Spirited administrator adds jolt of pizazz to Russian House of Culture

April 09, 1995|By Will Englund | Will Englund,Moscow Bureau of The Sun

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia -- Alla Matveyeva takes such delight in her own enthusiasms (and she has a bushelful of them) that her life seems to be a constant forward tumble, which leaves her colleagues at the House of Culture for Communications Workers rolling their eyes in exasperation.

There was a time when a House of Culture in this part of the world was a serious and sober institution, dedicated to the artistic and musical uplift of the proletariat.

And now here comes Mrs. Matveyeva talking about psychic therapy and yoga and reaching out to children of drug addicts -- and then there's that monkey.

She had a pet monkey and had to go all the way to Pskov, 160 miles away, to find a mate for it. A monkey! In a House of Culture!

"Her name was Vyega," sighs Mrs. Matveyeva. "But everybody knows it's too humid in Leningrad for a monkey. She wasn't happy here. I had to send her away to another family."

She is sitting in her office -- a blazingly blue-green room plastered with pictures of Vyega and several dozen other pets -- and takes a moment to reflect sadly on the inhospitable humidity of this former imperial capital.

But no time for that. Mrs. Matveyeva didn't become a great-grandmother at the age of 57, and chief administrator of the House of Culture for Communications Workers, by worrying about what's past. She's an onward, headlong sort of person.

She picks up her considerable bulk, and heads for the stairs. "Can you believe that when I was 40 I weighed just 85 pounds?" she asks. "Of course, that was before I started playing organized ice hockey."

She skips down the stairs like a schoolgirl, her clean white tennis shoes dancing on the scuffed treads. This particular House of Culture is in a big gloomy building, a former Protestant church, and the corridors snake this way and that, up and down staircases and around corners.

Mrs. Matveyeva bursts in on the choral practice.

"Can you sing for us?" she asks.

"No, it would bother us," replies the tense and sweaty director, Kirill Shitenkov.

"Just one song?"

"We don't sing to order."

"Just a piece of one?"

"Well, I don't know how we can," he growls.

Nonetheless, the choral members, all of whom are postal and telephone workers, manage to belt out a dozen or so measures before she is shooed out of the room.

"Oh, he's unhappy because he doesn't get paid very much," whispers Mrs. Matveyeva.

Much later in the evening, Mr. Shitenkov, who clearly is a serious musician and just as clearly has suffered as Russia turns away from the old Soviet subsidies for the arts, visits the kitchen to apologize.

"A kitchen is a kitchen, and guests don't belong there," he says -- that is, the time to hear the chorus sing is at a performance, not a rehearsal. But it is evident that what he sees as Mrs. Matveyeva's tom-foolery is behind his irritation.

Mr. Shitenkov's life has been devoted to the beauty of classical music, and now he has to compete for space with -- hairdressing classes!

Not only that, but rock bands, ballroom dancing sessions, transcendental meditation exercises, foreign language tutoring. The place is a madhouse.

But the sad fact is that most of the traditional houses of culture across Russia -- sponsored in the past by state trade unions or other humorless organizations -- have shut down, or vastly curtailed their programs, or turned themselves into auto showrooms.

Mrs. Matveyeva figures that the way to keep the communications workers of St. Petersburg in a state of continuing culture is to keep the pot stirring. All these outside activities not only bring people into the building -- about 5,000 a month -- but pay fees for the space.

All this takes a lot of energy, naturally. Mrs. Matveyeva says she works from before 7 a.m. until midnight. But then again she isn't frittering away her time sky-diving, as she used to.

She was born just before World War II, and lived through the 900-day siege of Leningrad. Her five older brothers, she says, all died during the siege -- and apparently she inherited the energy of all five.

"I am a lion and a tiger at the same time," she says, smoothing her brazenly dark-rooted blond hair.

When she was 16 she married a composer and went on to a career as a figure-skating coach until she started working at the House of Culture in 1980.

She was lame from a broken leg (ice hockey) until she took up "meditative running." Every day she pours a bucket of cold water over herself.

"I turn off my brain when there is something negative," she says, summing up her philosophy. "There's no use crying over something bad when you can't do anything about it and would be better off working instead.

"Russians need to think about themselves more, to go to church more -- I'm a believer -- and get up early in the morning in a good mood, thinking first of all that you should help people, and after that look after yourself."

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