The Skripal Affair and the Problem of Russia


A few nights ago on the BBC the Russia expert Andrei Illarionov, once a Putin confederate and now at Washington’s Cato Institute, was asked about Britain’s best response to the latest attempt to murder Russian state enemies on British soil. He replied that Britain – and the West – should decide what they want Russia to be. Veteran journalist Anne McElvoy meanwhile reported in London’s Evening Standard that the British Embassy in Moscow these days was more like an outpost of BP (British Petroleum).

What have we got ourselves into, doing such close business with a country we know we can’t trust?

The West would like Russia to be a reliable partner but that’s just wishful thinking. Most recently in the Skripal affair Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson declared himself exasperated by Russia ‘tearing up the international rulebook’ on chemical weapons, a view endorsed by the US, France and Germany.

With the attempt to assassinate Colonel Skripal, a former spy, it’s the issue of trespass that offends, together with the indiscriminate threat to human life.On the other hand we’re never going to undo the prevailing Russian mentality which finds such action legitimate, so we need to understand it.

Consider the the historical tradition.

As soon as there were Russian intellectuals with the education and courage to criticize the tsarist state, from around the time of the French Revolution, law was always the issue. A tiny, Westernized section of the population wanted a constitution that would lay down subjects’ rights and protect them from the arbitrariness of the tsars, not to mention the cruelly indifferent bureaucracy that administered their rule through the nineteenth century. The famous critics of tsarism from those days were either exiled in the east or allowed to escape abroad. The golden generation of Alexander Herzen, who published his anti-tsarist periodical The Bell from his base in London, and Lenin’s own generation, agitating from Switzerland, seem not to have been pursued by murderous thugs intent on silencing them, because, at the time, with poorer communications, it was enough that they were abroad. But I always remember the case of the less well-known Sergei Kravchinsky, a Ukrainian-born Populist who in 1878 assassinated a particularly odious general on a St Petersburg street before managing to flee and eventually settle in Britain. Taking the surname Stepniak he found a welcome among cultural friends of Russia and, witnessing the mostly slow and decorous progress of socialism in that country, with smartly turned out workers marching peacefully through the streets, fell in love with a country he found civilized, compared with what he had left behind. Stepniak was lionized in high society. George Bernard Shaw nicknamed him ’Steppy’ and admired him. Meanwhile his old country, where he had committed a capital crime, lay in wait. They didn’t kill him, but they arranged for an article to be published spelling out that bloody offence he couldn’t disown. We’ll never know if fear of being unmasked in his beloved Britain made up his mind, but Steppy walked in front of suburban London train soon after.

The Skripal story is less nuanced. It seems to be a straightforward attempt at the ultimate punishment for betraying the Russian state. And yet the most heinous feature of the present Moscow regime is the way it insists on killing all manner of its political opponents. It kills not only spies who betray its secrets and flee abroad, not only any Steppys who might still happen in this world, driven to violence out of desperation, but also internal critics who remain in the country and follow due political process. The list of courageous and tragic Russian state victims in the present century, from Galina Starovoitova, to Anna Politkovskaya, to Sergei Magnitsky and Boris Nemtsov, cynically murdered on Russian streets, is sickening and unending. Alexander Litvinenko, formerly of the KGB, was active as a British agent, when he was poisoned in London in 2006. But Nemtsov was a liberal politician while Politkovskaya was Putin’s greatest critic in Chechnya. We shouldn’t be tempted to confuse these different targets, although we can observe that the Russian tactics were the same whichever kind of victim was in the frame. The murders of Politkovskaya and Nemtsov were carefully staged to occlude evidence, and finally blamed on individuals who, if they were involved at all, most likely carried out orders. Colonel Skripal, whom it seems the Kremlin tried to kill in the British cathedral city of Salisbury last week, was a former spy. But his daughter Yulia was not. The attempt to kill her, and possibly the successful murder of her brother a couple of years ago, was meant as punishment to deter all those who dare defy Russian state authority. Any lives serve to deliver the message. Moreover the state can nominally be excluded as the perpetrator, in the latest case by use of a toxic substance difficult to trace to any administering hand.

Now it was the first, honest Russian response to the Salisbury incident, only hours after it happened, when a prominent Russian tv presenter announced: we don’t do traitors. Don’t betray Russia and not expect to die! That was the moment when, in a way, Russia owned up. We should have paid more attention.

For we ought to have learnt, by now, that official Russia is a strange communicator, given to oblique references and what used in Soviet times to be called ‘rejoinders’. The press then was full of shadow responses and vague clues to whatever concerned Russia’s reputation in the West. Kremlinology came to an ignominious end when it was blamed for not foreseeing the end of the Soviet Union. But what it had learned to do was read all the actual, interim communications that indicated Russia was talking to the West, even accepting responsibility, but always in its own indirect, defensive and peculiarly twisted way. Famously Soviet Russia used to criticize the United States for suffering from a ‘military psychosis’. All Soviet watchers knew, and marvelled at the fact, that it was actually talking about itself just as much; that it had this kind of self-knowledge, but shrugged it off, turning it into blame of the other. A minor instance of this mirror-image confusion of self and other happened just a few hours before I sat down to write this piece, when Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov accused Britain of a ‘boorish’ response to the present crisis. British Defence Minister Gavin Williamson’s unfortunate outburst telling Moscow to ‘shut up’ notwithstanding, we are not usually bad mannered in our diplomacy. Treacherous, slippery, whatever you want to call it, yes, but not ill-mannered, unlike the Russian side which has been shouty since Lenin. Everyone of a certain age remembers then President Khrushchev taking of his shoe at the UN and banging on the table. Knowing they are ‘boorish’ (an old-fashioned enough word, retained from former times), the strategy of the Russians is to turn it against their enemy. And with that, moreover, we’re reminded of another fact, namely that Russia can only define itself against the West, imitating the West while trying to outdo it in its own peculiar way. We need the Russians’ money, but they need our superior political, legal and civic arrangements, to map out an alternative twenty-first century achievement of their own. And so they respond to the suspicion that they have committed murder on British soil by not denying it, just warning other Russians not to invite the same retaliation. Start with absolute loyalty and civility might follow.

How strange a project this alternative Russian civilization is! The British Labour Party leadership – Jeremy Corbyn and his close allies — seems to think that the Russian Way might be, following on from its earlier attempt under the name of Communism, a viable project, worth equivocating over murder for. But not many in Britain, or elsewhere in the West, agree.

Official Russia’s insistence that it has to go its own way, according to its own standards, is nevertheless the reason why it attaches so much importance to the loyalty of its citizens, in exile or not. Russian patriotism has been sentimentalized as attachment to the Motherland for the last two centuries, but beneath the thin, occasionally poetic and sometimes nastily religiously gilded surface, it’s an oath of obedience which is imposed at birth, never sworn. It comes unchosen with Russian nationality. We saw a variation on that theme in the recent BBC tv drama McMafia, which, had it been better acted, might even have homed in on what I would call the Russian tragedy.

Back in real life, a certain Mrs Sobchak, wife of a once prominent Putin ally, possibly himself murdered, and the mother of the only candidate daring to oppose Putin in upcoming elections, said on camera of that tragedy recently, ‘It’s terrible to live in our country.’ The sentence is better in Russian. Zhit’ u nas strashno, she said and it immediately recalled for me the title of a famous long poem of the mid-nineteenth century by the writer and would-be social reformer Nikolai  Nekrasov. His title was ‘Komy v Rusi zhit’ khorosho?’  Who can live well in Russia? Or even, who enjoys living in Russia? The poem, with its generous sweep through all ranks and classes, suggested no one could. Perhaps not even the leader himself. Sobchak was Putin’s friend and he cried for him. But wasn’t it possible he also had something to do with his death?

Russia is a Motherland-to-itself, held together, made to exist, by loyalty rather than law. (This is the thesis of a book I wrote ten years ago, Motherland A Philosophical History of Russia.)And that is part of what makes it an Otherland to the most rest of the world. Many well-meaning people just wish it would go away. We don’t know what to do with a place that lives in a bubble of its own primitive ordering. No matter that now, compared with Soviet times, its borders are open, what the attempted and successful murders on British soil show is that those physical borders don’t matter any more. A Russian culpable in the eyes of his native state can always be reached.

We have to go on trying to understand that Motherland-to-itself, neverthelesss. It won’t do just to wish it away. My adviser, in extremis, is the philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev whom Lenin forced out of Russia after the Revolution of 1917, on the undoubtedly right grounds that he, and seventy or so others like him, would never come round to the Bolshevik way of thinking. As Trotsky wrote in the press on the eve of those deportations in 1922, at least we gave them the choice.  Although the philosophers were spared – Berdyaev died of old age at his desk — the long arm of the Soviet Russian state did extend into the exiled and self-exiled community. The abduction of a white army general from a Paris street around 1931 was sufficiently scandalous for Vladimir Nabokov to turn it into a short story. But Berdyaev himself survived to publish books on the Russian mind in the same vein as he had been writing before his life in the old country was forcibly terminated. In them he said two things which have always stayed with me. One, in 1909, was to accuse the intelligentsia, of which he was also a member, of often being as extreme as the state they were critiquing, and in particular for not caring to distinguish between true and false (and thus between good and evil). The other observation, drawn from his country’s immediate history, was that Russia lurched ‘between the red and the black’ – between Communism and Fascism.

The only defence of Russia I can ever muster is its need for internal coherence. I do believe that the other side of the highly organized state, bound together by ruthlessly enforced loyalty, is anarchic indifference: total lawlessness, that would be, also within Russia itself. In the nominally highly regulated Soviet Union there was always an undercurrent of actual absence of law, which is why when I fictionalized it twenty years ago I called the country ‘Bezzakonia’, a country without law. In the post-Communist 1990s, under the drunkard Boris Yeltsin, the anarchy ripped through the substance of daily life. Chaos was the other formative experience for the Putin generation, alongside humiliation, as the economy disintegrated and Soviet institutions were mocked. So they, the neo-tsars, the post-Soviets, repressed the disorder and rediscovered their Russian pride. It’s that pride they once again have to offer the West, along with their mineral wealth and their financial heft.

So what do we do? Live with it? Wish it away? Tell it, like Mr Williamson, to shut up? At the very least we must cut down on the financial loopholes that have lured wealthy Russian businessmen, in and out of Putin’s favour, to London to keep their money safe by investing in British property. There will be other, less visible measures, but the obvious one is to be less greedy for Russian money, and ourselves take the financial hit, while modestly priding ourselves on our relative lawfulness.

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