Friday Arts Diary

Our cultural picks for the week ahead.

Exhibition

Ellen Gallagher@AxME, Tate Modern, opens 1 May

Ellen Gallagher is one of America’s most renowned contemporary artists. Tate Modern presents the first major solo exhibition of her work in the UK. This overview provides a unique opportunity to explore her career, as well as her employment of a wide variety of media- including painting, drawing, relief, collage, print, sculpture, film and animation.

Concert

Vampire Weekend, Troxy, 2 May

Williamsburg four piece Vampire Weekend return to play a short run of UK dates, including a stop at grandiose art-deco Troxy in east London. Their infectious blend of bouncy Afrobeat and indie-pop has only grown in popularity since their formation in 2006. The band will also be headlining gigs in Portsmouth and Bournemouth in June, in advanced of their support slot for Mumford and Sons at the Olympic Park.

Theatre

A Dolls House, Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester, 1 May- 1 June 

A new adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s ground-breaking classic of female liberation and empowerment comes to the Royal Exchange this week. Star Cush Jumbo is reunited with director Greg Hersov following a hugely successful production of As You Like It in 2011.

TV

Vicious, ITV, premieres 29 April

This new sitcom, originally titled Vicious Old Queens, premieres on ITV on Monday. Theatrical heavyweights Ian McKellen and Derek Jacobi star as an ageing couple sharing a Covent Garden flat whose world is turned upside down by the arrival of their dashing new neighbour Ash, played by Misfits star Iwan Rheon.

Film

Stanley Kubrick’s "A Killer’s Kiss", Prince Charles Cinema, 1 May

As part of their Kubrick retrospective the Prince Charles Cinema is screening A Killer’s Kiss, Kubrick’s second feature film. Made on a budget of £40,000 which Kubrick borrowed from his uncle, the film is regarded as a telling indicator of the era-defining invention and creativity that was to come. This New York noir tells the story of a young boxer and nightclub dancer who fall in love but become caught in a web of murder and revenge.

Festival

Stratford-upon-Avon Literary festival, Straford-Upon-Avon, continues until 5 May

A mix of debate, ideas, author events and workshops, The Stratford upon Avon Literary Festival has become of the most significant literary festivals in the UK. Highlights from the programme this week include an evening with Michael Palin on 2 May and "Michael Morpurgo day" on 5 May.

Ellen Gallagher's first major solo exhibition at the Tate Modern (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