Specters II: Sorceress

Specters II: Sorceress

(music for reading)



“That same year foreigners called Tartars came in countless numbers, like locusts, into the land of Ryazan, and on first coming they halted at the river Nukhla, and took it, and halted in camp there. And thence they sent their emissaries to the Knyazes (princes) of Ryazan, a sorceress and two men with her, demanding from them one-tenth of everything: of men and Knyazes and horses- of everything one-tenth.”

The Chronicle of Novgorod, 1238 A.D.


They were a strange trio.

The princes had dealt with the eastern nomads before, but these three were different. The others came with supplication or with an unearned arrogance that hid deep-seated envy. But these three, particularly the dark-haired woman who acted as the head emissary, were neither supplicant nor defiant. Her demands were given calmly, with an air of serenity and confidence only the truly powerful, or the truly foolish, could afford to possess. The princes were confused and perhaps a little scared. At what, exactly, was uncertain. They were strong, wealthy and protected by God’s grace. Surely, these outsiders, who would deign to send a woman to undertake their diplomacy, were not as powerful as they attempted to appear. Surely, no nomad could defeat the forces of Ryazan.

They had seemingly forgotten the last time these Tartars had entered Russian lands, a mere fourteen years prior.

But let us leave these perplexed men, whose hubris would shortly lead to their own deaths, as well as the deaths of many of their own people, and the utter destruction of this city on the Oka river (destruction from which the city would never really recover). Let us instead turn our eye to this “sorceress”, this woman who stood before these proud Russian fools with her demands for one-tenth of all they owned. Demands which she knew were far preferable to the alternative.

We know nothing of this woman. And yet…

These men were fools. That much was clear. Having conveyed her demands as Batu had dictated, she stole a quick glance around the “court” of this city called Ryazan. Pale, bearded men argued loudly among themselves in a heavy language of which she had only picked up a few words. In the corner, by a large, elaborate gold altar bedazzled with crosses, priests with long beards and gold chains eyed her contemptuously (they were quite different from the Muslims and Christians she had encountered on the journey west). The women of the court, heavily covered in richly decorated furs and ostentatious jewels, looked on her with scorn. Who was this black-haired woman, bedecked only in a dirty red robe, a heavy fur coat, a broad sash and were those trousers, on a lady? And dear god, why did she smell so bad? Who was this strange creature?

If they had asked such questions (would the men here have allowed it?), the sorceress would no doubt be confused. They were in fact the strange ones. How could one ride a horse effectively in skirts? And how could one bathe or wash one’s clothes without polluting the water cycle, and thus angering the dragons who controlled it? As for the sash, all unmarried women wore it. That is the way.

Oh well, soon she would be done with this. These meetings were always rather swift. The wise ones surrendered immediately, and then the army would move on, ever further west to claim Batu’s inheritance. The unwise scoffed at her and sent her back with several provocations to share with Batu and the other generals. Only a year prior, she had been kicked out of Bulghar and told to go drown herself in the Volga. Sübedei, veteran of the previous campaign in the west and true leader of this new army, paid them back terribly in kind. She recalled sitting on the shores of the Volga, watching that walled city crumble before the might of the stonethrowers hauled to this empty land from China. Many Bulghars drowned themselves in Volga trying to flee. She counted them for a while but gave up when the infantry started to breach the walls.


Life of Alexander Nevsky page 34 Mongols


These Russians would face a similar fate, she predicted, picking up from the body language of the princes that they were not going to accept her demands. The men sent to guard her stirred uncomfortably, either from boredom or from a perceived threat. She gave them a quick glance, they ceased. The interpreter, a wormy looking Kipchak, broke away from the group and stated with clear prose the direction of the cliff from which she should jump off. More resigned than annoyed, she bowed briefly and swiftly left the hall accompanied by her guards. Within an hour, their horses were racing towards the east, mere dots on the grand sprawl of the Russian steppe.

As the men of Ryazan prepared for battle and argued immaturely among themselves, a young monk scratched a brief account of the interaction into Ryazan’s chronicle. Within a year, that monk and many of the others fluttering around him would be dead, the church in which he wrote demolished. But the account of this strange sorceress (for any woman with authority must possess magicks of some kind) traveled its way north, to the untouched city of Novgorod, where priests, perhaps sensible, perhaps lucky, were able to record it in their own city’s chronicle. And here I sit, nearly eight hundred years later, contemplating this unnamed sorceress who exists in a single sentence in a largely unread history, an unlikely harbinger of Russia’s coming doom.



The opening quote is from Robert Michell and Nevill Forbes’ English translation of The Chronicle of Novgorod, 1016-1471, published in 1914. A free PDF of the book is available here for those interested. In building the narrative, I found J.J. Saunders A History of the Mongol Conquests (1971) very useful. I have not yet read Jack Weatherford’s The Secret History of the Mongol Queens, which focuses not only on Mongol queens but also Mongol women in general (turns out Mongol society was relatively enlightened in regards to the treatment of women (especially compared to most of the societies they encountered during their brutal conquests)); I plan to eventually. 

The header image is Mongol Circus by an unknown Chinese artist and is currently housed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The inserted image comes from the illustrated manuscript of the 16th century hagiography Life of Alexander Nevsky and can be found here.

I Sing The Modern Man

I sing the modern man-
the omnipotent impotent
the divine helot
the jury of lepers falling apart at the seams
the product of revolution
the interpreter of night
the snake in the garden whispering of dreams
O sayers of truth and half-truth lies
I sing, I sing

I sing the modern man-
the exiled puppet throne
in the towers above the smog
who sighs of distant keeps grown frail in the flight
pretenders of the thought
deniers of the sun
caught naked in the beds of foreign paramours
O criers of the universal theme
I sing, I sing

I sing the modern man-
the noble cannibal
the trader of light
lying dead in the midst of a golden fount
the sadistic melancholy
the cry sublime
growing stale in the terrorist dawn
O preachers of the aimless soul
I sing, I sing

I sing the modern man-
grown ragged in the dust
singing the tired lament
packed in the trains as the sky falls
stoned by their ideals
razed by the goal
and falling off the craters of Nagasaki
O poets of the Hiroshima song
I sing, I sing

I sing the modern man-
the end is upon us
alone as winter falls
trudging through the fields of Chernobyl and Kashmir
floundering in the wind
that casts due doubt
the troubles rolling by at the bottom of the screen
O pariahs of the lost age
I sing, I sing

O seekers of the forgotten hope
I sing, I sing.

(May 2012)

Undercurrents (06/19/2017)

Undercurrents (06/19/2017)

(music for reading)


Hello and welcome back to Undercurrents. Having taken a week off for various reasons, I am back to provide you with the necessary materials to fully convert you into cynical bastards. This week, we turn our eye to the Middle East, a land known for its food, culture and intractable political, economic and religious conflicts that will in all likelihood last for centuries to come. As with anything dealing with the Mideast, this article’s going to be a long one.

If you get your news solely from American news sources (a terrible idea really), then you are perhaps not fully aware of the ongoing Qatar Crisis. Like many Middle East crises, this Qatari variant is remarkably complex, possibly explosive and all around dumb (coincidently, that’s the description on my Tinder account). To fully understand what is currently happening in the Persian Gulf, you would need 600 pages, fluency in several languages, a degree in political science, and a high tolerance for bullshit. As I only have the poly sci degree, I’ll only be able to give you a brief, incomplete and all around useless background.

On June 5, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates (as I call them The Three Dick-migos) suddenly and unexpectedly cut off all ties with the peninsular nation, accusing it of supporting terrorism, having too-friendly ties with regional Shia power/Satanic Puppet State (take your pick) Iran and letting Al-Jazeera say mean things about other Arab states behind their back. In the following days, several more Sunni majority nations in the Arabian Peninsula, North Africa and the Indian Ocean joined the boycott, which is quickly devolving into a siege. Despite overtures by Kuwait, Pakistan and the United States to mediate, the crisis continues, involving ever more regional powers and ensuring that the Middle East will continue to not get a break.

Now, the reasons for this fuckery are complex and interconnected with the many other intractable conflicts which swarm the region like malaria-carrying flies. Historical Saudi-Qatari rivalry, the Shia-Sunni division (and its real world surrogate, the Saudi-Iran rivalry), Islamic fundamentalism, arguments over oil resources, the civil war in Yemen, nationalism, the Syrian conflict, and probably Israel-Palestine (because why not) all play a part in continuing what is essentially a bitchy spat between two oil rich autocracies with no accountability and little to no long-term thinking ability. Add in Trump’s ignorance (his reverential visit to Saudi Arabia in May no doubt led the Saudis to conclude they could get away with this) as well as a new Saudi leader who has taken his brothers’ and father’s cautious foreign policy and tossed it into the Indian Ocean, and you have the ingredients for ever greater escalation.

Of course, anyone with even a little bit of Middle Eastern knowledge will know that this spat is heavily hypocritical. Saudi Arabia’s claims that Qatar is supporting terrorism in the Middle East is probably on point, but seeing as that Saudi Arabia is one of the top exporters of terror in the region, that argument comes off less chivalric and more as some actualization of guilt and self-hatred (or more likely, naked hypocrisy built out of political opportunism). The Saudi supported branch of Islam known as Wahhabism is an extreme form of dogmatic fundamentalism, providing fanatical recruits to the regions many extremist organizations, including ISIS, Boko Haram, and al-Qaeda. By Saudi Arabia’s logic, we should be walling off the Arabian Peninsula as a whole until the Saudi government stops its whole “let’s fuck up the Middle East so bad that our anachronistic monarchy can continue to resist any kind of reforms in the name of ‘security’”.

With all that out of the way, let’s get to the main story this week (a dumb story within the broader dumb story: a nesting doll of idiocy if you will). Last week, as the siege wore on, Turkey, a country which really has no place in interfering in the spats of Arab dictators, decided it needed attention and thus promised to send 3000-5000 troops into Qatar to help with internal security. Because what is more useful in defusing a tense situation than sending in a bunch of armed dudes with little knowledge of the local language or political situation? Probably not sending in a bunch of armed dudes with little knowledge of the local language or political situation actually. On a side note, these will be the first Turkish troops to enter the Gulf since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire a hundred years ago, so congrats Saudi Arabia, at least something historic is coming out of all this.


Turkish Muster at Suez

Guess whose back, back again. Turkey’s back, tell T.E. Lawrence or a friend. 


The reasons for why Turkey decided it needs to interfere are not completely certain. The Turks had previously offered to mediate on behalf of both sides but that was met with a silence equivalent to the sound of one hand clapping, so it was pretty clear their presence wasn’t needed. Economically, Arab investments in Turkey are small, at least compared to European investments. And when one breaks down those limited Arab investments, one finds that Turkey’s ties to Qatar’s opponents are just as important as its ties to Qatar. So money-wise, taking a side in this conflict is foolish. Politically, Turkey has ties to the Qatari regime, but they are not deeply established outside of the relationship between Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani and Turkish President/Putin-lite Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. It makes more sense politically for Turkey (which since the Syrian crisis has increasingly turned its eye southward) to remain neutral and let the plutocracies hang themselves.

This irrationality and uncertainty of Turkey’s position in this mess appears to be at least partly reflected by Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP). During an AKP-sanctioned protest in support of Qatar, Turkish citizens accidentally flew the Bahraini flag instead of the Qatari flag (extra hilarious, because Bahrain is supporting Saudi Arabia). Online, where AKP-backed trolls dominate social media websites like Twitter, the blame for the crisis has not been, as one would suspect, on the Saudis, but instead on the Americans, and specifically President Trump. Now, I for one am totally fine with blaming most things on Trump, especially since he walked into the Middle East with the grace of a drunken bull. But America does not have much do with this crisis (at least directly); in fact, the United States has a large military base situated in Qatar and is anxious to not let the conflict escalate between its two allies. Commentators suspect that this anti-Americanism is really just a cover so that Erdoğan can switch sides at his convenience, which I believe, though there would be no need for this nonsense if Turkey hadn’t gotten involved in the first place.


turkish protesters wave bahrain flag instead of qatar

Always google the flag of the country you are arbitrarily supporting before going out on your party-appointed protest, or you’ll end up with egg on your face bigger than this dude’s mustache.


Turkey is not the only outsider involved in the Qatar crisis. Iran has pledged support for Qatar and is leveraging the crisis to its advantage in Syria. Trump tweeted support of Saudi Arabia (this crisis is gonna end terrorism forever guys!!) despite the almost certain scolding he received from his intelligence and military advisers. Israel made the conflict about itself. I focused on Turkey’s interference because it seems to me that its actions were the most nonsensical in both what it sought to achieve and in its all-around making things worse. In such a complex crisis, every action taken has unforeseen results elsewhere. For example, when Qatari peacekeepers pulled out of a disputed corridor along the Djibouti-Eritrean border over East African support of Saudi Arabia, Eritrea immediately sent troops in to fill the vacuum. Now, as a result of diplomatic squabbling across the Red Sea, renewed fighting between the two nations is a real possibility. In the modern age, dick-swinging contests between autocratic leaders have consequences far beyond the suffering of their own citizens.

The lesson from all of this is that humanity remains stubbornly consistent in its short-term thinking, astonishing pettiness and love of pointless drama. The Qatar crisis is, as Bruce Riedel terms it, an utter farce “combin(ing) American incompetence, Saudi bullying and Qatari game-playing with Iranian meddling and subversion.” It is a cornucopia of bullshit, surrounding important issues of security and regional stability. Unfortunately, like most things today, that bullshit is seriously hurting people, and raising the prospects of even greater instability and whole new constellations of war. It is times like these that patient, nuanced and capable adults need to come together and resolve things in a peaceful manner. In 2017, the adults have vanished, and instead we are stuck with a bunch of man-children skipping absentmindedly towards Armageddon. Isn’t politics fun?

Well, on that bleak note, it’s time to wrap up this overlong edition of Undercurrents. Maybe next week I’ll do something simple, something involving puppies. Puppies are fun. Come back Wednesday for a new poem and Friday for a new edition of Specters.


The header photo is “Turkish Calvary, Wady Guzzeh, 1917” and can be found here. The other old photo is “Muster on the Plain of Esdraelon, preparatory to the attack on the (Suez) Canal, 1914” and can be found here. The Library of Congress is an excellent source for World War I era photos of the Ottomans, though finding pictures from Ottoman Arabia is surprisingly tough. The Twitter screenshot of pro-AKP protesters waving the Bahraini flag is from here

Life During Wartime 1 – Gertrude Stein

Life During Wartime 1 – Gertrude Stein

Life During Wartime is an ongoing series examining the lives of well-known artists during times of intense hardship.  Using the art they produced during that period as a reference point, I try to understand the many ways creative people handle times of intense pressure and trauma, and how to apply that to hard times today.

(music for reading)

            In total war, everyone and everything assimilates into the nation-state. Factories that once produced soup cans now produce bullets. Farmers and tailors and librarians now become pilots and medics and marines. Children stop being future tax payers and start being future soldiers, their acculturation taking on increasingly nationalistic and militaristic hues. In total war, the state and the individual are one. It is what allows wars of catastrophic proportions. And it is why in total war, civilians suffer far more than regimes.

World War II was not the first total war, but for those who lived through it, it certainly felt like the last. By war’s end, over 60 million people were dead and much of Europe and East Asia were in ruins. For those living under Fascist rule, the experience was even more difficult, with disappearances and torture a commonality. Anyone who was not a fervent supporter of the current regime, whose views or faith or ethnicity were “deviant”, were subject to abuse, restriction and extermination.

It is difficult for me to fully comprehend the magnitude of events during that period, when the sky was falling and it was unclear whether humanity would even be able to recover. We live now in dark times of xenophobic populism, economic recession, terrorism and brutal civil war, events which, despite my better judgment, calls to mind the years leading up to the invasion of Poland. History does not repeat itself, but it does have recurrent patterns. By seeking out accounts of those who lived through hard times previously, I hope to learn how to better navigate the present.

When the war broke out in 1939, the American author Gertrude Stein was residing in Paris with her life partner (and subject of her most famous book) Alice B. Toklas. Stein had spent the previous two decades on the vanguard of experimental Western art, publishing her own poetry and fiction, as well as supporting the efforts of up-and-coming writers and artists like Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway, Guillaume Apollinaire and Henri Matisse. When she briefly returned to the U.S. in the mid-30’s, she was treated as literary royalty.

As the war intensified, Stein and Toklas retreated to their country home in the Rhône-Alpes, a region which became part of the collaborationist Vichy French government after the Nazis took Paris. Stein, Jewish and queer in an environment that now sought to eradicate both, kept a low profile, evading the Gestapo either because she was a famous American artist or because of her close friendship with anti-Semite and Vichy collaborator, Bernard Faÿ (perhaps both). In 1943, with the liberation of France still unforeseeable, Stein began work on a memoir of her life under occupation titled Wars I Have Seen.

Stein’s actions and beliefs during this period have been the subject of intense debate among literary historians and readers alike. Stein has been accused of being a Vichy collaborator, an argument backed up by her close relationship with Faÿ, her support of Vichy leader Phillipe Pétain (whose speeches she translated in 1941 and who is written of somewhat admirably in Wars I Have Seen) and her ability to remain un-harassed by the Gestapo even as other Jews in her village were being shipped off to concentration camps in Germany and Poland.  Supporters have vehemently opposed this view, even producing a “dossier” of evidence showing her love of liberty, her tolerance of difference and her ability to survive in hellish conditions. In their eyes, Stein is subject of a witch hunt, with her critics attacking her legacy to gain political points in the present.

Wars I have seen

The answer to “Was Stein a collaborationist?” is probably somewhere between these two poles of Fascist and Saint. To best understand what Stein thought of the war, it is perhaps best to examine her own words. The most significant factor of Wars I Have Seen is that it is practically unreadable (a note of honesty: I was only able to read 150 out of the 240 odd pages, but I feel reasonable in assuming not much was different in those extra 90 pages; if that is an issue, feel free to stop reading). Stein’s memoir is purposefully elliptical, drenched in irony, repetitious in the extreme and remarkably indecisive. She doesn’t so much have deplorable opinions as she has no opinions at all. The passivity of her prose matches her inaction in thought – she is not so much the keen-eyed observer of reality who once made poetry describing chairs in great detail as she is a bemused chatterbox. To be sure, bits of reality seep in every now and then (her descriptions of hunger and deprivation, occasional examples of the absurdities of occupation life), but those are far outweighed by indecisive musings on the nature of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as well as vague memories of wars past. Wars I Have Seen is not a harrowing examination of (Jewish) life under Nazi occupation, it is a rambling account amounting to “well this isn’t very great”.

At least within the confines of her prose, Stein seems not to be able to address the immensity of the events she is living through. Of course, no one can be absolutely aware of the history swirling around them, but it is exceptionally odd that someone as brilliant and observant as Stein, living in occupied territory, with her neighbors disappearing in the night and the official anti-Semitic discourse all around her, would not at the very least see her conditions as historically exceptional.

An example of this problem comes when she is discussing France, and the many forms of government it has had since the Revolution. In regards to what the next government might look like after the war, she writes, “I say why worry, it can be anything and if it is it can change to anything else and after all what difference does it make except to the people in power. It certainly does not make any difference to anybody else ever, certainly not.” Except that it does. The Vichy government, in collaborating with the Nazi regime, was complicit in a genocidal form of governance which murdered not only its political opponents, but also the Jews, Romani, homosexuals, Slavs and disabled within its civilian population. The history of fascism in Germany, Italy and Japan and authoritarian communism in the Soviet Union reveal that the shape of governments can mean life or death to the individual. Politics was not benign. It had not been at least since the First World War, where short term political opportunism led to the destruction of a generation of men and women, the weary folk Stein herself dubbed “The Lost Generation”. Stein’s thinking may not be fascist, but at the very least it appears to be somewhat willfully blind.

Life Magazine Stein Plane

            There is an odd correlation between modernist art and a penchant for authoritarianism. Ezra Pound, one of the most important English-speaking poets of the early twentieth century, spent the war cheering on the Fascists from a radio station in Rome. Martin Heidegger, a brilliant philosopher of existentialism and phenomenology, joined the Nazi party and actively supported Adolf Hitler. T.S. Eliot, W.B. Yeats, Filippo Marinetti, Paul de Man – as Barbara Will notes, it might be more useful to come up with a list of Modernists who didn’t eventually adopt authoritarian attitudes. Perhaps this has something to do with the nature of modernist art, its dislike of tradition, its relentless zeal for change and novelty, its rejection of realism. For many Modernists, the future was fetishized. Everything old was bad, everything new good. Yes the present is ever-changing, but it is not changing fast enough. The artist, through sheer force of will, will cause that change. War, particularly because of its capacity to destroy old orders, is necessary (“We will glorify war…the world’s only hygiene!” screams Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto). The past must be erased for the present to breathe. One can find the connections between this denial of history and the reactionary ideologies of the twentieth and twenty-first century (it is not surprising that one of the first things the Islamic State did when gaining power was to destroy pre-Islamic ruins and artifacts). The denial of history is essential for denying the complexity of humanity. One cannot build the “New Man” without first erasing the old one.

However, this argument doesn’t fully fit Stein’s work and style. In Wars I Have Seen, she comes across as nostalgic for quaint wars of the nineteenth century. Like her Modernist colleagues, Stein saw realism as a relic of the past; unlike her colleagues, she seems saddened by it. As she states in one typically scattershot passage, “Anybody can understand that there is no point in being realistic about here and now, no use at all not any, and so it is not the nineteenth but the twentieth century, there is no realism now, life is not real it is not earnest, it is strange which is an entirely different matter.” In a way, Wars I Have Seen can be understood less as a view of the present as it is a reckoning of a possibly imagined past (it is Wars I Have Seen, not Wars I Am Seeing).

By the time she was writing her memoirs, Stein was 69 and exhausted. Total war is stressful in the extreme for the young; it is much worse for the elderly. She was alive to see Allied troops liberate France a year later. In August 1945, Life Magazine published an account of Stein’s visit to post-surrender Germany, which reads like a holiday excursion except for the decimated state of the cities visited. A year later, Stein would be dead from stomach cancer.

Life Magazine Stein

            It is difficult to judge the actions of a person during times of extreme hardship. The support of Petain and her comfort with the Vichy well into 1944 are deeply disheartening, but when compared to the actual cruelty of fascist sympathizers, it is not reprehensible. Stein’s possibly willful ignorance is an all too common response to trauma. Importantly, while Stein spent the war quietly in a Vichy village, a new wave of French artists (Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, André Malraux) were risking their lives in the French Army and/or Resistance. For these writers, the war (and their actions in it) would prove essential for their development as both artists and thinkers. Perhaps, in action, a principle can be found.


Gertrude Stein’s Wars I Have Seen was originally published in 1945 by Random House and is pretty tough to find outside university libraries or Amazon.

And the cowardly lot

And the cowardly lot
that hid behind their masks
of bureaucratic anonymity watched
as the radicals came
and toppled their dead marble knights and
tablets with names which the
wind had erased centuries before, and
under the red crescent moon
(for the smoke has tinting character)
erected a new altar to the old gods and out of
the midnight black,
a shriek came,
and it is unclear from which earth-crack
it did seethe forth
and whether
it was of pain
or the deepest vision of
a long dead pleasure.

Undercurrents (06/05/2017)

Undercurrents (06/05/2017)

(music for reading)

            Hello and welcome to Undercurrents, a bastion of nonsense in a sea of abject mediocrity. This week, we turn our eyes to Morocco, the one country in North Africa that your mom is sort of okay letting you visit. You know, because she saw Casablanca that one time.

When it comes to MENA (Middle East/North Africa) monarchies, Morocco is very much the exception. Whereas the current kings of Jordan and Saudi Arabia can only trace their monarchal lineage to the early twentieth century (that was back when the British were literal kingmakers), the current monarch of Morocco, King Mohammad VI can trace his heritage back to the mid-seventeenth century. Whereas the various boy-kings of the Arabian Peninsula use institutional misogyny and religious fundamentalism to reinforce their oil-propped dictatorships, Morocco has taken a more moderate approach, granting significant rights to women and children in 2004 (known as the Moudawana) and allowing a vibrant if somewhat restrained civil society. And while Saudi Arabia and Bahrain responded to the peaceful protests of the Arab Spring with murder and imprisonment, Morocco responded with moderate constitutional reforms. Of course, this is all relative (one cannot call Morocco a free state), but get the MENA states into a room for a family reunion and Morocco comes across as the new age tree-hugging uncle who donates a significant amount of his limited income to NPR.

Given this moderation, as well as the almost cartoonish levels of violence in Libya, Egypt and Syria, Morocco often gets ignored by Western observers trying to comprehend contemporary politics in the Arab world. This is a shame, as it is the everyday workings of more moderate MENA regimes like Morocco and Tunisia that tell us of the future of the region, not the humanitarian basket-cases which dominate apocalypse-loving news organizations. To jump back to the earlier metaphor, the general state of your family should be determined by the quiet desperation of your siblings, not your cousin Steve who lost two fingers while dynamite fishing at the public pool.

This week saw an escalation of protests in Morocco’s northern Rif region, where grassroots movements have been arguing for economic improvement, an end to corruption and greater access to jobs, health services and infrastructure for Moroccan women. Significantly, these protests (staged by the Hirak Movement) are largely led by women, pushing against Western stereotypes of the silent, victimized Muslim woman (women played a key role throughout the Arab Spring, but that wouldn’t really fit into Fox News’ narrative of the evil of Islam (also, I’m pretty sure Morocco has a far better record on women’s rights than that coterie of misogynists and creeps)).

The protest movement has been going strong since last October, when fishmonger Mouhcine Fikri was horrifically crushed to death in a garbage compactor, after trying to retrieve swordfish which had been confiscated by the police. It shares quite a bit in common with the earlier Arab Spring movement, which was set off by the self-immolation of the Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi and (perhaps more to the point) decades of incompetence and corruption by an arbitrary elite. Also mirroring the 2011 protests, the Moroccan protesters have only called for constitutional reforms, and have not reproached the monarchy (as far as platitudes go, at least “history repeats itself” has weight).

Worryingly, after months of peaceful tolerance, the Moroccan police have begun to crack down on protesters, arresting Hirak leader Nasser Zefzazi for “undermining the security of the state” (because peaceful activists calling out bullshit make authoritarian regimes as insecure as any teen going through puberty) and stifling Saturday’s women’s protest in the coastal city of Al-Hoceima. Many protesters are fearful for their safety, even as government officials have acknowledged their demands as legitimate and in need of being addressed.

Now, as far as Middle East politics go, I am the first to say that this story is not particularly “sexy”. Like the Umbrella movement in Hong Kong, the Moroccan protests have not led to civil war, regime change or new venues for international rivalries. International readers (or at least international news organizations who sell to them) love these broader narratives of chaos. For some people, safe in their quiet democracies, visions of war from “over there” provide a certain form of entertainment, satiating a bloodlust unmet by Call of Duty or History Channel documentaries while also confirming their own biases that “the rest of the world” is a savage (and thus lesser) place. When the majority of the Arab Spring protests failed to bring true democracy or devolved into violence, many news outlets focused not on structural impediments to democratization like economic inequality or the lack of a strong civil society, but instead on the “anti-democratic nature” of Arabs and/or Islam (“In most Arab countries, the authoritarian leadership is in some ways more liberal than the majority of the citizenry” claims the Federalist’s David Harsanyi, because apparently someone asked for his opinion for some reason (I of course recognize the brutal irony that nobody asked for my opinion also)).

The Morocco protests, complex and uncertain as they are, show that argument to be complete and utter bullshit. Liberty and democracy are fluid concepts, but the citizens of Morocco have shown that they are important enough to upend their lives. As the world grows more chaotic, it is important to remember that the vast majority of people desire peace and a better life. Dismissing a population as undeserving of those opportunities because of their “nature” is not only bigoted, but also not helpful in the least. (“Not helpful in the least” is a nice epitaph for the current media climate actually.)

And with that call for decency (or at the least to not be a dick), Undercurrents is done for the week. See you next time.


Header from here.

Celluloid Histories I: Alexander Nevsky

Celluloid Histories I: Alexander Nevsky

Celluloid Histories is an ongoing series devoted to considering films (particularly their production, content and exhibition) within their specific historical context. It is less a review than a retrospective, engaging with the ways film and history often intertwine.

(music for reading)

            In late November of 1938, the film maker and theorist Sergei Eisenstein presented the final cut of his new historical drama Alexander Nevsky to eager Muscovite crowds. In attendance were many of the top officials of the ruling communist party, including the General Secretary and de facto leader of the Soviet Union, Joseph Stalin. One can imagine Eisenstein’s nervousness as the lights dimmed to reveal the opening shot of his first feature film in nearly a decade. One can also imagine his relief when, following the two-hour dive into Russia’s distant past, Stalin slapped the wild-haired forty-year old Latvian on the back and declared, in his usual blustery way, “Sergei, you’re a good Bolshevik!” The next year, this informal, yet crucial validation would be officiated by the awarding of the Order of Lenin to the director, the highest honor in all the Soviet Union.

Behind this somewhat cliché scene of the artist presenting his new work to a critical public was a storm of personal and societal conflict and disruption. Alexander Nevsky, an entertaining folk tale of good vs. evil, is in reality a film of two minds. On the surface, it is a 13th century tale of Russian militias fighting Germanic knights in the midst of what we now call the Northern Crusades. Dive below and one finds a prescient propagandistic fantasy of brave Russian citizens beating back the heavily armored Nazi blitz. Alexander Nevsky is an example of distortive effect politics and art can have on the past. Political prerogatives and aesthetic principals change the complex and little known history of medieval Novgorod (for Russia was not yet the massive nation-state it is today) into something wholly separate from the truth, less history than myth.

Nevsky Film Poster

            The history of Soviet film is closely tied to the state itself. With its distillation of complex meaning into easily interpretable images and plots, film (nearly as young as many of the revolutionaries overthrowing the old Tsarist order in the late 1910s and early 1920s) was quickly incorporated into the revolutionary movement, providing an outlet both for much needed escapism and for the spreading of communist ideology. In the silent era, where image was key and title cards could be easily translated and replaced, Soviet film was chiefly turned outwards, aiming to both validate the consolidating Soviet regime of Vladimir Lenin (through sentimental portrayals of the revolution) and to spread revolutionary communist fervor to the weakened capitalist democracies of postwar Europe.

Sergei Eisenstein led the charge in this regards, his experimental portrayals of recent revolutionary history like Battleship Potemkin (1925) and Strike (1925) finding appreciative global audiences to this day (if you have even the slightest interest in film in general, you have probably already seen Potemkin). Riding the success of these films, Eisenstein, accompanied by fellow director Grigori Aleksandrov and cinematographer Eduard Tisse (the true hero of Eisenstein’s films in my opinion), left Russia on a tour of Europe, the United States and Mexico, where he engaged with the bourgeois culture of the West and learned of the new sound technology that was rapidly transforming global cinema. After five years of experiments and failures, he returned to the Soviet Union and in 1935, began work on a new film assignment, Bezhin Meadow.

The Soviet Union Eisenstein returned to the mid-30’s was dramatically different from the one he led left in the ‘20s. Lenin was dead, Trotsky had fled and Joseph Stalin was in the process of bending the state to his whims. Idealism, revolutionary fervor and random violence had given way to paranoia, xenophobic nationalism and large-scale state-sponsored murder. Under Stalin, the fundamental aspects of Russian society were completely rewritten as industrialization and state terror were forced upon an agrarian and ethnically diverse population. Purges, famines and migrations altered the social makeup of the land and contributed to an atmosphere of fear and potential violence.

In this increasingly paranoid environment, Eisenstein’s long stay in the West aroused a large degree of suspicion in the increasingly powerful Soviet censor office. This, along with production difficulties, led to Bezhin Meadow being shut down, Eisenstein denounced and executive producer Boris Shumyatsky executed as a traitor. Keeping his head down, Eisenstein retreated to his home in Moscow, where he began work on one last chance to re-ingratiate himself with Stalin and thus, avoid the fate of his colleague Shumyatsky. Diving into Russian archives, Eisenstein, along with cowriter Pyotr Pavlenko, began to write a historical drama about a somewhat obscure Russian hero from the thirteenth century and his defeat of Teutonic knights on the icy shores of Lake Chudskoye.

Eisenstein and Pavlenko quickly noticed the similarities between their era of research and the events unfolding around them in 1937. By the mid-thirteenth century, the Russian people were divided between various city-states, including Kiev, Muscovy and in the north, the merchant city of Novgorod. Having avoided the initial thrust of the expanding Mongol Empire, which had left nearly every other major Russian city in ruins, Novgorod was thriving with Novgorodian merchants operating along the Volga and Dnieper rivers, as well as the Baltic Sea. However, by 1242 CE, the city had found itself surrounded by powerful and vicious enemies. To the north, economic penetration of Finland had brought Novogorod into conflict with the king of Sweden (the defeat of Swedish invaders by Alexander’s Russian army along the river Neva in 1240 CE gave him the moniker Nevksy). To the south and east, the western arm of the Mongol Empire (known as the Golden Horde) was consolidating authority over Russian lands and beginning to push into Catholic Europe. Most dire, from the west, a well-armed band of Catholic knights known as the Teutons had taken the pagan lands of Livonia (modern Estonia and Latvia) and were poised to continue their holy crusade against the Novgorodians, who were apparently the wrong kind of Christian.

The existential threat of the besieged city-state of Novgorod mirrored the political context of late 1930’s Russia. Still reeling from the self-imposed sadism of Stalinism, the U.S.S.R. now found itself caught between an expansionist, anti-Slav, anti-communist Nazi Germany and an imperial Japan that sought to bring all of Asia under its control. In the summer of 1938, as Alexander Nevsky began filming, the Soviet Union was already fighting an undeclared border war with Japan in eastern Siberia. Meanwhile, Hitler was busy annexing Austria and Czechoslovakia and opposing Soviet interests in the Spanish Civil War. Like Novgorod in 1242 CE, the U.S.S.R was surrounded and preparing to battle for its right to exist.


Given this environment of geopolitical desperation and Stalinist paranoia, Alexander Nevsky’s distortion of history comes into a much greater focus. The film follows a simple folk narrative: Alexander, the hero of Novgorod, is called back into action to defeat a powerful and evil force of invaders. The invaders are met in battle by a rag-tag army of Russians on the ice of Lake Chudskoye and through Russian bravery and the tactics of Alexander, are summarily defeated. Following the battle, Alexander celebrates with his people and then addressing the camera, gives the reason for this film’s existence: “Go and tell everyone in the foreign lands that Russia lives. He who comes to us as a guest, let him come with no reservation. But he who comes to us with a sword, shall die by the sword. On this stands Russia, and on this she shall stand forever.”

Flavoring this simple propagandistic folk narrative are contemporary touches which are not so much winking as screaming. The Germans are dressed in Nazi symbolism, from helmets with hands giving the Nazi salute to gloves with swastika-like print. The fact that these blond haired, heavily armored (a la Panzers) SS stand-ins literally throw Russian babies into bonfires suggest that even in the sound era, Eisenstein was not one for subtle metaphors. The handsome confidence of lead actor Nikolai Cherkasov (who would go on to play the title role in Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible series) as well as the brilliant soundtrack by Sergei Prokofiev bring even greater filmic meaning to the fable, ascribing a specifically cinematic experience to what was in effect a minor battle in the history of a city-state which hasn’t existed in nearly five centuries.

Alexander Nevsky is a fascinating film forever moored to the place and time of its production. Unlike the two Ivan the Terrible films, it remains a somewhat obscure project in Sergei Eisenstein’s directorial portfolio, and has been shrugged off by many contemporary critics as merely a well-produced piece of Stalinist propaganda. To an extent, these analyses are correct: Stalin (who was a well-documented cinephile) clearly saw himself in the character of Alexander, and would go on to have a deeper involvement in the production of the Ivan movies (going so far as to decree the correct length of Cherkasov’s beard in Ivan the Terrible, Part II). Furthermore, the anti-Nazism would subject the film to banishment shortly after it was so well received when Stalin signed the non-aggression pact with Germany in 1939, and then a revival when Hitler broke that pact and film was once again brought in to rally the populace.

However, in writing this essay (a much more condensed version of one I wrote for a film history class) I have come to see Alexander Nevsky as not merely a cheap novelty for history buffs and propaganda enthusiasts (though I do enjoy it on both these levels), but also as a genuinely moving story of an idealistic director’s desire to explore the ever-growing existential threat in his world by turning an eye to a mythic past. Yes, Alexander Nevsky is a film designed to make you hate Nazis and feel pride in your Russian homeland (both of which are perfectly acceptable attitudes); however, it is also a thrilling pseudo-Hollywood epic, playing off Russian folk tales, the heroic narrative, gorgeous cinematography and the thrilling score of a brilliant composer to create a truly great film experience. As history, it says more about the mid-twentieth century than the mid-thirteenth; as film, it reveals the brilliance of a passionate crew of filmmakers, anxious to express themselves even under the restraints of a brutal regime.





Alexander Nevsky is available in the United States via the Criterion Collection, where it was released alongside Ivan the Terrible, Part I (1945) and Ivan the Terrible, Part II (1958). All three are worth a watch. For those interested in Soviet Cinema, I recommend Soviet Cinematography, 1918-1991: Ideological Conflict and Social Reality  by Dmitry and Vladimir Shlapentokh (1993). As for Novgorod, and the complexity of thirteenth century Russia, try The Crisis of Medieval Russia, 1200-1304 by John Fennell (1983). 

The map of the Soviet Union was featured in a 1938 edition of the New York Sunday News and can be found here. I really like old maps. They are great.