Return to Moscow
Tony Kevin, UWA Publishing, 2017, ISBN 978-1-74258-929-9, 284pp
Some weeks ago, I was browsing, as is my wont, in Janice’s bibliophilic emporium (that is, Moruya Books). I had selected The Sparsholt Affair (which I did not, in the end, enjoy) and I was looking for its companion.
Regular readers of my reviews will know that I am unable to purchase a single book: any given book needs a friend to accompany it when it is time to pay. There, on the rack, was Return to Moscow. The front cover showed a night-time sillouette of what I took to be the Moscow skyline. I had not heard of Tony Kevin but I decided that he was a writer of cold war spy novels. I felt I needed a bit of escapism and without further thought added it to my metaphorical shopping cart. After I had failed to enjoy The Sparsholt Affair, I found Return to Moscow among the heap of other unread books that decorate my study and opened it up.
I was dismayed to discover that far from being a cold war spy thriller that I could escape with, it was a view of Russia seen through the eye of a retired Australian diplomat. The first sentence, which is in the Prologue, reads “On 25 December 1991 the Soviet Union ceased to exist. The Red Flag above the Kremlin was lowered for the last time, and the Russian tricolour, the flag of the former Tsarist Empire, was raised in its place.” I do not know what it was about this simple statement of fact, which I knew perfectly well, that got me hooked but I kept reading. Like many of my readers, I grew up with the realities of the Cold War. I recall as a boy of 12 or 13 at boarding school huddled around a transistor radio, listening to the news bulletins about the Cuban missile crisis, convinced that we were going to die. My Father, who served in the Royal Navy for several decades, always kept a uniform in his wardrobe pressed and ready for the march to the east (or so he said; this is perhaps apocryphal). I was working as a consultant to the UK Ministry of Defence in 1989 when the wall came down. Suddenly, the biggest strategic threat to the west had disappeared and military planners everywhere were confounded.
This book has changed my view about the country that was at the heart of what Ronald Reagan, in 1983, called “the evil empire”. It is a lovely read: Tony Kevin was a diplomat and diplomats need to be able to write. I recall doing a piece of consultancy for the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office (the equivalent of Australia’s DFAT). I submitted a report that contained some diagrams. I went to see my client. “We like your report, “ he said, “except for the diagrams.” I was non-plussed but he explained that “it is the view of the Office that if you need to use a diagram to explain yourself then you have not properly thought your point through.” Now, I could have told him that he should not have used a preposition to end a sentence with, but that would have been churlish. I redrafted the report sans diagrams. Tony Kevin is an engaging and clear writer and he tells a tale that is broad in scope, a historical narrative interspersed with personal experience. Tony Kevin was posted to Moscow in 1969 and was there for two years. He was twenty-five with a young wife. He paints a picture of diplomatic life in a country that was riven with distrust and many of the legacies of Stalin. But he paints a picture of a country that he fell in love with.
Most importantly he tells us about a country that is misunderstood by the west. Russian interference in the US election is filling the news as I write. Yet once you have read Kevin’s book you will question why the Russians would want to do this. He asks us to see the world through Russian eyes. He tells a story of a country with a history that is remarkable and complex. I had tried to read Simon Sebag Montefiore’s “The Romanovs 1613 - 1918” (published 2016) and had given up because I found the twists and turns of Russian history really hard to follow. This is a country with a lot of history and not all of it was particularly easy.
Not all of Tony Kevin’s book is historical or political comment. Some of it is travelogue. He takes us to Nizhny Novgorod, to Yekaterinburg and to Yasnaya Polyana. He weaves in Pasternak, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky and Sakharov … those authors we all seemed to read in the late 1960s and early 1970s. He takes us to the Gulag Museum and the Jewish Museum, both in Moscow. Russia’s relationship with the Jews is a rocky one: in the 1897 census there were 5.2 million Jews in Russia (4.13% of the population. In 2010 there were about 200,000 (0.1%) of the population. Gulag is an acronym for Glavnoye Upravleniye Ispravitelno-Trudovykh Lagerei which means Chief Administration of Corrective Labour Camps. The Gulags were the manifestation of repressive Stalinist policies: a penal network of labour, detention and transit camps. From Tony Kevin’s descriptions of these two museums, Russia is prepared to confront its past and to analyse what it meant and what it means. One gets a very different view of Russia and, frankly, of Putin, that is portrayed by the Western media.
As a result of reading this book I have started reading some of the news sites that Tony Kevin recommends. Two of these are Russian government-supported sites, namely rt.com (Russian Times) and ruth.com (Russia behind the headlines). Both of these provide another source of news that is topical and readable. We hear a lot about “fake news” these days (the phrase may well be Donald Trump’s only legacy (we may, perhaps, hope so)) so perhaps we should all try to get our news from different sources. Kevin comments in the final chapter of his book that “Anglo-American media – even the Guardian – now habitually blend together their news and editorial comment about Russia, framing every Russian news story with anti-Putin themes.” Putin’s approval rating in Russia is 82%. I saw today that Turnbull’s is 46%.
My son is getting married in late December and he and his bride will be off to Russia for their honeymoon. I make no comment in the wisdom of visiting Russia in the depths of winter but I have recommended this book to them both as background reading and as a source of things to do and see. This is one of the few books that I think I could read again and, as I bought it by accident, that is a pretty good accolade.