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.

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.

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.

Captured History 1: Silent Histories

Captured History 1: Silent Histories

Captured History is an ongoing series that considers the place of photography in understanding the recent past. I proceed from the inference that photographs can convey a deeper and more transcendent (if less coherent) meaning of historical experience than text alone.

(music for reading)


Around midnight on March 13th, 1945, Tsunehiro Morinaga was awakened by air raid sirens. Fleeing to the shelter dug in his backyard, twelve-year-old Tsunehiro saw the night sky lit like day. Overhead, 274 American B-29 bombers were indiscriminately dropping incendiary bombs onto the mostly wooden wards of ancient Osaka. Nearly seventy years later, Tsunehiro recalled the night in which his city burned: “From afar, (those) bombs seemed to flutter in the air before breaking apart. They looked very beautiful. But those flames torched the city.” Tsunehiro and his mother were able to flee the encroaching fire, but his father remained behind. He, and seven of their neighbors, including a three-year-old child, suffocated to death in the air raid shelter. By the war’s end, 330,000 Japanese shared their fate. Another 430,000 were injured and 9.7 million were left homeless.

Tsunehiro’s story is one of several told in Silent Histories, a collection of photos and essays revealing the hidden lives of child survivors of the American firebombing of Japanese cities in the final years of the Pacific War. Photojournalist Kazuma Obara, best known in the West for his photos of the Fukushima disaster and cleanup, assembled the photobook using personal testimonies, family photographs, aerial photos taken by American reconnaissance and bomber planes and portraits shot by Obara himself. One survivor’s story is shown through a series of watercolors that she had painted later in life, horrifyingly beautiful in its vision of indistinct fleeing masses and cross-like bombers blacking out the red sky.

All of Obara’s subjects are scarred: physically, emotionally, psychologically. They’ve lost limbs, loved ones, independence and the chance at what they call a normal life. When the war ended, and Japanese society raced not only to rebuild its shattered economy and infrastructure but also to forget its “shameful” militaristic past, disabled survivors were either left behind or actively discriminated against. Children who lost limbs were picked on for their “abnormality”, while companies would not hire anyone with wartime disabilities. Orphans shuttled between distant relatives were seen as burdens, and treated no differently from hired help.

The disabled were seen not as the innocent victims of total war but instead as symbols of historical shame. Cities can be rebuilt, craters filled in. Skyscrapers can rise where the barracks once stood. But bodies can never be fully reconciled, their scars never forgotten. Every child missing a limb was a monument to the failure of nationalism, colonialism, militarism, fascism and all the other –isms which destroyed a generation. As successive governments issued official apologies to the U.S. and the nations of East Asia for the many atrocities of the colonial era, survivors were hidden away, the violence written into their bodies never properly dealt with. For all the talk of confession, reparation and reconciliation, there are today many elderly people throughout Japan who no longer feel fully a part of their community.

The state refuses to help those children wounded during the firebombing. According to the ideology of the current Japanese government, “We had no job contracts with citizens. All citizens were obliged to endure suffering during the war.” This indifference, pushing past the boundaries of callousness when considering that children have no responsibility in instigating and supporting a war, has led survivors to have to advocate for themselves, unsuccessfully pleading for similar support as is given to the survivors of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  Meanwhile, the United States has never officially apologized for the targeting of civilians with incendiary bombs (weapons specifically chosen to spread quickly across Japan’s largely wooden civilian housing), and is unlikely to ever provide relief to those they scarred.

Obara’s book is thus both a work of history and of advocacy. It is also a work of art. The original run of 45 copies in Japan was handmade, designed and assembled by the photographer himself. The result is more a collage than photobook. Meaning emerges from layers, as testimonies are displayed alongside family photos, often building from pre-bombing images of childhood to the post-bombing photos of life thereafter. For many of the people featured in the book, the testimony is not necessarily required to understand their lives. Through everyday portraits and snapshots, we see whole lives pass by, so much left unsaid but still inferred.

While Silent Histories is a document of individual suffering, it is also an account of historical pain and healing. Aerial photographs taken by American pilots before, during and after the bombing runs are displayed alongside grade school graduations and family portraits, the macro and micro of war brought together. In one photo, taken from an American military archive, an aerial shot of Osaka has been written over in black marker, borderlines drawn around significant wards and specific neighbors labeled with capital letters, their true meaning only available to the long-ago generals and pilots eagerly seeking to end the war. In another, a city, its symmetrical streets carving up the land, is largely obscured by a B-29 and a massive plume of smoke.

Osaka raid


Meaning is also conveyed through juxtaposition. Black and white images of flattened cityscapes, straight white streets with no buildings in between but the occasional circular crater, are followed by contemporary photographs, revealing the irregular concrete mess of skyscrapers and apartment blocks that have covered over the wounded land like a scab. With the turn of a page, seventy years of history are collapsed; the past and present become one.

History scars us. It writes on our bodies the suffering of those who came before. Obara writes in his epilogue, “Something terrible occurs the moment we forget the pain, the moment we are unable to feel it as our own.” Empathy, the willingness to bear some of that pain, the pain of people and of peoples, is the only thing that can give us any hope for the future. The past cannot be forgotten; its scars cannot be denied. What Tsunehiro Morinaga and all of those brave enough to share their pain do is, for humanity, far more valuable than any official apology or memorial ceremony.


Kazuma Obara’s Silent Histories was originally published in Japan as a limited run in 2014. An English version was published by Editorial RM in 2015. For more info, check out Obara’s website here. I do not have any specific books to recommend about the firebombing of Japanese cities during World War II at the present; however, if you wish to understand the experience, I recommend the anime film Grave of the Fireflies (1988). I have only seen it once, as a teenager, but it has never left my mind.


The header image is the cover of issue no. 29 of Weekly Photography Magazine (1938), a reproduction of which is included in Silent Histories. The photograph of the B-29 over Osaka is in the public domain and is also included in the book.

Specters 1: Bessie

Specters 1: Bessie

Specters is an ongoing series that focuses on the lives of individuals I’ve come across in history books. For the most part, these people are not the emperors and generals whose names are well known to enthusiasts of history, but instead people who, through a stroke of luck, have been preserved in the records of empires and nations. Given the limited nature of these sources, these essays toe the line between fact and fiction.

(music for reading)


We do not know much about Bessie. Only two written documents exist to suggest her existence: the one a record of the property of an unknown slaveowner following his death in 1654; the other an inventory of one William Browne, a plantation and slave owner of Barbados, dated March 17, 1662. In the former, she is listed alongside her “piqueninies”, the sole enslaved woman to be named. In the latter, she appears under the headline “Women”, next to “Bessy”, who appears under the headline “Cows”.

A lot of information can be gleaned from these two records, stored in the Barbados Department of Archives alongside some 3,000 similar wills and inventories from the second half of the seventeenth century. We can tell that by 1654, she had no husband (all other women in the document are merely included as “wives” to named men). We can tell that whoever recorded that inventory specifically valued Bessie for her children, and more importantly, for her potential to create more. And most significantly, we can tell that for William Browne, she was on an equal footing with his cattle.

But what we cannot see in these administrative documents, written by literate and propertied English men on the island of Barbados, is the woman herself. We see her as her owners saw her, as cattle, as property, as the potential producer of a whole new generation of black bodies whose labor will support the sunburnt Anglo-Saxons in their quest for respectability and wealth, whose debilitating labor in the Caribbean sun will ensure that the lords and ladies of Cornwall and Somerset and Devon and Norfolk could have a bit of sugar with their tea (itself ensured by the labor of Indians and Chinese and the diverse sailors and merchants who hauled those plants half-way across the world). But we do not see her as her children saw her, as her mother saw her, as she saw herself.

We do not know the pain she felt, the love, the boredom, the anger, the resignation. We do not know what became of her children’s father, whether he was dead, sold off or even the man who owned her (rape was as natural to chattel slavery as the whip or the chain). We do not know whether she loved her children; whether she could bring herself to love those little humans who, according to the Virginia Slave Law of 1662, “shall be held bond or free only according to the condition of the mother” and who could be sold off at any moment to a plantation across the island or to the tobacco fields of Virginia or the rice paddies of Carolina. We do not know if she was able to make her children understand, whether she had any answer for why life was as it was, or why the master could give these dark-skinned children to his pale-skinned offspring as gifts, so that his progeny could learn as early as possible the proper way to manage their property and households. Wait, we do not even know how many children Bessie had.

We do not know whether Bessie had been born on that little island, tottering at the eastern edge of the sea named for the people Christopher Columbus had, a century and a half prior, encountered on his journey to India, the people he had promptly enslaved. We do not know if she had instead known the Senegal or Calabar or Gambia or Congo, those rivers “ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins”, as the poet wrote. We do not know if her soul had “grown deep like the rivers.” We do not know if she had poetry in her heart.

We do not know if she traveled across the Atlantic in the bowels of a cramped ship, watching her people (for they were her people now, though they spoke different languages and called for different gods) cough and cry and rage and die. We do not know how alone she felt, how afraid, how tired, how confused.

We do not know much of anything.

Bessie was another body given to feed the mass machinery of the Atlantic world, machinery which we as historians cannot yet call capitalism but give it time, the shape is familiar.

Yet, we have her name, preserved in the archives of the Barbadian government. We know her name, and that is something to hold onto, as we zoom out and write tomes on the institution of slavery with its nameless masters and slaves and overseers and traders and lawyers and accountants and proponents and opponents.

We have her name. She is not forgotten. She cannot be forgotten. We have her name.





Bessie’s story was found in Jennifer Morgan’s Laboring Women: Reproduction and Gender in New World Slavery (2004), an essential examination of women and reproduction in the English/British slave system. The quoted lines of poetry come from Langston Hughes’ “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” from The Weary Blues (1925).

The header image “Albumen print of enslaved women and their children near Alexandria, Virginia”, dated December 2, 1861 to March 10, 1862, currently in the collection of the National Museum of African American History & Culture. It can be better viewed here.

What Are You Afraid Of?

What Are You Afraid Of?

What are you afraid of?


The question hangs in the air. It’s been hanging there for so many years at this point. An interrogative like an eternal critique. I have no answer. For me or for us.


What are you afraid of?


Some of the intellectuals (America has so few intellectuals – I believe they only really exist in France) have looked hard from their towering department-head chairs and descry it as the ever-present fear of change that is always also a fear of death. But I feel it is something more. As they say, change and death are eternal, so what’s so special now?


What are you afraid of?


I have a better question. Why must one be afraid? Fear protects us, the biologists say, it keeps us alive by cutting down our childish pursuit of risks. It stops us from going deeper into the dark cave with its possible pitfalls and bears. It keeps us away from deep water and thus from the well-hidden desire to give up our landed inheritance and return to the warm embrace of the sea. It constrains us and nurtures us, assures us that our self-imposed limits are for the good of the species and not a total waste. It protects us from possibility far more often than impossibility.

Fear is such a foolish emotion.


What are you afraid of?


I am afraid of this endless questioning. I am afraid of whatever the answer may be. I am afraid of the nothingness, the meaningless, the eternal and the sublime. I am afraid of my shadow because its existence is wholly reliant on me. I am afraid of the weapons of fear, the language of fear, the moronic mongers and brutish baiters. I am afraid of the fear bureaucrats. I am afraid of order as much as I am afraid of chaos.

I fear living far more than I fear death.


What are you afraid of?


I am afraid of the present and the future, but most of all the past. For the present and the future don’t exist but the past is always there, judging me, judging us. The past with its scourges and epidemics and warfare and stoic lists of alphabetized atrocities. The past which is but a few steps removed from me.


What are you afraid of?


Everything and nothing. The beginning and the end. The eternal and the temporary. The balanced and the extreme.

In this time of fear, I must not flinch under the question’s inquisitive glance. Wallowing is too easy, too cheap, too pointless. I will not give into the fear. I will embrace it and judge it and pet it and hug it tight in the stormy nights ahead. At the heart of the matter is the secret that’s been known since the beginning of thought, the knowledge we always seem to forget: To master fear is not to control it. It is to accept it and understand it, and recognize its pleasantness and danger, like the tides that crest against the earthen levees…

(March 2016)

The Subversion of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s “About Russia”

The Subversion of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s “About Russia”

When the French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson visited the Soviet Union in the early 1970s, the Cold War had already reached a level of uneasy normality. After the near-apocalypse of the Cuban Missile Crisis, officials in the East and West started focusing their attentions elsewhere, away from direct antagonism and towards less direct displays of power. As Cartier-Bresson traveled the steppe by rail and car, the United States was killing off its youth in a war in Southeast Asia and the Soviet Union was busy breaking up with its long-time communist partner, China. While suspicion between the superpowers remained the norm, the general populations of both countries had more important things to worry about than “damned Reds” or “Capitalist dogs”.

Cartier-Bresson had been one of the first Western photographers to ‘freely’ photograph the Soviet Union in the years following Stalin’s death. Returning a decade and a half later, he desired “to compare a country with what it once was, looking both for the thread of continuity and for those things that have changed.” Having established his reasoning, he proceeded to take hundreds of photographs all across the Soviet Union, from the Baltic coast to the vast plains of the Central Asian republics. It was the responsibility of the viewer to draw their own conclusions about the state of the Soviet republics, and what that meant in the broader context of the world.

These photographs were exhibited in New York in 1974 and published in a book entitled About Russia that same year. I sought out the book at my local library after reading a short essay on Cartier-Bresson by the writer and photographer Teju Cole. What I found within the 150-odd pages of photographs was a profoundly subversive piece of art hidden behind the façade of the mundane.


from "About Russia"
Soviet Models in Hermitage Square, #6 from “About Russia”



Most artistic representations of the U.S.S.R. by Western artists during its seventy year history are somewhat suspect. While no art can be completely objective, there is something about the symbolic meaning of the Soviet Union that often prevented it from being truly ‘represented’. Leftist artists (particularly those with communist leanings) often painted the Soviet Union as a socialist utopia, at least until the post-Stalin denunciations revealed the ugly truth behind that optimistic lie. Meanwhile, artists on the right of the spectrum saw in the U.S.S.R. the devil incarnate, an intolerant monolith which threatened not only their creativity, but also their lives.

What got lost in these preconceived notions of the Soviet Union was the country itself. The millions under communist rule lost any semblance of literality. They were the faceless horde of Russia, either happy comrades working the fields collectively or miserable wretches angry at the West for the failures of their own government. Like Medieval writers recalling the Huns or encountering the Mongols, contemporary artists often thought of Russia as a mysterious corridor through which inhuman hordes emerged suddenly from time to time.

Cartier-Bresson’s photographs reveal to Western audiences what I like to call a “nationalistic truth”: the Communists were just as bland and boring as the rest of us. His photographs are full of the images of the everyday, of life as it is and as it always has been. Children walk to school, farmers plow fields, men loiter in side-streets, bicyclists race along cobblestone avenues. It is all so…subversive.

So, how can a picture of ice-skaters or sun-bathers be subversive? To understand, one must first consider the political art of dehumanization. The first step in any conflict, whether hot, cold or lukewarm, is to shed the opponent of any semblance of humanity. From the already unnatural national identity (“Russian” or “Soviet”) come new terms meant to distance the subject from their individual humanity. “Reds”, “Ruskies”, “Commies”, “Pinkos”, “Cossacks”, “Easterners”, “Terrorists”, “Comrades”, “Enemies”; all connote people but none are actually human. It is easy to drop bombs on these words, because they do not exist. It becomes far more difficult to kill when you are forced to think of “them” as fathers, sisters, grandsons, nieces, booksellers, accountants or amateur trumpeters. God forbid you actually learn their names!

Cartier-Bresson’s photographs reveal the lie of propaganda, the blatant falseness of nationalism and its attendant exceptionalism. There is a father holding his child’s hand as they cross the street. Here is a young woman getting her nails done while gazing off into some daydream. These are the mythical “Reds”, jumping rope on the sidewalk.

The photographer does not sentimentalize his subjects. These are not the brave proletariat imagined by leftist visitors in the 30s. These are people, as flawed and perfect as any.



from "About Russia"
Housing Complexes in Tuchino, #50 from “About Russia”



The subversion of Cartier-Bresson’s photographs is not only found in the mundanity of their subjects. He is also, rather subtly, providing his own opinions on the nature of the Soviet Union (like I wrote earlier, no art is purely objective). A recurring theme in his images of ‘70s Russia is that of the Russian individual visually dwarfed by the images surrounding them. Photographs taken in museums and churches show figures interacting with massive images from the country’s past, whether they be revolutionaries, soldiers or saints. Street scenes often show pedestrians like miniatures against the brutalist maximalism of Soviet architecture. Cartier-Bresson even uses the massiveness of the Russian terrain to show just how small the human is in a land of steppe or mountains.

This is all on purpose. The weight of History (symbolic, metaphoric and literal) shrinks the human. A history of violence and totalitarianism is ever-present, in the portraits of fallen comrades and in the muddy detritus of ugly planned housing complexes. These Russians, Baltics, Asians and Caucasians are, to Cartier-Bresson’s lens, ever so small. Russia, and Russian history, is there in each and every photo, a mere specter barely visible, but present.


from "About Russia"
Palace Square, #1 from “About Russia”



The Cold War is dead but the truth of Cartier-Bresson’s photographs remains. They are not only an artifact of a long past era; they are a reminder that labels mean little in the human world, that the phrases you hear on the news networks and in government reports are just different ways of referring to living, breathing people, and that ignorant jingoism will always meet its match in the image of reality. The photographer, whose subject is only reality (for even the most creative of photographers can only create with the light and shadow actually available to them) thus becomes our check, stopping us from giving in to our own cowardly and stupid simplification of the world.

In a time when refugees are not “persons who flee for refuge or safety” but “possible security risks”; when Muslims are not practitioners of an Abrahamic faith, but foes of ‘Western Civilization’; when the Chinese are not a billion plus sentient bodies but “a Red Dragon Rising”, the art of the Real can play an essential role in the continuation of our own humanity. All hateful anti-refugee rhetoric cowers before the photograph of a drowned Syrian boy, washed ashore on some Greek island. All visions of false realities disappear like shadows when the light of photographic truth shines upon them, no matter how badly the proprietors of that falsehood deny. This, in my eyes, is the reason for photography: to tear apart the vile falsehoods and find the warmth in all.

(All photographs from About Russia by Henri Cartier-Bresson: Thames and Hudson, London, ©1973)

(October 2016)