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Russia: Former Soviet Musicians Find New Life In Greece

By Alexis Papasotiriou

Shortly after the breakup of the Soviet Union, a group of musicians from Russia, Kazakhstan and Ukraine took advantage of their new freedom to travel and settled in Greece, where they formed a new orchestra. Correspondent Alexis Papasotiriou reports on the success of the transplanted musicians.

Patras, Greece; 18 February 2000 (RFE/RL) -- In a small port city on the southwestern coast of Greece, an orchestra plays regularly to packed houses. The Patras Orchestra is extremely popular with the locals, perhaps because of its unique status on the Greek musical scene -- all of the 16 orchestra members are immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

The Patras Orchestra was founded by a Greek named Dimitris Botanis, who was also its first conductor. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Botanis traveled to former Soviet territory to recruit musicians for his orchestra. Soviet musical training was justly famous, and the Greek conductor found his musicians in the Tchaikovsky Conservatory and the Gnessins Academy of Music in Moscow, the Novosibirsk Conservatory in Siberia, and the Almaty Conservatory in Kazakhstan.

Of the 16 musicians, three are Kazakh, six are Russian, six are ethnic Greek, and one is Ukrainian.

Hopes of a freer life inspired the musicians to take advantage of newly open borders and follow Botanis to Patras. They now find themselves in a port city of about 250,000 people, playing and teaching music.

Four of the musicians have played together for more than a decade -- first as the Kazakhstan State Quartet, and now as the Patras Quartet. Our correspondent spoke to two of the quartet members: Yiannis Mavridis, an ethnic Greek who plays violin, and Askar Bouribayev, a Kazakh who plays the cello.

Yiannis Mavridis says the ethnic Greeks in Russia jumped at the chance to move to Greece, the homeland of the ancestors.

"The musicians got together [in Patras] for various reasons. Each had his own reason, but as far as the ethnic Greek musicians who were born in Russia are concerned, for them it was easier, because for them Greece is the homeland of their ancestors. It was a chance to work abroad, which was difficult during the Soviet era. Not only was it difficult to work abroad, but also to go abroad for a visit. Times were difficult after the breakup of the Soviet Union. Most of the musicians of the Patras Orchestra came from Russia, the Ukraine, and Kazakhstan. This was a chance for them to go abroad to work and to see what its like there."

In their first few years, the musicians had difficulty adapting to life in Greece. Some of them ran into the usual bureaucratic difficulties trying to get residence permits for their families.

But the main problem, Bouribayev says, was learning the language. At first the musicians were somewhat isolated from the community. Now, he says, all the musicians speak Greek. Bouribayev says the musicians are impressed with the freedom and democracy they have found in Greece.

"When we came to Greece, we realized that we had more freedom here. Freedom to move, freedom to express ourselves. We do the same work here as we did in Kazakhstan:- to play music. We also teach music at the Patras Odeon. When we came to Greece it was difficult for Soviet musicians to go abroad, especially to Western Europe. But now things have changed. Our countries, Russia, the Ukraine and Kazakhstan, have become independent republics, and musicians there have more opportunities to go abroad to work."

Yet music, Mavridis and Bouribayev said, has an international language. Musical notes are universal, and all musicians know enough Italian, German, and French to read musical terms. Conductors commonly conduct foreign orchestras -- in fact, the Patras Orchestra conductor is a Lithuanian, Saulius Sondeskis, who leads Kazakh and Russian musicians in Greece.

Last month, the quartet played in Almaty, Kazakhstan, their first performance in their homeland since they came to settle in Greece. The sold-out concert was a huge success, and the musicians say they welcome the chance to return for a concert next year. For now, however, the orchestra looks forward to playing in European capitals.