Sunday, March 2, 2014

A Great Loathing Resurfaces

It looks like the Russian state has completely lost any global credibility by first bullying and now invading the Ukraine. The Paralympics are (were?) due to start in a week. The US Secretary of State, John Kerry, is using terms like 'kleptocracy' and 'tyrant' to describe Putin and his government - hostile words that cannot readily be recalled.

As a citizen of two British Commonwealth countries, I can feel some guilt around China - the Opium Wars were not the West's finest hour in the 19th century. Along with the later Boer War and the Easter Rising, these warlike responses reflected an attitude we have thankfully long left behind. But clearly these instincts are still alive and well amongst the ruling class in the Russian Federation. We can look back to over nearly two centuries of grief from Russia, with little to feel ashamed about other than we could not help the Whites enough against the Reds after the October Revolution. Indeed the resources involved, and the number of Allied merchant sailors who died,  in supplying Stalin's Russia during the Second World War means they owe us one in a big way.

My parents served in the ambulance corps and home guard in London, England during that war, and so were appointed officers in the domestic Civil Defence organization set up in the 1950s to deal with the consequences of a Soviet nuclear attack. Their ICBMs would take four minutes to reach us, so our 'guaranteed' family spot in the shelters under our County Hall (at least 15 minutes away by car) would not have saved me. It was a frightening time to be a child. In the end the Russian Soviet empire never did attack us, but it is hard for my generation to forget how much we feared and loathed them.

The spectre of the antagonistic Russian Bear was something we absorbed from school history lessons about the Great Game the British 'played' with them during the C19th imperial conflicts from the Crimean War onward. When I arrived at university in the mid-1960s, a time when John le Carré started publishing his great Cold War spy novels, I was handed a leaflet (on reflection probably from a CIA front organization) that pictured and described Nazi war criminals then co-opted into the Soviet war machine. The Americans of course were doing the same, but I can still recall the paranoia it induced. It certainly helped dissuade me from giving the Ban-The-Bomb crowd the time of day.

It saddens me that Ukraine should become the spark that finally convinces us in the West that not much has changed in two centuries when it comes to how pally we can afford to become with Mother Russia. The one and a quarter million Ukrainians in Canada have made a fine contribution to civil society and scholarship. Since the Soviet Union dismantled, Russian immigration to the West has increased dramatically. It remains to be seen whether the contribution they will make will be in any way equivalent.

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