Features Australia

Letter from Russia

14 July 2018

9:00 AM

14 July 2018

9:00 AM

The Football World Cup was a winner for Russia; tourists like me flooded in (to cheer a reasonably performed Australian team), Red Square was jam-packed,  shops and museums inundated and even the Russian team did much better than expected. News from Moscow has been dominated by other than international politics. But, unlike the old cliché, football was not the winner. If the World Cup is supposed to be the showcase of the World Game, what emerged instead for most of the competition was how the game has descended into a contest not of skill but of cheating, holding, pushing and even rugby tackling, along with theatrical imitation injuries aimed at getting an opponent carded, and, incredibly, questioning, surrounding, harassing and seeking to intimidate referees. South American teams led the way in this corrupting of the game, but they were not alone. Justice was done, however, when one defender’s blatant rugby tackle took so much of his attention that he accidentally knocked the ball into his own net to lose the game. Elimination of the worst cheats by the all-European World Cup semi-finals does not diminish the need for restoring the rules by which football has prospered for so long, including hands and arms having no place in the game.

The Polish guides at World War II sites of mass murder, rape, pillage and deliberate destruction of heritage icons simply refer to the perpetrators as Germans; instead, Russian guides say Nazis, as if it was not really the Germans that were the problem but only the (similarly authoritarian) system, the National brand of Socialism. There is a lot to be said for the Polish view about the nation that is their NATO ally and EU partner against the perceived threat from the East; it is difficult to imagine anyone else being capable of the ruthless Germanic efficiency of Auschwitz and its fellow extermination camps. The dismal duty of visiting Auschwitz was worsened by being sodden in a downpour with large pools between the barracks, the death houses and the crematoria. It was a memorable way of marking my 88th birthday; but for the good fortune of geography and the Allies winning the war, I may have been deprived of three quarters of a century of what has been a fascinating and rewarding life. To cheer me up, my Australian-born ethnic Chinese daughter-in-law has assured me that two fat ladies is a very good sign for riches. Mine are in memories rather than in the bank; the only robbery I fear is that old disease whose name I’ve forgotten.

There’s a touch of irony in the way Russia has spent multi-millions brilliantly restoring historic buildings like the summer palaces of the Czars several miles out of St Petersburg that the Germans (sorry, Nazis) blew up when withdrawing from the failed siege of what was then Leningrad. In Moscow in the grounds of the Kremlin there are visible, but not readily apparent under a glass canopy, remains of the foundations of the Royal Palace that the Soviets blew up in the 1920s in their ‘cleansing’ of regal and religious sights. Fortunately the concept, reluctantly accepted, of converting some into museums saved many iconic buildings. But there is little evidence of the same wish to replace Soviet destructive barbarism (apart from restoring some churches) as there is for the Nazi version. In Poland, restoration is ubiquitous; there is now nothing to show of Warsaw’s Old Town, which the Germans punished as a result of the effectively Soviet-sabotaged Warsaw uprising, with widespread destruction. This included demolition of the Royal Palace and numerous churches (where hundreds were locked in and burned to death). Poland is now a busy and relatively inexpensive tourist destination, with hotels in Warsaw’s Old Town having ‘character’, which involved, in my case, an upper-story large room with a comfortable bed, ensuite, magnificent view, grand chandelier, no airconditioning or fan and a hydraulic lift that is proudly described as the slowest in Europe. But judging by the major infrastructure projects under way in roads, rail and major buildings, Poland’s membership of the EU has been rewarding; its current dispute with Brussels could make things interesting.

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