By Ayaz Amir
March 22, 2016
My idea of happiness is the Moscow of the 1970s when I served there as a diplomat. Not a very successful diplomat and I left the service soon after but that’s a different story. Cheap living, zero inflation, the best transport system in the world and most bars and cafes with live music in the evenings…what more could one want?
Vodka then was four roubles a bottle, Russian champagne about the same – at the black market rate equal to 12-15 of our rupees (Third World diplomats changed their dollars in the black market). Try beating that. And the beauty of it was that the stuff cost the same in a small café as in the best hotels, such as the Rossiya on Moscow River or the National overlooking Red Square.
Getting into those restaurants was always a problem and there usually was a long queue outside. But a ten rouble note discreetly passed into the hands of the mighty doorman usually did the trick and you got in. With not too many cars on the streets driving around was easy. In the whole of Moscow at that time there were only a handful of gas stations. Try taking that in.
Soviet communism did not deliver consumerism, certainly not the kind so rampant everywhere today. There were no branded stores, and thank God for that, and no advertising of any kind. No commercials on television but lots and lots of music. And Russia then as now had super-excellent opera and ballet.
The Russian is unlike the Anglo-Saxon or the German. He is warm and gregarious, in his emotional make-up much as the typical Pakistani is. A few downers at a bar and you could be chatting to him as to someone long intimate.
The Soviet Union could have done with some reform. There was too much political suffocation but Soviet society had evolved. There was nothing like the dread of the Stalinist era. Then came Mikhail Gorbachev and he proved a bigger disaster for Russia than Adolf Hitler. Hitler was defeated but Gorbachev undermined the Soviet system from within without being able to put anything in its place.
The ‘liberation’ of Eastern Europe was a chaotic affair, carried out at breakneck speed, with no forethought and no planning. The breakup of the Soviet Union also happened just like that, one thing coming after another.
This was a victory handed to the West on a platter. And no one was more surprised than the West. They weren’t prepared for it at all. But the Americans thought it was their strength and determination which had done the trick. So they proclaimed it the end of history: the final triumph of capitalism and democracy. This was hubris at its starkest and, not surprisingly, it didn’t last long. But as long as it did it gave us the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the mayhem we currently see in the Middle East.
The Islamic State (or Daesh) is a child of American hubris. And this arrogance flows from the end of the cold war and the breakup of the Soviet Union.
The cold war was good for the world. It was good for Third World countries because it gave them an alternative. With Russia weakening and China too busy in economic experimentation there was no restraint on American power.
Restraint would have lent a glow to American power. But restraint had no place in the neo-conservative creed, the reigning ideology of the Bush presidency. So that moment of unchallenged power was frittered away in fruitless ventures…of which Iraq remains the prime example.
I have strayed far from my starting point. I remember once going to a car workshop in Moscow – there were only two or three workshops in the entire city. The workman I had come to see was stretched on his back underneath a car and trying to catch his attention was a major general of the Soviet army in uniform. And the workman wasn’t paying him any attention. Just then someone told the worker that the major general was also a Hero of the Soviet Union, the country’s highest gallantry award. At that the workman got up and showed some respect. I prefer this democracy to any other kind.
Shop assistants, especially girls, could be downright maddening. Suppose they were chatting to another girl there was nothing you could do about it. And if you were foolish enough to interrupt, she would turn up her nose and say, can’t you see I am busy? A shop assistant not to be hurried…I would take this to be one of the advantages of that ponderous socialism.
And there was no unemployment in that setup. You got a job. It could be a lowly job but you got one.
What has Moscow to say for itself now? It has all the features of any capitalist society – traffic jams, too many cars and some people out of work. Although living conditions have improved under Vladimir Putin who is credited with halting the decline in Russian power brought on by Gorbachev and his comic successor, Boris Yeltsin.
Because Putin has been good for Russia and he has stood up for Russian interests he has been demonised in the West, called a megalomaniac and other names.
But he has played a steadying role in Syria. The shaky ceasefire which has taken hold there is an outcome of Russia and the United States working together. And unlike the Americans in Iraq, Putin has not overplayed his hand. Russia intervened to shore up Assad and having achieved that it is slowly disengaging. The Americans were not that clear-sighted in Iraq. Theirs was an open-ended commitment which ended in disaster…and such gifts as the rise of Isis.
Donald Trump is sowing alarmism. Hillary Clinton as secretary of state allowed Libya to happen – Col Qaddafi’s bloody ouster and the virtual breakup of the Libyan state. Qaddafi made sure terrorism gained no foothold in Libya. Now Libya is a forward base camp for Isis. These are the wages of moderation.
Mike Tyson, a convert to Islam, supports Donald Trump. And Trump has said he would be even-handed – neutral was the word he used – when it came to Israel and the Palestinians. For an American presidential candidate to say this much is unthinkable. In American politics you don’t get on the wrong side of pro-Israeli sentiment. And you don’t attack Fox News. Trump has done both.
He’s a smart man and knows what he is doing. He has already shaken up American politics. The race between him and La Clinton will be the most exciting presidential contest in living memory. Anyone who can enliven American politics and can take provocative and even extreme positions is worth applauding – if only for the fun he provides.
La Clinton on the other hand may be the most experienced politico around but she is dull and has nothing new to offer.
Trump, however, disproves Sir John Falstaff’s thesis about the virtues of strong drink. Falstaff says nothing good comes of weak stuff, going on to add that if he had a thousand sons the first humane principle he would teach them is to avoid weak potations and addict themselves to sack (wine fortified with brandy). Trump does all manner of other things but he doesn’t drink.