Saturday, December 2, 2017


Snow geese over New Mexico



On the day the world ends
A bee circles a clover,
A fisherman mends a glimmering net.
Happy dolphins jump in the sea,
By the rainspout young sparrows are playing
And the snake is gold-skinned as it should always be.

On the day the world ends
Women walk through the fields under their umbrellas,
A drunkard grows sleepy at the edge of a lawn,
Vegetable peddlers shout in the street
And a yellow-sailed boat comes nearer the island,
The voice of a violin lingers in the air
And leads into a starry night.

And those who expected lightning and thunder
Are disappointed.
And those who expected signs and archangels’ trumpets
Do not believe it is happening now.
As long as the sun and the moon are above,
As long as the bumblebee visits a rose,
As long as rosy infants are born
No one believes it is happening now.

Only a white-haired old man, who would be a prophet
Yet is not a prophet, for he’s much too busy,
Repeats while he binds his tomatoes:
There will be no other end of the world,
There will be no other end of the world.

Warsaw, 1944

~ Czeslaw Milosz, tr. Anthony Milosz (the poet’s son)

This is how Charles Simic prefaced this poem:

~ “Here is a poem from a cycle called “Voices of Poor People,” written in 1944, which I first read in an anthology of world poetry published in Yugoslavia in 1956. I bought it in a Chicago bookstore that specialized in Slavic literature at a time when Miłosz had no poems translated into English. It made a huge impression on me, since I too had spent the war in an occupied and bombed city in Europe and could understand how such conflicting emotions could coexist.” ~

Yes, that’s life itself: heaven and hell right here, side by side. The “prophet” goes on tying up his tomatoes even though he knows the end of the world is imminent. I find this has a broader symbolism, just as Voltaire’s command to “cultivate our garden.” We go on with daily activities and whatever is important to us even though death is ever more near; “life goes on” until the very end.

Ever since the development of nuclear weapons, we’ve lived with the ugly possibility of a truly senseless end of the world: WWIII begun because of an accident, a mistake, a technical malfunction. Or else a demented leader having a temper tantrum. No noble battle between good and evil, but sheer mishap or idiocy at a high level. We live with this hanging over us, and keep on gardening. Maybe a madman’s finger is already reaching for the button — these days it’s enough to say “THE BUTTON” and we all understand — but meanwhile, as Milosz says, “a bee circles a clover.”


There are other poems about the end of the world, making us wonder: with a bang or a whimper? By fire or ice?

And here the world ends on a fine day in late spring or early summer. The anniversary of the assassination of Franz Ferdinand by a 19-year-old Serbian anarchist, the trigger for WWI whose consequences led to WWII, made some people wonder if a terrorist with a “dirty” nuclear bomb could start a chain reaction that would engulf the world in WWIII. 

So, no need for a madman in power (though it’s highly disquieting that history abounds with examples of madmen in power). A nobody, a suicidal fool, a young fanatic, might be enough — at least as a trigger.
Gavrilo Princip, the assassin of Archduke Ferdinand

We had a brief respite when the Cold War ended (some say it’s on again), but 9/11 began another century of — in 2000, who would have believed it? — religious wars. Milosz would not really be surprised. He saw “Americanization” as a major force operating in the world. The Soviet Union didn’t really represent the opposite pole because it was also aligned with modernity — just a different version of it. The major force opposing Americanization (or call it “modernization”) could only be a powerful archaic religion.

But writing in Warsaw in 1944, Milosz wasn’t of course thinking about the kind of threat we face now. By then it was already obvious that the Nazis were losing and retreating, the Red Army steadily advancing. The war would be won by Stalin. But the historical context is not vital for the understanding of this poem, which makes a claim to universality.

In fact it’s probably more relevant to ponder the ancient predictions about the end of the world, and how that prediction has been with humanity for an extremely long time, making a deep imprint on the Western culture. Still, Milosz, who was pessimistic about human nature (and it’s easy to see why), foresaw that the end of the world would not happen according to the Book of the Apocalypse. There would be no archangels blowing the trumpets, no opening of the graves as presented in countless paintings. In some manner the end of the world would be brought about by human action — or at least that’s one possible 

interpretation of the poem. 

Michelangelo, a detail of Last Judgment: Angels waking the dead

And we know, of course, what an asteroid did to dinosaurs 65 million years ago. But they couldn’t see it coming. We could — or so we think. Detect and deflect! As if it’s ever been tried! We just assume that we, magnificent humans, have the wherewithal the change the trajectory of an asteroid. But the most recent (2013) Russian “super-meteor” came out of nowhere, a glowing surprise. Luckily it wasn’t that large, but still . . .

I prefer to interpret Milosz’s poem from a more individual, personal perspective. The world will end for each of us. César Vallejo thought he’d die in Paris on a rainy day — “it will be a Thursday.” He did die in Paris, though I read somewhere it was a beautiful spring day, a Friday. Close enough. Merwin wrote a much-anthologized poem about the anniversary of his death, a day yet unknown to him — one could argue that we are all lucky that way. And maybe it’s just a coincidence that Merwin was also an avid gardener. Writing poems, planting trees — that’s what we do even though we know that our personal world will come to an end, and eventually also the world at large.

A secular way of looking at death with some serenity was provided by Epicurus: “When I am, death is not; when death is, I am not” — thus, there is nothing to be afraid of. Fear, no, but sadness, yes. If we love the world (and Milosz admitted that the older he grew, the more he loved life and the beauty of the world), it’s sad to contemplate the ultimate end, the loss of it all (and no, Milosz was not a believer at the time he wrote the poem; even after he became a public Catholic, his faith was heavily riddled with doubt). Who doesn’t hate to see life go? Hitchens, who heroically kept writing as long as it was possible, said, “It’s OK to cry.”

So the end of the world IS coming, and will be experienced by everyone — just not in the sense predicted by either religion or science. Even so, the tomatoes need to be staked. It helps to remember Milosz’s

white-haired old man, who would be a prophet
Yet is not a prophet, for he’s much too busy

That’s what we do: keep busy. “To work is to live without dying” ~ Rilke

Yes, the end of the world is a fact. But for now I’ m going to Home Depot for more potting soil and maybe a fuchsia. I wonder if they have the kind called “Eternity.”



The end of the world comes to each of us with our own death, and indeed, we must live until we die — go on tying up the tomatoes, washing the dishes, weeding the garden, not to mention loving and hating, building and tearing down, thinking and dreaming, until death rudely interrupts us. And no, we are never ready, never, even though we may know it’s coming, even know it’s very close, we go on as if we could keep going on, pretty much forever. What else is possible?

In my time working as a nurse, I noted how often someone would be going on about some completely ordinary thing — say, complaining about their lunch, very engaged with some small detail, and a few hours, sometimes only minutes later, death would end all those concerns forever. We know death is coming, but we don’t believe in it. To live always under the shadow of that end, to have it constantly in mind, something a saint or philosopher might try, but for most, it’s impossible to do and still carry on with their lives.

So it is for individuals, and as for the end of the world itself, as in apocalypse, the possibility exists, as a natural occurrence we could do nothing to avoid, like a direct hit from a huge asteroid, as calamity resulting from our own actions, like climate change or nuclear war, or as the fulfillment of religious prophecy, as the Fundamentalists’ End Times. What is particularly disturbing now is that the possibility of a nuclear war feels more threatening than it has for thirty years — because we have opposing world leaders with the power to launch, who both seem unbalanced, sparring like bullies in a schoolyard, delusional and impulsive enough to precipitate the end of the world with a single rash and unregulated act. When madmen hold the weapons of destruction there is reason for fear.

Another reason for concern is that fundamentalist Evangelicals want Apocalypse — the ultimate apotheosis of their righteousness and the destruction of all apostates and unbelievers. And it seems, like Steve Bannon, they might want to create enough chaos and disruption to hurry the apocalypse on. After all, the world might end, but they’ll all be Raptured off, safe in the blessed rewards of their faith. These are dangerous people in dangerous times.

And yet, we have those gardens, and those tomatoes to tie up.


It is these accidental ends
We can’t forgive
Forgetting time
Is always borrowed
In loans whose terms
Are undisclosed
And never generous
So we are caught again
And again
No ark or levee raised
Against the storm
No oil for our lamps
Stunned by how sudden
All accounts come due
How empty our hands
How wordless we stand
Our houses made of straw
Our gardens planted
On the lip of the caldera



So true, so true. What immediately stood out for me was the account of a patient complaining about their lunch, only to be dead a few hours later — or sometimes in a matter of minutes. Wow,  that’s such vivid detail and so telling — yes, that’s how life is, and that’s us, preoccupied with trivia “till death do us part” — not even from the loved ones, but above all from all those tiny matters so unbelievably important to us.



I have a copy of Merwin and noticed his poem on the anniversary of his own death. It seems many poets dwell on their death . . . and then we have Milosz’s “a bee circles a clover” . . . always seems appropriate to add a touch of beauty no matter how bleak. 


Here is Kierkegaard’s different take on the end of the world:

“A fire broke out backstage in a theatre. The clown came out to warn the public; they thought it was a joke and applauded. He repeated it; the acclaim was even greater. I think that's just how the world will come to an end: to general applause from wits who believe it’s a joke.”

~ Søren Kierkegaard, Either/Or, Part I

The end of the world is not exclusively the domain of religion. I don’t mean here the scientific speculation about the counterpart of Big Bang, though “big whimper” is a terrific temptation; Frost’s line that “ice . . . would suffice” is also nice. No, I'm thinking of Marx and Engels and other early communists. Expecting that the revolution is around the corner (a “historical necessity”), they resemble Christian fundamentalists who eagerly await the end of the world. What was supposed to happen after the world-wide proletarian revolution succeeds in abolishing capitalism? A worker’s paradise, you may say, but that’s a sarcastic later phrase. What Marx actually said was THE END OF HISTORY.

This was an immediate red flag for me. Was it the tenth grade when we read the Communist Manifesto and studied the principles of Marxism, preceded by a cursory survey of Hegel’s “dialectics”? I'm pretty sure it was after I’ve already left the church, which included the rejection of the Last Judgment and the end of the world. “The end of history” was an immediate echo, except even more absurd. Obviously history wasn’t going to end: there’d always be conflicts and problems, technological progress with both good and bad consequences, new ideas, new developments of all sorts — the world would keep on changing in the usual chaotic and unpredictable way.

Funny, by getting free of Catholicism, I also kicked away Hegel and Marx, and all absolutism (unless the absolute of change itself). But I was too young to grasp mortality — the only “end of the world” that truly matters — and saddens. 

~ “The big worry is Greenland. It has 2-3 km (1.2-1.9 miles) of ice on top of its lithosphere. That weight is pushing down the crust. Taking that ice off could trigger earthquakes.

We’re seeing that in Alaska. A lot of ice has been lost in the last 100 years, and the faults there are lot more active now. Previously, because of the weight, they couldn’t move but they were accumulating strain because of the earth’s movement.

So if Greenland starts seeing earthquakes, there’s a worry that we would see submarine landslides. One such landslide happened in Scandinavia about 8,000 years ago. It sent down a huge tsunami all the way across the Atlantic. Shetlands saw 20-meter (66-foot) waves, and Scotland saw [waves] six meters high. And Greenland has the same potential.

In Iceland, you have a big ice-cap in the east. As the ice melts, the crust is bouncing back up. It then releases the pressure on the asthenosphere, which reduces the melting point of the mantle and so more magma is generated.

Climate change can only bring forward the occurrence of an earthquake if the fault was already susceptible to rupturing. These things can occur where there is ice or where there is increase in sea levels. But, even if these happen, their occurrences may be within the annual variation of the earthquakes of those sizes.

When the sea levels really get going, say two meters higher than now, and the pressures really ramp up, then you may see a statistical increase in earthquakes too. But it’s not certain.

The greatest and the most rapid changes in climate occurred during the recent ice ages, when temperatures increased from 5 degrees [Centigrade] below today’s to 5 degrees above in less than 10,000 years. The result of this was most apparent in Scandinavia, where ice sheets 2-3 km thick thinned and were lost. We have records of ruptures that ran for more than 100km, and there is a relationship between the size of an earthquake and the length of ruptures it causes. These earthquakes were of magnitude 8 or more, and you wouldn’t expect them to occur in Lapland.

One of those earthquakes caused a landslide, which was one of the biggest landslides to have occurred on the planet. The back wall of the landslide was the length of the distance between London and Manchester. The tsunami it caused would have been enormous. We don’t have the direct evidence of the tsunami, but that’s because we’ve not gone looking for it.

As for volcanoes, Iceland is a prime example. It was completely covered by ice in the previous ice age. Volcanic activity was suppressed and not much was going on. Then once the ice sheets melted, it had a 50 times increase in volcanic activity. We won’t see that in Iceland because the ice caps that are melting now are much smaller. But it gives you the idea of the scale.

So which are the areas of concern over the next 100 years?

Anywhere there is a lot of snow and ice. Places with ice-sheets but also volcanoes covered in ice, such as Mt Rainier [in Washington state]. An area of special worry is the Himalayas, which is seeing a growing number of glacier melts. If that continues, the lake could overfill and flood the valley where millions and millions of people live.

The other thing that happens is, during the monsoon, there is trillions and trillions of liters of water poured in the basin, which is soaked up by the ground and which adds pressure on the fault. As the climate warms and the monsoons get more severe, this could trigger earthquakes.

You say that the earth is a connected system. What do you mean?

You can’t do one thing in one part of the earth’s system—lithosphere, atmosphere, hydrosphere—without affecting other parts of the system. This is a big worry of geoengineering, which is something people would like to do. Having buggered around with the atmosphere for the last 200 years, let’s try another experiment. You can’t just do that. It’s far too risky.

When the faults are ready, earthquakes can be triggered with a force of no more than a handshake. That’s all you need, and climate change can provide a lot more force than that.

For instance, there are earthquakes in Japan that are linked to increases in snow. Similarly, there have been earthquakes in Taiwan linked to low-pressure storms that cross over. These are small earthquakes, but the fact that atmospheric pressure can have an effect 5-6 km deep is staggering. There’s loads of evidence of how very small weather-related or climate-related changes can trigger geological activity.

What about ice ages? Could that save us from global warming?

Not quite. With what we’ve done to the atmosphere, we’ve changed the trajectory of our climate for at least 100,000 years.

The last ice age occurred some 10,000 years ago and the next one, which we should be entering now, would have lasted some 100,000 years. Even though the conditions are right to start an ice age—astronomically, earth’s position with respect to the sun—we have too much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to let that happen. So we’ve almost certainly canceled the next ice age.

The 2015 Paris summit is just a joke. The idea of keeping global average temperature to under 1.5°C is just nonsense. The first few months of this year, average temperatures are already hitting 1.3°C higher than pre-industrial times. Even if all these countries kept their promises and did what they all said they would do, we’ve got no chance to keep it below 2°C. And, of course, they won’t keep their promises.” ~


(Millions of Christians see humanity headed not toward peaceful progress, but toward annihilation. That’s why I bother posting: we need to start whispering [a whisper is sometimes more effective than a shout]: Jesus is never coming back. Never, never, never, never.)

~ “George W. Bush apparently believed that Iraq and Afghanistan were singled out in end times prophecy. “Gog and Magog are at work in the Middle East,” he told French President Jacques Chirac in a 2003 phone call, appealing to their common Christian faith as a basis for the invasion. “This confrontation is willed by God, who wants to use this conflict to erase His people’s enemies before a new age begins.” Chirac, a Roman Catholic, promptly asked his staff to call the French Federation of Protestants and find out what Bush was talking about.”

“We now live in a world shaped by evangelicals’ apocalyptic hopes, dreams, and nightmares,” Matthew Avery Sutton writes in his new book American Apocalypse: A History of Modern Evangelicalism. As the title suggests, Sutton is interested in Christian apocalypticism not as a fringe movement but as a political and cultural force that transformed America, a thesis that will likely provoke skepticism. It is one thing to marvel at the prevalence of biblical literalism —some 40 percent of Americans believe that Jesus will “definitely” or “probably” return before 2050 — but it is quite another to suggest that biblical prophecy has been a central force in our nation’s history. Yet Sutton, who has written two previous books about evangelicalism, possesses a quality shared by the best historians: the ability to make his subject integral, a sun around which everything else orbits.

That Bush and Reagan managed to become leaders of the free world speaks to decades of fundamentalist political ambition. This is one of the most baffling aspects of the movement. One might expect the anticipation of apocalypse would go hand-in-hand with apathy or social withdrawal: If you believe the world is on the brink of destruction, why bother trying to transform it? But fundamentalists became more politically engaged than their liberal protestant counterparts. Sutton explains this paradox via Christ’s parable of the talents. A wealthy man goes on a journey, entrusting each of his servants with a number of talents, a unit of money. When he returns, he assesses what each man has done with their portion—whether they hid it in the ground or invested it—and praises them accordingly. The parable, which is today the lodestar of the Christian financial planning industry, has long been interpreted in terms of a more tenuous kind of stewardship. Believers see themselves as guardians of earthly virtue, charged to “occupy” the earth until Christ’s return.

One fascinating story line documents the role fundamentalists played in the early Zionist movement. During the 1890s, William E. Blackstone, a Chicago real estate developer who wrote the bestseller Jesus is Coming, became one of the first advocates for the reestablishment of Israel. Convinced that Christ would not return until this prophecy had been fulfilled, in 1891 he created the Blackstone Memorial, a petition for the instatement of Israel signed by a number of powerful premillennialist Americans, including John D. Rockefeller and J. P. Morgan, and a few Jewish leaders. When World War I broke out, he wrote to Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan to express his belief that the United States was “the instrument which God had prepared” to establish the State of Israel. Later Blackstone shared similar sentiments with President Woodrow Wilson. Blackstone continued pressing the cause until his death in 1935. Because of this early work, which predated that of Theodore Herzl, Louis Brandeis recognized Blackstone as the “father of Zionism.”

In a hilarious anecdote, missionaries Ralph and Edith Norton meet with Mussolini in the early 1930s to interview him for the Sunday School Times. Like a lot of fundamentalists of that era, the missionary couple believed Mussolini was a strong candidate for the Antichrist — the dictatorial leader who would resurrect the Roman Empire. As the Nortons quizzed Mussolini about his political intentions and explained the basics of biblical prophecy, Il Duce became fascinated. “Is that really described in the Bible?” he asked. “By the time the Nortons were through with him,” Sutton writes, “Mussolini apparently believed — and maybe even hoped —that he was the long-awaited world dictator prophesied in the book of Daniel.”

Confident assertions notwithstanding, Sutton seems ambivalent about the future of apocalypticism. He mentions the emerging church — a new generation of believers who have adopted a postmodern approach to scripture and reject premillennial ideas — and alludes to the bland therapeutic messages of megachurch pastors who no longer “spend time exploring doomsday scenarios.” At one point, he suggests that premillennial theology has largely been exported to the developing world. Perhaps Sutton’s predictions are informed, more subtly, by the prevailing wisdom about declining religiosity in wealthy countries; polls indicate that even the United States is home to a rising number of “nones,” who, when surveyed, do not pick a conventional religion.

Progress and panic have always been two sides of the same coin, and if we dismiss the rants of televangelists, or snicker at the megaphone insanity of street preachers, it is at least in part because they embody an unflattering reflection of our own obsession with apocalypse, because their worldview is the most obvious distillation of the modern death wish. Sutton’s book demonstrates that the history of evangelicalism, cynical and fatalistic as it may be, is very much our own.” ~


W Bush believed he was an instrument chosen to hasten the Apocalypse? And that’s why Iraq? Scary. Scary to think that a small bunch of religious nuts has had this kind of impact. But then it's almost always a relatively tiny group of extremists that “opens the gates the hell,” to use Saddam’s prophetic utterance


~ “People who had a belief in an afterlife were more believing in end of the world arguments than people who did not hold these beliefs. Interestingly, when thinking about the ways that their life on Earth made them “symbolically immortal” (e.g., children, being remembered, contributing to a better world), these same people were less open to end of the world arguments.

This suggests an interesting dynamic in which people who believe in an afterlife might be pulled towards end of the world beliefs in order to live in a next, presumed better life, but yet remain pulled towards their existing life (the world not ending) when these aspects of their self also are providing them with a sense of immortality.” ~


The big problem with expecting the world to end, and relatively soon at that, is that it makes it pointless to invest in it. Why build a new house if it’s going to be consumed by fire anyway?
Working to create a better world — what a ridiculous concept when the only world that matters is the one beyond. That’s why I think the concept of heaven has been just as harmful as the concept of hell — perhaps even more so.

Alas, passive waiting is not good enough for the militant apocalypticists. They have conceived the idea that the end of the world can be hastened. War is good. Welcome Armageddon!


Fortunately the Apocalypse has been only one of features of Christianity. What has made Christianity bearable has been the image of Madonna and Child, with its inherent tenderness.

Madonna Lacta, Marcellus Coffermans (Flemish, 1520-1575)

This is the strangest Madonna I ever saw. The elastic breast looks like an add-on prosthetic.

The baby Jesus is examining it because he’s not sure what to do with it.

Everybody has blond or light brown hair.


Even more bizarre then the prosthetic breast painting is Michelangelo, a detail of Last Judgment: Angels waking the dead.

The angel’s body (top right) is that of a mature muscular man with a half-cross-eyed 12-year-old boy’s face unhappily and forcefully blowing the horn while having sex with another male angel also blowing a horn. 



I found the trumpeting angels of Michaelangelo more than ugly, their faces unpleasant, even gross, those muscles as unnaturally huge as the bulges distorting the bodies of excessively dedicated body-builders.


I had no idea that Michelangelo’s angels would provoke this reaction. Ugly, yes — but in a comic way. Trumpet players can’t help but look silly. As for the bodies, well, that’s Michelangelo. I think his homosexuality did influence his art — even his Eve has bulky muscles. And his Yahweh has buns of steel! Leonardo, on the other hand, specialized in beautiful male faces. Of course he could paint an ugly face when he wanted to, but most of his male faces are exquisite — especially his angels.


Still, no matter the natural disasters or man-created atrocities, so far the world has always found a way to go on — and it’s not unusual for people to justify natural evil (“part of the Divine Plan”) or find a way to excuse the human atrocities.


~ “Now 87, and living in a small apartment in Magadan, Olga Gureyeva is stooped, almost blind, and unable to say what happened to her without tears. Her stories are a litany of horrors: the filthy clothes, the clouds of midges [blood-sucking insects], the permanent chill in the barracks, eating grass to stave off hunger, and the perverted guards who would line the women up naked in the washroom and inspect them.

“My best friend died chopping wood in the cold one day. I remember: she was next to me, she lifted up the axe, it stayed in the air for a minute, and then she just collapsed, dead,”
she says.

Few Russians know of such stories. In Magadan, Larisa, a 40-year-old history teacher who did not want to give her surname, says she believes the Gulag was a necessary side-effect of a difficult period of Soviet history. “Was there a military threat from Germany? There was. Were there spies in the country? There were. There was no time to decide who was guilty and who wasn’t. We should remember the innocent victims but I think it was all necessary.”

With the Soviet victory in the second world war elevated to a national rallying point under Vladimir Putin’s presidency, the forced labor camps, through which millions of Soviet citizens passed, are seen by many as an unfortunate but necessary by-product. In many museums and in much public discourse, the Gulag is not ignored completely, but is “contextualized” in a way that plays down the horror and pairs it with the war, suggesting the two come as a package.

“It was a cruel system, but if you think about it, how else would you get this gold out of the land?” [Ivan Panikarov] asks, surveying the ruins of Elgen, a labor camp for women, where the barracks and barbed wire are still visible, but which bears no monument or plaque detailing its past. “If we hadn’t mined all the gold during the war years, maybe we would not have defeated the Nazis.”

Galina Ivanova, deputy director of a new Gulag museum that will opens in Moscow on Friday, says how the Gulag is remembered in different cities is largely down to individual museum directors. “You can either put up a big portrait of Stalin and note goldmining achievements, or you can put up death rates and haggard faces. Unfortunately, more often it’s the former.”

In Magadan, a large monument in the style of an Easter Island head, the Mask of Sorrow, was unveiled in the 1990s outside the city center, but elsewhere in the town, clues as to the city’s traumatic past are well hidden.

The regional governor’s office is inside the former NKVD headquarters; the regional parliament is the former prison and interrogation center. Neither is marked with any kind of plaque, while at Nagayev Bay, where hundreds of thousands of prisoners disembarked ships before being dispatched to various camps, there is a monument that reads simply: “This is where the construction of the city of Magadan began in 1929.”

One of the region’s few Gulag memorials is an obelisk of roughly hewn stone in an unmarked clearing off a side road, close to an execution site where the NKVD secret police executed hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of people in 1937 and 1938. Someone has recently adorned the monument with Victory Day flags, a touch that appears to turn them from tragic victims to heroic martyrs.

In Magadan, a region heavily subsidized by Moscow during communist rule but wrecked by the market economy, part of the reason for whitewashing the Gulag is a general nostalgia for the Soviet period. In the new reality, the population of Magadan region has dropped by more than half, and many settlements turned into ghost towns as they became economically unfeasible. Elgen, the modern settlement adjoining the Gulag ruins, housed more than 2,000 people at the end of the 1980s. Now, it is inhabited by one couple who run a meteorological station.

“There are not many people left who remember the Gulag period, but there are plenty of people who remember the 1970s, and remember that things were a lot better than they are now,” says Sergei Raizman, head of Magadan Memorial, which promotes memory of the Gulag.

The desire to forget the dark past is strong. “People find it very hard to deal with,’ says Raizman. “They don’t want to think about it. It’s normal if your grandfather fought at the front, or if your grandfather was a hero of Soviet labor. It’s not normal if they were in the camps. People get angry when you raise the Gulag theme, and in the past two years, the events in Ukraine and the increase in nationalism have only made this aggression more pronounced.”

When Gureyeva was released in the mid-1950s, she was advised never to speak about her ordeal. Even her son did not know she had been a prisoner. He found out when he was banned from traveling to East Germany during his military service because his mother had been an “enemy of the people”. It was only in the 1990s that she began to speak about her camp years, but now, again, people have little interest in revisiting the horrors of the past.

“Young people need to hear about it, you need to tell them the truth,” she says. “But people don’t want to remember now.”


It may seem strange that “filthy clothes” are mentioned first. Prisoners wore thin, dirty, lice-infested rags. They worked in them and slept in them. In winter, many simply froze to death.

The clouds of midges were not merely annoying but harmless tiny flies. Eastern Siberian midges are blood-sucking insects that attack as a cloud. Another woman quoted in the article singled out Kolyma mosquitoes, which she described as “bloated, repulsive insects that reminded one of small bats”. Sometimes it’s the petty torments that cause the worst suffering.

Also, imagine carrying this image of your head for as long as you live: “My best friend died chopping wood in the cold one day. I remember: she was next to me, she lifted up the axe, it stayed in the air for a minute, and then she just collapsed, dead.”

Trying to find excuses for the sadism of the gulag system as part of overall nostalgia for the Soviet period — no surprises here. Nationalism will forgive any atrocities, will make them appear necessary for the country's greatness. A history teacher who thinks that millions had to suffer and perish because there were indeed some German spies around (how many? a few dozen perhaps?) and “there was no time to decide who was guilty and who wasn’t” — that is just an example of nationalism always exonerating one’s own, creating a “patriotic” history with which to indoctrinate the young. Is there any country not guilty of all kinds of crimes? No — consequently, why bother with any reckoning (poor Solzhenitsyn and other “writers of witness”).

Truth is not welcome. It causes discomfort. Few can bear it. But it has an amazing way of not going away.


~ “The horrible uselessness of suffering. Love leaves behind its creation: the new generation, the survival of humanity. But suffering? This great portion of human experience, painful and most difficult to cope with, passes without a trace. If we could collect the energy of suffering of millions of people, and transform it into the energy of creation, we could transform our planet into a blossoming garden.

But [here in Kolyma] what is left?

Rusted hulls of ships, decaying guard towers, deep pits from which some kind of ore was once being extracted. A gloomy dead emptiness. There is no one here, since the tormented columns of prisoners have already passed and disappeared into the eternal cold fog.” ~

~ Ryszard Kapuściński, “Imperium,” the chapter “Kolyma: Fog and More Fog.”

A while ago the New York Times published an article, “The Value of Suffering.” The author argued in defense of the old platitudes that suffering ennobles us and makes us strong.

Those familiar with horrific suffering tend to hold the opposite view. Kapuściński, an eminent Polish journalist of the highest order — a thinker and philosopher — visited many parts of the world avoided by tourists, including what remains of Kolyma, a region in arctic northeast Siberia notorious for its gulags.

Kapuściński’s conclusion strikes me as more insightful by far. And even though many NYTimes readers expressed their disagreement with the writer and stated that suffering is almost always totally harmful, I don’t remember a single person stating the obvious: that the time and energy that goes into dealing with suffering (and with causing it) might otherwise have been available for creating something good. The woman who dropped dead while chopping wood in killing frost — perhaps she would have been an excellent teacher, or a dedicated nurse, or . . . simply an average, reasonably happy human being. It’s easier to be kind to others when you are happy.

If suffering is so good for us, perhaps we should seek to increase it? This was the view of the Catholic church, which promoted “mortification of the flesh” such as self-flagellation. Today we recognize it as pathology. As for those who deliberately create severe suffering for others, well — there is the legal system with its penalties. Nevertheless, suffering still has plenty of apologists. That’s why I tremendously appreciate Kapuściński’s words: THE HORRIBLE USELESSNESS OF SUFFERING. It is high time to acknowledge it. 

Forced labor in the Kolyma region. The prisoners shown here are building what came to be called “the road of bones.”


Like Ivan Karamazov, I find the uselessness of suffering most clearly demonstrated in the suffering of children. At the very bottom of every power structure in every human society, they are the most vulnerable victims of torment and abuse, inflicted all to often by those who should be their protectors. And then there are the children suffering the ravages of diseases more savage even than any human abuser, pain that cannot be said to be deserved, suffering that will win them nothing. Nothing. Not wisdom, not salvation, not strength, not a better life. Unnecessary, useless, inexcusable.


~ “Alexander Myasnikov was one of the doctors called to Stalin's deathbed when the dictator fell ill in 1953, and, in diaries that have been kept secret up to now, he claims that Stalin suffered from a brain illness that could have impaired his decision-making.

"The major atherosclerosis in the brain, which we found at the autopsy, should raise the question of how much this illness — which had clearly been developing over a number of years — affected Stalin's health, his character and his actions," Dr Myasnikov wrote in his diaries, excerpts of which were published for the first time in the Russian newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets. "Stalin may have lost his sense of good and bad, healthy and dangerous, permissible and impermissible, friend and enemy. Character traits can become exaggerated, so that a suspicious person becomes paranoid," the doctor wrote.

"I would suggest that the cruelty and suspicion of Stalin, his fear of enemies... was created to a large extent by atherosclerosis of the cerebral arteries. The country was being run, in effect, by a sick man.” ~


I don’t suppose we’ll ever know for sure to what extent it was “major atherosclerosis” causing brain dysfunction, and to what extent the man was evil through and through . . .  just as now we are wondering if our Supreme Leader is a cunning con-man and non-stop liar, or if he genuinely can’t remember what he said the day before due to dementia, as has been suggested by various experts who say that his cognitive function has recently dramatically deteriorated and he is out of touch with reality.

A liar or a victim of dementia, out of touch with reality due to brain disease? What a question to be raising about a head of state. And yet, of course, there was Reagan, his mental decline carefully covered up by his wife and staff. In Russia, the senility of Brezhnev after his near-fatal stroke gave rise to “moron jokes” about him — yet those around the doddering head of state found it convenient not to change the status quo.

And at the extremes: was Hitler brain-damaged by exposure to mustard gas, and, later, use of stimulants and other psychoactive drugs? Stalin: were his brutality and paranoia heightened by degenerative brain disease? It seems we never learn, never require neurological exams.


~ “During sleep, the flow of cerebrospinal fluid in the brain increases dramatically, washing away harmful waste proteins that build up between brain cells during waking hours, a study of mice found.

"It's like a dishwasher," says Dr. Michen Nidergaard, a professor of neurosurgery at the University of Rochester and an author of the study in Science.

The results appear to offer the best explanation yet of why animals and people need sleep. If this proves to be true in humans as well, it could help explain a mysterious association between sleep disorders and brain diseases, including Alzheimer's.

Nedergaard and a team of scientists discovered the cleaning process while studying the brains of sleeping mice.

The scientists noticed that during sleep, the system that circulates cerebrospinal fluid through the brain and nervous system was "pumping fluid into the brain and removing fluid from the brain in a very rapid pace," Nedergaard says.

The team discovered that this increased flow was possible in part because when mice went to sleep, their brain cells actually shrank, making it easier for fluid to circulate. When an animal woke up, the brain cells enlarged again and the flow between cells slowed to a trickle. "It's almost like opening and closing a faucet," Nedergaard says. "It's that dramatic.”

The process is important because what's getting washed away during sleep are waste proteins that are toxic to brain cells, Nedergaard says. This could explain why we don't think clearly after a sleepless night and why a prolonged lack of sleep can actually kill an animal or a person, she says.

So why doesn't the brain do this sort of housekeeping all the time? Nedergaard thinks it's because cleaning takes a lot of energy. "It's probably not possible for the brain to both clean itself and at the same time [be] aware of the surroundings and talk and move and so on," she says.

The brain-cleaning process has been observed in rats and baboons, but not yet in humans, Nedergaard says. Even so, it could offer a new way of understanding human brain diseases including Alzheimer's. That's because one of the waste products removed from the brain during sleep is beta amyloid, the substance that forms sticky plaques associated with the disease.

That's probably not a coincidence, Nedergaard says. "Isn't it interesting that Alzheimer's and all other diseases associated with dementia, they are linked to sleep disorders," she says.

"Beta amyloid concentrations continue to increase while a person is awake," Bateman says. "And then after people go to sleep that concentration of beta amyloid decreases. This report provides a beautiful mechanism by which this may be happening."

The report also offers a tantalizing hint of a new approach to Alzheimer's prevention, Bateman says. "It does raise the possibility that one might be able to actually control sleep in a way to improve the clearance of beta amyloid and help prevent amyloidosis that we think can lead to Alzheimer's disease.” ~

The link between insufficient sleep and Alzheimer’s has turned out to be stronger than anyone suspected:

~ “A good night's sleep refreshes body and mind, but a poor night's sleep can do just the opposite. A study from Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, Radboud University Medical Centre in the Netherlands, and Stanford University has shown that disrupting just one night of sleep in healthy, middle-aged adults causes an increase in amyloid beta, a brain protein associated with Alzheimer's disease. And a week of tossing and turning leads to an increase in another brain protein, tau, which has been linked to brain damage in Alzheimer's and other neurological diseases.” ~

ending on beauty:


Refusing worldly worries,
I stroll among the village strollers.

Pine winds sing, the evening village
smells of grass, autumn in the air.

A lone bird roams down the sky.
Clouds roll across the river.

You want to know my name?
A hill. A tree. An empty drifting boat.

--Hsu Hsuan (916-991), tr Sam Hamill

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