Russian Artists Comment on America’s “911”

On December 2, 2001, The New York Times ran a fascinating article highlighting four prominent representatives of Russian theater. The article, written by Lawrence Sacharow, included excerpts from an animated conversation among these four artists on the state of Russian theater today. Sacharow also wrote two complementary articles to this lead piece: one reported on two newly designed arts facilities in Moscow, and the other captured the reactions of these four Russians to the attacks on September 11. While all three articles were stimulating, I was particularly moved by the third piece and the artists’ poignant responses to America’s great tragedy. Following are excerpts from this article.

VALERY FOKIN, a prominent Russian director.
When I learned about the attacks on America, I stopped the rehearsal that was going on and went straight to my office to watch CNN. Slowly, the room filled with the rest of the staff. It seemed like life had stopped. The pain of the American people was felt by all of us. For a long time no one spoke. The silence was pierced by the English words coming from the television.

I have not been able to stop thinking about what has happened. But I refuse to believe that the new century will end up as the century of terror. We must do everything possible to prevent a reign of terror.

ALEKSANDR KALYAGIN, a leading stage and film actor.
I have to admit that my thoughts were with my daughter, who lives in New York City. She had just given birth to her son and I know how she likes to take him out for walks. I was thinking with horror that she might have been near ground zero at the moment of the attack.

Parents separated from their children by great distances are often tortured by not being able to know what is going on. This uncertainty is the most lethal weapon of terror. The fear of the unknown and constant threats of being attacked take a great toll on one’s mind.

People’s thinking is the real target of the terrorists. They are against everyone, and their main goal is to spread fear. To rise above our fear is to defend our civilization and our culture.

ANATOLY SMELIANSKY, a leading critic and editor of Stanislavsky’s collected works and Dean of the Moscow Art Theater School.
The events of September 11 have changed the way of thinking of many intellectuals in Russia. We are witnessing a decisive shift in world history. The philosophical approach will define the next century. One hundred years after Dostoyevsky wrote Crime and Punishment, we are faced with the same questions: What does it mean, crime? What does it mean, punishment?

I come from a country where we had terrorism as a state policy for 75 years. Terrorism and fanaticism were part of the culture. In the 1930’s, under Stalin, they blew up the great temple of Christ in Moscow. There is a documentary film about the Soviets showing the people’s joy during the blast, just like the pictures on television of people in some countries celebrating the blast of September 11 in New York. For the Soviets, it was not just an act of barbarism, but a cultural act, as they intended to erect the Palace of the Soviets on the site of the destroyed church.

We are now in the most dangerous cultural game of the new century and September 11 is the first sign of what we will get. I am absolutely sure that everything now depends on what kind of answer comes from the only superpower in the world. How will they answer the crime? The quality of that answer will structure the 21st century.

Chekhov, at the end of the 19th century, was opposed to any kind of extremism. He opposed Tolstoy, the great Russian writer, because of his fanaticism. Chekhov, who grew up on the literature of Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, was the first great writer who stopped teaching and preaching. He was the first Russian writer who quoted Socrates, who said, “I know nothing.”

Chekhov’s joke was that everyone who says “I know nothing” has taken a step toward the development of the human race. But even Chekhov, with all his neutrality and wisdom, may not be able to help us. How do we oppose fanaticism, which is a child of the intellectuals? It is a child of culture, because culture has a poison within itself. Terrorism, extremism and fanaticism are not outside but inside of culture. The most important thing we all can do now is rethink culture.

ALEKSANDR GALIN, a major Russian contemporary playwright.
Watching the television coverage, my thoughts were of family and friends. I immediately called New York. The line was busy. It seemed as if the entire city of Moscow was calling the American continent. In truth, the entire world was busy dialing American numbers.

Hundreds of Muscovites came to the United States Embassy and lighted candles. Some carried flowers. The people with tiny candle lights in their hands were the people of the United World. Those who masterminded and executed the terrible crime were hiding in caves. Unable to find their place in the 21st century present, and attracted to the treachery and brute force of the Middle Ages, they had escaped to the medieval past.

Russia, a country known for its long years of suffering, has lost many of its citizens to wars and hunger. Until September 11, America had been the only place in the world where one could live without fear. Historically speaking, America’s childhood ended that day.