I have an old LP on the turntable now, a 1985 Berlin Philharmonic performance of Tchaikovsky‘s 1812 Overture. Recorded almost 40 years before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, almost 40 years after Germany‘s siege of Leningrad, the Berlin Wall still standing, no end in sight, at the height of the Cold War. Great Russian music, composed to the memory of yet another war between East and West, performed by a renowned West German orchestra; the old foes, and by then foes still, but united through art.
A few weeks ago, the Cardiff Philharmonic Orchestra canceled a Tchaikovsky concert, calling it “inappropriate at this time.” Throughout Western Europe, Russian artists have had their engagements canceled and some have even been fired from their jobs.
In a 1984 Granta article, “A Kidnapped West or Culture Bows Out,” Milan Kundera defined European culture as characterized by “the authority of the thinking, doubting individual and on an artistic creation which expressed his uniqueness.“ In contrast “nothing could be more foreign to Central Europe and its passion for variety than Russia: uniform, standardizing, centralizing, determined to transform every nation of its empire … into a single Russian people … on the Eastern border of the West – more than anywhere else – Russia is seen not just as one more European power but as a singular civilization, another civilization.“
The article sparked a debate between Kundera and Russian poet and dissident Joseph Brodsky, who vigorously opposed Kundera‘s views. The essence of European civilization, according to Brodsky, is not modern Western individualism, a culture which to him has lost the relationship with its roots, but Christianity. The true fight is “between faith and the utilitarian approach to existence.“
We now see this controversy revived; just look at the recent debate between Bernard-Henri Lévy and Aleksandr Dugin. It is the same tension between opposite worldviews and there is little doubt it will grow stronger. For the world is now changing, as we live in interesting times once more. And surely Brodsky‘s view will gain more ground, not without reason; we have seen it too clearly during the past two years how easily the thinking doubting individual, the foundation of free Western society, is replaced by the frightened obeying mass.
As pointed out in a recent article in Reason, Tchaikovsky was “one of the first and only Russian composers to eschew Russian nationalism and endear his music to the West, becoming what many historians would consider one of the few bridges between Russian and European artistry.“ This was clear to the Berlin orchestra in 1985.
But today we see no difference between Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and Vladimir Putin. No difference between the composer and pro-Western humanist and the KGB agent turned despot. The latter invaded Ukraine. The former‘s music must therefore not be performed. Why? Because they share the same nationality and speak the same language. The individual does not matter any more, only the camp matters; it is a black and white world.
Napoleon‘s invasion of Russia in 1812 was one of the greatest disasters in the history of warfare. Only a sixth of an army of 600,000 Frenchmen survived. Russia lost over 200,000. Almost 140 years later, Hitler‘s invasion into Russia was a disaster of a similar scale. Napoleon and Hitler were despots who misjudged their opponent, attacked a neighbouring country and suffered a humiliating defeat. Just as many believe Putin most probably will in Ukraine now.
As attested to by Tolstoy in War and Peace, even at the height of the war with Napoleon there was no change in the Russian devotion to French culture. The aristocracy didn‘t stop speaking French. French musicians and private tutors weren‘t fired. French books weren‘t being burnt.
Back then, people still knew and understood the distinction between culture and politics. They knew art is independent of nationality, its value doesn‘t depend on who rules the country where it was produced, and it cannot be tainted even by the atrocities of war; it is above the despots.
But decisions like this don‘t even surprise us now. We have become too accustomed to artists, writers and musicians being canceled, their work censored, for reasons which have nothing to do with their art. We are truly shocked by Putin‘s conduct and feel deeply for those now being injured or killed. We may support harsh sanctions and even blame the Russian people for not ridding themselves of the despot. But without the current prevalent and utterly self-centered demand for a life free from risk and challenges, free from thought and from responsibility; in its essence an antithesis to true culture; war or no war, the Cardiff Philharmonic would not have canceled their Tchaikovsky concert.
For great art unites us, across borders and nationalities. Not in the way a hysterical mob is united by the lowest denominator; it unites us as thinking individuals. It may provoke difficult feelings, it may force us to reconsider our beliefs, our lives, and in the end this is what constitutes its true value. And in times of war, art should be celebrated, not censored.
The theme of Tchaikovsky‘s 1812 Overture is a truly horrific event that took place when a despot lost his sense of reality. Precisely because of this, performing it is never more fitting than now, when yet another despot has gone too far. The failure to realize this signifies we have lost our relationship with the very values by which we define our culture. In their place we have “hate week“ as described in Orwell‘s 1984. It is devoted now to Tchaikovsky‘s music.
Kundera‘s thinking and doubting individual will never take part in “hate week,” never censor a nation‘s artists, whatever atrocities its current rulers commit. Instead he will keep resisting the dark forces, and it is essentially the same forces that lie behind the aggression of the despot and the aggression of the canceling crowd.
So, what can we do? I know only what I will do. I will keep listening to Tchaikovsky, in my own private defiance of the barbarians, whoever they are and wherever they come from.