Fools and their Futile Appeals

In all the books I have read about Stalin and the Great Terror (e.g. 1, 2, 3, 4), there is a discussion on the reaction of middle and upper echelon Communists when they are first arrested by the NKVD.  Consistently, and to the point that one must assume this was typical, they report reactions of utter surprise and bewilderment, followed rapidly by the conclusion that it must be some kind of terrible mistake.  Those of more senior rank implored their captors and families to inform Stalin in person and beg him to intervene; whilst those from the middle ranks – sometimes even after they’d been tortured, processed, and shipped off to the camps – would labour under the delusion that Stalin was entirely unaware of what was going on, and they were caught up in some kind of rogue operation of which he would never approve.  It dawned on them very, very late – and sometimes not at all – that Stalin personally oversaw this apparatus of terror and in many instances had ordered the arrest of the individual in person.

Reading these books gave me a new, and as far as I know, somewhat unusual (in the sense that I don’t know anyone else who shares it) view on the victims of the Great Terror: that their innocence cannot automatically be assumed.  For sure, the crimes for which they were actually charged were dreamed up out of nowhere, and there were undoubtedly a very great many who perished or suffered who were entirely innocent in all respects.  But many of the victims of the second wave of terror were those who took part in the first wave: thousands of NKVD thugs who were happy to sign the orders, knock on the doors, dish out the beatings, and pull the triggers found themselves up against a wall alongside thousands of Communists who had cheered them on earlier.  Similarly, the third wave incorporated thousands of those who actively participated in the first and second waves, and thousands more of those who, up until their own arrest, thought it was all fine and dandy.  For these individuals, it is difficult to feel much sympathy.

Mark Holland, of the now sadly defunct Blognor Regis, put this brilliantly in a post which is no longer online in response to this obituary of Alexandr Solzhenitsyn:

Meanwhile, [Solzhenitsyn] switched faiths, throwing out Christianity in favour of Marxism, by which he professed himself “absolutely sincerely enthralled” – and this in spite of the fact that, at 14, he had witnessed his substitute father, an engineer friend of the family, being dragged off in the first spate of purges, and some of his father’s relatives, too, denounced as kulaks and exiled to Siberia.

At university Solzhenitsyn was awarded a Stalinist scholarship for his keen work in the Communist youth league … in 1939 he was reported to have attended more to his copy of Marx’s Das Kapital, than to his young bride.

It therefore came as a terrible shock when he was arrested, in January 1945, by Smersh.

The astonished young Marxist was shipped back to Moscow, where he was sentenced without trial to eight years in labour camps, and exile in perpetuity – apparently for having criticised Stalin’s policies in a letter to a friend on another part of the front.

To paraphrase Mark: Solzhenitsyn, a die-hard Marxist and supporter of the Communist regime, was down with the violence until some of it came his way.  Round up some kulaks and shoot them, that’s all fine and dandy.  But arrest me, a young intellectual?  Why, that’s astonishing!  Solzhenitsyn’s accounts of the Gulag system are brilliant and harrowing in equal measure, but I think Mark’s point stands nonetheless.

And this brings me onto this blog post I came across almost at random today:

San Francisco architect Lee Hammack says he and his wife, JoEllen Brothers, are “cradle Democrats.” They have donated to the liberal group Organizing for America and worked the phone banks a year ago for President Obama’s re-election.

Since 1995, Hammack and Brothers have received their health coverage from Kaiser Permanente, where Brothers worked until 2009 as a dietitian and diabetes educator. “We’ve both been in very good health all of our lives – exercise, don’t smoke, drink lightly, healthy weight, no health issues, and so on,” Hammack told me.

The couple — Lee, 60, and JoEllen, 59 — have been paying $550 a month for their health coverage — a plan that offers solid coverage, not one of the skimpy plans Obama has criticized. But recently, Kaiser informed them the plan would be canceled at the end of the year because it did not meet the requirements of the Affordable Care Act. The couple would need to find another one. The cost would be around double what they pay now, but the benefits would be worse.

And suddenly we’re back in Moscow in 1936:

Hammack recalled his reaction when he and his wife received a letters from Kaiser in September informing him their coverage was being canceled. “I work downstairs and my wife had a clear look of shock on her face,” he said. “Our first reaction was clearly there’s got to be some mistake. This was before the exchanges opened up. We quickly calmed down. We were confident that this would all be straightened out. But it wasn’t.”

Time to appeal to the vozhd:

He’s written to California’s senators and his representative, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., asking for help.

As did all those poor unfortunates who ended up sawing logs along the Kolyma river in winter.  Let’s see how much your masters care about you, eh?

Here’s my take on their situation: tough shit.  You campaigned for this, you voted for this, you wanted this.  For other people.  Now you’ve been squashed under the steamroller you created for them.  Sorry, but my sympathy for you is in the low zeroes.

And they’ve still not caught on:

“We believe that the Act is good for health care, the economy, & the future of our nation. However, ACA options for middle income individuals ages 59 & 60 are unaffordable. We’re learning that many others are similarly affected. In that spirit we ask that you fix this, for all of our sakes,” he and Brothers wrote.

Oh, so it’s good for health care, the economy, and the future of our nation.  Only please intervene so that we personally don’t have to take part, as it is seriously detrimental to our well-being.

Solzhenitsyn might have found some common ground with them at one time.  I wonder if these two “cradle Democrats” might one day be motivated by their own experiences to write a three volume masterpiece on the cruelness and damage inflicted on ordinary people by Obamacare?


USSR in 100 Photos

My wife sent me a link to this webpage, which contains 100 photos from the Soviet Union, many of which speak volumes about the life and times in the USSR.

Funnily enough, in many ways life in the USSR didn’t look much different from life in West Wales in the early 80s.  In fact, I think the Soviet clothes were more fashionable than what my mother used to make me wear.


What’s Left of the Pioneers at Vostok Camp

Today I had occasion, not for the first time, to go to the childrens’ summer camp just south of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk called Vostok (East) camp.  In the winter, the place is used by companies as accommodation for some of the thousands of third country nationals who are working on the Sakhalin II LNG facility at Prigorodnoye.  Hopefully these companies will all have their men out by the summer when the children arrive, unlike last summer when a hundred construction workers were found to be living amongst three hundred kids.

Nowadays the camp is decorated with lots of brightly coloured cartoon drawings of very uncontroversial scenes as would be found in any childrens’ centre worldwide, but there are still one or two of the murals dating from the Soviet times when this would have been a Pioneer camp.

Soviet Mural, Vostok Camp, Sakhalin Island

The words beneath Lenin’s profile are Vsegda Gotov! (Always Ready!) which was the motto of the Young Pioneers, who can be seen on the left giving their salute and on the right doing, erm, something with an intercontinental ballistic missile.

Soviet Mural, Vostok Camp, Sakhalin Island

This one, badly in need of refurbishment, depicts Pioneers sat around a large campfire, which relates to the Pioneer song Vzveites’ Kostrami, which I wrote about hereVzveites’ Kostrami roughly translates to “Higher Rise Our Campfire”, and was one of the most popular Pioneer songs of the Soviet times (it can be heard being sung here).


Да здравствует Первое Мая!

(Long Live the First of May!)

Sing along, Comrades!

Утро красит нежным светом
Стены древнего Кремля,    
Просыпается с рассветом
Вся Советская земля.     

Холодок бежит за ворот,
Шум на улицах сильней.
С добрым утром, милый город,
Сердце Родины моей!

Никем непобедимая
Страна моя,
Москва моя, —
Ты самая любимая!

Солнце майское, светлее
Небо синее освети.
Чтоб до вышки мавзолея
Нашу радость донести.

Чтобы ярче заблистали
Наши лозунги побед,
Чтобы руку поднял Сталин,
Посылая нам привет. 


Разгорелся день веселый,
Морем улицы шумят,
Из открытых окон школы
Слышны крики октябрят.

Май течет рекой нарядной
По широкой мостовой,
Льется песней необъятной
Над красавицей Москвой. 


День уходит, и прохлада
Освежает и бодрит.   
Отдохнувши от парада,
Город праздничный гудит.

Вот когда встречаться парам!
Говорлива и жива,
По садам и по бульварам
Растекается Москва.    


Стала ночь на день похожей,
Море света над толпой.
Эй, товарищ! Эй, прохожий,
С нами вместе песню пой!

Погляди! Поет и пляшет
Вся Советская страна…
Нет тебя светлей и краше,
Наша красная весна!


Голубой рассвет глядится
В тишину Москвы-реки, 
И поют ночные птицы —
Паровозные гудки.       

Бьют часы Кремлевской башни,
Гаснут звезды, тает тень…
До свиданья, день вчерашний,
Здравствуй, новый, светлый день!



Chernobyl and Nuclear Power

Normally I agree with Sean Guillory when he writes about Russian and ex-Soviet affairs, but I must take issue with the penultimate paragraph of his latest post:

In addition, what is more disconcerting is that the lesson of Chernobyl and the dangers of nuclear power have fallen on deaf ears. Nuclear power is considered acceptable again, not only in Russia, but the US, and of course in Iran. Unfortunately, nuclear power, whether it be fore energy or in its weaponized form is still with us.

This view of nuclear power is common, but mistaken.  A lesson of Chernobyl is not that nuclear power generation is too dangerous to be considered an option, and the risks incurred are too great. For what happened in Chernobyl was a consequence of combining nuclear power with operating procedures, designs, state interference, and umpteen other factors which do not and will not be allowed by any responsible nuclear power operators now or in the future.  For instance:

1.  The design of the Soviet nuclear reactor was fundamentally flawed, and this was a huge factor in the resulting explosion.  Even at the time of the accident, Western reactor designs were fundamentally different, and therefore the chain of events which led to the initial explosion in Chernobyl would be impossible to replicate in a Western reactor.

2.  The Chernobyl plant operators and engineers were not suitably qualified, experienced, or trained to operate and maintain a nuclear power plant.  They were also deliberately not fully informed about the known design flaws and potential hazards associated with operating the reactor, specifically at low power levels.  This degree of incompetence and mismanagment is thankfully absent from Western nuclear power plants.

3.  The operators at Chernobyl were able to disable multiple safety systems and conduct an unauthorised experiment which disregarded all the operating procedures and requirements therein, an experiment which lead directly to the explosion in the Chernobyl reactor.  Recklessness of this kind is very easy to eradicate, and is absent from Western power plants.

4.  In order to cut costs, the reactor housing was able to offer only partial containment in an emergency, rather than full containment as in Western power stations.

There is more than enough evidence to demonstrate that nuclear power generation when carried out properly and responsibly is extremely safe, and accidents such as the one in Chernobyl are entirely avoidable.  For example, the two major users of nuclear power, France and Japan, use vastly different reactor designs from the one in Chernobyl, they ensure their operators are dedicated professionals who have the required support and training, and they do not allow their operators to throw the operating manual in the bin and start experimenting.  It is of little surprise that neither country has experienced an accident which resulted in a release of radioactive material, and it is also of little surprise that no similar accident has occurred anywhere in the past 20 years.

There are many lessons to be learned from Chernobyl, and having started my engineering career in the nuclear industry, I am fairly convinced that nearly all of them have been well learned by those in the West responsible for the operations and maintenance of nuclear power stations.  As lessons were learned when several Comet aircraft unzipped their fuselages and fell from the sky, so engineers learned from the accident at Chernobyl; or, more accurately, had their initial ideas confirmed:  that nuclear power plants must be designed correctly, installed and commissioned correctly, and operated correctly by experienced professionals.  The greatest lesson to take from the Chernobyl disaster is that these basics cannot be circumvented at any time, and thankfully those in the West responsible for operating nuclear reactors safely knew these lessons well before 1986 and haven’t forgotten them in the 20 years since.

To use Chernobyl as a reason to abandon nuclear power is like using the Titanic  as a reason to discontinue all shipping.  It is of utmost importance to ensure that accidents similar to Chernobyl do not occur again, but this is not to be achieved by throwing out the baby with the bathwater by abandoning nuclear power altogether.


… at least they had plenty of kompot.

There is a good discussion currently going on at Harry’s Place in the comments section of a post looking for the best conclusion of this phrase:

No one will deny that crimes were committed under Communism. But…

In an effort to keep things light hearted, my effort was:

No one will deny that crimes were committed under Communism. But Cheburashka was awfully cute, and the Pioneers had some great songs in their repertoire.

There are some worthy entries in the thread, and it is worth browsing in full if not for any other reason than to see the odd Soviet apologist answering the question in seriousness. 

An effort from a Mike S made me laugh somewhat loudly:

No one will deny that crimes were committed under communism. But at least you didn’t have to worry about Tim Newman cracking on to your daughter.

Who, me?

But the best comment in the thread thus far is from a Martin Morgan, who I think worked in the Soviet Union at some point:

My bottom line on the good old USSR is that all the benefits it produced – decent education, adequate health care, relative emancipation of women, restriction of religious strictures and alphabet reform – could and almost certainly would have been better implemented by democratic means.

The price Soviet people had to pay was too high. If they want to have a rosy vision of the Brezhnev years, that’s their right. But nostalgia for the Soviet system looks tacky coming from people who didn’t have to endure it.

My thoughts exactly, especially the last two lines.


Ex-Soviets in Dubai

This article on people from the former Soviet Union in Dubai appeared in the Gulf News over the weekend:

[D]espite their increasing success in a variety of diverse professions, … many Russian speakers still suffer from a negative stereotype in the UAE.

A label perpetuated by the criminal activities of a few, the numerous women fighting poverty through prostitution here (and elsewhere) and a poor understanding by other nationalities about the post soviet region is frustrating, especially for a community trying to re-brand itself and succeed in a highly competitive environment.

“Many people can’t even locate Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan or Belarus on a map. They don’t even know what the Commonwealth of Independent states (CIS) is and they think every Russian speaker is Russian,” [says Alexander Orlov, manager of Troyka, Dubai’s most popular Russian nightclub] .

Indeed. People’s knowledge of the former Soviet Union is pretty limited at the best of times, and it is true that the image of Russian speakers in Dubai is generally poor.

However, Marina Golovkova from Kazakhstan seems to understand why:

“Although I haven’t experienced any overt discrimination I think people from the former Soviet Union are partly to blame for any negative stereotype they suffer. We could do more to promote a better image of ourselves,” she says.

Indeed. Russians everywhere, not just in the UAE, put almost no effort into improving or maintaining a positive image of Russia and its people. And this is a shame, because Russians are in my view the most friendly and hospitable people in the world under the right circumstances. There is a reason for this, though:

Marina claims that despite the changes witnessed in Russia and the CIS and the region’s exposure to the rest of the world since the collapse of the Soviet Union, a culture of “not complaining” and “not promoting personal achievements” lingers from a shared communist past. She believes this affects a Russian speaker’s image in the eyes of other nationalities.

She says the post Soviet community in the UAE is having to work extra hard to change their image because in an increasingly competitive and self-promotional world they have to change themselves at the same time.

“Not standing up for ourselves as individuals comes from our cultural background. During the Soviet era we were taught to be modest and humble. We were not supposed to say ?I this’ or ?I that’. We had to wait to be praised for our achievements. In western culture you celebrate your merits,” she says.

Marina’s exposure to the multi-national communities in the UAE has taught her to promote herself and do more to promote understanding about her own culture. She passionately insists this should be the duty of every Russian speaker here.

“I wouldn’t have learnt how to stand up for myself if I hadn’t come to Dubai. I have become more European here and learnt how to say the words ?I deserve’. Russian speakers have to be more assertive if they are to be better understood. I didn’t learn this in Moscow. You have to leave Russia to learn this.”

I might also add that the Russian and CIS governments do practically nothing to improve their image in the UAE though their embassies. Russians often have a hard time here, that much is true, and I really hope that they can work together to help themselves as a community.


Взвейтесь кострами

Having spent the last week or so in the company of two people from St. Petersburg who are old enough to have been Pioneers, I am now familiar with one or two songs of Soviet youth. Sing along, Comrades!

Взвейтесь кострами,
Синие ночи!
Мы, пионеры, –
Дети рабочих.
Близится эра
Светлых годов.
Клич пионера:
“Всегда будь готов!”

Радостным шагом,
С песней весёлой
Мы выступаем
За Комсомолом.
Близится эра
Светлых годов.
Клич пионера:
“Всегда будь готов!”

Грянем мы дружно
Песнь удалую
За пионеров
Семью мировую.
Будем примером
Борьбы и трудов.
Клич пионера:
“Всегда будь готов!”

Мы поднимает
Алое знамя.
Дети рабочих,
Смело за нами!
Близится эра
Светлых годов.
Клич пионера:
“Всегда будь готов!”