From Russia with Loathing

I got my first taste of Russia and the other side of the Iron Curtain on a schoolboy visit to Moscow and Odessa in 1976. Brezhnev was the Soviet Leader and the Soviet Union was in the middle of a hot Cold War with the West.

The contrast between East and West could not have been greater.

In Russia, apart from in the hard currency shops, consumer goods were in noticeably short supply, as was anything edible except for seasonal produce. The efforts of shadowy black marketeers, who descended on our group at every touristic stopover, whispering ‘buy jeans, dollars, chewing gum’ would have done little to plug the supply shortages.

In hotels, we were under constant surveillance, with a babushka sitting at a desk, at the end of every corridor. The promised day with a Russian family, the much-anticipated highlight of our trip, was cancelled without explanation.

It was only on a visit to a secondary school that we detected some common experiences shared with our Russian peers – an interest in heavy metal bands Led Zeppelin, Motorhead and Van Halen, and scruffy torn denims.

Returning to Moscow last year, over forty years later, jeans were available in all sizes and price ranges, chewing gum could be purchased in every flavour imaginable and the supermarkets were bulging with produce flown in from around the world.

What had not altered one iota was the lack of democracy and the Kremlin’s confrontational approach to the West generally, and the UK in particular.

The Intelligence and Security Committee Russia report re-confirmed this, with their assessment that;

the security threat posed by Russia is difficult for the West to manage as, in our view and that of many others, it appears fundamentally nihilistic. Russia seems to see foreign policy as a zero-sum game: any actions it can take which damage the West are fundamentally good for Russia

There are brave individuals and organisations within Russia who are seeking, by peaceful means, to bring liberal democracy to the Russian people, organisations such as Yabloko (apple in Russian), Russia’s liberal party and the Lib Dems’ sister party, and its founder Grigory Yavlinsky.

They resisted President Putin’s regrettably successful dismantling of the Russian Constitution.

Yabloko established a Public Constitutional Council last winter which included some of Russia’s best constitutional lawyers and experts. The Council proposed alternative amendments to consolidate democracy in Russia. They included a reduction of the presidential term to four years, limits to the powers of the head of state, making the parliament more independent and expanding its rights to nominate the Prime Minister, as well as a package of amendments devoted to improving human and civil rights and freedoms.

Yabloko campaigned, despite severe restrictions which saw activists arrested and leaflets and posters seized, for the right to put its amendments to a nationwide vote as an alternative to President Putin’s. But this was rejected by the government. However, a poll conducted by the Levada Centre (a Russian non-governmental research organisation) in June identified that if there was an alternative vote, 28% would have voted for Yabloko’s amendments against 25% for President Putin’s variant, and 26% in favour of keeping the old Constitution unchanged. Furthermore, 80% of those polled said that Yabloko’s proposals should have been put to a national vote alongside President Putin’s amendments.

Nevertheless, Vladimir Putin pushed through his amendments to the Russian Constitution. Meanwhile Yabloko called on its supporters to abstain.

Yabloko has suffered a set-back. But in the words of its Chairman it will continue to strive to find ‘new forms of modern political activity in Russia’ and to develop a ‘powerful, but non-violent political movement with a solid core of values and a detailed realistic programme… and to find a place in world of the 21st century that would be worthy of our history and culture, worthy of our people’.

The UK Government and British people should do everything possible to support those in Russia committed to democracy and to foster good relations between our two great nations’ peoples by means of soft power, and cultural, scientific, and academic exchanges.

But whilst the Russian government’s attitude remains ‘From Russia with Loathing’, and they authorise assassinations on British soil, repeatedly test our air and naval defences and sanction or coordinate widespread attempts at spreading disinformation, no such consensual relationship can exist between the UK Government and the Kremlin and ‘President for Life’ Putin. The Cold War is back.

* Tom Brake was the Liberal Democrat MP for Carshalton and Wallington from 1997 to 2019.

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8 Comments

  • John Marriott 23rd Jul '20 - 12:46pm

    What a crying shame that Mr Brake lost his parliamentary seat last year. He might have been a strong candidate as Lib Dem leader.

  • I visited Russia in the early 90s when our politicians and the mainstream media here suggested that Yeltsin’s first years of rule were a chaotic but firm entry of Russia into democracy, as many American and European NGOs and companies poured in to give helpful tips to ‘wean off’ the old centralised economy and its institutions and instead foster a more ‘liberal’ economy.
    But what I found there was different. People selling ALL their belongings on the street (not like our car boot jumble!), inflation where the rouble dropped daily, and Moscow gangs would turn up with guns to hotels with robbery while small towns in the countryside people with ordinary jobs like teachers eating what they grew/barter and could afford little more. Western ‘advisors’ could afford – like myself-the imported foods in hard currency Moscow shops, prohibitive for most locals.
    Soon afterwards I realised countries like the US and UK were advocating “Shock capitalism” by pushing the Russian govt for ‘Economic liberalism and reform’ by selling lucrative parts of state industries like mineral extraction to sell (cheap for the west or be bought up by Russians often close to the west!) and neglect the rest of soviet systems- the stuff that kept civic society together- hospitals, schools etc or kept on a shoe string. Meanwhile western organisations set up shop, import western goods and services while employing a few locals.
    Having the privilege to meet and talk with ordinary families in that democratic era western plundering, sorry teaching the merits of free enterprise, sentiment was of despair and wishing for some of the securities of the past where they were paid for their respectable job doing something for society and afford to buy things.
    Looking back , for me, it’s not so hard to see why so many Russians wanted a ‘strong leader’ to curtail some of the gangster culture there and rebuild state institutions and Russian companies which paid salaries and pensions.
    And when in Putin’s early years, he asked if Russia could join NATO as we were all now friends, and the reaction of NATO was to scratch its head and say “….err…No! We are pointing our missiles at you!” It’s not so surprising that Russia has learnt that western interests on Russia are not always for the benefit of millions of Russians!

  • Lorenzo Cherin 23rd Jul '20 - 11:45pm

    Great to hear from one missed. Excellent. After reading this I say come back Tom, every word sensible!

  • John Marriott 24th Jul '20 - 9:31am

    The cartoon intros to ‘Have I got news for you’ have been very perceptive over the years. After the fall of a Communism, the intro feature the Berlin Wall coming down and behind the ruins logos for multi nationals like Coca Cola springing up. The most recent version shows a Russian turning off the gas pipe linked to Western Europe and all the lights going out.

    I wonder whether HIGNFY will change its logo again if it ever returns in its normal format. How about something about a virus escaping from China?

    As far as East Germany is concerned, it always got a raw deal when the Third Reich was divided up after WW2. I would dispute whether or not it had a successful economy, as Steve Comer asserts. I visited Berlin not long after Reunification and, once you left the areas that Honecker and his crew used to display to western eyes as examples of the success of socialism, crossing the Glienicke Bridge into Potsdam, for example, was like stepping back into the 1930s. You could almost expect a group of Brownshirts to come marching round the corner. Despite the massive sums splashed out on trying to haul the eastern Länder up to western levels, and not just the one to one conversion of the ‘Ostmark’ or the “Begrüßungsgeld “ paid to East German visitors to help them boost the West German economy, conditions in the east are still not good in comparison with the West. No wonder that a wave of ‘Ostalgie’ sweep through the former citizens of the DDR a few years ago. Despite the Stasi and the lack of the kind of ‘freedoms’ we have taken for granted in the West, at least citizens enjoyed steady employment and excellent cradle to grave medical and educational services. If you got your name down you could look forward to being the proud owner of a Wartburg or a Trabant in about ten years time!

    Just imagine how Russia must feel today. As Tim Farron (remember him?) perceptively remarked a few years ago, former Warsaw Pact countries on its borders that used to have missiles pointing west were now members of the enemy alliance with missiles pointing east. It might seem far fetched but, supposing Scotland were to gain its independence and then evolved into, say, a Jihadist State? How would we in England feel?

  • Thomas HJ has the right of it.

    I visited the USSR (as it then was) in early spring 1991 (on a Lib Dem study tour no less!) just months before Gorbachev was deposed in the abortive coup that eventually bought Yeltsin to power.

    One destination was Novgorod, a medieval capital, about 100 miles south of St Petersburg which had been a reasonably sizable city (population ~250k IIRC) before the Nazis swept over it. When the Red Army finally pushed them back, they found only a few dozen survivors and that was by no means a unique experience. So, I cannot blame modern Russians if they are very wary of militaristic aggressors.

    This point was driven home later in Moscow where we met a group of councillors from a working-class borough. One question from our side was about nuclear power (for generation). It must have been mistranslated as it was answered about nuclear power (for the military); all were unanimously and emphatically in support of it. Understandably so.

    Seeking to put Russia back together after the Soviet collapse, Putin realistically had to be dictatorial and brutal. And, like him or not, he is a strategic genius in that role but not, I think the man for the next challenge – to diffuse power within a framework of settled law.

    In the meantime, can we stop demonising Russia at every opportunity and using it as an excuse for our own failings. Yes, they test our defences – as we do theirs. That is SOP. But their economy and military are tiny compared with the US or Europe and configured and equipped to defend Russia, not for aggression. It’s funny how our media don’t report that!

    As for the ISC’s assessment (from the article) that, “the security threat posed by Russia is difficult for the West to manage…, well, yes, it is if, like the ISC, you don’t bother to look. We have serious issues of our own that they didn’t apparently feel free to investigate.

    And, expanding that thought, what about the Skripals? I don’t know what happened but it’s certainly not what our media have told us with the PM being caught in a direct lie (there’s a surprise!) about the attribution to Russia.

    I would love if a cross-bench group of MPs/Lords asked to meet them in private. I bet it wouldn’t be allowed because of what might come out.

  • In the early 1970s Russian higher education students were allowed to study in Britain and stay in Britain for a year. I remember hearing about one group heading to Hull on the train. The Russians pronounced the name of the city Gull so when the train stopped and they heard the announcement Goole they all got off the train.

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