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.   

Alexander Starritt (2020) We Germans.

Alexander Starritt’s name can be added to the list of great Scottish writers. (He’s written another book I’ve not yet read, The Beast.)  I, initially, thought We Germans was a translation like Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front and The Road Home. The format is simple.  A grandfather writing to his Scottish grandson, Callum. And his grandson replying. Oberkanonier Meissner was in the Wehrmacht. Six-foot-two and broad shouldered, he was conscripted at nineteen. He was posted to the East. He weighed seven-and-a-half stone (48 kilos) when he was repatriated from the USSR, aged twenty-six.

Early in his written monologue, he promises his grandson,

‘I wasn’t a Nazi. No court would find me guilty of anything, even an omniscient one. What I want to tell you about isn’t about atrocities on genocide.’

What he wants to talk about is courage. War he describes as ‘a battle between hammers and anvils’.

The war in the East was the real war. ‘Out of every eight German soldiers killed. Seven were killed in the East.’

He describes the decision to invade the East like a decision to invade the sea. In the first year in the East, the Germans starved two-and-a-half million prisoners to death. In barbed-wire camps Russian’s ate their friends. Western loses in comparison were a blip, easily brushed off.

Meissner’s letter tells Callum he’s familiar with the idea of ‘collective guilt’—as a concept—but not as a feeling.

Shame, however, he claims holds ‘a more pitless truth’.     

‘Shame is not like guilt. It’s not a matter of reparation. Shame cannot be atoned for, it is a debt that cannot be paid.’

In the introduction to Christopher Clark, The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914,  a Bulgarian historian on the Balkan’s Conflict observed, when we ask the question ‘WHY? Guilt becomes the focal point’. Twenty million soldiers killed in the First World War, roughly the number killed in USSR alone. Little wonder even Vladimir Putin calls it ‘The Great Patriotic War’.

Meissner admits to no guilt, but does admit to shame. He assures us we have become overfamiliar with the ‘pantomimes of valour’. Survival was enough.

When he and four other soldiers are sent foraging for food, the war was already lost. They were retreating home.

‘In that first, victorious summer, our invading tanks covered half the distance to St Petersburg in five days…The limiting factor wasn’t the Red Army, but the road surface: mud rather than tarmac.’

 ‘I became a pedestrian one day in spring 1943, in the Eastern part of Ukraine, more than a thousand miles from the German border.’

‘By 1944, those of us still alive were fleeing on foot, broken, bedraggled, our tanks blown up, our artillery abandoned, our good name blackened for generations, our friends and brothers-in-arms buried in hostile soil.’

Hunger eats away at a man, but when a man loses hope, he’s already dead. That autumn a rumour had spread that there was a food depot nearby. Stashed with French wine and Italian sardines and other loot from occupied countries the general staff were in such a hurry to retreat they’d left it to the Russians.  

Meissner didn’t believe the rumour. He didn’t disbelieve it either. He’d been ordered, with four others in their rag-tag army, to find it. None of whom he knew particularly well. Luttke, he didn’t like because he parroted party propaganda and tried to take charge. But he was quickly put in his place. The only one he could bully was Jensen. It wasn’t worth trying to remember newly conscripted soldier’s names. But they’d a little horse, Ferdinand, which hadn’t yet been eaten, when they set off.

He finds the nostalgia for when Germany was for Germans a throwback to when villages were looted and their occupants crucified and hanged—and all to protect a civilian population that readily took part in pogroms.

Primo Levi asks an open question: If This Is a Man?

We Germans offers no ready answers. Alexander Starritt, now there’s a writer worth knowing.  

Svetlana Alexievich (1985, 2017) The Unwomanly Face of War, translated by Richard Pewar and Larissa Volokhonsky.

svetalna.jpg

Books are holy relics and none more so than this love letter to the lost. The Great Patriotic War as it is sold to the Russian people by the capitalist oligarchs is something to which they can hold on to. Something to which they can be proud. Forget the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact and Stalin’s deal with Hitler and the division of Eastern European countries such as Poland. Forget the millions killed in countries such as the Ukraine by Stalin’s policy of mass- starvation ‘Death-by-hunger’ when parents ate their children. The Second World War started in earnest for the USSR with Operation Barbarossa on Sunday, 22 June 1941 with the Nazis attacked their former allies looking for a swift victory. Stalin and the USSR held on at Leningrad.  Twenty million Russians died. Think of that for a second. Millions more mutilated.

These are the fragmented memories of a forgotten race. Women who fought in the war. Women who survived and had to remain silent, because it was a man’s war. And women who fought were not real women, but front-line whores. There is a heart for love and a heart for hate. Many remember a sign by the side of the road when entering German territory for the first time, crosses. ‘Here she is accursed Germany.’

Fragments.

SUDDENLY WE WANTED DESPARATELY TO LIVE

Tamara Stepanovna Umnyagina

Junior Sergeant in The Guards, Medical Assistant.

I already went barefoot. What did I see? The train station near Mogilev was being bombarded. And there was a train carrying children. They started throwing them through the window, little children – three or four years old. There was a forest nearby, so they ran towards the forest. The German tanks drove out and the tanks drove over the children. There was nothing left of those children.

Bella Isakovna Epstein,

Sergeant, Sniper

I came back different…For a long time I had an abnormal relation with death. Strange I would say…

They were inaugurating the first streetcar in Minsk, and I rode on the streetcar. Suddenly the streetcar stopped, everybody shouted, women cried. ‘A man’s been killed!’ And I sat alone in the car. I couldn’t understand why everybody was crying.

Albina Alexandrovna Gantimurova

Sergeant Major, Scout

Berlin…a boy came running towards me with a submachine gun—a Volksssturm. The war was already over. The last days. My hand was on my submachine gun. Ready. He looked at me, blinked and burst into tears. I couldn’t believe it—I was in tears, too. I felt sorry for him; there was this kid standing with his stupid submachine gun. And I shoved him towards a wrecked building, under the gateway: ‘Hide,’ I said…He took my hand. He cried! I patted his head.

Fragments of the past make our present. Read on.