About 17,000 people, mostly farmers, live in Achit, a village in the Ural mountains roughly 1,000 miles east of Moscow.
About the only form of entertainment available there in modern times has been television. But this year, Achit gained its own virtual concert hall, where, free of charge, villagers can enjoy live broadcasts of concerts by the Ural Philharmonic Orchestra in Yekaterinburg.
Achit’s is one of 20 virtual concert halls the Sverdlovsk Philharmonic, the orchestra's parent organization, began developing in 2009 in small towns and villages, bringing the music closer to some of the most deprived people in the Sverdlovsk region. Some venues are in hospitals, including psychiatric and neurological clinics; some are in retirement homes. But most of the concerts are broadcast to specially equipped rooms in regional libraries or in so-called houses of culture, the state-run arts centers.
“At first, it didn’t look all that exciting – just like a basic TV set – but it turned out to be a wonderful thing,” Vera Usanina, an Achit resident who regularly attends the concerts, say of the large computer monitor on which 50 or so people can watch live-streamed performances.
Some of the broadcast centers are as far as 300 miles from Yekaterinburg. The smallest village to benefit has fewer than 800 residents.
“In some of the villages the venues can accommodate no more than 30 people, but these concerts are vital for them,” says Alexander Kolotursky, director of the Sverdlovsk Philharmonic, which organized 263 broadcasts last year.
“We take time to get ready, we dress up, we make up, and we feel as though we’re in a real concert hall,” says Lyubov Ladygina, a pharmacist who lives in Achit and belongs to the local philharmonic society.
Kolotursky said the philharmonic’s management and musicians were moved to expand their activities across the region when they realized how isolated its poverty-stricken denizens were feeling. He said many of those who attend the broadcasts live too far from any cultural center to ever see a live concert.
“What really holds a state together is its cultural diversity and preserved cultural heritage,” Kolotursky says. “There is no state policy that involves theaters and museums taking part in government-sponsored tours across Russia. People crave this. The current situation is shameful and dangerous because it leaves most people deprived of the arts in a country that possesses an immense cultural legacy.”
Vladimir Medinsky, Russia’s culture minister, wants to change the role of his department from sponsor to strategist. Without offering specifics, he has pledged to create a legal framework that would make it attractive for businesses to become patrons of the arts. Medinsky has also said he is working on a proposal to exempt Russia’s state-funded arts and culture institutions from income tax and land tax.
The Sverdlovsk Philharmonic appears to be about the only orchestral entity in the country that feels it owes something to people far beyond its home city. In addition to the remote broadcasts, it regularly dispatches quartets, trios, and other small ensembles to perform in small towns. These visits often include charitable performances in orphanages and hospitals.
The philharmonic is a pioneer of this kind of volunteer work in Russia. These activities have become an integral part of its performing life, but they get scant media or public attention.
Meanwhile, Moscow and St. Petersburg engage in a perennial debate over which is the country’s true “cultural capital.” The better, more sensitive question is, what does a city do to deserve such an exalted status?
Surely, a city need not be huge to count as a cultural capital. Think of smaller European burgs like Germany’s Bayreuth and Austria’s Salzburg, which hold world-renowned classical music events.
A credible definition was once advanced by Valery Gergiev, artistic director of the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg and founder of the International Stars of the White Nights festival. He said that to deserve the title “cultural capital,” a city must first of all make the arts accessible to all residents. World-class cultural events abound in Moscow and St. Petersburg, but most people can’t afford to attend them.
Under Gergiev’s definition, the title might well go to Yekaterinburg. No other Russian city can boast a regular series of arts events held year round that are available to thousands of its poorest and most deprived.
And if Yekaterinburg has competition, it comes not from the country’s big cities in the west, but from Kazan in central Russia. For the past three years Kazan’s Tatar State Opera and Ballet Theater has run a joint project with a local helicopter company that allows thousands of pensioners in Tatarstan to see shows free of charge each summer.
The solutions developed in Yekaterinburg and Kazan to bring culture to the people do not cost vast sums. But they make a huge difference to thousands of people every year, and they put Moscow and St. Petersburg to shame.
Russia’s two largest cities have had a comfortable time living off their priceless artistic heritage. But surely now is the time to strip them of their grandiose claims to be the cultural capital. From the viewpoint of ordinary people, the city that really deserves that title right now is obviously Yekaterinburg, with Kazan a close second.