Summer Round-Up!: May-July 2019

Tom Shillam

Communism and State Violence

As the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre passes, it seems apt to begin this round-up by considering state violence. Writing in The Conversation, Chongyi Feng explores the divisions in the Chinese Communist Party of 1989 over how to approach the million-strong protests, which called only for mild government reforms. A ‘hard-line’ faction came to view the protests as symbolising ‘a conspiracy of hostile forces backed by Western powers to create turmoil and divide China’ while a ‘moderate’ faction welcomed them as ‘patriotic’.

On the topic of hard-line authoritarian leaders, Alan Taylor has compiled a brilliant series of photographs of ‘Cold War Bunkers’ in Albania which the increasingly paranoid head of state Enver Hoxha began to construct from 1968. These bunkers spanned the country and were intended as shelters from a potential Soviet attack or invasion by a neighbour. Many still stand, some nestled among high mountains and others grouped on seashores.

Moving towards popular experiences of Communism, Arnos Chapple constructs a similar photo archive which conveys everyday life in Hungary from the 1940s through to the 1980s. From bears visiting delis to divers on the Danube, we get a very broad picture of how ordinary citizens (and animals) laboured, loved and lived in Hungary during these years.  Finding creative outlets in song and dance, the population was nevertheless subject to relentless state surveillance throughout.

Indeed, authorities in communist Eastern Europe did not just monitor citizens but sometimes stole their stuff. Writing in The Art Newspaper, Catherine Hickley reports on a pilot project by the German Lost Art Foundation which considered the acquisitions of several Brandenburg museums between 1945 and 1989. It transpires that ‘between 1% and 8% of their inventories’ may have been ‘unethically acquired’ – books, sculptures, paintings and furniture which had often been taken from the homes of people who fled East Germany in the late 1950s subsequently found their way into local museums.

The visual history of the Cold War has also been discussed in great detail on our own blog by Agata Fijalkowski. In the final post in her series, she considers how, towards the end of World War Two, pro-Soviet forces in the Polish eastern territories looked to remodel the legal system. Photographs of new courts which the regime constructed ‘convey an air of watchfulness’ which was intended to keep judges in line with the ideological dictates of the new regime. The authorities distrusted pre-war judiciaries and created special schools to ‘train the new judges on aspects of people’s justice’.

Art, Culture, and Space

Considering the hit new historical dramatisation Chernobyl, The University of York’s Sam Wetherell asks why the bureaucratic doublespeak of the post-war Soviet Union sounds so familiar in a British accent. Though, as he suggests, the comparison should not be pushed too far, the authoritarianism of a state or social system can often be discerned through studying its use of empty abstraction and failed formulae. Wetherell draws interesting parallels between Soviet industrialisation – with its efficiency units and 5-year plans – and what cultural theorist Mark Fisher calls the ‘market Stalinism’ of the contemporary British state, with its relentless and stultifying resort to a complex of measures and metrics with which to evaluate university, school, and hospital performance.

Indeed, such moments frequently presage episodes of popular mobilisation and grassroots creativity. Once upon a time, before news of Stalin’s purges among other atrocities spread, the Soviet Union provided hope and inspiration to oppressed groups worldwide in its apparently progressive and inclusive political credentials. Owen Walsh describes how a significant group of African American writers, activists and journalists, frustrated with ‘white creative control and racial stereotyping’ in Hollywood, took up an invitation in 1932 to travel to the Soviet Union and produce a film about US racism. Unfortunately for the group, the plan failed – largely due to the governmental cynicism and economic rationalism discussed above. The Soviets needed American materials for their infrastructure projects and feared the geopolitical consequences of such a film being released.

Progressive artist groups later in the 20th-century – both within the Soviet Union’s borders and beyond – sought an escape from governmental and societal constraints on creative expression . Arianna Cantarelli studies how philosopher Timur Novikov acted as a ‘frontman for Russia’s wild youth’ during the 1980s and 1990s, experimenting with futuristic technology and art which was anathema to Eastern bloc realism. Of course, as formal dissent began to grow in the Eastern bloc from the 1960s onwards, subcultures and resistance movements also grew in the West. One of these was the LGBTQ movement. As the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots passes, Christopher Giola probes ‘grassroots organising’  among activists in the aftermath of the riots. George Lakey recalls how opportunities disappeared and doors shut when he came out in the US in the early 1970s, but that he also stepped ‘into a new place of freedom’, agreeing with the feminist injunction that ‘the personal is political’ and ‘the political, personal’.

Indeed, it was not just state and political violence which activists confronted as the 20th-century wore on but also private and domestic violence. Cara Diver pens a piece for History Workshop about Irish feminists in the 1970s who raised awareness of marital violence and ‘shattered the illusion that the home was always a site of safety for women (and their children)’. The problem had been side-lined with whispers about ‘troubled couples’, but various groups including ‘Women’s Aid’ now formed, which amplified the voices of abused wives.

Civil Society, Race and Internationalism

Vigorous civil societies provide one of the means by which oppressed groups can mobilise – even in dire social and political conditions. Harry Merritt, writing for Peripheral Histories, investigates Latvian Jews who served in the Red Army during the Second World War as part of the 201st Latvian Rifle Division. Facing hostility from gentiles who feared their presence, and soon to encounter horrific German atrocities against Jews upon retaking their homeland in 1944,  a ‘diverse and engaged civil society’ offered hope to Latvian Jews, even as the horrors of war took their toll. Among the ideas that moved them were socialism, Zionism, and fusions of the two ideologies.

Tiffany Florvil, for Black Perspectives, studies how Black Germans among other racialised communities, used international book fairs in the 1980s and 1990s as platforms through which to discuss ‘the return of German ethno-nationalism’ and racist politics and discourses more broadly. These annual fairs of ‘Radical Black and Third World Books’ allowed intellectuals from across different continents to come together and forge a Black internationalism which in turn drew on other internationalisms represented at the events.

For those more interested in the 19th century and in individuals rather than networks, Kevin Duong puts together a fascinating piece about little-known French feminist and internationalist Flora Tristan. Tristan self-published a successful book entitled The Workers’ Union, which argued for ‘workers of both sexes to come together to form a common international union’ in 1844. In the book, Tristan drew on utopian socialist currents in challenging ‘conventional ideas about women and social organisation’. Duong suggests that such internationalisms are neglected as compared with 20th-century liberal internationalisms associated with the UN among others.

If you have written a blog which pertains to any of the above themes and would like to be included in a future round-up, please tag us @authlanguage or me @tomshillam! Comments, advice and feedback all welcome. Thanks for reading!

Tom Shillam is PhD student at the University of York who holds a Departmental Scholarship from the Department of History. His research considers how mid-20th century South Asian intellectuals synthesised anti-authoritarian ideas of their own with those of writers elsewhere to propose a different decolonising politics to the dominant developmentalist dogmas of the time. Catch him on Twitter @tomshillam.

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Re-visiting Musine Kokalari: a lost story of defiance in the face of political oppression

Agata Fijalkowski

 This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

My current project about imagery and the law was sparked by a photograph of Musine Kokalari, an Albanian writer and political dissident. Kokalari was imprisoned and suffered the humiliation of a public show trial under a despotic regime which murdered her brothers and kept her under surveillance and in exile most of her life. Her brave story can now be told after secret police files were released that revealed details about a shocking miscarriage of justice which deprived the world of a great writer.

Kokalari was Albania’s first female writer of note from the pre-communist period. She was born in 1917 in Adana, Turkey, where from an early age the young Musine showed a passion for literature and national folklore. The Kokalari family were at the centre of literary and political activity in the area.

They returned to their native Gjirokastra in southern Albania in 1920, and  in 1938 Kokalari left to embark on her university studies in literature at La Sapienza University, Rome. She kept a diary, My University Life, which was eventually published in 2016. In 1941, she published her first book, called As My Grandma Says,  about the daily struggles of a Gjirokastran woman living in a deeply patriarchal society and which can be seen as an early feminist text.

The writer and political dissident

It was during her studies in Rome that Kokalari joined anti-fascist and anti-communist movements. She continued her political activities upon her return to Albania in 1942 where she co-founded the Albanian Social Democratic Party. Her brother’s bookshop

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Musine Kokalari. Linda Kokalari/Musine Kokalari Institute, Author provided

became a hub of intellectual activity. As a result the family was kept under close surveillance by the communist authorities (represented by the National Liberation Movement/National Liberation Front). Two of her brothers, Vesim and Muntaz, were executed by the state for their political activities. Kokalari herself was detained and arrested several times in 1945 after openly expressing her views against totalitarianism.

She was then involved in the Democratic Coalition, a political movement that supported the postponement of elections, and called for multi-party elections. The writer hoped that representatives from the United Kingdom and the United States would monitor the elections. But all 37 members of the coalition were arrested and deemed traitors of the Albanian nation. Neither the US nor the UK intervened.

Hair torn from her head

In 1946, following these arrests, Kokalari stood before the military court in the Albanian capital, Tirana. She was threatened, intimidated and coerced. Archival memos refer to her hair being torn out of her head by bystanders. Her trial was transmitted live via loud speakers to the crowds outside. Her stoic stance is illustrated in a photograph taken by the Albanian Telegraphic Agency. In defiance she wore a mourning veil in memory of her executed brothers. Her powerful image made the front page of the broadsheets in Albania two days running.

This trial was the second in a run of six trials organised by the authorities in that period

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Kokalari with her brother Vesim. Linda Kokalari/Musine Kokalari Institute., Author provided

that effectively eliminated “enemies of the state”. It was dubbed the “political dissidents trial” and it sent a message about the direction that the regime was taking towards free speech. It did not deter Kokalari, who used the trial to stand up for her rights. Witness accounts speak of her declaring: “I do not need to be a communist to love my country”. Despite her bravery, she would have endured severe, prolonged torture during her detention and trial. The court refused to let her speak for any length of time.

Kokalari was sentenced to 20 years imprisonment, of which she served 16. She spent a further period of exile in northern Albania, where she worked as a manual labourer. She joked that she was a “mortar specialist”, as her work involved heavy, arduous construction. On her days off she would visit the library and sit in a public place reading a book under the watchful eye of the secret police. Despite the fact that she was forbidden to write, she secretly completed a manuscript about the founding of the Social Democratic Movement. Kokalari died in 1983 – two years before the decline of the dictatorship – after being refused treatment for cancer by the Albanian government.

The fragile rule of law

The near full isolation imposed on her by the communist authorities denied Albanian society and the wider world her powerful voice and writings. Kokalari’s writing tapped into local custom and language, using local dialects in a lucid way, as she wrote about the challenges facing her generation of women. Her broader outlook about her country’s future as a democracy is far from outdated. At its core, the protection of free speech as a key to participating in, and contributing to civil society should serve to remind us how democracies are always works in progress. Her trial and the trials of her contemporaries show how fragile the rule of law can be.

In April 2015 the Albanian parliament passed a law permitting individuals to access their secret police or Sigurimi files. In 2017 the Kokalari family was presented with the file that the Sigurimi kept on her. Within it they found the powerful and defiant photograph of the writer standing alone in front a crowd of people as she was put on trial for her beliefs (fig.1). Kokalari is evidence of a political dissident voice in a country with little experience with democracy and which existed in near isolation for most of the 20th century. It continues to struggle with its authoritarian past.

It is a timely moment to reflect on the contribution that this remarkable woman made to Albania’s cultural and political life. Her life story is a poignant tale of achievement and ambition, of hope in the face of repression and also inspiration – for Albanians and non-Albanians alike.

Dr Agata Fijalkowski is a Senior Lecturer in Lancaster University’s Law School, where she is currently working on a monograph on ‘visual law’, which considers photographs of trials from the period 1944-1957 in Albania, Germany and Poland and the way that these photographs ‘speak legally’. The powerful image of the Albanian writer and political dissident Musine Kokalari discussed in this article resulted in an exhibition at the National Science and Media Museum in Bradford that also included a short, ‘arty’ film An Unsung Hero: Musine Kokalari (2017). More broadly, she is interested in transitional criminal justice, law and the visual and war crimes. In July 2019 she will be joining Leeds Beckett University as Reader in Law. Find her on Twitter at @AgataFijalkow