March 02, 2014
Extreme wealth, whether honestly or dishonestly acquired, seems these days to bring forth little new except in the form and genre of vulgarity. Mr. Ambani’s skyscraper tower home in Bombay is a case in point: His aesthetic is that of the first-class executive lounge of an airport. Mr. Ambramovich’s ideal is that of a floating Dubai the size of an aircraft carrier. Only once have I been invited to a Russian oligarch’s home, and it struck me as a hybrid of luxurious modernist brothel and up-to-date operating theater. I saw some pictures recently of some huge Chinese state enterprise’s headquarters, and it appalled me how this nation, with one of the most exquisite, and certainly the oldest, aesthetic traditions on Earth, has gone over entirely to Las Vegas rococo (without the hint of irony or playfulness).
But it was the luxury and not the taste of Yanukovych’s homes that outraged the Ukrainians, for if by any chance they had come into money they would have done exactly the same, aesthetically speaking. Yanukovych may have been a dictator of sorts, but when it came to taste he was a man of the people. A horrified Ukrainian citizen, touring one of his homes after his downfall, was heard to exclaim, “All this beauty at our expense!”
As to politics, the Ukrainian crisis has once again revealed the European Union’s complete impotence. Physiognomy is an inexact science, but it is not so inexact that you cannot read the bemused feebleness on the faces of people such as Van Rompuy, Hollande, and Cameron, the latter so moistly smooth and characterless that it looks as though it would disappear leaving a trail of slime if caught in the rain. Mrs. Merkel has a somewhat stronger face, but then she has the advantage of having spent time in the Free German Youth (the East German communist youth movement), which must at least have put a modicum of iron in her soul.
Be that as it may, Russia holds all the trump cards in this situation. It can turn off Western Europe’s central heating at a stroke, and for Europeans such heating is the whole meaning and purpose of life”together with six-week annual holidays in Bali or Benidorm. Therefore Europe will risk nothing for the sake of Ukraine, except perhaps a few billion in loans of no one’s money, a trifle in current economic circumstances. If Bismarck were to return today, he would say that the whole of Ukraine was not worth the cold of one unheated radiator.