Just Send Me Word by Orlando Figes

From the Preface to Just Send Me Word: A True Story of Love and Survival in the Gulag, by Orlando Figes:

Three old trunks had just been delivered. They were sitting in a doorway, blocking people’s way into the busy room where members of the public and historical researchers were received in the Moscow offices of Memorial. … Noticing my interest in the trunks, they told me they contained the biggest private archive given to Memorial in its twenty years of existence. It belonged to Lev and Svetlana Mishchenko, a couple who had met as students in the 1930s, only to be separated by the war of 1941-5 and Lev’s subsequent imprisonment in the Gulag. …
We opened up the largest of the trunks. I had never seen anything like it: several thousand letters tightly stacked in bundles tied with string and rubber bands, notebooks, diaries, documents and photographs. The most valuable section of the archive was in the third and smallest of the trunks, a brown plywood case with leather trim and three metal locks that clicked open easily. We couldn’t say how many letters it contained – we guessed perhaps 2,000 – only how much the case weighed (37 kilograms). They were all love letters Lev and Svetlana had exchanged while he was a prisoner in Pechora, one of Stalin’s most notorious labour camps in the far north of Russia. The first was by Svetlana in July 1946, the last by Lev in July 1954. They were writing to each other at least twice a week. This was by far the largest cache of Gulag letters ever found. But what made them so remarkable was not just their quantity; it was the fact that nobody had censored them. They were smuggled in and out of the labour camp by voluntary workers and officials who sympathized with Lev. Rumours about the smuggling of letters were part of the Gulag’s rich folklore but nobody had ever imagined an illegal postbag of this size. …
As I leafed through the letters, my excitement grew. Lev’s were rich in details of the labour camp. They were possibly the only major contemporary record of daily life in the Gulag that would ever come to light. Many memoirs of the labour camps by former prisoners had appeared, but nothing to compare with these uncensored letters, composed at the time inside the barbed-wire zone. Written to explain to his sole intended reader what he was going through, Lev’s letters became, over the years, increasingly revealing about conditions in the camp. Svetlana’s letters were meant to support him in the camp, to give him hope, but, as I soon realized, they also told the story of her own struggle to keep her love for him alive.
Perhaps 20 million people, mostly men, endured Stalin’s labour camps. Prisoners, on average, were allowed to write and receive letters once a month, but all their correspondence was censored. It was difficult to maintain an intimate connection when all communication was first read by the police. An eight- or ten-year sentence almost always meant the breakings of relationships: girlfriends, wives or husbands, whole families, were lost by prisoners. Lev and Svetlana were exceptional. Not only did they find a way to write and even meet illegally – an extraordinary breach of Gulag rules that invited severe punishment – but they kept every precious letter (putting them at even greater risk) as a record of their love story.
There turned out to be almost 1,500 letters in that smallest trunk. … These letters are the documentary basis of Just Send Me Word, which also draws from the rich archive in the other trunks, from extensive interviews with Lev and Svetlana, their relatives and their friends, from the writings of other prisoners in Pechora, from visits to the town and interviews with its inhabitants and from the archives of the labour camp itself.

Does the book live up to the promise of its preface? Yes. Yes, it does.

(Cross-posted to The Frumious Consortium.)

It’s not like this was a surprise

Or, why reading David Remnick is nearly always a good idea:

I spoke with Georgy Kasianov, the head of the Academy of Science’s department of contemporary Ukrainian history and politics, in Kiev. “It’s a war,” he said. “The Russian troops are quite openly out on the streets [in Crimea], capturing public buildings and military outposts. And it’s likely all a part of a larger plan for other places: Odessa, Nikolayev, Kherson. And they’ll use the same technique. Some Russian-speaking citizens will appear, put up a Russian flag, and make appeals that they want help and referendums, and so on.” This is already happening in Donetsk and Kharkov.

“They are doing this like it is a commonplace,” Kasianov went on. “I can’t speak for four million people, but clearly everyone in Kiev is against this. But the Ukrainian leadership is absolutely helpless. The Army is not ready for this. And, after the violence in Kiev, the special forces are disoriented.”

That’s from March 1.

Overtaken by events

The draft blog post said to watch out for funny business in Melitopol and Mariupol, Ukraine. Those are the largest settlements along the coast between Russia and the Crimean peninsula, and sit astride the road that runs from Rostov-on-the-Don and the Crimea. Mariupol is the second-largest city in the Donetsk region, with a population of nearly half a million. Melitopol is also a crossroads: east to Russia, south to the Crimea, north to Zaporizhia and west to Kherson.

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s daily summary noted:

By early evening there were reports of skirmishes between pro-Russia and pro-Ukraine groups in Kharkiv, a tense standoff in Zaporizhia, and the occupation by pro-Russian activists of local government buildings in Makiyivka and Mariupol. Pro-Russian activists were also reportedly moving on the Security Service building in Odessa.

So let’s go with a quick scoreboard from this weekend and last instead.

Kharkiv: occupation attempt repulsed
Zaporizhia: tense standoff
Kramotorsk: buildings occupied
Druzhkivka: buildings occupied
Yenakijeve: buildings occupied
Makiyivka: buildings occupied
Mariupol: buildings occupied
Luhansk: buildings occupied
Donetsk: buildings occupied
Slovyansk: buildings occupied
Mykolaiv: occupation attempt repulsed
Odessa: occupation attempt repulsed
Krasny Lyman: disturbances

The buildings that are being occupied are local city halls, police stations and administrative buildings. That most definitely includes any local arsenals.

This weekend has also seen the return of the “little green men,” so called during the occupation of the Crimea because their origins are so mysterious that they must be from Mars. Never mind that they wear Russian uniforms sans insignia, have equipment issued to Russian armed services, and use Russian words that are not generally used by Russian-speaking persons who live in Ukraine.

Ukraine’s acting president has not minced words. In a live televised address, Oleksandr Turchynov spoke of

war that is being waged against Ukraine by the Russian Federation. The aggressor has not stopped and continues to organize disorders in eastern Ukraine.

This is not a war between Ukrainians. This is an artificially created situation of confrontation aimed at weakening and destroying Ukraine itself.

He also said that a large-scale counter-operation would begin Monday morning. Stay tuned.

Looking back at last month’s guide to revisiting the 1930s, further east:

Kharkiv, Donetsk: Sudetenland. Some real tension, mostly trumped up and stage-managed confrontations. ((Check.)) Pleas for “protection” from some parts of a particular nationality to the outside power. ((Check.)) Not fooling anyone. ((Check.)) In contrast to then, Kiev would try to defend the frontier region militarily. ((Check, as of April 14.)) (The great powers will not intervene, should it come to that.) ((Check.)) Whether that defense would succeed is rather an important question. There’s not a major defensible barrier until the Dniepr. Speaking of which…

Dnepropetrovsk, Zaporizhia: Poland. The great powers would not be able to overlook the dismemberment of a major European state. They wouldn’t be able to stop it, either.

Zaporizhia hasn’t seen much in the way of disturbances. Yet.

Also: Toomas Hendrik Ilves noted on Twitter, “After these several weeks, Europe’s M-F, 9-5 foreign policy establishment might perhaps recognise what’s happening next door weekends too.” Maybe all of the little green men and their associated crowds have day jobs, or maybe the powers-that-be on Mars have noticed that Saturday is not a big day for news, and are timing their operations accordingly. It’s not likely that they read John Scalzi’s blog, but he makes a point concerning publicity and next weekend:

But of all the Saturdays in all of the calendar year, the very worst possible Saturday to announce anything is the Saturday between Good Friday and Easter. Because it’s the Saturday between Good Friday and Easter, that’s why — the Saturday sandwiched between two major religious holidays, which means the “weekend” that week starts on Thursday and Sunday’s news cycle is swamped by the most important Christian holiday of the year — Christmas is noisier for longer, but Easter is concentrated. If you’re the Pope, Easter Sunday is great for you, news wise. If you’re not the Pope, not. …
If I were a crooked politician who had been caught murdering kittens while masturbating to a picture of Joseph Stalin, then the day I would choose to have that news go out into the world would be the Saturday between Good Friday and Easter.

That Western and Orthodox Easter align this year makes the news gap even larger. People in the wider world will not be paying attention next weekend. Don’t be surprised if the little green men are very active indeed.

Völkischkeit

I’ve recently been reading Peter Longerich’s biography of Heinrich Himmler (disclosure: I was Longerich’s student) and one thing that stuck out was that his translator seems to have solved a longstanding problem in Nazi-era translations, but not to have noticed. The problem is this: what do you do with völkisch?

This adjective was widely used as a self-identification by Nazis, and also by all sorts of people in the wider extreme-right movement in the German-speaking world from the late 19th century onwards. It’s sometimes translated as “nationalist”, but this is widely considered inadequate. Consider the main Nazi newspaper: Nationalist Observer is both clunky and also too harmless. It sounds like it might be a paper in provincial Ireland, competing with the famous Impartial Reporter of Enniskillen.

The problem is that the adjective is derived from das Volk, the people or the nation or the race or even the tribe or host, depending on context. The Warsaw Pact countries tended to describe themselves as People’s Republics, which translates as Volksrepublik. A Völkische Republik would have been a very different animal. Bees, in German, live in Bienenvölker – bee nations or bee tribes.

But this only expresses the incoherence of the content behind the name. To be völkisch is not the same as being nationalist. It wasn’t bound to a state or a government, or to a particular physical territory. Although it rejected civic nationalism, it excluded some members of the nation on the ground that they disagreed with it purely in terms of political opinion. It also included some foreigners, and never quite decided whether it wanted to include people who adopted German culture and served German interests, or to exclude them on essentialist grounds of race.

When the Nazis took over Alsace-Lorraine, they decided early on to reintegrate the provinces into Germany-proper, but they got hugely confused dealing with the people. If you were a blonde, German-looking, person with a German surname, but you opted to remain a French citizen, racial examiners might classify you as especially German precisely because of the stubbornness and determination you exhibited in insisting on Frenchness. Depending on who was politically in charge at that moment, they might either decide that you must be denied to the French enemy and reintegrated into the German nation, or else that you were racially German but politically probably a communist, and therefore you should be sent to a concentration camp. On the other hand, if you weren’t blonde enough but you insisted on Germanness you might be deported to France, which all things considered might have been the best thing that could have happened to you, while heaven help you if you were an unblonde who opted for France, and therefore both racially unworthy and a traitor to boot. But sometimes these last options were swapped, depending on power politics in Germany.

It wasn’t equivalent to “fascist” either. Unlike Italian fascism, a lot of völkisch people despised modernity. Unlike Spanish, Latin American, or Austrian versions of fascism, they tended to consider Catholicism the enemy. And it wasn’t even equivalent to “Nazi”. Albert Speer or Hermann Göring didn’t really fit with it, especially when the bit about hating modernity came around.

But Longerich’s translator briefly hit it out of the park by translating it as “racist”. The leading Nazi newspaper Racist Observer sounds just right to me. Although völkischkeit wanders about all over the place, race is always central to it. The varying worldviews on history, culture, policy, etc. are all organised around race and racism. An important point about völkischkeit is that it always had pretensions to the status of science, and the source of this pretended authority was the concept of race. It was racist in the sense that it demanded discrimination, apartheid, slavery, and eventually genocide. It was racist in that it claimed inspiration from other regimes it considered racist.

Of course, the notion of race is itself incoherent and pseudo-scientific. Völkischkeit incorporated poorly understood concepts from genetics, physiology, and statistics. The genetics was usually pre-Mendelian, the statistics pre-Fisherian (even if RA Fisher himself was more than a little racist), and the physiology already overtaken by genetics. Himmler, for one, had started looking for an escape-hatch by 1942 or thereabouts through vague notions of recessive genes and spontaneously emerging leaders among the subhumans. In many ways, this reminds me of bad science-fiction.

Völkischkeit might well be considered a genre fiction more than anything else. It consisted of poorly understood, not-quite cutting edge scientific concepts, plus a variety of myths and aesthetic tropes, organised into narratives by wishful thinking. This may remind you of H.P. Lovecraft, and it probably should as he was a prize racist. It should come as no surprise that, according to Longerich, Himmler was addicted not just to pseudo-science of every sort, but also to crappy genre fiction, consuming vast quantities of both.

green jerboa

Preparations for the fourth test were proceeding — named “Gerboise verte” or “Green jerboa” — when four French generals, unhappy about steps toward Algerian independence, launched a coup against the government of Charles De Gaulle. French scientists, the story goes, rushed the detonation of the device before the Revolt of the Generals acquired a working nuclear weapon. The putsch, of course, eventually failed.

It didn't quite work out like that. But read the whole thing.I like the detail that the bomb – the 'physics package' was transported to the site of the test in one of the scientists 2CV in case the official column got ambushed.

Science Fiction?

“What do I think about the legacy of Atatürk, General? Let it go. I don’t care. The age of Atatürk is over.”
Guests stiffen around the table, breath subtly indrawn; social gasps. This is heresy. People have been shot down in the streets of Istanbul for less. Adnan commands every eye.
“Atatürk was father of the nation, unquestionably. No Atatürk, no Turkey. But, at some point every child has to leave his father. You have to stand on your own two feet and find out if you’re a man. We’re like the kids that go on about how great their dads are; my dad’s the strongest, the best wrestler, the fastest driver, the biggest moustache. And when someone squares up to us, or calls us a name or even looks at us squinty, we run back shouting ‘I’ll get my dad, I’ll get my dad!’ At some point; we have to grow up. If you’ll pardon the expression, the balls have to drop. We talk the talk mighty fine; great nation, proud people, global union of the noble Turkic races, all that stuff. There’s no one like us for talking ourselves up. And then the EU says, All right, prove it. The door’s open, in you come; sit down, be one of us. Move out of the family home; move in with the other guys. Step out from the shadow of the Father of the Nation.
“And do you know what the European Union shows us about ourselves? We’re all those things we say we are. They weren’t lies, they weren’t boasts. We’re good. We’re big. We’re a powerhouse. We’ve got an economy that goes all the way to the South China Sea. We’ve got energy and ideas and talent – look at the stuff that’s coming out of those tin-shed business parks in the nano sector and the synthetic biology start-ups. Turkish. All Turkish. That’s the legacy of Atatürk. It doesn’t matter if the Kurds have their own Parliament or the French make everyone stand in Taksim Square and apologize to the Armenians. We’re the legacy of Atatürk. Turkey is the people. Atatürk’s done his job. He can crumble into dust now. The kid’s come right. The kid’s come very right. That’s why I believe the EU’s the best thing that’s ever happened to us because it’s finally taught us how to be Turks.”

The Dervish House by Ian McDonald, pp. 175-76

Jesus, Mary and Joseph

From the BBC

In 1971 Manoli [Pagador], who was 23 at the time and not long married, gave birth to what she was told was a healthy baby boy, but he was immediately taken away for what were called routine tests.

Nine interminable hours passed. “Then, a nun, who was also a nurse, coldly informed me that my baby had died,” she says.

They would not let her have her son’s body, nor would they tell her when the funeral would be.

Did she not think to question the hospital staff?

“Doctors, nuns?” she says, almost in horror. “I couldn’t accuse them of lying. This was Franco’s Spain. A dictatorship. …”

“The scale of the baby trafficking was unknown until this year, when two men – Antonio Barroso and Juan Luis Moreno, childhood friends from a seaside town near Barcelona – discovered that they had been bought from a nun. “

The scandal is closely linked to the Catholic Church, which under Franco assumed a prominent role in Spain’s social services including hospitals, schools and children’s homes.

Nuns and priests compiled waiting lists of would-be adoptive parents, while doctors were said to have lied to mothers about the fate of their children.

The name of one doctor, Dr Eduardo Vela, has come up in a number of victim investigations.
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In 1981, Civil Registry sources indicate that 70% of births at Dr Vela’s San Ramon clinic in Madrid were registered as “mother unknown”.

He refused to give the BBC an interview. But, by coincidence, I had recently given birth at a clinic he founded, so I was able to book an appointment with him.

We met at his private practice in his home in Madrid. The man painted as a monster in the Spanish media was old and smiley, but his smile soon disappeared when I confessed to being a journalist.

Dr Vela grabbed a metal crucifix which had been standing on his desk. He moved towards me brandishing it in my face. “Do you know what this is, Katya?” he said. “I have always acted in his name. Always for the good of the children and to protect the mothers. Enough.”

Babies’ graves have been dug up across the country for DNA-testing. Some have revealed nothing but a pile of stones, while others have contained adult remains.

Are these crimes limited to Spain?

Let Our Fame Be Great by Oliver Bullough

Review in brief: Encounters between Russia and the peoples of the Northern Caucasus have not been happy ones, and have generally ended badly for the smaller nations involved. From the Nogai driven into the Black Sea in the 1700s to the Circassians mostly slaughtered or removed to the Ottoman Empire in the 1860s to the Chechens, who fought for 30 years in the 1800s, were deported en masse to Central Asia in 1944 and subjected to two wars since 1994, the overall picture is bleak. The individual stories are full of spirit and life, and Bullough goes to great lengths to find people and paints deft portraits. He’s a better reporter than analyst, but overall Let Our Fame Be Great: Journeys Among the Defiant People of the Caucasus is a splendid book.

An unholy alliance

Sonia Le Gouriellec at Alliance Géostrategique quotes Bernard Badie on the Ivory Coast and the fact that democracy is a lot more than just elections.

Prenons-la [la démocratie] comme un idéal, c’est-à-dire faisons-en une valeur partagée par tous, c’est-à-dire reconstruite par ceux-là même auxquels elle est censée s’adresser. Sa faiblesse se trouve dans sa dérive procédurale, dans son universalisme naïf, dans son formalisme, dans la volonté de plaquer et d’imposer de l’extérieur des modèles tout faits auxquels on ne cherche même pas à faire adhérer ceux auxquels on veut l’adresser. Peut-être que le fond du problème est là ; nous avons oublié chez nous que la démocratie était un idéal, nous n’en retenons plus que l’aspect facile de technique de gouvernement : on l’exporte telle quelle et on veut en faire en plus une technique d’action diplomatique ; on a alors tout faux.

This is, arguably, something the EU got right but the UN usually doesn’t. It’s never enough to put on an election, as you put on a play. In fact, it’s often the worst thing that could happen.

But at least it’s not the newly invigorated and enlarged Gulf Cooperation Council. Marc Lynch (he’s a serious these days so we can’t call him Abu Aardvark any more) covers this in some detail. Basically, what is emerging is a new reactionary international institution – a sort of NATO for dictators. In fact, it’s something like all the most radical criticisms of NATO, if they were all true, rolled into one. It doesn’t have nukes but it does want a nuclear industry.

Instead, it seems to be evolving into a club for Sunni Arab monarchs — the institutional home of the counter-revolution, directed against not only Iran but also against the forces for change in the region. Where the United States fits in that new conception remains distinctly unclear.

You bet, as they say. As it seems to be evolving into a police-military alliance, perhaps the closest parallel would be one of the reactionary alliances Europe tried out in the 19th century.