After Tamerlane: The Rise and Fall of Global Empires 1400 – 2000 by John Darwin (2007)

Empires exist to accumulate power on an extensive scale…
(After Tamerlane: The Rise and Fall of Global Empires 1400 – 2000 page 483)

Why did the nations of Western Europe rise through the 18th and 19th centuries to create empires which stretched around the world, how did they manage to subjugate ancient nations like China and Japan, to turn vast India into a colonial possession, to carve up Africa between them?

How did white European cultures come to dominate not only the territories and peoples who they colonised, but to create the modern mindset – a vast mental framework which encompasses capitalist economics, science and technology and engineering, which dominates the world right down to the present day?

Why did the maritime states of Europe (Britain, France, the Dutch, Spanish and Portuguese) end up either settling from scratch the relatively empty places of the world (America, Australia), or bringing all the other cultures of the world (the Ottoman Empire, Hindu India, Confucian China and Shinto Japan) under their domination?

For a hundred and fifty years politicians, historians, economists and all kinds of academics and theoreticians have been writing books trying to explain ‘the rise of the West’.

Some attribute it to the superiority of the Protestant religion (some explicitly said it was God’s plan). Some that it was something to do with the highly fragmented nature of Europe, full of squabbling nations vying to outdo each other, and which spilled out into unceasing competition for trade, at first across the Atlantic, then along new routes to India or the Far East.

Some credit the Scientific Revolution, with its proliferation of new technologies from compasses to cannons, an unprecedented explosion of discoveries and inventions. Some credit the slave trade and the enormous profits made from working to death millions and millions of African slaves to create the profits which fuelled the industrial revolution and paid for the armies which subjugated India.

Lenin thought it was the unique qualities of European capitalism which had perfected techniques to exploit the proletariat in the home countries and then to subjugate less advanced nations, which would inevitably lead to a global capitalist war once the whole world was colonised.

So John Darwin’s book, which sets out to answer all these questions and many more, is following an extremely well-trodden path. BUT it does so in a way which feels wonderfully new, refreshing and exciting. This is a brilliant book. If you were only going to read one book about imperialism, this is probably The One.

For at least three reasons:

1. Darwin appears to have mastered the enormous revisionist literature generated over the past thirty years or more, which rubbishes any idea of innate European superiority, which looks for far more subtle and persuasive reasons – so reading this book means you can feel yourself reaping the benefits of hundreds of other more detailed & specific studies. He is not himself oppressively politically correct, but he is on the right side of all the modern trends in historical thought (i.e. is aware of feminist, BAME and post-colonial studies).

2. Darwin pays a lot more attention than is usual to all the other cultures which co-existed alongside Europe for so long (Islam, the Ottoman Empire, the Mughal Empire, the Safavid Empire, the Chinese Empire, Japan, all are treated in fascinating detail and given almost as much space as Europe, more, in the earlier chapters) so that reading this book you learn an immense amount about the history of these other cultures over the same period.

3. Above all, Darwin paints a far more believable and plausible picture than the traditional legend of one smooth, consistent and inevitable ‘Rise of the West’. On the contrary, in Darwin’s version:

the passage from Tamerlane’s times to our own has been far more contested, confused and chance-ridden than the legend suggests – an obvious enough point. But [this book places] Europe (and the West) in a much larger context: amid the empire-, state- and culture-building projects of other parts of Eurasia. Only thus, it is argued, can the course, nature, scale and limits of Europe’s expansion be properly grasped, and the jumbled origins of our contemporary world become a little clearer.

‘Jumbled origins’, my God yes. And what a jumble!

Why start with Tamerlane?

Tamerlane the Eurasian conqueror died in 1405. Darwin takes his death as marking the end of an epoch, an era inaugurated by the vast wave of conquest led across central Asia by Genghis Khan starting around 1200, an era in which one ruler could, potentially, rule the entire Eurasian landmass.

When Tamerlane was born the ‘known world’ still stretched from China in the East, across central Asia, through the Middle East, along the north African shore and including Europe. Domination of all of China, central Asia, northern India, the Middle East and Europe was, at least in theory, possible, had been achieved by Genghis Khan and his successors, and was the dream which had inspired Tamerlane.

Map of the Mongol Empire created by Genghis Khan

But by the death of Tamerlane the political situation across Eurasia had changed. The growth in organisation, power and sophistication of the Ottoman Empire, the Mamluk state in Egypt and Syria, the Muslim sultanate in north India and above all the resilience of the new Ming dynasty in China, meant this kind of ‘global’ domination was no longer possible. For centuries nomadic tribes had ravaged through Eurasia (before the Mongols it had been the Turks who emerged out of Asia to seize the Middle East and found the Ottoman Dynasty). Now that era was ending.

It was no longer possible to rule the sown from the steppe (p.5)

Moreover, within a few decades of Tamerlane’s demise, Portuguese mariners had begun to explore westwards, first on a small scale colonising the Azores and Canary Islands, but with the long-term result that the Eurasian landmass would never again constitute the ‘entire world’.

What was different about European empires?

Empires are the oldest and most widespread form of government. They are by far the commonest way that human societies have organised themselves: the Assyrians, Babylonians, Egyptians, Persians, the Greek and Roman Empires, the Aztec Empire, the Inca Empire, the Mali Empire, Great Zimbabwe, the Chinese empire, the Nguyễn empire in Vietnam, the Japanese Empire, the Ottoman empire, the Mughal empire, the Russian empire, the Austro-Hungarian empire, to name just a few.

Given this elementary fact about history, why do the west European empires come in for such fierce criticism these days?

Because, Darwin explains, they were qualitatively different.

  1. Because they affected far more parts of the world across far more widespread areas than ever before, and so ‘the constituency of the aggrieved’ is simply larger – much larger – than ever before.
  2. Because they were much more systematic in their rapaciousness. The worst example was surely the Belgian Empire in the Congo, European imperialism stripped of all pretence and exposed as naked greed backed up by appalling brutality. But arguably all the European empires mulcted their colonies of raw materials, treasures and of people more efficiently (brutally) than any others in history.

The result is that it is going to take some time, maybe a lot of time, for the trauma of the impact of the European empires to die down and become what Darwin calls ‘the past’ i.e. the realm of shadowy past events which we don’t think of as affecting us any more.

The imperial legacy is going to affect lots of people, in lots of post-colonial nations, for a long time to come, and they are not going to let us forget it.

Structure

After Tamerlane is divided up into nine chapters:

  1. Orientations
  2. Eurasia and the Age of Discovery
  3. The Early Modern Equilibrium (1750s – 1800)
  4. The Eurasian Revolution (1800 – 1830)
  5. The Race Against Time (1830 – 1880)
  6. The Limits of Empire (1880 – 1914)
  7. Towards The Crisis of The World, 1914 – 42
  8. Empire Denied (1945 – 2000)
  9. Tamerlane’s Shadow

A flood of insights

It sounds like reviewer hyperbole but there really is a burst of insights on every page of this book.

It’s awe-inspiring, dazzling, how Darwin can take the elements of tremendously well-known stories (Columbus and the discovery of America, or the Portuguese finding a sea route to India, the first trading stations on the coasts of India or the unequal treaties imposed on China, or the real consequences of the American Revolution) and present them from an entirely new perspective. Again and again on every page he unveils insight after insight. For example:

American Take the fact – which I knew but had never seen stated so baldly – that the American War of Independence wasn’t about ‘liberty’, it was about land. In the aftermath of the Seven Years War (1756 – 63) the British government had banned the colonists from migrating across the Appalachians into the Mississippi valley (so as to protect the Indians, and because policing this huge area would be ruinously expensive). The colonists simply wanted to overthrow these restrictions and, as soon as the War of Independence was (after the British gave up in 1783), set about opening the floodgates to colonising westward.

India Victorian apologists claimed the British were able to colonise huge India relatively easily because of the superiority of British organisation and energy compared with Oriental sloth and backwardness. In actual fact, Darwin explains it was in part the opposite: it was because the Indians had a relatively advanced agrarian economy, with good routes of communication, business hubs and merchants – an open and well-organised economy, which the British just barged their way into (p.264).

(This remind me of the case made in The Penguin History of Latin America by Edwin Williamson that Cortés was able to conquer the Aztec and Pissarro the Incas, not because the Indians were backward but precisely because they were the most advanced, centralised and well organised states in Central and South America. The Spanish just installed themselves at the top of a well-ordered and effective administrative system. Against genuinely backward people, like the tribes who lived in the arid Arizona desert or the swamps of Florida or hid in the impenetrable Amazon jungle, the Spanish were helpless, because there was no one emperor to take hostage, or huge administrative bureaucracy to take over – which explains why those areas remained uncolonised for centuries.)

Cultural conservatism Until about 1830 there was still a theoretical possibility that a resurgent Ottoman or Persian empire, China or Japan, might have reorganised and repelled European colonisers. But a decisive factor which in the end prevented them was the intrinsic conservatism of these cultures. For example, both Chinese and Muslim culture venerated wisdom set down by a wise man (Mohammed, Confucius) at least a millennium earlier, and teachers, professors, civil servants were promoted insofar as they endorsed and parroted these conservative values. At key moments, when they could have adopted more forward-looking ideologies of change, all the other Eurasian cultures plumped for conservatism and sticking to the Old.

Thus, even as it dawned on both China and Japan that they needed to react to the encroachments of the Europeans in the mid-nineteenth century, both countries did so by undertaking not innovations what they called restorations – the T’ung-chih (‘Union for Order’) restoration in China and the Meiji (‘Enlightened rule’) restoration in Japan (p.270). (Darwin’s description of the background and enactment of both these restorations is riveting.)

The Western concept of Time Darwin has a fascinating passage about how the Europeans developed a completely new theory of Time (p.208). It was the exploration of America which did this (p.209). America gave the Europeans an entirely new understanding of human Time. Because here they encountered, traded and warred with Stone Age people who used bows and arrows and (to start with) had no horses or wheeled vehicles and never developed anything like a technology. This led European intellectuals to reflect that maybe these people came from an earlier phase of historical development. In fact, maybe societies evolve and change and develop.

European thinkers quickly invented numerous ‘systems’ suggesting how societies progressed from the x age to the y age and then on to the z age – but they all agreed that the native Americans (and even more so, the Australian aborigines) represented the very earliest stages of society, and that, by contrast, Western society had evolved through all the intervening stages to reach its present state of highly evolved ‘perfection’.

And once you have created mental models like this, it is easy to categorise the other cultures you encounter (Ottomans, Hindus, China, Japan, Siam, Annamite etc) as somewhere definitely lower or backward on these paths or stages of development. And being at the top of the tree, why naturally that gave white Europeans the right to intervene, invade, conquer and administer all the other people of the world in order to ‘raise’ them to the same wonderful level of civilisation as themselves.

18th and 19th I’ve always been a bit puzzled by the way that, if you read accounts of then European empires, there is this huge difference between the 18th century and the 19th century. Darwin explains why: in the eighteenth century there were still multiple European players in the imperial game: France was the strongest power on the continent, but she was balanced out by Prussia, Austria and also Spain and Portugal and the Dutch. France’s position as top dog in Europe was admittedly damaged by the Seven Years War but it wasn’t this, it was the Napoleonic Wars which in the end abolished the 18th century balance of power in Europe. Britain emerged from the Napoleonic Wars as the new top dog, with a navy which could beat all-comers, which had hammered the French at the Battle of the Nile and Trafalgar, and which now ruled the waves.

The nineteenth century feels different because Britain’s world-encompassing dominance was different in kind from any empire which ever preceded it.

Africa If I have one quibble it’s that I’d like to have learned more about Africa. I take the point that his book is focused on Eurasia and the Eurasian empires (and I did learn a huge amount about Persia, the Moghul empire, China and Japan) and that all sub-Saharan Africa was cut off from Eurasia by the Sahara, but still… it feels like an omission.

And a woke reader might well object to the relative rareness of Darwin’s references to the African slave trade. He refers to it a few times, but his interest is not there; it’s in identifying exactly where Europe was like or unlike the rival empires of Eurasia, in culture and science and social organisation and economics. That’s his focus.

Russia If Africa is disappointingly absent, an unexpected emphasis is placed in each chapter on the imperial growth of Russia. I knew next to nothing about this. A quick surf on Amazon suggests that almost all the books you can get about the Russian ’empire’ are about the fall of the Romanovs and the Bolshevik Revolution and then Lenin or Stalin’s creation of a Bolshevik empire which expanded into Eastern Europe after the war. That’s to say it’s almost all about twentieth century Russia (with the exception of a crop of ad hoc biographies of Peter the Great or Catherine the Great).

So it was thrilling to read Darwin give what amounts to a sustained account and explanation of the growth of the Kingdom of Muscovy from the 1400s onwards, describing how it expanded west (against Poland, the Baltic states, Sweden), south towards the Black Sea, south-west into the Balkans – but most of all how Russian power was steadily expanded East across the vast inhospitable tundra of Siberia until Russian power reached the Pacific.

It is odd, isn’t it, bizarre, uncanny, that a nation that likes to think of itself as ‘European’ has a huge coastline on the Pacific Ocean and to this day squabbles about the ownership of small islands with Japan!

The process of Russian expansion involved just as much conquering of the ‘primitive’ tribal peoples who hunted and trapped in the huge landmass of Siberia as the conquest of, say, Canada or America, but you never read about it, do you? Can you name any of the many native tribes the Russians fought and conquered? No. Are there any books about the Settling of the East as there are thousands and thousands about the conquest of the American West? Nope. It is a historical black hole.

But Darwin’s account of the growth of the Russian Empire is not only interesting as filling in what – for me at any rate – is a big hole in my knowledge. It is also fascinating because of the role Russian expansion played again and again in the game of Eurasian Risk which his book describes. At key moments Russian pressure from the North distracted the attention of the Ottoman Empire from making more offensive thrusts into Europe (the Ottomans famously encroached right up to the walls of Vienna in 1526 and then again in 1683).

When the Russians finally achieved one of their territorial goals and seized the Crimea in 1783, as a result of the Russo-Turkish War, it had the effect, Darwin explains, of cracking the Ottoman Empire open ‘like an oyster’. For centuries the Black Sea had been an Ottoman lake and a cheaply defensible frontier. Now, at a stroke, it became a massive vulnerability which needed costly defence (p.175).

And suddenly, seeing it all from the Russian perspective, this sheds new light on the timeworn story of the decline of the Ottoman Empire which I only know about from the later 19th century and from the British perspective. For Darwin the role of Russian expansionism was vital not only in itself, but for the hemming in and attritional impact it had on the other Eurasian empires – undermining the Ottomans, making the Chinese paranoid because Russian expansion around its northern borders added to China’s sense of being encircled and endangered, a sense that contributed even more to its risk-averse policy of doubling down on its traditional cultural and political and economic traditions, and refusing to see anything of merit in the Westerners’ technology or crude diplomacy. A policy which eventually led to complete collapse in the Chinese Revolution of 1911.

And of course the Russians actually went to war with imperial Japan in 1905.

Numbered lists

Darwin likes making numbered lists. There’s one on almost every page. They rarely go higher than three. Here are some examples to give a flavour of his careful, forensic and yet thrillingly insightful way of explaining things.

The 18th century geopolitical equilibrium The geopolitical revolution which ended the long equilibrium of the 18th century had three major effects:

  1. The North American interior and the new lands in the Pacific would soon become huge extensions of European territory, the ‘new Europes’.
  2. As a result of the Napoleonic war, the mercantile ‘zoning’ system which had reflected the delicate balance of power among European powers was swept away and replaced with almost complete control of the world’s oceans by the British Navy.
  3. Darwin gives a detailed description of why Mughal control of North India was disrupted by invasions by conquerors from the north, first Iran then Afghanistan, who weakened central Indian power at just the moment the British started expanding from their base in Bengal. Complex geopolitical interactions.

The so-called stagnation of the other Eurasian powers can be characterised by:

  1. In both China and the Islamic world classical, literary cultures dominated the intellectual and administrative elites – the test of intellectual acumen was fitting all new observations into the existing mindset, prizes went to those who could do so with the least disruption possible.
  2. Cultural and intellectual authority was vested in scribal elites backed up by political power, both valuing stasis.
  3. Both China and the Islamic world were profoundly indifferent and incurious about the outside world.

The knowledge revolution Compare and contrast the East’s incuriosity with the ‘West’, which underwent a cognitive and scientific revolution in which merit went to the most disruptive inventors of new theories and technologies, and where Darwin describes an almost obsessive fascination with maps. This was supercharged by Captain Cook’s three huge expeditions around the Pacific, resulting in books and maps which were widely bought and discussed, and which formed the basis of the trade routes which followed in his wake, and then the transportation of large numbers of convicts to populate Australia’s big empty spaces (about 164,000 convicts were transported to the Australian colonies between 1788 and 1868).

Traumatic impact of the Napoleonic Wars I hadn’t quite realised that the Napoleonic Wars had such a traumatising effect on the governments of the main European powers who emerged in its aftermath: Britain, France, Prussia, Austria and Russia. Very broadly speaking there was peace between the European powers between the 1830s and 1880s. Of course there was the Crimean War (Britain, France and Turkey containing Russia’s imperial expansion), war between Austria and Prussia (1866) and the Franco-Prussian War. But all these were contained by the system, were mostly of short duration and never threatened to unravel into the kind of general conflict which ravaged Europe under Napoleon.

Thus, from the imperial point of view, the long peace had four results:

  1. The Royal Navy’s policing of all trade routes across the Atlantic and between Europe and Asia kept trade routes open throughout the era and kept costs down for everyone.
  2. The balance of power which the European powers maintained among themselves discouraged intervention in either North or South America and allowed America to develop economically as if it had no enemies – a rare occurrence for any nation in history.
  3. The post-Napoleonic balance of power in Europe encouraged everyone to tread carefully in their imperial rivalries.
  4. Geo-political stability in Europe allowed the growth across the continent of something like a European ideology. This was ‘liberalism’ – a nexus of beliefs involving the need for old-style autocratic power to be tempered by the advice of representatives of the new middle class, and the importance of that middle class in the new technologies and economics unleashed by the industrial revolution and in founding and administering the growing colonies abroad.

Emigration Emigration from Europe to the New World was a trickle in the 1830s but had become a flood by the 1850s. Between 1850 and 1880 over eight million people left Europe, mostly for America.

  1. This mass emigration relieved the Old World of its rural overcrowding and transferred people to an environment where they could be much more productive.
  2. Many of the emigrants were in fact skilled artisans. Moving to an exceptionally benign environment, a vast empty continent rich in resources, turbo-charged the American economy with the result that by the 1880s it was the largest in the world.

Fast His chapter The Race Against Time brings out a whole area, an entire concept, I’ve never come across before, which is that part of the reason European colonisation was successful was it was so fast. Not just that Western advances in military technology – the lightning advances in ships and artillery and guns – ran far ahead of anything the other empires could come up with – but that the entire package of international finance, trade routes, complex webs sending raw materials back home and re-exporting manufactured goods, the sudden flinging of railways all across the world’s landmasses, the erection of telegraphs to flash knowledge of markets, prices of goods, or political turmoil back from colonies to the European centre – all of this happened too quickly for the rival empires (Ottoman, Japan, China etc) to stand any chance of catching up.

Gold rushes This sense of leaping, hurtling speed was turbo-charged by literal gold rushes, whether in the American West in the 1840s or in South Africa where it was first gold then diamonds. Suddenly tens of thousands of white men turned up, quickly followed by townships full of traders and artisans, then the railway, the telegraph, the sheriffs with their guns – all far faster than any native American or South African cultures could hope to match or even understand.

Shallow And this leads onto another massive idea which reverberates through the rest of the book and which really changed my understanding. This is that, as the spread of empire became faster and faster, reaching a kind of hysterical speed in the so-called Scramble For Africa in the 1880s (the phrase was, apparently, coined by the London Times in 1884) it meant that there was something increasingly shallow about its rule, especially in Africa.

The Scramble for Africa

Darwin says that most radical woke historians take the quick division of Africa in the 1880s and 1890s as a kind of epitome of European imperialism, but that it was in fact the opposite, and extremely unrepresentative of the development of the European imperialisms.

After all the Scramble happened very quickly – unlike the piecemeal conquest of Central, Southern of North America, or India, which took centuries.

The Scramble took place with almost no conflict between the European powers – in fact they agreed to partitions and drew up lines in a very equable way at the Congress of Berlin in 1885. Other colonies (from the Incas to India) were colonised because there were organised civilisations which could be co-opted, whereas a distinctive feature about Africa (‘historians broadly agree about one vital fact’ p.314) was that people were in short supply. Africa was undermanned or underpeopled. There were few organised states or kingdoms because there simply wasn’t the density of population which lends itself to trading routes, settled farmers and merchants – all the groups who can be taxed to create a king and aristocracy.

Africans hadn’t progressed to centralised states as humans had in Eurasia or central America because there weren’t enough of them. Hence the poverty and the lack of resistance which most of the conquerors encountered in most of Africa.

In fact the result of all this was that most of the European governments weren’t that keen on colonising Africa. It was going to cost a lot of money and there weren’t the obvious revenue streams that they had found in a well-established economy like India.

What drove the Scramble for Africa more than anything else was adventurers on the ground – dreamers and fantasists and ambitious army officers and business men and empire builders who kept on taking unilateral action which then pitched the home government into a quandary – deny their adventurers and pass up the opportunity to win territory to a rival, or reluctantly support them and get enmeshed in all kinds of messy responsibilities.

For example, in the mid-1880s a huge swathe of West Africa between the desert and the forest was seized by a buccaneering group of French marine officers under Commandant Louis Archinard, and their black rank and file. In a few years these adventurers brought some two million square miles into France’s empire. The government back in Paris felt compelled to back them up which meant sending out more troops, police and so on, which would cost money.

Meanwhile, modern communications had been invented, the era of mass media had arrived, and the adventuring soldiers and privateers had friends and boosters in the popular press who could be counted on to write leading articles about ‘the white man’s burden’ and the torch of civilisation and ask: ‘Isn’t the government going to defend our brave boys?’, until reluctant democratic governments were forced to cough up support. Modern-day liberals often forget that imperialism was wildly popular. It often wasn’t imperialist or rapacious governments or the ruling class which prompted conquest, but popular sentiment, jingoism, which couldn’t be ignored in modern democracies.

Darwin on every page, describes and explains the deep economic, trade and financial structures which the West put in place during the nineteenth century and which eventually underpinned an unstoppable steamroller of annexation, protectorates, short colonial wars and long-term occupation.

The Congress of Berlin

The Congress of Berlin helped to formalise the carving up of Africa, and so it has come to be thought of as evil and iniquitous, particularly by BAME and woke historians. But once again Darwin makes you stop and think when he compares the success of the congress at reaching peaceful agreements between the squabbling European powers – and what happened in 1914 over a flare-up in the Balkans.

If only Bismarck had been around in 1914 to suggest that instead of rapidly mobilising to confront each other, the powers of Europe had once again been invited for tea and cake at the Reichstag to discuss their differences like gentlemen and come to an equable agreement.

Seen from this perspective, the Berlin Congress is not so much an evil colonialist conspiracy, but an extremely successful event which avoided any wars between the European powers for nearly thirty years. Africa was going to be colonised anyway because human events have a logic of their own: the success was in doing so without sparking a European conflagration.

The Scramble for China The Scramble for China is not as well known as its African counterpart,  the competition to gain ‘treaty ports’ on the Chinese coast, impose unfair trading terms on the Chinese and so on.

As usual, though, Darwin comes at it from a much wider angle and makes one massive point I hadn’t registered before – which is that Russia very much wanted to seize the northern part of China to add to its far eastern domains; Russia really wanted to carve China up, but Britain didn’t. And if Britain, the greatest trading, economic and naval power in the world, wasn’t onside, then it wouldn’t happen. There wasn’t a genuine Scramble for China because Britain didn’t want one.

Why not? Darwin quotes a Foreign Office official simply saying, ‘We don’t want another India.’ One enormous third world country to try and administer with its hundreds of ethnic groups and parties growing more restive by the year, was quite enough.

Also, by the turn of the century, the Brits had become paranoid about Russia’s intentions to conquer Afghanistan and march into North India. If they partitioned China with Russia, that would mean policing an even longer frontier even further way against an aggressive imperialist power ready to pounce the moment our guard was down.

Summary

This is an absolutely brilliant book. I don’t think I’ve ever come across so many dazzling insights and revelations and entirely new ways of thinking about a time-worn subject in one volume.

This is the book to give anyone who’s interested not just in ‘the rise of the West’ but how the whole concept of ‘the West’ emerged, for a fascinating description not just of the European empires but of all the empires across Eurasia – Ottoman, Persian, Moghul, Chinese and Japanese – and how history – at this level – consists of the endless juggling for power of these enduring power blocs, the endless and endlessly

complex history of empire-, state- and culture-building. (p.490)

And of course it all leads up to where we are today: a resurgent Russia flexing its muscles in Ukraine and Crimea; China wielding its vast economic power and brutally oppressing its colonial subjects in Tibet and Xinkiang, while buying land, resources and influence in Africa. And both Russia and China using social media and the internet in ways we don’t yet fully understand in order to undermine the West.

And Turkey, keen as its rulers of all colours have been since the Ottoman days, to keep the Kurds down. And Iran, as its rulers have done for a thousand years, continually seeking new ways to extend its influence around the Gulf, across Syria and to the Mediterranean, in eternal rivalry with the Arab world which, in our time, means Saudi Arabia, against whom Iran is fighting a proxy war in the Yemen.

Darwin’s books really drives home the way the faces and the ideologies may change, but the fundamental geopolitical realities endure, and with them the crudeness and brutality of the tools each empire employs.

If you let ‘morality’, especially modern woke morality, interfere with your analysis of this level of geopolitics, you will understand nothing. At this level it always has and always will be about power and influence, dominating trade and ensuring raw resources, and behind it all the never-ending quest for ‘security’.

At this level, it isn’t about following narrow, English notions of morality. Getting hung up on that only gets in the way of grasping the utterly amoral forces at play everywhere in the world today, just as it’s always been.

Darwin stands up for intelligence and insight, for careful analysis and, above all, for a realistic grasp of human nature and human society – deeply, profoundly flawed and sometimes pitiful and wretched though both routinely are. He takes an adult view. It is absolutely thrilling and a privilege to be at his side as he explains and analysis this enormous history, with such confidence, and with so many brilliant ideas and insights.


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One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn (1962)

Sleep apart, the only time a prisoner lives for himself is ten minutes in the morning at breakfast, five minutes over dinner and five at supper. (p.17)

It is the start of 1951 (p.36), some prisoners are discussing what will happen now that China has joined the Korean War, will there be a world war? (p.124) and Ivan Denisovich Shukhov, 40 years old (p.39) is prisoner S 854 in the 104th work team at an unnamed forced labour camp somewhere in Siberia, where the daytime temperature is -27 degrees C.

Daily life is about survival, decent boots, making the most of the pitiful thin fish soup and magara porridge, served for breakfast, lunch and dinner, trying to wangle your way out of the physically most draining labour and into something cushy like cleaning the floor of the guards’ room (nice and warm), trying to wangle a puff of someone’s cigarette butt, a fragment of extra food.

Shukhov has woken up feeling feverish so goes along to the camp doctor but is too late; only two prisoners a day are let off work and the two slots are already taken. Back in the barrack he and the rest of the 104th are told to dress, line up and march to the camp gates where they are thoroughly searched, before marching off to the building site of a new power station, rags and muffles pulled to cover as much of their faces as possible from the biting wind.

Solzhenitsyn emphasises that Shukhov is an ordinary guy, ‘a man of timid nature [who] knew no way of standing up for his rights’ (p.24). He is not educated, not an intellectual, thus the poem which the medical assistant Vdovushkin is writing ‘is beyond Shukhov’s ken’ (p.22) and he doesn’t understand the two men in the building site office who are discussing the merits of Eisenstein’s film Ivan the Terrible.

When Shukhov gets out, in two years time, he hopes to be a stove-setter or a carpenter or a tinker (p.39). He is meant to be everyman or, in this case, everyzek (zek being an abbreviation for the Russian for prisoner). He is a Christian, is surprised anyone isn’t, but right at the end tells the Baptist prisoner, Alyosha, that he doesn’t believe in heaven or hell. And he seems to half believe the folk myth that each month God creates a new moon. Why? Because he crumbles the old one up to make stars. (p.94) In his village they call the moon ‘the wolf’s sun’ (p.134).

Shukhov hasn’t been back to his home village of Temgenovo (p.84) or seen his wife since 1941 when he marched off to war. Ten years absence. During the war, in 1942, his unit was surrounded and captured by Germans. After a few days five of them managed to escape back to Russian lines. Three were shot dead by sentries, and the authorities considered Shukhov and his comrade must be spies. So they were convicted of treason and given ten years (pp.58-59).

He met team leader Tiurin in his previous camp, at Ust-Izhma (which is where he made the hand-made spoon which he still uses and hides carefully in his boot). Shukhov spent seven years in the far north, logging.

Well, a zek’s belly can stand anything. Scrape through today somehow and hope for tomorrow. (p.72)

The simple format of a day in the life allows Solzhenitsyn to describe a surprising variety of people, and the work they have to do, and the world of dodges and scams the zeks pull on each other and the authorities. Anything for extra food. Anything to be near a fire or – God be praised – inside out of the sub-zero cold

He describes the crucial relationship between a team leader and his men, in fact the complex web of networks a prisoner finds himself in. He casts an experienced eye on those around him, from the 16-year-old Ukrainian Gopchick, who is quick and savvy and will survive, to the recently arrived naval captain who still thinks the world owes him a favour, is not adjusting quickly enough to the necessary posture of complete submission.

They are marched out of the camp to the power station and, by the afternoon, have got stoves going to heat up the sand enough to make mortar and actually get so into their work, priding themselves on working as a team to send up mortar and bricks to the third story which they’re building, that they’re late finishing.

At going home time, just one zek who’s dropped off somewhere means the entire contingent of 463 zeks have to wait stamping their feet as the sun disappears and the stars come out. After a lot of pushing and shoving, they’re allowed through the wire perimeter fence and march back to camp. While standing around Shukhov spots a bit of hacksaw blade lying in the snow and quickly palms it. There’s a tense moment when each zek is searched before entering the main camp, but he successfully smuggles it through in his mitten and slips it in a crack in his bunk. Later he’ll find a stone, whet the blade, and make it into a cobbler’s knife. He earns a little bit of cash making slippers for zeks with money from rags and waste bits of wood.

Back inside the main camp, Shukhov carries out a number of complicated manoeuvres. He offers to stand in the cold queue for parcels for a posh zek named Tsezar, who turns up late and takes the place Shukhov has kept. In exchange Tsezar says Shukhov can have his portion of skilly for dinner. Graphic description of the mob of zeks trying to get into the hot filthy canteen, where the harassed cook serves out skilly which is glorified dishwater with a few fragments of rotten fish or vegetables.

Fine details of how you have to scrounge a decent tray to collect the bowls for your team. There are 24 in the 104th. Shukhov and Gopchik pinch trays, and bring the bowls to a section of bench where his ‘brothers’ are sitting. His body rejoices as the tepid skilly slips down into his belly, and he takes the old zek’s precaution of sucking the fish, its bones and gills and eyes, slowly and methodically. Calories in every slurp.

Then over to Hut 7 to swap a few hard-earned roubles for a tiny glassful of excellent tobacco from the Lett. Back to his hut to listen to Tsezar excitedly open his parcel (after it had been opened and rifled through by the guards, of course), and discuss it with the naval captain.

But the latter irritated Lieutenant Volkovoi, the Security Chief, at roll call. Now he is taken away for ten days in an isolation cell. Skilly only every other day, the walls covered with ice. Not everyone survives.

Then they’re turfed out of the huts for a final head-count, all five hundred of them under the frosty moon, with more swearing from the guards, and the hut-commander beating the slowcoaches. Shukhov gives Tsezar good advice about hiding the contents of the parcel and makes sure he is first back to protect its hiding place for him. Good to have someone like Tsezar as a friend.

He climbs up to his bunk, belly full of two helpings of the wretched skilly, Tzesar’s ration of bread hidden in his jacket to be enjoyed next morning. He lies on the hard mattress, no sheets, head on the pillow full of wood shavings, feet in the sleeves of his jacket to stop them freezing, grubby blanket pulled over him, and his coat laid on top of that.

It has been a good day.

People

  • the old artist with a grey beard who touches up the prisoners’ numbers
  • Andrei Prokofievich Tiurin, team leader of the 104th
  • Alyosha the Baptist, who’s hidden a copied-out manuscript of the New Testament
  • Buinovsky the ex-naval captain, only been in the camp three months, has a lot to learn, imprisoned because a british admiral he was seconded to during the war sent him a thank you gift, which led to his trial and imprisonment
  • Der, B 731, a convict-supervisor on the power station building site
  • Eino, an Estonian on the 104h
  • The camp security officer, known as ‘the Father Confessor’
  • Fetiukov, a snivelling sneak and hanger-on in the 104th
  • Gopchik, Ukrainian lad of 16
  • ‘One and a half’ Ivan, a thin weedy camp guard
  • Khromoi, the mess orderly
  • Kilgas the Lett in Hut 7, always has good tobacco
  • Kolya Vdovushkin, medical assistant to the camp doctor, who is writing a long poem
  • Panteleyev, member of the 104th
  • Pavlo, deputy of the 104th, with his rolling West Ukrainian accent
  • Stepan Grigorych, the camp doctor
  • Senka, deaf member of the 104th, he’d survived Buchenwald
  • Shkuropatenko B219, a supervisor at the building site
  • The Tartar, lean violent disciplinarian guard
  • Tsezar, team-mate of Shukhov’s who receives impressive parcels from home
  • Lieutenant Volkovoi, Security Chief, who used to use a thick bullwhip on the prisoners
  • S 123, a stringy old man serving a 25 year sentence

Demotic style

The translation by Ralph Parker dates from 1963. English writers, even up to the present day, especially if they went to private school, still think it is acceptable to write about ‘one’ doing this or that, and break the back of sentences in order to avoid ending a sentence with a participle (preferring to write ‘the man about whom I told you’ rather than what every normal person would say, ‘the man I told you about’).

Presumably Solzhenitsyn’s Russian is pretty demotic, capturing the everyday speech of the zeks, the swearing of the camp guards, and the thoughts of the profoundly uneducated Shukhov – and all this has forced Parker to be more demotic than, maybe, his natural English would have permitted.

Thus it would be ludicrous to have prison camp inmates saying ‘one does’ and one does not’ all the time and so, very sensibly, Parker uses the phrasing most ordinary people would use, using ‘you’, you have to look sharp, you have to keep your wits about you, you have to know when to bend to authority etc.

And he uses ‘fuck’ sparingly, for example when Solzhenitsyn conveys the attitude of the zeks to the guards and petty officials who lord it over them. Fuck ’em, is the attitude. I imagine camp inmates swore all the time. Maybe this was Solzhenitsyn’s own restraint, and maybe he knew what would bear publication in 1962. The subject matter was controversial enough, best not to offend the literary sensibilities of the editors and writers he was trying to recruit to his cause.

Proverbs

Instead of learned quotations, the poor and illiterate have folk wisdom and proverbs. Shukhov’s mind is full of them.

  • You’ve only to show a whip to a beaten dog. 53
  • Thrift is better than riches 71
  • A man with two trades to his name can easily learn another ten.
  • Hasty work is scamped work. 89
  • A man who’s warm can’t understand a man who’s freezing. 96
  • The quickest louse is always first to be caught in the comb. 131

In The Great Gatsby F.Scott Fitzgerald makes the simple observation that there are only two kinds of people, the sick and the well.

In Denisovich Solzhenitsyn divides people into two further categories – the warm and the freezing.

Also: the hungry and the full. As in Primo Levi’s accounts of Auschwitz, concentration camp inmates may not always be cold, but they are always hungry, permanently surviving on the verge of malnutrition.


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Kolymsky Heights by Lionel Davidson (1994)

‘Many tricky dicks walk the trail.’ (Jean-Baptiste Porteur, p.88)

I saw this book in several second-hand bookshops before I picked it up for a pound imagining, from the stylish cover, that Davidson was one of the new young generation of thriller writers.

How wrong I was. Davidson was born in 1922 and published his first novel, The Night of Wenceslas, in 1960, the year before John le Carré made his debut – i.e. he is very much one of the old generation of thriller writers.

After Wenceslas Davidson published a novel every couple of years throughout the 1960s and early 70s until 1978 when he disappeared from view. After a gap of 16 years he returned with Kolymsky Heights, his last novel, which gained rave reviews.

Is it any good? What’s it about? Does it make me want to go in search of his other seven thrillers?

Kolymsky Heights

Kolymsky Heights is relatively long at 478 pages and quite quickly you realise this is because Davidson’s defining quality is a long, drawn-out and frustrating, round-the-houses approach.

We are introduced to a fusty old don in Oxford, Professor Lazenby. His secretary, Miss Sonntag, opens a letter from Sweden which turns out to be empty. Until the prof roots around in the bottom of it and finds some cigarette papers. These contain indentations. He calls in a pupil of his who now works in ‘Scientific Services’ and who, a few years earlier, had called on the Prof and asked him to do a little gentle spying – in fact more like ‘alert observation’ – when he was attending a conference in the Eastern Bloc.

Lazenby calls up this man, Philpott, to come and interpret the cigarette papers. They realise the bumps on the surface contain a message coded as a set of numbers. These turn out to relate to books of the Bible, giving chapter and verse numbers. By piecing together the fragmented quotes they arrive at a message which, in an elliptical way, refers to a dark-haired man from the north who can speak tongues and who the writer wants to visit him.

If you like crosswords, I think you’d like this book. Or if you’re partial to railway timetables. Precise hours and timings are given for everything, and become vitally important in the later stages of the book.

Philpott passes the message up to a level of the British security services where it is shared with the Americans. They have spy satellites patrolling the earth and photographing every inch of Russia, especially secret installations. Recent satellite photos indicate that a well-established camp in the heart of Siberia has had an explosion and fire, and shows figures tramping amidst the ruins. The guy in charge of monitoring this, W. Murray Hendricks, calls in a second opinion, a naturalist who confirms that… the figures walking around appear to be… ape-men! They have the stance of men but… their arms and legs are the wrong shape!

This chimes with the opening section of prose right at the start of the book, a (characteristically unexplained) preface which appears to be a message written from someone working at a Russian security base, writing to a colleague who is about to join him. It describes the way a baby mammoth was found deeply embedded in ice, was chipped out and transported back to the base, where it turned out not to be a mammoth at all but a human, a woman lying on her side, who had fallen into a crevasse along with some bags and a tusk, and was heavily pregnant (big and bulky with tusks – that’s what caused the initial mistaken diagnosis).

So we have learned that: a 40,000-year-old frozen pregnant woman is brought to a top secret Russian research base. Some time later, American satellite photos show ape-like men at a top secret Russian research base. Are we dealing with a 1990s version of The Island of Dr Moreau?

If we are, it takes a bloody long time to get there, because we are still with Philpott and Lazenby trying to interpret the coded and elliptical cigarette-paper message. Eventually it dawns on the Prof that the reference is to a dark-haired, native American from British Columbia, a man known by his clan name of ‘Raven’, a man he met at a scientific conference in Oxford some 15 years back, which had also been attended by some Russians.

About the Raven

The novel then switches to give us Raven’s complicated biography. Christened Jean-Baptiste Porteur, he was brought up in the matrilinear society of the Gitksan people in the Skeena river region of British Columbia, north-west Canada, before being dumped into the care of a local missionary. Porteur was taught English enough to excel in his studies but then ran away to sea for a few years. Eventually he returned to settled society and took up serious studies, becoming known as Johnny Porter.

Porter is a super-gifted linguist, one of the few people to be in a position to make academic studies of the families of languages spoken by the natives of the Pacific North-West from the inside. He publishes work on the subject, is awarded a PhD and academic prizes, but remains, nonetheless, a surly non-player of the academic game.

Now he comes to think about it, Prof Lazenby remembers getting really drunk with Raven and another man, a Russian research scientist named Rogachev, at a conference in Oxford years ago. This Russian, Rogachev, then disappeared off the grid some 15 years ago, rumoured to have joined some secret research facility. They have (through a series of deductions which I found too obscure to follow) decided that the man sending the cigarette messages must be Rogachev. And that he wants to talk to Raven.

So then the CIA are tasked with tracking down Johnny Porter and find him in a remote fishing village in British Columbia. Lazenby flies out there accompanied by Philpott who hands him over to a fresh-faced young CIA man  named Walters. The CIA are now heavily involved. At least I think it’s the CIA. Langley is referred to (the world-famous headquarters of the CIA) but the agency itself is not mentioned explicitly. Davidson prefers to keep things shadowy and instead refers to ‘the plan’ which appears to be shared by the Brits and the Yanks.

They finally track down Porter to a backwoods cabin, and present him with all the evidence that Rogachev wants him to travel to a top secret Russian research base in deepest Siberia. In fact, its precise location is still unknown (I found this a little too obscure to understand: I thought they had satellite photos. Like most of the novel, these early passages required rereading to try and figure out what was going on, and even then I often gave up trying to understand the minutiae and just read on regardless.)

Raven becomes a Korean seaman

A vast amount of effort then goes in to describing Johnny’s trip by tramp steamer from Japan up into the Arctic Ocean.

As soon as he said yes to the mission, Raven (shall I call him Raven or Porter? Raven has more mystique) was taken to some kind of camp where he was trained in spying and spycraft.

This experience, which took several months, is not actually described in the book, simply referred back to as and when necessary. During his time in ‘the camp’, the surly, secretive multilingual academic Raven has been rather magically transformed into a kind of superspy, a man who will turn out to be capable of carrying out secret rendezvous with other agents, of picking up new outfits and passports and changing identities and carrying himself off as a whole range of different people, fluent in an impressive array of languages (English, Japanese, Korean, half a dozen tribal languages and Russian) which I found increasingly unbelievable.

Thus the next chapter skips over the training camp episode to give us Raven flying into Tokyo where, with typical stubbornness, he promptly refuses to do what the Japanese CIA agent, Yoshi, tells him.

The CIA plan is for Raven to masquerade as a Korean merchant seaman aboard a Japanese tramp steamer, Suzaku Maru, which is scheduled to puff up along the northern, Arctic coast of Siberia, till it gets to the nearest port to the fabled research base.

I still didn’t understand how they know where the base is, or how Johnny will know that, or how they know the ship will stop there, or anywhere nearby. Probably I should have reread the first hundred pages again, to try and piece together the highly elliptical clues. Davidson keeps his cards very close to his chest and only tells the reader the relevant bits of the plan, just before they fall due, and are about to kick in, sometimes only after they’ve happened. The result is a permanent sense of confusion.

Thus it was only a hundred pages later that the reader learns that ‘they’ (presumably the CIA) had approached one of the crew of this tramp steamer, Ushiba, and bribed him with a lot of money to take a pill which mimics the symptoms of yellow fever. He becomes extremely ill just as they dock in Japan. The captain transfers the sick sailor to an ambulance, and Raven just happens to be hanging round and have contacted the ship’s manpower agencies, as it arrives. So he is quickly hired, masquerading as a rough Korean merchant seaman, Sun Wong Chu, complete with pigtail, speaking the language with a slight speech impediment to the Japanese crew, who despise and ignore Koreans anyway.

There’s some tough sailor stuff, in particular a brutal fight with the bosun, who breaks his nose, but Raven works his passage and is gruffly accepted by the others. The ‘plan’ is for he himself to take a yellow fever pill so that, as the ship approaches Green Cape on the Arctic coast of Siberia, it is forced to put in to port and unload him. This he does, and the captain and bosun think he has somehow picked up the earlier sailor’s disease, maybe from infected sheets, mattress etc.

He is treated at Green Cape hospital by several doctors including a woman, Dr Komarova. Then, in a move which bewildered me, Dr Komarova hands him over to the Russian militia who put him on a flight to Yakutsk, where he is transferred to an Aeroflot flight to Murmansk – because that is where the steamer Suzaku Maru, was heading and where, they assume, he will want to rejoin his ship once he is well.

Except that, after recovering for a day or two at a seaman’s mission, Raven goes to a rendezvous with an agent, picks up from him a suitcase containing new clothes and identity papers, goes to the gents loos and shaves off all his hair and Korean pigtail, and emerges with a new identity as Nikolai (Kolya) Khodyan, a member of the Chukchee people from the Siberian east, and catches a plane to Irkutsk, changes to one to Yakutsk, then another local flight on to Tchersky, the nearest airport to Green Cape.

Hang on. If it was so easy to get there, to fly there – what was the point of the scam about him pretending to be a Korean sailor? Why the enormous complication of bribing the seaman he replace to take a pill giving him fever (and trusting that the feverish sailor wouldn’t give away the plan) – and then making Raven grow a ponytail and pretend to be Korean for weeks, and get beaten up by the bosun and nearly crushed by dangerous equipment and then take the same damn pill and seriously endanger his health when… he could have just flown there in the first place?

I read all this carefully, but remained completely puzzled. I am obviously missing something and I would say that that sense – the nagging sense of missing some vital piece of the jigsaw – is the permanent and frustrating feeling given by reading this book.

So Raven is now Nikolai (Kolya) Khodyan. As planned, he proceeds to the vacant apartment of one Alexei Mikhailovitch Ponomarenko. It turns out that this man was on holiday in the Black Sea when he was approached by the CIA who knew he was a drug smuggler. They threatened to tell the authorities unless he extended his stay on the Black Sea and let his apartment in Tchersky be used by their man Raven. More, it turns out that Khodyan is a friend of Ponomarenko’s, whose identity they have borrowed to create a ‘legend’ (fake identity) for Raven.

Raven discovers Ponomarenko had a gossipy old housekeeper, Anna, and a big brassy girlfriend, Lydia Yakovlevna, both of whom we are introduced to, and both need careful (though very different) handling. Our suave superspy is up to both challenges.

Once unpacked and settled in, Raven goes straight to the Tchersky Transport Company and get a job as a long-distance lorry driver. A great deal of description goes into detailing the work of truck companies in the frozen north of Siberia, and the organisation of this particular company, and the shouty director, Bukarovksy, and various foremen who Raven has to sweet-talk into getting a job – and then we learn a great deal about the different types of trucks.

Davidson very powerfully transports us to a completely strange world, with its language, customs, slang, prejudices and the sheer, backbreaking nature of the work. In summer everything melts, the ships can bring in goods but they can’t be distributed because the countryside is a bog. In winter the ocean freezes over – no more ships – but so does the landscape and so trucks can now drive across it. Especially, it turns out, along the rivers, whose flat, deep-frozen-ice surfaces make perfect highways.

(Davidson gives historical background to the economy of the area, which began as appalling forced labour camps in the 1930s and 40s, but was transformed by the discovery of gold and other minerals in the 1960s to something like a viable, if gruelling, mining economy, pp.188-189)

Raven of course knows how to drive all the trucks (including the small, all-purpose ‘bobik’). He has – by impersonating a Korean seaman, surviving a brutal fight with the bosun, surviving a bout of yellow fever, carrying out a secret rendezvous in an airport and completely transforming his appearance and emerging a fluent Chukchee-speaking truck driver – established himself as a kind of spy superman, speaking as many oriental languages as required and capable of blending in anywhere as a member of the minority Siberian native peoples.

Raven is signed up as a driver and does the work well, earning respect and friendship among the rough crews. At a party of truck drivers Raven is horrified to notice the woman doctor Komarova, who treated him as the sick Korean seaman a few weeks earlier, taking an inordinate interest in him. (Didn’t anyone writing this grand plan foresee that he would meet one set of people as sick Korean and then, returning in a completely different guise, risked bumping into the same people again?)

She comes over and talks. She is interested that he is a Chukchee. She invites him to come and meet her mother who lives in a community of Chukchee. Raven goes and we meet the little old lady and her Chukchee friend who, it turns out (the Chukchee community being so small) was present at his birth!!

Luckily, Raven has memorised the ‘legend’ prepared for him so immaculately that he is able to talk to this old lady about his numerous relatives and their mutual acquaintances (all the time, obviously, speaking in Chukchee). I found this wildly improbable.

On the way back from the little tea party, Raven determines to kill the doctor who has been asking more and more suspicious questions about his background. He gets as far as putting his arm round her neck and is on the verge of snapping it (he is a big, strong lad) when she squeals that she is in on The Plan, she is part of The Plan, she is his contact with Rogachev!

After that they go back to her place, she explains some of the background (her father and Rogachev were in the same labour camp together; she knew him as a kindly uncle when she was a girl), and the big revelation that it was she who bribed a merchant seaman who she was treating to take the coded cigarette papers which Rogachev had smuggled out to her, placed in a letter and addressed to Prof Lazenby, the fateful letter which was opened by his secretary in her calm Oxford office all those months earlier.

Then they have sex. Obviously. Most women I know like to shag a man who’s just tried to murder them.

She was not as well found as Lydia Yakovlevna; lankier, less yielding. But she was lithe, controlled, and quite used, as she said, to getting what she wanted. She was also very much more genuine, arching without histrionics when her moment came, and he arched at the same time, and afterwards she kissed his face and stroked it. (p.247)

Now they work together to smuggle Raven into the research base. This new plan stretched credibility to breaking point and beyond. It turns out the research base is very heavily patrolled and guarded (of course), but is serviced by a rotating squad of native Evenk people, selected from the large Evenk tribe which makes a living herding reindeer nearby. The Evenk are honest and reliable and deeply clannish i.e. don’t talk to outsiders, and, anyway, don’t do anything more secret than laundry, cooking, humping heavy equipment about. None of them has any idea what the research going on at the base is about.

Dr Komarova will smuggle Raven in by using a ruse. The ruse is this:

Rogachev, head of the research station, is attended by one of the Evenk tribe, Stepan Maximovich. Stepan inherited the job from his father. He never leaves the base. Raven will be taken to meet the clan leader of the tribe, Innokenty, and pretend to be one of them, an Evenk, but who moved as a boy to Novosibirsk in the distant south (to explain his rickety accent). He will then give a long complicated story about how he met down in the south some members of a white (Russian) family, worked for them, got to know and admire them, but how the father, some kind of scientist, was sent by the state off to some kind of ‘weather station’ in the north 15 or 16 years earlier. Money was sent the family, but no letters, Then the mother of the family died young, but the daughter survived, grew up, got married and is now pregnant. But she herself is now ill. A few months ago he got a letter from the daughter begging to see him. Raven goes sees her and she begs him to track down her father for her, name of Rogachev. He poked around in local offices and got a hint that M. Rogachev was posted somewhere in the Kolyma region. This woman begged Raven to travel to the north to find her father, and ask him to give her unborn child a name, it being the role of parents to name new babies.

This sob story will persuade the Evenk to smuggle Raven into the top secret research facility, hand him on to the personal assistant Stepan, who is the only one who can gain him admittance to the presence of the legendary scientist, Rogachev – so that Raven can hand deliver to him the letter written by his daughter.

And this is what happens. Dr Komarov takes Raven to a meeting with Innokenty and the tribe (flying there by helicopter on the pretext of making a routine medical visit). The Evenk elders completely accept Raven’s long cock-and-bull story (pp.262-268). They offer to give him all the help he needs (incidentally, also accepting his use of the Evenk language, which is different from the Chukchee Raven has been using in his persona as Kolya. He is, it will be remembered, a super-linguist).

There then follows the cloak and dagger business of smuggling Raven into the site. Raven poses as the driver of a lorry full of parts and goods which Dr Komarova is taking to the base. They pass through the security barrier, the guards checking her and her Chukchee driver (Raven)’s passes and wave through. Then, as is usual, some of the Evenk porters come out into the snow to help unpack the truck in the sub-zero conditions.

Komarova chooses a moment when the guards’ backs are turned and Raven swaps clothes with one of the Evenk tribesmen. This Evenk dresses as Raven, then accompanies Pomarova back to the truck, heavily swathed in scarves and muffles and is signed back out of the complex, while Raven, also heavily muffled, is accepted on the inside by the cohort of Evenk tribesmen currently working there – because they are all in on the conspiracy of him smuggling the letter from the pregnant woman to Rogachev, as agreed off by headman Innokenty. In fact they are almost too much in on the conspiracy as they all smile and grin and wink at the doctor and Raven so much they become tensely afraid the Russian guards will notice something is wrong. But they don’t. They think the native peoples are nuts, anyway.

There follows yet more cloak and dagger as, late that night, when the Evenk have gone to bed in their dormitory, Stepan the personal assistant comes and smuggles Raven out of the Evenk dormitory, through secret passages in the research base, and finally into an enormous luxury underground library, with a gallery running round the bookshelves dotted with masterpiece paintings by Picasso, Rembrandt and so on, and leaves him there.

There’s a whirring of motors and Rogachev, the man who started this whole preposterous series of events, whirs into the library in his wheelchair. Wheelchair. That explains why he couldn’t have gone anywhere to meet a western representative.

First Raven explains the subterfuge which has got him this far, i.e. that he’s delivering a letter to Stepan from his pregnant but ill grand-daughter, and they get an envelope and scribble on a blank sheet which Raven can show to the Evenks as the grateful father’s reply.

That out of the way, Rogachev can at last explain to Raven, and to the impatient reader, what the devil the whole thing is about. What it’s about is this:

The mystery at the heart of Kolymsky Heights

Rogachev tells Raven that the Russians have been experimenting for generations to try and breed a type of intelligent but hardy ape who can function as labour in this bleak, sub-freezing terrain.

(I blinked in disbelief at this point. We know that during the 1930s, 40s and 50s they used slave labour to work these areas. If Russians don’t want to do it nowadays, why not pay the local tribespeople, or do what the rest of the West does and import cheap immigrant labour? Breeding an entire new species seems a rather costly and unpredictable way of solving your labour problem, the kind of fantasy idea which only exists in science fiction novels.)

Rogachev tells a cock-and-bull story (this novel is full of them) about his predecessor, Zhelikov, being in a labour camp, but being plucked out and flown to Moscow after the war to meet the great Stalin because the dictator had read a scientific paper about hibernation. This planted the seed in Stalin’s mind that he might not die but be preserved alive. Zhelikov listened to Stalin’s musings and realised they were his passport out of the labour camp, and so nodded wisely, and agreed to set up a research base to bring suspended animation / hibernation/ cryogenics to the peak of perfection which would be required before they could try it on the Great Leader. Stalin rang up Beria and told him to make it so.

Zhelikov asked that the existing weather research base at Tcherny Vodi, near the labour camp of Tchersky, be greatly expanded. They’d have to dig down into the small mountain it was built on, to build multiple levels below the surface, levels for scientists, for ancillary workers, all the laboratories and so on. Stalin said, Make it so.

With the result that the best of Soviet engineering built the James Bond-style secret underground base which Raven now finds himself in, quaffing sherry amid the bookshelves, surrounded by masterpieces by Mondrian and Matisse. All quite bizarre. I didn’t know if I was meant to take this as a parody of a James Bond movie, where the mad scientist reveals his plan for world domination amid symbols of uber-wealth and corruption. All it needed was for Rogachev to be stroking a white cat. Are we meant to take it seriously?

Once the base was established Zhelikov wrote to Rogachev describing the work they were doing and inviting him to join. So he came and had been there ever since.

Now the mad scientist in the wheelchair introduces Raven to his star patient. It is an ape named Ludmilla, lying in bed in a dress, wearing lipstick and glasses and reading. She says hello to Raven. Raven says hello to Ludmilla. The reader wonders if he is hallucinating.

Rogachev explains that the research program to breed intelligent apes made great advances but suffered a fatal flaw: they found they could produce either intelligent apes, or hardy apes, but never the two together. They had been exploring all aspects of the problem including brain circuitry. The discovery of the pregnant neolithic woman and her foetus led to a breakthrough, but not the one they were expecting.

By a series of accidents the research stumbled across discoveries to do with eyesight. Davidson goes into mind-numbing but incomprehensible detail as Rogachev describes the step-by-step progress made, first with rats, then with experimental apes, by which they blinded the subjects – but then used a ‘harmonic wave’ which they had accidentally stumbled across, and which turned out to ‘restore eyesight’ (explained from page 315 onwards).

This ‘harmonic wave’ had several practical applications and Rogachev shows Raven one of them. Turns out Ludmilla the talking ape had been badly injured in the explosion at the research lab which had been detected by American satellites all those months earlier. Her eyes had been damaged and infected (the explosion released some kind of contamination, we aren’t told what).

The point is that Russian grasp of this harmonic wave technology is so advanced that they were able to build a) glasses which convert light into digital information which is then b) transported along wires in the wings of the glasses to electrical contacts which c) interact with contacts embedded behind the subjects’ ears, contacts which they have wired up to the optical regions of the subject’s brain so that d) the blind can see through their glasses!

All this is taking us a long, long way from the initial idea of ape-men and H.G. Wells. Now we are curing the blind. But even this turns out not to be the secret at the book’s core.

Because tests of the harmonic band wave had another unforeseen consequence: it completely disrupts the electrical signals which are used to direct guided and intercontinental missiles. By accident, the base has stumbled over a perfect defence system against all kinds of missile attack!

Rogachev now hands Raven two of the shiny square plates which we used to call computer floppy disks, back in the early 90s (p.326). These floppy disks contain all the information needed to recreate the Russian experiments and build harmonic wave machines and so develop their own anti-missile defences. But they must be opened in laboratory conditions, at lower than 240 degrees below freezing, or they will self-destruct.

I will die soon, Rogachev says (he, too, was infected in the explosion and fire). These will be my legacy. Goodbye. And he turns and whirs out of the room in his wheelchair. Raven goes back to the main door and a few minutes later Stepan opens it and lets him out, they retrace their steps to the Evenk dormitory and smuggle him in. In the morning Raven tells the Evenk that the grateful father has given him a letter and a ring to hand on to his beloved daughter. the Evenk think he is a hero and grin at their own involvement in the kind-hearted plot. A few days later Dr Komarova returns for more medical treatment and Raven is again swapped for the Evenk driver, this time the other way round, the Evenk returning to the dormitory, Raven reverting to his role as driver, driving Dr Komarova out of the complex and away, back to Tchersky. Mission accomplished. Well, first part anyway.

Complications

Unfortunately, there are two complications. One, at a literally very high level, is that the Chinese launch two test rockets during this period, designed to fly the length of China. Both fail due to direction mechanism failure. Davidson takes us into the nitty gritty of the designs and the failures but the upshot is they’re being interfered with by Russian satellites which hover in fixed position way up over the Asian landmass. Is this going to become important? Are the Chinese going to interfere in the story somewhere?

Closer to home, the drug dealer Ponomarenko, unhappy by the rainy Black Sea, hears on the radio that the state is announcing an amnesty for drug dealers. He checks with a lawyer and the cops and then comes forward to report that he has been blackmailed into lending his flat in Tchersky to some dodgy operators, who also wanted to know all about his friend Nikolai (Kolya) Khodyan.

The Black sea cops contact the small police office in Tchersky. They put out a warrant for Kolya/Raven. Dr Komorova hears about it in her capacity as a senior government official in the region. She warns Raven. One escape plan had been for Raven to fly out of the region. Or maybe take another ship. Both now impossible with the authorities checking all papers. Good job he had made a back-up plan.

The bobik

The whole Siberian section of the story has taken several months, during which Raven has wormed his way into the good books of the Tchersky Transport Company, undertaking long distance and countless short distance drives for them. The ‘plan’ had made provision for ‘extracting’ him from the location once the mission was accomplished. But Raven is stroppy and contrary by nature and had begun to make an independent escape plan. Just as well.

This plan is to a) cosy up to the chief engineer at the Tchersky Transport Company and b) persuade him to let him have all the component which make up a bobik light truck so he can build one himself from scratch.

On one of his many delivery trips around the region Raven has discovered a big cave, hidden by frozen bushes, big enough to turn into a workshop where he can secure a block and tackle to the ceiling, instal lamps around the place, store food, a sleeping bag and blankets – and then, slowly steadily, week after week, persuade the head engineer at Tchersky, to let him have more and more pieces of bobik and drop them off at the cave, and build a truck from scratch, by himself!

Implausible doesn’t seem an adequate word to describe how wildly improbable and unnecessary I found this. Why not just pile Dr Pomarova and a load of food into one of the existing bobiks he gets to use perfectly legally, set off on a long, perfectly legal trip, and just keep going? No. In Davidson’s story, he has to build his own!

The Tchersky militia led by Major Militsky become more officious and search every house. Raven hides in Dr Komarova’s cellar. Then she drives him out to the cave with food and he does back-breaking work constructing the bobik. She is due to come next night at midnight. Is hours late. He goes out to watch. Tension, stress.

She turns up with food and the battery, the last component needed to complete the bobik, and news that the hunt is getting serious. In fact it has become a region-wide hunt and a general from Irkutsk has flown in to take charge of it. Pomorova tells Raven how much she loves him. Oh darling. Oh sweet man. Yes, yes, says Raven, but realises that she is the only official allowed into Tcherny Vodi. They will interrogate her. They go over her story, trying to plant red herrings. Then kiss goodbye. ‘I will see you again, won’t I, my love?’ She asks. ‘Of course,’ he replies, lying.

She leaves. He tries to sleep. He can’t. He gets up and starts the bobik and inches out onto the frozen river. Half an hour later a military patrol passes by. He has got out just in time.

Raven on the run

Raven drives east. On the map there is a tributary of the main river-highroad which the map says is impassible. It is certainly strewn with rocks embedded in the ice, but he drives slowly and carefully and the bobik is designed to be indestructible. After several hours Raven comes to a hump-backed bridge which carries the highway from Tchersky to Bilibino (p.377). At a succession of Road Stations, Raven cruises in silently with his lights doused, parks and siphons petrol from the tanks of other bobiks in the car parks, the drivers tucked up inside the warm lodges. Not weather to be outside. He is heading east into a big range of mountains known as the Kolymsky Heights. Aha.

In parallel, a security forces general flies into Tchersky from Irkutsk and takes charge of the search. Having interrogated Ponomarenko, he realises this is a sophisticated spying project mounted by foreign powers. He realises the agent will have left the area. He orders all transport within a 500 mile radius to be frozen and checked.

Basically these last 100 pages turn into quite a nailbiting chase, Raven a clever resourceful fugitive, pitted against the General who is also a very intelligent and thorough investigator. While Raven drives East in a bobik the General is misled by several false clues into telling his forces to search to the south for a missing rubbish truck. But when that avenue runs dry, follows other clues, until he is right on the tail of our man.

The cold calculation of the fugitive, and the clever deductions of the general (I don’t think we’re ever given his name) reminded me strongly of the similar set-up in Frederick Forsyth’s classic thriller The Day of the Jackal. A chase.

Raven drives on on on through the snow, hiding under bridges for snatched sleep, surviving on bread and salami, driving over a thousand kilometers, with a number of close shaves, and just squeezing past security barriers along the way, until he arrives at a tiny settlement named Baranikha which has an airport sure enough, but no flights in our out due to a fierce blizzard.

Raven hooks up with a drunk Inuit who he lets drink all his vodka till he passes out, whereupon Raven takes his coat and boots and backpack and skis and identity papers and hustles himself onto the first plane which is now leaving the airport as the snow lifts, to a tiny place out east, towards the Bering Strait, named Mitlakino.

Here he signs in with a jostling noisy scrum of other workers but in the dead of night retrieves his papers, backpack and steals a snowplough. The geography now becomes crucial. Baranikha and Mitlakino are way out at the easternmost tip of Siberia, on the blocky peninsula which sticks out into the Bering Strait and faces on to Alaska. Raven hadn’t planned it this way, it was pure fluke that the only plane flying from the airport was heading here. But now he’s here he conceives the plan of crossing the Bering Strait from the Russian side to the American side, and freedom. (Although Davidson nowhere explicitly explains this, the reader eventually deduces that at this time of year – the winter solstice – the Bering Strait is completely frozen over. Since it is only 50 miles wide, a man could walk it, admittedly hampered by the fog, snow and frequent blizzards.)

To cut a long story short, the security general has caught up with Raven’s trail, they’ve found the drunk Inuit at the airport as he sobers up and complains that someone’s stolen his papers, they’ve followed the trail to the workers dormitory at Mitlakino, the general yells down the phone to the dopy head of the Mitlakino settlement who does a search and discovers a snowplough is missing. They deduce Raven must be heading to the coast and the general dispatches helicopters from a nearby military base.

The border between America and Russia runs down the middle of the Bering Strait. There are two islands there, the Greater Diomede Island is on the Russian side of the sea border, the Lesser Diomede Island is on the American side.

Raven drives his snowplough through a blizzard along the coast till he gets to a settlement called Veyemik. He hides the plough and knocks on the door of the biggest house, waking the headman of the local tribe of native peoples, Inuit. Here he pretends to be an Inuit on the run from the authorities. The people take him in. Next morning they all go out fishing to iceholes they cut in the deep frost covering the sea. Raven asks to go with them. They take him in a motorised ski-bus out to the hole where the Inuits split up to fish different holes. Raven has asked a series of questions establishing that they are almost within sight of Greater Diomede Island. He slips away from the Indians and sets out on skis.

But there is unusual helicopter activity overhead. The general has figured out where he is, and even has men at Veyemik interrogating the inhabitants, and now knows the fugitive is out on the ice. The general mobilises the defence forces on Greater Diomede who turn out in ski busses, little ski scooters and on skis. Plus the helicopters overhead.

After some complicated hide and seek, during which Raven, in the ongoing blizzard fog, isolates and knocks out a security soldier and steals all his equipment, he eventually realises the general has created a solid wall of trucks and soldiers with headlights and torches on, 250m from the border. Raven climbs up a cliff on the eastern side of Greater Diomede and hides in a cave, but then a helicopter flies slowly low along the cliff, guiding a truck of soldiers which uses a mortar to fire gas mortars into every cave. Raven tucks himself back against the wall but the mortar which shoots into his cave bounces on to his chest and explodes leaving him deaf and half blind. Only a little later do we discover it blew out one of his eyes.

Half-blinded he crawls to the cave entrance and shoots down the militia in the jeep, then half climbs half falls to the ground, crawls to the jeep, and half drives it. The chase becomes horrible now, as the militia close in and shoot out the tyres and lob mortars at the engine (the general has shouted down the phone to the local commander that the fugitive must be taken alive). A mortar detonates on the bonnet which blows shards of metal into Raven’s body. He cannot hear and barely drive or think. The wrecked jeep slews in circles but…

Once again and for the final time I was confused by Davidson’s elliptical descriptions and by the way he intrudes into this vivid description, parallel accounts of the aftermath and what the Russian authorities discovered in the cave and along Raven’s trail. All of this fooled me into thinking he made it just to the edge of the international border but was captured by the Russkies.

Which turns out to be wrong. The first the reader realises of this is when we are told that Raven is being rushed to hospital in Anchorage. I.e., although it is nowhere explicitly stated that he crossed the border, and there is no description of anything the American troops did on their side or how his body was recovered or anything – next we know we have entered a different type of register as the book becomes like an official record of events, describing at high-level the transport of the body. Then we are told that Raven’s severely injured body packs up and he dies. Lost one eye, blinded in the other, shot through one knee, chest cluttered with shrapnel, lost one lung, it packs up and Raven dies. His funeral is attended by officials from Russia, who apologise for this sorry incident and for how a confused native must have wandered by accident into a military exercise. And who, naturally, make a note of everyone who attends the funeral.

Which is why none of the CIA officials attend, obviously. In fact no-one attends except the mortician and coroner.

But another reason no-one attends is that Raven isn’t dead. Davidson’s last trick in this very tricksy narrative is the not-altogether-unexpected revelation that the agency spirited the heavily-wounded Raven away to a super-advanced hospital, and swapped his boy with that of an unknown vagrant who had been – very conveniently – run over and trashed. That’s the heavily-bandaged body which is placed in a coffin and whose funeral the Russkies attend and who is cremated.

Meanwhile, Raven recuperates, given the best medical treatment the agency can provide.

And, in the final pages, there is the ring. You may recall that Rogachev gave Raven a ring, supposedly a blessing to his ‘daughter’, part of the cover story which got Raven into the compound. The ring was in fact Rogachev’s weeding ring which, knowing he is soon to die, he gives to Rogachev. Inside is engraved the motto As our love the circle has no end. After he’d been extracted from the base, among many other things Raven showed the ring to Dr Komarova, who has fallen deeply in love with him. Later, after he has fled the tightening net, Komarova goes to check out the cave where Raven had built the bobik. He has very professionally completely emptied it of every trace of his presence (loading it into the bobik and disposing of most of it in faraway ravines on his escape drive east). But she finds a small scrap of paper scrunged up. Inside is the ring with its motto.

Now, on the last page of the book, Dr Komarova has quit her job in Kolymsk and moved west to Petersburg (despite a shrewd interrogation by the general, she managed to throw the investigators off her trail and survived the whole episode without reproach). And three months later she receives a letter, containing an open-ended air ticket to Montreal, an immigration department slip bearing her correct name and passport number. And tucked away at the bottom of the envelope a tiny slip of cigarette paper bearing a single line of writing: As our love the circle has no end.

As love stories go, it has to be one of the weirdest I’ve ever read, but then the entire novel is meticulously detailed, powerfully atmospheric, often completely preposterous, sometimes incomprehensible but despite everything, exerted a very powerful tug on my imagination and memory.


Maps

There are four maps in the novel (more than you sometimes get in history books). Good quality ones, too, showing

  1. the whole of northern Asia (pp.32-33)
  2. the coast of British Columbia, where Lazenby and the CIA man go to find Raven (p.76)
  3. Cape Dezhnev and Bering Strait region (p.158)
  4. the Kolymsky Region (p.417)

But there is the same sense of oddity or something wrong about these as theres is over the whole book. Very simply, the two latter maps should be reversed.

The central section of the novel is set in the Kolymsky region, so the detailed map of the area – which shows Cape Green where the ship docks, Tchersky where the doctor lives and Raven gets his job on the lorries, the location of the research centre and even of the cave he discovers and uses to build his bobik – quite obviously this map should go at the beginning of that section instead of where it is actually positioned, well after that whole section has finished (?)

Whereas it is only on page 410 that we first hear of the small settlement of Mitlakino and Raven decides to take the plane there. At which point the precise geography of the area becomes vital to his plans for escape, and for the final nailbiting descriptions of his escape across the ice – and so this is where the map of Cape Dezhnev and Bering Strait should go – not 250 pages earlier, where it was completely irrelevant and didn’t register as important. It wasn’t important, yet.

Is this an editorial mistake, a mistake in the printing of the book? Or yet another subtle way of blindsiding the reader and keeping us puzzled, as the suppression of so many other key facts in the narrative succeeded in puzzling me all the way through.

Style

Flat descriptions Although the book is set in some dazzling and awe-inspiring landscapes (the seascapes and frozen landscapes of Siberia) Davidson is not that at descriptions. He gives the facts, but they rarely come to life. Here’s an example of his prose.

He got up and walked about the room. In a recess beside the stove an icon was on the wall. The stove was cold, the house now electrically heated, very stuffy, very warm. Books were everywhere, on shelves, tables. He couldn’t make out the titles in the dark. (p.243)

You can see the bit of effort Davidson has made to create something more than flat factual description in the use of the verbless phrases ‘very stuffy, very warm’. Not very inspiring, though, is it?

Martin Cruz Smith’s sequel to Gorky ParkPolar Star, finds his Moscow detective, Arkady Renko way off his beat, working on a factory ship in the Bering Sea. It’s the same location as the coastal scenes of Kolymsky Heights, at about the same time (Polar Star 1989, Kolymsky Heights 1994). Smith’s book is sensationally vivid in description and atmosphere. I think it’s the best of the eight Renko novels because you can feel the icy temperature, the salt spray in your face, the harshness of frozen metal.

None of that is captured by Davidson’s prose. It is flat and functional. Eventually, by dint of repetition of the facts, you get the powerful sense of brain-numbing cold, of ice and snow and blizzards. But it is done rationally, by repetition of factual information, not by the style.

Instead of jazzy and vivid description, Davidson has a few mannerisms of his own.

Echoing One is a kind of dumb, blank repetition of events. Very often he’ll end a paragraph saying so-and-so plans to do x, y or z. And then the next paragraph begins with ‘And so-and-so did x, y, or z.’

‘I have thought how this could be managed’.
He explained how this could be managed. (p.306)

He was contacting them himself immediately.
Which, immediately, he did. (p.443)

It’s a kind of rhetorical echolalia. It doesn’t add to atmosphere or even tension. The opposite. I found it helped harden the colourless carapace of Davidson’s prose, often making it even harder to work out what was happening and, in particular, why.

I suppose, it also creates an effect of inevitability. Someone says something is going to happen. And that’s what happens. Maybe the effect is to create a subtle sense of fatefulness and predestination, to give the narrative a very slightly mythic quality.

‘Sure, Kolya. You’ll take the job – just when we get the call.’
And they got the call, and he got the job. (p.197)

It all falls into place, more as if it’s a myth or legend or fairy tale, than an ordinary sequence of contingent human events.

Phrase reversal Another tic is reversing the usual structure of an English sentence, from subject-verb-object to object-subject-verb.

His present job he greatly disliked. (p.281)

With his security chief Beria he had discussed this idea. (p.299)

This idea he suddenly found himself discussing in the most bizarre circumstances… (p.300)

The route to Anyuysk she knew, and he stayed under a blanket in the back while she drove. (p.348)

This ridiculous situation he had promptly ordered Irkutsk to deal with… (p.385)

It’s a stylistic mannerism, a not very successful attempt to jazz up Davidson’s generally flat prose.

I suppose it might be argued that playing with the word order of conventional English like this goes a little way towards mimicking the various foreign languages that are spoken in the book, and maybe creating a sense of the ‘otherness’ of Russia and the Russian-speakers who the second half is set amongst. Maybe.

Her intense nervousness she covered with an air of impatience. (p.386)

To Zirianka a long-distance helicopter was required… (p.404)

Italics In the extended account of Raven’s meeting with Innokenty and the Evenks, Davidson used an excessive amount of italics to make his points, often rather unnecessarily. This reminded me of John le Carré’s nugatory use of italics to try and make his dialogue more dramatic.

Since they started their careers at almost the same time, this made me wonder if it’s a feature of the fiction of the time: was there something about emphasis in the late 1950s, a historic idiolect from that period which lingered on in their prose styles.

If they merely hovered over his route, they would catch him now. How far, in three or four minutes, could he have gone? (p.444)

For me, the random use of italics didn’t intensify the reading experience but created a rather annoying distraction.

Gaps and absences

I read the book with a permanent sense that I kept missing key bits of information about who was going where, and why.

Unless this is simply part of Davidson’s technique: to leave key bits of information and motivation out of the novel so as to leave the reader permanently off-balance.

Possibly, a second reading of the book, knowing in advance information which is only revealed later on in the text, would help you make sense of all the hints and obliquities early on in the narrative. Maybe the pattern only fully emerges after several readings. Maybe this is why Philip Pullman is liberally quoted on the front, the back and in the short introduction he provides for the book, describing it as ‘the best thriller he’s ever read’. In the introduction he says he’s arrived at this opinion after reading the book four times. Maybe that’s the amount of effort required to see the full pattern. But certain inexplicabilities would still remain: why did Raven undertake the long sea voyage if he could just have flown to Tchersky any day of the week? And nothing can eliminate the truly bizarre scene where Raven shakes hands with an ape in a dress named Ludmilla. The final hundred pages of fast-paced chase revert to something like conventional thriller style. But shaking hands with a talking ape? I still have to shake my head to be sure I actually read that. Did someone spike my drink?


Related links

The Scramble for China by Robert Bickers (2011)

Bickers obviously knows a hell of a lot about western intervention in nineteenth-century China – or the story of the Foreign Devils in the Qing Empire 1832-1914, as the book’s sub-title puts it. Unfortunately, he attempts to convey this wealth of information in such a long-winded, round-the-houses manner, choked by a prose style which manages to combine academic jargon and whimsical archaism, that a lot of the time it’s difficult to tease out what he’s on about.

For example, the early chapters open with an unnamed ‘he’ doing something melodramatic and striking, thus creating an arresting opening – but take a page or more getting round to explaining who ‘he’ is, what ‘he’ is doing, where and when and why, thus leaving us in the dark.

They shouldered their way in. At Mr Lindsay’s order, Mr Simpson and Midshipman Stephens put their shoulders against the barred entrance to the Daotai’s quarters and heaved, twice. (Opening of chapter two)

Who? Where? When? Why? Patience, grasshopper. All will be revealed… eventually.

Was it a dream? Were his eyes deceiving him? He pressed forward through the crowd, the report goes, to get a better sight of the strangers, and “immediately began rubbing his eyes”. (Opening of chapter three)

Who? Where etc. Wait. Wait and see. Wait quite a while, in fact, for Bickers to make himself clear.

These teasing anecdotes, once finally explained, themselves take a while to be placed in the wider historical moment, which Bickers tends to explain both repetitively and obscurely. Quite regularly I didn’t know who he was referring to or when because the narrative jumped unpredictably between one set of characters and another, and (very frequently) back and forward over time. The only really consistent thing about his approach is his use of colourless academic phraseology and his scorn for the no-good imperialising westerners.

At first sight there appears to be a good deal of ‘background colour’ – the third chapter prides itself on going into great detail about the role of theatre and opera in Chinese society, from the professional heights of Peking Opera to the most amateur of local productions. Unfortunately, a lot of these purple passages, when you really look at them, merely state the obvious.

To give an example, the ‘he’ described in the opening of chapter three turns out to be a Chinese bystander who’s heard about two Europeans who have arrived out of the blue at Shanghai in – well, the date is lost in the yards of verbiage, I genuinely couldn’t figure it out – and who have blundered into a public opera production. This is Bickers’ cue to write pages about the Chinese opera and theatre tradition. Sounds fascinating, right? Alas, these pages are written thus:

But what was being staged depended on the occasion, and who was paying – the temple, a guild or a private patron. We cannot know, but we do know that the temple and the gathering so rudely interrupted by these bumptious foreign travellers were part of the fabric of Shanghai life and culture, in which were tightly interwoven the sojourning communities of commercial China, men from afar, whose trading activities were a key component of its wealth and importance. (p.59)

This one long sentence informs us that this big temple in Shanghai was part of Shanghai life and culture. Golly. Communities of sojourners (sojourner = ‘a person who resides temporarily in a place’) were – in case you hadn’t twigged – ‘men from afar’. OK. And that the trading activities of travelling merchants ‘were a key component of [Shanghai’s] wealth and importance’. ‘Tightly interwoven’ sounds impressive, doesn’t it? What does it mean, though?

I.e. when you take this grand-sounding sentence to pieces, it doesn’t tell you anything that wasn’t already fairly obvious. This is true for thousands of passages throughout the book: sound great, don’t tell you a thing.

Obscurity 

I’ve gone back and reread the opening pages of chapter three, twice, and I genuinely cannot actually work out when the action quoted above is taking place. You have to wait until three pages into the chapter before there is any reference to an actual date, and then it’s to two dates at once, one or both of which may refer back to a scene described in the previous chapter (I think), a reference which, in turn, required me to go back and double-check those dates.

In other words, this book requires quite a lot of double-checking and cross-referencing just to figure out when the thing is happening. Here’s the date reference I’m talking about:

Understanding what they were congregating for on this dreary October day in 1835 and had been watching on that wet June morning in 1832, and why at a temple, will help us develop a fuller picture of the China that first Lindsay and Gütlzaff, and then Medhurst and Stevens, were so intent on interrupting with their presence. (p.53)

This is what I mean by a round-the-houses manner. The opening of chapter three is deliberately obscure and teasing but… becomes no clearer as it goes on, in fact becomes in many ways more obscure and confusing as it goes on. All that really comes over is Bickers’s anti-British attitude (‘so intent on interrupting’) which is, indeed, the central thread of his account.

All this makes for a very frustrating read. Obviously Bickers knows masses about this subject – it is a tragedy for us readers that he can’t set it down in a straightforward, understandable manner.


The sound of his own voice

Complementing the obscure structuring of the book is the convoluted prose style.

1) Long paragraphs Bickers’ paragraphs routinely last an entire page and often longer, so on opening the book anywhere the reader is faced with a blank wall of words, with no way of breaking the text down into smaller, manageable units of meaning. I continually found myself losing the drift of a 2-page long paragraph, my eyes glazing over, suddenly snapping out of it and then having to go right back to the start to figure out what was happening.

2) Long sentences These mammoth paragraphs are indicative of the book’s general long-windedness. Bickers is reluctant to write a simple declarative sentence. He prefers long, swelling periods, dotted with commas to indicate the proliferation of subordinate clauses and – if possible – the insertion of one or two additional facts in parentheses, to make them as ornate and rhetorically over-wrought as possible.

You know those suitcases which are so over-stuffed you have to sit on them to try and get them closed? Bickers’ sentences are like that. And is this over-stuffing done in the name of presenting the facts clearly? Alas, no. Nine times out of ten it is to achieve an effect of style, a rhetorical repetition of phrases or artful alliteration, the deployment of irony or sarcasm – all techniques which are more suitable to a creative writer than to a historian.

And so, yet again, the Tianhou temple at Shanghai played host to parley, and the crude theatrics of private diplomacy, as Medhurst in particular stood, or rather aimed to sit, on his dignity as yet higher officials, the Customs superintendent (with a foreign cloak, he noted) and the district magistrate, came along in turn to sort things out, and found the foreign intruders rudely rebuffing the requirements of propriety when meeting officials of the great Qing. (p.52)

Note the attempts at humour – ‘or rather aimed to sit’. Note the insertion of a parenthesis, which itself contains two grammatical parts ‘(with a foreign cloak, he noted)’. Note the fondness for alliteration, for the sound of his own style – ‘rudely rebuffing the requirements’. Note that rather than describing or explaining the attitudes of the participants, Bickers prefers to convey them through irony verging on sarcasm – ‘the great Qing’.

Basically, this is a historian trying to write like a novelist.

3) Old fashioned Ironically for someone who is so determined to take a loftily modern, politically correct point of view of the old British Empire, Bickers’ prose, as well as being convoluted to the point of incomprehension, is also addicted to very old-fashioned locutions and vocabulary. Since I often couldn’t work out what he was on about, I found myself drawn to collecting his oddities and archaisms (= ‘a thing that is very old or old-fashioned, especially an archaic word or style of language’):

  • History was ever a public act, but it was also ever a private passion. (p.16)

Leaving aside the fact that this grand sounding period means less the more you think about it, there is the phrasing to savour – ‘ever’ to mean ‘always’? Really? In 1817 certainly. In 1917 maybe. But in 2017? Reading so many Victorian journals, tracts, articles has obviously infected Bickers’ style. But this is far from being a one-off oddity:

  • Lindsay was ever deadly serious, of course, and Medhurst too. (p.75)
  • There were private interactions, too, as there had ever been. (p.224)
  • Music was ever also a private pleasure, a private relief, a source of succour. (p.228)
  • Such confidence in the foreign ability to know China better than the Chinese themselves was to be oft rehearsed. (p.39). ‘Oft’?
  • All understood the law, he averred… (p.41) ‘Averred’?
  • All this fury and posture came to nought. (p.46)
  • The bells in Macao were quieted at the request of his physicians, but it all proved to no avail. (p.46)
  • Emigrants from Fujian, who had long sojourned in the city… (p.54)
  • The colonial consolidation and expansion of the emperor’s predecessors was largely foresworn… (p.66)
  • The Qing could but capitulate… (p.324)

Odd that Bickers is so loftily dismissive of the old imperialist bullies when he himself sounds so like a mutton-chopped lawyer out of Dickens:

  • The tension among the Company men in China persisted thereafter… (p.25)
  • … they aimed to get their complaints heard elsewhere along the coast and transmitted thereby to Peking… (p.26)
  • Scholars have begun in recent decades to look beyond the rhetoric of some schools of Chinese statecraft, particularly insofar as it articulated hostility to commerce.. (p.62)
  • Thereafter he held an intendant post in Zhejiang… (p.72)
  • Charles Elliott, by now the British superintendent of trade, rushed to Canton from Macao in cocked-hatted full dress uniform, evading the blockade and thereby deliberately adding himself to the hostaged fray. (p.78) ‘The hostaged fray’?
  • There were ‘mixed feelings’ from The Times, at the conclusion of a ‘miserable war’, and the ‘ill-gotten gains’ therefrom. (p.84)
  • Jardines had fourteen receiving ships by 1845, and usually ten thereafter… (p.92)
  • Like most of the early missionary community in China, he secured a post with the official British establishment during the war, and turned it into a secure position thereafter… (p.94)
  • In this way they rationalised their operations somewhat. (p.106)
  • Telegraph lines snaked their way thereafter to China. (p.164)
  • [The convicted murderer John Buckley] went quietly to his death, the site guarded by twenty-four policemen in case an attempt was made to rescue him, and he was not thereafter missed. (p.180)
  • For almost a quarter of a century thereafter the firm grew and diversified… (p.185)
  • Thomas Hanbury and his ilk were wedded to their interests in the Settlement at Shanghai… (p.189)
  • At least in Britain there was a Public Records Office, and in principle archives were transferred to public access, but nothing of that like existed in China. (p.376) — I don’t think I’ve ever read ‘like’ being used in this way before. ‘…nothing of that like…’ Surely you or I would write ‘but nothing like that existed in China’, but where would be the fun in that?

Alliteration Alliteration self evidently promotes sound and rhetoric over factual content and meaning.

  • Lindsay instantly resumed a pointed game of protocol and precedence. (p.21)
  • Their later frantic, frequent queries… (p.27)
  • It complained that the authorities in Canton were corrupt, capricious and cruel (p.28).
  • All wanted friendly and fruitful relations… (p.41)
  • They left that afternoon with a promise that a polite and properly formal response to their petition would follow. (p.41)
  • Instead they indulged in recondite debates about terms and texts. (p.73)
  • [Nathan Dunn’s exhibition of chonoiserie in London in December 1841] inspired catcalls and copycats… (p.88)
  • Such consular conveniences, compounded by confusions… (p.107)
  • [The Taiping rebels] fought fanatically and fiercely. (p.120)
  • … fifteen years’ worth of precedent and practice. (p.155)

Maybe Bickers is modelling himself on the lyrics of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. In at least one place he does in fact directly quote Gilbert & Sullivan – on page 78 referring to the ‘little list’ being used in negotiations with the Chinese, a phrase which is the focus of a well-known song from their operetta about Japan, The Mikado (1885) (in fact, Bickers likes the jokey reference so much, he makes it again on page 194).

Hendiadys and pairing Why use one word when you can use two – ideally alliterating or rhyming – to deliver that knockout rhetorical punch?

  • Confident, nonetheless, they memorialised now more readily and steadily. (p.370)
  • … ongoing debates and disagreements… (p.374)

Fancy-ancy just for the fun of playing with words:

  • These shows… brought curious orientals to accompany the oriental curiosities on display in London. (p.89)
  • As successive reports made their way back to Britain, and as the lobbyists worked their words… (p.80)
  • But abate it they could not, or abate it they would not… (p.113)
  • Nearly all foreigners could or would still only talk a pidgin English… (p.114)
  • The act of uprising – daring to stand and daring to fight… (p.120)
  • But he could not, or would not, pay them. (p.126)
  • Parkes had grown up as British China grew up. He had grown with conflict and he had grown accustomed to conflict. China was his adult life, his only life… (p.138)
  • The men were there to fight and fought there well. (p.162)
  • So Robert Hart had had his fill of life in the foothills of the China apocalypse, had seen how vacuum would follow and violence ensure if the Qing could not hold… (p.196)
  • This new Peking, the object of romantic contemplation, suggested a China that might be appreciated rather than caricatured, and savoured rather than savaged. (p.221)

Singular nouns or nouns without an article This a real addiction of Bickers’ style, it occurs throughout on every page and gives the prose a stilted, hieratic feel:

  • [Lindsay] was ready to perceive slight and note omission… (p.22)
  • Now Lindsay was sailing north without invitation… (p.24)
  • … he and his retinue had been denied audience… (p.24)

Shouldn’t that be, ‘denied an audience’? It’s not wrong, it’s just that denying many of these nouns an article turns them from specific instances or events into lofty-sounding abstractions – makes them and the sentences they appear in just that wafer-thin bit more stilted and precious than they need be. More portentous and pretentious, to adopt Bickers’ own manner.

  • The predictable regularity of the internationalised trading world was periodically upset, as in any port city, by human failing and misadventure… (36)
  • They knew so well many of the possibilities that lay beyond their reach by imperial order, and engaged in shrewd estimate and wild conjecture… (p.65)
  • Nor was [the emperor Daoguang] the despised feudal archaism of the Marxist history of communist-era China, which castigated the failures of the late-Qing monarchs to combat imperialism’s assault. (p.67)
  • Those Napier-ordered bombardments of the Canton forts were simply ‘minnows’ compared with the just desserts of Chinese obstruction and insult that were to be meted out by British warships. (p.77)
  • The British helped inform this comedy of error. (p.86)

As with the other elements of Bickers’ style it gives the impression of acuity and insight without providing any actual information. The proliferation of these rhetorical tricks explains why you can read whole page-long paragraphs, arrive exhausted at the end, and then wonder why you don’t appear to have learned or remembered anything.

  • The Canton RegisterCanton Courier, and the more ambitious and scholarly Chinese Repository, edited by Elijah Bridgman, the first American missionary to China, all conveyed up-to-date news, description and opinion across the seas. (p.36) Why not descriptions?
  • Every contact with Chinese officials was an occasion for slight. (p.44)
  • It administered each in the way which seemed best, or most pragmatic at the time, and given considerations of resource and capacity. (p.69) Why not ‘resources‘?
  • Bouts of fighting were interspersed with parleys and negotiations, and with defence of insecure occupations of Chinese islands… (p.81) Why not ‘the defence’?
  • Stronger still would be the accumulated body of printed and private report… (p.89)
  • … the consequent legal haziness of their operations generated much correspondence and dispute. (p.93)
  • But domestic crisis was no small matter when rumour swept around… (p.114)
  • If stray shots passed over there would be formal complaint and stern rebuke. (p.127)
  • European initiative needed Chinese resource. (p.156)
  • The Customs delivered increasing resource as foreign trade grew… (p.198)
  • The development of official banks of information and report by consul and commissioner… (p.218)

So Used as an emphasiser, and in an unusual position in the word order, in a very old-fashioned way:

  • Indeed it will help if we understand more about the temple itself, which so stood out on the Shanghai waterfront close by the Customs House and under the highest point on the city wall, and which so stands out in these two landmark accounts of foreign visits to the city…This way we can better understand the China of the early 1830s outside the narrow confines of the factories, the roads, Macao, that narrow semi-foreignised sliver of the Canton delta that so overfills accounts of the early Sino-foreign encounters. (p.53)

Indeed, it would have been better for the gentle reader of these rhetorical tricks which so embellish and so adorn the purple prose of this grandiloquent historianographer, if his exuberant verbosity had been somewhat reined in and replaced with useful and understandable factual content.

Presage Bickers likes this word.

  • The foreign traders, all of them, were to be held hostage for the drug, without fresh food, without their servants, worried that the commissioner’s little list… presaged individual arrests and possibly torture. (p.78)
  • The sight of the burning buildings… presaged some more years of violent Canton problems. (p.101)
  • All such minor disturbances of men and women could presage consular grief. (p.114)
  • An estimated 7 million people were affected by the floods and dyke-failures that presaged the great change [of the course of the Yellow River in 1851] (p.136)
  • This turn to antique China also presaged the opening of another front in the foreign campaign. (p.221)
  • Margary’s slaughter presaged another round in China’s despoliation… (p.260)
  • The new blockade was to presage a new phase in the campaign… (p.296)

The use of ‘presage’ is typical of Bickers’s preference for the orotund and bombastic as opposed to the plain and simple.

Inversions of normal sentence order which makes sentences sometimes difficult to understand.

  • Quickly to the Company’s aid came instead other parties and volunteers… (p.26)
  • What commercial bliss it was that hot Canton spring… (p.78)
  • Rare it was that ‘the preacher commences and ends his discourse without a single intervention’. (p.111)
  • Always in Peking, I think, someone will in fact have heard him. Always someone will have heard the young foreigner belting out song in the capital’s dry air. (p.229)
  • Always there were exceptions… (p.249)
  • Fearful too were Chinese residents and local authorities. (p.349)

Incomprehensible In fact the combination of all the above tricks and jackanapary makes some sentences simply incomprehensible.

  • And what was eventually left over, why, when the hullaballoo was over, and when Lin’s officers had spent three weeks in April and May overseeing the smashing of the balls of opium and their flushing out to sea at Humen, close by the Linten anchorage, then what a market there was for it, and what prices it could now fetch discreetly, much more discreetly, sold along the coast to friends disappointed by the diversion of the spring stock. (p.79)
  • Along the coast with the British Cantonese went nonetheless, or followed soon after. (p.101)
  • Gods of ignorance and bafflement reigned over the China theatre. (p.397)

Sojourners sojourning As mentioned above, a sojourner is ‘a person who resides temporarily in a place’. Lots of westerners came out to newly-opened-up China to make a quick fortune then go home; they are pretty obviously ‘sojourners’, if you choose to use this antique term. But lots of Chinese, both native and immigrants from the south-east Asian diaspora, also came to ‘sojourn’ in the new Crown colonies Britain had wrested from China. Hence there was a whole lot of sojourning going on, and the text doesn’t let us forget it:

  • Sojourners and settlers prefer familiarity to adaptation… (p.62)
  • [The Qing empire] was well used to dealing with sojourners from outside its formal domain… (p.69)
  • Cantonese migrants and sojourners were quick to see additional value in association with the British… (p.102)
  • Robert Fortune’s second sojourn in China… (p.105)
  • They [westerners] were sojourners, mostly… Their sojourns were not short. (p.117)
  • Shanghai itself fell on 7 September 1853 to a sojourner coup. (p.125)
  • The sojourner was mentally relocating, settling in, his sense of where he formally belonged shifting. (p.168)

Personification

  • Arrogant opium swaggered its way along to the newly opened ports. (p.92)

Not traditional history writing, is it?

Tired and jaded

It is an oddity of this book that Bickers’ tone is tired and jaded with the whole western adventure in China before it has even started. Very early on he starts using phrases like ‘once again’ and ‘yet again’, when in fact what he’s describing is happening for the first time. This quickly conveys to the reader that Bickers is frightfully bored with the oh-so-predictable cultural misunderstandings or western bullying or the absurd scenes of everyone standing on their dignity which he depicts.

  • At Shanghai as at Hong Kong, and in every foreign community, such sentiments… were to be expressed again and again… (p.134)
  • Again it all began in Canton… (p.136)
  • And here we are again at the closed gates of the city and at the closed door of the yamen… (p.146)
  • It was the old story, of China coast savviness about Chinese duplicity… (p.213)

This tone conveys the regrettable sense that Bickers feels blasé and superior to the events he’s describing and the poor saps enacting them. If only the human race had given Bickers something a bit more interesting and novel to write about! There’s a striking passage which introduces the First Opium War where he tells us how awfully over-familiar the whole thing is:

The course of events that followed are well known. How Lin Zexu was sent as a special commissioner to investigate the problem in Canton and to put a stop to the trade, how he made his way overland to the city and set about making his mark: all of this has been much narrated. (p.77)

Is it well known, though? Has it been much narrated? Do you know all about Lin Zhu and his overland trek and what happened next? I certainly didn’t. In fact, that’s why I’m reading a book about the scramble for China, precisely to learn about this history, not to be patronisingly told that I ought to know all about it all already.

This passage (there are plenty more in the same vein) crystallised my feeling that Bickers is far too close to his subject matter and makes a kind of rookie error in assuming that his readers share his specialised knowledge and are all as blasé and bored by it as he is.

But many of us have barely heard any of this story before and it is his responsibility to tell it to us. Alas, Bickers is so over-familiar with events that he has to resort to fancy prose and attitudinising to keep his own interest up. I, on the other hand, was hoping for a simple, reliable and clearly written account of the events of these hundred years in China.

Alas, I didn’t get it here. Bickers’ account of the First Opium War is confusing, but not as confusing and partial as his account of the Taiping Rebellion (1850-64) on pages 118 to…. well… his account just fizzles out somewhere ten pages later – which I was particularly looking forward to. As if determined to confuse, he begins his account of the Taiping Rebellion, one of the most epic events in world history, in mid-chapter, after some pages which give the impression they are going to be a description of the cosy lives of the China British. He introduces this vast historical subject with these words:

But then enter the younger brother of Jesus Christ who came to discomfort all their lives… (p.118)

If you didn’t know that the leader of the Taiping Rebellion was a religious visionary who really did think he was the brother of Christ, this opening would be incomprehensible. In fact, Bickers doesn’t give an account of the overall Taiping Rebellion at all – he is only interested in it insofar as a) it demonstrates and was arguably caused by, the destabilising presence of Europeans on China’s coasts and b) it impacted the British settlements at Canton and at newly colonised Shanghai (where, for example, in 1853, the British – from the protection of their walled settlement – could watch pitched battles between the Taiping army and the imperial Qing forces).

The accounts of the Taiping Rebellion in the books by John Keay and Jonathan Fenby are both much clearer and much more penetrating than in Bickers. These two historians clearly explain the causes and consequences of this truly epic conflict, possibly the largest civil war in all human history, anywhere, a titanic devastation which led to the loss of as many as 20 million Chinese lives, maybe more.

The same frivolous and off-hand approach characterises Bickers’s treatment of the contemporaneous but distinct Nian Rebellion (1851-68), given only a brief page here (p.135), fleetingly explained but not analysed in any depth.

The brief mention of the Crimean War (on pages 134 and 135) neither explains that conflict nor its geopolitical ramifications for the European powers in China. Bickers briefly points out that the war had a distinct Pacific element – a fascinating idea I’d never come across before – but then frustratingly drops the subject completely. This feels like a massive and fascinating topic completely ignored. So disappointing. I bought this book precisely to understand the geo-political implications and context and motives for the sequence of China-oriented wars of the nineteenth century, and that turns out to be the very last thing on Bickers’ mind.

This confusing melange of super-brief references to these huge and super-important wars then segues abruptly and, as usual, in a very offhand way, into a typically arse-over-tit account of the Second Opium War (1856-60).

So the foreigners placed their faith in the Qing, once they had warred with them, beaten them, and humiliated them. Again, it all began in Canton. (p.136)

Note the tired and jaded tone as he casually begins a confusing account which spools onto page 150, with a vivid but hard-to-follow explanation for the (scandalous) British burning of the Emperor’ Summer House. OK. But in the 14 or so pages which cover it, Bickers nowhere mentions that he is describing the Second Opium War – you have to know that already. He is so close to, and over-familiar with, his subject, he just assumes that we all know about this stuff already. But we don’t. That’s why we bought your bloody book in the first place.

Towards the end I was genuinely appalled when the only mention he makes of the Russo-Japanese War of 1905, the first war in modern times in which a non-European nation (Japan) thrashed a European one (Russia) is the following. (He’s explaining how, after the Boxer Rebellion was finally quelled, the European nations demanded reparations but, for the most part, didn’t seek to acquire new territory. Apart from Russia):

Russia failed to conform, though, and hung on in Manchuria with 200,000 troops. So the British and the Japanese opened up a new world of international politics by entering into a formal alliance in 1902, breaking with decades of British practice, and in 1904-5 the Japanese smashed Russian forces in Manchuria and Siberia, shocking the European world, and offering new hope for the colonised and threatened. (p.349)

The Russo-Japanese War doesn’t even get a sentence of its own, but is shoehorned into the second half of a sentence which starts in 1902 and ends in 1905. Wow.

The republican revolution which finally overthrew the Qing Dynasty – and ended 3,000 years of rule by emperors – in October 1911, is dealt with – including the accident which sparked it, the spread of revolt, the seizure of power by Sun Yat-Sen, the abdication of the emperor, and the handing over of power to general Yuan Shikai – this seismic event is dealt with in 10 sentences – half a page – and not returned to.

Thus does Bickers leap over hugely important geopolitical, strategic and military events in order to get back to lambasting western businessmen living in sin with their Chinese mistresses, making fortunes from the opium trade and lobbying for more access to Chinese markets.

This is a sociological essay about the British in China, not a history.

Academic jargon

By this stage the reader has realised that Bickers isn’t interested in giving a chronological account of what happened during China’s century of humiliation; he isn’t interested in analysing or explaining the complex geopolitics of a weakened China caught between coastal invaders like the British and, towards the end of the period, the Japanese – all overshadowed by the ever-present threat from the land-grabbing Russian empire in the west and north.

He isn’t even very interested in any of the other European nations – the French and Americans get only a few walk-on parts, while the Portuguese, Dutch or Germans are hardly mentioned at all.

Instead, what becomes clearer and clearer is that Bickers thinks he is giving a kind of cultural history of the British in China.

That’s a fine ambition but he doesn’t live up to it. There is nothing at all in the book about, say, Chinese art or poetry, nothing. What there is, is repeated references to the way the Chinese or British performed as if on a stage with each other, or the way Chinese artefacts (and people) were shipped off to London to be put on display in various public shows and the big European expositions of the later Victorian era, or the way the colonisers engaged in practices and policed sites and shaped public space, and so on. Instead of interesting stuff about Chinese culture, what Bickers gives us is a lot of Eurocentric academic jargon.

Over the past forty years or so, the mind-set and terminology of (mostly French) modern literary theory/history/sociology pioneered in the 1960s and 70s by, say, Roland Barthes or Michel Foucault, has congealed to form a higher entity called just Theory – an attitude and set of jargon which has spread out to infect study of all the humanities subjects at university.

I’m extremely familiar with this all-purpose semi-sociological terminology from the many art exhibitions I go to, where contemporary artists no longer make ‘art works’ – they engage with issues of gender and sexuality, or money and class or whatever, carrying forward projects which use strategies of this, that and the other, which taken together amount to their practice. What used to be called ‘works of art’ are now more often than not the sites of their engagement with some issue or other, where the artists subvert conventional narratives of whatever or challenge this, that or the other norm or convention.

This all-purpose academic jargon has a number of purposes. Firstly, like academic jargon down the ages, from the ancient world through the Middle Ages – it makes the author sound clever. Secondly, it makes it all sound very serious: no longer painting a picture or developing a photo, an artist is now engaged in their practice – like a serious professional, like an architect or a GP. Thirdly, it is all very active – none of that old bourgeois standing around in front of an easel, an artist now engages with, subverts, challenges and questions and interrogates and a whole load of other action words. All very exciting and edgy.

At the same time many of the words have a very clinical and scientific feel: not only the artist, but especially the art critic, is no longer subject to the wishy-washy whims of their bourgeois imagination, but gives the impression of applying rigorous scientific procedures: artists have ‘projects’ and ‘practices’ which are enacted in ‘sites’ and ‘spaces’. Anything like a sculpture or installation reorientates the ‘space’ around it, maybe reorders ‘spatial hierarchies’, probably ‘challenges’ accepted ‘narratives’ or what a work of art can be, and so on.

Another feature of Theory Language is that a little of it goes a long way: these terms have become remarkably all-purpose: you can apply them to almost any human activity and come out sounding serious, weighty and profound.

The only snag is that – although this kind of language, used sparingly, conveys a sense of power and thrust and importance and intellectual force,

a) it doesn’t, on closer examination, really tell you anything at all
b) used too much, it quickly turns into a vacuous jargon of empty slogans – just as the public very quickly got sick of Theresa May telling us she represented ‘strong and stable leadership’ (and turned out to represent the opposite) so an artist, or curator, or critic, or historian who goes on and on about ‘practice’ and ‘projects’ and ‘sites’ and ‘narratives’ in an effort to sound meaningful and scientific and precise – runs the risk of ending up like a cracked record playing the same meaningless jargon over and over again; far from subverting anything, this kind of jargon ends up reinforcing existing conventions about art writing. In fact, it is the new set of conventions.

Examples of academic jargon

Display is an important idea for Bickers. European merchants built big houses – he takes it as an example of ‘display’. They hosted lavishes dinner – more ‘display’. Chinese objects were sent back to London – where they were put on ‘display’. As if grouping these pretty everyday activities under a semi-scientific singular noun gives us all a special insight into human activity, grouping them all together somehow explains… something.

  • China was in this way [exhibitions of China bric-a-brac in London in the 1840s] being normalised as an object for such display and ethnographic and other curiosity. (p.89)
  • Such displaydisplay at table, architectural display – announced probity and confidence (to each other, to Chinese merchants), but it also spoke of vulgarity and extravagance. (p.99)
  • Admiration for the appearance of the Sikhs, the ‘colour’ they were felt and said to have brought to China, and to British display in China… (p.163)
  • What became the routine display of China at such forums was a key strand in the project that Hart was leading. (p.204)

Engage and engagement At a recent internet conference I attended there was a list of banned words; if you mentioned one you had to contribute to the swear box (all money coughed up was sent to a charity for refugees). ‘Engage’ and ‘engagement’ were top of the list. Why? Because they means everything and nothing; because they are empty buzzwords.

  • Farmers engaged in handicraft production. (p.64)
  • The ordered business of its routine engagement with the world at the treaty ports elsewhere was able to continue… (p.352)

Enterprises and projects

the British Empire didn’t carry out strategies or policies, apparently. It engaged in projects and enterprises.

  • At the heart of the official British China enterprise… (p.206)
  • The foreign China enterprise at Shanghai was actually truly a real-estate imperialism… (p.222)
  • They were men of commerce and outside what was formally recognised as British empire, and their enterprise was multi-national and often makeshift. They had no imperial project. (p.382)

Sites and spaces Both make pretty run-of-the-mill places sound important and exciting, and make it sound as if you’re saying something especially perceptive and insightful about them.

  • This book explores the world which created that final photograph and its many sites and fields of action. (p.14)
  • A popular temple was also a commercial and economic site… They were embedded in the daily public space of the city. (p.16)
  • The rural landscape was pocked with market sites. (p.65) — It is so much more emphatic and intellectually demanding than simply writing ‘markets’ or ‘market places’.
  • [Just outside harbour boundaries, opium] was stored, and there were established new sites for conflict and the low-level disorderliness that filled the consulate letter books. (p.93)
  • The new ports were like many of the other sites of power around the Indian Ocean. (p.105)
  • As the new roads and buildings grew up in the treaty ports they were to acquire new memorials, and new sites for commemoration and celebration. (p.112)
  • It might seem odd that we can find so much insistent quiet emphasis on the symbolic ordering of foreign space [the British insisted on having a grand ex-palace to be their legation in Beijing]. Partly this was a response to understandings of Chinese conceptions, a breaking out of spaces and sites allotted them for reasons they interpreted (rightly sometimes) as intentionally demeaning. But they had their own such practices already… (p.206)
  • Foreign observers chuckled at Chinese geomancy, at fengshui, even as they fashioned symbolic landscapes themselves, sacralising space, creating sites for pilgrimage, reflection and remembrance. (p.207)

In this last example Bickers is describing how the British built graveyards wherever they settled. Note how he goes out of his way to ridicule the British who, he claims, chuckled at Chinese geomancy but – at least according to Bickers’ confidently post-imperialist view – were themselves every bit as superstitious and irrational in their treatment of ‘space’ – i.e. building cemeteries. Ha ha ha, silly old British.

But as with almost everything Bickers writes, a moment’s reflection makes you question this casual criticism and superiority: geomancy or fengshui are to some extent optional practices; organising the hygienic and orderly burial of the dead are rather more of a necessity. But – and here’s my point – Bickers has conceived and written this sentence not to make a factual statement – but to score politically correct points over ‘the foreigners’.

  • Peking, resolutely, was different to all the other sites of the foreign presence, different in scale, meanings, history, experience and climate. (p.215)
  • the Inspectorate General was the site in time of an entirely novel private experiment of Hart’s. (p.227)
  • There were of course other sites of jubilee. (p.309)
  • China long remained a site of foreign male opportunity. (p.311)
  • Homes, memoirs show, now became sites for the assertion of the supremacy of the European woman over her servants… (p.313)
  • Real Chinatowns became fictionalised nests of opium dens and sites of the despoliation of white girls by Chinese men. (p.364)

Space

  • [Western music] served to mark space in new ways. (p.228)
  • So at Shanghai they ordered space, responding as quickly as they were able to the breathtaking speed with which opportunities were seized, innovations latched onto, loopholes explored. They also ordered Chinese use of public space, imposing new norms of behaviour, turning urination into a minor criminal category. They also attempted to order aspects of private space: the gambling house, the brothel, the household. (p.224)

On reflection, where Bickers writes ‘space’ he really means ‘behaviour – but ‘space’ sounds more abstract, intellectual and scientific. And, in his usual hurry to denigrate Europeans and the British at every turn, he turns the imposition of regulations like banning people pissing in the street into a bad thing. Maybe we should return to the days of men randomly urinating in the street? Similarly, maybe gambling houses and brothels shouldn’t have been regulated. Naughty, naughty Europeans with their silly imperialising laws.

Practice A super-useful word which can be applied to almost any human activity to make yourself sound impressively intellectual. For example, my postman for the most part engages in letter-delivery activities but has recently expanded his practice to encompass the manual transmission of parcels in the course of which he transitions from the public space of the pavement, governed by one code of conduct, to the private space of my porch, which has become a site for intrapersonal exchange and dialogue i.e. we have a bit of a chat whenever he knocks on the door to deliver a parcel.

Used in this pretentious way ‘practice’ has become a buzzword which lends your text the authority and the spurious pseudo-scientific precision of an anthropologist or ethnographer or sociologist. But like so many of these terms, it mostly just dresses up banality and the bleeding obvious.

  • Officials often had little time intellectually for popular religious practice. (p.61)
  • Buddhist in origin, but adopted far beyond Buddhist practices, [the festival] involved opera performances, processions and bonfires… (p.61)
  • But that containment [of foreign traders by the Chinese] was too restrictive, too contrary to emerging European interests and practices… (p.157)
  • As the concessions and settlements merged spatially with the rest of the developing cities, their autonomous judicial systems and practice routinely returned to deportation as a legal punishment. (p.160)
  • It was a queer affair, the extension of Tongzhi restoration practice to overseas diplomacy… Burlingame was carefully and explicitly instructed not to follow practices which might prompt reciprocal demands on Peking.. (p.212)
  • There were descriptions and assessments too of Chinese practice. (p.281)
  • North China farmers knew that into their brittle world had come new forces, with alien ideas and practices… (p.341)
  • And the practices of the new combined forces of Boxers, the Yihequan, ‘Boxers united in righteousness’, gave them mastery over foreign things… (p.342)
  • Foreign office archives practice was in theory quite clear. (p.375)

Lovely sentence this last one, don’t you think?

Network Not found so much in other Theory-mongers, this word makes you sound like you’re all across modern technology and the internet and the groovy, cool, multi-connected world.

  • [The Taiping Rebellion] was a revolt informed by the new intellectual currents from over the oceans which were at work in Chinese cities and in the networks of people, goods and ideas that flowed through them… (p.120)
  • The swiftness of the incorporation after 1860 of the new sites of treaty port China into these far wider networks shows just how interconnected it already was. (p.156)
  • Globalisation, international migration, the growth of British and other European empires and the networks that cut across and through them, all had a bearing on developments in China. (p.156)
  • China was already deeply embedded in new-fashioned networks… (p.157)
  • So the Inspectorate general became the centre of its own network of stations, as well as a node in wider networks – regional meteorology, the international round of display and representation… (p.204)
  • The growing presence, and relative ease of transmission of goods and people, locked China more and more closely into knowledge networks, not least geographical and scientific ones. (p.165)
  • By 24 October 1860, when allied troops paraded into the heart of the imperial capital escorting Elgin and Gros, two bands in the vanguard heralding their intrusion and the imminent treaty ceremony, China was already being fashioned steadily into new networks – of communications, of people, of ideas. (p.157)

‘New networks of communications, of people, of ideas’ – this is vacuous modern corporate jargon: it could be an excerpt from the press release for any big company, bank or government department – it has that hollow corporate ring, impressive, vibrant-sounding and absolutely empty of meaning.

Scripts and performance This is another classic piece of sociological jargon in which people are depicted as hollow puppets helplessly ‘performing’ ‘scripts’, putting on performances – which they called living and making decisions but which we – everso wise Posterity – can now see as ritualised and formulaic ‘performances’:

  • The China script for the performance of British power and identity in the treaty ports was borrowed from the Subcontinent. (p.162)
  • Many missionaries played at the local level the China game of compensation for injury and damage, property restitution and repair, and symbolic gesture – judgement and proclamation set in stone, or transfer of communally important sites as punishment… Some did so to show how powerful Church and mission were, how actively they could help; to reassure and protect existing converts, and to tempt others. Such action could also provide a stage for the rehearsal of the national honour script, the dignity of the nation residing in the person of the missionary and his flock. (p.249)
  • But as 3,000 troops and labourers disembarked at Langqiao Bay in May 1874, a more routine script was being rehearsed… (p.254)
  • His death was incorporated into the same empire script that he rehearsed as he travelled… (p.260)
  • The limits of this private enterprise imperialism, of the sweaty plans of Bland and his ilk were reached on the early Sunday of of 28 July 1913, when Bruce and his band blundered noisily into sleepy Zhabei, and nobody met them to play their scripted part in the local drama of Settlement expansion. (p.369)

Transgressions and subverting and challenging and interrogating etc. Sounds so exciting and edgy and revolutionary. But is all too often applied to really boring and obvious descriptions in an effort to jazz them up.

  • As guardians of order and peace they saw such large gatherings… as sites of transgressions of moral order. (p.61)

What he means is that prostitutes often plied their trade at big Chinese festivals. Who’d have thought? Pretty transgressive, eh?

Actually, there isn’t as much transgression here as I find in the commentary of art galleries; and only one or two mentions of another favourite of Literary Theory, ‘desire’, used as a kind of bland, all-purpose, catch-all term for sex in the widest sense. Although there are quite a few references to brothels and prostitutes – mainly, of course, pointing out how brothels and prostitutes followed western land grabs and settlements, thus proving what racist hypocrites Europeans were. Oh, and many of them took Chinese mistresses, as well. How vile and disgusting, only white men have ever taken mistresses, and only in China.

Prose like concrete

The direction of Bickers thought is always upwards towards sweeping generalisations. Converting a specific argument between a specific Chinese and English into the generic term ‘dispute’, or particular local laws and customs into the generic word ‘practice’, is always to leave the specific and colourful behind in the name of scientific-sounding but in reality vague and generalised concepts. Move in this direction enough and you are left with sentences which are so generalised they could be about anything, anywhere. It just makes long stretches of this book really, really boring.

Always there were exceptions, men and women horrified by this new world of local conflict and dispute that could unfold as people converted. But the mission enterprise was nonetheless mired from the start in such local dispute, at the same time as it was enmeshed with the wider foreign world in China through nationality, affinity, language, marriage, and wider kin networks. (p.249)

It’s like reading concrete. It’s like being stuck in a supermarket car park looking at thousands of shopping trolleys, all the same. Dispute, insult, practice, site, spatial integration, networks of communication, sites of display, imperial spaces, networks of engagement, circuits of empire, colonial display, imperial sites, the China project, the China enterprise, blah blah blah.

I should have been warned off by the reviewer on Amazon who said reading this book was like walking through thickening mud.

Some, such and many Bickers also has a peculiar way with the words ‘there’, ‘some’, ‘such’ and ‘many’: by peculiar I mean that I’ve read thousands of books, paying close attention to their style, and never come across anyone use those words so eccentrically and idiosyncratically. He is fond of ‘fray’ which recurs many times; and ‘odd’.  It is tempting to embark on an analysis of these short, common words for what they reveal about Bickers’ eccentric uses of them – but this review is long enough already.

  • Such permission was certainly given to some… (p.374)
  • Such fear held good there. (p.374)
  • Such memory is the product of hard state work. (p.392)

A simpler soul might write ‘this kind of’ permission or fear or memory – but Bickers is a sucker for rhetorical effects.

Bullying sanctimoniousness

It goes without saying that a modern white, middle-aged English academic will have completely absorbed the political correctness of their university context and so be extremely, comprehensively, sarcastically critical of the white, middle-aged Englishmen of the past. A modern politically correct academic could take no other attitude.

They are all racist imperialist saps; we, dear reader, are by contrast morally unimpeachable and live in an age of complete enlightenment. Thank goodness the modern West which Bickers is a part of doesn’t go around invading other countries and plunging them into decades of chaos and civil war; thank goodness the modern West doesn’t build encampments in foreign countries – Iraq, say, or Afghanistan – protected from angry natives by huge walls inside which the soldiers and civil servants of the occupying forces, blissfully uninterested in the local culture, are provided with all the pleasures of home.

Yes, the modern historian, embedded in this wonderful Western culture, is sooo superior to his great-great-great-great grandparents who did just the same in China or India. In an account of a speech the Prime Minister Lord Salisbury gave in 1898, Bickers makes sure to point out that it was infused with the outdated ideology of social Darwinism, that he spoke ‘complacently’ and that his imperialist audience ‘chortled’.

What’s ironic is that Bickers’ own account is drenched with the cultural ideology of our times – sanctimonious political correctness – and that he himself never loses an opportunity to ‘chortle’ at the inferiority of other people – in this case, our ancestors. Bickers displays exactly the same patronising tone towards people who can’t defend themselves, as he lambasts haughty imperialists for displaying towards their victims.

Bickers laughs at the British merchants and soldiers, the consuls and captains he depicts, for importing the comforts of home, for bringing in English plants and trees, for building Anglican churches, for ordering prints and paintings of reassuringly patriotic subjects to hang on their walls, and even sending for familiar foods, rather than the bewildering local cuisine.

They wanted and recreated the familiar. They wanted their cigar brought, and then their newspaper. So they made themselves at home on the Huangpu, the Min, Gulangyu island, the slopes of Hong Kong, as snug as they could manage, and read weeks-old news about the real world over the ocean in a fug of finest Havana. (p.117)

Silly selfish saps!

And in their insatiably imperialist lust for profit, Bickers points out that some British firms even sold guns and ammunition to the warring sides in the Taiping Rebellion! The horror of those racist imperialist profiteers! Luckily, we now live in a blessed and enlightened age, when the British government would never dream of selling arms and airplanes, guns and implements of torture to Third World regimes, to countries like Saudi Arabia, who use the planes we sell them to bomb civilians in Yemen. Never ever.

— To be perfectly clear: I find a lot of the historiography of the British Empire, generally written by guilty white liberal men who bend over backwards to be politically correct in every way, to be revoltingly smug, superior and sanctimonious. To assume that their responses to the problems those people living in the 1840s, 1850s, 1860s and so on faced – their motivations to travel where the opportunity was, to set up companies, to trade and make money, to seek a living and a career – were all somehow uniquely wicked, and only the British ever did this or displayed imperialistic behaviour – never displayed before or since by any other nation (including the countless Chinese merchants they traded and set up companies with, or the genuinely bestial Japanese Empire) – and to assume that these are all behaviours which we moderns, in our infinite wisdom, have completely outgrown.

In my opinion, every human being is born into struggle – against their biological destiny, their physical flaws, the illnesses and accidents we are all prone to, against the psychological damage of childhood and education, against the cultural and technological limits of their time and position and, above all, the crushing necessity to make a living, to earn a crust, to eat and drink and stay alive.

My opinion is the same as John Locke’s, that we do better to commiserate our common frailty and sinfulness with our fellow humans – to sympathise with other people, to understand their suffering and pain, to help and aid those who are alive, now, today – and to empathise with the tribulations of those who came before us, who struggled through their own challenges.

But people like historians of empire, who appoint themselves judge and jury over the past, who lump the entire population of Britain into one undifferentiated pile labelled IMPERIALISTS so they can sneer and ridicule and belittle our benighted ancestors, well they run the risk of themselves being lumped in with the Britain of our times, being judged by the same strict broad-brush approach which they apply to the past – and found wanting. Was Bickers not alive during the invasion of Iraq, the invasion of Afghanistan, the financial crash of 2008, the Brexit vote or, at its widest, the election of President Trump? In a hundred and fifty years time won’t he be lumped in with this violent, war-starting, financially ruinous era?

And – the most obvious crime of our age – he is living through the destruction of the planet’s life forms and the tipping point of global warming. In a hundred and fifty years time Bickers too – with his flying round the world and globetrotting, a privileged western academic who ‘travelled extensively, visiting many of the haunting sites scattered across China that feature in the book’ (as the blurb puts it) – will be lumped in with the stupid, blinkered generation who arrogantly took it as their prerogative, as their right, as their entitlement, to burn up fossil fuel, to heat up the atmosphere, and to permanently damage the planet – and all in order to write his sarcastic quips about his obscure forebears.

And, if anybody reads books a hundred and fifty years hence, this type of morally superior historian will be judged all the more harshly because they have forfeited the possibility of themselves being forgiven by the unremitting harshness, judgmentalism, superior and supercilious attitude which they apply so flippantly and casually to people who died 150 years ago, and who cannot speak in their own defence. ‘Judge not lest ye be judged,’ as a dead white man said long ago.

Seen from this perspective – of condemning the helpless dead – judgmental histories like Bickers’ are a form of bullying. And when I see any form of bullying happening right in front of me, although I may not like the victim very much, my instinct is to side with the underdog, with the person being subjected to relentless vilification by someone in power over them.

But the relentless patronising of the past is not only morally offensive, it’s also plain dumb. Repeatedly Bickers comes up with the revelation that these businessmen and traders and merchants and bankers were out to make a profit! That merchants and bankers came out from Britain to set up businesses, to trade, and to make money! God, the implication is – how grubby and tacky and awful, all this fussing about money and profits!

The implied contrast is with morally pure academics, swanning around the world paid for by government grants, unfurling their deathless prose for the benefit of lesser mortals who have to scheme and plan and graft, to set up businesses, borrow capital, employ staff, hire premises and equipment, do deals and live with the permanent risk of going bankrupt or having your offices, staff or family attacked by anti-western zealots. What losers they must be, eh!

Bickers describes how a lot of the China traders got very rich very quick which, it is implied, was a contemptible thing. What depraved wretches! Lucky for us that we live in an era of perfect equality, with no disparities of income and wealth, either here in perfectly governed Britain, or in contemporary not-at-all-capitalist China. Aren’t we so right to feel superior to the past and their despicable get-rich-quick mentality 🙂

Eurocentric

The final irony is that, despite all his fashionably anti-imperial attitudinising, this book is in fact written overwhelmingly from the white western point of view. To be precise, from the British and, by and large, English point of view. Chaps’ diaries are used to put chaps down. Chaps’ accounts of their adventures are used to criticise chaps’ racist attitudes. Chaps’ reports back to the East India Company or Parliament are used to chastise chaps’ crudely mercantile way of thinking.

Oh silly, silly Victorians who knew nothing about multicultural studies or LGBT rights, who thought only in terms of their own age, cultural and social norms. How blinkered some people can be! Could they not guess how they would be judged in 150 years time and reorient all their actions accordingly?

Also, a thorough account of ‘the scramble for China’ really ought to include not just the British but the French, Portuguese and Dutch, with large roles for the Russians and Germans, all of whom got in on the act, scrambling for their own treaty ports and concessions. But in this book there are hardly any accounts of other countries’ activities.

All in all, this book is emphatically not a historical account of the multi-national scramble for China – it is a cultural and sociological study of ‘the British in China 1832-1915′ and its title really should have conveyed that more accurately.

And above all – irony of irony – for such a politically correct writer, there are hardly any Chinese voices in the text. This may be for all kinds of structural reasons, such as that many of these encounters weren’t recorded on the Chinese side, or that the archives were lost in the various revolutions and rebellions. But the fact remains that this is yet another book about the white British empire, by a white British historian, which relies overwhelmingly on the efficient and detailed record-keeping of white Victorian imperialists – in order to twist and quote them out of context with the sole intention of proving what awful racist money-grubbing insensitive imperialists they were.

In other words, through the academic jargon and preening rhetoric, there is little in the facts and nothing in the attitude which are either new or interesting. The Scramble for China conforms entirely and dully to the politically correct dogmas of our time.

Extended example

The Boxer Rebellion (1899-1901) was just one of several native Chinese uprisings which overlapped with, or promoted reprisals from, the European powers to create a terrifying vortex of violence right at the end of the nineteenth century. What you’d hope for from a long (400-page) historical account of the period might be an attempt to disentangle these events, to patiently explain and analyse them. Bickers does the opposite.

War was fought across Manchuria, as Russian forces razed Amur river cities, and smashed their way south into Manchuria and north out of Port Arthur. It was fought in Tianjin, the foreign concessions besieged by Boxer bands and the Qing army. It was fought all the hot dusty way to Peking, as a multinational force of foreign troops slogged their way to the capital and relieved the besieged legations and Christian cathedrals. War was fought in Shanxi province, as German and British columns tramped to Taiyun, slaughtering opposition on the way… War was fought between Boxers and Christians, between Qing armies with Boxer allies, and the ‘Eight Power’ allied expeditionary force. It was fought by British marines and Japanese infantry, as well as by Sikhs, Bengalis, Black Americans, Annamese, Algerians and a British regiment of Chinese from Weihaiwei… It was a cruel war: a war between states, a civil war, a fight for personal survival… (p.346)

My critique is simple: every one of these incidents (the battles and campaigns) and ideas (for example, the very mixed nature of the armies) ought to receive extended treatment so that the reader can understand these key events and these important issue better; can learn something.

Instead, this vast tangle of events and ideas is made subordinate to Bickers’ addiction to fancy rhetoric, to the single flashy rhetorical trick of starting a lot of sentences with ‘war was fought’ or ‘it was fought’. Sure, the repetition rams home the idea that there was a whole lot of fighting going on; but the most basic elementary entry-level journalistic questions – who, what, where, when, why and how? are ignored – not in the name of some compelling insight or new thesis – but in the name of grand-standing rhetoric.

Bickers is more interested in describing the way news of these events back home was chaotic and often fabricated, how reports were made up by European journalists or editors, along with staged photographs and how some of the very first newsreel footage in the new technology of moving pictures was also generally faked and rigged.

Golly! News is fabricated and created by fallible and/or profit-seeking papers, magazines and media outlets! Wow! Yes indeedy, Bickers is here to tell us that coverage of far-away wars is often sensationalist and inaccurate.

There was a dearth of authenticity in this much-faked war, characterised and impelled as it was by forgery and wild rumour (p.355)

To read Bickers you’d think this must be the only war in history characterised by ‘forgery and wild rumour’ – as opposed to the obvious fact that, as the saying coined a century ago puts it, the very first casualty of war is truth.– This is a truism. A cliché. A threadbare, bleedingobvious commonplace taught to every GCSE schoolchild. Why am I reading it in a book written by a professor of history as if it is a dazzling new discovery?

My contention is that Bickers knows an awesome amount about this period, but fails to report it clearly or accurately, preferring to corral it all into either a) huge paragraphs designed to show off his rhetorical prowess, or b) long sections filled with tedious academic jargon which, upon a closer reading, always turn out to be obvious and banal.

To adopt Bickers’ own sociological terminology, this book is history ‘recruited’ and ‘refashioned’ for personal ‘display’ and ‘aggrandisement’.

This example is far from unique. A few pages later he does the same thing again. In among the chaos of the turn-of-the-century conflicts there was a lot of looting and pillaging (as, I believe, has occasionally happened in other wars) – but do we gets details, context, causes or consequences, useful facts and analysis to help us understand and remember each of the distinct outbreaks and incidents? Nope. We get another set-piece of booming rhetoric:

They looted at Tianjin; they looted at Peking; they looted everywhere in between, and far out into the northern provinces. They looted for days, for weeks, for months. They looted arsenals, granaries, mints and palaces. They looted the instruments from the old Jesuit Observatory. They looted salt stocks and Tianjin, and treasure from pawnshops. They looted houses and hovels. They looted tombs. They took furs, silks, paintings, jades and porcelains. They looted gold-plate from the roofs of temples. They took books and statues. What they did not like or could not take they trampled underfoot, tore, burned or wrecked. (p.350)

OK, I get it – there was a lot of looting. But who, what, where, when, why and how? Not in this book, you won’t find these basic questions answered.


Conclusion

This long book is a struggle to read. The average person-in-a-hurry could pick up pretty much all they need to know in half an hour by reading these Wikipedia articles.

What this 400-page book gives you which Wikipedia doesn’t, is vast amounts of anthropological-ethnographic-sociological jargon, almost entirely about the Western, and specifically British, individuals involved in the opening up and colonising of China.

There are brief descriptions of festivals or temples, a bit about Peking architecture, many scattered details about relevant places and events though generally delivered in a confusing way – but little or nothing about Chinese art or poetry, history or attitudes, culture or politics – and nothing you can really grasp or learn from about the big wars in Victorian China and their geopolitical implications. And that was the main reason why I bought this book.

Instead, there are lengthy sociological disquisitions about the spread of Christianity through missionary activity (chapter 8), the rise of the Chinese Customs Authority under the legendary Ulsterman Robert Hart (chapter 7), a lengthy account of how Hart’s Customs helped organise a comprehensive network of lighthouses along China’s coast in the 1870s and 80s, which leads on to the western gathering of data generally, about the meteorology of the coast or of Chinese diseases (chapter 9).

Sounds interesting, doesn’t it? But because it is all couched in the limited and stereotyped jargon of ‘practices’ and ‘networks’ and ‘sites of insult’ and ‘imperial enterprise’ etc, and because Bickers never drops his anti-British sentiment (lighthouses were – shockingly -built to make imperial trade safe and guarantee profits! meteorological data designed to help imperialist shipping! medical reports to help the racist westerners better able to exploit etc) it isn’t. It ends up all sounding the same. He manages to make a riveting period of history sound really boring.

Last thoughts

For my £15 I had to wade through hundreds of pages of preening prose and abuse being thrown at long-dead profit-hungry, racist imperialists – but did ultimately emerge with two newish (to me) thoughts:

  1. The China British were always a sort of spin-off of British India, using the same slang, building the same sort of houses, treating the locals, especially their servants and mistresses, with the same appalling and often violent condescension. And the Forward Party of China colonists really thought they could hoodwink and bully the British government back home into supporting an incremental takeover of China through piecemeal wars and ‘punitive actions’ – raucously calling for more and more belligerent intervention. This, after all, was all how we slowly acquired India. Hmmm. Interesting.
  2. Right at the end of the book Bickers describes how he has himself been subjected to harangues and lectures by modern young Chinese criticising him personally for being British and therefore to blame for the ‘century of humiliation’. What is interesting is that these young people have absolutely no experience of any of the events they cite (the violence of 1842, 1860 or 1901). But this story – how their country was subjected to a hundred years of imperialist conquest, a hundred years of victimhood – has been drummed into them by the Chinese state. Why? Bickers explains that, after the Chinese government violently repressed the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, and arrested and imprisoned the reform-minded leaders who let it all get out of hand, they then undertook a sweeping review of Chinese education designed to emphasise the uniquely nation-saving achievements of the Chinese communist party and why all Chinese should be forever grateful to it. In order to boost its role as the goody in the story, the communists emphasised the irredeemable baddyness of all foreigners, of Western Imperialism, be it British, French or Russian, and also to lump in the decades of abuse from Japan as somehow permitted and encouraged by those imperialist farangs.

It is fascinating to learn that the anti-western feeling of many of China’s young educated people is more powerful and passionate today than it has ever been – and that it is encouraged by state-sponsored history books, courses and teachers.

The final chapter of Bickers’ book is thirty pages devoted to a rather boring description of how archives and records were rescued from China during the 20th century, and how a patchwork of researchers has set about writing more accurate and unjingoistic accounts of western, and especially British, imperialism in China. Fair enough.

The irony is that they are doing so at the same time as China’s authorities are also sponsoring a highly tendentious anti-western narrative. Bickers worries that this could lead to quite dangerous results:

A globalised China is not new; but a powerful global China is unprecedented. That provides new food for thought, especially as Chinese youth come out into the world equipped for instinctive indignation at China’s past humiliations and what they feel to be contemporary echoes of those. The awkward confidence that such sensitivity engenders in them might make for all of us a very awkward world. (Final words of the text – p.399)

Worrying, eh?

And this leads onto a final thought of mine, which isn’t in the book at all – that we live in an age of Victimhood, of ever-multiplying victim narratives competing to be heard. The Jews have a well-established Holocaust narrative which is now enshrined in Holocaust Memorial Day (January 27). Black History Month has been going since 1970 in the States, 1987 in the UK. Since as far back as 1909 there’s been an International Women’s Day, now held on 8 March. These are state-sanctioned days or periods solemnly commemorating what are, at heart, victim narratives.

But away from these official victim narratives, the sense of being victimised and humiliated proliferates in the modern world – the entire Arab world, for example, blames Europeans and especially the British for allowing Israel to be founded, for giving their countries stupid arbitrary borders, for interfering and undermining their nations in any number of 20th century coups and invasions, and for continuing to kill Muslims in Iraq or Afghanistan or Syria – victim narratives which can be compiled into recruiting literature for al-Qaeda or ISIS.

I’m not passing judgement on any of these or the numerous other narratives of victimhood of our time – just pointing out the fact that the last pages of Bickers’ book make a riveting contrast to the previous 400. For the first 400 he gives hundreds of quotations from bombastic, jingoistic, imperialistic, often overtly racist, patronising and violently confident China pioneers, settlers and apologists all boasting about their power and might and supremacy. Right at the end of the book there is a loud screeching of brakes as you are suddenly dumped into the 21st century and find yourself surrounded by voices all clamouring to show off their weakness, to show you their wounds and their suffering, all competing to show you how vulnerable and abused and humiliated they have been.

Read newspapers and magazines from 1911 and they’re all about power, might and conquest; read newspapers and magazines from 2011 (when this book was published) and it’s a wall of helplessness, victimhood and suffering.


Related links

Other reviews about the history of China or the Far East

Revolution: Russian Art 1917–1932 @ the Royal Academy

1. The historical context

The best book about the Russian Revolution I know of is Orlando Figes’ epic history, A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution, 1891-1924. There is no end to the poverty, misery and bloodshed it recounts. Russia was an astonishingly backward, primitive country in 1917. On top of the vast population of serfs living in their primitive wood huts in a hundred thousand muddy villages, sat the class of landowners in their country estates, serviced by local doctors and lawyers. These bourgeois aspired to the fine things enjoyed by the upper classes in the handful of notable cities – Kiev, Petersburg, Moscow. They are the class portrayed in the plays of Anton Chekov (1860-1904).

In these big cities the fabulously wealthy aristocracy mingled with a small class of intellectuals – Russians called them the intelligentsia – who congratulated themselves on the flourishing of the arts which transformed Russian cultural life in the late 19th century, and was evolving quickly as the new century dawned. (Many of these artists, writers and impresarios were depicted in the wonderful ‘Russia and the Arts’ held last spring at the National Portrait Gallery.)

But when the weak Czar Nicholas II took Russia into the Great War in 1914, the weakness of Russia’s economy and industrial ability was painfully highlighted. Troops with few modern weapons, uniforms or equipment were quickly defeated by the German army. Among his many mistakes, the Czar took personal responsibility for the running of the war. There were soon food shortages and other privations on top of national humiliation at the many defeats. The surprise is that it took until spring 1917 for the Czar’s government to be overthrown and the Czar was forced to abdicate.

The provisional government which came to power in February 1917 was competing from the start against workers councils, or soviets, which claimed genuine authority, and were dominated by communists. The provisional government made the mistake of continuing the war and this, along with worsening privations and its own internal squabbles, led to its overthrow in October 1917, in a revolution spearheaded by Lenin’s Bolsheviks.

The Bolsheviks made good on their popular promise to bring the war to an end, immediately began negotiating with the Germans and signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in March 1918. But it was only the end of one kind of violence, for a massive civil war broke out in Russia, with so-called ‘White Armies’ led by Russian generals, fighting against what became known as the ‘Red Army’, manned and staffed by everyone who wanted to overthrow the rotten old regime.

After initial setbacks, the Red Army became better organised and slowly crushed their opponents. In 1920 Lenin ordered part of it to advance westwards through Poland with the aim of linking up with communist forces in the post-war chaos of Germany, and spreading the Bolshevik revolution right across Europe.

The heroic Poles fought the Soviets to a standstill at the Battle of Warsaw (described in Adam Zamoyski’s excellent book, Warsaw 1920), forcing the Red Army back onto Russian soil and, for the time being, curtailing the Bolsheviks’ messianic dream of leading a World Revolution.

During these years of tremendous upheaval and turmoil, the liberal or left-leaning intelligentsia experienced a wave of euphoria and optimism. There was a tremendous sense of throwing off the shackles and restrictions of nineteenth-century, personal, subjective, ‘bourgeois’ art. Artists and theoreticians rejected all its aesthetic and cultural and moral values in the name of creating a completely new art which would be for the people, the masses, communal art, popular and accessible art which would depict the exciting possibilities of the New Society everyone would build together. This led to radical new ways of seeing and creating, the cross-fertilisation of traditional artistic media with new forms, an explosion of avant-garde painting, music, architecture, film, agitop theatre for workers in factories and so on.

It is perfectly possible to be amazed, stunned and overwhelmed at the outburst of experimentation and exuberance and optimism expressed by artists across all media in the decade after the revolution – but still to be uncomfortably aware of the sub-stratum of revolutionary violence which it was based on and, in some cases, glorified.

And also to be bleakly aware that the death of Lenin in 1924 set the scene for the inexorable rise of the tyrant Josef Stalin. In fact the revolution was characterised from the start by the criminal stupidity of Soviet economics and social policy, which almost immediately resulted in worsening shortages of food and all other essentials. But laid on top of this was Lenin’s deliberate use of ‘revolutionary violence’ to intimidate and often, to simply arrest and execute anyone opposing the regime – violence which was taken up and deployed on an increasingly mass scale by Stalin later in the 1920s.

It was the combination of incompetence and slavish obedience to party diktat which led to the horrors of the Ukraine famine in the early 1930s (graphically described by Timothy Snyder in his book Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin) and crystallised into Stalin’s mass purges of the 1930s and the creation of a huge network of labour camps across frozen Siberia, the infamous gulag archipelago. This economically incompetent tyranny was forcibly imposed onto the nations of Eastern Europe after the Second World War, and was then exported to China (which fell to Mao’s communists in 1949) and on into other developing countries (Korea, Vietnam) with catastrophic results.

It was the historical tragedy of countless colonised countries in the so-called developing world,  that when they sought their independence after the Second World War, it was in a world bitterly divided between a brutal communist bloc and an unscrupulous capitalist West, thus forcing them to choose sides and turning so many of the liberation struggles into unnecessarily protracted civil wars, covertly funded by both sides in the Cold War.

And then, after one final, brutal fling in Afghanistan (comprehensively described in Afgantsy: The Russians in Afghanistan, 1979-89 by Rodric Braithwaite), the entire Soviet Union collapsed, communism ceased to be a world power, and Russia emerged from the wreckage as an authoritarian, nationalist bandit-state.

2. Atrocity and accountability

This long, sorry saga started 100 years ago this year and we can’t un-know what we all know about its grim legacy – i.e the mass slaughter of the mid-twentieth century, followed by decades of repression and decline. And this exhibition is frank about that.

  • A whole section is devoted to the collapse of pure communism in the very early 1920s and the way Lenin was forced to reintroduce some elements of market capitalism in his New Economic Plan of 1922.
  • Later, a room is dedicated to the forced collectivisation of agriculture – and the discrepancy between the heroic posters and silent movies showing happy, smiling peasants swimming in lakes of milk and climbing mountains of grain – while the actual peasants were, of course, in many places starving, killing their livestock and eating their seed grain rather than have it ‘stolen’ by the state and its often corrupt agents.
  • And at the very end of the exhibition there is a gruesome conjunction of state propaganda films of healthy young men and women putting on acrobatic displays in Red Square – contrasted with a slide show of mugshots of some of the millions and millions of Russian citizens who were arrested, interrogated, tortured, dragged off to labour camps for decades or simply executed, mostly on trivial or invented charges. All overseen by the man who, by the end of the period covered by this exhibition, was emerging as the Soviet Union’s brutal lord and master, Stalin.

Russian revolutionary art, the exhibition

This is an epic exhibition about an epic subject, a huge and seismic historical and social event, the creation of the ideology which disfigured and scarred the 20th century, leading directly to countless millions of avoidable deaths. But nobody at the time knew that. The exhibition makes a heroic attempt to reflect the contradictions, capturing the huge wave of euphoric invention which swept through all the arts, alongside the doubts many artists and creators had from quite early on, reflecting the revolution’s early economic failures, and then the looming growth of Stalin’s influence.

For example, an entirely new form of typography was developed with new fonts laid in bands across the page, often at angles, with photographs which were similarly taken from new and exciting angles, especially of new modernist buildings and the paraphernalia of the second industrial revolution – steelworks, electricity pylons, steam trains.

Some of the most appealing exhibits are the clips from heroic black-and-white propaganda films from the period, depicting smiling workers engaged in bracing physical labour, in shipyards and coalmines and construction sites, on farms and factories. Propaganda it obviously is, but they still have a wonderful virile energy.

Films, lots of photographs, paintings, magazines and pamphlets, along with revolutionary textiles, fabrics and ceramics, architectural and interior design, it is all here in overwhelming profusion, and all are introduced with excellent historical background and explanation.

1. Avant-garde versus traditional naturalism

I knew that by the mid-1930s the doctrine of ‘Socialist Realism’ had triumphed as the official state-sanctioned form of Soviet art. But the exhibition for the first time explained to me how forms of realistic, figurative painting depicting heroic moments and the heroic leaders of the revolution existed right from the start – it wasn’t artificially created by Stalin and his henchmen, it was always there. Thus there were two main groups debating the fate of Soviet art throughout the period – futurists and traditionalists – and they co-existed at the same time.

The Futurists, many of whom had in fact been experimenting with abstract ‘formalist’ art since before the revolution, believed that the revolution required a complete break with the past, the deliberate abandonment of traditional aesthetic values and modes. ‘Death to art!’ wrote Alexei Gan in his 1922 book on constructivism. At the 1921 exhibition 5 x 5 = 25 Alexander Rodchenko presented three canvases, each of a single colour (red, yellow and blue), which he declared to be ‘the end of painting’. He abandoned painting in favour of photography and, even here, pioneered new forms of photojournalism, photomontage and book and poster design.

Not only was painting rejected on aesthetic grounds, but on moral and political ones, too. Old fashioned painting carried the connotation of subjectivity and individual genius, both of which were rejected in the name of capturing the new spirit of the people. Moreover, oil painting was also inextricably linked with the world of the ‘fine’ arts, wealth, power, patrons and exploiters.

By contrast, traditionalists believed in the ongoing importance of realistic representations of everyday life in a highly traditional figurative style, perhaps cranked up with a kind of heroic tone.

What’s fascinating is the way both traditions flourished side by side. Thus the exhibition opens with some big paintings depicting the unquestioned hero of the revolution, Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, as well as key historical moments such as the storming of the Czar’s Winter Palace and so on.

V.I.Lenin and Manifestation (1919) by Isaak Brodsky. The State Historical Museum. Photo © Provided with assistance from the State Museum and Exhibition Center ROSIZO

V.I. Lenin and Manifestation (1919) by Isaak Brodsky. The State Historical Museum. Photo © Provided with assistance from the State Museum and Exhibition Center ROSIZO

By 1928 the Soviet government was strong enough to repeal the New Economic Plan (a kind of state capitalism which they’d been forced to introduce in the early 1920s to stop the economy collapsing). The NEP was ended and 1928 was the year which saw the first of Stalin’s Five Year Plans. The resulting clampdown on market enterprises ended support for avant-garde fringe groups who found it harder to get sponsors or exhibit their works. Meanwhile, the realist artists found themselves enjoying greater official recognition and support.

This exhibition ends in 1932, the year the term ‘socialist realism’ was first officially used. The proletarian writer Maxim Gorky published a famous article titled ‘Socialist Realism’ in 1933 and by 1934 Anatoly Lunacharsky, the commissar in charge of art, had laid down a set of guidelines for socialist realist art. Henceforward all Soviet art works must be:

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

It was the death knell of the entire innovative field of futurist, constructivist, supermatist and all other forms of avant-garde experimental art. It was the triumph of the philistines.

Bolshevik (1920) by Boris Mikailovich Kustodiev. State Tretyakov Gallery. Photo © State Tretyakov Gallery

Bolshevik (1920) by Boris Mikailovich Kustodiev. State Tretyakov Gallery. Photo © State Tretyakov Gallery

In fact, this exhibition is itself based on one that was actually held in 1932 in the Soviet Union. Titled Fifteen Years of Artists of the Russian Soviet Socialist Republic, it contained works from all the disparate traditions which had flourished between 1917 and 1932. Many of the works which appeared in that 1932 exhibition are being shown here. However, the Royal Academy show isn’t nearly as big as the original (some 200 works compared with the original’s 2,640 by 423 artists!) – and it also includes photos, posters, films, ceramics and so on – a far wider range of media – which weren’t in the original.

The 1932 exhibition marked the defeat of the entire futurist-modernist tradition in Russia. The same year saw the incorporation of all independent artistic groups and movements into the state-controlled Union of Artists. Private galleries were all closed down, replaced by State-sponsored exhibitions. From now on it was impossible to be an artist or make any money unless it was working on state-commissioned, state-approved projects. Many of the avant-garde saw their work banned, were thrown out of work or, at worst, were arrested, imprisoned or even executed.

One of the great poets of the time, Alexander Blok, had died in 1921, already disillusioned by the direction the revolution was taking. ‘Blok’s death signified the beginning of the end of artistic freedom in Russia.’ The hugely influential Futurist poet Vladimir Mayakovksy, who had devoted so much energy not only to revolutionary poems but to a new type of agitprop poster (many included here) committed suicide in 1930. The curator of the 1932 exhibition on which this one is based, Nikolay Punin, was arrested and sent to a labour camp. Later the poet Osip Mandelstam was arrested and sent to a prison camp in 1938, where he died. The innovative theatre designer Vsevolod Meyerhold was arrested, tortured and shot by firing squad in February 1940.

The modernist poet Anna Akhmatova – her first husband killed by the security services as early as 1921, her second husband and son imprisoned in the gulag – went into her long period of internal dissidence, during which she produced some of the great poems which captured the atmosphere of mourning and loss under the Stalin dictatorship.

2. Famous artists

The exhibition includes some marvellous works by painters we are familiar with in the West: there are several examples of the fabulous zoomorphic abstractions of Wassily Kandinsky (who had the good sense to leave Soviet Russia in 1920, moving to Germany to become a leading light of the famous Bauhaus of art and design).

Blue Crest (1917) by Wassily Kandinsky. State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg. Photo © 2016, State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg

Blue Crest (1917) by Wassily Kandinsky. State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg. Photo © 2016, State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg

There are also a few of the wonderful dreamy fantasies of Marc Chagall, a kind of Douanier Rousseau of the Steppe (he hailed from the provincial town of Vitebsk in modern Belarus). Chagall was doubly fortunate – as both a Jew and an experimental artist – to survive Soviet Russia (he left for Paris in 1923) and the Holocaust (he fled France in 1941, one step ahead of the Nazis) and to live to the ripe old age of 97. A rare happy ending, which suits his gay and colourful paintings.

Promenade (1917-18) by Marc Chagall. State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg. Photo © 2016, State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg © DACS 2016

Promenade (1917-18) by Marc Chagall. State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg. Photo © 2016, State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg © DACS 2016

3. Kazimir Malevich

In the 1932 exhibition which this show is based on, Russian avant-garde painter had an entire room devoted to him. The RA exhibition recreates it.

Malevich (as we learned from the fabulous Tate Modern exhibition in 2014, and the Black Square exhibition held at the Whitechapel Gallery in spring 2015) thought intensively about representation and art. He wanted to ‘free art from the dead weight of the real world’, and boiled all art down to a kind of ground zero – his famous black square, painted in 1915. A painting is no longer a window into anything, a view of anything: it is an abstract arrangement of shapes and colours which does its own work.

From this reductio ad absurdum he then built up a particular version of modernism which he called Suprematism, embodied in a series of works which use geometric shapes criss-crossing on the picture plane to generate purely visual feelings of dynamism and excitement. The colours have no tone or shading, so there is no sense of a light source or their existence in three dimensions. There is no perspective so no sense of how the objects relate to each other, if at all.

I liked the Kandinskys in the previous room, but for me they were eclipsed by the power and beauty of Malevich’s abstracts. These have a tremendous force and impact. For some reason to do with human psychology and perception, they just seem right.

However, as the doctrine of Socialist Realism took hold, Malevich found it expedient in the 1930s to retreat from pure Suprematism and to return to a kind of figurative painting. Figurative but with a very abstract flavour, not least in his use of blank eggs for heads, or very simplified heads painted in bright colour stripes. Socialist realism, Jim, but not as we know it.

The Malevich room here uses photographs of the 1932 hang to recreate it as nearly as possible, with the famous Black Square and its partner Red Square in the middle, flanked by suprematist works, with an outer circle of the strange 1930s automaton paintings, and then a set of display cases showing the white models, the skyscraper-like maquettes of abstract forms, which Malevich called ‘architektons’. It’s almost worth visiting the exhibition for this one room alone.

Here is one of Malevich’s later, semi-figurative works.

Peasants (c. 1930) by Kazimir Malevich. State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg. Photo © 2016, State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg

Peasants (c. 1930) by Kazimir Malevich. State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg. Photo © 2016, State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg

4. Constructivism

But there are many, many more works here – exciting modernist newspaper, magazine and book designs; clips from quite a few black-and-white propaganda and fiction movies (there are several split screen projectors showing scenes from the epic films of Sergei Eisenstein); agitprop posters and pamphlets, including the revolutionary graphic design of El Lissitzky.

‘The Constructivists compared the artist to an engineer, arranging materials scientifically and objectively, and producing art works as rationally as any other manufactured object.’ (Tate website).

This aesthetic, based on industrial designs and materials and workers, underpinned much of the work of the period and spread beyond Russia, into Germany and France and some extent the USA, because an explosion of new industrial techniques, with new products and designs was part of the spirit of the age.

There are even fabrics and ceramics which carried revolutionary slogans and images; huge paintings; photos of leading artists, directors, theatre designers and poets from the era.

5. Photography

Photography was perhaps the medium best suited to capturing revolutionary conditions.

  • Obviously enough, it was faster than painting – a photo could be published in newspapers, posters or pamphlets the same day it was taken.
  • Also, photos are, on the face of it, more truthful and ‘realistic’ than painting, capturing a likeness or a situation with an honesty and immediacy which painting can’t match. As Alexander Rodchenko put it, ‘It seems that only the camera is capable of reflecting contemporary life’.
  • In the hands of constructivist or futurist photographers, photographs also turn out to be the perfect medium for conveying the geometric or abstract quality of industrial machinery, and the bold new architecture of soaring factories, apartment blocks, electricity pylons and all the other paraphernalia of a peasant society forced to industrialise at breakneck speed.

Thus swathes of propaganda photography showing men and machinery in dynamic semi-abstract images of tremendous power.

A little more traditional is the photographic portrait. There is a sequence of works by Moisei Nappelbaum, a fabulously brilliant portrait photographer, who was working before the revolution and managed to survive the new circumstances, eventually becoming Head of the State Photographic Studio.

But at the same time as it could convey a ‘realist’ vision of the world, photography during  this period turned out to be capable of all kinds of technical innovations and experiments. A leading figure in both constructivist design and experimental photography was Alexander Rodchenko.

6. Movies

The most famous Soviet director was Sergei Eisenstein so there are inevitably clips from his epic films about key moments in the revolution – Battleship PotemkinThe Strike.

But there are plenty of other examples of propaganda films. One of the most striking is Man with a Movie Camera, an experimental 1929 silent documentary film with no story and no actors, directed by Dziga Vertov and edited by his wife Elizaveta Svilova. Man with a Movie Camera shows city life in Kiev, Kharkov, Moscow and Odessa. From dawn to dusk Soviet citizens are shown at work and at play, and interacting with the machinery of modern life. The ‘characters’, if there are any, are the cameramen, the film editor, and the modern Soviet Union they present in the film.

The film is famous for the range of cinematic techniques Vertov uses, including double exposure, fast motion, slow motion, freeze frames, jump cuts, split screens, Dutch angles, extreme close-ups, tracking shots, footage played backwards, stop motion animations and self-reflexive visuals.

The film was publicised with a suitably constructivist poster.

7. Less well-known artists

So far, so well-known. But completely new to me were the works of the artists working more in the Socialist Realist tradition, a whole area which is usually ignored in 20th century art history. Many, it must be said, are very so-so.

Probably the most impressive is Isaak Brodsky, who established himself as a kind of court painter to the Bolsheviks, and produced works which are both wonderfully accurate masterpieces of draughtsmanship, combined with great technical finish with the medium of oil – a kind of communist John Singer Sargent. I like Victorian realism and so I responded to the warmth and figurative accuracy of these works.

Brodsky flourished under the new regime and would go on to become Director of the All-Russian Academy of Arts in 1934.

Another figure who we get to know throughout the exhibition, is Alexander Deineka, according to Wikipedia ‘one of the most important Russian modernist figurative painters of the first half of the 20th century’. His paintings are big and are a unique and distinctive combination of figurative depiction of the human body in attractively abstract settings.

Deineka’s paintings aren’t exactly pleasing, but are very striking. This one, supposedly of workers in a textile factory, doesn’t look remotely like any real factory and the people are hardly the big muscular men of Soviet propaganda, but rather fey elfin figures (bare footed!). The whole looks more like a science fiction fantasy than a work of ‘socialist realism’.

Textile Workers (1927) by Alexander Deineka. State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg. Photo © 2016, State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg © DACS 2016

Textile Workers (1927) by Alexander Deineka. State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg. Photo © 2016, State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg © DACS 2016

Later in the exhibition there are more Deinekas, some depicting heroic war situations, others depicting sportsmen and women.

An entire room is devoted to 15 or so paintings by Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin, who is little known in the West. Petrov-Vodkin managed to combine a formalist interest in geometry with a recognisably figurative approach, a bit like the later Wyndham Lewis. He is included by the curators precisely to redress the balance away from the avant-garde artists we in the West tend to know about, and to present a better sense of the Russian culture of the time. His paintings are wonderfully attractive.

And towards the end there was a flurry of realist works by another big name of the day, Alexander Somokhvalov:

Somokhvalov is in the final room, which represents the triumph of Socialist Realism: Is it kitsch? Is it rubbish? Possibly. Is it valuable in its own right, or because it sheds light on the ideology of the time?

Taken together, these relatively unknown Socialist Realist painters certainly provide a different vision, a way of looking at the world aslant from the usual Western heroes of modernism we’re used to. Giving them space and attention is one of this fabulous exhibition’s main achievements.

8. Tatlin’s glider

The Royal Academy is a big building and they’ve really gone to town here, filling the space with some monster exhibits. One entire room is devoted to a lifesize recreation of one of the glider-cum-flying machines developed by futurist designer, Vladimir Tatlin, between 1929 and 1932. Tatlin dreamed of building a machine which would genuinely allow humans – all humans – cheaply and easily to – fly! Hard to conceive a more utopian dream than this.

The glider is suspended from the ceiling and imaginatively lit so that, as it slowly rotates in the breeze, a continually changing matrix of shadows is cast by its elaborate wooden struts onto the walls and ceiling, forming ever-changing shapes and patterns. It’s a darkened, quiet and calming room. Small children came into the room and looked up at this strange flying machine with amazement. It reminds you that quite a few of these artists’ output may look radical and revolutionary, urban and atheist, but that they themselves often came from a deeply spiritual place: Tatlin, Kandinsky, Malevich.

9. Revolutionary fabrics

Vast amounts of fabrics and textiles were produced which contained and distributed revolutionary logos and imagery, incorporating wonderfully powerful constructivist motifs.

10. Soviet women

There are lots of strong women in Soviet art (as in Soviet life). They often feature or star in movies like Women of Ryazan (1927) as well as in countless posters and paintings hymning the gender equality which was an important component of Soviet life.

My favourite, and a standout work in the whole exhibition, was this stunning piece, a huge painting of a woman tram ticket collector titled Tram Ticket Lady, by Alexander Samokhvalov (1894–1971). It is enormous and enormously compelling – a wonderful picture of female pagan power.

Conclusion

This is a huge, wide-ranging and awe-inspiring exhibition, which does a good job of capturing the excitement and terror of one of the most important periods in human history and one of the most innovative eras in Western art.

Artists to remember


Related links

Reviews

Reviews of books about communism and the Cold War

Reviews of other Russian art exhibitions

Reviews of other Royal Academy exhibitions

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