Former British Ambassador to Budapest and Moscow, Sir Bryan Cartledge - long free from Diplomatic Shackles - Talks from Gorbachov via Chernobyl to Vladimir Putin's Russia, of which, the Octogenarian Warhorse says: "There is no blueprint to make life better for the Russian people, so far as one can tell: I find that enormously depressing,"
Photo: Sir Bryan Cartledge in conversation. Credit: in desperation, I stole this pic off the internet. If it's yours, I do apologise. If you insist I take it down, I will, of course, do so. I make no income from this site.
One day in the early 1950s, mooching in a bookshop in Hong Kong, a twenty-ish Bryan Cartledge happened upon a volume of “Teach Yourself Russian”. In the middle of his national service and desperate to occupy his mind in the otherwise vapid evenings, Cartledge - like a million others in similar situations - bought the book intending to make better use of his free time. But unlike the majority of any such million with noble notions, this young conscript promptly sat down and taught himself “the rudiments of the Russian language”.
A dozen years on, and after a double-first at Cambridge in history and Russian, Cartledge was serving among the lower echelons in Her Majesty's Embassy in Moscow. Another dozen years or so, and he was back as counsellor, before, repeating the cycle, he found himself back in the Soviet capital as ambassador, soon after the election of one Mikhail Gorbachov as Secretary General of the Communist Party of the USSR.
(In between, Cartledge had diplomatic stints in Stockholm, Tehran and Budapest – each, you may note, capitals with a special interest in what the Soviet Union was getting up to – and as private secretary to two British Prime Ministers – Labour Party leader James Callaghan and the Conservative Iron Lady, Margaret Thatcher.)
Last Thursday, March 11th, Cartledge took part in a webinar organised by the University of Bradford, UK, which took the form of first, a series of questions tabled by the moderator and then from the audience.
These are some trimmed excerpts from the conversations.
Moderator: You arrived in Moscow in 1985, three months after Gorbachov had taken over as the Soviet leader. What was your assessment of Gorbachov then, and how has it changed since?
Bryan Cartledge: I had served in Moscow twice before, first in the 1960s, and then in the 1970s, and so inevitably I had some preconceptions. And one of them was that anybody who attempted to reform any aspect of the Soviet Union was facing a very, very tough and probably impossible task.
So, although I think Gorbachov, when he became the General Secretary, carried with him the hopes of certainly most westerners, and certainly of most western governments, I and many who'd had similar experiences to mine were inclined towards scepticism as to whether these hopes could possibly be fulfilled.
And in his initial years, or the initial 18 months, shall we say, Gorbachov seemed to confirm our slight pessimism about his prospects. And I think the Russian people were also pretty sceptical, from bitter experience in their case.
Gorbachov made matters worse by his anti-alcohol campaign. He clamped down on alcohol, partly driven by Raisa, his wife, who had plenty of experience of rural alcoholism and its devastating impact on health of rural communities in the Soviet Union.
And he added to that disadvantage, his incorrigible prolixity. His speeches, which of course in those days were always broadcast on television in full, were enormously long, very rambling, and the average Russian sitting in a bar and with the TV compulsorily turned on and having to listen to all this, got pretty fed up with this as well.
And so, that was a double-barreled disadvantage to begin with.
But, after about 18 months, it became clear that he really was serious about both economic and political reform, and one had the, what became the well-known slogans of perestroika and glasnost, and he was doing something about both of those things.
And so, as time went on, people thought: well maybe this chap means business after all, and maybe our lives will, at last, get a bit better.
Moderator: Hmmm. Historians are normally sceptical about deterministic views, but do you think it was inevitable that Gorbachov's reforms would fail?
BC: I think it probably was inevitable. … I think the Communist Party was unreformable, and Gorbachov thought he could reform it. He was wrong.
The Communist Party, after all, permeated every single aspect of Soviet life, and it was incapable of reform because it ran so deep into the very roots of Soviet society. … So, it wasn't just a matter of reforming a political system, it was a matter of reforming a whole society in all its ramifications, and that, in the span of a few years was obviously impossible.
He, nevertheless, made tremendous strides, I think far bigger strides than I, or anybody else at the time expected.
It was in 1989 that the first elections to the new Congress of Peoples' Deputies were held
and those elections were, so far as anybody could judge at the time, fair elections, and they produced a very diverse Congress of People's Deputies, which was really the closest thing which Russia had to a democratic assembly ever, in its history.
I'll never forget, and I'll always think of this when I hear people say Russians are not cut out for democracy – democracy can never work out in Russia.
When I hear that I remember the everyday scenes that week in 1989 when the Congress of Peoples' Deputies first assembled to see Russians in the streets, in the bitter cold in March 89, with their transistor radios glued to their ears, listening to the broadcast proceedings of the Congress of Peoples' Deputies in a state of high excitement.
It was impossible not to be carried away by the delight and excitement which ordinary Russians were feeling in that the deputy, who perhaps they had just voted for, was not only speaking, but speaking unconventionally, in other words, criticising the leadership. This was new, immensely exciting and led, sadly, to what was a temporary euphoria.
And so, I think that first experience of a working democracy is always worth bearing in mind in assessing the chances of Russia ever going down that path again, as I hope it will
Moderator: Now the first sign of this Russian openness not being entirely credible in the west was when the Soviets tried to hush up the Chernobyl [nuclear power station] disaster. You were one of the first western people who visited the site. What was it like?
BC: Well, you're right. The initial reaction to the explosion at Chernobyl was the traditional - not only Soviet - but Russian reaction of pretending it hadn't happened, and a complete clampdown on any reporting on what had happened at Chernobyl.
When I went there, six months later – it was actually only because of Peter Walker, who was then UK secretary state for energy. He was paying an official visit, which the Russians had tried to get him to cancel, because of Chernobyl, but he was determined not only to come to Moscow, but also to get to Chernobyl.
And after much resistance, we were finally allowed to go, just he, me and one other. We arrived in a helicopter from Kyiv, and I remember the extraordinary sight of the neighbouring town of Pripyat, where all the nuclear workers lived. It was totally deserted, but it was quite eerie, the traffic lights were still working, from red to amber to green, as we could see from our helicopter.
My impression of the talks we had within the office block attached to the power station was of the enormous courage and sustained hard work of the people who'd been drafted in to try and contain the disaster and clear up.
Moderator: How does the current authoritarian tendencies of Putin's Russia compare with the kind of Soviet regimes you witnessed there?
BC: Well, of course, one of the main differences is that the present regime does not have an ideology. It has no set of ideas that guides its actions. There's no blueprint.
It's an entirely power-focused regime, with a dash of sheer gangsterism thrown in. So, it's purpose seems to me at any rate, to be simply to stay in power, and in the case of the members of the clique around Putin, to get as rich as possible in the process.
There are no ideas there: there is no blueprint to make life better for the Russian people, so far as one can tell, and I find that enormously depressing, and it's very hard to see how that's going to end up for the better because, in the present set up, the likelihood is, when Putin goes, he will be succeeded by someone rather similar, and it's very hard to see how an oligarchy like that can be dislodged, because the longer they stay there, the more they're able to consolidate their positions, and to ensure that nobody underneath them is going to try to push them out of the way.
So, this is new for Russia, I think. I'm not saying it's necessarily worse for ordinary people, because in many ways it's better. The level of oppression is not nearly so great in day-to-day terms as it was in communist times. In my various incarnations in Moscow, each posting of mine was in a slightly less oppressive country than the last one, but even in my last posting there, the KGB was still running the remnants of the gulag, although it was gradually being dismantled.
There is, still, a bit of freedom in the media. There are one or two newspapers that seem to get away with criticising the regime, there is one station, [but] television has gone, completely under state control.
But I think life for the average Russian is certainly in many ways better than it was, even under Gorbachov. So, one has to qualify one's criticism of the Putin regime with the caveat that for ordinary people, it's probably slightly better.
To Be Continued with Sir Bryan's words on Hungary - past and present.
NB - I did write to Bradford University to see if they had put out a url for the whole meeting, but so far have not received a reply.