Tuesday, February 27, 2007

History Class: of agit-prop, revolution and terror!

I think we need a bit of a breather from all the pseudo-intellectual ranting. Only this morning I saw some fallen Christian write that "relativism is indisputable" - whereas we have seen - it hasn't got a leg to stand on. Which brings me to another one of post fin-de-siècle's mysteries: is it me or is irrationality on the rise, especially among classes that are supposed to be the strongholds of reason? These are interesting times, in so far that at this moment there is hardly anyone alive (I think), who has seen the last time in human history, that there was so much confusion about.

Which provides me with a convenient bridge to one of the most interesting books written in recent years. Published in 2005 I'm surprised it didn't get more attention before now; but then, it is reality based! I read it a year ago when I was preparing the ground in Athens for my impending emigration. Bought, in a draughty airport bookshop - a place mostly associated with the lighter digestible material - "The Orientalist" by Tom Reiss provides some valuable understandings and profound insights into a world that is now gone, but that is impacting us until this day.

The book has a few lessons too, if we are willing to internalize them. I am at present re-reading it and propose - whenever I hit a passage worth sharing - to jot down some notes in this blog. For those interested in another perspective on history, or a holiday from ethnocentricity, this is it. Multicultis: off your lazy bums and to the bookshop with you! (Or hit the Library button on your left hand side.)

It tells the story of the author of what can be termed, Azerbaijan's national novel: Ali and Nino, the tale of a Muslim boy and a Christian girl, set in the oil capital Baku. The author of this national treasure, Lev Nussimbaum, was born there in a railway carriage, in the midst of the failed revolution of 1905 as the son of Jewish parents: father an oil magnet, mother a revolutionary, would be suicide and an associate of the Georgian Koba Djukashvili, in later years known by his nom-de-guerre, Joseph Stalin.

The latter, having been thrown out of seminary (one can only guess why, or the reason for entering in the first place), operated in those years in Baku where - due to the vast oil wealth - there was a lot of expropriation to do. Reading his exploits, one is reminded of the early years of Saddam Hussein in Iraq: setting out as a thuggish enforcer of the imperial secret police, the Okhrana, he soon developed into a revolutionary in his own right: terrorist attacks, intimidation, extortion and kidnappings were the order of the day.

Russia was of course fertile breeding ground for the revolution, that had been in the making since 1881, when the liberal and progressive Czar Alexander II was killed in a terrorist attack by a group called The People's Will. But it took until 1917 to come to full fruition.

Feudalism like we knew it in Europe, with a hierarchy of aristocratic nobility from the king or emperor downwards, was non-existent in Russia. There was the Czar and there was serfdom, only abolished in 1861 (!) by said Alexander II, and nothing in between. To put this in perspective, when Parisians were shouting à la Lanterne!, in Russia Czarina Catharine the Great was granting basic rights to the nobility.

My grandfather used to say, that one's social class is betrayed by whom you look down at. He meant, that the queen doesn't look down on the cleaning lady (they are probably on first name terms), but the doorman does. Accordingly, while Russia's new middle-class was acting this out by turning serfs into slaves, another social mechanism kicked in: the well-educated children and grand-children of the new middle-class turned against it. They became the self-appointed advocates for the exploited and downtrodden, turning themselves into the engine of the revolution, as the downtrodden themselves were rather loath to up the barricades.

We have seen the same happening in our own time with Mohamed Atta c.s. on 9/11, and before them the Bader Meinhoff Group and the Rote Armee Faction. All combined to a fatal potion: a mentality by which the end justifies the means, the glorification of violence as the exclusive means towards the realization of The People's Will (no pain, no glory), the prescribed philosophy for the Russian engine of the revolution: nihilism, Paul Cliteur's accusation of Stuart Sim, that sent the latter into the chandeliers.

The Russian agitatist-terrorist groups bore names that makes Al Qa'ida look a rather unimaginative crowd: Death for Death, The League of the Red Fuse, The Terrorist Individuals, The Anarchist Blackmailers, etc. Starting out as self-styled people's advocates, their actions soon became violence for its own sake. The assassinated Czar Alexander II was succeeded by his son Alexander III, whose first act was the re-call the modern oukazes of his father, and afterwards did little else but clamping down on the revolutionaries.

It may be argued - as some now do - that clamping down probably made matters worse: the revolutionaries even preferred a tightly closed lid so that when a hole was breached, steam would be let off proper, thus fuelling the revolutionary zeal. But without the proper controls and repressive measures The Black Hand would have agitated twice as hard for the lack of it, and so as to compensate for more steam. There doesn't seem to be a 'right' way, to react to terrorism. Clamping down quick, still seems to be cautious advice.

But the environment for terrorists and agitators to foster in the first place, is a police-state that is characterised by oppression, injustice and exploitation; not one subjected to the rule of law, democratic principles and the occasional well-deserved critique. The conclusion that a democratic process in the Middle East is long overdue, seems to be not that far fetched.

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