Ukraine Posts

Henry Marsh’s “Admissions”

The  brain cannot feel pain:  pain is a sensation created within the brain in response to  electrochemical signals to it from the nerve endings in the body. …Thought and feeling, and pain, are all physical processes going on within our brains. There is no reason why pain caused by injury to the body to which the brain is connected should be any more painful, or any more ‘real’, than pain generated by the brain itself without any external stimulus from the body…. The dualism of seeing  mind and  matter as separate entities is deeply ingrained in us, as is the belief in an immaterial #soul which will somehow outlive our bodies and brains.

Well-recognised brain surgeon Henry Marsh’s memoir Admissions is immensely readable while being thought provoking. It explores that fuzzy space which can put many an experienced medical professional whether to be true to their Hippocratic oath or let their patient slip away with dignity.

When a surgeon advises a patient that they should undergo surgery, he or she is implicitly saying that the risks of surgery are less than those of not having the operation. And yet nothing is certain in medicine and we have to balance one set of probabilities against another, and rarely, if ever, one certainty against another. This involves judgement as much as knowledge. 

The book also documents Henry Marsh’s experiences as a consultant surgeon in Nepal and Ukraine. Two countries where given the lack of medical facilities would result in patients arriving for consultation when it was far too late or were considered to be cases found only in textbook — an experience many doctors from the developed world remark upon about developing nations.

Henry Marsh’s  Admissions: Life in Brain Surgery was written after he retired from active surgery and was able to reflect upon his life’s achievements as well as explore the philosophical aspect of his actions as a brain surgeon. Many times it was like walking a tight rope, particularly in modern medical practice, where the costs and profits were constantly being factored into a new admission. It did not matter if the patient was critical or not. The costs incurred in treating a sick person were first calculated before moving ahead. This was a far cry from the days when he began practising as a surgeon. He never articulates it but there is a pall of gloom that hangs over the memoir especially when he ruefully shares his distress at the extraneous financial factors they have to take into account before getting to the actual work of treating a patient.

Admissions is a disquieting but an essential memoir that is impossible to finish reading for it leaves one much to think about and query life as never before.

Henry Marsh   Admissions: Life in Brain Surgery Weidenfeld & Nicolson, an imprint of Orion Publishing, Hachette India, 2017. Pb. pp. 272 Rs 599 

26 June 2017 

“She Came from Mariupol” by Natscha Wodinwas ( an extract)

Sie Kam Aus Mariupol by Natscha Wodinwas ( published by Rowohlt Verlag) which has been shortlisted for the 2017 Leipzig Book Fair Prize is by the daughter of deported Ukrainian labourers to Germany. Natscha Wodinwas is based in Berlin.

The following translated English excerpts were sent by Rachel Hildebrandt, translator and publisher, Weyward Sisters Publishing. The English translation of She Came from Mariupol is as yet unpublished.

These passages are being published with permission.

(p.38) The more research I did, the more atrocities I encountered about which hardly anyone seemed to be aware. I was not the only one who was learning about these for the first time. None of my German friends, many of whom I considered enlightened, historically knowledgeable individuals, had any idea how many Nazi camps had once existed within the boundaries of the former German Reich. Some of them guessed around twenty, while others estimated two hundred, a few up to two thousand. According to a study by the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, the number is actually closer to 42,500, not including the smaller and the satellite camps. In an interview with ZEIT published on March 4, 2013, the American historian Geoffrey Megargee, who had contributed to the study, remarked that the horrific number of camps confirmed that almost every German had to have known about the existence of these camps, even if they had not comprehended the extent of the camps or the conditions within them. It was the old story: Nobody knew a thing, despite the fact that with over 42,500 camps the entire country must have functioned like a single gulag.

****

 (pgs 248 to 251) The large-scale deportation of the Ukrainians to Germany was accompanied by a pervasive propaganda effort on the part of the occupiers. At every turn, the Soviet citizens were called to report for work duty in Germany. They were promised paradise there. The brainwashing occurred everywhere: during the opening programs at the cinemas, over all of the radio stations, in the workplaces, at the train stations, in the theaters, on public squares and streets. Large, colorful posters depicted happy Ukrainians working at progressive German workbenches. Smartly dressed Ukrainian domestic servants were pictured whipping up German Sunday cakes. Ukrainian women were especially popular as maids. In 1942, Hitler ordered that half a million of them be employed in German households, which resulted in many German women losing their jobs. The press circulated daily pleas, like this one:

UKRAINIAN WOMEN AND MEN

The Bolshevik commissioners have destroyed your factories and workplaces, and are cutting you off from work and bread. Germany is offering you useful, well-paid employment. In Germany, you will find excellent work and living conditions, and you will be paid according to the tariff and based on your productivity. We take especially good care of the Ukrainian workers. So that they can live in conditions that are suitable to them and can retain their cultural distinctness, separate settlements are being constructed for them. They will provide everything that you would need to live: cinemas, theaters, hospitals, radio stations, swimming pools, etc. The Ukrainians are living in bright, nicely furnished rooms, and they are given the same things to eat as the German workers. Furthermore, the factory canteens cook the specialties of all nations, which is why the Ukrainian workers will find Wareniki, Galuschki, Kwas, etc. on the menus.

Germany is waiting for you! Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians are already working in free, happy Germany. What about you? During your stay in Germany, we will take good care of your family back home.

(reprinted from a Ukrainian newspaper)

The propaganda was initially effective. Not all of the so-called Ostarbeiter were forcibly deported. At the beginning, many of them reported voluntarily. Gradually the truth about the downright nightmarish work and living conditions in the German Reich trickled back home. At first, letters conveyed hidden messages, for example, in the form of flowers drawn in a letter from a sixteen-year-old to his mother. The flower was the agreed-upon signal that things were not going well for him. As time passed, more and more deported Ukrainians returned from Germany, physically destroyed and shoved off back home, because in their condition they were no longer useful. Their stories quickly cut off the hopeful rush of those volunteering for work duty: a serious problem for the German war industry, since the German men were at the front and no longer there to fill the workplaces.

Meanwhile, the war was requiring a sharp, unrelenting increase in productivity. Germany’s victory would rise or fall on the imported slave laborers from all over Europe, especially from the Soviet Union and particularly from Ukraine. Hitler appointed his model Gauleiter Fritz Sauckel as the General Plenipotentiary for Labor Deployment. The son of a Frankish postal worker and a seamstress, who was later described at the Nuremberg trials as the “greatest and cruelest slaver since the pharaohs,” Sauckel issued the order to “finally shake off the last dregs of sentimental humanitarianism.” And with this command, the human hunt began. Ukraine was the favorite region of operations for the hunters. The Ukrainians, who composed the largest percentage of the “Ostarbeiter,” were perceived as the Slavs of the lowest possible value. The only groups under them in the racial hierarchy were the Sinti, the Roma, and the Jews. They were attacked on the streets, in cinemas and cafes, at streetcar stops, in post offices, anywhere where they could be easily caught. They were hauled out of the homes in raids, dragged from the cellars and sheds where they had tried to hide. They were driven to the train station and transported to Germany in cattle cars. A countless number of them disappeared without a trace with nothing except the clothes on their backs. Able-bodied young men were particularly desirable – entire freight trains full of Ukrainian teenagers rolled daily toward the Reich. After a while, though, the forty- and fifty-year-olds were taken, and eventually, the elderly and weak. The populations of entire villages were deported, including the grandmothers with their grandchildren. The emptied villages were then burnt to the ground. At first, the minimal slave laborer age was twelve, but then it was dropped to ten. And not only that, but in the summer of 1942, all young people in Ukraine between the ages of eighteen and twenty were forced to serve two years of compulsory service in the Reich. Up to ten thousand future forced laborers were shipped to Germany on a daily basis, and according to Fritz Sauckel’s orders, all of these people had to be fed, housed, and treated as cheaply as possible in order to yield the highest possible productivity.

25 February 2017 

Svetlana Alexievich Second-Hand Time: The Last of the Soviets (Translated by Bela Shayevich)

38077-vnmgcbvbbz-1469206831Second-Hand-Time_150_RGB-682x1024(My review of Nobel winner Svetlana Alexievich’s Second-Hand Time was published in Scroll on 23 July 2016 with the title” Imagine the tragedy of abandoning Communism without knowing how to live with capitalism”. Here is the link: http://scroll.in/article/812306/imagine-the-tragedy-of-abandoning-communism-without-knowing-how-to-live-with-capitalism. I am c&p the text below too. )

Nobel Prize winner (2015) Svetlana Alexievich’s Second-Hand Time: The Last of the Soviets explores what the aftermath of the fall of USSR meant for ordinary folks. Svetlana is a Belarusian journalist who was born in Ukraine, writes in Russian and lived in Paris for nearly 11 years before returning to Minsk to be with her daughter and granddaughter. According to the New York Times, “she had left to protest the regime of the Belarussian president Alexander Lukashenko, who has been in power since 1994 and curtailed press freedom. She said she planned to remain in Minsk and hoped the Nobel would give her some protection and freedom to speak her mind.” Based on interviews carried out between 1991 and 2012, the book was published in Russian in 2013, with the first English edition coming out in 2016.

By the little people consists of a series of transcripts of interviews. Sometimes these are structured thoughts, sometimes ramblings and sometimes monologues. Rarely does Alexievich intrude with comments or even an introduction to the speaker. At most, a reference to the person or the memory being recorded will be acknowledged in the chapter heading, such as “On Romeo and Juliet…except their names were Margarita and Abulfaz”. No wonder Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen calls the 2015 Nobel Prize winner a “memory keeper”.

According to Bela Shayevich, the translator of Second-Hand Time, the book is “an update of 19th-century Russian literature for the 21st century.” People read Russian novels not for the happy endings, she added, but “because there is great catharsis in great pain and then something that is sublime.” Listing it as part of her Summer Reads 2016 in The Guardian, Marina Warner called it “a Greek tragic chorus of memories about the Soviet Union”.

The stories we hear add up to something close to a dystopia created by Communist indoctrination. Having subjected the former Soviet citizens to almost an artificial reality, the regime incapacitated them from understanding the transformation of their society after 1989, when Communism began to fade.

“My mother is not going to help raise my daughter…I won’t let her. If she had her way, my child would only watch Socialist cartoons because they’re ‘humane’. But when the cartoon is over, you have to go out on the street, into a completely different world.” As an ex-Army officer who had fought in Afghanistan told Alexievich, “It’s important to write it down while there are still people around who remember it…we’d work the night shift, unloading train cars, or as security guards. Laying asphalt. The people working alongside me were PhDs, doctors, surgeons. I even remember a pianist from the symphony. …socialism is alchemy.”

What also emerges tragically from these accounts is the fact that ordinary people did not even have the skills to survive in the post-Soviet landscape, after the disintegration of the USSR. They had been brought up to believe in dreams such as the motherland. This is a constant lament in the book – the inability of many people to understand basics, such as what is real money, how it operates, and the value of it. Many did not know how to earn a living in the new socio-economic system, and rapidly sank into poverty.

Distilled testimonies

In an interview to the Dalkey Archive Press when her book Voices from Chernobyl was published, Alexievich said she sees her work as witnessing. She repeated this in her interview to The Millions: “I’m interested in little people. The little, great people, is how I would put it, because suffering expands people. In my books these people tell their own, little histories, and big history is told along the way. We haven’t had time to comprehend what already has and is still happening to us, we just need to say it. To begin with, we must at least articulate what happened.”

In the opening chapter of Second-Hand Time, Alexievich writes of her intent to document the Communist collective memory, which recalls Pravda, Little Octoberists, parades, Solzhenitsyn, Komsomol, and allegiance to the motherland: “In writing, I’m piecing together the history of ‘domestic’, ‘interior’ socialism. As it existed in a person’s soul. I’ve always been drawn to this miniature expanse: one person, the individual. It’s where everything really happens…It never ceases to amaze me how interesting everyday life really is. There are endless number of human truths. History is concerned solely with the facts; emotions are outside of its realm of interest. In fact, it’s considered improper to admit feelings into history. But I look at the world as a writer and not a historian. I am fascinated by people.”

An insight into her fascinating methodology reveals a practice not uncommon amongst those who document oral histories. According to Alexievich, she “selects one out of five interviews, and that one makes it into the published book. For each person I record four tapes or more, making 100-150 printed pages, depending on the voice, timbre and the pace of the oral story, and then only about ten pages remain…”

So the seeming chaos of individual narratives has a strong underlying sense of structure, much like the ordered chaos of Darcy’s garden in Pride and Prejudice. These stream of consciousness testimonials are the common form of recording oral narratives, particularly of women survivors, of a traumatic experience. The form is a testament to the writer’s sensitivity as a listener, allowing the interviewee to speak openly and without fear. These are experiences that, Alexievich is quick to remind us, formed “a large part of our lives – more, even, than love. Thus, the Russian experience of suffering acquires particular value.”

“I grew up in a dissident family…in a dissident kitchen…My parents knew Andrei Sakharov, they distributed Samizdat. Along with them, I read Vassily Grossman, Yevgenia Ginzburg, Dovlatov, listened to Radio Liberty. In 1991, I was, of course, in front of the White House, in a human chain, prepared to sacrifice my life to prevent the return of Communism. Not a single one of my friends were Communists. For us, Communism was inextricably linked with the Terror, the Gulag. A cage. We thought it was dead. Gone forever. Twenty years have passed…I go into my son’s room, and what do I see but a copy of Marx’s Das Kapital on his desk, and Trotsky’s My Life on his bookshelf…I can’t believe my eyes! Is Marx making a comeback? Is this a nightmare? Am I awake or am I dreaming? My son studies at the university, he has a lot of friends, and I’ve started eavesdropping on their conversations. They drink tea in our kitchen and argue about The Communist Manifesto …Marxism is legal again, on trend, a brand. They wear T-shirts with pictures of Che Guevara and Lenin on them. [ Despairingly] Nothing has taken root. It was all for naught.”

The blurb on the dust jacket begins: “What if you could tell history through the countless voices of ordinary people who lived through it?” It is as if in one fell swoop the editors have negated the very existence of the discipline of subaltern history while using the very same idea. Maybe Alexievich’s preferred definition of “witness” would have been more appropriate.

Svetlana Alexievich Second-Hand Time: The Last of the Soviets (Translated by Bela Shayevich) Juggernaut Books, New Delhi, 2016. Hb. Pp. 570. Rs 699

A paragraph that could not be included in the published article for reasons of length is reproduced below: 

In the case of Soviet society, in seven decades, they went from the Romanov era, Bolshevik Revolution, CommunismRussia-Putin-sworn-in-again ( Stalin et al) and then post-1989 hurtled completely unprepared into a capitalist economy society soon to be dominated by Putin. As Simon Sebag Montefiore says in his magnificently detailed and stupendously rich history of The Romanovs: 1613-1918 says: It is ironic that now, two centuries after the Romanovs finally agreed a law of succession, Russian presidents still effectively nominate their successors just as Peter the Great did.” ( pxx-xi). And yet Putin, the Russian president’s state symbol is the two-headed eagle that was of the Romanovs too. This direct linkage to the royal period of Russian history refuses to acknowledge the communist era except for the trifle detail of Putin having been an ex-KGB officer, the secret police of the Soviet Union.

Simon Sebag Montefiore The Romanovs: 1613-1918 Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 2016. Hb. Pp. 746. Rs 1299 ( Distributed by Hachette India)

Nuclear energy – pros and cons

Nuclear energy – pros and cons

Chernobyl

It is 25 years since the Chernobyl nuclear disaster ( 26 April 1986). It is a couple of years ( 11 March 2011) since the earthquakes and tsunami destroyed the Fukushima nuclear reactors. And the nuclear energy debates rages on in India, most notably about the Koodangulam nuclear power plant complex — http://kafila.org/2012/03/21/kudankulam-a-brief-history-and-a-recent-update/ . There are many pros and cons to setting up power plants based upon nuclear energy. It is a renewable source of energy that has to be considered when non-renewable sources like coal are becoming more and more expensive to mine and use. But setting up nuclear energy plants come with many disturbing aspects — displacement of people, the effects of radiation on the local community and eco-system and of course, the perennial dread of a nuclear disaster. The local eco-system would take centuries to “recover” from a nuclear spill or leak. An explosion as in Fukushima is still uncharted territory. For instance, the effect of the explosion on marine life is still undocumented.

Ramana, Examining nuclear energy in India

Two books, published recently in India — Voices from Chernobyl and The Power of Promise: Examining Nuclear Energy in India — are crucial in understanding the debates about nuclear energy, but also sobering reminders about what it entails. Voices from Chernobyl is a novel about the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster — contaminated food, metallic water, radioactive showers, deformed babies etc. It maybe a fictionalised account but it is horrifying since many of the stories seem to be based on real events and people. The unorthodox structure of the text does not ease one into reading the story for a moment. Instead it forces an engagement with the text. It has been translated from the Norwegian by Taralrud Maddrell. It won the Sult Prize in 2010.

The Power of Promise examines the nuclear energy programme of India, its growth, the economics of it and of course, the impact on international relations. It is probably no coincidence that these books are available soon after Indo-US bilateral treaty on nuclear energy was signed or the importing of Thorium from France. Now India’s conversations with Japan on a civil nuclear deal are being sped up. Here are a couple of reviews about The Power of Promise , published in the Frontline ( http://www.frontline.in/books/nuclear-questions/article4569496.ece ) and Kafila ( http://kafila.org/2013/03/21/understanding-the-empty-promises-of-nuclear-energy-nityanand-jayaraman/ ). There was a response to the Frontline review-article in the letters section by M. V. Ramanna but I am unable to locate it online. And here is another article by M. V. Ramanna on nuclear energy and safety in Kafila — http://kafila.org/2013/04/04/nuclear-energy-reassurances-dont-guarantee-safety-m-v-ramana/ and a debate on the subject http://kafila.org/2013/03/22/responding-to-a-debate-on-the-kudankulam-struggle-against-nuclear-energy/ .

Today it has been announced the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant (KNPP) in Tamil Nadu is set to start functioning in less than two days. http://www.ndtv.com/article/south/kudankulam-nuclear-plant-to-start-soon-after-it-gets-all-mandated-approvals-390956?pfrom=home-otherstories . The question that begs to be asked is “are these the temples of Modern India” that Nehru dreamed about? If so, at what cost?

12 July 2013

M. V. Ramanna The Power of Promise: Examining Nuclear Energy in India Penguin Books India, New Delhi. Hb. pp. 366 Rs. 699

Ingrid Storholmen Voices from Chernobyl Harper Perennial, Noida, India. Pb. pp.200 Rs. 299

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