As a child of the Cold War – and a Finnish mother – I’m not surprised that anger towards Moscow is rising. Geopolitics weren’t high on my agenda during summer holidays in Helsinki in the 1980s, but even then, I sensed that Finland’s dutiful relationship with the bear next door was fraught. The only adult who convincingly described the tension was a lonely drunk I once met at a party. Gazing eastwards across Helsinki’s archipelago, he told me about his gun collection before demonstrating how he’d fire at the Soviets if they invaded. With one last imaginary bullet, he shot himself in the head. That, he said, was what Finlandisation meant.
On Sunday afternoon, Vladimir Putin warned that aggressive statements by ‘top officials in Nato’s leading countries’ had obliged him to put Russia’s ‘deterrence forces’ on high alert. The Kremlin press secretary blamed ‘various representatives at various levels’ and didn’t want to name names, ‘although it was the British foreign minister’. Liz Truss has denied responsibility.
My friend Nastassia recently returned to London from visiting her parents in Moscow. At a dumpling party, as guests kneaded dough at the table, a recently qualified ornithologist had told a weird story. Her new job involved feeding birds of prey, with mice she’d kill by swinging them against a wall – and that wasn’t the weird bit. Moscow Zoo wouldn’t take her on until she passed a lie detector test to show she wasn’t a thief or drug addict. ‘Unbelievable!’ Nastassia said.
Loyalty may yet save Boris Johnson. Plenty of Tory backbenchers hope he’s still the charismatic winner of yesteryear; others fear their re-election prospects are doomed without him. Even the optimists and lickspittles might pause before claiming he’s earned their trust, however. In search of personal advantage, the prime minister has normalised duplicity, weakened checks and balances, and left a trail of personal and professional relationships dead in his wake. Has he no shame?
Though I was born in Parsons Green, my father grew up in Pakistan, which acknowledges citizenship by descent. That means the home secretary could annul my Britishness, without even telling me, on the strength of a foreign entitlement I wouldn’t know what to do with. Apologists for executive discretion often argue that the innocent needn’t worry, but that complacent assumption misses the point. It isn’t only the notional risk of a despotic home secretary that’s disturbing. It’s the injustice of knowing that most citizens face no risk at all.
Priti Patel isn’t the first politician to overstate her experiences of adversity, and her opinions, at least, are consistent. She’s been an ardent nationalist since working as a press officer for James Goldsmith’s Referendum Party in the mid 1990s, and politicised patriotism runs in the family: her father contested a council seat for Ukip in 2013. The dodgy backstory matters, however, because it illustrates how hard it is to differentiate between worthy and unworthy refugees. Just as Patel’s parents escaped Uganda to improve their lives, most migrants are compelled to leave their homelands for mixed reasons: hopes as well as fears, ambition as well as anxiety.
Just over a year ago I was in eastern Poland. The edge of the European Union – a strip of sand between two rickety gates – was quiet.
The nuclear weapons launch site in San Cristobal that sparked the Cuban Missile Crisis was modelled on one at Plokštinė in Lithuania, which opened on New Year’s Eve 1961. The disused installation is no longer top secret – it’s now a museum – but it is still out of the way. Overlooked by dense pine forests, the silos yawn with ominous promise, like thermonuclear wishing wells. Each of the SS-4 rockets that might once have roared out of them had more than half the firepower used throughout the Second World War, including Hiroshima and Nagasaki. A single warhead could have flattened London within ten minutes of take-off.
At a recent press conference, a written statement attributed to the Taliban’s ‘commander of the faithful’, Haibatullah Akhundzada, said that the incoming government of Afghanistan will ‘work hard to uphold Islamic rules and sharia law’. In Arabic, ‘sharia’ implies a path to salvation, and ultra-pious Muslims don’t abandon that road willingly. But the rules to be upheld are less obvious. They’ve been contested for at least twelve hundred years. Some jurists have been tolerant and inclusive; others not. One prolific scholar popular in Taliban circles, Ibn Abiʼl-Dunya, a stern tutor to several princes in late ninth-century Baghdad, wrote seven tracts on prohibition alone. Among the frivolities he thought hateful to God were stringed instruments, chess, pigeon-fancying and sitting on seesaws.
At least 3400 alleged ‘extremists’ and ‘terrorists’ are currently awaiting trial in Belarus. According to Alexander Lukashenko, protesters against his government have been ‘literally’ inspired by Mein Kampf. Contemplating tensions on the Lithuanian border, he warns that ‘true Nazis’ are on the warpath. For a year now, Lukashenko has been branding his enemies fascists. The rhetoric has escalated steadily since May, when he pushed through a law to prohibit the ‘rehabilitation of Nazism’. The statute was modelled on a Russian edict passed after Crimea’s annexation in March 2014, and mirrors legislation enacted by nationalist governments throughout Eastern Europe. What distinguishes the ‘memory laws’ is their targets. Beyond Minsk and Moscow, they’re hostile to Communism as well as Nazism.