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Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Old Allies

The generally negative view that is taken of Queen Mary I of England - "Bloody Mary" [Tudor] - does not readily accommodate the range of her interests and activities. My own perspective on her reign was dramatically developed in the still-communist Moscow Kremlin when I saw a magnificent exhibit of English silver, diplomatic gifts from the Queen to the then obscure and isolated emergent state of Muscovy. English navigators had made their way to the northern port of Murmansk, then Russia's only outlet to the seas. Mary's sister and successor Elizabeth intermittently pursued trade and alliance with Russia; while ducking a marriage proposal from Ivan the Terrible. The travails of British politics in the first half of the seventeenth century weakened the political aspect of the interaction, but that did not inhibit the development of the 'English village' outside the walls of Moscow. The inhabitants of that settlement represented the first 'window to the west' that was accessible to the young prince, then co-Tsar Peter.

When Peter manoeuvred himself into the sole sovereignty, and had established his autocracy absolutely on the state, he travelled west to test the tales that he had heard of western society, civilisation and - above all - technology. He visited all the major west-European states, and spent long enough in each to gain an image of its military preparations and its specialist skills in science and manufacturing. In several cases he demanded to be put through a crash apprenticeship in a skill that appealed to him; in between talks with monarchs and challenging private seminars with such luminaries as Isaac Newton. Besides huge height and outrageously greedy manners [for experiences, food, drink and sex] he impressed everyone with his intelligence and his grasp of concepts.He returned to Russia stuffed with data, plans and the ambition to make Russia an advanced western power. Successful military action secured him a toehold on the Gulf of Finland, and there on a collection of sandy islands he set about building a great capital city. St Petersburg  was typically described as Peter's 'window to the west' but more importantly he saw it as the exemplar for what he hoped to make the whole of Russia. Right down to the Revolution of 1917, though it grew as a European city [albeit with an extreme climate and a restrictive police regime] of great distinction.

Trade and technology transfer with Britain, and west Europe generally, remained very important to imperial Russia; but a specific and unique role for Britain arose when Tsar Alexander I split from Napoleon's hegemonic European empire and reopened the Tudor route from Britain to the Russian northern ports. Wellington and Kutusov defeated the French and their satellites starting from two corners of Europe, and they eventually met in conquered Paris. The obvious synergy of Britain and Russia wore thin during the 'great game' when Russia advanced its frontier through central Asia towards Afghanistan, where the British Raj in India repeatedly failed to capture control. The absurd Crimean war was the only open conflict between the two and by 1900 Russia and Britain were moving towards an alliance to stem the perceived Napoleonic ambitions of the Kaiser, who was a first cousin both the the Tsar and King George V. The war undermined the monarchy and Russia passed into the purgatory of 'permanent revolution' which was interrupted by the second world war.

The old alliance of convenience [and necessity] was reactivated for the war period, then was quickly abandoned in the cold war. Since the collapse of communism Britain has been at best half-hearted in its attempts to develop effective links with the Russian Federation. Some British firms including  farm management companies have done very well in Russia, as have  relatively few providers of financial services: but the British government has been overcautious in its engagement with  the regime. This is stupid. Incidents where Russian agencies have acted in a pre-liberation manner against opponents of the regime on British soil have been outrageous and demand a powerful reaction: but not self-harming, po-faced  isolationism. Putin is going to win the forthcoming election, and it will be a genuine result from a flawed system. Whether he will thereafter undermine his position by megalomaniac self-advertisement, or learn to present himself in a more statesmanlike manner, will be more important to the British press than it should be to the Foreign Office.

It is worth reflecting that democracy has been economically disastrous for Britain; while Putin and his cronies have stabilised the chaos to which their predecessors had brought the country as Boris Yeltsin sank into alcoholic incomprehension.Western Economists had applied their naive models of markets to the crisis of the economy that Gorbachev had been unable to rescue. Privatisation was a disaster: at first. It enabled sharp elbowed fixers to become the 'oligarchs' who personally controlled huge industries and agglomerations of financial power. Cometh the hour, cometh the man. Putin worked out a unique route to controlling their firms in the public interest. To take the businesses back into soviet-style state control would be a disaster: the Gorbachev experience proved that. To nationalise them and re-sell them could either be a re-run of the Yeltsin disaster or hand the facilities over the foreign corporations. So it was preferable to make the oligarchs keep control - and responsibility - for huge industries; and lock them in to the state. Some have been required to serve as provincial governors, some in other state service; some have been allowed to live abroad provided their firms conform to government requirements; and the recalcitrant few who challenged the system have been deprived of their assets and in some conspicuous cases of their liberty.

It is not a pretty system; it is not democratic in the 'Anglo-Saxon' sense; but it serves its purpose. Russia can build nuclear power plant: by contrast Britain sold Westinghouse and refused a modest loan to Forgemasters. Russia can design and build military aircraft; Britain takes a diminishing role in precarious international projects and has destroyed the independent civil aviation sector. Russia can build warships and submarines: so can Britain - now - but that capability is under threat. Russia develops its plant in steel, aluminium and other sectors; alien owners are reducing the capacity of their shrunken British equivalents. Russian organisation and management are still crude and inefficient; but business education and management training are spreading rapidly. The educational system is conservative, but young adults are highly literate, articulate and numerate; as are graduates over the whole age spectrum. Pensions are modest, but pensioners are protected and caring interpersonal relationships predominate. Alcoholism is a national crisis and the low birth rate is a cause of alarm. Medical facilities need massive investment and the training of appropriate staff: but everything in slowly and patchily improving. Everybody knows what destruction communism wrought; and they also know how ruinous their crash-course in market capitalism was: they did not starve under post-war communism, but millions came close to that in 1991-2.

The British people is instinctively reluctant to surrender sovereignty to a 'Napoleonic' European Union. When asked 'what is the alternative to subjection in the EU?' there are several potential responses: a return to Commonwealth preference, maybe: or membership of an 'outer circle' of the European Common Market, around the core Union, with Norway, Switzerland, Russia: and maybe Turkey. That prospect is as promising as subjugation to the EU is unpalatable.

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