Tuesday, 28 October 2008

Shady Goings-On in the Jazz Age

I have just started work on my next book, which is going to be about Soviet spies in London in the 1920s. I'm delighted that the book will be published by Granta again. As I've said before on this blog, I was keen to continue writing about Russia, but also to learn more about the city I live in. It’s early days and so there’s not much that I can share yet. We all know that the Soviet Union became the West’s biggest enemy after the Second World War, during what was known as the Cold War. But one of the most notable discoveries of my research so far is just how frightened many people in Britain were of Russian Communism during the 1920s and 1930s.

For the last couple of months, I’ve been spending most Saturdays in the National Archives in Kew, examining official papers, including recently declassified secret documents from the early years of MI5. I’m trying to piece together a story of suspicion and espionage that hasn’t been properly retold since it happened over eighty years ago.

At the moment, my research is focusing on a Soviet organisation called ARCOS, which had offices in London and was supposed to set up trading links between Russian companies and British businessmen. The secret briefing report from 1927 reproduced below gives a good indication of the suspicion (total paranoia might be a better phrase) with which MI5 viewed ARCOS. It also provides an unsettling glimpse into Civil Service drafting in an age before political correctness.

Was MI5 right in its misgivings about what Russians in London were up to? Or was it harassing a group of ordinary, hardworking people whose only fault was to come from a country with a different political system? In helping me to answer that question, I would love to hear from anyone reading this whose relatives had connections to the Communist Party or Russia in the 1920s (or MI5, of course – but not if you’d have to shoot me after telling me).

‘In the current edition of the Commercial Year Book of the Soviet Union, the Soviet Trading Agency of Arcos Ltd. is self-described as “The sole purchasing and selling Agency in Great Britain for the Government of the USSR.” This naïve description is typical of the child-like faith the Bolsheviks in general put in the science of auto-suggestion. They believe that if they say a thing often enough most people are bound to believe it in the long run...
'The chief positions are held by Russians all of whom are Soviet citizens. In the majority of cases the managers are Russian Communists and where a Communist is not available, the responsible technical manager is supervised by a member of the Russian Communist Party...
'There is no more rabid Nationalist than the average Russian Communist. His cry is “long live the World Proletariat” but the “World Proletariat” is only a name; a kind of exotic stimulant which plays upon his imagination and gives him an “ideal” without which the average Russian is the merest buffoon. Your Bolshevik is no respecter of persons. He has developed a mass psychology which is capable of thinking only by numbers. Bring him face to face with the individuals of which his “mass” is composed and he shows himself in his true colours...
'The Russian Communist is, too, essentially a bully. He must have his own way in everything with the obvious result that he is not only feared but actually hated by those who have to work under him. He finds the English life agrees with his inherent love of luxury – this is common to all Russians... No Russian Communist in this country lives according to the standard of the average proletarian. He has his house or flat at Hampstead; his servants; his good food and clothing; and altogether is in no way different from the average businessman who is able to keep up a good home and pay visits to the theatres and other places of amusement.
'While he appreciates the social amenities of England, he is anti-British. He sneers at British Art, British music and British drama. It is not that he really despises these things. His horizon is limited and illimitable at one and the same time. His idea of internationalism is a hatred of everything national except it be the product of Soviet Russia.’

Thursday, 18 September 2008

A Caribbean Diversion

Strange as it may seem, a work project has brought me to Barbados for a couple of weeks. Being here, I have begun to understand some of the unacceptable details that went together to constitute British rule even in the second half of the twentieth century. I realize that, though no fan of imperialism, I had entertained a naive Whiggishness about its final chapters. I chose to see the post-war period as a time when increasingly liberal values were at least as important as economic decline in sealing the British Empire's fate. Occasional massacres and reactionary regimes, such as that in South Rhodesia, were anomalies. I would never be so naive and idealistic where Russian history is concerned.

In Barbados at least, the realities were different. Independence, which was granted in 1966, did not seem close in the years preceding. And the question of who would be taking up the reins of power was also a thorny one. Bridgetown is proud to host one of the oldest parliaments in the world, in continuous existence since the 1630s. But for most of that time it was a whites-only institution. Formal racial discrimination was removed in stages: slavery was aboloished, voting was extended to those who did not own land, income thresholds for being placed on the electoral register were reduced. Full adult suffrage, the only measure that would give black votes the full weight that was proportionally theirs, was introduced in 1951.

However, I was shocked to be told on the way to work this morning by the man driving my car that there were areas of Bridgetown where blacks were not allowed to go right up until independence in 1966. The particular place he mentioned was Strathclyde: the home of wealthy whites, including many who worked in the Colonial Service. It was sandwiched between two neighbourhoods where ordinary Barbadians lived. But they were not allowed to go through Strathclyde unless they were delivering something. The Royal Barbadian Police officers who patrolled the area were assiduous in stopping and questioning interlopers. Of course, they too were black: this sort of perverse irony is unfortunately common to all multi-ethnic empires. Boys like my driver was at the time were warned to stay well clear of the place.

Some internet research brought up an interesting article by Mary Chamberlain which deals with the racist realities of late-imperial rule in Barbados: http://bancroft.berkeley.edu/ROHO/wgmn_papers/mary_chamberlain_paper.pdf. In it she mentions Strathclyde and another place called Belleville. She says that the Yacht Club and other exclusive places were effectively out of bounds for blacks until independence, and that churches' seating plans informally heeded colour difference. If the stories were from the 1920s I would understand. But they are from the 1960s, and from an island that was supposed to be one of the most peaceful and harmonious places in the whole empire. (The picture at the top of this post is of Horatio Nelson and it stands at the centre of Bridgetown, though feelings are mixed amongst ordinary Barbadians about how much longer it should stay.)

Sure, there were good aspects of the legacy left by imperial rule. Barbados is a well-governed place and the levels of accountability and media scrutinty of politicians are impressive by any standards. I used to think these bequests came close to outweighing the bad that was done by the British Empire. Now, I'm not so certain. It may be that, like the Soviet public transport system or their construction of girls' schools in Afghanistan, they just aren't enough to justify what was, in most other respects, totally unacceptable.

Monday, 8 September 2008

Tiger Hunt

More than just a great stunt, Vladimir Putin's single-handed delivery of a Russian TV crew from the clutches of a Siberian tiger is a powerful allegory of how the Kremlin views recent events in the Caucasus. In fact, the characters' roles are so clearly delineated as to resemble those of a medieval morality play or Biblical parable.

Like President Saakashvili, the tiger came too close for comfort. The Russian TV crew, as media workers who are only half-loved and half-trusted by ordinary Russians, are the South Ossetians. And the tranquilizer gun is the Russian Armed Forces in their purely peacekeeping role: targeted but controlled force, exercised as much to protect the tiger from itself as for any other reason. Here is a stripy version of overweaning Georgia. Were the Kremlin press office thinking of Georgia's most famous work of literature, The Knight in the Tiger Skin, when they dreamt up the metaphor?

And here - as in all of Russia's more direct communications since 8th August - there is a thinly veiled threat as well. The hand that pulls the trigger on a tranquilizer dart can just as well fire a bullet. Putin would not have hesitated to get out a rifle if the softer option had failed: Tbilisi beware!

One difference is important. We might doubt whether Prime Minister Putin really fired the dart that saved the TV crew. The glorious moment was not captured on film (presumably everyone but him had dropped their cameras and was running for the hills). But we can be absolutely certain that he was the main protagonist in the main story, the operation to rescue the South Ossetians.

Thursday, 28 August 2008

Size Matters

The recent conflict between Russia and Georgia has led onlookers to make constant references to the two countries' vastly different sizes. Tiny Tbilisi pointlessly stands up to Mighty Moscow; the enormous Russian army rolls over the top of Georgia's boutique forces.

With such comparisons commentators are unlikely to be wrong. But some of the references to size by those involved in the conflict have been very wide of the mark.

The Russians have been careful to emphasise that they intervened on behalf of the underdog, the minuscule breakaway state-let of South Ossetia. Mr Saakashvili, the Georgian President, was the bully, say the Kremlin: so power-crazed that he could not even countenance giving autonomy to a tiny piece of territory, whose people only wanted national self-determination.

True as this may be - and Georgia's initial invasion of South Ossetia, including attacks against civilians, was clearly wrong - Russian references to the separatist region's size have ignored one obvious fact. Such a tiny place is very unlikely to be feasible as an independent state. And even if it were to pull that feat off, it would be very unlikely to provide the good governance and strong institutions that its poor, helpless, jobless, and now homeless inhabitants so urgently need.

As President Medvedev signed the decree acknowledging South Ossetia's independence earlier this week, there was no mention of its size. On 8 August, when current hostilities began, there were only 70,000 people in South Ossetia. At its largest, in 1989, there were just 90,000: the same number as were taking their seats in the Bird's Nest stadium for the Olympic Opening Ceremony just as rockets were starting to rain down in Tskhinvali.

If it were really to become a country, it would be Europe's smallest, barring Monaco, San Marino, Liechtenstein and the Vatican City. Perhaps its leadership might consider turning the place into a haven for rich tax exiles (other financial shenanigans - laundering and the like - have been alleged for many years).

Even little Kosovo, whose declaration of independence from Serbia this year was interpreted as a provocation by Moscow, has a population of over 2 million. Bosnia has almost 4 million people. In the world outside Europe, an irredentist South Ossetia could be gazundered only by 6 other states: Dominica, the Marshall Islands, St Kitts and Nevis, Palau, Tuvalu and Nauru. And that assumes that all of the displaced people are willing to come back home in the absence of an infrastructure or a functioning economy.

Would a request to join the Russian Federation be long in coming? Surely not. But the saddest thing for South Ossetians is that they are unlikely to prosper on their own or in union with either of their two neighbours.

As it has underlined South Ossetia's diminutive stature, so the Kremlin has sought to highlight the enormity of Georgia's crimes. This reached new heights of exaggeration in the perspective-less (many would say tasteless) remarks of Dmitrii Rogozin, Russia's ambassador to NATO . He is quoted in yesterday's International Herald Tribune comparing Saakashvili's attack on Tskhinvali with the destruction of New York's World Trade Centre in 2001.

"There are two dates that have changed the world in recent years: September 11, 2001, and August 8, 2008. They are basically identical in terms of significance. September 11 motivated the United States to behave really differently in the world. That is to say, Americans realized that even in their homes, they could not feel safe. They had to protect their interests, outside the boundaries of the U.S. For Russia, it is the same thing. We were sitting in our homes, the national discussion was internal. Now this Georgian attack is perceived as aggression, and made us realize that we cannot stay home. We have to go outside our homes to protect ourselves on new frontiers."

One violent death is too many and Georgia should be held to account for those of around 100 civilians in South Ossetia - according to estimates by Human Rights Watch and others. However, this is far from the 2,100 toll laid at Tbilisi's door by the Russian Government in irresponsible acts of propaganda.

Russia was closer to the mark when it compared its own worst terrorist atrocity - the Beslan School Siege of 2004 - to the Twin Towers disaster. But it did far less to investigate that crime and hold to account all those responsible for the high death toll there, than it has shown itself eager to do in South Ossetia.

Small wonder!

Thursday, 21 August 2008

What does 'View from Vokzal' mean?

The title of this blog recalls the great Anglo-Russian cultural links of the past, and connects the place where I live with the country I am fascinated by.

As many of you will know, vokzal (вокзал) is the Russian word for a railway station. It was not always so, however: the word was first used to refer to pleasure palaces where the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Russian upper classes could walk through delightful gardens, play fairground games and listen to music. They also got drunk and engaged in dangerous liaisons there too.

The Russian aristocracy took the idea for these places from the British and from London, in particular. The most famous example was the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, just south of the Thames from Pimlico and enormously popular from about 1660 onwards. They finally closed in 1840. If you try saying Vauxhall with a strong Russian accent - Vok-sall - you get quite close to vokzal.

But how do you get from there to railway stations? Well, the first Russian railway, built in 1837, led from the centre of St Petersburg to pleasure gardens in Pavlovsk. The terminus there was much more than just a ticket hall and waiting room, also being used for concerts, dances and polite, Tsarist cavorting: hence, it was known as a vokzal. New stations, even when they were considerably less glamorous than the original, were given the same name. Ironically, Vauxhall in London didn't get its first railway station until a year later than its Russian namesake in 1838.

And where does Vauxhall's name come from? It has nothing whatsoever to do with travel and instead derives from the name of the man who owned the area in the 13th century - Faulke de Breaute, the head of King John's mercenaries. He lived in Faulke's Hall. Use the same strong Russian accent as before and you will see how this can sound like Vauxhall!

The Other Russo-Georgian War

At the Olympic Games, Russia's haul of medals is much reduced this time, leaving them with it all to do in the last few days of competition. So far they've got 16 Golds and 50 medals in total, putting them in 4th place. Last time, in Athens, they ended with 27 Golds and 92 medals overall; in Sydney, there were 88 medals, of which 32 were for first place. The overfilled treasure chests of Soviet times - culminating in Seoul's 55 Golds and 132 medals - are a distant memory of sports superpower status.

But, in regional terms, Russia is still head and shoulders above its rivals by a long way. The next former Soviet state in the medals table from Beijing is currently Ukraine in 11th place with 5 Golds. And then comes Georgia, in 19th place, with 3 Golds and 3 Bronzes. The small Caucasian nation is being outgunned on the track, and in the pool and the gym just as comprehensively as it has been in Tskhinvali, Gori and Zugdidi over the past few weeks.

In war, it is only absolute power that matters: the small and vulnerable can take no comfort from their relative strength or bravery as they quake in the shadow of superior firepower and innumerable troops. At the Olympics, however, relative pleasures are permitted (whatever the tears of disappointed silver medallists might suggest to the contrary). A quick analysis shows that, person for person, Georgia has performed much better than its larger neighbour. With only 4.5 million of a population, the Georgians have won a gold medal for every 1.5 million people living there. Russia (population: 142.5 million) only gets one gold for every 9 million inhabitants. If Georgia performed as well as it has done and had a population as big as Russia's it would have won 95 Golds by now.

Tuesday, 19 August 2008


I've been meaning to start writing a blog for some time. Recent events in the Caucasus have finally galvanised me into action.
I've been learning and writing about Russia, the Russian Empire, the USSR and the post-Soviet world for years now. As we are all finding at the minute, the place is as fascinating and hard to understand as ever: huge disparities of wealth; enormous hospitality combined with terrifying patriotism; and a jaded view of democracy.
Like all blogs, this one will mix some of my thoughts on Russia with those of others who are more eminent and erudite. I hope it sparks debate and shines a few rays of additional light on this dark area.