Like most Englishmen, I grew up with a natural dislike of “abroad” and a belief in the inferiority of all foreign things. I think it took me five visits to France before I began to regret leaving that lovely country rather than to rejoice at my return to our safe and familiar island.
It often strikes me as quite funny that I spent so much of my life as a foreign correspondent, a profession for which I am so unfitted. When I went to live in Moscow in 1990, I felt that I had somehow betrayed my native soil. (I was born in the middle of the Mediterranean, but these are technicalities.) I still recall a brief return from the U.S.S.R. to my hometown of Oxford, during which I was asked for directions by an American tourist. “You must live here,” he said, impressed by my historically detailed advice. “No,” I confessed with a strange feeling of guilt. “I live in Moscow.” For the first time in my life I had chosen to live in foreign parts, and very strange and hostile parts they seemed to be.
Yet the experience of living in that sad and handsome place brought me to love Russia and its stoical people, to learn some of what they had suffered and see what they had regained. And so, as all around me rage against the supposed aggression and wickedness of Vladimir Putin’s Russia, I cannot join in. Despite the fact that Moscow has abandoned control of immense areas of Europe and Asia, self-appointed experts insist that Russia is an expansionist power. Oddly, this “expansion” only seems to be occurring in zones that Moscow once controlled, into which the E.U. and NATO, supported by the U.S., have sought to extend their influence.
The comparison of today’s Russia to yesterday’s U.S.S.R. is baseless. I know this, and rage inwardly at my inability to convey my understanding to others. Could this be because I have been unable to communicate the change of heart I underwent during my more than two years in the Russian capital?
Let me try again, starting in a Moscow street called Bolshaya Ordynka. The existence of this place, at the end of the Soviet era, was a great shock to me. Moscow in 1990 was at first sight a festival of concrete. Its cityscape was the Leninist word made flesh, arrogant proletarian lumps deliberately defying all concepts of beauty and grace, the very suburbs of hell.
But Bolshaya Ordynka was not like this. Here was the Moscow of Leo Tolstoy, with trees and low classical houses, not ordained by some gigantic bureaucratic plan, but sweetly proportioned to human needs. On it stood a church with the haunting name of “The Consolation of All Sorrows,” something badly needed at that time of nervous shortage, abrupt catastrophe, and the ever-present fear of a midnight putsch with tanks grinding along the streets. (In August 1991 I woke from a fretful sleep to find those tanks coming down my Moscow avenue, Kutuzovsky Prospekt, barrels aslant in the morning light, throwing up dust as they tore the road to bits.)
This modest street, Bolshaya Ordynka, could outdo Paris in loveliness. Here, under many grimy and bloody layers of Leninism, neglect, and about three wars, lay Russia, a very different thing from the U.S.S.R. Unlike the U.S.S.R., it was profoundly Christian, rather glorious, and no particular threat to the West. Perhaps the Bolsheviks had not, after all, destroyed and desecrated absolutely everything, and a lost nation was waiting quietly to return to life.
The name of the thoroughfare means “The Street of the Great Horde,” and refers to the Golden Horde, the Mongol power that used to send its emissaries along this very road to demand their tribute from medieval Muscovy. Here is a difference to be noted. My country boasts that it has not been invaded for one thousand years. The U.S. has not really been invaded at all, unless you count Britain’s 1814 rampage through Washington, DC (almost exactly two years after Napoleon Bonaparte had made a far more destructive and less provoked attack upon Moscow). But Russia is invaded all the time—by the Tatars, the Poles, the Lithuanians, the Swedes, the French, us British, the Germans, the Japanese, the Germans again: They keep coming. Nor are these invasions remote history. On the main airport road into Moscow, at Khimki, stands a row of steel dragon-teeth anti-tank barriers, commemorating the arrival there, before Christmas 1941, of Hitler’s armies. The Nazis could see Ivan the Great’s tall white and gold bell tower glittering amid the snow in the Kremlin, but they never got any nearer.
In my time in Moscow, one day each May was marked by the sight of stocky, grizzled old men, excusably tipsy, dancing and singing in the street, their medals clicking on their chests, as they remembered the ghastly war which turned back the Hitlerian menace. No matter that their own government was evil. They knew that better than I. The thing they had faced was even worse: It was a matter of survival, and young men and women would applaud and embrace these survivors, who must by now be all gone, given the wretched life expectancy of Soviet men. Anyone unmoved by the realization that these men had once looked death and hell in the face, and not flinched, has something wrong with him.
People often say silly things about other people’s languages, such as George W. Bush’s rumored claim that “The problem with the French is they have no word for entrepreneur.” (The source is former British Cabinet Minister Shirley Williams, the Baroness Williams of Crosby, who may have been being mischievous.) But I have checked the following carefully with Russian friends, and it is true. The usual Russian term for safety or security, bezopasnost, is a negative word meaning “without danger” (bez = “without”; opasnost = “danger”). The natural state of affairs is danger.
Safety, for Russians, is something to be achieved by neutralizing a danger that is presumed to exist at all times. From this follows a particular attitude to life and government. If the U.S. had China on the 49th Parallel and Germany on the Rio Grande, and a long land border with the Islamic world where the Pacific Ocean now is, it might be a very different place. There might even be a good excuse for the Patriot Act and the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI. If Russia’s neighbors were Canada and Mexico, rather than Germany, China, Turkey, and Poland, and if its other flanks were guarded by thousands of miles of open ocean, it might have free institutions and long traditions of free speech and the rule of law. It might also be a lot richer. As it is, Russia is a strong state with a country, rather than a country with a strong state. If it were otherwise, it would have gone the way of the Lithuanian Empire or, come to that, the Golden Horde.
You will have heard that Europe ends at the Ural Mountains. This is not true. The Urals are a much overrated geographical feature, but even if they weren’t, you can find Asia in Moscow, and feel its closeness. In the days before Christmas, when I lived there, Moscow took on the mythical characteristics of the East, as old women wrapped in black took up station on street corners, selling fresh-killed geese raised in snowy clearings. I would not have been surprised if these ageless crones had offered me a handful of magic beans or three wishes. In thundery summer, the great eastern highways out of the metropolis had a feeling of endlessness. There was nothing much, really, between me and China but a failing power, trembling in its armor. In those moments, I found myself wanting a Russia more muscular, not less so.
Down by the river in a great bend, near the horrible Lenin Stadium, which was used for the Moscow Olympics of 1980, sits the Novodevichy Convent, whose swelling golden domes and odd, clattering bells, ringing for Vespers as the light thickens, have as much of the East about them as of the West. This serene place was turned into a Museum of Female Emancipation by the Bolsheviks, who emancipated millions of women straight into factories and collective farms. Bit by bit, it has since been returned to the Church.
Many other such buildings have been recovered, though hundreds were lost forever in that frenzy of hatred nearly a century ago. The Danilovsky Monastery was used as a reformatory for juvenile delinquents, who were not much discouraged from wrecking it by their guards. The idea that man was made in the image of God was an affront to the belief that Soviet power could make a New Man. But how was he to be made?
A few miles away, near the turbulent Taganka Theatre, is a small park, with trees and a pond. A friend of mine, Conor O’Clery of the Irish Times, remarked in the early 1990s on how the grass grew badly there and the trees were stunted. Only as the pace of reform quickened did he discover why. Men and women still living nearby came forward to recall what they had seen there as children in 1937, in the early summer mornings, as they hid in the foliage of the trees. Silent men had dug great pits in the park. Unmarked vans had arrived, and more silent men, wearing long rubber aprons, had flung corpses into the pits, dozens of them, bloody from the execution chamber. The pits had been filled and covered over. And the children, when they climbed down from the trees and hurried home, were ordered by their frightened parents never to speak of what they had seen—at school, with friends, in shops, anywhere. Nor did they, for more than fifty years.
This, remember, was in the very center of the capital city of a great empire. Florid symbols of a new civilization stood all around. Officially there was a liberal constitution, there were law courts, things that called themselves newspapers, and supposed deliberative assemblies. Yet within sight, sound, and stink of these things men and women were murdered by the agents of the state, perhaps because they had told an unwise joke about the regime, perhaps for no reason at all. This was the culmination of a process that had begun with some of the world’s cleverest and most idealistic young men and women setting out a program for utopia. Those lucky enough never to have known the accompanying fear and uncertainty can hardly begin to understand the cynicism and darkness of the lives of normal people in such countries, or of the liberation they felt when the last traces of the Communist Party were scrubbed away.
This was life as it was, harsh beyond belief to us, normal to them. Our Russian friends thought we were ten years younger than we were. We thought they were ten years older than they were. Even births (annually outnumbered toward the end of the U.S.S.R. by abortions) were fiercely regimented. In terrifying maternity hospitals, short of necessary basics and none too clean, newborn Russians were snatched away by nurses, wrapped tightly, and brought back at set times for feeding, then snatched away again. Fathers were not allowed to visit for many days, and mothers would hang strings from the windows, bearing notes pleading for bars of chocolate or other comforts and giving news of the baby’s progress.
Family life, once begun, was precarious and fraught. Divorce had been made very easy by the family-hating Bolsheviks. One wedge-shaped Wedding Palace was known as “the Bermuda Triangle” because all the marriages contracted in it disappeared so quickly. I do not think I ever met a Soviet couple with two children who were full brothers and sisters. Invariably, it was a merger of two broken marriages into one new one. And no wonder. All the things that keep families together were absent or weak. Rents and prices were devised to ensure that even the educated middle class needed two full-time salaries to pay the bills. Unless there was a retired grandmother around, children were inevitably abandoned in early infancy to state nurseries and became the state’s charges. By the time I was there, the hideous state-sponsored cult of Pavlik Morozov, a young traitor to his family, was fading, but friends of mine remembered, sometimes with a shudder, being marched to pay respects to statues of this little monster, and to sing songs in his praise at Soviet youth gatherings.
This was one of those points at which Soviet Russia, which looked on the surface like a cheap copy of Western Europe, turned out to be fundamentally different. The Morozov cult was not quite as horrifying as the worship of Moloch, the dreadful Carthaginian deity who required fiery child sacrifice. But it was so far from the beliefs and morals of the Christian world that I am amazed it is not better known and more studied in the West. “Comrade Pavlik,” a thirteen-year-old peasant boy from a Ural village, was revered as a martyred Soviet youth because he had denounced his own father to the secret police. His family had then murdered him in revenge. Poems, films, books, and even an opera celebrated this unlovely person. Though post-Soviet scholarship has established that the story is almost wholly untrue (Pavlik existed but was probably killed in a meaningless village squabble), the official worship of him continued at least until 1991 when—to my amazement—I found a statue of him in a small park in central Moscow.
Pictures of the statue (now at last destroyed) can still be found, including a 1948 U.S.S.R. postage stamp depicting a boy atop a granite cylinder, holding a red flag and gazing into the future. This truly happened. The cult of Pavlik was present in every mind, the whispered urge to set state and party above parent, a splinter of ice placed deliberately in every little heart.
The generation most fully exposed to this propaganda was permanently warped. One of these worked for me as a translator. She had been born into the elite in the 1940s and as a teenage girl had attended dances among the brown marble pillars of the KGB social club behind the Lubyanka prison. When I questioned her about Morozov, she shuddered. At the time, she had been taken in by the propaganda, only to learn in the long years after just how deceived she had been.
I could not possibly condemn her, nor the other Russians I knew who, like she did, viewed Christianity with lip-curling cynicism, mixed with deep ignorance. They had been marked for life, and it was not their own fault. They felt this wound, and so did their children, who in many cases have turned toward the cross their parents had been taught to despise, because they have seen what a world without Christ actually looks like. Would that their Western counterparts, who think atheism bold and original, could have that knowledge without the accompanying pain.
A good picture of the general squalor, cynicism, and despair in Soviet life was provided by a documentary film Tak Zhit Nel’zya (roughly “We can’t go on living like this”), which was released into movie theaters in the summer of 1990. It had been made by Stanislav Govorukhin, a friend of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and distributed only after the Communist Party Politburo reluctantly gave permission. As far as I know it has never been shown in the West. I attended a screening in the Cosmos theater in North Moscow, a district given over to commemorations of Soviet space triumphs. As I watched the frank and sometimes jeering parade of failure and unhappiness unroll on the screen, I became aware that everyone else in the theater was weeping. For the first time, they were seeing an honest account of how harsh their lives were, contrary to the unceasing propaganda proclaiming the U.S.S.R. an unmatched, enviable success. Now they were free of the lies, and free to mourn.
A little more than a year later, I remembered those people and their silent tears as I wandered round a Moscow at last liberated from the Communist tyranny that had demanded the allegiance of everyone since 1917, a Moscow from which the tanks, defeated mainly by popular scorn for a rotten, drunken, washed-up junta of secret policemen and hacks, had withdrawn. I was so full of joy that I was singing hymns at the top of my voice as I drove down the liberated avenues. And then I observed something that I have never seen anyone else record. In the urn-shaped trash cans on dozens of streets, there were heaps of red Communist Party membership booklets, burning. All those people who had been compelled to adopt this badge of servitude for the sake of a promotion or an apartment or a child’s education, who had publicly swallowed what they knew privately to be a lie, at last felt free to assert the truth.
A few months later I traveled to the once-closed city of Sevastopol, an august Soviet Sparta, the chief station of the Black Sea Fleet and heart of Admiral Sergei Gorshkov’s attempt at a global navy to rival the U.S. Navy. In every creek and inlet lay wrecked and scuttled warships, billions of dollars of warlike power, half-sunk and rusted. The dragon was dead in its lair. There could be no doubt about it: The two twin horrors of Soviet power, Marxism-Leninism at home and expansion abroad, were corpses, irrecoverably dead.
Nobody who has seen these things could possibly compare the old Soviet Union with the new Russia. The trouble is, almost nobody has seen them. Nor, it seems, has anyone noticed the withdrawal of Moscow’s power from 700,000 square miles of territory which it once held down with boots and tanks and secret policemen. Somehow or other this unprecedented peaceful withdrawal of a power undefeated in war is being portrayed as “expansionism.” Nobody who understands history, geography, or, come to that, arithmetic can possibly accept this portrayal. There is much to criticize in Russia’s foreign policy, especially if one is a Ukrainian nationalist, but the repossession of Crimea does not signal a revival of the Warsaw Pact. It is instead a limited and minor action in the context of this conquered and reconquered stretch of soil, the ugly but unexceptional act of a regional power.
Here I risk being classified as an apologist for Vladimir Putin. I am not. I view him as a sinister tyrant. The rule of law is more or less absent under his rule. He operates a cunning and cynical policy toward the press. Criticism of the government is perfectly possible in small-circulation magazines and obscure radio stations, but quashed whenever it threatens the state and its controlled media. Several of the most serious allegations against Putin—alleged murders of journalists and politicians—have not been proven. Yet crimes like the death in prison (from horrible neglect) of Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer and auditor who charged Russian officials with corruption, can be traced directly to Putin’s government, and are appalling enough by themselves.
But this is not really the point. Western diplomats, politicians, and media are highly selective about tyranny. Boris Yeltsin’s state was not much superior to Vladimir Putin’s. Yeltsin used tanks to shell his own parliament. He waged a barbaric war in Chechnya. He blatantly rigged his own re-election with the aid of foreign cash. He practically sold the entire country. Russians, accustomed to corruption as a way of life, gasped at its extent under Yeltsin’s rule. Yet he was counted a friend of the West, and went largely uncriticized. Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who locks up many more journalists than does Mr. Putin, who kills his own people when they demonstrate against him, and who has described democracy as a tram which you ride as far as you can get on it before getting off, has for many years enjoyed the warm endorsement of the West. His country’s illegal occupation of northern Cyprus, which has many parallels to Russia’s occupation of Crimea, goes unpunished. Turkey remains a member of NATO, wooed by the E.U.
As for Saudi Arabia and China, countries much fawned upon by the Western nations, the failure to criticize these for their internal despotism is so enormous that the mind simply refuses to take it in. But I need not go on. The current attitude toward the Putin state is selective and cynical, not based upon any real principle.
Perhaps we would understand Russia’s situation better if we imagined that NATO has been dissolved and that the Confederate States and the territories conquered in the Mexican-American War have declared independence. The U.S. retains a precarious hold on the naval station at San Diego, sharing it with the Mexican Navy on an expensive lease that Mexico regularly threatens to cancel. Americans still living in San Diego are compelled to adopt Spanish names on their drivers’ licenses, and movie theaters are instructed to show films only in Spanish. Schools teach anti-American history. Quebec has seceded from Canada, and is being wooed by a Russo-Chinese economic union, with a pact including military and political clauses. Russian politicians are in the streets of Montreal, urging on a violent anti-American mob, which eventually succeeds in overthrowing Quebec’s pro-American president and replacing him with a pro-Russian one—violating Quebec’s constitution in the process. This brings military forces aligned with Russia right up to the border with New York, Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont.
In such a case, I cannot see the U.S. sitting about doing nothing, especially if it had repeatedly warned in major diplomatic forums against this expansion of Russian power on its frontiers, and been repeatedly ignored over fifteen years or so. If a Marxist takeover in Grenada was considered good enough reason for military action, what would these circumstances provoke?
Mikhail Gorbachev’s feline spokesman, Gennadi Gerasimov, once teased suspicious Western correspondents by sneering at them in the early days of the great perestroika and glasnost experiment, “We have done the cruelest thing to you that we could possibly have done. We have deprived you of an enemy.” He was laughing at us, but he was dead right. The Cold War was a period of moral clarity when the other side really was an evil empire, and when armed resolve for once succeeded in defeating the expansion of evil in the world. It allowed my own poor country to feel more important than it really was, and it suppressed the seething impulses and rivalries of the European continent.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the West has struggled to find a new bogeyman. Noriega would hardly do. The Taliban crumbled at a touch. Saddam Hussein was not up to the job, and the failed attempt to make him look more dangerous than he was has made the populace more incredulous than ever. Even the Iran of the Ayatollahs turned out to be quite keen to make friends. Al-Qaeda and now the Islamic State have an unconvincing fuzziness about them, nasty for sure but not as big as the headlines that are written about them. So what a relief to return to the old and trusted Russian menace, even if it does not really exist and its supposed aggression consists mainly of retreats.
The misreading of Russia’s geopolitical situation is especially sad because for the first time in many decades there is much to hope for in Moscow. Out of utopian misery has come the prospect of rebirth. It is as yet incipient. But I see great possibilities in it, in the many once-blighted churches now open and loved and full again, in the reappearance of symbols of pre-Bolshevik Russia, in the growth of a generation not stunted and pitted by poisoned air and food, nor twisted by Communist ethics. Many Russians will never recover from the cynicism they were taught, the mistrust, the contempt for religion and the foul cult of Comrade Pavlik. But their children can, and may. Why then, when so much of what we hoped for in the long Soviet period has come to pass, do we so actively seek their enmity?
Hillary Clinton’s comparison of President Putin to Adolf Hitler in a speech in California in March is the most striking example of this willingness to adopt the most extreme possible language, even by senior figures in government. Diplomats and media follow the same course, squawking about a “New Cold War” and seeking the most alarmist possible interpretation of every Russian action. But much of this NATO-related chatter increases the very fear and tension against which this odd alliance (whose actual purpose was fully achieved in 1991) claims to be defending us. We are now talking ourselves into a conflict for no good reason.
There was an old English description of the collapse of all order, hope, and mercy during the reign of King Stephen: “Seven long years when God and his Angels slept.” In Russia it was seventy years, not seven. Now they are over, and it is time we acknowledged this. If Russia is ever to become a country in which safety is normal and danger an aberration, we must understand the depths to which they were forced to sink and from which they are now slowly emerging. It is time not for a New Cold War, but for the Consolation of All Sorrows. If we do not recognize this, there will be many more sorrows to be consoled, here and there.
Peter Hitchens is a columnist for The Mail on Sunday.