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Fintan O'Toole: It is vital we do not play Putin's game of Mother Russia versus the West

It is very hard to imagine the history of modern Irish culture without Russia

Oscar Wilde’s first play, called Vera; or the Nihilists, is set in Russia. Bernard Shaw’s art and ideas were shaped by his overwhelming reaction to the appearance in English translation of the works of Leo Tolstoy.

Ethel Boole (later Voynich), born in Cork, was one of Shaw’s friends in the circle around the Russian political exile Sergei Stepniak. Her novel, The Gadfly, would later sell 2.5 million copies in the Soviet Union. The Russian film adaptation has a score by the great Dmitri Shostakovich.

James Joyce told his daughter Lucia that Tolstoy’s short story, How Much Land Does a Man Need, “is the greatest story that the literature of the world knows”. He was greatly influenced by Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. He loved to talk to his Russian-Jewish friend Paul Léon about Nikolai Gogol’s Dead Souls.

Joyce hugely admired the plays of Anton Chekhov, telling Arthur Power that “Other plays you feel are contrived and stagey; abnormal people do abnormal things; but with Chekhov all is muffled and subdued as it is in life.”

Apart perhaps from the Greek tragedies, Chekhov must surely be the dramatist most often adapted by Irish playwrights. Brian Friel, Thomas Kilroy and Tom Murphy all produced superb versions of his plays. Friel also adapted Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons.

Frank O’Connor, seeking models for ways to write about Irish society, looked to, as he put it, “Gogol’s officials, Turgenev’s serfs… Chekhov’s doctors and teachers”. Mary Lavin had a particular love for Tolstoy’s Happy Ever After and The Death of Ivan Ilyich, and for Turgenev’s Torrents of Spring. John McGahern always acknowledged his love for, and indebtedness to, Turgenev.

In 1936, Samuel Beckett wrote to the pioneering Russian film director Sergei Eisenstein in the vain hope that he would allow him to go to Moscow and become his understudy. Ninette de Valois, the most important Irish figure in the modern history of dance, had more success: she spent three years with Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes and created roles in some of its most famous works.

Seamus Heaney’s poetry and essays are in constant dialogue with Russians – with Chekhov, Osip Mandelstam, Anna Akhmatova and Joseph Brodsky. Much of his thinking about the relationship between art and politics is refracted through them.

Western modernity was shaped, not in opposition to Russia, but in fruitful response to it

We could go on and on, but the point is surely clear enough: it is very hard to imagine the history of modern Irish culture without Russia. And the same is true of the cultures of most western countries.

In music, in the novel, in the short story, in visual art, in architecture, in drama, opera and dance, in poetry, in ideas – western modernity was shaped, not in opposition to Russia, but in fruitful response to it.

This is why we must not fall for Vladimir Putin’s great lie, that we do not echo back to him, and the criminal gang around him, what they want to hear about the eternal enmity of Russia and the West.

The ideology that underlies the assault on Ukraine, so presciently explored by Timothy Snyder in his 2018 book, The Road to Unfreedom, holds that Russia’s God-given destiny is to be the motherland of a vast space called Eurasia, stretching from the Pacific at least into the central European countries that used to be under Soviet hegemony.

Through this miasma of pseudo religious mysticism, imperial fantasy and open fascism, the West appears as both doomed and decadent, an alien and evil culture that has been irredeemably corrupted by “sexual perversion”, which is to say gay rights. (Snyder sums up the bizarrely obsessive equation as “voting=West= sodomy”.)

This idea that the true Russia is Eurasian and not European (and therefore not corrupted by the European vices of free elections, a free press and the rule of law) is a grotesque distortion of Russian history. It seeks to eradicate the reality of a culture formed by, and in constant conversation with, the rest of Europe.But the obliteration of this culture is also the annihilation of those who have sustained it through so many decades of suffering and trial: the Russian intelligentsia. (The very word comes from pre-revolutionary Russia and its ferment of ideas and creativity.)

One of the reasons Putin is not entirely unhappy about western sanctions is that he knows that they – combined with his intensified repression of dissidents – will squeeze the educated Russian middle class that has been, for 150 years, one of the great engines of European intellectual and artistic life.

Alongside his physical war on the people of Ukraine, Putin wants to run a culture war of Mother Russia versus the West. It is vital to the future of Europe that we do not play it. Justified rage at Putin’s atrocities must not become Russophobia.

This is not a “clash of civilisations”. It is a struggle of civilisation against barbarism, in which the great tradition of Russia’s modern culture is deeply embedded in the first camp.

Europe and the West owe a great debt to the humane, inventive, courageous and brilliantly imaginative side of Russia. We must repay it now by cherishing and supporting those Russians whose pride in their country will not allow them to live with the shame Putin is bringing on it.

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