Saturday, December 17, 2022

Late Tsarist Russia from a child’s perspective

Kornei Chukovskii’s The Silver Crest is a deeply heartfelt, funny and humane book. I picked it up on a recommendation from a friend at church, Doug J—. Though it’s only about 180 pages long, whatever it lacks in length it more than makes up for in wit, warmth and genuine insights. One would expect no less from an author like Chukovskii, who is sometimes called, not without reason, the ‘Russian Dr Seuss’—known for his perennially-popular and deeply-influential rhyming children’s books and tales. The Silver Crest is Chukovskii’s autobiographical retelling of his days in (and out of) the gymnasium he briefly attended in Odesa—but although it is a tale of how he grows up, it isn’t so much about him personally it is a series of character sketches of his family, friends, childhood rivals, and various people in his childhood neighbourhood. Odesa has something of a character in this as well… and although his treatment of his childhood home is nowhere close to complimentary (he would go on to call it ‘revolting’, and claim he was a Petersburg man rather than an Odesa one), it’s still clear that Odesa was written deep into his blood.

There’s more than a bit of caricature in Chukovskii’s chronological recounting of this one particular episode from his childhood. His impressions of his fellow-students—whether his stammering but highly-imaginative and -studious Archangelsk best friend Timosha Makarov; the hyper-religious Old Believer but clueless student Grishka Zuev; the arrogant, ‘pig-faced’ Tuntin—and moreso his impressions of the grown-up teachers and administrators of his school (Six-Eyes, Proshka, Finti-Monti, Father Meletii) all bear the stamp of gentle exaggeration on them. But it is the sort of exaggeration which would be natural to a twelve- or thirteen-year-old boy, and thus even these caricatures have a certain ring of truth as a youngster would see it.

But the real driving force of the story, the real source of Chukovskii’s pathos, comes from his family: of which his handsome, simple, hard-working half-Ukrainian single mother who makes her living by doing laundry; and his serious, pedantic and rather sesquipedalian sister Marusya; form the core. There is also his uncle Foma, who comes from the countryside, as well as a Jewish pickpocket and burglar Yusef Stock who gets the nickname of ‘Top Hat’ whom Chukovskii’s mother sort of adopts as a cause in an attempt to reform him. A major plot point of the story is that Stock falls in love with a girl who works as a shop clerk, and she gets him to stop stealing—only for him to be wrongly accused of burgling a wealthy woman’s home while she’s out of town.

Chukovskii paints himself in a not-altogether-flattering light: we see him rebel against his mother and taunt his sister numerous times, and they constantly forgive him and take care of him—as often as not correcting him by example. At the same time, when Chukovskii is expelled from the gymnasium for what he imagines to be a personal failing, we can’t help but sympathise with him when he takes it on himself to try everything he knows to get back in for the sake of his mother, who pinned great hopes on her son’s education. (The titular ‘silver crest’ is the emblem of his school which is pinned to his hat; it gets ripped off by the school dean, Proshka, when he is expelled.) Although he does describe rather matter-of-factly the verbal abuse and the flagrant corruption (including the basest and most vulgar instances of trading money for grades) among the administration and teaching staff as well as students’ families, Chukovskii’s experiences in gymnasium were evidently fairly mild in comparison with others in ‘the system’, particularly given that those who went through it before the 1860s had to endure beatings with rods on top of everything else.

However, Chukovskii soon learns that he wasn’t expelled because of any prank he pulled in his classes (like using a tripwire system to help—not very well—his classmates cheat on a dictation, or supposedly making fun of the school rector Father Meletii)… but because of his low-class origins. By official decree, the ‘Decree of the Cooks’ Children’, all gymnasium students who came from certain backgrounds were not allowed to attend the school. The justification for this choice was that it would drag down academic outcomes… but as it becomes clear through Chukovskii’s telling, most of the students in the gymnasium were bribing their way through it anyway. And the smartest and most dedicated students, like Makarov and Chukovskii himself—who taught himself English and other subjects after his expulsion, using old second-hand flea-market textbooks bought with money he made from work—came from more humble backgrounds anyway. Interestingly, Chukovskii learns about this decree from one of his teachers, Ivan Mitrofanovich (whose students give him the nickname of ‘Finti-Monti’), who himself is repulsed by the corruption and injustice of the school’s ‘official culture’. Finti-Monti is the one who assures Chukovskii that his expulsion is not owing to anything he himself did. And he also provides Chukovskii the impetus to carry on his education by himself.

Kornei Chukovskii doesn’t really expostulate himself on politics in this book. How can he? It’s a recounting of his pre-political childhood experiences. He’s more focussed on his street rivalry with the ‘Pechonkies’ from several houses down his street, or on the exploits of the bicycle racer Utochkin. But there is a political tone to the book, particularly after he learns the circumstances of his expulsion from gymnasium. Chukovskii is particularly incensed by the pretensions to piety that his school administrators made, venerating the Emperor and bowing to icons of Christ and the Theotokos while taking bribes behind their backs—or the local policeman who takes kickbacks to look the other way at abuses in the market, and is hailed as a model citizen and a fine friendly fellow by the same—or his much-worse superiors in the police force who have unspoken agreements with a local crime gang led by the Drakondidi brothers, and who join in persecuting and wrongly framing Chukovskii’s friend Yusef Stock for trying to leave the gang.

Chukovskii’s insecurities about his own identity are some of the least interesting parts of the book—the characters come to life of their own, and we don’t really necessarily care that his mother is half-Ukrainian or that Stock is Jewish. It’s their personal mannerisms, habits of dress and action, and relationships with each other that endear them to us. (We wouldn’t care so much about Stock’s humorous attempts to reform himself in order to woo his girlfriend Celia, if we hadn’t seen him bumbling a break-in to Chukovskii’s mother’s apartment earlier!) But although I would never dare to equate my own comfortable and infinitely more boring childhood with Chukovskii’s tribulations growing up, there is a certain level at which Chukovskii’s understated concern about not really belonging anywhere mirrors my own insecurities about my Jewish heritage.

As an autobiographical account of growing up in the late Tsarist period, The Silver Crest carries more than its fair share of charm. One gets a more intimate sense of the margins of urban life before the revolutions here, than one would in the more straightforward scholarly treatments of the sort found in The Russian Worker. But it’s really the colourful supporting cast, however viewed through a gloss of gentle (or not-so-gentle) caricature, that makes this book shine.

Kornei Chukovskii

Monday, October 10, 2022

A review of the Ainu memoir of Kayano Shigeru

For Indigenous People’s Day today, here is a review of Our Land Was a Forest, by the late Ainu cultural historian, museum founder, school director and statesman Dr Kayano Shigeru (1926 – 2006). This memoir is a heartfelt, though at times bleak and rather bracing, read. I searched for it for a long time during my quest to find more source books in English about the Ainu, and turned to it after being rather disappointed with Dr Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney’s treatment of the Ainu living in Sakhalin Oblast in Russia. As clearly well- and methodically-researched as it was, and as clearly motivated as it was by good scholarly intentions on Ohnuki-Tierney’s part, it still nevertheless reflected an outsider’s view looking in at Ainu culture. The limits of this approach became more and more glaringly obvious the more I read, and the more I found myself longing to hear an Ainu perspective, speaking genuinely about themselves to outsiders.

This memoir by Kayano Shigeru does provide precisely that perspective about the Ainu people. It gives voice to the concrete historical experience of the Ainu as a people, and to one man’s struggle to preserve as much of the material history (in folk utensils and artefacts) and as much of the non-tangible history (the yukar tales, the funerary rites and the language in general) as possible. But more importantly even than these narrow goals, perhaps—Kayano gives voice to an entire body of experience which seems to be common to a broad swathe of Indigenous peoples worldwide. When he speaks of his grandmother’s worries about the traditional ways being passed on, of his grandfather’s family being decimated by TB, of his father’s struggles with alcoholism, or of his own attempts in his youth to distance himself from anything Ainu… and then when he speaks of the historical acts of dispossession, forced labour, forced relocation and forced assimilation—he is not merely speaking for himself, and not merely speaking for his own people. The experience of the Ainu as Kayano Shigeru describes it, shares definite and concrete resonances with the historical struggles of the Anishinaabe and Dakhóta Indigenous peoples of Minnesota, and with the Indigenous nations all across the North American continent.

Dr Kayano Shigeru, born with the surname Kaizawa, begins his memoirs with his childhood living together with his traditional-minded grandmother, and ends with his most recent endeavours to raise money for an Ainu-language primary school in his home village of Nibutani in the late 1970s. His lifetime spans several eras in terms of Japanese history—he lived through the late militarist era, through the Second World War, through American military occupation and into the current (Heisei) period. Yet the perspective he offers—being politically inside ‘Japan’ but not culturally a part of it—creates intriguing insights and connexions.

He begins by talking about how Nibutani must have looked before he was born. He recounts seeing a table at the nearby Fujiwara Eatery made from a single slab of katsura tree-trunk, one and a half metres wide, that was felled in Nibutani, and surmises both from his interviews with elderly loggers and from his own observations of the area that Nibutani used to be an immense virgin old-growth katsura forest, with trees growing as large as two metres in diameter. All of these trees growing in Nibutani were cut down by the time the author was born. Forestry and logging were an important part of the Hokkaidô economy throughout most of Kayano’s early life. Both Ainu and shamo (that is to say, Yamato Japanese) engaged in logging, and the author himself spent much of his early life doing forestry, surveying and harvesting lumber. However, according to his account, the deforestation of Nibutani and its surroundings happened only after the Yamato Japanese moved into the area.

Maple syrup: evidently an export of Hokkaidô even today

The author recounts that the Ainu used to live mostly by hunting venison (and occasionally bear) in the forests, and by fishing salmon in the Saru River. They had other sources of nourishment as well: interestingly from my view, the Ainu harvested nitope (maple sugar) from the topeni maple (Acer pictum mono) and used hollow bamboo tubes encased in ice to make, essentially, sugar on snow (a confection made by different means in New England). However, both deer and bear became rare in Hokkaidô, not enough to support the Ainu’s traditional lifestyle within the author’s lifetime. Indeed, Kayano Shigeru recounts only ever having seen a bear once, when he was working as a logger—and he counts himself fortunate to have lived to tell the tale.

The Japanese appropriated Ainu land, without any compensation to the Ainu people—and in the name of ‘preserving’ the ‘former aborigines’ of the renamed ‘Hokkaidô’, forced the Ainu to leave their villages by good farmland, forests and rivers, and move into barely-habitable marginal territory (like the village of Kaminukibetsu, practically in the mountains). Once there, many Ainu—now lacking access to good food or water, succumbed to hunger (many were forced to subsist on grass), or else to tuberculosis. In Kayano Shigeru’s grandfather’s time, given the medical supplies available to the Ainu, TB was tantamount to a death sentence.

The Japanese also rounded up able-bodied Ainu as forced labour. Because the feudal Japanese lords of Ezo (as Hokkaidô was then called) couldn’t pay their retainers in rice the way those on Honshû could, they compensated their retainers with land. In order to make this land profitable, they sent in samurai to essentially enslave the Ainu and force them to work, with barely the minimum necessary for survival as compensation. Many Ainu were worked to death in these camps. The author’s grandfather was forced to work in one of these camps as a young boy of ten. He recounts his grandmother telling him how his grandfather used to weep over the separation from his family, and made plans to escape the camp first by getting sick (this didn’t work), and then by cutting off one of his fingers with a kitchen knife (this didn’t work either; the cook callously told him to put salt on the stump of the wound), and finally by using pufferfish venom to poison himself, making it appear like he had jaundice (this worked). Much of Kayano Shigeru’s knowledge of Ainu culture came from his grandmother. She taught him how the Ainu would only go into the woods or go fishing during the proper season, and also to make the proper offerings of thanks to the kamuy (the gods, or non-human spirits of nature), so that game and fish would always be plentiful.

Salmon fishing with drift nets

Once the salmon became scarce (due to overfishing by the Yamato Japanese), however, the Japanese government began introducing new laws prohibiting ‘poaching’ along arbitrary lines, and enforced these laws inequitably on the Ainu. Dr Kayano’s father was one who fell foul of these laws: the author recounts how a policeman arrested his father, where the local court convicted him and sent him to gaol for the crime of… catching only enough salmon in the Saru River to feed his family and make appropriate sacrifices to the kamuy. Unfortunately, this arrest had a bad effect on the author’s family. The Kaizawas sent young Shigeru to live with an aunt, named Kayano, whose surname he adopted—to evade the stigma of being related to a convict. And when he came back from prison, Kaizawa suffered from a drinking problem which led him to squander his money and the family property. Kayano Shigeru vowed not to touch alcohol after seeing what it did to his father.

Kayano Shigeru also did not do very well in school, although he recounts that his school days were a great deal happier in Nibutani than those of Ainu children who went to majority-shamo schools. Such Ainu children were bullied and taunted mercilessly. Punning Ainu with ‘inu 犬’, the Japanese word for ‘dog’, was, in the author’s words, ‘only the beginning’. Ainu students were mocked for how hairy they were, or how poor their clothing was. In the Meiji period, wealthy Japanese students showed up to school with Western-style clothing: the predecessor of the modern Japanese school uniform. Less well-to-do students, particularly from rural areas, showed up in the Japanese kimono. In general, Ainu children were fortunate if they could afford a kimono for school; Western clothes were entirely beyond their grasp. It doesn’t take a great deal of imagination to understand how hard it would have been at school for an Ainu child who wore traditional clothing to school.

Early on, Shigeru formed an ambition of becoming a logging foreman, and when he left school he went straight into the lumber business. He was called up to serve in the Second World War as a reservist, and his reminiscences of wartime were generally those of working at the base, or supervising POWs who came in from China. He kept a journal during this time, recounting his experiences in the forest as well as during the war, which sadly he was forced to burn by his own commander after the Japanese surrender to keep it from falling into the hands of the Allies. (The Japanese military had a policy of burning its records before surrendering.)

In the years shortly after the war, Kayano began collecting folk utensils and artefacts (like ceremonial chopsticks used to offer sacrifices to the kamuy) from the people around him in his village. His reasoning, he said, was that of preservation. He detested the anthropologists who came to study the Ainu at that time. The anthropologists he was familiar with at this time came to draw Ainu blood, examine Ainu arms and backs to see how ‘hairy’ they were, and to take humiliating photographs of Ainu with numbered placards around their necks, like you’d see in mugshots. These anthropologists also had a nasty habit of essentially stealing folk artefacts from their Ainu hosts, which is one reason why Kayano was so insistent on getting hold of as many of them as he could. He always offered (to his wife’s chagrin and to his neighbours’ bemusement) above-market prices for what most of his neighbours considered to be ‘old junk’: reasoning that he didn’t want his neighbours to suffer loss from what they had made, and also that these goods would one day be considered antiques. He often had to save for months to acquire items this way, but he says that he preserved goodwill among his neighbours by this method.

Ikupasuy: ornate carved ceremonial chopsticks used when giving offerings to kamuy

Later on he somewhat revised his view of anthropologists, and although he was still selective in whom he chose to trust (particularly after an incident with a con artist who left him and several other Ainu stranded away from home before absconding with all their savings), he came to appreciate the work anthropologists were doing at preserving the non-tangible aspects of Ainu culture mentioned above: particularly the language. He notes he had a particularly warm relationship with Kindaichi Kyôsuke: the linguist who collaborated with Chiri Yukie in compiling the yukar tales. Kayano notes with particular appreciation Kindaichi’s love of poetry and his ability to compose. He began cooperating with Kindaichi and others, and recording stories and funeral rites on cassette tapes (even though this was considered rude by Ainu standards at the time), in order to preserve the language as well as the cultural context within which that language lived. He ended up establishing a museum in Nibutani, funded mostly by the Ainu community themselves but with considerable help from conservationist and sport societies in Japan, to display his collection and archival material. The book ends with recounting his experiences serving on the local council, and attempting to prevent the local primary school in Nibutani from being shut down and merged with the majority-Japanese primary school in neighbouring Biratori, although a postscript speaks of his later successes in preserving the school.

One of the things that makes this memoir so fascinating, is that he preserves inside it many examples of Ainu culture: diagrams of traditional Ainu houses; photographs and illustrations of Ainu crafts and instruments, including traps for hunting; and examples of Ainu oration and poetry (some of which are of his own composition). Oratory is evidently a highly prized art among the Ainu: they prided themselves on resolving conflicts between people or villages peacefully, and the way that was done was by having one village representative basically out-talk or out-bullshit the other one. Pawetok, or eloquence, is one of the three primary virtues in Ainu society, along with rametok (courage) and siwetok (harmony, or beauty).

China-Japan Youth Friendship Tour

Another interesting point of Kayano Shigeru’s later experiences, was his trip in February 1976 to China as part of the Youth Friendship Tour. He was not initially appreciative of the Chinese representative’s insistence on calling him Japanese—as far as he was concerned, he wasn’t Japanese, but Ainu. But he later came to observe and appreciate the way in which the Chinese government treated ethnic minorities within its own borders. He approved the way the Chinese published official materials and signs in Korean for the benefit of their Korean minority, as well as for the other 54 minority groups in Chinese borders, and wondered why the Japanese government couldn’t do the same thing for the Ainu. Kayano Shigeru was insistent, indeed, not on removing Japanese people from Hokkaidô, but on promoting policies that would conserve the natural resources and the cultural heritage of the Ainu people. While a representative of the Ainu people in Hokkaidô, Dr Kayano affiliated himself with the (now-defunct) Japan Socialist Party.

I don’t think I need to densely or in an obvious way spell out all of the parallels between Kayano Shigeru’s experiences as recounted in this memoir, and those of Indigenous people at least in the US who have suffered through many of the same experiences. These experiences, particularly those relating to the expropriation of land and the disappearance of the traditional ways, are in a certain sense common to Indigeneity writ large. Again, despite the obvious value of the latter, I’m still really glad to have read a book by an Ainu versed in his own people’s ways, rather than just another book about the Ainu by Western or Japanese anthropologists. I highly recommend this book to people who are interested in the history of the Ainu, the history of Japan, or in Indigenous literature in general.

Dr Kayano Shigeru

Thursday, September 22, 2022

The Russian Worker: a review

One of the books I’ve been reading on my own time recently has been the volume The Russian Worker: Life and Labour under the Tsarist Regime, edited by Victoria Bonnell. This volume is valuable because it presents—in both short-fictional and nonfiction forms—a series of sketches which trace out the life patterns, ideals, motives and travails of Russian industrial factory, textile and service workers. It presents the viewpoints, often highly personalised and partial, of five Russian authors who enjoyed a close degree of familiarity with the lives of the Russian working class, either by being part of it or by long-standing close observation: SI Kanatchikov, P Timofeev, FP Pavlov, EA Oliulina and AM Gudvan.

Several different political perspectives are represented in this volume. Kanatchikov was a member of the Social Democrats, and later the Communist Party—becoming a convinced Marxist over time. Timofeev, originally a Social Democrat, later drifted toward the populist and agrarian-socialist SRs. Pavlov, as clearly evidenced in his narrative, is a reform-minded liberal in the manner of the Kadets. Less is known about the ideological inclinations of Oliulina and Gudvan at the time they undertook their studies, but both of them maintained their positions and later continued their work under the Soviet government. One of the benefits of The Russian Worker, therefore, is that we get to see the worker’s position from several different angles.

One notices similarities between post-1880 Russia and other developing countries during the initial stages of capitalist development. Many workers, like Kanatchikov, travelled into the cities from the rural villages to look for work, or were sent there by their parents. Others, like the ‘apprentice’ salesclerks mentioned in Gudvan’s essay, were essentially kidnapped from their villages (around poorer northern cities like Yaroslavl, Novgorod and Pskov) by black-market ‘middlemen’, where they were bought by store managers and essentially used as slave labour. In either case, the conditions which the average Russian worker had to endure were dangerous, unhealthy, cramped, squalid and abusive.

Most Russian workers were former peasants who had been emancipated from serfdom in 1861. However, emancipation did not bring with it freedom in anything more than a bare legal sense—they received neither land nor money upon being ‘freed’. The owners of the urban factories took full advantage of this precarious position. Workers who came in from the village were very often ‘on their own’ when looking for work, as Timofeev describes. Many times they had to depend on favours from others from their home village in getting work. And villages themselves often depended on remittance income from their urban workers to survive. As such, workers didn’t often have savings sufficient to take care of themselves or advance.

Workers could have their pay docked for mistakes by the owner or the foreman, and often were docked for petty and arbitrary reasons. Foremen also had the prerogative to beat workers with their fists. Owners often withheld even the promised wage, which ranged from 70 kopecks to 1 ruble a day for most workers. Many workers were put to machines that did not have safety guards, and injuries and loss of digits or limbs were common. Many workers only had one set of clothes which they wore through the whole week. They would work anywhere between twelve and fourteen hours, even though the Tsarist government had legally capped the workday at a maximum of eleven hours. Workers’ living space and bedding was not cleaned or washed unless they did it themselves (something prohibitively difficult after long days on the factory floor), and as a result, vermin such as cockroaches and bedbugs were common.

Even the more respectable factories in Russia usually housed their workers in quasi-military barracks, on bunks with practically no other personal space. If the worker had a family, the family would also be housed in these barracks on bunks. Meals were served from a communal kitchen by the married workers’ wives, with the money for food being pooled by the ‘elder’ (often elected) of the factory artel’, who additionally had quasi-religious functions like assisting the factory priest and deacons at Liturgy or keeping the icon lamps lit. (In Timofeev’s telling, Old Believer workers were sometimes passed up for eldership in the artel’ for this reason.)

The artel’ would occasionally serve the same functions as a labour union, but was more often an extension of the rural collective obshchina or mir—the antique grassroots-communal organisation by which the free Russian peasantry had survived since at least the 1600s (and possibly many centuries before). The factory artel’, however, had very little bargaining power against the factory owners or directors. In addition to this, Timofeev describes how there was a pre-capitalist class divide between skilled workers (masterovoi) and unskilled workers (rabochii)—which was already being dissolved by the owners who wanted to reduce the compensation of the skilled workers in the factories. It seems the owners quickly understood that they needed the distinction between skilled and unskilled in order to retain control, so although the masterovoi were still considered rabochii, the former rabochii were called ‘black-workers’ (chernorabochii).

The factory directors themselves were a motley bunch. Many of them were of French or German extraction—it’s implied that their forebears were among the transplants brought to Russia by Peter I or Empress Catherine. Others were among the lucky few who managed to play the system of favours among foremen and assistant foremen, and came into their director’s position through marriage. The Russian directors were rarely better than the foreign ones—and in some respects they could be worse. Timofeev mentions factories owned by a Russian director from a particular village, which would only hire new workers from their home village and shut their floors to anyone else. If you were fired from another factory or down on your luck, you could give such factories a pass completely.

The commonalities between the factory directors, however, were that they tended to be greedy and callous—many of them would refuse to pay their workers in a timely fashion, and had to be begged or cajoled into it—and poorly educated. Pavlov complains about the almost universally low degree of literacy among factory directors, ascribing it to the nepotism and chance by which they were elevated to that status, in addition to an attitude amounting to: ‘why should I read books? I’ve got a factory to run!’. He describes the attitude of an archetypical factory director when an inspector tries to speak reason to him about conditions in his factory. The director simply tries to blame the workers themselves for the conditions, or complains about the expenses involved in the upkeep of his own equipment.

The spiritual condition, such as it could be called, of most workers, wasn’t much better. Without hope of advancement, and without entertainments of a more uplifting sort, most workers—both male and female—resorted to drink for an escape. ‘Blue Monday’ was often observed: a ritual in which entire factories and shops would shut down on account of factory-wide drinking binges in which foremen and owners would partake as well as the average workers on the floor. Venereal diseases, particularly syphilis, were common among workers. And—not that workers had much to gamble with anyway—games of chance with cards and dice were also popular.

Women had it worse than men. Oliunina describes that Russian women began to be draughted into the factories during the Russo-Japanese War, though they had been working in textile mills long before that. Women worked for pay that was significantly less—often only half as much—as men working at a similar job. They also required (so owners thought) less living space. They were treated often little better than children who were put to work. Oliunina’s description of female textile workers is depressing enough. She says that most women in textile-work developed drinking and smoking habits by the age of 25.

And Gudvan’s descriptions of women’s fate in clerical work are even more harrowing. Most women who entered clerical professions, particularly in pastry and clothing shops in urban settings, were hired based on their attractiveness, at a young age. Bosses in these shops particularly went after young, pretty, unmarried women… and their first ‘qualification’ for such jobs was their willingness to perform sexual services for their employer. Bosses often refused to pay their female employees even the legal minimum wage, and when these employees asked for what they were owed, their bosses often told them to go for an ‘evening stroll’ in order to make ends meet. Gudvan accounts that, though the number of undercompensated clerical workers engaged in prostitution in Western countries rarely exceeded 15% (a bad enough figure as it is), in Russia that number was a horrific 45%.

However, Kanatchikov notes that a significant but seminal sliver of the workers—perhaps two percent—used what meagre savings and spare time were left to them out of their twelve-, thirteen- or fourteen-hour workdays, in order to acquire articles and books. Kanatchikov mentions that the Russian workers in his artel’ were often engrossed by tabloid press like the Moscow Sheet, but that they also enjoyed plays like Bogdan Khmelnitskii, and poetry by Dante, Byron, Pushkin and Franko. Sometimes, particularly in Moscow and Petersburg, the artel’ would organise trips to art museums for the workers. More importantly, these workers were curious about news from outside Russia. Many of them read history and political theory—and many of these educated workers tended to gravitate to the writings of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.

This was one particularly interesting point of the book: this highlighted difference between workers’ aspirations and the stupidity and complacency of the (both transplanted and native-grown) bourgeoisie. It is never explicitly stated by any of the authors, but I could reasonably see this as being one of the primary factors behind the success of Russia’s three revolutions (1905, 1917 and 1918). The Russian urban owner class was completely unprepared for the rage of Russia’s recently- and partially-urbanised working class, fuelled by a faith in Marxian theory which was only lately ingested.

Another interesting point raised by the book, is that a great deal of the desire for social reforms favouring the workers came from within the Tsarist government itself. Pavlov, interestingly, describes in semi-fictional form an encounter between a factory inspector (an agent of the Tsar) and the director he worked for. The factory inspector, it is strongly implied, was formerly a worker himself, understood the relationship of the worker to his workplace, and sympathised with the worker’s troubles. In Pavlov’s account, the Tsar’s inspectors were often the ones to push for improved living conditions, for increases to the minimum wage, for timely and regular pay, for reduction in working hours to the legal maximum, and for upgrades to the factory machinery to make them safer to use. Intriguingly, Pavlov, a Kadet-style liberal reformist, places this agent of the Tsarist autocracy to the left of himself in terms of favouring the workers… in his own account, Pavlov tries (unsuccessfully) to strike a compromise between the director and the inspector.

However, Pavlov, Timofeev and Oliunina are all in seeming agreement that the Tsar’s reforms, attempts at government intervention, and appeals to the courts were ineffective. Timofeev sums it up pithily with a borrowed Chinese saying: ‘God is too high, and the Tsar is too far away.’ The issue with the Tsarist government, in Pavlov’s and Timofeev’s views, was not that it was reactionary, tyrannical and overbearing, or part-and-parcel with the capitalist machinery that was crushing the worker. Rather, the issue with the Tsar was that even his well-intentioned social reforms to improve the lot of Russia’s workers were insufficiently and irregularly enforced, leading to a mismatch between the laws on the books ostensibly put in place for workers’ protection, and the situation ‘on the ground’ in most workplaces. This fed into the frustrations that workers already had with the plight they were in, prior to the First World War.

Again, Bonnell’s book doesn’t really purport to be an exhaustive study of the plight of Russia’s workers before the Revolution—however, as source material for understanding Russia’s working class from a worker’s-eye view, it is invaluable to the English-language reader, and I highly recommend it for that purpose. It’s a text that sheds a great deal of light on the conditions that led up to the Russian Revolution, and has helped me revise and clarify certain key pieces of my own perspective on the question of ‘why Russia was first’ to embrace Marx’s theories.

Saturday, September 17, 2022

Why Governor Denny Tamaki won

My sincere and heartfelt congratulations to Denny Tamaki, the hapa haole governor of Okinawa, who was handily reelected to his post this past week. He easily defeated his challenger, the mayor of Ginowan Sakima Atsushi, who was backed by the right-wing Lib Dems and Komeitô. Tamaki won on a mandate to relocate the US Marine Corps Air Station at Futenma, not to a new location inside Okinawa, but outside of Okinawa or outside of Japan altogether. Tamaki won the gubernatorial post by pretty much the same margin as he did in 2018, by about 80,000 votes. Also notable is that Governor Tamaki succeeded the late right honourable Governor Onaga Takeshi, who selected Tamaki to succeed him before his untimely death, and also ran on the same platform of opposition to US Marines presence in Okinawa. This shows that the US Marines are deeply and perennially unpopular on the archipelago. In order to understand why this is, three historical facts must first be taken into account.

The first fact is that Okinawa used to be its own independent country, the Kingdom of Ryûkyû [Lûchû]. It had its own language, its own customs, its own government. The Okinawan people, or Uchinanchu, are broadly agreed to have descended, much like the Ainu people of Hokkaidô, from the ancient indigenous Jômon culture which inhabited Japan in prehistory—prior to the influx, or invasion, of the Yayoi [or Yamato] people from the Korean peninsula, who are the ancestors of the modern Japanese culture.

The Okinawan people were unified under the Shô Dynasty in 1429, which received aid in that goal from Ming Dynasty China. The Shô kings ruled Okinawa as an independent nation until 1872, when the archipelago was subjugated and conquered by the newfangled Empire of Japan—an unbroken independent rule of over 400 years. For comparison’s sake: Okinawa was already its own nation with a sovereign king and an established culture, nearly two centuries before the first Fujian settlers set foot on the island of Taiwan (which was of course already inhabited by Indigenous people—Indigenous people who, by the way, by and large do not support Taiwanese independence from China… but that is another topic).

Okinawa was subject to the same humiliating forced-assimilation techniques that were used on their Ainu cousins to the north. Japanese rule brought with it a public education system that systematically forbade the use of the Ryûkyûan language. Ryûkyûan dress was mocked and ridiculed as outdated, feudal, Sinitic. Schoolchildren who used their own native tongue were shamed by hanging ‘hôgen fuda’ placards around their necks while their teachers and fellow-students hurled abuse at them. Okinawa also bore the brunt of the Japanese Empire’s constant push to expand. The island archipelago was a natural staging ground for Japanese invasions of the Asian mainland. Conscription policies were harsher on Okinawa than elsewhere, and Okinawan society was flooded with militaristic propaganda and soldiers from the big island. At least 500 Okinawan women are recorded serving as ‘comfort women’ to the Japanese forces, alongside the much more numerous cohorts of Korean and Chinese sex slaves.

The second historical fact to be considered is that Okinawa has always borne the costs of war between Japan and its neighbours. Okinawa was the site of the only major land battle on Japanese territory in the Pacific theatre of WWII, and in that battle over 200,000 people were killed, including anywhere between 100,000 and 160,000 civilians. Throughout the battle the Okinawan civilian population was horrifically abused and slaughtered by both sides. The Allied forces treated the women of Okinawa in much the same way occupying soldiers treated the women of occupied territories throughout that war in each theatre. There were over 10,000 documented cases of rape committed by Allied GIs against Okinawan women during the 84 days of fighting. Many Okinawan girls committed suicide rather than be captured, tortured and bodily defiled by the Allies. But there, they had little choice: those who tried to surrender to the Allied forces were usually shot and killed anyway by Japanese soldiers who were embedded among the population. And the Imperial Japanese Army, shameless in their hideous brutality as they had been throughout the war, even against ‘their own’, had absolutely no qualms about using Okinawan civilians, including schoolgirls, as human shields against the Allies.

Even after the war was over, Okinawa still was forced to bear the costs. Despite FDR discussing with Chiang Kai-shek the possibility of Okinawan sovereignty in 1943 (either fully or in part under the Republic of China), Harry Truman immediately and unilaterally reneged on any such intentions. From 1945 all the way up until 1972, Okinawa was essentially a military dictatorship under the ‘trusteeship’ of the United States Army. (Japan’s sovereignty returned 20 years before, in 1952.) The Army dictatorship appointed governors for the island which (with one exception lasting all of five days) were drawn from the US Army brass.

Just as the IJA had done, the US Army used Okinawa as a military staging ground for its operations on the Asian mainland, particularly during the Korean and Vietnam Wars. The US Army seized arable land from the local residents for the purpose of building bases, forcibly evicting as many as 250,000 Okinawans from their homes and farms during the 1950s alone. And once they were established on the islands, they behaved toward the local population exactly as the Japanese imperialists had done. Okinawans were treated as second-class. Although they lived in what was officially a US territory, they had no rights as US citizens or even residents. Neither were they allowed to travel freely between Okinawa and Japan without a special permit. The military bases in Okinawa brought increases in noise and crime (particularly sexual crimes against Okinawan women), and many of the evicted Okinawans, bereft of their means of subsistence, lived under conditions of starvation and intense economic deprivation.

The American military presence on Okinawa, the effects on the local population and the propinquity of the GIs led many Uchinanchu to protest and resist the Korean and Vietnam Wars. The global counterculture and anti-war movement distinctly touched Okinawa. The Koza Uprising of 1970 is one direct example of this. During this time particularly, music became a focus for asserting a distinct Okinawan identity, as well as voicing political protest. Many musicians in Okinawa, from Miyanaga Eiichi to Kina Shôkichi and Rob Kajiwara, have engaged in peace activism and protests against military presence in Okinawa.

The third historical fact that must be remembered may be summed up in William Faulkner’s famous quip that the past is never dead; it’s not even past. The US bases in Okinawa are still foci of abuses and crimes against the Uchinanchu. There was one particularly gruesome incident in 1995 involving three US Marines assaulting and violating a twelve-year-old girl; and another high-profile rape-murder in 2016 committed by another former US Marine who worked on the base. But this is probably only the tip of the iceberg; according to The Intercept, between 2017 and 2019 the NCIS investigated eight separate incidences of sexual assault and misconduct by American servicemen—and then covered them all up, not reporting them to the relevant local or Japanese authorities, and not even reporting them to Congress as American law requires.

Okinawans are aware of, and justly incensed by, all of these incidents… which is why they keep electing anti-base politicians like Denny Tamaki. Governor Tamaki himself is the son of an Uchinanchu woman and a US Marine who left him and his mother before he was born: in his person, he symbolises much of Okinawa’s predicament and the way in which its history and identity have been shaped by occupation. Modern Okinawan artists like sanshin player Uema Ayano, and authors like Shun Medoruma, as well as the aforementioned Miyanagi Eiichi, Kina Shôkichi and Rob Kajiwara, also give voice to the deep desire of Okinawan people for disarmament and peace with their neighbours, as well as the sense of anger that most residents of Okinawa still justly feel over their treatment over one and a half centuries of what they still justly consider to be foreign occupation. It is my hope personally, that Governor Denny Tamaki is given the opportunity to follow through on his proposals, and benefit the Okinawan people by the demilitarisation of his native islands.

Tuesday, March 22, 2022

Chiri Yukie and the Ainu Shinyôshû

I recently finished reading the Benjamin Peterson translation of The Song the Owl God Sang by Chiri Yukie. I was largely spurred to begin reading literature by and about peoples like the Ainu of Sakhalin, Hokkaidô and the Kuril Islands, as well as the Sámi of the Kola Peninsula and the northernmost reaches of the Scandinavian Peninsula, by the recent troubles in the Ukraine. Both groups of people have suddenly found themselves again the victims of geopolitical machinations between East and West (or, in the case of the Ainu, between East and further East).

The yukir tales of the Ainu, compiled and translated into Japanese by Chiri Yukie shortly before she died tragically of heart failure at the age of nineteen, are valuable in part because they represent the first written work in Ainu, by an Ainu person, written from an Ainu perspective. Chiri Yukie wrote the tales as she recalled them from the aunt and grandmother who raised her, in large part to honour them and the stories she felt were slipping away. Ms Chiri provides also this preface to her only work, which highlights her deep affection for her ancestors and for her land, and itself manages to tug rather hard at the old heartstrings:
Long ago, this broad land of Hokkaidô was a world in which our ancestors lived lives of freedom. Like children of unspoilt innocence, they lived their carefree lives in the embrace of mother Nature, whose beloveds they were—what happy people they must have been!

In winter, kicking aside the thick snow that covered field and forest, hunting the bear across mountain after mountain in defiance of the frost that froze all the world—on the summer ocean, in the cool wind, swimming the green waves, setting sail, under the cries of the white seagulls, in little leaf-like boats to seek fish—in the flower-filled spring, bathing in the gentle sunlight, singing along with the endlessly-warbling birds, plucking sagebrush and butterbur—in the red-leafed fall, splitting the ripe ears of grain, not extinguishing until midnight the salmon-fishing fires, hearing the deer cry to one another in the ravine, falling, beneath the round moon, into a dream-laden slumber. Oh, what a wonderful way of life it must have been! That tranquil state of mind is already a thing of the past, a dream torn apart by the passing decades, for this earth is changing quickly, with hills and meadows becoming villages and villages becoming cities one after another.

Somehow, almost unnoticed, the form that Nature had worn in ancient times began to fade, and of the people who once dwelt so happily in field and mountain, most are no longer to be found. The few of us who remain of our race do nothing but stare in astonishment at the way the world has gone. Yet what we see from these eyes is that the radiance of the beautiful spirits of our forebears, whose every gesture was ruled by a sense of the spiritual, has been burdened with unease, consumed with discontent, weakened, dizzied, become helpless, gone beyond the reach of outside help, a miserable sight, something doomed to annihilation… such is the name we have now—what a sad name it is that we now bear.

Our happy ancestors of long ago—it must have been impossible for them to imagine that in the end their native land would decay to this wretched state.

Time flows ever on, the world endlessly goes on changing. If from the worthless remnant who still exist on the site of our great defeat, there could someday emerge just two or three strong leaders, then perhaps the day when we catch up again with the changing world might not be far off. That is our true cherished wish, for which we pray morning and night.

But… the language that we use each day to share our feelings with our beloved ancestors has become worn with use. Even the beautiful words that have been handed down to us are mostly timid things, things which will surely be extinguished along with their weak, doomed users. Oh, what a heartbreaking thing—and almost already only a memory.

I, born an Ainu and living among Ainu speakers, in my spare moments, in rainy evenings and snowy nights, have put together with my clumsy brush just one or two of the very least of the tales our ancestors told for amusement. If it should turn out that this work is read by some who are kind enough to understand us, then I shall share with our race’s ancestors joy without limit, happiness unsurpassable.
Evidently the Ainu Shinyôshû was of remarkable interest both from an ethnographic-sociological perspective, and from a linguistic one. The Ainu tales that Chiri Yukie relates here, all concern the various kamui (spirits, gods or devils which inhabit animal forms like those of the owl, the fox, the otter, the killer whale or the mussel) that both inhabit their own world and interact with the human world and the world of nature in a way that irrevocably ties all three worlds together.

In the yukar, Chiri Yukie describes spirits both benign and malevolent, and the ways in which human beings are encouraged to exchange gifts with them (in particular decorated staves called inau and jars of sake) in order to ensure continued sources of sustenance in hunting and fishing. The picture that emerges from the yukar is one of a complex gift economy, in which the key demands are restraint and respect for the other living creatures in the ecosystem. Polluting the water by using walnut wood, for example, was considered a capital offense against the salmon and their young.

It is also of interest that even when the gods are referring to human beings as children or as ‘little’, playing with toy weapons and toy traps, the kamui are still held to account, often quite harshly, for their part in the cosmic balance. The yukar often take the form of ironic morality tales, in which the narrator transgresses some point of the agreement between Ainu and kamui, and dies ‘a pointless death, a horrible death’ as a result. And the human culture-hero in many of these stories, Okikirmui, exemplifies the virtues of modesty, temperance and reverence; though he usually gets one over on a kamui who goes too far, by acts of cunning or by cutting deals with other kamui (like Apefuchi, the goddess of the hearth) rather than by acts of individual bravery. Thus it seems there is already something of a Russian influence on Ainu folklore, as Okikirmui often exemplifies the virtues of a hero of Russian folklore: humility, simplicity, compassion for simple folk combined with a cunning that puts him one step ahead of those more powerful than him.

It’s truly a shame that Chiri Yukie died at the young age she did. This collection of Ainu yukar that she transcribed was supposed to be the first of many, coming out of her collaboration with linguist Kindaichi Kyôsuke. As it stands, this collection is barely enough to whet the appetite, a mere glimpse upon a culture and a mode of living that was already being killed off when she began to commit it to writing.

Likewise, this English translation by Benjamin Peterson is an intriguing look into a culture which has been badly understood by its Japanese conquerors, and even worse-understood by the Anglophone interpreters of Japanese sources on the Ainu. It also furnishes us with an intriguing and informative window into the world of Ainu shamanic literature and poetry, much the same as The Nisan Shamaness does. However, it is limited. I would have preferred it (and given the short length of the collection, this could easily have been managed) if Peterson had included a transcription of the original Ainu alongside his English translation, which would also have been truer to the intertextual project that Chiri Yukie herself completed between Ainu and Japanese.

I am looking forward to reading more about the Ainu and their way of life. As some among the non-aligned (and therefore considered unimportant in Western media) victims in another theatre of the Ukraine war, they deserve far better than to be forgotten.

Friday, January 14, 2022

Kazakhstan’s recent troubles

Before saying anything else, my prayers go out to Kazakhstan and its people. I do have something of a personal stake in this: I love both the country and the people very much, having lived for two months in a small village in the vicinity of Almaty. I utterly hate to see unrest and violence impacting people that I care about. I hope that my Kazakh and Russian acquaintance who live there are safe, sound and well. And I pray that Kazakhstan recovers quickly and returns to a more orderly and just mode of living.

There are, however, a number of angles to the recent troubles which, well, trouble and raise questions for me. I will attempt to sketch them with some analysis here.

First of all: Kazakhstan has long been under the hand of Nursultan Nazarbaev, whose policies could be summed up in the following way. Geopolitical non-alignment and strategic multipolarity. Papering over ethnic tensions between Kazakhs, Russians and others in favour of a multi-ethnic Kazakhstani identity. Neoliberal privatisation reforms making a small handful of his cronies ridiculously wealthy while leaving everyone else poorer than they were in Soviet times. And above all: do not question the Big Bread. This model worked, with its bumps, for the three decades he was in power following independence, but the inner tensions and contradictions were all too easily noticed by astute political observers: even sympathetic pro-Nazarbaev reformists like Orazaly Sabden.

So you had a society that, struggling as all post-Soviet republics did through the economic collapse and lawless years of the 90s, emerged with its outward face fairly clean. Kazakhstan began to rise in prominence and clout, with its skilful manoeuvres between Russia, China and the United States. Investment rose. Kazakh cultural traditions regained a certain pride-of-place. But the brutal neoliberal economic policies combined with the cult of the leader left – if you will pardon the simplification, dear reader – both a material and a spiritual lacuna: a massive, almost globally-unparalleled wealth gap combined with a lack of moral direction and clarity. These lacunae can be observed most poignantly in the films of Kazakhstani director Dárejan Ómirbaev: particularly Cardiogram, The Killer and The Student.

However, there were notable shifts even during Nazarbaev’s time. I already mentioned Sabden above. His book on the moral philosophy of Abai Qunanbaiuly clearly had the imprimatur of official approval. However, the final chapter of that book was a deep, incisive critique of contemporary Kazakhstani economic policy and political culture. Dr Sabden excoriated the government for allowing Kazakhstan’s wealth to be concentrated in the hands of a select few, as well for abdicating completely the field of spiritual and moral renewal and leaving it open to the depredations of fundamentalist Wahhâbi Islâm. Dr Sabden advocated a ressourcement of Abai Qunanbaiuly’s moral philosophy and poetic Sufî sensibility in order to revitalise the Kazakh sense of moral purpose. (Given the prominent placement of Abai’s portrait in the key scene of Ómirbaev’s The Student, I find it likely he would agree.)

The current president, Qasım-Jomart Toqaev, came into power with populist, Bernie Sanders-style promises to redistribute Kazakhstan’s wealth, end bank bailouts, and make the rich pay their fair share. And indeed, he did carry through on at least one part of his economic-populist reform platform, to eliminate consumer debt for a significant swathe of Kazakhstan’s beleaguered working class. This evidently trod on the toes of some former Nazarbaev loyalists, because the reforms didn’t seem to really go anywhere after that.

But the current protests carry, at least in some degree, the flavour of dissatisfaction at precisely these failings of the Nazarbaev years, in which Toqaev himself – having been by necessity a long-standing Nazarbaev loyalist – is viewed as complicit. The demands for higher wages, price caps on liquefied petroleum gas and basic commodities, direct representation at the local level—these are responses to the crisis in material conditions. However, the lack of spiritual direction has also infected the protests. The protesters’ demand for Kazakhstan to break ties with Russia is almost certainly exogenous to Kazakhstani popular opinion and stinks of colour-revolution tactics. In addition, at least some of the protesters seem to be guided by appeals to radical Islâm, and indeed some of the street violence (like the brutal decapitations of two policemen) seemed to follow a modus operandi that Wahhâbi groups in Central Asia have tended to follow. This would seem to lend at least some credence to the government’s claim that ‘bandits and terrorists’ had infiltrated the protest movement.

So… I’m seeing some definite strands in both the protests and the response.

Among the protests, first and most prominently: there is an economic-populist dissatisfaction with living conditions and the wealth gap. Second: there is an element that has been coopted for geopolitical purposes and mobilised against the Eurasian bloc of countries. Third: there is an element that is guided by violent fundamentalist Wahhâbism. The first strand is worthy of support. The latter two are not.

And then the response by the government. Interestingly, there seems to have been a bit of a power struggle going on behind the scenes between Toqaev and Nazarbaev et al. Nazarbaev was stripped of his office on the Security Council, and at least one of his Otan diehards (former PM Kárim Másimov) was detained on charges of treason. The response by CSTO countries, sending in troops to restore order in support of Toqaev, seems to indicate that the new president is getting support from Russia and the other members of the security org.

The drastic and draconian nature of the state’s response to the protests is regrettable (with over 9,000 arrests so far reported), but there are reasons to be cautiously hopeful. Auntie Beeb reports that Toqaev has reiterated his pledges to reform the government and redistribute Kazakhstan’s wealth to its neediest citizens. If Toqaev no longer sees a need to cater to Nazarbaev’s clique now that he’s out of the picture, he may in fact be able to move forward to meet some of the justified economic demands of the protesters – but it’s still very early days as yet. In the meanwhile: prayers from the bottom of my heart to God for those who have been killed, prayers for those who have been arrested, prayers for those who have lost their homes and businesses to the looting, and prayers for Kazakhstan’s orderly public life to improve.