Friday, September 28, 2007


The June 15th issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education included an article on an odd phenomenon known as "Ostalgie" - nostalgia for the symbols and commodities of the defunct Eastern Bloc. In Eastern Europe, Ostalgie generally manifests itself as a demand for replicas of the old, badly-made consumer goods of the Communist era, like Trabant cars in the former East Germany, Tisza sneakers in Hungary, and Kofola Cola in the former Czechoslovakia. It can also take the form of nostalgia for the rhetoric and professed ideals of the old regime, as in Wolfgang Becker's 2003 movie Goodbye Lenin! Eastern European Ostalgie is most likely the product of middle-aged Hungarians' and Germans' nostalgia for the kitsch of their youth - similar to the wave of '70s nostalgia that washed through American movies and TV shows in the 1990s. It may also be an expression of residual nationalism in countries that are otherwise integrating themselves as quickly as possible into the European Union.

I suspect that few Eastern Europeans are pining for a return to the actual conditions of Communist rule - secret police, travel restrictions, and food shortages. We were recently reminded of those conditions by an unusual story out of Poland: the emergence of Jan Grzebski, a former railway worker, from a 19-year-long coma on June 2nd, 2007. Grzebski's last memories were of the final year of Communist rule in Poland, and he was anything but nostalgic: "When I went into a coma," he told a Polish TV station, "there was only tea and vinegar in the shops, meat was rationed and huge petrol queues were everywhere." Economic conditions had, he said, improved drastically in the intervening two decades - though, like most 65-year-olds, he found at least one thing to complain about in the new Poland (namely, people who complained about how rotten life was).

Ostalgie has taken a somewhat darker form in the former Soviet Union, where many Russians now remember the Soviet era as one of order and strength, and the 1990s as a "time of troubles" filled with strife, poverty, and national humiliation. The Putin regime is encouraging this revisionist view in the new history standards it recently issued to Russian high school teachers, reported in the New York Times last August. The new standards are particularly kind to Joseph Stalin, whom they compare to Peter the Great and Chancellor Bismarck. Under his rule, "victory in one of the greatest wars was won, industrialization of the economy and cultural revolution were carried out successfully...The U.S.S.R. joined the leading countries in the field of science; unemployment was practically defeated." (Andrew Kramer, "Yes, a Lot of People Died, but..." New York Times, 12 Aug. 2007) Sure, there was a certain amount of suffering, but it was in a good cause. Even Stalin's purges had a good effect: the creation of "a new class of managers capable of solving the task of modernization in conditions of shortage...loyal to the supreme power and immaculate from the point of view of executive discipline."

A corollary to this longing for the Days of Uncle Joe is the belief that the Soviet Union fell not because of its own internal weaknesses, but because it was "stabbed in the back" by internal enemies - more specifically, meddling liberal reformers like Mikhail Gorbachev. Yegor Gaidar, the former economic minister of Russia under Boris Yeltsin (1991-94), observed in a paper given to the American Enterprise Institute last November that "at least 80 percent of Russians" now believe that "the Soviet Union was a dynamically developing world superpower until usurpers initiated disastrous reforms." To this Weimarian view of the fall of Communist Russia, Gaidar opposes his own thesis, which he calls "Grain and Oil." Essentially, Stalin's decision to collectivize agriculture in the late 1920s led to a severe shortfall of grain in the U.S.S.R. by the early 1960s. Soviet Russia could only feed its people by importing grain, and the only Russian commodities anyone would buy in exchange were oil and natural gas. High oil prices in the 1970s allowed the Soviet government to continue feeding its populace, but when Saudi Arabia dropped the floor out of the oil market in 1985, the Politburo could only continue to buy grain by borrowing money from the West. By 1989, private banks were no longer willing to loan money to the Soviets, and Western governments agreed to do so only on condition that the Red Army withdrew from Eastern Europe. Which it did. Sic transit the Russian Communist Empire.

Gaidar's paper deserves to be read in full: it is elegant, well-illustrated with charts and historical evidence, and even witty. (He summarizes the intellectual quality of Brezhnev-era Soviet leadership with this quote from Politburo minutes: "Mr. Zasiadko has stopped binge drinking. Resolution: nominate Mr. Zasiadko as a minister to Ukraine.") He does tend to gloss over the other weaknesses of the Soviet economy, such as the total stagnation of its industrial sector - by the 1980s, Soviet citizens viewed consumer goods like the Trabants mentioned above as evidence of Eastern Europe's wealth and sophistication. An American historian might also note that the Reagan administration took an active role in undermining the Soviet oil and gas export industry in the 1980s, first by allowing Soviet spies to steal bugged computer software for their gas pipelines that later caused immense explosions, then by pressuring Saudi Arabia to drop oil prices in the mid-'80s. But his essential point, taken in conjunction with Mr. Grzebski's recollections, is sound: repressive governments can only survive as long as there is food in the shops. If there is no bread, all the military glory and shoddy sneakers in the world won't be enough to save your regime. Trite, perhaps, but easy enough for autocrats to forget.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Now Silent, Upon a Peak in Darien

On May 1st I reported on the 300th anniversary of the Act of Union, whereby Scotland formally surrendered its independence to Englad and became part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain. I implied there that English anti-Catholicism and English bribes had much to do with the end of Scotland's sovereignty. However, in a new article in the Guardian, Rory Carroll attributes the end of Scottish independence to the kingdom's disastrous attempt to colonize Panama in the late 1690. The now-obscure Scottish colony of New Caledonia cost Scotland hundreds of lives and one-fifth of its national wealth, and its collapse both bankrupted and demoralized the Scottish government. According to archaeologist Mark Horton, however, the failure of New Caledonia was not due to Scottish incompetence - the site was well-chosen and the death rate no higher than in 17th-century Virginia - but rather to Spanish military opposition and English indifference. The story reminds us, at any rate, that the margin of survival in Europe's 17th-century colonies was quite thin, and the consequences of failed colonies could be quite severe for the mother country.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Voyagers to the East: An Updated Census

For the previous entry in this series, click here.

After my four-post digression on the South American Indian slave trade, I thought it would be useful to compile a new census of all the Indian travelers to Europe, involuntary or otherwise, that I've discussed in this series. Herewith I present an updated head count, by year, of the "voyagers to the east:"

1493: 17 Tainos brought to Spain by Columbus
1494: 26 Carib and Taino captives shipped to Spain
1495: 350 Tainos and Caribs brought to Spain as slaves
1496: 30 Tainos brought by Columbus to Spain
1500: 200 Indians (probably Taino or Arawak) sold by Vespucci in Cadiz
1501: 50 Micmacs brought to Portugal as slaves by Corte-Real expedition
1501: 3 Brazilian Indians brought by Vespucci to Lisbon
1502: 3 Micmacs (or Inuit) brought to England by Fernandes & Gonsalves
1503: 260-350 Brazilian Indians sold in Seville by Spanish slavers
1505: 1 Brazilian (Carijo) boy brought to France by de Gonneville
1508: 7 Micmacs brought to France by Aubert
1513: 35 Brazilian Indian slaves sold in Spain
1513: 3 Brazilians (Tupinikin) visit King Manoel I in Lisbon
1515: 50-100 Brazilian men and women brought to Spain as slaves
1523: 1 Florida Indian (Francisco de Chicora) brought to Spain
1524: 1 southeastern Algonquian boy brought to France by Verrazano
1525: 58 Penobscots taken by Gomez to Spain as slaves
1526: 4 Brazilian (Carijo) chiefs' sons enslaved in Spain
1531: 1 Brazilian chief taken to England by Hawkins
1532-49: Approximately 670 Brazilian Indian slaves shipped to Portugal
1535-36: 10 Hurons (Donnaconna et al.) brought to France by Cartier
1550: 50 Brazilians (Tupi-Guarani) brought to France and displayed in Lyons
1550-1600: 10-20 Brazilian boys sent to Portugal for education
1560s: 1 Powhatan, Luis Velasco (later Opechancanough), travels to Spain
1567: 2 Inuit taken to Belgian Netherlands
1576-77: 4 Inuit captives taken to England
1584: 2 Carolina Algonquian chiefs travel to England
1586: 2 Carolina Algonquians are taken to England (not including repeat traveler Manteo)
1595: 4 men from Trinidad & Guiana sail to England; 1 boy & 4 men from Trinidad & Guiana to England (5-9 altogether, depending on how many of the four adults belonged to both groups)
1613: 6 Tupinambas baptized in Paris

The total so far, for the years 1493-1613 AD, is 1,862-2,016 people. Of these:

1,098 - 1,252 came from South America (including Trinidad)
623 came from the Caribbean
and 141 came from North America.

Their destinations were as follows:

To England: 17-21
To France: 75
To Spain: 1,032-1,172
To Portugal: 736-746
Elsewhere (modern Belgium): 2

About 90% of these Indians were brought to Spain or Portugal to be sold as slaves. Many of the remaining travelers were captives, brought to England, France, or Flanders for display as curiosities or training as interpreters. This fits the general pattern of trans-Atlantic migration in the early modern period. At least 2/3 of the migrants from the Old World to the New between 1500 and 1850 were African slaves, and a majority of European colonists also traveled involuntarily, as orphans or criminals bound to service, as the dependent female relatives of male migrants, or as indentured servants destined to serve (for a specified term) a Euro-American master.

Why did so many of the early Indian migrants travel to Spain or Portugal? Partly, it was because Spanish and Portuguese mariners controlled the Atlantic throughout the 16th century, until the defeat of the Armada and the ensuing Anglo-Spanish War of 1588-1603 ended Spanish naval dominance. Then, too, most of the early Indian travelers to Europe were slaves, and slavery was virtually extinct in Europe outside of the Iberian peninsula by 1500. More on the latter subject in a later post.

For the next entry in this series, click here.