I apologise for the long delay in posting material to this blog. I’ve been busy in my new job as International Editor, as well as working the CEE beat and trying to hurry along my new book about Russian spies.
I have also put a lot of work into the new Economist blog, Eastern Approaches.
In the meantime, the Economist has changed its rules so that I now must wait for a month before posting articles in private mailings or on my own site, so that our website garners the maximum amount of traffic. I think this is an entirely reasonable stipulation given that the Economist shareholders paid for the article to be written in the first place!
What I am allowed to do is to alert people to the articles’ existence. I do this on Facebook and Twitter. Anyone on this list who is on facebook is welcome to be my “friend” or to “follow” me on Twitter, where I am edwardlucas
You can look at my “twitter feed” here
The messages are a bit cryptic but you will soon get the gist. They include links to stories I have written in the Economist and elsewhere, and other interesting material. These links are usually shortened to something that looks like www.bit.ly/Abc123.
Here are some examples from my recent work on the absurd and damaging row between Poland and Lithuania
http://bit.ly/bPEVxQ war of words worsens between #poland and #lithuania. V tiresome
http://bit.ly/dedVTS new blog post on absurd damaging row between #poland and #lithuania
Poland, Lithuania and self-centredness — http://www.economist.com/blogs/easternapproaches/2010/10/poland_and_lithuania
http://bit.ly/cbEE6E sad sharp article (in Polish) about looming lithuania-polish spelling fiasco row
- A major military training exercise including more than 1,700 US Polish and Baltic troops has begun in Latvia http://bit.ly/9O3qjZ
If you find facebook more convenient, the same material is there.
This will in effect catch up on most of what I have written in the past few months but not posted here.
I would particularly recommend the long review I wrote of Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands which you can find here
What I will post in this mailing is four recent columns from European Voice, and a fun piece that I wrote about growing chilies in my office and naming them after famous Estonians (it has appeared in estonian but not yet in English).
Chili peppers are not part of Estonian cuisine. But they have helped make some of Estonia’s most distinguished sons and daughters famous at the Economist.
I should begin by explaining that my enthusiasm for all things Estonian is not my only eccentricity. Among the others are obsessive interests in railways, cricket—and spicy food. My sister and I frequent a London restaurant called “Hot Stuff” and at Christmas and birthdays exchange bottles of hot sauce with names like “Wild Dog” and “Liquid Fire”.
Although we don’t believe in serious sibling rivalry, a bit of competition is fun. So when she started to grow chillies in her garden, I decided to grow bigger and better ones in my office. Soon I had a tray (a colleague’s unused inbox) filled with compost and a two dozen tiny green sprouts. “What are you going to call them?” a colleague asked.
As a joke, I answered “they’re all famous Estonians”. Then I thought to myself, “why not?” I started jotting down names at random of Estonians I admire and would like to have as company in my office. Otto Tief. Jaan Tõnisson. Jüri Kukk, on whose behalf my mother, an Amnesty International stalwart, used to write letters. Other heroes of the resistance such as August Sabbe and Alfons Rebane. Aili Jürgenson and Ageeda Paavel, the teenage girls who blew up the first Soviet war memorial in Tallinn and were sent to Siberia. Kristjan Palusalu, the great prewar wrestler (who some say was cheekily chosen as the model for the real Bronze Soldier). Then my favourite writers: Lydia Koidula, Betti Alver. Kross and Kaplinski. I researched the Estonians who had been on postage stamps and who had public memorials. I added Kreutzwald, Jakobson, Jakob Hurt and some more pre-war politicians. All the heads of state of the prewar republic deserved mention, I reckoned. I added the two most impressive Estonians I met: Ernst Jaakson and Lennart Meri. All that was missing was an English connection (Rebane doesn’t count). I settled on Gert Helbemäe. I doubt many modern Estonians have heard of him, but he was a leading light in Estonian literary exile circles in Britain until his death in 1970.
I bought more trays, pots and labels and started potting out the seedlings. Working out how to arrange them on the windowsill proved surprisingly time-consuming. At first I tried to do it logically: all political prisoners over there, pre-war politicians here, 19th century writers in one corner, 20th-century ones in the other, and so on. But my sense of mischief soon triumphed. Why not Koidula in bed with Kreutzwald? Their real-life epistolary relationship was tragically abortive (I’ve just been reading Madli Puhvel’s excellent book about it).
But it seemed a shame not to transcend the boundaries of time and space more radically. I decided that it would be more fun for Koidula to meet Betti Alver, and for Kreutzwald to get to know the latter-day literary giants such as Kross and Kaplinski. It was the same with the politicians. Initially I just laid them out according to a real-life chronology. But it seemed much more interesting to put Ernst Jaakson and Konstantin Päts together. I created a “military heroes” tray where Sabbe, Laidoner and Rebane could exchange stories.
I couldn’t decide what to do with Lennart: he would fit in well everywhere and would be sorry to miss out on meeting any other others. In the end I decided he should share with Tammsaare and Jakobson: he would be the right person to explain to them what had happened in the years since their death. I spent a lot of time trying to work out whether people had met in real life: did Rebane and Laidoner know each other, for example? What were Ernst Jaakson’s relations with Rebane like?
In the process, I got hopelessly muddled about which chili was which. Some are “Scotch Bonnets”, some are “Habaneros” and a few from the world’s hottest chili, the “Dorset Naga” (this is so spicy that it is the only food product that is cannot be bought by under-16s in a British supermarket).
Then something rather odd happened. My colleagues are very patient with my enthusiasm for Estonia’s achievements. We do write about Estonia when it matters (on everything from the euro to the high anti-corruption scores, the flat tax, e-government and so on cyber-defence). We are robustly supportive of Estonia’s position on language and citizenship laws. I even managed, a few years ago, to get three pages on Finno-Ugric grammar into the Christmas edition. We wrote a big obituary for Lennart Meri. But they maintain a polite distance to the subject. If I start talking about Estonia at office parties, I usually find that my audience is two pot plants and an intern.
My own plants changed that. My office is next to the kitchen, so I have a lot of people stopping by, as well as the cartographers, layout artists, fact checkers and other journalists who visit to discuss the paper’s International Section (editing that is now my main job: eastern Europe is a sideline). Lots of them, ranging from interns to even my bosses, started asking me about the names on the labels. I was only too pleased to explain.
The answers proved rather shocking. It is one thing to know dimly about the miseries of communism in a faraway country. It is another to be given a real life example. “Did all the Estonians get sent to the Gulag?” asked one colleague, after I had given a quick explanation of the fates of Päts, Laidoner and Meri.
As more colleagues started asking questions, I prepared some short biographies and photos, trying to find other hooks for their interest. A colleague specialising in Iraq was particularly interested to hear how Laidoner, on behalf of the League of Nations, had drawn Turkey’s eastern boundary after World War Two.
The plants named after people who had been in Siberia had to be closest to the window in order to enjoy the sunlight. As Jüri Kukk had died from forcefeeding, I was particularly careful not to over-water him. Oddly, the plants did not grow to match their names. Tammsaare, fittingly for a giant in literature, proved a giant in his botanic reincarnation too. Given his physical prowess, Kristjan Palusalu should have been similarly huge, but he remained a spindly little thing. Jüri Kukk, by contrast proved to be a great sturdy plant, as did Marie Under. Ants Piip and Jakob Hurt simply refused to grow more than a couple of centimetres.
Some of my visitors began to think it would be nice to have their own Estonian. After a lot of repotting into larger containers, my windowsill was getting rather crowded. I know Estonians hate crowds, so in principle I wanted to give them more space. But it was hard to give them away. Initially I said that those nobody who had been in exile in real life should be moved out of my office. Losing ones’s homeland once is enough for anyone. Female poets were in particular demand. The deputy editor, Emma Duncan, took Betti Alver. But I simply refused to get rid of Lydia Koidula. It is bad enough having her disappearing from the 100 kroon banknote, let alone having her leave my office. One colleague insisted on a female poet, but I persuaded him to take Tammsaare instead.
The foreign editor, in between his other duties, has proved an affectionate and diligent guardian for Gert Helbemäe. When I was at the farewell party for the Estonian ambassador, Margus Laidre, I was delighted to meet an elderly lady from Leicester who had actually known Helbemäe. “He would have been so pleased” she told me.
In the summer, I was away for several weeks, but our editorial secretary, in between
her other tasks (arranging trips to Iraq and Afghanistan, getting the Chinese embassy to give visas, and helping journalists recover notebooks left in trains and planes) paid scrupulous attention to the watering instructions I left behind. All the plants were alive and well when I got back.
But my colleagues were not happy. One senior journalist said grimly “It’s like the Niger Delta here”. I could see why. A plague of small black insects was buzzing round my plants, and escaping to other offices. I apologised profusely, explaining that these were
“chekist” insects who were trying, as so often in the past, so sabotage Estonia. But the joke fell flat. On close examination, I think the compost, not the plants, was to blame. There was no time to lose. Muttering “nyet rastenia, nyet problemy” I took ruthless action, putting a dozen of the smaller plants into the bin and repotting the survivors in new compost.
My colleagues are happy again. But now they are impatient for the plants to flower and fruit. That requires some sunny weather. The Economist can influence a lot of things. But not that.
And here are some recent columns from European Voice, where my old weekly column continues.
From Charter 77 to Charter 08, from Havel to Xiaobo
14.10.2010 / 04:36 CET
China’s Nobel prize-winner found inspiration in Czechoslovakia’s history. The West too should learn lessons from that period.
Read Charter 08, the central document of the Chinese human-rights movement, and the echoes of Czechoslovakia’s Charter 77 are unmistakable. Indeed, Václav Havel, the country’s former president and a founding signatory of his country’s Charter, is one of the strongest backers of the Kafka-loving Liu Xiaobo, a Chinese political prisoner who has just won the Nobel Peace Prize. Havel and Liu both understand the power of the ideas that brought down the Evil Empire and the Iron Curtain – and want them to free a billion Chinese from the corrupt, secretive and brutal rule of their unelected communist chieftains.
The top officials of the European Union have congratulated Liu. But from national governments, the reaction is mostly of silent, cringing embarrassment. That recalls the lily-livered approach that most European countries took when Havel and his pals were harassed and jailed (and in some cases beaten or killed).
I spent much of the 1970s and 1980s trying to drum up interest in causes that at the time seemed as obscure and hopeless as Liu’s jailing seems now, such as the `tiny Soviet Baltic republics’, the `former’ Polish trade union Solidarity, or indeed raising money to buy a word processor for an unemployed playwright in Prague (the communists confiscated it; we bought Havel another). World-weary diplomats (and on occasion my editors at the BBC, where I worked) would explain patiently that the “dissidents” were irrelevant. Much better to concentrate on rubbing along with the people in charge.
Only in early 1989, as I arrived in Prague as the city’s sole Western newspaperman, had senior British officials started meeting dissidents – until then, it was the purview of a lowly junior official. A few weeks later, I was the only foreign journalist at Havel’s parole hearing, where his communist jailers solemnly pronounced on his “good behaviour” in prison before releasing him.
It is commendable that dozens of Czech and Slovak politicians (then mostly in opposition, now mostly in power) backed Liu’s peace prize in January. The cities of Budapest and Wroclaw deserve praise for officially receiving the Dalai Lama last month.
But the big trend is the other way, for reasons both commercial and geopolitical. China has lent Moldova $1 billion (€720 million). Wen Jiabao, the prime minister, signed big deals in Italy and Turkey this week and said that China would buy Greek debt. In Poland, a Chinese consortium is building bits of the Lódz-Warsaw highway. Wanhua has bought Hungary’s big chemicals company Borsodchem.
For many countries, better links with China balance Russia’s revisionist approach to its history and geography. Alyaksandr Lukashenka (to give his name its Belarusian spelling) has just visited Shanghai; he described China as his country’s “best friend”. In the run-up to elections on 19 December, the Belarusian leader’s options are narrowing. Russia denounces him in public, and may be backing a rival candidate. The EU, clutching several years’ worth of withered olive branches, is standing back.
Trade and investment with China are fine. But not at all costs. Politicians who claim to believe in European values but who shun the Dalai Lama and stay silent on slave labour camps, jailed dissidents, internet censorship and the like should wonder how they will explain their behaviour to a democratically elected leader of China in years to come (perhaps, who knows, even to Liu himself). Try practising sentences such as: “I was greedy and cowardly and fawned on your jailers – I’m sorry.” Havel, who knows what the inside of a prison cell looks like, has set a stellar example. Others should follow.
The writer is central and eastern Europe correspondent of The Economist.
© 2010 European Voice. All rights reserved.
The narcissism of small Baltic differences
21.10.2010 / 04:33 CET
They should be the best of friends, so why are relations between Poles and Lithuanians “the worst in Europe”?
In a rational world, Poland and Lithuania would be best friends. They have centuries of shared history and culture. They worry about the same things (neighbours), for the same reasons (bitter experience). Each is in a position to help the other. Yet Polish diplomatic sources say relations with Lithuania are “the worst in Europe”. The foreign minister, Radek Sikorski, will not visit Lithuania until it allows members of the local Polish minority to use the letter `w’ (and several others vital for writing Polish names) in official documents such as passports. Poland is blocking Lithuania’s participation in a new French-German-Polish military unit, the `Weimar battle-group’.
To outsiders it is truly puzzling. NATO’s contingency plans require Polish soldiers to risk death defending Lithuania from a (theoretical) Russian attack. The two countries need each other on everything from energy security (building a new nuclear power station) to better roads and railways.
So why is the mood so bad? Poles say Lithuanians are nationalist and stubborn. Lithuanians say Poles are arrogant – and (some say) stoking the row artificially in order to create a pretext for betrayal: selling the Mažeikiai oil refinery, Lithuania’s biggest industrial asset, to Russia.
The best way to understand the issue is to imagine a couple that long ago were married but then separated when both went to foreign prisons. Released, they had a brief violent quarrel, followed by a frosty period during which they ignored each other. They then ended up in prison once more. Now they are free again and living as neighbours.
Trauma makes both twitchy. And they see things differently. One side (Poland) remembers the `marriage’ 450 years ago fondly. Lithuania thinks it unfair and increasingly suffocating. The joint Polish-Lithuanian state eclipsed the once-glorious Grand Duchy of Lithuania, and ended in polonisation and the near extinction of national culture.
Superficially, the arguments now are trivial. Deep down they are serious. Lithuania (population: 3.5 million) still feels profoundly uneasy about the cultural and linguistic weight of Poland, more than ten times larger. Many suspect that Poles, deep down, do not regard modern Lithuania as a proper country: just a stray province with a funny language, supposedly ancient but in fact largely invented in the 19th century. Poland forcibly polonised the `occupied’ Vilnius region in the interwar years. Now, even mild steps to restore Lithuanian language and culture there are stymied by pressure from mighty, forgetful Warsaw. Accepting a `polonised’ alphabet or bilingual street signs would be painful and doing so under pressure from Poland would mean surrender to intolerable bullying.
Poles find this baffling, paranoid and irrelevant. In modern Europe, people should be able to write their names as they wish (Poland allows its Lithuanian minority to use their diacritical signs; the Belarusian and Ukrainian minorities are even allowed to have an extra line in their passports giving their name in the Cyrillic alphabet). Moreover, having promised to sort this problem out, Lithuania has repeatedly broken its undertaking. That makes Poland (and some top Poles) feel humiliated. They are also furious about the Lithuanian authorities’ treatment of Polish-owned Mažeikiai (including pulling up some important railway track, and refusing to sell it an oil terminal). They believe that they bought Mažeikiai to help Lithuania survive a Russian squeeze on energy supplies. Now they wish they had not. (Lithuania believes that Mažeikiai’s owners, PKN Orlen, are bossy, greedy and ungrateful.)
Readers may, glumly, feel reminded of another pointless, arcane argument: about the name `Macedonia’. Friends of Poland and Lithuania are hoping that it will not become as damaging. But politicians on both sides give little reason for optimism.
© 2010 European Voice. All rights reserved.
Awakening the (fictional) ghosts of eastern Europe
28.10.2010 / 04:35 CET
While eastern Europe’s literary landscape looks less imposing than it did under communism, gems are still being produced.
Communism’s horribleness produced great literature. Milan Kundera, Josef Škvorecký, Ivan Klíma – to take three writers from the then Czechoslovakia – fired salvo after salvo into and over the Iron Curtain, delighting readers east and west of it.
Twenty-plus years since communism collapsed, the literary landscape looks less imposing. The Romanian-born German author Herta Müller deservedly won a Nobel Prize for literature in 2009. But she is not yet a household name in the English-speaking world, where surprisingly little of her work has been translated (try the “Land of green plums”, or “Atemschaukel” if you can read German). The great names of the past are mostly dead or past their prime.
It is all the more encouraging, therefore, that Sofi Oksanen, a Finnish novelist of half-Estonian ancestry, has done so well with “Purge”, an international best-seller and prize-winning novel that has received rave reviews (not least from me).
“Purge” deals with sexual violence in Estonia, linking two eras: the rapes and forced concubinage that followed the Soviet occupation in 1944, and the trafficking of women in the lawless post-Soviet period.
It makes unsettling reading for anyone – and particularly for some Estonians. Jaan Kaplinski, the most heavyweight writer of the Soviet-era generation, has pointed out on his blog that an unremittingly bleak picture of Soviet Estonia is misleading, because many people lived humdrum and even happy lives. “The USSR after the death of Stalin was not a prison camp. It was a lousy country, but there were and there are many much more lousy countries in the world.”
Then Piret Tali, a prominent journalist, wrote a long and interesting article criticising Estonians’ desire for a “white ship”: a novel that would, at a stroke, finally inform Europeans of the unknown, unheard horrors of the captive Baltic states. People who have experienced something first-hand do not need a “universal narrative” about it, she noted.
Estonians’ sensitivity is understand-able. In a way it echoes the reservations many Czechs have about Kundera. Oksanen, now 33, spent her childhood summers on a collective farm in Soviet Estonia. But she is not really Estonian, just as Kundera stopped being fully Czech when he moved to Paris post-1968. Works of fiction crystallise opinion in a way that often trumps real memory. Particularly when Hollywood takes over, the Second World War becomes American-centred and sentimental to the point of parody. The effectively fictional “Saving Private Ryan” and “Schindler’s List” have had a far more powerful impact than some dull old history textbook that deals with mere facts. Even Timothy Snyder’s epic new history of Europe’s wartime killing fields, “Bloodlands”, can hardly redress that balance.
The UK, with a lot of cultural and academic clout, finds it hard to fight misperceptions about history. It is much harder for the people of smaller countries, such as Czechs, who dislike being portrayed as sex-crazed, self-centred and shifty by Kundera, and even worse for Estonians, who fear that outsiders will see them principally as a country of sluts and rapists.
Criticising readers for gullibility is pointless. And criticising novelists for inaccuracy is outright unfair. Their responsibility is to their muse, not to facts. Oksanen is not writing social history; nor is Kundera. If she turns magical realist and puts sea-monsters and witches in her next book she can. (In fact, “Purge” is well-researched.)
The big point is that good literature may inspire some readers to find out what really happened. It was the desire to understand the dilemmas of Kundera’s hidden heroes that took me to Prague as a young journalist in early 1989. I have been searching ever since.
The writer is central and eastern Europe correspondent of The Economist.
© 2010 European Voice. All rights reserved.