Russia and information wars

Pravda

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.

Advertisements

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

P1000213 (2)

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.’

yibna.alley

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.

IMG_1108 - Copy

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 .

 

 

 

 

Book review: Gaza, Preparing for Dawn by Donald Macintyre

I reviewed Donald Macintyre’s new book, Gaza: Preparing for Dawn for The Conversation. You can read the original version here, and the full text below.

 

A PLACE OF SPACIOUS DIMENSIONS, and large population, with fine bazaars. It contains numerous mosques, and there is no wall around it.

To the modern reader, this is perhaps one of the more striking descriptions the medieval Moroccan traveller, Ibn Battutah, offered of the places he visited. Not because it contains anything shocking, but because of the town it portrays: Gaza.

For the city, and the war-torn strip of coastal land with which it shares a name, are today defined principally by the walls around it. Gaza has been held under siege for the best part of the last decade, since Hamas came to power in the territory.

beitlahiya.field

An Israeli Army watchtower in the northern Gaza Strip, Autumn 2002

Recent political developments, in the form of a unity government, mean that there may be more future movement through the southern border, with Egypt. Still, Gaza remains fenced in to the north and east by the Israeli Army, which vastly outguns any enemies it has in the territory. To the west lies the Mediterranean. Some shores of that sea are famous for tourism; stretches of its eastern edge are more readily associated with armed conflict, human suffering and wasted potential. Gaza definitely falls, along with Syria, into the latter category.

Without the beaches, life in Gaza would surely be immeasurably worse. The currents there make swimming hazardous; winter storms can be surprisingly violent. Yet the sky and the waves offer some relief in the form of light and air to a place where life can seem suffocating.

Flared, and died

As Donald Macintyre observes in his important new book, Gaza: Preparing for Dawn, the sea might also offer economic salvation. The discovery offshore of a gas field, Gaza Marine – estimated to hold a trillion cubic feet of natural gas – promised the solution to many of Gaza’s economic and energy woes.

9781786071064_1_1

Perhaps predictably, politics and conflict have conspired to stop that happening. Gaza Marine remains unexploited. Like the “telegenic background of a huge gas flame shooting into the air” – against which Macintyre describes the late Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, announcing unfulfilled plans to draw the wealth from beneath the waves – it has flared, and died.

It was into that sea that I watched for the final time a bright orange sun set in the spring of 2004. Since 2002, I had been the BBC’s correspondent in Gaza. At the time, I was the only international journalist permanently based in the territory. The kidnapping of my successor, Alan Johnston, in 2007 just as he was due to finish his posting, means that while correspondents continue to visit, they do not live there.

Johnston’s experience reporting “the descent into anarchy of which he himself was now a victim” (as Macintyre puts it) was a journalistic challenge which Johnston took on admirably. His fate – thankfully he was released after 16 weeks – ensures, however, that managing editors have since been rightly nervous about basing their journalists in Gaza ever since.

Watching the sunset that evening, I reflected on another theme which Macintyre rightly raises. I knew I was leaving. I knew I had always been there only as long as I felt like being there. With the exception of days when fighting made it too dangerous to approach the border crossing – and there were a few – I was free to come and go as I wished.

The people among whom I was living were not. Macintyre makes this point, in all its complexity, not only in the book’s shortest chapter – “They will always miss home” – but throughout. It is a complex point because while Gazans long for the opportunities which life outside can bring: study, work, and, in the case of a would-be Olympian, sport – they do not want to abandon their home.

To do so might make them feel that they were turning their backs on their people, and leaving them to their suffering. Gazans with jobs or university places outside are sometimes nervous about returning home for visits. A deterioration in the conflict could leave them trapped and, in consequence, unemployed. Some just leave for good, but the “unresolvable contradiction”, as Macintyre succinctly puts it, remains: “Gaza as a prison to escape from, but also forever home.”

It is in telling these individual stories that Macintyre really excels. Many journalists have been fascinated by Gaza on short visits; few have bothered to try so hard to understand the story beyond the bloodshed. Macintyre’s meetings with the jeans and juice manufacturers; the music students; and that marathon runner bring the people of Gaza to life in a way that daily news reporting rarely can.

Their deaths are recorded too, of course – and, even to news audiences grimly accustomed to reading about violent deaths in the Middle East, some will shock. The Gazan mother who keeps Israeli soldiers waiting at the door – only to open it just as they have decided to blow it apart with explosives – is one that is hard to forget.

All the individual stories are in turn directed by the larger political ones. Macintyre proves himself a well-informed chronicler of the intra-Palestinian conflict: principally between Fatah and Hamas, but also between the latter and newer Islamist rivals. Gaza: Preparing for Dawn also offers wise analysis of the conflict with Israel – and international attempts to address it.

Lest we forget

Macintyre is perceptive about the gap between what even the most senior diplomats say in public, and what they seem really to think. John Kerry, the last US secretary of state to try, and fail, to solve the conflict, is reported here as saying ironically of an Israeli bombardment that killed 55 civilians in six hours, “That’s a hell of a pinpoint operation”.

Diplomatic dispatches I saw when researching my last book, Headlines from the Holy Land accused Israel of “taking measures that would not be acceptable in most societies in the 21st century”. Such phrases rarely grace the more mealy-mouthed official statements. They are all the more revealing when they come to light.

Because for now, for the people of Gaza, there is little prospect of change. As 2018 approaches, one is reminded of the UN report of 2012 which asked whether the territory would be liveable in 2020. Despite that, there is no meaningful diplomatic process which might end Gaza’s misery. John Kerry failed. President Trump has shown little personal interest. His son-in-law, Jared Kushner, has been touted as a possible player – but there are no signs of concrete progress so far.

Israel’s approach of recent years has concentrated on “mowing the grass” – a phrase designed to explain the policy of launching military operations every so often to strike at armed Palestinian groups. The euphemism also ignores the fact that the majority of deaths in major operations are civilian ones. As Macintyre points out, even if leaflets are dropped telling civilians to leave, they don’t instruct them “where to find safety after fleeing their homes”.

Journalists covering conflict will sometimes agonise over whether their work makes a difference. If airtime and column inches alone could bring peace, then the sheer scale of coverage would have guaranteed a settlement long ago. It cannot, of course – but books such as Gaza: Preparing for Dawn do a vital job in reminding the world what goes on there. One day that knowledge may just be part of a solution.

abumater.house

The ruins of a house destroyed during an Israeli Army operation, Rafah, Southern Gaza Strip, October 2003

‘Headlines from the Holy Land’ in new paperback edition

9781137395122

I am very pleased to say that my book Headlines from the Holy Land is soon to be out in paperback. Thank you to everyone who has read it so far. You can see more on the publisher’s website, here, and reviews are below.     

“At a time when reporting on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is under unprecedented scrutiny, James Rodgers provides an essential and insightful historical perspective on the long “war of words” behind a major conflict of our time. Rodgers’ book is essential reading for those seeking a greater understanding of the difficult dynamics behind reporting – and resolving conflicts.” – Lyse Doucet, Chief International Correspondent, BBC News

“Headlines from The Holy Land is an impressively, innovative form of history as media history, looking at one of the most complex stories of our age through the imperfect, shifting but revelatory perspectives of the many journalists who covered this often compelling tale as it unfolded, from its 1946 roots through the various wars and propaganda battles fought in the streets of Gaza or the networks of social media. James Rodgers is an insightful, empathetic and rigorous guide to how journalism struggled often heroically to tell one of the most brutal and difficult of international stories.” – Charlie Beckett, Director, Polis, Department of Media and Communications, London School of Economics, UK

“James Rodgers is honestly direct about the challenges and pressures that makes reporting on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict unique amongst the myriad of crises faced by international journalists; something he was uniquely placed to do as the only western correspondent based in the Gaza Strip in the tumultuous years immediately after 9/11. But what makes this book so refreshing and incisive is that this account of reporting on this most intractable yet consequential conflict is the work of someone with the benefit of having been an experienced foreign correspondent but who now writes with the rigour of an academic’s eye on how our world is reported. In doing so, Rodgers leaves very few stones unturned, from the war over terminology and language, to the increasing role of religion in a crisis centred on the small area brimful of contested holy sites and he has framed it in a way that has context, careful analysis and is accessible to all those who either want to understand how this war which continues to have a major international impact is reported and to those who want to report it themselves.” – Rageh Omaar, International Affairs Editor, ITV News

“Reporting on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict often generates as much controversy as the issue itself. James Rodger’s book is rare for approaching the subject of how the story has been told by Western journalists over the decades, with an open mind and an academic rigour. It combines detailed research and candid insights from many of the region’s seasoned correspondents with an accessible style that keep the pages turning. With so many thoroughly biased self-appointed media watch dogs out there it’s freshening to read something that genuinely attempts to tackle the job of reporting on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with intelligent thoughtfulness.” – Paul Danahar, author of The New Middle East: the world after the Arab Spring

“The conflict between Israelis and Palestinians has been more intensively covered by the media, and for a longer period, than any other in recent times. In this fascinating book, James Rodgers tells us the story of the story. He shows how, as the struggle came to be as much about meaning, language, and perception as about bullets, bombs, or negotiations, reporters were under constant pressure from two sides seeking to control the narrative to their own advantage. He shows, too, how they brought their own prejudices and national viewpoints to the story, and how, nevertheless, good reporting did emerge and was, as it remains, vital in sustaining what informed public opinion there is on the dire state of affairs in the Holy Land of the title.” – Martin Woollacott, commentator on international affairs and former Foreign Editor, The Guardian

“An important and necessary book.” – Patrick Cockburn, The Independent

THE SIX DAY WAR: ISRAEL’S MASTERSTROKE OF WARTIME NEWS MANAGEMENT

IMG_1362

The war of 1967 was the start of the occupation which endures to this day: fortifications near Qalandia check point between the West Bank and Jerusalem, June 2014 ©James Rodgers

This article was originally published by The Conversation. You can read that version here.  

REPORTING ON THE ISRAELI-PALESTINIAN CONFLICT is the ultimate challenge in international news. It demands a thick skin. In no other field of international diplomacy are journalists’ words subjected to such scrutiny. It demands knowledge not just of history, but of vastly differing cultural, religious, and geographic perspectives. At times, it demands willingness to face danger.

All of these factors are relevant as the world marks 50 years since 1967’s Six-Day War, whose consequences continue to shape the parameters of any discussion of the conflict. As the BBC’s Jeremy Bowen put it in his book on the conflict, Six Days: “The occupation that started in 1967 has become the driving force behind the violence that Israelis and Palestinians are inflicting on each other.”

Israel’s military success in the Six-Day War redrew the borders of the Middle East – and it also set a new standard for government spin in wartime. Alongside its preparations for war, Israel ran a masterful communications campaign designed to disguise its military one. “Newspaper offices not only in Israel, but throughout the world, received pictures of Israeli troops on leave relaxing on the beaches,” remembered journalist Winston Churchill, grandson and namesake of Britain’s wartime prime minister, in the account he co-authored with his father, Randolph.

Churchill, who was reporting for the News of the World, himself played an unwitting part in the spin. Granted an interview with the Israeli cabinet’s new defence minister, Moshe Dayan, Churchill reported that:

General Dayan declared: “We don’t want anyone else to fight for us. Whatever can be done in a diplomatic way I would welcome and encourage but if fighting does come to Israel I would not like American or British boys to get killed here and I do not think we need them.

Moshe Dayan (L) in 1967. Tom Pearlman, Jr. via Wikimedia Commons

Dayan knew what he was doing: he was a military man opening a front in a media war. In his autobiography, published in the 1970s, he wrote of his meetings with journalists on the eve of war, and his hopes “that the impression might be gained that we were not about to go to war but were intent on exhausting all the diplomatic possibilities”.

The media was an indispensable part of creating that impression. Shortly after Israeli forces captured the Western Wall in Jerusalem, David Rubinger photographed three paratroopers standing before the wall’s white stones. Distributed by the Israeli Government Press Office, the picture became one of the most recognised images of the entire conflict. Rubinger died earlier this year, at the age of 92. Three years ago, I interviewed him for my own book, Headlines from the Holy Land. We met in his West Jerusalem home, which still housed the dark room where he had developed that picture.

“They had tried a trick,” he said of the Israeli government. “They sent a lot of people on leave. Units were sent on leave on Friday, and Saturday for Shabbat, which was obviously a Dayan trick.”

This ploy – exploiting the expectation that religious Israeli troops wouldn’t fight on the Sabbath – was a major success. Not many reporters seem to have fathomed what the Israelis had done until much later, although one Guardian headline – “Israelis cloak their aims” – did hint that all was not what it seemed.

Taken in

By the time victory came, Israel and the region had been transformed. Borders which exist today, albeit without international recognition, were established by force of arms. Gaza, the West Bank, and the Golan Heights were under Israeli military occupation, and remain so today.

In the process, Israel’s military also transformed its image in much of the British press. No longer the “terrorist” force of late British Mandate days, it was suddenly a respected fighting force facing down hostile neighbours. In the News of the World’s June 11 edition, the Sunday after the war, Churchill wrote of “a victory unprecedented in the history of the world”.

The Arab armies, meanwhile, were humiliated in battle – and their media strategy collapsed too. David Hirst, later an authoritative correspondent and author, was then a stringer in Beirut. In a 2014 interview he told me how, at the start of the war, “the Arabs believed what the Egyptian media was saying. And they thought that victory was on the way”. Defeat, he remembered, came as a “colossal shock”.

One of the toughest tasks facing correspondents caught up in world-changing events is judging where they might lead. As Sydney Gruson wrote in the New York Times of June 9 1967:

On one thing all Western diplomats and Israelis seem to agree: too much blood has been spilled – more perhaps than is yet realised in the great flush of victory – to expect that Israel would willingly return the frontiers to what they were before the war began on Monday.

He was right. Those frontiers remain. Soldiers and diplomats might study 1967 for strategy. Journalists at work in the fake news era should study its lessons in spin.

WHY THERE’S SO MUCH FAKE NEWS NOW — AND WHY THAT MAY NOT LAST

MarchforEurope

The ‘March for Europe’ London, 25th March 2017. In the UK’s Europe debate, both sides have accused their opponents of misleading voters

Earlier this month, this article was published on The Conversation. You can read it here, and a version follows below.

STORYTELLING IS A KEY part of human culture. Where politics and power are concerned, stories become something not only to be told, but to be shaped and influenced – so that, in many cases, they are used to mislead or deceive. Recent research for a lecture on “fake news” led me to wonder if there was a reason why it seems to spike at certain times. I came to the conclusion that three main factors seem to create the conditions for fake news to surge: a step change in communication or communication technology coupled with political uncertainty and armed conflict.

There’s no doubt that the world is still learning to adapt to the impact of social media. Twitter was a fledgling platform ten years ago, now it’s the way the president of the United States talks to the world. It allows him to feel in control of his message. Political power has always wanted to do that: from the battles of the ancient world right the way through human history. In Britain, one might think of the Tudor dynasty’s attempts to control what was at the time new media – the printing press – to consolidate their initially tenuous hold on the English throne in the late 15th century.

This was a time of both political uncertainty and armed conflict – and the printing press played its major role in creating that conflict and instability.

With the benefit of hindsight, Napoleon Bonaparte’s campaign in Russia is remembered as a military disaster – but it didn’t look like that to begin with, as the Grande Armée advanced on Moscow. The Russian commander, Marshal Kutuzov – facing questions over his tactics – made sure that when the tide started to turn his way, he made the most of it. Battle trophies were shown off to the soldiers. “Whatever his limitations as a tactician, Kutuzov was a master when it came to public relations, and his troops’ morale,” wrote Dominic Lieven in Russia against Napoleon.

Few in the rank and file of Kutuzov’s army would have been able to read or write. The only accounts of the action would have been from official dispatches, or officers’ diaries and letters. The message was fairly easily controlled.

Russia’s war against France, Britain and Turkey, later in the 19th century was a different matter. The Crimea of the 1850s is remembered in journalism history for the debut of the “miserable parent of the luckless tribe”, as William Howard Russell – usually considered the first war correspondent – described himself.

His pioneering reporting had influence long beyond his era. The British government was not just worried about the enemy when World War I broke out. They were worried about the press. Soaring newspaper circulations and literacy rates which had greatly increased as the result of widening education – not to mention the huge ambitions of the press barons of the age – meant that the newspapers were credited with unprecedented influence. Strict legislation was passed to ensure they did not use it in a way likely to contradict the government. Some did try to report freely, but were stopped. At least one, Philip Gibbs, who later toed the government line, was threatened with being shot.

Those who were allowed to report sent uplifting accounts that soldiers did not recognise. There were infamous atrocity stories, too – one of the most shocking being that the Germans were boiling down human corpses for soap. It was fake news of the worst kind.

The next time Europe went to war and dragged in large parts of the rest of the world, radio dominated. Never before had the human voice had the ability to be a simultaneous, mass medium. Its novelty spawned new propaganda opportunities. Among the most infamous exponents was William Joyce, known as “Lord Haw-Haw” who broadcast Nazi propaganda in English. The nickname was an attempt to undermine him. He was taken seriously enough, though, to be hanged as a traitor after the war.

The Cold War – a time of massive political tension, and proxy wars – produced fake news that grabbed global attention. Among them: the KGB-inspired canard, Operation INFEKTION, which tried to convince people that the AIDS virus was a product of US biological warfare experiments. There was an uncanny contemporary echo of this when RT seemed to give credence to stories that the US Department of Defense might be to blame for Ebola.

So “fake news” is not new. What arguably is new is its scale, and participatory nature. Today, anyone with access to social media can join in. Political instability and war – such as the world is plagued with today – create the incentive for governments and individuals to do so, and new technology and uses of that technology have made it easier to spread.

If there is good news in the age of fake news, it is this: previous fake news eras have come to and end. Politicians and publics have become familiar with the way new media work and have done so in the eras of journalism from printing to mass circulation newspapers to broadcasting and now social media. Journalism regained trust and credibility after World War 1. It can again.

Reflections on 2016, and 1991: two revolutionary years

Lenin

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

‘DO YOU KNOW WHAT THE USSR WAS?’ asked the Ukrainian I had got talking to in London.

The USSR was many things to me — although I think it has taken a quarter of a century for me fully to understand something of what it was to others.

‘Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive/ But to be young was very heaven!’ wrote Wordsworth in ‘The French Revolution as It Appeared to Enthusiasts at Its Commencement’. That is how it felt to me to be in Moscow in 1991. I was in my 20s, and on my first foreign assignment as a TV producer, for the Visnews agency.

Russia’s post-Soviet revolution was ‘at its commencement’. For someone of my generation, who had spent their teenage years worrying whether the acceleration of the nuclear arms race in Europe was going to lead to conflict, the end of the Cold War between East and West was indeed blissful. The excitement of being on assignment in Moscow as a young journalist ‘was very heaven’. The world as I had known it all my life was changing forever, and I was there to see it.

What I — and the other young western journalists I met, and who were in some cases to become lifelong friends — saw that summer seemed good. Especially in the Soviet capital, we saw a population enthusiastic for change — brave enough, when the time came, to stand with sticks against tanks to defend it. They faced down a coup attempt by hardliners in August 1991 . Later that year, and 25 years ago this month, the Soviet Union formally ceased to exist. Back in London, I was in the newsroom on Christmas Day when Mikhail Gorbachev went on air in Moscow to resign, and the red flag was lowered from the Kremlin.

WP_20160607_10_01_28_Pro

The Kremlin, summer 1991, with the Red flag of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics flying. © James Rodgers

For some Cold Warriors in the west, that was victory. For one prominent American academic, this was — absurdly, it is now clear — the ‘end of history’. For those of us who spend a lot of time reporting from Russia in the 1990s, it came to be something else: the beginning of an age of great hardship, uncertainty, and humiliation for millions of people in Russia, and other parts of the former USSR.

‘We keep on failing to understand the nature of the trauma that hit all Russians in 1991,’ Sir Rodric Braithwaite, the last British Ambassador to the USSR, told an audience at Chatham House 20 years later. Policy makers did not understand well the possible political consequences of that trauma either — at least until it was too late.

For it was in those days that the wrath of post-Soviet Russia was being nursed. It came to adulthood in the annexation of Ukraine, and, on the wider global stage, in the Middle East. The end of history mindset seemed to have prevailed among policy makers, too — again until it was too late. When relations with Russia turned bad, there were not enough people who understood why. ‘What’s really lacking in all these theatres is sufficient people who are deep experts on the language and the region to actually produce the options to ministers,’ complained Rory Stewart, then Chair of the House of Commons Defence Select Committee, in a 2014 interview with Prospect Magazine , as Russia cemented its hold over Ukraine.

Experts: in 2014, a senior Conservative politician said they were lacking; in 2016, another, Michael Gove, said Britain had ‘had enough’ of them.

Many disagreed — but enough were persuaded to accept the case made by Mr Gove and his fellow ‘Leave’ campaign leaders that Britain should leave the European Union.

That is one of the ways in which 2016 has helped me understand 1991. Now, in middle age, I have a perspective on how it must have felt for Russians in their 40s and 50s to see their country go to hell, taking with it all they had known.

This year, it has been the turn of my country to have a revolution — for that is what ‘Brexit’ is — and head off in an unknown direction. Not even those who most fervently sought this turn of events can claim that it has been adequately prepared for.

As a foreign correspondent in the 1990s and 2000s, I saw other people’s political systems fall apart. Both in the former USSR, and in the Middle East, this led on occasion to wars which cost countless thousands of lives. There is no prospect now of war in Western Europe, although that was the way we chose for centuries to settle our disputes. It is not simply coincidence that the era of the European Union has also been an age of peace.

The signs of other times are still there to see. As a frequent visitor to both Scotland and Denmark, my seaside walks lead me past Second World War fortifications scarring the beaches on the North Sea coast.

wp_20161023_11_46_01_pro

World War Two defences on the coast of East Lothian, Scotland, October 2016 ©James Rodgers

Will Europe ever be as divided again in my lifetime? As Christopher Clark wrote in the introduction to his excellent 2014 book The Sleepwalkers: How Europe went to War in 1914, ‘what must strike any twenty-first-century reader who follows the course of the summer crisis of 1914 is its raw modernity.’ He continued, ‘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.’

That’s why we need good journalism. Those of us western journalists who lived in Russia in the 1990s understood very well the reasons for Vladimir Putin’s rise to power (I wrote about this at greater length in a recent piece for The Conversation).

So, yes, I did know the USSR. A quarter of a century later, I know this, too: like the USSR,  nothing lasts forever. Blissful dawns do not necessarily lead to sunny afternoons, or peaceful evenings. The demagogues who have tasted victory in 2016’s tumult would do well to remember that.