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Not everyone who wants to see the Bolshoi's 'Nutcracker' will get a ticket

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

In his recent year-end address to the nation, Russian President Vladimir Putin called for patience with the war in Ukraine, saying the country would meet its goals. But in Moscow, the war can often seem far away. NPR's Charles Maynes found Russians determined to show patience of another kind by waiting for tickets to a ballet.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Ultimately, you can blame it on math - 1,700. That's how many people fit in Moscow's fabled Bolshoi Theatre.

(SOUNDBITE OF PERFORMANCE OF TCHAIKOVSKY'S "THE NUTCRACKER SUITE, OP. 71A: MARCH")

MAYNES: Yet there are just 22 holiday performances of "The Nutcracker," the beloved 19th-century ballet by Russian composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky, heard here in a Bolshoi performance from 2014. So 1,700 seats, 22 performances, which leaves around 37,000 "Nutcracker" tickets for a city of some 12 million, meaning at the Bolshoi, as in life, there are winners but, more often, losers.

(CROSSTALK)

MAYNES: Outside the theater, hundreds of Russians brave subzero temperatures deep into the night in hopes of securing their golden ticket.

ANDREI: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: "We've been standing here for a long time, since 9 this morning," says Andrei, a Moscow university student who, like everyone in this story, agreed to speak on the condition his last name not appear in the American media. "But we'll stay until the end," he adds, "because "The Nutcracker" is worth it."

RAIA: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: "It's such a beautiful ballet. I just wanted a chance to see it in my old age," says Raia, a retired cleaner who's lived in Moscow most of her life but never been to a "Nutcracker" production. And this gets to another issue - the Bolshoi sells only 400 Nutcracker tickets per day. And to get them, you have to stand in line. Most people I spoke with were on their second try after a melee broke out the night before.

ZHENYA: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: "They opened the gates, and the crowd just shoved us out of the way," says Zhenya, a mother of two who works in the aviation industry. "If people were more cultured, they would've seen that pensioners and others have been waiting all day long," she adds. "Unfortunately, that's not the society we live in." On this night, riot police were on hand, but they mostly sat warm in their bus, the engine kicking acrid fumes over the same crowd police were, in theory, there to protect. If all of this - ballet, beauty, suffering and scarcity - sound like Russian tropes, well, here's another...

ZHENYA: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: ...Corruption.

ZHENYA: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: "What? You really think someone's not making money off of all of this?" says Zhenya, glancing towards the front of the line.

BEK: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: "I'm supposed to stand here for 10 hours," admitted Bek, one of several migrant workers from Central Asia I met at the head of the queue.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: "He's a hired gun," said one of his friends as he and Bek gave a smile. In fact, people kept telling me all the ways a small fortune can be made for those looking to sell a spot in line. Russia, of course, is at war and under heavy Western sanctions because of it. But no one seemed to want to talk about Ukraine - and maybe with good reason. These days, the wrong opinion can easily land you in jail. Still, the conflict was there, lurking just off stage.

(Speaking Russian).

As I joked that an endless line felt like something out of the USSR, Raia, the retired pensioner, told me she really did have nostalgia for the Soviet days.

RAIA: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: "Honestly, things were so much calmer then. Today, there's that little war..."

RAIA: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: ...Her voice trailing off.

ANDREI: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: Andrei, the university student, told me that during hard times, Russians gravitated towards art. "To stand in line and talk to people, to listen to music and watch ballet - it brings me joy," he said. Meanwhile, Zhenya, the aviation worker, said if there was ever a time to see "The Nutcracker," it was now, with Russia cut off from Europe and travel to other destinations astronomically expensive.

ZHENYA: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: "You can't go anywhere these days," she says. And so with New Year's just around the corner, she returns to the line, hoping for a different kind of ticket to better times. Charles Maynes, NPR News, Moscow.

(SOUNDBITE OF PERFORMANCE OF TCHAIKOVSKY'S "THE NUTCRACKER SUITE, OP. 71A: WALTZ OF THE FLOWERS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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