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Showing posts with label Anne Applebaum Gulag. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Anne Applebaum Gulag. Show all posts

Tuesday 9 January 2018

Review: Anne Applebaum, Red Famine

Anne Applebaum’s becomes a very readable book and impresses as very well documented and argued, but it starts badly. The bad start has something to do with her own prejudices and something to do with a language problem compounded in all probability by a surfeit of uncoordinated research assistance. I will focus on these two problems.

At page 19, we read that the Bolsheviks’  “coup d’├ętat in October (7 November according to the ‘new calendar’ they later adopted) put them in power amidst conditions of total chaos. Led by Lenin, a paranoid, conspiratorial and fundamentally undemocratic man, the Bolsheviks …”

Now I am only going to argue with one part of this. Why the snide scare quotes around ‘new calendar’?  In Bolshevik-controlled Russia, the 31 January 1918 was followed by 14 February. This switch from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar replaced a less accurate with a more accurate calendar: both calendars involve slippage but the Julian slips at the rate of one day in 128 years, the Gregorian by one day in 3030 years. More importantly, all of Russia’s neighbours already used the Gregorian calendar and the Bolsheviks simply brought their country into line with the norm in Europe’s – er, capitalist – countries. When you wrote a letter, personal or business, to someone in those countries you no longer needed to use dual dating to prevent confusion. The only remarkable feature about Russia’s ‘new calendar’ is that it took a bloody upheaval to bring about an overdue administrative reform and that incidentally tells us something interesting and important about the old regime. In the same way, my own country would probably need a revolution to arrive at a fixed date for Easter but, fortunately, there is no chance of any such thing here.

The language problem is more complex. Applebaum has written her book with the support of what are or were Ukrainian diaspora organisations in Canada and the USA, notably the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute. They have protocols to tell you how to transliterate from Ukrainian to English, which is excellent, and Applebaum tells us that she is going to use them. What is not excellent is that some of the Ukrainian words your friends point you towards are essentially recent inventions which are simply anachronistic when used in historical discussions. The most egregious example appears at page 9, where Applebaum tells us that the city of what is now called Donetsk was originally called ‘Yuzivka’ in honour of its founder, the Welshman John Hughes. It wasn’t. It was called ‘Yuzovka’ or ‘Iuzovka’, which are standard transliterations from the Russian original. Applebaum has instead transliterated from a modern Ukrainian word which is essentially an invention. Yuzovka was a Russian company town and remained so until it was renamed ‘Trotsk’ in 1923 (after Trotsky) and then ‘Stalino’ (after Stalin) and finally in 1961 ‘Donetsk’ which is the name by which it is known today, and helpfully by both  Russians and Ukrainians. The word Yuzivka has no historical purchase, merely an ideological one.

In addition, simplistic and anachronistic language purists never actually achieve the ideological consistency they want. Human beings just can’t cope with their demands. This is obvious from Applebaum’s very sloppy maps.  I have no desire to wear you down, so I will take just one, her map titled Ukraine, 1922. The old Imperial Russian guberniyas had been slightly re-organised by that date to create the Ukrainian SSR but the map gives them their names in a mix of versions, some transliterated from Ukrainian (Kyiv, Kharkiv) and some from Russian (Podolia, Odessa). Town and city names are also mixed. Some versions are Ukrainian (Proskuriv not  Proskurov) others are Russian (Melitopol, Mariupol not Melitopil, Mariupil). Yuzovka is given its post-1961 name, Donetsk. I am sure Applebaum has been inundated with emails picking up on these and other points but we should probably acknowledge that we are never gong to get it right. She does use maps which exclude Crimea from Ukraine, which is historically accurate: the administrative transfer to Ukraine was made in 1954.

Some years ago I was asked to prepare for auction in Switzerland what was probably the largest collection of Ukrainian stamps and postal history ever assembled. The catalogue was going to be written in English. When it became known that I was going to do this work, I got emails from diaspora Ukrainians reminding me of spellings and transliterations I should employ. That was helpful, but I had to point out that I was keen to avoid anachronism and falsification. At the time of the first Ukrainian stamp issues in 1918, language questions were not much of a priority in Ukraine and old Imperial Russian postal cancellations continued in use for some years (something which, in contrast, did not happen in the newly independent Baltic countries which were keen to switch from Cyrillic to Roman immediately). Before the early or even mid 1920s, only a couple of cities produced any Ukrainian language postmarks (Kyiv and Kharkiv) and even those were simply used alongside the old ones. So I ended up writing catalogue entries which read, for example, “Letter from Kyiv with cancellation KIEV 10.10.18”, the capitalised letters transliterating the Russian of the postmark. But I am sure I slipped up from time to time, just as most people do when they alternate between civilisation and civilization without even noticing. And in my view, most of the time we should relax and live with the slippage unless some question of historical accuracy is at stake.


When we get past all this, we get a book which I think is more tightly argued than her book on the Gulag. She assembles a great deal of material but is cautious about using the word genocide and gives a reasoned estimate for the numbers who died in the Holodomor, the artificial famine of 1932 – 33, designed in Moscow but implemented on the ground by Ukrainians as well as Russians. The photographs she uses are important and some of them will be new to readers. [ Added 3 July 2018: see also my review of Philippe Sands, East West Street on this Blog, 5 February 2018. Sands thinks that in general the concept of crimes against humanity has more to commend it than the concept of genocide. In that perspective (I am extrapolating), the burden passes from proving that Stalin targetted Ukrainian peasants to proving (much more easily) that he targetted peasants whose way of doing things stood in the way of a megalomaniac agricultural policy, rather in the way that Mao was later to do in China. The national, ethnic, cultural or linguistic categories into which the peasant fell was irrelevant to Mao. But that did not stop them starving to death].

One thing she does not discuss but which I think is relevant is this. Like Russia, Ukraine has a major boundary problem. The creation of Ukrainian identity has been difficult because there are not enough mountain ranges and rivers creating natural boundaries. After Imperial Russia collapsed in 1917, Ukrainian nationalists laid claim to territories extending considerably beyond today’s boundaries (especially in the north and east). When you look at their maps, you start to see straight lines reminiscent of those favoured by Europe’s imperial powers when they carved up Africa and the Middle East. In the absence of natural boundaries, cultural nationalism assumes exaggerated importance and so does the tendency towards cultural imposition. In the present instance, both Russian and Ukrainian nationalisms came into conflict over territories whose people, left to their own devices,  would probably have ended up living in the kind of inconsistent and compromising ways which enrage bureaucrats, imperialists and pedants. 

Friday 10 August 2012

Review: Orlando Figes, Just Send me Word

The backbone of this book is provided by long extracts from correspondence between Lev Mischenko (1917 - 2008) and Svetlana Ivanov (1917 - 2010) during the eight years (1946 - 1954) when he was a political prisoner in the Soviet Gulag and she a scientific researcher in Moscow. They had met before the War as students and were courting each other when Hitler's invasion of Russia separated them: Lev was captured by the Germans in the summer of 1941 and spent the War in German Dulags, Stalags and concentration camps. For that, he was then sentenced to ten years in the Gulag (Article 58 - I(b)).

He survived and Svetlana waited - from 1941 to 1954, with short annual visits to him (at first, unauthorised) from 1947. After Lev's release in 1954, they married, had two children (Svetlana by then an elderly prima gravida) and lived into their nineties. Their correspondence between 1946 and 1954 comprises 647 letters from him and 599 from her. It is now held in the archives of Memorial in Moscow and "is the biggest known collection of private letters relating to the history of the Gulag" (Irina Ostrovskaya, page 297).

The work of transcribing, translating and making sense of these letters should not be underestimated; it was surely an enormous undertaking. But Figes has also spent some time researching the archives of the Gulag network in the Komi ASSR where Lev spent his imprisonment in the Pechora Wood Combine.

I guess that those archives were also hard to make sense of and in wishing there was more contextualisation in this book, I am aware that it is not something which is delivered to the researcher on a plate. Of course, we have Anne Applebaum's massive book Gulag (2003), but still ...

On the other hand, Lev's letters posted outside the camp to avoid censorship do provide a mass of detail about his daily life - about food shortages, about brutality, about lack of health care, about bribery and corruption. There are even significant photographs, partly thanks to a former Pechora camp inmate, Lev Izrailevich, who after finishing his sentence elected to remain in the area as a free worker and, for prisoners, a valuable link to the outside world (see notably pages 95 - 97 for his biographical details).

The book is highly readable: it's an extraordinary love story and also a story of extraordinary luck. Lev had many talents, and those helped him survive, but he also had strong outside support from able people willing to take risks on his behalf. Even so, at any point, things could have gone wrong and quite often it was a close shave.

Lev's biggest fear was that he might be moved to a camp - say at the Vorkuta mines, just a little to the north of Pechora - where life would be harder, the regime more strict, the opportunities for enlisting the help of free workers to act as couriers much more limited, and so on. In those circumstances, his chances of living out his sentence would have been much reduced. Svetlana, as a Communist Party member and involved in "sensitive" scientific research, ran considerable risks in maintaining a relationship with a "political".

In fact, the main limitation of the book is that it is about people so hugely untypical. The Gulag was a machine for destroying people, either physically or morally. You died, horribly, or you lost your hope or your reason. That was a much more common outcome and those millions to whom that happened leave us no voice.

So though this book can be placed alongside Applebaum's on the shelf, it also belongs with Martin Amis's very well-informed novel House of Meetings (2006) which takes its start from the fact at the end of the 1940s (1950 at Pechora - Figes, page 207) some camps provided facilities ( Dom svidanii) for brief conjugal visits.

The legacy of the Gulag does not end with the deaths of the last of its inmates. Lev and Svetlana had two children. One of them, Nikita, was able and willing to co-operate fully with Figes (page 293). About the other, Anastasia, Figes says only that she "suffered chronically from bipolar depression and was unable to work" (page 284).