The Problem With Russia

Monday 19th March

The West has a problem with Russia.  In fact we have always had a problem with Russia; cartoons in the mid-nineteenth Century depict Russia as a bear scooping up little countries – a problem to be contained.  The Beast from the East indeed.  But actually Russia has always wanted to be part of Europe, rather than seeing itself and it’s vast Eastern wildernesses as part of Asia.  Successive rulers imported Artists and Scientists and musicians to the cold Badlands of St. Petersburg and Moscow. And still they were misunderstood.  True, they had long since overrun much of Southern Central Asia and the Ukraine, absorbing them into Mother Russia itself.  But although the vast majority of the people were serfs, there was a small intellectual middle class who wrote wonderful books and music and longed to be understood as Europeans.

Then came the Revolution, and even more reason to be fearful of the East; in fact Churchill sent a ship to blockade Archangel.  And then we had the brief acceptance of Russia’s help to win the War (although it is still not universally agreed that they really won it) but pretty soon after it was the Cold War, with mutual threats of extermination, the Iron Curtain and the Berlin Wall.  No wonder that we in the West are suspicious of the Russians.  And even after the fall of Communism, Yeltsin and now Putin, we still believe the same stories.  The Russians cannot be trusted, they are barbarians, they want to overrun Europe, they do not play by the rules.  And some of that is true, but only some of it.

We were more than happy to welcome the Russian Oligarchs, those lucky enough to be able to steal state assets, the cabal around Putin himself.  We merrily laundered their money for them.  But we still know deep in our hearts that they are really the enemy, the leopard cannot change it’s spots, the Tsars still rule, etc, etc.  And so we jump on every outrage, and the old familiar stereotypes are rolled out.

But maybe it is time to talk to Russia rather than shouting at them, to try to include it in what we call The West.  Another Cold War, another arms race and mutual hostilities are in nobody’s real interests.  And next time it could end rather more nastier than the last.