Greetings, Mailing List
It’s been a while, I admit. I have been trying to keep my head down, working on ‘The Book’ (about the World Music phenomenon, as yet
But I do have a few things to show you: a film of my visit to the John Peel Archive, where I was honoured to be the first guest given the
‘freedom of the collection’.
Also, my first studio production of the New Millenium, Robyn Hitchcock’s “The Man Upstairs” (with a very cool cover by Gillian Welch) has
been released. You can have a listen, or a download or place an order here. And there’s a short film of me and Robyn discussing it……
But enough pop frivolity! The world is in a mess! In the course of my research. I came across some fascinating links between Russian music
and Putin’s aggressive new stance towards the West. I turned some of that material into an article which I thought was so interesting it would
easily find an outlet. Wrong! I was hoping to send it to you via a link to the website of some august journal, but instead, you can read it for
yourselves here. If any of you know an editor who might like it, feel free to forward it to him or her!
Vladimir Putin’s Rite of Spring
A musical guide to Russia’s new politics
“In Europe we were hangers-on and slaves, but in Asia we are masters. In Europe we were Tatars, but in Asia we too are Europeans.” Fyodor
In the spring of 2013 we celebrated the centenary of Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. A year later, Foreign Policy published “Putin’s Brain”,
about Alexander Dugin, the eminence grise behind Russia’s aggressive new nationalism. This triggered an avalanche of op-ed pieces about
the meaning of the conflict in the Ukraine and Russia’s turn away from the West.
What has one got to do with the other? Quite a lot, as it happens. Dugin calls his philosophy “Eurasianism”; Igor Stravinsky knew this
hodge-podge of crank Odalist theories as “Turanianism” – and he believed in it! From 1911 to 1924, he composed what music scholar
Richard Taruskin calls his “Turanian masterpieces”. Like Wagner’s greatest works, says Taruskin, their musical power stems from the
composer’s passionate wrongheadedness.
In The Rite of Spring, the elders select a girl to dance herself to death to appease the Gods of Fertility. She accepts her fate without emotion,
bowing to the collective will. Dugin sees the world as a Manichaean struggle between those who adhere to the superiority of the Common
Good against those embracing individualism and has openly acknowledged Prince Sergei Trubetskoy, a founder of Turanianism, as his
In 1911, during rehearsals in Paris for Petrushka, Stravinsky met ballerina Tamara Karsavina, who introduced him to the writings of her
brother, Lev Karsavin. The late 19th century was full of mystical fads, from séances to meditation; Karsavin’s group of upper-class Russians
were drawn to a concoction of ideas formed around the writings of Nietzsche, Spengler, Madame Blavatsky (who popularized the Hindu
swastika in Europe) and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Karsavin, a once-liberal academic, had become obsessed with religion and held
the view that “a nation is no mere sum of its social groups, but their organized and coordinated hierarchical unity.”
Many Russian emigrés, Stravinsky included, had responded badly to Western Europe: they were intimidated by Parisian sophistication,
horrified at being found ‘exotic’ and disgusted by the acceptance of Jews in high society. Their response was not unlike that of some
Muslim immigrants in recent years, who find the West to be wallowing in decadence and apostasy. The composer, who had become a
devout Orthodox believer since leaving Russia, embraced Karsavin’s ideas.
The “Rite” has no basis in anthropology or archaeology, but is a perfectly Turanian ceremony; Stravinsky stated that he intended to create
folklore “realer than the real”. His collaborator, designer Nicholas Roerich, was a devotee of Madame Blavatsky, sharing (as did Hitler) her
belief in Shambala, a secret base in Central Asia for the Hidden Masters who hold the answers to the mysteries of the universe. (There are
reports that Dugin has prodded Putin to fund searches in the Altai Mountains for the gates to Shambala.)
Turanianism grew out of a 19th century battle over Russian origins triggered by Alexander Stasov, close friend and librettist to composers
Alexander Borodin and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. In researching their operas Prince Igor and Sadko, he compiled detailed analyses of byliny,
the ancient Russian epics on which the plots were based. Nineteenth century nationalists revered the byliny, believing they were connected
to Norse sagas, tying Russia’s cultural roots to the blond, blue-eyed Vikings. But Stasov’s exhaustive reading of the original manuscripts
found no snow, no mossy riverbanks and no birch trees but plenty of parallels with Siberian shamanic legends, the Mahabarata, the
Ramayana and Persian tales. The Russians, he concluded – to nationalist horror – were an Asiatic people. (Stasov was reviled in Russia
much as Garcia Lorca was in Spain a half century later for celebrating its non-Christian roots.)
Dostoevsky believed Russians were particularly well-equipped to solve the problems of the modern age due to their unique ability to “reject
reason”. During his “Turanian” years, Stravinsky stated that he focused his composing on simplification and repetition in order “to quell the
voice of reason”. He also railed against the “legalism” of Western Europe; in a 1914 interview the composer claimed that Russia possessed
“a splendid healthy barbarism, heavy with seed that will impregnate the thinking of the world”. (Alexander Dugin believes it will eventually be
necessary to bring Western Europe under Russian control in order to rescue it from American cultural infection.)
Stravinsky’s second great Turanian work, Les Noces, is about a Slavic wedding, but contains none of the ribald toasts or boisterous dancing
that mark the real thing. Rather, it celebrates ritual submission; marriage becomes a cog in an eternal pattern of what he called “organic
preternatural unity”. New York Times dance critic Alastair Macaulay has called Les Noces “a harsh, implacable machine.” Stravinsky himself
described it as “perfectly impersonal, perfectly homogeneous and perfectly mechanical”. After Les Noces’ premiere in 1924, the editor of a
Turanian periodical wrote to Stravinsky: “the knowledge that you live on this earth helps me go on.”
The Turanian craving for order stemmed in part from alarm at the urban influx of recently-freed serfs. The elite were as horrified by the vulgar
culture emerging from poor neighbourhoods in Moscow and St Petersburg as some Americans were by the craze for African-American
cakewalks, “black-bottoms” and jazz. The Bolsheviks also loathed peasant culture; the squeaky-clean kitsch choreography of the Moiseyev
Ensemble and others were part of an attempt to transform peasant music: “the half-savage, stupid, ponderous people of the Russian
villages…..will die out and a new tribe will take their place – literate, sensible, hearty people”, according to Stalin’s Minister of Culture, Maxim
Gorky. Soviet archives opened in the 1990s reveal how, during the forced collectivisations of the early ‘30s, Party enforcers were alarmed by
gangs of women confronting them and singing in traditional Russian ‘open-throat’ voices (a thrilling but extremely loud sound). Reports
characterize such incidents as “Babi bunt” – “Granny Riots”. (All of which nicely fore-shadows Putin’s horror at the Pussy Riot demonstration in Moscow Cathedral.)
Turanians may have hated Communism, but as the ‘30s progressed they found themselves more and more in agreement. Stalin, like most
dictators in trouble, began playing the nationalist card to distract from the violent purges of the pre-War years. He backed Nicholas Marr’s
mad theory that cultural changes are never due to immigration or invasion, but rather from class struggle within the racial group that has
always occupied the region. Both Soviets and Turanians wanted to prove that Russians were a pure, undiluted race, neither tainted with
Asiatic blood, nor sullied by Germanic genes and superior to both.
In the 1970s, a movement to revive authentic village music was led by Dimitri Pokrovsky. He was a passionate anti-nationalist, insisting on
identifying songs by region, rather than as “Russian”. His ensemble was suppressed under Brezhnev, but found a level of acceptance during
glasnost, winning the State Prize for music in 1988. The award outraged Soviet cultural officials, one of whom accused Pokrovsky of
bringing to the stage music “only appropriate for a kitchen or a forest”. Pokrovsky died in 1995 but his disciples carried on.
In 2005, I heard a gorgeous concert in a Moscow chapel by Pokrovsky-offshoot ensemble “Sirin”. The music was quite different from the
singing normally heard in Moscow cathedrals, beautifully simple and stark, blending female and male voices. I was intrigued by their
explanation that the concert had focused on music created before 1653, the year of Patriarch Nikon’s reforms.
For Turanians – and for many Russians today – Russian history has been scarred by two great betrayals. The first was Nikon’s attempt to
reconcile the Russian and Greek Orthodox church, which among many other innovations, brought in Western European musical scales and
notation. The other was Peter the Great’s construction of St Petersburg, his “window on the West”. The violation of communitarian
cohesiveness that these events caused led inexorably, in their view, to the disaster of the Bolshevik Revolution.
In The Spirit Wrestlers, Philip Marsden describes a conversation with an Old Believer. This defiant sect broke away from the Orthodox
Church in protest against Nikon’s alteration of the number of fingers used when making the sign of the cross. Surely, Marsden said, it must
have been about more than just two fingers or three. “No”, said the Believer, “in one hand is the whole of our belief; the ritual is everything
The West has trouble grasping this; we are horrified at the story of a Sudanese woman sentenced to death for converting to Christianity.
Why would any society wish to force someone to feign believing something they don’t? We are beginning to understand that many Muslim
societies (or at least those in power) value unity of ritual over individual freedom, but we are startled to discover that these views are
widespread in Russia, too. (Putin’s youth movement, Nashi, pass out leaflets condemning democracy for stirring up “caustic debate that
undermines social cohesion.”)
Pokrovsky’s ‘authenticity’ movement unwittingly helped unleash a force that provides enforcers for the new politics. Traditional folk music
spread rapidly during the ‘90s, as many village women were delighted to sing the old songs banned during the Stalin and Brezhnev years.
Revivalists had trouble, however, generating much enthusiasm among men and boys. Pokrovsky had avidly studied the complex polyphonic
harmonies of traditional Cossack songs; when organizers added this repertoire, boys became far more enthusiastic, loving the
bandolier-chested men’s outfits and the competitive, acrobatic dancing. Cossack songs and dances became a staple of folk festivals from
the mid-‘90s onward.
The Cossacks originated in the 16th century as army deserters and runaway serfs roaming the steppe in ‘hosts’, many of which were
men-only. (The kitsch homoeroticism of Putin’s shirtless photo-ops with Cossacks and biker gangs conjures up images of bare-chested
Cossacks from 19th century books, to say nothing of Yul Brynner as Taras Bulba.) Tsars made treaties with them to protect Russia’s
southern flank against the Muslim menace of Tatars, Mongols and Chechens. Around the turn of the last century, they were pressed into
service closer to home, beating pro-democracy demonstrators and killing or protecting Jews in the Pale of Settlement depending on the
Cossacks were among the first to sign up for the Whites in the Russian civil war; defeat scattered them from Istanbul (where they worked
as night-club bouncers), to France (where many became acrobatic riders in horsemanship shows). After the Red Army’s triumph, Stalin had
most Cossack leaders shot and erased their territorial rights. But Papa Joe retained a soft spot for these equine thugs; in the mid-‘30s, he
gave them back their choir and dance company and, when WW2 began, let them have their own battalions. Many Cossacks found the Nazis
more their style, but while Stalin wreaked post-War havoc with minorities whose resistance to the Germans had been insufficiently
enthusiastic, he quickly forgave the Cossacks.
When accepting an Oscar for his score to High Noon in 1951, Dimitri Tiomkin (who had studied with Rimsky-Korsakov and used an old
shtetl melody for the film’s title song) explained his empathy for “Westerns”: “a steppe is a steppe is a steppe; the cowboy and the Cossack
are very similar.” Indeed, the Cossacks are Russia’s equivalent of Marlboro men and red-neck ‘good ol’ boys’; some people find reactionary
and racist views more acceptable when filtered through the drawl of an All-American shit-kicker or a bandolier-flaunting, squat-dancing,
shaven-headed Cossack. Putin’s embrace of the Cossacks can be seen as the Russian equivalent of Nixon’s “southern strategy”.
In The Black Sea, Neal Ascherson calls the Cossack revival of the late ‘90s “a disaster of human ecology”. They now prowl the lands north
of the Caucasus and the Black Sea, menacing ‘dark’ people and acting as vigilantes, enforcers and hit-squads for the police and army (as
well as security guards in shopping malls). Worried parents can now send their stoned, lazy or rebellious sons to Cossack ‘tough love’
camps. They have ventured to the ‘near abroad’ to defend Slavic interests in Transdneistria, Kosovo, Bosnia, Abkhazia and now, of course,
in the Ukraine. Cossack leader Yevgeni Yefremov told The Times that sending his men into Balkan or Caucasian battle was “like drinking a
cooling glass of water after a long walk through the desert.”
Cossacks attacked Pussy Riot in Sochi during the Olympics and have vowed to punish anyone who threatens the sanctity of an Orthodox
Church. Patriarch Kyrill, meanwhile, has proclaimed Putin’s rule “a miracle”, attacked democracy and says that Russia must return to
“autocracy, orthodoxy and nationhood”; Russians, he claims, are a “chosen people”.
The crisis in the Ukraine goes back a long way, too. At the end of the 18th century, nationalism was a liberal notion, inspired by Johannes
Herder’s writings about folklore, with a boost from Napoleon’s citizens’ army and the French revolution. Pan-Germanism was rapidly
followed by pan-Slavism, but the idea that ‘small’ cultures might join in was seen as a subversive distraction. In the 1830s, Nikolai Gogol’s
book of Ukrainian folk tales was a best-seller – in Russian. A similar work by Taras Shevchenko, written in Ukrainian, earned its author a
one-way ticket to Siberia. (Shevchenko’s name was often seen and heard at the Maidan demonstrations.)
Ukrainians are convinced, with good reason, that the massive famine following the forced collectivization of the 1930s was made
deliberately more deadly in their lands due to Stalin’s fury at the nationalist aspect of local resistance. In 1938, the Ukrainian blind bards
known as banduriki were startled to be summoned to a celebration of their art in Odessa. They brought the multi-string bandura harps
cautiously out of hiding; once assembled, they were all shot.
But the ‘fascist’ paranoia in Putin’s pronouncements about the Maidan demonstrations isn’t entirely a fantasy. Russians have not forgotten
the Chervona Ruta music festivals that perestroika permitted beginning in 1989. The name comes from an anthemic song by Volodymyr
Ivasiuk, a sort of Ukrainian Dylan whose mysterious (probably KGB-related) death in 1973 can be seen as a starting point for the modern
version of Ukrainian nationalism. The first festivals took place in Ivasiuk’s home town but were provocatively moved close to the Russia
border in 1991, coincidentally taking place just a week before the anti-Gorbachev coup that led to Ukrainian independence. During a power
outage, Ukrainian Cossacks galloped horses through the crowd shouting nationalist slogans, before shaven-headed, tattooed heavy-metal
bands began playing power-chord versions of Ukrainian folksongs. Long-held taboos were broken as crowds chanted “WE ARE THE BOYS
FROM BANDERSTADT”, to show support for the WW2 Nazi-allied nationalist hero, Bandera, and adding the German suffix to rub it in.
Russian-speakers in the crowd were alarmed and frightened. After independence, the festival banned the singing of songs in Russian.
A revivalist singer was horrified when a journalist complimented her on “strengthening the foundations of the nation” and went on to insist
that “foreign sounds negatively impact a person’s brain and health”. A Russian friend startled me last year by declaring how much he missed
the USSR. He loved sharing a passport with so many different cultures; now he was afraid of the nationalists in his new country, shrunken in
size and in spirit. Pokrovsky was prescient; he knew that by reviving ancient traditions, he risked triggering tremors that can awaken the
Godzilla of nationalism.
The West celebrated Alexander Solzhenitsyn when he was in exile, conveniently ignoring his pronouncements that “Holy Russia” should
shed its non-Slavic regions and create a new Super-State encompassing Eastern Ukraine, Belarus and parts of Kazakhstan. Nikita
Mikhalkov, a film-maker who has always celebrated the deep traditions of “Ancient Rus” (and an early supporter of Pokrovsky) won an Oscar
for Burnt By The Sun; it is certainly a brilliant film, but does contain implied justifications for Stalinism. These two antagonistic figures –
anti-Communist Nobel Laureate Solzhenitsyn, and Mikhalkov, whose father wrote the lyrics for the Soviet national anthem and who grew up
a member of the Soviet cultural elite – ended up with very similar points of view about Russia’s post-Soviet destiny. Mikhalkov is an ardent
support of Putin, as, in all likelihood, Solzhenitsyn would have been. The West found Putin’s early nationalist and religious rants odd but
useful since he seemed to be taking a stand against our “common enemy”, fundamentalist Islam. Little did we realize how in accord with the
Salafists his views would become and that the real target of his antagonism was us!
The only example of a government run on Turanian principles is not encouraging: Baron Ungern-Sternberg was a cavalry officer who seized
parts of Mongolia and Siberia in 1920 and declared his small empire to hold the solution to the dilemmas of Western Civilization: “my
conviction has always been to await light and salvation from the East, not from Europeans who are corrupted down to the very roots”. He
ruled by fear, beheading thousands before the Red Army captured and executed him.
For centuries Russia has swung wildly between a desire to emulate the West and violent rejection of its influence. The present direction may
have become inevitable when America began signing up ex-Soviet lands in Russia’s front yard to NATO and sending Harvard Business
School professors to place privatisation limpet-mines below the waterline of Russia’s economy.
For Dugin and his boss, America is an “anti-organic, transplanted culture which tries to force upon other continents its anti-ethnic,
anti-traditional and ‘babylonic’ model.” While we tend to see those as redeeming qualities to balance against America’s ugly sides, Dugin has
written that Russia will eventually have to take control of Western Europe to save it from America’s malign grip.
We like to see the world’s Manichaean struggle as between those who fear sexuality, ‘otherness’ and the ‘lower orders’ versus those who
embrace humanity in all its rich variety. I once thought music was the soundtrack for the latter view; now I’m not so sure.