Why can’t we be friends? Britain and Russia’s troubled relationship

‘I wish indeed that we could bring the feelings of the public in this country into a similar state towards Russia as they are towards France, but this will take some time to effect as there is so much misrepresentation in regard to Russia being circulated through many circles in this country…’                                                                                                                                                           

Sir Arthur Nicolson, 1914

I was watching breakfast news the other day, while getting ready for work, and was struck by what was being said about the Sochi Winter Olympics, specifically the opening ceremony, which was taking place that evening. According to the reporters, the ceremony was designed to showcase Russia as a modern nation fit to take its place among the western states. It would feature a journey through Russia’s history – leaving out the unsavoury bits of course. Even with my fuzzy morning-brain this all struck me as a little patronising, if not outright jingoistic. So Russia’s entire motive for Sochi was to somehow prove itself worthy of respect in British (and presumably American eyes)? And as for the unsavoury bits of its history, I don’t seem to remember any mention of the nastier parts of Britain’s imperial past during the opening of the London 2012 Olympics. All together it seemed an unnecessary jibe at Russia. The last few weeks have seen heavy criticism of Russia, in regards to its anti-homosexuality laws, the enormous cost of the games (apparently due to high corruption) and even the extermination of dozens of stray dogs in Sochi. And rightly so that Russia be criticised. A country cannot court attention by hosting a massive international sporting event and then be surprised when its human rights record comes under fire. China learned as much in 2008. But why the need for such a petty dig at Russia’s history?

Britain and Russia as depicted during the Great Game

This seemed to me just one small example of the nature of Anglo-Russian relations – a relationship seemingly built on foundations of enmity. The late twentieth century may have been dominated by the rivalry between America and the Soviet Union but it is in Britain that Russia finds its constant archfoe, and this bitterness runs deep. The pattern for such interaction was set during the Great Game of the nineteenth century – when Britain and Russia vied with each other for supremacy over Asia. During this time Britain was awash with Russophobia. Popular literature regaled the public with scenes of Russian hordes invading England’s borders, while liberal commentators denounced the autocracy of the Romanov dynasty. (Russophilism existed in Britain too, although not quite as prevalent or as vocal as Russophobia). Britain and Russia may have been allies during the First World War, but the Great Game feeling did not die in 1914, as Arthur Nicolson lamented. Indeed, it lingered on after the 1918 armistice, becoming mingled with the intense opposition to Bolshevism that was born of the Russian Revolution of October 1918. Britain looked on in horror as Lenin and his comrades made peace with the Central Powers, declared their intention of bringing down the British Empire through subversion, and set about murdering Tsar Nicholas II and his young family. The feeling that it had been betrayed by Russia during the First World War was compounded for Britain when the Nazi-Soviet Pact was signed in 1939. And more recently the death of Alexander Litvinenko has further soured relations.

Britain’s animosity has not escaped Russia’s notice along the way. In 1907, during one of those rare periods when British and Russian politicians found they needed each other as allies rather than enemies, a treaty was signed between the two countries. Yet, the criticism directed towards St Petersburg which continued in the British press after 1907 angered Russia, and threatened to derail the whole friendship-process. During both the World Wars there was a nagging feeling amongst Russians that the other Allies were probably not too concerned about the Eastern front, happy instead to allow the Germans and the Russians to batter away at each other. And yet, every time Stalin complained that the Allies were not doing enough to help the Soviet Union after 1941, Churchill quickly pointed out that Britain had been fighting alone for a number of years while Moscow and Berlin had been cosying up together. Which gives some idea of the problem besetting Anglo-Russian relations. Britain has always felt that Russia was not to be trusted – that it would say one thing but quite as easily do another. To act duplicitously was, in British eyes, just not cricket. Russia, for its part, could not escape the feeling that it was the outsider, even before the birth of the Soviet Union put it on a political path divergent to the west. And Britain would always fail to understand the paranoia of Russia when it came to invasion – Mongolia, France, Germany, even Britain, have all planted their troops on Russian soil. This does not excuse the creation of the Soviet bloc – it just perhaps helps to understand things a little better.

For that is the name of the game really – understanding. Being able to realise where Russia is coming from when it does what it does is one step towards better Anglo-Russian relations. It does not mean agreeing with the acts of repression committed by Putin’s regime. It does not mean that we stop criticising the way homosexuals are treated in Russia. It just means that perhaps our response can be a little more measured – that we realise, as Professor Christopher Read points out, that such laws also exist in many European countries and American states, which haven’t received half as much criticism as Russia. Friends can still tell each other off and remain friends. Because friends give each other the benefit of the doubt and friends know the other just wants what’s best for them. So please, let’s just try to be friends with Russia, ok? And stop making digs about their less than savoury past – after all, every nation has things in its history it would rather forget.

Reading List

R.P. Churchill, The Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907 (Iowa: Torch Press, 1939).

J.H. Gleason, The Genesis of Russophobia in Great Britain (London: Oxford University Press, 1950).

M. Hughes, Inside the Enigma: British Officials in Russia, 1900–1939 (London: Hambledon Press, 1997).

K.E. Meyer and S.B. Brysac, Tournament of Shadows: The Great Game and the Race for Empire in Central Asia (Washington DC: Counterpoint, 1999).

K. Neilson, Britain and the Last Tsar: British Policy and Russia, 1894–1917 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995).



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