Siberia, anyone?

Last week I wrote a reference for a former student applying for a post at Tyumen University. I have to admit that I had never hear of Tyumen before or, if I had, I had not retained the information. Looking it up on Wikipedia I quickly discovered that it was the first Russian city to be established in Siberia in 1586 and today has a population of 750,000. At the hub of many trade routes it gradually grew and prospered, especially with the advent of the Trans-Siberian railway. During the Great Patriotic War (which we call World War II), many industrial operations were moved there so as to be out of range of German attack. Perhaps no less importantly, when it looked possible that Moscow might fall to the advancing German forces, the embalmed body of V. I. Lenin was moved from the Mausoleum in Red Square to a secret location in the Tyumen State Agriculture College. (Incidentally, I think many in Britain fail to realize how close both Leningrad and Moscow came to falling: I was surprised being driven from St Petersburg/Leningrad airport to the city centre to be told by the driver that we were in the vicinity of what was once the front line; similarly, German forces could be seen on the horizon from the Moscow Kremlin.)

Anyway, these and many other facts about Tyumen are easily discovered on Wikipedia, though what I didn’t find there was the claim on the university website that it is widely regarded as having the best quality of life in Moscow as well as for infrastructure, safety. and medical care. Its 960 restaurants and 275 sunny days every year as well as 16 direct flights to St Petersburg and Moscow every day probably contribute to this very positive self-image. I should add that the School of Advanced Studies operates entirely in English.

I write this not to encourage you to apply there (though if you’re looking to study abroad or make an unusual career move it sounds like you could do a lot worse), but simply because it once more opened my eyes a bit wider to the complexity and scale of the world in which we live. Mea culpa maybe (though I’m sure I’m not the only one), but here is this city and university of which I had never before heard and in which many thousands of people are leading intellectually exciting and creative lives (as well as enjoying the restaurants and the sun)—as is also happening in many, many other great historic cities across the globe of which I have likewise never heard. Even in the cosmopolitan world of British university life, it’s still all too easy to draw down the horizons and forget that the limits of our experience are not the limits of our world.

Eighty Years Ago

This week has marked a grim anniversary although it is one that has received very little attention in the media. In 1941, between September 28th and September 30th, Nazi forces murdered 34,000 Jewish men, women, and children just outside the city of Kiev in a ravine known as Babi Yar. They were killed by shooting and, as one historian has pointed out, there were no machine-guns used, just regular army rifles and pistols, meaning that each person was murdered individually—not anonymously, as in the standard image of Nazi atrocities, but individually, a single soldier killing a single man, woman, or child at a time. Thirty-four thousand times over. Perhaps this doesn’t make it better or worse, but it reminds us of the dreadful reality of what individual human beings are capable of. It is not only ‘the system’ that kills, but individuals.

All of this was a long while before construction was even started at Auschwitz or Treblinka or other extermination camps. I do not, of course, concede the argument that the gas chambers never existed but the fact is that even if they had never existed the crimes committed against Jews by Nazi forces would have been shocking on a scale rarely before imagined. Even before the gas chambers hundreds of thousands of Jews, perhaps millions (historians will know the figures) had already been killed.

For a long while, Babi Yar was virtually forgotten. The site was, of course, within what was the Soviet Union and the Soviet Union didn’t want to single out the suffering of the Jews as distinct from the suffering of the Russian people in general. There was almost certainly an element of Anti-Semitism in this refusal to distinguish, but it is also only fair to remember that Soviet civilian deaths were in the order of fifteen million, with over three million prisoners of war dying in custody (often they were neither housed nor fed but left to starve or freeze in the open, unlike British, French, or American prisoners).

In 1961, twenty years after the event, Evgeny Yevtushenko wrote a poem that, whatever Adorno’s reservations about poetry after Auschwitz, did what sometimes only a poem can do, creating a memory that could not be as easily erased as the crime itself and that awakened Russia’s awareness of its own forgetfulness. Yevtushenko’s poem begins with the declaratory statement: “There are no memorials over Babi Yar”. He goes on to identify himself with the Jews persecuted throughout history: “Today I am as old, as the Jewish people itself./ It seems to me now–/ I am a Jew.” “And I myself,” he writes, “am like an unceasing soundless cry/ Over the thousands and thousands buried here./ I–/am every old man executed here./I–/am every child executed here.” He has no Jewish blood, he concludes, but, like every Jew he knows he will be hated by the Anti-Semites, which, he proudly declares, is why he calls himself a Russian.

            Of course, Yevtushenko’s protest did not end anti-Semitism in Russia, but what struck me, reading this poem again (I don’t think I’ve read it since the 1970s), was that it probably couldn’t be written today, neither in Russia nor the West. After a generation of identity politics it has become close to impossible for anyone to write of another culture’s sufferings as if they were their own. To write such a poem today could—would—seem to many to be an act of cultural expropriation. There are reasons for this, some of them good reasons. But our thirty-year focus on difference has perhaps reached a point at which we need again to remember that there is, in the end, only one humanity. Of course—obviously—I have never felt the terror that those being marched to Babi Yar and seeing their children shot in front of them felt. Of course not. But at some level and in some way, however inexpressible, such crimes are an assault on every one of us, which is why we do and must call them also crimes against humanity. That such things were done diminishes us all.

My black corduroy jacket

(a poem in the style of Paterson)

When I was seventeen years old I had a black corduroy jacket,

which I liked, even though it was a compromise with my mother

(as most things were).

Two of my friends also had black corduroy jackets

and sometimes we all wore them at the same time.

I think we thought it was cool

(though no one said ‘cool’ back then).

I was still wearing mine at university

and often had my copy of One Dimensional Man in the pocket.

One of my friends died,

The other I lost touch with.

He had a common name, so he’s hard to trace online

and the person who looks most like him

is a lawyer in Illinois

(which I’m sure he isn’t).

The one who died became a Sufi,

the other joined the Divine Light Mission.

I became an Anglican,

which was probably also a compromise,

though in the end not a via media.

In the end we are all in extremis.


Earlier this week we saw a guillemot fishing in our harbour. This is a small diving bird with a conspicuous white front. Whereas the gannet dives from a height, folding its wings in the split second before it hits the water, the guillemot dives from, as it were, a sitting position, stretching its wings out for propulsion as it goes under the water. I was excited to see it as this is the first time I’ve spotted one since we moved here over two years ago and usually they’re rather shy of people.

The excitement soon soured when I read that there has recently been a spate of unexplained deaths amongst guillemots and other seabirds in British coastal waters and that they have been leaving their traditional fishing grounds and coming into populated areas out of desperation. Whether the cause of this is climate change, pollution, or some other factor, the effect on the birds is dire. Many of those who make it to the coast are half their normal weight, emaciated and starving. Clearly, no one can as yet say this is directly down to human activity, but whether directly (pollution) or indirectly (climate change) this seems likely. It is one sign, one small sign, of the mass extinction event the world is now experiencing.

However, ‘our’ guillemot is still here and seem quite happy bobbing up and down in the increasingly blustery autumn winds. Perhaps a refugee who has found a home.


Political debate produces strange yet entirely predictable inconsistencies within party groupings. Through the summer there has been a rumbling debate about how measures introduced or proposed to combat the pandemic come into conflict with civil liberties. Mask-wearing, vaccine passports, and vaccination of children are just some of the issues that have focussed this debate. On the whole, it has been the backbenches of the conservative party who have been most vocal in resisting any mandated measures that they see as limiting individual freedom—somewhat like the Republicans in the United States only less extreme (mostly). Where is the inconsistency here? It is simply this. If there were to be a terrorist organization killing 100-200 British citizens every day (or 1000 at the height of the pandemic), we can be entirely confident that these same MPs would be vociferous in calling for new powers to be given to the security services—powers that their opponents on the other side of the parliamentary divide would be denouncing as the first step towards totalitarianism.

What this suggests is that what really divides politicians here is not whether government should be able to wield certain powers, merely whether it is social policy (inclusive of health) or national defence that justifies their use. This in turn points back to deeper issues that I’ve discussed before in this blog as to whether we take it that the first duty of government is the protection of citizens against a designated national enemy (the so-called Bush doctrine, with roots in Carl Schmitt and, beyond that, a certain application of Luther’s Two Kingdoms teaching) OR the provision of the means to a healthy and flourishing life (an alternative interpretation of Luther).

In my first line, I mentioned ‘inconsistencies’ but these are, in the end, only on the surface. Deep down, each is being entirely consistent with its own fundamental political choices—choices that are also, in the end, theological or, at least, philosophical.

In recent months, this blog has become rather intermittent, perhaps reflecting a lack of direction since Brexit became a reality (though that reality has still not fully worked its way into our economic and social systems). I’ve also been trying to avoid giving too much free rein to my penchant for political comment. Seeing the storm of crises and contradictions that is currently descending on Britain (though not only Britain), ‘comment’ is most likely to take the form of a litany of woes. We are collectively falling so far short of what is demanded of us in facing up to the demands of caring for each other and for the planet, so unwilling even to seriously discuss the changes we need to make to the way we live, that it is hard not to draw the most pessimistic conclusions. Yet old men in particular must be wary of the Jeremiad as a favoured literary form. We must, however paradoxical and counter-intuitive match ‘we have seen the best of our times’ with ‘the best is yet to come’. A strenuous dialectic indeed.

The Mystery of the Baroque

I have once more been spending a week at the Danish Church’s education centre in southern Jutland (see blog for 21st August 2020). The centre has grown up around a striking 12th century Cistercian Church, a building of extraordinary luminosity and lightness, perhaps because inside and out the walls and arches are of red brick, instead of the dark stone of many medieval buildings in Britain. Like many other Danish churches, it is also marked by a certain Baroque flowering, notably in the elaborate pulpit.

The lowest layer of carvings represent the virtues, with a sub-panel giving a devout commentary on them in Latin.

Above them, in the next layer up are the words ‘Gloria in Excelsis Deo’ (Glory to God on High’) and only then do we come to the pulpit itself.

The elevated canopy above the pulpit has a sequence of panels setting out Isaiah 35.3 ‘Strengthen ye the weak hands, and confirm the feeble knees’, in the King James version. The words are inscribed in an elaborate Gothic script.

Finally, topping the whole, is a standing figure of the resurrected Christ.

But what does it all mean—that is to say, what was the intended effect upon the congregation? Even if many were literate, few would probably have been able to understand the Latin inscriptions accompanying the virtues and may well have been left wondering what the figures represented. The words from Isaiah are comforting, but hard to read from ground level, even for those at home in Gothic script (and, probably, few in those days would have had the benefits of glasses). Even if this was a time of ‘enlightenment’, perhaps the point was not to enlighten the people but to remind them that their priest possessed a knowledge that they didn’t have and that this knowledge—of Latin, of moral philosophy, and the Bible—qualified him to stand above them and explain to them the truth. In the figure of Christ, however, we might see an acknowledgement that, in the end, the priest was subordinate to the same divine powers of life and death as all other. This is only speculation. I have never really been able to read the Baroque. That is to say, I can follow the words and understand the logic, but I do not grasp its symbolism intuitively as (I believe) I grasp the symbolism of the Middle Ages. The distinctive mixture of hierarchy and illumination is somehow essentially alien to me, impressive as it is. I admire the artistry and skill, but miss the meaning.

A further twist to the tale is the canopy over the baptismal font, on which the text (‘Let the children come to me, etc.’) is in German, testifying to the fact that even before the secession of Schleswig-Holstein this was a border region in which Danish and German overlapped, sometimes (as I explained in last August’s blog from here) with tragic results.

Last year I commented on the bi-lingual war memorial in the church, with its very mixed messages. Here is where the men commemorated there lie, claimed back for an ancient Nordic identity to very different effect from the rows of uniform gravestones in a typical British military graveyard.

The power of the word

Last night we watched ‘Stalin: Reign of Terror’, a dramatization of the experiences of Eugenia Ginzburg, a professor at Kazan University who became a victim of the Stalin purges that followed the assassination of Sergei Kirov. The story carefully followed the rapidly accelerating cycle of denunciations, arrests, and, ultimately, killings, as many who believed themselves to be loyal party members found themselves on the spot—in Ginzburg’s case for publishing an article that took a different view on Trotskyism from Stalin’s, even though Stalin’s position was only published later. She, like many others, was a card-carrying party member with good contacts and credentials, but this didn’t help for long. Her supposed crimes earned her ten years minimum penal servitude in a remote Siberian camp for women (in the end she served eighteen years).

I say the film was a dramatization but, of course, the necessary limitations of a two-hour film dealing with situations of extreme torment and endurance was much less ‘dramatic’ than the reality it depicted. But if the film couldn’t ‘show’ (how could it?) the suffering of Ginzburg and her fellow prisoners, it did, in a small way, show something rather wonderful: the power of literature and poetry to create moments of beauty and peace in the midst of that suffering. From time to time, Ginzburg would speak a line or two of a poem, from Pushkin to Mandelstam, that elicited recognition from a fellow prisoner. In one scene, she recreates from memory a scene from Oblomov and all the women in her barracks fall silent and listen. It is probably impossible for us now in our mediatized environment to recapture that simple power of the word, presented without explosions, swelling music, compelling imagery, or relentless accompanying sensory stimulation. Just a word, often speaking not of grand gestures or extraordinary events but a simple memory, a leaf, a frost, a sunset and, somehow, a memory that, by some strange alchemy, draws together a whole passage of life.

Perhaps it is—or was—a distinctive feature of Russian education, at least until the late Soviet period, that it produced a high level of shared literary knowledge, familiarizing children with literary classics that would then stay with them through life. Poets were acclaimed in ways that rarely happened in the West (I remember reports of Yevtushenko filling concert halls for readings in the 1960s). Perhaps this is an aspect of what some have seen as the essentially ‘oriental’ flavour of Russian life. But whether such speculations have anything to them, the idea of such a unitary and unifying canon of classical culture has long been abandoned in the West and is, of course, now derided as a symptom of patriarchy and colonialism. That may be—but Ginzburg’s experience shows how such a canon might provide those able to access it with resources to humanize terrors that are beyond our generation’s imagining.

The War is Over?

Thinking about the end of the war in Afghanistan—or, at least, the official end of Britain’s and America’s military engagement in that war—I turned (again) to the poems in which Siegfried Sassoon reflected on the end of his war, what used to be called ‘the Great War’ (1914-19). One poem stood out.


When you are standing at your hero’s grave, Or near some homeless village where he died, Remember, through your heart’s rekindling pride, The German soldiers who were loyal and brave.

Men fought like brutes; and hideous things were done; And you have nourished hatred, harsh and blind. But in that Golgotha perhaps you’ll find The mothers of the men who killed your son.

(November 1918.)

Purely as poetry, Sassoon’s verses are not for the most part on the same level as, for example, Wilfred Owen’s, but they do directly address his own traumatic experience of all he lived through in a graphic and honest way. He had killed and nearly been killed. But here, as the war ends, he broaches a theme that is as old as war writing, as in Homer. It is the realization that, in the end, we must respect the enemy as a human being, as one like us, who, by his lights, was ‘loyal and brave’.

That was difficult for many. Perhaps, despite horrors on a scale far exceeding the wars of the last twenty years, it was, somehow, less difficult in 1918 or 1945. Then, for all their differences, the soldiers on the opposing sides shared many commonalities. Christian faith still provided a shared vocabulary for the majority (at least in Western Europe). There was a shared inheritance of art, literature and music—and movies. British and German troops both sang ‘Lili Marlene’. In the First World War the rulers of major combatant nations were actually cousins (the King, the Kaiser, and the Tsar). Aristocrats, the middle classes, and the proletariat had recognizably similar ways of life across national boundaries. There were therefore many points of reference to help to see the humanity of the enemy—in the end.

None of that seems to be the case in the long war that has just ended. There are minimal points of shared cultural references, one could almost say there are none. The enemy has been and is as alien as, within the continuum of human experience, is possible. From either side nothing is said to acknowledge that the enemy is, ultimately, one like me. And perhaps, until that point is reached and shared, the war is not over.

The Emptying Sky

Taking an evening walk down to the harbour at the weekend, I became aware that the cloudless sky above was empty and silent. Something was missing. I realized almost at once that it was the swifts who would normally be swooping and soaring in ever-changing groupings, their cheeping suddenly swelling as they dived low over the water and then disappearing as—literally—at a hundred miles an hour they disappeared up into the fading light. Perhaps not the first sign of the changing seasons, but a decisive one. Inevitably, there is a sense of loss—at least, from my human perspective. The swifts themselves have, I think, had a good year. When they came there were about a dozen. More recently, I counted over twenty. As they are a threatened species, this seems positive. Across the water, there are initiatives aimed at making Edinburgh a special haven for these amazing birds, its old tenement buildings ideal for their nests. For more on swifts, see my blog for 7th May 2020!

The next day I noticed that the foliage of the lime avenue across the local estate was starting to go a bright yellow, while today the blackened stems of the cow parsley and the dead flowerheads of the knapweed by the coastal path looked as if they had been burnt out by the sun.

It would be easy enough to experience these signs of summer passing over into autumn with a sigh, a shrug, and a brief momentary lament for the transience of life—inevitably encompassing also the transience of our own lives. And yet I find it somehow reassuring. Perhaps in the wake of the strange tumultuous times we have been experiencing since early last year, these signs of autumn are also signs that, as in the biblical promise, the time of sowing and the time of harvest will never cease. The alternating seasons are not the manifestation of a cycle of eternal recurrence from which we can never escape, but, in their own way, a revelation of what Gerard Manley Hopkins called the ‘goodness deep down things’. And that despite ‘what man has made of man’, which, in our time as in Wordsworth’s, gives grievous cause for lament.

Changing the furniture

I have no intention of adding to the comment about events in Afghanistan swirling around the info-sphere. I have never been there. I have not studied the history in any detail. I do not speak any of the languages in which Afghans speak to each other. I have known several people who served there, not only in the most recent war but also in what historians refer to as the 3rd Afghan War of 1919. The 1st Afghan war was, in effect, lost by the British, the second, allowed Britain and Russia to dictate terms to the Afghans, but the 3rd saw Afghanistan gain significant independence (and become one of the first countries to recognize the Bolshevik government in Russia). Two old soldiers I spoke to who had memories of that war said that what they feared most was being captured and handed over to the women who (or so the troops believed) would be given the task of skinning prisoners alive. That sounds almost unbelievable, although I have seen footage of Russian soldiers, captured during the Soviet occupation, pegged out on the ground with the skin from their stomachs cut away to lure birds and other wild animals to feed on them while they were still alive. All this by way of historical perspective. There is much talk of soldiers being betrayed by the recent withdrawal of US and other NATO forces, but I don’t think anyone regarded those soldiers who served in those long ago and virtually forgotten wars as losers: they were soldiers who did their duty. Perhaps it’s only in the most recent of times that we’ve come to assume that every war must end in victory. Historically, that’s not a compelling belief. ‘The myth of victory’ as we might call it is powerful but (like so many myths) an unreliable guide to reality.

So to the war of 2001-2021. As I say, I’ve not been there and am really quite ignorant of Afghan society. Here is a comment made to me by an American army doctor who had served a two-year tour in the early 2000s, working in a hospital that helped Afghan civilians as well as military personnel). She put it like this. The Afghans, she said, are a very polite people. If you went in to one of their homes and said they needed to arrange the furniture, they would let you do it. Then, when you’d gone, they’d put if back just where it was before. And that, she saw, would be the outcome of the most recent war. In the light of how things have developed, this seems prescient—though many will feel it doesn’t do justice to the pain some are now feeling.

At the moment nothing is certain. But it may be that some (obviously not all) of the gains for women, education, and civil society may survive. I do not know—and, once again, it’s become clear that our political leaders don’t know either. Waiting and guarding counsel is a tough call.