27 January 2008

Memorial Days

As it happens, I have already disagreed with another blogger today. No, it was not Tim Worstall who responded in a somewhat round-about fashion to my colleague’s complaints about lack of acknowledgement of the work he has done. I have done with that particular issue for the time being, though we shall both return to the problem of intellectual work not being appreciated in this country and the difficulties that creates.

My disagreement, mild and courteous, as I like this particular blog a great deal, was posted on London Daily Photo, run by an amateur photographer called Ham and one of my daily must-see outlets. In fact, I cannot recommend the site highly enough.

Ham, decent chap that he is, posted a picture and a comment to do with Holocaust Memorial Day. My objection was to him ruminating about “tragedies” such as Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda and Darfur proving that the international community still has not learnt to deal with such matters.

Let us first look at that phrase, international community, which is about as meaningless as can be. Who, precisely, is going to deal with these “tragedies”? This blog has tried to document the developments in Darfur (and Chad) as well as the difficulties of dealing with them. Somehow, I suspect that a lot of people who wring their hands about the international community would not like the only possible weapon said community has being put into place: suspend aid until the governments, armies and militias start laying down arms and behaving themselves. Then stop aid altogether except, maybe, immediate help delivered by the Anglospheric armed forces and start buying goods from those countries (including oil).

Moving on to more important points, I disapprove of the use of the word “tragedy” in this context. Yes, they were all tragedies to the victims, their families and their peoples but the word implies something passive. These tragedies simply happened because the international community was not looking where it was going.

They did not just happen. These were also enormous crimes, even mass murders, committed by certain people for certain reasons and that must be understood. Bleating about the Holocaust as if it were some kind of an inexplicable but horrible event gets us nowhere.

And talking of crimes we come to the point I actually made on the blog: Cambodia does not fit into the pattern at all. You cannot understand what happened there unless you start thinking and writing about all victims of Communism, those in the Soviet Union, in Eastern Europe, in China, in Vietnam and so on. What of them, I asked. Tomorrow morning I shall check if there are any responses.

Some weeks ago I wrote about the Russian authorities fussing about the exhibition of paintings from Russian museums that were to be exhibited in the Royal Academy. The problem was sorted by our politicians and art commissars grovelling to the Russians and speedily passing various regulations that ensured descendants of the Morozov and Shchukin families would not start claiming ownership of paintings that had been confiscated from them soon after the Bolshevik Revolution.

Actually, some of them were confiscated twice as many of the Bolsheviks rather speedily appropriated much of the decadent bourgeois property that was becoming Bolshevik state property. Then they, too, were arrested and once again the paintings were … ahem … acquired by the state.

As both the French and the Russian paintings in the two collections were considered to be somewhat decadent as well as unhealthy, they were not shown in Soviet museums for a long time and judging by the state some of them are in, not looked after very well either. There are cracks in the paint of various C├ęzannes and Matisses and scratches on the Russian paintings that had been taken out of their frames and, more recently, hastily surrounded by bits of wood.

Brian Sewell of the Evening Standard, who did not like the exhibition, anyway, wrote about his disgust that the British government simply rolled over for the Russians. While I think the British government should have demanded something in return, I do think that something good might come out of this mess (apart from the fact that many excellent paintings and many rather second-rate ones are being seen in London).

First of all, I can sympathize with the Russian museum curators who are still at the mercy of the political authorities and must be rather happy to be able to talk to their Euroepan colleagues. The whole Soviet and post-Soviet situation is particularly heart-breaking when one looks at the way Russian culture was integrated in European up to the end of the First World War, with a little bit going on till the mid-twenties.

Secondly, this might see the end of those preposterous claims that collateral descendants of Jewish art collectors keep making for pictures and collections that they have very dubious rights to. As Brian Sewell rightly asks, why are Nazi grabs to be pursued even when they were not, strictly speaking, grabs but not Communist ones?

Can we now draw a line under the whole thing and just acknowledge that stuff happens and just because one’s great aunt may have owned many very good pictures that does not mean that one is entitled to the profit of selling them now at hugely inflated prices?

I must admit, however, much as I liked the paintings – the Russian ones more than the French, which, with very few exceptions are also rans – I was not impressed by the way the exhibition is curated.

It is not really possible to have an exhibition of paintings from Russian museums that were originally confiscated from Russian collectors and not deal with politics at all. There must be a limit to how much grovelling we do to the Russian authorities.

Why, for instance, is there no mention of the art historian Nikolai Punin, who saved many of those decadent works of art? Could it be because then there would have to be some kind of a mention that the man, Anna Akhmatova’s third husband, was arrested twice, the second time dying in the camps in 1953?

Akhmatova’s portrait by Naum Altmann, for many years seen only in illustrations, is one of the highlights of the exhibition. But, true to our reluctance to discuss the tragedy of Communism, little is said about the great poet herself.

Presumably, there could be no explanation of the many people who had to leave the country, abandon their creativity and worse or we would have been denied the paintings.

Look at the portrait of the astonishingly inventive stage producer Vsevolod Meyerhold by Dmitri Grigoriev.

Many of those supposedly new ideas of the sixties were invented by Meyerhold in the twenties. I have seen other pictures of him, photographs by the MVD taken after he had been “interrogated” for months. I have read the letter he, like many others, was allowed to send to the authorities before he was sentenced, with complaints about treatment in prison. Guess what happened to all those letters. Oh, they survived but you will not hear Hizonner the Mayor of LondON or the Liverpool worthies read them out, though Meyerhold’s “complaints” have been translated and published.

Maybe it is best not to read the letter out. I had nightmares after my own perusal.

On Holocaust Memorial Day I feel I ought to talk a little about victims of other monstrous crimes. (When I tried to suggest a memorial meeting for those victims as well in the London Assembly I was called a Holocaust denier for my pains by Comrade Len Duvall, the leader of the Labour group and a very unpleasant ultra-left bully politico. One does not need to wonder too long what his job would be in a totalitarian state.)

So, Anna Akhmatova, one of Russia’s greatest poets. Her first husband, Nikolai Gumilyov, also a poet, a traveller and an officer in the Russian army, was shot in 1921, allegedly for participating in an anti-Bolshevik, pro-monarchist plot. It has long ago been accepted by historians and researchers that there was no plot but a provocation by the Cheka.

Their son, Lev Gumilyov, eventually an historian who propounded some very peculiar theories about ethnicity, was arrested altogether three times under Stalin, released finally only after the old tyrant’s death.

Her third husband I have already written about. Her friend, Lidiya Chukovskaya, barely managed to escape arrest herself and whose own husband, the astrophysicist Matvei Bronshtein was arrested and sentenced officially to ten years without rights of correspondence. That was a phoney sentence, handed out to relatives of many of those who had actually been sentenced to death and executed (or possibly murdered during torture) in prison. It kept the execution figures down.

Chukovskaya described how Akhmatova set herself up as the conscience and memory of the nation. No-one around her was ever allowed to forget even for a moment about the vast prison camp they all lived in. Of course, they could not talk about it but they could exchange notes that were immediately destroyed and memorize poems.

Chukovskaya herself wrote two brilliant novellas about the two big purges, “Sofia Petrovna” and “Going Under”. They were published in the West in the sixties and twenty years later in the Soviet Union. She also found courage, despite everything, to support Boris Pasternak, to protest against the imprisonment of Andrei Sinyavsky and Yury Daniel, as well as other dissidents. As an old blind woman she was bullied by officials of the Writers’ Union because she had dared to protest against treatment meted out to Andrei Sakharov.

Nadezhda Mandelshtam, who also escaped arrest and whose husband, the great poet Osip Mandelshtam was arrested twice and eventually died in a transit camp outside Vladivostok, wrote that when Lyova Gumilyov was arrested for the third time even Akhmatova “howled”. She agreed to write some poems in praise of Stalin.

More to the point, however, she wrote a brilliant cycle “Requiem” about her country’s torment. The poems of the cycle were memorized by friends and were published in the West in the early sixties. They did not appear in the poet’s homeland till the late eighties, twenty years after her death.

And so, on this Memorial Day, I intend to indulge myself and post my translation of the introductory quatrain and note to “Requiem”, the best of all memorials to those millions, who are never remembered by our commentators.

No, I did not live under an alien sky
And was not protected by alien wings -
I was then among my own people,
Where my unhappy people were.


In the terrible years of yezhovschina I spent seventeen months in Leningrad’s prison queues. One day somebody recognized me. The woman immediately behind me, whose lips were blue with cold, and who, presumably, had never heard of me, seemed to shake off the numbness that had overtaken us all. Leaning close to my ear she whispered (we all spoke in whispers):

- And this. Can you write about this?

I said:

- Yes I can.

Then something resembling a smile glided across what had once been her face.
“Requiem” grew out of that experience and that conversation.

On this Memorial Day, let us remember the people in those queues, the people behind bars, behind barbed wire, in the torture chambers, being dragged to the execution chambers.

Two things need to be added. Firstly, in case anybody is wondering, the reason I write about Communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe rather than, say, China is very straightforward. I know more about it. It is not because I consider what happened in the Asian or Latin American countries to be unimportant.

Not enough has been written about China, Vietnam and Cambodia (that scene of an unexplained tragedy) and, in any case, my knowledge is too superficial. I can thoroughly recommend, however, the Inspector Chen novels by Qiu Xiaolong, who lives in the United States. Mostly they are excellent detective stories, far superior to the overwhelming majority of those written in Britain or America. They also give a fascinating picture of Shanghai in the nineties and a very good analysis of the traumatic effects of Maoism and of the Cultural Revolution in particular. Those who can think that far back will recall that the latter was particularly ferocious in Shanghai.

Secondly, what does this have to do with the European Union? As it happens I am not succumbing to the brain fever that considers the EU to be a reincarnation of the USSR. It is not. That very short account of very few people above ought to show that.

However, if we want to move forward in the twenty-first century and overcome the horrors of the twentieth, we must, first of all understand those horrors. Concentrating unthinkingly on the Holocaust (by which I mean not understanding even that) will get us nowhere.

If we want to survive and flourish, to revive the historical process that seemed to disintegrate in the last century we must face up to the truth. Then we can do what we need to do and discard the outdated remnant of that terrible century; the organization that is still stuck somewhere in the middle of it and cannot think its way out; the one and only European Union.

See? I told you there was a connection between all these disparate topics.