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March 05, 2023
Stalin died on 5 March 1953 -- seventy years ago today. How should Stalin be remembered? I answered this question once before, in 1979 on the centenary of the Soviet dictator's birth. My article was published in Marxism Today, the monthly "theoretical and discussion jouirnal" of the Communist Party of Great Britain -- of which I was, at the time, a fully paid-up and active member. (I've written more about the communist party and me here.)
If you take a look at my 1979 article, you might be curious about a couple of strange details. One is the date of Stalin's birth, given in my article as 21 December 1879. This date was generally accepted at the time I wrote, but in 1990 it was discovered that in 1920 for unknown reasons Stalin had taken a year off his age. He was actually born on 6 December 1878. The other odd thing is that the article doesn't have my name on it, again for unknown reasons. I was listed as author on the journal contents page, and that's all.
Earlier this year I was prompted to think about how my answer might have changed since then, when someone wrote to me out of the blue.
I have recently read an article on Soviet history in an ancient copy of Marxism today and just wondered if you were the author?
Yes, that would be me.
My correspondent came back to me:
I thought it was a very interesting take on the subject and the great majority has stood the test of time.
That sounded nice, but I wasn't too sure. What exactly had I written more than forty years ago? I dug the 1979 original out of my personal archive and read it carefully. Then, I replied:
I thought I had better reread the article before taking your praise for granted. I continued to work on the subject for the rest of my career, which included thirty years in various former Soviet archives dealing with military and economic affairs and internal security). These experiences have perhaps left me with a darker view of the Stalin era (or of the whole Soviet experience) now than I had at the time.
Writing about the Russian Revolution today, I would probably not ascribe agency to the working class as a class (there was plenty of agency, but not of the working class as such).
If Stalin’s rise can be ascribed to an “organic” relationship that he developed with anyone, it was with the party cadres more than the working class.
Turning to the 1930s, what I wrote about a reformist faction led by Kirov was nonsense: as we know now, there were never any disagreements within Stalin’s circle, and no factions whatsoever, only transient personal alliances of convenience that were quickly dissolved as soon as Stalin got to know about them.
I was ignorant of the motives, mechanisms, and scale of the mass purges of 1937-38, and of the extent to which they were started, managed, and then stopped on Stalin’s personal instructions.
I described the “enemies” destroyed by the purges as “non-existent” because I had not fully understood Stalin’s anticipation of war nor had I come across his belief that Soviet society was full of “unconscious” or “potential” enemies who would become traitors when war broke out. I had not really grasped how Stalin thought he could identify the potential enemies based on family background and social and ethnic markers. I was unaware of Stalin’s rule that it was better to kill 20 people than to let one spy get away and I did not understand the encompassing Soviet definition of a spy.
I skated past Stalin’s role as Hitler’s accessory in starting World War II.
I overstated Stalin’s postwar efforts to return Soviet society to its prewar mould: by 1945, we now know, Stalin was physically no longer able to control everything as he had done before, and this set many changes in motion that would become fully apparent only in 1956.
Finally, I did not stress enough what is suggested by the article’s illustrations (which I did not choose): military power-building (which long pre-dated Hitler) and the comprehensive militarization of Soviet society.
Of course, I wrote what I wrote. I’m pleased if I got anything right, and I’m also pleased if it was possible to learn from my mistakes. You can decide for yourself whether the points above count as minor or major corrections.
I went on to explain the circumstances under which I wrote the article.
The article has a back story that is not completely without interest. As you say, Monty Johnstone was the party’s premier expert on the Soviet Union, and I joined the party only after meeting him in London and spending a day talking with him. Others of his generation included the economist Maurice Dobb, Dennis Ogden (who had reported for the Morning Star from Moscow in the 1960s), Brian Pollitt (son of Harry Pollitt, the party’s general secretary from 1929 to 1960), and Pat Sloan, who had visited Russia on a number of occasions. In my slightly younger generation, several others had similar interests: Jon Bloomfield, Geoff Roberts, Jan Sling, and Ken Spours to name a few. (Also Julian Cooper, but our perspectives had less in common then than now.) We had encouragement from Monty and Dennis.
The thing is that the British party leaders were very sensitive to what could be written about the Soviet Union -- and by whom. In 1975 or thereabouts I submitted an article to James Klugmann, then the editor of Marxism Today, for publication on the twentieth anniversary of the twentieth Soviet party congress. The article never appeared, and I no longer have a copy. When the occasion arrived, Marxism Today published another article, this one written by John Gollan (the general secretary who succeeded Pollitt). Gollan’s article included a number of passages using my words. It turned out that Klugmann had shared my draft with Gollan, who borrowed from it. At first my nose was put out of joint, but Klugmann explained to me that this was politics, and I should take it as a compliment. Anyway, I took advantage of the next anniversary (I don’t recall if it was on Klugmann’s initiative or mine) to send in the article that you have to hand.
The one thing missing from this explanation is something that I knew perfectly well but had momentarily forgotten: by the time of my 1979 article, James Klugmann had stepped aside from Marxism Today and Martin Jacques had taken over as editor, so it was thanks to Martin that my article was accepted and published.
May 30, 2022
Yes, Western sanctions on Russia can be effective without an energy embargo. If "effective" means enough to raise the costs of Russia's war effort and undermine its sustainability, then Western sanctions are already effective. Adding an energy embargo is not only unnecessary but might also get in the way of Western support for Ukraine.
This argument seems to fly in the face of the conventional wisdom, so I will present it as carefully as I can. Objections and counter-arguments are welcome.
Russia is a major exporter of energy to the world, including the West. From the first days of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it has been said that by paying a billion Euros a day to Russia, Western economies are effectively paying for Putin’s war. There have been corresponding calls for an immediate Western embargo on Russian energy, despite the wrenching adjustments that this would require.
Who stands to lose more by stopping Russia’s energy exports? When Putin’s war is grinding on far longer than anyone anticipated, the argument that it is paid for out of Russia’s export revenues suggests that Russia must be desperate to keep its place in the world energy market. Meanwhile, most Western powers are working hard towards an embargo on Russia’s exports. They are also expending considerable political capital on efforts to bring backsliders into line, notably Hungary.
Yet Russia itself does not look desperate to maintain its export markets. Rather, the Russian government sets obscure financial conditions for Western buyers, such as payment in rubles, and has already halted gas supplies to Poland, Bulgaria, and Finland.
It seems that both sides are treating Russian exports as their own weapon. While NATO threatens Russia with a stop on purchases, Russia threatens NATO with a stop on sales.
If you find this confusing, then you’ve been paying attention. Too many Western commentators have fallen victim to an old mercantilist error—that the strength of an economy is measured by its ability to attract gold from others through its export trade.
What are the underlying facts?
First, Russia has a large and growing export surplus. The Economist puts last year’s trade surplus at 7.5 per cent of Russia’s GDP . This year, it is expected to rise to 15 per cent of last year’s GDP (this year’s GDP will be smaller by an unknown amount, perhaps 10 or 20 percent, pushing the share of the trade surplus still higher).
The reason for Russia’s growing export surplus is that, while exports are holding up, imports from a broad sample of Russia’s trading partners are collapsing—running at half the level of before the war’s outbreak. Why? There are two possibilities. One is that Western sanctions on Russia’s imports are working. The other is capital flight—holders of ruble balances are converting them into Western currencies, causing the ruble exchange rate to decline sharply and pushing up import prices for Russian consumers. In the short run it does not matter which.
An expert quoted by The Economist finds Russia’s growing trade surplus “disappointing.” Although sanctions on Russia’s imports may be working, it seems we are still buying Russian energy exports at levels similar to before. We are still “paying for Putin’s war”—or so it is said.
To understand what Russia’s growing trade surplus really means, it’s necessary to recall that the money flows are the counterpart of flows of real resources. As money flows into Russian hands, real resources flow the other way. If Russia’s trade surplus will be 15 percent (or more) of its GDP this year, then in terms of the real resources produced Russia is sending the same proportion of its domestic product abroad to be utilized by foreigners.
How does that matter for financing Putin’s war? It is sometimes said that GDP is a measure of a country’s capacity to fight a war, and this is correct—approximately. But when the shooting begins, wars are not fought with GDP. They are fought using the real resources available. For this purpose, exports are not available. What is available is domestic production not exported, plus imports.
The national accounting concept of the resources available to a country at war is not GDP but “domestic absorption”—the total of domestic expenditure, including expenditure on net imports.
With percentage points of last year’s GDP as the units, Russia’s trade surplus of 7.5 units left 92.5 for domestic absorption. This year, absorption will fall by the fall in GDP (say 20) plus the increase in the trade surplus (7.5), so 27.5. A GDP decline by one fifth becomes an absorption decline by nearly one third.
Two things follow. One, the fact that Russia is exporting one seventh of its national income to the rest of the work is weakening, not strengthening its war effort. Two, Russia’s exports are not “paying for Putin’s war.” They are certainly paying for something, but not that. What they are paying for is the accumulation of idle balances of foreign currency. This currency may be held by the state (within Russia) or by private citizens abroad (in the case of capital flight). But, if they cannot be used to import resources into Russia, they are not paying for Putin’s war.
A reality check is available. In two World Wars, the Allies blockaded Germany to prevent the import (not export) of resources. In both wars, Germany responded by confiscating resources from the countries it occupied, just as Russia today is accused of stealing grain and other valuables from Ukraine. In fact, in World War II Germany’s plan of overland occupation of the Eastern territories was designed in the expectation of an Allied blockade German overseas trade. It has been calculated that net imports from Germany’s wartime empire paid for more than one quarter of Germany’s war effort. Net imports, not net exports!
What are the implications?
- First, Western sanctions are working. They are working either directly (by cutting Russia’s imports) or indirectly (by causing capital flight). By the measure of real resources, Russia’s economy is suffering arterial blood loss at an increasing rate
- Second, Russia’s most likely retaliation will indeed be to reduce exports by cutting off energy supplies to the West. The rationale for this will be not only to damage Western economies but also to redirect capital and labour from the energy sector to Russia’s war sector.
It is sensible for Western countries to prepare for this. An efficient way to do so is to impose a tax on purchases of Russian energy, reflecting the risk attached to continued reliance. But it is also wise to ensure that, when the pinch comes, the blame for the disruption is seen to lie where it should belong, with Russia.
- Fourth, by pressing the unwilling, not only in Hungary but potentially in all Western countries, to do without Russian energy before the need arises, we are pointlessly spending NATO’s political capital (and sympathy for Ukraine) while exacerbating the national and social divisions on which Putin relies to make progress.
- Finally, are there risks in allowing Russia to continue to accumulate financial claims on Western economies accruing from energy sales? Yes, but as long as sanctions on Russia’s imports and financial institutions remain in place these risks are long term. The shape of the long term will be decided by the outcome of Putin’s war, which is being decided now.
It is far more important for everyone to do what it takes to win that war now, including focusing on Ukraine’s military needs, than to be distracted by worry about the distant financial implications of continuing to buy and pay cash for Russian energy while we can -- cash that Russia cannot currently spend.
February 25, 2022
Writing about web page https://warwick.ac.uk/newsandevents/expertcomment/ukraine_invasion_university
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine shows that Western deterrence has failed. Also, Russian deterrence is working: we daren't help Ukraine militarily because of the fear of what Russia would do next. So the situation now resembles a Cold War nuclear standoff: When the Soviet Union suppressed uprisings in East Germany or Hungary, fear of nuclear war forced the West to accept that this was Russia's backyard. This situation is exactly what Putin wanted when he called recently for a new Yalta agreement – one that would assign the Russian backyard to Russian control.
Was the failure of Western deterrence avoidable? Possibly, although not easily. NATO countries, and Britain in particular, have made at least two unforced errors.
First, we have placed far too much reliance on economic sanctions for crisis management. Of all weapons, economic measures are slowest to work (and, incidentally, have the highest ratio of collateral damage to intended damage). So the adversary that is economically weak but militarily strong will always be tempted to escalate military violence in response. Besides, in the short term, Russia is not weak in fiscal capacity. I heard a government minister claim on the radio this morning [yesterday 24 February 2022] that we are going to strike at Russia's capacity to fund the war, he emphasized the damage being done by the overnight fall in Russian equities. Unfortunately this is nonsense. If anything, the climb in oil and gas prices is making Russia stronger, not weaker.
Second, for the same reasons, economic measures are not a way to avoid conflict. They go with (not instead of) military defence and deterrence. If we engage in economic war with Russia and we don’t have strong military defences, Russia will respond with more war. Britain and other Western European state have underinvested in defence for many years. It is not a good time to say so, given Britain’s needs to fund health care, the courts, and the levelling up agenda. At the same time, we also need to look to our defences.
February 16, 2022
Writing about web page https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BqfHEedYv2c
Lukas Smith of the Vienna-based International Center for Advanced and Comparative EU-Russia-NIS Research (ICEUR-Vienna) interviewed me the other day about the present tensions focused on Ukraine (12 minutes 40 seconds here). Part of the interview was focused on what economic sanctions -- or the threat of them -- can achieve in managing the confrontation. Afterwards I wrote up my notes as follows.
In the context of the present dispute between Russia and NATO over the status of Ukraine and the stationing of NATO forces in Eastern Europe, I am in favour of the use of further economic sanctions to limit Russia's aggression. Promised sanctions can act as a threat and a deterrent, and they can be a countermeasure in the event of conflict.
But . . . there's a large "but."
I'm concerned that the public, and maybe politicians too, often lack clarity about what sanctions can achieve and what are the risks. When we contemplate sanctions, the starting point should always be: What is the adversary’s best response?
Too often we think: Economic sanctions will impose an unaffordable burden. The adversary will be deterred – end of story. In practice economic sanctions take time to work and can often be predicted. The adversary always has ways to work around the sanctions or to neutralize them. It’s true that the countermeasures may be costly. But, all too often, the costs of the countermeasures turn out to be quite affordable.
One way to think about this is that sanctions have an immediate effect and an ultimate effect. And the ultimate impact of sanctions is never the immediate impact as it seems at first sight. The ultimate impact will be to force the adversary to pay the cost of countermeasures, and generally the ultimate costs will be smaller than the immediate costs appear.
Another factor is that the adversary might become more ready to pay the costs than appeared beforehand. The reason is that an attack on the adversary’s economy is still an attack, and it is usually experienced as warfare. In the short run, at least, warfare tends to stiffen national feeling and makes people more ready to pay the price of war, even if they were unready beforehand. You can see this today. Because Russia has threatened NATO, the NATO countries today are more unified and more ready for war than they were yesterday. The question is: is Russia also becoming more ready for war?
What are the countermeasures to Western sanctions available to Russia? Russia’s leaders can make the Russian economy less dependent on the West for markets, currencies, payment systems, and internet technologies. They can strengthen ties with China. They can also wage economic warfare against us. They can frighten foreign investors out of Ukraine. They can blockade Ukraine on land and sea, and they can throttle back gas supplies to the EU. Most of these things are already happening or beginning to happen.
But Russia’s countermeasures might not be confined to the economy. There is also a military response: to escalate violence. To escalate, not de-escalate. History suggests a number of examples, but the clearest case might well be found in 1940.
In 1940, the United States wanted to stop Japan’s war of aggression and conquest in China. America imposed oil sanctions on Japan, which were expected to be extremely costly to the Japanese economy. The Japanese response is instructive. Japan’s leaders did not say to each other: “We cannot afford this. We must either wait for our war capability to be ground down, or we must give up now.” Instead, they launched a surprise attack on the United States in 1941 at Pearl Harbor. They knew that this was an outrageous gamble, and in fact the gamble failed, because the United States went on to win the war in the Pacific. The point is that Japan’s leaders preferred the gamble to the alternative, which was certain defeat.
As I said before, in the present context, I favour economic sanctions against Russia, especially if a wider war is realized. But we should understand that economic sanctions are not a cheap way to avoid military conflict. They are not a substitute for military force. They are a phase of conflict, not an alternative to conflict.
In particular, economic sanctions can contribute to deterrence only if they are combined with a strong military defence. If we wish to achieve our foreign goals without violence, strong defences are also necessary.
If we signal to the adversary, which today is Russia, that they are strong militarily but we are strong economically, the signal can have an unfortunate effect. We might make Russia’s leaders more likely to turn to their strength, which is the capacity to escalate the confrontation by violent means.
In short, the threat of sanctions has to be complemented by strong defences. Without those strong defences, the effect of sanctions can be exactly opposite to what what we wanted in the first place.
March 22, 2021
Writing about web page https://warwick.ac.uk/fac/soc/economics/staff/mharrison/moscow1982/
This column is about a moment when three wars collided: the Cold War, the Second World War, and the Falklands War. It was April 1982; the Cold War was in full swing, and East-West relations were not in good shape. I was in Moscow for a month, thanks to the British Academy's exchange programme with the Soviet Academy of Sciences; I was engaged in a project on the Soviet economy in the Second World War. As I arrived, the Falklands War broke out.
The events that led directly to the Falklands War were taking place as I left the UK. But I had paid little or no attention, so I arrived in Moscow more or less unaware that the Falklands Islands were a British possession, that their sovereignty was disputed, who lived there, and even which hemisphere or ocean they were in. Once in Moscow I was pretty much on my own, with no access to Western radio or newspapers, and I was busy, so I did not even try to follow the news. All in all, I was the last person to find out.
The first I knew of the conflict was a chance remark at the Institute of USSR History, where I was visiting – someone I knew distantly broke into a conversation in a corridor to as: "Why is your country at war with Argentina?" I had absolutely no idea what he was talking about. As I recall, I thought it must be some obscure Soviet joke that I did not understand, so I probably smiled enigmatically and carried on with the conversation as before.
After that, I tried to catch up. But my only source was Pravda, the daily party newspaper. In the first days of the conflict, the Soviet line was strongly anti-imperialist and pro-Argentinian, so they called the Falklands the Malvinas, and they portrayed Argentina as helping the Falkland Islanders to free themselves from colonial oppression and exploitation. I picked up the idea that the islanders were originally brought there as plantation slaves.
After a few days the line shifted. I don't know why, but the Soviet stance became more neutral. The press began to refer to the "Falklands/Malvinas" and, most importantly from my perspective, to report developments from both sides in a more objective way. So I began to get a more accurate fix on what was going on.
In the midst of all this I continued to work on my project, which was on Soviet economic planning in the Second World War and would lead eventually to my first book. Something I was trying to puzzle out was the reliability and consistency of the Soviet official measures of the scale of the war effort. In those days there was absolutely no question of getting archival access to such information, so I had spent a long time combing through all the Soviet publications on World War II and putting together all the data I could find. Not surprisingly, I was left with a lot of questions: things like the concepts and methods used to calculate the growth and scale of Soviet war production, the proportions of resources used for the war, the squeeze on wartime consumption, the role of Allied aid, and so on. The reason I wanted to do this was to be able to make more accurate comparisons of how the different countries fought the war.
I hoped that in Moscow I might find some answers. Of course, I knew that all this information was quite sensitive. I also knew that the Soviets were very proud of their war effort, but I did not see any way in which my digging away would threaten that. With that in mind, asking for help seemed reasonable to me.
In the Institute of USSR History I was attached to the sector on military history. I had a number of interesting conversations there, but i did not get any help with my data issues. When I raised this, I was told: You'd better talk to Mitrofanova.
Avgusta Vasil'evna Mitrofanova was a well-known figure; she'd written the definitive history of the Soviet working class in the war, and at least some of the figures I was puzzling over came from her big book (published in 1971), so this seemed like a good idea. A meeting was arranged. As I was not completely confident in my Russian, I wrote my questions down.
The afternoon of our meeting came around. We met at the institute in a large, rather dingy room. Avgusta Vasil'evna (as I called her, respectfully) was in her early sixties. After all this time I couldn't give much of a description, but I remember a trim lady with an authoritative manner and unshakeable self-possession. There was no small talk. I described my project, and I explained that I had a bunch of unresolved questions which I'd written down, and I passed her the list. She took it and read it. Then, she looked up at me. She said:
Mr Harrison, tell me. Are you an economist, or a historian -- or what?
This was not a good start. Not everyone will recall the atmosphere of the time, but the Cold War meaning of "or what" was perfectly clear to me in that moment. She was asking me if I was a spy. I replied politely. I said that I was a scholar, an economist by training, and my field was economic history: I was an economic historian.
Her next question:
Mr Harrison, who told you to work on these questions?
She might as well have asked who put me up to it. I explained that it had been my decision: no one had assigned the topic to me. She gave me to understand she didn't believe me; I was too young and too junior to choose my own research. Afterwards I remember figuring out that perhaps she was just thinking on Soviet lines. If I'd been a young Soviet scholar, I wouldn't have had the authority to define my own project. My department or sector would have had a plan of work, agreed with the administration and the party committee, and I would have been assigned a part of that plan. Anyway, her implication was that I was really just a hired investigator.
By then I knew I was in trouble. I would have continued to argue my case, but she said to me:
Mr Harrison, I don't know the answers to your questions.
And, if I did, I wouldn't tell you.
After that, there were no more questions. Instead, she gave me a lecture. As I recall, it went on for well over an hour, maybe an hour and a half. It certainly felt like a long time. The highlights that I can remember were the great sacrifices of the Soviet people in the war, her own personal sacrifice (her husband was killed in the defence of Moscow), the huge costs of the war effort, the deaths, the destruction, the homeless refugees, the struggle for postwar recovery. I wondered what I could say. Then I realized there was no point my saying anything. I was not expected to respond.
When Mitrofanova reached her conclusion, I nearly tried to prolong the discussion. I think she'd gone back to the iniquities of capitalism and the shirking and backstabbing of the Soviet Union by the wartime Allies. Her final words were:
But, you see, ours is a different social system. We don't need other people's islands.
Ah! I thought. Now we're back in the present, and she's thinking about the Falklands. But me, I'm thinking about an interesting analogy: If yours is a different social system, why does the Soviet Union continue to hold onto the Kurile Islands and Southern Sakhalin, which historically belonged to Japan but were occupied in the final days of World War II and never returned? That's a great question! Why don’t I ask her?
Perhaps better not. My desire to escape from the room defeated my curiosity. I held my tongue. The meeting was over. Mitrofanova swept out through the door, and I strolled after her into the bright sunlight and the warm breeze of an April afternoon.
Avgusta Vasil'evna Mitrofanova lived for another 30 years, dying in 2003 according to an obituary that I found online. She was born in Akmolinsk in 1910. Her childhood and adolescence were marked by war, revolution, civil war, and famine. Evidently a true believer, she became a party worker in the press and a party lecturer; that's how she passed the years of collectivization, more famine, rearmament, terror, and war again. A woman in a man's world, she successfully converted her skills to scholarship, at least as the Soviet Union understood the term.
In our only meeting she was condescending and confrontational, but in the Soviet Union it was often hard to know who was sincere and who was just playing the role that the situation required of them. Maybe the circumstances and timing of our meeting were sure to provoke an East-West confrontation. Maybe in less formal circumstances or at another time she'd have looked for some common ground. But I think she probably meant every word.
One thing that never occurred to me was to say to her: Why are we fighting? Aren't we both on the same side? For, like her, at that time I was a communist party member. All I can say is that it didn't feel as if we were on the same side. Her communism wasn't mine, and I didn't want to pretend it was.
As for the questions on my list, I had to wait another ten years. In April 1982, the country was on the edge of change. Most of the top party leaders were near the end of their biological lifespans. Leonid Brezhnev was 75 and obviously ill. He died before the end of the year. The Politburo voted twice for continuity, appointing first Yurii Andropov (who died in 1984), then Konstantin Chernenko (who died in 1985).
At last the Politburo bowed to the inevitable, turning to the next generation in the person of Mikhail Gorbachev. After several years of attempted reforms, Gorbachev surrendered the party's monopoly of power. It turned out there was nothing else to the pillars holding up the temple, which collapsed. In 1992 the secret archives were opened, and I found my answers (the result was another book).
In 1982 the spring weather was beautiful. During my time in Moscow I walked around with a camera in my pocket (an Olympus Xa-1 or Xa-2, I think) and I took a ton of photographs. I walked a lot around Oktyabr'skaya square, where I was staying, the roads to the city centre, and a few other places. I remember a disused monastery, a visit to friends in the suburb of Sviblovo, and a short trip out of town to the flea market in Malakhovka.
Recently I noticed that my photos were fading. I decided to scan them and to put them online as my record of Moscow towards the end of the Cold War, on the edge of unimaginable changes.
April 28, 2020
Writing about web page https://warwick.ac.uk/markharrison/papers/there_was_a_front_ver_6.pdf
For a few months in the 1970s I was a graduate student in Moscow. Capitalism and communism were fighting the Cold War. What was it like? I was dazed and confused. Now I've written a short memoir of that time. It covers cultural exchange, learning Russian, travelling to Russia, making wonderful friends, learning about informers and surveillance, feeling my way through Soviet academia and economic thought, being misunderstood, trust and mistrust, and travelling for work and for leisure, including my epic visit to a collective farm near Voronezh. I include a few photos from the time. Also, I reflect on what we know now about the Soviet system that I didn’t know then.
My memoir is called: “There was a front, but damned if we knew where.” To explain why, here is an excerpt from towards the end, a section that describes my homecoming. If you want to read more, the full version is here.
It was time to leave. I booked a train ticket on the direct service from Moscow to London, three days and two nights via Warsaw and East Berlin, including a Channel crossing by boat from the Hook of Holland to Harwich. Out of interest, I added on a 24-hour layover in Warsaw – my only visit to another East European country under communism.
I was sad to leave but I was also tired and ready. It was a long journey and I would sit the whole way in a shared compartment. There was some small talk in the carriage, but the countryside was flat and monotonous, and the hours of daylight were few.
At the Soviet border, the whole train was raised off the track while the broad-gauge bogeys were removed and replaced by standard-gauge for the remainder of the journey. While this was done the carriages were inspected inside and out, under and over, by the Soviet border troops, looking for contraband manuscripts and Soviet citizens who for any reason did not want to live out the rest of their lives in the socialist paradise.
In Warsaw, I wandered around the old city, meticulously restored after the war. The only language I had in common with most Poles was Russian, which did little for friendship.
Berlin was shocking. The train rolled through the divided city in the middle of the night. I blinked at the sudden passage from the darkened East to the bright lights of West Berlin. We did not stop, and the lights went out again after a few minutes because West Berlin was an island, and the train rolled back over into the Eastern zone.
As with the journey out, it was better to travel than to arrive. Adjusting to home life was hard. It was hard for me and I’m sure I did not make it easy for others. Time had not stood still while I was away. My friends and loved ones had as much stored up to tell me as I had to tell them. The Britain to which I returned was not the normal country of the anecdote; it was preoccupied with its own class struggle. Many of my friends were warriors for social justice, and I aspired to be one too. To some the Soviet Union was a distraction; to others, it was “my enemy’s enemy” and therefore perhaps a friend. Their appetite for my stories was limited.
For weeks I dreamed about Moscow night after night. In my dreams Moscow was dark, confusing, and utterly strange; I was lost in it and could not find my way back. I saved myself by pouring everything into finishing my dissertation. Looking back, I am reminded of the words that Joan Littlewood put in the mouths of the soldiers returning from the Great War:
And when they ask us,
How dangerous it was,
Oh, we'll never tell them,
No, we'll never tell them:
We spent our pay in some café,
And fought wild women night and day,
’Twas the cushiest job
We ever had.
And when they ask us,
And they're certainly going to ask us,
The reason why we didn't win
The Croix de Guerre,
Oh, we'll never tell them,
No, we'll never tell them
There was a front,
But damned if we knew where.
The Cold War was not the Great War, and we were not soldiers. In Moscow no rockets flew nor bullets winged. The hazards we faced were only moral. Still, I had been to the other side, and I had returned, and I couldn’t explain it, even to myself. It changed my life. I spent the decades from then to now trying to understand where I had been and to come to terms with it. I am still trying. The only ones to whom I had nothing to explain were the former comrades-in-arms who had been there too, whose lives were also changed, just as surely as mine. So, I was not alone.
January 06, 2020
Writing about web page http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/transcripts/62376
The Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of August 1939 joined Stalin’s Soviet Union and Hitler’s Germany in an alliance. It was not called an alliance, but for nearly two years the two countries coordinated their foreign policies and military operations. In the first phase, they joined together in aggression against Poland and the destruction of the Polish state.
Wars may have proximate causes and deep causes. Whatever the deep causes of World War II, it is clear from the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact that Stalin helped to bring the war about.
On 20 December, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin read a lecture on the origins of World War II. His audience was the heads of state of former Soviet republics that make up the Confederation of Independent States – Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan. His purpose was to defend the Soviet Union against the charge of having helped to cause World War II. Putin used the occasion to argue three things.
First, Putin argued that that the Soviet-German non-aggression pact was merely the last occasion – and the most desperate, and therefore the least blameworthy – on which the European powers would seek to put off or divert German aggression; the Soviet Union agreed to it “pnly after all other avenues had been exhausted and all proposals by the Soviet Union to create a unified security system, in fact, an anti-Nazi coalition in Europe were rejected.” To this extent, he suggested, there was nothing particularly abnormal or sinister about the Soviet-German non-aggression pact.
Second, he maintained, among the other proximate causes of the war were the bad judgement and bad faith of Britain, France, and their ally Poland.
Third, he suggested, the deep causes of the war lay in the peace settlement made after World War I, and especially in the Treaty of Versailles. The Western Allied powers made the treaty and imposed it on Germany. (Russia, an Allied power, was not involved at Versailles, having left the Allies in the lurch in 1917.) Putin blamed this settlement for two things. One was the creation of artificial states and unstable borders that were bound to lead to further conflict in Europe. The other was the imposition of humiliating and unbearable terms on Germany, also bound to lead to a further war. Britain and France were responsible for these things and therefore they were far more deeply implicated in the causes of World War II than Russia.
This was quite a lecture – focused, logical, full of historical detail and quotation. Perhaps English-speaking readers, who have become habituated to the tirades of President Trump and Prime Minister Johnson’s ramblings might feel envious: the Russians have such a scholar for their head of state! As I said, focused, logical, and full of detail.
One quality might be thought more important than detail or coherence: was Professor Putin’s lecture good scholarship? Was it true to the facts, and were the facts understood properly in their context? This is what I will briefly consider. I will comment only on the third and last of these issues, the significance of the Treaty of Versailles among the causes of World War II. Much more could be said about the first and second issues, but perhaps they can wait for another day. For now, you can think of the issues arising from the Versailles Treaty as my sampling of the quality of President Putin’s research.
For background, you can think of the Allies at Versailles pursuing three goals: to punish Germany by seizing territory and assets, to force Germany to compensate the Allies for war damages, and to constrain Germany's future behaviour by imposing limits on its armament. The problem was that on a reasonable interpretation the first and second of these goals undermined the third, by stimulating nationalist counteractions. Too much of the punishment and compensation would have fallen on the people, whereas the leaders went largely unpunished. Still, an important question arises: by how much, particularly the treaty is compared to other possible causes of the next war.
Here’s how Putin's argument begins.
Putin: In this connection [the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact], I am asking you to take a few minutes to return to the origins, to the very beginning, which I find very important. I suggest beginning, as they say, from ‘centre field’, as they say, I mean from the results from World War I, from the Versailles Peace conditions written in the Treaty of Versailles in 1919.
Me: Sounds interesting!
Putin: For Germany, the Treaty of Versailles became a symbol of blatant injustice and national humiliation.
Me: Provisionally, I’d shade this a little. For the German ultra-nationalists, and also for more moderate monarchists and conservatives, yes: the Treaty of Versailles symbolized injustice and humiliation. For others, who were generally in the majority, it’s not clear. More below.
Putin: In fact, it meant robbing Germany. I will give you some numbers, because they are very interesting. Germany had to pay the Triple Entente countries (Russia left the winners and did not sign the Treaty of Versailles) an astronomical sum of 269 billion golden marks, the equivalent of 100,000 tonnes of gold.
Me: No. German reparations were fixed in 1921 by a Reparations Commission set up under the treaty. The Commission fixed the final bill at 132 billion gold marks, of which 50 billion were to be collected in the first instance; the remaining 82 billion were judged beyond Germany’s means, and would be collected only if Germany’s capacity to pay proved greater than expected.
A puzzle: then how did President Putin’s researchers come up with the much higher figure of 269 billion gold marks? Possibly, from one of a number of internet sources that offer this figure, including the websites of the BBC, ABC, and National Geographic. The same figure of 269 billion, but in dollars at today’s prices, can also be found on History.com. But they are all wrong.
The ultimate origin of the figure is possibly an Allied claim of 269 billion gold marks, submitted to the reparations commission during 1920 as a first move for negotiation (Kent 1962: 178). It was not adopted, however.
As for Putin’s gold translation of the reparations total, this appears to be roughly correct; 269 billion gold marks would have been close to 100,000 tons of gold (more exactly 96,000 tons). Of course, the gold equivalent of the figure for reparations actually due, 50 billion marks, would have been much less, a little short of 18,000 tons.
Even a single ton of gold is hard to imagine. It invites the question: how much is a lot? Putin tries to answer this question by offering two alternative standards of comparison:
Putin: For comparison, I would say the gold reserves as of October 2019 are 8,130 tonnes in the US, 3,370 tonnes in Germany and 2,250 tonnes in Russia.
Me: Such comparisons are striking, but the figures seem to have been selected in order to mislead. Germany was expected to pay reparations not out of its gold reserves on hand at the end of the war, but out of its export earnings over many years. (Gold, incidentally, was and is not the only form in which foreign currency reserves are held. For Germany, which has one of the largest gold holdings in the world today, gold is around three quarters of its total of foreign reserves.)
Putin: And Germany had to pay 100,000 tonnes.
Me: No, just 18,000.
Putin: At the current price of gold of $1,464 for a troy ounce, the reparations would be worth about $4.7 trillion, while the German GDP in 2018 prices, if my data are correct, is only $4 trillion.
Me: At last, we have a calculation that would seem to underplay the weight of the reparations burden. Putin compares the gold value of reparations then to Germany’s GDP today, when both are measured at today’s prices. The undervaluation arises as follows: the dollar price of gold has increased by around 100 times, whereas Germany’s nominal GDP has increased by a factor of around 300. Of course, after a century of economic growth, the German economy of today would be much better placed to sustain the burden of the reparations bill fixed in 1921 – even if we overstate it by five times, as Putin’s researchers have done.
The fact is that Germany was expected to bear the burden of reparations at the gold price of the time based on the value of its national resources of the time. A more relevant comparison is then as follows.
What was the scale of Germanys’ indebtedness in 1921, including reparations, in comparison to the indebtedness of the victorious powers? The 50 billion gold marks of reparations, set in 1921, would have represented approximately 125 per cent of Germany’s GDP at the time. To this should be added Germany’s ordinary public debt of around 50 per cent of GDP. Germany’s overall debt burden, including reparations, was therefore 175 per cent of GDP. By modern standards this would be a heavy burden. But the British debt burden of 1921, mostly arising from the war, was around 160 per cent of GDP. At 250 per cent, the French burden was still higher. (For sources and further detail see Harrison 2016: 152.)
In short, the reparations commission did not ask defeated Germany to shoulder a burden of national debt heavier than that of the victorious powers. The complication -- a serious one -- was that the German governent owed this debt mostly to foreigners, whereas the British and French governments owed it mostly to their own citizens.
Claims of the burden of reparations on Germany in the 1920s should also take into account the treaty restrictions placed on German rearmament. To the extent that the restrictions were effective, they relieved Germany of the fiscal burden of maintaining and equipping planes, battleships, and tanks. The size of the relief was large, possibly of the same order as the reparations payments actually made (Hantke and Spoerer 2010). To the extent that the Versailles restrictions were ineffective, then it was Germany ‘s choice to spend money on secret rearmament that could otherwise have been used to compensate the victims of German aggression in the war.
Putin: Suffice it to say that the last payments of 70 million euros were made quite recently, on October 3, 2010. Germany was still paying for World War I on the 20th anniversary of the Federal Republic of Germany.
Me: This small fact is used to convey several misleading implications – that Germany was forced to pay for World War I over many decades, and that this is a measure of the undue weight of the burden. Neither implication is valid. Even before Hitler, Germany never paid more than a fraction of the reparations bill set in 1921 – perhaps 20 billion marks out of 50 (Marks 1978). The rest was never paid; the rather small payment that Germany made in 2010 was the final instalment not of reparations but of loans that Germany took out in the 1920s, mostly in the United States, to help smooth out the limited reparation payments being made at the time.
Putin: I believe, and many, including researchers, agree that the so-called spirit of Versailles created an environment for a radical and revanchist mood. The Nazis were actively exploiting Versailles in their propaganda promising to relieve Germany of this national shame, so the West gave the Nazis a free hand for revenge.
Me: This greatly overextends the truth. What is true is that “The Nazis were actively exploiting Versailles in their propaganda promising to relieve Germany of this national shame.” It was not only the Nazis that wanted to reverse the restrictions and obligations imposed on Germany at Versailles: the idea was shared by the remaining monarchists and many conservatives. But Versailles did not create this spirit: the spirit of revenge was created earlier, by the fact that Germany lost the war, was defeated and forced to surrender, and then lost its monarchy to a democratic revolution.
The reaction against the democratic revolution became an important expression of radical nationalism in Germany after the war. But the fact is that from 1920 onwards the weight of reactionary opinion opposed to the Versailles settlement declined steadily (as did support for revolutionary communism), if measured by votes cast in successive parliamentary elections from before the Versailles Treaty in 1919 through the publication of the reparations bill in 1921, the conflicts over repayments and the hyperinflation of 1923, through the subsequent stabilization to the Great Depression in 1929 (again, see Harrison 2016: 153). Until the Great Depression, in other words, most Germans just did not care enough about Versailles to vote for the parties agitating against it.
Germany’s radical right was a menace to public order through the 1920s, but not until the sudden wave of bankruptcies and the growth of mass unemployment in 1930 did it come to look like anything more than a temporary nuisance of fading relevance. It was the Great Depression, not the Versailles Treaty, that created Hitler’s opportunity to move from the fringe to the mainstream.
President Putin goes on to quote various authorities – Ferdinand Foch, Woodrow Wilson, and Winston Churchill – to the effect that the Versailles Treaty made poor sense as an exercise in peace-making. Here Putin has a point. The treaty prioritised collective punishment and reparations over justice for the leaders and reconciliation for the people. It was much more in line with the standards of peacemaking of the nineteenth century than of ours.
But did the Treaty of Versailles amount to a deep cause of World War II? No; the evidence for this is overstretched or misunderstood. Did the President consider the origins of the war in an objective, open-minded spirit? No; he argued the case for a predetermined thesis. How then was the evidence found? Most likely hs instructed his research assistants to trawl the internet for favourable evidence, passing over anything that was adverse, and so they selected the supporting views and facts, false as well as true, that they found there.
One last matter:
Putin: The Versailles world order gave rise to many conflicts and disagreements. They are based on the borders of new states arbitrarily drawn up in Europe by the winners of World War I. That is, the borders were reshaped. This created conditions for the so-called Sudeten crisis.
Me: What Putin has in mind here is the validation of frontiers that stranded an ethnically German minority within the interwar boundaries of Czechoslovakia. In 1938, Hitler claimed this territory from Czechoslovakia and the British and French agreed rather than go to war with Germany. In his lecture, Putin associates the ethnic heterogeneity of the countries formed at the end of World War I with the artificiality of their borders; he implies that the conflicts that followed were inevitable and foreseeable consequences, for which the “winners of World War I” (and, therefore, not Russia) may be blamed.
Putin’s negative verdict on Europe’s borders after Versailles is striking, and I cannot help being reminded of Molotov’s self-satisfaction in October 1939, when he reported to the Supreme Soviet on the successful conclusion of Soviet Army operations in Poland:
Molotov: A short blow by the German army, and subsequently by the Red Army, was enough for nothing to be left of this bastard of the Treaty of Versailles.
Me: It is fair to say that Putin is not Molotov. Putin does not actually say that Poland or any of the other independent countries formed in the aftermath of the war were “bastard” states, lacking in legitimacy or the right exist. But he does find their existence problematic, and for me this comes uncomfortably close.
Again, it is fair to say that Putin has a point – a rather obvious one. The land borders of every continental state have been shaped by wars, foreign and civil. Particularly in Eurasia, the territorial expanse of which is largely flat, nearly every land border has an artificial character. Russia’s borders are no exception; with the size and weight advantages of a great power, Russia has never been slow to force the adjustment of borders to its own advantage.
But faced with artificial borders, created not in time immemorial but in relatively recent times after much blood was spilled, what do you do? Do you set out to delegitimise the surrounding states that stand on them, in order to destroy the borders that exist and to create new ones more to your liking, or do you seek to soften the borders and make them more porous, opening them to trade and the peaceful movement of people?
The fact is that in 1939 Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union found common cause in destroying the borders created by the Versailles settlement. Stalin said as much a year later, when he told Stafford Cripps, the British ambassador, that he had come to see German and Soviet interests as fundamentally aligned (Weinberg 1994: 25):
Stalin: The USSR had wanted to change the old equilibrium . . . but that England and France had wanted to preserve it. Germany had also wanted to make a change in the equilibrium, and this common desire to get rid of the old equilibrium had created the basis for the rapprochement with Germany.
Me: It was not the existence of newly independent countries such as Poland or Czechoslovakia that led to war in 1939, but the fact that they neighboured much larger states that were bent on the revision of their borders and the destruction of their independence. These were the countries that brought about the war. Hitler pointed the gun; Stalin helped him pull the trigger.
So, President Putin’s lecture. Focused, logical, and full of detail? Yes. Good scholarship – at least, that part of it that addresses the Treaty of Versailles? No.
- Hantke, Max, and Mark Spoerer. 2010. The Imposed Gift of Versailles: The Fiscal Effects of Restricting the Size of Germany’s Armed Forces, 1924-9. Economic History Review 63/4, pp. 849-864.
- Harrison, Mark. 2016. Myths of the Great War. In Economic History of Warfare and State Formation, pp. 135-159. Edited by Jari Eloranta, Eric Golson, Andrei Markevich, and Nikolaus Wolf. Singapore: Springer, 2016.
- Kent, B. E. 1962. Reparation and the German financial system, 1919-1924. PhD dissertation. Australian National University, Canberra.
- Marks, Sally. 1978. The Myths of Reparations. Central European History 11/3, pp. 231-255.
- Weinberg, Gerhard L. 1994. A world at arms: a global history of World War II. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
February 01, 2019
It's Friday evening. Time for some fun!
I've been writing a paper about the KGB, the Soviet secret police, and its informers. While the operations of the Soviet KGB undercover informer network were completely secret, and the identities of the informers were closely guarded, their presence in Soviet society was an open secret -- everyone knew they existed, they just didn't know who they were.
That's what I recall from personal experience, anyway. But personal experience isn't everything, so I wondered what evidence there might be to support what I remembered. I thought of jokes: if ordinary Soviet citizens didn't know about informers, how could there be jokes? I turned to the excellent compilation of 5,852 Soviet jokes by Misha Mel'nichenko (Sovetskii anekdot (Ukazatel’ syuzhetov). Moscow: Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, 2014). I quickly found a joke about inforners -- in fact, I found 39 jokes listed in the index, a number that I will use in my paper as evidence that knowledge of the existence of informers was widespread. For the weekend, here's joke no. 1617, somewhat abbreviated:
A husband decides to hold a party for his wife. He takes the guest list to the local security police and explains that, to avoid suspicion, he's happy to include the officer and any of his colleagues. The officer glances at the list and replies: "There's no need for that. You've already invited eight of our people."
You might wonder what's the truth in the joke. One point was a simple one: nobody knew whether some friend might be an informer. An objection to the joke might be that the officer's reply was unrepresentative: on average, the true density of informers in Soviet society was far below what the joke might be taken to imply. But, conditional on a person being already under investigation, the reply was actually quite realistic: once the KGB had you in its cross-hairs, it was no more than good practice to set several informants on you in order to cross-tally their reports. Anyway, it was still an important point that nobody knew and nobody could know.
More on this when I finish writing my paper.
For now, jokes about informers are to be found in a section of the book headed "The staff of the organs of state security." Inevitably, I've spent some time browsing. Here are some that I could understand and I think could work across the divides of space, time, language and culture. (This seems an appropriate moment, by the way, for me to offer a confession. Confession -- ha ha!! By their nature, jokes are informal. And my informal Russian is not that fluent. My Bolshevik Russian, in contrast, is excellent, and that's what you need to study the Soviet period. But what this means is that a lot of Russian jokes go straight over my head. As for translation, quite a number also rely on word plays that are funny in the original but can't work in English without laborious explanation.)
Soviet jokes came in many varieties. Here are a few, in a mix of free translation and paraphrase.
Nationalistic (#1595). "In France crimes are cleared in four weeks. In England, two weeks. But the Soviet Union has the best police in the world: every crime is cleared two weeks before it happens."
Philosophical (#1609, a rare case of a wordplay (бытие/битье) that translates directly). Marx's law that being determines consciousness, rendered for Soviet conditions: "Beating determines consciousness."
Harsh (#1612). Interrogator: "How old are you?" Prisoner: "I'll be fifty next month." Interrogator: "No, you won't."
Legalistic (#1602). Prosecutor's motto: "Give me the man, I'll find the law."
Anthropomorphic (#1603). Two hares run through a field and into each other. "Why are you rushing?" "Haven't you heard? They've announced that all camels are to be castrated!" "But you're not a camel." "Well, they catch you and castrate you and then you have to prove you're not a camel."
Downright nasty (#1644). Every Soviet organization had a personnel section the first task of which was to report to the KGB on the political loyalty of the workforce. A worker rushes into the chief's office. "The personnel officer has hanged himself in the warehouse!" "Have they cut him down?" "Not yet, he's still alive."
Not funny? You need to enter the frame of mind of a society where any of these would have given rise to a knowing smile and a shake of the head.
Enjoy the weekend.
December 30, 2018
My parents said I’d better go. A letter from my boarding school advised them that in the summer I could travel with my class mates, under the supervision of a teacher, across Scandinavia to Finland and over the Soviet frontier to Leningrad and Moscow. The return journey would take three weeks. The cost was £70 which may not sound like much, but this was 1964 and the purchasing power of that sum would be between £1,000 and £1,500 in today’s money.
I was reminded of this by a charming column that appeared recently on the Pushkin House blog. There, Jeremy Poynton tells the story of a 1960s school trip to the USSR. Reading it I realized that, although his adventure took place several years after mine (in 1968), and his itinerary was much more of an adventure (from the Finnish border to the Trans-Caucasus), there was nonetheless a clear connection. His school was mine (The Leys School), and the intrepid leader of his expedition (Richard Armstrong) was also mine. And an incident that seals the link: Jeremy relates an incident that took place during the 1964 expedition, to which I was an eye witness, when Mr Armstrong was briefly but excitingly detained on suspicion of espionage.
The whole business was an unusual experience for a British teenager, and it had a marked effect on my life. This is how it came about.
In those days you could take O-levels twice a year, in December and June. (O-levels were the forerunner of the GCSE.) My French class had taken the exam early, in December, and somebody’s rules obliged us to continue to learn a foreign language until the school year ended in July. In those six months our teacher, Richard Armstrong, introduced us to the first rudiments of the Russian language: a new script, the pronouns and a few verbs, and some basic greetings. We began to read stories by Pushkin and Lermontov.
The class was most amused by the Russian vowel ы (transliterated to English as y). “I was” in Russian is spoken “ya byl.” My class included Hugh Beale, later a distinguished legal scholar, whose parental home was in Edgbaston in Birmingham. We decided that the easiest way to the correct rendering of “byl” was to speak Hugh’s family name with what passed among us for a strong Birmingham accent, and we all did this frequently and loudly, whether required to or not. Such was the dog-eat-dog humour of our community.
We set off in a people-carrier of the day, a Commer space van. As I recall there were half a dozen of us schoolboys and three drivers: Richard Armstrong, our leader; a friend of his, of a similar age; and a younger adult, a recent former pupil, much admired for his Minolta 16mm spy camera (that’s what we called it). I had a camera, too, the family Brownie Instamatic. I took some pictures, or so I thought, but when the film was processed later there was nothing on it. So I have no photographic mementoes.
My memory of the adventure is episodic, so that’s how I’ll tell it.
1. Ferry across the North Sea from Newcastle to Gothenburg. The weather was blowy and the seas were enough to unsettle the inexperienced stomach. I was queasy but not sick. I looked out to sea on the windward side of the lower deck. On the upper deck another passenger did the same, and threw up. The results ended up in my hair. In the ship’s refectory I discovered Scandinavian brown cheese and ate so much of it that to this day I have never wanted to try it again.
2. We drove from Gothenburg to Stockholm. Wide roads and dark woods.
3. Overnight ferry from Stockholm to the Finnish port of Turku. Heavy seas (or so we thought) with lots of passengers throwing up everywhere. No one slept. By dawn the sea was a flat calm, and the vessel glided into port through an archipelago of green islets in a blue sea lit mistily by the rising sun.
4. Crossing the border. We travelled by road from Turku to Leningrad, crossing the border at Vyborg. At the border, the guards went through our baggage item by item, giving special attention to books. We all brought paperbacks to read and we shared them round. Among them was Ian Fleming’s From Russia With Love, first published in 1957, which had just been made into a film. But James Bond’s reputation had not yet reached Russia. The guards were intrigued by the title, which they spelled out carefully. They considered briefly, decided the book must be harmless, and returned it to us wreathed in smiles.
5. First night in the Soviet Union. Our route across Soviet territory and all our stopping places were pre-booked and pre-approved; our visas required us to to stick to it and not deviate by a day or a kilometre. We stayed in campsites near the major towns; these were well set up and crowded. The weather was fabulous: dry, sunny, and hot. Unlike home, the temperature did not fall when the sun went down, so the evenings were warm and convivial. Our first night was spent in a large tent; we slept on wooden bunks. In the late evening, harsh male voices were heard approaching, apparently going from tent to tent; perhaps they were looking for unoccupied spaces. When they came to us, they barked: “Male or female?” Richard Armstrong responded in a high, quavering voice: “Ne znayu” (I don’t know). There was a puzzled silence; the voices went away.
6. Leningrad. I remember the Neva embankment and the golden needle of St Isaac’s Cathedral. Probably we went to the Hermitage and did stuff like that.
7. Driving across Russia. By day, long straight roads through endless pine forests. Little traffic, mostly lumbering trucks. We overtook them with difficulty because the driver of our British vehicle sat on the wrong side for driving on the right. The driver asked: “mozhno?” (Can I?) The front seat passenger, with better forward vision, would reply: “mozhno!” At night, a problem was that Soviet vehicles did not have the facility to dip their main beams. In traffic they drove on sidelights, even on unlit roads. They either dazzled us or were barely visible. And we, driving on dipped beams, infuriated them, so that they flashed us repeatedly until we submitted and went over to sidelights only.
8. The Kremlin at Novgorod. This was Great Novgorod on the Volkhov River – not the better-known Nizhnii Novgorod far to the East on the Volga. I learned that every town of any significance has a Kremlin (fortress). I bought a print of the Kremlin at Novgorod for my parents, which I still have:
Nearing Moscow, we visited the Tchaikovsky museum in the small town of Klin. In every town and settlement there were party banners and slogans. Most memorable was “Miru mir” (Peace to the World), which we endlessly repeated to each other.
9. The Mushroom Incident. The writer of a contemporaneous account (in The Leys Fortnightly, 23 October 1964) relates “the Mushroom Incident, or, ‘How we Nearly got Sent to Siberia all because of Mr Armstrong’s Insistence on Taking Pictures of Things he Shouldn’t’”:
On the way to Moscow we gave a man and a basket of mushrooms a lift into a town with the sinister name of Klin.
Even after more than half a century I retain the impression that the man was uncomfortable in our company. This was hardly surprising. Most likely he was taking what he had gathered in the woods to sell in the town market. When we picked him up, he probably had no clue that he’d accepted a lift from a bunch of foreigners. By sitting down with us he was enjoying "unauthorised contact with foreigners," a violation of the code of conduct for Soviet citizens in the regions where tourists were permitted. This was a misdemeanour, if not a crime. The trouble that ensued was inevitable.
As a memento, Mr Armstrong took a photo of him. At our next stop, Tchaikovsky’s house, Mr Armstrong was interviewed by two secret policemen who had been told by an upright Russian tovarisch that we had taken a photograph of a strategic object, which we afterwards concluded to be a few electricity pylons. The police expressed their desire to have the film, which Mr Armstrong in his characteristically pleasant manner declined to give them, and so we eventually went off with another tale to tell.
We were told (I recollect) that the farmer had also been detained, and Richard Armstrong bravely protested against this, but of course I did not witness his conversation with the police.
10. Moscow and Red Square. On the approach to Red Square we made an illegal turn, paid a fine, and blew a tire. I had played with Meccano as a child but I had no other mechanical knowledge or experience, and I was physically lazy, so I took no part in the repair. We visited Red Square, the Lenin Mausoleum, and GUM, the State Universal Store. I remember the summer heat and cloudless blue of the sky. I also remember the queues for everything. In GUM I waited in line to buy a red Young Pioneer scarf. Did I buy a balalaika? Maybe. Some of us did, and I might have been one of them. If so, it was never played, but hung around at home for a few years. Ordinary people were friendly and curious, I guess, but I was a bit of a Young Sheldon. If anybody spoke to me, I was probably scared to death. I do remember someone tried to buy the jeans I was wearing. I’m pretty sure they were my only trousers, so I have no idea what I was expected to do on selling them, but I didn’t. The official reporter notes that, in Moscow and Leningrad alike:
We were often confronted by children demanding ball-point pens, chewing gum and stamps in return for badges often depicting Lenin or the Heroes of the Cosmos. Once two of our members were confronted by a Russian when the conversation went as follows: “English?” – “Yes, English.” Pause. “Beatles?” – “Yes, Beatles!”
11. Food and drink. Food: I discovered the indispensable vegetable of Soviet times: pickled cabbage. Drink: at that time the Soviet consumer was beginning to thirst for Coca Cola. What they got was street vending machines that dispensed sweet fizzy sodas of no particular flavour. A glass, chained to the machine for everyone to drink from, was supposed to be washed between users. We all used it, and as far as I know we suffered no harm.
12. The return journey. As we drew near to Leningrad, we made our only deviation from the permitted route: Richard Armstrong and one or two others paid a clandestine visit to the suburban home of an Orthodox priest of his acquaintance (how the acquaintance arose I never found out). Of our second visit to Leningrad I remember only coming across the Church of the Saviour on the Spilled Blood, built on the spot where Alexander II was assassinated in 1881. The church was not in the splendid condition of today, which you can see in a photo that I took of it last year:
In 1964 the church was in a sorry state, in use as a warehouse and closed to visitors.
13. Soviet roads. Near the border, after 1,500 kilometres of ruts and potholes, our faithful Commer van ran into the ground. A rear spring collapsed. One of us got underneath and counted the number of steel leaves in the spring to compare with a nearby Soviet vehicle of comparable size. Ours had seven leaves; the Soviet equivalent was thirteen, so roughly twice as many.
14. Farewell to the Soviet Union. Driving slowly and with great care, we limped our way to the Soviet border. Nearing the border, we stopped for a roadside comfort break. This was understood to be the right way to say good bye to Soviet rule. At the border we held our breath. After inspection, we were waved through to Finland and freedom.
15. Home again. From Finland we returned to the UK in comfort, by rail and boat. No doubt there was some extra expense, of which I knew nothing. In Oslo I strolled around the harbour and visited the Vasa, a wooden warship recently recovered from the waters of the bay. Our van, now barely drivable, was emptied of boys and baggage, and one of our drivers was detached from the party to bring it home.
Aftermath. On the surface, I appeared to have returned home safely and without consequences. In reality, without knowing it, I had contracted an incurable infection: a fascination with Russia that would never leave me.
I’ll finish with Richard Armstrong. He was one of the few teachers that seemed to me to be a genuinely kind person. He was slightly built with a sharp, intelligent face. He did not seem to have any particular age; I suppose he was in his thirties. He was physically tough; he helped to establish and coach the school rowing club and to lead school expeditions into the wilderness. His manner was normally gentle and good humoured; he was sharp only in the face of rudeness. He did not shape my way of thinking about the world, but his Russian class and the adventure that he made for us triggered my interest in Russia and set the course of my research for life.
March 15, 2018
Writing about web page http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-43412702
This morning I had the pleasure of talking with Trish Adudu on BBC Coventry and Warwickshire Radio about the Russian state and skulduggery in Salisbury. In five minutes we only touched on a small proportion of what was covered in my notes. Here’s my full commentary on recent events.
Who is to blame for the Skripal affair?
We don’t yet know the persons directly responsible for the attempt to murder Sergei and Yuliya Skripal. Without that knowledge, why does the Russia government not get the benefit of the doubt? First and foremost, Russia’s rulers have form. Putin presides over a conspiratorial regime. Too many opponents, critics, and whistle blowers have come to a bad end under his rule.
The Russian government and connected Russians have offered a long list of alternative candidates for the crime: MI5, Ukraine, Georgia, the United States, and, bizarrely, the family of Yuliya Skripal's boyfriend, seeking to break his connection to a traitor. The fostering of doubt by scattering such allegations is also part of this form.
Second, Novochok, the nerve agent used in Salisbury, is a Russian product of the Cold War. It was intended to be undetectable, but decades have gone by and it is no longer. Russia claims to have destroyed all its stocks, but this is self-evidently not the case.
Third, yes, some third-party involvement is entirely possible. But that should not let the Russian government off the hook. There is a well-understood advantage for a party like the Russian state in using “third parties” to achieve goals by stealth that cannot be sought openly. Sometimes those “third parties” will go “too far,” whether by accident or design, but this is not necessarily an unwanted thing, because it increases complexity and improves the plausibility of denial.
If you think of the various ways in which Russia has challenged the international order in recent years, “third parties” were involved in many of them: seizing Crimea, invading Eastern Ukraine, and shooting down the MH17 jet liner, as well as in many domestic assassinations. Often the trail is not that long and the “third parties” are barely even that. The two men who British police believe assassinated Alexander Litvinenko were former KGB operatives.
Don’t we murder people abroad too?
Sometimes, yes. There are examples of people have done great wrongs or present great dangers, who have put themselves beyond the reach of justice. A case in point would be the execution of Usama Bin Laden. (But the US government made no secret of its role.)
I don’t consider myself to be an expert in such cases. If Western governments set out to kill people in circumstances other than the ones I just described, my guess would be that it’s usually the wrong thing to do. And any such cases should absolutely not be used to justify the attempted murders in Salisbury. (Besides, to defend oneself against a murder charge by saying "he deserved it" or "I'm not the only one" essentially concedes the allegation.)
Most importantly, Skripal was not a fugitive from justice. He was previously tried in a Russian court for being a British spy, convicted, and imprisoned. The Russian state could have shot him at the time, and they did not; the court put him in prison. Later, they decided to pardon him and release him. They could have kept him in Russia, and they did not. They let him go abroad in exchange for some of their own spies. There is absolutely no “what about” defence for trying to kill him now – let alone his daughter, who lives in Moscow and has never been charged with anything.
Should Britain respond? Yes, absolutely. The expulsion of diplomats thought to be undercover intelligence operatives is appropriate. So are measures against particular Russians now living in Britain on the basis of “unexplained wealth.”
It’s important to understand that nearly all forms of sanction bring risks of collateral damage, which we should try to limit. British and Russia have many cultural and business ties, most of them completely innocent and bringing large benefits. Most Russians living or studying in Britain are entirely innocent of connections to this or any crime. Britons living in Russia are as vulnerable to indiscriminate sanctions as Russians in Britain. Footballers and football fans are mostly innocent bystanders. Whatever are the rights and wrongs of football’s international governance, we should try not to damage these links.
We should also keep talking to the Russians, but, as the Prime Minister said yesterday, the value of high-level contacts is low when the tone of the Russian side is currently limited to sarcasm and passive aggression.
One of the most important responses should be to investigate the Skripal affair thoroughly and to publish the results, as after the assassination of Alexander Litvinenko. It was a bad mistake of the government in 2006 to try to limit the damage from the Litvinenko affair by suppressing evidence for the inquest. Lasting damage resulted; possibly, Putin or the FSB concluded that Britain was a soft target. If the individual wrong-doers in the Skripal affair cannot be brought to justice, their public exposure is still vitally important.
Beyond these things, Britain can do little alone. That’s why we have allies in the European Union and in NATO – to help defend us when we are attacked.
What will the Russians do next?
Because both sides need to maintain the appearance of injured innocence, there will be a period of tit-for-tat. These processes do not usually go to many rounds. But everything depends on intentions. If the Russian government intends to escalate the situation, and is not frightened of the consequences, there is little we can do immediately to limit the process. But it should surely give us pause for thought: why we have allowed a situation to arise in which a potential adversary feels able to act against us with impunity?
Are we risking war with the Russians? The risk of unintentional war is very low, and is nearly always lower than many people think. Many believe, wrongly, that the First World War came about through unintended escalation from trivial starting points. This is wrong: the First World War was planned in Berlin and Vienna, and went ahead in 1914 because London and Paris allowed deterrence to fail.
Today the main risk of escalation comes from the possibility that the Russian government might intend to benefit from increased international tension or from conflict. In Russia there’s a presidential campaign under way. Whatever the motivation, the only way we can protect ourselves against this is by deterrence, which requires reliable defences and a strong alliance.