Reminisces of Being in Leningrad for the Collapse of the Soviet Union

New York, N.Y. I remember well being present in Leningrad — now St. Petersburg — the day the Soviet Union collapsed. It was 1991 and a major incident was about to occur while I was staying in Leningrad negotiating bringing its city opera to the U.S.

That morning, when I got up as usual and went out, something was different in the atmosphere, something Zawazawa (ざわざわ), a restless, uneasy atmosphere among people on the street. Yesterday, US$1 was one ruble at the bank. At around noon US$1 was suddenly up to 27 rubles. When I think that this day was the beginning of the day of the collapse of the Soviet Union I think, What a strange thing that I was there?!


Luxury goods were never on sale on the street in U.S. dollars. But as soon as things started happening in the city, vendors began to sell goods on the street at a quarter of the usual price. Antique goods flowed quickly and luxury items were sold at very low prices. Gold jewelry, antique samovars, and the finest 400-500 year-old brooches were in flux…

I began shopping on the street without thinking too much about it; I regret I did not buy a lot more. What was difficult to observe, however, was all the artifacts taken out from the entrance of the Hermitage Museum and sold on the street. I even witnessed a security guard selling things at the door.


The police were in a state of disarray, completely out of order. At this time, if I tipped just US$10, I would have been able to take out anything out of the country without any punishment.

It was a great experience to be in Russia just when it collapsed. There was an American tour of the Opera Company which was planned already for long time. So, the contents of the contract had to be changed in various ways. I felt that it was very difficult to continue the plan of the tour of USA and wanted to cancel. At this time, the hope was dim and difficult because people stole various costumes, wigs, props and even light bulbs from the theater. Obviously I had to compensate for the loss if I continue the plan of the tour to the U.S.

Hermitage_Museum,_St._Petersburg_(38)_(36791963890)Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg. Photo: Wikipedia/Richard Mortel, Riyadh.

My Last Project Work as International Impresario

In February 1992, I carried on my last project as the Impresario. The St. Peters Opera to USA and to Lincoln Center as my last international project.. In spite of this hardship we brought a total of 400 people to the United States and performed three very famous Russian operas at the Lincoln Center. “Boris Godunov” composed by Mussorgsky, “Golden” composed by Rimsky-Korsakov, and “The Queen of Spades” composed by Tchaikovsky. This was a gorgeous project worthy of my retirement., I do not know if I think now how on earth I have achieved this. (laughs). It was a great success. Even Black Marketeers appeared. I also produced an art project at the same time, the exhibition “From Russia, With Love” and “To Russia with love” were held in the lobby for the purpose of international exchange.

Difference in the Value of Labor

The trouble was the behavior of the director. Unlike in other countries, people in the Soviet Union, in particular, felt like they were very competitive against the United States.

At the hotel restaurant, he invited people to drink, eat, and eat with expensive wines etc. and charged all to his room. Although I’m giving out my daily allowances. Apparently, in the Communist countries, since they receive salary decided from the country, they do not understand the severity that they have to make money to pay by themselves for anything extra..

The money we earn through our efforts is as important as gold, so if you don’t know to make extra money for things you want to do you should not spend. The money does not grow on the tree like a fruits to take it as much as you wish. It was impossible to teach this to him.

To Speak Very Simply

In a communist system, if one works to a certain extent as long as I live, One is guaranteed to receive money. I think this is the real cause of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Because they do not know the value of labor, and they don’t have to do the best.. They also do not know that, if one do good or something extra, you can be extra rewarded. If you do your best, you will earn extra money. I thought that no one was working hard so, the system broken down

But, All art in the communist countries were top notch

But concerning the art fields the art, strangely, in any communist country was really great and I was happy to bring a lot of those finest art to the United States. People involved in the arts will be rewarded with polishing their art and excelling in their field. Considering this, your pride will not be rewarded with money but its artistic nature will be recognized and appreciated by people and so on. Unlike the other field, you can do world class art. That was the joy for the artsts.

Originally published as Vol. 62 in Weekly Biz, March 2, 2019; translated by Jim Luce.

See: Dr. Kazuko Hillyer Tatsumura Column in Japan’s Weekly Biz



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About Dr. Kazuko Hillyer Tatsumura

View all posts by Dr. Kazuko Hillyer Tatsumura
Dr. Kazuko Hillyer Tatsumura
Dr. Kazuko was born into a distinguished old family in Kyoto, Japan, and graduated from Toho conservatory of Music in Tokyo. In 1961 she came to U.S. as a pianist sponsored by the Boston Symphony. She studied at Boston University, New York University, and received her Ph.D. in Oriental Medicine from New York State University and the International Academy of Education in Tokyo. From 1968 to 1992, she promoted cultural exchanges from East to West and vice versa, and became a world famous impresario, producing 2,000 events each year all over the world encompassing over 140 countries. In this connection, in 1972, she went to Dharamsala to find the lost Tibetan Folk Opera, and met His Holiness the Dalai Lama, with whom she remains a lifelong friend. In 1973 and 1991 she arranged and funded personally the tours of the Folk Opera of Tibet to the West. She has received many medals and honors from different countries. Her tireless life long work in Philanthropic field is vast and well known ranging from Save the Beacon Theater, Save the Boat People, Help the Homeless, natural disasters of earthquakes and tsunamis, as well as relief to AIDS and HIV positive children in Africa. She has been a dedicated Board Member to both the J. Luce Foundation and Orphans International for years. Her work focuses on the Tibetan people; Tibetan children remain especially strong in her heart. She raised fund for the new academic building for Manjushree Orphanage in Tawang, India and supported many aspects of the school. See HuffPo pieces entitled Japanese Holistic Healer in NYC to Build School for Tibetan Orphans in India, A Japanese Dinner with Raul Castro’s Daughter, and NYC Gala in Support of Tibetan Orphans Set for January.

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