Sunday, July 26, 2009

Writing History Soviet Style

Vladimir Radyuhin, a Kremlin hack, under the guise of a columnist often writes on Russian issues in Hindu. Recently, June 24 2009, he wrote a column titled "Russia: fighting historical lies"

The crux of the article was that Western historians do not give Soviet Russia its due in defeating Hitler and in the course of which Radyuhin races through contentious topics like whether Stalin played into Hitler's hand by signing a treaty and the issue of annexing the Baltic states.

No historian of repute has written a history of World War II without identifying Battle of Stalingrad as the biggest turning point in the war. Radyuhin laments that Soviet Russia lost tens of millions and killed more Nazis than the Western allies. Nobody denies that. What historians do is they go further and question whether wiping out the top brass of Soviet military in the Stalinist purges of the 30's had a telling effect in the absence of qualified generals.

As only a Kremlin hack can do, Radyuhin even denies the great famine of Ukraine, which by all accounts is now portrayed as man-made or to be more pointed Stalin-made. Lamenting the demands for reparations by the Baltic states Radyuhin cites a Russian historian who fears that attempts to portray Soviet Russia as equal to Nazi oppression would open attempts at some sort of Nuremberg trials and put Russia on the mat. As much as anybody would desire for that it is elementary knowledge that another Nuremberg trial is just a pipe dream. But the scaremongering serves one purpose though, to stifle academic freedom and dissent against the official line.

Radyuhin lauds Medvedev's attempt to commission an "official history" to address the above distortions. To do Stalin proud he goes one step further. He wants to make it a "crime" to question the official theory and cites approvingly how post-war Germany outlawed denying holocaust. Germany, came out of the war aghast at its own ability to inflict such unprecedented cruelty on the world, a cruelty that defies any rational explanation. In its attempt to balance itself it enacted laws to stifle lurking Neo-Nazis, to deprive them of a platform, afraid that the country might yet again be pushed into an abyss. Opinion is now gathering to repeal such laws and allow the sheer force of truth and true academic research to defeat mischief mongers. In Radyuhin's world Soviet Russia's murderous spree at Katyn, Poland where hundreds of Polish military officers were murdered would be swept under the carpet. Only in the 80's, under Gorbachev, did Russia own up to that heinous act. (A statue for the soldiers killed in Katyn is installed in Jersey City, NJ USA)

When looking for an example it would serve Russian academic freedom well to look to America. Any visitor to a book store in US can see books on 9/11 claiming fantasy theories holding everyone, except Osama, responsible. These books are not proscribed they are sold openly. Then of course there is always a shelf of Noam Chomsky the most strident critic of anything the US had done for the past 50 years.

Economist, dated Jul 23rd 2009, while reviewing British historian Andrew Roberts' book "The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War" had a telling extract:"Again and again he (Andrew Roberts) chides his readers for overestimating the importance of famous British and American battles in the West and overlooking much larger ones on the eastern front: more than 2m Germans were killed in the east, over ten times the number who died fighting in the west. “Britain provided the time, Russia the blood, America the money and the weapons,” he concludes". That from a British historian, dear Radyuhin, is what is called scholarship.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Visiting Stratford Upon Avon: A man, A language and an Age

Bernard Shaw in emphasizing the glory of the English language in "Pygmalion" writes, "English, the language of Shakespeare, Milton and the Bible". Shaw, not very religious, included the Bible to underscore the soaring beauty of language in the King James version (Try reading God's secrataries by Adam Nichols). Shakespeare, more than Milton, has come to symbolise a language and an era. The Elizebethan age could very well have been called the Shakespearean age. There was Marlowe, Ben Johnson and others but nobody is today remembered by anyone who claims familiarity with the English alphabet as Shakespeare does. Most literate people have heard or read a play of Shakespeare in some form or other. Even the illiterate villager in Tamil Nadu has had a glimpse thanks to Sivaji's imitation of Laurence Olivier in portraying Hamlet.

When I stopped by London in 2006 I very strongly desired to see Stratford Upon Avon, Shakespeare's birth place. Stratford is a quaint little town. We passed by Cotswold, idyllic English countryside to reach Stratford. All tourist buses were stopped couple of blocks away from the home. It was thrilling to see hundreds coming to pay homage to a 15th century playwright. His wedding record and other records are available yet speculating the true authorship of his plays is a thriving industry. Francis Bacon is often cited as the most likely real author (Will Durant in his 'Story of Philosophy' summarily dismisses it saying is Bacon is too scholarly to make the historical inaccuracies in the plays nor is he so vulgar like the Bard). Shakespeare in his day was jeered as knowing "little Latin and less Greek".

The cottage itself is unremarkable except for the history. Tour guides make themselves worthwhile by explaining the Kitchen on 1500's, the stopper in the furnace, the diet, the utensils etc. The garden has a bust of Shakespeare.

A short walk from his home is Anne Hathaway's home. Anne was 6 years elder to Shakespeare. I remember my English professor saying, his tongue firmly in the cheek, "Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway, 6 years his senior, 7 months later she gave birth to a 10 month old child".

A shop outside Shakespeare's home caught my eye. It was a Jewellery shop named "Iago". I wondered why of all characters did the owner choose "Iago".

Then we went to a nearby park where there were minstrel kind of players performing scenes from Shakespeare's play. The entire city depends on the tourists who flock to see a playwright who wrote 35 plays almost 500 years ago. The crowd is drawn by the magnetism of not just the language but a playwright who has suffused into many civilizations crossing the boundaries of language and time. Anybody who utters "you too Brutus" without even having read Julius Caesar is still tapping into Shakespeare. A cliche like "Roadside Romeos" used in Tamil Nadu owes it to Shakespeare. More Tamilians probably know of Romeo's love than they do of Ambikapathi.

What is to be noted is that no government has erected monuments wasting taxpayer money, no fantastic eye popping vulgar statues. But then we are talking of Shakespeare not of any ordinary mortal who needs jingoistic governments to erect statues amidst an ocean to draw gawking crowds.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Oprah Winfrey: Refuge of bored housewives and pretend intellectuals

Oprah Winfrey, queen of talk show, billionaire, arbiter of everything under and above the sun and above all just mediocre. Oprah, to be sure, has a compelling life story. Abused as a child she has risen, as an Afro-American, to dizzying heights. Presidential contenders appear on her show. Corporates jockey to have their products featured in her magazine or better still on her show. Publishers pray to have their books chosen by her and skyrocket to bestseller list. She is therapist supreme, along with one time acolyte Dr Phil. Bored housewives, her mainstay, drool over her. Sometimes I think of the many jokes that are heaped at housewives in Tamil Nadu obsessed about serials, the American counterparts are not much different when they swoon over Oprah and other soaps. Of course Oprah is any day a shade finer than a crude Tamil serial but only by a shade.

What Oprah achieved is hugely creditable. No doubt. An Afro-American woman beamed into the living rooms of America managed to surmount racial divides and touch something in every heart (I specifically avoided saying "mind").

Jeremiah Wright hit the headlines as the bigoted screaming pastor when Obama ran for President. Obama feigned ignorance of Wright's hateful speeches and finally at a convenient moment dumped his pastor who had outlived his purpose of giving Obama, an upcoming politician in CHicago, a foothold in the community. Little is known of Oprah's own association with Wright. She too, mindful that any association with the fiery pastor would undermine cutting across the racial lines, dumped him very early on. Poor Wright. Some character of Oprah.

As her empire expanded Oprah became the high priestess of everything. In order to provide some intellectual fig leaf to her audiences she started a "Book Club" and critiqued books. Any book selected by her became instant bestseller. I am amused seeing publications of Elie Wiesel's "Night" with the label "Oprah' book club selection". Weisel's holocaust memoir was a best seller decades ago and still is a powerful book that somebody needed Oprah's stamp to pick it up is disgusting. I wish publishers did not use that label, and I wish bookstores refused to sell it to anyone inquiring it as "oh is it selected by Oprah". Likewise for Gabriel Garcia Marquez and others. Nobody goes to a church via gutter. Anyone who chose these books based on just Oprah's advice does not deserve to be within 100 feet of a decomposed copy of those books. Jonathan Franzen, author of bestseller 'Corrections, snubbed Oprah by refusing to appear on her show when she tempted him with her offer to select his book. People like Howard Roark do exist.

Oprah's hubris finally had its comeuppance in James Frey's pseudo-autobiography "A million little pieces". James Frey's supposed memoir, filled with anecdotes from his life, was exposed as total fraud. Even while book critics were murmuring the fraud the pretentious Oprah selected the book, interviewed Frey on her and conferred stardom. When he was exposed Oprah became furious and hauled him again to her show and berated him on live TV. No apology from herself though.

As her empire grew into a media conglomerate she cheapened herself into giving freebies for her shows attendees "cars for everyone". Then followed ill managed scandal haunted charity schools.

Her show was the platform for quack theories. She had a show that had "experts" opine that mercury in vaccines caused autism. People who were invited to give the 'other view' were muzzled. The show and the theory was widely panned. Then followed dubious psychological counseling Dr Phil, a columnist dubbed him as 'Oprah's Oprah'. Dr Phil is now running his own controversy ridden show now. Newsweek recently an extensive cover story on the seamy side of Oprah.

Oprah's advocacy of Barack touched heights of hypocrisy. I can totally understand her supporting him but to pretend that his race had nothing to do with it was baloney. She drooled over him, calling him "the One", she claimed "the truth led me to Barack Obama". When a woman asked her why she is not supporting Hillary a woman, Oprah recounted it as "she 'dared' to ask me...". How dare the viewer ask her. When somebody endorsing a candidate speaks of the candidate in messianic terms we have to politely infer the objectivity involved.

Anyway she has brought happiness to many a housewife and for that America loves her

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Cold War Vs War on Terror

This month marks the 40th anniversary of moon landing. I was reading a TIME cover story on that and mused on the space race. Soviet Russia gave US quite a bit of a race. The first satellite, first living being in space, first human being, first female cosmonaut were all Russian achievements. Irked by this Kennedy made the famous pledge to beat the Russians to the moon. Sure we did beat the commies.

The Cold War was unique in affecting every sphere of human endeavor. A chess board was as much prestigious to win at as it was to win in Korea. The Olympics medals tally was keenly contested as much as the Berlin Wall was contested. Then there was 007, "I am Bond, James Bond" defending Queen and country from Russia. All James Bond movies were banned in Soviet Russia until "Golden eye" which was filmed in Russia (just Russia, no longer Soviet).

The space race, the race for missiles (nuclear and otherwise), the quarrel over better life style for labor spilled over into so many areas of competition. Who can forget the famous "Kitchen debate" between Nixon and Krushchev ( Not many realise that May Day rallies originated in US. The 8 hour work day was started by Henry Ford while Stalin mowed down the factory workers who struck work. Ford, pioneer of the assembly line method, made it a point to pay his workers enough to buy cars they built, he gave profit share, communism shared not profits but misery amongst its workers.

Science and technology were the areas of keenest competition. The movie "A Beautiful Mind" based on the eponymous biography of John Nash by Sylvia Nasar, has the Dean of Princeton ask newcomers "who will be next Einstein, who will help US defeat communism". The RAND institute, MIT etc were hotbeds of research giving US its technical edge.

Nobel Prizes were anxiously awaited. A Nobel for Pasternak was seen as a snub to Soviet totalitarianism. Defection of agents was one thing, defection of a person like Solzhenitsyn was epochal. Solzhenitsyn, while safely cocooned in the liberties of US found it OK to berate his hosts who protected him for greedy consumerism.

While America was locked in an existential struggle with Communism the struggles many aspects tapped into the creative genius of the country, in some angles the competition itself had its ennobling moments.

Contrast this with America's current War on Terror. This is existential too but what is being tapped into is only the base raw instinct to outfight each other and at best only some vague defense of Western liberalism.

Two cheers for Cold War.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Russian Oppression of Poland: William Shirer Vs Eve Curie

I intend to write another blog titled "Writing History Soviet Style" in reaction to a column that appeared in Hindu by Vladimir Radyuhin. Radyuhin writes on Russian issues. His column was about how Western Historians dilute the heroic role of Soviet Union in defeating Hitler. I shall reserve my comments on that for the next blog. However, while trying to gather my thoughts on that subject I reached to William Shirer's masterpiece "The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich", which, after 40+ years still remains the most concise and most readable account of those years. The longest section of the book is titled "Road to War". Shirer traces the origins of WW-II from several angles, the rise of Hitler, fall of Wiemar republic, appeasements by the Western leaders etc. A critical angle is the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact signed between Hitler and Stalin.

To this day historians continue to quibble whether Stalin was compelled to sign that treaty because France and Britain were busy appeasing Hitler or Stalin just played Chamberlain and Hitler finally choosing to side with Hitler thinking that the Nazi warlord is the more fearful one. The quibbling is because much of Soviet war history papers are still classified. Basically Stalin was negotiating with both Germany on one side and the Franco-British alliance on the other side. With the Franco-British side the biggest point of friction, according to Shirer, was Stalin's demand that Poland should agree to Soviet troops on its soil to stop German troops much before they could reach the borders of Soviet union. Shirer almost portrays Poland as unwilling for this compromise without appreciating the historical nature of the forces that were shaping up. Reading the chapter I thought "If only Poland had compromised".It should be noted here that Shirer, was no professional historian, he was a journalist stationed in Berlin during the 1930's.

As luck would have it I came upon a wonderful book "Madame Curie" by Eve Curie. Good books have a way of beckoning me like the sirens beckoned Ulysses. With no prior knowledge and only out of curiosity I picked it up for 50 cents at an old book store. Later I checked it out and found that the book was by Marie Curie's daughter and is an acclaimed biography. The book was published in 1937. Here is another quirk of mine, I always check the publication date from the cover page, especially for an old book, more so if there is no dated preface or foreword. Eve Curie details life in Poland when Marie Curie grew up in the 1870's. A paragraph starts with a shocking "It was a cruel fate, in the year 1872, to be a pole, a 'Russian subject' ".

Poland was so thoroughly subjugated by Russia that Poles could not even speak or study in Polish. Poland, for all practical reasons, was a colony of Russia (not yet Soviet Russia). Every aspect of their life was deliberately devoid of anything remotely Polish. Not even India as a British colony could stand comparison to Poland under Russia.

I was amazed to learn this part of history, amazed that Shirer did not present this historical backdrop in reporting Poland's refusal to allow Soviet troops on its soil.

Stalin, had his revenge though. While Hitler pummeled Poland from its western side, Stalin plundered it from the east. Sep 1st 1939, when Nazi troops rolled into Poland is recognized as the official beginning of WW-II.Not much is spoken of how Russia too plundered Poland simultaneously. While Hitler was busy occupying France and bombarding Britain, Stalin had a free hand in plundering Eastern Europe. All those states, including Poland would eventually get some semblance of freedom only in 1980's as the decrepit Soviet state imploded. Until then Poland would be behind what Churchill famously characterised as the "Iron Curtain".

[ From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent. --- Churchill , March 5, 1946Westminster College, Fulton, Missouri ,

Complete text of that speech]