Literary Voodoo in Czarist Russia

Literary Voodoo in Czarist Russia

Walking along the aptly-named River Dodder next to where I live I am given to speculation. I notice how, often, a dog’s physiognomy is similar to that of his owner. In making a choice of puppy, or breed, a putative owner seems to be unconsciously guided by an attraction to a dog, embodying characteristics of his own, or perhaps idealised ones. This makes the hound on the leash appear as an extension of the human holding him. The owner also drills his pet into conformity with how he wishes him to behave. Yet it seems that, over time, any dog imparts qualities of his own onto his owner too, thereby confounding the relationship. Ownership is thus reciprocal, involving self-love, an expression of ego, and mutual nurturing, potentially expanding a capacity for love on both sides. The bond is mutually-reinforcing: as the owner cares for him, so the dog protects and gives affection. It is a fascinating intimacy between species that have co-evolved since before the advent of agriculture. Our best, and worst, qualities are often revealed in human-canine relations.

Stories behave like dogs in some respects. They’ve been ‘man’s best friend’ since time immemorial, and been internalised as a collective unconscious beyond any individual’s life. Telling a tale is an expression of ego on the part of its creator, but stories also take on a life of their own. A wild nature attending any creation may refuse to obey the ostensible author’s command. Thus, Leo Tolstoy, as he wrote the eponymous novel, complained to his editor about the unpredictable conduct of Anna Karenina, who seemed unprepared to accept an allotted role, just as she rejects social conventions in the novel.

Once engendered, a great fable is unpredictable and beyond the control of its apparent creator, whose name is often forgotten in the retelling. Now Leopold Bloom’s life exceeds that of his creator James Joyce who may soon be forgotten on Bloomsday. In general literature nurtures, and expands a capacity for compassion, but fictions may also be destructive, especially where an ‘imagined community’ is concerned – as in nationalism – or in excessive veneration of religious tropes that breed fundamentalisms. The re-framing of narratives is essential in conflict resolution.

A cultural awakening often occurs before a precipitous decline into barbarity. The visionary artist intuits forthcoming ruptures, and is animated by a frenzied energy drawn from the zeitgeist. Nonetheless, no matter how compelling, his voice may only be heard in the wilderness of the avantgarde, or by posterity. A more intriguing spectre is that the artist engenders the scenes he depicts, and that stories are not mere prophecies, but work – in voodoo style – on the world he inhabits. This ‘magical’ view of literature, where the poet plays the role of a divine, might seem implausible, but it is apparent how life often imitates art, and that the sensibilities of groups of people are moulded by the stories they listen to. It is not only great artists that possesses these alchemical abilities, we all do to some extent, but any greatness is defined by the capacity of a work to take on a life, or afterlife, of its own. In this respect, it is worthwhile considering the Russian Revolution as a product of competing narratives, and characters, that emerged in the formidable Russian literature prior to the events.

The duel in Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons (1862) between the young nihilist Yevgeny Basarov and the older Romantic Pavel Kirsanov anticipates the competing sides in the Russian civil war over fifty years later. Each character displays heroic qualities, Kirsanov in his dedication to poetry, Basarov in his application to science, and the tragedy is no reconciliation is found between these essential disciplines.

Towards the end of the novel both characters play for the affections of the former servant Fenichka, who has already had a child with Nikolai, Pavel’s brother. Pavel witnesses Basarov making an unsolicited advance on her and, in his passion, demands satisfaction with pistols at dawn. Basarov emerges unscathed from the ensuing encounter, but Pavel receives a wound to the leg and departs into a depressing German exile, along with his old-fashioned ideas, just as White Russian emigres would depart in their droves after the Russian Civil War. Fenichka’s character may be interpreted as representing a pragmatic subaltern class, who dismisses the vainglorious Pavel. Similarly Czardom would react irrationally to progressive ideas and thereby fail to accommodate, or defeat, political movements appealing to reason and science that arose in Russia before the October Revolution.

Arguably, like the progressive ideas that animated many Russian Communist during the Civil War, there is to be no happy ending for Basarov either after the duel. Already, ‘irrational’ and ‘poetic’ feelings of love had grown up inside him, contrary to his intellectual will, for the aristocratic widow Anna Sergevna Odintsova, whose rejection leaves him a state of depression. Basarov’s rational self prefers the idea of casual, and animalistic encounters but he cannot help falling for the worldly Anna, despite his equation of love with a non-sensical poetic sentimentality. Anna might be identified with an establishment that will never be reconciled to a type such as Basarov, who, despite his erudition, is stigmatised by a humble background. Civil war looms, just as Aeneas’s rejection of Dido also amounted to a rejection of peace between Rome and Carthage, and foreshadowed an enduring conflict between East and West.

Basarov’s final demise is also tragic. He returns to his loving, but traditional parents and sets out to bring scientific rationality to freed serfs through his medical practice. But in the course of tending to the sick he too contracts an illness, from which he dies. Reason, it appears, cannot be implanted in the dark, irrational soil of Russia. The possibility of a peaceful resolution to Russia’s contradictions is glimpsed, however, in each of the successful love affairs of son and father, Arkady and Nikolai Kirsanov, the latter of whom bridges a class divide with his marriage to Fenichka. Both appear as a middle course between the competing extremes of Basarov and Pavel Kirsanov, but are less vivid, heroic and intelligent characters. It is hard to identify any real hope in Turgenev’s exile account of the looming conflicts in his homeland.

Likewise, the tactics proposed by Shigalyov in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novel Devils (1872) seem to have been played out many years later in the Soviet Union under Lenin, and especially Stalin. Pyotr Stepanovich Verkhovensky explains the plans of the revolutionary vanguard thus: ‘He has a system for spying. Every member of the society spies on every other one and is obliged to inform. Everyone belongs to all the others and the others belong to each one. They’re all slaves and equal in their slavery’. This impossibility of anyone evading an intelligence gathering apparatus recalls Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon, George Orwell’s 1984, and even anticipates a dystopian Internet future, leading to: ‘Complete obedience, total loss of individuality.’ Dostoyevsky intuited how a secret police would dominate in ‘totalitarian’ regimes in Eastern Europe, ensuring the Revolution would not be an ongoing process of social and intellectual transformation.

Once in thirty years Shigalyov permits, however, an upheaval and ‘everyone starts devouring one another, up to a certain point, just to avoid boredom.’ This reflects the timeline of Nikita Khrushchev’s overthrow of the Stalinist system in 1956, culminating in Leonid Breshnev’s takeover in 1964, and the more extensive implosion of the Communist system under Yeltsin (1991-1999), preceding the present era of stability under Vladimir Putin, who was once a KGB agent.

The salvation for mankind that Dostoyevsky proposed through the writings of the Starets Zosima in his later novel The Brothers Karamazov (1880) has not been fully realised in Devils, although we do meet a monk called the Elder Tikhon whose philosophy foreshadows the Starets Zosima’s. He says to the character of Stavrogin after hearing him confess to unspeakable crimes: ‘Having sinned, each man has sinned against all men, and each man is responsible in some way for the sins of others. There is no isolated sin.’ Dostoyevsky envisioned religious faith as a moral force removed from the judgment from on high we may associate with many Christian denominations. Sin is seen as a collective error, rather than being attributed to any failing of an individual.

But in Devils the dominant voice of opposition to nihilistic tendencies eventually comes from the debauched poet and father of the revolutionary Pyotr, the liberal Stepan Verkhovensky who had been been tasked with teaching Stavrogin in his youth, with baleful results. In his last public speech at a fete which becomes the occasion for the descent of the town into anarchic violence, he pronounces with Byronic ardour:

I declare that Shakespeare and Raphael are more important than the emancipation of the serfs, more important than nationalism, more important than socialism, more important than the younger generation, more important than chemistry, almost more important than humanity, because they are the fruit, the genuine fruit humanity, and perhaps the most important fruit there is!

The claim that mankind can live without bread but not without beauty rings hollow, however, when expressed by a person who lives in a debauched aristocratic style. In the end it is through a return to a simple Christian faith that the exhausted Stepan retreats from his hauteur. Rejecting a nihilistic liberalism, he renounces worldly possessions and takes to the road as a supplicant. But by then he is a wasted figure, isolated from his community, his poetic talents long squandered.

It is left to his amoral son Pyotr to explain that the murders, scandals and outrages were committed to promote the: ‘systematic undermining of every foundation, the systematic destruction of society an all its principles’, which would: ‘demoralize everyone and make hodge-podge of everything’. Then, ‘when society was on the point of collapse – sick, depressed, cynical, and sceptical, but still with a desire for some kind of guiding principle and for self preservation’, his faction would, ‘suddenly gain control of it’. Thus Dostoyevsky through Pyotr foretells the methodology of the Bolshevik Revolution, and ultimate suppression of democracy in Russia. As in Turgenev, no reconciliation is envisioned in an impending civil war. Devils such as Pyotr and Stavrogin are beyond salvation it would appear. It is symptomatic that the character of Shatov, who has previously associated with the revolutionaries, but returns to a simple faith in God and humanity, is violently executed by his erstwhile associates.

It would be ludicrous to blame the excesses of the Russian Revolution on the writings of Dostoyevsky and Turgenev, but such active imaginations may be the authors of fate, and not simply prophetic. At least Dostoyevsky’s last novel The Brothers Karamazov offers a more optimistic vision for Russia, which perhaps still awaits. One wonders if a more rounded vision could have emerged if the author had written his proposed sequel. Alas, the premature death of the novelist at the age of fifty-nine, just a few months after completing it, ensures we will never know.

The novel was the dominant art form of the nineteenth century, but in reality few among a largely illiterate population, at least in Russia, would have actually read the texts we now see as dominating the period. Nonetheless, I retain a faith in the metaphysical capacities of great artists, such as Turgenev and Dostoyevsky, to shape the world around them; for their art to cross boundaries of time and space. At its height, poetry – especially that devoted to fictions – is a medium of revelation, which works without fear or favour. Northrop Frye understands that: ‘The poet is a magician who releases his magic, and thereby recreates the universe of power instead of trying to exploit it.’ This coheres with Percy Shelley’s assertion that the poets are the ‘unacknowledged legislators of the world’.

This imposes a great burden of responsibility on the artist. But a genuinely creative person can never be held to account for the world she creates, and any effort to compel her to envision Utopian conditions is futile, as she is the agent of an unbiddable unconscious. This is the magic in art – and you just never can tell how the puppy is going to turn out.

(This article was published in the April/May edition of The London Magazine

The Evil That Men Do

The Evil That Men Do

Published in the Dublin Review of Books: (http://www.drb.ie/essays/the-evil-that-men-do)

The unconscious of a whole continent and age has made of itself poetry in the nightmare of a single prophetic dreamer
Herman Hesse

Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov casts a shadow over European literature. Sigmund Freud described it as ‘The most magnificent novel ever written’; while Friedrich Nietzsche acknowledged his Russian contemporary as: ‘the only psychologist from whom I have anything to learn’. In its intimate understanding of human depravity it anticipates a destructive phase of history, yet proffering a healing idealism with enduring appeal.

The novel anticipates the birth of the unconscious in psychology, and poses questions that seemed to drive Nietzsche mad. The best and the worst in the human character are laid bare: ‘A father has been killed and they pretend to be shocked … They’re just putting on a show in front of one another. Hypocrites. Everyone wants his father dead. Let dog eat dog.’ The sexually rampant and mendacious figure of that father, Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov, merits comparison with President Donald Trump against whom we now hurl opprobrium, rather than profitably acknowledging shades of our own characters in the roundly-despised leader of the so-called ‘free world’.

As an ‘unacknowledged legislator’, to use Percy Shelley’s term, Dostoyevsky moulded values that entered the common stream of human ideas that merit revisiting. The Brothers Karamazov, his last and most realised work, articulates spiritual and intellectual principles, in a confused Post-Modern age that has lost sight of significance since the decline of organised religions and Utopian ideologies.

Yet, perhaps Dostoyevsky’s greatest achievement here is to avoid being overbearing or didactic. A moral code by which to live one’s life is faithfully rendered, but deviant characters are not drawn in black and white. We inhabit their outlooks and arguments, as the writer seems to, but have available to us the vision of a reformed and universal Christianity, redolent of St Francis of Assisi.

A potential reader should not be intimidated by the book’s length, just shy of a thousand pages – or long, frenzied paragraphs – as untangling its subterfuges becomes compulsive. Completed in 1880, it still brims with lessons for a disorientated humanity, not least in the wake of Brexit and Trump: warnings on the psychological consequence of admitting to the death of God; meditations on a universal responsibility for sin; reflections on the corruption of organised religion; and suggestions of an overarching harmony. The author subjects belief systems, including his own, to almost mocking interrogation. There is no refuge in this trial of modern man, personified by Dimitri, the eldest of the Karamazov brothers.

Dostoyevsky identifies a broad moral continuum in a single person between a capacity for the highest and basest deeds and actions, reflecting Carl Jung’s idea that there is a murderer in us all. If any character represents the views of Dostoyevsky himself it is perhaps the chief prosecutor Ippolit Krillovitch, who, uncannily, like the author, dies within a few months of the novel’s central events. These are the apparent patricide, and aftermath, of the debauched sensualist Fyodor Karamazov who competes with his son Dimitri for the affections of his paramour Grushenka. His sons exhibit facets of an enduring character, representing to Freud the id, ego and superego. In the ensuing trial Krillovitch draws attention to the inadequacies of each brother. So searing are his insights that Dimitri is inclined to thank his own prosecutor for telling: ‘me a lot about myself that I didn’t know’.

Krillovitch describes those of the Karmazov ilk as having: ‘natures with such a broad sweep… capable of encompassing all manner of opposites, of contemplating both extremes at one and the same time – that which is above us, the extremity of the loftiest ideals, and that which is below us, the extremity of the most iniquitous degradation.’ He says ‘others have their Hamlets; so far, we Russians have only our Karamazovs’, but that archetype extends beyond Russia, into the multiplicity of our selves.

First there is Alyosha, the youngest, who at the start of the tale we find considering a monastic life, but following the advice of his mentor, the mystic Elder Zosima, he returns to the disorder of the world. The narrator writes of Alyosha: ‘it seems that he lived his whole life with an absolute faith in people, though no one ever thought of him as simple or naïve. There was something in him that said, and made you believe, (and this was so throughout his life), that he did not wish to sit in judgment over others and would never take it upon himself to censure anyone.’ To Freud he represented the superego, the ethical part of a personality, setting the moral boundaries in which the ego operates.

Alyosha is possessed of magnetism, empathy and intuition. Other characters find a reflection of their failings in his benign nature, including the alluring Grushenka who exerts a fatal attraction over both Dimitri and his father. She sets out to seduce the youngest brother, but is instead so disarmed by his purity that she begins a redemptive journey of her own. She performs a Jocasta role in the archetypal oedipal tale: Dimitri, the son, mistakenly perceiving he is frustrated by his own father, Fyodor, in realising a sexual fantasy, plots to kill him.

The nature of Dimitri’s frenzied attempts to win over Grushenka also reflect the damage that has been inflicted on him by the early loss of his mother who abandons him, and the household, after tiring of Fyodor’s affairs. That his father should be a competitor compounds his anger and brings him to the brink of patricidal intent. He also maintains that he has been cheated of his inheritance, with which he hopes to restore his honour having stolen money from his spurned fiancé Katerina Ivanova to satisfy his sensual appetites. These resentments, set against the influence on him of Friedrich Schiller espousal of universal love, generate one of the most conflicted characters in modern literature.

Alyosha occupies the place of deepest compassion on the Karamazov scale. The prosecutor Krillovitch, ever-vigilant to human failings, warns of the pitfall of taking refuge in mysticism and failing to honour the rational, egotistical and male side of his nature:

he has come, it seems to me, to represent that timid despair with which so many people in our impoverished society, frightened of its cynicism and corruption and mistakenly attributing all evil to the European enlightenment, rush towards “the soil of their birth”, into the maternal embrace, as it were, of their native land, like children frightened of ghosts, their only desire being to slumber peacefully in the shrivelled bosom of their exhausted mother, or even perhaps to spend their whole life sleeping there, merely to escape the sight of the fearsome visions.

At least, Alyosha, encouraged by his mentor Zosima rejects the sanctuary of the monastery, as this is unnecessary for one of his benevolent nature. Contrary to displaying “timid despair” Alyosha actually exhibits bravery by confronting the imperfections of the external world. This is especially evident in his compassion for the child Ilyusha after he bites him on the hand.

Krillovitch also warns Alyosha against a ‘Dreary mysticism’, here represented by the outlook of another monk, the severe and ascetic Father Ferapont, who foments superstition, and stands in judgement over others.

Observing the rise of fundamentalism in the United States, the Middle East and elsewhere, we see the heirs of Ferapont turn religion into a reactionary force. Unfortunately this is how it most commonly appears in the world, explaining why so many of us wash our hands of it altogether. This widespread detachment may, however, have profoundly damaging psychological consequences: Carl Jung found he seldom succeeded in helping patients overcome mental disorders unless they recovered a capacity for religious experience.

Like many of his previous anti-heroes, including Stavrogin and Roskalnikov, the second-eldest brother Ivan is a quintessentially thrusting modern man representing Freud’s idea of the ego. This typology also bears resemblance to Turgenev’s character Bazarov from Fathers and Sons who suffers a similar hubristic demise. Like Nietzsche, Ivan descends into madness after proclaiming the death of God. He is not however a simplistic personification of a degraded European civilisation. Ivan’s analysis of human nature remains acutely troubling: ‘We often talk of man’s “bestial” cruelty, but this is terribly unjust and insulting to beasts: a wild animal can never be as cruel as man, as artistic, as refined in his cruelty.’

Surveying all too common and inexplicable atrocities, especially carried out against children, he rejects the idea of divine harmony: ‘It’s not worth one little tear from one single little tortured child, beating its breast with its little fists in its foul-smelling lock-up, and praying with its unexpiated tears to its “Dear Father God”. He tells Alyosha: ‘It’s not God that I don’t accept – understand that – it’s His creation’. Ivan cannot comprehend how any God could permit such depravity, pointing to atrocities committed by the Turks in Bulgaria, and also to stories of torture perpetrated against children in ‘Christian’ Russia. In response to the tirade Alyosha responds that: ‘He can forgive everyone for everything, because He Himself shed His innocent blood for everyone and everything.’ For Alyosha this act of love is oceanic in its reach and can steer us from the moral void, into which Ivan eventually descends. If we believe Alyosha, no crime is so great that redemption is not possible.

As a brief aside it is useful to explore Jung’s conception of evil in the world which Ivan and Alyosha’s debate considers. Jung’s approach diverges from the Catholic doctrine of Privatio Boni which identifies evil simply with the absence of good, and not an independent and eternal phenomenon. In contrast, ‘Evil’ Jung says ‘does not decrease by being hushed up as a non-reality or as mere negligence of man. It was there before him, when he could not possibly have had a hand in it.’ Jung argued that: ‘The future of mankind very much depends upon the recognition of the shadow’. Dostoyevsky also confronts evil in an attempt to control it.

Later Ivan is visited by a supernatural visitor, a devil, who claims to have ‘turned my hand to vaudeville and that sort of thing’; a creative invitation taken up decades later by Mikhail Bulgakov in his novel The Master and Margarita. This devil imagines an earth recycled a billion times: ‘endlessly perhaps, and always the exact same, down to the last detail.’ Intriguingly, this cosmology corresponds with ideas current in physics. Neil Turok writes: ‘If the universe can pass through a singularity once then it can do so again and again. We have developed the picture into a cyclic universe scenario, consisting of an infinite sequence of big bangs each followed by expansion and collapse’.
A form of what Nietszche referred to as ‘eternal recurrence’ is similar to Carl Jung’s description of the hell of the mad, which is not only that time has: ‘ceased to exist for them but some memory of what it and its seasons once meant to them remains to remind them of the fact that it is no longer there’. The devil reminds Ivan of time’s lapse.

Dazzled by his intellectual brilliance, Ivan’s spiral into madness is a form of hubris representing a failure to nurture the divine in his nature. Ivan’s devil taunts him: ‘Although I’m a hallucination, nevertheless, as in a nightmare, I say things which are original, things that have never occurred to you before, which means I am not merely repeating your thoughts and yet at the same time I’m simply your nightmare and nothing else.’ His elevated rationality is assailed by the unknowable mysteries of the unconscious that intrude on his calculations.
At the start of the novel Ivan, who is described as a poet, treats us to one of the great characters of modern fiction: the Grand Inquisitor that Laurens van der Post calls ‘the visionary anticipation of Stalin and his kind’. The tale is set in post-Reformation Spain where the eponymous, aged despot is visited by a resurrected Christ. This fearsome creation, however, dismisses the putative saviour admitting that the Catholic Church has embraced the devil: ‘we have accepted from him what You had rejected with indignation, that last gift that he offered You, showing You all the kingdoms of the earth: we accepted Rome and the sword of Caesar from him, and we proclaimed ourselves the only kings on earth, the only true kings’. The Grand Inquisitor is convinced that he is serving the interest of the common people who will despair if freedom of conscience is permitted. Instead he promises to continue serving him: ‘we shall withhold the secret and, to keep them happy, we shall opiate them with promises of eternal reward in heaven.’ Marx himself could not have performed a more thorough hatchet job on the Catholic Church, though, ironically, Grand Inquisitors prospered in Communist Russia.

Through Ivan, Dostoyevsky is voicing his deep animosity to Catholicism, the Jesuit order in particular, and the conflation of religious with temporal power generally; a charge of devilry in this enterprise previously levelled by Prince Myshkin in The Idiot. Ivan, however, throws the baby out with the bathwater, failing to grasp the benefits of the compassion his brother Alyosha discovers through his mentor Zosima. This philosophy does not require miracles to bind awestruck followers. Symbolically, after his death Zosima’s body is left unburied for some days and begins to give off an ‘odour of putrefaction’, rather than the miraculous fragrance that some of his superficial followers seek as confirmation of his holiness. This reflects a passage from the Gospel of St Mathew when during his trial in the desert Jesus responds to the demand of the devil that he should perform a miracle by saying: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test’. The importance of Zosima lies in ideas of compassion that he embodies, in opposition to the diabolic scheming of the Grand Inquisitor.
The extended writings of the Elder Zosima that appear in the book are a moral touchstone for the characters: deviation from his precepts resulting in torments such as Ivan’s. This section was inspired by Saint Tikhon of Zadonsk, and at its core is the idea that we share a collective guilt for the sins of one another and should refrain from judgmental responses. This is a concept developed in another novel of Dostoyevsky’s, The Devils, where the fictional elder Tikhon (confusing he bears the same name as the historical figure) responds to the confession of Stavrogin to a heinous crime against a child by bursting into tears and asserting his own culpability. In The Brothers Karamazov the approach is laid out in full. The essence is that we have a common responsibility for the world we live in.

Some critics have argued that Tikhon’s philosophy did not coincide with Dostoyevsky’s admittedly complex views, but the presence of this teaching in The Devils and full elucidation in The Brothers Karamazov suggests the author subscribed to this code. Dostoyevsky went to the length of transcribing by hand the mystic’s autobiography when he encountered it in a monastery, and presents almost a facsimile in the novel. It seems inconceivable that he would give it such faithful treatment if he did not consider this a profound insight. Dante Alighieri in his Divine Comedy displayed a similar moral candour, which also allowed for sympathetic treatment of ‘sinful’ characters such as Odysseus that he meets in hell. It is perhaps the tragedy of Post-Modernism that most contemporary writers have abandoned a firm moral foundation. In its place we have the narcissism of autobiography and the cult of authenticity. As Laurens van der Post put it: ‘characters no longer bubble up, fountain like, in the art of fiction but have been replaced by men and women who have been “researched” as novelists proudly assert, and so are not individual conceptions any more but statistical abstracts of humanity that live only as a form of dead accountancy.’

In Discourses and teachings of Starets Zosima it is proclaimed:
There is but one salvation available to you. Take yourself in hand, and be answerable for all the sins of all men. My friend this is actually true: you need only make yourself sincerely answerable for everything and everyone, and you will see immediately that it really is so, and that it is you who are actually guilty of the sins committed by each and every man. Whereas, if you blame one another for your own sloth and weakness, you will end up becoming imbued with satanic pride and will turn against God.’

This is a radical Christianity that overthrows an assumption of moral authority, and where sin is approached as collective error. Instead of passing judgement we embrace the failings of each other as our own. It corresponds with the Indian philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti’s more recent assertion that ‘nobody is responsible except you, because you are the world and the world is you’, although evil should not simply be dismissed as a projection but confronted as an active force in ourselves and the world.

Zosima’s doctrine of compassion is relevant nonetheless to the despair felt by many at the failings of political and religious leaders. We might usefully explore the origin of the bile directed at US President Donald Trump whose lies and raging sexuality deserves comparison with Fyodor Karamazov. Before inveighing against his excesses, it is useful to acknowledge that he is an extension of the world that we are all responsible for. For example, we castigate his denial of the reality of climate change but that denial is implicit in how many of us lead our lives. Scapegoating Trump and his acolytes is hypocritical unless we alter our own behaviour. Moreover, it was our collective fascination with his abusive rhetoric that gave him the exposure necessary for a political revolution. Besides, can any of us who listen to Trump say we have never had a racist, sexist or thuggish thought? Or, that we have always been entirely honest and not asserted ourselves aggressively? ‘Let he who has not sinned cast the first stone’.

Those characteristics are dormant in most of us but hatred of Trump is conditioned by a struggle to contain our shadow which amounts to the repression of these tendencies in ourselves. To admit to such infamy is challenging, but only by understanding this can we truly confront Trump. Similarly, Jung claimed that the Russia problem in the external world would never be resolved without more disaster unless we first dealt with the ‘Russia in ourselves’. Dismissing as Hillary Clinton did Trump’s supporters as a: ‘basket of deplorables’ was probably the gravest error of her campaign. That term is associated with ‘basket cases’ and ‘white trash’, suggesting that his supporters were garbage that ought to be destroyed.

Trump preyed on this but also a rampant rationality that makes expertise remote, specialised and inaccessible. Trump’s jocular policy shifts and tendency to speak the language of the uneducated classes was the shadow of a growing dissonance in the West that is the shadow of a high pitched rationality inaccessible to most ears, which creates divisions in society and engenders a Post-Truth dismissal of expertise.

That is not to say we should not confront the evil of Trump’s vindictiveness and obtuse denial. In fact we have a moral obligation to do so, but it is important to voice opposition in such a way that does not speak down to his supporters, and acknowledges that there is a serious problem with the way we communicate ideas. A challenge for any politician opposed to Trump is to summon the oceanic compassion and skilled communication required for global leadership.
Zosima’s vision of harmony extends beyond the human species:

If you love every kind of thing, then everywhere God’s mystery will reveal itself to you. Once this has been revealed to you, you will begin to understand it even more deeply with each passing day. And finally you will be able to love the whole world with an all-encompassing universal love.

We are urged to ‘Love animals’, and not set ourselves above them as is emerged in Western thought. An apparently Oriental view on the relationship between humans and other species is a striking aspect of his teachings, an idea increasingly relevant to curbing the appalling treatment of animals by human beings in the world.

It is perhaps Russia’s situation on a geopolitical fault-line between Europe and Asia that explains its extraordinary cultural achievements – especially in the nineteenth century – straddling the continents, and drawing lessons from both. A more obviously Buddhist approach was later adopted by Dostoyevsky’s contemporary Tolstoy – including embarking on a fruitful correspondence with a young Mahatma Gandhi – he opined that: ‘as long as there are slaughterhouses there will be battlefields’.

Zosima concludes his tract with an answer to the question: ‘What is hell? I argue thus: it is the suffering caused by not being able to love anymore.’ Here he avoids simplistic recourse to supernatural explanation, instead preferring a profound psychological insight into the origin of human unhappiness.

The eldest brother Dimitri represents in Freud’s schema the id of uncoordinated instinctual passions. He is also an idealist in the mould of his youngest brother Alyosha, but vulnerable to the sensual indulgences of his father. These competing forces battle for his soul with his benign nature ultimately prevailing:

I am a Karamzov … I fall into the abyss, I go head first and even take pleasure in the extent of my own degradation, even find beauty in it. And from those depths of degradation, I begin to sing a hymn. I may be damned, I may be base and despicable, but I kiss the hem of the robe that envelops my God; I may be serving the devil at that same moment, but I’m still your son, O Lord, and I love you and feel that joy without which the world could not exist.

Although in one episode he beats his father, and also later metes out terrible violence to his father’s servant Grigory, who acted in loco parentis when as a child he was abandoned and allowed to roam barefoot like a wild animal by his real father. He draws back, however, from the ultimate violence of patricide. In his own words he is saved by a guardian angel. In contrast to Ivan’s nihilism, belief in a divine harmony allows him to resist a violent passion at the critical moment.

Dimitri’s salvation arrives through a willingness to accept the consequences of a sin that we learn he did not commit. After being found guilty of the crime he says: ‘I accept my punishment, not because I killed him, but because I wanted to kill him and, perhaps, really would have killed him.’ He takes possession of an act for which he has no direct responsibility as the philosophy of Tikhon ordains we should.

There is, it seems, a fourth son that completes the Karamazov circle of virtue and vice: Pavel Fyodorovich Smerdyakov, although whether he is indeed Fyodor’s son is never confirmed. He is the child of the mentally-ill, so-called Stinking Lizavetta, who had been raped by the arch-sensualist Fyodor Karamazov. The pitiful half-wit dies in childbirth and the infant’s upbringing is left to Grigory, and his childless wife Marfa. They obligingly take care of the surly, epileptic boy who eventually goes to Moscow to study cookery, returning as Fyodor’s scheming chef, and trusted confidante. Smerdyakov offends against the natural order: torturing dogs by putting pins in scraps of food, and denigrates poetry: ‘it’s a lot of rubbish. Just think about: who in the world speaks in rhyme?’ Ultimately he murders his own likely father when the opportunity presents itself after Dimitri baulks at the prospect. Then he leaves the crime scene so it appears, beyond reasonable doubt, that Dimitry is responsible.
Smerdyakov had developed a close relationship with Ivan who is simultaneously repelled and drawn to his illegitimate brother. It is to Ivan that Smerdyakov nonchalantly confesses the murder. In a sense, he is an elemental force that arises to avenge the misdeeds of the father, but on another level he represents a corrupted youth familiar to readers of The Devils that has abandoned a moral code. Explaining the murder, he quotes Ivan’s own ideas back at him: ‘“everything is permitted” … if there is no eternal God, then there is no virtue, and, what’s more, absolutely no need for it. You really meant it. That’s what I reckoned.’ Ivan’s ideas may have been more refined, but his student Smerdyakov draws his own lessons just as the followers of Marx drew their’s. Ivan denies responsibility but his descent into madness is symptomatic of a failure to take responsibility for the deed, unlike his redeemed brother Dimitry.

Here we encounter Dostoyevsky’s prophetic capacity. If another great novelist of his era Tolstoy offered great insights into the heart of the Russia of his day, Dostoyevsky had his eyes on a turbulent future. Legions of Smerdyakovs drawn from an impoverished and downtrodden proletariat would carry out the appalling atrocities of Stalin’s rule of the Soviet Union.

The Marxism that rejected the idea of God did not develop a moral code to replace that founded on metaphysical ideas. Instead society was viewed in dialectical and oppositional terms, with human rights subservient to advancing the historical process. The Communist leader Nikolai Bukharin acknowledged in 1914: ‘there is nothing more ridiculous …than to make Marx’s theory an “ethical” theory. Marx’s theory knows no other natural law than of cause and effect, and can admit no other such law.’

All too many have been killed in the name of God throughout history, and still today, but the denial of individual human rights opens an appalling vista where “everything is permitted”. The measured humanism that Ivan displays can easily mutate into contempt for any human life that stands in the way of a mechanistic ideal. By denying an over-arching truth, beauty and justice man may be trampled into the mud. As for Smerdyakov, in the end he hangs himself, reflecting Zosima’s view that hell “is the suffering caused by not being able to love anymore.” No redemption arrives for this ill-starred character.

Readers may find Dostoyevsky relative avoidance of strong female characters unappealing. This may be seen throughout his writings, wherein they typically act as foils to male protagonists as temptresses or saints. Some of Dostoyevsky’s women, like Darya in Devils and Sonya in Crime and Punishment, set an example of compassion which the male characters learn from, but again it is proffered in a supporting role. On the other hand, Tolstoy did present strong, wilful female protagonists in Anna Karenina (both Kitty and Anna) and War and Peace (Princess Mary and Natasha). Dostoyevsky was less inclined to do so, for whatever reason.

One can read great works of philosophy and history in an attempt to understand human nature, but the power of literature such as The Karamazov Brothers is that it invents a recognisable world in which human passions play. Dostoyevsky’s idea of collective responsibility for human error is as important now in the era of Trump as ever, and his message of compassion for all life on Earth is a challenge to the dominant ideologies of the West that have permitted us to lay waste to the world. He was clearly a visionary, not without limitations, who intuited the terrible cruelties that would soon reign ascendant in his country and beyond. The work will be a source of pleasure and wisdom for angry, but hopeful, young men, and hopefully women too, for generations to come.

Confronting the great men of history

(Published in Village Magazine, June 2016)

That there was something altogether more disturbing about Hitler’s Germany than Stalin’s Russia is often assumed. Perhaps it comes from the idea of Germany, the most intellectually and industrially-advanced country of its time, being led by an individual whose core belief was the annihilation of a substantial ethno-religious minority. By comparison the aspirational ends of Stalinism are, superficially at least, universal and even Utopian.
The case of Germany suggests that intellectual progress does not dovetail with moral development. But at least the defeat of Nazism has consigned Far Right ideology in Germany and the rest of Europe to the political periphery since World War II. The Cold War ended when Mikhail Gorbachev unilaterally stopped projecting Soviet power and the populations of its empire rose up to gain independence. But the descent into anarchy of some of these territories has engendered a conviction, prevalent in Russia, that aspects of the ruthless means employed by Stalin are always required for stability and prosperity. The conduct of the West, both in its approach to Russia and a wider flouting of international law, has doused oil on the flames.
This is not to suggest that anything approximating the scale of state-sponsored terror is being unleased in Russia today but there is nonetheless evidence of an attitude to human rights that departs from values ascendant in most of the rest of Europe.
A case can be made for Stalinism being more terrifying than Hitler’s Nazism, precisely because the former emerged as victor in the apocalyptic struggle between the two monsters. It was a victory of a system that embraced industrial development and rationality, over one that advocated a primitive way of life for a chosen people fusing cultish spirituality with juvenile biology.
There were of course unforgivable excesses on the Allied side too, in particular the fire-bombing of Dresden and the unnecessary use of the Atomic bomb against Japan which was on the brink of surrender as laid out by Gar Alperowitz in his book The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb (1995). The political elites of America and Britain have not confronted their wicked pasts – America still refuses to apologise for Hiroshima and Nagasaki – and their foreign policies in recent decades are connected to an historical amnesia that foreshadowed the decision to invade Iraq in 2003 which Noam Chomsky recently described as ‘the crime of the century’. Instructively George W. Bush installed a bust of Winston Churchill inside his White House office as he embarked on his ‘crusade’ against terror, reaching into history for vindication. Churchill himself had ordered the use of poison gas against Iraqis in the 1920s.
Of course the schemes of Hitler and his Nazi party were more diabolically hair-brained than his opponents. Leading Nazis sought Lebensraum in order to restore the Germanic people to the soil in what was a rejection of urban modernity. In Hitler’s Mein Kampf George Orwell found: ‘a horrible brainless Empire in which, essentially, nothing ever happens except the training of young men for war and the endless breeding of fresh cannon-fodder.’
Hitler’s primary lieutenant and SS leader Heinrich Himmler’s notions were particularly eccentric believing that Aryans were not evolved from monkeys or apes like other races, but had come down to earth from the heavens, where they had been preserved in ice from the beginning of time. He established a meteorology division which was given the task of proving this cosmic ice theory. It would be funny if he wasn’t a mass murderer.
The Nazis came very close to winning the war. Britain could easily have been brought to heel if Churchill had not stood firm against a vacillating Tory party. Hitler’s decision not to complete his victory – after the defeat of the British Expeditionary Force in France in May 1940 – before turning his attention to the Eastern Front was a flabbergasting blunder, as was declaring war on the isolationist United States after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour in December 1941.
If Hitler had been victorious the plight of all of Europeans would have been insufferable for a time at least. In all likelihood the Holocaust would surely have been completed and many more enslaved. But perhaps before that contradictions would emerged among the Nazis especially as Hitler had allowed competing agencies including the SS, the army and the Party to develop. Blind loyalty to the Fuehrer might have dissipated as the spoils were devoured.
The triumph of a profoundly irrational ideology could have brought chaos in the absence of wartime exigencies especially if a policy of compulsory re-ruralisation was rolled out. Hitler certainly harnessed Germany’s industrial might, especially through Alfred Speer planning agency, but only when defeat loomed. With victory theories about ‘cosmic ice’ might have become ascendant and the Nazis empire could have been beset by slave revolts. The dormant humanity of the German people might have awoken. A more dynamic society and economy such as the United States’ would surely have surpassed the Nazi Empire and there was no sign that Germany was close to developing Atomic technology which required the employment of over a million men at enormous expense in the United States.
We know that Stalin and his no less unsavoury predecessor Lenin d.1924 (not to mention Trotsky who was equally ruthless) also liquidated vast numbers to advance their cause, more than the Nazis even. One estimate is that in the seventy years after 1917, the Soviet regime killed 61, 911, 000 people.
State terror was evident from the start. In August 1918 Lenin issued the following order:

1.) Hang (and I mean hang so that the people can see) not less than 100 known kulaks, rich men, bloodsuckers.
2.) Publish their names.
3.) Take all their grain away from them.
4.) Identify hostages as we described in our telegram yesterday.
Do this so that for hundreds of miles around the people can see, tremble, know and cry: they are killing and will go on killing the bloodsucking kulaks. Cable that you have received this and carried out [your instructions]. Yours, Lenin
P.S. Find tougher people.
This was not simply a reaction to the life and death struggle of the Russian Civil War, but policy. As far back as 1908 he wrote that the Paris Commune had failed because of the ‘excessive generosity’ of the proletariat who ‘should have exterminated its enemies’ instead of trying to exert moral influence on them.
Yet if we compare France and Russia only the former absorbed socialist ideas into its shared set of national values. Over the long term an ideology is accepted not by physical force (as George W. Bush should have realised in Iraq) but by persuasion. As soon as the constraints of the Communist regime in Russia were lifted the society became ultra-capitalist. In the end the ideas of the Communards endured much longer in France than the Bolshevik’s in Russia.
A revolution may not succeed but it is often how participants (or victors) conduct themselves that defines the acceptance of noble ideas. In the case of Germany after World War II the occupiers were able to draw on a long history of liberal democracy that the Nazis did not succeed in wiping out and had learnt from the mistakes of Versailles after World War I.
The Communist ideology as implemented by Lenin and Stalin was based on perfection of man by the revolutionary triumph of the proletariat. Lives, millions if necessary, could be sacrificed for the sake of final victory.
In his book The Economics of the Transition Period (1920), Nikolai Bukharin used the phrase: ‘the manufacturing of Communist man out of the human material of the capitalist age.’ In his copy Lenin underlined that phrase and wrote ‘exactly’ in the margin. There was no choice in the matter no respect for individuality, just blind adherence to the ideal with the great leader, soon to be Stalin, at the helm.
For many intelligent young Europeans of the period their Communist conviction was akin to religious devotion. Eric Hobsbawm in his Autobiography wrote: ‘For young revolutionaries of my generation mass demonstrations were the equivalent of papal masses for devout Catholics.’ This devotion allowed Stalin to build his power.
Individual Communists were even willingly to sacrifice their own lives for the cause, not least Bukharin who agreed to the necessity of his own death in a show trial, a psychological drama brilliantly conveyed in Arthur Koestler’s novel Darkness at Noon.
It was the conviction of Communists, no less than of Nazis, that allowed many of them to carry out some of the worst crimes of the twentieth century. As the dissident writer Aleksander Solzhenitsyn puts it: ‘Shakespeare’s villains stopped short at ten or so cadavers. Because they had no ideology.’
There also emerged a cult of the leader that is captured vividly by Solzhenitsyn once again. He describes how at a Party conference in one Moscow province a tribute to Stalin was called for. The audience stood up and began to applaud but nobody wanted to be seen as the first to stop. After eleven minutes the director of a paper factory had had enough and sat down allowing the remainder of the audience to desist. Not long afterwards he was arrested and given a ten year prison sentence.
Stalin hardened a society in a way vividly described by Nadezha Mandelstam who was herself in perpetual fear of arrest: ‘For our generation, kindness was an old-fashioned quality, and its exponents were as extinct as the mammoth. Everything we have seen in our time – the dispossession of the kulaks, class warfare, the constant ‘unmasking’ of people the search for an ulterior motive behind every action – all this has taught you to be everything you like except kind.’ Empathy became a failing as a base and sullen survival instinct took hold.
This survival instinct is also evident in Mikhail Bulgakov’s dark satire on Stalinism The Master and Margarita. The poet Ivan Nikolayevich and his friend Berlioz encounter the devil Woland in a Moscow park where the latter predicts that Berlioz will lose his head in a matter of minutes. True to his word Berlioz is decapitated after slipping under a tram. The encounter drives Ivan mad as he attempts to track down and bring Woland to justice. Eventually he winds up in a mental institution.
But at last he comes to terms with Berlioz’s loss: ‘I wonder why I go so excited about Berlioz falling under a tram? The poet reasoned, ‘After all he’s dead and we all die some time. It’s not as if I were a relation or a really close friend either, when you think about it I didn’t even know the man very well.’ Only by hardening himself to Berlioz’s plight can Ivan avoid insanity, the same could probably be said for many Russians who under Stalin had become as tough as Lenin had wished.
The revolutionary murderousness of the early Communist period gave way to slow-drip cruelty during the post-War years especially after the death of Stalin in 1953 and Nikita Khrushchev’s denouncement some years later. But victory in the Second World ensured that Stalinism spread beyond the Soviet Union into Eastern and Central Europe, and the recent indifference of much of the population there to the plight of refugees might be attributed in part to the absence of kindness that Mandelstam observed.
Under Vladimir Putin in Russia today the reputation of Stalin is enjoying a measured rehabilitation. The grandson of Stalin’s cook and former KGB operative opines that ruthless methods were crucial to Soviet victory and argues that Stalin never attempted to kill entire ethnic groups. The latter claim is quite groundless not least considering the Holodmor or terror-famine that may have killed as many as the Holocaust was carried out to suppress Ukrainian nationalism.
The narrative is not monolithic. Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev has been outspoken in his criticism of Stalin, but Putin’s line has become official policy reflected in school history textbooks where scant attention is devoted to the one and a half million Chechens forcibly removed to Central Asia by Stalin in 1941. In 2007 the Putin government directed an initiative to restructure the national curriculum, teaching schoolchildren that Stalin’s actions were ‘entirely rational’.
In 2009 a Moscow subway station was refurbished with large inscriptions reading ‘Stalin reared us on loyalty to the people. He inspired us to labour and heroism’, a direction quotation from the pre-1977 Soviet anthem. Meanwhile this year a statue was unveiled in Yalta, formerly in Ukrainian Crimea, of Stalin alongside Roosevelt and Churchill.
Putin has said that ‘we can criticize the commanders and Stalin all we like, but can we say with certainty that a different approach would have enabled us to win the war?’ The sacrifices of present-day Russia are situated within a deeper historical narrative. Democracy, a free press and human rights are subservient to the reassertion of order and Russia’s territorial claims and ‘sphere of influence’.
According to Reporters Without Borders between 2012 and 2014 Russia was placed 148th on a list which ranks countries’ performances in the areas of media pluralism and independence, respect for journalists’ safety and freedom, and media-related legislation, among other criteria. Putin is now de facto dictator of Russia and a free press will not be allowed to interfere with that. Defenders of Putin point to the chaos in Russia under Yeltsin but how will Russia ever become a democratic and tolerant society if this Hobbesian narrative is endlessly trotted out?
Thankfully Putin’s Russia is not resurrecting a murderous ideology, and it is also important to point out that Putin’s reassertion of Russia’s Great Power status has been to some extent a reaction to the eastward expansion of NATO. But failure to respect the sovereignty of Ukraine’s borders, directly in Crimea and indirectly in Donbass, is inexcusable as has been the steadfast support for Bashar Al-Assad in Syria.
We confront an international order where international law is increasingly an instrument of foreign policy rather than a set of collective human values. The US President, a constitutional lawyer, sends drones on weekly missions to commit extra-judicial murder. Guantanamo Bay remains an affront to US values.
All of the victors of the Second World War exhibit a self-righteousness that permits excesses. The invasion of Iraq was the twenty-first equivalent of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But in Russia the stain of Stalinism runs deeper as people endured far more than simply the Propaganda model identified by Chomsky as ‘manufacturing consent’, but had their very humanity ‘manufactured’ as Lenin underlined and Stalin carried out.
All countries must expose the limitations of their ‘great men’, even Gandhi needs to be subjected to greater scrutiny in India. Where a country has had a particularly unfortunate experience with one, as Russia certainly has, this process is all the more necessary and salutary. One need only look at the achievements of Germany in this regard which has emerged as an unsteady ‘conscience of Europe’.
Unfortunately, it would appear that Putin’s regime in Russia is doing little to encourage this process, in fact the opposite appears to be occurring with abuses of human rights domestically and reckless foreign adventures justified by Stalinist pragmatism.
The development of atomic weapons during the Second World War made warfare between Great Powers unthinkable but not impossible. That should be remembered. Since Mutually Assured Destruction became possible it became vital to establish shared values for humanity that will foster kindness among people and nations. Instead of esteeming toughness like Lenin we should prize sensitivity. The world needs more political leaders like Gorbachev whose show of weakness revealed an optimistic belief in human nature.

http://villagemagazine.ie/index.php/2016/06/stalinout/

Anti-Refugee Sentiment in Czechia

Anti-Refugee Sentiment in Czechia

(Published in Village Magazine, April, 2016)

Aflons Mucha’s Slav Epic enjoys pride of place in the Czech National Gallery in Prague. It is a cycle of twenty large and portentous paintings completed between 1910 and 1928 recalling the history and myths of an heterogeneous people inhabiting territory from the Asian steppe to the shores of the Mediterranean.

The artist imposes his peculiar predilections and aspirations in broad strokes to produce imagery simultaneously troubling and enthralling: a pacific nature is emphasised but a belligerent Germanic ‘other’ is also apparent.

The first painting has a contemporary resonance. Mucha claimed his intention was to depict the Origin, the Adam and Eve of the Slavs. The English guide says: ‘He portrayed them crouched down like defenceless refugees, wearing expressions of fear’. On the hill behind we see a hostile horde that have plundered and set fire to their village. Implicit is recognition that all peoples have at one time sought refuge from invasion.

But that understanding is sorely lacking in the Czech Republic today along with other countries across Central and Eastern Europe. Not since the US invasion of Iraq have attitudes differed so greatly between what Donal Rumsfeld famously referred to in 2003 as ‘Old’ and ‘New’ Europe.

Many in Western Europe are exasperated by the attitudes of their Central and Eastern European counterparts, regarding it as hypocrisy considering the number of Central and Eastern Europeans who have migrated west for work and previously as political refugees. Central and Eastern Europeans appear to be from Mars and Western Europeans from Venus; but there is hardly a genetic basis for the intra-continental differences.

Perhaps most surprising to Westerners are attitudes in the Czech Republic a state geographically, and to an extent culturally, Western European: Prague’s architectural splendours are further to the west than Vienna and here revolutions have been pacific Velvet affairs. The state of Czechoslovakia was the only democracy in continental Europe apart from France in 1939. But successive opinion polls have shown that Czechs to be overwhelmingly opposed to receiving refugees despite shocking scenes that have generated strong feelings of empathy elsewhere.

How to explain this apparent imperviousness to the suffering of others? Four factors appear to be at work: the first is the historical and current relationship with minorities; the second is the enduring economic fallout from the Communist era; the next factor is the malign influence of the current Czech President Milos Zeman; finally after a twentieth century during which the Czech people have been unwillingly controlled by three empires – the Hapsburg, Nazi and Soviet – there is a strong sense that the Czech people should be allowed to control their own affairs.

The Czech Republic has produced statesmen of international renown. Former playwright President Vaclav Havel was one of the heroes of the struggle against Communist dictatorship; although his equation of the extension of US power with the expansion of liberty, culminating in support for the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, was naïve at best. Nonetheless his emphasis on individual autonomy and artistic expression was an antidote to the conformity of the dark Communist years.

Looking further into Czech history we find the great Tomas Masaryk the first president of Czechoslovakia whose liberal sentiments contrast with the hateful rhetoric that pervaded the leaderships in countries surrounding an embattled state that was effectively handed over to the Nazis by the British and French in 1938.

In a speech in 1928 marking the tenth anniversary of the foundation of the state he said: ‘I repeat and emphasize what I have said before, namely, that everything in the nature of Chauvinism must be excluded from our political life’. Arguing for a pluralist civic nationalism he said that: ‘the necessary State unity does not mean uniformity’.

Although that state did not perfectly integrate its broad composite of minorities his pacific leadership (he said that Czechoslovakia should only have an army as long as other countries did) engendered tolerance, especially religious. One individual who grew up in inter-war Prague recalls: ‘One of the pleasant aspect of living in Czechoslovakia at the time was that you never really knew what religion the other person had, child or adult, and more importantly didn’t care.’

Masaryk also said that: ‘politics is leadership and that democracy therefore has its constant and urgent problem of leadership’. The current President Milos Zamen is offering leadership of a different character today in Czech Republic.
Zamen is part of a rising phenomenon of politicians speaking in foul-mouthed terms about marginalised groups which has reached its apotheosis with Donal Trump is apparent in the Czech President. He regularly departs from political correctness and appeals to fear and xenophobia.

Thus in the wake of the New Year’s Cologne sex attacks he claimed that ‘it’s practically impossible to integrate Muslims into Western Europe.’ This was one in a line of statements expressing intolerance towards Islam and support for Israel.

He has also previously stoked anti-German feeling, referring to his opponent in the 2013 Presidential election Karol Schwarzenberg as a Sudetan German and claiming that Sudetan Germans had been done a favour by their forced transfer to Germany after World War II during which many thousands died.

The heavy-drinking President has also pursued friendly relations with Vladimir Putin and is roundly disliked in liberal, relatively cosmopolitan Prague. But his divisive views, so out of step with the legacy of Masaryk, have proved a successful political strategy and today he is the most trusted politician in the country with a 56% approval rating according to a recent survey.

A major reasons for this is the continuing discontent of the majority of the population with their economic status. Thus, in a survey conducted by the CVVM agency in October 2014, 55 percent of Czechs characterized the economic system that existed in Czechoslovakia before 1989 as ‘better’ or ‘on the whole better’ than the current one.

This nostalgia for the Communist era may come as a surprise but it reflects the two-tier economy that has grown up. Prague now contains a substantial population that have grown wealthy in particular off the back of a booming property sector that has attracted significant foreign investment.

There is also a high level of corruption that stalls development. This problem dates back to the Communist period where it was said that you weren’t looking after your family unless you stole. The Czech Republic’s proximity to wealthy European states and liberal laws have also proved an enticing focus for organised crime from around Eastern Europe, including Russia.

Moreover, in an era when wealth is flaunted as never before through social media, consumer desiderata from flash cars to the latest technologies and foreign holidays float before a population whose static income usually inhibits them from sharing the spoils. Excessive alcohol consumption is perhaps one indicator of a simmering resentment. The Czechs are among the world’s biggest drinkers and a lot of is consumed in a manner distinctly unfestive.

But perhaps the single biggest cause of unsympathetic attitudes towards refugees comes from a troubled relationship with minority groups. As indicated until the Second World the state of Czechoslovakia was a diverse society with Czechs the largest minority among Slovaks, Germans, Jews, Hungarians, Ukrainians and Romany. It was external factors that brought this arranged but reasonably content marriage to an end although friction, especially with the previously ascendant Germans, was apparent throughout.

In the wake of the Holocaust and the expulsions of the German minority Czechoslovakia emerged a more homogenous society a process completed by the Velvet Revolution which saw it separate amicably with Slovakia in 1993. In Prague today one sees few people of colour although there is a significant Vietnamese minority that compliantly run small shops across the city. But there remains one significant and vilified minority: the Romani.

The Romani (referred to inaccurately as Gypsies – their origin is not Egypt – and the term is regarded as a racial slur) are the descendants of migrants from northern India that came to Europe in the middle ages. Many were enslaved until the nineteenth century. The Nazis sought to eradicate them killing up to a half million, an event known as the Porajmos. Romanticised as wandering musicians, their peripatetic mode of existence is anathema to the settled industrial societies that emerged in Europe in the nineteenth century.

Under Communism they were forced into settled lives that stored resentment and bred criminality. Attitudes have hardened in Czech Republic and other nearby states despite the miscegenation that is apparent in the saturnine looks of many self-identifying ethnic Czechs. Yet many apparently open-minded people reveal what can only be described as racism towards this minority that number up to a quarter of a million in a country of ten million. The anti-social conduct of some Romani in a generally law-abiding society is a particular affront, and there is a widespread sense they receive favourable treatment from state agencies.

The appearance of a wave of dark-featured people at Europe’s gates is easily associated with the resident minority. This is compounded by the awful excesses of Political Islam that have been broadcast around the world and the challenge of integration in some European countries. There are also perhaps lingering memories of the Ottoman bogeyman who laid siege to nearby Vienna as late as 1683.

In the nineteenth canvas of his Epic Alfons Mucha reaches The Abolition of Serfdom in Russia. In it we see a hesitant and confused gathering in the snow before the Kremlin. According to the guide this reflected Mucha’s shock at the backwardness and ignorance of many of the people he encountered in a study trip in 1913.

The historical trajectory of the Czech people has been quite different from that of their Russian counterparts and ultimately it is difficult to reconcile Mucha’s pan-Slavonic vision with the historical diversity of that broad linguistic group. But the motif has a contemporary parallel as, just as freed Russian serfs struggled to reconcile themselves to the capitalist society of the twentieth century, similarly citizens of Eastern European countries including the Czech Republic, have struggled to recover from first Nazi brutality and then Communist totalitarianism.

Coming after centuries of Hapsburg rule there is a firm belief that the Czech people should control their own destiny reflected in the decision to opt out of the Euro. To understand these attitudes the views of the renowned literary critique Arné Novak (1880-1939) might prove insightful. He wrote that ‘The Czech national temperament continually fluctuates between two poles: on the one hand, a self-righteous over-estimation of everything native, with a stubborn clinging to ancient prejudices; on the other hand, impatient curiosity about the latest foreign literary fashions, and a readiness for slavish imitation.’

If we are to accept this caustic assessment and apply it to Czech politics the “stubborn resistance” might be observed in a resistance to being dictated to on the issue of refugees by the European core, especially Germany. Meanwhile, a hint of ‘slavish imitation’ might be discerned in uncritical acceptance of American foreign policy.

Apart from contending with the the demands of economies presupposing inequality, the entrepreneurial spirit has been difficult to ignite in an older generation worn down by repetition and a lack of meritocracy. Further, the pernicious presence of secret police informants across society under Communism has left a legacy of suspicion and a lack of openness to strangers. Unfortunately these resentments now manifest themselves in antipathy towards those who have sought refuge in Europe, and the irresponsible statements of the Czech President have inflamed the chauvinism leading to “stubborn resistance” that his great predecessor Masaryk decried.

Ukraine’s Fragile Identity

(Published in Village Magazine, December 2015)

Ukrainians like to say their country is the largest fully European. That scale is enhanced by a transport infrastructure relying on unwieldy, Soviet-era rail and pot-holed roads beyond a few stretches of motorway as I discovered to my discomfort on a recent trip into eastern Ukraine. Moreover, with average salaries less than €200 per month travel is a rare luxury for most in this profoundly unequal society. In a country of great diversity and relative youth, national identity is fragile.

The depredations of the Soviet era when Ukraine was theoretically an autonomous republic but really an integral part of a vast imperium is apparent in the unforgiving architecture of the cities. In the outskirts of Kiev, as elsewhere, tower blocks loom at heights unknown in Western Europe, and inside the capital concrete edifices sully the splendour of a pre-Revolutionary heritage that includes the UNESCO medieval site of Santa Sophia Cathedral.

The deadening weight of the communist aesthetic recalls the advice of Marxist theorist George Lukács: ‘What is crucial is that reality as it seems to be should be thought of as something man cannot change and its unchangability should have the force of a moral imperative.’ In the long shadow of imposing structures and heroic monuments people would accept the inevitability of the triumph of Communism. Alas, since independence in 1991 the trend has been to replace this with the brash sheen of American capitalism as if honouring the victor in the Cold War and its consumerism.

Obviously architecture was the least of the excesses of Communism in Ukraine. The worst excesses of Stalin’s de-kulakization policy led to their great famine known as Holodomor (1929-1932) which killed anywhere between two and seven million Ukrainians and annihilated the social fabric of village life: either you took a job in a collective or went to a city elsewhere in the Soviet Union. Simultaneously, entire nations, including the Tartars who once occupied Crimea, were forcibly relocated to different parts of the empire. This destruction was compounded by the German invasion in World War II, although Ukrainians had an ambiguous, and in some cases collaborative, relationship with the Nazis during over two years of occupation.

Today in Ukraine most cities in the south and east are Russian-speaking. Parentage is often, unsurprisingly, mixed: a group of young professionals I met to in the city of Dniperpetrovsk revealed ancestry Ukrainian, Russian and even Tartar. All spoke Russian as their first language but considered themselves Ukrainian. Even for the most part religion did not separate Ukrainians from Russians as both followed the Greek Orthodox rite. It begged the question: what does it mean to be Ukrainian beyond living within the borders of that state?

A civic nationalism divorced from the kind of destructive ethnic identification that bedevilled the break-up of Yugoslavia would be least divisive. But the current taste for symbols of Ukrainian identity such as the surge in popularity for traditional dress, might indicate otherwise. Pride in cultural inheritance can easily be skewed towards atavistic violence.

I discovered an increasing despondency among my new-found friends at the capacity of Ukraine’s politicians to bring meaningful improvement to the country. Each revolution, including the latest Euromaidan against the staggering corruption of Victor Yanukovych has brought disappointment. The oligarchs remain dominant including billionaire President Petro Poroshenko, the richest man in the country.

According to a recent report from the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group a desultory one in five cases against high-ranking officials ends with the person being convicted and imprisoned. The aspirations of the young and dynamic quivering at the possibility of joining the European mainstream remain frustrated. Inevitably in some quarters there is nostalgia for a more authoritarian era represented today by Vladimir Putin’s Russia. According to my friends in Dniperpetrovsk the divisions in Ukraine are often generational.

Nearby Donetsk is still controlled by Russian-led insurgents. An unsteady ceasefire has held there since September. There have even been attempts to rehabilitate Stalin – the city was previously called Stalino – a process already occurring in Russia. Nostalgia for the Soviet Empire is being incubated.

Russian aggression feeds extreme Ukrainian nationalism. Military build-ups have pernicious effect wherever they are found. In Kiev an array of tanks are parked outside the foreign ministry and the distinctive grey camouflage of the Ukrainian army now seems a fashion accessory, especially for supporters of the Far Right Svoboda (Truth) party.

An encounter I had with one such character in a Kiev hostel was revealing. When I said I was Irish he exclaimed his admiration for the IRA, and was a little put out to hear that I was no supporter of what he perceived to be another underdog fighting an imperial foe. The fighters against the Russian-led rebels in Donetsk were his heroes.

Ukraine offers huge rewards for Russia. It is an agricultural power house, once the bread basket of the Soviet Union, and today is the world’s fifth largest corn producer and largest producer of sunflower oil. Further, although corruption even extends to the awarding of degrees, its educated population especially in technical disciplines are an important asset.

All nations have their myths that bind disparate groups together inside one state. The complication for Ukraine is that its history is deeply entwined with that of Russia’s. Even the name ‘Rus’ originates in the medieval kingdom with its capital Kiev established by Viking colonists that was gradually Slavicised. Ukrainian identity was forged through contact with neighbouring empires: first the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth that once stretched from the Baltic to the Black Sea, and after the partitions of Poland beginning in the eighteenth century, under the Austro-Hungarian Hapsburg Empire which served as a hothouse for numerous nationalist identities, including Zionism and Nazism.

As their language crystallized in a form and with a script different to that of Russian, and poets especially Taras Shevchenko illuminated a national character, nineteenth century nationalists turned to the Cossacks as a distinguishing source of identity. Translated as ‘free man’, Cossacks were bands of escaped serfs that resisted the Catholicism of their Polish landlords and established military settlements along the Dniper and elsewhere in the late middle ages. Their indomitable spirit strikes a chord with modern Ukrainians as can be seen in recreations of their settlements in Dniperpetrovsk’s impressive historical museum. The tragedy for the Cossacks was that after throwing off the shackles of the Polish nobility they succumbed to the Russian Empire which has an obvious contemporary resonance.

Passing through the vast interior, as giant corn fields stretch beyond the horizon, one sees the great possibilities for this country. Meeting the wide-eyed interest of people in world affairs, their knowledge generally beyond that of their Western European counterparts, is a source of optimism; encountering small kindnesses from those with few possessions is touching. But the current system is failing people and the longer that endures the further the already pronounced wealth inequalities will grow, and with that the entrenchment of petty tyrannies.

Membership of the European Union is no panacea for Ukraine. Ensuing emigration could lead to a brain drain of crippling proportions, and a free market could be problematic in some sectors. But equally Europe cannot allow a new Iron Curtain to develop. In the end one senses that Ukraine needs to develop an accommodation with its Russian neighbour with whose fate it is bound.

Recovery from the multiple traumas of the Soviet Union will take time, with luck the country is afforded it. Young Ukrainians need reassurance that their country can be reformed. Countering Lukács: reality as it seems to be should be thought of as something man can change.

Europe’s angry Ukrainian frontier

(Published in Village Magazine, September, 2015)

Crossing from Slovakia into Trans-Carpathian Ukraine a distinct culture comes into view. At the interchange of Çop trains from the West halt on account of different rail gauges used on the other side. Stalin ordered this to prevent ease of entry for invading armies, or escape. Crossing the frontier into the former Soviet Union might instil a little trepidation even into a seasoned traveller.

An illuminating mural in the cavernous train station depicts heroic scenes of triumphant Socialism. Trains that retain wooden benches recall another age. I knew I had left a rapidly converging Europe when the conductor smilingly declined payment after I presented too large a denomination.

I was among three other visitors to Ukraine arriving by train from Slovakia, although a border guard told me frequent car trips are made to avail of cheap petrol. The frustration of waiting on a windowless, stationary carriage – akin to a sardine tin – during a heatwave was offset by the friendliness of custom officials who simply checked for contraband medicines. No visa is required for EU visitors but the continued low level warfare in the far away east is deterring visitors despite a favourable Euro to Hryvnia exchange rate.

Borders are often a legacy of ancient battles or coincide with impassable mountain ranges or rivers that deterred conquest and absorption. A change in topography gives rise to socio-economic boundaries; shifts from upland, semi-nomadic pastoralism to settled arable land bringing larger settlements: different political regimes and ethnic compositions usually arise.

But twentieth century Europe brought more artificial borders imposed by distant remote peace treaties or later omnipotent Superpowers, and saw the decline of multi-ethnic empires. Thus Hungary was reduced from one part of a dual empire (the Austro-Hungarian) to a disgruntled rump that ruefully surveys its over two million ethnic brethren in neighbouring countries. The hated Treaty of Trianon after World War I was affirmed by that country’s alignment with Nazi Germany during World War II. Revanchist Hungary remains a potential source of instability.

There is no obvious difference in terrain between Trans-Carpathian Ukraine and eastern Slovakia, and the region contains a sizeable Hungarian minority. Yet as one travels into the surrounding countryside a different agriculture becomes apparent from the ubiquitous cash crop of maize on the Slovak side to traditional hay stacks in Ukraine gathered as of old with scythe and pitch fork. Since the twentieth century political frontiers have acted like natural boundaries accentuating patterns of development.

In Eastern Europe north of the Balkans, the legacy of Soviet victory in World War II remains largely intact. Apart from the amicable separation of Czech Republic from Slovakia in 1993 the frontiers are unchanged. The recent land grab by Russia of Crimea and incursion of irregular troops into Donetsk may herald a more turbulent phase in European history. Borders rarely shift without an accompanying tide of blood, even more perilous in an era of mutually assured destruction.

The most dramatic legacy of World War II was Poland’s westward shift, forcibly ceding significant territory to the Soviet Union in return for large swathes of eastern Germany. Millions of Poles were removed from their ancestral homes and re-located in the west. Among the territory lost was the historic city of Lviv, (Lvov to Poles) to Ukraine which contained an inter-war population two-thirds Polish. Lviv is now almost entirely Ukrainian although reminders of the Polish period include a statue to their national poet Adam Mickiewicz, who was actually born in Vilnius the capital of Lithuania.

Lvov was annexed by the Austrian Hapsburg Empire (and re-named Lemberg) in 1772, in the first Partition of Poland, becoming capital of Galicia which was the poorest province of the Empire. But this period left a remarkable architectural legacy that prompted UNESCO to designate the historic centre to be a part of “World Heritage”.

Today Lvov is relatively prosperous, drawing a large number of tourists from neighbouring Poland. Predictably the old city is fringed by a swathe of functionalist Soviet-era apartment blocks, but it retains an abundance of old world charm and the hum of cafés that spill onto carless streets. There are nonetheless signs of a country at war with offensive toilet roll featuring a picture of Vladimir Putin available in souvenir shops and stands erected by the Far Right Svoboda Party supporting the war effort.

I spoke to one women of student age who railed against a terrorist, separatist threat to the integrity of the state. She could have been mistaken for someone referring to the existential threat posed by ‘enemies of the people’ in Soviet times. The uncompromising language of extremism is unmistakable.

The demise of the archaic, multinational Hapsburg Empire after World War I might be seen as the death knell for so-called Mitteleuropa. Most successor states that emerged in the Versailles settlement were inspired by a nationalist vision promoting a single culture, and hostile to diversity within the confines of the state. In contrast during the imperial era cities at least were a mosaic of religious and linguistic groups.

The population of ethnically variegated Mitteleuropa was particularly unsuited to the identification of a nation with a single state that reached a violent apotheosis with the Nazi ideology of the master race. Transnational Jewry were the most obvious victims but anti-Semitism was not limited to the Nazis, continuing into the Cold War-era: as late as the 1960s thousands of Jews fled Poland in the wake of various purges.

Jews had flocked to Poland in great numbers at the end of the Middle Ages due to the tolerance shown there compared to the rest of Europe. It became known as paradisus Iudaeorum (paradise for the Jews) and contained two thirds of the continent’s Jewish population. Great centres of learning were establish in cities including Lvov and agrarian settlements known as shtetl that contained many layers of Jewish life dotted the countryside. There Yiddish, a Germanic language written in Hebrew script, found its highest expression.

The writings of Joseph Roth (1894-1939) recalls the extraordinary cultural diversity of the Austro-Hungarian Hapsburg Empire. Born a Jew in the city of Brody near Lviv in the province of Galicia, The Radetzky March is a paean to the fallibility of that Empire; his journalistic account of Eastern European Jewry The Wandering Jews remains a valuable insight into the remarkable diversity of the Jewish populace.

Roth despised passing through the numerous frontiers that impeded his passage erected in his lifetime, and that of many others, throughout Europe. He wrote ‘a human life nowadays hangs from a passport as it once used to hang by the fabled thread. The scissors once wielded by the Fates have come into the possession of consulates, embassies and plain clothes men’. The possession of a particular passport at that time was indeed a matter of life or death. A melancholic alcoholic, Roth committed suicide in Paris in 1939 just before the Europe he knew was consumed by the fires of hatred.

The Versailles settlement also created what now seems the curious state of Czechoslovakia, stretching almost a thousand miles from east to west, as a homeland for Czechs, Slovaks and Ukrainians (or Rusyns as they were then known), but also containing large and disgruntled German and Hungarian minorities. In the aftermath of the Munich Agreement of 1938 which dismembered that country, the far eastern province of Ruthenia containing most of that Ukrainian population was annexed by Hungary, but was transferred to Ukraine itself after the arrival of the Red Army in 1945.

The First Czechoslovak Republic was a microcosm of the Hapsburg Empire with republican institutions. Although clearly dominated by its Czech constituent, many of its first leaders such as Thomas Masaryk were socially progressive, and eschewed narrow-minded nationalism. It is perhaps Europe’s tragedy that his vision of a multi-ethnic democratic state did not endure.

The Europe of Joseph Roth and Thomas Masarky was torn asunder by the twin hydras of Nazism and Stalinism. Ironically one of the groups that suffered most was the German populations who were forced out of their ancestral lands across Eastern Europe, many thousands perishing in the process. Europe is the poorer for the homogeneity of many states.

Perhaps the arrival of the idea of a political and cultural Europe might generate a more accommodating reaction to minorities, but unfortunately attitudes in Ukraine suggest the idea of Europe itself can be exclusionary, as if humans feel the need to find an oppositional Other.

This exclusionary idea of Europe is not limited to Ukraine as nearby states also identify enemies within. The Romany people remain a pitiable underclass in most places they live. Latterly migrants fleeing political turmoil in the Middle East have been greeted by barbed wire fences on the Hungarian border. We have yet to reach an epoch when cultural diversity is seen as a boon. It would be tragic if the political idea of a Europe, a response to the conflagrations of the early twentieth century could become the case of further conflict.

(http://www.villagemagazine.ie/index.php/2015/09/europes-angry-ukrainian-frontier/)

A Czech in Ireland (longer version)

(Unpublished, 2016)

The Irish Free State avoided most of the depredations of World War II. There were casualties from a few bombing raid and Belfast suffered grievously but the Emergency is mostly remembered for insufficient white bread and Eamon de Valera’s visit to the German embassy with a letter of condolence on the death of Adolf Hitler.

Moreover, in an era before mass aviation refugees found it difficult to travel to Ireland and the authorities issued few visas either before or after the war. There were notable exceptions such as the Viennese couple Edward and Lisl Strunz who ran The Unicorn Restaurant for many years.

Another refugee from the period was Denis Scrivener (née Zdenek Skrivenek) who first escaped to London from his native Czechoslovakia in 1939 on the eve of the World War II. He returned home in 1945 but felt compelled to leave permanently in 1949, this time moving to Ireland accompanied by an Irish wife Nan Keating and their young daughter Maria. After overcoming significant adversity in his adopted country he became a successful businessman, setting up Farmhand that employed up to fifty people.

Scrivener’s story is recorded in a self-published book from 1991: The Skrivaneks and the Scriveners (A Czech in Ireland). Written with clarity and honesty, it offers a touching insight into the human toll of seismic political events: first the German invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1939 only months after Neville Chamberlain’s notorious Munich Agreement with Hitler that promised ‘peace in our time’, and handed the country over to the Nazis without a bullet being fired; then a Communist dictatorship that followed World War II and lasted until 1989.

Denis’s father was a furrier and during the inter war years ran a successful shop in the centre of Prague. He led a privileged existence with summer trips to the French Riviera and displayed an abiding interest in the opposite sex to the understandable irritation of Denis’s mother. She had lost her first husband in the First World War although she had a child, Lilly, by him, six years older than Denis the only child from the second marriage. From his account it seems Denis enjoyed a rather idyllic childhood animated by winter sports and cultural visits to surrounding countries.

Denis’s parents met in his mother’s native Vienna but settled in his father’s homeland: the new state of Czechoslovakia, born after World War I, which prospered under the liberal guidance of Thomas Masaryk who was president from 1919 until his death in 1935.

Denis escaped to London in 1939 before the German invasion but his remaining family harboured a secret that would prove fatal to some of them. Although officially Roman Catholic Denis’s mother was Jewish by ancestry. In liberal inter-war Czechoslovakia that did not appear to be of any consequence. Denis recalls that: ‘One of the pleasant aspect of living in Czechoslovakia at the time was that you never really knew what religion the other person had, child or adult, and more importantly didn’t care.’

That changed abruptly when the Germans invaded. If the Nazis discovered that Denis’s father was married to a Jew he too would have been considered one under their race laws. Denis asserts that: ‘if my father’s character had been less strong than it was then his infatuation with another woman could have caused a premature and tragic end to my mother’s life. Not an exaggeration to say this, merely a reflection on the realities of the time.’

His father did not succumb to that temptation despite his wife discovering at least one of his infidelities and being in Denis’s estimation ‘a rather difficult wife to live with’: albeit her husband’s conduct might have explained any irascibility.

Alas Denis’s sister Lilly was not so fortunate. She and her two children Inuska and Tomicek were sent to Theresienstadt concentration camp in 1941. Here, remarkably, she re-married and the family survived for two years in no small part down to the influence of Mr Skrivenek who from outside procured extra rations for his step-daughter’s family. But alas Lily, her two children and husband Kuba were all transported to Auschwitz and murdered in 1943, a fate that befell most of Denis’s Jewish relations.

During the occupation Denis’s parents were also incarcerated by the Nazi authorities, and even subjected to solitary confinement, for a period of ten months. Miraculously his mother’s Jewish background was not exposed. This came about because they were denounced to the Gestapo for currency fraud by Denis’s mother’s own sister, who had moved to New York before the war. She informed on them because some of her property had not been sent to her. It reveals his mother’s attachment to her family that she could overlook this treachery to the extent that for a time in the late 1960s they would even live together in Dublin.

In 1939 Denis had escaped on one of the last trains out of the country. At the British border controls in the Netherlands what helped him through without a visa was a good knowledge of English learnt at the English Grammar School in Prague. But for that he might have suffered the fate of the failed applicants who he observed being beaten up by the Dutch police and bundled on a train back into the jaws of Nazi Germany.

Denis worked various jobs on arrival in wartime Britain. He found employment in a munitions factory in what he considered the dowdy town of Warrington where willingness to work long hours for extra pay brought friction with the union that felt this showed his fellow workers in a bad light. But he mainly lived in London where he became a waiter in The Dorchester serving, among others, Winston Churchill and the exiled King Peter of Yugoslavia. It was then that he met and fell in love with a Tipperary nurse Nan Keating. They married in 1943 in London.

But their honeymoon was a hurried weekend in Southend-on-Sea as Denis had by then volunteered for the Free Czech Army. He joined a tank regiment and was soon acting as an instructor. He paints a bleak picture of army life that recalls episodes from the great anti-war Czech novel The Good Soldier Svejk by Jaroslav Hasek. He admits that life ‘for many months was difficult to endure’, as he encountered bullying officers and dreadful food. Denis’s regiment arrived in France two weeks after the D-Day landings in 1944.

As the Americans and British armies swept through Western Europe Denis’s regiment stayed put containing German forces in Dunkirk. They sustained considerable casualties from artillery bombardment but Denis emerge unscathed. Through his eyes we see the misery and filth of war and how simply surviving from one day to the next becomes an overriding objective. At least with a keen eye for a profit margin, that would serve him well in later years, he enhanced his paltry allowance by selling his cigarette rations at a substantial mark-up to the liberated French.

Germany surrendered unconditionally on May 8th 1945 and at last he returned to Czechoslovakia in the wake of American forces in 1945 who halted in Pilsen to allow Soviet forces liberate Prague. Now within 100km of his native city Denis resolved to make his way there before he had leave to do so.

Travelling by motorbike terrible thoughts ran through his mind. He had had no contact with his family for six years and the Jewish Holocaust was being revealed. At his parents pre-war apartment he found no sign of their names on the residents’ list outside. His heart sank but at last he found out from a neighbour that their plush pre-war residence had been commandeered by the invaders. They had moved to an inferior flat, but it seemed they were alive.

When his mother opened the door to him she promptly fainted, but soon recovered and was delighted to hear of his marriage. His father, typically, asked whether his wife had good legs. Only later did Dennis learn of his sister’s fate, her family’s, and many others. He managed to re-join his regiment without repercussions and soon returned to Prague to resume his pre-war employment in his father’s firm.

Nan Keating arrived in Prague after some months on a British aeroplane. The couple found a stylish apartment on Wencelas Square in the heart of Prague’s Old Town and the joviality of the inter-war years seemed to be returning. For some time the young couple were able to soak up Prague’s alluring night life. Soon a first child, Maria, was born and Nan, who had already acquired some Czech in London, was learning about Czech cuisine under the critical gaze of her not always helpful mother-in-law. But that pleasant interlude would not last long as Nazi tyranny was quickly followed by Communist dictatorship.

The Communist party was well supported in pre-war Czechoslovakia and had been to the fore in opposition to the Nazis. In 1947 elections the party won over 30% of the vote and led a coalition government. But the country was effectively left to the Soviet Union by the Western Powers as it had been to the Nazis in the Munich Agreement of 1938.

This became apparent when often unruly Russian soldiers began to flood the city. Denis recalls how they became: ‘more evident around Prague and their chief leisure occupation became the stealing of motorbikes, robbing people of watches and molesting our women who didn’t have to be young or pretty to attract their unwelcome attraction.’

His anxiety grew as the Communists gradually asserted total power expelling other parties from the government. His tipping point was the apparent suicide in 1948 of the one non-Communist member of the government, foreign minister Jan Masaryk, the son of the Tomas Masaryk. A police investigation in the 1990s concluded that he was thrown from his balcony in the foreign ministry.

Denis resolved to emigrate to his wife’s country which he had never visited, though he did consider returning to London which Nan would have preferred. He regarded Ireland as: ‘a more romantic kind of choice with something of an adventure attached’. Unfortunately adventurous and romantic choices do not necessarily make for an easy life.

Their mind was made up when a visa arrived from the Irish Department of Justice and they were on their way to Ireland just after Eamon de Valera left office after sixteen years in power. The thrusting, cosmopolitan Czech was in for a testing period when he arrived in the economically-stagnant and inward-looking Ireland of the 1950s.

The first port of call was the family farm in Powerstown, County Tipperary which at the time had no electricity or running water. Denis arrived first with his daughter, the three year old Maria, who stubbornly refused to speak English despite being brought up bi-lingually. Nan soon followed.

The problem for Dennis was that for all his business acumen he arrived without a regular trade or profession and the furrier business wasn’t booming in post-war Ireland. He hatched a number of schemes from importing biros to manufacturing toys but for much of the 1950s he was forced into long hours of unrewarding and often menial labour.

Along the way he was treated abysmally by a number of employers as he struggled to support a growing family that would soon include a son John and another daughter Cathy. He endured a particularly unpleasant episode under the employment of one Cork businessman who forced him into hard labour with the promise that he would be given a motor car sales franchise in Dublin. He bitterly recalls that this was ‘my first Irish experience of being let down in a major way, to be followed, over the years, by many others.’ He reckons that ‘there was no question that as a foreigner I was severely discriminated against. But at least Denis exacted a measure of revenge against that businessman in the courts.

Through hard work and persistence Denis slowly made his way by becoming a skilled salesman of tractors in the era of the Massey Ferguson. He says that: ‘working in my father’s business taught me quite a bit about how to create the desire in a prospective customer, how to present my product in a way that would meet his expectations and how to close the sale.’

Dennis’s methods included keeping a file on all prospective clients that would allow him to ask about the wellbeing of a son in America or how the farm’s side line in potatoes was doing. Within a few years these skills brought rewards and he eventually launched his own company which he called Farmhand, an enterprise that survives today.

He concludes: ‘Ireland had been kind to me but dreadfully slow in allowing me to establish myself. Not only that it also gave me a number of hefty “kicks in the teeth” in that tedious and long process.’ But he retained an affection for the country and even after he had handed over Farmhand to his son John and spent a few years in the UK and Canada he decided to return to live out his final years in his adopted country.

It is revealing that Denis should recall one particular episode from this childhood. An older boy, unknown to him or his friends, noticed the commotion and asked Denis if he would like to be shown how to perform a figure of eight. Denis was delighted at the prospect and handed over the bike. The boy performed the stunt and promptly cycled off on his new bike. Denis’s life was punctuated by loss, material and otherwise, and he encountered a few con-men along the way but he would work hard to restore his fortunes.

His account shows what life was like for an ordinary person living through terrible times and finding a sanctuary of sorts in a remote country where he struggled to make his way. On an epic journey he encountered all sides of the human character and confronted sustained adversity making him a remarkably resourceful individual but perhaps the constant striving left him a troubled man too. The drive that brought him such success left little time for family life and it might come as no surprise that Nan and he separated after he became successful.

His survival instincts are an inspiration to anyone who finds themselves in a new country. It is also a tale for our time as we see millions of refugees passing through Europe once again. His example suggests that those wishing to enter Europe will also offer a dynamism and hard work ethic to their host societies.

A Czech in Ireland

(Published in the Irish Times 5/4/16)

Seventy years ago in 1946 the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia emerged as the largest political party in free elections forming a coalition government with the support of smaller parties. By that time Denis Scrivener (nee Zdenek Skrivenek) had returned to Prague with his new Irish wife Nan Keating. But the Communist Party soon became a tool of the Soviet Union and a dictatorship followed for over forty years.

Denis had survived war-time exile in Britain where he met Nan and joined up with the Free Czech Army, crossing the channel just after D-Day in 1944 and seeing action around Dunkirk. His remarkable story and subsequent life in Ireland is recounted in a self-published book from 1991: The Skrivaneks and the Scriveners (A Czech in Ireland).

The half-Jewish Denis had already endured the murder of his sister and her two children in the Holocaust along with numerous other family members. Now demobilised he observed unruly Russian soldiers flooding into Prague. He recalls how their chief leisure occupation: ‘became the stealing of motorbikes, robbing people of watches and molesting our women who didn’t have to be young or pretty to attract their unwelcome attraction.’

Denis had returned to work in his father’s successful furrier business and he and Nan were living on Wenceslas Square in the heart of the city. By that stage Nan had learnt Czech and together they enjoyed a lightness that settled briefly over Prague before the unhappy tide of history washed through once more.

A daughter, Maria, was born but Denis’s anxiety was growing over what was happening as the Communists asserted total power by expelling other parties from the coalition.

He made up his mind after the apparent suicide in 1948 of the one non-Communist member of the government, foreign minister Jan Masaryk, son of Tomas Masaryk the founding father of Czechoslovakia. A police investigation in the 1990s concluded that he was thrown from his balcony in the ministry.

Denis resolved to live in his wife’s country which he had never visited, though Nan would have preferred a return to London. He regarded Ireland as: ‘a more romantic kind of choice with something of an adventure attached’. Their minds were made up when an Irish visa arrived from the Department of Justice.

The first port of call was the family farm in Powerstown, County Tipperary which at the time had no electricity or running water. Dennis arrived first with his daughter Maria who initially refused to speak English despite being brought up bi-lingually. Nan followed soon.

In time Denis would become a successful entrepreneur but along the way he was treated abysmally by a number of employers as he struggled to support a growing family that would soon include a son John and another daughter Cathy.

He endured a particularly unpleasant experience with one Cork businessman who tricked him into hard labour with the promise of a Dublin franchise. He recalls that this was ‘my first Irish experience of being let down in a major way, to be followed, over the years, by many others.’ He reckons that ‘there was no question that as a foreigner I was severely discriminated against.’

At last Denis became a salesman of tractors in the era of the Massey Ferguson. He says that: ‘working in my father’s business taught me quite a bit about how to create the desire in a prospective customer, how to present my product in a way that would meet his expectations and how to close the sale.’

Denis’s methods included keeping a file on all prospective clients that would allow him to ask about the wellbeing of a son in America or how the farm’s side line in potatoes was doing. In 1962 he launched his own company Farmhand, an enterprise that survives today. He concludes: ‘Ireland had been kind to me but dreadfully slow in allowing me to establish myself. Not only that it also gave me a number of hefty “kicks in the teeth” in that tedious and long process.’

Denis’s survival instincts are an inspiration to anyone who finds themselves in a new country, as I do now in Prague on a romantic journey in the opposite direction. It is also a tale for our time as we see millions of refugees passing through Europe once again. His example illustrates how migrants often bring a hard work ethic and dynamism to their host societies.

(http://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/an-irishman-s-diary-about-denis-scrivener-an-enterprising-czech-in-ireland-1.2597944)

Confronting Putin

(Version published in Village Magazine, March, 2016)

As we know well in Ireland filthy lucre is one of man’s greatest temptations. In the venal world of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Idiot (1869), virtually all of the characters apart from the Prince and Nastassya Filippovna succumb to greed. Ganya is willing to do almost anything in his passion for money – even marry someone he despises and of whom his family disapproves. General Ivolgin desires money to support his addiction to alcohol and to allow him to spend time with his mistress. Lebedev is willing to put his hands into a fireplace to retrieve a package with 100,000 roubles inside that Nastassya Filippovna discards.

No one pays attention to Myshkin, the Idiot, until his inheritance is revealed; afterwards, he is surrounded by claimants who desire his money. In the society of The Idiot, money not only creates one’s fortune it also obtains one a bride. ‘Bids’ for Nastassya Filippovna range from 75,000 roubles to 100,000 to over a million. Money, then, is a clear symbol of the perversion of human values in the novel.

Russia fell into a similar stupor at the end of the Cold War when excessive wealth corrupted Russian politics with Boris Yeltsin cast in the role of the Idiot, his powers declining in a haze of vodka as the plot unfolds. It was in this den of iniquities that Vladimir Putin rose to power, the former KGB officer emerging from obscurity to become prime minister and then being elected President in 2000 when Yeltsin finally lost his reason.

More sinisterly, it has been alleged that, presumably under the direction of Putin, the Russian secret services, the FSB, bombed apartment blocks in Moscow in 1999 killing almost three hundred people and pinning the blame on Chechnyan separatists. In any event, Putin was able to use the war in Chechnya to good propagandistic effect and secure the public attention to carry him to power.

Such calumny might have appeared in another of Dostoevsky’s extraordinary novels Devils (1872). Towards the end one of the conspirators Lyamshin is put on trial and asked ‘Why so many murders, scandals and outrages committed?’ He responds that it was to promote: ‘the systematic undermining of every foundation, the systematic destruction of society and all its principles; to demoralize everyone and make hodge-podge of everything, and then, when society was on the point of collapse – sick, depressed, cynical and sceptical, but still with a perpetual desire for some kind of guiding principle and for self-preservation – suddenly to gain control of it.’

Confronting a ruthless interlocutor such as Russian President Vladimir Putin is the greatest foreign policy challenge that Europe has faced since the end of the Cold War. The approach needs to be conditioned by awareness that he was an operative ‘with a lowered sense of danger’, according to the analysis of his former KGB employers. Last year he remarked: ‘fifty years ago, the streets of Leningrad taught me that if a fight is inevitable, you have to hit first.’

But in order to act out his violent fantasies, a perceived affront is required. Pretexts for violence must be avoided. In particular Putin must be given no excuse for further intervention in Ukraine which is treated as a domestic concern, indissoluble from Russia: Putin views the former territory of the Soviet Union as Russia’s inheritance and crucial to her security. The Union thus must manage the difficult task helping where possible the Ukrainian people to overcome the endemic corruption there without giving the impression they are seeking to expand into its territory.

Last September Putin shocked the world by weighing into the Syrian conflict with air strikes against rebel-held targets. Controversially the primary targets did not seem to be ISIL. An article in Time magazine (9/15) by Timothy Snyder argued that the motivation for Russia’s intervention in Syria was to turn Europe into a ‘refugee factory’, compelled to accommodate many more beleaguered victims than have already arrived. This is based on the credible assessment that the he views the stability of the European Union as a threat to Russia.

More likely Putin wishes to bolster a client authoritarian regime in the Middle East and play to a growing anti-Islamic gallery in Europe. He appeals to the populations of former Communist states of Eastern Europe where a largely hostile response to the refugee crisis (as witnessed by the election victory of the anti-refugee Law and Justice Party in Poland) has been in stark contrast to the popular outpouring of generosity witnessed in many Western European countries.

Putin now engages in doublespeak of an order that his carefully crafted public utterances should not be trusted. In dealing with Syria he argues that its sovereignty including territorial integrity should be respected yet he flagrantly ignored that principle when annexing the Crimea from Ukraine and fomenting rebellion in Donetsk, a conflict that has now created 2 million refugees. But however repugnant that conduct his continued hold over power in Russia looks assured.

This is despite the Russian economy enduring a collapse in the price of oil and European sanctions: it is running an unsustainable budget deficit of almost 5%. Soon a key threshold will be reached where over 50% of an average income is spent food. But a popular narrative of withstanding adversity for the sake of the greatness of mother Russia allows him to persevere with a policy of economic autarky. Sanctions could actually have the effect of bolstering his power, as occurred in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

Pre-emptive support for the Euromaidan revolution in Ukraine by the European Union may have contributed to Russian intervention. Putin withstood Moscow street protests against his rule in 2011 and the overthrow of Victor Yanukovych’s government in Ukraine was viewed as a potential inspiration to his domestic opponents. But European leaders were too gung-ho in their offer of European Union membership and actually inflamed the situation giving the Putin the pretext to intervene in Crimea and Donbass.

In the face of the danger posed by Putin we must hope that Europe retains its cohesion. Among the important global objectives the Europe Union should pursue is repairing the damage to international law caused by the illegal US –led invasion of Iraq. This represented a new departure in international relations and the current anarchy has given Putin an opportunity to intervene in other states.

We should also refrain from imposing lazy historical analysis in our assessment of Putin. He is not ‘the new Hitler’ against whom ‘appeasement’ is misguided. The challenge Putin’s Russia poses to Europe and global peace and development is unique. Moreover, viewing Ukraine as a zero sum game between Europe and Russia is mistaken. The development of Ukraine will be a slow process and does not have to be contrary to Russian interests. The connections between Russia and Ukraine are deep and should be acknowledged.

Rather than projecting European power eastwards, the Union needs to focus on ensuring that the increasing cleavage caused by migration and austerity between European states of the periphery and the core are not accentuated. Keeping the European house in order is the best way to confront Putin. We hope that the Brexit palaver does not have a disruptive effect on the rest of the Union.

More worrying perhaps are relations between Turkey and Russia between whom a proxy war is developing in Syria. It remains to be seen whether the shooting down of a Russian aircraft over Turkish aerospace in November was the first shot fired in a more generalised conflict. Presumably Turkey’s membership of NATO will deter Putin but the hotheads in Ankara could be emboldened.

There seems to be a complacency on both the right and left in Europe regarding the endurance of peace in perpetuity. The idea of Mutually Assured Destruction is supposed to make wars between nuclear states an impossibility but that is no more than an assumption. The European Community was born as a peace process after 30 years of horrific wars, and has contained the destructive force of nationalism. The Union may have significant faults but needs to hold fast in the face of external threats. We must hope that the prospect of Brexit will not lead the Union to unravel and give Putin the freedom to act as chooses.

(http://www.villagemagazine.ie/index.php/2016/04/put-in-perspective/)

In Defence of Kundera’s Absurdity

(Published in Village Magazine, November/December 2015)

Portentousness is the word that best describes most Anglo-American literary criticism. The canon seems to demand erudition and a knowing hauteur loaded with an impression of being slightly jaded by the cocktail party circuit. That at least is the tone favoured by the Times Literary Supplement whose reviewers tend to devour books as A. A. Gill does restaurants.

Attending functions when I wrote for The London Magazine (a lesser breed of the same genus) I encountered a few of London’s bottom-feeding literati, one of whom I bitterly recall communally ordering wine that adorned a list purely to capture the foolish largesse of a patron. Here one of Dr Johnson’s aphorisms seems apposite: “criticism is a study by which men grow important and formidable at very small expense.” Best to go Dutch at such soirees.

After enjoying without entirely comprehending the Franco-Czech author Milan Kundera’s latest book The Festival of Insignificance I noticed a review of it by Michael Hoffman in the Time Literary Supplement. Notwithstanding the mortal sin of referring to another’s review, Hoffman’s excoriation was so venomous that I was inspired to share my own reaction. His article culminates in the assessment that: “It reads like something one of Kundera’s enemies might have written, and passed off as his”. This was a hatchet job of Viking proportions.

Prior to casually dismembering the corpse with the grubby gusto of a journalist on a junket, he dismisses the oeuvre of one of the most original novelists of the last century in surprisingly gastronomic terms as: “addictive, moreish, still fresh, thin textured, a little unsatisfying (perhaps that goes with their addictiveness) and obvious.” It was as if Gill had been asked to assess Nando’s menu.

Perhaps Kundera’s real crime in the eyes of many of the Anglo-American literary elite is to have declared himself a French author, and written a number of novels in that language. With some foundation French culture is now roundly dismissed as decadent and trapped in recollection of past glory, although Michel Houellebecq makes a virtue of this. The idea of an unadulterated émigré Czech writer is far more appealing, but, like Samuel Beckett, Kundera has found expression in the language of his adopted country, and his work may be more interesting for that cross-fertilization.

Like all good (it is hasty to ascribe greatness at this historical juncture) writers of fiction, Kundera shines a light on universal human traits. Eschewing conventional structure in favour of fractured tales, the reader is left to draw his own conclusions. As in real life, grand narratives are not apparent but overlapping, quotidian sequences. Within that schema he distils ideas that shines an elusive light on eternal truths. This might be the addictive quality Hoffman describes but really the compulsion arises from sublime observations on the human experience seemingly obvious but actually quite original.

My favourite example remains his exposition on litost, in the Book of Laughter and Forgetting:

“Litost is an untranslatable Czech word. Its first syllable, which is long and stressed, sounds like the wail of an abandoned dog. As for the meaning of this word, I have looked in vain in other languages for an equivalent, though I find it difficult to imagine how anyone can understand the human soul without it …”

Kundera expands on its meaning by way of anecdote.

She was madly in love with him and tactfully swam as slowly as he did. But when their swim was coming to an end, she wanted to give her athletic instincts a few moments’ free rein and headed for the opposite bank at a rapid crawl. The student [the boy] made an effort to swim faster too and swallowed water. Feeling humbled, his physical inferiority laid bare, he felt litost. He recalled his sickly childhood, lacking in physical exercise and friends and spent under the constant gaze of his mother’s overfond eye, and fell into despair about himself and his life. They walked back to the city together in silence on a country road. Wounded and humiliated, he felt an irresistible desire to hit her.…and then he slapped her face.”

Acute awareness of what he does grudgingly translate as: “a state of torment brought upon by the realization of one’s inadequacy or misery,” helps us understand the origin of so much anger and the antidote to it. Kundera turns an isolated word in a minor European language into a near-universal susceptibility. In literature a mark of genius is to make the original seem obvious. We become one with the writer.

Kundera’s most recent work does leave an impression of incompleteness compared to previous more substantial novels but certainly not to the extent of Hoffman’s outlandish assessment. It contains a number of powerful insights: first there is his development of the archetype of the Narcissus that might serve as a lesson to some clever men who cannot understand how an objective of desire resists their advances.

He writes:

‘When a brilliant fellow tries to seduce a woman, she has the sense she’s entering a kind of competition. She feels obliged to shine, to not give herself without some resistance. Whereas insignificance sets her free. Spares her the need for vigilance. Requires no presence of mind. Makes her incautious, and thus more easily accessible …

The Narcissus on the other hand is not proud:

‘A proud man has disdain for other people, he undervalues them. The Narcissus overvalues them, because in every person’s eyes he sees his own image, and wants to embellish it. So he takes care of all his mirrors.

The Narcissus is thus reduced to a person of little significance, the unlikely partner, his skill like that of a successful spy who gets under the covers almost unobserved. He the subject sees a reflection of himself in the object of his desire, and his interlocutor is content with that unchallenging proposition. Kundera fails to say if this works both ways.

Like many of his novels The Festival of Insignificance meanders. Characters pop in and out without a complete picture of anyone emerging: like the failed actor who along with a friend develops a pseudo-Pakistani language complete with a grammatical structure to make his job as a waiter less tedious; then there is a character who for no particular reason tells a friend that he is dying from cancer; we also meet a woman who is saved from suicide and in the process accidentally takes the life of her saviour.

Much of the book defies simple interpretation especially the surreal closing sequence. Perhaps in his dotage Kundera is simply telling us to revel in absurdity, the main forum of which is joking with friends, confiding at one point “in my unbeliever’s dictionary, only one word is sacred: friendship”. One of his characters says: “We’ve known for a long time that it was no longer possible to overturn this world, nor reshape it, nor head off its dangerous headlong rush. There’s been only one possible resistance: to not take it seriously.” We might consider this a sign of his Kundera’s decadence, but for Czechs of his generation humour could be an act of defiance against a totalitarian state.

For lurking in the background is the figure of Joseph Stalin of whom we gain glimpses, apparently, from the memoirs of Khrushchev, though it would not be beyond Kundera to make this all up. In his account Stalin spends much of his time humiliating his entourage for his amusement especially the unfortunate Kalinin. But he discovered at a certain point: “nobody around him any longer knew what a joke is.” And in Kundera’s view: “that’s the beginning of a whole new period of history.”

As a Czech born in 1929 and living in that country until 1975 Kundera cannot escape that shadow of Stalinism. He himself had his academic career impeded in the 1950s. He may embrace his less troubled new home but the memory of that fearful epoch cannot be dismissed. The “whole new period of history” are those decades when lightness and frivolity were lost. Perhaps he’s saying that we must uphold that in the face of all the hypocrisy today.

In this short book there are various themes that a reader might be drawn to. Ignored in this review is the attention he pays to the significance of the sexualisation of the navel or how humanity is divided into apologisers and those whose instinct is to go on the attack. There is plenty to muse on and its disembowelment is misplaced.

Moreover, it seems perverse for a critic to read the oeuvre of a writer seemingly with the intention of devouring it, as a defence council would a prosecution case in a court of law. To earn a living critics are compelled to read a book, view a film or eat in a restaurant, but many turn it into an unedifying blood sport.

The poet and scholar Kathleen Raine wrote in Defending Ancient Springs: “The power to perceive the beautiful arises from a quality of consciousness: something forever inaccessible to the apparatus criticus, which can be manipulated by persons who do not possess this quality at all”. She adds that: “At best scholarship, by placing in our hands knowledge which we should not otherwise possess, can fit us to read the works of the poets, to decipher what they have written.” Sadly literary criticism is often a platform for the unbridled ego. Kundera’s latest novel attests to the untamed imagination of the author.

http://www.villagemagazine.ie/index.php/2016/02/in-defense-of-a-transcendent-absurdity/