Right between the eyes: Putin to the West at the St Petersburg Economic forum

I have taken my time preparing a commentary on Putin’s speech to the Plenary Session of the St Petersburg Economic Forum last Friday, and I am well satisfied that this was the right decision.  Others have written about the content and delivery of the speech. Still others have written about the Forum itself in its twenty-fifth anniversary, with a particular emphasis placed on the absence of foreign government leaders and of high level contingents of Western businessmen.

 What I intend to do here is to go beyond these narrow constraints and to put the event in the broader context of several other important international developments that have occurred in the past few days, many of which are interrelated. They have barely received the attention they deserve in global media and I intend to make amends here.

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The slogan of this year’s Forum was “A New World. New Possibilities.”  Put another way, in terms well familiar to the Western business community, the logic here is not to let a good crisis go to waste but to react in a constructive manner that takes the economy and standard of living to new heights previously unattainable through import substitution, which is just another name for reindustrialization.

 Both in the specialized sessions which were broadcast live and in the plenary session to which Putin spoke, the challenges posed by current, draconian Western sanctions on Russia were spelled out in great detail without any self-deception or gloss. The same was true of businessmen speaking truth to Power when commenting on the Government’s proposed programs to help the economy during the transition period to new logistical solutions, new trade flows and new local manufacturing:  “don’t do the usual thing and build a bridge to the middle of the river; go all the way with radical new solutions and in particular with a very cheap credit policy to provide working capital to where it is needed most.”  This kind of talk which I heard in the session chaired by Sberbank general director Gref, is both responsible and bold.

 Indeed, the most relevant adjective to describe the proceedings would be “frank.”  Political correctness was no longer being practiced.  Interlocutors in the West were no longer called “partners.”  In his speech, Putin led the way, criticizing the American administration and the European bureaucratic elites setting policy in Brussels for economic illiteracy.

For his part, the most honored international guest at the Forum, Kazakhstan’s president Kasym-Zhomart Tokaev, did not mince words either when answering a question put to him by the moderator, RT editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan during Q&A following the keynote speech:  whether he recognizes the Donbas republics of Donetsk and Lugansk as independent states?  “No,” he said, without hesitation though he was seated on stage just a couple of meters from Vladimir Putin.

Tokaev explained that the United Nations Charter contains two contradictory principles:  the territorial integrity of Member States and the right of populations within any State to self-determination, meaning declaration of their independence without asking or receiving the permission of the Government of the Member State. In this context, Tokaev added, if the right of secession were to take the upper hand, the present membership of the UN at 200 or so countries would balloon out to over 500 and this would create chaos. Accordingly, Kazakhstan does not recognize the independence of Kosovo, which Russia has used as a precedent for its own actions with respect to various ‘frozen conflicts’ in Former Soviet Republics, such as South Ossetia and Abkhazia.  This being said, it was also clear by his presence at the Forum that Tokaev supports Russia economically and politically in its ongoing proxy war with the United States on Ukrainian territory.

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Vladimir Putin’s speech to the Forum lasted an hour. The most interesting remarks were in the first 15 minutes, when he argued the case that the present grave challenges to the global economic, financial and political systems have their source in wrong-headed policies of the Collective West.

The West’s abuse of the printing presses to keep state institutions and business afloat during the Covid pandemic through emissions of currency not covered by ongoing supply of goods and services started an inflationary process that long preceded the conflict in Ukraine. It drove up energy and food costs dramatically, and the inflation was then further aggravated by the “thoughtless” sanctions imposed on Russian hydrocarbons, fertilizer and agricultural products as from 24 February. 

To be specific, Putin remarked that in the past two years, the money supply in the United States had expanded by 38%, an amount that normally would take decades.  In Europe, the money supply was increased over this period by 20%.  Then Putin matched these facts with the trade figures for the United States. Before the excess emissions, import into the United States had been running at 250 billion dollars a month.  By February 2022, monthly imports were at 350 billion. That is to say, they tracked precisely the increases in the amount of money in circulation. 

From this Putin made the concluding argument that the United States and Europe were now practicing an updated version of colonialism. Like a ‘vacuum cleaner’ they are buying up goods and services from the rest of the world in exchange for their own currency which is depreciating in value with uncovered emissions. This, he said, explains the near doubling in the price of food products globally over the past year.

There were other points in Putin’s economics lesson, but these give a good idea of the contempt in which he holds Western politicians and elites, who, in his view, have not absorbed the lessons handed down in elementary school and are now trying, in the global Information War, to put the blame on Russia for “Putin’s inflation.”

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Traditionally there has been a Master of Ceremonies or moderator to oversee the Q&A that follows the presidential address to the Plenary Session of the Forum. Traditionally this role was given to celebrities from Western mainstream media – presenters from CNN, MSNBC and the like. Generally they were given their lines by their employers and would ask once, twice and repeatedly the same offensive questions while ignoring completely the detailed answers given by Vladimir Vladimirovich.  This show of collegiality and jollity by the Russians is something I never quite understood, but then I never understood why so many of the American academics that the Kremlin invited year after year to the annual Valdai gatherings were incorrigible Putin and Russia haters.

Under present circumstances, the Forum organizers had to fall back on domestic candidates for the role of MC and the assignment was given to RT’s Margarita Simonyan. 

In the past I have been critical of Simonyan’s stewardship at RT, which presented all too many shows run by failed or overaged journalists from Western mainstream, by people with no knowledge of or feel for Russia.  In what I saw of Simonyan’s performance last Friday, I will freely admit that whatever her competence as a news station manager, she is an outstanding journalist.

This very point was highlighted at the outset of Sunday evening’s premier talk show with Vladimir Solovyov.  His opening remarks were to the effect that Simonyan had been given the rare assignment to moderate for the country’s President and had performed this journalistic task at the level of Olympian gold. Having tossed to her this bouquet of roses, he asked her to comment on her experience of working hand in glove with Putin for nearly two hours of Q&A.

Simonyan’s remarks are worth repeating here. She expressed her surprise that Putin showed up in such a good mood, fully confident that he had been making the right decisions with respect to the start and the prosecution of the ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine.  And she shared her impression of his being in excellent physical and mental form. Not only did he perform on stage with her for three hours, but later in the evening she saw him at one gathering, in which he maintained the same high energy level. And still later, after leaving her group, she knew that he went on to yet other meetings. Her conclusion was that all talk of his suffering from some illness is belied by this evident vigor.

Simonyan noted that she saw it as her obligation not only to ask the questions that are the talk of Russia’s expert community but also the number one question being asked by ‘simple people,’ as those experts would condescendingly call the mass of the population. That question was: why has Russia not responded to the daily rocket and artillery attacks on the civilian population in Donetsk, to the attacks across the border on towns within the Russian Federation, by doing what Putin had threatened weeks ago, namely to bomb the ‘decision making centers’ of Ukraine, starting with the Ministry of Defense. 

She said that Putin offered a comprehensive answer to the question. First, an all-out assault on the Ukrainian positions from which the artillery and rocket firings were hitting the DNR would lead to a great number of civilian casualties since the Ukrainian forces intentionally positioned themselves in residential areas so as to invite ‘indiscriminate’ shelling by Russian return fire. Moreover, the Russian objective was to keep civilian casualties to a minimum since these were their future citizens. Secondly, a blitzkrieg assault would be very costly in casualties among Russian military and had to be avoided whenever possible. Therefore the preferred method was encirclement of the Ukrainian positions and a calm wait for them to run out of provisions and surrender. When asked what were Russia’s red lines that would trigger a more forceful response, Putin refused to be drawn.

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There are indications that not only friends of Russia but also its most fierce enemies were paying close attention to the proceedings of the Petersburg Economic Forum.

Today the Ukrainian armed forces struck and did great damage to an offshore Crimean oil drilling platform in the Black Sea on which more than a hundred workers were stationed. More than 90 were evacuated but at least seven are unaccounted for.  This dramatic and  highly provocative attack by Ukrainian fighter planes and vessels is said to be Zelensky’s response to a Russian missile strike a day earlier that destroyed the main refinery supplying fuel to the Ukrainian military. It is also a clear attempt to test Putin’s red lines and continued restraint in pursuing the military operation.

But this is not all. Among the various governors of Russia’s constituent federal units attending the Forum, state television journalists broadcast an interview on Friday morning with the governor of Kaliningrad, Anton Alikhanov, a vigorous 37 year old who spoke fluently and confidently about the situation of his oblast.  When asked about relations with the neighboring Baltic States, he commented that all mutual obligations were being respected and that transportation of freight to and from the rest of the RF via the corridor passing through Lithuania was operating normally.

However, on Friday evening Lithuania announced a partial blockade on rail traffic to Kaliningrad. Specifically, all goods subject to EU sanctions would no longer be allowed to transit their country. This would amount to about half of all railway freight, and would present Kaliningrad with a host of problems to resolve if alternate, sea transportation has to be put in place.

By Saturday morning, Russian news channels were discussing the counter-leverage Russia may exert in response to the Lithuanian move. They claim that the free transit of goods between the Russian Federation and its outpost, Kaliningrad, was a precondition agreed by all parties at the start of the 1990s when Russia accepted the line of its international border with Lithuania. If free transit was now being withheld, Russia might cancel its acceptance of the borders. As regards leverage of a non-legal variety, threats were being made to cut the supply of Russian electricity to Lithuania, which is a major element in the country’s energy balance.

This spat over borders comes in the context of tensions between Russia and Finland. As Minister of Foreign Affairs Lavrov mentioned a couple of weeks ago, Finland’s possibly joining NATO would compel Russia to reopen an old issue of property rights over an important canal in Finnish Karelia. This could pose a serious security risk for Finland.

In short, the whole question of Russia’s relations with its Baltic neighbors is heating up.  In this context, it is necessary to recall Vladimir Putin’s public remarks in the past week or so that Russia has no ambition of territorial expansion but will only reabsorb and consolidate what has been Russia’s in the past. This statement immediately set off alarm bells in Helsinki. After all, Finland had for a hundred years until WWI been a constituent if separately administered and privileged part of the Russian Empire.

What we are witnessing is a potential vector of escalation in America’s proxy war with Russia on Ukrainian territory.  While many commentators in Washington speculate on the possibility of Russia resorting to nuclear weapons if it should fear that it is losing the fight in Ukraine, I believe that is a phony issue, given that Russia is very unlikely to fail in its Ukrainian campaign and given that it has barely begun to implement the conventional weapons systems at its disposal and to destroy the infrastructure and major cities of Ukraine as it can and may yet do. However, Russia’s success in withstanding the full weight of NATO in Ukraine is probably changing its calculus on how to deal with the Baltics now that they are using their exaggerated sense of security from NATO’s Article 5 provisions to bait and provoke Russia. A more muscular if still reactive Russian posture is clearly emerging.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2022

Analysis of the French legislative election on Iran’s Press TV

It was a delight to participate yesterday evening in a featured news program on Press TV just as the results of the voting were coming in.  It is quite remarkable that the news room and their correspondent in Paris took a line of commentary that would fit perfectly within the reportage of the French mainstream news Establishment, Figaro or Le Monde. Their top question was whether Macron’s movement, which now had lost its absolute majority, could regain control of Parliament by forming a coalition with the traditional centrist party, the Republicans. Their top concern was whether this would enable Macron to proceed with his neo-Liberal domestic reform policies, such as raising the legal retirement age from 62 to 65.

It was my pleasure to throw a spanner in the works and redirect attention to Macron’s foreign policy, namely his support for Ukraine in the ongoing military conflict with Russia, a policy which the nominally Leftist Opposition coalition of Mélenchon shares fully. Indeed, judging by foreign policy issues, there was only one true Opposition in this election, Marine Le Pen and her Rassemblement national, which seeks good relations with Russia and distances itself from NATO. Note that Le Pen’s party did better in yesterday’s elections than ever before and will capture as many as 10 times the number of seats it held before the elections.

As I argued in yesterday’s mini-debate, continuation of the war thanks to French and other European and American military and financial assistance to Kiev, and the continued imposition of draconian sanctions on Russia particularly in the energy sphere, are feeding an inflationary cycle that will overwhelm political and economic life in France in the coming months, especially when the home heating season begins.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2022

https://www.presstv.ir/Detail/2022/06/19/684204/France-Parliamentary-Vote

Belarus Radio – Television

I am pleased to share the link to my half hour interview yesterday with Belarus Radio Television.  I have appeared on their broadcasts several times before.  The video was a good opportunity to discuss the effect of sanctions on Russian society and economy, and also to consider what the end game in Russia’s ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine is likely to be.

Estonia and the Russian World

As noted in my essay a couple of days ago,  I returned home to Brussels from St Petersburg, in two steps:  by bus to Tallinn, followed by a forty-eight hour stay there before resuming my trip by plane.  For reasons unknown, the only bus service to Tallinn departs Petersburg at an ungodly 6.30 am and the only direct flight from Tallinn to Brussels departs at the same ungodly hour.  Hence, we decided to break the trip and allow for some recovery in between. This also provided an excellent opportunity to explore further the questions that arose on our brief stop in Tallinn on our way East:  namely how to reconcile the country’s Russophobic notoriety at the national government level with the omnipresent Russian speakers on the streets of the Old Town and among all the personnel of the hospitality industry whom we encountered.

The New York Times regularly features Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas’ anti-Putin pronouncements as she vies with her colleagues in Latvia and Lithuania for leadership in the sanctions crusade.  For its part, Russian state television airs footage of Estonians removing Soviet war memorials as proof of the hostile intentions of their neighbors.

The reality of relations between Estonia and the Russian World is more complex, as my little two days of exploration showed.  But then again, as I knew well before this, though all three Baltic States are lumped together by Western media as a bloc in the EU that is and has long been pressing for anti-Russian policies, their domestic treatment of their Russian speakers differs greatly. 

In what follows, note that I use the term “Russian speakers” rather than “ethnic Russians” because the population in question largely settled in the Baltics during the post-WWII Soviet period and included many from Ukraine and Belarus who shared the language with their ethnic Russian fellow settlers.

The most egregious violator of the human rights of their Russian speaking residents is Latvia, where the percentage of Russians holding Latvian passports at the time of national independence in 1991 was 40% or more. Latvia then stripped of citizenship all those who had settled in their country after 1939, effectively making 300,000 Russian speakers stateless. They also subjected these Russian speakers to restrictions on their property rights and on employment possibilities, including the levels to which they could rise. Effectively Latvia installed an Apartheid regime which they maintain to this day, whatever mouth honor is given to “European values.” Moreover, Latvia also tolerates fascist parades honoring Nazi collaborators from WWII, similar to the Bandera movement in Ukraine. And it has closed down public and church schools that conduct classes in Russian. Given the country’s shortage of teachers generally, this means that many students learn their lessons in the broken Latvian of their native Russian speaker educators.

The least friction with its Russian-speaking minority is in Lithuania, where Russians never counted more than 15% of the population and where another significant minority, Polish speakers, also had to be tolerated.

Finally, there is Estonia, which has 320,000 Russian speakers among a total population of 1.3 million. And those Russian speakers are concentrated in the national capital, Tallinn, where they constitute a substantial majority of the 426,000 population there. Inescapably, the city government in Tallinn is not aligned with the anti-Russian policies of the national government.

So much for statistics.  How did my experience of two days in Tallinn reflect or contradict these generalities?

Without further ado, I say that I found two parallel worlds – ethnic Estonians and Russian speakers. They each seem comfortable with themselves, with no obvious complexes and rather little intercourse.

Our hotel the first night was the famous and unique Hotel Viru, just a couple of minutes walk from the Old Town. This 23 story building towers over the city. In Soviet times it was the best hotel in the city and I stayed there when passing through on business in 1990. Today it is owned by the leading Finnish hospitality company Sokos. It has been renovated to high international standards, though one typically Socialist feature of architecture has remained, namely the main dining room where breakfasts are served in the morning and where a cabaret show is offered on some evenings. The seating capacity must be several hundred, so that it is not the place for a romantic dinner. But it serves tourist groups very efficiently, which is fine for those stopping in Tallinn on their way to the cruise ships putting in at the nearby port.

The Viru was doing good business during our stay. At breakfast nearly all places were taken.  Not a Russian to be seen or heard.  The hotel receptionist confirmed my hunch: 90% or more of the guests are Finns, who take the two hour ferries from Helsinki to enjoy a low-cost vacation trip; the remainder are ethnic Estonians. My point is that Tallinn is receiving a good share of its tourist visitors from outside Russia, but they travel their own separate route from the Russian groups and individual tourists.

The Viru is also just a five minutes’ walk from Estonia’s cultural holy sites, the Concert Hall and the Opera-Ballet House.  I call them holy sites, because they were built the year following the end of WWI in what was unmistakably a political statement of the newly independent Estonia, that it owned its high culture.

By good luck, the opera house was performing Tosca on our first night in the city. The hall was only two-thirds sold and we easily got fifth row orchestra (stalls) seats at the very democratic price of 32 euros each. The production was good, both vocalists and the orchestra. Happily the stage décor and costumes were simple and non-intrusive. But our attention was on the audience:  100% ethnic Estonians judging by the chatter we heard in the café – buffet, which was heavily frequented.

 The food and drink on offer in the opera café was very traditional: high quality smoked salmon sandwiches and little cakes, while sparkling wine was the best selling beverage.  Most of the audience was provincial in dress. They could just as easily have been opera-goers in stodgy Ghent or Antwerp. The opera house, which seats perhaps 600, is in impeccable condition, perfectly maintained and with all essential conveniences such as elevators for the mobility impaired and 21st century toilets.

In the adjacent building, a very Estonian event was planned for the evening of the 9th, which we sadly would have to miss: a special concert celebrating the upcoming 85th birthday of the Estonian-American conductor Neeme Järvi, who has had an outstanding career at home and abroad in both Europe and the USA, where he presently resides. His family constitutes a musical dynasty in the country, which punches above its weight in musical culture.

My argument for parallel worlds of ethnic Russians and Estonians is borne out by our visits to two of the most important tourist sites in and around Tallinn, both former palaces dating back to the 18th and 19th centuries, when what we now call Estonia was part of the Russian Empire: the Kaila Joa Schloss Fall museum-hotel and the Kadriorg Palace Art Museum.

The Russian essence of these attractions is not something overlooked or distorted by official Estonia. Even today Russian “occupation” of Estonia describes only the post-WWII period.  Even today, these magnificent cultural monuments from tsarist Russia are substantially supported by the Estonian national government in the frank recognition that Estlandiya (as the territory was known following its conquest from Sweden in the Northern War) was a jewel of the Empire. In the mid-18th century, Revel (present day Tallinn) was the largest seaport in the Empire. The mineral water spas of the city and its environs attracted emperors and empresses including Elizabeth and Catherine II, extending into the first half of the 19th century during the reign of Nicholas I. In this regard, today’s “cancel Russia” movement has had zero impact on Estonian domestic policies pertaining to culture and the arts.

This reasonableness or common sense behavior of Estonians matches what I discovered on an earlier day visit to Tallinn five years ago during a port stop on a Baltic Sea cruise. We visited the city history museum and found in the entrance hall the disarming statement that in the past 2,000  years prior to the post-Soviet independence in 1991, the lands comprising modern Estonia had known political sovereignty only for the twenty year interwar period ending in 1939. The summary history for visitors went on to say that the native peoples of this land, the ethnic Estonians, had been farmers primarily, and they had lived under a succession of foreign overlords: German, Swedish and for the last two hundred years, Russian.  This sobering truth necessarily is an antidote to any nationalist fever which might otherwise spoil the interethnic relations today.

The Schloss Fall museum-hotel situated at Keila Joa, about 32 km along the coast southwest of Tallinn is unique in more than the dimension of Russian-Estonian consciousness. I was persuaded to go there by my wife, who is a full-blooded representative of the Russian intelligentsia as well as a card carrying member of Petersburg’s Union of Journalists. Keila Joa resonates among her peers because the “castle”  there symbolizes the intertwined relations between Fighters for Liberty and Defenders of Autocracy, between the Decembrists and their persecutors in the first half of the 19th century and beyond. The story of the castle is the story of two fabled families, the Benckendorffs and the Volkonsky’s.

The builder of the castle, Count Alexander Benckendorff, was a bemedaled officer in the Napoleonic wars. Benckendorff was born in Revel (Tallinn) as a member of the Baltic Germans who were long in the service of the Russian throne.  His place of birth explains his decision to build a family residence at a very picturesque point one kilometer from the Estonian coast, overlooking the fast moving Keila river and a dramatic six meter high waterfall. The 20 hectare property is today open to visitors, who can enjoy trails in the forest.

Count Benckendorff was a close associate of Alexander I whom he served as aide-de-camp. When, following the death of Alexander in December 1825,  a contingent of officers revolted, seeking to replace autocracy with constitutional rule, Benckendorff was the officer in charge of putting down the insurrection. . He subsequently had responsibility for trying and sentencing the “Decembrists.” Several were executed while most were sent into domestic exile in Siberia, where they remained for decades and were known for spreading education and Enlightenment to their remote part of the Empire. Among them was Major General Sergei Volkonsky.

In the new reign of Nicholas I, Benckendorff became his close advisor and was appointed head of the political police, or Third Department of His Majesty’s Chancellery, a post he retained for life.  However, in the years following his death, under guidance of his widow, the family intermarried with the Volkonsky’s and ultimately the property passed into their hands, where it remained until the Revolution. A scion of the family is well known in Estonia today as a singer and stage performer.

Be that as it may, the buildings on the site were gutted after the Revolution and remained in a dilapidated state until 2010 when the Estonian government approved a formula by which the complex would be totally restored by private investors for dual use as a commercial hotel and also a state museum. The result is extraordinary:  visitors to the castle are treated to the home-like comfort of being able to touch everything. You can seat yourself in the well upholstered divans and armchairs of the ground floor rooms to quietly contemplate the interior design and reproduction paintings of Russian officers who fought in the Napoleonic Wars and other imperial statesmen. These are reproductions of originals in the State Hermitage Museum of St Petersburg, as is plainly noted.  Some of the furniture is antique.

The castle building was designed in the Gothic Revival style by the young architect Andrei Stackenschneider, who was then serving as an assistant to the chief architect of the St Isaac’s Cathedral in Petersburg, the Frenchman Auguste de Montferrand. Later in his career, he became in his own right a well known architect of important palaces and townhouses in central Petersburg. 

The completion of the castle in 1833 was marked by a visit from the emperor Nicholas I himself. During his stay, the guests were treated to the performance of what was immediately approved as Russia’s national anthem, God Save the Tsar, written by another multi-functional young courtier, Alexei Lvov.

As a further commentary on Estonia’s relations with its Russian World past and present, I note that the private investors in the reconstruction of the castle complex were three:  two Russians and one Estonian. The Russians sold out their shares three years ago, and the complex now is owned fully by the Estonian partner, who is an interior decorator by profession and the owner of the Luxor furniture stores that you see in Tallinn and elsewhere in the country.

For all of the above reasons, given the rich history of the site, it is well worth considering not only a day visit but placing a reservation to spend the night. Accommodations in the 21-room Keila Joa hotel can be reserved on booking.com, on tripadvisor.com and from the Schloss Fall website.

The Kadriorg Palace has occupied an outstanding place in Estonian history both under the tsars and during the country’s period of independence, when it served alternately as the residence of the President and as an art museum. Construction was begun in 1718, a decade after the military victory over Sweden that transferred these lands to Russia.  The palace, which was intended as a gift to the Empress Catherine (hence the name in Estonian) was completed in 1725, the year of Peter the Great’s death.  As Wikipedia informs us, between 1741 and 1917, the palace housed the civilian governor of the Governorate of Estonia.  After WWII, the palace definitively became an art museum, though the buildings were neglected and were in bad need of renovation at the time of Estonia’s independence in 1991. 

The renovation work was supported by the government of Sweden, which was at the time heavily involved in the Estonian economy and particularly in the banking system. The palace reopened to the public in 2000 as the home of a specific part of the Estonian national art collection. The ground floor displays the extensive and high quality paintings of European art, in particular Dutch canvases of the 17th century which were widely acquired by royalty and connoisseurs throughout Europe in the 18th century and beyond. The second floor displays the much smaller collection of Russian art, though I emphasize that the works are of high quality and very representative of important art movements in Russia during the 19th and early 20th centuries. There are serious paintings here by Korovin, Aivazovsky, Kustodiev, Petrov-Vodkin, among others.  None has been taken down or turned to the wall.

I close out this sharing of impressions from our stay in Tallinn with a couple of remarks on my visit to one of the largest shopping centers in the city, thye Ulemiste Centre, near the airport. It is just across the road from the hotel where we spent the second and last night of our stay in view of our early flight departure the next morning.

Well designed, handsomely executed, this shopping center seems to be doing well. The large parking area was nearly full and there was a good crowd of shoppers circulating inside. Every one of them speaking Russian. Well dressed, relaxed. If you want a picture of successful integration of a minority population into national llife, this was it.

Oh, yes, one more thing: television. We found in our hotel room that Estonian state television also broadcasts in Russian. That channel provided us with good, entertaining films in the original sound tracks, whether English or Russian. It was a pleasure to watch a Russian channel that is not weighed down with war reporting.

If Kiev treated its Russian speaking minority in any way like what the Estonians have done, there would be no war today and the world would be pulled back from the abyss of Armageddon that presently drains the joy from our lives.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2022

Peace Plan

I take pleasure in announcing the publication earlier today in The National Interest, Washington, D.C. of a Peace Plan prepared jointly with my friend Nicolai Petro, Professor of Political Science at the University of Rhode Island.

https://nationalinterest.org/feature/building-lasting-settlement-ukraine-202920

Postscript:

Not surprising, but disappointing nonetheless: I have received some poisonous comments on the PeacePlan following my posting of the National Interest link.  It just goes to prove that too many readers of non-mainstream analysis are not looking for new insights, just looking for pro-Russian, anti-Western soulmates and penpals.

When you seek Veritas, be prepared to wear a barrel and carry a candle.

Russia today at ground level: further observations

Tomorrow, Wednesday, 8 June, I will be leaving Petersburg, leaving Russia. My return home will follow in reverse order the same path as my arrival a little over five weeks ago, taking a bus to Tallinn, Estonia and thence two days later onward by plane to Brussels.  The bus company assures me that the delays at the border due to processing of Ukrainian refugees heading for the EU are now less severe, which is a comfort to us.

I use this time to piece together the many observations on everyday life in Russia’s second largest city that could not be accommodated so far in my essays focused on musical life, on life in the countryside, on the food markets.

We have passed the hundred day mark of the ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine and the effects or lack of effect of the sanctions are that much clearer with the passage of time. This will be a leitmotiv of the observations presented here.

 I am emboldened to present both big and petty observations because ever since 24 February there are very few Western observers on the ground to report on the real as opposed to imagined daily life of Russians.  Mainstream journalists left the country not long after the start of hostilities.  Others simply never came here, because no business or tourist visas were being issued. So I ask the reader to bear with me if my remarks on a host of topics exhaust your patience with any one of them.  I am all you’ve got for the moment.

Food

In my essay about my visits to Petersburg and provincial food stores, I offered a brief survey of economy class, mid-range and high class supermarket chains, with some further words on vendor stalls in the city markets.  Now I wish to direct attention to the top of the top, a food emporium that rivals Harrod’s in London or the best gourmet food shops in Paris, the world’s capital of gastronomy.  I am talking about the branch of Azbuka Vkusa [The Alphabet of Taste, or perhaps better rendered as A to Z of Taste] located in the -1 Level of the Stockman building on Nevsky Prospekt.  This is not the only branch of the given chain in the city. Nor is Petersburg its home base – that is Moscow.  But it is surely the most exciting location and most representative of what Russia’s wealthy class can buy, sanctions or no sanctions.

The Azbuka Vkusa moved into its Nevsky Prospekt premises when they were vacated by Stockman’s own food supermarket in 2014 shortly after the first round of sanctions on Russia were imposed. The departure was surely motivated by supply problems for what was, after all, just one of two outposts in Russia of Finland’s biggest department store, the other location being Moscow.  The departure was something of a shock, because Stockman’s had created the first gourmet food supermarket in the city in the early ‘90s and remained, until 2014, the nec plus ultra.  The discovery of delicacies in Stockman’s St Petersburg prompted locals to travel across the border to Lappeenranta periodically to stock up on quality food products that otherwise were not available at home. 

When Stockman’s shut the doors of their food hall in 2014, we feared food shopping would lose its glamor.  We were mistaken. Azbuka Vkusa has many outlets in Russia and with greater heft comes greater ability to manage the logistics and finance needed to stock the store with exquisite food products from all over the world, many of which are simply not available in Europe for political reasons (Iran) or restraints on free trade to protect domestic interests of Spain, Italy or Greece and other producers, for example.

This store chain puts the previous tenant to shame. The sheer variety and luxury of the present offering in fresh produce, cheeses, meats, fish, tinned conserves of all varieties is stunning. The fresh fish section offers swordfish from Sri Lanka, wild salmon from the Faroe Islands (presumably Russian caught), some unidentified white sea fish from Egypt, and dorade from Turkey. In a tank, there is a two kilogram live Kamchatka King Crab waiting for a buyer at 200 euros.  Live oysters in another tank are brought from both Crimea (large) and from the Far East (very large).  Farmed mussels are brought in from Crimea.

In the produce section a couple of weeks ago I purchased for 6 euros a 500g packet of green asparagus which, according to a vendor, were grown in the Moscow region!  On a later visit I found more asparagus, though less robust; it had been flown in from Peru. Just imagine: twenty years ago Russians did not know what an asparagus looked like; it was only an entry in some 19th century encyclopedias. 

The produce sourcing is global – kiwis from Chile, oranges from Egypt.  Beef steaks in vacuum packs fill a large refrigerator display with labels describing them as Ribeye, New York style, filet mignon, strip loin dry aged. The marbleized beef comes mainly from Voronezh, which in the past five years has become a national center.   Additionally there is an open butcher shop just adjacent to the refrigerators which displays cuts of veal, beef, pork that merit all due respect.

The cakes section and chocolates rival the best one can find in specialty stores in Brussels.  Breads, cheeses are all exciting.  Needless to say, there is a prestigious selection of wines and spirits. A great many wines from the most sought after French, Italian and other famous estates cost several hundred euros a bottle. But the shop also promotes excellent quality Crimean wines from as low as 7 euros a bottle.

In my first walking tour of St Petersburg food shops, I mentioned the upmarket Perekryostok chain. Allow me to add a few details here, particularly as regards the fresh fish counter, which has surprised me now that I have shopped there for several weeks. Their offer of fresh dorade and sea bass from Turkey deserves special mention.  Freshness and quality like this cannot be matched in the top of the line Belgian supermarket chain Delhaize (‘The Lion’ in its US subsidiary).  I can only imagine that the fish are flown in daily from Turkey to ensure this freshness, which bests what the Belgians offer coming from Greek fish farms. Notwithstanding high transportation costs, the prices here are a good 30% below Belgium.

I close out discussion of fish with a couple of words about salmon, which was widely sold before the sanctions regime took effect and was priced at roughly a 35% discount to prices in Belgium.  With sanctions, the farmed salmon from Norway disappeared. Farmed salmon from the Faroe Islands continued to be sold until the more rigorous sanctions post February 2022 came into force.  Implicit in my bracketed remark on Azbuka Vkusa salmon, the fish are probably wild, caught by Russian boats under a treaty that the Faroes are loathe to cancel. Then, from nowhere, farmed salmon from Murmansk came onto the market, but at what I would describe as a 25% premium to supermarket prices in Belgium. And now, in the city market, I found that there is a multiplicity of farmed and wild salmon from the Baltic on sale.  Clearly there will be a market shake-out before there is a new normal established.

Throughout the food chain, whether Economy, Middle Class or Premium, I note that new supplier countries are emerging.  Iceberg lettuce and celery are among the new entries from Iran. Iranian canteloupes in even the Economy chain Verny would be fair competitors to the prized Cavaillon melons from France and Morocco that appear in Belgian stores.

Cosmetics

For this entry I am reliant on my wife’s shopping experience.  Whereas both staples and luxury food products are fully stocked in St Petersburg supermarkets, the same cannot be said of foreign branded mass market cosmetics. Russian ladies have surely been out hoarding because many well known brands are already out of stock or remain in very limited ranges.  However, certain elite products buck the trend.  My wife found that a shop specialized in very pricey world beating Korean and Japanese skin creams have no trouble maintaining stock. Middlemen have already moved in to assure supplies via workarounds, i.e. ‘parallel trading.’ This, of course, adds to price but is affordable to the traditional clientele.

Similarly, when my wife went shopping for luxury Italian fabrics including silks, she found that the stores are receiving daily shipments, presumably also via middlemen and roundabout logistics.

Finally, I offer a comment on the shuttered street level shops and mall tenants that have been gleefully reported by Western journalists:   yes, major Western branded stores have closed down, not all, but a great many.  Their loss is felt on the most prestigious shopping streets and malls, where they bought market share for their products by lavish spending on promotion, including prestige premises.  However, outside these limited addresses, one does not see gaps in the street level stores in Petersburg.  I see more empty store fronts in shopping streets in Brussels than here.

Musical life:

“Ognenenny Angel” [Fiery Angel] at the Mariinsky

This revival of a legacy opera production dating from the early days of Valery Gergiev’s management of the Mariinsky and launched jointly with Covent Garden was an important musical event, very suitable to the first week of the White Nights Festival. The cast was excellent and Gergiev conducted, which speaks for itself. However, this first class event, did not have an audience to match. 

We were sitting in 3rd row orchestra seats (stalls in British parlance) which were sold to us by the Mariinsky online ticket office at a 40% discount. However, looking at those seated around us, I understood that we had overpaid: they surely got their tickets gratis. The Mariinsky has done this from time to time to fill seats and avoid an embarrassing void just in front of the performers.

This audience listened attentively, applauded where necessary, but was remarkable for being very poorly dressed. Although the Mariinsky stopped setting a dress code many years ago when Western visitors showed up in jeans and sweaters, I had never before seen hefty men wearing singlets take front row seats. Out of 1500 in the audience overall, maybe a dozen men wore suits or sports jackets.  Women were proper but in cheap apparel. For a premiere performance, this sartorial descent of the audience does not augur well for the financial health of the theater going forward.

We also saw another legacy production in the historic Mariinsky-1 building – ‘Eugene Onegin’ as staged by Yuri Temirkanov in the early 1980s. Temirkanov was Gergiev’s immediate predecessor as music director of the Kirov/Mariinsky. He famously also was stage director of two operas, of which Onegin is one. He moved from the Mariinsky to the Philharmonic, where he remained for the rest of his career, combined with principal conductor positions in the USA.

The Temirkanov production of Onegin is visually a delight. Yes, it is retro in the same sense as Zeffirelli’s various productions of Verdi operas were retro when they were kept in repertoire by Met intendant Joseph Volpe for decades.  But Onegin is about a certain place and a certain age. Its ‘updating’ by contemporary stage directors in the West to impress on the audience the universality of the composer’s message by abstract decoration and costumes only creates contradictions between what we see on stage and the words we hear or read overhead, all to the detriment of the work. In the Mariinsky production, when Tatyana tells the Nurse to ‘open the window,’ there is a window to open.

The evening of Onegin was a good demonstration of what Gergiev has made the leitmotiv of this season’s White Nights Festival when foreign performers are largely absent for obvious reasons – to feature young performers who have received their advanced training within the theater but are still unknown to the audience.  Good voices and musicality were in evidence on stage even if the casting was uneven.  However, in all fairness, without big name guest performers from abroad, a ‘buzz’ is missing, and that is what drew in the wealthy Russians in the past.

In St Petersburg, even before the sanctions, wealthy society tended to favor the smaller Mikhailovsky opera house over the Mariinsky on most evenings. Seat prices were high and no seats were discounted for pensioners, none were given out for free at the Mikhailovsky.  The wealthy could feel comfortable with their privilege.  Perhaps the Mariinsky will have to move in this direction to navigate the new age.

Until June, the Mariinsky theaters announced at the start of each show that the audience was obliged to wear masks during the performance for their own safety and that of the staff. In fact, no one wore masks in the theaters, just as no one was wearing masks when shopping, dining in restaurants or in other public spaces, including the metro and buses. Only store personnel and public service workers were wearing masks.  That all ended on 1 June. However, at the theater a temperature check is now being made on everyone just ahead of the passage through metal detectors.

The abandonment of Covid precautions is in fact justified at this time by the very low rate of infection in Russia, including in St Petersburg. About 4,000 new cases are declared daily nationwide, about 400 daily in St Petersburg.  At this rate, the chance of contracting an infection is 50 times less than in the USA at present.

I cannot close this discussion of my evenings at the opera without mentioning our pre-theater dining experience. 

It was a shock to discover on our first evening out that our favorite venue, the French cuisine gourmet restaurant Vincent, just opposite the old theater, closed for good just days before our arrival. It had barely survived the shutdowns during the pandemic, but the latest stress arising from the disappearance of foreign visitors obviously was too much for the owners.  During our visit to another gourmet restaurant, just a few minutes’ walk down the same street, the staff explained that they have been hard hit by a fall-off in clientele.  Indeed, my wife and I were the only diners at 6pm.

For sure, the folks in the audience in the front rows of the Mariinsky during the Fiery Angel performance don’t have the spare cash to frequent pricey restaurants.  However, this restaurant, Repa [the Turnip] has the support of maestro Gergiev for his entertainment of guests and colleagues in a private dining room after shows. It also is aiming for a Michelin Guide star, which, if we speak only of the quality of the fare put out by the imaginative chef, and not about the numbers of diners, they have good reason to expect.

Of course, it is difficult to foresee how the Mariinsky and its commercial neighborhood will weather the storm created by the Western sanctions and disappearance of well-heeled foreign visitors.   A couple of days ago, the morning news on radio Business FM carried relevant information that is promising. The news item was the announcement by Marriott that they will be leaving the Russian market.  The commentators noted that the departure of major hotel brands will change very little in the Russian hospitality industry since all of the hotels are owned by Russian investors. They also remarked that four and five star Moscow hotels are fully booked for the coming two months. The prices for rooms begin at 15,000 rubles per night (220 euros). And whereas in the past their clients were mostly foreign visitors, today the overwhelming share of hotel guests is Russians. 

Tour Groups visiting cultural venues

As the calendar moved on to June, there was a visible uptick in tourists in the district where we have our apartment, the ‘borough’ of Pushkin, just opposite the park and Catherine palaces that have long been a major tourist attraction. To be sure, today there are no Chinese, who swarmed here before the pandemic. Nor are there any other foreign tourist groups at all.  Russian groups are just beginning to show up, but they are still too few to be a nuisance to individual tourists like ourselves or a major financial support to the museums.

A week ago, we visited the Hermitage Museum and it was a delight to be able to stroll around without crossing the currents of groups.  We could approach the best known and loved paintings, inspect them at close distance without being shooed away by tour guides or members of their groups keen to take photos. This is a moment to savor, even if it is depleting the ticket revenues of the management. Absent foreigners, they have had to triple the entry ticket price for Russian pensioners.

As property owners, we follow with interest news about the local real estate market.  I have not seen figures for St Petersburg, but the news from Moscow is that their prices are rising by 30% this year. The average price for apartments in the capital is now over 400,000 rubles per square meter, meaning 6,000 euros.  This is half the price of Paris, but double the price of Brussels. The explanation is price inflation in construction materials and labor. Russians are perplexed, because nearly all construction materials are now produced in country, not imported.  The prices appear to be resisting decreased demand that results from the still high interest rates on new mortgages outside of special government programs.

Life in the countryside

In my essay on impressions from our visit to our dacha in Orlino published a couple of weeks ago, I said that the situation there was stable, with small improvements such as improved roads this past year.  I should have added that over the years we have witnessed fashions that sweep through the town.  Maybe six or seven years ago everyone acquired a Chinese ‘trimmer,’ usually gas powered to cut the ‘grass’, meaning the green undergrowth, mostly weeds that passes for a lawn in many yards including our own. Only a very few have true seeded lawns. 

The next fashion wave was siding.  Siding was being applied to new houses built from cement blocks or from pressed sawdust panels to provide an aesthetically pleasing exterior. Often the colors selected were shocking – pastel pinks more suited to the Caribbean than to the Russian North.

Siding was being applied to century old and decrepit hewn log houses to give them a wholly updated look with clean lines. What lies inside is nobody’s business.  The next fashion wave to hit our countryside was greenhouses.  Every landowner in our area was putting them in.  And if your neighbor had one, you tried to move ahead and put in two. Even neighbors who were seldom seen in our town and could hardly look after the greenhouse plantings had their own greenhouses installed. 

This year, ‘special military operation’ or no, yet another wave of investment and home improvement has rolled over the countryside:  new roofs.  Houses which otherwise have not been altered for 80 years or more now are acquiring roofs based on a new product that looks like ceramic tiles but is laid down in panels, so that the installation is a matter of just a couple of days, and the cost is substantially less than traditional tiles.

On the war:  Que sera, sera

As I remarked in a previous essay, Petersburgers do not talk much about the war.  This is not because of state repression, as many Western media would have us believe. No, it is simply because opinions are divided. People know where their friends, relations, acquaintances stand and they avoid raising issues that would only unleash acrimony. However, when there is anonymity, as for example among taxi drivers or hair dressers, talk flows more freely.

What I hear with regard to the ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine falls into the long Russian folk tradition of авось. This philosophy encapsulated in one word corresponds to what the 10 or 15% of the population who profess Islam would express as Inshallah. However, given that Russians are now celebrating the 350th anniversary of the birth of Peter the Great, who opened his Window on Europe by founding this city on the Neva, it is more appropriate to make reference to European folk thinking from the popular Italian song Que sera, sera:  “what will be will be, the future is not ours to see…”

Along with this sense of resignation before historical forces greater than our abilities, I hear the comment that “every hundred years the Europeans get it into their heads to destroy Russia.” If Europeans see Russia as the aggressor by its move into Ukraine, here the causality is taken back one step to the NATO installations and instructors active in Ukraine over the past 8 years leading to the preparation of an army of 150,000 nationalists prepared to pounce on the Donbas in March 2022.

As for the periodicity of European madness, most adults here think back at once to Napoleon’s Grande Armée of 1812 which attracted adventurers from all of Europe keen to glean spoils of war in Moscow. Then, of course, came World War I and the German assault which drove deep into the territory of the Russian Empire.

Today the hostile position of Chancellor Scholz has touched off neuralgic reactions in the population. His pronouncements on arms shipments to Ukraine, on Germany casting off the pacifism which dominated its policies for the past fifty years to create ‘Europe’s largest army’ set off alarm bells in Russia. These are the policies of the weak leader of a coalition dependent on the Russophobic Greens to stay in power. But the Russians are focused on the results, not the causes of policy.  What they hear brings up memories of German violence and barbarism seventy years ago, all the more so here in Petersburg, where the German Siege cost more than a million civilian lives.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2022

Postscript, 11 June:

Several readers sent in comments to my report on “Russia today at ground level,” demonstrating that they understood fully well my subversive intent.  The point of a detailed and unbiased description of shopping experiences, cultural events and the like was to show that the ongoing war and the fierce sanctions imposed on Russia by the Collective West have not deprived Russians of their pleasures and normal life.

One or two readers sent in spoiler remarks, asking how Russians are coping with spare parts for the autos now that manufacturers have cut ties with the country, whether white goods such as refrigerators and washing machines have exploded in price for the same reason, and much more.  But such attempts to denigrate what I reported for failing to be fully comprehensive, beyond the capacity of any one observer, are just a variation on the theme that one fool can ask a hundred questions more than a wise man can answer.

Without claiming to be that ‘wise man’ I answered the questions by showing how in a couple of product categories that I or my wife saw on sale, parallel trading was already ensuring the supply on the Russian market of goods that their manufacturers no longer market directly in Russia.  Nearly everything that Western firms have withdrawn from Russia is purely civil in application, has no dual use and is not itself prohibited for sale to Russia. Therefore it may be taken for granted that most everything will continue to be available to Russian consumers if at a moderately higher price. Or the market niche will be filled at lower prices by enterprising Russian manufacturers.

As regards software, including apps, I do not doubt the ingenuity of Russian programmers and the appearance of replacement services that are Russian designed and brought to market.  After all Yandex, not Google, was the largest Search Engine in Russia before 24 February, and V Kontakte, not LinkedIn or Facebook, was the largest social network.

How the war will end…

It has been my rule not to join the vast majority of my fellow political commentators at the scrimmage line in sterile debates of the one subject of the day, week, month that has attracted their full attention. Their debates are sterile because they ignore all but a few parameters of reality in Russia, in Ukraine. For them, ignorance is bliss. They do not stir from their armchairs nor do they switch channels to get information from the other side of the barricades, meaning from Russia.

I will violate this overriding rule and just this once join the debate over how Russia’s ‘special military operation’ will end.   Nearly all of my peers in Western media and academia give you read-outs based on their shared certainty over Russia’s military and political ambition from the start of the ‘operation,’ how Russia failed by underestimating Ukrainian resilience and professionalism, how Putin must now save face by capturing and holding some part of Ukraine. The subject of disagreement is whether at the end of the campaign the borders will revert to the status quo before 24 February in exchange for Ukrainian neutrality or whether the Russians will have to entirely give up claims on Donbas and possibly even on Crimea.

As for commentators in the European Union, there is exaggerated outrage over alleged Russian aggression, over any possible revision of European borders as enshrined in the Helsinki Act of 1975 and subsequent recommitments by all parties to territorial inviolability of the signatory States. There is the stench of hypocrisy from this crowd as they overlook what they wrought in the deconstruction of Yugoslavia and, in particular, the hiving off of Kosovo from the state of Serbia.

I mention all of the foregoing as background to what I see now going on in Russian political life, namely open and lively discussion of whether the country should annex the territories of Ukraine newly ‘liberated’ by forces of the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics with decisive assistance of the Russian military. By admission of President Zelensky yesterday, these territories now amount to 20% of the Ukrainian state as it was configured in 2014.

In the past several weeks, when Russia concentrated its men and materiel on the Donbas and began to score decisive victories, most notably following the taking of Mariupol and capitulation of the nationalist fighters in the Azovstal complex, leading public officials in the DPR, the LPR and the Kherson oblast have called for quick accession of their lands to the Russian Federation with or without referendums. In Moscow, politicians, including Duma members, have called for the same, claiming that a fait accompli could be achieved already in July.

However, as I see and hear on political talk shows and even in simple political reportage on mainstream Russian radio like Business FM, a counter argument has raised its head.  Those on this side ask whether the populations of the potential new constituent parts of the RF are likely to be loyal to Russia. They ask if there is truly a pro-Russian majority in the population should a referendum be organized.

This is all very interesting. It surely is a continuation of the internal debate in Moscow back in 2014 when the decision was taken to grant Crimea immediate entry into the RF while denying the requests for similar treatment from the political leaders of the Donbas oblasts.

However, there surely are other considerations weighing in on the Kremlin that I have not seen aired so far. They may be likened to the considerations of France following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, when the possible reunification of Germany was the talk of the day.  Sharp witted observers said at the time that President Mitterand liked Germany so much that he wanted to continue to see two of them.  Today Vladimir Putin may like Ukraine and its brethren Slavs so much that he wants to see three or four of them.

To be specific, from the very beginning the number one issue for Moscow as it entered upon its military adventure in Ukraine was geopolitical:  to ensure that Ukraine will never again be used as a platform to threaten Russian state security, that  Ukraine will never become a NATO member. We may safely assume that internationally guaranteed and supervised neutrality of Ukraine will be part of any peace settlement. It would be nicely supported by a new reality on the ground: namely by carving out several Russia-friendly and Russia-dependent mini-states on the former territory of East and South Ukraine. At the same time this solution removes from the international political agenda many of the accusations that have been made against Russia which support the vicious sanctions now being applied to the RF at great cost to Europe and to the world at large: there will be no territorial acquisitions.

If Kiev is compelled to acknowledge the independence of these two, three or more former oblasts as demanded by their populations, that is a situation fully compatible with the United Nations Charter.  In a word, a decision by the Kremlin not to annex parts of Ukraine beyond the Crimea, which has long been quietly accepted by many in Europe, would prepare the way for a gradual return of civilized relations within Europe and even, eventually, with the United States

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2022

Radio St Petersburg: an appearance on “The History Club”

Last week one of my “to do” tasks for this trip to Russia was successfully completed: I spent an hour in a recording studio of Radio St Petersburg’s Chanel Five speaking to Professor Andrei Leonidovich Bassoevich about the edition of my Russia in the Roaring 1990s published here in November 2021 and more generally about the cycles of friendship-enmity in Russia’s relations with the United States and Europe over the past half century. 

Bassoevich has been the presenter of this show for the past twenty years. He has a distinctive way of interviewing and of lightening the style of the broadcast by insertions of music and other sound tracks relevant to the subject at hand.

Our conversation was conducted in Russian.

https://cloud.mail.ru/stock/3rBxnMfcQCPak5pn9PR3dDTU

The impact of Western sanctions on Russian musical life

In Volume II of my Memoirs of a Russianist: Russia in the Roaring 1990s, the diary entries which constitute three quarters of the book describe in considerable detail the musical and literary life of the country that I saw firsthand and in which I participated as sponsor in the name of my employers. Notwithstanding an economic collapse that was deeper than America’s Great Depression of the 1930s, Russia experienced a cultural renaissance, moving in new directions and bringing out great new talent that won over discerning cultural consumers the world over. My conclusion was that High Culture was, is and forever will be a distinguishing feature of Russia come what may in world affairs and in the domestic economy.

In this essay, I propose to examine how Russian culture is faring in the face of the new and dramatic challenges posed by Western sanctions and by the “cancel culture,” “cancel Russia” movements that are being fanned by Western media. They have resulted in the cutting of cultural ties at the intergovernmental level and also at the level of individual artists and individual symphony halls and opera-ballet theaters from both Russia and the Collective West.

Playbills in the West are being censored and revised to remove Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich and other Russian staples of the international musical repertoire in a manner similar to the way Wagner was cut from repertoires during and after WWII. The direct consequence is the removal of opportunities to appear on Western stages for the best performers of such works, meaning both troupes and individuals first and foremost from Russia. Artists who regularly crossed what were invisible borders now are confronted with almost insuperable obstacles

I focus attention here on music, meaning opera, concerts and ballet, because, of all the performing arts, it is the most accessible to the broad public at home and abroad given that knowledge of language is not a requirement for full enjoyment.

But before we look at the present, I will go back to the 1990s and direct attention to what some of the same Russian institutions and individuals as figure in the news today at the head of Russian musical culture were doing then.

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Musical leadership in Russia today is less concentrated geographically and institutionally than it was in the 1990s.  Many new theaters and greatly improved troupes have emerged in places like Kazan in Tatarstan and in Novosibirsk in Siberia. They are well financed by local government, which is flush from income generated by extractive industries, and with their deep purses can attract some of the best talent in the country.  Nonetheless, the one person and the one house of music that stood out in the 1990s and which set the tone for the nation then remains the bellwether today:  Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Theater of St Petersburg.

Under Gergiev’s guidance, during the 1990s the Mariinsky moved way ahead of its key competitor and long-time ‘ elder brother,’ Moscow’s Bolshoi Theater, which was beset by internal discord, political interference and an inability to respond appropriately to the economic challenges of the market economy then being established. It was precisely Gergiev’s genius at selling his ‘product’ abroad via recording contracts, joint productions, foreign tours and the development of opera and ballet festivals that drew in leading artists from the world over as well as a wealthy audience of foreign and domestic visitors.  Meanwhile, “Friends of the Mariinsky” fund-raising associations were cultivated in major musical centers. Besides financial contributions, they helped with the rebranding of what had been known as the “Kirov” company in Soviet times, to the new “Mariinsky” label. 

As musical director, Valery Gergiev had a clear agenda which he implemented with great consistency and success. Keen to turn his house orchestras into quality performers of symphonic music, he downgraded the ballet repertoire, for which the Kirov was best known abroad, to second place and brought forward the opera troupe with new, more demanding repertoire. This entailed promotion of Wagner, and of the Ring Cycle in particular. It entailed the promotion of compositions by long ignored geniuses of Soviet Russia, meaning Sergei Prokofiev in particular.

Gergiev invited leading stage directors from Europe to update the visual presentation of scenery, lighting and costumes from the static Soviet past, and, most importantly, to bring up to world standards the delivery methods of the singers themselves. From “stand up and sing,” they became actors and actresses on stage. The introduction of titles in English and Russian was a finishing touch to engage the audience in the dramatic flow of the opera.

Annual tours abroad to London and New York, among other global opera centers, consolidated the Mariinsky’s worldwide reputation and provided financial assistance to the orchestra members and singers who otherwise received miserly paychecks at home. 

All of these priority initiatives came together in 1991, three years into Gergiev’s tenure as Music Director, when the Mariinsky launched a sensational, unforgettable co-production of Prokofiev’s Fiery Angel with London’s Covent Garden. The presentation of this opera had been held up for many years by the inability to find a suitable female lead singer for the role of Renata. With the casting for this role of the young and rising star, Mariinsky soprano Galina Gorchakova, this gap was filled. Following the presentation of this show in London, Gorchakova was named opera singer of the year in the United Kingdom. She went on to make an important international career, during which she noisily denounced Gergiev as a “dictator” because of his tight control over the private lives of his protégés. Sometimes Valery Gergiev does not hold a grudge and today Gorchakova works at the Mariinsky as a voice coach, her singing career having ended some time ago.

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In the new millennium, the hyper-active musical director and chief conductor of the Mariinsky Theater, Valery Gergiev, oversaw the creation of a musical empire.  A spectacular new opera house, dubbed Mariinsky II, was built adjacent to the historic 19th century theater, which underwent much-needed renovation.  Five minutes walking distance away, a third venue was added, the Concert Hall, where concert performances of operas also are presented on a daily basis.  Moreover, in a manner which paralleled the Russian art museum world, where satellites or affiliates of the Hermitage were being set up in other Russian cities, the Mariinsky went beyond domestic touring to establish several permanent operational bases in the country. 

One was in the city of Vladikavkaz, the capital of the Republic of North Ossetia-Alania, the area where Gergiev was born and spent his childhood. Western readers will know this part of the Caucasus best from its connection to South Ossetia, which was once territorially part of Georgia and was the land over which the Russian-Georgian War of 2008 was fought. The Gergiev family has maintained close relations with Ossetia. Valery’s sister Larisa, who otherwise is engaged as director of the professional vocal school attached to the theater in St Petersburg, holds administrative and production oversight positions in Vladikavkaz.  Lest one think that this remote territory is a musical backwater, I note that the conductor of last Friday’s splendid production of Rossini’s Barbiere di Seviglia in Mariinsky II, Zaurbek Gugkaev, bears the title of ‘honored artist of the Republic of North Ossetia.’ His conducting was world class.

Another key achievement of the Mariinsky’s extension of its domestic and international reach was the opening of its ‘Maritime Region Stage’ in Vladivostok in 2013. Housed in a new and architecturally exciting building, this opera and ballet company operates a full season of productions. The logic of its creation was not merely to raise the attractiveness of living in the Russian Far East by adding a center of European high culture there to complement the university center developed on Ostrov Russky in the Vladivostok harbor, but to serve as a beacon to opera and dance aficionados in neighboring Korea, Japan and China, where potential demand was huge. The logic of this investment seemed impeccable….until February 2022.

When the “iron curtain” fell on Russia once again following the start of the ‘special military operation’ on 24 February, among the first news reports in Western mainstream media were about the scandalous dismissal of Valery Gergiev from his position as principal conductor by the Munich symphony and of his status as persona non grata at the Met in New York, where he had once been very welcome together with the entire troupe for Russian seasons. Soon afterwards, the world renowned soprano who began her career at the Mariinsky, Anna Netrebko was also kicked out of the Met, while European performances in La Scala and elsewhere were cancelled on the phony pretext of health problems.

Gergiev did nothing to challenge the disgraceful and cowardly actions of his Western partners. He had seen this circus before, when he was given the boot by his hosts in Europe and America over his patriotic stance in support of the Kremlin during the 2008 war with Georgia. After a few years, they all came back to him to beg for renewal of ties.

However, Anna Netrebko’s career as singer is by definition not going to be as long-lived as Gergiev’s conducting career. Moreover, her tax residence is in Austria and that is where her home is, meaning that it would be personally quite painful to pull up stakes. Thus, she made the decision to meet the demands of the Met and openly denounced Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine. In doing so, she enraged fans in Russia and a planned performance in Novosibirsk was immediately cancelled there by her hosts. Still she failed to sway the stubborn Met General Manager Peter Gelb to rescind his blacklisting her.

Gelb’s pre-Met career was in marketing at a leading recording company. As marketer he always pitched to the bleachers and continues to do so, without regard for ethical or cultural values. 

Netrebko’s public turn away from the Kremlin did win her some concessions in Europe. Her first success was at the Opera of Monte Carlo. Other appearances followed.  Now, as the White Nights Festival gets underway in St Petersburg, there are rumors that Gergiev has invited her to perform in one or another opera.

Follow-up Western mainstream coverage of the ‘cancel Russia’ movement affecting Russian cultural icons told us about the departure of a Resident Conductor at the Mariinsky, the American Gavriel Heine. Since joining the company in 2007, Heine had taken over nearly the entire historic ballet repertoire, conducting the orchestra both at home and on tour abroad. His loss to the Mariinsky will be felt, although as I explained above, the theater places primary emphasis on opera, where interpretation by the maestro at the podium plays a substantially bigger role. I also note that Gergiev has had a succession of Western conductor protégés over the years.  A select few like Gianandrea Noseda, went on to make international careers of the first order.  Others remained relatively obscure. 

The Bolshoi company in Moscow took a much bigger hit when its Russian music director and principal conductor Tugan Sokhiev resigned, saying he had been under pressure to take a stand on the military operation in Ukraine. Then, to everyone’s surprise, Sokhiev also resigned from his decades long position as head of the Orchestre nationale du Capitole in Toulouse, France, for the same reason. This case illustrates perfectly the dilemma of performers who have not only great talent and skills, like Netrebko, but also brains and self-respect, like Sokhiev.

Turning from the fate of individuals to that of the institutions which shape national culture, we note that the descent of the new Iron Curtain instantly stripped away all of the foreign sources of income and performance opportunities of the Mariinsky company as a whole.

Now that the traditional White Nights Festival which runs from 24 May to 17 July is about to open, I have taken a look at their program to consider what changes the sanctions have made.

Firstly, you note the nearly total absence of foreign performers. This may well explain the unusual fact that a good number of performances on the playbill are still listed with casts “to be announced.” Nonetheless no shows have been cancelled, and as in the past each of the three Mariinsky venues in St Petersburg that I cited above offers one or more performances during each day of the Festival.

It is still too early to say what effect the loss of foreign visitors will have on ticket sales to the Festival events. One side effect of the difficulty Russians have had traveling abroad since the onset of the Covid 19 pandemic was that domestic tourism shot up and St Petersburg is a top tourist destination. That trend has of course been given further powerful encouragement by the shutdown of air transport links with Europe and America, and the complication of getting visas for travel abroad resulting from the shutdown of foreign consulates and expulsion of embassy staff dating from the beginning of the military operation.

Of course, the foregoing will not be of much assistance to the Mariinsky’s Vladivostok stage. The city is nearly twelve hours flying time from Moscow and is not a significant tourist destination among Russians. It is now cut off from the neighboring countries. China remains under lockdown, and both Korea and Japan have joined the sanctions parade.  Relief to Vladivostok will come only when China reopens. In the meantime the house will surely incur serious operating losses.

Besides out-of-town Russians, another boost to sales in the St Petersburg venues has been the implementation of a previously introduced scheme of federally financed allowances enabling students to buy tickets to museums, concert and opera houses for tiny out of pocket cost. At our evening in the Mariinsky last Friday, there were large numbers of young people present, despite the posted ticket prices that would normally be out of their reach.

In a way, market laws have long determined pricing of tickets at the Mariinsky. As a rule, starting prices for ballets are double the price of operas. Ballets are less demanding intellectually and they are considered by loving parents to be a perfect way of introducing their children to high culture.  All seats are sold out whatever the price.

At performances of the best loved ballets, Swan Lake and Nutcracker, there will always be lots of kids aged six and up sitting with their parents in the most expensive front rows of the stalls (“orchestra seats” in American parlance). By expensive, I mean on the order of 150 euros. The same seats will sell for half that to see a popular opera, one quarter of that for an opera that is either not beloved by Russians (as, for example, Hector Berlioz’ Les Troyennes in the current Festival) or is simply a poor show with dull staging and weak cast. Needless to say, there are very few of the last named category in the coming weeks.

In the program of this year’s White Nights Festival, there are several shows which will be in great demand and which are priced at levels that may cover direct costs of the theater. I have in mind Swan Lake in several star-studded casts and a revival of Prokofiev’s opera War and Peace staged by the Russian film director Andrei Konchalovsky.  I was present when this opera production premiered on 11 March 2000. Also present at the opening was British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who spent the day in St Petersburg as the first Western leader to meet with the newly installed President of Russia, Vladimir Putin. He was seated with his wife in the royal box, next to Vladimir Vladimirovich. The whole Russian government was in attendance and security was extraordinary. The opera’s revival is particularly timely today:  while the first half, Peace, is lyrical and romantic, the second half, War, is very patriotic, aggressively anti-French and more generally anti-West. It should do especially well with the audience now.

Other shows in this year’s Festival may also do very well in drawing audiences and keeping the box office busy on the strength of a single star performer.  I have in mind the June performances of Macbeth, Don Carlos and even the less loved Troyennes in which the soprano Ekaterina Semenchuk sings. She might just as easily have taken the easy way out and stayed in Paris or Salzburg, where she is most welcome, but Semenchuk has opted to sing in this year’s Festival, which will warm the hearts of Russian opera lovers.

The White Nights Festival has in the past featured performances by world renowned instrumentalists. Looking over the program, one might conclude that this aspect of the Festival has suffered the most from the ‘cancel Russia’ movement.  However, there will be a concert by the Russia-born pianist Nikolai Lugansky that is sure to be successful. Given his solid standing in the West, Lugansky’s boldness in coming to St Petersburg merits recognition.

One special feature of this year’s Festival is the attention given to works by the ‘house composer’ of the Mariinsky, Rodion Shchedrin, who will be celebrating his ninetieth birthday in December of this year. Shchedrin is best known in the West not for his ballet and opera compositions but as the husband, now widower, of one of the Soviet Union’s most celebrated ballerinas, Maya Plisetskaya.

Schedrin has composed in many different genres including instrumental music ranging from chamber music to concertos and other orchestral pieces. His pieces for the stage have been shown in various European and American theaters, but have not entered into repertoire and are unfamiliar to the general public, except for one – his Carmen Suite.

The four pieces by Shchedrin to be performed in this Festival are the ballet Little Hump-backed Horse and the operas Adventures of an Ape, Boyarina Morozova and The Enchanted Wanderer. In light of the patriotic feelings sparked by the military operation in Ukraine, Gergiev may well now regret that he did not have the foresight to bring back to the stage Shchedrin’s opera The Left-Hander, which premiered in 2013 and was dedicated by the composer to Gergiev’s sixtieth birthday that year. I can say, from my personal impressions, that the production which premiered in the Mariinsky as staged by Aleksei Stepaniuk was brilliant.

The opera The Left-Hander is based on a novel by the 19th century Russian writer Nikolai Leskov, as are several other operas by Shchedrin. The Left-Hander is set in the first quarter of the 19th century, in the rein of Alexander I, the conqueror of Napoleon in 1812, who later made a royal visit to the United Kingdom, which is depicted here. The opera highlights the civilizational divide between Russia with its sobornost (collective solidarity) and England, with its individualism. Very timely!

Finally, it bears mention that in keeping with the house rules Gergiev established at the very start of his directorship at the Mariinsky, the Festival program includes a couple of Wagner operas, Lohengrin and Tristan and Isolde. Let it be noted that these productions, as well as the other featured operas that I mentioned above all require enormous theatrical resources which very few opera theaters in the world can summon in the best of times.  The Mariinsky is proceeding full speed ahead in these, the worst of times.

                                                                *****

I have spoken of how the Mariinsky may fill most seats and cover some of its Festival related expenses from the box office.  But the loss of its revenues from foreign tours, recording contracts, live broadcast contracts (Mezzo and national broadcasters) present an enormous challenge to management.  In this context, none other than the country’s President has stepped in to help. It is widely rumored that Putin proposed to merge the management of the Bolshoi theater in Moscow with that of the Mariinsky theater, all under the musical direction of Valery Gergiev.  The vacancy in the Bolshoi created by the departure of Tugan Sokhiev makes this decision not only possible but necessary for the sake of both companies. 

Of course, taking control of the Bolshoi has been a long time ambition of Valery Gergiev.  It will be opposed by many in the Moscow musical establishment, but no one will dare go up against The Boss. The benefit for the Mariinsky in the new, pending arrangement is that it will be able to tap into some of the generous federal funding that the Bolshoi has enjoyed since the 1990s, when it failed to enjoy the success in the global marketplace that Gergiev had assured for his theater. Most everyone in the Russian musical world will be watching closely to see how this proposed merger develops.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2022

Life in the village

Spending some time in the countryside was one of our objectives on this trip to St Petersburg and now that we are into our third day I have some impressions to share about what has or has not changed out here since the start of the ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine.

My location is 80 km south of Petersburg, in the hamlet of Orlino within the Gatchina district of Leningradskaya Oblast. Population about 300 in season, maybe one third that number year-round.

Ours is the main street that takes you from the nearby intercity highway down to the large lake 200 meters away which is the pride of Orlino and the key attraction for summer visitors.  Our house is lined up with others facing the street; and behind it the property opens onto a long strip of land that traditionally was dedicated to subsistence farming, meaning fruit trees, a vegetable garden and the obligatory patch of potatoes. 

We are separated from the neighbors by picket fences and it is common to chat over the fence about the usual concerns of weather, infestations of Colorado beatles threatening the potato harvest and the like. Right now the key question is whether it is still too cool to plant the potatoes. When the birch trees are blooming, like now, is the right time to plant says one neighbor.  No, the real test is to lower your trousers and plant your butt on the soil; if it feels cold, wait a while. So much for folk wisdom… 

Politics rarely arises and it is not a subject of discussion today, though convictions can be expressed otherwise. One change I note is the appearance of the national flag on houses. Never saw that before. It fits into a broader pattern:  a couple of weeks ago orders were given by Moscow for all schools in the country to raise the flag at the start of each week and for all students to sing the national anthem.  Curiously, in a country that is in a proxy war with the United States, these public shows of patriotism look very much like America in the 1950s.

The quiet discussion of the war which we have had with locals closest to us shows unquestioning confidence that it was necessary to preempt an attack on Donbas and Crimea by Ukrainian forces planned for the first week of March and that it is being properly prosecuted.  Yes, soldiers are dying, but that is in the nature of wars.  Should there be a mobilization?  Absolutely not!  One professional special forces contract soldier is worth 100 recruits says our friend and handyman Sergei.

Though we come and go several times in the year, this is the first time in all ten years of our visits to Orlino that the neighbors took an interest in how we got here.  Was it difficult, they asked? The fact that we come from Belgium, more specifically from Brussels, now registers with them in a way it did not in the past.  I suppose I can thank Frau von der Leyen for that.

Finally, a word about television. Like most everyone in this hamlet, like most everyone living in the hinterland across this vast country, we have satellite television. The installation of the dish and tuner is a one time cost. We pay nothing for what we watch. There are on the decoder a few hundred stations listed, but in practice we only watched a half dozen foreign broadcasters plus the three main Russian state channels. 

I was not surprised to find that French and German broadcasters are no longer available on our satellite tv. However, it was unexpected to see that BBC World News and Bloomberg are still available.  This supports my conclusions about cable television in Petersburg: that the exclusion or retention of given channels seems to be the result of commercial deals between content providers and the Russian distributors.  I imagine that the removal of nearly all foreign stations from our cable service in Petersburg is due to that factor rather than from any government orders. In this way it would be like the withdrawal of Hollywood film companies from the Russian market. “Animal World” is gone. “National Geographic” is still available.

Otherwise little has changed in village life from what we left behind on our last visit in October 2021.  The food shops in Orlino and in the surrounding villages are fully stocked. Prices are unquestionably higher but not shockingly so. Local roads that were dodgy have been fixed and we drove on smooth asphalt. The taxi service has been improved; it now operates 24 hours. Gasification has finally come to Orlino: some residents on a parallel street to ours are now getting their connections after a wait of many years.  Life is good…

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2022