From Fuertwangler to Roger Waters

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By Prof. Robert van Voren, head of VMU Andrei Sakharov Research Centre for Democratic Development

One of the favorite films I show in university class is “Taking Sides” about the life of the German conductor Wilhelm Furtwaengler, one of the most prominent conductors in pre-war Germany. During the Nazi period, he tried to stay out of politics as much as possible, helping Jewish orchestra members to escape and at the same time compromising with the Nazis, as little as possible, but enough to have him put before a Denazification Tribunal after the war. He was acquitted, but his career was destroyed and he died a bitter man.

One of the factors that made him compromise probably more than he wanted was the existence of a competitor, the young Herbert von Karajan, whom he couldn’t stand and whose name he refused to pronounce; he would refer to him as “little K”. The Nazis knew how to use him, and the sad thing is that Von Karajan was a full-blown Nazi who had no need to compromise, but after the war he walked away unscathed, and had a big career. Even my mother loved him, although two of her brothers wound up in Nazi camps and only one made it out alive. She probably didn’t know Von Karajan’s past, but all my youth I heard her play his concerts while ironing my father’s shirts.

The other day I went to the concert of Roger Waters, “Us and Them”, in the Lithuanian city Kaunas. “Us” is probably us, the normal souls, and “they” are those crooked leaders who get rich over our backs and who  just use us in every possible way under the disguise of “democracy” or “national interest” and get filthily rich. The show was incredible, better than I had ever seen (but the amount of comparison I have is a bit limited, I admit), and halfway through the strong political undertone became prominent. “Resist” is his big theme, and during the break he showed on screen what we ought to resist. Anti-Semitism – sure, fully agree. Netanyahu – yes, I also agree, because I think he is a menace to Israeli democratic society and I very much dislike the ever-growing influence of post-Soviet Israeli citizens who have little democratic experience and fully in line with Soviet black-and-white think all Palestinians should be killed and the West-Bank is all “ours”. Resist neo-fascism: yes, I agree, and I think most on his list are dangers to democratic and liberal society (although I missed the name of Wilders, the Dutch “Mozart” who I think is a very dangerous personality).

Interestingly, he mentioned Putin as one of those neo-fascists, however with a question mark. Why the question mark? He is one of main the instigators of right-wing extremism in Europe and his government is as neo-fascist as it can be. However, what I didn’t like immediately was his remarks that we shouldn’t confront “the Russians” (tell that in a country that was occupied for fifty years) and his constant use of the clenched fist (a very Communist symbol, also not very much appreciated in Lithuania as you can understand). In general, it was clear to me he had not prepared himself well and did not understand in which country he was performing. Naïve and politically uneducated, was my short-term conclusion.

In other words, I left the concert a bit confused, thought Roger Waters needed some “enlightenment” but on the whole I still liked the fact that he had an opinion and had no problem to voice it. I want people to speak out, rather than to pretend and behind your back think otherwise. He definitely did exactly this – loud and clear.

However, my posts on Facebook – what a horrendous medium that actually is – resulted in a lot of protests. Some said he “was an old man” who had “lost his voice”, which is not only factually untrue but also rather condescending – since when is age a criterion? Aretha Franklin was 76 when she died, one year older than Waters, but I have never heard that argument used against her. However, there were also many posts that shed more light on Waters’ positioning. “Crimea is Russian, Russia had the full right” to occupy it, Waters claimed (on 15min.lt, Lithuania). The Skripal case is outrageous and anti-Russian, he also explained, and of course the Putin regime didn’t do it and it was all a set-up, as he explained in an interview with “Izvestiya” (whom I would never ever grant an interview as long as Putin is around). More and more and more.

It is clear to me – Roger Waters is a typical fellow-traveler, who sees all evil in the West and refuses to accept the horrible truth that Russia is ruled by a criminal gang, in a country where criminality and authority have become more or less synonymous, and that much of the trouble in Western Europe is if not created then at least stimulated by Russia’s covert actions. Also, he falls in the trap that being against Putin’s regime is being “against Russians”, and hey – we don’t think Russians are all that bad, right? True, I have very many Russian friends that I love dearly, I think they are wonderful and intelligent people, and like me they hate that their country has again entered a period of non-freedom and that the country seems to have an eternal difficulty in accepting a more democratic and equal form of government. But they are not the Putin regime and his whole corrupt clan.

The paradox is, of course, that while Waters is against anti-Russianism (which in a way I share, there are many good and wonderful Russians, yet like in most dictatorially ruled countries they shut up and when necessary even say “Hurrah” to the regime to save their own skin) he misses the point that part of the power base of the Netanyahu government that he so much despises is exactly the influx of the same type of people from former Soviet republics. Following Maidan I traveled several times to Israel and drove around with a Ukrainian flag, and you cannot imagine the reaction. Ukraine is a country of fascists and most Russian Israelis are completely pro-Putin, the real fascists.

So what does that teach us? For me, it is a good lesson. I went to a wonderful concert to which I probably would not have gone if I had been aware of all the facts. But the bigger issue is how much music is political, and how much we can separate music – and musicians – from politics. Wilhelm Furtwaengler thought he could separate it, and when he was pushed, he made compromises, for instance by playing on the night before the big Nazi party gathering in Nuremberg rather than on the day itself. Valery Georgiev says he is just a musician, but he is also a staunch Putin supporter and in favor of the occupation of Southern Ossetia. I know that and I would never go to his concert, even if only out of respect for those who suffered during the Russian-Georgian War of 2008. When do you go and when don’t you go, it is such a thin and complex line that embodies all the predicaments of a thinking and conscientious citizen.

I remember that when I campaigned for the freedom of Soviet political prisoners, I had a wide variety on my list. “Standard” human rights activists, psychiatrists who opposed the political abuse of psychiatry (not more than a handful), nationalists of various ethnicities, Baptists, Jewish refuseniks and the odd artist who wound up behind bars because the authorities didn’t like his or her work. However, after the USSR collapsed and all were released, it turned out that many were not so democratic, that the religious views some held were definitely not mine and that some nationalists had strong anti-Semitic ideas. Did I regret my work? No, I didn’t, because I believed everybody had the right to voice their opinions and not wind up in jail merely because he or she did. However, in some cases I of course wondered why I had wasted so much time on one or another person.

Waters has the right to an opinion, and I applaud the fact that he voices it openly and without any consideration whether it will hurt his business or not. The man stands for his ideas, and that deserves admiration. However, as I said, to me he clearly falls in the long list of fellow-travelers, who are attracted to that unexplainable Russia which thrives so much on the positioning of being victimized by the environment yet at the same time has conquered so many nations and continues to do so. As Communist leader Gennadi Zhuganov once said, without understanding the paradox in his remark, “Our nation is peaceful and not bad. It spent eight hundred years at war and on battlefields”. It used to be leftists who had this strange positioning, including New York Times correspondent Walter Duranty and British author Bernard Shaw, but now it includes many right-wing politicians like Geert Wilders and Marianne Le Pen, and not to forget the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Austria. All are caught in the “Russia-web” and sing His Master’s Voice.

And that I somehow can understand, however awful it might seem. Russia is a country you can only love and hate at the same time. You love your Russian friends and sometimes you want to strangle them. The country beholds you, it attracts and revolts, yet it is always there – the fate of a Sovietologist or Russologist. However, one thing is absolutely clear to me: Putin is a dictator, unifies criminality with KGB power and those who suffer in the first place are his own people, and those who are forced to live next to Russia. But that, alas, Roger Waters doesn’t understand one bit.

Robert van Voren is the head of Vytautas Magnus University’s (VMU) Andrei Sakharov Research Centre for Democratic Development, human rights activist, political scientist, professor, Chief Executive of the Global Initiative on Psychiatry.

Photo by Michel Cury.

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