Wylie’s Russia Essay
Wylie and the Wild West and poet Paul Zarzyski arrived in Russia after a 24 hour travel day on March 22nd. The first show was in St. Petersburg at an old theater in the heart of downtown that sat 250 patrons. It was a sold out show (3 of the 4 shows were sell outs) and the audience was obviously starved for live American music. Paul’s poetry was also received with hardy applause. We did two encores and it was a wonderful start to the tour. I sold 30 CDs and from what I was told, that was a record for CD sales at that venue. There is not a lot of spare money in Russia for luxury items such as CDs. Even the ticket price for our show ($20 US) was a huge outlay for most of the folks. Photos of the show are at Geometria.ru.
St. Petersburg was a great opening for the tour and really set a good tone for what was to come. Arkhangelsk and Kazan were bar/restaurant type venues with dance floors. We found that the Russians love to dance! It was very rewarding to see the Russians cut loose and enjoy themselves. Again, they didn’t have the opportunity to see many (if any) American dance bands so they were very animated and appreciative.
Our mid-tour US Embassy show was one of the highlights of our trip as we performed to 300 guests including a wide range of diplomats, ambassadors and civilians. The venue was the Spaso House ( US Ambassador residence) which is a place of much history. Michael McFaul is Obama’s fresh hand appointed ambassador to Russia and he was very gracious and accomodating to us on our arrival to his residence. We really wanted to put on a good show there for the Ambassador and his wife (Donna) and were rewarded with an extremely active dance floor and lots of smiling faces for the entire evening. Michael and Donna were the first to fill their dance cards!
Our last show was in Nizhniy Novgorod and was a newly remodeled theater in a historical district of the city. Another sold out show and a great ending to our tour.
At the beginning of the tour we spent 3 days in St. Petersburg and on 2 of the days we went sightseeing at the Hermitage (Catherine the Great’s museum with one of the world’s greatest art collections) and the Russian Museum of Art. Both astounding places with wonderful collections of world class art. We were lucky to have a wonderful Russian tour manager who made sure that we had the opportunity to discover a little bit of her country.
The food in Russia was not much to talk about. I kept looking for good beef in the restaurants but good beef is very scarce in Russia . The main meat selection is pork and chicken. We did find one hotel restaurant that sold hamburgers but the meat was obviously not very fresh. I couldn’t find any Montanan Stevenson Ranch Angus! So mostly I stuck to breads and dairy (two of their specialties).
It was really an honor to be a musical ambassador. Music indeed is a universal language and folks seemed to understand what we were all about. I did a few radio interviews and the interviewers were very curious about our country in general, and secondly “the cowboy”. My impression was that the Russians have a favorable attitude towards America . They were very interested to see what my preconceptions of their country were (where were all the dancing bears and vodka?). I think they see glimpses of our culture through TV programs, etc. There were overdubbed American TV shows on the television there.
Paul and I visited a university in Arkhanglesk where we answered questions to a classroom of students. The exchange there was an eye opener for me. The building where the classes were held was quite a step below anything in America . It was hard for me to find a chair to sit on that wasn’t missing parts. The lights were shut off in the daytime, I assume to save electricity. The students we spoke to represented the English language class so we had the opportunity to speak to them. I felt honored to be among students who were trying to further their education and opportunities in life. For some reason they were very shy about asking questions but Paul and I eventually created a bit of a discourse with the students. They were very curious about the cowboy and our music.
My impression was that the new capitalism in Russia is taking a while to really grab hold. The Russian folks are wonderful people but individual achievement is still not able to be fully recognized and rewarded. There seemed to be a latent and lasting demeanor from it’s decades of being communistic.
Needless to say I was very happy to get back home to the good old USA . Our trip to Russia was a lesson in humility. I felt blessed to be back in a country with access to cheap and fresh food, a functional and efficient infrastructure, a great education system and a truly representative government. Things that most of us take for granted.