Street Life: Samotechny Lane, Moscow: How the serf enslaved her noble count

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The Independent Online
MY FRIEND Vitaly was at the door the other day with a very Russian problem. "Will you let me practise on your piano for a couple of hours?"

"Sure, but you know it's only an upright and it's very out of tune. What's wrong with your own grand piano?"

Then the whole story came out. Vitaly, a concert pianist, recently moved to a new flat where he hoped the neighbours would not object to the sound of his practising. Well, they did.

"The woman from downstairs came up, drunk at 10 o'clock in the morning, and started shouting that if I did not stop my noise, she would call the police," he said. "I would have told her to go right ahead and do it, if only I had a propiska."

Here lay the rub. Vitaly is divorced and rents his flat. His Moscow residence permit applies only to his ex-wife's flat, where he cannot live. Without this piece of paper, a Soviet-era instrument for controlling population flow, he has no rights. The police could boot him out.

So he came to me. My neighbours take more of a live and let live attitude. The Azeri guest workers, lodging with Tanya the single mother and Lyosha the car thief at number 13, sometimes have violent arguments. Noisy themselves, they tolerate the noise of others. Nobody complained while, for two hours, Vitaly produced heroic sounds from 18th-century opera, all horribly off key. Then he rushed off to pick up his monkey suit, tossing a couple of tickets at me as he left. "Come to the concert on Saturday," he said. I went. It was another world.

The performance was in the Ostankino Estate Theatre, an 18th-century opera house attached to the home of Count Nikolai Sheremetyev. Nothing has been changed since it was completed in 1795. The chandeliers, the peacock blue curtains, even the floorboards are original.

Vitaly was accompanying the flautist Sergei Nazarov and the soprano Natalia Shuvalova in a programme of music once performed by the count's troupe of serf musicians. The star of the serf opera troupe was a peasant girl called Parasha Zhemchugova. Count Sheremetyev took her in when she was seven and trained her in a special music school he ran for his slaves. At the age of 12, she made her debut, singing the role of Belinda in Antonio Sacchini's opera Colonia.

Parasha was no beauty but Count Sheremetyev fell in love with her for her talent. For years, he staged operas about unequal love. Finally, he consummated his own. In 1798, he freed Parasha, in 1801 he married her and made her Countess Sheremetyeva and in 1803, she bore him a son. But within days, she died of tuberculosis, aged 35.

The audience sat spellbound while, through music, the performers recreated this love story. Afterwards, the visitors, who had paid the equivalent of pounds 1.30, strolled among the statuary in the grounds. If this had been in the West, they would have had picnic hampers with champagne and strawberries. They would have thought nothing of paying pounds 100 a ticket. But this is Russia, where the state no longer supports the arts and commercial sponsorship has yet to develop. Vitaly emerged, counting his wages - the equivalent of pounds 13.

"What are you going to do about the piano?" I asked.

"Dunno. I'll have to start flat hunting again." In all ages, artists have been poor.In the 18th century, the serfs had a kind count to take care of them. In the 20th century, they are much luckier. They are free.