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Ukraine: The Russian Perspective; The Nazis' War on Modern Art; Imagine a World

Aired April 17, 2014 - 14:00:00   ET


CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN HOST: Good evening, everyone, and welcome to the program. I'm Christiane Amanpour.

For the first time since the bloody Ukraine crisis erupted, the main actors in this drama met face-to-face today. Ukraine, Russia, the United States and the European Union all got around the table in Geneva.

And afterwards the U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry announced an agreement by all sides to deescalate the violence.


JOHN KERRY, SECRETARY OF STATE: We agreed today that all illegal armed groups must be disarmed, that all illegally seized buildings must be returned to their legitimate owners and all illegally occupied streets, squares and other public places in Ukrainian cities and towns must be vacated.

Now I want to emphasize that Ukraine's leaders indicated that they are prepared to go to extraordinary lengths to address regional demands for more autonomy, for local self-government, for the protection of minority rights.

AMANPOUR (voice-over): But even as those talks were underway, two time zones away the Russian President Vladimir Putin says that he has the authority to invade Ukraine, although he added that he hopes he doesn't have to.

VLADIMIR PUTIN, PRESIDENT OF RUSSIA (through translator): I hope that people will manage to understand what trap, what pit this government, the Ukrainian authorities are going into. It's very important that these talks have started because, in my opinion, it's very important to think about how to get out of this situation, to propose to people a real way for real dialogue.


AMANPOUR: But even while he's hoping for dialogue and success at the talks, ominously Putin all but claimed Eastern Ukraine for Russia, quote, "God only knows why cities like Kharkiv, Donetsk and Odessa are part of Ukraine," he said, territory that he is now referring to as New Russia.

In that marathon question-and-answer session today, Putin also admitted for the first time that Russian forces were active in Crimea, insisting yet again that he needs to defend Russian-speaking people in Ukraine despite polls that show they do not feel under threat and don't want his protection.

The comments raised the stakes after 10 days of spiraling violence. Now three pro-Russian separatists are dead in southeastern Ukraine. It has been the bloodiest day yet in this latest phase of violence.

So is a peaceful resolution possible at all? Earlier I spoke to the Russian member of parliament, Vyacheslav Nikonov. He's a key member for President Putin's United Russia party.


AMANPOUR: Mr. Nikonov, welcome to the program. Thank you for joining me today.


AMANPOUR: What do you expect to come out of the talks that are underway in Geneva right now?

NIKONOV: Well, I would not expect much. But actually there are very few things the Ukrainian government can do now to keep their country together.

I think the Ukrainians -- the Ukrainian authorities still have a possibility to start constitutional reform, which would allow people in the east and south of Ukraine to elect their governors as you elect governors in the United States or we elect governors in Russia.

And of course let the people there speak their native language. And I think if it is not too late, that's the only thing the government can do except for definitely tanks and purges (ph).

And of course people in south and east should be provided some very serious arguments why they should stay inside Ukraine because, you know, 30 miles from Kharkiv or from Donetsk or from Lukasz, there is Russia, where pensions update, where salaries update, where living standards is what are higher than in Ukraine and where people speak freely their Russian language.

AMANPOUR: Mr. Nikonov, clearly some of the things you are talking about have already been agreed to or at least they're going to talk about them, according to the Kiev authorities, the issue of Russian as an official second language or an official language, the issue of more autonomy and a referendum for those areas that you're talking about.

But I'm very keen to probe you on what you just said, that they will have a hard time keeping Ukraine together.

The poll that has just been taken on the ground in Ukraine and Crimea suggests very, very strongly that despite Russia's claims the people on the ground are not feeling what you say.

For instance, a majority of those polls say they do not feel threatened by the Ukrainian authorities. A majority of those polls in east, west, south and in Crimea, all those areas, they want to stay part of an independent Ukraine and also want to have relations with the E.U.

So how do you answer those voices from the people?

NIKONOV: Well, actually, this is a psychological warfare which is going on. And all the polls in Crimea always show that at least 80 percent of the Crimeans wanted to get back home (ph). And actually the referendum results are absolutely true. That's the real feeling of the people in the Crimea.

As for the polls, in Eastern and Southern Ukraines, I don't think there are any trustworthy (ph) polls. And actually that's what Putin said today, that we do not know the real feelings of the people there.

And what we would like to see is the possibility for those people to express their will in some way, in some democratic way, not being just suppressed by tanks or.

AMANPOUR: I mean, I think you probably agree that the Ukrainian authorities have been incredibly restrained in their military response, precisely because they don't want to provoke any more Russian military intervention.

But I know that we're arguing about, as you said, a propaganda war, the different polls.

This one does seem to be very credible, though, and it does back up what the United Nations has also reported, that the majority of those people interviewed there, despite Russian claims, do not feel under threat right now.

So I guess the question is, if there was to be a referendum and the results of this poll was borne out, would Russia accept it?

Would Russia accept that Ukraine wants to stay whole and unified and part of Ukraine?

It wants to have closer relations with the E.U.?

NIKONOV: Well, OK, no question about it. If there is a referendum including in the Eastern Ukraine, in a peaceful manner, yes. As of now, what's going on there is just a military operation against your own people.

I would not see any restraint on the side of the authorities in Kiev. There are not just tanks, which are moving, but also artillery and there are bombers which are flying over the protesting people, who are -- really these are peaceful protests.

And of course if all these people want to stay in Ukraine under the leadership of Mr. Turchynov or Mr. Yatsenyuk, whom they never elected and who are nobody for the people in east and south, you know, these people are protesting and not because they are inspired by somebody, but because they do not like what is going on there.

They just don't like how their rights are respected. They just want to live. They -- you know, this -- Ukraine now is not a functioning state.

AMANPOUR: The parliament has given the president, as he said today, the authority to invade if he decides that's necessary. I want to know -- and you yourself have said that that might be necessary.

So do you still believe that is a possibility?

NIKONOV: I do not see that possibility except for one -- for one occasion: if there is a full-scale civil war in Ukraine and government forces using artillery and aircraft against their own people.

I would not expect that happen though, of course, the nowadays Ukrainian authorities, the so-called interim government is not very adequate.

So I'm not quite sure what are they going to do, what they're up to.

AMANPOUR: You keep talking about artillery and air force. Our reporters down there have actually not seen anything like this, despite the claims by Russia and on Russian television and other media.

Why is it that Russia doesn't use its influence to deescalate the situation?

In other words, these people, you're saying, you know, are very pro- Russian, are ethnically Russian. Russia could just say, look, let's all calm down; let's all take a step back. Let's wait for the talks. Let's wait for referendums and elections.

But Russia isn't doing that.

NIKONOV: Well, we did not start this whole mess in Ukraine. That was a regime change operation with some American assistance at least, Victoria Nuland said about $5 billion U.S. spent to promote democracy in Ukraine, which is oftentimes a code word for regime change.

And when the Right sector, the nationalists, ultra-nationalists were doing the same thing in Western Ukraine, they were storming government buildings in Kiev, no one told them that they should be restrained actually.

Actually even today, the city council in Kiev is captured by the Right sector. They can -- the government cannot remove them from the capital city hall.

As for nowadays, what people in the east, they are really arming now because they feel like really threatened. There are forces moving against them. There are people from Right sector who are moving there with arms. And unlike the military, who obey to some orders and to some laws, the Right sector is not. They're just shooting.

And they are threatened. They feel their families threatened, their life threatened. And so at this situation, tell the people in the east to calm down? They will not do it. And they're not puppets of the Russian Federation. They're citizens of Ukraine, though they are Russian.

AMANPOUR: Mr. Nikonov, thank you very much indeed for joining me.

NIKONOV: Thank you.


AMANPOUR: And here's an interesting postscript about Mr. Nikonov. He is the grandson of Vyacheslav Molotov, who was minister of foreign affairs under Joseph Stalin in the Soviet era and, of course, the namesake of the Molotov cocktail. So see what Mr. Nikonov thinks of that on our website at

And while the propaganda war rages on Russia's borders and the Kremlin increasingly appears to be a hall of self-reflecting mirrors, we'll take you down the corridors of time back when the Nazis made an art of propaganda and declared war on modern masterworks. The renowned historian, Simon Schama, is our guide on a tour that you won't soon forget. That's when we come back.




AMANPOUR: Welcome back to the program.

Now the use of propaganda and the willingness to reshape history is hardly unique to the government of Vladimir Putin and what's going on over Ukraine right now.

In fact, the modern art of propaganda reached new heights or depths back in the 1930s by Adolf Hitler, when the Nazis, when they declared war on modern art itself.

An extraordinary exhibit at the Neue Galerie here in New York City is drawing huge crowds to see the kind of artwork that the Nazis admired hanging side-by-side with the kind they despised, what they called degenerate art. The acclaimed historian, Simon Schama, took me on a tour. And he offered a chilling reminder that first they came for the art, and then they came for everyone else.


AMANPOUR: What is degenerate art?

SIMON SCHAMA, HISTORIAN: Well, degenerate art was a response to the city, to the modern city above all. It corrupted the ancient innocence of the German farmer, the stocky guildsman. You think about all those Wagnerian operas, not just of mythical figures with cattle horns on their helmets, but also noble townsmen in poetry and singing competitions.

So degenerate art presupposes there was health in the past and it was the Nazis' job to be the ultimate political doctors, to restore that health and the art bit of that were these beefy classical bodies and it's a very physical ideology, Nazism.

AMANPOUR (voice-over): And we walked through the galleries to see exactly what Simon meant.

AMANPOUR: Simon, this is the kind of art that they liked, that he liked, that the --


AMANPOUR: -- this kind of heroic, very representational art.

SCHAMA: Yes, exactly, sort of Nazi beefcake, really, actually.


SCHAMA: It's sort of soldiers and sailors doing magnificent things, although the --


AMANPOUR: -- that's very --

SCHAMA: Yes, incredible. Well, actually, this style, it has to be said, was you know, not dissimilar from what you would see in the Soviet Union, either, these immense kind of, you know, bicep testosterone surging Nazis. What Hitler liked -- what he hated was really what he thought was the literal deforming of art by Modernist tastes.

AMANPOUR: So this room is about the contrast. Even the wall is painted a different color.

What are we looking at here?

SCHAMA: Well, you're looking at the triptych behind Hitler's fireplace. This is called "The Four Elements," otherwise known as "Four Waitresses with a Chamberpot," really, but it's an example of the clinical, sanitized apt perfection which Hitler really wanted.

This on the other hand, you know, just look at them, and one is absolutely glowing with invention and creativity. It's full of an engagement with the 20th century but done in a new painterly language.

By the way, all the -- all the artists, very, very few were actually Jewish, they were deemed to be -- there were signs in the exhibit saying "Yiddish view of farmers," even if you weren't Jewish, you could be Jewish in the mind.

I think there's sort of the extraordinary thing was that --


AMANPOUR: So they blamed everything on Jews.

SCHAMA: Yes, absolutely. Secretly, of course, many of an artist, not Hitler, did love this stuff, actually. I mean, or liked it enough --

AMANPOUR: Did they go to see this?

SCHAMA: -- to hide it away -- almost certainly they did.

AMANPOUR: So tell me, because there were these exhibitions, these competing exhibitions.

SCHAMA: Yes, well, 2 million people went to see the so-called Degenerate Art Exhibition and we don't have, you know, obviously very frightened to say, ooh, I came to hate and I exited loving it. But obviously you know, really, you don't queue for hours and hours just in order to be disgusted, you want to have a good time.

And this was three times the number of people who went to see the rival exhibition of great German art, you know. So it was a propaganda disaster really.

AMANPOUR: And yet it was criminally effective.

SCHAMA: Actually even though it was not factually true, that modern art was a Jewish plot like Jewish medicine and psychoanalysis were literally kind of poison inside the body of Germany, to that extent probably people who didn't go and see the show, but who listened to what it was meant to represent, that contributed to the horrible dehumanization of the Jews.

AMANPOUR: What about Hitler particularly himself, made him go out, look, we all read that Hitler was a good artist.

SCHAMA: No, no, no. He's an absolute terrible artist. But you really do wish that they'd let him into the Vienna Arts School, because he might not have been so traumatically alienated. No, we'll never know. And he was a horrible artist. There were traditional academic German artists who were nondescript. If only Hitler had been merely nondescript, you know. He might actually have got into the Vienna School --

AMANPOUR: But do you think his attack on modern art, so-called degenerate art --

SCHAMA: It was profound --

AMANPOUR: -- was because of his own --

SCHAMA: Yes, yes, no, he carried on painting, let -- you know, there were two painters fighting the Second World War, Churchill and Hitler. And so actually Churchill, not a great artist, but much less terrible than -- you know, I think if they'd had fought it out with their brushes, you know, maybe the world would have been a more peaceful place.

AMANPOUR: Maybe so.

This exhibition is being hung at a time when we're in the anniversaries, 100 years of World War I, 70 years of World War II, but also at a time when we see propaganda fueling the fires of yet another war in Europe, for instance in Russia-Ukraine.

What is the danger of playing around with this kind of culture?

SCHAMA: Well, I think, you know, there are two views, one is that really all art should be an obedient slave of ideology, that nothing is more important.

Art -- you know, all great art is made out of a sense of imaginative rebellion. And also often the role of modern artists is to make you not sleep very well at night. It's supposed to trouble you, to stir you up, to see things anew.

Fanatical ideologies, whether they're religious ideologies, totalitarian ideologies, don't really like that.

I'll tell you something else, Christiane, that you know, very often the masters of that fanatical view say, well, ordinary people don't like modern art. They don't understand it; they don't get it; they hate it. It's all a conspiracy of a snobby elite.

Well, museums like MoMA here in New York or the Tate Modern in London or Pompidou in France give the lie to that because millions upon millions of millions of people who never would go through the door of a museum of boring classical art, can be seen pouring through the turnstiles. They love it.

AMANPOUR: Well, they loved it apparently back in 1937 as well.

SCHAMA: They -- yes.

AMANPOUR: So why is it important that this exhibition is hung today?

SCHAMA: Well, I think probably, you know, I mean when actually walking through it, you look at these works and you have this extraordinary sense of the life force, of the greatness of German and other kinds of Modernism, created in explosive color, real freedom of the human spirit.

And do you know, I kind of miss that right now in contemporary art. Contemporary art has become a branch of fashion now and it's lost, actually, that life force, which is -- covers the wall there, totalitarianism is not the enemy of art. Now mindless fashionability is the true foe.

AMANPOUR: Simon Schama, thank you very much indeed.

SCHAMA: It's a pleasure as always.


AMANPOUR: And among the many fascinating aspects of this exhibit on so-called degenerate art is a mere five minutes of black-and-white film from 1937, thanks to this rare and remarkable footage, we'll take to the original art show when we come back.

But first we want to leave you going to a break with this chilling echo of the past. Today during their press conference in Geneva, the U.S. government accused some members of the pro-separatist Russian groups in Eastern Ukraine of hounding Jewish members of Eastern Ukraine and that region by handing out leaflets as Jews were coming out of synagogues during Passover services, demanding that they self-identify as Jews. This is what Secretary Kerry said about all of that.


KERRY: Just in the last couple of days, notices were sent to Jews in one city, indicating that they have to identify themselves as Jews. And obviously the accompanying threat implies is -- or threatened or suffer the consequences one way or the other.

In the year 2014, after all of the miles traveled and all of the journey of history, this is not just intolerable, it's grotesque.




AMANPOUR: And finally tonight, imagine a world where we can turn back the clock and be among the millions of people who saw the controversial Degenerate Art Exhibition for the very first time. A mere five minutes of black-and-white film, one of the survivors of Hitler's war, tells this story.

It begins with the huge soulless structure called the House of German Art, dedicated in Munich by the Fuhrer himself and meant to showcase Nazi- approved works of art.

From there, the scene shifts to the cramped interior of the hastily arranged exhibit near Bayh, where Hitler's minions wanted to expose the evils of modern art.

But it backfired, because huge crowds were drawn to the shabby little building that housed so-called degenerate art, a million visitors in just the first six weeks.

When you study their faces as they study the artwork, you can't help but wonder, are they following the Nazi party line and disapproving? Or are they secretly delighting in the very works they were meant to despise? And were they remotely aware that this was just the beginning of a nightmare that would engulf Germany and all of Europe, when the attack on art and culture gave way to a wholesale slaughter of millions of their fellow human beings?

And that's it for our program tonight. Remember you can always contact us at our website,, and follow me on Twitter and Facebook. Thanks for watching and goodbye from New York.