By John Helmer, Moscow
Among men eunuchs have the highest pitched voices. In crowds they can be heard but not listened to. They were more persuasive in the empires of the Asiatic despots.
Sir Rodric Braithwaite has just published a book entitled “Russia, Myths and Realities”, implying that now his country, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, is at war with Russia – a war Braithwaite endorses with enthusiasm — he can tell his readers which side of the war reality is on. His book is also a declaration that the UK is a significant war-fighter against Russia when it’s that no longer — this is Braithwaite’s myth. The reality is that the British have castrated themselves in front of Europe, first with Brexit; now on the Ukrainian battlefield and at NATO headquarters in Brussels; the “United” part is on its last legs, the “Kingdom” not quite.
In the British crowd shouting approval, the reviewer of The Times calls Braithwaite’s declaration an “elegant history shed[ding] light on the Russian president’s imperial ambitions”; the reviewer of Spectator says it is “wise and thorough…the work of a man with a deep inside knowledge of and sympathy for Russia’s people and their culture.”
Braithwaite was Prime Minister Thatcher’s and Prime Minister Major’s ambassador to Moscow when Mikhail Gorbachev was being replaced by Boris Yeltsin, with Thatcher’s and Braithwaite’s connivance. Braithwaite’s wife handed out cookies to Yeltsin’s supporters in the Moscow streets in 1991. Since Braithwaite has been outside Russia since 1992, the only inside knowledge he has can be attributed to the time he presided over the UK intelligence establishment in 1992-93, and then to the friends he made as Deutsche Bank’s adviser on lending to Russia until 2002. The self-castration he and his claque are making a show of these days is a sign of religious faith, like Origines of Alexandria (lead image).*
The piety is already at cut price – in the first week after publication Amazon has discounted the hardcover edition of Braithwaite’s book by 30%; the e-book version by 44%.
It is one of the great ironies of modern imperial history that the United Kingdom has turned into the querulous mini-kingdoms which British policy through the East India Company once turned the Mughals, Rohillas, Marathas and their confederacies in India — before British armies destroyed their rule, castrated their rulers (several literally), and looted the country’s resources. Braithwaite remembers only the outcome in the mid-19th century when “the Russians ruled nearly 140 million people”, by which time, he favourably compares “the British [who] ruled over more than 400 million people.”
He is insistent that these days nostalgia for empire is the Russian vice, not the British or American vice. With post-imperial hindsight, Braithwaite also claims to be foresighted, as well as patronising. “Russia has not yet lost its imperial itch. Putin’s brutal invasion of Ukraine has postponed for many decades the prospect that Russia will become the modern democratic state at peace with its neighbours which so many courageous Russians had fought so hard to create. But no people should ever be written off as beyond redemption. I hang on to the golden image of the Firebird which flits through the dark forests of Russian folklore to symbolise the hope that Russia will see better days.”
Left: “Russia – Myths and Realities”
Right: Sir Rodric Braithwaite.
In the meantime Braithwaite ties each snippet of his version of Russia’s past to President Vladimir Putin and the present war. For example: “The Orthodox connexion runs like a thread through Russian history… But from the tenth century, when Prince Vladimir of Kiev chose to be baptised to the twenty-first, when President Putin embraced it for his own purposes, the Church has always been present.” Or: “Stalin, not surprisingly, saw himself as Ivan’s heir, the latest in a line of strong Russian leaders. He thought that Ivan’s terror was necessary though insufficient…Some, including Vladimir Putin, argued that the story that Ivan killed his son came from a biased source, a papal diplomat whose attempt to convert Russia to Catholicism Ivan had rebuffed.” And: “Kiev’s ramshackle political system had an obvious flaw. Its rulers never managed to produce an orderly and durable system of succession, despite intermittent attempts to establish agreed rules.”
Braithwaite’s history snippets shorten into clichés:
- 1237: “Nomadic and tribal, the Mongols had only recently been forged into one of the most formidable fighting forces the world has ever seen”.
- 1921: “The foreign armies withdrew [German, British, Czech, American, Japanese intervention in Russia 1917-21] under pressure from their people who were sick of war. They left behind a [Russian] resentment, partly justified, partly stoked by government propaganda, which still feeds Russian paranoia about foreign interference in their domestic affairs.”
- 1970: “What ordinary [Soviet] people wanted [was]…American jeans and American music rather than the glum, shoddy and often unavailable stuff that was the best the Soviet Union could produce.”
- 1991: “President Clinton, Bush’s successor, did what he could to help.”
- 2001: “The emotions fed nostalgia for the past in Putin’s Russia.”
- 2015: “[Putin] intervened in Syria’s baffling civil war.”
- 2016: “His cyberwarriors hacked into the US presidential election.”
- 2021: “[Putin] swept aside President Biden’s attempt to talk sensibly about matters of mutual concern.”
Braithwaite has also rewritten his history to ignore the role which Marxist theory of class, capitalism, and imperialism has played for 150 years in Russian history. Not to mention in British, German, and French history. All of that Braithwaite disposes of by slagging off Lenin’s “theory of government [as] a farrago of socialist slogans.” Instead, it suits Braithwaite to exaggerate “an elaborate though shadowy theory of ‘Eurasianism’…Russia, it maintained, was a unique civilisation, neither European nor Asiatic but drawing on the traditions of both… The theory gained popularity after the collapse of the Soviet Union. It was an emotional compensation for the humiliations of the Soviet collapse, but it had little solid underpinning in the facts.” Braithwaite follows up with pseudo-facts and innuendo. “One of its later proponents, Alexander Dugin, was said to have advised Vladimir Putin as he began to position Russia further away from the West and closer to China; but there are plenty of good reasons for Putin’s evolving policies that owe nothing to Dugin or his ideas.”
Braithwaite can find no good Russian reason. Instead, this is how he casts the history of the current war:
- “The Germans slowed their drive on Moscow in order to mop up Ukraine. Some Ukrainians cooperated with the Germans in the hope of recovering their independence. In Galicia they took the opportunity to settle scores with the Poles. The hopes were illusory…Resistance to Soviet attempts to re-impose control in the Baltic States and Ukraine continued for years after the war was over. Eight decades later these events were used by Putin to fabricate the myth that Russia faced a renewed threat from ‘Nazis’ in Ukraine.”
- “In 2010 Yanukovych had another go at the presidency and won in a comparatively fair election. But he was ousted in the winter of 2013-2014 by demonstrators demanding a closer relationship with the European Union, which Putin had dismissed as a ‘hamster’. Putin decided it was time to act. In February 2014 his troops, dressed in unmarked uniforms, took over Crimea in a bloodless campaign. He formally annexed Crimea a month later…”
- “Fighting then broke out in East Ukraine between the Ukrainian authorities and rebellious Russian-speakers seeking closer links with Russia. The United States and the Europeans tried to broker a settlement. ‘Volunteers’ from Russia moved in to support the rebels, who shot down a Malaysian airliner on its way from the Netherlands. All on board were killed. There was an understandable outpouring of anger in the West, which imposed sanctions on Russia. NATO deployed some troops to its eastern members. Putin was undeterred.”
- “Putin had gambled on his belief that he could roll the Ukrainians over in a blitzkrieg. Instead, the Ukrainians fought back under their remarkable president, Volodymyr Zelensky, a former comic actor whose Jewish background made nonsense of Putin’s accusations of neo-nazism. His inspired and courageous leadership turned him into an international hero.”
Braithwaite’s history runs to 252 pages, and Joseph Stalin is the front-runner with 101 mentions – one on almost every second page. Putin follows with 75, edging out Catherine the Great at 73; Gorbachev trails at 56, Yeltsin with 42, Vladimir Lenin at 40, Peter the Great and Ivan the Terrible (Ivan IV) at 32, Ivan the Great (Ivan III), 21.
Braithwaite awards two special mentions apiece to Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Alexei Navalny, Khodorkovsky is termed the “most impressive” of the oligarchs who was “imprisoned for a decade on trumped-up charges of fraud.” Navalny appears as “the courageous and ingenious opposition leader who “barely survived poisoning by government agents in 2020 and was incarcerated after a farcical trial.” These are professions of Braithwaite faith – absent evidence; absent acknowledgement there is a Russian version of their stories in which Khodorkovsky features as a grand larcenist, Navalny as a faker, and both as putsch plotters.
In Braithwaite’s scheme, there is no credible Russian history at all. His is the story of one-man rule, almost entirely of villains, especially now. This is the contribution British deception operations are making to the current war effort, especially propaganda in the English language. It’s Boy’s Own and Biggles history, in the didactic style of Arthur Mee. If you no longer recognise who they were in the myth-making of intrepid British empire war-fighters, that only goes to show you are more modern than Braithwaite, less puerile.
The reality of rule in Russia is elsewhere. Braithwaite pays the collective elites of Russian history almost no attention – the boyars of the 12th to 17th centuries lead with 23 mentions; the Soviet Politburo with 4; the zemstvos of 1861 and the oligarchs of 1996 just 3 each; the Central Committee, 2; the State Duma, 1. The Red Army draws 12; the Stavka of World War I, World War II, and now – zero.
In Braithwaite’s myth of Russia, the reality is the subliminal message in which Braithwaite ties Putin to Stalin and Stalin to Ivan the Terrible – they are the tyrant line against which the government in London fights in a strategy for Europe in which its only ally is the US. From the German Catherine the Great – “few other would-be reformers of Russia would get as far as she did” – through to Yeltsin and Navalny, they are the liberal line in favour of which Braithwaite wishes to fight, from his armchair.
From that location Braithwaite concedes “there was no direct evidence linking Putin to the assassinations of journalists and Boris Nemtsov – “one of Russia’s most distinguished democratic politicians” – and to the Navalny case. “But [Putin] was the boss, and his was the final responsibility.”
As for Gorbachev, Braithwaite expresses wistfulness, almost regretting his fate; this is notwithstanding that Braithwaite knows full well his prime minister and MI6 plotted with the US to dispose of him. Braithwaite ends his history covering up Gorbachev’s most craven secret – his agreement to withdraw the Soviet Army from Germany while allowing US and British troops to remain and become the spearhead of the NATO expansion eastwards that has now reached the Dnieper River. Braithwaite’s explanation: “The Russian bargaining position was very weak. Gorbachev had little option but to negotiate to avoid chaos.”
After reading that, readers may conclude there is a bird they should be giving Braithwaite, but it isn’t the Firebird.
[*] Note on the illustration: the early Christians celebrated eunuchs for their faith, especially if they castrated themselves in a show of piety, as the 15th century French chapbook illustrates Origenes of Alexandria (183-237 AD) doing, while a fellow pietist prepares to immolate himself, and the Church faithful pray for their sainthood. According to Braithwaite, when Russians identify themselves as Orthodox Christians, it is “a matter not of faith but of identity”. Braithwaite also sums up his one-chapter history of the Russian Orthodox Church by claiming that “for many Russians…what happened in Byzantium still affects their view of the world.” If the British intelligence services had evidence for this when Braithwaite supervised them last in 1994, Braithwaite hasn’t a footnote for it -- it no longer exists.