by Robert Cox
Russia has become Europe’s ogre. Beyond the brutality of Moscow’s onslaught on Ukraine looms a harsher ideological backdrop. Too many Russian citizens have been enticed into seeing this invasion as a defence of Russia’s security, national pride and identity, history, Weltanschauung, international standing, and imperial stature. They eulogise Russia’s national church as a defensive shield despite its abuse of spiritual humanity, its soldiers as crusaders. Europeans, in response to this baggage respond with a mixture of fear or unease. Anger, too, along with frustration and ultimately something akin to hatred. With all this comes an inclination in the western world to reject everything Russian. This rejection of a rich culture risks tarnishing our mindset and that of our children.
Russian orchestras, dancers and sopranos have been banned from western stages—largely on the pretext that they have not condemned Putin and his acolytes. Ultimately Russian culture risks being airbrushed out of western European mentalities. It is worth pausing for a moment and just looking at what we are rejecting, perhaps unconsciously.
Hitherto—and for many Europeans still —Russian culture has had an important place in our education and upbringing. Tchaikovsky, Borodin, Rimsky Korsakov, Shostakovich and the sublime Prokofiev have delighted our concert audiences for decades. Marc Chagall’s imagination has stimulated ours. Ballet in Europe—or the US, for that matter—would not be what it is without the great influence of the ballet russe. Nor, in a related world, would we be so intellectually rich without the heritage of Russian scientists, physicists and mathematicians.
Power of the Word
Perhaps more than anything Russian literature, since its great eruption at the turn of 18th and 19th centuries, has taken its prominent place in the galaxy of European writing. The terrible unidentical twins, Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, honour our bookshelves. Chekhov’s plays resonate on our stages; his lesser-known short stories are jewels reflecting human behaviour. Turgenev and Goncharov have bequeathed us biting depictions of society tearing itself apart. They belong in the same panoply as Dickens and Zola. Then there is Gogol—the Ukrainian who wrote his beautiful sketches of people and places in the Russian language. In Soviet times Sholokhov’s Quiet Flows the Don stands on a podium with Remarque’s Im Westen Nichsts Neues. All of these Russian authors, often in exile, had to battle with thick-headed and malicious censorship, tsarist or Soviet. More recently Bulgakov, Nabokov and Solzhenitsyn—that complex embodiment of resistance and Russian nationalism, like Dostoyevsky—have joined Russia’s literary pantheon.
All of the writing (incompletely) cited above has one big advantage for us. It is accessible in translation. And the wealth of Russian prose translation into western languages is great. The problem comes when trying to access poetry. Verse is damnably difficult to translate; as a result we are poorly or only partially served when trying to get under the skin of Russian poetry. Pushkin, for this correspondent, has a good claim to be Europe’s greatest poet of the 19th century. His contemporary Lermontov is a delight. So is Pushkin’s soulmate and Heine’s friend, Tyutchev. Further on, the period of the implosion of Tsarism and the eruption of Bolshevism produced an astonishing crop of poets—as elsewhere in Europe at that time. Akhmatova’s will-of-the-wisp language in the heart of war is enthralling. Mandelstam too suffered at the hands of the authorities for being too good a poet. Blok in We are Scythians echoed an idea of a great Eurasian menace erupting to threaten the west.
Among Tolstoy’s finest but less-known works in the west is Resurrection. It is a very Russian theme of wrestling with one’s soul inspired by interpretations of Orthodoxy. Whatever may arise from the wreckage of this ghastly war, Europe must play the major role in the herculean task of delivering a better Russia for the sake of its own people and of our continent.
The United States leads the way in supporting Ukrainians’ war effort. The post-war resurrection of Ukraine and Russia must be primarily Europe’s responsibility. This will contain several components. Economic recovery, of course. But without the mistakes of the early 1990s when the alleged Washington Consensus of neo-liberalism was thrust upon a post-Soviet world not ready for such horse-medicine. Governance, also, of course, with the long task of re-creating responsible elites, independent judiciary, free and vigorous media. European and US professionals will have a major role to play in helping Russians accomplish this new revolution – on condition that they do so without the attitudes of superiority that damaged much of German reunification. Security is another important component. Putin and his acolytes, bolstered by and captive of a massive domestic security (siloviki) apparatus, have fed Russians on a narrative of western threat. A revamp of the somnolent Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) could deliver to Russians a credible message of security from a structure in which they themselves are sovereign partners.
And then there is Russia’s cultural heritage—part of ours—that now suffers under the weight of state propaganda, censorship and lies. Many of the modern exponents of Russia’s cultural wealth have been forced to flee the country, as were their forebears. Despite that, this heritage may be crucial to Russia’s resurrection after the war and its unavoidable wrenching aftermath. In seeking common ground for a new conversation, the cultural bridge may be the first to be crossed, reminding Russians and other Europeans that Russia’s great cultural heritage is also Europe’s and part of a common identity. Let us hope it provides common ground for the multi-facetted human dialogue that will be an essential component of underwriting peace.
Robert Cox read economics, politics, German and Slavonic languages at Cambridge University and the College of Europe. He launched into journalism with The Economist in London, and later in central Africa. Cox then entered a second career with the European Commission, first in the Spokesman’s service, then in the private office of Commission Member George Thomson. After a spell with the Development DG dealing with policy & economics and North-South dialogue development negotiations, he was appointed Head of the EC Mission in Turkey, where he experienced the 1980 military takeover. On return to Brussels he held senior policy and management posts with the EC information services. On the outbreak of civil war in Yugoslavia, Cox was detached to the EC Monitoring Mission in Zagreb. In 1992 he joined the new EC Humanitarian Office (ECHO) as its deputy head. Since retirement he has based himself in Brussels spending time painting, traveling and working on contemporary challenges facing the EU, notably with the think-tank Friends of Europe.