Reporting Revolutionary Russia — final part

This is the second and final part of my article, ‘Russia is All Right’, recently published in the journal ‘Media History’. It looks at the way that British newspapers covered the Russian revolution of February 1917. You can read the first part here. The photos are from my recent trip to Russia, part of my research for my forthcoming book, ‘Assignment Moscow’

The frozen River Neva, Saint Petersburg, March 2019, photograph by the author.

The optimism of the editorial columns

The cutting of communication had led the newspapers in London to expect big news. The Telegraph, in fact, reported on March 16th,  ‘For several days no news with regard to the political situation in Russia which, however, was known in well-informed quarters to be critical, had been received in London.’[i]  ‘Since Monday no word had come from Russia, and silence had fallen upon what was manifestly a serious situation,’[ii] wrote the Manchester Guardian once news finally made it to out. The Daily Herald decided that, ‘the information that is allowed to reach the outer world is often studiously vague.’[iii] Once the facts were confirmed, the revolution was widely welcomed: the leader columns echoing David Monger’s conclusion that, ‘Before the Bolsheviks’ emergence, propagandists interpreted the Tsar’s overthrow as positive for both Russia and the alliance.’[iv]  This was not confined to the fervently pro-war editorials in titles owned by Lord Northcliffe, although they led the charge. ‘The cause of freedom and of the Allies has triumphed,’ the Daily Mail’s editorial of March 16th, 1917 boldly announced. ‘The one power which will gain nothing from this great stroke will be Germany’[v], ran the final sentence. This belief was echoed in the edition of The Times which appeared on the same day, even if The Times was more reflective. ‘It is still too soon for entire confidence in the issue,’[vi] its editorial said – adding a measured note of caution to its categorical opening statement ‘A great Revolution has been accomplished in Russia’ – before continuing, ‘but the general trend of events and the attitude of the Army and of the more important elements of the population justify the Allies of Russia in optimism.’ Grounds for optimism were sought everywhere. The Times also carried a news story – headlined ‘Revolution in Russia’ – which included reports of military activity on the Somme, and in the Balkans. It appears to have been part of a daily series. The words ‘The War: 3rd Year: 225th Day’ appear between the headline and the story – a reminder of the true preoccupations of readers then, even if much of what was served up to them was characterized as part of one of the most shameful episodes of journalistic history.[vii] Beyond the newspapers’ welcoming change in Russia, optimism was scarce, perhaps one reason why the Times editorial also offered hope in the form of ‘the manifest eagerness of all parties that Russia should continue to wage the war with even greater vigour than she has displayed hitherto.’[viii] In another delayed despatch from the streets of Russia’s revolutionary capital, the Mirror told its readers on March 20th, ‘‘The workmen express the determination to employ themselves on overtime in order to make up for all the work that has been lost, and are loud in declaring their intention of carrying on the war to victory.’[ix] The Express announced confidently, ‘The Russian revolution has been accomplished, and the forces of reaction have been overcome.’[x] The Observer of Sunday 18th March reported the revolution with a series of stacked headlines, which included, ‘A marvellous rising’.[xi]

It is understandable that, with the First World War now well into its third year, and conscription having been introduced in 1916[xii], the effect which the revolution would have on Russia’s contribution to the allied war effort against Germany was the leading concern. It continued to be so for as long as the war lasted. Then, as now, the Sunday newspapers faced the challenge of trying to find new angles to the big stories of the week. The Sunday Times of March 18th was fortunate enough to have the text of ‘The Tsar’s Manifesto’[xiii] published in Petrograd too late on Friday to make the Saturday papers in London. The headlines of an analytical piece on the preceding page promised, ‘Fidelity to the allies’; the text ‘an energetic prosecution of the war by the new Russian government’[xiv]. The Financial Times of the following day was even more forthright: ‘There is now but one desire among the people—to fight on until Prussian militarism has been destroyed.’[xv] The Daily Mirror – which had published the ‘Russia is all right’ despatch – told its readers on March 20th, ‘The workmen express the determination to employ themselves on overtime in order to make up for all the work that has been lost, and are loud in declaring their intention of carrying on the war to victory.’[xvi] This was wishful thinking of the first water. The workers of Petrograd were among the reddest of the red: just the kind of constituency which would have been receptive to the argument that the war was being waged in the interests of aristocrats and capitalists, and at the expense of the workers. The Mirror, which had been founded in 1903 by Northcliffe, had, unsurprisingly, not lost its patriotic outlook since its sale in 1913 to his brother, soon to become Lord Rothermere. The Daily Express also published the Reuters ‘Russia is all right’ despatch – perhaps showing, among other things, that the Reuters correspondent understood very well that fulfilling his ‘first duty’ would have the added benefit of getting his despatch used more widely. The Manchester Guardian was another newspaper in which it appeared. The Manchester Guardian went even further than the optimism of the Reuters wire, in an editorial which brightly declared, ‘England hails the new Russia with a higher hope and surer confidence in the future not only of this war, but of the world.’[xvii]

It is worth recalling here the admonishment which Stanley Washburn remembered receiving from Lord Northcliffe about the importance of ‘the Cause’. While press barons’ and their readers’ shared desire for an allied victory may have led to some wishful thinking, the press barons’ ties to political elites – such as Northcliffe’s role as ‘director of propaganda’ – were another factor. As Alice Marquis wrote, the British system of censorship during WWI  ‘consisted of a close control of news at the source by military authorities, combined with a tight-knit group of ‘press lords’ who (over lunch or dinner with Lloyd George) decided what was “good for the country to know’”[xviii]. While it may be, as Curran has argued, that, ‘The press barons are usually accused of using their papers as instruments of political power’[xix], this was one era when they were largely happy to place that power, real or imagined, at the service of the state.   

A view of the Admiralty, Saint Petersburg, March 2019. Photograph by the author.

Strong eyewitness reporting

Telegraph links restored, the newspapers enthusiastically caught up with the news. The Times printed almost 6,000 words from its correspondent. In accordance with the convention of the time, he was not named. The correspondent can be identified as Robert Wilton, both from his own memoir, Russia’s Agony, and from the less than complimentary opinions of his coverage from Philips Price, and, later, by The Times itself. Its own history, published in the 1950s, concluded that, ‘Wilton’s service, often important, was erratic,’[xx] and that the newspaper felt that ‘their writer did not command full confidence’[xxi]. Such a verdict presumably delighted Morgan Philips Price – who, given that he died only in 1973 – would have lived long enough to read it.

For all that Wilton has not been remembered favourably – Russia’s Agony, his rather flawed account of the revolutionary year of 1917, rushed out the following year, may have something to do with that (the book was dedicated to the Cossacks, who, Wilton maintained, would soon drive the Reds from Russia) – and the reputation he had ‘in Zionist circles, and even into the Foreign Office’[xxii] of being an anti-Semite, his coverage of the February revolution was lively and informative. Especially given his relatively advanced years for a war correspondent – Wilton was born in 1868, and so was approaching fifty when the revolution started – Wilton did a first-rate job of getting to the action, and getting the story. He was rewarded with as much space as The Times could find for everything he had sent. Wilton’s story appeared under stacked headlines: ‘Abdication of the Tsar’; ‘First News from Petrograd’; ‘Revolution Complete’[xxiii] (one the sub-editors might later have wished for the chance to rewrite), even though, despite the middle of those three, the paper had to admit, ‘we are still without news of the first outbreak’[xxiv]. Even though they finally had news from Russia, they did not appear to have all that their correspondent had sent, or to have it in the right order. Wilton’s prose gave his story pace, even if the passive voice in lines such as ‘Warnings not to assemble were disregarded. No Cossacks were visible’[xxv] seems, to modern readers at least, to soften the sense of urgency. Walking the streets of Russia’s revolutionary capital, Wilton suddenly found himself in the middle of the fighting

…as the armoured cars, which all appear to be in the hands of the revolutionaries, have been dashing through the streets around The Times office, fusillading the Government machine guns, all attempts to get from one place to another were attended with the greatest risk[xxvi]

Wilton went on to tell his readers that, returning from calling on the British ambassador, he ‘was walking through the Summer Gardens when the bullets began to whiz over my head.’[xxvii] For all this excitement, The Times was very keen to situate Wilton’s coverage in the wider context as it was seen from London. Under the headlines, but before the reader reached Wilton’s ‘History of the Movement’, there was a paragraph explaining that Andrew Bonar Law, who was then in the war cabinet, had told the House of Commons that the revolution ‘was not an effort to secure peace, but an expression of discontent with the Russian government for not carrying on the war with efficiency and energy.’[xxviii]

Covering revolutions is one of the biggest challenges for journalists. Philips Price even found himself in the wrong place – he was reporting from the Caucasus at the time – but showed enough initiative to get to Moscow, and thence to Petrograd. On the way, he caused the resignation of the foreign minister, Pavel Milyukov, by reporting unguarded remarks the minister had made about Russia’s war aims[xxix]. Those who were in Petrograd faced not only the difficulties of coming by reliable information, but also great danger. Wilton was not alone in having bullets pass close by. Alfred Fletcher of Central News, whose report was published in both the Financial Times and the Daily Telegraph on March 16th, wrote of streets, ‘full of the whizzing of bullets from rifles and machine-guns’. Apparently unable to contain his own excitement, and just in case his reader had not got the message, he explained, ‘In short, we are faced with revolution in the truest sense of the word.’[xxx] Not wanting his professional activity to draw unwanted attention, Donald Thompson became a pioneer of secret filming. He cut a hole in his camera bag to, ‘get pictures with this gyroscopic camera of mine without anyone knowing what I am doing.’[xxxi] This was prudent. The revolutionary streets of Petrograd could suddenly become the scene of deadly acts of violence. An Associated Press despatch, published in the Manchester Guardian and the Daily Mirror on Saturday March 17th described, ‘Regiments called out to disperse street crowds clamouring for bread refused to fire upon the people, mutinied, and (slaying their officers in many cases) joined the swelling ranks of the insurgents.’[xxxii]

Given the strong political views of their owners, and the dangerously unpredictable circumstances in which they were working, the correspondents deserve credit for the picture which they were able to paint of Petrograd at the end of autocracy.

His despatches delayed as those of Robert Wilton and others had been, the Daily Mail’s correspondent finally got his work into print once the telegraph links had been reopened. As with Wilton, the Mail’s correspondent is not named. He may however be assumed, on the basis of bylines which appeared the previous month, to be Henry Hamilton Fyfe. On Friday March 16th, the Daily Mail, like The Times, published a series of reports together. Readers were informed at the beginning that the section datelined ‘Saturday’ (and presumably all that followed) had been ‘transmitted on Wednesday at 9.55am’. Fyfe did not seem scared by the fact that walking the streets was, in Wilton’s words, ‘attended by the greatest risk’. Hamilton Fyfe brought the atmosphere of the streets of revolutionary Russia to the breakfast tables of Britain. The weeks leading up to the February revolution were a time when ‘Bread had to be queued for, and its availability was unreliable.’[xxxiii] The queues were so long that the people of Petrograd had sometimes to wait for hours, even during Russian winter nights. One of Thompson’s first impressions on arrival was to ‘notice bread lines in front of bakeries, and, in fact, at every place where food is sold.’[xxxiv] In one memorable passage, he wrote

Bread shops are besieged by hungry people. Last night I did not retire until nearly 2:30 and I could look out from the back of the hotel from my window and see the people lined up in front of a bakery. In the morning when I got up some of those same people were still standing there.[xxxv]

In the 1918 edition of his book, the page following is a photograph of a bread queue, perhaps the one he describes. A thick line of dark figures in heavy coats and fur hats stand patiently and apparently motionless on the snow-covered street.  There were suspicions that what bread was available was not being shared fairly. The hungry, their patience exhausted, sometimes took the law, and bread, into their own hands. Hamilton Fyfe reported one such incident. ‘A baker’s shop well known for its profiteering had its windows smashed, and the place looted.’[xxxvi] Hamilton Fyfe explained that ‘large quantities of bread [were] being kept for richer and more fortunate customers.’ In a forthright tone of the kind which might still be found in the Daily Mail today, Hamilton Fyfe was blunt in his assessment of the incident. ‘Such conduct,’ he wrote, ‘when people have to stand from 5 till 11 o’clock in a queue deserves punishment.’ Hamilton Fyfe’s reporter’s eye for detail helped him to bring to life for his readers the Russian capital as it responded to the news that the autocracy was no more. It was on the Tuesday – as his paper waited for news that Hamilton Fyfe, walking around the streets of the Russian capital, began ‘to meet incongruous sights. Here a soldier, rifle-less but with an unsheathed officer’s sword in hand, there a civilian carrying, somewhat gingerly, a rifle with fixed bayonet, and farther on a delighted youth with a carbine.’ The details which Hamilton Fyfe picked out form a pattern within their apparent randomness: a pattern of shocking change, which mapped the reversal of the old order. In the same issue of the Daily Mail, that of March 16th, once the news floodgates had been opened, Hamilton Fyfe wrote of an encounter between a group of mutinous soldiers, on foot, and two mounted officers. Faced with guns, the officers backed off. ‘This slight incident showed what was really happening,’ Hamilton Fyfe wrote. The confrontation seemed to represent in miniature the failure of tsarist authority. On March 19th, the Daily Mail even hinted at the revolution’s socialist future reporting ‘Order No. 1’, the Soviet edict which declared that soldiers should be answerable to the committees which they formed amongst themselves, and to the Petrograd Soviet, rather than to officers or the government. In the Mail’s view, Order No. 1

‘shook the old army to its foundations’[xxxvii]. Even if the correspondent judged it a ‘treasonable incendiary document’[xxxviii], they understood it was newsworthy.    

The reporting of Wilton, Fletcher, and Hamilton Fyfe and others provided eyewitness accounts of what was happening in the revolutionary capital: eyewitness accounts which added indispensable context to the celebratory editorials which were being gleefully written in London.

Conclusion

Was everyone then really as optimistic as the leader columns seemed to suggest? In his autobiography, the bulk of which was written, as Rupert Hart-Davis said in his prologue, ‘between 1949 and 1961’[xxxix], Arthur Ransome gave an account of a lunch in London on November 7th 1916 with two government ministers (one of them, Francis Acland, apparently not put off by David Soskice’s earlier concerns about Ransome) ‘I told them,’ Ransome wrote, ‘that I thought we should be considering the possibility that, if we could not bring the war to an end in 1917, we should have to manage without the help of the Russians.’[xl] It would clearly not be beyond a writer of Ransome’s talent to have put a shine on this in the intervening decades. In the following chapter, which covered the coming to power of Lenin and the Soviets, Ransome conceded, ‘Forty years after the events I find it hard to remember the actual dates of this or that happening at which I was present.’ He was referring there to the way the October revolution unfolded, but the point could arguably be more widely applied. Nevertheless, even if those of his fellow correspondents who were reporting from Petrograd in February 1917 were able to give detailed accounts of what was happening, the analysis, the weighing up of the significance of those events in the London editorial columns, was less impressive.

As John Reed showed in Ten Days that Shook the World, his influential account of the October revolution, the Bolsheviks understood that the British press was against them. Reed described a revolutionary laughing defiantly at an editorial in The Times which had thundered, ‘The remedy for Bolshevism is bullets’[xli]. At the time of the February revolution, the Northcliffe papers did not see Bolshevism as such a threat. Even after the October revolution they insisted that Lenin’s government could not last. Headlines such as ‘Leninists paralysed’[xlii]; ‘Lenin losing control’[xliii]; ‘Bolshevist split’[xliv] were common during November 1917. This did their readers no favours in terms of informing them, in terms of helping them to understand what the west was dealing with.

There was, therefore, a contrast between the perspectives which the correspondents offered, and those which appeared in the editorial columns. In some ways, the correspondents, drawing on a more detailed knowledge of the country and its affairs than that possessed by press barons or political elites, did an admirable job. There were exceptions: the message that ‘Russia is all right’ filed from Petrograd, and widely published, being among them. The Daily Telegraph’s correspondent also wrote, ‘Let it be said at once that so far as the common cause of Great Britain and Russia is concerned, the revolution gives no ground for anxiety—or, at least, very little’[xlv]. The focus on food shortages, demonstrated by people breaking into bakeries suspected of hoarding, gave an insight into the state of the country. It also, implicitly if not explicitly, cast doubt on the idea that Russia could continue the war, even supposing that it wanted to. For if a country’s infrastructure was so weak that it could not feed its own capital city, how might it feed, clothe, and arm troops at the front? Even taking into account the ‘unseasonably cold’[xlvi] winter of 1916-17, and the effect it had on rail transport, the system was not working efficiently. Even those correspondents, Wilton being the leading example, who came to loathe the Bolsheviks, and to yearn for their downfall, had not allowed themselves to be blinded to the nature of the revolution, and the shortcomings of the Tsarist Russian army. During the war, Wilton’s reporting even threatened to sour relations between the British and Russian governments because, as Keith Neilson put it, ‘The British idea of fair reportage found little sympathy in Russia. Even during the war, Wilton’s condemnation of ‘unduly optimistic’ reports concerning Russia’s war effort was viewed by the Russian censors as ‘tantamount to treason”’[xlvii]. Perhaps sensing that their publics did not wish to hear of Russian weakness, and possible abandonment of the cause, the newspapers’ owners, through their editorial columns, did not offer it. They, too, preferred to think that Russia was all right.

This was nothing but wishful thinking of the most fanciful kind – as Lenin’s later, and enduring, revolutionary success with the slogan, ‘Peace-Bread-Land’, would come to show. Both editors and the political elite wanted desperately to believe that revolution in Russia would not be bad for the overall allied war effort. In consequence, those were the terms in which events in St Petersburg were portrayed.

Statue of Lenin outside the Smolny Institute, Saint Petersburg, March 2019. Photograph by the author.



[i] Daily Telegraph, 16 March 1917, 5

[ii] The Manchester Guardian, 16 March 1917, 4

[iii] Daily Herald, 17 March 1917

[iv] Monger, Patriotism and Propaganda in First World War Britain, 130

[v] The Daily Mail, March 16th 1917, 4

[vi] The Times, March 16th 1917, 7

[vii] See, for example, Knightley, p. 97.

[viii] The Times, March 16th 1917, 7

[ix] Daily Mirror, March 20th 1917

[x] The Daily Express, 16th March 1917

[xi] The Observer, 18th March 1917, 6

[xii] Taylor, The First World War: An Illustrated History, 114.

[xiii] Sunday Times, 18 March 1917, 7

[xiv] Sunday Times, 18 March 1917, 6

[xv] Financial Times, 19 March 1917, 3

[xvi] Daily Mirror, March 20th 1917

[xvii] The Manchester Guardian, 16 March 1917, 4

[xviii] Marquis, ‘Words as Weapons’, 476

[xix] Curran, Power Without Responsibility, 44

[xx] The Times. The History of The Times, The 150th Anniversary and Beyond 1912-1948, Part I, Chapters I-XII 1912-1920 (London, The Times, 1952), 242

[xxi] The Times. The History of The Times, 244

[xxii] The Times. The History of The Times, 248

[xxiii] The Times, 16th March 1917, 7

[xxiv] The Times, 16th March 1917, 7

[xxv] The Times, 16th March 1917, 7

[xxvi] The Times, 16th March 1917, 7

[xxvii] The Times, 16th March 1917, 7

[xxviii] The Times, 16th March 1917, 7

[xxix] Philips Price, My Three Revolutions, 52-53

[xxx] Financial Times, 16th March 1917, 3; Daily Telegraph, 16 March 1917, 5

[xxxi] Thompson, Donald Thompson in Russia, 64

[xxxii] Associated Press despatch printed in The Manchester Guardian, 17th March 1917, 7

[xxxiii] Service, A History of Modern Russia: From Nicholas II to Putin, (London: Penguin, 2003), 32

[xxxiv] Thompson, Donald Thompson in Russia, 26

[xxxv] Thompson, Donald Thompson in Russia, 26

[xxxvi] Daily Mail, March 16th 1917, 5

[xxxvii] Wildman, The End of the Russian Imperial Army: The Old Army and the Soldiers’ Revolt, 187

[xxxviii] Daily Mail, March 16th 1917, 5

[xxxix] Rupert Hart-Davis, prologue to The Autobiography of Arthur Ransome, (London: Century Publishing, 1985), 9

[xl] Ransome, The Autobiography of Arthur Ransome, (London: Century Publishing, 1985), 204

[xli] Reed, Ten Days that Shook the World, 74

[xlii] Daily Mail, 12 November 1917, 3

[xliii] The Times, 12 November 1917, 8

[xliv] The Times, 22 November 1917, 5

[xlv] Daily Telegraph, 16 March 1917, 5

[xlvi] Pipes, The Russian Revolution, 272.

[xlvii] Neilson, Britain and the Last Tsar,46

References

Alston, Charlotte ‘British Journalism and the Campaign for intervention in the Russian Civil War, 1918-20’ Revolutionary Russia 20:1 (2007), 35-49 doi: 1080/09546540701314343

Chalaby, Jean. “Northcliffe: Proprietor as Journalist.”  In Northcliffe’s legacy: aspects of the British popular press, 1896-1996 . Edited by Peter Caterall, Colin Seymour-Ure, Adrian Smith, 27-44. Basingstoke: MacMillan, 2000. 

Clark, Christopher. The Sleepwalkers: How Europe went to war in 1914. London: Penguin, 2013.

Curran, James and Jean Seaton. Power Without Responsibility: Press, broadcasting and the internet in Britain. 7th ed. Abingdon: Routledge. 2010.

Figes, Orlando. A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution 1891-1924. London: Pimlico, 1997.

Hughes, Michael. Diplomacy Before the Russian Revolution. Basingstoke: MacMillan, 2000.

Knightley, Phillip. The First Casualty. London: Pan, 1989.

Marquis, Alice ‘Words as Weapons: Propaganda in Britain and Germany During the First World War’ Journal of Contemporary History 13:3 (1978), 467-98

McEwen, J. M. ‘The Press and the Fall of Asquith’ The Historical Journal 21:4 (1978), 863-883

Monger, David. Patriotism and Propaganda in First World War Britain. Liverpool University Press, 2012.

Neilson, Keith. Britain and the Last Tsar. Oxford University Press, 1995.

Philips Price, Morgan. My Three Revolutions. London, George Allen & Unwin, 1969

Philips Price, Morgan. Dispatches from the Revolution: Russia 1916-18. Edited by Tania Rose. London: Pluto Press, 1997.   

Pipes, Richard. The Russian Revolution 1899-1919. London: Harvill, 1997.

Putnis, Peter “SHARE 999”, Media History, 14:2, (2008)141-165, DOI: 10.1080/13688800802176771

Ransome, Arthur. The Autobiography of Arthur Ransome. London: Century, 1985

Read, Donald The Power of News: The History of Reuters (Second edition). Oxford University Press, 1999.

Reed, John Ten Days that Shook the World. London: Penguin, 1977.

Saul, Norman E. War and Revolution: The United States and Russia 1917-1921.University Press of Kansas: 2001

Service, Robert. A History of Modern Russia: From Nicholas II to Putin, London: Penguin, 2003.

Smith, John T. ‘Russian military censorship during the First World War.’

Revolutionary Russia, 14:1, 71-95, (2001).  DOI: 10.1080/09546540108575734

Taylor, A.J.P. 1966. The First World War: An Illustrated History. London: Penguin, 1966

Thompson, Donald. Donald Thompson in Russia. New York, The Century Co. 1918.

Times, The. The History of The Times, The 150th Anniversary and Beyond 1912-1948, Part I, Chapters I-XII 1912-1920. London: The Times, 1952

Trotsky, Leon. The History of the Russian Revolution (translated by Max Eastman). London: Pluto Press, 1977.

Washburn, Stanley On the Russian Front in WW1: Memoirs of an American War correspondent New York: Robert Speller and Sons, 1982

Wildman, Allan The End of the Russian Imperial Army: The Old Army and the Soldiers’ Revolt (Princeton University Press, 1980),

Wilton, Robert Russia’s Agony London: Edward Arnold, 1918

The version of record of this manuscript has been published and is available in ‘Media History’, published online June 26 2019. doi.org/10.1080/13688804.2019.1634526

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Two Weeks in Russia: part II and conclusion

This is the second part of my post, ‘Two Weeks in Russia’, about my first visit to the country since 2009. You can read the first part here.

The entrance to the ‘Exhibition of the Achievements of the National Economy’, Moscow, March 2019. This photo, and all others in this post (with one exception) are by the author.

The event in Volgograd took place in front of the building housing a new exhibition: ‘Russia: My History’. A number of them have been set up across the country. I had visited the one in Moscow, in one of the pavilions of the Soviet-era ‘Exhibition of the Achievements of the National Economy’, the day before my arrival in Volgograd. It was slightly overwhelming. It would be wrong to call it a museum, for there is not one single concrete object in it. Instead, the visitor is treated to a multimedia experience offering a huge amount of information. I had underestimated how much there was to see. Arriving at the ticket desk, I was asked which exhibition I wanted to visit. I had expected a single one covering everything. I chose the 20th century, the period I am writing about in my forthcoming book, Assignment Moscow: Reporting Russia from Lenin to Putin.  

President Vladimir Putin first reached the highest levels of Russian politics when he became Prime Minister in 1999 — but you would be wrong to think that might mean he would not feature prominently in an exhibition covering Russia’s twentieth century. In fact, even Mr Putin’s views on the First World War are shared with visitors: Russia’s attempt to mediate peacefully before the outbreak of war not having succeeded, it was forced to take up arms to defend ‘a fraternal Slavic’ people, Serbia – but paid a high price in defeat.

Revolution followed, and the ‘shameful’ peace treaty made by Russia’s new Bolshevik government. The final analysis of the conflict sets the tone for the rest of the century: noting the collapse of the Russian; Austro-Hungarian; and Ottoman empires before asking who ultimately benefited (a favourite question in any Russian discussion), the voiceover concludes that it was the United States, ‘A new era had arrived. The era of the dollar.’

Part of the outside of the ‘Russia — My History’ exhibition in Moscow, March 2019. It shows Tsar Alexander III above his words, ‘Russia has only two allies: her army and fleet’.

The exhibition is skilfully put together for a generation used to being constantly surrounded by audio visual experience. There is nuance, too: some things are bad and good (the 1990s, for example, may have seen economic hardship and political instability, but they also witnessed the start of a business system, and the reconstruction of churches). Overall, though, a number of messages emerge which confirm that Russia under President Putin has taken a path which respects its past traditions, and will serve it well for the present, and the future.

A newly-restored and reopened church on Khavskaya Street, Moscow. March 2019.

Briefly, these are: Russia has done best when not relying on others; the west is always out to undermine Russia (it is telling that on the section covering the political crisis of 1993, which ended in gun battles on the streets of Moscow, and tanks shelling the then parliament, the only clip of President Boris Yeltsin has him talking of the support he has received from the United States); the ages when Russia has followed conservative social values under the guidance of the church are those ages when Russia has fared best. The Soviet Union’s victory in the Second World War is attributed at least in part to the return to more traditional ways after the Bolsheviks’ questioning of the nuclear family as a system of social organization.

Visitors to the ‘The Motherland Calls’ war memorial, Volgograd, Russia. March 2019.

Russia’s biggest domestic challenge in the last quarter century has been to restore faith in the political leadership’s ability to run the country. While many in the West look at the 1980s and 1990s, the Gorbachev and Yeltsin years, as a time when relations were improving, for many Russians these are years remembered more for extreme economic hardship and uncertainty than for political freedom. ‘Russia: My History’ understands this, and its overall message is not to tell people of their history, so much as to reassure them that things now are as they should be.

Russia’s post-Soviet attempt at liberal capitalist democracy having been judged a failure, the country has struggled to find a defining ideal since. Pride in history has helped to fill the void left by the death of Marxism-Leninism.

Stalingrad – sacrifice, and triumph

The Second World War – the Soviet Union’s part in which is referred to as ‘The Great Patriotic War’ — is the most prominent example of this. Living in Russia for long periods in the last decade and in the 1990s, I came to understand how much the sacrifice and victory meant. I also came to understand that was not fully appreciated in the West. One of the chapters of my next book covers the work of British and American correspondents in the Soviet Union during the Second World War. As part of my research on this trip, I travelled to Volgograd to see the site of the battle which changed the course of the war. Soviet victory here, and at the Battle of Kursk later in 1943, stopped the German advance onto Soviet territory, and, as it later became clear, was the start of the process that would lead to the ruin of Nazi Germany.

Second World War tanks outside the ‘Battle of Stalingrad’ museum on the bank of the River Volga, Volgograd, Russia, March 2019.

The Soviets’ task was to stop the Germans and their allies taking the city, then called Stalingrad. The fall of Stalingrad would have meant that Hitler’s armies could advance on the Caucasus and the oil fields near the Caspian Sea. It would also have cut off the River Volga as a supply route. After a battle lasting 200 days, the Soviet forces prevailed. The German Field Marshal, Friedrich von Paulus, was captured along with his generals.

Today, the cellar – then underneath a department store – which was their headquarters, is a museum. It was here, in February 1943, after the surrender, that the BBC correspondent, Alexander Werth, was brought by the triumphant Soviets to see their prized prisoners. As a western journalist in Moscow – to whom I told this story during my visit – wondered, this was perhaps the first time during the war that allied correspondents saw such high-ranking German captives.

The ruins of a flour mill destroyed during the Battle of Stalingrad, 1942-1943. The ruins were left as they were at the end of the battle as a reminder of the war. Volgograd, Russia, March 2019.

Even decades later, and with little to recognize of the city as it was (aerial bombardment, followed by weeks of infantry and tank battles, reduced the riverside stretches to rubble – what you see today is almost all Soviet-era reconstruction, with the exception of the ruins of a flour mill, left as a reminder) Volgograd tells the visitor so much about the way Russia sees itself. Any correspondent or diplomat, any curious business person, newly-arrived in Russia, should visit. This was the place where Russia changed its own history, and that of Europe. This is the place where you understand why, after the Nazi invasion, the Soviet Union was so suspicious of the West – suspicions which have found their contemporary counterparts. In their telling, danger came from the West in the shape of invaders, and Russia stood alone to face them – eventually triumphing simply by refusing not to.

The changing of the guard at the Mamayev Kurgan war memorial, Volgograd, March 2019.

The monument ‘The Motherland Calls’ was built to remember the triumph of arms. Mother Russia is no longer cowed: brandishing a sword, the giant statue symbolizes the moment when, victorious at Stalingrad, the Soviet forces went on the attack to drive the invader out. As Mother Russia leads the charge, she looks back at the same time: urging her armies to follow her. The hill where she stands was of great strategic importance, and captured at great cost: a sign tells the visitor that 34,505 soldiers lie buried there in common graves.

This great victory, won at such cost, has become part of the creation of modern Russia’s view of itself. Mr Putin even invoked the sacrifice of wartime when speaking at a concert held to mark five years since the annexation (not his phrase, obviously) of Crimea. ‘The actions of the people of Crimea and Sevastopol remind me of the actions of Red Army soldiers during the first tragic months after the breakout of the Great Patriotic War, when they tried to battle through to join their comrades and carried their field flags close to their hearts,’ he told the crowd.

‘Those Were The Days’

This trip also gave me plenty to consider about the nature of being a foreign correspondent. I will incorporate some of the lessons I feel I learnt into my teaching when I return to City, University of London’s Journalism department in September. It was a time to reflect on my own experiences in Russia, from the end of the Soviet period, to covering a very different kind of era in Russia’s war with Georgia in the summer of 2008.

When I left VDNKh, after my visit to ‘Russia: My History’, ‘Those Were the Days’ was playing over the public address system. The tune was originally a Russian folk song. To me, it evoked not only modern Russia’s assessment of its past, but also to my own long history with this county — long enough that some of the other journalists I have known here have since died: some in road accidents; at least one was killed in a war.

It is with sadness that I reflect that the close ties between Russia and the West, for which my generation hoped at the end of the Cold War, have not been built. After Crimea, and the diplomatic conflict which followed the poisoning in the English town of Salisbury last year of the former Russian double agent, Sergei Skripal, and his daughter, Yulia, there is absolutely no prospect that they will be soon.

Russia has built its own system. It has finally – after decades of deliberation – decided on the direction it wishes to take. Freedoms seen as part of a liberal capitalist democracy are curbed. In return, the state is supposed to guarantee stability, a reasonable standard of living, and to permit citizens the liberty to be individual consumers (and despite sanctions, there seemed to be to buy).

The post-Soviet period is over. Russia has completed its transition. The country I knew as a journalist between 1991 and 2009 is no more. Like all countries, Russia will continue to develop – but within the confines of the new order it has established.

The ‘Bronze Horseman’ monument to Tsar Peter the Great, with the Russian Constitutional Court in the background, Saint Petersburg, March 2019.

Still, there are questions. Can the system, based as it is on the leadership of one man, President Putin, now in the second and final term of his current presidency, endure? Views I gathered during my trip varied on this. The answer, it seems, depends on Mr Putin’s being able to find a replacement – drawn, in all probability, from the security services, as Mr Putin himself was – who will command the respect of opposing factions within the elite. Those factions may also choose to keep the peace to defend their self-interest; there may be some changes to the constitution to allow Mr Putin to retain some form of overall authority when his presidential term ends.

In the history exhibition, there is a quotation from Russia’s Prime Minister, Dmitry Medvedev, warning that the consequences of the collapse of Russia would make the end of the Soviet Union look like a kindergarten, or child’s play, as we might say in English.

The airport and the streets of the capital may exude confidence, but the warnings of what is at stake suggest a certain nervousness, too.   

Moscow, Volgograd, Saint Petersburg, March 2019. A grant from the Society of Authors funded this trip, assistance which I very gratefully acknowledge.

The author visting Volgograd, 16th March 2019.


Two weeks in Russia

Part of the Kremlin wall and Spassky Tower, Moscow, March 2019. This photo, and all others in this post, are by the author.

I have just returned from a two week trip to Russia, my first visit to the country since 2009, when I finished my posting there as BBC correspondent. It was also my longest time away from Russia since I first worked in Moscow as a TV news producer in 1991. On this trip, in addition to meetings with academic colleagues, and giving two lectures, I went to places which will feature in my next book, Assignment Moscow: Reporting Russia from Lenin to Putin. I am extremely grateful to the Society of Authors for the grant which funded my travel. This is a longer piece than I usually post here. It covers change in Russia, history, journalism, and personal reflection. This is part one of two. I will post part two tomorrow.

MOSCOW LOOKS CONFIDENT. It welcomes the visitor now with the self-assurance of a capital proud of how it looks and what it has. Arriving at Sheremetyevo Airport I was as impressed as I was obviously supposed to be. I first landed there in the summer of 1991 — the last summer of the Soviet Union — and the contrast could not be greater. In almost every way, that was another country. Gone was the drab lighting, the air tinged with the scent of boiled cabbage and the distinct, if distant, smell of Soviet cigarette smoke. Now the arrivals hall shone: spotless floors, sparklingly clean windows, quick and efficient passport control. There were more signs than ever in English – and in Chinese, too.

If there were any signs of the old days, they were rare enough to suggest that I was witnessing the end of trends from the last century. The taxi driver took pleasure in removing his seat belt as soon as we had passed the traffic policeman at the exit from the airport. He even had a spare seat-belt buckle which he attached in order to stop the irritating and noisy ticking and flickering of the car’s safety warning. The old Russian belief that a seat belt is a restrictive annoyance which can actually impede the driver still had its adherents.

The war memorial at Khimki – in the shape of three huge tank traps – was harder to spot by the road than once it had been. Since the end of socialism in Russia, this symbol of the Soviet Union’s greatest victory (marking the furthest point which the German invaders reached as they closed on Moscow in the fall of 1941) has been overshadowed by the symbols of consumerism – superstore sign after hypermarket sign—which now tower behind it.

I stayed in the Moscow hotel where I stayed during my first ever assignment in the summer of 1991. Its name had long since changed – from the ‘October’ (named for the 1917 revolution, when the Bolsheviks seized power) to the ‘Arbat’, but some of the rooms – and I got one, having requested their cheapest – still have the Soviet-era wood floors and furniture. I was especially pleased to get a room at the front of the hotel – as I had in 1991 – with a view of the foreign ministry from the window.

The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Moscow, March 2019.

The shine of Sheremetyevo spread to the city centre. Moscow’s Mayor, Sergei Sobyanin, has made the Russian capital smart and clean. A burning rubbish bin outside Smolenskaya metro station made me wonder if that was still a common sight. It was not. In the late Soviet period, cigarette ends – discarded as their owners entered the public transport system – smouldered and smoked in the trash. This was the only time I saw it on this visit. There was not a single tiny piece of litter in the metro. Cleaners rode the escalators in pairs, polishing as they went. New trains and carriages carried Moscow’s millions of passengers quickly and punctually. Station names were also written in the Latin alphabet, that was new since I lived here; announcements made in English.

New Markets, New Words

The sweeping political changes of the last quarter century have been reflected in the Russian language. In the 1990s, ‘biznesmen’ (businessman) and ‘killer’ (hired assassin) were two additions. The first new word I noticed this time was ‘food court’: the English word transliterated into Cyrillic; the concept introduced in Moscow’s increasingly gentrified food markets. From 2006-2009, I lived near one such, Danilovsky Market, south of the city centre. I went back during this visit to see how it had changed.

The charming chaos of a Russian market had been swept away. I was reminded of the taunt opposing football fans flung at supporters of Chelsea and Manchester City when new, wealthy, owners changed their club’s fortunes on the field, and, supposedly, character too: ‘You’re not Chelsea anymore’. Danilovsky market was not Danilovsky market any more. A few of the stallholders looked like they might have made the transition, but they had been squeezed into corners by the advance of globalized good taste. Potatoes, still with the soil of mother Russia clinging to their skins, spilling out of sacks, and bloodied chopping blocks for butchering fowl and fish – all this was gone. Although any property this close to the city centre would – as in so many global capitals today – be eye-wateringly expensive, that did not mean its inhabitants were necessarily well-heeled. The prices in the market were London prices; Moscow’s salaries are not London ones. I cannot imagine this gentrification, good though it may look to a visitor like me, has been given an unadulterated welcome.

A coffee stall at Danilovsky Market, Moscow, March 2019.

Messages from History

Some things were reassuringly similar. The radio tower built nearby in the early Soviet period still dominates the area. Philip Jordan, in Moscow as correspondent of the News Chronicle during the Second World War, described in his 1942 memoir Russian Glory, ‘the great lattice tower of the Comintern Radio that hangs above the city like a minaret of the twentieth century’. He would recognize it today.

The Radio Tower, designed by Vladimir Gregorievich Shukhov, Shabolovka St., Moscow, March 2019.

Then, the radio tower was a beacon sending socialist propaganda to the world. The correspondents of that era were frustrated by the fact that often they were not permitted to file news until it had been on Radio Moscow – meaning that their home news desks had the story before they were allowed to offer it, and raising questions as to the value of their presence. Today, Moscow still sends its views out over the airwaves and internet connections: Russia Today (or RT as it now calls itself) and Sputnik have become symbols of a country which feels it has regained some of the status it lost when the superpower that was the Soviet Union fell apart – but the correspondents are at least allowed to compete.

Yet for all the ‘food courts’ with their sushi and espressos, for all the beer bars where bearded hipsters show off their inked arms as they serve craft ales, the appearance of internationalism is deceptive. Russia wants to be part of this global society, but only to an extent. The shining new streets of Moscow may impress the visitor, but if outsiders are the target audience at all, they are the secondary one. Muscovites and their fellow Russians are the people who are really supposed to be impressed – reassured that Russia is back where it belongs, and that Russia is best.

Every country has its patriotic pride, but in Russia this seems to have become a principle characteristic of official policy. The new metro trains are proudly made in Russia. During my visit, a televised competition ‘Leaders of Russia’ was followed nightly on the main TV news bulletin, Vremya (‘Time’). Prominent members of Russia’s political and business establishment (Mr Sobyanin among them) offered advice to young people seeking to become the country’s future elite. The prize was a million roubles (about $15,300; €13,500 or £11,600) to be spent on education, but only in Russia, not abroad. Vremya also offered news reports on how good Russian weapons were, even including the range of missiles imposed on a map of Europe, in case you didn’t get the idea.

A mural on a Moscow building. The writing says, ‘I defend my Motherland. 23rd February, Day of the Defender of the Fatherland’. Moscow, March 2019

Crimea Five Years On – No Regrets

Vremya also aired reports about the building of rail links between southern Russia, and Crimea, which Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014. A very excited correspondent breathlessly described the construction of a rail link alongside the bridge for motor traffic, which was already open. My visit to Russia coincided with the fifth anniversary of the annexation. Political leaders lined up to express their enthusiasm: an event in Crimea on Friday 15th March drew the leaders of all the main factions in the Russian parliament, the State Duma.

Foreign guests were few, although television pictures showed the French politician, Thierry Mariani, offering, in broken Russian, a message of solidarity and support. It was warmly applauded. There was even more the next evening, when about half the 30-minute bulletin was devoted to celebrations of the welcoming (annexing) of Crimea as part of the Russian Federation: a long piece of public relations about infrastructure was followed by a another report on the visiting French politicians. Their presence may have impressed some sections of the domestic TV audience; to an outsider, the fact that the guests were not of a higher profile served as a reminder of the price that Russia has paid internationally for Crimea. That, though, was not an angle I saw addressed in any of the coverage.

The newsreader said that celebrations had been taking place across the country. I was in Volgograd that weekend. I arrived at the place where the event was happening about an hour after it had started. By then, the crowds were already dispersing. I could not say how many people had been there, but for a city of a million people, it seemed few. Opinion polls suggest that Russians still strongly support the annexation of Crimea, but, in Volgograd at least, normal weekend activities seemed to have proved a stronger draw than a political rally.

For Russian TV news, though, this was pretty much the only story for days – and there was more to come.

You can read part II here

My next book: ‘Assignment Moscow’. March 2019 update.

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The Soviet Foreign Ministry building in Moscow, June 1991. © James Rodgers

The lack of recent posts on here can be explained by the fact that I am currently working on my next book: Assignment Moscow: Reporting Russia from Lenin to Putin, which is due to be published next year, by I.B. Tauris (since 2018, part of Bloomsbury).

The book will draw on published and non-published archive sources; journalists’ memoirs from the time of the 1917 revolutions, the civil war, the Show Trials of the 1930s, the Great Patriotic Warm, the Cold War, Perestroika, and post-Soviet Russia. My interest in the subject stems from the many years I spent covering Russia between that first assignment in 1991 and finishing my posting as BBC correspondent in 2009.

Western journalists have witnessed Russia in a way that few of their compatriots can rival, so their stories have, for audiences of millions, become the story of Russia.

As part of my research, I will be travelling to Russia for the first time for many years — so I may take the opportunity to post some news about my trip on here. The picture above was taken on my first journalistic assignment to Moscow, which was then still the capital of the Soviet Union, in the summer of 1991.

The press card below was issued during that trip, when I was working for the Visnews Agency, later to become Reuters Television.

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A Press pass issued to me by the Soviet Foreign Ministry for a Gorbachev-Bush summit meeting, summer 1991.

Selective commemoration: remembering 1918, forgetting 1948

This piece was first published earlier this week on The Conversation.

FOR THOSE OF US OF AN AGE to have known only peace in Western Europe, the centenary of the end of World War I is a an opportunity to learn something of the extreme consequences of the failure to solve political differences peacefully.

But another anniversary that fell this year – that of the end of the British Mandate for Palestine in 1948, a seminal moment in a conflict that continues to this day – has been largely ignored. It should not be. Britain’s role was pivotal – and, if it is forgotten in the UK, it is remembered in Middle East.

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The entrance to the allied military cemetery in Jerusalem, resting place of some of those killed in the 1917 British capture of Jerusalem

For one of the consequences of the end of World War I was the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. The December before the Armistice in November 1918, troops under the command of General Sir Edmund Allenby (nicknamed “The Bull”) captured Jerusalem. After the end of the war, The League of Nations “mandated” (handed over) what was then Palestine to British rule. That rule lasted until 1948. Then the British withdrew. The region’s Jewish and Arab populations were left to fight it out. The Jewish forces prevailed and, in May 1948, the State of Israel was declared.

The conflict is remembered by Israelis as the War of Independence; by the Palestinians as “al-nakba” (the catastrophe). In Britain – whose retreat after a period during which “the purpose of the mandate was never entirely clear to most of those serving in Palestine”, as Naomi Shepherd put it in her 1999 book Ploughing Sand: British Rule in Palestine – it is barely remembered at all.

In a sense, this is all the more surprising because of the scale of British involvement. The numbers are staggering today. The National Army museum website gives a figure of 100,000 British troops in Palestine in 1947 – compared to a total of 78,000 fully trained troops in the entire British Army in 2017.

In another sense, it is not. The task faced by the mandate authorities was not easy. They left the region riven by conflict which continues to this day. Seeking international Jewish support during World War I, Britain had – in the words of the late historian Eric Hobsbawm – “incautiously and ambiguously promised to establish a ‘national home for the Jews’ in Palestine”.

The Balfour Declaration – as that pledge was known – was made in 1917. Its centenary in 2017 was barely noticeable compared to the attention the Armistice has generated. Like the end of the mandate, the Balfour Declaration is an anniversary Britain has mostly preferred to forget. The same cannot be said in the land that was Mandate Palestine.

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A watchtower at the Jewish settlement of Netzarim, Gaza 2004

As a correspondent newly arrived in Gaza to take up a posting during the second Palestinian intifada, or the uprising against Israel, I was soon welcomed by an elderly resident of a refugee camp – and then chastised by the same gentleman for the Balfour Declaration. The year was 2002, but he traced his wretched fate – his breeze-block house had just been demolished by the Israeli Army – to that document from 1917.

In his memoir, Ever the Diplomat, the former British ambassador to Israel, Sherard Cowper-Coles, recalled an encounter he witnessed between the then Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon and the British Middle East envoy, Lord Levy. An increasingly undiplomatic exchange ended when Sharon’s “massive fist came thumping down on the desk”, as he shouted: “The British Mandate is over.”

It is hard to imagine now, but when the mandate did end in 1948, it was a huge story in the British press. Research for my book, Headlines from the Holy Land: Reporting the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, led me to archived newspaper articles where the first draft of the history of that era was written. The morning that British rule ended, May 14 1948, the Daily Mirror did its best to rouse patriotic pride:

When British rule began, says the Colonial Office, Palestine was primitive and underdeveloped. The population of 750,000 were disease-ridden and poor. But new methods of farming were introduced, medical services provided, roads and railways built, water supplies improved, malaria wiped out.

The next day’s Daily Mail painted the stirring picture of the “weather-beaten, sun-dried Union Jack” which had flown over British Headquarters in Jerusalem being brought back to “the airways terminal building at Victoria” in central London.

Where the story has found its way into contemporary newspapers it has had a fraction of the attention granted to the end of World War I in Europe – a lack of public commemoration which suggests a combination of ignorance and shame.

“There were no brass bands playing when they came back. They were treated as if they’d been involved in something dirty”, the organiser of the Palestine Veterans Association told the Sunday Times recently.

Ignoring anniversaries such as these – especially at a time when the poppy appeal is given ever greater public prominence – amounts to selective commemoration, which acts against learning from military and diplomatic mistakes.

Russia and information wars

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Copies of the Communist Party newspaper, ‘Pravda’, from the last summer of the Soviet Union

This week I was on the Politics.co.uk podcast with Ian Dunt and Jamie Bartlett. We discussed Russia, big data, journalism and their roles in international politics and conflict. We started all the way back in the 1990s, hence the ageing pictures of Pravda, above. You can listen here.

Why the world should still care: two books on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

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The Damascus Gate into the Old City of Jerusalem

The books reviewed here are Enemies and Neighbours: Arabs and Jews in Palestine and Israel, 1917-2017 by Ian Black (Allen Lane) and Being Palestinian: Personal Reflections on Palestinian Identity in the Diaspora edited by Yasir Suleiman (Edinburgh University Press).

THERE ARE MANY CHALLENGES to writing about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, not least the fact that it is almost impossible to commit to paper anything which will not draw criticism. Israelis and Palestinians alike are convinced that they are treated unfairly by the international news media. Journalists, they say, are ignorant. They are biased. They do not know their history.

Therein lies one of the challenges for correspondents. For it is not history which they need to know so much as histories. The few hundred words or brief couple of minutes usually afforded to them in news reporting is barely sufficient. That is one reason why many reporters decide to write something much more substantial.

Ian Black’s new book Enemies and Neighbours: Arabs and Jews in Palestine and Israel, 1917-2017 may well be criticized in some quarters — that goes with taking up the task of writing about Israel-Palestine — but it certainly will not be on the grounds that he does not know his history. There is much here for the new reader seeking to understand the complexities of this conflict, and for those seeking deeper analysis.

All in all, this is an outstanding account of a century during which the land between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean has consumed more political, diplomatic, and editorial resources than might have been though possible for such a small part of the world.

In an age when politicians in long-established democracies are joining authoritarian leaders to gang up on journalists, it is good to see Black making the case for good reporting. ‘Journalism,’ he argues, ‘remains an indispensable ‘first draft of history’ that can sometimes turn out to be impressively close to later, more polished versions.’ He readily recognizes its value to him personally, too. ‘Arguably I learned as much reporting from the streets of Nablus and Gaza during the first intifada as from poring over declassified files or old newspapers.’

There are regrettably few international journalists who speak Hebrew or Arabic. Black speaks both, giving him a rare insight. Understanding language is not just about knowing the ‘who-what-when-where-why-how’ of journalism. It is the key to culture, and, in the case of Israel-Palestine, the history which makes up identity.

It is here that Black has really succeeded in enlightening his readers on the real challenge facing any diplomat who might try to restart the peace process which as failed so many times. Israelis and Palestinians are not only unable to agree on what should happen. They are unable to agree on what has already happened.

‘These master-narratives,’ Black writes, ‘are not so much competing as diametrically opposed — and utterly irreconcilable: justice and triumph for the Zionist cause meant injustice, defeat, exile and humiliation for Palestinians.’

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An alley in the Yibna area of the Rafah refugee camp, October 2003. Photo by the author

These are the recurrent themes of Being Palestinian: Personal Reflections on Palestinian Identity in the Diaspora. A sense of loss casts a shadow across the hundred or so individually authored short chapters which go to make up the volume.

That loss has become a defining national characteristic, and one which no nation would covet. The humiliation which Black identifies is, for the authors here, not only public and political, but deeply personal. Ibtisam Barakat tells of a father whom the 1967 war left ‘afraid that he could neither protect nor provide for us’ — so they leave, a further displacement.

When I lived in Gaza during the second intifada as the BBC’s correspondent from 2002-2004, there were still plenty among the older generation who remembered — perhaps only as infants — their homes in Mandate Palestine. Their numbers get fewer year after year. For the contributors in the book — most of them in the UK, the USA, or Canada — the separation is even greater. ‘El-blaad (the homeland) is just another way of saying remember,‘ writes Hala Alyan from Manhattan.

Others seem almost unnerved by the power and potential of such recollections, and whether they can endure. From Scotland, Mohammad Issa writes, ‘if truth be told, I fear that if I visit Palestine my childhood memories may be crushed under the harsh reality of life under military occupation.’ These memories are so precious that they must not be put at risk.

They are all that the authors have. Nadia Yaqub appears to question her own Palestinian identity solely because, having lived in the USA, and in the expatriate community in Beirut, she has not shared the experiences of dispossession and military occupation.  She therefore feels ‘hesitation to claim a Palestinian identity’. It is as if that identity can only be gained through suffering.   

This book will reward any reader who decides to choose a chapter at random, or read every single account. These are the kind of illuminating personal histories for which daily journalism only rarely has the space, and yet they are engaging and a vital aid to understanding the complexities of the conflict.

Perhaps because the editor is an academic, the contributors largely are, too. This may be something of a missed opportunity. I remember fondly a Gazan friend telling me that on a trip to Blackpool in the north of England he had met a Palestinian who owned a takeaway. Some of those kind of stories would fit well here, too.

At the start of a year which will see the 70th anniversary of the State of Israel, and of the nakba (catastrophe) as the Palestinians see the same event, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict does not draw the same urgent attention which so often it has. Last week, pointing out the relatively quiet 50th anniversary last year of the 1967 war, and the generally muted reaction to President Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, the Haaretz columnist Anshel Pfeffer persuasively argued, ‘The world just doesn’t care that much anymore.’

Perhaps so — for now, at least. Yet books like these remind us how very much that slice of land means to the people who live there, the people who want to live there, and millions of others around the world who hold the land to be holy, and care very much.

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A view of part of the Old City of Jerusalem from the nearby hills

Last month, I joined the regular hosts of the TLV1 podcast to interview Ian Black at City University, London. You can listen to the recording here .