Do you suffer from Russian anxiety? Then you are not alone. In 2020, the Clingendael research institute presented 23,000 Dutch people with the statement: “Russia is a threat to the security of Europe.” 35 percent agreed, 38 percent were neutral or did not know and 27 percent experienced no threat.
Clingendael concluded that there is therefore a risk of increasing political polarization of the Dutch Russia debate.
With his recently released book Russian fear wears Tony van der Meulen, columnist and ex-editor-in-chief of the Brabants Dagblad, contributes significantly to this debate. He’s a baby boomer at 75, just like me, but he has a much more detailed picture of his childhood than I do. This enabled him to write this book, in which he convincingly links memories of his Catholic youth in the 1950s in Joure, Friesland, to the political events of that period.
The focus is on the 1956 invasion of Hungary by the Russians. Van der Meulen writes: „You only have to say to my contemporaries from just after the war ‘Budapest is burning’ and the childhood memories are released. With the benchmark: the radio on that Sunday morning.”
That’s right, although one memory mainly comes to my mind. Via the railway station in my hometown Venlo, a full train with fleeing Hungarians passed from Germany on November 14, 1956. School classes, including mine, had gathered to wave to the Hungarians, national anthems were played, people cried and stormed the train to distribute food and cigarettes. As a refugee in the Netherlands you could still break a pot – Geert Wilders, also from Venlo, had yet to be born (in 1963).
You would think that by 1956 the Russians would have lost their credit for good with the baby boomer generation, but the reality is more complicated. In 1981 and 1983, in Amsterdam and The Hague respectively, hundreds of thousands of people demonstrated against the deployment of new nuclear weapons in the Netherlands in response to the SS20, the new Russian medium-range missiles.
The left especially the Netherlands was against that placement, Tony van der Meulen and I too. No matter how critical we were of the Soviet Union, Russia’s fear was apparently not yet all-consuming.
In retrospect, that was naive. We should have listened more closely to some people who were already skeptical about unilateral gun restrictions at the time. In the eighties Van der Meulen interviewed some of them.
“Are you afraid of the Russians?” Van der Meulen asks KVP politician Marga Klompé. “Well no,” she says, “but let’s not fool each other: their system is based on world hegemony.” Karel van ‘t Reve: „Well, what do you call scared? I do not rule out the possibility of a Russian occupation of Western Europe.” And commentator Henk Neuman: “The matter becomes really critical if we let go of the deterrence for fear of nuclear weapons.”
More than twenty years of Putin, including the plane crash with MH17, have brought the Russian fear back almost to the level of the fifties, except – irony – in the right-wing circles around Wilders and Baudet. Well, Russian fear… as far as I’m concerned, I prefer to speak of Russian suspicion.
A version of this article also appeared in NRC in the morning of October 15, 2021