SIR: The exchange between Robert Conquest and myself which began as a controversy over the Ukrainian famine of the early Thirties has unfortunately gone beyond the interpretation of historical sources and by now probably risks boring your readers. But I should like to clear up one point contained in Mr Conquest’s recent letter (Letters, 1 October). He writes that historical revelations in the USSR are ‘at this very moment massively and continuously refuting all the “revisionist" estimates and assertions’. This is not true; indeed it is Conquest’s estimates that are being refuted. On 13 April of this year, a lecture at the Central House of Writers in Moscow became the forum for the release of important new information on political repression in the Thirties. A young scholar named Dmitrii Iurasov announced the results of his research in the Special and Military Collegium Archives of the USSR Supreme Court. According to his lengthy remarks from the floor (which were apparently pre-arranged and continued without interruption), the Chairman of the Supreme Court had written to Nikita Khrushchev that 612,500 persons had been rehabilitated (exonerated) from 1953-1957: about 200,000 by military tribunals, another 200,000 by local courts and the balance by other bodies. Among them, the Military Collegium had rehabilitated 31,000 who had been sentenced to death, all apparently between 1935 and 1940.
These are horrifying but interesting figures. If, as Roy Medvedev and others have written, the Khrushchev-era rehabilitations included the vast majority of those arrested in the Thirties, then we now have something resembling solid numbers on Stalinist repression. It is not clear whether the 612,500 rehabilitations include those arrested in the Forties and Fifties, or pertain only to the period of the Great Purges of the Thirties. In either event, if these figures are accurate, we might presume that the total number of arrests in the Great Purges was well under a million and the total number of executions was near 31,000. Readers might be interested to know that Mr Conquest in his classic The Great Terror estimated, in a series of curious extrapolations from literary sources, some seven to eight million arrests and roughly one million executions. Conquest’s arrest estimates would appear to be high by about elevenfold; his execution guess by a factor of nearly 32. Even if some of the 612,000 arrested were subsequently shot – and we know this sometimes happened – it is clear that Conquest’s estimates are, as we Americans say, not even in the ball park, while those of the revisionists are closer to the mark. Once again, archival evidence has contradicted rumours and stories. Of course 31,000 executions are in no way ‘better’ than a million and the lower numbers must not diminish the moral revulsion we feel at this criminality. Lives were taken and ruined on a massive scale. At the same time, it seems important to be accurate and careful in our scholarship and to avoid inflating the truth for polemical purposes.
J. Arch Getty
SIR: Ann Dummett (Letters, 17 September) has again misrepresented the spirit and content of my book Anti-Racism – An Assault on Education and Value. It does not lump all anti-racists together. But it does insist upon examining the assumptions they do have in common – the most contentious being that Britain is a ‘racist society’ and that it is the job of education to transform that society. Ms Dummett is ‘mystified’ that I should accuse her of ‘believing’ that to value education as an end in itself is to be preoccupied with the three R’s. I didn’t. My point was not that she believed it, but that she has distorted my view. In a chapter she still evades, I argue that education is an end in itself, not an anti-racist instrument. When therefore I read a review that sets out two ‘ideologies’ which are supposedly set in simplistic opposition by my book, and when I find that the only reference to ‘academic education’ here is one that speaks of it being ‘built up from the three R’s’, I feel justified in objecting that my reviewer has not only ignored my argument but has managed by these means to misrepresent it.
Ms Dummett’s generosity in conceding that it is not ‘pluralism’ but ‘cultural relativism’ that Roger Scruton attacks draws attention away from my main point: that it is bizarre to accuse him of ‘sidestepping’ the issue of ‘racism’ when his task is to examine a thesis that underpins arguments for a ‘multicultural curriculum’. I am supposed to have ‘assumed’ that ‘anyone who is opposed to racial discrimination’ (clearly she does not include me in this moral élite) must be some kind of fanatic. Ms Dummett supports this absurd claim by juxtaposing my remarks on her intolerance – divorcing these remarks from their respective contexts. I have assumed nothing about Ms Dummett’s ‘totalitarian mentality’. Since my book dares to challenge the premises of ‘anti-racist education’ it was hardly likely to get an open-minded reception from one so active in promoting them. And anyone who so irresponsibly indulges a ‘suspicion’ that ‘the protestations of non-racism in the book’ are ‘disingenuous’ shows a frightening hostility to the right of people to question the principles and effects of anti-racist programmes without being accused of racism.
I am ‘opposed to racial discrimination’, which is why I would not use Ms Dummett’s words ‘follies’ to describe the gross injustices committed in the name of ‘anti-racism’. And – unlike Ms Dummett who has now twice failed to analyse the word she uses as a weapon – I am concerned to clarify what ‘racism’ means. For I refuse to support definitions of ‘racism’ which effectively imply that racism can only be committed by white society and which trick us into equating equality of opportunity with equality of outcome. Indeed, in wrongly accusing me of supporting various ‘misrepresentations’ of the Swann Report, Ms Dummett is still strangely quiet about the fact that the Committee suppressed its own research into the possible reasons, other than racism, for the under-achievement of West Indian pupils. It is hardly irrelevant to wonder whether it is true, as reported in the Asian Times (30 November 1984), that Ms Dummett herself, before resigning from the Swann Committee, opposed this research, claiming that it ‘took the heat off the education system’.
SIR: Surely Michael Hulse (Letters, 15 October) is right to praise Scripsi and to wonder if there lingers an ‘anachronistic British superiority complex’ towards the newer literatures in English, but he may be generalising too much. He instances resistance to John Ashbery, to Les A. Murray and Australian verse, and to contemporary Canadian verse. As one of the editors of Verse, which has recently published extended features on these three areas, I know that there exist British readers who are enthusiastic about the material. The main problem is not so much making people aware that these writers are worth reading as making sure that books by them are readily available in this country.
In this respect, John Ashbery has been fortunate. More worrying is the case of Les Murray. While there is a good deal of interest in that Australian poet’s work, the Carcanet Selected Poems is the only book of his verse in the British shops, and he is very poorly represented even in major academic libraries. Angus and Robertson may have a few copies of Murray’s verse and prose collections in their London office, but their distribution of these appears non-existent. The boys who stole the funeral, Murray’s verse novel, which (apart from appearing his most controversial book in Australia) is a major achievement, is hardly known in Britain. If no British publisher with an efficient distribution network will bring out such a book (or the very differently Australian verse of a poet like John Tranter), then this may not prove Michael Hulse’s generalisation but does indicate that some sections of Britain at least are reluctant to open their doors.
SIR: Your issue of 15 October reviewed my novel Familiar Wars. I hope I may be allowed to correct two points of fact. The merchant Gregoris does not ‘sell his shop to pay for Eleni’s voyage to America’: he sells his home to save his shop. This is crucial in a novel about the psychology of the shopkeeper and the refugee. The wars are seen through the eyes, not of a woman or women, but of a child, to whom all invading armies, whether enemies or allies, are threatening, fascinating and obscene. She may, indeed, not know what the war is about, or – in the intimate daily tangle of a civil war – who the real enemy is. Her failure to show ‘a grasp of public affairs’ may perhaps be important in a novel which looks at how the violence of war moves into the home and, seductively, into a young imagination.
SIR: Bruno Nightingale (Letters, 15 October) raises a fascinating point: students of the literary life are in debt to him and his friends for their researches, however negative these may have been. In my Guardian review, which he mentions, I was clearly at fault in diagnosing Brooke’s erection as the result of cold water – why indeed should it have any but the contrary effect? However, sex works by the association of ideas, as Locke comes close to suggesting in his Essay concerning Human Understanding (Sterne makes it explicit), and where Brooke’s sex life was concerned water was clearly the equivalent of what used to be known in the Forces as Helen of Troy in black silk knickers. Clearly with each bathe Brooke entered a water nymph, penetrated an episode in Classical mythology. A cerebral process, but then – pace D.H. Lawrence – where else does sex start but in the head? (Was this one of the reasons why Lawrence so much disliked Brooke and his friends?)
St Catherine’s College, Oxford
SIR: One answer to Bruno Nightingale’s penetrating enquiry is that it is possible to experience ‘a fully-fledged erection’ under cold water, provided you are as young and randy as Rupert. The one essential trigger is a vivid erotic stimulus, conceivably in fantasy. Bruno and his mates appear to have attempted to emulate this phenomenon in a spirit of enquiry, but without such a powerful incentive. But nil desperandum: just think of the numerous aquatically-inclined lovers who have enjoyed copulating under water.
SIR: Endorsing Thackeray’s view of the implausibility of many Dickensian names, John Sutherland writes (LRB, 15 October) that he ‘cannot even find the more naturalistic-sounding Copperfield or Dombey’ in his telephone book. Perhaps he is consulting a Californian directory: in the Londor 1987 telephone directory there are six Copperfields and ten Dombeys.
SIR: With the dollar at, say, $1.50 to the pound and assuming ‘$2995’ is a misprint for $29.95 (sorry to point these things out), the books reviewed by Peter Burke (LRB, 15 October) come to about £300. Did you also pay him?
Editor, ‘London Review’
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