Political schism wracks St. Petersburg conservatory

A power struggle pits an old-style administrator against his reformist counterpart, threatening the future of Russia's 132-year-old music institution

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

ON a wide street amid the palazzi and canals of this regal city stands the two jewels of St. Petersburg's three-centuries-long artistic heritage: the Kirov Opera and the Rimsky-Korsakov Conservatory.

The Kirov, now known as the Mariinsky, has emerged as one of Russia's premier ballet companies, thanks to an innovative director, who has managed to make entrepreneurial use of his new freedoms. But the conservatory, alma mater to Russian composers Peter Tchaikovsky and Dmitri Shostakovich, is wracked by an internal dispute that is threatening to tear it apart.

Within the enormous stone walls of Russia's oldest music institute, the mood appears peaceful. Yet a power struggle pitting an old-style administrator against his reformist counterpart is affecting everything from paying teacher salaries to maintaining the crumbling building.

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In March, conservatory students and teachers elected their vice rector to replace Vladislav Chernushenko, who had been in charge of the prestigious 132-year-old institute since 1979. Mr. Chernushenko objected to his dismissal and took his case to the Russian Culture Ministry.

Ministry officials, sympathetic to Chernushenko's plight, ruled the vote as ``unlawful'' and gave him back his position - referring to his original 15-year-old Soviet-era contract that promised his job for life.

The ruling caused an uproar in the conservatory, splitting the community of teachers and administrators into two opposing camps. It also prompted new chief Valery Uspensky and his supporters to enlist the media in publicizing their plea: the right to keep their ``democratically elected'' dean.

`We have everything except a feeling of security,'' says Konstantin Nikitin, an assistant professor of choral music and one of the more vocal Uspensky supporters. ``Some fear for their future jobs, and even for the present.''

The reasons for dismissing Chernushenko were clear-cut. His colleagues accused him of sticking to the old style of Soviet management, saying he acted more like a musician than a manager. They said he was not a financial innovator, and was reluctant to actively seek contracts at a time when the Russian arts can no longer rely on the government for subsidies.

They also said Chernushenko habitually neglected his duties - from attending to the heating system to raising the quality of the musical instruments - and instead devoted his time to his second job as artistic director of the St. Petersburg Academic Capella, which often tours Europe.

The dilapidated state of the building is clearly evident. Less than a block from the city's dazzling network of canals lies the

Kirov, a freshly painted green building with sparkling white trim. The conservatory faces opposite in striking contrast: a drab, dirty building partially covered by scaffolding.

Uspensky, on the other hand, promised that he would attend to the conservatory's most pressing problems, such as the poor maintenance of the historic building and the lack of musical funding - shortcomings inherent to many institutions in the wake of the 1991 Soviet collapse.

``The main issue was to choose either a person who wants to lead the conservatory on a new path of development, or a person who prefers to continue along the old,'' Professor Nikitin says.

Chernushenko, however, dismisses Uspensky as ``a bureaucrat,'' and says he deserves to remain dean because of his status in Russia's music world. ``Such a place as the conservatory should be led by a musician who has some musical abilities and is well known for his accomplishments,'' he told the Monitor.

Tempers originally began flaring last December, when disgruntled professors and students called a meeting to discuss the problems of the conservatory. Angry with what they perceived as Chernushenko's indifference, the group drew up a document entrusting it with the power to run the conservatory - and appoint a new rector.

In January, the document was officially registered under the Ministry of Culture's ``Law of Education.'' No ministry official objected. Yet when Uspensky emerged as the new dean after a 48-to-11 vote in his favor, Chernushenko refused to retire. And ministry officials jumped to his aid.

``We have nothing against the collective [which voted against Chernushenko], but we want everything done according to the law,'' Russian Deputy Culture Minister Vadim Dyomin said in an interview. The ministry considered the vote invalid, he added, because, among other things, it ``did not reflect the majority of the collective.''

``I would not advise you to mess with the ministry,'' Mr. Dyomin told his opponents in March, according to a lengthy article about the feud in the Nevskoye Vremya newspaper. ``You will lose.''

Meanwhile, the prolonged dispute is hurting the conservatory. Uspen-sky defines the feud as a ``war between the Ministry of Culture, which does not want to give the collective its full rights, and the collective, which simply wants the right to govern itself.'' And Chernushenko is just staying put.

Conservatory students detect the strained relations between their professors. ``It's obvious that people are bad tempered. You can feel the tension,'' remarks first-year student Maria Shirova. ``There is tension everywhere in the country today, and unfortunately it is also reflected in the conservatory.''

Yet despite the conflict, a cacophony of sounds continues to echo through the hallways. In one corridor, a violinist, indifferent to the conversations surrounding him, practices the last few bars of a concerto before rehearsal begins.

``I think if you are doing your own thing, like music for example, it can help ease any sort of ill feelings,'' Ms. Shirova says.

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