Posts Tagged 'Russia'

Pity is superfluous

Brexit thoughts: I’ve just come back from Warsaw, where I was attending a symposium on Ukraine at the College of Europe. It hit me at the airport of course, where I walked straight along the EU passport line while most other passengers off the plane from Ukraine shuffled along the winding ‘other passports’ queue. Soon I’ll be in that second line; ‘Take back control’ will have put me in line with the Ukrainians. (And if you think that sentence sounds offensive, I’m wondering if you voted for brexit).

The symposium was a truly European event where speakers switched effortlessly from Polish to French to Ukrainian to English to German – European in the best sense of the word: multilingual, tolerant, open-minded, interested, informed, outward-looking (and possibly just the tiniest bit smug). It was the anniversary of Russia’s annexation of Crimea. We met at the college’s beautiful campus in a former royal palace, while Crimeans were busy being forced to inform their employers or the administrations of their children’s schools that they had done the required and voted in the Russian presidential elections. Corbyn was busy saying yes it is Russia’s fault that there was a chemical weapons attack on British soil but no, we still shouldn’t jump to conclusions. A few more soldiers were busy dying in east Ukraine, a few more civilians on the frontline were busy shivering with no water and electricity as the snow fell again. The Russian state was busy lying as usual. A pilot falsely accused by Russian propaganda of shooting down MH17 committed suicide. We sat and talked about things that scare me, and I felt a part of this conversation but also not a part, because soon my country is not going to belong to this group that is already in Europe or that wants to be. Soon my country will not have the backing of 27 allied member states next time Russia decides to attack. We’ll be in that other, shuffling and winding line.

After the symposium I went to the Museum of the Warsaw Uprising. On display were cherished personal possessions donated by people who survived those two months of 1944 when the Polish Home Army took on, and were destroyed by, the German occupying forces while the Soviets watched from the other side the Vistula. Among the children’s dresses and PoW identifying tags and family photos and home-made medics’ armbands stained with seventy-year-old blood, there are British army uniforms worn by Poles from the Home Army trained in Britain.

The Warsaw uprising is not a beautiful and tragic and stirring story of heroism and alliance; the uprising was probably declared too early by the Polish government in exile, and Britain and the other allies didn’t do much to help, they were too concerned about agreement with Stalin while the British press followed Soviet propaganda (George Orwell wrote at the time that the media and left-wing intellectuals “know no more about Poland than I do. All they know is that the Russians object to the [exiled Polish] London Government and have set up a rival organization, and so far as they are concerned that settles the matter […] Their attitude towards Russian foreign policy is not ‘Is this policy right or wrong?’ but ‘This is Russian policy: how can we make it appear right?’ And this attitude is defended, if at all, solely on grounds of power. The Russians are powerful in eastern Europe, we are not: therefore we must not oppose them. This involves the principle, of its nature alien to Socialism, that you must not protest against an evil which you cannot prevent.”)

But I felt so sad looking at those British uniforms, that had been preserved and treasured by their Polish owners and our allies, because they seemed to symbolise something that was good amid the horror of war, and which we are now wilfully losing. Now we are self-pityingly complaining about Poles and everyone else taking our jobs as we turn our backs on the peaceful alliance that is the EU, and Poles are turning their backs on democracy and rule of law that are the founding principles of the EU.

warsaw museum uniforms

British army uniforms donated to the museum by Poles from the Home Army

The photos of Warsaw in 1945 look like Aleppo 2018. I walked back through the city centre along streets of rebuilt 18th century housing, rebuilt palaces, rebuilt churches; newer built blocks of flats and monuments, even newer shiny skyscrapers. Coffee shops; tourists; the obligatory band in Peruvian ponchos playing Leonard Cohen on panpipes… Absolutely everything in Warsaw is new, or new pretending to be old, and in a way it’s incredibly encouraging because it’s taken seventy years to do this. Just seventy years; less than a person’s lifetime, to completely rebuild a city. Maybe it’ll take less than that time to rebuild Aleppo. But you’ve still lost something forever. Someone, someone, a thousand, a million.

When World War 2 ended – I learned this after visiting the museum –  the British were worried about the more than hundred thousand Poles who had come over as part of the Polish government in exile and Army in the West. There was concern they would take British jobs. At least they were not sent back to Soviet-controlled Poland, where Home Army members were executed or put into prison camps.

These days, Poles are among the most vociferously opposed in the EU to letting in Syrians or refugees from any other destroyed country that might resemble their own seventy years ago. Poland often justifies this refusal by saying it has already let in over a million Ukrainians (as workers, not as refugees from annexed Crimea or the warzone in east Ukraine). More than 50 percent of foreign students and 60 percent of foreign workers in Poland are from Ukraine. These are the people who should have a fast track at Warsaw airport, not me.

Yet at the same time Poland is waging a self-pitying memory war with Ukraine, over atrocities committed against Poles in World War 2 while Britain was providing Poles with training and army uniforms and signing agreements with Stalin to divide up their country. Brexit is a memory war about the control Britain supposedly had back then, under Churchill who signed that agreement.

History; memory; all of this: airports and passport queues, European colleges in rebuilt aristocrat’s palaces, museums and coffee and croissants and multi-lingual debates and nationalist marches and annexation and wars by proxy and refugees in tents and International Humanitarian Law and the EU and brexit, to have come out of the history of total devastation of World War 2. All this in just 70 years. So much was built and rebuilt and yet we all ended up being victims – of immigration, of Brussels technocrats, of historical massacres, of faceless international corporations, of NATO, of conspiracy theories. We got lost in pitying ourselves, and we forgot pity.

“But pity is superfluous wherever a sentence is pronounced by History” – Czeslaw Milosz.

warsaw milosz

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On Alexander Litvinenko

This is from my novel Petrushka set in London in 1907 – about, among other things, Russian secret services operating in Britain, and a relationship between a double agent and his handler. I started writing it in about 2008; it’s based largely on historical events at the turn of the 20th century.

I think I’m posting this particular extract because this strange sad detail jumped out at me from this account of Litvinenko’s death:  that his MI6 handler apparently had no idea he was even in hospital with poisoning.

(For Okhrana read FSB, for Special Branch read MI6… you get the gist.)

“…I knew what would happen to Neschastny – to Kyril Voronin.”

Gideon wanted to hold Jeannie’s hand, but he hadn’t had a chance to wash his own, and the last person he’d touched had been a lonely megalomaniac wearing most of his guts on his outside. “When the Okhrana put me on to him last year, yes maybe I thought I’d be doing my bit to protect innocent bystanders from bombs… But I know the Okhrana’s reputation. It wasn’t information they wanted anymore from him. What they wanted was trust.”

By then agent Neschastny had become a liability, likely to break down and confess all. The Okhrana did not want him, and neither did Special Branch once it became clear he had nothing useful to tell about his comrades or his masters. “They just needed him to feel he was still important, still protected – and that was my job. To become his friend.”

Because that was what Gideon Thwaite did. Even when he’d been a regular copper, he hadn’t just moved on vagrants and fished out suicides, had he; he’d made friends with them first. Yorkshireman Thwaite, the maverick joke at Special Branch with his peculiar relationships with riffraff and revolutionists; the even-tempered eccentric no one could help but like.

“And did he?”

“Did he what?”

“Become your friend.”

That was his Jeannie: straight to the point. What was the last thing he had ever said to Neschastny? He had already given the order by then, to call off his men who shadowed the Russian day and night. The Okhrana had made no enquiry about their agent for weeks; the commissioner had blinked his habitual blind eye long enough to ask a pointed question about Thwaite’s interesting assignment of manpower. Thwaite had already known when he had said, mostly reluctantly, “It’s a dangerous game you’re playing. Don’t get killed, will you.”

“I won’t.” Neschastny had smiled a crooked smile. “I still have one thing left to live for.”

And the man had lied, because he was an informer and what informers do is lie; days later he had got himself killed by a Russian state assassin on British soil in scandalously public fashion.

And did he become your friend?

Gideon stared at his hands. “Yes, he did.”

“Poor him.”

“Yes.”

Curiouser and curiouser

The first day of Spring, and a cold wind blowing in Chisinau, Moldova.

News is still coming in about opposition politician Boris Nemtsov’s murder in Russia beneath the Kremlin’s walls. It’s just over a year since Crimea was invaded by Russian troops that the Kremlin lied about. Two days since the Kremlin declared a national holiday for the Russian special forces that are sustaining a war now in Luhansk and Donetsk in east Ukraine, and that created one 23 years ago on the right bank of the river Dnistr that split Moldova before it even had a chance to be one country.

In Chisinau, the morning streets are lined with stalls selling red and white crocheted amulets – bells, flowers, hearts, suns. It’s Martisor today, a spring holiday based on ancient myths spread across this region, about blood and snow and rebirth.

“I don’t know,” says my taxi driver, when I ask what the festival is about. “It isn’t my holiday. I’m not Moldovan.”

Sergei – let’s call him that – says he’s Ukrainian (almost every taxi driver I’ve encountered so far has been Ukrainian). He left Luhansk years ago to live here; his father is Moldovan. I say he’s lucky he left Luhansk long before the war started; he shrugs and says, “It’s not so great here. Everyone I know has left or is leaving.”

Life is visibly very hard in Moldova; not enough work, horribly low salaries and pensions. Sergei lists his friends who have gone to seek work in Canada, England, Ireland, Germany… He himself wants to go to Russia. “I’d be comfortable there. It’s all familiar, I know the language. I never managed to learn Moldovan, it’s not that I couldn’t, but… I feel comfortable in Russian.” He tells me about a friend living now in Germany, and how she doesn’t like that everything there is not like in Russian-speaking Moldova. “Even the way they visit each other at home is different,” he says, with a sort of resigned, vaguely surprised disapproval.

He asks me if it’s true that it rains all the time in England. “I couldn’t live in a rainy country,” he says, and rhapsodises about the joy of sunshine in Spring, which is a joy common to all of us.

Russian popsa is playing on the radio; if I asked him to switch to a news station it would be in Russian, of course, and it would be listing, in that important voice of supressed excitement that Russian newscasters have perfected, the numerous ridiculous theories about who murdered Nemtsov, and Putin would be abusing the word ‘provocation’ and offering condolences to Nemtsov’s mother who just days earlier warned her son he was likely to be killed. Outside, Moldovans are buying pretty red and white knitted amulets to celebrate spring, in another world as far as Sergei is concerned here in his closed Russian-language information bubble.

It isn’t just closed to him by a language barrier, it’s closed by his lack of interest, motivation or curiosity. He doesn’t speak Moldovan, he doesn’t speak English. He doesn’t have to, there are dozens of Russian TV channels here to choose from, there are thousands of Russians and Russian-speaking Ukrainians, he may not have bothered to learn Moldovan but most Moldovans have bothered to learn Russian.

It’s very easy to stay snug in his information bubble, protected from a big bad world that doesn’t have a place for him. It’s much easier to retreat as he is told all the time that he is under imminent threat of attack from all sides, and yet is part of a unassailably great Russian-speaking empire.

It’s human nature to want what is familiar,what makes us comfortable, and god knows life is so hard for people here they could be forgiven for wanting to hide from it (god knows there are enough British people without that excuse, buying villas in Romania or Moldova without ever developing the slightest interest in those countries’ culture and language, god knows it’s a great British tradition…)

But it’s also human nature to be curious (isn’t it?)

The Soviet system killed curiosity. It spread a whole population of incurious monolinguists from Sakhalin to Chisinau who just want to be comfortable speaking Russian and are prepared to fight and to lie about who is fighting so that they can remain comfortable and ignorant.

Sergei is in his twenties. That’s the age when you’re supposed to want to see the world, learn new things, collect experiences. Somehow, Sergei and thousands like him have been denied that desire, not by an iron curtain across a continent but by something worse: an iron curtain inside their heads.

I never really understood the saying ‘curiosity killed the cat’, but it might have been invented by Stalin or by Putin. Incuriosity kills tolerance. Kills development. Kills plurality, self-awareness, critical thinking, empathy, honesty – and even the small joys in life, like learning the weird and wonderful rules of hospitality in other countries. Like knowing what those red and white amulets are for, and being able to join in a celebration of Spring, which is universal to all of us.

moldova martisor

Before the war

People here are desperate for company. No one visits these rebel-held towns in east Ukraine anymore, except Russians who’ve come to fight. Friends and even relatives have stopped calling, because they are on the other side of the battle lines, or because they got lost for good in the middle of the battle.

My driver from Luhansk thawed from thinking I was at worst a spy, at best a liability, to inviting me home for lunch and telling me half his life story. His life these last six months, a chaos of family divisions and three jobs at once, none of them paid.

Six months ago he was driving a nice new van, delivering medications for patients on kidney dialysis throughout Luhansk region. Now he’s driving a beat-up Zhiguli, and unless they leave for Ukrainian-held territory the dialysis patients are going to die in two weeks time when the last medications run out.

My first driver, the day before when I asked him to pick me up, was extricating himself from a road accident with a drunk militant.

In former lives, just six months ago, these people had more or less-stable lives; were directors of companies; mine foremen, doctors. It is like the 1990s all over again, when the woman selling boxes of matches and single cigarettes on the street corner was a nuclear physicist in a just-former life.

Life before the war. Before the war, when no one realised how good life was.

“I can’t get used to saying it,” says Ira in Gorlivka, pouring out home-made wine at 9am to celebrate actually having a visitor. The breakfast pancakes are made with water; she can’t afford milk. She hasn’t been paid for her job as a kindergarten teacher since June; she spends her days calming children who run to hide whenever there is a bang or a crash. “We all learned that toast as children: ‘peace and understanding’, and it never meant anything to us before…”

Nikolay and Aleksey from the technical college in Gorlivka had modest, manageable enough dreams before the war: to move on to further study in Dnipropetrovsk or Kharkiv, to get a job. Now their dreams have dwindled to an imaginary country called ‘Novorossiya’ that they don’t really believe in anymore.

“There are no prospects here,” says Aleksey; no future in this place that’s harder and harder to get out of and where no one comes to visit.

Aleksey’s best friend and Nikolay’s cousin have both stopped calling; they might never come back again. They are in the Ukrainian army, fighting against ‘Novorossiya’.

“There’s a problem with the phone connection. He can’t call so often anymore,” says Nikolay about his cousin. “He’s got no choice.” There is a difficult pause. “We really hope that the ones in the Ukrainian army aren’t there by choice.”

The boys fall quiet. We listen to the missing calls, the silent phone lines, the absent visitors who once made toasts to peace, the voices of those who will never come home.

Journey

Three hours to travel what should be less than fifty kilometres, north of Donetsk. The main road is closed because of shelling; instead we drive along terrible roads through flat yellow and black fields; villages that no one ever usually drives through; mines and factories frozen by years of neglect, months of war. Autumn, already cold, everything dying. Smell of burning fields, leaves, houses.

“When we moved here from Russia, my father told me to say goodbye to hills,” my neighbour on the bus tells me as we look out at the giant, rose-coloured pyramids of slag heaps. “I remember that every time I see those heaps. Donbas hills”.

That was over forty years ago. Since then she married a local man, had children, put down roots. This is her landscape now; her land that she wanted to love and defend and improve when she voted for the DNR – the Donetsk People’s Republic – in May.

Now she and her husband are coming back from a two-day trip to transfer their pensions, unpaid for three months, out of DNR-held Makiivka to Ukraine-controlled Konstantinovka. The time they didn’t spend on the bus, they spent queuing at the post office, the bank, the local administration. “Forty years working, and for what?” she asks. For her to vote to live in a different country. For her to be secure in her old age. For her children to have better future.

One of her children upped sticks just before the war started, she tells me; sold his house and moved to Russia to try and make a new, successful life. Now he is on his way back to Makiivka, defeated yet again by too high prices, too little work, not being Russian enough.

She shows me photos on her phone, not of her children but of the flowers she grows in her garden. Dahlias, snapdragons, fat dewy roses. “When I get tired of human nature, I look at these and feel refreshed.”

It’s hard not to be tired of human nature, right now in Donbas. We stare out together at the strangely beautiful, defeated landscape. She points out to me a white heron fishing in a river. At a railway crossing, a man patiently waits with his cow. Destroyed electricity pylons are bowed over like weeping aliens, trailing wires through the acres of sodden sunflower stalks. The people on the bus look out at this land some of them took up arms to defend. They sigh and bow over like the pylons, waiting for this journey to be over.

How wrong can priorities be

My Piece for the Times today:

The humanitarian disaster in Ukraine is finally front-page news, but only because of a convoy that could be the start of open war. The people caught up in the humanitarian crisis are invisible, and so are the volunteers risking their lives to help.

Instead of their voices we hear political posturing. Tomorrow the world will turn its attention back to Iraq or Syria, and Ukraine will have lost its chance to win global support for those who need help. What a stupid, stupid waste.

It is possible to learn from past mistakes

This is from German President Joachim Gauck’s speech in Liège today, commemorating the centenary of the First World War.

 This war began in western Europe with Germany’s completely unjustifiable invasion of neutral Belgium. The invasion only followed military logic, and it thus became apparent on the very first day of the war that treaties were worthless and that the standards of civilisation had been rendered null and void.

[…] in Germany itself, intellectuals and artists wrote a disgraceful text in which they declared that crimes against a country and its people, including even attacks on culture, were justified and indeed necessary. What had become of the community of scholars and artists? What had happened to the civilisation called Europe?

Nationalism had blinded almost everyone’s hearts and minds. Neither the standards of culture and civilisation, nor religious faith, nor reason were strong enough to sway people’s consciences in another direction. On the contrary, people actually believed that they were morally and religiously in the right. In the clash of cultures, feelings of superiority and extreme national egoism triumphed over empathy. The utter failure of diplomacy […]  the erroneous belief in a short military campaign to resolve international disputes; and finally, propaganda that knew no bounds and demonised the enemy in a way hitherto unknown – all of this led Europe into a fratricidal war, which ultimately spread far across the world.

Two questions:

Can anyone not see the parallels with Russia and Ukraine today, a hundred years later?

Can anyone imagine a Russian leader – today, yesterday, ever – making such a speech about Russia?

read the whole speech here. It is worth reading

crimea poppies.web

 


previous posts

A novel about the Crimean Tatars' return to their homeland

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