Vol. 25 No. 17 · 11 September 2003

Search by issue:

Memories of Khrushchev

Neal Ascherson lists among Khrushchev’s achievements that ‘he put an end to universal state terror and … insisted that living standards must rise at once’ (LRB, 21 August). He also abandoned Stalin’s belief that the Soviet Union could win a nuclear war with the US primarily by virtue of its size. In fact, he made it clear that no one could win a nuclear war, and I believe that this recognition gave the West a real chance to put an end to the Cold War in the 1950s. The trouble was that the military-industrial complexes on both sides, especially the American, did not really want it. Besides, Khrushchev’s often aggressive outbursts hardly made it easy for the West to trust the USSR. The devious scheming that Ascherson refers to was perfectly demonstrated when he got rid of Malenkov as Prime Minister in January 1954 for putting light industry (consumer goods) before heavy industry (the Stalinist policy) – and then made Malenkov’s policy his own. Ascherson is wrong, though, to put the words ‘we will bury you’ among his ‘frightful eruptions of bullying rage’. I was there when he spoke them, at a Polish Embassy reception early in 1957. They came at the end of a typically long and rambling speech explaining how the USSR would overtake the US ‘within twenty years’ in the production of steel, coal and other key goods. He finished up with: ‘We will bury you.’ In Russian this simply means ‘we will be at your funeral,’ but it suited many in the West to interpret it as one of the most dangerous threats ever to emerge from Moscow.

I have to confess a lifelong debt to Khrushchev. I had the luck to be one of only half a dozen Western correspondents in Moscow in the mid-1950s. (I was working for Reuters.) He quickly realised that we offered the quickest and easiest way for him to present himself to the world as a human being you could do business with, rather than the sinister ogre of the Kremlin that Stalin had been. So he and his colleagues in the Presidium of the Central Committee (as the Politburo was then known) started coming to diplomatic receptions, and drinking, chatting and arguing with diplomats and journalists alike. For three years I watched him at close quarters once or twice a week, sometimes shouting and bullying, but sometimes silent, listening. It all made great copy, especially the drinking. But not as great as his secret speech to the 20th Party Congress in 1956. A Soviet acquaintance, who was clearly working for the KGB (though later he always denied it), came to me with a very full summary of the speech on the eve of my departure on holiday to Stockholm, and urged me to send the story to London. When I went back to Moscow more than thirty years later, I tried to find out who had ordered that I should be approached. The general consensus was that it must have been Khrushchev himself, though he left no trace for the archives, as the order would have been in flagrant breach of the Central Committee’s decision never to publish the speech.

John Rettie
Leyburn, North Yorkshire

I was standing in Downing Street in 1956 when Bulganin and Khrushchev were in Number 10. Harold Macmillan sprinted past on his way to Number 11. Then the door of Number 10 opened and B. and K. came out with Eden. I heard no boos, but someone at the back of the crowd called out loudly: ‘Tovarich! Tovarich!’ Khrushchev looked pleased and gave a little wave. Then we all went our several ways, Eden to conspire against Gamal Abdel Nasser, Khrushchev to put down the Hungarian Rising, and I to Khartoum, where the BBC World Service kept me informed of those events. Ah, 1956!

Patrick Collinson
Trinity College, Cambridge

On Criticising Israel

Judith Butler’s point (LRB, 21 August) can be narrowed to a single question addressed to Israeli and Jewish advocates abroad: where is the line that you will not cross in step with the state of Israel? At what point does Israel’s war stop automatically being ‘my war’? Had this question been asked of so-called liberals some ten years ago, they would have had to draw their line by now, when apartheid in Israel has become a plain fact of life. Almost every possible line has been transgressed, with support from liberals of all stripes, while the charge of anti-semitism is being used to dispossess the Palestinian people of their last resource of land.

Yitzhak Laor
Tel Aviv

Human rights violations take place in innumerable other countries in which universities directly or indirectly invest: China, Zimbabwe, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Pakistan, Russia, Turkmenistan, the Congo. In some of these nations, thousands if not tens of thousands have died or been tortured. What sticks in the throat is not so much the visibility of the Palestinian cause as the invisibility of the plight of Chechens, Tibetans, Liberians, Basques, Kurds, Corsicans, Northern Irish Catholics, Kashmiris, Congolese. Professor Butler's point would be better made were the LRB not guilty of voicing disgruntlement with Israel every third or fourth issue: the rest of the world's hot spots receive article-length treatment maybe once – or, if lucky, twice – a year.

Bennett Lovett-Graff
New Haven, Connecticut

Not being Jewish myself I haven’t followed the debates as closely as some, but what has struck me is that Israeli policy since 11 September 2001 has not encouraged goodwill towards Israel. An impression has been given that ‘since we suffered the Holocaust we can do anything we like now and anyone who dares criticise our aggression in the West Bank, say, is nothing but a bigoted anti-semite.’ I am well aware that this is most certainly not the attitude of all Jews; however, the Sharon Government, assisted greatly by the US’s one-sided stand (the Israelis have a right to defend themselves but the Palestinians don’t), has done a great deal to rekindle a pernicious anti-semitism. Butler is absolutely right to insist that criticism of Israel should in no way be construed as anti-semitism. On the contrary, I believe that Israeli policy should be criticised, and very strongly, with a view to reining it in, or else we risk a horrible anti-semitic backlash that will, of course, target not Sharon and his sympathisers, but ordinary Jews trying to go about their daily business, all over the world.

Parina Douzina Stiakaki

Judith Butler refers selectively to aspects of a disagreement she and I had on the Academics for Justice listserv last December in order to level a charge against me that allows her to resolve her own anxieties at being a Jew who is highly critical of Israeli policies and at the same time ‘emotionally invested in the state of Israel’ and painfully aware that ‘no label could be worse for a Jew’ than ‘anti-semite’.

The archives of the Academics for Justice listserv record a message received from Butler on 16 December 2002 complaining about messages I had sent earlier, including one in which I criticised the Jewish press in Britain. Twice in the course of this short emotional message Butler threatened to withdraw from the list. She didn’t address her concerns to me directly, but chose instead to issue an appeal to list members to ‘reprimand’ me in some way (and presumably plead with her to stay on the list). Nevertheless, I immediately apologised to her for inadvertently offending her and did my best to explain the reasons for my criticism of the Jewish press as well as my position on the boycott of Israeli institutions, which she had also attacked in her message. All this material as well as all relevant correspondence is on my website (www.monabaker.com).

In my response to Butler, I pointed out that I specifically criticised the Jewish press/ papers, which is very different from criticising ‘Jews’ (and that conflating the two would be like conflating ‘American press’ with ‘Americans’). I then explained that the two main Jewish papers in Britain are the Jewish Chronicle and the Jewish Telegraph. I cited Ilan Pappe (an Israeli Jew) writing about the Jewish Chronicle as follows:

The Jewish Chronicle’s smear tactics and campaigns are not only harmful for anyone supporting the Palestinians, they will act at the end of the day against the Anglo-Jewish community as a whole. This paper is their main organ and it represents the Jewish community in Britain as racist, fascist and ignorant. Most of the community members, to the best of my knowledge and I spent four years there, are fair-minded, liberal and pluralist people. But the association of the community’s leaders with Zionism had gradually eroded its more universal and humane aspects.

I wonder whether Butler would be prepared to characterise Pappe as an ‘anti-semite’, or whether she would prefer the more ‘appropriate’ category of ‘self-hating Jew’.

As for the boycott, I explained to Butler that I would ‘only co-operate with members of Israeli academia officially … within the activist frame’ – I had invited Ilan Pappe to Manchester in September, where he lectured to a large audience – and that, unofficially, I work more closely and have stronger friendships with Israeli activists than I’ve ever had before. I further reassured her that I discuss the pros and cons of all aspects of the boycott regularly with Israeli and non-Israeli colleagues. Butler never responded to my letter but six months later in the pages of the LRB she implicitly accuses me of being anti-semitic. Here, like the President of Harvard, she ‘uses the “anti-semitic" charge to quell public criticism of Israel’ (to use her words) but with one minor difference: Butler reserves this grossly abused label for those who express their criticism in a manner she does not agree with – in other words, by implementing the academic boycott or exposing the fact that the Jewish press in Britain is shamelessly and exclusively pro-Israel. She does not use it to intimidate those who call for divestment from Israel, a tactic she seems to approve of, perhaps because she assumes that there is general agreement on this issue. Divestment, of course, hits the economic infrastructure of the targeted community, rather than the cultural elites. I concluded my response to Butler by offering to withdraw from the list myself if other colleagues shared her interpretation of my position.

Finally, if my position on the academic boycott is anti-semitic, how would Butler explain the various forms that the boycott of South African academics took in the 1980s and early 1990s? Were they anti-white? Or anti-Afrikaner? Would any boycott on the part of academics be legitimate? Or is it only illegitimate if it involves Israel? The British Government refused to supply books and other information sources to Argentina during the Falklands War. Was this not a form of academic boycott affecting individuals as well as institutions? I do not recall outraged intellectuals attacking the British Government at the time.

In the end, I find myself agreeing with Butler on one thing: if the charge of anti-semitism continues to be used to defend Israel the power of that label will be seriously diluted. Perhaps that’s why I am not impressed by Butler’s charge and do not intend to lose any sleep over it.

Mona Baker
University of Manchester

As someone perhaps rather too ready to allow strong disapproval of Israel's current policies to slide into anti-semitic prejudice, may I say how illuminating and helpful I found Judith Butler's article.

Alan Locke
Bassan, France

For the past two hundred years, we in the US have practised supposedly free inquiry in religion, politics or whatever. In three densely argued pages of the LRB, however, Judith Butler asks if a Jew can criticise Israel without being called anti-semitic. Why do we need to question our right and responsibility for examining anything, anybody, any idea?

Masao Miyoshi
Del Mar, California

The Spanish Rime

Concluding that a ‘simple literalism of dating’ won’t do when it comes to deciding when the voyage in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner took place, Barbara Everett suggests moving the date from the 17th century, when Richard Holmes believes the voyage took place, to a period predating, or contemporaneous with, ‘the rounding of Cape Horn in 1519-20 by the ship of the heroic traveller Magellan’ (LRB, 7 August). In doing so, Everett is translating the poem into the interstices of Spanish and Portuguese history.

Canto General, Neruda’s great sequence of poems on the discovery of Chile and the New World, includes a compressed, free-verse version, roughly three printed pages long, of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, ‘El corazón Magallánico’ (1519), in which Neruda plays with both the form and the vision of Coleridge’s poem, and, in rewriting it into Spanish, encodes and makes explicit within it the political and historical impulses that Everett identifies in her essay. As in a dream, elements of Coleridge’s poem are present in Neruda’s – the voyage; the deranged or visionary narrator; the prose glosses in the margins; the Pacific ocean; the old man – but are mixed up, rearranged, redistributed. At one point, the narrator seems to be a mariner-like figure, the survivor of a voyage; at another, the old man, who is called ‘the ancient discoverer’ in the sixth stanza, seems to have been encountered by the narrator; at yet another point, the old man is identified with Magellan: ‘Look at his maggoty beard/and his trousers stuck with heavy weather/bitten by thick air like a shipwrecked dog.’ The albatross, problematic to the mariner and reader alike, figures in the poem as well as in another poem in Canto General. The mariner’s shipmates, who die midway through Coleridge’s poem, comprise the final image of Neruda’s poem: ‘they have all died,’ says the prose gloss, echoing ‘The many men, so beautiful! And they all dead did lie.’ In other words, Neruda’s political vision of New World exploration avoids the redemptive narrative of Coleridge’s poem; the dead men become not just an image of the purgatorial landscape that critics have tended to read into Coleridge’s poem, but casualties of historical ambition.

Amit Chaudhuri

Contra Barbara Everett, no food historian today believes that spices were ever used to conceal the taste of rotten meat. There is no documentary evidence for such a practice, which anyhow seems highly improbable: the affluent could afford fresh meat; the poor could not afford spices.

Robert Palter
New Britain, Connecticut

After the Bombs

Christian Schütze’s article on German responses to the wartime bombing of their country (LRB, 21 August) reminded me of a story my German mother told me when I was a child about how, during a visit to an aunt in Berlin, she took refuge from the bombing in the cellar of a hotel. The hotel started to burn and the people in the cellar got thirsty with the heat, so they raided the wine cellar. She described a macabre scene of champagne corks popping, couples dancing and wild singing as the shelterers got increasingly drunk. Luckily they were dug out. Later, she wrote a memoir in which she muted the story: ‘Someone from somewhere gets wine into which we dip our handkerchiefs, which we then hold over mouth and nose.’ I am inclined to believe the first account, if only because I know that my English father, who helped her with the autobiography, censored quite a few details which he thought distasteful. I can also remember her stating, quite matter-of-factly, that after the Hamburg raid the SS ‘had to’ shoot people who were too badly injured to be saved.

Leslie Wilson

Blood Relatives

That ‘the Holy Spirit entered the Host to transform it into the real body and blood of Jesus Christ’, as Ingrid Rowland has it (LRB, 7 August), was never the teaching of the Church. According to Catholic doctrine, the Host becomes Christ’s body (but not also His blood, although He is entirely present in both elements) at the words of Institution (Hoc est enim corpus meum), which immediately precede the elevation. The point of the elevation was to allow the faithful to adore the already consecrated Host. The explicit invocation of the Holy Spirit (epiklesis) to ‘come upon’ the elements to effect their consecration was entirely absent from the Western rite at this time, and was never thought by either East or West to happen at the elevation of the Host.

Mark McLean
University of Aberdeen

Ingrid Rowland identifies Caterina Sforza as the mother of Grand Duke Cosimo, and Giovanni delle Bande Nere as her last lover. In fact, he was her son and she was Grand Duke Cosimo's grandmother.

Marta Knobloch
Baltimore, Maryland

At one point Ingrid Rowland says that the Pazzi conspiracy was in 1478 and, later, that some of the conspirators were executed cruelly in 1477.

Kendall Wild
Rutland, Vermont

Editor, ‘London Review’ writes: Our mistake: the three conspirators executed in 1477 were not involved in the Pazzi conspiracy. They had murdered the Duke of Milan in 1476.

Never Too Old

Rod Eastwood (Letters, 21 August) commented that he was very taken by the idea of skateboarding, and asked if, at 60, he was too old to start. From personal experience (I'm 59) I would suggest that he is not too old to start, but may well find he is too old to stop.

Mike Harding
London NW6

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences