stands roughly in relation to that one
as did Boris Godunov (c.1551-1605)
to Ivan IV, 'the Terrible' (1530-1584)
Why do I make the point? Because until Russian history stops repeating itself, we are likely to go back to truth-telling poets of the past to find the present in what they write. It was a scene in Pushkin's Shakespearean history-drama Boris Godunov not in either of Musorgsky's operatic versions which pulled me up short in the opera class last week. The poet uses one of his ancestors, a not exactly admirable plotting noble, to make the second of the comparisons above. 'He rules as did Ivan,' claims Afanasy Pushkin in James E Falen's admirable trnalsation:
What good that public hangings are no more;
That on a bloody stake, for all to see,
No longer do we sing our hymns to Christ;
That we're not burnt alive upon the square,
The Tsar to rake our ashes with his staff?
Are our poor lives in any way more safe?
We're threatened every day with some disgrace:
Siberia...the dungeon...or the cowl,
And there, in some forsaken place, to die
From hunger or a strangler's knotted rope...
Remove the religious associations - though those, of course, are coming back under a repressive Patriarch - and subtitute the psychiatric ward and the carefully chosen poison* for the cowl and the strangler, and you have a proper equivalent to how Putin wields his power as a Stalin for our times. In one way, it's devilish cunning: as Peter Pomerantsev puts it in his giddying evocation of his recent years in Russia, Nothing is True and Everything is Possible, this political system thrives on 'democratic rhetoric and undemocratic intent'. Plus the belief that if you lie often enough, people might start to believe you (look at Medvedev's bare-faced declaration that Russia is not bombing anybody but IS in Syria, that the west is creating a cold war. The Lithuanian President retorted that Russia is doing everything it can to make this a hot war.
Pomerantsev's subjects are chosen and paraded to give a lurid whirligig of absurdity and horror. He worked on Russian TV documentaries, so he knows that state control of Ostankino is making the country into one big grotesque (non) reality show. He gives us a terrifying portrait of Vladislav Surkov (pictured below speaking for his horrible creation Nashi, the new version of the Hitler Youth), the clever, cynical amoralist who has 'privatised the Russian political system', whose style of authoritarianism 'climbs inside all ideologies and movements, exploiting and rendering them absurd...The Kremlin's idea is to own all forms of political discourse, to not let any independent movement develop outside of its walls. Its Moscow can feel like an oligarchy in the morning and a democracy in the afternoon, a monarchy for dinner and a totalitarian state for bedtime'.
The different aspects are tellingly exemplified: the models and mistresses whose coaches turn back to pumpkins when their multi-timing masters have tired of them, and who turn to the kind of cults not unknown here but operating on a more sinister scale there, a route ending in madness and suicide; the businesswomen who finds herself, totally innocent, caught in the mesh of corruption and an imprisonment which she's told can only be terminated by a large bribe to a lawyer - she turns to another route which only works because of a bigger political expediency; the hood who's a hero in his home town; the brutality facing army conscripts; the Russian 'offshore' in the rest of the world; the very differing fates of the former oligarchs now that all wealth is under state control: and the wholesale destruction of old Moscow - I knew very little about this and haven't been back since 2000 - so all businesses can be physically close to the Kremlin, the dead centre of all things.
What's fast being knocked down is chronicled by one of the few good guys in the book, Alexander Mozhayev, a kind of architectural Pimen (and definitely not to be confused with the pro-Russian separatist). What's going up, in the plethora of kitsch styles, includes such throwbacks to the 1950s as this
All government-approved politicians are adept at using the jargon of western capitalist companies, a trick learned by the proliferation of the latter in Russia during the 1990s. And everyone plays the game, knowingly or not; a dissident individual or organisation can be given a brief limelight, only to be dragged out of the spotlight the next day.
In fact this is the most potent aspect of the whole thing which reminds me what I read about Stalin's game - the rules could be changed daily or by the week, so that no-one ever knew where they stood. Keep everyone in a state of fear. At the moment, this is why it's impossible to win within the country, though some unimaginably brave individuals still keep on trying. Eventually this madness has to come to an end, but will Putin have succeeded in his biggest wish, to drag down Europe before Russia itself totally implodes? I know this: that I have never lived through worse times for the world. This article on The Interpreter, superbly expressed, offers no comfort at all.
We have our own Surkovs, of course, though they're not as clever. Thankfully we also have the freedom to bring pressure to remove them. It's hard work but it can be done.
Please sign this UK Government and Parliament petition against one of the biggest liars in the Conservative Party (and that's saying something) before he takes our precious NHS beyond repair. A reminder, too, that the ENO needs saving from its own management in a microcosm of what's happening with the junior doctors (chorus and orchestra shouldn't be in the line of fire). If you haven't already done so, sign and comment on The Spirit of Lilian Baylis's petition.
*17/2 Monday's announcement of the death of Nikita Kamayev, former head of Russia's anti-doping agency Rusada, prompts the worst thoughts in the wake of the doping scandal. A heart attack at 52? Well, it's Russia and men die young there, but still...he's the second person in the organisation to disappear conveniently from the picture within the past couple of months.