Monday, 14 April 2014

Russia, Crimea and the West

The Cold War might have been officially over after the collapse of the Soviet Union; however, as the palaver over Russia’s annexation of Crimea following the unrest in Ukraine shows, it is easy to fall into the trap of “us” versus “them” mentality.

The Russians, since Crimea’s population has overwhelmingly decided to be with Russia in a referendum (no doubt the presence of Russian army helped the Crimeans to speedily make up their minds), are behaving as if they are at a loss to understand what all the fuss in the West is about.  Apparently more than 90% (or some such overwhelmingly high proportion) voted to cede from Ukraine and stay with Russia. Russians form almost 60% of Crimea’s population (the percentage rises to more than 70% in the city of Sevastopol) while Ukrainians are 25%, the remaining 15% being formed by the Crimean Tatars, the Turkish ethnic group, who formed the majority ethnic group in Crimea for more than three centuries, from its emergence as an Ottoman vassal state in the fifteenth century to almost the middle of the twentieth century, when Jo Stalin deported them en mass  to far flung corners of Soviet Union, in particular Uzbekistan and Siberia. The Tatar population fell victim to Stalin’s policy which combined psychotic paranoia, susceptible to detecting threats to the state and ideology when (probably) none existed, and zeal for vicious collective punishment that served as a lesson to the population in general. During the Second World War, when Germans occupied Crimea, some Tatar religious and political leaders did cooperate with the Nazis; there was even a Tatar legion in the German army. That was enough for Stalin, after the defeat of the Nazis, to view the whole Tatar population (who was Muslim) as Fifth Element, iniquitous to the existence of Soviet Union (never mind that a vast number of Tatar men served in the Red army and fought the Nazis) which needed to be disabled. (Stalin did the same with the Chechens whom he believed to have collaborated with the Germans during the Second World War, and ordered Lavrentiy Beria to deport them to distant corners of Soviet Union, although, with the Chechans, Stalin inexplicably and uncharacteristically changed his mind, and asked Beria—much to Beria’s disgust—to halt the operation half-way through, just when Beria  was looking forward to uproot the whole of the ethnic Chechens from the country where they had lived for centuries. Before you hasten to conclude that Stalin persecuted these ethnic groups because of their religion (Islam), bear in mind that he also deported almost half a million Ukrainian Germans, almost 20% of Ukrainians, and of course Russians, not to forget the Jews, all of whom he believed to be disloyal to the Communist ideology.) It was only during Gorbachev’s Perestroika that the Crimean Tatars were allowed to return to the land of their ancestors, although they were not officially given possession of the land they had been made to forcibly vacate.

Those who are telling the world that Crimea was always “Russian” are either oblivious of the history of the region or are wilfully distorting it. True, it was won by the Russians during the long Russo-Turkish war of the late eighteenth century during which the Russians inflicted heavy defeats on the Ottoman Empire and Crimea—nominally independent—became part of the Russian Empire; true, Catherine the Great, tired of keeping up the facade of the Crimean independence, annexed the peninsula in 1783; true, the second Russo-Turkish war (of the 1790s), which was disastrous for the Ottomans, legitimized Russian control of Crimea via the Treaty of Jassy; true,  Crimea was a member of the Russian SFSR (Soviet Federative Socialist Republic) between the two World Wars and, after the Second World War, until Stalin’s death; but it was not always so. And the Russians were not always in majority in Crimea. It has been a Russian majority region only for the last seventy years, for which the Russians have to thank a psychopathic Soviet era dictator.

There is little doubt, though, that Crimea, as it exists, is a Russian majority region. Indeed Russian speaking people form substantial proportion of not just Crimea but also Eastern Ukraine. Ukraine itself, over the centuries, has been controlled by and / or aligned to different Eastern European and Baltic states and empires. Indeed, during the reign of Catherin the Great, the whole of present day South Ukraine was incorporated into the Russian Empire. Russians can also legitimately take credit for founding several cities in Ukraine including Odessa. Crimea, which Ukraine and the West are beating their chests about, under its powerful Tatar Khans, at the height of their powers in the sixteenth century, repeatedly invaded and pillaged Ukraine, and vast armies were required to protect against the annual Tatar invasion. Ukraine during this period, aligned itself with the Russian empire.  After the end of the First World War of the twentieth century, for a period, several different Ukrainian states emerged before what is now Western Ukraine was incorporated into Poland while Eastern Ukraine went to the Bolsheviks. It wasn’t until 1939 when Poland was invaded and defeated by the Soviets and Nazis (who were bedfellows at the time) that Western Ukraine was united with the rest of Ukraine. The unification of Ukraine, which many Ukrainian nationalists in the nineteenth and early twentieth century had dreamed of, thus, came into fruition (albeit as a republic of Soviet Union) because of the combined efforts of two brutal dictators. It is also worth remembering that Stalin made Rumania cede part of what was its territory at the time (Bessarabia) which became part of Ukraine. 

It was Stalin’s successor, Nikita Khrushchev, who had intimate knowledge of the region (Khrushchev was Russian but he was born and bred in Ukrainian border state), who “gifted” Crimea to Ukraine in the 1950s. It has to be said, though, that the transfer had little meaning, as both Ukraine and Crimea were part of Soviet Union. It was a bit like moving your furniture from the lounge to the spare bedroom in your house.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union Russia agreed that Crimea was part of Ukraine in the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, signed by the then Russian president Boris Yeltsin. It is possible that Yeltsin, by then in the middle phase of alcoholic dementia, did not know the day from night, leave alone the piece of paper he was putting his signature on; but Russia did agree that Crimea was an integral part of Ukraine. Ukraine gave up its arsenal of nuclear weapons in return of Russia promising to respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity. (I bet they are regretting it now. Would Putin have dared to invade / annex Crimea if Ukraine still had nuclear weapons?). Russia was nevertheless allowed to have its troops, artillery, and military planes in Crimea; and its Black Sea fleet was allowed to have a base in Sevastopol until 2042. (Moscow, in return, wrote off millions of dollars of Ukrainian debt annually.)  

The trouble with looking back too much into history (to justify one’s deeds and strategy in the present) is that almost any international act of aggression can be justified on historical grounds. When Saddam Hussein (who was, unsurprisingly, a great admirer of Stalin) invaded Kuwait and tried to justify it by citing historical evidence that went back to the Ottomans, he was not wrong (at least he was not quoting history wrongly), but  the invasion of Kuwait was still deemed illegal by the international community and triggered the First Gulf War. But then Saddam was small beer for the West (or so they thought), which meant that America and its cronies in Europe could invade Iraq to “liberate” Kuwait. I do not think invasion of Russia is on the agenda of Obama. Russia entered (invaded, if you prefer a harsher term) Crimea; held a referendum; and Crimea has once again, after a short hiatus of twenty years (or seventy if one goes back to Khrushchev era), become part of Russia, as it was for the hundred and fifty years before that. The referendum carried out in Crimea, under Russian guns, is no doubt illegal in the eyes of the current international law. Crimea, before the Russians invaded and annexed it, was Ukrainian territory, no two ways about it, never mind that the majority population in Crimea was Russian and probably had allegiance to Russia. In the eyes of international law, people living in a geographical area cannot simply decide that they no longer want to stay within the country and become either independent or join another country. If that were the case Kurds would get their homeland; Basques would secede from Spain; and Bradford might become an Islamic Republic. Obama became cantankerous when the Russians drew parallels with the referendum engineered by NATO and America in Kosovo, which was bitterly opposed by Serbia. The Kosovo referendum was carried out with the heavy presence of NATO army.  The Russians do have a point. NATO and the Americans would argue (they are already doing it) that the Crimean referendum can no way be compared to the Kosovo referendum, because there was no evidence that ethnic Russians in Crimea were discriminated in Ukraine whereas the Serbs (so NATO and America allege) were carrying out ethnic cleansing in Kosovo (as also in Bosnia and Herzegovina). What was going on in the 1990s, in the former Yugoslavia, was civil war; and the situation arose because various groups of people, Kosovo included, living for centuries in certain geographical areas, decided that they no longer wanted to be part of Yugoslavia, which they saw essentially as Serbian domination. Their wish to secede from Yugoslavia, it might be argued, was no more legal than the wish of the ethnic Russians to secede from Ukraine (if one believes the Russian engineered referendum). The civil war situation in the Balkans arose, in the most simplistic terms, because Serbia would not give up control of these regions. And, lest we forget, the Americans illegally smuggled in arms and weapons into Bosnia and Herzegovina at the start of the civil war, in spite of an explicit UN ban. It is also worth noting that there are still scores of countries which do not recognise Kosovo as an independent, sovereign country, no matter what Obama says; which means that in the eyes of many countries in the world the referendum in Kosovo was illegal; as illegal as the referendum in Crimea, the Americans and NATO say, is.

Therein lies the rub for America and its sidekicks like the UK. In large parts of the world America has absolutely no moral credibility, she is held in utter contempt, and is viewed as a bully. It is the recidivist duplicitous American foreign policy, and its proclivity to go around the world meddling, interfering, and invading that has made America probably the most hated nation in many parts of the world. When large swathes of the world dislike you there is probably a good reason: you have not conducted yourself correctly. George W Bush, the mentally unprivileged former president of America, was a war criminal, as was Toni Blair, the most mendacious and dishonest man who disgraced British politics. 

Obama described Russia as a regional power (as opposed to America, which he fondly believes to be a world power). Russia might be a regional power, but it is a big regional power. Also, you don’t become a world power just because you go round poking your nose into businesses that don’t concern you. David Cameron, the pompous windbag (who perpetually wears the look of a man defeated by his bowels), no doubt believes that the UK is a world power. The chubby dictator of North Korea (who perpetually wears the look of a man a couple of hundred bowel movements behind the game) probably believes his country is a world power.

International law is only for the weak who do not have the power to bend or break it to suit their expediencies. Those who can—the Russians, the Americans—trample upon it as and when they want, but throw complex partial seizures when the “other side” does it. The reality is: Putin has annexed Crimea. Large part of the world does not give a toss; and those who do, can do sod all about it. Has Putin taken a gamble in Crimea he would come to regret? He might have and he might. A lot will depend on the stance the Chinese will take. Now hereis a world power.

Sunday, 6 April 2014

Book of the Month: The Hand that First held Mine (Maggie O'Farrell)

Maggie O’Farrell won the Costa (formerly Whitbread) award for her novel The Hand that First Held Mine. This, O’Farrell’s fifth novel, roughly follows the same format of her previous four novels: characters haunted by their past, of which they may not be consciously aware to begin with, but the past begins to assert itself via a series of apparently chance happenings until the day of revelation arrives, which turns the protagonist’s world upside down.

The story of The Hand that First Held Mine takes place in two time frames: the past and the present. The past is the 1950s London, and the reader is introduced to the feisty Lexie Sinclair, who leaves her stifling home in rural Devon and arrives in London to follow her dreams. She starts working in a departmental store but is soon swept off her feet by the dashing Innes Kent who is the owner and editor of a magazine that has literary pretensions. It is only a matter of time before Lexie joins the staff in Innes’s magazine (where she learns the ropes) and Innes in his bed. Innes and Lexie start a passionate affair, and the knowledge that he is unhappily married to Gloria (though living separately) and has a daughter named Margot (who he believes might not be his) does nothing to lessen Lexie’s ardour. Then Innes dies unexpectedly, and Gloria, who is Innes’s legal next of kin, closes down the magazine. Lexie’s friends at Innes’s magazine help her to find another job, as a reporter. In the course of her work Lexie meets the handsome but feckless BBC reporter, Felix. Over the next few years Lexie and Felix have an on-again-off-again relationship. Lexie has a son from Felix whom she names Theodore or Theo. Felix is temperamentally unsuited for, and therefore unable to, maintain a monogamous relationship. The proverbial last straw for Lexie comes when Felix sleeps with Margot with whom Lexie’s relationship over the years has been frosty, to put it mildly. Felix then allows himself to be unhappily married to Margot while Lexie starts a tentative relationship with another married man, a biographer whom she meets when she interviews a reclusive Irish painter.

In the present we meet a couple: Elina and Ted who have recently had a baby. Elina is half Finish half Scottish while Ted is English. Elina is an artist while Ted works as a film editor. When their story opens Elina is struggling with postnatal blues and is having a great difficulty in remembering things and faces. This understandably is a great source of concern for Ted. Ted’s overbearing mother with incurable busybody tendencies and once-handsome-and-still-slightly-lecherous father are of little practical assistance. Into the bargain Elina is plagued by the suspicion that her mother-in-law does not like her much. Gradually Elina’s mood and memory improve and she is better able to look after herself and the baby, and can occasionally muster up enough energy to make a trip to her ‘studio’ (a shed at the end of the garden) to paint. It would appear though that it is Ted who is now having problems of memory—of a type that is different from one Elina suffered soon after giving birth. Whereas Elina had difficulty in remembering—in other words she forgot—, Ted is from time to time has recollections—images of places, heard conversations—that he has great difficulties in putting a context to. These snippets of recollected events are sudden in their onset and overwhelming in their nature. The puzzle for Ted—and hence the distress—is that until these memories began to force themselves, abruptly and acutely, on his conscious being, they were completely subterranean. And what he remembers or sees in front of his mind’s eye makes no sense to him, as these recollections do not fit in with his conscious memory of past events; nor do they tally with what his parents have told him about his childhood.

The Hand that First Held Mine is a haunting and moving tale of how past can’t be repressed indefinitely and is only waiting to claim what is its due. The novel is essentially two stories, set in different times, told in alternate chapters. The link between the two segments of the plot is initially unclear. However, as the story unfolds the reader becomes aware that the two stories, and the characters within them, are linked. The reader makes this connection roughly half-way through the novel. It then remains to be seen in what way the events and people are connected. Like a consummate conjurer O’Farrell, step by tiny step—revealing just enough in each chapter—, brings the reader to a gradual understanding of what is happening to Ted as he struggles to make sense of what is happening to him.

O’Farrell creates an emotional ambience of suspense, raising the reader’s expectations and eagerness to find out what is going on. The resolution (for the reader) happens in steps, and, when the final piece in the jig-saw falls in place there is a palpable sense of relief. The novel is a page-turner.

However, to describe The Hand that First Held Mine only as a suspense drama would be to do injustice to the novel. The novel is also about emotional bonds between a parent and a child. There are passages of incredible pathos in the novel, yet it is to O’Farrell’s credit that at no stage does she allow the narrative to sink into saccharine, hyperbolic sentiments, which would have been a risk given the plot. It would be impossible for anyone who has been a parent not be moved by the feelings coming out of the pages which (to paraphrase L.P. Hartley) gather around you like a mist; its shape can be guessed at as it approaches, but not when it is directly on you. O’Farrell has managed the perfect balance of emotions and sensations.

O’Farrell describes the travails and tribulations of parenthood with great acuity and understanding. The only (slightly) discordant note—because, though described at great length in at the beginning of the novel, it plays no further part in the plot—is the post-partum memory difficulties experienced by Elina. In an interview she gave at the time of the publication of the novel, O’Farrell said that she herself suffered from a memory disturbance after the birth of her second child, to the extent that the date of publication of the novel had to be postponed. The forgetfulness, mercifully, was temporary; one guesses that the experience must have been so dramatic for O’Farrell that she felt compelled to include it in the novel, where at best it is a red herring.

A word about O’Farrell’s prose. It has a deceptive seduction to it. In sentence after immaculately constructed sentence, the story of this adroitly plotted novel unfolds for the reader. For the first 1/3rd of the novel, the story of Lexie Sinclair is the more appealing, more dramatic and faster moving. O’Farrell has created a very convincing milieu of the 1950s Soho. (In an interview she said that she did research to get the tone of this section of the novel right.) The present day story of Elina and Ted, by contrast, is slow to get off the post; however, slowly it gathers momentum and holds the reader’s attention. When a novel comprises two stories which run in parallel, it is not easy to get the balance exactly right, but O’Farrell has managed this difficult feat.

The Hand that First Held Mine is the second O’Farrell novel I have read. Don’t be put of by its corny sounding title; it is a superb read.