Some years ago I visited Krasnogruda, the restored manor house of Czeslaw Milosz, close by the Polish–Lithuanian frontier. I was the guest of Krzysztof Czyzewski, director of the Borderland Foundation, dedicated to acknowledging the conflicted memory of this region and reconciling the local populations. It was deep midwinter and there were snow-covered fields as far as the eye could see, with just the occasional clump of ice-bound trees and posts marking the national frontiers.
My host waxed lyrical over the cultural exchanges planned for Milosz’s ancestral home. I was absorbed in my own thoughts: some seventy miles north, in Pilviskiai (Lithuania), the Avigail side of my father’s family had lived and died (some at the hands of the Nazis).
The arrest of ten Russian spies in America on June 27, and the exchange of them last week for four Russians accused of spying for the West, has brought inevitable comparisons with the Cold War. But really, it has little to do with war or peace. Russia simply cannot help itself.
For most governments, espionage is a tool, used for gathering intelligence abroad. In post-Cold War Russia it is a passion, even an organizing principle, and it begins at home. The Tsars had the Third Department and the Okhrana as their eyes and ears. The Communists had the KGB.
Russia is generally freer now than it was under communism, but its spy-chiefs are, if anything, even more entrenched. No longer is it the government that is running the spies. The spies are running the government.
The Cuban government has announced it will release fifty-two political prisoners who have been locked up since 2003—a decision made after the archbishop of Havana and the Spanish foreign minister interceded directly with Raúl Castro. The announcement is certainly good news for the prisoners and their families, who have been through a very difficult seven-year ordeal. One might hope it also signals a new willingness by the Castro government to tolerate dissent—or at least to stop locking up dissenters—which would be very good news for the entire country.
But we’ve seen such negotiated releases before. Jesse Jackson convinced Fidel Castro to release twenty-six political prisoners in 1984, Bill Richardson secured the release of three in 1996, and Jimmy Carter got one prisoner released in 2002. My colleagues at Human Rights Watch managed to get half a dozen released after six grueling hours of negotiation with Fidel Castro in 1995. The most successful was Pope John Paul II, who obtained the release of more than eighty jailed dissidents in 1998.
Why the enormous interest in the final thoughts of men and women who were often guilty of committing horrific crimes? It must be the same morbid curiosity that brought huge crowds of Americans to public executions in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. Many considered these grim occasions so much fun they brought their families along. The spectators didn’t mind if the hanging they were watching was botched and the condemned struggled choking for a long while at the end of the rope, or if his body dropped headless to the ground, and greeted such horrors with “rude jests” and “rabid laughter.” They expected, as part of the program, to hear a public admission of guilt, expression of remorse, appeal for forgiveness from God and the assembled, and a warning about the evils of booze and company of loose women. They were rarely disappointed.
For decades, the Castro government has been very effective in repressing dissent in Cuba by, among other things, preventing its critics from publishing or broadcasting their views on the island. Yet in recent years the blogosphere has created an outlet for a new kind of political criticism that is harder to control. Can it make a difference?
As a matter of crude shorthand, the South African photographer David Goldblatt might be described as his country’s Walker Evans. Though Evans was one of Goldblatt’s models when he was starting out more than a half century ago, the comparison at this point serves only to hint at the moral clarity of his vision, the seriousness of his purpose and the scope of his achievement. It does not prepare you in any serious way for the stirring experience that awaits you at the Jewish Museum where a copious exhibition of his black-and-white work, mainly from the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties—the heyday of apartheid—will be on display through September 19.
Charles Rosen plays the music of Frédéric Chopin and talks to Chris Carroll about the composer’s surprising radicalism and the critical controversy surrounding his work, the mysterious spianato style, and whether there is a right way to play Chopin’s music.
MAXXI is Rome’s new, much-touted national museum of contemporary art (the XXI standing, in Roman numerals, for the present century). With such a mission, this $188 million project of the Italian Ministry of Culture has a number of tasks to perform simultaneously: not only housing what aspires to be an inspirational, international selection of recent work, but also proving that—despite frequent claims to the contrary—a city that once played host and Muse to so many great architects, famous and forgotten, from Etruscan times onward, can do so again.
The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceauşescu, which had its world premiere at Cannes last month and will be turning up at other film festivals this fall, is an example of what the radical Soviet documentarian Dziga Vertov called a “film object.”
Culled from a thousand hours of archival footage and four years in the making, this unconventional documentary assembled by the émigré Romanian film-essayist Andrei Ujică is a three-hour immersion in a totalitarian leader’s official reality. Ceauşescu’s Romania, the Eastern bloc’s most brutally destructive regime, is remembered for its systematic repression, its failed industrialization, and its pervasive police state—including a disastrous ban on contraception that produced a culture of clandestine abortions and horrific orphanages. None of this appears explicitly in the film. Instead, Ujică shows Ceauşescu’s public image as fabricated by (and for) the dictator himself during the course of his catastrophic 25-year reign.