In Russia there is a somewhat formal or official tradition of valuing poetry, especially among the intelligentsia, the educated elite. (Not to be confused with the political or economic elite!) Tonight I attended an event celebrating the publication of a new book, organized by several groups involved with human rights. Partway through, a film director came to the stage to present a brief review of the book and show a clip of one of his films. After saying a few words about the book, he paused for a moment, and launched into a recitation of Sergey Yesenin’s poem “Letter to a Woman”:
Вы все, конечно, помните,
Как я стоял,
Приблизившись к стене,
Взволнованно ходили вы по комнате
И что-то резкое
В лицо бросали мне.
He stood behind a microphone, one hand hidden in the pocket of his black velvet jacket, his eyes gazing intently into the audience. His other hand gestured, at times gently, at times prodding and striking the space around him or combing agitatedly through his gray hair. He spoke with the full range of his voice: beginning quietly, as if in the middle of an intimate conversation; then full and passionate, trilling his Rs like a singer; the next moment almost whispering. This was a performance, not a reading. When he had finished, the audience applauded with real enthusiasm.
One of the themes in his film was the importance of art and music for spiritual life. Striving merely for wealth or pleasure–these are empty, leaving one’s soul impoverished. In his film, literature, classical music, and art were thematically united with Russia’s religious traditions and juxtaposed against the spiritual void of capitalism’s excesses. The recitation of a poem might then be viewed as a small gesture toward bettering society.