On Sunday the Russian Cultural Centre, on Tahrir Street in Dokki, saw the inauguration of an exhibition for the artwork of two Russian painters Oxoksana Prokhenova and Nadedje Val.
The paintings, said Sherif Gad, Director of Cultural Activities at the Russian Cultural Centre (RCC), reflect on life in today’s Russia. The exhibition was opened on the eve of the two-day visit of Vladimir Putin, the President of Russia, and is designed to introduce the Egyptian public to modern Russian art and life trends.
“This has been the key mission of the RCC since it was established in the 1956 – to build bridges inspired by culture but essentially reflecting on life,” Gad said.
It was during the heyday of Egyptian relations with the then Soviet Union in the 1950s that the Soviet Cultural Centre was established in 1956 in its first headquarters at Al-Alfi Street, at the heart of downtown Cairo.
Then as now, the centre was rich with diverse cultural offers to the Egyptian audience – providing a range of Russian education, ballet, piano and drawing classes. Along with the large library and punctual film showing, the centre today is also providing computer and art designing classes.
“In any given day, we have no less than 1000 people who frequently visit the library, film theatre, music salon or any of the many classes of the RCC,” Gad said.
Effectively, many of those who subscribe to the activities of the RCC are there essentially to acquire or improve linguistic skills at a time when the Russian contribution to Egypt’s annual share of world tourists is significant.
“But it would be wrong to try and portray the RCC as simply a place where people go to learn Russian because we do have a much wider audience that frequent, for example, the film theatre to watch modern and classic productions of the Russian, and previously Soviet, cinema production," Gad said.
"In fact we have subscribers who attend other foreign language classes, including English and French, or people who simply come to enjoy reading the many fascinating Russian titles that are translated into Arabic or listen to the full recordings of the Russian composers."
Himself a graduate of Moscow University where he studied media and film-making, Gad was once a subscriber to the activities of the very centre where he now assumes a responsibility for designing and promoting cultural activities.
“Prominent writer Youssef Idris once said that he spent great times in the halls of the Soviet Cultural Centre and like him I have always enjoyed my presence around the corridors of the place whose staff I joined in 1988,” he said.
Nineteen eighty-eight was the first year for the centre, then still the Soviet Cultural Centre, to resume its activities following a decade of closure that was imposed by late President Anwar Sadat, who unlike his predecessor Gamal Abdel-Nasser, was not in favour of any close rapprochement with the Soviets, especially after he warmed up towards the US following the end of the October War in the autumn of 1973.
During the 10-year closure, the centre was prohibited from almost all its cultural activities but was always allowed to help those who wish to learn the language that was widely used across what used to be called the ‘eastern bloc’.
Upon its comeback, the challenge was not insignificant in regards to re-attracting an Egyptian audience especially as the image of the Soviet Union was considerably damaged during the years of Sadat.
What helped to rebuild bridges without too much hesitation was what Gad rightly qualifies as the ‘considerable affinity that Egyptian public has in general to Russian art – be it literature or music or the prominent ballet."
The fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s did not dispel people's interest in frequenting the centre which had to go through a name change and budget reduction as the ‘new born’ Russia was faced with considerable economic challenges.
An immediate influence, Gad recalled, was the shortage in the budget for translation of literature from Arabic into Russian and vice versa. “This is perhaps one reason why we are lagging behind in keeping apace with the modern production of Russian literature in a way that is clearly contrasting with the considerable knowledge of the classics of Russian literature which actually influence our cinema production a great deal,” he said.
Also negatively influenced was the Russian cinema production after it was no longer subject to the support of the state as it was during the years of the Soviet Union. And it influenced the sub-titling of Egyptian films into Russian that left the audience, who used to be quite familiar with the classics of Egyptian cinema, with the modern cinematographic production.
“There was also a moment of overwhelming supremacy of Western culture – actually both in Egypt and Russia; so yes, there has been a drop in the cultural communication but the bridges were never broken if you wish,” Gad said.
“We kept a minimum, one could say; that there was at least always a Russian Section in the International Cairo Book Fair that is perhaps not as diverse and as accessible in terms of prices as it once was but it is still there,” Gad said.
He added that there might be new production that may not be very diverse but that is significantly interesting. Those included an Arabic translation of a children’s story book “Stories of the Pillow” whose original Russian text written by Natalia Kortog and was translated by Samiyah Tawfik and “Egypt in the eyes of Russian” by the prominent Russian orientalist Vladimir Belyakov.
There were two seminars for the launch and signing of both books, in the presence of their authors, that attracted a considerable audience. “It was very interesting with Kortog explaining to a large audience of children how to write small stories and with Belyakov reviewing what he said was a history of about 1000 years,” Gad said.
The history of Egyptian-Russian relations has been a key subject to documentaries that the RCC has been showing for the past few weeks ahead of the Tuesday evening showing of a Russian film.
The visit of the Russian President Putin would probably send the right signals to give a push to joint cultural activities, Gad said.
Also, the chair of the Association of the Egyptian Graduates of Russian Universities, which is based at the heart of the RCC, said that his association is going to propose an increase of cultural, educational and scientific cooperation.
“There are so many avenues for our cooperation that range from the cultural, the historic, scientific- especially the nuclear sciences which Egypt is now eyeing as part of expanding its electricity generation options,” Gad said. “We have a good base to build on whether it was in relation to teaching little ballerinas or to update the training that nuclear scientists acquired in the Soviet Union,” he added.