A A A

Archive for November, 2014

‘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. (more…)

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. (more…)

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. (more…)

Ukraine’s ambivalent future

By Blog Admin, on 4 November 2014

Events in Ukraine have polarised opinion, but the country’s present and future are best understood as  permeated by ambivalence, argues Alena Ledeneva.

The situation in Ukraine might grasped best by a specialist on geopolitics, a scholar of the (il)legitimacy of power, an ethnographer of insurgencies, an analyst of media propaganda wars, a trauma therapist, or by a psychologist of phobias and love-hate relationships. I have none of these specialisms, but I share their intellectual challenge: the theme of ambivalence.

As ‘East’ and ‘West’ embark on another cycle of ideological confrontation and political standoff, there is little room left for marginal positions or ambivalent attitudes. As the outside world lashes out at Putin over the Crimea and East Ukraine, Russians turn wartime patriotic. Yet paradoxically, exactly because it is impossible to achieve a consensus – and because the black-and-white positions over the Crimea and east Ukraine split families, friendships, and international clubs – it is the understanding of grey areas and backgrounds that may help define the way forward for Ukraine.

One legacy shared by most survivors of oppressive political regimes is what George Orwell called ‘‘doublethink’’ – which Yury Levada and Alexander Zinoviev branded as being the key feature of Homo sovieticus. Under late socialism, when present-day elites in Russia and Ukraine were growing up, it was irrelevant whether people believed official ideological messages or not. Instead, the relation to officialdom became based on intricate strategies of simulated support and on ‘nonofficial’ practices.

Individual doublethink developed into collective double standards that implied the ability to hold contradictory views in private and in public and the capacity to switch between them smoothly, when applied to ‘us’ and ‘them,’ to ‘ordinary citizens’ and to the Party leaders, and to one’s personal circle and to society as a whole.

In its sociological sense, ambivalence, as defined by Robert Merton, refers to incompatible normative expectations of attitudes, beliefs, and behaviour. The incompatibility is assigned to a status and the social structures that generate the circumstances in which ambivalence is embedded. The core type of sociological ambivalence puts contradictory demands upon the occupants of a status in a particular social relation. Since these norms cannot be simultaneously expressed in behaviour, they come to be expressed in an oscillation of behaviours.

In the context of modernity, ambivalence is associated with fragmentation and failure of manageability. Zygmunt Bauman defined ambivalence as the possibility of assigning an object or an event to more than one category. Bauman views it as a language-specific disorder, with its main symptom being the acute discomfort we feel when we are unable to read the situation properly and to choose between alternative actions.

Those who have detailed knowledge of the geography and the economic history of Ukraine or have done exhaustive research on the conflicting accounts on the current situation end up developing symptoms of ambivalence (more…)