If a school is a microcosm of society, then the travel itineraries of teachers are probably typical. In the staffrooms I frequented, there was always chat about travel plans: to the UK and US and all over Europe, especially to France, Spain; Italy, Ireland and Germany. Closer to home, to Bali, to Thailand, to Fiji, China, Vietnam and Japan.
But not Russia. In all my years of listening to (and envying) dinner party and staffroom travel plans and post-mortems, I’ve only ever once met someone who’d been to Russia.
Well, we all know why. We grew up during the Cold War, and we (thought we) knew what Russia was like because we watched James Bond movies and we read the dissident literature of Solzhenitsyn and Koestler. So we knew there was nothing touristy to see. Nothing but propaganda soviet art or perhaps intimidating parades of military might in Red Square. Bad food, bad service, woeful hotels, and scary grey-faced officials poised to frogmarch us off to Siberia if we infringed on the rules of the totalitarian state. Nobody I knew ever wanted to travel to the USSR…
Return to Moscow confirms these depressing Cold War images. When author Tony Kevin went there as a junior diplomat during the Cold War it was tagged as a ‘hardship posting’ because of the bleak conditions, and Kevin makes it clear that it wasn’t just the weather that was bleak. He also tells us that the reason Russians weren’t keen to socialise with Westerners was because of the risk of being sent to the gulags for fraternisation. Diplomats lived in a bubble of embassy life, for everyone’s safety…
Well, things change, yet even when The Spouse and I went to newly capitalist Russia in 2012, every time I made my pathetic attempts at speaking Russian, the response was an incredulous and delighted “Avstrarlya? Long way!” The people I met in the cafés, shops, restaurants and museums in Moscow and St Petersburg had never met an Australian before. Even the immigration officials at the airport seemed a bit startled to encounter Australian passports, and from what we could make out in the empty echoing hall we two were the only tourists on our flight: all the rest were locals coming home or transit passengers en route to the US, shuffled off to a transit lounge somewhere else.
While tourists and locals alike struggle with summertime hordes in the rest of Europe and the UK, Russian tourism is low-key indeed. Yet Russia could be a popular tourist destination: it’s an art-lover, lit-lover and history-buff’s paradise, the weather (in August-September) is mild, there are lots of good restaurants and hotels, public transport is excellent and the people are friendly and helpful. The only time we encountered ‘Soviet’ service was in St Petersburg when we went to the hilariously retro Kvartirka Soviet Café which deliberately recreates the Soviet era with a very rustic menu and gloomy waitresses barking orders. It was one of many examples of the Russian sense of humour.
But Russia’s potential as a tourist destination looks doubtful these days. Putin’s Russia is demonised on a daily basis and Russian relations with the West have deteriorated spectacularly. Even when Russian air support helped to liberate the historic heritage city of Palmyra from ISIS, nobody had a good word to say about it. Because I’m interested in Russia, and because I think we owe our freedom from the Nazis to the Soviets turning them back at Stalingrad in 1943, I was curious about this disdain. When I heard on the ABC that Tony Kevin – former diplomat and author of Walking the Camino – had written a new book about just that, I asked my library to get me a copy of Return to Moscow…
In this fascinating and informative book, Tony Kevin delves into Russian history and the evolution of the ‘Russian soul’. With serviceable Russian language skills at his command, he talks to people and reads their newspapers. He goes to the new museums which memorialise the 20th century past of gulags and repression against Jews. A keen reader of great works of Russian literature, he analyses the works of Pasternak, Tolstoy and Pushkin in the context of Russian history and culture.
And he traces the gradual – sometimes heroic – 20th century movement away from totalitarianism towards freedom, much of which has never been properly acknowledged by the West.
Perhaps we should now in the West begin to give more credit to the huge liberalisation in Soviet life that began soon after the death of Stalin in 1953, a theme which comes through clearly in [the] Gulag Museum. [It’s amazing: Wikipedia doesn’t have an entry about this museum!] It was Stalin’s politburo member Nikita Khrushchev, aided by a few key allies, most importantly, World War II hero Marshal Georgy Zhukov, who in the first tense days after Stalin’s death, and at great risk to their own lives, arrested and quickly tried and executed the powerful secret police chief Lavrenty Beria.
Khrushchev then started as fast as he could to pardon or amnesty large numbers of Gulag prisoners and petty criminals, to close down most of the camps, and to cancel orders for compulsory exile. In his ‘Secret Speech’ to the 20th Party Congress in February 1956, he denounced the damage done to the Soviet Union by Stalin’s cult of personality and his repressive purges. He initiated a wave of legal rehabilitations that officially restored the reputations of many millions of innocent victims who had been killed or imprisoned under Stalin. He made tentative moves to relax restrictions on freedom of expression held over from the rule of Stalin. Khrushchev introduced and oversaw a cultural ‘thaw’ that humanised Soviet life in many important ways.
Khrushchev, like Gorbachev thirty-two years later, was trying to humanise communism, while keeping it communist. Cold War tensions eventually discredited and defeated him, but the Soviet Union never returned to the harsh horrors of Stalinism. Brezhnev, Andropov, Chernenko, Gorbachev – all ran regimes under which people felt it safe at last to criticise Kremlin leaders. (p.194)
In the last chapters of this well-researched book, Kevin takes on the comic-book caricature of post-Communist Russia that has emerged in the West. He sees it as
… a reasonably decent political society, which is trying to move forward with dignity and civility, and in conditions of peace and security, to repair the damage of an unimaginably traumatic past hundred years, and to contribute positively as a major Eurasian regional power and United Nations Security Council Permanent Member to a stable and improving world order of sovereign states, in accordance with the UN charter.
The other Russia is a corrupt, kleptocratic, often brutally malevolent and vengeful, sometimes incompetent and ridiculous, kind of Mordor, a sham democracy, a mafia state that spends much of its time and energy scheming to gain strategic advantage over the civilised world upon which it borders, and which it threatens. (p.226)
He makes a persuasive case for Russian concern about its own security after the West reneged on agreements not to militarise the ex-Soviet republics on its borders. And he seems prescient about the dangers:
Some might say that I am picturing here conflicts of views in a policy-wonk world of international security rivalry which has little relevance to real life. But it does. The attempts since the early 2000s to push Russia away from normal human and commercial exchanges with the rest of Europe are real, vicious in their intent, and have already been far-reaching in their strategic and human consequences. The mass military destruction since 2014 of cities, homes and lives in eastern Ukraine, as carried out by the West’s reckless and irresponsible protégés in Kiev, is a real war. The still unsolved tragedy of MH17 was a real criminal shoot-down of innocent international passengers. The burnings to death by Ukrainian Nazis of peaceful protesters deliberately trapped in an Odessa trade union building, as Ukrainian police looked on doing nothing, were real. These are all crimes against humanity. There are grave dangers of more of the same if East-West relations continue to worsen. (p.255)
If Tony Kevin is right, Australian tourists like us might not have been so welcome if we had travelled more recently.
When a Russian civilian airliner was sabotaged and exploded over Sinai by Islamic State terrorists in November 2015, killing some 224 mostly Russian holiday-makers on their way home, including many women and children, the Australian Foreign Minister incredibly did not bother to send a condolence message to her Russian counterpart – something several NATO foreign ministers including US Secretary of State John Kerry to their credit promptly did, despite continuing poor East-West relations over Ukraine. No one in the Australian Government, opposition or media thought the Australian Foreign Minister’s indifference to this major tragedy worth commenting on: a stark measure of how desensitised some governments in the Western alliance have become in recent years towards the need to observe normal international decencies towards Russia. (p.245)
How has it come to this? Why is our government abandoning the usual rules of diplomatic civility, why is the media relentless in its negativity towards Russia, and why are we witnessing the rhetoric of a Cold War V2? Such demonization might have made sense in V1 – the Soviets were keen to spread their economic system around the world and there were two nuclear-armed superpowers in competition for the hearts and minds of working people everywhere. The Cuban Missile Crisis was for real. But Russia isn’t trying to inflict communism on anyone any more. It’s a capitalist state in a capitalist world.
International relations are a complex matter, and mostly much too complicated for ordinary mortals to comprehend. Nevertheless if we’re going to get involved in US/Russian squabbles that may become more serious, we should at least have some idea of the Russian point-of-view. Return to Moscow is both entertaining reading as a travel memoir and a thought-provoking book that deserves to be widely read.
Update 4/4/17 I am pleased to see that the ABC is reporting that our prime minister is offering condolences to the victims of the St Petersburg metro explosion. That’s an indication of improved observance of normal diplomatic relations.
Author: Tony Kevin
Title: Return to Moscow
Publisher: UWAP (University of Western Australia Press), 2017
Source: Kingston Library, who acquired it at my request (though I bet they would have got it anyway).
Available from Fishpond: Return to Moscow
PS It’s not yet available as an eBook, but I hope it becomes available in the US, UK and Europe soon too.
PPS You can read a generous extract of 32 pages at the UWAP website.