‘Traditional Russian spiritual-moral and cultural-historical values are under active attack from the USA and its allies, as well as from transnational corporations and foreign NGOs,’ according to the Kremlin’s new National Security Strategy, published this month. It defines ‘Russian values’ as ‘life, dignity, rights, freedoms’ as well as ‘high ethical ideals, a strong family, prioritising the spiritual over the material, humanism, kindness, justice, collectivism and patriotism’.
‘That Alexey Navalny must be quite someone,’ went a joke on the Russian internet, ‘if he has the secret services washing his underpants.’ Earlier this month, the opposition politician prank-called one of his attempted murderers. The FSB man, believing he was talking to a colleague, explained how his team had smeared Novichok on Navalny’s underpants in August, and then picked up the murder knickers after the operation and washed them (twice) to get rid of the evidence. Not only had Navalny, with the help of investigative reporting by Bellingcat and the Insider, managed to find out the names of the FSB goons who had tried to poison him; he also got one to confess to the operation. It took 49 minutes for the FSB officer to ask if it was OK to be talking on an open line. ‘Look how stupid and corrupt the Kremlin’s system is,’ Navalny said on his YouTube channel after the phone call: another reason to get rid of the regime. The late John le Carré’s world of Soviet superspies, operating silkily in shadows within shadows, has been replaced with a quite different image of Kremlin espionage: bumbling putzes scrubbing a pair of Y-fronts in full view of the world.
I know that a nation doesn’t experience trauma in the same way as a person, but I couldn’t help wondering whether the Leave campaign’s latching onto the phrase ‘take back control’ hadn’t been not only about appealing to what Dominic Cummings called a desire for ‘loss aversion’, but had also touched on something deeper, darker, more self-destructive.
Bill O’Reilly’s world-weary smirk has been replaced by Tucker Carlson’s confused stare in the 8 p.m. slot on Fox News. O’Reilly, the most popular host on US cable news, was sacked because of a sex scandal, but Carlson is in many ways a more fitting presenter for the age of Trump.
The Belarus Free Theatre’s first performance was in 2005, when they staged Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis in a café in Minsk. The café owner lost his licence after two performances. The cast and crew lost their jobs with the state theatre. Between 2006 and 2010, their performances of, among other pieces, documentary plays by political prisoners were staged in private apartments and in forests. They were often broken up by KGB operatives toting machine-guns. At a performance during the 2010 protests, everyone in the audience was arrested and beaten. The creative directors moved to London. But the theatre still performs in secret locations around Minsk. I went to one a couple of months ago. They called me on my mobile a few hours before the play and told to come to a bus stop by a supermarket. ‘Wait on the corner. We’ll come and collect you. You can try to guess who else is there for the play.’
‘Russia is a mental subcontinent, the subconscious of the West. This is why we place our fears, our phobias and foibles in Russia,’ a character says in Zinovy Zinik’s novel Sounds Familiar or The Beast of Artek. The book, published last summer, explores the way the Kremlin Menace can loom to a monstrous size in the Western imagination. A timely subject, given the way the debate around Donald Trump's admiration of Vladimir Putin has morphed into a grotesque tale of Putin playing puppet-master in the US election – complete, according to a recently leaked 'unverified' report, with candid camera footage of Trump enjoying golden showers in the Moscow Ritz and secret meetings between the Kremlin and Trump's team in Prague (home of the Golem).
Theresa May invoked the ‘spirit of citizenship’ as the thing that holds Britain together today. The term has an ingrained tension: ‘spirit’ invokes a mystic national soul; ‘citizen’ something rational and rules-based. On the one hand, May seemed to suggest the concept was more about rules and moral norms than anything metaphysical, equating the ‘spirit of citizenship’ with paying tax and not being an absolute bastard to your employees:
The three Home Alone movies all featured in a list of the ten most watched TV programmes in Ukraine in January and it’s tempting to speculate that the popularity of the franchise reflects the way the country sees itself: abandoned by those who should be responsible for it, under attack from bigger powers and having to improvise its self-defence with anything that comes to hand. This isn’t just about the latest Russian aggression. Historically Ukraine has been invaded and occupied by everyone in the region: Romania, Austria, Poland, Germany, Hungary, Czechoslovakia.
The blind man is still playing his tin whistle during rush hour at Green Park station and all the streets look the same, but the inner mental map I have of the world, the one that places me in a network of structures and institutions, has gone. The chain of associations I grew up with – me, London, England, United Kingdom, Europe – has buckled. Simple language loses meaning: What does ‘out’ actually mean? Or ‘in’? Or ‘the UK’?
Brexiteers like to frame Europe’s relationship to the UK as one of empire to colonial subject, as if the campaign to leave the EU were equivalent to some sort of glorious war of decolonisation. Of all the referendum debate’s many absurd arguments, this – presenting Boris Johnson as the reincarnation of Mahatma Gandhi – may be the most absurd: especially coming from a country that used to have a real empire and really ought to know the difference. But maybe that’s the point.