Nuclear bedsteads and gold bombs

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The Independent Online
THE RUSH to give aid to Russia gains momentum. Well, not exactly a rush - more like a hesitant Gadarene shuffle. There is much deferential politeness among prospective donors - no, after you, John; after you, Helmut; Bill, you go first. And Bill leads, predictably with his mouth.

Aid for whom precisely? Well, for Mr Yeltsin: he is the bloke who seems to be in charge.

Will he be there next month, or even next week? Who can say? Better help him quickly - post early for Christmas, or you may get 'not known at this address'.

Like his predecessor, Mr Gorbachev, Mr Yeltsin is a virtuoso at the Spenlow-Jorkins ploy: 'I may put the wind up you, but wait till you meet my big bruvver.' 'Keep a hold of Nurse,' he warns, 'for fear of finding something worse.'

Once himself 'something worse', he now conjures up goblin fears of something worse still. So aid me, he roars, and look sharpish.

What will Mr Yeltsin do with this aid? Warren Christopher, the US Secretary of State, hopes he will direct it at the 'grass roots' - at the old, young and needy.

Wiser then, surely, to by- pass Mr Yeltsin altogether? Russian leaders have a habit of moving targets and goalposts to their own advantage.

No, we must boost Mr Yeltsin personally, as 'a proud, struggling friend' (Richard Nixon) in charge, we hope, of a 'non-aggressive democracy' (Mr Nixon again).

Suppose he turns into, or is replaced by, an aggressive democrat, or an aggressive ruler by decree, or a proud struggling enemy? Too bad.

Aid is meant to help him to reform, to establish a free market and democratic institutions. Yes, but what if democracy in Russia favours not a free market but regimentation and aggression?

After all, as Mr Nixon put it, before 1991, the Russians knew neither political nor economic freedom. (Now here Mr Nixon is surely wrong: the Russians before 1917 knew considerable freedom. If Tsarist Russia had survived unchanged till now, she would be among the top quarter of liberal states at the United Nations.)

Surely, anyway, what the Russians have known since 1991 is not so much political and economic freedom as a formless chaos highly inimical to both? Indeed, you can't make an omelette without breaking eggs. You can, however, break eggs without making an omelette, as Stalin daily demonstrated.

Massive aid is designed to give Mr Yeltsin time for reform, to make reform easier and more comfortable. He might try to use it for these benign purposes. Yet, like all his former Bolshevik contemporaries in Russia, he has had a shocking political upbringing, with little understanding of what freedom is or of what legal framework it needs if it is not to destroy itself. Liberty, said Burke, must be limited to be enjoyed. Has life taught Mr Yeltsin where these limits are and how they may be marked and policed? Most disquieting is his blind hatred of the so- called black market, which is the dirty black soil, like that of Ukraine, from which economic progress sprouts.

Will aid give him time to learn and think, to recreate Russia's long-submerged free institutions? It might. It might equally be blued, as by other basket cases, on the equivalent of nuclear bedsteads and gold bombs, or actually misused to postpone reform, to make it less urgently necessary.

The gate to possible economic reform in Russia was not opened by affluence but by dire necessity and want. Aid could close that gate. Aid could equally be spent on buying and restoring Russia's huge but disaffected army, so necessary for Mr Yeltsin's survival, less obviously so for our own.

If Russian history teaches us anything, it is that nothing there is quite as it seems. Real intentions cannot always be deduced from what occurs or seems to occur. Villages may be Potemkin. Convulsions may be fomented by those charged to avert them. Stalin was welcomed as a moderate. The conspiracy theory of history, elsewhere so unhelpful to insight, illuminates much in Russia.

Was Mr Yeltsin's demand for emergency powers a grievous setback for him, or what he had intended all along? Who can be sure?

Bismarck, as so often, had it all summed up. Told that the Tsar's ambassador to Berlin had died, he carefully pondered the matter, finally wondering: 'Now, what can have been his motive for that?'.

On another occasion, an underling asked Bismarck what he thought would be Vienna's reaction to some unexpected development. Bismarck, perplexed, posed another question: 'Well, what's the silliest thing you can think of?' The Russian reformers may yet enlarge our own vast experience of silliness. How should we react? Well, with interest, sympathy, humanitarian aid (not inter-governmental; see Susan Richards, 'A little can go a long way to helping Russia', Independent, 25 March), with powder dry and the public purse shut. Uninspiring? Perhaps, but not the silliest thing I can think of . . . .

JUDGES here, I note, are to retain their wigs. Good. Anything is welcome that differentiates them from the glorified social workers and psychiatric administrators, which they are required by the left to become or behave like.

More than wigs are needed, however, to restore and preserve the ancient dignity of the law. You could clap a wig on a chicken. The result would not impress: the chicken might look more ludicrous than before. Confer on that chicken, however, the power to impose terrible penalties and to make its rulings understood (one cluck, death; two, transportation; three, a flogging) and it would soon command respect.

When I was young, it was an axiom among progressive penologists and enlightened policemen that it was not harsh punishments that deterred criminals but simply the fear of getting caught. Now, with judges emasculated and humiliated, and convicted criminals running off free, that axiom looks pretty silly.

The enlightened retreat to another thesis: that where sentences may be harsh, juries will be reluctant to convict. No bad thing, perhaps: surely juries should be reluctant to convict?

I am convinced that some of the 'unsafe' convictions that have recently dismayed us spring from tired and bored jurors finally acquiescing in doubtful guilty findings because, after all, the penalties for the accused are so light and readily corrigible. Who will fight to the death to prevent a possibly innocent man from undergoing a year or two's porridge with early release earned or on appeal? The possibility of terrible penalties would restore to juries their vigilant scepticism and to the judge his proper majesty.

Even with a police force vast, over-equipped and not always too scrupulous, you can't hope to catch and punish 'em all. But you could put the fear of God up 'em all.