Real power in Russia will not grow out of the barrel of a gun!

Jonathan Power
Jonathan Power, writer on International Affairs.




What drives President Vladimir Putin is to make Russia once again a respected and admired brand as it was in the days of the Soviet Union. In his arrogance Putin underestimates what real power Russia already has. He does not realize what card to play. It is not his hang tough policies in the international arena, especially where America is concerned. It is Russia's culture.

As I watched the opening of the new and quite elegant, extension of the Mariinsky theatre in St Petersburg on French cable station for classical music (the Mezzo) everything about Russia, its great past, its recent problems, its present predicament, became clear to me.

The Mariinsky is run by the well known Valery Gergiev. Gergiev arranged, directed, and put on a show of such richness that in my mind it overshadowed all the great performances I had seen around the world, whether in London, New York, or Paris. Each segment lasted a bare 4 minutes. It alternated between opera, ballet and two solo violinists and one pianist. It went on for two hours, showcasing some of Russia’s greatest stars, accompanied by two or three Western performers.

Vladimir Putin arrived imperiously and promtly at the begining of the show and gave a pep talk and sat in the audience throughout the performance. Was Putin aware of the power of an event like this? I doubt it. I doubt that he had any idea of the might of the rest of Russia's great inheritance.

Artistically St Petersburg is a very rich city. Besides the Mariinsky there is another great ballet company, the Mikhailovsky. There is the Hermitage museum which along with its peer, the Louvre in Paris, takes two days to do justice to. It contains some of the best Russian art plus a superb collection of Western art. There is the mouth-dropping architecture of the city including the Winter Palace which knocks every other northern European city out of the ring.

In Moscow there is the Bolshoi ballet and opera. Russia is home to the two leading ballet companies of the world.

Moscow has also been home to the important publishing houses that published the world's greatest novelist, Tolstoy. Dostoevsky, Turgenev, Chekhov, Solzhenitsyn, Pasternak and the poets, Pushkin and Akhmatova were the other greats that it published.

Moscow also published and held the first performances of the music of Tchaikovsky, Borodin, Rachmaninov, Prokofiev, Glinka, Mussorgsky and the modern composers, Shostakovich and Stravinsky and recently Khachaturian.

Italy may be better in painting and sculpture, Holland in painting, Britain and France as good in literature and Germany and Austria in music. I'm afraid the US doesn't get a mention. But no other country has such distinction in so many of the arts.

What Russia has going for it is enough for any country including Russia. But for Putin for whom the economy and military might is everything this certainly is not so..

Yet Russia's economy is not doing badly. Its unemployment figure is the lowest among the G8 countries. It has no deficit. Incomes have doubled. Russia produces some of the world's best scientists. Nevertheless its economy is riddled with corruption and maladministration. The University of Moscow is not in the top league of world universities. Given this Russia will be unlikely to advance at a steady pace economically in the future.

Russia's military suffered much degradation at the close of the Cold War. Putin is trying to restore it but it will be a long haul. Russia can't project much military power these days. Supplying armaments to Syria is about it.

Of course, a country that has 11,500 nuclear weapons has power of sorts.

However we know that nuclear weapons are unusable and wasteful. The US and Russia no longer regard each other as enemies, despite the occasional knocking of the heads. For Russia real power would come from working with the US to get rid of nuclear weapons altogether.

Putin is more than fortunate to preside over a country with the most eclectic culture on the face of the earth. Real power in Russia or any where else in the world does not grow out of the barrel of a gun any more.