Don’t let’s be beastly to the Russians.
As the demonisation of all things Russian becomes an obligatory shibboleth among the bien pensants of the West, it’s perhaps worth Harrumpf casting upon it the jaundiced eye it retains for such feel-good fashions.
When war broke out in 1939, the contents of London’s National Gallery were evacuated to a hole in the ground ‘somewhere in Wales’, where it was hoped they would be as safe as could be.
Myra Hess, a well-known concert pianist, saw an opportunity to use the empty gallery to mount concerts, and put the idea to the Gallery’s director, Kenneth Clark. And so were born the famous lunchtime concerts – 45 minute programs, to which audients were encourage to bring their sandwiches, and to which admission was free. Hess had thought that perhaps 40 or 50 of her friends and their friends might show up. In the event, the first concert drew a crowd of 1,000 in a queue stretching out of Trafalgar Square, and many had to be turned away.
What with the Battle for France reaching its dismal denouement, and Britain next under Hitler’s cosh, one might have expected the program of that first concert to be heavy on Elgar, Arne and Stanford, perhaps with a leavening of Gilbert and Sullivan, and that the music of the Germanic world would have been carefully avoided. In fact, it was replete with Germans and Austrians, with Beethoven, Brahms and Schubert very much to the fore. Nobody seems really to have noticed this embrace of the culture of their mortal enemy, or if they did, to have objected. It was a very British way of responding to adversity – an insistence that Hitler, who claimed to be the embodiment of German culture and what today we call ‘values’, was no such thing; that they were fighting Germany more in sorrow than in anger, and that they retained a belief that there was a Germany which, though it may have been forced into hiding, shared the Enlightenment values for which they were fighting.
Speaking of the first concert, Kenneth Clark said ‘The moment when she played the opening bars of Beethoven’s Appassionata will always remain for me one of the great experiences of my life – an assurance that all our sufferings were not in vain’.
What does this have to teach us about the present war? In particular, what does it say to those of us who know that Ukrainians are risking – and losing – their lives for us, in a war in which we have a very real stake, and who are tempted to indulge in empty posturing to salve consciences troubled by our inability to take more meaningful action?
It is one thing, and surely a good one, to shun those Russian artists who openly express their approval of Putin’s war. But it’s quite another thing to spurn Russian art tout court. Putin, in any case, is supremely unmoved by Western disapproval, however expressed. And a major plank of his demented pitch to his people is that Russia is beset by dastardly foreigners bent on her humiliation. Demonising the work of Rachmaninov, of Pushkin, of Mussorgsky – of Dostoevsky, for goodness’ sake – simply lends credence to Putin’s mendacity.
It may be true that 60% of Russians approve of Putin and his war. But we need to be ready for that 60% to see the light, and that’s not done by rubbishing their culture, even if they richly deserve it. I’m certainly not suggesting that by being nice to them we’ll get a short war. But to have a Russian population deeply alienated by and from the West is a recipe for conflict and instability long after the hostilities in Ukraine have ceased.
There will be no lasting peace in Europe or, indeed, the world, while this view has any traction amongst ordinary Russians. Those ordinary Russians are starting to feel the effects upon their daily lives of the isolation their leader has brought upon them. It is vital that we in the West do all we can to lead them to place the blame for their predicament on his shoulders, where it belongs, and not on the malign foreign forces of his imagination.
As a general rule, then, we should be taking a leaf out of Myra Hess’ book, and using Russian art as a reminder to Russia at large that our beef is with Putin and his supporters, not with them, or their culture.
One thought on “War Notes 3”
Thoroughly agree with your points in this article, Tom, particularly about the importance of avoiding unnecessarily alienating ordinary Russians.
I think we in Western Europe have to remember that we live on a tiny scrap of land at the end of a huge Eurasian landmass, dominated by two huge authoritarian countries – Russia and China. They’re bigger than us – tread carefully!