Speaking Russian


Peter the Great seeking a window on the west. Charles XII of Sweden’s march on Moscow. Napoleon’s invasion of Russia. Hitler’s invasion of Russia and the Battle of Stalingrad. The establishment of the Eastern Bloc. The fall of the Berlin Wall and dismemberment of the Soviet Union. NATO and EU enlargement.

And, in spite of the evidence of history, there are still some in the G7 and the EU who consider that sanctions will put an unacceptable level of pressure on Russia and its government and there are those who think that Russia can be persuaded to leave Ukraine to manage its own affairs.

The Fellow who’d drawn the short-straw and took me for tutorials on eighteenth and early nineteenth century European history used to make me have conversations with various people who featured in the subject for that week’s essay. I distinctly remember Napoleon sitting in a very comfortable armchair while I was perched on the sofa and told to ask him questions. (The particular trick of the questioning was that I had to answer the questions for Napoleon – or whoever else was in the hot seat that week – too.)

I don’t pretend to have answered the questions at all well (and I had to be prompted to ask a number of them), but I did learn to look at both sides of a situation, particularly where there are preconceived ideas, such as Napoleon bad, Russia good – or, perhaps, Russia bad and Ukraine good.

I’m not making any judgments about the rights and wrongs of the case of any of the many players in relation to the situation in Ukraine (although I can’t see that the death, injury, displacement and loss of homes and belongings of those who live in the disputed zones can ever reflect with credit on any of those involved).

What I’m saying is that history teaches us not only to look at patterns of behaviour in a country over a longer term, but that history also teaches us to look at both sides of a dispute and to explore why individuals act in a particular way. It’s far from the whole of the answer to solving the dispute in the Ukraine and addressing wider Russian objectives and concerns, but there most certainly won’t be a sustainable outcome – or ceasefire – without that.