In the wake of the murder of George Floyd, there have been calls for black history to be taught in our schools. I’m broadly in favour of this, but I’m unconvinced that it’s the most important step in the fight against racism: it’s all too easy for the racists to brush it off as “someone else’s story”.
To confront racism head on, I believe that the most important step is to teach the history of empire and colonialism the way it was, which includes not only white-on-black violence but also white-on-yellow, white-on-brown and white-on-white. Only in that way can we persuade children to repudiate the racist behaviour of our forebears at a time where they held supreme power over swathes of the globe.
Most Chinese remember the British Empire not for any of its beneficent qualities but for Opium Wars, in which we burnt down their capital to support our drug runners in the havoc they wrought on Chinese society. Many Indians remember us not for their railways but for the Salt Tax and the Amritsar Massacre; Ireland remembers us for the Potato Famine. And that’s without mentioning our genocides of the Aborigines or Maoris or our invention of the concentration camp during the Boer Wars.
Inasmuch as British imperialism is taught in schools, it tends to be in the context of “we may have done a few bad things, but we glorified our nation and brought good to the world”. This way of representing the past must no longer be permitted: from an early age, potential racists must be made to understand the consequences of the evil wrought in the days where racism was normality pure and simple. Racist instincts may be built into all of us in some shape or form, but the mark of a truly civilised society is the ability to overcome those instincts. And that starts with being taught that they are evil and have always been so. Humanity should trump glory every time.
By the way, it’s not like we British are uniquely dreadful in this. The Americans with their native population, the French in Algeria, the Belgians in Congo, the Spanish in South America, the Japanese in Korea – I find it hard to think of a rich nation that’s untainted and that has ceased to glorify these episodes in their murky past. Of course, it’s more comfortable to focus on the good things in our past and erase our misdeeds. But that’s not the way to fight the cancer of racism today.
Last month, I made my first visit to Russia, and on a first look, Ekaterinburg could be any European city. There are shops, cafés, banks, office blocks, advertising hoardings, people going about their business, dressed in sensible warm clothing against the chilly autumn weather. The most immediately obvious difference from what I’m used to is the prosaic fact that everything is in cyrillic script.
There are differences in culture and architecture, of course: the glitter of golden onion domes from many of the churches, the Wedgwood-china plasterwork of the Sevastyanov House. And there is a lot of land: Sverdlovsk province has a population of 4.3m the size of (half the population of London) in a land mass of 194,800 km² (nearly as large as the whole of Great Britain). The result is a preponderance of wide boulevards and generous green spaces – albeit not at their best in grey-skied drizzle of early autumn, before the trees have turned properly to gold. Ekaterinburg is a steel town, and those wide boulevards are well used by a lot of cars, with seemingly less congestion than that number would cause in an older, narrow-streeted European city.
There are, however, visible signs that all is not well with the economy. I saw two building sites, one of them huge, where work simply seemed to have stopped altogether, presumably from lack of funds, their giant cranes simply sitting there. The city’s trams look like they haven’t been replaced in many decades, and the cars are notably older than I’m used to. There’s virtually no sign of Russian-made vehicles. There are some fine looking shops, but nothing approaching the retail density that I’d expect in the centre of a Western European city (to be fair, this might be because the retail has all migrated to shopping malls that I didn’t see).
One institution was definitely thriving, which was the Ekaterinburg State Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre, my hosts (who paid for my trip). They seemed to be at the centre of things in a way that’s unthinkable for an opera company back home: Thaddeus Strassberger, the American director of the opera I saw, was bowled over by the fact that the lead up to the production received significant news coverage and that random strangers in the shops knew who he was. Wages are low for singers – a third, I was told, of their equivalents in Moscow, I was told – so the theatre has a large roster of singers under contract. The evidence of my ears says that the quality is consistently very high; the equivalent singers in Western Europe would undoubtedly be travelling from their homes to get the best work; job mobility is presumably lower here.
Russia isn’t really making a big effort to welcome international tourists. The visa process works well enough, but is demanding and inflexible – for example, as a company director, I was required to submit three months worth of personal bank statements and a list of all countries travelled to in the last ten years, and to specify precise travel dates and address in Russia. Immigration officials don’t speak anything other than Russian (or don’t admit to it, anyway) and airport signage is erratic. Ekaterinburg doesn’t feel as if many foreigners go there. Even figuring out its latinised name is confusing: the cyrillic Е is pronounced “ye”, so it’s fairly random as to whether it gets spelt “Ekaterinburg” or “Yekaterinburg” (the cyrillic letter for an “e” sound as in “Edward” is “Э”). There are, however, plenty of visitors from elsewhere in Russia, with two notable historical sites.
Sverdlovsk province is the birthplace of Boris Yeltsin, and Ekaterinburg contains the Yeltsin Presidential Center, modelled on the concept of Presidential Centers in the US. Behind the massive statue of Yeltsin and the very up-to-the-minute (and somewhat overpowering) multimedia displays lurk some fascinating artefacts: for any child of the cold war who lived a teenage-hood in fear of a nuclear holocaust, it’s quite a jolt to see the suitcase with the nuclear trigger that was handed from Yeltsin to Putin on 31st December 1999. Yeltsin’s handwritten letter of resignation to Gorbachev is also on display – or, at least, Yeltsin’s personal copy.
The Ipatiev House in Ekaterinburg was the site of the murder of the last Tsar, Nicholas II, and his family. The house was destroyed in 1977 (on Yeltsin’s orders), but after the Romanovs’ controversial canonisation in 2000, it was decided to build a church on the site: this is now the “Church on Blood in Honour of All Saints Resplendent in the Russian Land” (or, more commonly, the “Church on the Blood”). It’s a bizarre place to Western eyes: we are well used to seeing the Romanovs in standard fin-de-siècle garb, so seeing them transplanted into ancient Orthodox iconography, with its robes and massive gold backgrounds, strikes a strange note.
Both the Yeltsin Center and the Church on the Blood are more notable for the things they don’t say than for the things they do. The Yeltsin Center is conspicuously free of vodka bottles or references to his handling of privatisation and the subsequent rise of the oligarchs: the hagiography of the man as the proud standard bearer of the long march to freedom must not be disturbed. The Church on the Blood is equally free of references to the fact that Nicholas was a weak tsar who repeatedly failed to take action that could have reformed his country and avoided the revolution and the subsequent Soviet rule. Neither site shows any intention to give a nuanced view of complex events, and talking to Russians confirms that such a view is not what they are taught in school (not, I hasten to add, that we in Britain can hold ourselves up as models of this).
But while it may not be an obvious place to visit, the city looks very liveable. The picture of a lone kayaker on the river Iset will stay with me as an image of a calm in a bustling, industrial city.
As one would hope, visiting the Peace Museum in Hiroshima is a deeply moving experience. The horrors of the atomic bomb are told with an icy clarity. The sheer magnitude of a single blast is shown by a scale model of the flattened city and the fireball that caused the damage. Real portions of damaged building attest to the unnatural power of the weapon. Most tellingly of all, the human stories are told by charred fragments of clothing accompanied by the stories of the people who wore them. A child’s much beloved tricycle, buried with the child by his grieving father, tells the tragedy as strongly as the recording of a mother who describes walking every day, for years, down the usual road to work of her daughter, whose body was never found. Messages of peace and goodwill from a plethora of world leaders provide a thimbleful of soothing balm, while just down the road, the Children’s Peace Monument tells the story of the girl who hoped that if she could make a thousand origami cranes, she might survive her A-bomb related leukaemia. She did not.
Once I’ve choked back the tears and got rid of the lump in my throat, I’m more disturbed by what’s missing from the Peace Museum than by what’s in it. The problem is this: at the end of my visit, my emotions have been stirred and I’ve dutifully signed the petition to call upon the world’s leaders to discuss nuclear weapons reductions, but I haven’t actually learned much that matters – merely a bunch of details about an event of whose horrific nature I was already utterly aware.
What I wanted to learn was some insight into how the A bomb dropping came about, from the Japanese point of view: what is their view of the causes of World War II and what made things escalate to the point where the US even considered such desperate measures. And perhaps even from the American point of view: I’d have loved to see the briefing papers given to Truman on the day the decision to drop the bomb was made, or to Roosevelt when authorising the Manhattan Project.
Rather, in this museum, the start of the war was glossed over by a single sentence in a single panel, saying that “tensions arose” after the Manchurian Incident in 1931. Later events – until the bomb itself and its aftermath – get little or no attention.
I can’t help but compare this with Berlin’s Museum of German History, which devotes considerably more space to the question of how Hitler could have risen to power in the first place as it does to, say, the plight of the Germans ethnically cleansed from Pomerania after the war. I came out of the Berlin museum with a clear feeling that the Germans have taken a good, hard look in the mirror and understood the place of Hitler and World War II in their history. I did not get the equivalent impression in Hiroshima.
Saying that “this must never happen again” is, of course, the best possible starting point. But it’s not enough. The burning question is the one of how these wars happen and how the chance of them can be mitigated.
The museum is being renovated, with the new facilities due to open in 2018. Among what is promised is an exhibition floor devoted to the dangers of nuclear weapons, which may well address some of these concerns. I hope it does so. As I gaze at a clear blue sky – just like the one on 6th August 1945 from which such horrors emerged – I can hardly contain my gratitude for having been born into what is now seventy years of peace for my country. Hiroshima should be an ideal site for focusing minds on maintaining peace as best we can.