Evgeny Lebedev

To tackle Russia we have first to understand it

Evening Standard Monday 10 March 2014

The West is far too ready to judge President Putin by old Cold War stereotypes. The true picture is more complex

There is nothing so embarrassing for a newspaper (and its proprietor) as being duped. It’s a mercy I wasn’t around for the fake Hitler Diaries of 1983, or the grainy footage of Princess Diana and Captain James Hewitt in an overly amorous state but who turned out to be lookalikes. I’ve no doubt both would have fooled me too, but there’s only one fake that’s changed the course of history, and that one I’d have been wise to.

It was two days before the second general election of 1924 that the Daily Mail printed a letter from Grigori Zinoviev, a leading figure in the Russian Communist Party, calling on British Communists to spread the international revolution. Labour lost, and with it their electoral confidence for a decade or more.

Of course, it’s been proved beyond all reasonable doubt to have been the work of MI5. Back then, when peculiar things were occurring in Moscow, and before the Cold War had even begun, there was much to be gained from a wilful misunderstanding of Mother Russia. It’s a state of affairs one would have hoped might have come to a gradual end in the 25 years since the Iron Curtain fell. Yet, if anything, it is a country currently more misunderstood by the West than at any time in recent history.

The situation currently unfolding in Crimea is as complex as the region’s history, but much of the reaction I have seen from our politicians shows how little they understand.

“The thing you’ve got to understand about Putin,” said Menzies Campbell on Sky News, “is that he’s a KGB man.” Indeed he was. But he was part of a Soviet state controlled by one party, one machinery, with no elections. For an ambitious young man, there was very little alternative.

It seems almost comical now, how briefly serious an issue was the unreadiness of journalists’ hotel rooms at Sochi. Russia’s tourist industry leaves a lot to be desired, but it has only been in the past 20 years or so that most of its population have been able to go on holiday at all.

Now ordinary Russians experience a degree of freedom that a generation ago was unimaginable. And they thank President Putin for a newly regained sense of national pride..

The view I most commonly encounter is of a Russia still run by a Tsar, but now like never before public opinion matters there. Centralised power is far weaker than people understand. If Crimea, from a Russian perspective, is “lost”, quite what should happen to its largely Russian population is a cause for concern (the region was part of Russia until Nikita Khrushchev gave it to Ukraine as a gift in 1954, but they were different times).

History has never found an elegant solution to the problem. Already its parliament has voted to split from Ukraine and join Russia, and a referendum is to follow. But the Crimean Parliament’s solution will not be satisfactory to Ukraine. It may function least dysfunctionally as a Russian-speaking independent nation, this culturally and historically Russian blob, jetting out into the Black Sea from Ukrainian shores.

Ukraine’s president until recently, Viktor Yanukovych — while evidently far from perfect — was democratically elected. As we are now seeing very clearly there, and throughout the Middle East, and indeed throughout the whole of history, those who overthrow governments have their faults too. It is not surprising that the far-Right elements of this Ukrainian revolution will worry Russians, and that must worry their President.

Inevitably, these most recent events have joined a recent narrative that began with Pussy Riot, through the anti-gay legislation and travelled all the way to the slopes of Sochi.

“A Winter Olympics with palm trees? How ridiculous,” was a common complaint; yet there are ice hockey teams all over the deserts of the American South. Anywhere but Russia, a Winter Olympics with palm trees would have brought whoops of joy.

Much was made of the rather garish, rainbow-coloured uniforms of the Sochi volunteers. They, like the Russian team kit, were quite a sight to behold.  But change takes time, and this is a nation still emerging from 80 years of the persistent extermination of taste and aesthetics, where every child in the land went to their numbered school in the same uniform, an intentional uniformisation, every building identical.

However reprehensible the anti-gay propaganda legislation passed by the Duma, it does a disservice to the 143 million Russian people for Western countries to look east and see a homophobic, authoritarian, illiberal country. There is no great homophobic groundswell on Russia’s streets. Russians with HIV/Aids receive free, expensive anti-retroviral drugs by law.

It is a complexity lost in a Cold War paradigm that Western policy-makers still seem to depend upon — that Russia and America and the EU must be in a zero-sum game. They are guilty of it themselves. It was Brussels that imposed a November deadline on Ukraine to sign its EU association agreement. Its failure to do so is one of the causes of the events we now see in that country.

In some ways it is a situation that had improved in recent months, with Russia taking the lead in stripping Syria of its chemical weapons stockpile, not to mention with its Olympic ring that deliberately didn’t open at the Sochi closing ceremony, showing that it does have a sense of humour.

Immediately after the Zinoviev letter was published, the man himself wrote to denounce it, highlighting its obvious errors, not least that his title was incorrect, and that, “On the 15th of September, 1924 [when the letter was dated], I was taking a holiday in Kislovodsk.” But the denunciation didn’t become public until long after the election — a Conservative landslide.

So let’s not be duped again. And above all, don’t let the stereotypes of yesterday dictate the relationships of tomorrow.