Robin Ashenden

Robin Ashenden is founder and ex-editor of the Central and Eastern European London Review. He is currently writing a novel about Solzhenitsyn, Khrushchev’s Thaw and the Hungarian Uprising.

How to make excuses and infuriate people

It started as a fairly pleasant train journey. A woman with a half-shaved head and multiple tattoos got on pulling a French bulldog on a lead. We got to talking about dogs, and breeds, and whether Staffordshire Bull Terriers had an unearned bad reputation, and about her cats too, and was she a dog or

A tribute to the lost art of letter writing

There are many good reasons, we’re constantly told, for millennials and Generation Z to resent their elders. What they can barely imagine, we took for granted: affordable housing, state-paid education, free dentistry and slow, misspent youths on unemployment benefit. But there is another justification for their envy, one that is hardly ever mentioned: we wrote

What Brits don’t understand about life in Russia

When I tell people in England I’ve just returned from several years abroad and they find out the country was Russia, it is a real conversation stopper. Their minds short-circuit, they seem to gulp in front of you. What question do they ask next? Do they mention the war? Talk about Tolstoy? ‘Ah… Interesting,’ one

The joys of provincial repertory theatre    

Provincial repertory theatre, in which a semi-permanent company of actors performed a varied diet of plays for their community, week-in, week-out, has all but died out in Britain. Local theatres have become venues for visiting productions, one-off events and numerous outreach schemes, but the old continuity – a kind of magic – has gone. I

Igor Girkin’s arrest was a long time coming

With the reported arrest on Friday of Igor Girkin (aka ‘Strelkov’ or ‘Igor the Terrible’) the career of one of the Russia-Ukraine war’s most infamous, larger-than-life characters may finally have hit a dead end. Girkin, the career-killer with the sensitive face and soulful eyes, has played numerous parts in his time: activist, blogger, FSB colonel,

Rostov returns to reality after Wagner’s botched coup

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year, it always seemed likely that the war would come back to Rostov-on-Don, the city which until then had been my home. Rostov isn’t just close to the border but feels it. Most of my university students were from the Donetsk and Lugansk, refugees from the 2014-2022 war. It’s

Rostov-on-Don: scenes from an occupation

The main thoroughfare of Rostov-on-Don is today crawling with military vehicles and masked soldiers carrying automatics, and the entrance to that circus – which backs onto the Rostov military headquarters – is blocked aggressively by a tank. The city is now controlled by the Wagner Group, Yevgeny Prigozhin’s private army out on the rampage and

How does the Russian public view the invasion of Ukraine?

‘It’s too soon,’ said an anti-war Russian friend about the crop of books which have been emerging since late last year on Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Perhaps he is right. Yet, mindful of Lenin’s maxim that ‘there are weeks when decades happen’, many may feel the period since February last year to have been one

The Kakhovka dam and the cheapness of western rhetoric

Following the destruction of the Nova Kakhovka dam in Ukraine, politicians in the West have followed the familiar dance of condemnation. ‘If it’s intentional,’ said PM Rishi Sunak, it would be ‘the largest attack on civilian infrastructure in Ukraine since the start of the war’ and represent ‘new lows’ in Russian aggression. France’s President Macron

The haunting words of Russia’s jailed Putin opponents

How many memorable quotes has the Russia-Ukraine war produced so far? Along with Snake Island’s defiant ‘F*** you Russian warship’, we’ve had president Zelensky’s refusal to leave Kyiv at the beginning of the war with the words: ‘I need ammunition, not a ride.’ We also have his ‘Bravery takes you through the most unimaginable hardships

Should we ignore Putin’s criticism of the West?

Not much happens in Russian families without the say so of the babushka. Russia’s high divorce-rate, and a situation where fathers are often absent and the mother out at work, makes it normal for grandmothers – who often hold the family purse-strings – to raise children themselves. This doesn’t, of course, mean that the younger

The barbarity of Russia’s white phosphorus attack on Bakhmut

There is something oddly Christmassy about the scene: a night-time city bathed, festooned in twinkling white lights, the smoke around them almost luminous. A shower of brilliant sparks falls calmly from the air, lighting up the dark sky – the town below seeming to celebrate something, over and over, with a spectacular firework display: flares,

The Internet Archive’s troubles are bad news for book lovers

The Internet Archive (, a San Francisco-based virtual lending library, is one of the quiet wonders of the modern world. A digital collection of seven million books and nearly 15 million audio-recordings, it was ambitiously intended by its founder Brewster Kahle – a member of the internet ‘Hall of Fame’ – to be a kind of

The pipes are calling: confessions of a pipe-smoker

This morning, like so many other mornings, I spent at least half an hour, over coffee, staring at online pictures of pipes. This does not make me an aspiring plumber, or someone with a fetish for u-bends or draining units. I’m talking about briar pipes, tobacco pipes: for though I know I should quit the

Who is torching Russia’s military recruitment centres?

The last twelve months or so in the post-Soviet sphere have been, among other things, the year of the Molotov Cocktail. Who can forget those clips, amidst the outbreak of war last February, of Ukrainian women calmly packaging up bottles with petrol, rags and grated polystyrene, as though at a local sewing bee? Or of

Why was the West so slow to see Putin’s true colours?

Cast your mind back just over a decade, to a charity benefit gig in St. Petersburg in 2010. Sharon Stone, Kevin Costner, Gerard Depardieu, Vincent Cassel, Goldie Hawn and Monica Belluci are in the audience. But the star-turn is performed by a man from another branch of entertainment altogether (‘show-business for ugly people’) who in