Stalin’s ghost appeared to me last night in the form of an old-time soviet-style patriotic performance of music, dance and song at the Philharmonic hall in Baku. I now know exactly how Russian troops would have been entertained during a rare period of rest between battles with Hitler’s troops during the Great Patriotic War of 1941-45.
Our friend Aileen had bought us tickets to see what we all assumed would be a performance of folk music and dance from the Astrakhan region of Russia but what we were presented with was an eye watering, jaw dropping homage to Stalinist Russia. We attended the concert with another friend Emily, who comes from South Carolina. At the end of the performance, she left the hall stunned as if hit over the head with a hammer and sickle.
We knew we were in for a strange evening when the band of a dozen musicians trooped on to the stage in replica Second World War uniforms. Heavy olive-green high-buttoned tunics, and trousers, adorned with scarlet epaulettes.
The company of three-dozen very talented singers and dancers treated us to a performance of connected tableau representing the men-folk going off to war, heartrending songs about loved ones far away, the camaraderie of being soldiers together, humorous songs about the he bad food produced by the cook and the bad temper of the platoon leader. Homage in dance to the Soviet navy and another to the air force, another to the women fighting alongside the men, the sorrow of a woman receiving the news that her husband had been killed in battle and the finale. A heart-rending tribute in song to the dead soldier culminating with his steel helmet [complete with red star] being brought on to stage with pathos and great ceremony, bedecked with red carnations….
Click the link to see exactly the sort of thing we saw last night: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5WpYWpN0VXU
The costumes throughout were magnificent, the singing of the highest professional standard and the dance [according to Aileen] of far better quality than you would find at the Baku ballet. The stage direction was amazing, the complex entrances and exits executed to perfection. The audience was ecstatic, cheering the songs they knew, which seemed like every one and at the end of the show every person in the hall rose to their feet and applauded as if their lives depended on it. What though had we actually seen? Don’t forget that twenty years ago Azerbaijan threw off the yoke of Communism after which many of the Russians living in the country were expelled or left of their own accord. In the dying days of the Soviet Union, troops were sent in to quell unrest in Baku and over one hundred civilian protesters were killed. The city is still going through its own de-sovietisation by tearing down the old Soviet office and apartment blocks and replacing them with buildings more Azeri in style.
Towards the end of the show, Aileen joked, “all we need now is for Uncle Joe to come on stage” and she was right. I asked Emily how this performance would have gone down in her hometown… “Not at all well” was her answer. I bet! This morning I am none the wiser but astounded that this late in the day, I have again time travelled into a past that I thought was accessible by watching old Soviet movies and newsreels. Bizarre!