Russia Report: Reactions and Reminiscences

From Graham Jones, Chairman of the EM Oxford Region

A view of Perm – Oxford’s Twin town in Russia

Were you targeted by ‘actors close to the Russian state’ during the 2016 Referendum campaign? How would you know? Might it have been in an advertisement on a Facebook page you were reading? Perhaps a graphic but innocent-looking Tweet? Or an unsolicited e-mail?

I’m guessing you would like to know – might even feel you have a right to know.

You could be entertaining the same concerns on behalf of the folk who asked Google the day after the Referendum what leaving the EU meant (see our July Newsletter).

So on your behalf and theirs, here’s what we’ve told our city and county’s MPs in the wake of the so-called ‘Russia Report’, issued by Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee on July 21:

“We strongly support this week’s call by the ISC for an assessment of hostile foreign interference. We are urging that the findings go to MPs and Peers with an unredacted summary, as the ISC proposes (paragraphs 47 and 48), so that people can judge where information in the campaign was coming from.

“This is not to rewrite the referendum result. Brexit has happened and we in the European Movement are focused on securing access to the huge European market and protecting standards and values, whether in shops or the NHS.

“But we need to know better in future where election messages are coming from, just as we do when a candidate’s leaflet drops through the door.”

Reporting our call to MPs to newspapers and broadcasters, I added:

“It’s in Putin’s interest to destabilise the rest of Europe and NATO. Brexit was a big win for him, as it is for his friend Trump. Boris Johnson’s silencing of the ISC’s Russia Report until now, and especially before the general election, is a tacit omission that he feared public knowledge about meddling and bankrolling in the referendum.

“It is also shaming in a prime minister who clearly put personal and party interest before the security of his nation.”

Perhaps your concern about such targeting adds to the question-marks you may long have had over the veracity of parts of the Leave campaign. Not to mention the issue of where they got the money to pump it out to you.

[Incidentally, did you notice it was BeLeave’s Darren Grimes, initially fined £20,000 for breaking electoral spending law, who hosted the recent interview in which historian David Starkey said the slave-trade was not genocide because there were so-many ‘damn Blacks’ still around?]


Travelling across Russia during the Perestroika election of September 1989, I remember very clearly two of many conversations from that heady time. One was in a town in Siberia, where my wife and I talked with a teenager proud of his Margaret Thatcher tee-shirt. The other, more ominous, is eerily relevant in the wake of the ISC’s anxiety about possible electoral interference by 'actors close to the Russian state'.

It was a serious discussion with an Intourist guide in Leningrad. We had viewed the treasures in the Hermitage, toured the cruiser Aurora from which the first shot in the October Revolution was fired, pondered the Nazi siege of 1941-1944 in which a quarter of a million people died, mainly from starvation.

I was keen to discuss the upcoming elections, in which candidates not endorsed by the Communist Party could take part for the first time. Their leaflets and posters were freely available. I was taken aback. Far from being elated by demokratizatsiya and glasnost (openness, transparency) the young man was confident that ‘our KGB will save us from political upheaval’. Doubtless by ‘upheaval’ he meant parliamentary democracy.

Two months after the visit the Berlin Wall was down, the barrier I had crossed and recrossed twenty years earlier after a train journey memorable for watch-towers, machine-guns, dogs, and a thorough search of the carriages at the East German border.

Later I flew down that border in a British Army helicopter, seeing how the ‘death-strip’ with its multiple barbed-wire fencing faced inwards, a threat to East Germans, not a defence from the West.

In the following years we achieved German reunification, freedom for the countries of the Warsaw Pact, and came to a point at which parliamentary democracy might have found stronger, lasting roots in Russia, the source of great works of European culture and learning, a natural potential partner in the European project.

I will always remember, from the same trip, our evening at the Bolshoi, watching its ballet company dance to music by Tchaikovsky (tickets in the stalls cost 5 roubles).

Who is ignorant of that composer, or of Tolstoy, Gorki, Rachmaninoff, Solzhenitsyn, Kandinsky, and the Pasternaks, painter father and his son the poet and novelist? How rich is our own culture because of the contribution of migrants from Russian lands over the past two centuries? How many of you reading this have Russian ancestry?

How utterly sad then that we have come again to a position of scarecely-veiled hostility, a new Iron Curtain, with Britain intent on abandoning the pan-European ties which brought us through the Cold War, and forgetful all too easily of the sacrifices of the Russian people which, together with those of our western Allies, brought us victory in 1945.

Should we despair? Certainly not. As we stand up to Putin’s state actors and their agents, let us also redouble our efforts in building relationships with Russia’s democrats, and fostering ties between people and communities.

So the final word is one of support and best wishes for those involved in Oxford’s twin-city link with Perm, industrial, scientific, and cultural centre in the Urals, and for the many Russians working here in our universities and health-care. Za zdorov’e!

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