Take a basement trove of forgotten classical music tapes so rich that it has been called the King Tut's tomb of the recording industry. Bring it to light in a country where everything belonged to nobody for a long time and ownership now often goes to those who shout loudest or grab fastest.
Put an enormous price tag on the recordings' estimated value.
Add a Los Angeles producer who "discovers" the tapes and buys the international rights to them--and you have one of the most raucous battles to hit Russian culture in years.
The fierce fight, waged through news conferences, government edicts, lawsuits, newspaper articles and public letters, has gone on for months, pushed largely by patriots intent on blocking what they see as the West's largest incursion into the sacred realm of Russian culture.
The conflict all began with a wondrous find. For six decades, the Soviet television and radio authority--then known as Gostelradio and now as Ostankino--stored old broadcast tapes in its basements, re-airing a few now and then but letting most of them gather dust.
Tristan Del, a Los Angeles-based producer who was in Moscow on a music project in 1990, heard a casual mention of the archive from radio officials. "And a light went on," he said. "I asked: 'What archive? Tell me more.' "
What he found was a collection of 1.2 million video and audio recordings, about 350,000 of them of classical music. The tapes, some of them live performances and some studio recordings, amount to the cobwebbed chronicles of the broadcast colossus that held an absolute monopoly on the Soviet airwaves.
Among them are such gems as composers Dmitri Shostakovich and Sergei Prokofiev playing their own music; performances by legendary violinist David Oistrakh and cellist Mstislav Rostropovich; even a recording of a Russian tenor singing what Del calls "The Fatal Opera," a piece that he asserts has arias so difficult that it reportedly has wrecked the voices of lesser singers.
When he signed a deal for the classical portion of the archives with Ostankino in January, 1992, Del and USSU Arts Group Inc., the company he founded with Hollywood producer Sidney Sharp, gained exclusive international rights to one of the largest commercial classical music catalogues in the world.
He will not disclose details of his agreement, which, among other concerns, worried some artists who hope for royalty payments for performances from the collection.
The massive archive bears a tragic tinge. It is stocked with the musical victims of decades of repression: brilliant concerts never aired again after musicians or conductors fell from political favor or defected, brilliant performers never given the chance to gain international fame. "There are great talents who are unknown in the West," Del said. "These are artists who, when heard, will be a real boom, a sensation."
The dusty jackets of the recordings tell the tale simply: Performers in disfavor were simply inked out of the credits. Now, archive workers, after determining where credit is due, are covering those black lines with whiteout and writing the names back in.
Some great concerts by musical outcasts were still played on Soviet radio, archive Director Anna Makarova said. "But if (a taped performance) was a Rostropovich or a Vladimir Ashkenazy, you couldn't announce it and it would never be released," she said. "It would be stamped 'Extracted.' "
(Rostropovich was exiled from the Soviet Union in 1974 and later stripped of his citizenship for championing the cause of author and Nobel laureate Alexander I. Solzhenitsyn; pianist and conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy defected in 1963, returning for triumphant concerts--26 years later.)
In a special irony, the technology used to restore the recordings by removing the noise and transferring them to digital tape was created, in part, through a KGB technique developed for eavesdropping, Del said. He described it as a method once used to transform voice vibrations from window glass into recognizable words by applying computer algorithms to "extract the pure essence of sound."
Del said his company has invested at least $500,000 in the project, bringing in Western computers and equipment for restoration and cataloguing.
But that is not enough to satisfy the opposition, made up of musicians, cultural bureaucrats and journalists.
They argue that the archive is of such national significance that the public should have had a say in its disposition. They say that maybe the tapes should have been put up for open international bidding or handled by a better-known recording giant like Sony or by a Russian producer.
"This is an unprecedented event when a country . . . voluntarily hands away its national heritage," Culture Minister Yevgeny Sidorov huffed recently. He called the sale the worst "bazaar-style selloff" of Russian culture.
Del sees it differently. "This is one of the most beautiful, noble cultural projects in the world," he said. "It brings the possibility for great Russian artists to be heard by millions and millions of people, and will bring lots of money to this country--hundreds of millions of dollars."
But, he said, "They compare me to a person who came from nowhere and got into Ali Baba's cave and stole their treasures."
Western experts have not had a chance to study the Soviet tapes. Del, however, said they are worth almost $2 billion; he derives this estimate, not from the collection's market potential, he said, but by putting a low-end value of $5,000 on each recording--much as a museum totes up the total worth of its exhibits.
John F. (Jack) Pfeiffer--a noted American record producer who worked with international giants like pianists Artur Rubinstein and Vladimir Horowitz in their recording heydays--said of the collection: "These are not historic recordings, nor are they modern. But some of them are great, even when, as, for instance when they document (Emil) Gilels' playing of the Liszt Sonata, they duplicate performances already available commercially.
"These radio-broadcast performances . . . are valuable, no doubt of it," he added. "My only question is: Does anyone have the legal right to exploit them?"
Pfeiffer said Soviet-era artists, like pianist Sviatoslav Richter and Ashkenazy, signed away all rights to the government-operated broadcast authority. But foreign musicians recorded by the Soviet broadcast giant usually did not, and, in fact, in some cases, could not.
"Rubinstein, for instance, did not control his recording rights, because he had sold them to RCA," he said. "The legal ramifications are many, and not at all clear. All this has to be explored before anyone can proceed to sell and distribute the contents of the tapes."
In the restoration room of the archives at Medvedkovo in northern Moscow, where most of the best Ostankino originals are stored, a sound engineer plays the "before" and "after" versions of the digital re-engineering of a typical treasure: a tape of Shostakovich piano preludes performed by the composer.
On the earlier version, the deep plaintive emotion of the performance is almost obscured by a hissing noise. In the restored tape, the prelude shines through. Just as exciting is a restored version of a 1950s concert by the late American singer Paul Robeson, his voice so deep, gorgeous and booming that it seems to carry its own echo.
"I can't tell you how proud I am that we saved these recordings, whatever else comes," Del said. He has his first release from the archive already picked but refused to disclose its title.
Beneath his opponents' arguments--and often openly expressed--is the deep Russian ambivalence over the role foreign business is to play in rebuilding the economy here. The warm invitations to investors cannot conceal a strong suspicion that these smooth Westerners are out to snooker Russian rubes.
"This is a typical attitude (for foreigners)--that in weak Russia, you can offer any conditions and Russia will agree to them because it's in a tough situation," Deputy Culture Minister Mikhail Shutkoy said. "This is a mentality, and we have to break it."
For Russian musicians, any hint of exploitation strikes an especially sensitive chord. "For 75 years, we artists were robbed," said Nikolai Petrov, the beefy pianist who appears to lead Del's opposition. "We were practically slaves. We were told where to play, what to say, what we could play and what we couldn't play. . . . This germ is in us, and we'll long be fighting against that feeling of slavery."
Though Petrov did not say it, he and other musicians are clearly concerned about how Del's contract affects their chances of earning money from their old recordings.
"The musicians are obviously worrying about their own private interests--not creative but financial," the newspaper Pravda noted. The Soviet Union made no provisions for performers' rights. Neither does Russian law. Del has agreed to funnel royalties through the main Russian musicians union, but some may think that they could do better on their own.
Added to all that distrust is the belief among many Russians that, in these times of economic chaos, officials are quietly selling off for bribes any hunk of the national heritage they can--from oil to diamonds to museum exhibits.
"I'm the culture minister in a country that is going through enormous losses in many parts of our life," Sidorov told Del in a public confrontation at a news conference. "When we have a situation of the loss of national culture, the culture minister becomes a conservative. He stands up and says, 'Stop, settle this, figure it out.' "
Sidorov, however, has gone beyond mere conservatism. He signed a letter in the Rossiya newspaper that accused Del of running a "pirate" firm and asked Western record executives to shun his company. The letter also claimed, in what even some backers denounced as an anti-Semitic attack, that Del was born with the Jewish name Arkady Sheydelman in the Crimean town of Odessa.
Del skirts talk about his past, although his fluent, American-accented Russian bespeaks Soviet origin or descent. He said he is writing an autobiography and, when asked about his descent, offered only the taciturn reply, "Read my memoirs."
Del did offer that he was a violinist as a child and has lived in Los Angeles for the last 18 years. He said he has produced TV shows, including several episodes of "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous" and the World Music Awards in Monte Carlo.
He said he founded the USSU arts group specifically for the Ostankino deal, financing it with money from his and Sharp's investments. He has also launched a Russian record company, Champion, that last year sent an anthology of American music to the top of the Russian charts and has become a major label here.
Among Russian musicians, Del remains controversial. But the main musicians unions have endorsed him, as has the Russian intellectual property agency.
The anti-Semitic remark and piracy charge have prompted Del to file slander lawsuits against Petrov and Sidorov, demanding 1.15 billion rubles--about $1.15 million--in damages.
Those actions are only sideshows, though, to the legal battle over the recordings. Del has hired top Russian and American lawyers and launched his legal forays with such zeal that it almost seems as if he were playing in a special episode of "L.A. Law Meets the Soviet Bureaucracy."
Del is running more than a defense of his own 1992 contract. The fight is also a test case of whether the Russian state will succumb to the old Soviet habit of grabbing back private property, under the slogan of national interest, or whether it will respect a legal contract with a foreigner.
Culture Ministry lawyers argue that Ostankino did not have the right to cut the deal because it did not have true ownership of the archives. They also claim there are irregularities in the contract.
But for all their complaints, under the post-Communist civil code, the government has no right to intervene in a business contract that breaks no laws. "The legal opinions of 12 outstanding Russian attorneys all confirm just one thing: It's a legally binding, solid, ironclad contract," Del said. "It's the contract that survived because, fortunately, the Culture Ministry has nothing to do with it."
Del contends that the deal, far from exploiting Russians' resources, gives Ostankino almost an even split on proceeds from releases--he would not specify the terms but said Ostankino would get nearly triple the world norm. "We're not removing one drop of oil or one diamond," he said. "We're just taking old tapes and making money off of them."
Del believes that some of the opposition also stems from foreign competitors--classical recording companies horrified at the thought that he could suddenly flood the market with Russian jewels.
In all the intensity of the fight over the Ostankino tapes, one thing is certain: The prize is worth it. And one way or another, classical music fans will soon be treated to an array of new recordings. Del plans to release 30 to 50 a year, beginning in the next few months, and to market compact discs with some videos of special concerts.
As for national heritage, "The national heritage only matters if people of the nation benefit from it," he said. "Those tapes were sitting there for decades with no commercial utilization whatsoever, and no one ever cared, no one ever bothered to do anything about it.
"My major life motto is that 50% of something is better than 100% of nothing," he said. "And that's exactly what was happening here--nothing."