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16 March 2022

Surprisingly for the post-communist era, the “tankie” rises from the mists of history

With a hot flush of embarrassment, I recall singing along to the wartime song "Stalin Wasn't Stallin'" – at the time anything seemed better than Thatcherism.

By Nicholas Lezard

Remember the first days of the first lockdown, and the eerie stillness that settled over the land? I recall thinking, as we all did, that we hadn’t expected the end of the world to be so boring. Well, be careful what you wish for. This is more like the apocalypse I imagined when growing up. (I write this days before publication, and Lord knows what’s going to happen after I’ve filed.)

I also remember, as the lockdown dragged on, those with expertise in this area predicting that it was going to have rather unpleasant effects on many people’s mental health. I was one of the lucky ones in that my lifestyle wasn’t affected all that much: I even had an excuse to catch up on old episodes of Endeavour. This time, though, we’re all in it, both praying for the people of Ukraine and praying that Vladimir Putin doesn’t start throwing nukes around – at time of writing, something he seems perfectly capable of doing.

Naturally, social media being the diverse ecosystem it is, one can see for oneself that this is not the only view in existence. I have been informed that Volodymyr Zelensky is a gangster, an oligarch himself, and, of course, a Nazi. Brighton, naturally, rises to the challenge. There’s one particular moron on Twitter whose name announces that he is from my adopted home town, and he says things such as, “Zelensky’s neo-Nazi battalions have now been joined by Isis reinforcements. You couldn’t make this up.” Well, leaving aside that he actually has made it up, it does make one wonder what planet he is on.

It’s quite easy to work out, though, and you don’t need to see his Corbyn T-shirt. A term rises from the mists of history: tankie. I had to explain the other day what this meant to someone who is not politically illiterate, and who is my age, more or less. Tankie, a term coined as early as 1968, referred to the kind of hard-left person who believed Soviet Russia would always be justified in sending armed forces to suppress anti-communist rebellion, whether in Czechoslovakia in that year, or Hungary in 1956, or anywhere else, as necessary. What is surprising is that this position has survived into the post-communist era.

One should perhaps be a little indulgent. I, too, while never a tankie, have expressed views not a million versts from tankieism. I mainly did so to annoy my father. It was the kind of thing one did in those days, not just in Oedipal reaction but because anything – absolutely anything – seemed better than Thatcherism. You could travel far in the other direction. I recall, with a hot flush of embarrassment, sitting in the Balliol students’ bar with my friends from that college, singing along to Robert Wyatt’s cover of the wartime song “Stalin Wasn’t Stallin’”. I can remember the first two verses perfectly. In paraphrase (I gather the quotation of song lyrics is a copyright nightmare), the song begins with the proposition that Stalin was not – contrary to all historical evidence, and never mind the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact, which isn’t mentioned – dithering when he “got the Yanks and English” together to drive the forces of Nazi Germany from Russian soil. It’s a very catchy tune.

It occurred to me some years later that I may well have been singing this ditty in 1983, when a young but still repulsive Boris Johnson was starting out at the college. Was he sitting there with us, as we sang our misguided tribute to the only person in history who could be put on a par with Adolf Hitler in terms of immiserating his own people? Did we set in train, under that artfully distressed blond thatch, a series of thought processes that ended with him becoming prime minister? It’s a frightening speculation, and if I and my friends are in some way to blame I can only apologise. Thought, especially political thought, was not my strong suit in those days. I thought that being left-wing was good – I still do – but I thought this meant that the more left-wing you were, the better. I also thought for years that they were called “tankies” because they wore tank tops. If I was capable of such stupidity then, I can’t be sure I am free from it now.

Still, here we are, with spring seeming to happen. I saw some daffodils in someone’s front garden the other day. In personal good news, the editors at Wisden Cricketers’ Almanac – the big, fat, daffodil-yellow tome that is the yearly bible of cricket – have asked me to contribute to their 2023 edition. They want a staggering number of words for not an awful lot of money, but I don’t care because this is the fulfilment of an ambition long held. My father, God rest his soul, bought me a copy of the hardback each year until his death; since then, lack of money and shelf space – and these days, even shelves – prevent me from adding to my collection, now in storage. I would have liked him to have been around to see that his eldest son had given up singing songs in praise of the Great Leader and finally done something worthwhile with his life.

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This article appears in the 16 Mar 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Russia’s War Goes Global