I’m trying to understand power – what it means, how it’s wielded, how it affects us. Big topic. But I’m increasingly convinced that we can’t understand the culture of suspicion without grasping the power of power (and its abuses).
This has drawn me to someone who has been a bit of a hero, but whose writings I’d only dipped into. Reading Václav Havel‘s masterly and vital 1978 essay The Power of the Powerless has blown me away. Written in the dark days of Czechoslovak communism (only 10 years after the false dawn of the Prague Spring), it is a profound analysis of what it was like to live under a regime built entirely on lies. The only response, the only subversion of the regime, therefore, is to live in truth. Read more
Apparently there were only 19 hours of sunshine in Berlin between 1st January and 22nd March – a record low. Such absolute greyness is oppressive. But in recent weeks, there have also been huge snowfalls. The result is an eerily monochrome world. Not ideal for taking sightseers’ photographs. But somehow appropriate for a visit to Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Read more
The proverbial ‘out of the frying pan into the fire’ could have been minted especially for Lev Mishchenko, one half of the extraordinary couple at the heart of Orlando Figes’ Just Send Me Word. Before completing his science studies in Moscow, he was whisked away to the Nazi front. Soon after, he was captured and spent considerable time as a German POW. As a German-speaker, he was able to make himself useful – though he resolutely refused to become a German spy. That wasn’t enough to prevent him from being convicted as one on his release – for which his sentence was death, commuted to 10 years hard labour in Siberia. Read more
I can’t remember who told me about these, but they’re fab. The Open University Religious Studies is obviously plugging its wares – but fair enough. The results are wonderful and very useable in all kinds of places I suspect – wryly humoured animation with the added bonus is the wonderfully-suited satirical voice of David Mitchell. Read more
There is a clear counter-argument for every point I want to make here. In fact, I sort of agree with every counter-argument myself. But I feel the need to make them nevertheless. For my hunch is that one of the key factors in ministerial burnout is that we are far more influenced by post-enlightenment modernism than by the values of the Kingdom. It shouldn’t come as any surprise – we’re always more insidiously affected by our culture than we appreciate. It’s just so sad how little we face the problem. Read more
The Story of a Secret State is an astonishing wartime memoir that seems scarcely credible. There are moments where the narrative seems more at home in an airport spy thriller. Jan Karski (the author’s resistance nom de guerre) was recruited into the Polish Underground early in his country’s Nazi Occupation. We trace his many movements around Nazi-occupied countries made possible by clandestine mountain treks. Read more
Maurice Castle is the wary protagonist of Graham Greene’s 1978 novel, The Human Factor. He works on the Africa desk for the British secret service. He loves his South African wife and her young son but has a deeply burdened and heavy heart. He is a very sympathetic character – a man who, as his mother cuttingly observed, an over-inflated sense of gratitude. And it is his sense of gratitude and indebtedness that gets him into trouble. But I won’t plot spoil. Read more
It is not just the victims of imperialism who easily identify its sins and blindspots. Those who have wielded and then lost empires are quick to spot the parallels in others’. Perhaps that was partly why Graham Greene was such a caustic critic of what he perceived as the twentieth century’s new imperialist incarnation: the United States. Of course Greene had strong left-wing sympathies and was openly anti-American, which provided convenient filters by which the right could ignore his perspectives. It’s no surprise that he was under FBI surveillance from the 1955 publishing of The Quiet American until his death in 1991. Read more
This is a mildly unserious combination of Q’s Espionage festival and Friday Fun. But London W1 is a spy-historian’s paradise – there are so many spots around here that saw Cold War duty (and the KGB certainly knew their way around). For a start, the formal gardens of Regent’s Park were regular rendezvous points for Cambridge Spies Kim Philby and Donald Maclean with their KGB handlers. But there’s another couple of connections that are even closer to home. Read more
BBC Security Correspondent, Gordon Corera‘s new book, The Art of Betrayal – Life and Death in the British Secret Service covers ground that will be familiar to all students of the Cold War and spy fiction fans. But he does so in a very readable, engaging but authoritative way. The British Secret Service was in some ways one of the last relics of British imperial glory, with an ability to strut across the world stage despite other aspects of British influence declining. Read more
I was very struck by this fascinating article (“Building Blocks” from the latest Royal Academy magazine) about post-revolution architecture and art in the Soviet Union. Never having visited Russia itself (despite having travelled fairly extensively through its former cold war satellites), my presumption was that architecture in that era was full of monolithic, brutalising and depersonalised buildings. But it seems was that this was primarily the result of Stalinist totalitarianism and did not characterise the confidence of the brand new revolutionary state that held (to some extent) its ideals intact. Read more
The news from Norway has defied words. Senseless, mindless, pointless; it is cruel, irrational evil. And supposedly in the name of Christ. Sickening.
I always resist to tweet or post about every event or topical twist and turn. I’m just not that kind of blogger, I guess. Read more
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)
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).
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:
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.
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.
Gjirokaster is an ancient stone city in southern Albania – not far from the Greek border. It was the birthplace and hometown of the wonderful novelist, Ismail Kadare. It was also where the terrifying Communist dictator, Enver Hoxha came from. Hoxha is a ghostly figure who lurks on the peripheries of many of Kadare’s books (some of which I’ve posted about before). And his great (semi-autobiographical) masterpiece, Chronicle in Stone is no exception. As I’m due to return to Albania in a few weeks, I eagerly picked this book up on holiday and my expectations were surpassed.
The narrator is a young boy trying to come to terms with the turmoil of war. His ancient city is swarming with occupiers, collaborators, revolutionaries, survivors, ordinary folk just trying to exist. And in the early 1940s, all is confusion – only a few decades after Albania’s independence from the Ottoman Empire, the city changed hands several times back and forth between Italians, Greeks (with the aid of the British RAF bombers), Nazis – not to mention the various Albanian factions each with their own agendas (monarchists, nationalists, communists). Trying to understand the world of adults is hard enough for children – but when this is going on, it’s impossible.
Kadare recaptures the innocent confusion of children with pitch perfect poignancy. Here is a little moment where the young narrator has a go.
I wondered how it was that it had occurred to people to pile up so many stones and so much wood to make all those walls and roofs and then call that great heap of streets, roofs chimneys and yards a city. But even less comprehensible were the words “occupied city”, which came up more and more in the grown-ups’ conversations. Our city was occupied. Which meant that there were foreign soldiers in it. That much I new, but there was something else that bothered me. I couldn’t see how a city could be unoccupied. And anyway, even if our city wasn’t occupied, wouldn’t there be these same streets, the same fountains, roofs and people? Wouldn’t I still have the same mother and father and wouldn’t Xhexho, Kako Pino, Aunt Xhemo and all the same people still come to visit? (p25)
Without giving much away, these words would prove to be strangely prescient.
One aspect of childhood that Kadare vividly evokes throughout the book is the inability of young children to understand metaphor and allusion (let alone the simple issue of gravity). Everything gets taken too literally. [Incidentally, this insight definitely provoked all kinds of thoughts about how people handle the bible – and whether it is itself an indication of maturity or the lack of it – but that’s another story!].
Here our narrator is chatting with his best friend Ilir. His wonderful imagination gets carried away as he processes what they have overheard. The cause of some of the confusion is that he and Ilir a few months before had secretly gone to check out the local abattoir.
Ilir raced down Fools’ Alley.
“Guess what?” he said, as he came through the door. “The world is round like a melon. I saw it at home. Isa brought it. It’s round, perfectly round, and it spins without stopping.” He took a long time to tell me what he had seen.
“But how come they don’t fall off?” I asked when he told me there were other cities under us, full of people and houses.
“I don’t know,” Ilir said. “I forgot to ask Isa. He and Javer were home looking at the globe. Then Javer tapped it with his finger and
said, ‘Soon it’ll be a slaughterhouse.’”
“Yes. That’s what he said. The world will drown in blood. That’s what he said.”
“Where will all the blood come from?” I asked. “Fields and mountains don’t have blood.”
“Maybe they do,’ said Ilir. “They must know something, they way they talk. When Javer said the world would be a slaughterhouse, I told him we’d been there and had seen how they slaughter sheep. He started laughing and said, ‘Now you’ll see what happens when they slaughter nations.’”
“Nations? Like on the postage stamps, you mean?”
“Right. Like that. Nations.”
“Who’s going to slaughter them?”
Ilir shrugged. “I didn’t ask.”
I thought about the slaughterhouse again. One day when she was talking about the aerodrome Xhexho said that the fields and grasses would be covered with cement. With wet slipper cement. A rubber hose sluicing cities and nations. To wash away the blood… Maybe we were only at the beginning of the slaughter. But I found it hard to imagine nations being led to the slaughter, bleating as they went. Peasants in their black woollen cloaks. Butchers in white coats. Rams, ewes, lambs. People standing around to watch. Other people just waiting. Then it was time. France. Norway. The square awash with blood. Holland bleating. Luxembourg like a newborn lamb. Russia with a big bell around its neck. Italy a goat (I don’t know why). Something mooing all on its own. Who could that be? (p91-92)
The book opens with a massive rainstorm (which causes all kinds of overnight chaos with flooding cisterns and streets) – but within a few pages the storm abates, and all is calm.
I went back up the two flights to the living room, looked out and saw with joy that far off, at a distance too great to measure, a rainbow had appeared, like a brand-new peace treaty between mountain, river bridge, torrents, road, wind and city. But it was easy to see that the truce would not last long. (p10)
And in many ways that longed for, far off peace treaty is what everyone in the city craves, as the storms of war descend. Yet the book doesn’t end with a rainbow. Interestingly, as the excellent introduction by David Bellos observes, it doesn’t end with Enver Hoxha’s triumphant conquest of his own country in the name of the people – we just know that it is coming (though not as triumphant as he’d have liked). This is in itself a sly form of Kadare’s rebellion against the official propaganda about the inevitability of the regime’s victory. But that is part of the book’s brilliance. He sustains his artistic and human integrity without compromising too much with the regime he submits too.
This boy (clearly based on Kadare himself) is a impressionable, curious and above all resilient observer of the world he’s in – and he sees the glimmers of hope even in the darkest corners. He is obsessed with Shakespeare’s Macbeth which he discovers in the course of the book – and sees all kinds of resonances within the stone walls of his own medieval home town. And the walls have seen it all. The people who inhabit them pass – but the walls survive (despite the aerial and artillery bombardments) – and tell their story. They are a chronicle in stone of the many rulers that have claimed Gjirokaster as their own.
But this book, a chronicle in its own right (interspersing the narrative with only apparently irrelevant snippets of news items, observations and reflections), is a true act of bravery. First published in Albanian in 1971 when the Hoxha regime seemed so unassailable, to even hint that it might pass was potentially reckless. But it is more than a brave book. It is also a beautiful book and a humane book. And I suspect it is a book I will return to again and again.
While working on something else, I was glancing through some old notes I’d taken on various books, and retrieved this brilliantly incisive description of the way the western culture of capitalism makes us conform, in Naomi Klein’s seminal No Logo (recently updated for its 10th Anniversary).
This was written in 1999, but we appear not to have moved on that much…
The Kinko’s, Starbucks and Blockbusters buy their uniform of khakis and white or blue shirts at the Gap; the ‘Hi! Welcome to Gap!’ greeting cheer is fuelled by Starbucks double espressos; the resumes that got them the jobs were designed at Kinko’s on friendly Macs, in 12-point Helvetica on Microsoft Word. The troops show up for work smelling of CK One (except at Starbucks, where colognes and perfumes are thought to compete with the ‘romance of coffee’ aroma), their faces freshly scrubbed with Body Shop Blue Corn Mask, before leaving apartments furnished with Ikea self-assembled bookcases and coffee tables.
Naomi Klein, No Logo, p131
The irony, it seems to me, is that it results in a uniformity every bit as powerful as that which communism attempted to impose… with one essential, but subtle, distinction. We actually choose this conformity under the illusion that we are autonomous.
So yet again (a theme I return to repeatedly on Q), Communism and Capitalism are merely different manifestations of the same dehumanising, modernist worldview.
Every now and then I come across something that takes my breath away. And recently, I’ve found this happen more and more with contemporary Chinese artists. Q regulars may remember the powerful impact of Xu Bing’s work with his meaningless words. Well here’s another…
As this picture above illustrates, Chinese classical art is world-renowned for its stunning landscape painting (especially for the ways that the natural world is evoked by the slightest of brushstrokes).
But check this out.
Here are a few variations on the theme by the remarkable artist, Shanghai-based Yang Yongliang. At first sight, they seem to follow closely the path and styles of the old masters. But look closer – and you see that all is not as it first seems – for a start, they’re actually produced on an inkjet printer. Then he’s presented an incredibly powerful subversion of the style, as a way of exposing the way that aggressive capitalism and environmental exploitation have destroyed so much of the uniquely beautiful Chinese landscape.
No wonder that they have been appropriated by the China Environment Protection Foundation. No idea who or what they’re like, but i sure hope they’re able to stop at least some of the insanity.
Artificial Wonderland by Yang Yongliang
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…