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1st March 2020

Pubdog - Public Domain

In speculative mood that great nineteenth-century strategic chess-player, Otto von Bismarck, once reflected on the lack of any obvious connection between Britain and Russia. He queried whether a whale and a bear could find enough common ground on which to fight each other, or to be friendly. The ambivalence at the heart of Anglo-Russian relations is worth pondering as we approach the second anniversary of the Salisbury poisonings. The British government was in no doubt where responsibility lay for the shocking use of a weapons-grade nerve agent in a public place, which left a Russian double agent, his daughter and a local police officer seriously ill in hospital, and later took the life of a bystander who accidentally came into contact with the lethal substance. The then prime minister, Theresa May, announced that the attack was the work of two Russian intelligence officers whose actions had been authorised at a senior level in Moscow – a claim which was of course strenuously denied. Coming four years after the international crisis caused by Russia’s intervention in Crimea, the Salisbury episode plunged relations between the two countries into the deep freeze.

Tensions between Britain and Russia have been the norm throughout the two countries’ joint history, long predating the Cold War that shaped relations in the second half of the twentieth century. 2020 sees the centenary of the ending of the allied intervention in Soviet Russia after the First World War - an abortive attempt by Britain and other Western powers to snuff out the newly established communist government. Long before the Bolshevik take-over the story was one of mutual mistrust, broken by intervals of pragmatic, limited cooperation. For much of the nineteenth century Anglo-Russian relations had been coloured by the ideological distance between a gradually liberalising parliamentary state and an unyielding, semi-feudal autocracy. This overlay a continuous strategic rivalry, focused initially on the eastern Mediterranean and encouraged by the weakening of the Ottoman Empire, which resulted in open conflict in the Crimean War. In the last third of the century, in what became known as ‘the Great Game’, the arena of conflict shifted further eastwards, to Persia and Afghanistan, where Britain believed its Indian empire to be menaced by Russian ambitions.

The two countries came close to hostilities again over a bizarre episode during the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05, known as the Dogger Bank incident. The Russian fleet, en route to the Far East, opened fire on what it apparently took to be Japanese torpedo boats in the North Sea – which were in fact Hull fishing trawlers. Thanks to the inaccuracy of the tsar’s gunners, the loss of life was limited to two fishermen, but the incident sparked the mobilisation of the British fleet and was resolved only after the payment of £66,000 in compensation, equivalent to £8,000,000 in today’s money.

It was the emergence of a more immediate threat from Germany in the early twentieth century that brought an end to this acutely antagonistic phase of the relationship. The key development was a 1907 agreement to demarcate British and Russian spheres of influence in Central Asia. For a decade thereafter, until the closing stages of the First World War, opposition to Germany held the two countries together in a diplomatic alignment of convenience. But it was an uneasy and incomplete rapprochement, in which past rivalries and suspicions were never far from the surface. It is this period where the grand narrative of Anglo-Russian tension briefly intersects with a distant personal memory.

My grandfather, who was born in 1899, grew up as the son of a tenant farmer on the estate of the Fitzwilliam family, close to Rotherham in the West Riding of Yorkshire. It is best known today for the imposing residence of Wentworth Woodhouse; considered to be the largest private house in England, its story is told in Catherine Bailey’s highly recommended book, Black Diamonds. This was no bucolic ‘long Edwardian summer’, however; the area’s farms co-existed with the collieries of the adjoining South Yorkshire coalfield. My grandfather told many stories of his life there before the First World War, and one in particular has stayed with me because it seems so unlikely.

To the local area, whilst he was still a child, came a group of Russians. They must have seemed rather exotic to the villagers. The visitors were interested in the work being done by local men who operated steam shovels – large, steam-powered earthmovers, quite possibly manufactured by the nearby Lincoln-based Ruston company.  At the time these monsters would have been considered state of the art machines for the latest phase of the industrial revolution, requiring a skilled crew of three to handle them. The strangers offered some of the men a handsome reward to accompany them back to Russia, where they were to instruct their hosts on how to work the giant shovels.

This would have been an extraordinary move for workers who ordinarily might never have travelled more than twenty miles from their homes in their entire lives – but they went. On arrival they were required to demonstrate how to operate the machines on a large construction project. Then, once the attentive Russian observers had learned all they wanted to know, the Englishmen were abruptly ordered to get down and told that their services were no longer needed. They had to find their way home, unaided and with limited resources – a journey of at least 1,500 miles. Eventually, after a scarcely imaginable odyssey, they made it back to Yorkshire to tell their tale.

It must be forty years since I first heard this story, and from time to time I’ve reflected on it and regretted not asking more questions as a child. Which year exactly was it? Why did the Russians choose that part of England as their recruiting ground? How long did it take the men to return home, and what happened to them on the way? It may be that evidence of the story is buried in a local newspaper somewhere – certainly it does not seem to have found its way on to the internet. Perhaps it is a rural myth, with no more substance than the story that Russian soldiers passed through Britain in 1914 ‘with snow on their boots’, heading for the Western Front? But I never knew my grandfather to invent or embroider a story for entertainment value. Perhaps the bare bones of my account will strike a chord with someone, somewhere. At any rate, true or not, it would make a great novel or even a film!

Graham Goodlad teaches History and Politics and is also a freelance writer whose work includes British Prime Ministers from Balfour to Brown (co-author, 2013) and Thatcher (2015), published by Routledge.

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