Meeting Isabel Crook

‘Put that down, mum’, he said. ‘Someone is here to see you’.

He strode into the room, while I paused at the door and looked inside to see Isabel Crook for the first time. Books spilled out of ceiling-high shelves and were piled on the desks that surrounded her. Sitting in the only free space in the room, she had been reading. She did not look up at first, but focussed on putting the book in its place. She stood and walked to the door of her own accord.

Her 60-something son and began to introduce us, somewhat loudly.

‘Hello, I am Isabel Crook,’ she interrupted. ‘Pleased to meet you’.

I replied in kind, with a clear and strong voice.

She smiled. Her no-nonsense hair may have been grey, and she may have been slightly stooped and a little shrunken. But the sparkle was still in her eye and I immediately saw the origin of her son’s energy.

It was the middle of May, 2015, in an apartment built in not long after the communist revolution. They had lived there ever since the 50s, in Beijing.

In the common room – for eating, guests, discussion – she paused and pointed to a poster on the wall: ‘This is priceless’. A youthful Mao Zedong was watching over a long line of marching men and women, holding the red flag aloft.

‘You can’t read the writing now’, she said. ‘It has faded over the years’.

‘Why priceless?’ I said.

‘These posters were all over Beijing when it was liberated in 1949. I managed to get hold of one. It was amazing. We looked all down the streets … students all with red triangular flags waving … the incoming army … cavalry, which was very exciting. It was the most joyful event I’ve ever watched’.

Isabel Crook, along with her husband, David, had been with the Red Army on that victorious day. Most men and women had walked thousands of kilometres in order to get from Yan’an to Beijing But since Isabel was pregnant with their first son, Colin, she was provided with the comfort of travelling in the back of a truck. Given the conditions of the roads after decades of civil war and the anti-Japanese war, I am not sure an old truck in 1949 would have been so comfortable. But she was obviously a tough woman.

We – Isabel, Michael (her second son) and I – sat and talked over a cup of tea. We talked of Mao, Deng Xiaoping, China today, Marxism, as also of families and the initial matters of what one is doing and why. Later, a couple of other people joined us and we made the most of the spring weather to have lunch at a simple outdoor restaurant somewhere on the edge of the Summer Palace grounds.

Isabel and I gravitated towards each other – as we did on later occasions – given our common interests in Marxism and indeed religion. She was born to Canadian missionary parents in Chengdu, China, way back in 1915. While she was brought up as a Christian in China and attended a Christian school, she followed the path of so many, from Christianity to communism. Crucially, her parents – Homer and Muriel Brown – were Christians with a social conscience, although they looked askance at communism (and Isabel’s future husband, David Crook). They reconciled themselves to the fact that a social cause was better than pure self-interest.

After anthropological study in her parents’ home country, Canada, she returned to China in 1940, under the auspices of the National Christian Council in Sichuan province. By 1942 she joined David in England, where she joined the communist party and where they married. Further study ensued, only to return to China in 1947. She has remained there ever since, becoming a participant-observer in the communist revolution itself and especially socialism in power. Many are the jobs Isabel has had, from anthropological researcher, through language teacher to lifelong social activist. Indeed, her commitment was of the sort that led one to action – to supporting an actual communist revolutionary movement on the ground.

Her story has been told many times (as of David), from foreign sources to many outlets in China. Her 100th birthday was saluted by the Communist Party of Great Britain (Marxist-Leninist), her commitment to education and research is often noted (playing down her communist credentials), and even the Wall Street Journal managed to come up with a story. Of more interest are the accounts on CCTV and, above all, the website that tells her own story, simply called ‘Isabel Crook’. With all this information available, I do not need to dwell on all the details.

Her witness of socialism in power is, for a foreigner, second to none. In Shilidian (Ten Mile Inn), a communist area of Hebei province, she and David witnessed the profound effects of land reform already underway. She saw first-hand millennia-long practices being dismantled and replaced with socialist approaches. As she observes: ‘The land reform was obviously going to change the whole future of China’s history, because it would get rid of the feudal system … it would put the farmer in power, rather than going on with the old way’. The result was a hugely influential book, written by her and David, Ten Mile Inn: Mass Movement in a Chinese Village.

And of course, there was the teaching. The new China would need people skilled in English, so they were asked to stay and teach. Over the years, their work would become one stream that fed into what is now Beijing Foreign Studies University.

Over dinner one evening, I mentioned to Isabel that I had been to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea). Her eyes lit up.

‘I have had students from North Korea’, she said. ‘Ten of them, sent by the government to study English’.

‘How did they go?’ I said.

‘They were very good,’ she said. ‘Although one struggled. I believe in giving marks for actual performance, so his grades were not so good. As they boarded the bus after the course, this student was crying. “Why is he crying?” I asked one of the others. “He knows he will be reprimanded for not doing so well in the course and failing his country.” I wanted to stop the bus and hug him’.

She also experienced socialism in power during the Cultural Revolution.

‘During the Cultural Revolution, I was suspected of a being a spy. So I was put in prison for three years’.

‘Did it make you doubt the communist movement?’ I asked.

‘Not at all’, she said. ‘My sons were on their own, but I knew they could manage’.

‘What did they do?’ I said.

‘They were teenagers’, she said. ‘And they knew how to take of themselves. One day, they realised their visas had run out, so they sent the youngest to the immigration office, hoping they would be deported. The woman behind the desk simply stamped the passports – another two years!’

We laughed.

‘Another time’, she said. ‘Before I was imprisoned but during the Cultural Revolution, one son was in hospital. I was on my way to visit him and the gardener out the front said, “Your son is fine”. In reply to my complete surprise, he said: “I’m the doctor. I am doing my duty as gardener now”’.

‘But what did you do in prison?’ I said.

‘I knew they had made a mistake and decided to make the most of it’.

‘How so?’ I said.

‘I asked for something to read’, she said.

‘What?’ I said.

‘The Selected Works of Mao Zedong’, she said. ‘I read the four volumes through many times. I even noted how many times laughter appears. Do you know how many?’

‘No’, I said.

‘Two!’

We laughed, with Isabel assuring me she remains as ardent follower of Mao Zedong.

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Images, Statues and the Representation of Revolutionary Leaders

Having visited a number of socialist countries – both former and present – I have begun to notice a few differences. It may be called socialism with ‘national’ characteristics. I do not mean the big-picture issues of governance, economics, social organisation and ideology. No, I refer to more everyday matters, especially the practices and naming and representation.

On one of my first visits to Eastern Europe and Russia, I was drawn to a flea market outside the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral (Eastern Orthodox) in Sofia, Bulgaria. Amongst the usual junk stood a gleaming bust of Lenin. ‘Fifty euro’ said the weathered man behind the pile of old goods on the table. I made a half-hearted effort at bargaining, but he could tell I was not skilled and that I really wanted the statue. He would not budge – and soon enough had fifty euro in his fist. But I had the statue, made before 1989. It sits at home, the far-seeing eyes and chin of history still trying to discern the future. Beside him stand a number of comrades who have joined him over the years. These days in Eastern Europe you can find statues and busts aplenty, as the old factories have begun to pump them out for tourists seeking communist chic – Lenin, Stalin, Brezhnev. Every flea market across Eastern Europe has them, but they do not quite have the same claim as my original Lenin bust.

Since then, I have encountered the comrades on many occasions in that part of the world. Turn a corner in a metro station in Red Petrograd and there is Lenin, casting his eye over proceedings. Walk through the Square of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat and there are Marx and Engels, with children playing at their feet and a majestic bronze statue of Lenin pointing across the square. Explore Stalin’s Seven Sisters in Moscow and be overwhelmed by the symbols and insignia of Soviet presence. Take a road trip in a beaten up Volvo across Bulgaria – with a chain-smoking opera diva as a driver – and see new statues of Dimitrov, the communist hero, or even plaster casts of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin and Dimitrov sitting around a table at a coffee shop. Cycle along the Spree River in East Germany and, in village after village, encounter a Friedrich Engels Strasse, or perhaps a Karl Marx Allee, or even a Karl Liebknecht Weg.

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The governments may no longer be communist, but the presence is palpable. What about China, where the government is very much the communist party? Any preconception that no-one talks about Marxism or even Mao Zedong is soon dispelled. On a visit to Mao’s birthplace in Shaoshan in Hunan Province, I could have acquired a three-metre statue and taken it home with me (I settled for one of ten centimetres – easier to pack). At the ‘red tourism’ site of the Yan’an Soviet in Shaanxi Province, I haggled over a green t-shirt with Mao’s image and a slogan emblazoned across the front. After paying my respects at the mausoleum in Tiananmen Square, I somehow acquired a pocket watch, silk painting and Beijing Opera style stage set, all with images and writings by the good chairman. In Nanjing, a paper cutter made me a glorious image with Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin and Mao all in a line – Maenlestamao, they call it. And in Hunan Province, I marvelled at all the taxis and cars with statues of Mao on the dashboard. He is there to ensure that the driver remains safe on the road.

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Yet I struggled to find a single town, road, street or even tiny lane named after one of the revolutionary leaders. Puzzled, I asked someone. ‘Chairman Mao expressly forbade us to do so’, she said. ‘Why?’ I asked. ‘Well, he did not want us to get too carried away with worshipping him and the others. But there is also a Chinese tradition: you do not use the names of the dead – for children but also for streets and towns. The dead keep their own names’. Perhaps the closest the Chinese come to such a practice is the common saying, ‘Let’s meet at Mao’s statue at nine o’clock’. Of course, this can be said only in China.

Only recently have I visited the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or ‘North Korea’ as it is known informally elsewhere (the people there do not like the name). Keen to acquire a statue, t-shirt or perhaps another item with an image of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il, I began browsing the various shops and markets we visited. I soon found I could buy books written by them and about them, with photographs and paintings inside the books. But statues for sale were nowhere to be seen. They have plenty of t-shirts, but only with flags of the DPRK, place names, messages of welcome or even a representation of the Pyongyang metro. Yet none with either or both of the Kims. As for place names, forget it. They might have Pulgunbyol (Red Star), Kaeson (Triumphant Return), Samhung (Three Origins) and Rakwon (Paradise), but not Kim senior or junior. I asked whether it was possible to get hold of some images. ‘We do not do that here’, I was told, ‘since we regard them as almost sacred’. ‘But what about the shirt pins I have seen? I said. ‘Some have both of the leaders, others have one’. ‘Oh’, she said, ‘they are marks of merit and trustworthiness for those who have shown long-term loyalty. You cannot but them; only the government can give them to you’.

In the cities and towns were statues aplenty, colossal ones of almost Pharaonic proportions. Here we offered flowers and bowed to show our respects in the Korean way. We could take images on our cameras, of either the two Kims who had died, or even of Kim Jong-Un who was still very much alive. Even then, we were advised: ‘Please take whole photographs and not parts of the statue, since that is disrespectful’.

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In Russia and Eastern Europe recalling and respecting revolutionary heroes meant: representations yes, place names yes; in China: representations yes, place names no; in the DPRK: representations no, place names no. From naming everything to naming nothing, from an endless supply of images and statues for purchase to none at all, at a cultural level ‘socialism with national characteristics’ has taken very different forms. I am not sure who shows the greatest respect, since for me the ability to have fun with the revolution is the way of showing the greatest respect. But perhaps this is itself another particular characteristic.

Closed Borders: Visiting and Leaving the DPRK

If you believe the steady stream of items propagated by the corporate media and government agencies, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) is a ‘totalitarian dictatorship’ with closed borders. People are not allowed to enter and its citizens are not permitted leave. If someone does happen to try and leave the ‘hermit kingdom’, he or she is dubbed a ‘defector’. Conversely, anyone who wishes to enter the DPRK is also a ‘defector’ – a recent example being the Chondoist leader, Ryu Mi Yong, who opted to leave South Korea and move to the north to join the bulk of her fellow Chondoists.

I must admit that I entered the DPRK with such a mindset. The warnings from governments like those of Australian, the United States and Canada did not help. They either warn against all travel or strongly advise you to reconsider your travel plans and go somewhere else. I believed that I could visit only with an officially sanctioned tour company (Koryo) and I had read that at most 2,000 foreigners visit the country every year. The very fact that I was able to visit amongst others should already have alerted me to a somewhat different situation, but such is the strength of preconceptions that it did not. Even more, the fact that the flight into the DPRK – a glorious Tupolev 204 – was filled mostly with citizens of the DPRK should have set me thinking. Yet again, it did not.

Only after arriving and spending a few days there did reality set in. Our hotel, Yanggakdo, was quite full, with tour buses clustered outside on any given day. People were constantly arriving and leaving, many of them Chinese but also a good number of people from other countries. For some reason, it seemed to me that Australians were everywhere. I had come with the assumption that we would be largely on our own. Clearly this was not the case. Even at the Demilitarised Zone close by Kaesong, there were buses aplenty, so much so that we were lucky in being the first in a long line of groups visiting the area.

I had to find out more. In one of my many discussions with the older tour guide, I asked. ‘How many visitors come to North Korea each year?’

He thought for a moment and said, ’10,000 or so’.

That made far more sense. Not a huge number by some standards, but way more than anyone would expect.

‘But is this the only hotel where visitors can stay? I said.

‘Oh no’, he said, ‘here are many places throughout the country where you can stay’.

‘So where could I travel?’ I said.

‘Most places’, he said. ‘You can travel in the far north, stay in the countryside, do some volunteer work on farms’.

Later I began to ponder the possibility of spending some more time in the place. I asked about foreigners working in the DPRK.

‘We have a quite a number at different levels’, said another guide.

‘What about universities?’ I said.

‘Oh yes’, he said, ‘foreigners come and teach at some of them. Many come as volunteers through UNESCO, and there is also the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology’.

‘Is that the one funded by Christian groups, with classes taught in English?’ I said.

‘Yes’, he said, ‘and it teaches students about many facets of international education’.

‘Would I be able to spend some time at one of the universities?’ I asked.

‘What do you teach?’ he asked.

‘Marxism and philosophy’, I said.

He smiled. ‘Very interesting. I will see what I can do.’

I gave him my email address.

But what about Koreans travelling, working and studying internationally? I was admittedly quite astounded to find out how many from the DPRK do exactly that. Most go to China, but some travel further afield. Indeed, the week before, when I was in Harbin in the north-east of China, I had encountered students from the DPRK studying there. And this was only one example. To be sure, they need clearance from a government agency to do so. But I was reminded of the fact that I too need to request permission to travel overseas, albeit from my university rather than the government.

Even with this knowledge, on the day of our departure, I was still amazed at how many Koreans were boarding the train out of Pyongyang. On the platform were a few foreigners, but most were from the DPRK. Each day the train leaves for Beijing, carrying locals to various destinations outside the country.

Closed borders? If so, the gate is not securely fastened.

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Smells, Spaces and Tea-Houses in the ROC

The passport stamp at Chiang-Kai-Shek international airport in Taipei stated that I had entered R.O.C. – the Republic of China. Once upon a time, in fact not that long ago, the only Republic of China recognised by most countries in the world was that tiny island, Taiwan. And I am sure that once, not so long ago, you would not arrive and feel that something was missing. But it took me a while to identify that missing feature. The first hints came with the cracks in the tile floor, the old fittings in the bathroom, the faded decorations in the main hall: this was an airport not undergoing renovation. Most airports one visits (and I like to visit as few as possible) are in the process of one or another or multiple upgrades – to improve your flying experience, they claim, but really to fleece you more readily. But not at Chiang-Kai-Shek airport. Everything seemed to work, the airport staff alert, but there was simply no need to upgrade, for this airport was not expanding.

Walking the City

The fate of Chiang-Kai-Shek airport, and indeed the legacy of the man himself, was tied up with the convoluted politics of that island. I had time enough to ponder such matters in the days to come, but for now my thoughts were broken off by the arrival of our guides: Michael and Yu-Yeh. He felt rather important, having been delegated to chaperone an overseas ‘professor’ – a title that stuck no matter how much I tried to disabuse him of the moniker. Yu-Yeh had far greater depth, preferring to stick to her Chinese name.

We buzzed off on the freeway to Chung-Li while I got my bearings. Freeways are not among the most beautiful of human creations, easily run down, full of heavy metal pollution, scars on the landscape. But the trucks belching along beside us were battered, the articulated buses tipped up in the middle, and the air was a permanent soup. It was obvious that this part of what is really a beautiful island was the dumping ground for filthy American-style industry. Thankfully we slipped down to Chung-Li soon enough, but not before I had asked about their names.

‘How come you are Michael?’ I said. ‘And you are Yu-Yeh? One in English; one in Chinese’.

‘Huilin is my Chinese name’, said Michael-Huilin.

‘And Lisa is my English name’, said Yu-Yeh Lisa. ‘But I don’t use my English name much’.

‘How does that work’, I asked. ‘Do you get two names at birth or do you choose a name that means the same in English? I remember a girl of five who moved to Montreal a few years ago. Her name was unpronounceable for English speakers – Xi Xun I think. In a week or so she became Michele’.

They both laughed. ‘No, we simply choose an English name that we like, or perhaps that has a meaning we like’.

‘So you are like a parent choosing a name for its child’, I said. ‘Except that parent and child is the same person – you – choosing a name for yourself at your own birth!’.

They dropped me at the university rooms where we were to stay for the night. Simple rooms, firm beds, disposable indoor slippers (which I still love to get), a fistful of travellers’ toothbrushes and small tubes of toothpaste.

But we were to go to a Hakka restaurant, deep within Chung-Li. The sun had set and we had to walk the city to get there. Anyone who has threaded his or her way through an Asian city will tell you about the new and battered motor-scooters, with parts and people hanging off them at curious angles, billowing smoke and pushing through the smallest opening, brushing pedestrians and cars on their way through, or about the bicycles themselves, ancient, bearing loads of every conceivable and even inconceivable item, or about those who choose to ride with face masks at silent protest against the poor air quality, or about the people weaving and winding their way through the organised chaos, dodging puddles and cars and motor scooters and bicycles and piles of vegetables and fruit and tables with goods.

But what intrigued me about Chung-Li (and, I was to find later, Chinese cities in general) is the organisation of space. It is though it is organised to ensure the immediate presence of human breath: shops much smaller, often mere alcoves with a pot and a few plates, signs impossibly large and bright in the night sky and of course tumbling over one another. In any other culture it would be would call a crowd, crammed, claustrophobically suffocating, but not here. It is perfectly possible to find a quiet spot of one’s own – a table in a corner where two or three could sit quietly and talk, a chair in a place not stepped in as often, a chance in the to and fro of people to reflect quietly, oblivious to the world a hand’s breadth away.

Visitors from Taiwan to my town – Newcastle – comment on how few people there are on the streets – and this during the busier times of the day. To me, of course, the streets seem full enough here, while those in China are at first overwhelmingly dense.

But our group threaded its way without wavering to the restaurant, where we were treated to a magnificent array of food, from succulent and mouth-watering vegetables, through glorious fish dishes and those that used parts of animal and plant I had never imagined possible for food, to a final triumph: a vast bowl of soup with every conceivable and inconceivable ingredient. From this we poured out helpings into our small bowls and sipped from the bowls themselves.

Not only was it a celebration of simplicity and the sheer pleasure of eating, but it also began to explain why Chinese toilets smell the way they do (the habit of throwing the toilet paper in a large bin, emptied every hour by some poor soul, only enhanced the aroma). After a few days of eating such food, my turds too began to have that distinctive, rich and earthy smell that only Chinese food can produce. The subtle transformation of the interlaced tastes of the food into the pungent and aromatic smell of what comes out the other end is impossible to describe, but it is certainly not the dull and cloying smell of a Western ‘poo bat’.

People

With a camel hump of a stomach and more Chinese beers than I care to remember, it was time to leave. But not before we had said our profuse thanks to the proprietor and cook. The reverential passing over of business cards – with two hands, a bow and an admiring study of the card (and its frequent spelling errors) – along with the introductions in strict order of rank were all done with comments about how the proprietor was a very good friend of our host, whose wife also is Hakka.

Our group was a grand mix: Kenpa, the impossibly young professor who seems to found the elixir of youth, Philip, the academic entrepreneur who kept talking of settling down quietly and writing but enjoyed the hurly-burly of deals and travel and opportunities, and Gan, the old Chinese theologian who wrote in German, for Germany provided one strong model of the intellectual life even here (that his wife was German no doubt strengthened the links for him).

In fact, it was during his presentation later on that I felt as though I had suddenly joined the United Nations. Gan had handed out a thick wad of notes for his lecture, all of it written in pompous German; he delivered his talk in Chinese; but we had a translator working away simultaneously, whispering English into one ear while the Chinese seduced the other ear.

Here too the question of status returned with a vengeance. Too used to the intellectual flexing and subtle competition between silverbacks that characterises intellectual life in the USA, here there was no question about one’s status: prominent place markers indicated that the professors should sit in the first row (partners were given the status of professor to ensure their place in the first row), the slightly less important guests should sit in the second row, and the unidentified riff-raff was permitted to sit in the outer row. No contest, no need to put on a posing routine, no worries.

But it did mean that a faux pas was all too easy to make. The keynote speaker, who had already horrified people by blowing loudly into his handkerchief at dinner in the midst of a swine flu epidemic, decided to stand rather than sit during his talk. He felt more comfortable standing, he said. So when my turn came to speak, I turned to my colleague and said,

‘Should I stand too?

‘Oh no’, he said, ‘That’s only for the president (of the university)’. At the brief opening ceremony and opening of the gathering, the president had stood while every one else sat. Even in his absence we were to show our respect by remaining seated.

The catch is that I am not one for such genuflection to external marks of status and privilege, preferring the first name basis of comrade for any transactions. So I found greater pleaser in our student guides, Michael and Yu-Yeh – especially the quiet and profound Yu-Yeh. They took us to museums and local eateries, but the crowning moment was a tea shop (minus Michael).

Yu-Yeh and two student friends ensured that status and respect was thrown out the window, for one a butch lesbian and the other a Marxist radical who could tell what side of the mountain the tea came from and how it was cut. The three of them led us through the rituals of the tea shop – the serving board with pot and small cups, the way to pour the hot water over the leaves and into the pot, how long to wait, how to pour and drink, and what was best eaten with the different teas. The English might pretend that they know what tea is, the Indians or Sri Lankans might proclaim that tea is their natural drink and flog it off to the world, but the Chinese know that tea is theirs by origin, that the skill of growing, drying and drinking is not learned in a lifetime or even in a century or two, but that it can become part of cultural wisdom only after the odd millennium or three.

Politics

Over tea politics was never far away, especially with a theologian, a lesbian and a Marxist. The first thing I learned, to my surprise, is that Marxism is a vibrant topic of inquiry and debate. But I should have known, given the mainland’s proximity, and yet I had assumed that Taiwan’s resistance to the mainland, US military protection and economic favouritism of that tiny island would have ruled Marxism out of court. Not at all: the proximity of the mainland and the fact that Taiwan has for too long been the dumping ground for the fag-end of filthy capitalist industries means that Marxism is a lively option indeed.

But the overwhelming political filter through which so much passes is the relation to the mainland: to cooperate or not to do so – on that question hung so much. With a surging economic superpower across the Formosan straight, isolation and belligerent talk meant economic exclusion. Cooperation, on the other hand, may mean jobs but it also raises fears that China would act on its long-standing policy of reintegrating Taiwan within its borders. As I was there, the ruling political party was distinctly on the nose and soon to be ousted, not least because of its isolationist stance. With the change of government that followed and the abandoning of the old Chiang-Kai-Shek polemic, direct flights and even passage by ship had been opened up once again. Above all the flow of goods and human interaction has sped up, revealing once again that a soft takeover is far more effective and subtle.

Stalin, the Priest and the Donkeys

In the market of Tseva, a small village near Zestafoni in Georgia, the local priest was minding his own business. He was greeted by young man who was obviously not a local.

‘I am Koba from Gori’, said the young man. ‘May I request some private business?’

‘What do you mean?’ Said Father Kasiane Gachechiladze.

‘I need to get to Chiatura, over the mountains, and I have heard that you have some donkeys’, said the young man.

A little nervously, the priest looked up and noticed that another man was standing guard in the bazaar. He recognised him as a member of the local Red Battle Squad. With no police in the area, the Red Squads were in control. Seeing the priest’s anxiety, Koba asked after his family, mentioning the names of his wife, parents, and children.

‘I would like to offer you fifty roubles for your troubles’, said Koba.

The priest thought for a moment and said, ‘Deal’.

‘Let’s go for a drink, to celebrate’, said Koba.

As they were toasting each other’s health, the future of Georgia, and their respective families, Koba said: ‘They will let you know when I am coming’. He waved his hand towards a number of other Red Guards. ‘Father, don’t be late. I must make the journey to Chiatura and back in a day. After all, we are both still young’.

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So it was that a priest met ‘The Priest’ – the nickname for one who would later be known as Joseph Stalin. The nickname was no accident, for Koba – his personal name – had studied for the priesthood too, leaving the Spiritual Seminary in Tiflis on the eve of sitting his final examinations. As he left the seminary, he passed from one faith to another. Or rather, he realised the continuity between the two faiths.

Within a couple days, Father Gachechiladze received the word, and ‘The Priest’ met him with two comrades. They loaded the donkeys with pieces of a printing press, money, and ammunition. ‘The Priest’ wanted a safe passage for his cargo, far from the prying eyes of the police, who often searched the trains looking for socialists.

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On the trek over the mountains, the priest and Stalin talked. Stalin recited poetry, from the Georgian classics and from his own compositions.

‘Some of my poems have even been published’, confessed Stalin after one of recitals in the clear mountain air.

They drew closer, both of them singing songs as they clambered up to the mountain pass. Stalin rested his head on the priest’s lap when they rested. The young priest found him restrained, serious and decent. Stalin even recited the traditional blessing over their meals.

‘You see, I still remember it’, exulted ‘The Priest’.

‘You’d have made a great priest’, said the Father Gachechiladze.

‘I the cobbler’s son did very well against the offspring of nobles’, said Koba. Stalin had indeed topped his class at the Tiflis Seminary.

Too soon did they arrive in Chiatura. Stalin took the saddle- bags and returned with them empty.

‘At least I can use them as pillows on the train home’, said ‘The Priest’.

They parted, never to meet again.

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A Sign of Intelligence: Stalin in Siberia

A sign of intelligence is the ability to make the most of the situation in which you find yourself.

This old piece of advice came to mind as I followed none other than Joseph Stalin to his second Siberian exile. In 1913 he was arrested by the Okhrana and sent for some years to the northern Siberian territory of Turukhansk – a vast area of taiga, winters of nine months, and minimum temperatures of -60 degrees. Initially, he stayed near the capital, Monastyrskoe, on the Yenisei River, which flows northward into the Kara Sea. The consummate escape artist was well-known to the Okhrana, and they were tipped off regarding yet another planned attempt.

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Joseph was promptly sent 180 versts (almost 200 km) further north, to the hamlet of Kureika on the Arctic Circle. Here 67 residents, made up of three inter-related families, lived in eight communal huts. Joseph – Osip to the locals – was allocated a corner in one of them. Existence was a struggle, to say the least. When Joseph had to visit the outhouse during one of the long nights, he made sure to take his rifle with him. A shot or two was needed to keep the wolves at bay. The inhabitants looked longingly southward, down the Yenisei River, for this was the only means of getting out the village. In winter, one would use a sleigh pulled by reindeer dogs (and surrounding by the howling of wolves), while in the brief summer, river boats were hauled along by dog teams. In between, the ‘bad roads season’ meant no-one could move.

Stalin in Siberia 12a

But others made this part of the world their real home: the Evenki (Tungus) and Ostyak peoples. Semi-nomadic fishers and herders of reindeer, they had creatively combined some elements of Russian Orthodoxy with their shamanistic practices – ‘shaman’ is itself an Evenki word. As one who had studied theology for many years, Joseph was intrigued by the way they held to beliefs in the spirits that inhabited the vast regions of Siberia. He would visit them, staying all night at their parties, and they would do the same to him. At other times, the company tended to be peaceful. When they visited, they would sit down for an hour or more in complete silence and then say, ‘Goodbye, we’ve got to go’. Joseph took to them.

Stalin in Siberia 07

With a compliant companion-guard – Merzliakov – in the later years Joseph was able to roam freely with the Evenki and Ostyak. Initially, they brought him fish and reindeer meet, but soon they taught him to catch his own. A close companion, Martin Peterin, showed him how to make a fishing-line and cut a hole in the ice of the Yenisei River. Soon he had learnt the skills of hauling in sturgeon and sea-salmon. His skills became such that even the locals were impressed. ‘Thou ist possessed by the Word’, they said.

Stalin in Siberia 17a

Yet the fishing was not simply a matter of sitting quietly by the ice-hole on a sunny day. The Arctic is an unforgiving world. On one occasion, he was returning with a group of Ostyak comrades from a successful fishing trip. A blizzard blew up suddenly and separated him from the others. What to do? Abandon the heavy load of fish and speed up to catch his friends, or hang onto the fish and trudge on? There was little choice, for the fish would provide weeks of food. He stumped on, until figures loomed up in the snow. He yelled to get their attention, but they scooted away. Finally, a hut appeared with a light shining. He crashed in and his comrades said, ‘Is that you Osip?’

‘Of course it’s me. Why didn’t you wait when I called?’ He said

‘We thought you were a demon spirit’, one of them said. ‘You were covered in ice and snow’.

‘As you can see’, said Stalin. ‘I’m not a wood spirit’. He slept for eighteen hours after the ordeal.

On this occasion, Joseph was lucky. Losing a man on a fishing trip was not uncommon. On another such expedition, thirty men had gone out but only twenty-nine returned in the evening. When Joseph asked where the missing man was, they said, ‘Oh, he remained out there’.

‘What do you mean “out there”?’ Joseph asked.

‘He’s drowned’, said one of them.

‘Drowned?’ Said Joseph.

‘Why should we have pity for men’, said the other. ‘We can always make more of them, but a horse, try to make a horse!’

Many years later, Stalin would still eat fish the way he had learnt in Siberia. With little salt and with temperatures well below zero, they would pile the fish in the outhouse, stacking them up like wood. When hungry, they broke off flakes and let them melt their mouths.

Stalin in Siberia 09

But the hunting he loved most, especially its solitude. Dressed from head to foot in reindeer skins and fur, he would head out on a sled hauled by reindeer. Of course, reindeer meat was one of the staples, but arctic hare, partridge and ducks also added to the stock. In summer, he took to a boat, hauled by dogs upstream and rowed downstream. Indeed, in the last summer of his exile (1916), he disappeared for some months. The fact that his young girlfriend, Lidia, was pregnant was perhaps an added incentive. Yet the main reason was common to all the Evenki and Ostyak: a long winter in crowded and reeking accommodation would lead to an almost insatiable desire to be out in the wide world of Siberia. Joseph was off too.

No-one quite knew where he had gone, although his amiable guard had an idea: ‘It’s an empty (uninhabited) place, this Polovinka. Just sand. Where was he fishing? There was nobody else there’.

Stalin in Siberia 11a

He was indeed on Polovinka, a remote island downstream on the Yenisei. He built a small hut with birch bark. The only others on the island were the few members of the Dubikova family, who had their own birch shelter. Occasionally he visited, and shared a meal of grilled sterlet. Otherwise, he was on his own. He fished for himself, tended his hut, went on long hikes around the island. Above all, he learnt to be comfortable and content with his own company – an invaluable skill.

As Molotov put it much later, ‘A little bit of Siberia remained lodged in Stalin for the rest of his life’.

Stalin in Siberia 15a

Reports from Kiev

From my correspondence with a comrade in Kiev, during the “time of troubles” in the Ukarine:

You caught me just at the moment when I am thinking about what is happening and how to “tell” you about it, trying again and again to understand what is happening. In place of the period when people could not tear themselves away from the TV, not to “miss” the truth, we have come to the period of non-news (TV, talking to each other). Many have not slept for some time and continue to take tranquilizers. Unfortunately, intolerance increases and therefore it is dangerous to express an opinion different from the one imposed. “Searches” happen, for anyone supporting a separatist-federalist position; nationalism appears even at the household level. …

But nearby is the so-called maidan. It is a terrible sight, along with its inhabitants … Russian speech still prevails everywhere – on the streets, in shops, transport, schools, etc. – but they are trying to implement the Law Tymoshenko first made in 2006-7. According to this law, speaking a language other than Ukrainian even in informal settings (between classes etc.) is forbidden. This law is not for the future, but is already present. I never could have imagined that people could turn into animals so quickly …

Suspicion and fear are gaining momentum, manifested in everyday life. Some of it is still non-systemic and can be perceived as misunderstanding. But wiretapping of telephone conversations now happens, and among the population, even among friends, are many informants. They ask supposedly random questions: “Were you there? And you do not want to leave?” … Many are worried about their relatives who participated in the referenda in the south-east. My aunt [who lives there] said that, despite the threat to life, she had not seen so many people come out for a vote in recent years.

But who is who? Today I witnessed a scene: two young men were talking near a car with its doors and windows open. The driver of the car shouted that they were Muscovites (Russian) and do not speak the language. So one of the young men leapt upon the driver and hit him several times.

It does not surprise me what is happening. This has been “brewing” since the 1990s. Then they “crushed” Crimea and the Donbass, but the problem is by no means solved. What do we have now? Accumulation of Capital; revival of impoverishment; a nation based on Russophobia; an aggressive minority insolent through the support of its foreign backers. The blind worship of everything foreign, kowtowing to the so-called Americans and Europeans has always irritated and annoyed me. I think that this worship has a long history, going back at least to the time of Peter the Great. And so, today’s oligarchs live in Western Europe, and come here only to earn money …

Donbass