Russia from The West
Text Martin Richardson
It was when the third person making small-talk at my best friend’s wedding weighed in with questions about the Russian mafia that I began to feel I was living in a different city from the Moscow they were thinking of. Coming back to England I’d been expecting to field questions about oil prices, the South Ossetian conflict, freezing weather and reds under the bed - but it was Moscow’s criminal underworld that leapt to everyone’s mind when they found out where I lived. By the end of the day even the vicar had touched on it discreetly over a glass at the reception!
Yet outwardly, Britain and Russia seem to be overcoming the post-Litvinenko trough in their relationship. Moscow recently hosted a prestigious display of Turner’s paintings, reciprocated in London with February’s b l ockbu s te r opening of a Rodchenko and Popova show at Tate Modern. Russia’s indie-kids party like it’s 1995, with a string of Britpop-influenced bands emerging from cities as diverse as Novosibirsk and Samara while Russian women have shaken off the dreary stereotypes of the sex-less Soviets to become the most desirable on Earth. On a more serious note the two nations are working together to restore the masts of HMS Belfast, in memory of her role in the Arctic Convoys during the second world war. And even the global wave of Obamamania hasn’t stopped most language schools in Moscow reporting students with a preference for British English over the more widely-spoken North American version.
These details haven’t sunk in, though. At the barbers in my home town of Durham, England, Dominic explains that “they all just want to be American, really” and complains about megalomania in the Kremlin. Concerned friends tell me that working as a journalist in Moscow will “get you killed.” It takes more than an annual Russian Winter Festival in Trafalgar Square to switch the focus away from Politkovskaya, Chechen terrorists, the oligarch culture (football-loving or otherwise) and the shadow of the KGB. The shadow of “Russian aggression” stretches over international politics, from energy supplies to relations with former Soviet Republics. “People here just don’t understand freedom,” according to Alice as she stopped to harangue a Russian colleague about the state of the government.
So why does the “Wild East” vision live on for so many Brits, whenever Russia comes into view? Well, indulge a popular cliché, and look at the media coverage of Russia and Russians. Once Alexander Lebedev bought London’s Evening Standard, it was impossible to escape his KGB past. Britain’s broadsheets, the BBC, several international agencies and trade paper UK Press Gazette all referred to his early employers. Most of them also described him as an oligarch, the same soubriquet handed to footballing investors Roman Abramovich (once, oddly, dubbed Red Roman by the tabloids whose readers still struggled with the idea that Russian communism was no more) and Alisher Usmanov, the man who funded that Turner exhibition in Moscow. Yet when Thaksin Shinawatra bought into Manchester City, for much of the media he was simply “ousted Thai Prime Minister.” Human Rights Watch, who described him as “a human rights abuser of the worst kind,” were not widely referenced as Britain demanded “who?”
Ken Livingstone, ex-mayor of London at the Russian Winter Festival 2008 in London
Meanwhile, bar-room sociologists were quick to pounce on Andrei Arshavin’s off-on transfer to Arsenal - perhaps part-funded by Usmanov’s investment in the North London club. Reflecting less on the Zenit forward’s successes at Euro 2008 and in the UEFA Cup, many rival fans were quick to question whether footballers from behind the old iron curtain could hack it in the big time. “Not sure about the football, but I’m sure he’ll have a great time with all his Russian mates in London,” offered one contributor to the BBC’s sports forums. “Eastern European players have no consistency, even if they sparkle for a while,” added another, with other critics comparing him to Karol Poborsky or “those ones who went to Millwall” before sniffing at his performances in the “poor quality” Russian League. Russians, it seems, are either ruthless megalomaniacs or feckless playboys.
This isn’t a uniquely British phenomenon. During the gas crisis most of Europe quickly concluded that Russia was throwing its weight around unfairly. Barcelona-based journalist Xavier Mas de Xaxas, interviewing the Council of Europe’s secretary general for La Vanguardia, stated it as simply as possible: “Is it right that Russia uses energy supplies as a political weapon?” The Kremlin no doubt was partially to blame; we will never know, but Ukraine’s role in the dispute was not even raised, the emphasis was on Russia becoming a disobliging partner. Across Europe the NABUCCO energy pipedream was resurrected, seeking security in a route across Azerbaijan (fragile ceasefire with Armenia), Georgia and southeastern Turkey (known to a large chunk of its inhabitants as Kurdistan). Anything is seen as better than working with Russia, though.
In person, conversations about Russia are littered with words like “unfriendly,” “sinister” and “intimidating,” going so far as to wheel out the big guns of politically correct condemnation “xenophobic” and “racist.” A former teaching colleague, recently arrived in Moscow - and soon to leave again - asked “does anyone ever smile here?” and complained of uniformed figures on every street corner. Another, reflecting on the mysterious “dusha,” beloved of Russians, observed: “Every nation seems to have its myths and this is Russia’s. Quite how such an unsmiling, miserable people could ever believe that they were in possession of any soul, let alone a unique Russian one is the only mysterious aspect of this idea.”
Of course Russia itself is hardly innocent of a spot of convenient propaganda. Up until the day the government announced an “anti-crisis commission” the global financial turmoil was presented as a largely foreign issue, caused by and affecting the west alone. Allowing former Soviet republics into the EU or NATO is a concerted attempt to undermine Russia; mutual defence treaties within the CIS are completely different. Critics of the Kremlin, at least those from outside, are Cold War relics who don’t understand modern Russia. The motherland’s incomprehensible nature is an excuse which echoes back through time to the likes of Tyutchev and his romantic image of a land which demanded faith rather than reason. While this attitude remains popular among many Russians it seems that the Kremlin’s national self-promotion has some way to go to overcome the critical view that remains prevalent in the west.