Ode to Kornilov

On this day (13 April) in 1918, General Lavr Kornilov, briefly Supreme Commander of the Russian Army in July and August 1917 and later one of the founders of the anti-Bolshevik White Volunteer Army, was killed by a Bolshevik shell which landed on his headquarters outside the city of Ekaterinodar in the Kuban region of southern Russia. Below is an ode to Kornilov penned by Ivan Savin in 1925. Ivan Savin (1899-1927) was the pen name of Ivan Savolainen, a Russian Finn who fought in the Volunteer Army in the later stages of the Civil War before going into exile in Finland, where he died in 1927. Savin’s brothers all died in the war, and his poems are full of the pathos of loss – loss of family, of youth, of homeland. In this poem, which was regularly reprinted in émigré military journals, he declares that Kornilov saved Russia’s honour by proving that at least somebody had stood up to the Bolsheviks. The (not very poetic) translation is mine.

Не будь тебя, прочли бы внуки                                                                              В истории: когда зажег                                                                                            Над Русью бунт костры из муки.                                                              Народ, как раб, на плаху лег.

И только ты, бездомный воин,                                                       Причастник русского стыда,                                                                              Был мертвой родины достоин                                                                              В те недостойные года.

И только ты, подняв на битву                                                         Изнемогавших, претворил                                                                             Упрек истории – в молитву                                                                                       У героических могил.

Вот почему с такой любовью,                                                                                 С благословением таким                                                                                Клоню я голову сыновью                                                                                Перед бессмертием твоим.


But for you, our children would have read                                                             In history, that when revolt                                                                                             Kindled in Russia fires of torment;                                                                             The people, like a slave, lay down on the executioner’s block.

And only you, homeless warrior,                                                                                 Sharing in Russia’s shame,                                                                                               Were worthy of the dead motherland                                                                     In those unworthy years.

And only you, having roused                                                                                           The exhausted to battle, turned                                                                                   The reproach of history into a prayer                                                                       By heroes’ graves.

That is why with such love,                                                                                              With such blessing                                                                                                               I bow my head as a son                                                                                                       Before your immortality.

Goodbye Lenin

The city of Donetsk has a Lenin district, a Kalinin district, and a Budyonny district. It has a Lenin Avenue, Ilich Avenue, Alexander Ulyanov Street, Mariia Ulyanova Street, Kalinin Street, Kiubyshev Street, Frunze Street, Kirov Street, 18th Party Congress Street, Red Guards Street, Budyonny Street, Budyonny Partisan Street, Proletarian Street, Red Proletarian Street, Engels Street, and many, many more commemorating the Soviet Union, the Communist Party, and communist heroes past. A law passed by the Ukrainian Parliament this week prohibits all of these. The law bans the promotion of communism, the use of communist symbols (such as the hammer and sickle), and ‘names of streets, squares, enterprises, institutions and organizations who used the names of leaders of the communist regime, the names of the USSR, Soviet Republics, USSR, names associated with the Communist Party congresses, etc.’ Communist symbols, it says, ‘may be used only in the museum, works of art, for the purposes of research and/or as a description of historical events.’

Under the new law, were Donetsk ever to be reintegrated with the rest of Ukraine, all of the place names above would have to change, as would countless others like them in Donetsk and many other towns and villages. As the price of reconciliation, the inhabitants of Eastern Ukraine would have to accept a wholesale rewriting of their history.

What lies behind this sweeping piece of legislation? A couple of reasons come to mind. One has to do with values, another to do with identity. First, some Ukrainians see the survival of a so-called ‘Soviet mentality’ among a significant part of the population (disparagingly referred to as ‘Sovoks’) as a serious obstacle standing in the way of their country becoming a liberal, democratic, Western society. The prevalence of Soviet values in Eastern Ukraine is seen as a major cause of the insurrection there. Supposedly, Ukraine can only achieve its goal of becoming a European country by adopting a new set of values and turning its back decisively on its Soviet past. Second, some other Ukrainians, especially in Western Ukraine, regard communism as an alien, foreign, primarily Russian, ideology, which suppressed and even attempted to exterminate Ukrainian identity. To promote that identity in independent Ukraine, Soviet symbols must be eradicated.

These positions are not completely unreasonable. As I wrote in a previous post, ‘I cannot think of anything positive to say about Lenin, consider communism wrong in theory and disastrous in practice, and view the continuing Soviet mentality as something which Ukraine would be better off without.’ But, as I also wrote, ‘I understand that other people see things differently.’ Attempting to force upon such people a vision of history which they do not share is bound to cause conflict.

In that previous post, I was talking solely about the destruction of Lenin statues. The new law goes far beyond that. It is an assault on the historical identity of a sizeable part of the Ukrainian population. More importantly, it is an assault on the identity of those who are currently in rebellion against the Ukrainian government, many of whom view the Soviet Union as having had some positive characteristics (such as guaranteed employment and social welfare) and as having saved the people of Ukraine from annihilation at the hands of the Nazis during the Great Patriotic War. By outlawing this version of history, the new law places yet another obstacle in the way of national reconciliation. How can we expect the people of Donetsk to agree to end their rebellion if this means that they must agree to the suppression of their history? Even if the makers of the law are correct that communist symbols are undesirable, the way they have chosen to deal with them is entirely counterproductive.

Moreover, it would be ill-advised even without the ideological element, if only because it is likely to result in injured local pride. Imagine that you live on 18th Party Congress Street. Its name might mean nothing to you, and in principle you might be willing to change it. But if the government in Kiev, 700 kilometres away, which you already dislike, orders you to change it, there is a good chance that you might bristle at the idea. And imagine how you would feel if Kiev then tells you that you have to change every other street name in your neighbourhood as well. From the start of the current crisis, the people of Donbass have been demanding a greater say over local affairs. It’s hard to see how they would tolerate intrusion of this sort.

In his book Frontline Ukraine, Richard Sakwa contrasts two visions of Ukraine: the ‘monist’ and the ‘pluralist’. The first seeks to create a country with a homogenous identity. The second believes that Ukraine would be better off celebrating diversity. Sakwa argues that the war in Donbass is largely a product of attempts to impose the first vision at the expense of the second. One might have hoped that the war would have taught those in authority in Kiev that a new approach was needed. Instead, the law outlawing communist symbols suggests that they have decided to double down, and to exploit the emotions created by the war as an opportunity to advance their agenda with extra zeal. They have a choice: either they can continue to pursue their monist agenda, or they can seek reconciliation with Donbass in order to reunite the country. They cannot do both. It seems that they have chosen the former.

Friday object lesson #23: Music box

Last week’s object came from Sergeev Posad: this week’s is something I bought at another Russian religious centre, Suzdal, in 2011 – a tiny music box, which plays an extract from The Nutcracker. Suzdal, which is a couple of hours outside of Moscow, is not the easiest place to get to for the average tourist, but is well worth the visit.


Je suis Val?

In January of this year, the Charlie Hebdo attacks provoked worldwide debate about the right to publish images which others might find offensive. Free speech, most commentators agreed, includes the right to offend.

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra (TSO) apparently disagrees. This week, it cancelled a performance by pianist Valentina Lisitsa on account of comments she made on Twitter about the conflict in Ukraine. Lisitsa is an outspoken opponent of the current Ukrainian government. As a result her performances have become the focus of protest by that government’s supporters. They have sought to persuade orchestras and theatres to boycott her, and in this case, they have succeeded.

Valentina Lisitsa
Valentina Lisitsa

I suggest that there are a number of factors which can help us think about whether the TSO’s decision is justified, namely: the nature of the institution; the role morality of musicians and orchestras; the nature of Ms Lisitsa’s statements; and the task which she was invited to perform.

1) The nature of the institution: As a private individual I am ethically free to invite or disinvite anyone I choose into my home. Somebody else’s right to free speech does not extend to a duty by me to provide that person with a platform. Public institutions are different. The state is meant to be politically neutral. It would surely be wrong for a public organization to take somebody’s legally-expressed political opinions into account when determining its relationship with that person.

Is the TSO a private or a public organization? In 2012 the TSO received about $5 million from private donations and $5.8 million from government funding. It is officially a private institution, but it receives very considerable public funding. Consequently, I believe that the TSO does have public responsibilities, and that its decision to uninvite Ms Lisitsa is not a purely private matter. It seems to me that it should be of some concern to Canadian citizens if a publicly funded institution chooses whom it invites to perform on political grounds.

2) The role morality of musicians and orchestras: Aristotle remarked that a ‘good flautist’ was somebody who played the flute well. A good pianist is thus somebody who plays the piano well. On these grounds, Valentina Lisitsa could be a good pianist even if she is (and I have no reason to think that she is) a loathsome person. Philosophers make a distinction between ‘general morality’ and ‘role morality’, between the values of society as a whole and the morality required in a given role. The role morality of the TSO is founded on what it means to be a good orchestra. That is to put on the best possible performances for its audiences. Its performers’ political opinions are irrelevant to this obligation. There were, no doubt, classical music lovers in Toronto who were looking forward to hearing Ms Lisitsa play Rachmaninov, and now will miss that. TSO is not serving its audience well as an orchestra.

That said, any institution also has to guard its reputation.  Consequently, an organization might rightly decide not to be associated with a given person if that person holds views which might reflect badly on it. The TSO cannot be a ‘good’ orchestra if it entirely ignores general morality or public opinion. At the same time, though, free speech and tolerance of different political opinions are key values of liberal democracy. Intolerance will damage rather than enhance a reputation. Disassociating oneself from somebody because of that person’s legally-expressed political views is something which should be done in extreme cases only.

3) The nature of Ms Lisitsa’s statements: The key issue may be the nature of Ms Lisitsa’s statements on Twitter. The mere fact that somebody might disagree with an artist, or even find their views offensive, is not sufficient for a public organization devoted to the arts to disqualify that person from performing.

The TSO’s position is that the views in question go beyond that. According to Slavyangrad.org, in a private letter to Ms Lisitsa the TSO claimed that its lawyers had determined that she might have committed ‘public incitement of hatred contrary to section 319(2) of the Criminal Code of Canada’ due to statements she had made on social media. If this is true, then it could constitute a legitimate reason for the TSO not to wish to be associated with her.

Certainly, some of Ms Lisitsa’s tweets are decidedly crude, as can be seen by those mentioned at this link. But crudity is not synonymous with inciting hatred. Moreover, in its public justifications of its action, the TSO has said nothing about ‘public incitement of hatred.’ Rather the TSO has made a more limited claim, that ‘Due to ongoing accusations of deeply offensive language by Ukrainian media outlets, we have decided to replace Valentina Lisitsa. Valentina Lisitsa’s provocative comments have overshadowed past performances. As one of Canada’s most important cultural institutions, our priority must remain on being a stage for the world’s great works of music, and not for opinions that some believe to be deeply offensive.’

4) The task which Ms Lisitsa was invited to perform : A final consideration is that the TSO did not invite Ms Lisitsa to come to Toronto to give a political speech. She was to play Rachmaninov’s piano concerto no. 2. Had the TSO allowed her to perform, it would not have been, as it fears, providing a ‘stage … for opinions that some believe to be deeply offensive’ but rather a stage for Rachmaninov’s music.

Although freedom of speech includes the freedom to be vulgar and offensive, I am not a fan of those who choose to exercise their liberty in that way. None of the above therefore should be read as an endorsement of Ms Lisitsa’s tweets. Nevertheless, it is worrisome that the TSO should apparently be so easily pressured. If we prevent people who hold controversial opinions from carrying out professional activities entirely unrelated to those opinions, we create a situation in which any public deviation from one particular simplified version of the truth becomes socially unacceptable. McCarthyism of that sort is not a desirable outcome.

Overcoming the Soviet legacy

It’s hard to think of books saying what a great place Russia is. Occasionally an author makes a real effort to understand and empathize with the Russian people (Hedrick Smith’s 1976 tome The Russians stood out as a Cold War example), but in general anybody who gets information about the country from what’s in the local branch of Chapters, Barnes and Noble, or Waterstones will most likely decide that Russia is an absolute dump which just keeps getting worse.

Two books which I have just finished reading are no exception: Oliver Bullough’s The Last Man in Russia: The Struggle to Save a Dying Nation, published in 2013, and Lev Golinkin’s A Backpack, A Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka, which came out at the end of last year.

Bullough intertwines a biography of Soviet dissident priest Dmitry Dudko with descriptions of Stalin’s Siberian labour camps and the later, more subtle, repressive techniques of the KGB, along with an analysis of Russians’ predilection for alcohol. He paints a picture of a nation suffering from a severe psychological illness, which has manifested itself in mass drunkenness, a low fertility rate, and early deaths.

In contrast, Golinkin’s book is an amusing and occasionally laugh-out-loud funny description of his emigration from the Soviet Union in 1989. By his own account, Golinkin seems to have been traumatized for life by the anti-Semitism he and his family experienced in their home town of Kharkov. As a young boy, he skipped school and stayed at home, so afraid was he of leaving his apartment. His youth in the Soviet Union left him with a pervasive sense of fear and self-loathing. This perpetual anxiety comes across as almost a perfect model of the psychological trauma which Bullough claims was the product of communist rule. Golinkin describes the corruption required to navigate the complex process of obtaining a Soviet exit visa, and the tyranny imposed on emigrating Soviet Jews by the guards on the Soviet-Czechoslovak border. Golinkin makes it absolutely clear that he was delighted to leave ‘Russia’ (as he insists on calling it, even though Kharkov is in Ukraine), and shares his opinion that the United States, where he eventually settled, is a glorious bastion of freedom and opportunity compared to the ghastly country he left behind.

Both books are well worth a read. Bullough’s book, written in a journalistic style, is often as much about him as about his ostensible subject, but it is well researched and tells an interesting, important, and original story. Golinkin’s, meanwhile, is quite deliberately about the author, but also informative about the history of Jewish emigration from the Soviet Union.

The subject of both works is very much the Soviet Union. However, it would be all too easy to read them and come away with the impression that contemporary Russia is the same. In particular, Bullough’s talk of impending demographic catastrophe may induce some readers to believe that rampant alcoholism and a declining population are still crisis issues. Yet, in fact, the situation has been improving since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Figures out this week, for instance, say that, ‘Alcohol consumption has decreased on average, plunging from 16.2 liters per capita annually in 2008, to 11.6 liters in 2013. The death rate from alcohol poisoning has dived to 8.9 people per 100,000 in 2014, down from 9.7 people one year earlier.’ Suicides have also declined. All of this is having a knock-on effect on Russian demographics. As Mark Adomanis has regularly pointed out, Russian fertility has increased markedly in recent years, as has Russian life expectancy. Russians are living longer than ever before. Surveys suggest that Russians are also happier than ever before. In short, the spiritual malaise Bullough describes is gradually being fixed. These two books, therefore, should serve not to reinforce prejudice about Russia but rather to remind us of the appalling legacy of communism and thus to put the problems of today’s Russia in the correct context.