Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate: staring history in the face

May 14, 2018

The Maly Drama Theatre of St Petersburg’s stage adaptation of Life and Fate, Vasily Grossman’s epic novel about the holocaust, the second world war and Stalinism, above all brings hope for the future.

The play, being shown this month (in Russian, with English captions) at the Theatre Royal in London, portrays the darkest days of 20th century European history. What conveys hope is how determinedly its director, Lev Dodin, and its cast stare Soviet history in the face.

The impact was especially forceful last week, when Russian officialdom was as usual celebrating the “great patriotic war” with vast, aggressive displays of military hardware (on 9 May, the anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany).

Russian and Ukrainian friends have been sharing on social media, with horror, photos and video clips of kindergarten children, encouraged by teachers and parents to parade with models of tanks, armoured cars and heavy weapons. (See for example videos here from Piatagorsk, or here from Krasnodar.) All while real Russian bombs are killing kindergarten children in Syria. …

But that’s only one Russia. The Maly Drama Theatre reminds us of another, where past wars are not justified or reproduced, but thought about, along with the repression and prison camps that accompanied them. Such thought is a precondition for making a future without any of these things.

The Theatre has put on its adaptation of Grossman’s masterpiece every year since 2007. It was developed out of a theatre school course taught by Lev Dodin, the theatre’s director. (He talked in an interview at the time about how that happened. See below.)

Life and Fate was written in the 1950s, suppressed in Soviet times, and published in Switzerland in 1980 and Moscow only in 1988. It is set in 1943, when the battle of Stalingrad turned the tide of the Read the rest of this entry »

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“I am here as the accuser, of capitalism dripping with blood from head to foot”

May 3, 2018

Remember past heroes by pausing to reflect, TERRY BROTHERSTONE argues in this guest post, marking one hundred years since John Maclean’s speech from the dock

On 9 May, 2018, it will be 100 years since the Clydeside Marxist revolutionary, John Maclean, stood in the dock in the Scottish High Court in Edinburgh, refused to recognise its authority by making any plea in his defence against a charge of sedition, and instead delivered an audacious, hour-and-a-quarter-long speech denouncing World War I as a murderous capitalist enterprise inflicting death and disaster on the working people of Europe.

“I have taken … unconstitutional action … because of [these] abnormal circumstances”, he said. “I am a socialist, and have been fighting and will fight for an absolute reconstruction of society for the

John Maclean speaking from the dock. Photo from the Glasgow Digital Library

benefit of all. I am proud of my conduct. I have squared my conduct with my intellect, and if everyone had done so this war would not have taken place.”

You can read his speech, with some contextual analysis, in a recent edition here.

The verdict was a foregone conclusion. The sentence was five years with hard labour. When the war ended, and in the light of a growing protest movement in Maclean’s support, and Government fears that his continued persecution might stimulate more serious working-class disaffection – the Russian Revolution was much in their minds – he was released after only a few months.

However, there is little doubt that Maclean’s several terms of imprisonment in the harsh conditions of Scotland’s jails contributed to his early death in 1923, aged only 44.

At the time of Maclean’s 1918 trial, the outcome of the War – which by then had been waged for over three and three-quarter bloody years – was still in the balance. The German Spring offensive, which Read the rest of this entry »


The Death of Stalin is a riot

November 21, 2017

Go and see Armando Iannucci’s dark political comedy The Death of Stalin, if you can. And if you think blood-drenched dictators and their henchmen are beyond parody, think again.

Iannucci’s satirical eye, cast so effectively over Westminster in The Thick of It and Washington in Veep, focuses in The Death of Stalin on the Soviet (“Communist”) party and state leaders as they struggled with the fallout from the dictator’s demise in March 1953.

Simon Russell Beale’s portrayal of Lavrenty Beria, who headed Stalin’s secret police, stole the film, in my eyes. Playing a psychotic,

Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), Nikita Khruschev (Steve Buscemi) and Lavrenty Beria (Simon Russell Beale) over Stalin’s near-dead body. A still from The Death of Stalin

sadistic mass murderer and rapist for laughs isn’t easy, and he shifts through the gears – menacing to manipulating to cynical – in fractions of a second.

If Malcolm Tucker, the deranged Alistair-Campbell-esque The Thick of It character played by Peter Capaldi, said he was going to gouge someone’s eyes out, you’d know he could not do, and never had done, such a thing. When Russell Beale’s Beria says it, you know he could, and has, done it. And not just once.

There are many strong performances in The Death of Stalin. Steve Buscemi as Nikita Khrushchev, who eventually rose to succeed Stalin as general secretary: not as stupid as he seems. Jeffrey Tambor as Georgy Malenkov, Stalin’s deputy: hollowed-out, gaunt and guileless. Andrea Riseborough as Svetlana, Stalin’s daughter: on the edge of a nervous breakdown (and Rupert Friend as her brother Vasily, who had one long ago.) Jason Isaacs as Marshal Georgy Zhukov, who rose to power and popularity after leading the Soviet army in the second world war: myth-rich hero played as swashbuckling Yorkshireman.

Iannucci’s humour works because there is a serious thread in it. When Beria reminds Khrushchev and Vyacheslav Molotov (played by Read the rest of this entry »


Remember the biggest ever revolt against war

November 6, 2017

On Saturday the UK will mark Armistice Day. An official cult of remembrance requires that this week people in the public eye – politicians, newsreaders, sports personalities and so on – wear the red poppy that commemorates British service personnel.

I am wearing the white poppy, that commemorates all the victims of all wars. It’s a white poppysocialist, anti-militarist tradition that I think should be spread more widely.

The horrible destruction in Syria, unleashed by the regime of Bashar al-Assad to protect his power from a popular uprising and generalised into a multi-sided war, is reason enough to wear the white poppy.

And this year it can also serve as a reminder of the greatest popular anti-military uprising in history – in Russia in the summer of 1917.

The women workers of Petrograd (now St Petersburg) began the 1917 revolution in February, by striking and demonstrating against the first world war (in which Russia was allied with Britain and France) and the hardships it brought.

Soldiers of the Petrograd garrison, by refusing to fire on the protesters and pledging Read the rest of this entry »


Voting as counter revolution

June 20, 2017

How the politicians who gave us the vote saw things one hundred years ago. A guest post by ANTI-WAR

One hundred years ago, the British ruling class decided to extend the vote to most women over 30, and to almost all working class men. By expanding the franchise from a minority to a majority of the adult population, they hoped to restore people’s faith in parliamentary government and thereby counter any revolutionary tendencies inspired by the Russian revolution. Sylvia Pankhurst, the feminist communist, put it this way in 1923:

The legal barriers to women’s participation in Parliament and its elections were not removed until the movement to abolish Parliament altogether had received the strong encouragement of witnessing the overthrow of Parliamentary Government in Russia and the setting up of Soviets. … The upholders of reaction … were by no means oblivious to the growth of Sovietism when they decided to popularise the old Parliamentary machine by giving to some women both votes and the right to be elected. Read the rest of this entry »


“The street has already spoken, gentlemen.” The Russian revolution, replayed in real time

March 10, 2017

The Russian revolution is unfolding in real time on its centenary, via Project 1917, an on-line serial set out like a social network.

The Russian version of Project 1917 has attracted more than a million subscribers since its launch in November last year. The English version started up last month.

All the material on Project 1917 – from diary entries, articles and letters, to photos, paintings and recordings – has been sourced from archives by a team of Russian journalists and historians. It “includes not a trace of invention”, the “About” page states.

This week is 100 years since the first revolution, triggered by women workers demonstrating on international women’s day. (That is, the February revolution, so-called because the tsarist empire was on the Julian calendar, 13 days behind the Gregorian calendar in use elsewhere). And things are hotting up.

The entries for yesterday, 9 March, included ones from:

Alexander Spiridovich, a police general in the imperial guard, who wrote: “They sing revolutionary songs. Chants of ‘Down with the government!’, ‘Long live the republic’, ‘Down with war!’ can be heard.” As the police fought demonstrators, Cossack troops – who had always previously been loyal to the empire – stood aside, he noted. “The police are infuriated. One phrase was passed around among groups of dispersing workers: ‘the cossacks support us, the cossacks support the people!’.”

Maurice Paleologue, the French ambassador to the empire, who wrote: “This morning the excitement in industrial circles took a violent form. Many bakeries were looted, especially in the Viborg Quarter and Vassili-Ostrov. At several points the Cossacks charged the crowd and killed a number of workmen.”

■ And the Social Democrat (Menshevik) Nicolas Chkeidze, who would within days become the chairman of the Petrograd Soviet, who wrote: “Disregard of streets is a feature of government and many among us. But the street has already spoken, gentlemen, and this street is now to be reckoned with.”

Project 1917 was set up by the journalist Mikhail Zygar, who is nobody’s puppet. Between 2010 and 2015 he was chief editor of Dozhd TV, one of the last outposts of opposition in Russian broadcast media and the target

Demonstrators in Petrograd (St Petersburg) during the February revolution. Photo: Project 1917.

of Kremlin-friendly witch-hunters. Before that he co-authored Gazprom: the New Russian Weapon, an account of political influence over Russia’s biggest company. His latest book All the Kremlin’s Men, about president Read the rest of this entry »


From the Russian revolution to socialism on Mars

April 4, 2016

What can be learned from the history of the Soviet Union, and its failure to break free from capitalism, about a future transition to a post-capitalist society? In Paul Mason’s book Postcapitalism: a guide to our future, the places he starts looking

Red Star by Aleksandr Bogdanov: the cover of an early edition

Red Star by Aleksandr Bogdanov: the cover of an early edition

are (i) Aleksandr Bogdanov’s utopian novel Red Star (downloadable here), and (ii) the Trotskyist opposition’s critique of Stalinist planning. I think he presents answers that are too easy. The histories of Russian socialism and Stalinist tyranny give us lessons that are richer, but also more difficult to access, than he suggests. Here are some thoughts provoked by chapter 8 of Postcapitalism, “On Transitions”.

Aleksandr Bogdanov’s utopian vision – set out in his 1909 novel Red Star, about a Russian communist who is invited to Mars, where a human-like race of people live in a socialist society – was not at odds with the mainstream of communist thought in the way that Paul suggests.

By portraying the communist future, Bogdanov, a member of the Bolshevik party led by Lenin, was “defying the conventions of his time”, Mason writes. “All wings of socialism were opposed to discussing castles in the air.” Bogdanov believed Read the rest of this entry »