an American's Reflections - Stephen Lapeyrouse’s website

The Moscow News #03 (27 January - 2 February), 2006

“Penny University” Moscow Style


Photo by Oleg Lastochkin

English Language Evening host tells about his modest independent public lecture forum and shares his opinions about Moscow

By Antonina Frolenkova

English Language Evenings (ELE) is an independent, open, public lecture forum in Moscow. For seven years, ELE has hosted 90 speakers from 12 countries: ambassadors and attaches, visiting professors, international journalists and heads of institutions. The founder of the ELE, Moscow based author, essayist and editor, Stephen Lapeyrouse, talks to our correspondent.

How did you come up with the idea to start English Language Evenings?

There were two main reasons: one, I had for years in California (Santa Cruz) participated in a weekly discussion group which over time discussed everything you can think of. It is called “Penny University”, taking its name from an old British tradition dating back to the 1600s where similar meetings were held in pubs where all could discuss the topics of the day. This, plus wanting to meet more intelligent people in Moscow, and the feeling that I could fairly well lead such a gathering, as a native speaker, with many interests.

About the audience of ELE, how has it changed since you first hosted it?

The past few years at the Chekhov Cultural Center have drawn people whose English is good to excellent, and who want what the evening is intended to be: not an inexpensive English lesson, but an intelligent evening in English. There are “regulars” – and, happily, always newcomers too – who often ask interesting and insightful questions of the varied speakers and topics. This is important, as one of the “missions” I see for ELE is to allow the Moscow audience and its speakers to meet, hopefully learn from each other, and perhaps develop relationships.

What are the most memorable, touching, impressive moments of the ELE for you?

Well, I recall when Australian poet David Wansbrough, whose talks are unforgettable, filled the big Conference Hall of the Russian National Library with his deep voice saying, mischievously, that he wanted a PhD in the Science and Psychology of the Moscow Metro. The very popular David Firestein, dressed cowboy-style, playing “Country Music” songs, and commenting insightfully on its cultural and social meanings. An ardent Irish nationalist almost crying on stage about a massacre in the 1600s. US cultural attaché John Brown talking on the American mentality. Delightful receptions at the Irish embassy. Goodbye talks by a VOA correspondent and an AmCham president. The biography of a South African Ambassador... Most speakers were interesting; some very entertaining. Serious and funny evenings; a few where I was glad when it was over!

You manage to invite well-known, influential, interesting and very busy people.

I explain that ELE is a modest, independent, public lecture forum, and ask them if they’d like to give a talk. Most of the speakers invited have been very kind and willing to come and talk.

In one of your essays you tell about one of your first impression of Russia: you saw people reciting poetry in Pushkin square on the Russian great poet’s birthday. In your opinion, 10 years from now, in 2016, will Muscovites recite poetry in Pushkin Square with the same passions you noticed in 1986?

No. Certainly not. And the social conditions will not promote this. As I see it, in those Soviet years the emotions of many people (including many who are not by nature taken by poetry) were sort of channeled into a greater interest and engagement in literature, music, etc, because the outer social and personal life was so limited in possibilities, controlled, and grey. Now that almost anything can be done and experienced here in Moscow...the passions that I and some other visitors noted then, and were excited by, are mostly dispersed.

There will surely be some few even in 2016 – somehow surviving in the growing social-economic conditions – for whom e.g. poetry, “kitchen philosophy” and “inner freedom” (a now almost completely forgotten topic from that time) will still be more important than shopping, mass entertainment TV, Hollywood films, the latest fashions and phone models. But in 2016 this will not be the case as it was in 1986.

Where in the city can you feel the contemporary spirit of Moscow?

Let’s just take one example: go near Kremlin to the Manezh and look at the construction site where the Moskva Hotel stood. You will see huge advertising signs. Old Russia had icons; Soviet Russia had communist slogans everywhere. Now the contemporary spirit of Moscow is visible in its innumerable advertising billboards, and the life, mentality and malls they bespeak. (I haven’t seen any ads on the Kremlin walls yet).

What do you like most about Russia?

I appreciate, for example, the openness of soul (sounds trite perhaps, but it is still true) of many Russians. And, hackneyed though it be: I enjoy the intelligent, philosophic conversation... when it is still possible. I enjoy these particular traits and not how well Moscow copies the West. I could do without the still often ill-trained waiters; but I like something especially Russian. Otherwise why to be here?

Stephen Lapeyrouse,
Born, Dec. 1952;
BA 1977: Religion and Philosophy,
MA 1981: History of Ideas, Antioch University.
First came to Russia 1986.
Moved from California to Russia 1994.
Author: Towards the Spiritual Convergence of America and Russia (1990).
Editor with English section of Pervoye Sentyabrya newspaper.
Essays at
English Language Evenings: