Magazine article The Spectator

Going East to Confront the West

Magazine article The Spectator

Going East to Confront the West

Article excerpt

THE look on `Granny Albright's' face worked wonders for Russian morale. In the middle of all that Nato triumphalism over Kosovo, a few score Russian soldiers spat firmly in the soup and asserted Russia's right to be heard. They had done it, too, with panache - a surprise forced-march of more than 300 miles, concealed from their own foreign ministry. It was quite widely admired, and not just in Russia, but also in the many other quarters where Nato is regarded as a bullying aggressor in contempt of international law. No wonder Boris Yeltsin promoted their commander, General Zavarzin, twice over. Some commentators in the Russian press tut-tutted: Russia was losing credibility for a gesture, they said; the foreign ministry should have been told; the army (with, after all, the Chechen affair not entirely to its credit in the past) had gone too far. But ordinary Russians cheered. They hate Americans nowadays and despise them as well.

In the old days, anti-Americanism was confined to the Communist agitprop and some ranters of the Slavophile Right, of whom the Dostoevsky of Notes from the Underground is the prime example. He thought that the American belief in Progress was just funny, likely to deform the soul and brain alike. Russians, contemplating the Clinton-Lewinsky farce and the other, lesser, legal horrors committed in the name of sexual equality, echo this. An archivist friend of mine who had been to Harvard told me the following story: academic colleague, female, comes down moving stairs. Wind. Skirt blows up. Colleague, male, at foot of steps, laughs. She sues him for sexual harassment. He counter-sues for sexual harassment, on the grounds that he is gay.

On another level, there is the contempt, very widely found among educated people, for the world of American sovietology: those asses who, in the name of a detente that was already vieux jeu in the later Seventies, pronounced that Stalin was much maligned, and had killed only 2,000 people or thereabouts, mainly for sensible bureaucratic reasons. Not a single Russian had a good word for what Nato was doing in the Balkans.

Russian nationalism is back, and it has done wonders for the look of Moscow itself. 'I didn't like the idea at the time, but it has worked,' said a Russian friend, a money man, as we passed the Church of Christ the Saviour in Moscow. It has cost, and is costing, an enormous amount, far too much for a country with troubled finances, but it is rather a triumph just the same. The old church had been put up to celebrate 19thcentury victories, and it was blown up by Stalin, who planned to build a gigantic Palace of Soviets in its place. However, the thing was so enormous that its foundations could not be safely built in Moscow's sandy soil, so they installed a large swimming-pool instead. Now, a reconstructed Christ the Saviour is back, its golden cupola dominating the skyline beyond the Kremlin.

That only a few people have protested about the cost is one sign among many that Russian nationalism is well and truly alive. Boris Yeltsin means to let Russia enter the new millennium with her grand, romantic past restored; word is, even, that before this year is out Lenin will have been removed from his mausoleum outside the Kremlin and given a decent burial somewhere else. So, too, will other Communist worthies whose ashes and busts (these include Stalin) are installed in or at the Kremlin Wall. The mausoleum itself certainly looks absurdly incongruous in a Red Square now heavily dominated by reconstructions of the Tsarist past (and a very, very good historical museum, replacing the Lenin one of yesteryear).

I saw the tail-end of the Pushkin celebrations: the Bolshoi staged its grandest productions of Godunov and Onegin, and performed Godunov superbly. It is an opera with contemporary resonance, of course: referring to a period in the early 17th century called `The Time of Troubles' when Muscovy succumbed, through treachery, to Westernisation and chaos. …

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