The Friday Arts Diary

Our cultural picks for the week ahead.

Book

"Sweet Tooth" by Ian McEwan, 21 August

McEwan’s recent works, such as Saturday and Solar, have had a radically polarising effect on audiences, but whether his name fills you with adoration or loathing, as one of our most eminent contemporary authors, the release of his 12th novel can’t pass without remark. Sweet Tooth is the story of Serena Frome, a beautiful British agent sent on a "secret mission", which brings her into contact with a promising young writer. As romance blossoms between the two can she maintain her cover story? And who is inventing whom?  Set in 1972, a year beset by economic disaster, industrial unrest and terrorism, we can expect some present day echoes, as well as a story of betrayal, intrigue, love, and the invented self.

Talk

Appleton Tower, Edinburgh - CERN: Big questions, Big Science, Big Technology, 23 August 9.00pm

This summer's newspaper columns might have been crammed with likes of Bolt, Farah and Ennis, but, following the observation of the elusive Higgs Boson particle this July, CERN are the undisputed scientific heroes. This event brings together experts from different areas of CERN and the LHC to discuss the impact of their work. The talk takes place as part of the Turing Festival, which aims to celebrate the creativity of digital technology and explore the ways in which technology is affecting culture and society. Other notable talks include an address by Apple’s co-founder, Steve Wozniak, and discussions on the future of gaming, medicine and media.

Album

Bloc Party, "Four", 20 August

Four is the magic number. Four years since their last album, British indie rock band Bloc Party (comprised of four muscians, Kele Okereke, Russell Lissack, Gordon Moakes, and Matt Tong) are to release their fourth and much anticipated album Four. Reviews so far are mixed, but if Kele has captured even an ember of his former spark Four will have been worth the wait.

Film

Independent Cinemas across the UK - The Imposter, 24 August

In 1994 Nicholas Barclay, a 13-year-old Texan boy, vanished. Three years later "Nicholas" was discovered by police in Spain. Though initially eagerly welcomed home by the grieving Barclays, as inconsistencies started to add up doubts about his true identity could no longer be surpressed. The Imposter is director Bart Layton's masterful documentary, which mixes real-life interviews and home-video footage with neo-noir reconstructions in his retelling of this true story of deception.

TV

BBC 4 - BBC Proms National Youth Orchestra, 23 August, 7.30pm

Thursday’s Prom celebrates young talent with the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain. Conducted by Vasily Petrenko, they will perform Varèse’s playful Tuning Up,  Nico Muhly’s Gait, Messiaen’s Turangalîla Symphony, and young composer Anna Meredith’s HandsFree, which was written to be played with anything other than instruments.

Author Ian McEwan's novel Sweet Tooth is to be released on Tuesday
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Putin's vote-winning trick? He makes power personal

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular. Yet President Putin is immune to voter's discontent.

A week before Russia’s parliamentary elections, the central square in Ekaterinburg – the fourth-largest city in Russia, a thousand miles east of Moscow – was packed with people, huddling close on a wet September night. They faced a stage decorated with a poster imploring the crowd to vote for “ours”, meaning United Russia, Vladimir Putin’s political party.

Yet it wasn’t politics for which thousands of people had braved the rain – it was music. During the perestroika and glasnost years of post-Soviet openness, Ekaterinburg was the cradle of the Russian rock scene. The home-grown bands Nautilus Pompilius, Chaif and Agata Kristi sang about freedom and change. Thus, this free concert to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the legendary Sverdlovsk Rock Club was bound to draw a crowd, and United Russia latched on to that.

A message from Dmitry Medvedev, the United Russia leader, praising local rock bands for their bravery “in those days when freedom was in deficit”, was read to the assembled fans. If freedom was a powerful word thirty years ago it has little impact on Russians today. Turnout in the election on 18 September was less than 50 per cent (and only 41.5 per cent in the Ekaterinburg region), a sign of the general political apathy. Before they went to the polls, it was hard to find anyone who was enthusiastic about voting.

“Why should I bother with voting? The result is clear: United Russia will, as always, win,” says Vyacheslav Bakhtin, who owns a small construction company in Ekaterinburg. He added: “Elections are the last thing on my mind. My business has been suffering for the last two years. We couldn’t even afford to go on a family vacation this summer.”

The Russian economy is struggling because of low oil prices, trade embargoes and geopolitical concerns. There have been public spending cuts, and the free float of the rouble led to currency devaluation and high inflation (7 per cent in August). Unemployment is rising and the base interest rate is 10.5 per cent.

There are many reasons for Russians to want a change in government, yet it appears that people do not see the link between their daily struggles and Putin’s policies.

Anna Mikhailova has recently returned from a tour of the Golden Ring of Russia (a circuit of medieval cities to the north-east of Moscow), where there is a stark contrast between the restored onion-domed churches and the crumbling villages.

“People live in poverty in crammed kummunalki [Soviet-style communal flats with several families sharing one kitchen and bathroom],” she tells me. “But they still talk about Putin the Saviour, standing up for Mother Russia.”

Apart from United Russia, 13 parties were judged eligible to stand, but the range of choice was an illusion. Olga, who requested anonymity for her own safety, explained. “We have one party – United Russia – a few pseudo-opposition parties, the Communists, the LDPR and Fair Russia who support Putin’s cause, and a bunch of nobodies that people don’t care about.”

Indeed, Gennady Zyuganov, who has led the Communist Party since 1993, campaigned under the slogan “Ten Stalinist punches against capitalism”. But although he criticised Medvedev, he didn’t touch Putin. The populist leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), Vladimir Zhirinovsky, another political dinosaur, actively endorses Putin’s foreign policy.

If there is discontent among voters, Putin is immune to it. On the eve of the elections, United Russia’s popularity slid to just 30 per cent of total respondents in one poll, though it scored 50 per cent among those who said they were definitely going to vote. Medvedev’s own approval rating fell to 48 per cent. His message to the elderly that state pensions wouldn’t increase, and his advice to teachers to get jobs in the private sector if they weren’t happy with their state salaries, might have had something to do with it. Yet Putin’s popularity remained consistently high, at 82 per cent, according to independent pollsters the Levada Centre.

Alexey Volkov, a 40-year-old business manager, says he voted for the Communists. “I voted against United Russia, the apparatchiks stifling the president,” he explains. “Putin, on the other hand, is the best ruler since Alexander III [Russia’s emperor at the end of the 19th century].”

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular and considered ineffective by the Russian people. Over the past 16 years, presidential power has expanded hugely. Since Russia adopted its new constitution in 1993, successive presidents have introduced legislation to stretch the office’s authority. In his first term as president, Putin acquired 219 new rights and duties, and as his successor Medvedev enjoyed an additional 114 responsibilities. These range from educational appointments to federal government decisions.

As predicted, United Russia topped the ballot with 54 per cent of the vote. Putin’s party claimed 343 of the 450 seats (up from 238 in 2011). The same four parties will form the Duma. The Yabloko and PARNAS parties, seen by voters as a token gesture of protest against the Kremlin, gained negligible support, with 2 per cent and 0.7 per cent, respectively.

It is ultimately Putin’s victory. In the eyes of the majority, he has restored Russia’s strength abroad, revived the defence industry and army, and reinvigorated the country with patriotism. The latter was accomplished via manipulation of the media, which has reinstated the West as the enemy and focused attention on foreign affairs at the expense of the social and economic agenda at home.

Still, with the low turnout, only 26 per cent of eligible Russians voted for Putin’s party. Though that was enough to tighten the president’s grip on the Duma, nationwide the elections paint a picture of a dejected Russia just beginning to feel discontent with the status quo. It is not yet enough to unseat Putin, but as the old Russian saying goes: a drop of water can cut through stone.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times