Thursday, February 4, 2016

Russia - The Enemy Of a Lifetime

I was born after the Second German War ended in 1945, a few months before the Japanese Empire was eliminated by an atomic attack. Early in my childhood Churchill's prediction that Stalin's Soviet Union had the potential to be an even worse enemy was proving correct. Soviet espionage, aided by the fascination with Marxism that possessed some Western intellectuals, gifted Russia an atomic bomb after only a few years. My parents joined the Civil Defence, which was charged in Britain with preparing us for Soviet nuclear attack. As they had experience in the Blitz, Mum and Dad were made officers and our family was awarded a space in the underground bunker under our County Hall.

Even at breakneck speed this was a ten minute drive away, yet Soviet ICBMs were calculated to be over London in only four minutes. There was a certain amount of public education about how to survive the initial blast at home, but from the experience at Hiroshima and Nagasaki everyone knew it was basically hopeless. MAD (mutually assured destruction) was the political solution and the nuclear powers, soon joined by a virulently communist China, built up their arsenals, with the West, China and Soviet Union all trying to keep pace.

In my grammar school history lessons had focused a lot on the 'Great Game' of empire building between Russia and our Empire during the C19th, and it was not hard by the time I got to university to think of Russia as a perpetual enemy in a sense that even Germany couldn't compete with. 'Star Club' propaganda leaflets (undoubtedly produced by the US CIA), featuring former Nazis who were now high up in Warsaw Pact military echelons, were given out in the students union. For a time I joined my university's Officers Training Corps (militia) while other, in my mind very naive, students signed up for Ban The Bomb with its slogan 'Better Red than Dead', which I did not believe for one minute. A good friend, the brightest of my pals, was accepted to join MI6 where the pay was reputed to be fabulous.

There were periodic scares, of which the Berlin Airlift and the Cuban Missile Crisis stand out for me as the most worrying. Periodically one side or other would test an even more appalling nuclear device and the Iron Curtain was just that, a place where only the privileged got to meet anyone from across the other side. Shortly after starting work as a very junior university lecturer, I was delegated to spend an evening alone in my college's faculty common room entertaining a senior Russian academic visitor with whom my only shared language was hesitant French. It felt like meeting a Martian. That there were Chechens and Kazakhs and many assorted other non-Slavs living inside the Soviet empire was barely considered as none of us were ever going to meet one.

We read about the Gulag courtesy of translations of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s horrifying tales, and John Le Carre let us in on how wily and deceitful Soviet espionage had become. It is hard today to recall how fearful we were then of the intentions of the Soviet Russian Bear, especially those of us close by the action in Western Europe. Kennedy's assassination was doubly hard as this was the guy who stood up to the Russians in Cuba and won. 

When Mikhail Gorbachev and his glasnost crept up on us no-one could quite yet believe it would really change anything, given that the Cold War had been for so long a consistent reality. The Polish dock workers fight for democracy got a lot of admiration, especially given the many talented Polish emigres we had accepted in and after the War. This excitement was followed by the fall of the Berlin Wall with its accompanying Russian acquiescence to German reintegration. This remains the most unexpected and remarkable political turnaround of my lifetime.

However, while we felt some optimism around the 'Desovietisation' of the Russian empire under Yeltsin, especially when he stood firm against an incipient Communist revolt, the rise of ex-KGB colonel Vladimir Putin and his creeping restoration of the symbols, political creations (such as the primacy of the Orthodox Church), and corruptions of our former bugbear, Czarist Russia, and his subsequent imperial adventures in Georgia, Ukraine and now Syria seem to be ever more rapidly dragging us right back to the old familiar Them and Us / West and East /Social Democracy versus State tyranny. 

This article in a recent NYT illustrates the degree to which NATO once more is becoming an essential tool for global stability and the preservation of Western liberties. Who'd have thought, even a few short years ago, that an increasingly pernicious tyranny would arise in Russia in the first quarter of the C21st just as it had a century ago!

Dots mark new or updated Russian military bases since 2014. With the opening up of Arctic navigation due to global warming, these could increasingly threaten Europe and North America:

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