Despite the intensely cold political relations between Russia and the United States, cultural exchanges between the two countries have remained ever warm. When Le Corsaire was performed by the Mariinsky Ballet at the Kennedy Center this month, the warm applause it won from the American audience in attendance prove the point. 

Americans have always cherishedSt. Petersburg, because it is home to some of the most romantic ballets, such as “The Sleeping Beauty,” “The Nutcracker,” and “Swan Lake.” Residing in the Mariinsky Theater, where the music and the choreography of these masterpieces were created, the Mariinsky Ballet is one of the greatest ballet companies in the world. It is known for its dancers’ skills and majesty for more than two and a half centuries. And Le Corsaire was especially loved for its “breathtaking choreography, virtuosic dancing, and spectacular scenery and costumes.” The Washington Post said the play was “unrivaled... studded with virtuosic displays.”

Mariinsky performers with Ambassador of the Russian Federation to the United States Anatoly I. Antonov and Yuri Fateev, Acting Ballet Director, Mariinsky Ballet. Credit: Image Link Photo.

The enthusiasm for the performance tells a different story from what we typically see in media coverage—a worsening relationship between Russia and the United States. For more than two decades, the bilateral relationship has shifted between cooperation to continuous confrontation. The more recent tensions over cybersecurity and conflicts in Ukraine and Syria have intensified the controversy between the two nations and public expectation about where the relationship is fairly negative.

Ambassador of the Russian Federation, His Excellency Anatoly I. Antonov, expressed his opinion in an interview on a private post-performance reception: “the Russian and American relations are in very bad shape, but it is impossible to undermine the cultural relation between the United States and Russia. You can see from the hospitality of the American people to Russian artists today.”

Indeed, the cultural tie between the two countries has continued for decades. This tie was actually developed during the most difficult times. After ten years when the Truman Doctrine was announced, an agreement between the United States and then Union of Soviet Socialist Republics on cultural, educational, and technical exchanges was signed in Washington DC from Oct. 28, 1957, to January 27, 1958. The agreement was known as The Text of Lacy-Zaroubin Agreement because it was signed by Ambassador William S.B. Lacy on the U.S. side and Ambassador G. N. Zaroubin on the Soviet side.

Both countries believed that cultural exchanges could help ease the tensions between the two countries, and the ballet exchange is one of the most successful examples. The Bolshoi Ballet, which shared the name as one of the “greatest ballet companies” with the Mariinsky Ballet, performed in the United States for the first time in 1959, and it was a phenomenon. In response to the Bolshoi’s visit, the American Ballet Theatre also performed in Moscow in 1960, and it was welcomed as well.

It turns out that when people sit in the theater and connect to the artists at the personal level, the power of culture and arts can transcend the international political scene. People find more common grounds than differences.   

"Art, especially art like music and ballet, does not need language, because you understand what we want to say on the stage," said Yuri Fateyev, the director of the Mariinsky Ballet. Art does talk, and it brings people together. Especially the virtuoso performances; people appreciate the beauty and the hard work behind the stage, no matter where they are from.

The event host, Susan E. Carmel, explains further: “The Mariinsky Ballet is really an ideal example of an organization that is not only a worldwide artistic legend, but also beloved in Russia and America. Audiences in both of our countries have always mutually appreciated the superb artistry and inspirational beauty of their performances—which truly speaks to the universal and enriching language of dance and culture.” As the founder of the Carmel Institute of Russian Culture and History at American University, Susan E. Carmel has been actively promoting cultural exchange between the United States and Russia for years.

It is easy to play "zero-sum" games in politics, and for Russia and the United States today that has been the standard fare. But the cultural ties that bind the two nations were developed during the most difficult times, and they remain strong today, when the relations have reached Cold War standards. With support from institutions like the Carmel Institute, cultural diplomacy will continue to build understanding between people in these two countries, despite the differences in ideologies.

Rong Qin
Rong Qin is a Washington, DC based correspondent for Diplomatic Courier.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.