The fact that thousands of Japanese people were willing to commit suicide in a vain attempt to influence a war that was already lost is something I have always found puzzling. Attempting to bridge the distance of time and cultural difference is a very tricky thing and everything written below is my attempt to interpret the motivations and processes behind the kamikaze phenomena. As this is a highly charged subject about which people have a number of understandably different views I’d just like to say that no offence is intended on my part whatsoever.
Undoubtedly patriotism and national fervour played an important role, just as it did in every other country during the Second World War. While the older residual beliefs of a traditional warrior-based society that valued death over dishonour and presented suicide as a honourable option certainly played their part, I would suspect that these had a lot more to do with rationalising a decision after it had been made. But I would certainly not dismiss the bushido code and the samurai tradition as motivating factors for individuals and for producing a culture of self sacrifice at a time when all appeared lost. By selectively emphasising a powerful legend from Japanese history – the original divine wind that had deflected the Mongol invasion during the 13th century – it was possible to produce a seductive narrative in which the mythology of the past was used to rationalise the actions of the present. In cloaking their actions with the trappings of historical legend, the Japanese leadership (who had led their country to absolute disaster) sought to maintain their grip on power in a society now stretched to breaking point. Another aspect is to do with how the Emperor was regarded at this time; he was not only a royal person and head of state in the Western mode, he was also at the apex of the Shinto religion. Whereas some sources state that he was regarded as a living God, in reality the closest comparison is to the European idea of the Divine Right of Kings. This theory appeared in Medieval Europe in order to give legitimacy to the dynasties of monarchs who had (usually) grabbed power in rather a grubby fashion. Obviously, I’m simplifying things; Japan in World War 2 was not the same as medieval Europe. However, in a strictly defined hierarchical society such as Japan this gave the edicts and commands issued in the Emperor’s name an importance that went far beyond the orders of a mere politician. This sense of absolute loyalty to the Emperor created a wartime culture whereby anything other than complete sacrifice in his name was presented as shameful. Surrender was a disgrace. Also, for much of the 1930s Japan was at war and militarism pervaded social and media discourse throughout. This meant that for those who came of age in the mid-1940s, who made up the bulk of the kamikaze, their formative years would have been dominated by a culture in which death and glory was presented as an inescapable and inevitable duty, one not to be shirked by a true and loyal member of Japanese society.
By the last years of the war, Japan had effectively boxed itself into a corner. The frenzy of militarism that had stoked the public mood for conquest turned into a double edged sword; it had worked well in mobilising and motivating Japanese society and had contributed to the spectacular victories of the 1930s and early 1940s. But once the war turned against Japan it meant that they were trapped by their own extreme rhetoric and couldn’t back-peddle. In the heightened emotional state of a country at war, surrender was presented as beneath contempt. Similarly, once you wind up the war machine then it is very difficult for anybody to call a halt, particularly if a lot of blood has been spilled on your side. While the momentum of total war kept most people passive, busy and silent, it would probably be a mistake to think that everybody was a blind follower. In a rigidly conformist society such as Japan at war, peer pressure would have ensured that dissenting viewpoints could not be expressed in public (any doubts would be confined to the private realm or to a few trusted confidants at most). This would have created a self-reinforcing cycle where the inability to publicly express doubt or dissent meant that the rhetoric of victory or death grew and grew until it appeared that there were no other options available.
While the images of aeroplanes crashing into ships are the best known (probably because they were the most visually dramatic aspect of this tactic caught on camera), the kamikaze phenomena permeated all forms of warfare, from the soldier on the ground to the largest battleship in the world being sent on a suicide mission. There was a sort of twisted logic to all this; once the sheer scale of the Allied offensive in the Pacific reversed the gains made in the early part of the war, the military commanders looked for ways to redress the balance. Kamikaze tactics were designed to both shock and disorientate those on the receiving end of them and, more importantly, to send the message to the Western powers that Japan would fight to the last. But this message was not only intended for the enemy; it was also used to keep a grip on the Japanese population at home. As part of the domestic propaganda campaign for their own people, those who committed suicide in this way were termed gyokusai or “shattered jewels” and the process of diving a plane into a ship was termed “a cherry blossom falling”, linking it directly to one of the iconic signifiers of Japanese culture. When combined with a propaganda campaign that valorised such Special Attacks (i.e. kamikaze), the entire process operated to normalise suicide in wartime. As a good citizen it was now your duty. Furthermore, if everybody is expected to die for Japan, then there is no room for dissent – you were a disloyal coward who had betrayed your fellow countrymen and women who had all (outwardly) accepted the idea of suicide rather than surrender. The Japanese leadership knew the writing was on the wall (even if they could not say so publicly) but by throwing wave after wave of suicide attacks at the enemy they hoped to break the Allied resolve. In a desperate attempt to delay the inevitable the Japanese leadership hoped that they could somehow wear the Allies down and cut a deal in which they could preserve their positions. Or, if Japan hung on long enough it was hoped that the Allies might start fighting amongst themselves and create an opportunity to might provide a route out of the quagmire. The net effect of these delaying tactics was counted in countless lost lives on all sides.
This brings us to the book; published by Sokyu-Sha in 2013, Kaiiki (translated as “sea area” or territorial “waters”) is an exploration of the base where sailors were trained to attack enemy ships with manned torpedoes called kaiten. As can be imagined, if you were sitting on top of a torpedo and steering it towards an enemy ship the chances of survival were nil. Due to Japan’s island status, any invasion would have had to come by sea and so a lot of desperate energy was devoted to disrupting the Allied juggernaut as it moved across the Pacific. As such, the kaiten programme was part of the Special Attack forces and the waters around the island were used for training purposes before combat. After training was completed, the kaiten and their pilots would have been loaded on to larger submarines for operations in the Pacific Ocean against Allied ships. As more than ten percent of the total morality rate for kaiten pilots occurred during training accidents, surviving this stage appears to have been an ordeal in itself. Presumably, the rationale behind manned torpedoes was that it would improve accuracy; if this was the case it failed miserably. For all the expenditure of Japanese blood and treasure on this programme the results were negligible; only two American ships were ever damaged by kaiten attacks.
According to the photographer, Uemoto’s first encounter with Otsushima island (the training base for the kaiten) occurred many decades previously while he was in his twenties, around the same age as those who piloted these torpedoes. But it took him that length of time to process the significance of this space which has since been turned into a museum. Like other photographic representations in the malevolent landscape genre, representing events that occurred in the past is a difficult task to carry out successfully. Normally, a photographer can focus on features within the landscape, often commonplace, which then become powerful to the viewer once they become aware of the horrific context. Obviously, this is impossible when confronted by an expanse of open water that has no such features. Instead, Uemoto attempts to produce a psychological portrait of his personal response to this place in an attempt to come to terms with what those who trained here may have felt. For anybody who grew up in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, a period which saw massive social change in Japan, reconciling the recent past with the present is a challenge to say the least.
Uemoto shows us the Seto Inland Sea, the semi-enclosed body of water between the main Japanese islands of Honshū, Shikoku, and Kyūshū, the home waters to which the title refers. The book begins with a series of apparently straightforward images; cherry blossoms on a path and floating in the water on the island evoke the idea of Japan as a sacred space. Calm, placid images show us the sea, first with trees from the island in the foreground, small boats and the mist-shrouded features of other islands on the horizon. The mood quickly darkens as the sea and sky merge into an ominous dark grey with occasional beams of light coming through the clouds. Uemoto uses the cloud and fog as a metaphor for the mood of psychological confusion and uncertainty he is trying to convey with his work. In this context, the Inland Sea now occupies an ambiguous position; it is both a sacred place, because it was an integral part of the Japanese homeland, and also a source of constant danger to those who practiced there for their suicide missions. The ships in Uemoto’s photographs grow larger and more defined; ordinary container and cargo vessels on the horizon within these eerie seascapes start to resemble the targets the kaiten were launched at. We see some of the training complex next; endless underground tunnels stretching outwards and an abstracted image of a circular object (the front of a kaiten torpedo) are the few remaining traces of what this place once was. The concrete piers stretching out into the sea show us the link between the land and sea or, in this case, between life and death beneath the dark waters. Immediately afterwards the seascapes become much darker as Uemoto attempts to convey the immensity of what people were expected to do on this island at this time. The competing ideas and ideals of glory, patriotism and sacrifice are locked in conflict with the competing urge to survive and the will to live; this, I believe, is at the root of what Uemoto is attempting to convey with his work. The grey shrouded seascapes darken as night falls and beams of light weakly flicker through the fog and cloud in places, illuminating the placid sea as it descends into darkness. The denouement of the narrative appears in some very powerful nocturnal images of the sea now transformed into blurred and indistinct abstractions where all the boundaries collapse. Relief is found on the next page in a pair of images; small pieces of debris float on the water and clouds float above us, signifying release from this psychological drama.
Sucked deeper into a web of illusions shaped by dreams of martial glory, nationalistic hubris and imperial conquest, large numbers of people in Japan found themselves presented with no other option but to sacrifice their lives in a futile attempt to win a war that was already lost. Like any form of psychological manipulation, convincing people that they have no way out makes them much easier to control. This book also demonstrates the impossibility of recapturing the attitudes and memories of the past. History is always viewed through the prism of the present. Our experiences and our attitudes colour our perception of the stories we tell about the past. Attitudes, ideologies and states of mind that appear utterly alien today were interpreted as being perfectly rational and normal for those immersed in a society dominated by leaders who demanded that large numbers of their own people die on their behalf. Dark and designed to unsettle, this book is a complex meditation on the consequences of actions taken more than seventy years ago that still echo to this day.
With the crisis in Greece rumbling ominously along in the background, I thought it might be an appropriate time to have a look at a publication produced to celebrate the introduction of the new European currency (imaginatively called the Euro). Of late, there has been a marked tendency to reduce issues surrounding the European Union to simplified pro or anti arguments in which the subtleties and nuances of a very complicated subject disappear (particularly in the UK). This binary argument allows no middle ground for those who think that the idea of keeping the Pandora’s Box of European nationalism firmly shut is a good thing, whilst also recognising that there are deep flaws at heart of this political project. This is important because the continual failure to address these flaws has resulted in stagnation and a sense of malaise that afflicts much of Europe. Firstly, what is the big-idea that lies at the heart of the whole European project? Simply put, it is designed to prevent nationalistic rivalries from once again spilling over into World War by tying the various countries of Europe so closely together that they would have to resolve their differences through discussion and negotiation rather than by killing each other. That’s it. In return, the pay-off was economic prosperity for all. This was supposed to produce a happy and contented European continent. This trade-off lies at the core of the argument for increased cooperation by European countries. For many decades this deal sort of worked. Most of the time. But with the rolling financial crises that have engulfed various European countries since 2008 this arrangement has come under increasing pressure. While the benefits of European co-operation are regarded positively by most people, nationalism never disappeared. In terms of loyalty, the European Union has lukewarm popular support at best. People still feel a deep affinity for their nations. And in times of crisis it reappears. Put at it’s most stark, it would be a very hard-sell to convince people to join some sort of pan-European army if the European Union suddenly went to war with Russia. Sacrificing yourself for Spain, Belgium, France, Denmark Latvia, or any other European country you care to name, is something that millions of people have willingly done over the past couple of centuries. Patriotism and the national ideal are something that people will readily die for. But who is going to put their life on the line for the European Union? To protect the legacy of Jean Monnet? To risk life and limb for the Common Agricultural Policy? Or the principles of social inclusion embodied by the European Social Fund? A very hard sell.
The core, underlying problem that lies at the heart of the various EU institutions is the lack of buy-in from the people they are supposed to represent. This is euphemistically termed the democratic deficit and the various official institutions have been scurrying around for the past couple of decades trying to make themselves more accountable and relevant to the public throughout Europe. (Such as the European Parliament – the MEP who purports to represent me vanished into a black hole for five years until he suddenly resurfaced in the months prior to the last election. He then plastered every lamppost with posters about a series of public discussions in various local hotels about cyber-bullying he was holding in a transparent attempt to demonstrate both his common touch and what an important guy in Europe he is.) So why does this matter? Simply put, without widespread public support the EU is dead in the water. It becomes irrelevant. Of course the institutions and structures of the EU will keep plodding along on auto-pilot (once you set up a big bureaucratic apparatus it is almost impossible to dismantle it under normal circumstances) but without public support such institutions become hollow at the core, devoid of any substantial motivating ideas and growing less and less significant to the average person. This combination of indifference, cynicism, frustration or anger on the part of the public towards these remote institutions opens them up to attack by national political actors and parties. They exploit this apathy towards EU institutions in order to mobilise support amongst their population to pursue national agendas, whilst also using Europe as a convenient way to shirk blame when things go wrong. All national politicians have used this tactic for decades. And, to a large degree, it works quite well.
This brings us to the Euro, the common currency that was introduced in January 2002 and the subject of this book by German photographer Claudio Hils. Published by the Suermondt-Ludwig Museum in Aachen and supported by the European Central Bank (the institution responsible for the new currency) this book was produced as a visual record showing the introduction of the new money. After seven years of austerity, uncertainty, unemployment, social unrest and political turmoil throughout the continent, it is a rather surreal experience to examine this work about the advent of the Euro. Optimism pervades throughout the texts. Prosperity for all is coming. Everything will get better. As the introductory essay by Ulrich Schneider states: “the aim of ever closer union in Europe has doubtlessly been brought considerably closer with the introduction of the single currency.” Oh dear. Similarly, in an essay provided by Antii Heinonen (from the European Central Bank) he notes that “in the early hours of 1 January 2002, long queues formed at some cash dispensers as everyone waited to examine the new banknotes.”
How times have changed. Today, long queues forming at cash dispensers are the stuff of nightmares for European politicians.
Hils images document this transitional phase when the old national currencies were being phased out in preparation for the launch of the Euro. Photographs of shredded banknote cubes, Irish punts with holes punched through them and sliced up German one mark coins are all used to signify the supposed end of this era of quaint nationalism. These images are complemented by the photographs depicting the manufacturing process that occurs in sleek, antiseptically clean, hi-tech factories where shiny new coins and bundles of crisp notes are churned out by gleaming machinery. Alongside these rather antiseptic factories, Hils shows us the interiors of various Central banks, where signs of disorder and subtle disruptions to the corporate aesthetic (such as bank note wrappers hurriedly ripped off and dumped by an office chair) introduce an element of urgency and chaos into the supposedly well organised changeover to the Euro. Similarly, portraits of the backroom workers who operate the machines, check the watermarks and do the myriad other tasks required to physically produce a currency provide a human dimension to the process. These are the invisible spaces, places and people that the media does not normally show us. The other aspects that Hils documents are more visible and part of the familiar experience of everyday life that we encounter on the news and in movies. So we have the understandable pre-occupation with security; serious looking men with sub-machine guns, helicopters, money convoys, secure cash boxes and all the other paraphernalia associated with moving large amounts of cash (and that we have become familiar with from so many heist movies over the years). The final sequence of imagery deals with the media and advertising campaign designed to educate the public about the new money; posters in the baggage reclaim area of Dublin airport, a Finnish family watching a TV infomercial, a small pack of journalists surrounding a Dutch politician (who appears to be trapped in a cage thanks to the series of flagpoles he is standing alongside), TV cameras and lights set up in front of a local government building in Maastricht on a grey winter’s day, and a neon sign stuck on to the railings of the Luxembourg national bank are all used to signify the culmination of this changeover process. Then we are shown some people at midnight of the launch day excitedly examining crisp 10 Euro notes on the street.
Like many projects of this nature, the photographer has to ensure that the requirements of the commissioning body are acknowledged whilst also ensuring that the critical quality of the work is not compromised. Certainly, those who commissioned his work wanted to show an efficient and well organised operation, which would demonstrate their mastery of the many logistical problems involved. Although Hils does document the success of this transitional period, the photographs also operate to critique the various institutional behemoths that underscore this process. The impersonal corporate spaces and the surveillance and regimentation of all those involved in this process all evoke a unsettling mood that contrasts with the upbeat introductory texts penned by the various cheerleaders of this political project.
Unlike other books I have reviewed where the passage of time and hindsight has exposed the hollowness of the agendas and claims made by the authors, this publication is more ambiguous. The very architecture of the Euro (constructed through a process of political horse-trading, compromises and short term priorities) laid the foundations for the current crisis that rumbles ominously onwards. How will this short-sighted thinking impact upon broader social and political developments into the future? Nobody really knows. There are just too many variables that feed into the mix and the unintended long-term consequences of any actions taken are impossible to predict. Certainly the track record of the various European institutions and the big-wigs charged with sorting out the mess over the past seven years has been less than encouraging. A central problem there is that there are too many competing interests and mutually incompatible priorities (at personal, political, national and international levels). Hence, we are left with the default policy of damage control and muddling through as the European project lurches blindly forward into what appears to be an unpredictable future.
This is probably one of the more interesting Stalinist propaganda books produced during the 1930s because it touches on a lot of themes that are still relevant today; spinning bad news, myth creation, the media construction of heroism, as well as the all consuming need of political leaders to associate themselves with success.
Firstly, some context. As part of a broader strategy to conquer and exploit the arctic tundra, as well as showcasing the achievements of the new USSR to the rest of the world, great emphasis was placed on polar exploration during the 1930s. Here, the rational, scientific credentials of the new Soviet state would overcome the natural obstacles that had stymied previous endeavours by the old regime under the Tsar. Vast swathes of the Soviet Union (and Russia) were just blank spots on the map, sparsely populated by native peoples living upon subsistence agriculture and fishing. For a society that regarded itself as dynamic and revolutionary, with had a mission to change the world, these blank spaces within their own borders were completely unacceptable. Industry, new technology and human endeavour would turn these inhospitable wastelands into productive spaces to be exploited by man. This was the big idea. And the pursuit of this idea stimulated much of the scientific research and exploration on the part of the Soviet state throughout its existence. Indeed the possibilities opened up by global warming with the thawing of the arctic regions is still a seductive policy (albeit with short-term benefits) informing much Russian government and business thinking today. Crises produce opportunities which sociopathic leaders will exploit to their own advantage.
This policy tapped into a wider public fascination with polar exploration that had reached its peak during the end of the 19th and the early part of the twentieth century. All the dramatic elements needed to produce a heroic narrative were present in these stories of intrepid explorers risking life and limb in the vast frozen wastelands of North and South; an utterly alien environment of snow and ice, horrendous cold, unimaginable physical adversity, near escapes from disaster, extraordinary bravery, dogged determination to reach their goal, compassion for a sick comrade (or exemplary courage as they trudge on despite the pain), all while the shadow of death hangs over the group should they make a misstep. The end result is usually a feel-good moral fable in which the triumph-of-the-human-spirit overcomes adversity. Alternatively, the brave-but-doomed heroes meet their demise calmly, stoically and with dignified courage. In such cases, the narrative then becomes a guide for the reader, instructing them in the admirable characteristics they should emulate in the face of everyday hardship. This tale is no exception.
The ostensible purpose of the Chelyuskin’s voyage was to see if an ordinary cargo ship could sail around the Northern coast of Russia, through the Arctic Ocean. If you look at a map of Russia, the immense size of this country makes communication and travel immensely difficult. Essentially, Russia (and the Soviet Union) is a land power and that is the reason why it never developed a strong navy or shipping industry. It was simply not a priority for a huge country that only has a tiny usable coastline in Europe and Asia – the rest of the sea surrounding it being dangerous, frozen, ice-filled bleakness. Therefore, sailing from Murmansk (in the Baltic Sea) to Vladivostok (in the Pacific) was a very long and complicated voyage involving a long detour around the Suez Canal and up past China. Finding a route through the frozen Arctic sea above Russia (as you look at a traditional Mercator map) would have shortened this voyage considerably. But the problem was ice. Lots of ice. The unpredictable weather as well as the treacherous sea and ice conditions in this arctic sea could sink ships very easily. The quest for this Northern Sea Route around the top of Russia had been pursued for centuries without success. Should the new Soviet state succeed where others had failed previously, it would be a tremendous propaganda coup that would demonstrate the superiority of the new utopian society under construction.
So the Chelyuskin sets sail from Murmansk in July 1933 with 104 people on board (including one baby and another is born during the voyage itself!) into the ice-bound Northern Sea around the top of Russia. The whole set-up is a strange mix of macho polar expedition, geeky scientific exploration and what passes for a normal passenger cruise. The two main players are the expedition leader Otto Schmidt (the guy with the big beard in the photos) and Vladimir Voronin, the Chelyuskin’s captain, who had successfully managed the crossing a couple of years previously with a specialist icebreaking ship. Now they were trying to repeat the trip and show that an ordinary ship could do the job just as well. Everything goes well for much of the voyage until nature intervenes. Only a short distance away from the Pacific Ocean (varying from six to fifteen miles depending on the source), bad weather strikes and suddenly heavy ice builds up around the ship, trapping it completely. They were completely stuck and powerless as the ship drifted further and further northwards, away from land. Using their radio, the Chelyuskin contacted the outside world and made them aware of their plight. There was the possibility that they might break free from the ice and continue their voyage so all was not lost and Schmidt put a cheerful face on it.A contemporary account of the rescue from 1936 can be found here.
But after three months in the ice, the ship was finally crushed by the ice and sank on the 13 February 1934. Apart from one death, the rest of the crew managed to abandon ship and carry enough supplies of food and equipment with them to set up camp on the ice surrounding them. There they use the radios to alert the world that they were in dire trouble, trapped on the cracking, drifting ice with only 2 months worth of food and supplies left. Thus, the scene was set for an epic polar drama in which modern communications had alerted the rest of the world about the plight of these apparently doomed people. Anyway, our intrepid group of stranded pioneers set up camp on the ice waiting to be rescued. As part of the propaganda machine, an English language version of their exploits was published in 1935, The Voyage of the Chelyuskin, another collectively authored book in which members of the expedition narrate their stories. If you consider that their prospects were pretty grim, the tone of the book doesn’t really ring true. Basically, they were cast adrift on a floating lump of ice in the middle of the sea, completely at the mercy of the Arctic winter, little food, living in bodged-together shelters and completely dependent on a radio for some sort of lifeline to the outside world. Surely, anybody in that situation must have thought their chances of survival were low at best.
Certainly, the idea that everybody suddenly decided that this was a jolly good adventure and that the plucky survivors all pulled together to help each other out rings a little hollow. Even today, this would be an immensely traumatic experience. Such prolonged events usually bring out the worst in people, no matter how much goodwill exists at the beginning. Bitterness, bickering and petty squabbling over trivial matters takes hold as all the tension and suppressed fear that builds up in such a situation is released. But the people we are discussing were creatures of 1930s Soviet society, a place where violence, paranoia, uncertainty, back-biting and blaming others was the rule. Even if they were rescued, they must have been terrified about the possible consequences when they got back to the USSR. Stalin’s shadow hung over them all. I would imagine the reality of the experience was a lot more bleak and terrifying than the rosy narrative presented in the book. But of course this book is important in that it transforms a rather depressing story of failure, despair and death into an inspirational account of man’s triumph over nature. Central to this triumph is the application of Stalinist ideology to guide their decisions. So the Party organisation takes charge, builds a watch-tower, organises everybody to build a runway on the ice, proudly puts at least one snitch into each tent to keep an eye on what people are saying, holds meetings, makes personal sacrifices of food and shelter for the greater good, and generally holds the line while they wait for Stalin to rescue them. All very commendable – but I just don’t buy it.
Luckily, Stalin decides to allow a rescue operation be organised. Once the decision is made, top Soviet pilots and their flying machines are mobilised and make a bee line to the region in order to be of assistance. Well known celebrity airmen who had set world records a few years previously all play their part in this adventure, pushing their aeroplanes to the limit in the face of horrendous conditions. There are numerous close shaves, a crash en-route and all sorts of problems locating the survivors. But through sheer determination, skill and heroism, the airmen make it through successfully and begin to shuttle the survivors off their icy prison. The successful use of aeroplanes to rescue the survivors sends a couple of messages to the outside world. Firstly, that the USSR is capable of mastering the latest technology (aircraft) and operating them in extreme conditions, something that was in itself quite impressive for the time. Secondly, even though man had failed to overcome nature in this instance (the ship sank), ultimately the faith that the Soviet Union placed in technology to surmount all obstacles was proven correct thanks to the combination of radio and aircraft. Thus, the central guiding idea of the USSR, that man could change the world through the rational use of technology, was maintained. But all of this is not to diminish their very real accomplishments; flying in arctic conditions using the latest, temperamental, aviation technology, where disaster lurked around every corner was no mean feat in itself. All the ups-and-downs of this drama in the arctic is followed by the world with bated breath as they see whether or not the plucky survivors will make it back alive. There is widespread jubilation at a job well done when everybody gets out alive and the group then make their way towards Moscow. Parades and celebrations follow their progress through Russia as they travel towards a meeting with Stalin himself.
That’s the background. Let’s have a look at the book. Published by Pravda in 1935 and designed by Simon Telingater, amongst others, this is a grandiose Stalinist production. (By the way this book is not to be confused with a 3 volume editon of the same name that appeared in 1934.) They certainly spared no expense on this publication; photomontage, hand-tinted photographs, foldouts and small flags tipped are but a few of the design features that appear in this book. The photographs come from a number of individuals as there were a number of photographers and cinematographers on-board (the most prominent being P. Novitzki and A.M. Shafran). These do seem to have provided a steady stream of imagery that is incorporated within the book. 1930s ideas about the documentary authenticity of photography didn’t really apply in the USSR and there is a distinct possibility that some of the photographs may have been staged or recreated at a later date. This attitude towards photography can be found within the English language account The Voyage of the Chelyuskin which states that “our photographer Novitzki insisted on me repeating my handshake with Vodopyanov, as he had been too slow to register that “historic” act.” (p. 236) Furthermore, by deliberately mixing staged photographs with images that have a documentary aspect to them, the result is a blurring of the boundaries between truth and fiction. From the perspective of today’s Crewdsonesque constructions of reality this is not an issue – but back in the ‘30s people got really hot under the collar about faked photos of events.
The narrative structure of the book doesn’t deviate from the official myth promoted by the authorities. It can be broken down into sections depicting the Chelyuskin setting sail on a voyage of adventure, getting trapped in the ice, sinking, setting up camp, waiting for rescue, the arrival of the aeroplanes and then the triumphant welcome back home in the USSR. The sections dealing with the initial voyage and the camping on the ice are quite static – but I suppose that is understandable since there is very little in the way of action that can be shown. There is an interesting series of images when the crew try to cut a passage through the ice for the ship. But of course this attempt fails. Once they are trapped on the ice floe, the images change to depictions of rather pathetic looking tents and the immense scale of the mounds of ice surrounding them as they wait for rescue. But there are only so many ways you can take photographs of people sitting around waiting. The radio operator’s importance is emphasised in these images as he is the vital link to the outside world. But there are no signs of despair or hopelessness in these images – everybody looks determined and cheerful as they wait trapped on what is a giant ice cube floating in the sea. In many ways, the design helps to enliven this section of the book which is not so visually dramatic. A celluloid transparency showing a map of the camp and a fold-out of the hand-written newspaper produced by the eager communist party members in the camp provide some added details and interest to a rather static subject.
However, once the rescue gets underway the tempo changes and it becomes more cinematic in scope. A photomontage foldout depicts smiling portraits of the heroic pilots while a fleet of aircraft flies over the iconic lookout tower, topped by the red flag, that the stranded survivors built. Photographs show the pilots readying themselves back at base after being summoned to the rescue by the ever-concerned Stalin. Portraits of pilots wrapped up in their open cockpits, braving the freezing weather and horrendous conditions instantly demonstrate their unimpeachable heroism as they risk their lives for the sake of others. There is a real sense of urgency and energy in these images. Anticipation is conveyed by pairing photos of people looking to the sky with aeroplanes landing on the ice. That all adds to the drama of the event.
This is then followed by the triumphant return of the survivors to civilisation. Building on the excitement of rescue, there is a dynamism in these images that again contrasts with the rather static nature of the early sections of the book. Crowd scenes and trains are used to convey movement and energy as an expectant public comes out to greet their heroes. Aeroplanes make celebratory fly pasts, demonstrating again the Soviet state’s complete mastery of the new technology of the period, showing that they too could compete with the other big powers of the time. Flowers are handed out to our suitably modest heroes in provincial locations as the procession winds its way to the capital. Crowds throng the spaces where the survivors receive yet more flowers and make the predictable speeches attributing their survival to the glories of Communism and the genius of Stalin, without whom they would have met their demise.
Finally, our intrepid group arrives in Moscow where they receive a ticker-tape parade before being granted an audience with Stalin, where they hand him a banner from the ship. In the grand scheme of a rescue-narrative like this, the triumphant homecoming is usually only a peripheral aspect, used to provide a happy-ever-after bookend to the story. Yet, an inordinate amount of space is devoted to this train trip through Russia after all the excitement is over. Why? I think the answer may lie in the fact that in the USSR of the 1930s everything revolved around Stalin. Quite literally everything. The fact that the shipwrecked survivors had escaped relatively unscathed from an icy grave by the skin of their teeth thanks to a combination of luck, physical stamina and the advent of new technologies that made a rescue possible (radios and aircraft capable of flying in arctic conditions) all fade into the background. Stalin’s presence consumes all. All success is Stalin’s success. Everything they achieved was accomplished by strictly following his guiding principles and ideas. Thus, the entire narrative is transformed into a moral fable for others to emulate in Soviet society – place your trust in Stalin’s wisdom and you too can overcome adversity.
This blog has been quiet of late because I’ve been snowed under with various projects but it will get back on track again soon.
It’s that time of the year again. As a part of the way we try to comprehend the sheer chaos of the world, we like to simplify everything and transform it into a personal narrative which is then used to define our experiences and identity. And we tend to use the celebration of a full orbit around the sun as an excuse to indulge in some navel gazing and introspection in an attempt to condense the myriad events that happened over the previous 12 month period. This is then used to demarcate a particular block of time in our lives.
This usually involves making lists. So here’s my contribution towards humanity’s obsession with bringing order to chaos (in terms of photobooks).
Never mind me – bah humbug and happy Christmas!
Here’s 11 politically themed photobooks that made an impression on me over the last year – listed alphabetically by title.
1. Cairo Diary by Peter Bialobrzeski
2. Cœur D’Acier by Philippe Lopparelli (published in November 2013 so cheating slightly here)
3. Euromaidan by Sergiy Lebedynskyy & Vladyslav Krasnoshchok
4. Exit Ghost by Kai Bornhoeft
5. Go There by Gen Sakuma
6. Italia O Italia by Federico Clavarino
7. Kaiiki by Hitoshi Uemoto (Oct 2013 – cheating again)
8. Land Without a Past by Philip Ebeling
9. Lulu and Her Portrait – On the Traces of Kyoko (2 books)by Saori Ninomiya
10. Neither by Kate Nolan
11. One Road by Kazuo Kitai
With the invention of nuclear weapons, mankind now has the ability to destroy everything. Previously, we were limited in the scope and scale of destruction we could create – now we can completely wipe out all life on our planet. That changes everything.
In the context of Cold War tensions between East and West, ostensibly over which long-dead economist was best, the omnipresent threat of global annihilation was the elephant in the room. Sometimes, during periods of crisis, we actually acknowleged the presence of this monster. But most people did their best to suppress this knowledge and get on with everyday life. The arms race between the two blocs was a constant feature of the Cold War with each side vying with the other to come up with more innovative and destructive means of killing each other. Atom bombs became hydrogen bombs, which went from being carried on planes to being stuck on missiles that were able to reach any part of the globe in minutes. This era was defined by immense levels of spending on more and newer weaponry at the expense of everything else. The sheer, immense horror of what was created is staggering to behold for any sane person. Carl Sagan summed up the Cold War arms race best: “Imagine a room awash in gasoline, and there are two implacable enemies in that room. One of them has nine thousand matches. The other has seven thousand matches. Each of them is concerned about who’s ahead, who’s stronger.” But, locked in this cycle of fear and distrust, in the simple binary world of East-v-West any form of dissent was presented as an act of treason. In an attempt to somehow justify this pursuit of insanity, MAD (Mututally Assured Destruction) was advanced as a serious strategic theory. Now, in the twisted logic and the paranoia of the Cold War, nuclear arsenals were transformed into the guarantors of security and peace. MAD held that our enemies would be prevented from attacking us for fear of retaliation in kind, producing a balance of terror. Various shadowy think tanks devoted time and immense resources towards developing models (such as Game Theory) in an attempt to predict and control the outcomes in this high-stakes global chess game. Yet widespread public disquiet was always present just beneath the surface.
It is interesting to see how the popular reaction to the power of these weapons shifted through time as expressed in the movies that dealt with the theme. These are important because they show how the unthinkable was presented to audiences riddled with suppressed anxieties about the subject. These movies also had an educational value. By using identifiable characters they taught viewers what kind of behaviour was expected of them in such a crisis. During the 1950s the consequences of such a war were minimised and survival was presented as a very distinct possibility. Social cohesion was paramount and unquestioning deference to authority figures was presented as being the key to our survival. A particularly good example can be seen in the 1954 TV movie, Atomic Attack (sponsored by Motorola no less). Here, all the horror occurs offscreen and we follow an family straight out of 1950s central casting as they anxiously wait for news about pop who cheerfully put on his fedora and went to work after a wholesome all-American family breakfast. Everybody in the ‘burbs looks a bit concerned about New York getting nuked and all that radiation floating around, but the authorities swing into action and soon have everything under control. The wonders of medicine has everybody up on their feet after an inconvenient dose of radiation sickness. No real need to worry. (Alas, poor pop gets fried offscreen but mom cheerfully perseveres to hold the family together in spite of her unspoken fears for the future).
The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 changed all that. Popular culture, in tandem with the growth of a generation who were more critical of authority, began appreciate the horrors that could be unleashed by such a war. For example, Panic in the Year Zero! (1962) envisaged the need for rugged individualism and a return to the gunslinging, frontier ways in the face of lawlessness (only for a little while – just until the panic subsided and order was restored). But the idea that everything we took for granted would be destroyed utterly had taken root. Indeed, it can be argued that the presence of nuclear weapons directly contributed to the undermining of traditional authority. Now, a younger generation, presented with a clear demonstration of the failure and incompetence of those in charge (who had created this hair-trigger scenario of global annihilation) lost all faith in the idea that those who ruled over the rest of us were somehow smarter and knew what they were doing. Once that happens, then everything is up for grabs. These developments were paralleled in how nuclear war was represented in the popular media. In Britain this was best explored in the groundbreaking 1965 docudrama by Peter Watkins, The War Game, which portrayed a nuclear attack through the use of traditional documentary filming and editing techniques to produce a fictional film. This movie so alarmed the Wilson government that they put pressure on the B.B.C. to pull the plug (particularly as it highlighted their embarrasing u-turn on their pre-election pledge about unilateral nuclear disarmament). As was stated afterwards; “In the event, the effect of the film has been judged by the B.B.C. to be too horrifying for the medium of broadcasting.” Interestingly, this film reflects the recent past insofar as it portrays the effects of a nuclear attack on Britain in distinctly Second World War terms (just as the American version used mythical elements from the Old West to represent the un-representable for a US audience). Thus, nuclear war becomes a form of neo-Blitz with higher casualties, greater destruction and more radiation, with everybody scurrying around in army-surplus tin helmets left over from the previous war. But in this film, for the first time, we see a more detailed exploration of how nuclear war had the potential to change everything. The optimism of earlier representations disappears. Now, viewers were confronted with representations of terror, injured and sick victims, hastily organised mass-cremations of bodies, food-riots (in a rather dated reference, it notes that even the respectable middle-classes may be inclined towards such lawless behaviour), summary executions by military tribunal and a bleak future of radiation poisoning and death. But I suppose it could be argued that all such depictions were inherently optimistic insofar as they envisaged a scenario in which any human beings would be left alive in the aftermath of an overwhelming nuclear assault.
So, in this atmosphere of raw, palpable fear the anti-nuclear movement grew. Felix Greene, a leading left wing figure (whose book Vietnam! Vietnam! I reviewed previously) edited this protest book published in 1963 by the Fulton Publishing Company of California. Using a mixture of journalistic, commercial stock and official government images, Greene produces a narrative which is an impassioned cry for an end to this collective insanity. (In many cases, these images appear to have been chosen solely for their visual impact rather than accuracy in representation. Photographs made by Ansel Adams, Werner Bischof and Andreas Feininger are all used.) In order to visually represent the invisible dangers posed by radiation, Greene adopts the (probably predictable) strategy of relying heavily upon the imagery of children to illustrate the long term genetic damage caused by exposure to fallout. Such images are used by aid agencies the world over because the message they send is apparently clear and unambiguous, cutting through the empathetic barriers of the viewer who may have difficulty in identifying with distant victims. (By contrast, images of injured adults – who may look different from us, be regarded as our enemies or somehow culpable for their own demise – are less favoured because they may be subject to a more nuanced and less sympathetic response on the part of a distant viewer.) As the text states: “because of the bomb tests already carried out no child anywhere in the world can drink milk that is free of poison caused by radioactive fall-out.” These photographs of healthy and happily innocent children are contrasted with dark images of horrifically deformed, stillborn babies from Nagasaki. The net effect of such an emotive juxtaposition is to produce a causal link between the decisions made in the present with the irrevocable long-term effects they may have upon future generations.
The next section of the book deals with the legacy of the past. Here, imagery of the civilisations and man’s achievements are combined with a text in which a simplified, linear view of human progress and future development is presented to the reader. The extensive use of black within the design of the book provokes an ominous, unsettling sense of danger. Here, the present generation are presented as a link in a much longer chain that links the past and stretches far off towards a bright future. Nuclear weapons threaten to break this chain. As visual proof of how everything mankind has accomplished so far can be utterly destroyed, Greene uses Japan as a case study. This begins with a full page image of a peaceful Japanese market scene followed by a dramatic double-page spread of post-atomic Hiroshima as a desolate grey wasteland through which a line of dazed survivors trudge. Following this, another double-page spread from Nagasaki appears; here we see a devastated, bleak urban ruinscape populated now by the blackened, charred remains of those who once lived there. The next few pages depict the survivors. Traumatised and clearly in pain, they are shown in a state of shock, passive in the face of imminent death which they are powerless to prevent. Again, women and children feature heavily in these photographs (Yosuke Yamahata’s images from Nagasaki are used extensively). Due to the distinct racial and cultural difference between the Japanese victims of the atomic bombs and the American viewer of the 1960s, the depiction of women and children as primary victims is used as a device to create empathy and serve as a metaphor for lost innocence.
If the previous sections were used to show just how much of a threat nuclear weapons were to life on Earth, Greene uses the next section to undermine Cold War arguments about security; of course we don’t want to have these horrible weapons, but if the other side has nukes then we have to have more nukes. MAD did produce a stable state of constant terror between East and West but at a tragic cost. In particular, this era saw the emergence of the military-industrial complex as a concept to describe the nebulous military, bureaucratic and commercial interests who all had a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. Interestingly, the term was first coined by Eisenhower in an unprecedented farewell speech at the end of his term as office as president in which he warned against this shift of power to unaccountable forces that posed a threat to democratic accountability (Khrushchev termed the Soviet equivalent as the Metal-Eaters alliance). Greene shows us the slick new products of military spending with new missiles rolling off the assembly line ready to be launched from their silos. Yet the security this technology appears to offer is elusive; an image of a pile of junked fighter planes, yesterday’s high-tech wonder-weapons, is captioned with a quote from Eisenhower: “we pay for a single fighter plane with half a million bushels of wheat …Is there no other way this world can live?” The answer to this is provided in the final section of the book which offers a sliver of optimism (in distinctly modernist terms). Although science and technology have brought us to the brink of disaster, it is not too late; they can be used to provide a better future for us all.
In the context of early 1960s society, shocked to the core by the Cuban Missile Crisis, fuelled by paranoia and repressed anxiety about the omnipresent possibility of nuclear annihilation, the traditional deference to political authority broke down, particularly amongst the young. Horrified by the nuclear trap that the generation who had fought in the Second World War had bequeathed them, they turned against it. For those who wanted a change in this terrifying status quo their argument was persuasively simple; reduce the tension and get rid of the nukes because the alternative was mass extinction. There was no alternative. Morally, the possession and use of such weapons is completely indefensible. There is no argument you can use to counter calls for peace in these terms. In response, those in authority shifted the debate by arguing that such calls would play into the hands of their enemies and place the Western world in jeopardy. This book is an attempt on Greene’s part to rebut these claims by creating a photo essay that links the past and the future with the terrifying present in an attempt to convince the viewer that this insanity cannot go on. For most of us, such debates have been happily consigned to the past and appear of little relevance today. The problem appears to have been solved. Yet, despite the collapse of the political systems that spawned this terrible arms race, the arsenals remain. While arguments about dead economists no longer have the potential to destroy us all, other factors that produced this situation (such as rivalry between competing states over the control of resources) remain in firmly place. But in the holiday from history we have taken since the end of the Cold War, we just don’t want to think about it.
Industrialisation defined the nineteenth century. Country after country first emulated and then surpassed the success of the British in developing sophisticated capitalist economies in which technological progress was hailed for transforming the world. But the carnage of the First World War destroyed the fundamental concepts that underlined this system; it completely shattered the idea that this form of social organisation was inevitably going to bring about a stable world. People suddenly realised that the same machines that had promised unstoppable progress could be used to kill on a scale unimaginable before then. So, industrial societies in the aftermath of this war faced two possible choices; one was an escapist return to an earlier pre-industrial epoch, epitomised by the Arts and Crafts movement of the late nineteenth century(in which the bespoke and handmade was privileged). The other option was to somehow separate the grim realities and the negative consequences of industrialisation (war, pollution, urban poverty etc) from a belief in the inherent good of technology to produce a better future. In this view, the Great War could be regarded as an aberration, an unrepeatable period of collective madness when technological developments had been used for evil rather than for more noble purposes. Unsurprisingly, this was the path chosen. This seductively simple idea thoroughly permeated public discourse during the inter-war decades, influencing everything from art and architecture to politics and science, as traumatised societies attempted to escape the stifling structures of the past by constructing a New Age based upon rational principles derived from apparently objective scientific concepts.
The influence of Le Corbusier (the pseudonym adopted by Charles-Édouard Jeanneret) as the leading prophet of high-modernist urban planning and design cannot be underestimated. Nearly every country with pretentions to modernisation during the twentieth century dabbled, to differing degrees, with the alluring idea that it would be possible to reorder society through planned intervention in the built environment. While Le Corbusier was not alone in advancing these ideas, his charisma, drive and ego made him the best known and most influential of those who put forward such utopian schemes. At the core of the high-modernist architectural philosophy was the idea that through the use of rational, planned design it would be possible to influence human behaviour and so create a perfectly ordered and balanced world of peace and plenty (as outlined in Le Corbusier’s publications Toward an Architecture  and The Radiant City ). In the high-modernist view, the dark, squalid slums and overcrowded tenements of previous centuries, breeding grounds of disease, poverty and crime, were to be eliminated. A new era of progress and civilised order would be ushered in through the construction of new, rational cities based on universally applicable rules that would determine the precise requirements needed by each inhabitant. And just how were these cities to be built? The urban planners and politicians who had permitted the growth of unchecked urban squalor in the cities of old had been corrupted by vested interests and the grubby compromises of representative democracy. They obviously couldn’t be entrusted with such a task. No, this job required somebody new. This needed someone who was far above such tawdry concerns; it required a visionary genius who would act in the best interests of all. (The final sentences of the book state that: “Sometimes in the course of the centuries a man has sprung up here and there instinct with the power of genius, establishing the unity of his time. A man! The flock needs a shepherd.”)
High-modernist ideas were based on the idea that you needed to wipe the slate clean and start afresh. As can be imagined, this particular view of how humanity should be improved tied in rather neatly with the various political movements, of both right and left, that sprang up in the 1930s. The difference between countries that wholeheartedly embraced high-modernist schemes and those that merely toyed with modernism on a smaller scale has less to do with ambition and a lot more to do with politics – an authoritarian regime is much more likely to indulge in grandiose re/construction projects than a system which has a greater degree of political accountability. It is certainly no surprise that Le Corbusier flirted with both the USSR and Nazi-backed Vichy France in his pursuit of an despotic patron who would be able to bulldoze all opposition to his centrally planned utopia. Interestingly, for all his enthusiasm, Chandigarh in India was the only city Le Corbusier actually managed to see built (even then he wasn’t the first choice – the sudden death of the primary architect Matthew Nowicki provided a sudden opening). Basically, the fundamental flaw with the high-modernist concept is that it is utterly disdainful of the very real cultural, social and human needs of those who actually have to live in these cities. This contempt lies at the heart of their failure.
This brings us neatly to the book in question. First published in 1935 (my copy is a rather scruffy ex-library book of the 1988 Trefoil reprint), Aircraft was the first in a series published by The Studio under the New Vision banner. In this series, new technologies and ideas were presented to the reader through the combination of short texts and photographs (two other titles in the series looked at Locomotives and Photomicrography). Using images gleaned from a wide range of sources, this book is a celebration of flight, both as a clear demonstration of man’s mastery of the air and for providing a new perspective on the world. From this distance, when we have all become jaded with cheap and nasty airlines making us print out our own boarding cards and trying to flog us overpriced sandwiches, it’s hard to understand just how much of an adventure flight was in those early decades. At the time of publication, the Wright Brothers had made their first flight only 32 years previously. Given impetus by the Great War, powered flight had quickly advanced from the rickety, pioneering days to becoming a mode of travel by the 1930s that was both more reliable and accessible to the public at large (at least in the developed world). Interestingly, Leonardo da Vinci’s designs are featured in Le Corbusier’s narrative of progress – which can be read as an obvious attempt on his part to bask in the reflected glow of Renaissance genius. Thus aviation is presented as the inevitable pinnacle of human achievement and served as an unequivocal demonstration of how progress could be attained through wholeheartedly embracing new technologies and ideas. Here, photographs of aircraft in flight and abstract close-up images are used to celebrate form. The myriad shapes and types of sleek, gleaming aluminium aeroplanes that were at the pinnacle of 1930s design all serve to underline the rupture between the discredited legacy of the past and a New Age of progress.
But it is how the aeroplane has changed our perception of the world that is the real subject of this book. The aeroplane, according to Le Corbusier, has liberated mankind from the stifling, narrow point of view that is an inevitable feature of life at ground level. Now, freed from these shackles, we are able to soar high above the earth and, in so doing, look down upon the hellish urban environments we have created. The bird’s eye perspective has revealed what was once kept hidden from view. What Le Corbusier sees is the moral and physical poverty of a former era which he indicts as being the root cause of injustice and conflict. As he asserts in the introduction to the book, “Such are the great cities of the world, those of the nineteenth century, bustling, cruel, heartless, and money-grubbing.” Furthermore, “The city is ruthless to man. Cities are old, decayed, frightening, diseased. They are finished. Pre-Machine civilisation is finished.” Contrasting these images of cities with nature, Le Corbusier also proclaims that their failure is due to a fundamental lack of harmony in the way they grew up piecemeal over the years. But a plan devised by a genius (guess who?) would overcome these flaws and produce a rational urban environment that would be fully in balance with the natural and objectively scientific concepts discovered by man. But the aeroplane does more than just provide a bird’s eye view from which to contemplate the city below; for Le Corbusier, it creates a wholly new and modern conscience which will no longer tolerate the injustices of the past. Thus, new technology is used to discredit everything that has gone before and pave the way for the slate to be wiped clean. By piggy-backing on the widespread public enthusiasm for the new (in the form of aviation), combined with photographic “proof”, in this book Le Corbusier is attempting to link his particular ideas about urban design with a broader popular mood for change.
From the trauma of the First World War, which discredited the rigid aspirations of a society based upon nineteenth century values, a new-found optimism in the potential of new technology to create a better world emerged. The 1920s and 30s were defined by ideas and social movements that attempted to use apparently rational and objective principles in an attempt at social engineering, presented as a way of escaping the horrors of the recent past. The aeroplane was the apex of modern achievement at the time and was held out as a shining example for those who wanted to believe in the future. Up in the air, the aeroplane reveals an old, decrepit urban world that is the root cause of all evils. It is also no coincidence that this perspective mirrors that of the high-modernist planner, who sees all and ceaselessly strives to better mankind as an omnipotent God-like substitute. For an architect salivating at the thought of wiping the urban slate clean and starting afresh (heedless of the direct human consequences) the aeroplane proved to be a very useful tool in pushing this own agenda. Progress is presented as inevitable and natural; an unstoppable force that only needs to be harnessed by someone of vision and genius for the betterment of all. Utopian phrases and comparisons with natural forms are repeatedly used by Le Corbusier in this attempt to impose his very narrow and simplified vision upon the world. As he clearly states in the book, “Cities with their misery, must be torn down. They must be largely destroyed and fresh cities built.”
But as we have discovered to our cost, such cities are the concrete fantasies of a sociopath.
Throughout the 1970s and 80s, Cambodia was a casualty of Cold War posturing on the part of the great powers. In their struggle for global domination the competing blocs of East and West cynically used Cambodia as a pawn to be played in their zero sum game. Put simply, the Chinese and Soviets (even though they were rivals) were united in helping the Vietnamese fight the Americans during the 1960s and early 1970s. Once the Vietnam War ended, the USSR and China set about trying to gain influence and control over the newly communist countries of South East Asia. Cambodia, already destabilised by the war in neighbouring Vietnam, was finally torn apart when Nixon ordered the bombing and invasion of Cambodia in 1970 as a way to put pressure on the Vietcong. This led to the collapse of the existing royal government under Prince Sihanouk (who had tried to remain out of the war) and the rise of Lon Nol (a military dictator allied to the Americans). This in turn led to the strengthening of a communist guerrilla group, the Khmer Rouge, who wanted to create a new society in Cambodia. With the American exit and the fall of South Vietnam in 1975, Lon Nol’s regime collapsed and the Khmer Rouge under Pol Pot took power. They immediately instituted a radical form of ultra-communism (inspired by Maoist ideology) in which they attempted to produce an agrarian utopia. In pursuit of this they murdered millions during their rule from 1975-79. The Khmer Rouge’s attitude towards killing can be summed up in their motto: “To keep you is no benefit, to destroy you is no loss.” Estimates vary, but the figure given is that they were responsible for the death of approximately 1.7 million people (one fifth of the population) during this period.
This murderous regime was only ousted when Vietnam invaded Democratic Kampuchea (as Cambodia was renamed) in 1979. The Khmer Rouge regime collapsed and retreated into the jungle to fight a guerrilla war. Many elements of the group only finally surrendered in the late 1990s after doing a deal with the Cambodian government. However, the Khmer Rouge’s fall from power in 1979 exposed the horrific scale of atrocities they had perpetrated in their quest to build a “pure” society. In the meantime, a pro-Vietnamese government was installed in Pnomh Penh and the country was renamed as the People’s Republic of Kampuchea. This is the basic historical narrative. But what happened during the 1980s is a lot less well known.
In an attempt to undermine the communist bloc through divide and rule tactics, Nixon opened relations with Maoist China in the early 1970s, deepening a split that had existed between the USSR and China since the 1960s. The tactic worked and China slowly moved towards the West. But the ripple effects of this policy had a profound impact on countries allied to either China or Russia; in South East Asia, Vietnam and Laos were firmly allied to the USSR, while Khmer Rouge controlled Democratic Kampuchea was in the pro-Chinese camp. While tensions between Cambodia and Vietnam had always been a historical factor, the 1979 invasion can in part be regarded as a proxy-conflict fuelled by sparring Chinese and Soviet factions as they sought to establish their dominance over the region.
So into this steps the United States, China’s new best friend. In effect this meant was that the US ended up supporting the genocidal Khmer Rouge who were still hiding out in the jungle. Throughout much of the 1980s, the US recognised an alliance of the Khmer Rouge (who gave themselves a very cosmetic rebrand) and Prince Sihanouk as the legitimate government of Kampuchea/Cambodia and supported their claim in the United Nations. They even instigated a Cuba-like sanctions regime and economic blockade of the country in support of the Khmer Rouge. This got so bad that Oxfam, the international NGO and aid agency, published Punishing the Poor; the International Isolation of Kampuchea in 1988. This book argued that these sanctions were causing untold damage to a society traumatised by years of terror and murder and called for international assistance to rebuild this fragile society. It also cites a letter from December 1986 from a US senator which details that 85 million dollars were given to the Khmer Rouge between 1980 and 1986 (page 83), a period long after the genocide had been exposed. This was made possible by the fact that public and media interest in that part of the world had waned by the 1980s. Obviously US government support for genocidal mass-murderers would have been impossible without widespread indifference and apathy on the part of the general public to the consequences of political decisions being made in their name. All this meant that the deeply cynical and immoral stance (to put it mildly) taken by the US government in support of the Khmer Rouge went largely unnoticed and the suffering of those who had survived the genocide was compounded. The lesson is clear; the great powers play their games and small countries are mere pawns to be used for international point scoring. As always, it is the poor and powerless that suffer the most. That lesson is as applicable today as it was in the past.
Published by Planeta of Moscow in 1988, this book is a pictorial account of the reconstruction efforts being made by the Vietnamese-backed government of the People’s Republic of Kampuchea under Heng Samrin. A typical 1980s design, this glossy book is a part of Planeta’s Countries of the World series in which they showcased various Soviet allies in a format similar to travel photobooks of exotic destinations the world over. In particular, the book emphasises the aid given by the USSR to rebuilding Cambodia through photographs credited to Albert Liberman which are unremittingly positive. Throughout, the text repeatedly asserts the hideous nature of the Khmer Rouge regime, emphasising how every aspect of Cambodian society was utterly destroyed during this period. Indeed, the Khmer Rouge deliberately targeted educated people for execution and broke up family groups in their pursuit of a new and “pure” society. The book begins with some double page spreads of the Cambodian landscape interspersed with small photos of individual workers and farmers. This then moves on to an extensive section which extols the resilience and perseverance of the Khmer people to overcome their recent nightmare and build a better society (with Soviet help). To prove this, the book contrasts images of traditional Cambodian buildings and temples with progressive new hospitals, factories, soft drink sellers and Soviet ships entering port. All this serves to show that old and new coexist peacefully in Soviet-backed Kampuchea. These themes were carefully chosen because all of them were targets of the Khmer Rouge who emptied the cities and forced the population into camps in the countryside. There they were reduced to abject slaves, living in constant fear of starvation or execution. The captions beneath these images further emphasise the contrast between the current situation and the all too recent terror of Khmer Rouge rule.
As a country in which the rice crop is vital, agriculture takes up the next section. Indeed, all the deaths and forced labour in the countryside under the Khmer Rouge revolved around an insane attempt to increase the rice yield (inspired by similar schemes tried in Maoist China which led to their famine of 1959-61). Now, with Vietnamese and Soviet assistance, sanity has been restored. Traditional agricultural practices along with modern innovations (such as tractors) have succeeded in transforming the countryside back into the picturesque, and happy, state it once was. All the images of those working and living here show a contented and happy peasantry, greatful to be free of the Khmer Rouge and looking to the future.
This leads on to the next section which concerns the future generations. Here again, the horrors of Khmer Rouge life are contrasted with the progress ushered in by the new regime. Any form of education or exposure to the outside world was regarded as a threat by the Khmer Rouge and they actively attempted to kill anybody who possessed it. Even wearing glasses would get you killed. In pursuit of an ethnically pure Kampuchea, the Khmer Rouge wanted a docile population, isolated from the outside world, who would obey without question. The photographs show how the education infrastructure is being restored with schools and third level colleges being established (with Soviet assistance) to give the country a modern future. This progressive narrative is combined with the resurrection of traditional Cambodian culture (also banned by the Khmer Rouge) in order to establish the legitimacy of the new regime by linking it to the past. Thus, it is presented as the inevitable and natural outcome of historical progress. Photographs of historical buildings and artefacts along with people engaged in traditional practices, serve to underline the respect the regime has for the past, in stark contrast to the vandalising Khmer Rouge who sought to wipe the slate clean. The final section of the book is devoted to the overt legacy of violence. Here, we are shown images of the Tuol Sleng prison and the remains of the apparatus of torture and murder used by the Khmer Rouge. These are then followed by images of the new Kampuchean military who are presented as being wholly determined to fight off any threat to the newly established state.
Trapped between the competing agendas of East and West, the Soviets were actually the lesser of two evils. While it would be a mistake to assume that they were not selfishly pursuing their own geo-political aims, in contrast to the murderous alternative of Khmer Rouge rule their objectives were benign. The USSR and Vietnam had an interest in establishing a stable and functioning society (under their control) in which mass murder and genocide were not a daily reality in order to discredit the Chinese. This book is designed to assert the legitimacy of the Vietnamese/Soviet backed regime through contrasting the bright future ahead with the horrors of the past. While the text continually refers to the horrific crimes committed by the Khmer Rouge, the images do not (with the exception of the Tuol Sleng photographs). Through the use of predominantly upbeat and positive imagery and a design that is similar to unconfrontational travel photobooks, this publication effectively normalises a deeply divided, fearful and traumatised society coming to terms with a horrific past.