Posts Tagged ‘Soviet Union’

August favourites #27: memoir

August 27, 2018

51MLFDfWnnL._AC_US218_41yGjAW6xRL._AC_US218_I read very little biography, and even less autobiography, and I’m not sure whether this is actually one, or more of a memoir, although, since it covers so much of the writer’s adult life, it feels like an autobiography to me. There are many books detailing many writers’ experiences in the Gulag – the network of forced labour camps that covered various areas of the old Soviet Union and existed for the punishment of a wide range of crimes. From the 1930s onwards, sentences of five to ten years were common, and, depending on where the camp was, survival was often unlikely: conditions in the Arctic Circle, building the White Sea Canal, or out in the mines of the Far East were truly horrendous. Yevgenia Ginsburg’s story (Into The Whirlwind, and Within the Whirlwind) is similar to that of many. She tells it clearly, straightforwardly and in detail; it’s a very moving story, particularly in the humanity she depicts amid all the horrors. It’s long and it’s gruelling; I’ve read it twice, and it’s a tribute to human survival and decency for me. I’m not sure it’s possible for us in the West really to understand why and how such things came to happen…

I’m doing something different for the holiday month of August, writing about some of my favourites: poems, plays, music, art and other things, a short piece on a different topic each day. The categories are random, as are the choices within them, meaning that’s my favourite that day, and is subject to change… And I will try and explain why each choice is special for me. As always, I look forward to your comments.

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The Red Atlas

July 28, 2018

61SEUp0waVL._AC_US218_For anyone who, like me, is fascinated by maps and atlases, and cartography in general, this book is utterly fascinating. In short, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the full extent of its in-depth cartography has been revealed: astonishingly detailed maps of many countries, often with far more detail than official maps made by those countries themselves. Maps are often very large-scale, with specific buildings labelled, width and construction of roads, railways and bridges noted, and lots more. All of this in a well-produced volume, copiously illustrated with examples, and a carefully-written text analysing the history and development of Soviet cartography.

Much of the mapping was highly secret and reserved for military use only; bowdlerised versions of maps of the Soviet Union itself were made available for civilian use where necessary. This is no surprise: all countries do this, including the UK, whose official Ordnance Survey maps have blank spaces where strategic military assets are located, as proved by comparison with Soviet mapping in this very book. It’s the extent, the detail that astonishes about the Soviet enterprise.

This huge enterprise got me thinking, and my conclusion is surely blindingly obvious: the Cyrillic alphabet. Think about it. When the Nazis invaded Poland – to take one example – they used Polish maps from the country’s Army Geographical Institute, often overprinted in German with the legend ‘only for service use’. And that’s all they needed to do, for whatever country they invaded, except the Soviet Union. For if a map and its legend is in the Roman alphabet, then the place names are instantly legible, and all you need is a translation of the legend.

This doesn’t work if you’re a Russian: all those maps, all those place names are in an alien alphabet; if you tried to overprint everything on a Western map, you’d have an illegible piece of paper. So you start from scratch, using all available Western maps and your spy network and aerial and satellite photography and you re-create all those maps, in the Cyrillic alphabet, with names phonetically transliterated so that your one day invading or occupying troops know where they are… a colossal enterprise but achievable with the resources of the state behind it. And you do it properly, thoroughly. Surely the US military have done something similar with mapping of Russia.

A wonderful book. And perhaps I got rather more from looking at the gorgeous maps than the average Western reader in that, although I cannot understand Russian, I can ‘read’ i.e. transliterate it.

Fact or fiction?

September 22, 2015

41q7VprqrbL._AA160_51C7dr3B2RL._AA160_I’ve just finished a fascinating book and don’t know what to make of it…

Aussi Loin Que Mes Pas Me Portent is by J M Bauer, and was originally published in German in the 1950s; and English translation apparently exists, called As Far as My Feet Will Carry Me, and it has also been filmed.

It purports to tell the story of Clemens Forell, a Wehrmacht officer imprisoned in the Soviet Union after the Second World War, his escape from a forced labour camp – a lead mine – at the very edge of the country, opposite the shores of Alaska, and three-year journey to freedom by eventually crossing the Iranian frontier. It’s an astonishing adventure, if it is true. But there are quite a few things that call aspects of the account into question.

It reminds me very strongly of The Long Walk by Slawomir Rawicz, which tells the story, allegedly, of the escape of a group of Polish prisoners from Soviet captivity during the same war, who eventually make it to British India. This book was famous among my father’s generation, because this story was the story of their generation, their country and their struggle with he Russians. (It was also filmed, a few years ago.) And it has transpired over the years that the account was not exactly what it purported to be, Rawicz having put together the story as a composite of the accounts of several people he met, rather than his own adventures.

Similarly, when I started to look up the author and the hero of the first book, it turns out to have been put together by a novelist, that the hero’s name is a pseudonym, and that he was back in Germany two years before the events described in the book began. So is this another docudrama, another fictionalisation of reality, or what?

I found it a tad incredible that the Russians would march prisoners from Chita, by the Mongolian border, all the way to Cape Dezhnev, opposite Alaska (look at the map!). There’s nothing that incredible about the journey itself, perhaps, and the hero’s adventures, except that his journey is extremely haphazard, and devoid of almost all detail in terms of place names – the map in the French edition is dreadful and needs a telescope to view it – but after about 450 pages, and a third of the way, the remainder is very telescoped, rushed through, almost. This is not the sign of a good novel, and perhaps enhances the veracity of some of the account. But the hero travels several thousand kilometres through the Soviet Union of the late 1940s without papers or real scrapes or encounters with authority, which I do find barely credible… and this version, the French translation, appears to be twice the length of the English version now long out of print.

I also found the attitudes of Russians and Germans to each other rather stretching of my credulity. Nowhere do any of the Germans acknowledge any war guilt or wrong-doing (perhaps this wasn’t fashionable in the 1950s), but they don’t complain of being hard done by, either. Quite a lot of Russians seem helpful to Forell; this I find hard to take, given that we are only a couple of years after the end of the war, and every Russian would have known of the vileness of German behaviour in the Soviet Union.

So, what’s going on here? Little to glean from any reviews of the book I’ve hunted down, and the various wikipedia articles don’t really dispel all of the doubts and grey areas. On the other hand, as a cracking adventure story, I found it quite compelling. But I also feel somewhat deceived…

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.

Frederic Chaubin: CCCP – Cosmic Communist Constructions Photographed

January 6, 2015

downloadI love Taschen books, and this tome on Soviet architecture has long been on my list; this Christmas  it finally came my way. It’s a book to look at, to marvel at, and to get one thinking.

The Soviet Union lasted over seventy years: there was time to think of, and build for, the future. Obviously, no churches or cathedrals were required, but other types of public buildings were: palaces for weddings, and places for remembrance and funerals, sports centres, arts and cultural centres, theatres, and an awful lot of circuses, apparently. And then there were the public monuments…  I always found it touching how newly-weds would go to take flowers and pay their respects at the monument to those who fell in the Great Patriotic War, even in the midst of joy and celebration; this is a duty which I don’t think we in the West can even begin to understand.

There is a lot of grim and horrid stuff, just as there is anywhere else, but also much effort was put in to designing uplifting public buildings; certainly there was a Soviet ‘style’, and this is well explored and documented in this collection of photographs. There are detailed and interesting analytical essays, too.

Rather too much use seems to have been made of concrete – a symbol of modernity, perhaps, which the country strove for – cheap, easily available, and very perishable, as we know from some of our own post-war and industrial architecture… even more likely to crumble in the Russian climate. I felt that much of it was no uglier than our banal shopping centres, and a good deal of the buildings pictured aspire to, and achieve, a curious kind of beauty or elegance.

Since the end of the Soviet Union, many of the buildings have been abandoned, some vandalised and some demolished. The neglect means that they are unlikely to last very long…

How long should they last? How long will anything we build today last? Do we build anything with the ability to stand the test of time, such as the churches, cathedrals and castles that have dotted our English landscape for centuries? Here we have English Heritage and similar organisations to preserve our past. This book records how a nation that strove (and ultimately failed, it seems) to do things differently, tried physically to build itself. I’m not sure that it should all just be allowed to crumble into oblivion.

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