I was taught to hate Russians. My grandparents, on both sides of the family, were solidly patriotic Ukrainians and, although they arguably suffered more at the hands of the Nazis (they all did forced labour in Germany), it was the Soviets who occupied their homeland.
The stories they told us had been passed down the generations and, although myself and my brother loved to hear them and took them seriously, it didn’t stop us befriending Russians on holiday in Bulgaria. My grandparents were justified in their prejudice. We had no such excuse.
True enough, there are many things to dislike about Russians. The rampant homophobia and antisemitism that seems to show no sign of abating, after hundreds of years of ignorance and prejudice, particularly jars with our English liberal sensibilities.
The Russian economy, a particularly corrupt form of corporatism, is largely responsible for the hideous disparity of wealth in the country. The mega-rich brush shoulders with the destitute with no visible middle class to buffer them.
Russian history, too, reads like a never ending Greek tragedy – with opportunity after opportunity to mould Mother Russia into a constitutional state governed by the rule of law dashed time after time since at least the reign of Peter the Great. This great dream has still not materialised.
And yet there is so much in the Russian character, paradoxical as it is, to laud and admire. Russians’ hardiness and resilience, their iron discipline, their commitment to excellence in the high arts, their camaraderie and ability to forge a common identity out of 27 languages and 160 ethnic groups.
But, most of all, I think it is their independence I admire. Not since the days of the Mongols’ Golden Horde has the land of the Muscovites been beholden to any foreign power. Its church, too, has been independent since the fifteenth century – well before that of England.
Russians have destroyed anyone who threatened their sovereignty. Mongols, Tatars, Swedes, Frenchmen, Germans – all have been crushed under the Russian heel. Even today, Russia owes nothing to any foreign power or international organisation. Its anti-gay laws and support for the Syrian government, however distasteful, are symptomatic of this disregard for Western opinion and the ‘international community’.
This is important because it is that same independence which allows the Russian Federation to provide Edward Snowden with asylum. It is, of course, merely a tactical sleight against Russia’s auld enemy, the United States, and an authoritarian state harbouring a US/UK mass-surveillance whistleblower is a touch beyond ironic.
But Russia has the power and, more importantly, the will to do whatever it likes in a way this country cannot even dream of – shackled as we are by the chains of the EU, UN, IMF and even our own sense of fair play (France has no trouble ignoring Brussels directives it doesn’t like, for example). I firmly believe this to be a source of good in the world and actually a continuation of what, historically, allowed a cluster of states on the edge of the Eurasian landmass to dominate the world – the power of the alternative.
Russia may be harbouring Snowden for purely cynical and self-interested reasons but this is exactly what encouraged technical and cultural innovation in Europe and also what allowed Jews to flourish there from the time of the Renaissance. As finance was one of the few professions Jews were allowed to practice in Medieval Europe, they became something of an asset to aspiring princes, particularly as Christians were forbidden from lending money to each other.
Unfortunately this didn’t stop them being persecuted in certain kingdoms but, in the spirit of competition, rival princes were happy to tolerate them (and it was only ever toleration) in order to snap up a revenue stream discarded by their persecuting neighbours. None of it is morally ideal but it had three effects; a financial revolution in Europe, the development of tolerance as a European virtue and, more immediately, relative safety and security for European Jews.
Russia is likewise benefiting Europe and the world, entirely in its own interests, by harbouring a man persecuted for doing a service to his fellow citizens. Such a thing would not be possible under the kind of world government envisaged by internationalists nor, indeed, by a binding web of international organisations. Russia is the living embodiment of national sovereignty – and long may it continue.