Just now, I am listening to Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony, named after the iconic moment in time that Leningrad survived German aggression. Germany, in its quest to eradicate what was considered “unworthy life” inside and outside its borders, pushing an aggressive nationalist agenda, determined to gain “living space” for its “ethnically cleansed” “purely German” population, set out to blockade, bomb and destroy Leningrad and everyone of her inhabitants.
Leningrad, miraculously, survived, but only after going through one of the darkest phases of human history. It joined the ranks of every city which – after having been brutalized and almost razed by an enemy – rose up in defiance and determination to survive as an example for the human spirit. This moment in time has been memorialized by Shostakovich’s symphony, which tells this story of war, resistance and eventual victory.
Before it carried the name Leningrad, the city was known as Saint Petersburg, founded and named after Czar Peter the Great in 1703 on formerly Swedish territory. Peter was determined to build a European Russia, to enhance cultural and political bonds between Russia and its European neighbors, modernizing and reintegrating his country into a global world. The city houses not just the famous Hermitage Museum but also the famous Mariinsky Theater (named Kirov during Soviet times), a serious competitor to the Bolshoi in Moscow, and now helmed by Valery Gergiev, a well-known promoter of Shostakovich and detractor of Stalinism (sadly, at least publicly, not of Putinism – nobody is perfect). Even when the city became Leningrad, it was named after one of the executers of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Throughout all its history, St. Petersburg / Petrograd / Leningrad stood as the example for the connection of Russia to Europe, for the survival of the human spirit against totalitarianism, and the celebration of a Russian culture with not just European but Global aspirations, caught in the tension between tradition and modernity – a thoroughly European theme certainly constitutive for much of Russian culture and literature.
Now, a former first deputy head of the administration of St. Petersburg has rejected all of this. His reported visit to another city brutally destroyed by yet another fascist, genocidal and expansionist regime – led by himself with an increasingly iron (or rather, steel/стальной/Stalin?) fist – has for some time now been revealing a competing vision of Russia. Like the timid gopnik thief in the night that he is, we got to see him (or one of his doppelgangers) visiting a new Potemkin village in Mariupol, safely surrounded (like the small man he is) by his fellow KGB (sorry, “FSB”) thugs. At the same time while Putin played it safe, Ukrainian President Zelenskyy, a truly great and fearless leader, actually visited his troops in Bakhmut near the then-current front lines.
Mariupol, renamed Zhdanov from 1948 to 1989 after Stalin’s “propagandist-in-chief”, was destroyed after a long occupation by Putin’s criminal war machine. Its theater was bombed while sheltering approximately 600 refugees who clearly had marked the presence of children among them by signaling “дети”, “children” outside in front of its entrance. This did not stop Putin’s thugs from killing all of them, turning the theater to rubble, and reportedly razing its remains preceding Putin’s visit, destroying the memory of the war crime apparent.
Putin’s Russia is a perversion of everything Russian. It is an insult to its Russian, European and Global identity. It is an insult to the suffering endured throughout its history. It is an insult also to the pretension of Ukrainians as being “brothers” to Russia – well, only if you do not side with Cain. I guess Putin is saying that he sides with Cain slaying Abel – after all, is he his brother’s keeper? It is an insult to a culture that has celebrated deep and moral discussion as found in the works of Dostoyevsky and Solzhenitsyn, a culture containing reflections on remaining good within a world of crazy lawlessness, and of governments gone mad. It is an insult to a culture celebrating the victory over tyranny as in Shostakovich’s 7th and later symphonies.
We cannot give up on this kind of Russian culture, and I continue to believe that Putin does not represent Russia, but a darkly perverted version of it, as perverted as Nazism was a cruel parody of German culture.
We need to be able to see the best in us, and in others – and we need to live up to the best version of all of us, so that we do not repeat all the bad lessons from our collective failures in the past. We need to keep time and again reminding ourselves that there is a Russia out there that drastically differs from the version Putin has been building, so that we can – together – eventually rebuild and live up to this positive vision.
There are many Russian voices out there screaming, inside and outside, that what is happening now is wrong. Some of them, many of them, have left in despair – for there is no more hope in Russia currently. Darkness has fallen over the inheritors of Peter the Great, and we all are paying the price.
But darkness does not stay forever, and we need to prepare for the time after. It will come. Ukraine has every chance to win. After that, Russia could be free, Belarus and other Russian colonies in Moldova and Georgia, even the propagandistic stranglehold over the West originating from St. Petersburg’s fake news troll farms can be broken.
Ceterum censeo Ucrainam esse defendam. Слава Україні!