Russian recollections: Don't ignore lessons from history

A Russian flag printed with President Putin's face Image copyright Getty Images

History is useful when trying to make sense of present tensions between Russia and the West.

At the Defence Academy, near Shrivenham, Oxfordshire, there is a warehouse where library shelves are stacked with an extraordinary collection of military volumes.

Many are in Russian and other languages of the former Soviet bloc: painstakingly and methodically gathered over the past half century, in order to better know the enemy.

Now renamed the Russian Military Studies Archive, it is a precious chronicle of the rise and fall of the USSR, the Cold War and tensions between Russia and the West even now.

Image caption What lessons can these Cold War era spy-craft books teach us?

Since the USSR and Warsaw Pact collapsed and since the advent of digital records, it has become harder to keep archives like this one going.

Some have concluded that in this cost-cutting era, libraries of physical books are luxuries we, perhaps, cannot afford.

Luckily, this military archive has not ended up as landfill.

In the past few years, the idea of Russia as a security priority is back in fashion.

Paying attention to recent history may be important as we try to gauge what is going on in Moscow and what might happen next.

Image caption From the archive: How to make your way across a raging torrent, four soldiers at a time
Image caption From the archive: How to construct a wooden frame for a fake haystack, so you can cross a field undercover
Image caption From the archive: How to weave a rope into a handy swing to serve as a sniper's perch

Some of the memorabilia brings back one of the most extraordinary moments of my career: the three days in Moscow in August 1991 when defence, KGB and Communist chiefs tried to stage a coup d'etat.

Their aim was to halt and reverse Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika reforms, which they believed were leading their great country towards ruin.

I will never forget that moment.

It felt as though history was on a knife-edge, and the world could go either way.

I remember venturing out of our BBC office in Moscow to find a line of tanks parked along the inner ring road, confused young soldiers poking their heads out of the turrets to find out where they were.

The tanks were menacing. The young boys were not.

Our cleaning lady, Masha, wearing her usual headscarf and apron, limped out to wag a finger at them.

"What do you think you are doing here? Your mothers would be ashamed of you," she scolded. "Take yourselves back to the barracks where you belong."

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Communist hardliners launched an attempted coup on 19 August 1991

The attempted coup failed because Russia's new President, Boris Yeltsin, ruled their actions illegal and urged the armed forces not to follow orders, and because he appealed to the people of Moscow to join him in making the coup leaders to back down.

The response was amazing and humbling.

Soviet citizens, who only a few years earlier had been so fearful of speaking out in public, now taking to the streets to defy the Kremlin.

Young women with pushchairs, civil servants with briefcases, musicians with guitars and violins, all flocking to the Russian parliament to demonstrate through sheer numbers that they would no longer be cowed, and would not allow the clock to be turned back.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Muscovites built barricades to protect the Russian parliament during the attempted coup

Among the collection are leaflets from that time - some still muddy from being trampled underfoot - hastily printed and distributed throughout Moscow by Yeltsin's supporters, in an attempt to counter the coup leaders' broadcasts on state TV and radio.

I remember them plastered all over the metro.

The words are powerful and urgent.

"Over Russia storm clouds are gathering, clouds of dictatorship and terror… Soldiers! I believe at this tragic hour that you will make the right choice," says one appeal.

Image caption Then Russian Federation President Boris Yeltsin warned of approaching "storm clouds"

And, "my heartfelt thanks to you all for your courage," says another, addressed from Yeltsin to the citizens of Moscow.

Image caption Then Russian Federation President Boris Yeltsin thanked Muscovites for their support

I have been thinking a lot about 1991 recently, and wondering if it is possible that many Russians might turn out on to the streets again, if the current economic downturn worsened, for instance, and desperation set in.

Or would they keep their heads down and focus grimly on self-preservation?

And do they feel completely differently about their country and their leader today, more supportive and more reluctant to risk turmoil?

It is what Russian opposition leaders must endlessly ponder. And Vladimir Putin and his inner circle too.


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It is maybe important to note that the political atmosphere in 1991 was very different from now.

Then, Russians felt entitled to protest, given permission from above - both at Yeltsin's urging and because for six years they had been told by none other than the General Secretary of the Communist Party, Mikhail Gorbachev, that speaking out was their right.

Arguably this empowerment from above was also a factor in 2011, when middleclass Muscovites once again took to the streets in large numbers, to protest against election fraud.

Possibly they too were responding to the more relaxed atmosphere, which prevailed when Dmitry Medvedev was president, before Mr Putin came back.

Today, there is a different mood. The public space to speak out has narrowed. Grassroots movements, far from being encouraged, are often seen as a threat.

New laws and the example of top opposition leaders being murdered all conspire to persuade critics they had better stay quiet, or pack their bags and emigrate.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The Ukraine crisis - and the West's response - has boosted Russian patriotism

And the new wave of patriotism since the Russian takeover of Crimea in 2014 has reinforced a powerful message from the top: that Russia is under threat from without (both from Nato and jihadists) and facing difficult times at home.

So, now more than ever, goes the message, the country needs a strong leader to hold it together, smoke out that "fifth column" of enemies and keep Russia safe.

And if there is a lesson from history, it is what happened nearly 100 years ago, when the Bolshevik revolution tore the country apart.

The last thing Russia needs, say President Putin's supporters, is more revolution and bloodshed.

But if I look back over my personal experience of Russia in the past 30 or 40 years, I keep thinking that it is precisely when you think the giant is slumbering that it surprises you by waking up.

I cannot help remembering those Moscow citizens, young and old, who thronged to the city centre in 1991 to stop the Communists coming back.

No-one, not even the demonstrators themselves most probably, expected such a street revolt.

So who is to say what destiny lies ahead for Russia?

History offers many parallels, from which we all draw different lessons.

Maybe what is most likely is a new twist, which will catch us all unawares.

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