Soviet union

Will the Caucasus ever be tamed? 

How to get your head around that searingly beautiful but complicated land that lies between the Caspian and Black Seas? The early Arab historian Al Masudi called the Caucasus jabal al-alsun, the mountain of tongues, and through the centuries the place has certainly seen its fair share of peoples, many of them troublesome, many of them troubled. Indeed, for somewhere you might think would be a transcontinental backwater, its outcrops, secluded valleys and expansive plains usefully separating its formidable neighbours – Russia to the north, Turkey and Iran to the south – it’s proved remarkably busy over the centuries; also persistently relevant. The turbulence of the region is rarely far

Too in thrall to today’s dogmas: ITV1’s A Spy Among Friends reviewed

In 2014, Ben Macintyre presented a BBC2 documentary based on his book A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal. The programme managed to shed new light on a familiar but still irresistible story by concentrating on Philby’s relationship with his old chum – and fellow Cambridge man – Nicholas Elliott. Elliott was sent in 1963 by the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) to question Philby in Beirut where Philby had become the Observer’s foreign correspondent after a long and successful career betraying his countrymen to the Soviets. Elliott did elicit some sort of confession, but a few days later, Philby absconded to Moscow. So had Elliott helped with

The year the Russian empire really collapsed

In a quiet suburb of Moscow, a twenty-minute metro ride from the Kremlin, is the Soviet Union’s answer to Disneyland. Between a budget supermarket and a teacher training college is the Exhibition of Achievements of National Economy, known to locals by its Russian-language acronym, VDNKh. The ‘Kh’ is said like you are clearing your throat. Every year, tens of thousands of visitors pass under the triumphal arch that stands at the entrance to the VDNKh. It looks like London’s Marble Arch and is topped with two gold-plated proletarians holding up a bundle of wheat. Past it, there’s stalls selling hot dogs, an imposing statue of Lenin, and a water fountain

A Soviet version of Martin Parr: Adam Curtis’s Russia 1985-1999 –TraumaZone reviewed

Russia 1985-1999: TraumaZone – even the title makes you want to scream – is Adam Curtis’s Metal Machine Music: the one where he frightens off his fans by abandoning the trademark flourishes that made him so entertaining and instead goes all pared-down and raw and grim. If you don’t know or remember what those trademark flourishes were, let me refer you to a cruelly funny pastiche which you can easily find on YouTube called The Loving Trap. This sends up poor Adam as a pioneer of the collage-umentary, a genre resembling ‘a drunken late-night Wikipedia binge with pretence to narrative coherence’ which ‘vomits grainy library footage onto the screen to

What does Russia really want?

The question of ‘why’ Russia invaded Ukraine has been forgotten amid war’s fog. Greed and malice partially explains it. History, geopolitics and culture reveals more. A country which has more land than anyone else on Earth is not grabbing territory for territory’s sake. Logically, Russia should be giving away land to anyone who might manage it better. But that’s not how Putin thinks. He is pursuing a dogged policy of annexations – first in Georgia, then in the Crimea, and now of four further Ukrainian districts. Logically, Russia’s neighbours have more to fear than Russia has. But that’s not how Putin feels Equally, a country which owns the world’s biggest stockpile of

What Washington was like during the Cuban Missile Crisis (2002)

On 27 October 1962, US Defense Secretary Robert McNamara stepped out of crisis meetings and looked up at the sky. ‘I thought it was the last Saturday I would ever see,’ he recalled.  This month marks 60 years since the Cuban Missile Crisis. In 2002, Peregrine Worsthorne wrote about what it was like to be in Washington during humanity’s closest shave. Forty years ago the Americans won what I hope will be the nearest thing to nuclear war between superpowers — of which only one is left — ever fought; and the fact that they won it without firing a shot should not diminish but rather increase the extent of the victory.

Will Russians soon realise how remarkable Mikhail Gorbachev was?

Mikhail Gorbachev, the final president of the Soviet Union who died last night, was remarkable both as an international politician and as a domestic reformer. I first met him when he came to London in December 1984, when Mrs Thatcher said that she liked him and could do business with him. He was open, friendly, and spoke without notes: the opposite of his predecessors. Some of Thatcher’s own officials suspected that he was merely an old-fashioned communist who had learned new tricks, and that his charm was seducing her from her clear view of the Soviet threat. Thatcher was right, and the sceptics were wrong. By that time, the Soviet

Gorbachev was no saint. But he was a kind of hero

Mikhail Gorbachev is dead at the age of 91, and in a way I feel orphaned. I became fascinated by what was still then the Soviet Union in its late years of sclerosis, when one moribund geriatric at the top of the system succeeded another (the dark joke at the time went as follows: a KGB guard stopped someone at one of the state funerals and asked him if he had a pass – ‘oh,’ came the reply, ‘I’ve got a season ticket’). But my early years as a Russia-watcher were during his time as General Secretary, and if my seniors had become used to the idea that the USSR was a

The sin of neutrality

Yet again, millions of civilians across the Horn of Africa are starving. The world blames the crisis on drought and climate change, which nowadays is the way we excuse these countries for environmental mismanagement. But as ever, war is really the single greatest reason why people are killed year after year in this region. And while western countries pour billions of dollars of food aid into Ethiopia, Somalia and South Sudan, the weapons flooding those states originate mainly from Russia, China, Belarus – and Ukraine. In response to an article I recently wrote in The Spectator about why I think so few African governments condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, I

Tales from the Gulag: why I’m helping survivors tell their stories

I trudge up the concrete stairs of a council block of flats in west London. Up three floors. Then along one of those outside corridors, past several doors until I reach the final one. It is already open and there she is — smaller than I remember and with a charming, friendly smile. I guess that is because Ivanna knows me better now. She trusts me more. After what she has been through, it’s not surprising that it takes time to gain her trust. She welcomes me into her little one-bedroom flat and before long, I am in a different world — a world of Ukrainians, Poles and Soviets, deportations,

Why the far-right flourishes in East Germany

A spectre is haunting Germany — the spectre of the AfD. Having come to prominence on a wave of anti-migrant sentiment, most German commentators believed that the Alternative für Deutschland was now a spent force. The party had been able to attract centre-right voters following the 2015 migrant crisis, many of whom may not have agreed with its entire manifesto but sought a political outlet for their scepticism of Merkel’s handling of the crisis. But last year, its national polling dropped to just over half the level of support it enjoyed in late 2018. The pandemic has brought to the surface many of the AfD’s most extreme members and activists,

What does Belarus’s opposition leader want?

There is an assumption that those fighting tyranny must instead want Western-style democracy, that the arc of history bends towards liberal representative government, allied inevitably to Washington and Brussels. Many former Soviet Union countries saw their politburos overthrown by young middle-class people espousing the desire for this kind of politics — from the Rose Revolution in Georgia to the Orange Revolution and Euromaiden protests in Ukraine (whether or not they eventually received that form of government is a different matter). But there is no logical imperative that connects dissatisfaction towards an autocrat with the kind of government and geopolitical order that will replace him, whether in Eastern Europe or elsewhere. Belarus,

Riveting: Dear Comrades! reviewed

Andrei Konchalovsky’s Dear Comrades! is based on a true event and set in 1962 in the Russian city of Novocherkassk where the local factory, the Novocherkassk Electric Locomotive Plant, went on strike. This doesn’t sound especially sexy, I know, but it is superbly acted and so rivetingly told my concentration did not waver for an instant which, given how hard it has been to concentrate lately, is high recommendation indeed. (It wouldn’t be fair to list the films I couldn’t concentrate on, as the problem is likely mine, but… Mank!) Konchalovsky certainly has a wild CV. He has worked with Tarkovsky. He made the wonderfully hypnotic The Postman’s White Nights,

The quick-witted Russian who saved millions of lives

Spectator contributors were asked: Which moment from history seems most significant or interesting? Here is Dominic Cummings’s answer: In the early morning of 26 September 1983, Stanislav Petrov of the Soviet Union’s Air Defence Force was on duty, monitoring his country’s satellite system, when the siren sounded. His computer indicated that the US had just launched five nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles, and protocol required him to notify superiors immediately. Soviet strategy was to ‘launch on warning’, and many in Moscow believed Ronald Reagan was planning a first strike.  But Petrov had a gut feeling this was a false alarm. Five missiles seemed too few, and the system itself was new.

Culture is going underground: meet the rebel army

Among the first to arrive was a Labour grandee. Then others drifted over: academics, musicians, writers, a nurse. They came from different directions, some looking shifty, others excited. The secret meeting point was an inconspicuous pub in north London. Queueing shoppers nearby assumed the growing crowd was waiting to get into the supermarket. In groups of five those gathered were led down a suburban street to a derelict leisure centre. For one night only, the gym had been turned into a makeshift theatre. The audience, of up to 30 people, had congregated to flick a collective V at the social distancing measures, and to watch A Hero of Our Time,

The problem with mystery podcasts like Wind of Change

Did the US secretly write a power ballad in order to bring down the Soviet Union? That’s the question behind Wind of Change, a serial documentary that has topped the podcast charts. It’s the work of an investigative journalist called Patrick Radden Keefe who claims to have once received a tip-off, from an intelligence contact, that the song ‘Wind of Change’ — recorded by the hair metallers Scorpions — was actually a CIA campaign to encourage anti-Soviet uprisings. Now he wants to prove it. This week’s episode, the fourth of eight, takes Keefe to a collectors’ convention in Ohio in pursuit of an internet user called ‘Lance Sputnik’ who creates

In his new piano concerto Thomas Ades’s inspiration has completely dried up

There’s nothing like a good piano concerto and, sad to relate, Thomas Adès’s long-awaited first proper attempt at the genre is nothing like a good piano concerto. Not in the version we heard at its UK première in the Royal Festival Hall, anyway. What a disappointment! Perhaps Adès can rescue it, but he’d have to hack away at the score as ruthlessly as Bruckner dismantling his Third Symphony. That work wasn’t necessarily improved by its revisions but, honestly, almost anything would be an improvement on the first two movements of the 21-minute concerto performed by Kirill Gerstein and the LPO conducted by the composer. You knew there was something wrong

The beauty of Soviet anti-religious propaganda

Deep in the guts of Russian library stacks exists what remains — little acknowledged or discussed — of a dead and buried atheist dream. The dream first took shape among Russian radicals of the mid-19th century, to whom the prospect of mass atheism seemed the key to Russia’s salvation. When Lenin seized power in 1917, the Bolsheviks integrated it into their vision of heaven on earth. To the extent that people in the West have heard of this atheist dream, it has come to them mainly through the voices of its enemies. In 1983, Ronald Reagan put Lenin’s rejection of religion at the heart of Soviet unfreedom in his ‘Evil

Why Roy Cohn is not one of the world’s most evil men

New York   The Roy Cohn documentary Bully. Coward. Victim: the Story of Roy Cohn was successfully screened at the Lincoln Center last week to a full house. Cohn was once Donald Trump’s lawyer, and after the screening the event turned into an anti-Trump show. Had I known this would happen, I would have stayed away, but what is a poor little Greek boy trying to make it in the movies to do? As a young man, Cohn was an aide to Senator McCarthy. He made his name by ensuring that Joel and Ethel Rosenberg, who spied for the Soviet Union, were sent to the electric chair. And here’s the

How a sadistic Kremlin tormented Jewish musicians

The new episode of the Holy Smoke podcast looks at the cruel cat-and-mouse game that the Soviet Union played with Jewish classical musicians at a time when it was sneakily trying to extinguish both their religion and their ethnic identity. It’s prompted by the story of Maria Grinberg, the magnificent Russian Jewish pianist whose recorded legacy was mysteriously suppressed by the authorities, possibly because of her support for Israel; I recently wrote a column about her in the Spectator’s arts pages. My guest is the brilliant young Israeli pianist Ariel Lanyi, who explains how Jewish composers had to find surreptitious ways of referring to their Jewishness – something they could