• “Bombing Russia Back into Communism”: Memories of 1999

    Twenty years ago, Slobodan Milošević, Serbia’s nationalist president, was viciously persecuting the mainly Albanian inhabitants of Kosovo, which was then a part of Serbia. There were fears this would end in genocide. In an attempt to pressure Milošević, NATO carried out a bombing campaign against Serbia that lasted several months, from March 24 to June 10, 1999. NATO was right to support the Albanians, but problems are seldom solved merely by bombing. And every war brings unexpected consequences.

    Recently I reread D. H. Lawrence’s “A Letter from Germany,” written in 1924 and published in the New Statesman on October 13, 1934. Lawrence, as so often, is astonishingly perceptive. Many passages seem alarmingly relevant to the present day. More particularly, his letter reminded me of my experiences in Moscow, in March 1999.


    Immediately you are over the Rhine, the spirit of place has changed. […] As if the Germanic life were slowly ebbing away from contact with western Europe […] Germany, this bit of Germany, is very different from what it was two and a half years ago, when I was here. Then it was still open to Europe. Then it still looked to western Europe for a reunion, for a sort of reconciliation. […]

    The last two years have done it. The hope in peace-and-production is broken. […] A still older flow has set in. Back, back to the savage polarity of Tartary, and away from the polarity of civilised Christian Europe. […]

    Baden-Baden is a quiet place. No more Turgenevs or Dostoevskys or Grand Dukes or King Edwards coming to drink the waters. All the outward effect of a world-famous watering-place. But empty now, a mere Black Forest village with the wagon-loads of timber going through, to the French.

    The Rentenmark, the new gold Mark of Germany, is abominably dear. Prices are high in England, but English money buys less in Baden than it buys in London, by a long chalk. And there is no work — consequently no money. Nobody buys anything, except absolute necessities. The shopkeepers are in despair. And there is less and less work. Everybody gives up the telephone — can’t afford it. The tramcars don’t run, except about three times a day to the station. Up to the Annaberg, the suburb, the lines are rusty, no trams ever go. The people can’t afford the ten Pfennigs for the fare. Ten Pfennigs is an important sum now: one penny. It is really a hundred Milliards of Marks. […]

    Our civilisation has come from the fusion of the dark-eyed with the blue. The meeting and mixing and mingling of the two races has been the joy of our ages. […]

    It is a fate; nobody now can alter it. […] Within the last three years, the very constituency of the blood has changed, in European veins. But particularly in Germanic veins.

    At the same time, we have brought it about ourselves — by a Ruhr occupation, by an English nullity, and by a German false will. We have done it ourselves. But apparently it was not to be helped.


    In spring 1999, just as NATO began bombing Serbia, I arrived for a long-planned visit to Moscow. I phoned a Russian friend, a literary historian. She replied, “Ah Robert, I’m so glad to hear you, even though you’re bombing us.” I barely understood… The next day my friend subjected me to an hour and a half of anti-Western ranting before we could begin work; I left her apartment in tears. Later I went to visit another scholar, Vitaly Shentalinsky. While I was with him, the phone rang. It was a call from — of all places — Belgrade: from his Serb translator. All the windows in her house had been blown in, and she was terrified. Shentalinsky said he would be praying for her. I said I would be too. Shentalinsky passed on my remark, and she thanked me. When she rang off, Shentalinsky said bitterly to me that he had spent years trying to convince Russians that the West could be trusted — and that the West had now proved him wrong. “NATO,” he said, “was bombing Russia back into Communism.”

    Vitaly was right, even if “Communism” is not quite the word for the Putin regime. For several decades before 1999, Russia’s cultural orientation had been to the West. Since then, she has turned East, towards what Lawrence called Tartary and Russian political philosophers call Eurasia. How easily this turn can be reversed, I have no idea.