11 September 2003

The Russian cultural achievement

One of the ironies of history, which I am at a loss to explain, is that there frequently seems to be an inverse relationship between political stability on the one hand and literary and artistic achievement on the other. Take the Russians as just one example. I have long been an admirer of the Russian cultural achievement. It would be difficult for any people to surpass in greatness a civilization that has produced the calibre of music, novels, plays, and paintings created by the Russians. It is all the more remarkable that such accomplishments have taken root and grown in mostly hostile political soil.

For example, it was during the reactionary reign of Nicholas I that Russia entered what might be called its golden age of literary and artistic endeavour. Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837) was certainly the greatest of the literary figures of this era, his works eventually to attain for Russians something of the status of Shakespeare's for the English-speaking peoples. In music Mikhail Glinka (1804-1857) would have a similar stature. The brilliance of the Russian contribution in these fields can hardly be overestimated. The novels of Nikolai Gogol (1809-1852), Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821-1881), Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) and Ivan Turgenev (1818-1883) are justly celebrated, both inside and outside Russia. The music of Piotr I. Tchaikovsky (1840-1893), Modest Musorgsky (1839-1881) and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908) has become familiar to everyone. Then there are the plays of Anton Chekhov (1860-1904).

Remarkably, the 20th century did not dim but only increased the Russian cultural achievement, even after the Bolsheviks came to power. Once more the tremendous creativity of the people seemed almost to thrive under adversity, both at home and in exile. Some of the key figures were: Sergei Rachmaninov (of whom I wrote the other day), Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953), Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975), Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971), Aram Khatchaturian (1903-1978), Sergei Diaghilev (1872-1929), Kazimir Malevich (1878-1935), Maksim Gorky (1868-1936), Sergei Eisenstein (1898-1948), and many, many more. Again it would be difficult to overstate the sheer magnitude of the Russian cultural achievement.

This presents something of a dilemma for me, as both a political scientist and a lover of the arts. I would personally prefer to live in an Anglo-Saxon democracy, with its deeply rooted sense of fair play and attention to procedure. I admit to being an admirer of the ancient English constitution (albeit with important qualifications), as bequeathed in some form to such countries as Canada, the United States, Australia and New Zealand. I would much rather live in a country where particular governments come and go peacefully but where the business of government goes on minus the threat of periodic coups d'état or political assassinations.

At the same time, I am inexplicably drawn to a people that manifests such creativity under what would seem to be the most inhospitable conditions. I myself have found that I am most creative when I am suffering from one of my periodic bouts of depression. I wonder whether there is something similar at work in the Russian people. For centuries their rulers have been corrupt, autocratic, sometimes even murderous, yet the Russians themselves have managed to contribute hugely to what might be called world civilization. This gives the rest of us a large number of fine works of art to enjoy while we are living under the benefits of a more stable constitution.

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