Camp culture


BBC2's Gulag was a triumph of serious film-making and of serious scheduling. Showing Angus Macqueen's documentary over three hours on a Saturday night in high summer affronted the viewer into the degree of concentration this difficult film demanded. It was not an easy watch. The story it had to tell could not have been grimmer - as many as 20 million were killed in Stalin's great experiment and we heard from both those who had survived and those who had done the killing. But formally, too, Gulag refused to accommodate. It was delivered without commentary and with subtitles, rather than voiced translations: not only three hours about Russia, but three hours almost entirely in Russian.

Its first images were of a party of friends cycling through sun-dabbed countryside. The three unpacked their spades and started digging. It was characteristic of the programme's method that we had to wait another 30 minutes to discover where they were - at an execution site - and what they were digging for: perhaps 35,000 bodies. As the turf was cut, anonymous old-time faces were superimposed. Almost two hours later a priest escorted us around another of Stalin's killing fields and opened the Butovo Book of the Dead, letting us in on whom the faces had belonged to.

Forcing us to make our own connections was Macqueen's way of telling us that unearthing this secret history was hard work all round. "What sort of question is that?" asked the secret police driver when Macqueen asked what state his passengers were in when he collected them after six hours of interrogation. It was a faux naIf question, like many of Macqueen's, but with apologists around to say that Stalin just followed the honourable tradition of torture pioneered by Peter the Great, Macqueen could hardly risk registering anything less than consistent shock.

In contrast, most of his eyewitnesses told their story with detailed disinterest. It was blessed catharsis when we came upon Jadwiga Malewicz (sentenced to ten years for counter-revolution). She was not afraid to cry for her past. Reliving her 12-hour shifts, for which, if she filled her quota, she would be rewarded with a loaf of bread, she wept: "It was hell, perhaps worse than hell." She had been informed on for warning a girl to stop working, lest she kill herself. She had not, she said, done a good deed since.

Initially, the portrait of Stalin's tyranny that emerged was ludicrously Kafkaesque. Arrests were indiscriminate: academics, opera singers, children, a family who had emigrated from South Africa specifically to join Stalin's great experiment. Confessions were beaten from people with no clue as to what they were supposed to be confessing to. On the equation's other side, punishment was made to fit not the imagined crime but the economy and Stalin's scheme of canal digging, construction, lumber production and mining. Gradually, however, you saw the genius in Stalin's madness. Arresting the innocent was the thermostat on the climate of fear that would prevent a counter-revolution. The system also needed millions upon millions of slaves. When a dam burst on the Volga canal, the hole was plugged by the live, human Polyfilla of those who were building it. Killing most of the survivors - such as the canal's head of construction - after its grand opening looks carelessly OTT but was actually the only effective guarantee of the terrible Soviet secret.

The industrialisation of terror impressed. Police interrogators worked in shifts at the Lubyanka ("the beloved building") in Moscow, perfecting the conveyor-belt method of non-stop questioning. The lorries that took the prisoners to prisons doubled as suffocation machines. And all along the trans-Siberian railway hung the concentration camps, like beads on a necklace. A camp warder said he could not have seen them all if he had visited two a day for 1,000 years. Instead he drew cartoon records of life in one camp, some showing women with dangling appendages between their legs - actually their uteruses, dislodged by the strain of their work. "How else could we have been industrialised?" asked Alexei Loginov, the former deputy commander of the Norilsk region of Siberia, whose 90th birthday celebrations we were forced to witness.

The only humour came from the propaganda films of the period. In a clip from Prisoners (1937), a gruff but kindly camp commandant told the "wreckers": "You are criminals, but we see you as human beings." The surreality of these wooden, black and white fantasies blended with the eidetic quality achieved by Macqueen's slyly associative editing and his camera's palate of dirty pastels.

The epic nightmare - epic in historical and geographical range, as well as in running time - ended with Maria Vitkievich (15 years for anti-Soviet activity) burying her sister in Norilsk: "When you meet our parents tell them I've been trying for years to clear our name. We suffered for nothing." Spade by snowy spade, earth was shovelled on to her body, deepening by a fraction the century's most deeply buried memory. For a brief three hours, Macqueen's superb film exhumed it.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the London "Evening Standard"

Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.

This article first appeared in the 19 July 1999 issue of the New Statesman, The transport row: who is to blame?

Photo: Getty Images
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.