“A Convenient Stick With Which to Beat the West”: Northern Ireland Under Soviet Eyes
A 1981 ‘Pravda’ article discusses the H-Block hunger strikes
The Northern Irish Troubles present a complex narrative to historians. The histories of all sides in the conflict are resplendent with injustices and obfuscations. Yet for contemporary correspondents of anti-Western states, from Tehran to Moscow, the story was tragically simple: a minority fighting for their freedom against the cruel machinations of an imperialist oppressor. As an Irish diplomat in Moscow wrote in 1982, Northern Ireland presented Moscow with a “convenient stick with which to beat the West.” In 1970 Yuri Ustimenko, the USSR’s first correspondent in Ireland, arrived in Dublin. The eccentric journalist presented a foreboding spectre to British authorities. As the spearhead of a Soviet presence in Ireland, Ustimenko represented to John Peck, the British ambassador in Dublin, the first signs of an inevitable Soviet urge to ‘give events in Northern Ireland a stir.’ Nevertheless, security suspicions were complicated by Ustimenko’s peculiar habits. The journalist had an erratic set of interests and hobbies not normally associated with KGB sleuths. In one striking document from the British National archives, Ustimenko files a request with the British embassy inDublin to receive information about a series of topics including Celtic archeology and the “distribution of public houses in rural Ireland.” The ambassador was confounded: what precisely was Ustimenko up to? Whatever Ustimenko’s peculiarities demonstrated, both Whitehall and Dublin had few anxieties about the reporter, so long as he remained within the South of Ireland.
While Ustimenko concerned himself with his own peculiar fascinations in the Republic of Ireland, it did not take long before Soviet correspondents in the United Kingdom seized on the propagandistic opportunity that events in Northern Ireland offered. By far the largest folder on Irish-Soviet relations held in the Irish National Archives is that entitled “Soviet Press Coverage of Northern Ireland” . The anti-Western press can often function as a useful source for historians, providing a perspective entrenched in ideological biases yet occasionally piercingly accurate. Soviet perspectives on Northern Ireland however displayed a distinct lack of nuance. Equivalences were drawn with Western atrocities elsewhere in the world. In 1972 the Soviet press drew an analogue between Bloody Sunday and the My Lai massacre. Furthermore, ritual condemnations of British army and Loyalist paramilitary violence often occluded any mention of attacks conducted by Irish republicans. In December of 1981 Pravda concluded an article noting “Official London fears most of all a united workers front – protestants and Catholics in a struggle against the colonial order established by London in Ulster.” Marxist-Leninist dialectics clearly provided the Soviet populace with a teleological compass to navigate the complexities of the Troubles. As Stephen White notes, religious dimensions to the conflict were downplayed in Soviet coverage and depicted as ‘a smoke screen that obscured from sight the deep cleavage between the propertied classes and the mass of the population that they exploited.’
Soviet reporting on Northern Ireland also had an opportunistic streak. Increases in the volume of Soviet commentary on the Troubles rarely corresponded to an increased intensity of violence. Rather, as Chris Skillen observes, Soviet polemics against the British presence in the province were stepped up precisely when the West chose to parade Soviet iniquities before the international press. Despite the Official IRA aligning itself with the Soviet Union, the USSR simply could not resist press comment when the OIRA’s Provisional nemeses placed their struggles on the world stage. Coverage of the PIRA’s 1981 Hunger Strikes, which occurred alongside a European conference on Soviet human rights violations in Madrid, saturated Soviet newspapers. An Irish diplomat in Moscow reported to the Anglo-Irish desk in late 1981 that “the H-Block campaign and particularly the hunger-strikes have been a godsend to the USSR.” Soviet opportunism in this regard sometimes bordered on the comical. For example, during Margaret Thatcher’s 1987 trip to the USSR the Soviet press decided it was time to arbitrarily commemorate the 6th anniversary of the Hunger Strikes. Thatcher probably lacked the Cyrillic knowledge required to discern the pointed press reports glaring at her from every Moscow news-stand, so what exactly were the implications of these reports outside of the USSR?
Soviet public opinion, quite frankly, mattered very little to successive Irish governments. Yet the Soviet’s dogged use of Northern Ireland as a rebuttal to Western criticisms did cause some inconvenience. At a 1977 speech at the US National Press Club, Irish foreign minister Garret Fitzgerald faced up to the fact that the Soviet Union was misusing Irish criticisms of British human rights abuses “in order to countercharge Western countries with not respecting human rights.” In Soviet addresses to the United Nations, Northern Ireland made occasional appearances. Gradually, however, the dirge of Soviet commentary on the Troubles became less vocal. As the 1980s progressed, Cold War tensions cooled and the USSR slowly began to see the West as a vessel for aid. Yet perhaps there is a more dynamic reason for a change in the Soviet tenor on Northern Ireland. With the disintegration of the USSR, ethno-nationalist conflicts sprung up in peripheral regions of the expansive empire. Could a Soviet worker reading a report of a Belfast Catholic facing down an armored car see a similarity with the struggle of a Chechen separatist? A Politburo document detailing a 1989 meeting between Gorbachev and Thatcher provides some insight:
With Northern Ireland, she has a real headache. I, of course, manoeuvred her from their politics there to our position. She understood it and said to me, “I know that you also have a headache about the future of the USSR”
These mutual ‘headaches’ are telling. Indeed, a prominent Soviet journalist covering Northern Ireland was recalled to Moscow months after this conversation and assigned to zones of intercommunal conflict in the far reaches of the USSR. There the journalist “discovered” that the tactics he had once lauded as being those of the freedom fighter were now unequivocally those of the terrorist. No one incident better surmises the essence of propaganda implicit in the Soviet perspective of the Northern Irish troubles.
One thread remains unexamined – what precisely was the erratic journalist Yuri Ustimenko doing with his knowledge of Celtic archeology and rural pubs? In 1980 the Irish Times came into the possession of a glowing guidebook of Ireland authored by Ustimenko entitled “Hello, Ireland!” Containing many digressions on the pictorial life in Ireland, the work concluded with the line “one cannot help but be overcome by the warmth and generosity of the Irish people.” Much like the narrative of Irish 20th century history itself, burdened by the tropes of violence and squalor, the Soviet press coverage of this patch of Western Europe did occasionally offer a glimmer of hope.