Bird Droppings from Estonia: Spring at last, and on Figes’ The Whisperers
Archived Articles 30 Apr 2009 Hilary BirdEWR
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Spring is here, at last! The sun is shining her great generous golden heart out, it’s light till late, the stoves have remained unlit now for over a week, she-who-lives-under-the-woodshed has moved to her summer quarters in an abandoned Lada (kept for spare parts) in a neighbouring garden and the storks, geese and swallows are all back and beavering, along, hopefully, with my swift of last summer.

The children’s trampoline is back in our garden and my neighbour is looking for a suitable place to put Shakespeare (a rose, not the dead playwright), imported from the UK. People too, are busy, tidying up their gardens; sweeping and having a good clear out. The temperature is in the mid-20s and it is hard to believe that just two weeks ago there was a snow granny (that’s what we have here) with a green plastic bucket hat, in the front garden. We seem to have gone from winter to summer with out pause.

Winter was severe. The temperature went down to –18 at one point and the average was –3 to – 5 in the day and –8 to –12 at night: there was a lot of snow from December through to April. The car gave up the ghost and is expensive to repair. I have been dithering as to whether to get it repaired or to scrap it and so didn’t bother to venture much out of my cosy wooden house. My Lancashire lass pal helped with shopping so I was not pushed for a crust. Or tipple. Many of my Estonian friends commented that this winter was a real winter – long, cold but very beautiful. The snow was very crunchy underfoot but, because the temperature was below zero, the paths were not slippery.

In February I went to the town square as to see the ice-sculpture of the ox, the eponymous critter for this Chinese year. The ox is a lucky cow, it seems and while I stood admiring it, some students added a few sents (cents) to the collection of coins on the freezing flanks (as did I), a mum held up a small child to have a good look and some deaf and dumb tramps seemed to be trying to prise the small change off … the handsome critter has quite gone now …

Spring cleaning

Here’s some good advice on the subject of chemical cleaners. According to Donna Duberg, University of St. Louis professor of clinical laboratory science and American "germ expert," there is no need to assail our homes with a barrage of harsh cleansers. Prof Donna says that being too thorough with cleaning can actually be dangerous. "Some people scrub their toilet bowl with a product that contains ammonia to remove rust stains, then pouring in a shot of bleach. They think that extra little bit of effort will kill germs. Actually, they're making chlorine gas, a caustic mixture that actually was used as a weapon during World War I." Blimey.

An unquestioning belief in scientific progress was the order of the day when I was a child in the 1950s. Nuclear power and chemical household cleaners were indicators of humanity’s progress towards a better and brighter world. But contrary to what many of our mums believed (and passed down to us), for most areas of the house, vacuuming and wiping down surfaces with warm soapy water will do. Kitchen surfaces, bathroom sinks and lavs may need a bit more to get rid of any lingering bacteria, but a solution of bleach diluted with plenty of water will do the trick – no need to combine forces with other cleaners and whip up a toxic cocktail. "Other than that," says our prof, "wash your hands often and just relax."

And, while we are in public service mode, I was surprised to read about how harmful bottled water is to the planet. I have always disliked what I call “designer water” and fill up empty plastic bottles with filtered tap water, though my objection has been the exorbitant price one pays for water with a label. I am the same with all designer labels. Why should I pay way over the odds to advertise for someone? The manufacturer should be paying me.

The impact of bottled water is monumental; wracking up environmental harm from the moment a plastic bottle is made and filled to the moment the used bottle is tossed in the trash. The following information is American but I am sure the same situation applies in Europe. Plastic is plastic.

The process of making plastic water bottles sold in the USA alone uses approximately 1.5 million barrels of oil, according to the Earth Policy Institute – enough to run 100,000 cars for an entire year. And that doesn’t even take into account the inordinate amount of oil needed to transport water bottles all over the world. Adding insult to injury, most water bottles are used by people outside of the home, where finding a recycling bin can be difficult. Nearly 80% of water bottles are not recycled in the USA, resulting in 38 billion bottles clogging landfills each year where they take 700 years to even begin to decompose.

Bottled water is the fastest growing segment of the beverage industry, with Americans drinking an average of 167 bottles of water each year, totalling $16 billion in sales. Ironically, while the USA is the world’s single biggest consumer of bottled water, it has reliable tap water available nearly nationwide–that’s something that can’t be said of Brazil, China, and Mexico, who come next in the slurping order.

24% of the bottled American water is actually filtered tap water !!! Pepsi’s Aquafina and Coke’s Dasani, the top bottled brands in the country, are filtered municipal water. And does it taste better? Not so you’d notice. Good Morning America conducted a blind taste test using its studio audience as guinea pigs and which water was the clear winner? New York City tap water – it beat Evian. So. Is tap water safe? Federal standards are similar for both bottled water and municipal water, which is continually tested for contaminants. Research found that tap water is more than safe for children —it’s beneficial. Unlike bottled water, most tap water contains teeth-strengthening fluoride. Finally, bottled water burns a hole in your pocket. If every American drinks 167 bottles on average per year, and the average cost of water is $1 per bottle, that’s $167 extra dollars to spend on something a tad more exciting than rip-off H2 0.

Winter read: The Whisperers

I got through the 665 pages (with small print) of Orlando Figes’ The whisperers: private life in Stalin’s Russia in three days. I just could not put it down. This monumental book about decades of oppression in the USSR is stunning in its range and depth. It includes testament from both the oppressed and the oppressors (some repentant and some not) and Communist believers and non-believers. The believers include Estonians and the testaments of families from the currently unfashionable side of the divide are new and informative. I could not possibly do justice to this important and deeply moving book in a few paragraphs. Suffice it to say that, despite all the grim reading – the phrase “s/he was shot in -” crops up as a matter of monotonous routine – I came away marvelling by the extraordinary resilience, courage and tenacity of quite ordinary people. People just like you and I. This book is certainly not an easy read but is absolutely essential for anyone with an interest in Eastern Europe, and Russia in particular. Anthony Beevor, another fine British Russian-ist, suggested in his The Times review that it should be made compulsory reading in Russia today. If only.

A large part of The whisperers is taken up with the story of the Gulag (short for Glavnoe upravlenie lageri, meaning Main Camp Administration). This was a network of concentration camps that existed all over the six times zones of the USSR for almost all of it’s existence. The prisoners themselves called it “the meat grinder.” Most of the people were put there, as Anne Applebaum (whose Gulag: A History is another awesome book, to be read in tandem with The whisperers ) so succinctly states “not for what they had done but for who they were.”

The first camps were established in 1918, when Trotsky called for the containment of unruly Czech prisoners but the Gulag ‘flowered’ after Stalin consolidated his hold on the Soviet Union in 1929. The camps filled up with “enemies of the people” (a concept never clearly defined) in the 1930s, expanded in WWII and grew again after the ‘bourgeoisie’ (another loosely applied term) of the Baltic States, the Ukraine and Poland (amongst other occupied nations) were imprisoned after 1944. The national minorities were, apparently, real pests, and very difficult to control. The Gulag reached the apex of its development in the 1950s. It was not until 1987, when Mikhail Gorbachov - himself a grandson of political prisoners – ran down the slave labour that had become an integral part of the Soviet system, that the nightmare began to subside.

The Whisperers and Gulag: A History were written by with the help of the Russian voluntary society ‘Memorial’ that organizes legal and financial help for victims of Stalinist terror. The society was founded in the Glasnost years of the 1980s. In 1990 it put up a simple stone, the Memorial to the Victims of the Gulag, outside the Lubyanka prison, the notorious KGB (Soviet Secret Police) headquarters in Moscow, one of the first of many brave acts. The Society gained official status in 1992, just after the fall of the USSR.

Memorial has an office in Chechnya that monitors the activities of the Russian army. It is frequently raided by the authorities. Similarly, last November, Memorial's St Petersburg office was raided and the entire digital archive of the atrocities committed under Stalin, representing 20 years of work, were confiscated. The information was being used to develop "a universally accessible database with hundreds of thousands of names." Memorial believes that they were targeted because their organization is on the wrong side of ex-KGB agent Putin’s resurgent Russia, a Russia whose leader supports the idea "that Stalin and the Soviet regime were successful in creating a great country."

One is prompted to ask: what is a “great” country? Orlando Figes opined that the raid "was clearly intended to intimidate ” and Allison Gill, director of Human Rights Watch, Moscow, said "This outrageous police raid shows the poisonous climate for non-governmental organisations in Russia … This is an overt attempt by the Russian government … to silence critical voices." The raid also prompted an open letter to President Dmitri Medvedyev from academics all over the world, condemning the seizure. Some human rights lawyers in Russia have speculated that the raid is retaliation for Memorial screening a banned film Rebellion: the Litvinenko Case, about the murder (in the UK) of a former Russian spy.

There is hope for Russia, however. Despite heavy official hints for the outcome of The Greatest Russian Ever Poll last year, the winner was not Uncle Joe but, interestingly enough, Piotr Stolypin, pre-Revolutionary late Tzarist statesman – (426,300 votes) – who had tried to change the system (albeit brutally) from within and was shot by revolutionaries. The runners up were Alexander Nevsky, medieval warrior prince – (418,200 votes) who stopped the German expansion to the east, Alexander Pushkin, poet (397,100 votes and my choice), Joseph Stalin, Soviet dictator (397,000) and Vladimir Lenin, Revolutionary leader (342,400). Hmmmmm … something is not quite as it should be in the Putin body politic …
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