Wild hearts: the Brontës built a mythology around the Yorkshire landscape. Photo: Michael Turek/Gallery Stock.
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The A-Z of northern fiction

From the bonny beck to the kitchen sink and Heathcliff to the angry young men, Frances Wilson explores the personality of writing from the north of England, while Philip Maughan asks how the land lies today.

In Writing Home, Alan Bennett describes having speech difficulties. He grew up to be fluent in two voices. There was “speaking properly”, like in the matinees at the Grand Theatre on a Saturday afternoon, and there was “being yourself”, which was how he was expected to speak at home in Leeds, where his father was a butcher. “Speaking properly” was metropolitan and they did it down south; “being yourself” was provincial, like it was up north. As a fledgling dramatist, what was he to do? Should he write about the middleclass life he knew from books or the life in a dull, northern town in the 1950s that was “largely unwritten about”?

The children in the stories Bennett read as a boy all “spoke properly”. They called their parents Mummy and Daddy and lived in a “down south” equipped with thatched cottages, millstreams, picnics on red-and-white chequered tablecloths, owls in hollow trees and sticklebacks in buckets. Leeds could provide none of these things, not even hollow trees, so his only option if he wanted life to be more like literature was to try replacing “Mam” with “Mummy”. This was discouraged by his father as a sign of social pretension and of not “being himself”.

My experience of childhood reading was the opposite of Bennett’s. My compass always faced north. As someone of no fixed abode whose family perched during my most impressionable years in the West Midlands, I didn’t have a book in my bedroom that didn’t take me up the M1. The north had personality – it almost seemed to be a person – whereas the south, slumbering beneath me, was only a place. The south was literature’s finishing school but the north undid etiquette; it was where people stopped talking properly and became themselves. It was in the north that the spoiled Mary Lennox found her secret garden in the tangled grounds of Misselthwaite Manor and turned from nasty to nice; the north was where E Nesbit’s “railway children” – Bobbie, Phyllis and Peter – sent their love to their father on the 9.15 train to London and where John, Susan, Titty and Roger camped on their Lake District isle in Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons. Dracula landed in Whitby, Wilkie Collins’s Woman in White was set in Cumberland and West Riding provided Jane Eyre, Agnes Grey and Catherine Earnshaw.

I would have loved then to have known the Newcastle of David Almond’s Skellig, where Michael befriends a Blakean angel in the garage. To me, the north was a place of courage and transformation while the south was about storing what you already had (sticklebacks in buckets).

Northern tales often contained two voices. In Wuthering Heights, some characters spoke “properly” while others, such as the servant Joseph, were so brazenly themselves that they seemed not to mind whether we understood them or not. Joseph’s vernacular was his badge of belonging: “T’ maister’s down i’ t’ fowld,” he would scowl. “Go round by th’ end o’ t’ laith, if ye went to spake to him.” Like the poet and playwright Tony Harrison, Joseph subjected everything, as Alan Bennett put it, “to one defiant Leeds voice”. When Mary Lennox speaks, in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, her words fall dead on the page but the language of her servant Martha soars into flight. The moor, Martha explains, is “none bare. It’s covered wi’ growin’ things as smells sweet.”

I identify the north of my childhood reading with the heritage north catered for by the refurbished Brontë Parsonage Museum at Haworth and the dinky reconstruction of Wordsworth’s cottage in Grasmere. There was, I later learned, a less Laura Ashley experience of northern writing. A new school of writers emerged in the social transformation of postwar Britain and the kitchen sink replaced the bonny beck. Bennett’s “largely unwritten-about” world became the subject of the northern “lad lit” of John Braine, raised in an Irish-Catholic enclave of lower middle-class Bradford; Stan Barstow, a coal miner’s son from the outskirts of Wakefield; and the Leeds-born Keith Waterhouse.

“We had the temerity to think we could write,” said Barstow, “but [with] no teachers and no models.” Heathcliff and Rochester had morphed into the daydreaming William Fisher in Waterhouse’s Billy Liar (1959), the upwardly mobile Joe Lampton in Braine’s Room at the Top (1957), Vic Brown in Barstow’s A Kind of Loving (1960) and the angry young Frank Machin, who leaves the pit to play league rugby in David Storey’s This Sporting Life (1960).

The other England: (from top left) Thomas De Quincey,
John Braine, Charlotte Brontë and Alan Bennett
Photos: Bridgeman, Rex, Getty

 

The West Riding of Waterhouse, Braine and Barstow is isolated and landlocked, caught, as David Storey puts it, between “two deep and narrow valleys on the eastern slope of the Pennines”. Its “obsessively puritan” inhabitants operate on a “very simple morality: that work is good and that indolence is not so much deplorable or unfortunate as evil”. In Storey’s Wakefield mining community, the maxim is further simplified: physical work is good and mental work is evil.

In the opening pages of Room at the Top, Braine’s first novel, we read: “I came to Warley on a wet September morning with the sky the grey of Guiseley sandstone.” Warley is the name Braine gives to Bradford; Guiseley is a small town in the suburbs of north-west Leeds. We note the weather; the writing is spare. In an interview with J B Priestley – another Bradford man – Braine described his home town as dominated “more than any other in England . . . by a success ethos”, an ethos that is at the heart of his fiction. Joe Lampton comes to Warley from Dufton with the aim of earning £1,000 a year. He secures a desk job, joins the amateur dramatic society and gets the girls.

“It is hard now to convey,” Stan Barstow once said, “the importance of Room at the Top for a generation of writers from the north of England.” Braine’s novel allowed Barstow, Storey and Waterhouse “to hoe their own row”, to write about the world they knew “from the inside”.

In Billy Liar, William Fisher, working for the local undertaker and living with his parents in a small Yorkshire town, fantasises about life as a comedy writer in London. In Barstow’s A Kind of Loving, Vic Brown’s dreams end when he gets his girlfriend pregnant and, because there is a housing shortage, the couple move in with her mother.

What readers responded to in these novels (and in the films that they all became) was the primitive sexuality of the men. D H Lawrence, the last provincial writer to have risen to the top, had cleared the path in this respect. Working-class men, especially those with northern accents, were represented as more masculine than their middle-class counterparts who “spoke properly”. Working- class characters in books had, in the past, been described solely in terms of social economy, while middle-class characters were endowed with psychological depth. William Fisher and Vic Brown were given complex moral interiors; Billy constructed his own reality, while for all his banter about sex, it is love that Vic is looking for.

The 1960s was the decade of angry young men, lecherous young men, chancers, Jack the Lad figures and blokes. Gone were the effete, over-educated southerners such as Evelyn Waugh and Anthony Powell, who had dominated the pre-war literary scene. So macho was the atmosphere that women such as Winifred Holtby, who had helped to shape the landscape, might be forgotten. Snootily described by Virginia Woolf as a Yorkshire farmer’s daughter who learned to read while feeding the pigs, Holtby was a socialist feminist who lectured for the League of Nations.

Her novel South Riding, later adapted for television by Stan Barstow (South Riding is a fictionalisation of Holtby’s native East Riding), was published in 1936, a year after her early death. A state-of-the-nation romance, the plot might be described as Jane Eyre uncovers local government corruption. Sarah Burton, an idealistic young headmistress, takes over a school in Kiplington (an amalgam of Hornsey and Withernsea) and gets involved in council politics; her nemesis, the conservative Robert Carne, proprietor of the dessicated Maythorpe Hall, eventually wins her heart.

Holtby was well aware that the accessibility of her writing was out of sync with the ethos of the Bloomsbury set. In her critical study of Virginia Woolf (which was published in 1932) – the first such book on Woolf to appear – Holtby weighed up the benefits of modernist and traditional fiction and found herself preferring literary democracy over elitism, the values of the north over those of the south.

If we follow a female line, Holtby is succeeded by Margaret Drabble, Beryl Bainbridge and Jeanette Winterson, who are rooted, respectively, in Yorkshire, Liverpool and Lancashire. She is preceded by the Knutsfordraised Elizabeth Gaskell, whose North and South (1855) appeared at around the same period as Dickens’s Hard Times. Both Gaskell and Dickens set their stories in Manchester, which Dickens called Coketown and Gaskell called Milton. While Dickens wrote from the position of a Londoner, Mrs Gaskell, who now lived in the great Cottonopolis, understood, as Charlotte Brontë said, “the genius of the north”.

A tale of two Englands, North and South describes the transformation of Margaret Hale from stuck-up southerner to informed observer of the Industrial Revolution. Her family moves from the tranquil Helstone, a place of thatched cottages and owls in hollow trees, to the smog-ridden Milton, a place of dust and tuberculosis. Their arrival coincides with a series of strikes at the local mill. Sympathising with the impoverished workers, Margaret clashes with the factory owner, the wrong but romantic John Thornton. By the close of the novel, she has learned to love not only the cotton mills but Thornton, too.

Elizabeth Gaskell’s Life of Charlotte Brontë (1857), written as a homage to her friend after her death, fuelled the myth of the elemental northern writer. The book begins in wailing wind, with a description of the Leeds and Bradford railway running through “a deep valley of the Aire”; Gaskell arrives in Haworth on a “dull, drizzly, Indian-inky day”.

The Brontë family is described as carved out of the landscape – as Ted Hughes, raised on the Pennine moorland would also seem – and Charlotte’s story is told as though she were a character from one of her novels. Yet the Brontës had already constructed their own mythology.

In a letter to Wordsworth, Branwell Brontë had said that he, like the poet, lived in “wild seclusion”, with only rocks and stones and trees for company. Haworth Parsonage was on the edge of the moor but it was not secluded; there was a village attached. Four miles away was Keighley, which, as Gaskell points out, with its “great worsted factories” and “rows of workmen’s houses”, could “hardly be called ‘country’”.

Simone Signoret and Laurence Harvey in the
1959 adaptation of "Room at the Top"
Photo: Rex/Courtesy of Everett Collection

The Brontës’ model of the Romantic life came from the biographical sketches of Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy by Thomas De Quincey, a Mancunian – a scandalous series of articles written for Blackwood’s Magazine in 1837. Today, Wordsworth is largely presented as the asexual spokesman of leech-gatherers and idiot boys but De Quincey described the poet, who was bourgeois to his marrow, as barely civilised and semi-incestuous. With his teeth bared and his eyes flashing, Wordsworth was fuelled by “animal appetites”. Dorothy, who her brother would kiss on the mouth, was also “beyond any person I have known in this world . . . the creature of impulse”.

Emily Brontë, who read Blackwood’s Magazine, surely based her tale of barely civilised and semi-incestuous siblings on this account of the Wordsworths. When I read Wuthering Heights, I am reminded of Dorothy Wordsworth’s Grasmere journals, in which she describes the two and half years that she lived alone with her brother in Dove Cottage, before he married and was transformed from a wild, Heathcliff- like figure to a gentleman resembling the priggish Edgar Linton. The nature of Dorothy’s love for William, which is hard for us to understand, is replicated in Cathy’s well-known des cription of her love for Heathcliff. Less a pleasure than a necessity, it is like “the eternal rocks beneath”.

“We are all, at heart, Wordsworthians,” writes J B Priestley of his fellow northerners in English Journey (1934). He has reached the point of his tour at which he is heading home. The hills have become “solidly black, their edges very sharp against the last faint silver of the day”; they are beginning to take on “that Wordsworthian quality which belongs to the north”.

Native northerners, Priestley writes, “have to make an effort to appreciate a poet like Shelley, with his rather gassy enthusiasm and his bright Italian colouring; but we have Wordsworth in our very legs”. (Wordsworth’s legs, according to De Quincey, were not his best feature; short and stocky, they were suited only for contemplating nature. It was a pity that he did not have a spare pair for “evening dress parties”.)

It is one of the peculiarities of the Lake District that, apart from its effect on Wordsworth, the sublimity of the landscape stems the flow of creativity. Wordsworth’s aim in the Lyrical Ballads was to write in “the very language of men” (he rhymed “water” with “matter”) but the writers who followed him to Grasmere found themselves tongue-tied.

Wordsworth country quickly became, as Michael Neve has put it, a country called Wordsworth: he is the only poet able to grow in its soil. The poet in Coleridge died when he moved from the coombs of the Quantocks to the crags of the lakes. De Quincey, Wordsworth’s first fan, lived in Dove Cottage for over 20 years but – like Ted Hughes – did his best writing down south.

De Quincey set his store by poetry but produced not a line of his own verse; his autobiography Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, mentions the country called Wordsworth – now his own turf – only from a safe distance.

The young De Quincey, who has run away from Manchester Grammar School, finds himself homeless and hungry on Oxford Street in London, a copy of Lyrical Ballads in his pocket. It is Wordsworth he wants to meet and Words worth’s rural idyll that he wants to inhabit. Like Branwell Brontë, he has written to the poet to prove his Romantic credentials. It is a cold night and he looks “up every avenue in succession which pierces through the heart of Marylebone to the fields and the woods; for that, said I, travelling with my eyes up the long vistas which lay part in light and part in shade, ‘That is the road to the north, and therefore to [Wordsworth], and if I had the wings of a dove, that way I would fly for comfort.’”

This was Thomas De Quincey’s version of writing home.

***

Martin Amis v The Provinces

By Philip Maughan

The Arctic Monkeys knew what they were doing when they chose the title for their debut album. Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, a line from Alan Sillitoe’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, perfectly captures the brooding, self-defeating energies that power northern fiction.

Billy Fisher, the protagonist in Keith Waterhouse’s 1959 novel Billy Liar, dreams of a life as a writer in London. But when the opportunity to begin a new life in the south presents itself, he opts not to get on the train. Likewise, Sillitoe’s lonely long-distance runner Colin Smith is a highly cognisant thief, who, at the point when he is about to win a competition and delight his borstal masters, stops running. The barrier to “success” is not his incapacity, or want of personal volition. It is the realisation that he is competing in someone else’s race.

In 1957, John Braine, the author of Room at the Top, wrote an affectionate yet satirical essay entitled “Portrait of a Provincial Intellectual” for the NS. The narrator mocks his own pretensions (freshly ground coffee, no more tea) and the local scene (“the Little Theatre and the Arts Group”) and ends with a familiar refrain: “The next time the London job was offered, he wouldn’t say no.”

Eighteen years later, Martin Amis scorned Braine’s sole literary triumph: “One wonders what sort of shape the late-1950s imagination must have been in to get itself captured by such a modest and unsophisticated book,” he wrote. All sympathy for the thwarted outsider had drained away, partly due to Braine’s shift to the political right and partly due to Amis’s snotty metropolitanism. He recently told an audience at the RSA: “England is a one-city nation. I get the horrors when I go to provincial England. The sort of trundling, pottering English – I can’t be doing with that.”

The genius of the angry young men was to build vivid fictions from the soiled matter of everyday life. They expanded the boundaries of British fiction. Today’s northern writers – Sarah Hall, David Peace, Jon McGregor, Sunjeev Sahota – concern themselves with epic themes: nature, violence, landscape, multiculturalism. They are among the most inventive stylists in contemporary fiction and draw no end of blood from trundling, pottering life.

Frances Wilson is an author, biographer and critic, whose works include The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth. Her most recent book is How to Survive the Titanic, or the Sinking of J Bruce Ismay. She reviews for the TLS, the Telegraph and the New Statesman.

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.

***


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