Monday, September 26, 2016

Yes, we shall control the past

Some time ago I wrote about the trial of Vladimir Luzgin from Perm who had the unparalleled audacity of writing on a social media outlet that in September 1939 the Soviet Union invaded Poland, admittedly more than two weeks after Germany had done.

Slightly belatedly I have found out that the conviction has been upheld by the Russian Supreme Court.
It is probably no accident that the ‘offending text’ should be Ukrainian, and fairly nationalist, however it was specifically over the following paragraph in the repost that the criminal proceedings against Luzgin were initiated:

The communists and Germany jointly invaded Poland, sparking off the Second World War. That is, communism and Nazism closely collaborated, yet for some reason they blame Bandera who was in a German concentration camp for declaring Ukrainian independence.

Russia’s Supreme Court has now agreed that this paragraph constitutes “the public denial of the Nuremberg Trials and circulation of false information about the activities of the USSR during the years of the Second World War”.
The trial, appeal, the various testimonies and final decision are so bizarre as to defy any kind of sense.
It is hard to know what is most shocking in all of this. A prime contender must be Alexander Vertinsky, dean of the History Faculty of the Perm Humanitarian-Pedagogical University. He proved willing to appear for the prosecution and claim that the paragraph really did contain “statements that do not correspond with the position accepted at international level”.

There are also two Russian courts willing to agree that since the Nuremberg Trials did not mention the Soviet invasion, the information was ‘knowingly false’. With the Soviet Union as one of the victors exerting considerable influence at Nuremberg, it was highly unlikely that Soviet collaboration with the Nazis and its invasion would get a mention.

The rulings are extraordinarily cynical. Whatever was said at Nuremberg, any genuine historian will confirm that the Soviet Union invaded what was then Poland on September 17, 1939.

To deny this is absurd when the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and its secret protocols which carved up Poland between the Soviet Union and Germany have long been in the public domain, and can be read about in any history book.
The notion that history is to be written according to what was and what was not said at the Nuremberg Trials that were nothing more than the victorious powers finding a way of dealing with the defeated enemy and an otherwise intractable situation is preposterous. A great deal was not said at those trials.

Nobody talked about the Katyn murders though there had been a Soviet suggestion of introducing those as part of the indictment. The other Allied prosecutors refused to support that, thus proving that they and their government knew at the time who was responsible and the idea was dropped. Nobody was tried for those, not at Nuremberg, not anywhere else. Are we not to mention Katyn in history books?

As I have mentioned before (probably a few times) the Great Patriotic War remains the one great untouchable myth in the Russian psyche and in order to preserve it they would prefer not to know how much of the death and suffering was the outcome of Stalin's policies. Most certainly, there can be no discussion of anything that might throw a negative light at the country or any of the people, either at the top or lower down.

Without acknowledging the truth, which will show the people of the Soviet Union (not just the Russians but many others) to have fought and suffered with great courage as well as having committed various war crimes as a country and as individuals, Russia cannot move forward.

Meanwhile, Luzgin's lawyer, Henry Reznik is promising further appeals, probably to the European Court of Human Rights.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Tuesday Night Bloggers: Children as witnesses and victims

I came across Mabel Esther Allan's Murder At The Flood by accident in a second hand bookshop and was attracted by the title with its echoes of Christie as well as the placing of the story, a huge flood in a Norfolk village (based on the devastating floods of 1953) with its echo of Sayers and Nine Tailors.

The book was published by a firm I had never heard of, Greyladies, which is an imprint of The Old Children's Bookshelf, a children's bookshop in Edinburgh. Altogether an intriguing set-up. They publish what they call "Well-Mannered Books by Ladies Long Gone", reprinting novels fallen into oblivion or never published in the first place. Among them are detective stories by children's writers, such as Noel Streatfield and Mabel Esther Allan who was extremely prolific under her own name and pseudonyms, writing stories about schools (usually rather advanced coeducational ones), ballet and many other subjects that would interest children and teenagers. Often they had a detective or mystery flavour to them, as children's books in those days tended to.

Doing some superficial research for this posting I found that there is some interest in Mabel Esther Allan out there on the internet.

There is a website called The Mabel Project, which set out to cover all Mabel Esther Allan's books but seems to have lasted only two years though it is meant to be a "long-term" project so it might be resurrected.

There is a website dedicated to her papers that are in the de Grummond Children's Literature Collection at the University of Southern Mississippi, something else I knew nothing about. This tells us that she was the author of over 170 published novels for children and what we are supposed to call young adults but I still call teenagers because adults of any kind they are not. There were some privately published books (how lowly that sounded then and yet how important it has become), four volumes of autobiography and eight unpublished novels. Some of these must be for adults.

Murder At The Flood, originally published in 1957, was reprinted in 2009 and is described as Mabel Esther Allan's only published novel for adults. Fantastic Fiction tells me that in 2011 Greyladies published another of her adult detective novels, Death Goes To Italy and from the publisher's own website I learn that Death Goes Dancing, which combines Ms Allan's love for and interest in ballet with a detective plot was published in 2014. Apparently she wrote only three detective stories, all in the fifties and only one of those was published in her lifetime. Rather a pity if Murder At The Flood is anything to go by.

Time to turn to the book and the children in it. As one would expect from an experienced writer for children and teenagers, the author does not simplify either their characters or, most importantly, their relationship to the world around them especially their families and other adults. They are both witnesses in different ways and one of them ends up being a victim.

The story is told from the point of view of the vicar's wife though it is in the third person. She is also a detective story writer though the village does not know this and this becomes the subject of possible blackmail by the man who, understandably, becomes the first corpse. As the story progresses we find out, naturally enough, that he had several victims or potential victims, people he was just approaching. Some of the blackmailable "offences" seem rather silly even by the standards of small Norfolk village of the 1950s, others more important. The one basic problem is that Thomas Long, the blackmailer and first murder victim, is also a malevolent drunkard who could not control either his tongue or his behaviour. This is hardly the stuff blackmailers are made of but his body is found at the end of chapter one and we do not really see him in action.

The flood and the village's behaviour are not dissimilar from those we find in Nine Tailors but while Sayers described the creation of a microcosm that is almost utopian, led by the near-saintly rector, the church and the vicarage is filled with the inevitable dirt, smells, wailing children, complaining old women and, as the news of the first and the second murder spread, pure nastiness. It would seem Mabel Esther Allan did not have a high opinion of humanity, not even in pretty villages set in lovely countryside.

Perhaps she had a low opinion only of adults; the two children are sympathetic characters. Betony Long, daughter of the victim is a bright girl with a deep love of poetry who has been bullied and abused by her father, whom she hates, and stifled by her mother whom she adores. In her early teens, she has been a witness to far too much and is finding it more and more difficult to cope even with the help and support of Emily Varney, the vicar's wife. She knows about violence, anger and hatred; and she knows about profound unhappiness. She is, as we find out at the end, a witness to the murder itself and that destroys her inside before she, in turn, is killed by the murderer.

The other child is Peter Love, the doctor's son, clearly brighter than his contemporaries and many adults who treat him with the sort of condescension that seems to have been the norm but not brighter than his father. That makes an enormous difference between him and the unhappy Betony. He is a witness at several crucial moments. He finds Thomas Long's body and proclaims that fact in the church as people are arriving from their flooded houses. Those who had known about the body had thought to keep it quiet for the time being but Peter puts an end to that and, unintentionally, starts all the vicious gossip about who might have killed the man.

Peter finds a letter that the vicar had dropped, which is taken rather swiftly from him by the self-important Mr Pyke who is "investigating" the crime and is putting everybody's back up. Nobody is too surprised when his dead body is found.

Finally, it is Peter who directs Emily's attention to a pile of very damp books among which Mr Pyke had been rooting not long before his death and where he found some crucial information. Emily finds it, too, but, in some ways, it is too late. Undoubtedly, Peter Love is going to do well at his school but whether he will become a detective is unknown.

In many ways this is a grim tale though there is a happy and summer flower filled last chapter and, in particular, the life and fate of children is not shown as being particularly rosy. One can but hope that Richard and Emily Varney, whose first child is due a few months after the last chapter, will have learnt some lessons.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

But 'twas a famous victory

Well, a victory, anyway. The "crushing" victory of Putin's party, New Russia, is possibly the least surprising news item of the last six months. What is slightly more surprising is that the Russians have decided to vote with their feet, about the only way they can do so in any meaningful fashion. According to official figures, turn-out was 47.81%, down from the 60% of 2011, in itself not all that high.
The preliminary results announced in Moscow early on September 19 by the Central Election Commission (TsIK) showed United Russia with 54.28 percent of the party list vote, under which 225 Duma seats are assigned to candidates listed by political parties winning at least 5 percent of the ballots cast.

Candidates from United Russia, which is backed by President Vladimir Putin, also were leading in most of the 225 "single-mandate" constituencies, where the candidate with the most votes wins.

Unlike the last two parliamentary elections, in 2011 and 2007, this year half of the mandates were distributed according to national party-list voting and the other half were contested in single-mandate districts.

TsIK Chairwoman Ella Pamfilova said United Russia was on track to win 140 Duma seats by party ticket and another 203 in single-mandate constituencies.

Only three other parties were on track to surpass the 5 percent threshold and secure party representation in the legislature. All regularly vote with United Russia on key issues and all are represented in the outgoing Duma.

They include the Communist Party with 13.45 percent (42 seats), flamboyant ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky's Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) with 13.24 percent (39 seats), and A Just Russia with 6.17 percent (23 seats).

Pamfilova said final results should be announced on September 23.
I am not expecting any surprises. Not even an announcement that an opposition candidate from either Yabloko or PARNAS has won a seat. Given that they were not really allowed to campaign it is quite likely that the vast majority of the Russian population has never heard of the two parties. Even in Belarus two opposition politicians won seats in the recent parliamentary election.

Meanwhile both Radio Liberty and Reuters are reporting that the fraud was even more widespread than we first believed. That "biggest majority", touted by the Telegraph among others is something of a myth.
When liberal rights activist Ella Pamfilova was named to head Russia’s election commission in March, she promised to clean house and oversee transparent, democratic elections.

“We will change a lot, and radically, in the way the Central Election Commission operates. A lot and radically -- this is something I can promise you,” she said at the time.

However, a statistical analysis of the official preliminary results of the country’s September 18 State Duma elections points to a familiar story: massive fraud in favor of the ruling United Russia party comparable to what independent analysts found in 2007 and 2011.

“The results of the current Duma elections were falsified on the same level as the Duma and presidential elections of 2011, 2008, and 2007, the most falsified elections in post-Soviet history, as far as we can tell,” physicist and data analyst Sergei Shpilkin told RFE/RL’s Russian Service. “By my estimate, the scope of the falsification in favor of United Russia in these elections amounted to approximately 12 million votes.”
Who, you might ask is Sergei Shpilkin?
Shpilkin, who in 2012 won the independent PolitProsvet award for political analysis for his statistical work on the 2011 vote, posted his examination of the latest election on his blog on September 19.

Using data from the Central Election Commission’s website, Shpilkin organized all 95,800 polling stations on a graph according to the turnout that they reported.

In fair elections, the graph would form a bell curve, with its peak indicating the average turnout for the entire election. Reading from left to right, Shpilkin’s graph shows a relatively normal bell curve that peaks at about 36 percent turnout and then, as it moves right, shows a jagged curve that dips unevenly and then begins rising again, as vast numbers of polling stations begin reporting turnouts of 70 percent or more.

Moreover, Shpilkin shows that almost all “extra” votes from polling stations reporting higher-than-average turnout went to United Russia. That is, a party such as ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s LDPR received virtually the same number of votes from polling stations reporting a turnout of 95 percent as it did from stations reporting turnouts of 65 percent. United Russia, by contrast, received about four times as many at the 95 percent stations.
I admit, this is largely for election geeks but the various examples given by Reuters reporters confirms the statistical analysis. Even without fraud we can say that the Duma represents less than half the country's population and the winning United Russia party represents a minority. You could say the same for almost any government in almost any democratic country. Except that Russia is not one of those but a country that has had its opposition stifled, with the media being controlled by the state, the opposition parties not allowed to function and individuals either hounded out of the country, if they are lucky, or murdered.

This raises the subject of Putin's much vaunted popularity, something that was raised during the discussion of David Satter's book at the Henry Jackson Society. That popularity, said Mr Satter, accurately enough, is based on lies and suppression of information. That's as may be but it is also a doubtful concept.

In the first place, reliance on opinion polls is usually misplaced even in Western countries, let alone in Russia where people are understandably wary of answering official sounding questions truthfully. In fact, on a number of occasions, that was the question put to people by Levada, the only independent polling organization and the answer was usually overwhelmingly the same: of course we are not going to answer truthfully but as we think people expect us to answer.

In the second place, voting results have not shown Putin's popularity for quite some time. Turn-outs are low and even with the control exerted over any kind of an opposition fraud and falsification is required to achieve the necessary results that are, as it happens, not particularly impressive.

Thirdly, if Putin is so popular why has the Ministry of Justice launched an attack on the only independent polling organization, Levada? Having been named a "foreign agent" it now faces closure. The reason could not possibly be that, even with all the problems mentioned above, their opinion polls did not show that Putin's popularity was sinking very rapidly?

There is an additional item of news from Russia itself (this blog is not about the mess in Syria) and that comes from Kommersant, which is still independent, via Radio Liberty. Their journalists have found out that there is a plan to consolidate and strengthen all the various security forces and organizations before the presidential elections of 2018 in a Ministry of State Security or, in Russian, Министерство Государственной Безопастности (МГБ or MGB). And why not, you might ask. No reason except for the historic resonances. We've been here before. The MGB was Lavrenty Beria's all-powerful security apparatus from 1946 to 1953 when it changed its name again and Beria was disposed of. What goes around, comes around, especially in Russia.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

FGM has been illegal for thirty years and no prosecutions

Actually, that is not quite correct. There was one prosecution of a case that was clearly not going to result in a conviction since the doctor in question was not exactly accused of female genital mutilation. We hear a great deal about various new initiatives in healthcare, in education, whatnot but what we do not hear about is people who carry out this ghastly torture of children being taken to court, tried and sentenced.

From the BBC news item I find out that we have a Minister for Safeguarding, Vulnerability and Countering Extremism and her name is Sarah Newton. Ms Newton, Minister for all the above said rather pompously:
This government is clear that FGM is a barbaric form of abuse that has absolutely no place whatsoever in a Britain that works for everyone, and the criminals who perpetrate it should be brought to justice.

That's why we are taking world-leading action to tackle FGM by strengthening the law to improve protection for those at risk and remove barriers to prosecution.
World leading action? What kind of world leading action? Ms Newton, Minister for all of the above was responding to a Report issued by the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee that castigated the judicial system for not prosecuting successfully a single case in the UK. Not a single one. How is that world leading action?

I cannot quote all the Conclusions and Recommendations of the Report on p. 22 do I suggest readers of this blog turn to it (so to speak) themselves. They are hard hitting, I am glad to say. Here is the BBC's summary:
The committee said the poor record on prosecutions and convictions would "deter those brave enough to come forward" to report FGM and "result in the preventable mutilation of thousands of girls".

The scale of the problem remains unknown because of a lack of reliable data, but the government estimates 170,000 women and girls in the UK have undergone the procedure.

The first ever recorded figures for FGM, reported in July, showed that between April 2015 and March 2016 there were 5,702 new cases in England.

Most of the women and girls were born in Africa and underwent the procedure there, but at least 18 were subjected to FGM in the UK.

Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland have not collected any figures on FGM.
Will anything come of this Report beyond more initiatives and more discussions? Oh yes, and yet more strengthening of the law, which was strengthened two years ago? Rather despairingly, I do not hold my breath.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

"The Less You Know, The Better You Sleep"

This is the title of David Satter's most recent book, a translation of the Russian saying: Меньше знаешь, крепче спишь. Some might argue that this is a saying that sums up a good deal of Russian history and, alas, the Russian people's attitude. The book is about the transition from the Yeltsin era to the Putin one and deals, particularly, with the infamous apartment block explosions in 1999, which launched the second Chechnyan war and brought an unknown politician and former KGB and FSB officer, Vladimir Putin into prominence.

I shall be writing about the book at a later stage but now I shall concentrate on David's talk given yesterday to the Henry Jackson Society. (Full declaration of interest: David Satter is a good friend.) To anyone who has looked at that terrifying story and at the extraordinarily high death rate among people who tried to investigate what happened when those four apartment blocks blew up and when the fifth one did not, the answer seems obvious: it was a provocation organized by the FSB in order to get Yeltsin off the hook (his popularity had sunk to about 2 per cent), get a "reliable" person into the presidential seat and divert attention from all Russia's problems to just one, Chechnya, where the first war had been a costly and vicious disaster. (The second one is no better only with greater levels of cruelty.) While 9/11 truthers are coming up with ever more bizarre stories, this remains the reality but the breathtaking cynicism behind it and the readiness on the part of the Russian political elite to kill their own people in order to achieve their particular nasty aims makes it difficult for many to accept that this is what happened. In fact, I have heard at least one person who is well in with officialdom proclaim that he knew nobody, nobody at all who believed that it was the FSB. My reply was that I knew nobody, either Russian and British who did not believe that it was the FSB and that happens to be true.

David Satter started with the Yeltsin years and the catastrophe they turned out to be. This, I think, is a tremendous shame as the beginning of the period did seem quite hopeful. Indeed, looking back on those years from where we are now, they still seem quite hopeful. I agree with David that Yeltsin was not a democrat in any real sense and was, in many ways, an inadequate leader and wrote so when he died.

The problem, David Satter said, is the strong misunderstanding of what was required to extirpate the Marxist/Communist system, which grew out of a misunderstanding of the system itself. When the Soviet Union collapsed the assumption was in the successor states as well as the myriads of Western advisers and, let us face it, people who were hoping to benefit personally, that the main problem was economic and privatization of state property, which was practically everything, will solve it all. Of course, some of us said even at the time that privatization without an understanding of the rule of law will not work.

Communism first and foremost was a system of morality that had led to complete immorality and criminality. There is no place here to discuss all that but it is clear and was even in the early nineties that to overcome its noxious effects, another system of morality had to be established. Sadly, there were very few people who could produce this (the Russian Orthodox Church being notoriously deficient in ideas that oppose the state) and even fewer who could put them into practice. The great academician Sakharov died far too early.

So privatization proceeded with little regard as to who benefited and far too many people lost out economically and intellectually in that what they had been supposed to believe disappeared almost overnight with nothing in its place. To some extent people gave up and that explains Putin's early popularity: he was going to hand something back to Russia and Russians. For various reasons, not unconnected with the rise in oil and gas prices he also presided over a period when more people had a materially better life than anyone in Russia could recall.

Putin's present popularity, which, inevitably was raised in discussion is based on the various lies and distortions that the now almost completely state controlled media pours out but it is also questionable. The recent news that the only independent polling organization, Levada, has been named "a foreign agent" by the Ministry of Justice thus making its work well-nigh impossible indicates a fear in the Kremlin that their polling results will not be the ones that are wanted.

One could say that they are lucky. The infamous census of 1937, which showed a far lower population in the USSR than expected (after collectivization and the attendant famine as well as the early purge arrests) the results were destroyed and those who conducted it arrested and sent to the Gulag. A new census was conducted in 1939 after two more years of frenzied arrests, deaths and executions with the figures coming out considerably more favourably than in 1937. Go figure.

David Satter's view is that Russia is now in a grip of a mass psychosis and he speculated what would have happened if the explanations for the explosions (it was the Chechnyans though there was a complete denial on their part and the explosions did not bring about a favourable situation for them) and, especially, the fifth would-be explosion (it was just a test to see whether people are aware of the danger) had been met with the sort of open scepticism in Russia and abroad that they deserved.

Would Russia have avoided the Nord-Ost siege of 2002 and the Beslan school siege of 2004, both started by Chechnyan terrorists but both witnessing a far higher number of hostages killed by the OMON personnel? Would we have seen the invasion of Georgia, the occupation of Crimea and the war in eastern Ukraine that has already claimed something like 100,000 victims? Impossible to tell. But as Putin has started so he has gone on and the ending of the story is not going to be good for anyone.

It is, as David Satter said, and I entirely agree with him, the duty of Western politicians, writers, journalists, analysts and intellectuals (whoever they may be) to tell the truth about the regime and about its origins. That includes not "forgetting" about those apartment blocks as too many people seem to.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Flag-waving in the worst possible taste

Yes, the Last Night of the Proms is upon us and the usual rows have emerged in the newspapers: is it a nasty chauvinistic flag-waving event or is it just a jolly party for people who have attended many if not most of the Proms concerts?

The only time I went to the Last Night was in the summer after my A levels when I had a season ticket for the second half of the series and, whoever was in the seats, the Arena and the Gallery was filled with people like me. That is, the second half really was just a party for people who loved music, went to the concerts and were celebrating the end of another successful series.

Since then, the Proms have gone from strength to strength but, in my opinion, unfortunately, the Last Night has become an institution on its own. There are people all over the world who are a little hazy what the Proms are but know for certain that there is a Last Night and it is wonderful or quite wonderful or whatever. The Proms in the Park all over the country is not a phenomenon I welcome - it erodes the quality of the music and makes it impossible to watch or listen to the Last Night in the Albert Hall. Still, many other people like the whole development and it is only one night of the year. I can ignore it all and usually do though I do listen and even go to some of the concerts. (Not the Arena any more but the Gallery sees my presence.)

This year another ingredient has been added to the brew of insane discussions: the anti-Brexiteers who are still fighting a lost battle. Various groups have raised money to buy lots of EU flags (because the Common Fisheries Policy and the European Arrest Warrant and the Common Agricultural Policy and legislation that can be initiated only by the Commission are essential to good music) to hand out to Promenaders. They can then wave them to their heart's content while everyone sings Rule Britannia to prove how much they hate nationalism and flag-waving.

The Guardian reports today that the plan seems to have gone ahead though how many of those blue flags with gold stars will be waved in a few hours' time is unknown. The comments made by the organizers (who do not care to give their names) are priceless in their stupidity:
In a statement, the organisers, who want to remain anonymous, said: “Music doesn’t recognise borders, religion, gender, age, status or creed and most orchestras, shows and music schools rely heavily on talented musicians from inside and outside the EU.”

They added: “Accordionist Romano Viazzani summed it up perfectly when he said: ‘Music is the universal language. It builds bridges and tears down walls’.”

On Saturday morning the team tweeted a picture of concertgoers with EU flags gathered outside the venue. They captioned the image: “First prom-goers arrive with EU flags in solidarity with musicians and music.”
Um yes. Musicians inside and outside the EU. So why do we need to wave EU flags and set up those walls and boundaries that the blue and gold flag signifies. And how does the Common Fisheries Policy fit in with music being international?