It is obvious why Russia is being blamed for arranging the apparent attack on former double agent (Russian military intelligence office and MI5 spy) – there is a phenomenological association with the case of Aleksandr Litvinenko in 2006. But, correlations do not make explanations, nor do they imply necessary cause.

As I and others observed in the House of Lords this afternoon, speculation prior to proof is a dangerous thing. Although we seem to be getting increasingly blasé about it, judgement by headline is not a wise way of ensuring that justice ultimately is done.

One or two Russia experts have been urging caution about rushing to judgement. My reason is simple, possibly naive: what does Russia have to gain from this?

  • If revenge for Skripal’s treachery against Russia, why wait until now – he was released and deported to the UK in 2010?
  • If deterrence, why not do it sooner – and why pardon him before his spy-swap?
  • If to stop the “selling” of secrets, that boat sailed many years ago and there will be nothing useful left that hasn’t already been told.

I scanned Russian media and social media this afternoon (briefly) and they have reported the Foreign Secretary’s answers to the Urgent Question in the House of Commons earlier today. However, his typically careless remarks about England possibly withdrawing from the World Cup in Russia this coming summer (which – yet again – had to be clarified by officials later) provided just the distraction from the main matter: possible Russian complicity in the poisoning of Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury.

A couple of very eminent and experienced former diplomats said to me after the debate in the Lords that Putin can gain from this insofar as it boosts his strong-man image in Russia ahead of the elections. He is a shoe-in, but fears a low turnout and the questions of legitimacy that this would raise domestically.

The problem with this line is that it is not clear that Putin would actually gain anything from having a retired and harmless ex-spy bumped off in England. Crimea, Eastern Ukraine and Syria have established for his domestic audience that he is a strong leader willing and able to defy the aggressive and victimising West. His sanctions-weakened economy has not deterred him from increasing defence spending and strengthening the military with new-technology weapons and a motivated armed force.

Of course, I might be missing something here. It is entirely possible that the security services in the UK know stuff they can’t tell the rest of us. There might be a political rationale that currently eludes my limited mind. But, a simple identification of cause and effect is neither helpful nor wise.

At a meeting a couple of months ago with the Russian ambassador to the UK I was a little surprised by the smooth ease with which he alluded to what we would call “extra-judicial assassination” of Russians who had gone to fight with IS in Iraq and Syria. Killing is clearly not something the Russians are squeamish about … if it gets the job done quickly and effectively.

But, even that does not provide a causal link with the plight of Skripal and his daughter. I am not naive about Russian potential for politically sanctioned violence, but it cannot simply be assumed – even if, in the end, it is proven in this case.

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This is the text of this morning's Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4's Today programme:

In the middle of last week I got back from a ten-day visit to Tanzania. Not only are my feet still moving to the rhythms of the music and the energy of the dancing – in schools as well as churches – but I have come home looking differently at what had previously been familiar.

My experience reminded me of the late German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt who wrote a book several years ago in which he kindly offered his advice to anyone thinking of standing for election to the German Bundestag: don't even think about it unless you speak at least two foreign languages to a competent degree. Why? Well, because, he says, you can't understand your own culture unless you look through the lens of another culture – and to do that you have to know something of (or, better, 'inhabit') the language. After all, language goes deep and some things can't be translated; they have to be intuited.

Well, I don't speak Swahili, but this is partly what was going on for me in Tanzania: not everyone sees the world as I do. For example, how are we to understand the significance of the first meeting in a thousand years between the Pope and the Patriarch of Moscow last week? Seen through an English lens, it might look merely odd. Seen through the eyes of a people whose religious memory goes deeper into centuries of division, and it will resonate more profoundly.

Or, politically, where the resurgence of Putin's Russia appears threatening in the West, but has a different complexion when seen by Russians whose recent history of collapse has been crying out for re-empowerment. Tensions over Syria, for example, have to be seen through Russian eyes, not just our own, if we are to see more clearly what is going on there.

None of this is new. Listening to Tanzanians describing their experience of life and loss, I could not help but look through their eyes at my own. And this exposes the limitations of my own imagination and understanding of the world – even my world. My mind was being changed.

This is what is referred to in the Bible as 'repentance' – the freedom to change one's mind – or, to put it more visually, to re-grind the lens behind the eyes that shapes the way we see God, the world and us.

It is no surprise, then, that for Christians this period of Lent is intended partly to clear away the stuff that stops us repenting. It creates the space in which we can once again, in humility, submit our perceptions, our convictions and our prejudices to the searching eye of love and justice and mercy and generosity. Or, for Christians like me, to have the courage not just to give up chocolate for a few weeks, but to dare to look and see differently that with which we had become comfortable or familiar.

 

I remember reading a paper once in which the writer kept using the word 'insulation' when he meant 'isolation'. And now I wonder if I am seeing the same thing when I listen to Western political leaders claiming that Putin and Russia will be 'isolated' because of the annexation of Crimea.

Will western threats turn out to be, in fact, the very moves that insulate Putin within his own 'bloc' and cement his position? And will such insulation/isolation actually render any possible negotiation or policy amendment impossible?

These are questions more eloquently put by Dr Charles Reed in his good and clear post today.

They are also the sort of questions lurking behind my original post on Ukraine and subsequent linking in to this of reflections on the events behind the sleepwalking into World War One in 1914. Some intended actions turn out to have unintended consequences – but it is not the politicians who pay the price (unless in terms of the loss of a job later).

Running under all this stuff is also the question of memory – and whose narrative is allowed to become 'official'. As this article in today's Observer illustrates tragically and seriously, attempts to rewrite 1990s history in Serbia and Bosnia is not just of academic interest … especially to those who see the physical world around them being shaped to tell a lie.

And where did World War One begin…?

 

When commenting recently on what I might have blogged about had I bothered to write anything at all, I mentioned a few issues, but avoided the Pussy Riot trial in Moscow. The reason I avoided it has nothing to do with the issues raised by the case itself. I'll come back to it later – after a couple of bland observations that I hesitate to make without developing them (for which there isn't time).

First, Pussy Riot would still be anonymous around the world if Putin's boys and girls hadn't lost perspective. Putin will do the opposite of anything the 'old enemy' wants him to do – it's almost a matter of principle. So, the riot of disgust and anger around the world at the eventual sentences handed down to the three women won't cause Putin to lose sleep.

Second, the Moscow Patriarchate shows signs of being a little too close to Putin and his regime. This has clearly also led to a loss of theological perspective on its part. The ensuing global publicity about the Pussy Riot demo has simply drawn attention to questions the Church finds uncomfortable (or, at least, should do) and focused critical attention on its political allegiances and privileges.

Whichever way you look at it, Pussy Riot has managed to attract more attention to their cause than they could ever have dreamed of. And both the Putin regime and the Church look ridiculously self-regarding and over-sensitive. I wonder whose tables Jesus would have overturned…

Anyway, I am on an island holiday with almost no mobile signal and few places where I can get a wi-fi connection. I am also trying to avoid 'work'. So maybe this is the time to explain an unusual phenomenon that still surprises and amuses me.

Way back in 2009 I posted something entitled 'The rules of pizza'. It followed a bizarre experience in an Italian restaurant in London when the waiter, rather than asking me if everything was OK with the meal, instead observed that I “eat pizza funny”. The women on the next table were laughing. I said I wasn't aware there were any rules for how one should at pizza. So, I posted the piece and posed the question.

However, the odd thing is that I still get daily views of this particular post. Dozens every day – sometimes hundreds. I was amused early on after I had originally posted it that I was getting hundreds of referrals from a lesbian bondage website. This seems to be happening still. And I have no idea why or how.

So, you can understand why I hesitated before posting anything about Pussy Riot. Most referred viewers must have been really disappointed to find they got to a bishop discussing pizza. I dread to think what will happen to future referrals from exotic websites caught by the title of this post.

Or maybe they will all come from cat protection organisations…

 

Putin & Medvedev 2008Just as the contribution of the Beatles to the downfall of Communism and the Soviet Union is being recognised (!), there’s a big row going on in Eastern Europe at the moment and two connected things have set it off: (a) Dmitri Medvedev, the Russian Presidential face of Vladimir Putin, has called for the teaching of history in Russia to reclaim the marvellous achievements of Stalin and (b) the Baltic states are lumping the Soviet Union together with the Nazis as invaders of their countries and oppressors of their people.

The last couple of months have seen (among others) the anniversaries of:

  • the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact on 24 August 1939 (which carved up Eastern Europe between the Nazis and the Soviet Union)
  • Operation Barbarossa which saw the invasion of the Soviet Union by the Germans on 22 June 1941 (which ended the non-aggression pact mentioned above)
  • the twin invasion of Poland (by Germany and the Soviet Union) that began on 1 September 1939 (followed by the declaration of war by Hitler in the Reichstag: ‘Seit 5 Uhr 45 wird zurueckgeschossen!’)
  • the declaration of war against Germany by Britain, the Commonwealth and France on 3 September 1939.

Medvedev and Putin are now a bit fed up that Stalin’s Soviet Union is being lumped together with Germany as joint launchers of World War II, maintaining that it was Stalin who had ‘ultimately saved Europe’. The USSR apparently had no option but to sign the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and Stalin bore ‘no responsibility’ for starting the Second World War. In this context – and following accusations by the Baltic states that Hitler and Stalin were equally responsible for the war – Medvedev and Putin have set up a commission in Russia aimed at re-writing the history to make it conform to the orthodoxy they wish to affirm. (Not surprisingly, perhaps, the commission appears to be dominated by members of the intelligence services and not by professional historians – 28-3, if you want precise figures.)

Stalin & ProvdaNow, before all the Commie-bashers’ eyes turn red and brains fall out, let’s remember that these guys won’t be the first politicians to want to re-write the history books. History is always (a) written from a particular perspective – that of the ‘winners’ – and (b) written to justify contemporary power concerns – in this case Russia’s claim to ‘privileged interests’ in its post-Soviet neighbours. As Jonathan Steele wrote in a useful corrective to simplistic interpretations of history:

History is too complex and sensitive to be left to politicians. First they manipulate anniversaries, then they move to textbooks, and the slide gathers speed.

What is interesting about all this is the wide debate it has sparked about history itself and who decides which interpretation is to be regarded as ‘orthodox’ rather than ‘revisionist’ (terms also bandied about in the Church to label dissenters from ‘my’ view as traitors to the cause). Irina Filatova says:

But history is a strange discipline – for as long as it has existed it has been pronounced dead. But it comes back with a vengeance, meting out its own sentences on those who try to silence it.

And, in an interesting reflection on the current debates about Afghanistan, Simon Jenkins impatiently states:

History is like the law. It offers raw material for anyone who wants to plead a cause or make some money … History is not bunk. It is a glorious seam of human experience from which leaders can seek guidance on their present conduct. But its parallels are never exact and are easy to distort, while its lessons are quarrelsome.

MonasThis is where the teaching of history becomes so important and why history teaching in our schools and universities is so vital. Like the monument to Soekarno in Jakarta, Indonesia, (described locally as ‘Soekarno’s last erection’ but officially known as Monas) – which has an exhibition of dioramas telling the story of Indonesia’s history, beginning with prehistoric boats sailing from Sumatra to Java flying the flag of modern independent Indonesia! – it is always tempting to tell the story from the present back to the past, giving it a thread of inevitability that justifies the present political reality.

But, history can never be reduced to a simple statement of facts. It will always involve interpretation by subjects and observers and will need to be treated with a certain scepticism as to the motives, assumptions and commitments of those who either write or authorise the ‘history’.

For example, it would be really interesting (and there must be a book in here somewhere) to tell the stories of the Bible from the perspective of the ‘losers’: the Egyptians prior to the Exodus or the Canaanites subjected to the ethnic cleansing of the Conquest, for example.