Saturday, March 10, 2012

St Luke's hand - the other Russia

I recall when a relic of St. Luke's (if memory serves it was his hand) visited Moscow and came to rest at St Sava's Cathedral, thousands of people came to venerate it, long queues wove through central Moscow, principally women and children, who were strikingly 'provincial' in appearance. Polyester dresses and stout cardigans were accompanied by colourful headscarves and the children poked through their cheap sweaters and decidedly undesigned jeans. Driving past, as I was, were the Moscow middle class, looking on as if their city had acquired an alien invasion, from a different place.

I was reminded of this scene reading the first chapter of Orlando Figes' 'Natasha's Dance: A Cultural History of Russia' on 'European Russia' that opens with Peter the Great inaugurating, by fiat, the building of St. Petersburg, and explores the aristocracy's acquisition of 'European' (Western) modes of appearance and manner, alienating them from the country (and culture) around them and how the birth of Russian literature in particular was an enterprise in both mirroring and seeking to heal that split (though the sought for cures were many and disparate). There are many contemporary resonances - the elites 'anglomania' for one, conjuring up present images of Russian oligarchs piled up in their English mansions.

That sense of people traveling past one another, each in their own sphere, was very strong this week. There was Mr Putin, megalomania to the fore, identifying himself with 'Russia', with the now famous, much interpreted, tear in eye, having cheated at an election (but not stolen it, having wide support, especially in the provinces) being comprehensively rejected by 'liberal' 'middle class' Moscow.

I could not help but imagine the headscarved women trooping into the polling booth to vote for Mr P and the car drivers pulling up to their polling booth to vote for an(y) alternative. Like any image, the opportunity for stereotyping hovers uneasily around. But I am left with the question - how do these very different Russias converse with one another, rather than collide? And how deeply embedded that question is in the unfolding history of the country.

That this is not only a Russian question is obvious - how do we find the tools of empathy to cross conversational chasms (in multiple contexts) is an abiding question, and not only in situations of contest and conflict - perhaps it is the question at the heart of our future on a constrained, depleted planet.

But that it is an urgent Russian question is clear - perhaps it starts with exploring what precisely is it that people need in an image of strong leadership - what is secured by it and what anxieties are allayed by it? And why the need is felt to give away a portion of your own autonomy in the light of that need? This is not admittedly the language of political fixes - but it seems to me these prove temporary at best - what is needed is a reconfiguration of how social capital is built, nurtured and maintained in Russia, building on actual possibilities; and, that is a long, thoughtful, imaginative haul.


This is, in fact, the hand of St James the Great, on display, in, of all places, Reading near London. On a side note, I have never quite been able to grasp the draw of artefacts of this kind. They trigger a latent Protestant in me - that somehow one is missing the point in venerating a piece of somebody, rather than their living presence (and story). I know this is a wholly arbitrary, felt reaction, as I can be moved by an icon - perhaps it is the element of narrative that is critical. A skeletal hand has no story.

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