During my early years with the Foreign Office in the 1980s, UK/Russia relations had sunk to dismally low levels following the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. In 1982 or thereabouts, the then British Ambassador in Moscow sent a trenchant diplomatic dispatch to London, arguing that it made no sense for diplomatic relations between two Permanent Members of the UN Security Council to be reduced to frosty exchanges at Third Secretary level.
Then it all changed. Leonid Brezhnev, Yuri Andropov and then Konstantin Chernenko all died in quick succession. A younger man, Mikhail Gorbachev, took charge in Moscow. World politics started to change for the better at a giddy pace. Glasnost! Perestroika! The very fact that Gorbachev came across as a normal human being was in itself extraordinary after long decades of drab, anonymous Soviet leadership. Foreign Secretary Sir Geoffrey Howe even called a meeting of senior officials to lament the fact that the Soviet leader was getting better press coverage in the UK than the US President.
The FCO’s Policy Planning staff – led by Pauline Neville-Jones with myself as FCO speechwriter – sprang into action. We wrote papers exploring what all this talk of reform really meant: were those tough Soviet communists serious about giving up one-party rule? Were prospering Fat Russians more or less dangerous to Western interests than resentful Thin Russians?
MI6 arranged for me to meet former KGB officer and top Soviet defector Oleg Gordievsky. We talked about Gorbachev’s campaign to cut Russians’ ruinous vodka consumption and boost Soviet productivity. Gordievsky said that Gorbachev believed that if the Soviet economy stopped running on vodka and tried petrol instead, the Engine of Socialism would propel the country to a bright future.
‘In other words,’ I said, ‘Gorbachev believes in witchcraft?’
‘Exactly – he believes in witchcraft!’ came his response.
In early 1987, Pauline Neville-Jones and I visited Moscow for what seemed like trail-blazing bilateral policy planning talks. I had expected Moscow to be rather like communist Belgrade but bigger and better. It was startling to see how poorly stocked the shops were.
Near Red Square, at the heart of the vast Soviet space, there was almost literally nothing to buy. Lenin Clothing Factory No 18 had failed to cooperate with Patriotic Button Factory No 7 when designing simple garments. Those stories of exploding Soviet TVs had sounded like crass CIA propaganda back in London: peering at the meagre collection of bafflingly primitive Soviet home entertainment devices made them seem all too credible.
In mid-1991, after four years in South Africa, I returned to London as Deputy Head of the FCO’s Soviet Department under Rod (now Sir Rod) Lyne. Events in Moscow were unpredictable. Popular (populist?) leader Boris Yeltsin, representing the Russian Soviet Republic, was trying to wrestle control away from the central USSR establishment. In late July, Rod Lyne departed on holiday, leaving me running the Department. ‘Knowing my luck, there’ll be a coup while you’re away!’ I said to him.
And there was. On 19 August, eight top Communist Party diehards proclaimed a state of emergency aimed at ousting Gorbachev. Boris Yeltsin famously stood on a tank and called upon Russia’s citizens to resist.
These events went some way above my own pay grade (and competence). Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd called an emergency meeting of the FCO top brass to work out what it all meant. None of us knew. So we sat in the Foreign Secretary’s office and watched live TV coverage from CNN instead.
By the end of the week the coup had collapsed under the weight of its own stupidity. Frantic diplomacy in the following weeks and months saw Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania grab back their independence. We organised a departmental sweepstake on how soon other Soviet republics might follow their lead. Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia looked pretty safe bets to be independent in the next year or two; others might follow, but at a much slower pace.
We all got it completely wrong. At the end of 1991 the Soviet Union keeled over and fell to pieces.
Help! Mass starvation loomed! Whitehall committees popped up to help coordinate assistance to Russia and these other 14 brand-new countries. I led a stout free-market rearguard action against dumping surplus EU butter stocks on Russia, arguing that such policies would wreck whatever nascent chances Russians might have to produce dairy products for themselves. Mass starvation did not occur.
I was posted to Moscow as Political Councillor in 1993. We watched this giant country start to get back on its feet. After all Gorbachev’s boasting about ‘reform,’ it was still impossible to buy bananas across most of the Soviet Union’s 11 time zones. When he fell from power the free-market’s invisible hand solved the problem. For the first time since the Russian Revolution, Moscow had a decent supply of bananas, to the point where walking was dangerous because of so many discarded banana skins.
The changes seemed momentous to those of us privileged to watch them. A lorry carrying petrol arrived at the Embassy once a week to allow us to fill jerry cans to top up our cars. Then the lorry was permanently parked along the riverbank near Gorky Park, so we could fill up whenever we wanted. Then an actual free-standing petrol pump was installed. A cheap prefabricated small garage building appeared. The petrol pump attendants got baseball caps and rudimentary uniforms. Finally, one of the first private garages in Russia in some seven decades was up and running. And so on.
Some people now grumble that the West imposed ‘shock therapy’ on Russia. Not so. There was neither enough shock, nor enough therapy.
Those of us working in Western capitals on these momentous events had two basic problems. We had never really understood just how bad communism was, or how capitalism worked. This skewed our reform support efforts. We put too much focus on privatisation and far too little on transforming the legal and philosophical base of state power.
After World War II, the Allies ran wide-ranging programmes of ‘de-Nazification’ aimed at helping German officials start thinking in decent, modern ways. No ‘de-Communistification’ was even contemplated for Russia and the other republics, partly because so many western useful idiots had rather liked communism in theory and argued away its ludicrous failings in practice. Above all, we had not defeated Russia in war and were in no position to impose programmes of this sort.
This translated into a major blunder, namely not to insist on the departure of the mouldering Lenin from Red Square. This could have been bundled through in those early chaotic months after the USSR dissolved. But we missed our chance. Imagine how modern Germany might look if the body of Adolf Hitler were still displayed in Berlin as some sort of bizarre shrine.
The fact that Lenin lingers on means that Russia’s break with its communist past has been ambiguous and uncertain. This shows in Russia’s politics today, with different political tendencies led by Vladimir Putin himself flirting with Soviet-style iconography.
Still, there is no going back to Soviet-style communism. Tens of millions of Russians are now on the Internet and finding new ways to think about government and transparency. The urban web-savvy children of the Russian middle-classes want things to change.
It took some 70 years for communism to reduce Russia to the total paralysis I saw in 1987. It must take some five decades to put the damage right and finally flush communist thinking and old-style KGB power-players from the system. By 2020 we will be over half-way through that long, slow journey.