1965 Moscow

The final stop of our 1965 chess tour of Czechoslovakia and Russia was Moscow, then capital of world chess. Of course, we lost the matches, as we were each playing against significantly stronger players. But what stays in memory is the impressions of the then-capital of a mighty empire – the USSR.

1965 GUM

The people seemed drab and depressed, compared to Western Europe, and compared to Ukraine (see previous posts 1965 Kiev and 1965 Odessa). The GUM department store had queues and empty shelves; the system did not appear to be working well for people here at the centre.

This suggested to me that the USSR was not a great success for its own peoples. It had clearly not recovered from WW2 as well as the West, and the people had not correspondingly benefited. Why would Russians wish to go back to those supposedly glorious days through the current ventures in Ukraine and other parts of the Russian border?

Paradoxically, there was also evidence of good organisation, modern technology and buildings suggesting a glorious history.

Worker and collective farmer

All this intermingled with drab buildings and worthy statues to the glory of the working man, rather strange to Western eyes. This was, after all, supposedly a communist state.

So I have very mixed impressions of Moscow at that time, a period when nuclear war between USA and USSR was only narrowly averted – times of peril that the Putin regime seems determined to go back to.

Tsar bell

My only other photograph from that visit was this one of the huge Tsar Bell, considered to be the largest bell in the world. The bell was cast in the 1700s but never struck for real, because a fire caused a bit to split off before it could be hoisted into position to ring. That somehow seems to sum up Russia.

Fleeing Ukrainians – why does it never stop?

Jane Fritz gives insight into the history behind Ukraine’s current suffering, with some superb Chagall paintings included.

Robby Robin's Journey

When we think of paintings by the famous French painter Mark Chagall (actually Russian-French), we typically think of his dreamlike themes and brilliant use of colour.  Always imaginative.  Often free-floating.

But he also painted powerful paintings that didn’t dance and weren’t dreamlike.  Powerful, yes, but free-floating, no.  One such powerful painting has been posted many times on social media recently, and appropriately so.  It’s entitled La Famille Ukrainienne.  The Ukrainian Family.

UkrainianFamily

Only, of course, Chagall didn’t paint this work of art in the past 6 weeks, since the Russians invaded Ukraine and started unleashing such devastation, brutality, and death.  He painted it sometime between 1940 and 1943, when Ukrainians were fleeing the war and destruction brought about by another Russian, Stalin’s “Great Terror”.  It is uncanny – and heartbreaking – to realize that this scene could just as easily be depicting what is going on right now, 80 years…

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1965 Odessa

Another tragic atrocity is apparently beginning with Putin’s recent first shelling of Odesa, third city of Ukraine. I spent a couple of days there during our chess tour of Czechoslovakia and Russia in 1965, when the Russian name Odessa was used.

At the time this Black Sea resort was a playground for the upper echelons of then-communist Russian society. I’d never seen so many overfed people before we went on that beach.

The harbour at Odessa is linked to the city by the Potempkin Steps, created in 1841 and made famous in Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 silent film Battleship Potemkin.

Potempkin steps

Look down the steps at the port, and you can see why this city might be regarded as strategically important.

I recall that this was an attractive city to walk around, all now at risk to Putin’s cowardly cruise missiles.

Opera House

These four photographs are the only ones I have from that trip. Such insanity that one man and his cabal could apparently be on track to destroy all this. For what? Some illusion of Russian greatness, a phantasm of Putin’s imagination? There is nothing great about destroying the work and life of millions.

Megalomaniac and lost soul?

One could argue that my posts about Iain McGilchrist’s books (see eg The Matter With Things) and the problem of today’s left brain dominance are of mere academic interest, or to do with the long term environmental threat. Yet suddenly it is upon us, threatening the world we know, live and love, in the form of Vladimir Putin. Putin is one of many leaders who exhibit a pathologically extreme form of left brain domination, where left brain rationality and abstract ideas override any consideration of the people and environment involved, whether in Russia, in Ukraine, or in the rest of the world. There is a lack of connection with reality – the death, destruction and psychological trauma being inflicted on millions of people. Only a person who has lost touch with the real lived world and their own moral sense could do such a thing. Putin has literally decided that the map is more important than the territory.

I’m not sure if this recognition helps us much in dealing with the inhuman threat represented by Putin, but it is useful to see where this person is coming from. There is only abstract rationality without compassion or recognition of common humanity, let alone community with nature. It is evident from clips in the media that he rules by fear, also evident from his threats to the rest of the world.

Can we have compassion for a lost soul, when he threatens us all?

1965 Kiev

Today’s Russian assault on Ukraine and its capital Kyiv brings to mind my one experience of visiting that city, in 1965. The city was then behind the Iron Curtain, part of the USSR, and had its Russian name, Kiev. The featured image is the one photograph I took at that time in Kiev, showing the River Dnieper flowing through the city – the fourth largest river in Europe.

This visit was part of a combined Oxford/Cambridge Universities chess tour, venturing behind the Iron Curtain, because that was where the strongest chess players then were.

After interesting encounters with friendly West German and dour East German border guards, we began our tour in Prague, Czechoslovakia, and were quite surprised to find that city reasonably free and spirited, a bit like a rather subdued Vienna.

We then moved on to Ukraine, its capital Kiev and the Black Sea resort of Odessa. Differences from Western Europe were more marked. We were still clearly in Eastern Europe, but the lively spirit was a bit more subdued, and material conditions much worse. I was pursued half way across the city in an attempt to persuade me to sell my pursuer a ballpoint pen!

Finally, we arrived in Moscow, where the best chessplayers were. This no longer seemed like Europe. The people seemed drab and depressed, and there were empty shelves and queues in the shops. Despite some beautiful buildings, this seemed a more fearful place, the capital of an unhappy empire.

Just 3 years later, 1968, I was delighted to see the emergence of the Prague Spring, when Alexander Dubcek led in establishing more liberal reforms. This seemed to correspond with that feeling I’d had in Prague in 1965 – its seemed natural for Prague to be more aligned with its sister Vienna. Then I recall the Soviet tanks rolling in to Prague to crush the reform movement. How terrible to see that beautiful city of spirit crushed by the Soviets. After that, Czechoslovakia remained controlled by the Soviet Union until 1989, when the Velvet Revolution peacefully ended the communist regime, around the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall – a time when anything seemed possible.

Although a founding member of the USSR in 1922, Ukraine regained its independence in 1991 following the dissolution of the USSR. In 1995 Kyiv became an authorised spelling of the capital’s name, and was strongly adopted recently because of the associations of ‘Kiev’ with Russia. Now, it seems, that Ukraine is suffering a similar event to that crushing of the Prague Spring in 1968, 54 years later. For reasons unclear to us in the West, Mr Putin seems to have decided that he will not allow Ukraine to continue its path of alignment with the more liberal Western Europe – it must again be forced under Russian control, in an apparent attempt to restore the supposed glories of that USSR.

We weep for them, and the unnecessary and untold miseries that will ensue.

Prisoners of Geography

prisoners of geographyThe book of the above title was on Waterstones’ blockbuster non-fiction table, so I thought I’d give it a go. ‘Ten maps that tell you all about global politics’ seemed a good subtitle. The author is Tim Marshall.

The book actually does do what it says, shows how geography is the major factor in much of global politics, and explains how this works in different areas of the world.

It was interesting to read about the main geographical features and conflicts in each area of the world, although I did get the impression that a lot of today’s political problems are caused not by geography but by the arbitrary lines drawn on maps by dominant Europeans in that brief period of colonial expansion of the 19th century and subsequent decolonisation – such as the borders of Iraq, Syria, lack of Kurdish state, India/Pakistan,…

The relevance of the north European plain for both Western Europe and Russia is quite striking – how easy it is to attack on a wide plain rather than through mountains, as indeed Napoleon and Hitler did at their peril, as supply lines became over-stretched. The importance of a non-aligned Ukraine to Russia is also clearly explained, as is the impeccable logic that led to the recent Russian taking of the Crimea.

And if you want insight into the likely problems in the China Sea and the Arctic Ocean over coming decades, this book gives a fair idea.

I guess the question for humanity is whether we are going to continue to be prisoners of geography, and fight the same battles over and over again, or whether we are going to move beyond that to de-emphasise the national ego in favour of the collective well being that will come increasingly under threat with the changes caused by global warming and pollution. At the end of the day, all these geographies are interconnected, as are all their populations. We are really one humanity living in one world.