Tag Archives: British Empire

What a Soviet sleeper agent told me about the Russians invading countries…

Once upon a time, in the 1990s, I was going to write the ‘autobiography’ of an Italian man who was a ‘sleeper agent’ for the USSR. We chatted in Ashkabad, London, Pantelleria, Rome and various other Italian cities.

The ‘autobiography’ fell through because of various complicated reasons. Now he is dead. Here is an extract from what he told me… Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose…


In December 1979, the Russians invaded Afghanistan and I was on the Russian/Afghan border.

The attack on Afghanistan was totally stupid. No reason for it. And, in Afghanistan, the Russians did something much worse than the Americans ever did in Vietnam. The Americans committed their My Lai massacres, but they were not part of an official policy; with the Russians, it was a planned military strategy. 

I was told this story by a Ukrainian friend….

He spoke the local Afghan languages fluently and was employed by the Soviet government as an agent in Afghanistan just before and during their war there. My friend told me the Soviets extensively employed Central Asians and Caucasian Muslims – mainly Azerbaijanis, Uzbeks and Turkmen – whom they equipped with sophisticated personal weapons and sent into Afghanistan to act as killing squads, acting freely and independent of the Soviet and Afghan government armies. They belonged to the worst segments of Soviet society and one of the first things they did was to play a double game, make contact with the Afghan rebels and sell them weapons. Later, they became bandits inside Afghanistan, which is what they had been in their home countries.

My friend was once travelling from Herat in north west Afghanistan across the border to the town of Mary in Turkmenistan and he was robbed by one of these bands. They took his Kalashnikovs and jeep and everything else and he had to walk most of the way.

I was occasionally inside Afghanistan myself during the war and what I saw was complete anarchy. Being a closed Soviet war, there was none of the press cover, dialectics and moral niceties of the American war in Vietnam. It was simply a criminal action run by the criminals who by now ran the Soviet Union and they were fighting utter barbarians – The Afghans are nothing less than that.

We could go into complicated sociological analysis, but we wouldn’t get very far. The problem with true colonial wars is that your enemies really are savages and it is better not to be caught because they will cut you to pieces. When the Italians were famously defeated by the Ethiopians at Adwa in 1896, all 2,000 Italian prisoners were sent back castrated. In Afghanistan, some Russians were skinned alive.

The fact is that, in Afghanistan, everybody killed each other just for the sheer excitement of it and neither side was fighting for any principle. You could buy anything and everything across the border in Pakistan because the Russian soldiers were prepared to sell anything. Both the Russians in Afghanistan and the Americans in Vietnam lost their war and one reason is that they were racist. Every army, for psychological reasons, has to look on the enemy as inferiors. But the Americans in Vietnam and the Russians in Afghanistan looked on their own local allies as inferiors; that is a recipe for total disaster.

As far as I understand it, the South Vietnamese Army was not a rotten, corrupt mess. It started out being efficient and had well-motivated, committed soldiers; many were massacred because of their commitment after the North Vietnamese won. But the Americans showed contempt for their South Vietnamese allies just as the Russians despised their Afghan allies – as they did all Central Asians. You cannot win if you despise your own side.

An imperial power can win a war in a Third World country provided its immense economic and military resources are channelled towards at least one section of the population and you treat them as your equals. If you don’t, you will lose. When the British fought an open war against guerrilla insurgents in Malaya – and their secret war in Oman 1967-1975 – they never underestimated their allies. They never despised the local population and they succeeded because they used their energy very selectively by reinforcing segments of the country which would eventually unify the state. 

Historically, the British seldom underestimated the people they conquered, but they stayed very aloof. In India, they kept themselves apart from the Indians, they socialised in their own clubs and took elite, controlling jobs for themselves. The Russians, on the other hand, sent settlers into all their colonies and they permeated every layer of society doing even menial jobs. When the time came to leave India, the British could virtually walk to the boats and leave en masse; very few stayed and most of those were in good consultancy and supervisory roles. The Russians ended up poor, isolated from their homeland, trapped into staying doing menial jobs, being mechanics and driving taxis in their former colonies.

Yet people who lived under the British Empire tended not to dislike the Brits. Whereas people who lived under Soviet domination did hate the Russians. I don’t know the reason for that, but perhaps it was because the Russians, like the Turks of the Ottoman Empire before them, were not so visibly superior to the peoples they conquered. The British – although they did not rub the conquered people’s noses in it – had a far more visible superiority to the nations they conquered – in technology, finance, social structure and military power. It was, perhaps, more acceptable to be ruled by the British than by the less-wealthy and less-organised Russians or Turks. The Russians are also disliked in their former colonies because they were very violent towards the locals.

The Americans failed in Vietnam despite their immense military power because they had a superiority complex and, ironically, the direct result was that they lost badly to a more lightly equipped guerrilla army. The Russians were beaten out of Afghanistan for much the same reason and in much the same way and now the fundamentalist Taliban have taken over, backed by the appalling Pakistan government. The end result of both wars was the worst of all worlds for the defeated Russians and the defeated Americans.

The Americans should have learned their most basic lesson in World War Two at Monte Cassino, where other countries fought on their behalf. They are a great industrial nation and, so long as they use their factories, workers and capital, they can win any war. But they must never get involved in fighting an actual war themselves. They were not at Monte Cassino because they got themselves bogged down fighting at Anzio.

Hollywood provides perfectly suitable substitutes for Americans who want to fight wars but with none of the attendant dangers you encounter in real ones. In 1975, with the disaster of Vietnam upon them, the Americans partly learned this lesson and soon afterwards combined their two great strengths. Having got out of the War, they elected a Hollywood actor (Ronald Reagan) as President and then, by running a military and industrial race and evoking the name of a movie, Star Wars, they rapidly defeated the Russians.

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Yesterday I met a man from Atlantis who speaks Japanese

For ages, I have thought there was mileage in a Real People chat show on TV – if you go to any bus queue in any town in Britain and choose any person at random then, with the right questions, that person will reveal the most extraordinary life story.

Life truly is stranger than fiction. Novels are very often watered-down versions of the truth and they have been watered-down simply to make them believable.

I was reminded of this when I was passing through the food department of Selfridges in Oxford Street yesterday and I was offered a free tea sample by a Greek-Bulgarian sales specialist working for the East India Company which was bought by an Indian entrepreneur in 2005 and which opened a shop in London’s West End last year. It turned out the tea-offerer was from the island of Santorini (claimed by some to be the origin of the legend of Atlantis). He told me he spoke six languages including Japanese and Scots Gaelic – which he then proceeded to do.

Speak Gaelic.

It is a tad odd to have a Greek-Bulgarian from Atlantis who works for the East India Company (given its charter by Queen Elizabeth I in 1600) speak Gaelic to you when you are passing through the food department of Selfridges department store.

To surprise me, it would have been enough for him, as a Greek-Bulgarian, just to work for the fabled East India Company because I hadn’t realised it had been re-born.

While being one of the most successful commercial companies ever to exist –  at its height, the company allegedly generated half of world trade and it established Singapore and Hong Kong as trading centres – it also effectively ruled India with its own army on behalf of the British government 1757-1858 and virtually built the British Empire by monopolising the Opium Trade – it was responsible both for the Opium Wars and the Indian Mutiny!

That Indian entrepreneur – Sanjiv Mehta – who bought the name in 2005 and re-started the company last year is a near genius. People are buying recognisable brand names for millions of pounds/dollars all over the world and the East India Company must be one of the most famous names worldwide – it has been around for 411 years – though I’m not sure trade with China will be easy!

So it would have been enough for the tea-offerer, as a Greek-Bulgarian, just to work for the fabled East India Company but, good heavens – perhaps you had to be there – a Greek-Bulgarian who works for the East India Company, comes from the original Atlantis and speaks Gaelic! What are the odds of that combination happening? If you wrote a novel with a character like that in it, people would laugh at how stupid you were for including such a literally incredible character…

What price a Real People chat show?

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“Killer Bitch”, a UK crime crisis and “Citizen Kane”

I was talking to one of the Killer Bitch cast yesterday and (as one who knows) he came out with the legendary line: “I’ve got no money at the moment and xxxx xxxxxxx ain’t got no money either. The bottom’s fallen out of Crime.”

Has Britain fallen this low? Sir Francis Drake made England great by robbing Spanish ships of their gold and the East India Company built Queen Victoria’s glorious British Empire on the heroin trade.

We live in difficult economic times. Or do we? Opinion varies.

A recent report said organised crime caused “an estimated £30 billion a year in social and economic harm” to the UK. I’m not quite sure what “harm” means in this context. Presumably it means there is a £30 billion black economy underpinning the ‘legitimate’ economy. But it’s all guestimates on guestimates. A recent report by the Association of Chief Police Officers claimed the UK underworld economy is now worth around £40 billion a year.

I’m more concerned that fake DVD production is now reckoned to be worth £300 million in the UK. I had vaguely hoped Killer Bitch might be fairly immune to this because I had hoped that the people most likely to rip us off were actually involved in the movie in some way – and therefore highly unlikely to rip us off. I had, however, reckoned without the international nature of modern movie rip-off-dom.

Still, I am filled with hope for the future of Killer Bitch because Michael Deeley, the highly-regarded head of British Lion Films reportedly said, when his company released The Wicker Man in 1973, that it was the worst film he had ever seen. Years later, the equally highly-regarded Cinefantastique magazine devoted at entire issue to The Wicker Man, famously calling it “the Citizen Kane of horror films”, while the Los Angeles Times said it was: “Witty & scary! No one who sits through it to the end is likely to find it easy to shake off.”

Likewise, no-one who sits through Killer Bitch with an increasingly dropped jaw and open mouth is ever likely to forget it. Bland it is certainly not.

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