Sunday, 4 November 2018

Review: Stalin: the Court of the Red Tsar, by Simon Sebag Montefiore

Wasn’t quite sure what to expect with this, as I knew the very basic outline of Stalin’s life but few details. Initially (the book has a loose opening focus centring on a key event some time before WWII) I found it a little difficult to get into. Stalin’s obviously the overarching figure but many others (Molotov, Beria etc) feature prominently.

After this opening, the biography falls into a more traditional, chronological, account of Stalin, from difficult childhood through early adulthood, eventually ending with his death some time after the conclusion of the Second World War. The author has clearly drawn on existing histories, testimonies (which he frequently acknowledges may be somewhat biased by those seeking to protect the reputation of themselves or their relatives), and diaries and other papers.

The result is a 600 page or so account of one of the critical men of the 20th century, which sheds new light in many areas due to the opening up of archives that were inaccessible previously, and personal interviews with the individuals (and relatives of those) who were present at the time.

The monstrous capriciousness of Stalin, toying with victims sadistically whilst feigning ignorance, and his bizarrely double-faced nature, ordering executions by quota yet helping a colleague’s daughter with her maths homework when she rang up and her father was absent, paints a picture of a chaotic, lethal maelstrom. The only constant was the rise and then supremacy of Stalin.

Those of you who have read 1984 or, perhaps even better, Animal Farm will recognise much of the horror: the religious, zealous devotion to the ideal of the Party, the blind, trusting devotion of many (reminiscent of Boxer the horse), and dissolving individuality in the acid of socialism.

The title itself is a signpost, with Stalin every bit the monarch a tsar, or king, or emperor, might be.

Although post-war there was a Terror against the Jews, before it the Soviet approach to massacre was completely different to the Nazi way. The Third Reich, of course, aimed for the extermination of the Jews. Stalin wanted to get rid of the inconvenient, cared little for human life, and created quotas for genocide. His underlings executed tens of thousands quite literally to make up the numbers. One might say he was, at that stage, an equal opportunities genocidal maniac.

The intelligence of Stalin, particularly as a master manipulator of those who were his colleagues and became his subordinates, is compelling, as is the wilful blindness he displayed towards Hitler’s betrayal and invasion of the USSR.

Beneath Stalin is a cast of characters that occasionally match his wickedness, and others who seem a little less brutal (it’s a difficult thing to try and assess people who would’ve destroyed themselves and their families if their words or actions had sought to save the persecuted innocent). Voroshilov, the personally brave and politically wimpish soldier; Budyonny, the likeable cavalryman with no appreciation of how tanks might be better than horses; Beria, the sadist, the rapist, the schemer.

This isn’t my period of history, but I still felt displeased by my own ignorance about someone so significant to recent events. Similar to the first time I learnt something about the Eastern Roman Empire, albeit with less ignorance and more recency.

However, having recently finished it, I’ve got to say I enjoyed the book a lot. It’s grim in many places, but engaging and enlightening. As I posted elsewhere, it’s baffling that a man who died within living memory and was responsible for the deaths of 20 million people (and the enslavement of a similar number) isn’t better understood. Even today, some idiots in the UK happily march under banners of a man every bit as evil as Hitler.

I strongly recommend this book.


Thursday, 1 November 2018

Through the Looking Glass

A while ago, there was some ‘controversy’ when Warhorse Studios, the chaps behind the game Kingdom Come Deliverance (set in Bohemia [roughly the Czech Republic] in 1403), were criticised because everyone in it was white. The game’s set in a small geographical area, and everyone being white then is realistic, which is the angle that’s strongly pushed at every level in KCD. Larger cities were more cosmopolitan, but there’s no equivalent of Prague or Vienna in the game. In my view, those wanting diversity were simply trying to impose modern standards on historical reality (which isn’t necessarily unreasonable if you have a fast and loose approach to history, but the whole KCD game was focused on being realistic).

But it did get me thinking. Sometimes, people want to impose modern social, moral norms on historical works of media, whether videogames, film, TV etc. But what if it happened in reverse? What if we had a roughly medieval mindset, and assessed modern works by that standard?

In Stargate: Atlantis, female cast members often have bare arms. That would be frowned upon. (Plunging cleavage, not a problem, but biceps? Titillating beyond acceptability). There’s also a lot of loose hair. Again, at some periods in history this was rather indicative of, er, prostitution (as were the bare arms). A medieval person, once having gotten over the witchcraft of television, would be bemused to see this.

In the West, there’s generally been a decrease in formality between higher and lower status people (thinking primarily of working relationships, but also in those wonderful countries that still benefit from the splendidness of monarchy). This lack of formality would seem quite odd to those of a medieval mindset, where one’s social superior (local lord, say) could be the man sitting in judgement on you one day, and it paid to show due deference.

Medieval attitudes to vegans would be interesting to observe. Animal cruelty was pretty widespread, yet meat wasn’t eaten on around half the days of the year (it was permanently banned on Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, as well as being forbidden on certain holy days). Voluntarily not eating meat might be seen as indicative of religious devotion.

Sticking with food, being fat was seen as a sign of prosperity. In a world where one bad harvest can kill the frail and two bad harvests can destroy peasant villages, having sufficient food to not merely meet but exceed needs was proof of wealth. Paler skin was also indicative of high status, as more time was spent indoors rather than working the fields. Thinner people (generally but not always considered more attractive these days) were seen as less attractive because it was down to lack of food, rather than an aesthetic choice.

Despite certain glass-ceiling smashing memes, women have had leading roles in sci-fi for quite some time (Ripley, Janeway, Samantha Carter, etc). In a world where petty treason makes it a criminal offence for a wife to disobey her husband, and which could be successfully used by a woman ordered to commit a crime to escape legal punishment, this would probably be seen as really rather odd. That said, there were exceptions in medieval times (Black Agnes commanded a Scottish castle when her husband was away, defying English attempts to capture it, for example) but it’d still seem rather peculiar in medieval eyes.

The absence of references to God would be utterly perplexing. Excepting the odd expression (“Thank God for that” etc), most people hardly ever refer to God in day to day conversation. Obviously religious people do more often, but even that would be dramatically less than was usual for medieval England, which was steeped in Christianity.

Which brings us to an ugly aspect of medieval thinking: widespread dislike of the Jews. Jews came over with William the Conqueror in 1066, and suffered particularly during the reigns of John and Edward I. They were generally concentrated in a small number of urban centres, mostly London, and were pretty well-off due to usury (the forerunner of modern banking). However, this was against Christian teaching at the time, so, whilst economically beneficial for the Jews, and also more widely, the wealth was achieved through acts against Christian doctrine, by a minority. Sadly, the average medieval fellow watching TV showing anti-Jewish behaviour might be more likely to side with the bigot than the victim.

It’s almost as if imposing the moral and social attitudes of one time period on another, far removed, is a daft thing to do…