In the early 1960s, at the height of the Cold War, the Yale Russian Chorus came to Moscow to break the ice between the Soviet Union and the United States.
Fast forward 50 years and Americans and Russians are once again using music to defrost the chill between their two countries.
The turn to culture comes as relations between the two nations have hit their low point since the end of the Soviet Union.
Mikhail Prokhorov is a leading Russian businessman and opposition politician. He owns the New York basketball team, the Brooklyn Nets. In late April, he brought the rap group IllStyle and Peace Productions from Philadelphia to Moscow.
“It is very difficult to maintain stable political relations,” Prokhorov said at a press conference. “That’s why I believe that culture, art and sport are the areas on which we should concentrate deeply, and do everything so that mutual trust and good relations between our people continue to develop.”
The American hip hip group is touring Moscow and Siberia as part of Transcultural Express, an exchange supported by the Mikhail Prokhorov Fund.
“A major cultural exchange between our countries will force our politicians to listen to one another better,” said Prokhorov, who ran for president of Russia last year.
“When people communicate directly, their general interests regarding culture, literature and fine art allows for the strengthening of relations.”
Karen Hopkins, president of the Brooklyn Academy of Music, helped to arrange the Russia tour.
“I think that the IllStyle troupe is going to be a huge success in Russia,” she said in Moscow. “They’re so talented, they’re so young, they’re so athletic, they’re so urban, they’re so American.”
A few days earlier, Irvin Mayfield and his New Orleans Jazz Orchestra played to a packed house in Spaso House, the residence of the United States Ambassador to Russia.
“It’s played an important role because the political relationship’s always been difficult, and was particularly difficult during Cold War times,” said U.S. Embassy public affairs counselor Jeffrey Sexon of the role of music.
“The United States government has traditionally invested a lot of money in cultural diplomacy in Russia,” he added. “And we’ve found it to be a very effective tool in communicating with Russians, precisely because they love culture so much themselves here.”
Indeed, The New Orleans Jazz Orchestra played in the same Spaso House ballroom where the Yale Russian Chorus enchanted Soviet audiences half a century ago.