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Wednesday, 27 July 2016

Book review plus - LIFE IN RUSSIA

Michael Binyon’s view of Russia, published in 1983 is useful for my research purposes, as I certainly wasn’t able to go there at the time (since I was serving in the RN). Binyon was a correspondent for The Times 1978-1982.

Naturally, since the wall came down in November 1989 and the USSR dissolved in December 1991, much has changed. Yet the people are probably not that different now.

The book is written with genuine warmth for the Russian people. He uses the term ‘Russian’ to simplify the fact that the USSR is a vast mixture of countries, cultures and ethnic groups. Some of the statements are prescient, though at the time of writing Binyon never conceived the breakup would occur. ‘The Soviet Union is a world of its own. But it is a world its rulers ever fear will fly apart into disparate fragments unless they keep a very tight grip.’ (p4)  Here and elsewhere, with hindsight you could easily substitute the European Union to observe strong parallels!

The recent doping scandal relating to the Olympics springs to mind when I read this entry:
 ‘Russians respect power and authority, and most have a bully’s instinct to walk all over anyone who is servile and obsequious. The best way of doing business is to make your position and determination clear from the start, negotiate toughly but politely and ensure that face is not lost…’ (p4)

And this has bearing, perhaps: ‘To a Russian, saving face is of great importance, and this Eastern characteristic colours not only individual actions but policies and attitudes in dealing with other countries. Indeed, many national policies can only be understood by reference to the Russian character.’ (p136)

For many years I was puzzled by the British trade unions’ affectionate dalliance with the USSR. Naturally, the Soviet authorities were keen to foster disruption in the West, and even suborned certain trade union members to do their bidding. Yet the picture, beyond the ‘official’ image presented to visiting union comrades was far removed from the freedoms enjoyed in the West:

‘Not one of the estimated 130 million Soviet trade unionists has ever gone on strike.’ (p27) One has not to wonder why. In 1977 a number of sacked workers got together to form an ‘independent’ union. The KGB exiled the leaders from Moscow, questioned, harassed, arrested and sent several to psychiatric hospitals. Three years later, the rise of Poland’s Solidarity movement caused Brezhnev to launch an attack on union officials for laziness and indifference to their members’ needs, turning the union leaders against their unions, using the unions to police their members in effect, for the communist cause. This was typical Russian double-think.

The union can be a deadening influence, stifling innovation, free thinking. ‘The task of the officially organised unions of artists, writers and musicians is not to promote their members’ interests, but to ensure their members stay in line.’ (p113) ‘All land in the Soviet Union is nationalised’; people can own homes, but not the land.

The propaganda had it that the country benefited from full employment. Yet there were thousands of workshy (many with false documents who have abandoned families and responsibilities). ‘Factories are only too glad when poor and disruptive workers quietly disappear. Rather than report their absence,  they allow their names to remain on the factory register, thus conveniently enabling the factory to draw state money for salaries, which are diverted straight into the management’s pockets to be used for the inevitable bribes and pay-offs.’ (p33)

I wonder how many 1980s Marxist-Leninist students would have been keen to study in the USSR. ‘University or college graduates are sent to remote villages for the obligatory two year first posting which every Soviet student faces at the end of his studies. For many, it is like banishment.’ (p196)

I was also interested to read: ‘The Academy of Medical Sciences has long been carrying out full-scale research into para-psychology, telepathy and bio-rhythms, a favourite topic of popular scientific journalism.’ (p53) See my earlier blog posts on Soviet psychic research.

Drunkenness was a big problem and accounted for absenteeism and accidental deaths, and marital and family breakdown.  ‘In the Ukraine, several mines run daily checks for inebriation among the miners as they report for work. Traffic police have also urged tougher penalties for drunken driving, which is already severely punished, and in recent years a number of people causing fatal accidents while drunk have been shot.’ (p63) Severe punishment indeed – but did it reduce the incidence of drunk driving? The book doesn’t say – and doubtless statistics were not available.

The Russians are avid readers, though found it difficult to get their hands on books (other than official tracts, presidential speeches and the like. I can’t imagine poets filling Wembley Stadium, yet Poet Andrei Voznesensky gave a reading to 80,000 people in a football stadium. ‘His latest collection was published in an edition of 200,000 and sold out immediately.’ (p109) Sales to dream about, indeed!

Voznesensky would retreat to the Georgian village of Peredelkino, south of Moscow. This is the official writers’ colony. Pasternak lived here for many years and is buried in its cemetery. Binyon spotted a man in a grey raincoat standing near the monument (to Sergei Yesenin, poet, Isadora Duncan’s lover); the man took off his hat and recited some of Yesenin’s poems. Others present clapped. This echoed in my mind – scenes from Fahrenheit 451.

Greek myths and Herodotus were best-sellers; new editions of Tolstoy sold out immediately. ‘Even during the anniversaries of Tolstoy’s birth, or Dostoyevsky’s, their works could not be found. Pushkin, Gogol hard to find…The most heavily forested country in the world has to limit its newspapers to four or six pages because of the paper shortage… painful lack of toilet paper, a commodity that has achieved an almost mystic value to those who tire of the discomfort and irony of using Pravda..’ (p170)

Surprisingly, perhaps, the Soviet press was campaigning, hard-hitting and effective, not afraid to hound racketeers and the guilty – according to the party line. Appeals in the paper Pravda could work: a resident of a village where the only shop was closed complained; a party delegation investigated and within hours a shop was opened there…

Soviet historians estimate 20 million Russians perished in The Great Patriotic War (WWII). In the Ukraine alone 20,000 villages were destroyed. ‘Even now at least half a dozen elderly people are shot each year for war crimes or collaboration with the Nazis.’ (p125)

Party members and grandmothers alike state: ‘Let there be no more war’ and the toast at every official dinner is always ‘to peace’. I’d be inclined to believe that this is still the same now; the people don’t want war, but they don’t want to be walked over either…

Binyon wrote about the little Byelorussian village of Khatyn where The Black Death SS herded 74 adults and 75 children into a barn, doused it with petrol and set it alight. One man was away at the time; Joseph Kaminski returned to find his young still alive among the charred bodies. He picked him up and the boy died in his father’s arms… a bronze statue of Kaminski carrying his dying son and staring in blank horror straight ahead stands at the entrance to Khatyn (where nobody now lives).  This is not to be confused with Katyn, where Polish officers were massacred by Stalin! (p126)

Most Russians accepted the official version of the war: it was a Russian victory over fascism, and the Soviet intervention in Manchuria forced the Japanese to surrender; there was no mention of the atomic bombs… Little or nothing was ‘said or written about the extensive American war aid, or the British convoys to Murmansk. No official memorial has been erected in that Arctic city to the allied sailors who lost their lives.’ (p127) [Since this was written, Russia pressed for the Arctic convoy veterans to be honoured with a Russian medal, but government intransigence didn’t permit it – until 2013, a year after they were belatedly presented with the British Arctic Star.]

Binyon refers to a book Through Russia on a Mustang (1891) by Thomas Stevens and offers a brief excerpt, which offers traditions, beliefs, and adventures of a witty character. It was out of print when quoted. Happily, there are several reprints available now; here’s one

There’s a brief mention of Mikhail Gorbachev, ‘the young agricultural expert in the politburo, has distanced himself from the food programme, and is presumed to have pushed for something more radical.’ (p199)

The following two passages strongly suggest the malaise that is the European Union (replace ‘communist party’ and Soviet Union with ‘EU’, perhaps: ‘The communist party is a single, monolithic organisation, and local government has only limited powers. But the Soviet Union is the world’s largest and most diverse multi-national state, and without a very firm structure and tight control at the centre, it would probably split apart into dozens of separate competing units. Regional and ethnic nationalism is strong and is growing, and despite the much-trumpeted official picture of a big, happy, harmonious family, there are tensions and quarrels beneath the surface, which are suppressed only with difficulty.’ (p206)

‘From travels in nine different republics, my impressions were strongly reinforced that the diversity and variety is such that no amount of centralisation can mould a single type of ‘Soviet man’, even if that were the aim – which increasingly is recognised as unrealistic.’ (p206) Homogenising people doesn’t work – they have their culture, belief systems, traditions and history.

Another example comes from Latvia: Russians, Ukrainians and Belorussians flooded into Riga because of the higher standard of living, and brought Russification in their wake. When the non-Latvian population reached 800,000 out of a total of only 2,500,000 in all Latvia, further immigration was stopped.’ (211) Freedom of movement within the USSR (by party pressure) created an immigrant crisis.

And we’ve seen how Russia deals with the fundamentalist Islamic issue. The State’s atheism does not sit comfortably with Islam.  Science and Religion said the home mosques supported social customs that were incompatible with modern social life, including blood feuds, the abduction of brides, the marriage of underage girls and polygamy…’ (p245)

This is a fascinating and thought-provoking book, a glance back in time, when the Cold War was thawing then heating up, as East and West attempted to accommodate the other, neither side wanting more global conflict. The Soviet Union could not sustain its vast empire and it took the realist Gorbachev to understand that. What followed was another completely different ball game – but throughout the period, from the time of this book to the present, the Russian people have found the changes in their lives bewildering and unsettling. Certainly, the independent states seem keen not to go back.

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