Wednesday 29 October 2014

Week Six: The different faces of Communism in the USSR and its satellite states from Lenin to Gorbachev,

Revolutions are produced by men of action, one-sided fanatics, geniuses of self-limitation. In a few hours or days they overturn the old order. The upheavals last for weeks, for years at the most, and then for decades, for centuries, people bow down to the spirit of limitation that led to the upheavals as to something sacred.
Doctor Zhivago
Boris Pasternak

We resembled the great Inquisitors in that we persecuted the seeds of evil not only in man’s deeds, but in their thoughts. We admitted no private sphere, not even inside a man’s skull.
Darkness at Noon
Arthur Koestler

“Music is the great uniter. An incredible force. Something that people who differ on everything and anything else can have in common.”
Just Listen
Sarah Dessen

Link on the power of poetry 

The following is a selection from an early blog on this webpage. This material did not make it into That Line of Darkness: The Gothic from Lenin to bin Laden (Encompass Editions, 2013) for reasons of space.  

Anna Akhmatova
The gifted and enormously resilient Anna Akhmatova felt the need to continue the tradition of earlier poets and assume a moral responsibility to be the voice of memory by bearing witness to these ghastly times. Between 1935 and 1940, although she dared not speak it aloud because she was under conspicuous surveillance by the NKVD, who clearly intended to intimidate her, Akhmatova ended her silence by sculpting in words a memorial to the victims of the Stalinist terror, Requiem (not published in Russia during her lifetime) that expressed with searing emotional clarity what others could only feel. It was written on scraps of paper, a fragment read silently by a friend who committed it to memory and burned the paper. Grounded in personal experience, she stood in a prison queue with a food parcel for her son, after he (who was arrested repeatedly), and her lover were arrested within a couple of weeks of each other primarily as hostages to ensure her compliance. Standing in that line with women also desperate for news of their loved ones, Requiem is a testament to their suffering and by extension the anguish of a whole people. As her preface makes clear, she would connect her personal experience with all those other women:

In the terrible years of the Yezhov terror, I spent seventeen months in the prison lines of Leningrad. Once, someone ‘recognized’ me. Then a woman with bluish lips standing behind me, who, of course, had never heard me called by name before, woke up from the stupor to which everyone had succumbed and whispered in my ear [everyone spoke in whispers there]:

           ‘Can you describe this?’ And I answered: ‘Yes, I can.’ Then something that looked like a 
           smile passed over what had once been her face.

With a piercing honesty that cuts through the miasmic fog of lies and fantasy, Akhmatova captures the intense pain of these women left behind, the fabric of their lives dissolved in grief, loneliness and despair:

          And like a useless appendage, Leningrad
          Swung from its prisons.
          And when, senseless from torment,
          Regiments of convicts marched,
          And the short songs of farewell
          Were sung by locomotive whistles.
          The stars of death stood above us
          And innocent Rus writhed
          Under bloody boots
          And under the tires of the Black Marias.

         They led you away at dawn,
          I followed you, like a mourner,
          In the dark front room the children were crying,
          By the icon shelf the candle was dying.
          On your lips was the  icon’s chill.
          The deathly sweat on your brow …

The prose introduction and fifteen verses of the Requiem comprise a terrible mosaic of daily life in terror-stricken Leningrad of arbitrary malevolence characterized by arrests, pleas for mercy and endless lines by the prison wall awaiting news of the loved one. Leningrad becomes a city of the dead, where the briefest farewell is permitted to the prisoners who will be herded by train into exile and the purgatory of the camps. The ancient land of Rus writhe under the boots of the modern police state as vans, the infamous “black Marias” or “black crows,” camouflaged as ordinary delivery trucks, transport the prisoners away to the trains or dark forests where sometimes they dig their own graves. The secrecy of many executions is shrouded in the sentence “ten years hard labour without the right of correspondence” that cruelly leaves survivors with the false hope that they will one day see their loved ones. Her poem powerfully counterpoises the state’s casual indifference to the victims’ life and death with the deep love of the grieving family members left behind.
Former house of Anna Akhmatova

Akhmatova believed that the responsibility of the poet was to commemorate for future generations the fear and deprivation of her times regardless of the risks. She took upon herself the burden of not forgetting or allowing history to forget the “hangman’s” terror. Despite being a symbol of resistance during the siege of Leningrad and offering Russian people hope with her poem, “Courage,” she was denounced as “half nun and half harlot” in the late 1940s. Yet her creative impulse never tamped but expressed an authenticity, that countless thousands perhaps millions experienced, that no authority, however oppressive, could erase.

Until Gorbachev permitted glasnost and the filling in of the "blank spots," Soviet leaders—Khrushchev’s brief interlude during the early 1960s aside—have made it a priority to rewrite history and expunge from public consciousness the flogging, the execution pits and bestiality of the camps, and the emotions they generated. Against these odds, her tableau was no mean accomplishment. When she died in 1966, thousands remembered the woman whose mission in the words of Lev Kopelev was to “preserve Russian speech and keep it ‘pure’ and ‘free.’” Her voice was a beacon of truth at a time when everywhere else there were lies, silence and amnesia. Whether her poetry will find new readers in the commercial noise of the current ‘managed democracy’ may present a more formidable obstacle than the opprobrium and intimidation she experienced at the behest of a tyrannical police state.
Museum of Anna Akhmatova

The War Symphonies, a 1997 Canadian-German co-production is the most recent, and in some ways the most impressive, of the sequence of revisionist programmes on Shostakovich. Produced for Rhombus Media by Niv Fichman, the film is directed by the distinguished multiple award-winner Larry Weinstein. Shot on location in St. Petersburg and Moscow, this 82-minute documentary includes excerpted performances by the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic and the Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra, both conducted by Valery Gergiev, who in addition offers his views on the featured works: a scene from Lady Macbeth, symphonies 4 to 9, and the burlesque Rayok (given in tantalising glimpses of a sharp Mariinsky production).

Weinstein segues from the Terror to an extended evocation of the siege of Leningrad via the drained desolation of the Sixth Symphony's Largo. Herewhile quoting the passage in Testimony in which Shostakovich describes the Seventh Symphony as "not about Leningrad under siege [but] about the Leningrad that Stalin destroyed and Hitler merely finished off"the main emphasis among the witnesses is on the traditional anti-Nazi interpretation of the work. Isaak Glikman (1911-1996), for example, is clear that the march in the first movement of the Seventh represents the "Fascist invaders". We are offered moving firsthand accounts of the legendary Leningrad premiere, as well as film of Shostakovich playing the first movement of Seventh Symphony in a piano reduction, and readingwith vehemencean anti-Nazi speech at a broadcast public meeting. Though she contributes elsewhere, Flora Litvinova is not asked about her war-time conversation with the composer in which he told her the Seventh was "not just about fascism, but also about our system, about any tyranny and totalitarianism in general."

The film Stalin portrays the political career and personal life of the former leader of the Soviet Union, Georgian-born Ioseb Jughashvili, who later adopted the name Joseph Stalin demonstrating his rule and how he was able to bring the Soviet Union to a place of great power on the world stage, but at a consequence: in this case, the destruction of his family as well as the mass murder of millions of his own Revolutionary partners. The focus is on the behaviour of Stalin and the after effects. The story is as narrated by Stalin's daughter, who defected to the United States in 1967.

In an abridged translation that retains the grace and passion of the original, Memoir of a Gulag Actress is the stunning memoir of a young woman who became an actress in the Gulag. Tamara Petkevich had a relatively privileged childhood in the beautiful, impoverished Petrograd of the Soviet regime’s early years, but when her father—a fervent believer in the Communist ideal-was arrested, 17-year-old Tamara was branded a “daughter of the enemy of the people.” She kept up a search for her father while struggling to support her mother and two sisters, finish school, and enter university. Shortly before the Russian outbreak of World War II, Petkevich was forced to quit school, and against her better judgment, she married an exiled man whom she had met in the lines at the information bureau of the NKVD (People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs). Her mother and one sister perished in the Nazi siege of Leningrad, and Petkevich was herself arrested. With cinematic detail, Petkevich relates her attempts to defend herself against absurd charges of having a connection to the Leningrad terrorist center, counter-revolutionary propaganda, and anti-Semitism that resulted in a sentence of seven years’ hard labor in the Gulag. While Petkevich became a professional actress in her own right years after her release from the Gulag, she learned her craft on the stages of the camps scattered across the northern Komi Republic. The existence of prisoner theaters and troupes of political prisoners such as the one Petkevich joined is a little-known fact of Gulag life. Petkevich’s depiction not only provides a unique firsthand account of this world-within-a-world but also testifies to the power of art to literally save lives. As Petkevich moves from one form of hardship to another, she retains her desire to live and her ability to love.


The Way Back is a compelling epic story of survival, solidarity and indomitable human will. Shot in Bulgaria, Morocco and India, the film documents how prisoners of a Soviet Union labor camp flee their Siberian Gulag and begin a treacherous journey across thousands of miles of hostile terrain. The film is inspired by the acclaimed book The Long Walk: The True Story of a Trek to Freedom, as well as first-person accounts and anecdotes, as told to and researched by director Peter Weir and executive producer Keith Clarke.


Mikhail Gorbachev

The so-called death strip 1986
"As for Reagan’s challenge to Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall, it received relatively minor media coverage at the time. Gorbachev’s role in the liberation of Eastern Europe from Soviet domination in 1989 was far more consequential. Early on, he hinted that he would no longer apply the so-called Brezhnev Doctrine, which the Soviets had used to justify military intervention in satellite countries.
Then, in a speech at the UN in December 1988, Gorbachev left no doubt. He abandoned the concept of 'international class struggle' that had underpinned Soviet foreign policy, discarded the Brezhnev Doctrine, and renounced the use or threat of force to resolve conflicts.
Gorbachev announced unilateral measures to reduce the country’s armed forces by 500,000 troops and to withdraw 50,000 soldiers from Eastern Europe. In the words of Soviet scholar Archie Brown, he thus effectively “willed the end of communist regimes in Eastern Europe.’’ Once the dramatic changes began to unfold, Gorbachev abided by his new policy and let them run their course without interference. Restraint was not as easy politically as it now seems. As Brown has noted, the Soviet foreign-policy and military establishments had always 'viewed their hegemony over Eastern Europe as non-negotiable.'
Why did Gorbachev radically transform Soviet foreign policy? Unlike his predecessors, Gorbachev understood that the Soviet Union could never advance economically if it continued to devote 20 percent of gross national product and 40 percent of its deficit-ridden budget to military spending.
Reagan’s contribution to ending the Cold War was also importantbut not in the way conservatives would have us believe. Negotiations - not military confrontationconstituted the core of his strategy for dealing with the Soviets, and he relentlessly pursued them throughout his presidency. Indeed, his military buildup was intended to create incentives for the Soviets to negotiate significant arms reductions by eliminating or reducing their advantage in various weapons categories. When Gorbachev became the first Soviet leader to engage him directly, Reagan cast aside his overheated rhetoric about 'the evil empire' and engaged Gorbachev with respect.

Both leaders were products of a bitter, decades-long enmity stemming from the very core of their national identities, yet the two men looked beyond their expected roles in preserving the adversarial relationship between the two superpowers and their polarized ideologies and took giant steps toward peace and cooperation for the sake of their own people and the world.
They both deserve admiration for their historic achievementand leave relevant lessons on how to confront today’s difficult challenges."

Paul C. Demakis, a former state representative, recently received a masters’ degree in international relations from the Fletcher School at Tufts University.

 For a link to an article on the soul of Russia

Winner of the Best Director prize at the 2013 Berlin Film Festival, Barbara is a simmering, impeccably crafted Cold War thriller, starring the gifted Nina Hoss as a Berlin doctor banished to a rural East German hospital as punishment for applying for an exit visa. As her lover from the West carefully plots her escape, Barbara waits patiently and avoids friendships with her colleagues-except for Andre (Ronald Zehrfeld) the hospital's head physician, who is warmly attentive to her. But even as she finds herself falling for him, Barbara still cannot be sure that Andre is not a spy. As her defensive wall slowly starts to crumble, she is eventually forced to make a profound decision about her future. A film of glancing moments and dangerous secrets, Barbara paints a haunting picture of a woman being slowly crushed between the irreconcilable needs of desire and survival. Germany's official Oscar submission for Best Foreign Language Film.

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