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A Russian Rebuke

Director Konstantin Bogomolov has lent an artist’s voice to discussions of liberal totalitarianism.

Two grand pianos in the ballroom of Catherine Palace, St. Petersburg. (By Alexandra Lande/Shutterstock)

In Season 6 of Sex and the City, the emotionally hapless, thirty-something relationship columnist Carrie Bradshaw falls for a much older and distinguished avant-garde artist played by the classical dance maestro Mikhail Baryshnikov. “The Russian,” his codename among Bradshaw’s besties, hosts her decidedly less sophisticated clique at a dinner party in his lower Manhattan loft. After a lame repartée of sex jokes, one of the invitees notices a grand piano, no doubt accustomed to Mussorgsky and Rachmaninov. “Know any Billy Joel?” asks the guest. The Russian shrugs. “Uptown Girl? Piano Man?” the others ask incredulously. “I am not familiar,” he replies with a deadpan look that crystalizes a subtle rebuke of the vapidity of American culture.

Of course, not everything American is lowbrow, and Billy Joel wrote some brilliant songs, but our cultural and artistic class has fallen far short in exercising its responsibility to challenge our political and social discourse in a meaningful way. Instead, a left-wing echelon of self-hating limousine liberals dominates the space with a boring and predictable sanctimony. Is there anyone who acts as “The Russian” at the metaphorical dinner party on the right, who aspires to something higher and more substantial? A handful of celebrities eschew the left-wing consensus, but not many. Clint Eastwood has waded in, but never too deep. Others like Jim Caviezel speak out on the basis of religious faith, but without promoting a comprehensive view of where we ought to go as a nation. Beyond that, we have bigmouths like James Woods or Ted Nugent. Now, in the absence of an American artist of standing to speak to where Western society is headed, an actual Russian has stepped in to fill the gap.

The internationally award-winning stage and screen director Konstantin Bogomolov has declaimed on civilizational decline with a scathing manifesto published recently in the Moscow daily Novaya Gazeta. He has ignited a firestorm of debate by laying blame for the erosion of freedom of expression in the West at the feet of what he calls a “New Ethical Reich.” This regime resembles the most odious of the 20th century in its worst tendencies. Readers of TAC will no doubt cheer his courage in excoriating the, ironically, totalitarian liberals who seek to turn us all into thought police.

Bogomolov laments the West’s failure to “[restrain] the dark side of human nature with religion, philosophy, the arts, and education and [allow] the darkness to escape through those same release valves, like steam from an overheated boiler.” He unleashes on the futile attempt to legislate away evil thoughts. “Europe never realized that the beastly side is just as organic and inherent to man as the angelic side. Powerless to get over Nazism intellectually and spiritually, Europe elected instead to sterilize man of complexity—sterilize his dark nature and immure his demons forever.”

He elaborates further on the danger of policing thought and conditioning acceptable opinions:

You can no longer freely say: ‘I don’t love…,’ ‘I don’t like…,’ or ‘I fear…’ You have to correlate your emotion with public opinion and public values. And social values have become a new wailing wall where every unhappy, aggrieved, or simply dishonest individual can not only bring a note but also demand that the new god—Progressive Society itself—add his resentment, drama, fear, or pathology to the new UNESCO code of ethics, give it a social status, allocate a budget, and create a special quota for it in all spheres of public life. And anyone who dares to claim that the grievance is nothing to write home about, the disease is curable, and the personal drama is the individual’s own business will face the music of the all-powerful repressive machine—the very same public opinion.

Even a casual observer of our politics and social trends in recent years will have noticed the growth of this oxymoronic trend of totalitarian liberalism, or what Bogomolov calls “Untraditional Totalitarianism.” In addition to railing against prescribed opinions, he admonishes the John Lennon “Imagine” view of the world, in which the only way to achieve a “brotherhood of man” is to destroy anything that makes each individual unique: e.g. no countries, no religion. Bogomolov takes the argument one step further though, saying that the homogenization of ideology and of values makes no one safe. A world without dissent means disaster for us all, hence his dubbing this global regime the New Ethical Reich.

Elimination of national frontiers under globalization is the new totalitarian empire in the making. In the old days, dissenters had the freedom to abandon their country and make another country their home. National frontiers secured the exercise of individual freedom. The diversity of ethical systems and sets of values gave the individual the latitude to find a system where he feels that he belongs or a system that would simply let him live and seek fulfillment. The new ethical empire craves expansion and the homogenization of societies. A new global village is emerging where no dissenter will be able to hide from the enforcers of ethical purity.

Bogomolov registers dismay as a Russian, looking back on his own country’s history and noticing how a left-wing ethical agenda could lead to the awful conditions born in 1917. In reference to a girl calling the police to report her parents’ participation in the Capitol events of last month, Bogomolov says that “Russia has been through all that.” This sympathy for the insurrection weakens his argument. He misses the irony of the right-wing manifesting the same tendencies he condemns. Antiwar conservatives recoiled in horror as “Fox Pravda” became little more than a propaganda outlet of the Bush Administration subsequent to September 11, 2001, beating the drums to invade Iraq in one of the most disastrous foreign policy decisions this country has even undertaken. It is not only the Hollywood elites that can lead us to totalitarianism. 

But Russia is fortunate to have a cultural icon who can articulate a worldview, who encourages his countrymen to think for themselves critically as they resist the thought police, and who ponders his nation’s European future at a time when self-hatred seems to rule the day and all the very best legacies of Europe risk falling prey to a “cancel culture.” Refreshingly, his thoughts go beyond the relative merits or disgraces of Vladimir Putin as head of state; they cut right to the heart of what kind of nation Russians might want to be as a people and what kind of Europe they aspire to be a part of.

America needs the same kind of courage from our cultural class, the courage to be able to see beyond the divisive partisan atmosphere and to give people something more to believe in than political demagoguery. Instead, we get platitudes at political rallies. Bogomolov is way out of their league, and like “The Russian,” would surely be a bored and disappointed host were he to throw a dinner party for his American counterparts. 

George Ajjan is an international political consultant.

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