Monday, May 31, 2004

Notes from an Island

As a new item in the literary presentations series, I'm publishing a short translated extract from Notes from an Island (Anteckningar från en ö, Schildts, Helsinki, 1996), one of the last books by the Finland-Swedish author Tove Jansson (1914-2001) - most famous for her "Moomin" books for children, but also a distinguished writer of adult fiction.

For over twenty years the small island of Klovharun, at the outermost tip of the Pellinge archipelago, about 80 kilometres east of Helsinki, the Finnish capital, and some 30 kilometres south of the town of Porvoo, was the summer home of the writer Tove Jansson and the artist Tuulikki Pietilä. This book is an account, by both women, of those years, in which they built a cottage on the island and then lived and worked there for considerable periods of time, away from “civilization”.

The book is written in the style of a memoir with diary entries, and is illustrated with tinted drawings and watercolours by Tuulikki Pietilä. The early chapters describe the days during the early 1960s when the couple were exploring the Pellinge maritime region and found the small island where they decided to build their home. We are introduced to Brunström, the taciturn and opinionated local fisherman and workman who helps the two women in their search and gives them advice on building permission and other matters. With his colleague Sjöblom, Brunström is portrayed with humour as a character born from the surroundings and traditions of Finland’s small Swedish-speaking community – in some ways he could almost be a character from one of Tove Jansson’s Moomin books, which also mirror aspects of Finland-Swedish life, with its sense of a culture within a culture, the expression of a people without a homeland as such, but with a strong sense of ethnic and cultural identity, and a close affinity with nature. Some of the diary entries in the earlier part of the book are presented as being the work of Brunström himself.

Tove Jansson describes the little island in detail, reflecting the way in which it represents all the aspects of Finnish nature in microcosm: the miniature forest, with paths, the exposed rock face, the central lake or lagoon, the seagulls and other birds, which the author portrays as being unhappy about the invasion of their living space by two human individuals. The construction of the house, which involves much blasting and dynamiting of rock, is recounted in detail, with copies of lists and surveyors’ notes, and Tove describes how she and Tuulikki conceived the plan for the building: it was to have windows facing all the points of the compass: “one for the great storms, one for the reflection of the moon in the lake, one for the hill with its moss and polyps, and one facing north ‘so we can see what may come sailing along and so have time to get used to it.’”

One chapter describes the experience of watching the great break-up of the sea ice in springtime, and one receives a sense of the tiny world of the island as part of a huge natural universe of movement. The timelessness of the place is evident – and yet always the two women impress their creative skills on their environment, turning a remote and deserted rock-face into a workshop of artistic endeavour, without ever spoiling the harmony and equilibrium of the landscape and its creatures. We follow their day-to-day life, with its constant struggle with the elements, as when the sea carries away their entire supply of firewood, its trips to nearby communities for the essentials of life, its lists of supplies and tools, its outboard motors and above all the boat Victoria, which suffers shipwreck one stormy night, at the book’s climax.

In addition to being a miniature tour de force of autobiographical “desert island” writing, Notes from an Island is also an important document that gives an insight into some of the existential sources of Tove Jansson’s literary talent. In particular, we begin to understand from within how the world of the Moomins developed, as we follow the author’s deep and intuitive relation to the place and the living creatures that inhabit and frequent it – the gull Pellura, the seabirds, the local people, the postman, the cat, and so on. The illustrations by Tuulikki Pietilä complete the evocation of this world, that is at once very real and concrete and yet also suffused with a strange, muted, almost fairytale-like radiance.




I love stone: the cliff that falls straight into the sea, the rocky hill too steep to climb, the pebble in my pocket, prising stones from the ground and heaving them up and rolling the biggest ones straight down the hill into the sea! Down they rumble, leaving behind an acrid smell of sulphur.
Searching for stones to build with, or simply stones that are beautiful, in order to make mosaics, bastions, terraces, pillars, smoke ovens, or strange, unusable contraptions made just for the sake of it; building jetties that the sea will take away next autumn; building more wisely next time, though the sea will take it all away again.
My father was a sculptor, but Tooti’s was a carpenter, and that’s why she loves working in wood, whether it’s shifting magnificent, heavy planks about or playing with feather-light balsa. In the forest we searched for juniper wood. On the shore we sometimes found strange, hardy species of trees with unfamiliar names. Tooti used them to make small objects that need time and great patience – why not make the smallest salt-spoon that has ever been made?
‘But,’ says Tooti, ‘it’s quite different when you build on a large scale, you have to be resolute and absolutely sure of your ability to measure and calculate and make it all work out to the last centimetre. Or millimetre.
‘Sometimes building is done in order to hold and make steady, and other times it’s in order to decorate: sometimes it’s both.’
Incidentally, Tooti’s engravings are done in pear-wood or beech, her woodcuts mostly in birch.
She would often discuss materials with Albert Gustafsson in his boatshed on Pellinge; they also chatted about boats. He gave her suitable pieces of teak and mahogany to play around with, and Tooti took them all home with her and thought up ideas that were totally new.
It was Albert who made the boat, in 1962, from mahogany, four metres long and clinker-built. It was the most beautiful boat that had ever been seen on that whole stretch of the coast. She was strong and supple, and positively danced on a heavy sea, her name was Victoria, as both Tooti’s father and mine were called Victor.
Gradually, as the summers went by, Victoria became more and more Tooti’s as she was the one who loved the boat most and looked after it with the utmost care.

There are many names for what we call an island: holm, skerry, haru, islet, atoll. The map of Pellinge shows an arc of uninhabited skerries west of Glosholm; they may be connected with a ridge of random formations on the sea bed. Kummelskär is the largest and most beautiful pearl in the necklace.
I was very small when I decided to be the lighthouse keeper on Kummelskär. While it is true that there’s only one lighthouse there, I planned to build a much larger one, an enormous lighthouse that would be able to survey and supervise the whole of the eastern Gulf of Finland – when I was grown-up and rich, of course.
Gradually, my dream of the unattainable changed, and turned into a game with the possible; eventually it was just a cussed obstinacy that refused to give up, until the Fishermen’s Guild made no bones about the matter and said quite simply that it would disturb the salmon, and that was that.
But about two and a half nautical miles from Kummelskär, in towards the coast, there were small islands that no one really knew anything about, and there it was possible to rent land.
Remarkable that such a major and long drawn out disappointment could so quickly be forgotten for a new infatuation, but so it was – almost as soon as we moved in, we felt that we’d discovered paradise. We prettified and ruined with the same high spirits; we had everything, if only in miniature: a little forest with a forest path and moss, a little sandy shore with safety for the boat, even a little marsh with some tufts of cotton grass – we were proud of the island!
And we wanted to be admired, to show off, we lured people there and they came, and came back, summer after summer, more and more of them. Sometimes they would bring a friend with them, or sometimes the loss of a friend, and they would talk and talk about their yearning for the simple, the primitive; and above all, their yearning for solitude.
Gradually the island became filled with people. Tooti and I began to think about moving further out to sea.
We made a half-hearted attempt with Kummelskär, but they said we would disturb the cod.
After Kummelskär come Musblötan, Käringskrevan and Bisaball, small inaccessible skerries where only fishermen and hunters can think of landing, and last in the series Klovharun, i.e. a haru (rocky island) that has split (cloven) in two. That was where we wanted to live.
The island has an area of about six or seven thousand square metres, is shaped like an atoll with a lagoon in the middle, and is surrounded by rocks; at low tide the lagoon becomes a lake.
It is said that at one time seals used the lagoon as a playground; that was before they thought the better of it and moved further out to sea.
On the map, these smaller, almost outcast islands are marked as state property, but that is not true at all.
The fact is that according to certain records, at some time in the eighteenth century, there was once a stormy committee meeting connected with the Land Reform; perhaps the conflict was put on hold because the secretary was prevented from attending the meeting by the icy conditions on the roads, but whatever the truth of the matter the islands were hastily registered as part of the community of Pellinge; ‘an indeterminate population, with no precise details.’
As time passed, the community had grown considerably, and now it seemed it was no longer possible for us to apply for permission to lease land on Haru.
However, like so many other islands with a will of their own, Pellinge had its own prophet whom one could ask for advice on difficult matters concerning the internal affairs of the group of islands. He advised us not to raise our hopes too high and above all not to depend on legal documents that sooner or later might only cause problems – no lease, therefore, but perhaps a small donation to the Fishermen’s Guild. Take it as it comes, he said, put up a list in Söderby for people to enter ‘yes’ or ‘no’ – if I put ‘yes’ everyone else will probably do likewise.
We put up the ‘yes or no’ list on the veranda door of the village shop and everyone put ‘yes’.
We sent the list to Porvoo Council and applied for building permission.
While we waited, we lived on Klovharun in a tent. It rained all the time, Tooti was reading part six of The Vicomte de Bragelonne, by Alexandre Dumas.
‘There’s nothing like the classics,’ she said. ‘Read Les Misérables, unabridged, and then you’ll understand the meaning of loyalty.’
I know that Tooti is loyal to what she trusts, even afterwards.
We had pitched our tent too close to the Great Stone, which is so great that it has become a landmark, at least for people who are finding their way more or less from hearsay. The Stone was estimated to weigh approximately fifty tons. It lies in an enormous frog pond in the only place where one could think of building beyond the reach of the sea.
It rained all week, and the frog pond overflowed and trickled past down the hill past our tent and stank horribly. We dreamt of what the cottage would look like. It would have four windows, one in each wall. In the south east we made room for the great storms that rage in across the island, in the east the moon would be able to reflect itself in the lagoon, and in the west there would be a rocky wall with moss and polyps. To the north one had to be able to keep a lookout for anything that might come along, and have time to get used to it.
We thought that if we built a cottage it ought to be quite high up the hill, but not right at the top, as that was the place for the beacon – perhaps just below the brow of the hill, so that the chimney would be visible from the sea. Against the light, in other words, and to those boats that stray past for no reason.
Late one night we heard an engine being turned off down on the shore, and someone with a flashlight came slowly up the hill. He introduced himself. Brunström from Kråkö.
Brunström was out salmon fishing and had been planning to sleep the night in his boat when he saw lights on the island. We made tea on the primus stove.
Brunström is quite small. He has a taut, weather-bitten face and blue eyes, his movements are swift but measured, and he never uses adjectives in his everyday talk. His boat has no name.
We trusted him, immediately.
Brunström had heard about the ‘yes or no’ list. ‘It will never get through, he said, not even in Porvoo where they take life rather easy, take things as they come, as it were. You’ll never get permission to build. The only thing you can do is start building immediately. It’ll take the authorities ages to agree about what they want, and that’s where you have to watch out. The law says that nothing can be demolished if the builder’s got the frame up to the roof-tree. Believe me, said Brunström, I know about these things. I’ve built cabins in next to no time here and there, just in order to annoy people in the neighbourhood – folk from Pernå and Pellinge, for example.’
Brunström went on to explain that he didn’t need very much time, though one never knows with the autumn weather. He’d take Sjöblom with him and perhaps Charlie and Helmer, and before anything else, the Great Stone must be blasted with dynamite.
Brunström says that blasting and basements don’t count as proper building, the house has to have a frame and the frame won’t last the winter without a roof. So there is not much time. ‘Before the snow,’ he says.

translated by David McDuff

Sunday, May 30, 2004

Slow Genocide

An interesting Rosbalt report - even though Rosbalt is not always the most objective of news sources, the following shows that current events in Chechnya are being closely watched in the Soviet Union's former colonies:

Russia perpetrates slow genocide in Chechnya, says a former Estonian ambassador in Moscow

Rosbalt, 17/5/2004

"Russian President Vladimir Putin perpetrates purposeful genocide of the Chechen people in Chechnya using the struggle against terrorism as a cover," said Mart Helme, a former Estonian ambassador in Moscow. Being a wise politician, Mr Putin understands the genocide should not be committed in haste, it should be done gradually, the struggle
against terrorism being used as a cover, Mr Helme wrote in the Eesti P'evaleht newspaper.

"However it doesn't change the essence of things, therefore the world community must state with all due responsibility that the Chechen people will be eliminated within the next ten years if there will be no external interference," said the ex-smbassador. "Genocide means not only the killing and eviction of Chechens from their houses but the import of the problem to other regions of Russia, first of all to Dagestan and Ingushetia," Mart Helme added.

Mart Helme was Estonian ambassador in Moscow from 1995 to 2000. Now he is nominated to be a deputy of the European Parliament for the Estonian party People's Union.

Kavkaz Center also has a report of an open address by 28 representatives of the Estonian intelligentsia and cultural workers, condemning the attitude of the Western states towards Russia’s actions in Chechnya:

"While condemning the terrorist act against the collaborator president and against the commander of the invaders’ forces, the West is thus approving of Russia’s colonial ambitions concerning the Chechen state and giving a green light to continue violence against Chechen peaceful civilians", the address says.

"…there is a deep feeling of protest when thinking that the fate of a traitor and a war criminal is causing more emotions among the international community than the fate of the entire nation does, when the nation is being oppressed and brought to the verge of extermination. It confirms once again that no lessons are taken from the history and that democratic values turn out to be a fiction most of the time. As a small nation, the Estonians, who have experienced the heavy hand of foreign rule, cannot remain indifferent to the sufferings that Chechens are experiencing."

The authors called on all people of good will to support the Chechen people in their attempts to build a safe future for themselves.

"This is the least thing we can do. The fact that tragic lot befell some war criminals before they faced the trial in the Hague should not be the reason to continue the genocide", the statement stresses.

However, as one commentator has pointed out: "Speaking about the open letter of the culture people, there are no real stars among them... Several of them are virtually unknown in Estonia.Some are editors of newspapers, some are university lecturers, some are kind of writers or poets, but mostly they are 3rd echelon people. These protests are clearly marginal and the title of the story of KC is therefore erroneous. Unfortunately no prominent public figure of Estonia has said anything about Chechnya recently."

For myself, I recognize only the name of the poet Elo Viiding among the signatories. However, for me the fact that she should have decided to sign the document is proof enough that this is a serious protest, and one that should be taken seriously.

Friday, May 28, 2004

Standing Trams

Time for some fiction. The following is an extract I've translated from a novel by a contemporary Estonian writer, with the author's permission - in my opinion, the novel, while sensitively written, is more interesting for the view it gives of life in 1970s Estonia, then still under rigid Soviet military occupation, than for its characterization and plot. The most vivid scenes are those in which the characters are seen enmeshed and struggling with the crushing social reality that surrounds them in Tallinn, Estonia's capital city. Russia is the colonizing power, Estonia the colony. The human beings in the narrative are fighting for air to breathe, one feels, and the conflict between the desire to live and the forces of death that are omnipresent gives this book a strange, macabre intensity that is unusual. I've called the extract


Year after year their New Year's tree had a gold hammer and sickle on it. It carried no conviction. They hung it on the tree automatically, without thinking about its shape or meaning. The hammer and sickle had been bought in the 1950s when there was probably nothing much to choose from, and now brought up from the cellar each year and hung on the tree. At midnight, on the eve of the New Year, they all watched the brilliantly lit Kremlin and clinked champagne glasses during the Soviet anthem:

'The great Russian nation, creating the
unbreakable union of free countries...'

Everyone quietly spat at that phrase: to hell with it! And if they were drunk enough by that time, they started mocking those sentences: ''Unbreakable union, my foot! Bloody union! Who wanted them anyway!'
After the New Year’s party, the golden sickle and hammer were gently wrapped into several old newspapers, placed in a cardboard box and taken back to cellar - carefully avoiding the puddles of urine - to wait for next year. They lived in a new, sloppily built four-storey apartment house where the area in front of the cellar door stank of the urine of cats and humans. They had to pass this place every time Guido came to see her. The fact that she lived in a house where people used the front of the cellar door as a toilet was nothing unusual. Others lived in wooden workers' barracks in Kopli dating back to Tsarist times (they still live there, some in partially burnt down houses - nobody knows how they got burnt down - with the wind whistling in through the remnants of the walls, white snow covering the floor of the communal toilet in winter). Brown two-storey wooden houses, with long dark corridors and doors along both sides. One-room flats with tiny kitchen corners to the right and left of the corridor, the gloomy cupboards and a shared toilet. These houses were just as dismal as hers, but they still had a few advantages. Their front doors were usually locked at 10 in the evening, and no one thought of using the front of their cellar door as a urinal. In fact they did not have a cellar door, indeed they had no cellar. Thus the only smell upon entering was that of an old wooden house. Nothing out of the ordinary about that.
The out of the ordinary thing was that Guido lived in a house that was completely different, had a different background.
The front of the cellar door was one of Helen's numerous childhood fears and humiliations. Coming home from school, she always tried to reach her door upstairs, very quickly, not looking left or right. It seemed like a race where life and death were at stake - would she reach her door, unlock it and get in, before a drunk or a flasher (these turned up too, from time to time) or a drunk having a smoke could catch up with her. No one ever chased her. It was fear that conjured up such an image and turned it so real. She was later tormented by revolting images of a dirty man standing in a pool of urine and asking her to come closer so that he could show her how the real thing was done. And she agreeing, because she wanted to know.
It was not the kind of toilet where men (or women whom she had seen crouching there) came from their own homes to urinate. It was a place located between home and tram stop, home and bus stop, or home and shop. Emerging from the tram, they could not hold on any longer, popped into the house, unbuttoned their flies (only a few had zipped trousers - these were a step towards a more liberal way of thinking, to be admired or despised; buttons were the usual thing: sew buttons to my trousers; did you get buttons for my trousers; I lost a trouser button), took out their prick and splashed their urine against the cellar door or grey wall. Bladder empty, the man resumed his way down to the coast, home. To the wooden barracks near the sea, or cheap hostels or Stalinist brick houses. When the Saturday night dance at the sailors' house finished - one tram stop away - people walked in couples along the street and entered their building, together. Sometimes there were more, two or three couples waiting outside for their turn. They laughed and joked and went into the house to urinate. They tried to pick a fight with anyone who happened to be passing at this late hour. Helen often heard cries for help under her window. Her mother had rung the militia several times. They never came. Helen herself had once had reason to scream in terror when she and Guido came back from a party at the Art Institute. She heard somebody say: 'Estonians are coming. Don't let them pass', and two couples placed themselves firmly in front of them. Helen screamed and her mother ran downstairs in her underwear and a thin blouse on her back. Panties had no lace nor any beauty to them - made of cotton, stretched out of their original shape, a faded pink colour. And Helen caught herself thinking that she felt ashamed of her Mum's underpants. Not of her running down in underwear but of the way they looked. They were pulled up right under her bra ,baggy ,flopping around her thighs. That was what burned her with shame. That Guido saw it, saw those ugly, revolting panties her mother wore. Why couldn't they have been black, with plenty of lace, and decent? And did Guido's Mum possess a nice pair, or was she wearing the same as her mother? One of the Russian sailors shouted at her: 'Go to hell, Estonian bitch!' Russians hated Estonians, and Estonians hated Russians. The conquerors and the oppressed. The Russians had an advantage, though. When their hatred threatened to become overpowering, making life intolerable, they had always the chance to go back to Russia, to their own people. Estonians had no such opportunity.
In her childhood, when she was visiting Leningrad with her parents, she had asked her father in the middle of Nevsky Prospect: Daddy, who was this Nevsky? An aggressor, who else, replied the father. Sharing the same hill in winter for sledging, quarrels between Estonian and Russian children were a daily occurrence. Estonian children were rudely chased off the sledging hill. It was the foreign grannies who cruelly pushed them: 'A nu-ka poshol otsyuda!' Someone shouted in a loud voice: 'Bloody Russians, you've come here to eat Estonian bread!' Helen had been shocked at such courage. This was her own friend Katre, same age as herself, just turned eight. Helen had stood bewildered, waiting to see what happened next. It probably meant revenge, a serious fight, tearing of hair and clothes. But nothing happened at all. No-one had even understood the words. Most Russians never bothered to learn the local language. And why should they? Power and authorities were on their side. A third of the local population had died because of them in the freezing depths of distant Siberia, another part had taken the risk and crossed the sea in small boats to escape them. Those who stayed were tired, frightened, and bitter. All those useless little protests occurred on the sledging hills, at school doors during the evening dances, during hours-long swearing and cursing at birthdays and wedding parties.
The glass panes of the front door of their house were often smashed, or kicked in or broken by a stone. It didn't really matter how it was done - the panes simply never survived intact. Nothing much was needed anyway - just a kick with a boot. At first the glass was replaced, a new pane put in, but soon the inhabitants of the house gave up, until every single pane was smashed. When Helen reached secondary school, all the windows were covered by rusty sheet iron. If you flung the door open, it banged against the wall with a clatter. In windy weather the door rattled horribly. Even Helen in her second floor room could hear it perfectly. The speed and violence with which the door slammed against the wall was a good indication of the weather: slightly, moderately or extremely windy. When the door banged against the wall with horrifying noise, a storm was due. When someone wondered what the weather was like, they usually listened to the noise of the door.
This was just as common as power cuts, which occurred with a frequency that still managed to surprise them. Or cold radiators. Sometimes for days on end. They lived by candlelight in rooms that were heated to only seventeen or eighteen degrees. Everyone wore tracksuits and heavy sweaters. In the kitchen, the gas cooker was turned on: this was the only source of heat and provided at least a bit of light in the small flat. They learned to cope and take things easily.
'No electricity,' she told her elder sister who had just come home and was about to switch on the radio.
'Really.' It seemed to Helen that she was the only one to feel helpless, poisonous rage. This life could not be right. She knew people lived differently elsewhere. Normal lives. Like human beings. She had a feeling that she was missing out on something, all the time. When a few years later she happened to watch Moscow television and heard Popanov say in 'Summer of 1953': 'If only one could live like a human being', she pressed her nails deep into her palms and felt a need to lift her face to the sky and howl like wolf, hopelessly, desperately. Helen perceived the passing of time acutely, being forever afraid that she could not experience everything. She yearned for something more, was not prepared to give up. Helen saw her life as a row of dark grey, pointless, dull, mechanical actions that would one day come to an end in quiet tedium, leaving behind only a question hanging in the air - what was the point of it all?
The building where Guido lived was inhabited solely by Estonians. Tammeorg, Kurvits, Kask. When Helen stepped off the tram, she felt as though she had returned to the Republic of Estonia, a period she had heard talked about so often. This was how she imagined it to have been. Even the streets seemed cleaner. And the houses built at that time possessed a strange capacity to soothe and instil security. They had been built THEN, IN THOSE DAYS. When everything was different. When people were different.
One tram stop further on was the Soviet military base. Whitewashed brick walls, green gates with red pentagrams. Sometimes she had to pass the base on foot. It was when the trams were 'standing'. This meant there was no electricity, or a tram had run off the tracks. People walked to town and back home. Mostly those who lived a few stops away. Men in brown nylon jackets, and grey hats; women in green or brown woollen coats with mink collars. It was like a voluntary October march in front of the military base. Like a march of gratitude. A soldier in greenish uniform at the gate, leaning carelessly against the sentry box, shouted 'devushka, a devushka' to every girl who passed.
To Helen it seemed so humiliating. Stupidity at every step. For her, the meaning of these years was darkness.
It meant a rapid changing of wallpapers when Finnish visitors were due. It meant using all their contacts to obtain enough black caviar to give to the Finns. (Helen ate half of it, by tiny spoonfuls, until almost half of the one litre jar was empty; this caused a huge quarrel in the family - how could she do such a nasty thing, what are they going to give to the Finns now, what will they think of us! The stuff was too expensive to be eaten just like that, they simply did not have the money for it). It meant false pride and shame, saying they did not need anything while prepared to accept everything, eyeing the bulging colourful plastic bags, guessing their contents. It was bewildering to people actually accepting the most awful, the lowest way of life, and even boasting about it. Helen could only ever see self-inflicted cruelty in that, pure blindness. Their complacency, their readiness to shut their eyes to everything surrounding them depressed her. Like racehorses who were supposed to see only what lay ahead of them.
The Finns are coming!
The half jar of black caviar was transferred to another, smaller jar and given as a present.
'Please! Help yourselves!' the visitors were proudly told at the groaning table. Smoked sausages, lamprey, salmon, sprats, brawn, potato salad. Everyone was supposed to realise that this kind of food was quite common here. They might have everything in Finland, but we were not complaining either! In reality, the two sisters could easily have a fight over a cheap plastic raincoat that was meant to be used only once and across the Gulf of Finland was sold for ten marks at every little kiosk to protect a person against an unexpected shower of rain. Helen's sister refused to talk to her for weeks when Helen had once, not finding her umbrella, taken her precious raincoat instead. 'You'll have to pay me for it!' screamed the sister. And when Helen said she was not going to do that for the simple reason that it was worthless, cost nothing and she had got it for nothing as well, the sister stopped talking to her. In her opinion Helen was insolent; and their mother agreed that Helen had to pay. It was all such a charade. Here they were, fighting over a miserable piece of plastic, and at the same time smiling sweetly to the visitors, playing the game 'everything's all right'. 'It's not so bad, really...'
That was true. It was worse.
Freedom was mixed up with tables laden with food, caviar, weak Finnish coffee and a cake of 'Lux' soap. But the reason the foreigners were to be envied was something quite different. Not for their prettier bottles of lemonade, bananas or exclusive clothes. Not for coffee and soap.
They were simultaneously admired and despised. What was admired were their clothes and wealth, the possibilities they had and their indifference towards it all. At the same time it was found worthy of contempt. There are more important things in life than economic well-being!
There were indeed. But why did they have to be reached through misery?
'Oh, no, you shouldn't... we've got enough...' These words were accompanied by hypocritical smiles.
It was actually true. And even if it wasn't, people managed without so many things. They were not what was missing here. There was something missing inside people.
The Finns were free to come any time and receive their jar of caviar, just because they thought it was not worth spending money on themselves. They were free not to exert themselves when receiving visitors. They did not have to prove anything.
Their freedom included the possibility to move to Sweden, the USA, Canada, and nobody would regard them as traitors of their homeland. A person could live anywhere, where he felt good, where he easily assimilated and accepted the language and customs of the other nation. Nobody tormented them afterwards with questions like ' you left... and who are you now then?' or comments like ''s obvious why you went away - to have a better life, that's why!'
They had that freedom. It was not a freedom given to them, this freedom was inside them, in their very souls.
Their indifference towards the wealth in their country was taken as showing off. One had to protect oneself against it, compete with it, prove it worthless. They, on the other hand, showed not the slightest pride or arrogance. They were free to do so.
It wasn't their fault. The fault lay with people here. They were as if compelled to explain, to prove something that did not exist. They had to demonstrate that they were not inferior. But had anyone bothered to wonder if the Finns really were better, with all their coffee and bananas? It would have been easy to reach the conclusion that actually they weren't - they were overtaxed and building monuments in honour of the great friendship between the Russian and Finnish peoples. Despite that, the Finns were so natural, so simple amidst the abundance, and people here - tense, frightened, timid, defensive, forever ready to prove themselves. Any sign that they were considered inferior in some way was expected like a court sentence. But nobody considered them inferior, and they were not. They simply could not believe this, could not see it.
It is only natural that people often try to seem cleverer than they really are. But here, people also tried to show that they were better. Soviet power reigned here, but it wasn't so bad after all! 'We can offer you caviar and lamprey. We can take you to a restaurant. In fact, we can afford just as much as you over there, with all your bananas and pretty clothes. We can afford more!' This was the attitude. The same attitude as saying with contempt: 'Abba? No, I never listen to THAT.' Arrogant superiority. They were infinitely better, cleverer, more cultured. Despite everything. There was nothing left for them but their pride and bitterness. Their bitter pride.
The Finnish education system was no good. 'We have nothing to learn from them, our school system is much better,' boasted the director of an elite school.
A clever man can learn from a stupid one.
A stupid man can never learn from a clever one.
Coffee in gold-rimmed cups 'made in USSR'. Coffee services made of thick porcelain, the kind that was obtained from under the shop counter in order to give to newly-weds, to one's brother-in-law on his fortieth birthday, to one's sister's silver wedding anniversary. Helen hated those cups, she would gladly have given them to somebody, the whole set, or else smashed them against a wall. They looked awful, tasteless, completely lacking the fragility of proper china. Nothing like 'Royal Albert' or 'Royal Doulton'.
Potato salad on huge plates hand-painted in 'Ars'. Czech wine glasses, with tiny flowers painted on them, for which the parents had to pay extra, to get them at all. Lifting a Czech crystal salad bowl, we passed it politely on: 'Ole hyvä'. This was not what Helen wanted to see. But it was what she wanted to demonstrate: 'We are not any worse than you! Not in the least. We have something too! We have 'Ars'! We have Czech wine glasses, Czech crystal. We have gold-rimmed robust coffee cups, with dirty colours, floral ornaments printed on them'. Amid cigarette butts and stinking entrance halls and things bought with bribery, we really had something to show.
But not even Helen could deny that it was better this way. The posing, the ostentation; of course the new wallpaper was better than the old, faded, worn out and torn at the corners. Helen had to face the dilemma - would she have preferred a freshly wallpapered room in a dirty apartment house, full of cigarette butts and stinking of urine, or a room in the same house with greasy, stained wallpaper? The latter would perhaps still have had some kind of style, in spite of everything. To be quite honest - however much she hated all the preparations and fuss before the arrival of visitors, she nevertheless preferred to receive them in a room with fresh wallpaper, still slightly moist and smelling of paste. Nevertheless. She preferred that, it was true, but she would never have made such a fuss, or stayed up all night. She wouldn't have bothered.
The light yellow wallpaper with tiny flowers was replaced by large-patterned violet paper. The fifteen square metre room was suddenly reduced to nine square metres. But they were lucky to get any wallpaper.
The new wallpaper was by no means the worst ostentation. Theatre and opera tickets were bought, friends were dragged to performances where they could hardly understand a word - they had to be educated!
'Oh, no, you shouldn't, we have more than enough,' they said with false modesty, only to slip the 'Lux' cake of soap minutes later into their linen cupboard.
'Really, we've got coffee here too...' they mumbled, taking the pack of coffee and putting it on display on a kitchen shelf, for showing off to friends and relatives on birthdays, October holidays and Women's Days - here, have some good coffee, the Finns brought it! The gold foil of the coffee pack was later carefully washed on both sides, left dripping over the washbasin, dried with a towel, to be used for some other purpose. This was what life was like here. Did people want it? Had they chosen it themselves? Hardly. It had descended on them like an unexpected natural disaster, and they had learned to make the best of it. As if there was another way out.
Helen did not want to give in. She wanted out. In a tram, passing the Soviet military base, she was overwhelmed by contradictory feelings. There were times when she felt nothing but blind hatred, revenge, urge for justice. At other times she was completely indifferent, as if having finally accepted their inevitable presence. But more than anything else she felt powerless to change the smallest thing, her weakness to do anything but escape. Go away. She would dream about waking up one morning and discovering that it had all been a nightmare, there never were any military bases, or soldiers walking aimlessly around, questions and answers in a foreign tongue.
'Standing trams' were not the concern of their 'domesticated' northern neighbours. They were never compelled to walk for miles, in rain and snow. The ambiguous comments of Russian soldiers never reached their ears.
One more tram stop from the military base, and you came to hostels and ugly apartment houses built in the 1960s. The neighbourhood was dismal and threatening. This was a place best avoided at a late hour. It was rather creepy even in daytime. But what places were really any better? Four or five stops further from where Helen lived? There were hostels and military bases there, too. They were everywhere.
These buildings still haunted Helen in her dreams. Like evil monsters they appeared in her heavy dreams. Dark, cold and bleak. Silently threatening with their faceless grey walls.

She had everything. Good looks, a good life. She lived in a comfortable apartment in a stone-built house - didn't have to stoke stoves or use a freezing communal toilet in winter. Finns visited them and brought all sorts of goodies. Sometimes Helen let me use her deodorants. In my opinion she simply wasted them, squirting the liquid straight on to her skin. They should only be used on your clothes, I thought to myself. It will wash off. Once I overheard one girl teaching another: 'You don't use the deodorant on your skin, but on your clothes, the smell will stick longer.' I thought at the time, that she was right, that girl. I never had the chance to taste Finnish coffee, Helen's mother kept an eagle eye on it, for holidays and relatives. Actually, once I did smell it. Mmm... In my home we only had cheap, low-quality coffee. Another time she gave me some liquorice candy. Helen was truly lucky. What did I have? Only myself - a large-boned woman, with fair hair and big feet, and my brother who was clever, kind and good, and whom everybody adored. I had to look up to him, take him as a model. And I did just that, many years, all these years. I'm still obliged do it. 'Mart is much kinder than you,' says my mother. 'You ask Mart, he knows what's best for you.'
'Hey, everyone, let's hear what Mart has to say about that!' my mother cried at every single birthday party of every single relative. She made everyone look at him and listen to his opinions. Or, when she doubted someone's story, she tilted her head and stared at Mart, expectantly, and asked: 'Well, Mart, and what do you think of it?' My role was to keep my mouth shut. If someone happened to ask how I was doing, why I didn't say anything, mother snapped: 'Oh, Katre... she's the silent one!' I blushed, embarrassed, and stared at the floor. Like a mentally retarded person. I'm sure many people thought that I was one. I enjoyed the moments spent with Helen. It felt like escaping to the Black Sea with her, I could be myself, I didn't have to adore her or look up to her (although I still couldn't help doing that, in secret). We were two young women, ready for adventures, but sensible enough not to get ourselves into trouble. I admired Helen's confidence, her ability to emerge from every situation a winner. I had much to learn from her. And I did. Sometimes I imitated her, unwillingly, often without being aware of doing it. At times I adopted her opinions and presented them later as my own. I sometimes felt that she considered herself wiser than me. Maybe she was. Like when the Russian army marched into Afghanistan. I remember Helen's face when I said what I thought about it. But I was certain I was right: would it have been better if Afghanistan had been conquered by the American troops? I was later forced to admit that Helen had been right, but I never told her that.

from Longing and Desire by Riina Muljar

To Build a Castle

It's fascinating now, in 2004, to read the views of former Soviet dissident Vladimir Bukovsky on the current world situation, and the war on terror. Imprisoned for 12 years in Soviet labour camps and psychiatric institutions, Bukovsky defected to Britain in 1976, when he was exchanged, in Moscow, for a Chilean communist. His trials included being ruled as "insane" by Soviet psychiatrists and subjected to compulsory treatment for the possession of anti-Soviet literature, and for organizing human rights demonstrations.

Throughout the Reagan-Thatcher years, and for many years of the later stages of the Cold War, Bukovsky provided a much-needed running commentary - from the perspective of one with lived and firsthand experience of Soviet tyranny - on the inadequacies and fumblings of Western governments in their dealings with "this regime of utter scum", as he called the Soviet Union in his autobiographical memoir To Build A Castle (1977). And, since the end of the Cold War, he has continued to castigate the "free world" for its failure to absorb the lessons that might have been learned from observing 70 years of Communism in the USSR.

Bukovsky considers that Saddam and North Korea, the Western Left and the rogue regime of Putin in Russia "are all just remnants of the war with Communism which we never won conclusively but stopped it one day too soon. Metaphorically speaking, this was as stupid and reckless as leaving minefields and gangs of marauders scattered in the hills after a war. I am afraid we will be destined now in the new century to stumble into those old minefields until and unless we set ourselves a task to systematically clear those remnants of the past century's war." ( A Conversation with Vladimir Bukovsky, FrontPage Magazine, May 30, 2003).

His view of the conflict in Chechnya is also worthy of close attention. To Jamie Glazov's question: "Don't the Russians have their own problem with militant Islam?" Bukovsky answered:

"No, they don't. Contrary to Russian propaganda, (and contrary to the Western public perception generated by it), Chechens are not militant islamists. They are just a small nation fighting off blatant aggression. Most of other regions, where Muslims used to live in the former Soviet Union, are not part of Russia anymore. Two more Muslim areas, Tartarstan and Bashkorstan, are remarkably peaceful even now, in spite of the Chechen conflict. And, both being enclaves in the Russian territory, they are unlikely to be as potentially dangerous as any borderland might have been. So, we can only consider the North Caucasus, where Russians themselves have caused all the trouble, and where those troubles could be terminated any time with a modicum of good will."

Bukovsky sees the European Union as a dangerous attempt by the Left to build another socialist Tower of Babel, calling it "EUSSR", a "Menshevik" version of the Soviet Union - not Al Qaeda, but the EU is the real threat to the world's peace and security, he believes. He also sees Brussels as a threat to NATO, an organization he thinks should be abolished and then rebuilt, mainly with members of the "new" Europe, together with Israel and a few of the "old" European nations. The inclusion of Israel in NATO would split the EU even further - and this could only be a good thing, Bukovsky believes.

Though his support for the United States is unflagging, he is none the less scathing about the slowness of the US to wake up to the threat of international terrorism, a threat of which Europe had been keenly aware ever since the 1970s:

"As far as the international terrorism is concerned, Americans remind me someone I know in Israel who used to be a dove, almost a pacifist and Palestinian apologist until his car's front window was smashed by the Palestinian stone-throwers. Then, he immediately became an arch-hawk, ready to kill every Palestinian in sight. Europe lives with terrorism for at least half a century, and somehow managed to cope with it feeling no need to declare a Global War. When I was just kicked out of the USSR in the mid-70s, every country in Europe had its local terrorist organization, and the Palestinian terrorism on the top of it all. Italy had "Red Brigades", Germany had Baader-Meinhof group, Spain had ETA, Britain had IRA, France had "Action Directe", etc. Mind you, those groups were far more dangerous than Al Qaeda because most of them were trained, supplied and supported by the Soviet Union. And they were far more active, too. Not a month would pass by without one terrorist action or another in Europe. In Italy, for example, they have managed to kidnap, torture and execute former Prime Minister. But somehow Americans did not perceive it as a world drama, nor did they call for a Global War until ... the front window of their car was smashed. So, what do you expect from the Europeans? Enthusiasm? Hurrraaay! At last, at last our American cousins have noticed international terrorism!"

All worthy of reflection.

Thursday, May 27, 2004

The Idiot

Today sees the publication by Penguin Classics of my new translation of Dostoyevsky's The Idiot (the Penguin USA editions of Penguin Classics generally follow a little later). So far Penguin have only sent me one copy* - there's apparently some trouble at the new warehouse - but I think it looks ok. And I really like the introduction William Mills Todd III has written for the volume: it takes the reader straight into Dostoyevsky's world, and into the world of this novel. (* update at 11pm - more have now arrived!)

This project has taken me some six years to complete, and it represents a clarification of what for me is the bedrock of the novel: Dostoyevsky's deep ambivalence towards Europe, characterized by the clash between his intense absorption in European - especially French - history and culture, and his adherence to an essentially non-European, Eastern Orthodox religious and existential vision that later found expression in the writings of the Russian philosophers Solovyov and Berdyayev.

I thought I'd reproduce here my translator's note, which is included in the new edition.

A Note on the Translation

Dostoyevsky is often characterized as a writer of Russian nationalist tendencies, his world view seen as an assertion of Russian Orthodox and Russian national ideas. Yet his books are thoroughly steeped in the writing of other nations and cultures, especially Western ones. Like that of Pushkin, of Turgenev and Tolstoy, his Russian-ness is defined against the background of his wide and varied reading of West European literature. The works of Dante, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Goethe and Schiller are the starting-points of his aesthetic – these sources meet and coincide with the work of his Russian antecedents, particularly Gogol, to produce an oeuvre that is at once a universal human tragicomedy and a cultural-historical debate between East and West. In translating Dostoyevsky’s works into English, one is constantly aware of this tension and interaction between literary cultures. In Crime and Punishment it is echoes of the Anglo-Saxon tradition that predominate: Dickens, but above all Hawthorne, with his themes of sin, punishment and atonement, and Poe, with his invention of the detective story and his researches into the human psyche (in 1861 Dostoyevsky published his own critical comparison of the stories of Poe and E.T.A. Hoffmann). Victor Hugo is present, but more as a topical reference than a literary model. In The Brothers Karamazov there are echoes of all of these, but with the addition of Shakespeare and the Germanic influence of Schiller.

The Idiot differs from many of Dostoyevsky’s other works in showing influences and a psychological ambience that are predominantly French: the writing of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Georges Sand, Alexandre Dumas, Victor Hugo, Ernest Renan and Gustave Flaubert is vital to a deeper understanding of the novel’s characterization and intention. References to works by some of these authors actually figure directly in the plot: Dumas’s The Lady With Camellias (in the petit jeu, or game of ‘forfeits’, at Nastasya Filippovna’s birthday soirée), Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (in the scene where Myshkin and Rogozhin sit beside the corpse of Nastasya Filippovna), and Hugo’s The Last Day of a Man Condemned to Death (in Myshkin’s description of the execution he watched in France). In addition, the structure of the novel, and its setting in an environment that is very different from that of its predecessor, Crime and Punishment – the high society salons and houses of St Petersburg – shows affinities with the structure and setting of novels by Georges Sand, whose work Dostoyevsky had read and admired.

It may, therefore, be plain that the challenges posed to the English translator by a novel like The Idiot are of a different nature from those present in other works of Dostoyevsky’s, in particular the novel Crime and Punishment, with its, to some extent, ‘Anglo-Saxon’ literary background and precedents. For one thing, the ‘Frenchness’ of The Idiot is difficult to render in English. In the dialogue, Dostoyevsky often has a habit of inserting Russified French words into the text: peti-zhyo (petit jeu), prues (prouesse), afishevanye (from Fr. afficher),frappirovan (from Fr. frapper), konsekventnyi (from Fr. conséquent) and so on, and this effect is heightened by a peppering of phrases that either mimic French constructions or are directly written in French. For another, the characters speak in formal styles, which are sometimes, as in the case of the Yepanchin family, those of the French-educated upper middle class, but are also – as in the case of Lebedev and Rogozhin – urban idioms that have ceased to exist in contemporary Russian and cannot be easily transposed into another language. Lebedev speaks a Russian that lies somewhere between the lingo of nineteenth century petty civil servants and the rhetoric of religious sects such as the Old Believers. Rogozhin’s speech is derived from, among other things, that of nineteenth century Russian merchants. To attempt to put it into English as ‘Cockney’ or Dickensian substandard English is to miss its essence, for it, too, is a formal style of speech, with its own special – and sometimes even ‘specialist’ – vocabulary, grammar and syntax.

A further challenge to the task of translation is represented by the presence in the novel of a fictional narrator, a device that is also a feature of other novels of Dostoyevsky, in particular The Brothers Karamazov. In The Idiot, the narrator, when present, writes in a style which the author deliberately intends to be clumsy, and even comical at times – laborious, pedantic and unconsciously self-contradictory, the chronicles of an untalented local newspaper journalist in charge of the society columns of his publication. This fictional narrator moves in and out of the novel – it is not always absolutely clear where his contributions begin and end, or exactly where Dostoyevsky takes over. This tongue-in-cheek element of burlesque in the writing is hard to catch in translation, but I have attempted it, and the reader must judge the degree of my success.

Amidst the polyphonic richness of the text, I have mostly opted for maximum comprehensibility, while remaining as close to the original Russian as possible. The reader should not forget, however, that to Russians Dostoyevsky’s prose can seem strange and even perverse at times, while none the less possessing an almost magical quality. It is, I believe, the translator’s task to preserve the nervous, electric flow of the writing, while still preserving the idiosyncrasies of the author’s style – from the repetition of words like ‘even’ and ‘again’, which crop up with disconcerting frequency in many of the sentences, to the more extended repetitions which are also Dostoyevsky’s hallmarks. Also, the sheer oddity of some of the dialogue cannot really be disguised without betraying the author’s aesthetic purpose, which is to create a world that superficially resembles the ‘real’ world, but is much more akin to the landscape of a dream.

Where Russian names are concerned, I have kept the forms that appear in the original Russian text, in most cases giving name and patronymic where Dostoyevsky does this: Lev Nikolayevich, Ivan Fyodorovich, Nina Alexandrovna, Afanasy Ivanovich, Darya Alexeyevna, etc. I have also preserved the contractions of the patronymic – Pavlych for Pavlovich, Ivanych for Ivanovich, etc. – which are commonly used by Russians in colloquial speech. The diminutive forms of names have also been kept where they are used in the original – Ganka (Ganya), Varya (Varvara), Kolya (Nikolai), etc., as these denote affection, and are important psychological elements in the narrative.

The text used for this translation is that contained in F.M. Dostoevskii, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii v tridtsati tomakh (Complete collection of works in 30 volumes), Leningrad, Nauka, 1972-90, vol.8.

Wednesday, May 26, 2004

Musical Chairs

I'm currently trying to decide whether to include music-related posts in this blog. Caution tells me that the potential for confusion is quite high, but on the other hand this is a personal weblog, and not a theme-oriented website. I don't want this blog to have too exclusive an emphasis on politics and war, and am hoping to open up other avenues of reflection and discussion (not necessarily always completely unrelated to the political issues), in other fields I'm interested in.

So I think that I probably will include music here - particularly material related to improvised music, and to the instruments I play, violin and viola. I want to reflect the sometimes haphazard, sporadic but always lively goings-on at the IAJEStrings List, and also maintain a connection with the web site of my friend and colleague the poet, critic, publisher and musicologist Anthony Barnett. String improvisation is beginning to gain a wider audience in the U.K., and it's all helped along by the fact that this summer the Canadian jazz violist Tanya Kalmanovitch will be in London for several months, and Regina Carter will be playing at Ronnie Scott's Club, Soho, in the week from 28th June to 3rd July.

In January this year I attended the IAJE Conference in New York as a member, and had a great time - the concerts, workshops and seminars were of a very high quality, and with more than 7,000 people taking part, there was a terrific atmosphere of energy and creative response. The only sad part, for me, was in reflecting on the subdued atmosphere of New York outside the conference buildings, compared with the last time I visited the city some years ago. For a while, I thought the subdued quality was largely due to the weather - it was extremely cold. But then it came through to me that September 11 had left its mark in more ways than one, and its aftermath could still be felt in the general feeling, in the look of expressions on faces, in the sadness. All this made the conference even more valuable - a real outfacing of negativity and destruction with an assertion of life and energy and art.

Tuesday, May 25, 2004

World Culture

In the midst of all the recent blogtalk of "nuking Europe", the "disease" of European culture, and so on, I found it salutory to re-read Joseph Brodsky's Nobel Lecture of 1987. Years ago, I used to visit Joseph at 44 Morton Street, New York, and worked with him on translations of his poems, and also on versions of Tsvetayeva. He was the first person to read and actually praise my Mandelstam translations, back in the early 1970s. I liked and admired him immensely, and for me he was a guide and mentor through the Dantesque pathways and circles of Russian literature.

I want to quote two paragraphs from the lecture here, as I think they have a bearing on the situation of Europe, Russia and the United States today, in the new global situation we all face:

Although for a man whose mother tongue is Russian to speak about political evil is as natural as digestion, I would here like to change the subject. What's wrong with discourses about the obvious is that they corrupt consciousness with their easiness, with the quickness with which they provide one with moral comfort, with the sensation of being right. Herein lies their temptation, similar in its nature to the temptation of a social reformer who begets this evil. The realization, or rather the comprehension, of this temptation, and rejection of it, are perhaps responsible to a certain extent for the destinies of many of my contemporaries, responsible for the literature that emerged from under their pens. It, that literature, was neither a flight from history nor a muffling of memory, as it may seem from the outside. "How can one write music after Auschwitz?" inquired Adorno; and one familiar with Russian history can repeat the same question by merely changing the name of the camp - and repeat it perhaps with even greater justification, since the number of people who perished in Stalin's camps far surpasses the number of German prisoncamp victims. "And how can you eat lunch?" the American poet Mark Strand once retorted. In any case, the generation to which I belong has proven capable of writing that music.

That generation - the generation born precisely at the time when the Auschwitz crematoria were working full blast, when Stalin was at the zenith of his Godlike, absolute power, which seemed sponsored by Mother Nature herself - that generation came into the world, it appears, in order to continue what, theoretically, was supposed to be interrupted in those crematoria and in the anonymous common graves of Stalin's archipelago. The fact that not everything got interrupted, at least not in Russia, can be credited in no small degree to my generation, and I am no less proud of belonging to it than I am of standing here today. And the fact that I am standing here is a recognition of the services that generation has rendered to culture; recalling a phrase from Mandelstam, I would add, to world culture. Looking back, I can say again that we were beginning in an empty - indeed, a terrifyingly wasted - place, and that, intuitively rather than consciously, we aspired precisely to the recreation of the effect of culture's continuity, to the reconstruction of its forms and tropes, toward filling its few surviving, and often totally compromised, forms, with our own new, or appearing to us as new, contemporary content.

The people Brodsky is talking about here - the generation who fought and resisted the oppression of the Soviet state, often silently and inwardly, though also with great bravery, like Brodsky himself, like Bukovsky, Galanskov, Ginzburg, Chernikhov and others, in acts of public defiance - are the people I believe we in the West need to learn from now, when the very foundations of our culture and civilization are being challenged and threatened by forces that are the heirs and successors to the great tyrannies of the 20th century.

I hope to post more about this kind of resistance in future on this blog. To many - even most - Westerners, it's still an unknown quantity.

Pravda reports...

There's an old Russian saying that dates from the years of the Cold War:

В "Правде" нет известий, а в "Известиях" нет правды.

Literally, it means "There's no news in Pravda, and there's no truth in Izvestia" - Pravda and Izvestia being the names of the two main daily Soviet newspapers. The Russian word pravda means "truth", while izvestiya means "news". There was of course a major issue with both concepts in Soviet society - the news could almost always be relied on not to be the truth.

Nowadays, Russian society has moved on. Both newspapers are now in the hands of private owners - and indeed, Pravda exists in two versions: a hard copy daily, owned by a Greek concern, and an online version, Pravda.Ru, owned and managed by a syndicate of Russian journalists, which appears not only in Russian, but also in English and Portuguese. The truth is being blazoned forth as never before. runs a highly active and well-attended international online discussion forum. It's all in English, and it attracts posters from around the world - quite a few among them are from Russia, but there are also posters from Britain, the US, New Zealand, Australia, Mexico, Germany, India and the Middle East.

What's disturbing about this large and popular forum is that it gives a voice to some of the most intolerant and bigoted rants to be found on the Internet.

If this is the "truth" that the new Russia is trying to propagate in the world, then I think we should all view it with great alarm.

To get a flavour of what I'm talking about, visit the main page


And some individual entries that really cause one to wonder about the forum's purpose are







Hat tip: ALLEGRO

Monday, May 24, 2004

Nuking Europe

It appears I was wrong: most posters at Little Green Footballs don't want to nuke Europe. However, I think even the most self-critical European could be forgiven for finding the anti-European animus in so many of the posts at the very least worrying, and at the outside downright terrifying. After all, if the West can't maintain its own cohesion, how can it stand up to the threat posed by militant Islam?

It seems to me that there are problems of identity and focus on both sides of the pond: both Europe and America are undergoing profound social and political change, and the world itself is changing around them at a rapid rate. No wonder that there are problems of communication and understanding - the certainties of the Cold War have given way to the deep uncertainty of the war on terror: a war whose existence many in both the US and Europe even deny. In this Kafkaesque situation, debates on international politics have a way of sliding into exaggerations and distortions of an almost surrealistic character.

Yes, I was wrong: it's probable that most at LGF don't want to nuke Europe. But, as one LGF regular told me recently: "Silence = assent". If more Americans would openly declare their support for those in Europe who are doing their best to counter the foolishness and cowardice of their political leaders, and for those in Britain who support their government in its stance on Iraq and the war on terror, the West might gain some strength.

Let's be united.

Whales in Paris

In what I hope will be a recurring feature of this blog - a series of literary presentations - I'm publishing some of my translations of poems by the contemporary Danish poet Pia Tafdrup. Her collection Dronningeporten (Queen's Gate) won the Nordic Council Literature Prize in 1999, and my English translation of the book appeared from Bloodaxe Books in 2001.

Three of the poems that follow are from Pia's collection The Whales in Paris (Hvalerne i Paris, Gyldendal, 2002), and one is from an earlier collection.



Suddenly – as milk boils over in a lonely house
where no one is ready to take the pot off the flame,
suddenly – between what is past
and what is to pass,
when a star lights up the day,
the memory of the crematorium’s smoke,
rising from the chimney –
dimly twisted fossils of naked pillars.
A wave rises, light rushes up from the earth.
My sister and I wearing sunglasses,
because we mustn’t be seen
as the blind wheels of the hearses roll by,
but would like to say goodbye…
The grown-ups give the children salt
when they are thirsty,
only the earth is wet with dew,
and the shadow
under flowing white flowers cools the day.


You stiffen poisoned by sudden fear
while the day founders and changes colour
and the blood under a steadily growing pulse
sends the pain out into the most finely ramified net
where it flutters around like ash
which with a wing-beat is lifted above the embers
into the heart, that coral tree
in acute flowering stands still in spasm
almost drowning in its own blood
For who moves immune in a city
where people live separated
like shards of the same dream
Darkness’s forced entry to a stranger
-- does hatred attack you?
Like a jab of metal gnawing into your flesh
far, far from that morning where newly born
you were blessed by the first light.


If fish had words, they would have told about us, about a summer
when we shot through the water,
my father and I –
broke wave after wave, as they opened in cascades
of rain and fear
I lay on his back, hung on his shoulders
with my arms thrown tight around his neck.
He swam – which I hadn’t learned to do,
I followed each stroke, watched his muscles move
supply tensed under the skin.
With his speed we cleaved the waves, which were far colder
than my blood, with his speed I came to love the water,
and the warm touch of the air.
My father’s gleaming back, up and down,
forward, forward
His arms in the surface of the water in great, powerful jerks,
while I lay feverishly still, until his movements became mine…
He hurled himself forward, I closed my eyes tight shut,
he dived, and I was there, too –
pressed my arms more tightly round him, as we flew under the water,
secure against the strength of muscles, when we shot away,
popped up, rushing on towards nothing
other than the joy of the terrifying, and the horizon that curved.
It was a journey not from A to B,
but from catacomb-like dream to lightening play
through drops’ splashes of fire.
The smell of his skin blended mirages and sea-sharp salt,
like that I glided over fathomless forests of seaweed and mountains of stone,
away over a white, rippled sandy bottom, just as once
in a gaping sea he was borne
on back of his mother, with his arms around her neck,
Like that we dived again and again, like that I learned a firm grip,
but also to let go, where nothing is certain –
to dance with the words,
break sound barriers of water
and sing with whales.
Like that I passed through oceans’ ineluctable windows of pain,
learned that, though drowning, I still soared –
Like that I met the men: We would dive
down to caves in the cliffs, to hidden grottos, climb
up from the deepest sea, dream
of ebb and flow,
listen to the beat of fins,
listen to the pulse… Towards death – keep us flying in sun, salt and foam.


In the light of the soul’s dream the chestnut’s leaves are hammered
by the sun to gold,
the tree throws them off, but the pigeons in the elm tree
have made a mistake and have young ones now,
and you
are a tower of happiness and threatening expectation.
You illumine the strongly scented leaf,
raise me in a spiral with your gaze.
The sun behind driving rain clouds,
the sun in a semi-circle around us,
from window to window, dizzy
as the blood murmurs in the finest capillaries:
The silence sings,
but we don’t suffer from fear of heights,
we climb stiffly,
crowned by crows’ cawing,
balance and climb further in the gale,
which is mild as a springtime, as hands and lips,
but comes towards us in gust after gust,
while all around collapses – falls
to the earth, where the wet darkness grows
in yawning chaotic formations…
We shall possibly lose one another from sight again,
but like the intense colours the blind man sees in his sleep,
the skin wants to remember where it was touched,
by zigzag of flying hands, by roaming lips,
by a tongue that suddenly raises
surprisingly authentic and obscure places,
as though it wanted to know the end before the beginning.

Sunday, May 23, 2004

Then and now

Having recently been looking back at some of the pages I used to maintain - still haven't taken a few of them down, for various reasons - at the old site (you won't find anything on the index page, it's blank), I'm struck to some extent by the way the content and style of the East-West debate has changed in what - 10 years? In 1994 the (largely unrealistic) hopes that had been fostered in some (mainly business-oriented) sections of public opinion in Western Europe and the US by the changes that took place in Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union, were still quite fresh and vigorous, and in Internet discussions of the issues related to what was actually going on behind the scenes in Russian government the emphasis for those with anything approaching the "knowledge" tended to be on pricking the bubbles of misplaced optimism that popped up all over the place - from CompuServe's Global Crises Forum all the way to soc.culture.baltics.

As usual, Eastern Europe was caught between a rock and a hard place - this time between a Russian Federation that seemed to have relinquished little of the old Soviet yearnings for Lebensraum to the West, and a United States which, under the Clinton administration, seemed to lean over backwards to accommodate some of the least attractive impulses of a Russian state for which foreign policy, in Europe at any rate, mostly meant verbal and psychological intimidation of its neighbours. The equation was further complicated by the aspirations of East European states to membership of NATO and the EU, and as the decade progressed, there was a growing sense that Russia's new, superficial and "Potemkin Village" brand of Western-style democracy was undergoing a radical rethink within the Kremlin. Events in the Balkans, and especially the US intervention of Kosovo, diverted attention from this process in the Western media, and when September 11, 2001 finally came along, Russia was both retrenching into a much more routine and familiar authoritarian style of government under President Putin and declaring its support for the "War on Terror" - this latter cynically based on the mendacious proposition that the butchery in Chechnya committed by Russian Federal forces was somehow a contribution to the fight against Osama Bin Laden and the Islamists.

But Eastern Europe began to see its wishes fulfilled, with membership of NATO and the EU now within grasp - Russia's hostility notwithstanding. And now we have a situation where East Europeans have become, simply, Europeans, subject to the same suspicion from many quarters in the US that is directed at the "old" Europe of France, Germany, Italy and the United Kingdom. Quite what this will lead to in the end is anyone's guess: to judge from the opinions expressed by many Americans now, Europe in their view is "finished", "Islamized" - it has become Eurabia, and is no longer a reliable partner in security-related projects. Meanwhile, in Britain, East European immigrants to the UK are looked on with the same suspicion that is accorded to Muslim immigrants. This is a bizarre, almost surrealistic scenario, and one that no one could have predicted even 5 years ago.

Somehow, suddenly, it's as if America's view of the world has been obscured and distorted by the events of September 11. Whereas once it had a clear view of what was right and wrong on the international stage, it now seems unable to find an anchor in the outside world which can help to give it stability and bearings. The United Nations seems to be dominated by Arab states and the non-aligned countries, Russia is turning from the misguided but friendly "partner in peace" into a rather hostile, authoritarian dictatorship in the hands of a president whose aims and intentions are inscrutable and hard to read, China threatens Taiwan, North Korea remains a threat comparable to that of Saddam's Iraq, post-Saddam Iraq itself is unstable and threatens to unbalance the whole Middle East equation, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict shows no sign of abating...

These are dangerous times. Reading La Forza della Ragione, my favourite book of the last two weeks, I was impressed by the long section in which the author traces the common ancestry of Italian fascism, German National Socialism, and Soviet Communism - and shows the relation of all three to the present threat posed by militant Islam. Perhaps Americans above all need to read Fallaci's book and reflect on some of its sobering conclusions: that the old distinctions between Right and Left are largely meaningless today, that the whole world - not Europe alone - is currently afflicted by a sickness that may very well destroy it if some radical rethinking of the roots and fundamental concepts of democracy is not done, that American military power on its own will be unable to prevent the collapse of Western ideals and civilization in the face of a threat that stems largely from the West's inability to maintain its own cohesion.

Eastern Europe could teach the United States - and the rest of the Western world - a few lessons about how to survive the present international crisis. Let's hope it gets a chance to do that.

Saturday, May 22, 2004

Europe and its malaise

I continue to muse on the condemnations of Europe I keep hearing from the other side of the Atlantic. Europe suffers from a deep malaise, and an underlying problem with antisemitism. That is true, and there is no way of getting away from it.

On the other hand, though, I hear the voice of commentators like Fallaci, who writes, near the end of her new book The Force of Reason:

And the true face of the West is not America, but Europe. While being a daughter of Europe, an heir of Europe, America does not have the cultural physiognomy of Europe. The cultural past of Europe, the cultural identity of Europe, the cultural lineaments of
Europe. While being born of the West, while being the other face of the West, America is not the West that Islam wants to subjugate. America is not the West where Suleiman the Magnificent wanted to create the Islamic Republic of Europe. In order to put out the fire, then, what is needed first of all and above all is Europe.
(p. 276)


How can one rely on a Europe that is now Eurabia, which receives the enemy cap in hand, looks after him, and even offers him the vote?"

A Europe that has forgotten how to use its reason...

Perhaps, though, Europe cannot be perceived in a vacuum, or in isolation from the rest of the world, many parts of which suffer from versions of the malaise that are even more severe. Europe was deeply traumatized by the First World War and by what happened in Russia - a vast and only partly European country - in 1917. Europe never recovered from those twin disasters. Of course it's possible to say that to a large extent Europe brought those disasters upon itself - but they were the culmination of processes that had been developing for centuries. Martin Buber has many shrewd things to say about this in the second part of I And Thou, where he describes the movement involved in the rise and fall of cultures:

The sickness of our age is like that of no other age. and it belongs together with them all. The history of cultures is not a course of aeons in which one runner after another has to traverse gaily and unsuspectingly the same death-track. A nameless way runs through their rise and fall: not a way of progress and development, but a spiral descent through the spiritual underworld, which can also be called an ascent to the innermost, finest, most complicated whirlpool, where there is no advance and no retreat, but only utterly new reversal - the break through. Shall we have to go this way, to the end, to the trial of the final darkness? Where there is danger, the rescuing force grows too.

I'd like to return to this theme, and these reflections of Buber's, later on.

Lost and Found

Blowing my own trumpet a bit here, but in the interests of making my activity as a literary translator known to people who may be visiting this blog for the first time (after all, others wrote the original texts), I thought I'd post a link to a page where there's a list of some of my published translations, together with various odds and ends of published and unpublished material, a lot of it translated poetry. It's also coming up to the week when Penguin publish my new translation of Dostoyevsky's The Idiot (out on May 27). For some more info on this, see the Penguin Classics website.

Friday, May 21, 2004

America and Europe

I'm struck by the intensity of the anti-European feeling over at Little Green Footballs. Having visited there for a few months, and posted now and then, I got the impression that even if there wasn't a regular European presence there, there were at least some posters from the U.K. who put in an appearance from time to time - but even the U.K. contingent seems to have thinned out of late. The contributions of one poster, apparently in the United States, who advocates the "Samson option" for Israel - i.e. Israel should attack Europe with nuclear weapons, destroying it - have made considerable inroads at lgf, where this view now apparently has the support of the majority of posters. Those of us in Europe and Britain who support Israel's cause have difficulty in accepting this extreme prescription, but those who protest are in general shouted down. To someone with experience of Cold War propaganda techniques, the "Samson option" postings at lgf look like a provocation, and an attempt to divide Europe from the U.S., in blogging terms at least.

I think this is cause for reflection and concern. On the face of it, it seems incredible that so many apparently intelligent Americans sincerely believe that Europe should be annihilated. Yet lgf is a serious site, with serious contributors...

Thursday, May 20, 2004

Pipes and Spencer

Both of these writers have helped to open the eyes of many people in the West to the true nature of Islamic dogma, which is currently being exploited by the same forces that led the terrorist movements of the 1970s and were mostly connected with the aims and objectives of the Soviet Union, which was the originator of the attempt to induce Iraq and Libya to join the terrorist war against the United States. Daniel Pipes' intricate dissection of the modalities of Islam's reception and position in Western countries, presented in his book Militant Islam Reaches America, is probably unique, and its view of the inter-cultural conflict between East and West is based on a strict disinction between "Islamism" and Islam proper - for which it has been criticised by those who prefer to see the issues in the more black-and-white terms favoured by Robert Spencer, for whom Islam itself is the enemy, as is any force or entity that can be seen to be encouraging Islam. For Spencer, most of Western Europe, with its tolerance of Islam, falls into the latter category - and there are signs that Pipes may also be moving towards a similar perspective.

While I find myself in sympathy with many of the viewpoints and positions adopted by these two important chroniclers and documenters of the spread of militant Islam throughout the world, I sometimes find their very negative perceptions of Europe a hindrance to a better understanding of what their proposals for a better world actually are. The concept of "Eurabia", to which Spencer in particular seems devoted, originated in a journal that was published in Paris in the mid-1970s, became known through the writings of Bat Ye'or, and was given even wider currency by the Italian writer and journalist Oriana Fallaci in the books she wrote in the aftermath of September 11. For Fallaci, the concept of "Eurabia" is one that contains a high degree of tragedy - as a convinced European, she does not use it lightly. For Spencer, however, and for Pipes as well, one sometimes feels, the term is used as a blanket condemnation of most things European - Europe, in their eyes, has compromised itself to the point where it can no longer be defended, and may even be an enemy of the United States, along with Arab countries, North Korea, and the like. Where Fallaci emphasizes America's dependence on Europe from a cultural and spiritual point of view - as she points out, it is not American but European culture that Islam wants to destroy, and so America will not be able to defeat Islam alone - Spencer and Pipes tend to regard Europe as fundamentally spoiled, corrupt and unreliable. Like many Americans, they make little attempt to distinguish between the different areas of Europe - Britain, France, Germany, Italy and the new entrants to the EU are all tarred with the same brush.

In Spencer's approach, there is also considerable tolerance and apparent support for Putin's Russia in its genocidal "war" against Chechen secessionists. The official Russian government line - that Chechen extremists are wholly responsible for the wave of bombings of civilians that have affected Russia since 1999 - is swallowed without argument, and contrary points of view - such as that presented at the website - are dismissed as unhelpful and even dangerous. Spencer also seems to take the view that the West supported the wrong side in Kosovo - and emerges from his books and articles as at least a tacit supporter of Serbian nationalism.

I find this viewpoint rather troubling, as it tends to lend support to forces which, far from helping the West, are deeply antagonistic to it. Jamie Glazov, in his recent interview with Mihai Pacepa, former acting chief of Communist Romania’s espionage service, has brought out a much more accurate picture of the real designs of Russia and its allies - and has also shown the historical connection between Russia, the PLO, Saddam's Iraq and post-1979 Iran.

It may be that the view of Daniel Pipes and Robert Spencer may in part be obscured to some extent by the fact that both writers are located not in Europe, but in the United States, from where clarity of vision - especially across the Atlantic - is not always easy to obtain. One is disturbed, for example, by Pipes' apparent insistence that in the United Kingdom, the discredited British politician Enoch Powell "predicted" the advent of Muslim immigration in his "Rivers of Blood" speech of 1968 - which was, of course, a racist appeal to anti-black sentiment, and had almost nothing to do with issues of religion.

I don't know what the answer to these puzzling questions may be - but intend to follow the publications of both authors with a view to discovering where the flaw in their view of the world really lies. And this is important, I think, as the influence of both men on world opinion is considerable, and in many respects worthy of encouragement and support.

Sunday, May 16, 2004

From Russia With Terror

Some interesting exchanges on the Chechnya-sl List at Yahoo.

Andrea Strunk wrote:

I have been a reader of the discussions on this list for quite a time now. Even in the past there has been much lamenting about the indifference the world shows towards the war in Chechnya, the hypocrisy of politicians, the stupidity of the media etc. I have my doubts about this very bleak way of looking at things, because I know more than a handful of very engaged journalists who try to explain what is going on in Chechnya and I see a lot of private initiatives trying to help. Maybe Mr Putin does not care, maybe Bush and Schröder and Blair do not, but they are not the world or are they? But what annoys me much more is thatI cannot remember that there has ever been criticism of the terrorists acts committed by Chechnyans on this list and I ask myself what is wrong with you guys. The amount of hypocrisy I see in the members discussions is not any smaller than the one you are criticising. Does supporting a case make you blind for what is right and what is wrong? Every time some Russian soldier or civilians in Russia get killed, I cannot help but have the feeling, there is a certain kind of cheering in the comments on this list. Another bad one dead! And yes, Kadyrov was not necessarily
the man you would like to have your Sunday tea with, not to speak of his son and his friends, but killing him is outrageously stupid and it is wrong, no matter how you twist and turn the arguments. Maybe Norbert is right in saying, that there is a lot of sympathy for Kadyrov and none for all the other people that got killed (which, as said above, I see slightly differently). But does that make anything better? On this list
I have not read a word of sympathy for the two children who got injured during the blast, the other civilians who got killed. What are they? Just casualties in a righteous war for Independance? Shit happens? I have read many comments about the female suicide bombers. In not a single one of these comments did I find sympathy with those who got killed. Not one of all the supporters of the Chechnyan cause here stood
up and was horrified about the fact, that someone could use an ideological struggle as an excuse for murder. On the contrary: between the lines there was appoval, hidden joy. Got 'em! Or do you, Norbert and the others, really think, that under certain circumstances terror (the correct term on this list seems to be partisan struggle) is an adaequate way of accomplishing your aim? Don't get me wrong: I am not trying to
excuse these wars Russia has waged against Chechnya, I am not trying to belittle any of the Russian atrocities. But I cannot find a moral justification for terrorism when it is committed by Chechnyans. It is not less inhuman, not less cynical. Moreover, it is doing harm to their own people. Or do you really believe, the mothers, the children of
Chechnya want their men and their sons, their brothers to go out and get killed in fighting the Russians? Place bombs in the streets of Grozny, in stadiums? Do you think, they feel good about the thought of being the next victim. Should, maybe, they be happy about that? Because they are dying for the right cause, die for the freedom of their country? Bullshit. All these arguments are not far away from the sticky
romanticism of Tolstoi and Lermontow. And don't you sometimes get the impression, all this independence and freedom-stuff is just another men's thing. I mean, come on, what should Chechnya do with independance. Live on the oil they have? It is not enough to carry the country through. Even Chechnyans say and know that. Even Chechnyans see, that there is no one anymore to lead the country. No skills, no industry, a dangerous lack of know-how. No political elite, no intellectual fundament. How can you build a country on that? And as for the woman, most I have talked to don't give a damn about this independence thing. All they want is peace, send their kids to school, go shopping again, have good hospitals, have enough to eat and reasonable heating. If all the independence supporters and Russian-haters on this list could put their efforts into helping them to accomplish that instead of revelling in verbal tinkling. Chechnya might
need to get rid of the Russians, but it has to get rid of their own bunch of idiots as well.


And Norbert Strade replied:

Dear Andrea,

I think that your criticism of the attitude on this list, of me personally, and in a wider sense also of the Chechen Resistance, is unjustified.

You claim that nobody had anything to say about the civilians who were killed in the explosion that killed Kadyrov. This is wrong. I wrote just two days ago: "It would have been right to send condolences to the families of the innocent victims of the explosion, including the unfortunate journalist.But by sending them to Putin and expressing "sympathy" for the exterminators of more than 200,000 people, Solana and his colleagues are once again openly assuming the role of accomplices of the mass murderers."

I have nothing against sending condolences to the victims, but these guys sent their condolences to the chief of the mass murderers, instead of to the Chechen people in general and the relatives of the victims in particular. Instead of showing simple human decency towards the innocent victims, they used this sad event to restate their cynical support for Putin. It is as if the Chechen people already ceased to exist in the
view of our wonderful democrats. Aslan Maskhadov, btw., denounced all forms of terrorism (as he has done dozens of times, with no reaction from the so-called "civilized world") and said in his comment: "I express sincere condolences in my own name and in the name of the government to the families and relatives of the
innocently killed compatriots".

And I must say that I fully agree with this. Btw., I think that the emerging facts raise serious doubts that the Chechen Resistance had anything to do with the attack on Kadyrov. IMO, the suspects are, a - fellow criminals in the Quisling structures, b - a
part of the Russian war structures which didn't want Kadyrov to share too big a portion of the loot, and c - Russian "services" which retired him because he had done his job and now simply was a security risk.

I've already said what I think about it. The Chechen Resistance couldn't have a serious interest in killing Kadyrov, and especially not at this point. It is extremely important that some of the war criminals survive, so the facts behind this whole campaign can be investigated by a regular court trial.

You also seem to assume that I'm criticizing journalists as a group. Nothing could be further from the truth. There are fortunately quite a few journalists who take their job seriously and try to report the truth, as far as they can access it, and who are even ready to endure personal danger in order to do so. You won't hear a bad word from me about them. What I think must be strongly criticized in this connection is the behaviour of a large majority of "mainstream" media all over the world. With their uncritical (in the best case) copying of Russian propaganda constructs, they are very seriously taking part in the defamation of the complete Chechen people, on an ethnic basis, as being of a criminal nature, exactly as introduced by the colonialists of the
19th century, reinvented by Stalin, and dug up again by Yeltsin. This behaviour of the media can't be denounced sharply enough, because it's in contradiction both with the values of good journalism and of humanism in general.

But my criticism in the case of Kadyrov was directed solely against the so-called "world-community", which now seems collectively to have said goodbye to its own established rules, and where each member has its own individual reasons to support the bloody regime of Vladimir Putin, all the way even into the realms of political farce, as in the recent flood of condolences sent to the murderer instead of the victims.

You are equally wrong in your opinion that you "cannot remember that there has ever been criticism of the terrorists acts committed by Chechnyans on this list". Please remember that this list is almost 10 years old. Many things have been discussed ad nauseam, and at some point, nobody feels the urge to repeat things again and again. If you go through the archives, you'll find numerous messages criticizing terrorist acts and war crimes committed by Chechens. I have personally called e.g. Shamil Basayev and Hattab war criminals, for attacking civilians and murdering Russian POWs. With regard to Russians getting killed in Russia (I guess you refer to the so-called "suicide bombings"), I must say that by far the largest number of Russian civilians has been murdered by the Yeltsin and Putin gangs. Remember 1999. Not to mention several ten thousand Russian civilians murdered in the carpet bombings of Grozny in 94-95.
Personally, I'm still not convinced that there has been a significant number of "suicide bombings". In most of the alleged cases, there hasn't been any evidence for the involvement of suicide bombers which would hold in a civilized court. Except if one believes that Basayev's constant "taking responsibility" is proof enough. The only case where real "black widows" (a racist term which has been succesfully introduced by the Russian propaganda experts) were involved was the Dubrovka event, where everyone now knows that Russian special services made their own important contribution (and again, the Russian civilian victims weren't killed by Chechens but by the Russian "law enforcement agencies"). This tradition goes back to the first war, when even during Basayev's and Raduyev's raids into Russian territory, the part of killing Russian
civilians was done by the Russian forces. I for one fully agree with Chechen president Maskhadov, that terror very simply can't be justified under any circumstances. And I've said it here many times. I have no idea what gave you a different impression. Talking about "lamentations", one of my main lamentations is the consequent lack of proportions even in the declarations from some human rights organizations. They seemingly feel the urge to present both sides as equally bad, always trying to compare a few hand-picked cases of "Chechen" atrocities with the massive crimes against peace, humanity and
war crimes, including the crime of genocide, committed by the Russian side, and ending this comparison of uncomparable entities with the conclusion that "both sides commit violations...". Which is quickly caught by the Western politicians as a justification for their active support for the Putin regime.

Some other actions, which have successfully been labelled as "terrorism" by the Russian propaganda, were of an absolutely military nature, which is accepted by the international rules of war. Partizan warfare is a fully legal activity, if your country is under foreign occupation. E.g. the bombing of the Quisling headquarters in Grozny. People who did similar things during WWII are now heroes (including a couple of them
heroes of Russia). If some suicide attackers had rammed a truck full of explosives into the premises of a local quisling "government" during that war, there would be monuments to their honour today.

With regard to the alleged "cheering" over the death of Russian soldiers, I can only say the following:

This war isn't just a bloody clash for no reasons, with roots in the mystical "Russian and Chechen souls". It has two sides, of which one side attacked the other one in a clear-cut aggression. On top of it, the aggression wasn't conducted in a "military" way - regulated by the Hague convention about land war - i.e., by fighting the enenmy's military forces, but in a traditional medieval Tsarist-Stalinist way, by trying
to terrorize the civilian population into submission and to reduce the size of the enemy's population to a point where they would never be able to rise again.
This isn't a war with no sense on any side. There's a Chechen state whose independence is legally valid an documented, and this state has been attacked by its former colonial power with the aim to bring it back into the colonial sphere - by eliminating its civilian population, if necessary. In other words, one of the two sides is right, and one is wrong. And the Chechen side isn't simply defending some principles and
pieces of paper, but the very form of the Russian aggression has made it clear that armed resistance is the only way to stop, or at least, reduce the impact of the genocide, i.e. to defend the physical existence of the Chechen nation. Soldiers die in such a war, and some are dying on the right side, others on the wrong side. Dear Andrea, I can tell you that I deplore the loss of every single Russian conscript boy who has been forced to fight for the Nazi criminals in the Kremlin. But on the other hand, it's very hard to produce any tears for the medieval torturers from the mercenary
units, or the so-called "professional" Russian soldiers who know very well what crimes they are committing. The sad truth is that every lost Russian soldier translates directly into saved lives of Chechen civilians. And as I have said here several times before, a Russian soldier who wants to do the right thing should either defect, or turn
his gun around and against the enemies of both the Chechen and the Russian people. Those who don't do this will end up in the historic records as "the bad guys" and victims on the wrong side.

Finally, I sure admit that there are people (on this list, too), who seem to have a very romantic attitude towards the Resistance. Though I find it difficult to blame them. Decent human beings would always support the underdog. Of course there are Chechens on the Resistance side who have committed incredibly ugly things. And for the political side of it, I for one certainly don't agree with everything Maskhadov
ever said or did. But again, one must look at the proportions. And one more thing is important: This isn't just about the little piece of land called Chechnya, and the remaining 3/4 of its population. It's important in a much wider sense. We are dealing here with a conflict about the standards of international law - especially if it is universal or can be individually adjusted due to geopolitical and economical interests, and due to the relative strength of its subjects. The conflict is also of central importance for current and future decolonization struggles. I.e., this war is of
direct, one could even say, physical, importance for many millions of people world-wide. And I for one believe that it's in our own interest as citizens of more or less peaceful and democratic countries to support the Chechen struggle.

Best regards,