Sitting in a one-room flat in the suburbs outside Moscow in this late October 2012 I’ve been reading a review of letters from the Mary Whitehouse Archive in the Guardian Guardian review of Whitehouse letters. It seems rather appropriate. This week some self-styled association of Cossacks from St. Petersburg were the latest to fire some shots in Russia’s culture war. They attacked the locally-based but internationally known film director, Aleksandr Sokurov stating that he promoted sodomy and homosexuality and seem to have scored a victory in the cancellation of a theatrical performance of Lolita Cancellation of Lolita as well as an exhibition promoted by Marat Guelman entitled Icons. There seems to be some uncertainty about the identity of this group of ‘Cossacks’ but this is simply one of a number of blows in the culture wars that have been going on for some years but seem to have flared up in recent months since the Pussy Riot affair. Another interview with a self-styled moralizer, a certain Tatiana Borikova in an interview with Взглядseems to have taken the taken the rhetoric one step further by referring to a number of unnamed theatre directors popular in Europe are ‘tramps and paedophiles’, continually using the word извращенцы (perverts) for named directors including Kirill Serebrennikov and even Oleg Tabakov. She suggests at one point that they should perform their plays elsewhere – somewhere in Kaliningrad, or “on the moon”. Vzgliad interview
To explain the long list of actions in this culture war between art and religion here in Russia is not the main aim of this post. I have written briefly about the case of Anna Alchuk previously and the history surrounding the Beware Religion exhibition at the Sakharov Centre in Moscow almost a decade ago has been written about even if not as extensively as its significance may warrant. It seems almost too petty to mention the name of Mary Whitehouse who had more the reputation of an irritant than as a significant force in cultural history in the UK. Yet it would be instructive to remember some of the roots of Whitehouse’s thinking as well as some of the cases that she involved herself in (as well as to bring some scepticism to the idea that she was, at worst, harmless or even had some positive contributions to make as Mary Kenny argued not too long ago Mary Kenny’s defence of Mary Whitehouse. ) One article in the Guardian four years ago called her a rottweiler in a twin set and this is, arguably, not a bad characterization. She associated herself with a group of extremely right-wing personalities such as Jane Birdwood who were anti-immigrant, anti-semitic and ultra fascist (Birdwood published a pamphlet denying the Holocaust and was sentenced to a three months suspended sentence for stirring up racial hatred in 1994) as well as having her roots in the so-called Moral Re-Armament Movement of Frank Buchman (formerly known as the Oxford Group). Reinhold Niebuhr had this to say about Buchman:
a Nazi social philosophy has been a covert presumption of the whole Oxford group enterprise from the very beginning. We may be grateful to the leader for revealing so clearly what has been slightly hidden. Now we can see how unbelievably naïve this movement is in its efforts to save the world. If it would content itself with preaching repentance to drunkards and adulterers one might be willing to respect it as a religious revival method which knows how to confront the sinner with God. But when it runs to Geneva, the seat of the League of Nations, or to Prince Starhemberg or Hitler, or to any seat of power, always with the idea that it is on the verge of saving the world by bringing the people who control the world under God-control, it is difficult to restrain the contempt which one feels for this dangerous childishness.
Buchman was also on record as stating in an interview that “I thank heaven for a man like Adolf Hitler, who built a front line of defense against the anti-Christ of Communism.” These then were the ‘intellectual and moral roots’ of Whitehouse. It is worth looking too at her and her victories or near victories- Stanley Kubrick was to withdraw his film Clockwork Orange from Britain after her campaign against it and she also managed to secure a victory in a case of blasphemy against Gay News for publishing James Kirkup’s poem The Love That Dares to Speak its Name and although she finally lost the case against Michael Bogdanov in the case over the the play The Romans in Britain she scored a legal victory in making theatre subject to the Sexual Offences Act. The extraordinary story of this case is recounted here The Romans in Britain What seems extraordinary is that she seemed so near to winning this case too and even though she lost it, Howard Brenton has argued quite rightly that “notoriety is destructive in the arts. The work disappears in the strobe-light barrage of scandal, moral hysteria and media frenzy”. In the case of The Romans in Britain the whole meaning of the play was ignored (it was probably one of the few plays which had something serious to say about British colonialism in Northern Ireland and the crimes of war so the moral frenzy and hysteria was also a kind of smokescreen to silence this deeply uncomfortable subject from being aired.
So in effect the image of Mary Whitehouse as being an irritant figure of fun who was the laughing stock of British society doesn’t quite explain the fact that her campaigns were much more effective than people actually thought. In 2008 the BBC itself produced a drama about the Whitehouse Story which actually portrayed her in much more sympathetic terms than her nemesis at the BBC, Hugh Greene. Yet she was prepared to use the law to impose her own ‘moral agenda’ in response to what she once told an interlocutor was a ‘liberal conspiracy designed to destroy Britain’s leading role in civilization’.
It is strange to think that her obsessions and paranoid way of thinking could have a whole army of followers & that her virulent legacy lives on. Yet sitting here in the Moscow Region the liberal conspiracy theory, the moral frenzy, the attacks on theatre directors and on art per se’ has seriously stepped up a few gears. The suspended and cancelled plays and exhibitions are already becoming a regular occurrence. The homophobic Whitehouse and her friend Baronness Birdwood will surely be dancing in their graves at what the deputy in the St Petersburg legislative assembly and co-author of a law forbidding the promotion of homosexuality in the city had to say when a Moscow gay bar was attacked by fascist thugs that is:
it was the ”result of the obnoxious, crude and permissive behavior of the gay community. …What other reaction could there be when, in response to democratic actions, they run around like jackals at consulates, beg for another grant and write letters demanding that the authorities be punished? This is a warning to the gay community so that they don’t forget that they live in the Russian Federation, a country with a healthy historical and cultural legacy.
The obsessions of these ‘moral guardians’ are the same the world over- the time scales may differ, the degrees of success, but the language is the same (purity, spirituality, moral rectitude and the obsession with filth and uncleanliness). The ghost of Mary Whitehouse is alive and well and playing havoc with the cultural agenda in contemporary Russia. Her legacy was never really buried in her own country but here, in Russia, the legacy of Moral Re-Armament seems to have acquired a definite and poisonous virulence.