The Reith Lectures: Securing Freedom (Radio 4)
How Aung San Suu Kyi draws lessons from the Gulag.
Aung San Suu Kyi's two Reith Lectures (28 June, and forthcoming on 9 July) are an important coup for the new controller of Radio 4, Gwyneth Williams, who managed to push the request through to all the right people in Burma specifically because of her World Service connections (Williams joined the WS in 1976 as a trainee). Further proof, if it were needed, of the high worth of those with a hands-on background at that miraculous station.
Three weeks after the invitation went in, word came back that, yes, ASSK would do it if she could have access to certain reference books - she has few books even though now officially not under house arrest; she asked in particular for Max Weber's Politics As a Vocation and Nadezhda Mandelstam's Hope Against Hope. The wife of the poet Osip Mandelstam, who died in 1938 in a transit camp in Siberia, Nadezhda has been an inspiration to ASSK, along with the Odessa-born poet Irina Ratushinskaya, who spent four years in a camp before being released on the eve of the 1986 summit between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev.
At a screening of the first lecture at Broadcasting House, it was mesmerising to sit and watch ASSK speaking at length (the footage had been recently smuggled out of Burma). Traditional peach silk top. Blue flowers in her hair. A slash of orange lipstick. She is resolutely not a spin-doctored, slick operator. Two things stood out: her use of the old-fashioned word gallantry, and her repeated use of the word passion.
Though ASSK is clearly unbowed, at one point during the live Q&A down the line from Rangoon she admitted that the lights had been switched off by the authorities and she was sitting at the telephone in the dark. How fitting that she had, just minutes earlier, quoted from Ratushinskaya's prison poem that ends: "It isn't true, I am afraid, my darling!/But make it look as though you haven't noticed."
There is to ASSK an air of unrelenting affection. It reminded me of something the actress Debra Winger - who quit Hollywood before it dried her up completely - said about passion: it is the thing that keeps you soft.