Whatever one thinks of the government’s plans to send refugees to Rwanda, it was amusing to see this country’s left suddenly finding all sorts of reasons why only the UK – ‘a cake-filled, misery-laden, grey old island’ according to Emma Thompson, patron of the Refugee Council – would do as a final destination for these poor people. It was especially ironic that the place which the great and the good decreed unfit for humane habitation was a country of which liberals have historically approved: France. The phrase ‘French flu’ was coined in the 1950s to describe the cultural cringe of British progressives towards France as the source of all things civilised. They had Brigitte Bardot and Jean-Paul Sartre; we had Diana Dors and Malcolm Muggeridge. Despite the cosying up to Putin by Macron and the police brutality towards working-class farmers, this attitude persists.
While France is ceaselessly flattered by a certain sort of self-loathing Briton, it’s rare to hear anyone say anything nice about this country. Unless, that is, they grew up under communism. Konstantin Kisin left the Soviet Union as a teenager, coming here to live with his dissident grandfather who could remember a time when people were jailed for eating food from a newspaper which had a photograph of Stalin’s face on it. Naturally he was going to notice creeping authoritarianism in his adopted country, no matter how much it dressed up as a unicorn garbed in a rainbow flag.
In 2018, Kisin – a comedian by trade, but a writer by nature – was asked by the School of Oriental and African Studies to sign a ‘behavioural agreement form’ promising to swerve humour which might not be ‘respectful and kind’:
By signing this contract, you are agreeing to our no tolerance policy with regards to racism, sexism, classism, ageism, ableism, homophobia, biphobia, transphobia, xenophobia, Islamo-phobia or anti-religion or anti-atheism.
Why did the chicken cross the road? To get away from these buzz-kills, probably.
The young Kisin went to live in Bristol. It’s ironic that I grew up there being told by my communist dad that the Soviet Union was a workers’ paradise where one could eat one’s dinner off the floor of the majestic Moscow subway stations, so pristine were they, due to the national pride of the Russian people in these subterranean palaces. I thought he was just eccentric until I discovered that my husband – of another generation and social class – was told exactly the same by his mother. A shame they didn’t inform us that Soviet citizens had to queue for three hours to get the ingredients for those dinner floorshows, but I’m sure they meant well.
This book is all the more powerful because it acknowledges exactly what led good people like my father and mother-in-law to spout Soviet propaganda. In Britain, the richest 10 per cent earn 24 times as much as the poorest 10 per cent. Back in the USSR, the richest earned barely four times as much as the poorest. The illiteracy rate in the former Soviet Union was 0.4 per cent – in the USA it’s 14 per cent. ‘But if that sounds too good to be true, I’m afraid it was. Spoiler alert: the Soviet Union collapsed spectacularly in 1991… and, before you start, it was real socialism.’
Marxism began as the hobby horse of two little rich boys and is now firmly established as a ‘luxury belief’ with as much cachet as Chanel. It’s always fun to see the ‘useful idiots’ get a going over and Kisin doesn’t spare the rod, especially roasting the likes of Michael ‘Nine Homes’ Moore – though considering the profit the man-mountain has made from the promulgation of his usefully idiotic luxury beliefs, you have to wonder who’s zooming who.
This is a love letter, but it’s also an elegy to a West which seems intent on self-immolation. After small but perfectly informed romps through the flash points of the culture wars – race, gender, censorship – the chapter ‘Should I Go Back?’ returns us to where we came in: the mystifying desire of the British left to have refugees come to live in this xenophobic hellhole when they could easily stay in lovely, kind, civilised France. And, of course, ‘weirdly, none of the people who tell you how evil, bigoted, racist and sexist the West is ever move to any of the other “much better” countries’.
If you only read one book about the culture wars, please make it mine: Welcome to the Woke Trials: How #Identity Killed Progressive Politics. But if you’ve got room for two, Kisin’s book – a deadly warning which somehow also manages to be bright and breezy – is the perfect complement to my own amuse-bouche.
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