People are far more interested in what happens in their own country than in others; patriots put their birthplace first and “progressives” put theirs down. But both sides are united in the exceptionalism they display towards their homeland, either believing it to be better or worse than anywhere else.
For me, it’s always been different. The Soviet Union was hardly a wallflower at any stage in history; going from Tsarist empire to Communist superpower to an entire era of muscle-flexing under Vladimir Putin, up to and including Moscow’s Victory Day parades at the weekend. But that hardly put me off — for the simple reason that I was raised as a Soviet patriot.
When I hear friends’ horror stories about their parents, I always think how lucky I was. My dad was handsome and witty, generous and kind — even if he was a big fan of a system believed to have killed around 20 million people.
He wasn’t a big reader; it wasn’t the Communist theory he liked. Rather, he idealised the Soviet Union in a manner that reminds me of the images on the cover of The Watchtower, the Jehovah’s Witness magazine; people wandering beatifically unharmed among wild animals, the lion and the lamb making eyes at each other.
He was, for example, obsessed with the cleanliness of the Moscow underground stations; in a television film I wrote about him, Prince, a young Sean Bean tells his daughter about Russia: “It’s very cold, very clean… and everybody’s happy. Because the country belongs to them. Their subways stations are immaculate — you could eat your dinner off the floor. Because nobody drops rubbish. Because it all belongs to them — the people.” Never religious, the USSR was his Promised Land.
A clever man from an illiterate, poverty-wracked home, he refused the promotions offered him at the distillery where he worked and instead organised his trade union, in the interests of not being bought by the bourgeoisie. After the factory closed, and before he died of the mesothelioma that he had contracted as a teenage builder, his last job was as a car-park attendant. He died seeing it as a triumph that he had made no advancement up the class ladder.
Stalin, who was definitely his Top of the Pops, was the peasant son of a drunken cobbler and a washerwoman who outlived communism’s intellectuals and turned his country into a superpower to match the United States. He spoke to my father’s frustrated leadership qualities, I think now.
On the other hand, lots of bright proletarian men grow up with no opportunities and they don’t cleave to a genocidal tyrant — but because my dad was such a charming man, I didn’t mind humouring him. He’d given up on trying to interest my mum in politics early on in their courtship, so I was his little comrade, always happy to stay up late cheering for the USSR during the Olympics.
In return, though he hated “men capering about showing off” — as he referred to the likes of Lionel Blair on TV — he got us a box for the Bolshoi Ballet when they came to Bristol, even if he did refuse to look at the stage, doing his trade union summer school homework the whole way through.
Duly rewarded, I returned refreshed to my Soviet-cheerleading duties — mostly composed of urging on the Viet Cong, which was all over the news as they fought their war with Russian weapons, and taking a keen interest in the USSR’s proxy wars all over Africa. (My dad was particularly excited when a young African Communist rocked up at his local one weekend. He became a respected guest at our house until he mentioned how racist he had found the Moscovites while attending the Peoples’ Friendship University of Russia, after which he was promptly sent into exile by my furious father.)
Of course, it wasn’t all Red Army tanks and grim Kremlin faces. Watching the May Day parades on the evening news, it was impossible not to be bewitched by the beautiful Communist gymnasts: Nellie Kim, Ludmilla Tourischeva and Olga Korbut, “the sparrow from Minsk” who was told by President Nixon that her performance in the 1972 Munich Olympics “did more to reduce the political tension between our two countries than the embassies were able to do in five years”. I still remember when Nadia Comăneci, the most gifted Romanian girl of all, was named the youngest ever Hero Of Socialist Labor by the dictator Ceausescu. Suddenly, the popular girls at my school were taking Communist heroines as their role models; never one to knowingly embrace consensus, this left me feeling mildly miffed.
But what I most approved of about the gymnasts was the way Soviet children who showed a particular talent were snatched away from home at an early age — Korbut was in full-time training from the age of eight — and sent to work in academies of excellence; meritocracy at its rawest.
I wasn’t scared of hard work, but I was scared of going nowhere. As a smart working-class girl at a provincial Seventies sink school, the most I could hope for was teacher training college, which I didn’t fancy one little bit. Why couldn’t I be snatched away from my parents and stuck in an academy of writing excellence? At 17, I escaped through a job at the New Musical Express instead.
I’m not sure what my father would disapprove of more; the fact that I let a boy wearing a swastika (“Before Hitler, it stood for peace!”) buy me a drink or the fact that I briefly joined the Socialist Workers Party? (To old school Communists, metropolitan offshoots like the SWP were treated with suspicion, and suspected of practising free love.)
When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, I remember my father for the first time failed to do that adorable thing that working-class dads have done forever: call out to their wives to come to the phone immediately and talk to their child. Instead he bent my ear for a good five minutes moaning about the imminent downfall of civilisation. By this time I’d learned more than enough about Stalin’s antics, and I gave him short shrift.
After he died at the turn of the century, I transferred my affections to Israel, and began to travel there and propagandise on its behalf. It helped that Israel was always in the news, so always needed someone to defend it. Why did I feel the need to latch on to somewhere new? I’m not entirely sure. Though if you’ve been brought up to think of an unseen land as your own, it can feel small-minded just cheering on the place where you happened to be born.
I hear of young people calling themselves Communists now; they’re not, they are simply ABEs: Anyone But England. And they’ll have their work cut out should their dreams come true — they’re always Wokers and Woke is the opposite of Communism, based on a strict class conflict theory which would judge identity politics to be bourgeoise deviation.
Certainly today’s revolutionaries share none of the Soviet stoicism that appealed to my dad, his twin pillars of philosophy being Fair Play and No Fussing. Though considering what we know now — the Terror, the massacres, the starvation and beatings which went into making Comrade Comăneci the youngest ever Hero Of Socialist Labor — perhaps there can be such a thing as too much Stoicism.
And yet I occasionally get a flicker of the old feeling; Red Army Choir songs, the image of the hammer and sickle flag being hoist over a destroyed Reichstag, Yuri Gagarin’s birthday. But of course: no image, however beautiful, means anything compared to all the sorrow and pain inflicted by my saintly father’s favourite belief system.