What an enigma is Russia! Despite a political history that appears to have been characterised by brutal repression, corruption and militarism it has been – and still is – a breeding ground of massive talents in the arts, literature, music, philosophy and science. How can that be? And how is one supposed to come up with a popular characterisation of your stereotypical Russian? Are they cultured sophisticates who have shaped Western European arts and sciences? Are they vodka-swilling brutes, lost in a sea of nostalgic yearning for the Soviet era? Are they oppressed victims of a succession of callous political systems, inured to hardship, imbued with cynicism and devoid of hope? The fact that stereotyping the people of a nation is a lazy route to superficiality has never prevented us doing so, but with Russians, it seems particularly tricky. I know only one Russian personally – a young academic who has a winning smile, a sense of humour and a love of classical music. She has lived and worked in England long enough to be comfortable with both the language and the people – so much so that, when I told her she didn’t seem very Russian, she replied in an accent chillingly reminiscent of that Cold War character Olga, the nasty piece of work in From Russia with Love, “I can do if you want.” Therefore, based on my sample of one, I conclude that Russians are not easy to characterise.
Nevertheless, Putin’s henchmen are doing quite a good job of reinforcing the “nasty” image just now, sending heavies over here to bump off their surplus-to-requirements citizens, then claiming it has nothing to do with them. (Their assertion that the British Secret Service is to blame might just wash in a ‘spy-counter-spy’ scenario but having just witnessed Putin’s pretence of a democratic election, it is more likely that his regime blames the West in order to bolster its ‘strong leadership’ credentials at home.) Whilst it may be beneficial to London’s economy to have Russian oligarchs spending loads of money in the retail sector and lining the pockets of British lawyers with their endless ownership squabbles, we really must insist that they moderate their gangsterish tendencies, at least while guests in our relatively law-abiding country.
The question is how can we insist? Fighting talk of Britain “punching above its weight” is jingoistic, nostalgic nonsense. We moved into the lightweight category soon after WWII, where we have languished – resentfully – ever since. When faced with a powerful adversary, it is useful to cultivate powerful allies – regardless of their moral credentials – and it is with this pragmatic approach that British politics proceeds. Of course, diplomacy is always to be preferred to conflict but in this instance, diplomacy has hit a couple of obstacles. One is Russian insistence that the West is out to do them down. The other is Boris Johnson. Notwithstanding there has been a tit-for-tat expulsion of diplomats, this has achieved nothing so it may be time to adopt subtler tactics such as, for example, those employed in the latest spat between India and Pakistan.
The Indian deputy high commissioner in Islamabad recently complained that he was awoken at 03.00 when someone rang his doorbell and ran off. He insisted it was Pakistan security agents. A few days later, the Pakistani deputy high commissioner in New Delhi was awoken at 03.00 by an identical doorbell-ring-and-run incident. It was, he claimed, an act of retaliation. Now, this kind of low-level tit-for-tat diplomatic activity has its advantages. For one, it is a lot cheaper than expulsions, though just as effective. For another, it is well within the capabilities of Boris, a man well qualified to be leader of a doorbell-ring-and-run gang: we may be confident that he has at least some understanding of what the job entails. Furthermore, the Russians will be extremely annoyed, as it is well known they have no sense of humour.