In October 1956, as Soviet tanks rolled into Hungary, the Bolshoi Ballet performed to packed out crowds in Covent Garden. Being the year of the defections of Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, Anglo-Soviet relations remained were already distinctly frosty, and the threat of cancellation had hung over the visit by Moscow’s leading dancers until the day they arrived.
But though the announcement that summer that the troupe would make their first appearance in the west with a month at the Royal Opera House was greeted with shock, people queued day and night for tickets. Not even Khrushchev’s tanks could stop the trip being a great success, as London’s ballet fans were coolheaded in separating entertainment and politics.
Almost six decades on, the parallels with our current geopolitical and cultural crisis are all too obvious. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, like the Soviet repression of Hungary, is an attempt by a paranoid Russian leader to prevent a country they view as part of their sphere of influence from getting too close to the West.
In Hungary’s case, that involved a revolution against their Stalinist government. In Ukraine’s, it involves the gradual Westernisation of a country cursed to straddle one of Eurasia’s traditional fault lines. In both cases, the clear evidence of Russian aggression has prompted Western condemnation. In 1956, this saw moments of high moral principle, such as the historian E. P. Thompson quitting the Communist Party of Great Britain. In 2022, it has meant some of most depressing examples of our inane contemporary cancel culture.
The comments of Nigel Huddleston to his Departmental select committee on Tuesday were a case in point. As, in part, Minister for Fun, Huddleston’s job is stand up for British sport and culture on the world stage. At times such as this, one assumes that means expressing our support for Russian athletes being excluded from the Winter Paralympics, or from having their football teams compete in international competitions.
Though painful for the sportspeople themselves, as representatives of a country that has broken international norms, that seems a decent punishment – and one fewer entry in Eurovision might at least bolster our abysmal chances. Similarly, going after the ill-gotten gains of various oligarchs, if hardly as vital as weaning Europe off Russian gas, at least gives the impression of something being done, and forces over-paid footballers to face the horror of a coach journey to Middlesborough.
But Huddleston’s comments went beyond these acts of sporting tokenism. He said that the Government is looking at the issue of those Russian players wishing to clog up our television screens for a few weeks this summer at Wimbledon, and whether they should be permitted to compete if they expressed ‘any support for Putin and his regime’.
The world’s number one – so I’m told (I’m a cricket fan myself) – is a Russian, Daniil Medvedev, who is currently competing under no national flag. That isn’t good enough for the minister though, who wants ‘some assurance’ that players like Medvedev are not ‘supporters of Vladimir Putin’, and so the Government is ‘considering what requirements we may need to get assurances along those lines.’ He didn’t go into detail on what these sinister-sounding requirements might be.
Whilst the lawn, Rolex, and strawberry enthusiasts of the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club are well within their rights as a private organisation to ban someone from competing for holding dodgy or distasteful views, the idea of the Government stepping in to ensure players toe the party line is faintly terrifying. In a very gentle way, a minister of the crown is suggesting the Government of the United Kingdom should pressure someone into a particular political view – and that is shocking.
But not unusual, in the current climate. The last few weeks have brought myriad examples of a disturbing inability on the parts of Western organisations to distinguish between the barbarities of Putin’s regime and Russian individuals, culture, and music.
Whether it was the Cardiff Philharmonic refusing to play Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, an Italian university temporarily cancelling a course on Dostoevsky, or the dropping of a Russian film-maker from the Glasgow Film Festival due to his having received funds from his government (despite his condemning the war), there seems to be an ongoing competition for the most ludicrous example of Russophobic virtue-signalling. It isn’t only in the West – Eric Clapton, Iggy Pop, and Franz Ferdinand are all amongst those who have joined Disney, Sony, and other leading corporations in cancelling performances in Russia. Some, of course, would say that’s a blessing.
If this was only limited to private companies and organisations, this wouldn’t be too bad. My staunch support for private property rights is in a natural tension with my loathing of prejudice, but if New York’s Met Opera or the Munich Philharmonic wish to sack a tenor or conductor because they won’t go far enough in condemning Putin, then that is their right.
But I draw a line when it comes to our government, and the suggestion of compelling individuals to agree with an agreed point of view. What’s next? Nadhim Zahawi banning the teaching of Catherine the Great in schools and universities? Nadine Dorries encouraging us to burn Tolstoy? That really is taking the, ahem, war and peace.
We don’t consider Emma Raducanu culpable for partygate, Sir Simon Rattle responsible for Net Zero, or Great Expectations to blame for Brexit. We are able, domestically, to separate individuals from the government and its actions. When it comes to Russian culture, and sports people competing in a private capacity, ministers should take the same approach as their predecessors did to the Bolshoi in 1956. Let them come. Let them entertain. And don’t let’s be beastly to the Russians.