Sunday, October 30, 2011

Is The Bolshoi a Brand?

Bolshoi Theatre, Moscow
The Bolshoy Theatre Under Reconstruction, Photo By Andrew Griffith

The Bolshoi Theater reopened with a grand gala concert after a six years closure for renovation. Hundreds of millions of dollars was spent on the reconstruction, but who counts pennies when the talk is about the main landmarks of the Russian capital and a symbol of Russian culture? Journalists argue if there was an improvement in terms of acoustics, stage light and so on. I am not going to concern myself with
these topics, since I don't have a professional or informed opinion. What really caught my eye was the word “brand” referring to the Bolshoi.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said, 'the Bolshoi is one of our greatest national brands.' Some journalists considered the word that comes from marketing offensive for the Bolshoi, which is supposed to be the temple of culture. Others argued that the president is probably right and the Bolshoi is nowadays nothing but a brand, like Vodka, Matrioshka, Perestroika and other stereotypical things that are associated with Russia in the mass media.

A reader may wonder why the stylistically neutral word was such a big deal for journalists? Are they just criticizing the president?

Most likely, they are not. There are two reasons why even loyal Russians may dislike the word “brand” when speaking about the Bolshoi. The first reason is that the word “brand” came to the Russian language from English just recently and refers mostly to consumer goods. As examples, Nike is a brand, as well as Kleenex. Therefore, to the Russian ear, saying “Bolshoi is a brand” is like putting the theater in one row with popular footwear and toilet paper.

Another reason lies deeper. In Russian culture, merchants and traders were generally considered (and sometimes still are) as people who could not understand art. Being a merchant is somewhat seen as being absolutely opposite to the artists in the common mind in Russia. This is nothing but an unfair prejudice. Many successful merchants in Russia were among the greatest patrons of fine arts and supported artists generously. Anyway, making money is dirty work, while dancing and painting pictures is something spiritual, noble and lofty. The word “brand” obviously belongs to the world of money and profit and is an offense when referred to in the realms of art.

I'm not a native English speaker. I do not feel a deep background for each English word I know, so I can not be an unbiased judge here. What do you think, is Bolshoi a brand? Is it Ok to call a theater a “brand”?

Friday, October 21, 2011

Russian Dragon

If folkloric tales hold even a fraction of truth, then dragons lived everywhere on Earth. Chinese dragons are known world-wide. European knights were saving princesses from dragons for centuries during the early Medieval age. Aboriginal Americans had huge snake-like creatures that greatly resembled dragons. Even Russians had their own dragon called Zmey Gorynych (Змей Горыныч).

The first name "Zmey" means "a snake". There are two interpretations as to what the second name, Gorynych, means. From a formal point of view, the name is a patronym. Some linguists believe that Gorynysh is derived from "gora", which in Russian is "a mountain". Other linguists think that the name is derived from the verb 'to burn' (гореть). Both versions seem convincing, since Zmey Gorynych lived in mountains and caves and spat fire, burning everything in sight.

Zmey Gorynych is a male creature with three heads and wings. We don't know much about his wings, but somehow he flies. In some folklore stories (bylinas), when a hero cut one of Zmey's three heads off, another three immediately sprout in its place. Some dragons (probably Zmey Gorynych's distant relatives) had 5, 7, 9 or even 12 heads.

However, the main problem with Zmey Gorynych was not his fire-breathing ability. The dragon demanded for young virgins every year and committed mass destructions if his demand was not satisfied. Once, he kidnapped a niece of Kiev's king, which later proved to be a fatal mistake. A superhero ('bogatyr' in Russian, 'богатырь') named Dobrynya Nikitich promised the king to rescue his niece and, like any superhero, he was very persistent with his intentions. He killed Zmey Gorynych in a three-day, three-night uninterrupted battle and brought the girl safely back to Kiev.

There is a common belief that Zmey Gorynych was a personification of the steppe tribes that were terrifying Russia for centuries. What puzzles me is that in many bylinas, the steppe tribes are referred to as “pagan force”, so why would one tale use a mythical creature while another directly name the source of danger? Also, we should keep in mind that the idea of fighting a snake or a dragon is common for many European folklores, both Eastern and Western, could still be seen as a symbol, but of something more abstract, like evil itself.

A few weeks ago, I found a ceramic Gzel-style statuette of Zmey Gorynych on the Internet and couldn't resist buying it. The little dragon is now guarding my home from evil spirits.

Russian Dragon