Published by Daily Mail
“An absolute ban on the Russian Winter Olympics of 2014 on Sochi is simply essential,” says Stephen Fry in an impassioned letter to the Prime Minister and the International Olympic Committee, apparently written on behalf of the entire civilised world.
By ‘civilised’, one assumes he means the superior, enlightened and cultured proponents of equality and human rights, as opposed to the barbaric hordes whose primitive tribal impulses seek to outlaw the propagation of ‘non-traditional’ sexual orientations, ban gay-pride marches and prohibit the adoption of children by same-sex couples, as President Putin seems determined to do.
These aggressive anti-gay laws are repugnant and so merit an ‘absolute ban’ on the 2014 winter games, according to Fry. Just as the Führer was gleefully empowered by the 1936 spectacle in Berlin, so the Russian President will doubtless exploit his country’s games for political advantage on the world stage. And a savage like him simply should not be honoured with the Olympic brand; the Five Rings ought not to be sullied by association with Putin, who is ‘making scapegoats of gay people, just as Hitler did Jews’.
I don’t want to dwell on Fry’s association of the 2014 Sochi winter games with the 1936 Olympiad in Berlin: the systematic incineration of six million Jews in industrial ovens bears no comparison with the marginalisation and repression of minorities in Putin’s Russia, as shocking and deplorable as their ‘beatings, murders and humiliations’ undoubtedly are. I am more puzzled that an actor of the intelligence and calibre of Stephen Fry missed a golden opportunity to highlight the fact that Hitler persecuted gays as well. The pink triangle was nowhere near as prevalent as the Jewish Star, but at least 100,000 gays were targeted for torture or castration by the Nazis, and somewhere between 5,000 and 15,000 are estimated to have perished horribly in the death camps. So why they didn’t get a mention in this letter is a little mystifying.
Stephen Fry is not without clout: he has six million Twitter followers – a colossal cyber-platoon which he has readily deployed in the past to mobilise support for his latest grievance du jour. He primes and pokes, and they obligingly agitate and demonstrate by screaming their objections and questions. Then they tweet and re-tweet their defiance and disapproval in concentric circles of engineered outrage, flooding the target of their ire with a tsunami of derision and displeasure. Invariably, their chosen victim is harassed into submission and bullied into issuing a grovelling apology, whether earnest or not.
So, instead of pleading with David Cameron and grandstanding to the IOC – over which the Prime Minister has no power or influence at all – why doesn’t Stephen Fry call for a ban on British engagement with Russian music, theatre and all performing arts? Why doesn’t he demand a boycott of Chekhov, Gorky, Gogol and Griboyedov? Why doesn’t he demand a ban on Prokofiev, Pushkin, Mussorgsky, Tchaikovsky and Turgenev?
I’m not suggesting that UK companies abandon their planned productions of The Cherry Orchard, The Seagull, The Three Sisters, A Month in the Country, The Government Inspector or The Brothers Karamazov – all of which seem to playing somewhere in the UK over the summer. I’m saying that Fry’s rationale for a sporting boycott of Russia can logically be extended to an artistic one; indeed, it is far more attainable since that is the profession in which Stephen Fry manifestly has hundreds of very influential contacts and holds considerable influence as a theatrical knight-in-waiting (it will come). That is where his campaign ought to begin.
The excellent Cheek by Jowl theatre company, for example, frequently performs plays in Russian, and they are planning to take Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night to the Mossovet Theatre in Moscow next month. There’s nothing subversive about it: it doesn’t equate Putin with the puritan Malvolio, or portray Viola as a revolutionary member of Pussy Riot – all of which may well justify an incursion into dangerous territory to show Russian scorn her own image. It is funded by the National Lottery and supported by the Arts Council of England. Why doesn’t Stephen Fry demand a ban on this tour?
Why doesn’t he urge British tourists and ex-pats to boycott the opulent $700 million onyx-and-crystal Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg? This cultural crown is just as much a part of Russia’s global ambitions as next year’s Winter Olympics. The recent champagne-swilling opening gala was headlined by Placido Domingo, and the guest of honour was an unsmiling Vladimir Putin. Why doesn’t Fry phone his mate Placido and organise a global artistic embargo?
And what about the Bolshoi? In November they are staging a series of Britten Concerts in honour of composer’s centennial. Surely Russia’s sequinned opera singers and ballet dancers are as worthy of a total ban as their finely-tuned sportsmen and women?
And then there’s Moscow’s terrific Lenkom – a daring experimental theatre. And the Satirikon, the Sovremennik and the Moscow Arts Theatre, famous for Stanislavsky. Not to mention the Moscow Academic Satire Theatre, the Moscow Variety Theatre, and the excellent Malyi Theatre.
Why doesn’t Stephen Fry foment his six million followers into demanding that Brits boycott all of the above, with an ‘absolute ban’ on all UK performing arts engagement with Russia? This would be well within his sphere of influence and would make a real, lasting and dramatic impact.
He won’t, of course, because his fellow actors, dancers and musicians are notoriously poorly paid, and are likely to ignore him. Far easier to pontificate to scurvy politicians and preach about evil in someone else’s church. There is no Equity in Russia, no guarantee of paid work and no minimum wage when you get it. Every contract in the arts world is highly prized, and plans are already well-advanced for next year’s cultural Olympiad to coincide with the games.
Fry says: ‘The summer Olympics of 2012 were one of the most glorious moments of my life and the life of my country.’ As they were for many of us, not least because the daily ecstasies and exhilarations lifted us beyond the mundane drudge of everyday life. But Stephen Fry would seek to deny such delight and elation to the downtrodden, poverty-stricken and unemployed people of Russia. It isn’t all vodka shots in the Kremlin: those that have somewhere to sleep at night often share kitchens and toilets with five other families. The Winter Olympics are a welcome distraction from cabbage soup.
This call for a ban represents no personal sacrifice at all to Fry himself; nor does it constitute any hardship for his fellow actors and artists. It is a haughty and detached gesture which harms the innocent and penalises Russia’s outstanding sportsmen and women who will be deprived of their chance to inspire the very generation which might sweep Putin and his thugs from power.
By all means demand a ban on the Winter Olympics or a boycott of Russian sport if you must, but its theatre, music, opera and ballet bring just as much honour and glory to Putin as cross-country skiing, figure skating, bobsleighing and the biathlon: it is all culture readily appropriated for political purposes.
If he is genuine, Fry needs to write immediately to Declan Donnellan, artistic director of Cheek by Jowl, and demand an ‘absolute ban’ on all artistic cooperation with Putin’s Russia. He should then get his twitter hordes to pester the sponsors by fulminating all manner of disgust at their homophobic collaboration. If he does this, Stephen Fry could become a lion in winter. If not, he’s just a cat keeping down the mice.