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Monday, December 29, 2008

Of blackbirds in pies and turkey voting patterns

It is such a burdensone cliché to mutter that something is so bizarrely contrary to personal welfare that it is like turkeys voting for Christmas. I thought that twenty four blackbirds voting for pies might be a fresher analogy. This is not just because of the nursery rhyme but because blackbirds’ songs are as pretty and complex as any, while the Russians have a penchant for the lachrymose. Russians? Well, they have just been asked to name their country’s heroes in a national poll. Joe Stalin was No. 3! Well, since it is Russia, maybe the analogy should be that it is like bears voting to be shackled to dance away their lives, encircled by grinning humans.

I called in to the tele room just now to catch up on the Presidential run-off here. It is very close with less than one per cent difference in total votes cast. While I was wondering about the consequences of either candidate getting in, along the bottom of the Sky screen was the breaking news concerning the Russian vote. Well, riddle me with bullets from a Kalashnikov! What does this say about memory, herd mentality, nationalism, love of one’s land or social drives? Tens of millions died under Stalin’s yoke. There were the pogroms against intellectual and religious dissidents and those peasants whose faces did not fit. And there were the vast military marches into death against Hitler, whose people and troops were themselves almost exactly mirroring the grotesque tragedy of their enemy. It is a paradox that, when the chips are down, the collective urge is more powerful than the individual. Even when choosing the former means almost certain death. Wars are fought between collectives and if enough fear is instilled in the individual, then s/he will generally throw her/his lot in with the herd led by its powerful oppressor. However, sometimes, particularly in democracies, under the icy illumination of historical rationale, heroes become villains, victories become Pyrrhic, dissidents turn into saviours and a sense of incredulity develops between the then and the now. We wonder what led us humans to do such appalling things. The holocaust. The many examples of genocide in countries who have dictatorships.

But the Russians have voted. There can scarcely be a family in the old USSR who did not suffer from the heel of Stalin’s boot and now they are saying that the death of a good proportion of the nation’s young is worth it, if the world is forced to sit up and accept that their country is a major player. I’ve really enjoyed working in Russia and, if I was not suffering from some poetic fog, I sensed, everywhere, a deep pain in people’s eyes. A sorrow. The Russian spirit is half-ploughed into a thousand battlefields and labour camps. Under the Tzars. Under the communists.

I worked in Uzbekistan and drank beer with a Genghis Khan label. He’d get a top vote among national heroes, there, despite his Mongol imperialism in defeating the country’s tribes. Perceptions change. History is about winners and no matter how they won, the vast multitudes, who can’t win at very much in their lives, want to identify with them, regardless of whether they were psychopathic beasts of evil. If the Germans had defeated all against them in Western Europe, when would we be voting Hitler into third place among our national heroes? How long would it take?

We should take a tune from the blackbirds’ song book and sing bitter-sweet, glorious, heroic verses about those who have made our lives freer, more harmonious and informed. They should be our heroes.

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