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Angela Merkel: "We can change things for the better. That is the message of the fall of the Wall." (photo: Aleph)

As this issue goes to press, a resumption of hostilities in Eastern Europe seems imminent. Columns of Russian tanks, artillery and missile launchers have taken up positions in eastern Ukraine, where separatists have set up two puppet republics. A Ukrainian civil war was halted by a ceasefire in September, but by then at least 4,000 people, mainly civilians, had already been killed. The truce seems unlikely to hold. Last month's joyful celebrations of the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall were already overshadowed by the prospect of a new Cold War — or even a hot one. 

Ever since the Russian invasion of Georgia six years ago, writers in Standpoint have been warning against the threat posed by "Uncle Vlad". In his obituary of Solzhenitsyn for our third issue in September 2008, Robert Conquest sounded the alarm: relations between Russia and Ukraine were, he wrote, "also heated and just as potentially inflammable . . . The question of the Ukraine is more sensitive still". Professor Conquest even took issue with Solzhenitsyn, whom he knew well and admired, over Ukraine. The Nobel laureate denied that Stalin had deliberately caused the Terror-famine of 1932-33. "Here Solzhenitsyn is clearly in the wrong," wrote Conquest, though he added: "Whatever his faults, we should bow to his memory."

It is worth pondering the fact that one of Russia's greatest writers, a staunch anti-Communist, nonetheless supported Putin's nationalist foreign policy. Artists and intellectuals everywhere, but especially in Russia, are always drawn to a leader who reasserts national glory and patriotism after a period of decline. There are continuities in Russian history that preceded the Soviet Union and have survived its demise. To these there is no better guide than Winston Churchill, who understood Russia better than any British prime minister, before or since. In October 1939, during the dark days of the Nazi-Soviet pact, Churchill was as perplexed as everyone else: "I cannot forecast for you the action of Russia. It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key. That key is the Russian national interest."

Seven long years later, at Fulton, Missouri, Churchill returned to this theme. Everybody knows the words for which this speech became famous: "From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent." But few recall Churchill's main point. "From what I have seen of our Russian friends and allies during the war, I am convinced that there is nothing they admire so much as strength, and there is nothing for which they have less respect than for weakness, especially military weakness." If the Western democracies remained united, he added, "No one is likely to molest them. If however they become divided or falter in their duty . . . then indeed catastrophe may overwhelm us all."

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