Four dangerous visionary writers

‘The production of souls is more important than the production of tanks… And therefore I raise my glass to you, writers, the engineers of the human soul.’ The quote is usually attributed to Stalin, though the phrase ‘engineers of human souls’ most likely came from someone else. Who’s to argue? Purges, executions, deportations – what’s a little light plagiarism in comparison? Whoever coined the phrase, it certainly struck a chord and indeed continues to ring various alarm bells whenever one comes across writers who deliberately set out to influence politics and ideas – and not just the big beasts, the Nobel Prize winners, say, or the shopfront-filling non-fiction authors hawking

An insider’s account of the CCP’s stranglehold on China

All families have secrets, but few family histories are classified by the state. After the death of Snow’s father, his study is cleared out by officials from the Chinese Communist party; but Snow discovers letters and unmarked hard drives hidden in hollowed-out dictionaries that they’d missed. The material reveals that her father was a high-ranking intelligence officer in the party, handpicked to build China’s intelligence service after the founding of the new People’s Republic. He’d hidden them for his family to find. Jie provides a rare insider account showing just how much the CCP knew and how much it covered up This isn’t the set-up for a new spy novel,

The travails of Britain’s first Labour government

Once the working classes were allowed to vote it was inevitable that sooner or later they would elect a government which reflected their interests. That moment came with the appointment, in January 1924, of the first Labour government.    The circumstances could hardly have been less auspicious. There had been three general elections in as many years. No party had an overall majority. Labour, with 191 seats, was not even the largest, with the result that, throughout its short life, the government was entirely dependent on the goodwill of the Liberals, which soon ran out. With a couple of junior exceptions during the wartime coalition, no Labour MP had any

The freedom fighters who dared to take on a communist superpower

In May 2020, as the planet grappled with the pandemic, China’s state media declared that there were ‘obvious deficiencies’ in Hong Kong law enforcement needing to be addressed. Any delusions this might have referred to intensifying police brutality in response to massive pro-democracy protests, let alone the unleashing of Triad thugs to attack participants, were dashed rapidly. Details emerged days later of a draconian new security law that criminalised any form of dissent, whether at home or abroad, with threat of life imprisonment. ‘When the world is not watching, they are killing Hong Kong,’ said Dennis Kwok, a lawyer and pro-democracy legislator. He was right. This was the moment that

Is China still a Confucian country?

29 min listen

For thousands of years, Confucianism has run through the fabric of Chinese society, politics and culture. Decades of Communism has taken its toll on China, so can it still be considered a Confucian country? Joining the episode is one of the world’s leading experts on the philosophy, Professor Daniel Bell. In 2017, he was appointed the dean of Shandong University, an unusual appointment for a foreigner in China but one based on his expertise in Confucianism, in the province of Confucius’s birth. His new book, The Dean of Shandong: Confessions of a Minor Bureaucrat at a Chinese university, details some of the ups and downs of his time in that

Poland, 1968: the last pogrom

‘Are you Jewish?’ the officious-looking Dutch diplomat asked my dad. ‘Yes’, he said, realising at that very moment, everything had changed. He was no longer Polish; the culture he had been born in, the citizenship he held, the language he spoke, the country he loved – it all meant nothing. He was just Jewish. He couldn’t be both. The diplomat stamped my father’s papers and he left for a new life in western Europe. Up to 20,000 Jews, including my mother, were hounded from Poland at the end of the 1960s. They were accused of supporting Israel in a virulent anti-Semitic campaign led by the communist government. This anti-Jewish campaign

If Sister Nijole can be happy, so can you

In the past five years I’ve met many people who’ve had direct, sometimes horrific, experience of communist rule. But I was more excited about doing a recent interview than I had been about any of the previous ones. It was going to be with a nun in a convent in Lithuania. I had imagined the scene: we would enter a large, gloomy, medieval stone convent. We would be cautiously admitted into a cavernous hallway and then ushered by a silent nun into a small, bare room for visitors. Then, dressed in black nun’s garb, Sister Nijolė Sadūnaitė would enter the room, head bowed, and sit in a plain wooden chair, her face lit only

We love you, Uncle Xi!

In 2015, I had lunch with an old chum of Xi Jinping. He described how China’s most powerful leader since Chairman Mao was born into the Communist party’s ‘red aristocracy’ but had to toughen up fast when his father was jailed in the Cultural Revolution. The young Xi briefly became a street hoodlum who swore like a trooper, smoked like a chimney and drank like a fish. He survived by turning ‘redder than red’, climbing the party ladder from a branch secretary in a lowly village all the way up to the top job in Beijing. ‘I am fond of Xi, but he is isolated from his old friends and

Will Russians soon realise how remarkable Mikhail Gorbachev was?

Mikhail Gorbachev, the final president of the Soviet Union who died last night, was remarkable both as an international politician and as a domestic reformer. I first met him when he came to London in December 1984, when Mrs Thatcher said that she liked him and could do business with him. He was open, friendly, and spoke without notes: the opposite of his predecessors. Some of Thatcher’s own officials suspected that he was merely an old-fashioned communist who had learned new tricks, and that his charm was seducing her from her clear view of the Soviet threat. Thatcher was right, and the sceptics were wrong. By that time, the Soviet

Gorbachev was no saint. But he was a kind of hero

Mikhail Gorbachev is dead at the age of 91, and in a way I feel orphaned. I became fascinated by what was still then the Soviet Union in its late years of sclerosis, when one moribund geriatric at the top of the system succeeded another (the dark joke at the time went as follows: a KGB guard stopped someone at one of the state funerals and asked him if he had a pass – ‘oh,’ came the reply, ‘I’ve got a season ticket’). But my early years as a Russia-watcher were during his time as General Secretary, and if my seniors had become used to the idea that the USSR was a

Is self-loathing the British disease?

Whatever one thinks of the government’s plans to send refugees to Rwanda, it was amusing to see this country’s left suddenly finding all sorts of reasons why only the UK – ‘a cake-filled, misery-laden, grey old island’ according to Emma Thompson, patron of the Refugee Council – would do as a final destination for these poor people. It was especially ironic that the place which the great and the good decreed unfit for humane habitation was a country of which liberals have historically approved: France. The phrase ‘French flu’ was coined in the 1950s to describe the cultural cringe of British progressives towards France as the source of all things

The sin of neutrality

Yet again, millions of civilians across the Horn of Africa are starving. The world blames the crisis on drought and climate change, which nowadays is the way we excuse these countries for environmental mismanagement. But as ever, war is really the single greatest reason why people are killed year after year in this region. And while western countries pour billions of dollars of food aid into Ethiopia, Somalia and South Sudan, the weapons flooding those states originate mainly from Russia, China, Belarus – and Ukraine. In response to an article I recently wrote in The Spectator about why I think so few African governments condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, I

Why Russians celebrate monsters

Nobody knows how long people live in Dzerzhinsk – life expectancy statistics for the Russian city, 250 miles east of Moscow, aren’t released to the public. In the days of the Soviet Union, it was closed to outsiders and left off official maps, but those in neighbouring Nizhny Novgorod joked that residents must have purple skin and second heads because of the emissions from its secretive chemical weapons plants. In recent years, however, it has gained notoriety as one of the most polluted places on the planet, with a study after the fall of the Iron Curtain reporting locals usually died in their mid-forties. ‘You can make more money here

Putin’s neo-communism is doomed to fail

It is responsible for inequality. For financial instability. And probably for poverty, racism and global warming as well. We have heard a lot about neoliberalism over the last 20 years. But now Vladimir Putin’s Russia is going in completely the opposite direction. The world is about to witness an experiment in what can only be described as neo-communism. The twist is that, unlike its liberal counterpart, it will be a complete failure – and the best thing the West can do is wait for it to implode. A Big Mac is not going to be any better when it is grilled by the Russian government Over the last three weeks

The truth about my father, Philip Guston

Philip Guston’s later work is — and I say this with love — nails-down-a-blackboard weird. The vapid pinks and flat reds lend a nightmare cheerfulness. The menacing American figure wearing Mickey Mouse gloves is rendered in cartoonish style. The clock shows it is time to panic, challenging you to call out the hood for the Ku Klux Klan symbol it appears to be. By the time he started making these paintings, in 1968, Guston was pretty much post-everything: post-realism, post-abstract expressionism, post-criticism (he and his wife Musa sailed to Italy the day after the show’s opening night, and when a review found him in Venice, poste restante, he dropped it

What the Russians thought of James Bond in the 1960s

Last year I wrote a piece about James Bond for the ‘Freelance’ column of the Times Literary Supplement. All true Bond lovers — of the novels, I mean — know that he lived in a ‘comfortable flat in a plane-tree’d square off the King’s Road’, as Ian Fleming described it in Moonraker. Further internal evidence in Thunderball indubitably established that it was Wellington Square — but there was considerable mystery and doubt about exactly which house contained the Bond apartment. In my article I claimed to have identified it as No. 25, based on a certain amount of sleuthing and, I thought, convincing circumstantial evidence. No. 25 Wellington Square was

Was the US involved in neo-fascist Italian terrorism?

Last month, Italy’s Prime Minister Mario Draghi promised to declassify government documents involving two organisations: Gladio, an anti-communist paramilitary group linked to Nato and the CIA, and a masonic lodge known as P2. These two groups are believed by some to have been involved in the darkest moments of post-war Italian history. For much of the latter half of the 20th century, Italy had the unenviable position of being the epicentre of European terrorism. The blast at the Bologna train station in 1980, which left 76 people dead and more than 200 wounded, was at the time the bloodiest terrorist attack ever suffered by a European country. The bombing was pinned on

Tales from the Gulag: why I’m helping survivors tell their stories

I trudge up the concrete stairs of a council block of flats in west London. Up three floors. Then along one of those outside corridors, past several doors until I reach the final one. It is already open and there she is — smaller than I remember and with a charming, friendly smile. I guess that is because Ivanna knows me better now. She trusts me more. After what she has been through, it’s not surprising that it takes time to gain her trust. She welcomes me into her little one-bedroom flat and before long, I am in a different world — a world of Ukrainians, Poles and Soviets, deportations,

Why the far-right flourishes in East Germany

A spectre is haunting Germany — the spectre of the AfD. Having come to prominence on a wave of anti-migrant sentiment, most German commentators believed that the Alternative für Deutschland was now a spent force. The party had been able to attract centre-right voters following the 2015 migrant crisis, many of whom may not have agreed with its entire manifesto but sought a political outlet for their scepticism of Merkel’s handling of the crisis. But last year, its national polling dropped to just over half the level of support it enjoyed in late 2018. The pandemic has brought to the surface many of the AfD’s most extreme members and activists,

Riveting: Dear Comrades! reviewed

Andrei Konchalovsky’s Dear Comrades! is based on a true event and set in 1962 in the Russian city of Novocherkassk where the local factory, the Novocherkassk Electric Locomotive Plant, went on strike. This doesn’t sound especially sexy, I know, but it is superbly acted and so rivetingly told my concentration did not waver for an instant which, given how hard it has been to concentrate lately, is high recommendation indeed. (It wouldn’t be fair to list the films I couldn’t concentrate on, as the problem is likely mine, but… Mank!) Konchalovsky certainly has a wild CV. He has worked with Tarkovsky. He made the wonderfully hypnotic The Postman’s White Nights,