I am giving a talk at a Libertarian Home meeting at the Rose and Crown pub in Southwark this Thursday evening the 2nd of October. (All welcome. Please come). The initial motivation for this talk was to attempt to shed some light on the causes of the current war in Ukraine. When I thought about is some more, I realised that while the Ukrainian situation is interesting (in an extraordinarily depressing way) the subject is more interesting in the broader context of Russian relations with the countries of the former USSR in general.
As it happens, I have spent a lot of time travelling in the countries of the former USSR. In the last year I have been to Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia, and Lithuania, as well as the two most significant countries that are now in NATO and the EU, but which were formerly communist and Warsaw pact (Poland and Romania). With the exception of Belarus and Russia itself, these countries were not new to me – I have visited all of the others multiple times in the last five years, as well as every other formerly communist country in Europe. I have also visited the breakaway / Russian occupied territories of Transnistria in Moldova and Abkhazia in Georgia. I have seen a lot, and learned a lot, and this helps greatly in trying to understand what is going on. (To my great regret, I do not speak Russian. I would no doubt have learned a lot more if I did).
I have been told to talk for 20 to 30 minutes. I have chosen a gigantic subject for this length. I only have time to give a quick impression of each country, I fear, and a brief attempt to tie things together. For these impressions to make any sense at all, some historical and cultural background is necessary. Therefore, I am writing this article as a brief primer, and hopefully something that people will find interesting in its own right. People who wish to add things, disagree with things, tell me I am completely wrong etc in the comments are most welcome. I a not going to talk about communism at all. I am going to talk about everything in terms of ethnic nationalism and territorial changes.
→ Continue reading: A plug for a talk, and some background
Minsk, Belarus. May 2014
Ah yes. Marc O’Polo, the great Irish explorer who travelled to and returned from the O’Rient.
All eggs that are sold in the United States would be illegal according to European health regulations.
Also, all eggs that are sold in Europe would be illegal according to US health regulations.
Apparently, there is a tremendous run on high quality cheese going on in Moscow. This wonderful range of delectable products is vanishing rapidly from supermarket shelves as customers stock up before the sanctions that Russia is imposing on Russia come into force.
Yesterday, after a walk in the warm weather, I went into a pub. I am going to name and shame here – it was the King William IV in Chigwell. It’s a nice place with fancy decor, an elaborate menu and London prices. I attempted to order a pint of lager.
However, beer was only coming out of the taps in a little dribble. One of the staff members vanished for a few minutes, returned, shook his head to one of his colleagues, and came over to me and said something along the lines of “Sorry, we are having a little bit of trouble with the draught beer due to the temperature in the cellar. This means that the beer is not coming through to the taps. It’s the hot weather, see”.
The temperature was a horrific 32 degrees Celsius – 89 degrees Fahrenheit. As an Australian, I would describe this as fairly warm but not especially hot. In England, though, it becomes quite unpleasant, due to the lack of any infrastructure for dealing with it, for instance the ability to provide beer when temperatures go over 30. (Cold drinks in newsagents and other shops are normally kept in strange cooling devices that are open to the air, rather than in proper refrigerators with closed doors. These lose the ability to keep drinks cold when the weather gets hot – ie when you most want your drink to be cold). Buildings simply aren’t designed to keep heat out, nor are they designed to be easily cooled when it gets in.
I could just say that the English inability to deal with warm but not especially hot weather is simply a consequence of their not hot climate, but then one also must think about the English inability to deal with cool but not especially cold weather, their inability to deal with weather that is a bit wet but not especially stormy, and indeed to deal with weather that is dry but not especially droughty.
Seriously, though, a pub that cannot provide beer when the temperature gets over 30 belongs in an Australian comedy sketch.
Let me get this straight. The World Cup is being held in Brazil. Prior to this tournament there was a ban on consumption of alcohol inside stadia in Brazil, but FIFA insisted that the ban be overturned because one of their sponsors is a brand of beer and their contractual relationship with the brewer of this beer required that it be on sale inside the stadia during the World Cup. Fans at these matches have apparently been buying this beer and getting unbelievably drunk. The impressive cogitative processes operating in the brains of senior FIFA officials are now just starting to deduce that there might have been a reason for this ban in the first place.
Soon, Russia is authoritarian and corrupt. Also, it is hot in Qatar in summer.
As I wrote previously, the city of Sarajevo yesterday commemorated the centenary of the assasination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand with a fairly confused set of events. A member of a not entirely ceremonial royal family and in a sense therefore a political leader was murdered 100 years ago, as was his wife. Neither of them were bad people and the murder was a horrible thing in itself, even without the terrible events that it set off. The city of Sarajevo held events to commemorate this centenary, but there was much ambiguity about what message (if any) were being sent.
Inevitably, the memories of more recent events in Sarajevo were in the air, even if not explicitly spoken about. The assassin Gavrilo Princip was a Serb nationalist and the sides of buildings in Sarajevo are full of holes that were put there by other Serb nationalists for four years during the siege of Sarajevo between 1992 and 1996.
However, there are two Sarajevos. The bulk of the city is part of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (not to be confused with the nation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, of which it is a constituent entity), and is populated mostly by Bosnian Muslims, with a small Bosnian Croat population also. However, to the east is Istočno Sarajevo (East Sarajevo), which is part of the Serbian Republic (not to be confused with the Republic of Serbia, of which it is not a constituent entity but would probably like to be) and which is populated by Bosnian Serbs. East Sarajevo consists mostly of new housing that was built on the edge of town using international aid money in order to house Serbs from Sarajevo who either fled or where expelled from Sarajevo during the siege. There is no obvious sign that one is crossing the boundary between the two entities when one does, but they are quite separate just the same. Public transport does not cross the border. People from East Sarajevo to not have access to healthcare in the principal hospital in Sarajevo. People from one side do not socialise or work on the other.
If you look more carefully there are differences between what is on the two sides. As I said, the housing in East Sarajevo is mostly new. The housing in nearby neighbourhoods of non-East Sarajevo are older, and the walls of buildings are full of holes where they were hit by shells during the siege. There is a large and new Orthodox Church overlooking the boundary between the two parts of the city. Away from the populated areas but still on the boundary is the base of the EUFOR peacekeeping force. The boundary goes right through its middle.
Although the memory of the siege of 1992-6 was hanging over the events in the historic part of Sarajevo yesterday, allusions were vague. In East Sarajevo, not so much. Public spaces are still being established in that part of town. One of these is a new park. A ceremony was held yesterday to name it “Gavrilo Princip Park”, and a statue of the murderer himself was also unveiled. Thankfully, I suspect, we did not make it to East Sarajevo for that dedication ceremony. However, we did visit the park and the statue today. A few people were posing for photographs with it. Whereas the main commemorating events were deliberately non-provocative, those in East Sarajevo were extraordinarily provocative, and very crude. Also, insane.
Samizdata’s World War 1 correspondent Patrick Crozier and I are presently in Sarajevo, on the hundredth anniversary of the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, which triggered World War 1. It has been a slightly peculiar occasion, as nobody – local, or visiting – seems to be quite clear about what exactly is the correct way to commemorate such an event. There are musical events, art exhibitions (mostly only tangentially related to the occasion), conferences, and a vast number of television crews from all around the world looking for people to interview and things to film other than one another, mostly without great success. It has been, a long, hot day, and the journey into Sarajevo from Belgrade (that we made yesterday evening) is a long and tiring one through steep mountain roads, and I lack the strength to write at length now, alas.
However, whatever the correct way of commemorating an event such as this is, my guess is that it does not involve dressing up as the Archduke and/or his wife Sophie and sitting in a similar open car to the one they were riding in when they were murdered on the exact same spot exactly one hundred years earlier.
It was, however, possible to to that in Sarajevo today.
Partly due to despair at my unwillingness to decorate my flat in any way whatsoever, and partly because she knows I like this kind of thing, a friend of mine sent me this antique map of central Europe as a gift. She obtained it in an antiquarian map shop in Krakow, Poland.
First, obvious observation. This is a map from Nazi Germany. In the margin, it is identified as being the product of a mapmaker in Leipzig, but there is no date given.
Secondly, when I see a historical map, I like to play the game of figuring out the dates of the map by looking at the border, and using my historical knowledge of political geography to narrow the date down.
Figuring out the year of this map is easy. This map is from 1939. In most instances, getting the year is all you want to do. However, 1939 was a somewhat problematic year.
Klaipeda and the area around it is shown as part of Germany, not Lithuania. Also, Czechoslovakia has ceased to exist, Bohemia and Moravia has been annexed by the Reich, Slovakia is a supposedly independent country, and Carpathian Ruthenia has been invaded and annexed by Hungary. All these events occurred in March 1939, so the map was clearly designed after March 1939.
It’s looking at Poland that things get interesting. Firstly, Danzig is not shown as a free city, but is shown as part of the Reich. Danzig was invaded by Germany on 1 September 1939, proclaimed part of Germany on 2 September, and formally annexed under German law on 8 October. Danzig had, however, been under the control of the local Nazi party since 1933, and would have joined Germany instantly if it had been allowed to under international law. Is it possible that some German maps showed Danzig as part of Germany prior to September 1939? Possible, but I suspect probably not.
By far the most fascinating thing in this map is the red line through Poland, however. Poland is clearly identified as “Polen”, but the Molotov-Rippentrop line – it the limits of German occupation after the invasion of Germany in September 1939 – has been drawn through it. Therefore the map must have been printed no earlier than September 1939. This has clearly been printed at the same time as the rest of the map – it is not something someone added with a pen later, or anything like that.
What I suppose is possible is that the mapmaker had a map prepared reflecting recent border changes immediately prior to the German invasion of Poland in September 1939. When the invasion occurred, the map was quickly modified to show Danzig as German and the zones of German and Soviet occupation before being printed and sold.
And yet, this map does not reflect the view of the world that the Nazis wanted to present. Upon invading Poland, they declared that Poland as a country did not exist. On that same date of October 8, Germany formally annexed the northern and western sections of their Polish conquests (including the Suwalki triangle, clearly shown on this map), and declared the South-East to be the “General-government”, essentially a German colony (but not a “Germany colony in Poland”, as Poland did not exist). This map is therefore curious, as it essentially shows Poland (clearly identified as Poland) under German (and Soviet) occupation.
I cannot imagine maps like this being printed in Germany long after the annexation decree of October 1939. In the Nazi view, there was no occupied Poland the way there was later an occupied France. There was simply German territory that unfortunately happened to have Poles, other Slavs, and Jews living in it. It’s easy to imagine foreign maps from later showing the German and Soviet occupation of Poland like this, but German ones, not so much. So my conclusion is that this map was printed very soon indeed after the German invasion of Poland in September 1939.
Plus of course this map ended up in an antiquarian map shop in Krakow in Poland, which between 1939 and 1945 was in that aforementioned “General Government”. One has no idea how and when it got there, but I suspect that “during the occupation” is the most likely answer.
The above photograph is of the main building of Moscow State University in the Sparrow Hills district of Moscow. This is one of the so called Seven Sisters – the Stalinist buildings that are prominent in the Moscow skyline. When completed in 1953 this was the tallest building in the world outside New York City, and it remained the tallest building in Europe until 1990. The building was built partly with gulag labour. As it was nearing completion, the gulag workers were housed inside it in order to minimise the number of guards required, so the building functioned as something resembling a gulag itself during construction.
The Seven Sisters were built in the 1950s after the USSR obtained the technical knowledge to built large steel framed skyscrapers from the United States. There are a few more such buildings scattered throughout the former USSR and the former Warsaw Pact states. The most notable of them outside Moscow is the Palace of Science and Culture in Warsaw, which I have written about before.
The Polish attitude to that building is, at this point in time, mixed. It is a memento of having been occupied by the Soviets, an experience of which the Poles are not especially fond of the memory of. However, the familiar becomes familiar, and it is hard to imagine it not being there. The Palace of Science and Culture is full of many good cinemas, theatres, concert halls, and other venues for cultural activities, and many a good evening has been had there by many a Polish person. As the years go by, other tall buildings have been built in Warsaw, none of which have anything like the same style, and the Palace of Science and Culture has become just a historical artifact (and a reasonably interesting one) in a more modern, and more western city. Nobody would ever think of building another building anything like it, and it remains as an integral, but singlular, landmark of the city.
Moscow is different. There are seven large buildings in the same Stalinist gothic style, and a number of smaller ones. They are not physically together, but are scattered all over the city. They don’t dominate the Moscow skyline, exactly – if anything does it is the spires of the cathedrals of the Kremlin and Red Square – but they lend an essential part of the character of the city. Take photographs and there is always one lurking in the background somewhere. Their style is one of the defining styles that defines Moscow, and even defines Russia.
Consider this building, though, to be found elsewhere in Moscow.
This is the Triumph Palance. This is a residential apartment building out along Leningradsky Prospect corridor in the direction of Sheremetyevo airport and the stadium belonging to the football team CSKA Moscow. It was completed in 2003. For a few years after that, it was the tallest building in Europe. There is also a hotel on the 53rd floors and above. A quick check on booking.com finds that the hotel offers rooms from £171 a night, which I think in Moscow puts it in the “very nice but not extremely luxurious” category. I bet the views are great. A walk up to the building finds security and people who come and going who look prosperous but not obscenely rich. I think we are talking oligarchs’ lawyers rather than oligarchs themselves.
The building, though, is clearly influenced by the style of the Stalinist-Gothic architecture from the 1950s. It would seem that there therefore exists an architectural style that might be called “Stalinist revival”. Saying that this style is nostalgic for the communism of the Soviet 1950s is probably not right, but it is clear that that era has had a big influence on what makes Moscow Moscow just the same – to the extent that the city is still building upon it. This is unthinkable in Warsaw, but is what happens in Moscow. This almost makes me think about some of the strange iconography I have seen recently from Eastern Ukraine: “Russian Nationalists” holding up communist symbols and Russian Orthodox Christian iconography side by side. Communist iconography no longer means anything as communism, but has become part of the language of Russian nationalism.
I am told there are some Stalinist revival buildings in Kazakhstan, too. In fact, there is even another Triumph Palace in Astana. What I should read from this, I shall leave for another day.
I visited the above house in Kaunas, Lithuania last month. In 1940, this house was the Japanese consulate. Kaunas functioned as the capital city of Lithuania prior to the Second World War. The Lithuanians considered Vilnius to be their rightful capital, but it was masquerading as the Polish city of Wilno at the time. Upon the German occupation of Western Poland and the Soviet occupation of Eastern Poland in late 1939, many (both Polish and Lithuanian) Jews were trapped in Lithuania and clearly in great danger, but were unable to gain exit visas to leave the Soviet Union (or travel across it by the Trans-Siberian railway) unless they had visas to go somewhere else. There were Japanese government rules stating that transit visas could be issued to Japan, but only if the applicant had plans to go somewhere else after Japan, and also that he had adequate financial resources.
Seeing the desperation of the situation, and against orders, Japanese consul Chiune Sugihara issued Japanese transit visas to anyone who asked. (In the book Bloodlands historian Timothy Snyder – who clearly finds Sugihara as fascinating a figure as I do – makes it clear that Sugihara was a Japanese spy as well as a Japanese consul, and his job was to keep track of Soviet troop movements for the Japanese government). During September 1940 he spent something like 20 hours a day writing out visas. When the consulate was closed and he had to leave, he was followed by a crowd to the railway station. As his train left, he was still throwing blank visas with his seal and signature on them to a crowd of desperate people. In total, he wrote something like 3000 visas, and as dependent family members could travel on the same visa as the principal person it was written for, those visas covered several times that number of people.
Kaunas railway station today.
Upon receiving these visas, Jews were able to travel on the Trans-Siberian railway to Vladivostok and then go by ship to Japan. They then dispersed to various places, but many were deported to Shanghai when the tripartite pact with Germany was signed shortly afterwards. Shanghai was also under Japanese occupation, and there these people spent time in the Shanghai ghetto – Restricted Sector for Stateless Refugees – where they stayed until Shanghai was liberated by the Americans in 1945. I visited the remnants of the Shanghai ghetto in 2006, and wrote about it at the time. Although this was crowded and at times squalid, it was a place of relative safety. The Japanese behaved monstrously towards certain other groups, but they had nothing against Jews, and did not turn the Jews in Shanghai over to the Germans despite German requests. Rather cleverly, Jewish leaders in Shanghai played upon Japanese mistrust of their German allies. Upon being asked by a Japanese governor why the Germans hated the Jews so much, rabbi Shimon Sholom Kalish replied “They hate us because we are short and dark haired”.
Most Jews who got to Shanghai survived, and then emigrated to Israel, Australia, the US and other places after 1945. Estimates of the number of lives saved by Sugihara go as high as 10,000, although estimates of about 6,000 seem more common.
Half of the building in Kaunas is now a museum to Sugihara. I wanted to see this – it was why I went to Kaunas. The other people in the museum when I went there were a busload of Japanese tourists. Almost everyone who had signed the guest book had done so in Japanese, too. I didn’t see any Lithuanians or many other Europeans, which is a shame given this extraordinary story.
It’s an exceptionally good thing that the museum is there, but I did find the tone of the museum to be slightly curious. The museum did seem to be going out of its way to present the Japanese in general in the best possible light overall, rather than simply telling the story of Sugihara. That Sugihara was acting against orders was mentioned but not emphasised, and much was made of Jews who reached Japan being treated well, but not much was said about where they went after the Japanese alliance with Germany intensified and they were deported from Japan. The truth – the Shanghai ghetto mentioned above – doesn’t actually reflect too badly on the Japanese, but it is rather unfortunately connected to other things that do reflect badly on the Japanese. It is impossible to praise Sugihara himself too much – the man saved the lives of 6,000 or more people just out of basic human decency – but does this reflect well on Japan as a whole? That is harder to say. As is the case with other various people who did similar things, his story remained obscure for many years. His career with the Japanese foreign service ended after the war for reasons that may or may not have had to do with disobeying orders in Lithuania.
Eventually, Sugihara’s story became widely known, and he was later honoured by Yad Vashem, the state of Israel, the state of Japan and the state of Lithuania, but this took a long time. As it did with Paul Grüninger, Oskar Schindler, and others.