Blinded by the fight

We shouldn’t cancel Russian culture on account of Putin’s war

Anyone who has seen the Soviet anti-war film Come and See, which chronicles the Nazi invasion of Belarus in 1943 through the eyes of a teenager eager to join the partisans, will have some idea of the terror of Russia’s war years. 

In his 1985 masterpiece, filmmaker Elem Klimov challenges his audience to bear witness (as young recruit Flyora must) to unspeakable atrocities that culminate in the massacre of villagers who have been herded into a church that is then set ablaze. It is enough to transform the face of our bright-eyed recruit into that of a haggard and demented old man. 

To my mind, no other film captures the horror and depravity visited upon a civilian population by an invading army with such brutal realism. When reports abound of alleged war crimes perpetrated on Ukrainian soil in the name of “denazification”, one’s repugnance for Putin increases tenfold. But it should come as no surprise when the Russian leader seeks to position his invasion as a “sacred fight”, appealing to poetic notions of “motherland” and his nation’s “sacrifices on the altar of victory over Nazism.” 

As cynical and self-serving as this appears to us in the West, Putin’s propaganda feasts on 70 years of national pride, built around wartime heroism and a legacy of collective suffering that stretches back hundreds of years. 

We too have feasted on Russian suffering, with our admiration for Russia’s great writers, its composers, cinematographers and poets. Russian culture, just like its history, is bathed in tears, and those of us with romantic dispositions have long been gorging ourselves on its poignancy and piquancy. 

What proportion of the population buys into Putin’s rhetoric regarding the necessity of war and his promises of restoring peace is anyone’s guess. It hardly matters. While few would burn copies of War and Peace, in recent weeks we’ve fallen out of love with Russia and largely lost sight of the real Russians. 

Rather ridiculously I find myself thinking of Woody Allen: specifically, his speed-reading course. “I read War & Peace in twenty minutes,” goes his famous gag. “It involves Russia.” 

Reluctant as I am to quote the begrimed director, I must admit to still finding the notion amusing – that a literary work of such vastness and complexity, not to mention transcendent beauty, could be reduced to three words: it represents the height of absurdity. 

And yet isn’t that what we’ve done to Russia? Over the last decade we’ve allowed our perceptions to be dominated by caricatures – the oligarchs, the henchmen, and souped-up goddesses influencing us with elite lifestyles and luxury brands. 

How tragic that my children’s generation is likely to consign Russia to that impious zone where we file not only iniquity, corruption, and warmongering, but vulgarity, excess and bling. Where once we sought culture, they now see only crassness.

Throughout my teens and early adulthood, I revelled in what I perceived as the essential soulfulness and lyricism of Russian culture. I was not alone – the brooding intensity of Russian novels seemed to reflect perfectly the angst and alienation so many of us endured in those bewildering teenage years. 

Dostoevsky, Turgenev and Goncharov provided a perfect literary accompaniment to the melancholy music favoured in my youth. What greater bliss than lying on the floor of my bedroom with a volume of Anna Akhmatova’s verse while the Cocteau Twins spun out their impenetrable lyrics on my Walkman. 

Rather ironic to be so enamoured of Russia at a time when so many people in the 1980s believed the Reds wanted war. But even in our heightened state of fear, we experienced a longing to understand “the other”. Elton John crooned about Nikita’s “eyes like ice on fire”, and Sting sang so earnestly about his hope that “the Russians love their children too”. And here we are again.

My loyalty and idealism might best be explained by my decision to learn Russian from the impressionable age of thirteen. My fascination only intensified when I took part in a month-long study tour to the Soviet Union in 1988, during a time of intense policy reform when glasnost and perestroika promised greater economic freedom and political transparency – and a certain leniency towards black marketeers in acid-washed jeans caused illegal street commerce (and those with both entrepreneurial and dodgy tendencies) to thrive. 

My studies continued to Masters level at university, a point well beyond usefulness, but my love of Russian culture only deepened. Mine was the enigmatic and wistful Russia exemplified by Doctor Zhivago, the Symbolist poets and the gentle yet darkly perplexing visions favoured by Andrei Tarkovsky in his films, which were the subject of many a pretentious party conversation. There were not many jobs in wistfulness, but who considers the absurdity of paid employment when lost in one’s passion?

Of course, absurdity is as enduring a theme in Russian literature as suffering and tears – even in War and Peace, a work better known for its majesty than its humour, we see Tolstoy’s characters wrestling with the absurdity of existence and the irrationality of man.   

There is laughter through tears to be sure. Look no further than Nikolai Gogol or Mikhail Zoshchenko, the 1920s satirist whose well-known tragicomedies are frequently narrated by characters of the NEP (New Economic Policy) era, when private enterprise was briefly allowed to flourish in order to save the Soviet Union from financial collapse.  

Unsophisticated, but determined to get ahead at all costs, Zoshchenko’s characters misuse foreign loan-words, strive for influence, fail to integrate new thinking, and squabble over consumer goods. Needless to say, the results of their clumsy machinations are grotesque. While his tales are a thinly-veiled indictment of the desperation and eccentricity of Soviet life, his characters emerge as sympathetic figures, admirable individuals full of courage. How readily they could be transported to the Moscow of the late ’80s, or even now. 

Amid our admiration, we forget that much of the ambiguity that so entranced us in the creative output of Russian artists is born of repression, and the inventiveness we value so highly was a function of survival, a necessary part of keeping one step ahead of state censors. 

Nineteenth-century literary critic Vassarion Belinsky famously remarked that, “The public sees in Russian writers its only leaders, defenders and saviours from dark autocracy, Orthodoxy and the national way of life.”  While writers have always been greatly esteemed, adhering to one’s creative vision in Soviet Russia always required inexhaustible courage.

Even the most popular writers could find themselves in the Party’s cross hairs, with perfectly innocent work denounced or misrepresented. Zoshchenko himself was eventually condemned for poisoning young people’s minds with his children’s story The Adventures of a Monkey. Escaping internal exile, he nevertheless was expelled from the Soviet Writers’ Union and prohibited from ever publishing again. He spent the remainder of his days repairing shoes. 

Mikhail Baryshnikov recently implored the West not to punish Russia’s artists and sportspeople for Putin’s war in Ukraine. Who could deny the dreadful situation in which many now find themselves? And yet who is willing to let Russia off the hook in any sphere? Then again, perhaps we should show more pity for Russia’s bright-eyed recruits, who will soon resemble haggard and demented old men. Yet more suffering and tears. If only we could speed-read the war to get to the peace. 

Joanna Grochowicz is a polar historian and author of several non-fiction children’s/YA novels about the human aspirations and tragedies of early polar exploration. Her latest, “Shackleton’s Endurance: an Antarctic Survival Story”, is out now (Murdoch, £7.99)

Arts & Culture

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