By Jonathan Power
Observers say that what drives President Vladimir Putin is to make Russia respected. But perhaps Putin overestimates how much power Russia already has. He has overlooked which trumpets to blow – it is not his “hang tough” policies in international affairs, especially vis-a-vis the United States. It is Russia’s culture.
These thoughts were prompted by watching the opening of the new, quite beautiful, extension of the Mariinsky theatre in St Petersburg on Mezzo television, the French cable station for classical music. (You can see it on U-Tube.)
The Mariinsky is run by Valery Gergiev and he arranged a show (and conducted it) so rich and of such supreme achievement that it overshadowed in my memory all the great performances I’ve seen, whether in London, New York, Paris or Moscow. Each segment lasted a bare 4 minutes and it alternated between opera, ballet and two solo violinists and one pianist. It went on for two hours or more with the greatest stars of the Russian firmament, plus two or three Western performers.
Putin was in the audience, not in the official box but down in the middle of the stalls. Was he aware of the political power of an event like this? I doubt it. Nor of the power of the rest of Russia’s great inheritance.
In St Petersburg there is also a second great ballet company, the Mikhailovsky. There is the Hermitage museum which along with its peer, the Louvre in Paris, takes two days to do justice to. Beside its superb collection of Western art it also has some of the best of Russian art. Often ignored by connoisseurs it is very good. There is the mouth-dropping architecture of the city including the Winter Palace which knocks every other northern European city out of the ring.
In Moscow there is the Bolshoi ballet and opera. Russia is home to the two leading ballet companies of the world.
Moscow has also been home to the important publishing houses that published the world’s greatest novelist, Tolstoy. And Dostoevsky, Turgenev, Chekhov, Solzhenitsyn, Pasternak and the poets, Pushkin and Akhmatova.
Moscow also published and usually held the first performances of the music of Tchaikovsky, Borodin, Rachmaninov, Prokofiev, Glinka, Mussorgsky and the modern composers, Shostakovich and Stravinsky and recently Khachaturian.
Italy may be better in painting and sculpture, Holland in painting, Britain and France as good in literature and Germany and Austria in music. (I’m afraid the US doesn’t get a mention.) But no country has such distinction in so many of the arts.
Mr Putin, isn’t that enough? No, I hear you. You will say Russia has to build up the economy and military might.
It is true (and not often reported) that Russia’s unemployment is the lowest among the G8 countries. Moreover, it has no deficit. Incomes have doubled under Putin and the pensioners are getting real support. Russia produces some of the world’s best scientists. But it is still on the oil needle and its economy is riddled by corruption and maladministration. The university of Moscow is not one of the top ranked in world league tables. Russia will be unlikely to advance economically into the future at a fast rate.
Its military was decimated at the end of the Cold War. Putin is trying to restore it. It will be a long job and Russia can’t project much military power these days. Supplying armaments to Syria is about it.
Of course, a country that has 11,500 nuclear weapons has power of a sorts.
However we all know – or should know – that nuclear weapons are unusable. The US and Russia no longer regard each other as enemies, despite the occasional knocking of the heads. Sabre rattling is out. So why do both sides continue to possess these weapons?
President Barack Obama wants to negotiate another reduction. Russia is stalling, apparently because of the American anti-ballistic missile plans. Yet Obama has modified this plan twice and the first time Putin gave Obama praise for taking a difficult step forward. One could say, as Putin did the other day when talking about Edward Snowden being holed up in Moscow’s airport, that the fuss over reductions is “like shearing a piglet. There’s a lot of squealing and very little wool.”
Real power would come from working with the US to get rid of nuclear weapons so that no longer is a bad example set to the rest of the world.
Putin is more than fortunate to preside over a country with the most eclectic culture on the face of the earth. (Indeed because this culture’s roots and manner are European Russia should be regarded as a part of the West, and membership of the European Union must be given within the next decade.)
Mr Putin: Real power does not grow out of the barrel of a gun.
Copyright: Jonathan Power