Is Nationalism Betraying our Humanity?

9780316284363_cover_epubI first heard of Natan Sharansky in the early ’80s at a concert in the Royal Festival Hall. It was a programme of  Russian music played by a visiting Soviet orchestra.

Barely five minutes into the opening symphony by Prokofiev a block of protesters sitting on the other side of the auditorium stood up, chanting, “Free Sharansky! Free Sharansky!”

It was the highlight of the evening.

I forget which orchestra it was, possibly the Moscow State Symphony Orchestra. Their London appearance in those cold war days was, for me, a real highlight. I was a young music student with a love for big-boned, heart-on-sleeve Russian orchestral music written under the yoke of tyranny.

David Bezmozgis’s The Betrayers, is the story of a Sharansky-like character, Baruch Kotler,
who returns to his native Crimea and has a chance meeting with Tankilevich, the man who had betrayed him to the Soviet authorities, the man with whom he had once “sat and listened to classical music: Scriabin, Prokofiev, Shostakovich.” However, a number of aspects of the plot seem contrived: Baruch’s affair as a reason for fleeing Israel; just happening to take a room in Tankilevich’s house. And though Bezmozgis is not the first author to dispense with quotation marks I still think: why?

For me, the most interesting thing about reading this book was the historical context. I know now that Sharansky was a Jewish human rights activist born in Ukraine who emigrated to Israel after his release from Soviet prison in 1986 (soon after that concert; maybe the protestors helped). Until more recently, however, I had not realised that Crimea, home to a Jewish settlement long before the Russians ever moved in, was on the shortlist for a dedicated Jewish homeland after World War II. Stalin’s subsequent persecution and eviction of the Crimean Jews (as if they hadn’t suffered enough during the Nazi invasion) rather scuppered that. In the end, of course, Israel was formed from the partitioning of British-governed Palestine.

Bezmozgis’s story is set against a backdrop of prejudice and territorial control. But it is less about the wider political and historical events and more the individuals’ journeys and the consequences of their choices, their betrayals; and indeed, I was drawn in by the exploration of the characters’ emotions and motivations. Yet their sufferings were both the result of the Soviet regime, a system that controlled by pitting its citizens against its friends and neighbours.

After their encounter Kotler dwells on his shared aspirations for the promised land:

Man is a physical being who requires physical space. And his nature is a prejudicial nature of alike and unalike. That was the history of the world. How much earth can you claim with another’s consent? How long can you hold it if you haven’t consent?

The Betrayers was published just after (though written before) Russia annexed Crimea in March 2014. Crimea: conquered in 1783 by Russian despot Catherine the Great from the Ottomans, and now reconquered by – well, Putin. For sure, Stalin (who, interestingly, died on the same day in 1953 as Prokofiev) and his Soviet successors were monstrous tyrants. They wielded power by brute force and through generating prejudice and xenophobia. Divide and conquer. But let’s not forget that nationalistic hatred and protectionism is still rife. Driving out communities, building fences, fostering fear of outsiders – our tribal instincts to guard our interests jealously are only natural, but we put power in the hands of nationalists at our peril. Such instincts are responsible for Brexit and the election of Donald Trump.

A final thought: Kotler is clearly a good man in spite of cheating on his wife (that’s his betrayal). Yet, given his experiences, I thought it ironic that he so strongly supported the Israeli occupation of the West bank. Commendable that he wouldn’t betray his cause, but surely the very existence of territory that excludes or evicts another group of people is a betrayal of something more important: the striving for human fellowship, loving thy neighbour. I’m not convinced the author saw the irony.

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