Its fame spread as far as Suffolk (painting by John Constable, 1823)
The fact that the cathedral at Salisbury – a small medieval city in Wiltshire – boasts the tallest spire in England is, by now, a matter of common knowledge. People the world over are apprised of the existence of its chief embellishment, a spire so large that it exceeds in height any of the spires that dream in Oxford, or that grace our tawdry capital (unless you include that Shard thing). Even the lofty spire of Norwich, in medieval times the nation’s second city, seems mean and squat in comparison with the spike at Salisbury.
And yet, no one in a radius of ten or fifteen miles would ever have heard of this architectural wonder had it not been for two dedicated spire enthusiasts from a very remote country. It was they who quit the simple comforts of their beloved motherland and braved the conditions of late winter in a country as notoriously lawless as England, just to visit the cathedral and to gawp at its monumental dimensions. Oh, they also came for its old clock.
It all seems like a long time ago now, and the world has moved on. Salisbury, which at that exact same time suffered an attack by unknown agents that led to the death of one of its inhabitants and the near-death of a Russian spy and his daughter who happened to be living close by, has long since cleared up the mess left behind by whomsoever it was that tried to kill them and learnt to deal with the damage to its income from tourism. Everyone now accepts that the absurd way the British chose to point the finger at two innocent spire enthusiasts just goes to show that rogue states will stop at nothing to misattribute blame.
But, of course, the torrent of lies from the British state, as well as from the local media, continues unabated. When they’re done accusing one innocent party, or two innocent parties, or potentially an entire nation of innocent parties (for Russians, as I shall demonstrate shortly, are uniquely innocent), they remorselessly move on to other victims.
Lately, it has been the turn of the new president of Brazil. Despite the fact that Jair Bolsonaro is on record as having stated, with some emotion, that he ‘loves’ the Amazon, they have gone on the attack. In order to extend their imperialist influence over a defenseless South American country, the press and other state propagandists have accused Mr. Bolsonaro of having burnt down vast tracts of the rainforest in the interests of turning the land over to cash crops.
This is the kind of thing one has to deal with if one is the ruler of a tiny third world country no one has even heard of. Mr. Bolsonaro – who has a very fragrant wife, by the way, far more fragrant than the wife of the French president – has been treated with such single-minded vindictiveness that they have blamed him for doing something that is patently impossible. Have any of the president’s critics ever tried setting light to a rainforest? It’s called a rain forest for a reason. I happen to have been there, and I can tell you, the heavens are like one giant sprinkler system. You’ll be telling me they’ve had wildfires in the Arctic next.
Despite the self-evident absurdity that anyone could manage to light a match, let alone start a fire and singe the tails off the monkeys, in such a moist environment, some people still believe this obvious slander. But hey, let’s not be naïve; these days, people will believe anything.
In the case of the events in Salisbury, however, perfidious Albion had taken on a far greater foe. The Russians were not only quick to rubbish the claims made against them; they rubbished the idea of verifiable truth itself. They responded with what Timothy Snyder has called implausible deniability: ‘a relativist blizzard of alternative theories, delivered in a vaguely absurdist spirit as if no truth on earth is really provable.’
You should have seen the Russian ambassador, for instance. The way he kept such an even temper, in the face of the outrageous charges being made against his country and its secret service, was a small miracle of diplomatic decorum. Despite relentless grilling, he managed to preserve an impish sense of humor throughout, fielding (seemingly without effort) the barrage of lies the Western press trained upon him. The Brazilians should pop round to their own Russian embassy if they ever have a problem with the environmentalists again. Get some advice.
If they’d bothered to ask the ambassador who was his favorite figure from history, he would probably not have answered (like Nietzsche before him) that it was Pontius Pilate, and yet the cleverest thing to be found in the New Testament (according to the German philosopher) was Pilate’s question: “What is the truth?” It isn’t so much the prevailing philosophy in modern Russia, as the country’s unacknowledged motto.
THE ROAD TO UNFREEDOM
Eager to find out where the Russian ambassador had learnt his techniques for disarming British journalists, I decided to read up about the country that taught him all he knew. Initially, I turned to a book called The Road to Unfreedom by Timothy Snyder.
It is a tough read. Snyder is no stylist, and he sets out early on a scheme of politics that he then repeats, over and over again, as if he assumes his readers are amnesiacs. It’s reminiscent of Naomi Wolf’s clanking iron maiden. Even at the best of times, brainwashing is a rinse and repeat process.
In essence, Snyder claims that the conclusion of the Cold War ushered in a ‘politics of inevitability’. This saw the triumph of the West and of capitalism as inevitable and the progress that came from it as the only kind possible. However, when the market, democracy, and happiness the West promised failed to materialize, they were replaced by the ‘politics of eternity’ in which no progress is possible and people cease to believe in the future altogether. The steady improvement of social conditions and the amelioration of inequality become elusive, making way for spectacle, crisis and the demonizing of the other.
It’s quite a beguiling analysis. For a start, it looks like an explanation of something I have spoken about already, in previous articles, the failure of utopian thinking, of expecting anything good of the future. It even helps explain the odd sensation of history coming to a juddering halt – things happen, but with no discernible reason. With this dichotomy, then, Snyder seems to have grasped the peculiar inertia of the times. I just wish he wouldn’t bang on about it quite so much.
But more specifically, he offers a surprising insight into the philosophical origins of Russia’s present experiment with eternity. President Putin was once asked who his favorite historian was, and he chose to name a philosopher instead. Unsurprisingly, given the president’s courting of the Orthodox church, it was not Friedrich Nietzsche he chose. Surprisingly, though, given his career in the secret service, it was not Pilate either. It was someone called Ivan Ilyin.
Who’s he? It turns out that, in order to understand something of what has been going on in Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union, it is necessary to delve back in time, back to before the Soviets had even come to power, to a figure who fled the country as soon as they did achieve control and who favored the cause of their enemies, the Whites.
Ivan Ilyich was a bitter man. In the inter-war years, he admired the fascist dictators for bringing Europe to its senses and halting the decline of civilization. He despised individualism, succession, integration, novelty, truth, equality. Praising Mussolini, he compared Italy’s fascists to “my White brothers” back in Russia. He also praised the ‘spirit’ of Nazism. As for Bolshevism, that was the fault of the West. It would be superseded by Christian fascism and with the fall of the Bolsheviks, Russia would be the beacon of the world.
Now this is where it all gets a bit mystical. Any casual reader of Russian literature will know that the cliché of clichés when it comes to things Russian is that the people have soul. There is a great deal of soul to be had if you read Dostoyevsky. For all I know, Gogol was trying to say something ironic about it when he wrote about dead souls, an idea he got from Pushkin. In Russian art, there is ‘soul’ everywhere you look. It’s interesting that Ilyin praised the German’s ‘spirit’ as rediscovered by Hitler. He could perceive soul even among the soulless.
The soul of Russia is in its people, and the people are innocent. We are told that, because of this innocence, the Russian populace are uniquely gifted with a messianic destiny. The country is white, pure, virginal, and the West’s corrupting influence has so far failed to soil this purity. Russia is ready for the arrival of its redeemer. They will elect this man, but not by secret ballot, which only perpetuates individualism. They will choose him and he will choose them. An election in this system is a willing subjugation by the people to the leader. Welcome to what Vladislav Surkov (of whom more anon) has called ‘sovereign democracy’. According to Ilyin, Russians had a ‘special arrangement of the soul’ allowing them to suppress their own reason and accept the law in their hearts.
Eternity, the rule of (my) law, a zero-party state, no great need to plan for a succession, the people so full of soul they are ripe to receive their redeemer… Is it surprising that Putin’s officials were given free copies of the old fascist’s thoughts? Dmitry Medvedev even recommended the old fascist’s musings to Russian youth, and a 2017 film about the October Revolution depicted the old fascist, obscure at the time and in exile, as the unsung hero of the whole shebang.
But no one liked the old fascist more than the president. He sought out his papers, which were parked in Michigan State University, and brought them back to Russia. Then, at great expense, he had Ilyin’s remains repatriated from Switzerland. Of course, people were bound to point out that Putin was a former Chekist (the word, from Bolshevik times, still used to describe members of the secret service), and Ilyin had spoken with relish of ridding the country of Chekists, but he was also the man who wanted to reconcile the red and the White, terror and God. A number of his contemporaries had even called him ‘a Chekist for God’. And so, as Snyder (no stylist) puts it:
‘He was reburied as such, with honours conferred by the Chekists and the men of God, and by the men of God who were Chekists, and by the Chekists who were men of God’ (p. 58).
The legacy of this philosopher no one paid any attention to in his lifetime is best summed up in the words of a biker, one of the Night Wolves who were despatched to Crimea on the day of the annexation:
“You have to learn to see the holy war underneath the everyday. Democracy is a fallen state. To split ‘left’ and ‘right’ is to divide. In the kingdom of God there is only above and below. All is one. Which is why the Russian soul is holy. It can unite everything. Like an icon. Stalin and God.”
This, as Snyder points out, is Ilyin’s philosophy, Surkov’s geopolitics and Putin’s civilization all bundled up in one quote, though Snyder fails to mention his source for this marvelously contradictory and mystical biker. The biker’s name was Alexey Weitz, and the man who had a conversation with him was not the stiffly academic Snyder, but a writer of great flare and oodles of style by the name of Peter Pomerantsev.
But before leaving the eternal Snyder, it’s worth noting that he is very good on Eurasian theory, the idea that underpins Russia’s incursions in Ukraine, most notably in Crimea where the bikers like to hang out.
He also speaks about this Surkov character I’ve been referring to, the so-called ‘demiurge’ of the regime, a writer and art critic as well as chief adviser to the president. Surkov wrote a book under a very obvious pseudonym (he used his wife’s maiden name), though he persists in disclaiming any hand in it. The book is called Almost Zero and I shall, of course, endeavor to read it one day, I promise, so that you don’t have to!
The hero of the book is Egor. The author calls him a ‘vulgar Hamlet’, ‘almost autistic’, but no one has ever gone to ‘Surkov’ for political correctness. Snyder, who is not fooled for a moment by the pen name, says the book is ‘a kind of confession’:
‘In the story, the only truth was our need for lies, the only freedom our acceptance of this verdict. In a story within the larger plot, the hero was troubled by a flatmate who only slept. An expert issued a report: “We will all be gone,” the expert confided, “as soon as he opens his eyes. Society’s duty, and yours in particular, is to continue his dream.” The perpetuation of the dream was Surkov’s job description. If the only truth was the absence of truth, the liars were honorable servants of Russia’ (p. 159).
‘Surkov’ also writes that knowledge ‘only gives knowledge, but uncertainty gives hope.’ Or, as a great songwriter once said, you’re innocent when you dream. This is the terrain of the self-styled inheritors of Ilyin. It’s thanks to characters like the vulgar Hamlet or jesting Pilate that we got the two unlikely spire enthusiasts. But thanks, also, to a long-dead, best-forgotten, in all probability clinically insane fascist called Ivan.
NOTHING IS TRUE AND EVERYTHING IS POSSIBLE
In the Bloomsbury district of London stands a house dedicated to the memory of the poet Pushkin. Last year I went along out of curiosity, having heard that they were giving a marathon three-day performance of an old Soviet television drama called Seventeen Moments of Spring from the seventies. I arrived as the afternoon light was fading to be told that all the tickets were sold out, but a woman working there took pity and sneaked me down to have a glimpse.
The small basement room was packed. From the back, I could barely make out the subtitles, but there, on the small screen, in grim black and white, was the main character, Max Stierlitz, chain-smoking and looking very serious. The spartan rooms were supposed to evoke Germany at the time of the Nazis. Stierlitz was a communist spy in Nazi uniform. He had the brooding presence of all spies, and I immediately picked up on the tense, stately pace of the narrative, but I left with a sense of disappointment. Here, apparently, was a cultural artifact every Russian was familiar with, and to me it was virtually impenetrable.
Vyacheslav Tikhonov portraying Stierlitz
What I didn’t know was that Stierlitz has a lot to answer for. When Boris Yeltin’s popularity was waning and the need arose for someone to replace him, the first thought of his minders was to organize an opinion poll on favorite heroes of popular entertainment. The winner was Stierlitz. It seemed like an obvious choice, then, to offer the Russian people the future redeemer we now know as President Putin. Admittedly, he didn’t look anything like Stierlitz. He wasn’t remotely pretty, his face was expressionless, and the public were yet to be wowed by his bare torso, but he had served in the KGB in East Germany. A ‘meaningless post’ Snyder calls it. By the time they appointed him prime minister to Yeltsin in August of 1999, he had an approval rating of fully two percent. Still, the very fact they’d tried to borrow some macho stardust from the show business world was a sign of things to come. In a way, Putin’s bare flesh as he wrestled Siberian tigers to the ground would only be an extension of the same logic, just as it would owe a fair bit to Il Duce’s gratuitous display of his moobs as soon as he got near a beach. If fascism was ever mistaken for fashion, it was only some drunk slurring their words.
Anyway, it didn’t work. In the end, it would take a manufactured crisis, and Putin’s steady hand in dealing with it, to lift his profile clear of almost perfect anonymity. As Snyder puts it, ‘the ink of political fiction is blood.’ This line actually made me queasy, but I always get like that at the sight of a bloody metaphor.
While a clunky forensic analysis of Putin’s rise to power and the Russian state’s ideology has its virtues, nothing beats the genuine experience of life in the actual country. If Snyder has any of this experience, he is not letting on.
Peter Pomerantsev, in contrast, spent the best part of ten years in the country. He also has a vivid descriptive style and an obvious appetite for meeting people. One chapter, in particular, gives us a flavor of the crazy milieu that money has given rise to, that of the ‘gold-diggers’ or women whose sole ambition is to find themselves a rich sugar daddy, or as they would call it, a Forbes (they themselves are less charitably referred to as cattle).
These Forbeses are men on the rich list of that name. They are hugely wealthy, drive a Maybach and probably own half of Chelsea, if not the whole of its football club. The women in pursuit of them have to know how to please, but that’s really all they need to know.
Only if you ask nicely
In order to learn this, they can attend the Gold-digger Academy. Courses teach them such helpful hints as the following: On a first date, never talk about yourself. Listen to him. Find him fascinating. Study his hobbies; then change yourself accordingly.
It then starts to get more surreal, as if the course had been dreamt up by Aldous Huxley on an especially bad trip, while trapped in an overheated Soviet hotel room:
“Today we will learn the algorithm for receiving presents”, the instructor tells her students. “When you desire a present from a man, place yourself at his left, irrational, emotional side. His right is his rational side: you stand to his right if you’re discussing business projects. But if you desire a present, position yourself by his left. If he is sitting in a chair crouch down, so he feels taller, like you’re a child.”
[That part of the presentation was surely written by a man!]
“Squeeze your vaginal muscles. Yes, your vaginal muscles. This will make your pupils dilate, making you more attractive.”
[There’s no way this part was written by a man.]
“When he says something, nod; this nodding will induce him to agree with you.”
[He is doing the speaking, so how can he agree with her exactly?]
“And finally, when you ask for your car, your dress, whatever it is you want, stroke his hand. Gently. Now repeat: Look! Nod! Stroke!”
The girls chant back in unison: Look. Nod. Stroke… Look. Nod. Stroke. (p. 15).
I now know why I have so consistently failed to get a free car in life, or whatever I wanted for that matter. Basically, because when someone served up cod behavioral psychology like this, I always smelt something fishy.
One assumes the intended recipients of this doting must be as dumb as its practitioners or none of this would work. There must be legions of women in Moscow, sitting at the feet of men, doe-eyed, stroking and nodding with conspicuous vigor. One also assumes this is what the Forbeses, the ‘baby-faced billionaires,’ like so much.
However, Pomerantsev is no inverted snob appalled at new money’s offenses against taste. Instead, he views these people with something like tenderness. He argues that the apparent supplication by the women is deceptive and that both parties essentially equal, in the sense that both are struggling to clamber out of the same Soviet ruins. Oil money may have transported them to a different financial universe, but they are still aware that yesterday ‘they were all living in communal flats and singing Soviet anthems.’ And over this unreal transformation presides one man, as the symbol of the surreal change from dour Soviet greyness to post-communist glitter. For the females, he is the ultimate sugar daddy:
‘Do I need to mention that [these women] grew up fatherless… A generation of orphaned, high-heeled girls, looking for a daddy as much as a sugar daddy… [their] cunning comes with fairy-tale fantasies about the tsar who… will jet them off to his majestic Maybach kingdom. And, of course, it’s the President who encapsulates that image. All the shirtless photos hunting tigers and harpooning whales are love letters to the endless queues of fatherless girls’ (p.17).
Everything comes back to the President. In a way that’s unimaginable in the West, it is the head of state who embodies the machismo of these tacky night clubs, where the graduates of the ‘Are you just pleased to see me?’ course meet their quarry.
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the President.
Actually, this is not a picture of the President. It is the relic of a time, before he had quite reached the Kremlin’s empyrean he occupies now, when a certain level of satire was more prevalent. The man you see here, creating a simulacrum of Putin, was Vladik Mamyshev-Monroe. Here he is as another authority figure, portrayed (for reasons best known to himself) as an Indian woman:
Vladik Mamyshev-Monroe said “I want to try on every persona the world has ever known.” Pomerantsev opines that Vladik’s many guises were a symptom not of freedom, but of delirium. He was Warhol mixed with RuPaul.
He was certainly prepared to suffer for his art. He spent no less than three days pretending to be the President, a somewhat uncomfortable experience it would seem: “When I became Putin, I felt myself become a totemic maggot,” he reported, “about to explode with shit.” If the language sounds a little plebeian, consider that Putin once said (in his best impersonation of a mobster) ‘we’ll shoot the enemy while he’s on the shitter!’ Vladik went on: “But I wasn’t the baddie, I was the janitor, who needed to eat up everything, Russia, the USSR, so the new life could begin… Putin will eat up our country.”
It’s obvious that machismo won the argument in Russia. It’s not the easiest environment for a man prepared to take perestroika to the extreme of bending Gorbachev’s gender.
Vladik later decamped (the word is exactly right) for Bali, where he died in a swimming pool, but before leaving he wrote a letter to Putin in which he declared it was time to ‘save millions of people from this simulacrum of power.’
Sadly, there’s probably no saving the orphaned ‘cattle.’
Pomerantsev sees the way ordinary Russians have adapted to post-Soviet life, but more specifically he has worked in the media, in television no less. The way that information is exploited and news is generated is his area of expertise. He directly experienced the way the TV channels attempted to convey a youthful image and avoided politics where they could. Initially, he worked for the TNT network. Funded by Gazprom and housed in a building called Byzantium, its logo was ‘designed in blindingly bright, squealingly happy pinks, bright blues, and gold.’
Over the logo appeared the network’s catchphrase, ‘Feel our Love!’ projecting an image of a youthful, bouncy, happy country beamed into ‘people’s darkling flats.’
As he points out in his book This is not Propaganda, television was the crucial medium even before Putin’s rise. Yeltsin had his own manipulator of public opinion, Boris Berezovsky, who started by reshaping Russian television at his company ORT, and managed to win Yeltsin an election by persuading people he was the only bulwark against revanchist communism and the new fascism.
It was Berezovsky who pioneered the society of pure spectacle and the rise of the ‘moth’ (as the anonymous Putin was then known), supporting his war in Chechnya and changing him into the macho figure we see today. He also invented fake political parties and overhauled what passes for democracy. But only three weeks into Putin’s presidency he turned against the constitutional changes being proposed, later posting a mea culpa on his Facebook page: “I ask for your forgiveness, oh People of Russia… for destroying freedom of speech and democratic values… for bringing the President to power.”
Gleb Pavlovsky, a relatively minor figure who sees himself as a political technologist, was also involved in the media. He once said ‘you can just say anything. Create realities.’ His mentor was a historian called Mikhail Gefter who, in the 1990s, predicted that the end of the Cold War would usher in an era of ‘sovereign murderers’. There are a few people in Syria and Ukraine that could attest to the accuracy of that prediction. Pavlovsky is more temperate in his language, but he shares a conviction that something precious has been lost. ‘The image,’ he says, ‘of a common mankind is impossible, and no alternative has emerged. Everyone invents their own “normal” humanity, their own “right” history’ (p. 225).
Russia is the most unequal society in the world. Its political culture has been captured by opportunistic fakery. And yet, if this was the end of the story, would the wider world be that bothered, aside perhaps from the occasional botched assassination in Wiltshire?
In Nothing is True and Everything is Possible, Pomerantsev claims that the Russia of broken ideologies and divided populations, whose fractured politics resulted from a failure to cope with the shocks of Soviet collapse, has finally arrived in the West. It’s as if Russia has followed him home to England:
‘And the Russians are the pacesetters, the trendsetters. Because they’ve been perfecting this for just a few years longer, because the learning curve was so much harder and faster when their Soviet world disappeared and they were all shot into cold space. They became post-Soviet a breath before the whole world went post-everything. Post-national and post-West and post-Bretton-Woods and post-whatever-else. The Yuri Gagarins of the culture of zero gravity’ (p. 251).
It’s not as simple as totalitarianism. Satire, for example, is not at an end. On the contrary, it is flourishing on television, just as long as it offers a safety valve of sorts. A well-known comedy shows an honest policeman whose wife complains because they have no income from bribes. The Kremlin is sacrosanct, but the level of day-to-day corruption is fair game.
This coexistence of corruption and knowing ridicule is part of the post-Soviet subtlety. Instead of simply oppressing the opposition, as had been the case with twentieth-century strains of totalitarian rule, the Kremlin climbs inside all ideologies and movements, exploiting and rendering them absurd.
At the same time, the very notion of objective truth is undermined. Newscasters can treat all political stances as equally valid, equally flawed. This is similar to the way the BBC has been criticized for allowing flat-earthers a voice and equal billing with proper scientists, on the grounds of impartiality.
Russia Today does something analogous. With its motto of ‘question more’ it appeals to the selective skepticism of its audience, that same simple-minded skepticism that rushes to conspiracy theories, for example, rather than contenting itself with the obvious. News is of lesser importance. The entertainment value of RT relies on its jesting Pilate method of news-making, insistently repeating the question “What is truth?” with regard to every item of news, every controversy. Like the Kremlin’s conflicting explanations for Salisbury, it’s downright sending-up of the idea of explaining anything, it is less a matter of arguing against the West than creating a counter-model, more about ‘slipping inside its language to play and taunt it from inside.’ As Charles Clover (a reporter) put it: ‘Putin has correctly surmised that lies unite rather than divide Russia’s political class. The greater and the more obvious the lie, the more his subjects demonstrate their loyalty by accepting it, and the more they participate in the great sacral mystery of Kremlin power.’
With a little help from his friends, naturally.
Our man in leather
One of the most dependable of those friends has been the smirk of Surkov, the original subject of my piece, who I now find I haven’t the space left to talk about. I sense a sequel coming on.
Pomerantsev says the Kremlin’s rulers ‘are particularly adept at gaming elements of this new age, or at the very least are good at getting everyone to talk about how good they are, which could be the most important trick of all.’
And this is the man he chiefly has in mind. Putin’s personal adviser, Surkov pens essays on modern art and likes gangsta rap (he has a photo of Tupac on his desk, next to one of the President), but he was not bothered after the invasion of Crimea when he was banned from the US and Europe. He smiled and pointed to his head, quipping “I can fit Europe in here.” He has been called the ‘political technologist of all of Rus’ and his strategy is to own the entire spectrum of political discourse. Accordingly, he will fund human rights NGOs and civic forums, then support nationalist movements that accuse the same NGOs of being tools of the West. The effect is to blur the outlines of politics in what Pomerantsev calls a grand pastiche, resulting in despair and a kind of delirium. “Moscow can feel like an oligarchy in the morning and a democracy in the afternoon, a monarchy for dinner and a totalitarian state by bedtime,” says the author. “Any idea, not necessarily religious, finds itself magnified here to an iconic extreme. The Russian white supremacist will see Russia as the last bastion of whiteness in the world. The Russian nihilist will become the nihilist. Surkov’s triumphant cynic-mystic becomes post-Soviet superman.”
POSTSCRIPT: THE BIGGER PICTURE?
Trouble in paradise
John Constable painted his original version of the cathedral for the Bishop of Salisbury in 1831, respectfully including the bishop and his wife at the bottom left hand side of the picture. The bishop was pernickety, however, and objected to a dark cloud hovering near the spire.
When Constable came back to paint the sequel, it was just one year after the death of his wife, Maria. He later added nine lines from The Seasons by the eighteenth-century poet James Thomson that revealed the new painting’s meaning: that the rainbow was a symbol of hope after a storm that followed upon the death of the young Amelia in the arms of her lover Celadon.
The second picture is a very different beast to the first. Here is Richard Cork writing in The Wall Street Journal:
‘The Salisbury Cathedral painting is a large, carefully designed and vigorously handled canvas he worked on for several years. When exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1831, it was accompanied by a quotation from James Thomson's poem ‘Summer’, which refers to a ‘danger past’ before describing how ‘a glittering robe of joy…invests the fields and nature smiles revived.’
Yet the painting is far from joyful; it is one of Constable’s most turbulent images. Devoted to the Anglican Church, Constable was worried about its future. So, Salisbury Cathedral is not allowed to dominate this painting in a smug, triumphant way. The largest form confronting us here is the ancient tree on the left, and it seems shaken by the impact of the storm. It may even be in danger of falling into the impenetrable darkness beyond, where a small church tower and houses look threatened by the black sky […] No wonder the dog isolated in the muddy foreground stares back at this tree. It must be wondering where the storm will strike next. Lightning flashes to the left of the cathedral spire, and the man in the wooden cart looks hunched, as if bracing himself for another apocalyptic downpour. The three horses pulling his cart through the water appear burdened by their task. Directly behind the cart, a tiny cottage is being smothered by a tangle of…’
And so on. ‘What,’ asks Cork, ‘were the dangers faced by the Anglican Church in 1829, that Constable should depict such a great Gothic cathedral under a cloud?’ Then he answers his own question: ‘Catholic Emancipation, of course.’
Of course! Well, it’s an interpretation, though just possibly there is a lot more to this doom-laden scene than a current denominational squabble with the Irish. In a similar way, when Russia came to Salisbury on 4 March 2018, the dangers posed to its inhabitants were part of a far wider apocalypse.