Notebook: Russia embraces the art of xenophobia

Nationalism may be on the rise, but Muscovites are not about to take up arms to help their `cousins' in Yugoslavia
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The Independent Online
ILYA GLAZUNOV is not to everyone's taste. Some accuse him of anti-Semitism. Even if you feel that charge is unfair, his art creates the uncomfortable suspicion that he has crossed a dangerous line.

One of his works, Russia, Awake!, is a massive canvas showing a Slavic soldier with a Kalashnikov in one hand and a New Testament in the other. There is a drummer boy, whose instrument carries the slogan "Russia for the Russians". In another, The Call of the Devil, a large-breasted woman sits naked but for a shawl adorned with the Star of David across her knees. Beneath her knees, a scaly tail peeps out.

You get the idea? This is Russian nationalist art, the work of a monarchist and Orthodox believer whose art hovers perilously on the cusp between patriotism and rabid expressions of racial superiority. With its romanticised figures from Russian history and its acidic attacks on Western popular culture, his art is a manifesto. About that, he is candid: "The restoration of Russia - that's what art is for," he once told an audience.

We are not talking here about fringe. His exhibitions have pulled in millions of visitors, including Boris Yeltsin. Glazunov has just been given a new gallery in Moscow, free,by order of one of the most powerful men in the country, the city's mayor and a possible future president, Yuri Luzhkov. For the mayor is also a populist nationalist, whose patronage of the arts has earned him the reputation of a modern Medici, albeit one whom some suspect favours tub-thumping neo-imperialist Slavo-kitsch to Michelangelo. But there is a method in the madness of these two men, at least in one sense. Their aim is to give Russians a sense of identity, filling a vacuum that began with the end of the Soviet Union and its endlessly degrading aftermath. The loss of creed and empire, and repeated social upheavals, wrought such damage to the Russians' self-respect and sense of direction that it has challenged their very identity. This duo seeks to put them right.

Thus, the 61-year-old mayor, a hyperactive bulldog (he still plays football), has been enthusiastically filling his city with gargantuan symbols, intended to stir the ashes of Russian pride. They are not for people of subtle taste. The worst is the monstrous statue of Peter the Great which stands in the Moscow River. But there are others, the rebuilt Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, the monolithic Victory Park celebrating the defeat of the Nazis, and more.

These days no one talks much about bringing back the Romanovs as figureheads, an idea that gained brief currency a few years back. But other opportunities to reinforce the national identity are seized by Mr Luzhkov and the country's leadership. When Nikita Mikhalkov - another nationalist - produced his dismal new movie, Barber of Siberia, billing it as a Russian blockbuster, it was given a lavish Kremlin world premiere. And when the faded diva of the concert hall, Alla Pugacheva had her 50th birthday on Thursday, the celebrations shoved the Balkans war out of the leading news slot. Anything to promote a Russian success.

Last week the question of who the Russians are - and what that identity means to them - arose again, in an unexpected form, when the Yugoslavian parliament voted to join the Russia-Belarus union. Russians were surprised. Sure, they had expressed deep outrage at Nato's attacks. But that had more to do with a sense of betrayal by the West than fraternity between eastern and southern Slavs.

In fact, they had no idea the Serbs liked them so much. It was like receiving a surprise visit from a remote cousin whom you last saw when you were a toddler: instead of greeting you with a distant handshake, he bursts in, arms spread, and envelops you with a hug and a slobbery kiss.

Two quickie opinion polls - one by Ekho Moskvi radio and another by Kommersant newspaper - revealed that the warmth of feeling was not mutual. More than 70 per cent didn't want a union with Yugoslavia. Their own legislature, the State Duma, renowned for its silly thespian gestures, disagreed, passing a symbolic vote to join. But the ordinary Russian had bigger problems to worry about than getting in bed with people they barely know (especially if that means going to war).

For, in the end, that is the reality, despite the rhetoric emanating from Belgrade and Russian nationalist circles. "All that talk about Slavic brotherhood is thought up by politicians for propaganda purposes," Irina, my Russian teacher, told me last week, after I began questioning her over whether she feels Russian, or Slavic or both. "Bred," she added, a word that loosely translates as raving nonsense.

I rang half-a-dozen Russian acquaintances to find out how much they actually know about the Serbs. Not much, came the reply. In Soviet times, the Russians regarded Yugoslavia with envy because it had a higher standard of living. Certainly they were never trusted as true brothers in socialism. Tito's Yugoslavia was considered as a law unto itself, a country hovering between communism and capitalism.

Long queues would form in Moscow whenever the whisper went around that Yugoslav goods were on sale; their consumables - fridges, shoes, furniture, leather bags - were considered far better than the general tat churned out by Soviet factories. That reinforced the impression that Yugoslavia leaned far more towards western Europe than to the Soviet empire; whose inhabitants spoke Russian with a pronounced accent, and whose Slavic population has been spiced with more than a dash of Mediterranean blood.

Another friend - also called Irina, and also an educated Muscovite - told me the Serbs had a reputation of being "good lovers", who were regarded as "generous and rich" and not unlike Georgians, who live on the Black Sea.

"But they are foreigners, of course," she said - a word that carries extra weight in xenophobic Russia. They were attractive and friendly enough and - above all - southern. But brothers in arms? My friends were unanimous. Nyet.