Evgeny Lebedev

Homeless Veterans Appeal: What the Soviet Union taught me about looking after ex-soldiers

Evening Standard Friday 9 January 2015

The Evening Standard campaign will help those who have fallen on hard times

As a little boy growing up behind the Iron Curtain in the last days of communism, I remember vividly the pictures on my parents’ television screen of coffins coming back from Afghanistan. Inside were the bodies of men who had died in a far-away place, for reasons I couldn’t understand.

Time moves in mysterious ways. My child’s mind couldn’t have begun to imagine that one day, impossibly far in the future, I would be visiting Afghanistan myself, as a Russian and the owner of a British newspaper. And that it would have become a land from which the bodies of British men and women, not Russian, would now be the ones returning.

Not forgotten: Soviet citizens were brought up to unconditionally respect veterans such as this serviceman borne aloft in Moscow’s Red Square 

It is a difficult time for these two nations as headlines all over the globe speak with ever greater excitement about a new Cold War, or even about the potential for some sort of World War Three.

Much of that talk is obviously hyperbole. But gung-ho commentators should be careful what they wish for: any worsening conflict between East and West would benefit no one and only risk harming all those involved.

As recent British and US exploits abroad have proven only too clearly, world policing comes at a heavy cost — both domestically and globally. And those who suffer the worst, those whose lives are directly being played with, are the ones required to do the fighting.

Being more readily able to see a conflict from both sides makes certain truths and common ground more obvious than they might seem, particularly now. The best way peace ever wins out over war is through dialogue.

In the past few years I made two visits to Afghanistan, spending time not only with the British military in Helmand but also the Afghan people themselves. I wanted to see how this fresh central Asian conflict was unfolding, and what it meant for both sides, in order to try to understand why so many of its problems seemed so insurmountable.

What was clear there was that a breakdown of trust had occurred between all that conflict’s myriad participants, which was making any steps towards peace impossible to take. As always, the people suffering the worst were those caught in the midst of the violence. Many were innocent civilians enduring the horror of life in a war zone. But among the victims were the ordinary soldiers too.

I know well the scepticism and weariness with which so many in the UK view its recent conflicts. But whatever the cause, soldiers who put themselves in harm’s way, who risk their lives on instruction to preserve our way of life, have a right to live out the rest of their own lives with dignity.

Which is why I am so delighted that my papers this year are raising funds to achieve just that through the campaign for homeless veterans that we are running with our partner charities, ABF The Soldiers’ Charity and Veterans Aid. Every penny raised will go to those who served their country but now find themselves in a position where they need us to help serve them.

Watching the British coffins being driven through Royal Wootton Bassett in recent years as a result of this latest Afghan war reminded me of half-forgotten images of my Soviet childhood. Millions of Russians died in the wars of the 20th century, vastly more so than from any other nation. But millions more lived, too.

Whatever anyone might think of the Soviet Union, we were brought up to unconditionally respect veterans. I remember they would all come out on parade on May 9, Victory Day. They would wear their medals and parade through Red Square to cheers from the gathered crowds.

The Soviet Union struggled to make ends meet in the post-war decades and sacrifices were made, but it never scrimped in its care for its millions of heroes from the Great Patriotic War, as it was called. Here in my new home, Britain, I strongly believe we have an obligation to care similarly for those who fought for us too.

This year marked the centenary year of the First World War. We have all in our own way stopped at least for a moment to try to comprehend the scale of the sacrifice that was made during that conflict. At such moments I find more often than not, it is just a single line of a Wilfred Owen poem that most often reverberates in my head. “Was it for this the clay grew tall?” he asked, as he surveyed the horror of the trenches.

It is a line that in recent weeks has become ever-more resonant as I travelled around the country to meet young men and women, veterans of Britain’s armed forces who have fallen on hard times or got into difficulties with debt or drugs or alcohol, and now need our help.

These are people who once offered to give their country the service it required, and must now find themselves wondering: “Was it for this?”

My hope is that our appeal will go some way to answering that question for them. Please join us in helping show them this Christmas why their personal sacrifices — whether in the Second World War or in any of the conflicts that have come after — were worth it after all.

Evgeny Lebedev is the owner of The Independent and Evening Standard newspapers. Follow him on Twitter:  @mrevgenylebedev

For more information on our Christmas appeal please visit www.homelessveterans.co.uk.

To donate, go to www.homelessveterans.co.uk/donate.