It’s never a hardship to be in St Petersburg for whatever reason and, over the years, I have had a few – friendship, trade, tourism and now football. No city in Europe is grander or has more reason to hate war.
Whisper it to certain sections of the British media but I have always enjoyed my travels in Russia and meeting its people, perhaps because it is never a bad idea to see the world from a different perspective rather than believe all we are spoon-fed.
That cuts both ways. One of our party was in the hotel lift when asked where he came from. “Scotland,” he said. “Ah, that is a very violent place,” replied his fellow traveler. There was no time between floors to correct him.
To the dimmer class of opinion, trying to understand other people’s view of the world means subservience to that outlook. So for the record, I have no illusions about the history or current wrongs behind the grand façade that surrounds me – a caution that should apply equally to all states and systems.
Understanding, without acquiescence, is best promoted by human contact, whether it is through politics, business or sport. Dividing the world into friends and enemies tends to lead us in directions best avoided. So perhaps better if we can also see ourselves as other see us – which involves listening as well as pontificating.
My earliest visits to St Petersburg, or Leningrad as it then was, were for the unlikely purpose of speaking at Burns Suppers. This was at the invitation of an admirable organisation called the Scotland-USSR Society which existed in order to maintain these human contacts through the hardest of times.
The Burns Suppers in Moscow and Leningrad were highlights of its calendar, with a couple of hundred Scots transported to these places to celebrate a shared interest in the peasant poet’s work. Friendships were established, visits exchanged and a minuscule contribution made to the cause of human understanding.
To put it beyond political reproach, which must always have been waiting in the wings, the Society enjoyed the patronage of Scotland’s most eminent citizens of the era – the Nobel prize-winning John Boyd Orr, Sir Hugh Roberton of Glasgow Orpheus Choir fame, the actor James Robertson Justice and, latterly, the scientist, Lord Ritchie Calder. With such a cast list, the Society existed solely for the purpose of “advancing understanding”.
But great oaks from little acorns grow. In the 1980s, it instigated the Edinburgh Conversations – led by Professor John Erickson of Edinburgh University – which brought together policy makers and academics from east and west, at a time when such contacts were rare and the world was a dangerous place in which the doctrine of a winnable nuclear war was gaining ground.
When Erickson died in 2002, the Daily Telegraph obituary, no less, noted that “during the Cold War he was one of the very few academics to have the trust of both sides and was at times a vital conduit for contact between the Americans and Soviets”. Quite an epitaph. By then the Cold War was over, at least for a while.
My next visit to St Petersburg was in a very different guise, as UK Trade Minister in 1998. I can be very precise about the date – 13 August – for it was the day the rouble collapsed. I was there to open the biggest-ever UK trade show in Russia but hardly anyone came because, understandably, they had other things on their minds.
At that time, prognostications about the Russian economy ranged between dire and terminal. Vast sums of money had flowed out of the country into Swiss bank accounts. Foreign companies were rushing for the exit. A few months later, Putin replaced Yeltsin and Russia’s rapid economic recovery helps explain why he is still there, though a sharp rise in the oil price also had a lot to do with it.
So what was the UK doing, having cheer-led for the fall of the Soviet Union? A large part of Russia’s wealth was stolen in the 1990s, leading to differing interpretations about Britain’s role in what followed. This vignette was neatly summarised by an exchange only this week which confirms why it does no harm to consider both sides of a story.
Still in McMafia mode, The Times ran a headline: “Russians have turned London into a haven for dirty money.” To which the Russian Embassy promptly tweeted: “Nope. It’s London that welcomed dirty money from around the world and the Government refusing to extradite Russian criminals.”
Unfortunately, this analysis has the merit of truth – though it is a truth politicians and media prefer not to address. Since the early 1990s, so-called oligarchs have been free to buy football clubs, Scottish estates and all such trappings of respectable wealth, without the slightest interest in where the money came from in the first place. It is useful to be reminded that there is a Russian perspective on these events.
When it comes to international affairs, the sense of talking and seeking to understand, rather than being dragged into positions which the Pentagon has decided upon, is overwhelming. If there had been any Ericksons around, would we have failed to understand why the simplistic objective of overthrowing Assad in Syria would lead to inevitable bedlam, not least because of Russia’s close interest? If anyone can tell us now who are the good guys and bad guys in Syria, I would be interested to hear from them.
But then, I hear you say, how can we trust the Russians when they interfere in American elections? Absolutely true, of course. But let’s not forget that America has been interfering in democratic elections around the world for many decades and, when necessary, overturning the outcomes with weapons far more deadly than Facebook and Twitter.
So it is good be back in St Petersburg, briefly and for the most benign of reasons. I promise not to believe a word the Russians tell me – except when they tell me not to believe everything we are told about Russia. Today, I will return to violent Scotland.