I shall never see you
I shall never forget you.
Andrei Voznesensky, Junona i Avos
Those of depraved minds go nowadays to America solely with the aim of growing rich and then upon their return journey fritter it away in a few days, scattering like dust the riches obtained by many years of other peoples' tears. Can such desperate people respect their fellow beings? The poor [native] Americans are, to Russia's shame, sacrificed to their debauchery. Nikolai Rezanov, quoted by Hieromonk Gideon>
I first heard of Nikolai Rezanov in the summer of 1986. I was fifteen years old and visiting my mother's sister Lenina in her cluttered apartment on Frunzenskaya Embankment in Moscow. I had no inkling that I was living through the old Soviet Union's last summer, the final months of calm before the winds of change that were to scatter the old order began to blow. Mikhail Gorbachev had come to power the previous year, and was just about to open the twin Pandora's boxes of glasnost and perestroika. But that summer the certainties of the Soviet empire and the Communist Party had not yet been shaken by the ghosts of exhumed history, nor by unvarnished news of the unfolding Soviet defeat in Afghanistan. Orderly queues still formed outside Lenin's mausoleum; Western cars were unknown on the traffic-free streets of Moscow, and buildings were still decorated with huge heroic posters celebrating socialist labour.
Various chaperones had been assigned by my aunt to guide me around the capital during those dusty summer holiday weeks. One of them Victor Elpidiforovich, a war veteran who wore a pinstriped jacket with an impressive collection of medals announced the dramatic news that tickets had been procured to Moscow's number-one hit show, the rock opera Junona i Avos. The title is incomprehensible, even in Russian, if you don't know that it refers to the names of two ships. But everybody in the Soviet Union did know. The show had premièred five years before, at the Theatre of Lenin's Communist Youth League colloquially known as LenKom just off Pushkin Square. It had been an immediate sensation, and remained so for years: in the spring of 2013 Junona i Avos is still playing to packed houses. In the mid-1980s fans would queue for days for tickets for the performances, which occurred, with characteristic Soviet indifference to the laws of supply and demand, only once a fortnight. In those innocent days it was still considered deeply shameful to purchase a ticket at an inflated price from free-market 'speculators'.
The show was indeed an overwhelming and moving spectacle. The story, based on historical fact but heavily embellished by librettist Andrei Voznesensky, begins with Nikolai Rezanov, a handsome Russian aristocrat and intimate of the Tsar, arriving in Spanish California with the two eponymous ships of the title. Russia's American empire the first time I had ever heard of such a thing is expanding southwards, and Rezanov eyes the rich lands of California with a view to conquering them. The Spanish are depicted as religious, effete and decadent. The Russians, in their smart tsarist naval uniforms, are bluff, energetic and down to earth.
This being an opera, it is a love story. Being Russian, it's also of course a tragedy. Rezanov and Conchita, daughter of the Spanish governor, fall in love. Her father and the Catholic priests who surround him are horrified. In the fictionalized version Conchita's fiery Spanish fiancé invented by the librettist even fights a duel with the upstart Russian suitor. Rezanov's own officers warn him that the Tsar will have to give permission for him to marry a foreigner and a Catholic. Our hero brushes aside all objections: on wings of love, he will rush to St Petersburg, petition the Tsar and return to marry Conchita. She does not dare believe it. 'I will never see you: I will never forget you' is the couple's last duet, still as famous in Russia as the theme from Jesus Christ Superstar is in the West. On the road home Rezanov falls from his horse and dies. But Conchita, disbelieving rumours of his demise, continues to wait for her lover for thirty-five years. She ends her days a nun, faithful to his memory.
Excerpted from Glorious Misadventures by Owen Matthews. Copyright © 2013 by Owen Matthews. Excerpted by permission of Bloomsbury USA. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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