The Second Russian Revolution: A British Perspective

Rodric Braithwaite, the British Ambassador to the Soviet Union and Russia from 1988 through 1992, has written a fascinating book on his experiences. The book is entitled Across the Moscow River: The World Turned Upside Down, a title that is derived in part from the fact that the British Embassy is strategically located across the Moscow River from the Kremlin.

Russia’s Past

One of the strengths of Braithwaite’s book is the Ambassador’s knowledge of Russian history, culture and language. Braithwaite has a great affection for the Russian people and introduces his memoirs with the observation that “in the end it is the [Russian] people themselves who constitute the riches of the country.” In light of their difficult history, he correctly notes that “because they are so vulnerable, human relationships in Russia have an intensity which they lack in the more orderly West (p. x).”

The Ambassador’s memoirs are full of historical observations that demonstrate his understanding of Russia’s turbulent past. He describes in some detail how Russia’s intense poverty and its almost unimaginable size pose enormous problems to any government – tsarist, Mongol, Communist or democratic. From his perspective, Russia is European, but its addition of Siberia turns it into something unique on the Eurasian continent. While the Ambassador carefully points out the various periods in Russia’s development that differed from the experience of countries in Western Europe, he continues to argue throughout the book that Russia belongs with the West. This theme is particularly strong when he describes the intellectual giants of 19th century Russia who “permanently transformed” European culture through their plays, novels and music. He concludes that “the argument about whether Russia is European or Asian will no doubt rage on. The Russians themselves cannot decide. But Russia is a part of Christendom, an integral part of European history (p. 30).”

Russia’s Transition

The heart of Ambassador Braithwaite’s book is his description of the Gorbachev years and Gorbachev’s eventual replacement by Boris Yeltsin in 1991. It is fascinating to read the story of these historic years from the perspective of someone who was right in the middle of the action, although Braithwaite admits that British influence on events in Russia waned even before Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher left office. Although Thatcher is often credited with being the first foreign leader to foresee the key role Mikhail Gorbachev was going to play in the demise of the Soviet Union, the Ambassador notes that the United States and Germany – not the United Kingdom – became the major international players in this unfolding drama.

One of the principal themes of his book is to emphasize that a person’s judgment of events in Russia during the transition out of Communism is heavily influenced by their point of reference. In Braithwaite’s judgment, “the Gorbachev revolution – a remarkably bloodless revolution – cannot be appreciated unless you bear in mind how fragile it was from its beginning in 1985 to its end in 1991.”

As you read his reflections on the events in 1990 and 1991, including his eighth chapter on the August 1991 coup, you quickly see the admiration he had for Gorbachev. Ambassador Braithwaite recalls his report to the British Foreign Office in which he describes Gorbachev as a reformer with the creative energy of Peter the Great, but without his brutality. Following his fall from power, Gorbachev came to the Ambassador’s residence for a private dinner with his wife Raisa. Braithwaite describes their dinner conversation and how Raisa, during the after-dinner conversation, pointed out that after forty years in the desert the Israelites turned on Moses and said they wished they had never left Egypt. Both Moses and Gorbachev were unable to bring their people into the Promised Land. It is the British Ambassador’s opinion that Gorbachev “eased Russia into a profound historical transition. . . . The last Secretary General of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union was not only a major historical figure. He was also a genuinely nice man (p. 280).”

Russia’s Future

Ambassador Braithwaite reflects on Russia’s future in both the beginning and the end of his book. In the beginning he records that when he left Moscow in 1992, it was not at all easy to be confident of Russia’s future. But, as he observed Russia in the decade that followed, he saw a country stumbling away from its authoritarian and imperial past toward its own version of a workable democracy. “Perhaps even the rational Westerner has to conclude that it does after all help to judge Russia by the light of faith as well as reason. Faith, a dash of hope, and some of that charitable understanding which Russians have not often enjoyed from those who look in on them from outside (p. xi).”

In Braithwaite’s judgment, Russia’s challenge is to overcome an historic legacy with little or no deep-rooted cultural patterns that lend themselves to building a free, democratic society. But he sees history littered with examples of countries making sharp changes and he seems confident Russia will be one of these.

Personal Footnote

I appreciated these memoirs, in part because I lived through many of these events myself and was in Moscow, for example, during the coup of 1991. His judgments seem carefully thought through and his knowledge of Russia’s history gives him a good understanding of the context in which he worked. As usual with secular commentators, I am disappointed with his failure to analyze the moral “deficit” left by the collapse of Communism and the need to rebuild the basic fabric of Russian society – a rebuilding process in which moral values must play an important part, as they have in the West.