The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin (1969)

Lord Berosty rem ir Ipe came to Thangering Fastness and offered forty beryls and half the year’s yield from his orchards as the price of a Foretelling, and the price was acceptable.

Le Guin’s anthropological approach

This is the second Ursula Le Guin novel I’ve read and I’m beginning to realise why all the author blurbs, articles and essays about her tend to start with the fact that she was the daughter of an eminent anthropologist.

It’s because her books are interested in creating whole fictional societies – with languages, customs, social systems and networks and values different from ours – and then sending an outsider into them to explore them on our behalf.

These worlds are often, at root, so schematic that they are indeed like essays in sociology or politics or philosophy. This was very true of The Dispossessed, which amounted to a kind of thought experiment – what would happen if dissidents from an authoritarian capitalist system didn’t just leave their country, but left the entire planet to go and colonise another one, nearby, and set up a cash-free, government-free anarcho-syndicalist society?

To find out, let’s send an inhabitant of the poor but honest utopia back to the corrupt capitalist mother culture so that he (and the reader) can compare and contrast the two of them.

The Left Hand of Darkness dates from five years earlier, but the recipe is similar: imagine a planet with one dominating feature and two fully imagined and distinctive societies, then send in an outsider to explore it for us, report back to us, describe the climate and culture and customs and so on.

And that’s exactly what happens here. In this case it is the planet ‘Gethen’, which the first visitors from the Hainish Federation named Winter because it is, er, always winter – a deep freeze world, a world of snow and cold, ice and pine forests in the mist (and hence, we are informed, the sixty-two Karhidish words for different types and conditions of snow, p.169).

And so it is that the narrative of The Left Hand of Darkness consists of the reports of the envoy Genly Ai back to the Federation – or, to give it its proper name, the Ekumenical Scope.

Genly’s neat, chapter-sized reports are interspersed with folk tales and legends from Gethen which pad out our understanding of their people and folklore – and also the point of view of a completely different narrator, a high-born inhabitant of Gethen, Therem Harth rem ir Estraven, who gives his (or its – see below about hermaphroditism) own first-hand account of its adventures, which join up and then become utterly entwined with Genly’s.

Fantasy nomenclature

So I can see the fictional intention very clearly… but… but… I have real trouble buying into these fantasy novels.

The most obvious reason is the names. The names Le Guin gives planets, people and places and their customs are often so preposterous that I wonder if she’s daring people not to have a fit of the giggles.

Thus the envoy from the Ekumenical Scope is named Genly Ai, her initial contact at the court of King Argaven XV is Therem Harth rem ir Estraven, and the text sounds like this:

[My story] starts on the 44th diurnal of the Year 1491, which on the planet Winter in the nation Karhide was Odhar-hahad Tuwa or the twenty-second day of the third month of spring in the Year One. It is always the Year One here. Only the dating of every past and future year changes each New Year’s Day, as one counts backwards or forwards from the unitary Now. So it was spring of the Year One in Erhenrang, capital city of Karhide…

Ehrenrang. The book is absolutely crammed full of silly sci-fi fantasy names and people, and whether you take to it depends largely on whether you enjoy reading about made-up histories of made-up people with fake-exotic made-up names.

Estraven’s house, sign of the king’s high favor, was the Corner Red Dwelling, built 440 years ago for Harmes, beloved kemmering of Emran III, whose beauty is still celebrated, and who was abducted, mutilated, and rendered imbecile by hirelings of the Inner-land Faction.

As well as sounding plain silly, a more important issue I have with the names is their lack of depth. They all have an eerie sense of familiarity which, I think, is created by mashing up vague bastardised memories of medieval history, with exotic names which seem to have come out of the Central Asia of Genghiz Khan’s time. They all tremble on the edge of pastiche or parody.

‘You know that Karhide and Orgoreyn have a dispute concerning a stretch of our border in the high North Fall near Sassinoth. Argaven’s grandfather claimed the Sinoth Valley for Karhide, and the Commensals have never recognized the claim. A lot of snow out of one cloud, and it grows thicker. I’ve been helping some Karhidish farmers who live in the Valley to move back east across the old border, thinking the argument might settle itself if the Valley were simply left to the Orgota, who have lived there for several thousand years.’

The entire novel is written in this style, with this kind of clutter of faux-exotic names, all the way through, on every page. It’s not an original style. The names sound like they could come from Star Trek, the TV series of which came to an end the same year Left Hand of Darkness was published, 1969. (Top Star Trek enemies included the Klingons, the Cardassians, the Lore, the Romulans, the Holodeck, any of whom could step easily into this book.)

So the degree of your enjoyment will depend on how much imaginative energy you want to invest in characters with names like Ong Tot Oppong, Pemmer Harge rem ir Tibe and Lang Heo Hew. When I read about the summer palace at Warrever, I thought ‘whaddever’, indeed.

Hermaphroditism

Anyway, the regrettable thing is that – as in the Left Hand of Darkness – inextricably mixed up with the silly names are genuinely interesting ‘ideas’. The winter theme is developed up to a point, but far more dominant is the fact that all the inhabitants of Gethen are hermaphrodites. 

In her interest in sex and sex equality, Le Guin sometimes seems like a prophet of our own times, obsessed as we are with ‘gender’ and gender equality and gender issues and transgender rights and so on, and in this book she approaches it with characteristic thoroughness and imaginative depth.

Chapter Seven of the book is a report from another investigator from the Ekumen who, if I understand the dating system correctly, visited Gethen with the first landing party some 50 years before Genly, and wrote a thorough report on all aspects of the inhabitants’ hermaphroditism. Her name is Ong Tot Oppong (stop tittering at the back) but Le Guin’s working through of what a hermaphrodite society would really look and feel and think like makes for fascinating reading.

On the one hand there’s the biology – each Gethenite enters estrus for a week once every month, enters into a bond with another Gethenite, and then subtle hormonal changes decide which one will develop their latent male or female genitalia: everyone has them, it is in the subtle pair-bonding period that hormones decide which one will develop their genitals enough to be used. With the result that a Gethenite can both bear children and father children; may have borne children to one partner, but be father to the children of another partner. It matters not (her fake medieval style is catching) since the children (like the children in The Dispossessed) are taken away and raised communally.

Here, amid all the silly names and fantasy clutter, are some really thought-provoking ideas:

Consider: Anyone can turn his hand to anything. This sounds very simple, but its psychological
effects are incalculable. The fact that everyone between seventeen and thirty-five or so is liable to be (as Nim put it) ‘tied down to childbearing’, implies that no one is quite so thoroughly ‘tied down’ here as women, elsewhere, are likely to be – psychologically or physically. Burden and privilege are shared out pretty equally; everybody has the same risk to run or choice to make.

Consider: There is no division of humanity into strong and weak halves, protective/protected, dominant/submissive, owner/chattel, active/passive. In fact the whole tendency to dualism that pervades human thinking may be found to be lessened, or changed, on Winter.

The most striking speculation in this anthropologist’s report is that the absence of a fixed male or female gender may explain the absence of war, which can be seen as a vainglorious exaggeration of all the worst male characteristics (a theory attributed to the famous sociologist, Tumass Song Angot, p.96)

As in her treatment of an anarchist, egalitarian, propertyless society in The Dispossessed, Le Guin is excellent at thinking through her ideas to great depth and considering all their ramifications.

Thus her envoy gets caught up in the palace politics of Karhide (one of Gethen’s two major cultures) but the novel really binds and engrosses as we are drawn into his honest depiction of his confusion and difficulty in understanding such an alien condition – here, as in numerous other places, the anthropologist’s daughter is doing something really interesting.

Amazingly, by the end of the book, she has you seeing gendered human beings as the weird ones, with several of the intelligent Gethenites pointing out how tiresome, wearing and confusing it must be to be in heat all the time as humans, alone of all mammals, in fact are. In Gethenite society people in heat all the time are referred to as ‘perverts’ and the intelligent people Genly talks to find it hard to overcome their repulsion at the notion of humanoids living in such an icky, sticky condition.

Although, here again, with the best will in the world, I found myself stumbling over the way interesting ideas are inextricably tied up with ludicrous fantasy elements.

Take just the word Le Guin invents for the period during which Gethenite couples pair off – kemmering – it’s just one example of the many places where the high-minded thought experiments are undermined by the dubious or downright laughable words she coins.

At some moments, the narrative grips you as if they really were reports from a strange new world; but the next minute she gives out such an over-ripe burst of pseudo-medieval diction, or preposterous names, or silly made-up words, that I couldn’t help thinking about Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

About two hundred years ago in the Hearth of Shath in the Pering Storm-border there were two brothers who vowed kemmering to each other. In those days, as now, full brothers were permitted to keep kemmer until one of them should bear a child, but after that they must separate; so it was never permitted them to vow kemmering for life. Yet this they had done. When a child was conceived the Lord of Shath commanded them to break their vow and never meet in kemmer again.

‘And the Lord of Shath commandeth that thou shalt never kemmer again!” – Imagine John Cleese saying it

When Ai’s contact, Therem Harth rem ir Estraven, is banished for conspiring with the envoy – Genly Ai – to undermine the Kingdom of Karhide, Ai decides it’s also time to make himself scarce and so journeys into the mountains, faring through the passes of Wehoth, in the shadow of the Fastness of Ariskostor, in order to reach the Fastness of Otherhord, where dwell the nine legendary Foretellers of the Handdarra.

Is that anywhere near the Knights Who Say ‘Ni’, I wanted to ask.

That’s what the Yomeshta believe of Meshe: that he saw past and future clear, not for a moment, but all during his life after the Question of Shorth…

Ah, the Question of Shorth. Of course, the world-changing Question of Shorth.

I think that Tolkien is the lord and master of fantasy fiction because he was well aware that he was channelling the myths and legends of North Europe into fictional form and, crucially,

  1. He knew those myths and legends inside out (he translated many of them)
  2. He knew their languages

The names in The Lord of The Rings have a just-so, just-right quality because Tolkien took many of them from existing Old English or Old German or Old Norse sources, and his intimate familiarity with the sources underpins every sentence.

Tolkien was a philologist by profession, and so his first study was words, words across the full range of Dark Age ad medieval Germanic languages, and so his use of words – and his invention of entire other languages, such as Elvish or Dwarvish – have a phenomenal amount of historical knowledge, authority and depth behind them.

With Le Guin and the hundreds of other authors who have written space fantasy, you have the opposite feeling: you get the sense that they’ve had this or that good idea for a planet (an egalitarian utopia, or a world of hermaphrodites, say) and have then mapped out a narrative which lets the protagonist explore the planet and its culture and customs in some depth – i.e. the ideas and the stories are often deeply worked out – and sometimes so thought-provoking as to be actually gripping…

But by lacking a profound rootedness in genuine myth and legend and, above all, by lacking a sure grasp of medieval languages, both the stories themselves and, above all, the names and the made-up words which play such a central role in sustaining belief in the made-up societies with their made-up customs, the words and names have a shallow, willed, at times laughable quality.

Long ago, before the days of King Argaven I who made Karhide one kingdom, there was blood feud between the Domain of Stok and the Domain of Estre in Kerm Land.

The Domain of Stok.

Eastern religion

In the first sentence of Le Guin’s encyclopedia entry it tells you not only about her 1. being the child of a leading anthropologist, 2. about her interest in ‘gender’ but that 3. she was interested in Eastern philosophy, specifically Taoism.

This is not exactly buried in her fiction – it’s upfront and obvious in both the books I’ve read. In The Dispossessed it is cleverly integrated into the story because the main character is a physicist thinking about the nature of time in a way which overlaps the hard equations of physics with mystical speculations about the nature of time and being.

Here, the Eastern interest felt less integrated, more of a bolt-on tourist feature. Genly Ai tells us that in the kingdom of Karhide are those who practice Handdara and that:

The Handdara is a religion without institution, without priests, without hierarchy, without vows, without creed; I am still unable to say whether it has a God or not. It is elusive. It is always somewhere else. Its only fixed manifestation is in the Fastnesses, retreats to which people may retire and spend the night or a lifetime…

I imagine the incorporation of pseudo-Eastern mysticism was one of the many elements which helped make The Left Hand of Darkness a cult classic in the late-1960s, and helped make Le Guin’s name as a kind of fantasy novelist for the Woodstock generation.

The book came out only a year after the Beatles went to stay with the Maharishi in Rishikesh, and the mystical chapters don’t hold back.

A hundred yards beyond him stood another statue, in blue and white; this one never moved or glanced our way all the time we talked with the first one. They were practicing the Handdara discipline of Presence, which is a kind of trance – the Handdarata, given to negatives, call it an untrance – involving self-loss through extreme sensual receptiveness and awareness. Though the technique is the exact opposite of most techniques of mysticism it probably is a mystical discipline, tending towards the experience of Immanence;

Or as George Harrison once said: ‘What is here is elsewhere, what is not here is nowhere.’

Or as Jeff Beck put it: ‘You’re everywhere and nowhere, baby – that’s where you’re at.’

I suppose that – as with the exploration of the anarcho-syndicalism in The Dispossessed – if this was the first place that you ever came across these Eastern and mystical ideas, then the book would make a deep impact on you, might become a kind of bible of new ideas for the impressionable schoolchild or student.

And at some moments the book does, in fact, express these and related ideas in powerful imaginative settings (amid fantasy mountain fastnesses, full of weird asexual monks), and gives some of the characters interesting and serious things to say:

‘The unknown, the unforetold, the unproven, that is what life is based on. Ignorance is the ground of thought. Unproof is the ground of action.’

But… but… When she describes the frenzied conclave of the filthy, possessed Foretellers of Otherhord, and the way the one in kemmer paws the other one, while those around screech their prophesy… My imaginative bond with the narrative snaps. The Domain of Stok, I think: Is that anywhere near the Fastness of Oxo?

Bible diction

One of the most irritating aspects of this kind of fantasy fiction is the way it shamelessly pastiches the diction of the King James translation of the Bible, on the assumption that readers will find it ‘profound’ and archaic and deep.

Being more familiar with the original King James text than with fantasy fiction, I can’t help finding all these efforts cheap and tacky, a quick-fix way of trying to win respect for the ‘depth’ of your fake folk tales or imaginary myths. Here’s a ripe slice of fake Bible from one of the ‘Gethenite legends’ which are interpolated throughout the text:

When Ennoch was an old man dwelling in the plains of Rer he met a man from his own country, and asked him, ‘How fares Shath Domain?’ The other told him that Shath fared ill. Nothing prospered there in hearth or tilth, all being blighted with illness, the spring seed frozen in the ground or the ripe grain rotten, and so it had been for many years. Then Ennoch told him, ‘I am Getheren of Shath’, and told him how he had gone up on the Ice and what he had met with there. At the end of his tale he said, ‘Tell them at Shath that I take back my name and my shadow.’ Not many days after this Getheren took sick and died. The traveler carried his words back to Shath, and they say that from that time on the domain prospered again, and all went as it should go in field and house and hearth. (p.25)

This is just a ridiculous pastiche of the Old Testament. Ennoch indeed. Any relation to the Biblical Enoch, by any chance? And yet, there is, as a glance at the jam-packed fantasy shelves in any bookshop will show, an enduring audience for this kind of would-be profound, pastiche Bible, fake medieval diction.

‘Seven years we were kemmerings, and had two sons. Being of his flesh born they had his name Foreth rem ir Osboth, and were reared in that Clanhearth. Three years ago he had gone to Orgny Fastness and he wore now the gold chain of a Celibate of the Foretellers.’

‘Being of his flesh born.’

Another example of the way this kind of fiction piggy-backs on the genuine otherness of Christianity, particularly Dark Age and medieval Christianity, is the way the clock is divided into First Hour, Second Hour, Third Hour etc, all announced with great seriousness, as if they weren’t a blatant rip-off of the liturgical hours of Matins, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None and so on. As if the ideas of mountain fastnesses where monks and holy men practice strange rites wasn’t entirely ripped off from more serious and worthy religions, ripped out of context and sellotaped into narratives about spaceships and alien envoys.

The book has a three-page appendix explaining in detail the period of Gethen’s orbit around its sun (8406 Standard Terran Hours), its daily orbit, the period of rotation of Gethen’s moon (26 days, in case you need to know), the Day and then the meaning of the Hours. Onnetherhad, the 18th of the month (p.61) (The Gethenites often think in terms of 13s, 26s and so on, a function of the lunar calendar, p.170)

I couldn’t help thinking, again and again, that this kind of fantasy fiction wants the praise and profundity of real myth and real religion – it borrows the clothes of the Bible and of pagan myth – without asking the reader to engage with any of the difficulty and the actual strangeness of genuine pagan myth – the difficulty of reading the strange and obscure Prose Edda, for example – or of the difficult doctrines of Christianity.

At its worst, it is a Big Mac version of religion and mysticism – cheap and garish and thin and insubstantial.

A universe of human

Unrelated to its rip-off of religious diction, there is another deeper problem with reading all sci fi stories of this ilk – which is the notion that humans, more or less like us, could be inhabiting numerous other planets around the universe.

The odds against there being loads of other planets inhabited by humanoid creatures are immense, and the odds against them being exactly the same shape and size and talking, and talking languages which we can learn pretty easily, are ridiculous.

Apparently, elsewhere in the ‘Hainish Cycle’ of novels and stories she is explicit that the Hain are the oldest of all the inhabited peoples and they populated the other planets with humans like themselves. We really are all descended from one mother race. I like science fiction, so I like that as a sci fi idea, but it doesn’t quite totally get her off the hook. Having set out to be a ‘serious’ author and put forward ‘serious’ ideas, invites the fairly obvious thought humanoids ‘seeded’ across a wide variety of planets, millions of years ago, would in fact have evolved in all kinds of directions, into different shapes and abilities, and over one million years would have lost anything they’d originally had in common. Compare aborigenes and Indonesians whose lineages diverged only tens of thousands of years ago. A million years divergence would result in wild differences.

And yet, in the novels, the only difference between these races from different planets is some are a bit taller, some a bit shorter, some a bit hairier, some a bit smoother, than the others. they all basically think and speak and act alike, in fact they’ve got more in common than the inhabitants of the diverse London borough I live in (with its population of Asians, Tamils, Sikhs, Muslims, Chinese, Somalis and Eritreans, Nigerians and West Indians).

The plot

Terran envoy Genly Ai has been sent by the Ekumenical Scope to explain to the king of Karhide, one of the several kingdoms on Gethen, that there is a universe of inhabited planets out there, organised into the Ekumen, and they wish to introduce the inhabitants of Gethen to it.

But King Argaven XV is mad. Genly has been working through the King’s Minister (known as the King’s Ear) Therem Harth rem ir Estraven. But the king doesn’t believe there is intelligent life in outer space and so thinks Ai is a spy and Estraven is conspiring with him to overthrow him, the king. So the king banished Estraven who packs his bags and heads east to the rival country of and Ai, after an edgy interview with the mad king, also realises it’s time to leave and himself travels to Orgoreyn.

He travels over the high snowy mountains where he makes a detour to witness the famous Foretellers in action – a chaotic shaman performance involving half madmen, but which does climax with an answer he set them: will Gethen be in the Ekumen within five years? The answer is Yes.

Estraven is replaced by the king’s cousin Pemmer Harge rem ir Tibe and when it is announced that King Argaven XV is pregnant it begins to look like a coup by Tibe.

Meanwhile, Ai is received by the Orgata authorities and impressed by the quickness and efficiency of its bureaucracy and the orderliness of its countryside and capital city. Ai gives a dry factual anthropological report on their habits, especially their child-rearing, and how, since everything is owned and run by the state, there is full employment. The Orgata are very different from the Karhiders –

Orgota, people trained from birth in a discipline of cooperation, obedience, submission to a group purpose ordered from above. The qualities of independence and decision were weakened in them. They had not much capacity for anger. (p.173)

He is placed in the enthusiastic hands of Commissioner Shusgis. To his surprise, at a banquet, he finds himself sitting next to Esraven. Estraven had quite a torrid time of it after he left the court, working his way along the coast as a lowly fish-worker, until spotted and picked up by the Orgata authorities.

There are complicated manoeuvres between characters, but basically none of the Orgatas believe Ai and she is abruptly arrested one night, after having been a guest a a government feast, taken to a big prison, injected with truth drugs and interrogated for days.

When she comes to she is one among 26 or so prisoners, stripped naked, covered in vomit and faces, trapped in the sealed metal back of some horse-drawn cart which spends days and days climbing higher into the mountains, with no food, and only a jar of water once a day between them, as one by one they die off or huddle together for filthy body warmth.

Genly arrives at a labour camp up in the frozen snowy north – the so-called Pulefen Farm – and describes the brutal regime, lack of food, sleeping facilities etc. It is clearly a pastiche of a Soviet labour camp, but without the dignity or authority of being real. For real descriptions of labour camps, read:

Estraven, back in the Orgata capital of Mishnory, having noticed Ai’s disappearance and realised the sceptics on the Grand Commensal didn’t believe his story and so probably also think Estraven must be some kind of traitor in league with him – decides to sneak out of Mishnory.

This he does, fabricating a pass as the fishermen he spent some time with showed him. He buys a sledge and food and joins a trapping party heading north, but then ducks out and off to the labour camp where he has discovered Ai is being held.

And he rescues him. He changes his papers to those of a prison guard, is accepted at the camp and learns the chores and routine, then one night stuns Ai’s (already sleeping unconscious) body, claims he’s dead so as to get past several sets of guards, then invokes the mystical strength, the dothe which adepts at Handdara can call on, to carry Ai’s body to the sledge he’s hidden in the forest, complete with tent and provisions.

Over the next few days both of them recover in the tent, eating the food, lighting small fires, sleeping, and then… the rescue turns into the largest single section of the book, the last third or so, occupying pages 190 to 290 of the 300-page SF Masterworks paperback.

Genly having handed over his ansible, the only way he has of contacting the Ekumenical spaceship which is out in space waiting a message from him – over to Orgata officials, and having been stripped absolutely naked before being shipped off to the labour camp; and Estraven having rescued him but himself now at risk of arrest for disappearing from official view in Mishnore, let alone helping Geny escape…

The only thing for this unlikely and reluctant pair to do is to embark on a massive, heroic, epic seventy-five day hike across the ice caps of Gethen, experiencing blizzards, snowstorms, slippery glaciers and treacherous crevices, by day strapped up to the sledge bearing all their kit, by night huddled in a small (but conveniently hi-tech and efficient) tent, round the (conveniently small, light and durable heater-cum-stove) warming up the (conveniently freeze-dried and light, nutritious) food blocks in a pan of warmed ice.

his is the core of the book, its narrative but especially its emotional core because, mirabile dictu, what happens is Genly finds himself falling in love with Estraven; while Estraven undergoes kemmering during the epic journey and delicately tells Genly he must avoid contact with him.

Both characters, therefore, undergo feelings and emotions quite outside the limit of human experience. Suddenly – as in the final sections of The Dispossessed – finally, you feel you’ve arrived at the core of a far more serious and searching and mysterious and wonderful work of fiction than the opening sections suggested.

Le Guin’s hand-drawn map of Gethen showing the two main states of Orgoreyn and Karhide, and the (top left) route of Genly and Estraven’s trek across the ice

The long journey and the shared privations, risks, fears and experiences of extreme cold, frostbite, snowstorms and so on which the pair experience together are the heart of the book.

The silly names fade away, for the pair could be sledging across Antarctica or Canada or Siberia. What is weird and wonderful is that Le Guin draws you into the eerie possibility of a previously unknown, unnamed emotion felt between a male human and a hermaphrodite alien. The book takes you to an entirely new place never before explored in literature. This is why it won prizes and made her name, not for the tiresome fol-de-rol about Ennoch of Rer and the Indwellers of Otherhord.

So deep does the pair’s suffering and endurance go, that Genly offers to teach Estraven the off-world skill of telepathy and after many failed attempts, finally manages to speak directly into the latter’s head – although, in a moment which is clearly meant to be deeply moving – he speaks in the voice of Estraven’s long-lost, estranged and dead younger brother – causing the Gethenite to shout with terror.

Eventually the pair survive their immense ordeal and come down into the villages of northern Karhide where they are made welcome in the way of all travellers in folk stories. good honest yeomen who don’t have much but share what they have with an open heart. Ooo-ar.

Except that the kindly old man who gives them shelter in fact betrays them to the Karhide authorities and Estraven, unwisely, tries to make a run for it on his skis across the snowy landscape.

He is shot down at the border by Karhidish gaurds who have been tipped off. As in a thousand buddy, adventure and war movies, his friend and – at least in emotional terms – his lover, the bewildered Genly, skis up just in time to hold Estraven’s gashed body as the Gethenite breathes his last.

Shocked and stunned, Genly is taken off by the guards to Ehrenrang, where he is treated kindly, given a personal doctor, lots of food and then meets the king again. This time they believe him, and he signals his spaceship to land.

Like so many voyagers to distant lands he now finds the appearance of his gendered colleagues – half tall and deep-voiced, half shorter and light-voiced – repulsive. This notion, of the traveller who has stayed so long with another race that he now finds his own people repulsive, dates back at least as far as Gulliver’s Travels, at the end of which, after living among the peaceful horse-like creatures for so long Gulliver finds he can’t stand the sight of his own hairy, savage brethren. And that was back in 1726. Two hundred and fifty three years before the Left Hand of Darkness was published.

As so often with genre fiction, with sci fi or fantasy, they sell themselves as being somehow bold new innovations and exciting new ideas – but they are, in fact, old old old fictional ideas, deliberately told in an old old old fake-Bible, faux-medieval diction.

Glossary

I compiled a glossary, for my own reference, and to give a sense of the made-up vocabulary.

Places

  • Ekumenical Scope – name of the federation of 83 inhabited planets (p.34)
  • Ehrenrang – capital of Karhide
  • Gethen – planet the book is set on
  • Hain –  the Prime World of the Ekumenical Scope (p.37)
  • Karhide – one of the nations of Gethen
  • Kerm Land
  • Kuseben on the Gulf, 85 miles from Ehrenrang (p.72)
  • Mishnory – capital of Orgereyn
  • Orgny Fastness – there are lots of fastnesses, remote communities up in the mountains
  • Orgoreyn – Karhide’s rival and neighbour: Orgota, adjective meaning of Orgoreyn
  • Otherhord – where the Indwellers of Otherhord live
  • the Pering Stormborder
  • Sassinoth – disputed location between Karhide and Orgoreyn
  • Terra – earth

Names

  • the Foretellers – go into a kind of trance and can tell the future
  • Genly Ai – Ekumen envoy to Gethen and main narrator of the story
  • halfdeads – Karhidish slang for the infertile
  • Handdara – mystical religion – Handdarata – followers of Handdara
  • the Indwellers or Otherhord
  • King Argaven XV of Karhide
  • Lord Meshe – figurehead of the Yomeshta, born 2,202 years ago (p.47) founder of the Yomesh cult (p.60)
  • the Lord of Shorth – come on, everyone knows who the Lord of Shorth is
  • Commensal Obsle –
  • Ong Tot Oppong – undercover Ekumenical visitor to Gethen, who compiles a detailed report on the natives’ hermaphroditism
  • Pemmer Harge rem ir Tibe – King Argaven’s cousin, takes over running Karhide
  • Stabile – the Stabiles are the senior officials of the Ekumen who Ai reports back to (p.16)
  • Therem Harth rem ir Estraven – formerly chief minister to King Argaven, goes into exile and narrates a number of the chapters
  • Yegey –

Things

  • amha – parent in the flesh (p.92)
  • ansible – instant communicator owned by Hainish envoys, explained on page 37
  • Commensals – the Great Commensality of Orgoreyn is divided into 33 commensals or districts
  • dothe-strength cf thangen-sleep – deep sleep, ‘the dark sleep’, after you’ve willed a period of dothe-strength (p.196)
  • farfetching – Hainish word for training given to envoys in forming a holistic picture of the society they’re investigating (p.146)
  • foray – Getheian word for attack, violence
  • gossiwor – musical instrument played in royal processions
  • kemmer – process of sexualisation and emotional attachment which allows Gethenians to mate;
    • secher – first phase of kemmer
    • thorharmen – second phase of kemmer
    • thokemmer – culminant phase of kemmer
    • oskyommer – vowing kemmering to another Gethenian
  • the kyorremy , the upper chamber or parliament in Karhide which Estraven heads
  • lifewater – a drink (p.84), ‘a fierce licquor’ (p.134)
  • mind-speech – telepathy, brought to Terra by Rokkanians, according to Genly
  • nusuth – no matter, the wilful wish for ignorance among the Handdara
  • orsh – ‘a brown, sweetsour drink, strong in vitamins A and C, sugar, and a pleasant stimulant related to lobeline’
  • sarf – gutter Orgata meaning ‘trash’
  • shifgrethor – prestige, place, pride (p.13)
  • thore-forest – deep snowy pine forest

‘I’m a Yomeshta, praise to the nine hundred Throne-Upholders and blest be the Milk of Meshe, and one can be a Yomeshta anywhere. We’re a lot of newcomers, see, for my Lord Meshe was born 2,202 years-ago, but the Old Way of the Handdara goes back ten thousand years before that.’

Credit

The Left Hand of Darkness by Usrula Le Guin was published by Ace Books in 1969. All references are to the 2017 SF Masterworks paperback edition.


Related links

Other science fiction reviews

Late Victorian
1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come by H.G. Wells – set in the same future London as The Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth defy her wealthy family in order to marry, fall into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1900s
1901 The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells – scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, prompting giant humans to rebel against the ‘little people’
1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells – a comet passes through earth’s atmosphere and brings about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Kent, gets caught up in the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1910s
1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1920s
1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, where they discover…

1930s
1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years – surely the most sweeping vista of any science fiction book
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Oxford academic Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra, as the natives call the planet Mars

1940s
1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent a second temptation by the Devil and the fall of the planet’s new young inhabitants
1945 That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups by C.S. Lewis– Ransom assembles a motley crew to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1950s
1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with Martians
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the ‘trilogy’ describing the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1953 Earthman, Come Home by James Blish – the adventures of New York City, a self-contained space city which wanders the galaxy 2,000 years hence powered by spindizzy technology
1953 Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down stashes of forbidden books and burn them
1953 Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke a thrilling narrative involving the ‘Overlords’ who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley to solve a murder mystery
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention, in the near future, of i) the anti-death drugs and ii) the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1956 The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester – a fastpaced phantasmagoria set in the 25th century where humans can teleport, a terrifying new weapon has been invented, and tattooed hard man Gulliver Foyle is looking for vengeance
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding story of Blish’s Okie tetralogy in which Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe

1960s
1961 A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke a pleasure tourbus on the moon is sucked down into a sink of moondust, sparking a race against time to rescue the trapped crew and passengers
1962 A Life For The Stars by James Blish – third in the Okie series about cities which can fly through space, focusing on the coming of age of kidnapped earther, young Crispin DeFord, aboard space travelling New York
1962 The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick In an alternative future America lost the Second World War and has been partitioned between Japan and Nazi Germany. The narrative follows a motley crew of characters including a dealer in antique Americana, a German spy who warns a Japanese official about a looming surprise German attack, and a woman determined to track down the reclusive author of a hit book which describes an alternative future in which America won the Second World War
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey a panoramic narrative which starts with aliens stimulating evolution among the first ape-men and ends with a spaceman being transformed into a galactic consciousness
1968 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick In 1992 androids are almost indistinguishable from humans except by trained bounty hunters like Rick Deckard who is paid to track down and ‘retire’ escaped ‘andys’ – earning enough to buy mechanical animals, since all real animals died long ago
1969 Ubik by Philip K. Dick In 1992 the world is threatened by mutants with psionic powers who are combated by ‘inertials’. The novel focuses on the weird alternative world experienced by a group of inertials after they are involved in an explosion on the moon
1969 The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin

1970s
1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic
1973 Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke – in 2031 a 50-kilometre-long object of alien origin enters the solar system, so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it
1974 Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick – America after the Second World War is a police state but the story is about popular TV host Jason Taverner who is plunged into an alternative version of this world where he is no longer a rich entertainer but down on the streets among the ‘ordinaries’ and on the run from the police. Why? And how can he get back to his storyline?
1974 The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin – in the future and 11 light years from earth, the physicist Shevek travels from the spare, communal, anarchist world of Anarres to its consumer capitalist cousin, Urras, with a message of brotherhood and a revolutionary new discovery which will change everything

1980s
1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the ‘Golden Era’ of the genre, basically the 1950s
1982 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke – Heywood Floyd joins a Russian spaceship on a two-year journey to Jupiter to a) reclaim the abandoned Discovery and b) investigate the monolith on Japetus
1987 2061: Odyssey Three by Arthur C. Clarke* – Spaceship Galaxy is hijacked and forced to land on Europa, moon of the former Jupiter, in a ‘thriller’ notable for Clarke’s descriptions of the bizarre landscapes of Halley’s Comet and Europa

Gulag: A History by Anne Applebaum (2003)

I went back to my apartment from which no policeman could evict me now. There was no one home, and finally I was able to weep freely. To weep for my husband, who perished in the cellars of the Lubyanka, when he was thirty-seven years old, at the height of his powers and talent; for my children, who grew up orphans, stigmatised as the children of enemies of the people; for my parents, who died of grief; for Nikolai, who was tortured in the camps; and for all of my friends who never lived to be rehabilitated but lie beneath the frozen earth of Kolyma.
(Olga Adamova-Sliozberg, labour economist, arrested in 1936, released in 1954, describing her formal exoneration in 1956, quoted on page 461)

Applebaum is not just a leading researcher and scholar of 20th century Russian history, she is also a senior journalist, having worked for The Economist, The Spectator and The Washington Post. This explains much of the power of this book. Of course the subject matter is horrifying, but Applebaum also knows how to tell a good story, to explain complex issues, and to put the key points clearly and forcefully.

Her terrifying history of the Soviet system of prison labour camps, or ‘gulags’, is in three parts: part one the rise from 1917 to 1939 – then part two, 250 pages describing in eye-watering detail the horrifically barbarous reality of ‘life’ in the camps – then part three, describing the further rise of the gulag system after the Second World War, before its long, slow decline after the death of Stalin in 1953.

Key learnings

Big Russia is the largest country in the world, spanning 12 time zones. Most of the east, especially the north east, is uninhabited frozen tundra. The Tsars had a long history of not only locking up political opponents but sending them into exile at remote settlements, far, far from the key cities of the West, Moscow and St Petersburg. I.e. the communists were building on an already well-established Russian tradition.

Empty Moreover, there was a long-established tradition of trying to populate the vast open spaces of continental Russia. Catherine the Great was concerned all her reign with this ambition, and it is described as a key aspect of domestic policy in Dominic Lieven’s history of Russia before the Great War, Towards The Flame.

Forced labour Russia also had a well-established tradition of using forced serf labour to build grandiose projects. The most famous was Peter the Great’s creation of St Petersburg out of a swamp, using vast numbers of forced peasant labour. Everyone remembers Peter the Great – tourists ooh and aah over the beautiful boulevards. No one remembers the hundreds of thousands of forced labourers who worked and died in squalid conditions to build it.

Thus, the idea of setting up prison camps far away from the main cities, in the remotest distant parts of Russia, with a view to a) settling them b) developing untapped mineral wealth, had ample precedents in Tsarist practice. But the communists took it to a whole new level.

GULAG is an acronym standing for Glavnoye Upravleniye Lagerej or Main Camps’ Administration. I was struck by the hideous coincidence that the Russians used the same term as the Nazis (and which therefore appears in so much Holocaust literature such as Primo Levi), Lager. Hence its abbreviated appearance as the suffix of numerous specific camps: Dallag, Dmitlag, Lokchimlag, Vishlag, Sevvostlag.

Concentration camp Applebaum gives a brief history of the term ‘concentration camp’ which I thought was invented by the British during the Boer War, but apparently was coined by the Spanish. In 1895 they began a policy of reconcentracion to remove peasants from the land and concentrate them in camps, so as to annihilate the troublesome Cuban independence movement (p.19) – a practice copied by the British against the Boers in South Africa, the Germans against the Herero tribespeople in South-West Africa, and more or less every other colonial nation, at some point.

She defines a concentration camp as a prison camp where people are put not for specific crimes they’ve committed but for who they are. ‘Enemy of the people’, ‘saboteur’, ‘traitor’, these terms meant more or less anything the authorities wanted them to.

People at the time, in Russia and abroad, thought there was some vestige of ‘justice’ in the system i.e. that people were imprisoned because they had done something ‘wrong’. It took many a long time to grasp that ‘revolutionary justice’ wasn’t concerned with individuals but, like everything else in a centrally managed state, ran on a quota system. A certain number of traitors needed to be rounded up each year, targets were set, so ‘traitors’ were found and arrested.

Once the Soviet authorities had established complete freedom to arrest and sentence whoever they wanted, they could also use the system for practical ends. When the state needed engineers and geologists to help map out the vast projects to be built by forced labour, such as the White Sea Canal – they simply arrested and imprisoned leading geologists and engineers. ‘Recruitment by arrest’. Simple as that.

Camp life I was tempted to skip the central section about life in the camp but it in fact turned out to be absolutely riveting, much more interesting than the factual history. Applebaum has personally interviewed scores of survivors of the camps, and weaves this testimony in with selections from the hundreds of Gulag memoirs to give a fascinating social history of all aspects of camp life, beginning with the experience of arrest, imprisonment and the invariably nightmare experience of train shipment thousands of miles.

Of the first 16,000 prisoners entrained right across continental Russia to Vladivostock then piled into completely unprepared cargo ships to be sent to Magadan, the wretched port which was the jumping off point for the bitter and fatal Kolyma mining area in the far north-east of Russia, only 10,000 made it to Magada, and half of them were dead within the first year of labour.

The nature of the ‘work’ in the camps, the special destinies of women and children, the nature of death – including suicides – methods of escape and, above all, the multifarious strategies of survival prisoners adopted, are all described in fascinating and appalling detail.

Memoirists The two top Gulag memoirists are Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and The Gulag Archipelago) and Varlaam Shalamov (The Kolyma Tales), though we also hear a lot from Alexander Dolgun, Yevgenia Ginzburg, Leonid Finkelstein and Lev Razgon,

Russia

The net effect of the book is to make me fear and dislike Russia even more.

The failure of state planned economies State-controlled communism never did or could work. No matter what the rhetoric emitted by its propaganda departments and foreign fans, the Soviet system amounted to a vast bureaucracy of central planners laying down impossible targets for every aspect of economic production and a) they didn’t know what they were talking about b) they were under pressure from the dictators at the top to perform miracles c) so they set impossible quotas.

Then middle and lower management had to find ways of achieving these impossible targets or, more likely, faking the results. The result was vast piles of long, detailed reports, packed with glowing statistics, which were quoted in all the press and propaganda channels, while the society itself got poorer and poorer, in many places starved, and there were shortages of everything.

In this respect the Gulags were simply a microcosm of wider Soviet society. They were as slipshod, ramshackle, dirty, badly and cruelly run, as the rest of Soviet society.

Quotas The entire system didn’t run on flexible responses to changing needs and situations. Instead bureaucrats at the centre set quotas. You either exceeded your quota and got a reward, reached the quota and were judged satisfactory, or failed the quota and were sacked. Nobody assessed production on the basis of what society actually needed. The central assumption of a communist society is that the Bureaucracy knows what society needs, knows what is good for it. Thus from 1929 onwards Stalin decided that what Russia needed was mass industrialisation. Factories, canals, railways were prioritised; consumer goods, decent accommodation, even food itself, less of a priority.

Because the quotas were so unrealistic, often the only way to fulfil them was to drastically compromise on quality and cut every available corner. Hence to this day Russia’s rotting infrastructure, built in a hurry by people lying and cheating about quality and design and durability, at every opportunity.

The Gulag So this was the mismanaged society of which the Gulags were simply a vicious microcism. At any one moment the population of the Gulags hovered around 2 million. The majority of the population was common criminals – so-called ‘politicals’, the kind of people we in the West used to campaign about, were always in a minority. The kind of people literate enough to write memoirs were in a tiny minority.

From the start Applebaum describes how the system of labour camps began immediately the Bolsheviks took power, as a result of the Red Terror of 1918, but that for most of the 1920s there were clashing priorities. In line with the early idealism of the Revolution many policy makers, bureaucrats and camp commanders thought the camps main purpose was to re-educate ordinary and political criminals in order to turn them into ideal Soviet citizens and rehabilitate them into the Model Society.

It was as late as 1939, when Lavrentia Beria became head of the NKVD, that he for the first time established a thorough-going and consistent policy: the forced labour camps existed to contribute to the Soviet economy, end of. Production output was all that mattered. He instituted systematic reform: Quotas were raised, inspections became more rigorous, sentences were extended, the slave labour day became longer.

Stupid projects The White Sea Canal was the first massive prestige project undertaken with forced camp labour. The Bolsheviks thought it would show the world the dynamism of their new kind of society but instead it demonstrated the absurd stupidity of Soviet aims and methods. Stalin wanted to achieve what previous Russian rulers had dreamed of doing, opening a waterway from the Arctic to the Baltic, thus allowing goods to be transported to from anywhere along the immense Arctic Coast to Archangel, from where it would be dispatched along the new canal to Petersburg, and so into the Baltic and to market in Europe. Applebaum details the ridiculous way the impatient builders began excavations without proper maps, or full architects’ plans, but above all, with slave labourers equipped with no modern tools.

There were no mechanical tools or machines whatsoever, no diggers or drills or trucks, nothing. The entire thing had to be built by hand with tools and equipment built by hand by slave labourers barely surviving on thin soup and sawdust bread in sub-zero temperatures.

Anything up to a quarter of a million prisoners are thought to have died during the canal’s construction. In the event – because of the lack of machine tools and the extreme rockiness of the terrain – a decision was taken early on to limit the depth of the canal to the depth required for river boats but not deep enough for sea ships. This fateful decision ensured that the canal was never successful. It’s still open and carries between ten and forty shallow-draft ships per day, fewer than the number of pleasure steamers on the Thames.

The White Sea Canal was the first of countless similarly grandiose schemes trumpeted with high hopes in the state-controlled press, which relied on slave labour to be built, and which were failures at every level, due to catastrophically bad planning, bad implementation, bad management, bad materials, bad equipment and, above all, the terrible morale of slave labourers who did everything conceivable to cut corners and work as little as possible, simply to survive on the starvation rations which barely kept them alive, let alone fuelled them for hard heavy labour.

The book gives far-reaching insights into this mindset, which has tended to afflict all subsequent ‘socialist’ governments throughout the world, making them hurry to show the world how fabulous their economic system is by building grandiose vanity projects, cities in the middle of nowhere, airports nobody uses, dams which silt up – which plagued the Third World for generations after the Second World War. There is something incredibly childish about it all.

Crime and punishment The intellectuals, especially True Believers in Communism, those who really thought they were building a better society, suffered most after arrest and imprisonment. They still thought life had some kind of meaning, that there is some kind of justice in human life. They wrote long letters to the head of the NKVD, the Politburo, to Stalin himself, arguing that there must have been a mistake.

But there was no mistake. Or rather the mistake was theirs in naively thinking that Soviet society was governed by any rational sense of ‘justice’. As the communist state’s grand plans failed one after another, the paranoid imbeciles at the top concluded it couldn’t possibly be their stupid economic theories which were at fault – the only explanation must be that there were vast networks of spies and saboteurs and ‘right-deviationists’ and Trotskyists undermining the glorious communist achievement at every step.

Thus when people began starving to death in the hundreds of thousands due to the villainously stupid decision to collectivise agriculture in the Ukraine and south Russia in the early 1930s, the centre couldn’t admit this was because the entire idea was cretinously self-defeating, but instead issues ‘quotas’ of saboteurs which local authorities must arrest.

Because The Quota was all that mattered, police and NKVD would just go to the villages concerned and arrest everyone they saw, women and children and babies included, until the quota was fulfilled. Job done. If the famine continued, it was obviously because the quota hadn’t been enough. So arrest more.

This is how the Gulag filled up and explains why it was a) always bursting at the seams, with camp bosses continually complaining to the centre about lack of room, food and facilities b) was always more full of peasants and working class than the small number of ‘politicals’, and c) why so many of them died.

They were rarely ‘extermination camps’ like the Nazi death camps of the same period – people died because of the criminal squalor, dirt, disease, lack of food or water or medical facilities. Over and over again Applebaum quotes prisoners’ descriptions of 40 people packed into rooms designed for five, of nowhere to sleep, no water except the snow which you had to melt yourself, no mugs or plates so water had to be scooped up in bark or rags, no spoons to eat the watery soup filled with rotten vegetables. Cannibalism – which became widespread in the Ukraine famine of 1933 – was also not unknown in the camps.

Over and again, trainloads of prisoners arrived in locations ordained to become camps to find nothing, absolutely nothing at all. Hundreds of thousands of city dwellers were dumped in frozen fields or bare tundra. They had to excavate holes in the ground with their bare hands and huddle together for warmth for the first few weeks. Immediately, the weak started dying. Only the strong survived the weeks necessary to chop down trees and assemble basic shelters from logs, and so on.

It is a picture of unrelieved squalor, poverty, stupidity, cruelty, degradation and inhumanity.

The purges By the mid-1930s Stalin felt secure enough in his control of the Soviet state to turn on his enemies and anyone from the early days of the Bolshevik party. It began with targeted arrests, torture, execution or dispatch to the camps, but became a wave of persecution and just kept on growing throughout 1937 and 1938. This was the era of the Show Trials which stunned the world and much of the Soviet population, seeing heroes of the Revolution stand up in court and confess to the most absurd crimes (a process described in Arthur Koestler’s novel Darkness at Noon).

However, although this wave of arrests is famous in the West, it’s partly because it affected high-profile people and intellectuals and, as Applebaum shows, these always made up a tiny fraction of the Gulag population. In 1938 it was estimated that only 1.1% of prisoners had a higher education. Half had only a primary school education, about a third were semi-literate (p.270).

And contrary to common belief, it wasn’t during this period, in the 1930s, that the Gulag Archipelago hit maximum size. That happened after the war – 1952 appears to have been the peak year, with a prison population of some 4 million.

Women and children Anyone with a heart will find it difficult to carry on reading after the chapter describing the plight of women and their children in the camps. It goes without saying that rape, sometimes gang rape, was a permanent threat to all female prisoners. Applebaum describes how initially idealistic women soon had to adapt to life among hardened criminals, quickly becoming mistress or moll to some hard man. There’s a particularly grim account of how a sweet, pretty blonde turned into, first a mistress, and then herself rose through unflinching cruelty to become a powerful camp boss.

The hardest stories are the countless times new-born babies were separated from their mothers as soon as they’d been weaned – not only that but were then indoctrinated in state-run nurseries into believing their mothers were ‘enemies of the people’ so that, even if the mothers ever managed to track down their children, it was to find Party zealots who refused to acknowledge or talk to them.

How could a nation, how could a people, how could so many people behave with such utter heartlessness?

Such were new Soviet Man and Woman, products of a system devised to bring heartless cruelty to a peak of perfection.

Crime Paradoxically, the group which thrived most in the Gulag was the really hardened criminals. There was, and still is, an elaborate hierarchy of Russian criminals. At the top sit the vor v zakone (literally ‘thieves-in-law), the toughest of the tough, convicted multiple offenders, who lived by a very strict code of honour, first rule of which was ‘Never co-operate with the authorities’.

Applebaum’s section about these super-hard criminals is fascinating, as all depictions of criminal life are, not least for the light it sheds on post-communist Russia where large numbers of hardened criminals moved into the vacuum created by the fall of communism, and remain there to this day.

Orphans There’s also some discussion of the huge number of orphans which were produced by the State breaking up millions of families during the 1920s and 1930s. These homeless kids took to street life, stealing, pimping, dealing drugs, became the petty criminals who graduated into Russia’s big criminal underclass. At numerous points the authorities realised the problems this was causing and tried out various policies to abolish it. Too late.

I’ve been reading Martin Cruz Smith’s brilliant thrillers about communist and post-communist Russia featuring tough guy investigator Arkady Renko, and the later ones give quite a lot of prominence to a street kid he picks up and tries to give a decent home, named Zhenya. The novel Three Stations, in particular, introduces us to the dangerous gangs of street kids who Zhenya associates with and/or avoids. It was a revelation to learn that this problem – Russian cities thronged with gangs of criminal homeless kids – is as old as the Revolution, and was partly caused by it.

How many

A best guess is that some 18 million Soviet citizens passed through the Gulag system between 1929 and 1953. Over 4 million German and other nation prisoners of war were held in camps during and for some time after the Second World War. An additional 700,000 Soviet citizens, many Red Army soldiers returning from incarceration in Germany, were held in so-called ‘filtration camps’. And a huge number of citizens underwent internal exile, were removed to distant lands, though not kept in official gulags: for example, over 2 million kulaks were sent into internal exile in the early 1930s alone. The best estimate is that there were around 6 million special exiles.

Added up, the total number of forced labourers during the history of the gulags is around 28 million.

Conclusions

Applebaum’s book is not only extraordinarily thorough, deeply researched and beautifully written, but it organises its subject matter with immaculate clarity and logic.

The division of the book into three parts – pre-war, life in the camps, post-war – works perfectly, as the social and political and economic circumstances of each era differed so much, particularly in part three when the death of Stalin (in 1953) prompted a quick but chaotic ‘thaw’ in the administration of Soviet ‘justice’ and the swift release of hundreds of thousands of prisoners.

She is excellent at explaining the various methodological issues which confront the historian of this subject e.g. central and local archives contain thousands of official statistics and inspectors’ reports about the hundreds and hundreds of camps, but almost all of them contain substantial fictions and exaggerations – no numbers anywhere, about anything, from the Soviet period can be trusted.

She thoroughly explains the problem of simply trying to define the gulags, since camps came into existence for ad hoc project purposes, or changed function from forced labour camps to normal prisons, and back again, and so on.

Similarly, there are big problems defining the different categories of inmate – political, criminal, foreign – which the Soviet authorities themselves changed and redefined. And that’s before the Second World War, when the entire picture was further confused by the influx of huge numbers of prisoners of war, by the German seizure of most of European Russia and the collapse of production which led – once again – to widespread famine. And then, after the war, the forced relocations of entire nations moved at Stalin’s whim thousands of miles from their homelands, like the Crimean Tartars or the Chechens.

It is an epic story, involving not just every stratum of Russian society but victims from the Baltic states, Poland and Ukraine, along with entire populations of Crimean Tartars, Chechens and so on.

Stepping back it is like watching a huge ink blot spread over the map of the world from Petersburg to Moscow and all European Russia, then slowly across the Asian landmass and, after the Second War, well into Europe and then bursting into the huge area of China, before breaking out in various Third World countries across Africa, Asia and South America. What a global disaster!

The downside of the book is having to nerve yourself to read so many horror stories, whether at national local or individual level, the mental damage caused by immersing yourself in cruelty and heartlessness and suffering and death on a Biblical scale.

The upside is the astonishing clarity with which Applebaum defines the issues, presents the evidence, makes her decisions, divides the subject logically and then describes it in prose of inspirational clarity and intelligence. The book itself is a triumph of civilisation and intelligence over the crude barbarity of the subject matter.

In the final section Applebaum points out the effect on contemporary Russia of never facing up to the enormous crimes and injustices of the Soviet past. Briefly aired in the 1990s it has now been resolutely forgotten, with the result that some of the political figures involved in the final stages of the prison system in the 1970s and 1980s continued to hold positions of power and were never prosecuted. The FSB, successor to the KGB, still has rights to intercept mail and phone calls. And ideas of free speech and freedom of the press continue to be much more limited in Russia than in the West (and appear to deteriorate with every passing year).

Lots of cogent reasons why, as I said at the top, the book makes me fear and dislike Russia even more than I already did. It’s 15 years since Gulag was published. Political and social conditions under Vladimir Putin’s semi-permanent rule have not improved. I wonder if we will end up going to war with Russia.

Applebaum quotes the Russian philosopher Pyotr Chadev, who returned to St Petersburg from the West in 1836 and wrote an essay which included the sentence:

Contrary to the laws of the humanity Russia moves only in the direction of her own enslavement and the enslavement of all neighbouring peoples.

Tsar Nicholas I had Chadev placed under house arrest and word put around that he was insane. Plus ca change…

Summary

This is a really excellent history book, one which – as they say – everyone should read. Or, maybe more realistically, should be compulsory reading to anyone harbouring nostalgia for communism as a form of government or economic theory.

Or – as she says in her conclusion – should be compulsory reading for all those who are beginning to think that the Cold War was a futile waste of time.

Her book goes a long way to justifying the description of the Soviet Union as an ‘evil empire’. In the pampered West plenty of academic may poo-poo that idea – but ask the Czechs, the Poles, the East Germans, the Hungarians, Bulgarians, Romanians, Estonians, Latvians, the Lithuanians, or the Crimeans or the Chechens how much they enjoyed living under Soviet rule.

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Red Star over Russia @ Tate Modern

David King

In the 1970s British designer David King was sent to Soviet Russia by the Sunday Times to find old photos of Leon Trotsky to accompany a feature. The feature never materialised but, rummaging about in the archives, King began to uncover the vast scale of the stacks of photos, magazine and newspaper articles, posters and propaganda sheets chronicling the early years of the Russian Revolution, which had been lost or forgotten.

He bought and borrowed what he could to bring back to Blighty, and then made further visits looking for more. It turned into a lifelong project. By his death in 2016 King had accumulated a collection of over 250,000 Russian Revolution-related objects which were bequeathed to Tate.

What better way to display the highlights of this vast collection than during the centenary year of the Bolshevik revolution, and so this exhibition opened on 8 November 2017, commemorating the outbreak of the revolution, to the precise month and day.

Entrance to Red Star over Russia at Tate Modern

Entrance to Red Star over Russia at Tate Modern

Red Star Over Russia

The exhibition displays some 150 photos and posters chronicling the years 1917 to the death of Stalin in 1953, showing the changing visual and design styles of the Soviet Union, from the radical experimental days of the early 1920s through to the dead hand of Socialist Realism imposed in the early 1930s. It continues on through the nationalist propaganda of the Great Patriotic War and into the era of ‘high Stalinism’ between 1945 and 1953, which saw the start of the Cold War as the Soviet Union consolidated its grip on occupied Eastern Europe and aided the Chinese Communist Party to its successful seizure of power in 1949.

In obvious ways this exhibition echoes and complements the huge show about the Russian Revolution which the Royal Academy staged earlier this year (although that show included many contemporary paintings and works of art; this show is almost entirely about photos and posters, magazines and prints).

Photos

The old black-and-white photos are doorways into a lost world. Here are Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin looking bulky in their greatcoats, their penetrating stares, their unremitting antagonism.

One sequence chronicles the famous series of photos of Stalin surrounded by Party functionaries who, one by one, were arrested and imprisoned during the 1930s and, one by one, were airbrushed out of the official photo, until only Stalin is pictured. This famous photo is the subject of King’s book The Commissar Vanishes.

Related photos show Lenin shouting from a podium with Trotsky leaning against it. After Trotsky was exiled in 1928, he also would be airbrushed out of this photo. In an adjoining room are ancient silent movies of Trotsky haranguing the crowd and the early Bolshevik leaders milling about the stand in Red Square.

Lenin harangues the crowd while Trotsky watches

Lenin harangues the crowd while Trotsky watches

The Terror began within a year of the Bolsheviks taking power. It came to dominate the entire society, as shown by newspaper photos which have been retouched to remove politicians as they are arrested and liquidated. There are even private photos whose owners have cut out the heads of ‘former people’ in terror lest they be found and the owners themselves arrested.

There are evocative photos of the revolutionary poet Mayakovsky, looking particularly stunning when he shaved his head and became a revolutionary firebrand, demanding that opera houses and all previous art be burned to the ground. The Russian Taliban.

The communist poet Vladimir Mayakovsky

The communist poet Vladimir Mayakovsky

I’m familiar with these photos but I’d never before seen the official photo of his body after he killed himself in 1930, disillusioned by the way the revolution was going. The exhibition includes a photo of him lying on a divan with a big red stain round his heart, where the bullet entered.

Similarly, there’s a powerful little set of photos showing Marshall Mikhail Tukhachevsky, the man responsible for radically reforming the Red Army, before himself falling foul of Stalin’s paranoia. Here he is looking proud in his military uniform. Here he is with his wife and little daughter. And then he was gone – arrested, tried and executed by a shot to the back of the head on 12 June 1937. The confession to treason wrung from him by torture still survives. It is spattered with his dried blood. Thus the Workers’ Paradise.

Tukhachevsky was not the only one. I was stunned to learn from a wall label that no fewer than 25,000 officers in the Red Army were arrested, executed and sent to labour camps between 1937 and 1941! What a paranoid idiot Stalin was.

When Nazi Germany invaded Russia on 22 June 1941 a headless, leaderless Red Army found itself forced right back to the walls of Moscow, Leningrad, Stalingrad. If they’d only launched the invasion six weeks earlier – as initially planned – the Nazis might have captured all three cities and the history of the world would have been very different. But ‘General Winter’ came to the aid of the Communist leadership, just as it had against Napoleon.

The exhibition shows how, when war broke out, official Soviet propaganda quietly dropped a lot of Bolshevik motifs and refocused attention on patriotic feelings for the Motherland. Now Stalin was rebranded ‘Leader of the Great Russian People’ and the war was christened ‘The Great Patriotic War’.

One of the six rooms in the exhibition deals solely with wartime propaganda, including posters warning people to be discreet and not give away secrets. It’s immediately noticeable how earnest and serious these were, compared with our own stylish and often humorous wartime posters on the same subject.

Don't Chatter! Gossiping Borders on Treason by Nina Vatolina (1941) The David King Collection at Tate

Don’t Chatter! Gossiping Borders on Treason by Nina Vatolina (1941) (The David King Collection at Tate)

Not unwise or foolish – Treason. And every Soviet citizen knew what would happen to them if they were suspected of Treason. The midnight arrest, the five-minute trial and then transport to some labour camp in Siberia. Russian authorities had to terrify their population to get anything done. By contrast, British authorities had to coax and laugh the population into better behaviour.

 

Posters

All this about the war is looking ahead. In fact the exhibition opens with a couple of rooms showcasing the fantastic explosion of creative talent which accompanied the early years of the revolution.

Progressive artists, writers, designers, journalists and so on threw themselves into the task of building a new, perfect, workers’ society. The very first room houses a big wall, painted communist red, and covered with vivid and inspiring revolutionary posters. Down with the bourgeoisie, Up the workers, Freedom for emancipated women, Strangle international capitalism, and so on.

Installation view of Red Star over Russia at Tate Modern

Installation view of Red Star over Russia at Tate Modern

Early photos show the workshops of idealistic artists creating poster art for a population which was, of course, largely illiterate and so benefited from big, bold images.

The sheer size of this illiterate working population also explains the development of ‘agitprop’ propaganda, conveyed through really simple-minded posters, books and comics, plays, pamphlets, the radically new medium of film and even – as photos here show – via steam trains festooned with Red propaganda pictures and bedecked with red flags.

These revolutionary trains were equipped with cinemas, exhibition carriages, mobile theatres and classrooms, and spread the message of Revolution and Freedom to remote regions all around the vast Russian landmass.

Above all, these young artists, fired by revolutionary idealism, found a new way to create extremely dynamic images, using exciting new approaches to photography and graphic design.

Photo-montage

The Cubists had experimented with collage as early as 1910, and members of the Dada movement (notably Max Ernst in Zurich and John Heartfield in Berlin) had also cut up and pasted together incongruous images from newspapers and magazines. But these had been semi-private experiments in the name of avant-garde fine art.

By contrast the immediate post-revolutionary years in Russia saw an explosive exploration of the potential ways photos can be composed, cut up and montaged together with new styles of design, layout, fonts and wording, to create dynamic and exciting images designed for a mass public.

A set of photos by the genius Alexander Rodchenko shows how vibrant and exciting black and white photos can be when they follow a handful of simple rules. They must be:

  • of extreme clarity
  • taken from above or below the subject
  • of subjects themselves dynamically geometrical in nature
  • use diagonals to cut right across the picture plane.
Tashkent 1933 (The David King Collection at Tate)

Tashkent 1933 (The David King Collection at Tate)

But how much more powerful these already dynamic images become if you cut and paste them into a montage, designed to be read from left to right and convey a raft of patriotic, revolutionary and inspiring subjects.

Photomontage from the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics: Catalogue of the Soviet Pavilion at the International Press Exhibition, Cologne 1928 by El Lissitzky and Sergei Senkin (The David King Collection at Tate)

Photomontage from the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics: Catalogue of the Soviet Pavilion at the International Press Exhibition, Cologne 1928 by El Lissitzky and Sergei Senkin (The David King Collection at Tate)

In fact a montage of just the ‘Great Leaders’ alone turns out to be tremendously powerful, helping to change their images into timeless icons (in a country with a 1,000 year-long history of revering timeless icons). But important to the composition is the presence of the masses, smiling, marching, teeming, liberated, which are cut and pasted into the spare spaces of the composition.

Raise Higher the Banner of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin! (1933) by Gustav Klutsis. The David King Collection at Tate

Raise Higher the Banner of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin! (1933) by Gustav Klutsis (The David King Collection at Tate)

(By the way, Klutsis, who made this banner and many other inspiring works like it, was executed in 1938.)

The exhibition includes a wonderful set of prints of purely abstract designs by the great Constructivist artist El Lissitzky – if I could, these would be the one item I’d want to take home from the exhibition. I love the energy of lines and angles and abstraction, and I’m a sucker for the use of text in pictures – so I love El Lissitzky.

Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge (1920) by El Lissitzy. The David King Collection at Tate

Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge (1920) by El Lissitzy (The David King Collection at Tate)

When you combine all these elements – striking photos and text montaged onto apparently abstract backgrounds made up of vivid colours broken by lines radiating energy – you come up with one of the really great design and visual breakthroughs of this period – the balanced and creative use of abstract design and photomontage to create images which are still inspirational today.

Take Alexander Rodchenko’s most famous work:

'Books (Please)! In All Branches of Knowledge' (1924) by Rodchenko

Books (Please)! In All Branches of Knowledge (1924) by Alexander Rodchenko

Or this 1928 poster by Gustav Klutsis: photos montaged onto an abstract pattern of dynamic diagonal lines.

Moscow All-Union Olympiad (Spartakiada) (1928) by Gustav Klutsis. The David King Collection at Tate

Moscow All-Union Olympiad (Spartakiada) (1928) by Gustav Klutsis (The David King Collection at Tate)

This is why the decade or so of artistic production in Russia after 1917 is the subject of so many exhibitions and books, and returned to again and again – because it saw such an explosion of experimentation in the visual arts, in theatre and cinema and literature, as extremely creative minds in all these spheres completely rejected the aristocratic and bourgeois, self-centred art of the past and tried to devise new forms and styles and genres to convey their exciting news that a New World was at hand.

Although their particular revolution deteriorated into repression and Terror, nonetheless their experiments captured general truths about the twentieth century as a whole, inventing completely new ways to harness the mass media of cinema and photography, popular magazines and consumer products, which could be equally well applied to the mass societies of the capitalist world.

Which is why, although they were created in a communist climate, Rodchenko, El Lissitzky, Klutsis and scores of others invented visual styles and techniques which film-makers, playwrights and directors, fine artists and graphic designers in the decadent West and right around the world have mined and plundered for ideas and innovations ever since.

Deinekin and the 1937 Paris Exposition

Of course it didn’t last, as we all know. By 1928, the Soviet government felt strong enough to put a decisive end to all private enterprise (which had been grudgingly reintroduced under Lenin’s New Economic Plan in 1922). This ended the possibility of any kind of independent funding for the arts, which now came under the iron grip of the state. Although the term Socialist Realism wasn’t officially used until 1932, its ideas were beginning to triumph.

Any experimentalism in the arts was increasingly criticised by the party for being ‘formalist’, which meant too avant-garde and experimental to be understood by the masses. By 1934 it was decided that ALL art must be Socialist Realist in nature, meaning:

  1. Proletarian: art relevant to the workers and understandable to them.
  2. Typical: scenes of the everyday life of the people.
  3. Realistic: in the representational sense.
  4. Partisan: supportive of the aims of the State and the Party.

One room of the exhibition is devoted to the triumph of Socialist Realist art in the form of the USSR’s pavilion at the 1937 ‘International Exposition of Art and Technology in Modern Life’ held in Paris.

The pavilion was designed by Boris Iofan and dominated by a vast stainless steel sculpture by Vera Mukhina titled Worker and Collective Farm Woman

(There is a model of this building and the statue at the Victoria and Albert Museum’s current exhibition about opera; it appears in the section about Shostakovitch and music in Soviet Russia.)

These were to be the kind of heroic, larger-than-life, super-realistic, happy proletarian figures striding forward which were to become commonplace all over the Communist world, not only in Russia but in the conquered nations of Eastern Europe and in Communist China after 1949.

Inside, the pavilion was decorated with a vast mural by the painter Aleksandr Deineka, Stakhanovites, a tribute to Soviet workers (from all the Soviet republics) who had exceeded their work quotas and thus were Heroes of the Soviet Union.

Stakhanovites: A Study for the Esteemed People of the Soviets' Mural for the USSR Pavilion, 1937 International Exposition Paris by Aleksandr Deineka (1937) Perm State Art Gallery, Russia

Stakhanovites: A Study for the Esteemed People of the Soviets’ Mural for the USSR Pavilion, 1937 International Exposition Paris by Aleksandr Deineka (1937) Perm State Art Gallery, Russia

Eerily bad, isn’t it?

Comparing this with the thrillingly avant-garde photo-montages of a decade earlier, I realised how the earlier work really does use diagonal lines to create a sense of striving, reaching, stretching movement and dynamism – Lenin is always leaning out from the podium, in Klutsis’ poster the red flags behind Marx et al are always slanting, anything by El Lissitzky or Rodchenko is at an angle.

Compare and contrast with the Socialist Realist painting above, which is totally square, flat, straight-on and consists of vertical lines at 90 degrees to the horizontal. I think this goes some way to explaining why – although it is intended to be a dynamic image of ideal, smiling communist people striding towards us – it in fact feels remote and unreal, more like a spooky dream than an inspiration.

When the Great Patriotic War broke out, with Nazi Germany’s invasion of 1941, there was something of a return to earlier, rousing propaganda, reviving dynamic diagonals to convey strife, effort, heroism.

Fascism - The Most Evil Enemy of Women. Everyone to the Struggle Against Fascism (1941) by Nina Vatolina. The David King Collection at Tate

Fascism – The Most Evil Enemy of Women. Everyone to the Struggle Against Fascism (1941) by Nina Vatolina (The David King Collection at Tate)

The Great Patriotic War

The last room contains a number of works dating from the Great Patriotic War, including the ‘Treason’ poster (above). The wall label explains how the communist state deliberately changed the focus from Revolution to Patriotism. And, after all, we have evidence from the time that plenty of people fought bravely for the Motherland who wouldn’t have lifted a finger for Stalin or the Communist Party.

The best work in this last room is the immensely historic photo of Red Army soldiers raising their flag over Hitler’s ruined Reichstag in conquered Berlin.

It is interesting to learn that this photo – beamed around the world – was carefully staged by the Soviet photographer Yevgeny Khaldei. Makes sense when you really look at it.

Also (since this is one of the main things I’ve taken from the exhibition, visually) that part of the secret of its appeal is that it is yet another dynamic diagonal.

Soviet soldiers raising the red flag over the Reichstag, May 1945 (Printed 1955) by Yevgeny Khaldei. The David King Collection at Tate

Soviet soldiers raising the red flag over the Reichstag, May 1945 (Printed 1955) by Yevgeny Khaldei (The David King Collection at Tate)

As interesting as the knowledge that the famous photo of U.S. Marines raising the flag on the summit of Iwo Jima was a more complicated affair than it at first appears – as brought out in the Clint Eastwood movie, Flags of Our Fathers.

I wonder if any Russians have made a film about this ‘historic’ moment?


The promotional video

Russian revolution-related merchandise

Tate offers some 55 items of Russian Revolution merchandise to satisfy all your needs for decorative Bolshevikiana. I particularly liked the Death to World Imperialism posters and prints, a snip at £25.

The Red Star over Russia 2018 calendar was tempting, inciting you to smash international capitalism and strangle the worldwide bourgeoisie while you sip a frappuccino and work on your next powerpoint presentation.

Death to World Imperialism (1920) by Dmitrii Moor (1883 1946) The David King Collection at Tate

Death to World Imperialism (1920) by Dmitrii Moor (1883 1946) (The David King Collection at Tate)

And I was particularly delighted to see that Tate has arranged a Red Star over Russia wine-tasting evening so that you can:

‘Discover how the Russian Revolution in 1917 changed the wine world, and how the influential figures of this time redefined the styles and quality of wines in other regions of the world.’

Merchandising like this really rams home the message that ‘the revolution’ is as dead as the Dodo. It has been bottled and sold to the super-rich as a fashionable perfume.


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Iron Curtain by Anne Applebaum (2012)

‘Every artificially inseminated pig is a blow to the face of imperialist warmongers.’
(Stalinist slogan quoted on page 426)

The full title is Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-56 and that’s what the book narrates in grim detail. Applebaum is already well known for her magisterial account of the Soviet network of prison camps or ‘gulags’. This account of the Soviet takeover of Eastern Europe builds on her expertise, and benefits from the opening up of archives in both the Soviet Union and the countries which it subjugated.

There were eight countries in ‘the Eastern Bloc’ (if you accept that the Baltic states, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia were simply swallowed whole by Russia and ceased to exist as separate entities): East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria and Albania. Applebaum’s account focuses in detail on just three – East Germany, Poland and Hungary. I was a little disappointed by this, as I feel I’ve read lots of books and seen plenty of movies about East Germany whereas I know next to nothing about Bulgaria or Romania. But she’s right to say these three provide a selection of types of country which demonstrate the way different histories and experiences were subjected to the same murderous Soviet approach.

Each of the chapters then takes a topic or aspect of the crushing of Eastern Europe and describes its application in each of the three chosen countries:

Zero Hour

Paints the devastation of a continent after the war. Her account supplements Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II by Keith Lowe. We’ve all seen photos of the ruined cities. It’s the scale of human displacement which is difficult to grasp. Between 1939 and 1943 some 30 million Europeans were dispersed, transplanted or deported. Between 1943 and 1948 a further 20 million were moved (p.11) Levels of theft, looting, violence and murder were orders of magnitude greater than they had been before the war. In many places civil society had completely collapsed.

Victors

The path of the Red Army across Eastern Europe was marked by wanton destruction and mass rape, especially once they’d crossed into Germany. Hundreds of thousands of German women were gang-raped, many then murdered. Alongside individual acts of looting, the Soviet apparatus systematically denuded European countries of their industrial infrastructure. Tens of thousand of factories, trains and railway line, were ripped up and shipped back to Russia. They packed up Leipzig Zoo and sent it East.

Communists

Applebaum profiles the men who were to become the leaders of communist Poland, Hungary and East Germany – Boleslaw Bierut, Matyas Rakkosi and Walter Ulbricht, respectively. They were uniformly from poor backgrounds and badly educated.

Ulbricht was the son of a poor tailor who left school early to work as a cabinet maker before being drafted into the Army. In 1918 he was galvanised when he discovered communist texts which explained the world in simple terms and he never lost his faith. Like the other leaders, he benefited from the way the between-the-wars communist parties, as Stalin’s influence grew, purged many of their brightest and best members. Only the less bright, the more dogged, the more unquestioningly devoted, remained. (Of the thirty-seven original members of the Polish Communist Party’s central committee, no fewer than 30 were arrested in Moscow and shot or sent to labour camps.) This explains the poor intellectual calibre of the leaders of the communist bloc; the clever ones had been liquidated.

Moreover, these ‘leaders’ implemented a social, political and policing model straight from the Soviet template. They all copied the Soviet hierarchy of Politburo, Central Committee, regional committees, and local party cells. In all the countries, regardless of local political or economic conditions, they tried to apply the same political and economic straitjacket.

Because all were ‘Moscow communists’. This meant that during the troubled years of the 1930s and the war, they had all fled to Russia where they were soundly indoctrinated in the One True Way by the Comintern. The Soviets were deeply suspicious of any communists who’d spent any time anywhere else, especially any who had been based in the West. Once the communist regimes were in place, many of these non-Moscow communists were themselves arrested and sent to prison or labour camps – just in case they had divisive or alternative views. About anything. Only the most faithful of the faithful were allowed to take power.

Applebaum points out that, quite apart from notions of social justice or ideological convictions, membership of this small, élite band held two kinds of more tangible rewards: psychologically, it made you feel part of a chosen elite; and in practical terms, both in Moscow and back in their home countries, they lived an elite lifestyle, able to shop at party shops, stay in party hotels, relax in party dachas and send their children to party schools.

Policemen

The most obvious area where the European communist parties simply copied Soviet model was in the creation of their own versions of the Soviet secret police, the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs (Narodnyi Komissariat Vnutrennikh Del or NKVD).

Applebaum portrays the chillingly efficient way that communist secret police apparatuses, which had been preparing and training for years, were flown in ready-made as each Eastern country was ‘liberated’ by the Red Army, to become the Polish UB, the Hungarian AVO, the East German Stasi.

For a few years most of the liberated countries were allowed to have a facade of democratic politics, with a number of political parties and even free elections. This was because the Soviets knew from experience that democratic politics is a sham: real power lies in the secret police and the prisons. Given complete control of these instruments the political system can be seized overnight simply by arresting everyone.

Applebaum shows how the secret police mentality had been shaped by intense ideological training in the USSR to believe that everyone not in the communist party was a potential enemy spy or saboteur, who consequently had no rights. Anyone could be arrested and she shows how, in the early months of Hungary’s liberation, the new security police was under instructions to deliver fixed quotas of ‘traitors’ and so quite literally arrested anyone they could find in the streets, including children.

And often, of course, even people inside the communist party turned out to be traitors. Absolutely everyone had to be watched, and as far as possible, everyone had to be made a collaborator of the secret police. Hence the extraordinary size and depth of the Stasi’s files when they were revealed to the public in 1990, and the dismaying discovery that a huge percentage of the population routinely reported on their neighbours, friends, and even wives and partners.

Violence

The Comintern knew exactly what they were doing. The liberated countries were to be slowly strangled. Other parties could be included in initial elections and be given various government departments – but the communists always and everywhere controlled the ministries of the Interior, of Defence and the secret police – i.e. all the mechanisms of violence. From the word go they ruled through arrests, beatings, executions and labour camps.

Between January and April 1945 the NKVD arrested 215,540 people in Poland. Most were in fact ethnic Germans who were deported to Germany. The 40,000 Poles were all sent to prison camps in Russia, where some 5,000 died. Between 1945 and 1953 some 150,000 people were incarcerated in NKVD camps in Eastern Germany. A third died due to appalling conditions. There was no heating, no medicines, no doctors, often no food. After the ‘liberation’ of 1945 between 140,000 and 200,000 Hungarians were deported to Russian labour camps.

The arbitrariness of many of these arrests, combined with the careful targeting of specific voices of dissent, worked exactly as the Soviets intended – terrifying entire populations into silence and acquiescence.

It is particularly chilling to learn that, such was the need of the new communist regimes for prison camps, that wherever possible they started reusing the Nazi death camps. Sachsenhausen, Buchenwald and even Auschwitz, became prison camps for the ever-multiplying categories of traitors, spies and saboteurs which the communists quickly detected everywhere.

Ethnic Cleaning

The years after the Second World War were marked by the truly epic relocation of peoples. The largest group were Germans, with over 12 million Germans being expelled from Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and other East European countries. Admittedly this was partly because many had moved to those countries during the war, as part of Nazi settlement plans, and also because the borders of Poland were drastically moved westwards by Stalin, effectively engulfing a large part of East Germany. But ethnic groups who now found themselves in the ‘wrong’ country were kicked out of all the EE nations. Applebaum’s account of the savage civil war between Ukrainians and Poles in south-east Poland is particularly shocking.

She also explains that anti-Semitism, although part of the hated Nazi ideology, was always liable to be revived in Eastern Europe. Many of the communist leaders were self-conscious about either being Jews themselves or that the party contained lots of Jews and tried at various points to recruit more Volkisch members. The whole issue was revived in the last 1940s as Stalin himself became clinically paranoid about Jews and in particular Jewish doctors, who he thought were trying to poison him, which led to many Jews being rounded up in the purges and arrests of 1949.

As usual, Applebaum conveys the infamy of all of this by telling the heart-breaking stories of individuals caught up in the madness. While all the nations of Eastern Europe set about ethnically cleansing themselves, expelling non-local-speaking languages back to their new ‘homelands’ – Czechs being kicked out of Hungary, Poles kicked out of Ukraine, Germans kicked out of Poland and so on – all these peoples could at least travel to a nominal home country. So this vast panorama of ethnic cleansing adds a kind of fateful inevitability to the increasingly urgent efforts made by Jews all across the East, and in Russia, to travel to their homeland, the newly-founded state of Israel.

Youth

I didn’t know that the Boy Scouts movement was as widespread and popular in Eastern Europe as Applebaum shows. It is just one of the many independent organisations which the communist parties all across the East slowly strangled and co-opted into official party organisations. For example in July 1946 the communist Interior Minister of Hungary, László Rajk, banned over 1,500 organisations.

Why? In the introduction Applebaum has several pages discussing the nature of totalitarianism, invoking the quote associated with Mussolini, that it can be summarised –

All within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state.

This chapter shows what nothing outside the state means in practice and it really is terrifying. Absolutely everything which we refer to nowadays as civil society – all charities, church groups, youth groups, hobbies and associations – every single way in which people got together had to be either banned or subject to communist control.

The relentless horror of this was brought home by the story of the 17-year-old Polish girl from Lublin who invited members of her old scouts group to get together to form a discussion group. She and seven friends were arrested and sentenced to between two and five years in prison. Nobody was allowed to associate together in any way lest even the slightest form of association create the germ of oppositional politics.

Applebaum points out that the focus on youth movements reflected Soviet and Marxist belief that human beings are blank sheets to be moulded and created at will, in this case to produce a new species, Homo sovieticus.

This is the background to Stalin’s expression that writers and artists should be ‘engineers of the human soul’, the human soul being something which can literally be redesigned and rebuilt to suit the needs of the proletarian revolution. Hence also Stalin’s rejection of modern genetics – because it appears to assert the profoundly fixed basis of human nature – and his promotion of the crackpot Lamarckism of Russian geneticist Lysenko, an apparently academic dispute which in fact had catastrophic consequences when it was applied to Soviet agriculture.

My ears pricked up when Applebaum points out that this view of human nature was prevalent in left-wing circles across Europe, because I have just been reading about Jean-Paul Sartre whose fundamental position is our utter freedom to create and shape ourselves. This contrasts sharply with his ‘frenemy’, Albert Camus’s position, that there is a human nature, its core element being revolt against our condition, against destiny and fate.

Which made me reflect that this is one axis along which to draw the divide between fundamentally left wing and right wing mentalities: on one side the belief that human beings can be changed and improved; on the other the knowledge that human nature is fixed, fallen and must be policed.

Radio

Newspapers were important and had to be controlled, but the easy way to do that was ration or cut off the supply of paper. Radio, however, was a potentially universal disrupting factor, and this explains why the political apparats parachuted in from Moscow already had training in how to use the radio for propaganda purposes. In many cases the Red Army was told not to damage the radio buildings of the enemy, notably the big radio studios on the outskirts of Berlin, virtually the only building left standing, as the Red Army was under strict orders to seize it intact, so that communist propaganda broadcasts could begin even during the last days of the war.

But – in line with the communist clampdown on absolutely every aspect of private life – woe betide anyone who had an unauthorised radio. In October 1944, Bolesław Bierut who would become the president of communist Poland, declared that anyone who owned a radio without a licence would be sentenced to death.

Politics

Detailed account of the way the communist regimes inched their way to power. At first they allowed other parties to exist, organise and publicise but the plan was always to persuade and then bully them into coalitions, where they could be controlled and then strangled.

It is striking to learn that in all the liberated nations the communist parties expected to win free and fair elections. They thought the populations would naturally be grateful to the Red Army for liberating them from the Nazis, and – indoctrinated with Soviet ideology – they also believed the working class would awaken to its historical destiny and realise the future was communist. But it didn’t.

Typical was the Hungarian General Election of November 1945, which was won by the Smallholders Party with 57%, followed by the Socialist Party with 17.4% and the Communist Party with 16.9%. The Soviet commander in Hungary, Marshal Kliment Voroshilov, refused to allow the Smallholders to form a government. Instead Voroshilov established a coalition government with the communists holding all the key posts while the communists set to work to undermine and eventually abolish the Smallholders Party. In February 1946 its General Secretary, Béla Kovács, was arrested, and sentenced to life imprisonment in Siberia for the usual trumped-up charges of treachery and counter-revolutionary activity i.e. anything which in any way could remotely damage communist domination (p.224).

In all the EE countries the same thing happened: the communists were beaten into third place in the only free elections they ever held, promptly cancelled any further elections, and set about intimidating their opponents. Opposition meetings were broken up, newspapers banned or prevented from printing, leaders were threatened and, in some cases, arrested, tried and executed. In Bulgaria the leader of the Agrarian Party, Nikola Petkov, was arrested, tried and executed in the summer of 1947 (p.219). Many of them fled their countries.

The hoped-for democratic gaining of power turned into violent coups.

Economics

The most notable thing about communist economics is that they don’t work. This chapter deals with land and business. Land reform was popular across the East after the war, partly in response to the amazing inequities of landholding, much of which dated back centuries. Still there was surprising resistance to wholesale land redistribution and it was carried out with characteristic inefficiency and inequity and, to the communists’ dismay, even after being given land, most peasants refused to vote for the communists, but preferred the parties set up precisely to represent peasants and small landholders. Until they were abolished.

As to ‘the market’ communists had been taught to abolish it and crack down wherever it appeared. This meant banning privately owned businesses and shops. In Poland between 1947 and 1949 the number of private trading and distribution firms was cut by half (p.248). But the communist apparatus was not able to fill the gap. The result was predictable: a vast increase in the black market and a general shortage of goods. These were to characterise all the communist economies, including the mother economy of the USSR, for the rest of their existence.

What the 45 year experiment showed is that central planning a) is not as responsive to consumer wishes as a free market b) because its monolithic nationalised industries and departments are top-heavy, bureaucratic, slow and inefficient and c) manned by the dimmest, most conformists sections of society. She explains how the cult of ‘shock workers’, i.e. super workers who heroically over-delivered on their quotas (the most famous example being the Russian coal miner and Hero of Socialist Labour, Alexey Stakhanov) paradoxically undermined efficiency, because so many workers were incentivised to copy their examples that quality across all products plummeted.

Pricing is also related to quality. If the factory can only charge one price whether its goods are designed by a team of top designers and engineers, or are the most basic product imaginable, it will opt for the basic model.

The result: empty shops and furtive bargaining down back streets, the permanent shortages and crap quality of all the so-called consumer goods produced in the USSR and all its European satellites. And the typically bleak Soviet jokes:

What is the definition of Socialist Amnesia?
Standing outside a bread shop with an empty bag, not knowing whether you’re in the queue or have just been served.

(In an interesting aside, Applebaum points out that, once an industry is nationalised, for workers to complain about working conditions or pay, is to protest directly against the state. This gives background to my boyhood in the 1970s which were marked by an endless stream of mass strikes in the nationalised iron, steel, rail, coal and car industries, and makes Mrs Thatcher’s move to privatise them seem not only part of her ideological return to free market capitalism, but also an elementary form of political protection. A government which nationalises an industry makes itself directly vulnerable to criticism by the very people it sets out to help)

High Stalinism

This is a brief summary of the topics discussed in part one of the book. The second part looks at the period between the communists’ full establishment of power, around 1948, and the death of Stalin in 1953 – the era of High Stalinism. It is even more shattering and terrifying than part one and covers topics like the rise of Socialist Realism in art and architecture, the creation of Ideal Communist Cities, and the ongoing crushing of internal dissent, among the opposition but also within the communist parties themselves, with waves of purges and executions.

1948 was a swing year. After four years the communist authorities had for the most part established a stranglehold on political structures and civic society, and yet the economies of the Eastern bloc were visibly failing. To anyone with contact with the West, it was obvious the East was falling behind, and fast. 1948 saw the commencement of the Marshall Plan to give American aid to any European countries who requested it, and the foundation, in May, of the state of Israel. As a result of these events, Stalin:

  • embarked on another round of purges and show trials, designed to create scapegoats for the failings of the communist economy
  • embarked on a round of anti-Semitic purges
  • launched the blockade of Berlin on June 1948, which led to the year-long Berlin Airlift by the Allies

In 1949 China went communist and Russia detonated its first H-bomb. In 1950 North Korea invaded South Korea. It was in incredibly fast-moving environment.

I read books, watch TV documentaries and go to all the main art exhibitions in London and regularly feel overloaded with information and nostalgia about the 1960s – about 60s pop, the 60s social revolution, 60s fashion, design, art and all the rest of fit.

But the more I consume these cultural products, the more I feel they amount to an almost deliberate neglect of the far more important and decisive years after the Second War and on into the grey 1950s when much more of vital historical importance took place, and when the freedom of the West, which we all take for granted, was secured in the face of terrifying opposition.

Conclusions

1. By trying to control every conceivable aspect of society, totalitarian regimes turn every conceivable aspect of society into potential points of revolt. Thus the logic of ever-increasing repression, to crack down on every form of expression. But hence also, eventually, a society completely riddled with cracks and fissures. Which explains what history has in fact shown us – that apparently monolithic totalitarian regimes can disintegrate with surprising speed.

2. At bottom the Soviet and East European communist regimes based their entire legitimacy on the promise of future prosperity and higher living standards which were to be guaranteed by ‘scientific’ Marxism. In this one central aim they failed spectacularly. By the time of Stalin’s death in 1953 it was plain to the Soviets and to informed citizens of Eastern Europe that the West was pulling away in terms of technology, consumer goods and living standards at amazing speed. It’s not even that totalitarian communism is morally wrong or artistically repressive or psychologically damaging or violent and cruel, although it was all these – it just didn’t work.

All the issues discussed in Applebaum’s text are vividly illustrated where possible by the fate and experiences of named individuals – so many of them individuals, both communist and non-communist, who thought they could change, influence or improve their countries and who, without exception, were arrested, tortured, sent for long sentences to sub-Arctic camps in Russia, or simply executed. So many worthy people, so cruelly snuffed out by such evil scum.

Indeed, for the book she conducted extensive interviews in person with survivors of each of the three regimes, who are named in an appendix, I counted 90 of them, whose stories and quotes thread through the narrative giving a real sense of what it was like to try to live and think under these suffocating regimes. It’s this detail, this working through of exactly how the communists clamped down on every aspect of human life which we consider valuable, which chills the blood.

On the back cover biographer A.N. Wilson comments that this is the best work of modern history he has ever read. It is certainly among the most important. How many thousands of histories, school textbooks, movies and TV documentaries are devoted to the Nazis and ensuring that never again can such a maelstrom of racial hatred and state violence begin to rear its head in any civilised country?

But there are still legal communist parties all over Europe and communist intellectuals who are listened to. My daughter is being taught Marxism in her Sociology A-Level and I know it is still taught on countless Literature and Humanities courses.

In this respect, for showing what life in a communist state really involves, and the slow but steady way all our civic freedoms can be undermined, Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-56 is a vital and outstanding achievement.


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