Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Kara Bogaz? Hydrology and Despotism

Still haven't finished whatever book I said I started a while ago, um The Secret River, but did finish the third of David Peace's Red Riding books, 1980, one to go, and also got distracted by one from my Anything Russian days, Engineers Of The Soul, by Frank Westerham, who is an Dutch engineer/writer of some skill, about the typically tragic history of the writers and filmmakers who tried to document the construction of the great canals that Stalin was building to connect the rivers and seas and lakes of the USSR, and in particular one place no-one has heard off, Kara Bogaz, which is a huge sulfur and salt rich shallow body of water in Turkmenistan, like an giant aneurysm off the Caspian Sea and that may not even exist on some maps (it evaporated in the early 1980s when the inlet from the Caspian was blocked), but it was a book about much more than that as this is the time when political insanity tore apart the lives and families of artists, writers and, of course, engineers all through the USSR.

Just about anything that went on in Soviet Russia with Stalin's Cult of Personality is crazy, but his attitude to writers in particular was very VERY strange. (Simon Sebag Montefiore suggests in Young Stalin that maybe this was because he thought of himself as a bit of a poet. Or was in Martin Amis in Koba The Dread? Whatever.)

Stalin wanted writers to "Engineer The Human Soul" (i.e. the souls of those "Russians" who hadn't starved already or been executed yet) with uplifting stories of workers and the proletariat living heroic lives in the wonderfully successful Socialist empire, exemplifying the Ideals of Courage and Patriotism by battling subversive spies and crafty saboteurs in order to bring in that bumper crop to exceed the targets of the five year plan... or to shovel ice and mud for a thousand kilometres and dig a trench for magnificent hydrological marvels that would makes the corrupt West angry and jealous, (and not wash away with the spring thaw) and, incredibly yet understandably, writers would do this. Stalin expected his hydrologists to make rivers run uphill to realise his grand plan of interconnecting canals and he demanded that his writers convey to his people all the soon-to-be-truths about wonders of these soon-to-be-perfect achievements.

The larger the water engineering projects, the more despotic the controlling regime, according to Karl Marx.

In the end it was conform or starve or be off to the gallows or the gulag, and even if you were a staunch believer, something that you wrote years ago that Stalin or Gorky loved might suddenly, on a whim or as part of a purge, become OOB (out of bounds) and so it would be bye bye and please don't mention that many of those canals were never successfully completed, or were never even remotely successful as far as water navigation was concerned and were sad wastes of thousands of lost lives.

The Secret RiverNineteen Eighty (Red Riding, #3)Engineers of the Soul: In the Footsteps of Stalin's WritersYoung StalinKoba the Dread: Laughter and the Twenty Million


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