Unsanctioned in Moscow – 2

Secret police agents can be a hoot when they are in the right mood, and polite. Moscow is turning out to be a city of surprises.

In June, it looks nothing like the films – all snow and heavy coats – and I will admit one attraction of reporting from here was meant to be having an excuse to wear a big, white fur hat and matching muff, but the weather has been warm. While ‘Peter is a bit north of Aberdeen, Moscow is on a latitude with Berwick-upon-Tweed, without the wind that cuts across the sea there.  No hat and muff then. What it has are power and people.

This is the old capital – not airy Enlightenment palaces but the heavy walls of the mediaeval Kremlin, the spider at the heart of Muscovy, and what happens within those walls today can be just as mediaeval.

I see people in British town doing ‘Soviet nostalgia’ as a fashion kick. They really take that fashion seriously here: shortages, queues, and everyone living in fear of being killed or imprisoned for an ill-placed joke.

Interviewing local people out of the way of the police is a challenge. What we are told in the West is untrue: there are many genuine Putin supporters here, and many who hate him too, but whoever they are, they share an underlying understanding. They understand all about the war; they know that the media is controlled by the governing party and they are being lied to, but they must accept the doublethink, to believe what they are told by the screen and the newsprint even when they know it is untrue because otherwise they have nothing. The media is paid for by the government machine, access to material granted or withdrawn at the governors’ whim, leaving them corrupted and compromised,  like the CBC in Canada, or BBC Scotland.

It was not long before I spotted them – two men following me. That is not unusual. These two though looked sober, and so they stood out in the crowd. I have learnt a thing or two about ‘the craft’ and managed to give them the slip (do not ask for hints though – I learnt the techniques in confidence and will only say it is not like the films). Even so, after a few more interviews they located me again.

Now, police and FSB agents do not have large expense accounts. They might follow you to a Вкусно – и точка (which is McDonald’s whatever they call it), but then the purse runs out. So I invited them to the White Rabbit on Smolenskaya Square. When your cover is blown, it is blown, so you might as well make the most of it and they weren’t paying. (The black grouse is to be highly recommended. I would gladly eat anything on the menu apart from the raw meat dish.)

Those two made for charming dinner companions when they had had the caviar starter. Whatever their reputation, they all have families, and they were soon showing pictures of their families: wives and girlfriends (don’t ask), a son at school, a son in the army, and some very pretty daughters each was proud of: they are the future and if a nation believes in its children they will want the future to be the best it can be.

Are policemen as cynical of their own government?  Of course, and more so having worked within it, creating the myth and living the myth. When they open up, you can see how the system works.

Now RT is off the air in Britain, there is no one reporting from inside Russia with that insider insight from the depths of the Kremlin. I have done what I can.  I left my card anyway.

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Unsanctioned in Moscow

It’s ‘Здравствуйте’ from Moscow! (Or St Petersburg actually – Moscow on Tuesday.) As I have not been banned by Putin, I can report from the heart of darkness, in June when it has no darkness, from the depths of the best restaurants in ‘Peter.

The White Nights make this a city that never sleeps, because it doesn’t dare close its eyes. It is as far north as Kirkwall, which has no real night-time any more than it has a nightlife, in June – St Petersburg is in that case a bit like its close latitude companion, Aberdeen, but with gorgeous Imperial architecture and gun-toting muggers. It is also under the watchful eyes of a ruler almost up to Sturgeon levels of dictatorship.

I should have posted this yesterday, but this city is disorienting, fascinating, intoxicating – like Aberdeen. There is also the time difference, which like much of Russia is two hours ahead and three hundred years behind.

This is the city which produced Vladimir Putin. Aberdeen produced Michael Gove. I think we had the best of the bargain.

This though is a city of wonders – a city build on a swamp, like Venice without the constant smell of drains, and with more Italians. This is – and you really get this in the very atmosphere – the city celebrated by Dostoevsky.  In these streets you can live and breathe it, feeling yourself a part of the novels.

Step away from the palaces and Prospeky and look: here is the street of collapsing garrets where Rakolnikov starved, or the dripping-damp underground apartment for the Underground Man; here the rotting barge basin where Marmeladov slept in his drunkenness; here the dark lanes where Sonechka – well, never mind. St Petersburg today reeks of Dostoevsky’s world.

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It is still not our war

Pity, despair, horror at what man will unleash – all this and more tumbles from the heart. War is not a game and the victims are innumerable. Yet it is not our war.

History will judge, they say, but how we cannot know. Those weeping for their lost children will not wait for history and that is something about war: it is always immediate. Let history judge whom it will, capricious thing as it is; but we must look now and say this is still not our war, and making it ours, out of adventure or virtue-signalling with other men’s children’s lives, would make it very, very much worse. I know how history would judge a politician who claimed he had done a moral thing while standing in front of the irradiated ashes of London.

It can end, and will. I understand the characters, have met their ambassadors and read their words and been immersed in their shared culture: were I sent in to bat, I have no doubt that I would forge a settlement bringing five hundred years of unshakeable peace and the gateway to prosperity, and that I would be cursed by both sides for it even as they roll in gold.

It may be that history books will adjudge this war as an anomalous war of aggressive conquest, or another in a series of wars waged by European nations since the end of the Cold War, or as a war of reunification, which are always seen  in a kindly light. That does not help a widow flooding her street with tears today.

There is no more that it is safe to say. Maybe our grandchildren will read books saying “the West stayed on the sidelines, and thank goodness for it”. That is for their age though. For us it is day to day, and there is no more it is safe to say.

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Человек и час

Who could have imagined a television comedian elected in a fit of humour would prove to be a great statesman?  (Although you say the same of Boris Johnson.) Vladimir Zelenskiy has proven to be the hero his country needs in its greatest distress: head and shoulders above any politician.

He seemed an odd choice for the mantle of ‘statesman’: he has been known for prancing about the stage in knock-about sketches on the box, and starring in comedy programmes. Stuck in a political office, one would think him a pushover, and maybe the other Vladimir thought so so. Instead we have a ‘servant of the people’ in amongst the people, shunning offers to help him flee, as any politician in circumstances would, but appearing on the streets, encouraging resistance to the dictator to the north.

There is a bit more to the man than his slapstick television clown persona: this an entrepreneur, creator and mainstay of a media business. It is not like dragging someone from TOWIE and sticking them in the chair. That depth may have been missed by his opponent.

The Black Earth of the Ukraine, the open steppes and the once lawless Zaparozhe lands tug at the hearts of those who live there. It was from here that a Cossack tradition grew which drove east and south to conquer  and settle Russia’s vast empire, and this was inseparably a tradition of freedom from outside control and all the promises of endless frontier lands. This was also a land once filled with little, distinct Jewish villages scattered across the steppe in their own form of independence – they are no more since the SS swept over the land exterminating them, and Zelenskiy will feel that too, as his family were lost to it. The dictator’s boot is unwelcome here.

At the same time, the Ukraine is a part of wider Russian culture. It was in attempts to break it away that Moscow’s wrath was kindled. Here it meets a contradiction in the soul of the Rus’ though: the freedom of the frontier against the autocracy of the ruler. Here too is a paradox that will cause the campaign to fail: if the Ukrainian and the Russian are all one people, then how can one fight the other?

This land at the edge of empire is a threat to the autocracy of the centre because it has shown, with whatever imperfections, that those of Russian culture can have a democracy and freedom to speak and work.  If that is allowed to continue, it gives the lie to the nature of the Muscovite norm of autocracy. Previous Ukrainian presidents have played the same game as their neighbours, crushing opponents, playing an oppressive Sprachpolitik  and allowing corruption to run riot.  In Zelenskiy, a Russian-speaker himself, but an outsider to all sides, it has been possible to imagine another way – people are free to live, to speak and to work. It is work in progress. Local nationalism is nihilistic and artificial, but freedom; that is worth defending.

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From Diffidence Warre

And from this diffidence of one another, there is no way for any man to secure himselfe, so reasonable, as Anticipation; that is, by force, or wiles, to master the persons of all men he can, so long, till he see no other power great enough to endanger him: And this is no more than his own conservation requireth, and is generally allowed. Also because there be some, that taking pleasure in contemplating their own power in the acts of conquest, which they pursue farther than their security requires; if others, that otherwise would be glad to be at ease within modest bounds, should not by invasion increase their power, they would not be able, long time, by standing only on their defence, to subsist. And by consequence, such augmentation of dominion over men, being necessary to a mans conservation, it ought to be allowed him.

Againe, men have no pleasure, (but on the contrary a great deale of griefe) in keeping company, where there is no power able to over-awe them all. For every man looketh that his companion should value him, at the same rate he sets upon himselfe: And upon all signes of contempt, or undervaluing, naturally endeavours, as far as he dares (which amongst them that have no common power, to keep them in quiet, is far enough to make them destroy each other,) to extort a greater value from his contemners, by dommage; and from others, by the example.

So that in the nature of man, we find three principall causes of quarrel. First, Competition; Secondly, Diffidence; Thirdly, Glory.

The first, maketh men invade for Gain; the second, for Safety; and the third, for Reputation. The first use Violence, to make themselves Masters of other mens persons, wives, children, and cattell; the second, to defend them; the third, for trifles, as a word, a smile, a different opinion, and any other signe of undervalue, either direct in their Persons, or by reflexion in their Kindred, their Friends, their Nation, their Profession, or their Name.

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