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.


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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.

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 .

 

 

 

 

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.

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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.

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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.

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