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The Antarctic Connection

This short New Year memoir meshes theorizations of two very different subject areas: geopolitics and interaction rituals. The genre, however, also calls for a dose of merry nonsense, which very much includes all sociological jargon. Yet, as-we-all-know-who-theorized-it, rituals must be performed and emotions generated – even at the scale of world-systems theory.

The emotion in this case is an entirely happy one. It was prompted by the ritual New Year postcard arriving from the South Pole itself, more precisely, the NSF Amundsen-Scott camp in Antarctica.

We met in 1992 in the long line at the ex-Soviet Embassy in Washington, D.C. The occasion was purely bureaucratic and at the same time fabulously historical. Confirming one of the boldest predictions of Randall Collins, the USSR had collapsed; and we now needed to claim our new citizenship from among no less than a dozen successor nations. This geopolitical fact was finally forced upon me earlier that morning by the fashionably dressed official at the visa section of the French Embassy:

– Your passport is still valid, but the issuing state has expired…

Desperately pressed for time, I flagged down a taxi in the middle of Georgetown and asked the driver (who looked distinctly Ethiopian to my Africanist eye) if he knew the location of the ex-Soviet embassy. The cabdriver turned to me with a broad, cordial grin and replied in perfect Russian: Konechno, znayu, dorogoi tovarisch! – Of course, I know, dear comrade! What a country it was! Do you remember the Ukrainian girls? Borsch and sour cream at the student canteen? He was in fact Ethiopian, with an engineering diploma from Kharkov Polytechnic in Ukraine.

The consular division of the ex-Soviet Embassy occupied a distinguished-looking mansion near Dupont Circle. A few dozen petitioners formed two lines. Following my instantly revived Soviet instincts, I quietly joined the much shorter one. An official-looking woman emerged from the ‘Strictly Service’ door of the consulate to collect our petitions and passports. She approached me with frosty directness:

– Young man, are you Jewish or scientist?

Astonished by this dichotomous categorization, I could only meekly extend to her my – still valid – Soviet passport. Barely glancing at it, the woman immediately ordered me into the much longer line:

– Here stand only the Jews who had long emigrated to Israel and gave up their Soviet citizenship. But now with all our democratization (she could not help a snort) they can get the new Russian citizenship and travel back (oh, she knew all those tricks) without a visa. But your government service (stress) ‘blue’ passport was issued by the Foreign Relations Directorate of the USSR Academy of Sciences. Clearly, you are a scientist.

As a document-carrying scientist, I had to accept the logic of her arguments.

The scientists’ line behaved in recognizable Soviet ways. The people were frustrated by the waste of time and the whole bizarre procedure of having to choose a new citizenship. Yet since the frustrations were directed at the consular officers behind the bullet-proof windows with the dusty blinds unceremoniously drawn down before our faces, the common emotion generated among us was a form of solidarity and even fraternization. This exponentially increased as we learned about the structural homologies of our trajectories and positions. Everyone originally came from one or another of the intersecting Soviet academic institutions; and presently we all found ourselves in roughly the same precarious situation at American universities as post-docs, visiting fellows or lecturers. And, of course, we were cursing, as usual, the ‘Power’ (Vlast) that ‘broke up the country but kept its old habits’.

Vladimir Papitashvili introduced himself first as if begging my pardon for standing ahead in the line. He turned out to be a geophysicist, and his work (about which he was as passionate as any good scientist) consisted of tracing the signs of climate change, which is why he had travelled around the world doing his research. Once in 1984, on his way to Antarctica, as Papitashvili fondly reminisced, he had stayed at a different, much more hospitable Soviet Embassy. The polar expedition had a long trip to make from Leningrad. Their heavy Il-18 transport planes had to refuel often, first in Simferopol in the Crimea; next in Cairo, Egypt; then in Aden, Southern Yemen; and again in Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania; and ultimately (at this point I gasped, because I knew this route) …. in Maputo, Mozambique.

The Ilyushin-18 turboprop airplanes, painted bright red for the polar conditions, were a common sight in Maputo during their seasonal expeditionary migrations. The airfield at the 26th parallel in the southern hemisphere was situated in the capital of a newly liberated African country pursuing a ‘socialist orientation’. Mozambique offered the southernmost friendly airport that Soviet planes could use before making the final leap to the coasts of Antarctica. Polar expeditions usually had to wait a few days there for good weather along the route, because the heavy planes could not return to Africa from somewhere halfway. The explorers, facing a year amidst the polar cold and night, did not seem to mind spending a few days on the beaches of the Indian Ocean.

To my new friend, Maputo seemed a strange place, beautiful and warm but also (he carefully searched for the word) … adventurous. Once their plane was parked for the night at the airport, it was surrounded by a bunch of wild-looking young Soviets, some of them bearded. They were dressed in civilian pants, short-sleeves and sandals, yet were armed to the teeth. These volunteer guards were provided as a diplomatic courtesy to fellow countrymen pursuing an important scientific mission.

Of course, it all sounded damn familiar to me. Oh, how we hated the ‘volunteer’ night shifts assigned by the Embassy’s Komsomol committee. Who would want to feed mosquitoes all night long, sitting under the wings of the bright-red IL-18 while keeping guard against possible attack by Renamo rebels and South African saboteurs? We carried a hodgepodge of surplus weaponry procured from our friends at the Soviet military mission, because we were actually listed as civilian personnel. (I got the vintage Degtyarev machine gun stamped with the production date of 1942, the year of Stalingrad.) On these improvised patrols we really felt more like bait.

That was all in a previous and rather surreal life. Here, in a new and also quite surreal American life, I realized that I was standing next to the very same man whose expeditionary equipment I had once been prepared to defend to death. We hugged and yelled, to the amusement of our fellow scientists. Papitashvili and I turned out to be old acquaintances. Which, by the way, would not be the end of the coincidences. Twice again Papitashvili and I would be neighbours at various American campuses, drawn together by our nomadic trajectories in search of fellowships and grants.

At last, the stern-looking official came out to deal with our petitions. Having barely glanced at our Soviet passports, she immediately got to the business of state-imposed categorization and essentialization based on the tell-tale endings of our ethnic surnames: All right, Papitashvili, you must be a Georgian; and you, Derlugyan, are Armenian, aren’t you?

Papitashvili burst into hasty chatter, trying to explain that it was his father who had been Georgian but he himself was born in Kirovabad, Azerbaijan. (Oh? The official raised her eyebrows.) There, in Azerbaijan, his Russian mother worked at the railway station, while his father was serving his military draft, but they had divorced when young Volodya was just one year old. I learned later that the Papitashvilis were a princely Georgian lineage, who in the Soviet period had turned their cultural capital into the high status of old intelligentsia. The relatives from Tbilisi had disapproved of the junior’s affair with a Russian working-class girl from the railroad depot. But the child was eventually half-accepted into the family. During his student years in Leningrad, Vladimir could procure coveted free passes to the Bolshoi Drama Theatre – the famed ‘BDT’, a cult destination for the Soviet intelligentsia – where his uncle was none other than Georgi Tovstonogov, the revered Chief Artistic Director. Yes, Papitashvili was a typical Soviet: born in Azerbaijan to a Georgian father and Russian mother, he attended university in Leningrad, then worked for sixteen years in the heart of Siberia, in Yakutia, at the Institute for the Study of Permafrost. Of course, he knew hardly a word of Georgian.

Next came my turn to explain that I really did not know Armenian, although I knew some Ukrainian because that is what my maternal grandmother spoke to me at home in Krasnodar. The official interrogated me with a tone of bureaucratic suspicion in her voice: Krasnodar? Is that where the Cossacks are?

I felt as if the silver-capped bandoliers were already growing across my chest and replied proudly: Yes, we are the Kuban Cossacks!

The official shrugged: Haven’t you seceded along with the Ukraine? You should really ask the Ukrainians for a new passport.

I stood speechless. Had we really seceded from Russia? Who could know in those crazy days. Did I miss the news? The USSR emigrated from me in my sleep. Barely regaining the ability to speak, I asked meekly if the lady would, please, make sure that the Krasnodar territory was no longer part of Russian Federation. After all, it had been for the last seventy years… She looked at the map on the wall and said apologetically: All right, I am sorry, Krasnodar is still in Russia. It was the Crimea that had separated along with Ukraine. (Ah, the neighbouring province, and another Black Sea resort which for a Muscovite like herself must have all appeared the same.) Then she turned her head to Papitashvili and added: And Yakutia is also still in Russia although they now call it by some different name…

– Sakha! The Republic of Sakha-Yakutia, suggested Papitashvili, and hurriedly added: But my propiska registration is in the city of Moscow.

– Very well then, said the official: A hundred dollars from each of you. Cash or money order only.

– For what?! we cried in unison.

– For the stamp in your passports confirming your Russian citizenship.

– But does one pay to become a Russian in Russia?

At this point she finally burst:

– Look, dear scholars, you are all so smart, but this is not Russia, we are in Washington! And we have to pay for everything. Do you realize how expensive it is to renovate the consulate building? Look, look over there: the ceiling is cracking already over our heads. So, a hundred dollars each, and two standard 4×6 passport photographs. Or go to San Francisco, there the consulate charges 85 dollars.

Papitashvili sighed and reached for his wallet, but I simply did not have a hundred dollars, not even in the bank. The times were indeed desperate. I just scoffed:

– Big deal, Russian citizenship! I will apply for Armenian, because I am a Derlugyan, or Ukrainian because my mom is a Kuban Cossack and I can speak Ukrainian. Or, even better, the newly-appointed Kyrgyzstan ambassador is Rosa Otunbaeva, right? She is also a scholar and wrote her dissertation on the Frankfurt School. Otunbaeva has a stamp, and so far no embassy to renovate. I don’t mind becoming a Kyrgyz sociologist, especially if this comes for free. I just don’t have hundred dollars…

The official stared at me tenderly: Young man, do not attempt anything you might later regret. Russian citizenship is a valuable thing. Allow me a minute.

She went through the doors again, and returned a moment later to announce magnanimously:

– Given your difficult material circumstances, the Consul has consented to granting you the confirmation of Russian citizenship at the older rate of 50 dollars. Cash or money order.

And that is how Papitashvili and I, the children of multi-ethnic Soviet parents, became the new Russian intellectual diaspora working in America. He is still following his satellites and drills holes in the middle of Antarctica, only now he is doing so as the head of the American NSF expedition (a good third of its personnel are former Soviet scientists anyway). And every winter/summer, Papitashvili sends his season’s greetings from almost exactly atop the South Pole.

С НОВЫМ ГОДОМ!  HAPPY NEW YEAR!

Read on: Georgi Derluguian, ‘Recasting Russia’, NLR 12.

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Fragments of Revolution

In the tattered remains of a Punjabi literary magazine, I chance upon a faded black-and-white photograph. A Sikh man stands between a newly married Sikh couple, holding a book in each hand. His bearded face is scratched beyond recognition. The bride stares solemnly into the camera, while the groom – clean-shaven face creased in half – angles away, perhaps for another camera. ‘Comrade Buggar Singh,’ the caption announces, ‘is handing out a new form of dowry to the couple’. It is two novels in Punjabi translation, Mother by Maxim Gorky and The Hurricane by Chou Li-Po. The photograph dates to the political tumult of the 1970s, when Mao-inspired Naxalite insurrections burned through large swathes of agrarian India. ‘Looks like the Sino-Soviet split never transpired for the villagers in Punjab’, I say as I turn the photograph towards Bant Singh, a peasant who had held on to this fragment despite the threat of police violence. At the time, the discovery of small magazines in a raid was tantamount to the discovery of illegal arms. But fifty years later, the elderly comrade can recall neither this dowry ritual nor the name of the magazine. Still, he grins widely. The irony is not lost on him.

The Sino-Soviet split, compounded by the Indo-China war in 1962, played a key role in splintering the Communist Party of India. In 1964, the breakaway CPI (Marxist) was formed, swiftly followed by the defection of a Maoist contingent that organized the Naxalbari insurrection of 1967 and formed the CPI (Marxist-Leninist) in 1969. The latter judged that India was a semi-feudal and semi-colonial state, and that guerrilla warfare was the only revolutionary response. The Naxalite theses and tactics seemed especially incongruous in Punjab. Newly integrated into the Green Revolution, the Punjabi villages teemed with tractors, tubewells, fertilizers, seed farms and credit cooperatives. Attempts to import Maoist tactics into this capital-intensive landscape triggered even more splinters in the communist ranks, while the targeted killings of landlords and policemen offered little effective opposition to the structural violence of the new regime, orchestrated by US state agencies and subsidized by the Congress government. When he finally spoke, Bant’s voice was a distant murmur. ‘Every public meeting would start with cries of Workers of the world unite! But why didn’t the parties ever start by uniting themselves?’

Maoism however still managed to seep into Punjab’s cultural life in several exhilarating, often erratic, ways. Numerous small and underground magazines sprang up in this period, disseminating homespun cultural revolution across the countryside. Many were outlawed and destroyed by police. Today only fragments of them survive, scattered across obscure rural locations, often still shrouded in secrecy. After weeks of inquiries, I had finally arrived in Dhilwan, a village of roughly 500 houses located in Punjab’s Malwa belt, today afflicted by the Indian agrarian crisis. Here the springtime of the Green Revolution – premised on high rates of mechanization and productivity – has long transitioned into an autumn of endemic landlessness and peasant suicides. Bant had waited for me all day under the slow churn of the ceiling fan on his veranda, a flimsy plastic bag by his side containing archival remains of an armed revolt that had failed to transition into the promised revolution.

Along with communist biographies and party programs, the bag also contained two stapled copies of Rohley Baan (Raging Arrows) from the mid-1970s, their yellowed paper so brittle that I could scarcely pry them open. The magazine was published by the Punjab-Himachal state committee of the CPI (M-L), a splinter group that attempted to turn the neighbouring Himalayan foothills into a guerrilla base. The title is a homage to the arrows fired during the Naxalbari insurrection, but the cover features neither those Bengali insurrectionaries nor Mao himself. Instead, a red icon of the tenth Sikh guru, Gobind Singh (1666-1708), adorns the front. Famous for waging war against the oppressive Mughal administration, Guru Gobind is depicted in full regalia, wearing a heron plume in his turban and a quiver on his shoulder, holding a quill in one hand while a hawk perches on the other.

In the crumbling heap of stapled paper, I also discovered a stray photograph of Krupskaya – likely torn and saved from Lenin’s biography. Bant’s jagged annotation in Gurumukhi read, ‘Lenin di patni’ (Lenin’s wife). Stuck to the back of Krupskaya’s photograph, there were two crinkled passport-sized photographs. When I enquired about the identity of this other woman, Bant strained at the tiny face, then glowered at me. Half-jokingly, he replied that I should have the civility not to broach this in front of his son. A few minutes later, he gently deposited the two photographs in the left pocket of his shirt. I returned the famed Bolshevik into the company of her unlikely comrades. Spread out on the plastic table, Bant’s archive resembled a jigsaw puzzle, but the edges of these pieces had long frayed beyond repair. One no longer understood how they fitted together.

***

After hours of torrential rain, a steady stream of peasants, activists and writers begin trickling into the small farm in Talwandi Salem, an obscure village in the Doaba belt. It is the birthday of Avtar Singh ‘Pash,’ the prolific revolutionary poet who came to prominence in the early 1970s. Pash was the editor of Siarh (Furrow), an iconic Maoist literary magazine. In its pages, one finds anti-imperialist boliyan (a folk musical form) next to assessments of Maoist land reforms; an interview with a local Dalit labourer alongside a marsiya (an elegiac poem that commemorates the martyrs of the Karbala) dedicated to Salvador Allende. In the mid-1980s, when militants leading the charge for Khalistan – a separate Sikh state – threatened to kill Pash, he fled to California, where, working illegally at a petrol pump, he started another magazine, Anti-47 – handwritten and distributed to diaspora as far flung as Norway and England.

In recent years, Pash’s farm and its tubewell have become totems for the Punjabi left. In the 1970s the Naxalites held numerous secret meetings here, while in a basement dug nearby, Pash assembled a makeshift library, festooned with photographs of Mao, Bhagat Singh and Ho Chi Minh. It was also here that Pash was killed in 1988, aged 38 – like many of his comrades, by Khalistanis. ‘It was a cold March morning. He was sharing a cigarette with a friend near this tubewell’, Sant Sandhu, poet and Pash’s neighbour, whispers into my ear. In 1970, Sandhu had smuggled out Pash’s first poems from prison to be published as his first book, Loh Katha (Iron Tale). ‘Two Khalistani militants ambushed them, shooting several rounds into their backs. Pash died crawling under this mango tree’. Someone passes me hot jalebis and a cup of tea, as members of the Punjab Khet Mazdoor Union (a union of landless labourers, predominantly Dalits) unfurl the gleaming sickles on their red flags. ‘Now, we stand here in his place’.

Surinder Kumari Kochhar, a 78-year-old veteran, holds tea in one hand and a PKMU flag in the other. In the late 1960s, she published the first periodical of Punjabi Maoism, Lok Yudh (People’s War), edited by her father, Gandharva Sen, a communist stalwart who had previously been on the frontlines of the anticolonial struggle. It was an underground magazine – its press hidden in a manhole dug at the centre of an orchard. Surinder worked the press all night, and in the early hours young Naxalites would come to pick up fresh copies and then transport them across the region. Many of them would be later tortured and killed by the police. She grows wistful, but suddenly remembers the buzzer installed in the manhole to warn in case of a raid. ‘At night, if you put your ear close to the ground, you could hear me moving the rollers’. As the light began to fade, I could hear only the rickety buzz of a tubewell – enduring emblem of US neo-colonial aid – that now serves as a makeshift memorial to a revolutionary poet.

***

In 1972, the short story writer Gurvel Pannu founded Sedh, a Punjabi journal of Marxist theory and culture. The first issues included engagements with the writings of Sikh gurus, Roland Barthes (an entire issue was dedicated him), medieval Sufi thinkers, Eric Fromm, contemporary Naxalite poets, Charles Bettelheim amongst many others. In a series of landmark essays, the literary critic Kishan Singh warned against the wholesale embrace of Leninism, and instead suggested that Marxism in Punjab must discover its own ‘local roots’. His celebration of Gurbani (compositions in the Sikh religious scripture Guru Granth Sahib) as a counterpoint to Marxist-Leninism provoked heated debate. Gurcharan Sehensra, historian of the old guard, responded to Singh’s call for provincializing Europe with characteristic irreverence: ‘When the Punjabi bourgeoisie can find inspiration in the Western regime of the Green Revolution, why can’t the Punjabi workers find strength in the tradition inaugurated by the Paris Commune?’

In these literary magazines, discussions around universal history and difference played out with great intensity. In Hem Jyoti – a monthly so popular that booksellers used to hoard and sell its copies at marked-up prices – translations of Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Jean-Paul Sartre and George Jackson, were published alongside work by emerging Punjabi writers; assessments of the Moscow Writers’ Conference and the Afro-Asian Conference in between local accounts of literary seminars taking place in Punjab. The integration of Punjabi villages into the global regime of the Green Revolution was accompanied by a growing desire to imagine a literary world-system anchored in the peripheral experiences of Punjabi peasants and guerrillas. In the postcolonial mainstream, such experiments were widely censured. The 1972 issue of Indian Literature, the journal of the state-sponsored National Academy of Letters, famously criticized the ‘invasion’ of Naxalite poets, lamenting, in particular, the ‘sudden’ capitulation of Hem Jyoti to Maoism. ‘No amount of Maoist ideology (can) act as an alibi for a creative vision’ concluded the official indictment.

The sentiment prevails to this day. The intimacy between literary experiment, critique of political economy, and political agitation still confounds contemporary critics, who tend to dismiss it with accusations of crudity and propaganda, showing little interest in either recovering this history or taking stock of its afterlife. To borrow a phrase from Michael Löwy, the cultural memory of Punjabi Maoism continues to flow like an ‘invisible underground river’, silently irrigating Punjab’s social world. On occasion, its currents can still rise to the surface and flood the land. Over the past year, hundreds of thousands of farmers and farmworkers in Punjab and elsewhere blocked railways and roads, overran barricades and borders, and erected blockades around the national capital. Long into the night, troupes of Punjabi women across these blockades were seen singing poems by their Maoist forebears, including Pash. Last month, the BJP-led government finally conceded defeat, and agreed to repeal the controversial farm laws. The Bhartiya Kisan Union (Ugrahan), a left-leaning Punjabi organization, marked the anniversary of the blockades by paying tribute to those who have died in the struggle. During the two-minute silence, a song by the Dalit Naxailite Sant Ram Udasi reverberated from the stage.

***

Pulling up a piece of cloth tied behind his turban, Dilbagh Singh bellowed: ‘It is true that people are dying. It’s a disease, after all.’ After a short pause, he added, ‘But you know, sorrow does not stem only from Covid-19. We are now sad all the time.’ ‘And why is that?’ I shifted in the backseat of the Uber, curious to find out. ‘It’s because we have completely lost touch with the world of literature.’ I slipped the tangled headphones back into my shirt’s pocket. ‘So what kind of books do you like to read?’ Navigating a hairpin bend, Dilbagh answered, ‘Lal Singh Dil is my favourite, so is Pash’. I was struck by the uncanny pairing. Marginal and monumental in equal measure, the two poets are rarely discussed together. Dil, a landless Dalit poet, was betrayed by his upper-caste Jat comrades during a guerrilla action. After months of brutal police torture, he fled Punjab, converted to Islam and spent the next decades working as a watchman, a domestic servant, an imam, and a herdsman in several other states. Six years after Pash was killed, Dil was discovered running a ramshackle tea shop near his native village.

‘And what about Amarjit Chandan?’ I prodded Dilbagh to complete the trinity of Punjabi Naxalites. ‘I have heard his name but have never got around to reading him’. Born in Nairobi in 1946, Chandan inaugurated the Maoist tradition of underground literature in Punjab. But when the movement faltered, he fled to Frankfurt and then to London. His dispatches for Economic and Political Weekly ended abruptly – the final article reported on the infamous 1981 racist arson attack at New Cross Road, Deptford – and he later broke with Maoism. In 1994, Chandan re-surfaced with typical panache, when a letter containing his new poems arrived at John Berger’s alpine home in Quincy in the midst of a nationwide French postal strike. The resulting friendship with Berger catalysed Chandan’s emergence as a poet, essayist and translator. His severe criticism of the Naxalites – at the Karachi Literary Festival 2018, he again described them as ‘individual terrorists’ – perhaps explains his relative obscurity in a literary world that bears his imprint.

‘What are you reading these days?’ Dilbagh changed gears and wrested control of the conversation. ‘A novel by Jaswant Kanwal.’ ‘Which one?’ Dilbagh seemed visibly excited. ‘Raat Baaki Hai.’ Reflexively turning around in his seat, Dilbagh let out a rapturous cry, ‘Waah! Kya baat hai!’, the kind of reaction reserved for poets when they recite a particularly moving couplet. I scrambled to echo his adulation, ‘Bilkul, bilkul!’ (Sure, sure!). At one point, Kanwal’s 1957 novel The Night Remains – a literary chronicle of the Muzara Lehar, the sharecroppers’ movement for land redistribution – was so popular that excerpts would be read out on loudspeakers in the villages. The book precedes his more famous saga of Punjabi Maoism, Lahu Di Lo (The Dawn of Blood), published in Singapore and smuggled into India in 1975. By the time Dilbagh turned back to face the road, the car, already out of control, pushed headlong towards a concrete divider in the highway. As Dilbagh swerved, we ended up missing a crucial right turn onto the flyover, the first of four we missed that day.

Read on: Kheya Bag, ‘Red Flags in the Forest’, NLR 118.

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In the Woods

On a recent walk in Białowieża Forest, the immense primeval woodland that straddles Poland and Belarus, I saw a perfectly still figure holding binoculars. It initially appeared to be a birdwatcher, until I drew closer and realized it was a soldier from the Polish army. 

In Białowieża, bison stride through oak, ash and linden trees that are hundreds of years old. Recently they’ve been joined by refugees, who are entering the woodland from Belarus. In August, people from countries including Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria were caught crossing into Poland through the forest. For over a month, a group of Afghans has been stranded on the border near the village of Usnarz Górny (north of Białowieża, in the Podlasie region). The ruling Law and Justice government has refused to let them apply for asylum or provide humanitarian aid. ‘We are defending sacred Polish territory’, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said.

European officials and Belarusian exiles have accused Alyaksandr Lukashenka of taking revenge against sanctions by luring migrants to Minsk and releasing them into the EU through Latvia, Lithuania and Poland. In response, Poland has sent 1,800 soldiers to the border, installed barbed-wire coils, and announced the construction of a new 2.5-meter-high fence. Lithuania also announced that it is building a wall on the 679-km border it shares with Belarus.

The EU’s Eastern borderland, and especially the forest, is a long-time site of debate over the difference between ‘ours’ and ‘other’, East and West. Historian Larry Wolf traces this imagined boundary between civilization and backwardness to the educated travellers of the Enlightenment, who expressed horrified fascination with the supposedly barbaric lands they encountered to the East. While competing camps have claimed Białowieża as their own, its entangled history resists ethnic or ideological separation.   

During the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance, the area that spans modern-day Poland, Belarus and Lithuania was united under the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. After the last partition of Poland in 1795, the forest was turned into a private hunting ground for the Russian tsars, who decimated its population of bison. When Poland gained independence after World War I, it became a national park.

The region was seized by the Soviet Union in 1939, then the Third Reich in 1941. Nazi leader and hunting enthusiast Hermann Göring planned to create an enormous protection zone in Białowieża and populate the area with German peasants. This required the removal of local villagers, who were deported or shot, alongside the extermination of the region’s Jews. Many of them were executed in the woods alongside Poles and Belarusians accused of collaborating with partisans hiding out in the forest.

The current border through Białowieża was created at Yalta. The Belarusian side (Belavezhskaya pushcha) served as a hunting preserve for Soviet leaders, who bonded with Eastern bloc Communists on boozy shooting trips. These displays of affection ceased in 1991, when the Belavezha Accords formally dissolved the Soviet Union at a dacha in the woods.

A visitor approaching the forest from the neighbouring village of Białowieża enters on a dirt path. On the left side is the ‘strict reserve’, where mossy logs sink into layered ground cover; to the right is the national forest, which is subject to clearing and management. The road is so close to the border that cell phones connect to Belarusian telecom networks. A biologist at the Polish Academy of Sciences has warned that the new fence will inhibit the migration of endangered Eurasian lynx, which circulate across the two sides.

On August 29, a group of nine people (four from Egypt, three from Afghanistan, one from Lebanon, and one from Syria) entered Poland through the strict preserve. One of them was a man named Omar, whose relatives told his story to a journalist for Oko Press. Like many of those who have recently tried to cross the border, Omar purchased a travel package to Minsk with the promise that he would be taken to the EU. After reaching the Polish side, he was told by the border guard that he could apply for asylum, only to be dumped back in the woods and ordered to return. His family hasn’t heard from him since.

After the fall of the Iron Curtain, James Mark has argued, Eastern European elites eager to prove their membership in Western Europe framed the region as an existential buffer against the East. As Poland joined NATO and the EU, Białowieża became a setting for orientalist fears and fantasies about the threat of the Communist past and the Eastern other (personified by Belarus, which has retained a command economy and close ties to Russia). According to anthropologist Eunice Blavascunas’s recent book on Białowieża, a now-defunct adventure train ride through the woods gave visitors the thrill of being captured by uniformed ‘Soviets’, who forced them to join the Communist Party.

Lukashenka’s migration games have combined with news of asylum-seekers fleeing Afghanistan to fuel anxieties over a possible repeat of the 2015-16 refugee crisis. At the time, populist parties in Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic presented their refusal to accept Syrian refugees sent by the EU as a defence against arrogant liberalism. According to this narrative, only the long-suffering nations of Central Europe were prepared to protect Christian civilization from the dual threat of ‘cultural Communism’ to the East and Islam to the South (which Viktor Orbán sought to keep out by building a steel fence on Hungary’s border with Serbia). Since 2016, as the bloc has fortified its external borders and paid large sums to Turkey and other countries to ward off migrants, this stance has coalesced with the official view from Brussels. The latter is currently preparing a massive financial package to Afghanistan’s neighbours in an attempt to keep displaced people from coming to Europe.

Poland flaunts its growing role as a safe haven for political refugees from Belarus. These include the sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya, who is seeking asylum after she criticized her coaches on social media during the Tokyo Olympics and Belarusian officials tried to force her onto a flight home. After arriving in Warsaw, Tsimanouskaya appeared on an evening news program whose host excitedly asked her what she wanted to see in her new country. While welcoming Slavs who flatter its self-image, Law and Justice rejects arrivals from Africa and the Middle East, with a revival of the xenophobic rhetoric it rode to power. ‘Poland will defend itself against a wave of refugees, just as it did in 2015 ’, Minister of Culture Piotr Gliński said.

Some inhabitants of border villages offer food to people who turn up in cornfields and cow sheds, while others place an immediate call to the border guard. In reportage for Krytyka Polityczna, sociologists Sylwia Urbańska and Przemysław Sadura found that fear of the newcomers tends to be greatest among women who have returned from years working as cleaners in Western Europe, where they competed with people from majority-Muslim countries for the lowest-paid jobs.

Criticism of the government’s policy often invokes national memory of the Holocaust. Social media users retweeted a speech by Auschwitz survivor Marian Turski that called for an Eleventh Commandment: ‘thou shalt not be indifferent.’ Several opposition MPs and two priests attempted to bring food, medicine and supplies to the people at Usnarz Górny, where they were rebuffed by border guards. Donald Tusk, the leader of the party Civic Platform, has taken a more cautious approach, saying that the government should provide assistance to stranded refugees while emphasizing that ‘the Polish border must be kept intact.’

For Poles across the political spectrum, joint Russian-Belarusian military exercises near the border this month lend credence to the narrative that the region is in danger of Eastern invasion. Russia’s defence ministry has announced that a record 200,000 troops are taking part in the Zapad-2021 demonstration. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, playing his part in the neo-Cold War script, vowed that the organization would be ‘vigilant.’

By offering protection against outsiders, Law and Justice have cast themselves as the perverse heirs of previous rulers who tried to ‘purify’ a region known for human and ecological diversity. Their efforts enjoy the backing of EU border agency Frontex, which recently sponsored repatriation flights for citizens of Iraq. In early September, the Polish government (following Lithuania and Latvia) declared a state of emergency that requires activists and journalists to stay at least five kilometres away from the border zone. Aid workers previously communicated with the Afghans near Usnarz Górny through a megaphone; now, the latter are left without assistance and beyond the gaze of cameras. Some of those who arrived with Omar told a lawyer that they had already been pushed back into the forest several times. If it happens again, they said, they might not make it out alive. 

Read on: Alexandra Reza, ‘Imagined Transmigrations’, NLR 115.

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Pavelić’s Ghost

Like all holidays, the advent of Ramadan unleashes a social media storm of congratulatory memes. Friends, family, and distant acquaintances share photographs of mosques and stylized images of the crescent-and-star superimposed with a snippet of text, ‘Ramadan Mubarak’ or ‘Ramadan Kareem’ – wishes for a bountiful holy month. My twitter feed brimmed with such greetings on the first morning of Ramadan, but one in particular caught my eye, a retweet of Jusuf Nurkić, the Bosnian basketballer who plays centre for the Portland Trailblazers in the National Basketball Association. Nurkić’s message was brief: the hashtag #ramadankareem, three emojis – a crescent moon, a heart, and a pair of hands expressing gratitude or piety – and a caption for the accompanying photograph: ‘Zagreb. 1944 Croatia’. The black-and-white image that Nurkić tweeted depicted a rotunda surrounded by three towering minarets. The sinister political context captured by the photograph was implicit, but the flood of responses to the tweet indicated that it was not lost on Nurkić’s followers. He had posted a picture from a notorious episode in Zagreb’s history: the conversion of a famous art pavilion into a mosque by the Nazi comprador government of the Independent State of Croatia and its leader, Ante Pavelić.

Along with Ferenc Szálasi in Hungary, Ion Antonescu in Romania, and Jozef Tiso in Slovakia, Pavelić was a quisling dictator who rose to power on Hitler and Mussolini’s coattails. His Ustaša Movement seized power in 1941 following the Axis attack on the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. In short order, they set about cleansing ‘Greater Croatia’ – a region that included most of Bosnia and parts of Serbia’s Vojvodina region, as well as Croatia – of centuries of linguistic, religious and ethnic plurality. Pavelić’s most gruesome legacy was the Jasenovac concentration camp, a marshy abattoir on the floodplains of Slavonia where some 100,000 Jews, Roma, Serbs and anti-fascists were murdered between 1941 and 1945. The Ustaša ambition to Croat ethnic purity was assimilatory as well as genocidal. Drawing on the marginal theories of the 19th Century proto-nationalist Ante Starčević, Pavelić and his cohorts argued that Bosniaks were religiously but not ethnically distinct. In other words, the Ustaše considered Bosniaks to be Muslim – rather than Catholic – Croats, thereby erasing all historically- or culturally-rooted claims to Bosniak distinction. As ostensible Croats, Muslims were desirable components of the Ustaša body politic. Pavelić trumpeted this fascist openness to limited religious plurality by converting Zagreb’s House of the Fine Arts into a mosque in 1944.

The neoclassical-modernist pavilion-cum-mosque had only risen several years earlier, but it was already a weathervane for the region’s rapidly shifting political winds. Initially conceived as a monument to Yugoslav King Petar I, its design was an expression of Ivan Meštrović’s genius. Meštrović was Yugoslavia’s premiere sculptor, a proponent of the Vienna Secession, a disciple of Rodin, and a firm believer in the unity of the South Slavs, the ideological adhesive that bonded Yugoslavia between the wars. His new art pavilion honoured Petar I, a scion of the Serbian Karađorđević dynasty who, from 1918 to 1921, was the first sovereign of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes – the predecessor to Yugoslavia. Yet when the pavilion opened in 1938, the rabidly anti-Serbian Ustaše were already consolidating power in Italy under the patronage of Mussolini, who hosted Pavelić in exile for over a decade. Less than six years later, the building was re-dedicated to a dramatically different cause: Muslim-Catholic unity in the new ethnic polity, the Independent State of Croatia. Changes to the building were swift, and mostly cosmetic: the three minarets and interior ornamental motifs befitting a mosque.

These additions proved ephemeral. After the war, Tito’s partisans quickly transformed the building’s function and name again – by 1949, it had become the Museum of the Revolution. This proved to be the site’s lengthiest incarnation, at least thus far. The Museum of the Revolution persisted until 1993, when, in the wake of Croatia’s withdrawal from Yugoslavia and the subsequent war, the building reverted to its original function as an art pavilion and headquarters for the Croatian Association of Artists. Although it remains an exhibition space today, residents of Zagreb still colloquially refer to the building and its surrounding neighbourhood as Džamija, ‘the mosque’, without reflecting on the fascist genealogy of the title. Paradoxically, a trip to Zagreb’s ‘mosque’ does not usually end at the city’s actual Muslim house of worship, a Yugoslav-era campus in a relatively poor, peripheral neighbourhood. Stranger still, ‘the mosque’, a linguistic relic of the Ustaše, resides at the centre of the Square in Honour of the Victims of Fascism, a public space that explicitly condemns Ustaša depredations.

Whether or not Nurkić considered this dense history when he posted his Ramadan tweet featuring the fascist-era image of the mosque, his provocation was clear – the shot scored. One reply to the tweet denounced him as an Ustaša, while another leaned on a common racial-religious slur, branding him a ‘Turk who sold his faith for taxes’. A wag suggested that he had failed to understand the difference between the NBA and the NDH, the Croatian acronym for the Ustaša state. Supportive replies were less common, though a few neo-fascists reared their heads to salute the Portland player. Nurkić’s tweet also inadvertently called attention to an anniversary that passed largely unnoticed in Croatia and the region: the eightieth anniversary of the foundation of the Ustaša state only a few days earlier, on 10 April. In Jutarnji List, Zagreb’s daily paper of record, the journalist Robert Bajruši pointedly lamented that ‘the institutions of the Republic of Croatia have absolutely silenced this terribly important event – terrible in the literal sense of the word’. Nurkić’s Ramadan greeting did Croatian institutions one better, though not in the manner Bajruši might have hoped.  

Many in the region reasonably claim that official silence is preferable to stoking the smouldering flames of communal antagonisms. Pavelić continues to haunt Croatia in many spheres beyond the circles of the far right that openly laud his legacy. Postcards and memorabilia from the Independent State of Croatia, including the very photograph of the mosque that Nurkić repurposed for Ramadan, sell for exorbitant prices in Zagreb’s flea markets, sandwiched between Iron Crosses and busts of Tito. Yet Pavelić and the Ustaše have no place in official memory today – a muteness that contrasts starkly with the socialist era when they were bugbears and collective enemies par excellence.

This official muting of the Ustaša past is a condition of possibility for the political successes of Croatia’s contemporary centre-right party, the Croatian Democratic Union (Hrvatska demokratska zajednica, HDZ). Nostalgic praise for the Ustaše circulates openly in the right-wing circles from which the HDZ draws some of its support, applauded by figures such as the ethno-folk balladeer Marko Perković, known popularly as Thompson. The party itself, however, aspires to the respectability of its Christian Democratic brethren elsewhere in Europe, and officially abjures the Ustaša legacy. Rather than Pavelić, it is Franjo Tuđman, the first president of independent Croatia who died in 1999, who personifies the nation-state today. Tuđman epitomizes a polite Croatian nationalism, as opposed to the barbaric nationalism of Pavelić and the Ustaše. Yet the two are not so easily quarantined. In the context of the warfare of the 1990s, Tuđman and the HDZ partially rehabilitated Pavelić and the Ustaše as earlier architects of Croatian sovereignty. This political resurrection was entwined with the parallel rehabilitation of another World War II-era fascist movement, the Četniks, on the part of Slobodan Milošević and like-minded Serbian nationalists. The violence of the 1990s was the crucible for a politics of memory in both Croatia and Serbia that found new uses for the Ustaše and Četnici, respectively. 

Zagreb recently erected a monument to Tuđman, cementing his status as an embodiment of the nation. Pavelić’s legacy in the city is far less evident. Several weeks ago, I visited the ruins of his official residence, Villa Rebar, on the slopes of the Medvednica mountain north of Zagreb. It rots anonymously at the end of an unmarked dirt road, inhabited only by racist graffiti and a hodgepodge of litter: broken DVDs, condom wrappers, beer bottles. In a room that was once a cocktail lounge, I discovered a pile of discarded primary school textbooks, including a history primer that no doubt fails to mention his name.

Elsewhere, however, Pavelić’s memory resists ruination, and stirs with troubling new vitality. I witnessed stirrings of this resurgent potential several years ago on a summer morning in Madrid’s San Isidro Cemetery. Just as Mussolini sheltered Pavelić in the 1930s, Franco provided safe haven for him near the end of his life; though he initially fled to Italy and then Argentina and Chile after the war, he died in Spain in 1959 as the result of an assassination attempt in Buenos Aires several years earlier. Pavelić’s grave in San Isidro is a potent site of Ustaša memory. When I arrived, I found two strapping young men taking selfies in front of it. Several bouquets had already been deposited that day, and I heard more Croatian than Spanish spoken during my sojourn in the graveyard. Upon departure, I asked the cemetery gate attendant whether Croatian visitors were frequent – ‘Yes, of course’, he replied, ‘they come to see their leader.’

For Muslims, Ramadan is a time of abstention and spiritual reflection. As the month in which the Qur’an was first revealed to Muhammad, it is a period of heightened awareness to the entailments of Islam. It is also a season of peace, when even the most entrenched conflicts frequently abate, if only for a time. Regrettably, Nurkić failed to consider these entailments of Ramadan before tweeting the image of Zagreb’s erstwhile fascist mosque. Had he done so, he might have refrained from such a belligerent incitement in a context in which peace is still a recent achievement. Still, he was evidently unfazed by the conflagration he ignited on Twitter. He went on to score eight points the following day in a close loss to the Boston Celtics.

Read on: Catherine Samary, ‘A Utopia in the Balkans’, NLR 114.

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A Kuban Stanitsa

I learned about my mother’s death once the airplane landed in Moscow and my phone could be switched back on. She died while I was en route from Chicago. Immediately switching planes, I flew down south, to Krasnodar, my birthplace.

The funeral, as happens at such family rituals, reconnected me with a whole host of Kuban Cossack relatives from my mother’s side. The majority of them still live in her native village, or stanitsa, which literally means ‘winter camp’ as the Cossack military settlements were traditionally called to differentiate them from ordinary peasant villages. I haven’t seen many of my relatives in years, in fact I had never met a few nieces who were born in the eighties and who now have their own children who called me dedushka – during the years of my absence I became a grandpa, or rather a grand-uncle.

The stanitsa astonished me. It looked very prosperous, clean, modern and efficient. The majority of homes were recently renovated and expanded. My cousins now have heated granite floors in the kitchens and bathrooms, or good oak parquet elsewhere. Only my aunt Marusya, almost ninety years old now, lives in a more traditional house that still has plain plaster walls and painted wooden floors. But she also has a satellite dish on the roof – like everyone else in the village – and uses Skype (her daughter knows how to log in) to connect with her grandson and his family who live in the far north of Russia.

Aunt Marusya is also perhaps the last of my older relatives who speaks solely the local Cossack dialect, which derives from a version of eighteenth-century Ukrainian. (This means that I can easily understand basic Ukrainian but not the literary form that evolved later in the nineteenth century under a significant Polish influence, to counter the Russian influence, and which is still evolving now.) The next generation, my various cousins and their spouses, already speak mostly in Russian, using the local dialect only occasionally to make some colorful comment or joke. Their children speak only Russian and perhaps cannot speak the dialect at all. They were puzzled and amused by my rather rusty ability to switch into the ‘stanitsa talk’. Their parents rejoiced at it – after all these years abroad, I remained a good relative and true to my Cossack roots.

The Armenian name Derluguian, inherited from my father, didn’t seem to deter the familial feelings. The Cossacks were always frontiersmen open to non-Russians, evidently including my late Armenian father. He met my Cossack mother shortly after the victory in 1945. Both were very young and fatherless – there were few adult men alive at the time – so a hard-working and merry Armenian was very welcome in the family. My Russian name Georgi was inherited from my uncle killed in Poland in 1945. An American health insurance form once asked me to list the causes of deaths in my family during the twentieth century. This forced on me the realization that no male, on either side, died from natural causes during the 1914-45 period. I was raised by women, mostly widows.

When in my adolescent years I doubted in front of my mother that I should be considered a Cossack, she exclaimed (of course, in dialect): ‘But your eyebrows! Each worth a hundred rubles. Of course, you are a Cossack. Your grandfather Kondrat had two St. Georgi crosses for the Turkish campaigns, so half of the stanitsa lived in envy!’ And then she got darkly serious and added through clenched teeth: ‘I don’t know what you are going to do with the farmland but you must get it back from that dam kolkhoz. It is our farmland, and we are land-tilling Cossacks.’

In 1978 when I was admitted to Moscow State University and provided with a dorm room as an ‘inogorodniy’ (literally, a landless outsider), grandma Elya (Elena Mironovna) shook her head and muttered: ‘Are they out of their minds? How could you be landless? Tell them, you are a Kuban Cossack of Staro-Velichkovsky kuren (regimental settlement) of the Kuban Cossack Host.’

Despite the dark memories of Soviet collectivization, today everybody, to various degrees but evidently without exception, feels nostalgic for the Soviet collective farm. Even those who are among the most prosperous (the owners of a local motel, gas stations, truck business, or fishery) who are now driving Mercedes-Benzes or BMWs, are vocally nostalgic for the kolkhoz. This nostalgia, however, is not exactly for socialism but rather seems to be a deeply conservative form of local rural patriotism. The kolkhoz used to be very dynamic in the sixties and seventies, when it supported its own amusement park, dance hall, cinema, and several splendidly equipped schools. I remember, from my student years in the late seventies, how a couple of my relatives came to Moscow to spend close to a million rubles of kolkhoz money (an astronomic sum) on gym equipment – an industrial-size investment back in those times. Moreover, the kolkhoz owned and operated its own factories that produced sausages, cheeses, preserves and sunflower oil.

The factories are still there, as I discovered. In fact, they have been expanded and renovated lately. But they are now owned and operated by the dreaded generic ‘Muscovites’ – sleek young managers and elite technicians who are parachuted into the village from yonder, spending a few months (or at most a couple years) locally and then moving on to another project. They are the newly made MBAs who earn a lot, know or care nothing about agriculture or the local area. The ‘Muscovites’ are in fact the financial enforcers of some gigantic, impersonal entities whose command channels go so high they are out of local sight. These entities and their renovated factories and industrial farms are rapidly becoming the main employers in the village. There still exist a few independent farmers and small entrepreneurs (electricians, garage and gas-station owners) whose assets go back directly to their jobs in the last years of the Soviet Union (which is why these folks are mostly in their fifties and early sixties today). But I couldn’t determine how many they are nor whether they make up any coherent local force. The local state officials and their families, meanwhile, seem a more numerous elite although they are also threatened by political and bureaucratic intrigues way above the levels they can hope to control.

The local story of privatization seems to have run like this: First, at the end of Gorbachev’s perestroika (which everybody ritually curses) the managers of collective farms and local agro-industrial units discovered that they could now charge ‘market prices’ while the control from local Party and even government structures disappeared virtually overnight. The last generation of Soviet ‘red directors’ simply had to maintain basic production, feed their workers, and share some funds with the localities along old paternalistic patterns. The rest could be pocketed. The sums gained in just a few years must have been considerable judging by stories of vacation homes in Spain and grandchildren now studying at Oxford. Because our southern province is blessed with exceptionally fertile soils, good climate, and has several ports on the Black Sea, there was no problem disposing of wheat, corn, meat or sunflower oil across Russia or exporting to foreign markets – the hard ‘durum’ wheat went mostly to Italy, cooking oil to the Third World. In short, the situation in the North Caucasus was quite unlike the big factory towns in central Russia and Siberia.

But the last generation of Soviet managers held to their new ownership positions for just a few years. All of them, even the youngest and most able, were evicted in the mid- to late nineties by gangsters or ‘raiders’. Their method was the same in almost all instances: an ‘alien’ with a distinctly criminal demeanor would arrive with a large private security detail or even with state anti-riot police and in a surprise move occupy the entrances and offices at a local factory. The pretext was usually a bankruptcy procedure mandated by some obscure court from a distant town somewhere in the middle of Russia.

The new legal owners were completely faceless, an anonymous bank or unknown group of investors registered in some tax haven like Cyprus or Aruba, and they would claim to take the property under a ‘crisis restructuring.’  The old management were sometimes bought out, sometimes sent to jail for various tax violations. At other times they simply disappeared and would later be found dead, or never found at all. The luckiest, those who survived, are still living reasonably well and away from trouble somewhere in Cyprus or Dubai.

But the raider capitalists did not last very long either. In the 2000s a new and mighty force arrived – the ‘Muscovites’ armed with their MBAs and evidently with capital and political connections of an altogether different scale. They also brought new production technologies and equipment imported from Europe. This is probably why the fields look so well-kept, the warehouses and agro-industrial factories so brand-new.

There remains a lot I did not see or understand in just one week. Like in any initial phase of fieldwork, you get surprised almost every hour. Only as one of my distant nieces and her boyfriend were driving me back to Krasnodar did I realize that they were probably more ‘Muscovites’ than locals. She has no father and had to work her way up in the big town, eventually becoming a lawyer. The boyfriend in the meantime turned out to own an advertisement firm where he is apparently the sole permanent employee. Her main interest in life used to be Krishnaism, and she spent a few weeks visiting the ashrams in India. More twists in the ongoing story of our native village. But now, much to her mother’s relief, she seems more interested in starting a new family with her boyfriend.

Years ago, Pierre Bourdieu suggested that I should use my native access to do local fieldwork. I did, of course, in the war zones of the Caucasus. Krasnodar is in fact just a few hundred kilometers away from Chechnya or Abkhazia. But it is so hugely different economically and socially…indeed, I should probably return to spend a longer time in stanitsa.

Read on: Georgi Derluguian, ‘A Small World War’, NLR 128

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Thrill Rides

On Wednesday morning, I drove up to Magic Mountain to get the first shot of the vaccine.

Six Flags Magic Mountain is a gigantic amusement park thirty-five miles north of downtown Los Angeles, near the intersection of the 5, the freeway which runs from the border with Mexico to the border with Canada, and the 126, a two-lane highway towards Ventura, where the death toll is astronomical, due to the absence of a centre divider to avoid head-on collisions, or guard rails to prevent lethal spinouts on the curves. Magic Mountain is known for its roller coasters, providing a selection of different ways to experience falling, flying, floating – losing one’s sense of orientation and balance. I myself don’t take roller coasters, or any other gravity-defying rides, having had a particularly mind-bending experience on a rickety apparatus at Battersea Fun Fair in the late summer of 1967. They had to stop the machine mid-ride to let me off, my screams registering a different level of terror. I was twelve. A group of people gathered to watch me dismount, shaking and sobbing; that was enough for me.

The variety and extent of the massive ‘thrill rides’ at Magic Mountain are visible from the 5, itself a monumental concrete surface, five or six lanes running in each direction, with on and off ramps expanding and contracting, at a scale that dissolves any human measure. To the west, driving north, the enormous curves and sudden drops of the steel structures at Magic Mountain appear, as if by magic, emerging out of the scrubby unpopulated hills, and in the past, if you opened your window, you could sometimes hear the cries of participants as the death drop let them fall. The rides are silent now: you cannot socially distance and scream at the same time – tears may be transmissions and any desperate clutching at a companion is potentially lethal. So-called amusement parks are places to play with death; on the roller coasters, we are held tightly, safe as houses, while our bodies sense only danger, free fall, the abyss. These are forbidden pleasures, now.

In Les Jeux et Les Hommes, Roger Caillois outlines the ways that human beings have fun, defining play as ‘an occasion of pure waste: waste of time, ingenuity, skill, and often of money.’ Caillois proposes a classification of all play within four categories: competition (agôn), chance (alea), simulation (mimicry), or vertigo (ilinx). A combination of competition and chance structures most games. Mimicry designates games where ‘the subject makes believe or makes others believe that he is someone other than himself’. This complicated category includes ‘any distraction, mask, or travesty’, as well as our deep propensity, despite everything, to identify with footballers or actors or characters in a book. Finally, ilinx (from the Greek, whirlpool) designates games ‘based on the pursuit of vertigo and which consist of an attempt to momentarily destroy the stability of perception and inflict a kind of voluptuous panic upon an otherwise lucid mind’. He describes children who whirl in circles until they are too dizzy to stand up, as well as the spasmodic thrills of amusement parks, where mechanical ‘contraptions’ cause people to ‘shriek with fright, gasp for breath, and have the terrifying impression of visceral fear.’ I like to think of the whirlpool in relation to the digital world, where the formal consistency of the ubiquitous rectangle situates us in a field of apparently infinite spatial and temporal possibility. We require the rectangle, as our algorithmic identities form and dissolve; it holds us in its frame. But viral is no longer a metaphor; the pandemic isn’t digital, and neither is Magic Mountain. It’s all too mechanical: we can view the colossal apparatuses of panic from a great distance, wildly out of perspective, like a dream landscape promising desperate pleasures to miniature people. These rides are record-breaking, historic, with names like Viper and Apocalypse and Drop of Doom. Closer, the wide open spaces of the parking lots appear, built to accommodate thousands upon thousands of pleasure-seekers. I wouldn’t have chosen Magic Mountain as my destination, but the digital interface for people like me (over 65 years old) was so overloaded, continually crashing and contradictory, that eventually I gave up looking for a vaccination in the city. I was thrilled when I finally booked a slot at the periphery of the county, driving out to Magic Mountain was not too far to go.

I arrived ten minutes before my appointment, about three quarters of an hour after I’d left my house. I’d run out of gas on the drive up; I reckoned I had about 30 miles left in the tank, as empty does not really mean empty any more. I joined the queue of cars entering the amusement park, fighting for my place in line as the lanes narrowed from three, to two, to one. And then we stopped. We sat in our cars in the winter sunshine, in a long line that stretched out of sight. I was listening to a podcast about a pop record called Beyond Disco, put out in 1985 by two Pakistani-British siblings living in Birmingham. The lead singer, Nermin Niazi, was 14 years old, still in school; she wrote the songs with her brother and sang them in Urdu. According to the podcast, she is now an officer in the Metropolitan Police, living in Epsom.

Massive looping structures, ghostly roller coasters recalling the curved lines and verticals of Tatlin’s Tower, loomed over us. I had been to a number of drive-through COVID-19 testing sites in Los Angeles, and I’d never spent more than 40 minutes creeping forward, back and forth, along the zig-zag maze made of bright orange traffic cones, towards the open tent, temporary site of shade and natural ventilation. Here, the immense parking lot was packed to capacity, crisscrossed with hundreds of cars moving slowly and then stopping for ten minutes at a time. I listened to my podcast. I checked again that I had my driver’s license (to prove I am a resident of Los Angeles, as well as my age) and the confirmation email on my phone. I didn’t need to show my health insurance cards, as the vaccine is free. Sitting in the driver’s seat, staring at the light on the distant mountains, I gradually lost any sense of scale, time and space expanding and contracting in my solitude. Quarantine – or quar, a little nickname for texting – has produced a strange sense of time, as the months go by, yet isolation within the confines of my car is familiar, part of everyday life in Los Angeles.

There’s an elusive sense of community that occasionally emerges among cars moving together on the freeway. I remember driving home alone late one night when I first moved from London to Los Angeles, over thirty years ago. I was driving fast and felt a sense of distant companionship with the other solitary drivers in the darkness, a strange solidarity, echoing the camaraderie I remembered feeling when sitting on the top deck of the last bus at the end of an evening out. That imaginary connection has eroded. In the lines of cars at Magic Mountain, almost everyone kept their car windows rolled up, as if fearful of the virus blowing in, and drivers were annoyed if someone didn’t move forward instantly when some space opened before them. One car at a time, punching its way forward, in contrast to my memory of the seemingly choreographed flow of cars on the empty freeway at night. Here, my Subaru was a giant mask, a little safe house, an isolation chamber on wheels. The deserted parking lots of Magic Mountain, the Forum (an arena where I saw Prince perform), Dodger Stadium, have been reclaimed as public space, only to be transformed into health care centres, crammed with cars instead of bodies. I remembered Ballard’s Crash, and Cronenberg’s movie, the erotics of speed and collision. Like Burroughs, Ballard studied medicine.

Stopping, starting, I recognized the irony: this was an inversion of the category of the thrill ride. There was no speed, no sensation of flying, or falling, or spinning out; only incremental forward motion interrupted by long periods of stasis. I was seriously worried that I would run out of gas, picturing the scene of my incapacitated car blocking the route of all the thousands of cars behind me, as the switchback lanes offered no possibility of an exit. This humiliation would be still worse than the moment when people at Battersea Fun Fair clustered around to watch, laughing, as I staggered off the turn-you-upside-down-and-spin-you-round-and-round machine. I was beginning to feel hungry, my body clock chiming in. In his discussion of amusement parks in Thrills and Regressions, Michael Balint suggests that the fizzy drinks and excessively sweet foodstuffs of the funfair – like cotton candy or candy floss – return us to a stage of development that could only be described as infantile. We regress to a condition where we have not yet learned, as babies must, to ignore our inner sensations, so that the pink melting strands of sugar, the swig of Coca-Cola (too cold, too sweet, too fizzy) take us back to that earlier time, when every feeding was an adventure – a roller coaster ride – the longed-for burp essential to the windy baby’s health and wellbeing.

The Magic Mountain is a novel by Thomas Mann, who lived in exile in Los Angeles for a decade; I read it when I was a teenager. Sitting in my car, I recalled very little about it, remembering only that it is set in a sanatorium for tuberculosis and there is a beautiful woman who is, perhaps, slowly dying. Last year I took up listening to audio-books while driving and quickly discovered what I liked best: long novels that I’ve already read in a former life – Little Dorrit, Can You Forgive Her?, Middlemarch. The Wings of the Dove was an exception: the sentences were too elaborate, too internal, and the emotional repercussions too subtle for my ears to take in properly, especially on the freeway. Too fast, too slow. This despite the fact that Henry James dictated his late books to a woman typewriter, as they were called, as he perambulated up and down, enunciating every word.

I kept checking the time and I therefore know precisely how long I sat in my car, anticipating the pain of the injection to come, distracted by the podcasts about 80s music, fearful of the imminent catastrophe of a car that wouldn’t move – a car that would shift from being a vehicle to an obstacle in an instant. I know how long it was: two hours and forty minutes. When I finally pulled up to tent number 11, I was elated; I thanked the two women, fully covered in PPE, for being there, and told them with a laugh that I had run out of gas before I arrived at the vaccination centre hours before. The woman who was typing on the laptop looked up and said, ‘Living on the edge!’ We all laughed. Sitting in my car, I pulled my t-shirt aside and the needle went in. At last! And then, anti-climax: I had to wait another 15 minutes, to make sure that I did not have an allergic reaction. I drove forward, joined a single file of stopped cars, turned off my ignition. Another friendly woman wrapped in PPE came to chat with me; she made a note of the time I would be allowed to leave and placed the orange paper under my windscreen wiper. I made a comment as I thanked her, about how we smile with our eyes now. She explained that if I felt I was having an allergic reaction, I should honk my horn loudly, and a nurse would run over – she pointed into the distance, across the expanse of empty concrete, towards nothing I could see. I briefly imagined a nurse running, trying to figure out which car was honking. Then I asked if I could leave my car unattended; it was almost four hours since I’d downed a cup of tea and left my house, and I was considering using the portable toilets at the edge of the lot, despite the obvious risks. She said, no, that’s not possible, because what if you had your allergic reaction inside one of those? Momentarily I pictured myself collapsing in the darkness, no horn to honk.

Eventually my fifteen minutes were up and she came over to give me permission to go. As I drove to the gas station by the freeway, I felt grateful, a little triumphant, and angry, for all the people who can’t wait half the day in a car for a vaccine. Here, in Los Angeles, I am in a privileged minority; I am much less likely to get sick and I am more likely to get vaccinated, for many different reasons, a set of structural inequalities that can be mapped by neighbourhood and ethnicity. Unlike most people in this city, I live alone. I isolate in my car, in my house. I do not live in a multi-generational household, I do not do a high-risk job, I am not a health-care worker or a nail salon stylist or a grocery store clerk or a hospital cleaner or a warehouse worker or a delivery driver or an undocumented casual labourer – the list goes on. I have internet service and a laptop; I have a smart phone and a car; I can pay for gas. I have the time and the flexibility to return repeatedly, despite my frustration, day after day, to the almost incomprehensible websites purporting to offer appointments for vaccination to every Angeleno over the age of 65. In my solitude, I can keep trying, at different times of day; I can jump through hoops and hang on tight, while disappointment and elation propel me forward. Three weeks from now, when it’s time to get the second shot, I can drive up there again.

I’m intending to re-read The Magic Mountain, some time, a book about withdrawing from the world, but not now. Here in Los Angeles, hundreds of people are dying every day, although the doctors know so much more than they did in March and April last year, when hundreds of people were dying every day in New York. We thought there would be treatments by now, we imagined the chaotic scenes of overwhelmed emergency rooms wouldn’t be repeated. Instead we have a slew of vaccines, each with a different refrigerator, and proliferating variants that may make my hard-won vaccination irrelevant. Fauci calls the variants mutants; I hear him on the radio as I’m driving – ‘we need to neutralize the mutants!’ – and I think, has he never seen a science fiction movie? In the novel, the mountain is magic because people who are incurably ill get better, they can breathe. Here the magic is in the sudden drop, the voluptuous embrace of a collective near-death experience, all together, screaming as we fall. But we are not in this together; on the contrary, poor people are dying and rich people are not. In the vertiginous whirlpool of the pandemic, certain structures remain consistent, an invisible framework holding each of us in place.

Read on: Mike Davis’s seminal ‘political autopsy’ of Los Angeles.