The Death of Stalin

I’d heard a lot of positive talk about the film The Death of Stalin when it first came out. It’s a satire taking place during Stalin’s death and the immediate aftermath as his closest aides run around in confusion trying to figure out what to do now the vozhd has expired, and I thought it would be something I’d either love or hate. I got a chance to watch it on the flight out to Thailand, and loved it.

Now I’ve read two very good books which cover Stalin’s inner circle – Simon Sebag Montefiore’s Stalin: Court of the Red Tsar and William Taubman’s Khrushchev: The Man And His Era – and I was somewhat chuffed to have identified the main characters before their names were displayed on the screen. I knew who each man was, what their background was, and what became of them which I believe made me enjoy the film all the more because I wasn’t confused over who was who. There were plenty of genuinely laugh-out-loud moments, many of which ought not to have been because of the deadly serious subject matter. Far from detracting from the horrors Stalin and his men visited on the Soviet Union, the film does a splendid job of letting the audience know how callously brutal they were and what a horrific era it was for people, even those with connections. There are scenes, and sometimes a mere phrase, which will make your blood run cold, and it’s a testament to the skill of the writers that a minute later you’re laughing again. This is black comedy at it’s finest, but anyone who thinks this film downplays the horrors of Stalin’s rule is sorely mistaken.

The time frame in which the main events take place has been shortened considerably from reality in order to make the film work and there are probably several other liberties taken by the writers which I’ve not spotted. However, there are other things which suggest the writers know their history and any deviations are deliberate rather than a result of ignorance. In the early scenes we learn that Vyacheslav Molotov’s wife has been arrested and he himself is shortly to be arrested and probably executed: this is true, and his life was almost certainly saved by Stalin’s sudden death. There is also a scene in which a KGB (strictly speaking, MGB) guard hands a man and woman a bunch of flowers outside the gates of the ministry: this too is accurate, but I’ll let you watch the film to understand its significance.

Unsurprisingly, The Death of Stalin was banned in Russia, in part because they believed Marshall Zhukov was portrayed as an idiot. I suspect his portrayal was inaccurate, but I didn’t see him as an idiot in the slightest: his arrival in the plot is hilarious and his presence one of the highlights of the whole film. In hindsight, it is surprising it’s taken this long to make a satire of Stalin’s inner court because there is no shortage of surreal elements. The film captures several of these, but the two books I mention contain dozens more. One I remember is Stalin’s habit of forcing everyone to eat huge quantities of food late at night, then make them dance immediately afterwards. Nikita Khrushchev, being nominally Ukrainian, was often required to dance a hopak: being a portly fellow in his late 60s and full of food and drink, it was a bizarre spectacle which Stalin, and no doubt others too, found highly amusing. These ritual humiliations of the USSR’s most feared and powerful men were a regular feature of Stalin’s regime hence the film has no need to exaggerate, even if a viewer unfamiliar with the period might think it so.

The acting is superb, and most actors look like the historical figures they’re portraying. Steve Buscemi is probably a little tall and thin for Khrushchev but his performance allows you to overlook that with ease; Michael Palin is also a bit too slim to play Molotov, and I thought his character was too nervous and indecisive, but these are mere quibbles. In summary, I can highly recommend it. In fact, I enjoyed it so much I might watch it again shortly.


Finally, something Trump and Reagan have in common

A couple of months ago I had this exchange on Twitter with a lefty Irishman who I follow mainly because he is so consistently wrong on just about everything. The subject was Ronald Reagan:

I don’t doubt this chap did engage in several years of intensive post-graduate study of Russian history and politics, but I suspect he went in with his mind made up on Reagan and no amount of evidence was going to change it. If his research really did reveal that the Soviet decision-making process which led to the end of the Cold War was based on Carter-era policies while the election of Reagan only made things worse, he’d have written a book on it, and would be lecturing history somewhere. He didn’t, and he isn’t.

The left’s re-writing of history to deny Reagan any credit for ending the Cold War is important in the context of this story:

Friday’s summit between the leaders of North and South Korea was a “historic meeting” paving the way for the start of a new era, North Korea’s media say.

The North’s Kim Jong-un and Moon Jae-in of South Korea agreed to work to rid the peninsula of nuclear weapons.

In a rare move, state-run TV and the official KCNA news agency hailed the talks and the leaders’ commitment to seek “complete denuclearisation”.

The summit came just months after warlike rhetoric from the North.

It saw Mr Kim become the first North Korean leader to set foot in South Korea since the end of the Korean War in 1953.

The two men warmly shook hands and then stepped symbolically over the military demarcation line to the North Korean side.

Firstly, let’s not get carried away. I don’t believe for one minute that North Korea has given up its nuclear ambitions and so far nothing has been agreed. But in the context of the conflict between North and South Korea, these developments are huge steps forwardYes it might be just theatre but theatre has a certain importance, particularly when North Korea is involved, a country which is as much theatre as anything else. That the North Korean media are reporting this visit is extremely important, meaning this visit is not just for the benefit of western hawks and South Korean doves.

The two leaders said they would pursue talks with the US and China to formally end the Korean War, which ended in 1953 with a truce, not total peace.

If that happens, it will be the biggest diplomatic coup of the century thus far. So how much of this is down to Trump? Well, quite a lot. It was he who refused to bend to North Korean threats, instead responding with threats of his own with a dose of outright mockery thrown in. And it was he, thankfully via mediums other than Twitter, who put pressure on the Chinese to reign in their rogue puppy, convincing them it was in everyone’s interests to do so. Others have played their role for sure, namely the South Koreans, Chinese, and even Kim Jong-un himself, but this would never be happening without Trump. If the Korean War officially ends as a result of this, he will have pulled off a geopolitical triumph orders of magnitudes more important than Obama’s sucking up to Cuba and throwing money at Iran in a desperate attempt to secure his “legacy”.

However, you can be sure the global elites, the media, and Trump’s ideological enemies at home and abroad will do everything in their power to downplay, ignore, or misrepresent Trump’s role in whatever progress is made on the Korean peninsula from hereon. Like those who can’t bring themselves to accept that Reagan’s policies were instrumental in bringing about the end of the Cold War rather than leading to nuclear Armageddon, those who claimed Trump was recklessly endangering the world will be incapable of acknowledging he’s probably made it safer. How much safer remains to be seen, but let’s recall Barack Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for doing absolutely nothing except winning the presidency after George W. Bush. Nobody is ever going to award the Nobel prize to Donald Trump even if he permanently eliminates war and suffering by tomorrow night, but Obama could at least gift him his.


Shaming Corbyn doesn’t work. Stopping funding his supporters might

Frankly, I can’t see what the fuss is here:

Jeremy Corbyn met a Communist spy during the Cold War and ‘briefed’ evil regime of clampdown by British intelligence

The papers and social media have been full of revelations these past few days about how Jeremy Corbyn was approached by Eastern Bloc spy agencies, and might well have passed on some information. Well, so what?

One of the things both Britain and the USA (and I expect plenty of other supposedly western European countries) has never acknowledged, let alone addressed, is how much of their establishment – politicians, media, academics, NGOs, and socialites – were either supportive of the Soviet Union or actively working to further its aims. It’s not that we don’t know about this. For example, The Guardian’s one-time literary editor Richard Gott was confirmed to have been working for the KGB, and he treated the whole thing as a bit of a giggle. In the eyes of the British chattering classes there is not, and never has been, any shame whatosever in supporting the USSR and other totalitarian left-wing ideologies. In fact, it’s almost a requirement for entry into large parts of academia and media.

So squealing that Corbyn was dallying with Communist spies during the Cold War is hardly a surprise. Hell, it would be more surprising if he wasn’t working for the Communists: everything else about the man suggests they’d have had his number on speed-dial. People might argue that all of this suddenly matters because he stands a good chance of becoming Prime Minister. Again, so what?

Everyone is fully aware of what Corbyn is like. True, many people wouldn’t have known him when he first took over the leadership of the Labour party, but his past was splattered right across the media during the last general election campaign. We learned he was a prominent IRA supporter, he’s embraced Hamas, Hezbollah, and other despotic anti-Jewish groups, and cosied up to just about every enemy Britain has faced since he first pulled on long trousers. The hapless Theresa May didn’t even both mounting a proper campaign, so convinced she was that Corbyn’s past and present political sympathies would consign him to a landslide defeat.

But nobody cared, and he did surprisingly well. Now if the public didn’t care that he supported Irishmen who murdered children in Warrington and elsewhere, they certainly won’t care that he did what pretty much every university lecturer up and down the country did, and would continue to do if the Soviet Union hadn’t spoiled the party and collapsed. Radical left wing politics is cool, remember?

If the Tories and anti-Corbyn lefties think they’re going to dent Corbyn’s polling numbers by squawking in outrage over his past treachery, they’re sorely mistaken. It didn’t work before, and it won’t work now. The sort of people voting for Corbyn either fully agree with his politics, or they have no idea who the IRA were or what the Cold War was. I spoke to some youngster in Paris a few months back who said she loved Corbyn. I didn’t bother asking why – his appeal to young, slightly dim, bohemian waifs with metal in their face and no job over Theresa May is obvious – but if I wanted her to vote for someone else I wouldn’t bother talking about the IRA. I might as well bring up the Biafran War as the Troubles, for all it would mean to her.

So the Tories need to take another approach, but they can’t. As I’m fond of saying in other areas of my life, if they could, they’d have done it by now, which means they can’t. Corbyn’s success is due in large part to the massive program of government-funded indoctrination which has seen pretty much every institution I can think of taken over and utterly dominated by left wingers, many of whom share Corbyn’s political opinions. Even those who don’t would rather wring their hands and squeal over Jacob Rees-Mogg’s personal views on abortion than criticise Corbyn for actively siding with murderers and terrorists. Many people running government departments, the media, and academia were vociferous in their condemnation of the Presidents Club guests slapping a waitresses’ arse, yet are now churning out excuses for Oxfam’s staff exploiting vulnerable teenagers in disaster areas. For these people, politics is the start, middle, and end of everything. Principles don’t come anywhere near it.

As I’ve argued before, none of this started with Corbyn and unlike many I believe Corbyn and Momentum is the perfectly natural evolution of the New Labour movement that Blair and Brown created. It may differ slightly in degree, but in form I don’t really see much difference. What the idiot Tories should have realised is that a central plank of New Labour’s policy was to flood the country with taxpayers’ money buying political support from millions of people in newly created and wholly unnecessary organisations, which would then infiltrate through every nook and cranny of public life until the whole society comes under the scrutiny of this new army of left wing prodnoses. And this is where we are now, with companies being hounded for advertising in the Daily Mail, perfectly reasonable people being banned from speaking at universities, and ever-greater aspects of our personal lives subject to the approval of the mob who are cheered on by privileged establishment figures.

If the Tories were serious about defeating the left, they’d have yanked funding for this years ago. Without the benefit of billions of pounds of taxpayer-funded political campaigning, Corbyn would have got nowhere. Cameron should have pulled the plug during his first term, but he lacked the principles to do so, as well as the balls. In fact, I’d be surprised if he even knew what was going on. That he promised a bonfire of the QUANGOS, which he never delivered, suggested even Dim Dave was vaguely aware of how his party was being undermined at every level of society, but I expect he was more worried people might say nasty things about him. Theresa May, far from showing any signs of wanting to cut funding to these organisations which despise her, seems delighted they exist believing they’ll help her install the nanny-state she so dearly craves.

The truth is, the Conservatives don’t want to face the disruption such an up-ending of state funding will cause; I expect they’ll even reinstate Oxfam’s taxpayer lifeline once the elites have all agreed on a suitable narrative. Not until the general public get fed up with this state-sponsored corruption of the political process will anyone do anything about it, and we’re a long, long way from that point. Until then, we’d better get used to Corbyn & Co. being around for a while.


Political Quackery

Whenever I hear someone from the medical profession in the news, it’s a fair bet they are engaged in politics rather than medicine. Probably the best examples are the public health fascists that Christopher Snowdon and Dick Puddlecote talk about, but what I saw this morning was quite different:

Lawmakers concerned about President Donald Trump’s mental state summoned Yale University psychiatry professor Dr. Bandy X. Lee to Capitol Hill last month for two days of briefings about his recent behavior.

In private meetings with more than a dozen members of Congress held on Dec. 5 and 6, Lee briefed lawmakers — all Democrats except for one Republican senator, whom Lee declined to identify. Her professional warning to Capitol Hill: “He’s going to unravel, and we are seeing the signs.”

That would be this Dr Bandy X. Lee.

In an interview, she pointed to Trump “going back to conspiracy theories, denying things he has admitted before, his being drawn to violent videos.” Lee also warned, “We feel that the rush of tweeting is an indication of his falling apart under stress. Trump is going to get worse and will become uncontainable with the pressures of the presidency.”

I wonder what this “internationally recognized expert on violence” is basing her evaluation on. Has she even met Trump, let alone examined him? If a structural engineer were to issue a public statement declaring a bridge unsafe on the basis of a photo or drone footage, he’d be laughed out of his profession and rightly so.

Lee, editor of “The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump,” which includes testimonials from 27 psychiatrists and mental health experts assessing the president’s level of “dangerousness,” said that she was surprised by the interest in her findings during her two days in Washington.

Pray tell, what is the difference between the behaviour of Lee and her 27 colleagues and that of a preacher in rural Texas clutching handfuls of rattlesnakes?

The tweet resuscitated the conversation about the president’s mental state and the 25th Amendment, which allows for the removal of the president from office if the vice president and a majority of the Cabinet deem him physically or mentally “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office.”

Isn’t retaliating to a nuclear strike one of the duties of his office? Or have these professional psychiatrists divined a first-strike intention from his tweet that passed me by?

The amendment is purposefully set up to require a high burden of proof…

Well, yes. The drafters didn’t want a bunch of quacks sitting down with the President’s political opponents, declaring him insane, then running to the press with their findings.

On Wednesday, Lee and two other medical professionals released a statement following Trump’s late night Tweet baiting Kim Jung Un into a potential nuclear war. “We write as mental health professionals who have been deeply concerned about Donald Trump’s psychological aberrations,” the statement read.

“We believe that he is now further unraveling in ways that contribute to his belligerent nuclear threats. … We urge that those around him, and our elected representatives in general, take urgent steps to restrain his behavior and head off the potential nuclear catastrophe that endangers not only Korea and the United States but all of humankind.” The statement, released on behalf of the National Coalition of Concerned Mental Health Experts, was signed by more than 100 medical professionals.

During the Cold War, one of the most damning criticisms the Western powers made of the USSR was their practice of declaring political opponents insane and locking them away, subjecting them to all sorts of nasty treatments to “cure” them. The willingness of doctors to break their Hippocratic oath in this manner was monstrous, but at least the Soviet quacks actually met the people they were certifying and pretended to carry out an examination. In modern America they don’t even bother to do that. How anyone can support this, let alone put their name to it, and call themselves a medical professional is beyond me. They’re political hacks and nothing more, just like their Soviet counterparts were.


Contrasting Camps

In the comments under this post, Toblerone-scoffing abacab makes this remark:

And precious few know about the Soviet policy of deliberate starvation of entire regions, or of shipping thousands of people out into the tundra or the taiga in the middle of winter and leaving them there without food, shelter or tools.

The Soviets didn’t need extermination camps when they could just dump people in the middle of nowhere with little chance of survival. Solzhenitsyn reports an anecdote about one such group actually surviving until years later, when they were promptly rounded up again, shipped off somewhere else, and perished.

Although this is true, there is still a difference between the Soviet GULAG system and the concentration and extermination camp system run by the Nazis. I put this in a comment at Samizdata recently as an explanation as to why the horrors of the Soviets don’t resonate as much as those of the Nazis:

Every major power has massacred other people or those who they deem a political threat, and what the Soviets did was of much the same form albeit on a larger scale. Furthermore, when you read the accounts of the Soviet terror, there is a definite air of callous disregard: the camps weren’t really built to kill people, they were set up to get them out the way and put them to work. Nobody cared if they died, but nobody cared if they lived either. The Soviet system simply didn’t care about the lives of these people. Even those who were actively identified and shot were often selected simply to fulfill quotas, or killed along with a load of others “just in case”. The Soviets were not the first to do this, and are unlikely to be the last.

What made the Nazis different is they didn’t kill through callous neglect; their victims were specifically selected and the Nazis made sure there wasn’t collateral damage, i.e. they didn’t just massacre the whole village in trying to kill Jews as the Soviets would have done, they expended considerable resources finding the individuals while leaving the rest alone. They cared about the names of their victims, and took their photos, and documented their possessions, all during the process of exterminating them. The Nazis built camps specifically for the purposes of killing people (the Soviets never did) and went about it with an industrial precision. The suffering they inflicted on inmates was quite deliberate and calculated, and not just the result of callous neglect on the part of the administration (or incompetence, as it often was in the case of the Soviets). The Nazis counted their victims and took meticulous records, the Soviets never did. The Nazi administrators and guards were of a totally different class than the inmates, whereas in the Gulags the guards were considered little better than the prisoners, often sharing the same conditions and fate, and there are thousands of cases where prisoners became inmates and vice-versa. This never happened with the Nazis.

So in short, the horrors of the Soviets had been seen before and since; the Nazis, purely because of the way they went about it, inspire a unique horror. From the accounts I’ve heard of those poor individuals who experienced both, the Nazi camps were a lot worse.

When abacab mentions the Soviets dumping a bunch of people in the middle of nowhere with little chance of survival, that would almost certainly have included the guards as well. I don’t like Anne Applebaum’s newspaper columns much, but her book Gulag: a History of the Soviet Camps is excellent and there is an account in there of a few hundred unfortunates being dropped off on an island in the middle of one of Siberia’s enormous rivers. The plan was to get the prisoners to build a camp but there was no wood, so they had to stay in tents. Before they could get anything more robust set up a terrible storm blew through and everyone perished: prisoners, guards, dogs, the lot. It wasn’t so much the authorities wanted these people to die – the ones they considered really dangerous were shot out of hand, along with a whole load of others who were mostly unlucky – they simply didn’t care and were too callous and incompetent to prevent it.

Another point Applebaum makes is that most people survived the GULAG, and the harshness of the conditions varied greatly between individual camps and eras. During the war, when there were severe hardships outside the camps, life behind the wire was particularly tough but conditions improved afterwards. The general idea was to get prisoners working not to kill them off, even if the result was just that. By contrast, the conditions in the Nazi camps were kept universally harsh purely as a matter of deliberate policy, independent of incompetence and outside factors.

The other point Applebaum makes is that the numbers in the GULAG system waxed and waned. The population swelled during times of repression and decreased during periods of relative calm, and it was quite possible for a Soviet citizen to be imprisoned, released, imprisoned again, and released once more. I presume there are instances of Nazi concentration camp inmates being released, but their numbers must be few and I expect are limited to particular groups such as troublesome POWs or non-Jewish Germans. I’ve never heard of anyone being released from an extermination camp, although Soviet POWs were held at Sobibor who may have been. Most accounts of the Nazis camps come from people who were liberated, not released. It’s worth bearing in mind that the inmates of the Soviet GULAGs were never liberated, they were simply released (into exile mostly, but released all the same).

As anyone who has read Applebaum’s book or Solzhenitsyn knows, the GULAG system was abominable in its entirety and absolutely horrific in parts, but it differed from the Nazi camps in some fairly fundamental ways. It’s why a comparison of the two can only be taken so far, and it’s important to acknowledge the differences.


A Detail of the Berlin Wall

Once, when watching a documentary on the history of the Berlin Wall, I learned something I’ve never been able to forget:

That rounded piece on top of the wall was obviously put there to make it harder to climb over. When I visited Berlin in 1995 and saw a preserved section, I assumed it was moulded as part of the wall itself. But according to this documentary, it was just a bog-standard piece of concrete pipe with a longitudinal section cut out and plonked over the top. I always thought this level of crudity was apt for what the wall was, and what it represented.

I also read last week that the Berlin Wall has now been down longer than it was up. If anyone were to look around now, they’d scarcely believe the thing ever existed or the Communists lost the Cold War and the right side won.


Let them eat rabbit

From the BBC:

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro has devised a “rabbit plan” to counter the economic war he says is being waged against his government by “imperialist forces”.

The president urged crisis-hit Venezuelans to breed rabbits and eat them as a source of animal protein.

I’m going to be bone idle and just copy and paste this entire post I wrote in January 2007.


According to most of the major news sources, North Korea is considering breeding giant rabbits from Germany to help feed its starving population:

A German pensioner who won a prize and worldwide fame for breeding his country’s largest rabbit — Robert, a 10.5kg (23lb) bruiser the size of a dog — has been offered an unusual opportunity to exploit his talents overseas.

Karl Szmolinsky has been given a contract by North Korea to supply giant rabbits to help to boost meat production in the reclusive Communist country, which is suffering severe food shortages.

Kim Jong Il is not the first despotic communist leader to have the idea of breeding rabbits to stave off the starvation which communism inevitably brings.  In 1932 Nikita Khrushchev found himself as deputy to Mikhail Kaganovich and effectively running Moscow.  As William Taubman explains in his book Khrushchev: The Man and His Era (page 90):

Moscow’s working class, allegedly the apple of Stalin’s eye, was going hungry in 1932, and with his legendary concern for their welfare, the great man “suggested the idea of raising rabbits for food”.  Naturally Khrushchev was all for this plan and worked zealously to carry out his instructions.  Almost every factory, plant and workshop started raising rabbits to help stock its own kitchen.

Needless to say, the idea was a flop, although I doubt Khrushchev put it to his boss quite like that.  I have also no doubt that the latest North Korean attempt is being touted in the DPRK as the brainwave of Kim Jong Il and not the 75 year old idea of his father’s mentor.

As an aside, another of Stalin’s brilliant ideas for alleviating food shortages in the Soviet Union was to introduce the Pacific giant crab to European waters, specifically the Barents Sea.  Whilst these spiky crustaceans did little to silence the rumbling of Soviet bellies, they did adapt remarkably well to Europe and they now number more than 10 million and are slowly marching their way down Norway’s coast destroying all manner of marine life in their path.  Rumours that I have relocated to Sakhalin to collaborate with their leadership in their imminent invasion of the United Kingdom are completely unfounded.


Also worthy of attention is the comment made by Pootergeek under the original post. No, not the appalling pun which would earn a lifetime ban on less charitable blogs, but this link to “rabbit starvation”:

Protein poisoning was first noted as a consequence of eating rabbit meat exclusively, hence the term, “rabbit starvation”.


Fidel Castro: Not a Communist Revolutionary, just a Common Thug

In the aftermath of his death, there appear to be rather a lot of people labouring under the assumption that Cuban dictator Fidel Castro was a communist revolutionary.  In fact he was nothing of the kind, as John Lewis Gaddis explains in his book We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History (pages 179-181).  Following his overthrow of the Batista regime in 1959, Castro visited the US in order to drum up support for his new rule, even going so far as to give nervous assurances that he had no communists in his government on NBC’s Meet the Press.  As Gaddis writes:

Castro began his career as a revolutionary with no ideology at all: he was a student politician turned street fighter turned guerrilla, a voracious reader, an interminable speaker, and a pretty good baseball player.  The only ideas that appear to have driven him were a lust for power, a willingness to use violent means to get it, and an unwillingness to share it once he had it.  If he followed any example, it was that of Napolean, not Marx.

[It] seems more likely that Marxism-Leninism appealed to Castro for domestic and personal reasons.  As an authoritarian and historically determined ideology, it provided the best possible excuse for not holding elections, which might allow future rivals to emerge.  And if taking this path should attract support from the Soviet Union, then so much the better.

Having failed to win the support of the Eisenhower administration, who knew exactly what sort of man they were dealing with, Castro adopted communism purely for opportunistic and practical reasons.  He was about as much a socialist revolutionary as he was a democrat.  Naturally, the Soviets fell over themselves to shower any third-world thug who paid lip-service to communism with money, weapons, and other support and they did just that with Castro – even though his adoption of their ideology came to them as a complete surprise.

Many people think the USA is responsible for Castro’s rise and continuation in power, but most of the blame lies squarely on Moscow’s doorstep: without their cynical support in those early stages, Castro’s brutal dictatorship would likely have been over much more quickly.


Soviet Art

Once again via David Thompson, this article by Michael Totten on the ludicrous state of modern art is worth reading in full, and is fully consistent with what I wrote here.

The bit I want to discuss here, though, is this:

By obsessing over politics above all else, identitarian artists of the twenty-first century resemble the Socialist Realists from the Soviet Union in the early- to mid-twentieth century. One could charitably call Socialist Realism an artistic style, one that glorified peasants, factory workers, and Communist values, but it was nurtured by a totalitarian police state and was the only “style” allowed by the government lest hapless artists wished to live out the remaining days of their lives in a Siberian slave labor camp.

At least the Russian Socialist Realists were talented artists. They produced totalitarian propaganda, yes, but they did it competently. Their paintings are interesting and engaging, and not just because they’re curious historical artifacts.

I actually quite like the Soviet Realism art, not so much for aesthetic beauty but, as Totten says, for what they represent historically.  I particularly like those in this sort of style:




Of course, one must understand that they represent bullshit propaganda of the highest order in support of an abominable regime, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are not engaging and, in the context of what they represent, historically interesting.  And the artists who created them undoubtedly had considerable talent and skill.

I remember once searching the internet for a story related to the Waffen SS and stumbling across websites and forums devoted to this and other German units, full of people posting photos and pictures of various artifacts from WWII.  I wasn’t surprised, but was rather glad, that the sites weren’t centres of Nazi worship but were instead frequented by incredibly nerdy blokes who simply had a historical interest in the Waffen SS and its symbology.  As, I must confess, do I up to a point: I have a huge hardback book full of photos of the Waffen SS which I picked up at a jumble sale years ago, and it’s a good one.  What I don’t have, however, is a giant Nazi flag hanging up on my wall and an admiration for their policies or methods.

I had to make a similar distinction when I found myself interested in the Soviet Union (my obsession with Russia was always more an obsession of the Soviet and immediate post-Soviet eras; modern-day Russia doesn’t interest me much any more, having now lived in it).  I used to buy items with the Soviet symbols on them, and sometimes even wear them:

Which, I hope, didn’t make me the same as the middle class twats who display the hammer and sickle when screaming “Smash the State” in central London.  I’d not wear the hammer and sickle any more, or really anything Soviet, because my obsession has declined and I’ve grown up a bit and now wear different clothes.  But I still find myself admiring Soviet symbols and artwork, such as this which is on the wall of an old Pioneer camp just south of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk (I wrote about it here back in 2007, I don’t know if the camp and its murals still exist).

And also this wonderfully optimistic mural which I found in the Sakhalin town of Nevel’sk:

What I still find fascinating about Soviet art and other aspects of Soviet culture is that they belong to a country which simply no longer exists.  People say the past is another country, but in the case of the Soviet Union this is literally true.  Culture changes with time and you can visit any country and see its cultural history, but I think the Soviet Union is the only country I can think of which ceased to exist – taking its artistic culture with it – almost overnight.  What emerged from the wreckage in the form of the independent states retained aspects of the Soviet culture to varying degrees, but in all cases they were fast moving in the other direction leaving vast swathes of cultural history abandoned, owned by nobody and claimed by nobody.

You can still see it, especially the well-made examples such as those on the Moscow metro system, but even they seem increasingly alien as modern Russians prefer to commemorate different eras of their history.  Eventually Lenin’s body will be carted away and buried somewhere, the murals will fall into disrepair or be replaced by something more modern, and the last remaining Soviet citizens will die out, taking with them the memories of films, plays, and music which nobody else would even understand.

Except this rather odd Brit, of course.


New York Red

While I was emerging from a subway station on Manhattan’s upper West side last week, I was hollered at by a chap in his mid-to-late twenties sporting a black t-shirt and ginger beard who was standing on a corner handing out newspapers.

“Hey man,” he said “you have a red shirt on, you should read this!”  He thrust a newspaper in front of me that was some Commie publication and had as its headline a call to reinstate the Glass-Steagall Act.  I have read that reinstating Glass-Steagall wouldn’t solve much despite its repeal being blamed for the Global Financial Crisis, but I was in no position to argue this particular technicality.

“Where are you from?” he asked me.

“Britain” I said.

“Oh man, with Barclays!  Those assholes have screwed everything!”

“Yes”, I said “they are assholes.”

“So what are we gonna do about it, man?” he asked, thrusting the newspaper at me.

I thought about a response.  What are we going to do about it?  I was going to suggest hanging politicians and lawyers, but I guessed his victim list would differ from mine and I didn’t want to encourage him.  As I was pondering the question he chimed in with “And no, war with Russia isn’t the answer.”

“Ah Russia,” I said “I know the place well.  Lived there for a bit. No, going to war with Russia won’t help much.”

“You were in Russia?  I heard St. Petersburg is beautiful!”

“It is.  It’s a shame everything over there is built on a few million corpses, though.”

“Corpses?” he asked, looking doubtful.  “Which corpses?  Nazis?”

“No.  Ordinary people.  And that’s the problem, isn’t it?  Which way is Central Park?”

“That way,” he said “but you gotta read this…” His voice trailed off as I walked away.

I hope he somehow gets to read this.