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COTTON-EYED JOE AND THE VEGETABLE LAMB OF TARTARY   Leave a comment

 

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There is only one story (with two diametrically-opposed perspectives) to come out of and about Uzbekistan in September and early October – cotton. While the local press can literally re-publish last year’s or even last century’s paeans to the ennobling efforts of the Uzbek pakhtakor (cotton farmer) and the community spirit which sees the young and the old drop rattles and walking sticks and march patriotically-inebriated to the tune of the harvest-master’s bugle, Western human rights organisations retell an old gulag narrative with crypto-feudal barbarity represented by incumbent despot, the weak-chinned hard man Islam Karimov.

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Stalin Tractor

Cotton-Eyed Joe always at the forefront of Soviet cultivation efforts in Central Asia.

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The 2015 harvest gave us the by now sadly predictable reports of patriotic corvée with tragic absurdities. Farmers in the village of Shaharteppa were forced to glue the cotton back onto empty stalks for the visit of Uzbek Prime Minister  Shavkat Mirziyaev, who, like his president, expects to see (and be seen with) a blinding sea of white gold on his triumphant journey through the vibrantly blossoming land of his subjects. That the vizier’s cavalcade was two weeks late and the cotton already harvested would thus be no impediment. Nature, after all, is there to be bent to man’s will, and men and women to the great leader’s. But what is constructed fast and without foresight inevitably engenders consequences unpredictable and difficult to remedy. The building of the Great Fergana Canal in 1939 took forty-five days and over 160,000 volunteers with little mechanization to construct.  The photos and film of this exalted people’s project once provided a poignant propaganda; now they stand as a sad testament to the tragedy of despotic arrogance. Later, Stalin’s so called Great Plan for the Transformation of Nature which dared to further tame the steppe with canals and shelterbelts, to make fecund what once was barren, to inseminate the desert with Communist zeal, indeed contributed to Uzbekistan, on the very eve of Communism’s collapse, becoming the world’s largest exporter of cotton. Unfortunately, the syphoning of the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers through a sieve-like canal network would make even the notion of sacrificing the Aral Sea for the well-being of man redundant. Last year, in the Olotsky and Karakulsky regions of Bukhara, women accused of prostitution were forcibly rounded up and sent to work the cotton fields to expiate their moral deficiencies. In the Alat district of Bukhara, women who weren’t accused of prostitution were told they would be if they didn’t get with the programme. In Gallaorol, the local headman ordered the arrest and two-day detention of Yusuf Esirgetov, chief doctor of the district hospital, for not fulfilling the cotton harvest quota assigned to the hospital. Dr. Esirgapov died of a heart attack several days after his release. That was his own fault of course. If the good doctor had applied more vigour in ordering his staff and patients (the fulfilment of national duty is an elixir stronger than antibiotics) to the fields, he would not have wound up in such an embarrassing pickle. That very logic is why ‘pass-the-persecution’ is a very Uzbek game. That is why school administrators threaten their staff with redundancy, why film studios threaten their actors with black-listing, professors threaten their students with bad grades, and ministers glower at their deputies with scowls pregnant with unspoken threats.

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As former Comrade No.1 Mr Karimov sealed his grip on the reins of power when the newly-independent and nominally democratic Republic of Uzbekistan morphed out of the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic, tales of forced labour and child exploitation in the Fergana Valley’s cotton fields came to provide a seasonal rebuke to Uzbek authorities in the western press and the halls of the International Labour Organization, whose conventions Uzbekistan has ratified with all the sincerity of a fox at a poultry convention. But propaganda is as much self-inebriating as truth-manipulating. There may even be a sterling kernel of truth to the one economic argument for official persecution which radiates beyond the cotton fantasia of Uzbek patriotism. When state representatives raise an o-so-faux, scrupulously-inclined eyebrow at hypocritical capitalist double standards, chime they may, with a nonchalance the world’s other great garmentocracies would blush to enunciate, that if you don’t like your very reasonably priced shirts and bloomers stitched by impoverished, calloused childish hands from clothe woven and dyed by famished, forgotten fingers, and spun from cotton picked and washed by those who do not have a choice, don’t buy them. Well bless my cotton socks!

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Perhaps there is no surprise that a country which was once pulled like a rabbit from a hat by a Politbiuro-initiated plan for the national demarcation of Central Asia’s borders and exogenously ‘indigenized’ should suffer from cognitive dissonance down the line.  State-building has always demanded an adept degree of myth management and archetype juggling. The socio-economic raison d’être not to mention the socio-mythic contents of the project called Uzbekistan, from its fey fairy-tale inception in 1929, has a long-standing, almost mystical relationship with the miracle plant whose usefulness inspired wonder and gave free rein to fantastic imaginings going right back to the Middle Ages.

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The vegetable lamb of Tartary

The Vegetable Lamb of Tartary

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Gossypium, as the cotton plant is known to botanists, has played a significant role in world trade since the industrial revolution and may even provide evidence of pre-Columbine trans-continental migrations which preceded trade routes. Its usefulness is attested by its manifold applications: it can and has been found in some shape or form in the textile, food, automobile and paper industries as well as proving a vital component in many military and medical applications.  Related to hibiscus, okra and mallow, it was used by the ancient Chinese, Egyptians, and North and South Americans. It has been lauded as the pillar of economies by farm managers and politicians and lamented as a tool of enslavement by the millions of workers which this labour and land-intensive crop traditionally demanded.

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Cotton’s influence on human history is evident in the anthropomorphic and zoomorphic evocations that this plant has inspired. James Hammond, a South Carolina Democratic senator, in his infamous defence of slavery as ‘the very mud-sill of society and of political government,’ gave pre-eminence to cotton as the life-blood of the American South, ‘the well-spring of wealth, stability and security, in short – King Cotton’. In medieval Europe, when cotton, even more than silk, was a coveted luxury, travellers such as Sir John Mandeville brought back tales from the east of the mysterious Lycopodium barometz, half-animal and half-cotton. Said to be a ‘plant whose shape is that of a lamb bearing a golden fleece’, Sir Thomas Browne wrote of it as the ‘vegetable Lamb of Tartary’. So vital  was its role in local economies that Marco Polo, in describing the provinces and kingdoms of Central Asia, frequently uses cotton as an indicator of assessing the ‘means of life’.

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The Uzbek SSR’s flag, anthem, slogans, propaganda, politics and pageantry revolved like a centrifugal cotton ball at the reactor core of Soviet semiotics. It’s impossible to read any literature about the Soviet Republic of Uzbekistan, that jewel of the Jaxtartes, without having to consume an earnest encomium to this noble plant and the Marxian midwives of her fecundity in the once-parched lands east of the now-parched Aral Sea. In 1991, incumbent Uzbek leader Islam Karimov merely replaced one inscrutable state despotic symbol with another. Lenin might have had to cede his plinth to rape-and-pillage merchant Tamerlane but the cotton show continued to flourish, both as Uzbekistan’s chief economic export and, conveniently for the independent nation’s new president, a ready-made system of political docility and economic enslavement. Small farmers receive credits for cotton cultivation which they must pay back with their harvest. The state has the power to set the cotton price it buys at, which, naturally, results in the indebtedness of the farmer. Lenin may even now be boiling in his embalming fluids at this profoundly un-Soviet exploitation of the peasants.

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In Uzbekistan, the cotton harvest is still touted as an annual ur-festival of community and camaraderie, as pure and fresh as a Komsomol picnic. Its flamboyant supernatural position within the state propaganda has ensured that it became the principle cypher for all that is excessive and unnatural about Uzbekistan outside the state.  (Imagine the US State of Wisconsin forced its citizens to fulfil their cheese destiny.) Of all the many injustices of ‘democratic’ Uzbekistan, from torture, terror, and arbitrary state theft, deciphering and demystifying the sorcery of cotton propaganda fills more column inches than any other.

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When September rolls around again the same old stories of forced labour and child abuse will doubtlessly appear in the international and opposition press. And so too shall Uzbekistan’s government-controlled media emit jolly refrains about that all is joyous and ennobling in the cotton fields. How quaint, how community-spirited, how Soviet! In effect, the official position has not changed since 1929, though the barometer of state violence may read stormy or fair. I will leave the final word to a 1976 issue of the old Soviet newspaper covering all things industrial and true, Sotsialisticheskaya Industriya (whose banner reproduces an appeal from the Central Committee of the Communist Party to workers to ‘tirelessly struggle to increase productivity of labour, efficiency in production, and quality of labour in the name of the further growth of the socialist economy – being the building blocks of the Motherland’s greatness and the steady rise in the people’s prosperity.’) Amid predictable reports about miraculous growth in the Soviet economy and spiralling downturns in the doomed enterprises of the western capitalist states, the sports section presents an up-date on the USSR cycling championship, which was at that moment hurtling its way through Central Asia.

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“All along the race route the cyclists encounter slogans in Uzbek, Kyrgyz, Tajik, and Russian: “Everyone to the cotton harvest!” The harvest season for ‘white gold’ is in full swing. During their rest day the race participants have decided to add their own efforts to the harvest work.

With large sacks in their hands, the riders, judges, and accredited journalists spread out through the field of Andizhan’s “Kommuna” collective farm. Many are carrying hard cotton boxes in their arms for the first time. Naturally, victory in this additional ‘cotton stage’ of the tour by a significant margin was clinched by a member of the Uzbek team, master of sport A. Yudin.

Rest day over, and once again the busy task of the long-distance race gets under way. The trainers and team managers make their notes and work out their strategies for the second half of the race…”

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What is a myth but a tale, a concoction, a lie told so often it becomes a liturgy. The wheels turn, recycling threadbare notions of false grandeur, pedalling an imaginary bicycle off a very real cliff. Plus ça change…

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JUNE-JULY 1941   Leave a comment

There has been some interesting new research into the events of June-July 1941 in Lwów as the Germans occupied the city from the retreating Soviets. The NKVD Prison Murders, the Massacre of the Lwów Professors, and two Lwów Pogroms, occurred in the days before, during, and after the German occupation. Probably the most contenscious issue is over what role Ukrainian nationalists may have had in the violence which claimed thousands of lives.

Here’s Philip Friedman’s account of the extermination of Lwów’s Jews in English. What’s interesting is that it’s partially based on an eye-witness report written in 1945.

This article has excerpts from the recently-published Polish translation of Dieter Schenka’s “Der Lemberger Professorenmord und der Holocaust in Ostgalizien” (“The Murder of Lwów professors and the Holocaust in East Galicia”).

Here’s a Russian translation from another German text about the controversial events surrounding the capture of Lwów, Hannes Heer’s “Einübung in den Holocaust: Lemberg Juni/Juli 1941”:

POSTCARD FROM A WAR 1915   Leave a comment


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Postcard from ‘the war to end all wars’.

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A large plastic photo frame filled with a mosaic of weather-beaten images on the shelf in my father’s bedroom contained the memories of his life. That was where my search began, the journey which would lead us to Poland and beyond. They are like relics to me. There is an unnerving mystery behind them, as though history stole these people from us and left the images in their place. There are black and white photos of Wojtek’s mother and father. And, of course, my mother, his wife. Wojtek is the last living link between these long-dead people and me.

There is one image of my grandfather, Henryk, which stood out in my mind from the time I was a child. It shows him as a young man in his officer’s uniform and was taken during the First World War. The image is mounted on a postcard. In those distant days, people would often visit the photographic studio, wherever it was that circumstances had compelled them to endure separation from their loved ones, and have a living image of themselves taken and mounted on post office cardboard. Kind words were inscribed along with the addressee’s information and within a few days, by the grace and wonder of the technology of those times, the self-same addressee would delight in the warm radiance of their distant loved ones gazing out at them.

He cuts a smart figure in his officer’s uniform. It is well-tailored, with six shining buttons, two stars on the collar, and a pill-box hat with his regimental badge. Dignified. Debonair even. Later, he would come to resemble Hercule Poirot, with a sort of studious decorum and elegant awkwardness. But here he is young. He was just twenty seven years old when the photograph was taken. The verdant background – a hospital garden – serves to soften the reality that mass carnage is taking place in the world around him. A single medal decorates his chest, attained either through some sterling act of bravery, or, by simple virtue of the fact that he was still standing when the battle declined. This was the First World War after all; when the battlelines marched out on a conveyor belt of attrition. Henryk was born a Pole (a Jewish Pole) at a time when Poland had all but ceased to exist, so he fought under the colours of an Empire, the Empire of Austro-Hungary, a strange unwieldy sounding entity to twenty-first century ears. One of those old worlds, which sit in history books and are, in name at least, no more. Entente Cordiale, Tripartite Agreement, Little Entente –  political expediencies of a now ancient Europe, which heralded peace and protection through amalgamation and somehow are no more. No more because the peace and protection they afforded some were at the expense of others.

Henryk rests his right hand on a cane to support his injured leg while his left hand is tucked dandily into his hip jutting his elbow out in a pose that seems to defy the sombreness of the moment. He is young and handsome and looks unwilling to yield to the fatalism of the clouds that have gathered in spades over Europe. Clouds that will soon blemish Vienna and Westphalia, and Waterloo. Clouds that will create benchmarks of suffering and disappointments for future generations under simple Frankish and Slavic names – Verdun, Somme, Ypres, and Brusilov. Clouds that will eventually reach their breaking point in an apocalyptic precipitation that will curse city and village, forest and vale, from north to south, and east to west, to the camps at Auschwitz-Birkenau, Maidanek, Treblinka, Czenstochau, Bełżec, and Sobibor.  Henryk’s records in the archives of the Austro-Hungarian Army offer a cursory outline of his personality, distilled into categories which highlight his usefulness in purely military matters. They record him as an ensign in the Imperial and Royal Siege Artillery Regiment Baron de Beschi No. 2. He is described as ‘very useful in company duties, dedicated to duty.’ There is a description of his deployment on duty (‘obedient to superiors and polite, demanding discipline from subordinates’) as well as his deployment off duty (‘very tactful, courteous’). His private circumstances are recorded as: ‘Single. Personal finances orderly.’

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‘A kiss and good wishes to all! -Henryk’

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According to the postmark on the back of the postcard, it is the ninth day of August 1915 and Henryk is recuperating in a hospital for officers in Bistra, Silesia. He writes in the elegant hand of that time when so much was written by hand. The original addressee of this military portrait is given his titles in German, Herren Wohlgeboren Joachim Kornreich. The double honorific hints at the politeness of the age and the standing of the addressee: Mister Well-Born Joachim Kornreich.[1] The main message appears in Polish: A kiss and good wishes to all. Henryk. It seems surprisingly cheery for a postcard not simply from a war, but from a war which was christened ‘Great’ and bore H.G. Wells’ unfortunately inadequate sobriquet ‘the war to end all wars.’  This Joachim was then living at the centre of the Empire, in Vienna. He is Henryk’s father, and so my great-grandfather. Their surnames differ, father’s and son’s, out of no family dispute. Our family were in fact the Kornreich-Korowicz’s, a double-barrelled conjunct of good Austrian and Polish surnames. A sign perhaps of my progenitors’ life under Austrian rule and in particular in eastern-most Galicia, an Austrian-administered territory whose capital Lwów held a majority Polish population. The names were used interchangeably, with a preference for using each in its respective milieu, the Polish name in Polish circumstances, the Austrian when dealing with more international issues. This was certainly true before 1918 when Henryk, who was to become a successful economist, began to publish books and papers on monetary issues affecting the global economy and the Austrian Empire under the name Kornreich. After Polish independence, when the best of his career was achieved, the name Korowicz dominated but he was known professionally in Kraków and Lwów both before and after Polish independence as Dr. Korowicz.[2] This was not remarkably strange in those times, in those circumstances, in a multi-ethnic Empire, before the clash of nationalisms and ideologues. The use of multiple names also hints at another more sinister aspect of Europe one hundred years ago. It was not uncommon among minority groups and especially the Jews to adopt a name of the land where they lived. This was both a salute towards integration, and a form of protection against the pogroms which had become a disturbingly repetitive feature of the Jews’ European migrations. The Polish King Casimir III had famously bucked a trend once and invited Jewish immigration in the 14th century but these were different times. This was the age of the scapegoat, the birth of populism and people power, when political shifts demanded the unmasking of a hidden enemy. Anti-Semitism would soon find a warm niche in the new Polish Republic, which had been starved of nationhood for so long: while to the east and the west of Poland, the Jews would fare far worse.

The changing game of Europe’s Empires and dominions was about to lead to a bloody re-christening of the past in the years that were to follow Henryk’s Great War. In a brutal atmosphere of blind nationalism and radical social experimentation, names became badges of honour and marks of shame. Names would lose the nuances that described the communities they had lived in, the neighbourhood recognition of interconnections, local histories, friendships, and loves lost and gained. A time would come when your name would denote only your national allegiance, your ethnicity, and your social class- three elements which marked your cards before your interview with destiny, when the knock on your door might be the last time you opened the door. Many names disappeared forever. On a wisp of wind, like grains of dust. Some names remain only on gravestones, on brass plaques, on stone monuments, in history books, or on the lips of the old.

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[1] Wohlgeboren (‘Well-Born’) was a honorific title, used by lower noble ranks and civic notables.

[2] Henryk’s publications, written for the specialist and the student, in both Polish and German, include the following titles: “Gold Currency in Light of War” (1918); “Proprietor and Peasant in Poland and particularly in Galicia”; “Studies on the Depreciation of Currency and Other Economical Questions”;  “An Outline of Commercial Politics” (1930); “Politics of Trade” (1931).