- Opera and Obsolescence in the Russian Culture Wars
Vladimir Sorokin's scandalous novel Blue Fat (1999) presents several unforgettable episodes, including one about a performance of Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin at the Bolshoi, attended by the novel's hero and his girlfriend. An abundance of detail inches its way under the skin of many a reader who has shared such experiences: the bright lights, standing between the columns, waiting in agitation—will she come? Finally she arrives, beautifully dressed; they kiss and then mingle with the crowd, pursued by the last-minute ticket hunters. The seats are ideal, the auditorium darkens, and the overture begins. There's Olga's aria, Tatyana's letter scene, then the interval, champagne, throngs of people known and unknown, all gathered with mounting excitement. Oh, and did I forget?—Stalin is among the delighted operagoers. Sorokin spins out his climax thus: "The opera is flying forward, flying in a single breath—performers, orchestra, sets, lighting—everything brought together in seamless harmony, everything intoxicating and enthralling beyond measure. We clap unselfconsciously, like schoolchildren, and then a heavy German word stirs up in my memory: Gesamtkunstwerk."1 Any reader will recognize the scene in outline, and for Russian opera lovers it will be familiar in every detail, perhaps from lived experience or perhaps from collective memory, the stories of parents and grandparents, and from old black-and-white footage seen on Soviet television.
Yet among all these happy details, something is amiss—disturbingly amiss. The hero and his girlfriend have donned diving suits and weighted boots, but they do not look out of place, because the rest of the audience and even the performers have done likewise. An explanation is at hand: the theater has been flooded with murky water, the water—alas—of the Moscow sewage system. The Bolshoi has, in short, become the principal reservoir of the city's sewage system. No matter. The singers perform heroically under difficult conditions—under twenty meters of water, to be precise—and the audience, equally heroic, tries to catch a glimpse of their favorite singers through the floating excrement. Readers will be relieved to hear that there are compensations: some members of the [End Page 73] audience avail themselves of contraptions that allow them to drink unpolluted champagne. And not the ubiquitous, middle-brow Sovetskoye shampanskoye, but a noble, imported Pommery.
The grotesque, absurdist humor of the passage is obvious enough, but Sorokin's achievement is considerably more impressive: the passage simultaneously exudes a poignant beauty. The imagery of sewage, moreover, has a source in Soviet-era lore: citizens would often complain that they were living in shit, while taking pride in the fact that this encouraged them to ennoble and enchant their mental lives. The Pommery, though, is an image drawn from the post-Soviet present, when a layer of Russian society has been able to flaunt its access to consumer luxuries from the West. This is no oversight, for Sorokin habitually jumbles cultural symbols of the Soviet and post-Soviet eras. Sometimes he projects the present into the past: for example, when he presents us with a puzzled Stalin ruminating over the figures showing that Muscovites preferred Bugatti automobiles to Soviet makes. Ultimately, his novel inhabits a rubbish heap of anachronistic cultural symbols seen through the lens of a dystopian future.
But although Sorokin plays with anachronism, he is hardly oblivious to history: on the contrary, he expects his readers to be able to assign each item from the rubbish heap to its proper historical location. Only on that basis can they go on to judge what motivated the anachronisms in the first place. What, then, is the historical location of the Eugene Onegin production described in the novel? The fictional performance takes place in 1954, in a Soviet Union where Stalin is still alive (actually he died in 1953). Russian opera goers would recognize from this date that Sorokin is picturing the classic Soviet production that began life in 1944 and that can be seen to this very day. It is one of several enduring Bolshoi productions from the high and late Stalinist periods: in addition to Onegin (1944, staged by...