Here I think of the centuries,
six million of them, they say.
Yesterday a fine rain fell;
today the warmth has brought out the crowds.
After Christ, what? The molecules
are without redemption. My shadow
sunning itself on this stone
remembers the lava. Zeus looked down
on a brave world, but there was
no love there; the architecture
of their temples was less permanent
than these waves. Plato, Aristotle,
all those who furrow the calmness
of their foreheads are responsible
for the bomb. I am charmed here
by the serenity of the reflections
in the sea's mirror. It is a window
as well. What I need
now is a faith to enable me to out-stare
the grinning faces of the inmates of its asylum,
the failed experiments God put away.
by R. S. Thomas
from Frequencies (1978)
During this article I replicate the names according to the book’s translation.
The Ukrainian and Russian Notebooks are two graphic novels by the Italian graphic novelist/journalist Igort recounting selected experiences of people who lived through the Soviet era. There was an extra modern day chapter at the end as this was a combination of the two previous books in a single volume. It was more or less negative… interesting but negative. I have read a few reviews which say that he just lets people tell their stories, similar to Svetlana Alexievich in her works, and offers no commentary. However, I have to protest that as he chooses which stories he recounts, just as a photographer can crop out undesirable elements to compose an image, so I find it is a very negative portrayal of the Soviet era and Russia in particular despite apparently there being some ‘positive’ stories according to other reviews. In all honesty I seriously doubt this book would be allowed in Russia due to its tone (at the very least regarding it touching on the experiences of Anna Politkovskaya as recounted by her French translator and friend Galina Ackerman).
The book is very beige in colour intentionally as if to replicate the natural deterioration of old documents. Everything looks like it was painted with coffee and reminds me of when I was little staining drawn pirate treasure maps with tea to create this aged effect. His art style is very…basic as if he placed tracing paper over photos. That would be a charitable description for all but the set pieces and portraits in the book but it is functional. I would not be surprised to find out he is self taught but shocked if I learnt he was professionally trained. The imagery gets across most of the scenery of these accounts but is bland. It often reminds me of the stiff artwork you see on medical boxes or emergency signs intended to give visual instruction. The art work suggests these are unbiased accounts but by their very nature of being personal recollections of the narrators, though first hand accounts, they are unreliable. So, intentionally or not, there is a dissonance between the author’s intent and his results. It is as if he used tracing paper to draw over someone else’s art as his hand is so often unsteady in his line work and whenever he attempts artistic flourish, usually when depicting trauma, instead of static figures it becomes a confused mess of mixed together metaphorical elements.
It was an interesting read and certainly the things mentioned will stay with me but since each part seems to last no more than 2 to 6 pages you have many short anecdotes but none have detail nor alternative perspectives of events so it is hard to come away from this with any other view than it is sensationalism meant to shock rather than inform its audience.
Names and events mentioned in the book include, but are not limited to:
Lazar Kaganovich, Vyaceslav Menzhinsky and Vsevolod Balitsky; Anna Politkovskaya, Galina Ackerman (her friend and French translator), Stanislav Markeov and Anastasia Baburova; Natalia Estemirova, Akhmed Zakayev and Alexander Litvinenko. Walter Duranty regarding his pro-Stalin reports. Talk of the Holomodor and Chechen conflicts. Various stories of people growing up in the Soviet era, secret police, disillusioned young soldiers. The Dubrovka theatre crisis 2002. A school being taken over by Chechens. A part where Anna, according to Galina, believes Homo Sovieticus – the soviet man – is coming back. Accounts of how the conflict began back in 1785 with Giovanni Battista Boetti who called himself Al-Mansur challenging Tsarist Russia and being defeated by General Potemkin. Then mention of Shamil Basayev and his filmed foot amputation where he didn’t flinch.
It then skips to Tolstoy as a young man going to war and then in 1855 declaring the military wasn’t for him and a desire to focus on writing. “Thus began a period of travel and deep reflection. Russia underwent a major social the abolition of serfdom. Tolstoy devoted himself to mediating conflicts between peasants, and he developed sensitivity to social injustice that remained his point of reference, a north star guiding his moral and literary quest.” Anna, according to Galina, ‘…felt Pity for the perpetrators. Pity, because they were broken, miserable people, with their own difficult fates. But it takes a soul of a writer to understand these things. Anna especially loved Tolstoy and Dostoevsky.’ Then we get a bit about how Dostoevsky epileptic fits were caused by the mock execution after arrest for being accused of consorting against the tsarist government in 1849. Then how he was deported to Siberia, wrote House of the Dead and was a foot soldier on the Chinese border.
At this point it covers Anna’s visit to a military base where she insults a major saying ‘he could never understand what kind of woman she is, or about life, as ‘… you’ve never read a single line of Tolstoy or Dostoevsky’. Which Personally I don’t believe she did as in such a circumstances that is just begging for him to attack her. And yet, at the same time, journalists do seem to be in a mindset of wanting to be martyrs in their coverage and what better than injuries caused during the visit which would be hard to deny so I can imagine it happening sadly as much as it flies in the face of logic to do something like antagonise someone who is interrogating you. Also it included telegram no. 181 from OGPU deputy chief G. G. Yagoda and director of the Secret Operations department of the OGPU E. G. Evdokimov to local leaders regarding the mass deportation of the kulaks on 15 March 1931. Then a bit about the Ukrainian mystic Paisius Velichkovsky who believed ‘one cannot understand the Russian soul, this people’s ability to endure all kinds of deprivation and suffering without knowing…’
The Ukrainian Notebook
Serafima Andreyevna – lived through the early Soviet takeover etc. Misha whose father had to join the communist party to go up in rank. (Apparently the mentally ill, or anyone whose had treatment, can only ever be a factory worker as they are deemed unstable/unreliable). The persecution of the Kulaks with mentions of Lazar Kaganovich, Vyaceslav Menzhinsky and Vsevolod Balitsky.
Nikolay Vasilievich – forces took over his village, his wife left him for someone with better prospects, he found someone else but she took his children etc. Then he grows ill and is bed ridden. Neighbours provide for him for a while but gradually dwindle away. A guy moves in and secretly signs his name onto the house’s deed and kicks Nikolay out but he gets the house back eventually. His second wife is with a new man and refuses to let Nokolay see his children. OGPU directives regarding kulaks. Walter Duranty speaking positively of the Soviet Union (but framed in such a way as to suggest him being a communist sympathiser. In fact George Orwell wrote a list of people and his name was on it! https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orwell’s_list ).
Talk of the Holomodor. Maria Ivanovna speaks of her time growing up. The family owned cow providing enough nutritious milk it saved her life so she carried a photo of it around with her in a locket. She learned to read, became a secretary, went to university, her husband worked in a factory but now years later she doesn’t live with her daughter (who cannot have children and whose husband is on a disability pension)… soSoes the bias stories. Nikolay Ivanovich recollects how in the Soviet era people helped each other and times were good but in modern Ukraine the prices are up and no one has jobs. Radiation affects the landscape and people. The final part covers Serafima’s death.
The Russian Notebook
Events involving Anna Politkovskaya are recounted by Galina Ackerman, her friend and French translator. Basically she is portrayed like a saint who could do no wrong. Novaya Gazeta is spoken of in a similar ‘champions of truth and justice’ blinked manner as Charlie Hebdo was.
He went to where she lived, 8 Lesnaya Ulitsa, and saw the murder scene, went up in the elevator with a mother and child and then left. (Actually this part comes across uncomfortably as he seems so intent on depicting the small girl who seemed afraid of him, a stranger, being in her home building. Whether he understood it was him she was scared of not the circumstances of living in the building where some one was killed seems to have escaped him). He says a painted Christmas sign is ‘rough; not well done’ covering where the blood splattered as if having the right of judging the environment as an outsider. This part ends with Igort recounting that her children told her that someone killed there while she was away in Vienna was an intended assassination of her. Then at Ulitsa Prechistenka it recounts memorials for Stanislav Markeov and Anastasia Baburova. Then some talk of how assassins go about killing dissidents and Stanislav was beaten up by 5 men in Dimtrovskaya Metro.
Chechen police are common in Moscow apparently and have a license to kill, abduct people, beat them up and consider themselves masters of the city. Elza Visaevna Kungayeva – and 18 year old in Grozny who was kidnapped, wrapped in a rug, tortured, raped and buried. Musa – Chechen recounting how Russian soldiers assault, beat, rape and kill in their path. Roman Bagreev – a soldier who refused to carry out orders so was tortured, burned with quicklime, put in a pit (as they do with Chechen civilians. and the captain drops into it and tears his ear off with his bare teeth. Anna wanted him to get a medal of valour his actions (meanwhile he was ostracised and treated like a traitor). The ministry of defence stated there would be no medal or recognition. Dubrovka theatre crisis 2002. She recounts the initial facts and the Chechens declaration that Russia is the real criminal. This is followed by Galina saying Anna could have made a difference but the authorities refused her access though the terrorists knew ad respected her. Instead it was stormed and as the gas used was a secret so no medical aid could be given.
Then there is a part where Anna believes Homo Sovieticus – the Soviet man – is coming back. This is followed by a discussion of where it all began back in 1785 with Giovanni Battista Boetti who called himself Al-Mansur challenging Tsarist Russia and being defeated by General Potemkin, but not before becoming legendary apparently. Chechen soldiers who were captured by the Nazis begged no to be repatriated because life is worse in the Soviet Union (of course this account ignores what we now, many years later, know about the treatment of people by the Nazis which these people at the time would have been ignorant and believing the grass is greener on the other side) . Then mention of Shamil Basayev and his filmed foot amputation where he didn’t flinch.
It then skips to Tolstoy as a young man going to war and then in 1855 declaring the military wasn’t for him and a desire to focus on writing. “Thus began a period of travel and deep reflection. Russia underwent a major social the abolition of serfdom. Tolstoy devoted himself to mediating conflicts between peasants, and he developed sensitivity to social injustice that remained his point of reference, a north star guiding his moral and literary quest.” Then a one page account by Anna of a 19 year old soldier from the 22nd brigade stationed in Chechnya in Summer 2001 saying he justified scalping a man because he was Chechen. Next: Recorded by Zainap Gashaeva, chairwoman of the Women of Cacasus Committee and noted human rights activist – A woman was shown the mutilated and beheaded corpse of her son. An account of a zachistka for a few pages. A young soldier is forced by special forces to shoot tortured men. Later, during a night time operation, he has his legs blown off – which is revealed to be an account from a Chechenya veteran’s forum desantura.ru.
Back with Galina she speaks of Natalia Estemirova who was Anna’s source of information in Chechenya. Akhmed Zakayev who tried to gather information and testimonies regarding crimes. Anna knew Alexander Litvinenko. Anna ‘felt pity for the perpetrators. Pity, because they were broken, miserable people, with their own difficult fates. But it takes a soul of a writer to understand these things. Anna especially loved Tolstoy and Dostoevsky.’ Then we get a bit about how Dostoyevsky’s epileptic fits were caused by the mock execution after arrest for being accused of conspiring the tsar in 1849. Then he was deported to Siberia where he wrote House of the dead and was a foot soldier on the Chinese border.
Then an account where Anna went to a military base, Colonel Alexei Romanov showed her the pits then Major Durakov takes her into a tent verbally berating her, asking if she wanted to go to the banya with him etc and eventually he apparently retorted ‘I I don’t think you could ever understand what kind of woman I am. What would you understand of life? You’ve never read a single line of Tolstoy or Dostoevsky’. (Personally whenever I hear things like this I highly doubt them. Under those circumstances it would be asking to be killed. The book comes across like she wanted to be a martyr for journalism which is something I see often over here too). Then apparently at night they had her stand with her back to a grad multiple rocket launcher bas they fired it which carpet bombed a nearby Chechen village. Then they let her go once they had broken her though she said they got nothing from her after days in a bunker and endless interrogation. For the following months she was paranoid whenever she saw a uniform. Crossing the street and having nightmares.
September 2004 – Chechens seize a school and Anna is getting on a plane but she has been poisoned not to mention the seige ended how OMON opened fire after some corpses were thrown out the windows – then a closing line saying Anna had liver and digestion problems up until her death. Then there are page of ten regarding everyone thought she was invincible but we need to keep her example in mind. The next part recounts telegram no. 181 from OGPU deputy chief G G Yagoda and director of the Secret Operations department of the OGPU E G Evdokimov to local leaders regarding the mass deportation of the kulaks on 15 March 1931. Then a bit about the Ukrainian mystic Paisius Velichkovskywho believed ‘one cannot understand the Russian soul, this people’s ability to endure all kinds of deprivation and suffering without knowing…’
Then Galina recounts an old Soviet story of a Jew who asks to emigrate to Israel, returns, asks to go again and again and the immigration office tell him he cannot do this and he must make up his mind once and for all. Which does he prefer? He admits to them ‘I prefer the journey’.
At the end of the book Igort has added a few more modern pieces. Young soldiers, June 2014, were sent to Ukraine without training. Their leaders returned for information. Time passes and the soldiers and the community get on with them helping build things etc for supplies and eventually a message comes for them to return (their leaders are never seen again). They had been abandoned it was felt.
Coal – Yakymivka. Ukraine. People cannot afford the costly coal so they go and cut down forest trees in the dead of night and ‘men who would not hurt a fly’ were implicit with the black market. This was due to a fear/knowledge gas lines to the region were going to be cut off.
Evgeny Myazin- Part 1 young man goes into the army. Sees atrocities and friends killed. Hands in his resignation and is berated by senior officers. Leaves and is run over by a truck, His remains cannot be repatriated as he was not part of the military at this point. Dead on 3 Sept 2014. Part 2 – 15 Sept family make collections to repatriate his remains. The autopsy indicates her was dead long before the truck incident suggesting he was beaten to death. His mother launched a Facebook page which was taken down then put back up. End note regarding censorship laws etc curtailing social media use.
I dislike the profound arrogance of journalists in Britain and this in some ways extends to a jaded mistrust of them on an international level. It is hard to tell what is truth and what is embellishment. There is a profound arrogance to those in the industry and a belief they are above the events they cover. Often the language of speaking down to people is employed as shown with Anna’s pitying the soldiers. Once I attended, in Chepstow, a talk by the BBC’s former political head Nick Robinson and who afterwards insulted the audience, via twitter, mocking how very few of the, mostly OAP aged, audience used Twitter as so few hands were raised when he asked who was on twitter. He is incredibly smug and even recently in a different role he comes across as such. Considering how much lying and manipulation we have had here in Britain during the past decade even the best of them is viewed in a jaded manner nowadays even without similar acts of self aggrandisement and disrespect to those who would give the time to listen to them.
Maybe Anna was an honest, good, journalist but this book is so biased in its coverage of her it’s hard not to automatically baulk and challenge it. It certainly presents her having no concern for her own safety which is meant to come across as a positive but instead seems more like an arrogant death wish as if believing she was beyond challenge – as if a press pass gave her immunity to prosecution. It even goes as far as to say everyone thought she was invincible and were shocked she could die! I suppose you could compare it to Charlie Hebdo. Though they are, at least here, hailed as champions of free speech if you look at some of the things they publish it does come across as them seeking to cause controversy not take the unpopular step of presenting hard truths people refuse to admit to themselves about the world around them. Journalists have a fetish for martyrdom to order to create a legacy for themselves. If a person kept walking on a cliff edge and suddenly a gust of wind pushed them off would we speak of them as a brave person or as a fool? There is a fine line between intellectual courage, to expose the obscured truth, and being foolhardy in opening Pandora’s box. Hmm this is making me sound very much a russophile though I can recognise the weaknesses there too as I do in any country – especially my own.
As much as it was good to read (and I would be interested in his other works) I found the book distasteful and incredibly biased in the modern sections. I believe the military events happened but at the same time believe this sort of thing happens in military organisations around the world including, most notably, Guantanamo Bay and many events of the Iraq War. Even recently yet another training exercise in Brecon (Mid-Wales) resulted in more deaths! There are many things that happen in the military that would be unacceptable otherwise – to pretend it only happens in one country is blind rhetoric. It must be understood the circumstances which military personnel find themselves in calls for certain mindsets and an understanding that orders are absolute not optional whether you agree with them or not. There is a reason in English we have the oft used phrase ‘the dogs of war’ referring to soldiers and it has long been a cliche when used.
Maybe you wouldn’t agree but in these days of myriad truths its hard to not be weary of everyone who tries to speak with authority. It is a sign of the anti-intellectualism arising in Western culture nowadays sadly that people are not ready to question and challenge having replaced the opiate of religion with that of social media and instant gratification via the internet making them more docile than ever. Too many lies, like the fable about ‘crying wolf’, from those we are meant to trust has made everyone a non-believer sleep walking towards danger due to overstimulation induced apathy.
However allow me to end on a more positive note – In this day and age of multimedia and the Internet we are no longer restricted to accepting one or two sources of information. We can consume it from a number of different sources; from different nations, creeds, ideologies, political leanings, languages and so on. We must take responsibility for our own perspective and be proactive in gaining knowledge to gain our own, balanced, understanding of the world we live in. We must always be willing to challenge our own perspective on events and accept if we were wrong or misinformed initially. It is all too easy to allow ourselves to sit in an echo-chamber listening to the opinions of those we know will agree and re-enforce our own views. We must be ready to, as Plato’s metaphor of the cave demonstrates, emerge from the cave of ignorance into the light of knowledge. I do believe that, to some extent, the events recounted in the book occurred but to what extent what we are presented with was the unbiased reality and not a constructed truth must be questioned. Always be ready to question otherwise you will be serving someone else’s agenda.
If this interests you then I implore you to look up the works of Svetlana Alexievich whose works also offer accounts of people’s experiences in Russia and the Soviet Union albeit in prose.