Gergiev In South Ossetia And The Return Of Big-Nation Nationalism – Column 23.8.08

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JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman 23.9.08
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ON MONDAY, the great Russian maestro Valery Gergiev is due to arrive in Edinburgh, to conduct his Mariinsky opera of St. Petersburg in three performances at the Festival Theatre; but alas, his visit now seems certain to be far more controversial than anyone could have guessed, three weeks ago.  For on Thursday, Gergiev travelled to his family’s native region of South Ossetia, on the border of Russia and Georgia, to give a concert in the battle-scarred capital Tskhinvali, now devastated by a fortnight of military conflict.   His mission was to offer  support to the Russian forces in the region, and to the majority of South Ossetians who want to separate from Georgia, and restore closer links with Moscow; and he spoke of how in his view, without the Russian intervention of the last few weeks, the death toll in the region, and the abuse of human rights there, would have been much, much worse.

It’s hardly a message that is likely to sound musical to the ears of western governments, currently giving full support to Georgia in her battle against the presence of Russian forces on her soil; and it provides a stern warning about the re-emergence, in what we once dared to hope was a “new” post-Cold War world, of a very old-fashioned kind of big-nation nationalism, often linked to the use of overwhelming military power.   By coincidence, this week also marks the 40th anniversary of the day in August 1968 when Russian tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia, just as the great Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich was about to play a major concert of Russian and Czech music at the London Proms.

But in 1968, despite its military might, Soviet communism was already a dying beast, its systems discredited, its young people turning away towards the west, many of its artists and writers in open revolt.  Today’s resurgent Russian nationalism, by comparison, is a vigorous, youthful force, powered by the nation’s booming energy and mineral wealth, and hungry to reverse the humiliations of the last 18 years.  It commands the largely unquestioning support of people who, a generation ago, would have been among the nation’s leading dissidents.  And if you want a glimpse of another  mighty nation in similar mood, then just take a glimpse at the Olympic coverage currently monopolising your television screen; for no matter how liberal their views or westernised their style, most young Chinese people are passionately nationalistic in their attitudes, and willing to support any action, in Tibet or elsewhere, designed to defend their country’s territorial integrity.

All of which poses profound questions about how the west can possibly respond to this resurgence of big-nation nationalism in our time; because if one thing is clear, it’s that for our societies, there can be no going back to that mood of uncritical patriotism, and unquestioning support for our armed forces.   All across the Edinburgh Festival this year, there are shows which set out, five years after the beginning of the Iraq War, to interrogate the relationship between our military and the ordinary families who become caught up in its operations.  At the Underbelly, there’s Motherland, in which a young company from Newcastle give a powerful voice to the mothers and wives of ordinary British soldiers who have served, and sometimes died, in Iraq and Afghanistan.  At the Assembly Rooms, there’s In Conflict, in which seventeen superb young actors from Temple University of Pennsylvania call the US authorities to account for their treatment of servicemen and women returning from Iraq.  And at the Traverse, there’s the magnificent Deep Cut, from the Sherman Cymru company of Wales, which seeks truth and justice for the families of four young British recruits killed in unexplained circumstances at the Deepcut training camp in Surrey.

In Britain and the US, and throughout the west, in other words, the struggle continues to hold our armed forces to account, and to make them  live up to the high democratic values they are supposed to represent; and on both sides of the Atlantic, there are voices ready to argue that this culture of open debate about the conduct of our armed forces makes us weak opponents to nations still wedded to a culture of unquestioning patriotism.  In learning to be relatively rigorous critics of our own institutions, they will argue, we have “tied the hands” of our fighting forces, and deprived them of that useful haze of patriotic blind faith within which they can operate freely.

But before people becomes carried away with the idea that we ought to leave our armed forces alone, and stop subjecting them to ethical and legal scrutiny, they should at least look into the faces of people like Des and Doreen James, the Deepcut parents on whose story the play is based; and ask themselves what long-term damage is done to any society that denies its people basic justice, and a chance to live in the truth.   If the Soviet system began to weaken in the 1960’s, it was precisely because its military strength increasingly concealed a sense of moral failure, brutalism, unaccountability; if the new Russia of Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev takes the same route, then sooner or later its strength, too, will become shallow and brittle.

And as for us, we cannot strengthen  ourselves by returning to the old myths of infallible British – or American – virtue on which so many of us postwar babies were brought up.   If we are to have strong societies, capable of defending serious human values, then we have to find a new basis for that strength; founded not on myths and half-truths, but on the capacity to see ourselves steadily and whole, and to understand that freedom and democracy come at the price of a constant struggle to make those values real, and to bring them right back home, to the ordinary citizens who need them most.

ENDS ENDS ENDS

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