Vol. 37 No. 16 · 27 August 2015

Search by issue:

Almost Lovable

Sheila Fitzpatrick is right to remind us how unpopular Stalin’s ‘wedding-cake’ architecture was in Soviet times (LRB, 30 July). The Poles in particular had more than just aesthetic grounds for resenting their Palace of Culture, a ‘gift’ thrust on them by the Russians. This was brought home to me during a tour of that overpowering building in 1965. Our group was taken to the public observation platform at the top, where our official guide rather daringly recounted a joke then doing the rounds. A Russian visitor goes up to admire the view from the observation platform and is pleasantly surprised, if somewhat puzzled, to find it jam-packed with Poles. ‘Simple,’ he is told on inquiring why this should be the case. ‘It’s the only place in Warsaw from where you can’t see the Palace of Culture.’

John Dewey
Wareham, Dorset

Weapons Inspections

As the first executive chairman of the United Nations Special Commission (Unscom) from April 1991 to July 1997, I read with some amusement Scott Ritter’s fanciful account of the UN weapons inspections in Iraq (LRB, 2 July). ‘The continued failure of Unscom to uncover significant proscribed activities and material in Iraq, combined with the political fallout from the no notice inspections, caused Unscom’s collapse in 1998,’ Ritter writes. By the time I left, Unscom had effectively identified and eliminated all the prohibited items identified by Security Council Resolution 687 (1991), which established the ceasefire after the Kuwait War, namely chemical and biological weapons and ballistic missiles with a range greater than 150 kilometres. The IAEA reported at the same time that it had essentially completed its mission: to destroy, remove or render harmless any material that could be used to build a nuclear weapon, as well as related subsystems and research and manufacturing facilities. Any chemical weapons that Unscom inspectors identified were destroyed in a drawn-out process ending in June 1994. The situation with biological weapons was more complicated because the Iraqis consistently denied their existence, but by 1995 Unscom was in a position to provide complete proof of the existing biological weapons programme, which was finally eliminated with the destruction of the research and production facility Al Hakam in 1996.

Beginning in 1991, a number of undeclared ballistic missiles were found and destroyed by Unscom. The remainder of the Scud missiles, imported in the 1980s from the Soviet Union, were secretly destroyed by Iraq, and accounted for later by Unscom specialists, who dug up the buried components. Unscom concluded in 1996 that only two of the 913 imported missiles remained unaccounted for. (Ritter, like the US and the UK, insisted before the invasion in 2003 that Iraq still had a hundred missiles.)

When I left Unscom in 1997 I reported to the Security Council that Unscom, working with the IAEA, had uncovered the full extent of Iraq’s WMD programme. This was verified by Unscom’s successor organisation, Unmovic, which after four months in Iraq in 2003 reported to the Security Council that it had not found any prohibited items. After the end of the war in 2003 the Iraq Survey Group began inspections that lasted two and a half years (and cost $3 billion); its final report in early 2005 stated that it had found nothing to contradict the findings of Unscom and the IAEA.

Ritter writes that ‘intelligence provided by the US played … an important role in the Unscom inspections.’ US, UK and other intelligence organisations provided hardly any useful data during my tenure, with the one exception of the information that made possible the successful document inspection in Baghdad in September 1991. The rest of the intelligence produced by the US was seriously flawed and misleading. Instead, Unscom generated its own intelligence through the work of its Information Assessment Unit, which assembled and analysed data obtained by scientists in the field. Further intelligence was gathered by the IAEA Action Team and through Unscom’s overhead inspections using its own U2 high-altitude aircraft and a flotilla of helicopters.

Rolf Ekéus


Adrienne Mayor asks why Aristotle ignored the evidence of fossil animals and plants known to the Greek world, thereby consigning evolutionary biology to two thousand years of obscurity (LRB, 2 July). The simplest explanation is that Aristotle chose to ignore what did not fit neatly into his grand scheme of the eternity and immutability of organic life. While he may not have seen fossilised bones, he is unlikely to have missed the Sigri petrified forest on Lesbos, with tree trunks and root systems that have remained in their original position for more than twenty million years, ever since successive volcanic eruptions covered them with pyroclastic material. Many of the fossilised remains would still have been buried during Aristotle’s lifetime, but the pyroclastic material is easily eroded in places, exposing tree trunks. Even more conspicuous would have been the trunks lying underwater by the seashore. Aristotle’s disciple Theophrastus, the ‘father of botany’ from nearby Eresos, would surely have known about them and shown them to Aristotle.

The tree trunks, mostly of extinct pine, sequoia and cypress species, are remarkable in that silica has replaced the organic material, preserving the original structure of the wood; the growth rings are still visible. They look just like the pines and cypresses growing today on the island; to the uninitiated even the sequoia trunks look like large pines. Viewed this way, it becomes easier to understand how the petrified forest, rather than presenting a problem for Aristotle’s theories, would reinforce his idea of well-defined, fixed species.

Chronis Tzedakis
University College London

In Athens

Tariq Ali connects the events of this past month in Greece with those of April 1967, when the military seized the state (LRB, 30 July). This is a fundamentally unhelpful comparison. No one has been imprisoned or tortured in the last few weeks because of their political views; no one in Greece today fears for his or her life.

‘The Greek parliament voted overwhelmingly to give up its sovereignty and become a semi-colonial appendage of the EU,’ Ali writes. I believe that participating in an economic and currency union entails giving up some degree of sovereignty. Alexis Tsipras got elected on the promise that he wouldn’t lead the country out of the Eurozone. He didn’t have a mandate to go back to a national currency. If he had done that, he would be accused of treason.

The referendum of 5 July was a ‘calculated risk’, Ali writes. Tsipras ‘thought the “Yes" camp would win, and planned to resign and let EU stooges run the government.’ I haven’t met a single person in Athens who believes that Tsipras intended anything of the sort. Tsipras campaigned relentlessly on TV and in front of massive crowds in Syntagma Square. He went to great lengths to assure Greeks that a ‘No’ vote wouldn’t lead to Grexit. This seems a bizarre strategy if it was intended to get Greeks to vote ‘Yes’.

‘A planned Grexit would have been far better for Greece than what has happened,’ Ali adds. This is the usual revolutionary stance. In the last months, as Tsipras’s government has become the vogue among leftists around the world, we have heard similar views articulated by journalists, economists and theorists, ranging from Paul Krugman to Paul Mason and Joseph Stiglitz. But it isn’t their standard of living that will deteriorate if Greece leaves the Eurozone. Our country depends hugely on imports, has few products to export and is in desperate need of reform.

Xenia Kounalaki
Kathimerini, Athens

I find the German government’s current attitude to Greece incomprehensible. If in the years after 1945, when Germany was at its poorest and weakest, Britain, France and America had pressed West Germany for prompt repayment of war reparations, the country would have become the most abject in Europe. Instead, they did much to help West Germany to rebuild and prosper, and part of its debt was written off in 1953. But West Germany’s position was that a complete settlement depended on a peace treaty being signed, and that this could happen only when Germany was unified. Yet when reunification came, in 1990, there was no further mention of repayments: Germany’s entire war debt was in effect cancelled. Should this not be relevant to Germany’s treatment of Greece today?

Peter Dronke
University of Cambridge

Tariq Ali doesn’t say enough about the cancer at the heart of the Greek economy: tax evasion. In 2010, when George Papandreou was prime minister, Christine Lagarde sent the Greek government a list of the country’s principal tax evaders. All of them held undeclared accounts at the Geneva branch of HSBC; several of those on the list were members of or close to the Greek government. The list was ‘mislaid’. It became known to the Greek public two years later when Kostas Vaxevanis published the names in his magazine, Hot Doc. The Greek police proceeded to arrest not the tax evaders but the messenger, Vaxevanis.

John Saunders

The Hijackers

If by ‘the Syrian opposition’ Brian Slocock means the Syrian element of the opposition to the Assad regime, I have not accused it of intransigence at all and, in quoting Lakhdar Brahimi’s assessment without comment, I accepted that the regime showed more intransigence in the Geneva II talks (Letters, 30 July). My central point is that the Syrian opposition’s sponsors – the Western powers, Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia – queered the pitch early on with their insistence that Assad must go, a point that Slocock does not contest. Given the degree of dependence of the Syrian opposition on its external sponsors and the clearly stated position of these sponsors, it has been unrealistic to expect the regime to make concessions to its Syrian opponents for as long as their foreign sponsors’ position remains unchanged and the armed insurgency continues with external support. Hence my conclusion that Western policy should be changed, a conclusion Slocock does not address.

Hugh Roberts
Tufts University

Stuck with Them

Martin Sanderson isn’t correct that ‘neurons cannot repair themselves’ (Letters, 30 July). In fact, neurons are capable of amazing feats of regeneration: the peripheral neurons within the sciatic nerve are more than one metre long and can regrow along their entire length if damaged. Perhaps Sanderson is thinking of cell replication: it is true that neurons in the brain cannot be replaced if lost (it is fortunate that humans have so many to start with – around 86 billion). In terms of atomic turnover, hydrogen-deuterium exchange experiments prove that the individual atoms within neurons are constantly being replaced – but how long it would take for the entire brain to be renewed is anyone’s guess.

Peter Fernandes
University of Edinburgh


To add to the store of anecdotes about the afterlife of Nye Bevan’s speech (Letters, 30 July), Angus Wilson told me many years ago about a Labour politician coming to make a speech in the part of rural Suffolk where he lived and being prevented from doing so by a handful of old ladies in the front row who kept up a singsong chant of ‘We haven’t forgotten we’re vermin. We haven’t forgotten we’re vermin. We haven’t …’

Peter Smith
Buffalo, New York

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