All things considered

Bill Bailey

In her wonderful book Watching the English, Kate Fox analyses the rules for conducting an English conversation. She notes the stock response to “How are you?”—“Mustn’t grumble”.

Bill Bailey ponders the reply “Not too bad—all things considered” in his show Limboland (currently on BBC iPlayer):

We’ve dialed down our expectations to an acceptable level of disappointment.

As to the more expansive reply “Not too bad—all things considered”, Bill’s list of “things” to which these Brits must be referring includes

the Okovanga delta (the cradle of all life), the Alps, the genius of Mozart, the limpid minimalism of Arvo Pärt; those yogurts with a bit of fruit in the corner; all human artistic endeavour; pushing someone in a pond when they least expect it; wars, religion, ideology, a rose, the uncountable stars, the boundless universe; the opalescence that shimmers on the surface of a tear that wells up in a shepherd’s eye as he marvels at the beauty of yet another Patagonian sunrise…

“You considered that?”
“Yeah.”
“And how do you feel?”
“Not too bad.”

* * *

The variant “can’t complain” is the subject of a story in the Big red joke book:

Kovacs went to the police in Budapest and asked for a passport and permission to emigrate.
“And where do you want to emigrate to, Mr Kovacs?” asked the police superintendant.
“Holland.”
“Aren’t you happy in Budapest?”
“I can’t grumble.”
“Don’t you have a good job here?”
“Can’t grumble.”
“Don’t you have a pleasant enough life?”
“Can’t grumble.”
“In that case, why do you want to emigrate to Holland?”
“Because there I can grumble.”

Talking of complaints, 116 people wrote to the BBC to complain that it was making it too easy to complain about the blanket coverage of Prince Philip’s death.

Cf. Hammer and Tickle (here and here), as well as Stewart Lee’s analysis of All things bright and beautiful. See also under The English, home and abroad. Among my favourites in the Bailey tag in the sidebar are

Some notes on Deutschland 89

Deutschland 89

Further to my series on the GDR (see under Life behind the Iron Curtain), some random notes on Deutschland 89, the final series. Within the stylish format of the thriller Anna Winger and Jörg Winger manage to subsume a range of thorny issues (see their reflections here and here).

The whole series is also a visual feast, with the “riot of beige and formica” that I noted at the Stasi Museum in Berlin, contrasting with the more lurid colours of expeditions in foreign locations.

Stasi office

Pic: Stasi office. Source here.

The pop soundtrack for the whole series is evocative too—there’s a good selection here. And in the first episode the Kyrie Eleison from Bach’s B minor Mass makes a fine choice to accompany original footage of the scenes of elation upon the breaching of the wall, capturing the depth of people’s emotion—however transient.

There’s much to savour in the dialogue. As the functionaries of a suddenly defunct regime seek to reinvent themselves, I like this briefing at the Stasi’s foreign intelligence service HVA, when the desperate bosses are trying to send their dour operative Schweppenstette on a mission to the Deutsche Bank, for which he is to be portrayed as a psychological anthropologist:

“A what?”
“An anthropologist. They study, analyse, and interpret societies and their behaviour. Just like us.”

This definition may come in handy for fieldworkers in China trying to explain their brief to the authorities (cf. my own run-ins with the constabulary, and Nigel Barley in Cameroon). In a meeting with the bank, Schweppenstette concocts the title of his fictional thesis: The East German political elite: attitudes towards taboos and moral failings.

And a West German businessman is unconvinced by the new invention of another GDR operative, a computer that allows users to see each other. To him it suggests he must be from the Stasi:

This thing may be normal to you, but in an open, democratic Western society, nobody will ever allow people to look into their offices and homes.

Surely there was a place on the series’ soundtrack to feature Someone to watch over me, a suitable nominatation for the GDR anthem?!

Learning of the uprising in Romania, a West German comments:

The unstoppable rise of democracy and freedom. The era of the autocrat is over once and for all

—the irony underlined by the telling final sequence (cf. Can’t get you out of my head).

Klaus Tennstedt

Tennstedt

Concert-goers and performers were devoted to the conducting of Klaus Tennstedt (1926–98). Like Nina Hagen, he was among the distinguished inadvertent cultural exports of the GDR.

Alas, I never got to hear him live on his appearances with the LPO from 1977, busy as I was doing concerts rather than attending them. In my Mahler series I feature his performances of the 2nd and 5th symphonies—and his live concert of the 1st with the Chicago Symphony gives an impression of his fragile intensity.

Norman Lebrecht’s The maestro myth always makes an engaging source. In his chapter on “The mavericks” (which also includes Horenstein, Celibidache, and Kleiber) he portrays Tennstedt as

a living affront to the modern conducting machine, a musician whose nervous intensity sears all around him. […] Each event was both an undreamed privilege and an act of desperation, the fulfillment of a lifelong ambition and a confrontation with naked fear.

According to wiki, he avoided military service under Hitler by joining a baroque orchestra—surely the best possible reason to do so. In his 1991 Desert island discs Tennstedt recalled being moved by listening to Tchaik 6 with his father while Russian music was banned by the Nazis. Under the GDR, taking up conducting after his career as a violinist leading the Halle orchestra was curtailed by a finger injury, he found modest posts in Leipzig and Schwerin. But keen as the regime was to exploit its cultural capital internationally, Tennstedt, not a Party member, was not among the select group of artists trusted to tour in the West. So his career only took off after he defected to Sweden in 1971. At first he was almost unnoticed;

“I thought maybe one day I’d get asked to conduct in Mannheim or Wiesbaden, but never to Hamburg or Munich”.

However, once he was “discovered” he soon gained a cult following through his appearances with orchestras in London and the USA. When the Boston management asked Tennstedt what he would like to conduct, he replied: “You mean I get to choose?”

It was only quite late that he came to Mahler, whose works soon became a trademark for him, a matter of life and death. His choice for Desert island discs was the 6th symphony. On a lighter note, I would have loved to see his agitated demonstration of the cowbells in the 7th.

Here’s a brief excerpt from the second movement of Mahler 5 with the LPO in 1988:

His last years were beset by ill health. Lebrecht’s summary:

Tennstedt survives, in Simon Rattle’s accurate assessment, as “the world’s great guest conductor”, gracing one podium after the next [sic], never able to settle or find his place in a musical economy that tolerates nothing less than bankable dependability.

* * *

In the GDR, the WAM scene continued without him, headed by the Dresden Staatskapelle, the Gewandhaus and St Thomas choir in Leipzig, and conductors like Kurt Masur and Kurt Sanderling—see e.g. Kyle Frackman and Larson Powell (eds), Classical music in the German Democratic Republic: production and reception (2015). And here’s a documentary:

For more documentaries on the GDR, see here. As the regime was crumbling in 1989, Kurt Masur (1927–2015) took an active political role in support of the protesters in Leipzig. See also under Life behind the Iron Curtain.

* * *

Many of the world’s great musicians are illiterate or semi-literate. In the rarefied WAM scene, rank-and-file musos are hardly expected to be more than artisans, but composers, conductors, and soloists are admired for their broad cultural erudition, like Brendel or Gardiner. I have read somewhere (where, I wonder?) that when visiting Tennstedt at his home, Esa-Pekka Salonen was intrigued to find that he had hardly any books. This, I think, is neither here nor there; but it makes a good pretext to remind you of this wonderful story about Salonen.

See also The art of conducting: a roundup.

Red love

Red love cover

In my post on Lives under the GDR I mentioned

  • Maxim Leo, Red love (2009; English translation by Shaun Whiteside, 2013)
    (reviewed e.g. here),

but it richly deserves a separate post—coinciding with the new Deutschland 89 (catch up on the two previous series here).

There was no typical experience in the range of socialist societies and the variety of people within them. Intergenerational family stories make a popular device to address 20th-century change; memoirs of the GDR are also voluminous. As Maxim Leo (b.1970) talks with his parents and grandparents, unearthing their stories, he constantly puts himself in their shoes. Tensions within the GDR were (and are) embodied in family relationships; there were endless nuances in how people adapted to the pressures of the state, but I find this account particularly vivid and thoughtful.

With their different pre-GDR fortunes, Leo’s grandfathers Gerhard and Werner make this a rather exceptional family. Anne’s father Gerhard (b.1923), a hero of the French resistance, was a devoted follower of the Party. His memoirs, though largely orthodox, were censored. Reading his account of his interrogation at the hands of the SS, Maxim reflects:

I only understood how brave he had been when I was arrested myself. That was on the evening of 8 October 1989, a day after the fortieth anniversary of the GDR. Along with my friend Christine I was arrested by two Stasi in Alexanderplatz. We were carrying flyers for the “New Forum”, and were put on a truck that brought us to a police barracks. There we had to spend the night standing in a cold garage. The next morning we were questioned separately. I was very frightened, because I really had no idea what was going to happen to us. The interrogator just had to raise his voice once and I told them everything I knew. Gerhard didn’t say anything, even though his life was in danger. I gave in, even though there wasn’t actually anything much to be afraid of.

After the war Gerhard found himself having to run a network of informants from former SS backgrounds, separating work and emotion. After he was sent to East Berlin on a secret Party mission in 1952, the distrustful leaders of the security apparatus “never forgot that the people they were now ruling were the very same people who had once driven them from Germany”. But Gerhard weathered purges within the Party, even though he was rather unguarded—on a mission to Budapest in August 1956 he met members of the Petőfi Circle (“Brave? Gullible? Or both?”).

Wolf’s estranged father Werner had a more questionable background. A former Wehrmacht corporal, his own memoirs are understandably cagey about this early period. Captured by US troops on 1st May 1945, he spent over two years as a POW before the belated reunion with his wife Sigrid in late 1947. Finding work as a teaching assistant, he now threw himself into the cause of the new GDR. After divorcing Sigrid in 1951 he remarried.

Perhaps Werner was a person who could have worked well in more or less any system, in any role. He would always have made the best of things. His life’s happiness would not have been threatened if Hitler had won the war, or if he’d happened to end up in the West. He would certainly have been a good stage painter if he hadn’t been a good headmaster. Just as he had been a good model-maker, a good soldier, a good prisoner. And now a good citizen of the GDR.

Maxim reflects:

I think that for both of my grandfathers the GDR was a kind of dreamland, in which they could forget all the depressing things that had gone before. It was a new start, a chance to begin all over again. The persecution, the war, the imprisonment, all the terrible things that Gerhard and Werner had been through could be buried under that huge pile of the past. From now on all that mattered was the future. And trauma turned to dream. The idea of building an anti-fascist state had a beneficial effect on both of them. Gerhard could devote himself to the illusion that GDR citizens were very different Germans from the ones that had driven his family out of the country. And Werner could act as if he had always believed in Socialism. All wounds, all mistakes were forgotten and forgiven if you were willing to become part of this new society.

New faith for old suffering: that was the idea behind the foundation of the GDR.

That is the explanation for the unbounded loyalty with which Gerhard and Werner were bound to that country until the bitter end. They could never unmask the great dream as a great lie because the lies they needed to live would have been exposed at the same time.

And their children? They were hurled into their fathers’ dreamlands, and had to dream along whether they wanted to or not. They didn’t know that founding ideal. And because they had nothing to overcome, nothing to hide, they found faith difficult too. They saw the poverty, the lies, the claustrophobia, the suspicion. And they heard their fathers’ phrases as they raved about the future. Much of the power and the euphoria had gone. And the grandchildren? They were glad when it was all over. They didn’t even have a guilty conscience at kicking the state. What did I get from the great dream? Small-minded prohibitions, petty principles, and jeans that looked like elongated Youth Front shirts. The energy of the state had been used up in three generations. The GDR remained the country of old men, of the founding fathers, and their logic no longer made sense to anybody.

Red love 73

Most moving are Maxim’s stories of his remarkable parents Anne and Wolf. They met in 1969, and Maxim was born the following year.

Red love 18.When I was ten, my father walked round with his hair alternately dyed green or blue, and a leather jacket he’d painted himself. […] My mother liked to wear a Soviet pilot’s cap and a coat that my father had sprayed with black ink. They both always looked as if they’d just stepped off the stage of some theatre or other, and were only paying a brief visit to real life.

Anne (Annette) Leo was born in the West in 1947, moving to East Berlin with her parents in 1952. Loyal to her father, she felt a responsibility to defend the new state; she too supported the building of the “Anti-Fascist protection rampart” in 1961 (“to keep the bad people out of the country”), and couldn’t understand why anyone would want to leave the GDR. In 1966 she joined the Party; but in her work as a journalist she was constantly beset by doubt, frustrated by the blocking of her modest proposals for greater honesty. Resentful of censorship, she found herself having to parrot lies about the crushing of the Prague Spring. Also in 1968 she disputes the Party line on the dissident songwriter Wolf Biermann.

Anne says she was always rather alone in her political attitudes. She wasn’t faithful enough for the faithful, too uncritical for the critical. She wanted to belong somewhere, but it didn’t work. […]

When Anne talks to me about these things today, she sometimes starts crying. Perhaps out of rage, because she was so naïve, but perhaps also out of disappointment that it didn’t work. That this state and this Party, which cost her so much energy, simply disappeared like that. I think my mother’s relationship with that state was like an unhappy teenage infatuation. She had fallen for the GDR as a young girl, and it took her a lifetime to break free of it again. It’s hard for me to understand all this, to see that my cool, intelligent mother is still grieving for that first great love even twenty years after the end of the GDR. How deeply embedded inside her it must still be, that hope, that unconditional desire to be there when it came to freeing the world from evil.

Wolf (b.1942) is an artist. He recalls the impoverished, ruined Berlin of his childhood as “one enormous adventure playground”. Unlike Anne, he never identified with the state; witnessing the crushing of the June 1953 protests,

He goes home and thinks that the GDR might be over soon. In a few days the uprising has been defeated, and everything goes on as if nothing had happened.

He becomes “ a rocker, a thug”:

That balance between conformity and resistance, between courage and betrayal, is hard to explain. Even those words are probably too big to describe the little movements that were generally at issue. It was a grey area of possibilities, in which you could go in one direction or another, in which there was no right way and no wrong one, but at best the feeling of having found a bearable compromise.

He enjoys a stint in “bourgeois” Leipzig in 1962, partying and dancing, but is soon conscripted. He begins to paint, producing “ludicrous propaganda pictures”.

Wolf says it’s all about the facade, that the state didn’t really demand genuine belief. You didn’t have to bend the knee or sell yourself, you just had to go along with the big spectacle of Socialism.

But Maxim goes on:

I wonder whether that was really the case. Whether you really noticed when you’d crossed your own boundaries, when the alien belief slowly and unnoticeably seeped into you. Or whether in the end the others determined the rules of the game. Perhaps all those free spaces and possibilities were just an illusion that distracted you from the fact that you were joining in. I too always had the feeling of actually being true to myself, while at the same time I knew what I had to do to avoid getting into trouble. This combination of cheeky thoughts and good behaviour, of little lies and a big truth, is quickly learnt and hard to shake off again. It’s a survival strategy, a protection mechanism for people who can’t make up their minds. […]

Today, I think that Wolf was probably more like a clever fish that dreams about the sea, and forgets that he’s still swimming in an aquarium.

He starts working as a freelance graphic designer. Less invested in Party orthodoxy than Anne, he’s disturbed by her defence of punishment for those who tried to escape, and they argue.

Much as Maxim loves his alternative parents, he found himself rebelling by trying to be “normal”. And real life inevitably intruded. As a child he found restricted areas exciting; he played “Escape to the West” with his schoolmates; for his essay on the topic “Why the State Border Must Be Protected” he got a poor mark for his reply “Because otherwise everybody would run away and there are fascists over there.”

It was somehow clear that there was one truth at school and another in real life. You just had to switch over. Like on television.

When he was 15 his parents were disturbed that he had to attend pre-military training camp. As Wolf complained to Maxim’s teacher that the school was forcing children to use guns, Anne told him, “You’ve just fucked up your son’s future”—to which Wolf responded that it was this bloody state that was fucking up people’s futures. Anne was only too aware of the problems, but still somehow believed they could be overcome. She didn’t want to pass her attachment to the GDR on to Maxim because it had caused her so much suffering; and he realises he had stopped caring about the GDR:

There was neither hatred nor love, neither hope nor disappointment. Just a kind of numb indifference.

Anne often had serious talks with him. She said that

There were various ways of living in this country. You could join in or you could resist. You could also join in a bit and resist a bit. Anne said she would always support me, whichever option I went for.

But Maxim also observes:

All of these are moments which, telling them now, assume a meaning that I don’t think they had for me at the time. The truth is that my life was mostly normal. […] That life was mostly played out at home, in the garden, by the sea, at friends’ houses, at the football pitch. It was about jumping from a climbing frame, catching a fish, smoking your first cigarette and snogging girls in the park. It was only later, when I found it hard to avoid the GDR, when it got too close to me, that I started seeing it with different eyes.

In 1976, Anne and Wolf received visits from a young man who gently tested their willingness to act as intermediaries for some “scouting” the Stasi were doing in the West—making a letterbox available, making phone calls from their flat. At first, inexplicably, they found themselves acquiescing; but later, declining further involvement, thankfully they were not penalised. Their attitude was still regarded as “critical, but not hostile”. In 1977 they hosted an innocuous but illegal discussion group without repercussions.

Anne’s new magazine job turned out to be even more frustrating than her former post. When she proposed an alternative candidate to those pre-ordained by the Party, not only was her suggestion defeated but all those who supported her, and the candidate himself, performed abject self-criticisms.

In 1978 Anne resigned, working for a doctorate at the Humboldt university, on the history of the Spanish trade-union movement. This gave her access to all kinds of banned works in the library—notably those by left-wing dissenters. As she reads, “she becomes increasingly convinced that the GDR is actually preventing Socialism, instead betraying and perverting it. For Anne this is at once a relief and a burden because she knows that she believes in the right cause, but unfortunately lives in the wrong country.” Amongst the banned literature she also discovers her own grandfather’s story as a Jewish Communist.

In March 1982 Anne has a Partieüberprüfungsgesprach, a “scrutinising session”, a kind of confession for loyal comrades. […] She has decided to accept expulsion from the Party if there’s no way of preventing it. Anne talks about the things she doesn’t agree with. The lies, the rigid thinking, the ideologythat ended up frozen at some point. […] But nothing happens. The comrades smile at her benignly, saying that everyone has their doubts and problems. […] It seems that things have changed somewhat. The Party has become softer. And it’s becoming clear that nobody is being thrown out of the Party any more. She would have to take that step herself. But Anne doesn’t think about that at all. She is relieved to be able to keep her opinion and still remain a comrade.

After finishing her thesis she takes a new job at a magazine, but soon resigns.

Meanwhile Wolf has been illustrating fairy tales in his studio while working on more challenging projects of his own. By the 1980s he is exhibiting his work, and though the Stasi are wary, he is commissioned to design stage sets for the high-profile Berlin 750th-anniversary celebrations.

It’s a delicate business, walking the tightrope between acceptance and refusal. “The principle of seduction was always there,” says Wolf. “The question constantly arose of how far you can go, how much conformity you can bear without it hurting.”

In 1986 Wolf buries himself in a fantasy of the South Seas. But after his outburst to the schoolteacher, Maxim was indeed refused permission to sit the Abitur, and has to exchange his pampered childhood for the grimy realities of factory work. He realises how little his parents’ world had to do with everything else that was happening in the country, how shielded he had been from reality. While in vocational school he manages to prepare for the Abitur in evening class.

And in July 1987 his grandfather Gerhard smooths the way for them to take a trip to France together. Nostalgic for his youth, Gerhard is transformed, human and relaxed. His exalted friends, like Gilles Perrault and Régis Debray, clearly think the GDR is a paradise. Maxim comments:

How can you sit in a villa like that and rave about the GDR? Or do you have to sit in a villa like this one to be able to? […] The men laugh and clink glasses, and I reflect that it’s a very pleasant business, being a revolutionary in the South of France.

Naturally the GDR seems even more drab to Maxim after the holiday. By 1988 practically everyone in his circle is thinking about “how to get out as quickly and elegantly as possible”. But he recalls:

It’s also the case that the East is getting really interesting again round about now. All of a sudden there are great bands I’ve never heard of, they only play music from the West in the clubs, and there are all kinds of wild parties.

Wolf too says that his game with the state, and with himself, actually got more and more interesting in the last years of the GDR: “there were no clear rules any more, boundaries were blurred […] No-one could tell what was still allowed and what was forbidden”. But the Stasi still had the capacity to intimidate people.

In her letter resigning from the Party, Anne wrote

I can no longer bear this attitude of denying reality that our leaders are assuming. The repression of reality has led to a paralysis of social life. A state of affairs like that is not just regrettable but also dangerous. Remaining in this completely ossified organisation, which has long ceased to give signs of life, strikes me as pointless.

As demonstrations grew before the fall of the Wall, Anne took an active political role, finding that the Party was losing its power over her; she felt strong and happy. But, like Wolf, she was still conditioned by her relationship with her father.

Maxim describes the excitement of the final days of the GDR, despite fears over a possible “Chinese solution”. On the last evening

Wolf suggests going to the Wall, but Anne is tired, and she doesn’t want to go to the West anyway. “What’s going to be on at the Wall anyway?”, she says, and Wolf allows himself to to persuaded to stay at home. At half past ten they go to bed. And when they wake up the next morning, the GDR has already almost disappeared.Maxim hardly touches on the story after unification. When he applied for a Western passport, he feels ”like a bushman being greeted by white men in civilisation”. Despite his own alienation from the old regime, Westerners soon got on his nerves: “I think I never felt so close to the GDR as I did after its downfall”.

Red love 237

Anne felt still more conflicted. She went on to become a noted historian, not only reflecting on the GDR but also rediscovering her Jewish heritage—writing about Ravensbrück, and making a film about two young Sinto brothers murdered at Auschwitz.

Wolf missed the friction he got from rubbing up against the state; his creativity drowned in worries. They eventually divorced—which, I admit, saddens me. Maxim, now with his own children, relishes his career as a journalist, so very different from that of his mother.

Maxim

Maxim.

* * *

In all this there are echoes of China—I think of the moving film The blue kite, and the whole inability of “old revolutionaries” to move on from their youthful idealism.

See also Life behind the Iron Curtain, and cf. the story of my orchestral colleague Hildi (here and here). On Twitter, @DDROnline has many useful links.

Representing Aboriginal music and dance

Harris cover

Further to Dream songs, I’ve been admiring

  • Amanda Harris, Representing Australian Aboriginal music and dance 1930–1970 (2020).

The perspective of non-Indigenous art-music composers writing for the public stage may seem niche:

From a music history or musicology perspective the music and dance events that feature would commonly be perceived as peripheral to the main story. They are not the events that have contributed to the canon of important moments in Australia’s music history, itself a minor player in the canon of (European) Western art music. In the histories of Western art music taught in Australia’s conservatoria and high school music courses, the events which feature here are not even a blip on the radar of music history.

Thus Aboriginal culture itself has been marginalised, as has Australian composition within the wider sphere of WAM; and within the latter, Aboriginal-inspired works may seem even more peripheral. However, Harris puts in focus many important issues underlying the encounter between the broad categories of “folk” and “art” musics, making a fascinating story.

The period from 1930 to 1970 was characterized by government assimilationist policies aimed at “protection” and “welfare”. The book is focused primarily on the southeast and the ways that representation of Aboriginal music and dance linked urban centres to Australia’s Top End and its Red Centre.

Many of the works described here tap into “an appetite for representations of Aboriginality devoid of Aboriginal people”:

Non-Indigenous Australians have engaged more readily with works that could be disembodied from the people who created them, than they have with living, singing, moving Aboriginal people. […]

As Linda Tuhiwai Smith reminds us, Indigenous peoples have long been appalled by the way “the West can desire, extract, and claim ownership of our ways of knowing, our imagery, the things we create and produce, and then simultaneously reject the people who created and developed those ideas and seek to deny them further opportunities to be creators of their own culture and own nations”.

Importantly, Harris listens to the accounts of Aboriginal people themselves, “disrupting” the chapters with three essays. While these commentators partly share the values of the settler majority, they are attuned to the ways of their forebears.

Australian Aboriginal people’s rich oeuvres of song and dance point to the importance of embodied and auditory modes of knowledge transmission and continuance in the same way that the West’s libraries of books and reams of paper archives reveal the dominance of the visual and the written in European epistemologies. […]

Under protection/assimilation regimes, immense pressure was exerted upon Aboriginal people to abandon culture by banning the speaking of Indigenous languages and performance of ceremony and by rewarding actions that showed Aboriginal people were adopting mainstream behaviours like residing in a single house, in a nuclear family unit. These pressures were not just notional, but rather, punitively enforced—people who grew up under this regime remember mothers, aunts and grandmothers obsessively dusting and keeping a clean house, knowing that untidiness could lead to allegations of neglect of children, and that children were routinely removed from their families and placed in institutional care, sometimes indefinitely.

Nevertheless, at moments of national nostalgia, events commemorating European settlements sought to memorialise and celebrate the lost arts that had been actively repressed.

Such events go back to the start of the century, becoming more common from the 1930s. Aboriginal people were presented to gawping non-Indigenous audiences as “noble savages”.

Chapter 1 a general introduction, opens with the 1951 Jubilee of Federation, featuring the Corroboree, a symphonic ballet composed in 1944 by John Antill with new choreography by Rex Reid.

Instead of the dozens of Aboriginal people proposed by the publicity subcommittee, Corroboree presented dozens of orchestral musicians from the symphony orchestras of each state and dancers from the National Theater Ballet Company. No Aboriginal people were involved in the production. The show was acclaimed as a landmark Australian work. […]

Non-Indigenous Australians have appropriated this language to stake a claim in Aboriginal culture and to represent Aboriginal music and dance to non-Indigenous audiences. […] But what relationship do these songs bear to those that Aboriginal people were singing?

In the Prelude that follows, D’harawal scholar Shannon Foster recalls her great-grandfather, the activist and songman Tom Foster, who spoke out on Aboriginal rights at the Day of Mourning in Sydney in 1938.

Harris 17

As she observes tellingly,

The archival research space is full of contradictions for Aboriginal people. I cannot help but feel a forging of my cultural identity when the archives unveil another piece of “evidence” of who we are and who I come from. I do not need Western research to validate who I am, though it still performs this task, whether I want it to or not. I can use the archives to tell the stories of the destruction of colonization and the violence that has been inflicted on my family, and I need people to know that it is there and not deny it. But I do not want others to misuse this information and to paint us as victims or use our damage to sell their research: to perversely and voyeuristically indulge in our pain and damage. […]

Every time I relish another crumb of information about my grandfathers, the joy is tinged with despair at not knowing or seeing this information until it is delivered to me through a white man’s colonial archive, stained with the blood and pain of our ancestors.

And

I am told by a prominent historian in the audience that they had always seen boomerangs like Tom’s as nothing more than kitsch, cultural denigration, humiliation, and damage. They had never considered (nor thought to ask) how we feel about them. It had never occurred to them that what we see is physical evidence of our existence in a world where we have been consistently erased. Tom’s boomerangs speak to us of survival, resistance, and cultural fortitude and strength.

Harris 26

This account makes a bridge to Chapter 2, on the 1930s. Though Tom Foster took part in the troubling silent film In the days of Captain Cook (1930), he was among those asserting the enduring presence of Aboriginal people in society.

As various official commemorations were staged through the 1930s, Harris describes the Aboriginal presence at the opening of the Sydney Harbor Bridge in 1932. The 1938 reenacting of the First Fleet landing was attended by historical pageants—and the Day of Mourning protests. By contrast with the quotidian limitations on their mobility, the performers were coerced into travelling to Sydney.

Harris 28

Anthropologists had long been recruited to government agencies. They now acted as cultural brokers between performers, the arts sector, and the media; under A.P. Elkin a shift occurred from protection to assimilation.

A major actor in cultural agendas and the new “Australian creative school” was the Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC), founded in 1932. Alongside visits by Percy Grainger, composers building on European explorations in harnessing folk styles included Clive Douglas, John Antill, and Margaret Sutherland.

Chapter 3, “1940s: reclaiming an Indigenous identity”, surveys wartime performances for recruitment rallies; and after the war, the forming of groups like the radical New Theatre, whose productions included the 1946 Coming our way and the ballet White justice, with Eric and Bill Onus coming to the fore.

Ted Shawn, co-founder of the modern American dance movement, was deeply impressed by the performance culture he witnessed on a visit to an Aboriginal community in Delissaville (now Belyuen) in 1947. Still, when dancers were recalled for his trip, “many Darwin housewives found themselves without domestic labour”.

Harris 50

I note that in 1950s’ China too, under the avuncular eye of the Party, dance made a forum for modern experiments, as in the Heavenly Horses troupe in Shanghai (see Ritual life around Suzhou, under “Mao Zhongqing”).

Harris refers to the short 1949 documentary Darwin: doorway to Australia (filmed in 1946), which includes footage of a tourist corroboree in Darwin Botanic Gardens (from 6.23):

As Aboriginal activists continued to meet obstacles, the Aboriginal tenor Harold Blair was exceptional with his recital tours of the USA. Meanwhile the ABC was promoting non-Indigenous composers in “representing an Aboriginal idyll”.

Harris 55

Within this niche, John Antill and his Corroboree, with its clapstick beat persisting amidst the “modernist antics” of the orchestra, made a considerable impact, suggesting comparisons with The Rite of Spring:

New organisations supplementing the cultural work of the ABC included the Arts Council of Australia. Echoing Chinese clichés, “international cultural exchange” now “took Aboriginal music to the world”—specifically to the USA, as Australia’s ties with its imperial parent were downgraded. Ironically,

Just as Aboriginal people were increasingly steered away from maintaining their own cultural practice, non-Indigenous people turned new attention towards it.

But Aboriginal performers still met with obstacles in touring abroad.

Chapter 4 sets forth from the debates surrounding the 1951 Jubilee celebrations. The official cultural initiatives of these years were accompanied by strikes and protests. Performances took on a political dimension, with Bill Onus and Doug Nicholls taking leading roles in asserting Aboriginal rights.

As others have noted, Aboriginal visual and material arts are more readily packaged, reified, than their expressive culture. Despite their sincere aim of enhancing Aboriginal status, the Jubilee committee’s proposals for massed corroborees didn’t come to fruition, being replaced by Antill’s Corroboree. Still better received was the new dance drama Out of the dark: an Aboriginal moomba.

Linking Corroboree to the political, economic, and social exclusion suffered by the Aboriginal owners of the cultures that had inspired it, Margaret Walker of the New Theatre movement proposed her own alternative. She saw Aboriginal people as both a society of “primitive communism” and an oppressed group to be liberated through socialism. In 1951 the Unity Dance Group even toured to East Berlin. In 1958 Aboriginal soprano Nancy Ellis toured China, just as convulsive political campaigns were intensifying there.

Among arts bodies in the 1950s, the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust was founded in 1954—looking forward to a cultural renaissance of a type later ridiculously promised by Brexiteers. The Adult Education Boards sponsored major tours by Beth Dean and Victor Carell, whose ethnographic shows introducing song and dance from around the world gave a role to Aboriginal culture—albeit based, until their 1953 “expedition”, on reading anthropology rather than any acquaintance with the people themselves. In 1954 Dean did a new choreography of Corroboree. For events to mark newly-crowned Queen Elizabeth’s 1954 visit, Aboriginal performers again had to travel large distances to perform.

Debra Bennet McLean brings us down to earth:

We asked ourselves how many Aboriginal people could ever really contemplate, let alone afford, to attend the ballet in the era of the “colour bar”; most Aborigines could not walk freely into an Australian town without an exemption form or “dog tag” at the time of Antill’s composing Corroboree, nor could they even sit in the same milk bar or use public toilets at the time of the premiere of the ballet Corroboree.

Harris writes with such empathy about all the diverse actors in these encounters that the following Interlude is timely, refocusing on the people who were the object of all this well-meaning attention, with Tiriki Onus thoughtfully reflecting on his grandfather Bill (for whose films, see here).

In Chapter 5: 1960 to 1967, Aboriginal performers begin to take the main stage. Harris discusses opportunities for public performance and the limitations imposed by state agencies. She begins with talent quests from 1961, the North Australian Eisteddfod, and tours of northern companies in the south—notably the well-received Aboriginal theatre, presented in Sydney by Aboriginal people from north Australia in 1963. Such shows

aimed simultaneously to engage those interested in Aboriginal performance from an ethnographic and/or historical perspective and those creating and producing new works of modern dance, music, and visual art on Australian stages.

As Harris notes, a defining feature of these new contexts was the way that performers from different traditions were brought together into a scratch ensemble, or into competition with one another.

In an interview Harris draws attention to a film about the 1964 North Australian Eisteddfod:

Yet international tours remained elusive. In Australia (as in New Zealand and Canada), with Indigenous and European genres competing for resources, the authorities of settler colonies still preferred to highlight their European heritage—by contrast with countries from which British colonisers had withdrawn (Pakistan, India, Kenya, Ghana).

Expatriate Australian Dudley Glass addressed the Royal Society of Arts in 1963,

writing that though Aboriginal people had given little to music [sic!] with their monotonous music and crude instruments [sic!], the “ingenious” John Antill has given a ballet suite “the flavour of aborigine music”, portraying native dance ceremony and using different totems for different parts of the ballet.

This contradictory sentiment, in which Aboriginal music was deemed to have little value and yet non-Indigenous composers were praised as innovative for evoking it in their music, permeated decisions about how Australia should be represented overseas. […]

In representing itself to international audiences, the Australian government sought to maintain a narrative of Aboriginal people as something old and static, not modern and constantly transforming. Tangible art works were sent overseas—works standing in for the artists who had created them, but live performers were excluded from events like the Commonwealth Festival in favour of non-Indigenous composers and performers who would represent Australia as a culture in dialogue with European modernity.

Here, as often, I hear echoes of the Chinese authorities towards their folk culture.

All this leads back to an update on Antill and Dean, with their 1963 Burragorang dreamtime, using non-Indigenous performers. Harris notes the bitter irony that the people whose displacement by the settler colonists was romanticised in the ballets, and embodied by the performers, had themselves just been displaced by a dam project to supply the Sydney population.

Interestingly, Beth Dean reported on Antill attending Aboriginal theatre:

This was far different from anything Antill had seen before. It was not the rather impromptu “tourist version” by Aborigines who had not been living a tribal life for many years, sometimes generations, as they survived on the outskirts of towns. John was thrilled. One may wonder what Antill might have done if he had experienced this kind of Aboriginal music in his early days, rather than on his 60th birthday.

Chapter 6 dicusses the end of the assimilation era—from the 1967 constitutional referendum, which led quickly and decisively to a shift to Aborigines representing their own culture, to the 1970 Cook Bicentenary, marked by protests.

The referendum belatedly paved the way for full rights of Aborigines as citizens. In the performing arts, they now gained greater rights of self-determination, as groups such as the Aboriginal Theatre Foundation and Aboriginal Islander Dance Theatre were formed. Although I imagine that such developments had a tangential impact for poor dwellers of the remote Country,

Groups like the Aboriginal Theatre Foundation would be momentous in localising the performance of Aboriginal culture internationally, bringing a regional focus to owned and self-represented cultural practice, in dialogue with global contexts for performance.

In Australia’s music (1967), largely a study of contemporary art music, Roger Covell allowed some space for Aboriginal traditions—recalling the prophetic remarks of Percy Grainger in the 1930s:

What would we think of a Professor of Literature who knew nothing of Homer, the Icelandic sagas, the Japanese Heiki Monogatori [sic], Chaucer, Dante and Edgar Lee Masters? We would think him a joke. Yet we see nothing strange in a Professor of Music who knows nothing of primitive music and folk-music, and music of mediaeval Europe, and the great art-musics of Asia, and who knows next to nothing of contemporary music.

One fruit of this new mindset was the impressive 1971 Sextet for didjeridu and wind instruments, in which composer George Dreyfus collaborated with Aboriginal cultural leader George Winunguj (see cover image above):

For the Mexico Cultural Olympics in 1968, Beth Dean presented the new ballet Kukaitcha, using taped recordings from Arnhem Land, still propagating non-Indigenous representation of Aboriginal culture abroad. Harris comments:

Performing the role of the woman who had transgressed cultural law by witnessing ceremonies forbidden to her in Kukaitcha, while publicly proclaiming her ability to dance men’s dances that women should not even see, Dean seemed more enamoured of the sensationalism of these transgressive actions than of the richness and complexity of the cultures she aimed to represent.

However, new international opportunities for Aboriginal performers were arising, such as performances of the Aboriginal theatre for the 1970 Expo in Japan, amidst complex negotiations.

Harris 121

The 1770 Cook landings, and modern protests over commemoration, are much-studied topics.

Despite the involvement of Indigenous performers, Dean and Carell’s 1970 show Ballet of the South Pacific was now at variance with the prevailing mood. Corroboree was still dusted off, to ever lesser impact.

The re-enactment for the Cook bicentenary, attended by the Queen, with Aboriginal performers among the cast, were now controversial. Protests were a feature of nationwide events.

After the “Too many John Antills?” of Chapter 1, Chapter 7 considers the legacy, progressing elegantly to “Too many Peter Sculthorpes?” and pondering the failure of Australian art music to engage with Indigenous cultures, always (inevitably?) remaining at a remove from Aboriginal performances.

Harris offers a balanced assessment of the inescapable Corroboree:

Antill did not appropriate Aboriginal musical culture. He successfully represented it in a way that settler Australians continued to experience it—as a background presence, a remembered soundscape from childhood, one that was not well understood, was constant, but which would always be subject to inundation by the productivity of nation building. In evoking Aboriginal soundscapes, Corroboree may have appeared to celebrate Aboriginal culture, but the action it performed did the opposite, replacing Aboriginal performance cultures on public stages.

Considering her topic in the light of settler colonial (and post-colonial) theory, she notes that composers’ representations of Indigenous culture “aimed to tame Aboriginal Country and define its value in economic terms”.

Antill’s position as composer of a work that would found a national creative school was not just produced out of his own creative industry and good fortune, rather, it capitalised on the state agenda for representing Aboriginal culture without the messiness of engaging with Aboriginal people and their political demands and physical needs.

As Anne Thomas noted in 1987,

Public dances and performances of folk musics that had been so active in the assimilation era fell away once Aboriginal people were able to advocate for their rights in explicit ways.

Harris goes on to describe later collaborative projects that seem to resist narratives of replacement.

Yet as ethnomusicologist Catherine Ellis observed,

very few composers have taken the trouble to examine the structural intricacies of Aboriginal music. They have preferred to look at the superficialities: a descending melody, a regularly repeated stick beat, a didjeridu-like sound.”

Thus

Though the public rhetoric around these works claimed that they aimed to persuade listeners of the value of Aboriginal culture, value (through public recognition, commissions for new works, performances, and recordings) was attributed to the composers and their works rather than to the cultures that ostensibly inspired them.

Peter Sculthorpe (1929–2014) went on to become the leading figure on the WAM scene in Australia. Inspired at first by Japanese Noh drama, by the 1960s his music showed greater Australian Aboriginal influence. But as Harris comments, his works have such a unique voice that “they no longer resemble the Aboriginal music on which their performative capital is dependent.”

She also surveys recent works by composers such as didjeridu player William Barton.

Harris never loses sight of the perspective of Aboriginal people, or their maintenance of traditional ritual life under trying conditions. In a lively Coda, Aboriginal storyteller Nardi Simpson reflects further on the encounter. She makes a simple, pithy statement:

I want to do something that hasn’t been done before with the tools and knowledge that I have and who I am and where I’m from and that’s what I want to do.

* * *

This is a most thoughtful, compelling study. For a survey of the timeline, see also Harris’s Storymap site.

For the period since, one might also turn to Indigenous pop and rock music, another hybrid forum for creative representation with a more far-reaching influence, less constrained by officialdom. Meanwhile, anthropologists and ethnomusicologists have been ever more active in documenting the enduring ritual life of Aboriginal communities—and protests over Invasion Day continue.

See also Grassy Narrows, Native American cultures, and First Nations: trauma and soundscape. For a remarkable vision, cf. Alan Marett’s 1985 Noh drama Eliza. And note What is serious music?!

The death of Stalin

Death of Stalin

I’ve been watching Armando Iannucci’s 2017 film The death of Stalin just at a time of crisis for another major world power, as the departure of a capricious monster offers the hope of a more humane society (cf. this review).

A study in duplicity and terror, Iannucci’s telling script continues from In the thick of it and Veep. Far from belittling the gruesome history of Stalinism, the film’s black humour makes the macabre, chilling brutality sink home. Amidst the frantic, ludicrous power struggles of the Central Committee, the brilliant cast is headed by Simon Russell Beale as the evil Beria; besides Kruschev, Malenkov, and Zhukov, Michael Palin as Molotov has some telling scenes.

Most commentators agree that it would be churlish to cavil at the artistic licence the film takes with historical facts—indeed, it’s likely to prompt viewers to delve into the grim realities, consulting the detailed work of scholars such as Orlando Figes (cf. this brief page). In her enthusiastic review, the perceptive Sophie Pinkham (always worth reading) also explores the banning of the film in Putin’s Russia (as Iannucci remarked, “In many ways Putin did our PR for us”).

Stalin’s death not only radically altered Soviet people’s lives, but set off a chain reaction outside the USSR. In China, the population was subjected to similar terrors until the death of Mao in 1976 prompted equally momentous change.

The film’s opening and closing scenes (embroidering a story about the pianist Maria Yudina) feature Mozart’s A major piano concerto, making another indelible association for me.

Short of watching the film on other, um, portals, it’s still available for another week on BBC iPlayer.

Under Life behind the Iron Curtain: a roundup, note e.g. The first gulag, and Kolyma tales. For black humour under state socialism, see herehere, and here. And among satirical stories under the Chinese jokes tag, I’m most keen on You don’t have to be mad to work here, but…Take a flying jump, and Yet more wordplay.

In memoriam Fou Ts’ong

Fu Cong Fu Lei

“Piano prodigy Fou Ts’ong tries to win the approval of his stern Francophile father,
the translator Fu Lei” (Kraus). From China reconstructs, April 1957.

In homage to the great Fou Ts’ong 傅聪 (1934–2020), who became yet another casualty of Covid last week in London, I’ve been re-reading the account of his career in Chapter 3 of Richard Kraus, Pianos and politics in China (1989). It makes a perceptive study of tensions in the Chinese artistic world before and after the 1949 revolution, rippling out to the Iron Curtain and London (note also this post by Jessica Duchen, and this by Chen Guangchen).

Fou Ts’ong’s father Fu Lei 傅雷 (1908–66), renowned Francophile translator and essayist, was a leading light in the Shanghai literary scene. Though steeped in China’s traditional literature, he was deaf to its musical culture:

These antiques are merely things for a musical museum or an opera museum; not only can they not be reformed, they ought not to be reformed.

The debate between urbane cosmopolitanism and revolutionary populism was to be played out in the sphere of traditional Chinese music (see here).

So it was through Western Art Music that Fu Lei resolved to groom his son to “fulfil his destiny” of modernising China. In recent years in China, as Kraus observes,

partly because of the family’s tragic history and partly because of the renewed influence of their class, the Fus have become a posthumous model for upright behaviour, principled integrity, and child-rearing.

 Fu Lei

may seem the image of Confucian propriety to Chinese, but to a Western reader the regime he imposed on his son seems cruel.

Indeed, Fou Ts’ong himself gave a more critical view (here, in Chinese). Latterly such “tiger parenting” has more often been associated with mothers.

Fu Lei Fu Cong

Source: this thoughtful tribute (in Chinese).

So Fou Ts’ong began learning the piano from the age of 7; the following year his father resolved to educate him from home. Among Fou Ts’ong’s early piano teachers was Mario Paci, founder of the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra. After Paci’s death in 1947 he mostly studied piano on his own; but when the family moved to the Nationalist base of Kunming in 1948 to escape unrest in Shanghai, he began to rebel. He was now punished by being sent to school. He remained in Kunming when the family returned to Shanghai in 1949; entering Yunnan university, he hardly played the piano. He returned to “Liberated” Shanghai in 1951, where Western music remained in vogue in bourgeois circles despite the ideology of the Yan’an populists. In 1952 he performed Beethoven’s Emperor concerto with the Shanghai Philharmonic. But by 1953 Fu Lei, disillusioned, refused to allow him to take the entrance exam for the Shanghai Conservatoire.

Poland
With bonds now severed between China and western Europe, Chinese musicians looked to the countries of the Soviet bloc. Later in 1953 Fou Ts’ong was chosen to take part in a festival in Romania—part of a Chinese delegation led by Hu Yaobang. After giving additional performances in the GDR and Poland, he was offered a scholarship to the Warsaw conservatoire in preparation for the 1955 International Chopin competition there. Poland was still recovering from the extreme devastation of the war, and this was an unstable period in the Soviet bloc: even before the 1956 crushing of protest in Budapest, discontent was revealed in the widespread GDR protests of 1953 (see also Life behind the Iron Curtain: a roundup). By 1956 the Polish regime was promoting Western Art Music at the expense of folk culture (see also Polish jazz, then and now).

Fou Ts’ong took third prize at the competition, as well as a special award for his his performances of Chopin mazurkas:

Back in China,

For urban intellectuals, Fou Ts’ong’s success was a badge of their their own ability to participate in the world culture which they held so dear. For the leaders of the Communist Party, the Chopin competition was a diplomatic encounter, in which Fou’s performance demonstrated that China could achieve great things after expelling the imperialist powers.

For Fou Ts’ong the triumph also marked a new independence from his domineering father.

Meanwhile in China political pressures were increasing. Kraus describes the 1955 campaign against Hu Feng, the Hundred Flowers movement that led insidiously to the Anti-rightist campaign, and Fu Lei’s own tribulations after being branded a rightist. Music too was becoming an increasingly perilous battleground.

Fou Ts’ong could only try to grasp these events from Warsaw. As his father’s letters veered from depression to exuberance, the political changes in China between 1954 and 1958 must have seemed both mysterious and frighteningly unstable.

Having been criticised by Chinese students in Warsaw, Fou Ts’ong was recalled to Beijing to take part in rectification. But after writing a self-criticism he soon returned to Poland, graduating from the Warsaw conservatoire in December 1958—just as the Great Leap Backward was rolled out to empty fanfare across China.

London
And so on Christmas Eve that year, Fou Ts’ong defected, seeking political asylum in London, still only 24. Among those helping him flee was Yehudi Menuhin’s daughter Zamira, who became his first wife in 1960. Refusing to return to China, Fou Ts’ong was escaping the dual prisons of Confucianism and Communism. From the safe haven of his London base, his international career soon thrived.

His father’s tribulations were compounded by Fou Ts’ong’s defection, but they continued corresponding. Fou Ts’ong later published a volume of his father’s letters written over the following period:

The family letters of Fu Lei are popular in China allegedly because Fu Lei is such a model of old-fashioned virtue. But one wonders if Fou Ts’ong published them to justify his defection, perhaps unconsciously letting all readers understand that he was fleeing not only China’s politics but the obsessive love of a tyrannical father.

A brief political thaw from 1961 even encouraged Fu Lei to imagine his son returning to China. But in September 1966 Fu Ts’ong’s parents, persecuted by Red Guards from the Shanghai conservatoire, became two of the most notorious suicides of the Cultural Revolution. In the elite world of the qin zither, other tragic suicides were those of Pei Tiexia (old friend of Robert van Gulik in 1940s’ Sichuan) and Pu Xuezhai.

Fou Ts’ong now went through a difficult period in both his personal and professional life.

On his first return visit to China in 1979, as old wounds began to be plastered over, he took part in a memorial service for his newly-rehabilitated parents. Hard as it is now to imagine a time when glossy Chinese piano superstars were still a rarity, he inspired a new generation with regular visits thereafter.

His reflections on Chopin convey his charm:

Though both father and son espoused a very different aesthetic from that of the qin zither, their stress on wider personal cultivation, and the refinement of Fou Ts’ong’s touch on the piano, recall the refined sensibilities of that world.

I imagine him in his Shanghai youth listening to the numinous 1927 recording of the Schubert G major piano trio by Cortot, Thibaud, and Casals on the family phonograph… By the 1960s Fou Ts’ong, my teacher Hugh Maguire, and Jacqueline du Pré relished playing piano trios together—how I wish I had heard them.

Fou Ts'ong

Kolyma tales

This post continues my series on trauma—e.g. under Life behind the Iron Curtain, for the Soviet bloc as well as Germany; and for China, e.g. China: commemorating traumaConfessions, The temple of memories, and Guo Yuhua.

Among all the vast gulag camps spread across the USSR (e.g. Solovki), most utterly remote and terrifying was the Arctic region of Kolyma in northeast Siberia (wiki: under KolymaSevvostlag and Dalstroy; also e.g. here). As Anne Applebaum remarks,

In the same way that Auschwitz has become, in popular memory, the camp which symbolises all other Nazi camps, so too has the word “Kolyma” come to signify the greatest hardships of the Gulag.

An early study in English was

  • Robert Conquest, Kolyma: the Arctic death camps (1978)—cf. his major book on the Ukraine famine, a predecessor of Anne Applebaum’s Red famine.

A major source is

  • Varlam Shalamov (1907–82) (wikiwebsite), who endured consecutive sentences in Kolyma from 1937 until 1953.

His Kolyma tales, a bulky collection of stories, most only a few pages long, makes grimly compelling reading. [1]

For the wider story of the camps, a brilliant study is

  • Anne ApplebaumGulag: a history (2003).

She uses Shalamov’s work extensively among a great variety of sources, and it’s worth reading the historian’s forensic overview of the camp system in conjunction with the Kolyma memoirs.

As Applebaum notes in her Introduction, it is impossible to treat the gulag as an isolated phenomenon. The difference between life inside and outside the camps was one of degree.

The Gulag did not emerge, fully formed, from the sea, but rather reflected the general standards of the society around it. If the camps were filthy, if the guards were brutal, if the work teams were slovenly, that was partly because filthiness and brutality and slovenliness were plentiful enough in other spheres of Soviet life. If life in the camps was horrible, unbearable, inhuman, if death rates were high—that too was hardly surprising. In certain periods, life in the Soviet Union was also horrible, unbearable, and inhuman, and death rates were as high outside the camps as they were within them.

Having noted the wretched fate of the “special exiles” (a separate yet related theme), she goes on to summarise the “long, multinational, cross-cultural history of prisons, exile, incarceration and concentration camps, from Ancient Rome and Greece to Georgian Britain, 19th-century France and Portugal, and Czarist Russia itself. She then encapsulates similaries and differences between Nazi and Soviet camps.

Applebaum explains:

To reach the camps of Kolyma, prisoners travelled by train across the entire length of the USSR—sometimes a three-month journey—to Vladivostok. They made the rest of the trip by boat, travelling northwards past Japan, through the Sea of Okhotsk, to the port of Magadan, the gateway to the Kolyma river valley.

The transport ships were themselves deadly, as portrayed in Shalamov’s “The procurator of Judea”, and in the documentary below.

Kolyma map

Source here.

Part II of Gulag: a history, “Life and work in the camps” is a particularly harrowing survey, with chapters on arrest, prison; transport, arrival, selection; life and work in the camps; punishment and reward; guards, prisoners; women and children; the dying; strategies of survival; rebellion and escape.

Having noted that the guards didn’t inhabit an entirely different social sphere from the prisoners, in an astute analysis Applebaum observes that neither “politicals” nor “criminals” were simple categories. While inmates such as scientists, agronomists, former NKVD officers, and artists, mostly loyal Communists, have a higher profile, the “political” rubric was a catch-all for many ordinary people with no strong political views who had made some innocent yet fatal “mistake”, and most prisoners were ordinary workers and peasants. In 1934, 42.6% of the general gulag population were semi-literate; even in 1938, only 1.1%  had higher education. The proportion of “political” inmates rose during the war, reaching nearly 60% in 1946 following an amnesty for criminal prisoners.

Constantly hungry, subjected to relentless, punishing work in the dreaded gold mines and the endless taiga forests, they were at the mercy of the urki criminal inmates; degradation and dehumanisation were essential for survival.

Applebaum cites Evgeniya Ginzburg’s experiences on boarding the boat to Kolyma:

They were the cream of the criminal world: murderers, sadists, adept at every kind of sexual perversion… without wasting any time they set about terrorising and bullying the “ladies”, delighted to find that “enemies of the people” were creatures even more despised and outcast than themselves… They seized our bits of bread, snatched the last of our rags with our bundles, pushed us out of the places we had managed to find…

Shalamov 1937

Shalamov, “The Red Cross”:

Tens of thousands of people have been beaten to death by thieves. Hundreds of thousands of people who have been in the camps are permanently seduced by the ideology of these criminals and have ceased to be people. Something criminal has entered their souls for ever. Thieves and their morality have left an indelible mark on the soul of each. […]

The young peasant who has become a prisoner sees that in this hell only the criminals live comparatively well, that they are important, that the all-powerful camp administrators fear them. The criminals always have clothes and food, and they support each other.

The young peasant cannot but be impressed by this. It begins to seem to him that the criminals possess the truth of camp life, that only by imitating them will he tread the path that will save his life. […]

The intellectual convict is crushed by the camp. Everything that he valued is ground into the dust while civilisation and culture drop from him within weeks. The method of persuasion in a quarrel is the fist or a stick. The way to induce someone to do something is by means of a rifle butt, a punch in the teeth. […]

The intellectual is permanently terrified. His spirit is broken, and he takes this frightened and broken spirit with him back into civilian life.

Applebaum describes thieves’ slang, known as blatnaya muzyka “thieves’ music”.

The minority of women prisoners (Gulag, Chapter 15), again both political and criminal, were terribly vulnerable too. Shalamov’s “Women in the criminal world” is a substantial account, also addressing male homosexuality. As he notes, the sole exception to the contempt for women prescribed in the camps is the hypocritical cult of veneration for the criminal’s mother (cf. flamenco):

Even this seemingly lofty feeling is a lie from beginning to end—as is everything else. […] This feeling for his mother is nothing but a pack of lies and a theatrical pretence. The mother cult is a peculiar smokescreen used to conceal the hideous criminal world.

Crucial for inmates’ desperate strategies of survival (Gulag, Chapter 17) was the hierarchy of hospitals and medics, with their own troubled stories. They often feature in Kolyma tales, such as “Typhoid quarantine”:

The scratch marks on Andreev’s hands and arms healed faster than did his other wounds. Little by little, the turtle-shell armour into which his skin had been transformed disappeared. The bright rosy tips of his frostbitten fingers began to darken; the microscopically thin skin, which had covered them after the frostbite blisters ruptured, thickened slightly. And above all, he could bend the fingers of his left hand. In a year and a half at the mines, both of Andreev’s hands had molded themselves around the handles of a pick and shovel. He never expected to be able to straighten out his hands again. […]

The bloody cracks on the soles of his feet no longer hurt as much as they used to. The scurvy ulcers on his legs had not yet healed and required bandaging, but but his wounds grew fewer and fewer in number, and were replaced by blue-black spots that looked like the brand of some slave-owner. Only his big toes would not heal; the frostbite had reached the bone, and pus slowly seeped from them. Of course, there were less pus than there had been back at the mine, where the rubber galoshes that served as summer footwear were so full of pus and blood that his feet sloshed at every step—as if through a puddle.

Many years would pass before Andreev’s toes would heal. And for many years after healing, whenever it was cold or even slightly chilly at night, they would remind him of the northern mine. But Andreev thought of the future. He had learned at the mine not to plan his life further than a day in advance. He strove towards close goals, like any man who is only a short distance from death. Now he desired one thing alone—that the typhoid quarantine might last for ever. This, however, could not be, and the day arrived when the quarantine was up.

Among their strategies was self-mutilation, evoked in Shalamov’s “The businessman”.

The region’s main town Magadan was built by forced labour from 1932. Evgeniya Ginzburg noted a “peculiar paradox”:

the gulag was slowly bringing “civilization”—if that is what it can be called—to the remote wilderness. Roads were being built where there had only been forest, houses were appearing in the swamps. Native peoples [2] were being pushed aside to make way for cities, factories, and railways. […]

My whole soul cursed those who had thought up the idea of building a town in this permafrost, thawing out the ground with the blood and tears of innocent people. Yet at the same time I was aware of a sort of ridiculous pride…

The early years under Eduard Berzin were later recalled with a certain nostalgia. But

Of the 16,000 prisoners who travelled to Kolyma in Berzin’s first year [1932], only 9,928 even reached Magadan alive. The rest were thrown, underclothed and underprotected, into the winter storms: survivors of the first year would later claim that only half of their number had lived.

Berzin was himself executed in the purges of 1938, as Stalin’s Great Terror took an even more severe toll on the camps.

During the American Lend-Lease programme to assist their Soviet allies, vice president Henry Wallace visited in May 1944, and was efficiently deceived. In a macabre story the most urgent task of a bulldozer donated under the programme is to rebury the frozen corpses of prisoners exposed as mass graves from 1938 began to slide down a hill. And for Monty Python fans, Shalamov also features the prisoners’ withering assessment of spam.

During and after the war, the ranks were supplemented by Ukrainian, Polish, German, Japanese, and Korean inmates (cf. Gulag, Chapter 20)—as well as Soviet prisoners of war, considered traitors.

After the war the general population’s hopes for a less punitive society were soon crushed (see The whisperers).

In “The lepers” Shalamov describes yet another disturbing story.

In the course of the war the leprosaria had been destroyed, and the patients had merged with the rest of the population. […] People ill with leprosy easily passed themselves as wounded or maimed in war. Lepers mixed with those fleeing to the east and returned to a real, albeit terrible life where they were accepted as victims or even heroes of the war.

These individuals lived and worked. The war had to end in order for the doctors to remember about them and for the terrible card catalogues of the leprosaria to fill up again.

Lepers lived among ordinary people, sharing the retreat and the advance, the joy and bitterness of victory. They worked in factory and on farms. They got jobs and even became supervisors. But they never became soldiers—the stubs of the fingers that appeared to have been damaged in the war prevented them from assuming this last occupation. Lepers passed themselves off as war invalids and were lost in the throng.

* * *

Rebellion and escape attempts were rare, and doomed (Gulag, Chapter 18). As in China, there was nowhere to escape to (ironically, it was only 55 miles across the Bering Strait to America). In “Major Pugachov’s last battle” Shalamov notes a certain change after the war:

The arrests of the thirties were arrests of random victims on the false and terrifying theory of a heightened class struggle accompanying the strnghtening of socialism. The professors, union officials, soldiers, and workers who filled the prisons to overflowing at that period had nothing to defend themselves with except, personal honesty and naïveté—precisely those qualities that lightened rather than hindered the punitive “justice” of the day. The absence of any unifying idea undermined the moral resistance of the prisoners to an unusual degree. They were neither enemies of the government nor state criminals, and they died, not even understanding why they had to die. Their self-esteem and bitterness had no point of support. Separated, they perished in the white Kolyma desert from hunger, cold, work, beatings, and diseases. They immediately learned no to defend or support each other. This was precisely the goal of the authorities. The souls of those who remained alive were utterly corrupted, and their bodies did not possess the qualities necessary for physical labour.

After the war, ship after ship delivered their replacements—former Soviet citizens who were “repatriated” directly to the far north-east.

Among them were many people with different experiences and habits acquired during the war, courageous people who knew how to take chances and who believed only in the gun. There were officers and soldiers, fliers and scouts…

Accustomed to the angelic patience and slavish submissiveness of the “Trotksyites”, the camp administration was not in the least concerned and expected nothing new.

So escape attempts increased, but were just as futile. Shalamov evokes another such attempt in “The green procurator”.

Here’s a 1992 documentary, if you can bear it:

* * *

The 1930s and 40s were the most horrifying years for the gulag system. After the war amnesty (Gulag, Chapter 21), the death of Stalin in 1953 created a new mood, and Kruschev declared a more lasting amnesty in 1956, freeing many. But as Applebaum describes in her concluding chapters, some still had little choice but to remain until the 1990s.

The end of the war may have brought an end to the Nazi camps as such, but in the USSR the gulag network continued operating; and just as it was winding down following the death of Stalin, in China Mao was expanding his own system of labour camps.

As Applebaum explains carefully in an Appendix to Gulag, attempts to assess the death toll have been inconclusive; for comparisons with estimates of victims under Hitler and Mao, cf. Timothy Snyder and Ian Johnson.

The legacy
Memory of the whole gulag system is a complex subject, explored by Applebaum in her perceptive Epilogue (cf. Figes). More recent accounts of the haunted Kolyma region discuss memory, ignorance, and veneration for Stalin. Jacek Hugo-Bader revisited the region in Kolyma diaries (2014), reviewed here by Kapka Kassabova (cf. this article).

And Yury Dud challenges modern amnesia in Kolyma: the home of our fear (2019):

 


[1] I’ve been reading the 1994 translation by John Glad; a recent version by Donald Rayfield (“Kolyma stories”) is well reviewed here, including its vexed publication history, and a comparison with Solzhenitsyn. See also the sequel Sketches of the criminal world. Other survivors’ accounts of Kolyma include those of the Polish Stanislaw J. Kowalski, The land of gold and death, Vladimir Nikolayevich Petrov, Evgeniya Ginzburg, and the Romanian Michael M. Solomon.

[2] Accounts of Kolyma inevitably focus on the camps’ Russian inmates and other outsiders; the fate of local indigenous peoples like the YukaghirsYakutChukchi, and Evenki, with their shamanistic cultures, is another story.

Hašek’s adventures in Soviet Tatarstan

Josef Lada, illustrations to The good soldier Švejk.

Having featured the character of Švejk under The great siege of Przemyśl (cf. Why the First World War failed to end), I was prompted to explore further the life of his creator Jaroslav Hašek (1883–1923) (see under Czech stories).

Cecil Parrott’s biography The bad Bohemian (1978) is full of insights (see also this review, and even this 2019 thesis). As Parrott observes,

Like so many Czechoslovak personalities, Hašek ran the gauntlet of differing assessments according to the prevailing political doctrines of the time. From his death until 1939 he was looked on as a “bad bohemian”; from 1939–45 (under the Germans) he was outlawed and his books burnt; from 1945–48, thanks largely to Communist influence, he was rehabilitated to a limited extent; and since 1948, after a brief period of uncertainty, he has almost been canonised.

Thus, ironically, Hašek became a “hero of Communism”, and Švejk approved reading for the Czechoslovak army. But

Had Hašek not been disillusioned about politics but engaged himself more deeply in party activities, it is almost certain that with time he would have been expelled from the Party too, because by his very nature he could not be anything but a non-conformist. His experiences in Prague soon after his return cooled his ardour and, paradoxically enough, his subsequent withdrawal from political activity was to prove his saving grace and to earn him later a place in the Communist canon.

Indeed, this whole history was submerged as Švejk became a theme for tourist pub-crawls (to which I also plead guilty).

Beermat from U Kalicha, as borrowed from my trip to Prague in 1980.

As Parrott describes in chapter 7 of The bad Bohemian, Hašek had already thought up the character of Švejk by 1911, well before the war, when he published five stories, which Parrott translates in The Red Commissar (1981).

One evening he had returned home very exhausted. Hardly had he woken up next morning when [his wife] Jarmila saw him feverishly searching for a scrap of paper which he had left about the night before. Before going to bed he had jotted down on it a “brilliant idea” and to his horror had now completely forgotten it.

Jarmila goes on:

In the meantime I had thrown it on to the rubbish heap. (Jarmila had a fetish for tidiness.) Hašek rushed to search for it and was delighted when he found it. He carefully picked up the crumpled note-paper, read its contents, crumpled it up again and threw it away. Meanwhile I rescued it again and preserved it. On it I saw clearly written and underlined the heading of a story, “The booby in the company”. Underneath was a sentence which was just legible: “He had himself examined to prove that he was capable of serving as a regular soldier”. After that came some further words which were illegible.

Parrott explains, “At a time when no Czech wanted to be classified as mentally or physically fit for service, the ‘booby in the company’ was literally asking for it!”

Aficionados of the Tang may even see echoes of the recluses Hanshan and Shide.

In The good soldier Švejk Hašek offers few clues that he might suffer from any delusions of political engagement. Parrott describes the japes of his early years—his hoaxes, spoof articles for The animal world, and his brilliantly-named Party for Moderate and Peaceful Progress within the Bounds of the Law, “designed largely to satisfy Hašek’s innate thirst for exhibitionism and partly to bolster the finances of the pub where election meetings were held” (see also stories in The Red Commissar).

This seems to have been the extent of his propensity for leadership at the time.

* * *

So it’s hard to square Hašek’s bohemian, alcohol-fuelled capers before the War, and after his return to Prague in 1920, with his interlude of commitment and responsibility in revolutionary Russia.

As Parrott notes, Slav prisoners of war were treated abysmally; Hašek was lucky to survive. After a spell in the Czech Legion in Russia, at first he worked as propagandist in Kiev, while continuing to write satirical sketches. He soon found himself in charge of an army detachment.

These years were a convulsive period when people had to juggle personal survival with shifting, murky political allegiances. With the Russian revolutions of 1917 Hašek’s loyalties shifted from monarchism to Bolshevism. From 1918 he broke with the Czech Legion to spend two years in the Red Army, soon becoming a leading figure in the town of Bugulma in southeastern Tatarstan during the civil war.

Parrott opens The Red commissar with Hašek’s nine short Bugulma stories. Like Švejk, the persona of Hašek here blurs the lines between fact and fiction. As Parrott observes, while the stories are satirical, they give a mellow, benevolent view of the convulsive social changes then under way.

With Hašek’s constant aversion to authority, the stories revolve around how he outmanouevres the belligerent yet hopelessly dimwitted Comrade Yerokhymov, Commander of the Tver Revolutionary Regiment. Hašek generally ends up having to give counter-orders to such proclamations by Yerokhymov as

To the whole population of Bugulma and its Region!
I order everyone in the whole town and region who cannot read and write to learn to do so within three days. Anyone found to be illiterate after this time will be shot.

Commandant of the Town, Yerokhymov

Also featured is the enmity between the local Chuvash and Cheremis, and their shared bemusement at the struggles they now found themselves caught up in.

In addition to the Bashkirs the Petrograders brought in other prisoners, youths in peasant sandals, aged seventeen to nineteen, who had been mobilised by the Whites and had been watching for the first opportunity to make a bolt.

There were about three hundred of them, emaciated young men in tattered homespuns. Among them were Tartars, Mordvins, and Cheremisses, who knew as much about the significance of the civil war as they did about the solution of equations to the power of x.

Parrott retells another story:

A member of the Central Committee came to Ufa and at once searched for me!
“You’re Comrade Gashek, aren’t you?”
I nodded…
“You’re a former legionary, aren’t you?”
He looked at me sternly, straight in the eyes.
“Yes, I am.”
“You’re from Prague, aren’t you?”
“Yes, I am.”
“Comrade Gashek, you’re a great drunkard. Isn’t that right?”
“Yes, that’s right.”
“Comrade Gashek, everything’s all one to you—there’s nothing sacred, right?”
“Quite right.”
“When you were at home they say you were everything—Anarchist, Social Democrat and working in editorial offices all over the place. Is that correct?”
“Perfectly correct.”
“Khorosho [good]! You don’t deny anything. You’re a good man.”
After his departure in about a fortnight, I was appointed inspector of the Fifth Red Army.

He spent time as Commissar in Ufa, capital of the Bashkir Autonomous Republic—where he was involved in purges, and began a relationship that became a bigamous marriage.

His language skills came into play:

He spoke some Russian, Polish, German, and Hungarian, and later learned some Bashkir as well as a little Chinese. Indeed, his “pidgin” Chinese seems to have great success with the Chinese prisoners-of-war.

He continued studying Chinese in 1920 when posted to Irkutsk in western Siberia, and published a report of his work among the Chinese Communists (for the 1956–57 film of Švejk dubbed into Chinese, see here; and note The definitive transliteration). There too he learned the Buryat language, founding its first ever journal—earning him the title “father of the nation” there. But clues to a planned mission to Mongolia remain elusive.

Accounts differ over Hašek’s alleged abstention from alcohol during this period.

Summoned back to Prague in 1920 by the Czechoslovak Bureau of Agitation and Propaganda (attached to the Central Committee of the Russian Bolshevik Party), his early death in 1923 rescued him from having to confront the more disturbing ramifications of his political involvement, and from learning the limits of satire under the new regime.

Folk traditions of Poland

String band, Polish highlands 1931. Source here.

My recent post on the great siege of Przemyśl reminds me to explore Polish folk soundscapes, which were somewhat outside my remit in surveying folk musics around east Europe but also deserve to be savoured.

As Simon Broughton observes in his useful Songlines update, since he edited the second edition of The Rough Guide to world music in 1999, Polish folk music has seen a dynamic revival akin to the earlier Hungarian táncház movement. See also the third edition (2009).

Fieldwork project, early 1950s. Source here.

Fans of “world music” have long made an avid audience for the folk musics of Hungary and Romania. Poland’s extreme sufferings in the mid-20th century (see also Bloodlands) were followed by Communism and its sanitised musical “fakelore” (brilliantly dissected by Kundera for Moravia). But local traditions were maintained there too—and indeed collected, both before the 1939 invasions [1] and in the early 1950s, although official support for such fieldwork was an ironic casualty of the 1956 political thaw. Note also chapters in Music traditions in totalitarian systems, 2009 (slow to load, but worth persisting!). Cf. fieldwork in Maoist China.

So here, as is my wont, I seek more hardcore rural traditions, the inspiration for higher-profile bands touring on the world music circuit like the Warsaw Village Band, Kroke, and, notably, Janusz Prusinowski’s group.

Do explore the riches of Andrzej Bieńkowski’s Muzyka Odnaleziona site (in Polish; for perceptive interviews with him in English, click here and here), along with hundreds of wonderful videos on his YouTube playlists, featuring both instrumental bands and singers from regions including Lublin, Radom, and (in Łódź province) Rawa and Opoczno, as well as Ukrainian, Belarusian, and Lithuanian traditions within current Polish borders (several of my posts also feature Ukraine and the work of William Noll, such as this).

Recording venues of the Muzyka Odnaleziona project.

We might start with Bieńkowski’s own selection of favourite clips:

Kapela string bands (often family-based) for festive dancing are led by fiddles—with sawing accompaniment, or sometimes a slapped bass resembling the gardon of Gyimes [Plain people of Ireland nod knowingly]. As one moves south, triple-time dances give way to duple metres. The Muzyka Odnaleziona material also does a nifty sideline in bagpipes.

Among the discography in Simon’s article is an impressive anthology of 27 CDs in the Muzyka Źródeł series from Polish radio (here, or here), featuring great musicians such as the fiddler Stanisław Klejnas (1905–88), from the tiny village of Raducz east of Łódź:

He’s also shown in this clip:

From the 1970s, a major inspiration for the renewed interest in Polish folk traditions was Kazimierz Metó (1922-–2008), from Glina south of Łódź. Here he is at home in 1987:

The brothers Jan and Piotr Gaca, based in Przystałowice Małe in the Radom district, are also renowned:

Particularly famed for its distinctive traditions is the Podhale region of the southern Górale highlands, near the border with Slovakia (and west of Przemyśl)—despite the popularity of the main town Zakopane as a tourist resort. In similar vein to Bartók, Kodály, and Janâček, the folk culture of this region inspired WAM composers from Mierczyński and Szymanowski to Górecki, as well as the anthropologist Malinowski. [2] 

This style is addictive as that of the string bands of Transylvania at the southern reaches of the Carpathians. Besides the sheer energy of the music, it’s intriguing to become acquainted with the syntax and signposts of the distinctive harmonic progressions; and above them, apparently quite independent, the decorations of the fiddle melodies. Such features are all the more stimulating for seeming rather close to the familiar conventions of WAM (and indeed pop music) while operating quite outside them.

The ever-discerning Nimbus label (e.g. their flamenco recordings) issued two intoxicating CDs in 1996. Recorded a couple of days apart in nearby villages, they evoke a festive conviviality, punctuated by gutsy vocals and dance calls:

  • Music of the Tatra mountains: Gienek Wilczek’s Bukowina band —among whose many delights are the funky coda of Oh, Susanna that rounds off the ballad sequence of #5 on this playlist!:

and

  • Music of the Tatra mountains: Trebunia family band:

Here’s a 1985 video of Tadeusz Szostak’s kapela—based, like the Trebunia band, in Poronin:

And here’s the playlist of the CD Poland: folk songs and dances (VDE-Gallo, 1993), compiled by Anna Czekanowska (author of many works, including Polish folk music, 1990):

As in China, it’s only by zooming in from region to county to village to family that we can marvel at the depth of local traditions. By analogy with my experience of the Hebei plain and north Shanxi, I can well imagine the wealth of material that detailed fieldwork can afford on the lives of Polish people through all the vicissitudes of modern history.

* * *

Further to Accordion crimes, and among a rich archive of recordings of migrant communities in the USA (such as Italian piffero and ciaramella players in 1963–64!), yet another great Folkways album features early recordings (1927–33) of Polish bands around Chicago and New York; as the liner notes suggest, over this period the rougher folk string-band style (e.g. #4, from the Tatras—where, as we’ve heard, it has persisted) was giving way to a more, um, polished idiom with wider commercial appeal:

Note also the “cheerfully infanticidal” #2.

See also Madonna pilgrimage in Communist Poland, and Polish jazz, then and now.


[1] For the early history of documenting Polish folk music, see also Barbara Krader’s section in Helen Myers (ed.), Ethnomusicology: historical and regional studies (1993), pp.171–7.

[2] For the music of Podhale, note the works of Timothy Cooley, such as Making music in the Polish Tatras: tourists, ethnographers, and mountain musicians (2005), and this article; see also here, and for the renowned fiddler Bartek Obrochta (1850–1926), here. For a hint of the region’s travails during and after World War II, see here and here.

The great siege of Przemyśl

Fortress cover

Further to Why the First World War failed to end, the history of the chronically traumatised region of the eastern Bloodlands (see also here) makes a necessary counterpart to our British focus on the horrors of the Western Front. A fine recent vignette on World War One is

  • Alexander Watson, The fortress: the great siege of Przemyśl (2019, reviewed e.g. here).

It’s a detailed and readable account of extreme human suffering, quite overcoming my aversion to military history.

In the province of Galicia, soon after the Russian invasion and the fall of the capital Lwów (Lviv) to the east, Przemyśl—now in southeast Poland near the border with Ukraine—became a crucial Habsburg stronghold.

With the Habsburg military operation headed by the reckless, inept General Conrad, the cowed troops who converged on Przemyśl on 14th September 1914 were already broken by defeat. After the field army retreated further, the inhabitants had to endure the Russian siege until March 1915.

Przemyśl was a multicultural city, with Polish and Ukrainian-speaking Ruthenian populations (respectively characterised by allegiance to Roman and Greek Catholicism), Jews, and Germans. Despite all the simmering tensions, they had somehow managed to coexist; with inter-ethnic antagonisms now sparked by international conflict, the war created flashpoints in a long-term clash.

As Watson observes, “the memory of the First World War is dominated by youth”. But the “ragtag garrison” left to defend Przemyśl was composed of a “dad’s army” of middle-aged reservists—including Austrian Germans, Hungarians, Romanians, Serbs, Slovaks, Moravians, Bohemians, Italians, Poles, and Ruthenians. The gulf in class and culture between largely German- or Czech-speaking officers and this Babel of peasant soldiers was reflected in problems of communication.

Most widely mistrusted by the Habsburg command was the local Ruthenian population, suspected of Russian sympathies. The peasant population in the villages had largely been evacuated, their homes brutally demolished, but many returned, unable to survive in squalid refugee camps; others had never left. Now, trapped in the starving purgatory of no man’s land, they found themselves vulnerable to both armies.

Siege Galicians

Within the fortress itself, violent repressive measures were taken against potential traitors such as Ukrainian nationalists and Greek Catholics, with deportations and executions.

Siege hanging

The Russian army too was diverse, with Ukrainians, Jews, Poles, and Romanians alongside people of various ethnicities within the Russian empire. But the Russians had their own agenda of ethnic cleansing, aimed in particular at growing Ukrainian and Polish nationalism, and at the Greek Catholic church.

And the whole region already had a history of anti-Semitic violence. All these enmities came to a head in World War Two under the genocidal policies of ruthless totalitarian states.

In the ravaged countryside around Przemyśl, the fortress was guarded by an outer perimeter of forts, whose defences are described in great detail, with their “gloomy subterranean tunnels and low-ceilinged chambers”, places of terror; out of dysfunctional pyrrhic resistance, heroic legends were concocted.

The following chapter-headings flag the sequence of events: Storm, Barrier, Isolation, Starvation, Armageddon—subsuming epidemics, starvation, stress disorders, fear of espionage, desertions, executions; changing technologies (not least in weapons of war), and a thriving (and class-based) sex trade. Diversion could even be found in cultural events such as cinema and concerts. As morale continued to plummet further, officers indulged in obscene banqueting.

Siege cartoon 2

Watson cites a bitter joke from Przemyśl:

Q. What is the difference between Troy and Przemyśl?

A. In Troy, the heroes were in the stomach of the horse, and in Przemyśl the horses are in the stomach of the heroes!

Siege cartoon

With no hope of relief, the end came in March 1915 upon the inevitable failure of a breakout—in the utterly deluded direction of the east. Here’s footage from the end of the siege:

And the recapture of Przemyśl in June 1915—with the soundtrack perhaps inadvertently mocking pretensions of imperial grandeur and their appalling consequences:

Still the terror continued. Prisoners were deported to camps in Turkestan and Siberia, the foundations of the Soviet gulag system; already exhausted, many died in captivity. The Russian vendetta against the Jews intensified.

After Przemyśl was recaptured by the Habsburgs, it passed to the new independent Polish republic, under which antagonism between Poles and Ukrainians escalated, and Jews continued to be scapegoated.

Though the rival Habsburg and Russian empires soon fell, the violence, poisoned by an endless thirst for revenge, “persisted, mutated, and further radicalised”—culminating in the ethnic cleansings of World War Two, outlined in Watson’s Epilogue, “Into the dark”. Under successive Soviet and Nazi occupations Jewish, Polish, and Ukrainian peoples—and the whole of the Bloodlands—fell victim to unimaginably brutal atrocities. Pogroms and ethnic cleansing continued even after the formal end of the war in 1945 (see e.g. Keith Lowe, Savage continent, ch.18).

* * *

Watson laces his disturbing account of barbarity with black humour—like the ludicrously complex choreography of the three-part ritual that troops were expected to perform as a recognition system while patrolling no man’s land, which “would have been funny, had it not put lives at risk”.

Such tragic absurdities may remind us of Jaroslav Hašek’s The good soldier Svejk and his fortunes in the World War (1921–23—see under Czech stories).

Volume 4 (unfinished on Hašek’s death) evokes the ignominious dénouement of Švejk’s involvement in the Galician campaign. Out of curiosity he dons a Russian uniform that he found by the lake, whereupon he is seized by a gendarmerie patrol as a fugitive prisoner of war. He is then classified as a Russian spy and escorted on foot from Dobromil to Przemyśl—a fiction later commemorated there more readily than the realities of the siege.

Svejk p.675

Illustration by Hašek’s friend Josef Lada.

Hašek himself served with the Habsburg army on the Galician front. Captured by the Russians, he went on to work, quite commitedly, with the Bolsheviks. For a “humorist, satirist, journalist, anarchist, hoaxer, truant, rebel, vagabond, play-actor, practical joker, bohemian (and Bohemian), alcoholic, traitor to the Czech legion, Bolshevik, and bigamist”, his brief Soviet career was remarkably exalted ( see Hašek’s adventures in Soviet Tatarstan). He commanded Chuvash troops in the Red Army and served as commissar of Bugulma in Tatarstan (which inspired stories translated in The Red commissar). In Siberia he found himself the “hero of the Buryat nation”; he was learning Chinese, and wiki also mentions a “mysterious mission to Mongolia”. He returned to an independent Czechoslovakia in 1920.

In the novel, Hašek’s comments on the ineptitude of the Habsburg command are echoed in Watson’s portrayal of General Conrad—who, “never a man to permit reality to interfere with his plans, insisted on having his horse and eating it”.

Meanwhile, Švejk meets his fellow prisoners:

The Russian prisoner looked at Švejk in full understanding of the fact that he could not understand a single word of what he said.

“No understand. I Crimean Tartar. Allah achper”, the Tartar said. Then he sat down, crossed his legs on the ground, folded his arms on his chest and began to pray, half in Russian and half in Tartar. “Allah achper, Allah achper—bezemila—arachman—arachim—malankin mustafir”.

“Well now, so you’re a Tartar, are you?” said Švejk with compassion. “Well, you’re a fine customer then! How could you with your double-Dutch be expected to understand me then and I you, if you’re a Tartar? […]
Švejk turned to another prisoner:

“Are you a Tartar too?”

The person addressed understood the word Tartar, shook his head and said half in Russian: “No Tartar, Circassian, Circassian born and bred. I chop off heads!”

It was Švejk’s luck that he found himself in the company of these various representatives of the Eastern peoples. The transport comprised Tartars, Georgians, Osetins, Circassians, Mordvins, and Kalmyks.

As Hašek’s fine translator Cecil Parrott observes, “I know of no novel which conveys so poignantly not only the ugliness of war but the utter futility of anything connected with it.” I may not be alone in needing to re-read the book with a clearer picture of the tragedy that pervades it.

Why the First World War failed to end

Learning from

  • Robert Gerwarth, The vanquished: why the First World War failed to end, 1917–1923 (2016),

I’m glad to see that more informed reviewers (e.g. James Sheehan, Margaret MacMillan, Alex Burkhardt, A. Dirk Moses) also find it a most revealing perspective.

As with World War Two, the inherited British historical bias is so very limiting. Wars don’t end with peace and harmony, as Keith Lowe shows in Savage continent for the aftermath of World War Two. We (by which I mean I) tend to view all the major conflagrations as separate and defined within a narrow time-frame, whereas a work like this reveals the long-term global picture. The flashpoints of recent times go back to the cycles of violence that erupted amidst dying empires and rising states. Irredentism and revisionism are major themes of the whole period.

Gerwarth opens his Introduction with two quotes:

Both sides, victors and vanquished, were ruined. All the Emperors or their successors were slain or deposed … All were defeated, all were stricken, everything they had given was in vain. Nothing was gained by any … Those that survived, the veterans of countless battle-days, returned, whether with the laurels of victory or tidings of disasters, to homes engulfed already in catastrophe.    —Winston Churchill

This war is not the end but the beginning of violence. It is the forge in which the world will be hammered into new borders and new communities. New molds want to be filled with blood, and power will be wielded with a hard fist.   —Ernst Jünger

He goes on to evoke the appalling story of ethnic cleansing in Smyrna in 1922.

So the term “interwar years” is misleading.

For those living in Riga, Kiev, Smyrna, and many other places in eastern, central, and southeastern Europe in 1919, there was no peace, only continuous violence.

The “Red Terror” of the Kun regime, Hungary 1919.

In the early chapters Gerwarth unpacks the 1917 Russian revolution, the catalyst for movements far afield, as soldiers returned, radicalized, to their devastated homelands, with refugees dispersed around the fragmented lands of the former Austro-Hungarian empire and the Ottoman domains, now aspiring to independence as new nation states.

Bulgaria features prominently in the complex tale of the Balkan wars; Hungary and Romania were highly unstable too. And extreme violence continued unabated in the unruly “bloodlands” of the Baltic states and Ukraine (see Life behind the Iron curtain), before they were engulfed by the forces of Hitler and Stalin; by now the victims were routinely civilians as much as regular troops.

Confronting the “contagion” of Bolshevism, endless cycles of retribution, revolution and counter-revolution, recurred. Anti-Jewish pogroms, too, were widespread:

Allegedly representing everything the Far Right despised, the Jews could simultaneously (and paradoxically) be portrayed as the embodiment of a pan-Slavic revolutionary menace from “the East” that threatened the traditional order of Christian central Europe, as “red agents” of Moscow, and as representatives of an obscure capitalist “Golden International” and force of Western democratisation. What these accusations had in common was the assumption that Jews had a “natural” internationalist hatred for the nation state and their “host peoples”.

Gerwarth notes the founding of the League of Nations, and pacifist movements; but the apparent triumph of democracy soon gave way to radicalisation, with many segments of society feeling betrayed. He notes both political machinations and their appalling consequences on the ground.

And the antagonistic ideologies of central, eastern, and southeastern Europe spread to countries further west—Spain, Portugal, France, Italy, Britain, Ireland, the USA. Anti-colonialist independence movements grew throughout the world.

Returning to the “bloodlands”, Gerwirth details the sufferings of Poland and Ukraine.

In the final chapter Gerwarth returns to Smyrna and the atrocious repercussions of the fall of the Ottoman empire. The 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, though arising from the Turkish–Greek conflict,

effectively established the legal right of state governments to expel large parts of their citizens on the grounds of “otherness”. It fatally undermined cultural, ethnic, and religious plurality as an ideal to which to aspire and a reality with which—for all their contestations—most people in the European land empires had dealt with fairly well for centuries. […]

If, in 1919, ethic coexistence had still been seen as something worth protecting, the future now seemed to belong to ethnic homogeneity as a kind of precondition for nation states to live in peace. Although the Lausanne Convention had been drawn up to prevent mass violence between different religious groups, the application of this logic to eastern Europe would prove to be catastrophic: for in the multi-ethnic territories of the vanquished central European land empires, the utopia of a mono-ethnic or mono-religious community could only be achieved through extreme violence.

Though his main focus is 1917 to 1923, in the Epilogue Gerwarth surveys the traumas of the ensuing period. If 1918 had not brought peace, nor did 1923. As the Soviet-controlled lands were sinking into further turmoil, western Europe may have had a brief period of relative political and economic stability, but from 1929 the Great Depression triggered further crises for democracy. Authoritarian regimes became the norm. The new “logic of violence” culminated in the war on the Eastern Front from 1941:

The purpose […] was no longer to militarily defeat an opposing army and to impose harsh conditions of peace upon a defeated Soviet Union, but rather to destroy a regime and annihilate significant proportions of the civilian population in the process. Entire countries in central and eastern Europe were to be purged of those deemed racially or politically undesirable. […] The distinctions between civilians and combatants, already blurred during the First World War, completely vanished in this type of conflict. […]

The violent actors of 1917–23 were often identical with those who would unleash a new cycle of violence in the 1930s and early 1940s. […]

In the collective memories of the peoples of Europe this period featured prominently either as one of revolutionary turmoil, national triumph, or perceived national humiliation to be redeemed through yet another war.

Gerwarth leads us towards the conflicts in the Far East, and ends by noting the legacy for the Middle East in the wake of imperial dissolution:

Here violence has erupted with great regularity for nearly a century. It is not without grim historical irony that the centenary of the Great War was accompanied by civil war in Syria and Iraq, revolution in Egypt, and violent clashes between Jews and Arabs over the Palestinian question, as if to offer proof that some of the issues raised but not solved by the Great War and its immediate aftermath are still with us today.

It may be a truism, but all the faultlines of later years—not just in World War Two and its immediate aftermath, but all around the world since then—had troubled histories (see also The great siege of Przemyśl). And now our faith in the triumph of democracy is being challenged yet again.

So all this must qualify our rejoicing in the diverse creativity of European culture. And it’s always a challenge to return to Steven Pinker’s well-argued yet startling thesis (n.2 here) that violence has declined constantly through history, with the world wars of the 20th century mere spikes in a declining curve.

More crime fiction

Weimar Berlin—Stasi—Russia—Hungary

Berlin Alex

From Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz.

In my post on the Navajo novels of Tony Hillerman I admired the necessary social and personal texture that rarely informs more scholarly accounts. And in another review I featured crime fiction from East Asia and the GDR—as well as Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther series, mostly concerning the rise of Hitler, World War Two, and the Cold War aftermath.

MetropolisIn Metropolis (which turned out to be Kerr’s last book in the series, published posthumously in 2019) he returned to Bernie’s early career during the Weimar period. As ever, historical personages (such as Arthur Nebe and George Grosz) are woven into the plot, as well as early performances of The threepenny opera.

Often such novels come from outsiders to the culture portrayed. But German authors have long explored the Weimar era—a genre enshrined in

  • Alfred Döblin, Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929),

a complex, sprawling assembly of underworld degradation through turbulent times. The author’s own summary gives an impression of his distinctive, disorienting literary style:

Doblin summary

Michael Hoffmann has risen to the daunting challenge of translating Döblin’s quirky Berlinisch prose—do read his Afterword, and this review. Cf. Hoffmann’s version of Hans Fallada’s Alone in Berlin.

Here’s a trailer for the 15-hour TV adaptation by the visionary Fassbinder (1980):

Babylon BerlinAs to more recent recreation of the Weimar era,

  • Volker Kutscher, Babylon Berlin (2007)

is the first in a series featuring the detective Gereon Rath, with his beguiling protégée Charlotte Ritter. It recasts the decadence of the roaring 20s and the rise of fascism, with vivid period detail on exiled Russians and paramilitary forces. Yet again, the novels form the stimulus for a highly popular TV series:

Meanwhile David Young continues exploring the murky history of the GDR in Stasi winter (2020) through the struggles of detective Karin Müller, against a backdrop of escape attempts amidst a desolate, frozen northern landscape.

For Russia, I’ve been catching up on the Arkady Renko novels by Martin Cruz Smith. Gorky Park was published as early as 1981, a gripping tale of KGB and CIA espionage, ikon smuggling—and a sinister fabrication to quell dissidents:

It is the finding of the institute that criminals suffer from a psychological disturbance that we term pathoheterodoxy. There is theoretical as well as clinical backing for this discovery. In an unjust society a man may violate laws for valid social or economic reasons. In a just society there are no valid reasons except for mental illness. Recognising this fact protects the violator as well as the society whose law he attacks. It affords the violator and opportunity to be quarantined until his illness can be expertly treated.

Later in the series, Stalin’s ghost (2007) moves on to the Putin era, still haunted by the delusions of the USSR, as well as the Chechen war and mass graves.

For Hungary, the “Danube Blues” novels of Adam LeBor, himself an investigative journalist, are compelling. Starring the Roma detective Balthazar Kovacs, the themes of District VIII (2017) and Kossuth square (2019) are highly topical—including corruption, press freedom under authoritarian rule, and the plight of refugees.

Balthazar is the first in the family to progress to higher education. With his brother a leading figure in the Budapest underworld, he has torn loyalties. At university he meets Sarah, a Jewish student. He starts a PhD on the Roma Holocaust, but

after a couple of years he realised he had had enough of libraries and archives and extermination. He also realised he had no desire to be a disczigany, a decorative, token Gypsy.

To the horror of both his family and the “uber-liberal” Sarah, Balthazar decides to join the police force. Meanwhile Sarah, with whom he now has a son, rises in the field of gender studies. Even after they separate, she still depends on his introductions to the Roma world.

Evoking the ethnic mix of new immigrants (southern Slavs, Arabs, Africans, Russians, Chinese) alongside the gentrification of Budapest, LeBor adroitly interposes lessons on Hungarian history in imperial times and the Arrow Cross militia during World War Two.

* * *

Like Hillerman’s Leaphorn and Chee series, all these novels are not just engaging in themselves, with their suspenseful plot twists, but they document the whole texture of the society, drawing us towards history and people’s lives.

The genius of Sergei Parajanov

Pomegranates 2

The films of Sergei Parajanov (1924–90) are utterly spellbinding (wiki here, or this succinct introduction by the splendid Elif Batuman; for photos, see here). I’ve already featured The colour of pomegranates in a tribute to my much-missed friend Natasha, but Parajanov’s other surreal fantasies on the folk cultures of the Caucasus also deserve a tribute.

An Armenian brought up in Georgia, he was inspired by Tarkovsky. His surreal, mystical, sumptuous, austere vision was utterly at odds with Soviet orthodoxy, at a time when people had little choice but to retreat into private worlds (cf. The whisperers).

Shadows of forgotten ancestors (1964) was filmed in the Ukrainian Carpathians:

The colour of pomegranates (1969) is his Armenian film. While you may just wish to let the images wash over you (cf. the merits of analysing Beatles songs), a useful companion is The world is a window:

including insights into the creation of the musical soundtrack (from 46.55). Indeed, apart from the sumptuous visuals, Parajanov’s films are a treasury of folk vocal and instrumental music, which had been so thoroughly repressed under Stalin.

Pomegranates

The tableaus, not quite static, almost recall Messiaen.

The Soviet authorities had regularly persecuted Parajanov ever since 1948. But released from prison in the wake of glasnost, he was able to make two more masterpieces:

The Legend of Suram Fortress (1984), celebrating Georgian folk culture:

and Ashik Kerib (1988), his last completed film, exploring the folk culture of Azerbaijan:

including the singing of Alim Qasimov (for Uyghur mendicants, cf. the ethnographic film Ashiq: the last troubadour).

Sure, Parajanov was hounded and imprisoned under the Soviet system; but somehow he managed to make these priceless, visionary films. Such creative imagination couldn’t find an expression in Maoist China.

Parajanov Vysotsky 1979

With Vladimir Vysotsky, Tbilisi 1979.

Verboten: GDR film, 1965

Left, Karla; right, Hands up or I’ll shoot!

My acquaintance with alternative culture behind the Iron Curtain was once largely limited to the flowering of Czech films during the Prague Spring (see also Life behind the Iron Curtain: a roundup). But now, having broached various subversive expressions under the GDR regime (e.g. here), I’m glad to learn of challenges to state orthodoxy in 1960s’ films there too, courtesy of the DEFA archive—which, along with eastgermancinema.com, has copious information on films for the whole period.

As this introduction comments,

These films were planned and legally produced with the authorisation of the German Democratic Republic, but banned shortly before or after being released. One may wonder: why didn’t this censorship occur earlier in the production process?

GDR DVDs

A DVD box set contains ten films from the period:

  • The rabbit is me (1965), made to encourage discussion of the democratisation of East German society
  • Just don’t think I’ll cry (1965): high-school senior Peter gets suspended for writing an essay that his teachers consider to be a challenge to the state
  • Spring takes time (1965): the non-party engineer Heinz Solter is suddenly arrested and accused of approving a defective pipeline
  • The lost angel (1966): August 24, 1937—a day in the life of expressionist sculptor and author Ernst Barlach
  • Karla (1965): romance about a non-conformist young school teacher and a disenchanted journalist turned fisherman.
  • When you grow up, dear Adam (1990): Adam receives a flashlight with special powers: every liar it shines on flies into the air.
  • Trace of stones (1966): a film about living and working conditions in 1960s’ GDR.
  • Hands up or I’ll shoot (1966): living in a small town, Investigator Holms is stuck looking for a stolen pet rabbit even as he dreams of cracking a big case
  • Born in ’45 (1966), telling the story of Al and Li, a married couple living in the Prenzlauer Berg district of Berlin, who have decided to get a divorce
  • Berlin through our eyes (1965): skilled workers confront hostile older colleagues who value experience over education.

Comments from the censors are revealing, such as:

  • spreads skepticism
  • questions young people’s socialist education and character
  • the buildings look sad, inhospitable, dirty, and unkempt [Tripadvisor review for Tory Britain?—Ed.]
  • propagates false ideals
  • provides a distorted picture of our socialist reality
  • anti-socialist, harmfully critical attitude.

Here’s a trailer for The rabbit is me:

And a clip from Born in ’45:

Here I suggested some parallels between depictions “after the event” of life under Chinese Maoism and the GDR.

 

Grassy Narrows: emerging from trauma

Grassy Narrows song

Among the instructive parallels that Jing Jun makes in his portrayal of trauma in a Gansu village under Maoism is the wretched fate of a First Nation community in Grassy Narrows, northwestern Ontario—as detailed harrowingly in

  • Anastasia M. Shkilnyk, A poison stronger than love: the destruction of an Ojibwa community (1985, with an introduction by Kai Erikson). [1]

Grassy Narrows cover

The ordeals of Grassy Narrows make an extreme instance of the chronic problems faced by indigenous communities in North America and elsewhere.

Anastasia Shkilnyk (1945–­2014) was herself born to a Ukrainian refugee family in a Displaced Persons Camp, going on to study at the University of Toronto. As she found during her initial stay at Grassy Narrows from 1976 to 1979, successive disasters had compounded the vulnerability of the community.

All the indications of material poverty were there—substandard housing, the absence of running water and sewage connections, poor health, mass unemployment, low income, and welfare dependency—but something more fundamental seemed amiss.

map

In Chapter 1 Shkilnyk presents a gruesome catalogue of the self-mutilating disintegration of the community since the 1960s: spree drinking, child neglect and abuse, gas-sniffing, violent death, suicide, incest, gang rape. As she reflects after arriving at Grassy Narrows:

It wasn’t just the poverty of the place, the isolation, or even the lack of a decent bed that depressed me. I had seen worse material deprivation when I was working in squatter settlements around Santiago, Chile. And I had been in worse physical surroundings while working in war-devastated Ismailia on the project for the reconstruction of the Suez Canal. What struck me about Grassy Narrows was the numbness in the human spirit. There was an indifference, a listlessness, a total passivity that I could neither understand nor seem to do anything about. I had never seen such hopelessness anywhere in the Third World.

In what she describes as a “failure to thrive”,

caught in a void between two cultures, the children in this community are learning neither the basic skills of the mainstream community nor the traditional skills of the Indian way of life. […] The young have now been disinherited from the accumulated knowledge of earlier generations; at the same time, they have been dispossessed of the physical and emotional nourishment prerequisite to cognitive development.

Until the 1960s the Ojibwa

had preserved an ethos that encompassed, among other things, a deep attachment to the land and the rhythms of nature, respect for the dignity of the person, and the independence and self-sufficiency of clan-based family groups. They lived, as they had for generations, by hunting, trapping, fishing, and gathering, now supplemented by occasional wage labour. The ebb and flow of life was reflected in their seasonal migrations between the winter trapping grounds and the summer encampment on the old reserve. Because of their relative isolation and limited contact with white society, the people managed to maintain considerable stability and continuity with the ancient patterns of Ojibwa life.

Chapter 2 outlines their traditional lifestyle and culture on the old reserve before the 1960s, noting gradual change. The common pattern of change throughout indigenous (and other) communities, over a long period since white contact, has been further exacerbated here by more recent relocation and ecological disaster.

Most challenges that the Ojibwa faced over this period can be traced directly or indirectly to white contact. Early encounters were mainly with the trading posts of the Hudson’s Bay Company. In 1873 Ojibwa chiefs (including, for the Grassy Narrows band, chief Sah-katch-eway) signed the important Treaty 3 with Queen Victoria.

But as white settlement expanded with the railroads, First Nation bands were vulnerable to the growing exploitation of native lands by logging and mining. Missionaries continued their work, recruiting youngsters to “residential schools” where they were to be assimilated and “civilised”.

In 1919 the global influenza pandemic struck the Ojibwa [2]—with medicine men powerless, this early sign of fatal defencelessness made them feel cursed. Shkilnyk cites at length the recollections of Maggie Land (b.1916)—while aware of the former community’s bond with the natural world, she recognised that there was no going back.

On the old reserve, rituals provided a sense of identity for the people of Grassy Narrows, such as naming ceremonies, the puberty vision quest, and the shaking tent ceremony. [3] Medicine men played a major role in regulating social conduct—including their use of malevolent magic. Yet

of all the symbolic observances practised on the old reserve just twenty or thirty years ago, only the rituals of death have meaning and continued relevance to the conditions of life on the new reserve.

Photos: Hiro Miyamatsu, late 1970s.

White society encroached gradually; but even as government measures increased from 1945, contacts remained quite limited until the relocation in 1963. The whole Ojibwa way of life—hunting, trapping, fishing, guiding—had been based on family ties, which were now torn apart. Both family and community bonds were eroded. As in other First Nation bands (only with alarming rapidity), with traditional livelihoods becoming untenable, new forms of wage labour were sporadic and unfamiliar; and as self-jurisdiction was eclipsed, the community found itself subject to government intervention in the form of welfare, dependent on external sources of life support. The role of chief became purely political. [4] With the shift from production to consumption, it was only from the 1960s that heavy drinking and violence became a serious problem. In the words of a former chief, “Alcohol was the white man’s poison, and now it’s ours.”

Shkilnyk discusses the role of the nearest town of Kenora, 60 miles southwest of Grassy Narrows. She notes that most of its early inhabitants were recent immigrants who worked on railway construction crews: Norwegians, Finns, Ukrainians, Yugoslavs, Poles, Scots, Irish, English, and Chinese (cf. Accordion crimes).

After a road connecting Kenora and the reserve was built in the late 1950s, it was on the town’s bars that Grassy Narrows people would descend for destructive bouts of spree drinking. Here too they encountered racist aggression and the full force of the white man’s law.

The Indians exchanged the intangible benefit of independence for the tangible benefits they received from the federal government (housing, schools, jobs, welfare, medical treatment). As the Indians accepted the goods and services offered to them by the government, they progressively lost their claim to being an independent people. Ultimately, they lost the ability to make decisions for themselves, at least within the context of the goods and services they accepted.

All this also gave rise to prejudice against them—ignoring

the historical evidence that it is the very geographic, legal, and economic segregation of Indian people from the mainstream society, combined with the erosion of the traditional economic base of Indian culture, that has led to their present dependence on government bureaucracies.

Isolated protests against discrimination (a civil rights march in 1964, and a more aggressive confrontation in 1974 by the Ojibwey Warriors Society) hardly changed attitudes—indeed, the 1974 incident prompted a backlash.

In Chapter 7 Shkilnyk details the transformation of a society in which “there was a remarkable degree of integration between spheres of activity that we label social, political, religious, and economic”; where “the people built a life based on hard work, subsistence, self-sufficiency, and independence”. She shows the process of government policies of “community development” and modernization: compulsory school attendance, sedentarisation, the promise of wage labour, even as trapping, hunting, and gardening were swiftly becoming untenable. As tourism became popular, guiding and commercial fishing would only provide a temporary resource. She goes on to discuss the economics of dependency, increasing social inequality, the ethics provided by the new economic system, undermining traditional Indian values—and diet:

In a span on only one generation, the Grassy Narrows people changed from being active producers of most of their own food to passive consumers of store-bought groceries. Their eating habits changed from a protein-rich diet of game and fish to a nutritionally inferior diet of imported food staples heavy in starch and sugar.

Again, this problem resembles that of affluent societies, but the change here has been abrupt. Shkilnyk describes the transformation of the role of women, “the silent victims of modernisation”.

As an elder summarised:

When the people moved to the new reserve, they became better-off in some ways. They got better houses, more cash, they were nearer to a road, they got better care by doctors. Life on the old reserve was much harder. People worked hard to eat; they were skinnier. Today, life is much easier, but why are so many people dying from alcohol?

Life is more easy now. But before … you could depend on your own people, and now you have to depend on the white man. The white man has taken over in all the basic things. Now the government people tell you what to do. We had a lot more freedom in the old days. We gave up the freedom to use the land in exchange for getting things from the white man. I say that freedom was not a good thing to trade.

Shkilnyk ends the chapter by posing two questions:

First, who really benefits from the kind of development set in motion in Indian communities by the federal government? Second, has this development led to the stated policy goal, namely, “the full, free, and nondiscriminatory participation of Indian people in Canadian society”?

Her answers are not encouraging.

What government policy has accomplished is to push the Indian people further away from participation in the productive activities of the nation than they have ever been, to separate them from the means of production embodied essentially in land and in the resources of the land, and to turn them into men and women who have neither land nor capital nor even a secure palce among those Canadians who exchange only their labour for a subsistence wage. The increase in the material standard of living on Indian reserves, therefore, must be seen not as a result of free and equal participation in Canadian society but as compensation, paid by the society, for the continued exclusion of Indian people from the productive processes of the nation. The ultimate hallmark of this kind of development is not participation but marginality.

Chapter 8 explores government policy and decision-making in the context of evolution of national policy, focusing on the decision to relocate and the physical planning of the new community. Like commune members in Maoist China, some likened the new reserve to a concentration camp. Still, Indian communities across Canada disintegrated whether or not they were relocated.

For a people already cast adrift from their moorings, the 1970 discovery of mercury poisoning in the river system, with long-term effects, was “the last nail in the coffin”—not only destroying their health but depriving them of their few remaining sources of livelihood (including guiding). As the Reed Paper Company sought to protect itself from culpability, and as political interests came to the fore, making court justice look remote, the community became even more hostile towards the white authorities—an imprint that Shkilnyk suggests may be “every bit as cruel and demoralizing as the poison in the river”. The net effect

was to further undermine the conditions for self-sufficiency, to intensify dependence on government support, and ultimately to accelerate the breakdown in community life.

Psychologically too, the disaster made people feel that “the land had somehow turned against them and become poisonous. […] The world of nature, not only the world of men, could no longer be trusted.” Despite considerable media publicity, their struggle for justice only “reinforced the Indians’ feeling of helplessness, apathy, and alienation”.

The limited assistance that was forthcoming for remedial and short-term projects was always extended in the spirit of charity; neither government wished its actions to be interpreted as an acknowledgement of legal, moral, or social obligation to redress injustice or to compensate for inflicted adversity.

Shkilnyk updates the story: by 1985 compensation was finally being paid. Yet

money alone will not solve all the social problems. The hope is that the settlement will be a catalyst in rebuilding community morale and helping individuals rediscover their own strength in repairing the damage done by years of neglect. At least now there is a chance for renewal, a foundation for a new beginning, so long delayed.

In a Postcript, she reflects on the catastrophe and its background, and points out the valiant efforts the people have made since the 1970s to cope with their problems. Yet

Today, over half the Indian adult population of Canada is dependent on welfare for subsistence. Only 20% of Indian children complete secondary school, compared to 75% nationwide. Indian housing conditions are abysmal; fewer than 40% of Indian houses have running water, for example, compared to over 90% in the country as a whole. There are more Indian children in the care of foster homes today than at any time since the 1960s; since 1962, there has also been a fivefold increase in the number of Indian children taken for adoption. Among those Indians who survive infancy, many will die violently; about 33% of all Indian deaths in Canada are due to violence. Indians in the 15 to 44 age-group meet with violent death at a rate that is five times the national average. And suicide rates among Indian people have been climbing steadily over the 1970s. Suicides now account for 35% of all Indian deaths in the 15 to 20 age-group, and 21% of all deaths in the 21 to 34 age-group. Suicide rates among Canadian Indians are six times the national average and are significantly higher than among Indians in the United States.

Unpacking the well-meaning yet misguided official notions of development and progress, she sees the Grassy Narrows case as both a unique and a generalized tragedy.

In the face of both the continuity of impacts stemming from almost a hundred years of internal colonialism and the added pressures generated by the relocation and the mercury pollution, it is a testimony to the resilience of the human spirit that the people of Grassy Narrows have managed to survive at all. For not only has their entire way of life been rendered dysfunctional, but they have been consistently been led to believe that their culture is barbaric and that they are a primitive and inferior people.

Critiques
Shkilnyk’s book is a clear and detailed exposition of a complex and traumatic subject. She was a social scientist deeply concerned for the people of Grassy Narrows; but are there any limits on what should be exposed to a wider public, when real people are trying to survive? She comments “However painful this portrait may be to a people seemingly disfigured and broken in spirit by historical circumstance, it is the price they have to pay to make us understand their case for social justice.”

Sure, to understand and remedy the problem, we have to know about it; yet conscientious as is Shkilnyk’s research, I suspect that not all will be convinced that they should still have to pay yet another price. So while her book was well received (e.g. here), other sources refrain from dwelling on all the alcohol-fuelled child abuse, of which this is an extreme instance of a common problem. Indeed, this review by David McRobert is more critical: he still finds it “a largely parasitic and partly anemic work in the tradition of liberal thought in Canada”.

In effect, what emerges from the painful passages in the book is a ringing endorsement of the ancient notion that the worst pain one can suffer is to have insight into much and power over nothing. Shkilnyk’s position throughout is truly tragic—she sees what is wrong with the community and knows how it could be better but [neither] she nor the others in government responsible for dealing with the problem seem to think that anything can be done about it. Apart from a few cryptic passages, she is unable to describe the alternative approaches that might have been  pursued by the government in resolution of the Grassy Narrows crisis. […]
In the end, one is left with the uneasy feeling that this book is too good to be true. Literally. Shkilnyk’s attempt to mass-market the pain of Grassy Narrows seems crass and one wonders what exactly the book can accomplish at this point. I hope it will be viewed as a historical treatise by the community members themselves. It is unfortunate that they have to have their personal tragedies revealed to the international community through publications of this kind in order to get the attention their horrible situation deserves.

The wider context, and the recent picture
Beyond the problems of First Nation communities (including the Inuit) and Native Americans in the USA, one thinks of ethnic minorities under modern nation-states elsewhere around the world, such as Aboriginal people in Australia and other nomadic populations (e.g. Kazakhs); the Jews and Roma; and traumas under Stalin (e.g. Figes, Applebaum), the Holocaust, and Mao (such as Tibetans and Uyghurs, and for the Han Chinese, China: commemorating trauma).

So, returning to Jing Jun, he did well to draw a parallel with Grassy Narrows in his study of a demoralised community under Maoism amidst ecological and social destruction. As he wrote:

Turning memories of suffering into a source of cultural revitalisation is an extremely difficult task. In a sensitive ethnography describing the removal of an Ojibwa community to a new, alien, and polluted reserve in Canada, Anastasia Shkilnyk reports that members of this community have a quite unified memory of what caused the destruction of their homeland. There is also a pervasive agreement that on the old reserve life was characterised by close family ties, communal support, moral principles, and traditional norms of social and sexual interactions. But such memories only serve to accentuate the agony of a deeply wounded culture, they provide scant defence against increasing rates of child abuse, alcoholism, divorce, suicide, gang rape, and murder. While this deplorable situation is related to the internal decay of the traditional social order that followed resettlement, it is exacerbated by external forces of racial hostility, bureaucratic indifference, job discrimination, cultural stereotypes, and a long history of defeats since the greater Ojibwa community’s initial encounter with Europeans. In contrast to the Jewish experience, what we see in the Ojibwa case is that collective memory and communal mourning do not suffice to turn pain into any positive energy; what remains is full-blown despair.

Of course, areas of “affluent” Western society are seriously dysfunctional too. Shkilnyk concludes by observing:

For one thing, we now know that there are communities that can become unraveled to such an extent that the people in them lose much of their sense of self-worth and well-being, sometimes even their will to survive, and begin to spin off in directions of their own and die, literally or figuratively. For another, we know that this can happen when people are subjected to fundamental change, at a rate far beyond their ability to cope, in every single aspect of their culture simultaneously. In this process of total intrusion, if they also lose the hold on their spiritual selves, their vision of the future, and their hope of regaining some measure of control over their circumstances, then life itself ceases to have meaning. In this sense, Grassy Narrows serves as a poignant example of how fragile a society can be, and how we as humans may respond to conditions of unprecedented stress by destroying ourselves.

It may well be that Grassy Narrows also represents a microcosm, greatly magnified and concentrated in time and space, of the destructive processes at work in our own society. Is it not possible that the pressures that crippled the people of Grassy Narrows are the same pressures that, much more slowly and covertly, are crippling us as well?

The struggles of society elsewhere, and of alienated youth, suggest general lessons about individual and collective trauma—the former (as Ericson comments) more readily mended than the latter. Still, in Western society the post-war rebuilding continued, largely oblivious to the sufferings of indigenous peoples like the Ojibwa. Shkilnyk’s story casts a disturbing light on the energy that we celebrate since the 1960s; and it all seems a world away from the civil rights movement, or indeed the violence and depression of the Cultural Revolution.

Recent attention to Grassy Narrows (e.g. here) focuses on mercury poisoning; but social issues continue—see e.g. this report from 2016.

Steve Fobister (1952–2018), the most respected chief in modern times, who campaigned tirelessly for his fractured community to be compensated, died of the long-term effects of mercury poisoning in 2018.

But it seems that the more recent picture may not be not altogether desolate; and if even partial recovery is possible, then that too deserves study and publicity. A more encouraging update is

  • Anna J. Willow, Strong hearts, native lands: the cultural and political landscape of Anishinaabe anti-clearcutting activism (2012).

While world music fans rightly celebrate the cultures of the Inuit, or the Australian Aborigines, or the Uyghurs, where can expressive culture possibly come into all this? We have to consider it within the context of the decimation of society.

Just one instance of the recent Ojibwa ritual tradition in north Wisconsin:

And as young people in Grassy Narrows try to make sense of their lives, it’s worth ending on a note of hope—here’s Home to me (2016):

The story now prompts me to explore Native American cultures further—starting here, moving on to the Navajo and the Ghost Dance. See also First Nations: trauma and soundscape.

 


[1] For introductions, see the Canadian Encyclopedia and wiki entries, both more discreet. The community’s own site focuses on continuing efforts to gain compensation for the ecological disaster. For a range of reports from CBC, see here; for a general introduction to the Ojibwa, here.

[2] For the vulnerability of First Nation bands during the present pandemic, see e.g. here.

[3] For some recordings of Ojibwa music, click on sidebar menu here; for Minnesota, see Michael D. McNally, Ojibwe singers: hymns, grief and a native culture in motion (2000). All this is part of the major field of studies on changing Native American musical cultures—from Frances Densmore, George Herzog, and Marius Barbeau to Bruno Nettl, Alan Merriam, David McAllester, and Charlotte Frisbie (To Name But A Few). See e.g. the New Grove dictionary of music and musicians (along with Helen Myers’ overview in Ethnomusicology: historical and regional studies, pp.404–18), the Garland encyclopedia of world music, and various dedicated bibliographies. Note also the Inuit: some links here.

[4] Here one may find a certain resemblance to the intrusion of the modern state into rural China since the Republican era, as the traditional moral and political leadership of village affairs was replaced by appointees answerable to the wider secular government; for Hebei, see e.g. Prasenjit Duara, here.

Chinese-Russian Muslims: the Dungan people

Dungan 2

Source: wiki.

Among the many ethnic minorities of the former Soviet Union (see e.g. Cheremis, Chuvash, and Kazakhs), the Dungan people are Chinese Hui Muslims who fled in waves from Shaanxi and Gansu in northwest China by way of Xinjiang, following the uprisings of the 1870s. Mainly living in Kazakhstan and Kyrgystan, by 2003 they numbered around 100,000. Along with their traditional customs they preserved their original Chinese dialects, using Cyrillic instead of Chinese characters.

* * *

In the West, knowledge of the Dungan people sets forth from the work of the remarkable Svetlana Rimsky-Korsakoff Dyer, great-granddaughter of the composer.* The following is adapted from this post. I do hope she’s been writing her memoirs.

Her father Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakoff, a high-ranking officer in the Czarist army, had fled to China after the 1917 Revolution. After the fall of St Petersburg he joined the Russian community in Harbin in northeast China, where Svetlana was born in 1931.

Later the family moved to the capital Peking, where the young Svetlana received a mixed Russian–Chinese education. During the Japanese occupation of Peking the family took refuge in the southwestern province of Yunnan, where they were eventually granted Chinese citizenship.

In 1945, after the retreat of the Japanese, the family returned to Peking. Svetlana’s second father, the last governor of Kamchatka under Czarist rule, took up a professorship of history at Tsinghua University. Svetlana enrolled at the Catholic Fu Jen University in Peking and became one of the rare foreigners studying and living among the local Chinese students, witnessing violent clashes between Communist and Nationalist troops. She was present during the siege of the campus by Communist troops, and was forced to attend anti-foreigner and anti-missionary campaigns under Mao Zedong.

Following the 1949 Communist revolution, the Rimsky-Korsakoffs were stripped of their Chinese nationality. A period of economic and psychological hardship began for the family. The father was forced to quit his professorship of history for ideological reasons, and to teach Russian instead. In the 1950s the family fled China by boat, along with the last missionaries expelled from China. Svetlana was now stateless, a plight that would only end many years later when she received Australian citizenship.

In 1960 she enrolled in the master’s programme for Asian languages at Georgetown University, Washington. Hoping to study Chinese proverbs, she sought the advice of Fr Paul Serruys, professor of Chinese philology at the university. But once he learned of Svetlana’s mixed Russian-Chinese background, Serruys promptly steered her to work on the language of the Dungan minority. In 1965 Svetlana submitted her master’s dissertation The Dungan dialect: introduction and morphology—the first scholarly work on the Dungans in the West. Virtually no other written materials on them were available in the West, and no fieldwork had yet been done among the Dungans themselves. Victor Mair pursues the Dungan language here, with links.

SvetlanaAfter Georgetown, Svetlana began teaching Chinese at Australian National University (Canberra) as she worked on a PhD. While still engaged in projects on early Chinese literature, her fascination with the Dungans remained.

In 1977, she embarked on the first of several stays with the Dungans, who were then living in kolkhoz collectives in the Kyrghyz and Kazakh republics. Svetlana shared their daily life, attending their weddings and funerals and recording their language. In the 1980s she also worked with the “national Dungan poet” Iasyr Shivaza.

Among her publications on the Dungans are

  • Soviet Dungan kolkhozes in the Kirghiz S.S.R. and the Kazakh S.S.R., Oriental monograph series, 25, Canberra (1980)
  • “Soviet Dungan nationalism: a few comments on their origin and language”, Monumenta Serica 33 (1977–8).
  • Karakunuz : An Early Settlement of the Chinese Muslims in Russia“, Asian folklore studies 51 (1992), citing impressive early Russian ethnographies as well as later fieldwork under the USSR, with an Appendix on her own visits in 1977, 1985, and 1991.

Dungan 1

Karakunuz (renamed Masanchin in 1965), Kazakhstan, 1991, from Dyer, ibid.
Much as I’d like to offer a photo of the Dungans during the Soviet period, media images revolve predictably around weddings and cuisine.

More recently the Dungans feature in the work of scholars of the Hui Muslims, such as Dru Gladney, Jonathan Lipman, and Ha Guangtian. Inside the PRC, while the Uyghurs bear the brunt of recent persecutions, the Hui Muslims are not exempt.

On the cultural front, Vibeke Børdahl kindly alerts me to the work of the Russian sinologist Boris Riftin (1932–2012) on Dungan folktales, notably

  • Li Fuqing 李福清 [Boris Riftin], Donggan minjian gushi chuanshuo ji 東干民間故事傳說集 [Collection of Dungan folktales and legends] (2011, translated from original 1977 Russian edition), reviewed in CHINOPERL 31 (2012), along with the tribute
  • Rostislav Berezkin, “Academician Boris L’vovich Riftin (1932–2012): the extraordinary life of a brilliant scholar”.

Riftin first visited the Dungans in 1950, going on to work as a volunteer there in 1953—a period when ethnography of the changing times would have been instructive, yet impossible.

As ever, what interests me in particular here is the lives of people, and their culture, through the turbulent, distressing period of Stalin’s regime (cf. The Ukraine famineThe whisperers, Svetlana Alexievich, and again the Kazakh famine); I’d like to read details of the early years of the revolution, the Great Purge, the Great Patriotic War and the aftermath. But it seems that such stories for the Dungans remain elusive.

Even in 2020 a violent ethnic clash occurred that resulted in more cross-border flight:

With thanks to Beth McKillop.

* For a superfluous yet wonderful link, do listen to my violin teacher Hugh Maguire’s 1964 recording of Scheherazade with Pierre Monteux and the LSO.

Forgotten victims

 

 

Roma

Margerite Kraus, a Czech Roma who survived Auschwitz (her camp number visible on her left forearm) and Ravensbrück. GDR, c1966.

Only a few more days remain to view an exhibition at the excellent Wiener library in London,

The site gives extensive links to press coverage. Note also relevant sections of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, including this page on music (Roma musicians also play a major role in my post on Musical cultures of east Europe).

In the history of the Holocaust, the Porajmos (“Devouring”, though among the Roma the term is controversial and little used), far less publicised than the Jewish genocide, is often reduced to a footnote.

The exhibition explores Roma and Sinti life in Germany and Austria prior to the Second World War, and genocidal policies starting in German-occupied Poland in 1940. It also examines the post-war lives and legacies for Roma and Sinti, who fought to obtain recognition and compensation for their oppression. It reflects on the situation in Britain and Europe today, with prejudice and discrimination against them still common—featuring the testimony of Józef Sadowski, the only known Roma survivor of Nazi persecution living in the UK today.

Fonseca

A most compelling ethnography is

  • Isobel Fonseca, Bury me standing: the gypsies and their journey (1995); she reflects on the Porajmos in ch.7. 

Gypsies have no myths about the beginnings of the world, or about their own origins; they have no sense of a great historical past. Very often their memories do not extend beyond three or four generations—that is, to those experiences and ancestors who are remembered by the oldest person among them. The rest, as it were, were not history. […]
The Second World War and its traumas are certainly within living memory; but there is no tradition of commemoration, or even of discussion. Some thought that such talk might actually be dangerous: “Why give them ideas?” a young Hungarian Rom asked, fifty years after the event. Under the Nazis, the Gypsies were the only group apart from the Jews who were slated for extermination on the grounds of race. It is a story that remains unknown—even to many Gypsies who survived it.

As Fonseca observes, whereas the Enlightenment brought European Jews opportunities for education and commerce previously closed to them, the Roma remained the “quintessential outsiders of the European imagination”, rejecting assimilation.

Belzec camp, 1940: left, perhaps Jozef Kwiek, self-proclaimed King of Polish gypsies; right, Kalderash gypsies from Romania.

Even before Hitler came to power in 1933, a law “Combatting Gypsies, vagabonds, and the work shy” was passed in Bavaria in 1926, with a counterpart in Prussia the following year. The plight of the Roma became ever more acute through the 1930s. The Nazis regarded gypsies as congenital criminals, subsuming them in a litany of “undesirables” or “asocials”—along with communists, social democrats, trade unionists, pacifists, homosexuals, dissenting clergy, Jehovah’s Witnesses, freemasons, Slavs.

Rough estimates of Roma murdered during the war (and their populations of the time) vary widely: from between 220,000 and 500,000 (25% to over 50% of slightly under 1 million Roma), to about 1.5 million out of 2 million.

Although German Gypsies had been out into German concentration camps as early as 1934, in November of 1941 Łódź became the first place in Poland where Gypsies were gathered for extermination in a camp setting. Here they were completely sealed off, and were out of sight; only the few Jewish doctors who treated a typhus epidemic, and then Jewish gravediggers, witnessed their end.

Apart from the Sinti of central Europe—German, Austrian, Polish, Czech, Slovak—those rounded up came from Hungary, Romania, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Russia and the Baltic states; from Norway, Belgium, France, and Holland. Many were herded into ghettos and deported to camps—including Auschwitz, Chelmno, Dachau, BuchenwaldRavensbrück, and Sachsenhausen—and subjected to forced medical experiments and sterilisation. In Auschwitz they were housed as families in Zigeunerlager; but the atrocious conditions there soon led to fatal epidemics.

And as Timothy Snyder points out, in the Bloodlands those summarily executed in mass shootings far outnumbered those who perished in the camps.

On commemorating the traumas of Nazism, note also A Nazi legacy. For the USSR, see under Life behiind the Iron Curtain: a roundup; for Maoist China, here.

Keeping you guessing

I’ve found the last few weeks most fruitful—I hope you’re as stimulated as I am by this range of topics. Here’s a reminder of some recent posts.

Below I group them under themes, but in real time I also keep the reader [singular, eh? Mrs Ivy Trellis I presume—Ed.] guessing by purposefully alternating them, with frequent cross-links—the old “delighting in all manifestation of the Terpichorean muse“. Do click away: 

On war, trauma, and memory:

Not forgetting China:

and more… Some of my favourites from the archive, both serious and jocular, are grouped here.

The Kazakh famine

Trauma and memory

famine

The famine in Ukraine of the early 1930s (see posts under Life behind the Iron curtain: a roundup) was publicised abroad by early journalists like Gareth Jones, and later through the work of the Ukrainian diaspora and scholars like Robert Conquest and Anne Applebaum.

But from 1931 to 1934 there was widespread dearth throughout the Soviet Union; the Ukraine holodomor has largely eclipsed other devastating famines in the North Caucasus and the Volga, and notably further east in Kazakhstan—a vast territory the size of continental Europe. It makes an important piece of the grisly jigsaw filling in the troubled histories of Russia, Xinjiang, and China (see e.g. here); and it also relates to the commemoration and recognition of guilt in Germany (see e.g. here).

Conquest had already addressed the topic in chapter 9 of his 1986 book The harvest of sorrow (1986), “Central Asia and the Kazakh tragedy”. Now we have two major books to help supplement the picture: [1]

  • Robert Kindler, Stalin’s nomads: power and famine in Kazakhstan (translated by Cynthia Klohr, 2018; German original, 2014)
  • Sarah Cameron, The hungry steppe: famine, violence, and the making of Soviet Kazakhstan (2018)

It is no easy task to unravel the threads of forced collectivization, famine, and all the social changes that they entailed. In Central Asia, the state’s attempts to implement socialism were further complicated by their mission to permanently sedentarise nomads. While I look forward to reading Cameron’s book, here I’ll discuss that of Kindler.

Central Asia since the 1990s

Central Asia since the 1990s.

In his Introduction Kindler summarizes the main themes.

More than a third of all Kazakhs died, or a fourth of Kazakhstan’s entire population. People died of hunger or disease, were shot, or slain. Hundreds of thousands were displaced; some turned to begging or banditry. Social nets fell apart. As the nomads’ herds were confiscated and depleted, the economy of the steppe collapsed. […]

Clans were replaced by kolkhozes, brigades, and other collectives that produced and distributed indispensable resources. People became dependent on the institutions of the Soviet state. […] It was Sovietization by hunger.

These initiatives “threw the region into chaos, causing mass flight, civil war, and an unprecedented shortage of food”.

As Kindler observes, Soviet modernity made no provision for pastoralists. Nomads were difficult to tax and difficult to supervise, thwarting the “dictatorship of the proletariat”. Citing James Scott, he notes that

the probability of catastrophe grows when authoritarian leaders use such methods on societies that are unable to ward off radical change. […] But the road from theoretical sedentism to real permanent settlement was long, arduous, and paved with suffering.

For the competing groups within Kazakh society,

collectivization and sedentarization gave them opportunities to advocate their own particular interests. […] Different levels of loyalty [to the Soviet state] were often difficult to distinguish.

While the whole system was built on confusion and terror, violence, omnipresent throughout the USSR under Stalin, was not a simple two-sided war between the state and the people. As later in China,

The Soviet project to rebuild society rested on the generation of perceived differences. […] Stalin pitted various institutions against each other to keep them under control.

Kindler unpacks the inadequacies of analyses of famine:

Students of the Soviet famine of 1932–33 have often focused on the social, political, and economic causes of famine and its demographic consequences. Much of this research has suggested that under the circumstances of food shortage, frustrated people had no influence on the events dictated to them. People affected by famine were mostly depicted as vague, passive, helpless victims with almost no agency. What happens to people who starve, how they behave when threatened with death, and what it means to survive a food shortage have seldom been described. Rarely do we read that people confronted with starvation become self-centered and asocial. Post-Soviet historiography in particular has cultivated the myth that peasants and nomads formed mutually supportive groups to master the crisis collectively, but that, unfortunately, they failed.

It takes time for food shortages to wreak devastation. Citing Amartya Sen on “food entitlement decline”, Kindler suggests a broader approach going beyond economic analyses. Strategies to cope with vulnerability; even in extremis, when a crisis becomes so great that it can no longer be met with the instruments normally employed in such situations, people are not merely victims. Still, by the early 1930s the Kazakhs had lost much of their capacity to resist external threats. Hunger may not have been premeditated, but it broke the nomads’ resistance.

Kindler disputes the popular theory of deliberate genocide that has become common for Ukraine. He notes the inevitable bias of the text-based, largely Soviet and Russian, sources; naturally we have few written accounts from the largely oral, illiterate culture of the nomads themselves. Even major sources that he utilises in the Kazakh archives still only contain the nomads’ own views as mediated by others.

Chapter 1, “Kazakh nomads and Russian colonial power”, shows that in the hierarchical traditional Kazakh society, the term kulak was no more relevant than for other cultures in the Soviet Union. Waves of state sedentarising policies predated the revolution but escalated. In 1916 the conflict between peasant settlers and nomads erupted in a major uprising, with hundreds of thousands of Kazakhs fleeing to China. Civil war soon followed, bringing anarchy and starvation.

In Chapter 2, “Soviet rule in the steppe”, Kindler shows how the Communists gradually expanded their power by destroying the old clans, at the cost of deeply alienating the people. But as later in rural China, there were severe obstacles to the reach of the state:

Many party members were technically and politically illiterate: they could neither read nor write. When documents could not be translated into Kazakh, the most rational solution for aul leaders was simply to gather, acknowledge, and then ignore them.

Alliances between indigenous leaders and the Communists were fragile.

Kindler goes on to explore the process of sedentarization. As later with the Chinese peasantry, the thorny issue of “raising the cultural level” of the nomads loomed; the Bolsheviks considered them “backward”, their whole culture “inferior”. But their efforts to transform the nomads’ customs by addressing issues in hygiene, and the status of women, were largely fruitless.

Source: Central State Archive of Video and Photo Documents of the Republic of Kazakhstan (courtesy of Zhanbolat Mamay), via Sarah Cameron.

The leadership only briefly countenanced the warnings of experts that nomadism was the only form of productivity on the steppe, and that to transform it would be to destroy the economy. State power depended on limiting mobility.

As the conflict between nomads and settlers intensified, Russian farmers also suffered. With land reform, many were forcibly deported in a reign of terror led by Georgii Safarov. Resistance in 1920 was crushed: as one report commented, “These evacuees are almost exclusively women and children. There are no men among them; the men have almost all been executed”. The Kazakhs saw land reform as an opportunity for revenge for the massacre of 1916.

Land reform came to a halt soon after Safarov was demoted in 1922. Meanwhile unyielding grain procurements led to another famine in 1921–22, when conservative estimates suggest that over 400,000 died. As the pendulum swung again, a fragile peace obtained. Kazakhs were given preferential treatment over settlers migrating to the region, but the latter put up a fight, and with Party leaders unable to reconcile the disparate interests, by 1928 settler migration was once again condoned.

In 1925, as Filipp Goloschekin was installed as the first Party Secretary of the region, conflict, repression, and purges escalated. Kindler goes on to unpack the complex competing networks among clans and within the Party leadership. Kazakhs within the Party were often marginalized, as mere figureheads—a pattern later all too common among the minority regions of the PRC.

Chapter 3, “Collectivization and sedentarization”, shows how central policies continued to impact on the regional picture. In the wake of the national Great Terror of 1927–28, the Great Turn of 1929, implemented with violence, initiated the destruction of the private sector. Confiscations and requisitions of grain and livestock from pastoralists soon led to destitution. Many fled across the border to Xinjiang, as they had often done before. But “collectivization was not only a war of the state against the people, it was also a war of the folk against itself”.

Both peasants and nomads had to pay. In the winter of 1929–30 hell broke loose in Soviet villages, with brutal raids. The task of the young activists sent by the central leadership to implement the brutal decree, often with no experience of either rural or nomadic life, was also unenviable:

Emissaries from the Soviet regime were threatened, beaten, tortured, and murdered when they collected tributes or tried to force people to join the kolkhozes.

1929 ganbu

While many of them had been successfully educated to believe in their task, not all were crusaders for the cause.

Numerous reports of the men’s enormous consumption of alcohol and their excessive carousing perhaps indicate that many suffered emotionally from the strain of their duties.

In March 1930 Stalin briefly put a brake on coercive collectivization—immediately prompting mass defections as well as further agricultural ravages. But even while 20,000 “kulak” families were deported from Kazakhstan, the region had to accommodate 30,000 “kulak” households from elsewhere in the Soviet Union. As the catastrophe escalated, herds were destroyed: by 1933 over 90% of all livestock had been lost. “Sedentarization through expropriation turned nomads into refugees and beggars.” Settlements were decreed on land unsuitable for cultivation; lack of materials made building work fruitless. Chaotic measures took a terrible toll.

Nomads would also have to make way for the vast network of labour camps for victims of repression from elsewhere, that was being planned from 1930.

In Chapter 4, “Civil war and flight”, Kindler shows the tenuity of Bolshevik rule if Kazakhs could manage to mobilize in resistance. By 1930 the long hostility of both nomads and peasants to state policies escalated into a fragmented civil war—Kindler again unpacking diverse motives for popular violence. Some Muslim groups waged holy war and sought to establish sharia law. Brutal revolts were brutally suppressed; after September 1931 serious uprisings ceased.

flight

Amidst the vast coercive displacements of the whole Soviet people, the indigenous Kazakh population was inundated with outsiders, including many inmates from labour camps. While nomads always depended on mobility, they now resorted to more radical migration across borders, with a vast exodus of refugees. While state policies eased somewhat after 1935, with nomadism tacitly condoned again, the pattern of cross-border migration would continue over a long period—and in both directions.

Warfare was intense in the Sino-Soviet borderland. Many Kazakhs fled by arduous routes to the Chinese-held province of Xinjiang; but there too, complex power struggles were under way, with smugglers, spies, and bandits among the population. [2] Nomads were accustomed to moving between borders, and there had been major flights in 1916 and 1928. Soviet forces carried out several massacres. For those Kazakhs who managed to reach Xinjiang, starvation was a danger there too.

Within the Soviet borders many Kazakhs also fled to Turkmen and Uzbek territory, as well as western Siberia. Unwelcome in such regions that Soviet policies had also reduced to desperation, they often became beggars.

Chapter 5, “Famine”, most lengthy and harrowing of all, opens starkly:

Between 1930 and 1934 at least a quarter of Kazakhstan’s total population perished.

Famine was widespread throughout the Soviet Union, not just in Kazakhstan and Ukraine but in North Caucasus and the Volga region. Other ethnic minorities within these regions also starved. But relief was secondary to the central goals of procurement and collectivization: the crisis reached its peak following the introductions of measures contrived to reduce it.

The catastrophe had unfolded gradually, but in the midst of armed struggles and mass migration, reports of famine multiplied from 1930. As solidarity and social cohesion dwindled, no-one could escape violence and its consequences. Children were orphaned or abandoned. Kindler cites documents describing cannibalism, and tellingly discusses the very countenance of starvation:

Going hungry radically changes people. They do not suddenly become recognizable victims. Over a longer period of time their figures, facial features, and ultimately their natures begin to change. Death by starvation is not sudden and unexpected. It announces itself gradually over days, weeks, even months. […] The hungry lose weight and look haggard and boney. Their skin loses suppleness and becomes pale. Muscles atrophy and warp posture. The starving often become apathetic and passive toward their environment. Finally they lose interest in anything except food. Starvation blocks out all other emotions and and induces a condition in which people tend to develop extreme forms of what, under other circumstances, they would consider their “normal” behaviour.

The faces of the starving frighten and horrify others. Their countenances speak of imminent death. Others may feel as if the radical change in facial expression comes from a loss of individuality and personality.

He cites the shocked reports of officials on the disaster.

But after experiencing the initial horror most people became complacent and callous. No-one could handle such constant confrontation with misery. […] The majority gradually became accustomed to the starving around them and resigned to accepting it. The longer they were confronted with hungry people, the less it bothered them. […]

Rejection of the starving often enough turned into overt hostility. […] The starving formed society’s lowest stratum. They were chased off, threatened, and often killed. They were strangers and beggars. Refugees were part of an undifferentiated gray mass with no future and a past that interested no-one.

As with the later Chinese famine,

It is no coincidence and it was not for a lack of camera equipment that there are few photographs of starving people in Kazakhstan. The catastrophe had no countenance and it was to be given none.

The food distribution points set up by the authorities were sites to which the starving were banished and left to die, reflecting “what characterized the Soviet Union as a whole: the conviction that useless people must be cleared away and disposed of as waste”. Violent ethnic tensions increased further. Officials too were vulnerable, concerned only for their own survival in a fragile pecking order. For the Soviet leadership the famine was an opportunity to subordinate the Kazakh nomads and peasants once and for all.

By late 1933 minor policy adjustments gradually led to the end of the worst sufferings. Despite resistance from both the Kazakh leadership and refugees, refugees began to be repatriated. Even people who had fled to Xinjiang, itself in the grip of civil war, planned to return. Still, with provisions for returnees quite inadequate, the death count continued to rise in 1934. A repressive system of internal passports was introduced. Those who had somehow survived now had to resign themselves to the kolkhoz.

In Chapter 6, “Soviet nomadism”, Kindler describes the aftermath. While plans for sedentarization continued, nomadism was now partially tolerated; the size of herds gradually increased, although only a minority would now be under the control of the kolkhozes. The leadership even began to accept national customs and folklore, at least in commodified form—as ever, I’m keen to see local reports on any such grassroots revival. Conditions on Kazakh-run kolkhozes were yet worse than those managed by Russians, and their performances poorer. Kolkhozes often became fictitious entities, lacking permanent buildings.

This standoff continued until the chaos unleashed by the Great Terror of 1937–38. In Kazakhstan regaining control over livestock breeding became a focus, resulting in further expropriations. And the region now became one of the major destinations for mass deportation:

Entire ethnic groups like Armenians, Koreans, and later Germans and Chechens populated the “special settlements” and the Kazakh branches of the Gulag, including above all the gigantic Karlag.

As the plan to “make the steppe arable” was left to prisoners and slave-labourers, the gulag came to form the backbone of Soviet power in central Kazakhstan (see e.g. here and here), a major part of the fatally warped economy. In One day in the life of Ivan Denisovich Solzhenitsyn describes his time in Kazakh gulags in the early 1950s. Between 1931 and 1959 over one million “enemies of the people” laboured in the Karlag.

The war that erupted when Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941 caused grievous losses throughout the bloodlands of the western regions. It also marked a renaissance for Kazakh nomadism, although many livestock froze or starved to death. After the Great Victory, agronomists and ethnologists gave attention to ways of making migratory animal husbandry serve the interests of the socialist economy. “Soviet status was no longer bound to a sedentary way of life”.

In the brief but important final Chapter 7, “Legacy”, Kindler reflects:

Kazakhstan’s present multi-ethnic society is largely a product of Stalinism, forged by the nomads who managed to survive the famine and by the victims of Stalin’s mass deportations who were settled there.

As he explains,

Moral behaviour became perilous during the famine. Many people had no choice but to abet the corrupt system. The distinction between victim and perpetrator was blurred and, even in retrospect, we cannot clearly separate one from the other. A society that deemed the individual worthless and made the collective the greatest good stamped a verdict of guilty on anyone who valued his own life. […]

The crisis did not erode Soviet structures, it strengthened them by making individual survival almost completely dependent on Soviet mechanisms of order and distribution. Whoever survived the famine did so by the grace of the state that had caused it in the first place.

This resulted in complex processes of adaptation and psychological repression. […] Many Soviet citizens who had survived hunger, terror, and war, went on to live under the strain and stress of the Soviet system. They learned to cope with the tension and bury the dark sides of their past. […]

Victory in the Great Patriotic War blocked the tragedy of famine out of the collective memory of Kazakh society.

After the death of Stalin, in the mid-1950s many migrants poured into the steppe in response to Kruschev’s Virgin Lands Campaign—which though an economic failure and an ecological disaster, further integrated Kazakhstan into the Soviet Union.

Meanwhile I note that after the 1949 Communist victory in China, many Kazakhs and Uyghurs fled to the Soviet Union, particularly in the wake of the disastrous Great Leap Backward: a major exodus took place in 1962. And in Xinjiang today, while the Uyghurs bear the brunt of the brutal clampdown as their whole culture is assaulted, Kazakhs and other “minority” peoples are also suffering in a pervasive new gulag network.

Kindler explains the partial reclaiming of Kazakhstan’s history in recent decades:

After decades, it was finally perestroika that enabled the mention of famine in Kazakhstan. […] But due to the challenges of life under ongoing social transformation the topic was soon abandoned. After a short phase of public commemoration and rehabilitation between 1988 and 1993, coming to terms with the past once again became the domain of historians whose findings were barely noticed outside the small world of academic research.

This suited the new national narrative of independent Kazakhstan (for the current human rights situation, see here). A monument to victims of the famine, set up in 1992, was only completed in 2017. Commemorations finally increased from 2012. But with the example of Ukraine in mind, the authorities have remained wary:

The oasis of stability that the leaders of Kazakhstan like to present may then soon prove to be fictitious.

By now the urban–rural divide between Russian and Kazakh was even clearer. Kindler shows how the narrative of Kazakh victims impedes the study of the famine, downplaying the role of Kazakhs themselves in the disaster and silencing those who suffered. However, Kindler suggests that the interests of rulers and ruled might in some ways coincide:

Where no-one spoke about dying and suffering, no-one asked about personal responsibility and guilt. Silence held people together. When no-one spoke out, it was not only for fear of the regime. It also suppressed awareness of one’s own involvement. Excluding the victims meant including everyone else and doing so far beyond the end of the famine itself.

As in China (see this post on commemorating the abuses of Maoism), “forced trust” bound Soviet leaders and citizens together. People continued carefully to observe taboos: “the rules prescribed not only what was said, but what was not said as well.” Meanwhile in Germany the recognition of trauma took place more openly. Finally Kindler refrains from suggesting answers:

In light of Kazakh society’s instability, was it a rational strategy for coming to terms with the past to ignore the problematic aspects of the country’s own history? Does it suffice to label the famine a “national tragedy”, like a natural disaster, and leave it at that? Or is it time for Kazakhstan to explore its own responsibility for the outbreak of famine?

Note this recent documentary by Zhanbolat Mamay, Zulmat: mass hunger in Kazakhstan:

Now I look forward to reading Sarah Cameron’s book too.

For both nomadic and sedentary populations, Soviet policies led to extreme suffering. The whole period was a nightmare. With my focus on China I find it all the more tragic that some twenty-five years later, the CCP allowed this same disaster, with similar causes and consequences, to befall over forty million Chinese people. Wherever we do fieldwork, people still have to live with the memory of such traumas.

For the destruction of a First Nation community in Canada, see here.

 

[1] Both works are reviewed here; Cameron’s work here and here, as well as this substantial lecture. See also here and here; and note Alun Thomas, Nomads and Soviet rule: Central Asia under Lenin and Stalin (2018). For further comparative studies, see Famine: Ukraine and China, under “Comparisons, figures”.

[2] For the perspective of Uyghur culture, see Rachel Harris, The making of a musical canon in Central Asia, pp.29–33.

Soviet lives at war

Svetlana Alexievich and the struggle over memory

in hiding

Continuing my belated education in Soviet lives, always bearing in mind parallels with modern Chinese society, I’ve begun reading the remarkable oral history projects of Svetlana Alexievich (b.1948), winner of the Nobel prize in 2015 (see e.g. this NYT review), starting with

  • The unwomanly face of war (1983, English translation 2017) (review here) and
  • Last witnesses: unchildlike stories (1985, English translation 2019) (review here).

Such memoirs should be read in conjunction with historical accounts such as Timothy Snyder’s The bloodlands. And they are just the kind of memories utilised by Orlando Figes in The Whisperers and documented on his website. For a roundup of posts on life behind the Iron Curtain, see here.

A genuine sense of collective idealism, so difficult for the Soviet state to instil through all the tribulations of forced collectivisation, famine, show trials, and gulags, only came much later with the Great Patriotic War unleashed by the 1941 Nazi invasion. But after the Victory this patriotic pride was soon followed by renewed disillusion. For the People’s Republic of China after 1949, conversely, the national myth fed on the whole process of the revolution, of which the wartime resistance against Japan was but one element. And then, as I observed in Lives in Stalin’s Russia,

Whereas the 1989 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 The unwomanly face of war Alexeivich focuses on the roles of women, their strivings and sufferings: tank drivers, snipers, sappers, pilots, nurses and doctors, on the front lines, on the home front, and in occupied territories; as well as the “second front”, all those women working backstage—doing laundry, cooking, repairing machinery and vehicles, and so on.

She also comments on the whole issue of representing war; on the process of eliciting such painful memories; and on the difficulties of publishing such material even after perestroika—notably in the lengthy opening section, “A human being is greater than war”.

I am writing a book about war…

I, who never liked to read military books, although in my childhood and youth this was the favourite reading of everybody. Of all my peers. And this is not surprising—we were the children of Victory. The children of the victors. What is the first thing I remember about the war? My childhood anguish amid the incomprehensible and frightening words. The war was remembered all the time: at school and at home, at weddings and christenings, at celebrations and wakes. Even in children’s conversations. […]

For us everything took its origin from that frightening and mysterious world. In our family my Ukrainian grandfather, my mother’s father, was killed at the front and is buried somewhere in Hungary, and my Belorussian grandmother, my father’s mother, was a partisan and died of typhus; two of her sons served in the army and were reported missing in the first months of the war; of three sons only one came back. My father. The Germans burned alive eleven distant relations with their children—some in a cottage, some in a village church. These things happened in every family. With everybody. […]

The village of my postwar childhood was a village of women. Village women. I don’t remember any men’s voices. That is how it has remained for me: stories of the war are told by women. Their songs are like weeping. […]

At school we were taught to love death. We wrote compositions about how we would love to die in the name of … We dreamed.

As a review comments:

The official response to this legacy of suffering was a Soviet history that reduced pain to superlative clichés —heroism, bravery, sacrifice—and replaced the individual with the archetype of the Soviet soldier-hero.

The “Holocaust by bullet” in the bloodlands, which bore the full brunt of Hitler’s invasion, were particularly horrendous—notably in Belarus, [1] where Alexeivich grew up; indeed, many of the accounts that she went on to collect refer to the Minsk region. Vasil Bykau’s novel The dead don’t hurt [aka The dead feel no pain] was published in 1965 but immediately banned: “his characters stubbornly stand outside the Soviet national myth. They are cowardly as often as they are brave; they betray and are betrayed; they are not always sure that victory over fascism or capitalism justifies their deaths” (from this review).

Eventually Alexeivich came across another book about wartime Belarus that struck a chord: I am from a burning village [aka Out of the fire, 1977] by Adamovich, Bryl, and Kolesnik. Impressed by the book’s polyphonic style, Alexeivich found it to be

composed from the voices of life itself, from what I had heard in childhood, from what can be heard now in the street, at home, in a café, on a bus. There! The circle was closed. I had found what I was looking for. I knew I would.

After another long struggle with the censors, Elem Klimov was finally able to begin shooting a film based on the book, Come and see (1985; review here). Here’s a trailer:

As Alexeivich read more widely, it became clear to her that the standard literature on war was “men writing about men”:

Men hide behind history, behind facts; war fascinates them as action and a conflict of ideas, of interests.

But

No one but me ever questioned my grandmother. My mother. Even those who were at the front say nothing. If they suddenly begin to remember, they don’t talk about the “women’s” war but about the “men’s”. They tune into the canon.

She reflects on the way women portray their wartime selves (memory too is a creative process), noting that educated people are more “infected by secondary knowledge”, by myths. She explains the process of finding the women and interacting with them.

The wartime recollections are disturbing, but the fortunes of the manuscript make another worrying topic. The 1983 manuscript of The unwomanly face of war was criticized for tarnishing the image of the Soviet woman.

The manuscript has been lying on my desk for a long time… For two years now I’ve been getting rejections from publishers.

Then came perestroika, and an edition appeared (albeit heavily censored), soon becoming hugely popular; as she received dozens of letters daily, she soon found herself “doomed to go on writing my books endlessly”.

In the unexpurgated 2017 English edition Alexeivich includes excerpts from her journal from 2002 to 2004:

I think that today I would probably ask different questions and hear different answers. And would write a different book—not entirely different, but still different.

She gives instances of passages that the censors threw out—and even that she herself had censored. Many of these have since been restored, but as she says, they too make a document. She intersperses such passages with her conversations with the censor:

“Who will go to fight after such books? You humiliate women with a primitive naturalism. Heroic women. You dethrone them. You make them into ordinary women, females. But our women are saints.”

Our heroism is sterile, it leaves no room for physiology or biology. It’s not believable. War tested not only the spirit but the body, too. The material shell.

“Where did you get such thoughts? Alien thoughts. Not Soviet. You laugh at those who lie in communal graves.”

Another exchange:

“Yes, we paid heavily for the Victory, but you should look for heroic examples. There are hundreds of them. And you show the filth of the war. The underwear. You make our Victory terrible… What is it you’re after?”

The truth.”

“You think the truth is what’s there in life. In the street. Under your feet. It’s such a low thing for you. Earthly. No, the truth is what we dream about. It’s how we want to be!”

Alexeivich laces the brief, distressing individual memoirs with revealing notes on the context of her encounters with their authors: their demeanour, the cramped apartments.

Amidst the frank descriptions of warfare, some of the women she met retained an enthusiasm for Communism, but others were bitterly critical of the society that Stalin had created. Here’s one letter she received:

My husband, a chevalier of the Order of Glory, got ten years in the labour camps after the war… That is how the Motherland met her heroes. The victors! He had written in a letter to a university friend that he had difficulty being proud of our victory—our own and other people’s land was covered with heaps of Russian corpses. Drowned in blood. He was immediately arrested… His epaulettes were torn off…

He came back from Kazakhstan after Stalin’s death… Sick. We have no children. I don’t need to remember the war. I’ve been at war all my life…

Another woman, whose husband had fought, was captured, and then sent to labour camp after Victory, reflects:

I want to ask: who is to blame that in the first months of the war millions of soldiers and officers were captured? I want to know… Who beheaded the army before the war, shooting and slandering the Red commanders—as German spies, as Japanese spies. […] I want… I can ask now… Where is my life? Our life? But I keep silent, and my husband keeps silent. We’re afraid even now. We’re frightened… And so we’ll die scared. Bitter and ashamed…

After one harrowing account from a former medical assistant of a tank battalion, Alexeivich adds a sequel. She received a package containing published praise for the woman’s patriotic educational work, and found the material she had sent heavily censored. Alexeivich reflects on the two truths that live in the same human being:

one’s own truth driven underground, and the common one, filled with the spirit of the time. The smell of the newspapers. The first was rarely able to resist the massive onslaught of the second.

On the interviews, she goes on to note:

The more listeners, the more passionless and sterile the account. To make it suit the stereotype.

One veteran explains how women were silenced after the war:

Back then we hid, didn’t even wear our medals. Men wore them, but not women. Men were victors, heroes, wooers, the war was theirs, but we were looked at with quite different eyes. […] I’ll tell you, they robbed us of the victory.

Alexeivich finds them less candid in speaking about love than about death. Indeed, traditional values remained punitive: one woman tells how she got married after Victory, only to find that her husband’s parents were ashamed of this frontline bride.

After the war we got another war. Also terrible. For some reason, men abandoned us. They didn’t shield us.

* * *

Woman’s history has rightly become a major topic, both in fiction and non-fiction. I’ve addressed women at war in Les Parisiennes and Bearing witness; there have been notable studies for Britain too, also providing a much-needed corrective to our legacy of patriotic war films. For China, the voices of women are an important aspect of Guo Yuhua’s study of a Shaanbei village under Maoism (see also my series on Women of Yanggao, starting here, and China: commemorating trauma). Among many posts under my fieldwork category, I explore issues such as listening to people here.

* * *

Whereas the narrators of The unwomanly face of war were at least in their teens when they joined the Great Patriotic War, in Last witnesses (first published in 1985, and again adapted for the English translation, which bears the dates 1978–2004) they are often recalling their very early years, aged from 3 to 14. Here Alexeivich refrains from comment, leaving the young voices to speak for themselves. “Instead of a Preface”, she cites People’s Friendship magazine to remind us:

In the course of the Great Patriotic War (1941–1945) millions of Soviet children died: Russians, Belorussians, Ukrainians, Jews, Tatars, Latvians, Gypsies, Kazakhs, Uzbeks, Armenians, Tadjiks…

The accounts make up a relentlessly grisly litany of partisans, atrocities, torched houses, mutilated corpses, transports, camps—an indelible trauma for these young children, often orphaned after witnessing their families and fellow-villagers murdered, hiding in forests and swamps, constantly hungry. However repressed, this trauma would persist throughout the years following the Victory.

 

[1] Belarus is a frequent topic of Snyder’s Bloodlands. As in Ukraine and elsewhere in the region, the war was never a simple struggle between the local population and German invaders. The NKVD had already committed terrible atrocities, complicating the partisans’ allegiances: some groups were pro-Soviet, others fighting for independence.

 

The first gulag

people

Prisoners of the Solovki camps. Source here.

With an Iron Fist, We Will Lead Humanity to Happiness

—slogan at gate of Solovki prison camp.

Prompted by the troubled memory of abuses under Maoism in China, and the ongoing sensitivity of the topic (cf. my posts on the Nazi camps of Ravensbrück and Sachsenhausen), and following my reviews of Orlando Figes’s The whisperers and Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands (for a roundup, see here), I’m gradually, and belatedly, reading up on the Soviet gulag system. A suitable starting point is the Solovki prison camp in the White Sea, prototype for the whole gulag network.

Even during the early years of the camp, some quite frank descriptions of Solovki were published, such as S.A. Malsagov, An island hell (1926) and Raymond Duguet, Un bagne en Russie (1927).

But it was only much later that more thorough accounts would emerge. After the chapter devoted to Solovki in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s seminal The gulag archipelago (1973), Anne Applebaum gives an incisive account of the camp’s history in chapter 2 of Gulag: a history (2003). [1]

The inhospitable Solovetsky islands had been home to a fortified monastery complex since the 15th century, and a remote place of exile under Tsarist rule. After the revolution, the prison camp was constructed from 1923, as the monastery property was confiscated and monks murdered or deported to other camps. The number of prisoners soon grew rapidly. Solovki was itself a network of camps, both on the main island and the yet more lawless outlying islands, becoming a major site for forced labourers constructing the Baltic–White sea canal, all under the brutal direction of the OGPU state security apparatus.

Over the sixteen years of the network’s sorry existence (1923–39), the harsh conditions and the brutal labour regime alone gave rise to endemic, often fatal, disease; but sadism, torture, and executions too were soon routine. As the system was refined, notably under the leadership of Naftaly Aranovich Frenkel—a former prisoner—Solovki became a model for the gruesome system of “corrective” slave labour for profit, such as we see even now in a sinister modern incarnation in Xinjiang. The notion of “re-educating” inmates to create model citizens was always a figleaf.

After a serious incident in 1923, the socialist politicals (who had at first been privileged) were downgraded in status, becoming lower in the hierarchy than common criminals. In its isolation Solovki was virtually impregnable, and only a tiny handful of prisoners somehow managed to escape in 1925, 1928, and 1934 (Gulag: a history, p.358).

Here’s a remarkable silent 79-minute propaganda documentary filmed in 1927–8 (also here; a 5-minute cut, with translated captions, is here):

Cultural life and religion
Like Nazi camps, Solovki had its own concert band, theatrical performances, a library, a printing press, and a Society for Local Lore. [2] But under Frenkel such cultural activities were curtailed.

Remarkably, even religious services were observed in the early years (cf. Famine: Ukraine and China). A former prisoner recalled the “grandiose” Easter of 1926:

Not long before the holiday, the new boss of the division demanded that all who wanted to go to church should present him with a declaration. Almost no one did so at first—people were afraid of the consequences. But just before Easter, a huge number made their declarations. … Along the road to Onufrievskaya church, the cemetery chapel, marched a great procession, people walked in several rows. Of course we didn’t all fit into the chapel. People stood outside, and those who came late couldn’t even hear the service.

Applebaum goes on:

Along with religious holidays, a small handful of the original monks also continued to survive, to the amazement of many prisoners, well into the latter half of the decade. […] The monks were joined, over the years, by dozens more Soviet priests and members of the Church hierarchy, both Orthodox and Catholic, who had opposed the confiscation of Church wealth, or who had violated the “decree on separation of Church and state”. The clergy, somewhat like the socialist politicals, were allowed to live separately, in one particular barrack of the kremlin, and were also allowed to hold services in the small chapel of the former cemetery right up until 1930–31—a luxury forbidden to other prisoners except on special occasions.

Meanwhile, catacomb services were held in secret (for more accounts of the Solovki martyrs, see e.g. here):

As Applebaum relates,

Solzhenitsyn tells the story, repeated in various forms by others, of a group of religious sectarians who were brought to Solovetsky in 1930. They rejected anything that came from the “Anti-Christ”, refusing to handle Soviet passports or money. As punishment, they were sent to a small island on the Solovetsky archipelago, where they were told that they would receive food only if they agreed to sign for it. They refused. Within two months they had all starved to death. The next boat to the island, remembered one eyewitness, “found only corpses which had been picked by the birds”.

Gorky’s visit, and the final days

Gorky

Maxim Gorky (centre) visiting Solovki, 1929.

In June 1929, to counteract foreign criticism, Maxim Gorky, “the Bolsheviks’ much-lauded and much-celebrated prodigal son”, returned to the USSR for an elaboratedly-choreographed visit that included a three-day visit to Solovki (Gulag: a history, pp.59–62). Though he was not entirely credulous, seeing through part of the official smoke-screen, his report in published form for the international media inevitably put a benign spin on conditions at the camp. As Applebaum observes, “We do not know whether he wrote what he did out of naivety, out of a calculated desire to deceive, or because the censors made him do it”.

Elsewhere too, foreign visitors were easily misled, whether out of enthusiasm for the new social experiment or out of expediency during the struggle against Nazism—such as journalist Walter Duranty for the Ukraine famine, and USA Vice-President Henry Wallace on his 1944 visit to the Kolyma camp in Siberia (Gulag: a history, pp.398–401).

1929 marked “the great turning point”. As Stalin further consolidated his power, the regime becoming ever more draconian, with more systematic persecution of its perceived opponents.

Throughout the Solovki camp’s history countless prisoners were executed, culminating in the Great Terror of 1937–8. As war loomed—with the site lying too near to the border with Finland, and as its main industry of logging was depleted with the deforestation of the area—the camp was closed in 1939, amidst further executions. Meanwhile the gulag system persisted throughout other parts of the USSR right through into the late 1950s, even after the death of Stalin.

The legacy since perestroika
In the 1980s, as memoirs of the period began to be published more widely, intrepid researchers like Yuri Brodsky set about unearthing the dark secrets of Solovki. I’m keen to see Marina Goldovskaya’s 1988 documentary Solovki power (some footage here). But within Russia—even since the collapse of the Soviet Union—the history of the gulags has remained contested (see e.g. here).

As early as 1967, while the Solovetsky monastery was still inactive, a museum had been opened there; by 1989 a new permanent exhibition became the first to commemorate the gulag system. In 1992 the monastery was re-established, and the inscription of the complex on the UNESCO World Heritage list thoroughly downplayed the dark history of the camp.

With official repression of memory continuing to grow in an unholy pact between church and state orthodoxy, by 2015 human rights activists were deploring the removal of all traces of the Solovki camp (see this NYT article from 2015). This article shows how pilgrims from Ukraine have also been obstructed from visiting in recent years.

See also Kolyma tales.

[1] Both works feature in this New Yorker review. Online there are many sites about Solovki, such as herehere, and (an early exposé from 1953) here. For more work by Applebaum, see here, as well as her major study of the famine in Ukraine.

[2] Note the virtual exhibition Beauty in hell: culture in the Gulag (introduced here), with some fine photos—product of the research of Andrea Gullotta (e.g. here; see also this TLS article from 2018).

Norman Wisdom big in Albania

 

Albania

Oops, sorry—this statue in Tirana is to Mother Teresa. Same difference… For a less flattering portayal by Christopher Hitchens, see Dragging the icon to the trash.

In this thrilling new fantasy world of unfettered (unfetta-ed) opportunity that Brexit promises for “Great” “Britain”, perhaps we can now look forward to a lucrative trade deal with Albania, inspired by Norman Wisdom (and note the cameo from Tony Hawks):

For more, see here. A wacky instance of International Cultural Exchange, eh.

For other cute vignettes from Albania, see here and here. On a more serious note, do explore the wonders of Albanian folk music. For the earlier conjunction of Alexei Sayle with culture behind the Iron Curtain, see here.

Polish jazz, then and now

Further to my post on improvisation, it’s been a while since I heard live jazz, so I went along to the splendid POSK Jazz Cafe in Hammersmith for a gig in the London Jazz Festival with the creative young sax player Krzysztof Urbanski (based in London since 2010) leading his Quintet, driven by the dynamic, sensitive drummer Asaf Sirkis, a regular on the world music scene.

I love the intimate atmosphere of live jazz—chamber music with the relationship between performers and audience so much more tangible than in modern WAM. And I reflect not only on the complexity of the jazz language and the interplay of the instruments, but the way that audiences somehow identify with it, the timbre of the sax in particular making the perfect medium. How I envy jazzers their creativity.

Here’s a playlist with some of Urbanski’s earlier work:

And a couple of weeks later at the same venue I heard the great Zbigniew Namysłowski (b.1939), veteran of the jazz scene in Poland since the era of state socialism. I’ll return to him shortly, but first some background.

Polish jazz is an absorbing theme (on the useful Culture.pl website, see introductions here and here). As the latter post observes, perhaps what makes it significant is its reflection of the country’s own quest for freedom and democracy—a feature that Poland shares, of course, with alternative cultures elsewhere in the Soviet bloc (e.g. the GDR; cf. Musical cultures of east Europe, and note the Iron Curtain tag).

In the “catacomb” period after the utter devastation of war, a leading early band was Melomani (who “hung out at the Łódź YMCA, one of the centres for independent thinkers in the late 1940s”—I just love sentences like that):

Following the death of Stalin in 1953, jazz emerged more boldly, marked by the Sopot jazz festival, which was held even after the unrest of 1956. Dave Brubeck performed in Poland in 1958. The trumpeter Tomasz Stańko was active from 1962, sometimes working with pianist Krzysztof Komeda (who provided film scores for Polanski and others). Amidst continuing political unrest, Miles Davis performed in Warsaw in 1983. The collapse of communism gave rise to the transgressive Yass style of bands like Miłość.

Jazz fiddle doesn’t always do much for me (Nigel Kennedy was based in Poland for some years, teaming up with local jazzers), but Zbigniew Seifert (1946–79) sounds great:

Another funky fiddler is Michel Urbaniak—here he is with his band live in Oslo in 1972:

On a different tack, also intriguing are Andrzej Jagodziński’s jazz reworkings of Chopin.

Meanwhile Zbigniew Namysłowski had been exploring modern jazz since 1960, and began touring internationally. Here’s his 1964 album Lola, recorded in London:

and he appears along with Tomasz Stańko in the Komeda quintet’s 1965 album Astigmatic:

For aficionados of chinoiserie, in the gig he also featured Jasmin Lady.

In this interview Namysłowski reflects on his career and the influence of Polish folk. Here’s the opening of his amazing 1973 album Winobranie (instructively reviewed here), which features additive metres and even an original take on Indian music:

And in this recent video he takes a back seat to the highland string band Kapela Góralska (another entry in our list of world fiddles, cf. Musical cultures of east Europe; for more on Polish folk, see here):

So it was great to hear Namysłowski at POSK, still in fine form at 80, along with his son Jacek on trombone. And Polish jazz continues to thrive.

* * *

Polish jazz, long roaming free beyond the confines of the Łódź YMCA, is also enjoying a certain international vogue with Paweł Pawlikowski’s film Cold War (2018):

Just in case you thought the Chinese invented everything, I like this story from Jozef Tischner’s A Goral history of philosophy [History of philosophy according to Polish highlanders, 1997]:

People from all over the world were coming to Biały Dunajec, a town in the Tatry mountains, to learn about the Polish Highlander’s music… Even the Blacks from Africa came one day to learn of the new music. A famous Polish Highlander philosopher Władek Trybunia-Tutka taught them how to use fiddles and play basses. Unfortunately, on their way home to Africa they encountered a storm and all of their instruments were washed overboard. Arriving home with just their bows and no fiddles or basses, they used the bows to strike any kind of objects, creating the rhythms from which jazz was born.

Despite London’s chronic lack of a dedicated venue for world music, just in my Neck of the Woods I can sally forth to POSK, the Bhavan, and occasional flamenco in Chiswick.

For the Polish immigrant experience in the USA, see under Accordion crimes; for delighting in all manifestations of the Terpsichorean muse, here.

Crime fiction: China and Germany

Crime novels can make a revealing window onto society, evoking flavours of historical periods to reach audiences who don’t necessarily read academic non-fiction and memoirs. Both compelling and educative are thrillers based on the modern histories of countries like China and Germany that have endured extreme traumas—connecting ordinary crime with political crime.

QXL

Following Robert van Gulik‘s evocative Judge Dee series (set in the Tang), the Inspector Chen crime thrillers of Qiu Xiaolong, set around Shanghai, offer an insightful perspective on the corruption of modern China, with Inspector Chen (like Judge Dee, a poet) struggling to steer a path between morality and the imperatives of the Party (for discussions, see e.g. here).

These books often refer back to the injustices of Maoism, but I can’t seem to find much set in the period—surely there’s potential here, along the lines of Su Tong’s Petulia’s rouge tin.

O
Even more niche is James Church‘s Inspector 0 series, set in the opaque society of North Korea. For Japan, while I admit to finding Hideo Yokoyama’s Six Four rather trying, I note merely that PRC publishers may have difficulty in rendering the title…

* * *

Kerr

Nearer home, the Bernie Gunther novels of Philip Kerr are compelling (see perceptive reviews in the New Yorker here and here). Starting with his Berlin noir trilogy, many sequels cover both World War Two and the Cold War, complete with leads to real historical events (among the cast are Eichmann and Goebbels)—and lashings of historically authentic sexism.

In the compelling Prague fatale, where Bernie’s main antagonist is Reinhard Heydrich, the reader is led to an awareness of the horrors of the Eastern front (cf. Bloodlands), the Lidice reprisals and Ravensbrück. Sub-plots feature the “S-Bahn murderer” Paul Ogorzow and a Klimt portrait.

In the post-war era Bernie’s sleuthing takes him further afield to locations such as Havana; the plot of Greeks bearing gifts (2018), set in 1950s’ Greece, highlights the wartime deportation of the Jews of Salonika.

For direct personal experience of the degradation of moral values and negotiating impossible quandaries, Hans Fallada, Alone in Berlin is most impressive. There’s a rich vein of books to explore here (see e.g. here, and here). See also More crime fiction.

Stasi

Moving on to the Cold War, in addition to John Le Carré and Martin Cruz Smith’s Arkady Renko books, moral dilemmas are again prominent in the Stasi series of David Young, featuring GDR Volkspolizei detective Karin Müller—so far including Stasi child, Stasi wolfA darker state, and Stasi 77 (for the GDR, see here and here).

Just as Inspector Chen finds himself set against the Party, Karin Müller has to struggle with the Stasi. And like the Bernie Gunther series, these novels set forth from little-known historical events, inviting us to explore the murky history of the period—such as the 1945 massacres of prisoners from the Mittelbau-Dora camp at Gardelegen and Estadt, the Jugendwerkhöfe, GDR experiments to “prevent” homosexuality, and the Stasi’s links to the Red Army Faction.

Life behind the Iron Curtain: a roundup

Bloodlands

There’s been some fine media coverage to commemorate the thirtieth anniversary of the fall of the Wall. So apart from my numerous posts under the Maoism tag, here’s a roundup of some of my posts on life, and death, behind the Iron Curtain—always bearing Chinese connections in mind.

On the GDR (for which note the useful Twitter # @DDROnline):

On the USSR:

Elsewhere:

For the wider picture, see

And for bitter jokes from behind the Iron Curtain:

https://stephenjones.blog/2019/02/15/czechs-in-tianqiao/

See also various posts under the Czech tag, notably

All this complements posts on Nazism, such as

Big red joke book

Red joke book

Before Hammer and Tickle came

  • Greg Benton and Graham Loomes, Big red joke book (1976).

The jokes come from a wide range of countries, including the USA and Britain, with the Soviet bloc playing a major role. Again there are sadly few from China (see my Chinese jokes tag); still, since it’s not a big book, they might as well have called it The Little red joke book.

We might pair this one with Woody Allen’s Hassidic tales:

“Rabbi,” asks a young Jew, “can you build socialism in one country?”

“You can,” says the rabbi, “but then it’s best to live in another country.”

There are some goodies from the GDR, like

Q. Is it true that Walter Ulbricht collects political jokes?

A. No, but he collects people who tell them.

as well as a version of the Li Peng story I told here, with Ulbricht as the subject.

Here’s another story from Prague (cf. many posts under Czech tag):

A restaurant in Prague started up a strip-tease show. To everyone’s surprise, the public appeared to shun in totally. The Prague authorities, concerned at the loss of takings, summoned the restaurant’s manager and asked him some questions.

“Is there something the matter with the seating arrangements?”

“No”, said the manager, “they’re very comfortable.”

“The lighting?”

“No, the lighting is perfect.”

“In that case, it must have something to do with the women who perform there.”

“Out of the question!” assured the manager. “We hire no-one unless they have been at least thirty years in the Party.”

Of course, many such stories, like folk-songs, travel widely in variant forms.

 

 

 

Lives in Stalin’s Russia

cover

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 (see also roundup here) I’ve broached life-stories under state socialism in the GDR (here and here), Czechoslovakia, and 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 (notes also Soviet lives at war). 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: a history (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.

Still,

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.

Still,

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.

However,

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.

Update to A Czech couple in 1950s’ Tianqiao

https://stephenjones.blog/2019/02/15/czechs-in-tianqiao/

I’ve just done a major update to A Czech couple in 1950s’ Tianqiao. Even if you have already read my original post, do take another look—I’ve added considerable further material, courtesy of the couple’s grandson (also Zdeněk).

New content includes more vignettes on their early life; a 1968 letter from the son of Robert van Gulik to Ambassador Hrdlička; more on the tribulations of Czechoslovak scholars; and under post-1968 “normalization”, Věna’s wry gratitude to the authorities for improving their health by depriving them of employment…

Note also Czech tag, including appearances from Švejk and Alexei Sayle…

Alexei Sayle: an Iron curtain update

*See here, Good as New!*

Stalin

As my coverage of east Europe grows (see under Life behind the Iron Curtain), I’ve just made a substantial update to my post on Alexei Saylewith some vignettes from his insightful memoirs in which he recalls the family’s post-war holidays behind the Iron curtain—setting the tone for his later surreal world, both idealistic and cynical.

So following a reshuffle (in the circumstances, perhaps suggesting that of a 1950s’ Politburo), the post now becomes my main coverage of Alexei’s diverse and wondrous talents—with What’s on in Stoke Newington devoted to some of his pithy later aperçus.

A Czech couple in 1950s’ Tianqiao

Věna Hrdličková, Zdeněk Hrdlička,
and narrative-singing in 1950s’ Beijing

with qi baishi

Věna Hrdličková and Zdeněk Hrdlička with Qi Baishi, Beijing 1952.

This article is based on material kindly provided by Lucie Olivová (former student of Věna Hrdličková) and the couple’s grandson Zdeněk.

My brief mention of narrative-singing in 1950s’ Beijing leads me to a remarkable Czech couple, and thence to the Prague sinologists, prompting me to consider the work of Chinese and Czechoslovak scholars—and their tribulations.

The Prague sinologistsPrusek
The Prague school of sinology became widely admired for its achievements in the realms of modern and traditional Chinese literature, linguistics, history, and philosophy. It was led by the great Jaroslav Průšek (1906–80), who became head of the Institute of East Asian Studies at Charles University.

Do read Marián Gálik’s useful introduction to their work up to the demise of state socialism. [1] It both attests to their remarkable energy and gives glimpses of careers and lives (both Czech and Chinese) frustrated by political currents—among countless instances, we might compare the vicissitudes of the great Ming scholar Wang Shixiang.

Věna Hrdličková and Zdeněk Hrdlička
For Věna Hrdličková (1925–2016) and her husband Zdeněk Hrdlička (1919–99), useful introductions are

  • Lucie Olivová, “Chinese and Japanese storytelling: selected topical bibliography of the works of Věna Hrdličková and Zdeněk Hrdlička”, CHINOPERL papers 25 (2004), pp.87–97 [2]
  • Vibeke Børdahl, “In memory of Věna Hrdličková, 1925–2016”, CHINOPERL papers 35.1 (2016), pp.83–8 (here).

Among their own articles are

  • Zdeněk Hrdlička, “Old Chinese ballads to the accompaniment of the big drum,”Archiv orientální 25.1 (1957), pp. 83–145
  • Věna and Zdeněk Hrdlička, “Lianhua lao and its traditions”, in Vibeke Børdahl (ed.), The eternal storyteller: oral literature in modern China (1999), pp.71–7.

I am also most grateful to the Hrdlickas’ grandson Zdeněk for sharing further material—including a draft translation (awaiting publication) of an eloquent series of interviews in Czech with Věna by Ivana Bakešová (Czech Chinese Society, Prague, 2016). Below, apart from direct citations (indented), I have collated and adapted text from all these sources.

Early years
Under the Nazi occupation, universities were closed and most Czech books were forbidden. Věna came from a schoolmaster’s family, whose classroom was a hut with an earthen floor. Teachers now had to say Heil Hitler! as they entered the classroom—though, as Věna recalled, they did it carelessly, just waving their hand at most.

Managing to avoid being sent to work in Germany, at high school Věna studied English, when most schools were teaching French and German. Meanwhile she attended dance school—where she met her future husband Zdeněk. His father, a widowed railwayman, was also a bandmaster.

The couple became interested in China—Věna inspired by early poetry, Zdeněk with a view to contemporary prospects. They discovered that they could study Chinese with Průšek at the Oriental Institute. In 1945 Zdeněk, together with other colleagues, founded the journal Nový Orient [New Orient]—still being published.

In 1946, at Průšek’s recommendation, they received scholarships from the Ministry of Education to study in the USA. They travelled by train to Paris, where a sailors’ strike compelled them to spend a month, and then took the ship to New York. Since term hadn’t yet begun, they used the interlude to get married. They spent two years studying in the USA (Věna at Radcliffe College, Cambridge, Zdeněk at Harvard), attending lectures and seminars by John Fairbank, Edwin Reischauer, and others. Following the war, Harvard was now favouring modern spoken Chinese above classical studies.

In 1948 they returned to Europe by ship from Québec. Back in Czechoslovakia the Communists, under Soviet domination, were tightening their grip. As I remind myself, Prague was still recovering from the trauma of long Nazi occupation, the devastation caused in the 1945 uprising and Soviet “liberation”, and the ensuing expulsions of (and vengeance upon) the German population. [3]

As Czech universities reopened, the couple enrolled in Sinology and Religious Studies at Charles University; Věna also studied Japanese. Zdeněk graduated in 1949 with a thesis on the Daoist concept of immortality; the next year Věna graduated with her thesis on the author Ki no Tsurayuki in Heian Japan.

1950s’ China
Meanwhile in 1949 the People’s Republic of China was founded. That year a Chinese Peace Delegation visited Czechoslovakia, led by Guo Moruo, soon to be president of the Chinese Academy of Sciences; Zdeněk was chosen to attend. From 1950 he was employed at the Oriental Department of the Ministry of Information and Culture, and that winter the couple joined the first Czechoslovak cultural delegation to the PRC, led by Průšek.

They took the Trans-Siberian train, stopping off in Moscow for a couple of days. There Věna recalled the perils of crossing chaotic roads with crazy drivers, and admired the palatial metro system. And then they took the train through Siberia. In the dining carriage, as Švejk connoisseurs they shared their enthusiasm with an elderly gentleman. After spending the night in a little hotel at the border in Manzhouli, they changed to a Chinese train. Průšek, cracking sunflower seeds, was full of expectation. They arrived in Beijing in beautiful sunny weather, the sky clear above the glistening rooftops of the Forbidden City near the embassy. Their affable hosts had new winter coats made for them.

Still, returning to Beijing after an absence of around ten years, Průšek was disappointed, exclaiming “This is not the China I knew.” And while Prague in the late 1940s, recovering from war, must have been devastated, Věna’s strongest initial impression of Beijing was the poverty. When they arrived in the winter cold, she stood through the night at her window in the Beijing Hotel watching rickshaws trudging through the snow. She was also shocked by the lines of blind people walking the streets. She admired the Chinese for the speed with which they were able to fall asleep, no matter where they were. But as she became acquainted with the society, she appreciated the urge of the Chinese to improve their conditions.

In 1951 Zdeněk was appointed the first Czechoslovak cultural attaché to the PRC. Wanting to live among the Chinese rather than in an expat bubble, they rented a modest siheyuan courtyard house, living beside poor neigbours in Zhong Shicao hutong alley just west of the Zhihua temple—just as Yang Yinliu and his colleagues were discovering the Beijing temple traditions there.

Lao Zui lowres

With Lao Zui. Photo: courtesy of Zdeněk Junior.

Their cook Lao Zui served as a general fixer for them, finding them books and arranging for a lianhualao troupe to perform at their house. Their first son, also called Zdeněk, was born in Beijing in 1952; their teacher (a Manchu) gave him the Chinese name Huasheng 华生 “born in China”, soon adapted by their nanny to Huashengmi (Peanut). Their second son Stanislav was born in 1957.

During a period of remarkably good relations between the two countries, the couple got to know leading cultural figures—including academician Guo Moruo, painters Qi Baishi and Xu Beihong, Slavic scholar Ge Baoquan 戈宝权 (1913–2000), authors Mao Dun, Ding Ling, and Lao She, Indeed, Lao She had also been studying in the USA, but had made the fateful decision to return to the New China out of patriotic idealism.

As secretary the Hrdličkas were happy to find Yang Leyun 杨乐云 (1919-2009). Among her later translations into Chinese were the works of Bohumil Hrabal—another Czech author hardly suited to state socialism.

By contrast with most pampered Western academics, the couple had in common with Chinese scholars a legacy of occupation and a tacit awareness of the constraints of the new society.

During their mission they negotiated an official gift of Chinese books to the Oriental Institute, which became the core of the Lu Xun Library in Prague, and the purchase of Chinese antiquities for the National Gallery.

Meanwhile in 1953 a Czechoslovak team was filming a documentary about the construction of the Sichuan–Tibet highway—including rare glimpses of a landscape of daily Tibetan life and traditional ritual that was soon to be erased. Premiered in 1955, the film won awards at the film festivals in Venice and Karlovy Vary. It was screened in Czechoslovak cinemas in 1956, but it was later banned by the Communist authorities, right until its recent rediscovery and showing in Prague.

After the 1949 “Liberation” these early years of the PRC were a relatively optimistic period, before collectivization and campaigns intensified. By contrast with residents from the Western bloc, [4] not renowned for their devotion to Chinese expressive culture, the Hrdlička couple were exceptionally interested in the performing arts, immersing themselves in the narrative-singing scene.

Narrative-singing in early 1950s’ Beijing
Sinology has traditionally been concerned mainly with silent written texts, and remains so in many branches of the field. As Věna later recalled, they were now drawn to oral performance culture because with some 80% of the population illiterate, it was largely thus that they transmitted their history and culture. They were also aware that oral traditions would be threatened by the modern media.

In China there was little ethnographic discussion of the changing conditions of narrative-singing between the 1940s and the Cultural Revolution, but the couple provide some glimpses. Following in the footsteps of Průšek in the 1930s, they often visited the Tianqiao quarter. In an article published in 1968 Věna evoked their explorations:

The T’ien-ch’iao, Peking’s Heavenly Bridge, was one of the most colourful places of this kind, where not only storytellers but also other entertainers regularly competed for attention. Despite its exalted name, it was an unpretentious marketplace with simple earthen arenas, small crude huts and humble teahouses, but it offered much enjoyment for modest sums. We spent there many unforgettable hours enthralled by the mastery of puppeteers, the deftness of magicians, the incredible skill of acrobats, and of course the art of the storytellers. They often commented on our presence with improvised verses, which, though not complimentary, were witty and never really offensive. Eventually, when we became more familiar with fairly frequent attendance, they treated us in the same way as they did the Chinese in their audiences.
[…]
We used to invite itinerant storytellers and ballad-singers to our residence in Peking. Though their dress made it obvious that they were poor, their professional pride gave them great dignity. After singing, they were served tea. They then would bow and leave quietly. Some of them in time became our friends, divulging the secrets of their art and helping us to collect handwritten and printed texts of various forms of shuo-shu.

In their article on lianhua lao they recalled:

In the early 1950s we had occasion to watch a group performing caichang lianhua lao in the Tianqiao market, while we were studying shuochang in the field. Thus we made their acquaintance and they consented to give us a performance in our home, in a typical hutong [lane], Zhongshi caor in the eastern part of the capital. These performers from the marketplace presented their act in the courtyard, surrounded by a wall. In addition to the principal of the troupe, Wang Pingtan, there were two women singers, a comic actor, and a musician [on sanxian]; they were typical folk performers, and obviously of low social standing. They had not yet been brought under the aegis of any of the professional organizations then being set up to reform the narrative arts by purging their repertoire of elements of feudalism, as the phrase was, and replacing this with texts that could serve political ends, and help in the struggle against illiteracy, corruption, or for equality of the sexes.

Of course, despite the formation of such troupes, only a few performers were ever recruited to this cause, and only sporadically—as we can see in my notes from Shaanbei. In the cities (such as Yulin), change would have been caused as much by the evolving control of public space as by political elements.

Lianhualao

Teahouse in Tianqiao, 1987. My photos.

After I began working in China from 1986, I only dabbled in the narrative-singing scene in Beijing. Whereas many amateur clubs remained active after reviving, the Tianqiao scene enjoyed but a brief revival in the 80s before the area was irretrievably glamourized. Though narrative-singing moved to more salubrious fake-antique venues, some charming amateur clubs have persisted.

Prague and Japan
Their time in China was interrupted when Zdeněk was recalled to Prague in 1954, where he now taught Asian history at Charles University. When they returned to Prague, Věna completed her doctoral thesis on storytelling, based on her fieldwork in China. She defended it in 1959.

The 1956 revolts in Hungary and Poland had ramifications in China—where the short-lived Hundred Flowers movement soon led to the Anti-Rightist campaign, condemning many to tragic fates. Meanwhile Hungarian and Chinese musicologists met in Beijing.

When the Czechoslovak diplomatic mission in Tokyo reopened belatedly in 1957, Zdeněk was appointed chargé d’affaires there (1957–61), later serving as Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary Ambassador (1964–69). They decided to live in a Japanese-style house.

They were on good terms with the Soviet ambassador Nikolai Fedorenko (1912–2000), “an elegant, handsome man” with a wealth of international experience, who served as Soviet representative at the UN from 1963 to 1968. Over at the American embassy were their former teachers John Fairbank and Serge Elisséeff.

They could only take the boys to Tokyo under the condition that they would attend Russian school, but when circumstances became a bit more relaxed they transferred them to Japanese school, where they were taught in Japanese in the mornings and in English in the afternoons; the children were happy there, and apart from speaking Czech at home and learning Russian they became fluent in Japanese and English. Their grandchildren too followed in the family footsteps.

Despite the intensive workload in these posts, the couple continued to pursue their cultural interests enthusiastically. Věna continued to explore folk story-telling. Each tea-house had a banner saying which story-teller was going to perform that day. They were pleasantly surprised to find small story-telling theatres in the Ueno quarter, including one for rakugo 落語. They were enchanted by Japanese folk ceramics, travelling throughout Japan to collect them, and later presenting them in exhibitions and writings. They studied the tea ceremony, cuisine, gardens and bonsai.

I note superfluously that during their interlude in Prague they do not seem to have met the young Alexei Sayle, later himself to become a folk storyteller…

The Prague Spring and “normalization”
Amidst diverse global revolutions, the couple was spared the Cultural Revolution in China. Their old acquaintance the great author Lao She, himself an aficionado of narrative-singing, was hounded to death in 1966.

But in August 1968 the Prague Spring was brutally crushed when the Warsaw Pact armies occupied Czechoslovakia. The family were on holiday in Prague. It was night-time, and still jet-lagged, they didn’t hear the airplanes with their transports of tanks—they were only woken by the sound of someone shouting: “The Russians have invaded!” Věna thought it was nonsense until she switched on the radio. Zdeněk immediately set off for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where a lot of employees had already gathered, moving to safety some documents that might be of potential interest to the invaders.

He was ordered to return immediately to Japan. Not knowing what was awaiting them, or even if they would ever be able to return, they only took bare necessities in their rucksacks. A friend drove them to the Austrian border, and they flew Swiss Air to Tokyo. At the airport they were met by embassy employees and Japanese reporters; Zdeněk made it clear that the country had been brutally invaded. The newspapers published photographs of him and Dubček. The Czechoslovak flag was flown at half-staff on the embassy building.

As Věna recalled, the Japanese were supportive, but diplomats behaved according to their political affiliations; among the east Europeans, only the Romanians could offer any support. At first, embassy employees unequivocally condemned the occupation, but then gradually things became blurred. As it became clear how the situation was going to evolve, some started distancing themselves.

The couple’s postings to China and Japan evoke the career of Robert van Gulik, who served in China before the Communist takeover, going on to successive postings in Japan. Of course, they moved in different circles: the only contacts between diplomats of the Western and Soviet allies occurred at formal receptions. Still, in Tokyo the couple did indeed meet van Gulik. His third posting there from 1965 had to be interrupted in June 1967 so he could return to the Netherlands for medical treatment, where he died in September. But after the Prague coup the following year van Gulik’s son Pieter sent Zdeněk this letter of sympathy:

Gulik letter lowres

Courtesy of Zdeněk Junior.

Meanwhile, with murky realpolitik, the Chinese leadership also denounced the Soviet-led intervention—ironically, given their support for the quelling of the 1956 Budapest uprising (not to mention later events in Beijing).

Jan Palach’s self-immolation in 1969 predated the common resort of Tibetans protesting occupation.

The couple remained in Tokyo for around a year, but they took recall as a matter of course; they knew what awaited them, and never considered emigration. As soon as they arrived back in Prague, Zdeněk was sacked from the ministry. He briefly became research fellow at the Oriental Institute, but during the so-called “period of normalization” [5] that followed the repression he lost his new post—he wasn’t even admitted to the Oriental Institute library.

While his was a high-profile demotion, he was not alone: as Gálik shows, several other Czech sinologists, including the great Průšek, were expelled from the Academy of Sciences, and the Party, over these years. No-one was immune, neither academics nor ordinary workers.

The Hrdličkas had to go to some lengths to secure the children’s progress in education, with help from their neighbour Jiří Marek (1914–94), author of the script for the 1968 TV series Sinful people of the city of Prague. Věna was pressured into taking early retirement, and Zdeněk too received a small allowance. They took their fate stoically.

Wine-Press Manor
In 1976 Zdeněk and Věna retreated into idyllic rural seclusion—emulating principled ancient Chinese literati like the poet Tao Yuanming (never an option, alas, for their counterparts in Maoist China). In the tiny village of Brzánky on the river Elbe the couple cultivated their Wine-Press Manor (Na Lisu); visitors delighted in the magical atmosphere there, discussing poetry and the arts in the garden over wine with their hosts.

Their bucolic retreat, though dilapidated, had a large plot of land. Without electricity, they had no fridge, but they did have a cold cellar. They grew garlic, kept bees, harvested fruit, and made their own wine—which though ordinaire, they relished because of the work and joy that went into it. In a way it was a beautiful life, giving them time to read and study. Věna later reflected wryly that by depriving them of employment the regime improved their health.

They liked to have guests, such as the renowned art historian František Dvořák with his wife Nataša, and their friends like the artists Jan Zrzavý (1890-1977) and Kamil Lhoták (1812-1990). Denied passports, the couple weren’t allowed to travel abroad; but over the years their foreign friends managed to visit them at the cottage. They maintained contacts with Russian friends who had denounced the occupation. In April 1989 their old friend Ge Baoquan visited them there:

with GBQ lowres

Photo courtesy of Zdeněk Junior.

Through the oppressive years of Soviet occupation, Věna managed to keep her post of lecturer at the Department of Asian and African studies of Charles University—still, she was only belatedly awarded the full dozent professorial qualification in 1990. In the Department she mainly taught Chinese literature, training a number of students—including Lucie Olivová. Věna’s textbooks The history of Chinese classical literature, vol.1 (1980), and An introduction to sinology (with Jaromír Vochala, 1985) are still valued.

Most of the studies that Věna and Zdeněk wrote jointly during the 1970s and 80s could only be published under her name. A couple of journals were bold enough to publish his papers, but Nový Orient, the popular journal for Asia—which Zdeněk had created—remained closed to him.

Meanwhile, of course, many of their friends, both at home and in China, were punished in many ways from the mid-50s until the early 80s. Both peoples had suffered under wartime occupation and had to adapt to one-party rule; both had seen brief liberalizations ruthlessly crushed.

A certain rehabilitation came when Zdeněk, with other enthusiasts, was able to found the first ever Bonsai club in Prague, which later became the Prague Bonsai Society. They published a quarterly newsletter from 1981; from 1990 it became a journal in successive incarnations. As well as organizing activities, exhibitions, and lectures, here it was possible for Zdeněk to publish. The couple designed several Chinese and Japanese gardens in Czechoslovakia, receiving a gold medal for the design of a Japanese garden at the Flora Olomouc Exhibition in 1983.

Since 1989

Vena 2004

Věna in China, 2004.

After the Velvet revolution of 1989, new freedoms opened a sudden range of possibilities. The couple once again traveled to the USA, Japan, and China.

In the new Czech Republic, they participated in the re-establishment of the Czech-Chinese Society and the Czech-Japanese Society. They organized projects such as an exhibition of paintings by Qi Baishi at the National Gallery at Prague, and the publications of miscellanies, including the often-reprinted Èajová zastavení [Tea stations] (Prague, 1997). Věna published literary translations of contemporary Chinese novels, and Chinese and Japanese folk tales, which appeared in splendid Czech and foreign editions. She translated over a hundred films, mainly from Japanese, for Czech TV and other distributors. She was much decorated.

So at last they were able to publish under their own names. After working together at the tranquil cottage, the couple published the popular book Emperor Shenzong’s China (Čína císaře Šen-cunga) and books about Japanese and Chinese gardens.

Zdeněk’s sudden death in March 1999 came as a painful shock to all his friends and acquaintances; however, Věna continued her activities and research with commitment and perseverance.

Chinese studies of narrative-singing
After 1949, although the Hrdlička couple explored the narrative-singing scene on their own initiative rather than in collaboration with Chinese scholars, the latter too were busy studying and promoting the diverse genres along the middle of the vocal spectrum from folk-song to opera.

Of course, the big cities were only the tip of the iceberg. Later studies tended to focus on the Jiangnan region, but genres still common around Beijing and Tianjin include Jingyun dagu 京韻大鼓, Meihua dagu 梅花大鼓, and Xihe dagu 西河大鼓. Yang Yinliu himself began studying the danxian 单弦 melodies of Beijing as early as 1950, soon after arriving there.
Shuochang yinyue

For a nationwide inventory, see

  • Shuochang yinyue 说唱音乐 (ed. Zhongyang yinyuexueyuan Zhongguo yinyue yanjiusuo, 1961).

While its 589 pages consist almost entirely of transcriptions, it includes a useful bibliography. Many festivals were also held through the 1950s.

1958

National festival of narrative-singing, August 1958.

1954Above: danxian performer Rong Jianchen (front, 4th from left) with disciples, 1954.
Below: Founding of drum-singing guild, Tianqiao, 1940s.
Source: Zhongguo quyi yinyue jicheng, Beijing juan.

LHLLarge-format lianhualao led by Rong Jianchen and Wang Wanfang (6th and 5th from right), 1950s.
Source: Zhongguo quyi yinyue jicheng, Beijing juan.

Though the work of the Chinese scholars was constrained and reified, it laid the foundations for later studies, notably the Anthology—for which note the provincial volumes of both the Zhongguo quyi zhi 中国曲艺志 and the Zhongguo quyi yinyue jicheng 中国曲艺音乐集成—see my “Reading between the lines: reflections on the massive Anthology of folk music of the Chinese peoples”, Ethnomusicology 47.3 (2003).

JYDGJingyun dagu masters. Above: Liu Baoquan, 1920s. Middle: left, Liu Baoquan, 1936; right, Bai Yunpeng. Below: Bai Fengming.
Source: Zhongguo quyi yinyue jicheng, Beijing juan.

Ma Zengfen Xihe daguMa Zengfen 馬增芬 performing Xihe dagu, 1950s.
Source: Zhongguo quyi zhi, Beijing juan.

Some fine archive recordings are included in the 2-CD set

  • Shibaduan quyi 十八段曲藝 [English title Shuochang: the ultimate art of Chinese storytelling] (1998).

Many clips are also available online, from both before and after Liberation, such as these items from Liu Baoquan, Luo Yusheng, and Bai Yunpeng.

Meanwhile it became apparent that alongside entertainment genres, the ritual component of narrative-singing was also widespread and important in local cultures throughout China. The Czech couple’s explorations could hardly extend to the countryside—even just a few hours south of Beijing, narrative-singers continued to perform through the 1950s, alongside ritual groups.

Back in Czechoslovakia, ethnographic study of regional folk traditions was also circumscribed after the Communist takeover—as earlier in Ukraine.

* * *

In what may sometimes appear as a Western-dominated field, all this serves as a reminder of the wider world of scholarship and the international situation in the years following the revolutions of the late 1940s, as well as the achievements and vicissitudes of scholars and artists both in China and in Soviet-dominated countries.

With many thanks to Lucie Olivová and Zdeněk the younger! 

 

[1] The list of twenty-two scholars includes my own mentor Paul Kratochvil; note also Dana Kalvodová (1928-2003), scholar of Chinese opera.

[2] Lucie Olivová, Věna Hrdličková–Zdeněk Hrdlička: A list of published works and oral presentations 1945/46–2002 (Prague: Oriental Institute, 2002, bilingual) lists almost a thousand bibliographical entries under headings including storytelling, Chinese and Japanese gardens, Japanese pottery, and Chinese literature.

[3] See e.g. Keith Lowe, Savage continent: Europe in the aftermath of World War II, pp. 126–35; for background on the early Communist period, see Anne Applebaum, Iron curtain: the crushing of eastern Europe.

[4] from journalists like Edgar Snow and Agnes Smedley to politically-engaged residents like the Hintons and the Crooks: see Beverley Hooper, Foreigners under Mao: Western lives in China, 1949–1976 (2016).

[5] As I write this, I’m reading Christopher Hitchens’ remarkable memoir Hitch-22, where he describes it as “one of the most casually ugly phrases of the whole 20th century”—but then, if anyone is equipped to demolish such insidious language, it’s the Czechs themselves.

Fiddles and racism

gusle

My bold recording of Bach on erhu reminds me of two casual, worrying, yet entertaining reviews from the early 1990s—suggesting that Berlioz‘s failure to appreciate the beauties of world music hasn’t been erased.

First, a blurb for a festival of new Chinese music on BBC Radio 3:

New music for old instruments—such as the er-hu and the gu-quin [sic] (Chinese for “finger-nail-down-the-blackboard” and “moggie-in-the-mangle”), Marvellous ear-scouring stuff.

And this review of a controversial BBC2 Bookmark programme is reminiscent of Molvania:

billed as a celebration of the epic tradition in Serbian poetry and a homage to Dr Radovan Karadzic, described in the subtitles as “poet and psychiatrist”. Many of those who heard Dr Karadzic explaining on Monday morning that Serbian forces were not casually shelling Sarajevo for the hell of it but responding to Muslim artillery fire would have added “mass-murderer” to the list of his qualifications.
[…]
It undermined the Serbian case more effectively than a dozen polemics. Karadzic was shown to be a rambling, inconsistent, sentimental bouffanted crook. His countrymen came over as a gang of brutal yokels with a cultural life marginally richer than that of Neanderthal man.  Their favourite musical instrument is a single-string violin, which they scratch interminably while boasting tunelessly about their achievements against the Turks. After they have wiped out the Bosnian Muslims they will doubtless apply for a grant from the BC Cultural Harmonization Fund to put a second string on their wretched instruments.

However well-meaning and colorful the review may be, it’s just as about as racist as the mindset it criticizes; one might wish for a more thorough ethnography. But I digress. Doubtless the gusle singers are heartfelt, but perhaps the best thing that can be said for my erhu performance is that it doesn’t legimitize genocide. So much for music as the universal language of peace and love.

For another perplexing case, see Musics of Crete; see also fiddles tag.

Janáček and Moravian folk

fanfare

Leoš Janáček‘s Sinfonietta (1926) may be a great orchestral showpiece, but it’s complex and stimulating. It also links nicely to several of my themes:

  • His music is another reminder of the centrifugal variety around the peripheries of European art music
  • Since Janâček dedicated the piece to the “Czechoslovak Armed Forces”, this classic story from my mentor Paul Kratochvil is highly apposite
  • It makes a fine addition to the variety of posts grouped under the trumpet tag
  • It further illustrates the use of additive rhythms
  • And the timpani part, like the snare-drum in Nielsen 5, is another that I have earmarked to be played by Li Manshan
  • See also my post on Hašek and Kundera (and for yet more, including more Švejk, the Czech tag).

Tom Service always makes a good guide (and do watch his link to Jakub Hrůša’s musical tour of Brno).

This is music that Janâček wanted ideally to be played by a military band like the one he’d heard a few years prior to the composition of Sinfonietta, and whose music he wrote down in the composing notebook he took everywhere with him. If you had to perform the Sinfonietta without a military ensemble, Janâček said (as it almost always is in concert halls these days), make sure the brass players sound as rough, brash, and bright as an army band.
[…]
On one hand, the jump-cuts and juxtapositions of Janâček’s music, the way he repeats little cells of music and then without warning moves to a new idea, means that you experience a continuous sense of surprise and suspense when you hear this piece. That kind of cinematic editing and shuffling of musical time seems to be the opposite of the conventional symphonic principle, substituting a logic of surreal colours, unpredictable textures and even less predictable timing for the development, argument, and discourse of proper symphonic behaviour.

Among a host of spectacular recordings of the Sinfonietta we could go with S-Simon yet again, like this 2018 concert with the LSO:

Since Charles Mackerras was a great champion of Janáček’s music, I was going to suggest his version (not least to remind you his wonderful anagram, Slasher M. Earcrack); but for some historical depth how about this one, with Czech performers—just after the war and Communist takeover, as musicians and audiences must have been anxiously awaiting life-changing measures wrought by their new leaders:

And here’s a 1961 recording with Karel Ančerl, who had survived Terezin and Auschwitz:

The Sinfonietta makes a glorious prelude to exploring the riches of Janáček’s music—operas, chamber music, and so on.

* * *

Please excuse me for returning to folk music, but it was a major inspiration for composers throughout central and east Europe, like Bartók. Along with pioneers like František Sušil and František Bartoš, Janáček collected Moravian folk culture keenly, long before Kundera dissected the way it was distorted under Communist rule.

1906

Janáček collecting folksongs on 19th August 1906 in Strání.

In my overview of musical cultures of east Europe I neglected Polish, Czech, and Slovak traditions—projects for another time. Many of those features that Service notes—the use of cells, jump-cuts, shuffling—must relate to Janáček’s background exploring the rhythms and textures of peasant life.

Again, the Rough Guide to world music makes a starting point, under “Czech and Slovak republics”. Janáček’s own recordings have been reissued on the CD

  • The oldest recordings of folk-singing from Moravia and Slovakia, 1909–1912 (Gnosis, Brno).

See also

  • Barbara Krader, “Bohemia, Moravia, and Slovakia”, in Helen Myers (ed.), Ethnomusicology: historical and regional studies, pp.178–85

and

  • Magda Ferl Zelinská and Edward J.P. O’Connor, “Czech Republic and Slovakia”, in The Garland encylopedia of world music, vol.8: Europe.

 

 

Guide to another year’s blogging

 

Struggling to encompass all this? I know I am. While we inevitably specialize in particular topics, it’s important to build bridges. I guess it’s that time of year when another guide to my diverse posts may come in handy—this is worth reading in conjunction with the homepage and my roundup this time last year.

I’ve added more entries to many of the sidebar categories and tags mentioned in that summary. I’ve now subheaded many of the categories; it’d be useful for the tags too, but it seems I can’t do that on my current WP plan. Of course, many of these headings overlap—fruitfully.

Notably, I keep updating and refecting on my film and book on the Li family Daoists. I wrote a whole series resulting from my March trip to Yanggao (helpfully collected here) and Beijing (starting here, also including the indie/punk scene). Other 2018 posts on the Li family include Yanggao personalities and Recopying ritual manuals (a sequel to Testing the waters).

To accompany the visit of the Zhihua temple group to the British Museum in April, I also did a roundup of sources on the temple in the wider context of ritual in Beijing and further afield, including several posts on this site.

I’ve posted some more introductions to Local ritual, including

Gender (now also with basic subheads) is a constant theme, including female spirit mediums—to follow the series on women of Yanggao, starting here. Or nearer home, Moon river, complementing Ute Lemper.

Sinologists—indeed aficionados of the qin, crime fiction, and erotica—may also like my post on Robert van Gulik (and note the link to Bunnios!).

I’ve added a few more categories and tags, notably

The film tag is developing, with a side order of soundtracks—for some links, see here.

I’ve given basic subheads to the language category (note this post on censorship), which also contains much drôlerie in both English and Chinese. Issues with speech and fluency (see stammering tag) continue to concern me, such as

Following Daoist football, the sport tag is worth consulting, such as The haka, and a series on the genius of Ronnie.

Some posts are instructively linked in chains:

More favourites may be found in the *MUST READ* category. Among other drôlerie, try this updated post, one of several on indexing and taxonomy; and more from the great Philomena Cunk.

Most satisfying is this collection of great songs—still not as eclectic as it might become:

Do keep exploring the sidebar categories and tags!

 

 

Cheremis, Chuvash—and Tibetans

Photo: Cheremis “pagan” ritual singer H.H. Musztafa (then 69), June 1975.

Along with from the many Hungaroton LP box-sets of the musics of east Europe, another impressive 3-disc set that I brought back from Budapest is

collected and published by László Vikár (1929–2017) and linguist Gábor Bereczki. The set documents musical traditions of peoples in the “autonomous” republics around the eastern perimeter of the European part of the USSR, the central Volga and Urals—peoples about whom I know nothing, but feel we should know:

Mordvinians, Votyaks (Udmurt), Cheremis (Mari), and the Turkic-speaking Chuvash, Tatars, and Bashkirs.

USSR

Source: reddit.com.

Between 1958 and 1979 Vikár and Bereczki made four long summer fieldtrips to some 286 villages, accompanied by local scholars. With sound engineer Pál Sztanó they recorded life-cycle and calendrical items, both vocal and instrumental, including bridal dirges, funeral laments, dance tunes, and historical epics.

The recordings on this box set are part of a much larger archive. Some tracks appear on YouTube, such as

Note also this channel.

The 43-page booklet contains detailed notes, as well as maps, translations, photos, and some transcriptions.

notes 2

A page from the booklet, on Mari singing.

Bartók, Kodály, and Bence Szabolcsi had already shown an interest in these groups, mainly as part of their comparative musical paleography, classifying melodic types; Vikár was building on this tradition. [2]

Such early recordings were made on request, not—as ethnographers later also sought—while documenting the social events of which they are the core. So we meet the typical issue that often crops up in Chinese collections: were they performing items then still in use, or recalling them from an earlier social practice?

And of course these projects could barely hint at the painful recent histories of such peoples (cf. The whisperers). Music is never autonomous, but gives us a window into the study of changing local societies.

Indeed, it’s worth recalling what else was happening in those years. Notwithstanding the interest of early east European music scholars in “archaic layers”, these are not timeless idyllic communities; though by the 1970s they had weathered the worst of the years of repression under Stalin, they had been constantly starved, deported, subject to political whims, suffering under collectivization and the Great Purge (cf. Blind minstrels of Ukraine, under “Other minorities”). This too is a rich field of research—see e.g.

See also The Kazakh famine, and (still earlier) Hašek’s adventures in Soviet Tatarstan.

The task of modern ethnographers—just as for China—is to integrate socio-political histories with expressive cultures. In 1975 the moment had still not come to record the memoirs of “pagan” Mr Musztafa—and now it’s too late.

In addition to the Garland encyclopedia of world music, for more on early collecting, see under

  • Margarita Mazo, “Russia, the USSR and the Baltic states”, in Ethnomusicology: historical and regional studies (The New Grove handbooks in music, 1993), pp.197–211,

and in the same volume,

  • Theodore Levin, “Western central Asia and the Caucasus”, pp.300–305.

In the early years after the crushing of the 1956 Budapest uprising, one might wonder how smooth was the collaboration between Hungarian and Soviet scholars—only of course both would have suffered under the policies of their regimes.

* * *

1955

Left to right: Yang Yinliu, Bence Szabolcsi, Li Yuanqing, Beijing 1955.

Meanwhile in China, scholars were also documenting local traditions, for both the Han majority and the many ethnic groups—under testing conditions, and with a similar caution in broaching socio-political issues. By the 1950s, with a growing interest in early connections between Hungarian and Chinese musics, China was open to Hungarian musicology; Bence Szabolcsi visited the great Yang Yinliu in Beijing in 1955, on the eve of the Budapest uprising. And Yang Yinliu visited the USSR in 1957, just after his remarkable fieldtrip to Hunan—just before the Anti-Rightist campaign and Great Leap Backward led to untold suffering.

1957

Yang Yinliu (seated, right) on a visit to the USSR, 1957.

For Czech–Chinese exchanges over the period, see here.

Kodály’s Folk music of Hungary, dating from 1935, was published in 1964 in a Chinese translation from the 1956 German edition—just as a brief lull after the Leap was destroyed by the Four Cleanups and Cultural Revolution.

Kodaly

In east Europe, the USSR, and Maoist China, the enthusiasm of ethnographic collectors of the day is admirable—even as their leaders were imprisoning them and manipulating the peoples they were studying. As William Noll observes, such studies need both to be intepreted in their historical framework and updated constantly, both by augmenting the earlier material and by documenting more recent change. Also in that post, note Noll’s comment that ethnographers of one cultural heritage commonly conduct fieldwork among peoples of a different cultural heritage—even if both groups live within the political boundaries of one state.

Left: Tibetan monks lay down their arms, 1959 (AFP/Getty.).
Right: Norbulingka, Lhasa 1966 (from Forbidden memoryessential reading).

A flagrant instance of circumspection is fieldwork by Chinese musicologists in Tibet in the 1950s, rosily portraying the region (like Xinjiang) as a happy land of singing and dancing—even in 1956 Lhasa, just as mass rebellions were breaking out all over Tibet against Chinese occupation. Two of the most distinguished, and well-meaning, Chinese scholars resumed their fieldwork upon the 1980s’ reforms, encouraging their Tibetan pupils; but the whole social-political backdrop remained taboo (see Labrang 1). See also Recent posts on Tibet.

Expressive culture is an illuminating window on society. How little we know about the world…


[1] The term Finno-Ugric seems somewhat dated, but see here for a more extensive list of peoples.

[2] An early curiosity among the ouevre of the great Bruno Nettl is his slim tome Cheremis musical styles (1960), part of a Cheremis project at Indiana. The Preface by Thomas Sebeok has a useful summary of interest among Hungarian and other scholars. But written from a distance, the monograph could still only be narrowly musical—free of ethnomusicology’s later concern for society and culture, in which Nettl has played such a major role; and the material that he assembles consists largely of transcriptions rather than recordings.

For Chuvash and Mordvins, note also the 1996 Auvidis CD Chants de la Volga: musique traditionnelle de Tchouvachie et Mordovie.

Auvidis

 

Musical cultures of east Europe

tanchaz 93

String trio with cimbalom at the Meta táncház, Budapest 1993another perk of my orchestral touring life. My photo.

Having written about the ill-fated blind minstrels of Ukraine, here I’d like to outline the importance of the varied soundscapes around east Europe (a region I’ve also touched in several posts). Also, changing expressive cultures there—besides their intrinsic fascination—suggest useful perspectives for our studies of China.

This may be Old Hat for World Music fans, but perhaps less so for China-watchers or scholars of Asian ritual. Here I’ll offer a mere smattering of reading and audio-visual material.

As in China, sandwiched between the timeless ancient and recent turbo-rock images of the whole region are the elusive fates of local cultures during the state socialist era. Parallel with the official state ensembles, folk traditions were not entirely dormant (a major theme of mine for China; for the spectrum, see e.g. here and here); and fieldwork and research continued, despite political obstacles. These traditions are not so much national as regional, indeed local; subcultures cross boundaries.

And they are not timeless reified commodities to be preserved, but ever-evolving amidst complex social change. Changing political boundaries, and mutual borrowings, belie ongoing nationalist agendas—another reminder of the fantastic and enduring diversity of European cultures (see e.g. Iberia tag for flamenco and fado). Tensions are apparent between local values and official images—and latterly the World Music scene.

Life-cycle rituals, notably weddings, remain a major context. But as the image of the unspoilt rural idyll recedes, turbo-folk tends to dominate. Weddings have become a focus of modernization; secular festivals, no longer manipulated by the Party state, also come to the fore. Yet changes in rural life also remain a lively topic. There’s never a simple progression from unspoilt rural traditions through kitsch state ensembles to turborock.

Both vocal and instrumental genres are remarkable. Older instruments haven’t entirely been replaced, such as gadulka and gusle fiddles, kaval end-blown flute, zurna shawm, gaida bagpipe.

For an introduction to the different early post-war histories of the whole region, see

  • Anne Applebaum, Iron curtain: the crushing of Eastern Europe 1944–1956.

* * *

Fieldwork on east European traditions began still before the explorations of Bela Bartók, Zoltán Kodály, and Constantin Brăiloiu, but they make a convenient starting-point. Their interests extended far beyond the borders of Hungary and Romania—indeed, Bartók made fieldtrips as far afield as Turkey and north Africa.

Bartok LP

We can admire Brăiloiu’s 1933–43 recordings on this remarkable CD:

For convenient collections of articles, see

  • Bela Bartók, Essays (1976)
  • Zoltán Kodály, Folk music of Hungary (1960/1982—translation revised by Laurence Picken, who maintained a lively correspondence with east European musicologists!)
  • Constantin Brăiloiu, Problems of ethnomusicology (1984).

Still, their work belongs towards the “music” end of the music—culture spectrum, and later under the Communist era, social and political analysis was discouraged from developing. On the one hand, the early fieldworkers are laudable for making trips long before the formal discipline of ethnomusicology; on the other, under state socialism the scholars were laudable for attempting to pursue ethnographic principles under political pressures. Later the whole region became one of the most lively topics of the European Seminar in Ethnomusicology (ESEM).

As Carol Silverman observes about the Roma,

Early folk music studies focus on aesthetics and creativity rather than on power differentials; they were primarily about the culture within folk groups, not about domination, resistance, and conflict among groups.

Indeed, there are varied ways to study the topic, from popular to scholarly. We might start with the articles in the Rough Guide to world music and Songlines magazine, where east Europe is well covered thanks largely to the enthusiasm of their editor Simon Broughton. Apart from the recent glossy World Music stars, it also features local traditions and archive recordings (mostly listed at the start of the discographies).

Among more scholarly studies, note relevant chapters in

  • Timothy Rice and James Porter (eds.), The Garland encyclopedia of world music, vol.8: Europe (2000).

For many further refs. at the traditional end of the spectrum, showing the energy of early collecting and recording, see

  • Barbara Krader and Bálint Sarosi, “Southern and eastern Europe”, in Ethnomusicology: historical and regional studies (The New Grove handbooks in music, 1993), pp.160–96,

and in the same volume, updating the story, relevant sections of

  • James Porter, “Europe”, pp.215–39.

Chapters in

  • Mark Slobin (ed.), Retuning culture: musical changes in central and eastern Europe (1996)

suggest Chinese parallels in the adjustment following the demise of state socialism. Of course, while the early 1990s were a time of pivotal significance, the scene has continues to change since then. I cited a couple of salient general points from Retuning culture here.

In all these regions, educated urban “roots” movements have become an aspect of the revival since the fall of Communism. In Retuning culture Judit Frigyesi describes this for Hungary, whereas in the following chapter Barbara Rose Lange discusses the reaction against it in the form of lakodalmas rock—resembling similar tensions in China.

At the same time, as Timothy Garton Ash comments in a review of Witold Szablowski’s Dancing Bears,

There is a long tradition, stretching back to the Enlightenment, of western Europeans and North Americans orientalizing eastern Europe, as Voltaire did with Russia and Rousseau did with Poland. What is unusual about Szablowski is that he is orientalizing his own region.

Another constant theme is ritual, along with religion—which persisted in various ways under state socialism. I won’t attempt to cover Polish, Czech, or Slovak traditions here, though they too are a rich topic, with a wealth of material (e.g. Madonna pilgrimage in Communist Poland; Moravia; Polish folk; and for Polish jazz, here). And I already mentioned Michael Beckerman’s piece in Retuning culture on Milan Kundera’s brilliant dissection of culture clash in The joke.

But despite the glossy stars of the World Music scene, it’s not all about them: they are just the tip of the iceberg of changing social life (cf. my flamenco series, starting here). That’s far from saying that folk traditions are anonymous—on the contrary, personalities are always important, and locally there are always hierarchies and admired performers.

Under state socialism, in the wake of the tradition of Bartók, Kodaly, and Brăiloiu, fieldwork on regional traditions was avidly pursued. Before and after 1989 I returned from concerts in Budapest with suitcases full of box-sets of LPs from the Hungaroton label, founded in 1951.

LP

There’s also a wealth of material on film and online. Gigs are all very well; feature films (see below) are more revealing; ethnographic documentaries are fewer (if only the BBC films of Simon Broughton were available now).

Hungary, Transylvania, Romania
Here—by contrast with the brass-band sound that has come to dominates the Balkans—string bands are still plentiful, surviving notably in Transylvania, source of much of the inspiration for Hungarian folk music studies ever since Bartok’s fieldwork.

The combo of primas fiddle, contra viola, and bass is enchanting (for this and other world fiddle traditions, see here). Foremost among many recordings with a more traditional brief is a series of fine box sets from Hungaroton, followed by the Fono label, including their Final hour/ Új Pátria series.

Unearthing Transylvanian bands has long been at the heart of the projects of the enterprising Budapest-based concert band Muzsikás and the wonderful singer Márta Sebestyén, and of the Budapest táncház (“dance house”) scene (for which see e.g. Jávorszky Béla Szilárd, The story of Hungarian folk, 2015, and an introductiion in Songlines #112). But the fortunes of most such rural bands remained based in the lives of their local communities.

Here Muzsikás accompany the master fiddler Sandor “Neti” Fodor (1922–2004):

Still in Romania, the Rough Guide introduces many distinctive traditions, such as those of Maramureș and Moldavia. The Csángó people of Gyimes are famed for the duo of fiddle with gardon slapped bass—one of the best possible things to do with a bass, apart from furniture effects and marriage guidance counselling (cf. viola jokes).

Here’s a documentary made soon after the 1989 revolution, with contributions from Muzsikás and (from 28.28) the Gyimes fiddle and gardon:

Transylvania is also another of the enviable fieldsites of Bernard Lortat-Jacob:

  • Jacques Bouët, Bernard Lortat-Jacob, and Speranţa Rădulescu, A tue-tête: chant et violon au pays de l’Oach, Roumanie (2002, with DVD),

a detailed ethnography of social musicking in the Oaș region, including musical analyses.

From Clejani near Bucharest, Taraf de Haïdouks were plucked up into the World Music scene; indeed, they are the source of my favourite quote about such success. Speranţa Rădulescu had recorded them from 1983, and introduced fellow-ethnomusicologist Laurent Aubert to them in 1986. Later, taken up by the likes of Johnny Depp, they toured with the Kronos quartet (“Californian pointy-heads” apud Cartwright, Princes amongst men, pp.196–7—actually a telling vignette on the different aesthetics of folk and art musicians).

But with the goals of ethnomusicologists and World Music promoters not always in tandem, such collaborations may not unfold smoothly. The World Music scene not only propels certain bands to fame, but may engender rival clones, misunderstandings, and lawsuits.

Retuning culture has a fascinating article

  • Steluta Popa, “The Romanian revolution of December 1989 and its reflection in musical folklore”,

documenting songs just as they were being composed—if only we could hear them too. But we can hear, from Latcho Drom (see below), the “Ballad of the dictator” by the late great Nicolae Neacșu (of Taraf de Haïdouks)—including my very favorite fiddle technique, evoking anguish, earthquake, or perhaps the creaking door that precedes “The master is not at home” in a Hammer Horror movie (perhaps not so suitable in the Mahler Adagietto, but who knows):

Green leaves, flowers of the fields, What are the people doing?
They’re taking to the streets, yelling and crying “Freedom!”
Green leaves, flowers of the fields, What are the students doing?
They’re marching on Bucharest, yelling and crying “Sweep away the dictatorship.”
Green leaves, a million green leaves on this 22nd day
Here, the time for life has returned, to live in freedom
Green leaves, flowers of the fields, There in Timisoara people are taking to the streets, yelling “It’s all over for the tyrant!”
What are the men doing? They’re taking out their guns. They’re shooting at people. Ceaucescu hears them:
“Tyrant, you have destroyed Romania.”

Roma
Beyond all the traumas of warfare and occupation, these are regions where countless Jewish and Roma peoples were deported and murdered in the mid-20th century, transforming the cultural landscape. In addition to its articles by country, The Rough Guide has a section on the trendy tag of Gypsy music—indeed, casting the net as wide as Rajasthan, Turkey, Russia, Spain, France, and Britain.

The fortunes of Roma peoples in various nations are tellingly described in

  • Isobel Fonseca, Bury me standing (1995),

and turning to music, another most accessible book is

  • Garth Cartwright, Princes amongst men [sic]: journeys with Gypsy musicians (2005),

with vignettes from Serbia, Macedonia, Romania, and Bulgaria. Though based on interviews with the stars, it makes a lively and well-observed read, a popular introduction not only to the scene at the time of his visits but also to the state socialist background. See his playlist here.

 The transgressive lifestyle of the Roma, Exotic Other “deviating from behavioural norms”, has long made an irresistible commercial proposition, as gleefully evoked in many popular feature films (Cartwright, pp.306–8 gives a useful list), such as those of Emil Kusturica like Time of the Gypsies (1989), Underground (1995), and Black cat, white cat (1998), or—more acceptably to the Roma community—Tony Gatlif, including Latcho Drom (1993, travelling from Rajasthan, Egypt, and Turkey to Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, France, and Spain):

and Gadjo dilo (1997)—sorry, the English subtitled version has disappeared from YouTube, so we’ll just have to practise our Hungarian (Yeah, right):

An impressive early film was I even met happy Gypsies (Aleksandar Petrovic, 1967):

The Balkans
Here the scars of the war following the breakup of Yugoslavia are constantly on display. Brass bands have come to dominate the soundscape, the Guča festival making a heady showcase. Among the stars are Boban and Marko Marković (Serbia), the Kočani orkestar (Macedonia), and Fanfare Ciocârlia (from Zece Prăjini in Moldavia, Romania). While high-octane numbers dominate, the slow ballads are also most affecting.

Sorry, can’t find English subtitles for this 2002 documentary Iag bari/Brass on fire, so here’s some Swedish practice:

Modern brass bands have developed from groups led by zurna shawms with percussion, rather as Chinese shawm bands have added Western brass and pop music to their instrumentation since the 1980s.

The label “Balkan jazz” reminds me that I couldn’t resist describing the amazing Hua family shawm band as Chinese gypsies playing Ming-dynasty jazz; but accounts of both the social life of Balkan musos and the wildness of their playing do indeed suggest similarities.

In Bosnia–Herzegovina, apart from sevdalinka singing (sevdah resembling Romanian dor, as well as duende and saudade), Islamic soundscapes include kaside, ilahije, and zikr rituals—note the Smithsonian Folkways CD Bosnia: echoes from an endangered world:

Bulgaria, Macedonia
Academic studies include

  • Timothy Rice, May it fill your soul: experiencing Bulgarian music (1994, with CD)
  • Donna Buchanan, Performing democracy: Bulgarian music and musicians in transition (2006)
  • Carol Silverman, Romani routes: cultural politics and Balkan music in diaspora (2012, with companion website)

See also Silverman’s 2007 article on the changing wedding market, and chapters by Rice and Silverman in Retuning culture.

Silverman notes that Bulgaria had one of the most centralized forms of state socialism, Macedonia one of the least. But under both regimes the Roma—“powerless politically and powerful musically”—continued to play for non-Rom as well as Rom audiences at village and town events, such as weddings, birth celebrations, soldier send-off celebrations, circumcisions, and baptisms.

In the West, broad awareness of Bulgarian music began when “World Music” was just a twinkle in the promoter’s eye, with Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares. The original LP, released as early as 1975, was reissued more widely in 1986. After the collapse of state socialism they reinvented themselves with several reincarnations, with further albums following. They made rather more earthy recordings too, like this track from Bulgarian custom songs (1993):

Another early star of the World Music circuit was Ivo Papazov—subject of a fine article by Donna Buchanan in Retuning culture, and vignettes in Rice’s May it fill your soul. Reminding us again that musicking doesn’t necessarily take place in designated venues like concert halls, the wedding scene is important. But Buchanan unpacks the ethnic and cultural tensions. In summer 1989, 370,000 ethnic Turks and Muslims were deported. Buchanan also puts into context how Papazov was promoted abroad by Joe Boyd with the Hannibal albums Orpheus ascending (1989) and Balkanology (1991), soon launching him as a global touring star—just as the local economy was collapsing.

Weddings had been lucrative, and moreover musos prefer their ambience—as Ivo commented,

In truth, a wedding is equal to a dozen concerts. There a person can create… A great deal of music is introduced in a wedding, and in a concert you lack this thrill.

However, by the 1990s weddings lasted only one day: he was being nostalgic for the extravagance of the 1980s! He returned to recording with the great albums Fairground (2003) and Dance of the falcon (2008). Meanwhile the wedding scene in Bulgaria continues to change.

Whatever setting he plays in, his music is just intoxicating. Here’s one of several YouTube playlists, including some raw footage from local gigs also featuring other bands:

And a drôle quote from Frank Zappa, no less:

Ivo’s wedding music, played first thing in the morning, provides thorough and long-lasting attitude adjustment for the busy executive.

Though additive “limping” metres feature in much folk music around the region and further afield (notably Turkey), Bulgaria has been particularly associated with them.

In Macedonia, megastars (sic) are Esma Redžepova (e.g. here, and here; and a playlist:)

and sax player Ferus Mustafov, also featured by Cartwright.

But again, it’s not all about the stars of the World Music scene. At the same time, musical appraisals expand from local to global, which are often at variance. By contrast with both nostalgic romantics and World Music fans in search of the latest groove, the brash sounds of Bulgarian chalga and Romanian manele have become highly popular.

As Cartwright observes,

The difference between what the West’s world music industry sells as Gypsy music and what the Roma listen to back in the Balkans can be huge. Sure, in Serbia Šaban is king and across Macedonia Esma reigns. But this is akin to African Americans acknowledging James Brown and Aretha Franklin. Don’t mean they’re listening to them. And in Romania the breach seems wider than anywhere else. Fulgerica is respected but he’s no pop star while Fanfare Ciocârlia and Taraf de Haïdouks exist only for Western audiences. That they play superior Gypsy music, rooted in tradition, means nothing. The local Roma aren’t listening. What they want is Adrian. And Guța.

Meanwhile, as he notes, the Venezuelan soap opera Kasandra became wildly popular across the Balkans, giving Šaban Bajramović a huge hit in 1997.

Albanian cultures
As a respite from the bombardment of turbo-folk, it’s good to return to a more traditional milieu. Again, ethnic Albanians occupy not just Albania but Kosovo and parts of Macedonia and northern Greece; the soundscape is highly regional, with Gheg culture in the north, Tosk and Lab further south.

The splendid A. L. Lloyd somehow issued a fine album as early as in 1966:

The polyphony here is amazing. From the south, another fine CD from Bernard Lortat-Jacob is

  • Albanie: polyphonies vocales et instrumentales (notes here):

A substantial study is

  • Jane Sugarman, Engendering song: singing and subjectivity at Albanian Prespa weddings (1997, with CD).

Bards
Again, the epics sung by bards, over a wide region of south Yugoslavia and Albanian communities, don’t neatly fit national or ethnic boundaries.

The classic study is

  • Albert Lord, The singer of tales (with CD-Rom; complete text here)

following the work of Milman Parry, Most singers are accompanied by a one-string fiddle like the gusle, as in this celebrated 1935 clip:

And in case all this seems like a bygone world, see here for a 2018 Venice performance of a Kosovan bard.

* * *

Under all these unwieldy national rubrics, the diverse ethnic groups negotiate the changing times, interacting. As ever, this is far more than a “merely musical” topic, as such cultures are not merely quaint ornaments, aural pashmina; they are windows on changing local societies, an essential part of what makes them click. As in China, it’s no use clinging onto a romantic idealization of the past; and we should always delve beyond the World Music stars to musicking in local societies.

As ever, Bruno Nettl offers useful perspectives, as in his taxonomies for various types of change and responses to them.

For any sinophiles who have read this far, it may serve as a reminder of the persistent variety of regional and local traditions in China—not just the ethnic tapestries of the northwest, southwest, and indeed northeast, or even Hakka and Hokkien cultures, but all kinds of musicking beneath the provincial level in Han Chinese regions.

The cultures of all these groups—before and during state socialism, and since— deserve detailed attention. And World Music fans may tend to favour modern commercial pop, but it’s important for ethnographers to include it in the picture too. Even in my work on Daoist funerals in China, I could hardly neglect the pop bands outside the gate (my film, from 30.32).

Both academic and popular accounts repay study: and both keep track of change. I wonder what Bartok would have made of all this—another of those fruitless debates like “Would Bach have used the ondes martenot?” or “Mozart would have written advertising jingles”…

For a sequel, click here. See also under Some jazz fiddling.

On a lighter note, far from PC, there’s Molvania

New tag: Iron Curtain

 

To accompany a growing list of posts, I’ve now added a rough-and-ready tag Iron Curtain to the sidebar. For want of a more succinct handle, it includes posts on the region both before and since 1989.

Most of these posts suggest Chinese parallels—including various essays on the GDR (here and here, as well as a two-part biography here and here), SerbiaBulgariamusical cultures of east Europe, and Cheremis, Chuvash—and Tibetans. There are yet more links under the tag German too. Under the separate tag Czech are several (mercifully lighter) stories, notably from Švejk and my mentor Paul Kratochvil.

Notably I include the “bloodlands” of Timothy Snyder’s book, a vast region not easily characterized. In my post on his book, I wonder what would it take for the region to be recognized as the physical and moral graveyard of the 20th century—shifting our balance from the Western to the Eastern Front.

map

Setting forth from A Nazi legacy and Anne Applebaum’s Between East and West, I described the blind minstrels of Ukraine, leading to posts on the famine and the intrepid journalist Gareth Jones.

I’ve included my posts on Ravensbrück and Sachsenhausen, since so many people from the region ended up at such camps.

Doubtless more to follow.

Bloodlands

map

Following my posts on the work of Philippe Sands, on blind minstrels in Ukraine, [1] and on the famines in Ukraine and China, I’ve been belatedly educating myself on the appalling history of the vast region introduced in Between East and West by reading

The region where some 14 million people (mostly civilians) were killed from 1930 to 1945, largely east of the Molotov–Ribbentrop line, includes Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, and the Baltic states. Victims were Jews, Belarusians, Ukrainians, Poles, Russians, and Balts. And it was to the bloodlands that most Jewish victims from west and south Europe, Hungary, Romania, and so on, were transported to die. For the background, see The great siege of Przemyśl.

Growing up in post-war Britain, perhaps my ignorance isn’t so unusual—but it’s disturbing, and needs rectifying. As Anne Applebaum comments in her review,

If we are American, we think “the war” was something that started with Pearl Harbor in 1941 and ended with the atomic bomb in 1945. If we are British, we remember the Blitz of 1940 […] and the liberation of Belsen. If we are French, we remember Vichy and the Resistance. If we are Dutch we think of Anne Frank. Even if we are German we know only a part of the story.

My own belated awareness is partly prompted by my studies of the fates of Chinese people whom I’ve met in the course of fieldwork. Indeed, it’s worth re-reading Ian Johnson’s article “Who killed more, Hitler, Stalin or Mao?”, itself a companion to an article by Snyder.

I wonder what would it take for this vast region of the bloodlands to be recognized as the central physical and moral graveyard of the 20th century—shifting our balance from the Western to the Eastern Front. And as Snyder says, the mass killing of the 20th century is of the greatest moral significance for the 21st.

One might even begin by reading his brilliant “Conclusion: humanity”. And apart from reading static silent texts, there’s a wealth of documentary footage online—which you can choose to explore, or not.

Snyder corrects many widespread misconceptions [here I combine his text and Ascherson’s review]. The western public still tends to associate mass killing with “Nazi concentration camps” (cf. my posts on Ravensbrück and Sachsenhausen), and with Auschwitz in particular; and Stalin is thought to have killed far more people than the Nazis by consigning millions to the gulag. But neither assumption is accurate.

  • In the Soviet Union, although about a million men and women perished in the labour camps, 90% of gulag prisoners survived. Stalin’s great killing took place not in Siberia, but in the western Soviet republics, above all in 1930s’ Ukraine where at least four million people died in man-made famines and in the slaughter of the “kulak” peasantry.
  • In the Third Reich concentration camps, a million prisoners died miserable deaths during the Nazi period. US and British troops liberated some of those camps, but none of the major death camps, which were further east. And 10 million others who never entered any of the camps were shot (mostly Jews), deliberately starved to death (mostly Soviet prisoners of war), or gassed in special “killing centres” which were not holding camps at all. Auschwitz, terrible as it was, formed a sort of coda to the Jewish Holocaust. By the time the main gas chambers came on line in 1943, most of Europe’s Jewish victims were already dead. Some—Polish Jews especially—had been gassed in the three killing centres set up on Polish territory: Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka.
  • So more common methods of killing than gassing were starvation and shooting. Most of those Jewish victims had been shot and pitched into mass graves by German Einsatzgruppen operating far to the east in Ukraine, the Baltics and Belarus, moving from village to village behind the front lines of war.

In a matter of a given few days in the second half of 1941, the Germans shot more Jews in the east than they had inmates in all of their concentration camps. […] The vast majority of Jews killed in the Holocaust never saw a concentration camp.

The American and British soldiers who liberated the dying inmates from camps in Germany believed that they had discovered the horrors of Nazism. The images their photographers and cameramen captured of the corpses and the living skeletons at Bergen–Belsen and Buchenwald seemed to convey the worst crimes of Hitler. As the Jews and Poles of Warsaw knew, and as Vasily Grossman and the Red Army knew, this was far from the truth. The worst was in the ruins of Warsaw, or the fields of Treblinka, or the marshes of Belarus, or the pits of Babi Yar.

  • Nor is it widely understood that Jews were fewer than 1% of the German population when Hitler came to power in 1933, and about one quarter of 1% by the beginning of World War Two. The great majority of murders of Jews took place in occupied Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, and the Soviet Union. The murder of 165,000 German Jews was a ghastly crime in and of itself, but […] fewer than 3% of the deaths of the Holocaust. The Nazis murdered about as many non-Jews as Jews during the war, chiefly by starving Soviet prisoners of war (over 3 million) and residents of besieged cities (over a million), or by shooting civilians in “reprisals” (nearly a million).
    And until 1939 Stalin, later credited with defeating Hitler (if not in British public opinion), had a still worse record of mass killings—of his own civilians, moreover. Until then, Soviet terror (against both class and national enemies) was not only far greater in scale, it was incomparably more lethal—and largely unnoticed. By the end of 1938, the USSR had killed about a thousand times more people on ethnic grounds than had Nazi Germany, and far more Jews.

Poland, fatally partitioned between Hitler and Stalin in 1939, suffered terribly—with Warsaw subjected to brutal successive destructions. In western Europe this period was known as “the phony war”: nothing seemed to be happening. But on 22nd June 1941 (“one of the most significant days in the history of Europe”) Operation Barbarossa, Hitler’s invasion of the USSR, while sealing the fate of the Reich, was a further disaster for the civilian inhabitants of the whole region. It was only with these incursions that Hitler’s territory came to include large numbers of Jews to be (literally) disposed of. And

As Hitler imagined the future, Germany would deal with the Slavs much as the North Americans had dealt with the Indians.

As to Ukraine, already decimated by Stalin,

Hitler dreamed of the endlessly fertile Ukrainian soil, assuming that Germans would extract more from the terrain than the Soviets.

The Germans implemented mass starvation in POW camps:

As many Soviet prisoners-of-war died on a single given day in autumn 1941 as did British and American prisoners of war over the entire course of the Second World War.
The Germans shot, on a conservative estimate, half a million Soviet prisoners of war. By way of starvation or mistreatment during transit, they killed about 2.6 million more.

This had the effect of strengthening Soviet resistance; and while local populations had already suffered terribly under Soviet rule, many now wondered if it might be a lesser evil. Still, in desperation many Soviet citizens were recruited for duties with the German army and police.

Thus some of the survivors of one German killing policy became accomplices in another, as a war to destroy the Soviet Union became a war to murder the Jews.

In the first lands that German soldiers reached in Operation Barbarossa, they were the war’s second occupier. […] The double occupation, first Soviet, then German, made the experience of the inhabitants of these lands all the more complicated and dangerous. […] They had to deal with the consequences of their own previous commitments under one occupier when the next one came; or make choices under one occupation while anticipating another.

When the Germans conquered an area they often found that the NKVD had shot prisoners. In 1943 they seized on their discovery of the 1940 massacre by the NKVD of over 20,000 Polish officers and intelligentsia in the forests of Katyn. But on 29th–30th September 1941 near Kiev, the Germans had murdered 33,761 Jews at Babi Yar; between 100,000 and 150,000 people were killed there during the German occupation.

Local militias also took part in pogroms:

Political calculation and local suffering do not entirely explain the participation in these pogroms. Violence against Jews served to bring the Germans and elements of the local non-Jewish population closer together. Anger was directed, as the Germans wished, toward the Jews, rather than against collaborators with the Soviet regime as such. […] Violence against Jews also allowed local Estonians, Latvians, Lithuanians, Ukrainians, Belarusians, and Poles who had themselves collaborated with the Soviet regime to escape any such taint.
Yet this psychic nazification would have been much more difficult without the palpable evidence of Soviet atrocities. The pogroms took place where the Soviets had recently arrived and where Soviet power was recently installed, where for the previous months Soviet organs of coercion had organized arrests, executions, and deportations. They were a joint production, a Nazi edition of a Soviet text.

Snyder details the fates of urban centres like Lviv, Łódź, Riga, Vilnius, and Minsk, giving background to Applebaum’s visits in Between East and West. By the end of the war, half the population of Belarus had either been killed or deported (see also Soviet lives at war).

Warsaw

Warsaw, 1944.

His story returns to Poland and the unimaginable final agony of Warsaw. As the Red Army advanced on Berlin, their revenge was horrific.

* * *

And thence to continuing sufferings after the formal end of war, with Germans now among the main victims of ethnic cleansing and transports (for an overview of the aftermath across Europe, see Keith Lowe, Savage continent). Through the war the Soviets had continued sending their own citizens to the Soviet gulag (not least the peoples of the Caucasus and Crimea; entire populations of Karachai, Kalmyks, Chechen, Ingush, Balkar, Tatar, Meshketian Turks, and so on, still less known in the West than the bloodlands), and in the post-war years deportations only increased.

As Stalin fabricated his own unblemished legend of the Soviet Union and its role in the war, belittling that of Soviet citizens in the Holocaust, he now engaged in his own anti-semitic purges. Although mass terror was no longer pursued after Stalin’s death, repression continued throughout the Soviet bloc, and the fates of the real victims were concealed.

The communists’ hesitation to distinguish and define Hitler’s major crime tended, as the decades passed, to confirm an aspect of Hitler’s worldview.
[…]
Communist leaders, beginning with Stalin and continuing to the end, could rightly say that few people in the West appreciated the role of the Red Army in the defeat of the Wehrmacht, and the suffering that the peoples of eastern Europe endured under German occupation. […] During the Cold War, the natural response in the West was to emphasize the enormous suffering that Stalinism had brought to the citizens of the Soviet Union. This, too, was true; but like the Soviet accounts it was not the only truth, or the whole truth.

In his “Conclusion: Humanity”, Snyder explores the complexities of collaboration and victimhood—even now a pressing issue for all these traumatized nations. Most peoples suffered double or triple occupations, trapped helplessly between evil regimes, forced into agonizing dilemmas with a view to mere survival. In a telling passage, Snyder reflects on choices:

At a great distance in time, we can choose to compare the Nazi and Soviet systems, or not. The hundreds of millions of Europeans who were touched by both regimes did not have this luxury.

The comparisons between leaders and systems began the moment that Hitler came to power. From 1933 through 1945 hundreds of millions of Europeans had to weigh what they knew about National Socialism and Stalinism as they made the decisions that would, all too often, determine their fate. This was true of unemployed German workers in early 1933, who had to decide whether they would vote for social democrats, communists, or Nazis. It was true, at the same moment, of Ukrainian peasants, some of whom hoped for a German invasion that would rescue them from the plight. It held for European politicians of the second half of the 1930s, who had to decide whether or not to enter Stalin’s Popular Fronts. The dilemma was felt sharply in Warsaw in these years, as Polish diplomats sought to keep an equal distance between their powerful German and Soviet neighbors in the hope of avoiding war.

When both the Germans and the Soviets invaded Poland in 1939, Polish officers had to decide to whom they should surrender, and Polish Jews (and other Polish citizens besides) whether to flee to the other occupation zone. After Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, some Soviet prisoners of war weighed the risks of collaboration with the Germans against the likelihood of starving to death in prisoner-of-war camps. Belarusian youth had to decide whether to join the Soviet Partisans or the German police—before they were press-ganged into one or the other. Jews in Minsk in 1942 had to choose between remaining in the ghetto or fleeing to the forest to seek Soviet partisans. Polish Home Army commanders in 1944 had to decide whether or not to try to liberate Warsaw for themselves, or to wait for the Soviets. Most survivors of the Ukrainian famine of 1933 later experienced German occupation; most survivors of the German starvation camps of 1941 returned to Stalin’s Soviet Union; most survivors of the Holocaust who remained in Europe also experienced communism.

These Europeans, who inhabited the crucial part of Europe at the crucial time, were condemned to compare.
[…]
In the decades since Europe’s era of mass killing came to an end, much of the responsibility has been placed at the feet of “collaborators”. The classic example of collaboration is that of the Soviet citizens who served the Germans as policemen or guards during the Second World War, among whose duties was the killing of Jews. Almost none of these people collaborated for ideological reasons, and only a small minority had political motives of any discernible sort. […] In eastern Europe, it is hard to find political collaboration with the Germans that is not related to a previous experience of Soviet rule.

Snyder goes on:

In the 21st century, we see a second wave of aggressive wars with victim claims, in which leaders not only present their peoples as victims but make explicit reference to the mass murders of the 20th century. The human capacity for subjective victimhood is apparently limitless, and people who believe that they are victims can be motivated to perform acts of great violence.

And he reflects on the purpose of history, describing all kinds of later nationalist agendas, highly relevant today:

Our contemporary culture of commemoration takes for granted that memory prevents murder. […] Without history, the memories become private, which today means national; and the numbers become public, which is to say an instrument in the international competition for martyrdom.

Snyder’s detailed breakdown of figures is numbing (note also his Appendix “Numbers and terms”). [2]

In policies that were meant to kill civilians or prisoners of war, Nazi Germany murdered about ten million people in the bloodlands (and perhaps eleven million total), the Soviet Union under Stalin over four million in the bloodlands (and about six million total). If foreseeable deaths resulting from famine, ethnic cleansing, and long stays in camps are added, the Stalinist total rises to perhaps nine million and the Nazi to perhaps twelve. These larger numbers can never be precise, not least because millions of people who died as an indirect result of the Second World War were victims, in one way or another, of both systems.

But as he concludes, such statistics still have to be converted back into the stories of individuals: not the abstraction of 5.7 million Jewish dead, but 5.7 million times one.

It is perhaps easier to think of 780,863 individual people at Treblinka: where the three at the end might be Tamara and Itta Willenburg, whose clothes clung together as they were gassed, and Ruth Dorfmann, who was able to cry with the man who cut her hair before she entered the gas chamber.

As the Jews of Minsk were liquidated in 1942,

The girls and boys knew what would happen to them if they were caught. They would ask for a tattered bit of dignity as they walked up the ramp to their death: “Please sirs,” they would say to the Germans, “do not hit us. We can get to the trucks on our own.”

* * *

Apart from providing us with essential basic education, such work, both detailed and humane, should inform our historiography generally—all the more with the current worldwide fomenting of ugly xenophobia.

For China, despite all the noble work on the famine and laogai camps, truth remains to be publicly told. In the official myth, the concession of Cultural Revolution “mistakes” conspires to sweep under the carpet the earlier successive terrors of land reform and campaigns throughout the 1950s, as well as long-term hunger. Even studies of expressive culture and ritual need to take all this into account.


[1] In such posts I mention the painful maintenance of expressive culture through times of trauma (and indeed the theme of the music of the camps is both macabre and inspiring), but here it seems unthinkable even to try and do so. It does, however, put into even starker perspective both regimes’ showcasing of Great Works of National Art directed by Great Conductors (see e.g. here). See also e.g. Institute of Musicology, University of Warsaw (ed.), Music traditions in totalitarian systems (Musicology Today, 2010).

[2] Statistics are always problematical. In China, as Ian Johnson observes, famine deaths alone over a mere four years seem to far outnumber the combined totals for killings under Stalin and Hitler from 1930 to 1945. But for the latter, if one includes “foreseeable” deaths caused by deportation, starvation, and incarceration, as well as combatant deaths and those due to war-related famine and disease, the numbers shoot up astronomically. Slowly, Hitler’s numbers approach Mao’s (for the gulag, see also Figes, and Applebaum).

In a 2012 article the late Elliot Sperling considered issues in assessing the death count for Tibet under Maoism. See also The Cultural Revolution in Tibet, Forbidden memory, and Tibet: conflicting memories.

Issues with statistics are illustrated by the conclusion of Steven Pinker’s The better angels of our nature: a history of violence and humanity (esp. ch.5), based on detailed yet unpalatable arguments, that the 20th century was probably not the bloodiest in history. His diachronic table (pp.235–6), adjusted to give mid-20th-century population equivalents, shows death tolls from many other conflicts worldwide outranking those discussed here. Highest on the list is the 8th-century An Lushan rebellion (said to have killed up to 5% of the world population, though even a substantially lower revised estimate seems exaggerated), followed by the Mongol conquests; global deaths for World War Two surpass those of Mao’s famine, but even they only come in 9th and 11th respectively—with the Taiping rebellion in between. See here for Pinker’s responses to some inevitable questions.

But again, we should return to Snyder’s Conclusion.

A brave journalist

GJ

As journalism, and journalists, currently face renewed threats around the world, a homage to Gareth Jones (1905–35) is timely. [1] This post serves mainly to direct readers to the comprehensive website about his life.

I’ve already mentioned him among the foreign journalists who tried to draw the world’s attention to the 1933 famine in Ukraine. On the site you can read his reports, including his rebuttal of Walter Duranty’s apologia for the Soviet regime.

Indeed, he features in Bukovsky’s film The living (from 24.33), which you can see in my post on the famine. His story is told in the 2012 Storyville documentary Hitler, Stalin and Mr Jonesand now in the new feature film Mr Jones directed by Agnieszka Holland, with James Norton in the title role.

Besides documenting the rise of Hitler and Mussolini, once Jones was banned from the Soviet Union, his interests turned to the growing encroachment of Japan in the Far East. On the eve of his 30th birthday in 1935—just as Robert van Gulik was arriving in Harbin on his first visit to China—he was kidnapped and murdered by “bandits” in Japanese-occupied Manchukuo.

Had Jones lived to visit Yan’an after 1936, perhaps he would have been more critical than Edgar Snow or Agnes Smedley; and if he had travelled in China around 1960, he might have been more observant than other journalists at the time—and taken more photographs to accompany his record of the Holodomor.

See also The Kazakh famine.

 

[1] Since you ask, I am no more related to him than is Li Manshan to Laozi—or indeed to Andy Capp. But do read about my great-aunt Edith Miles.

Famine: Ukraine and China

LHJ 456 Kings detail

North Shanxi, Ten Kings ritual painting, detail: see here.

*Companion to two posts on the fates of blind bards in Ukraine and China*

Hunger, malnutrition, and famine are an essential backdrop to the lives and cultures of people we meet doing fieldwork in China, including expressive culture and ritual. They loom large in the life stories of peasants whom I’ve got to know—like the villagers of Gaoluo in Hebei, and the inhabitants of Yanggao county in Shanxi (see below). And I haven’t even visited the worst-affected regions, like Henan, Anhui, or Gansu.

Yet this is just the kind of memory that the rosy patriotic nostalgia and reifications of the Intangible Cultural Heritage project are designed to erase.

I began by writing about expressive culture under state socialism in Ukraine and China, and I’ve given links to some basic readings on the Chinese famineGlobally, one might also adduce 1840s’ Ireland, Bengal 1943, North Korea, and chronic famines in Africa. A classic study is

  • Amartya Sen, Poverty and famines: an essay on entitlement and deprivation (1981).

However, one estimate suggests that 80% of 20th-century famine victims died in the Soviet Union and China.

Ukraine: the 1933 Holodomor
Here I discuss the Holodomor; in a post to follow I’ll take the story on to World War Two.

I found it useful to read these works in conjunction:

  • Robert Conquest, The harvest of sorrow (1986) (for a review of his work by Sheila Fitzpatrick, see here)
  • Timothy Snyder, Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin (2010)
  • Anne Applebaum, Red famine: Stalin’s war on Ukraine (2017): reviewed by Sheila Fitzpatrick here, and, more critically, by Sophie Pinkham here.

One might begin with Applebaum’s summary of research in her Chapter 15 “The Holodomor in history and memory”, as well as Chapter 14 “The Cover-up” and her Epilogue. Snyder’s Chapter 1, “The Soviet famines”, makes a useful summary. While Conquest’s book, written before the collapse of the USSR, was a fine early study (for a review, with a fractious exchange, see here), Applebaum writes with the benefit of three decades of further research, using impressive Ukrainian sources and oral history projects since the 1980s (the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute and many websites, including an interview database led by William Noll); and she offers insights on the changing political scene since the 1990s. Her maps are very good too (and note this site).

Conquest’s book was published soon after the 1985 documentary Harvest of despair (following the film proper, from 54′, are further interviews):

Note also Sergei Bukovsky, The living (aka Spell your name, or Live, 2006):

* * *

In the aftermath of World War One (see e.g. Robert Gerwarth, Why the First World War failed to end) and the Russian revolution, as the population was bludgeoned into submitting to the kolkhoz collective farms, the term kulak was soon devalued to denote anyone questioning Party policy—“enemies of the people”, as an odious phrase currently in vogue goes. Vasily Grossman cited a woman activist (Harvest of sorrow, p.129):

What I said to myself at the time was “they are not human beings, they are kulaks” … Who thought up this word “kulak” anyway? Was it really a term? What torture was meted out to them! In order to massacre them it was necessary to proclaim that kulaks are not human beings. Just as the Germans proclaimed that Jews are not human beings. Thus did Lenin and Stalin proclaim, kulaks are not human beings.”

Conquest (p.118) cites an activist in 1930:

He has a sick wife, five children and not a crumb of bread in the house. And that’s what we call a kulak! The kids are in rags and tatters. They all look like ghosts. I saw the pot on the oven—a few potatoes in water. That was their supper tonight.

This reminds me how fellow villagers of kindly Daoist Li Qing (see also my film, and book) ribbed him for his status as a “rich peasant” (see here, under “The sojourn of Educated Youth”).

Over a long period there was constant unrest, with mass executions and deportations. Defiance (which indeed soon offered the only hope of survival) took the form not only of lethargy; violent resistance was common—not least from women. Rebellions had broken out as early as 1919 (Harvest of sorrow ch.3, Red famine ch.2). A widespread famine ensued in 1921. But it wasn’t kept secret, and international aid was welcomed (notably from the American Relief Administration)—whereas by 1933 the scale of the disaster was concealed, and no foreign aid was accepted.

While periodic retrenchments, and “indigenization” policies, were brief, an uneasy stalemate prevailed in the 1920s. Conquest opens The harvest of sorrow thus:

At the beginning of 1927, the Soviet peasant, whether Russian, Ukrainian, or of other nationality, had good reason to look forward to a tolerable future. The land was his; and he was reasonably free to dispose of his crop. The fearful period of grain-seizure, of peasant rising suppressed in blood, of devastating famine, were over, and the Bolshevik government seemed to have adopted a reasonable settlement of the countryside’s interests.

Even by 1929 (Red famine p.113–14),

as Dolot remembered it, the presence of the Soviet state in his village had been minimal. “We were completely free in our movements. We took pleasure trips and travelled freely looking for jobs. We went to the big cities and neighboring towns to attend weddings, church bazaars, and funerals. No one asked us for documents or questioned us about our destinations.” […] The Soviet Union was in change, but not every aspect of life was controlled by the state, and peasants lived much as they had in the past.

Politics had remained loose and decentralized. The choice of Ukrainian or Russian schooling was made in the locale itself; villages were still self-governing, and the various groups tried to accommodate one another. In a passage reminiscent of China (see e.g. here, under “Old and new stories”), for Christmas Day in Pylypivka,

the boys made a star [traditional for carollers] and thought about how to design it. After some debate, a decision was made: on one side of the star, an icon of the Mother of God would be featured, while on the other, a five-pointed [Soviet] star.
In addition, they learned not only old carols, but also new ones. They made a plan: when they were approaching a communist’s house, they would display the five-pointed star and sing the new carols, but when they approached the house of a religious man, they would display the icon of the Mother of God, and would sing [old carols].

But such flexibility was short-lived. Pressure escalated from 1927; as urban activists met stubborn resistance from peasants, they soon found that brutal coercion was the only way of fulfilling their brief. The new wave of collectivization soon led to famine. Despite the introduction of “internal passports”, starving peasants continued their migration to urban industrial centres. The gulag system (on which, among the vast literature, Applebaum also has a definitive study) expanded massively.

Major rebellions erupting in 1930 caused Stalin to tone down the rhetoric briefly (though the title of the anthem of the Ukrainian People’s Republic, “Ukraine has not yet died”, sung by armed rebels in 1930, doesn’t seem entirely encouraging.)

At the height of the famine, as later in China, cannibalism and insanity became common. Meanwhile there were purges at all levels of the Party too.

Conquest gives a prophetic quote, further foretelling the current total surveillance in Xinjiang:

What gave the regime its advantage both in 1930–31 and even more in 1932–33 was that it was now organized and centralized as it had not been in 1921. Herzen, back in the 1860s, had said that what he most feared was a “Genghis Khan with the telegraph”.

Religion and culture
The church (in Ukraine, the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church—currently engaged in a divorce from the Moscow Patriarchate) was both a target of and a focus for resistance—as later in China. Church bells were melted down, icons smashed. The rituals of traditional peasant life—and thus musical traditions—were disrupted.

Alongside the major branches of the church, the repression and survival of the diverse sectarian groups is a rich theme, including Protestants, Evangelicals, and the Molokans—see also Margarita Mazo, “Change as confirmation of continuity as experienced by Russian Molokans”, in Retuning culture: musical changes in central and Eastern Europe (1996).

As to expressive culture, the itinerant kobzari blind minstrels soon disappeared. Meanwhile,

The Ukrainian musician Yosyp Panasenko was dispatched by the central authorities with his troupe of bandura players to provide culture [sic] to the starving peasants. Even as the state took the peasants’ last bit of food, it had the grotesque inclination to elevate the minds and rouse the spirits of the dying. The musicians found village after village completely abandoned. Then they finally came across some people: two girls dead in a bed, two legs of a man protruding from a stove, and an old lady raving and running her fingernails through the dirt. (Bloodlands, p.47)

With all this background it becomes easier to understand why the blind minstrels were dying out, along with the culture of which they were part—although I wonder why they were not erased so efficiently in China under Maoism.

One member of a local concert band recalled playing for funerals of activists murdered by irate peasants:

For us it was a happy event because every time somebody was killed, they would take us to the village, give us some food and then we would play at the funeral. And we were looking forward every time to the next funeral, because that meant food for us. (Red famine, p.150)

Again, I heard similar stories in China, such as north Shanxi:

When Li Yuanmao’s father died of hunger in 1960, no-one even had the strength to dig a grave for him. In a village in nearby Tianzhen county, even the village cadres volunteered to carry the coffin just so they could get a paltry mantou steamed bread roll to eat (Daoist priests, p.119).

In Ukraine by 1933, apart from the banning of traditional funeral rites,

Nobody had the strength anymore to dig a grave, hold a ceremony, or play music. “There were no funerals,” recalled Kateryna Marchenko. “There were no priests, requiems, tears. There was no strength to cry.”

Meanwhile, cultural institutions, writers, and academics—historians, ethnographers, museum curators—were also under assault.

Talking of documenting folk-song (see here, and here), Snyder cites a children’s song (Bloodlands, p.36):

Father Stalin, look at this
Collective farming is just bliss
The hut’s in ruins, the barn’s all sagged
All the horses broken nags
And on the hut a hammer and sickle
And in the hut death and famine
No cows left, no pigs at all
Just your picture on the wall
Daddy and mommy are in the kolkhoz
The poor child cries as alone he goes
There’s no bread and there’s no fat
The party’s ended all of that
Seek not the gentle nor the mild
A father’s eaten his own child
The party man he beats and stamps
And sends us to Siberian camps.

And a collective farm song from the 1930s (Red famine p.113, cf. p.145):

Green corn waves new shoots
Though planted not long ago
Our brigadier sports new boots
While we barefoot go.

I wonder if Chinese people were singing similar songs around 1960. Still, there neither religious nor cultural life was such a blank slate under Maoism as one might suppose.

The cover-up and aftermath
Somehow, through a series of grudging concessions, the death toll fell by 1934. But with resistance broken, collectivization accelerated.

And no less telling is the story of the cover-up, suggesting further Chinese parallels. The findings of the Soviet census of 1937 were suppressed, and the responsible demographers executed. During the Great Terror of 1937–8,

Mass graves of famine victims were covered up and hidden, and it became dangerous even to know where they were located. In 1938 all the staff of Lukianivske cemetery in Kyiv were arrested, tried, and shot as counter-revolutionary insurgents, probably to prevent them from revealing what they knew.

AW1

There were plenty of outside witnesses too, such as Vasily Grossman, Arthur Koestler, Malcolm Muggeridge, Andrew Cairns, Rhea Clyman—and Gareth Jones, to whom I devote a separate post. The photos of Alexander Wienerberger also provided firm evidence. The influential Walter Duranty knew well, but chose to deny. On the left, pundits like the Webbs averted their gaze in the interests of the greater cause. And diplomatic silence reigned, already aware of the impending need for an alliance with the Soviets against Hitler. Conquest describes the apologists—a large and influential body of Western thought—as “the lobby of the blind and blindfold”. With bitter irony, it was only the Nazis who were prepared to publicize the 1933 famine.

AW2

Emerging evidence gave pause to left-leaning scholars like Eric Hobsbawm. But the whole topic still remains highly charged ideologically, as shown by some agitated reviews from both left and right. But exposing the iniquities of state socialism shouldn’t be reduced to a blunt implement monopolized by those on the right to bludgeon the left.

Here’s a trailer for Hunger for truth: the Rhea Clyman story:

And Grossman (cited in Harvest of sorrow, 286) observed:

And the children! Have you ever seen the newspaper photographs of the children in the German camps? They were just like that: their heads like heavy balls on thin little necks, like storks, and one could see each bone of their arms and legs protruding from beneath the skin, how bones joined, and the entire skeleton was stretched over with skin that was like yellow gauze. And the children’s faces were aged, tormented, just as if they were seventy years old. And by spring they no longer had faces at all. Instead, they had birdlike heads with beaks, or frog heads—thin, wide lips—and some of them resembled fish, mouths open. Not human faces.

He compares this directly with the Jewish children in the gas chambers and comments, “these were Soviet children and those putting them to death were Soviet people.”

The Holodomor and Great Terror were soon followed by yet more devastating atrocities in World War Two. The population had been decimated and brutalized long before the Nazis invaded. In desperation, many hoped for an invasion to rid them of tyranny.

Ukraine was further devastated by the famine that struck the USSR in 1947—this time alleviated by foreign aid. Applebaum also places the complex interpretations of the famine within the context of Ukraine’s troubled recent history.

Other minorities
The populations of Ukraine (also including Russians, Jews, Poles, Germans) were certainly the worst casualties of the famine: Stalin was waging war not just on recalcitrant peasant individualism but on Ukrainian nationalism. But other minorities also suffered—like the Kazakhs and Kyrghyz, who, when not being deported, were desperately migrating to and from Xinjiang as conditions changed. Bashkirs, Buryats, Khalkas, Chuvash, and Kalmyks were also hard hit (and the efforts of ethnographers to study the cultures of such peoples were frustrated by censorship and imprisonment). Conquest’s ch.14 on Kuban, Don, and Volga—Cossacks of Ukrainian origin, German minorities, and the North Caucasus—leads to further disturbing stories.

Famine in China
Again, the so-called “three years of difficulty” from 1959 to 1961 were not an isolated tragedy: food shortages in the wake of coercive collectivization were long-term. For many in the countryside, it was a case not of three years of famine but of thirty years of hunger. So I’m impatient with any diachronic ethnography of the lives of rural Chinese dwellers that fails to recognize hunger and malnutrition. I’ve cited some basic sources for the Chinese famine here.

LPS 27

Ghost king, Li Peisen collection.

In Yanggao county, home of the Li family Daoists, I recall the satirical couplet posted during the Cultural Revolution, deploring the lack of clothing and food. But even official sources offer clues. While many county gazetteers compiled since the 1980s may be cautious, that for Yanggao contains impressively candid material (pp.66–72, 26–31; see my Daoist priests of the Li family, pp.118–22).

While appearing to recognize the impact of natural disasters, the gazetteer hints at the deeper political problems, with sections on the “Communist wind”, the “wind of exaggeration”, the Great Leap Backward, and the short-lived communal canteens. Indeed, it offers alternative insights on the whole Maoist era—such as its account of the model commune of Greater Quanshan, where in the summer of 1958, amidst a flurry of visits by bigwigs, the brutal exactions of a militarized railroad project goaded five hundred peasants to flee (Daoist priests, pp.122–3). Inner Mongolia, a traditional refuge in times of adversity, was a common destination until travel restrictions were enforced. Yanggao dwellers were still hungry for some years after Li Manshan married in 1971 (see here, under “Yao Xiulian”). For more on the Yanggao county gazetteer, see here.

So that’s the background behind my internet session with Li Manshan, when I showed him the surprisingly candid Chinese wiki article on the Holodomor.

Comparisons, figures
In China the whole process of collectivization, and the famine, make the most appalling instance of wilfully ignoring the lessons of history; both Chinese and Soviet regimes were in denial.

Several scholars have attempted comparisons with the Soviet famines. Ian Johnson has written an important article “Who killed more: Hitler, Stalin, or Mao?” (see also Bloodlands, n.2). Note also

  • Felix Wemheuer, Famine politics in Maoist China and the Soviet Union (2014)

and review essays by Lucien Bianco (also a major author on peasant uprisings under Maoism):

  • “From the great Chinese famine to the Communist famines”, China perspectives 2013.3, here
  • “Comparing the Soviet and Chinese famines: their perpetrators, actors, and victims”, East/West: Journal of Ukrainian Studies 3.2 (2016), here, with many further refs.

Note also

  • Andrea Graziosi and Frank E. Sysyn (eds), Communism and hunger: the Ukrainian, Chinese, Kazakh, and Soviet famines in comparative perspective (2016).

And for a comparison between the famines of Ukraine and Kazakhstan, see here.

It’s ironic that the official story in China, still often parroted there today, was that food shortages were caused by China’s need to repay the Soviet debt (Dikötter, Mao’s great famine, ch.14). And it puts in a chilling perspective my fine lunch at the “1958” restaurant on the People’s University campus in Beijing earlier this year.

In Ukraine and China there was a similar time-lull between famine and renewed terror: in Ukraine from 1933 to 1937, in China from 1960 to 1964. Ukraine suffered a severe post-war famine in 1947, but hunger in China was longer lasting.

Before the famines, rural poverty seems to have been significantly worse in China than in Russia. And (allowing for impressionistic statistics) even in 1926, the literacy rate in Russia was c56%; in China it was still only c20% by 1950. As to life expectancy at birth, for China in 1950, I find a single figure of 35–40 years—lower than that for Ukraine before 1932, for which Applebaum cites: urban men 40–46, urban women 47–52; rural men 42–44 years, rural women 45–48.

By contrast, Ukrainian men born in 1932, in either the city or the countryside, had an average life expectancy of about 30. Women born in that year could expect to live on average to 40. For those born in 1933, the numbers are even starker. Females born in Ukraine in that year lived, on average, to be eight years old. Males born in 1933 could expect to live to the age of five. (Red famine, p.285)

Applebaum cites around 3.9 million excess deaths, plus 0.6 million lost births—around 13% of the Ukrainian population of 31 million. She goes on to delve into regional variations, concluding that

The regions “normally” most affected by drought and famine were less affected in 1932–3 because the famine of those years was not “normal”. It was a political famine, created for the express purpose of weakening peasant resistance, and thus national identity. And in this, it succeeded.

In China from 1959 to 1962 there may have been over 40 million excess deaths (Dikötter, Mao’s great famine, ch.37—Wemhauer and Bianco provide important further nuance); even by percentage of population, that gives a very rough estimate of around 16%, still greater than that for Ukraine. In many villages in both Ukraine and China virtually the whole population was wiped out.

Besides, deaths don’t tell the whole story; even for survivors, lives are ruined by malnutrition, desperation, and trauma.

In China, though extreme violence was also endemic, there was less mass murder, and less pervasive use of the secret police. Other patterns were distressingly similar: resistance to collectivization, raids on non-existent hoards, war on markets, travel restrictions—and denial, then and now. Thaws, retrenchments, strategic retreats were all brief. Warnings were sent all the way up the hierarchy; those given to Mao by Peng Dehuai and the Panchen Lama echo those given by senior Party leaders like Hryhorii Petrovskyi and Martemyan Ryutin to Stalin in 1932. All spoke out in vain, and at great personal cost.

While Ukraine was a specific target of Stalin, under Maoist China Tibetan areas were gravely affected, but Han Chinese suffered just as badly (though note Wemhauer).

While studies such as those of Applebaum and Dikötter inevitably use a broad brush to paint the wider tragedy, the kind of detail afforded by ethnographies of a particular community, like those of ThaxtonFriedman, Pickowicz, and Selden, or Guo Yuhua, is also valuable.

Worldwide, with humane values and truthful reporting under renewed assault, and incitements to hatred ever more common, these histories matter. And for China, I expect such social and political discussions to form an intrinsic part of our studies of expressive culture and ritual, all the more since the topic is still suppressed in public memory. Even as we document the ritual manuals of household ritual specialists, or the melodies of shawm bands, it seems like a basic human duty to record their life stories. All this suffering is deep in the hearts and bones of those who survived.

 

Blind minstrels of Ukraine

Kobzar 1915

Having just been reading about turbulent changing times along the eastern borders of Europe (see also Bloodlands), and to follow my post on blind bards of Shaanbei, here’s more on the maintenance (or destruction) of culture through the state socialist era in Ukraine.

In a stimulating volume that also includes a fine chapter by Nicole Beaudry on fieldwork among the Inuit, William Noll thoughtfully unpacks ways of doing fieldwork on the past, and the multiple voices of ethnography:

  • “Selecting partners: questions of personal choice and problems of history in fieldwork and its interpretation”, in Gregory Barz and Timothy Cooley (eds.), Shadows in the field: new perspectives for fieldwork in ethnomusicology (1997), pp.163–88.

To provide perspectives for my work on China, this ranks alongside some of my other canons—such as Nettl, Small, McClary, Lortat-Jacob, and Bigenho (roundup here).

Noll observes the issues involved in the common case where ethnographers of one cultural heritage conduct fieldwork among a people of  different cultural heritage, but both groups live within the political boundaries of one state—such as Swedes and other Scandinavians among Sami; Americans, Canadians, and Mexicans among Native Americans; Russian fieldworkers in Ukrainian villages; Ukrainian fieldworkers in Russian or Belarussian villages; Hungarians among Slovaks and Romanians; and so on. Further salient, and distressingly topical, instances are Chinese studying the cultures of Uyghurs and Tibetans.

Moreover, educated urban ethnographers are culturally quite different from the peasant populations they study.

Eastern Europe was at the vanguard of early folklore studies, producing an enormous ethnographic literature (one inevitably thinks of Bartók‘s fieldwork throughout eastern Europe, Turkey, and north Africa). Impressively, in Ukraine the itinerant male blind minstrels * accompanying themselves on kobza or bandura plucked lute (kobzari) or lira hurdy-gurdy (lirnyki) were an early object of study. Here you can even hear remasterered cylinder recordings of their duma songs, made between 1904 and 1912. This photo comes from a convention in 1902:

kobzars

As Noll observes, the instruments, repertory, and performance practices of the large-scale sanitized staged bandura ensembles that, from the 1920s, were presented as “traditional” had virtually nothing in common with village music practice—as I keep noting for China, of course (e.g. here, and here).

lirnyki 1939

At the same time, along with other ways of musicking, the minstrels—along with their patrons, and the whole social system that nourished them (life-cycle and calendrical rituals, and so on)—were under attack; no-one was untouched by coerced collectivization and the Holodomor (see e.g. here and here; cf. the Chinese famine of 1959–61).

Holodomor

Holodomor, 1933. Photo: Alexander Wienerberger.

Some of the songs of the kobzari had anti-Soviet overtones, but that was the least of their problems. One author described them as “whiners” and  “smelly riff-raff”. Most of them

were gone from village life by the 1950s, probably eliminated through radical and deliberate repression by state authorities (mostly in the 1920s and 1930s) and through a gradual change in village culture over a period of several decades.

Apart from its effect on social life, this also contributed to the erasing of historical memory. Indeed, the kobzari seem to have been destroyed much more effectively in Ukraine than were the bards under Maoist China, where local cadres showed a certain concern for the welfare of blindmen—which, I should say, is not to excuse their sufferings. In Stalin’s Ukraine, Noll asserts, the imposed network of community centres (“houses of culture”) was largely successful in changing and controlling new norms of expressive culture—again, I’d suggest, by contrast with China. But more brutal techniques were used too:

The methods of proscribing the music of the blind minstrels most often included threats of arrest. Some minstrels were beaten, others apparently arrested or imprisoned. Some starved to death in the purposely engineered famine of 1932–1933, their blindness probably contributing to their losses. Others may have been shot, and many laid down their instruments out of fear or confusion and ceased to perform. Still others survived, and stopped performing only in the 1950s when the state began to provide subsidies for the blind and the handicapped as well as pensions for the elderly in villages.

Robert Conquest’s The harvest of sorrow led me to a reference in Shostakovitch’s Testimony, and to this article, telling how in 1930 or 1933 several hundred kobzari were summoned to a Congress of Folk Singers in Kharkiv—only to be taken to the forest at dead of night and shot. Fortunately I haven’t heard of such stories about the official festivals in 1950s’ China.

Noll gives a nuanced account of cultural realities and cultural authorities over time. This isn’t simply about “salvage“, but must encompass an understanding of what we’re doing when we undertake such work, reflecting mutiple perspectives. While (as in China) research continued through the period, with its particular prescriptive demands, ethnography itself became dangerous. Some scholars were themselves persecuted—like Kateryna Hrushevs’ka, who lost her job in the early 1930s, was sentenced to prison in 1937, and died in a labour camp in 1943; not just the performers but a generation of fieldworkers were virtually wiped out.

Even the brave ethnographers of the period found themselves censoring their own research, in terms of both the people they studied and the subjects of the songs they collected—choosing secular over ritual performance. In China, “reading between the lines“, fieldwork on ritual music under Maoism now looks impressive given such constraints; and upon the liberalizations of the 1980s collectors reversed their approach, with one local fieldworker commenting (Bards of Shaanbei, under “Research and images”):

When I recorded them, I chose anything about Heaven, Earth and Man, and rejected everything about the Party, Chairman Mao, and Socialism!

But even recently, my observation that “religious practice since 1949—whether savagely repressed or tacitly maintained—still appears to be a sensitive issue” has itself been deemed too sensitive in China! Agendas continue to change, as with the reified, secularized mission of the Intangible Cultural Heritage project.

Noll goes on:

I am extremely skeptical of an ethnomusicology or an anthropology of aesthetics that uncritically treats the Stalinist period as if it were unrelated to the present, and these institutions as if they were just another mechanism for state support of expressive culture. Virtually all discussions on cultural authority are in general agreement that the ethnographer needs to place critical value at some point on that which is researched. This ought to include that which is brutally repressed. A respect for the inhabitants of the past is no less appropriate than for the living.

He has a fine project online here. In English, see also

  • Natalie Kononenko, Ukrainian minstrels: why the blind should sing (1998),

and her site here, as well as this site. Note also the Polyphony project, with groupings under region, context, and themes (for an informed review, see Songlines #142). For a beginner’s guide to folk and popular genres in Ukraine, including some CDs of archive recordings and leads to the emigré community in the USA (cf. Accordion crimes), see The Rough Guide to world music: Europe, Asia and Pacific, pp.426–34. And then we might move on the Balkan bards… See also Folk traditions of Poland.

I look forward to seeing this recent DVD on the bandura ensembles. And the feature film The guide (Oles Sanin, 2014) has had great success in Ukraine:

Moving on to the post-Soviet era, for the use of music on the eve of the independence of Ukraine, see

  • Catherine Wanner, “Nationalism on stage; music and change in Soviet Ukraine”, in Mark Slobin (ed.), Retuning culture (1996).

And I like the look of

  • Adriana N. Helbig, Hip hop Ukraine: music, race, and African migration (2014).

 


* In English, scholars tend to use “minstrels” for Ukraine, whereas I went for “bard” in my writings on Shaanbei. “You say potato…“—a suitable vegetable, or légume juste, for both venues.

Between East and West

With my own background, the work of Anne Applebaum often suggests Chinese parallels. I already found her book Iron curtain: the crushing of Eastern Europe 1944–1956 a valuable introduction to this formative period. Rather like Dikötter for post-revolutionary China, she groups her discussion under themes like Victors, Policemen, Youth, Radio, Reluctant collaborators, and Passive opponents.

* * *

EW

Before I get round to reading Applebaum’s Gulag: a history of the Soviet camps, and her recent book Red famine (again, both suggesting Chinese links; for the latter, see here), her

  • Between East and West: across the borderlands of Europe

makes a vivid, accessible picture of a vast area unknown to me, continuing my education from the work of Philippe Sands around Lemberg.

Travelling, um, north to south from Kaliningrad to Odessa, along a kind of faultline from the Baltic to the Black Sea, Applebaum explores in a series of fascinating vignettes the constantly changing border regions of Poland, Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine, and Moldova; Ruthenia, the Bukovyna, and Bessarabia.

map

I suppose I’m not alone in my ignorance—such work serves as a corrective to a simplistic British East–West perspective:

Whole nations were forgotten: within a few decades the West no longer remembered that anything other than “Russia” lay beyond the Polish border.

In her introduction to the 2015 reissue, Applebaum observes that it began to seem out of date very soon after its first publication in 1994:

Meandering discussions of history and identity that seemed so important in 1991 or 1992 began to feel irrelevant as the new states in the region took very different paths.

But she has wisely refrained from trying to update the book. As she comments, her descriptions now take on another significance as history—“a record of an experience that can never happen again” (which is always true, of course—like our notes from 1990s’ Hebei).

The people I met on that trip are doubtless more worldly, more busy, maybe more confident, maybe more cynical than when I met them. They would no longer treat me like an emissary from another world, and I would no longer perceive them, as I did then, as exotic and strange. But in 1991, this is what I was, and this is what they were.

* * *

Much of the region was still quite isolated. Long unstable, it remains so, with a history of linguistic complexities, deportations, cycles of hatred and revenge, atrocities—and the constant spectre of the Jewish heritage. Wider entities such as Poland or Russia are often buried under local allegiances.

Applebaum’s comments on architecture often remind me of China too. In Kaliningrad—populated by Russians, Lithuanians, Latvians, Estonians, Belarussians, Ukrainians, Armenians, Uzbeks, and Azerbaijanis—and once a German city,

wherever one looked, there was nothing to see but high walls of concrete and steel.

But it was not the clean, crisp concrete and steel of New York or Los Angeles. Here the tall buildings were cracked, broken, and sagging, as if prematurely aged. Their walls were pockmarked with dirt and building flaws, their windows were broken, their facades had grown black from pollution. Although already in a state of advanced deterioration, few appeared to be complete. Great hunks of concrete, rusted piping, wire, and sheets of plate glass covered with masking tape lay strewn about on the mud beside them. Piles of broken brick stood beside doors whose hinges were already rusted. Thick green fungus covered half-built walkways. Whole avenues were partially paved or blocked off for repair, heaps of dirt and sand covered the grass in the parks.

Occasionally, signs of another, older, order poked through the wreckage of the new. In one place, a concrete sidewalk came to an abrupt end, suddenly revealing a well-laid cobblestone road lying just beneath its surface; somewhere else, an old building leaned sideways in an empty lot, surrounded by nothing.

In Minsk too the 20th century had taken its toll:

After the baroque extravagance of Vilnius, the remote silence of the countryside, and the slow silence of the pastel-colored villages, the suburbs of Minsk came as a shock: dirty concrete apartment blocks lining the highway, muddy courtyards, ancient trams, people scurrying through the long shadows cast by the tall buildings.

The city center wasn’t much better. On the morning I arrived, Minsk seemed to be suffocating in its own dirt. Visible grains of black pollution floated through the air, and a thin film of black grease lay over the buildings and sidewalks. Plumes of purple smoke puffed out of the cars, the factories, the chimneys of the apartment blocks, the cigarettes in the mouths of pedestrians. Everywhere there were crowds: crowds lining up for bread, crowds waiting for the broken-down buses, crowds pushing and shoving one another across the wide streets.

But even here, in a city deprived of history and soul, she finds

the low murmur of a people discovering, or rediscovering—or perhaps inventing—who they were.

Reminding me of Kundera‘s comments on the exploitation of folk ritual and music, a young idealist comments,

“Kitsch—they gave us fake peasant culture: mass-produced dolls for tourists, cheap wooden spoons. And all the time they were destroying the real peasant culture, shutting down workshops, telling people to give up carving and join the Communist Party.”

Here too Applebaum explores the city’s lost Jewish culture—and again when she visits Kobrin, home of her great-grandfather, who had fled conscription to make a life in America.

She learns of scholarly warfare over a phantom 1930s’ manuscript said to prove that Lithuanian had once been the dominant culture of western Belarus. In Paberžė she meets Father Stanislovas, who has filled his house with relics of early Lithuanian culture, “waging his own war against conformity, against enforced equality”.

In south Lithuania the short-lived Independent Republic of Perloja was declared in 1918—reminiscent of Passport to Pimlico. By the 1940s the region was invaded by the Soviets and Nazis. The widow of a resistance hero who had disappeared into the forests then, having herself languished in Siberia for fifteen years, still hopes that he will emerge.

Applebaum hears complex, conflicting claims about history and ethnicity. In Bieniakonie, Pan Michal tells her

“Eh,” he said, waving his hands in disgust, “these people here aren’t Polish or Russian or Belarussian or Lithuanian or anything, they are Bieniakonian.”

She comes across scenes of massacres, like the 1,137 “peaceful Soviet citizens” (actually Jews) murdered by the Nazis in Radun in 1942.

Nearby in Nowogródek she inadvertently spends the night as guest of a devout ancient grandmother, who had suffered under successive invasions and remained desperately poor, yet turns out to have remained virulently anti-semitic. When Applebaum takes her to task,

The old woman’s features shriveled in confusion, and I felt suddenly sorry for her. She was ignorant, poor, and dirty; her life had been one long series of misfortunes. The world into which she had been born was well and truly dead, and she had witnessed its passing. […] Why argue with her?

Such an uncomfortable confrontation has shades of Timothy Garton Ash’s conflicted encounters in The file with people who had once informed on him.

Learning of the “many Ukraines”, Applebaum explores Bukovyna, Bessarabia, and Transcarpathian Ruthenia. As she visits L’viv (heart of Philippe Sands’s account) she is at first impressed by the Habsburg legacy, but

After a while I began to be wary of it. L’viv was part of the borderlands, and the same historical breaks, the same mass murders, the same shuffling of peoples back and forth across borders had affected the city like all other borderland cities.

Through a crime reporter she glimpses the murky underworld of the city.

For me, all this might be a starting-point for exploring the background of the late lamented Natasha, if I could ever begin to broach it.

Moving down towards the Balkans, in Chernivtsi

the city’s Romanian Hungarian Ukrainian Polish Jewish German essence seemed capable of outliving any empire.

Here she talks with a professor who finds the city’s isolation conducive to a wholesome life. But in the island town of Kamanets Podolsky (also the subject of ch.2 of Anna Reid’s Borderland) her hosts are less contented. Once proud, it had long been in decay. Its decline reminds her of Venice:*

Walls sagged, potholes grew wider, houses fell down. […] The town authorities tried to grow trees in the central square, but failed: so many centuries of rubble were buried beneath it that nothing came up except scrawny shrubs. […] Laundry hung from the ancient walls, and garbage lay in the streets.

She doesn’t mention that Kamanets Podolsky was the site of yet another massacre over two days in August 1941, when troops under German command murdered over 26,000 Jews.

By contrast with Minsk, Applebaum finds that Kishinev (now Moldovan, sometimes Polish, Turkish, Russian, Bessarabian, Romanian; site of vicious anti-semitic pogroms), “was not even especially ugly”.

She ends up in the cosmopolitan port of Odessa, created by immigrants, leading to yet more cultural worlds.

* * *

For the southern leg of Applebaum’s travels, Kapka Kassabova‘s more recent travel writings also seek to get to grips with ethnic and cultural diversity. I suppose Patrick Leigh Fermor is a predecessor of such authors. I often find his precocious prose ponderous, and Vesna Goldsworthy unpacked his “othering” nostalgia in Inventing Ruritania: the imperialism of the imagination (1998); but Neil Ascherson (always worth reading for the wider region) is more measured (see this review).

* * *

Of course, throughout the globe—even in nations that seem to have achieved some kind of lasting stability—there are always border areas with skeletons of traumatic histories, great and little traditions, cultural faultlines. Only quite recently, vast areas of south and west China have had to learn to accommodate with the power of the nation-state, while their own allegiances remain ambiguous.

One might also think of the medieval kingdoms of central Asia, or indeed the city-states absorbed not so long ago (more effectively, with rather less trauma) into Germany and Italy. “Between East and West”—central in the vast land-mass, but marginal in our conceptual world; while it seems unlikely that we could give a central place to such regions, they make a salutary case.

Meanwhile traditional soundscapes, a crucial part of social life, suffered along with other regional cultures, and will make a further absorbing project for me. For the blind minstrels of Ukraine, see here.

 

*Such descriptions might be the cue for a party game on post-Brexit Britain. See also here.

 

 

 

 

A Nazi legacy

*UPDATED!*

EW street

While visiting Sachsenhausen recently I was reading Philippe Sands’ brilliant book East West street. In my post on Sands’ splendid Private Passions I mentioned his film What our fathers did: a Nazi legacy, based on his extraordinary journey with the sons of two Nazi criminals who took utterly different stances on their fathers—essential viewing:

East West street is a kind of detective story, as Sands breaks through the silence to unearth gripping personal accounts developing from the remarkable Lviv (Lemberg) connection of two architects of mass murder (Hans Frank and Otto von Wächter—both, ironically, lawyers); of two legal scholars who developed a means of prosecuting it (Hersch Lauterpacht and Rafael Lemkin); and of the author’s own decimated family. Sands’ grandfather Leon Buchholz was almost the sole survivor from his entire extended family, making his home in Paris—and since he never talked about it, Sands had to do a vast amount of research.

Leon

Leon Buchholz (1904–97).

This also makes a good way of describing the debate (formulated at the Nuremberg trials) over how to define genocide and crimes against humanity, group and individual responsibility, which Sands is exceptionally well qualified to explain.

“Social inequalities coursed through Lemberg’s streets, built on foundations of xenophobia, racism, group identity and conflict”. In Ukraine he also visits the brave display at a museum in Zólkiew, where over three thousand Jewish inhabitants were murdered; here, by contrast to the memorial sites in Germany, the complexities of history are still highly sensitive. The film broaches the 2014 Ukraine unrest, and its complex links to the Nazi background.

Sands notes Britain’s objection to US President Wilson’s 1919 proposal to protect minorities, “fearful that similar rights would then be granted to other groups, including American negroes, Southern Irish, Flemings and Catalans”.(72)

After Lauterpacht sought refuge in England, arriving in Grimsby in 1923 with his musician wife Rachel, Sands notes his conservative views on gender: “individual rights for some, but not for the mother or the wife”. (83)

The stories of other characters are moving too, like that of Elsie Tilney, who brought Sands’ mother from Vienna to Paris in summer 1939 (117–36). He visits Lauterpacht’s niece Inka Katz, who in 1942, aged 12, witnessed the arrival of Hans Frank in Lemberg, saw her parents snatched away, and survived only by going into hiding and entering a convent:

Seventy years on, she retained a sense of discomfort. One woman, coming to terms with a feeling that somehow she had abandoned her group to save herself.” (102–4)

The Matthew Passion, which Sands chose in his Private passions, was a touchstone shared, with bitter irony, by both Lauterpacht and Frank (106, 302). The words of Frank’s devoted wife are chilling:

“He is an artist, a great artist, with a pure and delicate soul. Only such an artist as he can rule over Poland.” (223)

Sands even finds lyrics to a song by Richard Strauss in honour of Frank—the score “disappeared”, no doubt for good reasons of reputation. (253)

Otto von Wächter’s son Horst takes a similarly disturbing tack:

“My father was a good man, a liberal who did his best. Others would have been worse.” (242–6)

Conversely, Niklas Frank is justly proud of his utter repudiation of his own father (“what a beautiful castle—full of criminals”). It’s this impasse that forms the core of Sands’ film.

As Sands pores over family photo albums with Horst,

I was transported back seventy years to the heart of an appalling regime. But Horst was looking at these images with a different eye from mine. I see a man who’s probably been responsible for the killing of tens of thousands of Jews and Poles. Horst looks at the same photographs and he sees a beloved father playing with the children, and he’s thinking that  was family life.

As Sands and Niklas confront Horst—“friendly, warm, talkative”—with more and more documents proving the involvement of his father in mass extermination, their conversation deepens. In one of the most excruciating scenes in the film—in the very room where Hans Frank proudly announced the Grosse Aktion to enthusiastic applause from Horst’s father—Horst keeps wriggling out of all the evidence with which Sands confronts him. He always manages to find a way to sanitize the material, only able to describe it as “unpleasant” or “tragic”. (248–51)

Nazi legacy trio

While they all get on remarkably well, Sands can’t help revealing his exasperation:

Horst fills me with despair. I cannot accept that approach. It’s not just the lawyer in me, concerned with how one treats evidence, it’s much more personal than that: when I hear him speak of his father’s good character and actions, I hear him to be justifying the killing of my grandfather’s entire family.

Further to tourism,

In the midst of the killing, and still worrying about his marriage, Frank managed to find the time to implement another bright idea: he invited the famous Baedeker publishing company to produce a travel guide for the General Government to encourage visitors. Baedeker hoped the book might “convey” an impression of the tremendous work of organization and construction accomplished by Frank. […] The visitor would benefit from great improvements the province and cities having “acquired a different appearance”, German culture and architecture once more accessible. Maps and city plans were modernized, names Germanized, all in accordance with Frank’s decrees. […] A million or more Jews had been erased. (246–7)

Sands moves onto the capture of Frank and the Nuremberg trials, with the harrowing testimony of witnesses like Samuel Rajman (303–5). Frank appears to show more regret than most of the defendants, declaring “A thousand years will pass and still this guilt of Germany will not have been erased” (308–11); but, as with Fritz Stangl, his position remained elusive to the end (357–8).

The final section of the book discusses the judgement—indeed judgement itself. A vignette from Rebecca West, who took time off from attending the trials to visit a nearby village, meeting a German woman who

launched into a litany of complaints about the Nazis. They had posted foreign workers near the village, “two thousand wretched cannibals, scum of the earth, Russians, Balks, Balts, Slavs”. This women was interested in the trial, didn’t object to it, but she did so wish they hadn’t appointed a Jew as chief prosecutor. Pressed to explain, the woman identified David Maxwell Fyfe as the offending individual. When Rebecca West protested the error, the woman responded curtly, “Who would call his son David, but a Jew?” (367)

Niklas Frank, then 7, remembers the day his father was taken to the gallows. He finds his repentant display at the trial insincere, noting that he later recanted his “confession”.

Frank dead“I am opposed to the death penalty,” he said without emotion, “except for my father.” […] “He was a criminal.”

He takes out a faded photo of his father taken a few minutes after the hanging. “Every day I look at this. To remind me, to make sure that he is dead.”
As Sands notes, denial remains common today. In a telling scene near the end of the film, the three visit a neo-Nazi commemorative rally in Ukraine (accompanied by a folkloristic ensemble, I note), where Horst and Niklas—sons of mass murderers—are warmly welcomed. Worldwide, the need for truth remains constant, urgent.

* * *

Sands is no less compelling on radio. In his major recent ten-part series Intrigue: the ratline on BBC Radio 4, by contrast with Frank’s well-documented fate, he gives a disturbing update on the murky post-war story of Otto von Wächter. He provides ample recaps (as in the chilling title of episode 3, “A lot going on in Lemberg”), with the aid of the “parallel universe” of the memoirs of Wächter’s beloved wife Charlotte. With much further forensic sleuthing he goes on to investigate Wächter’s mysterious fate in Italy, as the role of the Catholic church in helping Nazi fugitives evade justice leads to a extraordinary story of espionage. And still Horst seeks to defend his father’s reputation.

Life in the GDR, 2

Notes from Berlin, 2

In Berlin a couple of weeks ago, apart from my visit to Sachsenhausen I was keen to explore the city’s GDR history, moving on into the 1950s and beyond—the Stasi memorial sites (as the Rough guide notes) making a potent antidote to the trendy Ostalgie of Trabi kitsch. Here my experience of China, learning to empathize with “sufferers” there (Guo Yuhua, after Bourdieu), feels all the more relevant.

To limber up I took the U-Bahn to Alex, which I can’t presume to call by such a familiar name.

Alexanderplatz: the Weltzeituhr and Fernsehturm (1969), with the 13th-century Marienkirche—not leaning towers, more an innocent trompe-l’oeil of my camera…

My splendid host Ian Johnson (whose own writings are a must-read on both China and Germany) made a fine guide for a trip along the remnants of the wall, Checkpoint Charlie and so on.

Berlin divided 1945

We passed the Staatsoper, where I performed Elektra in 1980. How shamefully little I knew then, and how limited was my curiosity. Throughout my recent visit to Berlin it finally hits me how very pampered our lives have been compared to the painful decisions that our German contemporaries constantly had to make.

Do click on these links, from a fine series of short films tracing the timeline of the Wall:

Meanwhile Timothy Garton Ash was beginning his long acquaintance with the regime.

Stasi memorial sites
I visited both the Stasi prison and the Stasi museum. Though they’re not so far apart in the Lichtenburg district, I wouldn’t advise trying to do both in one day—the prison tour is excellent, and even by spending the rest of the day there I still only saw a small part of its exhibits. While the museum is less taxing than the prison, its location has retained a more suitably grim, bleak, forbidding air. As in Sachsenshausen, it’s wonderful that these sites are so busy, with many school parties—though I didn’t see any Chinese tour groups among them…

1953 poster

Just a few months before I was born, the major popular uprising of 17th June 1953 throughout the GDR (wiki, and a wealth of online sites, notably here), documented in both exhibitions, is far less known abroad than Budapest 1956 and Prague 1968. Needless to say, the popular uprisings of June 1989 in China are not so called there.

Studying the exhibits of perpetrators and victims, one continues to deplore the appalling ethical morass caused by Nazism—what a terrible price to pay throughout the following decades. Again, what would we have done?

Guides

Some of the eyewitnesses guiding visitors around the site.

At the Stasi prison (Gedenkstätte memorial) of Hohenschönhausen (formerly a Soviet special camp) the team of wonderful tour guides includes many former inmates; though our guide that day wasn’t among them, he gave us passionate articulate reminders of how crucially important it is to learn lessons amidst the current erosion of crucial rights worldwide.

Klier

Freya Klier and Stephan Krawczyk.

There were many strands to the counter-culture in literature and music. Icons of the resistance in the arts became figureheads, like singer-songwriters Wolf Biermann (b.1936, exiled in 1976) and Bettina Wegner (b.1947); Bärbel Bohley (1945–2010), whose 1978 painting Nude makes a striking image in the prison; performers Freya Klier (b.1950) and Stephan Krawczyk (b.1955); and Jürgen Fuchs (1950–99). For subversive film in the GDR, see here.

But just as moving in the prison is the series of mugshots of ordinary people making a stand, trying to escape, or just caught up in the maelstrom.

Lives 2

Lives 5

Lives 7

Lives 1

Lives 3

Lives 4

Lives 6

However much I admire our own posturing counter-cultural heroes, all this can only make them seem bland and smug. Sure, the punk movement in London, New York, and so on was important—more so than my life in early music, anyway, though that was also new (“original”!). But apart from getting abused in the Daily Mail, the punk life in the UK hardly involved such serious risks. For the GDR punks, [1] the “fascist regime” casually snarled by the Sex pistols would have had a far deeper resonance (cf. punk in Madrid, and jazz in Poland).

Stasi terms

who is who

The Stasi museum also has exhibits on the vast network of IM informants—including punks. The Stasi even managed to recruit two of them in the band Die Firma“it is not known whether they both knew each other’s secret”. Of course, the “decision” to inform, framed by self-preservation or desperation, and with whatever degree of apathy, was itself no simple matter.

punk straight

Die Firma, with Tatjana Besson, 1988.

Here they are live in 1988:

Punks

wedding

Wedding at Jena, 1983: the couple’s friend was informing on them,

But the most basic routine parts of growing up were fraught with anxiety.

kindergarten

Alternative kindergarten, Prenzlauer Berg 1980–83.

school 1988

“Learning differently”, evening school 1988.

The Christian resistance was another crucial focus right through to the 1989 Montag demos that brought the whole system down. The pastor Oskar Brüsewitz burned himself to death in protest in August 1976—just as I was spending an idyllic summer after graduating (cf. Alan Bennett’s wry comment).
Pastor

Also explored at the museum is the psychology of the Stasi employees.

Stasi comments

The whole second floor of the museum preserves the offices of Erich Mielke, head of this whole hideous edifice. It’s a riot of beige and formica (cf. Deutschland 89, scenes of which were filmed there). Mielke’s diagram of the layout for his breakfast is a masterpiece of pedantry—of which, I have to say, my father would have approved.

Mielke breakfast

The diagram has now been cannily immortalized in a mouse-pad, one of the few concessions to modernity in the museum’s suitably antiquated little bookshop—Is Nothing Sacred?

As throughout the socialist bloc (including China), for bitter relief, jokes always made a subversive outlet.

The museum also tellingly depicts the scramble of people all over the east to limit the destruction of Stasi files after November 1989.

* * *

It’s little consolation to reflect that the GDR was surely exceptional in its degree of surveillance, even in East Europe. And in such a vast and predominantly agrarian country as China, for all the horrors of Maoism, and the current intrusive mission, “the mountains are high, the emperor is distant”.

Again it’s worth citing Timothy Garton Ash:

Precisely because German lawmakers and judges know what it was like to live in a Stasi state, and before that in a Nazi one, they have guarded these things more jealously than we, the British, who have taken them for granted. You value health more when you have been sick.
I say again: of course Britain is not a Stasi state. We have democratically elected representatives, independent judges and a free press, through whom and with whom these excesses can be rolled back. But if the Stasi now serves as a warning ghost, scaring us into action, it will have done some good after all.

And again, I both recoil at this horror that was perpetuated right through my naïve youth, and admire the German determination to document it for future generations.

[1] Among a wealth of coverage of punk in the GDR, see e.g.
https://www.dw.com/en/you-should-be-gassed-what-it-meant-to-be-punk-in-east-germany/a-51163866
https://www.europavox.com/news/anarchy-e-u-east-german-punk/
https://www.jugendopposition.de/themen/145334/too-much-future-punk-in-der-ddr
http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p056srhr
http://punkintheddr.blogspot.co.uk/2012/10/post-1-ost-punkszene.html?view=sidebar
For the 1988 documentary Whisper & SHOUT, see here.

Bearing witness 2: Sachsenhausen

Notes from Berlin, 1

Appell

Roll-call at Sachsenhausen, February 1941.

Screening my film in Berlin last week gave me the chance to explore a city that I hardly knew. It seems timely to negotiate a new place, a new transport network—I was beginning to feel that I can only find my way from my house to Li Manshan’s village.

Rather than some anodyne heritage flapdoodle à la chinoise, here I’ll introduce Sachsenhausen concentration camp, with a sequel on Stasi sites in Berlin itself.

* * *

Having been so moved by Sarah Hel