How do I live in a society in whose leaders values are totally alien to me? In Britain we have a Poujadist leader who seems intent on dragging Britain back to a country of her childhood imaginings. A country from which people with foreign sounding names with funny foreign languages are absent.The Britain which I love is fast disappearing before my eyes. EU nationals are now threatened with deportation because of their ‘EUness’, an alien virus which is seen to threaten the integrity of the English nation. To answer my own question I look to those who have survived with their integrity intact in more violent and authoritarian societies than mine.
One figure that has always attracted me is the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, a women who survived the horrors of Stalin’s persecution of the intellectuals in the 1930s. She was one of the early supporters of the revolution or rather the revolution in social mores that was sweeping through Russia in the early twentieth century. What this change meant was that women were no longer confined to the domestic scene as wives or mistresses. They could live their own lives rather than a life according to established custom. When Stalin achieved power this independent minded woman was seen as threat to new puritanical work obsessed world of communism. In Stalin’s world individualism of the type that was practised by Anna Akhmatova was seen as a threat to the collective. People should work for the good of society and exhaust themselves in the fulfilment of communist society’s goals. The individualism of Akhmatova was seen as bourgeois and as contrary to communist life and practice. Also she scandalised the puritanical Stalin by living what in the sixties would be termed a sexually liberated life.Women could take on traditional masculine roles that being a doctor, architect in Soviet society, but they should not transgress the traditional sexual mores.
The first act of persecution on her was the sending of her husband sent to a labour camp, where he later died. Then when her son had achieved adulthood he was sent to the camps on a trumped up charge. Stalin and his secret police then played a cat and mouse game with her. She would go to the camp were she thought her son was imprisoned with food and queue for an opportunity to meet her son. All to often she would be turned away on some pretext and was denied a chance to talk to her son or deliver her food parcels. This was an experience common to many mothers and wives of camp inmates. Yet despite this treatment she continued she take whatever opportunity she could to help her son. Somehow her son survived the camps and returned to civil society.
I cannot know what anguish Anna Akhmatova suffered because of her cruel treatment by Stalin, but I do know is that she retained her personal integrity. She continued to write poetry. It is this quality of personal defiance that I most admire, an intent of being herself and not communism woman. There is one of her poems ‘The Crucifix’ which expresses her personal agony, in the manner in which only be achieved by a poet.
Do not cry about me mother seeing me in the grave
The greatest hour was hallowed and thundered
By angel’s choirs, fire melted sky
He asked his Father ‘Why am I abandoned?’
And told his Mother ‘Mother do not cry’
Magdalena struggled, cried and moaned
Piter sank into stone trance
Only there, where mother stood alone,
None has dared cast a single glance.
Translated from Russian by Tanya Karshtedt
Edited by Dmitry Karshtedt, August 1966
What I take from Anna Akhmatova’s story is that even in the most cruel and corrupt of societies, it is possible to retain that independence of mind and sense of individuality, which represents the best of human life. In the end she triumphed over Stalin. The many tomes of his writing remain largely unread today, the only readers being those historians who need to understand Stalinism; whereas Anna Akhmatova’s poems are read by many thousands if not millions for pleasure. Her spirit lives on through her poetry, Stalin’s died at his death.
There is another story from Soviet Russia that sticks in my mind. A person who has been recently freed from a labour camp is given a $10 dollar note by a friend, who realises that they will need help now that they are trying to reestablish their life. However this man knows of friend in similar circumstances who he thinks is in greater need of the money, so he sends him the $10 dollar bill. The recipient of the money knows of a person who is greater, so he sends on the money. In the end the $10 dollar bill never gets spent as its sent from one person to another. People can it seems retain the best of human qualities in the most appalling of circumstances.
What I am not suggesting is that contemporary Britain is the 21st century equivalent of the Soviet Union. Instead I live in an increasingly authoritarian society in the leaders have values alien to me. It is a country in which the nastier of the Poujadist or Little Englander strain of politics has become mainstream. While our leaders may claim they are neither, their actions and the wording of their speeches betrays there true intent. How will I live in this new Britain? I will continue my friendships with my Iranian and Peruvian neighbours. Continue to patronise the Italian cafe where I regularly go for coffee. What I am trying to say is that I will try to live my life according to those qualities of life that the philosopher Kwane Anthony Appiah calls cosmopolitanism. I enjoy a life which I see as characterised by friendship with people of other culture. A cultivated open mindedness a respecting others for there differentness. Perhaps a feeling first stimulated on my first visit to France in the 1970 when for the first time in my life I could enjoy a good cup of coffee. This to a person brought up on instant coffee was a life changing experience.
I grew up in what many would consider ideal circumstances. It was a childhood spent in small rural village of native born English people. There was a strong sense of community mindedness. I could wander through the village and its surrounds knowing that I was safe. If I encountered any problems I could go to a neighbour. Yet now I could not return to a community of native born English speakers, as I love learnt to love diversity and difference. In the village of my childhood there would not have been a Mohammed with whom I could discuss Middle Eastern politics. Now my ideal world is the one centred on the urban coffee house, where I can engage in conversation with people who are not like me. One in which a secular minded Englishman can have a friend who is a good Muslim who both share a liking for indulging in good conversation.