He’s not the Messiah!

A rumination on The Life and Death of Alexander Litvinenko

This article is taken from the June 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

If MI6 had actually been able to get its arse in gear to send someone to Moscow in 1963 to whack Philby, we would have felt pretty terrific about it — wouldn’t we? As it was, as Simon Winder detailed in his riotously disenchanted book The Man Who Saved Britain, a country which had the rest of the world rolling around with hilarity at the gulf between its haughty self-image and the tawdry, impotent, impoverished reality, was obliged instead to make do with a rather hairy actor furiously boozing and shagging his way round unimprovably naff tourist destinations for the Queen and the honour of old England.

Things are different for the KGB and its descendants and sister organisations, of course, but I don’t get any big impression that Anthony Bolton’s opera The Life and Death of Alexander Litvinenko, with a script by Kit Hesketh-Harvey — to be performed soon at Grange Park — contains a lot of even grudging admiration for a country that deals with its turncoats in the traditional manner. Still, this touching homage by Bolton — a massively successful fund-manager turned composer — to the martyred Sasha clearly represents some kind of highlight, however potentially necrotic, of the summer; regrettably its two performances have already sold out, presumably to the sizeable SMERSH cell in the Russian Embassy.

It is hard to resist pursuing our initial fantasy: picture the intrepid Double O landing in Moscow, being festively met at the airport by his long-term KGB handlers in a ZIL party limo, hitting the old Slav Bazaar for a raucous night with gypsy entertainers before waltzing off to shack up with Guy Burgess, by this time on his last legs, though there is a cute scene of our cut-price Bond delighting the old lush with Q Branch’s new wheeze of how to fold yourself up in a specially constructed BOAC flight bag for easier transportation. Frankly it already sounds a lot more fun than Bolton’s scenario. Should I make it into an opera?

The most useful bits of the Litvinenko story, I’d say, are the tips it provides on how to maximise your chances of getting a passport if you’re on the lam from your betrayed colleagues. Litvinenko’s citizenship application headlined with how shocked — shocked! — the bright-eyed young KGB lad was by the way his chaps were carrying on the war in Chechnya. Subsequently he was so upset by an “illegal” order to kill that figure of almost mediaeval purity, Boris Berezovsky, that he chose to denounce his government and seek asylum. It all reminds you of that line from Don McLean’s Vincent: “This world was never meant for one as beautiful as you … ”.

A prison-set Parsifal in Vienna

For the six remaining years of his life, Litvinenko played the dimwit SIS, who bunged him £2,000 a month, like The Golliwog’s Cakewalk. Strapped for your actual intel, he mined the David Icke handbook for such yarns as Putin the Paedo (alas, naughty Vlad evidently destroyed the fruity FSB videos which “showed him making sex with some underage boys”), or the stuff about Romano Prodi being the KGB’s point-man in the EU. No matter how wearisome to back up these claims: as the Simpsons lawyer Lionel Hutz says, “Well, we have hearsay and conjecture — those are kinds of evidence.”

Litvinenko’s wilder kite-flyings have been edited out, but for his version of the 2002 Dubrovka Theatre siege (where a couple of hundred died after the security forces used narcotic gas to overcome the Chechen hostage-takers) as a KGB setup — which, given the tragic farce of the outcome, is hardly impossible. Litvinenko’s mateyness with the supernaturally shady Berezovsky — who bankrolled him, and teamed up to plot the downfall of President Putin in some obscure manner — deserves proper investigation, which won’t happen here. At the end, the dying hero tells us “Russia will rise again” — a kind of happy-bunny version of the Holy Fool who winds up Modest Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, albeit with slightly more perceptive forecasts of destruction, famine, endless night.

Litvinenko merrily partakes of the boring old anti-Putin spiel, tirelessly churned out by the Economist and Guardian (and cut-and-pasted by their lazier colleagues everywhere else), which is still notably failing to get much traction in the place itself. In one interesting respect, though, it does align with a major strand of the 19th-century Russian opera tradition, namely the question of what history is for, who writes it, who owns it, what it actually means in a country more sceptical about it than we pretend to be here. Narratives that are not useful to the state are disparaged in Russia, and giving yourself an ulcer about a past that can’t be helped — now the Anglosphere’s main industry — is seen as timewasting irrelevancy.

The doomed little resistance cell posited in the opera doesn’t find room for those talented Pussy Riot pin-ups, sadly, but even without them Litvinenko, Berezovsky and the blameless journalist Anna Politkovskaya (what the hell was she thinking of, getting involved with these sinister clowns?) form an eccentric cabal. Their machinations in “leafy” Muswell Hill feel like a tragicomic restaging of scenes in the same Boris Godunov where the ex-monk Grigory Otrepyev, claiming to be the son of Ivan the Terrible, is egged on by beastly Polish Jesuits (i.e., the Antichrist) to return to Russia and ignite an anti-Boris insurrection.

Russian history is full of variations on this, crystallising the mix of sick longing for the putative marvels and freedoms of the West with the paranoid, but generally justified, fear of the ruin and spiritual corruption that comes free with (or usually instead of) the above. The usual package is a self-proclaimed saviour, and it obsessed Mussorgsky, a wildly original composer who took Bohemianism to extreme lengths and spent the last years of his rackety life a wild-haired drunk — making him of course a much more representative composer than the nicely turned-out Tchaikovsky.

Otrepyev (if it was him, which it probably wasn’t) was the first of several “false Dmitri” pretenders in the early 17th century; the real Dmitri had died, perhaps murdered, as a child, which certainly facilitated Boris’s rise to power and gave his foes something to get their teeth into: they are represented here by the equivocal old monk Pimen, who gets some disturbingly radiant music to dignify his shit-stirring chronicles of Russian history. The pretender is swept to power amid popular hysteria as the guilt-plagued “usurper” Boris staggers about raving with Macbethy visions of a bloody child. The result is predictable disaster — as correctly itemised by the Holy Fool.

In the same composer’s other great historical opera, Khovanschina, the catastrophic saviour is the slightly unexpected Peter the Great, an offstage bogeyman bringing his vile Euro-fandom to infect Russia. Not that the face of “Russianness” in Khovanschina is itself represented by vastly attractive forces: Andrei Khovansky, harem-equipped satrap and all-powerful boss of the psychotic military police, and an obscurantist, death-fixated cult of schismatic “Old Believers” — who nonetheless are the only characters to display any recognisably human qualities.

Which outcome is worse? None seems likely to be any kind of picnic. We know how the story ends — Peter storms to power, turns Russia all pukka by personally shaving the beards off the entire nobility, banishes mediaeval Cimmerian darkness… and yet this is presented as calamity, the wrecking of Holy Russia with its mission to redeem the world. As Facebook used to say, it’s complicated.

This matter of saviours is raised with pleasing coincidence in a prison-set, Russo-centric new staging of Richard Wagner’s Parsifal which appeared at the Vienna State Opera just as Alexei Navalny was returning to Russia after the enjoyable affair of the perilous pants, and was hastily incarcerated. I don’t mean to disparage the unbelievably brave and rather photogenic Navalny, particularly, but the Russians have never bought his brand in significant numbers — though it warms the heart to see how delicately his press cheerleaders here elide his fruitier Slav-supremacist views, to spare our blushes.

The director of this production — online at arte.tv until July 17th — is Kirill Serebrennikov, the former director of the Gogol Centre in Moscow, recently released from house arrest on a spurious-looking embezzlement rap. But despite the specific resonances evoked by the prison setting, it aims to be more than a solipsistic state-of-Russia whinge.

Our extraordinarily tendentious, purblind media coverage of Russia leads us to ask immediately, of course, if Parsifal (sung by Jonas Kaufmann) is intended to represent Navalny. No, of course not: Wagner’s hero is meant as a redeemer of rather wider application — though the question of whether this “holy fool” is a very Russian sort of false saviour (a question that certainly does apply to Navalny) hangs heavy in the air.

There are rather louder echoes of the director’s own experiences, plus the obvious metaphor of Russia as prison. Not that we need feel smug about that, either: clearly we all eagerly lock ourselves into prisons of our own construction, and have the equipment to become properly human enough to walk out of them, if desired.

Yet Parsifal’s redemption does feel peculiarly Russian here, Wagner’s massively intricate drama re-engineered to air specific neuroses and traumas: the need for a Messiah, the millennial yearning, the worship and horror of the West, the obsession with the destiny of Russia and the wildly opposed power-groups who claim to be its only true guardian. Litvinenko is far from Wagner or Mussorgsky, obviously, and may be shallow, English and highly questionable in every respect, but with its unwitting, tabloidy phrasings of big questions, it joins a party that doesn’t seem likely to end any time soon.

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