Why I wrote ‘Pravda Ha Ha’

Thirty years have passed since I made my original ‘Stalin’s Nose’ journey from Moscow to Berlin, at the dawn of a new age. In 1989 Eastern Europe had risen up against its Red Army occupiers and sent them packing. The fall of the Wall was followed by the collapse of the Soviet Union. Seventy years of totalitarianism ended almost overnight and Europeans embraced the idea of a borderless continent, believing that they had changed the world.

In those euphoric days I explored lands that were – for most Westerners – the forgotten half of Europe. In East Germany, Poland, Hungary, Romania and Russia, I met people who hadn’t spoken to a foreigner in decades, who opened their hearts and told me stories of lost years, ruined lives and secret policemen. In Czechoslovakia, I heard Václav Havel — the imprisoned playwright who’d become president – herald the birth of ‘a Europe in which no one more powerful will be able to suppress anyone less powerful, in which it will no longer be possible to settle disputes by force.’ I placed my faith in the healing power of openness, compassion and reconciliation.

How could it have been otherwise? My generation had grown up in the shadow of the Second World War, haunted by the ghosts of its sixty million dead. We’d come of age during the Cold War, with half a continent imprisoned behind a wall. Our response was to value individual liberty above tribalism. We couldn’t have borne the loss of more fathers and uncles, to see our brothers die in the name of the old demons. So we celebrated when former adversaries drew back the Iron Curtain. We applauded as East and West Germans danced together in no-man’s-land. Some of us even dared to imagine the end of the nation state.

Now I’ve retraced my journey to try to understand what went wrong. Why – after liberating themselves from Soviet tyranny – have Russians surrendered their freedom for Dictatorship 2.0? Why – after that promising dawn – has the Kremlin redoubled its efforts to undermine European unity? And how could so many in the West have fallen for the populists’ lies and spin, dragging democracy to this precarious present moment?

There’s also a personal reason for my journey. Thirty years ago I travelled with the certainty of a young man, living by certain principles, prizing certain values. Over the decades those certainties — those ethics – have sustained me, and I’ve continued to live by them as much as possible. But now tolerance, empathy and even the promise of the future are under attack. At the start of another new age, I have to find a way to keep faith in them, despite the rise of chauvinism and xenophobia, the echo of marching boots, the exploitation of the dispossessed, and the shadow of Brexit. I need to understand why Europe’s unspeakable past can’t be kept at bay.