The Spectator's Notes

Is Putin really losing?

19 March 2022

9:00 AM

19 March 2022

9:00 AM

I remember my father telling me about Imre Nagy’s final broadcast before the Hungarian leader was taken by the Russians after they crushed his revolution in November 1956. He recalled listening as Nagy’s voice, often faint, came in and out of reception. He said: ‘This fight is the fight for freedom by the Hungarian people against the Russian intervention, and it is possible that I shall only be able to stay at my post for one or two hours. The whole world will see how the Russian armed forces, contrary to all treaties and conventions, are crushing the resistance of the Hungarian people. They will also see how they are kidnapping the prime minister of a country which is a member of the United Nations, taking him from the capital, and therefore it cannot be doubted at all that this is the most brutal form of intervention… I ask that all that I have said in my broadcast… should be put in a memorandum, and the leaders [of the revolution] should turn to all the peoples of the world for help and explain that today it is Hungary and tomorrow, or the day after tomorrow, it will be the turn of other countries, because the imperialism of Moscow does not know borders and is only trying to play for time.’ Nagy was indeed kidnapped and, in 1958, tried in secret and executed. Sixty-five years on, I keep thinking of this, and wondering whether a semi-acquiescent West will quite soon hear similarly painful, moving words from President Zelensky about Ukraine.

The current mood in western capitals is that it will not. It is even said that Vladimir Putin is ‘losing’. This is something which, for understandable reasons, Zelensky himself says, as he seeks to position his country correctly for discussions of a ceasefire. In an ultimate sense, this feels true. I do not see how Putin can end up successfully ruling Ukraine and crushing the resistance of its people. But ‘ultimate’ could be a long way off. After all, the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 could not ultimately succeed, yet its heirs ran the Soviet Union until 1991, and have a sort of afterlife in Putin himself. But since Nato refuses to intervene directly, how can Putin lose quickly? Only, surely, from political pressure or popular revolt at home, of which there is little sign. And since Putin has superior air power, artillery and troop numbers and has happily broken most of the taboos about bombing, shooting and starving civilians, why should he not keep going, winning more ground in order to strengthen his hand in the negotiations now being canvassed? I really do hope that I am missing something important, and that sanctions, boycotts, debt burdens and the attrition of Ukrainian resistance can turn the tide, but why should that be so? Putin is unconstrained, whereas the West is fighting with both hands tied – of its own volition – behind its back.

When Emmanuel Macron first became President of France, he gave a very grand, Napoleonic speech in Versailles, much acclaimed. I fear he struck me then as a comic figure (see Notes, 5 July 2017), the sort of strutting little French cockerel who fulfils traditional English caricatures. Nearly five years on, the cockerel has also proved a chameleon, letting himself be photographed in the Elysée Palace unshaven and dressed in something faintly resembling battle fatigues, as if he, like Zelensky, were fighting for national survival against an invader. Zelensky, of course, was a professional comedian, but it is he who is now the serious leader and Macron who makes one snigger.

On Friday, I took part in the BBC’s Any Questions? in the charming Northamptonshire village of Ashley. It was a good evening, everyone speaking freely, though politely. The one constraint, emphasised both on and off air, was the need to take care when commenting on Roman Abramovich and all other Russian oligarchs rich enough to afford London’s best legal advice. As a journalist and former editor who has sometimes suffered as a result of Britain’s libel laws, I bristled at their restrictive power, but as a citizen I feel proud of the fact that the rule of our laws is not completely suspended during hostilities. For similar reasons, although I instinctively rejoice at the idea of Ukrainian refugees occupying our empty oligarchical palaces, I also want to hold on to our liberal idea that property rights are not suspended just because we hate the owners.

Tintin and his creator, Hergé, were towering figures of my childhood. Perhaps the boy reporter inspired me to become a journalist even though, notoriously, he only ever writes one story. I now see, however, that these inspirations reached me only because of the translations of Leslie Lonsdale-Cooper and her collaborator, Michael Turner. I discovered this from reading Miss Lonsdale-Cooper’s obituary last week, and subsequently learnt more by consulting the top Tintinologist, Michael Farr. Miss Lonsdale-Cooper and Turner had to lobby the publishers, Methuen, very hard indeed to get Tintin translated into English from Hergé’s French. They were assisted, I am glad to report, by the late Colin Welch, the best editor of the Daily Telegraph who never was. Methuen were sniffy about comic books but were persuaded by the above and a leading article in the TLS. Farr says that Leslie and Michael operated as a pair – ‘She was a French speaker, he was the literary man and they just bounced the ideas off each other.’ Instead of translating Captain Haddock’s famous insults and exclamations, ‘they would adopt Hergé’s own method of just finding obscure words’. How I delighted in these: ‘Bashi-bazouk’, ‘pithecanthropus’, ‘billions of blue blistering barnacles in a thundering typhoon’ – an early lesson in the creative power of swearing. With great self-sacrifice, Miss Lonsdale-Cooper and Turner originally waived their fees to get the project off the ground. Translators are the unsung heroes of literature.

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