While Russian-Maltese diplomatic and cultural exchanges have existed for centuries, it was only 30 years ago that the Russian Cultural Centre opened on November 8, 1990, in Valletta. Maltese newspapers reported this event as an “important step” in the building of a “common European home”.
The first Russian cultural festival in Malta, held in November 1990, created a sensation among local arts and music lovers. The original works of Russian masters Malevich, Kandinsky, Petrov-Vodkin and other paintings from the State Russian Museum collection were brought to Malta along with rare books and archive documents.
The main attraction of the festival was the exhibition of Antoine de Favray’s painting Interior View of the Church of St John of Jerusalem from the State Hermitage collection. Fr Marius Zerafa, a former director of the Malta Fine Arts Museum and a co-founder of the Maltese-Soviet Friendship Society, recalls in his memoir: “I think it was the most important Russian art exhibition ever held in Malta.”
Nowadays, Malta has a number of dance studios where ballet is being taught. It is all thanks to Princess Nathalie Poutiatine, a Russian emigrée who settled in Malta in the 1920s, married Maltese businessman Edgar Tabone and founded the first ever Russian ballet academy of the island. Her legacy is still flourishing today.
In an article by Paul Naudi, who was involved in the opening of the Russian Embassy in Malta, there is an interesting detail. At the first Maltese open-air festival at San Anton Gardens in the 1970s, a group of dancers from the Bolshoi Theatre performed parts of Tchaikovsky’s world-famous ballet Swan Lake. The stage for them was built under the supervision of Princess Poutiatine herself – a wonderful example of the maxima that art unites everyone.
This was not the only time Russian ballet dancers performed for a Maltese audience. Russian cultural entrepreneurs living in Malta brought Crown of Russian Ballet Moscow Theatre, who performed excerpts from Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker in 2015.
The 2017 grandiose multi-genre performance Crystal Palace, with Bolshoi soloists Ivan Vasiliev, Maria Vinogradova and Maria Allash, and last December's ice show Jester’s Wedding will be remembered as being among the most spectacular and successful Russian-Maltese productions ever. These performances were organised by the European Foundation for Support of Culture.
During the last decade, Malta’s cultural calendar was embellished with numerous music festivals and concerts featuring Russian musicians and orchestras, symphony, chamber and even military, organised in collaboration with leading Maltese culture entities at the most prestigious venues.
One of the most appealing performances took place last year during the open-air festival Notte Bianca, where the audience was captivated by the virtuosity and musicality of Igor Butman Jazz Band.
Other important forms of art include literature and poetry. Yana Psaila, an award-winning member of the Malta Poets Society, who is of Russian origin, is well-versed in both Russian and Maltese poetry and prose. She made a name in Malta through her successful collaboration with prominent Maltese writer Trevor Zahra, translating two of his books, Il-Ħajja Sigrieta tan-Nanna Ġenoveffa and Sfidi, in Russian. Her latest book, published earlier this year, is Antoloġija tal-Poeżija Russa (Anthology of Russian Poems), for which she translated 30 works by the 15 greatest Russian authors, from classical to modern times.
Other projects that lie in between literature and historical research, explore Russian-Maltese cross-cultural connections. The most well-known is, undoubtedly, a book by the former director of the Russian Cultural Centre, Elizaveta Zolina – Malta and Russia: Journey Through the Centuries, Historical Discoveries in Russo-Maltese Relations.
Another detailed research on an 18th-century multipage travel diary by Russian writer and translator Grigory Kraevsky was a result of a fruitful Russian-Maltese collaboration by Joseph Schirò of the Malta Map Society and Elena Yasnetskaya Sultana. This publication contains a map of Malta in the 18th-century Russian language which is of a particular interest, even for modern Russian readers.
Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space, donated an icon of St George, one of the most venerated saints both in Russia and Malta, to the Russian chapel at San Anton Palace. Since 1999, the representatives of the diplomatic corps, Maltese high-ranking officials and members of the Russian community celebrate Orthodox Christmas in this chapel, under the auspices of the President of Malta. This event is renowned for a concert where many prominent Russian musicians perform Russian music.
Such projects inspire other initiatives with the aim to popularise Russian-Maltese cross-cultural ties, showing that Russia and Malta are indeed close even though geographically distant.
The upcoming book Russian Valletta by Svetlana Vella, a Russian journalist and former editor-in-chief of Russian language magazines published in Malta, is focusing on historical episodes, artefacts and Russian personalities connected to Malta’s capital city. This book will be published in two languages, Russian and English, thus satisfying a wider circle of potential readers. Another project by Russian compatriots Valentina Sammut and Nadezhda Yarkova dedicated to Russian business in Malta is also in the pipeline.
All the above-mentioned projects serve as a bridge between the Russian diaspora, one of the biggest expat communities in Malta, and the Maltese. Now the community, which includes many Russian-Maltese families with multilingual children, is led by the voluntary Coordinating Committee of Russian Compatriots who organise popular events. The Russian Orthodox parish of St Paul the Apostle is working to meet the spiritual needs and is planning to launch regular religious services for the Russian Orthodox in Malta.
These all, of course, are an addition to the Russian Cultural Centre’s everyday activities which are based on a cultural Russian-Maltese exchange in fields such as art, sports, literature, music, science and beyond. These all remain very relevant today and we are inspired to build on and expand our friendly and mutually beneficial cultural relations.
Maksim Ryzhakov, acting director, Russian Centre for Science and Culture
Photo: Times of Malta