Ryszard Kapuscinski (1993) Imperium.

Ryszard Kapuscinski was born in 1932 and grew up in the Polesie region on Poland (today Belorussia). Pinsk was liberated by Soviet troops in 1939. From what wasn’t clear. He learned the Cyrillic Russian alphabet as school from a single copy of Stalin’s Studies in Leninism, watched arbitrary mass deportations to Siberia and starved with his family. He remained liberated for most of his adult life and witnessed the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.  The unravelling of the Imperium: Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn 1992.

The system that governs us is a combination of the old nomenclatura, the sharks of finance, false democrats, and the KGB. I cannot call this democracy—it is a repugnant historically unprecedented hybrid, and we do not know in which direction it will develop…[but] if the alliance will prevail they will be exploiting us not for seventy, but for one hundred and seventy years.   

We do know the direction Russia took under Vladimir Putin. Kapuscinski marks out the direction of travel. He speaks of the old native Russia. His reading and understand of Bierdayev’s book as a student at university who tried to outline what the Imperium was and the paradox of what does a Russian think when he is somewhere such as the shore of the Yenisry.

He can walk along for days and months and always Russia will surround him. The plains have no end, nor the forests, nor the rivers. To rule over such boundless expanses, says Bierdayev, one had to create a boundless state.

Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace showed the hubris of Napoleon and the triumph of Mother Russia. The Great Patriotic War as the Second World War was called was when the Union of Soviet Socialist Republic defeated the Nazis (that had an alliance with until 1942). There were two superpowers in the world when the war ended and America was the enemy. They fought proxy-wars, Korea at the beginning of the 1950s. Communist China, a pauper state, under Chairman Mao provided unlimited manpower and around one million troops. Soviet MIG fighters protected ground troops. General McArthur, holed up as proxy-Emperor of Japan wanted to fight on, go all the way to China, all the way to Russia. War weary, General, later President Eisenhower, divided Korea. Both superpowers had nuclear weapons. China acquired them from Russia.

The Cold War and Mutually Assured Destruction. John F. Kennedy at the end of 1962 called the Russian’s bluff over Cuban missiles. I was too young to remember. Now we’re too old to care. Then Putin, 24th February 2022 threatens nuclear war for interference over his invasion plans of Ukraine.

Ukraine has been at war with Russia for eight years. It used to be the breadbasket of Russia and exported grain to Germany, now it exports its crops to China. Its soil was so fertile it was said that if you left a stick in the ground a tree would bloom. Yet, during Stalin’s purges millions starved. Putin’s military has annexed Crimea. The second day of their full-scale invasion and troops surround the capital Kyiv. But with amphibious landings on Mariupol and Donbas.   

Kapuscinski reminds us of falling into the abyss. The massacre of around 1.5 million Armenians in Turkey in 1915, the greatest mass genocide until Hitler. Regarded as traitors and infiltrators. In Putin’s terms neo-Nazis and drug addicts.    

‘Nationalism is the forbidden fruit.’

The Chechen Wars were good wars for Putin. The use of overwhelming military force, mass murder and torture quelled the North Caucasus. Puppet government.

‘A state that does not have a state seeks salvation in symbols. The protection of the symbol is important to it as protection of borders to other states. The cult of the symbol becomes a form of the cult of the country. Protection of the symbol becomes an act of patriotism.’

Look at the map, Kapuscinski says of Aremenia, but he could also be speaking of Ukraine.  The Russian bear wants to swallow it up. But he offers another lesson.

Look at the history books, ‘A magnificent ascent, and then, a dispiriting fall’.

The West (by which we mean President Joe Biden) offers overwhelming sanctions against Russia, but not if it pushes up the price of petrol for the average American. I wonder when the backbiting will start about the four million refugees not coming into Europe, because they’re already here. Are we sliding down the same road, taking sides, picking allies? Imperium is an insider account of a refugee that’s not a refugee in the old Soviet Socialist Republics Putin thinks still exist. Keeping your mouth shut doesn’t guarantee you’ll be OK. Not taking sides is taken sides. I’m not taking sides. I hope Ukraine wins, whatever that means. But I doubt its people will. Putin will win—for now.  I don’t know what that means either.   

Robert A.Caro (2012) The Years of Lyndon Johnson, volume 4, The Passage of Power.

We’re all aware that with great power comes great responsibility, after all these were the lines mouthed by Batman with the pointy ears before he jumped off a tall building. The moron’s moron, who anybody with any sense would like to see jumping from a tall building, reaches new lows in grasping one and abdicating the other. But that’s another story unless the moron’s moron stumbles into an Armageddon strategy to remain power, a historical aside.  Cato charts for the reader the Cuban Missile Crisis and Armageddon obverted.  

Here we have two heavyweights Lyndon B Johnson (LBJ) and John F Kennedy (JFK) (chants of let’s make America great again would be met with a snort of derision). The United States was at its peak and entering a ten-year period of post-war prosperity. The Soviet Union was in decline and to feed its citizens having to purchase wheat at lock-bottom prices from the American surplus. The plan to place Chiang Kai-shek a sympathetic and Congress backed Protestant-Christian nationalist ruler in China had backfired, but the largely agricultural country was experiencing famine and lockdown under Chairman Mao (with the odd breakout of one million soldiers to challenge American might in Korea in the early 1950s).   America was the only game in town and the most powerful man on the planet was by some way, the American President. Robert A.Caro goes with the maxim, power corrupts, but twists it a little, in adding, power also reveals.

Here in the penultimate volume is  he sets out of show what it reveals about LBJ,  (seven years later we’re still waiting on the final volume and I’ll guess we’ll hear more about Vietnam) but also the American dream before it turned sour in South East Asia and in the flower-powered sixties.  The Passage of Power had me thinking of John Irivine’s classic A Prayer for Owen Meany in the way that when the call came LBJ, despite all his faults, many of which he shared with the golden boy of American politics, JFK,  the Vice President was ready. He’d been ready all his life to be American President. He’d gambled that he was only a heartbeat away from the top job as Vice President and that gunshot put him in the seat of power. Kamala Harris odds are a lot less than the four of five to one that LBJ gambled on.  

Johnson VS Kennedy 1960. Both are running for President. When it becomes clear that LBJ doesn’t have the numbers for the Democratic Nomination to run for the Presidency and JFK does, they cut a deal in which LBJ agrees to become his running mate and when they win the election, they’ll be number one and two. President and Vice President of the—then—greatest nation on earth.

Coming second, unless it’s the Second Coming, means coming nowhere. Vice President is an honorary position with as much (or as little) power as the President’s wife.

Caro begin where he left off with Master of the Senate. LBJ is running the world from his Senate office. Eisenhower is relinquishing power and his Vice President, the young Richard Nixon, is the Republican Candidate for the top job. LBJ has two strategies that he tries to implement to retain power in the Senate (where if a President proposed a Bill, LBJ had the power of Caesar to give it a thumbs up or down) and to change the roles of President and Vice President to more of a job share. LBJ’s plots were simply brushed aside.

Here we have LBJ’s low period, when the Master of the Senate is no longer courted but avoided by Senators and a bit of a joke figure—nicknamed Rufus Cornpone, because of his flailing arms and long-winded stories—in  JFK’s new Camelot. ‘Power is Where Power Goes’ declares Caro and there were few Presidents as popular as the youthful JFK. LBJ is Vice President, but hears about the Bay of Pigs fiasco from the media. He’s so out of the picture he reverts to what worked before for him with older, more powerful men, and becomes a sycophantic arse-licker and sends JFK one—unwanted gift—after another. JFK instructs his cabinet to deal with the Vice President with the greatest courtesy.

JFK’s brother Robert Fitzgerald Kennedy (RFK), the Attorney General and former committee member and supporter of J. Edgar Hoover’s Committee on UnAmerican Activites, but as Caro shows, also JFK’s alter-ego and real number two, hates LBJ. It’s one of the great American no-holds barred feuds. Before and after the fall. Both men never forget or forgive and hold a grudge longer than Satan.

When JFK is President, Rufus Cornpone is regularly savaged by RFK. With another election on the horizon JFK assured LBJ that he’ll still be on the ticket as Vice President, but that seems doubtful, as LBJ does not seem to be in positon to deliver the Southern States in the Electoral College that gave JFK the 1960 Presidency. JFK is an idealist, but he’s also a pragmatist.

In October 1963, LBJ’s protégé and bagman Bobby Baker was involved in a sex and cash scandal that mirrored the Profumo affair in London. The media had begun investigating ‘Lyndon’s money’ and made a direct link between the tens of million dollars he’s made in his Texas radio and television empire, which he purchased for peanuts, and his political office, where he sold ad space for political influence. Quid pro quo, something for something. Oil men like Brown & Root, for example, pledged millions and bought Congress, then Senate and then the Presidency.    

LBJ did something remarkable after President Kennedy’s death, he united the American nation in a way not seen since President Roosevelt, perhaps even more so. But he did something even more remarkable, he faced down Senators from the South who’d formed a coalition to stop people of colour integrating and committing what they saw as the sin of miscegenation. Roosevelt, Trauman, Eisenhower and Kennedy were unable to pass civil-rights legislation because of the way the Southern senators used arcane rule, filibustered and top-loaded influential committees with their supporters and held hostage the passage of other bills in the legislative chamber to bend the will of their rivals and force them to retreat. LBJ had been a key player in this cabal led by the Georgian senator Richard Russell, who like many opposed the desegregation of the army and believed men of colour lacked natural courage and moral leadership. LBJ had in the previous volume helped fund Russell’s run for the Presidency. LBJ was the ultimate insider. As President who’d stolen his seat in the Senate, nevertheless he flipped the Southern Senators and passed civil-rights legislation, created Medicaid and a nascent welfare state in America.  Power is as power does asserts Cato. LBJ stands tall among his Presidential peers.

Robert Kennedy’s assertion that JFK would have got around to achieving those great legislative peaks shows the Attorney General’s loyalty but also his political naivety. Only one President, supreme master of politics, LBJ, could have achieved what he did. His time had come, but at the peak of his power—it was gone. He won the election by one of the biggest landslides in American history, but we know what comes next, or at least we will know when Caro finishes his final volume. If you want to know about how we came to be where we are, read his history of LBJ. The old hates never went away, they remain, and are in the White House now with the moron’s moron as President. God bless America, indeed, and God help the rest of us.