MARK ALMOND: Don’t let anyone tell you the Cold War is ancient history. Our enemies have long memories
The continuing revelations in this newspaper about alleged links between veteran Labour MP Geoffrey Robinson and the secret services of Communist-era Czechoslovakia are dismissed by some as ancient history.
It’s all such a long time ago, they say – including some who actually doubt Mr Robinson’s vehement denials. Isn’t Communism dead?
But such pleas for forgetfulness about the past are naive at best – and more often self-serving. They cannot silence the rattle of skeletons left too long in the cupboard.
Simply ignoring the grim legacy of Communism, including its efforts over so many decades to subvert our freedoms in the West, will not exorcise a past which I encountered at first hand.
As a history research student in the 1980s, I went backwards and forwards to Czechoslovakia, East Germany and other Soviet bloc states. The Cold War was at its height.
Grim legacy: Warsaw Pact tanks invade Prague in August 1968
I saw the cruelty, the repression of the human spirit, and played a small part as an occasional lecturer to groups of dissidents. People such as me smuggled forbidden books, fax machines, photocopiers and even cash to brave people daring to stand up to the authorities.
Caught up in the cat-and-mouse game with the local secret police, I was lucky. The occasional strip-search and interrogation were the worst I had to experience.
But for the locals, it was very different. For them, the threats and the punishments they encountered could be life-changing.
By the 1980s, the Communists were no longer killing their opponents on the scale of Stalin, but they could still squeeze people over matters of life and death.
When a Czech friend’s daughter was born very prematurely, it was delicately suggested that – given the shortage of incubators – a public statement from him denouncing dissidents could free up a place for the infant.
What would any parent do faced with that dilemma?
Knowing a Westerner such as me – even through a chance meeting – could lead to an interrogation.
If an East German or Romanian colleague of mine refused to talk, they risked accusations of spying. If they did recount even an innocent conversation, however, they entered the files as an informer. The control was insidious.
So we have to distinguish between people who avoided trouble by providing harmless chit-chat from those who vindictively betrayed friends, even husbands or wives.
And while it is one thing to bend under extreme pressure from the secret police, it is quite another for a comfortable Westerner with all the advantages of free speech to secretly serve a dictatorship, particularly one in thrall to the interests of a Soviet regime which had liquidated millions.
Because we in Britain were neither occupied by the Red Army nor subjected to government by an army of local collaborators, we are starting to forget the misery that Communism inflicted on people from East Berlin to Vladivostok – and to forget that some people connived to bring it here.
It is no accident that the allegations against Robinson concern the Czech secret service, the StB, as this agency had a special interest in Great Britain. Thanks to the division of labour between Soviet bloc intelligence agencies, the Czechs had been ordered to target this country, often through post-war trade connections, whether the purpose was stealing top-secret information or, more often, recruiting ‘agents of influence’. Such people would use their roles in politics, the media, business or universities to push the Communist line.
Any information of value was passed directly to the KGB in Moscow, and that is where it remains, in the files of its successor agencies and under the control of the Russian President, former KGB officer Vladimir Putin.
Communism as an economic system collapsed 30 years ago, but the spies serving it did not just vanish in a puff of smoke. If we Westerners have put the Cold War behind us, our enduring rivals around the world have not. Indeed, the struggle between East and West remains at the core of global power politics.
We are now well aware of Russia’s information warfare and the vulnerability of people’s private data. But these threats were there in embryonic form in the Cold War, when Soviet bloc spy agencies such as the KGB and the StB recruited armies of informers. They deployed growing technological sophistication in phone-tapping and other ways of keeping tabs and so built up a vast network of information on people in the Eastern bloc – and as far as possible in the West too.
That information survives in Russian hands today. It is too soon to dismiss it as irrelevant, or somehow past its sell-by date.
Geoffrey Robinson will not be the only person exposed to long-buried depth-charges in the Communist archives. Sitting in the Kremlin’s files are records of all sorts of alleged indiscretions from some of today’s Great and Good.
The past has a long reach.
We in the West tend to dismiss something as irrelevant by saying ‘that’s history’. But the Russians and the Chinese regard the past as very much alive.
While there have been many positive developments since the grey old days of Soviet control, the ghosts of the Communist past still haunt us, whether we like it or not.
It is foolish to pretend their poisonous ideology had no effect on us, or that by forgetting our history, we can inoculate ourselves against its residual corrosive effects.
There is a lesson in this for how we conduct our affairs today.
Look at how Chinese businessmen have been cultivating prominent British figures, offering them lucrative directorships, pumping them for information about the Establishment – and for more connections within it.
COULD it be the case that these distinguished persons had a flirtation with Mao’s Little Red Book 40 years ago? Flirtations forgotten by everyone except the children of China’s Cultural Revolution, the people now running its businesses and its intelligence services?
What sort of information, I wonder, is noted down and tabulated when they meet today. How many members of the British Establishment have something shameful buried deep in the past or are committing fresh indiscretions now? Denial doesn’t make the allegations go away, and certainly not to a blackmailer with a sheaf of old receipts and carefully-filed reports.
Britain often prides itself on its sense of history, but actually we have sent the Cold War, its methods and its legacy down a memory hole. And in doing so, we make ourselves more vulnerable to the sort of political repression that we worked so hard to fight for most of the 20th Century.
Tony Blair’s incoming Labour government in 1997 actually ordered the destruction of MI5’s files on suspected Soviet subversives. The slate may have been wiped clean here, but not further east.
It is significant that one of the last acts of the East European spy agencies before the collapse of Communism there in 1989 was to send copies of their archives to the Kremlin.
Moscow remembers what Britain forgot. In due course, we will find that Beijing also has a long memory. What is alleged to have happened between Geoffrey Robinson and the Czech secret services still matters very much today.
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