Letter From London on Russia and Ukraine

My New Yorker friend took umbrage at me for suggesting last week some kind of peace process for Ukraine. ‘Let them fight it out,’ he said. ‘It’s the only solution. Unless Elon Musk saves the day.’ A well known newspaper columnist wrote privately the same day: ‘Ukraine is a bugger all right.’ The two of us had also noted the prominence of Jupiter in the night sky: ‘At least we can’t fuck that up,’ he added, ‘unless Mr Musk has plans.’ Mentions of Musk aside, my American friend has a fiercely Russian wife who now describes herself as Latvian. Another friend originally from Kyiv — I used to introduce her unchallenged as Russian — is now full-on ‘Slava Ukraini!’ It must be so confusing for everybody. Twisted loyalties are the worst, even when of our own making. And now we have the British ambassador in Ukraine taunting the ether with a social media post on socks being sold in Kyiv with ‘British Intelligence’ written in Ukrainian on them, while the British ambassador in Moscow finds herself publicly jeered. Goodness knows what hell will develop next. Regarding the socks, the intelligence may not be faulty but the bragging is. My Ukrainian friend used to be an Olympic ice skater and her former Soviet masters made her sleep with her skates on from the age of five. Not sure a pair of socks would have helped her back then, but it does get me thinking about other past contacts with people from the two presently warring factions. Like many of us, just to be clear, I have a natural disdain for conflict, and I fear it most when I see pleasure taken in it. Or am I just scrabbling about the top drawer in search of peace?

In New York in my twenties, I needed extra money and served free drinks at a pop-up art exhibition hosted by Russians on Avenue C. (I am not sure they called them pop-ups back then.) The previous Sunday I had dined with a Ukrainian-American family on 6th or 7th Street in Little Ukraine, where I was shocked to discover — over a plate of holubtsi cooked from boiled cabbage — that the host felt real violence at times towards Russians. Back at the Russian pop-up art exhibition, meanwhile, one of the guests had been a soldier in Afghanistan, and I only determined this as he was walking out the door. I chased after him, down East 10th Street, careful not to slip on the ice, because I wanted to hear his stories, especially as I had been there on the other side, filming with the mujahideen. When the Russian saw me running, however, he began running too. It was one of those truly comic Manhattan moments. A yellow cab at one point may even have screeched to a halt. Anyway, still panting, I returned, empty-handed, so to say, to serve more drinks to thirsty Russians, and to chat with sculptor Leonid Sokov who got me the job in the first place. Leonid was a Russian non-conformist who made large Russian dolls based on what he saw as contentious characters from Soviet history, including Stalin. One of his fellow exiles kept interrupting. My response was just to pour him more vodka. He had a serious bee in his ushanka about the murder of Pushkin, the ‘Russian Shakespeare’, and shouted in English across the bar that he hoped the man who killed him was boiling in hell. ‘No,’ he corrected himself, trying his hardest to stand up straight. ‘I hope the man is BROILING in hell!’ Important distinction, I was thinking.

I see that the US and UK — in the face of continued Russian assaults, withdrawals, assaults again — are the two largest western contributors towards the defence of Ukraine. Only those fighting on the ground will know what it is really like but here in London people are increasingly worried. Forget the socks, forget the succinct and important dark-blue public UK defence intelligence reporting, there was a fresh admission from the UK last week that British spies were giving Ukraine serious cyber support. They said they were revealing this on the basis that Moscow already knew about it. Slowly, the iron bars inside the boxing gloves are being revealed. I would have thought going public only obliges a public response. Is this what Russian accusations that the UK carried out the recent Nord Stream gas pipe attacks are about? I know of one diligent Brit who doesn’t enjoy business trips to London anymore on the grounds he believes we are now making ourselves a legitimate target. I myself wouldn’t want to rely solely on soldiers and spooks to choose what to do. That’s what politicians are supposed to be for, though ours are presently good only at chaos and occasional appearances on ‘I’m a Celebrity…Get Me Out Of Here’, as in former health minister Matt Hancock, the man who once criticised people for saying politics was about individualism and egos. I also note that far across the vexed English Channel is growing dissent in cities like Prague about the war in Ukraine. Again, is anyone thinking outside the box here? The establishment seems set on one course of action only.

Which leads me to more innocent days when I made my first contact with Russian culture. This took place in a school library in Scotland in the shape of a skinny black-ribbed Penguin paperback. Not Pushkin. Not Solzhenitsyn, popular though he was at the time. It was Ukrainian-born Russian writer Gogol and some of his short stories that caught my attention. I even remember being accused by an English teacher of deliberately trying to be difficult by reading Gogol. (I was reading outside the box, I should have told him.) One Russian writer I happen to see in person today is Zinovy Zinik who used to work at Bush House as editor and presenter of the radio show West End for the BBC Russian Service. He is long retired now and I have enjoyed hearing about the key cities in his life — Moscow where he studied art and geometrical topology; Jerusalem which became the basis of his short novel ‘Notification’ in the collection ‘Mind the Doors’; Berlin which he covered in his book ‘History Thieves’ about his grandfather; and Istanbul in his challengingly titled ‘Yarmulke under the Turban’. I was thinking of him today when I heard someone on the radio describe Russians as parochial. If only, I was thinking. Why do we keep making the mistake of confusing an entire people with one or two individuals? Today, Zinik struggles with a bad back but travels regularly between London and Deal. On the last occasion we met, I told him about my pre-pandemic trips to meet Russians in Tallin, Vilnius and Prague while researching a film about Russian social media. Like all good creative minds, he strains under the dry weight of politics. At least I was able to discuss a film idea of his which follows the stops of the 168 London bus and by so doing covers essential episodes in his life put into a London context.

He knew I nearly went to Moscow. It was many years ago for Vanity Fair and not so long after my cameo appearance at the Russian pop-up gallery. Thanks to Miles Chapman and writer Bob Colacello, I was commissioned by Tina Brown to stay in a hotel room next to Francis Bacon and effectively ‘shadow’ the artist during his visit to Moscow for what was to be the first major art exhibition there of a living western artist. (I asked Hockney at the Met in New York before I was due to leave how he might feel showing in Moscow: ‘It might cheer them oop!’ he said, in that thick Yorkshire accent of his.) The exclusive came from the show’s instigator James Birch, whose new book ‘Bacon in Moscow’ has recently hit the bookstores. But Bacon pulled out, very last minute, claiming an asthma attack. Some have since suggested it was for other reasons.

Talking of art, I mentioned last week that I lived with an artist. A few years ago, there was a well heeled Russian collector interested not only in buying some of the artist’s work but exhibiting it in Moscow. As the artist was working in pastel at the time, the Russian wanted a blow-by-blow account of how pastel is fixed with professional fixative and why it needs framed in a specific way. Then came the pandemic. They proposed waiting it out. (‘Stay safe!’ was the woman’s last message.) And now we have the bloody war. Are sanctions a form of censorship? An artist has to live. Regardless, the last thing the artist wanted was a show in Moscow when so many innocent lives are being lost. We actually talk about the power of art a lot. How it is ungovernable. I mentioned last night that even one of the founders of the British SAS legged it to Paris to become an artist before the war.

I see what used to be known as Russia Today is still getting its camera wires in a twist, having recently been accused of inciting genocide after presenter Anton Krasovsky said on air that Ukrainian children who saw Russian forces as occupiers under the Soviet Union should have been drowned. For this, he was suspended. As a father, it felt like he got off lightly. (To be fair, the BBC has committed more than the odd lunacy both on and off air.) Also, a regional head of Russia Today or what now likes to call itself RT — Svetlana Babayeva — was shot dead on October 28th during what was described as ‘military sports shooting training’ at a range in Crimea. I was interviewed myself on the channel a few times. This was eight or so years ago on the back of a film I was making — I even sat next to a sprightly Bez of Happy Mondays on one occasion. The programme was in fact produced for an American company and licensed to be broadcast on the Russian channel. RT ceased broadcasting in the UK in July of this year, having already been banned in Germany in February. Poland, indeed all of the EU, as well as Canada, has also now banned it. It must be hell for those working there not giving in to bloodlust.

As for the BBC, the latest Adam Curtis series ‘Russia 1985-1999: TraumaZone’ is now showing. Curtis may not be to everyone’s taste, though many see his work as largely atmospheric representations of recent history rather than hammer blows to the head. A few weeks ago, I referenced the latest series on social media and promptly received a reply from a graphic designer called Olga. I don’t know where Olga was from but her messages consisted of seven dramatic question marks. I asked if it was that she didn’t like the work of Adam Curtis. ‘No comment,’ she wrote back swiftly. There you have it, I was thinking. Who needs censorship when we can do it ourselves? Of course, censorship has reared its spiky head again with this whole Elon Musk Twitter thing. Any notion of regulation being the solution to disinformation is always going to be a tricky one. The idea of a peace-loving cybernetic super-intelligence when it comes to something like Twitter however remains interesting.

Finally, my New Yorker friend has been in touch again, still insisting a peace process won’t be happening any time soon: ‘It’s like World War One. They will have to slug it out. The Ukrainians won’t give up territory,’ he said. Another American, a friend of mine in the Caribbean, says he considers western aggression against Russia suicidal and was especially concerned about the Brits. As for me, though please don’t hold your breath here, I’m still scrabbling about the top drawer looking for peace.

Correction: The spelling of Zinovy Zinik’s name has been corrected.

Peter Bach lives in London.