Kevin, Tony. Return To Moscow. Perth: UWA Publishing, 2017. RRP: $29.99, 332pp, ISBN: 9781742589299.
Ashley Kalagian Blunt
Today’s Russia, or ‘Putin’s Russia’, as it’s sometimes called, seems to cast a darkening shadow on the globe. Its president, Vladimir Putin, is portrayed as aggressively militaristic, tied to endemic corruption, and a potential threat to global stability.
But the Western media perspective on post-Soviet Russia is limited and potentially detrimental, Tony Kevin argues in his latest book, Return to Moscow. The author of four previous non-fiction works, Kevin is a former Australian diplomat, who served as ambassador to Poland (1991-94) and Cambodia (1994-97). Early in his career, he was posted to Russia, and lived in Moscow from 1969 to 1971. This is where his love affair with the country began.
Return to Moscow is a collection of essays linked through the chronology of Kevin’s month-long return to Russia in 2016, a winter trip marked by gentle snowfalls. An early chapter describes Kevin’s life in Moscow as a foreign serviceman during the Soviet years. There, he was warned to guard against friendly Russians, who were likely ‘crocodiles’ reporting to the KGB. Knowing his apartment was almost certainly bugged, Kevin and his wife were:
assured that all our domestic conversations—even in our most personal moments at home—were actually profoundly uninteresting to Russian monitors, whom we would never meet, and whose interest was solely in checking for any spies or targets of opportunity. They had heard it all before. (53)
Though he at first found Moscow ‘cold, grim and utterly alien’ (39), he came to love the city’s pleasures, including concert going, skiing, and Armenian cognac. ‘I was making myself too much at home in Russia, committing the cardinal sin for a diplomat—localitis’ (60).
Nearly fifty years later, Return to Moscow is Kevin’s love letter to Russia, using his travels as an opportunity ‘to try to convey a little of how Russians now see the world and their place in it’ (38). Visiting Moscow and Saint Petersburg, he gives a sense of each city. Saint Petersburg, for instance:
was the administrative and military capital of Russia’s great nineteenth-century empire, and it looks the part. I have never seen such perfect cityscapes, in such profusion—palaces, terraces, frozen white canals, gently arched stone and ironwork bridges—the whole place is amazingly beautiful and speaks of a grand Russian vision of its destiny as a great European power. (212)
Kevin dedicates a chapter each to the Jewish Museum, opened in 2012, and the Gulag Museum, opened in 2004. He offers these museums, both supported by the Russian government, as examples of modern Russia’s efforts to grapple with its past and forge a better future. After starkly portraying the realities of the Gulag system, which was responsible for the deaths of as many as ten million people during the Stalin years, the Gulag Museum asks, via a billboard near the exit, ‘What would you do to prevent this from ever happening again in our country?’ (191).
Visiting the historic town of Suzdal, Kevin traces Russia’s sweeping history, dating back to the pre-Christian era through to the tsars, and delves into the dichotomy of the country’s race-based Slavophile history and its pluralistic Westernised leanings:
Slavophiles affirm that Russia has a unique culture, fundamentally defined by its core Slav ethnicity, Cyrillic language, Orthodox Christianity and Tsarist imperial history. All these things, they say, set Russia firmly apart from the mainstream Western European identity, based on the Roman Empire, Roman alphabet, Catholic and Protestant Christianity, and the Enlightenment. Russia did not experience these things at first hand. Its density, they say, is inevitably different. (121)
Further insights come through Kevin’s visits to the homes of Boris Pasternak and Leo Tolstoy. Chapters dedicated to each author detail their lives and writing, as well as their interpretations of Russian identity. Kevin also celebrates Russia’s cultural achievements with forays into Alexander Pushkin’s poetry and Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s opera Evgeny Onegin.
In asking how Russia understands itself today, Kevin details the life of Andrei Sakharov, the ‘father of the Russian H-bomb’ who became a Soviet dissident, advocating peaceful coexistence and human rights. From the flat where Sakharov spent the 1980s in exile (and which is now a museum), Kevin follows the modern Russian narrative to the Boris Yeltsin Museum in Yekaterinburg. There, he unpacks the transitional years from the collapse of the Soviet Union under the leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev to the Yeltsin presidency, which lasted through the 1990s. The museum ‘shows the people’s real desperation and dislocation as their old frugal but secure Soviet economy dissolved’ (162). The challenges Russia faced during this time are largely unknown in the West, but ‘so relevant to a balanced evaluation of what has followed in Russia under Putin’ (163).
Kevin includes a chapter on Laurie Matheson, Australia’s Trade Commissioner to the Soviet Union in the years Kevin worked in Moscow. Matheson was implicated in the 1983 Ivanov spy scandal and rumoured to potentially work for the Kremlin. Kevin knew Matheson personally, and while this chapter’s defence of him provides insights into the challenges of Soviet-Australian relations, it sits tangentially within the book.
Ultimately, the book’s aim is two-fold. As a travel memoir, Return to Moscow offers an excellent primer in Russian culture, and is ideal for anyone thinking of travelling there or wanting a solid grounding in Russian history and society.
The secondary aim is to shift perceptions about Russia, to encourage a more nuanced understanding of the country and its current government. Kevin urges readers to reject ‘the untrue pictures of Russia and its leaders, offered to us by purveyors of false realities’ (256), or in other words, Western media. Evidence from political historians, as well as politicians such as Gorbachev and Henry Kissinger, supports the argument that current Western perceptions of Russia and Putin may be one-dimensional and based on pre-existing biases and the doctrine of American exceptionalism. From this perspective, Putin is necessarily reasserting Russia’s sovereignty after the devastating collapse of the USSR, and doing the difficult political job of unifying a vast, diverse and nuclear-armed nation.
Kevin pushes this perhaps too far in noting Donald Trump’s political openness toward Russia as only a refreshing attitude: ‘He would like to get things right with Putin’ (257). On his tour of the Jewish Museum, Kevin notes Russia’s ‘growing civility and respect for human rights’ (210). Yet he avoids discussion of current LGBT realities in Russia, such as the law banning ‘gay-propaganda’, which Putin approved in 2013. This seems pertinent, particularly in the context of Kevin’s exhortations to visit Russia, and stands out in what is, on the whole, a thoroughly researched and thought-provoking work.
Ashley Kalagian Blunt is the author of My Name Is Revenge, a novella based on a series of international terrorist attacks that came to Australian shores in 1980. She was a finalist in the 2018 Carmel Bird Digital Literary Award, and her writing appears in Griffith Review, Kill Your Darlings, Sydney Review of Books, and more. Find her at ashleykalagianblunt.com