Heart of empire: a tender ship leaves Liverpool quayside with passengers bound for Australia, October 1913. (Photograph: Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)
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The spirit of Scouse

A great port grappling with the forces of recession.

Merseyside – or the small part of it that I know best – occupies a disproportionately large area in my mental map of England. I lived in many different parts of the country as a child, but my longest single stretch was spent on the Wirral Peninsula, the fat green thumb that protrudes into the Irish Sea between Liverpool and Wales, and is to Liverpool as Cheshire is to Manchester – the favoured suburb of its affluent professionals, its own home county.

We moved to a town in the peninsula’s more prosperous western half in 1975, when I was seven years old, and we left in 1983. We had long-standing family connections – my mother’s family owned a well-established clock and jewellery business in Liverpool – but it was my father’s work that took us back. He had been appointed to run the Liverpool office of a company called the International and Commercial Finance Corporation that had been set up by the clearing banks and the Bank of England at the end of the Second World as a kind of national investment fund. It has subsequently changed its name to 3i, dismantled its network of regional offices and mutated into a private equity firm, but in 1975 it was still pursuing its founding remit, and the north-west was in need of the kind of “risk capital” or equity investment – long-term, small-scale funding – that it provided.

If Liverpool is perceived to have suffered more than any other northern city from Britain’s post-imperial decline, that is partly because it had so far to fall. “Liverpool, by its imports, supplies the country with food and corn,” says one of the panels on the walls of St George’s Hall, the grand neo-Grecian building at the heart of the collection of museums and public buildings that make up a kind of “civic forum” near Lime Street Station.

During the 19th century, 40 per cent of all world trade passed through Liverpool’s docks, which the American novelist Herman Melville described as one of the man-made wonders of the world. “The extent and solidity of these structures seemed equal to what I had read of the old Pyramids of Egypt,” he wrote in his 1849 novel Redburn: His First Voyage. The trade supported a large manual workforce and many associated legal and professional trades, and the notion that Liverpool imported cotton and Manchester made it into cloth inspired the phrase “Manchester men and Liverpool gentlemen”. At times, Liverpool’s wealth was said to exceed London’s, and its Custom House was the largest contributor to the Treasury.

As the port was Britain’s gateway to the Atlantic, even those with no connection to the city were drawn to it. Millions of migrants passed through Liverpool on their way from eastern Europe to New York in the late 19th century, and it was the point of embarkation for many destinations in the British empire. When my paternal grandfather left his home town of Hull and travelled to Brazil to run a factory in 1929, he caught the boat from Liverpool. The port sustained great hotels, such as the now-faded Adelphi, and funded great architecture: of English cities, only Bristol and London have more listed buildings than Liverpool. The trio of waterfront buildings known as the Three Graces – the Liver Building, the Port of Liverpool Building and the former headquarters of the Cunard Line – are particularly renowned.

Liverpool’s prosperity was matched by its strategic significance, and during the Second World War it became the headquarters of the campaign known as the Battle of the Atlantic. My mother’s father played a minor part in the “longest, largest and most complex naval battle ever fought”. He spent three years as a ship’s doctor on convoy protection in the Atlantic and in April 1942 he took up a shore posting at the Royal Naval Hospital at Seaforth, north of Bootle. “In this filthy and overcrowded hospital we had a nice mess and I enjoyed a very busy two years,” he later wrote. Most people were evacuated from the urban areas to the countryside, but my mother’s family followed him to the second most bombed city in the country, and she was born in Blundellsands, in north Liverpool, in 1943.

The scars of the bombing are still apparent in the car parks that pock the city centre, but the postwar years inflicted longer-lasting damage: Liverpool’s location had been the source of its prosperity, but as Europe displaced the Americas as Britain’s most important trading partner, it became increasingly isolated. When we arrived on the Wirral in 1975, Liverpool was still engaged in its old role of “breaking bulk” – unloading ships and warehousing and distributing their contents – and it still boasted its own stock exchange, complete with trading floor on the ground floor of the office block where my father worked.

However, the Cunard Line had left its waterfront home in the 1960s and relocated to Southampton, and Canadian Pacific, the last company running transatlantic cruises out of Liverpool, had stopped operating in 1972. In the same year, a container port opened at Seaforth, where my grandfather had served in the war: the modern ships had outgrown the city’s 19th-century docks and “containerisation” was making its workers redundant.

The decline of the port was temporarily offset by the arrival of manufacturers such as Ford and British Leyland. Professor Sam Davies of Liverpool John Moores University maintains that the 1950s and 1960s were the most buoyant period in Liverpool’s history since the 19th century, yet once manufacturing industry began to decline in the 1970s, the loss of the city’s historical sources of wealth and employment could not be concealed. The professor says that the unemployment rate in Liverpool has always generally been higher than in the rest of the country, partly because of the casual nature of dock work, but while I was growing up in the middle-class fastness of the Wirral Peninsula, it reached levels unmatched since the 1930s. A city that had never been inclined to the ordinary found itself mired in a series of extraordinary crises.

Structural changes to the British economy were largely to blame for Liverpool’s plight, but many Liverpudlians criticise Margaret That­cher’s Conservative government for making things worse. Maria Eagle, the shadow secretary of state for transport and MP for the south Liverpool constituency of Garston and Halewood, articulated the widely accepted case against the Tories when I met her at Lime Street Station one evening. “The city was going through a genteel decline, but the Conservatives came in, shut down the little industry there was left, and turned it into a catastrophic crash,” she told me.

There has not been a Conservative member of Liverpool City Council since 1998, and the folk memories of the Thatcher years still win votes for politicians such as Eagle. In 2010, she illustrated election leaflets with photographs of Margaret Thatcher and David Cameron beneath the slogan “Don’t let the Tories wreck our city again” and was rewarded with a 5.7. per cent swing, reversing the national trend of a 6.2 per cent decline in support for Labour.

Born in 1961, Eagle grew up in Formby, a suburb ten miles north of Liverpool. I told her I found it hard to believe that a national government would seek to “crush” (her word) a city like Liverpool but she insisted that she had seen and felt it. She believed that the motive was a crude kind of political tribalism. “Liverpool represented everything they disliked – a lot of working-class people who looked out for each other, a lot of solidarity, and a great feeling of specialness that led to a pride they didn’t understand and didn’t believe in.”

The rise of the Militant Tendency, the Trotskyist faction of the Labour Party that gained control of Liverpool Council in the early 1980s and refused to cut its spending to meet the target set in the “rate-capping budget” of 1982, intensified the city’s confrontation with the government. “They were crushing the city before Militant took over,” Eagle argues. “Militant exploited the sense of hurt and resistance. They took people along with them because they were the only game in town, and there is still a minority who think, ‘Well, at least they did something when there was despair around; they didn’t just give in.’”

A similar ambivalence prevails towards the riots that broke out in Toxteth – “the Harlem of Europe”, as the screenwriter Jimmy McGovern has called it – in 1981. Many of Liverpool’s wealthiest traders used to live in Toxteth’s Georgian mansions, but by the end of the 1970s it was one of the most deprived parts of the city.

John Wilson, a 50-year-old black man who teaches judo at the Caribbean community centre in Toxteth and works part-time at a hotel in the city centre, told me that most people blamed Kenneth Oxford, chief constable of Merseyside between 1976 and 1989, for inciting the violence. He said that Oxford had policed Toxteth with an “iron fist”. “The community felt that the police was doing everything it could in every way to upset them.”

Today, Liverpool is one of Britain’s least ethnically diverse cities, but it wasn’t always this way – the outward-looking nature of the port, and the city’s role in the slave trade, ensured that it was home to one of the country’s first multicultural and multiracial communities. “All the faces of mankind were there, wonderfully mixed,” wrote J B Priestley in English Journey, which described his travels round the country in the autumn of 1933. Priestley visited a school in one of “Liverpool’s more picturesque and exotic slums, populated by the human flotsam and jetsam of a great old sea-port”. He recognised that he had seen “a glimpse of the world” of the future, in which “the various root races . . . may have largely intermarried and interbred”, and he resisted those who argued that those of mixed race were “no good”.

John Wilson grew up in a marginally more enlightened age, though he felt that his white foster parents’ determination to ignore his ethnicity was not necessarily a good thing. “My foster parents used to say to me, ‘We just see you as you, John: your colour doesn’t matter.’ But if you’re getting racial abuse, then it does matter.” Wilson felt he needed to educate himself about his background and he began a black studies course. On Friday 3 July 1981, he was taking a seminar about the migrants who came to Britain in the 1960s and he went outside at the end of day and found that Toxteth had become “a war zone”. A disabled man was killed when he was run over by a police Land-Rover; another man was severely injured when the police drove a van into the crowd. A policeman was speared in the head with a six-foot iron railing and CS gas was used on the British mainland for the first time. I remember driving through the area at the age of 13 and seeing rows of boarded-up shops and fire-blackened buildings.

Kevin Sampson, the writer whose argot-thickened novels have become one of my main guides to life on Merseyside, remembers Toxteth as a place that was anything but blighted. He used to visit its unlicensed bars and speak­easies. “It was very vibrant – there was always a lot of people on the street, a lot of cafés, a lot of street life, a lot of unlicensed premises,” he said when I met him at a café at the ferry terminal in Hamilton Square, Birkenhead. Because he was born in Liverpool and grew up on the Wirral, where he still lives, Sampson claims “dual nationality”, and it seemed appropriate to meet here on the peninsula, at a spot with a view across the river to the famed skyline on the far side.

When news of the riots began to spread, Sampson went down to Toxteth and got as close as he could to the centre of the trouble. “I make no bones in admitting that I was there as a tourist, but it was incredibly exciting from a voyeuristic point of view. There was girls involved, but it was mainly lads, and not all Afro-Caribbean – there were loads of white lads there as well. It was an amazing opportunity for revenge on the police, for what they had been experiencing for so long.”

 

My father has mixed memories of working in Liverpool. He says that the city had a vibrant business life and a good proportion of the smaller com­panies that were 3i’s stock-in-trade, but, thanks to its prosperous past, the region was “overbanked”, and so attractive proposals were heavily pursued. More importantly, the changes to the port had stripped Liverpool of an essential catalyst for growth. By the time we left Merseyside in the early 1980s its prospects had not improved. The failure of the postwar programme of urban renewal was also becoming apparent. Between 1964 and 1979, more than 78,000 buildings in the inner-city area – 36 per cent of the city’s total housing stock – were demolished in a grand programme of “slum clearance”, and their inhabitants decanted into suburban estates that, ironically, were destined to become slums.

The writer Niall Griffiths was born in Toxteth in 1966, but moved to a new estate called Woodlands in Netherley, in the north-east of Liverpool, when he was three years old. He has written that the high-rise blocks were “declared a mistake even before they were completed” and that, “within the space of a decade, four out of five tenants desperately wanted to leave”. In the 1980s, Netherley was to become a “byword in the city for poverty, crime, drug addiction and squalor”.

Even St George’s Hall, the imposing building that Pevsner described as “the freest neo-Grecian building in England and one of the finest in the world”, was affected by the decline: it had been designed to house both law courts and concert halls from the time of its opening in 1854, but after 1984, when the courts closed, it fell into disrepair. Liverpool Football Club, another of the city’s great institutions, whose decade-long dominance of the English and European game had provided it with one of its few successes, was blighted by the tragedies of the Heysel and Hillsborough Stadium dis­asters of 1985 and 1989. And when, in 1993, a two-year-old child named Jamie Bulger was abducted from a shopping centre in Bootle and murdered by two boys, both of whom were only ten years old, the ensuing debates seemed to implicate the city of Liverpool itself.

Yet, despite the impression that the city was disintegrating, it had begun to remake itself, partly through the leadership of the only Tory guaranteed a warm welcome in Liverpool, Michael Heseltine. As environment secretary at the time of the Toxteth riots, Heseltine visited Liverpool so often that he became known as the minister for Merseyside. He was granted the freedom of the city in March this year. The recent publication of cabinet papers dating back to 1981 showed how Thatcher’s chancellor Geoffrey Howe urged his colleagues to consider the option of allowing Liverpool to lapse into “managed decline”, but Heseltine has insisted there was never any prospect of the government abandoning the city. “I simply wouldn’t countenance that you could say that one of England’s great cities, a world city, was going into managed decline,” he has said.

Heseltine is often praised for resisting the free-market dogma that drove the Thatcherite project and arguing for government intervention to revitalise Liverpool, but there remain doubts about the enduring value of some of the projects he oversaw. The riverside site of the International Garden Festival of 1984, which drew millions of tourists to Liverpool, is still derelict 28 years later, though the renovation of the Albert Dock, which had been unused since the container port had opened upriver, has proved more durable.

The idea of demolishing the dock and building a multi-storey car park in its place had been proposed, but the Merseyside Development Corporation, which Heseltine was instrumental in setting up, led the efforts to preserve it. The first phase of its redevelopment was completed in 1984. In 1988, the Tate Gallery opened a branch in one of the dock’s warehouses, reviving its benefactor’s connection with the city. Henry Tate had begun his working life with a chain of grocery shops in Liverpool, and in 1872 he opened a sugar refinery on Love Lane in Vauxhall, north of the city centre. The closure of the refinery on 22 April 1981 was another point on the city’s downward curve. The return of the Tate brand seven years later in the form of a gallery marked Liverpool’s transition to a tourist destination trading on its industrial, cultural and maritime history.

 

The subsequent addition of two further museums devoted to Liverpool’s past, one exploiting the global fame of the city’s most treasured export, the Beatles, and the other addressing slavery, its most shameful association, confirms Liverpool’s profound engagement with its history and identity. “WE’RE NOT ENGLISH WE ARE SCOUSE”, proclaims a banner often displayed at Liverpool matches. In keeping with the local maritime traditions, the city looked outwards, towards Ireland, from where many of its inhabitants came in the 19th century, and to America, and disregarded its English hinterland, home of the derided “woollybacks”, or “wools”.

“Liverpool’s a strange place,” said a local entrepreneur called Steve Bramwell when I met him at his home in a village in south Wirral, near Port Sunlight. “You don’t hear Liverpool accents past Liverpool itself, and people from Liverpool believe that Liverpool is the centre of the universe.” Bramwell recognised the value in this independent cast of mind. He began working for Morgan Stanley in 1985, the year before the deregulation of the financial markets known as Big Bang, and ten years later he set up a business providing outsourced IT services to City banks. He and his business partner told clients that they could run an IT department outside London at a fraction of the cost and assured them that newly trained staff wouldn’t decamp to London in search of higher wages.

Bramwell was born in Bolton, Lancashire, but he dismissed nearby Manchester because of its “transient” population. Liverpool was the perfect location. “Scousers are very Liverpool-centric, and we knew they wouldn’t move away even if we gave them jobs that were very London-centric.” When he sold up in 2010, his business had 700 employees dotted across the world in China, the Philippines, Singapore and the US, but its roots were still in the regions of the UK. He felt that only Newcastle matched Liverpool’s ability to retain home-town staff.

Yet the city has changed greatly in the 15 years since he arrived. A convention centre and residential developments have been built on the river south of the Albert Dock and areas beyond the waterfront brought back into use. Kevin Sampson used to be the manager of a cult Liverpool band, the Farm; the band’s label, Produce Records, was one of the first to rent space in the city-centre area that has become known as RopeWalks. Sampson acknowledged the widespread scepticism that attaches to attempts at “regeneration” but he maintains that RopeWalks was “one of those that worked”. The developers’ aim of attracting young people and students was helped by the success of the “superclub” Cream, which opened in 1992.

In 2004, Unesco designated Liverpool a world heritage site, calling it “the supreme example of a commercial port at the time of Britain’s greatest global influence”. St George’s Hall reopened in 2007 after extensive renovation and in 2008 Liverpool was the European Capital of Culture. Yet the city’s dependence on its past has begun to conflict with its desire to remake itself, and the cherished waterfront has become the scene of the fiercest confrontations. Will Alsop’s plan to build a “fourth grace” has been abandoned, but another museum – the Museum of Liverpool – has opened in the vicinity, and the redevelopment of the waterfront is proceeding through the largest planning application in Britain. Liverpool Waters and Wirral Waters – collectively “Peel Waters” – has been proposed by Peel Holdings, the property developer that owns the Trafford Centre in Manchester and MediaCity in Salford as well as Liverpool’s port and airport. The intention is to turn the derelict docks on both banks of the Mersey into a riverine city of steel and glass as imposing as Shanghai or Manhattan. Peel says Liverpool Waters will generate 50,000 permanent jobs and contribute £2bn a year to the local economy, but Unesco has responded by placing the city’s world heritage status under review. Critics have told the council that it must change course.

 

Joe Anderson, who was leader of the City Council before he became Liverpool’s first directly elected mayor on 4 May, insists that Peel has done enough to satisfy the heritage lobby. “We’re starting to turn the tide,” says Anderson, who joined the merchant navy at the age of 17 and began his political career as a convenor in the National Union of Seamen. “We’ve still got real issues in the outlying areas, but Liverpool is changing, and I believe that its best years lie ahead.”

We met in March, on the day that the scheme for Liverpool Waters was approved by the city’s planning committee. Later, after I left his office, I walked down Dale Street and caught a ferry across the Mersey. The passenger deck of a boat that calls itself the most famous in the world and serenades its passengers with piped renditions of Gerry Marsden’s song seemed a good place from which to assess the Peel plan. As the boat pulled away, there was an unimpeded view of the area where Peel’s greatest ambitions lie.

Anderson claims that the expanse of derelict docks and warehouses stretching between Pier Head and Seaforth has the same potential as Canary Wharf, yet it is hard to see where the shops and businesses to fill the development will come from. It seemed to me that Peel was proposing a boom town without a boom, hoping to inspire economic revival by constructing offices and shops for which there is no demand. Yet it wasn’t until I turned away from Liverpool’s dramatic skyline, and the dynamic history it encodes, to contemplate the approaching shores of the Wirral that the hollowness of the vision was fully exposed.

From the water, the low mass of buildings on the Wirral is broken only by the ventilation towers for the Mersey tunnels, yet Peel’s artists have sketched towers rising from the docks like angled beams of light while yachts and powerboats circle in the water below. Since permission for the scheme was granted, progress has been slow. Peel has converted two grain warehouses – remnants of the days when Merseyside was the largest flour milling centre in Europe – into a block of flats called East Float and begun work on an international trade centre (ITC), designed to give companies from emerging economies access to European markets. The ITC is scheduled to be completed by 2013 and is supposed to generate 2,000 jobs. Phil Davies, the new leader of Wirral Council, concedes that there is “very little rigour” behind the projected figures but maintains that Peel has a good record of delivering on its schemes.

Peel has other interests in the area. It owns the once-great shipbuilding firm Cammell Laird, which has found a new role refitting ships, and the Port of Liverpool, which is still the seventh-busiest in the country. Peel is planning to build a second facility that will almost double its capacity. Yet container traffic bypasses Liverpool without generating much wealth or employment, and there are concerns about the depth and durability of its recent recovery. Maria Eagle has begun to witness the effects of the recession in her constituency. Garston and Halewood incorporates Woolton, one of the city’s richest suburbs, as well as one of its last remaining industrial concerns in the form of the Jaguar Land Rover car plant at Halewood. However, it is also home to Speke, one of England’s most deprived boroughs, where the consequences of the benefit changes are starting to be felt.

“People whose heads are only just above water are being pushed underwater,” Eagle says. Speke has a food bank, but not a bank.

Other parts of Liverpool are equally deprived, partly because of the way the city centre has been revitalised. “The centre of town is the focus for everything and everywhere else has suffered,” says Professor Davies. “Some parts of the north end of Liverpool, around Anfield and Everton, are worse than ever: there’s no work; a lot of housing has been demolished and not replaced . . . There are parts of Liverpool where, if you don’t know the area, you would be foolish to walk into a pub.”

Everyone I spoke to maintains that the city is more self-reliant than it was 30 years ago, yet it remains heavily dependent on a public sector facing severe cuts. Gill Bainbridge, the director of the Merseyside Youth Association (MYA), who came here in the 1980s from her home town of Carlisle because she was seduced by Liverpool’s image as a “rebel city”, said that it was being targeted again by a government that was Conservative in all but name.

Bainbridge argued that the cuts would affect Liverpool disproportionately because the comprehensive spending review of 2010 did not take into account the Indices of Deprivation as it had always done before, and she was concerned that the knock-on effect on the tourist and service industries would send the city into a downward spiral, like the one it underwent in the 1980s.

The riots that broke out in London on 6 August last year and reached Liverpool three days later also evoke memories of the most troubled decade in Liverpool’s history. This time, they were of such a limited extent that youth workers were able to go round identifying kids and sending them home, but they showed how alienated many of the city’s young people feel.

“I thought it was good,” said a 19-year-old black man called Caleb, whom I met at the Merseyside Youth Association. He complained of police harassment and of not being able to go to parts of the city without being attacked by members of rival gangs. Caleb was suffering from alopecia, and had a host of other frustrations that he “couldn’t put into words”. The riots were the best way of expressing them. “I know it sounds bad but I reckon we should do it again, so that everyone knows we want change, we want jobs.”

 

When I left the MYA, I walked through Liverpool ONE, the largest open-air shopping centre in the UK, which opened in 2008 on 42 acres of underused land in the city centre, and constitutes a kind of semi-private realm, owned and managed by the Grosvenor Estate. To the west, the shopping centre’s unroofed canyons run down to the waterfront and the Albert Dock, and to the north it has absorbed the streets where my mother’s family business made and sold watches for more than 150 years. I walked down Paradise and Church Streets looking for the various premises that Thos Russell & Son used to own, but they had changed so much that I couldn’t decide where they had been. The business had left its old home on Church Street in the early 1980s and it closed permanently in 1997, severing my last connection with the city.

Anderson had told me that I was a “plastic Scouser”, which is the term that real Scousers use to describe people from the Wirral. Given that I left when I was 15 and had rarely been back, I’d never even thought of myself as that, but I had not lost my affection for Liverpool. I was encouraged by Maria Eagle’s remark that the city’s sense of exceptionalism was not exclusive: as long as you accepted that it was “brilliant”, it will accept you. If that is so, I will always be guaranteed a warm welcome, I thought as I made my way back towards St George’s Hall and Lime Street Station. Yet I know that Liverpool needs more than goodwill or faith in its unique identity if it is to consolidate its recovery – let alone reverse the long-term decline that began before we arrived on the Wirral.

This article first appeared in the 23 July 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Israel: the future

Andre Carrilho
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Putin's revenge

Twenty-five years after the demise of the Soviet Union, Russia is consumed by an insatiable desire for recognition as the equal of the USA.

President Trump meets President Putin. It’s the most eagerly awaited encounter in world politics. Will The Donald thaw the New Cold War? Or will he be trumped by “Vlad” – selling out the West, not to mention Ukraine and Syria?

The Donald v Vlad face-off comes at a sensitive moment for the Kremlin, 25 years after the demise of the USSR on Christmas Day 1991 and just before the centenary of the Russian Revolution. Were the heady hopes at the end of the Cold War about a new world order mere illusions? Was Mikhail Gorbachev an aberration? Or is Putin rowing against the tide of post-Cold War history? How did we end up in the mess we’re in today?

These are some of the questions that should be explored in Trump’s briefing book. He needs to get to grips with not only Putin, but also Russia.

 

****

Today President George H W Bush’s slogan “new world order” sounds utopian; even more so the pundit Francis Fukuyama’s catchphrase “the end of history”. But we need to remember just how remarkable that moment in world affairs was. The big issues of the Cold War had been negotiated peacefully between international leaders. First, the reduction of superpower nuclear arsenals, agreed in the Washington treaty of 1987: this defused Cold War tensions and the fears of a possible third world war. Then the 1989 revolutions across eastern Europe, which had to be managed especially when national boundaries were at stake. Here the German case was acutely sensitive because the Iron Curtain had split the nation into two rival states. By the time Germany unified in October 1990, the map of Europe had been fundamentally redrawn.

All this was accomplished in a spirit of co-operation – very different from other big shifts in European history such as 1815, 1871, 1918 and 1945, when great change had come about through great wars. Amid such excitement, it wasn’t surprising that people spoke of a new dawn. This was exemplified by the unprecedented working partnership between the US and the USSR during the First Gulf War in the winter of 1990-91 to reverse Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. Bush and Gorbachev agreed that they shared a set of “democratic” and “universal” values, rooted in international law and in co-operation within the United Nations.

The new order of course assumed the continued existence of the Soviet Union. Despite the USSR’s growing economic and political problems, no one anticipated its free fall in the second half of 1991. First came the August coup, an attempt by a group of anti-Gorbachev communist hardliners to take control of the Union. Their failed putsch fatally undermined Gorbachev’s authority as Soviet leader and built up Boris Yeltsin as the democratic president of a Russian republic that was now bankrolling the USSR. Then followed the independence declarations of the Baltic states – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – and crucially Ukraine, which precipitated the complete unravelling of the Union. And so, on Christmas Day 1991, Gorbachev became history, and with him the whole Soviet era. It seemed like the final curtain on a drama that had opened in Petrograd in 1917. A grandiose project of forced modernisation and empire-building pursued at huge human and economic cost had imploded. The satellites in eastern Europe had gone their own way and so had the rimlands of historic Russia, from central Asia through Ukraine to the Baltic Sea. What remained was a rump state, the Russian Federation.

Despite all the rhetoric about a new world order, no new structures were created for Europe itself. Instead, over the next 15 years, the old Western institutions from the Cold War (the Atlantic Alliance and the European Union) were enlarged to embrace eastern Europe. By 2004, with the inclusion of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, Nato and the EU reached the borders of Russia, less than 100 miles from St Petersburg.

Initially the West’s eastward expansion wasn’t a big problem. The Kremlin did not feel threatened by the EU because that was seen as a political-economic project. Nato had been repackaged in 1990 as a more political organisation. Indeed, four years later, Russia joined the alliance’s “Partnership for Peace”. And in 1997, when Nato announced its first enlargement to include Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, Russia was invited to join the alliance’s new Permanent Joint Council. That same year, Russia became a member of the G8. In short, during the 1990s the consensual atmosphere of 1989-91 seemed to be maintained.

But Yeltsin failed to create a new Russia from the ruins of Soviet communism. Between 1989 and 1992, as the command economy disintegrated, inflation soared and national income fell by one-third – a crash as spectacular as those America and Germany had suffered in the early 1930s. The largest and fastest privatisation that the world had seen created a cohort of super-rich oligarchs. Crime and corruption became rampant, while millions of Russians were condemned to penury. “Everything was in a terrible, unbelievable mess,” Yeltsin’s adviser Yegor Gaidar later admitted. “It was like travelling in a jet and you go into the cockpit and you discover that there’s no one at the controls.”

Meanwhile, the proliferation of political parties resulted in chaos. Yeltsin managed to hang on, thanks to increasingly autocratic rule. In October 1993, after several months of wrangling over the balance of power between executive and legislature, he used army tanks to shell the parliament building in Moscow and imposed a new constitution built around a strong presidency. This and a succession of contrived referendums kept him in power for the rest of the decade. Finally, on New Year’s Eve 1999, an ill and exhausted Yeltsin orchestrated his own departure. Declaring that he would hand over to “a new generation” that “can do more and do it better” at the start of a new millennium, he said that he was conveying his powers to an acting president.

His designated successor was an apparently unassuming little man called Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin.

***

Who was Putin? Where had he come from? Most immediately he had been prime minister since August 1999 – the sixth man to serve as Yeltsin’s premier. Yet he had made his career as a discreet outsider, often underestimated by those around him. In fact, he was a long-serving KGB officer: he joined in 1975, at the age of 23, entering a culture that would define his persona and outlook.

Crucially, the Gorbachev era was almost a closed book to Putin: he never experienced the intoxicating passions of reform politics within the USSR – perestroika, glasnost and demokratizatsiya – because he spent 1985 to 1990 as a case officer in Dresden in East Germany. To him, Gorbachev’s reforms signified destruction: an empire discarded and a country ruined. During the 1990s, as Putin rose through the ranks of the city administration of his home town St Petersburg and was then moved to Moscow, he witnessed the disastrous effects of chaotic privatisation, the erosion of Russia as a great power and the collapse of the national economy.

Out of the traumatic 1990s came Putin’s passion for a strong state. He spelled this out in a 5,000-word document entitled Russia on the Threshold of the New Millennium, published on the Soviet government website on 29 December 1999. In it, he stated bluntly that the Bolshevik experiment had totally failed. “Communism and the power of the Soviets did not make Russia into a prosperous country,” he wrote. It had been “a road to a blind alley which is far away from the mainstream of civilisation”.

Putin welcomed recent “positive changes”, especially the Russian people’s embrace of “supranational universal values” such as freedom of expression and travel, as well as “fundamental human rights and political liberties”. But he also highlighted traditional “Russian values”, especially patriotism – pride in “a nation capable of great achievements” – and “social solidarity”, which, he asserted, had “always prevailed over individualism”. He did not believe that Russia would become “a second edition of, say, the US or Britain, in which liberal values have deep historic traditions”. What he presented as “the new Russian idea” would be “an alloy or organic unification of universal general values with traditional Russian values which had stood the test of the times, including the test of the turbulent 20th century”.

Woven into Putin’s manifesto was a distinctive conception of his place in politics. He envisaged himself as a “statesman” in the Russian sense – meaning a builder and servant of the state, in a country where the state has always been seen as superior to society and the individual. He considered the true leader to be above mere electoral politics, occupying a more permanent position as the guardian of state interests. He looked back admiringly to the autocratic reformers of the late tsarist era – men such as Nicholas II’s prime minister Pyotr Stolypin – and had no time for Gorbachev and Yeltsin, who had both been submerged by democracy and had undermined the state.

Above all, he believed that Russia had to resume its rightful historic place as a “great power”. He considered the vicissitudes of the 1990s an aberration that had to be overcome. Adapting one of Stolypin’s celebrated phrases, he liked to say that the people did not need “great upheavals”. They needed “a great Russia” – with a “strong state” as the “guarantor of order” and the “main driving force” of any durable change.

The “acting president” was elected in his own right in March 2000 and won re-election in 2004 for another four years. During the 2000s Putin concentrated on kick-starting the economy, bringing the oligarchs of the Yeltsin era under firm control and building monetary reserves, aided by rising prices for Russia’s oil and gas. This enabled the country to survive the financial crisis of 2008 and stood in marked contrast to a decade earlier, when the Asian crash of 1997-98 led Russia to default on its foreign debt and devalue the rouble. In rebuilding prosperity and pride, Putin earned the gratitude of millions of Russians, scarred by the poverty and humiliations of the Yeltsin era.

Showing himself off as a military strongman, he targeted Chechnya, which had claimed independence in 1991. Yeltsin had failed to tame the anarchic north Caucasus republic in the Chechen War of 1994-96; Putin imposed direct Russian rule brutally in the first year of his presidency, reducing the Chechen capital, Grozny, to rubble in 2000.

Increasingly secure at home, he began to reassert Russian power in the international arena. Initially, this did not involve confrontation with the West. He co-operated with the US in the post-9/11 “war on terror”, though he didn’t support the toppling of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, abstaining from the Bush-Blair mission of forceful regime change. In 2003-2004 he protested but ultimately accepted the Orange Revolution in Ukraine and the accession of the Baltic states into Nato and the EU – even if the Kremlin regarded them as part of Russia’s “near abroad”. In 2007, however, Washington’s plans for a Nato missile defence “shield” in eastern Europe (deploying interceptor missiles and radar tracking systems), officially justified as protection against “rogue states” such as Iran, prompted Russia to withdraw from the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) treaty. This was part of the fabric of co-operation woven in 1990-91. Nevertheless, foreign policy wasn’t Putin’s priority in his first stint as president.

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In 2008, after two terms in office, Putin was obliged under the constitution to step down from the presidency. Under a notorious job swap, however, he was elected as prime minister to the new (nominal) president, Dmitry Medvedev, who within months pushed through a law extending the term for future presidents from four to six years. Then, in September 2011, Putin announced that he would run for the presidency again.

For millions of Russians, this second job swap seemed a cynical power play. Putin won the election of March 2012, naturally – the Kremlin machine ensured that. Yet he gained only 64 per cent of the vote despite having no serious opposition. Rural areas run by local clans tied to him were easily manipulated, but in many big cities, including Moscow, he polled less than 50 per cent.

The 2012 election campaign was the moment when Putin’s conception of the statesman-strongman collided with the democratic expectations of Russia’s perestroika generation, now coming of age. It marked a crunch point in the history of post-Soviet Russia – a clash between different models of the country and its future. Ranged against Putin were those whom the opposition leader Vladimir Ryzhkov, of the liberal People’s Freedom Party, called the new “mass middle class”, formed over the previous two decades. Taking to the streets in protest against the Putin-Medvedev “tandem” were managers, engineers, journalists, lawyers, IT specialists and the like. For these people, Putin had passed his sell-by date. After his announcement that he wanted another term in the Kremlin, images circulated on the internet of an aged Putin dissolving into the geriatric visage of Leonid Brezhnev – whose near-two decades in office symbolised the “era of stagnation” that Mikhail Gorbachev had swept aside.

Social media was transforming urban Russia. Between 2008 and 2012 internet penetration among the over-16s doubled from 25 per cent to 50 per cent. Russia had its own version of Facebook: VKontakte. The Kremlin’s alarm at the upsurge of virtual opposition and street protest was intensified by the Arab spring in 2011. Much international comment highlighted the role of a young “Facebook Generation” in countries such as Egypt and Tunisia, fostering a “digital democracy” that toppled long-standing autocrats – supposedly financed and supported by Washington. Putin liked to claim that the protests in Russia had also been stirred up and/or funded by the then US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton. Little wonder that one of his priority projects after winning the 2012 election was refining a sophisticated system of internet surveillance known as Sorm, run from part of the old secret-police headquarters of Lenin’s Cheka and Stalin’s KGB in Lubyanka Square, Moscow. With that in mind, the oppositionist Ryzhkov declared that even though Russian society was now very mature and “European”, the regime was “still Chekist-Soviet”. This, he said, was the “main contradiction” in contemporary Russia.

The domestic protests and the Arab spring threatened Putin’s determination to rebuild Russia’s position in the world and consolidate its sphere of influence in the “near abroad”. He focused on a “Eurasian Union”, an idea first touted in the 1990s by some central Asian states, notably Kazakhstan, but picked up in earnest by Putin after 2011. Yet, for him, the crux of a viable Eurasian bloc lay in the west, not the east: in Ukraine, with 45 million people, a strong industrial base, and its critical geopolitical position. Putin didn’t just see Ukraine as Russia’s historic “borderland”. Celebrating Kievan Rus – the original east Slavic state of the 9th to 13th centuries – he insisted that Kyiv was “the mother of Russian cities”. Keeping Ukraine within Moscow’s sphere of influence was a red-line issue for the Kremlin.

That line was crossed in February 2014. For a decade Ukraine – an ethnically fractured country (78 per cent Ukrainian; 17 per cent Russian) – had hovered between Russia and the West, depending on the latest change of leaders in this corruption-riddled state. In November 2013 the Russia-leaning Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych, stalled Ukraine’s long-discussed “association” agreement with the European Union. Thousands of pro-EU protesters surged into Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) in Kyiv.

In the face of repressive police measures, the mass demonstrations continued for three months and spread across the country, including the Crimea, where Russians were the majority, bringing Ukraine to the brink of civil war. Yanukovych fled Kyiv for Russia on 21 February 2014. The next day Putin began a campaign of retaliation, culminating in the forcible annexation of the Crimea, rubber-stamped by a referendum in which (officially) 96.77 per cent of the Crimean electorate voted to join Russia.

For the West, Putin had finally overstepped the mark, because the Crimea had been part of Ukraine since 1954. Putin claimed that the Russian inhabitants of the region were invoking the right to “self-determination”, just like the Germans during unification in 1990, or the Albanians in Kosovo in 1999 when seceding from Yugoslavia. But in the West, Russia’s military intervention in an independent state was condemned as a flagrant breach of international law. The US and the EU imposed political and economic sanctions against Russia, precipitating a financial crisis and a collapse of the stock market. By the spring of 2016 the rouble had fallen 50 per cent in two years. This was coupled with a halving of the price of oil, on which Russia’s economy depends. The country slid into recession, reversing the economic success of the president’s first stint in power.

Yet the slump does not appear to have damaged his domestic popularity severely. The state-controlled media whipped up patriotic fervour: Russia v the West. And Putin – the “History Man”, as Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy dub him in their book Mr Putin – has deliberately constructed his own version of the recent past to justify his actions. Playing on the trauma and humiliation of the Soviet break-up, he appealed to national pride, touching the emotions of millions of Russians.

Putin has presented his intervention in the Crimea (and subsequently eastern Ukraine) as an assertion of Russia’s right as “an independent, active participant in international affairs”. In a major policy statement on 18 March 2014, he harked back to the era of “bipolarity” as a source of “stability”, arguing that America’s arrogant attempts after 1991 to create a “unipolar” world, exacerbated by Nato’s progressive enlargement, had pushed his country into a corner.

It was not just that Kyiv’s turn towards the EU threatened to detach Ukraine from Russia and its “Eurasian” sphere; talk about actually joining Nato raised the spectre of the Western military alliance being “right in our backyard” and on “our historic territory”. Putin conjured up the prospect of Nato warships entering the Black Sea and docking in Sevastopol, that “city of Russia’s military glory” – a “real threat to the whole of southern Russia”. Enough was enough, he declared: “If you compress the spring all the way to its limit, it will snap back hard.”

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To Western eyes the story looked very different. The enlargement of the EU and Nato was driven less from Brussels and Washington than by the desire of eastern European countries to escape from the clutches of “the Bear”. Putin had tolerated the loss from Russia’s “near abroad” of Warsaw Pact states from Poland to Bulgaria, but the Baltic states (former Russian imperial territory) were a very different matter. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania had won their independence from the tsarist empire after the First World War, only to be absorbed into the Soviet Union after the Second World War. For the Balts, 1991 therefore represented the rebirth of freedom and statehood; they saw membership of the institutional West – the European Union and Nato – as an essential guarantee of national security.

Nato has become a “four-letter word” for Russia and one can argue that, ideally, the “new world order” should have been based on new institutions. But in 1989-90 the persistence of Nato was essential to allay European fears, not least in the USSR, about a unified Germany at the heart of the continent. There was no discussion at this moment about Nato’s further extension beyond Germany, let alone a firm pledge that it would not. Contrary to Putin’s assertions, an expansionary blueprint did not exist.

Whatever the arguments about ­history, however, relations between Russia and the West are deadlocked. So are we in a “New Cold War”, as touted by the Russian government since Dmitry Medvedev’s speech to the Munich Security Conference in February 2016? In fundamental ways: no. Russia and America are not engaged in an all-encompassing global power struggle, military, political, economic, cultural, ideological. The new Russia is essentially capitalist and fully integrated into the world economy, with a multitude of trade and financial links with the West.

Despite bellicose rhetoric at the top, Russian and US diplomats talk and work together behind the scenes, not least in the recent selection of a new UN secretary general, António Guterres. Above all, the language of “unipolarity” and “bipolarity” no longer reflects the reality of international affairs: a “multipolarity” of world powers, a profusion of “non-state actors” capable of terrorism and warfare, and potent transnational forces, notably mass migration – all of which are deeply destabilising. This is very different from the Cold War.

Amid this new world disorder, today’s Russian-American stand-off revolves around differing approaches to international relations. Putin’s policy is rooted in traditions of great-power politics: the control of territory and the assertion of state sovereignty, especially within what Russia regards as its historic sphere. By contrast, the United States, albeit erratically, has promoted humanitarian interventionism, pursued regime change and indulged in the rhetoric of global democracy, especially since the 9/11 attacks.

So, why the divergence? One can say that the West has failed to pay consistent attention to Russia’s sensitivities about its post-Soviet decline. Nor has it given due recognition to the reality of Russia as a great Eurasian power. On the other side, Putin has increasingly pulled his country out of the network of co-operative political forums and agreements forged with the West in the aftermath of the Cold War. He has also challenged the independence of small states on Russia’s periphery. Today, abandoning any vestiges of entente with America, Putin seems to believe that Russia can regain its great-power status only by distancing itself from the West and by overtly challenging the US in hot spots around the world. This is very different from the world imagined by Bush and Gorbachev and pursued to some degree by Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin. Putin is undoing what he sees as a “democratic” peace, made to Russia’s geopolitical disadvantage in 1989-91.

Take Syria: Putin knew that Barack Obama had no stomach for wholesale military intervention on such a fragmented battleground, where few direct US interests are at stake. As an appalling human tragedy has unfolded, especially in Aleppo, Putin has exploited his free hand by despatching Russia’s sole (Brezhnev-era) aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, to Syrian waters and building a Russian airbase near the key port of Latakia. US passivity has allowed him to establish a novel, if tenuous, military presence in the eastern Mediterranean and thereby to strengthen his position in the Middle East as a whole.

On the Baltics, Washington drew a firm line last summer: Nato’s Warsaw summit in July 2016 committed Alliance troops and aircraft to each of these states by way of a token but unequivocal act of deterrence. Putin responded by further beefing up the Russian short-range nuclear arsenal in Kaliningrad. This tit-for-tat in the Baltic Sea area is likely to spiral.

In the standoff over Ukraine – where Russia has done nothing to end the fighting – the Americans have been content to let Angela Merkel take the lead in trying to broker a peace deal. While playing tough in the Baltic, she has kept open channels of communication with Putin over Ukraine. Significantly, the president has not spurned her offer to talk. The two can converse without interpreters, in German and in Russian; Merkel seems to be one of the few foreign leaders for whom Putin entertains a certain respect, if only because she recognises Russia’s need to be taken seriously.

Nevertheless, all these various power plays reflect essentially conventional ways by which Putin seeks to unpick 1989-91. More significant is the Kremlin’s increasingly aggressive avant-garde methods of combating the Western “bloc” of liberal democracies – by manipulating transnational financial and commercial ties, spinning the global media and steering policy discourse in target states. Russia can leverage its relative weakness if it cleverly exploits its post-Cold War immersion within the global capitalist system and Western popular culture as a kind of “Trojan Horse” .This is what Putin’s personal adviser Vladislav Surkov has termed “non-linear war”.

It is no secret that, in this vein, Moscow used cyber-power in an attempt to mould American opinion during the 2016 presidential election campaign. For all the media hype about hacked computer systems and leaked emails, the Kremlin’s information warfare is not that innovative. After all, the underlying concepts and most of the techniques were developed by the USSR (and equally by the United States) to interfere in other countries’ internal affairs during the Cold War. Let’s not forget that the young Mr Putin was schooled in KGB Dresden.

So, although we may not be back in the era of bipolarity, some of the new ways are also old ways. Under Putin, Russia seems to have resumed its historic quest for position against the West and its insatiable desire for recognition as America’s equal. Will it ever be possible to forge a stable “alloy” blending “universal” and “Russian” values? That would truly be a Russian revolution. l

Kristina Spohr (London School of Economics) and David Reynolds (Cambridge) are the co-editors of “Transcending the Cold War” (Oxford University Press)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge