Thursday, November 3, 2011

A Visit to the Leo Tolstoy Cultural Center

Tolstoy, the immortal Russian author,
who died 101 years ago this month. 
The Leon Tolstoy Cultural Center in the middle of La Candelaria sits like an institution out of time and of place. Like the nearby French and American cultural centers, the Tolstoy center teaches culture and language, in its case Russian. But unlike those other institutions, the Tolstoy center is small, neither shiny nor glitzy, evidently surviving on a shoestring budget and is filled with an atmosphere of nostalgia rather than contemporary events.

A look at the center's history explains why. The Centro Cultural Leon Tolstoi was founded in 1944 by the Soviet Union, just as the Allied victory over Nazi Germany and its allies was becoming inevitable, to promote communist ideology here. In conjunction with such cultural centers in Colombia and other nations, the Soviet Union gave scholarships to students from all over the world, who it hoped would return home infused with socialist idealism.

Detail of a mural by Fernando Oramas.
But after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 that support disappeared. The Russian state, no longer communist, continues collaborating with the center, but only with occasional visits and donations of books and other items. The Tolstoy cultural center now survives by providing translations and music lessons. Five of the center's officials have been awarded the Lenin Peace Prize, now renamed the Order of Druzhba, the center's cultural director told me.

Today's Russia has a corrupt form of crony capitalism, which has produced a crop of multi-billionares. It is ruled by a few strongmen thru a contolled democracy and intimidated media. But at the Tolstoy Center here in La Candelaria, one might think that the old Soviet Union continued. There are the traditional Russian robes, the heroic mural by the entrance, the busts of Lenin and famous cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin. A plaque on the center's front wall celebrates the Soviets' victory over Nazi fascism, forgetting that the Soviet Union then imposed its own form of fascism on half of Europe.
Lenin still presides here. 

I talked to the center's cultural director, who lamented that the Soviet Union's economic system was ruined by 'ambitious men.' I agreed. Ambition is what makes both communism and capitalism such lousy systems - with the difference that capitalism actually rewards and harnesses that ambition. And, when it works right, that ambition can benefit lots of people, as did the ambitions of American billionare Steve Jobs and Colombian billionare Julio Santo Domingo.

Right now, the center is commemorating
poet Pushkin, a giant of Russian literature.
The director also lamented Colombia's terribly unequal income distribution and its its emphasis on war. Those are two very real problems, but the second does ignore the fact that Colombia's armed conflict responds to violence against the Colombian people by armed guerrillas who espouse a Marxist ideology, altho they don't practice it. The cultural director expressed understandable disappointment with many of Colombia's leftist politicians - Bogotá's current mayor, Samuel Moreno, of the leftist Polo Democratico Party, is in prison on corruption allegations and the previous mayor, from the same party, recently allied himself with conservative ex-President Alvaro Uribe.

Traditional Russian robes. 
But Bogotá's Mayor-elect Gustavo Petro got his start as a leader of the M-19 guerrillas, and has maintained a principled leftist ideology. Perhaps his victory will give the lie to the guerrillas' strategy of armed rebellion. She didn't give me a clear response.

 Most likely, the Tolstoy Center in La Candelaria will maintain its ideology from another era, a sort of museum to a nation which espoused an idealism which failed - and got swept out of history.
The Leo Tolstoy Center is located on Calle 12c between Carreras 3 and 4. Besides teaching music and language, the center also holds cultural events including Russian movies and music events. Find them on Facebook under Centro Cultural Leo Tolstoi in La Candelaria.

Commemoration to the Soviet Union's victory over the Nazis. 

Russian matryoshka dolls. 

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

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