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Różewicz’s Testament: Two Texts and an Enigma

By Blog Admin, on 6 May 2015

Barbara Bogoczek considers the last will and testament of the great Polish poet Tadeusz Różewicz, who died one year ago.

Tadeusz Różewicz in 2006 by Michał Kobyliński (Photo: Wikicommons)

 

God created man

in His image

 

the sequence is

was 

different

 

it was man who created God

in his image

 

and later when he

could no longer bear the presence of

God – he erased Him

from his life

 

and suffers because that was

his greatest creation

 

Already a year has passed since Tadeusz Różewicz unexpectedly died on the morning of the 24th of April 2014. The previous day, with his wife Wiesława and son Kamil, he was still enjoying the sight of the cherry tree blossoming in their garden. He was 92 but apparently in good shape, still receiving visitors, answering phone calls, writing. The next morning – as he might have put it himself – his life went missing somewhere…

He left a short note, a wry ‘Last Will and Request’, which baffled at least some of his friends. Didn’t this great writer – author of volumes of poetry, drama, prose and screenplays spanning almost eight decades – confess his loss of faith in God at the very onset of his career? In a conversation just a couple of months before his death he said, ”I’m not in a hurry to go anywhere. Because there is nowhere to go.” And yet in this testament, jotted down in his unmistakable handwriting, dated ”Karpacz, 5.III.2003”, he asked for an ecumenical burial:

”It is my wish that the urn with my ashes be buried at the Augsburg Evangelical cemetery by the Vang Church in Upper Karpacz. I also request the local pastor to say the appropriate prayers, together with a priest of the Roman Catholic Church (of which I am a member through the sacrament of baptism and confirmation). I wish to be buried in the soil which has become close to my heart like the soil on which I was born. Perhaps this will contribute to good relations between two divided faiths and bring closer the cultures and nations which lived and are still living on this land. Perhaps the dream of the poet who prophesied ‘All people shall be brothers’ will come true. Amen.”

And signed: ”Tadeusz Różewicz (born 9.X.1921 in Radomsko)”.

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A prayer for the Russian dead

By Blog Admin, on 29 April 2015

Tim Beasley-Murray considers Emmanuel Carrère’s Retour à Kotelnitch and what it tells us about death in contemporary Russia. 

Retour à Kotelnitch (Back to Kotelnich) is a documentary film, made in 2003, by Emmanuel Carrère, a French writer of Russian descent, that tells of life in a small and unexceptional town eight hundred kilometers east of Moscow. The ending of the film is almost unbearably sad. Beneath the soundtrack of Carrère’s tender and unaccompanied singing of a Russian lullaby, Lermontov’s Bayushki Bayu, the images show us the desolate forecourt of Kotelnich’s railway station, under darkened skies, covered in frost and snow, an empty bench, leafless trees. We have already seen this place earlier in the film. In the earlier scene, Anna, a young woman whom Carrère has befriended, is with Lev, her baby boy of about four months, in a sling on her chest. She is talking animatedly and distractedly to the camera, proud, bubbling with the love of a mother for her child. Carrère, behind the camera, at this point in making the film, has begun to lose interest in Anna in terms of her value for his project. Nevertheless, in a cutaway from middle distance, Carrère sits on the bench and plays happily with the baby. In the book that accompanies the film, Un roman russe, the reader finds out that it is at this moment that Carrère sings the Lermontov lullaby to Lev in his arms. It is summer and the sun gently shines through the leaves of the trees on the station forecourt.

Kotelnich train station (Photo: Wikicommons).

Between these two scenes and these two views of the same place, one wintrily desolate, the other sunlit and full of a love that is low-key but self-evident, something terrible has happened: Anna and her baby have been brutally murdered. Anna, strangled in her flat with the cord of her telephone; Lev, hacked to pieced with an axe. Summer has turned to Winter. The viewer cannot but superimpose her or his experience of the two similar, but cruelly opposed scenes. (A clunkier film-maker would intercut a flashback here.) What we see through the falling snow on the empty Winter bench is the absence of this mother and child and the crushing presence of their death. The lullaby that Carrère had sung to a living, sun-dappled Lev, a lullaby that tells of a mother’s hopes for her child as he grows up, has now, sung again at the end of the film, become a grave-song for a life brought to an end, so soon, so unimaginably violently.

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Corruption and anti-corruption in Romania. Finally turning the corner?

By Blog Admin, on 18 April 2015

A recent anti-corruption spree, led by public prosecutor Laura Kövesi, has taken the Romanian political elite by ‘earthquake’. Daniel Brett discusses the multifaceted roots of the country’s corrupt practices: “If there is a historical legacy, it comes from the Communist period”, he argues, “and the absence of a political rupture in 1989 meant that its networks remained unbroken”. Nevertheless, today’s indicted politicians were just teenagers when Communism ended. Is history really to blame?

In a country where actions of an ignominious nature are even encouraged, and those of rapacity looked upon as mere proofs of dexterity and cunning, corruption of principles cannot fail to become universal.

William Wilkinson, An Account of the Principalities of Moldavia and Wallachia, London 1820

Elena Udrea, former Minister of Regional Development and Tourism, who was arrested in connection with corruption investigations in early 2015. (Photo: Wikicommons)

The on-going conflict between the Romanian public and the political elite over corruption has recently been given new impetus. Parliament’s refusal to lift the immunity of PSD Senator Dan Sova brought protesters onto the streets, demanding his arrest and the removal of the government. In a week in which gold and a Renoir painting were found in the finance minister’s safe following his arrest by the National Anticorruption Unit, Direcţia Naţională Anticorupţie (DNA), alongside continuing investigations of a number of high ranking politicians, corruption remains firmly on the political agenda in Romania.

Corruption and Romanian politics are often portrayed as synonymous. Romania ranked 69 out of 175 countries on the 2014 Transparency International Corruption Perception index and joined Italy, Greece and Bulgaria as the most corrupt of the EU states. However, over the last decade anti-corruption efforts have accelerated, in part due to the demands of the European Union during the accession process and of the wider public. This culminated in the arrest and jailing of former Prime Minister and PSD presidential candidate Adrian Năstase twice for corruption offenses. Since Klaus Iohannis’s victory in the November 2014 elections, a series of former and current government ministers have also been arrested. While the majority of those arrested are associated with Prime Minister Victor Ponta’s PSD, politicians from other parties, including Elena Udrea, and business figures have also been arrested.

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On Pišťanek, Death, and Literature that Affirms Life

By Blog Admin, on 30 March 2015

Tim Beasley-Murray reflects on the recent death of one of Slovakia’s leading contemporary writers.

There is an old commonplace – one that goes back to Seneca and reemerges throughout Western culture, say, in Montaigne or Heidegger – that says that it is death that gives meaning to life. More specifically, as one version of this commonplace would have it: one can only understand the life of an individual in the light of the manner of his or her death.

To my mind, these sorts of ideas and the thanatocentrism that they represent are completely misplaced. How can life gain its meaning from the often banal, often painful, often violent means by which life comes or is put to an end? Here, I am with Nietzsche and his insistence that the meaning of life can only be sought within life itself. Conceptualizing life in terms of death, thanatocentrism does little more than justify the claims of death over life. Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori…. Well, we know where such ideas lead us: to societies that are willing – as on the killing fields of the First World War – to sacrifice the living by their thousands and hundreds of thousands.

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Estonia’s 2015 election result ensures the Reform Party will continue to dominate the country’s politics

By Blog Admin, on 12 March 2015

Estonia held a parliamentary election on 1 March. Allan Sikk writes that while the nature of the coalition which emerges from the election remains to be seen, the result was another success for the Reform Party, which has been in government continuously for the last sixteen years.

The most significant, although predictable, result of the 1 March general election in Estonia was another electoral triumph by the Reform Party (RE). RE has been part of governing coalitions continuously for sixteen years, and has held the position of Prime Minister for the last ten years. It is fairly likely to continue at the helm of government until 2019, cementing its dominance in Estonian politics. The chart below shows the results of the 2015 election and the previous general election in 2011.

Chart: Results of the 2015 and 2011 Riigikogu elections (click to enlarge).

Estonian elections

 

Note: Figures from National Electoral Commission. For more information on the parties see: Reform Party (RE), Centre Party (KE), Social Democratic Party (SDE), Pro Patria & Res Publica Union (IRL), Free Party (EVA), Conservative People’s Party (EKRE).

Even though two new parties entered the parliament (more on them below), the election was also characterised by stability. The vote shares of three out of the four erstwhile parliamentary parties changed little, as did electoral turnout (64 per cent). Only the conservative Pro Patria and Res Publica Union (IRL) suffered a notable loss of votes (6.8 per cent), mostly to the two new parties.

The continued success of RE can be explained by three factors: national security concerns, a successful leadership change, and a shrewd political strategy. As the incumbent, RE benefitted from voters seeking stability confronted with an increasingly aggressive Russia. In its campaign, RE emphasised the need for stability and boosting national defence. RE used NATO fighter jets as a backdrop for one of their campaign clips, for which it was criticised in the media, but this nevertheless helped cultivate among the voters an image of a party that prioritises defence.

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Poland’s Jewishness: the Polin Museum of Polish Jews and Paweł Pawlikowski’s Ida.

By Blog Admin, on 3 February 2015

Poland’s new museum of Polish-Jewish history and Paweł Pawlikowski’s film Ida are signs of a shift in Poland’s understanding of its Jewish past, writes Uilleam Blacker.

ida_still_02

Still from Ida, source: http://www.ida-movie.com/gallery

The opening, in October 2014, of the permanent exhibition of Warsaw’s new ‘Polin’ Museum of the history of Polish Jews marked a shift in Poland’s memory of the loss of its Jewish population. Until now, the key memorial sites in this regard have been sites of Jewish death, such as the former Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp and the former Warsaw ghetto in Muranów, Warsaw. The new museum has been located in the centre of Muranów, next to the famous ghetto uprising monument, precisely in order to rebalance the commemorative discourse away from the image of Poland as a ‘vast Jewish cemetery’ and towards recognition of it as a place of flourishing Jewish life, which, of course, it was for hundreds of years. As programme director Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett has noted, “We have a moral obligation to remember not only how Jews died but also how they lived.”

The museum is not an isolated phenomenon, but rather the culmination of a long process of the recovery of Jewish heritage and culture in Poland that has its roots in the efforts of activists and intellectuals in the late communist period. Today, there are many small museums in Poland celebrating Polish-Jewish culture and history alongside the many Holocaust memorial sites, as well as countless Jewish-themed cultural events. One of the important achievements of this tendency is to move towards an understanding of Poland’s Jewish heritage not as something alien that needs to be looked after on behalf of someone else, but as part of the Polish story. As Kirshnblatt-Gimblett told the FT last year: “We’re trying to show the history of Polish Jews as an integral part of the history of Poland.” Thus, the museum tells stories such as that of Michał Landy, a Jewish student who was killed during an anti-tsarist protest in Warsaw in 1861 as he lifted a cross that had been dropped by an injured fellow protester.

For decades, memory of Poland’s Jews has, of course, been dominated by the Holocaust. This powerful, transnational discourse inscribed the memory of Polish Jews into a wider Jewish story, in which the different cultural backgrounds and experiences of the victims – among them the Polish-Jewish experience – faded into the background. This situation was compounded by the reluctance of the Polish communist authorities to allow discussion either of the anti-Semitic nature of the Nazi occupation or of Poland’s Jewish heritage, meaning that for decades the traces of that heritage crumbled, and the Polish-Jewish story remained untold.

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All tomorrow’s parties? The future (and past) of politics in Eastern Europe

By Blog Admin, on 19 January 2015

By ŠJů (cs:ŠJů) (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo ŠJů (cs:ŠJů) (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0]

In this post we present a discussion between  Kevin Deegan-Krause, Tim Haughton, Stephen Whitefield and Jan Rovný on the current state of knowledge on political parties in Eastern Europe, what we still needs to learned and how researchers can get there.  The discussion had its origins in the Whither Eastern Europe conference held at the University of Florida in January 2014 and accompanies a special section on parties in the forthcoming issue of East European Politics and Societies.

Deegan-Krause: Let’s start with a simple question: Is there anything we know we can agree about?

Whitefield: I found it highly instructive to ponder the lessons from three intertwined perspectives. First, what do citizens want from parties? Second, what do parties have to offer to citizens? Third, how does the communication between parties and voters help deliver good democratic governance?

In terms of the citizen-party relationship, I believe that Robert Rohrschneider and I have already established that the underlying cleavage structure at the party-level differs between East and West: largely one-dimensional in the East but – importantly – no sign as yet of a shift in the axis of the dimension to resemble the West: in the East, party competition is still based on pro-West/Europe, pro-market, pro-democratic parties versus their opposite.

Rovný: Depending on country circumstances and legacies, you should find different combinations of the left-right versus gal-tan and different degrees of salience. The key is ethnicity (and state-building).

Whitefield: Of course, there is local variation. In some countries – historical national boundaries in Hungary for example or ethnic divisions in Ukraine or Latvia – specific issues are present that give national distinctiveness to party competition. But nonetheless, there exists powerful evidence of the importance of a Communist legacy on the nature of cleavages in the region as a whole and even of the freezing of the party systems there.

Deegan-Krause: To the extent we do see programmatic patterns (or other patterns), where do they come from? Do you see them anchored in the experiences of the region and if so, which ones?

Rovný: One of the most interesting debates has been the one on structure versus volatility of politics in eastern Europe. This debate has by now found a set of generally accepted conclusions. First, the literature on party systems and voting behaviour clearly and continuously finds increased levels of organizational volatility — parties get born, merged and dissolved more frequently than in the west — as well as increased levels of voting volatility — voters switch between parties at a higher rate than in the west, while fewer people turn out to vote.

At the same time, the literature on ideological structure continuously concludes that parties in the region offer reasonably framed ideological choices, and voters select parties on the basis of their political preferences. These two conclusions are seemingly contradictory: organizational and electoral volatility contrasts ideological structure. I believe that we should aim at the theoretical reconciliation of these findings by accepting that structured stability and volatility can coexist.

Deegan-Krause: Let’s talk about stability first. Given the kinds of electoral results we see in the region, it is interesting that there is any talk about stability at all.

Whitefield: We agree with what Jan [Rovný] is saying. Work that I did with Geoff Evans in the 1990s and 2000s did indeed point to the importance (contra some expectations) of most of the usual demographic suspects. Social class, measured using the Goldthorpe-Eriksson class schema—which is really based on characteristics of occupations, particularly manual/non-manual and the supervised/supervisory distinctions—was surprisingly useful in the post-Communist context.

Given what might have happened to the nature of occupational structures, this class scheme appears both internally valid but it also has good predictive value to both attitudes and political behaviour, as much as in the West.

As in the West, it doesn’t work as well in all countries—the cleavage structure and what parties offer helps explain variance—but it works. Age and education also work in wholly expected ways. Gender differentiates little. But where some of the most interesting results come are from the comparative study of the impact of religion and religiosity in the region.

At the extremes, Catholicism – and in Catholic countries church attendance – matter significantly for public political values and behaviour; in Orthodox countries, religion appears to matter little. I am intrigued to know whether this is a dog that continues not to bark in Russia and Ukraine. Read the rest of this entry »

‘The Death of Others': the myth and reality of suicide in the German Democratic Republic

By Blog Admin, on 27 November 2014

Berlin-Hohenschönhausen Stasi prison, by Denis Apel (cc-by)

Berlin-Hohenschönhausen Stasi prison,
by Denis Apel (cc-by)

An award-winning film reinforces the gap between perceptions of the GDR and its more complex reality, finds Udo Grashoff.

I was about to leave my flat as the phone rang… I picked up; a woman, who introduced herself as the assistant of a West German filmmaker, required my urgent assistance. It was about a funeral oration in a film set in the GDR in the 1980s. In the film, a Stasi officer was assigned to spy on a playwright, Georg Dreyman.  At the funeral oration for a colleague who has committed suicide, Dreyman accuses the GDR authorities of coldheartedly ignoring people who commit suicide. He claims that the state stopped compiling suicide statistics in 1977.

I was consulted on the dates and facts, which made sense as I wrote my doctoral thesis on suicide in the GDR. What I had to explain to the filmmaker’s assistant was rather complicated. Except for the period between 1956 and 1962 suicide statistics were not published in the statistical yearbooks. However, the ‘State Central Bureau for Statistics’ recorded suicides with Prussian accuracy, but kept them a state secret. Besides, in 1968 the GDR Ministry of Health launched a strategy for the prevention of suicide. Two suicide prevention centres were founded. Although there was no public discussion of suicide, there was a limited, if diminishing, coverage of the issue in professional journals. From 1977, even specialists could not access data.

This is not the same as to suggest, as Dreyman does in the film, that statistics on suicide were no longer being kept, but given the context – in 1986, a GDR citizen simply could not know what could only be researched after the Wall came down – I advised leaving the eulogy as it was.

This was in around 2005, and only much later did I realise that I had taken part in the making of ‘The Lives of Others’. To my surprise, the film became a worldwide hit. ‘The Lives of Others’ has shaped the image of the East German dictatorship much more than any scholarly book on the GDR history. The film was praised as highly authentic and historically accurate. Locations like the Stasi prison in Berlin-Hohenschoenhausen were used; details of everyday life in the GDR and especially in the art scene were meticulously reconstructed.

Of course, not everyone bought the story. Slavoj Žižek said that the film failed to show the ‘true horror’ of the dictatorial system. Mary Fulbrook complained that the story did not ‘present the GDR in all its complexities’. Anna Funder doubted that a Stasi officer would have been able to log in false information into Stasi files in order to protect a victim. Read the rest of this entry »

Bulgaria’s new coalition: A rainbow without colours

By Blog Admin, on 16 November 2014

Bulgaria’s newly formed coalition government seems to span left and right. However, in practice it offers a familiar mix of nationalism and neo-liberalism, argues James Dawson.

Bulgaria’s newly-formed coalition, comprised of the pro-European rightists of GERB and the Reformist Bloc, ex-President Parvanov’s ‘leftist’ ABV and the ultranationalist Patriotic Front might look like an unlikely alliance of ideologically incompatible parties – an apparent case of what the political scientist Thomas Carothers once termed ‘feckless pluralism’.

Certainly, this has been the angle taken by many commentators inside the country who puzzle at the ability of political actors routinely labelled ‘pro-European’, ‘right-wing’, ‘left-wing’ and ‘nationalist’ to work together. Yet such analyses rest on the flawed assumption that these labels reflect clearly articulated, meaningfully differentiated policy platforms helping citizens to identify with specific ideas.

In practice, this is a perfectly dull coalition consisting only of parties that are functionally both neo-liberal and nationalist, along with the now customary support of some shouting-at-the-TV-type xenophobes (though the role played by Ataka in the previous two governments will now be filled by the Patriotic Front).

If it is now difficult to discern one political platform from another, then it follows that many, probably most, votes are cast on the basis of non-programmatic appeals. Charismatic and clientelistic dynamics almost certainly explain why voter turnout remains quasi-respectable (over 50%) in a context of mass protest and disillusionment. Yet though ideas and policies may not decide the outcome of Bulgarian elections, they still matter: politicians must do something when given control of the state. The path of least resistance in Bulgaria has usually been to combine neo-liberalism and nationalism. It is unlikely that this government will buck the trend.

Neo-liberal ideas have never become a popular narrative across the country – most Bulgarians remain preoccupied with getting by and are not identifiable in terms of economic policy orientations. However, the arguments of the right have gradually assumed the position of a shared ‘common sense’ among influential urban demographics. In part, this can be explained by the preferences of the oligarchic networks that dominate media ownership.

However, the victory of neo-liberalism owes just as much to the actions of the Bulgarian Socialist Party, which has for over two decades used leftist rhetoric to mask its collusion in the enrichment of these same oligarchs, both through business-friendly policies (such as the famous 10% flat corporation tax) and old-style corruption. Read the rest of this entry »

Ukraine: Why Russian perspectives should be heard

By Blog Admin, on 14 November 2014

Throughout the Ukraine crisis there has been persistent criticism from the West that the Russian media have intentionally presented misleading information on the conflict.

However, Joanna Szostek argues while there are legitimate concerns about the reporting of organisations such as the Russian state-funded broadcaster RT, banning or excluding Russian perspectives from the Western media would be counter-productive.

On 31 October a conference took place at the University of Cambridge to discuss ‘Ukraine and the Global Information War’. The event brought journalists, activists and academics together to reflect on media coverage of the Ukrainian crisis, with the problem of propaganda a particular concern. Several speakers represented organisations that have been working to expose disinformation in the Russian media and counter the Russian narrative of events in Ukraine more generally.

Russia’s international propaganda machine is so powerful, insidious and dangerous, argued some of these speakers, that much tougher measures are needed to block its effects. Calls were voiced for RT, Russia’s state-funded broadcaster aimed at international audiences, to be outlawed. Other participants suggested that Western news outlets should be freed from the usual requirement to ‘report both sides’ on the basis that the Russian ‘side’ is largely derived from falsehoods, so repeating it merely serves the Kremlin’s aim of muddying the waters. One eminent historian complained that the BBC’s Ukraine coverage had been ‘particularly irritating’ with its rigid commitment to ‘on the one hand, on the other hand’ journalism.

Some of the untrue stories disseminated by Russian television during the conflict in Ukraine have certainly been outrageous and the activists who volunteer their time and energy debunking fabrications deserve respect and support. Incessant Russian talk of the ‘fascist coup’ in Kyiv must infuriate the millions who joined Euromaidan out of a genuine desire to make their country less corrupt and more democratic.

Nevertheless, to ban RT or exclude the ‘Russian perspective’ from news reports would be counterproductive: it would serve only to reinforce impressions of Western hostility and ‘double standards’ in the eyes of the Russian public. Read the rest of this entry »