29 January 2009

Home town news

Congratulations to the New Humanitarian Institute's design faculty dean Tatiana Nikolaevna Vilde on the occasion of the opening of her beautiful exhibition at the Paustovsky Central Library in Elektrostal last Thursday. Several Institute people were among the crowd at the opening, along with other local artists and art lovers, the local press, and representatives of the artists fellowship of neighboring Noginsk.

The exhibit was named "Changes." Tatiana explained that, for her, this series of paintings marked a change in genre, in format, and in technique. With one exception, there are no people or human artifacts in these paintings--unusual for Tatiana, who often paints scenes in cities and towns. As fellow Elektrostal artist Alexander Poroshin (shown with Tatiana in photo at right, below) pointed out, even the pictures without humans or animals seem full of energy and activity.
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While we've been here in Prague, Elektrostal's home-town newspaper Novosti Nedeli published an interview with me by reporter Yuri Lunin:

Sometimes I think: what would compel me to leave Russia and to spend at least a few years in a foreign country? Certain political reasons?--In my case, it is hardly possible. An interest in travel?--But in six months, I think, this traveler would be longing to be back in Russia. Love for the culture of a foreign country?--No, our own culture is plenty rich enough. Finally, the notorious financial problems?--But that is too trivial a reason to exchange one's homeland for an exile existence.

A conversation with Johan Maurer has helped me understand this complex question. Johan is a man who has voluntarily chosen «exile» in Russia--or more precisely, in your home town and mine.


A rich geography, it seems, marked Johan from birth. His parents were a Norwegian and German, who met at university in Chicago. Johan's mother tongue (in which he thinks) is English. Nevertheless, we chatted in Russian. Our hero was born in Oslo. In this city he would also like to conclude his time on earth. The great Norwegian Grieg is one of his favorite composers.

Johan has a warm musical memory associated with Electrostal--a festive evening in the Paustovsky Library, where he heard the music of Grieg performed by violinist Murad Abuev, People's Artist of Daghestan. "So," says Johan, "I asked myself, can this be?—I'm here in a Russian city, listening to the music of a Norwegian composer being performed by a Dagestan violinist..."
Journalists Tatiana
Kuzikova and
Yuri Lunin

Johan has lived in the U.S., Canada, England, Germany, Norway, and finally, in Russia, and now he feels that music blurs borders, and all the lands in which he has traveled extensively seem like one great motherland. Maybe becoming a citizen of the world and getting rid of man-made frames and borders helped Johan overcome grief in his life. His sister became friends with a black girl.... His mother, a German, was brought up in the years of Hitler's racist terror, and despite the fact that she was an educated woman, she did not approve of this friendship. A serious parting of the ways developed between mother and daughter. The daughter ran away from home and was murdered on a Chicago street. "I felt a huge pain at that time. But thanks to this pain I came to realize a purpose for my life: I want, whenever possible, to the limits of my abilities, to promote peace between people."


Johan is a genuine romantic--and a romantic is above all someone whose soul can catch fire from a high and wonderful idea and turn away without regret from the usual pattern of life. While still in school, he read Dostoevsky's «Crime and Punishment»--and immediately fell in love with Russia, captivated by the dream to visit the country. "I then read all the novels of your great writer. His ideas about history, about God, the soul, and human relationships became so close to me that I realized: only a great country could give the world such a unique thinker." Johan began to study the Russian language. "Your language is also surprising to me. Its flexibility, its rich possibilities reflect the richness of the Russian mind."

In 1975, at age 22, Johan received an inheritance from his grandparents and first came to Russia. This visit was only a few weeks, to see Moscow and Leningrad, but the idea of permanent residence in Russia was born.

In the nineties, a friend of Johan's told him about the young city of Elektrostal near Moscow. She lived with us for several years and with great warmth commented on our people, and the city's cozy atmosphere. In 1994, Johan first came to our city. "I understand that Elektrostal is not as rich in historical roots as Suzdal, Novgorod and Vladimir, but any city is first and foremost about people. I'm very comfortable among the Russian people, among Elektrostal citizens, and I am glad that I can be useful to them."

Today, Johan is in Sergei Kazantsev's New Humanitarian Institute, teaching American studies and conversational English. The students love their teacher very much.


Since I myself am not exactly new in Russia, and I know that life here is not always 100% positive, I asked Johan whether he hasn't sometimes encountered rudeness, ignorance, or some disenchanting experience. Johan said: "I understand your question. One of my Russian friends expressed a worry: 'You appear to be maybe a bit too open.' (Your «Novosti Nedeli» correspondent assures you that this is indeed the case.) Still, I have not had bad experiences here. [At the time of the interview, I completely forgot to mention the taxi driver who almost ran me over in an alley and drove off without checking whether I was hurt! I ended up with just bruises and a damaged camera.] I expect good things from people right from the start, and this expectation hasn't deceived me yet. Maybe this way of looking at people helps me."

Of course, it was interesting to find out what Johan believes are, so to speak, the essential, unique qualities of Russian people. "First of all—the ability to put aside trivial things in favor of the most important. Russian people, in any situation, think about the main thing, the essence." Johan noted another quality, which made me smile: "Russians are inclined to put things off as long as possible, but when there they are up against the deadline, they can mobilize. Then they can get done quickly what others might have taken weeks and months to do. And, most importantly, they can do it well."

"I also like the optimism of Russian people. I love when they say: "No problem" or "It's all fine." To me, these are very important phrases, and I myself use them often.

By the way, Johan is not living alone in Russia. With him is his wife. "I am pleased that my wife has been touched by the same love for your country as I experienced. There are problems with language, but live communication is the best textbook."...

Perhaps, just as we get used to our own apartments with the passage of time, we also get used to our city, and to our country. This may all seem very ordinary to us, but together it comprises our uniqueness, our originality. This is why Johan's words about Russia and Elektrostal inspired in me a certain pride—a feeling I hope the reader shares with me.

Righteous links: A Gaza parent's agony. ~~ 60 Minutes on Palestine. ~~ 60 Minutes on our former home town of Wilmington, Ohio. ~~ Where we are now. ~~ Hope and prayer in Haifa. ~~ Cambridge, Boston, Worcester, Massachusetts; Haverford, Pennsylvania; Dublin, Ireland; San Antonio and Houston, Texas; Greensboro, North Carolina... will Margaret Benefiel (The Soul of a Leader) be visiting near you? ~~ Why Christians should love dolphins!

A break from pure blues this week in favor of soul. The lyrics are pure co-dependence, but this song nevertheless remains one of my favorites. I used the movie it came from, Standing In The Shadows of Motown, in several recent classes at the Institute in Elektrostal, with subtitles switched on because dialogue and song lyrics all have such rich material for English instruction. In the film, the Funk Brothers and Meshell Ndegeocello perform the song in the old "Hitsville USA" Motown studio in Detroit.

Interestingly for my students, the late Funk Brothers keyboardist Joe Hunter, speaking in the film, credits Sergei Rachmaninoff as one of two major influences on him, along with Art Tatum.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

What a nice article about you in your local newspaper, and how gratifying it must be to see the positive effect you're having on the lives you're touching in Russia. It'll be interesting to read about the Russian theology student you mentioned, if you decide to write about him in your blog.