David Leask: Why cutting cultural and civic society links with Russia could be a big mistake

A LITTLE over a century ago Scots got worried about what they called one of their favourite snacks.

As the Great War raged it did not seem right to munch “German” biscuits.

So we named them after the empire instead. And we still do, even after the collapse of Britain’s shameful imperialism.

Germany’s brand was toxic in 1914-1918. Most of us know the stories, of how the British royal family the Saxe-Coburg-Gothas became the Windsors, of how we came up with a new breed of dog, the Alsatian.

The same thing happened in Russia. St Petersburg, its capital, became Petrograd. The Orthodox Church even got sniffy about Christmas trees. Too Teutonic, clerics suggested. Russians shrugged that off.

Now, as Vladimir Putin launches a new cruel war in Europe it is his own country’s image which is tarnished.

It is open season on all things Russian, even cultural icons.

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There has been talk of boycotting classics. Should you not read Lev Tolstoy, a pacifist vegetarian writer because of something a warmongering kleptocrat did more than a century after his death? Come on, let’s be serious.

A lot of people across the West, for want of a better term, have been catastrophically stupid about the rise of Putin. Now we need to be smart about how to aid his fall. Which, of course, is easier said than done.

There are going to be a lot of difficult conversations about who and what to sanction, about who and what to blame.

Right now it looks like ordinary Russians – who live in what is now essentially a corrupt and almost closed police state – will suffer because the crimes of their tyrant, if nothing like as much as his victims in Ukraine.

Clever people argue about how that will play out; I have no idea.

But it is worth thinking through some of the issues we will encounter in an economic, political sporting and cultural blockade of Putin’s Russia. The calculations being made are not simple.

Let’s just look at some Scottish examples of how tricky some of the decision-making around links with Russia might turn out to be.

Ditching Tolstoy is dumb, of course. But what about Russian movies? The Glasgow Film Festival announced this week that it would not be showing some films. It took some flack for this. Some people saw the move as a kind of book-burning atrocity, or an over-reaction. But what if these works of art were the product of a company with links to the Putin regime? Or were part funded by the government? Indeed, the two productions dropped by the festival were both made with money from a state agency controlled by the Kremlin.

So the film festival bosses had to make some tough calls. Those of us who do not have to make them should be relieved.

Kremlin watchers talk of the “weaponisation of everything”, that Putin and his cronies are conducting non-lethal warfare in a whole range of arenas, including seeking legitimisation.

This includes the arts. It is a battlefield of sorts; a real culture war.

Take the embarrassing episode in 2018 when Scottish tycoon Sir Angus Grossart accepted a medal from Putin himself. Sir Angus – whose conduct was, at best, astonishingly, gobsmackingly naive – has been under pressure this week to give back his award. He should now show some humility over this error of judgement.

But is there a way to support Russian culture – say, artists, musicians and filmmakers – without engaging with and legitimising the Putin regime? Maybe, probably, but it will not be easy.

The same challenges apply to municipal links. Substate diplomacy is one of the most interesting developments in international relations. There is a lot to be gained from councils in Scotland developing contacts with those overseas. We often criticise how much local politicians gallivant around the world. We should; they do not do it nearly enough; and not nearly well enough.

But what about a twinning with a town in Putin’s Russia? Glasgow last week suspended its 36-year-old partnership with Rostov-na-Donu. Again, there was criticism. Surely, said some, including correspondents in the letters page of this paper, we should keep friendly relations with the people of Russia?

But Rostov council is not “the people”, it is the regime.

Its leader is from Putin’s United Russia party. He enjoys meeting dignitaries from elsewhere – though his expensive Swiss watch is photoshopped out of any resulting pictures. Only last week he and his colleagues were involved in a stage-managing the arrival of supposed refugees from eastern Ukraine, helping to build the propaganda casus belli for Putin’s attack.

Do you stayed twinned with such an authority? City councillors decided not to. But is there a way to support what is left of civil society in Rostov? Again, maybe. But do local authority officials have the know-how, the country knowledge and language skills to do so? Probably not. But with the help of, say, universities, Glasgow might be able to keep channels open to those opposed to the Putin regime. Might, I stress.

There is a lot of consensus about the need to condemn, isolate and punish Putin and his cronies. There is less agreement on how much responsibility to place on an entire country. We do not know how long the current regime or its war will last. But Putin’s is not the only Russia. And – as we seek to do all we can to protect Ukraine – we need to remember that.

There will be millions of Russians, even under a tide of propaganda and lies, who are traumatised by the horrors being done to Ukrainian friends and family in their name. Can we avoid anti-Russian chauvinism? The Kremlin regime has often dismissed its critics as prejudiced, as “Russophobic”, a crude propaganda tactic. Let us not give then an excuse to do that bow.

After all, just like the biscuit, one day Putin’s empire will crumble.

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