The ever-evolving relationship between East and West
On Wednesday 25 September, Bridget Kendall MBE came to The Perse to deliver the Michaelmas 2019 Community Lecture, in partnership with The Cambridge Building Society.
When Bridget Kendall came to deliver the Michaelmas Term Community Lecture at The Perse it was familiar ground – her two brothers had attended the School in the 1960s and 70s, and she herself remembered coming up from ‘Perse Girls’ (now the Stephen Perse Foundation) in 1969 for a read-through of Simpson’s One Way Pendulum.
Since then, there have been a number of changes at the schools and within Cambridge as a whole – both The Perse and the Stephen Perse Foundation are now co-educational, there are many female Heads of House within the University’s Colleges, and the city has grown substantially. Despite this, Bridget spoke of how her return to Cambridge was like coming home.
After studying Russian at school, Bridget went to Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, where she read modern languages. She joined the BBC in 1983 as a trainee for the BBC World Service, and served as BBC Moscow correspondent from 1989-1995. In 1998 she became BBC Diplomatic correspondent, reporting on and analysing major global crises and conflicts, and their impact on Britain and the world.
Bridget spoke of her two careers as being from different worlds – at the BBC she had an unpredictable diary, always rushing for trains and planes, and was ‘constantly preparing for an oral exam, without knowing the subject’. Conversely, since becoming Master of Peterhouse in 2016 her diary has been predictable and methodically planned in advance, which she described as ‘reassuring’ and ‘exotic’!
Bridget’s examination of Anglo-Russian relations started with her first experience of Russia on an exchange in the mid-1970s. As a student, she had expectations of what Russia would be like – diplomatic agreements hinted that tensions of the Cold War were easing – but she discovered that there was a huge gap between the rhetoric and what was happening on the ground. In Russia, conflicts were taking place below the radar and the KGB were still taking active measures. The defining areas of this time for her were the 1978 assassination of Bulgarian dissident and BBC World Service journalist Georgi Markov, who was killed in the ‘umbrella attack’ on the streets of London, and the 1979 invasion of the Soviets into Afghanistan.
By the time of her second visit to Russia in 1981, things had changed. Thatcher had taken over as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and supported the US response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. There were a number of reminders, however, that the bad relations between the two countries were not just hard conflicts, but also about soft power – everything became political, including the Olympic Games and even educational institutions. Bridget recounted how, whilst studying in Russia, her attempts at research were often thwarted, something which the British Embassy took great interest in.
Bridget suggested two main cold war antagonisms that shaped Anglo-Russian relations during this period – the Falklands War and the Solidarity movement in Poland. She noted how Soviet discussion of the Falklands conflict changed once Margaret Thatcher was seen to be enjoying a close relationship with Ronald Reagan and the US. Overnight, Soviet reporting of the conflict sided with the Argentinians, portraying them as the victims. This, she suggested, was an early sign that Moscow sees the UK not as a separate nation, but through a prism of US relations – a smaller partner by Washington’s side.
The reaction of the Soviets to the Solidarity movement in Poland, a rebellion by proletariat workers against the communist government, also helps us understand modern-day Russia. The rise of Solidarity is considered to have greatly contributed to the fall of communism and, Bridget suggested, led to a fear in the Kremlin that if their neighbours are strengthened it may embolden Russian activists too. She suggested that the reaction to Solidarity explains the relations between Russia and Ukraine since 2014.
Towards the end of her second visit to Russia, there was nervousness surrounding the death of Brezhnev. Bridget recalled the father of one of her Russian friends pleading with her to ‘stay in touch with my daughter so that the world can know the truth’, fearing that the death of Brezhnev would lead to the return of Stalinism.
Thankfully, this was not the case, and within three years Mikhail Gorbachev came to lead the Soviet Union. This was a turn in the roller-coaster of relations – Thatcher invited Gorbachev to London on the advice of Alexander Yakovlev, Soviet Ambassador to Canada. Thatcher discovered Gorbachev as a reformer and described him as a ‘man [she] could do business with’. Bridget described how, despite the two rarely agreeing on political matters, Anglo-Russian relations became warmer. Gorbachev was charmed by Thatcher, and found her ‘refreshing’.
Relations changed again in the 1990s, with Major and Yeltsin in charge of the respective countries. The Yeltsin government didn’t really look towards Britain as an ally – favouring instead the US with Bush/Clinton and Germany’s Chancellor Kohl. However, Bridget suggested that the extension of the British ‘Know How Fund’ to the Soviet Union changed lives, showing the different particular types of foreign aid could make. By the early 2000s, Britain was one of Russia’s biggest trading partners.
It was not just trade that tied Russia and the UK – cultural links between the two nations are also important. The Royal family, art, music, theatre, ballet and literature are important ties between the nations, with books such as Winnie the Pooh, Alice in Wonderland and Harry Potter enjoyed by the youth of both the UK and Russia. Bridget explained that culture was the glue between the two countries, both former imperial powers struggling to come to terms with the consequences of the fall of empire. She suggested that other major questions link the two countries, such as how to deal with questions of diversity, and how to relate to other European nations.
Through the 1990s, Bridget suggests that the Russians thought the UK was charming – a bit old fashioned, but with a ‘badge of quality’. She joked that Russian women wanted a British husband that was a ‘cross between Prince Charles and Sherlock Holmes’.
The Blair/Putin relationship started off okay, but Anglo-Russian relations got progressively rockier throughout the 2000s. Following events in Kosovo and Chechnya, the Russians accused the US and its allies of ignoring Russian security concerns, and many in the West challenged Russia on their respect for human rights. The UK became a place for outspoken Russian émigrés, who were granted asylum in spite of the fact that Russia wanted them extradited on criminal charges. Relations got even worse after the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko. Bridget recalled a press conference she attended following this, where the Russian viewpoint was that the Brits would ‘come crawling back… they want the trade’.
A further turning point came in 2014 with the annexation of Crimea. Anglo-Russian relations are, Bridget suggested, currently at their lowest since the Cold War. Russia is viewed with suspicion by the UK, particularly in light of allegations of interfering with elections, and the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal. Conversely, the UK is viewed with antagonism by Russia, who see the country as ‘perfidious but powerless’. The current political crisis in Britain also fits in with Putin’s narrative that the West is in decline, and the future lies with the emerging economies.
Bridget ended her tour-de-force of 40 years of Anglo-Russian political history by noting the contradiction between the Russian view that the West is weak, but also seen as the main threat – only one of these can be true. She indicated that there was a growing call from Russian citizens to start improving relationships with the West. Her advice for the UK was that, when we emerge from the current Brexit crisis, we should think about how to position ourselves so that we can be ready to respond to Russia when the pendulum swings back again.
The Perse holds termly Community Lectures, open to all in the community, whether or not they have a link to the School. Information about upcoming lectures can be found here.