what you get here

This is not a blog which opinionates on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers to muse about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

The Bucegi mountains - the range I see from the front balcony of my mountain house - are almost 120 kms from Bucharest and cannot normally be seen from the capital but some extraordinary weather conditions allowed this pic to be taken from the top of the Intercontinental Hotel in late Feb 2020

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Poetry, Potted history and Geopolitics - "In Europe's Shadow"

The search for books which (try to) capture the soul of a country is an increasingly fascinating endeavour for me. Such books cannot be contrived novels or dry histories – the few exemplars I come across are generally travelogues containing a mixture of encounters (with contemporary or historical figures) and feel for landscapes and cultural contexts……

Until now none of the english-language books on Romania (one of the dozen or so countries I’ve lived in over the past 26 years) has been able to do the country justice – although there are a couple of very impressive histories (Boia's Romania - Borderland of Europe; and Djuvara's A Brief Illustrated History of Romanians); two very challenging takes on its post 1989 politics (by Tom Gallagher) -Theft of a nation – Romania since Communism and Romania and the European Union: How the Weak Vanquished the Strong; and two travelogues - one from the indefatigable Irish writer, Dervla Murphy - Transylvania and Beyond (1992) - as she ventured into a country whose borders were open for the first time for 50 years; and a delightful 1998 book produced by a Frenchman (with photos by an Italian) – and accessible on google - The Romanian Rhapsody; an overlooked corner of Europe by D. Fernandez and F Ferranti (2000)

But Robert D. Kaplan’s In Europe’s shadow: two Cold Wars and a thirty-year journey through Romania and beyond (2016) now slips into top place of a unique annotated list I prepared 2 years ago of books which anyone seriously interested in Romania needs at least to know about. You’ll find that list in Mapping Romania - notes on an unfinished journey
He reveals in the Prologue that his first foray into the country was in the 1970s as a bemused backpacker in central europe; but that in 1981, as a 29-year old with few career opportunities, he spotted a hole in the western media coverage of south-eastern europe and took a flight to Bucharest in what seemed then a forlorn hope of whipping up some media interest in the area…..  
Kaplan’s writing is like the places he visits. It’s a terrain, a concentrated expression of a particular part of the world as he sees it, a very personal account though steeped in broad historical knowledge and familiarity with a wide range of sources. Kaplan’s sentences are like streets that lead us around a place we come to know through his eyes, either only through his eyes if it’s a place few people know (such as Romania)…….
It’s not a question of whether he’s got it right or wrong (Does the landscape really look as he describes it? Is his history of a town or a local population or a people accurate?).
 There is no right or wrong in this kind of writing. What we get is Kaplan’s view of the world and what matters is whether it compels our attention, becomes memorable and integrated into our own understanding. After all, we all know so little of it first-hand. Maybe one day we’ll go here or there, or at least in the neighbourhood, and we’ll know if it looks and feels familiar.
Kaplan is not a tourist, he’s a traveller. He doesn’t look, he sees. He’s not a visitor going from monuments to battlefields but one who lives his travels, immersing himself in every new surroundings, picking up—what makes us envious—new friends and colleagues that continue with him through decades.

This is the fourth Kaplan book I’ve read. As he explain in this Youtube presentation his latest book is a new departure with previous books (covering Asia, the middle East, Africa, the Mediterranean) giving horizontal slices to regions but this one being a “vertical” take on one country to which he has returned frequently in his life and by which he is clearly moved… 
There can’t be many Americans who know as many Romanians or as well as Kaplan, who is, so far as an outsider can get, inside as well as outside Romanian society and politics. And there may be no American who is so much simultaneously a travel writer and a geopolitical analyst, and happy to be so. When he discovered Romania in 1981 during the Ceausescu Communist years, “I felt that I was finally beginning to do what I always was meant to.” Kaplan, in other words, became not just a travel writer or a serious scholar. He had a vocation. 
"In Europe’s shadow" amounts to a kind of historical anthropology plus geopolitics, a deep study of a particular country and people. The point is to understand Romania itself and to use it as a way to apprehend Europe’s complex past. Romanian history involves the West and East, the geography between Western Europe and Greater Russia, more precisely the web of historical patterns and contemporary geopolitics between Central Europe and Eastern Europe. It’s a story that continues to be relevant today………………..
Those familiar with Kaplan’s work know that he’s as much a travel writer in the grand style as a geopolitical Realist whose studies of international relations and political leadership are also in the grand style, stretching intellectually over centuries and continuities of ideas.

As for the focus on Romania, it “was my master key for the Balkans... the Poland of southeastern Europe in terms of size, demography, and geopolitical location...” In Europe’s shadow is a demanding book for the lay reader but it shows how, at one and the same time, Romania is distinctive and a key to a broader and deeper understanding of contemporary Europe.
Most of all, Kaplan’s work exemplifies rare intellectual, moral and political engagement with the political order—and disorder—of our world.

The bibliographical references are impressive – although what seems to be an exhaustive list curiously fails to mention the only 2 serious studies of contemporary Romanian politics (by Tom Gallagher) - choosing instead to focus on older texts of Eliade and Cioran.....
My charitable interpretation of this omission is that Kaplan is not all that interested in contemporary Romania - despite a conversation with the previous PM and President.  Readers might have expected more than his superficial impressions of new constructions; the brightness (or otherwise) of paint or the lawn upkeep of Bucharest's parks...and to find some allusions at least to the scale of political corruption and the apparent success in the last 2-3 years of the new judicial system in throwing politicians in jail.....
But geo-politics, it seems, sees such issues as fairly minor.......... 

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Another Danube Trip

Another trip north 2 weeks back – first to Port Cetate via Belogradchik and one of its vineyards and the Vidin bridge across the Danube. A huge shell of a synagogue at Vidin is left unexplained in the guidebook….

A nice website about Bulgarian public transport gives this experience of the Sofia-Vidin trip

A writer in residence at Port Cetate turned out to be a Schwabian from an old Danube family who is now producing wines in Hungary and writing a book on the different values represented by the Danube and Rhine rivers and the cultures around them….Claude Magris's Danube - a sentimental journey from the source to the Black Sea gave us an amazing take on that river (in 1989) but Ronnie Lessem's Global Management Principles (also 1989) not only identifies four very different clusters of values (north, south, east and west) but ascribes, to organisations and individuals alike, different life phases. There’s a nice summary here.   

A couple of decades ago, I used some fallow time I had to “bone up on” contemporary management writing (see chapter 6 of In Transit – notes on good governance) and have a continuing interest in the history of management thought (if that’s not a contradiction in terms!!). Lessem’s vignettes of the various figures in the management canon bring people and ideas alive in an exceptional manner.
Lessem, I am delighted to see, is still going strong and has moved from management into the wider field of economics – there’s a sadly rare video here of one of his presentations
He is one of these admirable people who challenge the narrowness of the intellectual boundaries which so constrain our thinking……  

After a couple of nights at Port Cetate, it was on to Craiova and a first visit to its superbly restored Art Gallery. Apart from great displays of the great work of Amman and Grigorescu, the visit was made worthwhile by a roomful of Brancusi sculptures and paintings by an artist so far unknown to me and who therefore doesn’t figure in my Introducing the Romanian Realists of the 19th and early 20th CenturiesEustatie Stoinescu about whom little is known although I did find this little nugget. 
This is a wonderfully coy painting of his….

Friday, April 15, 2016

Drawing Back the Veil

Those wanting a sense of how the events of the last century have impacted on the soul of one Balkan country have a unique opportunity in Sofia these next few weeks. Three exhibitions in Sofia offer samples, first, of the paintings of Bulgarians who had the opportunity to study in France in the half-century before the communist takeover of 1944. By definition, those able to avail themselves of such opportunities came from richer families and were therefore often targeted in the immediate aftermath of that takeover.  They included figures such as Nikola Tanev, Tseno Todorov and Constantin Shterkelov. The National Gallery exhibition runs until 30 May.

Sofia City Gallery has an exhibition which some may think overdue called “Forms of Resistance – 1944-1985” with exhibits selected and presented to give a sense of how the world of Bulgarian (and central European) artists dramatically changed as their countries slipped behind the Iron Curtain from 1944. The State Security files (and prison drawings) of Alexander Bozhinov and Alexander Dobrinov (leading caricaturists) and others are a powerful initial exhibit… as are the 3 large industrial landscapes of one of Bulgaria’s greatest painters, Nikola Tanev, produced after his release from almost a year in jail. The roll-call of imprisoned or disgraced painters covers Bulgaria's main artistic names - and must have had a devastating effect on the creative spirit...... 
The gallery has produced an excellent video – with the paintings shown from the 4th minute

I first realized the scale of the veil which has been drawn over this subject a few years ago when I was compiling an annotated list of 140 Bulgarian painters for my first booklet…. "Bulgarian Realists – getting to know the Bulgarians through their art". The caricaturist Rayko Alexiev had died in his first weeks in prison and the superb landscape artist Boris Denev  was basically was banned for life but, slowly, the internet revealed (with help from google translate!) scraps of information which are not offered in the various catalogues and monographs which the Bulgarian galleries publish.
The Bulgarians, it appears, do not like to discuss this period…..there are still too many skeletons… the belated attempts at official investigations have been half-hearted – as one woiuld expect when its main political party (BSP) is effectively the old communist party….   
The (bi-lingual) text which accompanies the City Gallery’s current exhibition is, therefore, for me the first detailed explanation of what exactly happened to artists in Bulgaria – both in the immediate aftermath and as communist power consolidated and evaporated…..    

Fascinating to discover that, in the early weeks of the takeover (when the bodies of the murdered political and government elite were still warm), 30 artists were meeting to set up the first Union of Artists – and that Nikola Rainov emerged as its president!
The Zhendov affair (of 1950) named some 30 deviant painters and led to the dismissal from their academic jobs of painters of the caliber of Ivan Nenov and Kiril Tsonev. Any hint of “mawkish naturalism” was pounced upon as an act of sabotage. A hierarchy of accepted painting led with portrayals of political leaders followed by glorification of labour and liberation. Landscapes were accepted only if, like Tanev’s, they showed socialism in action….     
As the exhibition recognizes, artists responded in very different ways – some with alacrity, others by turning to other activities, a few with various forms of escape or rebellion….

Not surprisingly in a part of the world in which recent history is strongly disputed, the City Gallery exhibition – which runs until 26 May – has attracted some controversy.

The final exhibition I want to mention is that of Bulgaria’s grand old man and doyen of Bulgarian art - Svetlin Rusev who is still very active at the age of 83 and whose latest work is on display in the  Seasons Gallery at Krakra St.
Rusev is a unique and towering figure - Chairman (1973-85) of the Union of Bulgarian Artists but then fell out of favour with the authorities for his rebellious activities. His position allowed him to build up a fantastic collection of art which he has donated to two public galleries, one in Pleven, the other in Sofia at what used to be his studio very near the Alexander Nevsky Church.

He straddles both the communist and the modern period

Sunday, April 10, 2016

On resilience; and wines and painters from Pazardzhik

So much happening – the continuing human and political crisis of the ongoing wave of immigration to Europe’s shores; the Panama Papers and its political fallout in Britain – not least on the Brexit vote; the last remnants of the steel industry being sacrificed in Britain to the neo-liberal God…..and all I  do is wallaw in self-pity from the facial discomfort of the past 2 months!!

I know our various worlds have always been governed by cycles of gloom and bravado but, somehow, in the past half-century, social “expectations” seem to have experienced a tectonic shift – such as to have made us incapable of dealing with a world that is in decline….
A few years back, there was extensive talk of “resilience” – the social capacity to deal effectively with crises….why some communities seem to have this….and others don’t. Sad that this concept seems to have gone the way of all fads…Or is it perhaps that we have simply become overwhelmed with the notion of “Crisis”???

Bulgaria is a society which, at first sight, seems to have avoided the temptations of debt-driven modernisation….even in Sofia most people eke out a living – and one-person businesses seem to be the norm. A wine-tasting in young Asen’s little Vina Orrenda (at the Russian Monument) offers a real social occasion in such a modest society and I was glad to have made the trip last Thursday. Not just for the excellent taste of the Riverside range of wines being offered by the Manistira winery (3 whites; a Rose; and 2 Mavruds) but for the easy conversation which flowed between us. The left part of my face is still semi-frozen and I therefore have problems tasting – but I coped manfully!

It was the first time I had attended a group wine-tasting – and I appreciated the ceremonial aspects as Asen and a young lady first introduced the winery and the wines and Asen then poured us our respective samples…

It was also nice to be approached by one guest and be asked for my opinion on the wines….and to have the chance to speak to the 2 young ladies representing the winery (who remembered me apparently from the November wine-tasting!). It's in a village near Pazardzhik and I suggested they might put Pazardzhik’s most famous painter on one of their etiquettes – Stoian Vassilev. He was a prolific painter (the local museum is reputed to have some 5000 of his paintings and sketches). I have 4 of his - the first being very untypical. The second is more typical of his style......

Friday, April 1, 2016

The Royals and Brexit

Fascinating story early this morning about an imminent (and potentially constitution-shattering) intervention by the British Royals in Britain's current debate on whether to leave the European Union
Using outside experts who advised that the intervention would need to be presented by a figure with impeccable European credentials, a strong affinity with the continent and the character to speak out, the family has decided that the move should fronted by Prince Philip who has apparently "been hugely impressed by the way the EU stepped in, not just once but several times, to save Greece,” said one official with knowledge of events. “He admires what Tsipras and Varoufakis achieved – in fact he told friends he sees something of his younger self in the charismatic, motorbike-riding, eye-for-the-ladies Varoufakis. Mind you,” added the source, “he also thinks the Greeks would never have got into this mess if the colonels had still been in power.”,,,,,,,,
The leader of Vote Leave is Michael Gove – "that awful little leaker who put it about that the Queen wanted out. They can’t stand him. And as for Boris, the other main outer – he’s a cycling maniac from Islington. All he has done for the royal family is make it difficult to get around London in a decent-sized Daimler. And the third of the trio – Farage – what another awful little man".

Only when I reached the reference to the Greek colonels, did I realise that it is, today, the first of April!!!