Ghosts of the Gulag

You were taken away at dawn. I followed you
As one does when a corpse is being removed.
Children were crying in the darkened house.
A candle flared, illuminating the Mother of God…
The cold of an icon was on your lips
A death-cold sweat on your brow –
I will never forget this; I will gather
To wail with the wives of the murdered streltsy
Inconsolably, beneath the Kremlin towers.
Anna Akhmatova, Moscow 1935

Russian author and historian Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn‘s three volume The Gulag Archipelago was completed fifty years ago. It was published five years later, with an English translation the following year. It covered life in the gulag, the Soviet forced labour camp system, in a narrative constructed from a variety sources – reports, interviews, statements, diaries, legal documents – and Solzhenitsyn’s own experience as a zek, a gulag prisoner – famously if excruciatingly retold in his chilling, literally and figuratively, and yet brief, autobiographical One Day In The Life of Ivan Denisovich.

Following its publication in the west, the book circulated in underground samizdat publication in the Soviet Union until its appearance in the literary journal Novy Mir in 1989. Since the dissolution of the Soviet UnionThe Gulag Archipelago has been officially published in Solzhenitsyn’s own country, and since 2009, it has been mandatory reading in Russian school curricula.

A 50th anniversary edition was released on November 1st, 2018 with a forward by Jordan Petersen, the Canadian psychologist, author, and poster-boy – a kind of thinking person’s Milo Yiannopoulos – for many on the conservative side of politics who rant and rave about the existential threat to western civilization and Judeo-Christan values posed by the triple headed Cerberus of political correctness, identity politics and value signaling that has ensorcelled the hearts and minds of the youthful, radical, emotional, university left and their mentors and their sinister svengalis in academe and media. There is almost a “Reds under the beds”  paranoia at play here in which is that communism and all it’s works are a kind of secular succubus, and that impressionable youngsters and deluded oldsters must be exorcised of false and failed promises.

Petersen’s forward is actually a good read, if somewhat overblown, slanted, jumbled and repetitive, long on opinion and short on historical memory. For example, whilst Karl Marx, Josef Stalin and Mao Zedong, and also Cuba, Cambodia and Venezuela come in for a predictable and justified bollocking, there is no mention at all of their ideological opposites, the equally repugnant and brutal authoritarian regimes of Hitler, Mussolini and Franco, and numerous right wing tyrants the world over – although admittedly, these in no way matched the rigour and discipline and the pervasive and pernicious social and psychological control of the ‘peoples’ republics’. Nor, apart from an acknowledgement that brutal excesses are common to all regimes, is there a balanced recognition that capitalism can be as corrupt and exploitative and as red in tooth and claw as communism.

I’ve republished an edited extract of the forward below as it is worth reminding readers of Solzhenitsyn’s significant contribution to our understanding of recent history and of the resilience of the human spirit and the courage of the flesh and blood “souls in torment” who run the gauntlet of man’s inhumanity to man and emerge at the far end bloodied but unbowed. But Bob Dylan said it better in his shimmering anthem Chimes of Freedom;

Tolling for the aching whose wounds cannot be nursed
For the countless confused, accused, misused, strung-out ones an’ worse
An’ for every hung-up person in the whole wide universe
An’ we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing

I have included the online comments on Petersen’s piece as these encapsulate the good, the bad and the ugly of ostensibly informed opinion among the readership of Rupert Murdoch’s redoubtable and often cogent flagship, The Australian. Some display binary groupthink and an almost Pavlovian approbation replete with predictable, tired epithets about left-wingers and Labor/Labour politicians. Others are more nuanced and better informed. Most surprising and indeed disturbing is that few readers appear to know much about the subject matter – namely the history of the Soviet Union and of Solzhenitsyn’s journey, including the story of the Bolshevik revolution, of Lenin and Stalin, the purges of the ‘thirties and ‘forties, and the gulag itself – an institution that was actually initiated by the Czars. Few appear to have heard of let alone read any of Solzhenitsyn’s novels, nor indeed any of the many published accounts of  the Stalin years. I would wager that this dearth of knowledge and perspective is a reflection of the weakening of historical memory among the wider populace as such momentous events and eras recede further and further into the past.

By strange symmetry, I have recently reread historian Robert Conquest’s tombstone of a book, The Great Terror, a relentless narrative of arrests, trials, fabricated confessions, hostage-taking, deportations, torture and executions as Stalin consolidated his rule, eliminated enemies real and imagined, and created his own model of a socialist state.

It commenced with the elimination of the Old Bolsheviks, his former comrades in arms, and then expanded to embrace all in the party and society at large who may or may not have shared his vision. Intellectuals, philosophers, writers, poets, musicians, priests, scientists, academics, teachers,  civil servants, workers and peasants, and the Red Army’s Officer Corps – a contributing factor to the Soviet Union’s need to make a pact with Nazi Germany in 1939 and its disastrously slow response to Hitlers invasion in June 1941.

An estimated death toll is difficult to determine. In those dark days, people simply disappeared, and the NKVD covered its tracks well. The official number for the “Great Purge” of 1936 to 1938 stands at 1,548,366 detained persons, of whom 681,692 were shot – an average of 1,000 executions a day. Various historians claim that the real number of victims could be twice as much.

But the the arrests, executions, and deportations commenced as early as 1930 and continued right up until Stalin’s death in 1953. Conquest, in his The Great Terror: A Reassessment does the gloomy math: 1930-36, 7 million; 1937-1938, 3 million; 1039-53, 10 million. The number of deaths in the Soviet Union that were explicitly ordered by someone – in other words, the number of executions – is actually relatively low at around 1.5 million. The majority of the deaths were caused by neglect or repressive policies – for example, those who died in the Soviet gulags, those who died while being deported, and German civilians and Prisoners of War are believed to have perished while under Soviet guard.

The numbers who were transported, exiled, displaced, and scattered to concentration camps or far-eastern towns and villages were likewise incalculable. as the brother of Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago comments in the final scenes of David Lean’s beautiful but flawed movie)

There is a myriad of books and films about these events. Wikipedia is as good a place as any to start. Robert Conquest’s is the most acclaimed – and rightly so. Then there is Arthur Koestler’s chilling novel, Darkness at Noon, published in 1940, which recounts the thoughts of an Old Bolshevik as he awaits death in the execution cells:

A shapeless figure bent over him, he smelt the fresh lrather of the revolver belt: but what insignia did the figure wear on the sleeves and shoulder-straps of its uniform – and in whose name did it raised the dark pistol barrel?

As for movies, there’s always David Lean’s Doctor Zhivago, which realistically albeit melodramatically portrays the choices and compromises confronting ordinary, intellectual Russians in the years of revolution and civil war. But I would highly recommend the poignant but powerful Burnt by the Sun, a 1994 film by Russian director and screenwriter Nikita Mikhailkov and Azerbaijani screenwriter Rustam Ibragimbekov. The film depicts the story of a senior officer (played by Mikhalkov) and his family during the purge of the Red Army.

And there was the poet Anna Akhmatova, whose words open this piece, bearing sad witness to the imprisoned, the deported, the disappeared and the dead – including in their number, two husbands and her only son – memorializing the suffering of herself, her family and millions of her compatriots in her tortured testament, Requiem.

Russia’s Stations of the Cross did not cease with the end of the Terror. Three years latrer came Operation Barbarossa and the German invasion of the Soviet Union, the rapid blitzkreig that took the Wehrmacht to the gates of Leningrad, Moscow and Stalingrad, and the bloody clawback that brought the Red Army to Berlin and to take captive the peoples of Eastern Europe.

Over twenty five million Soviet citizens died during the Great Patriotic War, of which just under ten million were military. Most died as a direct result of the military conflict that ranged from the Baltic to the Caucasus. But miilions also perished at the hands of the NKVD and in the forced mass deportations of “suspect” peoples, including the Volga Germans and the Crimean Tartars.

At wars’ end, the Terror rolled on, albeit at a lower setting. Josef Stalin remained suspicious, vengeful and paranoid, and the purges continued right up  until the moment he departed this mortal coil (as depicted in dubious slapstick in Armando Iannucci‘s recent The Death of Stalin).

Many, many Red Army soldiers who had been taken captive by the Nazis were arrested on their return from captivity. Many were shot for ‘desertion’, and thousands sent to the Gulags. Whether they had surrendered or had been subdued and taken captive, often as fast-moving battle fronts left them stranded, abandoned and entrapped behind enemy lines, they were deemed cowards, traitors and enemies of the Soviet Union and its people. They were moreover doubly damned. Whether from behind the wire of concentration camps or as slave labourers in German mines, fields and factories, they had witnessed, come into contact with, and had been contaminated by the world outside.

Which is where Solzhenitsyn came in.

But but first, English songwriter Al Stewart’s tribute to  Solzhenitsyn and those like him who were ill-paid for their service and sacrifice.

I’m coming home, I’m coming home, now you can taste it in the wind, the war is over
And I listen to the clicking of the train-wheels as we roll across the border
And now they ask me of the time that I was caught behind their lines and taken prisoner
“They only held me for a day, a lucky break, ” I say they turn and listen closer
I’ll never know, I’ll never know why I was taken from the line and all the others
To board a special train and journey deep into the heart of holy Russia
And it’s cold and damp in the transit camp, and the air is still and sullen
And the pale sun of October whispers the snow will soon be coming
And I wonder when I’ll be home again and the morning answers “Never”
And the evening sighs, and the steely Russian skies go on forever

The Gulag Archipelago confirmed the horrors of the Soviet Union

Jordan Petersen, The Australian 17th November 2018

First, you defend your homeland against the Nazis, serving as a twice-decorated soldier on the Eastern front in the criminally ill-prepared Soviet Red Army. Then you’re arrested, humiliated, stripped of your military rank, charged under the auspices of the all-purpose Article 58 with the dissemination of “anti-Soviet propaganda”, and dragged off to Moscow’s infamous Lubyanka prison. There, through the bars of your cell, you watch your beloved country celebrating its victory in the Great Patriotic War. Then you’re sentenced, in absentia, to eight years of hard labour (but you got away easy; it wasn’t so long ­afterwards that people in your ­position were awarded a “tenner” — and then a quarter of a century!). And fate isn’t finished with you yet — not by any means. You develop a deadly cancer in the camp, endure the exile imposed on you after your imprisonment ends, and pass very close to death.

Despite all this, you hold your head high. You refuse to turn against man or God, although you have every reason to do so. You write, instead, secretly, at night, documenting your terrible experiences. You craft a personal memoir — a single day in the labour camps — and, miracle of miracles! The clouds part! The sun shines through! Your book is published, and in your own country! It meets with unparalleled acclaim, nationally and internationally. But the sky darkens, once again, and the sun disappears. The repression ­returns. You become (once again) a “non-person”. The secret police — the dread KGB — seize the manuscript of your next book. It sees the light of day, nonetheless; but only in the West. There your reputation grows beyond the wild­est of imaginings. The Nobel committee itself bestows upon you its highest literary honour.

The Soviet authorities, stripped of their camouflage, are enraged. They order the secret police to poison you. You pass (once again) near death. But you continue to write: driven, solitary, intolerably inspired. Your The Gulag Archipelago documents the absolute and utter corruption of the dogmas and doctrines of your state, your empire, your leaders — and yourself. And then: that is printed, too! Not in your own country but in the West — once again — from copies oh-so-dangerously hidden and smuggled across the borders. And your great book bursts with unparalleled and dreadful force into the still naive and unexpecting literary and intellectual world. You are expelled from the Soviet Union, stripped of your citizenship, forced to take residency in a society both strange to you and resistant, in its own way, to your prophetic words. But the power of your stories and the strength of your morals ­demolish any remaining claims to ethical and philosophical credibility still made by the defenders of the collectivist system that gave rise to all that you witnessed.

Years pass (but not so many, from the perspective of history). Then? Another miracle! The Soviet Union collapses! You return home. Your citizenship is restored. You write and speak in your ­reclaimed homeland until death claims you, in 2008. A year later The Gulag Archipelago is deemed mandatory reading by those ­responsible for establishing the national school curriculum of your home country. Your impossible victory is complete.

The three volumes of The Gulag Archipelago — one continuous, extended scream of outrage — are, paradoxically, brilliant, bitter, disbelieving and infused with awe: awe at the strength characterising the best among us, in the worst of all situations. In that monumental text, published in 1973, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn conducted “an experiment in literary investigation” — a hybrid of journalism, history and biography, ­unlike anything written ­before or since. In 1985 the author bestowed his approval upon ­Edward E. Ericson Jr’s single-­volume abridgment — republished here on the 50th anniversary of the completion of the full three-volume edition and centenary of the author’s birth — and sold 30 million copies in 35 languages. Between the pages of Solzhenitsyn’s book — apart from the documentation of the horrors of the legions of the dead, counted and uncounted, and the masses whose lives were torn asunder — are the innumerable soul-chilling personal stories, carefully preserved, making the tragedy of mass betrayal, torture and death not the mere statistic Stalin so disdainfully described but individual, real and terrible.

It is a matter of pure historical fact that The Gulag Archipelago played a primary role in bringing the Soviet Empire to its knees. ­Although economically unsustainable, ruled in the most corrupt manner imaginable, and reliant on the slavery and enforced deceit of its citizens, the Soviet system managed to stumble forward through far too many decades before being cut to the quick. The courageous leaders of the labour unions in ­Poland, the great Pope John Paul II and the American president ­Ronald Reagan, with his blunt insistence that the West faced an evil empire, all played their role in its defeat and collapse. It was Solzhenitsyn, however, whose revelations made it positively shameful to defend not just the Soviet state but the very system of thought that made that state what it was. It was Solzhenitsyn who most crucially made the case that the terrible excesses of communism could not be conveniently blamed on the corruption of the Soviet leadership, the “cult of personality” surrounding Stalin or the failure to put the otherwise stellar and admirable utopian principles of Marxism into proper practice. It was Solzhenitsyn who demonstrated that the death of millions and the devastation of many more were, instead, a direct causal consequence of the philosophy (worse, perhaps: the theology) driving the communist system. The hypothetically egalitarian, universalist doctrines of Karl Marx contained hidden ­within them sufficient hatred, ­resentment, envy and denial of ­individual culpability and respon­sibility to produce nothing but poison and death when manifested in the world.

Solzhenitsyn, the day of his release in 1953 after 8 years in prison.

For Marx, man was a member of a class, an economic class, a group — that, and little more — and history nothing but the battleground of classes, of groups. His admirers regarded (continue to ­regard) Marx’s doctrine as one of compassion — moral by definition, virtuous by fiat: “consider the working classes, in all their ­oppression, and work forthrightly to free them”. But hate may well be a stronger and more compelling motivator than love. In consequence, it took no time, in the ­aftermath of the Russian Revolution, for solidarity with the common man and the apparently laudable demand for universal equality to manifest its unarticulated and ever-darkening shadow. First came the most brutal indictment of the “class enemy”. Then came the ever-expanding definition of that enemy, until every single person in the entirety of the state found him or herself at risk of encapsulation within that ­insatiable and devouring net. The verdict, delivered to those deemed at fault, by those who elevated themselves to the simultaneously held positions of judge, jury and executioner? The necessity to eradicate the victimisers, the ­oppressors, in toto, without any consideration whatsoever for ­reactionary niceties — such as ­individual innocence.

What can be concluded in the deepest, most permanent sense, from Solzhenitsyn’s anguished Gulag narrative? First, we learn what is indisputable — what we all should have learned by now (what we have nonetheless failed to learn): that the Left, like the Right, can go too far; that the Left has, in the past, gone much too far. Second, we learn what is far more subtle and difficult — how and why that going too far occurs. We learn, as Solzhenitsyn so profoundly ­insists, that the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And we learn as well that we all are, each of us, simultaneously ­oppressor and ­oppressed. Thus, we come to ­realise that the twin categories of “guilty oppressor” and “justice-seeking victim” can be made endlessly inclusive. This is not least because we all benefit ­unfairly (and are equally victimised) by our thrownness, our ­arbitrary placement in the flow of time. We all ­accrue undeserved and somewhat random privilege from the vagaries of our place of birth, our inequitably distributed talents, our ethnicity, race, culture and sex. We all belong to a group — some group — that has been ­elevated in comparative status, through no ­effort of our own. This is true in some manner, along some dimension of group cat­egory, for every solitary individual, ­except for the single most lowly of all. At some time and in some ­manner we all may in consequence be justly targeted as ­oppressors, and may all, equally, seek justice — or revenge — as ­victims. Even if the initiators of the revolution had, therefore, in their most pure moments, been driven by a holy desire to lift up the downtrodden, was it not ­guaranteed that they would be overtaken by those motivated ­primarily by envy, hate and the ­desire to destroy as the revolution progressed?

Thus the doctrine of group identity inevitably ends with everyone identified as a class enemy, an oppressor; with everyone uncleansibly contaminated by bourgeois privilege, unfairly ­enjoying the benefits bequeathed by the vagaries of history; with everyone prosecuted, without respite, for that corruption and injustice. “No mercy for the oppressor!” And no punishment too severe for the crime of exploitation! Expiation becomes impossible because there is no individual guilt, no individual responsibility, and therefore no manner in which the crime of arbitrary birth can be individually accounted for. And all the ­misery that can be generated as a consequence of such an ­accusation is the true reason for the accusation. When everyone is guilty, all that serves justice is the punishment of everyone; when the guilt extends to the existence of the world’s misery itself, only the fatal punishment will suffice.

It is much more preferable ­instead — and much more likely to preserve us all from metastasising hells — to state forthrightly: “I am indeed thrown arbitrarily into history. I therefore choose to voluntarily shoulder the responsibility of my advantages and the burden of my disadvantages — like every other individual. I am morally bound to pay for my ­advantages with my responsibility. I am morally bound to accept my disadvantages as the price I pay for being. I will therefore strive not to descend into bitterness and then seek vengeance because I have less to my credit and a greater burden to stumble forward with than others.”

Is this not a, or even the, essential point of difference between the West, for all its faults, and the brutal, terrible “egalitarian” systems generated by the pathological communist doctrine? The great and good framers of the American republic were, for ­example, anything but utopian. They took full stock and full measure of ineradicable human imperfection. They held modest goals, derived not least from the profoundly cautious common-law tradition of England. They endeavoured to establish a system the corrupt and ignorant fools we all are could not damage too ­fatally. That’s humility. That’s clear-headed knowledge of the limitations of human machination and good intention.

But the communists, the revolutionaries? They aimed, grandly and admirably, at least in theory, at a much more heavenly vision — and they began their pursuit with the hypothetically straightforward and oh-so-morally-justifiable enforcement of economic equality.

Wealth, however, was not so easily generated. The poor could not so simply become rich. But the riches of those who had anything more than the greatest pauper (no matter how pitiful that “more” was)? That could be “redistributed” — or, at least, destroyed. That’s equality, too. That’s sacrifice, in the name of heaven on earth. And redistribution was not enough — with all its theft, ­betrayal and death. Mere economic engineering was insufficient. What emerged as well was the overarching and truly totalitarian desire to remake man and woman, as such — the longing to restructure the human spirit in the very image of the communist preconceptions. Attributing to themselves this divine ability, this transcendent wisdom — and with unshakeable belief in the glowing but ever-receding future — the newly minted Soviets tortured, thieved, imprisoned, lied and ­betrayed, all the while masking their great evil with virtue. It was Solzhenitsyn and The Gulag Archipelago that tore off the mask, and exposed the feral cowardice, envy, deceit, resentment and hatred for the individual and for existence ­itself that pulsed beneath.

Others had made the attempt. Malcolm Muggeridge reported on the horrors of “dekulakization” — the forced collectivisation of the all-too-recently successful peasantry of the Ukraine and elsewhere that preceded the horrifying famines of the 1930s. In the same decade, and in the following years, George Orwell risked his ideological commitments and his reputation to tell us all what was truly occurring in the Soviet Union in the name of egalitarianism and brotherhood. But it was Solzhenitsyn who truly shamed the radical leftists, forcing them underground (where they have festered and plotted for the last 40 years, failing unforgivably to have learned what all reasonable people should have learned from the cataclysm of the 20th century and its egalitarian utopianism). And today, despite everything, and under their sway — almost three decades since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the apparent collapse of communism — we are doing everything we can to forget what Solzhenitsyn so clearly demonstrated, to our great and richly deserved peril. Why don’t all our children read The Gulag Archipelago in our high schools, as they now do in Russia? Why don’t our teachers feel compelled to read the book aloud? Did we not win the Cold War? Were the bodies not piled high enough? (How high, then, would be enough?)

Why, for example, is it still ­acceptable — and in polite company — to profess the philosophy of a communist or, if not that, to at least admire the work of Marx? Why is it still acceptable to regard the Marxist doctrine as essentially accurate in its diagnosis of the ­hypothetical evils of the free-­market, democratic West; to still consider that doctrine “progressive” and fit for the compassionate and proper thinking person? Twenty-five million dead through internal repression in the Soviet Union (according to The Black Book of Communism). Sixty million dead in Mao’s China (and an all-too-likely return to autocratic oppression in that country in the near future). The horrors of Cambodia’s killing fields, with their two million corpses. The barely animate body politic of Cuba, where people struggle even now to feed themselves. Venezuela, where it has now been made illegal to attribute a child’s death in hospital to starvation. No political ­experi­ment has ever been tried so widely, with so many disparate people, in so many different countries (with such different histories) and failed so absolutely and so catastrophically. Is it mere ignorance (albeit of the most inexcusable kind) that allows today’s Marxists to flaunt their continued allegiance — to present it as compassion and care? Or is it, instead, envy of the successful, in near-­infinite proportions? Or something akin to hatred for mankind itself? How much proof do we need? Why do we still avert our eyes from the truth?

Perhaps we simply lack sophistication. Perhaps we just can’t understand. Perhaps our tendency towards compassion is so powerfully necessary in the intimacy of our families and friendships that we cannot contemplate its limitations, its inability to scale and its propensity to mutate into hatred of the oppressor, rather than ­allegiance with the oppressed. Perhaps we cannot comprehend the limitations and dangers of the utopian vision given our definite need to contemplate and to strive for a better tomorrow. We certainly don’t seem to imagine, for example, that the hypothesis of some state of future perfection — for ­example, the truly egalitarian and permanent brotherhood of man — can be used to justify any and all sacrifices whatsoever (the pristine and heavenly end making all conceivable means not only acceptable but morally required). There is simply no price too great to pay in pursuit of the ultimate utopia. (This is particularly true if it is someone else who foots the bill.) And it is clearly the case that we ­require a future towards which to orient ourselves — to provide meaning in our life, psychologically speaking. It is for that reason we see the same need expressed collectively, on a much larger scale, in the Judeo-Christian ­vision of the Promised Land, and the kingdom of heaven on earth. And it is also clearly the case that sacrifice is necessary to bring that desired end state into being. That’s the discovery of the future itself: the necessity to forgo instantaneous gratification in the present, to delay, to bargain with fate so that the future can be better; twinned with the necessity to let go, to burn off, to separate wheat from chaff, and to sacrifice what is presently unworthy, so that tomorrow can be better than today. But limits need to be placed around who or what is deemed dispensable.

Here’s some thoughts — no, some facts. Every social system produces inequality, at present, and every social system has done so, since the beginning of time. The poor have been with us — and will be with us — always. Analysis of the content of individual Paleolithic gravesites provides evidence for the existence of substantive variance in the distribution of ability, privilege and wealth, even in our distant past. The more illustrious of our ancestors were buried with great possessions, hoards of precious metals, weaponry, jewellery and costuming. The majority, however, struggled through their lives and were buried with nothing. Inequality is the iron rule, even among animals, with their intense competition for quality living space and reproductive opportunity — even among plants, and cities — even among the stellar lights that dot the cosmos themselves, where a minority of privileged and oppressive heavenly bodies contain the mass of thousands, millions or even billions of average, dispossessed planets. In equality is the deepest of problems, built into the structure of reality ­itself, and will not be solved by the presumptuous, ideology-inspired retooling of the rare free, stable and productive democracies of the world. The only systems that have produced some modicum of wealth, along with the inevitable inequality and its attendant suffering, are those that evolved in the West, with their roots in the Judeo-Christian tradition; precisely those systems that emphasise above all the essential dignity, divinity and ultimate responsibility of the individual. In consequence, any attempt to attribute the existence of inequality to the functioning of the productive ­institutions we have managed to create and protect so recently in what is still accurately regarded as the free world will hurt those who are weakest and most vulnerable first. The radicals who conflate the activities of the West with the ­oppression of the downtrodden therefore do nothing to aid those whom they purport to prize and plenty to harm them. The claims they make to act under the inspiration of pure compassion must therefore come to be regarded with the deepest suspicion — not least by those who dare to make such claims themselves.

The dangers of the utopian ­vision have been laid bare, even if the reasons those dangers exist have not yet been fully and acceptably articulated. If there was any excuse to be a Marxist in 1917 (and both Dostoevsky and Nietzsche prophesied well before then that there would be hell to pay for that doctrine) there is absolutely and ­finally no excuse now. And we know that mostly because of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and The Gulag Archipelago. Thank heaven for that great author’s outrage, courage and unquenchable thirst for justice and truth. It was Solzhenitsyn who warned us that the catastrophes of the Soviet state were inextricably and causally linked to the deceitful blandishments of the Marxist utopian vision. It was Solzhenitsyn who carefully documented the price paid in suffering for the dreadful communist experiment and who distilled from that suffering the wisdom we must all heed so that such catastrophe does not visit us again. Perhaps we could take from his writing the ­humility that would allow us to understand that our mere good ­intentions are not sufficient to make us good men and women. Perhaps we could come to understand that such intentions are ­instead all too often the consequence of our unpardonable historical ignorance, our utter wilful blindness and our voracious hidden appetite for vengeance, terror and destruction. Perhaps we could come to remember and to learn from the intolerable trials endured by all those who passed through the fiery chambers of the Marxist collectivist ideology. Perhaps we could derive from that remembering and learning the wisdom necessary to take personal responsibility for the suffering and malevolence that still so terribly and unforgivably characterises the world. We have been provided with the means to transform ourselves in due humility by the literary and moral genius of this great Russian author. We should all pray most devoutly to whatever deity guides us implicitly or ­explicitly for the desire and the will to learn from what we have been offered. May God himself eternally fail to forgive us if in the painstakingly revealed aftermath of such bloodshed, torture and anguish we remain stiff-necked, incautious, and unchanged.

© Jordan B. Peterson 2018

Jordan Peterson is a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto and author of the bestseller 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. This is an edited extract from the foreword to the new edition of The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, published by Vintage Classics.



As I have noted above,the online comments reflect on the range of opinions among the  ostensibly informed opinion among the readership of The Australian.  One entertaining characteristic is how often commenters lay into each other. 

t’s much easier and more comforting to accept the narrative of the Left that you are oppressed, the victim of others.  But I’m wondering where is this Oppression today in Australia?  There are so so many helping hands out there for those who want to have a go.  But then, to many, nothing beats being told you are oppressed and getting paid for it (Centrelink).

A powerful and thought-provoking read, this. I’ll be reading it over again and again to be sure I’ve got it right. If any man alive within the last hundred years deserves the title of ‘prophet’, it must be Solzhenitsyn and yet most ‘ordinary’ people have hardly heard of him let alone read his prophetic words.

This week the Greens have announced they want to jail anyone exporting coal (Currently or biggest export). Who else will be sent to the Greens gulag under the new left regime?

Word salad from a master of over oily pre-packaged 1000 Island dressing drenched word salads, Last week it was how Raskolnikov somehow proved the existence of objective morality or something like that. This time another false literary allusion to bolster the illusions of those right wingers who like to pretend they have read a book that doesn’t have pictures.
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich was very good, the rest was self serving attempts to get money from Yank publishers hoping to reinforce Yank prejudices during the Cold War.
The Canadian Peterson is part of the same racket.

Fantastic article by a man whose work should be studied and viewed in Unis worldwide. A totally brilliant mind whose moniker of Psychologist merely understates the depth and breadth of his anyalysis of humanity. Please keep his stuff coming in the MSM. The world really needs more like this.

One is so used to having a full page advertisement on the back page of the Weekend Australian Inquirer hardcopy, that it took me sometime to wake up that here was an article for the ages.  It wasn’t until I retired to my bed that I was able to read it.
So much to think about and reflect on of our past for many of us.
What is so terrifying is that there is now a generation who do not know and understand.

Yet, this time next week, Victorians will have just gifted a further four year reign to the most Socialist Government this state has ever seen.

Marxism is essentially evil but democracy is not a Christian invention

The Greeks were the mothers of democracy but the Christians modernised it to what we have today.

It’s modern application certainly is. Bearing in mind there were well over a thousand years (two thousand, perhaps) between its origins in ancient Greece (but only for the elites) to its widespread adoption in what we now call the West, in what were all Christian nations at the time of its adoptions, it’s not drawing a long bow to describe democracy as a christian construct.

Wow excellent article and still today left winger activists are trying to stifle his voice and ban him from universities

Jesus spoke straightforwardly of the devil or Satan as a real spiritual personality, not a metaphor. And he knew and demonstrated practical authority over him.

Richard Wurmbrand makes a reasonable case that the envy and and desire to destroy that characterise communism historically already had a spiritual presence in Marx’s personal life following a souring of his early Christian faith.

A kindred visceral hatred, routinely transcending the rational, has manifested time and again in the world against Christians, Jews and Israel, through a variety of agencies. There’s no coincidence nor natural justice in the fact that Christians are statistically far and away the most persecuted group on earth (not least in communist China today).

Yet the same malice manifests less obviously in the neo-Marxism much closer to home. Activists are aggressively pushing an agenda to erode biblical morality, destroy Judaeo-Christian institutions and subvert godly authority structures and even the natural order, including the sexes and natural family. This is no less dangerous in the long run than the communism of Solzhenitsyn’s era.

While I agree with much that you have said, reality is Christian Institutions have been doing as much of those you accuse, to destroy the Judeao Christian place in the world through their own immoral behaviour and confusion about what they now stand for.

I see that Jesus/ Christianity would have been Marxist in ideology. However experiments in Marxism have failed usually ending up with totalitarian leadership living the high life while the peasants work their guts out. China is a little different in that they have a free market economy whilst pursuing socialism and totalitarianism. No one knows how it will end. The US with its plutocracy (not really democracy) pursuing a military state is hardly an ideal. We are mere corks bobbing on the ocean!

In the seventies Alexandre S was taught in Victorian schools as was Orwell. Suspicion lies on leftist leanings for their demise. Be sure they outnumber the democrates. You have to overcome that hurdle first. In other words Daniel Andrews has to go before you get any voice about recommending AS to be on the mainstream English curriculum which it was. Makes his meeting with the Chinese recently and keeping the supposed agreement secrete revealing about his leftist agenda. Daniel Andrews wouldn’t know about AS and less about George Orwell. Andrews is the biggest treat to our sovereignty and human rights than any leftist labour premier in recent history.

The elite who govern us now is an unhealhy blend of  unions, public servants and big business. The next elite will be the same eccept worse.

Public servants are the most unionised of employees (I nearly said workers!), so no need to distinguish.

Great article JP. Best discussion for some time.
My thoughts: I have always seen Russia as a corrupt society run by an elite 1 to 2 million rich, with 150m poor. Given the hit Russia took defending against Nazi Germany I think it’s a bit simplistic to say Marxism failed, when given circumstances it never had a chance. Western Europe had the Marshall Plan to revive war torn economies, Russia didn’t. Regardless 60 years on, the Communist system, the leaders paranoia with the West, and the over expenditure on military does largely explain Russia’s ongoing underperformance. JP is right to call them out as a failure. Totalarian leadership doesn’t have a good record.

Right on, JP!  In my experience, having had close association with members of the Labor Party in the early 70s, many immediately previously having graduated from university, and they having toasted “the revolution!” at joint dinners/lunches which appeared to be possible at that time, the prevailing thought was “why should we miss out?” I know from personal experience that there was not a scintilla of idealism present, and that they were craven opportunists (Labor lawyers, MPs, Ministers and union officials).  They were the true entrepreneurs of our time, and have become rich beyond the most hopeful dreams of their conservative counterparts.

Also read “One day in the life of Ivan Denisovich”. A classic. And Bulgakov’s “The Master and Margarita”. Bravo Jordan Petterson, bravo.

And this is supposed to be original?  Where’s this guy been. Robert Conquest laid it out in 1968 in The Great Terror. And Marx doesn’t have a lot to do with it. He was just a pretext for neo-Tsarist dictatorship, particularly under the Red Tsar Stalin. Stick to psychology,

Peterson has informed my secularly enforced ignorance of history, has framed for me the importance of understanding our cultural/political errors. Given your right to express complete knowledge on this topic, will you now meet your responsibility to individually do something about it. We wouldn’t be in this mess if you had in 1968.

There was nothing miraculous about the collapse of the Soviet Union. It was inevitable, at a predictable time  It is a fundamental fact of human nature that first hand information takes precedence over second hand information. The hatred that drove government in the USSR depended on first hand memory of how bad things were before the revolution. Only that memory could suppress recognition of how bad things were after the revolution. Once the old guard faded from influence that veil would be lifted, and sanity would start to get a look in. And so it was lifted,  Thirty years on, it’s a good time to be republishing The Gulag Archipelago.

The “evil empire” and its underpinning Marxist ideology, would not have gained traction without the wide spread acceptance of Darwin’s (atheistic) Evolution Theory. Without God their is no moral authority or compass; life really is all about the “survival of the fittest”. Stalin embraced communism after he read Darwin book on Evolution. He even went so far as to try to create “Ape Warriors” to populate his depleted army. Moreover “racism” is intrinsically linked to evolution theory. The historical and scientific evidence is overwhelming that God created this earth and mankind, but the lefty intelligentsia have turned their backs on truth to promote their own dark & dangerous agenda. Its ugly manifestation has been Marxism. (b47)

Communists are merely a political gang of very well organised criminals who want to kill the rich so that they can replace them.

Essential reading for all. And a clear reason why we need to abolish both the Labor and Greens Party’s.

Brilliant if not a long read, well worth it mind you.  How do you dare abbreviate the piece to a comment, to my simple mind it is do not ignore the past, do not forget, do not think there is a magic solution.  The extremists left and right have left a trail.  Neither is correct, but we must be able to discuss the issues that matter without being branded.

Orwell and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn should be mandatory reading in every High School and in every Arts course.  I read Animal Farm at school, then 1984 after graduating and finally The Gulag.  Unfortunately I didn’t read the latter two until after twice voting for EG Whitlam and his ALP disaster team.  But never again. If you don’t like Peterson’s introduction to TGA then read those 3 books. Read then before voting for BS and his bs.

I see the ‘usual suspects’ are absent from this discussion.

Who?

No. All the moderator’s favourites appear to be here, as usual. Ray.

What astonishing writing by Jordan Peterson. Astonishing because nothing like it has graced the pages of newspapers in my memory. He puts truth to the reasons why the Soviet’s mass murdered millions upon millions of Russians during its 74 year rule. As he says, it had nothing to do with egalitarianism and everything to do with pure hatred for fellow human beings. Stalin’s deliberate starvation of Ukrainians in 1930’s because he did not like them is a hard fact for committed socialists to compute. Such people have debated me on this topic in these Comments columns in the past accusing me of fabricating a story. Jordan Peterson has I hope begun a long overdue conversation into the real history of Soviet rule as written by a man who experienced the worst of it. Luckily for the West, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn escaped death more than once to write The Gulag Archipelago and many other books after that. My thanks to Jordan Peterson for unmasking and highlighting the truth of the Communist rule of the USSR 1917-1991.

Socialism – yet shorten and his receycled gillard government still believe this is the height of wisdom

It should be a compulsary in school history curriculum of what happened to millions who suffered and died in pursuit of communistic utopia.

I’m a teacher in public schools and I hand a copy of that book (the cut down version) to any thoughtful but naive student who seriously considers Communism to be a legitimate political system.

The author talks about the Stalinist period in USSR but fails to compare it to the historical periods both before and after it (e.g., the Hrushev ‘ottepel’ period, etc.). He also talks about a few examples of bad things happening in a few other countries. He then uses this selective evidence to come to his conclusions. He mentions, briefly, that extremes on either right or left are bad, but that is the only mention of any alternative views or any facts that do not accord with his opinion. After mentioning that both left and right extremes are bad, he still illogically concludes that left-wing views are bad based on what he is saying (but not the right-wing views). Furthermore, he somehow extrapolates what was happening during the Stalinist period and in a few other countries during certain historical periods into claims that the left-wing views are bad in general even if they are not extreme. The author ignored what was happening in right-wing Spain during the same period (where people were killed rather than sent to hard labour camps). The author also ignored examples of other right-wing states similar to Spain in the 20th century in South America, Asia, and other parts of the world. I understand the article can at the most support that certain manifestation of ideological extremes, either on the right or left are bad but clearly that is not what the author is trying to convey. The author is biased in a sense that he provides examples of bad governments in certain left-wing communist/socialist states in particular historical periods (ignoring other periods of these states and other communist/socialist countries) but does not provide examples of bad governments of extreme right-wing capitalist states in corresponding or other historical periods of the 20th century. This comment is not meant to support left or right, communism, socialism or capitalism. However, if the author meant to support capitalism he could have done a better job.

The author wrote the forward to The Gulag Archipelago, not an analysis of comparative political systems. One of his central points is that there is no excuse for continuing to believe and teach that Marxism is a legitimate and desirable system of social organisation. It has been, is and always will be a miserable, murderous failure. The books of Solzhenitsyn and the background to those books, along with works on democratic theory and practice, must, in future, be foundational texts in every Australian high school.

You are obviously confused and need to read more carefully. “A few examples of bad things happening….”?   Do you not understand the momentous nature of those few ‘bad things’, the horrific death toll, the economic devastation, the extermination of intellectual capacity, the depravity of the slaughter? Sorry, anyone who claims that the socialist record can be discounted as ‘a few bad things’ is grossly ignorant or just an apologist!

The Marxist/communist doctrine begins with the rejection of the God of the Bible & His authority over us. Then it proceeds to put the State in the place of God. It uses the theory of evolution as its excuse for the rejection of God. The results of this Marxist belief are seen in the working out of this belief in Russia & all other communist countries. The Marxist philosophy put into practice actually proved the truth of the Bible where God reveals that every person has a depraved, sinful nature & is under the just condemnation of a Righteous & Holy God. the Lord Jesus came into this world & died in the place of sinful men & women so that they could be forgiven & cleansed from their guilt & condemnation & so receive eternal life. That in turn leads to a Christian living according to the precepts laid out in the Bible. Our way of life in the Western World & the freedoms, the system of law & order are based on that Judeo/Christian foundation. Those who follow Marxist/Communist doctrine destroy that Christian foundation & the end result is seen in the terrible consequences that took place in Communist Russia, China etc. One can only hope that Australians see this before it is too late & latter day Marxists (as seen in the Labor party & Greens etc) destroy what we have here.

Marxist indoctrination and oppression has succeeded in nations which are not Christian, China being the most obvious example. The theological and philosophical underpinnings of the society are forcefully removed by Marxism and replaced by it. People don’t throw away their religion to embrace Marxism! As for evolutionary theory, this is not an essential part of Marxism and many Christians and adherents of other faiths accept its validity without abandoning their religion.

I happen to agree with the content of what you say, but you shoot yourself in the foot with your stilted and pompous ‘elevated’ language. It makes your comment read as being all about yourself, rather than anything you might be trying to express.

God’s got nothing to do with it. Fairy tales.

How wonderful it would be if we had academics/professors with the wisdom of Professsor Peterson resident in our universities instead of the virtue signalling do gooders we seem to have in some universities in this country.

You make an error here, Bruce.  The word should have been “all” universities here.  Given time, our universities will destroy everything that Australia stands for and, sadly, most people don’t even realise it’s happening.  Evil by stealth is the worst kind of evil.

As George Orwell said “There are some ideas so absurd that only an intellectual could believe them.”

This should be mandatory reading for all voting citizens. Wonderfully articulated.

You can’t even get them to read ‘1984’ or ‘Animal Farm’

But long winded!

I read those books in 1973 and it opened my eyes to the evil of Communism. Jordan is the new Alexsandr in shining the light back on Totalitarian terror.

This was a good article from Peterson due to the content but he’s not a very good writer for this format. Peterson favours a “tossed salad” of words. He is verbose, well meaning but not a clear thinker, writer or talker (three kinds of clarity that go together).

Peterson’s ideas tumble. He is not able to make them coherent, to give them shape and purpose. His heart is in the right place but his expression lets him down.

Ok, so show us how it’s done. I find his clarity appealing but am ready to be awestruck by yours.

If only we can secede to the Taxpayers Republic of Australia and let the Progressive Republic of Australia have its own future! I am even happy to let the PRA have first pick of the best 3 States of their own  choosing. The only condition of living in the TRA is that you pay more tax than you get from the Government or if you don’t then you forego your vote, and the only rule for leaving to the PRA is that once gone you may never come back. The PRA people can create their Utopia in whatever image they fit! Imagine how awesome life would be for you to let go of your hate and negativity in being freed from the burden of us oppressive and uncaring conservatives??! Surely it would be absolute heaven for you?? I wonder what people would choose? Ultimately it wouldn’t matter though – I guarantee that we would have war inside 20 years as the embittered and envy-ridden swill of the PRA seek to batter down the gates and overrun the TRA to escape the barren and destitute world that they will create for themselves and need to get their hands on other people’s money yet again. Where are you out there you compassionate and perfect Progressives who want to take me up on my ridiculously generous offer?? You can even have Queensland or wherever else you want as first pick??! Please I am begging you to come forward – no price is too big to be rid of you so that once gone we can concentrate on real nation building for the good of all once again….but I am sure that it will be sadly the case that pigs might fly first. ;-(

A free one way ticket to Venezuela would sufice:

For me, First Circle was better. Solzhenitsyn did indeed issue the warning. All of the frenetic “socialism must be tried again” fan club should read it before they condemn their own societies to such outrages against humanity. Wrong Mr Peterson the Left constantly reminds us that Russia, Venezuela, Cuba etc got socialism wrong, but they’ll get it right this time. Now for the facts.
If you think socialism is the answer to your problem, you’ve never lived under socialism to know better. Equality of poorness, corruption when you’ve run out of other people’s money, war crimes. No innovation, no choices, basically one state produced brand of chocolate, oil, clothing etc. West Germany produced the BMW, East Germany just forget that lemon write-off. I’m in a rare position to witness this from an Aussie perspective, having grown up in Sydney’s inner west and then moving to the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia for 3 years with my father, the differences could not have been so stark. I opened my wallet with candy money to buy some, but such a display of wealth was considered offensive. You had to look equally poor. Landline phones mostly non-existent, roads unsealed. Corruption paying off police and bribing teachers at schools for favours was rife. Bread rations for students, we had to pick it up from the UN several km’s away from school. Then modern day Croatia was born. The transition to capitalism gave them sealed roads, women discovered gossiping when landline phones first came. Mercs and BMWs started replacing those flimsy Yugo state produced socialist lemon cars. Now back in Sydney’s inner west, what do they want? Posters are rife with “kill capitalism”, “Turn Left”, socialist conferences etc. The “progressive” Left here obviously have never lived under socialism, and clearly they know no better.

A typically erudite rebuttal from a socialist. An individual so limited in thinking, he is incapable of comprehending he has conclusively proved his own cretiny.

It seems when people have freedom of speech, so many of them just want to ignore the lessons of history (or simply don’t read history) and dream of yet another socialist utopia. And whinge! How they like to whinge.

Solzhenitsyn’s work (which deserves more respect) is treated by Professor Peterson as a convenient peg on which to hang another of his long-winded, rambling statements about Jordan Peterson saving the world.

Did you bother actually reading the entire article?

Have you read the book Tom ?

This was written as a forward to the book. Do you not understand the context?

The rambling is the “edited extract”?

Despite a globalist agenda to segregate & secularise humanity into groups for identity processing, there is a profound thankfulness that we not only have Peterson as a instrument of forewarning the mass indoctrination techniques of past political regimes, but a national masthead that vigilantly advocates our right to individualism and freedom of speech, even whilst postmodern tendrils of the communist seed continue to attempt to strangle our western democratic way of life.

He’s totally opposite to identity politics but that’s cool.

Communism might be possible with lots and lots of God’s grace, an abundance of it to make it work. Unfortunately those who impose communism are atheists.

A one legged man could convert to Christianity, tomorrow. He’d still have to hop to the church on Sunday, same as he hopped to the pub, yesterday.

You need to ask Nick Vujicic, who was born with no arms or legs, whether having Christ in his life makes a difference.

Thank you.  An academic who can communicate with reason.  An educator that inspires us to think for ourselves not just about ourselves.

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November 1918, the counterfeit peace

Of our elaborate plans, the end
Of everything that stands, the end
No safety or surprise, the end
Jim Morrison

For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son.  John 3:16

The eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918 saw an end to four years of carnage on the western front and the end of of the First World War. The armies were demobbed and men went home to lives that were changed utterly:  British and French, Austrian and German, Belgian and Italian, Serbs and Bulgarians, Turks and Arabs, and also, soldiers from across the ocean – Americans and Canadians, Australians and New Zealanders,  South Africans and Indians. Friends and foes.

The victors retired to a restless peace, but the vanquished, Germany, Austria, and Hungary, descended into revolution and civil war for a time as  gangs of former soldiers fought on the left and the right. In eastern Europe, the crumbling of empires, the Russian revolution, civil war and the struggle to establish the borders of newly established states meant that armed violence continued, leaving deep scars and bitterness that many ways set the stage for the autocracies of the 1930s and further bloodshed.

The Polish-Soviet war lasted until 1921. The Russian Civil War, ending in 1923, raged across most of today’s Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova and the Baltic region. British, Australian, American and French soldiers were dispatched to Murmansk and Archangel to fight the Red Army; Poles fought Ukrainians and Lithuanians, and defeated the Soviets at the gates of Warsaw; pogroms were perpetrated against Jews just as they had been for years, decades, centuries prior, accelerating  ,  with subsequent consequence, Aliyah to Palestine.

The Greek-Turkish war of 1919-1922, which saw the Greeks, with British and French support, endeavouring to seize Constantinople, led to terrible massacres, and a forced exchange of populations that uprooted one and a half million Greeks and Turks from towns and villages they had occupied for a millennium. Armies marched back and forth across the Great European Plain, bringing devastation and starvation and destroying millions of lives. Central Asia, the lands now covered by the once Soviet ‘’stans likewise became battlegrounds for Reds, Whites and local warlords.

And in ‘John Bull’s Other Island’, as expat GBS Shaw called it, a “terrible beauty was born” – WB Yeats’ exquisite words – the doomed intifada that was the rebellion of Easter 1916, launched, opportunistically yet quixotically whilst English eyes were elsewhere, led exponentially into open rebellion, a qualified victory, and a civil war and partition that rested, roused and then resurrected in Derry in 1968 and decades termed somewhat innocuously ‘The Troubles’.

For some, there was light at the end of the terrible territorial tunnel. Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, Finns, Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians, achieved statehood, or the restoration of nationhood, as did, fleetingly, Ukrainians, Armenians and Azerbaijanis. Poland reappeared on the map after over a century of having been carved up by empires. Hungarians lost two-thirds of their territory and more than half of their population. “Little” Serbia, which had ignited the Balkan powder keg in 1914, with Gavril Princip’s famous shot that ricocheted through complacent, twitchy and mightily armed Europe, was united with its Slav but religiously fractured Balkan neighbours in the Kingdom of Yugoslavia – and we now know how well that worked out.

Beyond Europe too, a bitter ‘Peace’ sowed dragon’s teeth. Last year, we commemorated the centenaries of the infamous Sykes Picot Agreement, the first draft of a colonial dispensation that established borders that remained unchallenged until Da’ish assaulted the status quo in 2014, and the Balfour Declaration, which set in train the rise and rise of the state of Israel and the long descent of Palestinian hopes for a land of their own. Ironically, the most militant Zionist pioneers and later, soldiers, terrorists and statesmen, emigrated from Poland and the Tsarist empire. These many legacies resonate today.

The end of WW1 saw the destruction of the Ottoman Empire and left Britain in control of Palestine and Mesopotamia. The peace conferences that followed led to the creation of modern Turkey, and, though for decades under French and British colonial rule, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Jordan. The Kurds turned up at the conference table but were denied a seat and thereafter, a state.

The war changed more than maps, frontiers and regimes. The needs of modern warfare brought women into the workforce, galvanizing the movements that won them the vote in many democracies. The pace of technological change already underway in industrialized countries was quickened by the demands of war, and advances in land transportation and aviation continued exponentially, as did the development of weaponry, together with the insatiable demand for fossil fuels. Economic privation precipitated the first successful Communist revolution and many failed ones, whilst the peace, resentments, reparations, and recession prompted many to turn to far-right authoritarians in Italy and then Germany. The mass movements of populations helped spread the deadliest epidemic the world has ever known: the 1918 influenza virus or Spanish Flu, which quietly killed possibly up to a hundred million souls – more than both world wars combined.

In the last decades of the Twentieth Century, historians would observe with the benefit of hindsight how the Second World War rose ineluctably from the ashes of the first, just as the division of Europe and the Soviet enslavement (and I say this as a lifelong leftist) of those Eastern European countries that emerged after 1918 led to the Europe of today, and as the peoples of the Middle East reaped the whirlwinds of both conflagrations. Many look back on the tumultuous decades that followed the Great War, and sensing signals and signposts in contemporary  temporal tea leaves, advise is to be afraid, be very afraid.

We like to identify patterns in history that help us understand and explain our contemporary world. But we should exercise caution. To continue the hindsight riff, remember that things we see in the rear view mirror appear closer than they really are. The world is very much different today, as is our knowledge, our perception, our hopes and fears, and so also, our prognostications and expectations. If we can do it all over again, we’ll do it differently, and much more dangerously and destructively. Having learned so much, we have, one fears, understood so little.

 As we remember that moment in Western Europe and the Levant when the guns at last fell silent, let us contemplate melancholy mathematics of the human toll poignantly described by American economist and academic Patrick Chovanec in a fine article in the New York Review of Books, which I have reproduced below:

 “In the Great War itself, over sixteen million people died, including almost seven million civilians. The US got off relatively lightly, with 117,465 people killed, just 0.13 percent of its population. In Serbia, somewhere between 17 and 28 percent of the country’s population was killed. But even numbers like these leave little concrete impression on our minds … people would (tell) me about a grandfather or great-uncle who fought and died in the war, and is forever twenty-four-years old in some field in France, or Turkey, or Italy, or at sea. For most people, that absence is what defined the war: someone left and never came home. The world that they shaped, by their presence and their absence, is the one that we live in, whether we realize it or not. And we, like them, can only grope our way forward, day by day, into an unknown future”.

Qurba-n قُرْبان

Sacrifice  – Rayner Hoff, Anzac Memorial, Sydney

On the occasion of the centenary, read also, Dulce et ducorem est – the death of Wilfred Owen, and A Brief History of the Rise and Fall of the West, 


World War I Relived Day by Day

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Gavrilo Princip arrested after his assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, Sarajevo, June 28, 1914

Four years ago, I went to war. Like many of the people whose stories I followed in my daily “live-tweets” on World War I, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. What began as an impulsive decision to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of Austrian Archduke Ferdinand’s death at the hands of a Serbian assassin, in June 1914, snowballed into a blood-soaked odyssey that took me—figuratively and literally—from the rolling hills of northern France, to the desert wastes of Arabia, to the rocky crags of the Italian Alps, to the steel turret of a rebel cruiser moored within range of the czar’s Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, Russia. And like the men and women who actually lived through it, now that the Great War is ending I find myself asking what, if anything, I’ve learned from it all.

In the American mind, World War I typically occupies an unimpressive place as a kind of shambolic preamble to the great good-versus-evil crusade of World War II, a pointless slugfest in muddy trenches for no worthy purpose, and no worthwhile result. Its catchphrases—“The War to End All Wars,” “Make the World Safe for Democracy”—evoke a wry and knowing chuckle. As if. But the war I encountered, as it unfolded day by day, was far more relevant, passionate, and unpredictable.

Posting daily newspaper clippings and photographs, found mainly in books and online archives, I began to see the Great War as a kind of portal between an older, more distant world—of kings with handlebar mustaches, splendid uniforms, and cavalry charges—and the one that we know: of planes and tanks, mass political movements, and camouflage. It snuffed out ancient monarchies in czarist Russia, Habsburg Austria, and Ottoman Turkey, and gave birth to a host of new nations—Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Ukraine, Armenia, Azerbaijan—that, in their struggles to survive and carve out an identity, continue to shape our world today. The British declared their intent to create a national homeland in Palestine for the Jews.

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Russian infantry marching to battle, Poland, August 1914

The needs of the war brought women into the workforce, and helped win them the right to vote. The huge privations it inflicted triggered the world’s first (successful) Communist revolution, and the frustrations it unleashed prompted many, afterward, to turn to far-right authoritarians in Italy and then Germany. And finally—though many have forgotten it—the comings and goings of people caused by the war helped spread the deadliest epidemic the world has ever known: the 1918 influenza virus, which quietly killed an estimated 50–100 million human beings in their homes and in hospitals, more than both world wars combined.

I also encountered a cast of characters more varied and amazing than I thought possible. Rasputin, the dissolute Russian mystic who warned Czar Nicholas that going to war would destroy his dynasty, and was murdered in part because he was (falsely) suspected as a German agent. The Austrian Emperor Karl, who inherited a war he didn’t want, and tried fruitlessly to make peace. T.E. Lawrence, a scholarly young intelligence officer whose affinity for the Arabs helped turn them to the Allied cause, and shaped the modern Middle East. Mata Hari, a Dutch-born exotic dancer who played double-agent, seducing high-ranking Allied and German officers for valuable information, until she was caught and shot by the French as a spy.

Some of the names are familiar, and offer hints of future greatness—or infamy. A young anti-war journalist named Benito Mussolini, sensing the way the wind blows, changes his tune and aggressively advocates for Italy to enter the war, before signing up himself. A young Charles De Gaulle is wounded at Verdun and taken prisoner for the rest of the conflict. A relatively young Winston Churchill plans the disastrous Gallipoli Campaign and pays his penance by serving in the trenches, before making a political comeback. A young Harry S. Truman serves as an artillery officer on the Western Front, alongside (and outranked by) a young George C. Marshall (his future Army Chief of Staff and Secretary of State) and Douglas MacArthur (his future general in the Pacific and Korea). A young George S. Patton develops a fascination with tanks. A young Walt Disney doodles cartoons on the side of the ambulances he drives, in the same unit as a young Ray Kroc (the founder of McDonald’s). Another young ambulance driver, Ernest Hemingway, finds inspiration on the Italian Front for his novel A Farewell to Arms. A young Hermann Göring (later head of the Luftwaffe) becomes a dashing flying ace, while a young Erwin Rommel wins renown fighting at Verdun and in the Alps. Meanwhile, an odd young German corporal, who volunteered in the very first days of the war, is blinded by poison gas in its final days, and wakes up in hospital to the bitter news that Germany has lost. His name is Adolf Hitler.

General Photographic Agency/Getty Images

French troops under shellfire during the Battle of Verdun, 1916

The dramatic panoply of people, places, and events, however, only occasionally rises to the fore. For the most part, the war is a steady stream of ordinary people doing ordinary things: washing their clothes, attending a concert, tallying supplies, fixing a car. History books give us a distorted sense of time, because they fast forward to major events. A day may take a chapter, a month may be passed over in a sentence. In fact, there were periods where nothing much happened—plans were being made, troops trained, supplies positioned—and when you live-tweet, you experience that waiting. Sometimes, it led to intriguing surprises, like photographs of dragon dances performed by some of the 140,000 Chinese laborers brought over to France to lend muscle to the Allied war effort. Mostly, it was a matter of endurance. Each winter, the fighting came to almost a complete stop as each country hunkered down and hoped its food would last. The “turnip winter” of 1916–1917, when the potato crop failed, nearly broke Germany; the increasingly desperate craving for “bread and peace” did break Russia the following year.

The future president Herbert Hoover made his reputation by coordinating food relief shipments to German-occupied Belgium, and later as the US “food czar” ensuring Allied armies and populations were fed. The vast mobilization was effective: by 1918, the Allies were able to relax their food rationing, while Germany and its confederates, strangled by an Allied naval blockade, were on the verge of starvation. America’s war effort was accompanied by a vast expansion in the federal government’s power and reach. It nationalized (temporarily) the railroads and the telephone lines. It set prices for everything from sugar to shoes, and told motorists when they could drive, workers when they could strike, and restaurants what they could put on their menus. It seized half a billion dollars of enemy-owned property, including the brand rights to Bayer aspirin, and sold them at auction. The US government also passed espionage and sedition laws that made it illegal to criticize the war effort or the president. Some people were sent to prison for doing so, including the Socialist Party leader Eugene V. Debs, who ran for president for a fifth and final time from a cell.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

A woman munitions worker operating a machine in an armaments factory, Britain, circa 1915

Winning the war, however, was far from a sure thing. For three years, the Allies threw themselves against an evenly-matched enemy on the Western Front, without making any breakthroughs, while the Eastern Front gradually crumbled. An early Allied foray to take out Turkey, at Gallipoli in 1915, ended in bloody disappointment. Inducing Italy to enter the war on the Allies’ side, that same year, was supposed to swing the entire conflict in their favor; instead, the catastrophic Italian rout at Caporetto, in the autumn of 1917, put the Allied effort in greater jeopardy. When Lenin seized power in Russia, at the end of 1917, he took it immediately out of the war and ceded immense land and resources to German control. True, the US had by then entered the war, in response to Germany’s submarine campaign against merchant ships and its clumsy diplomatic scheming in Mexico. But with the war in the East essentially won, the Germans saw a window in which they could shift all of their armies to the West and crush the exhausted British and French before enough American troops could arrive to make a difference. Their spring offensive, or “Kaiser’s Battle,” in early 1918 drove deep into Allied lines, prompting the French government to evacuate Paris.

The Germans’ big roll of the dice failed. The Allies held, and the US mobilized much faster than anyone expected. By the summer of 1918, a perceptible change had taken place. Hundreds of thousands of American troops were arriving every month at French ports, and their first units were taking part in battles, piecemeal at first, to push the Germans back. Even in September, however, nearly everyone expected the war to continue into 1919. That was when a huge US army of 3 million men would be ready to take part in a big Allied offensive that would drive all the way to Berlin. It never happened. That fall, the German army—and those of Turkey, Austria, and Bulgaria—first buckled, then collapsed like a rotten log. By November 11, the war was over.

The fact that nobody saw the end coming, the way it did, highlights the value of going back, a hundred years later, and reliving events day by day, as they took place. What may seem obvious now was anything but so then, and we do the people who lived through it, and our understanding of them, a real disservice when we assume that it was. “Life can only be understood backwards,” the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard observed, “but it must be lived forwards.” The British historian C.V. Wedgewood elaborated on the same idea: “History is lived forwards but is written in retrospect. We know the end before we consider the beginning and we can never wholly recapture what it was like to know the beginning only.” We can’t entirely forget that we know what happened next, but when we at least try to identify with people who did not know, we shed new light on them, and on what did happen.

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Leon Trotsky with the Soviet delegation to negotiate a peace treaty with Germany, Brest-Litovsk, 1918

Take the Russian Revolution. We see it as the birth of a Communist superpower, and struggle to make sense of the seemingly half-baked, half-hearted effort by the Allies to intervene by sending troops, including Americans, to Russia’s ports in the far north and far east. People at the time, however, saw it almost entirely through the prism of the Great War. At first, the Allies welcomed the overthrow of the czar, and believed it would rejuvenate the failing Russian war effort. By replacing an infamous autocrat on the Allied roster with a fledgling democracy, it made “making the world safe for democracy” a more credible call to arms, and helped pave the way for the US to enter the war. When Lenin took over and made a ruinous peace with the Central Powers, he was seen as simply a German puppet. And when Bolshevik forces, augmented with released German and Austrian prisoners of war, attacked a unit of Czech soldiers crossing Siberia to rejoin the Allies on the Western Front, those suspicions blossomed into fear of a full-fledged German takeover of Russia. The Allies sent troops to key Russian ports to secure the war supplies stockpiled there and provide an exit route for the loyal Czechs. They considered trying to “reopen” the Eastern Front, but realized it would take far too many men. They assumed that when Germany was defeated, their proxy Lenin would eventually fall, and when the war ended, they naturally lost interest. It all makes sense, but only if you see through the eyes that people saw through at the time.

Did it really matter who won the war? In its aftermath, the Great War came to be seen as a colossal waste, a testament to the vanity of nations, of pompous older men sending foolish younger men into the meat-grinder for no good reason. War poems like “Dulce et decorum est” and novels like All Quiet on the Western Front have crystalized this impression. But this was not how people felt at the time. German atrocities in Belgium and on the high seas—some exaggerated, but others quite real—convinced many people that civilization, as they knew it, really was at stake. I was consistently and often surprisingly struck by the sincerity of support, not just on the home front, but among soldiers who had seen the worst of combat, for pursuing the war unto victory. The tone matures, but remains vibrant: these were, for the most part, people who believed in what they were fighting for. At what point the bitter cynicism set in, after the war ended, I cannot say. But at some point, that enthusiasm, and even the memory of it, became buried with the dead.

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Boys wearing bags of camphor around their necks to ward off influenza, 1917

Though, in fact, in many places the war did not actually end. An armistice was declared on the Western Front, and the armies there were disbanded and sent home. But Germany, Austria, and Hungary all descended into revolution and civil war for a time, with gangs of demobilized soldiers fighting on all sides. In Russia, the Soviet regime and its multiple enemies would battle for several years, while trying to reconquer territory surrendered when it quit the war against Germany. The Greeks tried to reclaim Constantinople from the Turks, and would be massacred when the Turks succeeded in reconsolidating their country. The Poles fought wars with the Ukrainians and the Soviets to define the boundaries of their newly independent country. Jews and Arabs continue to fight over the new lands liberated from the Ottoman Empire to this day.

In the Great War itself, over 16 million people died, including almost 7 million civilians. The US got off relatively lightly, with 117,465 people killed, just 0.13 percent of its population. In Serbia, somewhere between 17 percent and 28 percent of the country’s population was killed. But even numbers like these leave little concrete impression on our minds. Some of the most touching parts of my experience live-tweeting were the times when people would tweet back to me about a grandfather or great-uncle who fought and died in the war, and is forever twenty-four-years old in some field in France, or Turkey, or Italy, or at sea. For most people, that absence is what defined the war: someone left and never came home. The world that they shaped, by their presence and their absence, is the one that we live in, whether we realize it or not. And we, like them, can only grope our way forward, day by day, into an unknown future.

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British artillery at the Somme, France, 1916

Dulce et decorum est – the death of Wilfred Owen

Poet Wilfred Owen died on 4 November 1918 – seven days before the guns fell silent. The centenary of his death was marked in the village where he died by a ceremony in which the Last Post was played on a bugle Owen took from a German soldier killed during the battle to cross the nearby Sambre-Oise.

A poignant, fitting tribute by Gerry Condon of Liverpool to all the “doomed youth” of all wars. Lest we forget …

On the road to the last resting place of Wilfred Owen

Ors Communal Cemetery, the last resting place of Wilfred Owen

See also in Into That Howling Infinite,: In the dark times, will there also be singing?, a selection of poetry compiled by Gerry Cordon around the theme of “undefeated despair”

The Twilight of the Equine Gods

The horse has been man’s most important companion – forget cats and dogs – and the most durable of historical alliances – against which every other covenant has been fragile and ephemeral – not even our relationship with our gods has shown a comparable degree of stability. Our story resonates with an equine leitmotif – in our dreams, our fantasies, our histories, our literature, and our movies; in our aesthetics and our notions of speed, strength, power, courage, fortitude, loyalty and beauty.

Hey and away we go
Through the grass, across the snow,
Big brown beastie, big brown face,
I’d rather be with you than flying through space.
Mike Oldfield, On Horseback

Pastorale

Oh the world is sweet
The world is wide
And she’s there where
The light and the darkness divide
And the steam’s coming off her
She’s huge and she’s shy
And she steps on the moon
When she paws at the sky
Leonard Cohen, The Ballad of the Absent Mare

What is there not to love about a horse?

Its big, brown, doe eyes; its earthy, sweaty aroma from a land somewhere between babies and barnyards; the warmth of its neck on your palm; the rough feel of its mane in your fingers; the smell and the squeak of saddle leather; the jingle-bells of the bridle. The strength you sense through your thighs; an exhilaration that is close to fear as you kick his flanks into a trot, a canter, a gallop, and whoa! and you’re never one hundred percent sure she will obey you. And then, when it’s over, the radiated heat, the damp hide, the glow of sweat, almost a mist of equine energy as you dismount after the ride. You feel wired, alive, and at one with the horse, with the land, with nature.

I first rode a horse in the late seventies, on my first visit to Australia with my first wife. Her old man was a doctor on locum in Coolah, ‘beyond of the Black Stump’, which is to say, the back of beyond (and there really WAS a black stump on the outskirts of town, for the infrequent tourist to be photographed by in pre-selfie days). A local farmer had invited us out to ride his large property, and so we rode, in the heat haze of high summer, through wide, dry, open, paddocks, mobs of roos scattering as we approached, flocks of cockatoos roosting riotously in the branches of dead trees, and flies. Yes, I learned about the “Aussie salute” that summer. I fell in love with the Australian bush then and there, the “wide brown land” of Dorothea Mackelllar’s sunburnt country“. A few years later, as a newly arrived immigrant, I would go riding again, this time with country friends in the Dungog cattle country north of Sydney.

I was not a good rider, but I loved the craic. Not a natural like Adele. When we first met, she kept four horses and looked after a whole riding school of them, bringing them in bareback riding, stock-whip cracking, a proper jillaroo. ‘Western pleasure’, it was called. No jackets and jodhpurs – it was cowboy hats, boots and blue jeans – before helmets and Occupational Health and Safety. I rode her gorgeous chestnut quarter horse called Twopence, and she, a handsome palomino named Trigger (of course). A riding accident put me in hospital – and I never rode a horse again.

Twopence & Trigger

That was a decades ago, but living in the bush, I still feel pleasure when I see horses in their paddocks. The sight, sound, and smell strike a melodious, atavistic chord that many would  recognize as distinctively Australian. How many Aussies of a certain age would not thrill at the Banjo’s ballad of the bushman that is almost our national poem:

He hails from Snowy River, up by Kosciusko’s side,
Where the hills are twice as steep and twice as rough,
Where a horse’s hoofs strike firelight from the flint stones every stride,
The man that holds his own is good enough’.

In this centennial year of the Palestine Campaign of WWI and the gallop of the Australian Light Horse towards the strategic Beersheba wells – praised, inaccurately, as history’s last great cavalry charge, the Light Horseman and his hardy “Waler” (from New South Wales) have achieved iconic status in a media supercharged on “Anzackery”. Calmer voices have argued that on the scale of the carnage on the western front, where Diggers died in their thousands, and indeed the Gaza battle itself, where the Anzacs were a very small part of a very large army, it was really no big thing, But never let the facts get between a politician and a photo-opportunity. During the closing scenes of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, the journalist says: “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend”.

And it was always thus. As German academic and cultural scientist Ulrich Raulff’s tells us in his captivating “micro-history” Farewell to the Horse: The Final Century of Our Relationship: 

“Like love and the stock exchange, our historical memory is a motherland of wishful thinking, sacrificed to our faith and blind to known facts…This is why historical myths are so tenacious. It’s as though the truth even when it’s there for everyone to see, is powerless – it can’t lay a finger on the all powerful myth”.

Farewell to the horse

It is an easy segue from my Australian pastorale to Raulff’s illuminating canter through the story of the “Centaurian Pact” between humans and horses. it is at once a ride, a revelation, and a reminiscence of my short-lived ‘cowboy’ days.

“The horse” Raulff begins, “has been man’s most important companion – forget cats and dogs – and the most durable of historical alliances – against which every other covenant into which we have entered has been fragile and ephemeral – not even our relationship with our gods has shown a comparable degree of stability”.

He then recounts how over the span of a few decades, a relationship that endured for six millennia went “to the dogs” – excuse my awful pet-food pun. And it happened almost unremarked, unnoticed, and unsung. “For a century, the oat-powered engine was the universal and irreplaceable power unit of the forced mechanization of the world”. And then it was gone, replaced by the internal combustion engine. And yet, the term “horsepower” is to this day a measure of the performance of vehicle engines (although now mostly replaced by kilowatts) – a horse was the equivalent of seven men.

“The twilight of the equine gods”, as Raulff describes it, was a long goodbye indeed, and in the realm of myth, memory and metaphor, horses are with us still; or as he so lyrically expresses it: “ghosts of modernity” (echoes of Dylan, in my mind, at least) that “haunt the minds of a humanity that has turned away from them”.

Like its subject, Farewell to the Horse is a handsome, wide-ranging, beast. More elegy than epitaph, eclectic and imaginative in scope, viewing the horse as muse, as mount, and as metaphor, Raulff sings the song of the horse – and if ever there was a ‘horse opera’, this is it.

Eloquently and at times poetically translated, and generously illustrated with pictures from galleries, libraries, and photo archives, Raulff takes the reader through the many worlds of the relationship. On his academic home-turf of sociology and psychology, his references are primarily German, but straying from his academic stable, he ambles into a lush and diverse pastureland of history and mythology, politics and philosophy. economics and geography, industry and commerce, physics and biology, science and medicine, sport and recreation. And art and literature: how artists and writers brought their perspectives, personas and passions onto canvas, Kodak and the printed page. In many ways, its infinite variety reminded me of English historian Simon Schama’s fascinating Landscape and Memory.

Raulff has divided his book into four broad thematic sections, each with an evocative title – The Centauran Pact, A Phantom in the Library. The Living Metaphor, and The Forgotten Player – each exploring a particular aspect of the horse’s story. But he allows himself much extempore stream of consciousness as he periodically wanders off-script with childhood reminiscences and collected anecdotes, and dips into favourite paintings, books and films. And time-travels through six thousand years, and traverses the globe too in his long ride – from the Steppes of Eurasia to the Great Plains of America, from the cities of MittelEuropa to those of the Midwest, with side trips to the Middle East and Andalusia.

It was contagious. I too got to thinking beyond the page, recalling and contemplating a miscellany of ideas and images that came to mind whilst reading, and indeed, whilst writing this review, wandering down forgotten bridle-ways (literally, a horse riding path, or trail originally created for use by horses, but often now serving a range of travelers). And is this not what a good book should do?

The Song of the Horse

The horse, the intelligent mammal, the great vegetarian, a prey animal whose strength is in flight, who has no desire or need for confrontation or quarrel. It’s speed, its main asset, enabling it to flee its predators, is also what attracted it to the attention of man, with whom it entered into a long-lived, unequal devil’s bargain. “They were able to turn the inconspicuous potential energy of tough prairie grasses, inedible to almost all other animals into the spectacular energy of a fast endurance runner. Thanks to its natural properties as a converter of energy, the horse could bear kings, Knights, female lovers and rural doctors, draw carriages and cannons, transport hordes of workers and employees, and mobilize entire nations”. And indeed, Raulff takes us on a jaunt   through these tableaux.

He quotes historian Ann Hyland: “it was a small step, albeit a brave one, for man to mount a horse”, and writes: “The comparison with the moon landing is certainly not exaggerated. The moment when man began, by domestication and breeding, to connect his fate to the horse – not with a nutritional intention, but with a vectorial aim – may have been, before the invention of writing, the narrow gate through which man entered the realm of history”.

And lo, our story resonates with an equine leitmotif.

The horse is in our dreams and our fantasies, in our literature, and our movies, in our aesthetics, and our notions of speed, strength, power, courage, fortitude, loyalty and beauty. From the diverse mounts that conveyed Chaucer’s pilgrims to Canterbury to that paragon of American folk culture, the cowboy. From the rambunctious centaurs of Disney’s’ Beethoven Fantasia to the gaunt quartet bearing the seer of Patmos’ horsemen of the Apocalypse. From the teenage innocence of National Velvet and Black Beauty to Thomas Hardy and Carey Mulligan’s sensual and photogenic jaunt in the recent remake of Far From the Madding Crowd. From the patriotic jingoism of Alfred J Tennyson’s The Charge of the Light Brigade and Rudyard Kipling’s East is East and West is West to Banjo Patterson’s blokey bush ballad The Man From Snowy River, which I have quoted above (and will reprise below). The horse has even entered into the invented worlds of science fiction, with Joss Whedon’s rollicking space-pirate adventure, Firefly, and more recently, Westworld with its Wild West theme park populated by lifelike android cowboys and Indians on their robot horses.

Westworld

[If I have one small quibble about Farewell to the Horse, it is in its Eurocentricity. The Land Down Under doesn’t rate a mention even though the horse has played an important role in the evolution of Australia’s perceived national identity – “perceived” because here too, we are captive to that “powerful myth” that Raulff believes subverts fact]

Whilst drawing cleverly on the arts – and the book is well-furnished with illustrations that are  well spoken to in the text – Raulff does not venture into poetry, where there are to be found many wonderful images. Take but a few examples drawn from just one poem, and marvel at the metaphors in Rudyard Kipling’s ‘Boys Own’ tale of a young British officer tracking down a daring Pathan bandit:

The Colonel’s son has taken horse, and a raw rough dun was he,
With the mouth of a bell and the heart of Hell and the head of a gallows-tree”.

“It’s up and over the Tongue of Jagai, as blown dust-devils go,
The dun he fled like a stag of ten, but the mare like a barren doe.
The dun he leaned against the bit and slugged his head above,
But the red mare played with the snaffle-bars, as a maiden plays with a glove”.

“They have ridden the low moon out of the sky, their hoofs drum up the dawn,
The dun he went like a wounded bull, but the mare like a new-roused fawn”.

And, of course, there are the songs. There’s the doomed Texan troubadour Townes van Zandt’s enigmatic anti-hero:

Pancho was a bandit, boys
His horse was fast as polished steel,
Wore his gun outside his pants
For all the honest world to feel
Pancho and Lefty

And whilst Raulff includes a poignant picture of a lone, pedestrian cowboy carrying his saddle through the scrub like a mariner lost on the land, he doesn’t mention Leonard Cohen’s bereft and distraught cowpoke :

Say a prayer for the cowboy
His mare’s run away
And he’ll walk til he finds her
His darling, his stray
The Ballad of the Absent Mare

But more from St. Leonard of Montreal later…

Frederic Remington’s Bronco

A Phantom Limb

The horse’s glory days may be over, but the echoes of a long and fruitful relationship linger in our lines and in our language – in our idioms and our figures of speech: like, “getting back in the saddle”, “pulling the reins” and “taking the reins”, “champing at the bit”, “gaining the whip hand”, and the timeless put-down, “get off your high horse!” Phrases such as these are used everyday by people who have never been physically close to a horse let alone ridden one, and whose visual encounters are limited to country outings, circuses, televised equestrian events and westerns (in Australia, as in the US, we can still enjoy country fairs and carnivals that feature rodeos and endurance rides).

And note that these usages are somehow connected to power, control, and aggression – and often, casual, almost matter-of-fact violence (the idea of being “horse-whipped”) – violence inflicted not only on humans but on the animals too.

Raulff asks: Why is it that the most powerful visual images of horses are in their warrior role?  Does it not say more about ourselves than what was genetically a passive, docile, tame-able (we call it “breaking”) grazer?

Equestrian Statues

Salah ud Din al Ayubi, Damascus

The horse has a complex and varied curriculum vitae. For six millennia, it has been our dependable beast of burden, the bearer of people, packages and progress, shrinking distance and opening up new lands. But it has also been the agent of power, politics and pogroms. A bearer of great ideas, and also of great tyrants.

The horse has long been a living metaphor of power – the absolute political metaphor, indeed.

“The combination of horse and rider is a powerful symbol of domination, and one of the oldest in the book”. The caudillo, the martial “man on horseback” so beloved of painters and sculptors – and of putative dictators (although Stalin and Hitler, Raulff reminds us, despised horses). There’s Alexander the Great on Bucephalus, defeating Darius; David’s conquering Napoleon crossing the Alps; bodacious Boudicca reining in her chariot steeds on The Embankment. To be physically and violently unhorsed is to be taken down literally and figuratively. Hence Richard III’s anguished “my kingdom for a horse”, and George Armstrong Custer and the men of the Seventh Cavalry demountd and doomed on Last Stand Hill.

The rise of the horse changes the position of the people and along with it, their view of the world around them – what Raulff calls the ‘cavalier perspective’. It is rooted in an age-old fantasy of the fusion of man and beast, from centaur to chevalier. The unfortunate Aztecs believed the mounted conquistadors to be half man half beast. That dismissive rebuke “get off your high horse” echoes a primal fear of the mounted marauder, be he the Scythian archer, the Mongol warrior, the rogue knight or the Red Indian (“savage” he was called back in the day) of the Great Plains. Recall the Cossacks lining up on the snow-covered square, about to charge the defenseless marchers in David Lean’s Dr Zhivago. Recall the Dothraki, screaming their war cries, thundering down on the doomed Lannister infantry. “We still see traces of horses’ archaic role as inspirers of terror when required to intimidate picketing workers or to drive rallies of protesters out of shopping precincts”.

Something wicked this way comes – Clive Owen’s Slav King Arthur

During his travels, Raulff visited Israel, where he chanced to observe ultra-orthodox Jews protesting against their youth being conscripted into the Israeli Defense Force. Jerusalem authorities mobilized mounted police officers against the recalcitrant religious. He indulges in pogrom projection, imagining the Haredim being intimated by a Cossack Shtetl flashback. Fanciful, perhaps, but as a young man during the Vietnam demonstrations in London’s Grosvenor Square, I learned that there’s no greater killer of revolutionary passion than the sight of than a wall of fat horse’s arses backing towards you with those nervous hooves a’twitching.

And yet, the use of the horse in this manner forces it to go against its nature, trained to stand its ground in dangerous circumstances when all its instincts are to flee danger. Ostensible police brutality in Grosvenor Square was juxtaposed by the reality that police horses were stabbed by banners and tripped and stoned with glass marbles. Several were so injured that they had to be euthanized.

Horse meets Haredim in Jerusalem

…and meanwhile, in the other side of town

 The Wide Open Spaces

The power bestowed upon men by horses is much more than such authoritarian, martial muscle. The horse enabled landsmen to conquer what Australian historian Geoffrey Blainey called “the tyranny of distance”. For Rudyard Kipling’s “fluttered folk and wild”, it ushered in a tyranny of a malevolent kind.

The horse-led conquests of European and Asian empires during the second millennium BCE by the chariots and later, cavalry of the horse-people disgorging from the steppes like some equestrian blitzkrieg, transformed world history. They brought their political structures, their warfare, their masculine, spiritual character – their “asabiyyeh” or, literally “muscle” as famed Arab historian Ibn Khaldun put it. The Eurasian nomadic warrior, “that ‘natural born’ combatant, who, as tough and austere as his resilient horse, emerged as the terror of the sedentary populations of Europe and the orient”. The same could be said of the warriors of Islam as they erupted out of their Arabian heartland and reached the walls of Constantinople and the frontiers of the Franks.

One powerful factor in these invasions was the horsemen’s speed. “In every contemporary account of the Mongols, great stress is laid on their speed: suddenly they were there, only to vanish and appear somewhere else even more suddenly”. The alliance between man, horse, and the arrow was likewise significant, providing the ability to kill from a distance, whilst moving, on horseback.

“Thanks to the horse, distant territories could be conquered and vast dominions could be established. The horse and its rider made the land they traversed tangible, recognizable, and able to be taken”. The horse became indispensable in terms of control of the land, subduing its inhabitants, and enabling Its exploration. In America, it brought the conquistadors, and in time, ensured that The West was won with catastrophic consequences for the native Americans with the loss their land and hunting grounds .

A Day at the Races

Our pact with the horse was much more up more than the power and the glory, the conquest and the trail-blazing. Horses’ fleetness, stamina and beauty satisfied other, more hedonistic yearnings, and today, their days on the field of battle long over, they serve to give us pleasure – and profit.

And they have always done thus – particularly in the antecedents and descendants of the Ancient Greek hippodrome (named thus for horses and the racing thereof). In the downtime between warring and raiding, hunting and horse and chariot racing attracted many a warrior’s energy and enthusiasm, and provided  less martial spectators with, vicarious thrills. We have been racing horses for as long as they have been our companions, and wagering on their speed and stamina. This passion fostered complementary endeavours in breeding, training, thieving, and gambling.

The racing carnival still exerts an atavistic, ofttimes addictive spell over riders, owners and punters alike. “The spectacle of race day echoes times and indeed conflicts past, the jockeys’ bright colours, representing a return of heraldry, a way of distinguishing otherwise indiscernible participants”.

It’s there you’ll see the jockeys and they’re mounted out so stately,
The pink, the blue, the orange and green, the emblem of our nation,
When the bell was rung for starting, all the horses seemed impatient,
I thought they never stood on ground their speed was so amazing
Galway Races (Ireland, traditional)

In horse racing, nothing and no one is hunted, only the shadows of time”, Raulff notes prosaicly.

American author EC Morgan is similarly lyrical: “Time is a horse you never have to whip”,

In That Howling Infinite recently published a review of Morgan’s masterwork The Sport of Kings, a long and deep story about an old Kentucky horse-breeding family. She displays an unerring instinct for metaphor and music. A horse’s neck shudders under its rider’s hands “like a dreaming dog”. Of the racehorses, she writes: “they exploded out of the gate like doves from a cote”; and, “now the school of horses swung round the turn as if caught in a sweep net”.

Raulff explains why horse racing was indeed ‘the sport of kings: Britain emerged as the world power of thoroughbred racing under the racIng-mad Stuart Kings who transformed the sleepy village of Newmarket into the Mecca of the turf, supplanting hunting with punting as the favourite pastime of the idle rich and the indolent upper classes. When Scots King James wasn’t corralling and coaxing the best minds in the land into producing his beautiful Bible, he was both patron and participant with a keen eye for quality horse-flesh.

Teenage Daydream

Did I mention that horses can be dangerous? They are large, high, broad, heavy, and for all their tameness in the hands of a seasoned rider, they can also be excitable, unpredictable, and wild.  When you take up the reins, you literally put your life in your hands. In My Early Life , his biography of his cavalry days, Winston Churchill wrote: “No hour of life is lost that is spent in the saddle. Young men have often been ruined by owning horses, or through backing horses, but never through riding them, unless, of course, they break their necks, which, taken at a gallop, is a very good way to die”.

But danger can come in other guises.

There was probably no way a cultural scientist trained in sociology and psychology could or would avoid how in its variegated pedigree, the horse has also figured as a sexual metaphor, conjuring up thoughts erotic with images of fair maids carried away by amorous riders. Raulff’s copious images include those famous abduction scenes beloved of renaissance painters, but there are many encounters in literature, art, cinema and song that are much less violent. It is as if the rider’s skill with his mount presages his prowess in the sack. There is titillation, there is temptation, and perhaps, surrender. Picture Ross Poldark cantering broodily across the Cornish clifftop, and lifting his Demelza up onto Seamus’ back (that is indeed his name).

True you ride the finest horse I’ve ever seen,
Standing sixteen one or two with eyes wild and green,
And you ride the horse so well, hands light to the touch.
I could never go with you no matter how I wanted to.
Jimmy McCarthy, Ride On (listen to the song at the end end of this post)

Ross Poldark and Seamus

Ulrich gets into his stride, so to speak, when he commits to print his daydreams of the object of many a teenage baby boomers’ longing, the androgynous, pony-tailed cow-girl. He ponders also the puzzle of pubescent girls and horses – that tom-boy world, temporary “islands in the flowing river of time”: “Somewhere between a doll and a real-life partner, the horse is the ultimate sex toy. It’s the largest, most beautiful and final plaything before the transition from home and family to a new relationship with a sexual partner”.

Arwen Evenstar

Having raised the subject of women on horseback, there no ignoring the Amazons. Legend says that they were adept horse-women. As are the heroines of the literary canon who express their subversive sexuality in equestrian interludes – Emma Bovary, Anna Karenina, and Thomas Hardy’s Bathsheba Everdene. Each are subjected to the author’s affectionate attention. When JRR Tolkien wanted to present a strong and wilful heroine in his ostensibly homoerotic epic, he placed Éowyn on a horse, albeit incognito. But she was the exception to JRR’s macho rule. He would never have sent elf princess Arwen Evenstar out like that. But director Peter Jackson, sensing how well it would translate to film, substituted the luminous Liv Tyler for elf lord Glorfindel to confound the Nazgul riders at the ford of Bruinen.  Here is a Carey Mulligan in glamorous array as Bathsheba:

The Unequal Bargain

There are wealth of emotions associated with horses, such as pride and admiration, a desire for power, fear and joy, compassion, and companionship, and a lust for freedom. The pony is the cowboys’ closest pal. Western star and crooner Roy Rogers described it best:

Who carries your burden, who carries your load
On tumbleweed land or a long dusty road
Who asks you no questions, who tells you no lies
That four legged friend with the two honest eyes
A four legged friend, a four legged friend
He’ll never let you down
He’s honest and faithful right up to the end
That wonderful four legged friend
Roy Rogers, A Four Legged Friend (listen to the song at the end end of this post)

Over two millennia  we have lavished depthless emotion, boundless affection and unlimited treasure upon horses. But we have also been capable of great cruelty both casual and calculated,  – from willful neglect and senseless whipping to silent sacrifice as expendable extras on battlefields and motion picture sets. Raulff documents in prose and picture the violence inflicted upon our “four legged friend”, and also how pathos and sympathy for the horses’ plight evolved into a worldwide movement for the prevention of cruelty to all creatures great and small.

That very same Banjo Paterson who gave us the Snowy Mountain man’s famous ride also glorifying the race track – and yet the annual Melbourne Cup,  Australia’s ‘race that stops a nation’, sees horses killed every year. we as a nation continue to praise and perpetuate what many see as animal cruelty. In Paterson’s day, horses were valuable and relied upon for transport and pleasure – theft was common – yet they were treated appallingly. Read The Man From Snowy River and reflect on the agony the hero inflicts upon his mount, which could barely move by the end of the ride and ‘was blood from hip to shoulder from the spur’. Yet Banjo, like apologists for the deaths on the track today – suggests that the horse was reveling in the chase.

But  horses’ iconic place in our hearts and souls are sealed by their status as mobile metaphors of speed, of grace, of the wind in one’s hair, of wild, exhilarating, uninhibited freedom: “Run wild, run free”, like the troubled teen and the wild blue-eyed white colt in the 1969 British film of that name.

And it is with this in mind that Raulff concludes his epic ride, for it  is one of the most poignant paradoxes that the idea of freedom and movement associated with horses and being on horseback, the image of the wild mustangs in The Misfits and Banjo Paterson’s Colt from Old Regret, is juxtaposed with the reality that this “creature of the wind”, as the Arabs described him, has surrendered her freedom and free will in the service of man.

Quoting the poet Albrecht Schaefer, Raulff tells of how “the horse knows that it would like to be free … but the burden is never ending, and it is rarely allowed to run and has to stand there even when it is frightened and when it is seized by the urge to return to its nature, to flee … It is trapped in eternal captivity, always overshadowed by an inescapable will to which it resigns itself without ever realizing”.

This magnificent animal, Raulff  writes, “held in perpetual captivity, is seen by us as the epitome of all in nature that embodies nobility and magnanimity, stature, pride, and courage”.

Now the clasp of this union
Who fastens it tight?
Who snaps it asunder
The very next night
Some say the rider
Some say the mare
Or that love’s like the smoke
Beyond all repair
Leonard Cohen, The Ballad of the Absent Mare


 Epilogue

The Troubled Trail – an equine parable 

When the white man came into the new world, he brought his horses. He conquered the land and broke it – its ecology, its  pre-Colombian history, and its people.

In the early years, the horses of the conquistadors humbled and harried the Native Americans. In time, many horses scattered and ran wild, and on the open prairie grasslands, they prospered and multiplied. The free people of the plains captured and tamed those feral mustangs, and so mounted, were better able to travel over great distances to fresh pastures and to the wide grazing grounds of the vast herds of buffalo, a rich source of food and fashion.

The horse gave the Native Americans mobility and speed, and an economic asset of value. They began trading horses with their neighbours, and also horse stealing, whilst their mounts gave them the edge in their territorial vendettas with neighbouring tribes. They bought steel axes and knives From the white traders who ventured into their lands from the east, and also, firearms which augmented their already effective mounted archery. This gave them a tactical edge when they first came up against the mounted soldiers of the US Army.

They were a formidable foe, their speed and maneuverability and their skill with bow and rifle, were more than a match for the clumsy, old-school heavy cavalry, and these, indeed, were compelled to adjust their own style and tactics to match their guerrilla adversaries, taking up light weapons – carbines and revolvers – and fighting on foot as circumstances dictated.

The irony of the Battle of Little Big Horn is that George Armstrong Custer and his men rode on to a battlefield in which they were out-horsed, outgunned, and outmaneuvered by their numerically stronger foe. But the US Army exacted a terrible revenge for Little Big Horn. The days of the Plains Indian were numbered as the army and the hunters destroyed the buffalo herds that fed and clothed the tribes, and killed their horses, ending forever their wandering ways. As Neil Young was later to sing in Pocahontas:

They killed us in our tepee
And they cut our women down
They might have left some babies
Cryin’ on the ground
But the firesticks and the wagons come
And the night falls on the setting sun

Frederic Remington’s Braves


The Ballad of the Absent Mare

Leonard Cohen 

Say a prayer for the cowboy
His mare’s run away
And he’ll walk til he finds her
His darling, his stray
But the river’s in flood
And the roads are awash
And the bridges break up
In the panic of loss.

And there’s nothing to follow
There’s nowhere to go
She’s gone like the summer
Gone like the snow
And the crickets are breaking
His heart with their song
As the day caves in
And the night is all wrong

Did he dream, was it she
Who went galloping past
And bent down the fern
Broke open the grass
And printed the mud with
The iron and the gold
That he nailed to her feet
When he was the lord

And although she goes grazing
A minute away
He tracks her all night
He tracks her all day
Oh blind to her presence
Except to compare
His injury here
With her punishment there

Then at home on a branch
In the highest tree
A songbird sings out
So suddenly
Ah the sun is warm
And the soft winds ride
On the willow trees
By the river side

Oh the world is sweet
The world is wide
And she’s there where
The light and the darkness divide
And the steam’s coming off her
She’s huge and she’s shy
And she steps on the moon
When she paws at the sky

And she comes to his hand
But she’s not really tame
She longs to be lost
He longs for the same
And she’ll bolt and she’ll plunge
Through the first open pass
To roll and to feed
In the sweet mountain grass

Or she’ll make a break
For the high plateau
Where there’s nothing above
And there’s nothing below
And it’s time for the burden
It’s time for the whip
Will she walk through the flame
Can he shoot from the hip

So he binds himself
To the galloping mare
And she binds herself
To the rider there
And there is no space
But there’s left and right
And there is no time
But there’s day and night

And he leans on her neck
And he whispers low
“Whither thou goest
I will go”
And they turn as one
And they head for the plain
No need for the whip
Ah, no need for the rein

Now the clasp of this union
Who fastens it tight?
Who snaps it asunder
The very next night
Some say the rider
Some say the mare
Or that love’s like the smoke
Beyond all repair

But my darling says
“Leonard, just let it go by
That old silhouette
On the great western sky”
So I pick out a tune
And they move right along
And they’re gone like the smoke
And they’re gone like this song

 

Grosvenor Square, London 1968

Poll Tax Riots, London 1990

Grosvenor Square 1968