Western Philistinism

The celebrated Russian conductor Valery Gergiev has been fired from his position at the Munich Philharmonic because he declined to repudiate Vladimir Putin. He is likewise banned by The Scala in Milan and the Festspielhaus in Baden-Baden. The Metropolitan Opera in New York has blacklisted all Russian performers. The Royal Opera House in London will no longer host the Bolshoi Ballet.

I have never in my life seen such naked bigotry so piously held. I doubt this stings our Russian friends any less for the absurd hypocrisy and pettiness of it. Can you imagine an American or a British artist being told to—what?—appear in a televised hostage video denouncing his country?—or else be fired?

Obviously I am not so naive or idealistic as to believe that the arts are some rarified sphere, capable of bridging cultures when even diplomacy fails. At this point even classical art in the west is buried under propaganda. But more than ever our cultural institutions seem small. They are not only run by ideologues, they are run by philistines.

See also: The New World Order in Crisis.

Update: The Telegraph reports: “Daniil Medvedev told he will be banned from Wimbledon unless he denounces Vladimir Putin.” Medvedev is the No. 1 tennis player in the world.

Update: Not even the Russian masters are safe! The Cardiff Philharmonic has cut Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture” from its forthcoming program. Bicocca University of Milan cancelled its course on Dostoevsky, only reversing the decision after facing public ridicule.

The New World Order in Crisis

My initial thoughts on Russia and the Ukraine: It is a scandal that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization outlasted the collapse of the Soviet Union. Why was it not disbanded in 1991 with the defeat of Communism? Why were the American troops occupying Germany since partition in 1945 not sent home? Commercial and cultural ties should have been allowed to form a basis of alliance between Western Europe and Russia to everyone’s benefit. Instead the United States has used NATO to harass and contain the Russian Federation as though it were the Soviet Union, which it is not.

These questions are rhetorical, but honest. Over the past thirty years America has expanded its own empire in Europe, rapaciously absorbing the territory surrendered by Moscow. NATO has blown past the limits guaranteed to Gorbachev in the early 1990s and is attempting to cross a well-marked red line.

The United States has now provoked a Russian invasion of the Ukraine. Over the past half decade the US has been positioning NATO weapons and biological weapons labs in that country on the very border of Russia. In recent weeks the US rejected Russia’s entirely reasonable demand for assurances that the Ukraine would not be assimilated into NATO. Thus war became inevitable. Ukraine and Belarus are the only remaining buffers between Russia and a transcontinental military order whose sole mission is to antagonize post-Soviet Moscow (for some reason). If this buffer is lost the border would be encircled, which is obviously intolerable from a security perspective.

How would Washington react if a hostile foreign power recruited Canada and Mexico into a military alliance?

Why has the US pursued this line of provocation and escalation? And why now? Mike Whitney at The Unz Review makes a compelling case that the US is forcing a crisis in order to sabotage the Nord Stream 2 oil pipeline. He writes:

The Ukrainian crisis has nothing to do with Ukraine. It’s about Germany and, in particular, a pipeline that connects Germany to Russia called Nord Stream 2. Washington sees the pipeline as a threat to its primacy in Europe and has tried to sabotage the project at every turn. Even so, Nord Stream has pushed ahead and is now fully-operational and ready-to-go. Once German regulators provide the final certification, the gas deliveries will begin. German homeowners and businesses will have a reliable source of clean and inexpensive energy while Russia will see a significant boost to their gas revenues. It’s a win-win situation for both parties.

The US Foreign Policy establishment is not happy about these developments. They don’t want Germany to become more dependent on Russian gas because commerce builds trust and trust leads to the expansion of trade. As relations grow warmer, more trade barriers are lifted, regulations are eased, travel and tourism increase, and a new security architecture evolves. In a world where Germany and Russia are friends and trading partners, there is no need for US military bases, no need for expensive US-made weapons and missile systems, and no need for NATO. There’s also no need to transact energy deals in US Dollars or to stockpile US Treasuries to balance accounts. Transactions between business partners can be conducted in their own currencies which is bound to precipitate a sharp decline in the value of the dollar and a dramatic shift in economic power. This is why the Biden administration opposes Nord Stream. It’s not just a pipeline, it’s a window into the future; a future in which Europe and Asia are drawn closer together into a massive free trade zone that increases their mutual power and prosperity while leaving the US on the outside looking in. Warmer relations between Germany and Russia signal an end to the “unipolar” world order the US has overseen for the last 75 years. A German-Russo alliance threatens to hasten the decline of the Superpower that is presently inching closer to the abyss. This is why Washington is determined to do everything it can to sabotage Nord Stream and keep Germany within its orbit.

Indeed on the eve of operation, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has halted the process of certification for the pipeline. It is entirely plausible that economic pressure will cause him to reconsider. How much is the European Union willing to pay for petrol?

If the Ukraine crisis is an American gambit to maintain dominance over Europe, it seems destined to fail in the long term. The end of the “unipolar” order, and the commencement of a “multipolar” order, can be dated to the joint statement of the Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China on February 4th of this year.

Christmastide Divination

Konstantin Makovsky was an accomplished Academic painter of fin-de-siècle Russia. He painted Classical subjects, like the Judgement of Paris, and official portraits of the Tsars Alexander II and Nicholas II. But he also produced interesting, folklorish depictions of life among the peasants and the old Boyar nobility.

Pictured above is the 1905 painting Christmastide Divination which portrays young girls watching a rooster peck at scattered grain, which they hope will portend a marriage in the coming year, a type of fortune telling called alectryomancy. Below is Makovsky’s most famous work, A Boyar Wedding Feast, which won a gold medal at the 1885 World’s Fair in Antwerp.

The Orient Express

In 1950 LIFE magazine published a photo-essay by Jack Birns on the Orient Express railway line—then past its prime but still wonderfully romantic. Birns traveled the classic route from London to Istanbul, detailing the entire journey. The vintage travel blog Retours has a multipart retrospective on Birns’s article including previously unpublished photographs.

The Orient Express was a favorite of royalty, diplomats, and spies—Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, King Leopold II of Belgium, T.E. Lawrence, Tolstoy, and Mata Hari were among the noted passengers at the turn of the twentieth century. The train entered popular culture through novels like Graham Greene’s Stamboul Train and of course Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express.

The first leg of the journey was the shortest—from Victoria Station in London to Folkestone in Kent, and from there by ferry across the English Channel to Calais.

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Victoria Station London

At Calais passengers boarded a train with the distinctive blue livery of the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits. Arjan den Boer writes at Retours:

Wagons-Lits sleeping cars had a daytime and a nighttime setup. During the day passengers were seated on a comfortable couch, which was converted by the conductor into a regular-sized bed at night.

First-class travellers had their own sink cabinet with hot and cold running water. There were no showers and toilets had to be shared…

In addition to its sleeping cars, Wagons-Lits was renowned for its dining cars which were every bit as good as fine restaurants. Although the luxury of the interwar period had faded, in 1950 full meals with good wines were still served at fully-set tables. This was accom­plished by a seven man brigade, with three of them working in the kitchen.

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Albert Brenet, Le Train Bleu leaving Gare de Lyon in Paris, 1976

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Wagon-Lits sleeping compartment

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Wagon-Lits dining car

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Wagon-Lit dining car

Naturally, the journey through France, Switzerland, Italy, and the Balkans afforded views of beautiful scenery. And also a way of life that had survived both World Wars but was now disappearing. Arjan den Boer writes:

Until 1951, a stagecoach or sleigh ran over the Simplon Pass from November to June to transport passengers, mail and supplies to the villages on the pass. The difference with the train in the Simplon tunnel was huge: a journey of 20 minutes versus 10 hours over the snow-filled pass.

Jack Birns was intrigued by the coach and the coachman he photographed in the border village of Gondo. Six months later he returned to make a separate photo report on the Simplon coach, which shortly afterwards was replaced by a mail bus.

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The Orient Express passing Chillon Castle in Switzerland

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The Orient Express crossing the Simplon Tunnel

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Stage coach service over the Simplon Pass

Saint-Petersburg As It Might Have Been

In 2014 a design by the Russian classical architect Maxim Atayants was selected for a new judicial quarter in Saint-Petersburg. The centerpiece of the project would be the home of the country’s supreme court which is being moved from Moscow.

Atayants submitted an austere Roman design nicely embellished with Beaux-Arts decoration. It would include a number of government buildings, a dance theater, and a pedestrian embankment along the River Neva. This would have been a splendid reaffirmation of traditional architecture in one of Europe’s most important cities. Unfortunately it was not to be.

For reasons that are altogether unclear approval of Atayants’s design was revoked in 2017, as reported by Peter Kellow. A modernist design was selected to replace it. Renderings by Atayants can be found on the internet; many appear below.

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Tsarist Russia on Film

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With a run-time of only seven minutes Moscow Clad in Snow offers a tantalizing glimpse of Russia in the halcyon days before the 1917 revolution. Filmed by Joseph-Louis Mundwiller for Pathé Frères in 1909 the film presents candid scenes of everyday life in Moscow. It is similar in structure to the London documentaries produced by Robert W. Paul in the previous decade.

Fritzi Kramer has written a shot-by-shot description of the film at Movies Silently that is worth reading. For me the highlight is an extended look at pedestrian and sleigh traffic on an unnamed street (from roughly 2:47 to 3:42). Here we see a city of charming Edwardian modernity similar in architecture and energy to the better parts of New York at the time. The sleighs and snowfall add a touch of fairytale ambience.

Anyone nostalgic for the Belle Époque will find this film bittersweet.

See also: Tsarist-Futurist Visions of Tomorrow.

Queen Victoria on Film

The earliest footage of Queen Victoria was taken in 1896, which was arguably the most important year for the development of British cinema.

Scenes at Balmoral was filmed by William Edward Downey of the W & D Downey photographic studio on October 3rd of that year. It shows Queen Victoria riding in her pony carriage (with her Pomeranian dog, Turi) as other members of the royal family walk along side. These include her granddaughter Tsarina Alexandra, Tsar Nicholas II, her son the Duke of Connaught, and others.

The film was screened for Her Majesty at Windsor Castle on November 23rd, 1896.

Tsarist-Futurist Visions of Tomorrow

In 1914 the Russian chocolate company Einem issued a set of eight postcards depicting life in Moscow in the twenty-third century. The horrors of World War I and Communism were as-yet undreamt of and Russia was imagined still thriving under the benevolent rule of the Tsar. Air ships fly over Red Square, monorails fan out from the planned-but-never-built Central Station, aerosanis race along the Moscow–Saint Petersburg motorway, and a troop of soldiers on horseback uphold tradition in Lubyanskaya Square.

The illustrations are fanciful and somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but it is interesting to see how the future was imagined before the revolution.

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