Flowers of the Mind 17

My holiday comes to a close today. It has been a period of regeneration when I have allowed my mind to flower in new directions, free of the whip of constant output. Let us see how the flowers of the fallow field bloom in the year ahead.

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The crisis in Europe is entering some dangerous days. I am dismayed at all the talk of an imminent Russian invasion, which is unsupported by any evidence and cloaks the real aggressor – America’s aggressive and ideological diplomacy. For unclear reasons, America is pushing the world into a dangerous conflict. Is it to stage a “wag the dog” war to reverse the deep plunge of Biden’s opinion poll ratings? Is it to create a situation where Jo Biden can appear to be a world statesman who at the last minute intervenes to stop a war that was never really going to happen? Is it the result of feuding among the factions in the acephalous Late Imperial Court of the American Empire, with the New Cold War in European zealots, like Blinken and Victoria Nuland, seeking to re-colonise Europe? Is it misadventure and miscalculation?

In any case Ukraine is the greatest victim of this diplomatic fiasco; in recent days the President, the Defence Minister and the Foreign Affairs Minister have all called on the United States of America’s Imperial War Faction to dial down the rhetoric of war that is destroying the economy and social stability of Ukraine.

China has also made clear during a telephone conversation between its Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, and American Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken that it backs Russia in this crisis. The long-term solution for this crisis is for durable security arrangements in Europe that finally bring an end to the 100 Years Cold War between Anglo-America and Russia, and that curtail the American military occupation of Europe. It is time for American diplomats to take seriously the Russian treaty proposals. Let us hope that France and India speak in favour of a path for peace that trims the wings of the ageing American eagle at the United Nations Security Council discussion of Ukraine on 1 February.

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As it happened this week, on 27 January, marked the commemoration of the end of the Siege of Leningrad – the remarkable 872 siege during World War Two. Surrounded by the German troops sent by Hitler in Operation Barbarossa as part of a war of extermination, then Leningrad, now St Petersburg, suffered horrifically: starvation. cold. horrific and relentless bombing, fires, and enormous casualties – over one million military casualties and over 650,000 civilian deaths.

I saw some brief news reports of President of Russia, Vladimir Putin, laying a wreath at Piskaryovskoye Memorial Cemetery to honour the victims of the Siege. At this cemetery over half a million victims are buried in a vast common grave. Only about one-third of the buried bodies have been identified. Among those unidentified buried remains are Putin’s own brother. As Tass reports:

“Putin, a Leningrad resident born in 1952, participates in memorial events dedicated to the Siege of Leningrad on a regular basis. It is a very personal story for the president. His father Vladimir Putin fought at the Nevsky Pyatachok southeast of Leningrad during the siege, his mother stayed at the city for the entire duration of the siege and his elder brother Viktor died of diphtheria in the besieged city in the winter of 1942.”

Oddly, I saw a story on Deutsche Welle that used uncredited footage of Putin presenting the wreath at this cemetery as a background filler image for a report on a debate in the German Bundestag on sending military aid and the conflict in Ukraine. The Atlanticists have no real historical empathy and no shame.

More compassionately I read on this day commemorating the ending of the siege Stewart Binns, Barbarossa and the bloodiest war in history. It is a vivid account of the experience of the German invasion of the Soviet Union – Russia, Ukraine, Belorussia, Crimea in 1941 – a far more deadly and devastating surprise attack than Pearl Harbour. It is full of accounts from diaries, letters and memoirs of the ordinary Soviet/Russian citizens who endured and resisted and suffered through this remarkable assault. In 2003 I visited St Petersburg including the museum honouring the Siege of Leningrad. It was a profoundly moving experience. Binns’ book supplements those personal memories with diary accounts of deaths, bombings, and the range of human responses to the extremes of hunger. Some people succumbed to cannibalism and crime. Others practised the ordinary virtue of the life of the mind. There is one especially moving account of this practice of the ordinary virtues in the account of Dimitri Likhachev, distinguished Russian linguist, scholar of medieval Russian culture, dissident and “conscience of Russia”, one of the last of the old St Ptersburg. He writes:

“In hunger people showed their true selves: some were wonderful, unparalled heroes; others were villains, scoundrels, murderers, cannibals. There was no middle ground. The human brain was the last to die. When the hands and feet ceased to function, the fingers did not button, there was no strength to close the mouth. When the skin darkened and tightened, it barely covered the skull with exposed laughing teeth. The brain continued to work. People wrote diaries, philosophical works, scientific papers ‘from the heart’; they showed extraordinary resolve, not yielding to pressure, not succumbing to what they endured.”

Likhachev, Reflections on the Russian Soul: a Memoir (2000) quoted Binns, Barbarossa, p 75.

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Ukraine also appeared in my reading of the poetry of Elena Shvarts this week. At the end of “Flora of Ukraine” she writes:

You, my native Ukraine
You who are lost and drowned,
You warm me with my blood
And waving, lure me down.

As the fabricated crisis of Ukraine unravels, Ukraine, the poorest country in Europe, a country with a dark history of ethnic violence, hatred and prejudice, suffers once more, lures sentimental exiles once more to drown in the tragic deep.

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During the week I also watched again Sukorov’s great film, Russian Ark (2002). I watched or rather listened this time as an exercise in language learning by listening since I am seriously learning Russian now. Yet the film, as it often does, gave me hope that our culture can survive – that it may dwell in the floating museum of the Hermitage as much as the Burning Archive of my fears – all this war talk and the Great Seclusion of COVID. As the film ends, and we leave the Hermitage by a side door, saying farewell to the Stranger, who accepts his limited hour to reconnect with the beauty he cherishes and to learn the heroic and tragic fates of the flower of Russian culture, walking down the grand staircase with the carnival of Russian society in all its brilliance, exuberance, banality and crudity, the camera looks out to the grey shimmering mist over the Neva, and the narrator speaks his last lines:

Sir, sir. It’s a pity you’re not here with me. You would understand everything. Look. The sea is all around. We are destined to sail forever. To live forever.

Russian Ark (2002)

We can all sail the ark of culture.

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