Sturgeon in Aspic

‘Bland calm’ is the phrase Lesley Blanch used to describe one of Russia’s most adept generals and one of the country’s all-time most powerful people, Count Mikhail Semyonovich Vorontsov. He fought Napoleon; he was commander of the Russian forces occupying France after Waterloo; he personally settled the debts his officers ran up in Paris from 1815 to 1818; he took on and defeated the countries of the Caucasus. In The Sabres of Paradise (1960), Blanch described Vorontsov as ‘the apotheosis’ of his family: More »

After Kunming

On 1 March, a group of men and women armed with knives and machetes killed 29 people and injured 130 at the railway station in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province in south-west China. Nothing like this has happened in China in recent memory. Protests and riots are far from uncommon, but deliberate, co-ordinated attacks aimed at causing widespread fear and major loss of life are almost unknown. Still, as soon as the news from Kunming came through, social media were full of speculation that the attack was carried out by Uighurs from Xinjiang.

When I first went to Xinjiang, in 2001, the main stereotype of Uighurs amongst Han Chinese people was that they led happy, colourful lives full of singing and dancing. But since the riots of 2009 this has been replaced by a common perception of Uighurs as violent terrorists. When the Chinese government compared last weekend’s attacks to 9/11 and blamed ‘separatists’ from Xinjiang, who had ‘launched deadly attacks over the past months, years and decades’, no one was surprised. More »

Ukraine’s Mesopotamia

Crimea is de facto frozen and now the focus is on Eastern Ukraine. Putin says he hopes he won’t have to invade – unless the locals really need his help. Kharkiv is a focal point: Ukraine’s second largest city, right on the border with Russia. It’s where Yanukovich fled (or was told to flee) after he decided he couldn’t hold Kiev. It’s where crowds turned out to defend the local statue of Lenin from being pulled down by pro-Majdan activists. It’s where, it was briefly thought, a separatist leader might announce a breakaway Eastern Ukraine. The choice would be symbolic: Kharkiv was the capital of Soviet Ukraine up until 1934. It had always been a town of merchants and traders, a town of movement and wandering, but in the Soviet Union it also became a military-industrial centre. It’s now officially defined as ‘Russian speaking’ while the surrounding countryside is ‘Ukrainian speaking’. The writer, poet, leftwing activist, academic and ska group front man Serhiy Zhadan talks of ‘surfing languages’ in the city: one person can be speaking Russian and the other Ukrainian in the same conversation; or the language can change as the subject changes (Russian for oil business; Ukrainian for horse trading). More »

High Priestess of Anti-Communism

Among the files recently released by the National Archives are a collection of papers relating to Alger Hiss and Whittaker Chambers. MI5 was unsurprisingly interested in the court proceedings involving the two men, and in Chambers’s subsequent and widely-read book about his espionage days, Witness.

The papers include a report of an MI5 interview with Rebecca West in January 1951. She was at the time writing a book about Klaus Fuchs, but as her interviewer points out she didn’t ask anything of him in relation to the Fuchs case. More »

Trotsky on Ukraine

Trotsky on ‘The Ukrainian Question’ in Socialist Appeal, 22 April 1939 (via Counterpunch):

The Ukrainian question, which many governments and many “socialists” and even “communists” have tried to forget or to relegate to the deep strongbox of history, has once again been placed on the order of the day and this time with redoubled force… More »

Crimean Dreams

I was on holiday in Yalta a few years ago, trying to write a script about the last Whites fleeing Soviet Russia for a film that would never be made by the feature film director I would never become (I was still at film school at the time). It was the second half of September, the end of the tourist season, and I could afford to rent a large apartment in the old part of Yalta among lazy 19th-century mansions sunk in liana. It was a writer’s fantasy but I wasn’t getting much done and spent most of the time exploring the peninsula. More »

Russian-Sponsored Territories

Over the past twenty years Russia has removed a set of territories from other countries. It removed the eastern part of Moldova, now known as Transdniestria; it removed the north-western Black Sea part of Georgia, Abkhazia; and it snipped away the territory controlling Georgia’s main road to the Caucasus mountains, South Ossetia. The intention now appears to be to carry out the same operation in Crimea, removing it from Ukraine. More »

Free Ilham Tohti

The most surprising thing about Ilham Tohti being charged with separatism is that it didn’t happen sooner. Tohti, a 44-year-old professor of economics in Beijing, has for a long time been an outspoken critic of government policies in Xinjiang. The religious and cultural repression of Uighurs in the region is almost never publically discussed in China: apart from conditions in Tibet, and the legitimacy of Communist Party rule, few topics are more sensitive. When the Chinese media cover violent incidents in Xinjiang, such as the riots in Ürümqi in 2009, they always take the line that it’s the fault of Islamic terrorists who wish to separate Xinjiang from China. More »

Climate Change, Continued

The new issue of Nature Climate Change delivers a massive, multiple slap-down to the notion that the much touted ‘hiatus’ or ‘pause’ in global warming since the late 1990s means that the climate isn’t changing, or the globe warming. More »

In Praise of Moss

Saiho-ji Temple Garden, Kyoto

Saiho-ji Temple Garden, Kyoto

One of the more benign consequences of perpetual rainfall, if you’re not living in a floodplain or on a disintegrating riverbank, is moss. When the rain stops, take a look at the vivid green material blanketing flagstones and roof-tiles, laying down velvety pads underfoot which make it feel as if you’re wearing cushioned trainers. The plant can’t get too much moisture: moss doesn’t have roots, but takes in water through its leaves. More »

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