Morocco: Paul Bowles

1950 with Jane

Paul Bowles with his wife Jane Auer, 1950. Photo: Cecil Beaton.

My post on the film Performance, in which I mentioned Paul Bowles (1910–99: wiki here, website here), reminded me to explore his work on the musics of Morocco.

Bowles’s involvement with Moroccan music features rather intermittently in his story. Instead, accounts of both his early years and his later life after settling in Tangier from 1947 read like a Who’s Who of the Great Names of American and European culture.

As in many cases, biography (I read Christopher Sawyer-Lauçanno, An invisible spectator, 1989) provides a more dispassionate survey than Bowles’ own autobiography Without stopping (1972). Written under a publisher’s deadline while his wife Jane’s health was in terminal decline, “because he was so filled with pain and torment he had to shut off his emotions lest it consume the book. The result is that it’s a very impersonal memoir.” (An invisible spectator, p.406).

His relationship with his parents was fraught. As to his father,

I vowed to devote my life to his destruction, even though it meant my own—an infantile conceit, but one which continued to preoccupy me for many years.

This was perhaps a major element in his later escape to Morocco. First he travelled widely around Europe and Latin America. Trained as a pianist, he became a promising composer under the aegis of Aaron Copland and Roger Sessions. A plan to study in Paris with Nadia Boulanger never came to fruition. Later he took part in Virgil Thomson’s splendidly-titled group The Friends and Enemies of Modern Music, Inc.

On early and later trips between the USA, Europe, and Morocco, Bowles regularly met (and collaborated with) a stellar array of artists—including Gertrude Stein, Jean Cocteau, Christopher Isherwood, W.H. Auden, Krishnamurti, Manuel de Falla, Colin McPhee, Leonard Bernstein, Tennessee Williams, Peggy Guggenheim, Marcel Duchamp, Gore Vidal, Talullah Bankhead, John Cage, Jean-Paul Sartre, Anaïs Nin, John Huston, Truman Capote, Cecil Beaton, and Francis Bacon. To name but a few… He married the author Jane Auer in 1938; the sources are rather discreet, but for them and most of their wider circle, heterosexual activity was clearly not high on the agenda (see e.g. here).

Bowles had embarked on his first voyage to Morocco, with Copland, in 1931:

The trip to Morocco would be a rest, a lark, a one-summer stand. The idea suited my overall desire, that of getting as far away as possible from New York. Beiing wholly ignorant of what I should find there, I did not care. I had been told that there would be a house somewhere, a piano somehow, and sun every day. That seemed to me enough.

Indeed, on his travels he would constantly endure the travails of finding a workable piano—a suitable and unique punishment for the WAM composer. He also wrote reviews for the New York Herald Tribune, and began to review jazz.

This opened the door to folk music as well, inasmuch as it was my contention that every category of recorded music (except strictly commercial popular) ought to be covered.

Incidentally, Bela Bartók had collected folk music in north Africa as early as 1913. Bowles’s later contribution to Bartók’s Concerto for orchestra (1943) may not be so well known:

On an early trip to Casablanca [Bowles] bought a phonograph and “what the French call Chleuh records. (So-called Chleuh music is a popular genre evolved from the folk music of the Souss and sung in Tachelhait.)

The composer Henry Cowell had been using some of these discs in his teaching. Bowles recalls:

He asked me to make a set of records for Bela Bartók, who was living in Pittsburgh. Later he told me Bartók was incorporating the Chleuh material in a piece. Sure enough, when I heard the Concerto for orchestra, there was the music, considerably transformed, but still recognizable to me, who was familiar with each note of every piece I had copied for him.

I’m glad Paul Schuyler finds the connections elusive too (Music of Morocco, booklet).

From a period when W.H. Auden was presiding over an illustrious ménage in New York, Bowles has a nice story about Salvador Dalí and Harpo Marx:


At that time Dalí did occasional illustrations for Harper’s bazaar; once they had been reproduced, George [Davis] would bring them home and have them framed. One of these pictures was a fine pencil sketch of Harpo Marx playing a harp strung with barbed wire, while in the desert background some giraffes burned spectacularly. George had left the picture on the windowsill and gone out, and a rainstorm had come up. When he returned to the house, he found his Dalí drenched and stained, just where he had left it, and the window still wide open. He rushed to Susie, the maid, and began to recriminate with her, pointing at the picture and repeating: “How could you, Susie? It’s ruined! Ruined!” Susie was used to this sort of thing, but she sympathized and shook her head. “Yes, Mr Davis, you right,” she said. “It sure is too bad, and it was such a beautiful picture of your mother, too.”

Bowles gave himself over only gradually to fiction and the Moroccan life. Moving to Tangier in 1947, he made his name with the 1949 novel The sheltering sky, later adapted in a 1990 film by Bernardo Bertolucci.

He acquired a taste for kif and majoun, receiving regular visits from Brion Gysin, William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, as well as Timothy Leary. During a long trip with Gysin in 1950 they first encountered the musicians of Jajouka at a moussem in Sidi Kacem; Bowles described his ongoing relationship with them in Days: a Tangier journal. Later he would feel nostalgic for these early years; Morocco became independent in 1956, but Jane fell ill in 1957, suffering a long and painful decline until her death in 1973.

Another vignette: on a visit to India (p.312),

I liked the hotel in Aurangabad, and so we settled there for a while. The English manageress was a Christian Scientist and gave me some copies of the Monitor. She also mentioned that a countryman of mine, a Mr Monahan, was due to arrive at the hotel within the next few days. Perhaps I knew him? I said I did not. “He’s very famous,” she insisted. “A famous violinist.” I told her that I had never heard of him, adding that since I had been out of America for several years, he might have become famous since my departure. “No, no. He’s been ever so famous* for years.”
[Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t believe Americans often use “ever so”, so this looks like an acute observation of his English host’s language.]

A few days later Mr Monahan did arrive and with Mrs Monahan took the suite next to mine. It was not long before he began to practice. Ahmed straightway pulled out his Moroccan lirah, or cane flute such as shepherds carry, and footled with it [sic]. The practicing stopped; there was muffled murmurs of surprise and incomprehension in the neighboring room. Each time the violin started up, Ahmed shrilled on the lirah. Presently Mr Monahan retired into a further room and shut the door, to continue his work unmolested. I hoped to avoid having to come face to face with him on the veranda. During siesta time that afternoon somewhere in the hotel a woman began to call: “Yehudi! Yehudi!” At this point I realized who Mr Monahan was. “Do you hear what that woman is calling her husband?” demanded Ahmed. “He ought to knock her down.” In Morocco when a mule or a donkey refuses to move, he gets the word “yehudi” shouted at him. I thought of this, and in order not to call forth some awful scene, I did not explain to Ahmed that Yehudi was actually the man’s name. Later in New York when I saw Menuhin again, I asked him if he remembered the flute in the hotel at Aurangabad, and he did.

The 1959 recording project
While Bowles’s own memoirs (pp.344–6) are rather laconic on the subject of his 1959 project, An invisible spectator (pp.349–51) provides some detail. [1] In fact he had already applied for a grant without success some twenty-five years earlier (!). But now,

Before leaving New York, Bowles learned that the Rockefeller Foundation had at last awarded him a grant. He went to the Foundation’s headquarters and was given a crash course in how to operate the professional-quality Ampex tape recorder that they were also providing him. By late May he was back in Tangier, eager to begin his recording. As Jane was holding steady, he decided to set out in July, thinking that it would only take him a short while to arrange permission with the authorities to do his recording. He soon became entangled in Moroccan governmental procedures, however, and finally decided to dispense with trying to obtain formal permission. Instead, he went to the American consulate, which drew up a document stating that the US government was behind the project. The affixed several seals, stamps, and signatures and attached Bowles’s photograph; Bowles decided that it looked sufficiently formal to enable him to begin the project.

In the interim, he had gathered two traveling companions: Christopher Wanklyn, who spoke good Maghrebi and owned a Volkswagen; and a Moroccan, Mohammed Larbi, who’d recently escorted a British expedition on a trans-Saharan journey. Together, over the next five months, on four separate trips, they would travel some 25,000 miles through some of Morocco’s most remote and rugged locales. Of the second trip, made from August 29 to September 22, 1959, Bowles kept a detailed account; he later published a selection of the travel notes as an article, “Ketama Taza”, reprinted in expanded form as “The Rif, to music”, in his book of travel essays, Their heads are green and their hands are blue.

The journey was not without difficulties. First, there was the physical hardship of abysmal hotels, tortuous roads, heat, and ultimately, for Bowles, illness. Second, there was the problem of making recordings. Although Bowles had originally expected governmental hostility, the local authorities were for the most part quite cordial and helpful. This, however, could not compensate for the fact that the Ampex ran only on 110-volt AC current and was not equipped with a battery pack [!!!]. As a result, recording could only be done where there was electricity, and of the correct voltage. Despite all the difficulties, however, Bowles managed to collect a huge variety of music, representative of nearly all of Morocco.

More photos here.

There would, in fact, have been even more music recorded, but in October 1959 the Moroccan government suddenly decided that since his project was “ill-timed” (whatever that meant), he would not be allowed to undertake it. Bowles recalled that “the American Embassy advised me to continue my work”. He proceeded, but by December the government had become aware of what he was doing. “They informed me summarily that no recordings could be made in Morocco save by special permission from the Ministry of Interior…. I had practically completed the project… however, from then on it was no longer possible to make any recordings which involved the cooperation of the government; this deprived the collection of certain tribal musics of southeastern Morocco.” Even with the lack of this latter music, Bowles had recorded more than 250 separate selections by the end of December.

Curiously enough, Bowles’s efforts have never been terribly appreciated in Morocco. According to him, the prevalent “official” Moroccan attitude these days is that traditional folk music is “degenerate”. Indeed, in the 1960s the government engaged in an all-out effort to encourage the composition of “patriotic” music, which would contain a political message—specifically, singing the praises of Morocco and Moroccan progress. The gradual “development” of many of the remote regions of the country and an increased migration from the country to the cities had a profound impact on traditional musical forms. Many of the forms that Bowles recorded are now near impossible to hear in Morocco; and those that are heard are often diluted or mixed with other forms.

As Schuyler comments, “change and hybridity, the very forces that keep music vital, were, in his view, signs of decay.” But Bowles’s fear for the future of such traditions was premature.

In the United States, despite the sponsorship of the Rockefeller Foundation and the Library of Congress, the tapes went promptly into an archive, where for more than a decade they gathered dust. Finally, in 1972, the Library of Congress did issue a superb, two-volume record set, containing a fine sampling of Bowles’s collection. Nonetheless, countless hours of recordings have never been released to the public and most likely never will be.

Still, Bowles and Wanklyn managed to make some additional recordings from 1960 to 1962, and in 1965 Smithsonian Folkways issued a disc under Wanklyn’s name alone (notes here).

Bowles’ notes, reproduced with the 1972 discs (here and here), are impressive, providing cultural and musical background to the tracks. Here’s a revealing vignette:

The Ait Ouaraine live in the mountains southeast of Fez and until recently were in great demand among the residents of that city as entertainers at weddings and other household festivals. Here only women performed, one of them using a bendir as accompaniment. Before setting up the recording session I had been told by the governmental katib that I would be hiring three people to perform. When three men and four women arrived, I began to look forward to difficulties at the moment of payment. The leader of the group, however, was scrupulous about honoring his agreement. “Three people,” he said when I came to pay him, and I remembered that women are not people; these four ha[d] been brought along as decorative assistants and did not expect to be paid.

And in 2016, long after the two Bowles LPs were issued in 1972, the Library of Congress published a handsome four-CD set Music of Morocco, with illuminating additional notes by Philip Schuyler, from both Bowles’ diaries and his own experience. Here’s an online playlist:

I wonder how they decided where to go, and who to seek. Of course, there were (and are) musicians everywhere, but identifying worthwhile genres and performers requires considerable local knowledge. The government resistance, and stress on patriotism and development, reminds me of China—although some fine fieldwork projects were under way there at the time.


From Music of Morocco (2016).

Schuyler provides further material on the trips, such as:

The very first recording session, on August 1 in the seaside village of Ain Diab, seemed to bear out Bowles’s expectations. In Ain Diab, the team took advantage of a festival (musem, or in Paul’s Tangier dialect, ‘amara) in honor of the saint Sidi Abderrhamane. At these events, pilgrims come to worship and celebrate at the saint’s shrine, and merchants, restaurateurs, and entertainers all set up shop to accommodate them. With the cooperation of government officials overseeing the festival, Bowles was able to record six different genres of music representing seven different tribal groups or geographical regions in just two days. The musicians were mostly professionals and many of them, like the pilgrims, had come from a great distance, probably at government expense. It is difficult sometimes to tell exactly who these musicians were or where they resided, because Bowles was recording so quickly that he had little time to gather information.

Alas, these were audio recordings only, in formal conditions removed from social activity. Strangely (given Bowles’ own passion for language), he hardly documented the vocal texts. And as he wrote, “complex arrangements were often necessary for transporting musicians from their remote villages to places where the electric power supply was compatible with the recording equipment.” Still, the set makes a fine survey of diverse vocal and instrumental genres. With my taste for shawms (further Chinese examples on the playlist in the sidebar, with commentary here), track 3.03 on the YouTube playlist above is enchanting.

Apart from the 1959 project, Bowles doesn’t seem to have written in much detail about his encounters with folk musicking or performers, in either the cities (his main base) or the countryside. In Fez he sometimes attended domestic mizane performances of Andaluz music; he visited religious festivals in the countryside, and he encountered the Sufi brotherhoods quite early (Without stoppingpp.150–151):

At that time more than half the population of Morocco belonged to one or another of the religious confraternities which enable their adepts to achieve transcendence of normal consciousness (a psychic necessity all over the African continent) and to do so in Islamic terms. For most educated Moroccans the existence of the cults is an abomination; with the emergence of nationalism they were suppressed more or less successfully for two decades or more. When once again they were sanctioned, care was taken to see that the observances took place hidden from the sight of non-Moslems. Visitors might ridicule the participants, it was said, or consider Moroccans a backward people if they witnessed such spectacles. I had suspected that I would stumble onto a scene which would show me the pulse of the place, if not the exposed, beating heart of its magic, but it was a tremendous surprise to find it first on the open street. Yet there they were, several thousand people near Bab Mahrouk, stamping, heaving, shuddering, gyrating, and chanting, all of them aware only of the overpowering need to achieve ecstasy. They stayed there all day and night; I could hear the drums from my room, and during the night they grew louder. The next morning the mob was at Bab Dekaken, just outside the hotel. Then I realized that it was a procession, moving at the rate of approximately a hundred feet an hour, with such extreme slowness that as one watched no visible progress was made. Along the edges of the phalanx there were women in trance; pink and white froth bubbled from their mouths; small shrieks accompanied their spastic motions. When someone lost consciousness entirely and fell, he was dragged inside the wall of onlookers. It took the procession two days to get from Bab Mahrouk to Bab Chorfa, a distance of perhaps a mile. I should never have believed an account of the phenomenon had I not been watching it. But which one or more of the brotherhoods the participants represented, whether they were Aissaoua or Jilala or Hamatcha or something else, there was no way of knowing, nor did I ask. Here for the first time I was made aware that a human being is not an entity and that his interpretation of exterior phenomena is meaningless unless it is shared by other members of his cultural group. A bromide, but one that had escaped until then.

Later he introduced Jane to the amara gathering of Aissoua pilgrims the cult at Moulay Brahim (Without stopping, pp.285–6). But while he made some recordings of the brotherhoods, such curiosity never evolved into a desire to document them more thoroughly. Although as a long-term resident he was well qualified to conduct such research, he sought tranquil places to live in order to focus on writing; Morocco was a breeding-ground for his creative life, not quite an object of detailed ethnography.

* * *

In a separate project, Alan Lomax went on to record in Morocco in 1967 (see here, and here). By the 1970s it was among the field-sites of the intrepid Bernard Lortat-Jacob. The relevant chapter in his perceptive book

  • Musiques en fête: Maroc, Sardaigne, Roumanie (1994)

makes a good introduction to the kinds of issues that one seeks to address in field research. He documents the laamt village-wide societies that organize the ahouach festivals, the recourse to occupational musicians, and the various genres.

Bernard also released several CDs:

  • Musique berbère du Haut-Atlas, 1971
  • Maroc, musique berbère, un mariage dans le Haut-Atlas oriental, 1975
  • Berbères du Maroc, “Ahwach”, 1979.

Over the same period, Philip Schuyler (later involved in the issuing of the 4-CD Bowles recordings) was conducting research, such as

  • “Berber professional musicians in performance”, in Gerard Béhague (ed.) Performance practice: ethnomusicological perspectives (1984),

as well as also producing his own recordings.

For more on ahouach and ahidus festivals, I also like the slim tome

  • Miriam Roving Olsen, Chants et danses de l’Atlas (1997, with CD).

The Moroccan cultural authorities produced a 31-CD set in 2002, critically reviewed here, as well as a 66-CD set. There are further revelations in the 10-CD anthology, Chikhates and chioukhs of the Aïta (2017).

Still (my usual refrain), audio recordings are all very well, and they make an important adjunct to silent analysis on the page; but it seems sad to reduce the intense, exhilarating vibrancy of such social activities (not least dancing) to disembodied sound objects (cf. McClary‘s “denial of the body”)—like the “red-hot sociality” of Chinese temple fairs and funerals, they cry out to be documented on ethnographic film. I’ve spent ages searching online for even brief clips that aren’t too commodified—try this, from the moussem of Sidi Douad, Ouarzazate, in 2004:

But as I glimpsed while eavesdropping on a wedding in the Atlas mountains in 2000, neither academic analysis nor audio or video representations can substitute for actual participation in such events.

Wedding, Imlil 2000. My photos.

Meanwhile, along with tourism, Moroccan culture became an inevitable victim of heritagisation. There are some perceptive articles on the fate of Jemaa el-Fna square in Marrakesh under the Intangible Cultural Heritage, such as

  • Thomas Schmitt, “Jemaa el Fna Square in Marrakech; changes to a social space and to a UNESCO masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity as a result of global influence”, Arab world geographer 8.4 (2005), and
  • Thomas Beardslee, “Whom does heritage empower, and whom does it silence? Intangible Cultural Heritage at the Jemaa el Fnaa, Marrakech”, International journal of heritage studies 22.2 (2016).

General surveys include “Morocco” in The New Grove dictionary of music and musicians. And the article on Morocco in The Rough Guide to world music (Africa, Europe, and the Middle East, pp.567–78) provides an accessible introduction, covering both traditional and popular genres, including ritual gnaoua (latterly adapted to become flavour-of-the-month on the World Music scene—cf. final remark here), chaabi, and the Moroccan version of raï. Songlines also has regular coverage.

* * *

It was Bowles’s own reputation that was responsible in no small measure for attracting the hippies who began to descend on Tangier in the early 1960s, hot on the heels of the first-wave Beats. But as Sawyer-Lauçanno relates (pp.355–6):

This influx created a certain amount of alarm in the expatriate community, most of whom were fairly affluent, well established, and prone to anxiety about their status in Morocco, particularly since independence. William Burroughs commented that the established residents “all felt that the beatniks were endangering their own position, casting aspersions on the foreign colony. And the old settlers were terrified, outraged: ‘The first thing you know they’ll get us all thrown out.’ ” This panic extended to Bowles and Jane, as well. According to Burroughs, “Jane and [her partner] Cherifa were trying to cast a spell on the beatniks. Jane would say, ‘I don’t want to really hurt any of them, just make them a little sick so they’ll go away.’ They were all hysterical that way, particularly the Bowleses. Both of them were always worried that they were going to be thrown out.”

group 1961

Peter Orlovsky, William Burroughs, Alan Ansen, Gregory Corso, Paul Bowles, Allen Ginsberg, Tangier 1961.

Paul, always immaculately turned out, was less than enamoured with the beatnik invasion. Ironically, it was to his parents that he sent this prurient description:

Every day one sees more beards and filthy blue jeans, and the girls look like escapees from lunatic asylums, with white lipstick and black smeared around their eyes, and matted hair hanging around their shoulders. The leaders of the “movement” have made their headquarters here and direct their activities from here. Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, and Burroughs are all established in Tangier now, sending out their publications from here.

Sawyer-Lauçanno goes on:

Despite his disparaging remarks and anxiety about deportation, Bowles made a distinction between the literary beatniks and what Burroughs terms “the lesser beats”, the hangers-on, the beatniks in style only. Indeed, during the early part of the 1960s, Bowles spent a good deal of time in the company of the “movement’s leaders”.

Given the unorthodoxy of their own tastes, all this may seem A Bit Rich… Chacun à son trou, surely.

Still, in the shadow of wartime trauma, when many were simply relieved to be able to tend the begonias of their suburban gardens in peace, I’m always impressed by such early explorers as Bowles. Some, like Gary Snyder, went in search of the wisdom of the Mystic East, while others were drawn to the Middle East and north Africa. But their engagement with folk culture varied.

I rarely presume to venture into the Islamic world, but see also here, and notably the Uyghur tag. For hand-clapping, see here.


[1] See also e.g.,,, and




For anyone living on another planet (immersed in medieval Daoist ritual manuals, or whatever)…

As if the Women’s World Cup wasn’t enough, I’m only too happy to subscribe to the mass adulation for Cori Gauff at Wimbledon. Her two victories were just exhilarating.

Mature and focused at 15, she’s an inspiration. Her parents seem great too.

CG parents

She was charming in handling the usual fatuous questions at her 3rd-round press conference:

When you were match point down on Centre Court, were you thinking, what would Venus and Serena do?

Er, no! …

which ranks along with Bertrand Russell’s comment after his plane crash. And at the risk of sounding like the woman visiting the young Living Buddha, I love the way she tucks her chair into the desk at the end.*


[Spoiler: typical Grauniad-reading liberal metropolitan elite quote coming up] At a time when the world seems doomed to suffer under mendacious cynical rich old white men, we all need role models like Cori—a list that might also include Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Greta Thunberg. It’s no coincidence that most of these inspiring figures are female.

Cori 2

I wish her well, and look forward to the day when AOC can welcome her to the White House!


* Contrast Kyrgios’s press conference after his defeat to Nadal, at which he adroitly dispelled any lingering doubts that he might not be a total asshole.

Of Steinbeck and Salinger


Along with my youthful taste for Zen and Daoism, I was also reading John Steinbeck and J.D. Salinger—though at the time I was barely aware of their mutual connections. So this is not so much a Lit Crit review as an attempt to see them in the context of my own “development”—”all that David Copperfield kind of crap”.

For Steinbeck I’m thinking not of his weightier tomes on the plight of immigrant workers and class struggle, but of Cannery row (1945). Here’s the celebrated opening:

Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream. Cannery Row is the gathered and scattered, tin and iron and rust and splintered wood, chipped pavement and weedy lots and junk heaps, sardine canneries of corrugated iron, honky-tonks, restaurants and whore houses, and little crowded groceries, and laboratories and flophouses. Its inhabitants are, as the man once said, “whores, pimps, gamblers, and sons of bitches”, by which he meant Everybody. Had the man looked through another peephole he might have said, “Saints and angels and martyrs and holy men”, and he would have meant the same thing.

Subliminally I found Lee Chong, Doc, and Danny incarnations of different oriental wisdoms. Doc (based on Ed Ricketts) was a sage, akin to Gary Snyder. And the hobos were Hanshan and Shide, their mishaps reminiscent of The good soldier Švejk and, later, Shameless (“PARTY!!”). And at a time when Chinese characters were still rare in Western fiction, Lee Chong made a beguiling stereotype of the inscrutable Chinese storekeeper.

Steinbeck pursued the theme in the sequel Sweet Thursday (1954). But the scenario goes back to his earlier Tortilla flat (1935), depicting a group of paisanos in a tumbledown district of Monterey. Here’s the opening:

This is the story of Danny and of Danny’s friends and of Danny’s house. It is a story of how how these three became one thing, so that in Tortilla Flat if you speak of Danny’s house you do not mean a structure of wood flaked with old whitewash, overgrown with an ancient untrimmed rose of Castile. No, when you speak of Danny’s house you are understood to mean a unit of which the parts are men, from which came sweetness and joy, philanthropy and, in the end, a mystic sorrow. For Danny’s house was not unlike the Round Table, and Danny’s friends were not unlike the knights of it. And this is the story of how that group came into being, of how it flourished and grew to be an organization beautiful and wise. This story deals with the adventuring of Danny’s friends, with the good they did, with their thoughts and their endeavours. In the end, this story tells how the talisman was lost and how the group disintegrated.

For Steinbeck’s 1947 trip to the USSR with photographer Robert Capa, see e.g. here.

* * *

If in Steinbeck the theme of oriental mysticism is latent, it’s more explicit in Salinger. Like John CageGary Snyder, and Alan Watts, Salinger was influenced by the teachings of Zen master D.T. Suzuki at 1950s’ Columbia, and later by Vedanta. The theme has attracted considerable discussion (e.g. here); like the whole TMI confessional style, not all of it is positive. And it’s still subsidiary in critical commentary on Salinger’s work; indeed, the more his fictional characters immersed themselves in such arcane pursuits, the less they appealed to his core readership. But the Beats, and later the Hippies, took note.

The Wisdom of the Mystic East may be overlooked in The catcher in the rye (1951, after serialization in 1945–46)—the book’s enduring popularity (not least in China) is based on the themes of phoniness and alienation. But the theme is unmistakable in Salinger’s portrayals of the precocious Glass family [cue Heart of glass], whose siblings became immersed in Zen (see e.g. this essay by Henry Shukman).

In Franny and Zooey (1961, first published separately in 1957 and 1961) the Bhagavad gita, the Upanishads, and the Diamond sutra are framed by the Christian mysticism of The cloud of unknowing and Meister Eckhart. Such works were hardly standard inspirations for fiction at the time, though later I would snap them up in Watkins bookshop. From a letter by Buddy to Zooey:

Seymour had already begun to believe (and I agreed, with him, as far as I was able to see the point) that education by any name would smell as sweet, and maybe much sweeter, if it didn’t begin with a quest for knowledge at all but with a quest, as Zen would put it, for no-knowledge. Dr Suzuki says somewhere that to be in a state of pure consciousness—satori—is to be with God before he said, Let there be light. […] We thought it would be wonderfully constructive to at least (that is, if our own limitations got in the way) tell you as much as we knew about the men—the saints, the arhats, the bodhisattvas,the jivankuktas—who knew something or everything about this state of being. That is, we wanted you both to know who and what Jesus and Gautama and Lao-tse and Shankaracharya and Huineng and Sri Ramakrishna, etc., were before you knew too much or anything about Homer or Shakespeare or even Blake or Whitman, let alone George Washington and his cherry tree or the definition of a peninsula or how to parse a sentence. That, anyway, was the big idea.

The appeal of Far-Eastern poetry is encapsulated in a long passage in Seymour: an introduction (1959), recalling the narrator Buddy’s late brother:

During much of his adolescence, and all his adult life, Seymour was drawn, first, to Chinese poetry, and then, as deeply, to Japanese poetry, and to both in ways that he was drawn to no other poetry in the world.* I have no quick way of knowing, of course, how familiar or unfamiliar my dear, if victimized, general reader is with Chinese or Japanese poetry. Considering, however, that even a short discussion of it may possibly shed a good deal of light on my brother’s nature, I don’t think this is the time for me to go all reticent and forebearing. At their most effective, I believe, Chinese and Japanese classical verses are intelligible utterances that please or enlighten or enlarge the invited eavesdropper to within an inch of his life. They may be, and often are, fine for the ear particularly, but for the most part I’d say that unless a Chinese or Japanese poet’s real forte is knowing a good persimmon or a good crab or a good mosquito bite on a good arm when he sees one, then no matter how long or unusual or fascinating his semantic or intellectual intestines may be, or how beguiling they sound when twanged, no-one in the Mysterious East speaks seriously of him as a poet, if at all. My inner, incessant elation, which I think I’ve rightly, if incessantly, called happiness, is threatening, I’m aware, to turn this whole composition into a fool’s soliloquy. I think, though, that even I haven’t the gall to try to say what makes the Chinese or Japanese poet the joy and marvel he is.

* [footnote in book] Since this is a record, of sorts, I ought to mumble, down here, that he read Chinese and Japanese poetry, for the most part, as it was written. [SJ: um, as if that’s possible—cf. Bach] […] If, in the line of duty, I should incidentally titillate a few young people’s interest in Chinese and Japanese poetry, it would be very good news to me. At all events, let the young person please know, if he doesn’t already, that a goodish amount of first-class Chinese poetry has been translated into English, with much fidelity and spirit, by several distinguished people; Witter Byner and Lionel Giles come most readily to mind. The best short Japanese poems—particularly haiku, but senryu, too—can be read with special satisfaction when R.H. Blyth has been at them. Blyth is sometimes perilous, naturally, since he’s a highhanded old poem himself, but he’s also sublime—and who goes to poetry for safety anyway?

I’m glad he credits Blyth there: indeed, Zen in English literature and oriental classics, which goes back to 1941, chimes in with Salinger’s quest for oriental wisdom in the Western world, not only in its high art but in its mundane realities (see e.g. here). Salinger/Buddy goes on:

Unofficially, Seymour wrote and talked Chinese and Japanese poetry all the thirty-one years he stopped with us, but I’d say that he made a formal beginning at composing it when he was eleven, in the first-floor reading room of a public library on upper Broadway, near our house. It was a Saturday, no school, nothing more pressing ahead of us than lunch, and we were having a fine time idly swimming around or treading water between the stacks, occasionally doing a little serious fishing for new authors, when he suddenly signalled to me to come over and see what he had. He’d caught himself a whole mess of translated verses by P’ang, the wonder of the eleventh century [SJ: this would be Layman Pang, actually a Tang master—whose sayings I also found in Watkins]. But fishing, as we know, in libraries is a tricky business, with never a certainty of who’s going to catch whom. [Typically lengthy aside on fishing…] Permanently, from that morning on, Seymour was hooked.

Indeed, the companion Raise high the roof beam, carpenters (a Sappho quote, for aficionados of the female composers T-shirt) opens with Seymour, then 17, reading a Daoist story to their ten-month old sister Franny.

Of course, with exceptions like Eugen Herrigel and Gary Snyder for Japan, such explorations were untramelled by engagement with the lives of their real Eastern contemporaries. But they weren’t merely retreating into an abstract Wisdom of the Mystic East but seeking to reconcile it with living in the modern world. Still, all this only goes some way towards explaining how I ended up traipsing around dusty Chinese villages in search of Daoists.

* * *

In their lives as in their fiction, both Steinbeck and Salinger come out poorly from later studies of their attitudes towards women. Kate Millett had bigger fish to fry (to a cinder) in Sexual politics (1970)—D.H. Lawrence, Henry Miller, Norman Mailer. But as early as 1954 Ward Moore made some pithy criticisms of Cannery row:

To Steinbeck, who carries to an extreme the Hemingway small-boy nostalgia for the never-never world of comradely masculine society without women save as an occasional inconvenience, Cannery row was an ideal microcosm. In it, socially at least, the infantile triumphed; Mother—the realist, the disciplinarian, the stabilizer—was excluded, and Father, if admitted at all, came as a refugee from domesticity. In Cannery row the locale the small boy as employee justified his restiveness in casual labor; in Cannery row the novel the small boy vindicated his pranks, his misdemeanors, his fear of responsibility in a glorification of perpetual hooky.

And the relation between Franny and her older, wiser brothers, with their more “legitimate” spiritual crises, has also been unpacked.

Still, at the time I was most beguiled by such Western pioneers, and their themes still resonate.



Belated recognition


British Ladies’ Football Club, 1895. Back row, 2nd left: Emma Clarke.

It may come as a relief to readers that my posts are currently coming rather less thick and fast than usual. I’m working away, and awaiting some more info—Honest Guv, it’s not entirely due to the stellar conjunction of the Women’s Football World Cup and the new series of Killing Eve.


After China’s defeat to Germany yesterday, we might recall that football seems to have been invented by the Chinese (“Typical!“), and female players were common there. Wiki lists sightings in 12th-century France and 1790s’ Scotland. The British Ladies’ Football Club was formed in 1894 (the illustration depicts their first match in 1895).

Amongst the players was the first black female footballer Emma Clarke (1876—c1905), whose story has recently been rediscovered. One of fourteen children from Bootle, of whom only four survived to adulthood, “the fleet-footed dark girl on the right wing” was also an occasional goalkeeper.

The popularity of women’s football in Britain increased during World War One, with munitions workers taking part keenly (cf. Morris dancing). A golden age occurred in the early 1920s, but it was banned from the grounds of the FA’s member clubs from 1921 to 1971 (no comment).

Patronizing early reports (“Grotesque football at Alford”!) had a lasting legacy. Doubtless over the following weeks the audience will include the girls of a County Durham school, authors of wise and trenchant letters to the FA in 2017. The first Women’s World Cup was held in 1991—in China. How inspiring that women’s football is finally making a major impact on the media.

As to Killing Eve (“homoerotic candy”?), my query, based on Mark’s comment in Peep show, remains unanswered. The temptation to binge-watch (never available for Twin Peaks in the prehistoric 1990s) is tough to resist…KE

Lives in Stalin’s Russia


Hand-in-hand with my focus on ritual and expressive culture, I have long been concerned to document life-stories—of ordinary people, artists, and scholars, both in China (cf. my detailed work on the Gaoluo villagers and the Li family Daoists) and Europe.

Under the Iron curtain tag I’ve broached life-stories under state socialism in the GDR (here and here), Czechoslovakia, and the Ukraine (blind minstrels, and the famine)—and tribulations under the Soviet regime were the context for this post on ethnic minorities there. But now, reading

  • Orlando Figes, The whisperers: private lives in Stalin’s Russia (2007)

makes an accessible single-volume study to begin shedding light on my ignorance of ordinary lives in the Soviet Union. Apart from the importance of the topic in itself, I muse (as ever) on the similarities and differences with Maoist—and post-Maoist—China.

Many books describe the externals of the Terror—the arrests and trials, enslavements and killings of the Gulag—but The whisperers is the first to explore in depth its influence on personal and family life.

The oral history of family memory makes a counterweight to the official narrative. Figes interrogates the issues in interpreting such sources. His website, following on from his oral history project, is a treasury of related material. For significant caveats on the book, see here (with further links).

As the regime sought to erase the distinction between public and private life, Figes describes both the effectiveness of the Soviet indoctrination of children and the internal conflict with messages they gleaned from their families. The system taught dissimulation, producing duplicity and lifelong fear. As a survival strategy, people learned to wear a mask, going into “internal emigration”, leading double lives; they had to adjust to the system merely in order to survive. They learned not to talk: “whisperers” were both those who whispered out of fear of being overheard, and those who informed.

Figes details the effects of successive waves of repression, before, during, and after the Stalin regime from 1928 to 1953, interweaving many family histories throughout the book. The case of its central figure Konstantin Simonov, who “embodied all the moral conflicts and dilemmas of his generation”, though revealing in its complexity, is exceptional in his high profile as cultural cadre. The index, and the website, can be used to follow the stories of individual families throughout the book. The cast includes both cadres and the catch-all of “kulaks”, but seems more urban than rural—whereas China was more predominantly rural as late as the 1970s. Even early images of “kulaks” being expelled, and photos from the Gulag (however manufactured), suggest that China was still more backward—and repressed—in the 1950s than Russia in the 1920s.

Exiles gulag Siberia 1933 101Exiles in a “special settlement” in western Siberia, 1933.

For Maoist China too, diverse sources can be assembled to modify and counter the official narrative, including memoirs, family photos and documents, local archives, and so on—note Sebastian Veg, Popular memories of the Mao eraMemoirs and biographical accounts have proliferated since the liberalizations of the 1980s. In film, recent projects such as laogai documentaries and Wu Wenguang’s Caochangdi Work Station are impressive. Also revealing are fictional portrayals—not just laogai novelists like Zhang Xianliang and Yan Lianke, but films such as The blue kite that suggest the everyday tribulations of ordinary families. But while there may be a comparable wealth of material for China, it’s hard to envisage such an accessible, personal, wide-ranging and diachronic account as The whisperers.

Illuminating his sources perceptively, Figes identifies clear periods in people’s fates under the Soviet regime. The repression took place over a longer period than that of Maoism, and may seem to have been even more terrifying. The Gulag—among the extensive literature on which, see e.g. Anne Applebaum, Gulag (2003)—looms larger in the public (and private) image of the USSR than the laogai system in China, although the latter has also become the subject of brave research. Executions, and the all-pervading NKVD, also seem to play a more common role in Soviet history.

Below I can only list some of the main themes of the book, rather than citing the many personal life-stories that illustrate them—which is actually its outstanding strength.

* * *

Figes opens with Children of 1917, on the early years of the revolution, and the beginnings of state indoctrination and the war on religion. In 1926 the peasantry represented 82% of the Soviet population—cf. China, where the rural population peaked at 84% in 1963. But urban populations grew rapidly. Families were dislocated; millions of children were abandoned, having to fend for themselves. Figes describes life at the camps. Some “kulaks” managed to flee from the camps, living on the run.

Young people renounced their relatives, for various motives.

As millions of people left their homes, changed their jobs, or moved around the country, it was relatively easy to change or reinvent one’s social class. People learned to fashion for themselves a class identity that would help them advance. They became clever at concealing or disguising impure social origins, and at dressing up their own biographies to make them seem more “proletarian”.

But they were haunted by the constant threat of exposure—many concealed their secrets right until the 1990s.

In The great break (1928–32) Figes describes the temporary relaxation in the assault against religion between 1924 and 1928:

On 2 August 1930, the villagers of Obukhovo celebrated Ilin Day, an old religious holiday to mark the end of the high summer when Russian peasants held a feast and said their prayers for a good harvest. After a service in the church, the villagers assembled at the Golovins, the biggest family in Obukhovo, where they were given home-made pies and beer inside the house while their children played outside. As evening approached, the village dance (gulian’e) began. Led by a band of balalaika players and accordionists, two separate rows of boys and girls, dressed in festive cottons, set off from the house, singing as they danced down the village street.

Thereafter, while clandestine belief may have persisted, I find rather few clues to any public religious (or even customary) activity—by contrast with Maoist China, where it kept resurfacing despite constant campaigns. Am I wrong to see local Chinese populations as more resilient in maintaining their expressive culture under Maoism? Still in Obukhovo:

That year the holiday was overshadowed by violent arguments. The villagers were bitterly divided about whether they should form a collective farm (kolkhoz), as they had been ordered by the Soviet government. […] There were terrifying tales of soldiers forcing peasants into the kolkhoz, of mass arrests and deportations, of houses being burned and people killed, and of peasants fleeing from their villages and slaughtering their cattle to avoid collectivization.

Kulaks exiled 1930s 89“Kulaks” exiled from the village of Udachne, Khryshyne (Ukraine), early 1930s.

As Figes explains:

During just the first two months of 1930, half the Soviet peasantry (about 60 million people in over 100,000 villages) was herded into the collective farms. […] Peasants who spoke out against collectivization were beaten, tortured, threatened, and harassed, until they agreed to join the collective farm. Many were expelled as “kulaks” from their homes and driven out of the village. The herding of the peasants into the collective farms was accompanied by a violent assault against the Church, the focal point of the old way of life of the village, which was regarded by the Bolsheviks as a source of potential opposition to collectivization. Thousands of priests were arrested and churches were looted and destroyed, forcing millions of believers to maintain their faith in the secrecy of their own homes. […]
There was surprisingly little peasant opposition to the persecution of the “kulaks”. […] The majority of the peasantry reacted to the sudden disappearance of their fellow villagers with passive resignation born of fear.

Golovins 1940s 78Yevdokiia and Nikolai with their son Aleksei Golovin (1940s).

In Obukhovo the Golovins were deported on 4th May 1930:

I recall the faces of the people standing there. They were our friends and neighbours—the people I had grown up with. No-one approached us. No-one said farewell. They stood there silently, like soldiers in a line. They were afraid.


There was widespread resistance to collectivization, even though most villagers acquiesced in the repression of “kulaks”. In 1929–30, the police registered 44,779 “serious disturbances”. Communists and rural activists were killed in their hundreds, and thousands more attacked. There were peasant demonstrations and riots, assaults against Soviet institutions, acts of arson and attacks on kolkhoz property, protests against closures of churches.

Figes unpacks the motives of those responsible for enforcing the brutal war against the peasantry.

Under The pursuit of happiness (1932–36), while observing brief concessions to consumer culture (promoting perfume, cosmetics, fun), he evokes urban projects like the construction of the Moscow metro from 1932, using peasant immigrants and Gulag prisoners:

The splendour of these proletarian palaces, which stood in such stark contrast to the cramped and squalid private spaces in which the majority of people lived, played an important moral role (not unlike the role played by the Church in earlier states).

But popular unrest continued. The rise of a new bureaucratic elite also caused discontent:

In 1932, a manager at Transmashtekh, a vast industrial conglomerate, wrote to the Soviet President Mikhail Kalinin:

The problem with Soviet power is the fact that it gives rise to the vilest type of official—one that scrupulously carries out the general designs of the supreme authority… This official never tells the truth, because he doesn’t want to distress the leadership. He gloats about famine and pestilence in the district or ward controlled by his rival. He won’t lift a finger to help his neighbour… All I see around me is loathsome politicizing, dirty tricks, and people being destroyed for slips of the tongue. There’s no end to the denunciations. You can’t spit without hitting some revolting denouncer or liar. What have we come to? It’s impossible to breathe. The less gifted a bastard, the meaner his slander. Of course the purge of your Party is none of my business, but I think that as a result of it, decent elements still remaining will be cleaned out.

Figes notes the “hierarchy of poverty”. And meanwhile the lives of women failed to improve:

For women nothing changed in the 1930s—they worked long hours at a factory and then did a second shift at home, cooking, cleaning, caring for the children on average for five hours every night—whereas men were liberated from most of their traditional domestic duties (chopping wood, carrying water, preparing the stove) by the modernization of workers’ housing, which increased the provision of running water, gas, and electricity, leaving them more time for cultural pursuits and politics.

Trotsky had trenchant views on sexual politics:

One of the dramatic chapters in the great book of the Soviets will be the tale of the disintegration and breaking up of those Soviet families where the husband as a Party member, trade unionist, military commander or administrator, grew and developed and acquired new tastes in life, and the wife, crushed by the family, remained on the old level. The road of the two generations of Soviet bureaucracy is sown thick with the tragedies of wives rejected and left behind. The same phenomenon is now to be observed in the new generation. The greatest of all crudities and cruelties are to be met perhaps in the very heights of the bureaucracy, where a very large percentage are parvenus of little culture, who consider that everything is permitted to them. Archives and memoirs will some day expose downright crimes in relation to wives, and to women in general, on the part of those evangelists of family morals and the compulsory “joys of motherhood”, who are, owing to their position, immune from prosecution.

Figes documents the constrained domestic spaces of urban dwellers, and the tensions caused by lack of privacy, with some fine room plans.

Above, left: Khaneyevsky household, Moscow; right: Reifshnieders’ room, Moscow.
Below, left: Nikitin and Turkin apartments, Perm; right: Bushuev “corner” room, Perm.

In later years many people felt a rose-tinted nostalgia for the pre-war years, when

Everybody helped one another, and there were no arguments. No-one was stingy with their money—they spent their wages as soon as they were paid. It was fun to live then. Not like after the war, when people kept their money to themselves, and closed their doors.

But, as in China (where many peasants felt an equally perplexing nostalgia for the commune system), there’s ample evidence for the contrary view of communal life:

It was a different feeling of repression from arrest, imprisonment, and exile, which I’ve also experienced, but in some ways it was worse. In exile one preserved a sense of one’s self, but the repression I felt in the communal apartment was the repression of my inner freedom and individuality. I felt this repression, this need for self-control, every time I went into the kitchen, where I was always scrutinized by the little crowd that gathered there. It was impossible to be oneself.

Still, millions of people were taught to believe that

hard work today would be rewarded tomorrow, when the “good life” would be enjoyed by all.

Though the mid-1930s have been regarded as the calm before the storm,

for millions of people whose families were scattered in the Gulag’s labour camps and colonies, these years were as bad as any other.

Kondratiev 1938 226Nikolai Kondratiev’s last letter to his daughter, 1938.

In The great fear (1937–38), Figes explains that the Terror was not a routine wave of mass arrest, but a calculated policy of mass murder. Among the complex reasons prompting Stalin’s purge was the imminent threat of war. Not just the direct “offenders” but also their kin were hunted down. The motives of the informers, often themselves under extreme pressure, were also complex.

In 1938, the NKVD chief Yezhov was deposed. “The real reason for Yezhov’s fall was Stalin’s growing sense that mass arrests were no longer a workable strategy. At the rate the arrests were going, it would not be long before the entire Soviet population was in jail.” Under his successor Beria the purge was scaled down.

Fear brought out the worst in people. Yet there was also acts of extraordinary kindness by colleagues, friends, and neighbours, sometimes even strangers, who took enormous risks to help the families of “enemies of the people”. […]
The disappearance of a father and a husband placed enormous strain on families. Wives renounced husbands who had been arrested, not necessarily because they thought their spouses might be “enemies of the people”, although they may have had that thought, but because it made survival easier and gave protection to their families (many husbands for this reason advised wives to renounce them). […] It took extraordinary resilience, and not a little bravery, for women to resist these pressures and stand by their husbands.

There is scant consolation in Remnants of terror (1938–41) on the eve of the German invasion. Figes praises the untold acts of heroism of grandmothers striving to keep together the scattered remains of repressed families.

Lebeva 1940 322Elena Lebedeva with her granddaughters, Natalia (left) and Elena Konstantinova,
Ak-Bulak, 1940.

But many children ended up in orphanages, roamed the streets begging, joined street gangs, or were themselves sent to children’s labour colonies.

Meanwhile, in a Nazi–Soviet pact that alarmed faithful Communists, both Germany and the Red Army invaded Poland, and the USSR pressurized the Baltic states to accept pacts of “defence and mutual assistance”, extending the reach of their reign of terror.

The theme of Wait for me (1941–45) is the social consequences of the sudden German invasion of the USSR in 1941. Apart from its global significance, it was also crucial for the maintenance of the Soviet regime. Stalin now had no choice but to call for unity, setting aside class struggle and ideology. Many saw that the whole climate of the Terror had played a major role in the USSR’s initial inability to resist the invasion; criticism became open (some even welcomed the prospect of a German victory), and arrests continued.

But the desperate need for self-defence did indeed foster a spirit of national unity. The horrors of war against a brutal external enemy helped people forget, for now, the misery of their situation during “peacetime”. Patriotic morale even produced a new merging of the public sphere and the intimate world of personal relationships.

As the tide turned, the Red Army chased the Germans back. Convinced by the courageous determination of the Soviet forces, Figes seeks to explain it. Terror and coercion played a role, but

Appeals to the patriotism of the Soviet people were more successful. The vast majority of Soviet soldiers were peasant sons; their loyalty was not to Stalin or the Party, which had brought ruin to the countryside, but to their homes and families, to their own vision of the “motherland”.

The image of Mother Russia was promoted; controls over religion were temporarily relaxed. Hatred of the enemy was also an important element. But most significant, Figes suggests, was the cult of personal sacrifice:

As Simonov remarked, the people were prepared for the privations of the war—the sharp decline in living standards, the breaking up of families, the disruption of ordinary life—because they had already been through much the same in the name of the Five Year Plans.


Contrary to the Soviet myth of wartime national unity, Soviet society was more fractured during the war than at any previous time since the Civil War. Ethnic divisions had been exacerbated by the Soviet state, which scapegoated certain national minorities, such as the Crimean Tatars, the Chechens, and the Volga Germans, and exiled them to regions where they were not welcomed by the local populace. Anti-Semitism, which had been largely dormant in Soviet society before the war, now became widespread. It flourished especially in areas occupied by Hitler’s troops, where a large section of the Soviet population was directly influenced by the Nazis’ racist propaganda, but similar ideas were imported to places as remote as Kazakhstan, Central Asia, and Siberia by Soviet soldiers and evacuees from the western regions near the front.

Even so, people united for the defence of their local communities. And soldiers found camaraderie:

Veterans recall the intimacy of these wartime friendships with idealism and nostalgia. They claim that people then had “bigger hearts” and “acted from the soul”, and that they themselves were somehow “better human beings”, as if the comradeship of the small collective unit was a cleaner sphere of ethical relationships and principles than the Communist system, with all its compromises and contingencies. They often talk as if they found in the collectivism of these groups of fellow soldiers a type of “family” that was missing from the lives before the war (and would be missing afterwards).

Zinaida 1942 357Left: Zinaida Bushueva with her brothers, 1936.
Right: Zinaida (centre) in ALZhIR, 1942. A rare private photograph of Gulag prisoners, it was taken to send to relatives. The three women were photographed together to reduce the costs.

During the war the exploitation of the Gulag labour force intensified—in 1942 one in four Gulag workers died.

As Pasternak would write in the epilogue of Doctor Zhivago (1957), “When the war broke out, its menace of real death, were a blessing compared to the inhuman power of the lie, a relief because it broke the spell of the dead letter.” The relief was palpable. People were allowed to act in ways that would have been unthinkable before the war. By necessity, they were thrown back on their own initiative—they spoke to one another and helped each other without thinking of the political dangers to themselves, and from this spontaneous activity a new sense of nationhood emerged. The war years, for this reason, would come to be recalled with nostalgia.

The years 1941 to 1943 were described as a period of “spontaneous de-Stalinization”. People were empowered to think critically; a new freedom of expression even included political debate. The revival of religious activity continued through to 1948. Still, over the whole period cultural and religious life at a distance from urban centres remains somewhat obscure.

All this marked the beginning of a fundamental change of values. Towards the end of the war, as the Red Army entered Europe, their encounter with conditions there—clearly superior even amidst its desperately ravaged state, to which indeed they contributed further—also allowed them to question Soviet propaganda. And like the British, their experiences gave them ideals of building a better society—in their case, dismantling the collective farms, establishing democracy and religious freedoms. “Party leaders were understandably anxious about the return of all these men with their reformist ideas.” Such liberal notions were anyway spreading among civilians, not least as a result of the alliance with Britain and the USA.

As Ilia Ehrenburg wrote,

Everybody expected that once victory had been won, people would know real happiness. We realized, of course, that the country had been devastated, impoverished, that we would have to work hard, and we did not have fantasies about mountains of gold. But we believed that victory would bring justice, that human dignity would triumph.

Their hopes were soon dashed.

The ending of the war coincided with the first mass release of prisoners from the Gulag. […] Families began to piece themselves together again. Women took the lead in this recovery, sometimes travelling across the country in search of husbands and children. There were tight restrictions on where former prisoners could live. Most of them were banned from residing in the major towns. So families who wanted to be together often had to move to remote corners of the Soviet Union. Sometimes the only place they could find to settle was in the Gulag zone.

But the Gulag population actually expanded in the years after the war, with forced labour making a significant element in the economy.

People were damaged; fear, and silence, still reigned. All this also makes even more remarkable the widespread telling of political jokes, throughout the whole period.

The post-war period is the subject of Ordinary Stalinists (1945–53).

No other country suffered more from the Second World War than the Soviet Union. According to the most reliable estimates, 26 million Soviet citizens lost their lives (two-thirds of them civilians) […] and 4 million disappeared between 1941 and 1945. […] The demographic consequences of the war were catastrophic. Soviet agriculture never really recovered from this demographic loss. The kolkhoz became a place for women, children, and old men.

The material devastation was grievous too. Another famine occurred from 1946 to 1948. The brief improvement in the supply of consumer goods before the war was a distant memory. With people no longer afraid to express their discontent, strikes and demonstrations broke out. But as the new threat posed by the Cold War developed, Stalin moved promptly to purge the army and Party leadership, and to rule out any idea of political reform. Censorship was tightened; the new wave of dissent had to continue underground.

Left: Inna Gaister (aged 13) with her sisters Valeriia (3) and Natalia (8), Moscow, 1939. The photograph was taken to send to their mother in the Akmolinsk labour camp (ALZhIR).
Right: Inna Gaister (centre) with two friends at Moscow University, 1947.

But a new type of middle class now emerged, better educated and less ideological in outlook—though they had to conform, at least outwardly, to the demands of the regime, perfecting the art of wearing masks. Figes gives more stories of informants. Valentina Kropotina made her whole career by informing. With her “kulak” background,

I was basically a street-child, dressed in rags, barefoot… All my childhood memories are dominated by the feeling of hunger… I was afraid of hunger, and even more, of poverty. And I was corrupted by this fear.

She felt no remorse for what she did. Still,

The “little terror” of the post-war years was very different from the Great Terror of 1937–8. It took place, not against the backdrop of apocalypse, when frightened people agreed to betrayals and denunciations in the desperate struggle to save their lives and families, but against the background of a relatively mundane and stable existence, when fear no longer deprived people of their moral sensibility.

Anti-Semitism, always latent, escalated along with the “anti-cosmopolitan” campaign. When Stalin died in 1953, even some victims of the Terror felt genuine sorrow, but

The mourning ceremonies in Krasnodar were more like a holiday. They put on a mournful face, but there was a sparkle in their eyes, the hint of a smile beneath their greeting, that made it clear that they were pleased.

Even so, there was still no release from fear—indeed, people were anxious for the future. Beria played a role in allaying such fears, though he was soon executed in a Kremlin coup organized by Kruschev. Hopes were high among Gulag inmates; new demonstrations broke out, which helped bring about the abolition of the system. About 40% of the Gulag population were released in an amnesty on 27th March 1953—though they returned to their families physically and mentally broken. The climate in the Soviet Union also led to the serious demonstrations that erupted in the GDR.

The story continues in Return (1953–56).

The family emerged from the years of terror as the one stable institution in a society where virtually all the mainstays of human existence—the neighbourhood community, the village and the church—had been weakened or destroyed. For many people the family represented the only relationship they could trust, the only place they felt a sense of belonging, and they went to extraordinary lengths to reunite with relatives.

But former prisoners found it hard to build relationships, to find jobs and places to live. They still had to confront those who had betrayed them, although they also understood the extreme pressures that had led them to do so. The process of rehabilitation was laborious. And millions never returned from the camps.

Kruschev’s denunciation of Stalin in 1956 made a decisive break, the beginnings of the reformist thaw. Still, Stalin, rather than the whole system, was the scapegoat. But it also had consequences for the countries of east Europe, notably with the Hungarian uprising that year.

And just as the worst was over in the USSR, China systematically repeated its deadly mistakes. Dikötter outlines many of the same features of life under Maoism, but his treatment is less personal.

As Figes describes in the final chapter, Memory (1956–2006), even after 1956, the vast majority of ordinary people were still too cowed and frightened by the memory of the Stalinist regime to speak out openly. The thaw ended when Brezhnev replaced Kruschev in 1964; as dissidents were persecuted, people again suppressed their traumatic memories. Stoicism and passivity became enduring social norms.

But nostalgia for the war persisted, even overriding other assessments of the system. Viacheslav Kondratiev recalled:

For our generation the war was the most important event in our lives, the most important. This is what we think today. So we are not prepared to belittle in any way the great achievement of our people in those terrifying, difficult, and unforgettable years. The memory of our fallen soldiers is too sacred, our patriotic feelings are too pure and deep for that.

Eventually more candid memories of the war surfaced, such as the 1975 film A soldier went. A whole Gulag literature emerged.

Unlike the victims of the Nazi war against the Jews, for whom there could be no redeeming narrative, the victims of Stalinist repression had two main collective narratives in which to place their own life-stories and find some sort of meaning for their ordeals: the survival narrative, as told in the memoir literature of former Gulag prisoners, in which their suffering was transcended by the human spirit of the survivor; and the Soviet narrative, in which that suffering was redeemed by the Communist ideal, the winning of the Great Patriotic War, or the achievements of the Soviet Union.

Figes reflects on the startling paradox in the later myth of Norilsk,

a large industrial city built and populated by Gulag prisoners, whose civic pride is rooted in their own slave labour for the Stalinist regime,

as well as the popular nostalgia for Stalin (and again we might compare the Chinese nostalgia for Mao—see also here), which

reflects the uncertainty of their lives as pensioners, particularly since the collapse of the Soviet regime in 1991; the rising prices that put many good beyond their means; the destruction of their savings by inflation; and the rampant criminality that frightened old people in their homes.


nostalgia notwithstanding, the ruinous legacies of the Stalinist regime continued to be felt by the descendants of Stalin’s victims many decades after the dictator’s death. It was not only a question of lost relationships, damaged lives and families, but of traumas passed from one generation to the next. […]
Even in the last years of the Soviet regime, in the liberal climate of glasnost, the vast majority of Soviet families did not talk about their histories, or pass down stories of repression to their children. […] Fifteen years after the collapse of the regime, there are still people in the provinces who are afraid to talk about their past, even to their own children.

Again, the Chinese parallel is interesting: whereas the Soviet “liberation” occurred after over seventy years of repression, in China “reform and opening” not only happened earlier, following the collapse of Maoism in the late 1970s, but came after a mere thirty years of state repression. Both Russia and China suffered grievously under invasion and warfare; and for both, the hard-earned victory came to form a cornerstone of the national image. But whereas in China the war set the scene for the Communist takeover and the people finally “standing up”, in Russia it made an interlude within a system in which repression was already deeply entrenched; it seemed to offer hopes for reform, which were soon thwarted. In China too the lid on popular expression of trauma remained quite tightly sealed, though as Sebastian Veg notes, “after a period of post-traumatic outpour, followed by commodified nostalgia, popular memory in recent years has shown signs of moving towards more critical discussions.” But both Chinese and Russian regimes continue to devise new forms of repression.

* * *

In my post on Bloodlands (n.2) I mentioned attempts to compare death tolls under Hitler, Stalin, and Mao—in ascending order, it seems. As Timothy Snyder wrote,

it turns out that, with the exception of the war years, a very large majority of people who entered the Gulag left alive. Judging from the Soviet records we now have, the number of people who died in the Gulag between 1933 and 1945, while both Stalin and Hitler were in power, was on the order of a million, perhaps a bit more. The total figure for the entire Stalinist period is likely between two million and three million. The Great Terror and other shooting actions killed no more than a million people, probably a bit fewer. The largest human catastrophe of Stalinism was the famine of 1930–1933, in which more than five million people died.

But appalling are the death tolls, they are far from the whole story. Now that I read Figes’s account, it seems callous and irrelevant to dwell on such statistics.

With my classical, mystical background, it took me a long time to appreciate the importance of all this—and it may still elude younger people in the UK, Russia, and China. But having long focused on the life-stories of Chinese ritual specialists and their patrons, I continue to find such accounts an illuminating perspective on modern history, for China and elsewhere.

Italian cinema: a golden age


Giulietta Masina—left, La strada; right, Notti di Cabiria.

To follow folk musicking in Italy, I’m reminded again of formative film experiences from my misspent youth.

Like fiction, feature films can often suggest perspectives that more forensic academic treatments fail to evoke (cf. the GDR and China). In the post-war period, as Europe—including the east—struggled to recover, in Italy a vast migration took place from the poor south to the industrial north. Meanwhile China was in the grip of collectivization and famine.

A dominant theme of early neo-realist films was deprivation. The moving Ladri di biciclette (Vittorio De Sica, 1948) is a reminder how effective it can be to cast amateur actors:

I recalled La strada (Federico Fellini, 1954) when the Li family Daoists performed at a circus in Paris during their 2017 French tour. While Nino Rota’s score is effective, Petrushka, with its trumpet solo and drum interludes, might have made a suitable soundtrack too.

A tribute to Giulietta Masina is in order. Her persona has been likened to Charlie Chaplin, and her role in La strada as an innocent itinerant street performer is most beguiling—despite the stereotype of the “gamine” “elfin waif” (quite different from that of Audrey Hepburn). And her role as Fellini’s “muse” is another trope unpacked by feminists:

The image of the Muse as loved object who inspires the male artist, whilst she herself remains silent, is deeply engrained in contemporary culture, despite the best efforts of feminist critics to expose the implications of such imagery: man creates, woman inspires; man is the maker, woman the vehicle of male fantasy, an object created by the male imagination, incapable of any kind of agency herself. In short, this image of the Muse denies woman’s active participation in artistic creation and silences female creativity. [1]

Masina is also wonderful in Notti di Cabiria (1957)—despite again being exploited by callous men. Here’s the moving final scene:

The making of Fellini’s La dolce vita (1960) is the subject of a 2017 book. The stellar cast includes not only Marcello Mastroianni and Anita Ekberg, but early roles for Nico and the divine Anouk Aimée, always captivating (cf. here). As England progressed from adversity to the drabness of the 1950s, the image of Rome rapidly became fashionable. Whereas Fellini doubtless meant La dolce vita as a critique of the vacuity of the glamorous lifestyle, “over the years, the inverted commas and irony have dropped away”, leaving only “Vespas! Bikinis! Grappa!”.


Anouk Aimée with Federico Fellini and Marcello Mastroianni.

Long before I began to experience Italy at first hand, films like these made a deep impression, which keeps growing.


[1] Penny Murray, “Reclaiming the Muse”, in Vanda Zajko and Miriam Leonard, Laughing with Medusa: classical myth and feminist thought (2008).



Gender: a roundup


“Daughters are also descendants”: village slogan, Hebei, 1990s. My photo.

For International Women’s Day, here’s a varied roundup of some highlights from the gender category in the sidebar.

For China, posts on the lives of rural women include

and on urban women:

For Europe, posts include:

  •  Les Parisiennes
  • Ravensbrück
  • A two-part biography of my orchestral colleague Hildi, who survived successive regimes in 1940s’ Germany (here and here)
  • my great-aunt Edith Miles, a teacher in the 1920s’ East End who returned to rural Wiltshire after falling deaf, becoming a children’s author
  • a most inspiring post on young female footballers

and some thoughts on sexist language, featuring “Rear Admiral” Foley—the Benny Hill of the US Navy:

In music, gender studies have become a major theme:

Indeed, my varied Playlist of songs is dominated by female singers. Oh, and don’t forget The T-shirt of female composers—constantly in need of new additions!


Among humorists, Stella GibbonsBridget Christie, and Philomena Cunk have their own tags in the sidebar, among which some favourites are

Relevant posts on film include

Anyway, that’s just a selection…