Saturday, 13 February 2016

Tsars now and then

This one

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

and 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.


d said...

In the introduction to his tremendous book "The Great Terror" on Stalin's rule ( 2008) Robert Conquest quotes George Orwell with approval " Till recently it was thought proper to pretend that human beings are very much alike, but in fact any one able to use his eyes knows that the average of human behaviour differs from country to country. Things that could happe[in Russia]is - to this day - not primarily economic or even political. It is a certain lack of much feeling for community or plural order. Both the new Western liberal element and the old traditional element of Russia.....were to be crushed by a compound of a different kind formed from archaic brutality [Russian Empire] and an imported theorectical tradition [Communism]"

It is a mistake to judge Putin as though he is like us but takes the wrong decisions. He has a different way of thinking and sees the world according to his way, imposing a template on events and drawing conclusions from that view of the world. He believes that the West led by America aims at hitting at Russia, and sees conspiracies everywhere ( as did the USSR). If it suits his policies to believe something he believes it or decides to believe it even it is contrary to fact. And Putin does not like to be patronised. The West should respond with all that in mind, and we have not done well at that in recent years ( plus adding to his conclusions by suggesting the Ukraine should enter NATO, supporting the overthrow of a pro-Russian President in Kiev etc )

My impression from various reports and after spending most of the 1990s visiting Moscow is that ideas such as we would support may have limited traction in Moscow or St Petersburg but not widely elsewhere. In the 1990s there was chaos in Russia as the economy transferred from Communism to a market economy, though the country was bound to get out of the mess in view of the oil and mineral resources - but for many that was the decade of democracy which is falsely equated with the chaos. Putin bought in just at the moment when things came right. Many Russians just want to get on with their lives and to leave economics and politics to him.

I do not think that you should show any equivalence between the Russians and politicians such as Jeremy Hunt. The large majority of our politicians are honourable men and women

David said...

Where we have not done well is in appeasement and thinking that each time Russia gives assurances, it will keep them. Time and again this has been proven wrong. But I totally agree that we should not think Putin has the mindset of most western politicians. Does he really think America wants to attack, or does he just use all this western paranoia and the freedom to speak out against our leaders - many of whom have done some of the things of which Putin is guilty, but on nothing like the same comprehensive scale - to fuel fear and dissolution in the west?

I also think it will be extremely hard for Russia to ever get away from the idea of the strong man, the 'father' who will use bad means to an illusory good end. Telling that when one Russian TV channel held a poll for great Russians in history, Stalin came easily first.

I would qualify your last sentence by changing 'the large majority' to 'many', and of course I can't agree with the penultimate. Hunt is not one of the honourable; his track record for, shall we say, 'being liberal with the truth'. is well documented. What he has in common with Putin is constantly lying to gain an advantage.

David Damant said...

I have not studied the NHS/Junior Doctors business in enough detail to judge the substance of the matter, but I have two thoughts

Hunt is not a good enough politician to handle this issue ( that is Obama's weakness also). That would entail being - in the eyes of some - devious, but that is how one gets things done in the face of a complex set of circumstances. FDR was an example, but his aims were splendid. Politicians have to use political manoevering to achieve their aims. Only in some situations does a direct approach work best.Response to Hitler in 1940 for example.

I suspect that many anti-Hunt commentators are against any rationalisation of the NHS - closing hospitals, privatising services, overlapping with private medicine, charging for subsciptions etc. Each case needs discussion but to see every case as an attack on the NHS is unrealistic since the NHS can see no limit in demand and therefore needs to be made as efficient as possible

David said...

There is a very immediate start to the solution - get rid of the consultancies and at least half of the middle management, don't strike at the heart of the NHS which is its doctors and nurses. One fact puts it all into perspective: one management consultancy - and I don't know whether this was local to Hammersmith and Fulham or the whole of London - was paid enough in one year to fund 300 nurses. Fact.

I hope there's a difference between being 'devious and 'political manoeuvering'. Straight talk - viz Sanders and Corbyn - is appealing to an electorate tired of so much deviousness - but I doubt if it can be put into straight action.

David Damant said...

Several points here !

I agree about getting rid of middle management. Did you hear of the guy who bought a leading health farm and fired all the management since the guys actually doing the health work could manage without them But he was sole owner and could do what he liked. You will find that moving layers of management necessitates a tremendous fight. Health and Safety ( who else will check for dangers)? Human Resources ( try to fire an incompetent)? Who was responsible for a mother's death ( inadequate records to tell.. the family is horrified, speaks to the press etc etc)

Outsourcing ( of activity rather than opinions) has thrown up some bad cases, but how many have worked well? Outsourcing is a very good way of enabling the NHS ( or any outfit) to concentrate on its main tasks. I rather agree - after many years of experience - that consultancies ( as opposed to other outsourcing) are most often not useful

I argue that the problems facing us are complex and not subject to solution, only to good management. So over and over again politicians are vilified for not solving insoluable problems, and have to talk themselves out it......then they are criticised for not talking straight. The electorate is wrong to judge politicians for not is the problems themselves that will run and run, and the electorate gets tired of it. Corbyn attracts because he talks straight but is trying to sell policies which have always failed - yet they seem a way out ( and there is no way out). See my blog on "Most politicians are the same"

Difficult to distinguish between deviousness and political manoeuvering. Often the politician has to point in one direction and move in another, is he is to succeed

David said...

But our specific point here is about Jeremy Hunt and his many falsifications throughout a career which should have seen him dismissed some time back. I'm afraid he is one of a conspicuous band of shifty Tories who are incapable of behaving honourably. The wider problems will remain, but in this case the person is the problem.

Susan Scheid said...

Here is truly a case where a picture is worth a thousand words, and also Pushkin's poetry does indeed speak right to the blood-curdling point. (I've been in search of a good translation of Pushkin, by the way, if you have one to recommend.)

I read the discussion here with interest and appreciated its thoughtful tone. I do want to say one thing, about Obama: I used to think he had insufficiently sharp elbows as a politician, but I've come to another view upon contemplating his whole record and how he has proceeded over time. What he's accomplished in the face of wanton Congressional obstructionism here is nothing short of extraordinary, and he has done so without a single diminishment of his integrity as both a person and statesman. He has set a new gold standard for leadership here at the same moment as the behavior of the Republicans, and notably the candidates for our highest office, has degenerated into a debased depravity the likes of which I've never seen.

I hesitate to comment on the rest, as I'm not sufficiently conversant with what's going on your side of the pond, but suffice it to say, the world at large does seem to be in a particularly grim and dangerous state.

David said...

So good to have such an informed and eloquent appraisal of Obama's achievements from another American. Of course I don't move in pro-Republican circles here, but I'm amazed how many of my friends are coming round to the view that he just gets better all the time. And is that rare thing, as you write, a politician of total integrity and a Mensch.

I did read the original Boris with my Russian teacher, and I think James E Falen's translation of that and the Little Tragedies in the Oxford World's Classics edition is the best I've come across (one of the students mentioned a new one today, but I don't know it yet. In any case Falen is brilliant at handling Varlaam's puns and rhymes in translation, which is very difficult). Onegin is trickiet - Johnston is much loved, but sometimes clumsy. Nabokov's two-volume edition is wonderful but only gives a literal translation not using Pushkin's rhyme-scheme.

Susan Scheid said...

David: Thanks so much for the Pushkin recommendations, on which I hope to follow-up before we leave the city this week. Speaking of translations, I've finally embarked on a re-read of War and Peace, this time in the P&V translation. Such an extraordinary book. I am continually finding myself amazed and delighted all over again.

David said...

I'm delighted. That's the version I used for Harriet Walter's readings, all marked up, and I love that it uses French when Tolstoy does (with translations in the footnotes), and that Pevear explains why repetitions of the same word in Tolstoy should be faithfully rendered in translation. I started my third-time read with it, and wondered at how brilliantly Tolstoy introduces so many of the main characters in the first couple of chapters. But then class took over and I had to stick to the key passages.

Presume you haven't watched the BBC serialisation, about which I got to write on The Arts Desk after the last episode. Having already faced the worst (the brevity), I was pleasantly surprised by how good much of the acting was, and the cinematography is very fine. Clive James wrote a wonderful appraisal, at great length, in this weekend's Guardian.

Susan Scheid said...

David: I'm on my third reading of it too and have been having exactly the same reaction on the brilliance of those introductions, the telling details, the rounded portrayals, even where certain aspects of a character are quite pronounced. I haven't seen the serialization as of yet, but would like to, and am glad to know you give it good marks.

David said...

Good-ish. Every pleasure won from the acting - above all from the extraordinary Paul Dano as Pierre - is undermined by the sketchiness of each situation. As the adaptation gives no space to the characters' inner lives, the actors have to carry it single-handedly. The Radio 4 adaptation last year was much richer (10 hours to the telly's 6 and a bit).

Laurent said...

What can one say of the current situation in Russia, it is out of our hands and the Russians will do the same thing they have always done in their own country. As for the Syria situation, remember it is a game between the great powers and if the Americans can't play the game well, what can anyone do. Syria will certainly go on for some time yet and things will get from bad to much worse. Afghanistan continues to simmer and then the Ukrainians are sinking themselves. Meanwhile in Europe your Mayor Boris wants to take Britain out of the EU because it is not democratic he says. I say Boris has his eye on the Prime Ministerial job for himself. Should Britain pull out of the EU the misery that will create in the UK will be tremendous, hopefully that will not happen. Indeed these are interesting times, in the meanwhile we are here on our little Island of PEI enjoying ourselves and talking about Lobsters.

David said...

One must talk, and (in moderation) eat, lobsters while the world crumbles - what else can we do? We are neither of us pessimistic about the outcome of the referendum. The best words on its announcement I've come across are those of our excellent journalist Andrew Rawnsley (in Sunday's Observer, I think):

'After all those years in which Europhobia has been pandered to and fed by Tory leaders, it is a novelty to hear Mr Cameron making the arguments for membership. His backing chorus will look impressive. It will include the chancellor, foreign secretary and home secretary, most of the rest of the cabinet, the great majority of senior figures from the opposition parties, the bulk of big business and the trade unions, the governor of the Bank of England, the president of the United States and the leader of every European country that anyone might conceivably have heard of.

'That is a heavy weight of opinion telling the British people that they maximise their prosperity, their security and their global influence by being members of the EU. On the other side of the argument will be about half a dozen of the less important members of the cabinet, Nigel Farage, George Galloway, Vladimir Putin, Marine Le Pen and possibly Boris if that is the company he really wants to keep.'

Well he did, and let's hope it means political suicide. Meanwhile, your country seems to be one of the few sane places to be - about time.