A poster of Russian President Vladimir Putin is used as target practice along a trench on the frontline with Russia-backed separatists near Zolote village, in the Lugansk region. Picture Credit: ANATOLII STEPANOV/AFP via Getty Images

As war rages we must not give in to hate

Human lives escape the simple enmities of war and nationalism

Artillery Row

Just as they were once designed to do, the Olympic Games appear to have nurtured a lull in inter-State enmity that didn’t last long. Vladimir Putin’s Russia waited barely four days after their end before initiating an invasion nobody on the planet except Russia’s current leader appears to want. Even a retired Soviet era general has recently condemned the invasion as appallingly wasteful and unjustified. Invading Ukraine is patently a personal, not a national ambition. 

Growing up in the shadow of war

I grew up, like Vladimir Putin, in the immediate aftermath of the Great Patriotic War. Something I was subtly aware of at the time not just because my father survived warfare in the Middle East, as a trooper in the Household Cavalry, and my mother the Blitz. But because the countryside I inhabited was permeated by the detritus of war; vast empty airfields and sinister, concrete pill boxes on quiet stretches of placid rivers. 

I remember as a small boy being thrilled by the discovery of a discarded British Tommy’s helmet, complete with camouflage netting, in a ditch one day. A boyish treasure only to be outdone by the fistful of shining .303 machine gun bullets that one of my brothers fished out of a sparkling local brook on another of those day-long country rambles that dominated my early childhood. 

He carefully prised the pointed, silver bullets free of their brass cases then tipped out the contents; what looked like dozens of tiny little, compact rubber bands, to form a small mound on the hearth, next to the open fire we still had in those days, before putting a match to it. The result was visually spectacular, in not exactly explosive. My parents never knew.

As I got older, studying literature and history, I found myself often puzzling about how an ordinary and deeply religious man like my father, had ended up trying to kill other ordinary men. It puzzles me every bit as much, as I write now. 

When it came, the Vietnam War seemed curiously foreign, a weirdly unwinnable conflict about politics of which I was ignorant, and which TV rendered excessively far away, alien. Vietnam entered my head inseparably from pop music, teenage military fashion and confused messages about America itself, I had absolutely no grasp of. 

Russia was never Uzbekistan, Georgia or Ukraine any more than Canada or Australia were ever Britain

Later, British soldiers went to war once again in an equally distant battlefield, this time in The Falklands and again it all felt remote, an obscurely military matter. Then British and American forces went to war yet again in the Middle East, including a handful of young men I’d actually taught, so this time it felt closer to home. I recall one of them explaining on leave how his troop had had to paint union jacks on the top of their vehicles to try and stop US planes from killing them, a story which resonated with me as my own father had discreetly shared his opinion of “Yanks” as “ill-disciplined.” If anything Afghanistan, post 9/11 was even more difficult to respond to. The best I could do was wonder why no one seemed to have learned anything from Rudyard Kipling’s Kim

But this essay isn’t about recent wars or even fictional “weapons of mass destruction,” a phrase that reeks of tawdry journalism. It is about what’s involved in seriously contemplating war with another nation state in 2022, when you are simply a citizen of one of those states. Because that’s what I’ve recently found myself increasingly doing, and being frightened by.  

I have no military training and no interest in gaining any should the need arise. Yet I believe my sense of national pride and belief in democratic values are every bit as ardent as my father’s. So why am I so profoundly uncomfortable with the simple idea that my nation might once again find itself at war? What’s so different? 

From Russia with love 

One reason I know, without any doubt, is because unlike my father, for whom the word “German” was something necessarily abstract and wholly unknown, the word “Russian” for me, is not.  

In that astonishingly brief historical window, when the old Soviet Union crumbled under the weight of seven decades of communist cruelty and ineptitude, I visited the country, twice. I stipulate “Russia” because of course Russia was never Uzbekistan, Georgia or Ukraine any more than Canada or Australia were ever Britain. An empire is an empire, whatever tools you put on its flag.

Those two visits were extraordinarily memorable in so many ways. I came away from the first one thinking how could any political party be so completely inept, as to run a place of such obvious natural and cultural beauty into the ground. There were long queues of weary, patient people waiting to buy bread in Moscow and St Petersburg, and the hotel food was, funnily enough, like something you would expect in wartime; rationed, nutritionally poor and of doubtful origin. There was however, ample Georgian white wine, I’ll grant you that. But even in Soviet Moscow it was Georgian, not Russian. 

I taught myself a smattering of Russian before I went but it was enough to show me very quickly that Russians have a distinctly British sense of humour. When I was lifted off my feet by the sheer weight of commuters scrambling onto an escalator in the St Petersburg underground, I suggested to our Intourist guide that if someone was to slip and fall, dozens might be killed. “Yes,” she smiled, “but we’d never know.” Crossing a handsome square in Moscow where automobiles were apparently still rare, seasonal visitors, I politely intervened in a heated discussion between a policeman and an English woman who was looking increasingly frightened, not least because she spoke no Russian and he appeared to be insisting that the traffic offence she had committed was so heinous, it required her to hand over her passport. Five minutes later and he was patting me on the back and beaming, because my Russian had apparently been good enough to apologise on behalf of both parties, which was all either really wanted.  

I still feel as puzzled by and culturally different from America

I learned on that trip that at St Petersburg university they teach American and at Moscow, English. The kind of English that took me back to my post war years and the BBC’s Watch with Mother. I also learned that however many Orthodox churches the revolution had destroyed, there still seemed to be one on every street corner and inside it exactly the kind of respectful, elderly woman in a headscarf, quietly cleaning or arranging flowers, you would expect to see in a Catholic church anywhere in Ireland or Italy. Faith it seems, is harder to destroy than bricks and mortar.  

Moscow is closer than DC 

I’m also willing to entertain the idea that the affinity I felt with the word “Russia” on those two visits, decades ago now, was enhanced by my literary studies. Anna Karenina is after all, just Honoria Dedlock in furs, Gogol’s government inspector would feel right at home in the Office of Circumlocution and any relationship more quintessentially English than that between Turgenev’s fathers and sons, would be hard to find.   

In more recent years that affinity was strengthened because my youngest daughter was a gymnast and from the age of six to sixteen, spent around 20 hours every week in the company of two elite Russian gymnastic coaches. Everything I saw on my trips to the Soviet Union that drove home cultural similarities and echoes between the nation I called home and this other nation called Russia, I witnessed again and again in these two charming, kind and funny foreign nationals.  

But there was a remarkable juxtaposition about that first trip which lingers and makes me particularly uneasy about what might happen in the coming months. I spent just one day in England between flying out of St Petersburg and landing at Dulles airport in Washington. It was my first trip ever to the US. I’d been to Canada several times, but never the United States. On my first night there I ate out and ordered a “large beer.” I naively expected something along the lines of a pint. The waitress brought back what in England would be described as a fruit bowl. A guy who was dining with myself and my friend, laughed when I paid by Visa, apparently because it wasn’t an American Express card. Again and again on that first visit I found I would have to explain something I’d said, because I hadn’t been understood the first time. Not something I ever had to do once with English speaking Russians.  

Several trips later, including one that involved 13,000 miles of driving and around 21 states from Washington to California, north to Canada and then back to Washington via Montana and the mid-west, and I still feel as puzzled by and culturally different from America, as I did that first night. After stays in California and Washington I formulated a little rule of thumb that helped me get by. When an American told me they were a writer, I realised it was wise to assume they just wanted to be one and if one told me they were a film producer, it was best to imagine they worked in a video store. Years after that first visit I read Fanny Trollope’s wonderful book, Domestic Manners of the Americans, where I discovered she had had exactly the same problem — in 1832. 

Now please don’t misunderstand or leap to that inviting false dichotomy. I’m not for one moment advocating deserting NATO. Indeed I’ve striven to avoid making this the kind of amateur politicised piece you’d expect from a windbag of a newspaper or a keyboard warrior without a passport, either side of the Atlantic, or in it. All I’m trying to do is understand my own personal feelings about a situation that is itself trying to force me to take sides in an appalling conflict I have, as a passport holding British Citizen and like Colonel-General Leonid Ivashov, no desire to see continue. 

If this war seems inconceivably terrible to me, then I feel my dilemma and horror must be felt and magnified a thousandfold by millions of ordinary Russian and Ukrainian citizens. Which leads me onto the one hopeful thought I have to cling onto. Maybe, just maybe, we have finally reached a point in the West at least, where it is simply impossible for ephemeral politicians to exert their will over an entire citizenry, in pursuit of an enmity that citizenry does not feel. Perhaps that’s a naïve hope. 

But if anyone in NATO or here in Britain, believes they can convince me to think of the word Russian in the same way my father must have thought of the word German, in order for him to join up and participate in blood-letting, they will fail. More significantly perhaps, so in time will Vladimir Putin. 

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover