Saturday, October 25, 2014

Roc d'Enfer

Our annual holiday-with-friends usually allows us to experience some exceptional scenery, and this year's October half-term trip did the job handsomely. We've discovered that out-of-season ski-chalets in France can be rented out very cheaply - especially when the bills are shared out between several families. One of the highlights of this trip was a family walk for the five of us in the company of Psycho Pete and Dangerous Dave.

The drive up from Morzine through Essert-Romand and up to the little hamlet of Graydon was an exciting prelude to a great day in the hills. The route we took began at the little chapel at Graydon, snaking up the hill behind it alongside a ski tow to the top of a pass. Alongside us as we climbed was the soaring ridge of the Roc d'Enfer - the rock of hell, so called as it has claimed many lives of climbers over the years. Hardly a suitable route on which to take children perhaps; but the guide book assured us that the part of the ridge we were attempting was safe and that most accidents had taken place on the tricky sections in Winter conditions.

Looking across to the ridge, and the feint path up to the little notch on its summit which was our destination was quite intimidating. The path looked impossibly steep, muddy and very slippery following heavy rain the previous day. From the top of the ski-tow the path seemed to terminate in a gully which would not be possible to get the kids (especially our nine-year old daughter) up; never mind back down if the going got too tough.
Deciding to give-it-a-go we found that to the left of the lethal looking gully, (the Chute de Neige?) a scratchy path weaved up the face up the hill becoming progressively steep until suddenly emerging on the ridge. Perched here with the ground falling away on both sides, and the blade like ridge each side of us, we stopped for a memorable lunch; and looked at the descent route to see what we were in for on the way back to Graydon.

Although the route map said we should continue a long way along the ridge, time was against us - and we were a little concerned about the kids. Soon after a tricky 'bad-step' over which much time and care was taken, we found a signpost and the 'main-path' down to Graydon, which we took. Weaving our way through grassy flat areas, and steep bouldery slopes, we soon found ourselves within sight of the little chapel and Graydon; tired, thirsty and pleased with our little adventure. The tiny shop in this remote location sells only its own cheese; so we drove back down the hill to treat the kids in a cafe, after their hard work.

(click on image to enlarge)

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Morzine Moments

 Le cinĂ©ma

 It's all glam and glitz

The Bells, The Bells!

The Bells - No, not the whisky blend. Central Morzine, French Alps.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Book Notes: Lost and Found in Russia by Susan Richards

Studying Soviet and Eastern European Politics and History in the early 1990s was exciting stuff. A whole chunk of the "politics" course was removed from the curriculum and the study of things such as Kremlinology, The Politburo, The CPSU, The Nomenklatura, the planned economy and relationships within the Warsaw Pact moved across the to History Department. The tumultuous days in the East certainly kept academics on their toes in the West, as lecture series' on Russia Today dragged out with annual repetition were (to use a ironically appropriate expression), consigned to the 'dustbin of history'.

It was during this time that I first read one of Susan Richards' books. Her first work entitled "Epics of Everyday Life: Encounters in a Changing Russia" was a fascinating and brilliant account of life in The Soviet Union during the Gorbachev years, when Soviet-Communism went through its final spasms of attempted self-preservation. What set Richards' work apart then, as now, is that her focus is not on the powerful and elites, but on the lives of citizens caught up within the shifting patterns of history. This is an important re-balancing of historical writing, as the political, military, economic and ideological changes of that era were well-documented; but the effects of these shifts on the people themselves somewhat neglected. We knew that Prime Minister Thatcher felt that she could do business with Gorbachev, we knew that the arms raced had slowed in its escalation, we knew that The Russian Empire was fragmenting and were told to anticipate a 'New World Order'; but in this top-down version of history we only knew about the struggles of ordinary people as they appeared as statistics in charts about unpaid wages, unemployment or of rising inflation. In her first book Susan Richards charted in detail the lives of a few people caught up in those years - adding huge colour and an added dimension to our understanding of the realities of those times.

Having so appreciated "Epics..." at University, I was intrigued to see that Richards' had followed it up with "Lost and Found" about the Post-Soviet Era, and bought it as soon as I was aware of its existence. The times have changed enormously since Gorbachev, Thatcher, Reagan and Mitterand bestrode the world stage and Richards was chronicling the lives of ordinary Russians. What hasn't changed much is Richards' purpose or method of research and writing about Russia: or the immense value of her work in seeking to understand Russia. 

"Lost and Found in Russia" has been subtitled on the cover as "encounters in a deep heartland" and elsewhere as "encounters in a post-Soviet landscape" - enigmatic book descriptions to say the least. One of the joys of this book is that it is almost impossible to categorise into any particular genre. On one hand it is history, and cultural and political analysis. On the the other it is brilliantly observed travel-writing. On still a third hand it is the diary of an academic in her field, doing her research. The format of the book is straightforward, each section begins with a historical-political introduction to the year(s) in which the proceeding narrative occurs. Yeltsin, Gaidar, De-regulation, privatisation, the rise of the Mafia's and Oligarch's, the rise and fall of the free-press, Putin and the re-assertion of control, and the economic context are all mapped out here in nice pithy summaries. They however, are but the canvass for Richards pen-portraits of her Russian friends as they seek to negotiate post-Soviet life.

Like her travels and adventures, Richards' characters are well drawn. They all, like the country itself, are struggling to survive the worst of the economic slumps; but more significantly all trying to work out what Russia is; and what it means to be Russian. For the whole of their highly propagandised lives they had a concept of their identity and nationhood as intrinsically tied to the Marxist-Leninist model; and their leadership of it in the world. With extraordinary rapidity all of this collapsed, leaving a cultural vacuum. It is in this context that Richards' various friends embrace capitalism, religion, fight for press freedom, suffer nervous breakdowns, take to the bottle or battle through. The video clip at the end of this review features the author discussing all her characters in more detail, which I won't repeat here. One though is worth mentioning. Natasha a journalist was the daughter of a Soviet boss, who rebelled against the party. Her initial enthusiasm and Westward-leaning optimism at the fall of communism led her to a town called Marx (!) on the Volga. This was an old German-Russian region decimated by Stalin by promised as a centre of renewal by Gorbachev and the Germans. The Russian love-affair with The West did not last however, as the first rush of market economics into the planned economy failed to deliver much but eye-watering price rises and hardship. Natasha shares this journey in the book, and we find her moving in search of a better life; drinking to numb the shock, and finally trying to defend press-freedom against Putin's re-assertion of central control.

Richards' very short, and beautifully written chapters tell the stories of a small cast of characters like Natasha whose lives are entwined with the fall, and rise of Russia. Workers, writers, playboys, businessmen and writers, all wrestling with big-questions and day-to-day survival. Some of her narratives (running from the KGB in Uzbekistan) are astonishing; but the most memorable thing about this book are the people whose lives she shared on her remarkable journeys through this vast, complex and (to Westerners at least) almost inexplicable country. I can still picture the Old Believers meeting deep in the heart of Russia's great forests, with their rituals and community structures, of the bizarre messianic cults which flourished in the chaos of the collapse of the USSR, of the UFO and paranormal obsessions of people bewildered by their times.

This is stunning writing, and a salutory reminder to historians and commentators alike that the dispassionate recording of policies and the rise of politicians; might be the headline-grabbing stories; but real lives go on below the radar. 

Here's a short video (3mins) about the book, narrated by the author.

Here is a 35 minute lecture by Richards in which she says a lot more about the characters who form the substance of her book. After the somewhat ponderous introduction, Richards' talk starts at 3mins 20 seconds in.

Out of Season

Friday, October 10, 2014

Book Notes: Auschwitz and The Allies - How the Allies responded to the news of Hitler's Final Solution

The Holocaust Memorial in Berlin is a place of great solemnity. The designers have created a place of mourning, memory and warning which looks back to remember - and alerts all who see it of the dangers of extremism and human potential for evil. Underneath the memorial is a museum which along with documenting many of these crimes against humanity contains all the known names of Jews murdered by the Nazis.  It was here I came across Primo Levi's disturbing book The Drowned and The Saved, which are the reflections of an Auschwitz survivor seeking to process his experiences and cope with his memories. I also noticed that they stocked Martin Gilbert's book, "Auschwitz and The Allies", which presents the history of the holocaust, not from within the camps -but from the perspective of the Allies. Crucially, it sets out to answer the contentious question of what the Allies knew about the Nazi attempt to exterminate all the Jews in their Empire, when they knew it, and how they responded.

Before looking at the main argument I need to add a note: I found this a very difficult book to read. However, this was not because it was haunting and unsettling like the Primo Levi book, which repeatedly woke me in the early hours with disturbing images, the sound of distant screams and a lingering sense of the presence of evil. No; this book was hard to read for precisely the opposite reason, in that it was cold, analytical history in which the processes, numbers and methods of genocide are discussed as objectively as if they were GDP, or balance of payments deficit figures. Reading of times and dates of train-loads of people disembarking and being either "tattooed and sent to the barracks" or "gassed" in great numbers initially creates the correct response in the reader of horror, revulsion and disbelief. After nearly four hundred pages, and over a million people later, it is ghastly to find oneself no longer being shocked and nauseous, but merely accepting the facts as 'significant'.

Gilbert's treatment of The Allies response to the German slaughter of The Jews is scholarly and even-handed. His position is that The Allies failed to do enough to protect the Jews, and could - indeed should have done much, much more during the course of WWII to save lives where this was possible. However, he is also at great pains to point out that The Allies hands were tied by a combination of a terrible lack of information, the privations of war, complex international relations, disbelief, disorganisation, as well as sense that directly rescuing The Jews was a lower priority for politicians than defeating Hitler and rescuing Europe as a whole. Gilbert's estimation is that even if the Allies had done everything they could and should have done, they could not have stopped the slaughter at Auschwitz until it was almost over.

Detailed working through archives from Allied government papers and those from Jewish and Zionist pressure groups shows that the Holocaust was a hugely well kept secret for much of the war. While the deportations of countless victims from France, Germany, Belgium - and everywhere the Nazi's ruled at the height of the power in 1941; no-one knew where they were taken. The common belief was that they were being used as slave labour somewhere in the East of the Nazi Empire. Some camps such as Treblinka came to international attention comparatively early on, but the worst place of all, Auschwitz/Berkenau remained unknown for most of the war. Interestingly the naivety of western governments which characterised their dealings with Hitler in 1938, continued in their under-estimation of the evils of Nazism in 1941-4. This naivety was shared by all including many of the Jewish groups.

Secondly, Gilbert describes the way that the holocaust got underway with its extreme brutality and efficiency at the lowest point in the war from an Allied military perspective. In 1941, Britain was emerging from The Blitz and The Battle of Britain as a broken and beleaguered country struggling for survival against an Empire which stretched from Calais to the Russian border. Germany had a full conquest of The Soviet Union in its sights from that point onwards, and the Wehrmacht would soon be pushing deep into Soviet territory. At this stage, even if Britain and the European governments in exile in London could have done little but posture.

Thirdly, the truth about Auschwitz was still only filtering through the West in 1944 by way of three or four escapees from the camp who managed to reach Allied lines and deliver verbal reports which stood up to scrutiny. They were however, too often considered to be simply too ghastly to be true. 

Fourthly, Auschwitz and its associated supply lines and communication systems were too far into enemy territory for Britain to do anything about in terms of direct military intervention. Gilbert demonstrates that until the fall of Italy and the placement of American bombers with long range fighter escorts there; even the oil-producing facilities adjacent to the death camps were beyond the range of the RAF. Only as Auschwitz was in its last stages of operation did the USAF have potential to interrupt its operations.

On the other hand, Gilbert shows that The Allies - although severely restricted in their ability to respond still did not respond adequately to the crisis. This is demonstrated in several ways:

The first is that from the start there was an wholly inadequate response to the persecution of Europe's Jews even before the full-facts of the evils being inflicted upon them were known. There was a reluctance from all the Allied nations (and beyond) to receive great numbers of those known to be fleeing persecution, ghetto-isation and harassment in the early stages of the war. The reasons for this were many, and The British had particular concerns. On one hand they were struggling to feed and house their own population, were imposing rationing, enduring The Blitz and plunging into enormous debt to fight the war against improbable odds. On the other side of the coin, most fleeing Jews indicated a desire to enter Palestine; which The British were controlling. This would in turn have led to an Arab revolt in the Middle East, and the loss of key Allies at a time when Rommel's forces were surging Eastwards across North Africa with Egypt and then Palestine itself apparently within his grasp. Nevertheless, despite the difficulties involved, the diplomatic wrangling over visas for a few hundred people here, or a thousand there; seem disturbingly petty in the light of the events unfolding across Nazi Europe.

Secondly, as the full extent of the evils of Nazi oppression did become known, by late 1944 The Allies faced the choice of diverting their war effort into humanitarian relief; or pressing on with their undiluted effort to win the war; not by negotiation but the complete demolition of Nazism. In every case, the Allies chose to pursue the war effort. This is probably the most controversial element of the historical assessment of the Allied tactics. The House of Commons denunciations of atrocities and minute's silence for victims was well-intentioned and heartfelt (more by Churchill than Eden, it seems); but in terms of bombing targets, the supply-lines of oil and petrochemicals was consistently a priority over disrupting the flow of people to their slaughter-houses. This was despite the fact that one USAF bombing route passed directly over Auschwitz/Berkenau/Monowitz to higher priority targets. Gilbert is anxious to point out that the opportunities for the Allies to save lives in this way were severely limited by lack of military intelligence and technical ability. Even if the Allies had committed to bombing the camps out of business, they would only have been able to spare a relatively small percentage of the whole - and at the cost of prolonging the war in other areas. Himmler's attempt to "ransom" vast numbers of Jews to the Western Allies for military equipment which could be used against The Soviets (The Brand scheme), was especially perplexing. It could have saved half a million people from the gas chambers; but at what cost? It could have shattered the Alliance, boosted the Nazi-regime's attempts to survive and prolonged the War. 

Of particular significance is the liquidation of Hungarian Jewry. This came very late in the course of the conflict due to Hungarian reluctance to embrace German anti-Semitism despite their alliance. However once full German occupation and control was established, the by-now-familiar pattern of the capture, deportation and murder of the Jewish population went ahead. This could have - should have been - interrupted by Allied bombing from captured Italian airbases as by this stage the great secret of the Nazi killing machine at Auschwitz had reached the Allies, and they had bombing fleets within range of potential targets. Gilbert says that the evidence suggests that politicians like Churchill were in favour of such action but were repeatedly rebuffed by military planners who were unwilling to mount the kind of risky operation for Auschwitz's Jews which they managed to support the Warsaw Uprising.

It is perhaps impossible to imagine the pressure which decision makers were under in this period. As those like Eden who opposed direct action to assist the Jews during the conflict repeatedly said; the only real liberation for the Jewish people of Europe is the complete defeat of Nazism, and nothing should be allowed to divert effort from that sole aim. Ultimately reading Gilbert's "Auschwitz and The Allies" leaves the reader with a great deal of understanding of why those decisions were made; coupled with a profound sense of disappointment that the few genuine opportunities which there were in the final stages of the war to save lives, mitigate evil and disrupt the slaughter were not taken.

Martin Gilbert's detailed research, is well-presented and is rewarding reading. The trail he uncovers is far kinder to The Allies than I had expected. Prior to reading this book I was aware of the 'Allied failure' to use bombing to prevent The Holocaust, and so was expecting to read a damning indictment of Allied inaction perhaps coupled to a lurking anti-Semitism. What emerges from the evidence is a far more complex picture in which the full force of Nazi evil was operational at Auschwitz for years before anyone in London or Washington knew anything about it; and by the time they were in a position to act or fail; it was already too late for most of Europe's Jewish people. 

Thursday, October 02, 2014

Book Notes: Gulag Boss by Fyodor Mochulsky

Much has been written (and published in English too), about Stalin's mass concentration and heavy labour camps known as "The Gulag". A lot of this material is written with an emphasis on the development of Stalin-ism, the consolidation of the Soviet dictatorship, The Great Purges and so forth - and is weighted towards Moscow in its focus. In such books, The Gulag is a monstrous reality to which people are routinely sent and rarely return; but yet The Gulag itself remains resolutely off-stage. Studies of Stalin's USSR of this type focus for instance on the weakening of Red Army in the purges and its subsequent unreadiness to face Nazi aggression in 1939.  

Another raft of literature grieves the lives of victims lost to the terror, to the camps, show trials and to the labour camps. Again however, much of this is written in the memoirs of those left behind, who grieved a loss they felt in St Petersburg, Moscow or Kiev. Some memoirs of those dispatched to Siberia do exist; but the vast majority of the poor souls taken by the NKVD had no means of leaving any record of their experiences. Nevertheless some reports of Gulag prison life have survived.

Fyodor Mochulsky's time spent in Stalin's Gulags, in places such as Perchorlag in The Arctic Circle; lead to quite different memoirs. Mochulsky was a young railway engineer when he was sent to oversee the extension of the Soviet rail network, far across the tundra to the coal fields of the North. The Soviet planners had correctly understood that a Nazi invasion would quickly capture the coal reserves of the West of the Soviet Empire - and that accessing vast quantities of coal would be essential for the forthcoming war effort. This was both as fuel for their own war effort, and as a trade for essential supplies from the Allies. With little choice, Mochulsky found himself the boss of a team of slave labourers, both criminals and political prisoners, digging cuttings, raising embankments and bridges and driving rails across vast frozen territories.

As a memoir, "Gulag Boss" is an unusual read. Although he was a part of one of the greatest ideological movements of the twentieth century, in a vast system of persecution and exploitation - we learn remarkably little of what Mochulsky made of it all. While it seems that as a post-revolutionary child he was thoroughly propagandised into accepting the basic premise of The Soviet Union's Marxist-Leninist project; he offers little by way of reflection on it - or on the daily brutality which unfolded from it. One would expect an autobiography to be a self-justifying series of recollections, and there is plenty of material of that nature here. What is odd though is the almost complete lack of any sense of the brutality of the system, or of Mochulsky himself being involved or implicated in it. On one occasion he admits to be being threatened by the system; but he barely reflects at all on his role as an enforcer of its systematic exploitation. Part of this, no doubt, is that much of his time was spent as part of the war effort against the Nazi's in which huge sacrifices were made across the board - and so the slavery in which he was implicated was less distinct from the norm.

Mochulsky added a PS at the end of the book containing unanswered questions he has about the validity of Stalin's methods. Strangely though, in the course of his narrative there is no sense that he sat by his stove in his remote Arctic hut, vexed and tormented by his posting, or wrestling its ideological underpinning. Perhaps the most surprising and long-lasting aspect of this book is that this Gulag-boss was more interested in the infrastructure of the railways than in the workers who toiled to construct it. His memoirs do nicely describe some of the more eccentric or notable characters he met on his travels (and there certainly are some colourful ones), but there is little mention of workers dying in the freezing conditions, or of frostbite and hypothermia. The reader is left with many stories of inter-prisoner violence; but no information about who Mochulsky may have beaten, or shot, or ordered to be shot, or simply allowed to be beaten. We know that this system was created by Stalin, who was personally responsible for the presence of many of the political prisoners on the railway - but what Mochulsky actually thought of Stalin we do not find out.  This man, a small cog in the vast oppressive Stalinist wheel, describes gulag management with astonishing technocratic detachment. While his descriptions of skiing miles across tundra, or searching for rails beneath the snows are rich; his social history could have described life in a post office or supermarket - for all its engagement or insight. For Mochulsky, the gulag was simply a place of work and he was good at his job.

Its perhaps hard to know why Fyodor Mochulsky decided to write and publish his memoirs late in his life after the end of the Soviet Union he had known. Nevertheless the document he has left, which avoids almost all the major questions but emphasises what an efficient manager he was, and how well he exceeded his production quotas; is a fascinating and unique insight into a dark and concealed corner of history. Oppression it seems is not only the work of  ideologically driven tyrants and warriors; it is delivered by dull men who are just doing their jobs.

Wednesday, October 01, 2014