By Max Hastings (THE GUARDIAN, 27/11/06):
In Moscow shortly after 9/11 a clever Russian academic told me: «Don’t believe all that stuff Putin is dishing out about how sorry we all are about what has happened. A lot of people here are thrilled to see the Americans get a kicking.» A few months ago I heard a cluster of diplomats lament the difficulties of doing business with the Russians. «They still see negotiation in the old cold-war way, as a zero-sum game,» said one. «If the west wants something, it must be bad for Moscow.»
Few of us today want to see the Russians as enemies. We admire their music and literature, sympathise with their appalling history and, a few years ago, delighted in their emergence from the sour, brooding seclusion in which they languished for most of the 20th century.
It is precisely because we feel goodwill towards them that there is something of the bitterness of rejected courtship in our response to their recent behaviour, of which the apparent murder of Alexander Litvinenko is a bleak manifestation.
Why, having tasted freedom and democracy, should they wish to return to the murderous practices of Stalinism? How can they acquiesce in Putin’s restoration of tyranny? Here is a nation suddenly granted wealth which might enable its people to become prosperous social democrats like us.
Instead, to our bewilderment, Russia is institutionalising a state gangster culture which promises repression and ultimate economic failure for itself, fear and alienation from the rest of the world. We hear of few Russians at home or abroad who have achieved wealth through honest toil. Instead, the tools of success in Putin’s universe are corruption, violence, vice and licensed theft on a colossal scale.
«Complex feelings of insecurity, of envy and resentment towards Europe … define the Russian national consciousness,» wrote Orlando Figes, the outstanding British historian of the country. Underpinning all Putin’s dealings with the outside world is a demand for respect, a rage at perceived western condescension. This is shared by his people, in a fashion which goes far to explain why so many support his policies.
Frustration about lack of respect has been woven into Russian foreign policy for centuries, accentuated under communist rule. A Romanian who visited Russia in September 1944 was awed by the hardships accepted by Stalin’s people. He noted a blend of arrogance and inferiority complex in their attitudes to the outside world: «They are aware of their great victories but at the same time fear they are not being shown sufficient respect. This upsets them.»
Russian responses to western failures of deference have often been indistinguishable from those of the yob on a suburban train who assaults an innocent commuter because he dislikes the way the man looks at him. State violence has been an unembarrassed part of the Russian polity since time immemorial.
There was much hand-wringing in the west earlier this year when Russia’s parliament formally endorsed the principle that its government enjoys a right to hunt down state enemies overseas. Moscow dismissed the foreign reaction as bourgeois hypocrisy. Had not President Bush publicly committed the US to a doctrine of preventive war against entire countries which he deems a threat to American security?
It is possible to believe, as I do, that Putin did not personally order the murder of Alexander Litvinenko, while regarding the Russian president as overlord of a culture which legitimised it. Putin cannot shrug off a simple truth about his society: his friends and supporters walk the streets in safety and wealth; his foes perish in horrible ways, with dismal frequency. The murder of one Russian journalist critical of his regime might be dismissed as mischance. The deaths of 20 mock Kremlin protestations of innocence.
The end of the cold war looks more and more like one of those practical jokes the gods play upon mankind. We rushed to celebrate the fall of the wall, the passing of an era in which east and west threatened each other with nuclear annihilation. Yet we now perceive that dealing with a Russia rich in energy wealth presents more complex challenges.
It is a notable irony that the RAF will soon get the first of £20bn worth of Typhoon fighters, an idiotic cold-war legacy. All the participating European governments involved flinched before the diplomatic difficulties and job losses which would have followed cancellation. We are to possess a formidable force of aircraft designed to shoot down Soviet bombers.
It is hard to conceive any scenario in which Moscow will launch bombers against the west. Instead we must confront a defiant new Russia, fortified by possession of a substantial part of the world’s oil and gas reserves in an era when energy competition will be critical. Even if Scotland Yard delivers a report on the Litvinenko death which concludes that the Kremlin was directly responsible, it is hard to see how Tony Blair could respond by ordering the scrambling of Typhoons.
Thus far, the response of European governments to Russian gangsterism and intransigence can either be dignified as temperate or scorned as appeasement. Blair has sought to forge a personal friendship with Putin. The former German chancellor Gerhard Schröder has been rewarded for his support of Moscow policies with a directorship of Gazprom – the company building a pipeline that will supply gas directly from Russia to Germany. At the G8 in St Petersburg earlier this year, other world powers sought to treat the Russians as if they were people like us, in the lingering hope that they will become so.
This seems fanciful. At the heart of Putin’s policies is a determination to restore the old Soviet Union’s might and influence. It is hard to see how these would be exercised towards ends that the west would consider benign.
Though George Bush’s follies have debased the coinage of freedom and democracy, these remain noble objectives, never likely to be shared by Moscow. This is a city where taxi drivers see no embarrassment in carrying miniature portraits of Stalin on their dashboards, where the British historian Antony Beevor is denounced because he speaks the truth about Soviet excesses in the second world war.
The Russian archives, which provided such a bonanza for western researchers for more than a decade after they were opened, are now largely closed again. There is no pretence that this reflects national-security requirements. It is merely because Putin was disgusted by the revelations which the files yielded to us about the horrors of the Stalinist era. The collapse of the Soviet Union, which the world perceived as a triumph for freedom, is described by the president himself as the greatest calamity of the 20th century.
Western revulsion from Russian behaviour, including the murder of Litvinenko, merely feeds Russian paranoia. Our hopes that contact with the west will persuade the new Russia to adopt civilised behaviour look threadbare. «We sometimes say that one must be very unlucky to be born in Russia,» a melancholy tourist guide said to me in St Petersburg a couple of years back. The west has no choice save to continue the weary struggle to engage with Moscow. It would be naive, however, to anticipate that freedom and respect for law will triumph any day soon in that tragic, sometimes apparently accursed society.