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​Same game for 150 years: British establishment v Russian bogeyman

Neil Clark is a journalist, writer and broadcaster. His award winning blog can be found at www.neilclark66.blogspot.com. Follow him on Twitter

Published time: August 06, 2014 13:45
Reuters/Luke MacGrego

It is the wartime alliance that no one in the West is mentioning as we commemorate the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I.

Britain and Russia fought on the same side in the 'Great War', just as Britain and the Soviet Union did in World War II. But we are not supposed to mention such things in an age when British political elites have designated Russia to be an 'official enemy'.

Instead of reminding people how Britain and Russian were allies a century ago, David Cameron uses the WWI centenary to urge NATO to get tougher with Russia.

“We must agree on long-term measures to strengthen our ability to respond quickly to any threat, to reassure those allies who fear for their own country's security and to deter any Russian aggression,” he thundered.

Britain's ally of two world wars is treated like a pariah, sanctioned, demonized and subject to a non-stop propaganda war of misinformation. Meanwhile Israel, a country which came into existence after a terrorist campaign against British soldiers – a campaign which even involved the cold-blooded murder of a British Minister Lord Moyne, a friend of Winston Churchill's - is supported and defended.

British politicians also feel obliged, if they want to hold high office, to take a virtual pledge of allegiance to the US, a country whose leaders worked to destroy the British Empire, not because of lofty anti-imperialist ideals, but only so that the American Empire could take over.

In the ‘penalty box’

If Russia feels aggrieved at the way it has been treated by Britain, then a sense of injustice is understandable. For if one looks at British/Russian relations over the past 150 years, then the Russians have plenty of cause for complaint. Russia has been put in the ‘sin bin’, or penalty box, when it hasn't really been a threat, then praised to the rafters when it is helping to defeat a common enemy, before being discarded again and treated as a sinister adversary.

'The Great Game' of the 19th century involved British attempts to check Russian advances towards India. India was the 'jewel in the crown' of the British Empire and had to be defended at all costs. Yet, as even the Marquess of Salisbury, the secretary of state for India for periods in the 1860s and 1870s and later prime minister, acknowledged, the stories of a Russian invasion of India were a 'chimera'.

In 1904, Britain and Russia almost went to war over the so-called Dogger Bank incident. The Russian Baltic fleet was on its way to the Far East to take part in its war against Japan, and in dense fog, mistakenly fired on a group of Hull fishing trawlers in the North Sea believing them to be Japanese vessels. Three fishermen were killed. There were angry diplomatic exchanges, but Russia apologized, agreed to pay compensation and the British First Sea Lord, Admiral Fisher, instead of trying to stoke up tensions still further, appealed for calm and patience.

It was a turning point. In the next few years, relations between Britain and Russia improved. The new British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey, was concerned over the growing power and belligerence of Germany. Grey, a man who preferred bird-watching to bear-baiting, wanted Russia brought in from the cold to be a counterweight to Germany, and this led to the Anglo-Russian agreement of 1907.

The Russians were now officially ‘good guys’. On the eve of the Great War, in July 1914, the British Ambassador in St. Petersburg urged British support for Russia.

“If we fail her now, we cannot hope to maintain that friendly co-operation with her in Asia that is of such vital importance to us.” Imagine the British Ambassador in Moscow saying such a thing today! If he did, then we can be sure that he would soon receive his marching orders from London.

British military personnel march along Red Square during a military parade dress rehearsal in Moscow May 6, 2010. (Reuters)

Russians were the ‘good guys’ for the first three years of the Great War, but when the Bolsheviks took power in November 1917, it was back to Russophobia. The Bolsheviks had to be toppled, not just because they took Russia out of the war and signed a peace treaty with Germany, but because of the threat that their ideology – communism – posed to the British and other Western elites. There were no qualms about breaches of national sovereignty, when Britain sent forces to intervene in Russia to support the ‘Whites’ and bring about a ‘regime change’. The Bolsheviks faced an assault on all fronts. Not just a Western military intervention, but plots by British intelligence too.

Elites’ playbook

Whenever a thaw in relations between the Soviet Union and Britain looked possible, the Establishment stepped in to scupper it. ‘Red menace’ was a card played over and over again. Traditional Russophobia was now mixed with scaremongering over the ‘threat’ of communism.

In 1924, Britain's first ever Labour government which had given full diplomatic recognition to the Soviet government, saw its chances of re-election later that year damaged by the publication, just four days before the poll, of the notorious ‘Zinoviev letter’. Supposedly from the president of the Comintern, it included instructions on how to organize a revolution in Britain. “Soviet Plot. Red Propaganda in Britain. Revolution urged by Zinoviev. Foreign Office ‘Bombshell’,” declared the Times, the newspaper of the establishment.

The Conservatives won amid the ‘Red menace’ hysteria and when in power, broke off diplomatic relations with Moscow. The ‘Zinoviev letter’ was widely held by historians to have been a forgery (a 1999 study highlighted the involvement of British Intelligence), but it served its purpose in poisoning British-Soviet relations.

In the 1930s the Conservative-dominated National Government, which had canceled a trade agreement with the Soviet Union signed by the 1929-31 Labour government, refused to do the one thing which could have prevented WWII, i.e. form a defensive, military alliance with France and the Soviet Union to counter Nazi expansionism. At the Munich conference in September, 1938, at which the Sudetenland was handed to Hitler on a plate, the Soviets were not even invited.

Gordon Long receives his Arctic Convoy Commemorative medal for serving in the Merchant Navy during World War II on board HMS Belfast, in London, on March 24, 2010 to mark the upcoming 65th anniversary of the end of World War II. (AFP Photo)

Sir Stafford Cripps, British Ambassador to the Soviet Union and a supporter of a British/Soviet alliance, complained of “the universal hymn of hatred whenever a few Englishmen meet together against the Russians.” But of course things changed again dramatically, when Germany attacked the Soviet Union in June, 1941. Once again the Russians were the ‘good guys’.

Establishment figures who had spent years playing the ‘Red Menace’ card spoke of their admiration for the Soviet Union and the gallant efforts of the Red Army in resisting the Nazi war machine. People who had been denounced as ‘fellow travellers’ for expressing what were held to be pro-Soviet or pro-Russian views now were allowed to have access to a microphone. Lord Beaverbrook, the right-wing newspaper proprietor and minister of supply could not have been more effusive in his praise for the Soviet Union and its leader.

“Communism under Stalin has produced the most valiant fighting army in Europe. Communism under Stalin has provided us with examples of patriotism equal to the finest annals of history. Communism under Stalin has won the applause and admiration of all the Western nations. Communism under Stalin has produced the best generals in this war,” Beaverbook wrote. He even defended Stalin's purges. “Political purges? Of course. But it is now clear that the men who were shot down would have betrayed Russia to her German enemy.”

‘Business as usual’

Yet fast forward only a few years, and it is a very different story once again. After the Nazis had been defeated (with around 27 million Soviets losing their lives, as well as over 450,000 Britons) the old Cold Warriors made sure that it was ‘business as usual’ and Russia/Soviet bashing returned – with it any hopes of a Soviet/British alliance were destroyed. Winston Churchill's ‘Iron Curtain’ speech made at Fulton, Missouri, in March, 1946, set the tone, with the Soviet Union once again being cast as a major threat to the west and indeed to “Christian civilization.”

But the reality of this was scaremongering again: there were no Soviet plans for an invasion or take-over of western or southern Europe. Stalin even withdrew support for communists in Greece. The Soviet Union's overriding concern was security on its eastern borders, an understandable concern considering the attacks it had been subject to in its relatively short existence, and which had led to enormous loss of life.

In 1944, Churchill had agreed that much of Eastern Europe should be in the Soviet “sphere of influence” after the war, but that was quietly forgotten. NATO, the ‘defensive’ organization which we are often told today was set up to counter the Warsaw Pact, was actually set up six years before the Warsaw Pact came into existence.

What is clear is that the ordinary British people, who remembered all too clearly the enormous sacrifices that the Soviet people had made in WWII – and how the Soviets and British were comrades during that epic conflict - were not up for a new round of Russia-bashing.

Appropriately, a horse called ‘Russian Hero’ was cheered in as the winner of the 1949 Grand National, Britain's most popular steeplechase, was one in the eye for the post-war Russophobes. While McCarthyism hit the US, it is true to say that only a milder form of it operated in post-war Britain.

The role that the Soviet Union had played in the defeat of Nazism could not be lightly dismissed. Being a Russophile, or showing sympathy to the Soviet Union did not mean ‘career death’ for an aspiring politician in the post-war era. As I wrote previously, “even at the height of the old Cold War, the British ruling class was nowhere near as anti-Russian as it is today.”

There was a shift however, with the election of Margaret Thatcher as British prime minister in 1979.

She took a more aggressive, hostile stance towards the Soviet Union than her predecessors, and after the periods of detente in the 1960s and ’70s, the Cold War, with Thatcher and Reagan at the helm of Britain and the US respectively in the 1980s, got a whole lot colder. Once again, the Soviets were the ‘evil empire’, hell-bent on world domination. A new arms race began. Neocons in Washington believed they could help destroy the Soviet Union by support for Islamist ‘freedom fighters’ in Afghanistan. The same people who today warn us about threat of ‘radical Islam’ were supporting it in their fanatical anti-Soviet crusade in the 1980s.

RIA Novosti/Anatoliy Garanin

In the early 1990s, Western elites toasted the demise of the Soviet Union. Russophobia vanished as Russia's new president, Boris Yeltsin did everything the West wanted. He privatized large chunks of the Russian economy, handing out state assets for trifling sums to a new class of oligarchs. He acquiesced as the West worked to dismantle the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia - and get the ex-communist countries in Eastern Europe to join NATO.

The Yeltsin years were catastrophic for the vast majority of ordinary Russians, who saw their living standards plummet, but the gushing tributes paid to Yeltsin on his death by British (and other Western) leaders demonstrate that so long as a Russian leader does what the Western elites want, he'll get good press.

John Major, British Prime Minister from 1990-97, hailed Yeltsin's “tremendous work” and said, “He sought to instill in Russia many of the attributes we most cherish in the West.”

“He deserves to be honored as a patriot and a liberator,” enthused Margaret Thatcher.

Matter of self-respect

It is revealing to compare the treatment of Yeltsin, to the treatment of his successor, Vladimir Putin. Under Putin, Russia has won back its self-respect. But because Russia is no longer the ‘soft touch’ it was in the 1990s, Russophobia is back with a vengeance and Russia's leader is attacked on a daily basis and ludicrously likened to Adolf Hitler.

If we look back at the history of the past 150 years we can say that it is nothing new, but the Russophobia of today is in fact nastier and also harder to justify than anything which has gone on before.

Tsarist Russia may not have had any plans to invade India, but Russia had been expanding in central Asia in the direction of India, so from the mindset of a British imperialist of the late 19th century you could argue that there would have been some grounds for concern. You could also understand why, from the point of view of a British upper-class establishment politician supportive of the capitalist system, Bolshevism may have been feared too.

But today Britain has no Empire to protect. And Russia is no longer communist.

RIA Novosti/Knorring

By no stretch of the imagination could Russia be said to pose a threat, directly or indirectly, to Britain or British interests. Today's elite Russophobia in Britain is not fueled by genuine (even if misguided), concerns over British interests, but because our elite today put the interests of other countries before Britain.

Our neocon ruling class are strong Atlanticists and Zionists, and it’s these allegiances which explain why they are so keen to sanction Russia. For the US, a resurgent Russia is a block on US plans for global hegemony, with the new BRICS development bank posing a real threat to dollar supremacy and the financial dictatorship of the World Bank and IMF. For the Zionists, Russia is targeted because of its stance on Syria, a country where Israel and the pro-Israel lobby desperately wants regime change to weaken Iran and Hezbollah, and also because of the way that oligarchs with close links to western neocons and Israel, who did so well in the Yeltsin years, have lost their power in Russia under Putin, as I already discussed.

So 100 years on from the Great War, when Russia and Britain were on the same side, Russia is once again the ‘enemy’. Defense Secretary Phillip Hammond has already admitted that the latest sanctions on Russia will hurt the British economy.

“It would be absurd to suggest that we could impose wide-ranging on the Russian economy without also having some impact on ourselves,” he says.

Some would say that when we look at the bigger picture the most ‘absurd’ thing is current UK policy towards Russia, which cannot remotely be said to be in Britain's best interests.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.