Lord Hannan of Kingsclere is a Conservative peer, writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Initiative for Free Trade.
Tchaikovsky is being dropped from musical programmes all over the Western world. Audiences in Britain, the US, Canada, Switzerland and the EU have had their imagined sensitivities respected by not being exposed to Russia’s most popular composer.
Nothing very surprising there, you might think. The BBC might have broadcast Beethoven throughout the Second World War, but the Anglosphere of that era was not dominated by identity politics and cancel culture. Indeed, many Britons understood the fight against Nazism as a battle for individualism, eccentricity and freedom.
Nowadays, by contrast, it is customary to stigmatise long-dead artists for reasons that have nothing to do with their work. We are primed to look for the flimsiest connections to anything our age regards as “problematic”, and to flaunt our own purity by an exaggerated repudiation of those so connected.
Never mind that Tchaikovsky was as much Ukrainian as Russian; that his father was descended from an old Cossack family, the Chaikas; that he spent his summers in Kamianka, slap in the middle of Ukraine, and lived for three years in Nyzy, scene of some fierce recent fighting; that at least 30 of his works had Ukrainian subjects or incorporated Ukrainian folk songs.
For what it’s worth he was also, by the standards of his time, a liberal – an enthusiast for a wider franchise and for constitutional government.
Yes, he was a Russian patriot, but he had little time for bombast. He described his 1812 Overture as “very loud and noisy, and completely without artistic merit, obviously written without warmth or love.”
But, of course, cancel culture is about emotion, not detail. Drawing attention to Tchaikovsky’s relative liberalism is as pointless as to Cecil Rhodes’s. In public discourse, both men are now symbols, targets, not flesh-and-blood human beings.
So far, so familiar. But this column is not a rant about cancel culture. For war brings us up against the hard truth that, sometimes, collectivism – identity politics, if you like – is inescapable.
Even those of us who consider ourselves small-government types accept that there are some legitimate state functions. Defence is a prime example: it would be difficult to organise the protection of a nation’s territory through a voluntary subscription scheme. If we accept that armies are the business of the state, then they must also be the responsibility of those who constitute the state.
It was on this basis that we fought the Second World War. Even as we listened to Beethoven, we were bombing of German cities. We knew that we were thereby killing some pacifists, some committed anti-Nazis, come to that, some tiny children. But we did it on the basis that war is a collective endeavour.
Among the many horrible aspects of war, this dissolution of the individual into the collective is among the least remarked yet most odious. Decent citizens become enemies on no other grounds than nationality. People who might (in other circumstances) be friends are encouraged to commit what would (in other circumstances) be capital crimes.
It works both ways. Once wars start, people rally to their leaders, whatever their previous thoughts about the rights and wrongs of the conflict.
For example, I was opposed to invasion of Iraq – a lonely position for a Conservative back in 2003. But, once the fighting began, I wanted our Armed Forces to succeed. I watched with horrified disdain as some of my fellow peaceniks began to slide into a kind of gleeful defeatism, almost willing us to lose so that they could say “I told you so”.
As Guy Crouchback observes in Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy, once the first shots are fired, considerations of politics give way to considerations of nation.
People rally to unjust as well as to just regimes. ConservativeHome’s Mark Wallace has noted that support for Vladimir Putin is up by around ten per cent since the invasion was launched, and support for the war itself is strong:
While the decision to invade may have been Putin’s, the view that Ukraine ought not to be allowed to chart a wholly independent course is broadly shared by his countrymen.
Just as Lenin inherited many of his strategic imperatives of imperial Russia, so Putin has inherited many of his from Soviet Union. Successive regimes saw Russian security as being bound up with the subjugation of contiguous territories and the indirect domination of a buffer zone beyond them.
The exception was Boris Yeltsin – largely because of the anomalous circumstances that saw him, as head of the Russian Federation, take the lead in dissolving the USSR. Russia thus became a rare example of a nation that seceded from its own empire; and, to this day, many Russians feel the phantom pains of their amputated republics.
Yeltsin was exceptional in another way, too. He oversaw a more or less pluralist, multi-party system. For most of its history, Russia has been a dictatorship of one kind or another – and dictatorships, in the main, are more liable to launch aggressive wars than democracies.
All these things help explain why our policies are now directed against Russia as a whole, rather than just against Putin and his cronies. Russian sports teams are banned from competition, regardless of the political views of individual team members. Some economic sanctions are targeted at oligarchs, but many are hitting ordinary Russians. A Russian pianist was recently prevented from performing in Montreal, despite his opposition to Putin and to the invasion.
“For he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.”
This inexorable collectivism is one of many reasons why, as a classical liberal, I hate wars. It is also, paradoxically, why I hate Putin and want him to lose. Not just so that Ukrainians can pursue their own dreams, but so that Russians can get another chance to build a more open polity. It might not work – the record until now has been disappointing – but it is surely worth a go.
In the mean time, let us try to keep our own sense of perspective. Yes, we should exert maximum pressure on Russia with the goal of pushing it out of Ukraine – and, with luck, of bringing Putin down.
But let’s not pretend that banning Swan Lake is anything other than performative tribalism. If we want to hold out the ideal of a free society as something for both Ukrainians and Russians to aim at, we need to believe in it ourselves.