The Declaration of War against Germany: met with war-fever and buzzing excitement above the dread. Photo: Topical Press Agency/Hulston Archive/Getty Images
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From the archive: Desmond MacCarthy’s diary “August the Fourth” on the outbreak of the First World War

The Bloomsbury-group writer and critic describing the night the First World War began for Britain, observes the madness in London, the onset of war-fever, and laments the irony of international conflict.

NATURE, I believe, meant me to be a special reporter, only she forgot to endow me with the knack of always being on the spot to which most attention is directed. Still, sometimes the many-eyed stare is not fixed on significant scenes, only on noisy ones, and, again, sometimes so much worth noticing is going on everywhere that it does not matter much where you are. The night of August 4th was such an occasion. It does not disqualify me as a re­porter that I was not in the pushing, yelling, chaffing, music-hallish crowds which thronged the Horse Guards or in the cheering ones outside the House of Commons.

I met at two in the morning, in the far and quiet west, in a shining-clean, empty residential street, an old eager, one-eyed vendor of papers with a Union Jack in his billycock. A tattered bill fluttered before him as he shuffled wearily and hurriedly forward. “Thrippence. Declaration of War,” he was shouting in a monotonous quinsied whisper. I stopped and bought. It's not in it,” he added, confidentially, pocketing the coppers, “but it's true; God's truth it is – I couldn't get the latest. I was an hour and a quarter getting through the crowd.” I looked at him and felt as if I had been in that crowd myself – yes, and could describe it, too. “If Mr. Disraeli was alive!” he croaked huskily; and after this unexpected comment he lunged on again with bent knees, leaving me under the street lamp staring at the columns of the new but already familiar heavy-leaded type.

Though the region where I parted from my friends was fairly well known to me I had lost my way. After walking about an half an hour I had come out somewhere below Holland Park. How late the ‘buses were running! And the taxis were bizzing one after the other down the main thoroughfare, just as if it was 10 o'clock. I recalled vaguely printed public injunctions about economy in petrol. Of course, of course; but economy was impossible to-night; on this night of good-byes, of slow intimacies and friendships huddled into climaxes ; night of sociable, equalising forebodings, night ominous to the solitary, but gay, positively gay, to the gregarious. For under the threat of common danger and of widespread suffering, narrow-minded, sparrow-minded humanity suddenly discovers how inspiring it is, after all, to be in touch with everybody, all; in consequence becomes much happier than usual in spite of dread and worry.

I had noticed on my late ramblings and strayings that good-nights were more frequent, and that they had a different ring. People seemed to like being stopped and asked for a match or to point out the way; their eyes were more alive, less preoccupied, more conscious of one as an individual. When I joined a group round a coffee-stall to drink a cup of hot slop, I did not feel that customary embarrassment at not being suitably dressed. The silence was more friendly; some sort of barrier was down; no one asked me for money. Beside me as I drank stood one of those little, odd, undersized fly-by-nights, her grubby hands resting side by side on the oil-cloth of the counter. She looked up under her feathers and smiled. It was a different sort of smile.

As I crossed, striking southward, some idea – what was it? – began to peep through these impressions. Then a taxi full of people and flags whizzed by, down the now empty road. A girl in a pink jersey and a man, sitting on the half-open roof, set up a long hooting screech like a siren whistle as they passed; I felt I had sampled the patriotic enthusiasm of Piccadilly Circus without going there. What luck! If I had, how depressed I should have been. For there is nothing to equal the heart-dampening sensation of being crushingly convinced by a crowd that it is only occasionally when people feel strongly that they feel like oneself.

In a road of modest villas (it was quiet and dark) I passed first one and then another waiting taxi… close on three o'clock, and in this region of prudent living! Behind the shivering acacias a door opened and a woman ran down the steps waving back to a man standing in the lighted oblong, signalling and nodding at her, agitated encouragement. In she sprang and flung herself back with that rapid preoccupied movement which seems equivalent to exclaiming “this is life,” and off she went. This hectic communal excitement we call fever,” which overlays gloom and forebodings – my idea had something to do with that. In some places, and at some times, it expressed itself in confused uproar and romping, in others in more intimate ways.

I had not come up against those blatant manifestations of it, that swaggering contempt for suffering which suggests in people such an ignominious combination of cowardice, stupidity, and cruelty. The great majority loved war unless they feared too much for themselves or for the lives of those nearest them. There was exhilaration abroad to-night, though the crisis was too apocalyptic and ominous for it not to neighbor heaviness and gloom. Close beneath lay forebodings of dreadful days and a dumb resentment at the cold-blooded idiocy of diplomacy. Still, there it was – a kind of happiness. Why did a declaration of war make people in a way unusually happy? Was it only love of excitement? Where exaltation roared and romped and streamed along the streets, it seemed it might be so; but where I had surprised it, in quieter eddies, there seemed to be another element involved. 

I caught the idea which had been peeping at me, and the irony of it was enough to make one cry: few people experience so genuinely the sense that life is worth living which a feeling of brotherhood gives as when they are banded together to kill their fellow men; never are they so conscious of the humanity of others as when they are out together, sharing risks, to smash the self-respect and mutilate the bodies of those who might, but for a few politicians, just as easily have been fighting alongside them, hoping with them, dying with them side by side.

Earlier in the night I had seen a party of French recruits doubling through the streets singing; everybody had hailed them as they went by. Coming towards me now under the lamps was a man in spectacles and a small straw hat. He looked Teutonic, so “Gute Nacht,” I said as we passed. He stopped for a second. “Ach Gott, Ach Gott! Mein liebe Freund!”

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Putin's vote-winning trick? He makes power personal

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular. Yet President Putin is immune to voter's discontent.

A week before Russia’s parliamentary elections, the central square in Ekaterinburg – the fourth-largest city in Russia, a thousand miles east of Moscow – was packed with people, huddling close on a wet September night. They faced a stage decorated with a poster imploring the crowd to vote for “ours”, meaning United Russia, Vladimir Putin’s political party.

Yet it wasn’t politics for which thousands of people had braved the rain – it was music. During the perestroika and glasnost years of post-Soviet openness, Ekaterinburg was the cradle of the Russian rock scene. The home-grown bands Nautilus Pompilius, Chaif and Agata Kristi sang about freedom and change. Thus, this free concert to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the legendary Sverdlovsk Rock Club was bound to draw a crowd, and United Russia latched on to that.

A message from Dmitry Medvedev, the United Russia leader, praising local rock bands for their bravery “in those days when freedom was in deficit”, was read to the assembled fans. If freedom was a powerful word thirty years ago it has little impact on Russians today. Turnout in the election on 18 September was less than 50 per cent (and only 41.5 per cent in the Ekaterinburg region), a sign of the general political apathy. Before they went to the polls, it was hard to find anyone who was enthusiastic about voting.

“Why should I bother with voting? The result is clear: United Russia will, as always, win,” says Vyacheslav Bakhtin, who owns a small construction company in Ekaterinburg. He added: “Elections are the last thing on my mind. My business has been suffering for the last two years. We couldn’t even afford to go on a family vacation this summer.”

The Russian economy is struggling because of low oil prices, trade embargoes and geopolitical concerns. There have been public spending cuts, and the free float of the rouble led to currency devaluation and high inflation (7 per cent in August). Unemployment is rising and the base interest rate is 10.5 per cent.

There are many reasons for Russians to want a change in government, yet it appears that people do not see the link between their daily struggles and Putin’s policies.

Anna Mikhailova has recently returned from a tour of the Golden Ring of Russia (a circuit of medieval cities to the north-east of Moscow), where there is a stark contrast between the restored onion-domed churches and the crumbling villages.

“People live in poverty in crammed kummunalki [Soviet-style communal flats with several families sharing one kitchen and bathroom],” she tells me. “But they still talk about Putin the Saviour, standing up for Mother Russia.”

Apart from United Russia, 13 parties were judged eligible to stand, but the range of choice was an illusion. Olga, who requested anonymity for her own safety, explained. “We have one party – United Russia – a few pseudo-opposition parties, the Communists, the LDPR and Fair Russia who support Putin’s cause, and a bunch of nobodies that people don’t care about.”

Indeed, Gennady Zyuganov, who has led the Communist Party since 1993, campaigned under the slogan “Ten Stalinist punches against capitalism”. But although he criticised Medvedev, he didn’t touch Putin. The populist leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), Vladimir Zhirinovsky, another political dinosaur, actively endorses Putin’s foreign policy.

If there is discontent among voters, Putin is immune to it. On the eve of the elections, United Russia’s popularity slid to just 30 per cent of total respondents in one poll, though it scored 50 per cent among those who said they were definitely going to vote. Medvedev’s own approval rating fell to 48 per cent. His message to the elderly that state pensions wouldn’t increase, and his advice to teachers to get jobs in the private sector if they weren’t happy with their state salaries, might have had something to do with it. Yet Putin’s popularity remained consistently high, at 82 per cent, according to independent pollsters the Levada Centre.

Alexey Volkov, a 40-year-old business manager, says he voted for the Communists. “I voted against United Russia, the apparatchiks stifling the president,” he explains. “Putin, on the other hand, is the best ruler since Alexander III [Russia’s emperor at the end of the 19th century].”

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular and considered ineffective by the Russian people. Over the past 16 years, presidential power has expanded hugely. Since Russia adopted its new constitution in 1993, successive presidents have introduced legislation to stretch the office’s authority. In his first term as president, Putin acquired 219 new rights and duties, and as his successor Medvedev enjoyed an additional 114 responsibilities. These range from educational appointments to federal government decisions.

As predicted, United Russia topped the ballot with 54 per cent of the vote. Putin’s party claimed 343 of the 450 seats (up from 238 in 2011). The same four parties will form the Duma. The Yabloko and PARNAS parties, seen by voters as a token gesture of protest against the Kremlin, gained negligible support, with 2 per cent and 0.7 per cent, respectively.

It is ultimately Putin’s victory. In the eyes of the majority, he has restored Russia’s strength abroad, revived the defence industry and army, and reinvigorated the country with patriotism. The latter was accomplished via manipulation of the media, which has reinstated the West as the enemy and focused attention on foreign affairs at the expense of the social and economic agenda at home.

Still, with the low turnout, only 26 per cent of eligible Russians voted for Putin’s party. Though that was enough to tighten the president’s grip on the Duma, nationwide the elections paint a picture of a dejected Russia just beginning to feel discontent with the status quo. It is not yet enough to unseat Putin, but as the old Russian saying goes: a drop of water can cut through stone.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times