Tag Archives: History

Real American pizza in Moscow in 1988

The Soviet-American company Dialog, created in 1987, was the first Russian high-tech company to attract Western capital investment. Dialog was the mother company of the first Russian investment bank, Troika Dialog, which a recent investigation revealed as the source of a number of suspicious offshore money flows used by powerful Russians. But Dialog also founded another company: Astro Pizza, a pioneer of Western fast food in the Soviet Union, which sparked nostalgic reminiscences in the Facebook group “Yes, Moscow” shortly after the publication of the Troika investigation. Meduza tells the story of Astro Pizza, which opened in Moscow long before Pizza Hut or McDonald’s — but ultimately failed to compete with them despite its initial success.On April 12, 1988, a GMC truck pulled up to Moscow’s Sparrow Hills, then still called the Lenin Hills. It was not unusual to see trucks like this one in the city: they used to deliver Pepsi. But this one was even more outlandish than the quirky soda vans: its silver body glistened, Soviet and American flags could be seen on its sides, and slogans in both Russian and English slogans flashed red underneath them.

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Posted by on August 28, 2019 in Europe, North America, Reportages


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The Comeback of a Soviet Dictator

It’s May 9 and around 200 people have gathered in a parking lot in Novosibirsk, the third largest city in Russia. They are here to dedicate a monument, with some waving World War II flags, including the flag of a rifle division that conquered the Reichstag in Berlin in 1945. Veterans with medals covering their breasts sit in the first row.

Next to the monument, a man is waiting, a slip of paper in his jacket pocket on which he has outlined his speech. He has been waiting 20 years for this moment. A recording of Beethoven’s Fifth plays as the man steps forward and, together with the mayor, loosens the red tape to allow the white covering to fall from the monument. The crowd cheers as Stalin is revealed in the glittering sunlight.

Joseph Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili, who later gave himself the name Stalin, or “Man of Steel,” was the son of a shoemaker and attended church school. And, until his death in March 1953, he was the dictator of the Soviet Union — and one of the biggest criminals of the 20th century.

The man who unveiled the monument to Stalin on this May afternoon in the parking lot of the Communist Party’s regional headquarters is named Alexei Denisyuk. The 41-year-old is a lawyer and the editor-in-chief of a newspaper called Hammer and Sickle — and he is convinced that he will live to see the return of the Soviet Union.

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Posted by on August 9, 2019 in Europe, Reportages


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The scorched corpses of Nagasaki should be a grim restraint to the chest beating in India, America and Iran

We like our anniversaries in blocks of 50 or 100 – at a push we’ll tolerate a 25. The 100th anniversary of the Somme (2016), the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain (2015). Next year, we’ll remember the end of the Second World War, the first – and so far the only – nuclear war in history.

This week marks only the 74th anniversary of the US atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It doesn’t fit in to our journalistic scorecards and “timelines”. Over the past few days, I’ve had to look hard to find a headline about the two Japanese cities.

But, especially in the Middle East and what we like to call southeast Asia, we should be remembering these gruesome anniversaries every month. Hiroshima was atomic-bombed 74 years ago on Tuesday, Nagasaki 74 years ago on Friday. Given the extent of the casualty figures, you’d think they’d be unforgettable. But we don’t quite know (nor ever will) what they were.


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The Weaponization of National Belonging, from Nazi Germany to Trump

This past week I found myself in Stuttgart, an industrial city in southwest Germany. As I usually do in a European city I haven’t visited before, I went to the local history museum to see how the story of the Second World War is presented. Stuttgart’s museum opened just last year, and its handling of the Nazi era is more circumspect than that of older German memorials. The period from 1933 to 1945 comprises a small set of displays, perhaps ten per cent of the entire exhibition. The tone is neutral.

“After 1933, National Socialism pursued Hitler’s anti-Semitic, racist, and imperialistic ends in Shtuttgart, too,” a caption explains in English. “Despite their Social Democratic past, many citizens endorsed and profited from the new policies.” Only a third of Stuttgart’s residents voted for the Nationalist Socialists, but this was enough to make the party dominant in the city. “In 1933 began the marginalization, persecution, and murder of Jews, political opponents (social democrats and communists), and other groups,” another caption states, using an impersonal construction that makes marginalization, persecution, and murder sound like forces of nature rather than acts of man. Members of Hitler’s party defaced the entrances to Jewish shops and then rallied in the town square.

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Posted by on August 7, 2019 in North America


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Our sentimental commemorations have conveniently ignored our reliance on the Middle East

Roosevelt, Churchill and the representatives of Russia and China signed the United Nations Declaration on New Year’s Day 1942, two and a half years before D-Day. After that, those words “United Nations” became the formal name under which the allies were fighting Nazi Germany, fascist Italy and Japan.

The declaration, which would cover the aims of the 6 June 1944 landings, declared that victory was “essential to defend life, liberty, independence and religious freedom, and to preserve human rights and justice”. It also supposedly – and very significantly – upheld the Wilsonian “principles of self-determination”.

I’m old enough to have met the soldiers of the First World War – at Ypres in the late Fifties with my 1918 veteran dad, when the men of Passchendaele returned to their former battlefields on holiday. And later I met, on my own Normandy holidays, the men of D-Day.

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Posted by on June 10, 2019 in Middle East


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Just because the map says so, doesn’t mean it’s true

I can remember three particular moments of realising there was a distinct thing called ‘Eastern Europe’ which was different from ‘Western Europe’, and both of them date me as being just about old enough to remember the Soviet Union. One is at Christmas 1989, in my grandmother’s flat on the Isle of Wight, an appropriately plush location to watch, on BBC News, the uprising in Romania and the subsequent televised execution of Nicolae and Elena Ceauşescu, and learn several new words, like ‘dictator’ and ‘firing squad’. Also often said was the word ‘Communism’, but my Trotskyist parents referred to themselves as ‘socialists’ rather than communists, so that wasn’t concerning. What was, was looking in the Children’s Atlas that my mother bought for me in the late 1980s and finding the existence of a very, very large country called the ‘Union of Soviet Socialist Republics’. Being that sort of obnoxiously inquisitive child, I asked her ‘but we’re socialists, aren’t we? Isn’t this our country?’ ‘They’re not socialists. It’s very complicated’, she replied and refused to explain further. The next memory comes a few years later and concerns a Lufthansa map that my dad had brought back from work, where that space had suddenly been filled with over a dozen new countries, all with incredibly evocative names. Belarus! Azerbaijan! Kyrgyzstan!

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Posted by on April 2, 2019 in Uncategorized


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What should be done in the Middle East? Ask the Romans

On a rare visit to London not long ago, I followed a short path I used to walk as a schoolboy: from the ruins of the old Roman wall near Tower Hill Tube station to the Merchant Navy memorial. The remains of Londinium contain the fine red “sandwich” bricks which reinforced so many Roman houses, temples and fortifications across the empire.

I studied classics for my first degree and roamed Hadrian’s Wall and the ancient villas of England long before I copied down the Latin inscriptions on the Via Appia outside Rome.

On my very first visit to the memorial, I noticed that the commemorative plaques to the 35,800 merchant seamen of Britain’s two world wars, whose bodies were lost to the sea, contained Arab Muslim names. Many came from Yemen (Arabia Felix to the Romans) – and lived in South Shields – and most worked on the great Atlantic convoys.

And it still comes as a shock to think that the last desperate words uttered by some of those trapped in the engine rooms after the first U-boat torpedoes struck their ships were uttered in Arabic and must have been directed to Allah.

When I returned to Beirut a few days later, I took coffee with friends, quite by chance, beside the ruins of the old Roman city; and I noticed, of course, those familiar red sandwich stones behind the columns of the Via Maximus of ancient Berytus. The building blocks of empire, like the straight stone-slabbed roads, stretched across thousands of miles.

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Posted by on March 13, 2019 in Middle East


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Is Ancient DNA Research Revealing New Truths — or Falling Into Old Traps?

A faint aura of destiny seems to hover over Teouma Bay. It’s not so much the landscape, with its ravishing if boilerplate tropical splendor — banana and mango trees, coconut and pandanus palms, bougainvillea, the apprehensive trill of the gray-eared honeyeater — as it is the shape of the harbor itself, which betrays, in the midst of such organic profusion, an aspect of the unnatural. The bay, on the island of Efate in the South Pacific nation Vanuatu, is long, symmetrical and briskly rectangular. In the expected place of wavelets is a blue so calm and unbroken that the sea doesn’t so much crash on the land as neatly abut it. From above, it looks as though a safe harbor had been engraved in the shoreline by some celestial engineer.

In late 2003, while clearing land just above the seaside, a bulldozer driver found a broken piece of pottery in the rubble. The villagers of Vanuatu often happen upon shards of timeworn ceramic, which spark an idly mythical curiosity; they’re said to be fragments of Noah’s Ark, or the original Ten Commandments, or the burst water vessels of powerful ancestral spirits. These shards are often left alone, but word in this particular case traveled quickly, and the artifact soon found its way to the Vanuatu Cultural Center and National Museum, where Stuart Bedford, a New Zealand archaeologist who had studied local pot shards for years, was called in to inspect it. He immediately recognized its distinctive pattern — “dentate stamping,” an ancient technique so named because it looked as though some tiny-toothed creature had bitten an intricate pattern into the ceramic — and understood that this pottery coincided with the very first movement of ancient peoples into the South Seas.

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Posted by on February 21, 2019 in Reportages


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Here, in the bloodlands of Belarus, I found hope for the future of Europe

In December I travelled to Minsk for a seminar with a group of European historians. A few miles outside the capital of Belarus, we visited places where both the Nazis and Stalin’s secret police had committed some of the worst crimes of the 20th century. During those few days, I also spoke with some young locals who offered glimmers of hope as to what a truly united Europe could one day look like.

It was the most instructive trip I’ve made in years: a deep dive into conflicting European memories, highlighting the difficulty of overcoming stereotypes and ideological narratives, as well as the legacy of the cold war in people’s minds.

It may sound odd, but for anyone trying to keep abreast of what Europe means, the best view could arguably be found right there, in those flatlands of marshes, pine trees and spruce, dotted with towns and villages on which the past weighs heavily.

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Posted by on January 4, 2019 in Europe, European Union


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The Ottomans were once humiliated by Yemeni rebels – today, the Houthis have done the same to Saudi Arabia

I rarely have reason to thank Turkish ambassadors. They tend to hold a different view of the 1915 Armenian holocaust, in which a million and a half Armenian Christians were deliberately murdered in a planned genocide by the Ottoman Turkish regime. “Hardship and suffering”, they agree, was the Armenians’ lot. But genocide? Never.

Well, that’s not the view of genocide scholars – including Israeli historians – nor of that bravest of Turkish academics, Taner Akcam, who has prowled thorough the Ottoman archives to find the proof. The Armenians did suffer, alas, a genocide.

Certainly my gratitude to His Excellency Umit Yalcin, Turkish ambassador to the Court of St James, is not for his letter to me, in which he describes the Armenian genocide as a “one-sided narrative”. But he did enclose a small book, published five years ago by Edward Erickson, whose contents obfuscate the details of the mass slaughter of the Armenians, even daring to suggest that the Ottoman “strategy of population relocation” should be seen in the contemporary setting of Britain’s policy of “relocating” civilians in the Boer War (in “concentration camps”) in South Africa, and by the Americans in the Philippines.

Interesting. But we didn’t mass rape the Boer women, burn their children and drown Boer men in rivers.

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Posted by on December 20, 2018 in Middle East


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