Over time, our leaders are often judged by their character as well as their actions
Tumultuous times often bring large personalities and politicians to the fore, but who will history decide to respect and remember?
We seem to be living in an era unusually full of events. Some are full of promise, some are worrying: international relations have not felt this fragile for a long time.
Throughout history, giant personalities have arisen in tumultuous times like these. It occurs to me that sometimes these people direct events and create chaos: I’ve seen Oliver Cromwell remembered in the press recently. At other times leaders seem to emerge in response to the need for stability – George Washington could fit that bill.
It is surely impossible to determine whether these personalities are exercising a malign or benevolent influence while they are still active. Indeed, I believe that both can be true and sometimes we can make judgments only from the perspective of history.
This is certainly true of leading figures in the Russian Revolution, the centenary of which will be marked this year, including by an exhibition of art and artefacts at the Royal Academy, one of my favourites exhibition spaces in London.
Revolution: Russian Art 1917-1932 will – for the first time – survey the entire artistic landscape of post-Revolutionary Russia, and include photography, sculpture, filmmaking by pioneers such as Eisenstein, and evocative propaganda posters. Curators of the show will bring the human experience to life with a full-scale recreation of an apartment designed for communal living, and with everyday objects ranging from ration coupons and textiles to brilliantly original Soviet porcelain.
It will also feature a rare image of Vladimir Lenin, the leader of the Bolsheviks, painted by Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin as the Bolshevik leader lay in state in his coffin in 1924.
The painting is rarely shown and spends most of its time in storage at the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. This is because Lenin’s body lies mummified inside the mausoleum in Red Square, Moscow, and there are presumably still some adherents to the mythology that he lives forever.
Even the Russians who know full well that Lenin is dead still think well of the man who presided over one of the country’s bloodiest times. I was quite surprised to learn that a poll conducted by the Levada Center in May 2013 found about 55 per cent of Russians said they had a positive or somewhat positive view of Lenin; only 1 per cent did not know who he was.
As for their other leaders, the one who has the biggest number of Russians thinking well of him is Leonid Brezhnev, who ran the Soviet Union in the rather miserable 1970s. Perhaps the West might be surprised to learn that Mikhail Gorbachev is the least liked of all Soviet leaders.
I would suggest that it is very human to look for strength and dynamism in others, and this is how cults of leadership often develop. But perhaps before choosing or revering a leader in times that are “interesting”, we could consider not their actions but their character. George Washington himself said: “I hope I shall possess firmness and virtue enough to maintain what I consider the most enviable of all titles, the character of an honest man.”
No wonder the world thinks back fondly of Washington; which personalities will survive such long-term scrutiny today, I wonder?
Bruno Wang, founder of the Pureland Foundation