• History repeating in Russia and Ukraine

    On the day that Russia invaded Ukraine, I was halfway through In Memory of Memory by the Russian Jewish author Maria Stepanova.

    I was reading the letters that her relative Lyodik Gimmelfarb, a 19-year-old at the Siege of Leningrad, sent to his mother. They were matter-of-fact and uncomplaining. Shortly after his 20th birthday, he was killed.

    War. What’s it good for?

    The following chapters turn to another branch of her family, the Gurevichs, in particular Isaak Gurevich, a well-heeled businessman who opened an agricultural machinery factory in Kherson in the early 20th century.

    I had never heard of this southern Ukrainian city, and suddenly I was reading about it in the news, falling to Russian forces, as I simultaneously read about this successful Jewish family who built a fine mansion and owned the first English Vauxhall car in the region.

    In 1907, Isaak Gurevich had been there to welcome the railway to Kherson. He and his family had also witnessed the pogroms that swept across southern Ukraine in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a reminder of the fact that the Nazis didn’t invent anti-Semitism.

    Brave new world

    With the Russian Revolution, Gurevich had his factory taken off him and given to the workers. Soon it wasn’t simply a case of losing your wealth, but losing any trace of ever having had wealth. ‘Social background’ had to be filled in on government forms, and a hint of bourgeois ancestry spelt trouble.

    At the conclusion of her family saga, Stepanova visits the Jewish New Cemetery on the outskirts of Kherson. It’s a desolate, windblown spot where the scrub is slowly reclaiming the gravestones. There are no Jews left to tend the cemetery.

    More serendipity? How about Afghanistan Then and Now

  • If statues could speak…

    Lenin statue on a plinth with a tower block behind
    (Photo by Nicolas Dmítrichev)

    In early October 2013, I visited Kiev. Several times, I passed a statue near the capital’s main square, the Maydan. On it was written ленин. Even my limited knowledge of the Cyrillic alphabet told me this was a statue of the revolutionary leader himself, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. It struck me as odd that this likeness should still stand at the very centre of the Ukrainian nation, 22 years on from its independence from the Soviet Union. 

    Two months later, it became a focus of protestors’ anger in the revolution that ousted Viktor Yanukovich from power. At the time, I remember a Russian friend, who is no supporter of Communism, warning about the dangers of trying to eliminate the cultural remnants of the past. We both studied the Middle East together, and were used to watching statues being torn down, but it made me think about this question. 

    Clive of India

    Close to my office in London, I used to walk past a statue on a grand pedestal just off The Mall. It was of Clive of India (Robert Clive of the East India Company). I had never heard of him in all my British education. Reading William Dalrymple’s new history, The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of the East India Company, I have now discovered him as the rapacious, risk-taking military leader of a corporation that took over Bengal – and eventually all of India – through violence, asset-stripping and widespread slaughter and famine. 

    It could be said that his actions paved the way for Britain to eventually send the forebears of members of my extended family to the sugar plantations of the Caribbean as indentured labour. Yet his statue stands, on an unusually tall pillar, watching over Britain’s most hallowed thoroughfare, leading to Buckingham Palace and the seat of British cultural power. 

    Is that a problem?

    If protesters have now turned their attentions to the statue of Winston Churchill in Parliament Square, labelling him a racist, then Robert Clive has a record in India just as murky. But then, what of all the important white men who stand on pompous statues the country over – and over the whole world? Must they all go?

    ‘The past is a foreign country,’ as L. P. Hartley wrote. We cannot return to it, but to attempt to write a new history will always result in creating a history based only on what we value today, in our contemporary world, and that too will be history one day.

    When Soviets tried, in the 1920s, to rename everything, to eliminate Tsarist history and create a new world of Communist heroes and memories, they thought they were expunging the wrongs of the past. Whether a statue stands or falls, history is forever being edited inside the minds of every one of us. No single narrative is sustained, try as we might. 

    Talking of history, Think You’ve Got A Good Memory?

  • Same place, different century

    (Photo by Emma Francis)

    Stuck for a good read? Try two books about the same place from writers who were there a century apart. I’ve done it twice now, by chance. I recommend it. 

    First, I read Siberian Journey: Down the Amur to the Pacific, 1856-1857 by Perry McDonough Collins, an incredible account of his trip as the first American to travel the length of the Amur River on the border of China and Siberia. 

    I followed this up by reading Black Dragon River: A Journey down the Amur River at the Borderlands of Empires by Dominic Ziegler

    Collins travelled the Amur as Slavs from Russia were craving out territory for the Tsar. He envisaged a new America in the Far East, rolling back the primitive Chinese. Ziegler’s contemporary travels revealed gleaming Chinese cities looking across the Amur at impoverished Russian settlements. 

    From US Grant to Kerouac

    It happened again when I read the Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant – American civil war hero and president. He published them in 1885, just before his death. They largely recount the civil war years and the battles he was engaged in. 

    I followed this up with Jack Kerouac’s On The Road, published in 1957 and chronicling his road trips across the US in the late 40s and early 50s. I hadn’t intended them as comparison pieces, and yet they were. 

    Kerouac’s crazy drives from coast to coast, with almost no sleep, occasional fuel stops and bouts of drinking, happened to take him through both Vicksburg, Mississippi and the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia. Both were sites of major civil war battles Grant described. 

    A hundred years from now…

    I was struck by how these two men were treading the same ground less than a hundred years apart, yet one was bogged down in constant mud, trying to pull mule trains of munitions and bedraggled soldiers through the mire, hitting the major obstacle of rivers they couldn’t cross. 

    The other was crossing the entire American continent from coast to coast in a matter of days, in an automobile on bitumen roads. For one, the conditions were so harsh they imperiled life itself, for the other, it was a joyride.

    Same place, different reality. 

    More travel and books? Here’s how to spend a long haul flight

  • Think you’ve got a good memory?

    Hourglass with sand running through it on a pebble beach
    (Photo by Aron Visuals)

    Our memory isn’t as good as we like to think it is. I’m not talking about the dementia epidemic. I mean collective memory. Societies are built on the stuff. What we remember makes us who we are.

    But I have a theory. It’s this: our collective memory is only ever 4 generations old. Even the things that appear older are only the products of the last 4 generations – appropriating older stuff for their own ends. 

    Tell me about your great-grandparents

    On a personal family level, this is about when memory peters out. How many of us even know who our ancestors were beyond our great-grandparents, let alone anything else about them?

    It’s nice to think of our own selves as somehow stretching back to George Washington, King Arthur, Aristotle, Suleyman the Magnificent, Confucius, Muhammad, Jesus – or whichever historic figures and movements you identify with. 

    It’s nice to think that our traditions and preoccupations have vast root systems. Our way of seeing the world is time-tested. In reality, our own lives are much more limited. Our sense of the ancient past is informed by the last 4 generations.

    Who do you think you are?

    When Scots wear tartan, they are communing with Sir Walter Scott. When Englishmen sing folk songs, they sing through the prism of collectors like Cecil Sharp. When Swedes revel in whitewashed pine floors with pops of colour they are heirs to Carl Larsson

    You might say, well, it’s easy to unpick popular culture and folk tradition, but not the great foundational movements of the ages – the monotheistic faiths. Yet even there, the Christian or the Muslim from Birmingham to Malmo is channeling the revivals of the past 150 years more than the time of the prophets. 

    Go back more than 4 generations and our nations and people were often living in a way that would surprise us now. We’d find them doing things we don’t see as traditional to our countries and our communities at all. 

    The rule applies around the world. We are prisoners of unreliable memory, and short-term memory at that. 

    Talking of unreliable memories, Britain Isn’t What It Used To Be