My friend David has a friend called Nina (neither of these are their real names).
They met on a cruise of northern cities. She is Russian, became attracted to him and he had to explain that he thought she was lovely but he played (so to speak) on the other team.
David explained homo-emotionality and homosexuality.
Nina’s eyes opened very wide.
They became friends.
Born in Tashkent, now Uzbekistan, then part of the Eastern Soviet Empire, Nina’s later life was based in Moscow. I haven’t yet heard the story of the transfer but her father is dead and her mother still lives there. Nina moved to Stockholm as a translator, married and only goes home to visit. David brought her to meet me when she made her first visit to London earlier this year.
We did well – gardens, books, teacups. Both great readers, I referred to a history of WWII I’d liked and she rejoined, “Russia’s losses, the price we paid, has never been acknowledged by the West. You talk about your dead, your wounded and displaced but they were much less than they might have been, partly because we had the numbers and Stalin threw them into the war machine. But the losses still scar us. And you have never admitted them.” No point in arguing that Stalin killed the same number all over again in the gulag (two wrongs don’t make a right). Manifestly what she said is so, now acknowledged by modern historians. It takes 50 years or so to get an overview on history. Her voice was quiet and matter of fact. She was not hysterical. She was bitter.
Immediate post war gratitude shaped the British history I grew up with, in films and plays and books. And the history we learned at school stayed within broad outlines from the Middle Ages to the glory of Victoria, all so much safer because it was more remote.
I had already learned at home that there is more than one version of any history.
My father was born in 1896, he volunteered for WWI and was too old to fight in WWII. 48 when I was born, he told me stories of his young man’s war, troop ship to Calcutta, everything moved up the lines by mule train, rough riding sergeant major at 19, his favourite horse, what they ate, what they earned – but his campaigns are forgotten in the horror of the European losses. In the thoughtful memorialising of the Great War, there have been few references to the British Army on the North Western Frontier (now called Afghanistan) or in Mesopotamia (now called Iraq), presumably because it shows how long British foreign policy took to alter.
But with regard to the friction between Russia and the rest of us, it is several months since I heard the American writer Anne Applebaum commenting quietly that, before the West began to gobble with turkeycock horror at Mr. Putin and Russia, it must ask its collective self about the money we allowed to be hidden here, invested, laundered and the part we allow dubious people to play among us – over and above any dependence on gas or anything else. And more recently Oliver Bullough wrote (Guardian 20.07.2014) about the west’s connivance with the asset stripping of Ukraine – which, although it is not a poor country, leaves it on a par with the Central African Republic. And who’s for the old Soviet Union and who’s for any version of Russian supremacy and who’s for independence, with all the side bars and split hairs in between, is regrettably what must follow the dissolution of Soviet communism, which couldn’t banish history, it could only suppress it, thus deepfreezing its bitterness to rise again.
Whether you describe the shooting down of Flight MH 17 was an act of war or a mistake – either way – the dead are dead.
It is a disaster that no one came forward to secure the crash site and nobody from outside the territory was allowed in to do it, or if they were, their safety could not be guaranteed.
The horror of umpteen formally flown out coffins full of heaven knows what and who requires the suspension of intelligence to bring any comfort at all (all respect to the Dutch).
And I couldn’t help wondering whether the violent clods who obtained this mess were as bitter about their historical past as my guest Nina?
There’s an old song that says “I don’t love nobody/And nobody cares for me.”
Which is how wars begin.