Commenter Swedish Family on BHL and Houellebecq on Russia:
Seeing Bernard-Henri Lévy’s name here made me dig out an old book of his, Public Enemies, a book of Lévy’s mail correspondence with novelist Michel Houellebecq in the spring of 2008 (so after Putin’s Munich speech but half a year before Lehman Brothers and the war in Georgia). It’s fascnating to see violently anti-Putin Lévy was already back then. I’ll come to his tirade in a moment, but let’s first have a look at Houellebecq’s warm feelings for Moscow.
A few months ago, I had the pleasure of finding myself in Moscow with Frédéric Beigbeder (by accident; we were there for different reasons and didn’t plan to meet up). Twice we did sets as DJs in nightclubs full of the sumptuous blondes popularized by current affairs magazines. Twice Frédéric and I noticed the same thing: young Russians adore the Beatles, they react to their music immediately, they like it (whereas I’m sure they didn’t know the music before, they only discovered western music in the 1980s through groups like U2 and A-Ha). And not only do they like the Beatles, they like early Beatles, songs like “Ticket to Ride” and “Love Me Do.” The music, made eternal by their genius, their enthusiasm, their joie de vivre; the music of youth, of heading off on holiday (the music of economic growth, of full employment).
Back in France, the magazines ran headlines about a new idea: economic decline. A very different atmosphere, obviously.
The worst thing is, the ecologists are right. Of course, none of the problems facing humanity can be tackled without stabilizing the world population, without stabilizing energy consumption, without intelligently managing nonrenewable resources, without tackling climate change.
And yet coming back to Western Europe I felt like I was coming back to the dead. Of course, life is hard, very hard in Russia, it is a violent life, but they live, they are filled with a desire to live that we have lost. And I wished I were young and Russian and, ecologically speaking, irresponsible.
I also felt I needed idealism (a rarer commodity, I admit, in contemporary Russia). I wished I were part of a time when our heroes were Yuri Gagarin and the Beatles; when Louis de Funès made everyone in France laugh; when Jean Ferrat was adapting Aragon.
Here is Lévy’s reply to Houellebecq. I find this passage very revealing of what drives people like Lévy. Note, again, that this is written in the spring of 2008 (March 12), so at this point, Russia has basically been playing nice in the face of aggressive Western expansion. Yet …
Unlike you, I have absolutely no desire to be Russian or to return to Russia.
I used to love a certain idea of Russia.
I loved and defended this idea of Russian culture, which in the 1970s and ’80s conjured up a whole hodgepodge, Solzhenitsyn and Sakharov, the Slavophiles and Europhiles, the disciples of Pushkin and those of Dostoyevsky, the dissidents on the right and the left and those who, in the words of the mathematician Leonid Plyushch,* belonged to neither of these camps but to the concentration camp and whose defense I was taking up while my father, in the episode I told you about, was signing (or rather, was not signing, deciding not to sign) his contracts with Gosplan’s† wood branch.
Then there’s what Russia has become, what appeared when the breakdown of communism, its debacle—what a mountaineer like your father would call its “thaw” or “collapsing ice” (the real meaning of debacle)—revealed to it and the world the Russia of Putin, of the war in Chechnya, the Russia that assassinated Anna Politkovskaya* on the stairway in her building and that the same Anna Politkovskaya described in her wonderful book A Russian Diary, just before she was assassinated. It’s the Russia of the racist packs who, right in the center of Moscow, track down “nonethnic” Russians, the Russia that chased out the Chinese at Irkutsk, the Dagestanis at Rostov, the same Russia that persecutes those it called the Chernye, meaning the “swarthy” ones, the Russia that has the nerve to explain to the world that it has nothing to do with democracy and human rights since it has its own democracy, a special, local democracy that is quite unrelated to Western canons and rights. It’s the country of such specialties as its party, the Nashi, meaning “our own,” which, to call a spade a spade, is a Stalin-Hitler combo, the Russia that, incidentally, is giving new life to the anti-Semitic European pamphlets of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the same Russia that made a best seller out of a stupid List of Masked Jews, which lumps together Sakharov, Trotsky, de Gaulle, Sarkozy, and Yulia Tymoshenko, the mastermind behind the Orange Revolution in the Ukraine. It’s the Russia that—since you mentioned music—put on the cover of one of its popular magazines the singer Irina Allegrova dressed up as an SS camp guard, holding a ferocious hound on a lead. This Russia, which, apart from this kind of idiocy, believes in nothing at all, absolutely nothing, just the religion of the marketplace, consumption and brands. This Russia, which, the last time I went there, struck me as having had its culture erased and its brain washed, this Russia, whose most discouraging side, according to Anna Politkovskaya, to mention her yet again, was its amorphousness and passivity, the way it accepts, for example, that it hardly has any employment legislation left and that its workers are treated like dogs, the same Russia that leaves the nightclubs where you went to have a laugh and dance with Frédéric [Beigbeder] to rot in a terrifying poverty. In this Russia, no less than under communism, people are ready to betray their parents to steal a broom, a bowl, a badly screwed tap, or—as in Brecht’s Messingkauf Dialogues—bits of scrap iron at night from deserted building sites abandoned by oligarchs on the run or in prison … Not only does this Russia inspire no desire in me, it fills me with horror. I’d go so far as to say that it frightens me because I see in it a possible destiny for the late-capitalist societies. Once upon a time, during your postwar “glory days,” the middle class was terrorized by being told that Brezhnev’s communism was not an archaism restricted to distant societies but rather a picture of our own future. We were wrong: it was not communism but postcommunism, Putinism, that may be the testing ground for our future.