The arrivals board at Beijing International Airport on 8 March lists Flight MH370 as cancelled. Photo: Getty
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The lost passengers of Flight MH370: why the modern world can’t cope with missing people

In a world where we expect everyone to be accounted for, missing people enter into the realm of fiction.

The passengers of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370 exist. Somewhere on this earth, on an obscure stretch of land or deep under the sea, alive, or – as is now almost assured – dead, are 226 human beings and the vessel that carried them.

We live in an age of information that extends to the names, whereabouts, relationship statuses and latest culinary activities of anyone in the world we choose to check up on. Whether a “check-in” is logged or a “pin” is dropped, we take it as a given that, should we want to find out what a person is up to at any given time (spouse, child, rogue employee), that information would be readily and satisfyingly available. We rely on a warped yet comforting sense of community.

This assumption, I believe, informs a worldview that is particular to the digital age: when I picture a person, I picture their surroundings. I can contextualise any friend or colleague in a particular place and at a particular activity because I have access, often to my annoyance (stop with those Starbucks selfies, friend-from-home), to a minute-to-minute account of what they’re up to.

So the inability to account for a person, regardless of the fact that we would in all likelihood never have crossed time-zones with them let alone become internet friends, creates a state of unease that reads like a glitch in the matrix. Raised on algorithms, spreadsheets and screens – on systems that by their nature Do Not Make Mistakes – the absence of a planeload of people from the record creates a disturbance that extends beyond the human concern for the Malaysian Airlines passengers and their families. The rate of rolling coverage, and the pervasiveness of whispered back-and-forths on the streets of London at least, have far exceeded the meagre material from which they are extrapolating. We have been nudged to look again at the people around us and the millions more out of sight. Something of the safe “togetherness” we assume of technology has fractured, and we are irked.

To picture the passengers is to picture the abstract: a black hole of information into which pour a million possible geographical coordinates and a million possible fates. It is a wall of data, growing with every examination until we must accept it as an “unknown unknown”. We are inclined to resolve the contradictory, to unpick paradoxes, so that we feel safe in a predictable world that follows law and logic.

It is impossible to find a context for the passengers. Faced with both the unravelling of our networked world and with the paradox of the people who, like 226 Schrödinger’s cats, occupy some hazy territory between life and death, we have moved them unconsciously into the realm of fiction. No longer associated with a time or a place, they have been resolved into the iconic and the mystical. They join the ranks of Amelia Earhart and latterly, Madeleine McCann, likely to spawn column inches indefinitely.

It is a frustrating and impotent answer, a cognitive sticking-plaster that serves as much to tease as to satisfy. The missing are of such interest because they embody everything that contradicts our understanding of the world while not, apparently, existing at all. We cannot envisage something that ceases to be. Matter is conserved, we are told in school – things cannot be conjured and neither can they vanish. The world is of finite material.

So when all evidence points to the impossible, when Earhart’s and McCann’s and possibly flight MH370’s trails run cold, we are backed into a corner without reason or conclusion. And like morbid magicians who have pulled off the unimaginable, the missing move into legend. But while they are committed to memory and immortalised in print, the real events go unreported, and what is most likely the simple, agonising story of a premature end, is buried, like the individuals, in mystique.

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The world has entered a new Cold War – what went wrong?

Peter Conradi’s Who Lost Russia? How the World Entered a New Cold War traces the accumulation of distrust between the West and Russia.

In March 1992 an alarmist “secret” memo written by Richard Nixon found its way on to the front page of the New York Times. “The hot-button issue of the 1950s was, ‘Who lost China?’ If Yeltsin goes down, the question ‘Who lost Russia?’ will be an infinitely more devastating issue in the 1990s,” the former US president wrote.

Nixon’s point was well made. At that time, Boris Yeltsin, who had acted as the wrecking ball of the Soviet Union, was desperately struggling to hold the splintering new Russian Federation together. An empire, a political system, an ideology and a planned economy had all been shattered in a matter of weeks. Western diplomats in Moscow feared that millions of starving people might flood out of the former Soviet Union and that the country’s vast nuclear arsenal might be left unguarded. Yet the West seemed incapable of rising to the scale of the historic challenge, providing only meagre – and often misguided – support to Yeltsin. Between 1993 and 1999, US aid to Russia amounted to no more than $2.50 per person. The Marshall Plan II it was not.

Even so, and rather remarkably, Russia was not “lost” during the 1990s. Yeltsin succeeded in stumbling through the decade, creating at least some semblance of a democracy and a market economy. Truly it was a case of “Armageddon averted”, as the historian Stephen Kotkin put it.

It seems hard to remember now, but for many Russians 1991 was a moment of liberation for them as much as it was for those in the Soviet Union’s other 14 republics. The Westernising strand of Russian thought briefly flourished. “Democratic Russia should and will be just as natural an ally of the democratic nations of the West as the totalitarian Soviet Union was a natural opponent of the West,” the country’s first foreign minister, Andrei Kozyrev, proclaimed.

When Vladimir Putin emerged on the political scene in Moscow in 1999 he, too, made much of his Westernising outlook. When my editor and I went to interview him as prime minister, there was a portrait of Tsar Peter the Great, who had founded Putin’s home city of St Petersburg as Russia’s window on the West, hanging proudly on his office wall. President Putin, as he soon became, was strongly supportive of Washington following al-Qaeda’s attacks on the United States in 2001. “In the name of Russia, I want to say to the American people – we are with you,” he declared. Russian generals instructed their US counterparts in the lessons they had learned from their doomed intervention in Afghanistan.

Yet the sediment of distrust between the West and Russia accumulated steadily. The expansion of Nato to former countries of the Warsaw Pact, the bombing of Serbia, the invasion of Iraq and the West’s support for the “colour” revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine had all antagonised Moscow. But Putin’s increasing authoritarianism, hyperactive espionage and propaganda activities abroad drove the West away, as did his interventionism in Georgia and Ukraine.

Given the arc of Russian history, it was not surprising that the pendulum swung back so decisively towards the country’s Slavophiles. As a veteran foreign reporter for the Sunday Times and former Moscow correspondent, Peter Conradi is a cool-headed and even-handed guide to the past 25 years of Western-Russian relations. So much of what is written about Russia today is warped by polemics, displaying either an absurd naivety about the nature of Putin’s regime or a near-phobic hostility towards the country. It is refreshing to read so well-written and dispassionate an account – even if Conradi breaks little new ground.

The book concludes with the election of Donald Trump and the possibility of a new rapprochement between Washington and Moscow. Trump and Putin are indulging in a bizarre, if not grotesque, bromance. But as both men adhere to a zero-sum view of the world, it seems unlikely that their flirtation will lead to consummation.

For his part, Conradi does not hold out much hope for a fundamental realignment in Russia’s outlook. “Looking back another 25 years from now, it will doubtless be the Westward-looking Russia of the Yeltsin years that is seen as the aberration and the assertive, self-assured Putin era that is the norm,” he writes.

But the author gives the final word to the US diplomat George Kennan, a perpetual source of wisdom on all things Russian. “Of one thing we may be sure: no great and enduring change in the spirit and practice of Russia will ever come about primarily through foreign inspiration or advice,” Kennan wrote in 1951. “To be genuine, to be enduring, and to be worth the hopeful welcome of other peoples such a change would have to flow from the initiatives and efforts of the Russians themselves.”

Perhaps it is fanciful to believe that Russia has ever been “lost” to the West, because it has never been fully “won”.

John Thornhill is a former Moscow bureau chief for the Financial Times

Peter Conradi appears at the Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the NS, on 23 April. cambridgeliteraryfestival.com

Who Lost Russia? How the World Entered a New Cold War by Peter Conradi is published by One World (384pp, £18.99​)

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times