As most of you know now, I wrote my novel No Lemons in Moscow inspired by a literary tour of Russia in 1990. When I returned there in 2016 we were shown around St Petersburg (as it now was) by a guide called Sergei. He was a gregarious man and told us much about the city and about Russia. I asked him whether he was able to speak about anything he wanted to say now and he replied “Oh yes, absolutely,” then paused and said “but my mother worries about me saying too much. She and her generation have fear in the blood.” This was a chilling thought, imagining how frightening it must be not to be able to speak up for one’s beliefs or opinions without the threat that the State or the police would overhear you and arrest you.
My second thought was wow, Fear in the Blood is a great title for a novel, although I had no intention at that time to write one. And so when I started to write the book in 2020, its original title was Fear in the Blood, as I felt it encapsulated how anxious one would feel on a daily basis and how limiting it would be on one’s actions and conversations to sense that everything you did was being observed and judged. It could lead your nervous system to becoming attuned to threat to the extent that you were never truly free to be an individual. Individual thought and creativity were, after all, barred under communism, and writers, poets, artists and academics had been sent to gulags for daring to express original thought.
As to the title, it was only when I met up with Ian Drury, a literary agent at the Winchester Writers’ Festival, that he pointed out that it could lead potential readers to believe that the book was a thriller, with blood and bodies on the carpet, which it isn’t. And so, with the help of Adrienne Dines, with whom I worked to shape my story, I changed the title to No Lemons in Moscow because, as I recorded in my diary at the time, there were no lemons in Moscow or Leningrad in 1990.
Thinking back over this yesterday I suddenly realised that we may well be in danger of having our own fear-in-the-blood moment here in the West. Here, the very place that thought it had learnt so many lessons from the consequences of the terrible groupthink that overtook Nazi Germany, followed not so long afterwards by the revelations of what living under communism was really like when the wall went down in Germany and bit by bit Eastern Europe was released to freedom. During this period we came to realize how limited people’s lives had been, unable to speak their minds, unable to travel or learn from others beyond their borders. But of course our young were not alive to witness this and so, when I read that the Generation Zs wish for ‘strong leadership’ I realize they know not what they ask for. They have not seen or heard the stories we have heard from history, the way strong leaders generally impoverish their people for their own gain, how creativity is stifled, how we all end up having to think the same.
I have just finished reading Konstantin Kisin’s excellent book An Immigrant’s Love Letter to the West. He is a Russian who came over to the UK and became first a stand-up comic but was horrified when he was asked at the Edinburgh Festival to sign a contract to say that he would not offend anyone and would be kind and sensitive to everyone in his audience. He could hardly believe he was standing on UK soil not Russian soil, being asked to sign this when, of course, comedy pushes the boundaries and what offends one person will not offend another and inevitably you can’t be kind to everyone because if you are kind to one person another may suffer. And so he refused and he has written his book telling us loudly to wake up to what is happening to us here in the West, to how forces we may not be able to understand are busy undermining our institutions, our social cohesion and wishing to disempower us for their own ends.
He and others are pointing out, as I have been doing in my blogs in my own small way, that we are in danger of losing all that we have built up over the last few decades. There are several articles this week, in fact, pointing out that the DEI policies of Diversity Equality and Inclusion are actually resulting in the opposite. That instead of welcoming diversity of opinion and perception, academic institutions and corporations are limiting what people can say, resulting in utter conformity of thought in a truly Orwellian way. Students in universities and pupils in schools are reporting that they feel nervous of expressing an opinion in case it does not conform to current trends, whether on gender, race, empires, the Middle East, etc. Certainly, I know people of my own generation and younger who feel they are being judged for questioning this Orwellian Newspeak that is being mirrored on the mainstream media as much as in the classroom, where teachers have been sacked for expressing a viewpoint. I actually wrote a blog about it some time ago, wondering whether we would all be locked up by our grandchildren for expressing thoughts that seem perfectly normal and legitimate to us but outrage them!
The world is being turned into the concept of the oppressed and the oppressor and yet, as I have said before, this omits to acknowledge how powerful a position it is to be the oppressed, the victim, and throw blame and shame all around you. That is not to say that of course terrible things have not been done in the past and continue to be done all around the world but Konstantin Kisin’s point, reiterated by many others recently, is that people living in the West, whatever their colour or creed, are living in better conditions than any other human generation before them and we need to appreciate this and hold on to the quality of life that we have built up. Are there problems? Of course, and we can continue to learn and develop but if we can’t even see what is in front of us and how fortunate we are, then we shall never be able to preserve the best of what we have created.
So here comes 2024 and may this please be the year we move beyond this limiting groupthink and speak up for freedom of expression, for respectful debate where each of us can stay in the room with someone who has a different opinion to ours and feel perfectly safe to listen and learn from them instead of blocking our ears to opposition. May this be the year where we stop the hypocrisy of promoting diversity when actions, laws and policies denote the opposite. May it be the year when we recall recent history and the moments when we have shouted “never again!”.
Finally, may we recall the story of the Emperor’s New Clothes and call out those who are denying scientific or biological facts. If people truly want tolerance of many different ways of life then may they too allow for this because tolerance or inclusion or whatever you want to call it is not a one-way street. It’s give and take. You can’t say you want diversity but only if everyone thinks the same way as you. That is a contradiction in terms. Let’s please wake up to this.
Oh, and if you haven’t yet read my book you can buy it here!