There’s a scene in the movie Red Army where an ex-KGB operative is being questioned about his past role in preventing members of the Soviet ice hockey team from defecting to the west during their trips to play in the Olympics. His young granddaughter is sitting beside him on a bench in a garden outside what may be his house. He begins to speak about the past when the child, who is obviously a bit bored, interrupts and asks him why he is wearing dark glasses which surely prevent him from seeing her. No, he points out, he can see her quite clearly. She goes on to tell him that she too has some dark glasses with white frames. Eventually, after several similar interruptions, he gets back to the point he was making to camera. The directors left the scene uncut, and it actually adds quite a lot to the movie because it shows that everyone, even ex-KGB, has a human side.
The movie is a documentary about the successful Red Army hockey team placed in the context of Soviet Union politics before and after USSR changed to Russia. It is partially based on interviews with Slava Fetisov. Very interesting because it shows how, in those days, politics influenced sport both in the USSR and USA. Sports representatives in both countries saw sport as the epitome of their societies. The examples shown of Soviet art (on posters, etc) are also impressive.
The other movie I saw this week was Beats of the Antonov, which was part of series of African movies being shown recently in Edinburgh and Glasgow. It is another documentary, this time about the effect of Sudanese government bombing raids in the Blue Nile and Nuba Mountain regions in Sudan. An ethnomusicologist makes recordings of the songs of the area, many of which are performed in response to the conflict and in an attempt to retain the local culture. The present conflict in this part of the world is sometimes known as as the Third Sudanese Civil War. The same, or similar groups in the region have been fighting for a long time. As far as I can see, it’s basically an ethnic conflict between groups of Africans and Arabs, complicated by all sorts of other issues. In November 1983 Lindsey and I were in Khartoum, aiming to go overland to Kenya, but the Second Sudanese War suddenly flared up and travel permits were stopped. We ended up going to Kassala in the east of Sudan for a week instead, and then flew from Khartoum to Nairobi. This was probably just as well, as the route south of Khartoum was very rough.
I’ve been trying to fill in some of the many gaps in my knowledge about Southeast Asian history by reading Last Post: The End of Empire in the Far East, by John Keay, published in 1997. I didn’t previously know about the huge French losses at and after the Battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954, during the First Indochina War and that over 11,000 French and Vietnamese prisoners were taken by the Viet Minh. I didn’t know that there were places called Dinding, Balambangan and Weihaiwei, the last of which was once controlled by the British. I had not known that the man who had tracked down the Apache leader Geronimo, Major-General Henry W. Lawton, was also involved, and killed, in the Philippine–American War of 1899-1902 by a Filipino sharpshooter, ironically under the command of a general named Licerio Gerónimo. In fact, I had not known how vicious that war was, with over 4,000 American and 20,000 Filipino deaths (many more Filipino civilians died). After that war, the Americans tried a policy of attraction, with almost limitless opportunities and privileges for Filipinos, a policy later criticised by P.W. Stanley as “…nation-building without regard to nationality.” I had previously briefly read a bit about Ho Chi Minh (Nguyen the Patriot), but didn’t know about his fascinating early life.
The book confirms that “The [British] empire was essentially the product of individual initiative aided by the threat, and occasional use, of force” rather than an ongoing policy of expansion.
It describes the different colonial cultures of France, the Netherlands, Spain, Great Britain and the USA in the area. The Dutch saw their colonies as an exercise in resource management. Other powers saw their empires in terms of tutelage, partnership or possibly even brotherhood. The French flag belatedly followed their missionaries. The British were always concerned with strategic protection of trade routes.