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Ken Loach's Spirit of 45: Britain's turn to Labour after the war

What ever happened to Timothy? He was perhaps the embodiment of gentle English civilisation.


Image: BFI

Watching Ken Loach’s most recent film, The Spirit of ’45, reminded me of a letter I received from my fellow film director Lindsay Anderson, written in the last week of his life in August 1994. Anticipating Ken Loach, I had tracked down the surviving cast of Humphrey Jennings’s seminal documentary A Diary for Timothy, described by his biographer as “the best evocation, in film or any other medium, of the reasons why the country ‘went Labour’ at the 1945 elections”, and I had asked Anderson if he would like to direct the sequel, in which the cast contrasted Thatcher’s Britain with their hopes and fears of 50 years before.

Anderson told me that Jennings’s vision had long gone and he could think of nothing to replace it. He concluded, “Things have turned out so very differently from the way Humphrey Jennings hoped. I feel too discouraged by the way things have gone and are going to be. I’m sorry about this.”

Anderson called Jennings “the only real poet British cinema has yet produced”. You may remember A Diary for Timothy (incidentally, it has just been re-released by the BFI). Filmed in the last six months of the Second World War, it is a poetic representation of Britain breaking out of fear into hope, out of darkness into light, out of war into peace. News of the progress of Allied forces comes from radio broadcasts, but the film is really about the lives of four characters on the home front which capture the national mood.

There’s Peter the Typhoon pilot, recovering in hospital from injuries sustained over D-Day. His improving health symbolises national recovery. Geronwy the communist coal miner is determined to maintain wartime improvements: “Once, miners with broken backs were dragged to hospital in flat carts. We’ve got our own ambulance cars now, and nursing services and canteens and pithead baths: nothing at all will stop us after the war.” Alan the gentleman farmer, whose land represents continuity with the past, is digging for victory. Bill the train driver unites the others in the war effort. In the words of the scriptwriter, E M Forster, he is “carrying the miner’s coal, the farmer’s crops and the fighting man’s munitions”. Cut to a gurgling baby, little Timothy Jenkins, born five years after the declaration of war on 3 September 1939, and the words of the narrator, Michael Redgrave, “All these people are fighting for you.”

Contrary to this optimism and, indeed, to the euphoria on the home front at the end of the war, recaptured in the newsreels shown by Ken Loach, a mood of anxiety pervades the film. The narrator puts a prophetic question to Timothy:

“What are you going to do? Will it be a world of greed, unemployment and then another war, or will you make the world a more decent place? You will have the power to choose, the right to criticise, so life in a way will be more dangerous. You will have the difficulty of growing up free. What’s going to happen during the next years when you are here and we are not?”

This is the question that lingers in the mind and must make everyone who has seen the film wonder: what happened to Timothy? How did he cope with being a symbol of the New Britain? I have the answers.

His mother, Betty Jenkins, told me that Timothy’s stardom began when she received an unexpected visitor at her bedside in the Queen Mary’s Maternity Home, then at Eynsham, near Oxford:

“Sister hurried in and placed my baby in my arms without any explanation. Then a thin, artistic-looking young man came in and strode about the room looking at us from all angles. After a while, he turned to a young woman I got to know as his production assistant: ‘Well. I’m satisfied, Di, if you are,’ he said. Then he left. He was quite abrupt.”

And then, according to the New Statesman film reviewer writing in November 1945, “a baby begins to grow up knowing even less than we do of the world into which it has thrust itself”. It is interesting to realise that during the making of the film nobody knew how the war would end nor, of course, what would follow. The NS reviewer, William Whitebait, was prophetic in another way. Placing A Diary for Timothy in his top ten films of the year together with The True Glory and Burmese Victory, he opined that the documentary and semi-documentary had now come into their own with, “it may be supposed, lasting effect”.

“Will you make the world a more decent place?” “Decency” was the word that got the surviving cast of A Diary for Timothy going in 1994/95, and as Lindsay Anderson had chosen not to direct the film I wrote up my research for the New Statesman (“Glory traps”, 12 May 1995).

It seemed, however, an unsuitable question to put to Peggy Jones, whose father, “Gronno” (Geronwy), had died in 1973. As late as 1986, 1,800 men had laboured hundreds of feet underground in Ynysybwl, hewing out 14,000 tonnes of coal and 8,000 tonnes of slag a week. While presumably few would want back the life of a deep-pit miner, what Peggy was witnessing was the death of a community. Nothing remained of the once-mighty Lady Windsor Colliery but a memorial of fake coal in a trolley. On the surface, above the ground honeycombed with filled-in tunnels, there were a few jumps so that little girls could exercise their ponies. The pit baths had gone; so, too, had the Workmen’s Hall, the Institute and the miners’ pub, the Windsor. The cottage hospital where Ger­onwy was filmed recovering from a (fake) accident was a home for the terminally ill. It was the comprehensiveness of the destruction that was shocking. “Dad would turn in his grave if he knew what had happened to this place. He would have put a shoe up Mrs Thatcher’s backside,” Peggy said.

In 1995 both the farmer and nurseryman Alan Bloom and Peter Roper the Typhoon pilot were leading remarkably positive lives. Roper, who migrated to Canada in 1959, had become a distinguished psychiatrist specialising in space and aviation medicine. His views on decency were Blairite:

“To me, decency means responsibility, to ourselves, to our families, to community and country. This hasn’t been emphasised. You hear a lot about human rights, but you just can’t have them without responsibilities. I think that’s what is missing in Britain. It’s changed since the war. If people stood up to their responsibilities as much as their rights, Britain would be a better place.”

Dr Roper is still alive. Alan Bloom died in 2005, aged 98, a horticultural legend. According to his obituary in the Guardian, he had bred or named 170 plants, written 27 books, opened a steam museum and created an extraordinary public garden and nursery in Norfolk. In 1995 he looked like an Old Testament prophet rather than the gentleman farmer in A Diary for Timothy, who could have been played by a pipe-sucking Gregory Peck. Silver hair down to his shoulders and a ring in each ear, he toasted bread on a gas fire; by his chair lay CND and Quaker pamphlets and Jung’s Memories, Dreams and Reflections. A Diary for Timothy was “a noble concept” and he had been “full of zeal for fighting Hitler” but he refused to look back.

There was much of the modern world he found “indecent”, particlarly its materialism, so he went his own way. He kept little money (“for what should it profit a man . . .”), employed a former patient or two from the local psychiatric hospital and immersed himself in the wonders of nature. Perhaps if Jennings or Orwell had met Bloom 50 years after the war they would have recognised an eccentric British genius, and a good man.

There was no trace of Bill the engine driver. So what of Timothy?

By 1995 the gurgling baby had become a thin, asthmatic 50-year-old living in the London dormitory town of Houghton Regis. He taught at a local middle school and struggled to introduce a national curriculum to ever larger classes with insufficient resources. He had plenty to say about decency:

“Children are more assured but more selfish than when I started teaching. There’s little regard for the elderly and they seem more out for what they can get. There’s another thing, too. When I started teaching there was only one kid in my class from a separated family. Now one-third are on income support and I suspect quite a number have single parents. I think it’s the fault of unemployment chiefly. So I don’t think this world is a very decent place.”

On the face of it, Timothy seemed a promising spokesman for the New Britain with plenty to say. He read the Guardian, sometimes the New Statesman. But he was shy about A Diary for Timothy and he had not shown it to his two children. He resented being cast as a symbol; it was an unwanted responsibility. Perhaps he’d had his fingers burned by previous media exposure, in a Central TV documentary of 1985 which included an excruciating scene of him and his young children wandering round a desolate shopping precinct in Luton on Christmas Eve, with muzak carols over the Tannoy and Space Wars on the computer screens. This was intercut with footage of Timothy’s first Christmas. In the 1945 film, a choirboy’s high, pure voice sings “Adeste Fideles” and a dribbling Tim becomes, in Jennings’s symbolism, a surrogate for the Holy Infant. Across the nation, glasses are raised to “absent friends”, and a card from Timothy’s father is read: “My dear son, a very merry Christmas to you . . . May you always be happy and truly content with the life you have been given.”

I kept in touch with Timothy until his premature death in 2000. What Humphrey Jennings would have made of his old subject’s life we will never know, because he also died prematurely, in 1950. But George Orwell would have found him a typical Englishman as defined in his “England Your England”, the essay he wrote in the war, just before Jennings made his film.

Timothy personified “the privateness of English life”, to quote Orwell. He loved his little semi-detached house with garden in the Home Counties and he was “addicted to hobbies and spare-time occupations” – photography, gym coaching, gardening. He showed “the insularity of the English”, being not un-European, but not wanting to go there. Instead he took his children round English castles and museums and subscribed to History Today. He was not a flag-waving, goose-stepping patriot but he always bought a British car (Vauxhall, because its motors were made in Luton) and stood up in front of the television during the Remembrance Day silence. He did not hold strong views about the Germans. As for politics, he was not a socialist but he would never vote Conservative; nor did he and his wife, Sue, discuss how they would vote – another instance of this privateness.

In A Diary for Timothy the Jenkinses represent, perhaps in a rather smug way, the Christian and family values of the English middle class. Timothy, in the words of Orwell, was “without definite religious belief . . . but retained a deep tinge of Christian feeling”. Unlike him, his children were not baptised and no one in the family was a churchgoer, but he had a Christian burial with that fav­ourite hymn of Songs of Praise, “Dear Lord and Father of Mankind”.

Timothy personified “the gentleness of the English civilisation . . . its most marked characteristic”, as Orwell said. This may sound a bit old-fashioned now, as does the very word “decency”. But I hope it does justice to this hitherto anonymous wartime baby who unwittingly stood for so much.

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.”

***

 

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