May. 8th, 2006

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In his preface to the 1971 New Canadian Library edition of Québécoise writer Marie-Claire Blaise's debut novel, Mad Shadows (French La belle bête), Naim Kattan starts his discussion by noting that, when first published in 1959, the fact that it was a taboo-breaking novel written by a young woman led people to class her as one with Françoise Sagan. Kattan is right to point out that Mad Shadows has to be seen in the context of a Québécois society that, before the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s, was dominated by anofficial insistence upon the superiority of the traditional and the rural elements of Québécois culture that stifled in the emergence of a modern Québec. Mad Shadows takes the tentative deconstructin applied to this myth in, among other novels, Ringuet's Trente arpents, and follows it to its logical conclusion. Set in a prosperous farm in rural Québec, the small nameless family--the vain and fundamentally helpless mother Louise, her beautiful mindless Patrice, and her neglected, embittered and ugly daughter Isabelle-Marie--stumbles through one catastrophe after another, failing to resolve their mutual hatreds or to forge meaningful and durable relations with others. The continuity--of family, of bloodlines, of the land--that official culture praise is entirely absent in Mad Shadows, which takes all of its characters to nasty ends.

Is Mad Shadows a bit obviously propagandistic? Perhaps. The characters seem not to fully emerge as autonomous characters, being instead simple archetypes. That said, Mad Shadows still works rather nicely as the first novel of one of Québec's leading writers. Sometimes passion takes a relatively weak story far. Sometimes it should.
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Not too long ago, Will Baird observed that the Russian Federation is unwilling to recognize the Holodomor, the Stalinist famines of collectivization that killed perhaps ten million Ukrainians in the decade before the Second World War, as a genocide or even as an anti-Ukrainian action.

Ukraine asked the conference to prepare a proposal for the upcoming CIS summit to express its attitude to the 1930-33 famine and genocide in Ukraine (the Holodomor). However, the Russian side orchestrated a procedural move that eliminated the proposal from the agenda. Belarus, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan voted with Russia against the proposal. Armenia, Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan abstained. Moldova, Georgia, and Azerbaijan voted with Ukraine.

According to Lavrov at the concluding briefing, discussion of the Holodomor would have "politicized" a historical issue. Lavrov argued -- as Russian Ambassador Viktor Chernomyrdin also did in Kyiv -- that Russians and other Soviet citizens suffered equally in Soviet times and it would therefore be inappropriate to single out any people in this regard.

This argument is heard regularly from Moscow about the Baltic states as well: "It was a common pain in the Soviet Union." Such an argument constitutes the ultimate expression of a social culture of collectivism. It also overlooks, first, the fact that Moscow organized the famine and deportations in Ukraine, the Baltic states and elsewhere; and, second, that the Kremlin today is actively discouraging the attempts to come to terms with Soviet Russia's own totalitarian recent history. While refusing to assess the actions of the Soviet regime, Russia at the same time claims prerogatives as the legal successor of the USSR.

As INED noted last May in its report "France-Ukraine: Demographic Twins Separated by History" (PDF format), the Holodomor was the first of two massive demographic shocks that devastated the Ukrainian population. Once, there were as many Ukrainians in Ukraine as there were French in French, and the ratio of Ukrainians to French was improving in the Ukrainians' favour. Stalin's intentional incompetence--whether in state economic planning or in foreign policy--changed this, alas.

Why is the Russian Federation reluctant to recognize the Holodomor? Consider that Ukraine, as it now exists, is relatively strongly Russified, with half of the population speaking Russian and with a national identity still closely linked to that of the Russians. Ukraine is a more unified nation than some give it credit, to be sure, but even so. Imagine that, for whatever reason, the Holodomor didn't happen, that Ukraine was an independent state in the 1930s that was gobbled up by Stalin's Soviet Union under the terms of a somewhat different Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, say, or that the collectivization wasn't quite so horrifically bungled. This would have left another ten million Ukrainians alive. While it's quite possible that this healthier Ukraine would have changed things somewhat, let's say that this somewhat happier Ukraine evolved roughly. Most of the Holodomor dead were ethnically Ukrainian and Ukrainian-speaking; presumably, when they urbanized they would do so in Ukraine, boosting the fragile Ukrainian and Ukrainian-speaking majorities in the Russified cities of central and eastern Ukraine. Assuming further that this somewhat strong and more Ukrainian-identifying Ukraine didn't throw Soviet history out of all proportion, then we would have had a Ukraine with a much stronger non-Russian identity than the one that we see. In our history, the Baltic States' nationalism broke up the Soviet Union; in this pleasanter conjectural history, it might well have been the Ukrainians. Instead of a relatively poor and Russified Ukraine of 48 million still oscillating on the margins of the Russian sphere, in other words, we might well have had a mostly Ukrainian-speaking Ukraine of 58 million with a considerably stronger and more popular brand of Ukrainian nationalism.

Genocide denial is convenient, you see. If you deny that anything improper happened to the dissident minority in question, you see, you get to claim that the empire wasn't nearly as bad as some claim. If yours is a fragile nation-state that still wants to lay claim to the problematic legacy of empire, the benefits of denial are wonderfully obvious.
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The unfortunate acquittal of South African politician Jacob Zuma today on charges of rape has highlighted some rather unfortunate attitudes towards women, noted earlier today in The Globe and Mail by Stephanie Nolen.

Mr. Zuma himself testified that earlier in the day [of the rape], the complainant had met with him wearing a knee-length skirt, and crossed her legs so that he could see part of her leg above the knee. Both father and daughter testified that these were obvious signs, in their culture, that she sought to have sex with him.

Mr. Zuma also testified that when he was in bed talking to the alleged victim, he could tell that she was aroused, and therefore he was obliged to have sex with her, notwithstanding their age difference, her HIV status or his wives (he is reported to have three). "In Zulu culture," he said, "you don't just leave a woman . . . she will have you arrested and say you are a rapist."

[. . . T]he bulk of working-class people responding to opinion polls or call-in radio shows, particularly those who are also ethnic Zulus, agreed with his interpretation of culture and said a young woman who wore a knee-length skirt to his house has no business alleging rape.

Operating on the basis of this unlovely logic, I suppose that I myself could grab a guy off the street and rape him, pointing out later that the stupid whore was obviously asking for it since he was (say) wearing knee-high shorts and didn't fight back. "What else could I honourably do?"

I wouldn't do this, of course, not least because I like my partners to be fully consenting. Tears and the infliction of violence don't turn me on. For those people who are interested in this for whatever reason--say, for the people who, as [ profile] mawombat noted believe that women who don't wear the headscarf are inviting rape, are perhaps even fair game--the appeal of Zuma's logic is obvious.

Isn't it funny how well profound contempt for other people can work out so conveniently for oneself?
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