My latest piece for DIPLOMAT is out. It recalls in some detail my happy time in the Foreign Office dealing with the end of the USSR and then the Russian transition from communism:
I was posted to Moscow as Political Councillor in 1993. We watched this giant country start to get back on its feet. After all Gorbachev’s boasting about ‘reform,’ it was still impossible to buy bananas across most of the Soviet Union’s 11 time zones. When he fell from power the free-market’s invisible hand solved the problem. For the first time since the Russian Revolution, Moscow had a decent supply of bananas, to the point where walking was dangerous because of so many discarded banana skins.
The changes seemed momentous to those of us privileged to watch them. A lorry carrying petrol arrived at the Embassy once a week to allow us to fill jerry cans to top up our cars. Then the lorry was permanently parked along the riverbank near Gorky Park, so we could fill up whenever we wanted. Then an actual free-standing petrol pump was installed.
A cheap prefabricated small garage building appeared. The petrol pump attendants got baseball caps and rudimentary uniforms. Finally, one of the first private garages in Russia in some seven decades was up and running. And so on.
Some people now grumble that the West imposed ‘shock therapy’ on Russia. Not so. There was neither enough shock, nor enough therapy.
Those of us working in Western capitals on these momentous events had two basic problems. We had never really understood just how bad communism was, or how capitalism worked. This skewed our reform support efforts. We put too much focus on privatisation and far too little on transforming the legal and philosophical base of state power.
After World War II, the Allies ran wide-ranging programmes of ‘de-Nazification’ aimed at helping German officials start thinking in decent, modern ways. No ‘de-Communistification’ was even contemplated for Russia and the other republics, partly because so many western useful idiots had rather liked communism in theory and argued away its ludicrous failings in practice. Above all, we had not defeated Russia in war and were in no position to impose programmes of this sort.
This translated into a major blunder, namely not to insist on the departure of the mouldering Lenin from Red Square. This could have been bundled through in those early chaotic months after the USSR dissolved. But we missed our chance. Imagine how modern Germany might look if the body of Adolf Hitler were still displayed in Berlin as some sort of bizarre shrine.
Read the whole thing.
When I first arrived at the Embassy in Moscow in 1993 a youthful Second Secretary called Tim Barrow was racing around, fixing things to fine effect. The Wheel of History has rotated. He is back there again, but now in a rather higher capacity.