The Friday Arts Diary

Our cultural picks for the week ahead.

Art

Yinka Shonibare, Pop! Stephen Friedman Gallery, London. 16 March – 20 April

Stephen Friedman Gallery is exhibiting a show of new works by British-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare, famed for his installation of a ship in a bottle on Trafalgar Square’s Fourth Plinth. Drawing on Shonibare’s observations on the financial crisis, the exhibition humourously explores themes of corruption and decadence. Shonibare critiques contemporary society’s penchant for luxury goods and the idiosyncrasies of the banking industry. Shonibare has re-worked of Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper, where Christ is replaced by Dionysus – the mythological God of fertility and wine – surrounded by twelve over-indulged "disciples". The celebration of Dionysian excess continues in a piece called Banker, which portrays a well dressed mannequin suggesting a lewd act of self-pleasure with a champagne bottle. Figures depicted in these works are dressed in Batik printed cloth. The technique of textile manufacture and printing originated in Indonesia, and was mass produced by the Dutch and sold to west African countries, where it became a symbol of "African" identity. 

Film

Human Rights Watch Film Festival. London(Various Locations): Curzon Soho, Curzon Mayfair, ICA, Ritzy Cinema. 13-22 March 

Established in New York in 1994, and coming to London in 1996, Human Rights Watch has organised this annual film festival to shed light on issues of human rights abuse through film. This year’s programme covers four themes: traditional values and human rights (encompassing women’s rights, disability rights, LGBT rights) crises and migration, issues in Asia, occupation and rule of the law. Fourteen documentaries and five dramas will be screened, highlighting issues from Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, East Timor, Haiti, India, Indonesia, Israel, Jordan, Morocco, North Korea, Norway, Saudi Arabia, Senegal, Serbia and Tanzania. Many films will be followed by Q + A sessions with filmmakers and experts.

Theatre

The Audience, Gielgud Theatre, London. Until 15 June

Based on the weekly private meeting between monarch and prime minister known as "The Audience", Peter Morgan’s latest play imagines a series of meetings between the changing incumbents of Number 10 Downing Street and the Queen over a period of sixty years. From young monarch to  grandmother, the play charts pivotal moments of the second Elizabethan reign. While ministers move on, the monarch remains a constant force, skilfully played by Helen Mirren. (The Audience is reviewed by Andrew Billen in the latest edition of the New Statesman.)

Dance

 Flamenco Festival (10th anniversary). Sadler’s Wells, London. 15- 27 March

Tante (song), palmas (handclaps), baile (dance) form the three pillars of the expressive Spanish dance form, Flamenco, dating back to the 15th century following an influx of Romani Gypsies via India, North Africa, and the Middle East. With expressive arms and powerfully stamping feet, the Sadler’s Wells will be putting on a spectacular display of performances by leading dancers and musicians in  the tenth edition of London’s annual Flamenco Festival. This year, there will be eight different performances in the main house and two special perfomances in the Lilian Baylis studio along with additional events taking place around the building. Dancers to look out for will be Israel Galvan and Eva Yerbabuena   On the 15, 16 and 22 of March, Sadler’s Wells will be holding a Spanish Food and Wine Festival in conjunction with the dance performances, where audiences will be able to sample traditional Tapas, Andalucian dishes all expertly matched with the best Spanish Wines. (This will need to be booked in conjunction to tickets to the festival.)

Anglo-Nigerian contemporary artist Yinka Shonibare poses next to his Fourth Plinth commission (Photo: Ben Stanstall, 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