Review of “Return to Moscow” by Tony Kevin

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Review of Return to Moscow by Tony Kevin

Return to Moscow is Tony Kevin’s memoir of his two times spent in Russia, first as Australia’s ambassador to the Soviet Union from 1969-71 and a one-month trip to contemporary Russia in 2015 – covering Moscow, St. Petersburg, Yekaterinburg and Nizhny Novgorod.

In chapter one, Kevin touches on his reasons for returning to Russia: to see things he knew were off limits to him during his Cold War posting, exploration of important cultural icons – namely, renowned Russian writers – and the hope of balancing out all the misinformation about Russia that is largely rooted in Washington’s Cold War triumphalism.

“Of course it [Russia] is a nation that still faces huge challenges.  But is it really our place to tell Russians how to run their country, to ‘mark their report card’?  Maybe we in the West have fallen into the habit of thinking of Russia in condescending, derogatory ways?  Even serious Western discussion of policy towards Russia is now too often framed in disparaging language.  I expressed the hope that my trip and the planned book to come out of it might make a little dent in this hard shell of prejudice.”

Kevin moves on in Chapter 2 to discussing his time as ambassador during his mid-twenties in Soviet-era Moscow, where he lived in a small “closely guarded” flat in an “enclosed diplomatic compound” with his first wife.

Kevin described their home in Moscow, a glaring contrast to what he was used to as a middle-class Westerner:

“The West already seemed far away.  Our new home at apartment 32 was a small, cockroach-ridden third floor flat.  Two bedrooms, a semi-partitioned living/dining area, a small kitchen, a bathroom and a windowless storeroom.  We had old and tired flatpack Scandinavian furniture inherited from my predecessors, on drab and worn-out carpet. Our building faced onto an identical building across a narrow bare courtyard of dead grass and muddy dirt, supposedly a children’s play area but filled with old dog droppings.  The entire compound was surrounded by a high chain wire fence.  Stony-faced policemen on 24-hour guard duty at the single gate noted all comings and goings and interrogated anyone who might dare to visit us.  Our Russian-language teacher, Lydia Melnikova, and our maid, Lydia Zvyagintseva, were sanctioned regular visitors with security passes, but it would have been a brave Russian who tried to visit us without one – they would have been halted, refused admittance to the compound and interrogated.  It was, we were told, all for our own security.”

Kevin, by default, joined the small community of western diplomats and their wives to create some semblance of a social life outside of work, mostly American and British counterparts with whom he shared language and who also enjoyed larger and nicer homes.  Other than dinner parties, small get-togethers and picnics (when weather permitted) at a couple of parks, and ski trips in the winter, their choices for excursions were limited indeed during the closed-off Communist era.  Consequently, the embassies created their own choirs and reading and crafts groups to provide social activities.

He describes the murky professional expectations he and his colleagues attempted to navigate in the Cold War and how they were laughably (in retrospect) impossible to accomplish within the fear-based confines they lived within:

“We diplomats – on both sides – had a peculiarly ambiguous mandate. We were not soldiers or spies, but we were not merely official post-boxes and visit facilitators either.  Our task was to try to understand the adversary world, to connect with it professionally as diplomats, to learn as best we could how it worked and where we thought it might be going, to engage with it in mutually advantageous political and trade dialogues as policy allowed, but not to succumb to its attractions whatever they might be.  We had to become close, but not too close.  We could not do our jobs by skulking fearfully in our embassies:  we had to try to get out and engage with the rival world.  The art was in finding safe and productive modes of engagement.  It was a delicate balance.  I am not sure in retrospect that my embassy did it very well – I think we suffered from an excess of caution – but that was the Cold War game we Australian diplomats tried to play.”

Kevin also describes his very limited interactions with the Soviet people as the diplomats are quickly schooled in all the “no go” areas, which prevents them from taking the metro or driving freely:

“I soon reconnoitered a quite pleasant four-kilometer walking route from our flat in Kutuovsky Prospekt to the chancery compound in Kropotkinsky Pereulok.  I tried to stay fit through walking it regularly to and from work, summer and winter. It passed close by the Kievsky Voskal railway station, a major station for west-bound trains, then crossed the Moscow River over a road bridge, and then through a chilly pedestrian underpass under the major Sadovaya ring road that encircles the city, and out into the historic and prestigious Kropotkinskaya district.  Near the Kievsky station, I would pass a sleazy vodka bar where I avoided the occasional groups of drinking men standing or sitting in the street; and a basic café where one could occasionally drop in for a warming snack of boiled or fried pelmeny (spicy Siberian pork dumplings).  There was a florist shop on Sadovaya not for from the Residence, to buy the occasional bunch of flowers for Valerie.” (pp. 44-45)

He does provide a few examples of some rubbing of elbows with the natives – some awkward and some more productive – at concerts, symphonies, ballets or poetry readings.  Classical music was considered safe and diplomats were provided “regular privileged tickets” at cheap rates due to the strong subsidization of “high culture” by the state.

“Orchestral concerts in Moscow concert halls were easy to get into, and always excellent.  Concertgoer behavior was strange:  in the intervals, people seemed disinclined to mingle and chat.  They formed up into serried ranks of purposeful walkers, who promenaded briskly around the huge lobbies for the duration of intervals in linked-arm groups, always on the move.  If people recognized one another, they gave little sign of it.  There was hardly any chitchat.  I realized, years later, that this was a vestige of prudent practice from the Stalinist terror years.  People had learned not to risk casual conversation with acquaintances or strangers in public places, for fear they might be compromising themselves by being seen to be friendly with someone who might already be under security police surveillance.

Thankfully, Bolshoi Theater audiences were more cosmopolitan and relaxed.  One could sip a glass of Soviet wine or cognac or beer and eat an open sandwich during intervals in one of the theater bars, and usually find people to greet – fellow diplomats, and sometimes Russians from the Foreign or Trade Ministries who were more used to Western-style socialization.”  (pp. 47-48)

He also notes the parochial and disdainful attitude that he and his colleagues displayed toward Soviet era culture:

“We were fundamentally incurious about Soviet or Russian – the terms were synonymous – culture and life.  Some of us would allow ourselves to respect the imagined Russia that might have been, had it not been knocked off balance by the communist takeover in 1917.  We felt sure that there was no possibility whatsoever of turning the clock back to that more refined, Orthodoxy-based, philosophically reflective pre-communist Russia, the Russia of Tolstoy and Turgenev and Chekhov and Tchaikovsky, that we had learned about in our pre-posting study of Russian history and culture.  We could allow ourselves to love this imagined Russia, while despising the Russia where we got up and went to work in our embassies each day.” (pp. 47-48)

With respect to his visit to Nizhny Novgorod, Kevin spends several pages discussing his admiration for Soviet nuclear physicist, “father” of the Soviet hydrogen bomb, and reluctant dissident Andrei Sakharov, who was a public face of the gradual relaxation of repression in the Post-Stalinist era of the Soviet Union.

Kevin explains Sakharov’s evolution as an unapologetic key player in developing a weapon that he viewed as a necessary deterrent to Washington ever being able to wipe out the Soviet Union or blackmail it with a first-strike capability.  As Kevin notes, Sakharov did not assume that Washington had eternal, if any, “good will” that could be depended upon to protect his people.  However, over time, Sakharov recognized that peaceful coexistence was necessary and more safety measures needed to be put in place to assure that nuclear war would not initiate due to error or misunderstanding.  He helped to create some of those safety measures that were eventually implemented, such as a hotline between the U.S. president and the Soviet premier, early warning systems of accidental launches, and mutual agreement not to use “tactical” nuclear weapons that could quickly escalate into full-scale nuclear war.

By the late 1960’s, he was attempting to use his influence to urge the Soviet leadership to enter into bilateral agreements with Washington to ban the development of anti-ballistic missile systems, fearing the consequences of such a development on the balance of nuclear power.  When an article he wrote explaining his reasoning behind supporting such a ban was prohibited from publication in the Soviet Union, Sakharov developed the article into a more comprehensive piece on world political and environmental challenges that needed to be addressed.  This was initially published via samizdat – the secret and informal dissemination of political writings in the Soviet Union – and then was smuggled out and published in the West.

This angered the Soviet leadership which quickly punished Sakharov by prohibiting him from any future military research, while employing social and professional isolation and official media attacks against him as a traitor.  In 1980, after publicly protesting the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, he was sent into “internal exile” in Gorky, which was a closed city.  He could not leave, meet with or correspond with foreigners (including professional colleagues and members of his own family who lived abroad), and was subjected to constant surveillance and harassment.

In 1986, Gorbachev relaxed some of the surveillance and communication prohibitions on Sakharov and eventually released him from internal exile.  However, Sakharov did not stop protesting government policies he disagreed with until his death in 1989.

The descriptions of the Soviet era all contrast sharply with Kevin’s 2015 visit.  In modern-day Moscow he finds a vibrant, developed, open and culturally-rich city.

St. Basil’s Cathedral, Red Square, Moscow; Photo by Natylie S. Baldwin, October 2015

He provides several vignettes of his open conversations with Russians and convivial social interactions – facilitated all the more, he admitted, due to his attempts to speak to Russians in their own language, which were received well regardless of the rustiness of his skills:

“The old Moscow of the 1960’s seemed a distant bad memory.  This was a bright, elegant European city now, and it was all accessible.  Having some Russian helped me enormously to overcome initial feelings of strangeness as I moved around the city, and opened all doors for me. …The dourness and unfriendliness that Western visitors so often speak of encountering in Russia melts away, if one can succeed in communicating in Russian even a little.  Initially guarded faces relax and light up in smiles.”  (pp. 90-91)

Kevin later travels to the city of Yekaterinburg, the fourth largest in the country, located in the Ural Mountain area, and the site of Czar Nicholas II and his family’s final exile and massacre.

“From my mid-town hotel, the Tsentralnaya, I walked up a main street where the deposed former Tsar Nicholas II and his family were executed by volunteer firing squad on 16 July 1918 at the height of the Civil War.  White forces were advancing on Yekaterinburg.  Moscow feared that if it the Whites rescued the Tsar, he might become a rallying point of invigorated resistance.  Unwilling to risk moving the royal family again, Moscow ordered all of them killed in their house of imprisonment.  They were secretly shot overnight by volunteer firing squad in a cellar, their bodies smuggled out in carts and hidden in unmarked country pits.

And yes, I wept at the immediacy of the dreadful memory of this atrocity inflicted on innocent people.  I wept for Tsar Nicholas and his young family.  In no way did they deserve this cruelty.” (pp. 145-146)

I must acknowledge that I understood Kevin’s reaction there even though I’ve studied the horrible conditions in which many Russians lived prior to the 1917 revolution and can understand their resentment of Nicholas II’s governance and wanting him removed.  In studying Nicholas II, his character and his rule, it was tragic to realize that if he’d perhaps found himself living as a simple merchant or farmer, he may have been recognized as a decent enough man – he was mild-mannered and genuinely seemed devoted to his family and loved animals.  But he was horribly ill-equipped to deal with the historical role that had been thrust on him and it greatly magnified his character flaws – indecisiveness, gullibility in allowing himself to be influenced by the wrong people, willfully insulated, etc. – and led to terrible consequences for many.

Museum in Moscow with exhibit of Russian Revolution; photo by Natylie S. Baldwin, May 2017

I recall on my visit to the exhibit of the Russian Revolution Centennial at the Russian History Museum in Moscow last May, coming across a case full of artifacts that included one of the handguns used in the massacre of the Czar’s family as well as a letter written by one of the participants.  I asked our museum guide if any of the participants in the execution of the Czar’s family ever expressed any remorse for the murders, particularly of the Czar’s kids.  He replied without hesitation, “No.”  He explained that the participants believed that they were doing the right thing in the bigger picture, much as Kevin explains their rationale above.

Yekaterinburg is also the city where the recently-unveiled museum honoring Boris Yeltsin is located.   According to Kevin, the museum is not as much of a white-wash as one might expect.  Among the most interesting tidbits included the history of Yeltsin’s feud with Gorbachev that reflected, not only the huge differences in their political attitudes but in their basic temperaments and personalities as well:

“Gorbachev and Yeltsin had hated each other since their first clashes in 1987.  They were like chalk and cheese – Gorbachev the crafty, risk-averse, cold and at times arrogant contingency planner, versus Yeltsin the romantic, impetuous, charismatic force of nature.  Their personal feud was now being played out on an epic national battlefield of two competing visions:  the old communist hierarchy-driven Soviet Union, versus Yeltsin’s dream of a new democratic, populist Russia.  Gorbachev had aroused public hopes and expectations for change, but had failed to deliver.  Now Yeltsin was openly challenging him – though ironically, they shared many similar political values and long-term goals.” (p. 150)

Of course, we all know that Yeltsin’s vision won out.  We also know that Yeltsin’s populist values turned out to be largely for show as he ended up personally corrupt and led post-Soviet Russia into a form of gangster capitalism while working hand-in-glove with western “advisers” to accomplish it.   And, as Kevin importantly points out, Yeltsin is ultimately responsible for Russia’s current constitution that invests the Russian presidency with so much power with a weak legislative branch.  This came about after Yeltsin ordered the parliamentary building destroyed when the legislative body legally challenged his abuses in 1993.  Putin inherited this constitutional arrangement and no doubt benefits from it, but he did not create it.

After Yekaterinburg, Kevin visits several more sites.  The choice of locations was often inspired by a renowned Russian writer having lived there.  During his description of these visits, he provides interesting and informative expositions on novelists Leo Tolstoy, Boris Pasternak and poet Alexander Pushkin.

At one point, Kevin provides a history of the Slavs and the formation of Kiev Rus and how it evolved into modern Russia.  He also gives the best summation I’ve read of the long-running historical debate between Slavophiles and westernizers for the future of Russia, explaining that there are two branches of Slavophiles.  I think his discussion of Slavophilism is worth quoting extensively:

“Slavophiles affirm that Russia has a unique culture, fundamentally defined by its core Slav ethnicity, Cyrillic language, Orthodox Christianity and Tsarist imperial history.  All these things, they say, set Russia firmly apart from the mainstream Western European identity, based on the Roman Empire, Romanic alphabet, Catholic and Protestant Christianity, and the Enlightenment.  Russia did not experience these things at first hand.  Its destiny, they say, is inevitably different.

Slavophilia can be narrowly chauvinistic, centered on race-based doctrines of Slav exceptionalism.  This ethnically based version of Slavophilia has historically been linked with a sense of cultural identity and political ‘duty of care’ for the related smaller Slav nations in the Balkans:  Bulgarians, Serbians, Macedonians and so on.  Russia’s sense of guardianship over the welfare of these Slav peoples under Turkish or Austro-Hungarian imperial rule was a major factor in pre-1914 European imperial tensions building up to World War I.

There is also a more expansive, more ethnically pluralistic version of Slavophilia, a more culturally based Russophilia as I call it, that draws strength from Russia’s history of successful absorption into the Tsarist ‘Empire of all the Russias’ of so many non-Slav peoples…Under this more inclusive ‘imperial’ interpretation of Slavophilia, Russian civilization has been an inspiration and a boon to surrounding peoples who have through the Tsarist Empire come under its beneficent political and cultural influence.  This is not a dissimilar view to the nineteenth-century British Empire view of its benign global mission – ‘the white man’s burden’ – or the French Empire’s self-proclaimed ‘mission civilisatrice.’

With one important difference:  Russia’s growing colonial empire was always advancing into contiguous places and nations, often with pre-existing advanced cultures like the Georgians and Armenians, Central Asian Islamic states, or the Tatars.  So there was always a degree of respect for Russia’s imperially absorbed former neighbors…Russians as imperialists did not usually display the blatant racism of the old British Empire.  They were developing a Russian form of multiculturalism over centuries of expansion, and their literature, music and art clearly shows this.”  (pp. 121-22)

Kevin sums up his views of contemporary Russia and why he finds it a fascinating country with much to offer the world, rooted in its unique culture and historical experience:

“More than any other nation, Russians have to ask themselves big existential questions about their recent history, not only about the two revolutions in 1917 that their great-grandparents lived through, and the Stalinist horrors their grandparents experienced, but now also about their parents’ and their own struggles, privations and disappointments during late communism and the 1985-2000 de-communisation smutnoye vremya as well….I admire Russia’s seriousness of purpose.  This is a country ready to confront big questions.  It is not a trivial or superficial or small-minded country.  The Russian language itself is a wonderful instrument, a most beautiful and subtle language with the finest gradations of meaning, in expressing verbs of emotion especially. And the music, the art, the literature – how could one not love this country, the more one comes to know it?” (pp. 20, 35)

In terms of the future of U.S.-Russia relations, he laments the disdain, derision and personal hostility openly expressed among participants in what are supposed to be serious policy discussions at western conferences.  This was on full display at one such conference that took place in Riga, Latvia in 2015.  Kevin described the panel as unbalanced in its negative depictions of the country and the overall tone as objectifying Russia rather than seeking to understand it.

He also sees the ignorance and ideological blinders of many western politicians and media voices – many of whom consider themselves liberal – as a dead end in dealing constructively with Russia:

Western liberal hawks and their media voices are used to ignoring contradictions in their case.  On the one hand, they allege that Putin wants to return to a revived Soviet Union, with communist-style authoritarian government and state control of the economy; on the other hand, that he and his inner circle are united by nothing but corruption and naked greed.  Both things cannot be true, and probably neither is true…..No one needs to orchestrate such sustained Western media contempt for “Putin’s Russia.”  It now almost writes itself, it is universal, and Russians are well aware of it.  I am struck by the sheer volume and repetitiveness of this information warfare across so many dimensions of media, an echo-chamber effect that overpowers the senses, numbing people in the West who know better into a sort of dull acceptance, on lines of Orwell’s Animal Farm:  “Oh well, yes, two legs good four legs bad, if you say so.” (pp. 244, 247)

Overall, Kevin has provided a refreshingly fair-minded assessment of Russia, with an appreciation for its cultural gifts and a healthy respect for its difficult history, without over-romanticizing the country or ignoring its challenges.  I highly recommend it for laypeople who are new to seeking insight into contemporary Russia.

*Upcoming Appearance: 

I will be giving a presentation on post-Soviet Russia and U.S.-Russia relations at the Mount Diablo Peace and Justice Center in Lafayette, California on Sunday October 14, 2018 at 2:00 pm.  More details to come.