THR Web Features   /   May 18, 2022

How to Destroy a Civilization

Vladimir Putin Lays Waste to Russia as Well as Ukraine.

Walter C. Clemens, Jr.

( Saint Isaac's Cathedral, St. Petersburg, Russia. Via Wikimedia Commons.)

Great civilizations can wither—even when built on the material and human foundations of a potential superpower. Today the civilizations of India, China, the West, and Islam are all in jeopardy. But what has happened to Russia, the world’s largest state and fulcrum of Eurasia? Tsarist Russia, for all that was cruel and backward about it, had redeeming features. It gave rise to some of the greatest music, dance, and literature in human history—a flowering that struggled for air in Soviet times but has nearly stopped breathing under Vladimir Putin’s petrostate.

Novaya Gazeta editor Dmitry Muratov, Nobel laureate for peace in 2021, was assailed with red paint laced with acetone during a Russian train trip on April 7. The assailant yelled, “Muratov, here’s one for our boys”—a reference to Russian forces fighting in Ukraine. Speaking at an event marking the World Press Freedom Day, Muratov, whose own Novaya Gazeta newspaper has been forced to suspend publication amid Moscow’s military intervention, warned that the Kremlin’s “propaganda warriors” were striving to make nuclear weapons use more palatable to the Russian public.

Thousands of scientists and other intellectuals along with hundreds of ballet dancers and other artists are leaving or trying to leave Russia, ashamed of Putin’s wars and immobilized by his repression. Some Russian scientists worry, “there is no future for science in Russia.” Adding to this exodus, the rectors of 700 Russian academic institutions have approved a statement endorsing Putin’s “difficult but correct” decision to “denazify” Ukraine. Will officials like these stop at nothing to keep their jobs, salaries, and perks?

Some 10 percent of Russia's tech workforce is projected to leave the country before the end of May. The mass flight of tech workers is turning Russian IT into another casualty of war. Meanwhile, Russia struggles under an unprecedented wave of hacking, puncturing the myth of its cyber-superiority. It is possible, of course, that Putin is glad to be rid of these malcontents and to pursue autarky, supported by the vast majority of Russians who seem to approve his every word and deed.

In the eighteenth century, Peter the Great and Catherine imported Europe’s best and brightest. For decades the Russian Academy of Sciences consisted mainly of Germans. Now Putin pushes back to the West the very persons on whom Russia’s future depends. And these are not only scientists and engineers. Some 200 Russian and Ukrainian dancers are training with the State Ballet in Berlin, which even provides them with shoes.

Perhaps these potential émigrés in Berlin will follow the path of Sergei Diaghilev whose Ballets Russes transformed dance theatres from Paris to New York to San Francisco and Australia with world-class choreography by Michel Fokine and George Balanchine, the costumes and sets of Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Georges Rouault, Léon Bakst, and Natalya Goncharova, the dancing of Vaslav Nijinsky and Anna Pavlova—all done to the music of Rimsky-Korsakov, Claude Debussy, and Igor Stravinsky. Diaghilev never returned to Russia and his Ballets Russes never performed there—the land of its birth. This would resemble the case if Louis Armstrong and his orchestra toured Russia but never came home. A later generation of Parisians and New Yorkers enjoyed and learned from the dance marvels of Soviet-era defectors Rudolf Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov. At Nureyev’s funeral in Paris in 1993, Oleg Vinogradov, artistic director of St. Petersburg’s Marinski Ballet observed that “What Nureyev did in the West, he could never have done here.” (Many of these complex interactions are beautifully described and illustrated in a film by the National Gallery of Art.)

Where is the culture that gave humanity the symphonies and operas of Glinka, Mussorgsky, Tchaikovsky, and Rimsky-Korsakov? Their works are still played—often by Russian masters with superb technical skills, but where is the deep creativity that spawned Swan Lake and Boris Godunov? When I look at the Met’s production of Prince Igor or Eugene Onegin, I weep for the civilization that gave rise to their birth but is no more. Thanks to Putin’s war, two of his sympathizers, the conductor Valery Gergiev and pianist Denis Matsuev have been dropped from performances by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra at Carnegie Hall and Naples-Arts.

Stalin and his successors suppressed, killed, or drove into exile many of the Soviet Union’s best and brightest. Stalin smothered two world-class composers, Sergei Prokofiev, and Dmitri Shostakovich. Risking censure for degenerate modernism, Prokofiev wrote Romeo and Juliet in 1935 and got it produced in 1940. Defying official and popular anti-Semitism, Shostakovich managed in 1962 to have his Symphony No. 13 performed—its five segments meant to illustrate the meanings of five poems by Yevgeny Yevtushenko including Babi Yar, named for a ravine near Kyiv where Nazis in 1941 massacred more than 30,000 Jews in 36 hours.

How low has Putin driven Russian culture? Here are two indications. At the very time in 2014 that Putin’s “Little Green Men” were preparing Crimea and Donbas for annexation, a huge choir dressed in folk costumes, led by a giant accordionist and a strong throated replica of Dolly Parton mesmerized thousands in the cavernous auditorium with their energetic marching song “My Native Land”—“our mother Russia extends from Kamchatka to Crimea and Odessa. We will defend her so she can never be divided.” Another crowd-pleaser by a mini-skirted Viktoriya was “Russia better than any other. Events like the 2014 performance described here amount to war propaganda. Many in the audience were gray-haired, but they clapped vigorously and stomped their feet to the powerful beat of what one dissident Muscovite called war songs for any age. Indeed, children in the choir and the audience enthusiastically joined the patriotic fervor. They would probably be ready when called to serve. Some of those gleeful children in 2014 may have already fought and died in Ukraine in 2022. Few in the audience would be open to a different perspective. The choir’s bravado and mocking stance toward the West contribute to and reflect a smug vulgarity in the public mood.

A second case is equally or more alarming.On February 23, 2022, “Defender of the Fatherland Day,” honoring the founding of the Red Army in 1918, the prestigious St. Petersburg Chamber Choir solemnly performed a song flippantly calling for a nuclear attack on “America and niggers [negrov].” This ungodly event took place in St. Isaac’s Cathedral in St. Petersburg, Russia’s largest architectural masterpiece from the first half of the nineteenth century. The choir sang respectfully about the commander of

A small submarine with a little atomic motor
And with ten little bombs of a hundred megatons,
How it crossed the Atlantic and I called the gunner:
“Petrov, target the city of Washington!” He replied,
“Tra-la-la, tra-la-la, I can do everything for three rubles
Greetings to the new land of the Enemy!”
And high above in a little plane is my pal Vovochka
He bears gifts in loaded hatches
In the little submarine with a little atomic motor
The crew sings a happy little song
“Tra-la-la, tra-la-la, we can do everything for three rubles!
And burn, burn, you land of the Enemy!”

 The lyrics sung by the choir were composed in 1980 as a parody of Cold War thinking—something like the American film The Russians Are Coming. The reference to negrov may not be so hostile as condescending—portraying blacks as toy dolls in the American landscape. Regardless this context, the song in this setting is an affront to religion.

Of course Russians still speak in many voices. Opposed to every form of militant chauvinism, the Russian rapper Oxxxymiron sings against war and to raise funds to assist needy Ukrainians. Banned in Russia, he and his team perform abroad, for example, in Istanbul and Berlin.

What claims to be the newspaper of the Russian state, Zavtra [Tomorrow] on Easter 2022 portrayed the war on Ukraine as a crusade in which President Putin is carrying the cross of the “Russian Cathedral” to the top of Golgotha where it fights the American “fortress.” Editor Aleksandr Prokhanov covered the first page with the headline, “He is truly risen!” with a picture of Christ accompanied by heavy artillery, a tank, and smoking rising from buildings. 

Declaring that  Russia is not a helpless victim of foreign doctors, Prokhanov boasted that no one can kill the land of Lake Baikal and the Volga, venerable church leader Sergei, academician Vernadsky, Stalin, and the BAM (Baikal-Amur Railway deemed unviable in the 1990s but being resurrected in recent years.). Prokhanov had criticized Putin as being too liberal in the early 1990s, but he became his strong supporter after annexation of Crimea. Some observers characterize Zavtra as “brown-red”—Hitlerite-Stalinist. The paper descends from the ultra-conservative newspaper Den’ [Day], founded by Prokhanov in 1990, but soon shut down Boris Yeltsin's administration. Zavtra is not the official voice of the Kremlin but on newsstands it is displayed next to Izvestiya and Pravda, while the liberal Novaya Gazeta is no more.

But opposed to Prokhanov and other devout supporters of the president, banker Oleg Tinkov annunced that, with Putin ascendant, Russia “as a country no longer exists.” On April 19 Mr. Tinkov published an antiwar post on Instagram, calling the invasion of Ukraine “crazy” and deriding Russia’s military. “Why would we have a good army,” he asked, if everything else in the country is dysfunctional “and mired in nepotism, servility and subservience?”

What happened to the literary ferment that gave the world some of its greatest ever poets and novelists—Alexander Pushkin and Mikhail Lermontov (both killed in duels), Leo Tolstoy, and Fyodor Dostoevsky (whose first novel, before he was sent to Siberia, focused on the dreams of an eleven-year old orphan girl, Netochka Nezvanova)? Several major Russian poets continued working in Soviet times. Vladimir Mayakovsky begged, “Make me a part of the Five-Year Plan!” When controls tightened, however, he committed suicide, as did his more romantic comrade, Sergei Esenin (spouse for a time to Isadora Duncan). After Stalin’s death in 1953, Nikita Khrushchev permitted a cultural “thaw” but he continued to impose his conservative provincialism on the arts from the top down. In response to American jazz, Khrushchev stated: “I don't like jazz. When I hear jazz, it's as if I had gas on the stomach. I used to think it was static when I heard it on the radio.” As for commissioning artists, Khrushchev declared: “As long as I am president of the Council of Ministers, we are going to support genuine art. We aren't going to give a kopeck for pictures painted by jackasses.”

When I visited Moscow’s Tretyakov Art Gallery in 1958, the works of Chagall, Kandinsky, and other avant-garde painters were kept in a dark storage room. I needed a lantern to see them. Now, of course, they are displayed—in part to draw tourists. In 1960 I met the painter Oskar Rabin, a Latvian Jew whose paintings with those of other “nonconforming” artists were bulldozed by Soviet authorities in 1974. Rabin moved to Paris in 1978 and died in Florence in 2018.

During a 1962 contemporary art show in Moscow, Nikita Khrushchev hurled insults at the artists, labeling them “degenerates” and calling their work “shit.” When Khrushchev accused sculptor Ernst Neizvestny of wasting metal that was valuable for industry, the artist defended the integrity of his work, saying, “I'm not afraid of your threats.” The two men later took a liking to each other. The artist moved to New York in 1976 and died there in 2016. A black and white statue by Neizvestny graces the tomb of Khrushchev in Moscow. Putin called the émigré artist’s death “a grievous loss for Russia’s culture and for world culture as a whole.”

One of Stalin’s favorite writers, Mikhail Sholokhov, brought up in the “land of the Don Cossacks,” won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1965 (despite repeated accusations of plagiarism) for his novels about the Russian Civil War. The novelist-poet Boris Pasternak also won a Nobel Prize for Dr. Zhivago three years later, but the Khrushchev regime did not permit him to accept it. Aleksander Solzhenitsyn also won a Nobel in 1970 for his novels exposing life in the gulag. Expelled from the USSR by the Brezhnev regime in 1974, he moved to Vermont, but returned to (post-Soviet) Russia toward the end of his life.

Leningrad poet Josef Brodsky ran afoul of Soviet authorities and was expelled from the USSR in 1972. In 1987 he won the Nobel Prize in Literature and was appointed U.S. Poet Laureate in 1991. When asked who he is, Brodsky replied “I’m Jewish, a Russian poet, an English essayist, and, of course, an American citizen.”

One of the world’s greatest cellists, Mstislav Rostropovich, provided refuge to Solzhenitsyn in his dacha in 1974, but was then banned from performing except in provincial towns. Like Solzhenitsyn, the cellist and his singer wife escaped to the West in 1974. From 1977 until 1994, he was music director and conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C.

One of the leading dissident poets from the Khrushchev era, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, departed post-Communist Russia in 2007 for the University of Tulsa and other U.S. colleges. Yevtushenko was the most vital—most alive—person I have ever met. He told me that Russian audiences in the 1990s no longer appreciated poetry and could no longer afford books. One of his last public appearances was in a Boston synagogue in 2017. Similar tales abound in all the arts and sciences.

Eduard Kuznetsov, arrested in 1971 for attempting to hijack a plane to take Jewish dissidents to Israel, is the bravest man I have known. He knew that his plan might have been penetrated by the KGB and that, if thwarted, he could face the death penalty. Exchanged for Soviet spies in the United States, he avoided execution.

Andrei Sakharov, a father of the Soviet H-bomb but also the country’s leading campaigner for human rights, is probably the greatest Russian of all time. His wife, Yelena Bonner, organized an archive at Brandeis and Harvard Universities for his papers. The documents include KGB reports on the movements and ideas of Bonner’s husband.

Is Russia part of Europe or is it Eurasian—closer to China, than to Poland or Germany? In 1802 a Russian diplomat and educator, Vasyli Malinovsky, published in St. Petersburg his Essays (Traktaty) on War and Peace. Written while he served in England, the Essays assumed that Russia is part of Europe. Malinovsky proposed a union or alliance (soyuz) of Russia with Europe’s other great powers–a sort of world government to maintain the peace. In Königsberg, a short distance along the shores of the Baltic Sea from Russia’s imperial capital, Immanuel Kant outlined his own vision for perpetual peace (Zum ewigen Frieden) which required a federation of states with representative government, respect for international law, a spirit of trade and a shared enlightenment culture—the very factors that, until 2022, helped Europeans avoid war and live in peaceful prosperity. Kant assumed that if people had a voice, governments would not go to war lightly. An admirer of English liberalism, Malinovsky knew that Russia did not have a representative government, but he pushed for change from inside the system. He proposed to the reform-minded foreign minister, Viktor Kochubey, scion of a Crimean Tatar family, a project for freeing the serfs—one of the first emancipation proposals in Russia.

Malinovsky helped to establish, fund, and administer a classically oriented lycée for sons of the nobility adjoining the imperial palace at Tsarskoe Selo near St. Petersburg. Malinovsky died in 1814, but Russia’s greatest poet, Alexander Pushkin, studied at the lycée where, he recalled, his muse appeared to him as he strolled in the palace gardens and mysterious valleys, in the springtime listening to swans and fountains spraying into quiet places. He grew up not rebellious, but some of his classmates became mutinous army officers (Decembrists) who, having seen Paris, in 1825 demanded a constitution as a new emperor, Nicholas I, took the throne after the death of Alexander I. Many were arrested and sent to Siberia. (Though Pushkin himself was trained to look outward, he once warned, “In foreign ways, Russian grain does not grow.”) For his unconventional views he was exiled to Odessa and Moldova.

Alexander II, successor to Nicholas I did not free Russia’s serfs until 1861—two years before Lincoln liberated America’s slaves. Tsarist Russia had no constitution until 1906. Post-Soviet Russia got a constitution in 1993, but when the Duma defied the president, Boris Yeltsin had the army shell the parliament into submission. Putin has now rigged Russia’s Constitution to permit him to stay president in virtual perpetuity.

While Malinovsky foresaw an alliance between Russia and Europe’s great powers, most of Europe now turned against Russia. On March 16, 2022, in a somber ceremony in Strasbourg, France, the Russian flag was lowered from its staff in front of the Palais de l'Europe, formally ending Russia’s membership in the continent’s oldest intergovernmental organization and marking the final rupture between Vladimir Putin’s regime and the democratic world. The decision to expel Russia from the Council of Europe—a body established after World War II to safeguard peace, the rule of law, and human rights—was taken by European lawmakers and diplomats in response to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, which the Council classified as a “crime against peace” under the Nuremberg statues and an “aggression” in the United Nations definition of the term.

Putin, like Napoleon, tried to expand his personal power and his realm too far. He has laid waste to Russia as well as Ukraine, causing havoc worldwide in countries that try now to accommodate over 5 million Ukrainian refugees; that depend on Russian gas and oil; or need grain and fertilizer shipped from Black Sea ports. Besides their collapsed economy and living standards, Russia will suffer spiritually. All of its citizens will be chagrined to say, “I am from Russia.”

Steve Rosenberg told the BBC his impressions of Moscow today compared with those of the city in which he taught English 30 years ago. A female medical doctor whom he met in a supermarket confided to him that “the hardest thing of all is living in a society that doesn't want to know the truth about events in Ukraine. People are too busy worrying about their mortgage payments, paying off their debts. They're not interested in what's going on around them. But I think that what's happening in Ukraine is terrible. I'm ashamed to be Russian.”

Rosenberg visited the giant war museum that celebrates the Soviet Union's victory over Nazi Germany in World War II—a victory achieved at enormous human cost—more than 27 million Soviet citizens killed in what is known here as the Great Patriotic War. What Rosenberg found “disturbing is how the ‘Special Military Operation’ has found a place in this museum, how it's being honored here.” On the museum's website, the spelling of the word “museum” has been altered to feature the letter Z—a sort of crippled swastika that in Cyrillic looks like a 3. In the museum shop you can buy Z mugs and badges declaring “Putin is My PreZident.” The purchasers may not care who was Diaghilev or that few Russians ever saw his creations or that he never returned to Russia.

What happened to Russia? Since roughly 1917 its cultural achievements have have been disappearing—the dark legacy of a series of thuggish autocrats, from Lenin to Putin, claiming that they knew best about everything.