Maybe it's because I have just read Ruth Tzeko's excellent A Tale for the Time Being (time, culture, language, philosophy, suicide, Zen, quantum physics, the self, and an intriguing story beautifully written), but watching events unfurl in the Ukraine appears familiar.

Familiar not just because Russian media discussion reflects the rhetoric of the old Soviet years, but also because the impotent moral vacuity of western protestation conjures up spectres of the national trade-offs that were going on in Europe in the run up to what became the First World War. Maybe it's because I am reading Christopher Clark's excellent account of this period in his best-selling The Sleepwalkers

Listening to Russian apologists for Putin's imperial ambitions certainly raises the western hackles, but, getting beyond the intuitive distrust of Russian political integrity, we have to ask why they are doing what they are doing in Ukraine – and why are they doing it now?

The west has just fought two very unpopular wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and it is clear that neither politicians nor people have the stomach for further military interventions on our own continent. Secondly, we can't afford another military intervention. Thirdly, we don't have enough conviction to fight for anything anyway. And Putin knows this. European and US exhaustion (both military and economic) mean that we won't stop him taking the Crimea and anywhere else he fancies just now.

Economic sanctions against Russian individuals? Well, they worked in Zimbabwe, didn't they? (that was meant to be ironic.) So, why is it that when I am watching Russians defending Russia's actions in relation to the Ukraine I feel doubly uncomfortable? The answer, I fear, is that, as Clark puts it (in relation to relations between Serbia and Austria-Hungary in 1913): “There was a clash here not just of interests, but also of policy styles.” (p.288) In other words, we speak different languages.

An interesting exercise to go through, if opportunity ever arises, is to examine the language used by the Soviet Union to justify its invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and then the language/rhetoric used by the west to oppose it. Then compare these with the language/rhetoric used by Britain and the USA for their invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and then the language of Russian opposition to it. (I had to do this professionally.) It's all a bit Alice in Wonderland.

What characterises the story told by Christopher Clark about the run up to the First World War is the short-termism of political alliances forged for limited ends – trade-offs by the Powers in order to maximise their own security by (a) securing territory and (b) balancing the negatives of multiple alliances. The latter became complex, if not sometimes even contradictory. The issue, however, has to do with political and military powers that lose sight of the big picture and, heads and eyes focused down to the bit of grass in front of their noses, nibble their way to destruction.

Back to the Ukraine, it is easy to see why Putin is not terribly bothered by the west's indignant rhetoric. Perhaps he has a longer view of history than we do – or at least broader one. Perhaps he has come up with a different answer to the question about when does history begin? Maybe. But, what is clear is that twenty five years of post-Soviet humiliation is a powerful motivator in current behaviour – a humiliation welcomed in the west after the collapse of Communism, but without any idea – other than the assumed victorious western free-market capitalist democracy – of what might emerge from the ruins. 'The end of history' indeed!

And twenty five years is not a long time in the grand sweep of history. The Crimea was handed by the old USSR to Ukraine just over half a century ago – and now the Russians have decided to restore the ethnic and territorial status quo. And if a popular revolution in Kiev was deemed legitimate to bring down a government, why should a partial referendum in Crimea not be legitimate in giving the democratic majority in this region what they want?

Of course, it is not as simple as this. But, there are some simple questions that are being brushed over in the coverage and interpretation of events in Ukraine. And it is clear that western celebration a quarter of a century ago at the demise of the Soviet Empire has not created a unipolar world – and was certainly premature. Clearly, it is unclear what will happen next and what Putin has in mind for Russia: what we might call expansion he might call restoration.

I don't quite know how to express this, but spending time in Switzerland, France and Germany recently (sabbatical) brought it home to me just how geographical liminality is alien to English experience. We don't cross borders other than Wales and Scotland, which aren't – yet – borders in the sense that Germany and France have them. Living on an island shapes a particular perception of national identity, but it is very different one grown on mainland Europe where borders of land, language, culture, history and ethnicity are so pronounced, delicate, vulnerable and steeped in blood. Reading about the First World War outside of Britain is very different from reading about it in Britain – just as reading about concentration camps in the Second World War feels different depending on whether you are doing the reading in Bristol or Berlin.

Every government needs to read history – although history tells us that each one will read the history that suits them according to the myths they need to reinforce (regardless of whether the myths are backed up by facts). Every teenager in Britain should be required to spend a week in Berlin, walking along 'borders' that introduce them – in curriculum terms – to geography, history, language, religion, theology, politics, philosophy, art, literature, science, economics, culture, etc. That way we might just begin to grow a generation that is able to glimpse (if not see) through the eyes of another culture with another history, and realise that our own – assumed or intuitive – way of 'seeing' is both limited and relative.

Back to The Sleepwalkers

As the mid-term election results come through in the USA it is evident that Obama has had a kicking. Not as hard a kicking as some had predicted, but that doesn’t make the pain any easier to bear for him and his party.

But, while the western news has focused on the latest unravelling of the American Dream, another event has hardly figured in the western media (as far as I can see at a cursory glance): Viktor Chernomyrdin has died at the age of 72. He was Acting President of Russia for less than 24 hours (5-6 November 1996) while Boris Yeltsin got his act together, was Prime Minister of Russia from 1992-98, and served as Russian Ambassador to the Ukraine from 2001-09. He then became a Presidential Adviser.

Chernomyrdin is the latest of a generation of people who grew up in the Soviet Union as Marxist-Leninists, became free market capitalists overnight while retaining power and shaping the next generation. What is usually missed out of such a judgement is that these were also the guys who – despite the rather startling volte-faces, quick-and-easy changes of radical conviction, and evident corruptions – managed the phenomenal changes brought about by the end of the Cold war and the collapse of Communism.

We know the end of the story; they did not. They created their new world without knowing whether or not it would work or simply condemn them to more misery. Which simply goes to show that even the weirdest examples of human inconsistency can also exhibit courage, noble determination, vision and political skill. Kazakhstan would not be where it is if it had not been for the vision, skill and determination of Nursultan Nazarbayev – even if there are huge questions about how he did it and why.

Populations are fickle. America has not seen all its problems solved in two years (during which the banking system brought the world to its collective knees… in the wrong sense). We don’t do long-term, do we? We complain that politicians are short-term thinkers, but we don’t allow them any long-term space for bringing real change. The American culture of instant gratification bites again. But, it isn’t possible in democratic America to do what Chernomyrdin’s generation did with steely determination in the former Soviet Union – democracy means more than giving people a vote, after all..

Anyway, the best thing about Chernomyrdin was his ‘skill’ with words. He was famous for his gnarled language and my favourite saying of his was:

Better to be the head of a fly than the buttocks for an elephant.

Surely this would have been worthy of an Eric Cantona or a Rafa Benitez? In a funny sort of way, it does describe what many in the old Soviet Union were trying to do: mutate from one to the other. If you see what I mean. Big is not always best…

Yeltsin has gone and now Chernomyrdin has followed him to the grave. Their generation will not survive for much longer. Amid all the critiques of such a flawed politicial elite I hope there will be room for some appreciation of those who, with limited vision and even more limited experience, tried to change their world. They didn’t get everything right; but they didn’t get everything wrong either.

I managed to miss Bonfire Night (5 November when we celebrate the burning of Catholics – although that bit is usually forgotten when we chuck the guy on top of the pyre) and the first instalment of Diarmaid MacCulloch’s History of Christianity on BBC4. Instead, I was enjoying a visit to a multi-ethnic parish in Thornton Heath (which has just planted a new Ugandan congregation as a ‘Fresh Expression’) and didn’t get home till 11pm.

A quick glance at the news made me pause. The Prime Minister is to make a statement today on the war in Afghanistan. This follows a number of deaths in the British camp and the growing unease in this country about why ‘we’ are there in the first place. Pity anyone who has to lead a country in circumstances such as these – even if they did lead us into it.

Afghanistan flagWhat worries me is this: what would it look like if the war in Afghanistan was ‘won’? Would there be a western-style democracy? Would tribalism be ended? Would there be an ‘uncorrupt’ leadership backed by highly-trained and well-equipped armed forces? Or would it be that children were attending schools and women were working openly in the professions? I could go on.

I think several things worry me about the campaign in Afghanistan:

1. I closely followed the Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s. Paying no great attention to the demands of a human rights world, the Soviet armies went in and applied all the might they could to overpowering the ‘peasants’ from the mountians. Ten years later – and with a huge casualty list – they left with their tails between their legs. Huge firepower and determined violence failed. The arguments used by the West about that invasion/occupation then are now (ironically?) being used by the West to justify its own ongoing involvement. I am not sure that Afghanistan can be ‘re-ordered’ by outside powers to serve their own interests.

2. This campaign is struggling in Afghanistan itself and is clearly being lost in the pubs of Britain. I guess this is because of two things: (a) we see constant images of violence, death, repatriated coffins and weeping relatives of the casualties, and (b) it is hard to find anyone who can easily articulate the rationale behind our presence there. That is not to say there isn’t one; but if it can’t be clearly and simply articulated, then it can’t be communicated – and if it can’t be communicated, it can’t be owned by people who don’t have access to all the arguments and facts.

3. It is hard to know what ‘victory’ might look like, but it is equally hard to know if ‘defeat’ is the only other option. Is it not possible, having learned from the experience, to put armed support into bolstering the security of Pakistan, ring-fencing the Afghan opium trade and persuading more ‘acceptable’ forces to bring order within Afghanistan itself (such as other middle-eastern countries)? A peace-keeping force that was not made up of provocative western types might be possible and would call the bluff on the Taleban’s claim that they are only fighting to get the westerners out.

Afghan War

And isn’t it weird how Iraq has almost fallen off our screens and newspapers now that our troops have left? Aren’t we fickle when it comes to deciding what is important in the ‘news?

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.