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Viewing: Blog Posts Tagged with: communism, Most Recent at Top [Help]
Results 1 - 17 of 17
1. The day that changed the 20th century: Russia’s October Revolution

The October Revolution was probably the determining event of the twentieth century in Europe, and indeed in much of the world. The Communist ideology and the Communist paradigm of governance aroused messianic hopes and apocalyptic fears almost everywhere.

The post The day that changed the 20th century: Russia’s October Revolution appeared first on OUPblog.

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2. The Other Side of the Wall - a review

The Other Side of the Wall by Simon Schwartz

Translated from German by Laura Watkinson
Published by Graphic Universe, 2015
112 pages, best for grades 6 and up

Simon Schwartz was born in East Berlin in the 1980s.The Other Side of the Wall is his graphic memoir of growing up in the divided city, of his parent's three-year struggle to obtain an exit permit to leave East Berlin, and of his later forays between the two Berlins.

His parents met in college. His father came from a family of staunch Communist Party members.  His mother's family was secretly more liberal, though any deviation from expected Party behavior was cause for examination and surveillance by the Stasi, or secret German police.  It was dangerous to stray from party orthodoxy, particularly if you were a teacher, as Simon's father was. His parents became disillusioned with life in the restrictive East German city.

The Soviet Union had recently invaded Afghanistan. My dad worked on his speech, night after night.
     "God, how can you describe a war as just?  They want me to use fancy words to justify this invasion."
     "Just write something you can square with your own conscience -- at least in part."
     "I don't know if I can do that."

When his parents requested exit permits, their lives became fraught with poverty,ostracism, and physical danger.

The book's layout is as structured as Communist life - with few exceptions, four blocks per page - each bordered in black. The artwork is monochromatic, fitting for the stark reality of life behind the Wall. The story is told  in speech bubbles, text blocks that set the scene or relay back story, and the occasional footnote explaining terms that may not be familiar to readers (well-known  politicians or artists of the time, and uniquely German or Communist terms). Several panels are wordless - vague remembrances of the young Schwarz.

Back matter includes a glossary, a timeline of the Berlin Wall, and maps of Germany and Berlin 1961-1989.

I recently reviewed the historical fiction novel, A Night Divided, that describes life in East Berlin in the immediate aftermath of the Berlin Wall's construction.The Other Side of the Wall is a perfect companion book - a nonfiction, graphic novel account of the Wall's waning days.  For younger readers not familiar with day-to-day life in the Cold War Era, this is a chilling introduction.

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3. How well do you know Karl Marx? [quiz]

This October, the OUP Philosophy team has chosen Karl Marx as their Philosopher of the Month. Karl Marx was an economist and philosopher best known for 'The Communist Manifesto' and 'Das Kapital'. Although sometimes misconstrued, his work has influenced various political leaders including Mao Zedong, Che Guevara, and the 14th Dalai Lama.

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4. Ordering off the menu in China debates

By Jeffrey Wasserstrom

Growing up with no special interest in China, one of the few things I associated with the country was mix and match meal creation. On airplanes and school cafeterias, you just have “chicken or beef” choices, but Chinese restaurants were “1 from Column A, 1 from Column B” domains. If only in recent China debates, a similar readiness to think beyond either/or options prevailed!

I thought of this when Reuters ran an assessment of Xi Jinping’s first weeks in power last months that in some venues carried this “chicken or beef” sort of headline: “China’s New Leader: Reformist or Conservative?” Previous Chinese leaders have often turned out to have both reformist and conservative sides. Even Deng Xiaoping, considered the quintessential reformer due to his economic policies, held the line on political liberalization and backed the brutal 1989 crackdown. Mightn’t Xi, too, end up ordering from the reformist and conservative sides of the menu?

A Valentine’s Day for the books: President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden meet with Vice President Xi Jinping of the People’s Republic of China and members of a Chinese delegation in the Oval Office, Feb. 14, 2012, several months before Xi became the General Secretary of the Communist Party of China. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Mo Yan’s Nobel Prize win last fall, which continues to generate controversy, led some foreign commentators into a similar “chicken or beef” trap—or, rather, an “Ai Weiwei or Zhang Yimou” one. The former is an artist locked into an antagonistic relationship with the government, the latter a filmmaker who has been choreographing spectacles celebrating Communist Party rule, including both the Opening Ceremonies of the Beijing Games and a 2009 gala staged to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic. Since they are two of the only internationally prominent Chinese creative figures, some Westerners assumed Mo must be like one or the other.

In fact, the novelist shares traits with each but isn’t all that similar to either.  Like China’s best-known artist, Mo has a penchant for mocking the powerful. And like the renowned filmmaker turned state choreographer, Mo works within the system, serving as a Vice-Chairman of the official writer’s association and recently agreeing to be a delegate to the Chinese People’s Consultative Political Conference. Unlike Ai Weiwei, though, Mo skewers only relatively safe targets, like the kinds of corrupt local officials that the central authorities don’t mind seeing satirized, and instead of railing against censorship, he has likened it to an inconvenience akin to airport security protocols. And unlike Zhang Yimou, one of whose best films was based on the novelist’s story “Red Sorghum,” Mo has consistently produced iconoclastic works.

If Column A choices signal compliance and Column B ones criticism, the artist and filmmaker now stick to opposite sides of the menu, while Mo Yan keeps choosing from both—and he’s not alone in this. Yu Hua, an author whose political choices I find more admirable, does this as well. He belongs to the official writer’s association and his novels, like Mo’s, generally satirize relatively safe targets.  But Yu also pens trenchant essays on taboo topics, including the 1989 massacre. He’s frustrated that these can only be published abroad, but glad that they end up circulating on the mainland in underground digital versions.

A third debate, centering on the competing predictions made by “When China Rules the World” author Martin Jacques and “The Coming Collapse of China” author Gordon G. Chang, makes me think not of the value of combining Column A and Column B choices but of a different feature of Chinese restaurants that I only learned about as an adult. If you don’t like the options on the English language menu in some Chinatown eateries, you can ask to see a Chinese language one that lists additional dishes the proprietor doubts will interest most customers.

My problem with the Jacques vs. Chang debate is that I find neither pundit convincing.  Jacques’ vision of China moving smoothly toward global domination glosses over the fissures within the country’s elite and the many domestic challenges its government faces. Chang continually underestimates the Communist Party’s resiliency and adaptability.  His 2001 book said it would implode by 2011. Late in 2011, he told Foreign Policy readers that he’d miscalculated and they could “bet on” his prophecy coming true in 2012.  In 2013, the Communist Party is still in control and somehow Chang’s still being invited onto news shows to make forecasts.

When asked whether Xi Jinping is a reformer or a conservative and whether Mo Yan is a collaborator or a critic, I can craft an answer that draws a bit from both Column A and Column B  Being asked whether I side with Jacques or Chang is different. I’m left feeling like a hungry vegetarian who has been given a list made up exclusively of chicken and beef dishes—and hopes desperately that there’s another menu hidden in the back with some acceptable choices.

Jeffrey Wasserstrom, Chancellor’s Professor of History at University of California at Irvine, is the author of China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know (2010), an updated edition of which will be published in June.

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5. “Stretch” Johnson, my father

By Wendy Johnson

In the grim period of McCarthyism during the 50s, Howard “Stretch” Johnson, my father, fought for freedom of thought and speech, protesting the persecution of artists and intellectuals. Despite the fact that he had grown away from the Communist Party, with the 22nd Congress of the Communist Party and the revelations of Stalin’s bloody deeds, Stretch stood trial and refused to denounce his comrades. In solidarity, one of my father’s deepest values, Stretch did not leave the Party until 1956. Until the end of his life, he considered himself a “communist with a small c” and espoused every cause he felt was tactically or strategically right in the fight for the advancement of poor folks, convinced that the market economy is not the answer.


Cover to the propaganda comic book Is This Tomorrow by Catechetical Guild. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

In 1959, my father, realizing a dream, had passed his high school equivalency test and received his diploma. All his life he was as proud of that high school diploma as he was of the honorary doctorate he later received from the University of Honolulu. In 1960, Stretch was able to enroll in the degree program at the Columbia School of General Studies after having completed the validation requirements. He was also proud to be a freshman at Columbia University; since I was a freshman at Hunter College that same year, our family was proud to have two generations of freshmen.

Shortly after Stretch arrived at Columbia University, the then Dean of the School of General Studies, Clifford Lord, received a visit from two FBI agents who asked him to get rid of Stretch, saying that he was a former communist and a trouble maker. The dean escorted the agents to the door, saying “Mr. Johnson is a good student here with excellent grades and we are a private institution of higher learning. That’s all that matters!”

Working at night as a proofreader for the New York Times, Stretch was finally getting that college education he had wanted, not only for his children, but for himself. In 1968, he became Director of the “Upward Bound Program” to help disadvantaged youth from New York City enter college. From 1971 to 1982, as Professor of Sociology, he taught in the Black Studies Department at State University of New York, New Paltz campus.

As a teacher, both at the New Paltz SUNY campus and in the education programs of correctional facilities in the mid-Hudson valley area, Stretch mentored many young African-Americans who were inspired by his account of transformative self-realization and determination to continue a commitment to social justice. Stretch shared with the next generations a life experience spanning over sixty years and illustrating personal fulfillment during critical times that shaped the African American condition in American society (“I found that most of the inmates had a much clearer comprehension of the exploitative structure of society and were less subject to illusions about democracy”). His honesty, sense of humor and straight talk appealed to students and drew big crowds to his popular classes. He was proud to talk of his eleven-year record in which he had been characterized as one of the ten best professors on the New Paltz campus. He went on to say “It was here that I had felt most fulfilled as an educator, gratified by my students who called me Malimwu – ‘teacher’ in Swahili .”

I think these years of teaching were indeed the most rewarding years of my father’s life. He used to say to me that if he had turned on one young mind, he had not lived in vain. I believe he touched many lives, and was such a strong example of Black resilience and of everyday heroics, that he will continue to turn us on with his story.

Howard “Stretch” Eugene Johnson (1915-2000) was a former Communist Party leader, Cotton Club dancer, World War II veteran, and academic. His final years were spent as a professor of Black studies at SUNY New Paltz and as an ongoing activist in Hawai’i, where he helped achieve state recognition of Martin Luther King’s birthday as a bank holiday, marching until the age of 80 in Paris, France, and Harlem for causes he believed just. His autobiography, A Dancer in the Revolution, was published in April by Fordham University Press. Wendy Johnson is the eldest of Stretch and Martha Sherman Johnson’s three daughters. She has worked as an activist, translator, and teacher of English. She lives in Paris.

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6. Dancer, Daughter, Traitor, Spy

Dancer, Daughter, Traitor, Spy Elizabeth Kiem

Marina may be a teen in the Soviet Union, but her mother is the country’s premier prima ballerina, so her family lives in privilege. Marina herself trains for the Bolshoi. Like her mother, she sometimes sees visions. These visions cause problems when, on the eve of Breshnev’s death, her mother sees something she shouldn’t--one of the USSR’s dark secrets about testing biological weapons* that gets her taken away.

Suddenly, it’s not safe anymore. Marina and her father must leave quickly, and end in Brighton Beach where her scientist father struggles to find a job and a way to rescue his wife. All Marina wants to do is dance, and her father is convinced this will help him make contact with the KGB so they can negotiate. Meanwhile, he gets tangled in with the Russian Mob as Marina tries to lead a normal life in a new country while fearing for her father’s safety and sanity.

I really liked this one and Marina’s father’s mental descent. You could see why he thought the things he thought, while still seeing how wrong they were. I liked how the romance was handled. Marina likes Ben, whose parents also escaped the USSR, but he has a girlfriend, Lindsay. Marina and Lindsay are also friends, and while it’s complicated, and slightly heartbreaking, it’s not overly dramatic and the way the characters handled it made me really like and respect them. Lindsay often didn’t know what she was talking about, especially when it came to the KGB and the Mob, but she was a really good friend and a great character.

I do think it needs an end note. Teens today don’t understand Soviet communism and the Cold War. (And trying to explain the terror of the Cold War to kids who’ve grown up in a world of terrorism and suicide bombers is really heart-breakingly hard.) Heck, when this came out a librarian only a few years younger than me was confused about what was so scary about that time. I also wanted to know if the testing episode that Marina’s mother knew about was real. It’s real in the book and seems more than plausible to me. A quick google doesn’t turn anything up, but was it based on other incidents?

I’m also not sure the paranormal psychic-vision thing was necessary. It was the lynch-pin as to why Marina’s mother was taken, and Marina’s visions added some moody foreshadowing, but there might have been another way for Marina’s mother to find out about the testing and made the book straight historical fiction, which would have made it stronger. 99% of the book is realistic historical fiction, and it’s tricky, because it’s a time period that many adults (read: parents and other gatekeepers) remember living through, but many readers (read: teens) don’t know much about, and the 1% that is paranormal makes the rest of the story easier to dismiss as “pure fiction.”

Overall though, I did really like it. It’s hard to go wrong with something that involves the KGB, the FBI, the Russian mob, and ballet. And, as someone who has very vivid memories of the end of the Cold War, I am loving all the YA fiction we’re seeing now about it. (Plus, not a book, and not for teens, but let’s just think for a minute how awesome The Americans is.)

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7. The Paper Cowboy

Levine, Kristin. 2014. The Paper Cowboy. New York: Putnam.

In the seemingly idyllic, 1950s, town of Downers Grove, Illinois, handsome and popular 12-year-old Tommy Roberts appears to be a typical kid.  He lives with his parents, older sister Mary Lou, younger sisters Pinky and Susie, and a devoted family dog. He and his older sister attend Catholic school, his father works for Western Electric, and his mother stays at home with the younger girls.

Amidst the backdrop of the Red Scare and McCarthyism, Tommy's discovery of a Communist newspaper in the town's paper drive truck, and a horrific burn accident to Mary Lou, begin a chain of events that uncovers secrets, truths, and lies in his small town populated with many Eastern European immigrants.

Perhaps the biggest lie is Tommy's own life.  Though he never gets caught, Tommy is a bully, picking on kids at school, especially Little Skinny. When he plants the Communist newspaper in a store owned by Little Skinny's immigrant father, he's gone too far - and he knows it.  Now it's time to act like his cowboy hero, The Lone Ranger, and make everything right, but where can he turn for help?  His mother is "moody" and beats him relentlessly while his father turns a blind eye. His older sister will be hospitalized for months. He has his chores and schoolwork to do, and Mary Lou's paper route, and if Mom's in a mood, he's caretaker for Pinky and Susie as well.

It's hard to understand a bully, even harder to like one, but readers will come to understand Tommy and root for redemption for him and his family.  He will find help where he least expects it.

     I couldn't tell Mrs. Glazov about the dinner party. Or planting the paper.  But maybe I could tell her about taking the candy.  Maybe that would help.  "There's this boy at school, I said slowly, "Little Skinny."
     "I didn't like him.  I don't like him.  Sometimes, Eddie and I and the choirboys, we tease him."
     "Ahh," she said again.  "He laugh too?"
     I shook my head.  I knew what Mary Lou would say.  Shame on you, Tommy! Picking on that poor boy.  And now she would have scars just like him.  How would I feel if someone picked on her?
     "What did you do?" Mrs. Glazov asked, her voice soft, like a priest at confession.  It surprised me. I'd never heard her sound so gentle.
     "I took some candy from him," I admitted.
     "You stole it."
     I shrugged.
     "It's not my fault! If Mary Lou had been there, I never would have done it!"
     Mrs. Glazov laughed.  "You don't need sister.  You need conscience."
     I had the horrible feeling that she was right.  I wasn't a cowboy at all. I was an outlaw.
Author Kristin Levine gives credit to her father and many 1950s residents of Downers Grove who shared their personal stories with her for The Paper Cowboy. Armed with their honesty and openness, she has crafted an intensely personal story that accurately reflects the mores of the 1950s.  We seldom have the opportunity (or the desire) to know everything that goes on behind the doors of our neighbors' houses.  Levine opens the doors of Downers Grove to reveal alcoholism, mental illness, abuse, disease, sorrow, and loneliness. It is this stark realism that makes the conclusion so satisfying.  This is not a breezy read with a tidy and miraculous wrap-up.  It is instead, a tribute to community, to ordinary people faced with extraordinary problems, to the human ability to survive and overcome and change.

Give this book to your good readers - the ones who want a book to stay with them a while after they've finished it.

Kristin Levine is also the author of The Lions of Little Rock (2012, Putnam) which I reviewed here.

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8. From communist power to political collapse: twentieth-century Russia [timeline]

Marked by widespread political and social change, twentieth-century Russia endured violent military conflicts, both domestic and international in scope, and as many iterations of government. The world’s first communist society, founded by Vladimir Lenin under the Bolshevik Party in 1917, Russia extended its influence through eastern Europe to become a global power.

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9. Philosopher of the month: Karl Marx

This October, the OUP Philosophy team are highlighting German social and political theorist Karl Heinrich Marx (5 May 1818 – 14 March 1883) as their Philosopher of the Month. Known as the founder of revolutionary communism, Marx is credited as one of the most influential thinkers for his theoretical framework, widely known as Marxism.

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10. Jacketflap has a new Bookshelf Feature

Jacketflap.com has a new Bookshelf feature, where you can add a list of your favorite books, or books you've read. They've even made it easier by allowing you to import lists from LibraryThing and Shelfari and other places. I added my Shelfari list on mine. (It's not in the same order as it is on Shelfari for some reason.) I love online bookshelves. I've found some of the best books recently by perusing other people's online shelves, recommendations and lists. I've also met some amazing people through the lists and groups on the groups.

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11. Does My Cultural Radar Need a Tune-Up?

I have taken a vow of silence. A week back, I received a ticket to attend an advance screening of a big Hollywood film that premieres later this summer. I went to the film and signed some piece of paper saying I wouldn’t release information about it and I plan to hold true to that pledge. I know first hand how advance reviews can occasionally sour enthusiasm. All I will say is that during the screening, people cheered and clapped and I was absolutely flumoxed. It wasn’t the worst film I’d ever seen, but it was, to put it lightly, rather awful. And yet clapping. Cheering even. For one liners and kisses and such.

I’m going to attribute it to peoples’ excitement at being the first to see something. They were so invested in believing that they saw the next colossal hit, that they whooped and whistled their doubts away and went home and updated their Facebook profiles with something along the lines of “Guess who went to a big Hollywood premiere? I probably won’t respond to any messages for a while, cause I’m guessing I’ll be grabbing cocktails with Matthew Lillard and Eddie Furlong later. So suck it, zeroes.” Now consider this. No one was cheering when I went to see Avatar, and that movie’s box office dwarfs the GDP of many a nation. The Navi need not get their braids in a twist. I doubt the film I just saw will challenge their record.

Then again, maybe I’ve completely lost touch with the public. Maybe it will be the hit the world’s been waiting for. I’ve been wrong before. There are a few things I was sure would bomb, but went on to be wild successes:

Middlesex by Jeffrey Euginedes – I read this book months before it was released and while I could appreciate the scope, I was sure it would derided for being a blatant rip-off of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. Homage is one thing, but I felt Euginedes took the ideas, the form, even certain plot points of Rushdie and transplanted them with far less elegance and wonder to Greeks in the upper Midwest. I didn’t think Euginedes would be run out town with pitchforks, but I thought more than a few critics would wag a finger at him. But no. Oprah pick. Pulitzer winner. Modern classic. And no Greek equivalent of a fatwa to deal with. Go figure.

The Big Bang Theory - Not the actual theory, which I knew the kids would love. I’m talking about the television show. I think I watched the first episode or two of this sitcom and wrote it off as formulaic tripe. Virgin nerds fumble around a pretty lady while trading Star Wars metaphors. Insert laughter. I figured it would last a couple seasons with a “well, nothing else is on,” viewership, but it has become a verified hit. And critics dig it. I’ve poked my head back in to see if it’s changed. It hasn’t.

Communism – My buddy Karl assured me he was onto something. I thought it was some hippie BS. “Go back to the drum circle, Karl. Go date a girl who wears skirts and jeans at the same time, Karl.” But one toppled tsar, a shining path, and an arms race later, and it’s still kicking around. Even in our White House, at least according to my most trusted news source: Victoria Jackson.

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12. Under a Red Sky

Under a Red Sky by Haya Leah Molnar

A memoir of childhood under Communism, this book offers a real window into that world.  Growing up in postwar Bucharest, Romania, Eva lives with her extended family in one house.  This includes her grandparents, her parents, two uncles and one aunt.  Eva is surprised at age 8 to discover that her family is Jewish, though readers will know it from the start.  All of her relatives are unique and interesting.  Her father, a filmmaker, survived the Nazi concentration camps.  Her mother is a former ballerina who teachers dance to children.  Her Aunt Puica spends most of her time in her bedroom reading romance novels while her husband, Uncle Max is running into trouble at work for joking too much about the Communists.  Uncle Natan is a bachelor who still lives at home.  Her grandmother is prickly and her grandfather is doting.  The mix of all of these strong characters forms the background of Eva’s life.  They quarrel, fight, make up, love, and joke.  It is a family of very human people who are trapped behind the iron curtain, living lives so similar to our own and yet so very different and frightening.

Molnar has set just the right tone with this book.  Its universal qualities of family and childhood are played out against the repressiveness of Romanian Communism, yet it is not grim.  Moments of humor and humanity shine against the darkness, incandescent against the horrors of Communism.  As the book moves on, Eva begins to understand the dangers of her life, creating a tension that makes for intense reading.

Molnar’s depiction of her relatives is told with great relish and delight.  They are the sort of family members who shape who you are, and readers can see them shaping Eva as we watch.  Each person has their own distinct style and reactions, they are vividly depicted and as the pressures of Communism grow around them, become more and more themselves.  The characters are what make this book a pleasure to read, their colorful lives more than enough relief from what could have been a very grim tale.

Highly recommended, this book offers a memoir that reads like good historical fiction.  Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from copy received from Farrar Straus Giroux.

Also reviewed by Killin’ Time Reading.

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13. China: Behind the bamboo curtain

By Patrick Wright

On 1 October 1954, Sir Hugh Casson, the urbane professor of interior design who had been director of architecture at the Festival of Britain, found himself standing by the Tiananmen Gate in the ancient and still walled city of Peking. In China to present a statement of friendship signed by nearly 700 British scientists and artists, he was watching a parade that the reporter James Cameron reckoned to be “the greatest show on earth”. First came the troops and the “military ironwork”, grinding past for a full hour. This was followed by a much longer civil parade in which the people marched by in barely imaginable numbers, beaming with joy at their elevated leaders who gazed back with the slightly “subdued” expression of still unaccustomed new emperors.

The spectacle with which China celebrated the fifth anniversary of the communist liberation was brilliantly organised, as Casson felt obliged to admit. He was less impressed by the admiring expressions worn by many of the other international guests: “Gold-rimmed spectacles misted with emotion, cheeks creased with years of well-meant service in this cause or in that, shirts defiantly open at the neck, badges in lapels, and there in the middle – could it have been? – an MCC tie.” That particular specimen was Ivor Montagu, a cricket-loving friend and translator of the great Soviet film-maker Sergei Eisenstein.

Sickened by the rapture of the communist regime’s ardent western friends, Casson quickly retreated to the shaded “rest room” beneath the viewing stand. Here he lingered among yellow-robed Tibetan lamas, sipping tea and exchanging impressions with other doubtful Britons: the classically minded and no longer Marxist novelist and poet Rex Warner, and AJ Ayer, the high-living logical positivist who would come home to tell the BBC that China’s parade had reminded him of the Nuremberg rallies.

Enraptured or appalled, none of these British witnesses appears to have regretted the absence of Stanley Spencer. The 63-year-old painter, so famously associated with the little Berkshire village of Cookham, had managed to escape the entire show – thanks, he later explained, to “some Mongolians”, whose timely arrival at the hotel that morning had provided the cover under which he retreated upstairs to his room.

It was the discovery that Spencer had been to China that persuaded me to look further into this forgotten episode. I soon realised that an extraordinary assortment of Britons had made their way to China in 1954, nearly two decades before 1972, when President Nixon made the stage-managed and distinctly operatic visit that has gone down in history as the moment when the west entered rapprochement with the People’s Republic of China. Were these motley British visitors just credulous idiots, for whom “Red China” was another version of the legendary Cathay? That is what the 24-year-old Douglas Hurd and the other diplomats in the British embassy compound in Peking appear to have suspected of these unwelcome freeloaders. Or was something more significant going on?

Nowadays, the rapidly increasing number of British travellers to China think nothing of getting on a plane to fly directly there. Yet Spencer had good reason to feel “trembly” as he and the five other members of his entirely unofficial cultural delegation approached the runway at Heathrow on 14 September 1954. Though Britain had recognised China a few months after the liberation, it had yet to establish proper diplomatic relations with the communist-led government, and the embarking Britons couldn’t pick up a visa until they had reached Prague. That meant crossing the iron curtain dividing Europe. “Did you go under or over it?” one joker would later ask, making light of a passage that was

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14. The long, strange journey

From the Long March to the massive, glittering spectacle of the Beijing Summer Olympics’ opening ceremony in 2008, what a long, strange journey it has been for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). On July 1, the party celebrated its 90th birthday, marking the occasion with everything from a splashy, star-studded cinematic tribute to the party’s early years to a “praise concert” staged by two of the country’s officially sanctioned Christian groups.

By Jeffrey Wasserstrom

The party’s nine-decade existence has provided plenty of grist for both critics and apologists to debate its legacy. On the one hand, Jung Chang and Jon Halliday’s sensationalistic bestseller Mao: The Unknown Story, paints the party’s founding father as a demonic figure whose rule was brutal and disastrous for China. In the words of the authors, Mao’s sole accomplishment was bringing “unprecedented misery” to “the whole of China.”


On the opposite extreme, the self-aggrandizing accounts of the party’s history that are being promulgated in China right now portray its leaders as unstinting paragons of virtue. This is the impression given not only by the CCP’s commemorative film — which presents Mao as an idealistic young patriot in love — but also by the hagiographic accounts offered in the country’s newspapers. These articles refer to the party as a “powerful spiritual force” that has never stopped “achieving new victories” for the nation.

The truth is somewhere between Chang and Halliday’s spine-tingling horror story and the fairy tale endorsed by the party. With that in mind, what follows are five pairs of the Chinese Communist Party’s interrelated triumphs and tragedies. This list is not intended to deliver a final verdict on the party’s 90 years of existence, but to remind us that, while its failures have been very bad indeed, its accomplishments illustrate why some in China will sincerely wish the party a happy birthday.

Early in its history, the CCP played an important role in anti-imperialist mass struggles that galvanized the Chinese population. During the May 30 Movement of 1925, for example, it helped to bring thousands of protesters to the streets to decry the mistreatment of Chinese workers in Japanese mills, and it spearheaded major boycotts of Japanese goods when that country began making military incursions into north China in the 1930s.

Later, the Red Army contributed greatly to the 1945 rout of Japanese invaders, earning a reputation as determined and selfless guerrilla fighters and beginning the process of finally ending what the party refers to as China’s “century of humiliation.”

The CCP sometimes exaggerates its role in defeating imperialism and downplays the complementary activities of other groups, but it still has a patriotic and nationalistic record that is a source of pride for many Chinese.

But don’t forget: The CCP’s fear-mongering over foreign threats.

Time and time again, the party has used the bogeymen of international conspiracies and foreign influence to justify harsh acts of repression. In the 1950s and 1960s, people were persecuted as “capitalist roaders” due to having relatives in the West. When CCP leader Deng Xiaoping tried to defend China’s violent crackdown that curtailed the 1989 Tiananmen Square protest

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15. The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver: Review

 It was inevitable that a novel featuring my three favourite historic figures (Diego Riveira, Frida Kahlo and Leon Trotsky) should find its way into my supermarket basket. How glad I am that it did!

The Lacuna is a well-researched and beautifully written epic novel that captured my imagination and held my attention from its early pages. It combines modern and ancient Mexican history with modern US history and an anti-war message. It tells the life of Harrison Shepherd, an American boy growing up in Mexico, and later of his career and exile in the USA. His story is interwoven with that of famous artists Riveira and Kahlo, and the Bolshevik leader, Trotsky.

Chancing to meet Frida Kahlo in the market place one day, he offers to carry her basket, and not discouraged by her rather scornful reply, he follows her home – the start of a complicated life-long friendship and his first job in the Riveira/Kahlo home.

Shepherd makes himself indispensible as a mixer of the best plaster, a fine cook and a secretary. When the household takes in exiled Russian leader, Leon Trotsky, Shepherd becomes his main scribe and translator. His diaries give colourful descriptions of the vibrant personalities he lived amongst and of a life under constant threat of attack.

After Shepherd’s death, he makes his way to small-town American and establishes a new life as an author. He leads a reclusive life and tries as much as possible to be unnoticed, but his novels are overnight successes and draw a lot of attention from women (in which Shepherd) is not remotely interested) and from the media.

As McCarthy’s witch-hunt against Communism draws momentum, Shepherd comes under suspicion by his former association with Riveira, Kahlo and Trotsky and is drawn into an ugly legal battle.

Will he clear his name? You will just have to read this fascinating and entertaining story to find out.  Highly recommended.

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BREAKING STALIN'S NOSE, written and illustrated by Eugene Yelchin (Henry Holt 2011)(ages 9-12).  Ten-year-old Sasha idolizes his father, whom Comrade Stalin himself awarded the Red Banner, for his work with State Security.  And tomorrow, when Sasha will finally be allowed to join the Young Pioneers, his father will tie his red scarf around his neck.

But that night, Sasha's father is arrested as an enemy of the people, which means Sasha is an enemy, too.  He will never be allowed to become a Young Pioneer and the safe world he thought he knew is gone forever.

BREAKING STALIN'S NOSE exquisitely portrays Sasha's awakening to the corruption and oppression in Stalinist Russia while retaining a convincing child-centric point-of-view.  Chilling, fascinating, and at times horrifying.

1 Comments on BREAKING STALIN'S NOSE, last added: 11/29/2011
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17. Breaking Stalin's Nose

Breaking Stalin's Nose Eugene Yelchin

I hadn't read this one yet when it won a Newbery Honor last week, but I *did* have it already checked out from the library. WIN!

Sasha is going to be inducted into the Young Pioneers tomorrow, and his hero, his father, who works for State Security will be there performing the ceremony. But in the middle of the night, his father is arrested and the neighbors claim their room. At school the next day, starting with a snowball fight gone wrong, everything unravels and Sasha starts to see the truth about Stalin, the system, and the country he loves so much.

It took me awhile to get into Sasha's voice. He buys the communist line completely and sometimes his spouting of Communist rhetoric can seem like clumsy insertion of background info, but it's not. From what I know about living under a communist dictatorship with a strong cult of personality, that's exactly how a kid who was taught to believe in the system would talk. Plus, when Yelchin is actually adding in background information, it's not clumsy. It works really well

Recently, my dad caught a gang of wreckers scheming to blow it up. Wreckers are enemies of the people who want to destroy our precious Soviet property. I can't imagine anybody who would dare to damage a monument to Comrade Stalin, but there are some bad characters out there. Obviously, they're always caught.

I think that Yelchin's black-and-white graphite drawings really add the text and the story. I especially liked the way he plays with perspective and proportion to really give a Sasha-eye view of what's going on.

As things unravel at school, Yelchin ratchets up the tension and suspense, but this is still a solidly middle grade novel.

I do wish I would have read this before it won, so then I wouldn't have read it with my 'Is this Newbery worthy?' lens. Because with that lens on, I'm questioning "would he have become disillusioned so quickly? would he really have done X?" (X is a spoiler, so I won't tell you.) And I don't think those questions would have plagued me before Monday.

BUT! All doubts aside, it is a GREAT book. I think Yelchin does a FANTASTIC job of painting a society in its ideal and its horror in a way that's understandable and gripping for younger readers without diminishing the scope or facts. After I got into his voice, I loved Sasha. I loved seeing the world through his eyes, even as that world shattered. My heart broke for him.

Also, I LOVED the ending. It's a great ending without being too neat and tidy. Yelchin also has a great author's note.

Book Provided by... my local library

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