Here we are, one week on from the conclusion of the latest installment of medal-fuelled tears and tension, with a diplomatic crisis brewing 400 miles from the Fisht Stadium.
The post-1946 decline in Western-Soviet relations was named the Cold War; perhaps this new one could be termed the Permafrost War. For although grass may grow atop, a façade developed in the uppermost layer of warmer soil, there reposes a hard layer quasi-malevolence beneath it.
I think it’s safe to say that the UK has one of the worst diplomatic relationships with Russia. Since a sizeable proportion of the population with memory or knowledge of the 1950s-60s still hasn’t quite sat up from the knock-out shock of the Philby deception (by far the most disturbing of those of the Cambridge 5), it may seem logical that the defection of another spy caused the newest period of frosty diplomacy between the two states. Alexander Litvinenko did, however, transfer his loyalty from the FSB (Russian secret service) to MI6, an act which, along with publications deemed caustic to the reputation of his former employers, secured his death sentence by the radioactive drug polonium in November 2006. FSB agents were blamed but subsequent inquests have proved inconclusive – handily for the Foreign Office. Finding the death of Litvinenko (under the protection of the British government) to have been, beyond all reasonable doubt, effectively caused by the Russian government on British soil would be more than a little harmful for diplomatic relations.
Yet in 2010, Gordon Brown (PM) and David Miliband (Foreign Secretary) expelled 4 Russian diplomats (apparently intelligence officers) from the UK in response to Moscow’s refusal to allow the prime suspect in Litvinenko’s murder, Andrei Lugovoi, to be extradited. Also in 2010, Moscow expelled a British diplomat on charges of alleged spying. An associate of Litvinenko, Boris Berezovsky, was found hanged in Berkshire in 2013 in circumstances which will probably never be entirely clear. He was a long-term and defiant critic of Putin.
Ever since the Bolsheviks arranged the murders of the British king’s cousins, Tsar Nicholas II, his wife Alexandra and their 6 young children in Yekaterinburg in 1918, relations between our two nations haven’t been the most cordial. The UK supported the Whites in the 1917-22 Civil War and the swathes of refugees, along with her ally France. Although Churchill and Stalin aligned themselves strategically in 1941 to end the Nazi evil, Churchill remained aware of the dangers posed by Stalin, politically prescient as ever, and it was he who, in 1946, coined the term ‘Iron Curtain’. Very much the ‘enemy within’ the Allies, the Soviets initially made a pretence of willing friendship after the conclusion of the Second World War, in order to rebuild trade and industry ravaged by the Nazi infiltration of the USSR, but the West, ever wary of that communist ‘man of steel’ (in the least super-heroic sense), declined and widened the breach. Then the Cold War truly began in earnest; the Berlin Wall; Cuban Missile Crisis; Cambridge 5 revelations.
Royalist Britain simply could not stomach the overthrow of the monarchy in 1917 by fairly poorly supported workers and recently returned ex-patriots – the 36 million or so killings in Stalin’s purges is even less of a cause to be friendly with the old regime. Having led the world in industrialisation, and arguably the most advanced country in the world by that point economically speaking, with a well-functioning political system, it was hard to see what was so bad about the tsar that he needed to be replaced with revenge-hungry killers.
In my own opinion, I believe the fact that 36m or so murders are far less well-known and documented than Hitler’s 11m speaks for itself. The communist USSR and the capitalist west are so ideologically different in so many areas that it would be near-impossible to have maintained diplomatic relations. That’s pretty obvious.
But now? Has the history between Russia and the west laid down insurmountable barriers to happy and productive relations? Of course not. Look at Germany – Hitler ruled for 12 years, murdering 11m of his own citizens and several hundred thousand of ours during that tenancy, and Angela Merkel is received warmly into the Houses of Parliament and the homes of the British PM and head of state. Of course. It would be churlish to insinuate that she is in any way responsible for the Nazis’ atrocities, or that our relations are in some way impaired by it (something closer to the mark would be the word ‘penalties’ – 90 minutes rather than 12 years).
Is Russia so different? I’m afraid so. On top of all the negative history since 1917 go the recent espionage fiascos and the ostensible determination of Putin to supersede the west (his spokesman declaring the UK to be a “small island” that “nobody listens to” in anger over British proactivity over Syria and anti-corruption). The tenet that Russia has been ruled since the Mongol Conquest by silnaya ruka, the iron hand, seems to hold true, and this is not palatable to the modern west. As 19th century Slavophiles in Russia maintained, Russia is clearly different to the west, and therefore must develop differently. Whilst I’m not entirely adherent to that philosophy, the distinction between Russia and the west seems fairly apparent; but for the benefit of not only our children (cue spiel) but also for the global economy, peace and worldwide diplomatic fraternity.
In Alaska, they break away the permafrost with pick-axes of metal. We can break away this permafrost war with pick-axes of diplomacy, if only our politicians would.