Bombs away, St Petersburg

On 13 April, we flew to St Petersburg with a couple of friends, for a long weekend. On the night of our arrival, Britain, France and the USA thoughtfully arranged the bombing of Syrian targets, the proxy bombing of our hosts. In the hotel bedroom, we watched the BBC and CNN relay their take on events to the world, and to Russia.  

We were told that St Petersburg has 30 days of sunshine a year. We got four of them. We strolled around beautiful streets and squares in shirtsleeves, as we might have done in any European city. We saw spectacular architecture and works of art: the jewels of our common European heritage. We saw Russian art of the 20th century – some of it crudely political, but much of it, even from the Communist era, recognisably part of the European mainstream.

There were strong echoes of Vienna and Prague – cities of central Europe that face both east and west. Whatever the history of the past century, whatever the tensions of the present, this was solid, familiar territory. Almost nothing about it felt alien. Drinking vodka in the Soviet Bar reminded me of the Stasi Bar in Berlin that I had imagined in The Breaking of Eggs.

This was my first visit to Russia. Everything one knows about it says that St Petersburg is the most European, most modern city in the country, and has been since Peter the Great built it. It is not comparable to Moscow, apparently, and even less to the rest of Russia. So to what extent my experience of St Petersburg would have been replicated elsewhere is impossible for me to say.

However, in this place and at this time, the idea that Russia is in any substantial respect different from the rest of Europe is absurd, as is the idea that the country should be our enemy. Putin’s Russia is more corrupt than we would like, and less democratic than we would like. But it does not feel like a country with values fundamentally different to our own. Most of the criticisms that could be made of it could also be made, to a lesser degree, of some member countries of the EU and, to the same degree, of some other countries that aspire to join the EU.

After World War II, the allies – especially the Americans – poured time and money into rebuilding the economies and democracies of western Europe. It may have been done out of enlightened self-interest, but it was done. And, as far as I am aware, it was done without any of the moral grandstanding towards citizens of the Axis nations, or their new governments, that would have been more than understandable in the circumstances.

The same thing did not happen after the Cold War. The self-interest remained, but enlightenment did not accompany it. Cold warriors crowed over the vanquished ideology and patronised Russia’s new government. Neocons hailed the triumph of the free market and the defeat of socialism, and looked for ways to make a quick buck.

As my fellow subversive (blog of 8 April) puts it: “Until 1989 those in positions of power and privilege in the West thought they had to offer people a standard of living which would be the envy of those living in the East, lest sufficient numbers of the less privileged voted for socialism. When the Berlin Wall was breached, so was the pressure to ensure that a material share of income and wealth cascaded from the owners to the workers. Thenceforth the losers were expected to settle for whatever might trickle down to them from the winners.”

The chickens are now coming home to roost. The neocons should not be surprised. They believe that competition is good and that monopolies are bad. Since the demise of socialism, the free market has enjoyed a monopoly.

I am not one of those in the West who uncritically admire Vladimir Putin and gloss over his excesses. But I do have sympathy for him and for the scale of his task. I wish that we had made a greater effort to forge a closer relationship with Russia when the opportunity to do so existed.

Many of the people whom we were among last weekend probably support Putin’s government, or at least accept it, just as most of us do with our own governments. I expect, if they watch the BBC or CNN at home, that they will regard them as mouthpieces for British or American propaganda, just as we (with rather more reason, in my opinion) regard Russian media as the mouthpieces for its own government’s propaganda.

But I also suspect that all of this, and all of the arguments over Syria, over cyber warfare, over Salisbury, wash over most people’s heads in both countries. That is the territory of governments and politics. Beyond it is a territory of shared attitudes and feelings. I can offer no proof, but I doubt that these would be much different in St Petersburg than in London. And I am sure that, had I visited Leningrad during the Cold War, I would not have had the same sense.

It does no service to all the things that have changed, and to those that might yet change, for politicians to say that relations with Russia are now worse than they were during the Cold War. There are some vital disagreements, and they present some kind of threat. But to place them on the same level as the chasm of ideology and human understanding that divided East and West not so long ago is misleading and damaging hyperbole.

The Foreign Office, in its recent advice to British tourists visiting Russia, told us to expect harassment. That was after Salisbury, but before the Syrian airstrikes. I can report no harassment, no hostility, nothing but friendliness. Perhaps the staff of the Foreign Office should get out more.