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 first, ten years ago exactly, prompted by watching the opening of the new, quite beautiful, extension of the Mariinsky theatre in St Petersburg. (Its current performances can be seen on Mezzo television, the French cable station for classical music. You can see it on U-Tube as well.)
The Mariinsky is run by Valery Gergiev and he arranged the 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 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—brought to Russia by the French philosopher, Diderot, the confidante of the Empress Catherine the Great—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, Prokofiev, Stravinsky and Khachaturian.
Konstanin Stanislavsky founded twentieth century theatre directing.
Italy may be better in painting and sculpture, Holland in painting, Britain and France, the equal best with Russia in literature and likewise Germany and Austria in music. (I’m afraid the US doesn’t get a mention on my list.) But no country has such distinction as Russia 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, education and military might. It is true (and not often reported) that Russia’s unemployment is the lowest among the G8 (now G7) countries. Incomes have tripled and pensioners have got much more support during the Putin years.
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.
Its military was decimated at the end of the Cold War. Putin has been trying to restore it. It is a long job and Russia can’t project as much military power as it did in Soviet days. The Ukraine war has shown up its weakness.
Of course, a country that has 5,889 nuclear warheads has power of sorts. However, we all know—or should know—that nuclear weapons are unusable.
Real power today 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. Real power would come from not trying to invade Ukraine, (despite Western provocation by expanding NATO up to Russia’s borders, betraying solemn promises made to President Mikhail Gorbachev). And, not least, spreading its magnificent culture.
Putin is more than fortunate to preside over a country with the most eclectic culture on the face of the earth. (Indeed, for this reason alone 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 should be given within the next decade.)
Mr Putin: Real power does not grow out of the barrel of a gun.
* Jonathan Power was for 17 years a foreign affairs columnist and commentator for the International Herald Tribune, now the New York Times. He has also written dozens of columns for the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe and the Los Angeles Times. He is the European who has appeared most on the opinion pages of these papers.