Fragments from a War Diary, Part #180
It is very normal and natural in a wartime environment to feel hatred, but it is an emotion I always try to keep under control. Hating people or things leads us to unwise decisions and to ascriptions of collective responsibility. Punishing people under the concept of collective responsibility is a crime under international law and modern Europe has no place for such notions, it having fought two world wars in the twentieth century over the concepts of collective responsibility.
When there is so much death and suffering amidst war, it may perhaps be natural to hate one’s enemy. My parents were born in 1940, and grew up amidst the Blitz and the all the horrors of World War II as German bombers strafed British cities. They grew up hating the Germans for what they had done to Britain, and anti-German sentiment remained strong in Britain for a substantial period after the war. It was perhaps my generation, in the 1970’s, who were the first not to feel sentiment of this kind. When I first travelled to Germany in 1993, I felt no enmity of any kind for Germany people, who had just reunited their country after over forty years of division under the influence of the Soviet Union. Germany was forging a new future for herself, and I felt pleased to be in Berlin in those early years when you could walk into East Berlin across what had been Checkpoint Charlie. Everyone had been happy to see Germany reunited and this required an older generation of British and other people who had resented the role of Nazi Germany and World War II in dismantling the British Empire and undermining British stature on the world stage and also for the massive domestic destruction and loss of life that World War II had caused.
History is just like this. Hatred of the Germans and of things German - my Grandfather, who had served in both World Wars - would not buy anything German. His attitudes were understandable, no doubt; but wars do eventually come to an end and reconciliations must be made. It seems unthinkable now that Ukraine and Russia will at some point in the future reconcile. But they are neighbours and this war must eventually cease and some resolution must be found. There are two very different visions of the future for central and eastern Europe in conflict at the current time: a Russian vision, in which borders are perpetually shifting, amidst periodic rounds of bloody violence between massive land armies; and a modern European democratic peace, in which borders are respected and people are permitted to continue their lives in property-owning market democracies, living in peace and with respect for minorities.
I was asked yesterday what I thought of the Russians “these days”, as though my opinions about Russian people have suddenly changed. They have not. I used to go to Russia a lot before the current Russian invasion of Ukraine, and I know that Russian people are a mixed bunch, some educated and refined, some crude boors, some with murderous intent who do not care a jot about human life and some decent shining examples of civilisation. Unfortunately those in the latter category have either fled Russia into some sort of exile, or they are languishing in Russian prisons or are dead. What I saw in my many visits to Russia since the heady heights of Anglo-Russian relations when Vladimir Putin came to Britain on a state visit and met Her Majesty the Queen in 2003, was a progressive deterioration in civil liberties in Russia as people felt themselves ever less free to express their political opinions and they became ever more wary of talking with strangers or with foreigners.
There was a time when as a British citizen it was relatively comfortable to travel to Russia. I had been in the 1990’s, in the Yeltsin era, and it was a lot of gangsters and criminals in charge back then and nothing about Russia felt particularly comfortable. It was initially understood that Mr Putin was reintroducing a much-needed discipline into Russian society, although his authoritarian instincts against rival politicians were clear from an early stage with the incarceration of the Russian Oligarch Mikhail Khordkokvsky who was using his wealth to fund an opposition movement to Mr Putin and the dismemberment of his Yukos oil and gas group that was then split up between various other commercial and state interests under the direction of Mr Putin. Nevertheless there was a time, in the first decade and the beginning of the second decade of the twenty-first century, when educated Russian and western people in Moscow and St Petersburg made friends and had business and social relations with each other.
I did a lot of business in Moscow, and some of my clients and business partners there were some of the finest people I have ever worked with although others were not. I gave courses of lectures at various universities in St Petersburg, that while unusual represented a genuine intercultural exchange in which I tried to explain my country’s values and the principles on which I was taught to uphold in my education and my professional training: not to bribe Judges, for example, something that Russian lawyers found very hard to comprehend. I had Russian friends and these were normal, pleasant and happy things and I remember them all well.
Now all that has gone. I have no Russian friends anymore, and I am here in Ukraine fighting for Ukrainian nationhood and for those western values I spoke about at Russian universities. I stay in contact with none of my Russian former associates and friends not for my sake but for theirs: I do not know what might happen to them if they are learned to be in contact with a British person here in Ukraine helping the Ukrainian people in their monumental struggle against the Russian menace. After 2014 I found a drastic downturn in civil liberties in Russia and there came a point after which I no longer felt comfortable going there. It was no longer pleasant to be a westerner in Moscow and I realised I was being trailed or monitored and all these strange things associated with contemporary Russian totalitarianism which is what Russian political society has disintegrated into.
Can I say that I hate Russians? No. I try not to hate anyone. I am however deeply disappointed in what has become of the Russian state under this neo-totalitarian form of government in which all political pluralism and freedom of speech is restricted and Russians have reverted to being people living in perpetual fear. I do not hate the Russians remaining in Russia. I feel sorry for them. And I am deeply disgusted by the actions of the Russian Armed Forces, who have acted like barbarians on the battlefield. Once this war is finally brought to an and, by whatever means, it will again I fear take decades for relations between Ukrainians and Russians to be mended.