Posted in Russia, scotland

Soviet Burns

I recently spent Hogmanay back in Scotland, and being there in January meant I witnessed the preparations for Burns’ Night. One thing that you can’t escape in the UK is the ruling class’s sycophantic fawning towards the USA. We’re led to believe that anything we produce only has value if the Americans approve. Robert Burns is no different, and so the BBC have commissioned a documentary about how much Americans love Burns. The subliminal message being that the Yanks like him so we can too, no Scottish cringe required.

Burns, however, had a massive impact all over the world. Its undoubtedly true that Burns did have a huge impact in the States – but he was also hugely influential in that other 20th Century superpower; the Soviet Union. Did you know that Burns was on the school curriculum in the USSR? I’ll admit that I didn’t know this until my Ukrainian mother-in-law told me. I’ll also admit to being quite annoyed – the BBC will spend a fortune to inform us of a tenuous link between Burns and Elvis Presley, but nobody thought it worthwhile to mention a very unambiguous fact about our national bard’s legacy? The political bigotry of the British ruling class becomes only too apparent under the microscope of facts.   

It’s not only a question of the classrooms of the old Soviet Union. Right across the region Burns’ influence is undeniable. Many of the soundtracks to iconic Soviet and post-Soviet movies use translations of his poems as lyrics, and many artists have had chart successes using his songs – from this punky effort in Moldova to this more folky sounding Russian artist.

Burns popularity in the region predates the Soviet Union of course. We know that the great Russian poet Pushkin admired Burns, but had found his poems extremely difficult to read because of the Scottish dialect. Other great Russians also professed their admiration for Burns, including celebrated novelists Lermontov and Turgenev. Why was Burns so popular among these pre-Soviet people? That is perhaps best answered by another poet, this time the Ukrainian Taras Shevchenko who when explaining Burns popularity remarked that, “to know people, you have to live with them – and to know their life, you need to be them.” What Shevchenko had realized in Burns was of the utmost importance – proximity to the people. That was the appeal of Burns, he spoke to the common man about the concerns of the common man. And in pre-Soviet Russia those concerns were revolutionary.

In the same period we find the first serious attempts to translate Burns into Russian, by the revolutionary critic and publicist Michael Mikhailov. Mikhailov was someone who translated many poems from English into Russian. He selected poems that were close to himself in spirit, and the revolutionary Russian saw in Burns the same rebel. In his translations Mikhailov gave Burns’ freedom-loving poetry a life affirming humanism and the spirit of struggle and action which is characteristic of his best works. Unfortunately Mikhailov only translated about a dozen of Burns poems: imprisonment and exile soon put an end to his translating and political activities.

As things moved towards the end of the 19th Century, and the 100th anniversary of Burns’ death, a new upsurge of interest in the poet was observed in Russia. In the pages of Russian magazines such as “Russian Wealth“, “Russian Thought“, “Education” and “Herald of Europe” there was a steady stream of articles about Burns and translations of his work. In one such article, from the journal “Idea”, the writer says of Burns: “The people will repeat his songs because in them they find the expression of their feelings, their thoughts, their life.” The article emphasizes that Burns, in his poems, expresses all the grief that has accumulated over the centuries in the hearts of people who exclaim, “We have a right to a better life!

However, at this time translations of Burns were known to be of poor quality – Burns was actually considered by many to be untranslatable, primarily because of his use of Scottish dialect. In the first half of the 20th Century the work of one man would change all of this and elevate Burns to new heights of popularity within the Russian speaking world – which by now was the Soviet Union.

Samuil Marshak was a successful poet in his own right, and was one of the few translators in the Soviet Union who had actually studied abroad. In the UK Marshak studied not only philosophy and English Language but also Scottish dialects. He actually travelled around the country collecting Scottish folk ballads and songs. This was key to the success of his translations – he understood Scots in way that all those who came before him, including the great Pushkin, could not. Marshak was to become a prolific translator on his return to the USSR, going on to translate not only Burns but also William Blake, Rudyard Kipling and William Shakespeare – but it was for his translations of Burns that he was to win most recognition with Soviet readers. “Marshak made Burns a Russian, leaving himself a Scot!”, wrote the poet Alexander Twardowski.

Beginning in 1930, Marshak would translate some 216 of Burns’ poems and songs, although lamented that his translation work remained unfinished. Marshak delivered Burns poetry in a foreign language with the same amazing freedom and engaging simplicity as the original. He smashed the myth of the supposedly untranslatable Burns. He expressed, with unusual strength for translations, all the features of Burns’ poetry. He managed to capture accurately the thought, the musicality of the verse and the combination of natural conversational speech with melodic power. He captured the satire and the jokes, as well as the deep intimacy of the works. The result is an illusion that Burns wrote in Russian.  

Marshak thought that what was most important was to convey the true image of the translated poet, to faithfully reflect his era and the national identity of his works. Marshak believed that the poet translator should be like the reincarnation of the author – he should fall in love with him, with his manner and with his language. It is heartbreaking, therefore, to see Marshak so maligned by the liberal intelligentsia as they attempt to remove from Burns any notion of his revolutionary character in order to “sanitise” him and make him safe for their own consumption.

Anti-Soviet scholars, such as Natalia Vid, have deliberately misinterpreted Marshak and his work in order to reject the notion of a “Soviet Burns”. Vid ties herself up in knots trying to slander Marshak through a combination of lies and her own obvious ignorance of the subject. She actually accuses Marshak of changing the title of “A man’s a man for a’ that” to “An Honest poverty” – allegedly Marshak did this for sinister ideological reasons as part of the Soviet dictatorship of the arts! Clearly Vid is unaware that the original title of the poem, as given to it by Burns himself, was “Is There an Honest Poverty”. In other words, Marshak’s translation of the title is actually closer to the intentions of Burns than the more common title that most of us use and are familiar with. Similarly, she claims that the Soviets banned all translations of Burns other than Marshak’s, which ignores basic checkable facts such as the 1963 publication of Burns poetry by the publishing house “Soviet Russia”, in which all the poems were translated by Fedotov.

Burns, through the great work of Marshak, became the people’s poet of Russia. As they did with McLean, the Soviets honoured Burns with a commemorative stamp. It is believed that there are more celebrations of Burns night in Russia than any other country outside Scotland – with evenings from 22nd to 25th January being taken up with music, dancing, poetry, whisky tasting and traditional Scottish meals. But to really grasp the importance of Burns in Russia I would like to leave you with the words of Marshak, who could answer that question better than anyone:
The poetry of Robert Burns is part of [Russian] daily life. Our young people quote him in their love letters. Our best composers have set his lyrics to music and these songs come over the radio intermingling with the hum of our work-days and the merry-making of our holidays. Volumes of his poetry are found in the studies of our intellectuals, the cottages of our farmers, the apartments of our workers and the tables of our students. Burns creates links between people in defiance of all who would keep our nations apart. And it must not be forgotten that it is in human hearts, not museums or monuments, that his poems will be preserved.

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Posted in Scottish Politics, World Politics

Some thoughts on Xmas in Kazakhstan

(To fill you all in on what’s happening here: I’ve recently began contributing to Scotland’s most listened to lefty podcast – Ungagged! This is the script from my first input to the pod (which was broadcast December 2016), some scattered thoughts that I tried to put together in a coherent way – all relevant to my time in Kazakhstan where I happened to be living and working. I’d been eager to keep myself involved politically in the Scottish left, just doing my bit to help things in whatever way I could. I had been repeatedly offering my services to the Scottish Socialist Party of whom I’d remained supportive even after the RISE debacle. Unfortunately the SSP didn’t seem to have any need or use of the ramblings of an itchy footed international socialist. Luckily for me, Ungagged made contact and were genuinely interested in allowing me to ramble on their time. So here it is, the first of hopefully many contributions.)

Seasons Greetings comrades.

This episode I have the pleasure of conveying to you a message from Kazakhstan.

I’m aware that many of you might not know much about this place. Before being seconded here by my work, I was the same. My only knowledge of Kazakhstan was Borat and that time Celtic played Shakter Karagandy in Europe.

The Kazakhs, I’ve found out, are painfully aware that for many foreigners Borat is the only thing that comes to mind when they hear the name Kazakhstan. The wounded looks on their faces at the very mention of the “B word” are impossible to miss. A big proportion of the conversations I’ve had here have been locals eager to explain to me that Borat in no way what so ever resembles this country.

So the first part of my message from Kazakhstan is to confirm that the locals are correct. This is not a nation of backward simpletons. It might not have many touristy must see attractions, but if you get the chance you won’t regret coming here. Kazakhstan sits on the boundary between Europe and Asia, not only geographically but also culturally and politically. The population is roughly 70/30, between Central Asians and Whites, and between Muslims and Christians.

But far from the “rivers of blood” that many right wingers will try to convince you is the inevitable result of cultures colliding, Kazakhstan is actually one of the friendliest and safest countries I’ve ever experienced. The European and Asian cultures thrive side by side, and it makes living here a wonderful experience.

And don’t think that they only thrive despite each other. The cultures here are incredibly intertwined and supportive of each other. The national identity isn’t one or the other, but an understanding of all the people that call Kazakhstan home.

I witnessed a small but powerful reminder of this while walking through the city recently. One of the mosques has erected, just outside the entrance to its grounds, a small Christmas tree and a sign which simply wishes all Christians a happy Christmas.

I’m trying to not let the Daily Mail hear about this Christmas tree, or no doubt we’ll wake up to headlines screaming at us that Muslims are stealing Christmas. Nevertheless I thought it was a nice message to convey back to you on behalf of these Kazakhs. And also to say that I think there is a nice lesson to learn here. Of course, mosques and churches back in Britain who build bridges between their respective communities should be applauded, there are some unnecessary tensions being created between Muslim and Christian communities and anything done to counter that is commendable. But what is so powerful about this instance is that there are no tensions like that here. This mosque isn’t trying to show itself in a different light to its neighbours, rather it is simply saying, “I value you as a neighbour and I wish the best for you”. There is no need for them to say anything, no problematic media representation of them that needs challenging. They just wanted to be neighbourly. A lesson that especially at this time of year goes well with our supposed Christian values that the right wing harp on about constantly; but also a lesson that if we’re honest we could all do with being reminded of from time to time.

So Kazakhstan is not a country of Borats. Instead, its a modern welcoming country that we could probably learn a thing or two from if we’re prepared to open our minds to the possibility that other countries might do things better than the British.

Here is another example of something we could learn from Kazakhstan, and which is particularly relevant at this time of year. In Britain this winter how many people, especially pensioners, will die of preventable cold related illnesses? In an energy rich country, how many people will die because they couldn’t afford to keep the energy on during the winter? The answer is staggering. Tens of thousands. They will either have turned their own power off from fear of the costs, or if they are behind on their payments the big energy companies simply cut off their power, condemning these people to a cold dark miserable and often deadly winter.

Many people who campaign against fuel poverty will tell you to refuse to let the power companies in to your house to turn the power off. I don’t disagree with that, by all means have a crowd of activists waiting for them when they turn up to cut you off. Lets see how eager they are to turn of your grannies leccy when there is a team of anti-fuel poverty activists there to greet them.

But do you know what happens in Kazakhstan? Nothing, because the power companies here simply aren’t allowed to cut off your power. In this country, as well as most of the former Soviet nations, that ability to heat your home and cook hot meals is viewed as a human right – one which you don’t lose just cos you got into debt.

So lets take that fight to the politicians. Lets make them understand that staying warm during winter is a human right – one which we refuse to let the big energy companies take away from us. And as I always say, don’t let that fight seem too daunting for you. You don’t have to do it all yourself. There are established networks out there for these sorts of things. Get involved and help them. Or sign a petition or write to your MP. Someone can’t do everything, but everyone can do something. So please do your bit, whatever and however much that is.

I’m Beinn Irbhinn, until next time comrades, stay safe. ungagged-portrait

Posted in Scottish Politics

Social justice warriors showcasing faux offence are fostering a fear of political debate

A thought provoking read. Try not to be offended by it! I think it’s fair to say “you don’t have a right not to be offended”. Even if you don’t agree, I think it’s clear the electorate don’t respond well to wannabe politicians who seem to think it is a good election strategy to lecture us all about why they are better people than us. I for one want my politicians to know how to manage an economy, I don’t particularly care if they’re the sort of person I would go for a pint with.

Britain’s Left is boiling up at the treatment of Jeremy Corbyn and I am very excited

A compelling read from a Labour insider about the attempted coup against Corbyn. The left inside and outside of Labour, for the sake of the working class majority of the UK, must unite behind Corbyn.

Socialist Voice ☭

Labour is officially in civil war. Blairites and their cohorts have carried out their threatened coup against Jeremy Corbyn and he will now have a leadership challenge after losing a vote of no confidence.

40 MPs backed Corbyn and 172 traitors voted against him. This has caused widespread anger and militancy in and outside of Labour. Grassroots MPs and supporters are furious and disappointed; trade unions are now in fighting mode; Momentum is to organise and manage Corbyn’s leadership campaign and hold demonstrations outside Labour MPs’ constituency offices, but most interestingly the SNP has come out in support of Jeremy Corbyn while Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale calls for him to resign. She has effectively committed political suicide and Scottish Labour’s support will undoubtedly recede further to the advantage of the SNP. Well done, Kezia; you really do know how to make friends and influence people.

Corbyn is now being…

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Posted in Scottish Politics

Immigration and the Left

For me, a depressing aspect of the immigration “debate” is that it shows just how impotent the left currently is in the UK. This is obvious when we see the debate being framed by the right, and the “leftie” spokespeople being naive enough to be sucked into talking about immigration on the right wing’s terms. This reduces talk about immigration to talk of who can and can’t come to our country.
The left wing microphone grabbers have lost sight of what distinguishes us from the right. It’s not that we would let more immigrants in (although I guess most of us would).
This losing sight of things is evident across all political discourse. Take crime for example. The talk from the right was always about rules and laws, about who can we send to jail. They said they were tough on crime. The left, on the other hand, would talk about the causes of crime and how we could remedy them. We wanted to be tough on the causes of crime, to stop people becoming criminals in the first place and so not need to send them to jail.
Then along came New Labour. One of Tony Blair’s famous campaign promises was to be “tough on crime, and tough on the causes of crime”. This brought the left into the kinds of discussions that were previously the preserve of the right. Unfortunately, as things transpired, New Labour became quite keen on the “tough on crime” part of their promise and never had much to do with the “tough on the causes of crime” bit. The result being the left on the whole, with the only exceptions being small disjointed movements, have lost sight of their role in eliminating the social conditions (such as poverty and lack of economic opportunities) that lead to crime.
Something similar has happened on the topic of immigration, although we lack a famous slogan such as Tony Blair’s “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime” with which to explain it. The right have always been obsessed with rules and laws. With regards to immigration this manifests itself as a debate about who should and who shouldn’t have the right to live and work here. The left, with a focus on social conditions and internationalism, should really be talking about the forces driving immigration and how to remedy them. 
Let’s be clear, this isn’t an anti-immigration stance. I want to live in a world where every single person has an equal right to immigrate. I just also want to live in a world where immigration is a free choice rather than an economic necessity. Can we genuinely say that we can have a sensible debate on immigration when there exists such pronounced inequality between nations? Let’s work to eliminate poverty and then watch the immigration debate quickly change; from talk of how to keep people away from our country to talk of how to attract people here! 

Posted in Scottish Politics

Rethinking Public Ownership

Traditionally Marxists (and socialists in general) have supported and argued for public ownership of the “means of production”. I’m proposing we make a change here, not to our demand for public ownership but what we mean by that. The dogmatic Marxists argue for a centrally planned economy, but this ignores the fact that any attempts to create a centrally planned economy have failed. I made the point here that one thing the capitalists got right was the importance of competition, so I was pleased to read a genuine socialist and economic expert like Paul Auerbach say something similar in his latest book “Socialist Optimism”. This summary by Auerbach of his arguments against the traditional socialist model of public ownership are helpful here:

The failure of the Soviet economic experiment was not due to historical accident or contingent events, but resulted in weaknesses inherent in the concept of central planning as it emerged from the technocratic planning paradigm. In the debate on socialist calculation, a solution to the problems of centrally planned socialism was put forth: an alternative form of socialism was created that simulated the economic behaviour of a well-functioning capitalist free market. The ultimate demise of both these attempts at socialist construction – the Soviet centrally planned alternative to capitalism and the market socialist solution of economic theory – is to be located in their inadequate conceptualisation of capitalist economic development. They both foundered on their failure to understand the roles played by competition and finance in the fostering of dynamism, economic growth and development in capitalism.

So the question becomes this: how do we reconcile the justifiable socialist demand for public ownership with an economic model that preserves the roles played by competition and finance in capitalism? My proposal is that we use the practice of shareholding for the purpose of public ownership. This isn’t very revolutionary as such, many local governments (for example) already use shareholding to raise revenue for their pension funds, although the exact details of who owns shares in what company is notoriously difficult to ascertain. What I am suggesting is we use this practice in a more direct and democratically accountable way.

So here is the proposal: all shareholders will surrender 10% of their shares to a democratically accountable public body which will be set up to manage the collection of this revenue (some work will need to be done on establishing the details of this company, but if the proposal is accepted in principle we can work on filling in the blanks later).This public body will also be responsible for observing corporate behaviour, and any companies which fail to live up to ethical standards (such as worker’s rights, environmental responsibility, etc) will see their shareholders have to surrender further shares (with perhaps a limit of 51% of the total shares in any company being held publically).

I see this proposal as having two main benefits. First it would be an immediate source of extra income for public spending. At current levels of dividend payouts the initial 10% figure amounts to about £8.46bn per year (going by these figures). That is about 1% of the current government income (from taxation) and the total can obviously fall or rise according to how the market performs, but will be much needed revenue for the public sector regardless of how much is actually collected.

The second benefit is that it gives us a degree of democratic control over these private businesses, control that is currently badly lacking. These companies have a great deal of influence over our everyday lives, but we have no way of influencing their decisions. This proposal gives us that influence. If shareholders are in danger of having to surrender more shares because of the companies behaviour then this proposal will encourage shareholders to pressure companies into behaving ethically, rather than simply demanding larger and larger profits.

I hope that this can serve as the start of a discussion inside and outside the party on this topic. Currently very few politicians are talking about public ownership, and while it may not be my proposal that wins popular support I hope to at least help put public ownership back on the agenda. I will also be taking this to my branch with the intention of putting together a motion for a future party conference, assuming branch is in agreement with me. I ask for genuine feedback on this proposal, although constructive criticism will obviously help with putting together a stronger motion.