Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Trotsky on the Train South, 1912: "An Austro-Hungaro-Balkan International!"

Bulgarian soldiers dig trenches in the First Balkan War, 1912

Although the railway line from Budapest to Belgrade proceeds mainly in a southerly direction, from the cultural standpoint one moves eastward... On the station platforms and in the third-class carriages the multilingual, motley, culturally-confused East is displayed before you in kaleidoscopic fashion. Two Bulgarian students, a Serbian student and a Hungarian teacher talk together in an incredible language made up of Bulgarian, German, Serbian and French words... A Bulgarian worker, back from America after four years' absence, shares with a Slovak worker his observations about life across the Atlantic: half familiar words, gestures of explanation, misunderstandings, and the indulgent smiles of persons who are used to grasping only half of what the other one is saying. An Austro-Hungaro-Balkan International!1

- Leon Trotsky, Correspondences from the Balkan Wars, 1912

As war broke out between the Balkan states and the Ottoman Empire in 1912 Leon Trotsky took his seat on a train from Vienna to Belgrade. This latest military by-product of the concert of European Powers was to shock public opinion in the west with both its speed and its ferocity. Diplomatic efforts on the part of the European powers had the familiar effect of spurring nationalist tensions where they meant to dampen them. Trotsky was in the vanguard of condemnation of atrocities committed by various armies as they criss-crossed each other's territories - though especially of the Bulgarian, closely aligned with Tsarism to its north. His journalism (for leading Kiev daily Kievskaya Mysl) on the Balkan Wars, remarkable for its literary panache, is also an exercise in grand strategy. He is at once scathing of and sympathetic towards 'impulsive', 'underdeveloped' Balkan societies. For Maria Todorova, the influential author of Imagining the Balkans, Trotsky evinces - most surprisingly - textbook liberalism, his "blanket pontification" expressed in a "rhetoric almost as if lifted from present-day liberal think-tanks." But uniting liberal opinion against Tsarism would have been in this itinerant revolutionary's broader political interest. 


Nevertheless, as a 'good European' Trotsky undoubtedly shared the distaste of the European intelligentsia for such vulgar nationalist blood-letting. For a Marxist, too, such fiddly conflicts among malcontent "dwarf states" would have seemed a nuisance. One can't help but wonder - a little childishly - if Trotsky booked himself a First, Second or Third class ticket on that train. And what must those he surveyed - the "rabble" of gypsies and ashen-faced wives, skin darkening as the train ploughed south through the Danubian basin - have thought of this rather uptight, priggish Russian gentleman? 

In his own words, Trotsky was quite appalled by the situation he discovered in Serbia:

"I went to the war in the Balkans thinking of it as not merely probable but inevitable... when I learned that some men whom I knew well - politicians, editors, university teachers - were already under arms, at the frontier, in the front line, that they would be among the first to kill and be killed - then the war, the abstraction about which I had been speculating so easily in my thoughts and in my articles, seemed to me something unlikely and impossible." (64

Yet the First World War, again the progeny of Great Power manoeuvres in the Balkans, was just two and half years away. The formation of the Red Army, which Trotsky led in civil war, three more after that. In that conflict so many assertions of western moral superiority to, and sympathy with, the Balkans would quickly be revealed for the nonsense they were. Yet Trotsky was right on one account: "No way forward but federation" (68) was his conclusion apropos the Balkans. History was to vindicate him twice (cunningly though: first as farce; then as tragedy). What prospect, then, of a third?

(The above is partially excerpted from a forthcoming long-form essay on EU integration of the Balkans) 

1Trotsky, The Balkan Wars 1912-13, 58

Sunday, 12 January 2014

11 Places You Definitely Should Go in Eastern Europe (And One More You Shouldn't)

Arty silliness at Meet Factory, Prague

As a rule I don't really like travelling. It makes me nervous and irritable. In a world of interconnections, which it's your perilous job to hop between, there's far too much scope for accident, error, breakdown, and general chaos. If anyone has ever been on holiday without a) getting lost and giving in to drink or b) getting lost and having an argument then let me know. But please don't insist that it's all 'part of the experience' because, basically, I'm scared of experiences. If you want to learn about a place you're far better off plucking something from the torrent of publishing that undoubtedly already exists on the subject and actually reading about it. However, there are places which - stumbled upon usually by accident - press themselves upon you in ways books alone can't. Were that not the case, this blog (and countless others like it) wouldn't exist. Here, then, is my grudging tribute to those.

Ghetto Memorial, Krakow, Poland

11. The Jewish Museum, Krakow

Going to Auschwitz is basically a decent thing to do, though there are respectful and less respectful ways of going about it. Pulling v-signs and posing for snaps in front of the firing wall is not one of them. I walked around growing increasingly gloomy as tourists snapped endlessly at exhibits of piled human hair and emptied Zyklon B canisters. Like the Eiffel Tower or the Statue of Liberty, Auschwitz has become part of a tourist rat run, inevitably emptied of meaning by the commodification that comes with it. What needed reiterating was the fact of its being the actual place where well over a million lives were violently ended. Sadder, and more sobering, is the Galician Jewish Museum in Krakow. It stands on a little side street on the edge of Kazimierz, the old Jewish quarter. Inside Krakow's tiny remaining Jewish community puts on talks promoting Jewish-Central European relations and exhibits artists with a Jewish connection. The permanent exhibition contains photos of relics of Galician Jewish life: hand-carved animal engravings unique to the region, many still to be found nestling in the Polish countryside. It is a reminder of the specificity of the lives lost, and a refutation of the effect of the endless recycling of statistics, which, appalling though they are, tend themselves to dehumanize. Visit while reading Timothy Snyder's Bloodlands for a particularly brutal juxtaposition.

Read: Bloodlands, Timothy Snyder

Belgrade-Sarajevo in the snow

10. Take a Train from Belgrade to Sarajevo and back again

Not an experience I actually relished. On the way there we forgot to buy water for this nine hour journey, winding up with a block of jelly-like cheese, some bread and two beers. On the way back my only company was a pair of quiet Bosnian students on their way from Sarajevo to their home in Doboj. Needless to say, they were a little confused by the purpose of my journey to Belgrade. 'From there I'm flying back to Warsaw,' I explained. It must have seemed terribly convoluted, and indeed it was. The train barrels through largely unremarkable landscape, leaving Bosnia and entering western Serbia via the empty Krajina plains of eastern Croatia. Yet travelling by train gives you the opportunity to see into people's lives, the tracks cutting behind the backs of villages, their gardens and homes laid out for the eyes of curious observers. The still pertinent landmine warnings that dot hilly and wooded areas are made all the more shocking by the fact kids on bikes play freely around them. Abandoned houses sit alone in the snow. Occasionally, in the north, Serbian flags can be seen hanging down over the tops of garden fences. The terrifying experience of stern Croatian border-guards disappearing with my passport aside, it was at least an eye-opener. Closed until 2010, they still only run one train a day on the line between Belgrade and Sarajevo, and given the status of Balkan diplomacy it might not last long. A monument to Yugoslav nation-building and the terrible ethnic breakdown that ensued in the 1990s, its renewed existence is in itself a marvel. See the New York Times' photos of the journey here. While you're at it you could do worse than reading Trotsky's collected Balkan War journalism, especially his accounts of the chaos and exuberance of train travel in the Balkans. For an account of what exactly continues to divide the region, the anarchist activist for Balkan federation, Andre Grubacic, writes journalism that is fiery, informative, and necessary.

Read: Trotsky's Balkan War journalism; Andre Grubacic's Don't Mourn, Balkanize!

Some serious wall, Berlin

9. Hohenschoenhausen Stasi Prison, Berlin

Once the DDR security police's biggest prison, the fleeing former occupants had no time to ditch its shocking contents. What was discovered was as alarming to outside observers as it was already suspected by DDR citizens. Torture, standing-cells, interrogations rooms, and cosy, well-equipped offices helped sustain what was - at the time - the most high-tech surveillance state that ever existed. Eric Hobsbawm once said that the DDR had to be considered, even by the western Left, a "going concern" - i.e. a real possibility for change in the capitalist world, one worthy of supporting - despite it being a "nasty little place". That ambiguity can be debated, and the presentation of the museum today laudably encourages it. Members of the public are shown around either by students of the regime or former inmates. Ideological arguments over the state's legacy are encouraged. As our party was told, former Stasi men keep showing up in the tour groups, stepping forward to have a pop at those they once interred there. All of which adds an air of the surreal to proceedings. This is actually what prevents the complex from turning into a mere museum piece: its importance is still contested. Anna Applebaum's book Iron Curtain ably demonstrates how, throughout postwar eastern Europe, it was the security forces which the communists took hold of first, whilst still ruling in relatively democratic government coalitions. Without the Soviet-backed security police, communist power could not have been consolidated. That those secret services later became so pervasive and so powerful should come as no surprise.

Read: Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, Anne Applebaum; Stasiland, Anna Funder

Advertisement for Wade Goddard's collection Enclave

8. War Photo Ltd. Gallery, Dubrovnik, Croatia

I visited while this anomalously reflective gallery was displaying Wade Goddard's series of photos taken in Mostar during the Croat siege of the Herzegovinan capital. The permanent exhibition is equally striking, though perhaps overly broad, and suffers from an attempt to exclude Serbs from the halo of victimhood. As a demonstration of the politicisation of mass killing and ethnic crime that still goes on in the former Yugoslavia it is chilling, cutting straight through Croatia's EU-backed, tourism-driven success. The peace that holds in the Balkans is pegged largely to the project of EU integration, yet no broader inter-ethnic settlement has been reached outside of the narrow focus of all parties on cooperation with the west. What this means for the people of the former Yugoslavia is a whole series of unanswered, though highly contested, political questions. The gallery preserves and re-presents those questions for international holiday-makers who appear otherwise uninterested. Visit it while reading Susan Woodward's excellent study of the collapse of Yugoslavia, which asks important questions about the role of apparently diplomatic, peace-brokering international institutions in the country's breakdown and, by no means a necessary result of that collapse, the outbreak of inter-ethnic war.

Read: Balkan Tragedy, Susan Woodward

Arty silliness at Prague's Meet Factory

7. Meet Factory, gallery and club, Smichov, Prague

This monument to artistic silliness is barmy in all the right ways. Established by Czech 'bad boy' artist David Cerny (he of the massive floating middle finger), it's got just the right mix of pretentious exclusivity and rough-edged grottiness to make it by turns hilarious and provocative A very good exhibition of the art of dissent - focusing on Pussy Riot, but including all sorts of witty and vulgar outrage - combined with a man in an excellent onesie cutting people's hair as others thoughtfully looked on. As it got later, the club got going, a suitably eccentric indie-jazz outfit complete with yelping vocalist keeping everyone happy. There was even some pretty awesome burlesque. How's that for civil society? Prague how it's meant to be then: full of wanky would-be poets doing odd things in shuttered factories. Rarely does a place live up to its own myth; this is one of those times.  

Read: A play by Vaclav Havel while sporting a neckerchief and goatee

Spot the accordionist: Kino Bosna

6. Kino Bosna, Sarajevo, Bosnia

Kino Bosna is, as its name suggests, a former cinema in the heart of Sarajevo. The stage and plush seating are all still there, along with at least some of the fancy drapery, now grubby and threadbare from beer and revelry. Even in the middle of February, when we went, it was stiflingly crowded, people spilling out onto the street. It has just enough old worldiness about it to feel grand, though it's rough-edged enough to be exciting. Despite its obvious 'coolness' it felt peculiarly representative of Sarajevo itself: a clash of Habsburg administrative, moderninsing grandeur with more raucous Balkan folk culture (somewhat inevitably the house band patrols the aisles, provoking singalongs and collecting change). Don't take the book with you, but you could do worse than read Misha Glenny's panoramic historical survey The Balkans:1804-2012 for a sense of the clash and collaboration of cultures both local and foreign which produced Sarajevo's sense of colour and excitement.

Read: The Balkans: 1804-2012, Misha Glenny

Memorial to the Gdansk Shipworkers, Gdansk, Poland

5. The Roads to Freedom exhibition, Gdansk, Poland

Your ticket comes in the form of a meat ration coupon! There are dummies in ill fitting grey uniforms and bad wigs! There's a mock up of a state-run corner shop, its shelves characteristically stripped! After this opening triple salvo things trail off a bit, with fairly familiar anti-communist tropes cropping up. The emotional and practical alliance forged between the battle-ready new Pope (an unquestionable hero in Poland, despite his deep conservatism) and the hardy, no-nonsense Gdansk shipworkers has been well-told. Norman Davies' second volume of Polish history really comes to life at this point. I read Victor Sebestyen's Revolution 1989 but I'm sure there are plenty of good accounts out there. The photo exhibitions and arrayed tools of police repression are pretty standard fare in this part of the world. Yet as a memorial to the first mass workers' opposition to emerge in the eastern bloc in thirty years, the exhibition has an irresistible story of moral purpose, and eventual victory, to tell.

Read: God's Playground: A History of Poland Vol.II, Norman Davies; Revolution 1989, Victor Sebestyen

After sunset, Prague gets creepy

4. Prague's Hidden Old Town

Prague's Old Town is deservedly famous, all the more so for escaping the 20th century relatively unscathed (save a bit of Nazi arson during the Prague Uprising). But owing to its major sights lying on a single route (the so-called Golden Mile) it gets horribly congested, and is overwhelmed by cheap souvenir shops and terrible pubs. Though quieter and less ornate than the rat run between Na Prikope and Charles Bridge, the route down to the river from Betlemske Namesti offers relief from crowds and an experience of what Prague might have been like in the 1960s, if not the 1860s. Starting at Betlemske kaple (Bethlehem chapel) - the first in the Bohemian Crown Lands to conduct services in Czech - wander its largely deserted residential back streets, where shop fronts retain an air of care-worn dilapidation and the staff are no more welcoming. At night its deep shadows, the dim glow of street lamps, and only occasional pedestrians, give it a real air of creepiness. This is the Prague of which Angelo Maria Ripellino wrote in the 1960s - a Prague whose seedy, narcotic energy was buried in underground taverns, only occasionally spilling out into the foggy night air. This Prague has been largely vanquished from the Prada shops of Josefov. Once home to brothels and radical religious reform movements alike, this historically poor quarter of the Old Town can still evoke the piled up history of Prague's nefarious underworld.

Read: Magic Prague, Angelo Maria Ripellino

Ready for action: Cesky Krumlov

3. Go Rafting in Cesky Krumlov

If a mode of transport doesn't involve the sole use of my legs, it'll probably get me a bit worried. As with my near-death kayaking experience in Dubrovnik, rafting on a drizzly day in Cesky Krumlov was not a prospect that filled me with joy. As it turned out the whole thing unfolded quite calmly, the Baroque and Gothic spires of the town rising up over the tops of tousled, ramshackle houses as we bobbed leisurely past. The gentle pace left ample time to peak into the holiday homes stacked up on the river bank. Egon Schiele's studies of the town give it a romantic, tumble-down quality, though the poetic effect is muddied by heavy, tea-bag-stain browns. This dubious compliment was not appreciated and, like some dodgy medieval necromancer, the locals eventually ran him out. On this soggy spring day, dirty water trickling down off everything, he's vindicated. A deep sense of weariness weighed down on the clouded town, a thin mist rolling off the river and clogging up the narrow streets. The only change of pace came as we slid down weirs, which are basically man-made rapids used to trouble novice rafters. After each one we collided with the river bank and ended up drifting, backwards, upstream. Not an entirely graceful affair after all, then. Bideleux and Jeffries' A History of Eastern Europe paints a vast picture of precisely the sort of dynasty - Habsburg, Eggenburg, Shcwarzneburg - who governed towns like Krumlov throughout the region. Its splendour is largely down to those vanished masters.

Read: A History of Eastern Europe, Robert Bideleux and Ian Jeffries

Exhibits at the Outdoor Museum, Tallinn

2. The Outdoor Museum, Tallinn, Estonia

Perfectly preserved and restored, a vast collection of housing is tucked away in this mega-compound. All in various states of decay when they were brought in from the wild, all have been nursed back to health. What makes it special is the Estonian commitment to historical reenactment. The act never drops. I stumbled upon a remarkably well-acted domestic bust up between a couple in the midst of making lunch. The argument continued long after I awkwardly excused myself. Keep a store of enthusiasm for the staple folk dances that kick off in the courtyards of village meeting-halls. The boundary between reality and fiction collapses, as Estonians revel in a disjointed historical mash up, the epitome of Fredric Jameson's concept of the postmodern pastiche of historical forms.

Read: Anything by Fredric Jameson 

Budapest courtyard

1. Stay in an apartment in Budapest

Hostels are overpriced and usually full of awful people you'd otherwise go to great lengths to avoid meeting. The solution is to stay in a nice apartment that some arty couple have renovated before giving it to the world. It's comfortable, warm, and generally cheaper than other options. Plus, at the end you leave feeling like a real person, rather than a beer-soaked gap-year cartoon enthusing about how much you love traveling and 'experiencing new things'.

Read: Something cosy and familiar

And one place you definitely shouldn't go:

Olomouc Diocesan Museum

Museums in the Czech Republic are generally not much cop, but this is a sort of shit-museum-concentrate, a veritable puree of everything that's dull, overly precious and frankly intimidating about collecting and exhibiting old stuff. Firstly, the collection is made up of the cast offs of local bishops, so it's about as fun as a visit to a priest's living room. The staff are all over sixty and greet visitors with feeble smiles, hiding their deep suspicion and dislike behind an air of pushy enthusiasm. Whether it's boredom or distrust, they all feel compelled to tiptoe, silent and phantom-like, a few paces behind you. At one point the floor is deemed so remarkable that you're forced to wear slippers to walk on it. All this while being forced to inspect centuries of hoarded religious paraphernalia under their watchful eyes. 'What's this?' Siobhan asked, pointing at a display. 'Don't know, don't care,' I replied, which sounds petty, but by that point, exhausted from being shepherded from one boring assemblage of pottery to another, it was true. Joyless from start to finish.