Waheed Pepsi, s'il vous plaît

Watching the glamorous, polyglot Lebanese enjoy the sun, I thought what an attractively sybaritic ra

Relief washed over us as we took our places in 'Église Notre-Dame de 'Annonciation for the wedding of our friends Jo and Georges. Our driver had taken us to the wrong church in the Maronite area of Ashrafiya, and Beirut was not the most comforting of places in which to get lost. Bombs had been going off in the city, while the north of the country had been plunged into chaos yet again by a new group claiming affiliation to al-Qaeda - Fatah al-Islam. The previous night, when the UN had been deciding whether to set up a tribunal to try those suspected of assassinating the former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri, we'd heard a series of sharp reports echoing in the distance. Farah, my fiancée, thought it was gunfire. I, more hopefully, said they were fireworks. In the morning, we found out we'd both been right.

There was a certain irony, I thought, that Farah, an Asian Muslim, was more worried about our safety in Beirut. As a blue-eyed European, I was the more obvious target for the kidnappings that Fatah al-Islam was threatening.

But a childhood in Saudi Arabia and frequent visits to the area since mean that I never feel a complete stranger in the Middle East. Neither can I take alarmist western coverage of the region at face value. When we lived in Riyadh, the PLO - then considered to be a terrorist organisation - had an office down the street from our flat. My father taught Yasser Arafat's nephew. Later, in Jeddah, my mother taught Idi Amin's daughters. Those we perceive as monsters can have human faces, too. Not that Amin, who greeted my mother cheerily every morning on the school run, was anything but. When one of his daughters failed to complete her homework, my mother sent a note home. Amin's little girl arrived at school afterwards bearing the marks of a vicious beating. No notes were sent home again.

"If only I'd had these T-shirts last week, I'd have sold out," said the proprietor of a shop round the corner from our hotel. I declined the purchase, explaining that garments bearing the logo of Hezbollah and script supporting the group were not likely to go down terribly well in north London, where I live.

"Hezbollah is now our friend," exclaimed Jo, as we sat by the pool of the Palm Beach Hotel the day after the wedding. The provocation last year of Israel, which in turn wreaked a terrible revenge on Lebanon, the terrorist group's mostly unwilling host, was in the past. After Fatah al-Islam began its attacks, the Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hasan Nasrallah denounced them on TV. "We are all Lebanese," he said.

Luxuriant hedonism

Party time continued in earnest at the Palm Beach, where the hotel's roof bar had just opened for the summer. Watching the glamorous, polyglot Lebanese enjoy the sun, I thought what an attractively sybaritic race they are. "Waheed [Arabic for one] Pepsi," began a request to a waiter, "et deux verres de rosé, s'il vous plaît." Long may they continue partying. Amid the destruction of a country that fundamentalists of all persuasions have treated as their playground for the past 30 years, such luxuriant hedonism serves as an expression of defiance.

The official Foreign Office advice had, needless to say, been not to go at all. But I've been unable to take FO warnings seriously since discovering they'd told tourists to steer clear of Malaysia during the Sars outbreak in south-east Asia a few years ago. I recall looking out over Kuala Lumpur from the balcony of a private house at a city that appeared to have forgotten to whip itself into the blind panic Whitehall was urging.

Strangely enough, the FO specialists and senior diplomats I've come across have all been more sensible about such matters, often so sympathetic to local nuances that the new, hardline liberals would probably accuse them of cultural relativism. That's a compliment, in my book. Cultural relativists don't go around telling other people what to do. They're also more open to embracing new friends, however strange they may initially seem. If Maronite Christians can welcome Hezbollah to their side, who are we to tell them they shouldn't?

In this age of mass travel, westerners experience more parts of the globe than ever before. It would be good if some of them managed to bring at least a little understanding - if not a Hezbollah T-shirt - back with them.

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 25 June 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Israel, Gaza and a summer of war?

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In Russia, Stalin is back

New statues and memorabilia are appearing, as Russians overlook the terror to hark back to a perceived era of order and national safety.

It was during the Victory Day march to commemorate those who fought in the World War Two, the Great Patriotic War (as it is known in Russia) that I saw the face of Stalin. A young woman carried a crimson flag with the image of the Leader which appeared amidst the black and white photographs of grandparents remembered on the seventieth anniversary of the victory over the Nazi Germany. Just a few months later I was back in Moscow to face the fact that the fleeting image of Stalin, like a seed dropped into rich soil, has sprouted everywhere. At the busy Moscow Domodedovo airport you can now buy souvenir mugs and badges featuring a man with a moustache, coiffed hair and unsmiling eyes; men wearing Stalin T-shirts walk the streets of Moscow and just in time for the festive season 2016 calendars with the twelve photos of the ”Red Tsar” are spread across the counters of the book shops. Most shockingly, new statues of Stalin have appeared in Lipetsk, Penza and Shelanger, a village in a Russian republic Mari El. The monuments were commissioned and erected by the Russia’s Communist Party. Its leader, Gennadiy Zyuganov, promised new statues to be built in Irkutsk in Siberia and in Donetsk in Eastern Ukraine. Charles de Gaulle, the former French president was right: “Stalin didn't walk away into the past, he dissolved into the future.”

According to a January 2015 survey by an independent, non-profit organisation, founded by a Russian sociologist Yuri Levada, 52 per cent of Russians think that Stalin played a “definitely positive” or ”mostly positive” role in Russia’s history. Stalin’s positive image today is cultivated mostly through his association with the Great Patriotic War. Throughout 2015 the Russian media have been obsessively commemorating the 70th anniversary of the victory over the Nazis, with Stalin, the generalissimo, at its helm. Political psychologist Elena Shestopal, quoted by the Levada Centre, explains that the positive opinion of Stalin is a reflection of the society’s demand for order and national safety. In her view, Russians associate Stalin with the role of the father: strict, demanding and powerful.

Stalin’s resurrection is astounding not least because his role in history and his “personality cult” have been consistently condemned in Russia since 1956. Three years after Stalin’s death, the then General Secretary Khrushchev denounced it at the Communist Party conference. Stalin’s body was removed from the Red Square mausoleum; the monuments commemorating him were taken down and destroyed. During glasnost, the openness period initiated by Gorbachev, some state archives revealing the extent of Stalin’s purges and mass repressions were made public. My own grandfather, Aleksandr Bakunin, who devoted his entire life to the history of the Russia’s Communist Party and its accomplishments, set to work in his seventies to research the newly available materials and write a trilogy about the history of Soviet totalitarianism. In popular literature, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn made stunning revelations about mass repressions and his personal experiences as a prisoner in a labour camp in his novel The Gulag Archipelago, first openly published in a Russian literary magazine in 1989. In Gorbachev’s days Nikolai Svanidze, a popular Russian TV host, historian and journalist – related to Stalin through his first wife, Ekaterina (Cato) Svanidze – declared that Stalin and Hitler were cut from the same cloth on national television. I do not believe that such a statement would be made by the Russian media today. 

An example of a “Red Tsar” calendar

With knowledge about collectivisation and famine of the 1930s, mass arrests and forced labour, the culture of terror and the totalitarian governance, it is difficult to understand the current sentiment in Russia which makes it acceptable to print Stalin’s image onto T-shirts and mugs. Russians, who approve of Stalin, credit him with turning around the backward agrarian economy with its mostly rural population into an economic and scientific powerhouse, responsible for sending the first man into space. It was allegedly Churchill who said that “Stalin inherited Russia with a wooden plough and left it in possession of atomic weapons”. These sympathisers hail rapid industrialisation and economic progress, forgetting its costs. Mayakovskiy put it well in his poem about the construction of Kuznetsk: “The lips are turning blue from the cold, but the lips recite in unison: ‘In four years this will be a garden city!’”

Stalinists are especially vocal in giving their hero credit for winning the war. By the end of 1930s, the Soviet Union had become the largest economy in Europe and in the 1940s it was the defence industry that carried the Soviet campaign against Hitler. Stalin united people and inspired them to fight the enemy both on the front line and in the factories, according to those who believe in Stalin as “the Leader”. “The European nations are being ungrateful”, they say. “Stalin saved them from the Nazis.” It is inconvenient to remember that it was Stalin who had signed a non-aggression pact with Hitler in August 1939 and had been falsely assured that Germany would not invade the Soviet Union. Stalin disregarded several reports from his own intelligence agents and defected German spies about the advancing of Hitler’s army in 1941. Millions of lives were lost as a result in the first months of the war. As for the gratitude, the Baltic and the eastern European nations are quite right to dispute the post-war reorganisation of Europe, implemented after the Yalta conference, when Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill agreed to divide their spheres of influence.

After the war, the USSR became the second most powerful nation in the world and a force to be reckoned with in geopolitics, economics and technology. Previously illiterate peasants, Soviet citizens enrolled in universities, became engineers and doctors, went to the theatre and cinema, read and became part of the Soviet miracle. There is a great deal of nostalgia among the older generation in Russia, who mourn the ”golden decades” of the Soviet Union and wish for Russia’s international status to climb again. “We lived better with Stalin than with anyone else who came to power after him. He looked after us. Today only oligarchs live well,” said a Russian woman in her late seventies. One Russian blogger writes that mass repressions were necessary to align the Soviet consciousness to the new ideology, to replace individualism with collective responsibility. He believes that the terror was necessary to maintain order. There is also rising support among the younger generation who see parallels between Putin and Stalin, the two rulers who favour autocracy and ubiquitous state control.

Already in his seventies, my grandfather wrote two books about the genesis and the evolution of the totalitarianism in the Soviet Union. His third book was meant to be about the fall of Stalinism. Despite several heart attacks and a stroke, he continued working. He died from the fatal heart attack, his book unfinished. Perhaps, it was meant to be. Section 86 of the German Criminal Code makes it illegal to display Nazi images and to hail Hitler in Germany. In Russia, Stalin has never been similarly condemned. The Russian government ostensibly does not object to the new statues of Stalin being erected just 60 years after they had been taken down. The nation that has forgotten its own history is terrifying.