Reflections on 2016, and 1991: two revolutionary years

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

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Getting a taste of capitalism, Moscow 1991

This is the second extract from a memoir I have written about my time as a TV news producer in Moscow in the summer of 1991. You can read the first piece here . It describes a day in Moscow shortly before a summit between the then Soviet and American leaders — and concludes with an incident I always remember when trying to explain to westerners why Vladimir Putin has been such a popular leader in Russia.

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

A few days before the summit between Mikhail Gorbachev and George W. Bush, I got a couple of hours off in the middle of the day. I decided to go to Red Square, while it was still easily accessible to the public, before summit security measures closed large parts of the city centre. I took a taxi. I went into GUM, the shopping arcade which runs the length of the square opposite the Kremlin. I recognized GUM’s exterior as the backdrop to Soviet military parades crossing Red Square on Revolution Day and Victory Day. It had been built as a monument to pre-revolutionary elegance and opulence: long halls with galleries of shops rising above on either side. It had become an embarrassing example of Soviet shortage. Despite this, it remained the closest that Moscow, or indeed the entire Soviet Union, had to a luxury goods store. Shoppers never knew what they might find so, even when it was woefully poorly stocked, it still drew the crowds. One benefit of the crumbling Soviet system from the employee’s point of view was that it didn’t always matter very much whether or not you turned up for work. So if you thought they might finally have say, towels, in GUM, there was nothing much to stop you wandering down there for a look. That day, plenty of people had. I loved Soviet watches. To me they were exotic, and cool, and I felt that now, after a couple of months in Moscow, I would have a special claim to wear one in London once I returned. At the watch department, all I could see were crowds pressing around cabinets which, when I got close, turned out to be almost empty. It was natural there, as anywhere else, that suspicion of spotting a rarity made people stop and look. The extreme circumstances here meant that two or three people dawdling too long might provoke rumours of a delivery of rare stock, and draw a crowd.

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

 

I walked out onto Red Square and towards Lenin’s mausoleum. It was almost midday and the guard was about to change. Tourists pressed up against the rope which kept the public back from the doors to the mausoleum. The Soviets in GUM behind me were desperate for material goodies. The western tourists already had expensive watches. They wanted to see a Communist ritual which to them was much more of a rarity.

As the Kremlin bells began to chime, the ceremony began. Green uniformed members of the guard goose-stepped from the tower next to St Basil’s cathedral, with its multi-coloured domes, towards the door of the mausoleum. As they marched, they held their rifles, with bayonets fitted, balanced in the palms of their left hands. Their right fists, clad, like their left, in white gloves swung rhythmically as they strode on their way. The change itself happened as the hour struck – life size figures with movements so precise that they too seemed to be mechanically controlled by the clock. It was an intricate dance with not a single step out of place. The sergeant oversaw it all. He marched out with the new guards, and then back with the ones who had been replaced. Their extreme formality – white shirts, gold braid, highly polished boots up to their knees, made the motley clothes of the onlookers seem almost profane. It seemed wrong to be watching in jeans and a t-shirt.

When they had marched away, I walked to the edge of Red Square, past St Basil’s, and down towards the Rossiya hotel – a mass of concrete which, with hundreds of rooms, a concert hall, and a cinema all incorporated into its gigantic frame, was said to be the biggest hotel in Europe.  An American ice cream company had recently opened a shop on the ground floor. I wandered in. A group of overweight Americans in training shoes that cost far more than a Soviet surgeon’s monthly salary enjoyed a taste of home. An elderly Muscovite made his way to the door, apparently eager for a first taste of this foreign delicacy. He went no further than the threshold. “Only for hard currency?” His face fell.  He repeated the words he had been told when he found out his roubles were worthless there. He left. Perhaps he forgot about how much he wanted the ice cream. He can’t have forgotten his experience. In the shadow of the Kremlin, the seat of Soviet power, the workers in whose name the Communists ran the country were being embarrassed and shamed by their ideological enemies.

Reporting the dawn and the death of Soviet Russia: 1917 and 1991

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Earlier this week, I published a piece on the website of The Conversation. Drawing on my time as a correspondent in Moscow in the 1990s and early 2000s, as well as on my current research, the article looked at the challenges of covering revolutionary Russia. You can read an extract below, and there’s also a link to the full piece.

“NO NEWS FROM PETROGRAD YESTERDAY”, was the headline in the Daily Mail on March 14, 1917. The story – or non-story – which followed, was only a few dozen words: “Up to a late hour last night the Russian official report, which for many months has come to hand early, had not been received”, it ran. So why publish it? The non-appearance of the daily news bulletin from the Russian government had led the Mail’s writer, trying to prepare a report in London, to suspect something was going on.

It was.

During the silence, the last tsar, Nicholas II, had abdicated and centuries of autocracy had come to an end in Russia. Correspondents in Petrograd were only able to tell their stories later. Russia’s links to the world were cut off. Donald Thompson, a pioneering news cameraman from the United States, later related his experience at the telegraph office: “The old lady in charge … told me not to waste my money – that nothing was allowed to go out.”

You can read the rest of the piece here .

The last Soviet summer: Moscow 1991

Twenty five years ago this week I flew to Moscow for a short assignment to cover the 1991 Russian Presidential Election: the first in the country’s history. I ended up staying much longer, and witnessing the end of the USSR. This post is an account of part of the first week I spent in the Soviet capital. It is part of an unpublished memoir I have occasionally worked on in the intervening years.

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

THE CENTURY was about to end. To look at the calendar, there were still nine years left, but one of the forces which had shaped the 1900s was about to collapse. The world which I had known all my life was about to change forever, too.

The air inside the terminal building at Sheremetyevo airport was stale. There were hints of cigarette smoke — somehow different from the smoke in the west — and of cooking somewhere in a distant canteen.The air outside was hardly less close. Recent rain had only cooled the afternoon a little.  It was humid. The sky threatened a storm.

The hotel where I unpacked that evening, June 6th 1991, was a new world to me – the world of Communist luxury. The hotel was called the Oktyabrskaya, named for the October revolution which had brought the Bolsheviks to power. It had been built to house their provincial successors on visits to Moscow. The corridors smelt of fresh polish. The furniture was wooden, heavy. In my room, a tray and a set of glasses stood on the table. They looked like copies of antiques, so old-fashioned that they could almost have come from the pre-Soviet period. Next to them stood bottles containing bizarrely-coloured blends of fruit and fizzy water: Communist refreshments not seen west of Warsaw. The television set was enormous. The colours on its screen seemed to compete with those of the soft drinks for which could be more unnaturally bright. The radio was so large and outmoded it would have seemed an antique in my grandparents’ house. It might not have seemed so to hotel staff then. Few, if any, of them had ever seen beyond the mostly closed borders of their country. From the window, I could just see the nearby spire of the Soviet foreign ministry: one of the gigantic, grey, skyscrapers, broad at the base, tapering towards the top, which Stalin had commissioned to dominate the skyline of the capital of world socialism.

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

I spent my first few days acclimatising, both to life in the city, and to my work. I was a producer for Visnews, a television news agency, which soon after became Reuters Television. It was my first foreign assignment. I was excited, curious, nervous that I might make mistakes. A recent University graduate in Russian language and literature, I had been sent out to help to cover the election of the first President of the Russian Federation. I arrived in the first week of June, in advance of polling day on June 12th.

For all that the city felt new and unfamiliar to me, I soon realized that it was the same for many Muscovites. The world was changing around them in a way that made some people, especially the young, feel as they never had before. It was euphoria. It probably only happens once in a lifetime; once in a century. Politically, one man stood at the centre of that: Boris Yeltsin. He was the favourite candidate to win the election.  Two days before the vote, his supporters held a rally in the city centre. A statue of the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky looked down from its pedestal. He sung the praises of the Soviet system at its birth. He died from a bullet thirteen years later. The official story is that the shot came from a gun he held at his own head. There has always been another story that he was shot by a police agent who sneaked into his flat through a secret entrance. At his death, he disillusioned with the revolution, or love, or both. The sculpture showed him as the square-jawed son of the new Soviet world, one which was now old and about to end.

The demonstrators prepared to move. The Soviet system to work down even to the tiniest detail to frustrate dissent. The marchers, as they assembled to show their support for Boris Yeltsin, lacked paper and glue to make banners and signs. As part of my preparation for this trip, I had read everything I could about what was happening in the Soviet Union in the run-up to the election. I even kept a scrap book of newspaper cuttings to aid my research. I had read plenty about shortages and empty shops – yet this still stood out. I just could not believe that things which I could easily buy in any corner shop were in such short supply in the capital city of a superpower. One elderly man, in thick Soviet spectacles and a white linen cap, fumbled with a complicated series of knots to tie his placard to its handle. Yet all these were minor inconveniences. The marchers had put up with decades of deception and deficit. Now they were allowed to ask for something different. They seemed to sense it could be theirs. ‘Yeltsin’s our man!’ the bespectacled marcher insisted. Others agreed that he was ‘wise, honest, an ordinary person.’

They set off towards the Kremlin. It was late afternoon. The heat that had been building up in the pavements and the road surface all through the day was now starting to radiate back upwards. “Yeltsin, Yeltsin!” they chanted. They were ordinary Muscovites for the most part, dressed in clothes that looked different from mine, Communist bloc clothes.  The young wore stonewashed denim dirtied by the summer dust. Older women wore printed dresses. Middle aged men wore shirts of orange and brown: colours which, in the west, had vanished in the early 1980’s. Gold teeth gleamed in the demonstrators’ smiling and chanting mouths. Some of them carried the Russian tricolour. Conformist Communists frowned on it as a relic of Tsarism. A few years earlier, unfurling it in public might even have got you arrested. The marchers disappeared in the direction of Red Square, and the Kremlin.

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

 

Ukraine: politics, and football

The thirst which came with being trapped in a huge crowd on a late summer day, and the excitement of change — unprecedented, and, until shortly before, unforeseen — are the two strongest memories of that day.

Two things which have happened this week have brought those memories back. The first was the latest round of political uncertainty in Ukraine. The second was a football match.

In September 1991, Visnews, the TV news agency for which I was then working, sent me to Kiev. The city was then still capital of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. I can only understand a little Ukrainian, but I think this press pass says ‘3-10 September’.

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However hard you try to plan for what is going to happen, most foreign correspondents know that success is often a result of luck as well as judgment. I was fortunate that hot day because I did get a front row seat — actually, in spectating terms, it was really a cramped standing space — as history unfolded.  I filmed the Soviet-era flag being lowered from the flag pole on the top of the Ukrainian parliament. It was replaced by the yellow and blue — for cornfields and sun — which still flies today.

In a 2014 essay for the Wall Street Journal, Serhii Plokhy, author of several acclaimed books on Ukraine and Eastern Europe, wrote of the confrontation between Russia and Ukraine, ‘The roots of today’s crisis go back to the last days of the Soviet Union.’

An underestimation then of what those last days meant still has consequences today. Ukraine became the focus of the most serious crisis in Russia’s relations with the West since the Cold War. In choosing to challenge the West by annexing Crimea, the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, has shown an excellent understanding of his constituency.

For the many years I lived in Moscow after the end of the Soviet Union, a mention to a Muscovite of an upcoming trip to Ukraine might prompt the response, half-joking perhaps, ‘Tell them to give us back Crimea.’

On my travels around the former Soviet Union — often linked, as the news agenda goes, to reporting on armed conflict, I was struck by the number of people who still thought of themselves as Soviet. The USSR had collapsed politically and economically, but it still existed culturally.

This was not always well enough understood in the West, but Mr Putin and his supporters understood it very well, and have exploited it. Remembering now that sunny day — the picture with Professor Plokhy’s article was taken then, I think — it is hard not to regret the passing of the euphoria and optimism that radiated from that crowd.

‘We wanted the best, but it turned out like always,’ as Russia’s post-Soviet Prime Minister, later ambassador to Ukraine, Viktor Chernomyrdin, once observed. He was reflecting on the roughness of Russian life in the 1990s, but his words describe pretty well Russia’s current relations with the West.

25 years on from that hot afternoon, Ukraine is not the place that crowd hoped it would be. Watching the UEFA Champions League on TV the other evening, I saw the Ukrainian President, Petro Poroshenko, among the spectators for Dynamo Kyiv against Manchester City. Mr Poroshenko was surrounded by men — presumably his body guards — in military fatigues: their clothes a reminder of the conflict in the east of the country.

I have supported Manchester City since long before the end of the Soviet Union. For years, I never imagined they would enjoy the success they do today. Both as a football fan, and foreign correspondent, you get used to the fact that everything changes — though rarely in ways you expect.

 

 

 

 

Book Review — Russia’s battle for belief

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

Last month I reviewed Jen’s Mühling’s A Journey into Russia for ‘Open Russia World’. You can read a brief extract of my review here, and there’s a link to the complete piece at the end of this post. If you are interested in Russia, as I am, and especially in its post-Soviet period, the book is well worth a read.

In his inauguration speech as Russian president in May 2008, Dmitry Medvedev made an astute observation on the nature of post-Soviet Russia.

‘We must ensure true respect for the law and overcome the legal nihilism that is such a serious hindrance to modern development,’ Mr Medvedev told his audience. Church, crown, and communism all having been cast aside at various stages in the preceding century, Russia had been left with little to believe in – especially as, in the eyes of many Russians, the first experience of capitalism in the 1990s served only to confirm communist warnings about its nature. No wonder nihilism had thrived.

Jens Mühling does not mention Mr Medvedev’s concerns, although his characters occasionally echo or confirm them. For in his engaging A Journey into Russia, Mühling is looking not for nihilists, but for believers. It is a rewarding approach.

Read more here

More details on the book here, on the publisher’s website.

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Restoration work on a chuch in Rostov Veliky, nothern Russia, June 2008. Photo: James Rodgers

#Waterloo200: lessons from remembering ‘a most bloody battle’

This piece was published this week on the website of The Conversation. You can see that version here.

Our views of war are sanitised today. In an age of professional armies trained for increasingly technical tasks, few of us have witnessed combat, much less taken part in it. In that vein, commemorations of the 200th anniversary of Waterloo will focus on the battle’s strategic significance. There are, though, individual accounts that give us a glimpse into what sword fights and cavalry charges must have been like – and the deadly consequences of defeat.

One such story was sent home by James Russell, a Serjeant (his own archaic spelling) in the North British Dragoons, a regiment known today as the Scots Greys. Russell was my ancestor, and my family still has his letter. “Since I wrote to you last we have had a most Bloody Battle with the French as ever was fought,” he writes to his wife, Mags, on June 24, six days after Waterloo.

Russell lists the dead and wounded – as a cavalryman, he also mentions the horses that suffered – before concluding that it was, “the sorest stroke any Cavalry Regiment has suffered at one day’s fighting since the memory of man”. And they were victorious.

The Greys won great renown for one of their number, Ensign Charles Ewart, captured a standard – a Napoleonic eagle – in hand-to-hand fighting. With his feat of arms, celebrity came to Ewart, and “he travelled the country making speeches at dinners with Sir Walter Scott, his friend and unofficial agent”.

After recounting the fate of his regiment, Russell turns to how he fared. “I have lost all my things,” he explains:

This day I am getting a dead Frenchman’s shirt washed to put on. My horse was wounded and sent into Brussels during the action and has lost my whole kit so I am now as I stand.

If such were the spoils of victory, imagine the loss of defeat.

Napoleon's tomb at Les Invalides in Paris.

Napoleon’s tomb at Les Invalides in Paris.

In Paris recently, I visited the Invalides – both Napoleon’s massive marble tomb, and the adjoining museum. I saw no mention there of the upcoming 200th anniversary of the battle, although it seems the French leader was even-handed enough to concede, alongside recognition of his qualities as a general, and a politician, that he was a “warlord” and a “despot”.

We are now in the midst of four years of commemorations of the World War I. A century after Waterloo, Britain and France were allies, and it is in this spirit of comradeship that these events are taking place. Other alliances have shifted, though. Without Russia’s heroic struggle against Hitler, World War II would not have been won as it was, if at all.

Today, Russia may not be a direct enemy of the West, but it is hard to think of it as an ally. Waterloo; World War I; World War II (or the “Great Patriotic War”, as it is known in Russian) – all of these victories have played a vital part in creating the identity that binds the nation state together.

Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, seems to understand very well the power of celebrating past victories. As a correspondent in Moscow in 2008, I watched the first VE Day military parade of the post-Soviet era roll across Red Square. The event seems only to have grown since.

Russia is telling itself that, whatever else it may or may not have accomplished in the 20th century, victory over the Nazis was a shining achievement which can never be tarnished. Memories of those Ukrainians who sided with Hitler’s troops in the hope of ending Soviet power are evoked now to justify Russian policy towards its neighbour – the sorest point in generally sour relations with the West.

While triumphs are celebrated, failures seem soon forgotten. Watching television pictures earlier this year of the service at St Paul’s to commemorate combat operations in Afghanistan, I wondered whether that campaign would be remembered in 200 years, as Waterloo will be this summer. For who now commemorates the British Mandate for Palestine, or other less glorious episodes of imperial history?

Such selection means that important lessons are ignored. While World War I commemorations have focused on Europe, surely the real consequences of that conflict for us today are in the Middle East: think of Islamic State’s keenness to demonstrate that the Sykes-Picot agreement is finished.

My recent research has included looking at newspaper archives of the reporting of the end of the British Mandate for Palestine. The failure of this episode in late imperial history to deliver, or even prepare the ground for, a just and lasting peace in the land between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean may be given little thought in Britain today, but it is still very much on the minds of those who live with the consequences.

My ancestor would no doubt have been dismayed to see Europe again in 1915, or 2015. In the introduction to The Sleepwalkers, his account of the causes of World War I, historian Christopher Clark writes of the “raw modernity” of the events of the summer of 1914, when failed diplomacy led to war. As someone who began their career in international news during the last summer of the Soviet Union, I take the phrase to be a warning of the possible consequences of the direction our own unstable age, which arguably began then, might take. For what is the conflict in Ukraine, if not the unfinished business of the summer of 1991?

“We are in hopes that another firm battle will settle this business,” James Russell writes towards the end of his letter. Perhaps to spare his family, he offers little detail of what he had seen at Waterloo. But he did not forget.

His son, David, would later recount a childhood memory of “big tears coursing down the cheeks” of his father and his fellow veterans on the anniversary of the battle. As we remember triumph at Waterloo this week, let us not ignore the lessons for foreign policy which can also come from failure.