In Russia's shadow
The Kremlin's useful idiots
Our correspondent meets yet another bearded Brit
THE Old Theatre at the London School of Economics is a hotspot for demagoguery. Fiery student orators have honed their rhetoric there before going on to jobs in investment banking; mobs denouncing dictatorship have hounded hapless visiting speakers from the podium.
Notoriously poorly ventilated, the air can be thick with everything from the smell of wet clothes (LSE is too cramped to provide a convenient cloakroom) to flurries of paper darts directed at speakers that the audience finds boring or annoying. On one memorable occasion, a gigantic inflated condom came floating down from the gallery to disconcert a notoriously adulterous politician who was trying to give a talk on privatisation.
In 1980, when your diarist arrived there as an undergraduate, it was gripped by the issue of Soviet beastliness at home and abroad. At one end of the political spectrum were the ardent anti-communists, soon to be reinforced by refugees from martial law in Poland. They denounced the persecution of Soviet Jews, collected signatures for Czechoslovakia’s Charter 77, and celebrated the West’s renaissance under Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher.
At the other end were the Spartacists, a weird group of Stalinist Trotskyists (yes, you did read that correctly), whose slogans included “Workers’ bombs are bombs for peace! Capitalist bombs are bombs for war!” and “Smash NATO, defend the Soviet Union!”
A slightly less bonkers approach by the Kremlin’s useful idiots was to match every Soviet crime with a real or imagined western one. It was called “whataboutism”: “So you object to Soviet interventions in eastern Europe? Then what about the American assault on the Nicaraguan Sandinistas?” “You mind about Soviet Jews? Then what about blacks in South Africa?”
Reports of Litvinenko's death “greatly exaggerated”, say Russians
So an evening debate on the death of Russian press freedom (where your diarist was putting the case for the prosecution) produced a sense of déjà vu. Two Russian journalists, putting the case for the defence, centred their case not on the rights and wrongs of Russia’s laws on extremism, but on the shortcomings of the British media for superficiality, double-standards, and craven obedience to its political and commercial masters. How dare we criticise Russian public broadcasting after the way the BBC had bowed to government pressure on so many occasions? Had not the newspaper coverage of the Litvinenko murder been a farrago of exaggeration, misunderstanding and hypocrisy?
Well perhaps it had. But the debate was about Russia. The shortcomings of the British press are widely discussed, not least by its own journalists; though it gets most things wrong most of the time, the errors are not directed by weekly meetings at Number 10, Downing Street at which a prime ministerial aide lays down the line to take in the comings days.
Soviet propagandists’ overuse of “whataboutism” provided the punchline for subversive jokes. For example: A caller to a phone-in on the (fictitious) Radio Armenia asks, “What is the average wage of an American manual worker?” A long pause ensues. (The answer would have been highly embarassing to the self-proclaimed workers’ paradise, which was proving to be lots of work and no paradise). Then the answer comes: “u nich linchuyut negrov” [over there they lynch Negroes]. By the late 1980s, that had become the derisive catchphrase that summed up the whole bombastic apparatus of the Soviet propaganda machine.
Yet “whataboutism” attracted vocal support from some parts of the audience. A student from Pakistan passionately denounced democracy as a sham. Someone from Malaysia praised the Kremlin for standing up to America. A bearded Brit came up with a predictable, “Who are we to judge?”.
Others, including what seemed (from their accents) to be a good sprinkling of Russians, disagreed, denouncing the Kremlin line and bemoaning the loss of media pluralism (not quite the same as freedom, but still worth having) since the Yeltsin years. Most did not give their names before speaking. “The embassy is watching us” explained one of them afterwards. Plus ça change.