26 SEPTEMBER 1998, Page 59


A sense of duty

James Delingpole

Agloomy play about a dead seagull. A long book about a woman who throws her- self under a train and an even longer one about war and peace which is impossible to understand because there are too many names in it. An overture with cannons in it. An arty black and white movie worshipped by film bores because of a clever scene where a pram rolls down some steps. Dolls that go inside dolls. Onion domes. Icons. Cool furry hats. Vodka. Er...

And that, I'm sorry to say, is the end of my list of Useful Things that Russia has Contributed to World Culture. Pretty unimpressive, isn't it? Especially when you set it against all the Bad Things that Russia has Contributed to World Culture, from horse shagging and the Crimean War through 70-odd years of communist terror to the current international fmancial crisis. Yes, I think I'm going to be on fairly safe ground this week when I argue that Russia has added more to the sum total of human misery than any nation on earth. In fact, I rather wish that we'd nuked the whole Soviet Union into oblivion in 1945 and had done with it: it's no more than Stalin and his dismal bunch of kill-joys deserved.

All right, so maybe I'm exaggerating just a teensy weensy bit. But I do consider it one of my primary duties in life to wind up, at every opportunity, all those socialists, liberals and fellow travellers out there who still maintain that the horrors of Stalin's Soviet Union were merely the result of a noble, well-intentioned plan that went ever so slightly pear-shaped. If you tried taking a similar line on Nazi Germany you'd be lynched. But if you stood up at a university debate and said: 'Say what you like about Stalin. At least he made the Gulag Express run on time,' you'd probably be mistaken for an intellectual. Or in Eric Hobsbawm's case, get made a Companion of Honour.

This is something, I am sure, that future generations are going to find almost impos- sible to believe: that, during the 40-odd years when the world was on the brink of being conquered or annihilated by the Soviet Union, it was yet considered perfect- ly healthy for those in the free West not merely to defend the communist regime but to maintain that it was no worse than that which ran wicked, capitalist America. I'd find it hard to credit myself were there not plenty of evidence in newspapers, his- tory books and on television, that many supposedly intelligent people still think that way today.

Imagine then, my astonishment at the shockingly unorthodox line taken by the BBC's new 24-part series The Cold War A Television History (BBC 2 Saturday). Though it was made by an organisation scarcely known for its right-wing tendencies and partly financed by Ted Turner, the husband of Hanoi Jane Fonda, it has actu- ally had the courage to avoid queasy moral relativism and suggest that the Americans and the Brits were the good guys all along. And that the Soviets and their cohorts were every bit as evil as the enlightened among us had always suspected.

That, at any rate, was the case with the two episodes I saw — the first dealing with the rise of Stalinism from 1917 to 1945, the second with the gradual dawning in the West that this charming Uncle Joe fellow might not be such a decent cove after all. And not before time. For far too long the prevailing attitude among the Western powers had been, as Sir Frank Roberts put it, 'If you treat Uncle Joe like a member of our club then perhaps one day he'll behave like a member of our club.'

With hindsight, this sounds like culpable naivety. It wasn't as if the Western leaders didn't know about Katyn, the purges, the state-orchestrated famine or many of Stal- in's other numerous atrocities. The prob- lem was, as this lucid, magnificently illustrated documentary makes clear, that a combination of realpolitik and wishful thinking was sadly inevitable at a time when the West was far too exhausted after fighting the second world war to consider beginning the third world war.

I was fascinated to learn, for example, that when Churchill made his 'From Stettin in the Baltic . . . ' speech in Fulton, Mis- souri, it initially went down like a cup of cold sick with the American public, which considered it a gratuitous outburst of war- mongering. Only later did it come to be hailed as a great piece of statesmanship.

Um. I'm sure this piece was going to lead to a really interesting conclusion. I was going to point out how amusingly cross Kenneth Branagh would have been if he hadn't been been asked to follow in the footsteps of Larry (World at War) Olivier and do the voiceover; how irksome it is that Branagh is described as Irish in the BBC's press notes just because he was born in Belfast; how fortunate we are that the series was made while so many of the Cold War's major players (for example, General Jaruzelski, Fidel Castro, Robert McNamara) were still alive to be inter- viewed; how, even though I found Jeremy Isaacs a huge pain in the days when I had to write about the tedious goings on at the Royal Opera House, I'm bowled over with admiration for this new series of his; and how even though it should be a jolly big relief that the Cold War is over, it isn't really because we're just going to end up being nuked by Muslim fundamentalists instead.

Unfortunately, I got distracted halfway through by the birth of my son No and all I can think of now is how totally gorgeous he is. Give me another 20 years, though, and I'm sure I'll have come back down from my cloud.