‘Putin, Russia and the West’

The series ‘Putin, Russia and the West’, dusted down by the BBC, has been compulsive viewing over the last three weeks – the last episode was on Wednesday night. Made in 2012 it was highly controversial at the time. It was described by the UK-based Russian dissident Vladimir Bukovsky as ‘nothing less than a party political broadcast for Putin and his United Russia party’. An article in the Moscow Times suggested that the makers of the series viewed ‘Putin’s anti-democratic crusade [as] largely a legitimate reaction to the hostile policies of the West, especially the United States’.

It’s ten years on, and that’s not remotely how I’d describe the series.

The USA under George Bush does come over as being naive, and outwitted by Putin – in that first episode. (Bush argued that he had been able ‘to get a sense of Putin’s soul.’) The many interviews given by Russian government ministers were all very plausible. But they all fell then, and even more so now, into line behind the boss.

Episode two tells a different story– 2004 and the Orange Revolution in Ukraine. Putin is shown as being devious in the extreme, and still he lost out. Georgia, and its attempts in 2008 to reclaim the secessionist and pro-Russian areas of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, was the subject of the third episode. Russia held all the cards, Georgia could be wiped out militarily if it chose, and the Georgian president, Saakashvili, was more than rash to take him on – however justified it might have seemed.

Honours even, maybe, up to that point. But if you watch nothing else – watch episode four. Medvedev is president, and new president Obama reaches out, and it’s all smiles and mutual understand. You get to like Medvedev. He signs a new START agreement with Obama. We have brinkmanship on both sides. But Medvedev signs.

He and Putin had, however, an agreement – one or other would be president after the next election in 2012, and Putin won their United Russia party over to his side. Medvedev’s attempts to open up Russia to the West, to Silicon valley, to Western-style media – all sidelined, ultimately crushed by Putin.

What is so galling – we, Russia and the West – we got so close.

By the end of episode four you know the die is cast. The invasion and occupation of Crimea and the Donbas came two years later. Now even the Russian Orthodox Church is arguing the cause of Mother Russia: ‘God’s truth’ is on Russia’s side.

A rapprochement with Russia would have been an example to the world, with very practical consequences in the case of Syria, and for China given the unholy alliance it has now forged with Russia. That said, how much it would have reduced the Western world’s obsession with its own self-interest is debatable. Many if not most of the world’s problems would be as they are now, albeit in a different form.

There is one overriding conclusion I’d draw, and that is the danger of ‘great men’, or ‘strongmen’, to use Gideon Rachman’s term in his new book, ‘The Age of the Strongmen’*. They can come to characterise a nation, as Putin is now attempting to characterise Russia. And we are tempted to judge the Russian people as we judge him.  When we make judgements, draw up sanctions and cut economic ties we need to keep this in mind. Why ban Russians from playing at Wimbledon if they are avowed opponents of the regime? Why stop playing Russian music?

Putin is Rachman’s archetype for the ‘strongman’. Erdogan in Turkey, Xi Jinping, Duterte in the Philippines, Orban in Hungary all fit the bill. All maintain friendly relations with Putin. And Marine Le Pen?

Remember Dmitry Medvedev? My final image has to be of Medvedev, at a session immediately before the invasion of President Putin’s 30-member security council, of which he’s now deputy head, parroting his master’s insistence that Ukraine is a natural part of Russia. He looked strained, and his other recent pronouncements suggest a degree of brainwashing.

How could the reasonable man of 2011 fall so low?

* ‘The Age of the Strongman: How the Cult of the Leader Threatens Democracy around the World’.

Reading the Telegraph

Buy a newspaper you don’t normally read ….

Last Monday (11th April) it was the Daily Telegraph. The headline of an article by Tim Stanley had caught my eye: ‘The French establishment is not fit for purpose.’ In this context it is the French ‘centre’, and Emmanuel Macron, he’s referring to.

That word ’establishment’ again. A club no-one owns to being a member of. Think … the MPs’ expenses scandal, think Brexit, think ‘us and them’, with the Telegraph, the ‘us’ brigade par excellence, trying to kid ordinary folk that they, the Telegraph, represent ‘them’, the outsiders, the done-down.

I turned to the centre pages. To the left, an article by Theresa May’s old right-hand, Nick Timothy, and indications of Tory infighting. He agonises about complacency in the Tory party. That Johnson, he suggests, should survive is absurd. The Party is deluding itself. ‘Johnson has deliberately formed a third-eleven cabinet, to avoid creating powerful rivals.’ (Having played third-eleven cricket when I aspired to the first eleven, the analogy hits home.) Timothy is talking sense.

Only so far – he indicates support for the government’s despicable plan to despatch asylum seekers to Rwanda.

To the right, a typical Telegraph, gung-ho, latter-day-Thatcherite leading article. Under Thatcher a ‘defining characteristic’ of the Tories had been ‘an unashamed celebration of self-made success’. The Left derided this as a ‘loads-of-money’ fixation with wealth. ‘Right’ and ‘Left’: this dumb polarisation of Right and Left. We have, it seems, to be one or the other, when most of us are somewhere in between. But the Telegraph and the right wing of the Tory party aren’t comfortable without an enemy. 

Read on. ‘The government is ‘fearful of doing anything that might benefit moderate or high earners’. It is ‘like Labour obsessed with the distributional impact of its policies’, though the fuel tax cut in Sunak’s recent budget would suggest otherwise. If there was any (re-)distributional element in that budget it passed me by.

At the bottom of the page we have the article I mentioned above, by Tim Stanley, about France and last Sunday’s French election. The centre in French politics is it seems ‘zigging about like a jelly on a wild horse’. Marine Le Pen has been ‘detoxified by the French establishment’. It seems the centre and the establishment are, once again, one and the same. That old trope. With an immigrant issue that has been massively politicised by the hard Right, one hand, and a radical left galvanised by Jean-Luc Melenchon, the Bernie Sanders of American politics (that may be unfair on both of them!) on the other, the centre in France, if it is to hold, has a fight on its hands.

Le Pen has said that she ‘would quit NATO’s integrated military command and seek a closer alliance with Russia if she were elected’ (New York Times)

That’s where a better and wiser journalist than Tim Stanley would be focusing his attention.

To London, and back (to normal)

The wild garlic is about to flower, acres of it, covering woodland slopes. The first cowslips are opening, the skylarks are ascending, the long tailed tit echoes itself. But yesterday it was London and the long lines of destination-driven travellers always keeping left in corridors below Paddington station. Occasional mask wearers on the underground, otherwise near normal. Normal would be delays and hold-ups, but now we flow smoothly.

My destination – meeting an old friend at the Royal Academy to view an exhibition of the paintings of the Japanese artist, Kawanabe Kyosai. His was a time (he was active c1850 to his death in 1889) of extraordinary change, the overthrow of the Shogunate, and the Meiji Restoration. There’s a saké-influenced crazy irreverence about Kyosai, his emblematic black crow in stark contrast with armies of frogs battling with bullrushes. I learnt about shogakai, parties where professional painters and calligraphers ‘produced spontaneous creations’. They were not known for ‘their seriousness or sobriety’.

Contrast the major Raphael exhibition at the National Gallery, where I headed later in the day. Everything is measured and controlled, carefully worked through in drawings, and the effects precisely and wondrously calculated. Raphael’s workshop was legendary in its time and I can’t imagine alcohol featured. I’m assuming Kyosai sold his work on the open market. Raphael in contrast would be working within the constraints of patronage, not least the church in the form of Popes Julius II and Leo X.  Contrast the endless virgins in different poses with a naked child, studies in affection and reverence, with Kyosai’s long scroll which features a much-more-than-lifesize profile of the Buddha’s face with on its upper lip a tiny Zen Buddhist monk working his way up, an extended parasol in his right hand. ‘Today, once more, saké after saké,’ he captions a painting of a ‘shojo’, a mythical red-haired saké-loving creature out of Japanese folklore.

Later in the day I’m standing in front of an almost full-scale reproduction of Raphael’s extraordinary School of Athens, identifying Euclid and Pythagoras, and joining Plato and Aristotle’s discourse on the nature of reality…

Was Kyosai, in truth, no more than an illustrator? Ephemeral, a commentator in the style of Rowlandson or Gillray? A man of the people. Great art on the other hand belongs in cathedrals, churches, great houses…

Museums and galleries have opened Raphael’s world to ordinary folk, and he’s become part of our wider cultural heritage. Kyosai belongs to his time, his imagination is in your face, he’s a crazy acquaintance, not, maybe, a companion for the long term. If Raphael is for quiet and private contemplation, Kyosai is for sharing – ‘hey, look at this, check it out!’ Not that Kyosai is all comedy, all parody. There’s a sinuous grace to ‘Egret over Lotus Pond in the Rain’. But a minute or two later you’re looking at ‘Fart Battle’, which is just that.

The day ends with coffee in the café in the crypt in St Martin in the Fields. No-one pitching you out 5.30 or 6. Graves beneath your feet, brick-vaulted ceiling above. Then the tube and Paddington. Back to open spaces, commons and hidden valleys, where I can run or walk without seeing a soul.

Only the rumble of a distant train, heading to … London.