Time passes and memories fade, but does anyone remember Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, the one shot down by Russian-backed separatists over Ukraine in July? All 298 passengers were killed when a missile downed the airliner. I knew one of the victims a few years back: Glenn Thomas, a very affable British journalist who worked for the World Health Organisation and was on his way to a health conference in Australia.
We were pretty angry about that, and about what Vladimir Putin has been up to in Ukraine, and so for some time we have been trying to impose some sort of pressure on the Russian president by applying sanctions to his regime. Today, in the midst of those efforts, we learn that the British Museum has decided to loan Russia part of its hotly contested property, the Parthenon marbles, also known as the Elgin marbles.
The Greeks can’t have them back – and we’re pretty steadfast about that, even when high-profile lawyer Amal Clooney is doing the asking. But Russia can borrow them for a while. The museum, weighing the priorities, has decided that the dominant one in this case is “the Enlightenment ideal that the greatest things in the world should be seen and studied, shared and enjoyed by as many people in as many countries as possible”. The trustees said in a statement that they “have always believed that such loans must continue between museums in spite of political disagreements between governments”.
But is that right? Does art stand apart from the worldwide effort to deal with Putin? I don’t want to buck the Enlightenment, but the arrangement makes me uneasy.
Think about the sanctions. What are they for? The concept is surely to show Russia that it cannot behave as it has been doing and expect life to continue as before. The logic is that bad behaviour must impair the country’s relationship with other critical countries around the world, and that when the repercussions of that start to bite at home, the social and economic backlash might force a leader such as Putin to modify his behaviour.
This is what aggrieved nations have decided to do in lieu of any other show of force. One might argue that the sanctions have not been terribly effective: a few of the regime’s cronies are finding it a bit more difficult to access funds around the world, but the bigger problem for Putin is the 40% drop in global oil prices that has meant a steep fall in the value of the Russian rouble. But sanctions are the weapon we have chosen. It means a degree of pressure on the Russian people. While the status quo exists, things cannot be normal – and that might mean that there aren’t so many exciting borrowed things to see in the national galleries. We would have been better off leaving the marbles where they are and doing something about the never-ending standoff with Greece.
We have been here before, of course. The debate about whether sport stands apart from the ugliness and complexity of real life crops up every now and then. Was it right that the renegade band of cricketers took blood-soaked shillings from the apartheid regime during the period of sanctions against white supremacist South Africa? No, it wasn’t. Sport doesn’t stand apart from life’s joy, pain and complexity. Sport is one of the ways those things manifest themselves. That’s why it touches us so deeply. It has a wider responsibility. So does art.
There are limits. No one would argue that if David Cameron falls out with Angela Merkel at a G8 dinner all normal contact with Germany should cease, but this is different. We have a definite position on dealing with Putin, whose ambitions are increasingly unnerving.
However flawed it may be, much of the world has a strategy. I am sure the decision to loan the marbles to St Petersburg was taken in good faith, but I think it was wrong and that the museum may regret it.
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