The break up of a union: news and history


A monument to Vladimir Lenin, USSR, 1991 ©James Rodgers

CONFLICTS AROUND HE WORLD are daily stirred by the hand of history. How can you understand the Middle East today, or Yugoslavia in the 1990s, without knowing at least something of what had passed in those places in the preceding century?

Political discussion in western Europe is largely free of that. There are exceptions, of course: Ireland is one; recent discussions of how Spain should remember, or not, its civil war of the 1930s may become another. In Britain in recent years, mass public discussion of history and its relevance today has tended to focus on victories, however costly, in the two world wars of the last century, and on landmark moments of the reign of Queen Elizabeth II.

That has changed during the campaign leading up to the referendum on the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union. There has been debate over whether or not the E.U. has kept the peace in western Europe since 1945. The views of the wartime Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, have also been used to back both sides. One BBC story even went back as far as the Duke of Wellington — victory over Napoleon — to guess what Great Britons of the past might have thought.

War was one part of European life and history which Churchill and Wellington both knew well. This is an experience which today’s leaders largely lack: perhaps a partial explanation for the eagerness of Messrs Bush and Blair to launch the invasions they did in the first decade of this century.

As I noted in my previous post, I was there a quarter of a century ago when the USSR fell apart. In the years which followed, there was great hardship for millions of people. There were predictions of civil war. Russia avoided that — although, in the decade which followed the collapse of communism, there was fighting in the streets of Moscow, in 1993, and tens of thousands (perhaps as many as a hundred thousand or more — no one has ever come up with a reliable count) of people were killed in separatist conflicts in Chechnya  .


Troops in Russia’s ‘anti-terrorist’ campaign, Chechnya, Summer 2000

Yugoslavia was another matter. The breakup of that union did lead to civil war; a refugee crisis; and a challenge to Europe’s security systems which they were unable to meet without the assistance of the United States.

No one in this referendum campaign has gone so far as to predict war if the U.K. decides to leave, although the Prime Minister, David Cameron, came close when he asked, ‘Can we be so sure that peace and stability on our continent are assured beyond any shadow of doubt? Is that a risk worth taking?’

Responding to a dangerous and terrifying world 

We cannot be sure that peace and stability on our continent are assured. As Christopher Clark persuasively put it in the introduction to The Sleepwalkers, his recent book on the causes of the First World War, ‘what must strike any twenty-first-century reader who follows the course of the summer crisis of 1914 is its raw modernity.’ Clark continues, ‘Since the end of the Cold War, a system of global bipolar stability has made way for a more complex and unpredictable array of forces, including declining empires and rising powers – a state of affairs that invites comparison with the Europe of 1914.’

The European Union is not the Soviet Union — although some ‘leave’ campaigners might enjoy trying to make the comparison. Nor is it Yugoslavia. Yet the consequences of any massive political change can be catastrophic — especially when they are not addressed by good leadership. Chechnya is a case in point. The Russian Defence Minister, Pavel Grachev, was remembered even in his obituary for having boasted that the separatists could be sorted out in a couple of hours. Fifteen years after the military campaign was launched, the then President, Dmitry Medvedev, described the region as Russia’s biggest domestic problem.

In the Middle East and the former Soviet Union, I covered some of the bloody conflicts which followed the Cold War. In that world, the one in which we live today, all that is necessary is a lack of foresight, and a refusal to learn from the past, in order for disaster to strike. The ‘unpredictable array of forces’ will do the rest.

International journalists often have an insight which politicians lack.  We talk to people, not just to other politicians. We also know that, while today’s world can be a dangerous and terrifying place, we cannot cut ourselves off from it any more than we can stop it raining in London in June (given some of their claims, it is almost surprising that neither side in the referendum has promised better weather).

That is one reason why I will definitely be voting for the U.K to remain a member of the European Union. There are many others. I believe that we in Britain should better direct all the energy which has gone into an increasingly poisonous referendum campaign into making the E.U. work better. I have been privileged — if that is the right word — to witness the wars of others as an observer who could usually leave if I wanted to. The conflicts I covered had an element of evil, of course, but also large measures of folly and irresponsibility. Both are better avoided. Leaving he E.U. risks doing quite the opposite.









#VEDay70 : amid division between East and West, remembering a hero of #journalism

Where once they celebrated together their World War Two victory as allies, Russia and the West are now staying from each other’s ceremonies. This post reflects on past VE Days in Moscow, and on a journalistic hero, Vassily Grossman.

That May, as the days lengthened and the temperature rose, I stayed in the Rossiya hotel. Said then to be the largest in Europe, it sat solid on the banks of the Moskva River. On the evening of May 8th, the corridors filled with a tinkling sound. Thousands of medals  chimed against each other as their owners, sometimes unsteady with age or ancient wounds, made their way along the hotel corridors. The decorated veterans had come to Moscow to celebrate the 50th anniversary of their country’s victory over Nazi Germany.

Western leaders came to the Russian capital, too. The half century of hostility which had followed 1945 was over. It was a time for celebration, reflection, and belated recognition. The then President of the United States, Bill Clinton, told his Russian counterpart, Boris Yeltsin, ‘the Cold War obscured our ability to fully appreciate what your people had suffered and how your extraordinary courage helped to hasten the victory we all celebrate today.’

Twenty years on, much has changed. Russian and Western leaders will not be celebrating together. Their views on the world today, especially Ukraine, differ too strongly for them to stand side by side. The Rossiya Hotel is gone: its brutal concrete ugliness too grim even for a modern Moscow which takes pride in its Soviet past. Gone too are the veterans, or most of them. I remember talking then to Tom, from Belarus. Of ten boys from his village school who left for war, only he returned. When I heard Mr Clinton’s words that week, I thought of Tom.

The centre of Grozny, 1995. Photo © James Rodgers

The centre of Grozny, 1995. Photo © James Rodgers

Russia was fighting then, too — against separatists in Chechnya. Grozny, the main city of that rebellious southern region, looked then uncomfortably like pictures of Stalingrad: city of suffering and extraordinary courage half a century earlier. It had been the scene of astonishing reporting, too — of which more later.

The war in Chechnya then drew the West’s disapproval, but not attending the Victory Day celebrations would have been out of the question. The hope and optimism which had come with the end of the Cold War were simply too valuable to put at risk.

It has not lasted, of course. In 2008, the West looked on with a mixture of fear and fascination as tanks rolled across Red Square on Victory Day for the first time since the Soviet era. Cold warriors in London and Washington perhaps enjoyed the guilty pleasure of nostalgia as they sensed the thrill of looking once more at what was on show.

That day, I was on Red Square, part of a group of foreign correspondents, close enough to the few remaining veterans to offer in person our congratulations on the national holiday.

karaleti.oct08 008

Russian forces in Georgia, 2008. Photo © James Rodgers.

Three months later, the army which rolled past us that day was at war with its smaller southern neighbour, Georgia. I was soon back in the Caucasus, writing about the consequences of a conflict which largely destroyed what relatively little remained of the 1990s goodwill between East and West.

Relations now are even worse: a source of sadness for those, especially of my generation, whose childhoods were overshadowed by Cold War, and who were relieved at its end.

So this weekend, as I, like countless others across Europe and beyond, reflect on the suffering and ‘extraordinary courage’ of the Second World War, I will also take the time to look again at the work of one of my journalistic heroes: Vassily Grossman.

I have written about him on this site before, at greater length in the academic journal ‘Media, War & Conflict’, and in my first book, Reporting Conflict. His war reporting — published in English as A Writer at War — is peerless. His account of travelling to the front in the early days of the Nazi invasion; his interview with a Stalingrad sniper; his witnessing the liberation of Treblinka: all are striking even today. If you have not read them, you should. Like the sacrifice of the Soviet Union in the Second World War, his work not well enough known in the West.

An Island in the 21st Century

Civilians in Grozny, Chechnya. 1995.  © James Rodgers

Civilians in Grozny, Chechnya. 1995.
© James Rodgers

THE POWER OF THE PRESS may humble the mighty, but it has its limits. That day it was I who felt humbled; even ashamed. The softly spoken, middle-aged, father pressed into my hand two lemons, fruit from the garden he was abandoning. His house destroyed, he climbed into his overloaded Lada, and set off. To Turkey, he said, from where he would launch a court case against the Russian government. Did I think his suit could succeed?

As far as I remember, I muttered something about not being an expert in the law — but he and I both knew the answer.

Anyone who has reported from a war zone has spoken to refugees. The encounter described above was from Chechnya in 1995, but it has is equivalents in countless other places.

Sometimes the smaller details stay in your mind. In a refugee camp in Macedonia, a child, who had fled Kosovo, cowered at the approach of a soldier. The boy was astonished when the soldier offered him a toy car, part of an aid package. I can still see the fingers holding it, hiding it; the eyes disbelieving that someone in combat gear could be kind.

Leaving your homeland is not a decision easily taken. Judging from some of the media and political commentary of recent days, this is not widely enough understood in the wealthy west. While there has been compassion for those migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean in sinking vessels, there has also been a lack of humanity which belies some observers’ own.

We are constantly told that the internet, cheaper air travel, and mobile technology are making are world smaller. Still, though, John Donne’s ‘No man is an island’ has a lesson for us that  resounds today like the funeral bell he considers later in the same Meditation (XVII). ‘Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.’

Before that famous line, Donne suggests, ‘If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less.’ If Europe is diminished by the loss of a lump of earth, what about thousands of lives ‘washed away by the sea’?

Despite our world shrunken by improved communication, we in Britain are not as ‘involved in mankind’ as we should be. You will look largely in vain for any discussion of international affairs in the current election campaign. While it is normal for domestic issues such as the economy, health, and education, to dominate, it would be good to know that the political parties actually had some views on the world beyond Dover.

The BBC’s World Affairs Editor, John Simpson, even wondered rather provocatively in a broadcast yesterday for The World At One what Churchill or Thatcher would have made of a Europe where Britain was so inactive. Rory Stewart, Chair of the Defence Select Committee, is not the only prominent voice to have pointed out — in an interview with Prospect —  how our lack of foreign policy expertise has been costly.

Journalism can also help to fill this gap in expertise. Patrick Cockburn’s work on ISIS for the Independent is a leading example. My research for my next book Headlines from the Holy Land (see previous post on this site) strengthened my impression of the extent to which policy makers rely on the news media for information.

Reporters may not be able to change things overnight, but, as with the coverage of the drowning of hundreds of people in the Mediterranean this week, it can help to put matters of life and death onto the political agenda.


From Spring to Autumn? Vladimir Putin’s 15 years at the top

People lived in cellars then, too. Seeing pictures from Eastern Ukraine this year, I have been reminded of Grozny during the wars of the late 1990s. Terrified and traumatized civliians hid underground as the city above their heads was flattened by bomb, rocket, and shell.

Street scene in Grozny, Chechnya June 2000.

Market stalls in front of bombed buildings in Grozny, Chechnya. June 2000.

For all that, political life went on. In March 2000, I was in Chechnya, reporting for the BBC on the Russian Presidential election which was to confirm Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin’s top job. Last week, the New Statesman website published a piece I wrote reflecting on Mr Putin, Russia, and the West 15 years after he won that election. You can read it here.

From perestroika to Putin: journalism in Russia

Next week sees the publication of an essay I have written on journalism in post-Soviet Russia. It will appear in a book Media Independence Working with Freedom or Working for Free? (edited by James Bennett and Niki Strange), and published by Routledge. You can find out more details from the publisher’s website, here. I gave a talk based on the essay at a conference in Prague last month. The subject of the essay is not specifically about the reporting of conflict, but, in its later stages, it does discuss the impact of the first Chechen War, which began 20 years ago this month. To give a taste of the book, I am posting here the first two paragraphs of the essay.


Independence – nezavisimost’ in Russian – was, in the dying days of the Soviet Union, a word which helped to describe some of the head-spinning changes which hastened the end of a superpower. It took its place alongside perestroika (usually translated as ‘restructuring’) and glasnost’ ‘openness’: the key words of the reforms launched by Mikhail Gorbachev after he became General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in March 1985. He was, of course, to be the last to hold that title. It disappeared in the same historical storm which swept away the USSR itself. From the wreckage of the “indestructible Union of Free Republics” , as the Soviet anthem so boldly described it, there arose fifteen new independent states. Ideas of ‘independence’, therefore, began to influence all aspects of late Soviet life, not just the political sphere. Co-operative cafés; joint ventures with companies from the capitalist world; small businesses – all began to appear where once there had only been the state-run economy. For the Russian news media, it was the biggest period of change and opportunity certainly since the advent of Soviet power, and possibly, given the speed with which it happened, since the birth of Russian journalism itself.

The purpose of this essay is to try to analyse what has followed from the opportunities of that era. Perhaps it did not seem so at the time, but, with hindsight, those hybrid forms of economic activity outlined above could almost be seen to anticipate the compromises which Russian journalists would come to make in the world which awaited them. For though this was an era when ideas of political independence took centre stage – even Russia itself, despite having been the heart of the Soviet Union considers that it too became independent at this time — this essay will seek to show that journalism’s independence (in the socio-political sense defined by James Bennett in the introduction to this volume) did not last long. I argue that developments in Russian journalism, and therefore ideas of Russian journalism’s independence, are inseparable from the political environment in which they occurred. Given that one of Russian journalism’s tasks, as in any country, has been to chronicle and reflect upon political, economic, and social change, any idea of ‘independence’ has that limitation. That being the case, this essay will try to consider the extent to which Russian journalism has been able to act independently in editorial terms, in the ‘industrial’ and ‘formal’ senses of ‘independence’ defined for the purposes of this book. What kind of angles has Russian journalism pursued, what proprietorial or political constraints has it been forced to accept?

Journalism in Russia; remembering Anna Politkovskaya

I first went to Russia as a TV producer in the summer of 1991; my last assignment there was finishing a posting as BBC Moscow correspondent in the Spring of 2009.

Reporting on the Russian parliamentary elections, December 2007

Reporting on the Russian parliamentary elections, December 2007

Earlier this year, I wrote a chapter on journalism in post-Soviet Russia. The book in which it is to appear is due to be published next year. I’ll be giving a version of the chapter as a talk at a conference in Prague next month. Last night, I was invited onto BBC World News to talk about journalism in Russia today and, on the anniversary of her murder, to talk about the times I met Anna Politkovskaya.

You can see the interview here.

Sport, Politics, and War

It was at this time of year in 1995 that I paid my first visit to the North Caucasus.

As a student of Russian literature in the 1980s, the mountains at Russia’s southern edge had come to fascinate me, providing as they did the backdrop to one of my favourite books (it is to this day) Mikhail Lermontov’s Hero of our Time. It remains a marvel that such a book could be written by someone in their early 20s. He was to die in duel aged just 27 — a fate which could well have been that of one of his characters.

My work as a journalist took me to back the Caucasus — northern and southern sides — on numerous occasions. One of those was to report on the visit of the International Olympic Committee to Sochi in 2007 as they sought to decide where to award the 2014 games.

As the games get underway, I have published a piece for The Conversation on what is at stake in terms of security, and for the Russian President, Vladimir Putin. You can read it here.

There’s also a second piece of mine on the site, about press freedom in Russia — where not everything is as controlled by the Kremlin as we are sometimes led to believe.