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Shai Baitel Headshot

The Russian Muses Are Heard (and Seen)

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On May Day, Russia's President Dmitri Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin attended the traditional parade of trade unionists in Moscow, possibly for the last time before they will switch roles. Putin will formally return to the Kremlin later this month and we will see what his renewed presidency will bring politically and economically. In terms of international relations, especially the bilateral relations with the United States, there is certainly much room for improvement.

Russia and the United States both seem to have long lists of grievances, justified or not: from missile shields, the Arab Spring, the Iranian nuclear issue, to the treatment of the new American ambassador. There are many problems. For sure, the was the much-touted 'Reset' but, at least in terms of domestic politics, it contradicts Putin's seeming reliance on anti-American rhetoric to galvanize his base and to satisfy the many influential interest groups that benefit from perceptions of Russia as a being under pressure.

Thankfully, in the United States, at least the perception of Russia among Americans has markedly improved over the years. Scott Clement, a polling analyst, found that "there is a resistance against being too trustful -- fewer than one in five have called Russia an "ally" at any point in time -- but calling Russia America's "number one geopolitical foe" [...] seem[s] anachronistic [...]."

But despite the political differences the bilateral cultural relations between these two important countries should be faring well. Arts and culture are a link, sometimes even a lifeline, between countries, as they remind us of our humanity and instill respect of other cultures. And, all things considered, they do. Russian audiences experience American orchestras and Americans experience Russian ballet. But not all is well, however, at least temporarily.

At issue is a U.S. Federal Court decision, which confirmed claims by New York's Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic movement to the Schneerson Library, an important collection of Jewish religious books, which is owned by Russia. Russia's Foreign Ministry finds this decision wrong and fears blackmail like holding Russian art objects in the United States. All this amounted to a cultural exchange moratorium, which suspended a series of museum exchanges. Both countries are working on the problem but, in the meantime, the American art aficionados are being deprived of seeing and enjoying works of Russian art which normally would have come on exhibition in the United States.

And as is so often the case, there is one courageous, visionary individual who does not accept an untenable situation and decides to act in the face of adversity. Anatoly Bekkerman, owner of the ABA Gallery in New York took the initiative to mount a major show of Russian art despite, and in circumvention of, the cultural moratorium.

For two weeks, New Yorkers will be able to view exceptional examples of important Russian art spanning three centuries, in an exhibition titled "Russian Art from Private Collections: Borovikovsky to Kabakov." Mr. Bekkerman bridges the gap left by the moratorium through a collaborative effort with distinguished private collectors, such as Mikhail Baryshnikov and Vladimir Spivakov. On view will be over ninety works by Russia's greatest 19th- and 20th-century masters, which allow the viewer to realize the great influence of Russia on the arts.

It is gratifying to see how such a private initiative can fill a temporary void and, at the same time, help mend whatever damage politics and legal issues can do to cultural relations. Mr. Bekkerman's mission is simple but important. He states plainly: "Art has the unique power to encourage communication and mutual understanding between our nations." This should also be a motivation and encouragement for both the Russian and American representatives to find an amicable solution and end to the moratorium soon.

An old adage has it as follows: "When the cannons are heard, the muses are silent. When the cannons are silent, the muses are heard." We have to thank Mr. Bekkerman that New Yorkers will be able to view marvelous Russian art pieces despite the firing of the proverbial legal and diplomatic cannons of the cultural moratorium. So go and see those Russian muses.