An Oral History of the Bangladesh War of Independence, 1971 (continued)

Written by Carissa Chew

 

Editorial note: The first part of this article appeared in our printed edition named ‘Individuals and Communities’ (Issue No. 21) and is available through the journal archive on this website. Unfortunately we were unable to publish the rest of the article in the printed journal and it slipped through the cracks in being published online. The author published the full article on her blog (https://carissachew.wordpress.com/2018/01/01/an-oral-history-of-the-bangladesh-war-of-independence-1971/) after the printed edition went out so that it would be available online. We are now happy to publish the rest of this article on our website to bring things full circle.

 

Wider Historical Issues

The history of the Bangladesh War has been fiercely contested, and it remains a controversial topic of discussion, partly because the horrors of 1971 remain in living memory and the profound impacts it had on individual families are still discernible today. One of the main points of contention is the scale of the tragedy. There is an absence of any substantial record of the names and numbers of those who died, and therefore the death toll figure of three million has come under scrutiny. Historians are asking the vital questions: where did this figure come from? And is there any evidence to substantiate it? The general consensus is that three million – a figure apparently plucked from thin air by politicians – is too high, yet the figure of 26,000 produced from ground-level studies is implausibly low. It must be accepted that the extent of the casualties will never be accurately gauged, let alone the proportion of those who were massacred to those who died as a result of famine and disease. Moreover, individual accounts of the events continue to disagree: rumour and exaggeration have played a large role in people’s reports of the war, and their versions of events have often become even more distorted with time. For these reasons, Salil Tripathi suggests that it is impossible to characterise exactly what happened in Bangladesh in 1971.

In terms of the historiography of the Bangladesh War, Sarmila Bose – an Indian author and Senior Research Fellow in Politics at the University of Oxford – is a highly controversial figure. Bose writes a revisionist account of the civil war in which she reassesses the ‘traditional’ narrative that the ‘evil’ Pakistani military were single-handedly responsible for the death of millions of innocent Bengalis, resulting in the ‘1971 Bangladesh genocide’. Bose argues that the violence was not one-sided, points out that the death toll has been exaggerated, and challenges the use of the term ‘genocide.’ Bose’s book Dead Reckoning: Memories of the 1971 Bangladesh War (2011) sparked widespread backlash, with criticism ranging from statements that her sympathy for the Pakistani army is a betrayal of Bengalis, to attempts to damage her reputation based on allegations that her great-uncle Subhas Chandra Bose had supported Hitler in the Second World War. At a popular level, Bose’s work has been misinterpreted, and she herself unjustly slandered: her great-uncle’s political views are, of course, irrelevant to her reputation. These popular criticisms of Bose’s work remain prevalent today, and is difficult to read about the 1971 war online without encountering these biases. Furthermore, because Bose’s research is the preferred version of events among many Pakistanis (often those who have an anti-Bengali sentiment), this has heightened the perception that Bose is pro-Pakistani. Many academics have given weight to this perception by suggesting that Bose’s use of source material portrays a selective bias in favour of the Pakistani Army.

Having read Bose’s work however, her argument is very convincing, insightful and provides a much-needed challenge to traditional assumptions. She raises important points about the complexity of the events of 1971, and just because she demonstrates that it was not simply a case of the Pakistani army having committed ‘genocide’ against innocent Bengalis, it certainly does not underplay the suffering that was experienced during the war to point this out. Just because it was not a ‘genocide’ – meaning the violence was sporadic and so the victims were not killed on solely the basis of their nationality, ethnicity or race – and just because less than three million lives were lost, does not mean that the war was any less horrific. Bose’s intention is to dispel the myths of the war, not to undermine Bengali suffering. Whether her methodology is questionable or not, Bose rightly argues that the story of 1971 has been ‘dominated by the narrative of the victorious side.’ There were Pakistanis who sympathised with Bengali liberation, and there were Bengalis who collaborated with the West. If we look more closely, the targets of the violence committed by Pakistanis and Bengalis are multiple, and there is great variation in the motives of those committing these atrocities. Among the Pakistani military’s victims were not just Hindu and Muslim Bengalis, but non-Bengali Biharis too. It is also important to note that there is a false conception that the army targeted only unarmed civilians, when many of these Bengali casualties in Dhaka University had weapons and were training to fight. Moreover, the Pakistani army relied on Bengali collaborators, the razakar, who killed other Bengalis. In fact, it was the razakar, not Pakistanis, who carried out the 14 December massacre. Bengali-collaborators and Pakistanis were also attacked by pro-Bangladesh Bengalis during and after the war. The Biharis and Hindus were another a target for Bengali violence, and the rape of women was used as a weapon by all sides. Women were not simply victims, however, as Bengali women were also involved in the armed training at Dhaka University. Moreover, many attacks were motivated by personal, material and non-political reasons. Thus to term 1971 a ‘genocide’ would overlook these complexities, and we should instead recognise that various different groups committed crimes against humanity. It is not pro-Pakistani for Bose to suggest that all nationalities should be tried for their war crimes.

As Bose’s argument demonstrates, therefore, the war witnessed heightened tensions between different communities; but in many ways, these communities were not homogenous. Given the sporadic nature of the violence and the different motives involved, it can be problematic to speak of the war in terms of interactions between different groups: Pakistanis, Bengalis, Indians, Biharis, Muslims, Hindus, Mukhti Bahini and rakazar. Generalisations about the roles and experiences of these communities can therefore be misleading, and in this sense individual accounts of the conflict are an important source in revealing these complexities – and the Mondal family’s account is no exception. The Mondals and their extended family were threatened by the violence of the Pakistani military, the razakar and the anti-razakar Bengalis. Momtaz expresses her awareness that both the Pakistani military and the Mukhti Bahini were raping women. Furthermore, in the Mondal case study there are various examples of both united and divided communities. For instance, the generous Bengali community at Jalkuri fed everyone for free, whereas Momtaz was not accepted into the Bengali women’s community at Nawabganj and was isolated because of her class-identity. Therefore, there was little affinity between Bengali Muslim communities in certain instances, and the Mondals’ loyalties were not limited to a single religious-ethnic group. We see that Sattar befriended his Hindu assistant, and also in an aside he told me that one of his colleagues, ‘a very good man’ was a West Pakistani. Also, when Marium was targeted by men in her village for her husband’s association with the razakar, Momtaz’s relations (relatives of Hasina) jumped to her defence regardless of the razakar having killed Hasina’s husband. Therefore, it is in some ways reductionist to talk about the Bangladesh War in terms of distinct ‘communities’ because in reality people were riddled with various different familial, political, ethnic, religious, regional, class and national allegiances.

Whilst individual accounts are incredibly informative, they can also be problematic due to rumour, bias and exaggeration. Bose highlights that ‘those who were present, took part, who saw, and who survived in East Pakistan in 1971 all seem to have somewhat different stories to tell of the same events’, and thus it is difficult to determine fact from fiction. For instance, in popular versions of the events of 25 March it is often recounted that the female students at Rokeya Hall were raped, tortured and kidnapped, but in reality there is no evidence to support this. Instead there exists a witnesses’ statement that there were only 7 female students still living there in March and all 7 were unharmed. Bose expresses her frustration at the Bengali tendency to distort the event when ‘what actually happened was ghastly enough.’ The impact of rumour is also evident in Momtaz’ account, as when she told me about the 14 December killings she said that all the bodies were found with their eyes gouged out. Bose explains that this was in fact a popular rumour of the time and in reality, the majority of bodies were found blindfolded with their hands tied behind their backs, eyeballs untouched. But we cannot expect ordinary Bengalis to have known truth from rumour, particularly considering that this sort of detail is very plausible in the violent context. Other than the fact that the Mondal account was collected 46 years after the event and therefore time may have slightly distorted the accuracy of the family’s memories, there is no reason to seriously doubt the authenticity of Momtaz and Sattar’s tale of survival. Ultimately, their account of the war is a useful and reliable source that provides an informative description of the social impacts of the war, and in particular, Momtaz’s perspective offers a valuable gendered account of the experience.

In many ways, however, Sattar and Momtaz’s story is unique and in some ways non-reflective of other civilian experiences. In particular, the Mondal family’s experience is set apart from the average Bengali in that they were from a privileged background. On the one hand, this meant that they did not share in the hardship, famine and disease that many less prosperous citizens faced. On the other hand, the high-ranking statuses of Sattar, Kashim, Abdul and Foyazuddin – an academic, a doctor, a politician and a businessman – also meant that they were prime targets of Pakistani military violence. Sattar and Momtaz were also in heightened danger because of the constant military presence in Dhaka. On the other hand, their Bengali Muslim identity and lack of political involvement (with the exception of Abdul) reduced the likelihood of their deaths. On the whole, however, their experience of 1971 is one that they shared with a much larger, national Bengali community who likewise witnessed the horrors of 1971. To a great extent, a sense of Bengali nationhood would be founded on the notion of people’s collective suffering – the same notion that became misleading simplified as the collective suffering of ‘innocent Bengalis’ in the face of the ‘evil’ Pakistani military’s violence.

Bibliography

‘1971 Dhaka University Massacre’, Revolvy, https://www.revolvy.com/main/index.php?s=1971%20Dhaka%20University%20massacre&item_type=topic ; accessed 08 October 2017.

Bates, Crispin, Subalterns and Raj: South Asia since 1600 (London 2007).

Bose, Sarmila, ‘The question of genocide and the quest for justice in the 1971 war’, Journal of Genocide Research 13 (2011), pp. 393-419.

Bose, Sarmila, Dead Reckoning: Memories of the 1971 Bangladesh War (London 2011).

Tripathi, Salil, ‘Blood in the Water: The contested history of one of Bangladesh’ worst wartime massacres’ (2014), The Caravan, http://www.caravanmagazine.in/essay/blood-water ; accessed 10 November 2017.

The Journey Back Home

Written by Luis Monroy

 

 

“It is almost time, Erendira, hurry up.”

“I am coming, I am coming. They will wait for us, they always do.”

“Every year is the same with you, woman. You are unable to be ready on time.”

“Old man, you have been saying this for centuries now. And you always wait for me, the same as they do.”

Erendira and Pedro had a long way ahead of them. Once a year they visited their family. Once a year they had to make that long and dangerous journey. But family awaited. And the feast was worth it. So Erendira and Pedro always made that journey. That long and dangerous journey…

“Do we really have to go there? Can’t we go directly?”

“If you know the answer, why do you keep asking the question?”
“Because you know how much I despise these visits.”

“Well, Pedro, these visits are a necessity. And you might as well try to smile. But do not dare to fake it. The Lords know when someone is faking.”

“How on Mictlan am I supposed to smile without faking it if I do not want to be there?”

“That is not my problem. I am ready, now. Let’s go. The Lords are not to be kept waiting.”

The Lords owned the land in which Erendira and Pedro lived. That land was named Mictlan. And whoever wished to make a journey had to pay respect to the Lords of the land. Mictlantecuhtli and Mictecacihuatl were the names of the Great Lords. Their faces were pale white and almost fleshless. Their garments were like frayed bones. Their eyes almost disappeared into their immense cavities, and yet they followed your every move, every minor gesture.

Mictecacihuatl, the emaciated queen, was said to have given birth to a thousand infants. It was said that she showed compassion. It was said that she had wisdom. And every time travellers approached her before taking course, she advised them to stay safe. Safe from every danger, either real or imaginary.

“We are almost there, Erendira, hold my hand. Do not let it go.”

“What is wrong with you, Pedro? We have done this for centuries, now.”

“They frighten me. I cannot stand their sight. Those eyes. That silence. They transport you out of this world.”


“Gentle Lords. Gentle King Mictlantecuhtli and My Queen Mictecacihuatl. We are here today presenting you with the humblest of our gifts. Our respect. My name is Erendira. His name is Pedro. And we wish to make the journey. We wish to visit our family.”

So it was that Erendira and Pedro started their journey. The journey they made once a year. It was a quest of nine stages. Erendira was wearing a long black dress, covered with blue and orange blossoming flowers. Her head was crowned by a hat decorated with ribbons, with her beautifully arranged hair braids peeking out of it. Pedro was wearing a dark suit. It was a sober and elegant garment, accented by a hat and his long-ridged moustache.

“Do you feel it, Pedro?”

“I cannot feel anything. And I cannot see anything. There’s too much fog.”

“Pedro, this is it. This is Chiconahualoyan. I remember everything now. Oh, those candies you loved. Oh, and my chair. Pedro, I remember everything. Even when you proposed. Who would say you could be such a romantic?”

“Oh, I remember. I remember that damned Ramon. He never gave me back my rifle. He took it and never gave it back. As soon as I see him I’ll…”

“Shhh. This is it. This is the road, Pedro. Forget Ramon. You haven’t seen him in ages. And you do not need your rifle now.”

“I might need it now, especially with where we are going.”

 

“Pedro, wait. We already left Mictlan. That’s why we couldn’t see anything before.”

Erendira and Pedro passed the first of the nine stages. A place called Chiconahualoyan, a foggy place where it is said you lose external sight, and so you can look deep into yourself. Now, they were approaching Apanohuayan, the place of nine rivers.  

“Erendira, my suit will be ruined. I want to go back.”

“Pedro, your grandchildren are waiting. They won’t mind if your suit is clean or dirty. They just want to be with you.”

“What if I bump into that damned Ramon? He will make fun of me.”

“That damned old Ramon will be as dirty as you. Now, hold me tight, you know that this river is tricky.”


“Look at my suit! It is all wet now!”

“If Ramon does not mock you, then I will for being so faint hearted.”

“I am about to lose my heart. We are getting near to Teyollocualoyan. This place is full of jaguars!”

“Those are gentle jaguars. You just have to feed them and be nice.”

“Feed them with what? My heart?”

“Well, Pedro, if a jaguar complains less than you, I will let it have your heart.”

 

Always arguing, always bickering, Erendira and Pedro continued their journey. That long and dangerous journey. They crossed Temiminaloyan, where they had to dodge a hundred arrows. They crossed Pancuetlacaloyan, the desert. A desolate place where you feel so light, that if you do not grip enough onto the ground, you might just fly out. They crossed Cehueloyan, the coldest place in the boundaries of earth. They were careful enough not to fall onto one of the sharp rocks of Itztepetl. And they had to find the exact moment to jump in Tepeme Monamictlan, the place where the mountains come together.

“Pedro, look up! Do you see it? That is the river. It must be on the other side. I am so anxious. Pedro? Pedro?”

“Erendira, I see it. It is Tizoc! My old dog! My faithful companion! Erendira, do you see it?”

“I see him, Pedro. We are here. Tizoc will help us cross the river. And we will finally see them. Oh, I will see my grandchildren. I wonder how tall they are now.”

 

Erendira and Pedro had reached the final stage. Itzcuintlan. The stage that divides the world of the living and the dead. Erendira and Pedro had been dead for more than a hundred years. And every year, on 2 November, they made that long and dangerous journey. Just to be near their family. To have a feast with the food their family enjoyed whilst living. To see how their family is doing in the world of the living. To see if they needed anything in the world of the living. For they have passed away, but they never left their family behind. They will just stay that night. They will just enjoy the feast. They will admire the altar put up in their honour. They will laugh, they will rejoice. And Erendira and Pedro will go back. Back to Mictlan, the place of the dead. And they will make that long and dangerous journey again. The journey every deceased person must make. A journey that no matter how long and dangerous, our relatives will make every 2 November just to visit us. To see how we are doing in the world of the living.

Every year – for centuries now – Mexicans remember those who have passed away. Every year, Mexicans remember with joy those who once were with us. Those who are resting now. They place photographs, food and items onto altars. Colourful altars. Altars with flowers, the most colourful flowers of all. And it is not a day to wear black; it is not a day to mourn. It is a day to rejoice. To remember that death is just another stage in life.

The Two Houses

Written by Daniel Sharp

 

John Fast, a doctor, walked with a newspaper under his arm down the busy London street. He was heading towards the coffeehouse for a day of conversation and civility. Being a doctor was no easy profession; he had to deal with all manner of vulgar, uncouth individuals. It paid good money but it was hardly the life of a gentleman. And that, above all, was what Dr. Fast saw himself as. Perhaps his clientele was unsavoury, but he himself was a sophisticated and educated man far above the dirty people he had to deal with all day, every day.

    Mrs Phillips’s Coffee House (and a genial old woman she was) was where he had learned many of the gentlemanly arts he was now not very good at. But at least he knew them, unlike the vagrants and the poor folk who crowded the city. This made him feel better about himself, made him feel that, despite his constant contact with the hoi polloi, he was fit for better society. In his day job, he felt tired and disgusted, but at heart, he knew he deserved better. He was a gentleman, yes. And today, dressed smartly, paper under his arm, clued up on all the latest political news, he was heading to his favourite place in the world – the coffeehouse – where he could engage in decent, civil conversation with decent, civil gentlemen.

    The good doctor entered the establishment, nodded politely to his fellow gentlemen, took a coffee, and sat in a comfortable seat. The coffeehouse was small but tasteful. Mrs. Phillips was a fine woman and knew how to make a place look lovely without overdoing it and making it look vulgar and common. John settled himself in and looked to see who was present today.

    Mr. Hunt, the lawyer, a thin man with an imperious temperament. John enjoyed his conversation but thought he was slightly too arrogant. There was Mr. Leigh, the most common member of the group, a rotund sailor turned merchant. Mr. Leigh was one of those few folks from uncouth backgrounds who was trying to better himself. Dr. Fast thought he was an admirable role model for the filthy masses outside. There were a few other gentlemen from various professions – more merchants, another doctor, a tailor, and three rather wealthy businessmen. Some regulars were missing from the group; perhaps too busy with their work – a terrible excuse, thought Dr. Fast.

    And then there was Mr. Renfrew, the unofficial head of this coffeehouse group. Though equality was one of the rules of the coffeehouse, everyone looked to Mr. Renfrew to guide the conversation and allowed him to have the final word. For he was an old Anglo-Scottish gentleman, a self-taught philosopher who had lived on a considerable inheritance from his merchant father all his life. He had no wife or family, and spent all his time with books and the gentlemen of the salon (and once, John thought he spotted the old man entering the tavern across the street, which was rumoured to be a meeting place for mollies – but John was rational enough to dismiss the evidence of his own eyes).

    The group exchanged greetings and waited on the wise old man to pronounce the subject of today’s meeting. Mr. Renfrew drank his coffee and looked around as if surprised people were waiting on him. This was a ritual he conducted at every meeting of the group. Raising his white eyebrows and patting down his rough grey hair, he began. ‘Gentlemen! How very pleasant to see you all here again – I hope you have all had an agreeable day thus far.’ The group nodded affirmatively. ‘Wonderful! Well then, shall we begin? I assume you all know the news today? Yes, it is true – the American colonies have declared independence. The war will continue. What do we all think?’ The group waited for Mr. Renfrew’s viewpoint. ‘Well, well, it is most obvious that the colonies should be allowed their independence, is it not? They are simply desirous of our settlement- for a Glorious Revolution and a Bill of Rights and all that. I cannot see why they should not be allowed that. I applaud them.’

    And so, having set the tone and given the conversation’s conclusion, Mr. Renfrew sat back and let the group talk in circles until they came back to the point put forward by the old gentleman, who made some conclusory remarks. Dr. Fast sometimes wondered if the gentlemen were truly using their own reason or being guided. But who was he to dispute this? Mr. Renfrew surely knew best how the minds of men should work in harmony with their rational faculties. Satisfied, John reflected, as the conversation concluded, that he had certainly had a most useful afternoon. Yes, the colonies should be independent, of course! It was the reasonable answer.

    As the good doctor walked home, he considered how lucky he was to be part of such a group. How fortunate he was to have such an education in gentlemanly virtues, how fortunate he was to not be led by tradition or authority as the common folk around him were. So blind, he thought, observing a dirty old woman begging, so irrational! Dr. Fast, of course, was an eminently rational man. He would never judge people, and would always come to his own conclusions, like with the American colonies issue. What a light in the darkness John Fast was! What a bright mind, what a decent man!

    Feeling happy and satisfied, John glanced once more back at the coffeehouse. Across the street, the tavern and suspected molly house stood. How unfortunate that the coffeehouse was so close to a den of iniquity. He walked on, ignoring the sight of Mr. Renfrew entering the tavern, for Dr. John Fast was the most rational creature who ever lived.

    At the tavern, Mr. James Renfrew drank with a gentleman companion, lamenting how unfortunate it was that he had failed, all through his life, to use his reason and the morals of society to restrain his unnatural and irrational desires. Soon enough, however, loosened from the shackles of morality by drink and cheerful company, he laughed for the first time all day with his gentleman friend, who kept him in good spirits, with nary a hint of rational discussion, all night. How odd that human feeling should produce more happiness than rational discussion. How odd indeed, John Fast would have thought, how terribly irrational.

TV Review: ‘Julius Caesar Revealed’

Written by Daniel Sharp

 

 

The BBC’s recent documentary about Julius Caesar was a lively and entertaining re-evaluation of one of the classical world’s most famous figures. With Professor (and now Dame) Mary Beard as our guide, we are invited to consider the many ways in which Caesar, his achievements, and his actions have helped to shape the world since his death by assassination in 44 BC.

    Beard is always a joy and does not disappoint here. Whether spray painting Veni Vidi Vici on a wall or helping out at a caesarean section birth, she finds rather interesting angles to explore how Caesar has influenced the modern world. As she argues, his story has parallels with current politics. He was a populist, an outside candidate who stood against the ‘metropolitan elite’ of Rome, supported by the people more than his fellow establishment politicians. He kept himself in the public’s mind by having accounts of his conquests read out in Rome while he himself was far away and he kickstarted the phenomenon of the modern political sound bite: Veni Vidi Vici indeed.

    Caesar was therefore an opportunist politician, with an eye always out for ways to advance both himself and his career. And, indeed, he was a success in all respects, propelling himself to the heights of power, a Roman emperor in all but name for a few years before he was killed by those concerned by the amount of power he held. An opportunist, a populist, a great publicist – there are, indeed, modern parallels to be considered here.

    This wily political operator was also a brutal wager of war. His conquests in Gaul saw great savagery and massacres committed by Caesar and his men. One such massacre, it is argued in the documentary, could even be termed a genocide. War, however, was a means to an end for Caesar – a way for him to bolster his image and produce publicity. Caesar’s invasions of Britain did just this – though not successful by any stretch of the imagination, they nevertheless provided Romans with the reality of one of their own citizens being on the edge of the known world, essentially in an alien environment.

    When he was recalled to Rome by suspicious elites, Caesar pulled an audacious move, crossing the Rubicon with his army (whose loyalty to him was a key ingredient to his success) and marching on Rome, something which Mussolini would try to emulate many centuries later. This set the stage for his seizure of power, and he soon declared himself dictator in perpetuity, a move which alarmed his opponents and ultimately led to his assassination.

    How to assess such a man then? Beard suggests that in many ways he was distasteful, but that it is impossible to get away from the fact that of all the classical figures it was Julius Caesar, Rome’s most famous son, who shaped the world the most.

Historical attraction review: ‘The Real Mary King’s Close’

Written by Daniel Sharp

 

 

In the 1990s, a Japanese medium visited Mary King’s Close in Edinburgh’s Old Town. She sensed nothing at all until she entered a perfectly preserved seventeenth-century house and felt a despairing presence in the room. Turning to leave, the medium felt a tug on her trouser leg and turned to see the ghostly apparition of a small girl named Annie. Annie was a girl who had lived in the house, but was left alone there by her mother when she caught the plague. Most distressing of all – Annie’s favourite doll had been taken away by her mother. The medium immediately ran to a shop and brought back a tartan Barbie doll for Annie to play with. The ghost was appeased and the feeling of despair dissipated. That doll is still there, along with a pile of other toys that visitors have brought from all over the world to leave for Annie.

As it is not the place of a History, Classics and Archaeology journal to pronounce upon such matters as the existence of the paranormal, I shall not judge whether the story of the haunting is true or not (though, as it happens, I am a confirmed skeptic). What is true, however, is that the sites in and around Mary King’s Close have had reports of hauntings since the seventeenth century, and it has a reputation for the supernatural – it was even featured on the paranormal television series Most Haunted in 2004.

What I can judge, however, is how good the Close is as a place to visit. It is now a tourist attraction and I recently visited with some family members. A tour guide, garbed in historical clothing, leads you underground and shows you the perfectly preserved rooms and houses which once made up Mary King’s Close. Prior to it being built over in order to construct the City Chambers, it was one of the busiest closes in Edinburgh. It was also one of the few named after a woman – Mary King was a burgess and successful businesswoman in the 1630s.

Indeed, it is a great place to visit. Yes, it is very touristy as these things generally are, but that does not take away from the fact that the tour guide is very genial and informative. It also does not get in the way of a ‘genuine’ historical experience – the Close and the houses within it are very well preserved. Annie’s house in particular was a treat to see as it is a perfectly preserved seventeenth-century house, with some of the original floral patterning still visible on the walls.

One receives a huge amount of information about the history of the Close, with particular attention paid to the period of Edinburgh’s final plague outbreak, which killed an astonishing amount of people. Given the tightly-packed layout of the Close, it is not difficult to see how disease spread so easily – the Close was narrow, the dwellings tiny and crammed full of people, and human waste was thrown out onto the street with the traditional cry of ‘gardyloo!’. You hear of other stories of the inhabitants too, including the tragicomedy of a murderous encounter between a man and his mother-in-law.

In the end, ‘The Real Mary King’s Close’ is well worth visiting, one of those rare tourist attractions that pays real attention to the history of the place. So, the next time you are walking along the Royal Mile, think about the underworld that you are walking on top of – and if you visit, remember to take a doll for poor Annie!

An Account of the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879

Written by Bella Howard-Vyse

 

South Africa is a country particularly rich in fascinating historical events. One such is the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879, caused when the British Empire came into conflict with the Zulu Kingdom. This war became famous on account of the unusual nature of the outcome of the battles within it. There were two main conflicts that took place on the 22 January 1879: the Battle of Isandlwana and the Battle of Rorke’s Drift (which continued until the 23rd), both of which were only small parts of a more complex and destructive war.

This Zulu War is believed to have been initiated based on the British campaign for expansion. Lord Chelmsford, the commander-in-chief in South Africa, regarded the Zulu Kingdom as a threat to the established British colony of Natal and after the ruler of the native Kingdom, Cetshwayo, failed to respond well to the accusation against him of Zulus murdering some British subjects, Chelmsford decided to invade Zululand. A further reason that prompted the attack was the friction on the Natal border and in response, Chelmsford moved the 24th Regiment of Foot from the Eastern frontier in Cape Town to Natal. An ultimatum was sent to Cetshwayo which included the demands to disband the Zulu army and force the Zulu’s to accept the British residency. Chelmsford carried out this invasion without informing the British Government as he hoped that he would capture Cetshwayo before his government became aware of the hostilities. He decided on a three-pronged attack on King Cetshwayo’s ‘Great Place’ at Ulundi, in which he assigned himself to the Central Column.

The first battle, which took place at Isandlwana, ten miles east of the Buffalo River, began 11 days after the British army invaded Zululand. 1,800 British soldiers were attacked by a force of around 20,000 Zulus and, consequently, the British suffered a heavy loss of roughly 1,300 men compared to the Zulus’ loss of one thousand. Thus, this was a decisive victory for the natives, whose weaponry was inferior to the modern breech loading single shot Martini-Henry rifle and bayonets that the British army possessed. 

In Chelmsford’s absence on the morning of 22 January, as he led half of the British force to join a reconnaissance in the Malakatha Hills, the Zulu army attacked the camp and mission station that the British were defending. This attack, comprised of twelve Zulu regiments, annihilated the British and colonial forces left in the camp. After this annihilation, and with the few remaining survivors otherwise engaged in fighting, the Zulu General, Prince Dabulamanzi, with 4,000 men in his regiment attacked the commissariat depot at Rorke’s Drift. The British senior officer of the Royal Engineers, Lieutenant John Chard, had only one hour to prepare for their retaliation against this attack. In light of this, he used the hospital and storehouse to create a fort with wagons and mealie bags which was successful in defending the British against the attack which left 17 British soldiers dead and 400 Zulus killed on the battlefield. This conflict came to be known as the Battle of Rorke’s Drift and the significance of the Anglo-Zulu war is perhaps partly brought about by the unexpected change in British success. After facing destruction at Isandlwana, the British army seized victory at Rorke’s Drift where 139 British soldiers with the strength and fighting ability of about 70 (as the rest of the numbers of men were made up from the hospital) took on the 4,000 Zulus that Dabulamanzi had led across the Buffalo River. The defence that John Chard had established with the wagons and mealie bags gave the British soldiers reasonable coverage and provided them with a barrier after the Zulus set fire to the hospital. Quite unexpectedly, the British won this battle and the Zulus retreated, resulting in a victory for the British.

Ultimately, the Anglo-Zulu War was a decisive victory for the British, who managed to take over much of Sub-Saharan Africa. From a postcolonial perspective, this was a significant moment in the ‘Scramble for Africa’ and the dividing of the continent by the West.

 

Bibliography:

http://www.britishbattles.com/zulu-war/battle-of-isandlwana/

 

 

A Recommendation of Mary Renault’s ‘Alexander’ trilogy

Written by Daniel Sharp

 

 

    Everyone knows of Alexander the Great and whilst some idolize him as a great leader, others regard him as a brutal conqueror. This debate is common to all such figures in history, from Alexander through Napoleon and Stalin. Such debates are not likely to be settled anytime soon, but they do indicate one thing: there is an enduring fascination among those who study history for the lives of so-called ‘great men’ (and unfortunately, it usually is only men).

    To return to the most elusive of all history’s exceptional leaders – Alexander of Macedon controlled Greece and conquered large swathes of land in Europe, Africa and the Middle East, creating one of the greatest (if least enduring) empires ever seen. His youth is part of his myth – how could one so young do so much so soon? His relationship with his close friend, right-hand man and possible lover Hephaestion is another fascinating aspect of his short life. And of course, his early death, which led to the dissolution of his empire, is the tragic denouement of Alexander’s story.

    For anyone who is interested in Alexander, I recommend reading Mary Renault’s (1905-1983) fantastic historical fiction trilogy on his life and death: Fire From Heaven, The Persian Boy and Funeral Games. These books were recommended to me this summer, and over those warm months (which included, appropriately, a holiday to Greece) I read them very quickly. They are amongst the most historically accurate and beautifully written books I have ever had the good fortune to encounter – it is a shame Renault’s name is not as famous as other twentieth century authors.

    The first book chronicles Alexander’s early life into young adulthood. We are privy to intrigue and warfare and we are witness to the future conqueror’s complex relationship with his parents and his friendship with Hephaestion which grows into love. A lesbian woman, many of whose other works deal with male homosexuality, Renault focuses intensely on the possibly bisexual or homosexual aspect of Alexander’s life (if we can use those terms to describe an ancient Greek without being anachronistic – apologies to Michel Foucault). The books beautifully deal with this central relationship, but it is the first which focuses on it most, and to beautiful effect too. (For philosophy fans, Aristotle, who tutored the young Alexander, is also a character in the book).

    The Persian Boy continues Alexander’s story as he becomes king of Macedon and embarks on his campaigns in the east. This book, however, is narrated in the first person from the point of view of Bagoas, the eponymous character, a Persian eunuch who, when Alexander defeats his master, joins the Macedonian and falls in love with him, becoming his lover. We see Alexander’s conquests through Bagoas’ eyes, and what must have been an alien mindset – that of an ancient Persian eunuch – is incredibly naturally evoked by Renault. The conquering, the marriages, the intrigue and the love story(ies) make for an exciting and emotional narrative.

    In Funeral Games Alexander is dead, and his empire falls apart. We experience the narrative from various viewpoints as different factions attempt to assert control over the empire, including that of Roxane, his ill-fated Sogdian wife who gave birth to his son, Alexander IV (also ill-fated). This end to the trilogy gives testament to the failures of Alexander to consolidate his empire and clearly delineate a line of succession but also show how great a man he was – he was able to hold all these disparate elements together as he made them travel with him to the edge of the known world. Alexander is godlike and superhuman in these novels – indeed his provenance is rumoured to be divine – and it is hard not to fall in love with this charismatic character. One almost feels as though one were a fellow traveller with Alexander, part of his campaigns, one of the people who worshipped this titan. Indeed, only his own over-exertion and death unravels his empire– no mortal army could stop him.

    If this is all somewhat subjective, it is because Renault’s trilogy, whilst very historically astute for a fictive piece, is above all a celebration of Alexander the Great. Renault had a fascination with the man, and in her novels presents a heroic, mythic figure to be worshipped and loved. So if one is not particularly partial to the man (if, say, one was more fascinated by the unfortunate Persians) then it may limit one’s enjoyment of the books. However, they are still worth reading, if only for the exceptional writing, historical knowledge and excellent portrayal of characters they present to the reader.

    So, if Mary Renault wanted to write a love letter to Alexander, consider this a love letter to her. Read her and be amazed at her brilliance as I was. Indeed, it is perhaps fitting to give her one of those exaggerated historical epithets, so let’s hear it for Mary the Great.     

Book review: Peter Clarke’s ‘Hope and Glory: Britain 1900-2000’

Written by Daniel Sharp

 

 

Peter Clarke’s history of twentieth-century Britain was first published in 1996 before being updated and republished under a new subtitle in 2004. It is this latter version which is under review here and which – as I read it recently in my spare time – astonished me with its depth and breadth of narrative and analysis. Hope and Glory stands as a remarkable achievement in historical writing. As part of the Penguin History of Britain series, it is simultaneously academic in depth and written for a popular audience and makes such a synthesis seem incredibly easy. Clarke is a distinguished historian, currently Professor Emeritus of Modern British History at Cambridge and a Fellow of the British Academy, and from the basis of this book, it is not hard to see why.

Hope and Glory is primarily a history of political, economic and social changes which took place in Britain throughout the last century. Clarke spins easily from the British film industry to the Suez crisis of 1956, from the leisure pursuits of the population to the Edwardian fiscal crisis, from the rise of the Labour Party to the decline of the Liberals. The writing is fluent, cogent and often funny with undertones of irony throughout. Take one instance for example: sections dealing primarily with Edward Heath and the second Harold Wilson and later James Callaghan premierships in the 1970s are entitled, respectively, ‘Tweedledee’ and ‘Tweedledum’.

Beginning with the Unionist government of Salisbury at the beginning of the twentieth century and taking us right up – through all of the prime ministers, political scandals and crises of this remarkable period – to the second premiership of Tony Blair, Clarke both narrates and analyses with scholarly flair the fortunes of the century’s major personalities, from David Lloyd George to Winston Churchill to Margaret Thatcher. He also elucidates the economic and political motivations and impetuses of these actors with verve and style, and, though the economic analysis can be quite a drudge to read at times, Clarke never loses sight of the importance of human decisions and personalities in shaping historical events.

Though the emphasis is firmly on politics and economics, there are many sections dealing with cultural and social aspects of British life throughout the century – perhaps this represents the influence of Clarke’s wife, the eminent cultural historian Maria Tippett. Highlights of the book’s concerns with social and cultural change include its analysis of the BBC’s evolution, the changes in Britain’s religious affiliation and its often-penetrating asides on the century’s literature.

The fact that so much of Clarke’s scholarly rigour is worn so lightly is deceptive – the bibliographical essay at the end of the book is a testament to the depth of his reading and knowledge and provides a variety of historical writing with varying interpretations. In addition, the appendix detailing information on the century’s governments and election results is an incredibly useful tool to turn to. Finally, though last updated in 2004, Clarke’s analysis is prescient, for example in his discussion of Britain’s relationship with Europe which he states has produced seemingly ‘intractable’ issues. Indeed.

Overall, Hope and Glory is not only a brilliant read for the stylish writing, it is moreover a comprehensive and detailed account of twentieth-century Britain – that period of great change in the nation’s history.

The End of the Old World

Written by Daniel Sharp

 

France, 27 December, 1793

As darkness encroached and the air grew colder, a passer-by on a certain country road, would – if he or she looked hard enough – spot the outline of a small, isolated cottage in the distance. Surrounded by fields lit by the emerging moonlight, whose blades of grass glinted with frost, the cottage would appear perfectly normal. Indeed, that was the point. The common sight of a cottage in a field in France would hardly raise eyebrows, and this is what Louis Francis – a former Count with wealth, abundance and a reputation for lavishness – had reasoned a few months previously when he first took residence there.

His flight from his ancestral home had been undramatic; Louis may have been a noble who gorged on wine, meat and other fineries, but he also was astute, pragmatic and intelligent. His advice had been ignored by the now deceased king to the latter’s detriment many a time in the preceding decades. Thus, Louis had realised that the time had come to flee – the Revolution was becoming increasingly voracious in its appetite, and it would not be long until he was caught in its maw. With a small band of loyalists, he fled across the country and took up residence in this little abandoned cottage. Alas, he had been unable to get abroad or reach the Vendée – where royalist rebellion was rampant –  but he was at least safe and comfortable, even if his usual standard of living had been severely reduced.

After a few months of hiding and lamenting over his fortunes, Louis had formulated a plan. He and his small band had begun to produce anti-Revolutionary propaganda and were disseminating it as widely as possible. They stirred up anti-Revolutionary fervour as much as they could, using Louis’ connections to their advantage. Several uprisings had broken out and governmental figures had been attacked. Louis was in his sixties, yet the fight had not left him – not yet. He may not have reached the Vendée, but he would fight against the Revolutionary abomination in any way he could.

Now Louis sat on a cold winter’s night, next to the cottage’s fireplace and wrapped in as many blankets as he could find, with maps and papers laid out in front of him. In the other seats, his allies sat discussing and planning their next move. They had just received the news of the Revolutionary victory at Toulons, achieved by some young Corsican upstart, and were chewing over this unwelcome event. It had only been a few months, yet it felt like they had been waging this campaign for years. Perhaps it was his old age catching up with him.

‘One of my spies has caught news that a man close to that rat Robespierre is coming to the area soon to investigate the spate of rebellions – should we reign in our actions?’ At this question from his son, Louis snapped his head around.

‘What? Don’t be so stupid! What an opportunity! So far, all we have done is sit here, holed up, inciting stupid peasants to attack a few nonentities. We have a great chance here to kill a close ally of the usurper! We will take this opportunity and stick a knife in the heart of this barbaric regime while we can.’

Louis’ son looked unconvinced and slightly scared – Louis had always thought he lacked stomach – but the rest of the group murmured in agreement. And so, the night passed into morning while the outcasts spoke for hours, planning how best to exploit this opportunity.

 

 

 

January 1794

In a village near the cottage, the plan was put into action. The conspirators were there in person for this event. They had received intelligence that Robespierre’s man was coming via carriage to carry out his investigations and would begin in this very village. He would be accompanied by a few guards, but in his arrogance and stupidity, would not be well defended. Louis sat in a tavern on the edge of the village square, watching out of the window. His allies were placed around the square and were ready to pounce, kill the guards and drag the official into the cottage to be questioned, tortured, and murdered.

Louis was nervous. Old age, he thought, cursing himself. This was a risk – but these were desperate times. This had to be done. The barbarians had to be taught a lesson. Calm yourself, thought the Count, and so he relaxed, sipped his drink and thought about how he would avenge his friends who had been dragged from their beds and guillotined.

Some movement across the square caught Louis’ eyes – the time had come. A carriage drew into the square and stopped by the fountain. Three guards emerged, followed by a fat little man with a vicious face. Louis’ grip on his cup hardened as the seconds ticked by.

It began. With swords and pistols, his allies attacked the guards, overwhelming them quickly. They grabbed the official just as Louis left the tavern with his hand on his pistol, and he walked towards the detained man. He couldn’t conceal his excitement – how perfectly the plan had gone! – and he smiled at his prisoner.

But it was a brief moment. Without warning, a swarm of soldiers rode into the square and Louis quickly realised that it had been a trap – a ruse to lure him out. Louis’ men put up a valiant fight and the old man managed to shoot down a few soldiers himself, but they had to admit defeat in the end. The little man had wriggled free and, smiling coldly, clapped Louis’ son on the back. ‘You will be rewarded handsomely for this,’ he claimed, glancing back at Louis whose face had fallen and whose heart had split in two.

The Count realised the truth. His son had reluctantly planted information to avert any possible suspicion, and he had led his allies into a trap to save himself. Louis stared at his son, who held his gaze. Communication passed between them in this way; Louis realised that his son had been too scared and had been willing to betray them if it meant an easy way out. The conspirators were chained and led away, and Louis’ only consolation was the knowledge that his son would meet the same fate. He had heard the little man whisper to a soldier to order the detention of the betrayer along with the rest.

We all die together, Louis thought, even traitors are betrayed by their allies. As he was bundled into a carriage, the old man mourned the loss of the certainties of his old world.

A Review of ‘Napoleon the great? A debate with Andrew Roberts, Adam Zamoyski and Jeremy Paxman’ from Intelligence Squared

Written by Daniel Sharp

 

In 2014, the historian Andrew Roberts published Napoleon the Great, a biography of the Emperor of the French which argued forcefully that he deserves the appellation Roberts gives him in the book’s title. This is, of course, a controversial position – Napoleon Bonaparte is one of the most divisive figures in history. Some see him as a bloodthirsty tyrant and usurper, others as an authoritarian but essentially benign dictator who carried on, consolidated and spread many of the ideals of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. In fact, Roberts’s admiration for Napoleon is an unusual position for a staunch British conservative to take.

To discuss the question of how Napoleon should be remembered by history, the debating organisation Intelligence Squared hosted Roberts and the eminent freelance historian Adam Zamoyski to square off against one another in 2014. The debate was moderated by Jeremy Paxman and is available through the Intelligence Squared website or YouTube channel. For anyone who loves a good historical punch up – and I may be preaching to the converted here – the debate is a thoroughly good watch: two fine historical minds with almost completely opposite viewpoints on the life, career and achievements of Napoleon Bonaparte going up against one another.

Even if the debate were devoid of intellectual significance it would be a pleasure to watch two such entertaining men, with Paxman in the middle, debating. During the debate witty repartee abounded – the two opponents may well have disagreed vehemently, but they could laugh at the expense of themselves and each other. One humorous highlight came when Roberts tried to dispense with the myth of Napoleon’s shortness, only to come undone when he revealed that he was the exact height of Napoleon (and, while filming a BBC series based on his book, had secretly lain on Napoleon’s deathbed on St Helena which confirmed this fact).

Thus, this debate is well worth a watch for the entertainment value alone. More significantly, however, the debate was full of lively disputation and intellectual fizzle. Both Roberts and Zamoyski gave an opening presentation, followed by an exchange between the two, after which the audience could ask questions. Finally, both men gave a closing presentation and the audience’s vote was revealed.

The vote, calculated in an oddly convoluted way based on pre-debate opinions and how much swing towards a motion was achieved by the debaters, showed a -6 percent swing towards Zamoyski’s side – victory, then, considering the pre-debate results showing that a large slice of the audience was undecided, but nevertheless most of the audience was for Roberts’s motion.

As someone with an ardent interest and a certain admiration for Napoleon, I was of course biased towards Roberts from the beginning. Nonetheless Zamoyski made some good points, including the personal failings of Napoleon and his (to me, only occasional) bungling of affairs. However, I think his arguments remained outweighed by Robert’s view – that Napoleon was a military genius who won 46 out of 60 battles; that he consolidated the best parts of the French Revolutionary ideals; and that his spread of Enlightenment thought and rationalism greatly benefited Europe. This is not to say that Napoleon was perfect – far from it – but imperfection and failings, political or moral (some of which were awful), do not erase his significant achievements. Watch for yourself – and revel in the debate.

So, had I been in the audience to vote, I would have voted for the motion, not just from pre-existing bias but on the strength – in my opinion – of Roberts’s case. Napoleon the Great? Absolutely.

 

 

Link to the debate: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bxQ4TcTcPbI

Film review: The Death of Stalin

Written by Scarlett Butler

 

 

The film The Death of Stalin, adapted from a French comic of the same name, considers the power struggle which follows Stalin’s (Adrian McLoughlin) death and which rages whilst the Soviet high-ups are arranging the dictator’s funeral. The main rivals are the Minister for Internal Affairs, Lavrenti Beria, convincingly played as a sadist and a conniving toad by Simon Russell Beale, and the anxious General Secretary, Nikita Khrushchev, played by Steve Buscemi. Initially Beria allies himself with the vain and wavering Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), Stalin’s official successor, who is struggling to command respect from the politburo. Meanwhile, Khrushchev attempts to use the military influence of war hero Georgy Zhukov (Jason Isaacs), a general with a comical number of medals, and the Foreign Minister, Vyacheslav Molotov, played expertly by Michael Palin, who contorts himself into following the Stalinist line. Stalin’s children look on, the spoilt but suffering Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough) and the outrageously drunk Vasily (Rupert Friend), helpless and useless once the political machinations begin.

    The humour uses fear of denunciation and death to drive the comedy. Iannucci is an experienced ridiculer of ridiculous politicians and he adeptly builds a backdrop of terror created by the feverish Stalinist purges. Despite his death, Stalin is present throughout. Death itself as an ally of the state is prominent too. Stalin’s hapless replacement Malenkov aptly despairs, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t remember who’s alive.’ This driving fear of dissent and death crept closer and closer to Stalin in his final years. It led him to imprison his colleagues, his friends and eventually his family. Many of the politburo who survive beyond Stalin were meant by him to be disposed of eventually. Death enveloped Stalin himself on the 5 March 1953 in a horrifying spectacle. He lay dying of a stroke, entirely alone, in what Buscemi’s Khrushchev calls a ‘puddle of indignity’.

    The film is better at capturing the atmosphere of paranoia and scheming politics than offering any guide to historical events. With regard to accuracy, the characters are moulded into more comic or villainous types, but the humour tends to heighten what we know about these historical characters rather than wholly fabricating it. It seems clear that only sycophants, the power hungry and the ruthless could ever climb to the level of the politburo, and although Beria’s sexual crimes make him a particularly evil figure, none can keep their hands clean. Luckily for the viewer, negative character traits make for better humour.

    With regard to historical events, the film edits and compresses the history for the ease of viewers. For example, here Molotov is the one that just escapes execution, when in reality it was Beria who was about to be purged, blamed for not catching the Kremlin doctors, who were outed as Jewish spies in a show trial that year. Similarly, Stalin’s long held anti-Semitism, which reached a paranoid crescendo just before he died, is another unexplored area. In early 1953, Stalin planned mass deportations of Jews in the Soviet Union to Siberian Camps. He sadistically planned for the deportations to fall around the Jewish holiday of Purim, which celebrates Jewish delivery from total destruction at the hands of Haman. Instead, the film focuses on the better-known and less politically complex death lists. Lists of names, written to reach regional quotas that peaked in the terror of 1937-8. They were so quotidian to Stalin and his allies that on the 12 December 1937 Stalin and Molotov sanctioned 3,167 death sentences, before breaking to attend the cinema. In focusing on this aspect of Stalinism, the film chooses to avoid other shadows lurking around the dictator’s death. In this film, these lists illuminate evils of Stalinism in symbolic and anecdotal scenes, apt for a satire, rather than trying to recreate an accurate portrait of the events. Certainly, the near surreal nature of Stalinist government, reminiscent of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, suits the black comedy genre, whilst the inclusion of many dark and difficult scenes addressing the brutality of this world ensure they are not soon forgotten.

Bibliography

  • Brackman, Roman. The Secret File of Joseph Stalin: A Hidden Life. London: Frank Cass, 2001.
  • Bulley, Tony. Stalin: Inside the Terror. Directed by Tony Bulley. London: BBC, 2003.
  • Iannucci, Armando. The Death of Stalin. Directed by Armando Iannucci. Los Angeles: eOne Films, 2017.
  • Service, Robert. Stalin: A Biography. London: Pan Books, 2010.

Russia Strikes Back: A Postscript to ‘Is Stalin Really Dead?’

EDITORIAL NOTE: In our printed ‘Individuals and Communities’ edition of last year (no. 21) Deana Davis wrote a review of the film The Death of Stalin. Deana wrote a postscript to her review not long after for publication on our website concerning then-recent developments to the film’s status in Russia, which slipped through the cracks earlier this year but which we are now happy to publish. Reproduced at the bottom of the new postscript, with minor editorial changes to the version in the printed edition, is the original article to which the following is a sequel of sorts.

 

Written by Deana Davis

 

On 23 January 2018, Russia took action regarding its relationship to its history. The Ministry of Culture revoked the distribution license of the film The Death of Stalin two days before its Russian release date, further confirming to the world that the Russian government is not above resorting to censorship reminiscent of the not-too-distant Communist past.

The ‘Individuals & Communities’ issue (no. 21) of Retrospect Journal contains my review of the film [Ed: see note above], in which I wrote that Russia was welcoming towards Armando Iannucci’s latest work. In an interview with Radio Times, published 20 October 2017, Iannucci spoke of the favourable reception he had received for his film. Iannucci believed that the positive response he had so far encountered outweighed the criticism, and he mentioned acquiring a Russian distributor. However, the public council of the Ministry of Culture and several notable figures forwarded a letter to Vladimir Medinsky, Russia’s culture minister, after attending a private screening of the film on 22 January along with members of parliament and movie directors. They asked that the film should not be shown until a further judicial analysis is conducted, due to its extremist elements. One of the main detractors of the film was Maria Zhukova, the daughter of Marshal Zhukov, portrayed in the film by Jason Isaacs. She added her name to the letter sent to Medinsky, stating that ‘this is a revolting film and a mockery of our history, our heroes, in particular of my father.’ It has been argued that the film, in advance of the 75th anniversary of Marshal Zhukov’s victory at the Battle of Stalingrad, could offend the feelings of surviving veterans. Consequently, the government made it illegal for theatres to show the movie and imposed a fine on those who do show it. In an article shared by Medinsky on his Twitter account, the journalist Dmitry Steshin wrote that ‘It is possibly the most distasteful (lit. ‘nauseating’) film about the USSR in modern history.’ Steshin adds that the film was made by ‘some unknown comedy director/producer, who is not even favoured with a Wikipedia page…’ and that ‘it benefits the information war.’

In all fairness, Iannucci does actually have a Wikipedia page. However, Zhukova’s comments are understandable, and while Stalin and others in his circle were disparaged, Marshal Zhukov was always respected. The way he is portrayed in the film is rather irreverent, but is that not the point? All heroes and public figures must be mocked for the political order to be deconstructed. While I was studying abroad in Moscow, my teacher of Russian history voiced her criticism of the West. She argued that all respect had been lost for politicians and the government. Yet shouldn’t governments have to earn respect? Are they not made to serve the people? The ways the West and Russia view the government and its purpose are diametrically opposed and constitute one of the main cultural differences.

This is not the first time that the Russian government and public has taken aim at a movie. The film Matilda, directed by the Russian Alexei Uchitel, caused a furore earlier this year. Natalia Poklonskaya, a member of the State Duma, waged a war against the film, claiming that it ‘offends the feelings of the faithful,’ which is a criminal offense according to a law passed in 2013. This is because the film chronicles the affair between the bachelor Tsar Nicholas II, who was canonized as a martyr by the Orthodox Church in 2000, and the ballerina Matilda Kschessinskaya. Having been postponed three times, the film finally premiered in late October amidst violent attacks, including those instigated by the terrorist group ‘The Christian State- Holy Rus.’ A recent fiasco also occurred concerning the film Paddington 2, the premiere of which was postponed at the last minute to 1 February by the Ministry of Culture, in order to allow for the premiere of the Russian film Going Vertical, which focuses on the basketball match between the then USSR and the USA in the 1972 Olympic Games. The Ministry of Culture defended its action with patriotic reasons but was more likely influenced by financial concerns.

A number of Russian film critics and journalists, nevertheless, argue that there is no justifiable reason to ban The Death of Stalin. Instead, they point out the government’s ulterior motives. In reference to the above-mentioned accusation against the film Matilda, the journalist Andrey Plakhov quips that The Death of Stalin ‘offends the feelings of those in charge.’ In an article titled ‘Don’t Wait for the Death of Stalin’, Irina Prokhorova, the Head of the publishing house New Literary Review, argues that the film has a double-edged sword, in that it ‘dwells on the memory of the victims of repression and mocks the executioners, a dangerous mixture which authoritarian regimes are always afraid of.’ As for the anniversary of Stalingrad, it is also not beneficial to the state for people to realise that the USSR suffered horrendous casualties because of Stalin. Furthermore, Alla Gerber, President of the Holocaust Fund, criticised the Ministry’s clear political motivation due to the coming elections. President Putin, who is expected to win his fourth presidential election this March, has been deliberately constructing and consolidating his centralised power. In this system, the state holds supreme power, and subservience to it is required, regardless of the conditions the governed live in. It is not in Putin’s interests to have his people watch a movie in which such a form of government is mocked.

In the end, the problem still boils down to humour – is this an indication that the Russians cannot laugh at themselves? Certainly not, as programs such as Nasha Russia demonstrate. The real question is whether Russians can laugh at their government. TV programs, such as the popular TV comedy competition KVN, frequently make fun of Putin and his cabinet. However, this is mostly done within respectable limits and Putin can frequently be seen attending KVN shows. The result is a cathartic set of jokes and impersonations at which Putin himself laughs. Besides this, more serious satire and criticism of the government is still relegated to the outskirts of media and society. Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the leader of the LDPR party, suggested that rather than banning western films, which makes people want to see them even more, Russian directors should make movies about historical events in the West, such as Brexit or the fall of the British Empire. The irony is that these topics would make for a great comedy, and I would be willing to bet American and UK movie producers would queue up for such an opportunity, the box office sales not likely to suffer due to political repercussions. The Death of Stalin is no masterpiece, but it is still of the utmost importance that Russians see it. The film dares to illuminate the issues Russians shy away from confronting.

 

Bibliography

Ben Dowell, ‘Armando Iannucci: The Russians who have seen The Death of

Stalin love it,’ 2017, http://www.radiotimes.com/news/2017-10-20/armando-iannucci-death-of-stalin/; accessed 28 January 2018.

 

‘Film critics see no reasons to ban The Death of Stalin in Russia,’ 2018,

http://tass.com/society/987074; accessed 28 January 2018.

 

Marc Bennetts, ‘Heavy Security for love story of Russia’s ‘holy tsar’ and

teenage ballerina,’ 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/sep/11/alexei-uchitel-matilda-film-about-russia-holy-tsar-premieres-after-threats; accessed 28 January 2018.

 

Mariya Petkova, ‘Matilda: A tale of Tsar-crossed lovers,’ 2017,

http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2017/10/matilda-tale-tsar-crossed-lovers-171023090952262.html; accessed 28 January 2018.

 

‘Moscow Police Raid Theater Showing Banned Stalin Satire,’ 2018,

https://themoscowtimes.com/news/moscow-police-raid-theater-showing-banned-stalin-satire-60298; accessed 27 January 2018.

 

Sophia Kishkovsky, ‘Moscow Raid on Movie Theatre Closes ‘The Death of

Stalin,’ 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/27/movies/moscow-raid-on-movie-theater-closes-the-death-of-stalin.html; accessed 27 January 2018.

 

Алексей Ланов, ‘Жириновский придумал способ отомстить британцем

за «Смерть Сталина», 2018, https://vz.ru/news/2018/1/23/904871.html; accessed 27 January 2018.

 

Андрей Архангельский, Смех о страхе,’ 2018,

https://www.kommersant.ru/doc/3520884; accessed 28 January 2018.

 

Андрей Плахов, ‘Оскорбление чувств заведующих,’ 2018,

https://www.kommersant.ru/doc/3527824; accessed 27 January 2018.

 

Даниил Туровский, ‘«Православная страна должна быть такой, как

Иран» Лидер «Христианского государства» Александр Калинин- о своей организации и о том, как эвакуации по всей России связаны с «Матильдой»’, 2017, https://meduza.io/feature/2017/09/14/pravoslavnaya-strana-dolzhna-byt-takoy-kak-iran; accessed 28 January 2018.

 

Дмитрий Стешин, ‘Смерть Сталина’ комедия, которую мог бы снять

Гитлер, 2018, https://www.kp.ru/daily/26781/3819021/; accessed 27 January 2018.

 

Ирина Прохорова, ‘Смерти Сталина не ждите’, 2018,

https://snob.ru/selected/entry/133591; accessed 27 January 2018.

 

‘Кинокритик и председатель фонда «Холокост» считает ошибкой отзыв

прокатного удостоверения на фильм «Смерть Сталина»,’ 2018, https://echo.msk.ru/news/2134578-echo.html; accessed 27 January 2018.

 

Лариса Малюкова, ‘Верните Медведя,’ 2018,

https://www.novayagazeta.ru/articles/2018/01/19/75189-mishku-i-detey-nakazat; accessed 28 January 2018.

 

‘Минкультуры попросят приостановить прокат фильма ‘Смерть

Сталина’, 2018, https://ria.ru/culture/20180123/1513134693.html; accessed 27 January 2018.

 

 

 

 

Is Stalin Really Dead?

Written by Deana Davis

 

Armando Iannucci, the director of the new film The Death of Stalin was inspired by a French graphic novel of the same name to give us his own comedic take on the political turmoil after the death of Stalin. The film is essentially a discourse on the power-grabbing tactics of politicians as well as a social commentary of life under Stalin, who ruled the Soviet Union for over 30 years. However, journalist Peter Hitchens states that it was possibly inadvisable of Iannucci to make light of such serious events. Can we, should we, laugh at such a serious moment in history, the significance of which we can barely relate to or comprehend? Behind the farce lies a very important issue that has yet to be confronted in Russia. This is Stalin’s cult of personality, or in Russian, культ личности. Stalin worked very hard to craft a god-like status, which did not die with him. In the film, Stalin’s daughter is astonished at the multitude of people who come to pay their respects to Stalin, who is lying in state in the House of Unions, and wonders if they have come voluntarily. This did happen. In fact, there are reported cases of people being trampled to death in the flood of people taking to the streets after hearing of Stalin’s passing. Even Andrei Sakharov, an anti-communist activist who was internally exiled in the 1980s, cried upon hearing the news.

The 20th Congress of the Communist Party in 1956 is often heralded as the beginning of ‘ottepel’ (thaw), or destalinization, which is when Khrushchev read Lenin’s Testament, after which it was published for the general public to read. In this letter, Lenin urged that Stalin be removed from the position of General Secretary and not be allowed to power. Damning as this was, a public dismantling of Stalin’s cult of personality never really took place. Consequently and very alarmingly, public approval of Stalin has been on the rise. In 2005 40% of Russians approved of Stalin; in 2017 this number is now 50%. And yet, as Alexander Minkin quips, Stalin has done nothing since 1953. It is obvious that Russia has a difficulty with confronting and understanding its own past. After all, 62% of the 1200 Russians surveyed this past July support the hanging of plaques commemorating the successes of Stalin and 33% were indifferent. When Stalin is mentioned in the West, a totalitarian ruler and the systematic killing of his own people come to mind, whereas in Russia the name is synonymous with the Soviet Union’s WWII victory over the Germans and achievement of Communism. This is not only with Stalin.

While I was on my year abroad in Moscow, I visited the library of the old campus building of Moscow State University next to the Red Square. A glass case displayed Russian books of a series called ‘Geniuses of Power,’ with several titled ‘The Great Churchill’ and ‘The Great Kennedy.’ Included was ‘The Great Beria.’ The problem lies not in awareness; most Russians are aware of the mass killings and imprisonment during Stalin’s totalitarian reign. The frustrating dilemma is that many consider all of this necessary for the success of the Soviet Union. Minkin suggests another possibility: that most of those who lived under Stalin have died and the present population simply does not know history as well as they should. This seems logical. After all, one can never quite out rule the power of propaganda. With the rise of nationalism in Russia and the worsening relationship between the east and west, one thing is for certain. Stalin is still not quite dead in Russia.  

Considering this, is it still wise to make a comedy about the serious political transitional process and make light of a figure, who even now poses as a roadblock on Russia’s path to being a democratic country? Comedy can still ask the same serious questions. After all, late-night comedians have demonstrated this in the past year of Trump’s administration. Laughter may more often than not invite broader discussion and independent research than a dry, 2-hour long biopic. Russian history, at least for much of the 20th century, is ripe for black humour. The Russians are quite good at laughing at themselves. One recalls a skit from a long-running Russian comedy show that has Stalin calling someone at night, announcing that there will be a car waiting for them in 10 minutes, hanging up, and saying ‘Just kidding!’ The style of The Death of Stalin is reminiscent of Iannucci’s earlier work, such as The Thick of It and Veep and reception of the film in Russia has so far been quite good; the film is to be released in Russia next year.

The movie follows the members of the Council of Ministers Malenkov, Beria, Molotov, and Khrushchev as they vie for power in the wake of Stalin’s death. As can be imagined, they are depicted, with the exception of Beria, as scheming buffoons, contradictory as this seems, and who constantly bicker with each other. The film, overall, packs a powerful lesson on how destructive and demoralising totalitarian regimes are. It includes many sights of Moscow and uses accurate locations for the events, such as Stalin’s green dacha. The only fault that can be found with the actors is that they come off as too British (except for Khrushchev and Malenkov, who are portrayed by the American actors Steve Buscemi and Jeffrey Tambor). Their lines do not correspond with what Russians would say, because Russians tend to be subtler. A case in point is the joke that Jason Isaac’s Marshal Zhukov plays with Khrushchev, where Zhukov acts as if he is going to report Khrushchev’s treasonous plan, but then laughs and says ‘Look at your face!’ Meanwhile, Simon Russell Beale marvellously plays Lavrentiy Beria, a repulsive villain made positively unnerving by his omnipresence. His character is definitely one of the less comedic roles. While Hitler had his Himmler, Stalin’s right-hand man in the extermination of his own people was Beria. He represents Stalin’s regime, which is inevitably fading away in the wake of the Council’s decision to distance itself from terror tactics and its release of prisoners from Gulags, as well as those imprisoned in the Doctors’ plot. Though the release of petty criminals from Gulags was hardly done out of humanitarian reasons (but rather out of the need to lessen a drain on resources) it stands in stark contrast to all the evidence pointing to Stalin’s intention, had he lived, to begin a new round of terror, similar to that of the late 1930s.

In all, the facts presented in the movie (despite theatrical exaggeration) such as the Ministers themselves carrying Stalin’s body onto a bed or Stalin’s son giving a speech at his father’s funeral, are mostly accurate. The facts in themselves are absurd enough to warrant laughter and hopefully this movie will invite public interest in Russian history and culture, further breaking down the East-West divide and the negative stereotypes of Russia. As regards Stalin, the issue is more problematic. Jason Isaacs, asked in an interview about the viability of making a similar comedy about Trump, provides a perfect answer: ‘someone needs to remove him from office, and then we can laugh.’ Considering the revitalization and rehabilitation of Stalin’s image in Russia, it is difficult to imagine comedy having any power at all. Perhaps that is a reason as to why such a comedy is acceptable even among Russians. Besides comedy, it is difficult to say what can be done on this issue. All there is to do now is simply wait and watch, preferably with stake in hand, in case Stalin rises again.

 

Bibliography

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