It was a night of elegance – a benefit this past Thursday for the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra held at New York’s Knickerbocker Club, among the most-exclusive gentlemen’s clubs in the world. Allowing the rest of us into the Club now and then for a little chamber music and dinner and champagne helps to pay the bills for a building just off 5th Avenue in Midtown – some very expensive real estate indeed.
A short concert featured Antonin Dvořák’s Quintet for Strings No. 2 in G Major, Op 77, and included two young musicians from the Orchestra’s Academy. One was an American violinist; the other a Hungarian cellist. The American, Lucas Stratmann, told me later he began studying the violin at age 3-1/2.
But this isn’t about music.
The food was remarkably good, especially the Sevruga caviar atop an egg flan, served in an eggshell and accompanied by a fine white Burgundy. This was followed by loin of lamb wrapped in a veal-and-watercress mousseline, served with a 2014 Pauillac. Dessert was a dark-chocolate tartufo and a glass of Laurent-Perrier Champagne.
But this isn’t about the food or the wine.
The whole Vienna Philharmonic orchestra is in New York for concerts at Carnegie Hall, and we were privileged to hear a handful of these talented musicians in a venue that perfectly evoked the era in which Dvořák (1841-1904) composed.
It was a black-tie affair, and the women were beautiful, and the rooms were as they were when the Knickerbocker was founded in 1871, and as I looked around at the people and the rooms and the art on the walls . . .
But this isn’t about the ambience. It’s about this:
My mind went to moments in our history when we learned that Archduke Franz Ferdinand Carl Ludwig Joseph Maria of Austria had been assassinated (1914) or when news came that, despite the Munich Agreement, Hitler had invaded Poland (1939): it was all distant enough then to raise eyebrows but not to spark anxiety, because, surely, it did not involve the United States of America.
Except for the young musicians, there was not one person in the Club that night who’d be able to step forward to fight in WWIII, if that’s what Vladimir Putin is meaning to spark with his decision to send Russian troops into Ukraine.
I thought of books I’ve read (Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited) and movies I’ve seen (Curtiz’s Casablanca) about just this sort of lee before the winds of war rage. My older son (West Point ’09) left the Army as a captain a few years ago, married, and is now a father, and I don’t know what he would do if Mr. Putin’s rapaciousness draws European nations and, perhaps, the U.S. into a global war, especially if Mr. Xi decides that Putin’s territorial expansion is a capital idea.
I’m not a serious student of World War II, but I believe it became the worst conflagration in history in part because nations that would become the Allied Powers had been too long naïve or indifferent in failing to understand the ambitions of Nazi Germany and Fascist Japan and in not respecting their treaty obligations. Hitler was allowed to conquer Czechoslovakia. The Japanese invaded Manchuria in a classic false-flag action, which was actually the first of these illegal and immoral attacks, and China (not communist 1931) had cooperative agreements with several Western powers, none of whom came to assist.
Just as the Chinese today are watching Russia’s actions in Ukraine, the Germans watched the 1931 Japanese attack on China (and the West’s unresponsiveness), and sparks from the Far East rose and were blown west to ignite arid Europe into the conflagration that eventually, through fighting, disease, and deprivation, killed as many as 85-million people. And this was a war fought without nuclear weapons – until the bitter end.
The immediacy of our current danger was brought home at last week’s benefit by the announcement at the start of the concert that the conductor scheduled to lead the Philharmonic’s upcoming Carnegie Hall performances had suddenly “withdrawn.” He’s a Russian named Valery Gergiev.
He’s also a friend of Vladimir Putin, as is pianist Denis Matsuev, also scheduled to perform with the Philharmonic. Both have expressed support for the Russian annexation of Crimea. Carnegie Hall spokeswoman Synneve Carlino tersely explained that the “change was made due to recent world events.” But Lviv, Ukraine is just 490 miles from Vienna, and one hears that the Orchestra, which is self-governing, refused to perform with Gergiev and Matsuev.
Protestors in the streets of more than fifty Russian cities, including Moscow, have come out in the thousands, and millions more around the world have joined them. Putin has few friends left on this planet and deserves none.
The photo above (by Nick Lachance of Reuters) is of Alexandra Prockow at a protest in Toronto. Yes, the world watches. And Putin may have miscalculated the support not only of countless Russian civilians but also many of the military men and women he has sent into Ukraine. Even Putin’s supporters are stunned to discover his pledge to reclaim only the “Russian-speaking” areas of Eastern Ukraine is proved akin to Hitler’s promise that “the Sudetenland is all I want.”
Mr. Putin’s intellectual depravity led him to claim the invasion sought the “demilitarization and de-Nazification” of Ukraine, whose . . . Jewish president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, asked: “How can I be a Nazi? Explain it to my grandfather, who went through [WWII] in the infantry of the Soviet army and died a colonel in an independent Ukraine.” Three of Mr. Zelenskyy’s grandfather’s brothers perished in the Shoah.
God willing, both international and domestic pressure, economic and diplomatic, will escalate to an unbearable degree and force Putin to withdraw. Until then, we need to pray for peace, and God forbid WWIII ever comes.
I serve on our local board, but I dread to think the Selective Service System will begin anew to draft young American men . . . and women.
You may also enjoy:
Fr. Dwight Longenecker’s Putin, Peter, and the Wolf
Fr. Paul D. Scalia’s An Inheritance of Peace