Russia past and present, from a historian in Cambridge
Elton John. One day he declares that he would like to sit down for a cup of tea with President Putin to discuss gay rights, the next he is duped by famous Russian tricksters into having this very conversation with them by Skype.
Sir Elton might have later been embarrassed, but he was a fine diplomat, conducting himself with supreme politeness in conversation with what he assumed to be a very powerful but very different-thinking interlocutor.
Alas, such skills were little in evidence at the second debate among candidates for the Republican nomination for US President, held two weeks ago in California. But it wasn’t Donald Trump who was the problem.
Marco Rubio, US Senator for Florida, repeatedly called the Russian president a ‘gangster’. Carly Fiorina didn’t want to call him anything at all, saying that instead of maintaining lines of communication, she would expand the 6th Fleet, pour troops into Germany, and conduct major military exercises in the Baltic States. Actions, not words, she insisted, would cause Putin ‘to get the message’ soon enough. One hopes he would not reply with nuclear-tipped actions of his own.
Donald Trump took a quite different tack. Trump promised that his ability to get on with powerful people from all over the world would allow him and Putin to develop a strong and fruitful working relationship.
Meanwhile, in Britain, the hard-left Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader of the Labour Party three weeks ago. He would probably dissolve NATO if he had the chance. More modestly, he certainly insists that we evaluate the actions of Russia in the context of NATO’s westwards expansion.
Conventional wisdom places Trump and Corbyn on two sides of the same absurdist, scary coin. This coin has a populist tint, designed to appeal to an anxious, confused, and ‘disenfranchised’ Western population: a coin that is dangerous, unpleasant and right-wing on the one side, naive, idealistic and retro-leftist on the other. Elton John, of course, looks nothing like either of them. But Sir Elton, Jezza and the Donald had something in common a couple of weeks ago that was of some use in how we might talk to and about modern Russia.