PETER YOUNG: Russian doublespeak

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, listens to Mikhail Mishustin, the candidate for the post of Russian Prime Minister during their meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, Friday, May 10, 2024. (Gavriil Grigorov, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, listens to Mikhail Mishustin, the candidate for the post of Russian Prime Minister during their meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, Friday, May 10, 2024. (Gavriil Grigorov, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)


IT is always said that George Orwell was credited with inventing doublespeak after coining the term doublethink in his novel 1984. Amongst various definitions, the former has been described as language that deliberately obscures, disguises, distorts or reverses the meaning of a word.

Such thoughts came to the forefront after reading Vladimir Putin’s speech at Russia’s Victory Day parade last week which seemed to me to meet this definition because in part it was intentionally inaccurate or untrue. Victory Day is held annually to remember the Soviet defeat of Germany during the Second World War and especially the human cost of that conflict – the more than 27 million Soviet citizens, both military and civilian, killed in what is known in Russia as the Great Patriotic war.

Who would not applaud such patriotic remembrance? But, according to reports, what many found deeply depressing, in the midst of the war in Ukraine that seems to be dragging on forever, was what the Russian leader had to say about his modern-day country, and it made one realise that the words attributed to the widow of Alexei Navalny, the jailed opposition leader who died in a Russian prison in February, about Russia being doomed to failure as long as Putin stayed in office were likely to be proved all too accurate.

In his speech, Putin issued a warning to the West and indulged in some nuclear sabre-rattling. He said Russia would do anything to avoid a global confrontation but, at the same time, would not allow “anyone to threaten us. Our strategic forces are always on combat alert”. To the listener, what he presumably meant was that external forces – and NATO in particular – are always on the point of attacking Russia. That is, of course, an absurd notion beyond reality. It is “Alice Through the Looking Glass stuff” and nothing more than an ex post facto justification of the invasion of Ukraine.

Historically, some in the West did not agree with what they regarded as NATO’s encroachment eastwards during an enlargement process in 2004 which included bringing into NATO membership the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. However, that was the choice of those countries. After becoming independent from the former Soviet Union, they decided to look to the West for their future. Moreover, in his Victory Day speech, Putin made no mention of Russia’s aggression in the annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 or the fact that from about the same time a military confrontation with the Kyiv government had been going on with Russian-speaking separatists in eastern Ukraine. Nor did he talk about the recent NATO membership of Finland and Sweden whose decision to join after years of neutrality will have been influenced by Russia’s aggressive actions in Ukraine.

For Putin, Victory Day was another opportunity to justify to his own people his invasion of Ukraine. He is clearly intent on presenting a patriotic Russia that is under threat from other countries and he hammers the West for fuelling conflicts around the world. For analysis of this and the broader question of Putin’s survival as the Russian president, I commend to readers the fine reporting of Steve Rosenberg, the BBC’s resident correspondent in Moscow who is one of Britain’s best Kremlin-watchers.

Meanwhile, it was clear that Putin originally miscalculated the likely events on the ground following his Ukraine invasion in February, 2022 in what he calls a special military operation.

After making initial inroads, the Russians’ lack of military success showed that the Ukrainians were committed to a long-term struggle with weapons and military supplies provided by Western countries. With reports of a threatened coup against Putin, as the body bags started coming in, some in the West hoped that this might lead to an effective challenge to his leadership. However, that turned out not to be the case. On the contrary, Putin has now strengthened his position at home by successfully seeing off all opposition while he begins his fifth term in office after altering the Russian constitution to enable him to run for two further six-year terms; though his election victory in March, winning almost ninety per cent of the vote, was widely considered to be fraudulent.

For some, the irony of the situation is that, reportedly, when Putin first became president 24 years ago he undertook to promote democracy in a free, prosperous, strong and civilised country that was respected internationally. Russia even joined what was known as “the comity of nations” and the G7 was turned into the G8. But today, of course, all that has gone.

To many, it is terrible beyond measure that the horrors and cruelties perpetrated by Russian forces in an unprovoked war in Ukraine, including endless atrocities against civilians, should continue in one of Europe’s larger and more prosperous countries that is systematically being destroyed by Russia’s bombardment. British prime minister Rishi Sunak said only yesterday that Putin’s “recklessness has taken us closer to a dangerous nuclear escalation than at any point since the Cuban missile crisis in 1962”. Many people argue that the Russian leader cannot be allowed to succeed in Ukraine since that may embolden him to attack other countries. The evil unleashed on Ukraine by Putin is beyond description and unforgiveable and it now seems to be the case that the only hope of ending the conflict lies in a change of Russian leadership.


Sunday’s UK press headlines summed it up. “United by Music – not a chance” and “Europe divided” were two that caught the eye. But, on the thesis that “it’ll be all right on the night”, most reports of Saturday night’s final of the Eurovision Song Contest were positive as the 24 (normally 25 but the Netherlands were disqualified during the course of the event) contestants left in the competition battled it out for first place. In the end, Switzerland emerged as the runaway winner.

Performances are judged by a mix of public voting and by a professional jury in each participating country. Under the established format, the contest goes through various stages while whittling down the original entries (37 this year) ending up with the finalists performing live at a central venue, with a three-minute song in front of an audience of thousands and an estimated 200 million around the world. This year the final was in the port city of Malmo in Sweden.

The Eurovision Song Contest – often known simply as Eurovision – was started in 1956. It is an international song competition organised annually by the European Broadcasting Union and it was one of the first television shows to be broadcast to an international audience. It has been labelled “a show of cultural diversity unlike any other” and the organisers insist it is non-political and is indeed “above the political fray”.

Over the years, it has been a peaceful and pleasant TV event which people enjoyed tuning into – and the only rows have been about the odd allegation of tactical voting based on geographical solidarity or for some other reason. For example, in 2021, which was immediately after Brexit, the UK came in last!

Nonetheless, the 68th edition of Eurovision this year has been called – perhaps unfairly – the most chaotic and political one in its history. According to press reports, it was overshadowed by protests against Israel’s actions in Gaza, in particular the bombardment and destruction of infrastructure and killing and maiming of civilians. Protesters had called for the Israeli contestant to be banned from the competition. Even some of the other contestants indicated publicly their disapproval of Israel’s participation. There were large-scale protests in Malmo and the Israeli singer was confined to her hotel room for safety reasons, while protesters outside the Malmo arena accused the song contest organisers of “celebrating genocide”.

Various other incidents, in the view of many, also marred the contest. One example was the disqualification of the Netherlands contestant, who had been tipped as one of the favourites, after an incident with a production crew member that turned out be a minor altercation with an official photographer.

From afar, however, one has the impression that the international press might have been looking for drama by identifying problems like demonstrations against Israel which, it turned out, were well controlled by the police. The evident conclusion is that the finals on Saturday evening went well without any major incident – and the Israeli contestant did, indeed, perform in the final and was place fifth in the contest.

As for the slogan which some newspapers say turned out to be a bit of a sham, Britain hosted last year’s Eurovision in Liverpool on behalf of war-torn Ukraine and adopted the slogan “United by Music” – and it appears to most commentators that it is the music that should still count irrespective of protests over Gaza.

My own experience of Eurovision relates, as is the case of others of my generation, to the winners in 1974 in the English town of Brighton – the Swedish pop band, Abba, with their song “Waterloo”. Not only did this become a number one single in Britain but it also topped the charts all over Europe. Abba’s triumph launched their amazing career as a group and put them on the road to stardom – though, for various reasons, their triumph did not make them universally popular in their own country – and no other Eurovision winner has been able to match their subsequent amazing success. For me and my nearest and dearest, tapes of their music became a permanent feature of long distance car journeys – so much so that I can still remember the words of some of their songs.

Restorative power of nature

Being still in rehabilitation mode following surgery – and while contemplating what to cover in this week’s press column – there has been time to watch the reemergence of Nature in the garden at this time of year. The change of seasons is, of course, not so pronounced as in more northern climes but the changes brought on by warmer weather are easy to discern – and they leave one in awe of the phenomenon of Nature.

They also remind one of the beauty of a well maintained lawn – even though mine could be so much better – and the beckoning thought that one will be able soon to see the fine grass courts at Wimbledon as the championships come round again.

On a personal note, it also brings back memories of the first time my father allowed me as a youngster to cut the lawn at the family home with a motor mower, and triumphantly create the “up and down” pattern, just like the Wimbledon courts. What a wonderful sense of achievement it was to be trusted to do the job and I can readily recall it. As someone said, it’s the little things that matter.


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