Daniel Pelka’s murder shames Britain

Guilt lies with those who could have prevented it.

I cannot stop thinking about the suffering of Daniel Pelka, the four year old boy from Coventry who was abused, tortured and then murdered by his mother and her lover.

There is CCTV footage of Daniel on the final day of his life. His mother has arrived to collect him from primary school yet she dismissively walks ahead of the boy, her back turned to him. Daniel trails after her, a frail, emaciated figure, lost and bewildered. He hurries to catch up; he is hurrying towards death.

The Times today has published some of the texts about her son that Daniel’s mother, Magdelena Luczak, sent to her monstrous lover, Mariusz Krezolek. They provide a narrative of abuse:

"One of his hands is livid blue [because it has been repeatedly beaten] and what am I supposed to do now [sic]."

"Well now he’s unconscious because I nearly drowned him. He’s already in bed covered with the duvet and asleep and I am having some quiet."

"We’ll deal with Rudy [Daniel] after school, he won’t see grub at all."

Daniel’s mother delighted in starving her son – and then feeding him salt. At school he was seen scavenging in bins for food because he was so hungry. He would try to eat whatever scraps he could find. And he kept on losing weight. "He was disappearing in front of people’s eyes," Peter Wanless, chief executive of the NSPCC said. 

And yet no one intervened.

Luczak was devious and manipulative. Her son a few weeks before his death weighed little more than 2st, the weight of a toddler - but, said detective Superintendent Tim Bacon: "We are dealing with someone who was so plausible that she managed to convince paediatricians at the hospital that Daniel had an eating disorder."

Were we meant to believe that the broken bones, the bruised hands and black eyes were the result of the same eating disorder? How did his mother account for these and why was she believed? We will know more when the serious case review is published in September.

Daniel came from a Polish-speaking family and his English was poor. This terrified, humiliated boy was in effect voiceless. He could not speak of what he suffered. Nor could he trust anyone. But his suffering was written all over his body. His teachers and the authorities should have been able to read the signs of his suffering, read what his body was telling them. He should not have been allowed to suffer and to die alone, starved for at least six months.

Cases such as Daniel’s are mercifully rare, and all the more shocking because of their extremity. But children are being abused and beaten all the time by those who should be protecting them. For some children the home is a kind of medieval prison – and the torturers are the parents.

Teachers, doctors and nursery and care workers are on the frontline but so are relatives, friends and acquaintances. What is it that they refuse to see? "Clearly people must have seen something was wrong with this boy,” Nick Clegg said today. “I think his death should be on all of our consciences."

He’s right about that, up to a point. Those who should be feeling most guilt and regret are the friends of his mother, the teachers at the school he attended, the health workers who visited him at home in Coventry and the doctors who treated his injuries. His mother, after "nearly drowning" her son, spoke of how she could now get "some quiet".

Let us hope that, like Macbeth, she has murdered sleep and that she will never know peace or quiet again.

Jesus said: Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven.

Pity Daniel, and pray for him – and curse those who were not there when he needed them or chose to look away or believe the wretched lies of his mother.

Daniel Pelka. Photograph: Press Association

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Danila Tkachenko
Show Hide image

Ruin porn: the art world’s awkward obsession with abandoned Soviet architecture

Deserted fairgrounds, disused factories and forgotten military bases may look cool, but are we fetishising the remnants of such a cruel history?

Armenia, where one side of my family is from, was one of the first members of the USSR, annexed by Russia in 1922. A few years ago, when I visited this little country that perches precariously in the south of the Caucasus, I was struck most by its Soviet architecture.

Although its landscape is a hotchpotch of medieval Orthodox churches, a smattering of Persian-era domes, and brutalist concrete, it was the latter that particularly stuck out. From unfelled statues of Stalin to giant tower blocks spelling out the letters “CCCP” from a bird’s-eye view (well, half spelt-out – construction stopped partway through, with the fall of the Soviet Union), I’ve never forgotten it.

Perhaps it was so compelling because such stark physical symbols make recent history all the more tangible. A history still profoundly affecting the country of my ancestors (and all post-Soviet and communist states). But also, it just looked really cool.


Mixed air corps, Mongolia. Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Eric Losito

It’s a bit passé now to mock the hipster obsession with reclaimed industrial detritus, exposed pipes and bare concrete. An aesthetic – that of a post-industrial wasteland, but a chic one – which has gripped western cities for years, and crept worldwide.

But it could be this tendency to find disused stuff visually intriguing, and a morbid fascination with cruel regimes, which has led to the art world’s obsession with abandoned Soviet architecture. A whole wave of artists and photographers have been poking around the eastern bloc’s architectural graveyard in recent years.

Late last year, we saw the hugely popular disused Soviet bus stop series by photographer Christopher Herwig, echoing photographer Sergey Novikov’s equally absorbing collection of abandoned Soviet cinemas from 2013.

Following Russian filmmaker and photographer Maria Morina’s “Atomic Cities” project four years ago, London-based artist Nadav Kander explored the “aesthetics of destruction” in his exhibition, Dust, in 2014, snapping “radioactive ruins” of secret cities on the border between Kazakhstan and Russia. The same year, Moscow photographers Sasha Mademuaselle and Sergey Kostromin travelled to the disputed region of Abkhazia, capturing fragments of its deserted infrastructure.


Fighter aviation regiment, Mongolia. Photo: Eric Losito
 

And photojournalist Anton Petrus’ now iconic pictures of Chernobyl’s abandoned amusement park have long been an internet favourite, as have numerous haunting images of Pripyet – the city famous for lying deserted following the nuclear disaster.

Jamie Rann, a lecturer in Russian at Oxford University, has written that the quality and technical accomplishment of most of this photography make the style more “ruin erotica” than “ruin porn” (the tag being used by some critics), but argues: “The enormous online popularity of this genre . . . combined with their voyeuristic, almost exploitative feel, certainly has something porny about it.”

The latest exploration of Soviet society’s skeletons can be found at the Power & Architecture season at London’s Calvert 22 Foundation. In an exhibition called Dead Space and Ruins, we see abandoned military bases and formerly mighty monuments, forgotten space ports freezing in the tundra, the ghost of an entire unused, unfinished city in Armenia lying derelict.



The unfinished "ghost city" built in Armenia to house earthquake survivors (water added by artist). Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Vahram Aghasyan

The works are beautiful, but do they feed in to this zeitgeisty lust for Soviet ruins?

One of its curators, Will Strong, laments this trend. “I was keen that this didn’t become like a kind of ‘ruin lust’, ‘ruin porn’ thing; this slightly buzzwordy term that there is at the moment, this kind of fetishisation of dead space,” he tells me.

“This history is incredibly loaded, and it did not end in 1991. To sort of fetishise it in the very bourgeois western way of, ‘oh yeah, look at all this wonderful Soviet architecture, isn’t it fantastic?’ Obviously a lot of people who lived in that time hated it . . . a lot of people were very miserable under these regimes, so it’s important not to forget that.”


Gym at the Independent Radar Centre of Early Detection, Latvia. Photo: Eric Losito

He adds: “It’s more a point of reflection on how buildings were designed, what their legacy is, what their narrative is, and who the people are who live with that story. This show looks at the aftermaths of when utopia hasn’t been delivered.”

This view is echoed by the Moscow artist, Danila Tkachenko, whose work is featured in the exhibition. “It is rather a metaphor for the future, not the past,” he says. “It represents an image of a possible future. When there is a visualisation of this issue [utopia], it evokes a response in people; they see this utopia in their lives . . . There is disappointment in all utopias.”


The world's largest diesel submarine, in Russia's Samara region. Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Danila Tkachenko

His Restricted Areas series explores great behemoths of European communism left to lie forgotten in the tundra of remote regions in and around Russia and Kazakhstan: the world’s largest diesel submarine, like a beached whale in the snow; a giant satellite, thatched with antennae, built to communicate with Soviet bases on other planets some day; the deserted flying saucer-like communist headquarters in a region of Bulgaria. The structures hover in blank, white space, making the photos appear black-and-white.


Deserted observatory, Kazakhstan's Almaty region. Photo: Danila Tkachenko
 

Anton Ginzburg is an artist who grew up in St Petersburg in the Eighties as the Soviet Union was disintegrating. He believes studies like his film, Turo, of disused modernist constructions in the post-Soviet bloc, appeal to people’s connection to history. After all, picking through the architectural carcasses of former societies isn’t exactly a new thing:

“Russian culture is still haunted by its Communist past, and constructivist architecture is a decaying shell for its ghosts. It is an active reminder of the recent history,” he reflects. “Perhaps [its appeal] is a mixture of memento mori, with its thrill of beauty and destruction, along with a Romantic tradition of contemplation of Greek and Roman ruins.”

(Anton Ginzburg Turo teaser from Visionaireworld on Vimeo.)

The Power & Architecture season is on at the Calvert 22 Foundation, London, from 10 June-9 October 2016. Entry is free.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.