That was the year that was – the road to nowhere

Well we know where we’re going
But we don’t know where we’ve been
And we know what we’re knowing
But we can’t say what we’ve seen
And we’re not little children
And we know what we want
And the future is certain
Give us time to work it out
The Talking Heads

To borrow from Boz, these were the worst of times, these were the strangest of times. So disillusioned were we with our politics and our politicians, so dispirited by the sad state of the plant, so fissured and fractured as a society, with our intractable culture wars, we retreated into own private Idahos, pulled up the drawbridge and settled in with our iPads and iPhones and our Foxtel with the vino collapso and watched all the fun of the fair.

The mellifluous but perennially entertaining Donald Trump had a bad year, and a resolute Theresa May likewise. Confounding critics, she endeavours to persevere as she steers her foundering shipm of State towards Brexit and China’s Uighur Muslims. Barbaric Da’ish had a bad year (which was rather a good thing) , as did the unfortunate Rohinga of Myanmar, and the long-suffering people of Gaza.. Resilient Bashar Assad had a good year, with a little help from his Russian, Iranian and Hezbollah friends, but the wars of the Ottoman succession grind on. Vladimir Putin and the fat conductor Kim Jong Un had an excellent year, courtesy of POTUS. Angela Merkel lost her sparkle but royal Markle sparkled, and the luminous Taylor Swift, all legs and lipstick, emerged from her apolitical closet to swing the vote against the Donald in the US midterms. Her trim gluteus maximus starredin a court case that typified a year that saw women stand up strongly against years of aberrant male behaviour.

The Australian parliament devolved into a circus of tantrums and turncoats as the Liberal and National coalition devoured its own in a year book-ended by smutty sexual scandals, whilst canny Labor kept its powder dry for what bodes to be an whopping electoral victory in 2019. We wished that our rulers and representatives would stop behaving like children and start running the country and governing it for all of us.and then the children walked out of school en mass and told us that when they grew up they’d do a better job. The circus clowns huffed and puffed and denigrated the young ones – which only served to embarrass them more for their paucity of vision and partisan division.

And so, to the year in review:

During what was to many observers a dispiriting year of division and destruction, In That Howling Infinite maintained its  watch  with an eclectic mix of commentary, commemoration, culture and comedy. It was a big year – some forty posts in all. So many indeed that decided to reposted my favourite top five – those that I most enjoyed writing – on In That Howling Infinite’s Facebook page. See these at the conclusion of this review.

In a December post, Free Speech, One Each, we expressed disappointment with the ignorance, naivety, and self-absorption of electorates, left and right: their lack of historical knowledge and of curiosity, an unhealthy and self-defeating habit of accepting facts, narratives and theories based upon their preconceptions and prejudices. Nowadays, it often seems as if the reasonable middle has been excised from political discourse, drained out by the shrill voices of the extremes with their identity politics, virtue signalling, and vested interests. Social media has exacerbated the situation as folk lock themselves into their own echo chambers, listening only to those with whom they agree, ignoring or even avoiding contrary opinions and perspectives. It is a self-defeating, delusional, zero-sum form of groupthink that erodes trust and goodwill and prevents the development of consensus and cooperation. Meanwhile, opportunistic politicians and commentators build their constituencies by appealing to the particularistic, even atavistic wants and fears of their followers. Too often this reduces things down to atavistic lowest common denominators. They literally seize the low moral ground. Peoples problems and fears are real enough, and do need to be solved or allayed, but too often they are gulled, manipulated and recruited by modern-day snake-oil salesmen and show-tent shysters.

It was with this in mind that we caste a weary and cynical eye over Australian politics and society, particularly the ongoing history and culture wars, beginning in January with the self-explanatory We’ve Got The Australia Day Blues , and continuing with Conservatism in CrisisMilo Downunder, an alt-right love story, and the ongoing angst about the Ramsay Centre and its proposed university course on western civilization. Never in recent memory have so many words been printed about so little – at least not until the right’s last holy war. And so, there is The long, dark teatime of The Australian’s soul and its sequel The Oz’s lonely crusade. By year’s end, both sides appear to have run out of puff and the course will most likely end up in small regional campuses rather than the prestigious halls of Sydney and Melbourne.

Southern Discomfort.

The year’s leitmotif was the ongoing fiftieth anniversary of 1968, a tumultuous year for the world, and a formative one for myself personally. Stories of the events of that year are interspersed my own recollections – what I was doing at at the time, and what was going through my youthful head.  In Encounters with Enoch, I revisit English politician Enoch Powell’s controversial ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech. Then it’s Springtime in Paris as I recall les Évènements de Mai. And thence to Prague and the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia with Tanks for the memory – how Brezhnev changed my life. Finally, there was the year in review with Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold – 1968 revisited.

2018 was also the centenary of the armistice that ended The Great War. November 1918 – the counterfeit peace discussed how for many countries and peoples in Europe and beyond, the conflict and the bloodshed continued. We also shared a poignant, fitting tribute by Gerry Condon  to all the “doomed youth” of all wars with Dulce et ducorem est – the death of war poet Wilfred Owen

There were other anniversaries. The Wild Wood and the Wide World revisited Kenneth Grahame’s riverbank pastorale The Wind in the Willows 110 years after it’s publication. Ghosts of the Gulag, which followed on from an earlier discussion of film The Death of Stalin released earlier in the year, looked at the contribution of Alexander Solzhenitsyn on the fiftieth anniversary of The Gulag Archipelago. The Russian theme continued with Whoar! And Peace – a light look at the BBC’s recent racey adaptation of Tolstoy’s celebrated house-brick.

The fiftieth anniversary of the death of John Steinbeck inspired The last rains came gently – Steinbeck’s dustbowl Blues. This featured the complete first chapter of The Grapes of Wrath, describing the unfolding of an environmental disaster. Two other posts also covered ecological bad news stories: The return of the forest wars in Australia, and Losing Earth – the decade we almost stopped climate change.

As always, the politics and people of the Middle East feature prominently in In That Howling Infinite. January kicked off with Ahed Tamimi – A Family Affair, a discussion about the young Palestinian activist and the first family of the resistance. Out of season, we visited the birthplace of the Christ child with O Little Town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie and tell the story of a border town that has existed since the beginning of recorded history. We considered whether an Israeli-Palestinian confederation was possible, and republished Israel author David Grossman’s A Fortess But Not Yet a Homeand a review of author Amos Oz’ Dear Zealots – letters from a divided land. Sadly, Oz passed on 28th December, his death and that of the indomitable Uri Avnery (see last September’s Seeing through the eyes of “the other’) in August saw the passing of two of the most forthright intellectual proponents of the receding ‘two state solution’. We also reviewed  the intimations, imperfections and implications of Donald Trump’s “ultimate deal”, an ostensible end to the intractable Arab-Israeli conflict but which is effectively Throwing Abbas under the bus. The wider Arab and Islamic world features in Islam’s house of many mansions, and, in the wake of the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the Yemen war, we consider the possibility of Sanctioning Saudi -1973 revisited.

Our history posts were as eclectic as ever. We continued our series of Small Stories with a profile of The Monarch of the Sea, Prince Roy of Sealand, the smallest country in the world, and The Odyssey of Assid Corban from a tiny village in Lebanon to a wine dynasty in Auckland, New Zealand. A video of University College Dublin’s celebrated Choral Scholars inspired a look at an old Jacobite song  Mo Ghile Mear, whilst the anniversary of the Irish rebellion of 1798 recalled another song and a host of personal memories: The Boys of Wexford – memory and memoir. We reviewed two historical novels. In Cuddling up to Caligula, we discovered a soft side to the controversial Roman Emperor; whilst melancholy Martin Sparrow’s Blues shone fresh light on the travails of Australia’s early white settlers. And a review of Ulrich Raulff’s Farewell to the Horse, a history of man’s long relationship with our four-legged friend, galloped away from me as we sang the song of the horse with The Twilight of the Equine Gods  – part history, part memoir, part prose-poem.

And that was the year that was.

And the top five?

Number five was that slap that resounded around the world – the story of young Ahed Tamimi and her family. Four, the tale of melancholy Martin SparrowThree, the Jacobite love song Mo Ghile Mear – Irish myth and melody. Two, the reverie of 1968. And, number one, my very, very favourite and indeed, a labour of love, The Twilight of the Equine Gods

Happy New Year. See you on the other side.

Our reviews of previous years: 20172016 2015

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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.

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.

Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

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.

Historica Graphica Collection/Heritage Images/Getty Images

British artillery at the Somme, France, 1916

Whoar! And Peace

Or, Gone with the balalaikas

Random thoughts on the latest television dramatization of War and Peace which showed on free-to-air here in Australia in September.

In the early ‘seventies, I went through a ‘Russian’ phase, wading patiently and pensively through the greatest literary hits of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Turgenev and Solzhenitsyn. They seemed to suit my temperament during the cold, damp winter months as I journeyed back and forth on the London Undergound to mundane and monotonous temp jobs. I recall watching all seven hours of Sergei Bondarchuk’s epic ‘sixties adaptation in one overnight sitting at at an art house cinema in Bloomsbury Square in 1973. But I fell asleep during the thunderous battle of Borodino. The BBC crammed its 1972 adaptation of War and Peace into fifteen hours over twenty episodes – the film that shot Anthony Hopkins and Robert Powell to stardom.

How on earth do you compress some 1,500 close-typed pages into just six one-hour episodes, as the Beeb’s  latest period piece does?  A lot, obviously, has to go.

So, out go all the long expositions and naval-gazing ruminations. There no need to ponder much on the inner manifestations of the ‘Russian soul’, whatever that might be. The philosophizing that was left in felt lightweight and incongruous against the splendor of the social scene, the rural vista, the battlefields, and great historical events. Hence Andre’s deepandmeaningfull thoughts on glory, and latterly, on bucolic visions, seemed a tad intrusive. Pierre’s thoughts on freedom. freemasonry and, latterly, after his near-death experiences, on brotherly love and the simple life, appear lightweight and cloying.

And to suit our twenty-first century tastes, in comes some glamorous naughtiness – a surfeit of sexy bits which old Leo Tolstoy would probably have loved but would never have committed to print, with some poetic license (or licentiousness), bare thighs and cleavage, so that we well and truly got the message. It was, nonetheless a “polite society” sans filth, blood, and profanity.

What Tolstoy left to surmise and imagination, this down-sized saga leaves no sheet unturned. Helene and Anatole Kuragin really do appear to have had it off together, and she does indeed bonk Nikolai’s mates Dolokhov and Drubetskoy, and sundry others – she was quite clearly the Petrograd bike. And, of course, she comes to a bad, hallucinogenic, and sanguinary end. The families are well drawn, and quite humorously depicted. The scheming, naughty Kuragins; the affectionate and lighthearted Rostovs, headed up by their bumbling, adoring and ultimately impecunious papa – well played by comedian Adrian Edmondson. The uptight, and undemonstrative Bolkonskys, with Jim Broadbent giving a masterclass in fine acting – “best in show” indeed. We get a fair if Kubrikesqe ‘Eyes Wide Shut’ picture of Pierre Bezukhov’s wicked, dissolute lifestyle, and his faltering, stumbling road to redemption.

So, does this truncation of the big book work? I would say yes. The story flowed, the various story-lines held together, and it was relatively easy to keep track of the characters by their appearance if not by their long names. The best way to judge a serialization is by the question: do you finish an episode looking forward to the next? And the answer is yes.

As for the cast, it appears like anyone who was anybody in British television drama or comedy, looked good in historical costume and was not in Game of Thrones, got a gig and a chance to do Napoleonic dress-ups – with the exception perhaps of Colin Firth, Aiden Turner, Jenna Coleman and Claire Foy.

Lily James is gorgeous in an elfin, ingenue way. Although her Natasha Rostova looks and behaves like an eighteen year old throughout, and not the thirteen years old who ages in years and wisdom as portrayed by Tolstoy. She sang beautifully, and she sure can dance. The famous Natasha’s Dance scene was nicely done if too brief. It was over too quickly and failed to show how important this particular scene was to Tolstoy ; in the book, the Rostovs retire to a wooden hut at the end of a day’s hunting, where folk songs are played to the balalaika. Natasha dances to a song, but it is not a waltz or polka she is doing – instinctively, she dances like a peasant girl. The Russian soil is in her blue blood.

Paul Dano, the slim, young, scheming, preacher of There Will Be Blood, as Pierre Bezukov? Still slim and young looking, though “kinda funny looking” as they say in Fargo-speak. But portraying the tall, fat, shortsighted, dissolute and bumbling Pffierre? Amazingly, it seems to have worked. His is a credible performance, although his “niceness” to the Rostovs and Bolkonskys, and his transformation to all-round good guy could be quite irritating. Inept, opinionated, inadequate, and out of his depth both romantically and socially. My favourite Pierre moment in the book is when he resolves to  liberate or lighten the burden on his serfs – a subject close to Tolstoy’s heart – and how his steward circumvents his wishes. This was not even touched on in the film.

Jim Broadbent as the crusty, cranky old curmudgeon Bolkonsky Senior was a tour de force. He stole every scene he was in, and although he was not like I imagined from the book – less ascetic, more rough-edged – he was the best character in the film.

Adrian Edmondson, Jennifer Saunders’s other half, and bad boy of The Young Ones and Bottom, was an unexpected delight as the genial but incompetent Rostov patriarch. He played it for laughs, and his decline under financial pressures and family tragedy was nicely handled.

James Norton’s wannabe martial hero Andrei Bolkonsky was a stitched up, uptight, frustrating, and irritating jerk. You wanted to give him a good shake. And that’s just how Tolstoy would have liked it. He looked good, especially in uniform, and carried himself just as a stitched up, uptight jerk would. I guess that makes his apotheosis and death all the more interesting. So nice that everyone got to say their goodbyes. The Gladiatoresqe ‘out of body’, vanishing into into the Russian sunset sequence as he passed on was a bit too much, but.

Jessie Buckey as his sister Princess Marya was excellent. Whilst she was in no way as plain and unprepossessing as Tolstoy painted her, her “ugly duckling” transformation was lovely to behold. I actually felt happy that she finally found happiness. She had to lose her father and brother to find herself, and also, find Nikolai, the naive and gallant hussar.

Jack Lowden’s Nikolai, Natasha’s air-headed, profligate brother, was very well cast. A selfish prick who takes his folks for granted (and bankrupts them for bad measure), and treats pretty, poor, patient, pauper Sonya terribly, he has awful taste in friends (except for loyal Denisov) and plays a terrible game of cards,. But he sings beautifully (his duet with Natasha is a delight), and looks great in uniform.

Tuppence Middleton played Helene Kuragin as the soap-opera bad girl. She looked good, took her clothes off, wore see-through fashions, and camped it up (would Tolstoy have let her out like that, I wonder? He would doubtless of appreciated her “indoors,). And you couldn’t wait for Pierre to kick her out.

Helene and Anatole Kuragin

Minor characters were presented – with the exception of Matthieu Kannovitz’s Napoleon – a very poor caricature. I liked Brian Cox’s Kutuzov, but for me, he will always be Dalgeish of Deadwood. And Aneurin Barnard was excellent as the opportunistic Boris Drubetskoy. His meeting with Napoleon was a hoot. He is a great actor, having portrayed Cilla Black’s Bobby in Cilla, and David Bailey in We’ll Take Manhattan . Rebecca Front was very good as his scheming, impecunious and irritating Mama – well remembered from the comedies The Thick of It and Nighty Night, and still, to a degree, playing it for laughs – even when securing Pierre’s inheritance by wrestling a soon-to-be disappearing will from the hands of his avaricious relatives.

Stephen Rea played Prince Vassily Kuragin with a supercilious lugubriousness, whilst Callum Turner portrays his son Anatole as a card-board cut-out rake. Gillian Anderson, looked resplendent as society hostess Anna Pavlovna Scherer, did not have very much to do except play, well, a society hostess. And lastly, there was Tom Burke’s over-the-top bad-boy Fedor Dolokhov. As Tolstoy himself put it: “There are three things I love to do!’ he roared. ‘Fight, drink, and I can’t remember the other one … “ And: “I think you’re an absolute ruffian,’ Helene tutted, branding him ‘disgusting.’

One judges the success of a visual dramatization by how well renders the original’s iconic scenes and set-pieces. Here then is a brief critique.

The famous, plot-setting grand ball was nicely done – the set, the clothes, and the dancing, building up well to Nat and Andy’s meeting and floor show. Natasha’s Dance at the Rostov dacha, so iconic and important to Tolstoy’s narodnik sympathies, was, however, disappointingly undercooked.  Bezukhov and  Dolakhov’s duel in the snow , was deftly done, demonstrating what a foolish, deadly practice this was. Pierre’s Freemason initiation was risably pythonesqe – all signs and handshakes and overdone dramatics. Why bother?

The French Invasion of 1812, heralded Halley’s Comet, as a vast army crossing the Neimen, Boney’s fateful Rubicon, is melodramatically underwhelming but perhaps, to be otherwise would have required a very big budget. and yet, the battle of Borodino – I was awake for this one – was probably the best screen portrayal of this bloodbath that I have seen. The French occupation of Moscow was cliched and cursory, whilst the burning of the city, always difficult portray in film, came across as cut-price CGI. The disastrous French retreat from Moscow, prisoners in tow,  was likewise difficult to portray, but somehow, by thinking small and focusing on the micro-dramas of the debacle, and with some cold-weather channeling of David Lean’s Dr Zhivago, it actually worked.

And finally, when the tumult and the shouting ended, the captains and the kings departed, and the characters have met their various ends or apotheoses, what of that bucolic happy families ending?

As Tolstoy himself was to say, in the opening lines of another weighty tome, all happy families are alike. The rural family barbecue was a derivative denouement. The surviving members of the three families, now three generations, gather together after all their trials and tribulations in an idyllic rustic lifestyle bought and paid for with Bezukhov and Bolkonsky money. It is reminiscent of the final scene in Cold MountainShenandoah, How the West was Won, The Sound of Music, and many others in which ‘Good’ eventually triumphs over despair, deprivation and disaster – you know how it goes: “We’re so glad all the bad stuff is over and done – may our lives now be pleasant and delightful”. Or as Tint Tim (of Dickens’ fame, not Tulips) declaimed, “God bless us all!”

But, Tolstoy’s drawn-out, ponderous and indeed, anticlimactic and awful “getting of wisdom” finale would not have worked on screen. “Thankfully!” many would declare.  And anyhow, isn’t this how the classic hero’s quest is meant to end: with revelation redemption, reunion, and a kind of contentment. The old Count, in his mystical, mythic way, wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.

And after six hours of pretty good entertainment, who am I to blow against the wind?


Here’s what the papers said:

And here is all you ever wanted to know about Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, but were put off by three inches of closely-typed mall print:

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy – digested read

We’re going to speak Frussian, join the army, fall in love, fall out of love, get very cold, and then die
Illustration: Matt Blease
                                                                Illustration: Matt Blease

It was July 1805, and all St Petersburg was concerned about the advance of Bonaparte. Though not so much as to cancel a soiree at which Pierre, a bastard by birth but not by nature, was to be introduced to Russian society.

“Pierre is not one of nous,” several guests observed. “Not only does he forget choses but he doesn’t speak Frussian. Et he drinks even plus que nous.”

Prince Andrew, a bastard by nature but not by birth, cleared his throat delicately. “As a member of the officer class, I have decided to join the army,” he declared.

“I shall join the hussars,” Nicholas declared, while his sister Natasha eyed up potential husbands. They might become rather scarce.

Pierre checked his fob watch. The pages were turning faster than he expected and his father had now died. “I seem to find myself the richest man in Russia.”

War proved more terrible than either Andrew or Nicholas has expected. Dreams as well as men got killed. “How I embrace death,” Andrew murmured as the battle of Austerlitz raged. “Pas so vite,” said Napoleon. “Permettez-moi de vous donner une main. Now I must wash my chubby little body.”

“I’m home,” said Andrew as his wife died in childbirth.

Pierre felt the burden of expectation and married Helene but, helas, she had a bit on the cote. The anguish was intolerable, but Pierre felt obliged not to kill his love rival in a duel and left St Petersburg for many years to ruminate on Freemasonry before deciding a knotted handkerchief was not for him. Instead, he chose to improve the lot of his serfs, who had up till now remained entirely invisible. “Harrumph,” he concluded at last. “I cannot improve their lot because they have never had it so good.” Tolstoy nodded approvingly, lifting his eyes momentarily from the handsome handmaiden beneath him.

“So, 500 roubles on the peace lasting,” said Nicholas, as Napoleon and the Tsar embraced in friendship, thereby losing the remains of the Rostov fortune.

“I am distraught,” Andrew declared as Natasha fell dangerously ill.

It was now 1812 and Pierre was beside himself as the French approached Moscow. “‘I am deranged with symbolism and Helene has left me even though I left her first. I vow to kill Napoleon,” he said.

Je ne peux pas believe que je have just perdu the battle of Borodino,” Napoleon squeaked, his shoe-lifts giving him gip. “The French had by lointhe best army.”

“But Russia had nature and spirituality on its side,” said Tolstoy while a chorus of Volga boatmen sang patriotic songs.

“Can you not faire quelque chose about the fumee in Moscow?” asked Napoleon. “Et quand will I receive the surrender?”

Jamais,” Mother Russia replied. First scorched earth, then General Winter. War is hell.

Pierre hovered between madness and death as the French performed atrocities during their withdrawal from the icy embrace of Mother Russia.

“There is a nobility in being broke,” said Nicholas’s aunt. “So I am going to give you some more money.” “Oh, thank you,” Nicholas replied. “Now I can marry Mary. And maybe you and Andrew can make up now, Natasha?”

“I forgive you, Natasha,” said Andrew, before dropping dead.

“That’s handy,” said Pierre, appearing out of nowhere. “Maybe I can marry you instead.”

“Yes please,” Natasha whimpered. “I can give up my singing, we can have four children and I can become a right old drudge, because Leo thinks that submission is a woman’s natural state.”

Tolstoy bowed his head. He was tired. The novel was a difficult thing. Not that his book was a novel, of course. Though people would be bound to call it that. Fools all of them. We can only know we know nothing.

 Hear Simon Callow read John Crace’s digested War and Peace on the BBC Today programme

Tanks for the memory – how Brezhnev changed my life

Fifty years ago this month, on August 20, 1968, troops from the Warsaw Pact, a military alliance formed in 1955 between the Soviet Union and seven Eastern European nations in its thrall invaded Czechoslovakia to crush liberal reforms enacted by communist leader Alexander Dubçek in the brief era known as the Prague Spring. In ex post factum justification, the following month, Leonid  Brezhnev, General Secretary if the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, expounded what became known as The Brezhnev Doctrine: “When forces that are hostile to socialism try to turn the development of some socialist country towards capitalism, it becomes not only a problem of the country concerned, but a common problem and concern of all socialist countries”.

The Brezhnev Doctrine was meant to counter liberalization efforts and uprisings that had that challenged Soviet hegemony inside the Eastern Bloc, considered by Moscow as an essential defensive and strategic buffer in the event hostilities were to break out with NATO, the western alliance. In practice, it meant that  bloc members enjoyed but limited independence. Any challenge to the cohesiveness of the Eastern Bloc, whether, by either threatening the communist parties’ grip on power, or Lenin forbid, actually attempt to secede, the Soviet Union assumed  the authority and the power to define “socialism” and “capitalism“, and to act militarily to defend the status quo.

With Dubçek detained and Prague occupied, the country was subsequently taken over by a hard-line Communist regime subservient to Moscow. In 1968 alone, 137 people were killed by Warsaw Pact soldiers, and a total of more than 400 died during an ccupation of that ended only after the 1989 Velvet Revolution, following the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, when veteran dissident poet Vacláv Havel became the first and last democratically elected president of Czechoslovakia – he served from 1989 until the dissolution of Czechoslovakia in 1992 when he became the first President of the Czech Republic. 

The events in Prague in August 1968 are described and appraised in an recent, informative ‘long read’ in The Independent, republished below.

With friends like these…

But first, as part of a continuing chronicle of the events of 1968 in Into That Howling Infinite (see below), here are some recollections of my own.  

The Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia was in many ways a seminal event in my own journeying. Until then, I was a political ingenue and a naive communist (yes, a member – the only party I have ever joined!) fellow-traveler, although my evolving perspectives were transforming and expanding as I studied the history and politics of Russia and the Soviet Union, under the tutelage of exiled Hungarian academic Tibor Szamuely.

The summer’s events in what is now-bisected Czechoslovakia occurred against a backdrop of anti-war demonstrations in the US, including the Kent State shootings (“four dead in Ohio”), the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, and the tumultuous evenements de Mai ‘68 in Paris. These came as I was writing a dissertation on the Hungarian Rising of 1956 – a tragic precursor to Prague and to Brezhnev’s doctrine – and provided a pertinent background narrative and also, a coda for my story.

The shock-waves of the Prague pogrom rippled through my own world the following August when I was contemplating how to spend my summer vacation once I had earned enough money on the motorway construction site to pay for my travels.

I had a Czech friend – self-exiled Camille –  who encouraged me to visit his country that summer and to  drop in on his folks in Prague. Having completed my dissertation, I was pretty keen to visit such a historical and controversial city. So I booked a one-way ticket to Prague on British Caledonia – my first-ever aeroplane flight! It was my intention to visit the place where “Good King Wenceslas last looked out” and then head home to England via Austria and Germany. 

But, as they say, man proposes, God disposes. Or life is what happens when you are busy making other plans. The date I’d chosen to travel just happened to fall a year to the day of the Soviet invasion. Our turboprop plane headed east into what was still the Soviet Bloc – that had twenty yeqrs to run – and flew OVER Prague! The first we happy travellers – students mostly – knew was that we were circling to land in the Hungarian capital of Budapest.

So there we were, in passport control, without visas and accommodation, our itineraries awry, amidst border officials who were wondering who the hell we were and what the f@$£ we were doing there in their portal to the Iron Curtain. Eventually, things were sorted, visas issued, money exchanged (exorbitantly, as was the way in those days), and a bus provided to take us to a Communist Party Youth hostel, bleak, spartan, and crowded with enthusiastic, gorgeous Young Communist lads and lasses.

So there I was, in my first communist country. And, you know what, “they who know only England, who only England know”. I walked through old Buda and Pest, strolled by the Danube and the Sejm, the famous parliament building, walked the boulevards of my dissertation, and saw the scars of battle still there in the brickwork twelve years after the doomed Intifada of 1956. 

I’d heard and read about how the affluent and decadent west was an altogether different and better world than the drab, depressed and depressing cities of the workers’ paradises to our east. And yet, to my ingenue eyes, the look, life and life-style of Budapest appeared no better or worse than my Birmingham and Berkshire backwaters. 

Maybe it was because of my youth, inexperience, and background – maybe I hadn’t traveled enough to interpret and to judge. Apart from brief Boy Scout and schoolboy excursions into Europe-lite, Brit-friendly Belgium and Luxembourg, this was my first foray into distinctly ‘foreign’ lands with histories, cultures, governance, and world views quite different to the fields that I had known. 

I’d like to think that perhaps it is something intrinsically part of my software – an ability to adapt, accept, empathize, and, as far as it is indeed possible for a stranger, to become one with the scenery and slip into the machinery, and, to put it bluntly, take it all at face value.  As a “stranger in a strange land”, I accepted what I saw, observed, heard and learned, moved on – to quote American beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti – like “a mirror walking down a strange street’. For this is how I traveled in thise roving years, leaving very little by way of words and pictures of my travelling. All I saw, heard, observed, felt and learned was mostly stashed away on my hard-drive to be accessed in latter years – waiting, perhaps, for the advent of social media, blogs and highly portable electronic devices. 

Given the circumstances of our arrival, and the atmosphere prevailing in the Bloc on the anniversary of Prague invasion, the authorities had given me a visa for four days only. I had therefore to depart the country quick-smart. I had effectively two choices of non-Soviet countries –  westwards to Austria, or south to what was then Yugoslavia. In a split second decision, I took the road less traveled – south to Szeged and the Serbian border. Wondering through the rural outskirts of Novi Sad, I was taken home by a pair of Serbian boys. I spent my first evening with their most hospitable family and slept that night on a bed of furs. “Novi Sad, Beograd” the lads had chanted, and so, instead of setting my direction home, I hitch-hiked south to the ancient Danube city of Belgrade.

In the Yugoslav capital, I resolved to keep going southwards. Over the next two weeks, I transited Yugoslavia to Thessaloniki, where decided to continue with my southern odyssey – to Athens and the Greek Islands. At journeys end, I hitchhiked back the way I’d come, only this time, reaching Austria via the Croatian capital of Zagreb. 

That impulsive decision in Budapest led me into new pastures. Back in Britain, an Indian summer gave way to bleak autumn and dark and damp winter, and my compass re-calibrated. I had been focused on Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, on deep history and the Russian ‘soul’ (whatever that might be), on ideologies, betrayals, and Cold War skulduggery. But the clear Hellenic sky and the cobalt blue of the Mediterranean, the parched hills and pine woods of the Peloponnese, the dazzling light and the warm sun on my body, and the ruins and bones of antiquity sang a siren’s song. As Jack Bruce warbled:

You thought the leaden winter would bring you down forever, but you rode upon a steamer to the violence of the sun. And the colours of the sea bind your eyes with trembling mermaids, and you touch the distant beaches with tales of brave Ulysses. 

My thoughts and dreams no longer ranged eastwards. My next journey took me back to the Mediterranean, and thence, following in the footsteps of Alexander the Great – the golden hero of legend, not the “mad, bad and dangerous to know” destroyer – through the Middle East and on to the Hippy Trail to India. There and back again, to quote JRR Tolkien, so fresh in my undergraduate canon. I traveled through lands of which I knew little, picking up fragments of history and heritage, parables and politics as onwards I roamed. 

Through the lands of antiquity and of empire: Greece and Cyprus; Egypt and Israel; the Levant (old French for the lands of the rising sun – Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan; Iraq before Saddam, and Iran under the Shah; Pakistan and India, who went to war with each other whilst I crossed their frontiers (a story for another time); and then back to Britain by way of Turkey and the fabled Pudding Shop.

I stood beside the great rivers of ancient stories – the Nile, the Jordan and the  Orontes, the Tigris and Euphrates, the Indus and the Ganges. I traveled though deserts and mountains, the Himalayas and the Hindu Kush. I climbed through the Kyber Pass, immortalised by imperial  endeavour and hubris, and the valley of Kashmir, a betrayed and battered paradise. I stood atop ancient stones in Memphis and Masada, Baalbek and Babylon, Jalalabad  and Jerusalem. 

On my return, I resolved to learn more about these lands, their peoples, and their histories, and this I did. The Middle East has long-since captivated and colonized much of my intellectual life,  Imbuing it with a passion that has found expression in my persona. my politics, my prose, my poetry, and my songs.

In these troubled times, much of the world I once traveled is closed to the casual and the curious. I mourn for those dear, dead days when the map of the world was a signpost and not a warning. But today, I go wherever and whenever I can go, and I feel a wonderful sense of homecoming when I touch down in the bright sunlight. I get the thrill of fresh adventure when I arrive in new places with their sights, sounds and aromas. I reclaim and revel in the curiosity and wonder, knowledge and understanding, awareness and wisdom that was born back there in Budapest. 

And that is how Leonid Brezhnev changed my life!

These are the lands of testament and prophecy, of sacrifice and sacrament, of seers and sages, of vision and vicissitude, of warriors and holy men. The spiritual and the temporal have melded here since time immemorial. We still see the remnants of ancient empires and the echoes of their faiths. We can chart their decline and fall in the fortunes of their monuments and their mausoleums, in the “tumbled towers and fallen stones, broken statues, empty tombs” where “ghosts of commoners and kings walk the walls and catacombs of the castles and the shrines”. Histories carved in stone,  mysteries locked in stone, as “canyons and castles pass ageless and ageing and captive in time”.  Forward to East – An Arab Anthology. 

See also, A Middle East Miscellany

Here are other posts in In That Howling Infinite with regard to 1968:  Things fall apart – the centre cannot hold;  Springtime in Paris – remembering May 1968and Phil Och’s Chicago Blues 

And the ‘sixties: Encounters with Enoch; Recalling the Mersey Poets; The Strange Death of Sam Cooke; Looking for LehrerShock of the Old – the glory days of prog rock; Window on a Gone World; Back in the day; and, The Incorrigible Optimists Club

Tanks for the memory


The Prague Spring: 50 years on what can we learn from Czechoslovakia’s failed attempt to reform communism?

Mick O’Hare, The Independent, 19 August 2018

Soviet tanks arrive to crush the ‘Prague Spring’ ( AFP/Getty )

Fifty years ago this week, on 21 August 1968, the citizens of Prague awoke to find tanks on their streets. For some it came as no surprise. Student activist Pavel Kamenicky was sleeping. “At first I thought it was the university bus trying to find the right gear,” he says. “But I realised it was way too loud. I jumped up thinking, ‘they’ve come’.”

Czechoslovakia had dominated news bulletins throughout the summer after its premier, First Secretary Alexander Dubcek, had begun reforming his communist government’s structures earlier that year. But now, what had become known as the Prague Spring, or Dubcek’s “socialism with a human face”, was lying crushed beneath the tank tracks in Wenceslas Square.

The Soviet Union feared its grip on the satellite states of eastern Europe was loosening and its patience had finally run out. Czechoslovakia and Dubcek had fallen foul of USSR leader Leonid Brezhnev’s eponymous doctrine, espoused retroactively in justification the month after Warsaw Pact troops took to Prague’s streets: “When forces that are hostile to socialism try to turn the development of some socialist country towards capitalism, it becomes not only a problem of the country concerned, but a common problem and concern of all socialist countries,” Brezhnev said.

Soviet forces, alongside those of Poland, Hungary and Bulgaria, crossed the Czechoslovakian border at 11pm on the evening of 20 August. East Germany withdrew at the last minute when it was realised that, just over two decades after the end of the Second World War, the presence of German troops on Czech and Slovak soil could lead to unintended repercussions. The following morning, the foreign soldiers were in the capital, offering fraternal support to loyal comrades in Czechoslovakia.

Soviet tanks had intervened in post-war eastern Europe before. Towards the end of October in 1956, Hungarians revolted against their Marxist-Leninist government and declared a new administration, withdrawing from the Warsaw Pact and disbanding the communist-run state security apparatus. But barely two and half weeks later the western world watched aghast, but impotent, as Soviet forces entered Budapest to restore one-party rule.

Yet there had been real hope that Czechoslovakia could be different. 1968 was, of course, a year of revolution and political protest across the planet. But the Czechoslovak version was in many ways a rather gentler form of dissent. Dubcek had never set out to overthrow communism, merely to reform it.

The nation’s planned economy had been in decline throughout the 1960s. Dubcek had replaced previous first secretary, Antonín Novotný, in January 1968 and had attempted to liberalise communist party rule by tolerating political institutions and organisations not directly controlled by the party. Even multi-party government was mooted. More repressive laws were loosened, travel was made easier and freedom of expression, especially in media, accepted.

Leonid Brezhnev shares a joke with US president Richard Nixon in 1973 (AP)

Unwittingly though, Dubcek had created either a vicious or a virtuous circle, depending on one’s political viewpoint. Reform emboldened progressives and led to demand for further liberalisation. Dissidents, especially students, but also the wider population in numerous Soviet satellite nations, began to push for similar freedoms.

He was wrong: 2,000 tanks and a 250,000-strong Soviet-led force of men invaded on Brezhnev’s orders; 137 Czechoslovak civilians were killed resisting; and, pleading with his citizens not to fight back, Dubcek was flown to Moscow.

Some citizens used the power of argument to voice their opposition, engaging troops in discussion to make their point – until photographs were used in Soviet propaganda to suggest the locals were making friends with the invaders. Dubcek returned as little more than a puppet of the Soviet regime and was replaced early in 1969. Half a million of his supporters were expelled from the Communist Party.

Leaders of communist countries meeting in Poland in 1955 to sign the mutual defence treaty commonly known as the Warsaw Pact (AFP/Getty)

The members of Nato, especially the United States – already involved in conflict in Vietnam and aiming to broker a disarmament agreement with the Soviet Union – condemned the invasion but had no intention of intervening. In the aftermath, 300,000 Czechoslovaks, many highly qualified, emigrated to the west, although the authorities soon clamped down on their ability to leave.

The period between 1969 and 1971 is known in Czechoslovak history as the era of “normalisation”. The country returned to the Soviet fold; opposition both within and without the country faded; and the Communist Party returned to the hardline position it had held before the onset of the Prague Spring.

So, 50 years later, what does the anniversary offer today’s Europeans still struggling with political upheaval and, certainly in the east of the continent, getting to grips with increasingly nationalistic, repressive governments? Apart from the sense of betrayal felt by Czechs and Slovaks, both towards their own government and their supposed allies, and the reminder that totalitarianism brooks no dissent, are there lessons to be learned from the Prague Spring; and what became of Dubcek, its architect? Unsurprisingly the legacy is complex – as legacies are wont to be.

Perhaps the key to understanding Czechoslovakia in 1968 is that, unlike similar uprisings against the establishment, both in communist Europe but also elsewhere around the world – witness the Arab Spring of 2010 and 2011 – the Prague Spring was not a movement of only liberals, students (among other young people) and political intellectuals fighting a conservative establishment. It had wider cross-generational support drawing on the strong traditions of democracy that had developed in Czechoslovakia between the two world wars, after its formation in 1918.

Czech-born writer Milan Kundera, author of the Unbearable Lightness of Being, who lived in exile in France from 1975, argued that it was a movement falling back on the “best traditions” of Czechoslovakia’s brief history: a “higher quality of democracy not based on the ills associated with capitalism”. By contrast, the later revolutions that would finally overthrow communism in Europe at the end of the 1980s were driven as much by the “victory” of Reaganism, free-market economics and monetarism as they were by the right to vote freely and express opinions openly.

It has become fashionable, with hindsight, to blame the suppression of the Prague Spring on “communism”. But let it not be forgotten that it was fervent communists who were carrying out Czechoslovakia’s reforms. Whether the Prague Spring was a “purer” revolution than those that followed is probably an argument for political ideologues alone, but a glance across the border towards Viktor Orban’s Hungary shows that the spoils of the “freedom” won in 1989 might not always manifest themselves with good intent.

Two decades after Dubcek’s attempt to reform communism from within, the then premier of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, issued an apology on behalf of all Warsaw Pact nations, stating that the invasion of Czechoslovakia was a mistake, and that the USSR should never have interfered in the internal affairs of another sovereign state. (It should be noted that both Romania and Albania had refused to participate in the 1968 intervention; and Albania ultimately withdrew from the Warsaw Pact in the aftermath.)

It was the culmination of a number of apologies from Warsaw Pact nations throughout 1989 and it seems reasonable to argue that there was a direct link between these acknowledgements and the overthrow of communist governments in East Germany, Poland, Romania and, most poignantly, Czechoslovakia, that same year. Protesters realised that their actions would no longer lead to Red Army interference, and the Soviet bloc of eastern European nations had replaced their communist rulers within months of one another.

                          Vaclav Havel,was elected first president of Czechoslovakia  (Getty)

Perhaps 1968 showed us, if 1956 had not already, that the post-war façade of communist interdependence, internationalism and fraternal allegiance was broken, if indeed it had ever been more than a charade at all. The alliance was built on flimsy foundations and maintained by suppression. Czech historical novelist and writer Ivan Klíma has said that – for good or ill – the most important legacy of the Prague Spring was the delayed but ultimate destruction of the international communist movement.

But warnings must still be heeded. In a world where a nationalistically invigorated Russia under Vladimir Putin increasingly looks beyond its borders for a bulwark against Nato and the EU, the demise of communism and the Warsaw Pact does not mean a concurrent diminishing of militarism: the annexation of Crimea by Russia has shown us that very clearly. And – even putting aside the Brexit debate – illiberal governments in Slovakia, Poland and Hungary threaten to overturn the European Union’s free-market liberal consensus. The threat, while changed in ideology, still lurks.

And what of Dubcek? After he was ousted as  first secretary he worked for the forestry service near Bratislava, in his native Slovakia. And after the final overthrow of communist rule in Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution of 1989 he briefly returned to political prominence as chairman of the Czechoslovak Federal Assembly, and later as leader of the Slovak Social Democrats.

Pavel Kamenicky, now 70, says: “We were idealistic. But Dubcek should have realised what was going to happen. Did he really think Brezhnev would shrug and say ‘carry on’?” On the other hand, Dubcek’s son Pavol has defended his father’s position, once saying: “I don’t know if people really understand what it meant to have your fate in Brezhnev’s hands.”

For right or wrong, however, Dubcek had in truth become more or less a political irrelevance by the time of the Velvet Revolution. Václav Havel, the poet and statesman who played a prominent role in the events of 1989 and became Czechoslovakia’s first post-Soviet era president, said: “Dubcek is a symbol of our nice memories, but nobody thinks he can influence the situation now.” Dubcek himself rarely spoke of 1968.

Although a Slovak, Dubcek was opposed to the 1993 split between the Czech Republic and Slovakia and maintained his belief in the idea of a single, united nation. He was killed in a car crash in 1992, declared in an official investigation to be an accident. Conspiracy theories abound and even today 50 per cent of those Slovaks who know of him believe his death was almost certainly not an accident.

The crushing of the Prague Spring continues to echo down the ages, its eventual legacy yet to be determined.

https://www.independent.co.uk/news/long_reads/prague-spring-anniversary-czechoslovakia-soviet-union-wwii-czech-republic-slovakia-a8485326.html

“The Death of Stalin” is no laughing matter

When do satire and comedy cross the line and become tasteless? Some find this black comedy hilarious, whilst others think otherwise. Many whose families lived and suffered under totalitarian regimes, and those knowledgeable of the events might have a different view to those whose knowledge and experience is limited. And those who’ve actually lived under the Soviets might display the wry gallows humour of the oppressed. As a Ukrainian friend commented: ‘I think the film is better dubbed into Russian – they really worked on the dialogue. The English version is somewhat farcical. But watching it in Russian, you want to cry and laugh at the same time (not easy to do – it takes practice)”.

In the small, beautiful Art Deco Capitol cinema in Auckland, New Zealand, we watched this blackest of black comedies: the wise-cracking, slap-sticking, foul-mouthed, Machiavellian maneuvering of the Soviet politburo on the death of venerated and feared dictator for life Joseph Stalin in 1953. The shorts promised a cinematic treat, a “comedy of terrors” replete with malice aforethought as great actors have a good time with sharp one-liners, language worthy of The Thick of It’s Malcolm Tucker (the same script-writing and production team, after all) and gags of dubious taste. The cast includes Steve Buscemi (Boardwalk Empire), Michael Palin (Monty Python) and Robert Friend (Homeland’s Peter Quinn). Critics have acclaimed it as uproarious and wickedly irreverent, and devastatingly funny (that’s the Sydney Morning Herald).

But I personally didn’t find it funny at all. A friend commented that there was little difference  between the black humour of this film and that of, say, Black Adder and Monty Python’s The Life of Brian. Quite so, but it is a matter of degree, content, the descriptions of sexual assault, and the  explicit depiction of violence. From the opening scenes, the NKVD, the all-powerful Soviet internal security service, was a constant, threatening presence. Against a predictable, seedy but picturesque backdrop of Red Square, the Kremlin and Saint Basil’s cathedral, dingy and darkened apartments, incongruously inappropriate rococo dachas, and brooding pine forests, and a soundtrack of soulful Russian music, midnight arrests, brutal interrogations and summary executions were an ongoing leitmotif for this comedy of Soviet bad manners.

My primary emotion was one of sadness – for the victims, so many nameless, who perished during the Soviet Union’s two decades of terror, and for the millions – from the Baltic to ththe Crimea- who were transported to the labour camps of the distant Gulags, to work, to starve, and to die.

By strange symmetry, I had been rereading 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 Conquests 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.

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.

On our return from New Zealand, I retrieved from my archive a paper I wrote as an undergraduate at Reading University in 1970, under the wise tutorship of eminent Sovietologist, historian and former political prisoner Tibor Szamuely, entitled How Rational Was The Great Purge?  My writing style, the content and the conclusions I drew have changed little over the years. I shall publish it soon on Into That Howling Infinite.

See also these posts: Thermidorian Thinking  and Sic Semper Tyrannis

Thermidorian Thinking

I fought in the old revolution
on the side of the ghost and the King.
Of course I was very young
and I thought that we were winning;
I can’t pretend I still feel very much like singing
as they carry the bodies away.
Leonard Cohen, The Old Revolution

‘Thermidorian’ refers to 9th Thermidor Year II (27 July 1794), the date according to the French Republican Calendar, when Robespierre, Danton and other radical revolutionaries came under concerted attack in the National Convention, resulting in their downfall and execution.

Grim travelers butt each other to establish dominance. One lot plays Danton to another’s Robespierre, with the moderate Manon Roland and her Girondins trampled underfoot in the melee. Robespierre destroys his erstwhile friends and slaughters thousands, precipitating the Jacobin meltdown as the ascetic and purist Marat is murdered in his bath. Robespierre and Saint-Just are guillotined by those who believe “the Terror” had gone too far.

I would argue that this “Thermidorian Reaction” – the ostensibly “better angels of our nature” (Abraham Lincoln said that) reasserting themselves – is a rare bird indeed. Inevitably, things get worse, much worse, before they get better. As WH Auden observes in Age of Anxiety, “many have perished: more will”. 

Revolutions are unpredictable. They never run in straight lines. They reverberate, the shock-waves expanding and impacting on their vicinity,  and way beyond. The shots ricochet, like drive-bys and crossfires, and you never know who will be hit, where the bullets will come to rest, and who will be damaged or destroyed. Many people will be liberated, and many enslaved. Many peoples will prosper, and many, many will perish. As TS Elliot wrote, “between the idea and the reality falls the shadow”.”

Stalin seizing Lenin’s crown as the father of the revolution lay dying. Trotsky launching the Red Army against the sailors of Kronstadt whose guns had heralded the fall of the Romanovs, and who then fought to last man against their former comrades. Stalin and Trotsky wrestling for control of party and power as the old Bolsheviks disappeared into the gulags and the execution cells. Stalin’s long arm putting an ice pick through his rival’s skull in Mexico decades later. Trotsky knew a thing or two about “permanent revolution”!

Adolf Hitler making his move against the corrupt and sybaritic Rohm and his Brown Shirt bully boys, a threat to his control of party and state, in the “Night of the Long Knives”, and setting the course for a Germany’s slow spiral to damnation with the plausible deniability of the similarly dramatically named Kristalnacht. The German language has surely given the world ominous words of iron – Nacht und Nebel; Storm und Drang; Weltanschauung – none of them boding well for tyranny’s unwelcome attentions.

It is a zero-sum play book well thumbed by latter-day revolutionists like the Baathists Saddam Hussein and Hafiz Assad in their relentless and merciless accession to power in Iraq and Syria respectively, like the cruel and vengeful but infinitely pragmatic regime that has ruled Iran’s Islamic Republic for these past forty  years, and the kleptocratic dictators who Lord over much of South Saharan Africa. In the manner of revolutions past and present, each one has “devoured its children”, harrying, jailing, exiling and slaughtering foes and onetime allies alike.

The sad reality in so many countries is that when the going gets tough, the mild get going, and the hard men ride roughshod over their people.

Vengeful, vindictive. Merciless. Unforgiving and never forgetting. Do no deals. Take no prisoners. Give no quarter.

Also in In That Howling InfiniteA Political World – Thoughts and Themes

Danton, Robespierre, Desmoulin, and Manon Roland

Danton, Robespierre, Desmoulin, and Manon Roland