An extraordinary political salon has been created in Moscow by a woman who trusts intuitionby Edward Skidelsky / March 20, 1999 / Leave a comment
It is a pity, although perhaps inevitable, that the Russia presented to us in the pages of the British press is populated entirely by bandits, political mountebanks and crank spiritualists. Unnoticed go the vast majority who merely want to live out their lives undisturbed by public events. Unnoticed, too, go the small group of liberal intellectuals who strive to make this possible.
A prominent member of this latter group is Lena Nemirovskaya, founder and director of the Moscow School of Political Studies. It is hard to know how to describe this institution without making it sound turgid and worthy, as its own official literature does. The nature and purpose of the school evades attempts to capture it in manifestos, constitutions or reports. It is perhaps best described as a salon for the jet age. Its membership extends over the whole of Russia, Europe and the US, and embraces all professions and political opinions. Yet its governing principles are those of a salon: friendship, conviviality, good manners and a commitment to the art of conversation. Like the salons of old it strives to create a “space of merry liberty.” Like the salons of old it could only be run by a woman.
The origins of this huge network lie in a small kitchen in the Brezhnev era. “It was not just a boring era,” says Lena. “It was something inhuman-without any feeling of time. You lived and you didn’t live. Time stopped.” What sustained her spirit during those years was her membership of the small circle surrounding the philosopher Marab Marmadashvili. Still almost unknown in the west, Marmadashvili was a passionate espouser of intellectual freedom. Lena met him in 1971, and he introduced her to Yuri Senokossov, the man who was to become her husband. Through her membership of this “family,” Lena’s orbit widened. Marmadashvili had many friends in the west and the flat’s kitchen became a meeting place for Russian and western intellectuals. “We had a lot of problems with the KGB. Maybe we were saved by perestroika. But I never belonged to the dissident circles. The dissidents were another sort of party. They really were a party, completely opposed to the Communist party, but with the same hierarchy. To live our private lives we could not belong to this party.”
If Lena’s independence of spirit preserved her under communism, it was her vital nature which enabled her to adapt to the world after communism. “I knew that I was not the best writer, I never pretended to be a real scholar. My mind is energetic and impulsive, but not systematic. Suddenly, five years ago, I decided to do something by myself. So I created the school. God helped me. My old connections were reborn-people who knew me from the previous life, who knew my circle. They trusted me.” Members of Lena’s circle who helped to set up the school included, from England, Ernest Gellner; Rodric Braithwaite, then British ambassador to Russia; and historian Geoffrey Hosking. Since then Shirley Williams, Bernard Ingham, Peter Mandelson and others have become supporters. Lena is attracted by fame. If a new “expert” wins approval he is drawn in to the school’s circle and in turn asked to recommend others. Thus the web expands.
The raw material of Lena’s creativity is human life, not the written word. She believes in old-fashioned female virtues. “I don’t believe that women can create much in science or philosophy, it is abstract and alien. However, I respect women’s intuition. It is very sophisticated, but it is about non-objective things-it is artistic.” With the collapse of communism her own paradoxical personality-both practical and artistic, personal and political-has been liberated. In the school it has found its expression. It is her masterwork.
Lena’s utterly personal stance on life, which forbade her from co-operating either with the Communist party or the dissidents, has not diminished with age, as her bright green hair testifies. “I don’t believe in institutions. I like to feel everything in my fingertips.” Finding herself in charge of an institution has thus put her in an awkward position. The merry anarchy of the school’s bi-annual conferences in Moscow-the inheritance of the “kitchen”-is growing harder to justify to the sponsors.
But for Lena, democracy is born in personal revelation in a new attitude to the truth. “Russians try to privatise the truth. The truth belongs to each person. My idea is to show them that the truth is between us and among us. When you are talking with God, then you can have your own, absolute truth, but in the public arena you should respect other people’s opinions and find a compromise. For westerners, it is difficult to understand this privatised notion of truth. Russians are very good at talking to God, but they can’t do anything in a practical way.”
But if democracy originates in a personal transformation, it requires institutions to sustain it. Lena’s attitude to institutions is ambiguous. They safeguard democracy but tend to erode the freedom of spirit which is democracy’s essence. The perfection of institutions is at the expense of man.
Lena both admires the western world for its professionalism and is repulsed by its impersonality. Russia, with its rotten institutions and strong friendships, has a vitality which the west has lost. “In Germany you have to belong to an organisation, to make a career. Nobody cares about your personality. For me this is shocking. I believe in people. God created people; people created institutions. I believe in God’s creation. People in the west are more professional than Russians. Russians are more personal…. I could never work in a bureaucratic organisation, yet I know that this world exists and should exist-how else can you organise millions of people to live together? I respect western bureaucrats, and I would like Russians to become more professional and less corrupt.”