Sharing Cultural Aesthetic

It is no wonder that Wilfried Eckstein sees himself as an ambassador of art. He has had great success spreading the German aesthetic to a city that repelled German acquisitiveness 50 years ago.

As director of the cultural division of Moscow's Goethe Institute, Eckstein, 39, helped organize what he calls the largest arts festival Moscow has ever hosted: Berlin in Moscow. Eckstein's role in the festival, in which the German government invested over $800,000, was to help 180 German artists get to Moscow to perform and display their work. The festival took up the majority of Eckstein's professional time since November, but it was worth it. Eckstein called it the highlight of his four-year stay in Moscow.

"I've learned to rely on people, individuals, and never on institutions," he said when asked what he's learned during his stay here.

Eckstein, a tall, reedy man with thinning blond hair, studied history, German and English at Heidelberg and Princeton Universities before earning a master's degree in philology from Frankfurt University. Eckstein said he had no prior interest in Russia but came with a Goethe Institute assignment.

"We work in three- to five-year tours," Eckstein said. "It's kind of like the diplomatic service," he explained.

Indeed, the organization is diplomatic in its endeavors. Founded in 1948, there are now branches of the Goethe Institute in 79 countries. Eckstein helped found Moscow's Institute, coming here with his wife and two children in 1992. Its purpose, he said, is for Germany to "make friends in other countries."

In turn, Eckstein said he has been greeted with extraordinary hospitality by his host country. He said because of their experience living under totalitarianism, "Russians have a much keener appreciation of the difference between the individual and the state."

But, he added, 70 years under a totalitarian regime also sheltered artists from cross-pollination with the rest of the artistic world, a situation he hopes to reverse by fostering cultural exchange.

"The idea of the Institute is cultural," he said. "We don't consider ourselves to be a propaganda organization." Nevertheless, the German government spends 2 million Deutsche marks ($1.3 million) each year on the Institute, funding a German library, language classes and cultural programs.

Eckstein's next project will be to present arts from different fields simultaneously. "It is the new trend in German culture," Eckstein said referring to art that straddles the border between different artistic media. "And it is our duty to communicate that to the Russians."