It happened today - December 11, 2015

While I’m tearing a strip off the Soviets, perhaps I should go for the proletarian emperor’s whole outfit. Especially as on December 11 back in 1969 a major Soviet spokesman, the children’s author Sergei Mikhailkov who was secretary of the Moscow writer’s union, went ape over nudity in Western culture, taking particular aim at the play “Oh! Calcutta!”

Keep your shirt on, Sergei, one is tempted to say. But perhaps unbutton the collar slightly. This sort of rant about people in their “birthday suits” just makes you look ridiculous. Still, he had hold of a serious point, though by the wrong end.

Mikhailkov declared the Broadway show, and pornography generally, “a general striptease-that is one of the slogans of modern bourgeois art.” And, he complained in a fatal admission, such “bourgeois” thinking was infecting Russian youth. Gosh, who’d rather look at a naked girl than Leonid Brezhnev giving a speech. I mean really, comrades

It is of course tempting to dismiss this shot at the bourgeoisie as part of the boilerplate of Soviet abuse that poured with hilariously stilted implausibility out of Radio Moscow and such outfits. Even Russians mocked it. (Soviet-era joke: How can you make sure there’s always baloney in your fridge? Plug it into Radio Moscow.) Surely the epithet “bourgeois” was not applied as part of a serious thought process but simply slapped on with mechanical cynicism.

It might even be supposed that the people who made such statements in the Soviet Union knew they were babbling politicized nonsense and deliberately went over the top into self-parody to preserve their integrity and sanity or even warn the world that it was all lies. After all Oh! Calcutta!, in case you like me have never had the dubious pleasure of watching it, was written by radical intellectuals, non-conformists and challengers of bourgeois convention like Samuel Beckett, John Lennon and Edna O’Brien. How on earth could these people be lumped in with suburban Republicans in lime-green pants, except by someone trying to undercut their own message?

Alas, it is not so. As I’ve noted previously, cynics would be far less dangerous because they would be aware of their own limitations and deceptions and concerned that pushing either your hollow words or false deeds too far will give away the whole deceptive show. Instead, in the words of Michel Tournier, a novelist only a commissar could call bourgeois, “Alas, it is nearly always high-minded men who make history, and so the flames destroy everything and blood flows in torrents.” The Soviets really meant what they said about a corrupt, decadent, materialist society they identified as “bourgeois,” a word essentially meaning… here we go again… Western.

The West is disconcerting. Its insistence on questioning everything, on establishing truth through debate not intimidation, can be upsetting. Sometimes it upsets not just fragile individuals but robust institutions. When Mikhailkov deplored Soviet youth who preferred “the theater of the absurd and the novel without a hero and all kinds of modern bourgeois reactionary tendencies in the literature and art of the West” to “the past and present of the literature of their fatherland” what he failed to grasp was not the ridiculous tone of his prose. It is that his statement was a scathing indictment of officially approved Soviet prose that couldn’t even compete with the rubbish and dangling bits of “Oh! Calcutta!”

You can’t keep ‘em on the farm once they’ve seen Paris. If you worry about modern decadence, you have to plunge in and try to fix the West from inside through inquiry and debate. Otherwise you end up looking both ridiculous and vicious, and the rubbish heap of history beckons irresistibly to emperors without clothes.

It happened todayJohn Robson