Going nuclear

About six months ago, I wrote and spoke about a recent trip to Lithuania. Across the border in Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko was meanwhile playing war games with Vladimir Putin against an enemy notionally described as ‘westerners’. I mentioned that at the time, but there was more I could have said – so I just did, in a new post for the LRB: https://www.lrb.co.uk/blog/2022/march/zapad-77

Putin’s Lie

Last Thursday, Joe Biden invoked history to explain Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. ‘He has much larger ambitions,’ the US president said. ‘He wants to, in fact, re-establish the former Soviet Union. That’s what this is about.’

It isn’t. Putin thinks the Soviet Union wasn’t tough enough. In his address to the nation last Monday, Putin claimed that it went pear-shaped from the get-go: from the moment in 1922 when Lenin decided to ‘appease nationalist ambitions on the outskirts of the [Tsarist] empire’ by creating the USSR as a confederation. Its fifteen constituent republics were theoretically allowed to go their own way, and though Stalin was forceful enough to keep this ‘odious and utopian’ revolutionary fantasy in check, it constituted a ‘ticking time bomb’. Because nationalism was allowed to endure, neo-Nazism ‘rapidly developed’ across Ukraine after the Soviet Union’s collapse.

Putin’s made the same argument before, linking it to a second fundamental flaw in Soviet political structures. In a 2016 speech to supporters in Crimea – the Ukrainian peninsula he invaded in March 2014 – Putin blamed Lenin for having also planted seeds of conflict in the now contested eastern Ukrainian regions of Lugansk and Donetsk. Ethnicities hadn’t just been given too much autonomy a century ago, he said; ethnic difference had been disregarded when that suited Bolshevik purposes. That was why Russians in eastern Ukraine were suffering today. Lenin had wanted the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic to contain more workers, so he had ‘nonsensically’ detached the mining region from Russia.

Putin’s resentments aren’t consistent. In 2005, he called the USSR’s collapse the ‘greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the [twentieth] century’. That hasn’t made his sympathy for Russians stranded outside the Motherland any less potent though. Nostalgia for selective Soviet achievements, along with implicit pride in the glories of Tsarist imperialism, has given him a viewpoint that systematically downplays or disregards the aspirations of any nation previously ruled from Moscow.

Putin’s difficulty with the idea that other peoples think differently is now reaching its terrible culmination. In an article posted on the Kremlin’s website last year ‘On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians’, now more revealing than ever, Putin proposed that the very notion of a country with a capital in Kyiv was a fantasy concocted by intellectuals and Polish noblemen. ‘Since there was no historical basis – and could not have been any – [their] conclusions were substantiated by all sorts of concoctions’, he wrote. Insofar as Ukrainians had any distinct identity at all, they were just ‘Malorossy’ – Little Russians.

Putin’s approach to history isn’t rigorous, as the reflections in that rambling 6885-word article prove, but he’s understood the practical value of politicised nostalgia for at least fifteen years. At a meeting in his suburban villa on 21 June 2007, he convened a confab of academic historians which has come to assume great significance. ‘The old adage that whoever controls the past also controls the present and the future is being proven true time and time again today,’ he told them. Their duty was therefore to develop a coherent historical narrative, so as to ‘develop a national ideology that represents the vision of ourselves as a nation.’

School textbooks, state-owned media and government pronouncements have been promoting a centrally-coordinated approach to Russia’s past ever since, and one episode in particular has assumed pivotal significance. The date of Putin’s meeting with the historians was no accident – it was the eve of the anniversary of the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 – and efforts to recall the Great Patriotic War almost immediately began to intensify. Between 1945 and 1991, there were just four parades to celebrate the defeat of Nazism. After Putin’s 2007 call for patriotic history, Victory Day became the defining moment of Russia’s political calendar – and now, if his invasion announcement of 24 February is to be believed, the country is once again battling to ‘demilitarise and de-Nazify’ a genocidal regime.

The argument is useful for smearing Russia’s adversaries. It’s not a plausible view of history though, let alone a fact. It’s a smokescreen and a lie. Ukraine’s leader Volodymyr Zelenskiy is a Jew, whose grandfather fought with the Red Army while three great-uncles were being exterminated by Nazis. Anyone who thinks he’s spent the last two years presiding over a neo-Nazi state is delusional. Putin’s real complaint is that Ukrainians haven’t shown enough gratitude for Russian lands mistakenly given up by the Bolsheviks – and need to be reminded by force.

Taking Sides

Putin’s announcement this morning of a ‘special military operation . . . to demilitarise and de-Nazify Ukraine’ was probably the most aggressively unhinged statement that’s been made by a European political leader in three quarters of a century. If outsiders interfered, he warned, they’d face ‘consequences . . . such as you have never seen in your entire history’ – which can’t mean anything except a nuclear strike. He threatened Ukraine’s government even less conditionally. The ‘junta’ had been responsible for the ‘genocide of millions’, he said, so Russia plans to put perpetrators of those crimes on trial.

There’s every reason to assume he means that, and worse. Six days ago, Foreign Policy magazine cited US intelligence which suggests that Russia had already drawn up lists of prominent Ukrainians to be targeted or killed. And though it’s ordinarily sensible to be sceptical of anonymous intelligence sources, it would be stupid in hindsight to doubt that report. Western assessments of Putin’s intentions have turned out to be demonstrably true, while his repeated denials of a planned invasion are all palpably false.

Plenty of apologists will still excuse the destruction, assassinations and show trials ahead with observations that the West has done lots of bad things too. The toadies who work at RT are going to keep parroting Putin’s lies, while the partial peaceniks who rally behind Stop the War these days will say that ultimately, all the killings are NATO’s fault. But with a three-pronged invasion by air, sea and land under way, a more urgent truth should be obvious. The Kremlin is out to destroy an independent state and incapacitate or murder many of its leaders. Ukraine deserves our full support.

Truth and Lies in Moscow

Vladimir Putin has just given himself the legal authority to invade Ukraine. A decree he signed yesterday, which acknowledges Donetsk and Lugansk to be independent states, says that Russian military forces will enter both regions at their request to maintain peace. Since separatist rebels control less than half the territory that he’s now recognising as autonomous, the role of Russian peacekeepers is likely to become very bloody, very quickly, as and when they start work.

Until a few days ago, I was almost confident that Russia wouldn’t invade. When a draft resolution urging recognition of the regions was tabled (by Communist MPs) in the Duma on 19 January, Putin had kept the initiative at arm’s length. His press secretary Dmitry Peskov said a couple of days after that initial vote that ‘when the situation is so tense and so sensitive, it’s very important to avoid any steps that could provoke an increase in this tension’. I read that as a sign that Putin wanted to look relatively moderate, in Russian eyes at least.

Now that he’s decisively taken the most provocative step possible, it’s impossible to say what comes next. I suspect Putin thinks he knows. I suspect he imagines himself to be blindsiding his adversaries in a game of geopolitical poker. But whatever his negotiating strategy might be (and Russian roulette’s a better analogy than poker), I don’t trust his judgment for a moment.

Anyway, I wrote a sideways take on the crisis for the LRB. Read it here: https://www.lrb.co.uk/blog/2022/february/what-is-truth

Will They Push Him Off The Ice?

Almost ten years ago, Boris Johnson’s sister told an interviewer that the prime minister, aged about five, used to say his ambition was to become ‘world-king’. It was a self-serving piece of family folklore, one she still loves to repeat, and it obscures more than it reveals. Power certainly appeals to Johnson, but he’s very aware of its fragility. Reflecting on the downfall of another proven liar, the Tory MP Jonathan Aitken, he once wrote: ‘Politics is a constant repetition, in cycles of varying length, of one of the oldest myths in human culture, of how we make kings for our societies, and how after a while we kill them to achieve a kind of rebirth. . . Some are innocent . . . some are less innocent. . . It doesn’t really matter. They must die.’

As that suggests, the prime minister’s understanding of responsibility is self-indulgent, melodramatic and nihilistic: he sees accountability as insignificant and assumes eventual failure. Until then though, he’s in thrall to the idea that he can do whatever he wants.

Nothing illustrates the fascination with impunity better than his perspective on Donald Trump, which changed dramatically over the course of 2016. Watching the property developer sweep rivals aside and reshape political realities, Johnson’s scepticism turned to admiration. Trump’s claim that he could have shot a pedestrian on Fifth Avenue without losing support out-Borised Boris himself. The rhetorical force impressed Johnson immensely, while its thuggishness didn’t much matter to him at all.

It looks at last as though Nemesis might be on the way, and, quite optimistically, I’ve just written a piece anticipating the PM’s political demise for the London Review of Books: https://www.lrb.co.uk/blog/2022/january/will-he-be-pushed-off-the-ice. Even the best case scenario is bad, however. As in the United States, the political landscape bulldozed into existence by Trump-style Johnsonianism could allow for even worse to emerge. . .

Priti Patel: ‘Literally Nothing’

The Home Secretary has been duplicitous for years about her family background. As befits the Tory daughter of Ugandan Asian shopkeepers made good, Priti Patel has spun a Thatcheresque origin story to advance her career, and the tale of African rags-to-British riches isn’t just opportunistic. It started with a parliamentary speech about parents who arrived ‘with literally nothing’, and in its retelling by media outlets like the Daily Mail, it’s become dishonest. That doesn’t make her emergence as a hardliner very unusual. Other supposedly self-made politicians who’ve been keen to kick away the ladders that enabled their success include Nigel Farage (descended from a German economic migrant: https://is.gd/r2Rs6S) and Donald Trump (his grandfather, a draft-dodger from Kallstadt, made his first fortune by running brothels for Klondike-bound gold-diggers: https://is.gd/HdvYXn). Patel’s fakeness rankles enough for me to have written about it for the LRB though: https://www.lrb.co.uk/blog/2022/january/with-literally-nothing. There’s more to say, and I’ll be writing a sequel soon . . .

On the Edge (Part II)

Just over a year ago, I wrote about a trip through eastern Poland that took me almost as far as Belarus: https://sadakatkadri.com/2020/10/13/on-the-edge-13-october-2020/. What I didn’t say then is that my arrival at the border got me arrested. Now that 15,000 Polish guards are policing places like the crossing pictured above, I decided to come clean . . .


Sibghatullah Kadri QC (1937-2021): Anti-racism pioneer, co-founder of the Society of Black Lawyers, and the UK’s first Muslim QC

My dad just died. His career as a barrister was defined by his lifelong opposition to racism, and though that provoked fierce criticism from legal reactionaries during the 1970s and 1980s, it’s fair to say he won the argument in the end. Tomorrow, 4 November 2021, the Inner Temple will fly its flag at half mast in his memory.

When his health seriously declined a year ago, we started talking regularly about the past. They’re years I’m all too familiar with – even as a kid, me, my mum and my sister would go with him to rallies against skinheads and neo-Nazis in places like Whitechapel and Lewisham and Southall – but his career forms part of a history that’s often forgotten. So, though it suddenly feels very much like a lifetime away, I figured I’d post something that I contributed to a forthcoming exhibition at the Inner Temple. It wasn’t drafted as obituary, but it’s become one. . . .

Sibghatullah Kadri, known to colleagues and friends as Sibghat or Shiblee, was born in Uttar Pradesh ten years before the partition of India. In late 1949, he moved with his entire family to Karachi in West Pakistan. Sharing a single room with his parents and seven siblings, he taught younger children to fund his own education, and enrolled for a chemistry degree in 1954.

At Karachi University, his scientific studies were soon complemented by broader, political concerns. Elected head of the students’ union, he spoke up for constitutional democracy and civil rights during a volatile period of Pakistani history, and was among those detained after General Ayub Khan’s coup of 7 October 1958. Though he was released six months later (having learned to draft his own habeas corpus petition), the price was expulsion from university and exile to a city a hundred miles outside Karachi.

The move to London in November 1960 was an unhappy accident – occasioned by the need to visit a dying sister who was already in England – but it proved permanent. And the injustice he’d experienced under a military dictatorship now gave him a new focus: he would study law. In August 1961, the Inner Temple admitted Kadri despite his lack of a degree, on the basis that he shouldn’t suffer twice for his arbitrary imprisonment, and he began Part I of the Bar Exams. That was a part-time course in the 1960s, and it took him two years to sit the five papers, working as a postman, a clerk for a mail order firm specialising in ‘ladies slimming garments’, and a waiter at a Kilburn curry house. The third job was almost literally his last; it ended when a white customer drunkenly refused to pay his bill and stabbed Kadri in the face. The attack sent him to hospital for three weeks.

Not everything was tough; 1963 was also the year that he married Carita Idman. The couple soon had two children, and to support the family as it grew, Kadri found work again. After contributing to the BBC as an ‘immigrant spokesman’ for the Campaign Against Racial Discrimination (an organisation established in 1964, soon after a visit to England by Martin Luther King), Kadri was offered a staff job at the Urdu Service.

In the autumn of 1968, Kadri was finally ready to study for the Bar Finals – and his year at the Council of Legal Education would be transformative. The CLE of the 1960s was structurally skewed to benefit British university graduates, and Kadri was soon articulating grievances that were widespread among Commonwealth students. Speeches propelled him to prominence, and a Bar Students’ Reform Committee, formed in September 1968, then staged a sit-in that made the front page and letters section of the Times. Kadri was promptly sacked by the BBC Urdu Service; when he turned up to read the news, his displeased boss said his services wouldn’t be required because ‘you are the news’.

Most of the protesters’ demands weren’t met, but the BBC eventually took him back and Kadri’s leadership was vindicated by the sit-in’s one durable success: the creation of representative student bodies at the Inns of Court. He was elected to be the first president of the Inner Temple Student Association, defeating John Laws (later, a Lord Justice of Appeal).

After leading a second CLE sit-in the following November – supported by fellow radicals who included the future Baroness Helena Kennedy and Jack Dromey MP – Kadri was called to the Bar. Early in 1970, he collaborated with two other barristers, Rudy Narayan and Byron Hove, to establish the very first organisation concerned with racism in the legal profession. The Society of Afro-Asian and Caribbean Lawyers (renamed the Society of Black Lawyers in 1981) aimed to eliminate racial discrimination among lawyers and to facilitate equal justice for all.

Kadri became headline news in April 1970. As legal adviser to the Pakistan Workers Association, he responded to the recent stabbing of a Bengali immigrant in London’s East End by reminding fearful Asians at a rally that the law allowed people to defend themselves. Likely victims of racist violence weren’t looking for trouble, Kadri told a Daily Telegraph reporter – ‘but they will be ready to deal with it.’ The forthrightness was too much for the BBC, which sacked him for a second time – on the grounds that it had to ‘tread with the most extreme care’.

It wasn’t just the BBC that seemed to be more troubled by opposition to racism than by racism itself. Kadri obtained a pupillage under (Lord) Tony Gifford at Cloisters, but though he enjoyed several notable early successes, his outspokenness meant no chambers would offer him tenancy. Two years later, confident that this wasn’t for lack of ability, Kadri found a typically radical solution. Aged 35 and fresh out of pupillage, he set up the UK’s first multi-racial chambers at 11 King’s Bench Walk.

That was in March 1973. Over the next two decades, Kadri developed a practice that was all but defined by his commitment to equal rights. Along with immigration and judicial review challenges, he took on criminal cases that became almost iconic: the defence of alleged rioters in Bristol and Brixton, for example, and members of the so-called ‘Bradford Twelve’ and ‘Newham Seven’, who were charged with defending their communities against violent racism. Working through bodies including the Society of Black Lawyers and the Standing Conference of Pakistani Organisations (SCOPO), Kadri combined lawyerly skills with a campaigner’s acumen. At a time when racist murders were multiplying across England, he mobilised beleaguered non-white communities in districts like Southall and Whitechapel; as a barrister, he regularly spoke out against racial bias among legal practitioners. As he recently described in a video presentation to the Inner Temple, Lord Denning was among those who admitted their mistakes; many did not.

In October 1981, Kadri addressed an international conference about race and the legal profession at Sussex University. His assessment of the situation in this country was bleak, but also impressive enough for Mr Justice Browne-Wilkinson (as he then was) to visit Kadri a day later at 11 Kings Bench Walk. Their constructive conversation led to the creation of a working committee on race relations chaired by Browne-Wilkinson. It evolved into a Race Relations Committee, and new anti-discrimination initiatives that are now institutionalised across the Bar.

In March 1989 Kadri took silk, and eight years later he was appointed a Bencher of the Inner Temple. Those are high honours, but a greater achievement is surely his lifelong pursuit of racial equality. In ways that were never easy, he pioneered essential reforms within a profession that is institutionally resistant to change, and sometimes hostile to it. Discrimination hasn’t vanished – as Kadri recently reminded younger barristers in his Inner Temple presentation, ‘the struggle continues’ – but the trail he blazed has cleared obstacles for countless others who followed. In itself, that illustrates the value of diversity. His entire life also stands as a timely reminder that justice loses its meaning without lawyers prepared to fight for it.

Rule of Law, Sharia-Style

The Taliban’s comeback has got me reminiscing about my trip ten years ago to Pakistan, where I visited mosques and madrasas to find out what people thought about the sharia. Opinions varied, but one perspective was pretty universal. In the slums I visited, sunk in poverty and fought over by armed gangs, people weren’t worried that laws might be too repressive; they just wanted stability. With that in mind, I wrote a short post for the LRB about the Taliban takeover: https://www.lrb.co.uk/blog/2021/september/promoting-virtue-and-preventing-vice


Nuclear rocket silos aren’t everyone’s idea of fun, probably, but they turn me on. So much so that I talked about exploring one of them on Radio 4’s From Our Own Correspondent. About eleven and a half minutes in, if you’re interested. https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/m000zv39. In order to milk the experience maximally, I also wrote about it for the London Review of Books: https://www.lrb.co.uk/blog/2021/october/out-of-the-silo.