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Posts from the ‘Cold War’ Category


Dasgupta’s SOLO: A Spectacular Literary Symphony with Jazz Riffs on a 20th Century Life

A blind Bulgarian chemist sits alone in his flat, sweltering in the Sofia summer heat. As he approaches his 100th birthday, his still sighted mind’s eye inevitably ranges over a 20th century that brought constant revolution, both to him and to Bulgaria. He is Ulrich, Read more »


15 questions to ask of popular history

Having come up with a couple of other similar lists for Lars Dahle’s online culture project (20 Questions for Novels & 12 Questions for Albums), here is the latest, on one of my personal passions: history writing. Popular history books are big business. Which means that lots of people must be reading them… Which means they are definitely worth approaching with considerably more care and attention than many give them…

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Le Carré on writing: a narrative masterclass

Having quoted a rather light-hearted bit from this excellent compilation of interviews, I’ve been reflecting on some of the things John Le Carré has said over the years about how he goes about his work, especially because of his insights into how and why narrative works (which thus helps us to engage with narratives of any sort). I’m particularly intrigued Read more »


A nursery for crime: John Le Carré on teaching at Eton!

As part of my ongoing trawl into the literature and culture of the Cold War, I came across this classic description from John Le Carré (nom de plume of David Cornwell) of his 2 years’ teaching at Eton. It is from a collection of transcribed interviews spanning 40 years – which is itself fascinating, because of the sense of development it reveals. You can see how often answers to different interviewers don’t tally, which seems part of a deliberately cultivated air of mystery. Everything he says (no doubt with a perfectly straight face, and undetectable to any unsuspecting interviewer) needs to be taken with a pinch of salt.

So it is significant to see both the many years of constant denial and then, at last, his admission in 1983 to having been a spy (to Melvin Bragg no less). When he gave this interview, though, he was still insisting that he was merely working in Germany for the Foreign Office. But his description of the school (if he can be believed!) suggests that he was even better prepared for the work he actually ended up doing. Read more »


The oppressive shadows of the Berlin Wall: Anna Funder’s Stasiland

The Berlin Wall has been gone for over 20 years. But its shadows haven’t.

People here talk of the Mauer im Kopf or the Wall in the Head. I thought this was just a shorthand way of referring to how Germans define themselves still as easterners and westerners. But I see now a more literal meaning: the Wall and what it stood for do still exist. The Wall persists in the Stasi men’s minds as something they hope might one day come again, and in their victims’ minds too, as a terrifying possibility. (p233)

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A courageous nod to God in a Soviet-era show-trial

Came across this fascinating morsel in a short New Yorker article by David Remnick from the run up to the recent Mikhail Khordorkovsky trial in Moscow. This fallen oligarch, it seems, has taken on the mantle of the dissenter from the Soviet era – not least because he is being pursued by former KGB agents and sent to the gulag. And so some unexpected comparisons have been made with those who genuinely work dissenters. And an archetypal example was Josef Brodsky. The article makes for some pretty chilling reading

In 1964, a twenty-three-year-old poet was arrested by the Leningrad K.G.B. and charged with the crime of “malicious parasitism.” His name was Josef Brodsky. One Communist Party newspaper denounced his poetry as “pornographic and anti-Soviet”; another noted archly that he wore “velvet pants.” The authorities permitted him to testify in court, but they soon regretted their decision, and their failure to prevent a brave woman named Frida Vigdorova from taking notes on the proceedings. Vigdorova wrote down this exchange—the most famous legal exchange in Russia since Stalin’s show trials—and the transcript was smuggled to the West:

JUDGE: And what is your profession?
BRODSKY: Poet. Poet and translator.
JUDGE: And who told you that you were a poet? Who assigned you that rank?
BRODSKY: No one. (Non-confrontationally.) Who assigned me to the human race?
JUDGE: And did you study for this?
BRODSKY: For what?
JUDGE: To become a poet? Did you try to attend a school where they train [poets] . . . where they teach . . .
BRODSKY: I don’t think it comes from education.
JUDGE: From what, then?
BRODSKY: I think it’s . . . (at a loss) . . . from God.

The judge sentenced Brodsky to five years of internal exile. Living in a village near the Arctic Circle, he crushed rocks and hauled manure by day. At night, he wrote, and he improved his English by reading Auden and Frost. Brodsky’s mentor, the great Silver Age poet Anna Akhmatova, laughed at the K.G.B.’s shortsightedness. “What a biography they’re fashioning for our red-haired friend!” she said. “It’s as if he’d hired them to do it on purpose.”

Akhmatova was hardly naïve about the capabilities of Soviet justice—she had lost a husband and countless friends in the Gulag—but she could see that the state was providing a linguistic genius with an aura of heroism. By the time Brodsky returned to Leningrad, he was a mature poet, whose brand of dissidence was an implacable disdain for the Soviet regime and an enduring devotion to the Russian language. The state soon found it necessary to exile this untamable creature abroad.

What struck me most about this is the sheer incompatibility and even clash of their worldviews. The judge who can only see things in institutional or societal terms – ie to be a poet you must be taught or commissioned by the state etc; against this young Jewish poet sees that we are far more than biological machines (see previous post).


A chance encounter with a great poet: Irina Ratushinskaya beaten but not lost

I can’t now remember why I was there, but back in early 1989 I had a couple of hours to kill in Oxford (it was probably on a trip to get things sorted before going up to university). And I popped into Blackwells (left) one of the great meccas for all bibliophiles (though it has been knocked off my perch of personal favourites by Daunt Books in Marylebone High St).

I wandered around for a bit, and then noticed that there was quite a throng. I’d no idea what was going on, but in the great tradition of British (and Russian) shoppers, I saw the queue and so joined it. And it so happened that it was leading to a book-signing by the great Russian poet, Irina Ratushinskaya. I knew absolutely nothing about her, nor her circumstances. But nevertheless, I dutifully waited, purchased and had signed – here’s a pic of my copy of her small anthology Pencil Letter.

It’s hard to imagine the dark days of the cold war now. But when I had my book signed, the fall of the Berlin Wall was still months away and unimaginable. She was exiled in the mid 80s and speaking up for those still suffering back home – hence the book tour. I subsequently discovered that before leaving Russia, she was a courageous dissident and Christian believer – despite the fact that she ended up in a notoriously horrific Soviet labour camp, in which she suffered terrible malnutrition, torture, and nearly died.

Fortunately, she had learned how to memorise and write in such circumstances from the master Alexander Solzhenitsyn. She would use bars of soap, matchsticks and constant repetition in order to sustain her creative impulses and dutifully record the atrocities while enduring the camp’s so-called ‘small zone’. To give a taste, here’s the title poem from this book, written in the KGB cells in Kiev while waiting for her trial in November 1982. It lasts for several pages, but here is the opening section:

Pencil Letter
by Irina Ratushinskaya

I know it won’t be received
Or sent. The page will be
In shreds as soon as I have scribbled it.
Later. Sometime. You’ve grown used to it,
Reading between the lines that never reached you,
Understanding everything. On the tiny sheet,
Not making haste, I find room for the night.
What’s the hurry, I find room for the night.
What’s the hurry, when the hour that’s passed
Is all part of the same time, the same unknown term.
The word stirs under my hand
Like a starling, a rustle, a movement of eyelashes.
Everything’s fine. But don’t come into my dream yet.
In a little while i will tie my sadness into a knot,
Throw my head back and on my lips there’ll be a seal,
A smile, my prince, although from afar.
Can you feel the warmth of my hand
Passing through your hair, over your hollow cheek.
December winds have blown on your face…
How thin you are.. Stay in my dream.
Open the window. The pillow is hot.
Footsteps at the door, and a bell tolling in the tower:
Two, three… Remember, you and I never said
Goodbye. It doesn’t matter.
Four o’clock… That’s it. How heavily it tolls.

Anyway, I was stimulated to take down her book from the shelf when leafing through Steve Turner’s poetry again the other day and came across this poem about her. Wonderful. A great homage to a great poet.

Beaten But Not Lost
(for Irina Ratushinskaya)
by Steve Turner

We beat her
and she lost weight
She lost blood.
She lost consciousness.

But she never lost hope.
She never lost poetry
And she was never lost.

You must have to beat real hard
to get the God
out of these people;to still the noise of heaven
in their hearts.

(Poems, p147)



Cold war faith in Romania

Having visited Romania a couple of times, and talked to a number of Romanians when in Hungary for the ELF, I had heard amazing stories of what Christians did during the dark days of the Ceauşescu regime. So I thought it was time to share a few.

Pastoral training … incognito in the shadows

I’m acutely aware of how great my privilege is to be able to travel and spend time with people in ministry across Eastern Europe – training, encouraging, getting alongside (quite apart from learning tons myself). And what’s more, it is all very straightforward and relatively stress-free. I hop on a plane, walk into these countries without a visa, and go about my business. But it wouldn’t have been like that 20 years ago. While in Hungary I had the joy of getting to know, and hear the story of, a Romanian American. He has lived in the US since 1982, when he managed to emigrate in his early 20s.

The eagle-eyed will have realised that this was of course 7 years before the end of Communism – things were bleak and very tough for Romanian Christians, not to mention everyone else. Because Romania needed trade with the USA, they agreed a quota of emigrants (in most eastern european, the thought of leaving was out of the question). My friend was one of the very fortunate few. But what is remarkable is that he was able to do this despite some of the things he was involved in. For he used to be an interpreter for english-speaking pastoral trainers who came to his town.

The circumstances of this training were remarkable, and exceptionally dangerous for everyone involved. Somehow, the handful of Christians in the town would be sent word that a trainer was coming. They were just told a time to meet him at the railway station. My friend would go and pick him up (you could tell a westerner a mile off in a crowd), take him to someone’s flat, where 3 or 4 Christian leaders would be waiting. The trainer would stay a couple of hours, train, and then leave. They never knew his name. They never knew where he lived. They never knew where he was going on. My friend only knew that there was a group of people like this (he thinks they were American and British) probably based out of Vienna. Every single person was taking immense risks just to be in the room. But such was the commitment of all of them to get training for ministry.

And Romania today has between half and a million evangelical protestants – out of a total population of 20 million. Extraordinary fruit from a very small, risky but hugely important work.

An irrational fear of the bible?

During the Hungary conference, we heard an address from a dynamic Romanian pastor who related some of his experiences as a young border / customs guard in the dying days of Ceaucescu’s regime. He had a Christian background, but wasn’t a believer at that stage. His colleagues would tell stories about the sorts of things they used to get up to, especially when it came to intimidating westerners trying to travel into the country. One thing they said hit home for him: they would talk about how they were mainly on the search for three things: GUNS, DRUGS & BIBLES.

Now, he could understand why guns were banned – their power was obvious. Drugs were obviously a very destructive and negative influence. But bibles? He’d been taught in school that God didn’t exist and the Bible was a collection of made up fairy-tales. If that was the case, then why make such a big deal of it? If it really was nonsense, surely people would read it and simply dismiss it for what it clearly was? But it was clear that the regime was very afraid of the threat posed by bibles. So they were banned.

And this was what, ironically enough, led to this speaker deciding there might be something to the Bible after all – he read one, and came to faith in God. So perhaps they were right to try to ban them after all…!

The persistent irritations of bureaucracy

I’ve been to Romania a couple of times – and I well remember one friend who is now himself a pastor, describing what life was like for his father – he remained a pastor for many years under Communism. I was very surprised to hear it, because i assumed such jobs would have been practically impossible full-time, let alone legal – but it seems that the church was able to pay his salary. This friend’s comment was simply that there was so little in the shops for people to buy anyway, they were easily able to give their church enough to support a full-time minister.

But of course there were snags. For one, each Romanian worker needed papers to allow him or her to work in a particular town. If you moved town for whatever reason, you had to apply from the local council for new papers – or face a fine. or worse. But when this pastor was called by the church to lead them, it entailed moving away from his home area. But the new local council refused to give him the papers. Which resulted in trip to the council to pay the fine every Monday morning – for the next 20 years… The church gave him the funds to pay it each week, simply taking it on as one of the expenses of having him as their pastor.

What strikes me about this is the sheer maliciousness and petty mindedness of it. So pointless but still mildly intimidating – just a drip drip, wearing down of the marginalised. It could have been much worse of course. And no doubt there were other moments of genuine fear and cruelty. But this epitomised the absurdity of what they were trying to do.

All these people are an inspiration – because they illustrate how, in adverse circumstances, believers can survive… and even thrive.


Hanging by a thread: Michael Dobbs’ account of the Cuban Missile Crisis

Michael Dobbs‘ account of the Cuban Missile Crisis (he’s not to be confused with the British Michael Dobbs of Francis Urquhart/House of Cards fame) must surely qualify as a definitive account, at least for this generation. Despite the gallons of ink spilled over those fateful 13 days, this recent book (out in 2008) has much to offer and revise. In fact, it makes recent history a thrilling read, despite the pervasive detail, evident research and deep complexity of the events.

Kennedy & Khrushchev on the same side…

Dobbs had unprecedented access to archives and key participants from both the US and Russia – and has even managed to investigate some of the sites and accounts from the Cuban perspective. As a result, he’s been able to ‘triangulate’ every detail, synchronising accounts from each of the perspectives of Moscow, Havana and Washington. He offers a day by day account of the days leading up to what became known as Black Saturday (Saturday 27th October 1962), and then an hour by hour account of the day itself. One of the book’s big themes is the fragility of the peace, even after the two leaders had themselves become determined to find a peaceful solution.

The question the world confronted during what came to be known as the Cuban missile crisis was who controlled history: the men in suits, the men with beards, the men in uniform, or nobody at all? In this drama, Kennedy ended up on the same side as his ideological nemesis, Nikita Khrushchev. Neither man wanted war. They both felt an obligation to future generations to rein in the dark, destructive demons they themselves had helped to unleash. (p340)

This point was poignantly reinforced by Jackie K’s personal letter to the Soviet leader after JFK’s assassination:

From today’s perspective, the key moment of the missile crisis is not the largely mythical “eyeball to eyeball” confrontation of October 24. It turns out that the two great adversaries – Kennedy and Khrushchev – were both looking for a way out. They each had the power to blow up the world, but they were both horrified by the thought of nuclear Armageddon. They were rational, intelligent, decent men separated by an ocean of misunderstanding, fear, and ideological suspicion. Despite everything that divided them, they had a sneaking sympathy for each other, an idea expressed most poignantly by Jackie Kennedy in a private, handwritten letter she sent to Khrushchev following her husband’s assassination:

You and he were adversaries, but you were allied in a determination that the world should not be blown up. The danger which troubled my husband was that war might be started not so much by the big men as by the little ones. While big men know the need for self-control and restraint, little men are sometimes moved more by fear and pride. (p350)

Kennedy & his Sec. of Defense, McNamara (Wiki)

The confusion, and at moments raw panic, of those closest to these events (and who thus understood the potential outcomes), is palpable. Many genuinely feared they were on the brink of the end of civilisation. Nuclear war seemed inevitable. Reading this book makes it clear how close it came – through no fault of the main protagonists.

  • There was the desperate situation of those on Russia’s B-59 sub, which was incommunicado within the US exclusion zone;
  • there was the U-2 spy plane that had lost its bearings at 70,000 ft and unwittingly flown into USSR airspace above Siberia on Black Saturday (soon after another U-2 had been shot down on a recce over Cuba). This was not long after the capture of Gary Powers, after all.
  • Or take this situation for one of the US pilots searching for the missing U-2 (and which had been armed with nuclear warheads after the US Strategic Air Command had been put on DEFCON 2):

One of the interceptor pilots was Lieutenant Leon Schmutz, a twenty-six-year-old recently out of flight school. As he climbed into the skies above the Bering Strait to search for the missing U-2, he wondered what he would do if he ran into the Soviet MiGs. His only means of defense was a nuclear warhead capable of destroying everything within a half-mile radius of the explosion. To use such a weapon was virtually unthinkable, particular over American territory. The detonation of even a small warhead could result in all-out nuclear war. But to fail to respond to an attack by a Soviet fighter went against a pilot’s basic survival instincts. (p264)

Eavesdropping on history

What makes this book such a brilliant read is being able to eavesdrop on the 3 groups of protagonists at each and every key moment. We can now know almost exactly what they were thinking (even when their adversaries didn’t – a kind of historical dramatic irony, I suppose). Kennedy had started taping meetings in the Oval office and Cabinet Room (a fact which of course would be Nixon’s undoing). Then there are the reams of documents now released, as well as personal accounts and interviews from those with long memories.

Consequently, various myths get debunked (such as the ‘eyeball to eyeball’ moment alluded to above when Russian ships near the exclusion zone (as depicted in the film Thirteen Days) – the timings don’t quite fit; or the claim that it was Bobby’s idea alone to ignore Khrushchev’s second message on the Saturday). All the individuals appear more human, not less, once the fog of hagiography has been dispersed. But actually, as so often, they all seem more heroic as a result, not less.

Much modern historical writing these days focuses on the little people against the backdrop of big events and big men – the sociological school, if you like. I find that frustrating at one level, especially if it is to the exclusion or detriment of the big picture. However, history is not just about big names. It is about everyone. And this crisis in particular twisted and turned on the actions of the hidden and largely anonymous. Which is why it is so important to hear from some of them, even if their names mean little to the vast majority. Dobbs does this brilliantly. He weaves into the bigger narrative, of Oval Office & Kremlin second-guessing, various quotes (sometimes perhaps too briefly) from some of these:

  • The Russian submariner writing to his wife – describing in graphic detail the appalling conditions on board (often in noxious diesel fumed air at over 110°F).
  • Captain Maltsby’s personal account of his fateful, and potentially cataclysmic, overfly of Siberia in his U2 plane
  • 2 Cuban exiles on a CIA mission to sabotage a Cuban mine, who got stranded when their exfiltration boat never returned, and then suffered 13 years in a Cuban prison

This is a brilliant book – gripping history writing at its best. Dobbs draws few lessons explicitly, though notes how George W. Bush’s rhetoric pre-Iraq War 2 drew (erroneously and illegitimately in his view) on Kennedy’s stance during October 1962. However, there’s little need to be too explicit – the book makes its point simply be recounting in some detail what happened hour-by-hour. As such, it is a salutary reminder of how close we came to destruction – and a warning of how even closer we may still be, now that nuclear proliferation has led to such power lying in the hands of less than cool heads…


A Czech protest song: the redemptive power of suffering

Yesterday, I left Hungary having had a great time at the ELF in Eger. So encouraging – and quite apart from the excitements of seeing folk on our network again and being involved in teaching, I was able to have some very encouraging conversations with folks from Austria, Greece, Macedonia and Bulgaria in particular. Things are really developing fast in some of those places for our work.

But am now in the Czech Republic for a few days, to do a weekend for the International Church of Prague. Had a couple of hours this morning to wander around with Simon, one of my hosts. So good to be back here. Prague is one of my favourite places on earth. Simon has been here for 18 months or so and had not yet had the chance to visit the Museum of Communism and so off we went this morning. It’s quite small – essentially a converted flat in the centre of town – but as well as tracing the history of the country during the 20th century, it manages to convey something of the atmosphere of fear and oppression. Unusually, one is allowed to take photos, so I took a few.

In one room was a looped video narrating the story of communism and in particular the protests against it. Both of us were blown away by a song that accompanied footage of police beating up peaceful protesters in Wenceslas Square in 1989 (during the months leading up to the regime’s fall). When we got home, Simon discovered that it was written by one Karel Kryl, who had lived in exile for much of the time, but wrote  string of folk songs about his homeland. Very sadly, he died only a few years after the Velvet Revolution.

The song is simply called THANKS – and is full of profoundly Christian imagery – and speaks of the extraordinary ability of people standing up for truth and justice to endure suffering and even to find redemption through it.

Karel Kryl – Thanks
Lyrics – translation taken from this fan site

God created, created a branch
So as I could make wreaths
Thanks, Thanks for the pain
That teaches me to question
Thanks, Thanks for the failure
That teaches me to work harder
So that I could bring a gift
Despite my weakness
Thanks, thanks, thanks Thanks

Thanks for the weakness
That teaches me to be humble
To be humble with joy
To be humble without any bondage
Thanks, Thanks for tears
That teach me to be sensitive
To be sensitive for those who suffer
Who suffer and cry out for mercy
Thanks, thanks, thanks

Thanks for the desire for beauty
That gives me something to long for
Thanks for the fact
That love combats spite
For the sweetness
Sweetness of falling asleep
Thanks for the feeling of tiredness
For blazing of fire
For rushing of rivers

Thanks for the thirst
That was revealed by my weakness
Thanks for the torment
That inspires good deeds.
For the fact
That I love
Although my heart is constricted by anxiety
Lamb, Thank you
You did not die in vain.
Thanks, thanks, thanks

Very powerful – not least because of the images juxtaposed with it in the museum.

Still, I couldn’t help wondering, as we left the museum, what would have happened had the Cold War ended very differently? What if it had been the West that collapsed? What would a Museum of Capitalism then have looked like?

While I definitely prefer to live in a democratic and capitalist society (no surprises there), and think there are certain aspects of it that are clearly better than communism, it is by no stretch of the imagination perfect – not least because it is equally constructed on the flimsy, flawed foundations of modernity.  I fear there would easily be enough material to prove capitalist complicity in iniquity…


Cold War insanity: you really couldn’t make this up

Have started Michael Dobbs’ recent account of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and am already gripped. But i nearly dropped the book on the floor when i read this paragraph, in the section about the CIA’s Operation Mongoose, headed up by Air Force General Ed Lansdale (photo below).

As the target dates for causing havoc inside Cuba came and went, with nothing much happening, Lansdale came up with increasingly bizarre ideas for overthrowing the Cuban dictator. His latest plan, dated October 15, was for a U.S. submarine to surface off Havana in the middle of the night and fire star shells toward the shore. The shells would light up the nighttime sky. In the meantime, CIA agents would have spread the word around Cuba that Castro was the anti-Christ, and tha the illumination was a harbinger of the Second Coming of Christ. Lansdale suggested that the operation be timed to coincide with All Soul’s Day “to gain extra impact from Cuban superstitions.” CIA sceptics dubbed the scheme “Elimination by Illumination”.

I don’t know where to begin… It is truly insane, patronising, moronic and thoroughly naïve (but apart from various degrees of biblical illiteracy). And that’s just for starters…

For good measure, here’s another:

Another pet Lansdale project was branding the Cuban resistance with the symbol “gusano libre”. Official Cuban propaganda constantly denounced anti-Castro Cubans as “worms” (“gusanos”). Lansdale wanted to turn the rhetoric against Castro, and encourage dissidents to see themselves as “free worms”, subverting the Cuban economy and political system from within through minor acts of sabotage. But the public relations campaign was a flop. Imbued with pride and machismo, Cubans refused to identify with worms, free or not.

One Minute to Midnight, Michael Dobbs, 2009, p12


Sacrifices on the Altar of Ambition: Agamemnon’s Daughter by Ismail Kadare

Ismail Kadare is fast becoming one of my favourite writers. An Albanian who has divided his time between his native land and Paris since the early 90s, Kadare ingeniously captures the disorientating experience of life under dictatorship. In some ways, he is the iron curtain’s equivalent of George Orwell, except for the obvious difference that his experiences were first-hand.

This book, Agamemnon’s Daughter is actually a compilation of 3 short stories, fluently translated from a French translation of the original Albanian by David Bellos.

  • The title story is set in Tirana in the 1980s, as the unnamed narrator unexpectedly finds himself granted a ticket to the senior stands at the annual May Day Parade (normally the preserve of the communist party elite).
  • The Blinding Order is set in Istanbul during the reforms of the Ottoman Empire that occurred during the 1800s
  • The Great Wall is set on the Chinese frontier during the 1300s, the time that imperial China faced threats from the hoardes of Timur (or Tamburlaine) the Great.

They’re very different tales. But they share the loose but common thread of Ottoman history; and they all depict the bewilderment of those desperately second-guessing despotic regimes. Nothing is ever as it seems – the powers that be always more Machiavellian than one thought possible. The only certainty is that one’s initial interpretation of political moves or decrees is wrong. It is grimly cynical – but then if you’ld lived under Albanian communism (supposedly the ‘purest’ in history), you’d be too. As the hapless sentry on the Great Wall in the 3rd story narrates:

That night a swarm of thoughts buzzed in my head. States are always either wiser or more foolish than we think they are. Snatches of conversations with officials who had been posted on the other side came back to me, but I now saw them in a different light. (p217)

I reviewed Kadare’s gripping but terrifying book The Successor a while back. Agamemnon’s Daughter was written a few years before, and involves some of the same characters. It was written during the dying days of Enver Hoxha‘s brutal regime, and smuggled out to a Parisian publisher 2 or 3 pages at a time (that story’s worth another novel all by itself). While the other 2 stories in this book are certainly good, I want to focus on the title (and much longer) tale. For it illustrates how stories, especially ancient ones, can uniquely make sense of the present.

A Daughter Sacrificed for a Father’s Ambition

The narrator has fallen in love with Suzana, the beautiful daughter of a top party official (one of those touted as successor to dictator, ‘The Guide’, who’s clearly modelled on Hoxha). But as a fairly lowly worker in National Television, and because of his subversive, anti-regime views, the relationship was doomed and thus forbidden by the girl’s father. Nevertheless, despite having been caught up in some murky Party purges in the past, he finds himself with the Parade invitation, much to the acute jealousy of colleagues and rivals. He can’t fully comprehend why he has this ticket, and nor can anyone else – but while at the parade he catches a few glimpses of Suzana ‘higher up’.

But in the days before the parade, he had been immersed in Robert Graves’ classic Greek Myths. Presumably this was one of the few western books available in hermetically sealed Albania, both for the narrator and Kadare himself. Yet this book, for all its ancient and mythological subjects, has profound resonance, a relevance that evidently slipped under the censors’ radar. The narrator can’t help but find in ancient legends analogues and articulations of his pain. 2 in particular ring true of the regime and those who suffer under it.

The first is from the era of Homer and the Trojan War. King Agamemnon has offended the goddess Artemis and so she has used the winds to prevent his armada from setting sail for Troy. A soothsayer, Calchas (as it turns out, a Trojan turncoat, now working for the Greeks), informs him that the only way to appease Artemis is to sacrifice his daughter, Iphigenia. This he duly does.

But this is where Kadare’s genius comes into its own. He turns the myth inside out, deconstructing it through the lens of the Hoxha regime. For the narrator suddenly realises how implausible it would have been for the king to take the word of the Trojan Calchas seriously. He could have been a double agent, after all, especially after making such an horrific suggestion. No – it was the king himself who devised the plan – such was his zeal and fanaticism for the war. For now, who of his band of soldiers, sailers and mercenaries could possibly find an excuse not to play their part? Who would dare suggest they had paid a higher price during the war than the king. He’d had to sacrifice his very own daughter, hadn’t he?

Which is of course what, in the narrator’s eyes, Suzana’s father had done. He’d sacrificed her future happiness for his own future career. But this is completely true to the smoke and mirrors world of spin and propaganda – and it clearly heralded a terrifying future for the country. If he’s prepared to sacrifice his own daughter like that, what might he demand of everyone else? What hope does anyone now have? And then it occurs to him that Stalin had done something with his son, Yakov, by refusing to accept an offer to exchange him after he’d been captured by the Nazis and held in Sachsenhausen concentration camp…

A Climber Destroyed by his own Ambition

The other myth that the narrator ponders is a dark Albanian legend, that of Bald Man and the Eagle. This has particular resonance because Albania’s indigenous name (Shqipëri) actually means Land of the Eagles – hence the double-headed eagle on the national flag.

One night, Bald Man fell all the way down to the netherworld… After his fall, Bald Man strove with all his might to find the way and the means to clamber back to the upper world. He wore himself out searching every corner, until an old man whispered the solution in his ear.  There was an eagle that could fly all the way up by the sheer strength of his wings – but on one condition: throughout the flight, the raptor would need to eat raw meat. Bald Man didn’t think this would be a problem. (p37)

The eagle’s flight to the upper world was taking much longer than Bald Man had expected.

When Bald Man finished off the meat he had brought, he cut into his own flesh and fed the eagle with that.

It’s not known if Bald Man was still alive when the eagle came out into the upper world. People say that locals who happened to be around at the time couldn’t believe their eyes when they saw a huge black bird carrying a human skeleton on its back. (p41-42)

This tale’s significance is obvious. It’s interspersed between the story of a man who, in order to reverse his fall from political grace, denounces and tramples on others to climb his way back up. But then the narrator realises that he too has had a close escape in the party purges and is now making his way to the senior parade stands. After all, if he’s been given the parade invitation, does that mean he’s also (however unwittingly) offered others up? And what of his own flesh? Has he lost his soul in return for his life? But the significance goes wider too – Suzana’s father has paid with others’ flesh, and his own – and has lost his own soul. A terrifying thought for someone on the cusp of becoming supreme leader…

The Power of Literature

Kadare won the inaugural Man Booker International Prize in 2005 – and his recipient’s speech is included in this edition, and has been posted online. I found his account of the power of literature incredibly moving and thoroughly recommend it (it’s worth checking out prize chairman John Carey’s speech in awarding the prize too). There’s one paragraph that particular struck me. In answer to the question of how such writing was even possible under such oppressive regimes, Kadare says:

To explain myself briefly, I’d like to refer you to an episode in the Divine Comedy. Dante Alighieri, as he travels through Hell, is frightened of a huge, oncoming storm. Dante’s master Virgil tells him: “Be not afraid, for it is a dead storm!”
That phrase helps to clarify what I was just saying. If you can manage to make yourself see the rough weather of dictatorship as a “dead storm”, you’ll have the key to the enigma. But a writer can only get that key from literature.

That’s a potent phrase. To see all regimes as dead storms helps us to weather them. But this is where I gently venture to disagree with the great man – or rather, to quibble slightly with that final sentence. It is not just from literature. Dead storms become visible from the perspective of history, and above all of prophecy. This is what has struck me again and again as we have been working through the early chapters of Daniel over the last few months. For every regime faces its own writing on the wall…


Vanishing in the digital age

Have you ever wondered about disappearing? I’m not talking about Harry Potter’s Invisibility Cloak (although that would certainly come in handy on occasion). No, I mean disappearing like Jason Bourne: forging plausible identities, making new starts, covering old traces, laying false trails. Hiding, essentially.

Now before you start worrying, panic not – I’m not considering it at all. Plenty of things to keep me where I am!

But in idle moments, when contemplating the surveillance state (in which CCTV cameras seem to breed inside London Underground stations and one’s every digital move is now plotted by faceless geek-watchers), I’ve wondered whether it is even possible anymore. How would one go about it, if one had to? Under the Orwellian regimes of 20th Century despots, it was hard enough – id cards, passpapers, regular security police checkpoints. Think The Great Escape; or Hans Fallada’s brilliant Alone in Berlin; or the world of Le Carré’s Smiley. But now? I suppose it must be, somehow. But boy, do you have to be clever to keep ahead of the game. And rich. Like the Gene Hackman character in Enemy of the State. Which is of course ludicrous fantasy… Isn’t it…?

Evan Ratcliff (Photo: Joe Pugliese - Wired US, Nov 2009)

Which is all by way of explaining why I was so gripped by this article in the US edition of Wired from before Christmas – writer Evan Ratliff Tried to Vanish: Here’s What Happened.

After weeks of preparations, Ratcliff decided (as an experiment) to disappear completely for a month in 2009, laying down the gauntlet (through Wired) for people to use legal means to track him down. Once they had, they were to ask him, “You wouldn’t happen to know a guy named Fluke, would you?” in exchange for a financial reward.

For some, finding Evan Ratcliff became an obsession – the ultimate in reality gaming. Chatrooms, twitter hashtags and even a specially created Facebook App sprang up, as people all over the place compared research, shared sightings, and generally tried to outsmart each other. Through various means, people discovered Ratcliff’s passions (bizarrely enough, he’s an avid Fulham supporter), credit card details, and even his dietary requirements. The tiniest details played their part. As the article wryly observes, they discovered everything about him – except his current location. But they were never far behind. This Zeemaps group traces his every move – it’s fun to follow while reading the article.

It’s all pretty scary. And legal.

I was particularly interested in the impact it all had on him, though. There are some pretty poignant moments:

It’s surreal, in those moments when I stop to think about it. Scores of people have studied my picture, stared into those empty eyes in the hopes of relieving me of thousands of dollars. They have stood for hours, trying to pick out my face in a crowd. They’ve come to know me like we’ve been friends for years. It’s weirdly thrilling, in a narcissistic kind of way, but also occasionally terrifying.

But as he reflects on it later:

…I’d discovered how quickly the vision of total reinvention can dissolve into its lonely, mundane reality. Whatever reason you might have for discarding your old self and the people who went with it, you’ll need more than a made-up backstory and a belt full of cash to replace them.

For weeks after the hunt ended, I still paused when introducing myself and felt a twinge of panic when I handed over my credit card. The paranoid outlook of James Donald Gatz was hard to shake. Even now, my stomach lurches when I think back to the night I got caught. “You wouldn’t happen to know a guy named Fluke, would you?”

The article is definitely worth reading in full. It simply proves how digitally interconnected, dependent, and even chained, we all are in the west – and that includes even the most luddite or technophobe.

No wonder Bin Laden decided to hide out in the mountains of Pakistan. That seems to be one of the few options left if you want to really disappear.


Hiding the Tirana concrete jungle

How do you make a concrete jungle less foreboding? Well you cover it up of course.

Tirana is in some ways an artificial capital. Not long after Albanian independence from the Ottoman empire, the capital was moved in the 1920s from Elbasan to Tirana (presumably because it was more central, despite having been little more than a provincial town before). No doubt there were great plans and dreams for this new city – and there were one or two grand attempts in an Italianate style for national buildings. But the political chaos pre-war and the Communist takeover post war led to architectural travesties. The Communists were not known for building geographically sympathetic and aesthetically pleasing buildings (although it has to be said that they did a MUCH better job than Western Europe at preserving their architectural heritage – eg Prague & Budapest).

The result is that Tirana is an architectural nightmare. Everywhere you look, there is concrete and a high-rise. The city is surrounded on all sides by beautiful mountains, offering a tantalizing dream of life beyond the smoke. But inside there are few pleasures to be had.

So – in the last few years there have been one or two municipal competitions to come up with the best designs to paint on these buildings. I had an hour or two to wander around – and so took some random pics of a number – now beautifully assembled into a rather beautiful collage. Beautiful. Can you spot the buildings that have included the block numbers into their design?


TYPHOON – a new spy-novel that pulls no punches

Every now and then a book comes my way which gets under my skin – and I instantly feel a blog coming on. I love historical novels on the whole, and of course, they are in vogue – not only do they transport, but they can (should?) also educate. But from the novelist’s point of view, they provide great opportunities for invention and speculation since the periods they choose to inhabit are the preserve of only an educated few. Who’s to know where fact ends and fiction begins?

But to take very recent history, especially very public recent history, and then weave a credible narrative through it, takes some doing. Cumming has already proved his worth in this respect in previous novels. But this book, set first in 1997 handover-Hong Kong and then in the run up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, ratchets up his ambitions. And the results couldn’t be more topical. This is no private or obscure corner of history – it’s a matter of wide public record and even more widespread concern.

Of course, such ambitions could merely lead to a worthy but barely gripping journalistic account. But Cummming is a master of narrative suspense and intrigue. This is truly a page-turner and therefore deserves wide readership. The characters are finely drawn and credible – the relationships and tensions acutely (even excruciatingly) observed: in particular, the triangle between MI6 protagonist Joe, CIA agent Miles and the profoundly sympathetic but tragic Isabella. But we’re also taken on a whirlwind tour of Western expats in China muddling through with contradictory agendas and the seemier corners of Chinese lowlife, populated by wheeler dealers, thugs and (a very few) idealists, each drawn with skillful economy. As ever, however, in common with all great espionage writing, trust is the holy grail – and as ever in such circles it is in short supply.

But this is no airport pot-boiler – far from it. It offers an intelligent entry-point into complex affairs which rarely (if ever) make the headlines, let alone foreign affairs columns.

TYPHOON poses vital questions:

  • Since 9/11, Islamic fundamentalist terrorism has obviously been at the forefront of international politics and diplomacy. But to what extent are groups like Al Qaeda the products of ill-informed, short-termist and ultimately doomed policies of covert American action? TYPHOON traces a similar trajectory – of how separatist Islamic terrorists in China wreak havoc funded by the western operatives.
  • Issues of Chinese human rights abuses abound today – especially because of the Olympics. But to what extent is raising the subject mere hypocrisy? Especially if the British and American do so?
  • What actually IS the role of the British secret service in a post-imperial world, especially when the CIA dwarfs its ‘cousins’ in resources, manpower and reach?
  • Isn’t ALL foreign policy and undercover action only really about OIL FIELDS in the end?

A chilling scene in a brilliant recent film sticks in my mind. In Syriana (George Clooney et al), a small team of frankly inept and profoundly ignorant, meddling CIA agents meets in a cocooned, air-conditioned office in Langley to plot the future of the Middle East – with absolutely disastrous consequences. TYPHOON describes a not dissimilar meeting, in Washington DC. When will we ever learn?

But don’t be put off by such intellectualizing! This is a cracking read – and in a work of fiction, that in the end is the acid test. To be stimulated by such vital questions on top of that is just a fantastic bonus.


ELF08 – the wariness of a post-communist mindset

During the plenary on the last night, one of the Hungarian delegates was interviewed (I think his name was Tom, but can’t be 100% sure – I’m very sorry if you’re reading this, ‘Tom’ – if you are, perhaps you can put me straight!!). He has been coming to the ELF for 5 years, but had been very discouraged by the consistently low turnout of fellow-Hungarians in previous years – until 2008, that is. This year we had a bumper crop, so at last the word really seems to be getting out. Part of the interview focused on why Hungarians had not signed up before, despite the fact that the ELF is now always held on home turf. His responses were fascinating:

  • One hurdle for Hungarians was the name itself – being called the European Leadership Forum made it sound like something far too big, remote and removed, not something that could connect locally. People have experienced first-hand what it is like for a nation to be swallowed up by a system that dwarfs them – so they are understandably nervous of anything that smacks of that. This is a real shame because the ELF, in contrast to many pan-European events, is acutely conscious of the need to serve the local, catering for cultural specifics despite the wide diversity. Once people cross that perception barrier, they discover the forum’s genius – that it really is about sharing international (and even global) resources locally. My guess is that this is a fear that many of us can relate to, though – especially amongst the more naturally Eurosceptic Brits. But it all just shows that when something big has the heart of serving and not controlling the local, it can be brilliant.**
  • The other point Tom made was very helpful. The ELF is incredibly well-run. An army of American volunteers pay for themselves to come and then work their socks off to ensure everything runs like clockwork. Fiendishly complex logistics are involved to make sure that the vast number of lectures and seminars are all coordinated, resourced and recorded (NB click on the ELF Resources button on the right for an archive of previous material). Unsurprisingly, a highly-organised administrative system is absolutely necessary. But this is highly intimidating to those who have experienced years of centralized state control systems in the former Communist bloc. They are immediately suspicious and wary – so much so that even the details required in the booking process can be enough to put them off. Again, once they come and experience the nature of the forum, it is immediately obvious why these are all necessary. But isn’t interesting how sometimes the very hallmark of an event that makes it work so well can become the stumbling block for people being able to appreciate it. There’s a sermon in there somewhere…

Tom was clear that he was not making a criticism of the ELF as such – it merely illustrates yet again how fraught working in cultures with very different historical inheritances can be. Hats off to him for being willing to be so open and clear – especially because it helped us all from the Western side of Europe to understand something of what they have to battle with.


** Incidentally, there was a classic moment earlier on in the week, on the day after the 2008 Eurovision Song Contest. Stefan (a Swedish leader on the ELF steering group) was giving out the notices and had the privileged opportunity to announce the Eurovision results (which most will have missed as a result of living in our conference bubble). Unfortunately he didn’t have time to read out the whole list (so he claimed), but he did have time to announce the rank of the country with most ELF delegates present. There had been 25 entries in this year’s Eurovision finals. Because the UK had the highest numbers of ELF delegates, Stefan proudly announced that the UK had come 25th. AWESOME. Cheers and whoops of joy spread through this pan-European gathering, to congratulate the UK on this incomparable achievement. Oh, how we all swelled with pride.


De Niro’s Good Shepherd – folly & fatality

Robert De Niro’s 2006 film THE GOOD SHEPHERD is not the sort of film to snuggle up to on a mellow Saturday night – which is probably why it didn’t make the sorts of waves it should have done. What’s more the pace is unremittingly slow and the central character Edward Wilson (Matt Damon) an excruciatingly cold fish. Still, I have to say that it is one of the most fascinating and thought-provoking movies I’ve seen for a while (in the same sort of category as Syriana and Good Night & Good Luck). I saw it a few months ago and various moments stuck with me so much that I had to see it again and actually take notes (yes, I know, ¡geek! ¡alert!). This has led to a review for the Damaris’ CultureWatch which you can read here. So if it’s not too late, put the DVD of this film on your Christmas lists!


Here are the first couple of paragraphs of the review:

The Good Shepherd is an all-star slow burn of a film, but no less compelling for that. Robert De Niro expects much of his audience in his direction of what is, admittedly, a fairly drawn-out tale of trust and betrayal. As a result, some give up the struggle. What is ostensibly an espionage thriller gets dismissed as over-intellectualised and peculiarly cold or unaffecting. Matt Damon was clearly directed to play Edward Wilson as emotionally crippled as possible (and in that respect is not a million miles from Anthony Hopkins as Mr Stevens, the agonisingly buttoned-up butler in The Remains of the Day). Consequently, it is hard to root for the protagonist, unless that includes squirming and frustration on his behalf! There is no doubting the sincerity of his motives or emotions, but as he finds himself buffeted by every wind of international affairs from the Second World War to the Bay of Pigs débâcle under Kennedy’s presidency, the ‘greater good’ erodes his humanity. Flawed though this film may be, keeping pace with the slow burn certainly pays off. Images and dialogue from this film stayed with me for days. What makes The Good Shepherd so challenging is not its length or the political intricacies of its plot, but its searing analysis of what constitutes trust and loyalty – especially when different loyalties come into conflict. And in the end, the quest to gain a knowledge that has traditionally been the sole domain of God, results in having to make decisions for which the finite and sinful human mind is hopelessly unqualified.

Most of the story is shown in flashbacks, designed to help us understand the mysterious credits sequence. In that sense it follows a structure like the action-packed Pitt and Redford vehicle Spy Game. But this is not the world of Bond or even Bourne; it is far closer to the Cold War territory of Le Carré’s George Smiley: slow, methodical, discreet, and therefore much more tense and credible. To look at him, you would never guess Wilson was a senior intelligence chief as he commutes into Washington each day alongside the faceless Trilby-wearing functionaries of state. And that is precisely the point. In fact, this is, in some ways, an American homage to both Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Smiley’s People – except here the betrayals come far closer to home. Wilson even has his KGB nemesis, the mysterious Ulysses (played by the magnetic Ukrainian American Oleg Shtefanko), echoing Smiley’s KGB obsession, Karla. They pad around each other like wary panthers, each waiting for their adversary to blink first. This mutual obsession is personal and appears to have little to do with the machinations of their political overlords, a fact that has desperate and tragic consequences for Wilson’s family.

[Read more…]


“I did nothing” – and saved the world

There once was a man who was simply doing his job as he best understood it – but was vilified by his countrymen for not fulfilling their expectations of his duty. He kept his cool when emotions were running high. His political masters expected one thing in the circumstances, but he did another. A self-effacing and humble man, he did not seek the limelight. In fact when asked to comment on what he had done, his only response was to say ‘I did nothing’. But it was the very fact of his doing nothing that saved the world.

I’d never heard of him until this week – but it is doubtless due to the action, or rather inaction, of Stanislav Petrov, that you are still alive today and reading this post. What he did was kept secret until 1998 (sorry but I’m a bit slow on the uptake with these sorts of things). Apparently a documentary is coming out next year about him what he did was nothing less than single-handedly averting World War 3, towards the end of the cold war. Soviet-US relations were tense because 3 weeks before the incident, Soviet fighters had shot down a Korean passenger plane, which killed everyone including a US Congressman.

Stanislav Petrov was a Strategic Rocket Forces lieutenant colonel, the officer on duty at the Serpukhov-15 bunker near Moscow on September 26, 1983. Petrov’s responsibilities included observing the satellite early warning network and notifying his superiors of any impending nuclear missile attack against the Soviet Union. In the event of such an attack, the Soviet Union’s strategy was an immediate nuclear counter-attack against the United States, specified in the doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction.

At 00:40 hrs, the bunker’s computers identified a US missile heading toward the Soviet Union. Petrov considered the detection a computer error, since a United States first-strike nuclear attack would hypothetically involve hundreds if not thousands of simultaneous missile launches to disable any Soviet means for a counterattack. Furthermore, the satellite system’s reliability had been questioned in the past. Petrov dismissed the warning as a false alarm, though accounts of the event differ as to whether he notified his superiors or not after he concluded that the computer detections were false and that the United States had not launched any missile. Later, the computers identified five additional missiles in the air, all directed towards the Soviet Union. Petrov once again concluded that the computer system was malfunctioning, despite there being no other source of information to confirm his suspicions. The Soviet Union’s land radar was not capable of detecting missiles beyond the horizon and waiting for them to positively identify the threat would limit the Soviet Union’s response time to mere minutes.

Should Petrov have disregarded a real attack, the Soviet Union would have been struck by several nuclear missiles. Had he reported the incoming American missiles, his superiors might have launched a catastrophic assault against their enemies, precipitating a corresponding nuclear response from the United States. Petrov trusted his intuition and declared the system’s indications a false alarm. Later, it was apparent that his instincts were right: no missiles were approaching and the computer detection system was malfunctioning. It was subsequently determined that the false alarms had been created by a rare alignment of sunlight on high-altitude clouds and the satellites’ Molniya orbits (an error later corrected with cross-reference to a geostationary satellite).

Petrov later indicated the influences in this enormous decision included the facts that he had been told a US-strike would be all-out, that five missiles seemed an illogical start, that the launch detection system was new and not yet in his view wholly trustworthy, and that ground radars were still failing to pick up any corroborative evidence even after minutes of delay. (From the Wiki page on Petrov).

So by doing nothing and saying nothing, Petrov saved the world. Despite this, he got into serious trouble with his bosses: he was reprimanded, transferred and finally dismissed, resulting in a nervous breakdown and retirement into poverty.

Perhaps I’m overegging things a little here and there are of course many differences: but I couldn’t help but be reminded of another despised figure who refused to speak and thus speeded his own demise, while at the same time ushering in a new global era of peace – but with a far grander scope: peace with God.