Tuesday, 27 January 2015

"Young Stalin", by Simon Sebag Motefiore

Trotsky famously dismissed Stalin as a "grey blur". This book shows just how wrong Trotsky was.

"Yong Stalin" is actually a prequel (horrible word!) to Montefiore's justly celebrated "Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar", and covers the life of the future Soviet dictator up to the formation of the first Bolshevik government in 1917. It benefits from the vast amount of documentary evidence which has emerged since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the reminiscences of people who were personally acquainted with Stalin.
     He was born Josef Vissarionavich Djugashvili, in Gori, a turbulent, half-civilized village in Georgia; the third son of a cobbler who deserted his family and was reduced to poverty by alcoholism, and an illiterate but strong-minded mother. Both his elder siblings died in infancy. Young Josef's birth language was Georgian, and he only learnt to speak Russian at school. He was an excellent student with a beautiful singing-voice, and with the help of better-off friends of his mother was able to win a place at the seminary in Tiflis, the capital of Georgia, to train for the Orthodox priesthood. The thought of Stalin as a priest is astonishing, to say the least; but although his academic work remained excellent, he quickly rebelled against the stifling, tyrannical regime of the seminary, constantly got into trouble for reading banned books (originally the novels of Victor Hugo, and only Marxist literature later), and eventually left without graduating.
   Instead of seeking a normal job, he disappointed his mother's ambitions for him by joining the revolutionary underground. Georgia was a land of bandits, macho heroic drinkers and poets (the young Stalin wrote a number of romantic poems which were well-regarded by his contemporaries, many being reproduced here), and also of poverty-stricken nobles and venal policemen, many of whom were willing to co-operate with the bandits against their hated Russian rulers: in other words; an ideal place for revolutionary activity. Already the personal characteristics of the mature Stalin were emerging: a charismatic personality with a natural gift for leadership, a capacity for detailed and careful planning, and an absolute refusal to kowtow to anyone, coupled with total amorality and a monstrous egoism which made him utterly indifferent to the sufferings of others. The only time he was recorded as showing any emotion was when his young wife, known as "Kato", died of typhoid after less than eighteen months of marriage. He paid little attention to his baby son. Although he was soon a committed Marxist, and well-read in the Marxist canon, he seldom got on with the middle-class theorists who led the movement. He much preferred the company of criminals, like the psychopathic Armenian bandit Ter-Petrossian (nicknamed "Kamo"), who once asked Stalin, a-propos of an opponent, "Why don't you just let me cut his throat?"
   Armed with these qualities, the young revolutionary cut a swathe, not only in Tiflis but in the centres of Russia's burgeoning oil industry, Batumi and Baku; chaotic boom-towns of squalid slums next door to the vast palaces of the new plutocrats, brothels, gangsters and violent labour disputes. Here he printed Marxist propaganda and assembled teams of hitmen who carried out murders, hijackings and extortion rackets, all meticulously organized by Stalin himself. During the great revolutionary year of 1905 the Tsarist state almost collapsed, and law and order more or less ceased to exist south of the Caucasus, being eventually restored by means of massive violence from Cossack troops. Stalin's most spectacular heist was the great Tiflis bank robbery of June 1907, when Kamo led a gang of gunmen and bombers (including some young women) to ambush a coach carrying a huge shipment of roubles. Several people were killed, horses were maimed, and the gang got away with banknotes worth towards two million pounds. The robbery made world headlines. No-one was ever caught.
   Stalin admired Lenin's writings from when he first discovered them, and he made his few journeys abroad to meet the Bolshevik leader, including a few weeks in London in the spring of 1907. In return,Lenin defended Stalin's violent actions against the horrified criticism of many of his comrades. He also appreciated Stalin's writings,particularly on the question of the national minorities within the Tsarist empire. In 1912 Stalin was made a member of the Bolshevik Party Central Committee.
   The police never managed to pin any major crime on Stalin. He used a great number of different aliases (only settling permanently on "Stalin" around 1913), constantly changed his residences and was adept at spotting informers and police spies. He was arrested and exiled to Siberia, escaped and was arrested and exiled again, until finally in 1913 he was shipped out to Kureika, a tiny village on the edge of the Arctic Circle, thousands of miles from St. Petersburg, from where escape was impossible. He was only freed with the overthrow of the Tsar in February 1917. In exile he spent his time squabbling drearily with his fellow-exiles,and reading voraciously. But he was never without girl-friends, even in the remotest of areas. Sometimes these activities were combined: when one of his mistresses in exile, a 16-year-old schoolgirl, asked him for a present to remember him by, he gave her a book entitled "A Study of Western Literature". In his last exile his mistress was no more than 13: she bore him two children.
      He played no great part in the seizure of power in October 1917, and in the first Bolshevik government he was given only the minor post of Commissar for the National Minorities. Throughout 1917 he was overshadowed by the brilliant Trotsky, a man whom he hated at first sight. In return, Trotsky always underestimated Stalin, as did all the rest of Lenin's successors, until it was far too late.

So Stalin was far from being a "grey blur". He was a man of great abilities: a charismatic personality, a natural leader, a fine singer and a good poet, a hard-working  and widely-read student with a phenomenal memory. He could be delightful company when it suited him, but otherwise he was silent and morose. Later in life his skills as a negotiator greatly impressed Churchill and Roosevelt at the Yalta Conference. But at the same time he was cruel, vindictive, indifferent to others except insofar as they served his purposes, never forgetting or forgiving an insult (though he sometimes remembered and rewarded people who had helped him in his younger days). Montefiore portrays him as essentially a highly talented man of gangster outlook who went in for revolutionary politics. He would certainly have been a roaring success in Capone's Chicago!
     Montefiore wisely refrains from too much amateur psychological speculation about what made Stalin so monstrous, but surely the personality is psychopathic. The danger with revolutionary eras is that psychopathic personalities often come to the fore.

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Reforming the Calendar

We owe the origins of our modern calendar to Julius Caesar. Before his time the Roman calendar had 12 lunar months, bringing about a year of 354 days; to which one extra day was added because of the Romans' superstitious dislike of even numbers. This was of course far short of a solar year, and the solution adopted was to insert an extra month (known as an "intercalated" month) every 8 years. This was left to the priests. But important considerations were involved – the fact that the Consuls and other officials held power for just one year, or the question of when debts were due to be paid – that the priestly power was often swayed by political considerations and personal gain. Julius Caesar as Pontifex Maximus was a particular offender: when he returned to Rome from his wars in 46 BC the Roman calendar was a full two months adrift!

It seems quite likely that Caesar got his idea for calendar reform from his time in Egypt, in 48 BC. Alexandria was the intellectual centre of the Hellenistic world. The great astronomer and mathematician Hipparchus, around 130 BC, had calculated the true length of the solar year as a fraction under 365 ¼ days. Caesar accepted the figure of 365 ¼, and did not bother with the few minutes' inaccuracy involved: a cause of trouble in later centuries. (It was Hipparcus who first divided the day into 24 hours, based on the rising of the sun at the equinox – 6 hours sunrise to noon, 6 more noon to sunset. A later Alexandrian, Claudius Ptolemy, c.137 A.D., divided each hour into 60 seconds. The Romans timed the day from midnight, as we do nowadays, unlike other peoples, who began it at sunrise or sunset)
     Caesar inserted two months of 33 and 34 days between November and December, as well as another already installed in February, thus giving an extraordinary year of 445 days! This came to be known as “The year of confusion” – “annus confusionis”. He added 10 days to the year, with a leap year every 4 years, and reorganized the months to have alternately 30 and 31 days, with the exception of February, which had 29 days, with an extra leap year day every 4 years. The start of the year was moved to January 1st (It is not clear why; possibly because it comes just after the winter solstice) So when the Romans woke up on January 1st, 45 BC, they were starting a new calendar! After Caesar’s death, the month Quintilius was renamed in his honour, becoming July.
     This was not quite the end, however, because during the reign of his successor, Augustus, a servile senate decided to rename the month Sextilis as August, and to give it 31 days, so as not to be shorter than July! To achieve this, a day was taken from February, and to avoid having three 31-day months in a row, the numbers of days in September to December were switched round. We should be grateful that the next Emperor, Tiberius, refused to follow this tradition. When the Senate proposed renaming September after him, the cynical old Emperor retorted, “What happens if there are thirteen Caesars?” and the idea was dropped. Nero tried to rename April after himself, but this was quickly abandoned after his death. 
     The other Roman months retained their old names, with an odd result. Every student of Latin must have been puzzled to find that the months September, October, November and December clearly mean numbers 7-8-9-10, whereas they are numbers 9-10-11-12 in the calendar. This refers back to the very early days of Rome,when there were only ten months in the year. 

Starting the year on January 1st was not to be universally followed. In mediaeval England, for instance, the New Year began on March 25th: the Feast of the Annunciation, which is also very close to the spring equinox. In France, the New Year began at Easter; in Russia it began in September.

So we had the Julian calendar, which was to dominate Europe for the next 500 years, despite the fact that it was not entirely accurate. The other issue which was resolved in Roman times was the question of dating. Traditionally the Romans counted their years from the legendary founding of the city in 753 BC, but it was more usual to name the years by political changes: e.g. “The year in which Marcellus and Bibulus were consuls”. After the empire was established, events could be dated “in the third year of the emperor Nero”, or whatever. This was actually a reversion to a much more ancient system; dating events to a certain year of a king’s reign, which we find in ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt. (This was in Britain the official way of dating Acts of Parliament: “The third Act passed in the fifth year of the reign of George III” etc)
     In the 6th century, a Christian called Dionysus calculated that Christ had been born 531 years ago, and established this as his base: Year 1. (There was no Year Zero: a point which emerged in debates about whether the millennium should be celebrated in 2000 or 2001). Thus the concepts of A.D. and B.C. were established. Bede was the first significant historian to use Dionysus’s system.
     Unfortunately, Dionysus’s calculations were not quite right. The problem is the appearance of King Herod in St Matthew’s gospel, since calculations from Roman dating show that Herod died in 4 BC! Luke gives only the vaguest dating ("decree from Caesar Augustus" …… "when Cyrenius was governor of Syria") which certainly implies that Palestine was no longer a client kingdom under Herod. Neither the other two gospels, nor the Book of Acts nor Paul’s Epistles make any attempt to date the nativity, or indeed anything else.  One suspects that the ancient writers had no real interest in precise dating. It should have been possible to at least estimate a date, if not for the nativity,.then certainly for the Crucifixion – “the 14th year of the emperor Tiberius” perhaps? To a modern historian, it is astonishing that not a single early Christian writer attempted to do this – but they just didn’t think that way in those days!

            The Gregorian Calendar

Hipparchus had known that the year was not exactly 365 ¼ days long, and by the 13th century European scholars like Roger Bacon were pointing out that the calendar was in fact gradually drifting into inaccuracy – the years were slightly too long, so that the equinoxes and solstices were now a few days out. This meant they were celebrating Easter on the wrong date!
      The first official call for calendar reform came from Pope Clement VI in an epistle of 1344 – but other problems caused this to fall on deaf ears. Pope Clement was not even based in Rome, but in Avignon, where a succession of popes were little more than puppets of the King of France: then for half a century there were two competing popes: one in Avignon and one back in Rome, and for a while there were three! Immediately after Clement’s epistle, before any calendar reform could begin, the Black Death arrived in Europe. The Hundred Years’ War began. A century later, new lands began to be discovered in the far East and across the Atlantic. Copernicus speculated on a heliocentric system. The Reformation began (and Luther denounced the Copernican system, as clearly contrary to scripture) The papacy never completely forgot the question of calendar reform, but nothing actually happened. 

The man who finally bit the bullet was Ugo Buoncompagni, an ecclesiastical lawyer from a Roman noble family, who at the age of 70 became Pope Gregory XIII in 1572. During his reign of 13 years he established the Index of banned books, rejoiced at the slaughter of thousands of Protestants in the St. Bartholomew’s day massacre in Paris, and attempted to organize the overthrow of Queen Elizabeth of England; but he also issued a Papal Bull setting up a commission, consisting mostly of priests who were also astronomers, mathematicians and scientists, to suggest reform of the calendar.  
    In view of the controversy between the Ptolemaic and Copernican theories, the committee wisely ignored the whole issue. They decided the mean length of the year was 365 days, 5 hours, 49 minutes and 12 seconds (actually 26 seconds out, according to modern atomic clocks). The Julian calendar would be rectified by omitting three leap year days every 400 years (it should actually be every 402 years) The way this would work would be that there would be a leap year in 1600 and 2000, but not in 1700, 1800 and 1900. (There will not be a leap year in 2100, and after that it won't concern us!) Such a calendar would only be out by one day in 3,300 years.
      The current calendar was 10 days out. It could have been rectified in stages, but instead it was decided to take the bold step of jumping 10 days ahead in one go. The New Year, when the date changed, should now always be January 1st, following the Roman system. In 1578 the proposals were circulated to the kings and scholars of Europe for discussion. Many agreed, but others, especially in the Protestant countries, did not. Philip II of Spain insisted that the spring equinox should always be deemed to be on March 21st, to make the calculation of Easter a little easier. The Bull to reform the calendar was issued in early 1582, and was implemented on January 1st 1583, with the date jumping forward 10 days from October 4th (this being the time with fewest saints’ days)
     But the new Gregorian calendar was not universally accepted. Almost all the major Catholic states went over to the new calendar in the next couple of years, and duly jumped ten days forward, but to the Protestant states: England, Holland, the Scandinavian kingdoms, parts of Germany and Switzerland; the new calendar was “Popish” and thus suspect. So in England, for instance, the date was still 10 days behind, and the New Year continued to be on March 25th. This has been an annoyance to historians ever since, starting with the Spanish Armada in 1588. What happens is that historians have to tell their readers whether the dates they use are Gregorian, or “New Style” (NS) or Julian: “Old Style” (OS)

Reforming the English calendar had to wait. In the 17th century, proposals for reform were opposed by both the Church of England and the Puritans, despite it being pointed out that the method for calculating the date of Easter was now highly erroneous. By the 18th century the Julian calendar was now 11 days out (since the Gregorian system had a leap year in 1600, but not in 1700). Meanwhile Edward Halley had calculated the length of the year as 365 days, 5 hours, 48 minutes and 55 seconds.

     In 1751 a literary nobleman, Philip Stanhope, Earl of Chesterfield (who had briefly been a cabinet minister, and is best remembered nowadays for his series of letters to his illegitimate son, instructing him how to behave in polite society), introduced in the House of Lords a Bill “For regulating the commencement of the year, and for correcting the calendar now in use”. Henry Pelham, the Prime Minister (1743-54) was a naturally cautious man, and his brother the Duke of Newcastle, the Secretary of State, who was considered by most contemporaries to be an imbecile, was thrown into a tizzy, but Chesterfield’s Bill met little opposition, sailed through Parliament and was signed into law in May. (Stanhope admitted privately that he had baffled the Lords with his seeming erudition on the mathematics and astronomy and history of calendars, about which he actually knew very little!)
     So in September 1752, Wednesday 2nd was immediately followed by Thursday 14th. It was enacted that the missing days had no legal existence for the purpose of wages, interest earned, contracts or prison sentences etc: everyone would have to wait until the number of “natural days” had been accumulated. It was all carefully explained to the public in official publications and newspapers, including such publications as “The Ladies’ Diary”. Even so, there were protests: mobs came out on the streets in London and other towns, shouting “Give us back our 11 days!” In rioting in Bristol, people were killed! And despite the fact that the Church of England officially approved of the changes, the contemporary historian Archdeacon Coxe, in his book on Henry Pelham’s government, tells us that:-
“Greater difficulty was, however, found in appeasing the clamour of the people against the supposed profaneness of changing the saints’ days in the calendar, and altering the time of all immovable feasts”. Some people obstinately celebrated Christmas on what was now officially January 5th.

     The Russians stuck with the Julian calendar throughout the 19th century. After 1900 it was 13 days out, so that the October Revolution which brought the Bolsheviks to power actually took place in November! It was left to Lenin to impose the Gregorian calendar on Russia, but the Orthodox Church refused to acknowledge it, and continued to hold its holy days on the old dates. 

    On January 1st 1753 in Britain, the date of the year officially changed. But the financial year still began on March 25th, and still does – the old March 25th; plus, of course, 11 days! 

Thursday, 15 January 2015

A childhood in India in the days of the Raj

(A lady called Joyce, a friend of my father, gave me this account)

I was born near Madras, where my father was an official of the Imperial Bank of India. I was an only child, and there was no-one of my age living nearby, so when I once met another child I didn't know how to communicate or talk with her. We didn't mix socially with the Indians or Eurasians (mixed-race). Instead I had a pet goat, called Maggie.
     We lived in a large house belonging to the Bank, which had a garden (called a compound) and servants' quarters. There were five house servants and two gardeners I had an aya (nurse) and a Eurasian nanny, but my best friend was my father's peone (bearer), who was called Robert. He was very old, and was delegated to take me for walks. I remember that in the hot weather we went up to the hills for three weeks, and there for the first time I met children of my own age at the kindergarten.
   Our house was believed to be haunted. Even my father felt uneasy at times. There were poisonous snakes. Once we found a cobra on my mother's bed! She was in the bed at the time. My father called out "Don't move!", got his gun and shot it!

 I first came to England when I was 5, stayed for six months and then returned to India, where I nearly died of enteric fever. When I was 8 or 9 I was sent to school in England, at Hove in Sussex. I didn't see my parents again for three years; instead I was shuffled round between relatives and friends in the school holidays. That kind of arrangement was quite common. I loved England because I was in good health there, whereas I was always ill in India.
   The first school I went to in England was, I now realize, very strange. Because my parents' main priority was the state of my health, they liked its emphasis on life in the open air rather than on academic studies. After this I went to the Maynard School in Exeter, which was more traditional; and then three years later I was transferred to a day-school in Exmouth. By this time my father had retired from India, and my parents bought a house in Budleigh Salterton in Devon, where many other former Indian officials lived.

I left school at 16 and got married at 19, to an old family friend who was nine years older than me. He was a road engineer, and we spent our honeymoon in Germany, looking at Hitler's autobahns! Despite this, we had a very happy married life. We only visited India once, as tourists!.

Sunday, 4 January 2015

Aristophanes and Socrates

Aristophanes (c.448-386 B.C.) was the most famous of the Athenian comic playwrights. He enjoyed mocking his contemporaries in his plays: Euripides the great tragic dramatist, Cleon the rabble-rousing demagogue and Cleisthenes, an effeminate homosexual. In "The Clouds" (422), Aristophanes make the philosopher Socrates (shown here) his target.
     It is not one of his better plays, being very disjointed in structure, and it failed to win any prizes when it was first staged, but what ir says is still interesting. The central character is Strepsiades, a foolish old man, who has been placed in financial difficulties by Pheidippides, his spendthrift son. He has heard that it is possible to thwart creditors by means of specious and dishonest arguments, so he goes to see Socrates in the hope of being taught this skill.
   Socrates questions Strepsiades about his beliefs. Socrates, it transpires, worships only clouds (hence the title of the play). But surely, says Strepsiades, Zeus causes rain to fall? No,says Socrates, rain is caused by clouds. What about thunderstorms: surely Zeus causes thunder? No; thunder is also caused by clouds. Nor does Zeus strike down evildoers: at least, there's no sign that he's done this recently!  Eventually Socrates dismisses Strepsiades as too stupid to be instructed. (It is interesting that, scientifically, Socrates is quite right about the clouds!)
   Strepsiades still needs to learn how to lie and cheat, so he sends his son Pheidippides to be instructed by Socrates. There then follows a debate between two entities called "Right Reasoning" and "Wrong Reasoning". The former laments the passing of the "good old days" when men were honest, brave and frugal, and the young were respectful to their elders. "Wrong Reasoning" has no difficulty in sweeping aside all this rubbish, and then undermines respect for the gods by drawing attention to the extremely immoral conduce of Zeus in the old myths. (In our eyes, "Wrong Reasoning" has easily won this argument, but I wonder if it would appear that way to a contemporary Athenian?)
   Strepsiades then drives away two creditors by employing a string of specious and irrelevant arguments. But his satisfaction ends when Pheidippides returns from instruction by Socrates. He tells his father that he has learnt that there are no gods, but that everything in the universe is moved by a mysterious entity sometimes translated into English as "the vortex" (this is clearly what Aristotle later defined as the "first cause", the "unmoved mover", which we find in Dante and other mediaeval writers as the "primum mobile", out beyond the stars). Pheidippides then commits what to the ancient world was an unforgivable sacrilege: he beats his father and threatens to beat his mother too! He argues that, if there are no gods to punish wrongdoing, then he can do whatever he likes! (This question was to be debated endlessly by moralists: if there is no such thing as divinely-enforced justice, what is there to check wickedness? and how can we even know what right and wrong are? Or, for that matter, how can the existing social structure be justified, if not divinely ordained? as Dostoevsky put it, "If there is no God, how then can I be a captain?")
   The play ends on a dramatic note: Strepsiades, horrified by his son's impiety, goes and sets fire to Socrates's house, with all his students inside, "Because they have blasphemed to gods!"

The intention of Aristophanes in writing this play was to attack the Sophists, who, it was said, used complex and possibly dishonest arguments not to reveal the truth but to confuse it. It is strange, however, that he should use Socrates as a target, since Socrates opposed the Sophists and,famously, was always searching for truth. Perhaps Aristophanes was not familiar with Socrates's purpose? We cannot read the final scene of the play, and its accusation of blasphemy, without recalling that Socrates was to be condemned to death and executed in 399 B.C. for this very same crime: corrupting the youth of Athens.
    So was Aristophanes in any way indirectly responsible for the death of Socrates? This seems unlikely. Certainly Socrates's disciple Plato seemed not to think so, for in his dialogue "The Symposium", written some years after the execution, he portrays Aristophanes as contributing an entirely innocuous and rather charming poetic conceit about the nature of love. To this day, no-one really knows why Socrates was condemned, when no other equivalent person was treated this way; but does seem most likely that the reason was political, stemming from the violent situation in Athens at the time.
   The Peloponnesian war with Sparta,which had continued on-and-off for almost thirty years, ended in 404 B.C. with the disastrous defeat of Athens. The Spartans then abolished the democratic government of Athens and in its place imposed and oligarchic regime known as the "Thirty Tyrants". Many of the new rulers were personal friends of Socrates. The new rulers conducted a bloody purge of their opponents: over 1,000 men a month "disappeared", death-squads roamed the streets, children of opposition families were snatched, and there was much looting for personal gain. Perhaps 1,500 died in this reign of terror. Only 3,000 approved citizens were allowed to bear arms. Socrates was one of the "approved", though when he was ordered to go to Salamis and kill a pro-democracy general, he refused. Eventually the "Thirty Tyrants" were overthrown in a coup in 403, and democracy was restored.
    It was thus a democratic government which put Socrates on trial in 399 B.C. (which perhaps accounts for the contempt Plato felt for democracy, which comes across so strongly in "The Republic"). After a private prosecution (there being no system of prosecution by the Athenian state), where, according to Plato's account, very little that would pass as hard evidence by our standards was put forward, a clear majority in a jury of 501 citizens voted for conviction and then, by a larger majority, sentenced Socrates to death. He was then held in prison for a month, during which time he rejected suggestions of escaping, before drinking the fatal cup of hemlock: a recently-adopted method of death. What became of his body, or of his wife and children, is unknown.
   Aristophanes survived all this turmoil and continued to write his comedies. In 411 he staged his most openly subversive play, "Lysistrata", in which the women of Athens go on sex-strike until peace is made. Despite this flagrantly pacifist message at the height of the war with Sparta, he does not seem to have got into any trouble at all.
The Theatre of Dionysus in Athens, where Aristophanes staged his plays.