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A statue of Peter the Great in Glaisher Street, Greenwich: It was in Greenwich that the young Tsar decided to Westernise his country (Robert Scarth CC 2.0)


Greenwich, the home of Standpoint, is haunted by the ghost of Peter the Great. It was here that he decided to transform Russia into a Western country — by force, if necessary. Mussorgsky’s great unfinished opera Kovanshchina tells the story of how the young Tsar crushed all opposition to his enlightened despotism: boyars butchered, princes banished, Old Believers burned alive. At this year’s Prom performance, gloriously re-created under the baton of Semyon Bychkov, the power struggles between traditionalists and modernisers ignore the God-fearing people of Moscow. Likewise, Rachmaninov’s All-Night Vigil, performed before a rapt late-night Prom audience by the unaccompanied Latvian Radio Choir, transported the grave magnificence of the Russian Orthodox monastic liturgy to London. In Muscovy, heir to Byzantium, the church was dominated by the state, leaving no interstices of liberty for the individual. Yet a deep reservoir of mysticism has always provided a refuge for the devout. In the last century, no European nation has witnessed greater upheavals, but the Russian predicament is impervious to change.

Perhaps this is the underlying reason why no contemporary leader of a great power has lasted as long as Vladimir Putin. Anne Applebaum’s superb Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine (Allen Lane, £25) is more than a magisterial new history of the Ukrainian “Holodomor”, bringing Robert Conquest’s Harvest of Sorrow up to date. Its title hints at the connection between Stalin’s attempt in the early 1930s to annihilate Ukrainian nationhood under the cloak of collectivisation, which cost up to four million lives, and Putin’s “dirty wars”: his annexation of Crimea and infiltration of eastern Ukraine. In Russia there has been no attempt to reassess culpability for the Ukrainian famine, just as there is no real opposition to a president who has been so corrupted by absolute power that he is credibly accused of embezzling $200 billion. Orthodoxy’s historic reluctance to confront the secular power, along with popular fatalism, play into Putin’s hands. Yet Stalin’s failure to destroy Ukraine, its subsequent independence and Westernisation, beg the question: why not Russia too?

Russia remains an enigma. We have no easy answer to the problems that arise when a great nation turns its back on Western civilisation. The Anglosphere is confident enough to go its own way, sheltering where necessary under the American nuclear umbrella and giving reliable support to the US in return. But our European neighbours have a different history and are far less ready to stand up to threats or to resist bribery. Not since Nato was created in 1949 has the Kremlin come so close to its aim of dividing the West. Donald Trump’s Russian entanglements and his handling of the Korean crisis have shaken Europe’s trust in America as a strategic ally. The danger of a Sino-American confrontation on the Korean peninsula is real, due less to the Trump administration than to the failure of past predecessors to deal firmly with Pyongyang.

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