As the weeks turn into months for the people of Ukraine, and as Russia threatens to consolidate the most ambitious of its ‘frozen conflicts’, the liberal democracies have so far maintained their focus. This was probably the last thing Vladimir Putin expected.
He launched this adventure on the assumption that we in the West are too decadent, short-termist and spineless to follow through on our support for Ukraine. The failure to enforce the ‘Syrian red line’, to see the 2014 annexation of Crimea for what it was – the start of the current conflict – or to maintain our commitment in Afghanistan: all signalled the West’s weakness. Putin wouldn’t be the first dictator to misunderstand that, however flawed our societies might be, freedom is a priceless commodity we’re prepared to defend. It seems that Putin, for all his cod interpretations of the currents of history, has learned nothing from earlier epochs. Ukrainians are paying the price for that ignorance.
I’m guessing that part of the problem is that Putin never lived in the West. As KGB station chief in Dresden, the Wall was between him and the Western mindset. Not known for his empathy, Putin would in any case have struggled to understand the West’s transient, shifting, nuanced, diverse polity. If he had any understanding of the West, he would know that it’s not in the slightest bit interested in ‘destroying Russia’, as he so often claims. What it wants is a stable, predictable interlocutor – ideally a trading partner, and a market for its goods. A country it can do business with as a Permanent Member of the Security Council. (We do however have to allow for the possibility that Putin knows this, but that it’s not a narrative that works for him domestically – unlikely, but not impossible).
While a greater effort might have been made to understand and engage with Russia’s concerns, NATO enlargement was largely demand-driven, and unsurprisingly so given Russia’s history of bullying, colonising and oppressing its neighbours. Putin has misinterpreted the West’s interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq as part of an imperialist project ultimately aimed at Russia, rather than the monumental foreign policy blunders that they were (ideological, yes, but not imperialist – and I’m conscious that’s a statement that probably needs another blog to unpack).
I’m far from being the first to point out that Putin’s real fear is a colour revolution: a populace exhausted by kleptocracy, rising to overthrow a corrupt and brutal leadership. To keep this at bay, and like all authoritarians, he conjures up phantom enemies that Russians can coalesce against. ‘Russophobia’ is used to foster a siege mentality which makes many Russians feel that only a strong leader can keep them safe.
And let’s be honest, if you’re on the front line, and if your forebears have suffered under earlier phases of Russian imperialism, your feelings about Russia are likely to be pretty visceral. Ukrainians see a hated invader, brutalising a populace while searching for imaginary fascists, willfully demolishing a treasured cultural heritage. It’s not surprising this provokes a response.
But Russophobia is a mainspring for Putinesque ideology and propaganda, so as far as is reasonably possible, we must resist it, not least by looking to the many brave Russians who risk so much by openly opposing the war. And then there’s Russian art and culture. No amount of brutality and oppression can eliminate the greatness of Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Pushkin, Kandinsky, Diaghilev, Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, Prokofiev.
If we’re looking for historical, if inexact parallels, then the story of the Third Reich – the actual Nazis – offers some food for thought. It’s striking that, rather than cancelling German culture, the Allies chose, at least in part, to appropriate it. The opening chords of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, for example, became the shorthand for resistance to the Nazis. Partly, of course, because Beethoven stood for modern values of liberty and justice, most famously in ripping up the dedication of his Erioca Symphony when Napoleon declared himself Emperor.
While indulging in some Western decadence on a recent short break to Frankfurt, we chanced upon a concert that highlighted the Germany/Russia parallels: Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto adjacent to Dmitri Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony, like high culture peas in a pod.
So much of Shostakovich’s output draws on and reaches deep into the essence of the Russian experience. The Tenth was first performed in 1953, the year of Stalin’s death, and if we are to believe the (still disputed) memoir Testimony, it is (like much of Shostakovich’s music) a veiled critique of the Soviet regime. The second movement, the Scherzo, is a musical depiction of Stalin – breathless, brutal, uncontrollable. You could translate the Tenth, and much else of Shostakovich’s output, into a critique of today’s mini-me Stalin (though I suspect it would need to be rewritten to have a rather different, icy quality). But the point is, you can’t listen to Shostakovich and feel Russophobic.
Some codas to this observation. When we emerged from the concert hall, there was a small pro-Putin demonstration outside, some carrying old Soviet flags and probably unaware that the music of a great Russian – much greater than their current leader – had just been performed only a short distance away (nor seeing the irony that they weren’t facing a 15 year jail sentence for demonstrating). Back in 1953, another great Russian, Sergei Prokofiev, died the same day as Stalin, but few noticed amid the masses filling the Moscow streets to view the dictator’s body. Maybe some wanted to make sure Stalin was dead, but others wept openly. Certainty carries a premium in any society.
Russia can’t rehabilitate the way Germany once did, because whatever happens in Ukraine, it stops at the Russian border. The West, it’s worth repeating, has no ambition to destroy Russia. So Russians themselves will have to sort out Putin’s catastrophe. We have to hope that, one day, they’ll have the opportunity to rebuild their society free of the autocrats who have plagued Russian history.
When we think of today’s Germany, we’re more likely to think of Beethoven than we are the mid-20th Century descent into darkness. A decade hence, will we think of Shostakovich as representing the best of Russia, or as a continued outlier in a society still burdened by aggrieved ethnonationalism?
Only Russians can provide the answer. The rest of us wait, expectant, but realistic.