If, like me, your youthful study of history was beset with Victorian Punch cartoons you will know that Russia was often depicted as a big bear sporting a Tsarist crown, a terrible temper and not too much in the way of smarts.
Unencumbered by modern sensitivities such cartoons were unabashed about the national characteristics of the world powers, however acerbic they could be about Her Majesty’s government.
Orwell later summed these up in a study of boys’ weeklies in which “as a rule it is assumed that foreigners of any one race are all alike and will conform more or less exactly to the following patterns..” He then went on to list the varying degrees of excitability or untrustworthiness of each nation. In case one was left in any doubt, Italians were given a barrel organ, Frenchmen facial hair and the Chinese a pigtail.
Things, of course, had moved on in the boys’ weekly market by the time my copy of Warlord or Commando dropped through the childhood letterbox. First names were a good signifier; “Take that Fritz!” would be paired with “Eat knuckle Luigi!” while “Tojo” would always die with a satisfyingly lengthy scream of “Aiiieeeeeeee!” urging his comrades into retreat with the strangely biblical exhortation,“Flee!”
Russians, as far as they appeared, did so as slave workers on V1 sites where, with one eye on Punch, they specialised in being big and half-inching food off their fellow prisoners. Iron Annie, the adventures of a German Ju-52 transport aircraft crew led by Kurt Stahlman, were often at the expense of the Red Army.
Unsurprisingly perhaps. The comics would often come replete with guides to the British Forces and everyone knew Lightnings were there to protect V-bomber fields and UK airspace while Harriers were designed to operate without airfields on the same German heathland as the mighty Chieftain tank which, unique among NATO main battle tanks, had tea-making facilities as standard. And against whom were these forces pitted? That’s right, lad with his hand up at the back and the Warlord annual pressed keenly to his blazer, the Soviet Union. Or Russia, as we liked to call it.
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Ah, but the world was a simpler place then. You could watch Sandbaggers or Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and grasp pretty quickly that, beyond that Wall, dreadful things happened in cellars if you didn’t agree with whichever gerontocrat was in charge at the time. Even to lovely Diane Keaton. Which was very obviously wrong.
And if, like me, you were handed Tom Stoppard’s Professional Foul and told “get on with that for your A-level” you could live out the whole sweat-stained tension of life under a satellite totalitarian regime, naïve Cambridge academics, smuggled essays and all.
All of which makes you wonder what changed. Not, obviously, the racial stereotypes Orwell rightly abhorred. Nor either the obsession with the war which to us was comics, the search for a role and bad football chants but which to France was an à la recherche de temps perdus quest for la gloire of pre-1940 and for Germany an opt-out clause on anything involving a gun or too much examination of its industrialists.
I mean, it was plain and obvious, wasn’t it, that certain countries just didn’t behave well, did they? By dint either of history, geography or some terrible intertwining of the two, certain recidivists were forever outside the office of the rules-based order waiting to be summoned for six of the best, trousers down. Except, it seems, some sleeve-tugging social worker was in there arguing that Ivan, or whoever, comes from a terrible background and might not counselling be better?
The Soviet Union was an “evil empire” born of a nation with a terrible history which kept half a continent behind an iron curtain. I must be right, even the Cold War leader of the free world, Ronald Reagan, said it: “My idea of American policy toward the Soviet Union is simple, and some would say simplistic. It is this: We win and they lose.”
We did, of course, and so did they. And that wall came down. And with that we forgot everything. The unfortunate propensity of Russia since time immemorial to see Siberia as a prison camp. We forgot the knout, serfdom and Potemkin villages, bloody revolution and Kulaks by the million, collectivisation, mass starvation and the Gulag Archepeligo, Katyn and the Lubyanka, East Germany and the Baltic States, shoe banging and missiles on Cuba.
We forgot about the easy transfer from tsar to commissar to oligarch, poisonings in Itsu and Novichok in Salisbury and a cavalier attitude towards the value of life.
But then again, we always did. Cambridge academics lured away to spy, Leaders of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition and KGB lunches at the Gay Hussar. The Uncle Joe myth that sustained support for an ally who, in the early years of world war had sat back under a treaty with Nazi Germany and rather hoped the West would destroy itself. Reports were that the British public had a higher view of Russia than the US, even as the latter kept the trucks and guns coming to sustain a Red Army on the ropes. What’s Ukrainian for “oh, the irony!”?
In Europe, well, the Resistance were Communists weren’t they? Stalinists in Spain stood firm against Franco! Until the factionalist purge habit proved too strong along with the temptation of Spain’s national treasure, shipped off back to Mother Russia and, appropriately, disappeared.
From France to Greece, resistance fighters were harassing the fascists with Russian ideology and British Sten guns. France seems to have found the habit hard to kick. My enemy’s enemy is my friend, and what better bulwark against the post-war Anglo hegemony than Russia. Take a seat at the far end of the table, Emmanuel. No. Bit further. No, further, next to my friend Marine. That’s it, just there.
It is hard to work out why we succumb to these bouts of collective amnesia and then seem surprised to find that a dog with a history of biting has bitten somebody. Perhaps it’s the pragmatism of diplomacy. Nations do not have friends, they have interests, as Lord Palmerston and rather interestingly de Gaulle, sort of said. Well, they might do. But sometimes they seem dimwittedly short-termist. Ask Germany, once again rather prone to ill-advised tie-ups with Russia. Touch the Devil and you can’t let go.
Meanwhile, the West, and Britain’s left wing intelligentsia in particular, seem so wilfully obsessed with the nature of our own historical misdeeds that they rather overlook the other fella. Somewhere, even as you read this, someone else is trying to sneer; “B-b-but what about Britain…?” Well, that’s a subject more than covered and often badly. That level of self-loathing usually demands therapy. Imperialists we may have been but so was Russia and pretty ghastly ones at that. Antidote they never were.
So what else could it be? The naivete of the internationalist that says, well, I mean their ambassador seems terribly nice, did a year at Oxford, you know? I’m sure we can sort all this out, perhaps over drinks at the weekend. Elite shall speak deceit unto…
Either way, one can’t help but remember those Punch cartoons. Wolves sneaking to the symbolic doors of “the temple of peace”, bears “trying it on”, a Cossack-hatted man holding back the straining dogs of war as an unwitting Turkey strolls into the night, only to be warned by a doughty John Bull that “it might be awkward” if he were to let them loose.
There’s a theme building there, I’m sure of it. It’s a rare moment one gets to misquote U2 – Irish band not Gary Powers – in the context of international diplomacy but is it possible “we knew much more then than we do now”?