News & Current Affairs

April 10, 2010

Polish President Lech Kaczynski dies in plane crash

Polish President Lech Kaczynski dies in plane crash

President Lech Kaczynski and scores of other senior Polish figures have been killed in a plane crash in Russia.

Polish and Russian officials said no-one survived after the plane apparently hit trees as it approached Smolensk airport in thick fog.

Russian media reports said the pilots ignored advice from air traffic control to divert to another airport.

Poland’s army chief, central bank governor, MPs and leading historians were among more than 80 passengers.

Prime Minister Donald Tusk said the crash was the most tragic event of the country’s post-World War II history.

The Polish delegation was flying in from Warsaw to mark the 70th anniversary of the Katyn massacre of thousands of Poles by Soviet forces during WWII.

Lech Kaczynski, file image

Obituary: Lech Kaczynski

The BBC’s Adam Easton, in Warsaw, says the crash is a catastrophe for the Polish people.

He says Prime Minister Tusk was reportedly in tears when he was told.

After an emergency meeting of ministers, Mr Tusk, who runs the day-to-day business of government, said a week of national mourning had been declared with two minutes of silence on Sunday at midday.

Mr Tusk added: “The Polish state must function and will function”.

Flowers and candles laid outside presidential palace in Warsaw -  10 April 2010

Thousands have gathered outside the presidential palace in Warsaw

A government spokesman said that according to the constitution there would be an early presidential election, and the speaker of the lower house of parliament, Bronislaw Komorowski, would be acting president.

In Warsaw, people gathered outside the presidential palace to lay flowers and light candles.

“I’m all broken up… it cannot be expressed in words,” Ewa Robaczewska told Reuters news agency.

Pilot error?

The Russian emergencies ministry told Itar-Tass news agency the plane crashed at 1056 Moscow time (0656 GMT) as it was coming in to land.

Smolensk regional governor Sergei Antufiev told Russian TV that no-one had survived.

Thousands of people have gathered outside the presidential palace to pay their respects.

There has been a spontaneous outpouring of grief, no matter what people thought of Lech Kaczynski. He was a divisive figure in Polish society, especially among younger Poles.

People are just stunned, visibly moved and in tears, whether they agreed with the president’s political views or not.

The largest church bell in Poland, at Krakow Cathedral, has been rung.

It never tolls generally, only for very, very solemn occasions. The last time it did so was for the death of the Polish pope, John Paul II, five years ago.

“According to preliminary reports, it got caught up in the tops of trees, fell to the ground and broke up into pieces,” he said. “There are no survivors in that crash.”

Polish TV worker Slawomir Wisniewski said he had seen the crash from his hotel near the airport.

“I saw through the fog, the aeroplane flying very low with the left wing pointing to the ground,” he said.

“I heard something being broken and then that thudding sound. Two flashes of fire next to each other.”

Russian media carried claims that the plane’s crew were at fault for the crash.

“Flight controllers… suggested that the plane be forwarded to Minsk but as far as we know the crew took an independent decision to land the plane in Smolensk,” Smolensk regional government spokesman Andrei Yevseyenkov told Russian TV.

Russian officials said 97 people were killed in the crash, including eight crew.

Polish officials said that 89 people had been scheduled to fly in the delegation to the Katyn commemoration, but one person missed the flight.

Mr Putin visited the crash site, after saying he would personally oversee the investigation into the crash.

“Everything must be done to establish the reasons for this tragedy in the shortest possible time,” he said.

He was to meet his Polish counterpart, Mr Tusk, in Smolensk.

Russian officials said all the bodies had been recovered from the scene and were being taken to Moscow for identification.

Russia’s Emergency Minister Sergei Shoigu said both of the plane’s flight information recorders had been found and were being examined.

Controversial figure

The president was flying in a Tupolev 154, a Soviet-designed plane that was more than 20 years old.

SENIOR FIGURES KILLED
National leader:
President Lech Kaczynski and wife Maria
Other politicians:
Wladyslaw Stasiak chief of the president’s chancellery; Aleksander Szczyglo chief of the National Security Office; Slawomir Skrzypek National Bank of Poland chairman;
Jerzy Szmajdzinski deputy speaker of the lower house; Andrzej Kremer Foreign Ministry’s undersecretary of state; Stanislaw Komorowski deputy minister of national defence; Przemyslaw Gosiewski Law and Justice party deputy chair;
Military chief:
Franciszek Gagor chief of the General Staff
Cultural figures:
Andrzej Przewoznik head of Poland’s Council for the Protection of Struggle and Martyrdom Sites; Tomasz Merta chief historical conservator

Source: TVP1, Warsaw

Our correspondent says there had been calls for Polish leaders to upgrade their planes.

Mr Kaczynski himself had suffered scares while using the plane in late 2008, when problems with the aircraft’s steering mechanism delayed his departure from Mongolia.

“Any flight brings with it a certain risk, but a very serious risk attaches to the responsibilities of a president, because it is necessary to fly constantly,” he was quoted as saying at the time.

But the head of Russia’s Aviakor aviation maintenance company told Russian TV the plane was airworthy, after his plant fully overhauled it in December.

As well as the president and his wife, Maria, a number of senior officials were on the passenger list.

They included the army chief of staff Gen Franciszek Gagor, central bank governor Slawomir Skrzypek and deputy Foreign Minister Andrzej Kremer.

World leaders including Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, US President Barack Obama, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown offered their condolences to Poland.

Mr Kaczynski’s twin brother, Jaroslaw, a former prime minister and now head of the main opposition party, was said to be “devastated”, an aide told AFP news agency.

Lech Kaczynski, who had fewer powers than the prime minister but had a significant say in foreign policy, was a controversial figure in Polish politics.

He had advocated a right-wing Catholic agenda, opposed rapid free-market reforms and favoured retaining social welfare programmes.

Map of crashed flight

July 15, 2009

Russian activist ‘found murdered’

Filed under: Latest, Politics News — Tags: , , , , , , , , , — expressyoureself @ 5:55 pm

Russian activist ‘found murdered’

A prominent Russian human rights activist, Natalia Estemirova, has been found dead in the North Caucasus.

She was bundled into a van and abducted as she left her home in Chechnya on Wednesday morning, a colleague said. Her body was found in Ingushetia.

The Russian President Dmitry Medvedev expressed “outrage” at the murder, and ordered a top-level investigation.

Ms Estemirova had been investigating human rights abuses in Chechnya for the independent Memorial group.

Memorial is one of Russia’s best known rights groups, working to document Soviet-era abuses and those taking place more recently, especially in Chechnya.

In recent months, she had been gathering evidence of a campaign of house-burnings by government-backed militias.

Forcefully taken

Ms Estemirova, who was 50 according to Russian prosecutors, had worked in the past with the activists Anna Politkovskaya, who was shot dead in 2006, and Stanislav Markelov, who was killed in January this year.

In 2007 she was awarded the inaugural Anna Politkovskaya Prize, and had also received awards from the Swedish and European parliaments, Memorial said.

In a statement the group said she “was forcefully taken from her house into a car and shouted that she was being kidnapped” at about 0830 local time (0430 GMT).

Her body was found in woodland near Nazran, the main city in neighbouring Ingushetia, about nine hours later. She had bullet wounds to the head and chest.

Dangerous work

The New-York based human rights group Human Rights Watch (HRW) said Ms Estemirova had been working on “extremely sensitive” cases of human rights abuses in Chechnya.

“There is no shred of doubt that she was targeted due to her professional activity,” said Tanya Lokshina, HRW’s Russian researcher in Moscow.

Ms Estemirova was engaged in very important and dangerous work, says the BBC’s Rupert Wingfield-Hayes in Moscow, investigating hundreds of cases of alleged kidnapping, torture and extra-judicial killings by Russian government troops or militias in Chechnya.

Memorial says it believes that government security services of some nature must be involved in her killing.

Our correspondent says no evidence of that has emerged so far, but that it was the government sponsored militias that had most to fear from her work.

She is the most recent in a long line of human rights activists and lawyers to have been killed or attacked in Russia. The history of these sorts of cases over many years is that very rarely are their killers ever brought to justice, our correspondent says.

June 29, 2009

Ukraine wary of KGB terror files

Filed under: Politics News — Tags: , , , , , , , , — expressyoureself @ 6:14 am

Ukraine wary of KGB terror files

KGB archives in Kiev

Ukraine’s SBU is declassifying the files selectively

Ukraine is opening up part of its old KGB archive, declassifying hundreds of thousands of documents spanning the entire Soviet period.

But the move to expose Soviet-era abuses is dividing Ukrainians, the BBC’s Gabriel Gatehouse reports from Kiev.

Deep in the bowels of Ukraine’s former KGB headquarters there is a deathly silence. Thousands of boxes, piled floor to ceiling, line the walls. Each box is carefully numbered and each one contains hundreds of documents: case notes on enemies of the former Soviet state.

Behind each number, there is a story of personal tragedy.

Volodymyr Viatrovych, the chief archivist, pulled out a brown cardboard folder stuffed full of documents: case number 4076. At the centre of the case is a letter, dated 1940 and addressed to “Comrade Stalin, the Kremlin, Moscow”.

A photo of Ivan Severin shot in the head (right) and the words: Liquidated. 3 April 1947

Ivan Severin was “liquidated” in 1947, his case notes state

“Dear Iosif Vissarionovich,” the letter starts. Nikolai Reva wanted Stalin to know the facts about the great famine of 1932-33, when millions died as a result of the Soviet policy of forced collectivisation.

Like many at the time, Mr Reva believed that Stalin was being kept in the dark, and that if only he knew what was happening, he would surely put a stop to it.

But his letter landed him in the Gulag. He was eventually rehabilitated – 25 years later.

Many met a harsher fate.

Leafing through one of many macabre photo albums, Mr Viatrovych pointed to a picture of Ivan Severin, shot in the head by the Soviet security services. Under the picture, in very neat handwriting, is written: “Liquidated, 3 April 1947”.

Criminal prosecution

Mr Viatrovych and his team are helping people to find out what happened to relatives and loved ones, often decades after they disappeared.

Volodymyr Viatrovych

Mr Viatrovych is helping the victims’ relatives to uncover the truth

But the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU), now in charge of the files, is declassifying them selectively.

They are concentrating on older cases, like that of the “liquidated” Mr Severin, who was part of a guerrilla campaign against Soviet rule in western Ukraine after World War II.

The authorities are preparing to mount a criminal prosecution in relation to the famine, or Holodomor, as it is known in Ukraine, though it is doubtful whether there is anyone still alive to stand in the dock.

But SBU head Valentyn Nalyvaichenko hopes this is just the beginning.

“As soon as Russia starts to open and uncover its archives, there will be more and more truth about the real history,” he said. At the moment, he added, Russia is not being especially co-operative.

But there is another obstacle to complete disclosure, and that is the Ukrainian Security Service itself. They are the ones deciding which files to declassify.

I put it to Mr Nalyvaichenko that the SBU is, after all, a successor to the KGB. He came out on the defensive.

“First and most important for me – we are not a successor to the KGB. That’s according to the law,” he said.

Could he state categorically that no-one working for the SBU today had formerly worked for the KGB?

He could not, admitting that 20% of his employees were former KGB officers. Some analysts in Ukraine believe that is a conservative figure.

It seems unlikely that SBU officers who worked for the Soviet KGB in the 1970s and 80s will be enthusiastic about declassifying documents that could incriminate them. Even if, as Mr Nalyvaichenko pointed out, the SBU is trying to recruit younger staff.

‘Not worth it’

But not all young Ukrainians have an exclusively negative view of their 20th-Century history.

To start a process of lustration after 18 years of independence would lead society to the brink of civil war
Dmytro Tabachnyk
Historian and opposition MP

In Kiev, there is a vast monument to the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany: a sprawling bronze relief of soldiers bearing guns and bayonets.

“We love our history,” said Svitlana, a young schoolteacher from the southern city of Odessa, on an outing with her class.

She was not keen for the children in her charge to be forced to examine the darker chapters of Soviet history.

“The past is the past,” she said. “The history of the famine, the killings, all the things Stalin did. I don’t think we should bring them up. There’s enough violence today as it is. If we start blaming each other… It’s just not worth it.”

‘Witch hunt’

The idea of airing the past as part of a healing process, and excluding members of the former regime from positions of authority – a process known as “lustration” – is being actively promoted by some in the Ukrainian administration.

Bykivnia

More than 200,000 bodies may be buried in Bykivnia, outside Kiev

But it is highly controversial. Dmytro Tabachnyk, a historian and opposition lawmaker, thinks the notion is absurd.

“It’s a witch hunt,” he said. “To start a process of lustration after 18 years of independence would lead society to the brink of civil war.”

In a forest just outside Kiev, the tree trunks are tied with thousands of white scarves.

The scarves are embroidered in the traditional Ukrainian way, with red-and-black geometric patterns, and each one symbolically represents a life lost to Soviet oppression.

Under Stalin, the Soviet secret police would bury executed political prisoners at Bykivnia. No-one knows exactly how many bodies lie buried in this wood, but some estimates put the figure at more than 200,000.

But, says Nico Lange, the German director of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation in Kiev, Ukrainians must stop blaming the Russians for their past, and start looking inward.

“Ukrainians have a tendency to perceive themselves as only victims of those historical processes,” he says.

“But coming to terms with the past really starts when you start uncovering also your own involvement: the oppressions by your own state, the offenders who are from your own people. If you do this work, this very painful work, the truth will finally set you free. And you will not invite new dictators to oppress you again.”

The Germans have experience of confronting their own past, both following World War II, and after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

But it will take a lot of united political will for such a process to get under way in Ukraine.

And it may be that, for the moment, there are still too many people alive and in positions of power, who were involved with the Soviet regime in one way or another.

January 6, 2009

Europe’s reliance on Russian gas

Europe’s reliance on Russian gas

A gas storage and transit point on the main gas pipeline from Russia in the village of Boyarka near the capital Kiev, Ukraine

Turned-off taps have caused gas shortages in Europe

The latest developments in the dispute over the price Ukraine pays Russia for its gas has yet again affected deliveries to other countries.

Several countries in Europe have reported a sharp decline or even complete cessation of gas supplies from Russia via pipelines through Ukraine.

This has reinforced unease in Europe about the important role that Russia has a supplier of gas.

A quarter of the gas used in the European Union (EU) comes from Russia.

And that share will rise.

Increasingly dominant

Europe’s need for gas is likely to increase.

Europe’s gas pipeline network

Economic growth, when it resumes after the current recession, will mean more demand for electricity.

Gas accounts for about a fifth of the EU’s electricity and the share is likely to grow, partly because gas produces less by way of greenhouse gas emissions than coal or oil.

The EU does have other suppliers, including Norway and Algeria by pipeline, and Qatar and Algeria, again, by ship.

But Russia, with the world’s largest gas reserves and an extensive network of pipelines to Europe, is likely to be increasingly dominant.

Soviet legacy

The EU, unless it drastically changes its energy strategy, will need Russia.

EU GAS IMPORTS FROM RUSSIA
100% dependent on Russia: Latvia, Slovakia, Finland, Estonia
More than 80% dependent: Bulgaria, Lithuania, Czech Republic
More than 60% dependent: Greece, Austria, Hungary
Source: European Council on Foreign Relations, 2006 figures

But Russia in turn needs Europe to buy its gas, and also its oil.

So it is not in Russia’s interest for Europe to become more wary of using gas as an energy source.

So far the disturbances to EU supplies have been a side effect of the recurrent dispute between Russia and Ukraine, with both sides blaming the other for the reduced supplies to the west.

The quarrels are a legacy of the end of the Soviet Union.

Ukraine has been receiving relatively cheap gas.

Russia’s Gazprom wants to charge more, and the negotiations are complicated further by questions about what fees Ukraine should receive for gas crossing its territory.

Some European countries are protected with substantial stocks to cover any supply disruptions for many weeks, although some, such as Bulgaria have very little cover.

The disruptions also reinforce the attractions of developing new pipelines that avoid potential problem areas.


Have you been affected? Are you worried by the crisis?

Send your comments

December 25, 2008

Eight killed in Ukraine explosion

Filed under: Latest, Politics News — Tags: , , , , , , , , — expressyoureself @ 7:30 am

Eight killed in Ukraine explosion

Rescuers carry a man from a destroyed apartment building after a gas blast in the  Ukrainian city of Dnipropetrovsk in 13 October 2007

A gas explosion in Dnipropetrovsk last year caused many casualties

Rescue teams are working in the rubble of an apartment building in southern Ukraine, where an explosion has killed at least eight people.

Local officials in Yevpatoria, in Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula, say as many as 30 other people may have been buried under the debris.

Two entrances to the five-storey building were blocked by falling concrete following the explosion.

The cause of the blast is thought to have been a gas leak.

A spokesman for Ukraine’s emergency ministry said 19 people had been rescued, with four of them being treated in hospital.

Correspondents say casualties caused by gas explosions in often crumbling apartment buildings are common occurrences in former Soviet states, particularly in the winter, when residents use more heating.

One such blast in October 2007 killed 23 residents in the central Ukrainian city of Dnipropetrovsk.

September 7, 2008

Venezuela plans Russia navy visit

Venezuela plans Russia navy visit

Russian navy ships in Sevastopol

The exercises will be the first of their in the region

Venezuela says it plans to hold joint naval exercises in its territorial waters with Russian forces in November.

A senior Venezuelan naval officer said four Russian ships would take part in the exercises, which would also involve Venezuelan aircraft and submarines.

Correspondents say the move is likely to raise concern in the US, whose relations with Russia have been soured by Moscow’s recent conflict in Georgia.

Washington already has rocky relations with Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez.

In July, he called for a strategic alliance with Russia to protect Venezuela from the US.

Caracas and Moscow agreed to extend bilateral co-operation on energy, with three Russian energy companies to be allowed to operate in Venezuela.

Regional first

On Saturday, Venezuela’s Rear Admiral Salbatore Cammarata Bastidas said four Russian ships and 1,000 Russian troops would take part in exercises in Venezuelan territorial waters from 10 to 14 November.

“This is of great importance because it is the first time it is being done (in the Americas),” he said in a statement quoted by the AFP news agency and local media.

President Chavez supported Russia’s intervention in Georgia last month and has accused Washington of being scared of Moscow’s “new world potential”.

Earlier, US Vice-President Dick Cheney launched a furious attack on Russia over the recent conflict in the Caucasus.

Mr Cheney described Moscow’s actions against Georgia as an affront to civilized standards and said it was reverting back to old Soviet tactics of intimidation and the use of brute force.

He added that Russia was also seeking to use its energy resources as a weapon.

August 30, 2008

Russia moves to calm Georgia row

Russia moves to calm Georgia row

Russian troops in Tskhinvali, 29/08

Russian troops repelled Georgian forces from the breakaway regions

Russia has taken a series of diplomatic steps in an apparent effort to ease tensions with the West over this month’s conflict in Georgia.

President Dmitry Medvedev told UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown Moscow wanted more monitors from Europe’s security body in Georgia, the Kremlin said.

Separately, Russian and German foreign ministers agreed to seek to calm tensions over the crisis, Moscow said.

The issue is set to dominate the agenda of an EU meeting on Monday.

SOUTH OSSETIA & ABKHAZIA
BBC map
South Ossetia
Population: About 70,000 (before recent conflict)
Capital: Tskhinvali
President: Eduard Kokoity
Abkhazia
Population: About 250,000 (2003)
Capital: Sukhumi
President: Sergei Bagapsh

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said earlier this week that the bloc was considering sanctions “and many other means” against Russia over the crisis.

But he said he hoped the matter would “be solved by negotiation”.

Moscow’s military action in Georgia and its subsequent recognition of independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia – Georgia’s two rebel regions – have angered the West.

Moscow has defended its actions, saying they prevented a “genocide” in South Ossetia.

However, after the inflammatory rhetoric Russia now appears to have decided it is time for a bit of diplomacy, the BBC’s Rupert Wingfield-Hayes in Moscow says.

‘Non-existent threats’

During Saturday’s telephone conversation with Mr Brown, President Medvedev said Russia was “in favor of the deployment of additional OSCE [Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe] monitors in the security zone” in Georgia, the Kremlin statement said.

It said observers in the security zone would provide “impartial monitoring” of Tbilisi’s actions.

Earlier this month, the OSCE decided to increase the number of its military observers by up 100 in Georgia.

Mr Medvedev also said that Russia recognised Georgia’s regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia because of Tbilisi’s aggression.

He said that the Georgian move “fundamentally altered the conditions in which, during 17 years, attempts were made to settle the relations between South Ossetia, Abkhazia and Georgia,” the statement said.

In a separate development, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov spoke to his German counterpart, Frank-Walter Steinmeier.

They both “agreed on the need to put an end to attempts to use the situation surrounding Georgia… to raise tensions in Europe by speculating on non-existent threats concerning other post-Soviet countries,” a Russian foreign ministry statement said.

Ties cut

The conflict in the region began on 7 August when Georgia tried to retake South Ossetia by force after a series of lower-level clashes.

Russia launched a counter-attack and the Georgian troops were ejected from both South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Russian troops continued their operation, advancing deep inside Georgia’s territory.

An EU-brokered ceasefire brought a formal end to the conflict five days later, although each side has accused the other of breaking the agreement.

Russia has since withdrawn the bulk of its force and says the troops left behind are serving as peacekeepers.

Georgia has described them as an occupation force, announcing that it is cutting diplomatic relations with Moscow.

August 28, 2008

For those too young to remember the Cold War…

For those too young to remember the Cold War…

WarGames

Before the days of flat screen monitors… and Perestroika

The conflict in Georgia has awoken fears of a new Cold War between Russia and its allies and the West, nearly 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. But will the animosity come back to haunt Western imaginations as it once did?

“We share the same biology,
regardless of ideology.
Believe me when I say to you,
I hope the Russians love their children too”

That couplet might be a mere piece of lyrical doggerel to any listener born after 9 November 1989, but when Sting released the single Russians in 1985, it came out of a deep mine of anxiety in the West about the course of the Cold War.

Sting

A good period in which to make profound statements…

For nearly five decades, the Cold War provided a rich seam running right through popular culture in the West, throwing out films, music, novels and even computer games that carried the fears, conscious and subconscious, of millions.

In the 1950s, science fiction movies were often allegories about different aspects of Cold War politics. Invasion of the Body-Snatchers was interpreted as a reference to McCarthy-era paranoia, Invaders from Mars as a parable of communist infiltration, and the Day the Earth Stood Still as a simple fantasy that some higher supernatural power would come to try and sort everything out.

After the world reached the brink of war during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, there was another wave of Cold War-inspired fiction, with Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove perhaps the most notable example.

With the detente of the 1970s the Cold War thread became less noticeable, but with worsening relations in the early 1980s, both sides of the Atlantic were suddenly replete with fictional Cold War dystopian scenarios.

On the British side people were treated to the agonisingly poignant graphic novel When the Wind Blows by Raymond Briggs and its film adaptation, as well as 1984’s Threads, about the terrifying aftermath of a nuclear strike. On the other side of the Atlantic, there were the mini-series Amerika and World War III, and the gruesome The Day After with its vivid montages of men, women, children and even horses being vaporized.

Frankie Goes to Hollywood

…and ripe for sensational scare-mongering

On the silver screen WarGames explored the issue of computer hacking against a background of mutually assured destruction , while Red Dawn took the usual brat pack characters complete with preppy letterman jackets, and armed them with AK-47s to fight a Soviet invasion of the US. Popular attitudes towards the Eastern Bloc were shaped by movies like Rocky IV, where the drug cheat Ivan Drago was emblematic of suspicions held against Soviet athletes.

As well as Sting’s Russians, Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s chart-topper Two Tribes provided a musical accompaniment to the era. It seems strange to discuss now what was, even then, viewed as often laughable ephemera, but the course of popular culture reflected deep-seated fears, particularly significant among those too young to temper their concerns with a grasp of the political context.

Almost as soon as it had intensified, the Cold War quickly ebbed away, and by the end of the 1989, with the Berlin Wall coming down and relations defrosting across the whole of eastern Europe, it suddenly became a bit silly to pick the Soviet state as baddies.

Hollywood had to find new protagonists for a new zeitgeist, and fast.

Bond sabbatical

While rarely casting Russia itself as the main enemy in a storyline, and indeed often featuring a sympathetic KGB general, the James Bond franchise was unmistakably driven by Cold War themes of espionage and fear of weapons technology. It was inevitably affected, says film critic James King.

It was a competition to be modern – consumer society was used as a bulwark against communism
Jane Pavitt

“Bond went into limbo for seven years, for many reasons, but one was that it didn’t feel relevant any more.

“The first film I remember that actually caught up was True Lies. When that came out it was almost a James Bond film and it had a new Hollywood enemy, which was an Arab – this was the new thing.”

Post 9/11 there has been a glut of movies either tackling the threat of terrorism, attacking the politics of the war on terror and Guantanamo Bay, as well as a host of television programmes that have explored the fall-out for Muslim communities on both sides of the Atlantic. A poster for the current movie Shoot on Sight – with its tag line “Is it a crime to be a Muslim?” – is typical.

In the space between the end of the Cold War and Islamist terrorism entering the mainstream mindset as the main threat to the West, movie producers did their best to come up with convincing action movie baddies.

Having been conceived long before the fall of the wall, the Hunt for Red October, an adaptation of Tom Clancy’s 1984 novel, still performed well at the box office in 1990. But in projects conceived after the end of Cold War hostilities, the baddies are very often neo-nationalists or rebels trying to destabilise a friendly Russia (Crimson Tide and Air Force One) or are avaricious terrorists and gangsters of other nationalities (Die Hard).

Cold War the Sequel

The effect of the end of the Cold War on secret services and military personnel came to be a major theme. John Le Carre was one of those spy novel authors who made the transition smoothly. The Russia House marked the last of his novels released during the Cold War, the next three deal with the effect of the thaw on intelligence operatives, while the subsequent four, including the Tailor of Panama and the Constant Gardener are not directly related to the Cold War. But Hodder and Stoughton, his publisher, maintain sales of the Cold War novels were unaffected by the events of 1989.

Threads

Threads – not your average prime-time BBC drama

King is sceptical about whether current Cold War fears will quickly feed back into popular culture.

“Films take a while to get on the screen – I don’t think we will see anything for a year.”

Film producers and publishers may also feel that with the long lead times, tensions could be defused by the time anything gets to market.

They are returning to Cold War classics but not necessarily because of modern fears over relations between the West and Russia. WarGames was recently remade as a straight-to-DVD release although terrorism underpinned the story rather than a renewed Cold War. It has also been recently reported that Red Dawn is to be remade, although the exact plot is unclear.

But as well as those cultural products directly referencing or making allusions to the Cold War, the conflict also provided the backdrop to massive shifts and vigorous battles in everything from product design and modern art to fashion, says Jane Pavitt, curator of the Cold War Modern exhibition opening next month at the Victoria and Albert Museum.

“It was a competition to be modern,” says Pavitt. “Consumer society was used as a bulwark against communism in Europe in the 1950s. That’s why fashion and kitchen goods can be seen as part of this.”

For those who were too young to remember the Berlin Wall coming down, or were born afterwards, the unique fears of the Cold War era, and the popular culture they steered, may be hard to appreciate.

But for anyone over the age of 25 in the West, they remain a deeply significant part of our psyche.


Add your comments on this story.

What about Soviet / Eastern Bloc popular culture during the cold war – was it also full of espionage dramas and ‘what if’ nuclear bomb scenarios? As someone old enough to remember it from a British perspective, I realise I have no idea at all how it was perceived and represented in media the other side of the Iron Curtain. I’m sure there is a level of propaganda and also aware that creativity was somewhat stifled, but is there a parallel strand of writing/drama/film-making that we’re all ignorant of over here?
WorldGirl, Enfield, UK

I have grown up at the other side of the Iron Curtain and can assure you: the fear that the Cold War would spiral out of control was just as real on our side, only that we expected the West to make the first move. This was reflected in our popular culture in a similar way as was quoted in the article. I used to think: perhaps both sides are just too afraid of each other, perhaps such fears could be calmed by assuring each other that “we” would not make the first move. However, my views have changed a bit over the years. Having seen how readily the West is prepared to enter into a war (Yugoslavia, twice in Iraq, Afghanistan) and how openly it encroaches on Russia’s borders by supporting various colour-coded revolutions, I am beginning to wonder who was indeed the more aggressive side. For anyone getting into a rage about this posting: just for one moment, try to forget our view that we are always right and that our view on democracy justifies any means to spread it around the world. Try to be unbiased and then read again what I said.
Holger Laux, Bristol, UK

It’s interesting, and perhaps significant, that in times of national perceived potential threat from outside, so much creativity happens. I remember vividly the tension of the 1980s, the big changes in the UK and around the world. In some ways, it was an exciting time because every new day could bring danger. Is that what we humans survive on and does it draw us together?
Krystyna, Sedgley

In the mid 1980’s I can remember being in a 6th form who generally agreed that they would not live to be 30 because nuclear war was both imminent and inevitable. A strange mix of living a normal life but with the constant knowledge of impending disaster. This is probably why I felt so uneasy with the worsening relationship between Russia and the West. The world is, in my opinion, much less stable than it was in the 80s and the politicians are much more dangerous and paranoid than Maggie/Ronnie/Andropov/Chernenko.
John Ferris, Coventry, UK

I’m 27 and can just about remember the Berlin Wall coming down, though I can’t say I remember much more about the cold war. I’d raise your threshold to at least 30!
James, London

How true. I was only nine years old when they installed an air raid siren to the roof of our school. There were lots of discussions about what we would do with our last three minutes of life before the bombs arrived. It sounds trivial now but at the time we were convinced it would happen.
Dawn, Redhill

Reading the above it confirms my gut feeling that it is the Media that stir up scenarios causing more trouble than most just by publishing half of the story and twisting the facts. Even the BBC has succumbed to the drum of the gutter press by allowing the papers to show headlines on some of their programmes such as Breakfast, the BBC does not need to give the like of these people air time they have enough journalists to concoct their own stories, so why of why do they (BBC) despoil their standards with drivel?
Robert, Liverpool

I was born in 1985 so missed the hysteria, but we were subjected to ‘Threads’ in school. I didn’t sleep for weeks and when I did I dreamt of that cat on fire and the melting milk bottles! Haven’t been to Sheffield since!!
Martin Doyle, St Albans

Threads was an excellent – and terrifying – story, and was also the first ‘post-holocaust drama’ to incorporate the concept of the nuclear winter, which had only recently been realised. And it was more than just a story: it included occasional subtitles to spell out what would be happening. It’s hardly likely to get repeated (and would in all likelihood be out of date with its figures), but as an illustration of why not to play with nuclear weapons it was second to none.
Ruaraidh Gillies, Wirral, UK

Please stop doing this. Drumming up panic when there is no need. Even Russia has said they don’t want another cold war. There is NO crisis, just sabre rattling as always.
Rich, UK

Yes a large influence on Culture of the 80’s when I grew up. I went into the RAF and ended up at Greenham Common on the other side from the peace camp. I have still have a Cold War playlist on my iPod with tracks like ‘Two Tribes’, ‘Mad World’ and ’19’. Recent Computer games like Operation Flashpoint also hark back to the Cold War 80s. Are we going into a Second Cold War. Yes and there is nothing the West can do.
Simon CS, Farnham, Surrey, UK

The Cold War was fun and inspired some great films.
Matt, Philadelphia USA

Let’s hope that we don’t go back to the scare-mongering of the early eighties. For once I would like to think that today’s youngsters are a bit de-sensitised to the whole ‘we’re all going to die’ thoughts portrayed back then. I myself started digging out a bunker at the age of seven for our family to shelter in. When I was discovered I claimed it was a copy of Percy Thrower’s Blue Peter sunken garden!!!
Jenny, Wolves

I remember being absolutely terrified of nuclear war growing up. It was an all too real possibility. The intro to “Two Tribes” used to frighten me, and “Threads” is just as disturbing to watch now as it ever was. We also had the misfortune to live nine miles from the RAF/US Navy bases and oil refineries making us a prime target. When the Air Force did their low-flying exercises in the middle of the night, I’d lie awake waiting for a bomb blast to follow. That said, I think the idea of being nuked at any moment really beefed up Western popular culture at the time.
Mandi, Cardiff, Wales

They don’t need to drop the bomb. Russia has between 1/4 and 1/3 of the world’s oil and natural gas.

All they have to do is turn the taps off.
Philip Le Roux, Aldershot HANTS UK

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