• 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?