Friday, July 04, 2014

Book Notes: Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar by Simon Sebag Montifiore

Simon Sebag Montefiore's massive book on the workings of Stalin's government is the stuff of nightmares - quite literally for me as I have read it over the last couple of weeks. Those nightmares are testament both to the ghastly grip of terror in which Stalin held the Soviet Union for a quarter of a century, and Montefiore's skills as a researcher and writer. This book is as compelling as it is disturbing.

When I opened the book, I knew a bit about Stalin - his rise to power, the five year plans, collectivisations, liquidation of the 'kulaks', the purges, show-trials and WWII and Stalinism being a byword for tyranny. That however was not enough to prepare me for the full disclosure of the malevolence, violence, sadism, and genocide which to Stalin and his band of 'magnates' were simply political tools for the furtherance of their own fanatical Marxist-Leninist agenda, and personal quests for power.

Montifiore introduces the reader to the band of Bolsheviks who ran the Soviet Empire with Stalin from the mid-1920s. He shows how they lived, worked, partied and played together in a politico-social world centred on the Kremlin, where the leading party members children wandered in and out of each others apartments. One by one, of course, each of these families is destroyed by the paranoia and jealousy of Stalin - and his secret police. The secret police were themselves of course, purged repeatedly each head seeking to impress Stalin with his willingness to take the principles of terrorising the population with mass-killings to further extremes. So Yagoda fell to be replaced by Yezhov, who fell to be replaced by Beria - who was about to be flung out from Stalin's favour when the latter died in 1953.

Strangely alongside this grim tale of evil and carnage, Montifiore paints a picture of Stalin the man. He was someone who loved singing with friends, taking party grandees on picnics, playing with children, who loved dancing and parties and who was deeply affected by the suicide of his wife Nadya - and who raged against the alcoholic foolishness and debauchery of his uncontrollable son. He paints a picture of a man who without emotion personally signed off the deaths of erstwhile friends, colleagues allies and neighbours; or signed death warrants for hundreds of thousands of people he had never met with s stroke of a pen; but who personally censored all references to sex from Soviet film because it offended his sense of Bolshevik-morality! 

In these pages we meet a Stalin who was a gregarious party host, with a riotous sense of humour, but also the owner of a vicious temper and a long, long memory for grudges. Stalin is seen here as paranoid, devious, awesomely powerful, charismatic, and utterly devoid of morality, but also capable of both great personal kindnesses and personal vulnerability. On one page he demands the torture of some Russian he believes plots against him (real or imagined plot), while on another he walks lonely in his garden (all his friends dead at his hand), muttering the words "Oh Nadya" about his late wife, over twenty years after her untimely death.

The other engaging but disturbing part of the book were the chapters on Stalin's intellectual life. Having read a little about Stalin before - I had encountered writing which simply described a foolish thug. Montifiore demolishes such two-dimensional caricatures and presents a Stalin who was the master political plotter and strategist, who read voraciously, who not only read and  understood Marx, but was fanatic in his pursuit of Lenin's interpretation of him. Stalin debated with writers, filmmakers, poets, composers, generals, journalists, heads of industries and contributed to all these fields; persuading (or shooting) people who disagreed with him on the way - forcing his way on others regardless of whether it had merit; or was utter folly, such as his faith that the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact would hold until 1942 at least.

Alongside all the henchmen and Bolshevik characters (both friends and foes of Stalin), such as Bukharin, Molotov, Mikoyan, Krushchev, Bulganin, Beria and the rest; other great figures who loom large in this book include FDR, Churchill, Tito, Mao, Ribbentrop, Hitler, and Harry S. Truman. Stalin's assessments and interactions with all these men are fascinating and intriguing.

Stalin is seen as either the great distorter of Lenin's more benign legacy; or as a warning about the inevitable consequence of starting down the path of extreme political ideologies; be they theocratic, nationalist, class-based, ideology-driven or race-based like Nazism. Tsarism was a dreadful system, and Nicholas II a dreadful exponent of it; but how might people have acted differently in 1917, if they had seen that it would lead them towards the horror that spread through their country a decade later.

Montifiore's book is staggering, shocking and gripping tale of the workings of arguably the most profoundly wicked, weirdest and most disturbing regime of the 20th Century (it's a straight fight between Stalin and Hitler for that dark accolade). Superb reading, but nightmare inducing.

Thursday, June 05, 2014

Last night's sunset... click on images to enlarge.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

Sunday, May 04, 2014

Book Notes: Singled Out - How Two Million Women Survived Without Men after the First World War

It hardly needs to be stated that this year marks the centenary of the outbreak of The Great War. Much attention will (quite rightly) be given to the experience of the soldiers, the vast hoards of Britain's volunteer army who went to France in a furore of jingoism and who died in their hundreds and hundreds of thousands. The war which was supposed to be 'over by Christmas', and which would gloriously reassert Imperial Britain's international hegemony produced instead the carnage of The Battles of Mons, Ypres, and The Somme where 58,000 British troops were killed on the first day alone. The military history of 1914-18, is a vast subject worthy of study and attention.

What is sometimes forgotten in the telling of the story of The Great War years, is the unfolding drama of the social history of the home front. Virginia Nicholson's intriguing book, "Singled Out" focuses on a particular aspect of the effects of World War I, that of the ways in which the conflict affected the lives of women of Britain. A generation of men were obviously killed, wounded, or traumatised by war, or returned from conflict and resumed their lives; but Nicholson demonstrates that the war had lifelong implications for a whole generation of women too.

In the years after World War One, Britain contained over 2million more women of 'marriageable age' than men. The casualty rates on The Western Front were so high that the natural male/female balance of the population was massively skewed for that generation as they lived through the bulk of the twentieth century. In Singled Out, Virginia Nicholson examines the social implications of this unprecedented phenomena, which were long-lasting and profound.

For a huge number of young women, the issue was one of coping with dashed hopes and bereavement of husbands and fiancees, and Nicholson looks at the effects of this grieving society. For others it was a matter of the problem of finding available men to marry, and have children with. Using interviews, books, women's magazines of the era, memoirs, diaries, lonely hearts ads, and newspaper reports she describes the intense competition amongst young women for dances with eligible bachelors. London's social scene is described as having a ratio of 10:1 male to female adults under 30. For many of the women in Nicholson's study the issue was of loneliness, unmet needs, and an unfulfilled desire to become mothers.

Nicholson looks at the lives of countless women as they negotiated this unique situation. For some there was a prolonged deep sense of sadness and loss. Others poured their lives into other caring roles, as nannies, aunts, teachers or nurses. Interestingly, despite the fact that the unprecedented numbers of spinsters was due almost entirely to the sacrifices of war, 1920s Britain was a remarkably unfriendly place for single women. Traditional family structures with male bread-winners, were still held as the norm creating innumerable barriers to freedom, employment and fair pay for spinsters. Coupled to this, spinsters were still often viewed as defective, odd or even deviant by much of society.

While some women grieved for marriages never made, and children never borne, Nicholson also points out that for some women this entirely new social situation created novel social freedoms which they gladly exploited. For a few bohemians the collapse of traditional family structures (add Freud and Marie Stopes into the equation) meant erotic explorations. For others, the shortage of men, meant not only opportunities to enter the professions for the first time as lawyers, academics, engineers, pilots, mountaineers, philosophers, authors and archaeologists; but without domestic restrictions to hold them back. While marriage did provide romance, sex, companionship, certainty and respectability - in early 20thCentury Britain it also encumbered women with unemployability, high expectations of domestic labour, loss of freedom and usually large numbers of children. It was intriguing to see that that first inroads into the traditional family structure in Britain were not made by mop-topped rockers in the early 1960s, but by German machine guns in 1916.

This is a fascinating social history of what the killing of men in the trenches did to women in Britain, and how the effects on them lasted until the last of that generation passed away in the last years of the twentieth century. Well, researched and tidily written, the effects of the war on women and gender relations is well explored. If I have any criticisms of the book they are that there is a little to much repetition in it, because too much of the research is reproduced rather than analysed. Despite this, Singled Out is an interesting piece of social research, and something well worth considering amongst the plethora of studies, TV documentaries and dramas about WWI, which will focus on the military history. The military history of The Great War ended in November 1918, but as Nicholson shows, the social history of that conflict was still echoing in the lives of British women in the 1980s.

Thursday, May 01, 2014

Gresley A4 at Willowgate

(click on image to see it properly!)

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Book Notes: Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering by Timothy Keller

When I was given this book at Christmastime, I looked forward to storming through another Keller book which I assumed would be enjoyable, uplifting, encouraging and stimulating. The events I blogged about in January, however have made working my way through this book, and this subject, a slow, troublesome and rather profound experience.

Keller wrote this book, not simply because he is a pastor of a church - and so someone to whom sufferers turn; but because his wife was repeatedly hospitalised for abdominal surgery and he was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. This book is the distillation of all that he has learned as he has both suffered and helped the suffering; and is the fruit of many years of seeking to harness all the resources of Christian theology, faith and spirituality to face this massive dilemma of the human condition.

The book looks from two perspectives at entering the 'inevitable furnace of suffering', the first section of the book is more theoretical; engaging theologically and philosophically at the problem of evil and suffering. Keller describes this as written for those 'looking in' to the furnace, seeking a Christian response to the problem of suffering. His approach does not endorse any one of the popular apologetics, arguing that these go beyond the Bible which leaves many questions as mysteries, but seeks to chart a coherent view of suffering in a Christian worldview. In this frame, suffering and evil are neither the result of blind fate, hopeless chance or karmic revenge, nor is the experience the result of the spite of a malevolent or abandoning God; but are temporary evils which a loving God mysteriously allows. However, these Keller is keen to establish, are evils which God uses for the good of those who trust Him, and experiences which can be profoundly harnessed for our eternal good. These chapters are each concluded with some personal stories written by various sufferers whose deeply moving experiences exemplify the points made in the chapters.

Here's Keller introducing the book:

Keller's introduction to the book advises anyone currently enduring suffering to skip this first section which looks abstractly at the problem - and to turn to the latter half of the book. Here, rather than asking "Why does God allow suffering?", the question in view is: "How can I get through today?" and is written directly to the sufferer. This section is less demanding reading, but is a very personal and rather moving devotional theology designed to equip the sufferer to grow through the experience of pain. The series of reflections on the ancient biblical story of Job are very helpful indeed as is his study on the dimensions of 'walking with God' through it: weeping, praying, thanking, hoping, loving and trusting. Here, his emphasis is outworking the philosophy he works out in part one, in simple terms of everyday Christian spirituality. Suffering in this context is not to be dismissed, minimised or denied - but faced. It is not 'unspiritual' to grieve, or to weep; only to do so without turning to God like the Psalmists did. Christian faith does not seek to generate an otherworldy or gnostic detachment from the physical realities of life and death; but to enfuse the experience with faith and hope.

Tellingly, Keller's main focus is on encountering Jesus Christ in the crucible of suffering. For him, knowing, seeing, encountering and adoring Him is the great prize of human life; and suffering presents a vital opportunity for this kind of spiritual growth (like Job) simply because it strips away all the other blessings of life which can become at best distractions and at worst idols.

Joni Earickson Tada writes:  Forgive me, but I’m always a bit skeptical about the latest book on suffering and God. I’m not a cynic or a disparager; it’s just the subject has so consumed me for the last 46 years of quadriplegia, that everything I read makes me wonder, Is there anything new or explained differently about affliction and the Almighty that can help—I mean really help—me through my suffering? ...... And so, when I pick up a hefty manuscript written by a popular pastor/theologian—even if it is Timothy Keller—I muse, Will these pages actually reach people where they hurt—in the gut and in the heart? Well, "Walking with God through Pain and Suffering" comes pretty close. It's a good review, which you can read here

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

A90 Trails

From Kinnoull Hill

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Funky Fungus

Kinnoull Hill

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Signs of Spring

It must be Spring, the deer have returned to the western side of Kinnoull Hill and onto Barnhill.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

"Not Small, Far Away!"

At Mussenden Temple

Downhill House

The ruins of Downhill House sit high above the cliffs of the North Coast of Northern Ireland. Once the focus of a vast estate covering vast acres of of the North, it collapsed in a financial crisis after WWII. Most of the great house was sold off, many items apparently being taken to America.

Magilligan Martello

To prevent Napoleon invading Ireland up the Foyle Estuary.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Monday, April 14, 2014

At Downhill Beach

(click on image to enlarge)

A murky day gave way to an incredible sunset.

Ah, young love!



If you are going to build one of these, the "Windyhill" seems like an apt location...

Seaside Album II, at Castlerock