Russia's Treasure-House

Searching for the past on the eve of St. Petersburg's 300th anniversary, a former foreign correspondent finds the future

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Laul’s apartment is a third-floor walk-up. As soon as we stepped inside, he phoned the police and gave them his entry code. Because he owns three pianos, a computer and a large collection of CDs and phonograph records, he subscribes to an enhanced police security service.


In his kitchen, he made coffee and talked about his grandfather, Alexsandr Dolzhansky, who taught polyphony at the conservatory. Shortly after the end of World War II, Stalin’s postwar cultural purges began. In 1948, the party declared that the music of St. Petersburg composer Dmitry Shostakovich contained “formalist perversions.” Meetings were called to denounce him. Laul’s grandfather was expected to join in the ritual condemnation. “Instead, he stood up [at a faculty meeting] and said he considered Shostakovich a genius. He could have gone to jail. Thank God they only fired him from the conservatory.” Ten desperate years would pass before Dolzhansky was again permitted to teach.


Laul, who trained at the school where his grandfather and father taught for many years, won the prestigious Scriabin Competition in Moscow in 2000. In my day, this would have placed him in the hands of the Soviet state booking agency, Goskontsert, which dictated the performance schedules of Soviet musicians. But in the new order, Laul has a Germany-based agent who books appearances for him in that country. He has also performed in the United States, France and Holland and estimates he is one of perhaps ten concert pianists in St. Petersburg who can make a living at it. To do so, however, he must perform abroad.


Will he continue to live in the city? He shot me a look. “I can’t leave,” he said in a voice full of exasperation. “Abroad, life is comfortable and easy and pleasant, but it’s boring, like a sanatorium. Here it’s interesting—sometimes very unpleasant—but interesting.”


Here, he says, he senses ghosts, shades of the great St. Petersburg musicians, whenever he enters the conservatory, where Tchaikovsky’s name is etched on a wall as the outstanding graduate of 1865, where Jascha Heifetz studied violin and composer Rimsky-Korsakov taught. “It’s such a harmonious city,” he says. “If not for St. Petersburg, you wouldn’t have had Gogol, Pushkin, Mussorgsky, Tchaikovsky, Dostoyevsky.”


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