Red alert

8 Nov

This correction isn’t wrong, as far as it goes. But I’m not sure it’s right either.

Screen Shot 2014-11-03 at 13.52.48

For sure, Antonov, based in Kiev, is domiciled in and owned by what is now the independent state of Ukraine. But the famous company was not exactly a pre-Communist symbol of national aviation. It was founded after the war as Soviet Research and Design Bureau No 153 in Siberia, under a Russian, before moving to Ukraine in the 1950s.  And the An-26 – Nato reporting name “Curl” – is a proper Cold War relic too: the first one flew in 1969; the last one was built in the year Gorbachev came to power. They were conceived at the height of Soviet influence, by a Kremlin-sponsored constructor operating in a highly centralised union that extended across 15 states. Is it historically meaningful to insist that they were “Ukrainian-made”? Or has the strife that has split the countries today created a retrospective sensitivity to a distinction that was much murkier then than it is now?*

Or perhaps the objection is simply related  to the continued use of “Russia” as a metonym for “Soviet”. Certainly, it’s hard to think now, amid the complexity of national tensions in the region, that the word “Russia” used to be taken to include Ukraine, Georgia and the Baltic states at a stroke. But it did, ubiquitously: during coverage of the Cuban missile crisis; in this piece written in 2007 by Sergei Khrushchev, son of Nikita; and in this one on Soviet design written earlier this year, to take just three examples from the Guardian itself. In each case, “Russia” appears in the headline for “USSR”; in the latter two, commenters regularly adopt the same usage below the line.

So it’s not quite clear why this correction has suddenly come up. Not, as I say, that the readers’ editor is wrong. The meaning and resonance of “Russia” is changing, and the best solution, here and probably every time this issue comes up, is to say “Soviet-made”. Perhaps it’s timely: stories about the eastern bloc will be high up the news list this weekend as we commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Berlin Wall coming down.

But when there’s an old Cold War turboprop droning into British airspace over Kent and RAF fighters going supersonic to intercept it, it takes you straight back to 1981. No wonder the writer reached for the comforting Iron Curtain terminology that people of my age grew up with. Enemies are like jokes: the old ones are the best.

 

An Antonov An-26 of the Hungarian air force. Photograph: Adrian Pingstone

An Antonov An-26 of the Hungarian air force. Photograph: Adrian Pingstone via Wikipedia

 

* And, if enforced, would this rule also applies to other eastern bloc products? Trabants are the vivid automotive symbol of the differences on the eastern side of the Berlin Wall; would they now be described as “German-made” because the DDR no longer exists? 

 

 

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4 Responses to “Red alert”

  1. the ridger November 9, 2014 at 8:22 am #

    Part of the problem may be that Antonov still exists as a Ukrainian firm. Stopping saying “Russia” when “USSR” is what was meant is probably a good habit to get into.

    • edlatham November 9, 2014 at 11:43 am #

      Agreed! A Soviet plane, made in Kiev, operated by a Latvian cargo operator  – it was a nomenclatural mishap waiting to happen, really

  2. Picky November 9, 2014 at 4:31 pm #

    It can happen to us all. Thanks be we don’t yet have to say “English airspace” or “REAF fighters”.

    • edlatham November 9, 2014 at 5:16 pm #

      Indeed! It’s hard enough keeping track of who’s in charge of what parts of the NHS.

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