an American's Reflections - Stephen Lapeyrouse’s website

The Moscow News, 27 November, 2013

Import of Goodwill: An Engine of Ideas on Pushkin Square

By Nathan Gray

This year, as part of Moskovskiye Novosti’s New Intelligentsia Awards, The Moscow News is giving out a special prize honoring expats who perform community service/work for public benefit in Russia. Our prize is called Import of Goodwill, and Stephen Lapeyrouse is one of the 2013 nominees.

In 1994, after spending half his life in California, Stephen Lapeyrouse “jumped ship” and relocated to Moscow. Having witnessed an open-air poetry reading on Alexander Pushkin’s birthday in 1986, during his first visit, he became captivated by the deeper cultural and emotional experience he encountered, and returned for one month almost every year until finally relocating to Moscow. In 1998, he founded English Language Evenings, a twice-monthly lecture series at the Chekhov Library on Strastnoi Bulvar that has become his way of repaying the city for the early experience of cultural exchange. The series has covered a wide range of topics over 220 meetings, and is still going strong.

What first brought you to Moscow?

I was on a tram in Basel, Switzerland, in 1985, I think it was. I saw an advertisement on a travel agency sign that said, “$250, two weeks in Moscow, all expenses paid, includes flight.” It was a youth festival, but I wasn’t a Communist, so they wouldn’t let me in.

I came in ’86. On Pushkin’s birthday, I was involved in this really intense, lively, serious conversation about culture and ideas and literature and Pushkin, on Pushkin Square.

It was one of the few places that you could speak freely in public. You had to recite poetry, but you could recite what you wanted to. I’ve never seen such passion and enthusiasm and such audience for poetry.

I watched a woman, who in the United States would be washing the floor, recite poetry from memory for 45 minutes to a huge crowd. I said, “I don’t even believe what I’m seeing here.”

I had been in California for a long time, and I needed some more serious culture. I described California as a very, very broad but very, very shallow lake. You’ve got every possible spirituality that exists on the planet, and some of it doesn’t exist on the planet, and they’re all there, but it’s not deep. In the Soviet Union, education and knowledge and literature and philosophy and music were much more serious, because they were the currency of the society. I came in ’86, ’87, ’88, ’89, ’91 and then finally, in ’94, I decided to leave California.

Why was that?

I was bored to death. I knew exactly what was going to happen every day of the week, every month.

I was trying to find a serious, scholarly book on the Russian soul. I went to the head of the Slavic Department at the University of California, Berkeley, and he said, “I’m sorry, that doesn’t exist,” so I said, “Okay, I’m going to write something.” This was 1990. I was still rather naive, because I only had month-long experiences, but I still got something about the difference of the mentality.

I wanted to see whether the Russian soul was what I thought it was. So I moved here in ’94, one-way trip. I had left California, I had left all of my friends, my books, my car, all of my things, but I was determined to start a new life here.

How did English Language Evenings start?

In California, I participated in a British tradition called “Penny university.” Once a week, you meet and you just talk about anything.

I decided, “Okay, I’ll never be able to do that in Russian here, so I’m going to try it in English.” This was 1998, and 120 people would come every time. It’s impossible to have a discussion with 120 people. So I decided to change it into a lecture format.

The English Language Evenings were organized to try to have a place for people to meet, both expats who were native English-speakers and Russians who knew English, an open community. It’s an intellectual evening in English – not a cafe, not a bar – but with a theme and a topic that people can discuss.

After about four or five years I really wanted to stop it, but the Russians said, “No, you can’t, you’ve got to keep going.” Now we’re in year 16, and we’ve had more than 220 meetings.

Who usually attends the lectures?

Most of the people are Russians. There are a lot of regulars. The average evening is 50 people, sometimes up to 100, depending on the topic.

The Chekhov Library has its own Russian evenings about literature on Thursday, and we usually meet on Friday nights. It’s a perfect location, and they have a tradition: all the famous poets in the ’50s and ’60s read there.

I want people to be presented with things to think about, different personalities, different ideas, different perspectives. There’s no party line.

A little bit of a community has developed out of it, a lot of relationships and friendships with people from different countries, because they met there, which was one of my hopes. I’m very happy when I find out that people who I don’t even know are connected are friends.

Do you find it extending out of that day on Pushkin Square?

In a way it is. California, Pushkin and the 19th-century American tradition of the Lyceum movement of lectures to the public. It’s in that tradition. In fact, my grandfather was the leader of a discussion group, so maybe it’s in the genes or in the psychology.