On 11 November last year, musical director Victor Serghie and his wife Millie Serghie found themselves in Moscow attending an international film festival, ‘Russia Abroad’. Festival director Sergei Zaitsev had organised the event to commemorate a number of hundred-year anniversaries, including the end of WWI, the birth of Alexander Solzhenitsyn and a hundred years since the execution of the Russian imperial family, the Romanovs.
‘Russia Abroad’ documents and honours the millions of Russians who left Russia in the aftermath of the 1917 October Revolution.
It was more than just a film festival. Alongside, there were seminars and presentations given by Russian historians and film directors from this great diaspora, and the Sydney Balalaika Orchestra was the subject of one of those presentations.
For some time the organisers have been trying to get us to talk about the SBO’s Russian origins,’ said Victor Serghie. ‘“Russia Abroad” is an organisation set up in the House of Russians Abroad, or Solzhenitsyn House, in central Moscow. The building houses a museum of many treasures donated from abroad which tell a story of Russian life, culture and spirit which survived outside of Russia for a number of generations.
Victor and Millie were born in Harbin, Northern China. Harbin became a flourishing Russian city during the construction of Chinese Eastern Railway, an extension of the Russian Trans-Siberian Railroad, which was built by Russia in late 19th century. It became a little haven of Russian culture in China for refugees, after the Russian Revolution. ‘It was effectively a Russian city, with Russian schools and polytechnical colleges, Russian Orthodox churches, theatres, hospitals, etc.’ said Millie.
‘But it wasn’t to last,’ added Victor. ‘In time we were encouraged by the Chinese Government to migrate out of China, which is how we ended up in Australia. And in a way, that was the genesis of the Sydney Balalaika Orchestra.’
Victor gave a presentation using video clips of the Sydney Balalaika Orchestra, to a packed theatre. ‘It isn’t as if they hadn’t heard of the SBO already. After three concert tours in Russia and a few documentaries about us, we actually have a very good reputation there,’ said Victor. ‘But it was the “how” and the “why” that really intrigued them,’ he said. ‘ “How is it that an orchestra like the SBO can keep Russian folk music culture alive so far from Russia – in a country like Australia, with little history of Russian culture, and to such a high standard?” ‘
‘Audience members asked: ‘”How is it that you only have five Russian speakers in the orchestra? How do you get so many different nationalities to join a Russian folk orchestra? Why is it that you have no generous sponsors, and how come none of the musicians are paid?” Somehow they just could not compute that musicians might turn up for rehearsal once a week just for the love of playing this music, without being paid! To them, this was unbelievable,’ said Victor.
There were additional questions about the availability of Russian folk instruments. ‘They were much amused,’ laughed Victor, ‘about Matt Morgan, our left-handed domra player. There is no concept of “left handed” instruments in Russia. If you are left-handed – tough! Of course there is, in Australia, which is why we got one of Russia’s master luthiers in Moscow to make a prima-domra “leftie” for Matt. They were amazed at that,’ he said.
But what really held them spellbound,’ said Millie, ‘was the video clip, a montage of some of the orchestra’s more celebrated musical performances. They clapped and cheered afterwards. They were so impressed,’ she said. ‘But what is of real interest to them,’ added Victor, ‘is that people living down here in what’s to them the bottom of the world, are keeping Russian culture alive. It really delights them.’
We understand that the organisers of this festival in Moscow were so impressed with Victor’s presentation, that next time they would prefer that he bring the whole Sydney Balalaika Orchestra with him, so they can hear us for real.
Will it happen soon?
Well…………… just maybe!