The dire consequences of such ignorance were pointed out some 2,500 years ago by the Chinese strategist Sun Tzu.
However, many Western thinkers in the past knew that Russia was the West’s historical adversary. For example, Joseph de Maistre, the Marquis de Custine and Alexis de Tocqueville issued astonishingly prophetic warnings to that effect two centuries ago.
In the 20th century those prophecies came true a hundred-fold, but this time the West’s eyes were clouded by ideology. One retarded child of that parent was ignorance, promoted by those who genuinely didn’t know, but most perniciously by those who didn’t wish to know.
Still, newspaper editors, except the most leftwing ones, still had enough integrity and education to present facts about Soviet Russia well – when they presented them at all, that is. Even The Manchester Guardian published Malcolm Muggeridge’s report on the state-created famine in the Ukraine (Golodomor), later widely publicised by Robert Conquest in The Harvest of Sorrow (1986).
Granted, Muggeridge was summarily fired, and the overall corpus of reporting on Russia fell far short of depicting faithfully the hell on earth it was. But those seeking knowledge could find some of it easily enough by reading their morning papers, especially if they read more than one.
Compare this to the staggeringly ignorant article in today’s Mail, snappily titled A Spy’s Eye View of Russia: Never-Seen-Before Pictures of Stalin-Era USSR Taken by a US Army Major Deported for Espionage.
The eponymous pictures are described as “extraordinary photos”, “thousands of photographs during the Stalin era 60 years ago”. (Actually, Stalin died 64 years ago, so this is the first intimation of slipshod reporting.) Now I’ve only seen those few provided in the article, and they’re far from extraordinary.
The headline would lead one to expect snapshots like the one above, showing peasants reduced to cannibalism during the 1921 famine, unleashed by the Soviet empire Putin is so desperate to restore.
It would have been harder to take such stomach-churning shots in the 50s, when the eponymous army major travelled Russia with his camera. But it wouldn’t have been impossible.
Even now, 60-odd years later, I get photographs from my Russian friends that show the kind of misery compared to which the Mail photos are holiday snaps. In the 50s finding such views would have been much easier: why, even the pictures of the Moscow communal flat in which I grew up would have made for more dramatic journalism.
The Mail’s editors don’t realise this, which makes them ignorant. All they’re showing are signs that Russian cities in the 50s weren’t quite as prosperous as London or Oxford – big deal. A more prying lens could have captured emaciated, starving people rummaging through rubbish skips in search of food – as some of my neighbours did, half a mile from the Kremlin.
The anodyne pictures shown are accompanied by ignorant captions. Here are a few examples:
Russian officials walk an empty street in a picture taken from a building above the road by the US diplomat who was deported
They aren’t officials; they’re teenage military cadets.
A woman walks down a busy Russian streed [sic – don’t they have sub-editors any longer?] holding the hand of a youngster while a man in state uniform strides alongside
The man striding alongside is wearing a regular mass-produced Soviet suit, not a state uniform, whatever that means.
A photograph taken by US Army Major Martin Manhoff of what looks like a state-sponsored public ceremony in Russia
All public ceremonies in Russia were state-sponsored. This one isn’t any old ceremony, but a military funeral of a high-ranking officer.
A picture taken from a car shows cars and a bus trapped in a massive flood sweeping through the streets of a Russian city
The flood is nowhere near as massive as those I witnessed every year in Houston, Texas. And the trapped vehicle shown isn’t a bus but a trolleybus.
These are just details, you might think, but that’s where the devil lives. If our leading (only?) conservative paper displays such ignorance of detail, can we really trust its reporting on serious, complex matters that require infinitely more knowledge even to begin to understand?
The question is rhetorical, don’t bother answering. One can see why British papers failed to understand the tectonic shifts in Russian politics, such as glasnost and perestroika.
These were greeted as a triumph of good over evil, the advent of eternal peace, the end of not only the Cold War but indeed of history, in the words of a particularly cretinous American neocon. In fact, they were merely a transfer of power from the Party to the amalgam of the KGB and organised crime.
Had this been made clear at the time (my own articles appeared in conservative journals whose circulations were too small to make a difference), Russia wouldn’t have been allowed to become such a menace to the world.
Our press doesn’t follow Sun Tzu’s advice. It’s ignorant of the enemy. Why, it’s even ignorant of the fact that Putin’s Russia is an enemy. And it proves its ignorance even through seemingly insignificant details.