By Aleksei Shyropaev, poet, publicist, public activist, co-chairman of the National Democratic Alliance
I am reminiscing about the fair Moscow summer of 1981. The Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts (we have always called it simply Pushkinskiy) was running an excellent exhibition called Moscow-Paris. It was, I dare say, a pivotal event in the cultural life of the USSR. This exhibition, on the one hand, broadened the scope of the great Russian avant-garde; on the other hand, it depicted its affiliation with the Western avant-garde, revealing the subtle and profound relationship and mutual influence of the Western and Russian art nouveau. It was there in the exhibition’s stands that I first had the chance to see the early collections of the Russian futurist poets. The memory of this magical experience, this contact with the legends, has stayed with me throughout my entire life. The exhibition had a tremendous influence on many, and has for many become a kind of spiritual school. The significance of the exhibition went far beyond the scope of culture. The exhibition became a social phenomenon. It was the first breeze of the oncoming Perestroika. Moscow-Paris overlapped the scanty information on the events in Poland, giving rise to a special spirit.
Broadly speaking, the Pushkin Museum was a kind of outlet for Westernism. There was always something vaguely dissident in its atmosphere. It was there where I first saw the works of the Impressionists: Van Gogh, Gauguin, Matisse. The role of this museum in shaping me as a person cannot be overstated. The museum has always tried to be a kind of spiritual center for progressive society. Remember the poetry of Voznesensky: “There are Russian intelligentsia/You think, no? But there are…” Pushkinskiy has always tried to be a home for the Russian intelligentsia. Recall Moscow’s December Nights [chamber music festival] with Richter. Overall, Pushkinskiy is a crucial, significant part of my life, without which I simply wouldn’t be the person I am. And for all these years, the head of the Pushkin Museum has been Irina Antonova.
Now. A piece of news. On the 11th of March, the media reported the loyal “collective letter from cultural figures in support of President Putin in Ukraine and Crimea”. It has already been signed by more than a HUNDRED people – and more wishing to be counted keep coming! No, I understand how Babkina, the great Russian singer whose surname is worth a thousand words, came to be among the signatories. But why, alongside Babkina’s name, is the name of Irina Antonova, my mind refuses to comprehend. How did she wind up in this ‘Black Hundred’?? Why?? How is it that the woman behind ‘Moscow-Paris’ and December Nights, Dali and Kandinsky exhibitions, declares herself a suppressor of freedom, signs in support of the Kremlin’s imperialism, does not disdain this company?
I can understand why the name of actor Aleksei Batalov makes an appearance—what can you expect from a Soviet man raised from infancy on mindless hatred toward ‘fascist Banderites?’ But why I am seeing the name of Pavel Lungin, the brilliant creator who released the films Taxi-Blues and Tsar, which revealed the pathology of an absolute power, I can’t fathom. I cannot understand why Lugin has now decided to support that very pathological power with his name. I cannot understand how he could see it so clearly in the face of Ivan the Terrible, but cannot see it in Putin.
I understand why pop artists such as Nikolai Rastorguev and Oleg Gazmanov appear among the signatories. The latter recently made quite an impression with a public performance of a song in which he defines his ‘motherland’ by an extensive list of former Soviet republics. Latvians have reacted quite reasonably, raising the question of banning Gazmanov from entering Latvian territory. With these variety show patriots and their ‘Combat-Father’ [a song by the Russian band Lube, of which Rastorguev is a member–Ed.], everything is clear. It is clear that beside them as signatories, shoulder to shoulder, should appear (and do appear) the artist Mikhail Porechenkov and, of course, film director Fedor Bondarchuk. It is clear that, crazed on orthodoxy, the extremely talented Nikolai Burlaev and Communist Vladimir Bortko (primarily a painter) haven’t stood aside, either. All of this, I repeat, is perfectly clear. What isn’t clear is something else.
Can you please explain to me how, beside their names under this shameful letter, appear the names of violinist Vladimir Spivakov and pianist Denis Macuev? Why they, the intelligenstia, the elite of world culture, are supporting the aggression and the false anti-Ukrainian propaganda? How could they put themselves on the same level as Putin’s thugs, who recently desecrated the monument to Taras Shevchenko in Donetsk? What is their internal damage? No, I understand how Maestro Yurii Bashmet and refined jazz master Igor Butman have dragged their names through this mud. Bashmet (and Antonova, actually) were Putin’s trustees in his last ‘election,’ and Butman is a longtime member of the Edinaya Rossiya [United Russia] party. If one link is broken, the whole chain is broken. But what was Tbilisi-born Nikolai Cyskaridze thinking when placing his signature? Certainly not about Georgia in August 2008, when it was nearly crushed beneath the tracks of Russian tanks. Why is there no stirring in him of any of those thoughts and feelings which brought a handful of genuine intellectuals to Red Square in 1968 to protest the invasion of Czechoslovakia?
I understand why I see the signature of, say, Karen Shahnazarov. The present-day patriot Shahnazarov is a completely different person from the one who filmed the wonderful surrealistic parable ‘Town Zero’ toward the end of the 80s, one of the best cinematic disclosures of the notorious ‘secrets of Russia’. I am not asking why the letter is signed by Oleg Tabakov, who has completely transformed into a cynical old court jester. What I wonder is why this letter is signed by Aleksei Uchitel, author of a subtly nonconformist movie about Ivan Bunin (His Wife’s Diary). How can the name of Uchitel appear in the same column with those of Babkina, Gazmanov, and the totally degraded Govoruhin? Why is he unable or unwilling to grasp what is happening in Ukraine—the Ukrainian Revolution?
Now take film director and actor Andrei Smirnov, who produced the wonderful movie “Once Upon a Time There Lived a Simple Woman,” who was the first to depict the truth about the national uprising in Tambov in the years 1920-1921. Smirnov, by the way, performed brilliantly as Bunin in the aforementioned movie by Uchitel. And now Andrei Smirnov and Aleksei Uchitel are on opposite sides of the barricades. Andrei Smirnov, together with the other Russian cinematographers, has drawn up and signed an appeal protesting the intervention in Ukraine. In a separate letter, Aleksandr Sokurov expressed his opinion—honor and praise to him:
“I am struck by this absolute love for war. As if it is not about the Russian people, not about honor, not about life, but about taking part in some game. We have already taken part in the Olympic Games, it has turned out well, but this is some sort of intoxication, some sort of narcotic infection. It’s as if we have committed a variety of crimes and enjoyed it, like we have nothing to fear… We are not one people with the Ukrainians, we are different. We have intrinsically different cultures. No wonder Ukrainians have always wanted to live as a separate state. Yes, we are close, we have a lot of similarities, but it doesn’t mean that we are one people. It is not so. We are different, and we need to respect and value this difference. It seems to me that a fearful eclipse has taken over many Russian people. And that means that all of those problems, all of those sins of the nation that were committed during Stalin’s era, all of those frightening repressions, the unresolved and unrepented sins, all of it has risen to the surface and is beginning anew. We, then, as a nation, have done wrong by supporting the repressive Stalinist regime, praising all its evil. We did not repent, we do not acknowledge it all as a mistake…”
Here it is, the voice of the authentic Russian intelligentsia. And as for those who have signed this letter of disgrace…It’s a different generation. Despite the difference in their ages and the extent of their talent, the signatories are united by their common Soviet internal genesis. They are not the intelligentsia; these are the tamed and obliging domestics of the culture (I am not trying to be offensive, but just stating a fact). They have their own spiritual fathers. I recall a bright episode in the life of one of them. The story: after the Soviet anthem which is still heard today was written and highly approved, Stalin asked Sergei Mikhalkov what he desires for himself personally. And what do you think? The poet Mikhalkov showed that he was a top-notch lackey. You could say that director Mikhalkov’s father was a man of exceptional wit. He asked Stalin not for a country house, nor a car, nor an apartment, but for Stalin’s pencil, with which the leader was making historical corrections in the text of the anthem. And he got this magical pencil. And afterwards, most likely, he also got a country house, a car, an apartment…
So it seems as though Stalin’s pencil is really lurking in the backsides of the signatories of this disgraceful letter. They will get a lot of benefits, all of the benefits—except of the honor of being part of the Russian intelligentsia. They had a chance to be in the same row as Radishev, Gercen, Paternak, Solzhenitsyn. But they have preferred to blindly follow the trail of the late Maksim Gorkov, the ‘Red Count’ Tolstoy, Sergei Mikhalkov, and Mikhail Sholohov, who demanded from the rostrum that the party “take care of” the dissidents. From now on they are one with those who praised Stalin’s march against Finland, the Baltic occupation; they are one with those who remained silent about Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968. They can take comfort in the fact that Pushkin called for the suppression of the Polish protests—but this black fact adds nothing to Pushkin’s honor, at best. They are oblivious to the fact that they haven’t simply signed a letter—they have signed a DIAGNOSIS of Russia; for if the cultural advocates are pledging their support for, and approval of, aggression and suppression of freedom in another nation, this constitutes a highly serious pathology within the society, a pathology of the mind and spirit. Our country is deeply (and perhaps hopelessly) sick, unambiguously. It is extremely dangerous to those around it, all the more dangerous for the fact that its inadequacy is justified and stirred up by skilled violinists and musicians, brilliant dancers and bright film directors. Russia has gone insane not only at the level of Putin and the Kremlin. It has gone insane at the level of its once glorious culture, and this is immeasurably worse. It has gone crazy at the level of CONSCIENCE. Putin’s thugs, sent off to Kharkhiv and Donetsk for a small monetary compensation, and the highly paid virtuoso Macuev, having had a taste of sweet recognition at the closing ceremony of the Olympics, are now marching along. And this monstrous union will devastate Russia, because it engenders savagery. It blesses and encourages the actions of the enraged slave and boor.
The signatories have bankrupted the sense and honor of the Russian culture. They are not even disgusted by the blatantly deceitful style of the letter:
“…We want, for the commonality of our people and our cultures, a secure future. This is why we firmly declare support for the stance taken by the President of the Russian Federation toward Ukraine and Crimea.”
Obviously, according to the signatories, ‘a secure future’ for the commonality of ‘our people’ is being provided by Putin’s conspiratorial army, the ‘little green men’ under whose weapons the ‘referendum’ concerning the ‘reunion’ of Crimea with Russia will be held. However, you cannot build a stable community on lies and violence. From now on, while listening to the performances of Bashmet, Spivakov, and Macuev, admiring the balletic pirouettes of Ciskaridze, watching another movie from Uchitel, listening to discussions about art history by Antonova, people all over the world will be remembering that these wonderful cultural leaders have proclaimed themselves warmongers and enemies of a free Ukraine. They supported the injection of animal hysteria into society and endorsed a slide toward a new Stalinist regime. Will these sole signatures outweigh their numerous cultural achievements?
P.S. By the way, wouldn’t some of these signatories, who love touring abroad, from now on fall under the sanctions aimed at Russia? In my opinion, it would be a useful educational measure. Why would the West want to see Putin’s cultural ‘envoys’ in its countries? Let them share the responsibility with the authority which they have supported.
Translated by Dasha Darchuk, edited by Robin Rohrback