If you believed (almost) everything you read or hear about Russia today, your mind's video would run something like this. Vladimir Putin spends his time polishing his KGB medals and lording it over the Kremlin like a diminutive Ivan the Terrible. Having devastated Chechnya and shut down regional democracy, he then ripped the heart out of the independent media. He is bent on establishing a dictatorship.
This is one reading of what is going on. I invite you to consider another. Russians today are being treated to a cultural feast in the mainstream media, the like of which would have been inconceivable even a decade ago. At the turn of the year, Russian television serialised a dramatisation of Mikhail Bulgakov's novel The Master and Margarita, which kept city streets deserted night after night. The latest offering from Russian state television is a dramatisation of Alexander Solzhenitsyn's epic novel The First Circle. And now a Russian director is to produce the first home-grown film of Boris Pasternak's classic, Dr Zhivago.
To Western cinemagoers of my generation, Dr Zhivago will always be the fur-draped and snow-swept romance of Omar Sharif and Julie Christie. To avid readers in the West, all three novels are classics of Russian, and world, literature. To Russians, though, they are much, much more than this.
It is not only that all were banned from the time they were written until the Soviet Union was tottering on its last, Gorbachevian, legs. Nor is it that all three authors were persecuted by the Soviet regime. Only Solzhenitsyn has lived long enough to enjoy his rehabilitation, after years in remote prison camps and two decades of unwelcome exile abroad. It is that the dissemination of these three novels to the widest possible Russian audience conveys a message. In part, it is a message about acknowledging the iniquities of the Soviet regime. These are master-chronicles of the dark side of an era that was depicted in its time only positively.
Dr Zhivago tells of the cruelty and capriciousness of the civil war and the deadening hand of Soviet communism. The Master and Margarita charts the surreal life of a writer in Stalin-era Moscow, and incorporates a parallel plot that deals in (then) forbidden religious themes and imagery. The First Circle recounts the experience, loosely modelled on the writer's own, of a mathematician's confinement in a special prison camp, where everything is permitted except philosophical and physical escape: the perfect metaphor for the plight of Soviet-era intellectuals.
Which is the second point about these novels. They are not only chronicles of the downside of an age, they are chronicles of a class. They are written about, and from the perspective of, those segments of society - the bourgeoisie and the intelligentsia - which the Bolsheviks and then Stalin took great trouble to destroy.
Some argue that many of post-Soviet Russia's difficulties stem from the annihilation of these groups. In the Baltic states, which were under Soviet domination for 40 years, the middle class, with its memory, the memory of business and national culture, was never completely annihilated. In 70 years of communism, however, Russia destroyed its cultural leaders in wave after wave of persecutions.
First went the aristocracy and business leaders, killed or forced into exile during the civil war. Then came the purges of small entrepreneurs and "rich" peasants. Throughout the Soviet period, it was an impediment to have middle-class or intellectual roots; the social "sins" of the parents were visited on the children by means of - at best - reverse discrimination. This is what these novels are also about.
Nor is it coincidence that these once-forbidden accounts of Soviet Russia are being given a new, populist, lease of life now. Whatever else Vladimir Putin may be doing, he is also presiding over - if not sponsoring - an effort to restore Russian pride by fostering a sense of national identity that embraces everyone, from the descendants of the aristocracy in emigration to the scattered remnants of the intelligentsia and the middle class.
A couple of years ago, I met one of Mr Putin's chief aides in the building that had once housed the Communist Party headquarters. After talking about Afghanistan, Iraq, the Middle East and other intractable questions, he mentioned a project to introduce a civics course in Russian schools. From a cabinet he brought out copies of a draft curriculum, with illustrated explanations of the Russian flag, the double-headed eagle and other Russian emblems.
With a bashful smile, he reached further into his cupboard and brought out a hold-all with a "fan's kit" that the Kremlin was thinking of issuing, through sports clubs, to Russians travelling abroad to support their national teams. As I recall, there was a baseball cap in Russian colours, a T-shirt, a small national flag, a plastic water bottle and several badges, including one shaped as a Russian eagle.
It was at once amateurish and endearing. But the serious purpose was to encourage a new generation to feel good about being Russian in a modern and unthreatening way. Millionaire oligarchs were in the vanguard of the new cultural patriotism, driving up prices for Fabergé eggs and classical Russian landscapes at auction. The popularisation of Bulgakov, Solzhenitsyn and now Pasternak in Russia suggests Russia's middle class could be next to reclaim their culture.Reuse content