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Deep in Soviet Georgia, They're Singing the Songs of Friendship

Second in a series

February 04, 1988|CHARLES CHAMPLIN | Times Arts Editor

TBILISI, Soviet Union — The living room had been stripped of all its furniture except a long table in the shape of a squared U, seating close to four dozen of us, a visiting American delegation and an array of Soviet directors, writers and critics.

The table was crowded with plates of food, from pressed meats to caviar, mineral waters, fruit juices, Georgian wines and vodka. Later there were great swordsful of shashlik.

Glasnost has made it possible for Soviet citizens to entertain foreign visitors in their homes, in a manner not allowed only a few years ago when paranoia seemed to be a government policy.

But this was the apartment of the film maker Eldar Shengelaya. Tbilisi, the capital of Soviet Georgia, is an ancient city that manages to suggest both Paris and the Middle East.

At one side of the table, three young women sang folk songs in close harmony. The Georgians are famous for their singing of complex polyphonic structures that seem a postgraduate course in barbershop quartetting.

At one point in the evening, Shengelaya sounded a note that suggested a muezzin's call. Some Georgian men across the room answered the call and the song went on. What was being sung none of us knew (Georgian is a language quite different from Russian, with its own alphabet). But the shifting harmonies, with echoes of Gregorian chant as well, were amazingly beautiful.

Later, to our astonishment, the men sang "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," very rousingly indeed. Keith Carradine borrowed a guitar and sang "I'm Easy," the song from "Nashville" for which he won an Academy Award. Led by Carradine and Dennis Weaver, the American visitors managed a version of "Amazing Grace" that was more heartfelt than polyphonic.

Early and late there were, inevitably, the toasts: to the cooks, the women, absent friends, love, the cause of unfettered art and several others whose points are lost in a blur of memory.

One of the Soviet film critics toasted "this good company, united by the richness of their souls and their aspirations to high human happiness."

The dinner with Shengelaya, whose bright satiric comedy "Blue Mountains" we had seen a few days earlier in Moscow, was one of several private gatherings attended by all or by groupings of the American delegation.

At an earlier dinner in Moscow, film maker Tolomush Okeyev, from the Soviet republic of Kirghiz, said: "The real artist must always in some way be free in his soul. . . . We film makers are becoming harder to control, but the government is getting adjusted to it. . . . Love takes more effort than hatred. . . . Everything is a trifle except life."

The toasts tended toward the rhetorical, but David Puttnam rose to say tersely, "We who pose much and risk little salute you who pose little and risk much."

At a smaller dinner at the home of one of the translators, Regina Kozakov, her actor husband Mischa recited in Russian a long poem of Osip Mandelstam, and it was unnecessary to know the meaning to be thrilled by the music of it. Kozakov, who gives poetry readings throughout the Soviet Union, also did Hamlet's "To be or not to be" in Russian, and it was possible to follow the sense of it from start to eloquent finish.

One afternoon a few of us visited Sergei Eisenstein's small, crowded Moscow flat, preserved as a kind of working museum since the great film maker's death in 1948. Its treasures include a portrait of him painted by the legendary Kiki of Montparnasse, a copy of the first edition of "Ulysses" inscribed by James Joyce, a library of well-annotated books in several languages and enough notes and sketches to fill 12 volumes. Once in disgrace, his film "Bezhin Meadow" destroyed, Eisenstein has re-emerged as a national figure and the 90th anniversary of his birth was marked by an exhibit and a recollective program at Dom Kino (Moscow's House of Film).

The awareness of common artistic aspirations and a shared cultural heritage that grows evident in even a short visit to the Soviet Union is strong and affecting. It is matched by a sharp sense of the gulf between governments and people. Nothing that happens in so centralized a nation as the Soviet Union is nonpolitical, and it is clear that glasnost is being tried because it is thought to be pragmatically effective.

But the hopes and excitement that it has created in the Soviet film community are real, and the exuberant toasts raised by our hosts had the force of prayer.

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