Do I head to Northern Ireland with this post, or to Ukraine, or to India, or stay back home…? Northern Ireland, and that absurd boast from Rishi Sunak that Northern Ireland now has the best of both worlds. It can trade with open borders with the rest of the UK, and with Europe. Just as we all could do before June 2016. We will leave it there.
Ukraine: the issue our government should be focusing on. Instead we have and will have more of that ruinous Brexit aftermath.
It was my privilege with many of my fellow villagers to attend a Ukraine evening at the Ukrainian Social Club in Gloucester, which dates back to immediately after the Second World War. One highpoint was the dinner, with local dishes, beginning with borsht and ending with a layered coffee cake. Next came an auction, with a highlight being a very fine birch-wood clock, retrieved I believe from a bombed-out factory. It will in the near future have pride of place on the wall of our village hall. And, finally, a concert: solo violin, accordion, a Cossack dancer of extraordinary style and agility, and singing – adults and children – and Oksana in a long white dress and silver boots leading us, it seemed incongruously, but maybe not so, in the chorus of Dylan’s Knocking on Heaven’s Door.
They were fundraising, we have to remind ourselves, for a war. Even Switzerland has to re-think its historic neutrality, though it’s not there yet. But more than that, we had a sense of a country, a culture and a language, and a thriving democracy (corruption issues notwithstanding). The contrast with their eastern borderlands, and with events in Donbass, is so extreme. And yet, Russia is the land of Pushkin and Tolstoy, of Dostoevsky and Chekhov, of Pasternak and Solzhenitsyn and Mandelstam.
(Thinking of Donbass … Shakhtar Donetsk are one of Europe’s leading football teams, but they no longer play in Donetsk. In 2014 they moved to Lviv and now are playing matches in Kyiv.)
And they love their Shakespeare in Russia. I thought of Shostakovich’s curiously-named opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. The story is very different from Shakespeare but we have Lady Macbeth (she is planning a murder) as a universal trope or archetype. But I’m assuming any hint of the subversion of an existing order would be too much in Putin’s Russia, as it was in Stalin’s.
We went to Stratford for the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of The Tempest last Thursday. Prospero and Ariel are played by women, and quite brilliantly and convincingly so. There was a very special and personal link between them. Could we imagine a woman playing Prospero in a Russia where gender roles are increasingly narrowed down to the old male and female and ‘there-shall-be-no-other’ split?
We are curtailing our imaginations, we are losing creativity. Erdogan imprisons any journalist with a creative and thereby critical take on the country’s fortunes. He’s an example to Narendra Modi, responding to a recent highly critical BBC documentary with a police raid on BBC offices in India, on the grounds of tax irregularities. A charge of corruption is the reason for the arrest of one of the leaders of a rising opposition force in India, the Aam Aadmi party.
Istanbul’s mayor, a leader of the main Turkish opposition party, has been sentenced to over two years in prison for ‘calling members of Turkey’s supreme election council “fools” in a press release three years ago’. There’s a crucial election coming up.
Rupert Murdoch admits that his TV channels in the USA went along with the Trump lie about a stolen election. They are polishing their hate figures in the USA, polishing their anger. There’s a very relevant comment in an article by William Davies in the current London Review of Books. He highlights Donald Trump’s ‘affective state of seemingly constantly being on the verge of losing his temper’, adding ‘a sense of danger and excitement to his political career’. ‘Boris Johnson, by contrast, always appears to be on the verge of bursting out laughing’. Both approaches win converts, as we’ve seen only too well.
We have to be watchful on all sides and everywhere. Republicans in Congress are challenging the levels of expenditure on the Ukraine war. Maybe they aren’t as foolish and sinister as Trump in his cosying to Putin, but they haven’t fully bought into the reality that this is where democracy, as we understand it, stands or falls.
The reality is that democracy is for many, on the right primarily but also on the left (think Lopez Obrador, known as ‘AMLO’, in Mexico), seen as the way to power, and once they have that power they are keen to pull up the democratic drawbridge after them.
Bring on the Ukrainians: they are focusing our minds. We can see where our complacency might lead.