As a news anchor, it is strange to find yourself being interviewed live from your own studio by someone in another country. New technology enabled me to see the questioner in Berlin surrounded by 300 or 400 other journalists and newspeople. They were participants in the News Exchange Conference debate titled “Iran: here we go again?” This was timely – as I spoke, George W. Bush announced sweeping new sanctions against the mullahs.
I was in the hot seat because last year we had transmitted Channel 4 News live, for a week, from a number of Iranian cities. We had also occasionally interviewed Ali Larijani, the recently resigned Iranian nuclear negotiator and, just three weeks ago, I had been in Tehran interviewing President Ahmadinejad live for half an hour. These days, this renders you an instant Iran media expert. Alas, amid the judgements being made about how best to deal with Iran, one is dangerously tempted to feel like an authority on the subject.
Fortunately, I have been to Iran many times – during and since the revolution in 1979. So I expressed to the conference my own feeling that Iran needs engaging with at every level; that a one-track nuclear negotiation is bound to fail; that Iranians desperately want to engage but that US rhetoric does little more than bind them to the regime of which they otherwise despair; and that Gordon Brown would do well to recall the words of his cabinet colleague Jack Straw, that to bomb Iran would be “bonkers”.
The next day, I am standing in a bookshop at Heathrow airport. “What do you think it is right to be seen reading at a highbrow festival?” asks someone I recognise but can’t quite seem to place. I confess I’m reading Robert Harris’s sumptuous Blairabout novel, Ghost. We are bound for an Anglo-Russian arts festival in St Petersburg. Later, on the flight, I see the erudite historian Orlando Figes across the aisle from me. I peer at what he’s reading: the footballer Graeme Le Saux’s autobiography.
I breathe easy.
At St Petersburg airport, little seems to have changed since I last landed here 18 years ago at what was then Leningrad. It is still drab and the presence of a couple of executive jets and a large Citibank ad are the only hint of what awaits us. Driving into the city in the late evening rush hour, a vast boulevard of car showrooms gives way to rows of shops sporting everything from fur coats to plasma screens. Gone are the dimly lit windows with jars of pickled gherkins and peeling party posters. And the traffic no longer consists of ageing Russian Ladas and occasional Zils; here there are Range Rovers, BMWs, Toyotas. Indeed, it is a veritable jam of vehicles interchangeable with any city scene in western Europe. In 20 years, the transformation is almost beyond comprehension.
An arts festival in Russia attracts an unusual Russian. The young people at our opening events seem in the main to be the offspring of new wealth. During a break, I wander away from the restored grandeur of the city centre. In many streets, the old drabness is still there. Big 4x4s barge along roadways in which poorly dressed peasants stand on the pavement at metre intervals trying to sell everything from handfuls of carrots to old clothes. One elderly man is trying to sell a new chrome shaving mirror. The white stubble on his chin suggests that, however he has come by it, he cannot afford to deploy it for his own use. As I watch him, a sleek BMW with smoked bulletproof glass glides past. The strange disjunction between wealth and poverty is all too clear. Vladimir Putin, president and local boy, has pumped $1.5bn into St Petersburg to restore it to its imperial beauty. But trickle-down economics appear to have stagnated.
When you talk to people here, they no longer moan about the communists. Instead, they complain about the bureaucrats. Despite transparency laws, it seems many civil servants try to make money out of what they do, whether it be arranging a fire certificate or providing information about pension rights. Anger about what many see as a tightening of control surfaced in some of our festival debates. Putin, however, is somehow separated from “the authorities” that are so bitterly resented. For example, the president is praised for restoring the Hermitage, while the bureaucracy is attacked for the way it has frustrated the ambitions of contemporary Russian artists.
But, in among it all, despite the ever-present social and economic imbalances, I found myself more conscious than ever before of the depth and capacity of Russian culture. The great contemporary British composer Thomas Adès was in town performing his works for the first time on Russian soil. His complex weavings of Latin American dance and 1950s music hall were intoxicating, as were the exuberant dashes through cadences and chords that deployed instruments previously unknown to their Russian players. Several instruments, including a bass clarinet and a strange wind-up block of wood, had to be shipped in from Finland but Russian musical dexterity mastered the lot. The following night, I was in the gods of the Mariinsky Theatre. Vertically below lay the keyboards of four huge ebony Steinway pianos, drawn up like tanks with the audience in their sights. Behind them lay a cavalry of snare drums, bells and gongs. Suddenly, 10 women in peasant dresses streamed on to the front of the stage, followed by the same number of men. The British pianist Peter Donohoe pursued three Russian players to their pianos and we were suddenly consumed by Stravinsky’s Les Noces (The Wedding). Utter magic – jazz, classical modernity, folk themes as old as mother Russia herself, all combined to cart us wholesale out of our everyday lives. Though Stravinsky was often all but banned, maybe this was how Russians got through those 70 years of collective deprivation.
Jon Snow is the main presenter of ‘Channel 4 News’
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