After years of serving in and observing Russia from afar, a former diplomat explains the importance of understanding and respecting the nation and its leadership for what it is today, and the prospects for East-West detente.
In my first Australian foreign service posting, between 1969 and 1971, I spent two remarkable years in Moscow. I was the junior diplomat in the very small Australian embassy. For the next 26 years, I pursued my career as an Australian diplomat and foreign policy analyst.
I went back briefly to Moscow in 1985 for the funeral of Konstantin Chernenko and again in 1990 for an international diplomatic conference in Vladivostok. It was such a sad experience in 1990. The Soviet system by now showed unmistakeable symptoms of decay, of loss of self belief.
I did not go back to Russia again during my diplomatic career, which ended in 1998 after postings as Australian ambassador to Poland (1991-94) and Cambodia (1994-97). In 1991, when Australian ambassador to Poland, I watched the failed coup attempt in Moscow in August; the rise to power of Boris Yeltsin as president of a new non-communist country, now called the Russian Federation; and the final dissolution of the Soviet Union and the resignation of Gorbachev on 31 December.
As Vladimir Putin and his nation became stronger and more confident, the West’s condemnations escalated. In particular, after the Crimean referendum’s support for reunification with Russia in March 2014; after Kiev’s massive military attack on the Eastern provinces launched in April 2014; and after the unexplained shooting down of the international civilian airliner MH17 over Eastern Ukraine in July 2014, I realised that I had to listen to my own voice.
I began to cherish the hope of seeing Russia again and making my own judgement of what was happening there.
Unknown even to myself, I was shedding years—actually, decades—of the strongest Cold War anti-Russian mental pressure. The first steps were the hardest. I remember the feeling almost of treason, of disloyalty to my country, when I first began to read Russian news agency websites like rt.com, and when I started to follow on mid.ru Maria Zakharova’s brilliant weekly foreign ministry briefings.
I was also becoming more open to the commentaries of Western dissident journalists, people like Robert Fisk and Seymour Hersh, and Australian journalists like John Pilger and Julian Assange. The internet gave me the freedom to read such writers.
As far as I can tell, this was an independent self-initiated process. I do not recall anyone ever urging me to seek out the Russian viewpoint. In that well-known American idiom, I was ‘mugged by reality’. So much of what I was reading and evaluating from the new unfamiliar sources made sense.
I was moving to an alternative world view. Once one starts on this path, it is hard to stop in the middle, to remain the ‘even-handed diplomat’ (“On the one hand … on the other hand.”) that I formerly used to be.
It was now necessary to choose whom to believe.
However, I found, during my visit in 2016 and again now, a new Russia, a vibrant young country with its own values —some Soviet, some pre-Soviet, and some entirely new. But some of my former colleagues do not seem able to perceive this; they seem to need to see modern Russia through a critical negative lens as a Soviet successor state.
I have learned the importance of ’signifiers’, in conversation and in writing on matters to do with Russia. Here, my early training in translating Soviet articles has stood me in good stead. I learned from studying the Soviet press how journalists were obliged to include ritual phrases condemning the West, to assure editors and readers of their ideological reliability, before going on to write interesting and possibly true comments about current East-West policy issues. We learned to filter out such phrases as necessary ideological signifiers.
It is precisely the same in the West now. If a Western article about Russia does not contain prominent language to the effect that Putin is a thief or corrupt profiteer or hooligan, it is unlikely to be publishable in Western mainstream media or even in liberal intellectual websites.
As someone who came late in life to love Russia, I wanted to try to convey to my Western colleagues why this country deserves to be understood and respected for what it now is. Nobody should lecture to, or be afraid of, or laugh at this country.
Tony Kevin is an emeritus fellow at the Australian National University and was Australia’s ambassador to Poland (1991-94) and to Cambodia (1994-97). He is the author of five books, most recently Return to Moscow.
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