Posts Tagged ‘Russia’

On collective amnesia

May 5, 2022

I haven’t posted much lately because I haven’t been reading much. Escaping the current dire state of the world seems to elude me.

I realise, as I get older, that not everyone remembers as much or as far back as I do; it’s like that strange moment when you eventually realise that policemen are now younger than you, and it didn’t use to be like that. You have to be approaching seventy to have any memory of the Cuban missile crisis. Apart from Biden, no current world leaders hit that.

Back then, NATO and the Warsaw Pact faced each other; two hostile alliances. Now NATO faces Russia alone. Back then, the two alliances faced each other in Europe; there was a buffer of “friendly” states between Russia and the West. Now there isn’t. NATO has always had its missiles in the Russian back yard; the closest Russian missiles get to the US back yard is …. Alaska.

In 1961, world leaders were rather wiser than now, I think; they all knew what the horrors of the world war that had ended less than twenty years previously had been. Today all that is history, rather than memory, for our leaders. And I am horrified by their approach. Correct me if I’m wrong, but EU leaders seem mostly to be being calm and measured, even if they’re getting nowhere. Biden is past it, to be honest: should he have a driving licence at his age, let alone leadership of the “free” world? His public messaging is all over the place.

Britain continues to be a joke. Our PM gives away military secrets during a TV interview. His ministers say outrageous things about Putin publicly; they’re entitled to say what they like in private, but name-calling, doubting the man’s sanity, calling for him to be tried for war crimes when we aren’t at war with the Russians (yet) is barking. I wouldn’t trust the cabinet to run a ‘win a goldfish’ game at a funfair.

Putin, whose actions are evil, does look like a physically ill man. Some call his sanity into account: we don’t actually have access to information to verify that. But if that is the case, then threats and abuse are surely more likely to trigger a more outrageous and over the top response: we should be more measured in our response, without being any less determined.

Meanwhile, consider what is actually going on. Russia, left alone, might well have overwhelmed Ukraine in a matter of days. What they see is the West once again fighting a war by proxy: NATO is providing Ukraine with whatever it needs apart from troops on the ground and planes in the air. Ergo, to them, Russia is fighting NATO.

Here we are again with the Irishman’s reply to the lost traveller: “If I were you, I wouldn’t be starting from here.” Western triumphalism after the collapse of the Soviet Union got us here; a more measured approach to Russian needs for security would have been a good start. We are in a serious mess now.

I have no suggestions for a way out. I do know that war is not good for humans and other living things. And, while Putin threatens rapid, fiery destruction, let us not lose sight of the fact that American capitalism is busy, quietly boiling the frog: big business is burning up the planet in the quest for profit, and social media is constantly stirring the cauldron of hatred. Putin has a hell of a lot to answer for; our side does not have clean hands.

Some thoughts on the Ukrainian tragedy

April 14, 2022

Warning: politics ahead

The tragedy of the Ukrainian people is evident, without my needing to say more. Even if the war ended now, several million people have gone into exile, thousands are dead, large parts of the country have been comprehensively trashed, and the economy is in ruins.

Putin has accused Ukrainians of being Nazis. This accusation has been ignored, or simplistically dismissed in the West. And yet, for Putin, there is a kind of truth behind it, for during the Second World War (or the Great Patriotic War, as he would call it) some Ukrainians did collaborate with the Nazis, fight in their armies. Why? Because they naively saw them as liberators from what Stalin had inflicted on them in the previous decade, when millions of them were deliberately starved to death… Ukraine suffered grievously at the hands of both sides, just like another country not so far away.

And yet, there is also a tragedy for the Russians, whose economy is also being gradually wrecked, and whose international reputation cannot go any lower, we think. Their tragedy is having no tradition or experience of anything remotely resembling our flawed Western democracy: they have always – apart from a brief anarchic shakeout after the fall of the Soviet Union – been ruled by “strong” (read brutal) leaders, who have spouted words about the greatness of the nation, a delusion largely propagated by its enormous physical extent. This was true in Tsarist as well as Soviet days. Russian leaders have always done brutal very well, brutal to others, and total lack of care towards their own: what caused the Russian Revolution, after all? And, although again we in the West are inclined to overlook the Soviet effort in defeating Nazism, that effort was at the cost of regarding troops as cannon-fodder and the commanders being prepared to sacrifice however many were necessary to achieve their goal…

So the Russian approach is to wreck anywhere that opposes them: we have been reminded of Chechnya by our own commentators, and the same tactics seem to be being used in Ukraine at the moment. However, our generally ignorant, ill-informed and mouthy commentators manage to overlook the similar achievements of the West, which we are cleverer in allowing to be done by our proxies: look at the brutality being used in the Yemen, or in occupied Palestine, for example. Except it’s not the US or UK that’s doing it…allegedly.

I have been astonished by the drivel, the war-mongering nonsense written by journalists and spouted by Western politicians. If Putin does suffer from some kind of mental disorder, then it’s probably not very sensible to shout about it publicly: who knows what, in extremis, he might feel driven to try? Shut up Joe Biden (and others). And the amateur histrionics of our own government are laughable, dressing themselves up in sub-Churchill cloaks and pontificating from the sidelines as if what we thought or did made any difference. At least Macron has been trying. And then there’s all the financial aid and succour given to Putin and his kleptocrats in the past, which we are trying to sweep under the carpet.

OK so there are my opinions. And what should be done, you may well ask? I don’t know, to be perfectly honest. I do know that war is not good for ordinary people under any circumstances. And I do know that war is very profitable business for some. I do know that the West handled Russia very badly in the years after the collapse of communism, making lots of money but hardly fostering the kind of ‘democracy’ we’re usually so fond of talking about when we start our own wars (Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq… I could go on but you get the idea). We have no real understanding of what Russia means by security: their definition may be over the top but we ought to have listened.

Apparently there were moves years ago to rule out Ukrainian membership of NATO, to enshrine some kind of neutrality for that new nation. What happened? We are very good at hindsight over here. And what would we do if that weren’t enough for Putin? The sanctions we have imposed seem to me to be the bare minimum that we can do; if we didn’t let big business get in the way, we might have been far less dependent on Russian energy than we are currently.

To finish, I’ll repeat: war isn’t the answer, and nobody will get what they want; that’s evident already. More mature and longer-term thinking and reflection is needed; our businesses and our leaders are not up to the mark here. We blunder on from crisis to crisis while the planet burns: future generations will not thank us. Meanwhile the innocent suffer.

Peter Unwin: Baltic Approaches

November 26, 2016

61tgouatogl-_ac_us160_This was an excellent find in a secondhand bookshop. The author was an experienced British diplomat, and this shows through in the care of his writing, which succeeds in portraying the broad sweep of two thousand years of European history from the specifically Baltic perspective. I hadn’t fully comprehended the vastness of the region, which Unwin likens to a northern Mediterranean, a perspective that had never occurred to me, but which makes eminent good sense, particularly when you take a good map and rotate it a little… it will never be the same in my mind and imagination from now on.

The book was written just over twenty years ago, and it’s quit astonishing how much things have changed dramatically in such a short period of time: he’s writing shortly after German reunification, before the accession of Eastern European nations to the EU, and he’s not able to imagine their joining NATO, which of course has happened. He follows the coastline as it limits Germany, Denmark, Poland, the Kaliningrad exclave, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Russia, Finland, Sweden, Norway and back to Germany again.

He’s particularly thoughtful and sensitive about East Prussia, analysing its contribution both to Germany and to Europe, and expressing sadness at its disappearance, inevitable and understandable though this was. My one gripe with him would be his attitude to Poland and Lithuania which I felt lacked subtlety, especially in his glossing over the significance to Poland of Wilno, and not just in the inter-war years. Overall it is hard to fault his careful, detailed, balanced and sensitive exploration of the complexities of the ethnic minorities questions which have bedevilled the Eastern Baltic region and to some extent still do today. He’s good on national traits and characteristics, insofar as this is possible when one is inevitably generalising. His prognostications about the future, outlined in his concluding chapter, are, unsurprisingly, overoptimistic, dated, and about as far as it’s possible to be from where we have got to today…

But, a good little book that does the subject justice and which has some nice outline maps which help when you turn to the atlas for more detail.

A Westerner tries to understand Russian literature

September 19, 2015

As I’ve grown older, I’ve developed the impression that Russia is so very different from anywhere I know and am familiar with. I’ve read its history and followed the ins and outs of communist politics for many years, and I’ve read a good deal of Russian literature, and explored a lot of the country as an armchair traveller, through many and varied travel writers. And the place seems vast and unknowable, the more I read and try to understand.

Partly this must be through the sheer size of the country, which defies the imagination. Many years ago, I was given a Soviet road atlas of the USSR. It’s a very slim volume, with very small-scale maps, and vast areas simply do not feature, not because the Russians had anything to hide, just because there are no roads. And the places where a single road goes on for five or six hundred kilometres, through a handful of small towns and then just stops…well. And then there’s the Russian idea of government: autocracy is as far as it seems to get – one all-powerful ruler, whether a tsar or a First Secretary of the CPSU or V Putin. It seems that only such a ruler can hold such a country together. Democracy they don’t do. When you get to religion, that is also alien to us in the West. Yes, it’s Christianity, but they think that theirs is the one and only true and original version, rather like the Church of Rome does. Which came first? Their services are obscure, in a mediaeval language, last for hours…

And yet I have been more than curiously fascinated by all this for many years; I am drawn to the unusual, the strange and inexplicable. Dostoevsky is hard work: The Idiot – what is it all about? and The Brothers Karamazov? at least Crime and Punishment is approachable, and frightening in its convincing psychology and paranoia. But I still find the ending, redemption through love and forced labour, hard to take, sentimental. It is a brilliant novel, though. Tolstoy is actually likeable, perhaps the closest a Russian gets to ‘the Western novel’ for me, even though they are vast tomes that make even Dickens look manageable… War and Peace I really like (I’ve read it three times so far) and am in awe of its vast scope, the sweep of its action, and the author’s direction of and dialogue with his readers. I like the ideas of Anna Kerenina and find the character of Levin fascinating, sometimes comprehensible and sometimes alien. Just as in France, the nineteenth century novel reached great heights in Russia.

Those writers had to grapple with the censorship and controls of Tsarist times; writers in the twentieth century didn’t have it anywhere near as easy, as the Soviets wanted to control everything, and literature was meant to serve the party and the revolution. I gather it produced a great deal of grim hack-work known as Socialist Realism, which I am sure was (badly) translated into English but probably never reached many bookshops here.

And those times also produced great writers and great literature. Stalin’s purges and the Great Patriotic War provide the background for Vassily Grossman‘s epic Life and Fate, and Anatoly Rybakov‘s astonishing Arbat trilogy. Grossman’s work has finally begun to achieve some of the recognition it merits – it really is a twentieth-century War and Peace – but Rybakov attracted a brief, post-Soviet flurry of interest with his first volume and then no further notice, which is a great pity. One can read historical accounts of the madness and paranoia that was the 1930s in the Soviet Union, but you can only begin to feel what it could have been like through a cast of convincing characters living through those times.

I still fail to understand how Mikhail Bulgakov survived, having written The Master and Margarita, but I have read that he was perhaps protected by Stalin. The devil appears in Moscow and creates scenes of utter mayhem; Pontius Pilate and his wife attempt to make sense of Jesus and his message; magic and anarchy reign. It’s a marvellous novel, a tour-de-force, but Socialist Realism it ain’t…

I’ve waxed lyrical about the Czech writer Jaroslav Hasek‘s hero Svejk, an anarchic anti-hero who creates chaos in the Austro-Hungarian war effort wherever he goes; he has his Soviet era equal in Ivan Chonkin, in a couple of novels by Vladimir Voinovich, where Soviet bureaucracy and managerial ineptitude are satirised quite mercilessly.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn‘s earlier works made a great impression on me at school. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch is a powerful read (the film is utterly unmemorable) as a political prisoner in the gulag shares his work, thoughts, hopes and fears, knowing that it’s back to the start every night for twenty years; Cancer Ward explores (as I recall) the vulnerabilities of the powerful and the weak, reduced to the same equality by the dread disease, its treatment and consequences, and The First Circle, which I think is probably the best, explores Stalin’s paranoid world, urge to spy on and control people through the eyes of prisoners and ‘free’ men involved in a research project that will allow the regime to identify people from recorded voices alone. Solzhenitsyn, like other Soviet era writers, tries hard to create Stalin as a fictional character, and thereby come to some understanding of his psychology and power.

I have yet to read anything written since the fall of the Soviet Union that is worth the eyeball time.

Anton Chekhov: Three Sisters

November 12, 2014

41y5IgRroHL._AA160_It’s that time again: reading for the Russian literature group. I taught this play to drama students a number of times, and it was a challenge, because it’s so boring. Today I had a (small) revelation: it’s a nineteenth century version of Waiting for Godot. Once I had it in that viewfinder, it began to be rather more approachable.

There is something about a lot of mid to late nineteenth century Russian literature: it’s full of people with money and nothing to do, no skills or purpose or meaning in life. They literally don’t know what to do with themselves and they are bored to death. And there’s a sense that things cannot go on like this, something has to change. Sometimes there’s even a scent or a foreshadowing of revolution in the air…

The sisters in this play are stuck in the middle of nowhere – there’s a hell of a lot of middle of nowhere or back of beyond in Russia – if they work, their jobs are drudgery, and they have set their hopes of a new and more fulfilling life on getting back to Moscow, which they left thirteen years previously. In the same way, Vladimir and Estragon expect the arrival of Godot to change their lives, to bring some kind of meaning. The male characters in Three Sisters are utter wasters: a drunken doctor, a military man who resigns, threatens to go and do meaningful work eventually, and then is killed in a pointless duel the day before he is due to marry one of the sisters and start work. Another soldier ‘philosophises’ all the time (rambles pointlessly about inconsequential ideas) whilst conducting an affair with the married sister. Eventually the troops leave… and nobody goes to Moscow.

It seems an allegorical play – if there is any fathomable meaning to it – Russia is stuck in a time-warp, its people lack purpose, meaning to their lives; those with brains and ideas are idle and unproductive. That’s not to say that Chekhov was a revolutionary or that he was prophesying events twenty or so years in the future. But I do get the sense of a world that has lost its way here. (No change there, then, said he cynically.) Nobody is happy, even when they say they are.

I think Beckett does it better: I think the absurdity comes over more clearly and powerfully. But the end result is the same. And I suppose both plays can be looked from the perspective of tragedy: we were challenged a number of times at university to discuss and imagine whether tragedy was possible in the twentieth century. I always felt that Beckett achieved that sense of tragic waste in Waiting for Godot, and now I think that perhaps Chekhov does, too. There’s certainly some of the ‘there but for the grace of God go I’ in the plot, but I cannot really warm to any of the characters. To this outsider, there’s a powerful insight into the Russian soul.

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