Predictably unpredictable

Remembering Serge Gainsbourg on the anniversary of his birth.

Elegant and tactless, charmingly "ugly", often inopportune like a bad joke coming too late, Lucien Ginsburg was born on 2 April 1928 in Paris to Russian-Jewish parents. "I was born under a lucky star ... a yellow one," he once ironically remarked referring to the star of David he had to wear on his arm as a kid when Paris opened its doors to the nightmare of Nazism.

It was a live performance by Boris Vian that allegedly inspired the singer-to-be: Vian's idiosyncratic provocations and ironic cynicism, Serge Gainsbourg later confessed, were a great influence on his decision to take to the piano in (un)popular fashion. Unapologetically improper, Gainsbourg survived his fame through constant and unpredictable innovation. From smoky jazz bars to symphonic pop, from "le yéyé" to roots dub, passing by Nazi rock and rap, the restless trajectory he drew underscores his inability to conform.

Recently commemorated with a lame and derivative biopic, Monsieur Gainsbourg himself, true to his insubordinate curiosity and obtrusive genius, traversed le septième art on his own, unique, terms. Besides sound-tracking more than 50 films, whose scores often outshined their not exactly memorable visual counterpart, Gainsbourg briefly stood behind the camera. In 1976, borrowing the title from his international hit Je T'Aime Moi Non Plus, he staged an anomalous tale of uncompromising love. Reminiscent of the stiff acting and wooden mise-en-scène of Paul Morrisey's films, Je T'Aime is a bizarre sex-western of startling profundity.

A gay garbage truck driver (Joe D'Alessandro) falls in love with a boyish looking waitress (Jane Birkin) but can only love her via her posterior. While the song had desecrated the trite clichés of love songs with the steamy chorus "I love you, me neither" and scandalised with its impudent groans, the film functions almost in an inverse fashion. Through what at first sight may seem a gratuitous and idiotic narrative device, Gainsbourg composes the ultimate romance, transcending the barriers of gender to celebrate the universality of the noblest sentiment. As the fornicating couple has it: "the important is not where you put it, the important is to love."

A final episode worth considering: Forgotten until 2002, when the Parisian Radio Communauté Juive broadcasted it for the first time, "Le sable et le Soldat" was commissioned by the cultural attaché of the Israeli embassy to the French singer. Written in 1967 with the six-day war against Egypt looming on the horizon, the song is a hymn to the Tsahal, the Israeli army that would shortly after crush Nasser's forces. The lyric runs: "I will defend the sand of the Promised Land against all enemies/the Goliaths from the pyramids will back down in front of the star of David/I will defend the sand of Israel."

Serge Gainsbourg in 1984. Photo: Getty Images
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The world has entered a new Cold War – what went wrong?

Peter Conradi’s Who Lost Russia? How the World Entered a New Cold War traces the accumulation of distrust between the West and Russia.

In March 1992 an alarmist “secret” memo written by Richard Nixon found its way on to the front page of the New York Times. “The hot-button issue of the 1950s was, ‘Who lost China?’ If Yeltsin goes down, the question ‘Who lost Russia?’ will be an infinitely more devastating issue in the 1990s,” the former US president wrote.

Nixon’s point was well made. At that time, Boris Yeltsin, who had acted as the wrecking ball of the Soviet Union, was desperately struggling to hold the splintering new Russian Federation together. An empire, a political system, an ideology and a planned economy had all been shattered in a matter of weeks. Western diplomats in Moscow feared that millions of starving people might flood out of the former Soviet Union and that the country’s vast nuclear arsenal might be left unguarded. Yet the West seemed incapable of rising to the scale of the historic challenge, providing only meagre – and often misguided – support to Yeltsin. Between 1993 and 1999, US aid to Russia amounted to no more than $2.50 per person. The Marshall Plan II it was not.

Even so, and rather remarkably, Russia was not “lost” during the 1990s. Yeltsin succeeded in stumbling through the decade, creating at least some semblance of a democracy and a market economy. Truly it was a case of “Armageddon averted”, as the historian Stephen Kotkin put it.

It seems hard to remember now, but for many Russians 1991 was a moment of liberation for them as much as it was for those in the Soviet Union’s other 14 republics. The Westernising strand of Russian thought briefly flourished. “Democratic Russia should and will be just as natural an ally of the democratic nations of the West as the totalitarian Soviet Union was a natural opponent of the West,” the country’s first foreign minister, Andrei Kozyrev, proclaimed.

When Vladimir Putin emerged on the political scene in Moscow in 1999 he, too, made much of his Westernising outlook. When my editor and I went to interview him as prime minister, there was a portrait of Tsar Peter the Great, who had founded Putin’s home city of St Petersburg as Russia’s window on the West, hanging proudly on his office wall. President Putin, as he soon became, was strongly supportive of Washington following al-Qaeda’s attacks on the United States in 2001. “In the name of Russia, I want to say to the American people – we are with you,” he declared. Russian generals instructed their US counterparts in the lessons they had learned from their doomed intervention in Afghanistan.

Yet the sediment of distrust between the West and Russia accumulated steadily. The expansion of Nato to former countries of the Warsaw Pact, the bombing of Serbia, the invasion of Iraq and the West’s support for the “colour” revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine had all antagonised Moscow. But Putin’s increasing authoritarianism, hyperactive espionage and propaganda activities abroad drove the West away, as did his interventionism in Georgia and Ukraine.

Given the arc of Russian history, it was not surprising that the pendulum swung back so decisively towards the country’s Slavophiles. As a veteran foreign reporter for the Sunday Times and former Moscow correspondent, Peter Conradi is a cool-headed and even-handed guide to the past 25 years of Western-Russian relations. So much of what is written about Russia today is warped by polemics, displaying either an absurd naivety about the nature of Putin’s regime or a near-phobic hostility towards the country. It is refreshing to read so well-written and dispassionate an account – even if Conradi breaks little new ground.

The book concludes with the election of Donald Trump and the possibility of a new rapprochement between Washington and Moscow. Trump and Putin are indulging in a bizarre, if not grotesque, bromance. But as both men adhere to a zero-sum view of the world, it seems unlikely that their flirtation will lead to consummation.

For his part, Conradi does not hold out much hope for a fundamental realignment in Russia’s outlook. “Looking back another 25 years from now, it will doubtless be the Westward-looking Russia of the Yeltsin years that is seen as the aberration and the assertive, self-assured Putin era that is the norm,” he writes.

But the author gives the final word to the US diplomat George Kennan, a perpetual source of wisdom on all things Russian. “Of one thing we may be sure: no great and enduring change in the spirit and practice of Russia will ever come about primarily through foreign inspiration or advice,” Kennan wrote in 1951. “To be genuine, to be enduring, and to be worth the hopeful welcome of other peoples such a change would have to flow from the initiatives and efforts of the Russians themselves.”

Perhaps it is fanciful to believe that Russia has ever been “lost” to the West, because it has never been fully “won”.

John Thornhill is a former Moscow bureau chief for the Financial Times

Peter Conradi appears at the Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the NS, on 23 April. cambridgeliteraryfestival.com

Who Lost Russia? How the World Entered a New Cold War by Peter Conradi is published by One World (384pp, £18.99​)

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times