Which British conservative said this?

“It appears as if all schools have been turned into training grounds for depravity, and everyone leaving them instantly shows that he has been led astray, with his head holding nothing but emptiness and his heart nothing but self-esteem, that first enemy of reason.”

Portrait by George Dawe

Take a stab at it, you can’t miss. Any conservative could have thus commented, accurately, on our system of education.

Yet no British conservative has said that, not verbatim at any rate. This ringing denunciation was uttered by a Russian conservative, Admiral Alexander Shishkov (1754-1841), Minister of Public Education.

He was talking about Russia, but I wonder what Shishkov would say if he were miraculously transported to Britain, circa 2021. How would he view our schools, with their shift of emphasis from basic literacy to condom studies, homosexual practices, transgender delights, and racism as the principal dynamic of world history?

Such subjects weren’t taught in the Russian schools Shishkov knew. However, his pronouncement was as locally valid as it was universally prophetic. He was a conservative after all.

Even under the tsars, the good admiral got bad press in Russia for being reactionary, archaist, obscurantist – choose your own term of abuse. He got off lightly. Any minister holding his views in today’s Britain would get more than just bad press. He’d get the sack.

However, a conservative mind isn’t just the best tool for understanding life, but I dare say the only useful one. Alexander Shishkov proves this yet again by using the term self-esteem pejoratively.

That’s not how most people understand self-esteem today. It’s treated as a synonym of self-respect, although in reality they are closer to being antonyms.

Self-respect is a moral concept; self-esteem, a psychological one. Or, if you’d rather, self-respect is ontological while self-esteem is existential.

The former has to do with honour and dignity, something to which every human being is entitled simply because he is indeed human. The latter is a feeling, usually inflated, of possessing a high self-worth.

Self-respect doesn’t have to be earned, it only has to be asserted and upheld. Self-esteem, on the other hand, should presuppose no automatic entitlement: it has to reflect actual achievement, and even then it’s too close to smugness for comfort.

Thus it’s indeed the “first enemy of reason”, in Shishkov’s phrase. Reason needs a sense of under-achievement to stay active. It has to seek new discoveries, which ipso facto means reason must be dissatisfied with the discoveries it has made so far.

Looking at most people in the public eye, politicians, stars, celebrities and so forth, one detects an abundance of self-esteem and a distinct lack of self-respect. Moreover, one sees very few people who are alert to that nuance.

Perhaps we too should entrust our public education to retired naval commanders. May the search for a British Admiral Shishkov commence.  

RAF is about to bomb Moscow

No? You don’t believe me? Then read Peter Hitchens’s latest piece of pro-Putin propaganda. You’ll find out that “a frantic lobby in this country and in the USA wants to get us into… war against Russia.”

Peter Hitchens, explaining his take on moral equivalence

And what do you know, “A war on European territory could be a truly terrible thing.” You could see me wipe my brow in relief even as we speak.

For ‘could be’ means there has been no war yet. Those 14,000 people killed since Russia’s 2014 aggression against the Ukraine must have committed suicide. And those two million displaced Ukrainians must have fled their homes just for the hell of it. Thank God for peace.

I sometimes wonder why Hitchens regularly repeats word for word the effluvia of Putin’s Goebbelses, acting in effect as an agent of influence. In the past, I explored various possibilities, but by now they’ve crystallised into two: a) he is paid to do Putin’s bidding or b) he is unhinged. I hope it’s the latter: a medical problem rates sympathy; treason, only contempt.

In either case, one has to regret that The Mail on Sunday continues to provide a forum for enemy propaganda. Surely its editors can’t possibly think that Hitchens’s outpourings on this subject are sound?

Today he follows his usual pattern. First he establishes his bona fides as a Russian expert: “As I know a bit about Russia, and once lived there…”

Take my word for it: Hitchens never lived in Russia. He was posted there as a foreign correspondent, which means that for a couple of years he shared the same bubble with the upper echelons of the Soviet chieftains. Truly living in the Soviet Union meant feeling every second that one’s life was in the hands of Yahoos who had already murdered 60 million of one’s countrymen.

Then Hitchens issues his customary disclaimer clumsily designed to defang any accusation of bias: “Yes, Russia is ruled by nasty, sinister despots. But…” The disclaimer out of the way, that little conjunction at the end is the key opening the door to the most blatant pro-Kremlin propaganda this side of RT.

We have nothing to fear from Russia because “it is a defeated, poor country with an economy about the same size as Italy’s”. This doesn’t pass muster as a valid argument even at Hitchens’s primitive level. Surely he must know enough history to realise that poor nations with lean and hungry looks can not only threaten their wealthier enemies but actually defeat them?

Two great empires of the past, Rome and Byzantium, were brought to their knees by relative paupers. Too far back?

Fine, then look at Nazi Germany whose GDP was but a fraction of the combined wealth of Czechoslovakia, Poland, Norway, Denmark, the Benelux and France. Hitler still managed to overrun all those countries in about 10 months, driving the British Expeditionary Corps into the sea while he was at it.

Or consider the Soviet Union in the 1930s, when its people were actually starving. That didn’t prevent the Soviets from creating the biggest and best-equipped army in the world, which managed to regroup after being practically wiped out in June-December, 1941, and win a war against a formidable adversary.

Still too far in the past? Then cast your eye back to the 1970s, when the USSR’s economy was much smaller than it is today. That still didn’t prevent the Soviets from amassing a force of 50,000 tanks aiming their cannon at the West, and threatening the world with nuclear annihilation (a legacy lovingly maintained by Putin’s Russia).

Comparing the economies of civilised countries and Russia is a fruitless task. What matters there is not what’s in the shops, but what’s in the silos.

Authoritarian regimes have the luxury democracies can never enjoy at peacetime: they can concentrate all their resources in the military area. Both Stalin’s economy in the 1930s and Brezhnev’s in the 1970s did just that. Hence they managed to put together formidable armies – to the accompaniment of fellow travellers’ bleating about the country being poor and therefore unthreatening.

According to Hitchens, another factor of our safety is that Britain has no common border with Russia. Citing that as a serious consideration betokens an antediluvian concept of warfare that certainly predates even Napoleon.

Britain didn’t have a common border with France either, and yet she suffered a suffocating continental blockade and a sanguinary war. Neither did Britain have a common border with Nazi Germany, which didn’t stop those Luftwaffe bombs (many of them Soviet-made, by the way) falling on London.

Talking about war strategies from the standpoint of territorial proximity is especially inane now, in an age of Russia’s ICBMs and Mach-2 Tu-160 bombers. Yet this is Hitchens’s pet argument he lets loose in practically every article.

In that spirit, he echoes not just Putin’s propaganda, but also Stalin’s, circa 1939. Then Stalin cited Finland’s proximity to Leningrad as a justification for pouncing on that tiny country. Now Hitchens implicitly justifies any future aggression by Russia by saying almost exactly the same thing.

“Nato troops,” he writes, are now often to be seen in Narva, Estonia, and “Russia’s second city St Petersburg [is but] 99 miles from the Estonian frontier.” So what?

Estonia is a Nato member, in case Hitchens hasn’t noticed. Nato is a defensive alliance put together to thwart any Russian aggression against Europe. Hence some exchanges of military personnel among member countries is a normal practice.

At present, a formidable force of 1,112 Nato soldiers are deployed in Estonia, serving as potential sacrificial pawns in a tripwire mode should Russian hordes strike. Kremlin propagandists – echoed by Hitchens – scream their heads off about Nato’s eastward expansion, moaning about the threat this presents to Russia’s security.

The underlying assumption is that those 1,112 Estonia-based soldiers may one day drive across the border the way Napoleon’s 500,000 soldiers did in 1812 and Hitler’s 3,000,000 in 1941.

If he and Putin are genuinely worried about that, they should ponder the likelihood of any Western country launching an unprovoked attack on Russia. If they think, or pretend to think, that this probability is greater than zero, one has to doubt either their honesty or their sanity.

The rest of the piece is an exercise in the old Soviet stratagem of moral equivalence. Yes, we have the KGB, but you have the CIA. We murder people abroad, you poison Castro’s cigars. You put rockets into Turkey, we put them into Cuba.

Hitchens’s version of that trick is comparing the 2014 Soviet thrust into the Ukraine with America’s 1845-1847 conquest of Texas and California. Using that as his canvas, he paints a dystopic picture of sick fantasy:

“Imagine that the USA had lost the Cold War and the USSR had won it.” Then “instead of Ukraine being detached from Moscow rule, and slowly reeled into Nato and the EU, imagine that an equally huge, fertile, productive and strategic chunk of the USA, including Texas and California, was encouraged to declare independence and form a new Spanish-speaking nation hostile to the USA?”

This is a variation on the old Soviet theme: don’t accuse us of murdering millions of our own people when you have Jim Crow. Moral equivalence all around.

America’s theft of Mexico’s territory was indeed illegal and immoral. So were Sweden’s attacks on Russia in the 17th century, Napoleon’s continental blockade, Hannibal’s forays into Rome and Alexander’s conquest of Persia. If we look back far enough, we can uncover any number of beastly acts committed by most of today’s countries and their precursors.

However, using such findings as an excuse for today’s aggression is cloud cuckoo land. Yes, America sinned against Mexico and international law. But she has partly redeemed her sins by helping to defeat Hitler and then, as the lynchpin of Nato, protecting Europe against the Soviets, now Russians, ever since.

Contrary to Hitchens’s animadversions, Putin’s Russia presents an existential threat to Europe’s security. She has already started two aggressive wars in Europe, against Georgia in 2008 and the Ukraine in 2014. Any further aggression eliciting nothing but a token response from the West will put paid to the post-war system of collective security, leaving Europe at the mercy of Russia’s blackmail.

Both Putin and Hitchens detest the Ukraine’s popular uprising, which Hitchens invariably describes as a “putsch”, against the Kremlin’s puppet regime. How dare those marginal people rise against what to Hitchens is “the most conservative and Christian country in Europe [albeit run by “nasty and sinister despots”]?

Hitchens is another illustration to my yesterday’s piece on ex-communists. His loins ache for the kind of strong Russian leader he worshipped in his youth. We never forget our first love, although sometimes we pretend to. As Hitchens does each time he spins his faux-conservative yarns.  

There’s no such thing as an ex-communist

Vlad Putin once denied being ex-KGB. “There’s no such thing,” he said. “This is for life.” Truer words have never been spoken, at least not by Vlad.

Whittaker Chambers is the one on the left

He and I are the same generation, and I remember my university classmates who chose a KGB career. They were, not to cut too fine a point, scum to a man – amoral careerists who would have happily denounced their parents to get ahead in life and who were already snitching on their classmates, such as me.

Let’s get the causality right: they didn’t get to be that way because they worked for the KGB; they worked for the KGB because they were that way. Later many such precocious youngsters (Putin and most of his government, to name a few) changed their jobs, but they didn’t – couldn’t – change their personalities. Barring a religious epiphany, one’s character is immutable.

In the same vein, many prominent Westerners describe themselves as ex-communists. They then get upset when I quote Vlad and say there’s no such thing.

I’m specifically talking about Westerners because people who grew up in Eastern Europe and Russia can be forgiven for having succumbed to an unceasing onslaught of propaganda not counterbalanced with opposing views. After all, not everyone is capable of critical thought, especially when possessing this faculty may be life-threatening.

Even there perhaps ‘forgiven’ is a wrong word. ‘Understood’ would be closer to the mark.

However, as far as I’m concerned, Western ‘ex-communists’ merit neither understanding nor forgiveness (in any other than the Christian sense of the word). And I refuse to accept their explanations, such as “I was young and stupid until my 20s [sometimes 30’s or even older], but then I grew up and changed my views”.

Views are indeed changeable – why, even I have changed quite a few of mine, and I’m not known for excessive flexibility. What’s not changeable is a person’s nature, and my contention is that communist beliefs are a function of emotional, intuitive predisposition, not intellect.

They reflect not what a man thinks, but what he is.

I’m not talking here about idiots and ignoramuses who simply have no way of knowing better. The human type I have in my crosshairs is the Western intellectual who went from being a communist in his younger days to becoming a chap who pontificates on conservative values in his dotage. (Names available on request.)

Since these days people seldom take the trouble of delving beneath the surface of a statement, such turncoats are taken at their word. Few listeners stop to ponder what those exes are actually saying. Well, allow me to translate.

This is what they really mean: “Until I was 20 [30, 40 or older] I believed in creating the kind of state that murders millions of its own citizens, tortures and imprisons many more, creates artificial famines killing millions, eliminates every known liberty, reduces the population to a brain-dead herd, surrounds itself with an impregnable fence, uses lies and shrieks in lieu of normal speech, militarises the whole society, pursues an incessant aggressive policy designed to spread its own evil to the whole world, ignores all legal and moral norms of civilised behaviour.”

Books on the true nature of communism have been available in their thousands since the early 1920s. Hence a sentient, which is to say adult and educated, human being who believes such things isn’t misguided or mistaken. He’s evil. And that aspect of one’s character can only ever be concealed, not suppressed.

When my son was a teenager, he read Whittaker Chambers’s book Witness and was extremely impressed. The author was an American communist who spied for the Soviet Union and later acted as a witness in the trial of Alger Hiss, another communist spy.

Chambers later saw the light and became a senior editor of National Review, a conservative journal. (When still a communist spy, he had the same job at Time magazine, a more remunerative position, and one more consonant with his nature.)

My son was upset when I doused his enthusiasm by saying something along the lines of once a communist, always a communist. I tried to explain to him what I meant, but failed miserably. I wonder if I’ve done any better now. Perhaps not.   

Is BBC racist consciously or unconsciously?

Idris Elba, the star of the BBC’s popular series Luther, is black. How do I know? Well, he looks black. (Is one allowed to say that? Is one supposed to? Things can get frightfully confusing nowadays.)

Sorry, Idris, you aren’t black enough

So black, in fact, that one doesn’t even have to Google his background to see that. I did so anyway, just in case. Sure enough, appearances aren’t always deceptive. There it is: father, from Sierra Leone; mother, from Ghana.

Black credentials don’t get any blacker than that. Or do they? Damn right they do, says Miranda Wayland, a BBC diversity chief. (Note the indefinite article: the BBC has a whole staff of diversity chiefs.)

Though Miss Wayland didn’t use the slang expression, Elba’s character, DCI Luther, is a coconut: black on the outside, white on the inside. Thus he doesn’t pass muster within Miss Wayland’s remit.

But do let her speak for herself, in that refined style for which BBC executives are so justly famous these days: “We all fell in love with him. Who didn’t, right? But after you got into about the second series you got kind of like, OK, he doesn’t have any black friends, he doesn’t eat any Caribbean food, this doesn’t feel authentic.”

Neither does Luther freebase cocaine, push drugs, mug pensioners, do rap, run hookers (sorry, sex workers), wear gold chains and/or a full-length fur coat topped with a wide-brimmed hat, live in Brixton, speak in gangsta slang, shoot hoops, walk around in a rolling gait with a ghetto-blaster pressed into his ear, drive an old BMW with extra speakers fitted into the boot.

In other words, I’m kind of, like, OK, he doesn’t conform to the racist stereotypes Miss Wayland and her ilk are committed to promoting. And you know what’s the most amazing thing about it? She doesn’t even realise how condescendingly racist her remarks are.

As a black woman herself, she must be aware that not all blacks come from Jamaica or Trinidad. Some actually come directly from Africa, as Mr Elba’s parents did. Those atypical, inauthentic, unrepresentative souls are about as likely to eat Caribbean food as I am – perhaps even less so because I do love it and some of them don’t.

She may not know such trivia, but she does know that the series would be very different if it were created today. Luther finished its run in 2015, that antediluvian period before Miss Wayland’s appointment to her post, and that’s a lot of Caribbean water under the bridge.

The BBC, guided by Miss Wayland’s hand, has since learned that just casting a perfunctory black falls far short of authenticity requirements. “It’s about making sure that everything around them – their environment, their culture, the set – is absolutely reflective,” she explains.

Now, I’ve worked with quite a few blacks, and none of them would be accepted as genuinely reflective by BBC diversity chiefs. They walked the same walk and talked the same talk as everybody else. So much so that nobody thought of them as blacks, nor expected them to act out the racist caricature Miss Wayland has been hired to draw.

Granted, they were middle-class, but then so was DCI Luther. Detective Chief Inspector is a fairly high rank in the Met, equivalent to a US police captain. Luther would have had a university degree, possibly a post-graduate one, and his salary would have been about £60,000 a year – less than what BBC diversity chiefs make, but enough to be as middle-class as my former friends and colleagues.

On this evidence, I’d be happy to redistribute the income of every diversity chief in the country to all the cops. Our society would be safer, happier – and even less racist than it’s supposed to be.

The fact is that diversity chiefs don’t want to eradicate racism. Like all holders of meaningless sinecures, they are mostly concerned with self-perpetuation, which makes Britain’s putative racism their bread and butter.

That’s why they were up in arms when a recent landmark study by the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities described Britain as a “post-racist” society. How dare they say any such thing?!?

Of course Britain is still a country of slave-keepers who treat blacks as simians. If that weren’t the case, Miss Wayland would have to get a real job, and we can’t have that, can we?

To forgive is divine

Meghan Markle has issued a statement saying she is prepared “to forgive” the Royal family for its beastly racism towards her son Archie. “Ego te absolvo,” as she put it in her impeccable Latin (no Hollywood bimbo, she).

For that interview, Meghan unforgivably chose a dress similar to Mrs Simpson’s

Yet a source close to the Palace says it was all a terrible misunderstanding. Apparently, on hearing that Harry and Meghan were expecting their first child, Prince Philip exclaimed: “Golly!”

Alas, the Sussexes mistook that expression of pleasant surprise for a question and were deeply offended. However, now that Prince Philip has died, Meghan is ready to exercise the Christian virtue of forgiveness.

That’s big of her. (I almost wrote “white of her”, but then got so ashamed of the incipient racism of that idiom that I almost denounced myself to the authorities.) Anyway, if Alexander Pope is to be believed, to err is human; to forgive, divine.

However, someone who forgives is by implication the wronged party. If the forgiver is more sinning than sinned against (I can’t stop quoting, or rather misquoting, English classics today), then that act stops being divine and becomes not only human but also irritatingly frivolous.

However, Meghan’s magnanimity has set off a chain of imitations. In parallel developments:

  1. The surviving Nazis have forgiven the Jews for being sore losers.
  2. Every rapist has forgiven his victims for wearing revealing clothes.
  3. Bob Welsh, the only surviving Great Train Robber, has forgiven the train driver Jack Mills for putting his head in the way of that cosh.
  4. Bernie Madoff has forgiven all subscribers to his pyramid schemes for their credulity.
  5. Jeremy Corbyn has forgiven all Yids for being oversensitive. (See Item 1 above).
  6. Mike Tyson has forgiven Frank Bruno for having a glass jaw.
  7. Vlad Putin has forgiven the Skripals for their strong resistance to Novichok.
  8. He has also forgiven Alexander Litvinenko for his weak resistance to polonium.

I’ll keep you posted on any new absolutions as they become known. Meanwhile, I’m sorry about my levity in this little vignette. I hope you can forgive me.

Did Gagarin’s flight actually happen?

Sixty years ago, on 12 April, 1961, I felt jubilation, not doubt. As a normal 13-year-old, I took that opportunity to skip school, claiming it was my patriotic duty to follow the Soviet triumph on television. We didn’t own a TV set, but the teachers had no way of knowing that.

Mongol stamps celebrating Gagarin and his Mercury rocket

These days the anniversary of Gagarin’s flight is a major event in Russia, used as a spur to nostalgia for the Soviet Union. ‘We beat Americans into space!’ is a typical headline, while the lunar landings are ignored.

Things do change over time, as do assessments of past events when new facts come to light. The Soviet space programme is no exception. To begin with, contrary to what the Soviets claimed, it didn’t exist at the time.

Sergei Korolev, the anonymous pioneer of Soviet rocketry known to the public only as the Chief Designer, got an order from Khrushchev. The Soviet supremo wanted to have in his arsenal an ICBM capable of reaching America. Space exploration was the last thing on his mind, and no dedicated programme of that nature was started until years later.

Korolev, who had spent years in a Kolyma labour camp and survived only miraculously, took such orders seriously. Compliance was a matter of life or death, literally.

Many other Soviet rocket designers weren’t so lucky. For example, Georgy Langemak, the inventor of the celebrated Katyusha rocket launcher, was summarily shot on a trumped-up charge, as were many of his colleagues.

Others, such as Tupolev of the TU planes fame, were kept in special prisons (sharashkas) where they plied their trade for an extra bread ration. Korolev was fortunate to have been transferred to one of those, which saved his life and made him acutely sensitive to his bosses’ wishes.

With the help of captured German scientists who brought to the task their experience with the V-rockets, Korolev delivered the missile Khrushchev wanted. But he mentioned casually that the same rocket could put a satellite into space. Khrushchev’s eyes lit up: he knew a propaganda coup when he saw it.

Thus the first Sputnik was launched on 4 October, 1957, to the accompaniment of triumphant – and mendacious – din. The Soviets claimed the satellite had scientific equipment onboard, which was a lie. They also referred to the Cosmodrome’s location as Baikonur, a town in Kazakhstan, whereas in fact it was at Tyuratam, some 140 miles away.

Bizarrely, just to keep the record straight, Tyuratam was later renamed Baikonur, though the original possessor of that name also kept it. Monty Python could have had a field day with that.  

On 3 November, 1957, the dog Laika (husky, in Russian) went up, and new lies were spun. In those days, there was no technology for bringing a spacecraft back to earth safely. Hence Laika received only a seven-day oxygen supply, after which she was supposed to die quickly and painlessly.

Alas, the dog died almost immediately due to overheating, which didn’t prevent the Soviet press from issuing upbeat health bulletins for several days thereafter. The pattern was set, and it was followed with Gagarin.

First, he was almost certainly not the first man in space – just the first to come back alive and not particularly shop-worn. Rumours of prior disasters spread instantly, and they were eminently believable.

In those days, Soviet space launches enjoyed only a 50-50 success rate, and just a couple of months earlier a booster rocket had exploded on the launch pad, killing 126 people on the ground. That flight was unmanned, but by some accounts there had been three fatal attempts to launch a man into space before Gagarin.

Amateur radio operators in Italy and elsewhere had intercepted several exchanges between ‘Baikonur’ and cosmonauts in distress. One of them was a woman, whose last words were: “It’s getting too hot!”

In 2001, Mikhail Rudenko, a former Soviet senior engineer and experimenter, confirmed that  cosmonauts had been sent into space in 1957, 1958 and 1959. “All three pilots died during the flights and their names were never officially published.” According to him, the pilots who took part in the fatal sub-orbital flights were named  Ledovskikh, Shaborin and Mitkov.

A year after the Gagarin flight, the British communist newspaper The Daily Worker published a story saying that one man had indeed come back alive before Gagarin. He was Vladimir Ilyushin, an experienced test pilot and the son of the famous designer of many IL planes.

According to the article, Ilyushin’s re-entry was botched. The capsule didn’t separate from the rocket, he couldn’t eject and was badly banged up in a hard landing – in China. He spent months there and was finally sent home in a condition that simply couldn’t be presented to the world. Hence Ilyushin’s flight got hushed up.

Lately doubts have even been voiced about Gagarin’s flight itself. Some reports claim that the Vostok rocket suffered several malfunctions on the launch pad, including one with the hatch that wouldn’t shut properly. Hence the rocket was launched without Gagarin, who was later parachuted from a plane in full space gear.

What gave rise to such speculations is some of the comments made by the hero himself. For example, he said he had admired the beauty of South America when overflying it. In fact, he flew over that continent at night, and the only thing he could admire was pitch darkness.

Then Gagarin said he had seen beautiful, freshly ploughed Russian fields, which was a sheer impossibility from a height of 150 miles. He also claimed he had been singing a patriotic Soviet song throughout the re-entry. In fact, his capsule was then rapidly spinning around its axis, rendering any vocal self-expression impossible.

The Soviets also lied about Gagarin’s landing because they wanted to register his flight as a record with the FAI. To qualify, that international federation demanded that the pilot take off, fly and land in the same craft.

However, such a landing was deemed a recipe for disaster, possibly in view of what had happened to Ilyushin. Hence Gagarin ejected at four kilometres and came down to earth on two parachutes.

Such was the combination of tragedies and comedies surrounding the flight. A telling example of the latter was later provided by Mongolia, at that time effectively a Soviet colony. To please their Soviet masters, the Mongols issued a series of postage stamps commemorating the heroic feat.

Unfortunately Gagarin was portrayed against the backdrop of the American Mercury rocket flown into space by Alan Shepard three weeks after the Soviet triumph. Neither the Mongols nor the Hungarian artists they had employed were to blame.

It’s just that the Americans published photographs of their space rockets all over the newspapers, while the Soviets indulged their secrecy mania by never showing Gagarin’s Vostok rocket. The artists assumed that the two rockets looked more or less the same, which they really didn’t.

Thus Gagarin flashed his celebrated smile at a US rocket, not the one he had actually flown. If he had flown at all.  

It’s about UK, not just Ukraine

History is a good teacher, but unfortunately it has indolent and inept pupils: us, Westerners.

That’s why I only have a glimmer of a hope that, this once, the Chamberlain lesson will be heeded. He taught it on 27 September, 1938, in a radio broadcast on Hitler’s plans to annex the Sudetenland.

Describing the impending aggression as “a quarrel in a far-away country, between people of whom we know nothing”, Chamberlain sent a go-ahead signal to Hitler. We know what happened next.

Read the Ukraine for Czechoslovakia, Putin for Hitler, current Western leaders for Chamberlain, Daladier et al., and here endeth the lesson. Are we paying attention? Or are we playing truant? Have we finally learned that aggression against far-away countries about which we know nothing can trigger a worldwide cataclysm?

The Russians are amassing on Ukrainian borders a formidable force of several divisions (up to 85,000 men by some reports) armed with tanks, missile launchers and long-range artillery. The official explanation is some sort of exercise, but no one takes that seriously.

Some sort of military action against the Ukraine must be in the works, and there are many signs of that. For example, hospitals and morgues are being mobilised in various parts of Russia, suggesting that Putin doesn’t expect a bloodless cakewalk, similar to Hitler’s occupation of Czechoslovakia.

Also, a planeload of Russian war correspondents has landed in the Russian-occupied Donetsk and Lugansk provinces of the Ukraine. The hacks went into action immediately, concocting stories of little boys crucified by the dastardly Ukies and a genocide of all Russian-speakers being planned by Zelensky’s ‘fascist’ government.

Such genocide would have to have an element of suicide to it, since Zelensky himself is a native Russian-speaker, as are most members of his government. But such petty details are unlikely to douse the hacks’ fervour.

All the signs point at an imminent outbreak of hostilities, making commentators wonder what it is that Putin wants. His desires are doubtless two-fold, involving both strategic and tactical objectives.

The strategy is crystal-clear: if Ivan III went down in history as “the gatherer of the Russian lands”, Putin wants to be known as the re-gatherer. He has never concealed his aspiration to bring the whole post-Soviet space back into Russia’s fold, and the Ukraine was the jewel in the Soviet crown.

Putin’s long-term strategy is to reassemble the Soviet Union, thereby correcting what he calls “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century”. That is the demise of an ogre that had devoured at least 60 million of its own children.

Hence Russia doesn’t recognise the independence of her former colonies and satellites, especially the Ukraine. Statements to the effect of Ukrainians and Russians being the same people are bulging the papers, most of them controlled by the Kremlin. This touching sentiment is strictly unilateral since Ukrainians jealously asserted their national identity even when they did belong to the Soviet Union, never mind now.

The immediate tactical objectives are harder to surmise. Putin may want to enlarge the occupied territory of the Donetsk and Lugansk provinces. He may also wish to have those enclaves of terrorism and banditry reincorporated into the Ukraine proper, thereby putting paid to Ukrainian independence.

Another possible plan may be to expand the occupied territory southwards to incorporate the Black Sea areas of Odessa and Mariupol. This may include the capture of the Northern Crimean Canal through which the Ukraine used to supply the Crimea. Now that lifeline has been blocked, the population of the occupied Crimea is fleeing in droves, to escape the growing shortages of basic necessities, including water.

Whatever such tactical objectives may be, they’ll always only be stepping stones on the way to conquering all of the Ukraine and stamping out her independence. How will the Ukraine react? How will the West?

The Ukraine will fight to the last man, the way Ukrainian partisans continued to fight the Soviets for at least 10 years after the war. That was a heroically hopeless struggle of several thousand barely armed men against the formidable might of the Soviet Union.

Ukrainians are no longer barely armed – thanks to Western supplies, they’ve been steadily increasing their battle-worthiness. Their army is approaching modern standards of armaments and, though it may not be able to defeat Russia, it’s certainly capable of inflicting the kind of casualties the Russians haven’t suffered since Afghanistan.

Somehow I’m not sure that the warmongering hysteria whipped up by the Russian media will survive tens (hundreds?) of thousands of death notices reaching their towns and villages. It’s doubtful that Putin’s regime itself will survive.

But suppose Russia does have a go. How will the West respond? How should it respond?

According to the press release issued by US Secretary of Defence Lloyd J. Austin III, he “spoke by phone today with Ukrainian Minister of Defence Andrii Taran to discuss the regional security situation. Secretary Austin reaffirmed unwavering U.S. support for Ukraine’s sovereignty, territorial integrity, and Euro-Atlantic aspirations. He condemned recent escalations of Russian aggressive and provocative actions in eastern Ukraine and offered condolences to Minister Taran on the deaths of four Ukrainian soldiers on March 26.”

Unwavering US support means unwavering Nato support, and Britain is its second-ranking member. But what does that statement mean?

The West responded to Russia’s aggression against Georgia in 2008 and the Ukraine in 2014 with token sanctions and expressions of concern. Will we this time ratchet our response up to expressing grave concern and tightening up the sanctions?

It’s reasonably clear what the West will not do: send troops to fight in the Ukraine. The US Navy has moved two frigates into the Black Sea, but this is merely a symbolic gesture.

And here’s what the West can’t afford to do: nothing. Should Russian armour roll, neither statements of grave concern nor mere token sanctions will do.

We must continue to supply the Ukrainians with everything they need to fight for their freedom and inflict the heaviest possible casualties on the Russians. At the same time, Russia’s status must be downgraded from somewhat naughty to a pariah.

The West has the means to collapse Russia’s economy, and this is what must be done. Russia should be cut off from the international trading system SWIFT, with an embargo imposed on both Russians imports and exports. Let them eat their gas and drink their oil.

At the same time, the ‘Russian trillions’, the ill-gotten assets Russian gangsters keep in Western banks and other financial institutions, must be impounded or, better still, confiscated. That will deliver a blow where it hurts: the ostentatious luxury in which the kleptofascist junta lives.

Vetting such assets to decide which are ill-gotten and which aren’t is like shooting fish in a barrel: you can’t miss. All Russian holdings numbering in many millions are proceeds of crime – such wealth can’t be acquired there by any other means.  

Putin’s junta can’t be allowed to get away with a full-blown offensive against the Ukraine. If it is, the whole system of European security, including Nato, will collapse.

If we go back to those history classes, bold aggressors always stagger their forays by gradual escalation. Thus the Rhineland came first, then Austria, then Czechoslovakia, then the Benelux, then France and then those bombs rained on London.

If the West displays limp-wristed impotence again, Putin’s next targets will be the Baltics, which are Nato members. Having allowed today’s answer to Hitler to swallow up the Ukraine, it would be illogical for us to resist the occupation of, say, Estonia.

And then we may be reminded of the etymology of the word ‘escalation’: it’s a cognate of the Latin for stairs. We’ll climb up one step at a time, and a nuclear holocaust may well await on the top floor.

Sorry about coming across as a doomsayer, but someone has to be. The situation is dire, and it can quickly become cataclysmic.

I feel diminished

“Any man’s death diminishes me,” wrote John Donne in his well-known poem. A beautiful sentiment, that, but is it true?

I don’t mean philosophically or poetically true. It probably is. But is it something we really feel in our viscera when a public figure or, for that matter, any stranger dies? Do we ever have a sense of personal loss with the passing of someone we didn’t know personally?

Possibly. Sometimes. Twice, in my life. The first time was in 1982, when Glenn Gould died. The second time was on Friday, when the news of Prince Philip’s death broke.

This feeling caught me by surprise. After all, there have been other public figures – writers, musicians, thinkers, even the odd politician or two – who occupied a larger niche in my life. When they died, the words “so sorry to hear that” crossed my lips, and I usually meant it. But I didn’t feel that their death diminished me.

Some of my friends met Prince Philip, and everything I’ve heard about him is eminently likeable, as is everything I’ve read. But then some other dignified, honourable, sage, witty, irascible and likeable men have died in my lifetime without producing this sense of personal loss.  

Why now then? It has taken me two days to get my head around this, and I still can’t explain my grief cogently enough. I see no structure in my mind’s eye, just the blinking lights of single words flashing through.

The brightest of them are love and unity, the two words that can go a long way towards explaining England, and therefore Prince Philip, to the uninitiated.

“For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall be joined unto his wife, and they two shall be one flesh,” wrote Paul, and this is the starting point of my meandering journey.

The sacrament of marriage turns two people into one before God. However, for many couples this remains a purely metaphysical concept, even assuming – and this is an unsafe assumption nowadays – that they believe in it.

Peeking into other people’s marriages is a futile pastime, but from everything one hears, reads and sees the Queen and her lifelong consort embodied Paul’s prescription in every sense. Yet they were no ordinary couple, and their love and unity transcended just any old happy marriage.

For Prince Philip was one flesh not only with Her Majesty, but also with the monarchy, which in turn is one with the country. This unity is a ship sailing on a reservoir of love.

Just as the Royal spouses were inseparable, so are the monarchy and Britain. And love makes it so by reinforcing the monarchy’s legitimacy.

At this point pedantic scholars will throw their arms up in horror. The legitimacy of the monarchy derives from the whole constitutional history of the country, not from some nebulous touchy-feely emotions.

The monarchy is the link between generations past, present and future. Even though devoid of executive power, it’s a key institution not only for Britain but also for the whole Commonwealth.

All true. However, observing the on-going mayhem of constitutional vandalism, one has to believe that political tradition alone can’t protect our vital institutions. Had our monarchy depended solely on constitutional probity, it would have gone the way of the House of Lords, succumbing to subversive sentiments sprouting at the grassroots, as they are generously watered by assorted malcontents.

The reason it hasn’t, yet, is that most Britons love their monarchy. For them, it’s the same as loving their country, being one flesh with it.

This is a British love, undemonstrative, taciturn, but so much the firmer for it. Most people may even be unable to declare it, to put into words or express it with gestures, such as putting a hand over the heart.

They just know they and their country are one, and therefore they are one with the Queen and her lifelong consort. Let’s not ask them to rationalise that feeling – if they try, it may well wither like a poppy plucked out of the ground.

A politician may be liked, respected, venerated even. But a politician can seldom, if ever, be loved in the same intuitive, unspoken way.

Yes, a ship sailing on a reservoir of love. But that reservoir can be depleted, which is why one looks with apprehension at His Royal Highness’s descendants. As Burke put it, “To make us love our country, our country ought to be lovely.” The same applies to those who are one with their country – they must continue to deserve love.

That’s what Prince Philip did, over a long life of duty and service underpinned by love.

Men like him used to run mighty kingdoms, but mighty kingdoms no longer exist, and neither do men like him, not in any significant numbers at any rate. But he did exist, one flesh with his wife, his monarchy and his adoptive country.

Hence anyone who loves Britain as I do is bound to feel diminished by the death of His Royal Highness the Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh. May he rest in peace.

December, 1984, was a special month

When I was growing up in Russia, the dissident Andrei Amalrik wrote a pamphlet, Will the Soviet Union Survive Until 1984?. The Soviet Union did, barely, but Amalrik didn’t: he emigrated to Spain and died in a suspicious road accident.

Marshal Ustinov, victim of cardiac arrest

That happened in 1980, but the writing was already on the wall. And in December, 1984, it became legible.

That one month holds the key that opens a chest of secrets. For those with eyes to see and brains to interpret, the events of December, 1984, explain the subsequent history of Eastern Europe, Russia, glasnost, perestroika, post-communism – the lot.

By analysing that one month I knew straight away that the much-vaunted collapse of the Soviet Union was merely a game of musical chairs, with the KGB bumping the Party off the seat of power. Conversely, those who missed the significance of that month – a group that included most analysts – accepted the subsequent developments at face value.

What was merely a transfer of power from the Party to the KGB was hailed as a triumph of democracy and even – by particularly inane commentators – as the end of history. Since Western governments use such analysts as advisers, they were caught off guard when the KGB, fronted by Col. Putin, took over Russia in 2000 and created a kleptofascist regime presenting a greater threat to the West than even the Soviet Union did.

Four events evenly spread throughout that month had no business being practically simultaneous. Yet simultaneous they were, vindicating the ironclad rule of intelligence analysts: if coincidences number more than two, they aren’t coincidences.

On 2 December, Army General Hoffmann, East Germany’s Defence Minister died of cardiac arrest. On 15 December, Army General Oláh, Hungary’s Defence Minister, died of cardiac arrest. On 16 December, Army General Dzúr, Czechoslovakia’s Defence Minister, died of cardiac arrest. On 20 December, Marshal Ustinov, Soviet Defence Minister, died of cardiac arrest.

Since it’s statistically improbable that four defence ministers of communist countries succumbed to the same diagnosis during 18 days of the same month, one has to doubt either the cause of their deaths or its natural, unassisted aetiology.

A doubting Thomas will put those events in the context of communist history and crack a knowing smile. For throughout the entire history of the Soviet Union (and therefore its satellites), the army and the secret police were at each other’s throats.

The pitched battle was like a kaleidoscope, with today’s winners instantly becoming tomorrow’s losers and vice versa. The Party was able to control the hostilities, acting as a referee in a sporting contest. When either side became too powerful, the Party threw its weight behind the other lot.

Thus in 1937-1938, the army was getting ideas above its station. The Party pushed the button, and the NKVD, as it then was, went into action. Practically the entire high command, some 40,000 ranking officers, including three of the five marshals, were wiped out.

Marshals and generals were savagely tortured, with NKVD interrogators urinating on their heads as a final nice touch. Those who survived the torture (Marshal Blyuher, for one, didn’t) were then dispatched with a bullet in the nape of the neck.

The army got its own back in 1953-1954, after Stalin died. Beria, Stalin’s secret police chief, was charged with… well, the usual things: espionage, attempted coup, placing the MGB (as it now was) above the Party. The Soviets then presaged the MeToo movement and livened things up by also charging Beria with a whole raft of sex crimes. Those were so numerous that one wondered how he managed to do any work at all.

It was the army, led by Marshal Zhukov, that arrested and executed Beria. It was also the army that inundated Moscow with tanks to prevent any resistance on the part of the MGB (as a little tot, I was impressed by the roar of those machines driving through the city centre).

Once in control, the Party, ably assisted by the army, proceeded to arrest and eliminate hundreds of top MGB officers, some of ministerial rank. The KGB, as it then became, had to lie low until 1980, when its head, Andropov, ascended to the post of General Secretary, effectively dictator.

It was in the subsequent few years that the KGB began to lord it over not just the army, but also the Party and therefore the country. As the only part of the triumvirate that had regular contacts with the West, the KGB came up with a blueprint for a more flexible system, one that could appear less threatening to the West and hence able to request and receive vast subsidies.

The other two powers didn’t go easily. Two of Andropov’s closest lieutenants, Politburo member Kulakov and Byelorussian boss Masherov… I almost wrote ‘died under mysterious circumstances’, but let’s not equivocate: they were killed.

Andropov himself died in 1984, with foul play also alleged. But, as the standard Bolshevik eulogy went, ‘Our comrade died but his cause lives on’. The relay baton was eventually passed to Andropov’s appointee, Gorbachev, who several years later was to go down in history as a great democrat. However, there were many indications that the army reacted to the advent of the new order with hostility.

The KGB, and its clones in other Warsaw Bloc countries, had to act decisively – after all, the brass might have been short of brain, but certainly not of brawn. The traditional competitor of the secret police had to be put down quickly.

Hence the pandemic of cardiac arrests simultaneously befalling the military leaders of four communist countries, including the Soviet Union. After they were buried with honours, both the armies and the communist parties fell in line.

The only exception was the Romanian dictator Ceaușescu, who turned his nose away from the wind of progress. He wasn’t going to go without trouble, like, when the wind turned into a hurricane sweeping old-fashioned communist dictatorships away. That’s why Ceaușescu had to be shot in the gutter together with his wife – the only communist leader who perished in the regime change for being slow on the uptake.

Those developments signalled the victory of the KGB that emulated Julius Caesar by scoring a triumph over the other two members of the triumvirate. At first it ruled through two Party leaders that had close links with the KGB throughout their careers: Gorbachev first, then Yeltsyn.

Then, in 2000, the FSB, as it had become, decided to abandon subterfuge and rule directly through one of its middle-rank officers, Putin. To what extent its sister organisations in Eastern Europe have relinquished control is open to discussion.

Suffice it to say for now that things in that part of the world are seldom what they seem. Hungary and Poland, for example, may belong to the EU and Nato just like Germany and France, but take my word for it: they aren’t just like Germany and France.

Decades of communist rule sully a nation so thoroughly that a scrubbing operation, even assuming that it’s undertaken in good faith, must take even more decades. And if it’s not undertaken in good faith… oh well, let’s not go there.

EU plays politics with people’s lives

The EU sees the Oxford-AZ vaccine as dangerous – to the EU.

Like all political contrivances brought to life by fiat and therefore lacking historical legitimacy, the EU regards life solely through the prism of politics. Or, more specifically, of its own survival.

Since Britain’s apostasy sets a bad example for others, the EU has to see her as an existential threat. An enemy, in other words. Once that assumption is made, an elaborate scorecard comes into existence.

Britain’s successes are chalked up as the EU’s failures and vice versa. And on that card, Britain’s record of Covid vaccination pulls her way ahead of the EU.

The warped logic of European federalism hence demands that Britain’s success be made less striking, and the EU will try to achieve that goal at any cost – including the cost to the lives of its own citizens.

It’s only in this context that the EU’s total or partial rejection of the Oxford-AZ vaccine can be understood. Outside the political realm, the vaccine is perfectly usable, meaning it saves thousands of lives.

It’s perfectly usable, but is it perfectly safe? No, it isn’t – for the simple reason that we in this world aren’t blessed with medicines that are 100 per cent safe. Even everyday analgesics, such as aspirin, ibuprofen and paracetamol can kill some people under some circumstances.

In fact, as few as eight tablets of paracetamol have been known to produce a lethal outcome, and over 150 people die every year of a paracetamol overdose. (A note to aspiring suicides: don’t use the drug for that purpose. You’ll die of liver failure, which is a ghastly way to go.)

Nevertheless every year medical authorities all over the world approve many drugs for prescription or OTC use. To get its drug approved, the manufacturer has to present heaps of evidence proving that the benefits of the drugs far outweigh the risks.

Even so, the law requires that every possible side effect, no matter how unlikely, be listed in the in-pack leaflets. These documents can be long and scary, with death often mentioned as a possibility. It’s easy to get frightened and shun the medicine, especially for people who played truant when arithmetic was taught.  

For the issue of drug approval is decided on the basis of statistical data correlating clinical success with the incidence of side effects. This may be higher or lower, but it’s never nonexistent. If a drug has no side effects, it has no effects, which is why homeopathic medicines enjoy their sterling reputation for safety.

So far the Oxford-AZ jab has been administered to 20.2 million people, of whom 79 (51 of them young women) have developed a rare type of blood clot and 19 died. This is tragic, but it’s no reason for the hysterical scaremongering campaign whipped up by the EU’s functionaries, such as Manny Macron and Angie Merkel.

As far as they are concerned the evidence against the vaccine is overwhelming, but it’s political, not medical. The trouble with the Oxford-AZ vaccine isn’t that it’s too unsafe, but that it’s too British.

Hence Manny, Angie et al. are prepared to deny their own people a potentially life-saving treatment to prevent Britain’s success from becoming even more spectacular. And they have an attentive audience.

Most people respond to data with their emotions, not reason. That’s why so many, for example, refuse to fly. Yet those same people will happily drive across the continent, even though the risk of doing so is exponentially higher than with flying.

Crossing the street, even in a quiet part of town, presents a much higher risk than an Oxford-AZ jab, but such arguments are futile in the face of a massive propaganda offensive. Manny’s and Angie’s scaremongering is louder than the quiet whisper of statistical evidence.

Europeans aren’t even deterred by the weathervane turnarounds performed by their peerless leaders. First Manny declared that the Oxford-AZ was lethal to the over-65s. Then suddenly it was fine for the wrinklies, but a real killer for the under-55s. Then Manny stated publicly that, though he himself was in the threatened age group, he’d gladly be vaccinated with the British poison.

Nevertheless the vaccine has been banned for the under-55s in France and the under-60s in Germany. And Holland, Norway and Denmark have banned it altogether.

Our own regulatory agency, MHRA, understandably undeterred by the British provenance of the vaccine, has taken a sensible position, and I thought I’d never say this about a government medical institution.

While stressing that Oxford-AZ vaccine has saved thousands of lives and is continuing to do so, MHRA advises that “careful consideration be given to people who are at higher risk of specific types of blood clots because of their medical condition”. And even the European regulator recommends the same approach.

But this is medical advice informed by evidence and reason, not political propaganda animated by hatred of Britain. The EU mandarins and other fruits are prepared to sacrifice lives at the altar of a corrupt political idea – and we’ve seen that sort of thing on the continent before.