Wednesday, November 25, 2020

A few words on Ludvík Svoboda

My apologies for being a bit late with this piece. I will be blunt: I was debating with myself whether to host this reflection on THAO or here on S&C for a long time. This piece deals with the political and military history of Czechoslovakia and touches on religious themes which are close to me, which on first blush would make it seem like a natural fit with THAO. But the story of General Svoboda’s most famous feat in the Great War, the escape of the Czechoslovak Legions from Siberia via the Tea Road, proved far too tempting to pass up to my left-Eurasianist heart. And so, I beg my readers’ forgiveness in advance for the occasionally-devotional tone in this piece. I am, after all, describing someone here who was deeply respected by at least one Orthodox saint, and whose spirit of self-sacrificial service comes quite close to the sort of devotion and personal valour I tend to value.

The twenty-fifth of November is the birthday of the great Soviet and Czechoslovak general, statesman and President of Czechoslovakia Ludvík Svoboda. Svoboda was from the very beginning a supporter of Czechoslovak independence, an anti-fascist freedom fighter, a liberator of his own country from the Nazis. After the restoration of Czechoslovak statehood in the wake of the Second World War he joined the Communist Party and became a statesman in communist Czechoslovakia. However, he belonged firmly in the camp of the more conservative decentralists supporting Dubček, and gained a great deal of respect from his countrymen for resisting the imposed tyranny of Soviet rule on his country. But throughout his career, his service was characterised by a remarkable degree of disinterested selflessness and integrity that manifested itself as a fervent, heartfelt patriotism.

Ludvík Svoboda was born on the twenty-fifth of November, 1896 in the village of Hroznatín, the son of the poor farmers Jan and Františka. The land they lived on was marginal, and they barely eked out a living from it. Ludvík’s father died when he was only one year old, and he was raised by his mother and a stepfather. He was sent to an agrarian school in Velké Meziříčí when he was fifteen years old, but was conscripted into the Austro-Hungarian Army in 1915 and sent to fight against the Russians in the Eastern Front during the Great War.

He was captured in action at Ternopol in September of that same year. He quickly joined the Czechoslovak Legion to fight against the Austrian oppressors, and demonstrated his heroism at the Battles of Zborov and Bachmač. Svoboda was one of the key personalities who organised and executed the legendary Great Siberian Adventure which saw the Czech and Slovak volunteers under the Tsar fight their way across Siberia to freedom in Vladivostok, in the Far East.

After the war was over, Svoboda went back home to tend to his family farm for a couple of years under the newly-independent government. However, in 1922 he again joined the military as a staff officer in the Czechoslovak Army. During this time, although politically he seems to have been fairly disinclined, his sympathies were fairly close to the Communists. By the time Czechoslovakia was betrayed and invaded by the Nazis in 1938, Svoboda was in command of an entire battalion. After having fought for his people’s freedom from Austria-Hungary, he was not about to submit easily to Nazi domination. He organised the underground resistance movement Obrána naroda in 1939 and committed to a guerrilla war against the Nazis until he could bring off a mass escape to Poland and organising a liberation force in Kraków.

Being captured again, this time by the Soviets, Svoboda got them to spare his life by telling his captors to make a phone call to Moscow and confirm who he was. He was very quickly placed in charge of the First Czechoslovak Army Corps, and fought with remarkable distinction and bravery. His unit demonstrated its resilience and determination at Sokolovo, where they joined the fighting against the Germans. And later, the forces under Ludvík Svoboda reentered Czechoslovak territory at the storming of Dukla Pass, one of the most famous tank battles in Czechoslovak history which is still commemorated in the Rusin town of Svidník in Slovakia. His service earned him the admiration of Marshal Ivan Konev, and as a commander he earned the devotion and admiration of many in his corps, including a certain conscripted Orthodox monk: Saint Iov Kundria. Saint Iov kept Ludvík Svoboda’s portrait in his icon corner together with that of Saint Luke of Simferopol.

For his bravery, honour and dedication Ludvík Svoboda was welcomed by most Czechs and Slovaks as a war hero, and had already earned the trust also of Edvard Beneš (the leader of the Czechoslovak government-in-exile) as well as the pro-Soviet functionaries such as Klement Gottwald. In the wake of the liberation of Czechoslovakia he was appointed as defence minister by Beneš. Svoboda did nothing to stop – and indeed tacitly supported – the workers’ general strikes and demonstrations that took place in the leadup to the Communist transition in 1948, though he did not formally join the Communist Party until after this. Even so, as an independent-minded Czechoslovak patriot rather than an apparatchik, Ludvík Svoboda was distrusted by the Stalinists, who had him purged from the army in 1950 and thrown into prison in 1951, where they unsuccessfully pressured him to commit suicide to save his own image. However, after Stalin’s death Svoboda was released from prison and was sent unceremoniously back to his old farm. It was only after Khrushchev inquired after his ‘old friend’ Svoboda during a state visit that he was (rather hurriedly) reinstated into the Czechoslovak Armed Forces.

Svoboda continued a rather unobtrusive military and bureaucratic career – though he continued to be distrusted by the Communist hardliners. It was not long after this, though, that the Prague Spring happened under the leadership of Alexander Dubček. Svoboda was neither a supporter nor an opponent of Dubček during this heady period of reforms, but he sprang into action again – with an astonishing vigour and at substantial personal risk – in the wake of the Warsaw Pact intervention which resulted in the overthrow of Dubček’s experiment and the imprisonment of Dubček himself. Dubček’s life was spared by the Soviet leadership under Brezhnev, practically entirely on account of the fact that Ludvík Svoboda went in person to Moscow and, using every bit of his military hero’s cachet and a significant store of sheer cussed bullheadedness besides, shouted down the Soviet leadership with demands for Dubček’s release. Long story short: he got it. Never underestimate an old Czech veteran brandishing a service revolver.

The remainder of Ludvík Svoboda’s public life was a series of quiet, if protracted, power struggles against Dubček’s replacement in office, a Slovak nationalist turned Soviet-style apparatchik named Gustáv Husák. Svoboda’s health began to fail him, however. After a series of respiratory complaints, he left the public eye and public life in 1975, and reposed on the twenty-first of September, 1979.

Svoboda’s legacy continues to be debated within the Czech Republic and Slovakia itself. Was he a patriot or a Soviet collaborator, or both? In all honesty, personally, given the lengths to which he went to defend Dubček from Brezhnev when it brought him no benefit, I would have to incline toward the former view. It is true, of course, that I am viewing the man through the lens of how he was understood by people who knew him well personally – not least, Saint Iov Kundria, whose judgement of personality I am inclined to trust. But on balance, I think he really was a man of integrity who really did care about the Czech and Slovak people. His coöperation with the Soviets during the Second World War in particular must be seen through a lens of pragmatic and realistic concern for their overall well-being. In fact, General Svoboda may very well have said it best himself:

All I have ever done must be measured by my intention to serve best my people and my country.

Friday, November 13, 2020

Legend of the Eagle Dance

Eagle Dance of the Sarikoli

The eagle is a national symbol of the Sarikoli and Wakhi peoples of the Chinese Pamirs, and the eagle dance is a source of deep pride for these Tajik people of Xinjiang, being one of their indispensable forms of folk performance art. The following is an account of the legend that inspired the eagle dance, from an ethnographic survey of the Dances of the Chinese Minorities by Li Beida (李北達):
The eagle flute and the eagle dance are the favourite musical instrument and dance of the Tajik ethnic group. As to the origin of the eagle flute and the eagle dance, there is a popular legend among the Tajik people.

Long ago, there was a young Tajik couple on the Pamir Plateau. They were both serfs and deeply in love with each other. However, according to local laws, the serfs were not permitted to love and marry freely. When their cruel owner found out they were in love, he deliberately separated them. He exiled the young man to pasture in the distant high mountains and the young lady to work in his house. Although these lovers were forced to be separated, their love grew deeper than ever before.

One day, when the young man was pasturing a herd of sheep on the mountain, he saw a group of hawks soaring in the blue sky. It caused him to feel a rhythm strong with both power and gentleness. He also heard the exciting sound from the wings of the hawks. The young man was inspired by the birds and picked up a wing bone of a dead eagle and bored three small holes on it. Then, he polished it into a flute. Later, at every dusk, he played this eagle flute toward the direction of the village where the girl was. The sound of the flute was soft in tone but loud in volume, exhibiting the lover’s yearning. This sound flew all the way into the ears of his lover.

The girl also missed her lover day and night. Each night, she snuck to the foot of the mountain and looked up into it. At that time, the melodious sound of the flute met her ears. One night, she saw a big eagle circle over the mountains, sail straight up to the clouds, and then dive with the speed of a thunderbolt. The girl admired its actions very much. She began to imitate the movement of the hawks. Fuelling her actions was her longing for her lover and her desire for freedom. Thus, the eagle dance came into being.

At last, the young man and woman prevailed against the evil will of their master through their arduous persistence, and married happily. The eagle flute and the eagle dance which they created are very popular on the Pamir Plateau, and it has become an essential treasure for the Tajiks. It is this beautiful old legend that explains the sentiments of the Tajiks concerning the instrument and the dance. The eagle flute and the eagle dance cannot be used separately, just like the lovers who were attached to each other.
As indicated by the legend, the eagle dance is often slow and fluid and light, emulating the lofty soaring motions of flight, but requires both power and grace, both technical skill and improvisation. In the Republic period, before 1949, only men were permitted to perform the dance; however, since that time women have been allowed to participate in the dance as well. It was traditional, in fact, for men and women to dance as couples (again, as the legend would appear to indicate).

Monday, November 9, 2020

Sorrow and hope in the modernism of al-Mâġûṭ

Muḥammad al-Mâġûṭ

As Mr White was kind enough to cite in an episode of his Substack podcast Sisyphus Sits, I recently discovered and have been extensively quoting on social media the powerful words of the Syrian poet-laureate Muḥammad al-Mâġûṭ, and in particular the slim collection of his early poems, The Fan of Swords. Owen quoted in full the poem I personally like best of his in that volume, ‘Shade and Noon Sun’:
All the fields of the world
are against two small lips.
All the streets of history
are against two bare feet . . .

Love, they travel and we wait.
They have gallows, we have necks.
They have pearls, we have freckles and moles.
They own the night, the dawn,
the afternoon and the day,
and we own the skin and the bones.

We plant under the noon sun,
and they eat in the shade.
Their teeth are white like rice,
our teeth are dark as desolate forests.
Their breasts are soft and smooth,
while ours are as dusty as execution squares.
And yet, we are the kings of the world!
Their homes are covered with pamphlets, accounts,
our homes are covered with autumn leaves.
In their pockets they carry addresses
    of thieves and traitors.
In our pockets we carry addresses
    of rivers and thunder.

They own the windows, we own the winds.
They own the ships, we own the waves.
They own the medals, we own the mud.
They, the walls and balconies.
We, the ropes and daggers.

Come, my love, let us sleep
    on the pavements.
Muḥammad al-Mâġûṭ is a fascinating character in his own right. He grew up dirt-poor, the son of a peasant from Salamîya in Hama Governorate. Al-Mâġûṭ, a Shî‘a Muslim of the Nizâri lineage, joined the Syrian Social Nationalist Party when he was twenty-one. Even though he joked it was only because the party office was closer to his house than the Ba‘ath Party office, and also because it had the added benefit of a fireplace during the winter, his attachment was apparently fairly sincere. He was an ardent Syrian nationalist and (it seems) a sincere admirer of the Christian leftist politician ’Anṭûn Sa‘âda who led the SSNP and was executed in Lebanon in 1949. Al-Mâġûṭ was arrested in 1955 and thrown into the infamous Mazza Prison in Damascus for his political activity and organising on behalf of the SSNP, and it was after this that he began writing on the insides of old cigarette boxes. His cellmate at the time, the celebrated poet ’Adûnîs, told him he might want to consider publishing his writings as poetry.

Al-Mâġut is a prose poet. He does not write, as you can see from the above, in a style laden with aphorisms and high-flown allegories, pæans to the lost greatness of mediæval Damascus and Baghdad. Nor does he write in a style popular among his contemporaries, which seeks to mimic the Western Romantics. Still less does he retreat into a mystical obscurantism. His use of allusions is occasional, and generally limited to well-known figures and events in Shî‘ite history: Fâṭima, Ḥusayn ibn ‘Alî and the Battle of Karbalâ’, for example. He is a realist. He calls our attention to here. He uses immediate, tactile imagery. He talks about pavement and cigarettes, libraries and coffee-houses. Natural imagery and symbolism in al-Mâġûṭ’s poetry is present, but sparse. He looks for images that will be known and understood from experience. Muḥammad al-Mâġûṭ’s style is innovative and path-breaking on account of this unflinching gaze upon the present, upon the reality in front of your nose.

And in that spirit, he draws our attention – leads us by the nose, so to speak – to the forgotten people and places, to the Biblical ‘least of these’. Although he is ’Ismâ‘îli, it is intriguing that he occasionally draws our attention to Christ, who weeps with the people who weep – or even occasionally writes as a penitent sinner confessing to a Christian priest. There are times when he weeps with God, with the rain. There are times when he rages at God, blames God for the tragœdies that befall undeserving people. This is where his poetry draws its resonance and power. He alternates between this righteous pain and sorrow, on the one hand, and a kind of cynical detachment on the other – even from his own art. He is able to satirise himself, mock himself, draw a kind of black humour from his circumstances and his powerlessness in the midst of police-state political repression and œconomic exploitation.

Muḥammad al-Mâġûṭ looks, mostly in vain, for the gentle spirits in a savage age – that savagery being imported from the West in the form of colonialism, political ideologies, fundamentalist backlash, fascist dictatorship, the war of the rich against the poor. In his poetry, this leads him to always take the side of the exile, the prisoner, the homeless person begging on the street. These were his fellow-spirits, whom he embraced in his prose poems. In his life, this led him to a fellow poet. He met one of his ‘gentle spirits’, Saniya Ṣalîḥ, to whom he dedicated at least one of his anthologies. He fell in love with her, they married and had two daughters. Both of them continued to write poetry, but sadly Ṣalîḥ remained under the shadow of her more-famous husband.

The volume I have been reading from, The Fan of Swords, has been translated by May Jayyûsî and Naomi Shihâb Nye. Jayyûsî is a scholar and member of the Muwatin Institute in Ramallah; and Nye is a poet in her own right, a poet of Palestine and of the Palestinian diaspora. This translation is indeed powerful and alive in its own right. It readily relates to the English speaker both al-Mâġût’s pathos and his posture of cynicism – both the hope and the hopelessness of his struggle. I highly recommend picking up a copy of this volume if you have the twelve bucks to spare.

Here is another one of his poems, ‘From the Threshold to the Sky’:
As the sad rain
    floods my sad face
I dream of a ladder of dust,
hunched backs,
palms of hands pressed against knees
on which I’ll climb the lofty heavens
and discover
    where our sighs and prayers are.

My love!
All those prayers and sighs
sobs and pleadings
from millions of lips, breasts,
over thousands of years and centuries
my words are even now
    next to those of Christ
My love!
We wait for the sky to shed its tears.

Wednesday, November 4, 2020

A day in the life of the Sarikoli people

Recently got done watching this episode of CCTV’s Travelogue with He Tianran, as he visits an ethnic Tajik village on the Datong River. Please give it a watch when you can!

Life for the Tajik people is clearly not easy: the land is rough and dry, not easy to farm. The people of this village grow apricots, which at the time Mr He visits them are in bloom. And see the sparse vegetation which they have to feed their sheep! Yet they show a truly kenotic hospitality and warmth toward strangers, including Han Chinese people, as well as toward each other. They have to work together as a village, and help each other mutually, in order to survive. As Mr He says, even though the Sarikoli Tajiks have been sedentary for generations now, a lot of these traditions are carried over from when they were still nomads. And they still produce artwork of intense, vibrant, colourful beauty; and actively maintain their traditional music and dance. (They also clearly have a healthy love of cats.) These are all things that I truly appreciate about the Central Asian Silk Road cultures generally. Also the fact that, quite sensibly, they don’t ruin their milk tea with tonnes of processed sugar or tapioca. There is a lesson there, I believe.

One of the aspects of Tajik life that Mr He does not mention here, but which is vital to the Sarikoli and Wakhi identity, is their devotion to the Nizâri ’Ismâ‘îli branch of Islâm, an antique lineage of Shî‘a Islâm which traditionally places a strong emphasis on reason and on social justice. The head of their religion is His Majesty Karîm al-Ḥusayn Šâh, the fourth Âġâ Khân. Âġâ Khân last visited his followers in China in 2012. As Mr He notes, Tajik children seem to be growing up bilingual in both Mandarin and their home language, while the adults speak their home language (Sarikoli or Wakhi) almost exclusively.

It is also amazing seeing these high Western Xinjiang landscapes; Tashkurgan, of course, lies close to the gæostrategically-vital Khunjerab Pass. The Sarikoli and Wakhi peoples have a strong sense of honour and duty as well, and many of them belong to families who have served in the Chinese border guard likewise for generations, keeping a close watch on the Pass. Again, I am left admiring the Tajiks of Xinjiang, with their strong and deeply-felt senses of civic duty and mutual obligation. Though the Tajiks of Xinjiang are only a bit more than forty thousand in number, they occupy a key position in regard to China’s gæopolitical ambitions, and I hope that the Chinese state continues to extend them the gratitude and admiration that they are due, and also accords due respect to their religious faith.