I’m sure we’ll all familiar with the habit of ignoring a bad symptom and hoping it is just a passing glitch and will, in time, right itself. An example might be when your car occasionally, but briefly, cuts out as you are accelerating or the engine takes at least 20 seconds to catch on a fine spring morning. It’s nothing, you tell yourself. Or there’s that persistent ache, a pain almost, at the bottom of your back to the side which you tell yourself ‘is nothing’ and keep telling yourself ‘is nothing’ until an X-ray confirms the worst. Or there’s that patch of damp which you persuade yourself isn’t growing just as you manage quite well to persuade yourself that your bald spot ‘isn’t growing’, that your debts are still manageable, that your partner isn’t losing interest in you, that you’re still regarded well at work, that it’s still light enough to carry on painting the gutter - our ability to bullshit ourselves is infinite and, it has to be said, nine times out of ten quite harmless. But that ability is not just confined to people. Countries and continents suffer from it, too. So we are still persuading ourselves that Russia ‘is now a democracy’, although admittedly ‘a developing democracy’ which has had and is still having its teething troubles, but that’s just the way of things and bit by bit things are improving politically since that bad old days of Soviet dictatorship (‘exploitation of the people by the people’). It has ‘an elected’ parliament, ‘opposition parties’, the one-time president Vladimir Putin stood down at the end of his term of office as the constitution demanded and agreed to serve as a prime minister under the new president Dmitri Medvedev. Furthermore, we persuaded ourselves, it’s not as though Medvedev is Putin’s placeman. Not at all - there’s a rivalry between the two and Dmitri doesn’t just do Putin’s bidding. Oh, no! ‘Look,’ we tell ourselves, ‘Russia has just emerged from 70 years of dictatorship and before that many centuries of autocratic Tsarist rule! So it’s unreasonable to expect everything to work as it should straight off! It’s a gradual process!’ Well, pull the other one, dear hearts.
The trouble is that the West has invested a great deal of money in Russia and the West depends a great deal on Russia for its energy. So we have to be on reasonably good terms with Russia (or so goes the thinking).
Well, from where I sit, Russia is anything but a fledgling
democracy, with teething troubles or otherwise. Most recently Mikhail Khodorkovsky (right), who was already serving an eight-year jail sentence imposed for alleged tax crimes, has been sentenced to a further 14 years for other alleged offences. Many observers claim his misfortune started when he had the gall to oppose Putin in Parliament. A few days ago, Boris Nemtsov was arrested (below) after he addressed a rally supporting the freedom of assembly. Nemtsov, who served as
a deputy prime minister under Boris Yeltsin, is regarded as one politician who still has clean hands. He was sentenced to 15 days in jail.
As far as I know, it would be a mistake to regard Khodorkovsky and all of the other oligarchs - Chelsea’s very own Roman Abramovich among them - as supergifted businessmen who deserve every penny they own. Khodorkovsky is said to be something of a bright spark, but those oligarchs made their billions by acquiring, in a variety of ways of which some were not very nice at all, at dirt cheap prices the former Soviet Union’s assets. Khodorkovsky’s mistake was to get involved in politics. Another oligarch who crossed Putin was Boris Berezovski, but he remains free purely because he got the hell out of Russia and now lives in Britain (heavily guarded by his own henchmen).
It would seem that if you play the game in Russia - Putin’s game - and keep your now clean, life can remain sweet. If you choose to oppose Putin, life becomes anything but sweet. In the past I have already alluded to the dangers of working as a serious journalist in Russia, and it would seem the rule of law us just so much fiction. Naturally, that doesn’t stop investors piling in hoping to make a fast buck and when you sit in Western Europe several thousand miles away from where the dirty work is being done, it is quite easy to persuade yourself that what is happening there daily are just symptoms of teething troubles in a developing democracy. If only.
. . .
At the end of the beginning of the Nineties, it will have been about 1990 or 1991 and could not have been any later because my father died in that year, I came across a book at work which caught my eye. Newspaper books departments are sent many books by publishers to review and review less than a tenth, if that (which is why the promises by vanity publishers that they will publish your book and get it reviewed in the national press are just so much bullshit. Anyone, you, me and the dog pissing against the lamppost, can send anything he, she or it likes to a newspaper books department and many, many publishers do. But newspapers will review what they damn well choose, and it is highly unlikely to be some junior civil servant’s badly written memoir.) This means, of course, that all books departments end up with loads of books they don’t want, and these are usually dumped on a desk somewhere with an open invitation to all to take what they like. One glance at the titles will tell you why they weren’t reviewed. Obscure subject matter doesn’t even begin to describe what can be found. And, of course, those who scavenge the pile first will carry off the halfway decent titles. My bookshelves were once jammed with books I looked through on such piles, decided I would thoroughly enjoy reading, took home and never once glanced at again. Biographies of Carl Jung, Hogarth, the psychology of the stock market, cosmology made simple, Lithuanian recipes for the summer months - that kind of thing. (They are now all in ‘Elsie’s House’, the granite-walled playhouse in the garden which was once a pigsty. The plan is ‘to read them’ after I retire. Oh yes.)
One such book I came across - and, unusually did read, was an account by a former KGB officer who had defected to Britain about the dying days of the Soviet regime. What stood out like a sore thumb was that, for some reason, it had been rushed into print. I inferred that because about halfway through it was obvious that proofreading had been completely abandoned. The book was very well printed and the first half was impeccable - not a literal to bee seen. Then they were everywhere.
The thesis of the book was simple: that for several years it had been obvious to the KGB that the Soviet regime was, in its present form, dying on its knees and that the service had set about re-organising itself and Russia to ensure that the country could go through whatever changes were on their way, but that those who held the reins of real power would survive and carry on as before.
I have indicated - well, more than indicated - that my father had some kind of relationship with our British secret services, though I’m buggered if I know what it really was, and I showed him the book and told him what the author was claiming. He pooh-poohed it all, and at the time, him knowing what he did, and me not knowing much at all, I accepted his verdict. I now feel he was wrong. I think that is exactly what happened. Why? Because it’s exactly what any sane, intelligent, functioning secret service would do. What was that line in Lampedusa’s The Leopard? ‘Things must change so that they can stay the same.’ Quite.
We're all the same at heart, I mean we all shit from the same hole. Even Putin.
NB To the lads and lasses from the KGB/FSB: click on the above and Happy New Year.
. . .
There was one memorable consequence of my speedy trip to Hamburg in December to attend the funeral of my aunt (Tante Nanny). After the requiem service and burial, we all adjourned to a nearby cafe for a drink of some kind (my sister and I had wine, the more sober North Germans stuck to coffee), sandwhiches and dessert. ‘Sandwiches’, a word which to my mind conjures up mean triangles of tasteless white bread with cucumber and tuna, does really describe the German version, which is Aufschnitt on a variety of bead, and, again to my mind, a damn sight nicer. While I was there, a man introduced himself to me and told me we hadn’t met in more or less 56 years. It was Hans-Ulrich Mose (Ully), my uncle’s brother. It seems he and a friend visited us in Lower Assendon in - well it must have been about 1955/6. He told me he still had a photography of my in Lederhosen with a rucksack on my back, and promised he would send a copy of the picture. He did. In fact, he sent three pictures, and (below) is one of them. The peopl shown are (from left) my father, then about 33 years old, my German grandmother, who will have been about 65, and my mother who will have been 36. (She was three years older than my father, which rather irritated her, though I get the impression that, given that her marriage was up and down, most things would have irritated her about him given half the chance. I’m afraid I have the same problem with my wife, but there you go, me and, I should imagine, most of the world.) Standing in front of the adult are, to the right with blond hair, my brother Ian, who will have been about seven or eight and then me, a few years younger. We are both wearing Lederhosen and were even sent to school in them, which was quite something barely nine, ten years after the end of the war. There you have it: definite proof that I was once young.