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Unveiling of Alexander Pushkin Bust

Remarks to unveiling ceremony, Australian National University, Canberra, 31 July 2018

Ambassador Grigory Logvinov, Colleagues and Friends

I am deeply honoured to accept, on behalf of ANU, this generous and thoughtful gift from the Russian Government of a bust of Russia’s iconic favourite son Alexander Pushkin to commemorate the 75th Anniversary of the establishment of our bilateral diplomatic relations.

I am also personally very honoured – though a little embarrassed, because I’m not quite clear what I might have done to deserve it – to receive this commemorative medal for contributions to consolidating international cultural cooperation.

I am sure that we are all acutely aware, as we gather here for this ceremony, that this is a rather delicate and difficult time for the Australia-Russia relationship, as it is for Russia’s relations with the West generally, with continuing tensions over, among other things, Crimea, the Eastern Ukraine, Georgia, concerns about possible undue influence in US elections and the Skripal poisoning affair in the UK. It may be that personal chemistry and goodwill between Presidents Trump and Putin will prove capable of breaking through some of the impasses that have afflicted the US-Russia relationship, (and may even get moving the next stages of the nuclear arms control agenda the whole world so desperately needs) but I don't think any of us should be holding our breath about that.

In Australia, the shooting down of MH17 just over four years ago continues to particularly burn in our collective memory. While it seems very likely that the militia member who pressed the button to fire the missile that caused so many Australian and other lives to be tragically lost did not intend to destroy a civilian airliner, unless and until that mistake is frankly acknowledged and redressed it is hard to see how any Australian government can invest our bilateral relationship with more substance.

All that frankly acknowledged, if we want a safer, saner, more peaceful, just and prosperous world, the beginning of wisdom in managing international relations – as it is in interpersonal relations – is to not become totally consumed with the issues that divide us, but to always be willing to identify that which unites us, and to find whatever common ground there might be on which to lay the foundations for more cooperative action.

One obvious channel for developing that common ground and understanding is in the area of national culture, for which – in the case of Russia – there continues to be profound respect in Australia, and certainly from me personally. How can anyone be immune from that respect who has read the masterpieces of Russian literature, or experienced the glories of Russian church architecture and its musical liturgy, or spent any time at all gliding along St Peterburg’s canals or walking in and around Moscow’s Red Square, or revelled in ballet and opera performances at the Bolshoi or Mariinsky, or travelled – as I first did in 1991 as Foreign Minister – across the vastness of this country, from Vladivostok to St Petersburg, or I did again as recently as last year in a river trip down the Neva and Volga from St Petersburg to Moscow, experiencing the magnificence along the way of cultural and religious centres like Uglich and Yarosavl?

My former diplomatic and now ANU colleague Kyle Wilson tells me that the widely respected Russian commentator Konstantin Eggert has written “We Russians acknowledge that all peoples are unique, but many of us believe that we are more unique”. I suspect Russians may not be alone in thinking that about themselves – there are some other countries who think they are very exceptional indeed – but in some ways Russians are utterly unique: what other people would rank one of their poets (the man of course whose bust we unveil today) as the second-most outstanding figure in global history and, moreover, include three Russian writers in the top twenty such figures?

Just as we in Australia and the West want Russia to understand the history, culture, interests and values that motivate and guide us when we are acting in accordance with our better selves, so too must we work to understand the historical currents, lived experiences and intellectual and emotional passions that lie at the core of the Russian soul, and which Alexander Pushkin so comprehensively embodies and articulates. If we are ever going to understand Russia, and work with Russia for a better world, we have to understand why Pushkin is so centrally and fundamentally important a figure for his compatriots.

Earlier generations of Russian scholars here at ANU were acutely conscious of Pushkin’s significance. I am told that the late great Professor Harry Rigby, who was the founding professor of Russian studies at the ANU, and in effect the founder of Russian and Soviet studies in the entire country, himself was given a bust of Pushkin by his grateful students, and that sat beside him for decades as he produced some of the finest scholarship on Soviet Russia ever published.

I hope and expect that this new and very grand Pushkin bust, with the very visible new home it will have in our School of Literature, Language and Linguistics, will not only inspire current and future generations of researchers and students, but also symbolise just how important it is to recognize – however tricky, and even perilous, diplomatic waters may from time to time may be – that there are some larger cultural ties that bind us in our common humanity, and that it is critically important to use every available channel to go on cultivating them.

In that context again, we welcome both the generosity and thoughtfulness of the Russian Government, and its representatives here in Canberra, in choosing the Australian National University to receive and house this splendid gift, and we will do everything we can to respect and reciprocate the spirit in which it has been given. Thank you.