Tony Kevin: Ordinary Australians are open-minded about Russia

There is no problem to find books about Russia in book stores in Western countries. However, there is a problem to find books telling readers about Russia in a positive way or, at least, without well-known stereotypes and myths migrating from one book to another for decades.

However, ex-diplomat Tony Kevin in his new book “Return to Moscow” (University of Western Australia Publishing, March 2017 – uwap.uwa.edu.au/products/return-to-moscow) was able to show to Western readers a different Russia. He has tried to explain Russia, President Vladimir Putin, and the roots of Russia-West tensions. “Return to Moscow” is his fifth book. He has already given a number of presentations across Australia and received solid media attention in the country.

Tony Kevin’s first diplomatic posting was in the Embassy of Australia in Moscow during the Cold War in 1969-71, and then as a career diplomat he continued to follow Russian affairs. In 2016, when Russia-West relations were rapidly falling to the bottom again and Australia was in the vanguard of Western anti-Russian politics, Mr. Kevin visited Moscow to see a “new” Russia, a country, as President Obama alleged, with a “destroyed” economy under harsh sanctions and with the people “suffering” from the unbearable Putin regime.

Mr. Kevin’s book can be definitely called a breath of fresh air in the tendentious and sometimes explicitly anti-Russian Western media sphere. Our reporter Olga Altey met with Mr. Kevin at his home in Canberra and discussed with the former diplomat his new book, his views on modern Russia and Mr. Putin, Russia-Australia relations and when one might perhaps expect some thaw in these relations.

 What did you want to say to your readers? Obviously, your book is not just about a trip to Moscow.

I wanted to explain to English-speaking readers why I love Russia so much, and why I think it is important for the West to understand the Russian point of view on international problems, and to give people the benefit of my diplomatic experience of Russia in different times.  I wanted to recall how things seemed to me in the old Soviet Union and how much better things are now, so that readers will have a basis to compare and to see that Russia is not such a terrible country.

I think the Australian mainstream media create quite a toxic atmosphere around any topics related to Russia. What was the reaction to your book in Australia?

It has been very good. Actually, much better than I expected! I had four good reviews in leading Australian newspapers and literary journals. People say that my book conveys the complexity and richness of Russia in a very positive way. Also, I have given a number of public presentations and I found people generally are very positive about Russia. I have not encountered any hostility to Russia.

AIIA: Interview with Tony Kevin on Russia’s History and Relations with Australia

Have you got any feedback from the Australian establishment?

There is no question that the Australian elite is very influenced by American foreign policy thinking and thus there is a suspicion of Russia. But even there I have had some good feedback. Anyway, the elite’s reaction differs from the reaction of ordinary but intelligent people, those who like to read book and newspapers. You encounter here a very much more open-minded reaction to Russia. I think Australians like Russians and I know that a lot of Australians travel to Russia as tourists. I don’t think people in the street want to have any tensions.

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What about young people?

Actually the young Australian people, who I met at my presentations, are very open-minded about Russia! I got a few expected questions about “police state” and “frightening place” from the older generation, especially from those who have Eastern-European family background, but I definitely can conclude that there is a generally positive attitude to Russia.

Russia and Australia are very far from each other, the bilateral trade has been always insignificant but at the same time both states are natural resource exporting countries competing on the very attractive Asian market. I would say that today’s Russia-Australia relations are in a “nothing to lose” position. This is probably why the former prime-minister Tony Abbott was so recklessly willing to shirtfront Mr. Putin in 2014: flexing muscles, improving his personal political rating, making happy the mainstream media and US patrons without any real consequences for Australia. Are there any areas for collaboration between Russia and Australia?

It’s true that the Russian and Australian economies rely on exports including natural resources. In some respect, we compete but we can be potential partners as well. First of all, I refer to scientific research. Russia and Australia both have very good scientists, both countries are concerned about questions of environment and believe in good education. Even in the period of the Cold War there has been always a level of scientific collaboration between our countries. For example, Russia and Australia both have major presences in Antarctica and relations between scientists there are very good.

Tony Kevin with Olga Altey in Canberra

In your book you mentioned that the Australian Government did not send any condolences when the Russian aircraft crashed in Sinai. But a few months ago, when the Russian ambassador in Turkey was assassinated, the Foreign Minister Julie Bishop did so. Is it a sign of thaw in relations between our countries?

I don’t want to sound proud but when the Sinai disaster happened and Julia Bishop did not send any condolences, I protested very loudly and wrote her a letter to say that it is disgraceful that Australia is not observing the normal international courtesy of expressing condolences between governments when such terrible things happen. So, I may have had some small influence because I did notice that when the Russian ambassador in New York died and the terrorist attack happened in Saint Petersburg, Australia did convey condolences and I am pleased about that.

Your book is getting good publicity in Australia and you said that feedbacks were pretty good. However, suspicious attitudes to Russia are not abnormal in the Western world. If the Russian immigrant communities were more influential, would the attitude be different? And what do you know about the Russians in Australia?

I enjoyed my recent meeting at the Russian House in Melbourne and I was glad to visit the Russian Easter bazaar in Canberra this year. But actually I would like to get to know the Russian community better!

I know that in the past the Russian community in Australia has been divided by politics, but I hope that now with the good relations between the Russian Orthodox Church and the government in Russia, those tensions will become less and everyone can be proud to be Russian or Russian-Australian.

What do you mean by “divided”? Are you talking about the whites and reds?

No, I think this division is long past now. In my opinion, current divisions are over the Australian government’s attitude to the present government in Russia, to Mr. Putin and to the crisis in Ukraine.

The people who migrate to a new country feel that they have to be loyal to their new home and if they see that their new government opposes Russia, this puts them in a difficult position.

That is why I was angry when Tony Abbott was so obviously anti-Russian. And I was looking forward with Malcolm Turnbull and the opposition leader Bill Shorten that they would be more balanced about Russia. So, I am still hopeful.

At least they sent some condolences.

Yes.

I think Australia has always been suspicious of Russia. It was so during the Crimean War, then Australia was scared of false rumours about a Russian colony in Northern Australia, in XX century all Russians fell under suspicion of being communists and spies, then newspapers talked about a Russian mafia and today’s trend – Putin’s spies and Russian hackers. But in reality there have been no signs of threat to Australia from Russia. In Australia, being scared of a Russian threat is something completely irrational. Do you agree with that?

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You have to remember that Australia saw itself as a part of the British Empire until recently. Before 1914, Russia and Britain were in real and very tough imperial competition around the world. You mentioned the Crimean War and it was part of that competition. Before 1905, the Russian Navy was active in the Pacific Ocean from Sakhalin and Kamchatka to Australia and Russia ruled Alaska!

Even though it seems a very long way to Australia, the young British colony was frightened of Russia as well as of Germany and Japan. And we built harbour fortifications in Australian cities just in case the Russian navy turned up. Now it is just history but I think it still affects our modern relations.

The tragedy of MH17 occurred almost three years ago. The official Australian and local media responses have been very hostile to Russia calling for a tribunal, even though there are no certain results of investigations explaining what exactly happened to the aircraft, who pushed the button and who is behind this catastrophe. It is sad that many Australians were on the aircraft but do you find this extremely hostile reaction to Russia fair?

MH17 is a big tragedy and particularly for the countries which lost a lot of citizens. We were the second largest national group on the plane after the Dutch. I think there are a lot of questions that still need to be answered about MH17. So far the investigation has been very one-sided. Why was this plane diverted by Ukrainian air traffic controllers to fly over the active war zone? Why was Ukraine invited to take part in the Dutch-led investigation committee but Russia was not?

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There is other circumstantial evidence that needs to be investigated. It is known that Mr. Putin was on the way back from a BRICS meeting in Brazil, and Malaysian and Russian aircraft markings are very similar from a distance. Did someone try to kill Mr. Putin? We don’t know.

Unfortunately, there is a tendency now to blame Russia for everything. It is sad. But I don’t exclude any possibilities about what happened to MH17. I just don’t know.

In the book you give particular attention to the Putin period in Russian history. The Western media have been demonising and caricaturing Mr. Putin for many years and it seems as if they have crossed all conceivable red lines. For the West his KGB background is like a red rag to a bull.

I don’t think his KGB background is so terrible. In that particular period of Soviet history, when he was growing up, the smartest people went to work for the KGB because it was so highly regarded. It was the Committee for State Security, komityet gosudarstvennoy bezopasnosti. It was very patriotic to work in the KGB and all about defending the country: ‘I will die for my country, for the motherland’.  We in the West tend to think that the KGB was something sinister but for the Russian people it was just their national security service. I don’t hold Putin’s service in the KGB against him.

Another Putin “sin” is to attempt to reconstruct USSR.

I don’t think it is true. Putin knows that you cannot turn back the clock. But what he does want is to have the countries from ex-USSR in good relationships with Russia, to have good economic and cultural connections with these now independent states.

 

Ok. Another one – “Putin is a nationalist”.

Today we see how Australia is trying to create a new sense of what it is to be an Australian. It is not necessary to be an ethnic European or a Christian but to be loyal to Australia irrespective of people’s ethnic or religious background. To me, it is very similar to what Mr. Putin’s government is trying to promote. They are creating “Russiyskiy” not “Russkiy”. Rossiyskiy includes all ethnic and religious groups in Russia that are loyal to Russia.

According to Western elites and media, Putin’s Russia is almost as bad as concentration camps. The paradox is that 80% of Russians support Mr. Putin. A common Western explanation for this is very straightforward: Russians are slaves who can exist under dictatorship only, they do not understand how bad their lives are, they need to be saved from KGB tyranny and taught real democracy, and, of course, Putin’s unbearable regime needs to be dismantled. Do you think Russians have problems with understanding what democracy is?

Russia has always been a country that very easy to invade just because it is flat and it is easy to move armies across from Europe or Asia. Russian history is a history of resistance to invasions and this has led to the cultural and political tradition to have a strong leader who manages to pull the country together and resist invasions from outside.

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I think the Russian view of democracy is just different from the Western one. Russian people accept strong government but it does not make them slaves. They have a very good understanding what is proper and what is not in relations between government and citizens. Russians don’t like a lot of competing parties, or governments changing every three years. For Russians it is unstable and a sign of weakness.

What was the craziest stereotype you have heard about Russia?

That everybody is starving outside Moscow and Saint Petersburg!

Sometimes the Australian mainstream media went hysterical during the MH17 crisis and G20 in Brisbane, crossing all ethical lines. Even some Australian readers have complained about bias and tendentiousness. Have you seen anything similar in your career?

As I used to be a diplomat, I know that journalists writing articles on foreign policy subjects often just prefer to ring up somebody in the Foreign Affairs office and ask what the true stories are. The connection of our media and the government on foreign policy is very close.

And at the time of the G20 meeting, Tony Abbott blamed Russia very strongly and was very hostile towards Russia and he wanted to ensure that Mr. Putin did not have a friendly reception in Australia. The Australian media picked up on that atmosphere and wrote in a very hostile way about Russia.

The official Australian policy is to support the new government in Ukraine after the coup. Does Australia have real interests in Ukraine?

I don’t think we have major interests in Ukraine and it is all about showing loyalty to Washington which takes a very strong anti-Russian position on Ukraine. There is a lot of pressure on Australia to do the same. I do not see any particular connection between Australia and Ukraine.

Tony Kevin with Irina Simonian (Editor-in-chief of “Vremya”)

Your book is written with unconcealed sympathy to Russia and Russian culture. Where does this level of understanding of Russia come from?

It starts with music. I love Russian music as it is so rich and it is a big part of the Western classical music tradition: Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, Borodin, Prokofiev, Stravinsky, and Shostakovich.

I like Saint Petersburg – it is a part of European civilization and I have a full chapter in my book about this city. In that very important chapter I wrote a little about Pushkin I find that he was a democrat and a patriot. He was very angry when the West started to take sides against Russia over the Polish question and he said that it is not Western business, it is a matter between Slavs.

He was interesting on relations between men and women, he was totally romantic and at the same time he was a sort of a male chauvinist considering women as prizes and property. He is very complicated. I enjoyed reading Pushkin.

You live in Australia but have spent many years studying Russia and lived there for some time. Have you found any similarities between Russians and Australians?

Yes, many. We are both honest people. Most Australians, or at least old-fashioned people, say what they think and this is true for Russians too. We don’t say one thing and do another. Also we had similar challenges of developing our huge countries. We are both inheritors of European civilization. Our countries are very influenced by Europe but Australia and Russia are both on the edge of Asia. And finally, I have seen in my lifetime that Europe rather looks down on both Australia and Russia.

Russian version

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