The Roots and Fruits of Putin’s Irridentism

Prologue

The Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968 was in many ways a seminal event in my own journeying. Until then, I was a political ingenue and a naive communist sympathizer and 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. Born in Moscow to a prominent communist family, his father disappeared into the Gulag. Young Tibor served in the Red Army, and he too was arrested and sent to a Labour camp. Rehabilitated, he served as Chancellor of Budapest University encore finally settling in the UK he taught me Russian politics at Reading University. He advised my to study with an open mind and to put off juvenile thinking. He hadn’t been well when I knew him and he died in 1972, a year after I graduated. Under his tuition, I’d resolved to specialize in Soviet Studies – but events intervened and I ended up in the Middle East (see: Tanks for the Memory – how Brezhnev changed my life).

I am recalling Tibor Szamuely today because he would always impress upon me the historical and political continuity of what he called The Russian Tradition – the title of his one and only book, published shortly before his death. He believed that the bloodstained drama of 1917 and the years that followed largely obscured the underlying consistency of Russian history. It is this basic pattern, circular and repetitive, that has seen the frequent turmoils that have overtaken this vast continent have in their various ways made changes that were essentially superficial, leading in the end to the intensification, under new forms, of the old authoritarian structure. From medieval times, autocracy has coexisted with a revolutionary traditionalism – a contradiction in terms as only Russia could sustain, a unique Russian capacity to seek revolution and discover regression, to invoke liberty merely to reinforce repression. if he were with us today, Szamuely would explain that the Soviet Union under Lenin and his successors and the Russia of Vladimir Putin bears so disconcertingly close  a resemblance to Russia under the most savage of its tsars.

It is a theme echoed recently by Russian scholar and historian Simon Sebag Montefiore who wrote recently about how on 17th March, Putin appeared to threaten his people with a revival of Stalin’s Great Terror that began in 1937 and in which 1 million people were shot over two-and-a-half years:

“He’s dog-whistling 1937, so that’s pretty scary and the reason he’s doing it is because he realises there’s opposition in the elite and among the populace.He used all these keywords: ‘traitors,’ ‘enemy of the people,’ ‘scum,’ ‘bastards,’ all of which were from the thirties, which a Russian would know he’s threatening massive repression in Russia. He’s literally putting the fear, an ancestral, terrifying fear into these people. People who would have heard of these stories from their old parents, and grandparents and great-grandparents about the time when people didn’t sleep at night, they kept a bag packed in case they were deported. People were never seen again. It was a terrifying speech in only a way the Russians would know.”

One nation under an Orthodox god

In That Howling Infinite’s last post, Borderlands – Ukraine and the curse of mystical nationalism, we wrote:

‘Observing Putin’s mystical nationalism, his idea of Ukraine as part of Russia’s “spiritual space” … American historian Victoria Smolkin argues that his imagination of Ukraine is a fantasy of a fallen empire, a fever dream of imperial restoration. “Undoubtedly, many still harbour fantasies of such imperial restoration. But fantasy is not history, and it’s not politics. One can lament – as Putin does – that Soviet politics was not “cleansed” of the “odious” and “Utopian” fancies “inspired by the revolution,” which, in part, made possible the existence of contemporary Ukraine. But that is the burden of History –  it is full of laments”.’

By his own account, Putin sees himself not as the heir to the Soviets but as a champion of Russian civilization and Moscow’s Eurasian empire, whose roots extend back to a much earlier Vladimir—St. Vladimir, the Grand Prince of Kyiv from about 980 to 1015. St. Vladimir was ruler of what the Russians consider their first empire, the Slavic state known as Kievan Rus—based, of course, in Kyiv, the capital of what is now Ukraine. St. Vladimir’s conversion to Christianity in 988 later gave rise to the idea that Russia would be the “third Rome”—the heir to the fallen Roman and Byzantine Empires following the surrender of Constantinople to the Ottomans. It is why, like Putin, many Russians refer to Kievan Rus as “the cradle of Russian civilization” and Kyiv as “the mother of Russian cities.”

He didn’t realize that even most of the Russian-language speakers in eastern Ukraine see themselves now as Ukrainian—that over the past 30 years, the Ukrainians had formed their own country. He didn’t realize that their sense of identity had changed,”

Fortress Russia This attitude also has profound roots in Russian history, especially the Russian belief that Orthodox Christianity is superior to the West’s liberalized Christianity, which Putin and other conservative Russians view as corrupted by Enlightenment ideas. In the early 19th century, the Russian answer to the French Revolution’s Enlightenment creed, “Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité (Freedom, Equality, Fraternity), was “Orthodoxy, Autocracy, and Nationality”—which Sergey Uvarov, minister of public education to Tsar Nikolai I, formulated as the conceptual foundation of the Russian Empire. This tripartite credo isn’t mentioned in Putin’s speeches and writings—he still likes to pretend Russia is a democracy—but it has been invoked by the far-right thinkers said to influence Putin, including Aleksandr Dugin, Lev Gumilev, Ivan Ilyin, Konstantin Leontiev, Sergei Petrovich Trubetskoy, and others dating back 200 years.

It is a sense that goes back centuries: In order to survive, you need strategic depth, so you need to push borders out as far away from the heartland as possible—not so much physical as geopolitical barriers. You just push until you meet something that can resist you.”

It is little understood by many Westerners that Russian literary figures they revere, such as Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoevsky and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, were also devotees of this idea of a “greater Russia” under an absolute autocrat. Solzhenitsyn, the Nobel Prize-winning author best known for writings that exposed the horrors of the Soviet gulag, later became one of Putin’s favorite intellectuals. Before his 2008 death, Solzhenitsyn wrote in an essay: “All the talk of a separate Ukrainian people existing since something like the ninth century and possessing its own non-Russian language is recently invented falsehood.” Shortly before his death in 1881, Dostoevsky wrote: “To the people the Czar is the incarnation of themselves, their whole ideology, their hopes and beliefs.”

Many commentators on left and right are now pondering what they see as the inevitability of what is happening today in Ukraine, and several of them point to the malign influence of the man people are calling “Putin’s brain”, the nationalist ideologue Aleksandr Dugin -a latter day Rasputin, indeed, although  Vladimir Putin is not as naive and dependent as the doomed Tsar Nikolai II, he is seemingly appearing to be as isolated – he is nobody’s puppet. David von Drehle wrote recently in the Washington Post: “A product of late-period Soviet decline, Dugin belongs to the long, dismal line of political theorists who invent a strong and glorious past — infused with mysticism and obedient to authority — to explain a failed present. The future lies in reclaiming this past from the liberal, commercial, cosmopolitan present (often represented by the Jewish people). Such thinkers had a heyday a century ago, in the European wreckage of World War I: Julius Evola, the mad monk of Italian fascism; Charles Maurras, the reactionary French nationalist; Charles Coughlin, the American radio ranter; and even the author of a German book called “Mein Kampf.”

Greg Sheridan, Foreign Editor of The Australian and a committed Roman Catholic, wrote a very good piece not just discussing Dugin, but also, the long arm of Russian history and the depth of Russian culture, including not only those icons of the Russian literary cannon, but also, what he describes as the “self-obsessed and self-regarding Russian Orthodox Christianity”. It is, he says, “ a treasure of spiritual depth and theological insight. But it’s view if the rest if Christianity is tied up in its tangles relationship with Russian nationalism”. Russia, he writes, considers itself as the third Rome, the true heir and successor to Rome and Byzantium, and the chaplain to the tsars.

I republish Sheridan’s article below, along with a piece from the eZine Foreign Policy by Michael Hersh, Putins Thousand Year War, which follows a similar historical track although with more emphasis on its present day geopolitical implications.

Both lead us back to Tibor Szamuely’s perspective that in Russia, there is indeed nothing new under the sun.

© Paul Hemphill 2021. All rights reserved

Posts in In That Howling Infinite, about Eastern Europe: Borderlands – Ukraine and the curse of mystical nationalism; Ghosts of the Gulag, The Death of Stalin is no laughing matter, Tanks for the memory – how Brezhnev changed my life, 2nd September 1939 – the rape of Poland (1), 17th September 1939 – the rape of Poland (2)  

Inside the twisted mind of Vladimir Putin

Greg Sheridan, Foreign Editor, The Australian, 12th March 2022

Putin sees Ukraine and Belarus as the absolute minimum he must reclaim for Russia.

Ukraine and Belarus are the absolute minimum Putin must reclaim for Russia

Is Vladimir Putin out of his mind? As their savage invasion of Ukraine began a third week, Russian forces deliberately bombed a maternity and children’s hospital in the southern city of Mariupol. Last week, they attacked a nuclear power plant. The Ukrainian government accuses Moscow of using illegal thermobaric bombs, vacuum bombs, which suck the oxygen even out of people’s lungs.

Evacuation routes for civilians fleeing the heavy fighting in Mariupol have been repeatedly agreed, then shelled when terrified women and children try to escape.

International sanctions have crippled the Russian economy, crashed the rouble, caused a flight of capital. Russian oligarchs have lost tens of billions of dollars. Civilised nations won’t let Russian planes enter their air space. Moscow has created the biggest European refugee crisis since World War II. US intelligence thinks Putin might be about to use chemical weapons.

On the battlefield, Russia’s forces have been humiliated by a much smaller, less well-equipped Ukrainian military enjoying overwhelming civilian support.

But Putin cannot afford to lose. In Russian history, losing a war normally leads to government collapse and often the ruler’s assassination. The Russian govern­ment is now a one-man show. All power resides in Putin, the most comprehensive personal dictatorship since Josef Stalin. Only Xi ­Jinping of China wields a similar degree of absolute control in a big nation.

Putin has re-established not the Cold War, but the pre-Cold War norm that major powers invade other nations for conquest and territory, and population. Putin has even threatened the use of nuclear weapons.

US senator Marco Rubio thinks Putin is deranged. Former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, who met him many times, thinks he has changed. Previously, Putin was cool and calculated; now he’s erratic and delusional.

The televised kabuki performance Putin had his national security council put on, in which they all advised him to be tougher, from across a vast room (like Xi and ­Donald Trump, Putin is a germaphobe), not only looked weird but seemed false and clumsy, unlike most of Putin’s theatricality.

But this analysis is surely overdone. Putin has miscalculated in Ukraine. He thought his military stronger, Ukraine weaker, and the West more divided. But these are mistakes leaders, especially dictators who seldom get disagreeable advice, sometimes make. There is no reason to think Putin mad, even unbalanced. He’s always been a gambler. The next few weeks could be terrible, as the main military tactic left is simply to bomb and shell Ukrainian cities, repeatedly if not relentlessly, to cut off food, water and power, and effectively starve and murder the population into submission.

While Putin cannot afford to lose, perhaps he can compromise, using that word loosely, to describe a situation where he keeps a chunk of Ukraine but stops fighting. Putin is intensely unpredictable but he is not irrational and the Ukraine campaign lies at the very heart of his long-held ideological world view. It was predictable, and he himself often predicted it.

That world view is very particular and sees Russia as the centre of a Eurasian empire. It relies on a theory called Traditionalism, which rejects modernism and every aspect of Western liberalism, especially the West itself. This ideology is most clearly expressed in the writings of Aleksandr Dugin, who has prospered as a public sage under Putin. Dugin’s exotic views have earned him the label of Putin’s Rasputin (a mad mystic whose influence on the family of the last tsar, Nicholas II, was wholly baleful).

More of Dugin below, but Putin of course is nobody’s puppet and embodies many distinctive influences. Putin, now 69, was born in St Petersburg, studied law and went into the KGB. He rose to lieutenant-colonel and served in East Germany.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Putin became active in St Petersburg politics. He has said the chief lesson he learnt there was that if there’s going to be a fight, make sure you hit first.

Russian ultra-nationalist philosopher Aleksandr Dugin.

Russian ultra-nationalist philosopher Aleksandr Dugin.

He was briefly in charge of intelligence services, then rose like a rocket to become prime minister, then president. He has been the boss of Russia for 20 years. That brings its own psychological baggage. Democratic leaders have told me they think people go a bit mad if they stay in the top job too long. That’s particularly so for dictators. As they grow older they seek a special place in history and become ever more paranoid. Numerous tsars were killed by ambitious rivals. Putin has no obvious succession plan. He has two daughters and may have a couple of sons, but none is involved in Russian politics or public life.

Putin is careful to look after his personal security detail. A number have become very wealthy. But the isolation, the gnawing paranoia, the eschatological date with history, these are the dark and lonely reaches of absolute power, which no human being is meant for.

Putin has said the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest tragedy of the 20th century. He was an orthodox communist, but this expresses nostalgia not for communism, which Putin routinely criticises or dismisses these days, but rather for the Russian empire embodied in the Soviet Union.

Dugin is an important expression of the dominant ideology of the Putin era, but Putin emerges out of a much broader tradition. That is the long history, the dark forest, of Russian nationalism and cultural hubris.

Russia is a paradox because it is indeed one of the greatest cultures. Fyodor Dostoevsky and Leo Tolstoy were perhaps the supreme novelists in any language. Life could not be complete without the melancholy sweetness of Tchaikovsky’s music. The Thief, a film made in Russia’s brief post-­communist freedom, surely rates among the finest of all films.

But this culture is also self-­obsessed and self-regarding. Russian Orthodox Christianity is a treasure of spiritual depth and theological insight. But its view of the rest of Christianity is tied up in its tangled relationship with Russian nationalism.

It considers itself the third Rome, and the true Rome. After the fall of Rome, in this view, Christianity was carried on in the Byzantine Empire. Constantinople (Istanbul) was the second Rome. Now Moscow is Byzantine’s rightful heir, the third Rome, the true Rome. Yet the Russian Orthodox Church has also always been the tsar’s chaplain.

Putin is much more a modern tsar than a modern communist like China’s Xi.

The tsars themselves, both the occasional liberal reformers and the aloof autocrats, resided at the heart of Russian cultural self-obsession and hostility to the West.

Dostoevsky was the supreme Christian novelist of the 19th century. His Christian vision was transcendent, at times sublime. The most Christ-like character in all Dostoevsky’s novels, Prince Myshkin, surely gives expression to Dostoevsky’s own views when he declares: “Our Christ must shine forth in opposition to the West … Catholicism is no more than an unchristian faith, it is not a faith but a continuation of the Holy Roman Empire.”

That last is an astonishing comment, given that the Holy Roman Empire hadn’t by then (1869) been powerful for hundreds of years. But that paranoid style, retaining grievance over hundreds of years, seeing enemies where none exist, that is characteristic of Russian culture both at the elite and the popular levels.

These qualities animate the mind of Vladimir Putin. He must have espoused atheism when a KGB colonel, but since ruling ­Russia he funds the Russian Orthodox Church and is happy to be filmed participating in its services on feast days.

Putin is said to own luxury yachts and enjoy living very well. But the Russian population never sees any debauchery from him. He is proud of his physical fitness and his private life is entirely private.

Putin may or may not hold any religious belief himself but he is in many ways a traditional tsarist leader. This tradition pays no lip service to Western liberalism.

I attended a lunch with Putin at the Sydney APEC summit in 2007. He told a long, and it must be said very funny, joke about what a fool Alexander Kerensky was. Kerensky was the social democrat leader the Russian communists deposed in 1917. Kerensky lived for a time in Brisbane in the 1940s. What Putin thought bizarre was that he formed a romantic liaison with a journalist. Putin thought this contemptible, grotesque, in any political leader. Putin went on and on about it. At the time it seemed funny enough, but odd. Looking back, I can’t imagine any other leader behaving that way.

Most dictators would ignore the press, democrats would celebrate it or josh it or whinge about it. Dictators pretending to be democrats would pretend to tolerate the media. Putin was none of those things. In expressing contempt for the press, in this case humorously, he was giving an early sign of the contempt in which he held all the norms of Western liberalism.

There is no better insight into the strategic mind of Putin than the book (which admittedly has a pretty wordy title): The American Empire Should be Destroyed – ­Aleksandr Dugin and the Perils of Immanentized Eschatology, by James Heiser, a Lutheran bishop in the US.

Dugin is a Russian political activist, university professor, prolific author and public commentator of great note. He has been a formal and informal adviser to several figures in the Russian leadership. Some of the things he says are truly bizarre and Putin doesn’t repeat those. But there is a deep continuity and overlap between Dugin’s writings and Putin’s recent long essay on why Russia and Ukraine are the one people, the one “spiritual space”.

There is no way Dugin could be as prominent as he is if Putin didn’t approve, and there is ample evidence that Putin, whom Dugin supports with wild enthusiasm, takes Dugin very seriously.

Dugin has written many books, but changed his fundamental views little over the years. A typical Dugin passage reads: “When there is only one power which decides who is right and who is wrong, and who should be punished and who not, we have a form of global dictatorship. This is not acceptable. Therefore, we should fight against it. If someone deprives us of our freedom, we have to react. And we will react. The American Empire should be destroyed. And at one point, it will be. Spiritually, globalisation is the creation of a grand parody, the kingdom of the Antichrist. And the United States is the centre of its expansion.”

For a time, Dugin was an anti-communist but he came to support the Soviet Union not long before it collapsed. He also sees good in Nazism, especially its paganism and its rejection of modernity, though of course he condemns its wildest excesses and certainly its war against Russia. Like many Nazis, he is obsessed with the occult.

People walk past a stencil painting depicting Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky on a building in downtown Podgorica. Picture: AFP

People walk past a stencil painting of President Volodymyr Zelensky in Podgorica. AFP

He believes Russia is protected by a specific good angel, that every nation has its assigned angel. Russia’s angel is at war with the West’s angel.

Dugin is a member of the Russian Orthodox Church but has a very eccentric view of Christianity. He embraces Traditionalism, which he holds shows that traditional human life, which is decent and good, comes from primordial traditions which pre-date modernism, which is evil. He has a pretty arbitrary selection of some religions as OK – Russian Orthodox Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and a few others – and some as fraudulent and twisted, especially Catholicism and Protestantism.

He believes the good religions can all live side-by-side. More than that, he thinks all Russians are automatically Russian Orthodox. It doesn’t matter whether they go to church or not. The church is a kind of accompanying minor theme in the symphony of Russian nationalism. This ideology is immensely chauvinist, but not exactly racist. A nation is defined by cultural unity rather than race.

One of the things Dugin hates most about the West is its stress on individual rights. Peoples have rights, in Dugin’s view, but individual people do not. The society has rights; individuals do not have rights.

Dugin glorifies violence and the violent assertion of culture and national destiny.

Dugin also espouses the long-held Russian doctrine of Eurasianism. He sees the Eurasian culture as land-based, wholesome and good, and the Atlantic culture as sea-based, decadent and corrupt. He erects an enormous theological and philosophical sub-structure behind all this, but the bottom line is that Moscow should rule a Eurasian empire running from Western Europe all the way through central Asia and beyond.

The aftermath of Russian army bombardment on a children hospital in Mariupol, southeastern Ukraine.

The aftermath of Russian  bombardment on a children hospital in Mariupol

Putin, following Dugin but also of course interpreting him freely, sees Ukraine and Belarus as the absolute minimum he must reclaim for Russia. Their addition would make Russia a nation of 200 million, and an even more vast geographical behemoth. Putin sometimes calls his opponents Nazis, as he grotesquely labels the Jewish President of Ukraine, but Putin has himself become a hero for the far right in the West. The right is always inclined to fall for a strongman leader. Putin funds, and thereby compromises and corrupts, the Russian Orthodox Church. He despises Western liberalism, the failings of which also distress Western conservatives. Putin promotes traditional values, as Dugin also claims to do within his bizarre world view. So before invading Ukraine, Putin had a lot of fans on the far right.

Dugin’s writings are a rich and weird compendium of often frightening conspiracies and speculations and they certainly exist at the extremes of Russian nationalism. There are countless milder versions than Dugin.

But the final element of Dugin’s theories which ought to give concern is his conviction that these are the “end days” and that a mighty battle between Russian Eurasia and the vile West is at hand. Putin is much smarter and more practical than Dugin. But this ideological impulse – to hate the West, to see anti-Russian conspiracies everywhere, to reclaim territory for Russia and favour violence – are all evident in the mind and actions of the Russian leader.

As Dugin says, chaos can think.

Putin’s Thousand-Year War

Michael Hersh, Foreign Policy, March 12th 2022

Whether or not Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine ends any time soon, what is certain to continue is the Russian president’s abiding hatred and mistrust of the United States and other Western powers, which he believes left him no choice but to launch an unprovoked war.

It’s not just Putin. These views are shared by the many Russian elites who have supported him for two decades. They have also been a chief reason for Putin’s domestic popularity—at least until recently, when his invasion ran into fierce resistance—even as he has turned himself into a dictator and Russia into a nearly totalitarian state reminiscent of the Soviet Union at its worst. It is an enmity worth probing in depth, if only to understand why Washington and the West almost certainly face another “long twilight struggle” with Moscow—in former U.S. President John F. Kennedy’s words—rivaling the 45-year Cold War.

The Russian president’s enduring antagonism toward the West is a complex tale, one compounded of Putin’s 69-year-old personal history as a child of World War II and career Soviet spy as well as the tangled, thousand-year history of Russia itself—or at least Putin’s reading of it. At the bottom, Putin and the many right-leaning Russian officials, elites, and scholars who support him not only don’t want to be part of the West and its postwar liberal value system but believe their country’s destiny is to be a great-power bulwark against it.

Even if Putin is somehow ousted from power, the generals and security mandarins who surround him are just as vested in his aggression as he is. And already, Russia is almost as isolated economically as it was during the Soviet era.

Indeed, Putin may have been preparing for this moment longer than people realize: After the Russian leader annexed Crimea in 2014, the Kremlin’s longtime ideologist, Vladislav Surkov, wrote that it would mark “the end of Russia’s epic journey to the West, the cessation of repeated and fruitless attempts to become a part of Western civilization.” Surkov predicted that Russia would exist in geopolitical solitude for at least the next hundred years.

“Putin has no path back,” said Anna Ohanyan, a political scientist at Stonehill College and the author of several books on Russia. Like other Russia experts, Ohanyan believed at one point during Putin’s 20 years in power that he was seeking a way to wield Russian influence within the institutions of the international system while trying to build new, countervailing ones, such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Now most of those initiatives have turned to ashes. “By challenging territorial norms, he’s throwing out the prospect of the path he’s been building,” she said.

Biden administration officials are still grappling with the implications of the new long-term struggle. To do so, they have already delayed publishing their new national security strategy slated for the spring. While the administration expects to maintain its Indo-Pacific focus, officials say Putin’s aggression is leading to much more intensive effort to pursue what was already one of U.S. President Joe Biden’s key goals: the revitalization of NATO and the Western alliance, especially the new militarization of major European Union nations such as Germany, which hitherto had been reluctant to play a leading defense role.

Ukraine became the touchstone of Putin’s anti-Western attitudes in large part because the Russian leader and his supporters saw their historical brother nation as the last red line in a long series of Western humiliations. Putin, in his speeches, has repeatedly called this the West’s “anti-Russia project.” These perceived humiliations go back a long, long way—not just in the 30 years since the Cold War ended, nor even in the 100 years since the Soviet Union was formed in 1922. They reach all the way back to the European Enlightenment of more than three centuries ago, which gave rise to liberty, democracy, and human rights. To Russian nationalists like Putin, these developments have gradually come to eclipse Russia’s distinct character as a civilization.

By his own account, Putin sees himself not as the heir to the Soviets but as a champion of Russian civilization and Moscow’s Eurasian empire, whose roots extend back to a much earlier Vladimir—St. Vladimir, the Grand Prince of Kyiv from about 980 to 1015. St. Vladimir was ruler of what the Russians consider their first empire, the Slavic state known as Kievan Rus—based, of course, in Kyiv, the capital of what is now Ukraine. St. Vladimir’s conversion to Christianity in 988 later gave rise to the idea that Russia would be the “third Rome”—the heir to the fallen Roman and Byzantine Empires following the surrender of Constantinople to the Ottomans. It is why, like Putin, many Russians refer to Kievan Rus as “the cradle of Russian civilization” and Kyiv as “the mother of Russian cities.”

Some scholars believe this obsession with long-ago history is why Putin, who during his two decades in power was often thought to be a wily and restrained tactician, made the biggest miscalculation of his career in invading Ukraine. In doing so, he united, in one reckless move, the Ukrainians and the Europeans as well as the rest of the world against him. “He didn’t realize that even most of the Russian-language speakers in eastern Ukraine see themselves now as Ukrainian—that over the past 30 years, the Ukrainians had formed their own country. He didn’t realize that their sense of identity had changed,” said Peter Eltsov, a professor at National Defense University and author of the new book The Long Telegram 2.0: A Neo-Kennanite Approach to Russia. “He also killed all the progress he was making in dividing Europe. Even Finland and Sweden, which had been neutral, are now talking about joining NATO. He achieved the 100 percent opposite result of what he wanted.”

Statue of Archangel Michael on the Lach Gates at Kyiv’s Independence Square

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.

The Independent reported in January this year that the film has been banned in Russia. Whilst some commentators see this as symptomatic of th state of democracy in Putin’s Russia, critics and filmmakers supportive of the ban have called it variously unpatriotic, blasphemous and unprofessional; hateful, vile and repugnant; and “insulting our national symbols. The trailer goes out using our national anthem and it shows our great war marshals as … I don’t know how else to put it … idiots.”

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.

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

See also these posts: Ghosts of the Gulag, Thermidorian Thinking  and Sic Semper Tyrannis

And 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