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Best of the Year That Was
2009 was a year to remember, and for most of us it was because of the crisis. A lot else happened this year, and Vladimir Kozlov recounts some of the most memorable occasions on the cultural front.
By Vladimir Kozlov

The never-ending Bolshoi remont

ne of the most expensive government- funded projects in the cultural domain, the renovation of the country’s main theatre, Moscow’s Bolshoi, is behind schedule, and the government stepped in last summer in an attempt to speed up the process. The theatre’s main building was closed for renovation in 2005 and was originally expected to be reopened in March 2008. Later, the completion date was set back to November 2009, and then to 2011. The project is costing 11.7 billion roubles ($390 million). Meanwhile, a governmental commission formed in the summer of 2009 to oversee the project, found evidence of unjustifiably raising costs, replaced the main contractor and raised the number of workers on the site in a bid to meet the 2011 deadline.

Eurovision finals in Moscow

If you remember in the still-heady days of May, the Russian capital for the first time hosted the final of the Eurovision Song Contest, thanks to singer Dima Bilan’s victory the previous year. The Moscow final is likely to go down in history as the most grandiose and expensive Eurovision show ever. The exact budget was never disclosed but Russian media mentioned a bill of Euro 24 million. Even Eurovision officials admitted that the next country to host the contest’s final is set to have trouble trying to match the Moscow show. Meanwhile, the event stirred controversy a few months before it was held when Georgia’s entry, Stefane & 3G, pulled out due to a dispute over the line “We Don’t Wanna Put In” in the lyrics of its contest song, which some people interpreted as an intended pun on the last name of Russia’s Prime Minister.

Moscow Biennale

The 3rd Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art was held in September in the aftermath of the global economic downturn. However, the event seemed to be little affected by the crisis. Still, it lost some of the projects that were originally going to be put on display. French artist Bertrand Lavier’s project, “Afternoon”, didn’t make it to Moscow, reportedly due to the lack of a venue that would be high-profile enough for an artist with previous exhibitions at the Pompidou Centre and the Tate Gallery. Another exhibition, “Event Horizon”, by British sculptor Antony Gormley, was also cancelled.

Spat over control of the Film-makers’ Union

While the future of state funding for domestic films, a crucial issue in the cinema industry, remained uncertain, members of the Russian Film-makers’ Union, a successor to the Soviet professional association, kept fighting for control. Director Nikita Mikhalkov was elected chairman at an extraordinary congress in late March, thereby cancelling the results of a previous vote three months earlier, which had made Marlen Khutsiyev the Union’s head. The Union members who sided with Khutsiyev threatened court action, but nothing came of it. Observers said that the feud was primarily about the Union’s lucrative real estate, though most Union members who are in their sixties and seventies, were more concerned about the meagre size of their pensions.

Rock band Mumiy Trol’s North American tour

Very few Russian rock acts have been able to get exposure, much less prominence, in the West. So the news that the band Mumiy Trol was embarking on a two-month tour of the United States and Canada in October and November 2009, was important for the domestic music industry. Organized by the well-known Agency Group, which has managed tours by artists like Gogol Bordello, King Crimson, Muse, My Chemical Romance, The White Stripes and The Hives, the tour included about 50 dates. Most were in places where Russian immigrants traditionally live, such as Brighton Beach. Founded by singer/songwriter Ilya Lagutenko in 1983, Mumiy Trol is one of the leaders of the domestic independent scene and recently made attempts to conquer Western audiences as well. In early 2009, the band played several dates in North America, and released its first international album, “Comrade Ambassador”, last April.

Author Vasily Aksyonov dies

Novelist Vasily Aksyonov, one of the most prominent writers of the so called Shestidesyatniki generation (“the 1960s generation”), died in Moscow on July 6, 2009. In January 2008, he suffered a stroke while driving his car and never recovered the power of speech. Aksyonov came to the limelight in the 1960s and was primarily associated with the literature of the “meltdown” period, which allowed some young Soviet people to express ideas that to some extent defied Communist ideology. In 1980, as ideological pressure was stepped up, Aksyonov was forced to emigrate to the United States. In the last few years, he has divided his time between France and Moscow. He is primarily known in the West as the author of The Burn and Generations of Winter.

Shows of the skinhead movie Rossiya’88 cancelled

The year’s most controversial movie in Russia was certainly “Rossiya 88” (“Russia 88”) by first-time feature director, Pavel Bardin. It was selected for the Berlin International Film Festival last February, but had a hard time finding audiences at home. The film chronicles daily life of several Moscow skinheads, using homemade video, and the title refers to the name of the St. Petersburgbased skinhead gang, Shults 88. The producers’ attempts to get permission for an official release in Russia failed, while the film’s premiere shows, including one at the Cinephantom film discussion club in early June, were cancelled due to requests from anonymous “representatives of authorities.” What exactly turned the authorities against the film remains unclear. What is even more worrying is that film censorship seems to be back after a twenty-year absence.

Pop diva Alla Pugacheva promised to call it quits

Alla Pugachyova, one of the country’s best known singers in the 1970s and 1980s, turned 60 last April. She said she was going to terminate her singing career after an anniversary tour running through the end of this year. She gave her state of health as the main reason for her decision, saying that after surgery, her voice no longer allowed her to perform the way she wanted to. Reports about the pop diva’s alleged plans to retire have been circulating in the media for several years. Many would like to see her go with dignity and would not like to see this as being yet another publicity stunt aimed to promote the singer’s tour.

Plans to tear down the Central House of Artists stir controversy, future uncertain

In a situation when Moscow’s architectural heritage is being destroyed building by building, block by block, plans to demolish the Central Artists’ House (TsDKh) on Krymski Val, revealed early in the year, caused a great stir in the architectural community. Even though the building itself, dating back to Soviet times, seems to be of little architectural merit, it houses numerous art galleries. Some people are concerned that if it were to be torn down, much less room would be given to art in whatever is to be built on its site. However, the plans were put on hold later due to uncertainty about funding.

St. Petersburg’s show of Madonna takes place despite obstacles

Madonna played her second-ever Russian show on Palace Square in St. Petersburg on August 2, despite rumours that city authorities might ban the show or move it to another venue because that one was too close to the historic Hermitage art museum. It was thought that the sound system might harm the building. Eventually, the promoters were able to allay the authorities’ fears. For years, Madonna refused to perform in Russia, and her first show in the country took place only in September 2006 at Moscow’s Luzhniky stadium.

Oleg Yankovsky dies

For Russians over the age of about forty, the death of Oleg Yankovsky was the cause of considerable grief, making the death of Michael Jackson look insignificant in comparison – thank goodness. Oleg died in May shortly after filming Tsar, in which he co-starred with Peter Mamonov. Oleg Yankovsky came to fame in Soviet times, however his popularity as an actor able to play complex personalities with great strength, lives on.

2010: What To Expect?

In the music industry, the year’s biggest events is going to be the first-ever Russian show by the Irish rock band U2, scheduled to be held at Moscow’s Luzhniki stadium on August 25. The fact that U2, which Russian producers were for years unable to bring to the country, is now coming to Russia, testifies to the fact that the Russian capital is at last becoming a regular destination for toplevel touring artists, just like any other major city of the world.

Meanwhile, several high-profile Russian movies are expected to premiere in 2010, including “Generation P,” a long awaited screen version of Victor Pelevin’s bestselling novel, Nikita Mikhalkov’s sequel to his Oscar-winning 1994 movie “Burnt By The Sun,” and “Chyornaya Molniya” (“Black Lightning”) produced by Timur Bekmambetov, Russia’s most successful export to Hollywood.

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