When I arrived in Shanghai for a few weeks at the end of 1989, it was a heady time. Over the previous months one “iron curtain” state after another had opened its doors to the world, giving birth to newly independent countries that I’d encountered previously only in the books of fairy stories I once read to my children.
By November that great icon of separation, the Berlin Wall, had effectively, if not materially, melted away, as tens of thousands from the Ostzone surged through the checkpoints dividing east from west.
I remembered the tension, some thirty years earlier, when the wall went up and for a short while Russian and American tanks defied each other from either side of the barrier. I had just returned from Frankfurt after visiting my German boyfriend, who was about to start his national service in the Bundeswehr. His family were part of the flotsam of World War II, having fled westward before the advance of Russian troops.
I myself was born during that war, six months after my father was lost at sea while escorting the convoys. In fact, one of my earliest memories is of winning the fancy-dress competition at a street party marking the end of hostilities, wearing the costume of a little Dutch girl made by a kind auntie, and a pair of clogs, painted with Belgian flags, brought back by some soldiering cousin from the war-ravaged continent.
The doodlebugs that fell during those final stages of the war had spared our street in east London, but the terror they inspired must have imprinted itself beneath my skin, as for years afterwards I could not hear a plane fly over during the night without instinctively diving beneath the bedclothes, heart pounding.
Throughout my childhood the spectre of war remained a hazy but constant Doppelgänger on the borders of consciousness, looming closer during the Korean conflict, then receding, before taking centre-stage at the time of the Berlin showdown, in 1961. On the threshold of life, I wept at the prospect of annihilation, unchecked by the stoicism of my mother, who had already seen off two world wars and the loss of a husband.
“It’s all right for you, you’ve already had your life,” I protested callously, as she attempted to reason with me (she was, after all, a whole fifty-four years old).
I watched the ban-the-bomb demonstrations on the television news and, up at Oxford that October, admired from afar the campaigning efforts of Boris Johnson’s mother, Charlotte Fawcett and her flame-haired boyfriend, Wynford Hicks (described jauntily in Cherwell as “Oxford’s own Belisha beacon”).
I did not join the protests: my heartfelt longing for all bombs, and all war, to be abolished took second place to the fear that only possession of a deterrent could prevent the evil Soviets from pressing the nuclear button. We, of course, would never dream of doing such a thing. Well, not again … Not now that it was the H bomb …
A year later, the Cuban missile crisis threw us into renewed panic, but by the following summer Kennedy was visiting West Berlin, bringing comfort to the beleaguered city by declaring that he, too, was “ein Berliner”, and hilarity to sticklers for German grammar, who understood him to have identified himself as a doughnut.
The years passed, and despite all our fears, and a brief resurgence of CND in the early 80s, life went on: and now, as we entered the 1990s, it seemed that a future of untrammelled peace lay before us. There was no more enemy! The Soviet Union was disintegrating! We were the good guys and, as in all the best Hollywood movies, we had won!
Of course, all around us in 1989 Shanghai the bad guys continued to impose their will on a captive population. Only a few months earlier the students here, parading an image of the Statue of Liberty, had narrowly escaped the fate of protesters in Tiananmen Square when the mayor of the city, Zhu Rongji, managed to calm things down before the army could march in and do its worst. But we had no doubt that even here things were changing.
Though enormous hoardings still glorified the Number One (or Two, or Three) Umbrella Factory, small agricultural producers, after selling a fixed percentage of their produce to the government at rock-bottom prices, were allowed to dispose of the rest for their own benefit; in the evenings we ate at a pocket-sized, but highly successful, privately-owned restaurant; increasing numbers of younger people were going abroad, to America, to Australia, to study; and shady wheeler-dealers, armed with the first crude mobile phones, were already finding ways to exploit the opportunities offered by a burgeoning economy.
Across the Huang Po the wastes of Pudong were beginning to sprout the latest in high rises, and everywhere ‘foreign friends’ were feted and begged to speak English by those with an eye to the West. As we celebrated the advent of 1990 at a multi-national gathering of those summoned from the far quarters of the earth to support the Four Modernisations and help usher China towards the 21st century, it seemed that even the most obstinate bastions of a failed ideology must soon be swept along in the triumph of free, peace-loving nations.
Between the far east and the far west, however, there were unfortunately still a few bad guys to be mopped up before heaven could be established on earth, and the following August our television screens were rudely invaded by the First Gulf War. I had little idea what it was all about, beyond the fact that it involved oil and an evil dictator who did nasty things to his own people, but realised unequivocally that Something Must Be Done when an attractive young Arab woman appeared on the BBC to tell us that Iraqi soldiers were throwing tiny babies out of incubators in a Kuwait hospital.
Naturally, then, our intervention was justified, and naturally, being right, we won.
George Bush Senior celebrated the fact by declaring that we now “have before us the opportunity to forge for ourselves and for future generations a New World Order: a world where the rule of law, not the rule of the jungle, governs the conduct of nations” . This one last brief skirmish, I convinced myself, had been nothing but a hiccup. Moist-eyed and grateful, I readjusted my sights in the direction of our imminent Utopia.
When you are not a politically orientated person it takes a long time, and a lot of evidence quietly piling up in the sub-conscious, before you reach the point of questioning your own country’s ultimate rectitude, let alone its universally respected mouthpiece, the BBC. At some point the fraudulent nature of that nice young woman’s claims about babies and incubators was noised abroad, and I became uncomfortably aware that our national broadcaster, if not proved guilty of deliberate propaganda, was not always meticulous in checking the facts: but I reminded myself that Saddam was, after all, the new Hitler, and a certain amount of fog in time of war should be expected. Nevertheless, a chink had been made in my trusting armour.
In 1999, when NATO pilots pounded Belgrade with bombs from 24th March until 8th June () and, as they rained down terror from the skies in retribution for ethnic cleansing, helped the KLA to ethnically cleanse Serbs, Jews, Roma and other minorities from their homes in Kosovo, the chink became a gaping hole.
Surely the point of NATO was to defend its member states, not to pick a side in the civil wars of a country which had never threatened it, and then soak up into its sphere of influence portions of territory detached from the vanquished whole! With my computer now providing a counterpoint to the official “narrative”, I began to look beyond the BBC for a more balanced view.
The new millennium, and the internet, brought confirmation after confirmation of our own war-mongering: the Second Gulf War, conjured up from a concoction of lies and conducted with an inhumanity surpassed only by the continuing death and devastation left in its wake; Hillary Clinton gloating over the funeral pyre of Libya as she proclaimed, “We came, we saw, he died!”; our soldiers sent to be killed and maimed guarding the poppy fields of Afghanistan; our war by proxy on a Syria clinging impudently to its right to determine its own future; our complicity in Saudi Arabia’s assault on Yemen, whose annually accumulating death toll, now in the hundreds of thousands, is not thought important enough to justify calls for an orchestrated hate campaign against the perpetrators or wall-to-wall coverage by the BBC; and now a conflict in Ukraine which might never have had the least grounds for justification had NATO not impinged, and threatened to impinge yet more, on the buffer zone along Russia’s borders informally agreed after the dissolution of the USSR – or, indeed, had it not given the government of a divided country the backing which encouraged it to oppress a significant portion of its own population while cocking a snook at its nuclear-armed neighbour.
In many ways, the war in Ukraine is a mirror image of the Yugoslav conflict of 1999: in both cases a state which had been arbitrarily patched together from people of different religions and ethnicities came under strain, with minority areas seeking to break away from an uncongenial central regime; in both cases tensions were increased by the presence of extremist elements and wilfully exacerbated by Western interests; and in both cases foreign powers – in the case of Yugoslavia, NATO, in the case of Ukraine, Russia – intervened on behalf of a chosen faction, with the stated aim of preventing persecution and ethnic cleansing.
The difference is that, in Ukraine, Russia has additional legitimate concerns regarding its own security, given the encroachments of NATO forces around its borders, whereas Yugoslavia posed not the least suspicion of a threat to any member of the “defensive” NATO alliance. In Ukraine, as in Yugoslavia, where Serbia, the most ethnically diverse part of the country, but imprudently friendly to Russia, was attacked and turned towards the West, NATO’s objective appears to be the isolation and further disempowerment of its old Cold-War antagonist, with a view to regime change in Moscow itself.
The other comparison evoked by the present situation is October 1962, when we waited with bated breath, praying that Khrushchev would remove his missiles from Cuba before Kennedy pressed the nuclear button. That situation was resolved by the quid pro quo of America removing its own missiles from Turkey and Italy, while the USSR pulled its offending hardware off Cuban soil and agreed to respect the Monroe Doctrine.
In 1962 the two sides were evenly matched and peace could be arranged without conflict. Besides, at that time neither was keen to become involved in full-scale hostilities. This time round, all the evidence suggests that NATO was only too eager to instigate a proxy war with a Russia which it had deliberately forced into a corner, regardless of the threat posed to world peace.
The CIA, it seems, had been revivifying and nurturing Nazi elements in the Ukrainian population for some 70 years, and it was these extremists who formed the backbone of the Ukrainian troops, armed and trained by NATO members, that were apparently preparing simultaneous attacks on Donetsk and Crimea on 8th March 2022.
Without any effective bargaining counters to offer, Russia’s solution, if it was to avoid yet more unfriendly missiles being installed along its borders, not to mention the potential for becoming embroiled in serious conflict in defence of its navy’s sole warm-water base, was to forestall these attacks by launching a military operation which would leave it in a better position for negotiating a long-term settlement of the issues at stake: but the Western powers, though from the start it has been clear that prolonging the crisis can result only in unnecessary bloodshed at best and escalation beyond the present field of conflict at worst, have shown little interest in encouraging negotiation, choosing instead to inflame a potentially disastrous situation by continuing to ship in arms and encouragement to their proxy combatants and whipping up a crazed racist frenzy in their populations, who are now baying for Russian blood in the same way that their forebears demanded the blood of demonised Germans during World War I.
Nothing more can be expected from the powerful, who have never shown any care for the hoi polloi: but has the instinct for self-preservation among the prospective cannon fodder really degenerated so much during the sixty years since we applauded Russia and America for having the common sense to acknowledge each other’s interests and avert the threat of a needless, all-consuming war?
Why are the naively trusting public falling so willingly under the spell of media propagandists who are all too obviously hypersensitising them to unlimited compassion for brave little Ukraine while glossing over the plight of the brave little breakaway republics?
How is it that we have forgotten the truth which was so evident, back in 1962, to people who vividly remembered the bloody reality of guns and bombs and the fate of Hiroshima and Nagasaki: the indisputable truth that “to jaw jaw is always better than to war war”?
It’s not as if there were nothing to talk about.
Anyone who takes the trouble to examine the facts can easily ascertain that Russia has been attempting for years to get round the table and thrash out the question of NATO’s ongoing absorption of former Soviet states and the angst-inducing awareness of increasing numbers of missiles stationed along its borders. Only after almost all of the neutral buffer zone informally agreed by the West had been absorbed into NATO – in 1999 Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic; in 2004 Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia – did Russia draw its line in the sand and insist upon its own comparatively modest Monroe Doctrine, when it thwarted the accession of Georgia to NATO and made it clear that Ukraine, too, was strictly off-limits.
Waiting in the supermarket queue the other day, I overheard the checkout assistant discussing the ongoing drama with a customer: the civilian casualties, the poor refugees, the wickedness of Putin. For them, it was simply a question of Zelensky right, Putin wrong, as they watched this latest real-life soap opera replace the equally deceptive Covid saga on their TV screens, cheering the heroes and booing the villains selected for them by the directors of the show.
Even more depressing, the windows of our local community group have turned yellow and blue with children’s paintings of Ukrainian flags and “I (heart) Ukraines”. Even children, it seems, are being recruited by sweeping propaganda to validate our government’s ruthless prolongation of slaughter in a country which the little flag-wavers had not even heard of a few weeks ago, and which most of their parents would be hard-pressed to find on a map.
Carefully moulded by the insistent voices of press and television, public opinion here in the UK appears to have decided that the total humiliation of Russia is the only acceptable outcome of the conflict. But what would that same public opinion be if mainstream journalists, instead of refusing to acknowledge the fact that every day of warfare increases the threat of escalation, stopped acting as cheerleaders for a “fight to the death of the last Ukrainian”, and reported the present conflict even-handedly?
What if the media were to give a voice to those on both sides who are suffering: whose homes and neighbourhoods are being destroyed; who, already exhausted by eight years of bombardment in a bloody civil war, long only for peace negotiations to begin, or who are being prevented at gunpoint by their own forces from entering humanitarian corridors and held under siege as human shields?
What if our “thought leaders” pointed out that the sanctions we are judgementally imposing on Russia will do their alleged target little harm while cruelly exposing our own inability to provide ourselves with either food or energy, and leaving more and more of us reduced to begging alms from an all-powerful State?
What if they stopped telling us who to support, and pleaded on behalf of all the ordinary people throughout the world who wish only to live their lives free from daily terror ? Perhaps without the deliberate fanning of partisan passions, those who are now banishing Tchaikovsky from concert halls and attempting to remove Dostoyevsky from university syllabuses would be calling instead for an immediate ceasefire and negotiations. Perhaps, faced with honest media coverage, even our foreign secretary might be persuaded that it is not her job to urge British subjects to go and kill Russians or to chivvy other countries into even more aggressive sanctions, but to do all she can to foster and help maintain a lasting settlement.
Instead, we are likely to be bludgeoned with yet more emotive propaganda as NATO continues to ship in arms and mercenaries, threatening world peace with a grinding war of attrition. It is likely that even now false flag operations are being planned with a view to intensifying Russophobia and drumming up popular support for a wider conflict – a ploy which was used to further the cause of regime-change in Syria, and subsequently exposed.
In the face of such chicanery, the shocking imagery on our screens will not be questioned in a country where anything that contradicts the official “narrative” is dubbed “fake news”: and things can only get worse if the Online Safety Bill now going through parliament is passed, opening up endless opportunities to silence and punish those who might “harm” the public by offering them uncensored information or an alternative point of view.
No doubt even in the far-off days of the Cold War we were subjected to propaganda, though it was less potent before outsize television screens dominated every sitting-room and technology’s power to produce illusory scenarios was hardly tapped; when, too, we had not yet grown accustomed to spending so much time in a virtual world, where bombed-out buildings rise intact from the ashes and the dead spring to life again at the flick of a finger.
It obviously helped that back then, before social media threatened ignominy and isolation to anyone daring to contest the “single source of truth”, nobody was afraid to argue their case or to seek a more balanced assessment of the facts by playing devil’s advocate.
In those days, above all, our own recent experience ensured that there was an understanding and abhorrence of the realities of war which was shared even by someone only as tangentially affected as myself.
In 1962, when a mere seventeen years separated us from the bloodbath in which Britain had lost its million and Russia its tens of millions, there was no appetite either here or there for further conflict. In the UK, we heaved a sigh of relief when common sense prevailed and the two Mr Ks struck a realistic bargain.
Today, as both parliament and the State-funded media continue to push a public with no experience of the brutalities of actual warfare into demanding, from their seat in the grandstand, nothing less than outright victory for brave little Ukraine, it seems that the powerful interests which appear to be set on prolonging hostilities will continue to enjoy all the popular support they could possibly desire.