Published on 13 Apr 2015
Nicholas II was the last tsar of Russia and the last ruler of the Romanov dynasty. His reign and his command are considered especially inauspicious today. Everything you need to know about Nicholas II of Russia in portrait.
April 15, 2015
March 28, 2015
I didn’t know that Orwell was a former pupil of Aldous Huxley:
21 October, 1949
Dear Mr. Orwell,
It was very kind of you to tell your publishers to send me a copy of your book. It arrived as I was in the midst of a piece of work that required much reading and consulting of references; and since poor sight makes it necessary for me to ration my reading, I had to wait a long time before being able to embark on Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Agreeing with all that the critics have written of it, I need not tell you, yet once more, how fine and how profoundly important the book is. May I speak instead of the thing with which the book deals — the ultimate revolution? The first hints of a philosophy of the ultimate revolution — the revolution which lies beyond politics and economics, and which aims at total subversion of the individual’s psychology and physiology — are to be found in the Marquis de Sade, who regarded himself as the continuator, the consummator, of Robespierre and Babeuf. The philosophy of the ruling minority in Nineteen Eighty-Four is a sadism which has been carried to its logical conclusion by going beyond sex and denying it. Whether in actual fact the policy of the boot-on-the-face can go on indefinitely seems doubtful. My own belief is that the ruling oligarchy will find less arduous and wasteful ways of governing and of satisfying its lust for power, and these ways will resemble those which I described in Brave New World. I have had occasion recently to look into the history of animal magnetism and hypnotism, and have been greatly struck by the way in which, for a hundred and fifty years, the world has refused to take serious cognizance of the discoveries of Mesmer, Braid, Esdaile, and the rest.
Partly because of the prevailing materialism and partly because of prevailing respectability, nineteenth-century philosophers and men of science were not willing to investigate the odder facts of psychology for practical men, such as politicians, soldiers and policemen, to apply in the field of government. Thanks to the voluntary ignorance of our fathers, the advent of the ultimate revolution was delayed for five or six generations. Another lucky accident was Freud’s inability to hypnotize successfully and his consequent disparagement of hypnotism. This delayed the general application of hypnotism to psychiatry for at least forty years. But now psycho-analysis is being combined with hypnosis; and hypnosis has been made easy and indefinitely extensible through the use of barbiturates, which induce a hypnoid and suggestible state in even the most recalcitrant subjects.
Within the next generation I believe that the world’s rulers will discover that infant conditioning and narco-hypnosis are more efficient, as instruments of government, than clubs and prisons, and that the lust for power can be just as completely satisfied by suggesting people into loving their servitude as by flogging and kicking them into obedience. In other words, I feel that the nightmare of Nineteen Eighty-Four is destined to modulate into the nightmare of a world having more resemblance to that which I imagined in Brave New World. The change will be brought about as a result of a felt need for increased efficiency. Meanwhile, of course, there may be a large scale biological and atomic war — in which case we shall have nightmares of other and scarcely imaginable kinds.
Thank you once again for the book.
March 3, 2015
At Ace of Spades H.Q., WeirdDave explains why it’s easy to talk about resisting illegal actions by the government, but few would really be willing to bear the cost:
In 480BC, Xerxes of Persia demanded that the Greeks under King Leonidas of Sparta surrender their weapons. King Leonidas responded with a laconic Molon labe, which translates as “Come and take them” and a legend was born. Even though the Greeks lost the Battle of Thermopylae that followed, King Leonidas’ stirring phrase has echoed with defiance down through history. The phrase has a rich history in America, too. From Fort Morris, Georgia, to Gonzales, Texas to Second Amendment defenders today, “Come and Take It” resonates in American hearts.
With the disturbing news this week about BATF’s attempt to ban M855 NATO Ball ammunition, the internet has been alive with people swearing fealty to the idea of molon labe. I approve. However, talk is cheap they say, and internet talk is cheaper than most. Anyone who considers themselves a patriot needs to take a good long moment of quiet reflection and ask themselves, honestly, what does molon labe mean? More specifically, they need to ask themselves what are the ramifications of defiantly proclaiming “Come and take them” if the authorities say “OK”.
The ramifications are simple: YOU ARE GOING TO DIE.
This isn’t universally true, of course, but in order for molon labe to mean anything, in order for it to be effective, you have to accept that it IS true. If we ever get to the point where the authorities are attempting to forcibly disarm the population at large, the only way to prevent it from happening is to meet force with force. If it comes to this, you will lose. Every time. Even if you are armed, ready, and respond instantly to aggression by the authorities, there are a whole lot more of them than there are of you. You might kill one, or even several, but they will keep coming and they will bring resources to bear that you can not hope to match. Officers. SWAT teams. Snipers. Air cover. Drones. They WILL take you down, and that’s not all. No, you have to accept something else too:
YOUR FAMILY IS GOING TO DIE TOO.
Think I’m talking crazy talk? Ask Vicki Weaver. Ask Sammy Weaver. I’ll wait.
December 28, 2014
In the London Review of Books, Edward Luttwak starts his review of Britain against Napoleon: The Organisation of Victory, 1793-1815 by Roger Knight by contrasting British and European views of Napoleon’s legacy:
I can recall few heated arguments with my father, but I remember very well our Napoleon quarrel. After two years at a British boarding school, I had learned a fair amount of English and just about enough history to mention Wellington and Waterloo as we were approaching Brussels on a drive from Milan. To my great surprise, my father burst out with a vehement attack on ‘the English’ for having selfishly destroyed Napoleon’s empire. Wherever it had advanced in Europe, modernity had advanced with it, sweeping away myriad expressions of obscurantism and hereditary privilege, emancipating the Jews and all manner of serfs, allowing freedom of, and from, religion, and offering opportunities for advancement for the talented regardless of their origins. I do not recall his actual words, and he would hardly have put it as I have here, but that was certainly his meaning, and I remember his equal-opportunity quotation: ‘Every French soldier carries a field-marshal’s baton in his knapsack.’ I also remember his explanation of the reason he accused the English of being ‘selfish’: Great Britain was already on its way to liberty and did not need Napoleon, but Europe did, and Britain took him away.
In other words, for Jozef Luttwak of Milano, formerly of Arad, Transylvania, as for many others on the Continent (and not only the French), all the wars of Napoleon, all his victories, counted for little in evaluating the man and his deeds. What counted was the progressive moderniser, the law-giver of the Code Napoléon of 1804, actually the Code civil des Français, which was really a civil code for Europeans, since Napoleon’s empire français extended across the Low Countries to Jutland and into northwest Italy, and took in the ex-Papal States and Dalmatia (as Illyria), adding up to a good part of Western Europe. Nor was Napoleon’s Code as ephemeral as his victories. It endures as the core of civil law not only in France but in its former European possessions, and their former possessions too, encompassing ex-French Africa, all of Latin America and the Philippines by way of Spain, and Indonesia by way of the Netherlands, as well as Quebec and Louisiana.
Even that list understates the influence of the code, and therefore of Napoleon the moderniser. Its text conveyed three powerfully innovative principles whose influence transcended by far its actual legal application, and which no restoration could undo: clarity, so that all could know their rights if they could read, without the recondite expertise of jurists steeped in customary law, with its hundreds of exemptions, privileges and eccentricities; secularism, which inter alia replaced parishes with municipalities, thereby introducing civil marriage, part of an entirely new form of individual and civic existence; and the right to individual ownership of property – which untied the immobilised holders of communal property – and employment free from servile obligations.
It mattered greatly that these revolutionary principles were proclaimed by Napoleon, already a conservative and commanding figure – unlike the revolutionaries of 1789, who could not give an aura of authority to their Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, which was itself soon challenged by the more egalitarian 1793 version, with both anyhow rejected by the upholders of privilege. In Napoleon’s vassal states (the Confederation of the Rhine, the Kingdoms of Spain, Italy and Naples, and the Grand Duchy of Warsaw), even where the code was not promulgated it was imitated, as was its drastically new style. Just as the florid convolutions and encrustations of rococo had been replaced by the linear elegance of the empire style, the thickets of customary law that Montesquieu had praised as barriers to despotism – as indeed they were, but only for privileged jurists – were replaced by the utterly systematic code, whose descending hierarchy of books, titles, chapters and sections that devolved into 2281 numbered paragraphs was itself infused with the new spirit of modernity. For Europeans of a liberal disposition, the code was a call to modernise not merely the law but society in its entirety – an impulse that would persist for decades.
December 15, 2014
You or I, upon hearing that the plan is to get rid of all government and just have people share all property in common, might ask questions like “But what if someone wants more than their share?” Marx had no interest in that question, because he believed that there was no such thing as human nature, and things like “People sometimes want more than their shares of things” are contingent upon material relations and modes of production, most notably capitalism. If you get rid of capitalism, human beings change completely, such that “wanting more than your share” is no more likely than growing a third arm.
A lot of the liberals I know try to distance themselves from people like Stalin by saying that Marx had a pure original doctrine that they corrupted. But I am finding myself much more sympathetic to the dictators and secret police. They may not have been very nice people, but they were, in a sense, operating in Near Mode. They couldn’t just tell themselves “After the Revolution, no one is going to demand more than their share,” because their philosophies were shaped by the experience of having their subordinates come up to them and say “Boss, that Revolution went great, but now someone’s demanding more than their share, what should we do?” Their systems seem to be part of the unavoidable collision of Marxist doctrine with reality. It’s possible that there are other, better ways to deal with that collision, but “returning to the purity of Marx” doesn’t seem like a workable option.
Scott Alexander, “Book Review: Singer on Marx”, Slate Star Codex, 2014-09-13.
October 8, 2014
From the Wikipedia page:
Aurora (Russian: Авро́ра, tr. Avrora; IPA: [ɐˈvrorə]) is a 1900 Russian protected cruiser, currently preserved as a museum ship in St. Petersburg. Aurora was one of three Pallada-class cruisers, built in St. Petersburg for service in the Pacific Far East. All three ships of this class served during the Russo-Japanese War. The Aurora survived the Battle of Tsushima and was interned under U.S. protection in the Philippines, eventually returned to the Baltic Fleet. The second ship, Pallada, was sunk by the Japanese at Port Arthur in 1904. The third ship, Diana, was interned in Saigon after the Battle of the Yellow Sea. One of the first incidents of the October Revolution in Russia took place on the cruiser Aurora.
During World War I Aurora operated in the Baltic Sea performing patrols and shore bombardment tasks. In 1915, her armament was changed to fourteen 152 mm (6 in) guns. At the end of 1916, she was moved to Petrograd (the renamed St Petersburg) for a major repair. The city was brimming with revolutionary ferment and part of her crew joined the 1917 February Revolution. A revolutionary committee was created on the ship, with Aleksandr Belyshev elected as captain. Most of the crew joined the Bolsheviks, who were preparing for a Communist revolution.
At 9.45 p.m on 25 October 1917 (O.S.) a blank shot from her forecastle gun signaled the start of the assault on the Winter Palace, which was to be the beginning of the October Revolution. In summer 1918, she was relocated to Kronstadt and placed into reserve.
August 5, 2014
I thought we’d be done by now, but there’s still more historical ground to cover on what I think are the deep origins of the First World War (part one, part two, part three, part four, part five, part six). The previous post examined the naval arms race between Britain and Germany. Today, we’re looking at the unhappy Russian experiences in the far East and the dangerous domestic situation it faced after the war.
Russia’s Oriental catastrophe
The Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05 was a huge upset, as all the great powers expected Russia to crush the upstart Japanese and put them back “in their place”. Japan’s stunning naval and military successes at the Battle of the Yellow Sea, Tsushima and Port Arthur left Russia in a potentially disastrous situation, with utter undeniable defeat in the East and revolution brewing at home.
The war came about due to irreconcilable differences in the expansionary plans of the two empires: Russia wanted control of Manchuria and Japan wanted control of Korea, but neither side trusted the other enough to make negotiations work. Japan decided to initiate the conflict with a surprise attack on the Russian naval forces in Port Arthur (now known as the Lüshunkou District of Dalian in China’s Liaoning province). From that point onwards, Japan maintained the initiative, forcing Russia to react and interrupting Russian moves on land and at sea.After the defeat of the original Russian fleet in the Pacific, the Baltic Fleet was re-tasked and set out to avenge the loss. The fleet’s luck was terrible to begin with, as shortly after passing between Sweden and Denmark and sailing out into the North Sea, lookouts on the Russian battleships spotted Japanese forces and the fleet opened fire. Twenty minutes, later the enemy was in tatters … unfortunately, the “enemy” were British fishing trawlers. Given the massive firepower of even pre-dreadnought ships, the casualties were surprisingly light: one trawler sunk, two dead, and many wounded. Not long afterward, a Russian ship in the fleet was mis-identified as a Japanese ship and nearly sunk by friendly fire. The nearest Japanese ship was still thousands of miles to the East.
Despite nearly starting a war with the Royal Navy over the Dogger Bank incident (Britain and Japan had signed an alliance in 1902), Admiral Rozhdestvensky was unapologetic and insisted it was the trawlers’ fault and his ships were perfectly entitled to defend themselves from Japanese attackers. As a result of the Russian mistake, Britain refused to allow the fleet passage through the Suez Canal, forcing them to take the far longer trip around Africa instead. If ever a military expedition has had bad omens, the sortie of the Baltic Fleet — now renamed the Second Pacific Squadron for this mission — must be one of the best examples.
When the Russian and Japanese fleets met in the Tsushima Straits, Admiral Tōgō managed to “cross the T” of the Russians, allowing his ships to use their full broadside armament against only the forward-facing guns of the Russian ships. In the end, the Second Pacific Squadron lost all eleven battleships and over 4,000 men killed, another 5,900 captured, and 1,800 interned. Japanese losses were trivial in comparison: three torpedo boats sunk, 117 men killed and about 500 wounded.
There were no major subsequent battles, and Russia was forced to sign the Treaty of Portsmouth to end the war in September 1905. Despite the Tsar’s initial instructions to the Russian delegation, the Russians agreed to recognize Japan’s sphere of influence in Korea, withdraw their troops from Manchuria, and to give up their lease on Port Arthur and Talien. The reaction in both countries was similar: political unrest. Japanese public opinion was that they had been cheated of their full reward from the war, and the government fell in the aftermath. Russians were even more angry and the result was revolution.
The (first) Russian revolution
While the result of the Russo-Japanese war was the trigger for the 1905 Revolution, it was far from being the only grievance. Margaret MacMillan wrote in The War That Ended Peace:
In 1904 the Minister of the Interior, Vyacheslav Plehve, is reported to have said that Russia needed “a small victorious war” which would take the minds of the Russian masses off “political questions”.
The Russo-Japanese War showed the folly of that idea. In its early months Plehve himself was blown apart by a bomb; towards its end the newly formed Bolsheviks tried to seize Moscow. The war served to deepen and bring into sharp focus the existing unhappiness of many Russians with their own society and its rulers. As the many deficiencies, from command to supplies, of the Russian war effort became apparent, criticism grew, both of the government and, since the regime was a highly personalized one, of the Tsar himself. In St. Petersburg a cartoon showed the Tsar with his breeches down being beaten while he says, “Leave me alone. I am the autocrat!” Like the French Revolution, with which it had many similarities, the Russian Revolution of 1905 broke old taboos, including the reverence surrounding the country’s ruler. It seemed to officials in St. Petersburg a bad omen that the Empress had hung a portrait of Marie Antoinette, a gift from the French government, in her rooms.
In December 1904, a strike in St. Petersburg triggered sympathy strikes in other industries, leading to 80,000 workers and supporters protesting in the city. In January 1905, a mass march by the strikers to the Winter Palace was met with rifle fire from the defending troops. Casualty estimates range from 200 to over 1,000 on Bloody Sunday. The strikes and protests spread beyond St. Petersburg, to the point that the government was threatened. Eventually the Tsar was persuaded to offer concessions :
Under huge pressure from his own supporters, the Tsar reluctantly issued a manifesto in October promising a responsible legislature, the Duma, as well as civil rights.
As so often happens in revolutionary moments, the concessions only encouraged the opponents of the regime. It appeared to be close to collapsing with its officials confused and ineffective in the face of such widespread disorder. That winter a battalion from Nichlas’s own regiment, the Preobrazhensky Guards, which had been founded by Peter the Great, mutinied. A member of the Tsar’s court wrote in his diary: “This is it.” Fortunately for the regime, its most determined enemies were disunited and not yet ready to take power while moderate reformers were prepared to support it in the light of the Tsar’s promises. Using the army and police freely, the government managed to restore order. By the summer of 1906 the worst was over — for the time being. The regime still faced the dilemma, though, of how far it could let reforms go without fatally undermining its authority. It was a dilemma faced by the French government in 1789 or the Shah’s government in Iran in 1979. Refusing demands for reform and relying on repression creates enemies; giving way encourages them and brings more demands.
Russia’s economy did recover eventually, but the political solution was not strong enough to stand the strains of another war any time soon. In some ways, it’s hard to imagine what the Russian leaders who advised the Tsar were thinking as the Russians continued to stir the pot in the Balkans…
July 15, 2014
It is a painful thing to confront someone whom one is accustomed to respecting, and to tell that person they are barking mad. Usually one avoids it, or dismisses the other’s strange behavior as “a difference of opinion,” and speaks platitudes about “the importance of diversity,” however when a person is going, “Arf! Arf!” right in your face, there is no way around it. This includes governments, when they become barking mad.
Thomas Jefferson knew this, when he quilled the Declaration of Independence, listing King George’s barking mad behaviors, however there has been a recent, revisionist effort to show that King George the Third wasn’t all that bad, and his blue urine wasn’t due to porphuria, and his spells of foaming at the mouth were but minor episodes, especially when he was young and was busily losing the American colonies. (I think this may in part be due to the fact that porphuria is hereditary, and certain people don’t want the rabble giving Prince Charles appraising looks.)
The argument states that, if you could get an audience at his glittering palace, King George was quite lucid, and even charming, and that the points he raised, about the government’s right to tax, are valid to this day. There is even some reproach towards America and Jefferson for failing to understand King George’s points.
However taxation was not the issue. Taxation without representation was the issue. When one looks back with twenty-twenty hindsight, the solution to the problem seems simple: Simply give the thirteen colony’s thirteen elected representatives in Parliament. It seems like such an obvious thing, to give Englishmen abroad the same rights as Englishmen at home, and seems so conducive to unity and the expansion of an unified kingdom, that to switch the subject to the-right-of-the-government-to-tax seems a sleight of hand bound to stub thumbs, to lead to schism, and to create discord out of harmony. It was, in fact, a barking mad thing for King George to do.
Caleb Shaw, “Barking Mad – A rave, prompted by facing insane heating costs”, Watts Up With That?, 2014-07-14.
July 14, 2014
Bastille Day! A day to remind ourselves yet again of the age-old formula that Revolution equals Political Inexperience times Zeal times Stupid Theory times Testosterone. Or R = PIZST2, if you prefer.
The French Revolution — in which virtually all the revolutionary leaders were men under 40 — makes the point perfectly. But you can try the same game with revolutions of your own choice, and in the privacy of your home.
Jesse Norman, “Bastille Day! A time to remember the ‘magazine of wisdom’ that was Edmund Burke”, Telegraph, 2014-07-14.
July 5, 2014
In The Atlantic, Uri Friedman talks to Harry Turtledove about other futures that could have occurred if the American Revolution hadn’t gone quite as it did historically:
Turtledove told me that it was Richard Dreyfuss, the actor, who first gave him the idea of the American Revolution as a subject for alternate history. The two collaborated on a novel, The Two Georges, that is set in the 1990s and based on the premise that the Revolutionary War never happened. Instead, George Washington and King George III struck an agreement in which the United States and Canada (the “North American Union”) remained part of the British Empire. The artist Thomas Gainsborough commemorated the deal in a painting, The Two Georges, that is emblazoned on money and made ubiquitous as a symbol of the felicitous “union between Great Britain and her American dominions.”
Turtledove told me by email that he had an “epiphany” when he traveled with his family to the World Science Fiction Convention in Winnipeg, Canada in 1994, shortly before he published The Two Georges.
As he read a book from the Little House on the Prairie series to his daughter at the hotel, he came upon a section about a Fourth of July celebration “on the plains in the late nineteenth century, with fireworks and with tub-thumping speakers talking about how the United States had broken away from British tyranny and was the freest country in the world as a result. And there I was reading this in the country next door to mine, a country as similar to mine as any two nations on earth, a country just as free as mine — and a country that had never broken away from Britain at all. It was a thought-provoking experience.” Canada, of course, merely shares a queen with the United Kingdom at this point, but its relationship with Britain has certainly evolved differently than America’s has.
You could think of 1776 as a British political experiment, with Canada as the control (“British” here meaning both the British government and the colonists/revolutionaries). At this point in history, the control appears to actually be more free than the experimental subject.
H/T to Colby Cosh for the link.
July 4, 2014
It is fashionable today to view the Revolution as one might a traditional war between foreign powers, but, in truth, the break of 1776 was the latest in a series of fallings out between brothers — a civil war fought by men who were separated by an ocean but not by a history. Reading through the extraordinary profusion of pamphlets and gripes that the crisis produced, one cannot help but be impressed by how keenly the revolutionaries hewed to existing principle. Thomas Paine, perhaps the most radical of the agitators, may have believed that he could start the world all over again, but the colonists who marched with him mostly definitely did not. Instead, they sought a restoration of their inheritance, the Constitutional Congress asserting in 1774 that British subjects in America were “entitled to all the rights, liberties, and immunities of free and natural-born subjects, within the realm of England.” In the same year, William Henry Drayton, a lawyer from South Carolina who later served as a delegate to the Congress, fleshed out the claim, establishing in a tract of his own that he and his countrymen were “entitled to the common law of England formed by their common ancestors; and to all and singular the benefits, rights, liberties and claims specified in Magna Charta, in the petition of Rights, in the Bill of Rights, and in the Act of Settlement.” With this popular sentiment, Drayton and his acolytes set themselves up as the Roundheads of the New World, linking spiritual arms with the parliamentarians of the English civil war, with the seditious architects of the Glorious Revolution, and with all who had established colonial outposts in the name of English freedom.
Fear of potentates ran deep within the Anglo-American tradition. When the mutinous Immortal Seven ushered in the Glorious Revolution of 1688, their invitation to William of Orange related that the people were “generally dissatisfied with the present conduct of the government, in relation to their religion, liberties and properties (all which have been greatly invaded).” As Daniel Hannan observes in Inventing Freedom, these three objects were philosophically inextricable. Protestantism, Hannan notes, was seen by the architects of English liberty in “political rather than theological terms, as guarantor of free speech, free conscience, and free parliament”; Catholicism, by contrast, was held to consume those virtues and to lead, inexorably, to monarchy. The fear of “popery” that helped to usher in the Glorious Revolution was certainly more pronounced in England that it was in America. But the concerns that motivated it were not, being instead inseparable from the fundamental political question, which was, “are we to rule ourselves or are we to be ruled by Kings and by Popes?” It stood to reason then that those who had become accustomed to expecting to enjoy a relationship with God that was not refereed by a host of spiritual bureaucrats would be able to more easily imagine governing their own worldly affairs, as it made sense that a culture in which the laity was encouraged to read Scripture for itself would be one in which subjects would more quickly rush to the defense of parliaments against the King. As ever, the instinct was toward the fragmentation of power.
Charles C.W. Cooke, “The Civil War of 1776″, National Review, 2014-07-03.
June 24, 2014
The Soviet government recently issued one of its condemnations of public drunkenness and the usual warning about stern countermeasures. This is partly routine, like official attacks on rock music, jeans and other signs of decadence, but it’s also an indication that the legal booze supply is improving after a setback. Like every other industry in the USSR, the state liquor monopoly, Prodintorg, is appallingly inefficient, the constant victim of breakdowns and shortages. At such times the authorities’ attitude to illicit distilling, normally harsh in the extreme, mellows wonderfully. The bootleg stills spring up in their tens of thousands and the police look the other way until Prodintorg recovers.
Because, come what may, Soviet man has got to be given his drink. Some say the Russian Revolution of 1917 happened because the Czar had banned alcohol three years before as a wartime measure, or at least that was why it was so bloody. Certainly Russian attitude to drink is different from ours in the West, probably always has been. Centuries ago, travellers recorded that a typical Russian meal was one where everybody got speechlessly drunk, all classes, all ages, both sexes, seven days a week, that people were always falling down dead in public through over-use, that “drinke is their whole desire,” as an English diplomat wrote of his visit in 1568.
Drinking to get drunk is probably known in every country, and there are alcoholics in most places, but even the ordinary Russian drinks to be drunk with the minimum of delay — hence the down-in-one ritual, which of course also shortens the agony of getting down the local hooch. And once drunk he acts drunk. It’s expected of him; indeed the regard and sympathy shown drunks in public is something almost unknown in the West outside Ireland — a suggestive comparison. From time immemorial a Russian needing to buy a bottle has gone to the head of any queue in a grocery or market, not by law but by natural right.
Kingsley Amis, Everyday Drinking: The Distilled Kingsley Amis, 2008.
May 15, 2014
Michael Totten lied to Cuban immigration officials to get into Cuba. Then he went outside the area of Havana that the foreign tourists see. The movie Elysium is supposed to be about a dystopian LA in the future, where the plutocrats live in vast luxury aboard a satellite, looking down on the squalor of those left behind. Totten says this is a pretty accurate description of Cuba today:
Outside its small tourist sector, the rest of [Havana] looks as though it suffered a catastrophe on the scale of Hurricane Katrina or the Indonesian tsunami. Roofs have collapsed. Walls are splitting apart. Window glass is missing. Paint has long vanished. It’s eerily dark at night, almost entirely free of automobile traffic. I walked for miles through an enormous swath of destruction without seeing a single tourist. Most foreigners don’t know that this other Havana exists, though it makes up most of the city — tourist buses avoid it, as do taxis arriving from the airport. It is filled with people struggling to eke out a life in the ruins.
Marxists have ruled Cuba for more than a half-century now. Fidel Castro, Argentine guerrilla Che Guevara, and their 26th of July Movement forced Fulgencio Batista from power in 1959 and replaced his standard-issue authoritarian regime with a Communist one. The revolutionaries promised liberal democracy, but Castro secured absolute power and flattened the country with a Marxist-Leninist battering ram. The objectives were total equality and the abolition of money; the methods were total surveillance and political prisons. The state slogan, then and now, is “socialism or death.”
Cuba was one of the world’s richest countries before Castro destroyed it — and the wealth wasn’t just in the hands of a tiny elite. “Contrary to the myth spread by the revolution,” wrote Alfred Cuzan, a professor of political science at the University of West Florida, “Cuba’s wealth before 1959 was not the purview of a privileged few … Cuban society was as much of a middle-class society as Argentina and Chile.” In 1958, Cuba had a higher per-capita income than much of Europe. “More Americans lived in Cuba prior to Castro than Cubans lived in the United States,” Cuban exile Humberto Fontova, author of a series of books about Castro and Guevara, tells me. “This was at a time when Cubans were perfectly free to leave the country with all their property. In the 1940s and 1950s, my parents could get a visa for the United States just by asking. They visited the United States and voluntarily returned to Cuba. More Cubans vacationed in the U.S. in 1955 than Americans vacationed in Cuba. Americans considered Cuba a tourist playground, but even more Cubans considered the U.S. a tourist playground.” Havana was home to a lot of that prosperity, as is evident in the extraordinary classical European architecture that still fills the city. Poor nations do not — cannot — build such grand or elegant cities.
Cubans in the hotel industry see how foreigners live. The government can’t hide it without shutting the hotels down entirely, and it can’t do that because it needs the money. I changed a few hundred American dollars into convertible pesos at the front desk. The woman at the counter didn’t blink when I handed over my cash — she does this all day — but when she first got the job, it must have been shattering to make such an exchange. That’s why the regime wants to keep foreigners and locals apart.
Tourists tip waiters, taxi drivers, tour guides, and chambermaids in hard currency, and to stave off a revolt from these people, the government lets them keep the additional money, so they’re “rich” compared with everyone else. In fact, they’re an elite class enjoying privileges — enough income to afford a cell phone, go out to restaurants and bars, log on to the Internet once in a while — that ordinary Cubans can’t even dream of. I asked a few people how much chambermaids earn in tips, partly so that I would know how much to leave on my dresser and also to get an idea of just how crazy Cuban economics are. Supposedly, the maids get about $1 per day for each room. If they clean an average of 30 rooms a day and work five days a week, they’ll bring in $600 a month — 30 times what everyone else gets. “All animals are equal,” George Orwell wrote in Animal Farm, his allegory of Stalinism, “but some animals are more equal than others.” Only in the funhouse of a Communist country is the cleaning lady rich compared with the lawyer. Yet elite Cubans are impoverished compared with the middle class and even the poor outside Cuba.
April 22, 2014
A “Western colony for gays and paedophiles” versus “a superpower empire that was not conquered by anybody”
David Blair compares the two revolutionary movements in Kiev and in Donetsk:
They are bitter enemies, but they run revolutions in much the same way. Here in the “Donetsk People’s Republic” – as pro-Russian demonstrators like to call this part of eastern Ukraine – the protests look much the same as did in Kiev during the February Revolution.
Once again, everything happens around occupied government buildings, where you find barricades piled high with tyres, passionate speakers and vitriolic propaganda, all surrounded by masked men with clubs and iron bars. The pro-Russian protesters of Donetsk took up their cause in bitter opposition to the Maidan revolutionaries of Kiev, but their methods are pretty much identical.
Earlier today, I spent some time behind the barricades of what was once the administrative headquarters of Donetsk region. This 11-storey building is now the seat of power for the “Donetsk People’s Republic”, which plans to hold a referendum on whether to join Russia by May 11. A triple rampart made from tyres laced with barbed wire now protects the building, manned by sentries in miners’ helmets and black balaclavas.
From a wooden stage in front of the building, a constant relay of speakers calls down fury and vituperation on the new government in Kiev and their supposed masters in America and Europe. There is an epic imagination to the crudeness of the propaganda.
My favourite poster shows a crying baby above a picture of Adolf Hitler and an assortment of drag queens. “Where will your baby live?” asks the caption. “In a Western colony for gays and paedophiles? Or in a superpower empire that was not conquered by anybody?” The latter sentence is accompanied by a picture of a jubilant infant raising both tiny fists in triumph.
March 19, 2014
Duncan Kelly reviews Revolutionary Ideas: An Intellectual History of the French Revolution from The Rights of Man to Robespierre, by Jonathan Israel.
According to this hefty new study of the French Revolution by Jonathan Israel, a professor of history at Princeton, what such events really show is the motivating power of ideas in guiding and transforming events. In his terms, the French Revolution was a “revolution of ideas” before it became “a revolution of fact”; indeed, it was three revolutions all at once.
Ideas about political equality, anticlericalism and modern republicanism grounded in “reason” motivated Radical Enlightenment thinkers such as Condorcet and Thomas Paine, while they clashed with the “moderate Enlightenment constitutional monarchism” embodied by more pro-royalist factions (the Feuillants) and aristocratic supporters such as Lafayette. Both struggled against Robespierre’s “authoritarian populism”, which for Israel prefigures modern fascism.
The radical compound in this instance might have been uniquely French but its impact spread widely. The resounding Declaration of the Rights of Man, writes Israel, was a “manifesto entirely incompatible with all ancien régime notions of social, racial, and religious hierarchy”. Revolution lent support to Caribbean struggles for black emancipation such as that of Toussaint L’Ouverture in Haiti, memorably described in CLR James’s 1938 classic The Black Jacobins. James’s book, however, is an odd omission in Israel’s otherwise compendious bibliography.
Historians have often criticised Israel for flattening out all the differences between these radical ideas except those he wants to retain and, when applied to the French Revolution, his arguments can feel like the inverse of some 19th-century Marxist schema. Instead of subterranean economic determinations, it is Radical Enlightenment that provides the means by which everything from press freedom to de-Christianisation can be slotted into a matrix requiring little in the way of extra interpretation.
What you get from such a focus on subversive editors, disenchanted priests and materialist philosophers has much in common with a more conventional account: food shortages, public debt crises and social grievances from Paris to the Vendée, combined with a plethora of radical ideas about press freedom, absolute equality, political liberty and radical democracy. Yet the vaulting ambition to ascribe such a momentous transformation to one cause still feels hubristic. The obvious parallel in this year of all years would be the thought that there might be a single idea or singular complex of ideas behind the outbreak of the first world war. Can you imagine such a claim commanding general assent?