My girlfriend being a Russian expat, I recently found myself visiting Russian friends who arrived here eight years ago with very little but are now wealthy entrepreneurs with UK citizenship and an impressive mansion in London.
I was interested in the Skripal controversy and their reaction to the recent spate of crimes laid by western media at the door of the Kremlin. It was not long in coming. These crimes were ‘most probably committed by rogue gangsters or Islamists from Syria’, they said. It was ridiculous to blame Russia. Furthermore, all four subjects of the last murder attempts had the same handler in MI5, and they could easily have been targeted by the British secret service to frame their old enemy, Russia. After all, they argued, how did the British know that it was the Novichok nerve agent if they did not already possess it themselves?
Very quickly their hearts swelled with pride for their Motherland, and I saw, as always, how close to the surface their existential war with Hitler remained. They were proud to have defeated Hitler (and, it appeared, Napoleon) almost single-handedly. But they were still facing a constant threat from Nato. Apparently the United States could not wait to get its hands on the vast reserves of gold in Russia, just as it was greedy to get Iraqi oil.
Calm was called for, but I could feel my blood pressure rising. It was complicated, because I was aware of Russia being consistently demonised by western media. Firstly, I suggested, it was not in the British nature to murder anyone in cold blood. After all, our society had been through a protracted cultural revolution and was based to the point of madness on ‘progressive’ politics and virtue-signalling. Most Britons were shocked and full of sympathy for these Russian ‘traitors’ so much despised by the Kremlin, ordinary Russians and Russian expats alike. We were allies with Russia in both world wars (except when Stalin had a pact with Hitler). We had consistently expressed strong moral choices and had always been ‘on the right side of history’. Nato was formed to respond to Stalin’s cynical expansion of the Soviet Union at the end of the war. Stalin had even refused to send back our PoWs from liberated camps until we had repatriated the many thousands of Russian prisoners who were to be murdered or exiled by him.
The disagreement rumbled on, with familiar complaints that the Allies had refused to open a second front in western Europe to punish Russia, that we had not been proper allies until 1943, that the United States had not withdrawn from Germany at the end of the war and that Nato would even today invade Russia if it could. And of course, no one had died trying to escape to the western democracies once the border was fortified (and armed with lethal devices). Russia had always been reasonable and had been met with nothing but hostility and threats. My girlfriend obviously agreed with her friends, but diplomatically said nothing.
Sensing an impasse, I lit the blue touch-paper . . . ‘You have a Stalinist mindset!’ I proclaimed, hinting unsubtly at their paranoia and complete absence of westernised values.
‘But there is nowhere in Russia you will see a statue of Stalin! Nowhere!’ they chided me. At which point, I gave up. These people came to the UK for the best of reasons: in the case of our friends it was to escape the violence of organised crime and corruption in Russia, where they had been beaten and robbed several times, and in the case of my girlfriend it was to remove a son from the threat of national service in places such as Chechnya, where warfare of a most savage kind has killed or maimed a whole generation of young Russians. Despite finding peace, prosperity and safety in the UK, Russian expats of many years standing and of a high level of education are still emotionally programmed to defend Russia, and whosoever its leader may be, in whatsoever existential conflict that might come along. In our ‘post-truth’ world, I suppose, we all grasp at whatever certainty we think we can find, and struggle to hold on to a sense of identity of which we can be proud.