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"What does interstate mean?" said Tatsyana Petrovna.
"Interstate is a four or more lane highway, usually two lanes going one way and two another, with the lanes separated by a divider and exits every so many kilometers. I'm not sure if there is have anything quite like that in Russia."
"What's a hamlet?" said Larissa Yegorova.
"An unincorporated village - a village that doesn't have a village government."
"What's a community?" said Ludmilla Matveevna.
"That depends on the context, please read the sentence to me."
Ludmilla, Larissa and Tatsyana are all members of the East Siberian Academy of Culture who, along with Bairma Tsebdenova and department chair Galina Alexsandrovna, were madly translating a keynote speech, The Role of the Arts in Rural Environment, I was to give the following morning at a conference sponsored by the Academy and, this year, part of their 45th anniversary celebration. The copy had been delivered several months before, but it was only that day that the administration realized they never had it translated to guarantee a stylistically correct version for Ludmilla to present along with my speech. In addition, I had been given thirty minutes, meaning I had to cut my remarks to less than fifteen to allow time for Ludmilla to give the Russian version. They sat packed together each with section translated away, checking dictionaries and each other, peppering me with questions, while I worked a cutting my remarks by at least a third.
The Academy's 45th anniversary began with a street celebration dedicated to the first year class. They, divided into academic sections, were wildly waving pompoms, leaping about and charging up a huge set of steps to a wide platform in front of a nearby movie theatre where they tried to outdo each other in dance routines that would do a half-time Superbowl proud. A brass band heralded each new act to the enthusiastic cheers of Academy community and local bystanders. After the last act, which included a couple performers from other Ulan Ude academies and universities, and all opening remarks had been given, all formed into a huge noisy parade and marched around a small park, down the wide sidewalk and past the Academy finishing by forming a huge circle on a giant patio. There invited guests (notable graduates and other national arts leaders) gave class cards to the first year students and all were then royally entertained by the upper class members of the dance department who specialized in folk dance. About ten dances representing so many regional cultures, some traditional and others contemporarily rendered that would hold up well on Broadway, exploded about the circle each seamlessly flowing into the other culminating in a huge balloon launch and fireworks display.
"Do American universities do such things?" said Olga Kuznetsova, VP and Dean of Academics.
"This is over the top," I said. "I've never seen a 45th celebration like this. I can only image what the 50th will be like. No, our colleges don't do anything like this."
"Of course we are an arts school, so that does give us certain advantages," said Olga.
Thinking of the previous evening's back-to-back performances, first a ninety-minute showcase of Russian folk dance followed by a two hour performance of Russian military songs through the ages by the academy's Yakut Theatre ensemble, a highly polished and gripping series of acts that often had the standing room audience on their feet, singing along or applauding wildly; two events polished enough to tour; to say the Academy was an arts school was an understatement. It was clear that a six-day a week five-year program that went from September one through June clearly resulted in highly trained performers with last years graduating dance ensemble so good the city of Olmsk built a theatre just to lure them to teach and perform there.
Following the street celebration, a luncheon, press conference and opening of a new museum dedicated to the Academy's first forty-five years, students, faculty and friends herded in vans, private cars and the tramway to Buryatia Opera and Ballet Theatre located off the city's center square for a mind-numbing series of speeches and tributes by government and civic notables along with distinguished guests each presenting bequests of flowers, paintings, and other gifts including a poem (read) and a slight reprieve from one presenter who, playing the guitar, sang his. In the be careful what you complain about, I heard my name called and unexpectedly found myself on stage waxing forth, in less than two minutes I'm pleased to add (including translation). This met with great applause I think more to its brevity than content. Fortunately I was sequestered during the performance amongst the Foreign Studies faculty who were still busily translating away and was easily able to snatch a person both skilled at public speaking and making me sound better than I no doubt was.
"How do you do such things in America?" said Olga two hours into the accolades with seemingly no end in sight.
"Wherever possible we write the speeches for them, keep them short, and start playing music if they go to long - and try to cut down on the number of people, not always successfully," I said.
"We Russians are used to such things. The people have come from a long distance and want to give their praises publicly, especially in front of their colleagues. How can you deny them? But I think the following performance will make up for any frustrations you may feel."
It did. Possibly equal in duration, the Academy's dance, music and theatre departments threw out the stops. The depth, range and quality was remarkable. Several orchestras performed, one featuring traditional Buryat instruments, another with Russian stringed instruments and a rousing big band whipping out Benny Goodman tunes and other classics had people in the aisles. The dance ranged from ballet to ballroom to funk with a large range based on traditional dance, much not seen in the concerts before. Opera arias to cabaret to rap to folk laced the evening together. Traditional songstress and national favorite Badma Khanda was one of several guest artists who added luster. The performance was topped off with a rousing fireworks display over Soviet Square, before the first year students swarmed off to a disco and faculty, administration and invited guests to a lavish feast at the academy that included the Buryat Minister of Culture at the head table. The entertainment continued non-stop drawing again upon the depth of student and guest talents including a popular pop-disco star with a pompadour equal to any of Elvis Priestley's. The magicians and acrobats added some spectacles that cut through and captured people's attentions.
It was now nearing one A.M. and going on eight hours since the opening speech at the Ballet and Opera Theatre, guests had taken over the dance floor, vodka and champagne was still being served, and I had to meet Ludmilla early in the morning to run through our presentation scheduled at 10:00.
"I think you may still find some of them here dancing when you return," said Olga over the din.
"As to your earlier question, about whether American college celebrations are like this," I said.
"Not even close."
The Academy, chartered as the Federal State Educational Establishment of Higher Professional Education East Siberian State Academy of Culture and Arts, better know as the East Siberian Academy of Culture in Ulan Ude, turned forty-five on September 20, 2005 (established by Order No. 1008 of the Ministry Council of the USSR). The Academy was the first of its kind in outside of Moscow and St Petersburg leading the government's effort to provide highly trained cultural specialists and educators, in regions like East Siberia, to help run the many cultural institutions being built, conduct research, provide professional training and further expand the growth of the arts.
The success of the Academy helped spawn similar institutions drawing off some of its pool of applicants, resulting in increased competition for students in the post Soviet era. During the early years through the 80's, culture received strong government support, support that often came with strings attached to promote or reflect political dogma, yet within that much flourished. Today government support, financial and value, has dropped dramatically; indeed in the early 90's economic challenges left many teachers in Russia without any pay from six months to two years and the current pay scale is still so low that many, if not most, take on other jobs to help support their passion, selves and families.
Further the Academy, as are institutions of higher learning across Russia, is confronting pressure to go along with European and other nations to shift their system of a five-year degree to the four-year undergraduate, masters and doctoral degree structure as a means of creating a unified system to facilitate greater collaborations and shared standards. Colleges here say that many employers resist such changes (why should they take a graduate with only four years training when the norm has been five resulting in higher trained personnel). Some say that the first year is often used to bring up high school students to basic standards and thus if any change is to be made it should be on the high school level, and others point out that many high school graduates enter university at or above international standards and that the six-day a week, five-year course of study results in students with the equivalent of a masters, indeed to graduate requires a thesis far more rigorous than U.S. bachelor students must attain - that it is the American program that needs shaping up. Pragmatists point to their eleven-year elementary program compared to twelve in the west and say that Russia will support the changes by adding one year to high school, and reducing undergraduate studies by a year. Even so great differences currently remain as the Russian college student course load is at least fifty percent greater than their American counterparts, sometimes twice that.
As this debate goes on the Academy is graduating stellar professionals into an environment with fewer opportunities for work, especially internationally as Russian students lag behind their European counterparts in command of business English, a result of the lack exposure to English classes in their formative years under Communism, Yeltsen and the reforming government. Economic, social and infrastructure challenges in Russia are daunting. Funding to the republics and regions is uneven and often insufficient to meet many basic needs. Pay scales are low while the super rich get richer. Further, when government support for the arts is reduced, there exists no tradition and little, if any, private, foundation or corporate funding to pick up the slack.
Thus the Academy, ably lead by its fourth rector, Raisa Ivanovna Pshenichnikova, is challenged on multiple fronts not the least of which is a facility with insufficient classroom space to handle its current load and the cost of upgrading its facilities. Large are the questions of how to build audiences, government, private and business support for the arts, and how to create career opportunities for the highly trained performing arts students and arts managers. A big asset is the number of graduates who now work in positions of arts leadership throughout Russia including, perhaps most importantly, in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Pshenichlova sees part of the solution as establishing educational partnerships with other institutions, with the Academy providing arts, arts administration, and arts specialist training, and developing collaborative partnerships with them and other agencies to increase government support for the arts. It's a daunting task. Her goal is to move beyond discussions of problems and potential solutions to action. The Academy sees its graduates, such as those involved in the traditional arts, as a vital means of building communication and understanding, keeping alive Russia's rich cultural tradition, and helping leaders make more humanistic choices.
A second important asset is Russian's love of singing. A meal is rarely considered complete without those gathered sharing songs. People of all backgrounds love to sing (and play musical instruments) during and after meals, most especially at celebratory events including weddings, parties, birthdays, and picnics. American culture, through films, television programs and video games, is invasive, time consuming and diminishing participation in such rituals by younger people; a threat that many arts professionals feel keenly. Would Americans stand for their television shows all being dubbed programming from Russia or China one asked.
The challenge is to harness the deep connection and passion Russians have for their cultural heritage, while seeking a place for the arts that helps society meet its most pressing challenges; challenges where the arts can make a difference such as engaging teenage youth (reducing hooliganism), increasing tourism, creating jobs, and building community. Attendees at a recent conference hoisted by the Academy spoke of the need to: encourage the new rich and business to invest in cultural institutions; capture the support of government leaders - indeed identify national champions for the arts; and to organize. And to act. In the forefront of this planning is the Academy of Culture, not based in Moscow, but in far away Ulan Ude. Here they see their location at the gateway to China and in a Republic with great cultural diversity, their connection to the environment, most especially Lake Baikal, and their dedicated faculty, alumni and students as great resources on which to build a future not only for themselves, but their city, republic and country.
2005 North Country Public Radio, St. Lawrence University, Canton, New York 13617-1475