Photo: Johnny Ring

Diary: Jeremy Bowen on how our post-Cold War hopes disappeared

They have been replaced with old fears of being left in a pile of radioactive dust, says the international editor of BBC News
September 8, 2022

Perhaps it was prophetic to spend a week on a sunny Swedish island in the glorious archipelago that sprinkles its way north from Stockholm along the coast of the Baltic Sea. If southern Europe keeps heating up, and the Welsh beaches on which I munched sandy sandwiches as a child fry in 40°C heat, then many more of us might look to Scandinavia for holidays. Stockholm is stunning, and the islands are perfect for Nordic Swallows and Amazons, the Lake District without the crowds. That might not last if the world cannot control its love of carbon, so go now.

The Baltic Sea is brackish, as its waters only squeeze into the open sea through the narrow Danish straits. Pike lurk in the reeds. My hosts claim they grow to monstrous size, carnivorous enough to nip fingers dangled from a boat. That might have been a tall tale. No pike bothered my children or me during our daily swims.

More prophecy: a Baltic island felt like the right place to read War With Russia. The novel by General Richard Shirreff, who at the time was Nato’s deputy supreme allied commander for Europe, was written after Russia invaded and annexed Crimea in 2014. Set in the near future, it is about a judo-loving president in the Kremlin who orders his men into Latvia and provokes a war with Nato. Shirreff’s imagined conflict has remarkable similarities with the devastating reality in Ukraine this year. The important difference in real life is that Putin has not (yet) sent troops into a Nato country.

As I wallowed, hippo-like, in the mirror-smooth warmth of the Baltic, envying the Swedes’ red wooden houses, it was impossible to forget that the waters stretched on past Finland, like Sweden a new candidate for Nato, and on to St Petersburg. I went to the beaches of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia in 1990 and 1991 as the countries removed themselves from the USSR; I was in Riga on the night that the Latvians declared independence. Ever since the first freezing and frightening weeks of the war in Ukraine, I’ve thought about the hope most of us felt after the Cold War. Most is the key word. Putin and his cohorts saw a disaster. This year the old hopes are vivid again because they have gone. Old fears of being left in a pile of radioactive dust have returned.

At the other end of the Baltic, I hear that the Latvians have demolished one of the last Soviet legacies: the 80-metre-high obelisk that commemorated the Red Army’s victory over Nazi Germany. One in three Latvians speaks Russian as a first language. They’re under pressure to prove their loyalty to the Latvian state, according to my BBC Russian Service colleagues there.

After more than 30 years of independence, it took Putin’s war in Ukraine to make the Latvian government finally topple the obelisk. Putin has sanctified the memory of what Russia calls the Great Patriotic War. The splashdown of the gigantic memorial into a pond in Victory Park should have been another nail in his heart. Instead, it might just have been another useful way for the Kremlin to remind Russians that they are surrounded by enemies.

Fotografiska, the photography museum overlooking the sea in Stockholm, had two major exhibitions running this summer. One was a retrospective of the work of Terry O’Neill, who photographed celebrities from the 1960s to the 2000s. My favourite O’Neill image was of Frank Sinatra, his minders and his ­stand-in walking through a perfect slice of 1968, past sunbathers along a boardwalk in Miami Beach during the filming of Lady in Cement. Sinatra’s star power is only enhanced now the film has been colourised. O’Neill’s recorded voice (from Desert Island Discs) recalls that the film companies briefed him to make their stars look as good as possible.

The other exhibition showcased Andy Warhol, who wanted to show celebrities as ordinary people in places and postures you wouldn’t expect. Photobooth strips and Polaroids bump along with landscapes stitched together by a sewing machine, and studies of private parts. Warhol photographed some of the stars who could have been in front of O’Neill’s lens, as well as an extraordinary cross-section of artists, collaborators and boyfriends the film companies would never have let on set.

Mid-century America was shaken by racial violence and political assassination. In southeast Asia, America’s war with communism killed two million Vietnamese and more than 50,000 US service men and women. But western economies, at least, were expanding. The Cold War was dangerous, but we got through it. After spending months in Ukraine, I see O’Neill and Warhol’s work as reflecting a more optimistic age. They created a vision of years that were challenging, but much more navigable than our own stormy times.