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Russia: remembering St Petersburg during a turning point – as a new one begins

September 11, 2022

I wrote a few days ago in the context of America’s upheavals about how music – be it songs or symphonies – sometimes helps us dream about the country where it originated. We look back to where we were when we first heard it. Where were you when you first heard Sgt Pepper, we might ask ourselves, and what was happening in the world you lived in at the time?

One of those “where were you” moments came to me a couple of evenings ago when I was listening to a collection of Russian sacred music. I bought the recording during a brief visit to St Petersburg in 2014, after a choral concert in a church.

The music is profoundly moving. Though I’m not overloaded with religious faith, I respect and often admire faith in others. I especially treasure the musical output of all faiths, from Sufi qawala and the plainchant of Hildegard of Blingen to the grand choral works of Bach, Handel and Mozart. The Russian Orthodox church has always produced magnificent music for choirs, with its emphasis on the bass voice as the foundation for the liturgy.

Revisiting those anthems, some of which rang out in that church in St Petersburg, set me thinking about the Russia that presents itself to the world today: warlike, resentful, intolerant of dissent and unspeakably cruel to those whom it perceives as its enemies. How could this nation have produced such deep and inspiring evocations of a Christian faith that preaches the antithesis of the values apparently espoused by the ruling elite? And how could Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, actively embrace Vladimir Putin’s war against Ukraine?

Then I looked back at that visit to St Petersburg. Though it didn’t appear so at the time, it happened at a turning point. After Litvinenko and before the Skripals. After the annexation of Crimea but before the war in Donetsk and Luhansk.

The weather was glorious. It was midsummer, so the sun never set. People were going about their business – enjoying the warmth, getting married, shopping in the markets. We visited the Cathedral of St Peter and St Paul, where the last Tsar and his family are buried, the fortress where anti-Tsarist revolutionaries were incarcerated, and the Hermitage, a museum rivalled by few others. We were escorted by tour guides, neither of whom were afraid to express their opinions, even though some of them were mildly critical of the government. I had a long conversation with Yelena, the guide on Day 2, who was with us in the church where choir sang and the faithful were kissing icons.

Her views on Ukraine jarred somewhat, though I listened rather than reacted. She couldn’t understand why the West was so hard on Putin. Again, I listened, but I suggested that the main reason many people were antagonistic towards him was because they were afraid of him, especially when his spokesmen came out with bellicose remarks about how quickly Russia could obliterate my country with its nuclear weapons. She claimed to be surprised, but we left it at that. A few days later I wrote her an open letter in this blog explaining at greater length why we feared Putin.

The article was actually an opportunity to give a first impression of a country that has loomed large in my consciousness throughout my life – initially as a potential bringer of destruction and subsequently, after the fall of the Soviet Union, as a potential friend and partner. I made it clear that I felt nothing but goodwill towards her country; that I was full of admiration for its artistic culture, especially its music.

But I also suggested that from my perspective (and needless to say from that of many others), Russia under Putin was headed towards a darker future. And so it has turned out.

The piece was, in my limited way, something of a tour d’horizon. If you’re interested, you can find it under Why the West Fears Putin – Letter to a New Russian Friend.

Of course Russia is not unusual in its tradition of creating beautiful music that rings out alongside the cruelty of its leaders. Yet there’s something rather medieval about the Patriarch calling Putin “a miracle”, while urging him on in his murderous endeavours. A throwback, if you like, to popes calling for crusades and bishops riding into battle. The nature of God’s work seems to have evolved since then, even if Patriarch Kirill, not to mention the fundamentalist right in the United States, seems intent on dragging it back to the elemental.

As I write this, we seem to be on the verge of another turning point. Ukraine’s armed forces have mounted a counterattack against the Russian invaders on two fronts. Will they succeed in driving the Russians out of their territory? If so, will the reported cracks in the nation’s support for Putin turn into a landslide that will sweep him away? And who might replace him? An even more ruthless leadership prepared to take extreme measures in a continued quest to restore Russian greatness? Or a regime that seeks reconciliation with its neighbours and a resumption of economic partnership with the West?

If it turns out to be the latter, the West would do well to avoid taking actions which might heighten the Russian sense of grievance that Putin exploited so effectively. Not to ignore the consequences of the widescale destruction of Ukraine, but to encourage internal reforms and negotiate restitution of the damage to its neighbour without humiliating the new regime. The only way to a stable future must be friendship and mutual respect, as well as recognition that both sides made mistakes after the fall of the Soviet Union.

But one swallow doesn’t make a spring. There are many vested interests in Russia that will resist allowing such a scenario to come to pass easily. The local war isn’t over. The wider, undeclared war between Russia and the West continues. Western Europe faces a hard winter. Most likely, Russia too.

I wonder what Yelena is thinking now, eight years since I met her in St Petersburg. Hopefully she’s well, and still remembers with affection her last visit to London.

To return to the music that inspired this post, the CDs were entitled “Russian Sacred Music”. Yet the choirs that performed it were from Moscow, St Petersburg and Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine. Would Ukrainian choirs be singing anthems in Russian today? I doubt it.

But perhaps before too long, when the healing has began, aided by music’s power to transcend national differences, they will.

  1. I’ve never been to St. Petersburg, or anywhere else in Russia apart from Moscow, but I have visited Odessa in Ukraine which as I’m sure you is very historic, Russian and also stunningly gorgeous Steve, so I hope Putin doesn’t blow it to bits. And on that somewhat depressing subject here’s a very good Tom Nichols interview in ‘The Atlantic’ magazine:

    • Thanks Ronnie – will read

    • Yep, the Atlantic article sums up the psychology of the Russian Army pretty well, I reckon. Thanks for forwarding. S

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