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East Meets West
By Tom Washington The Moscow News

English Evenings with a Dash of the Russian Soul

Go to Pushkin Square on certain evenings of the month and, leading off from Strastnoi Bulvar and going through an archway, you will find the Chekhov Library and Cultural Center. If you've got the day right then you should happen across one of Stephen Lapeyrouse's English Language Evenings. Here, you'll encounter impassioned speaking, vigorous debate and a cultural melting pot as the speaker of the day presents a topic to an enthusiastic and critical audience.

This is not just any discussion group or English-language club. These evenings draw their inspiration from three different sources: the discussion forums of Lapeyrouse's native California, their 18th Century antecedent the coffee house, but most notably the poetry readings which Lapeyrouse encountered in the days of the Soviet Union when readings were held in Pushkin Square on each anniversary of the poet's birth. Then, crowds would cluster around Pushkin's statue, and each side would serve as a stage. In those days, anyone from six year-old children to wizened babushkas would take a turn to deliver the poetry of their native land.

Then, the streets and squares were not the bright, buzzing thoroughfares you see today. As Lapeyrouse, now an English teacher and writer, reminisced, "You kept your head down and you kept quiet," so those occasions were a unique outlet. The lyrical verse of Pushkin provided a rare chance to deliver voluble conviction and passion in a public place.

Lapeyrouse first came to Russia as a student, and it was on Pushkin's birthday that he and a small group of Americans crossed Pushkin Square. When they stumbled across the hubbub around the statue, they were quickly identified as foreign and western, and became the objects of great interest. "We stood there for four to five hours while the Russians fired questions at us; everything from Reagan to Nietzsche to Marx," Lapeyrouse said. The whole thing was so extraordinary and stirring that Lapeyrouse promised himself he would come back to Moscow and experience it again. And so the English Language Evenings were born. Western speakers, experts in their fields, come and deliver talks on their chosen topic, and then submit to a grueling from the floor.

About 90 percent of the audience is Russian with an advanced command of English. The other 10 percent are mostly native English speakers, and they generally have quite a high turnover - maybe coming back a few times before drifting off into the ether. The heart of the evenings is very much Russian.

"The Russians have a distinct character," Lapeyrouse said. "And anyone who comes to the English Language Evenings for a while will see it coming out." He added, "They provide intelligent passion, and a lot of them are very well read." This makes for an informed and often very lively discussion. Such is its appeal that many of the regular attendees have been coming for four or five years.

So what are the topics? Culture and literature feature prominently, and since some of the speakers are authors, they naturally talk about their books. One of the most popular themes is foreigners' views of Russia. This often excites heated debate amongst the listeners, who may include both ardent Russophiles and xenophiles with a passion for disagreeing with each others' views. The speakers have so far included university professors, correspondents, political analysts, and ambassadors, to name but a few.

At 50 rubles it is well worth a visit, partly for the interesting and informative lectures, but equally for the lively atmosphere and passionate convictions.

Future topics can be found on http://www.geocities.com/ELEMoscow/ Lectures held at the Chekhov

Library/Cultural Center, Strastnoi Bulvar 6, Metro Chekhovskaya

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