Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices from the Afghanistan War by Svetlana Alexievich

Alexievich’s Voices from Chernobyl was one of the best books I have read for the Read The World challenge, and so I thought I would read this as well. It is, again, a compilation of verbatim transcripts; presumably somewhat edited, if only to remove the interviewer’s questions and comments, but with the rhythms and untidiness of normal speech. This time, it is people associated with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan: soldiers, nurses, bereaved mothers and widows (although no Afghan voices). The title comes from the zinc coffins that were used to deliver bodies back home.

Helicopter-tank operation in Afghanistan.  Courtesy of Soviet Military Power, 1984.   Photo No. 130, page 116.

The English edition was published in 1992, and the introduction stresses the comparison with the US experience in Vietnam; soldiers returning home from an unpopular war and being told it was all a mistake, and the impact on the country’s self-image. There are of course also many differences. The USSR kept an iron grip on the news coverage, at least initially; this book’s publication in 1990 is symptomatic of the loosening up of the glasnost/perestroika era. It’s depressing to think how Putin’s government might respond to a similar book about Ukraine or Chechnya.

The other obvious parallel, of course, is with our own recent invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. There is never a shortage of wars to write about, after all. In the end, that made this a less remarkable book, for me, than the Chernobyl one; it is not quite as unique and weird. But it is still fascinating and insightful, and I recommend it. I would just suggest trying to read it in small doses; I found when I read too much in one go, the individuality of the voices started to blur a bit.

» The photo of a Soviet helicopter-tank operation is from the Department of Defense publication Soviet Military Power, 1984, via Wikipedia. It’s a public domain image because it was created by the US government.


Voices from Chernobyl by Svetlana Alexievich

Voices from Chernobyl was written in 1996, ten years after the reactor meltdown. It is an oral history of the disaster; that is, it’s presented as a series of ‘monologues’ by people who were involved in some way, with titles like ‘Monologue about War Movies’, ‘Monologue about the Shovel and the Atom’, ‘Monologue about Expensive Salami’. I’m actually a bit curious about exactly how they were collected; they are presented as verbatim transcripts, although I’m sure they’ve been tidied up somewhat. What you don’t get is any idea of what questions or prompting came from the interviewer. It’s quite an effective device, keeping the journalist out of the spotlight and letting the voices speak for themselves, but I assume there’s an element of artifice to it. I don’t think it detracted from the book, I’m just curious about the process.

The result is, anyway, an extraordinary book. The stories come from all kinds of perspectives: local farmers, soldiers, scientists, officials, construction workers, wives, children. And the material is fascinating: people’s accounts of being evacuated, of working on the reactor site, of nursing dying relatives. There are people who refused to leave, and people who came back because it was home, and people who, having fled conflicts elsewhere, moved to the area because there were houses lying empty. And overlying it all is the extraordinarily inept and chaotic government response, which included, for example, failing to distribute iodine or breathing masks because they thought doing so might cause panic.

And as well as the material being so interesting, it has a very literary quality; bleak and fatalistic, but laced with dark humour and absurdity, sometimes earthy, sometimes poetic. That poetry comes both from the real poignancy of the human situations and the surreal quality of many things that happened: the soldiers sent into the Zone to kill all the cats and dogs; the people whose job it was to dig up soil and bury it in pits; the fact that they were told that drinking vodka would help fight radiation poisoning, so everyone seems to have been rolling around in an alcoholic haze.

It really is a fabulous book. Here’s a little excerpt, from a man who has moved to live in the evacuated zone:

It’s easy to find books here. Now, an empty clay pitcher, or a spoon or fork, that you won’t find, but books are all over. The other day I found a volume of Pushkin. “And the thought of death is sweet to my soul.” I remember that. Yes: “The thought of death.” I am here alone. I think about death. I’ve come to like thinking. And silence helps you to prepare yourself. Man lives with death, but he doesn’t understand what it is. But I’m here alone. Yesterday I chased a wolf and a she-wolf out of the school, they were living there.

Question: Is the world as it’s depicted in words the real world? Words stand between the person and his soul.

And I’ll say this: birds, and trees, and ants, they’re closer to me now  than they were. I think about them, too. Man is frightening. And strange. But I don’t want to kill anyone here. I fish here, I have a rod. Yes. But I don’t shoot animals. And I don’t set traps. You don’t feel like killing anyone here.

And here’s a bit by someone else, who moved back:

Sometimes I turn on the radio. They scare us and scare us with the radiation. But our lives have gotten better since the radiation came. I swear! Look around: they brought oranges, three kinds of salami, whatever you want. And to the village! My grandchildren have been all over the world. The littlest just came back from France, that’s where Napoleon attacked from once—”Grandma, I saw a pineapple!” My nephew, her brother, they took him to Berlin for the doctors. That’s where Hitler started from on his tanks. It’s a new world. Everything’s different. Is that the radiation’s fault, or what?

Voices from Chernobyl is my book from Belarus for the Read The World challenge. If you’re thinking ‘hang on, Belarus, that doesn’t sound right’, well, you’re right, the plant itself is in Ukraine, but it’s just by the border with Belarus and so Belarus was one of the worst affected places.

A quick namecheck for the translator, Keith Gessen, who I’m sure deserves a lot of credit for how well the book reads in English; and just to reiterate, I think this is a really good book and I strongly recommend it.

» There’s a whole load of photos around the web taken by tourists to the contaminated zone. Lots of pictures of the deserted town of Pripyat, particularly of peeling, empty schoolrooms. But after reading the book, they just seem too unpleasantly voyeuristic, so instead I grabbed a map of the contaminated area from Wikipedia.


From Tajikistan to the Moon by Robert Frimtzis

From Tajikistan to the Moon is a self-published memoir. Rather glamorously self-published, too, compared to the current trend for self-publishing via print-on-demand, in that it’s a proper hardback with an embossed cover. Frimtzis was born in Beltz (i.e. Bălţi) in what is now Moldova, although when he was born there it was part of Romania and from 1940 onwards it was part of the Soviet Union.

Frimtzis was ten when Germany attacked the Soviet Union in 1941. Although of course they couldn’t know the full scale of the Holocaust, they knew enough about the anti-semitism of the Nazis that his family took the decision to flee eastwards. After hundreds of miles on foot, keeping ahead of the German army and under aerial attack, they got onto the train network in Ukraine and carried on to Tajikistan, where they had relatives.

After the war they managed to get themselves smuggled out of the USSR through Romania and Austria to Italy, and then after some time in the refugee camps, to immigrate to America. There he studied hard, became an engineer, and eventually contributed to the Apollo programme — hence the moon part of the title.

So he has an interesting story to tell. He’s not the world’s greatest prose stylist, but at least it’s plain, straightforward prose; if it’s occasionally a bit clunky, at least it’s not painful in the way that bad literary prose can be. It kept my attention.

For me, the most interesting part of it is the refugee narrative; his experience as an internal refugee within the Soviet Union, then in an Italian refugee camp, and continuing with his struggles to adapt in the US, where he was self-conscious about his outsider status and his bad English as he worked to carve out a place for himself within American society. Which he eventually did very successfully. The more stable his life becomes in America, the less interesting the book becomes; even though he worked on some truly fascinating projects in his professional life, I don’t think he really brings that to life. He doesn’t manage to explain what was interesting about the work itself.

From Tajikistan to the Moon is my book for Moldova for the Read The World challenge.

» The photo is of crew in the Apollo Lunar Module Mission Simulator… which I think is actually the wrong bit of equipment. Frimtzis was in charge of the team working on the Apollo Mission Simulator, which I think is the simulator for the command module rather than the lunar lander. But I really like the picture, so  it’s close enough.


Treading Air by Jaan Kross

Treading Air is an Estonian novel which, to quote the blurb, ‘follows the life of Ullo Paerand through thirty years of violent upheaval in Estonia’. I’ve actually had it on my to-read list for some time, but to be honest I kept putting it off because the back cover made it sound a bit depressing. And while it’s perfectly reasonable that a book telling the story of Estonia over the twentieth century would be a little gloomy, I didn’t particularly fancy it.

I’m glad I finally read it, though; it’s a fine novel and not nearly as depressing as it could be, although partially because it chooses not to dwell on the bad stuff. In fact, it is mainly about Paerand’s life as a young man before the Soviet occupation, which is handled quite lightly and with a good deal of humour; the bulk of his adult life under the Soviet regime is skipped over in a few short chapters. I don’t know whether this is supposed to be symbolic of Estonia itself: a closing down of the possibilities of life, a kind of hibernation for the whole country.

Anyway, it’s a fine novel which deserves more attention than I am going to give it in this post. And it is my book from Estonia for the Read The World challenge.

» Tallin, Estonia – St. Olaf Church / Iglesia de San Olaf is © Claudio Alejandro Mufarrege and used under a CC by-nc-sa licence.


How Life Imitates Chess by Garry Kasparov

I wouldn’t normally rush to read a chess-themed self-help book, which is more or less what How Life Imitates Chess is. But, you know, it’s Garry Kasparov! The Beast of Baku!

Kasparov seems to have impressed himself on my imagination surprisingly powerfully, considering I’m not much of a chess player. Although I’ve never taken chess seriously, there was a time when I played quite a lot. At school there were a limited number of places to go at lunchtime when the weather was bad; I used to go to the chess room. Even at the peak of my chess-playing powers, I was pretty rubbish, but there wasn’t a great depth of talent at the school, so when they were short of people I would be drafted in to play board eight for the chess team. As far as I can recall, the chess team didn’t win single match in my time at the school, so it wasn’t much of an achievement.


At that time Kasparov was the towering figure in chess, and however casual my own chess was, it was hard not to be aware of him. He was the last of the great Soviet chess champions, with all the Cold War mystique that came with that, and he looked the part with the incredible intensity of his gaze and his heavy eyebrows. On top of that there were the matches against a sequence of IBM supercomputers which seemed like such a symbolic moment in the dawning computer age.

And there was the world championship match against the English player Nigel Short, at least some which was broadcast live on Channel 4, hosted by Carol Vorderman of all people. Sadly none of it seems to have made it to YouTube, because I’d be fascinated to see what it looked like. I remember they had a phone vote for the public to suggest the next move, at which point a couple of Grandmasters would explain why the public was an idiot.

So when I was looking for books from the former Soviet republics for the Read The World challenge, it occurred to me that Kasparov might have written an autobiography which I could read as my book for Azerbaijan. Instead I found How Life Imitates Chess, which uses examples from Kasparov’s chess career as well as business and history to illustrate points about, for example, the value of preparation, and analysing your own weaknesses.

As long as he’s talking about chess, I found it really interesting. The psychology of chess, the different approaches different players take, the preparation that goes into a big match at the top level; when he’s talking about chess, he’s engaging and insightful. The self-help aspect I found less convincing.

Partially I suspect that’s because, despite the long history of chess metaphors, chess isn’t actually a very good model for many other human activities. It’s a completely zero-sum game; for one player to win, the other has to lose. Each chess game starts in exactly the same way, with both players having exactly equal resources and position save only the advantage of playing white. There is no unknown information and no element of chance. It is exceptionally well-suited to rigorous analysis, with information about past performances available with an accuracy that makes baseball statistics look vague and wishy-washy.

These qualities are what make it such a fascinating game, but they are also ways in which it is quite unlike, say, running a business. And businessmen are pretty clearly the intended market; it’s aimed at MBA types who want a change from Sun Tzu. That’s made explicit by the subtitle of the US edition (How Life Imitates Chess: Making the Right Moves, from the Board to the Boardroom) but not, interestingly enough, the UK edition (How Life Imitates Chess: Insights into life as a game of strategy).

I also think his heart isn’t really in it. His examples from business and history are very obvious ones and he doesn’t make much attempt to develop them in any detail; his conclusions are plausible enough but often a bit superficial. I don’t think this book was born out of a deep desire to teach people ‘lessons about mastering the strategic and emotional skills to navigate life’s toughest challenges and maximise success no matter how tough the competition’, as the blurb puts it. It was written to make money from Kasparov’s reputation. I gather from the book that he has been working the circuit giving talks to businessmen and the book was presumably born out of that. It feels like it is fundamentally a sideline for him compared to his real passions of writing about chess and campaigning in Russian politics.

But, still, I thought it was well worth reading for the chess bits, which he manages to make interesting and informative while requiring no real chess knowledge in the reader. I would have preferred a straight autobiography, but I still enjoyed the book. I was irritated to realise after I bought it that it was ‘written with Mig Greengard’, because it makes it unclear how much of what you’re getting is Kasparov and how much is the ghostwriter, but I will still be counting it as my book from Azerbaijan for the Read The World challenge.

» The photo is from Life magazine, as hosted by Google.


‘Rodchenko & Popova’ at Tate Modern

I went to ‘Rodchenko & Popova: Defining Constructivism’ at Tate Modern today. I’ve seen quite a few exhibitions in the past few years that feature Aleksandr Rodchenko*, so I wasn’t really sure how much I would get out of it, but in the event I enjoyed it. Firstly I didn’t know anything about Liubov Popova, and also they had a couple of rooms of paintings, which I certainly hadn’t seen many of before.

I think they were much better designers than painters, mind you — the paintings look like rather generic examples of early geometrical abstracts, to me — but it was still interesting to see them. And the graphic design work they had on display seemed to be a different selection from what I’d seen previously. So that was all good.

The Tate’s exhibition website doesn’t have much stuff on it — I’ve used most of the pictures in this post — but curiously enough, when I was looking for pictures, Google threw up the Tate’s Immunity from Seizure page which, currently as least, is full of (rather tiny) pictures of work from the exhibition. If you’re curious:

Part 6 of the Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Act 2007 provides immunity from seizure for cultural objects which are loaned from overseas to temporary public exhibitions in approved museums or galleries in the UK where conditions are met when the object enters the UK.

Or you could check out this page of Rodchenko stuff from Howard Schickler Fine Art in New York, or this from MoMA.

Incidentally, I was interested to note that they’ve started using touchscreen iPods for their multimedia guides. Last time I got an multimedia guide at the Tate, it was on a Windows Mobile-fuelled piece of crap of some kind and it annoyed me so much that I complained about it at some length afterwards. I didn’t try the guide today, so I can’t offer a comparison, but it seems like a move in the right direction.

* There was an exhibition of his photography at the Hayward; at one stage the Tate had a room displaying his photomontages for USSR in Construction; he also featured in the V&A’s Modernism exhibition and the British Library’s exhibition of printed material from the European Avant-Garde.

» both pictures from the Tate website; the top one is Liubov Popova’s Painterly Architectonic, 1918, and the bottom is Aleksandr Rodchenko’s design for an advertisement for the Mossel’ prom (Moscow agricultural industry) cafeteria, 1923.