Epopee Pe Somes

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Nicolae Ceausescu is best remembered for his brutal demise. At a time when the various Communist dictatorships of Eastern Europe were crumbling due to peaceful protest and people-power, his was the only one that collapsed into violence. Largely hated in his own country by the late 1980s, Ceausescu presided over an impoverished police state where people didn’t have enough to eat. The economy had all but collapsed and the use of blood transfusions as a state-supported policy to make up for lack of baby food left a horrendous legacy of HIV infection. The hasty execution of both him and his wife was the result.
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But it didn’t start out like this. Ceausescu had once been seen as a figure of hope. He emerged from the shadows of the communist bureaucracy because of his public opposition to the Soviet crushing of the Prague Spring in 1968. The rare sight of a Communist leader standing up to the Soviet juggernaught inspired popular support at home and abroad. Ceausescu played off both sides in the Cold War, courting both East and West for his own ends whilst simultaneously building an all-encompassing personality cult for both him and his wife.
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Western companies, suffering from recession, leaped at the chance to trade with the newly emerging country that was asserting it’s independence. Massive loans were advanced to the Romanian government which they used to buy vast quantities of industrial equipment and modern technology from the West. This seventies spending spree ultimately created the seeds of Ceausescu’s violent downfall as he imposed crushing austerity on the population in the 1980s in order to pay back his lenders. The terrible human costs imposed in doing this undermined his legitimacy and created the sense of anger that was unleashed once fear of his police state collapsed in 1989.

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This book, Epopee Pe Somes (The Poem of Somes), is from the early part of Ceausescu’s rule. Summer 1970 saw severe flooding in Romania with the death of over 200 people and making over 200,000 people homeless. There was significant loss to both agricutural and industrial production as a combination of heavy rain and a heat wave (that melted snow in the Carpathian mountains) led to rivers bursting their banks. This book deals with one incident in this broader natural disaster; the flooding of the county of Satu Mare by the Somes River.

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Published by the Propaganda Section of the Satu Mare regional Communist Party, the book follows a fairly standard narrative structure in how it depicts the flooding. First we see images of the doomed battle against the floods as people pile sandbags in a desperate attempt to hold back the water. Then we see the flooding itself – towns, villages, factories all submerged underwater all depicted by blurred images taken in less than ideal conditions.

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Boats appear on the streets and survivors wade through the floodwaters trying to find help. We are then shown images of the devastation left behind once the water recedes. The palpable human tragedy of the event is emphasised as traumatised survivors pick through the wreckage of their former lives desperately looking to salvage what they can and find some sort of shelter in aftermath of this natural disaster.

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The narrative moves on. We now have the arrival of the benevolent messiah, Ceausescu, who tours the devastated area, inspecting for himself the extent of the damage. Unlike later publications where the Ceausescu personality cult consumed everything, his presence is relatively restrained and limited to a small section of the book. Here the wise leader comes to witness what has happened, sympathise with his people and direct the recovery effort. Like all such dictatorial regimes, the leader is presented as a substitute father-figure who knows how to direct his otherwise helpless children.

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After Ceausescu tours the area and meets survivors, the forces of the Romanian state swing into action. Guided by the local communist party administration, they soon provide all the assistance needed. Temporary accommodation is constructed for homeless people, the army provides logistical support, aid comes from all corners of a country united in its determination to assist the flood victims. somes17

Finally, as this is a communist regime where faith in man’s ability to overcome whatever nature throws at him and create a better future remains unquestionable, we are shown the rebuilding effort. New towns and factories are being built to replace the old. Construction cranes dot the skyline. Concrete tower blocks will replace traditional buildings.

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The flood has become an opportunity to replace the past with a brighter future. Just as Ceausescu would later deliberately sweep away vast swathes of Bucharest in order to build his megalomaniacal new capital, so the flood has erased the historical baggage of the past that had held Romania back. Under Ceausescu’s wise and benevolent guidance a new and brighter future for all was on the horizon.

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In the broader context, the damage caused by the flooding enabled Ceausescu to cement his leadership position. The flooding prompted increased national unity in the face of a crisis which has the effect of blunting all debate or criticism from alternative voices and prevents political challengers from emerging. Shrewd politicians can exploit events for their own advantage. By being seen to handle the crisis decisively, Ceausescu consolidated public support for his leadership which laid the foundations of the grotesque personality cult that of the 1980s.

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Kim Jong Il and North Korea

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By the mid-1990s, North Korea was in deep trouble. It looked as if the isolated communist bastion was on the verge of collapse. A number of crises all happened in quick succession that each threatened to cause the regime to fall apart. Firstly, you had the fall of the USSR and the rest of the communist bloc, who North Korea had depended upon. Food and fuel provided by the friendly communist world, at bargain-basement prices, had been key to the regime’s survival. Once that dried up, North Korea was screwed.

kimjongil01The economy fell apart and complete social collapse was on the cards. It didn’t produce enough food to feed its people (only 20% of its land is suitable for agriculture) and now it couldn’t pay for imports. Added to this, 1995 and 1996 saw a series of floods which destroyed both crops in the fields and centralised grain stores. 1997 brought a drought.  The result was famine. The exact numbers of deaths is unknown, but estimates range from 900,000 to 3 million people died. Whatever the precise number is, it is safe to say that vast numbers of people died.

kimjongil02Then 1994 saw the arrival of another existential crisis for North Korea; the death of the founding father, Kim Il Sung. A charismatic dictator, he had established an all-pervasive personality cult that demanded complete worship of the self-styled Great Leader by the entire population. His death saw the rise of his untried and untested son, Kim Jong Il (known as the Dear Leader) to take his place. Leadership transitions in dictatorships are always fraught with danger as all political legitimacy in such states is tied to the person of the leader. Therefore loyalty to the Dear Leader could not be assured, particularly when millions were starving.

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In response, Kim Jong Il intensified the songun policy. Basically the military first songun involved channelling all resources into the armed forces at the expense of everything else. This strategy was tantamount to applying the simple guns versus butter macroeconomic economic model to a closed economy. The stark choice the regime faced was to either feed the people or concentrate everything on maintaining a strong military. Resources were limited. They chose the military option. Widespread suffering, starvation and death was the result.

kimjongil04Everything had to be sacrificed in order to keep a strong army. Thing else mattered. There was a terrible and ruthless logic to this approach for the regime. The army was needed to prevent both internal and external threats from causing the regime to fall apart. Firstly, by making sure that the armed forces were well fed and insulated from the collapse it meant their loyalty could be counted upon.

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When things start to go wrong in a dictatorship, there is always the possibility that angry, disgruntled and poorly fed soldiers might stage a coup and pull everything down. By letting the military know that their best interests were served by remaining loyal to the Kim dynasty, that possibility was diminished. The interests of the military and the new leader were now one and the same. This also meant that they could be relied upon to crush any protest or dissent amongst an increasingly desperate and hungry population.

kimjongil07Secondly, North Korea uses its military power as a way to intimidate other countries. As well as its weapons of mass destruction, it has the world’s forth largest army. The aggressive tactics, regular skirmishes with South Korea, and the doom-laden rhetoric that that North Korea regularly uses against its enemies in South Korea, Japan and the USA are all designed to show that the North Korean leadership is determined to fight to the death in order to survive. The implicit threat was that a terminally collapsing regime could decide to go out with a bang rather than a whimper and launch an invasion of South Korea or attack Japan.

kimjongil08But even without this, the sudden collapse of North Korea threatened to cause a massive refugee problem as millions of desperate and starving people threatened to destabilise both South Korea and China as they abandoned a failed state. Fearful of both a catastrophic military conflict and the sudden collapse of North Korea foreign countries did a deal with the devil.

kimjongil09Cynically using the starving North Korean population as pawns in this geo-political game, the North Korean regime demanded food and other aid from foreign countries. Vague promises of reform were made by the North Koreans which they had no intention of keeping.

kimjongil11As the distribution of the food aid was largely controlled by the regime, they used it to feed the army and also keep control over the population. Loyal sections of the population were rewarded with food – disloyal groups had to fend for themselves. Food was used to regain a degree of control over the population and prevent the country from collapsing. In fairness to the outside world, they were placed in an impossible position; they either had to deliberately let millions starve to death or else send food aid which would enable this brutal regime to survive.

kimjongil12Printed in 1995, one year after the death of his father Kim Il Sung, this book is designed to show how loyal the North Korean army is to the new leader Kim Jong Il. (I don’t speak Korean so I am unable to give the exact title). It begins with the standard myth of Kim Jong Il’s messiah-like birth in a secret camp in Mount Paektu, which also appears on the cover. Then we see images of the younger Kim in training, following in his father’s footsteps as he learns how to run the country as he sets about building a bright future for the people. This is all designed to show a direct continuity between the deceased dictator and the new leader as the only true successor.

kimjongil15Kim junior is then shown on his own, taking the reins of power as photograph after photograph shows be-medalled generals listening to his every word. Crowds clap and cheer. The Dear Leader is central to all aspects of the armed forces, from planning strategy with his generals to inspecting the ties of soldiers. In a chilling juxtaposition, images of a beaming Kim Jong Il are paired with explosions and other demonstrations of military might designed to show that all power rests with him. The omnipotent leader sees and controls everything.

kimjongil16Then the narrative shifts to the lowly soldiers on the ground. As well as the usual images of military might – missiles, tanks, planes and ships at the ready, we see portraits of ferociously screaming soldiers. This is all the more poignant, as the regime deliberately inculcated the idea that ordinary soldiers would be prepared to engage in suicide attacks in fighting against the enemy.This had some veracity as many North Korean spies and infiltrators had committed suicide rather than be captured in attacks in South Korea and Japan.

kimjongil17Other images show ordinary soldiers expressing their gratitude to the regime, and Kim Jong Il himself, for the happy life they are prepared to fight and die for. Here we see photographs of the showcase capital and the architectural achievements of the regime used to show that they truly care about the welfare of the ordinary people. Young and old are shown united in their complete loyalty to the Kim dynasty as they parade through the streets. Again, the message here is that the entire country is utterly loyal to the Dear Leader. Of the famine, poverty and brutality that pervaded North Korea at that time (and still does), we see nothing.

kimjongil18The central message of this book was to convince readers that North Korea’s enemies were facing an utterly fanatical foe who was prepared to stop at nothing in order to survive.

And it worked.

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The Moskvich Automobile Factory (Автомоскбиц)

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Cars are powerful symbols of progress and modernity. As well as symbolising personal freedom and choice for individuals, they also conveyed an aura of industrial sophistication, national pride and power for countries that were able to produce them. In the Soviet context, the crash industrialisation of the 1930s and the demands of war production during the 1940s meant that making automobiles for ordinary people was not a priority. Cars were reserved for important officials, not mere mortals.

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That all changed after the death of Stalin in 1953. People were sick of unrelenting terror and exhausted by hard-work and violence. They wanted to see the tangible results of all the sacrifice, death and destruction that had occurred over the past two decades. The idea of scrimping, saving and making-do in order to help build some glorious communist future had lost its appeal to a new generation. People wanted the good things in life and they wanted them now. This became all the more evident as consumer culture took off in the West and began to slowly seep in through the cracks of the Iron Curtain. Thus car production served as a way to demonstrate that life was getting better and it was capable of competing with the shiny wonders being churned out in the West.

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As part of the reparations after the Second World War, much of the Opel factory and machinery was dismantled and taken back to the USSR where it was used to update the MZMA car that had been turning out copies of Ford Model A cars and vans since 1929. The new German equipment was used to update the line and the factory soon began to turn out rebranded copies of 1930s Opel Kadett’s, now called the Moskvich 400, for the Soviet market. From this a new line of models evolved during the next four decades of the USSR’s existence. Moskvich cars were small, rugged and cheap, designed for the average respectable Soviet citizen who didn’t rock the boat. In a society where money had little meaning (because the dysfunctional Soviet planned economy was incapable of producing things people actually wanted, there was nothing much to buy in the shops) the possession of consumer goods signified your importance and status in Soviet society. It showed that you were well connected and had influence. Ever since they were invented, cars have always been a very public way of showing off to the neighbours.

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The book has a traditional company photobook format: it’s designed to showcase the product, the modern, efficient factory and the good care it takes of its employees. Published by the Ministry of Automobile Production, the cover of red leatherette with the company logo stamped into it is designed to impress. As part of a corporate rebranding exercise in the late 1960s, the MZMA name was ditched and an equally awful name chosen – AZLK (Avtomobilny Zavod imeni Leninskogo Komsomola or Leninist Communist Youth League Automobile Factory). Sadly the rest of the book design does not do such a good job. Using randomly chosen bright primary colours as page borders and for text printed over the photographs doesn’t work very well. The word kitsch springs to mind. I’m tempted to suggest that these represent the different colours the car was available in but somehow I don’t think so. The cars depicted appear to be the final model produced, the Moskvich 412, which rolled out of the Moscow factory between 1967 and 1976 before production was transferred to the huge IZHMASH weapons and motor manufacturing plant. No details of the photographers or even the date of publication is given but a photo caption proudly states that the 16 of August 1974 saw the 2 millionth Moskvich produced.

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Beginning with a lineup of the different models produced over the years, the book moves into the factory itself. Here we see industrious workers and supervisors presiding over all aspects of the production within a bilious green environment. Once we move into the assembly line the colour palette lightens, helped by the addition of brightly coloured car bodies that serve the same purpose as the strategically placed figure in the red jacket used by postcard photographers of old. Like most company photobooks, the shop floor in such imagery is remarkably spotless; not a hint of clutter or rubbish that might hint at problems. The vastness of the factory is continually emphasised in the images to show the power and might of this industrial powerhouse. Everything is neat, tidy and clinically efficient and many of the images are remarkable for the absence of people in them, all adding to the hi-tech feeling the book tries to convey. Once the final cars roll off the line, a disapproving image of Lenin glowers down from above, undoubtedly dismayed at the sight of such consumerist frippery.

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Just like corporate propaganda in the capitalist world, it’s important in such photobooks to have a section showing how well the company looks after it’s loyal workers. Again, we see interior shots of bright, clean and modern dining areas, corridors, classrooms full of eager young workers ready to do their bit for the glory of socialism. A couple of pages later we get to the middle management who look a decidedly more serious bunch, shown doing serious party political work that culminates in a trip to the war memorial to lay a wreath. Images of swimming pools, sports facilities, kindergartens and toy Moskvich pedal cars rolling off the production line are all used to show that a Soviet company, unlike those in the West, really cares about it’s employees.

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The 1970s were a pretty miserable decade for design all round but Soviet products of that era are particularly crude. Everything from cameras to cars became clunky, blocky objects as if they’d been designed by a kid in a kindergarten using crayons. In fairness, the Moskvich wasn’t as ugly as the Lada which really just looked like a cavity block on wheels. But the wider point is that any attempt at making an object look aesthetically pleasing disappeared. In part this was down to the creeping malaise that took hold in the USSR during the Brezhnev era. Everybody just stopped caring during this prolonged period of economic and social stagnation. This book with its brightly coloured borders, full of images of cleanliness and order tries hard to project an aura of success at a time when the whole system was slowly rotting away from the inside.

P.S. The AZLK company went bust following the collapse of the USSR and the factory was abandoned. Some urbex photos of the site can be found here.

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Kaiiki – Hiroshi Uemoto

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

The Heroic Epic (Героическая Эпопея)

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.

chelyuskin-coverFirstly, 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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