Vol. 32 No. 4 · 25 February 2010

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Russians v. Kazakhs

It seems that Kazakhstan’s President Nazarbayev has found a fitting panegyricist in Jonathan Aitken (LRB, 28 January). Jonathan Steele is right to highlight the growing inequality, authoritarianism and corruption which Aitken ignores in his book, and right to raise the question of whether the country might have been, in some respects, ‘better in the old days’; however, he fails to locate its post-independence trajectory of ethnicisation within the conditions of the Soviet legacy itself.

While Steele quite rightly underlines the dramatic economic growth enjoyed by Kazakhstan in the Soviet years he fails to capture the deep ambiguity of those years. On the one hand, collectivisation had in a few years destroyed the nomadic structures of the longue durée. The trauma of this event must not be underestimated: the scale of deaths, in terms of proportion of the population, is comparable to the Holocaust; and an isolated, largely autarkic, way of life came to a brutal end. The shattered people had no choice but to reconfigure itself within the modernity imposed by Soviet power. Kazakhs drifted towards the cities: cities located in what the authorities termed their Kazakh SSR, but built and populated by Europeans. Kazakh parents sent their children to Russian schools: not because they were forced to, but because this offered them the best opportunities in the cities. And, after Stalin’s death, as Steele emphasises, the quality of life did improve. On the other hand, the paradoxical Soviet nationalities policy meant that, even as the culture and way of life of the Kazakh steppes were being destroyed, a primordial sense of ethnicity became valorised as the most important marker of identity; and the Kazakh SSR, in which Kazakhs were a minority, was deemed the homeland of the newly defined Kazakh nation. The result is that modern Kazakh identity is marked by a deep sense of insecurity: while there is an awareness on the part of the Kazakhs that their position in modernity is shaped by the Russians, who both bullied and helped them into it, there is nevertheless a sense that they must be distinct from Russians, that the nationality inscribed in their papers should carry some meaning.

As Steele points out, Nazarbayev did not want independence. The challenge of building a viable state was enormous. Steele seems to downplay the perceived threat posed by large numbers of ethnic Russians living in the north of the country, who previously had scarcely been aware of which side of the border they were living on. In such a situation, how was the new state to acquire legitimacy? The Soviet-era flame of internationalism was kept alight, and this was crucial in avoiding secessionist claims from Russians in the north, but internationalism was not enough to ensure state legitimacy. Kazakhstan was born into a world of nation-states, and was, on paper, the homeland of the Kazakh nation. In such a situation, the most obvious route to legitimacy was to become a nation-state: Kazakh identity had to be affirmed as distinct from Russian identity, although many urban Kazakhs, Nazarbayev allegedly included, hardly knew the Kazakh language. It is this that underlies what Steele terms the ‘creeping ethnic cleansing’ of state structures and, in particular, the adoption of Kazakh as the state language. It is from this perspective too that we should view the bizarre move of the capital from balmy Almaty to windswept Astana. Steele presents this as a mere whim – which, I suggest, is precisely how Nazarbayev wants it to be perceived by his foreign admirers. Yet it is not without its rationale: Astana is in the north of this vast and empty country, much closer to Russia than Almaty is. By making Astana the capital of the nascent nation-state, Nazarbayev effectively legitimised that nation-state’s authority over the potentially secessionist borderlands.

None of this is to approve the course Nazarbayev has taken. For the time being, the inclusive, international Kazakhstani identity, which has been protected by the adoption of Russian as the language of inter-ethnic communication, makes Kazakhstan appear a model of pluralistic multiculturalism. Nevertheless, the progressive Kazakhification of state structures can only exacerbate ethnic faultlines, and ethnicise the ever growing state-society split. Yet can young states, in the present world of rigidly demarcated nation-states, transcend ethnicity? The USSR represented the bravest of efforts to do so, but paradoxically its very internationalism ultimately institutionalised the nationalities it sought to transcend. The post-independence trajectory of Kazakhstan is haunted by this legacy.

William Wheeler
London SW8

Jonathan Steele is surprisingly stingy with his schadenfreude. Jonathan Aitken’s Nixon: A Life was first published in 1993, and not after his own fall from grace in 1999. The jacket copy on the original edition reads: ‘Nixon: A Life is the first entirely objective biography of Richard Nixon. Jonathan Aitken … in addition to serving in Parliament, serves as Her Majesty’s Minister of State for Defence … [His] refreshingly unencumbered positions provide a unique perspective on Nixon’s life and his presidency.’

David Rose
New York

Who was Samivel?

Towards the end of Toril Moi’s brilliant and devastating critique of the new translation of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex come a couple of sentences that baffle me (LRB, 11 February). Moi writes: ‘In general, far too many index entries fail to provide first names. After all, to find out who Samivel was, all it takes is to type the name into Google.’ This would seem to imply that Samivel had a first name that should have been included in the index. But Samivel, whose real name was Paul Gayet-Tancrède, never used any name except Samivel in anything he ever created. I would doubt that many people, including Beauvoir, had a clue as to his real name.

Samivel was a brilliant artist who specialised in drawings of the Alps that were at once funny and beautiful. He was also a gifted writer. The real mystery is why his name occurs in this index. Was Beauvoir a climber at some stage of her life?

Jeremy Bernstein
New York


Michael Holroyd quotes extensively from Violet Trefusis’s novel Broderie anglaise without acknowledging the work of the translator Barbara Bray (LRB, 11 February). He also refers to Trefusis’s novella Echo, like Broderie published in Britain in the 1980s, which was translated by Sian Miles.

Anne Summers
London NW11

The Worm Turns

To have someone hate a writer and his lifestyle, disparage his work and begrudge his success is no rare event in the history of literature. Nevertheless one cannot but be amazed by the anger and energy Michael Hofmann shows in taking it on himself to string together once more every citation ever penned by his victim’s spiteful and envious contemporaries (LRB, 28 January).

It would not be worth the effort to try to understand Hofmann’s disparaging tirade or to correct its abundant errors and misjudgments: civilised discourse has no room left when such pathetic fury reigns. The article attempts to curse Stefan Zweig and his legacy, and in so doing throws into question Hofmann’s own integrity. This is best illustrated by his cynical interpretation of Zweig’s suicide: the sheer tastelessness of this section alone should worry us all.

Klemens Renoldner, Stefan Zweig Centre, Salzburg
Lindi Preuss, Williams and Atrium Press, Zürich
Karl Müller, University of Salzburg
Oliver Matuschek, Hannover
Hildemar Holl, International Stefan-Zweig-Society, Salzburg
Rüdiger Görner, Queen Mary, University of London
Randolph J. Klawiter, University of Notre Dame, Indiana

Klemens Renoldner and six others

Just Like in the Theatre

Jean Renoir must be accorded his rightful place in the history of flushing toilets on film (Letters, 28 January). In late 1931 Renoir was asked by the producer Braunberger to prove his competence in sound-film making before being given the funds to make La Chienne. He opted to shoot a Feydeau farce called On purge bébé, which deals with the provision of chamberpots for the French army. He developed the script in a week and shot the film with Michel Simon and Fernandel in six days. One scene required a toilet to be flushed, and Renoir earned himself a certain notoriety by recording the flushing of an actual toilet. ‘The idea of taking the microphone, going to the place in question and pulling the chain, that seemed like a really daring innovation at the time,’ he said of the scene. ‘Note however that it was much more difficult than you might have thought, because sound-mixing didn’t exist then. You had to have a second microphone, and a signal light, and to have studied the density of the sound of the toilet in question, so that the mixing could be done during the actual shooting.’

Colin Crisp
Brisbane, Australia

In the Phone Booth

As I recall from filming Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Harry enters a Scott-designed phone box with Mr Weasley not to make a call, as David Trotter remarks, but to descend directly to the Ministry of Magic (LRB, 28 January). Luckily, Warner Brothers sets don’t usually smell of urine: they smell of glue.

Mark Williams
London SW1

What is to be done with phone boxes? Our local phone box, while hardly ever used, does not contain prostitutes’ advertisements, nor does it smell of urine. In summer, a tomato plant flourishes inside. In winter, a decorated Christmas tree. No one knows who is responsible.

Adam Barker
Shap, Cumbria

One phone booth that conjures just the mix of spacecraft and promise of illicit sex that David Trotter describes appears on the back cover of Bowie’s 1972 album Ziggy Stardust, in which the singer as polymorphous Starman poses languorously wearing a kind of giant romper suit. The photo was taken in London’s Heddon Street, then a neglected backwater just off Regent Street. Astute Bowie fans have noticed that the original K2 has been replaced with a K6, but the shrine is still covered in Ziggy graffiti.

Krzysztof Fijalkowski
Cromer, Norfolk

Alan Bennett wonders

Malcolm Hardman posits that ‘habit of art’ is a typically Roman rather than Roman Catholic phrase (Letters, 11 February). Aristotle, in the opening section of Book 2 of the Nicomachean Ethics, argues that moral virtue ‘comes about as a result of habit’ (ethos). He goes on to cite the case of the arts, which are likewise acquired ‘by exercising them’, i.e. by making a habit of them. As the source of the title of Alan Bennett’s play, Aristotle (384-322 BCE) rather than Cicero (106-43 BCE) might seem to have the edge: which makes ‘habit of art’ a typically Greek rather than typically Roman phrase.

Malcolm Ross
Totnes, Devon


Why would you provide space for such cut-rate Orientalist clichés as Theo Padnos’s claims that Islamists are Islamists because ‘they want women’ (LRB, 28 January). All that was missing was the brigade of barely-clad edenic houris, although the earthly version, with their ‘deep, submissive eyes’ and ‘black clothing’, appeared in the first column.

Laleh Khalili
School of Oriental and African Studies, London WC1

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