Having the gift of space to read and think, it must not be wasted. While in Sudan last week I read Lindsey Hilsum’s biography of murdered journalist Marie Colvin, In Extremis, and Orhan Pamuk’s novel The Red-haired Woman. Now in Jena, Germany, I am reading Francis Spufford’s True Stories and Other Essays. This morning I took a look around the bookshop and read Mark Twain’s The Awful German Languagewhich had me laughing from the first to the last page.

Jena is where Hegel taught and where Schiller met Goethe. On the hills above the town Napoleon had his own encounter with German determination. On 14 October 1806 at the twin battles of Jena and Auerstedt Napoleon defeated the Prussian armies, subjugating the Kingdom of Prussia to the French Empire for the next six years. There were 50,000 casualties, the soil rich with the blood of now-forgotten humanity.

I mention this because I am reading Spufford’s excellent essays in a particular place and at a particular time – a place with its own history and memory and a time in which the shape of Europe is once again the object of struggle, albeit not military. I read and enjoyed Golden Hill (just after finishing Robert Harris’s Conclave – both having a similar twist in the tale), but have not yet read his other novels. In his essays he addresses one of these, Red Plenty, and describes the attempt to recreate for a distant generation a sense of the possibility that the USSR held out during the 1960s and ’70s.

This isn’t some naïve approval of Soviet statism or nostalgic reference to planned economies, but, rather, an exercise in trying to enable a new generation to inhabit a world that is now long gone. Most people now simply recall the collapse of the Soviet experiment – with few tears shed – and cannot imagine what it was to live through it without the benefit of hindsight. These essays need to be read in order to do justice to his case (and I now need to read the novel itself).

This has caught my own attention because it recalled for me an experience I had some years ago when I had been asked by a media production company to write an obituary for Pope John Paul II that could be broadcast in the event of his death. With a limited word-count I wanted to capture his part in the destruction of Soviet Communism, but in an evocative word or two. I chose to speak of ‘Politbüro’, but was told by the producer that this sounded ‘political’. I clarified that it is political, and that that is the point. Subsequent discussion led to a sort of enlightenment moment for me: the producer was in her mid-twenties, was born around the time of the fall of the (Berlin) Wall, and had no lived experience of the Cold War or a divided Europe. She had grown in the unipolar world of capitalist free-market monopoly. I, on the other hand, had grown up with the threat of nuclear cataclysm, had known people whose family was separated by the borders of East and West Europe, and had then worked at GCHQ as a professional linguist at the fag end of the Cold War (the first half of the 1980s).

Lucy (for that was her name) couldn’t intuit what I felt in my bones. She couldn’t imagine the world I had thought solid and permanent. I couldn’t explain or describe to her what it felt likeat the time to live in this world, not knowing what was to happen in 1989. A new generation of producers and gatekeepers was growing up who had no experience of what for me had been formative, integral and essential. (I kept the word in my script.)

This is what Spufford addresses in his novel and explains in his essays. We are all time-bound. I can try to explain or describe the thought world I inhabit, but, shaped as it is by my actual history and my personal limited visions and experiences, I have now to allow others to inhabit their world and bring to their conversation (and judgements) the assumed permanences of their perspective, knowing that they are provisional, limited and partial.

It reinforces the need to listen carefully in any dialogue, to interpret wisely, and to learn again to look – with humility – through the eyes of the other at why the world is the way it is and what can and cannot be taken for granted as common.

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

While checking in at Philadelphia Airport for the flight back to the UK I picked up a freebie copy of last Sunday’s Financial Times. The colour magazine is usually a good read. This time it was.

Twenty years ago (18 August 1991 to be precise) Mikhail Gorbachev was on holiday on the Black Sea coast of the Crimea when some old-guard Communists launched a coup aimed at preserving the USSR. Despite lots of inquiries and autobiographies, there are still a number of unanswered questions about what really happened and what the role of Gorbachev actually was. Was he held under house arrest or was he simply waiting to see which side would win before declaring his hand? As it happened, the coup failed, the USSR folded, Boris Yeltsin came to power and Gorbachev went down in history as the man who ended Communist tyranny and opened up the ‘Evil Empire’ to the fresh air of democracy.

The article in the FT magazine (by Charles Clover) describes events well – despite making the rather odd observation that the eight Party bosses and generals who launched the coup had “formed a state emergency committee, known by it’s clumsy Russian initials ‘GKChP’, to take temporary control of the Soviet Union.” Why are these initials ‘clumsy’? Not in Russian they aren’t. It’s a bit like a Russian suggesting that CIA is ‘a bit weird’ or MI5 ‘oddly English’.

Anyway, reading the article reminded me of a conversation I had a couple of years ago over dinner with the former Chairman of the Senate of Kazakhstan (effectively the Vice-President). It was in the margins of a meeting of the Secretariat of an interfaith conference. I don’t often meet people who knew people who shaped that part of history, so – nothing ventured, nothing gained – I decided to ask the question that really puzzled me: why is Gorbachev revered in the West, yet Yeltsin- a drunkard and a buffoon – revered in Russia? I suggested that Gorbachev re-shaped history, but Yeltsin was an opportunistic joke, normally laughed at in the West because of his behaviour when ‘under the influence’.

The answer surprised me. ‘You are judging like a westerner. In Russia a man who can drink and hold his drink is respected; the weak man who gave away an empire is not.’ Or words to that effect. Apparently, I was misreading the culture. What I saw as weakness was seen ‘domestically’ as strength; what I saw as strength (from the outside) was derided as weakness at home.

It reminded me that we can only understand ‘the other’ when we learn to look though his/her eyes and see how the world looks through that cultural or linguistic lens.

It also helps explain how and why Vladimir Putin maintains such popularity inside Russia: the strong man who restored pride to Russia and flexed his muscles internationally in a way that most Russians thought they would never see again. It wasn’t for nothing that he allowed himself to be photographed half naked with a gun in the wilds of Russia.

– Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Location:Somewhere over the Atlantic