Photo credit: PHKushlis, Kazimir Malevich's "Black Cross, Black Square and Black Circle," Maeght Foundation Exhibit of Russian Avant-Garde Artists, August 2003.
Why is it that the Russians are so good at projecting the arts – the very best of their culture – abroad, yet so ham-fisted with the rest of the relationship?
The blockbuster exhibit From Russia: French and Russian Master Painting 1870-1925 is on display at London’s Royal Academy until April 18 and FT’s superb art critic Jackie Wullschlager has given it not one, but two rave reviews. This exhibition, in Wullschlager's words, sets "the Russian paintings alongside key French masterworks which inspired them" for the first time slotting "together the pieces of the east-west jigsaw in detail." Yet the Russian government has simultaneously forced the British Council, the UK’s cultural and education institution abroad to close its doors in St. Petersburg and Yekaterinburg as a part of an escalating spat with the British government.
It’s as if Russia’s right and left hands fail to recognize what the other is doing. But that’s happened before: and the KGB, oops, FSB, certainly takes care of its own. This bilateral spat after all is all about a supposed “tit-for-tat” Russian reaction to Britain’s pursuit of former Russian spy turned British resident Alexander Litvinenko’s murder in London in 2006. But shuttering the British Council as a pawn in this political battle is the worst David and Goliath form of bullying.
Guess it’s just hunky-dory for the British exhibit-going public to have a chance to view the juxtaposition of these wonderful French and Russian paintings never displayed together before outside Russia but it’s not all right for ordinary Russians to have access to the Council’s English language training, educational programs, exhibits, books, periodicals and information on scholarships for study in the United Kingdom. That’s what shuttering the British Council’s doors in St. Petersburg and Yekaterinburg means.
If the Russians are not careful, it might also mean that the West will become less receptive to hosting Russian cultural offerings – from master painting exhibits like the one at the London Royal Academy to the Bolshoi and Kirov ballets or concerts by the myriad of beautifully trained Russian musicians who began gracing our concert halls decades before the Cold War ended.
I, for one, would hate to see that happen. Russia’s soft power is incredibly attractive.
Yet I also find the current Russian closure of the British Council offices and harassment of its staff reprehensible. The people most hurt are the Russians themselves – but then the KGB has never really cared about the Russian population - except to spy on them and keep them under control. During the Cold War, it didn’t trust its world class performers either because it sent KGB escort bodyguards on their tours of the West. These thugs were not along for the ride and as far as I know they didn’t carry the performers’ suitcases, music or overcoats or even protect from the mice released on stage in New York by the Jewish Defense League during a major Russian pianist’s Carnegie Hall performance (an aside: I was told the performer in question found the rodent run amusing) in the 1970s.
But I’m beginning to wonder if the Russian powers-that-be today realize how much the country is losing by its current anti-social behavior in the “war for the European mind.”
In a perceptive article in Stratfor last week, analyst Peter Zeihan points out that Putin’s government fails to understand that playing its economic card for political purposes in Europe is backfiring. The fact that the Russian Federation produces and controls about 25% of the natural gas sold throughout Europe and through two poorly thought out natural gas pipeline proposals would increase it to 35% - not to enrich further its treasury but to gain political leverage over the Europeans - makes Brussels nervous. The EU is neither deaf, dumb, nor blind. Zeihan argues that the Europeans well understand the Russian petroleum game and are, therefore, reducing their dependency on Russian energy products through a variety of measures that include increased nuclear power and conservation.
If the Kremlin masterminds think playing the natural resources card will sever the European-American Gordian knot and keep both from expanding their economic and political influence in Russia’s “near abroad,” they also need to think again. Like George Bush’s stupider policies in the Middle East, this Russian chess move will lead to a kind of checkmate Moscow won’t like.
The road to strengthening NATO
A reversion to military intimidation as the Russian military tried on the Finns last year or even a cyber-war attack as the Russians pulled on the Estonians in retaliation for their moving a Soviet era statute from a prominent square to a graveyard won’t work either. The recent Ukrainian and Georgian applications to NATO and the EU also suggest that the all too traditional Russian-might-makes-right approach to dealing with its neighbors needs rethinking. To the far north, neither EU members Finland nor Sweden have yet filled out or sent in their NATO application forms as far as I know, but make no mistake this card is not off the table. Misplayed Russian hard power will be the straw that breaks those camels' backs.
If one of these two Nordic holdouts decides to do so, the other will likely to follow. NATO, I suspect, would welcome them with open arms. Surely at least Sergey Ivanov, one of the two top protagonists in the duel for the Kremlin throne after Putin, should understand this all too well since he spent, after all, several years of his KGB career at the Soviet Embassy in Helsinki.
Maybe Yeltsin’s get-along-with-the-West foreign policy wasn’t so misguided after all.