Friday, 29 January 2016

Enigmatic Russia

Russia is never out of the public consciousness.

As a friend in England reminded me after reading last month’s article[i], Churchill described Russia as “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.”

Perhaps this explains why it features so regularly in current affairs news reporting and likewise commands our continuing attention in the cultural media.

Russian News

Last year (and the year before that), for example, we heard all about the unrest in the east of Ukraine and consequent criticism about Russia’s intentions; we witnessed the concern in Europe as Russia annexed Crimea; in total contrast, international sympathy for Russia was aroused last autumn when a jet carrying Russian tourists over the Sinai in Egypt was destroyed by a bomb; the UK Prime Minister and others criticised Russian airstrikes in Syria, criticism which continues; suspicions harking back to the Communist era were evoked when Russian athletes were suspended from international competition following a report produced by the sport’s world drugs body about global athletics; and the fall-out from the death almost a decade ago of the former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko continues with a public inquiry concluding recently that President Putin “probably” approved of his murder; which story has been followed by a row over accusations on BBC Panorama[ii] by the US Treasury about President Putin’s “secret wealth.”
And so it goes on.

Russia’s televisual portrayal

This year, Russia has been given a fantastic public relations introduction, at least in the UK.  Thanks to the BBC, Russian history and culture have been portrayed in their finest light with a series of superb documentaries and also by the dramatization of its greatest novel written by its greatest author.

On 3 January, a lavish 6-part interpretation of Tolstoy’s “War and Peace[iii]” got 2016 off to a beautiful start for Russophiles and lovers of costume drama alike.  Reviews of the series have been overwhelmingly positive, and deservedly so.

Where our national broadcaster also excels is in the non-fictional world of documentary-making.  Early January was lit up brightly by two one-off programmes about classical music.   
Receiving more publicity was a third documentary which is about the Tsars.  The eminent historian Lucy Worsley has been explaining in three one-hour programmes entitled “Empire of the Tsars” the story of the Russian royal family, the Romanovs, and its 300 years of history.  
Essential background that helps us understand the influential country we know today[iv].

Having referred last month to Sarah Quigley’s superb novel (“The Conductor”) about the siege of Leningrad and Shostakovich’s composition of his seventh symphony, the broadcast on 1 January of “Leningrad: the orchestra that defied Hitler” told the same story factually.   
Just like the novel, the documentary was as thorough as it was realistically upsetting, meticulous and hard-hitting.[v]  
It included some persuasive eye-witness accounts from the St Petersburg concert recounting their version of half-starved musicians grappling with a complex score.  
Archive footage of the composer and of the city’s horrendous suffering under siege were also presented.  
I hope that the presenters, Tom Service and Amanda Vickery, are recognised for the diligence of their research.

The other documentary was “The Joy of Rachmaninoff,” a recounting of the compositional life of this great Romantic composer[vi] and presented by Tom Service.  Having referred in last month’s article to the Rachmaninov Vespers and the performance in Omagh by the Mariinsky Chorus under Valery Gergiev’s baton in 2000, one revelation resonated with me.  This was the last Church music that was written and performed before the Bolsheviks and Lenin took brutal charge of Mother Russia, banning religion and the composition of sacred music.

Russia in recent books

Having emphasised last month the role of fiction in communicating the horrors of despotism and the wonderful novel “Child 44,” the publication of “On Stalin’s Team: The Years of Living Dangerously in Soviet Politics” sounds like a factual account of the same issue, namely the Stalinist purges.  The author is Sheila Fitzpatrick.   
The review which caught my attention[vii] listed it as Book of the week.  Aaronovitch explains that this book sets the record straight, contradicting the official account following Stalin’s death.  It reveals that Stalin’s inner circle did in fact play a significant role in the purges, the arrests and imprisonment of two million people.  This together with the execution of 688,503 people between 1935 and 40 was not the work of Stalin alone.  So many victims, so much horror.

Another recent non-fiction book that stands out is “Winter is coming: Why Vladimir Putin and the Enemies of the Free World Must be Stopped” written by Garry Kasparov, the chess grandmaster.   
The review which grabbed my attention[viii] on this occasion calls it “this brave, trenchant and convincing book.”  Its message seems to chime with the current row over the Alexander Litvinenko murder.  Kasparov rails against what the author describes as the cowardly West which refuses to stop the dangerous regime that currently misrules Russia.

Finally and returning to fiction, I cannot wait to receive the latest novel written by the UK Man Booker prize winner (in 2011) Julian Barnes.  The Noise of Time” has a publication date of 28 January 2016.   
It has been previewed with effusive praise by one critic[ix] as “fictional biography... this is a great novel...a novel that is powerfully affecting, a condensed masterpiece that traces the lifelong battle of one man’s conscience, one man’s art, with the insupportable exigencies of totalitarianism.”   
The subject, of course, is Shostakovich. 

Russia together with its woes and its beauty is a never-ending saga, an enigma indeed.

Postscript: My copy of "The Noise of Time" arrived two days after its publication date.  
Alex Preston's review is uncannily accurate - powerfully affecting, a masterpiece.  
Just as the novel "Child 44" recreates the horror endured by ordinary citizens during Stalin's purges, Julian Barnes puts the reader in the shoes of the great composer to convey the impact of tyranny on creative genius. (MMcS 03202016).