the city center by the efficient subway, we browse in Passage, a large department store where there are many household and personal items that look to be of poor quality but seem plentiful.  I can’t see why there is talk of shortages, but apparently there are particular items that are hard to find.  We try on fur hats that cost the equivalent of about $60, a small fortune in roubles.  The exchange rate is about 750 roubles to the dollar in April, 1993 (51 to 1 in 2015) and was 250-300 to 1 as recently as October, 1992.

On our way to Passage we look in on a gallery where Larissa, a student of Andrea’s works.  In fact, she and her husband founded the gallery and say it is the only one in St, Petersburg showing contemporary local artists.  We have tea with Larissa and her husband (who speaks no English).  They offer to drive us around St. P. and also invite us to visit her parents in Novgorad, about 3-4 hours by train.  After buying two silk scarves at the gallery, we walk to the Russian Museum, which turns out to be closed, and then to several department stores.

We have a pleasant Russian dinner of caviar, smoked salmon and sturgeon, pickled beets and carrots, cucumbers, and fried sturgeon with vegetables before heading to the Composers’ Union for our first concert in the famous St. Petersburg Spring Music Festival.

The concert is music and dance performed by Richard Cameron-Wolfe (whom I met at the Ives Center in Connecticut in August of 1992 and who helped facilitate my trip) and his wife, Meg.  First is Bacchanale for prepared piano by John Cage.  Gamelan influences are evident in the piece as are elements that presage minimalism.  Meg dances to taped music by Machaut in the small space available.  The program continues to alternate piano music and dance, next with  Dane Rudhyar’s dramatic and dissonant Tetragram #3, Rebirth, played beautifully by Richard who had been his student.  Meg’s second dance is her most amusing, full of personality and a bit flip with music by J. Hawkins called “If You Don’t Want Me, I’m Yours.” Richard follows this with his own Aetherwind, a scherzo based on ragtime tunes from Ives' first piano sonata, then Meg in a dance called Wallflower, and finally Rachmaninof's Moment Musicaux with Meg and Richard both.

The St. Petersburg Union of Composers: "This esteemed music organization is housed in a 19th century mansion at 45 Bolshaya Morskaya. There are over 200 members of the union, comprised of composers and musicologists who are elected to the union after a closed vote by members. Dmitri Shostakovich was a member and also its chairman from 1946-1947. The walls of the house are covered with portraits of St. Petersburg's famous composers and small display cases commemorate the union's performances over the years. Practice rooms are available to members as is a library and guest rooms. The union sponsors many music festivals of all genres, including a children's festival, and recitals and lectures are often held in its small wood paneled hall. The union has its own publishing house, Kompozitor, which publishes books, classical and teaching scores, academic papers and works by contemporary composers, including Sergei Slominsky."


Smolny Cathedral

St. Isaac's Cathedral

Millionnay Street

The Hermitage - Pavillion

The Hermitage

The Throne Room

Day 4 (Wednesday, April 14)
Today we rush off to the composers’ hotel, where most foreign visitors to the festival are housed, to meet a tour of the city organized by the ever-helpful Composers’ Union.  There are two vans and we happen to join one with an Israeli contingent led by Menachem Zur and his wife, a violinist and his wife, and another composer.  They have come with their own translator, Tatiana, who works at the film institute and who is an excellent guide.  Tatiana expresses deep disillusionment with her government, past and present, in response to the Israelis’ many questions.

The whirlwind tour hits the highlights: Smolny Cathedral and nunnery, past St. Isaac’s Cathedral and Dostoevsky’s house, many palaces now offices, a place called “Millionaire’s Street,” and finally a few hours in the Hermitage.  Since there are 1,000 rooms, we see only a few, mostly for the architecture and not for the contents, including the Little Throne Room, the White Room, the Malachite Room, and others having columns covered in gold leaf and sporting magnificent chandeliers and other furnishings such as mosaic paintings. 

Andrea and her friend Sergei go elsewhere during our tour and meet us at the Composer’s Union for the 3 pm reception full of speeches, champagne and caviar.  Sergei Slonimsky, nephew of Nicholas Slonimsky (author of the delightful Dictionary of Musical Invective), is at the event and offers us tickets to his opera on Friday.  We avoid another composer who is noticeably drunk and obnoxious as the reception thins.  We also meet a Dutch composer who talks about women’s music programs on radio in Amsterdam, 100 to date.

The evening concert, again at the Composers’ Union, is all women’s music performed by musicians from Germany:  an eloquent sonata for cello and piano by Elena Firsova, a set of virtuoso piano variations by Ilse Fromm-Michaels, Siegrid Ernst’s evocative piece for piano with two performers (one playing the keyboard and the other using mallets on the strings), three short and rather simple pieces for cello and piano by Nadia Boulanger, and Rebecca Clarke’s stirring viola sonata transcribed for cello.

Another champagne reception follows the concert and then, finally, a rehearsal with Victor Vysotsky, the composer/pianist playing my Fantasy.  He is very good and I am delighted.  Andrea and I finally go home to play with her kitty and have tea before collapsing into bed.


Russian Museum

Mother & Child

St. George

Anna Akhmatova


Concert Hall

Friends & Andrea

Day 5 (Thursdqy, April 15)
Today Andrea and Sergei take me to the Russian Museum to see some of its 6,000 wonderful icons, beautiful costumes, folk art, potraits of Glazunov, Anton Rubinstein, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Akhmatova (an especially wonderful painting in blues and greens with cubist elements), plus a special exhibition of the contemporary Austrian surrealist painter, Ernst Fuchs.

We browse on Nevsky Prospekt and have the misfortune to enter Melodiya to look at records.  My wallet with credit cards and about $50 is deftly lifted, quite a shock.  We immediate cancel the credit card, meeting the Visa representative at the Hotel Europa.  Later I call Jack to have him notify Visa in the U.S. and AT&T about my calling card.

My daughter's friend, Sergei, helps us buy train tickets to Moscow, but I am a little nervous after the tales told by the Israelis yesterday of an attempted forced entry into their sleeping compartment.  Anyway, we plan to leave Saturday night at 11 pm, arriving the next morning for the performance of my cello piece, Sonaria.  Then Sergei takes us to a very nice café which he describes as affordable only to businessmen and racketeers.  I eat borsht (delicious) and pelmenyi (little dumplings filled with spicy meat).  After eating, we wander in Alexander Nevsky Cemetery where we see the graves of Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Cesar Cui, Dostoevsky and other luminaries.  The ground is bare and trampled but some of the grave markers are interesting and elaborate.

My concert, originally scheduled for the 16th, is at the Composers’ Union and goes fairly well.  Victor seems nervous but communicates the piece quite successfully.  Andrea translates for me so that I can give oral program notes before the performance. Her Russian host family is there as well as Larissa and her camcorder-carrying husband.  Also a friend of Armen’s arrives as does Slonimsky whose student has a piece being performed.  The program is: my Fantasy, Sokolov’s cello sonata, Rezetdinov’s muscular piano quintet (this is Slonimsky’s student), Prigozhin’s String Quintet #7 played by the St. Petersburg Quartet of the Philharmonia (an excellent group and good piece by the drunk from yesterday), Schonberg songs, two of Berg’s early songs, and a sonatina for two cellos by Anselen.  Interesting, but under-rehearsed.


Peter Paul Fortress

Peter Paul Fortress

Mikhailovsky Theater

Mikhailovsky Interior

Sergei Slonimsky

Day 6 (Friday, April 16)
After sleeping in and having breakfast, we meet Sergei at the Peter Paul Fortress and walk through the military museum, coin collection, cathedral, and the prison where the Decembrists were incarcerated (Trotsky and others).  For son Scott we buy a T-shirt with the golden arch and Lenin saying “McLenin.”  Sergei is a bit offended and I realize we are being rather flip about Russia's tumultuous past.

We continue the day with a visit to Andrea’s student, Emma.  She is a cardiologist but was hit by a car and hasn’t worked since January.  We talk over tea and cakes about politics, Solzhenitsyn, the future of the country, her German origins, and her growing up in the Urals after being sent north during the war.  Her husband is an actor but was out.

At 6:30 we meet Sergei Slonimsky at the Mussorgsky theater to see his opera, Mary Stuart.  Along with the Israelis and a few others, we meet the director and the librettist and are ushered to our box, first tier and directly center which is so prominent that we think it may have been the czar's box.  The production is fairly lavish and is in the repertory of the company but seems somewhat simplistic and even embarrassing at times, while at other times it is quite interesting, having folk elements and archaic sounds that Menachen Zur considers a patchwork and rather sad because there is real craft.  Tatiana and Andrea translate for us and Tatiana gives me a letter for a friend in New Jersey.

After saying goodbye and heading for the metro, a well-dressed young man darts out of nowhere and grabs Andrea’s bag.  She screams until he gives up and runs off.  She is very shaken so we go to the Hotel Europa nearby and the guard and hostess are very solicitous.  The guard runs with me to the alley and we see two policemen but they have seen nothing.  Some British people in the tearoom are kind and we have some tea and go home.  I want Andrea to go home with me to Massachusetts but manage to resist the impulse to insist.

Day 7 (Saturday, April 17)
A lazy day.  Andrea makes blini for breakfast and we clean and tidy the apartment.  Then we take Mushka (the kitten) to friend Rachel’s and have a nice visit, deliver the coffee her mother sent with me, and return to receive a call saying that my Sonaria performance in Moscow is cancelled because of the cellist’s illness. I am disappointed although we are a little relieved not to have to make the trip.

Sergei arrives for a champagne dinner and then the two go to hear a reggae band while I relax and telephone home.

A point of interest is that Rachel pays $130/month for her apartment in hard currency while the place actually costs the Russian owner only 57 roubles, mere pennies with about 750 roubles to the dollar!


St. Isaac's Cathedral



Mariinsky Theater (Kirov)


Romeo & Juliet

Day 8 (Sunday, April 18)
Today is the Russian Easter.  I breakfast on leftover blini and oranges and tea while reading the guidebook which I had no time for earlier in the week.  The handsome and newly renovated church near the Russian Museum that we so admired with its brightly colored onion domes is called the Church of the Resurrection and was built on the site where Alexander II was assassinated in 1881.  It is on a canal, one of many in this city called the Venice of the north, and is near the center of activity on Nevsky Prospekt.

We decide to attend services at St. Isaac’s Cathedral since I haven’t seen the interior that is said to be spectacular (which it is).  We arrive as the service begins at 5 pm.  There are two lines of priests in rich and colorful garments facing each other.  There are no chairs, so we stand near the sanctuary and shortly a fine male choir begins to sing a capella.  The sanctuary is separated from the rest by an iconostasis or icon screen, floor to ceiling, with icons of mosaics and 10 malachite columns.  The congregation is somewhat sparse and stands like us throughout.  TV cameras record the proceedings and there is chanting, incense, and congregational responses.  “Christ is Risen” is apparently a traditional Easter greeting.

After some time, we leave for a café for dinner:  wonderful mushroom soup (black wild mushrooms and sour cream) and shashlik.  Then we walk to the Mariinsky Theater (the Kirov in Soviet times) where we buy scalper’s tickets for the 8th row orchestra for about $7.50 (considered outrageous) and see Romeo and Juliet, beautifully danced and produced by the Mariinsky/Kirov Ballet in the exquisite theater.  A memorable experience.

Although I worry now about safety on our outings, we have an uneventful trip home.  Andrea is wearing a money belt; I wear no jewelry, dark inconspicuous clothes, and carry no hand or shoulder bag, only a plastic sack.  Perhaps I am learning, but this aspect of St. Petersburg life isn’t much fun.


Laquered Box

Matryoshka Dolls

Russian Shawls

Shostakovich Philharmonic Hall


Day 9 (Monday, April 20)
After deciding to go to Moscow after all, we buy new train tickets through Intourist instead of waiting in line, hoping for one of the safer trains.  Shopping afterwards:  brightly painted bowls and plates, some handsomely decorated lacquered boxes, and scarves. 

After dinner we set off for Shostakovich Philharmonic Hall.  The program begins with Tashkent composer Lucian Prizozhin’s Tragic Poem, a premiere.  The piece is well-crafted and  well-conceived, building from an ominous start to some full brass and a surprising solo violin ending.  Program notes indicate the subject is the August 1991 coup attempt and the feelings of the composer and the country at the time.  Second is Rachmaninoff’s first piano concerto with a Korean soloist.  Third is Bennady Banshchikov’s Symphony in two movements (1986).  The piece has a rumbling percussive beginning with low cello and much brass, gong and bass drum.  Sometimes the piece seems predictable but it is interesting.  Last is Ravel’s La Valse.  The conductor is impressive, a self-possessed young Ukrainian woman, Victoria Zhadiko, who was a winner of the Tchaikovsky competition.


The Hermitage

Jordan Staircase

Matisse Dancers

Rembrandt Flora

Staff House

Day 10 (Tuesday, April 21)
Today, the Hermitage!  First we head to the Composers’ Union to deliver a copy of my Sonaria for cello to Christine LaCosta, a Swiss cellist who performed on the same concert as my Fantasy

This time we arrive at the Hermitage to see paintings, not just architecture.  There are many Impressionists: a room of Gaugins, another of Van Gogh, Cezanne, Monet and Seurat.  Then we enter several rooms of Picassos, some familiar from art books, and a wonderful series of cut-outs by Matisse, and then, after a long walk, have a good look at the Rembrandt room that includes Saskia as Flora and many others such as The Descent from the Cross.

For lunch we try the Literary Café feasting on blini with honey and tea paid for in dollars.  The place is prettily decorated with white tablecloths and waiters in uniform.  There is a cover charge because of the music—violin and piano, mostly Schubert, in an adjacent room.  I notice that at concerts someone usually announces the name and composer of each piece and wonder if that is because there is a charge for programs.

An aside:  the money situation here seems so strange.  There are many hard currency restaurants, presumably because of unchecked inflation. But the Metro costs only 5 roubles (less than a cent);  Russians pay 50 roubles (about 6 cents) to see the Hermitage while foreigners pay 5,000 (still only $7); that very same amount of 5,000 roubles buys an excellent dinner for three; and Andrea’s apartment costs $20/month.  Of course, this high inflation is devastating to the people.

Dinner this evening is at the apartment of Yevgenya and Dell.  She teaches English, primarily to scientists, and is leaving for the U.S, to stay with our friends, the Hobbies on the Cape and to teach there for three months.  He is a physicist and has not been allowed to travel since a conference in Yugoslavia in the 1970s.

We eat well:  homemade pickled crudités and calamari, then hot meat blini, with homemade quince jam for dessert with tea.  She is fascinating—silent about her origins but open about the longtime skepticism of the intelligentsia about the old regime.  We talk about the April 25 Referendum:  1) Yes or no to Yeltsin, 2) yes or no to the economic situation, 3) yes or no to Yeltsin’s handling of same, and 4) yes or no to the conservative old-guard-but-elected parliament.

Everyone seems to give grudging support to Yeltsin for now, but many pensioners and others actually long for the old regime because of a better economy. Composers, for example, who used to have decent support for travel and publication, must now look for other means.

Day 11 (Wednesday, April 22)
Having decided to go to Moscow despite the cancelled performance, we prepare for our trip, leaving on the overnight train for Moscow at 11:30 pm.  Much to our relief, our four-bed compartment companions are two American females.


Moscow Train

St. Basil's

Kremlin Gates

Lenin's Tomb

Gum Department Store

Gum Interior

Day 12 (Thursday, April 23)
Arriving in Moscow train station with a powdering of snow on the ground, we are met by composer Armen Shakbagyan whom I had met during my first residency at the Charles Ives Center in Connecticut.  Armen guides us to the apartment near the Kremlin of his friend, Alex Lutsky where we have breakfast of Turkish coffee, the oranges we brought with us, sweet rolls made by Alex’s mother, and bread.  Then we go one stop on the Metro to Red Square where Armen leaves us, and we begin exploring St, Basil’s Cathedra (built in 560 under Ivan the Terrible)l, GUM department store, the cemetery of heroes, and Lenin’s tomb.  The tomb has an eerie atmosphere— careful security, guards everywhere, and silent crowds that make one wonder what they are thinking of this wax-doll figure of Lenin after all the recent political changes.

Lunch is at the Composers’ House in Moscow where we are joined by Armen and also by Meg and Richard Cameron-Wolfe.  (The meal is cucumbers and onions, breaded veal patties, noodle soup, bread and sweet tea.)   Afterwards, we walk along the Kremlin wall, read an English-language Moscow paper in the sunshine of a park, and go off to a concert at the cultural center.  The person who was supposed to meet us never showed up, but we manage to find the center on our own.  The program is a bit of a fiasco.  The 5 pm children’s concert at this supposedly important place is rather boring and silly; the 6:30 program is much better, featuring the Wolfes, Michael Coleman, and Jerry Seig (all from the Ives Center in August of 1992) but is not at the level of the St. Petersburg Composers’ Union concert so I am not disappointed my piece was cancelled.  The reunion at the reception with our friends from the Ives Center is fun and we afterwards we return with our host, Alex, to his place for our last night in Moscow.


Moscow Metro

The Kremlin


Church of the Annunciation

Bolshoi Theater

Bolshoi Interior

Day 13 (Friday, April 24)
The ordeal of buying return train tickets is our first priority and we book again through Intourist, hoping for one of the “safer” trains, remembering our Israeli friends’ scare.  For some peculiar reason, there is a $4 charge for me, but the tickets are only 3,000 roubles (about $4) for both of us in a 2nd class sleeping compartment.

Next stop is the big open flea market (the Izmayolovsky Market) where there are many black market goods and where we buy some souvenirs including a curious chess set, scarves, and matryoshka nesting dolls painted like current political figures.  Then we return to the Composers’ House for lunch and to pick up tickets to the Bolshoi Ballet, compliments of Armen’s daughter.

After several hours exploring the Kremlin, mostly in Cathedral Square where we are able to see the Archangel Michael Cathedral and the Cathedral of the Annunciation, both with wonderful frescoes, icons, and iconostases.  Unfortunately, we are unable to visit the special Faberge exhibit.

Back with Alex we have a quick supper and give him some small gifts and he gives me an organ piece of his and plays some film music called Apocalypse that he has written, synthesized music with narration.  The music is very effective—simple but not simple-minded.  Our tickets turn out to be quite poor, standing room only and on the side, fourth tier, nor is the ballet very interesting and worse yet, the music is corny.  Still, we have now been to the Bolshoi!

From the theater we find our way to the train station and are disappointed not to see Armen as we have champagne for him.  Settling into our compartment, we meet a Russian man and woman who seem very friendly.  He brings us tea and leaves so we are just three females.  The compartment is hot and it is hard to sleep, but I do love to see the birch forests and the small rural villages as we speed along.

Day 14 (Saturday, April 25)
Arriving at 7:30 am in St. Petersburg, Andrea zips onto the subway, leaving me behind.  After a few minutes of panic on my part (since I can barely read the subway signs), she returns to find me and all is well.    We return to her apartment to sleep and then clean since she must move in a few days.

We decide that ballet is on the agenda and buy tickets from yet another scalper ($16 for two this time) to the Nutcracker at the Mali Theater instead of Giselle at the Kirov.  It is an interesting production with some wonderful dancing but a so-so orchestra.

We shop afterwards for some delicious Russian bread, cucumbers, little boiled wonton dumplings, fruit and sweet tea.  We watch a little TV as it is the day before the referendum.


Day 15 (Sunday, April 26)
Although I awaken with a cold in full bloom and little voice, we take the subway to the end of one line and are met by Larissa and Sascha (age 3) for the trip to Pushkin.  The roads are full of potholes and nothing looks very prosperous.  Pushkin is a refreshing break from the city with its birch forests, streams, and the ponds at the Catherine palace which is still being refurbished after extensive war damage when it was occupied by the Germans.  Our tickets are 40 times the 100 rouble fee for natives, though given the terrible economy this does not seem unfair, especially since the cost is still only about $5.  The restored parts are splendid:  the Great Hall, dining rooms, and part of the Amber Room.

Returning to St. Petersburg, I pack for my trip to London and home.

Day 16 (Monday, April 27)
Although the trip home is uneventful, I am forced to pay a $20 fine at the security checkpoint for not having a stamp in my passport showing registration at a police station.  The guard smirks and it seems likely that he is pocketing this “fee,” in yet another example of corruption in Russian everyday life.