Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Russia’

My bedtime reading for the last few weeks, between Teresa of Avila’s Foundations, has been Max Hastings’s All Hell let Loose: The World at War 1939-1945. It’s almost too disturbing to read late at night, which is why I moderate it with some Carmelite spirituality.

No-one would deny how much the Allies suffered in the Second World War, on the front line and at home; but what comes across to me from the global perspective that Hastings offers is the breathtaking scale and unimaginable horror of war on the eastern front, as the Red Army clashed with the Nazis. I was mostly ignorant of this whole reality, and over-influenced by the British/American perspective.

I won’t try to summarise the book. If someone has asked you for a late Christmas present suggestion then get it for yourself. But here are a couple of statistics that made me stop in my tracks about war in the east.

On Sunday, 23 August, the Germans heralded their assault [on Stalingrad] with an air raid by six hundred aircraft: 40,000 civilians are said to have died in the first fourteen hours, almost as many as perished in the entire 1940-41 blitz on Britain [p308].

By the end of 1943, the Soviet Union had suffered 77 per cent of its total casualties in the entire conflict – something approaching twenty million dead [p395]

And to put in perspective the relative Allied losses:

The Soviet Union suffered 65 per cent of all Allied military deaths, China 23 per cent, Yugoslavia 3 per cent, the USA and Britain 2 per cent each, France and Poland 1 per cent each [p324].

Hastings is at pains to explain that you can’t compare one form of suffering with another, and that the knowledge of someone’s tragedy on another side of the globe does not in any way diminish or trivialise your own. But the scale of tragedy on the eastern front almost defies comprehension.

Part of the interest of the book lies in how Hastings manages to weave personal accounts of the war into the overall story, without ruining the flow. So in the midst of a section about grand strategy there are illuminating human passages from a letter sent home from the front line, or a diary found in the rubble of a besieged building.

I don’t know enough about the war to judge his judgments, but it’s a gripping story, and a sobering reminded of the tragedy of war. Despite the stories of heroism and daring, very little romance remains – at least in my own mind.

Here is the blurb from Waterstones, if you need any more persuading:

A magisterial history of the greatest and most terrible event in history, from one of the finest historians of the Second World War. A book which shows the impact of war upon hundreds of millions of people around the world – soldiers, sailors and airmen; housewives, farm workers and children.  Reflecting Max Hastings’s thirty-five years of research on World War II, All Hell Let Loose describes the course of events, but focuses chiefly upon human experience, which varied immensely from campaign to campaign, continent to continent.  The author emphasises the Russian front, where more than 90% of all German soldiers who perished met their fate. He argues that, while Hitler’s army often fought its battles brilliantly well, the Nazis conducted their war effort with ‘stunning incompetence’. He suggests that the Royal Navy and US Navy were their countries’ outstanding fighting services, while the industrial contribution of the United States was much more important to allied victory than that of the US Army. The book ranges across a vast canvas, from the agony of Poland amid the September 1939 Nazi invasion, to the 1943 Bengal famine, in which at least a million people died under British rule – and British neglect. Among many vignettes, there are the RAF’s legendary raid on the Ruhr dams, the horrors of Arctic convoys, desert tank combat, jungle clashes. Some of Hastings’s insights and judgements will surprise students of the conflict, while there are vivid descriptions of the tragedies and triumphs of a host of ordinary people, in uniform and out of it.  ‘The cliche is profoundly true’, he says. ‘The world between 1939 and 1945 saw some human beings plumb the depths of baseness, while others scaled the heights of courage and nobility’. This is ‘everyman’s story’, an attempt to answer the question: ‘What was the Second World War like ?’, and also an overview of the big picture. Max Hastings employs the technique which has made many of his previous books best-sellers, combining top-down analysis and bottom-up testimony to explore the meaning of this vast conflict both for its participants and for posterity.

Read Full Post »

It’s fifty years since Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin escaped the clutches of gravity and completed a single orbit of the earth. The Telegraph reports:

Fifty years ago [yesterday], an air force pilot named Yuri Gagarin became the first human being in space – taking the Soviet Union’s own giant leap for mankind and spurring a humiliated America to race for the moon. The flight was limited to a single orbit due to concerns over how a human would cope with space travel, but despite the risks, competition for the mission was strong among the 20 young pilots on the short list.

Just three days before blastoff from what would later be known as the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, Gagarin was told that he was chosen for the mission.

In a letter to his wife, Valentina, he asked her to raise their daughters “not as little princesses, but as real people,” and to feel free to remarry if his mission proved fatal.

Gagarin’s rocket lifted off as scheduled on 12 April 1961, at 9:07am Moscow time (6:07 GMT).

The flight was fraught with drama. At one point the control room lost data transmission and problems involving the antennae put the shuttle into a much higher and riskier orbit than planned.

On re-entry, a glitch caused the ship to rotate swiftly and the landing capsule was slow to detach from the service module.

But Gagarin bailed out as planned, and parachuted onto a field near the Volga River about 450 miles southeast of Moscow

The 27-year-old cosmonaut’s mission lasted just 108 minutes in total and made him a national hero.

On 14 April Gagarin was flown to Moscow, where he was greeted by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev and driven into town on a highway lined with cheering Russians.

It was not until John Glenn’s flight on 20 February 1962, that an American managed to emulate Gagarin’s earth-obiting feat.

It surprises me that space travel and extra-terrestrial colonisation don’t figure very much in the collective imagination. Why are they the preserve of science fiction enthusiasts instead of being on the horizon of our everyday dreams and adventures? If there is nowhere else to go but up and away, and if we are only at the very beginning of this scientific and historical journey, why are so few people interested in it? Even raising the question makes me feel slightly geeky.

The Economist has a slideshow entitled ‘The space-age future that never happened‘.

[Yesterday marked] 50 years since Soviet pilot Yuri Gagarin became the first human being in space. The dizzying pace of developments in aerospace technology—just 58 years separated the Wright Brothers’ first demonstration of powered flight from Gagarin’s trip into orbit—inspired plenty of optimistic speculation about what humanity’s future as a space-faring species might look like. This slideshow takes a look back at a future that was thought, in some quarters at least, to be just around the corner, and compares it with the reality of space exploration half a century after Gagarin’s flight.

Take a look here.

Read Full Post »

One of my Lenten books this year is The Path of Prayer by St Theophan the Recluse. The language and ideas are very accessible, because it started life as four sermons to ordinary people.

One of the key themes is that the great heights of prayer, the great depths of mystical intimacy with God, can be found simply by saying our ordinary prayers with devotion and attention. The everyday prayers that we say (the Our Father, the Hail Mary, the Glory Be, the Psalms, etc) should be the ordinary means of discovering that union with God that we are searching for. I like this because it undermines the idea that there is some kind of split between ordinary vocal prayer, popular devotion, and contemplative prayer. They should all be, at heart, our standing in the presence of God, with hearts and minds recollected and open to him.

Here is just one passage from the first sermon. He is explaining how we should pray our ordinary daily prayers.

Simply enter into every word, then bring the meaning of each word down into your heart. That is, understand what you say, and then become aware of what you have understood. No further rules are necessary. These two, understanding and feeling – if they are properly carried out – ornament every offering of prayer with the highest quality, and this makes it fruitful and effective. For example, when you recite ‘and cleanse us from all impurities’, experience with feeling your impurity, desire to become pure, and pray to God in hope for it.

A ‘feeling’, in this Orthodox spiritual tradition, is not a fleeting emotion or mood (which we can’t control and which wouldn’t have much significance for our prayer) – it is one’s willingness to enter into the personal meaning of the truth that is being expressed in the words, to embrace this meaning with the whole heart and mind, instead of just keeping it at a distance as an abstract truth or a string of sounds at the very edge of consciousness.

St Theophan was one of the great Russian ‘starets’ of the nineteenth century, a theologian and bishop who became a monk and spent the last twenty years of his life in solitude as a hermit within his community. He is one of the masters of the spiritual life.

It seems that the book is out of print, but there is a big selection of passages from St Theophan about prayer here at the Orthodox Christian Information Society.

Read Full Post »

Berlin Wall 1987 by fjords.

The Berlin Wall 1987

The Church is often criticised, not just for being an institution with many weaknesses, but for being an institution full-stop. As if institutions by their very nature repress the human spirit and undermine authentic relationships.

Francis Fukayama writes about the reasons behind the successes and failures of recent democratic movements. I don’t know enough politics to judge whether all his analysis is correct, but the sociological point he makes about the importance of institutions is worth noting, for religion as much as for politics:

The collapse of the Orange Revolution should teach us that enduring democracy is not just a matter of ideas and political passions, but of concrete institutions embodying democratic values. It is also about the human agents who create them: the right leaders can make or break a transition to democracy.

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall more than 20 years ago, there has been a huge disparity in post-communist outcomes. In Poland, Hungary, the Baltic states, and the Czech republic, there has been solid support for democratic, rule-of-law states that could qualify to join the European Union. In Russia, by contrast, there was huge disagreement after 1991 not just over whether the state should be democratic or authoritarian, but over the country’s borders, ethnic identity, and relations with neighbouring countries. So the single most important determinant of which countries would go on to become successful, stable liberal democracies was the degree of consensus in favour of strong new state institutions. [Spectator, 13 Feb 2010]

Values need embodying in institutions, in customs, in laws. Of course they can become ossified, and of course not all institutions are good institutions. But if you try and share your values without having an eye to how they can be carried forward in concrete practices, they will probably not take hold and endure.

Read Full Post »

%d bloggers like this: