In praise of Russian culture: it deserves better

A scene from Ballad of a Soldier: a Russian mother waits for her son to come home from war.

I suppose this may not be the best time to say anything good about Russia and the Russian people. But no sooner do I write that than I think, on the contrary, this may be the best time.

The atrocious brutality of one man, and his corrupt enablers, whoever they are, have certainly cast a dark shadow over Russia and its people, who are apparently as gullible and easily manipulated as any nation of human beings on this long-suffering planet. Tragically, that appears to be one of the most fatal flaws of our imperfect species; otherwise, brutal, murderous tyrants, like Vladimir Putin, or would-be tyrants like Donald Trump would be laughed off the stage before they did too much harm.

Tchaikovsky

Putin claims to be the Great Defender of everything Russian, including Russian culture. He references the current, conspiratorial ‘cancel culture’ mindset when he says Russian culture is in the process of being ‘cancelled’ by the west, led by the current U.S. administration under President Joe Biden. (No one should underestimate the extent to which Trump’s loss in the 2021 presidential election upset Putin’s grand plan for the takeover of Ukraine, including Trumps likely withdrawal of the U.S. from NATO).

But I dare to say, Russia, Russians, and Russian culture most of all deserves something a whole lot better than Vladimir Putin.

I hasten to say, I am not expert in Russian culture. What I know comes from personal experience and appreciation of the works of certain Russian composers, writers, and filmmakers. I can honestly say, from the heart, that my spiritual life has been enriched immeasurably, and my life changed, since the time I was a teenager by the listening, reading, and watching the great, creative works of the rich Russian culture.

Sergei Prokoviev

I think I was 16 when I first heard Canadian pianist Glenn Gould play Sergei Prokoviev’s 7th Piano Sonata with the dramatic, ‘Precipitato’ final movement, like nothing I’d ever heard before. Thus began my life-long love of Prokoviev’s diverse, creative genius. He stands on a par in my book with Beethoven, possibly even higher; and, with the 9th piano sonata especially, he reached the sublime, ‘edge-of-the-universe’ musical expression of J.S. Bach at his best.

Again, as young man barely out of my teens, I saw my all-time, favorite movie on the unforgettable Elwy Yost’s, Saturday Night at the Movies, on TVO. Despite the less-than-ideal title in translation, the 1959 Russian movie, Ballad of a Soldier, is a classic of world cinema, with the most gorgeous and evocative musical score and wonderful cinematography. The scene at the well in the Russian railyard, when the heroine, holding back her long hair, drinks pure, spring water from a rough iron tap, is a life-lasting image. The hero, the young, Russian soldier, Alyosha, on leave for heroism, finally makes it home to his village with no time to spare. His mother finds out he is home almost too late, runs desperately through the field of grain, reaches the road as the truck carrying her son is driving away, then calls out to him, “Alyosha, Alyosha.” He hears her, but they have so little time to speak. Sixty years later it still brings tears to my eyes.

Scene from Ballad of a Soldier

How many Alyoshas, kept in infernal, misinformed darkness by Putin, died in Ukraine today, I wonder.

Most recently, my new most favorite movie is The Ascent, by Larisa Shepitko, regarded as one of the best women directors in the history of cinema, Shepitko was born in the eastern Ukraine. Her father was Persian. She went to Moscow when she was 16 to study filmmaking and immerse herself in the former Soviet Union’s rich, though tightly controlled, cinematic tradition. For example, Sergei Eisenstein (Battleship Potemkin, 1925, Odessa Steps scene) is regarded as one of the greatest formative directors in film history.

Made in 1977, two years before Shepitko’s tragic death in a car accident, The Ascent follows the fate of two Russian partisan’s as they try to find their way back to their group through the bitter cold of a Russian winter after ambushing a German patrol. They reach a farm where they are given shelter but are discovered and taken to a nearby village. They are sentenced to hang along with a group of villagers. After torture, one of the partisans agrees to work for the Nazis to save his life. The other partisan goes to his death with courage and Christlike faith. It is one of the most deeply moving movie scenes I have ever watched.

A scene from The Ascent

The historic Ukraine-Russia connection, early and late, is complicated, and forged on the crucible of frequent, foreign invaders, notably, Mongols, Napoleon’s Grand Army, and Germany’s Nazi regime. It’s no wonder a good deal of paranoia underlied the empire-building policies of Tarist Russia, the former Soviet Union, and now Putin’s Russia.

Ukrainians suffered greatly during the mid-1930s under Joseph Stalin’s brutal, dictatorial leadership of the Soviet Union. Millions of Ukrainians died of persecution and starvation as a result of famine deliberately engineered by Stalin. Whatever brotherhood may have existed between Russia and Ukraine before then was destroyed by Stalin’s brutality, much like Ukraine is now, again, being destroyed by Putin.

Thus have the evil deeds of two, ruthless dictators led to the current war in Ukraine, and the real possibilty of a global catastrophe. The Ukranian people deserve better. So do the Russian people. And so does the world.

You would think ‘in the best of all possible worlds’ the historic suffering of both the Russian and Ukranian nations would lead them to a mutual understanding of how to live in separate, sympathetic peace.

But this is not the best of all possible worlds, so long as autocratic tyrants are allowed to take and hold absolute, undemocratic power.

5 thoughts on “In praise of Russian culture: it deserves better

  1. Hi Phil: Thank you for the piece. Soaring cultures: art, music, dance, are often the result of exactly what Russia has experienced over decades, centuries of brutality and war. It is a testament to the gritty spirit of the Russian/Slavic soul that great works rise above and are remember, cherished, long after the deeds of the likes of Stalin and Putin are diminished. The world does not need to forgive Putin for this latest atrocity, but we are allowed to praise the best of what Russia is, and does…Patric…

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  2. Phil, Thank you so much for writing this beautiful piece and for sharing it. Have you seen the movie ‘Cuckoo’ … one of my favourites and I think you would enjoy it. On one level, it’s about the ridiculousness and tragedy of war … but, so much more than that.

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  3. Thank you for this passionate reminder of how profound Russian culture can be. My first exposure was entirely through the novelists, especially Dostoyevsky, and I will never forget that unique Russian sensitivity – how psychologically complex, tragic, compassionate and humanistic.

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