Trouble at the Bolshoi

Another disaster: President Putin intervenes to save crumbling symbol of Russian cultural greatness.

September 03, 2000

THIS SUMMER of calamities can't end soon enough for Russia. First the nuclear submarine catastrophe, then the deadly fire at Moscow's television tower, and now the intervention of President Vladimir Putin to save the Bolshoi theater, symbol of Russian cultural greatness.

The Bolshoi has been in critical condition for years. Many of its brightest stars have fled to jobs abroad. At home, its St. Petersburg arch-rival, the Marinsky, has often provided better ballet and opera. Even the landmark's 144-year-old oak pillars are rotting.

But as the Bolshoi's woes kept growing, its 60-year-old director, Vladimir Vasilyev, chose to ignore them. He even barred art critics from the theater, saying he hoped they would burn in hell. When President Putin this week fired Mr. Vasilyev, he did it so unceremoniously that the former dancer learned of his dismissal on the radio.

Few ballet lovers shed tears for Mr. Vasilyev. But rescuing the Bolshoi will take more than presidential decrees.

Traditionally, the Bolshoi has been under the Kremlin's direct control. Mr. Putin has now put the ministry of culture in charge. The idea is to try to assure the Bolshoi's pre-eminence by letting it showcase Russian opera and ballet, while the Marinsky will concentrate on foreign works.

We could be wrong, but it seems Mr. Putin has come up with a stultifying bureaucratic solution that will do little to return excitement and artistic creativity to the Bolshoi.

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