Huts and History

Red Sky Shepherd’s Huts builds outbuildings. Among their sheds, one model offers “timber frame construction with tongue and groove interior pine walls. Each wall and floor are five layers deep (with) … a cavity filled with quality sheep’s wool insulation.” One specific hut of this type features “a corner-set wood-burning stove … (and) a pull-out double sofa bed.”

This particular hut connects the most historically disastrous British Prime Minister I can name to a really big personal dilemma. For in this hut, his publicists would have it at least, David Cameron has been writing his memoir, For the Record.

For the Record is published by Harper Collins, a subsidiary of News Corp, a Rupert Murdoch company. The book is available for pre-order just now on Amazon in the U.S. for $40.00.

I’d be interested to read Mr. Cameron’s version of events. The problem: paying a person who has done great harm. A couple of other books come to mind – those of the East German spy master Markus Wolf and O. J. Simpson.

Simpson’s 2006 If I Did It was to be published by ReganBooks, which is also an imprint of Murdoch’s HarperCollins, but universal disgust led to a court awarding royalties to the victim’s family. So that worked out okay, although it was an easy choice not to be stained by reading that book.

•••••

Cameron, for all his slack-jawed inattention, was no O.J. Simpson. To his credit, the New Statesman reports that

“Cameron is donating the £800,000 that the publisher HarperCollins paid for his book to charities for Alzheimer’s, veteran servicemen and childhood disability (his six-year-old son, Ivan, who suffered from severe epilepsy and cerebral palsy, died in 2009).

(Do not fret for the former Prime Minister. His fee for speeches about Brexit: £2000 per minute.)

Mr. Cameron’s long-delayed book drops next Thursday in the U.K., the following week in the United States. Suppose For the Record is a Brexit tell-all and a ripping good read. You reckon?

Amazon isn’t encouraging:

“In For the Record, he will explain how the governments he led transformed the UK economy while implementing a modern, compassionate agenda that included reforming education and welfare, legalizing gay marriage, honoring the UK’s commitment to overseas aid and spearheading environmental policies.”

Ehhh.

I imagine Cameron will claim to have been undermined by the current Prime Minister and Michael Gove, who is currently heading up planning for a crash out of the EU. If he does and he was, he will have been betrayed by dicey bedfellows. Dicey bedfellows who, as it happens, run the government just now.

Former P.M. Cameron will pursue a cautious book tour:

“The only events on the calendar are An Evening with David Cameron, at a yet-to-be-revealed central London location on 6 October, and an interview by the BBC’s Sophie Raworth at the Times-sponsored Cheltenham literature festival a day earlier.”

Meanwhile the U.K. parliament has been sent home by a Prime Minister eager for an unimpeded stomp across the political landscape through the upcoming weeks of party conferences. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has lost every parliamentary vote since he assumed office while withdrawing the whip (in American, that means he stripped the benefits of running on behalf of his party) from 21 party stalwarts, meaning they can’t stand as Tories in the next election, and as a result now commands a distinct minority.

You can see why Mr. Johnson might wish to send his parliamentary opponents back to the provinces. You can also see the peril to the British system of governance. The demons David Cameron unleashed with his 2016 Brexit referendum vote are circling their devilish roost.

Johnson’s boorish challenge to the parliament’s (unwritten) constitutional authority speeds up everything from the prospects for a new general election to the collapse of the confidence and supply agreement with Northern Ireland’s DUP to Scottish succession. History is revving up in the United Kingdom.

But about those memoirs: seems like the Trump tell-alls are shallow and cash-motivated. I’ve passed on them. Have I missed anything? Anyone? I’ve enjoyed two Brexit books, Tim Shipman’s All Out War and Craig Oliver’s Unleashing Demons. But what to do on Cameron’s book?

•••••

I had a dear German friend who spent her life, spanning the entire division of her country, in western Berlin. She would not countenance buying the East German spymaster Marcus Wolf’s 1999 memoir Man Without A Face (co-authored by Anne McElvoy). For Inge it was a bridge too far. Wouldn’t buy it, wouldn’t read it.

Still, conflicted, I just may enrich the bank accounts of Wolf’s estate, Cameron’s charities and Wolf’s and Cameron’s publishers, and in some kind of odd, backwards tribute to Inge, read both their memoirs together. I’ll bet Man Without a Face is not turgid. Place your bets on the Cameron book?

Quotes: On the Singapore Model

Street food stall, Singapore

For those who wish to see, critics warn about Boris Johnson’s hard-Brexit plans for free ports and mimicking the so-called “Singapore Model.” Angela Merkel warned of the danger to EU of Singapore-style UK on its border today. She said,

“But the fact remains that after the withdrawal of Britain, we have an economic competitor at our door, even if we want to keep close economic, foreign and security cooperation and friendly relations.”

Addressing the Singapore Model, an Oxfam report from last year notes that Singapore

“has no equal pay or non-discrimination laws for women; its laws on both rape and sexual harassment are inadequate; and there is no minimum wage, except for cleaners and security guard.”

Unless perhaps you are a cleaner or a security guard, I’m guessing that’s not exactly among the outcomes rank-and-file Brexiteers expect from a hard Brexit.

Mezhyhirya, Viktor Yanukovych’s Little Project, Part 1

Here is the home of the disgraced former ruler of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych, which he called Межигір’я, approximately “Mezhyhyria,” translated as something like “between the hills.” The Mezhyhyria estate grew from a collection of dachas outside Kyiv used by government officials. After President Yanukovych was run out of town, fleeing to Russia during a popular uprising in February 2014, the common folk had a look inside. We had a look for ourselves last month, and here are a few photos, in the first of probably three or four photo essays.

Click the photos for larger versions at EarthPhotos.com.

The gentleman who took us to Mezhyhirya said Yanukovych wasn’t a sportsman, but fancied himself one. Still, who couldn’t use a few lanes in the basement?

Yanukovych was not a race car driver, but somebody painted him as one.

Nor was he a boxer, but this room was perhaps useful for his bodyguards?

What home is complete without a stuffed lioness?

Or a salt cave?

Here is the tastefully flayed real crocodile on the dining table.

The chandelier at the entranceway.

And the entranceway itself.

Here we see Ukrainian citizens’ tax dollars at work. And what value for the money! President Yanukovych managed all this on a presidential salary of about $1000 a month.

I imagine this series will continue, because there are dozens and dozens more.

On The Road: Post-Soviet Museum Circuit

Here’s my latest monthly column as published on 19 August, 2019  on 3 Quarks Daily:

Thirty years ago this week two million people joined hands forming a human chain across 676 kilometers of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Known as the Baltic Way, the visually arresting stunt was a cinematic cri de coeur for freedom.

In time freedom was theirs. The Russian military fled, sometimes trashing their barracks and looting along the way the way. As a measure of the state in which the Soviet Union left the Baltics, still now, thirty years on it takes around seven hours to travel by train between Tallinn and Riga, the capitals of two European countries separated by scarcely 200 miles. Imagine.

The Estonian and Latvian railways have finally co-ordinated their timetables, but you still have to walk across the platform to change trains at the border. By contrast, the drive takes perhaps four and a half hours, and, as both are now Schengen countries, your vehicle breezes through the abandoned border post without slowing down.

Much of that drive, after the tidy Estonian border town of Parnu, takes you south along the coast of the Gulf of Riga. Estonia and Latvia are lovely during this early bit of Baltic autumn, grasses with full summer growth waving in fields skirting Baltic shores.

•••••

The next time you’re in Tallinn, make time to visit the well done KGB Museum atop the Viru hotel. From a perch on the hotel’s top floor, the KGB spied on guests. The lifts stop at the 22nd floor and to get to the museum you proceed through locked gates to 23, a secret lair of surreptitious surveillance so needlessly paranoid the whole display veers toward the camp.

Funny the needless paranoia. Funny what they did. Funny only in retrospect, I’m sure, and from a considerable remove.

From the Viru’s opening in June of 1972 until May of 1991 when the spies hastily abandoned their post, ripping out planted microphones in guest room phones but leaving behind other incriminating items, they would mark out a restaurant table at which to seat a suspect foreigner, more often than not some poor sod Estonian immigrant back to visit family from the west.

The table’s ashtray (photo) contained a microphone (remember, this was 1980s and everyone smoked). If the guest put the ashtray on the next table, a waiter would sweep by to put it back. Plates like the one in the photo also had microphones in false bottoms.

The KGB spied on the help, too. Top-floor apparatchiks would leave a purse (the red one in the photo) on a table once in a while, and if a worker was tempted to open it in search of hard currency they’d be dye-bombed with red dye and immediately fired. Which was problematic, because unemployment was illegal, and could land you a spell in jail if you had a troublesome past.

Officially illegal unemployment produced unlikely jobs. The Viru, one hotel, mind, sustained 1080 jobs (for which 4000 applied). A job at the Viru brought proximity to hard currency and a scent, if nothing more, of the wider world. You’ve heard the wry old East Bloc joke about how the state would pretend to pay and the workers would pretend to work. At the Viru, you could make a career as a Food Weigher. There were to be 82 grams of chicken meat in chicken Kiev and 75 grams in à la carte versions.

A planned economy had to be planned and somebody had to do it. While potatoes, flour and meat were rationed via the Trade Board of the city council, more exotic orange juice, necessary for foreign hotel guests and high-ranking apparatchiks on holiday or “educational meetings,” was ordered from Moscow.

A Viru job meant access to forbidden goods. Tickets to the variety shows staged there and Viru bakers’ cakes, both could be traded; both were good as currency. Stockmann, the Helsinki-based department store with branches in Estonia, Latvia and Russia, still sells cakes using the recipe of then-Viru chef Kuno Plaan. His cakes, tradable for, say, auto parts, were a wild favorite, with people queueing from before dawn every day. The museum claims that Plaan’s liver paté could sell 100 kilos/day.

All of the Soviet Union’s tourist hotels were operated by Intourist, which at its height handled 145 hotels all the way to Vladivostok. Guests could expect the treatment the museum at the Viru depicts, all across the land. A floor lady, a hall monitor on each floor, recorded every client’s visitors, contacts, comings and goings. These ladies were usually older on the assumption that they wouldn’t meet a tall, dark foreign stranger and flee the country.

The hotel reception collected guests’ passports. At Tallinn’s Viru most visitors, almost all of them Finns, arrived on the ferry from Helsinki in tour groups, as in the visa-free trip to Vyborg, Russian Karelia I described in a previous articlewhere they still, this summer, keep your passport.

With the opening of the Viru in 1972 Finns flooded across the Gulf, and to their mild surprise, found themselves money changers and traders. YLE, the Finnish state broadcaster, says they came with suitcases full of everyday needs for Estonians:

“While useful, even vital to Estonians, the trade also reminded them of their reduced circumstances. ‘Yes, it burdened the Estonians,’ remembers Eva Lille, who led tours to Estonia in Soviet times. It exhausted them, the load of gratitude that came from it.”

In a 2013 article titled A Finnish Trojan horse in Soviet Tallinn, YLE wrote:

Viru was, in addition to the centre of tourism in Tallinn, local prostitutes’ most visible parade. They came from all over the Soviet Union, and many learned passable Finnish, as it was the main language used with customers.

Sofi Oksanen, a Finnish-Estonian author, tells … of a flight of stairs behind the sofas in the lobby. It allowed prostitutes to flash the soles of their shoes—on which they had written a price—to those sitting on the sofas without raising suspicion.”

•••••

Latvia’s KGB museum, down the coast, depicts a situation far less madcap and much more malign. At the corner of Brīvības and Stabu streets in Riga they weren’t running a covert unit, some mishap-riddled mad scientist routine like the Viru, but an office of interrogation and incarceration, complete with 44 basement cells and an execution room where, in six months in 1941, at least 141 people were shot or bludgeoned to death. Officially Internal Investigation Prison #1, it came to be known to residents as the Corner House.

From the museum:

“Occasionally, the prisoners would be taken, one cell at a time, to the small ‘exercise yard.’ There they could walk for approximately twenty minutes – single file, in a circle, hands behind their backs – no talking, no stopping, no sitting.

The yard had metal grating covering the top, and an elevated walkway was built so that an armed guard could observe the prisoners. In the winter, snow was removed from the yard so that prisoners could not hide notes in the snow.

Despite these conditions, visits to the exercise yard were welcomed, as they were the prisoners’ only contact with daylight and fresh air, as well as an opportunity to move about and escape the confines of the cell.

The execution area, the museum says,

“consisted of a large room fitted with garage doors in which trucks could back up. An adjoining small room was lined with timber and padded to muffle sounds. The walls were covered with a black, rubberized fabric. A drain for blood was installed in the corner of the tiled floor. During executions, truck engines would be turned on to drown out the noise of the shots. … A small calibre (6.35 mm) pistol was used to prevent excessive spattering of blood and brain matter; often more than one shot was needed to kill the prisoner. … [T]he Museum … has knowledge of at least 186 victims.”

Visit for a tour of the cells downstairs, and a continuous loop of remarkably feisty first-person video testimony from now-elderly survivors of the cells in the basement.

•••••

Where Tallinn is tiny, Riga spreads across either side of the Daugava river, a sprawling polyglot of a city. A former Hanseatic trading cousin of Gdansk and Visby Island and Stockholm, from the 13th century Riga has brokered commodities from the hinterland in the direction of Smolensk and Belarus for manufactured western Baltic goods.

Today, Latvians only outnumber ethnic Russians 44% to 37%, with attendant squabbles over questions of citizenship and language. The pro-Russian Mayor Nils Ušakovs was sacked in a corruption scandal back in April, around which time a survey showed 80 percent of Latvian-speaking readers favoured the dismissal whereas 70 percent of Russian readers opposed it.” Credit a city so divided for supporting (largely through grants and volunteers), a KGB museum.

Preferring just to look past the whole Soviet era, the Museum of the History of Riga and Navigation presents Riga from prehistory until an abrupt end in 1940, the year the Soviets invaded. Latvia made much of 2018 as the centenary of its statehood after World War I.

•••••

There is a hint of the pagan in Latvia, a lingering mysticism kin to the flourishing Icelandic Ásatrú. It’s seen in the pre-Christian themes of Latvia’s ancient folk songs, the Dainas, typically little four line  musical poems, a sort of Latvian haiku, like this:

Trim kārtām zelta josta

The golden belt has three layers

Ap resno ozoliņu

Around the fat [giant] oak

Ne tam līda svina lode

No lead plumb touched it

Ne tērauda zobeniņis

Nor any sword of steel

The Auseklis, or Morning Star, is the very rough medieval equivalent of the Turkish Evil Eye, used to ward off trouble. It became identified as a symbol of Latvian national reawakening in the 1980s, at the time when the entire former East Bloc gradually began to stir.

The dominant theme in the Riga Cheka Museum (the KGB was called the Cheka at the time it used the Corner House) is open defiance of the Soviet order. Contemporaneously, the audacious 1979 visit of the first Polish Pope, John Paul II to eight Polish cities led to the rise of the Solidarność movement, and no visitor can miss the unsettlingly tall Solidarność monument outside the Gdansk shipyard where the movement flourished. But in southern Poland resistance operated more covertly.

In Wrocław, a cozy little restaurant just off Solny Squarealso bills itself a “historical education center.” In a nice touch, covertly placed behind a cabinet at Konspira is a repository of artifacts from the Solidarność uprising, walls lined with newspaper accounts, surreptitious communications gear (how outdated it looks now!), riot shields and helmets.

Konspira’s clever menu explains the state of affairs in Poland at the beginning of the 1980s and claims that “the symbol of ‘dove of peace’ was created in Hotel Monopol in Wrocław where, on a restaurant napkin in 1948 it was sketched by the then member of the French Communist Party … Pablo Picasso.” Konspira claims that in his spirit “The Freedom and Peace Movement was created by activists … primarily involved in protecting recruits refusing to serve or take the oath of ‘faithful service to the Soviet Army’” in occupied Poland.

Honorable Mention: in Kiev, drop by Остання Барикада  (The Last Barricade), or “OB” beneath Maidan Square, the locus of the students revolution in 1990, Orange revolution in 2004 and what they call the Revolution of Dignity that ousted President Viktor Yushchenko in 2014. Behind an unlikely entrance door (photo), OB requires a kitschy password to enter (email me) and serves up mementos from Ukraine’s revolutions, along with traditional pelmeny, salo, and locally produced sausages and cheeses.

•••••

Photos © Bill Murray Voices, Inc. except top photo of the Baltic Way protest in Lithuania, courtesy Wikimedia Commons and Rimantas Lazdynas [CC BY-SA 3.0]