Cultural struggle to define Russia's identity

Aleksey Serebryakov as Kolya in a scene from the film Leviathan Image copyright AP
Image caption A scene from the Oscar-nominated Leviathan

At the start of this year, BBC Radio Four devoted a whole day to a radio adaptation of Tolstoy's War and Peace.

On New Year's Day, listeners were invited to binge on it all day long, with only brief interruptions.

Now filming has begun on a new television version, in an adaptation by award-winning screen writer Andrew Davies.

So the current chill in relations with Russia, it seems, has not affected the British love affair with Tolstoy.

In fact, perhaps War and Peace can help us understand why Russians tend to view their nation as always under attack from outsiders.

For although Tolstoy's epic novel is about love, it is also the dramatic story of Napoleon's advance on Moscow and what it felt like to be part of a Russian family, packing up and fleeing the burning capital.

In 1812, it was the French bearing down on Moscow, a century and a half later it was Hitler's Nazi army.

These pivotal moments in the nation's history are etched into the memory of every Russian and help underscore President Putin's claim that Russia is once again under threat from Western hostile forces.

This time, he argues, the enemy is the US, spearheading an onslaught by Nato allies who have used the conflict over Ukraine to impose sanctions, as part of a decades-old desire to keep Russia weak and fragmented, so the West can stay dominant and strong.

This is why, Mr Putin argues, Russians must remain united behind his presidency, and why Russian writers, artists and film-makers should use culture to help reinforce patriotism and loyalty.

Other voices

But not all contemporary Russian culture fits this Kremlin narrative.

Leviathan, the latest film from the distinguished director Andrei Zvyagintsev, has been making waves since it was premiered at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Andrey Zvyagintsev directed Leviathan

Set in Russia's arctic north, it is a bleak but brilliant story of a small man crushed by corrupt bureaucrats and church leaders.

It won a further string of international honours, including best foreign film at the Golden Globe awards, and was shortlisted (though did not win) in the best foreign film category at the 2015 Academy Awards, the Oscars.

But in Russia, far from being hailed as a masterpiece, it ran into trouble.

Although it was partly financed by his ministry, the Russian Minister of Culture, Vladimir Medinsky accused the director of deliberately pandering to anti-Russian sentiment in the West in a bid to win international film prizes.

The Russian Orthodox Church also denounced it. One prominent Kremlin supporter, Sergei Markov, called it "anti-Putin".

Leviathan has not been banned in Russia, although its colourful profanities have been removed.

In fact, the row probably helped it win a wider audience.

Certainly when it went on general release in one south-western Moscow suburb in February, it was an immediate sell-out.

Russians rushed to the local cinema to see what all the fuss was about.

Invented myths

Mr Medinsky's criticism is not surprising.

A former MP with close links to the Kremlin, he made his name as the author of a series of popular but controversial history books called Myths About Russia, aimed at debunking negative stereotypes which, he claims, were deliberately invented by foreigners to undermine Russia's reputation.

But some Russian cultural figures have gone further, protesting not so much at Zvyagintsev's film, but at what they claim is Hollywood's unfair dominance of the global film industry.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Leo Tolstoy: 'Not a Russian writer'

Andrei Konchalovsky is a hugely successful Russian film director who comes from a well-known cultural family.

His father, Sergei Mikhalkov, wrote the lyrics for Stalin's National Anthem. His brother Nikita Mikhalkov, an Oscar-winning film director in his own right, served as minister of culture.

And Andrei Konchalovsky himself forged a film career both in Hollywood and Russia where he collaborated closely with the distinguished film-maker Andrei Tarkovsky.

Now, however, he is no longer well disposed to the American movie industry.

He refused to let his latest film, The Postman's White Nights, be considered for this year's Academy Awards as a protest against what he claims is American cultural imperialism.

When I caught up with him in London at a recent Azerbaijani arts festival, he gave two reasons.

Firstly, he said, he was opposed to the "popcorn" style entertainment of US blockbusters, which were now so prevalent in Russian cinemas.

And secondly, he was objecting to the idea that all non-English language films were "segregated" into one single "foreign film" category at the Oscars.

"What the hell does that mean?" he said. "I felt myself humiliated: foreign for who? I am strongly opposed."

Cultural realignment

But Mr Konchalovsky's criticism of Hollywood is part of what he sees as a wider cultural realignment, which echoes the geo-political shift President Putin likes to refer to in the political sphere: the decline of the West and the rise of the emerging economies of "the rest", including, of course, Russia.

Image caption Andrei Konchalovsky is critical of Hollywood

"I agree with certain politicians that the civilisational pressures of America are too strong," he told me.

"America has a big illusion about universal values of American dream. But it is a big illusion.

"We see how it crumbles when Americans try to impose democracy. They cannot dominate any more with their ideology.

"America has a Europe-centric view of the world, and those values of democracy, freedom, equal rights etc, have proved not to be universal.

"The old idea of absolute, unshakeable values of Western civilisation, that period is coming to an end."

So is Russia not European? I asked.

In Mr Konchalovsky's scheme of things, it turns out that it is not. It is part of a separate Eastern tradition.

"We have developed on the periphery of European civilisation.

"Our religion, geography, climate and history created our culture. We are not Latins, the West is Latin," he said.

"And the iron curtain is between Russia and Poland, not to do with socialism, but between Eastern philosophy - emotional; and Western philosophy - infatuation with order."

Old and new idea

It is both an intriguingly radical new idea: Russia as Eastern and Asian-facing; and a notion which goes back two centuries: the old paradigm of a cultural conflict in Russia between so-called Slavophiles and Westernisers.

In the past, cultural commentators have tended to argue that it left the country with a foot in both camps, a unique "Eurasian" nation.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Russian dancers perform Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake

But in today's Russia, where state-run media now paints both the US and its European allies as hostile and as danger to Russia, there seems increasingly little room for a fudge.

A startling survey at the beginning of the year by the respected Levada polling organisation suggested that negative perceptions of the US, and the European Union had doubled in the past year - at least, according to the answers of those who were surveyed.

And judging by Mr Konchalovsky, this anti-Western, anti-European sentiment is now tipping over into the cultural sphere.

I asked him how he reconciled his theory that Russia was not European with the fact that many of Russia's greatest writers (like Pushkin, Tolstoy and Chekhov) were loved by Western audiences and seen as part of the European mainstream - evidence of a shared culture, and a shared system of universal values.

His answer left me dumbfounded.

"Tolstoy is not a Russian writer," said Mr Konchalovsky.

Image caption The 1970 BBC production of the Chekhov masterpiece Uncle Vanya

He then sketched out for me his view of Russia's cultural history, dividing it into the Muscovite period up to the end of the 17th Century, and then a period launched by Peter the Great who tried to Europeanise, but with limited success.

"There is a little fraction of Russian society that called itself maybe European: Russians that created basically everything that Russia can be proud of - starting from Tolstoy, Tchaikovsky, Chekhov, Dostoevsky - and which had incredible influence on Western culture because Russia is a very talented and powerful country.

"But Peter the Great didn't succeed to Westernise the whole nation. It was beyond his ability,

"So we have a tiny fraction (which is) European - and an enormous ocean of Russian Muscovites who basically don't care about the world."

Pivot eastwards

It is a radical thought: three centuries of an experiment to Europeanise Russia which is now coming to an end.

The Bolsheviks, after all, also drew on European ideas based on the works of that German thinker, Karl Marx.

This new vision embraces President Putin's pivot towards China, his rejection of Western values and civic links, and his insistence on Russia being a new centre of global conservatism.

Will it take hold, though?

Do most Russians really want to turn their backs on Europe and look East instead?

That is the deeper question behind the current crisis which is not only about what happens to Ukraine, but what will happen to Russia too.

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