The Art of the Italian Peplum

In the forward to his revised edition of The Greek Myths, written in Deya, Majorca, in 1960, Robert Graves sketched a theory:

 I have had second thoughts about the drunken god Dionysus, about the Centaurs with their contradictory reputation for wisdom and misdemeanor, and about the nature of divine ambrosia and nectar. These subjects are closely related, because the Centaurs worshiped Dionysus, whose wild autumnal feast was called ‘the Ambrosia’. I no longer believe that when his Maenads ran raging around the countryside, tearing animals or children in pieces and boasted afterwards of travelling to India and back, they had intoxicated themselves solely on wine or ivy-ale. The evidence […] suggests that Satyrs, Centaurs, and their Maenad womenfolk, used these brews to wash down mouthfuls of a far stronger drug: namely a raw mushroom, amanita muscaria, which induces hallucinations, senseless rioting, prophetic sight, erotic energy, and remarkable muscular strength. (1)

Graves experimented with magic mushrooms throughout the 1950s, stimulating ideas about the hallucinogenic origins of Greek mythology, which he later presented in an essay titled ‘Centaur’s Food’ (2). The theories elaborated by Graves were dismissed as spurious by classical scholars, and yet they did represent an imaginative attempt to account for — and capture — the primeval strangeness and tribal traces of the original stories. Hallucinations, senseless rioting, prophetic sight, erotic energy, remarkable muscular strength: such behavioral extremes had been, to a very large degree, purged from modern representations of the ancient world, so when Hollywood got hold of the Classics they had a fairly safe set of tales to ransack. It took the Italians — literally picking up leftover American sets and costumes at Cinecitta studios — to put some of this strangeness and savagery back into the stories. 

I suppose that Graves would have disdained the Italian pepla had he ever watched one, an event that seems unlikely in his Majorca retreat. Even among Italian film enthusiasts they tend to be considered camp crap: Sixties kitsch dumped on YouTube channels for the nostalgic or those looking for a laugh. Yet, when Tim Lucas described Mario Bava’s Hercules in the Haunted World (Ercole al centro della terra, 1961) as the first psychedelic movie he wasn’t being lazy or flippant at all. Bava’s peplum followed his 1960 Gothic chiller Black Sunday, in which he defined his visual style in pure form for the first time, balancing and manipulating light and shade to evoke and elicit extreme states of fear and eroticism. In Hercules in the Haunted World he did the same thing, but in deep, bold Technicolor. Presented as a mythical yarn, Bava’s Hercules was a visionary spectacle: a fever-dream in which action was secondary to visual concepts and the exploration of hypnotic states, spells and hallucinations. By this point the lines between his pepla and horror films had blurred, so that Christopher Lee could play villainous King Lico as if he was Count Dracula. The closing World of the Dead sequence effectively laid the groundwork for the visual assaults of the early 80s Italian zombie cycle: Bava’s Living Dead rising from their crumbling crypts foreshadowed Lucio Fulci’s own underground uprising at the end of City of the Living Dead. (This kind of slippage also happened in his science fiction nightmare, Planet of the Vampires.) Bava’s film showed that the Italians, at this time, had the ability and licence to do things that Hollywood could barely imagine, let alone execute. 

In his overview of the cycle Jon Solomon usefully summarised the basic template of the Italian peplum: “at its nucleus was always the heroic male bodybuilder protagonist performing feats of strength while righting wrongs, originally and predominantly within the mythological and historical parameters of the Greco-Roman world” (3). This provides a neat starting point that is basically accurate for most pepla churned out between 1958-65, but also shows how far the Italians took the formula, not just in terms of geography and history, but thematically and aesthetically. Solomon details plot excursions to Ancient Egypt, Carthage, Atlantis and Mongol Central Asia, but there was no fidelity to period detail, literary integrity or historical accuracy in these films: each setting simply provided a stage for the most extreme spectacle possible. As Solomon notes, for many producers and directors the innate exoticism of the genre provided an opportunity to accentuate “villainy in the tyrants and sensuality in the femmes fatales” (4): in other words, to maximise the sex and the violence. Italian directors were encouraged to mine story and history books for salacious material which was then spliced together and given lavish visual attention by local film crews, triggering an explosion of energy and creativity that fueled Italian genre cycles until the late 1970s. In his foundational Hercules (Le fatiche di Ercole, 1958) and its sequel Hercules Unchained (Ercole e la regina di Lidia, 1959) director Pietro Francisci promiscuously adapted elements from Apollonius of Rhodes, Sophocles, Aeschylus and the legends of Hercules and Omphale to present an anarchic remix of mythology and history even more frantic and audacious than opera: stories and characters conflated, condensed and recombined in pursuit of rapid, non-stop sensation. The effect was surprising, often thrilling, sometimes hilarious. There was liberty in this lurid mess. 

As the cycle developed, the need to generate novelty produced a kind of aesthetic delirium: constant escalations spawned increasingly strange hybrids. Riccardo Freda’s The Witch’s Curse (Maciste all’inferno, 1962) is an example of the apparently accidental Surrealism that could result. Freda’s film opens as an atmospheric period chiller about witch trials in 16th Century Scotland, but is quickly disrupted by the entrance of Maciste from another time and realm altogether, bursting into the dark and frigid landscape of Protestant Loch Laird on horseback and wearing only a loincloth. There is no explanation for this temporal irruption, certainly no logic, but it sets up the sudden descent into a feverish subterranean landscape drawn from Hieronymus Bosch, a vision of hell crowded with bestial subhumans and writhing demons, rivers of fire and fluorescent spumes of flame. The overall effect is Gothic, discordant, searing, unhinged; a dizzy rush of wild pyrotechnics and vivid streams of colour creating similar effects to the horror films that Freda was directing alongside Mario Bava at exactly the same time. This is something altogether different from a hammy Hercules tale, and it is as hallucinatory and unsettling as the Greek myths presented in Graves’ own translation.

This was a fast and experimental creative environment with no scruples and no respect for the auteur theory of film or conventional notions of good taste. In this atmosphere, limits could be exceeded quickly, for sometimes large profits. The films, after all, were cheap, and the talented crews fully up to the task of producing ingenious and dazzling spectacle from practically nothing. Everything was thrown into the mix, and genres blurred: at times, even now, it can be hard to know what you are watching: a mythological epic, a science fiction fantasy, or a Gothic nightmare. The process was chaotic, even random. The resulting products were impure, contaminated; sometimes a magical spell, a lavish confection, at other times barely holding together at all. As Howard Hughes put it in his compendium Cinema Italiano, “the central theme of pepla is man’s freedom” (5), but the means of expression were unhinged. Mario Bava, in particular, excelled at pushing the limits of physical spectacle and moral license with limited resources. In Hercules in the Haunted World and the Viking saga Erik the Conqueror (Gil invasori, 1961) he decorated his tales with lavish, over-saturated images of sadism and sexuality, creating minor period epics that fitted into the visual and thematic world he was conjuring up in Baroque horrors like Black Sabbath and The Whip and the Body

This impurity was perhaps the defining feature of Italian products. It could be glimpsed in the haunting vision of Queen Lydia’s crypt in which former lovers become petrified statues in Hercules Unchained or the gruesome fate of the sacrificial victims to Proteus in Vittorio Cottafavi’s Hercules Conquers Atlantis (Ercole alla conquista di Atlantide, 1961), visually rich and uncanny set pieces that defy categorization. In Sergio Corbucci’s Goliath and the Vampires (Maciste contra il vampiro, 1961) the Oriental Kingdom of Salmanac is terrorised by a shape-shifting, blood-sucking apparition that materialises in wrathes of red mist, floating in mid air, fangs and talons poised to feast on the blood of virgins. Kobrak (‘the vampire’) is capable of changing his form at will: during the film’s climax he morphs into Goliath himself so that at the final moment, courtesy of some crafty special effects, Goliath appears to grapple with Goliath. The film is suffused with an atmosphere of spooky sadism and exotic sensuality, decorated with a bone-strewn desert, a depraved Oriental court and a frozen underground lair that conceals an army of blue humanoids. Goliath and the Vampires is a period adventure that exceeds every other production of the time by gleefully raiding adjacent genres (horror, science fiction). Corbucci, like Bava, had the talent and temperament as a director to take these things to their logical conclusion: his Roman epic Son of Spartacus (Il figlio di Spartacus, 1962) and Spaghetti Westerns Django and The Great Silence stand out for their handsome scale and pitiless brutality. Goliath and the Vampires made the peplum frightening and cosmic, within its own frivolous boundaries: in the process it shredded conventions and invented something stupid, new and unrepeatable. 

This wildness, this lack of decorum and taste, a refusal to acknowledge any aesthetic boundaries and push at both moral and legal limits, became a basic driving force of Italian genre cinema, taken to extreme horizons by directors like Lucio Fulci and Ruggero Deodato. It pushed the peplum cycle through to its bitter end and ushered in the amorality, violence and eroticism of the Spaghetti Westerns, horror movies and gialli of the later 1960s. The brutality of the pepla set a precedent for the aesthetics of Italian film by depicting violence with more felicity and imagination than the American models. Movies like Goliath and the Vampires or Carlo Compagalliano’s ruthless romp Goliath and the Barbarians (Il terrore dei barbari, 1959) and his voluptuous, savage Son of Samson (Maciste nella valle dei re, 1960) opened with whole villages and towns being massacred in surprising, gory detail: the innocent burnt or  buried alive, stabbed or impaled, with no mercy for women or children. In later pepla like Son of Spartacus or Ferdinando Baldi’s Son of Cleopatra (Il figlio di Cleopatra, 1964) the brutal, parched landscape, visual motifs and pessimism of the Spaghetti Western had started to be sketched out: pitiless bursts of violence perpetrated by desperate, amoral men on horseback in barren desert wastelands. 

The violence was balanced by an extravagant sensuality that was often, and deliberately, decadent and provocative, a central trait of Italian cinema. There is a retrospective tendency to focus on the supposedly homoerotic presentation of the lead actors in the pepla: bodybuilders like Steve Reeves and Reg Parks romping around in skimpy loincloths, flexing oily torsos and wrestling wild beasts. But this is misleading, ahistorical and misses a key point: the pepla often revolve around the motivations, machinations and sexual allure of their women. The female characters were not just sex objects in these films: their erotic charisma often suffused the entire narrative and propelled it. If the central protagonist was invariably the muscular and moral hero, a Hercules or a Maciste, then his real nemesis was more often than not a dynamic and seductive queen or courtesan. Occasionally controlled by a larger, more malevolent force (Kobrak in Goliath and the Vampires; a race of rock-headed, be-caped aliens in Giacomo Gentilomo’s legitimately camp and demented Hercules Against the Moon Men), they almost always stole the show from everybody else. 

Hercules Unchained, for example, belonged to Sylvia Lopez, the tragic starlet who died of leukemia one year after the film was released. Her Queen Omphale is an outstandingly lurid and febrile creation: decked in gossamer suits and diaphanous gowns with eyes like steel daggers and lips like lava, she is eventually driven mad by desire and immolates herself in her own cave of horrors like a Technicolor Barbara Steele. In Son of Samson and Goliath and the Barbarians, Chelo Alonso (“the Cuban H-Bomb”) provided a lethal sexual charge by deploying seductive dance routines learnt at the Folies Bergere in Paris (6), vamping and murdering her way through the Mongols of Central Asia and the dangerous schemers of Pharaonic Egypt in luxurious and only vaguely period-appropriate couture mini dresses. As Queen of the Amazons in Hercules, a wily courtesan in Goliath and the Vampires or a corrupt and lusty aristocrat in Son of Spartacus, Gianna Maria Canale exuded a graceful and intelligent menace that finely balanced the outré sexuality of Alonso and Lopez. Lydia Alfonsi excelled at the role of Prophetess often key to the mythological mini-epics, adding mystery and dignity to such roles as the Sybil in Hercules and Cassandra in Giorgio Ferroni’s The Trojan Horse (La guerra di troia, 1961). In their original context these films pushed the boundaries of female agency and sexual aesthetics to produce some of the most memorable yet forgotten lead performances by any Italian actresses.  

The peplum provided a perfect vehicle for the visual sensibility of the Italians, and an important opportunity to develop their talent and expertise in special effects, set and costume design. If there is one thing that distinguished the best Italian productions from their American models, it is their rich visual texture. The Italians presented their stories in dynamic, saturated Technicolor. Caves, grottoes and crypts were drenched in shimmering colour palettes: jarring blues and livid reds, piercing golden shafts and aquamarine washes. Pioneered and inspired by Bava, the lighting did a lot of work: cheap tricks devised to conjure vivid and unnatural dream states and hallucinatory nightmares. In fact, the visual signature of Mario Bava is all over the most effective and beautiful-looking pepla, even those without his direct involvement like Hercules Conquers Atlantis (a visual and thematic wonder), or Goliath and the Dragon (Le vendetta di Ercole, 1960) in which Cotaffavi painted a broiling volcanic landscape that was only let down by the ridiculous fire-breathing rubber puppet that Mark Forest wrestled at the climax of the film. Most productions required a dance sequence, both an obligation and a chance to show off: in the hands of Bava these became extreme candy-coloured confections, inserts of exotica that enhanced the dreamy delirium, like budget versions of the Powell and Pressburger ballet extravaganzas in The Red Shoes and Tales of Hoffman. The nature of Italian productions, the studio combination of outrageous talent and motivated hacks, led to this uneven balance of virtuosity and abject failure, often in the same film, even the same scene. But this is precisely why the Italians excelled at the low-brow: apart from an upper crust of Marxist or moralising neorealists, the Italian film industry was refreshingly mercenary and anarchic, and within that precarious, venal infrastructure the likes of Bava and Corbucci could refine their own style and deliver it, in a commercial package, to hungry regional cinemas. 

The tendency towards extreme stylistic mannerism established during the peplum period would be fully developed in the Gothic horrors and gialli that followed: the thread can be traced all the way through to the visual assaults of Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci. The escalations and deviations of the pepla also established the pattern for subsequent film cycles. This was the first filone, and set a commercial and stylistic template for the Spaghetti Westerns, spy capers, Gothic horrors, gialli and poliziotteschi. Some of Italian cinema’s great genre exponents started here, notably Freda, Bava, Leone and Corbucci. Furthermore, with their big, bold themes (freedom, tyranny, the nature of good and evil, love, sex, power) and however moronic the approach, the pepla wore the scars of Italian society in the heat of industrial and cultural revolution. Like the Gothic horrors and Spaghetti Westerns, they did not, in general, try to preach or convert. Like the best Hollywood genre products, the ideas they explored were not delivered as programmes or slogans, but as symptoms of fear and desire, aspiration and dislocation (7). Their achievements were accidental, but not insignificant. Ignored now, they are worth revisiting (and where possible, fully remastering, 8) for their visual and stylistic achievements but also as central and living documents of a country with unmatched cultural resources and abilities being transformed at every level, from every direction. They are waiting, still, to be rescued and rediscovered. 

  1. Robert Graves, The Greek Myths (Penguin, 1992), p.9
  2. See ‘Centaur’s Food’ in Robert Graves, Food for Centaurs (Doubleday & Co., 1960). William Graves would partly blame use of psychedelics for his father’s late mental decline, see Joshua Hammer, ‘Robert Graves Found ‘Perfect Tranquility’ in Majorca’, New York Times, July 3, 2015
  3. Jon Solomon, ‘The Muscleman Peplum: From Le fatiche di Ercole (1958) to Hercules and the Princess of Troy (1965)’ in The Italian Cinema Book (ed. Peter Bondanella, BFI, Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), p.163
  4. Solomon, p.167
  5. Howard Hughes, Cinema Italiano – The Complete Guide from Classics to Cult (I.B. Taurus, 2011), p. 1
  6. Howard Hughes, p.13
  7. The best example of this is perhaps Hercules Conquers Atlantis, in some ways the most ridiculous of all the pepla but also the most interesting. In the film, Queen Antinea’s Atlantis is a technocratic tyranny with eugenic ambitions to “change men…create a new race.” The mythological setting tilts into science fiction and even exploitation, with its Futurist cityscapes and charged erotic apparel: the fetishistic black leather uniforms and weapons of Queen Antinea’s guards, as well as her own prowling, vicious performance, an Atlantean dominatrix. The thematic echoes of Mussolini’s own mad dreams of a fully aestheticised and pure totalitarian state are obvious and it is worth remembering that these films were being produced only fifteen years after the destruction of the Fascist regime.
  8. The model would be Arrow Films’ exquisite release of Erik the Conqueror: their 2K  restoration (with the original Italian vocal track) is a revelation. The reputation of films like Hercules, Hercules Unchained, Hercules in the Haunted World, Hercules Conquers Atlantis and Goliath and the Vampires would be transformed by similar treatment and presentation. Whether this will ever be possible, either technically or commercially, is another matter. 
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The Fascist Revolution in ‘The Conformist’

Outside history man is nothing.
Benito Mussolini

I

In 1970 Bernardo Bertolucci filmed Alberto Moravia’s novel The Conformist and in the process sparked a row with his friend and mentor Jean-Luc Godard. Bertolucci had simultaneously preempted and stoked a hostile response by giving Godard’s real life Parisian address and telephone number to the principal victim of the film, Professor Quadri. He later explained this gesture, with some self-irony:

The Conformist is a story about me and Godard. When I gave the professor Godard’s phone number and address, I did it for a joke, but afterwards I said to myself, “Well, maybe all that has some significance…I’m Marcello and I make Fascist movies and I want to kill Godard who’s a revolutionary, who makes revolutionary movies and who was my teacher. (1)

Through this retrospectively silly spat, fueled by Godard’s commitment to revolutionary praxis and Bertolucci’s surrender to psychoanalytic theory and Paramount budgets, the intellectual chaos of the film can be partly understood. The central character of Fascist civil servant Marcello Clerici (Jean-Louis Trintignant) — tasked with the assassination of Quadri, his former teacher, while on honeymoon with his new wife in Paris — is too narrow to resonate more widely than the local repercussions of his internal drama. As a psychological portrait of isolation, commitment and betrayal Moravia’s novel has limitations, but with the addition of Bertolucci’s own psychoanalytical speculations deliberate ambiguity can slip into incoherence. There is too much theory in this film — an awkward overlay of Freud and Reich — but the theory is partial and self-referential. The film condemns Italian Fascism, and even Italy in the Fascist era, using crude interpretative tools in pursuit of private intrigues. Bertolucci does not try to ‘explain’ fascism, but his portrait of Clerici does approach an interpretation of fascism that is basically trivial, and if you cannot blame the director for this then you can only blame the writers and theorists who influenced him. 

In 1973, after Godard conspicuously walked out of an early public screening of Last Tango in Paris, Bertolucci passed judgement: “When Godard theorises he becomes very simplistic. But when he doesn’t do that he’s a great poet.” (2) As Pauline Kael noted in her 1971 New Yorker review, this dynamic runs through The Conformist itself:

I think we may all be a little weary — and properly suspicious — of psychosexual explanations of political behaviour; we can make up for ourselves these text­book cases of how it is that frightened, repressed individuals become Fas­cists. In an imaginative work, one might hope for greater illumination — for a Fascist seen from inside, not just a left view of his insides. Yet though the ideas aren’t convincing, the director makes the story itself seem organic in the baroque environment he has created, and the colour is so soft and deep and toned down, and the texture so lived in, that the work is, by its nature, ambiguous — not in the tedious sense of confusing us but in the good sense of touching the imagination. (3)

Bertolucci exposes the sexual psychology of his characters, making explicit what Moravia hints at or omits. In the film’s clumsy final scene under the arches of the Colosseum — where Marcello encounters and confronts his early abuser, Lino the chauffeur, as Mussolini’s dictatorship falls apart — Bertolucci practically certifies repressed homosexuality as the central motivation for this adoption of fascism. It is not a very useful or artistically satisfying conclusion although it may have been ideologically or theoretically convenient for Bertolucci himself. For the best part of the film, and in Moravia’s novel, Marcello’s sexuality is latent and part of a wider and more complex and even contradictory set of motivating factors. This belongs to a general theme of sexual ambiguity which pervades the story itself and, in Marcello’s case, resists simple resolution. In the novel, his sudden lust for Professor Quadri’s wife is as vivid and irreducible as the memory of Lino from which he seemingly does everything to escape, but for Bertolucci it is merely repression. In the film, Anna Quadri’s sexual charisma is more luxurious and fluid (due in large part to Dominique Sanda’s performance) than Moravia’s flinty, single-minded, predatory lesbian Lina (named in sexual counterpoint to Lino). In the novel, Marcello’s vacuous and sensual petit bourgeois wife Giulia (Stefania Sandrelli) finds Lina’s sexual overtures disgusting and frankly rebuffs her, but in the film, her reaction to Anna is more indulgent and ambivalent and, of course, visually arresting. In both cases the sexual politics are potentially more interesting than the actual politics that they come to serve.

In this world of ambiguity and licence Marcello is confused, rootless, lacking a secure identity and therefore tries to find this by adopting what he perceives to be the most attainable and conventional role available: middle class Fascist party member and husband. In doing this he also rejects his family identity: his chaotic, wealthy upbringing; his insane, incarcerated father; his promiscuous, morphine-addicted mother. As a young boy, he attempts to find refuge in the rituals of school:

The novelty of his schoolfellows, of the teachers, the classrooms, the timetables – a novelty in which an idea of order and discipline and shared occupations was always discernible, under a variety of aspects – was extremely pleasing to him after the disorder, the lack of rules, the loneliness of his own home. (4)

This fails, as he cannot find the order and belonging that he craves: bullied by other pupils because of his effeminate appearance, he falls into the clutches of the predatory Lino. The immediate utility of fascism for Marcello is clear: as a party and state ideology it rejects the parliamentary, liberal Italy of Giovanni Giolitti that the Fascists associated with decadence and corruption and which Marcello associates with his parents. His family’s decadence and “abnormality” is repudiated and condemned by Marcello through the surrender of his individuality to mass identity and social hierarchy within a fascist order. He does not understand that the identity he adopts is extreme in its own way and that he must commit murder to fortify it, a major component of the original tragedy he is trying to escape from and the story’s principal dramatic irony. Finally, in this epic of evasion and cancellation Marcello develops a sterile interior life, emotionally and sexually. His act of self-creation through fascism is purely negative and inescapably leads to aridity and dysfunction. 

Bertolucci fatally reduces this dynamic in the process of applying his own Reichian gloss to the narrative. In The Mass Psychology of Fascism, Reich described fascism as “the organised political expression of the structure of the average man’s character”:

Since fascism, whenever and wherever it makes its appearance, is a movement borne by masses of people, it betrays all the characteristics and contradictions present in the character structure of the mass individual…Fascist mentality is the mentality of the “little man,” who is enslaved and craves authority and is at the same time rebellious. (5)

Bertolucci explicitly adopted this interpretation in the 1973 interview:

Yes, I think the average man is fascistic…the average man is fascist. All my characters are predestined. They’re doomed, but it’s not destiny that’s decided to doom them, it’s their unconscious. (6)

The limitation here, which undermines his film in ways that do not harm Moravia’s novel, is in uniquely locating the psychological source of fascism in repressed sexuality and an unconscious desire for authority. In his 1969 survey Interpretations of Fascism, Renzo de Felice identified the limitations of ‘social science’ interpretations of fascism exemplified by Reich and, to some extent, Bertolucci’s film:

[i]t is difficult to accept their tendency (in certain instances, pretension) to view their contributions as full-blown interpretations of fascism. As historical reconstructions and evaluations these analyses and explanations (including those least inspired by a historical approach) are individually unsatisfactory because they are narrow and incomplete. They are distortions, reverting to schematic and unilateral interpretations based on the exaggeration of a single aspect of the phenomenon and the denial (or, in better examples, underestimation) of other aspects. (7)

For Bertolucci the character can serve the theory, but the theory does not adequately explain the character or the regime. To link fascism to psychological disturbance or aberration was convenient both artistically and politically in a post-war Italy seeking to repress the memory and reality of the fascist years in which so many were implicated. Even when faith in fascism disintegrated, loyalty to the dictator proved more resilient and the reasons for this were multifaceted: psychological, mythic, economic, patriotic, aesthetic, erotic, cynical, idealistic, revolutionary and conformist. The popularity of Mussolini and the consensus for Fascist rule was too wide-spread to be reduced to insular patterns of sexual repression.  In this context, then, Bertolucci’s film fails as a commentary on fascism but can still stand as an ambiguous psychological case study, albeit one propelled by some of the most ravishing visual compositions in the history of cinema (8).

II

This is not all it does, however. Through their dual portraits of Marcello both Moravia and Bertolucci can evoke aspects of fascism often disregarded as superficial or irrelevant by  postwar historians, with important exceptions such as George L. Mosse, Renzo de Felice, Emilio Gentile and Roger Griffin. The narrative of The Conformist does not simply present fascism in Italy as a conservative and reactionary movement but also, and more effectively, hints at its revolutionary and Modernist aspects: the drive to create New Italians, to “challenge time” and establish a political religion, ideas articulated by philosophers and artists such as Giovanni Gentile and the Futurists. Marcello’s attempt to conform through immersion in the Fascist state apparatus is driven by his sense of personal abnormality and abhorrence of all its manifestations. What he finds in fascism is not just an opportunity to conform, but to start again: to erase the past and oppose all its associations, and to recreate his own character. If Marcello’s identification with fascism is essentially negative, it is still an act of self-creation. In this case the motivations are opaque when they are not cynical or he is not simply conflicted and ready to betray everything he is trying to commit to. Nevertheless, fascism provides the existential tools and opportunity to eliminate his past and construct a new identity. In this aspect of his portrayal, Moravia and Bertolucci are both able to locate revolutionary potential and contradictions in fascism often minimised or erased in post-war interpretations. 

Before Marcello marries Guilia, she insists, for the sake of form, that he attends confession, which in turn becomes a minor inquisition. With self-conscious perversity, a kind of pleasurable malice, Marcello presents his record: the ambiguous sexual encounter with Lino; his “murder” of Lino; his subsequent “normal” premarital sex life, mostly using prostitutes (“you call that normal?” replies the priest). This is a key scene in Bertolluci’s film as Marcello finds clarity in this ritual and is as open and truthful as he can be. “I am going to build a life that is normal,” he explains, “I intend to construct my normality. But it won’t be easy.” This entails marriage to Giulia, into a class, to become a type, which he designates with the arrogance and coldness of the pseudo-aristocratic outsider that he really is. With a wolfish grin which is partly a grimace, teeth set like razors along the edge of his bottom lip, he states: “I am marrying a petit bourgeois. Mediocre. A mound of petty ideas, full of petty ambitions. She’s all bed and kitchen.” The priest, appalled by his disdain, exclaims: “You have no right to use such expressions!” He councils Marcello to build this life within the moral and social limits defined by Catholicism: “Stay within religion.” Marcello responds with force: “Outside religion!” In the novel Moravio adds:

He was quite aware that, amongst the many possible standards of behaviour, he had not chosen the Christian standard which forbids man to kill, but another entirely different one, political and of recent introduction, which had no objection to bloodshed. (9)

Marcello has no use for the hypocrisy of a Church that is more concerned with one potential homosexual encounter than his unambiguous confession of murder. The act of confession, of playing his role in the rite, clashes with his other “normal” construction: the loyal Italian Fascist. It is a compromise full of dangerous ironies and fissures that reflects real conflicts and accommodations between the Vatican and the Fascist regime. Fascism, in its ideological forms, aspired to create a political religion, to establish new values for a New Italy. The Vatican considered this to be a legitimate threat to its status and authority. One of the defining commands of Italian Fascism was faith in the cause and it was this very usurpation of religious concepts to engineer mass engagement with the regime that created conflict with the Catholic Church. Giovanni Gentile, the philosopher, Fascist Minister of Education and co-writer with Mussolini of the The Doctrine of Fascism, tried to define and thereby construct a totalitarian state that would embody a new system of ethics and morality, transcending both the liberal era of Giolitti and the spiritual malaise of modern society. As Roger Griffin writes, this amounted to “a regenerative myth…[a] shift from cultural pessimism to palingenetic hope” (10) that fed into the tropes and myths invented and appropriated by the Fascists: the New Italy, the New Man, “making Italians”, “completing the Risorgimento” (11). The historian Emilio Gentile describes this as a “sacralization of politics and the institutionalisation of the cult of the fasces…the construction of a lay religion for the nation” (12). Giovanni Gentile and the radical ideologues of the Fascist movement aimed at nothing less than a “total spiritual revolution” that profoundly challenged the spiritual dominance of the Catholic Church. 

The parts of Marcello’s personality that he wants to escape and erase (sexual ambiguity, “decadence”, intellectualism, his physical and moral cowardice) are in opposition to the Fascist ideal of the New Man and the New Italy. As Special Agent Manganiello spits in disgust after Marcello fails to kill Anna: “Cowards, homosexuals, Jews, they’re all the same thing. If it was up to me, I’d stand them all up against the wall. Better yet, eliminate them before they’re born.” Marcello’s intellectualism is an important focal point of this conflict: like the regime he serves, he rejects the intellectual class that represents Giolittian liberalism and the anti-fascist values he identifies and rejects in himself. He is willing to betray his former professor in order to construct his new identity within the framework of the new ethical state, although this is always fragile. Marcello can even accuse the professor and the liberal intellectual exiles of betrayal: “you left,” he tells Quadri, “and I became a Fascist.” Quadri is never fully convinced by Marcello’s adopted identity: “excuse me Clerici,” he replies, “a confirmed Fascist doesn’t speak like that.” (Later he says to Marcello, probing: “You had me convinced you were the typical New Italian.” “No such type exists yet,” Marcello replies, “but we’re creating him.”) Everything outside of this identity, every aspect of this past that he views with fear and disgust, becomes a compromise, condemns him, and is a crime (real, imaginary and abstract crimes conflate inside this disordered mind): “It was a desire for normality; a wish to conform to a recognised, general rule; a longing to be like everybody else, inasmuch as to be different meant to be guilty” (13).

Marcello tries to become a Fascist by committing murder for the regime. But his attempt to construct a new identity and erase his past is always compromised: Moravia makes it clear that if Lina reciprocated his advances, Marcello would immediately betray his new wife, Fascism, the regime, and his country, simply in order to have her. Ultimately, however, he strikes an essentially cynical bargain for reasons he can articulate but not fully understand. It is the Protean ideological ferment of Italian Fascism that gives him the tools to dismantle his past, his family ties, and his formative identity in order to assemble a new “deliberate, artificial” (14) construct. The tools available include Giovanni Gentile’s philosophy of Actualism which conceptualised history as a “dynamic, living, futural reality that is to be proactively made” and “reality as the product of continuous autoctisi or ‘self-creation’” (15). The attempt by Marcello, the former philosophy student, to “remake” himself and to “make history” through one dynamic act, an intervention in real time, is pure Gentile, pure Actualism. (“Action,” as he understands it, is “a confirmation of one’s own normality that must be provided both for oneself and for others” (16).) Like the regime he serves, he can reject the liberal intellectual class while retaining the capacity to embrace and exploit philosophical ideas that serve his interests.

Finally, this involves a challenge to time itself: to overthrow the past, to eradicate or manipulate memory, a project mirrored by Italian Fascism itself which sought to redefine Italy’s relationship to its own past and to “challenge time” (in the words of Mussolini). This was later dismissed as an example of the Fascists’ inflated, empty rhetoric, but Griffin considers it to be central to the movement’s palingenetic scope and ambition:

In this context, the regime’s introduction of a new calendar to run alongside the Gregorian one which established 1922, the year of the March on Rome, as Year I of the Fascist Era, is a gesture pregnant with symbolic significance…The mathematical manipulations of the measurement of time under Mussolini point to a profoundly mythic will to create a new type of state capable of realizing a new order in which chronos will be suspended and historical time will literally be made anew. (17)

Marcello’s desire to erase his past parallels the regime’s attempt to redefine Italy through the new ethical Fascist state, resurrecting the legacy of Imperial Rome and thereby erasing the liberal era. For Marcello time is a trap: he attaches his psychological disorder to the tyranny of memory and history. Through fascism, he thinks, he can transcend this fate. However Peter Bondanella notes that Bertolucci’s own manipulation of time has another significance for the character of Marcello: 

The plot of the film can be assembled only after a complete viewing of it, since the many flashbacks and flashbacks within flashbacks disrupt any linear sense of time…[w]ith this ingenious confusion of levels of time, Bertolucci brilliantly manages to render the sense of entrapment in the past felt by Marcello. (18)

The attempt to “challenge time” inevitably fails, both for Marcello and Mussolini. The Fascist Era ends with a bust of the dictator being dragged through the streets of Rome from the back of a motorbike. Marcello, cynically and desperately, finds space in the spiritual revolution that fascism offers to reset his identity, integrate with the Italian masses, and find freedom from his past. The ideology, then, is an opportunity for illusion, but also self-delusion: Fascism, as such, is a cynical sham. In both novel and movie, Marcello is constantly caught between his recognition of this pretence and the attempt to submit to it. In this way, The Conformist manages to capture something of the Protean, dynamic, revolutionary nature of the Italian Fascist movement, even through a negative and ironic treatment. Politics, for Marcello, has become a way to order identity and to re-order his life: through the ideological apparatus of Fascism he attempts to construct an attitude and an approach to living. It is the totalitarian scope of the project that offers this potential, but also destroys it. 

  1. Bernardo Bertolucci quoted in Peter Bondanella, Italian Cinema – From Neorealism to the Present (Continuum, 2001), p.304
  2. Jonathan Cott, ‘A Conversation with Bernardo Bertolucci’, Rolling Stone, June 21st, 1973
  3. Pauline Kael, ‘The Poetry of Images’, The New Yorker, March 27th, 1971
  4. Alberto Moravia, The Conformist (Penguin, 1974, trans. Angus Davidson), p.30
  5. Wilhelm Reich, The Mass Psychology of Fascism (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1970), p.xiii
  6. Cott, ‘A Conversation…’
  7. Renzo de Felice, Interpretations of Fascism (Harvard University Press, 1977, trans. Brenda Huff Everett), p.77 
  8. As much as Bertolucci The Conformist is the triumph of cinematographer Vittorio Storaro and editor Franco Arcalli. 
  9. Moravia, p.105
  10. Roger Griffin, Modernism and Fascism – The Sense of a Beginning Under Mussolini and Hitler (Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), p.197
  11. Griffin, p.198
  12. Quoted in Griffin, p.221
  13. Moravia, p.29
  14. ibid. 
  15. Griffin, p.194
  16. Moravia, p. 71
  17. Griffin, pp.223
  18. Bondanella, pp. 301-3
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The Jews in Fascist Italy

A 36244

And he would shake his head, with the expression of someone who, should they wish to, could even understand such subtleties and complications, but who is just not minded to. Such tiny fine discriminations, intriguing and engaging as they might be, at a certain point became irrelevant: they too would be swept away. (1)

In November 1938 the Italian Fascists introduced Racial Laws in order to target Jews by barring them from public office, banning mixed marriage, stripping their assets and restricting travel. Looking back after the destruction of the major European Jewish populations by the Nazis, the experience of the Italians before and during the Second World War is full of tragic contradictions and historical ironies. In his 1962 novel The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, Giorgio Bassani portrays some of these complexities as experienced by the Jewish community of Ferrara, seen retrospectively through the eyes of a narrator recounting his youthful infatuation with Micol Finzi-Contini and her reclusive, wealthy family. Giorgio’s story plays with an overlap of memory and fantasy, but unravels against the very real backdrop of Mussolini’s doomed alliance with Hitler and its implications for the Ferrarese Jews.

In the novel, Giorgio has a heated exchange with his father two months after the introduction of the Racial Laws that captures the defiance and denial still being expressed at this late stage by many Italians, including Jews:

“I hope you won’t want to start on the usual story,” I interrupted him, shaking my head.

“What story?”

“That Mussolini is more good than Hitler.”

“I know, I know,” he said. “But you have to admit it’s true. Hitler’s a bloodthirsty maniac, whereas Mussolini is what he is, as much of a Machiavellian and turncoat as you want, but…” (2)

Even at this point there was reason for uncertainty and indecision, if not complacency. Until the Racial Laws, Italy had no antisemitic tradition to compare to the majority of early twentieth century European nations. The introduction of racist legislation triggered shock and open revulsion throughout the country and caused a “crisis of conscience” in the Fascist movement itself (3). The cynics and antisemites of the party elite, men like Roberto Farinacci and Giovanni Preziosi,  understood the need to “prepare” Italians for this new policy, which many considered “the ‘barbaric’ and ‘Celtic’ doctrines from beyond the Alps” (4). The Laws were preceded by a change in the tone and reporting of Jewish stories in the national press, followed by the publication of ‘The Manifesto of the Racial Scientists’ which was generally met with disgust and derision — according to Giorgio’s Communist friend Malnate, “it was hard to know whether it was more shameful or more ridiculous” (5). Renzo De Felice described the Manifesto — the first clear shot in the antisemitic campaign in Italy — as “a text that, from every point of view, scientific, political and moral, remains one of the worst and shabbiest episodes of the Fascist period” (6). However, these measures singularly failed in their aim to convert Italian public opinion to antisemitism for the simple reason that Italians could not see any reason to discriminate against those citizens they had worked and lived with (and married) without prejudice since the Emancipation.

The Jewish population of Italy, while numerically small, is highly assimilated, successful, and ancient. The first Roman Jews settled in the Second Century B.C. and the Jewish community of  the Portico d’Ottavia neighborhood — the ghetto liquidated by the Nazis in October 1943 — dated back to Emperor Vespasian. The word ‘Ghetto’ partly derives from the original segregation of the Venetian Jews in 1516 on the site of a foundry (‘getto’). The Emancipation and the Revolution of 1848, the Risorgimento and the liberal regime that followed unification, successively secured their status. They prospered and integrated. Many distinguished themselves in the Great War and subsequently participated in the early squadristi and local Fascist parties. In The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, Giorgio’s pen portrait of his father is intended to symbolise an Italian (not only Ferrarese) type from the subsequent period: “medical graduate and free-thinker, army volunteer, since 1919 card-holder of the Fascist Party, and sports enthusiast, in short the Modern Jew” (7). In the novel, his father never fully recants his allegiance to the Fascists; in Vittorio de Sica’s 1970 film The Garden of the Finzi Contini, however, this aspect is muted and his final rejection of the regime actually depicted in the closing scenes. This was a serious point of contention between the novelist and film-maker, erasing the record of local participation in fascism by the Ferrarese Jews, effectively covering it with a general (if moving) portrait of persecution. But the power of Bassani’s novel is precisely this exploration and exposure of the accommodations made with the regime, its subtle entwinement in everyday life and thought processes, individual and communal self-awareness, even at a moment of grave and growing danger.  

The reasons that Jews could accommodate and participate in Fascism before and even after the introduction of the Racial Laws were numerous and overlapping, but also as contingent as the regime itself. As Michael Ledeen wrote in his book on the short-lived Fascist International, Universal Fascism:

Like all other Italians, the Jews saw a variety of tendencies at work in the Fascist Regime. What they saw most clearly, however, was that the situation of the Jews got better and better over the first decade of fascist rule. They consequently behaved pragmatically when they supported a government which not only improved their legal status but […] also became for a time one of the foremost advocates of the Zionist cause in Europe. (8)

Giorgio’s father accuses the Finzi-Contini of avoiding the local community by joining the “scornful isolation of the Spanish synagogue” without even being “good Zionists” to warrant it:

Given that here in Italy, and in Ferrara, they always found themselves so ill at ease, so out of place, they could at least have benefited from this situation and taken themselves off, once and for all, to Eretz! But not at all. Apart from fumbling every now and then for a wee bit of cash to send to Eretz (which was nothing to boast of, anyway) the thought of going had never even crossed their minds. (9)

Mussolini’s shifting attitude towards Zionism illustrated those particular traits recognised by Giorgio’s father at a different moment: cynical, “Machiavellian” and “turncoat”. In the attempt to consolidate Italian influence over the Mediterranean, Zionism proved a useful, if temporary, tool. Mussolini held cordial meetings with Chaim Weizmann and Nachum Sokolov and from 1932 his regime collaborated with Ze’ev Jabotinsky and the Revisionist Zionist movement. By 1937 different considerations and tendencies abruptly ended this accord, as Renzo De Felice detailed in The Jews in Fascist Italy:

The Zionist card had lost its value in the eyes of the Fascists: alliance with Germany, a pro-Arab policy, and a Mediterranean agreement with England had modified the view the Palazzo Chigi had of Palestine. The efforts of those Jews who, feeling the storm rising above their heads, tried to ward it off by attempting to convince important Fascist leaders that Italy could at last replace Great Britain within the mandate over Palestine, came to nothing. (10)

The Jewish community in Ferrara was one of the most successfully assimilated in Italy. This is why the the fate of the city’s bourgeois milieu so effectively illustrated the overall tragedy of the Italian Jews, in both Bassani’s fiction and the historical archives. Alexander Stille describes how, in Ferrara,

an ancient bond of tolerance and affection tied the Jews to their city. From as early as the thirteenth century, it had distinguished itself among Italian city-states for its religious openness…while most other cities prevented Jews from doing any business other than banking, to avoid competition with local merchants, Ferrara granted them full rights. (11)

This was interrupted by the city’s absorption into the Papal States in 1597 which saw the creation of the ghetto and the abolition of civil rights for Jews. Following liberation, the story of the Jewish community was one of energetic integration and significant contributions to the development of the Italian state. During the Fascist era many middle class Ferrarese Jews were members of the Fascist Party, like Giorgio’s father. Bassani himself claimed that when he was growing up he did not recall a single Jew in Ferrara who was not a Fascist. The Garden of the Finzi-Continis is a portrait of the moment this concord fell apart.  For Giorgio’s father the full import of the Racial Laws does not immediately register and is deflected by rage and suspicion at the aloof attitude of the Finzi-Continis: “Of course […] they were pleased with what was happening! Because to them, halti as they’d always been (anti-Fascist, sure, but above all halti) deep down the Racial Laws gratified them!”(12)

In his group portrait of five Italian Jewish families under Fascism, Stille documents the fate of the Ferrarese Schönheits, sent to Fossili before final deportation to Buchenwald, like the fictional Finzi-Contini. He quotes Franco Schönheit who recalled the reaction of the Ferrarese Jews to the Nazi assault on the Roman Jews in an interview with the author:

We heard about the October roundup in Rome the day after. Trains carrying prisoners from Rome had passed through Northern cities, and the people inside had thrown postcards and letters from the cars. But we were very incredulous. Italian Jews in general were very incredulous. German refugees who had escaped into Italy would take every opportunity to warn Italian Jews about what was happening to Jews in Germany, but we always said, ‘What happened in Germany can never happen in Italy.’ You heard that phrase constantly, up until the end. (13)

Up until the end. It became difficult, if not actually impossible, for Italian Jews to remain loyal to the Fascist Regime after the promulgation of the Racial Laws. This was also true for Italians in general and marked the beginning of Fascism’s decline in Italy. Renzo De Felice writes:

Those who had shunned politics up to that moment and had, so to speak, “delegated” it to Fascism, began, during the second half of 1938, to think for themselves once again […t]he corruption, the immorality of Fascism, quickly became obvious to everyone, causing disgust, solidarity with the Jews, and loss of confidence in the state. (14)

For the majority of Jews who felt loyal to Italy, who fully believed that they owed their emancipation and equality to the birth of Italian State, and who had also contributed so much to it, the conflict was profound, fundamental:

The realization that Fascism did not represent Italy, and had not made a mistake or misunderstood them, was slow and painful. Fascism had consciously and cynically prepared and undertaken their persecution and it was now useless, naive, and shameful to attempt to convince it of their “good faith” through demonstrations of loyalty, which it obviously did not deserve and in which Jews no longer believed. (15)

But there were even some Jewish exceptions to this. Stille recounts the tragic story of Ernesto Ovazza, a leader of the Fascist ‘bandieristi’ group and the Jewish Community in Turin who felt certain that his well-documented loyalty to Mussolini would save his family from persecution. He held onto this conviction until they were literally dragged out of their hotel in the Italian Alps to be executed and incinerated by drunk SS guards. Before leaving Milan himself, Ovazza told fleeing relatives, “they’ll never touch me, I’ve done too much for Fascism.” Stille quotes another fugitive who encountered Ovazzo at a later date, in hiding: “During several walks we took together he always seemed rather calm because he claimed to have in his possession a signed photograph of Mussolini dedicated to him” (16).

The whole arc of Ovazza’s awful story provides some insight into the way that Jews were able to find a place within Fascist Italy that was not possible in Hitler’s Germany. In its  conception of the New Man as well as its “spiritual” racism, Fascist elitism diverged from Nazi racial genealogy.  The Italian Fascist ideologues, and Mussolini early on, conceived of Fascism as a revolution of the spirit: dynamic and open-ended where Nazism was fixed and reactionary. As De Felice noted in his famous 1975 Intervisto sul fascismo,

[w]hile Nazism has a revolutionary appearance through its mobilization of the masses, insofar as the transformation of society is concerned it moves on a double path different from the Italian case. It seems to create a new society, but the most profound values on which this society must be created are traditional, antique, and unchangeable…Nazism sought a restoration of values and not the creation of new values. The idea of the creation of a new kind of man is not a Nazi idea. (17)

De Felice presented the view that Italian Fascism was a movement with roots in the French Revolution (18), an analysis that provoked hostility in post-war Italy, where the Communist Party laid claim to the revolutionary tradition and the legacy of the Resistance was appropriated by the First Republic. Even the Fascist cult of violence had roots on the revolutionary Left: in the early years the influence of Georges Sorel and Syndicalism was as important as D’Annunzio and Futurism. At this point there existed a tension in the movement between traditional nationalism and revolutionary, avant-garde tendencies. George L. Mosse, in his essay ‘Fascism and the Avant Garde,’ writes:

Italian Fascism was certainly more open to the future than German National Socialism; the new man of the south had avant-garde features lacking in the north, where the ideal German was the ancient Aryan whom Hitler had roused from centuries of slumber. Mussolini was much more ambivalent…[he] did leave the door ajar to the future, while in Germany nationalism and racism blocked all exits. Neither Mussolini nor many of his followers gave up the idea that fascism, while rooted in the past, was not destined to cling stubbornly to these roots. Nevertheless, however uncharted the new spaces, they were to be controlled and dominated by a national stereotype, rooted as a matter of fact in the imagery and the ideals of the attempted revolution of bourgeois youth at the fin de siecle. (19)

Even after the adoption of antisemitism and racist policies it remained important for the Italians to distinguish themselves from the Nazis. Due to the very composition and history of Italy, their racial ideal could not be the pure Aryan of the Northern imaginary; nor could it completely break from the New Man or Universal Fascism, or the mystical and Idealist elements espoused by the likes of Arnaldo Mussolini, Giuseppe Bottai and Giovanni Gentile. On a practical level, Mussolini had been drawn towards racism during the campaigns in Libya and Ethiopia, when he decided to emphasise the superiority of Italians over Africans for the purpose of war propaganda and to condemn reports of the sexual activities of Italian troops. Antisemitism was a harder sell and Mussolini’s own rhetoric even more wild and contradictory than on other topics: he could often be candid about the tactical cynicism of antisemitism, stating as late as 1938 that Italy had no ‘Jewish Problem’ and describing Mein Kampf as “that incoherent tirade I have never managed to read” (20).

Once racism and antisemitism had been incorporated into the Fascist programme attempts began to theorise this turn in line with the doctrines of “revolutionary fascism”. Again, this led to a key distinction with Nazi racial doctrine and its pseudo-biological Weltanschauung, fixed and immutable, with non-Aryans marked for slavery or extermination. For Mussolini and the Fascists the difference between Italians and Jews became a spiritual contrast, as described by Ledeen:

For Mussolini there were various spiritual types in the world, and he believed that at certain dramatic moments in history it was possible to speak of “races” becoming coextensive with “nations.” Such was the case with fascist Italy, where the genius of the Italian race (a spiritual “type”) had made it possible to begin the construction of the Fascist State. Yet within that State were some recalcitrant elements, which did not share in the qualities of the “race,” which did not adapt to the new spiritual climate of the period, and which insisted on clinging to the values and goals of an earlier, corrupt epoch. The purpose of the antisemitic policies, as viewed by the Duce, was to retrain these elements, to Italianize and “fascisticize” them, and finally to reintegrate them back into fascist society. When this reintegration was achieved, the Italian “race” and the Fascist State would be coextensive, both geographically and spiritually. (21)

That is: “The Fascists insisted upon their ability to change the human spirit”. Even their most discriminatory policies, in theory if not practice, left enough ambiguity for those inclined to find some psychological space in the Fascist state. After the Racial Laws, Ettore Ovazza did not protest against the Fascist policy, but severed all connections with organized Judaism, “protesting what he believed as the Jewish community’s insufficient fascist rigor” (22). This chaos of tensions, ambiguities and contradictions within Fascist doctrine is key to the attitudes and fate of Italian Jews during the Fascist epoch but also the final destruction of the Fascist state. It was crushed by a more ruthless and murderously deterministic regime than itself.

The clues to this outcome were evident in the early 1930s. In 1934, the Italians organised a pan-fascist congress at Montreux under the leadership of the Comitati d’azione per l’Universalità di Roma (CAUR). Representatives of fascist movements arrived from across Europe, apart from the Nazis who declined to attend. The trigger that undid this enterprise was the Jewish Question, tabled by the pro-Hitler Romanian Iron Guard contingent. The conference split along national lines and in common with their hostility or sympathy to the Nazis. At this point Italy retained a position of prestige within the prospective Fascist International and was far from adopting its own antisemitic policies. In fact, at this stage, antisemitism served to highlight the division and suspicion between the Italians and Germans. The resolution of this split sealed the fate of Italy’s Jews.

Nazism was a terminal ideology for European Jews which could count on mass antisemitic sentiment existing in, say, Romania, Poland or Ukraine. Italy and its Fascist movement was a more complex proposition. It had antisemites and racists among its elite hierarchy and followers, but these ideas were marginal until 1937. Ultimately it was Fascism’s protean and opportunistic nature, aligned with the cynicism of its leadership, that proved deadly for the Italian Jews, rather than any large-scale antisemitic currents within Italian society. This endpoint was as inevitable, maybe, as the Italian Fascist regime’s squalid and violent collapse; the seeds for catastrophe sown at the start.

  1. Giorgio Bassani, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (Penguin, 2007, trans. Jamie McKendrick), p. 223
  2. Bassani, p. 58
  3. Michael Ledeen, Universal Fascism – The Theory and Practice of the Fascist International, 1928-1936 (Howard Fertig, 1972),  p.134
  4. Ledeen, p.132
  5. Bassani, p.136
  6. Renzo De Felice, The Jews in Fascist Italy: A History (Enigma, 2004, trans. Robert Miller), p.265
  7. Bassani, p.34
  8. Ledeen, p.137
  9. Bassani, p.61
  10. De Felice, p.173
  11. Alexander Stille, Benevolence and Betrayal – Five Italian Jewish Families Under Fascism (Vintage, 1993), p.284
  12. Bassani, p.61
  13. Stille, p.283
  14. De Felice, p.297
  15. De Felice, p.317
  16. Stille, p.86
  17. Renzo De Felice, Fascism: An Informal Introduction to its Theory and Practice (Transaction, 1977), p.56
  18. This analysis is influenced by J. L. Talmon’s The Origins of Totalitarian Democracy. See De Felice, Fascism, p.106: “Insofar as Italian fascism is concerned, I am in complete agreement with Talmon’s analysis; but I do not agree if it were extended to nazism. I, too, see in fascism a manifestation of that left-wing totalitarianism of which Talmon speaks. Nazism, however, is tied to a right-wing totalitarianism and should be discussed in terms of a different analysis…”
  19. George L. Mosse, The Fascist Revolution: Toward a General Theory of Fascism (Howard Fertig, 1999), p.150
  20. Denis Mack Smith, Mussolini (Paladin, 1983), p.256-7; Ledeen, p.101
  21. Ledeen, p.150
  22. Stille, p.78
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Ezra Pound & Salò

ezra-pound-2

I want to go on fighting.
Canto 72

In 1948, the year James Laughlin published The Pisan Cantos, Ezra Pound remained incarcerated in St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, a Federal Government asylum in Washington, having been found mentally unfit to stand trial for treason. During the war, Pound was a vocal antisemite whose sympathies lay with the more extreme sections of the Italian Fascist regime in Salò and with the Nazis, as he openly declared in pro-Axis propaganda broadcasts on Rome Radio. This endpoint was evident, and expressed, in his poetry, including The Pisan Cantos which won the Bollingen Prize in 1949, awarded by the Fellows in American Letters of the Library of Congress, among them T. S. Eliot, Robert Lowell and W. H. Auden. These highly accomplished men were perceptive and conceited enough to pen a pre-emptive defence of their controversial choice, made only four years after the discovery of Auschwitz and Buchenwald. It stated: “To permit other considerations than that of poetic achievement to sway the decision would destroy the significance of the award and would in principle deny the validity of that objective perception of value on which any civilized society must rest.” Or, in other words, l’art pour l’art.

Partisan Review, among other organs, invited comment. Karl Shapiro, a Fellow, disagreed with the selection on the grounds that “the poet’s political and moral philosophy ultimately vitiates his poetry and lowers its standards as a literary work” (1); Dwight Macdonald, by contrast, viewed the award as a  supremely civilised act and a rare example of national magnanimity. George Orwell composed a more subtle position, making two points with direct relevance to contemporary Pound studies, that obtuse critical subgenre. Firstly, he objected to the artificial separation of Pound’s political activities from his poetry, a division never made by Pound himself who considered his adopted economic theories (for one thing) to be central to The Cantos’ purpose, aesthetics and meaning. The tendency to ignore or rationalise the poetry’s politics — the thematic content of The Cantos, in other words — grew among and with Pound’s influential friends, acolytes and protégées after the war, notably Louis Zukofsky, Charles Olson, Hugh Kenner and James Laughlin. These entwined artistic and critical circles preferred to emphasise Pound’s aesthetics at the expense of his economic and racial politics, as if The Cantos could exist without Social Credit, history and Jews, and live through their lyrical technique alone.

Pound learned to accept this in his very late years — in the Sixties, when it was most convenient to do so. By this time he could tell Allen Ginsberg that antisemitism had been his “worst mistake” and write to Robert Lowell: “that nonsense about the Jews…Olga knew it was shit, yet she still loved me.” (2) This was also the time, non-coincidentally, when he admitted that, by his owns standards and expectations, The Cantos had been a failure. He would tell Daniel Cory: “I botched it. I picked out this and that thing that interested me, and then jumbled them into a bag. But that’s not the way to make a work of art.” (3) Nevertheless, as late as 1959, Pound was sending poetry and Social Credit pamphlets to Oswald Mosely’s post-fascist European journal; and in the middle of the Fifties, Pound acolyte John Kasper achieved some notoriety as a segregation activist in the American South, spreading antisemitic and racist screeds encouraged by the unrepentant poet. His late disavowal of antisemitism made it more convenient for a Jewish Communist like Zukofsky and a Catholic conservative like Kenner to approach their idol with easier conscience and less prickly questions, but the racial instincts and devotion to Social Credit theories (with their distinct flavour of conspiracy theory) remained. Some put this down to mental health problems; others simply accepted Pound’s recantations and overlooked his unseemly actions and associates, dismissing these as anecdotal and historical. Orwell spotted all of this early and immediately skewered it: “He may be a good writer […] but the opinions he has tried to disseminate by means of his works are evil ones…” (4)

Secondly, Orwell noted a more brazen attempt to fully expunge Pound’s politics: “there has been,” he wrote, “a tendency to claim that Pound was “not really” a fascist and antisemite, that he opposed the war on pacifist grounds and that in any case his political activities only belonged to the war years.” (5) This was nonsense, of course. As Orwell had no difficulty illustrating in 1949, Pound’s own activities, pre-war and after, exposed this fallacy; more importantly, the poems vividly demonstrated Pound’s commitment to Social Credit ideas and to Italian Fascism. For Pound’s non-fascist supporters this made rationalisation more important and urgent. It could get desperate. For example, William Cookson, in his commentary A Guide to the Cantos of Ezra Pound, made an unintentionally acute attempt to redeem Pound’s wartime radio propaganda: “at their core the speeches are a document of anti-war literature. Incidentally, much that he said against “U.S. economic aggression” made good sense and has an affinity with the more recent polemic of Noam Chomsky”(6); he also described the subject of Canto 73 (see below) as being “like a suicide bomber.” Cookson was sharper than he realised, perhaps: there is the distinct shade of anti-capitalist and anti-American politics that unites far-left and right in the subject matter of The Cantos and Pound’s politics; an attachment to crank economics and conspiracy theory that leads, eventually and inexorably, from left or right, into the gutter of antisemitism. (If Pound had been writing today, would there be a Bilderberg canto?)

Cantos 72 and 73 are the low point of Pound’s own descent into Inferno in the tragi-comic form of Mussolini’s fall. The poems were both composed in 1943 in Italian, as the fascist dream collapsed in Italy with the Allied invasion and German occupation of the peninsula. Pound fled North, on foot and by train, sleeping in the open and eating with peasants, to link up with the remaining regime loyalists at Lake Garda. After returning to Rapallo he committed himself fully to the Axis cause, writing newspaper articles and manifestos in defence of the new republic. Salò appealed to him, as it did to other early Italian Fascists who had become disillusioned with the ‘Mussolinism’ of the Thirties; there was purity and potential in this new experiment, an uncompromised, activist esprit de corps that revived memories of the old movement. Mussolini was returning to socialism and syndicalism, while squadristi and regime protection rackets tortured and killed with impunity on the streets of Rome and Milan. The intellectuals and thugs were in charge, extremists like Roberto Farinacci and Alessandro Pavolini: a lethal combination. Pound wrote his two cantos for this regime to use against the Allies: they were propaganda pieces, advanced cases of fascist martyrology and idealism. Pound had apparently been further enthused by the violent, quasi-mystical defiance of Mussolini’s final public speech in Milan, 1944.

72 and 73 are evidence for the prosecution of Pound. In preceding poems he had prepared the ground for this full ideological and aesthetic embrace of the Axis cause. Canto 35, for example, presented a nasty satirical portrait of pre-war Viennese Jewish society. Canto 38 introduced Pound’s new and tragic obsessions: the arms trade and the Social Credit theory of Major C. H. Douglas. In Canto 41, the poet explicitly hailed il Duce (or “The Boss”). In Cantos 45, 46 and 51 the mortal enemy was identified: “usury,” the destroyer of civilisations. By 72 and 73 the contemporary forces of usury had been specified: “Geryon, prototype of Churchill’s backers”; “Roosevelt, Churchill, and Eden,/the Jews, the bastards,/swindlers, the whole lot liars…” All of this was in the air, of course, but the Jews were an obsession for Pound at a time when Mussolini’s regime still employed them, a situation altered by the 1938 racial laws. While not an overt Nazi sympathiser (though he shared their paganism and susceptibility to the occult) Pound’s antisemitism was more pronounced than many of the original Italian Fascists, and was there to be exploited when necessary, as Orwell recalled: “I remember at least one [broadcast] in which he approved of the massacre of the East European Jews and “warned” the American Jews that their turn was coming presently.” (7)

Pound’s full identification with the cause and methods of Italian Fascism is revealed in 72 and 73, exposing his doctrinaire extremism. Pound’s family and backers were aware of their damaging potential, and the Ezra Pound Estate has never been willing to authorise English translations of the poems; they were excised from the New Directions and Faber Cantos until the 1987 edition, when they were finally included as an appendix, in Italian and without notes. Even now, 72 and 73 are considered aberrations, rather than (as they are) exemplars of The Cantos’ dark energy and ideological propulsion. These poems are a logical outcome of the ideas and loyalties laid out in Pound’s epic; they are also a key moment in the poet’s own personal and aesthetic journey, a basic underlying pattern and narrative of his work. They express the despair and defiance of the loyalists of Salò: the men who stuck with Mussolini and imposed fascism in Northern Italy in pure, totalitarian form, without the compromise of private business, monarchy or the Vatican. These two cantos are Salò poems: the driving forces of the Italian Social Republic — defiance and loss, sacrifice and redemption — are played out, embodied in them.

So 72 and 73 not only reveal but explicitly confirm Pound’s intimacy with and loyalty to the actual actors and characters who theorised, built and ran the fascist state. Canto 72 exhumes the spirit of Marinetti, killed by cardiac arrest in 1944 but eager to return to the fight in Pound’s body: “I want to go on fighting/& I want your body to go on with the struggle.” Who, in this poem, is the fight against? “[T]he great usurer Geryon,” Dante’s symbol of Fraud and “prototype of Churchill’s backers.” Pound is the poem’s centre, its vessel, visited by four spirits (or “voices”): Marinetti; the librarian and translator Manilio Dazzi; the Venetian tyrant Ezalino da Romano; and (briefly) the Empress Galla Placidia. The tone is elegiac, as well as defiant: Pound is an interlocutor, weary and at one remove, but these voices also appear to transmit his owns instincts and obsessions. Romano lauds Farinacci — the former Fascist ras and party secretary described by Denis Mack Smith as “vindictive, ambitious…a dedicated believer in political violence” (8) — in terms that match Pound’s own obsessions: as one who has “seen thru the swindle” of the “followers of fattened usury.” He is “honoured by the heroes,” among them the fallen Italian Fascist generals intoned by Romano and listed by Pound, but singled out with approval because of his fanaticism and antisemitism. It doesn’t seem to me that Pound is distancing this selection by making it Romano’s; rather Farinacci is elevated, in this poem of loyalty, violence and despair, to a fascist hero, a figure close to Pound’s own ideal: man of action and enemy of usury. The poet is not simply channelling his apparitions, but engaging in ventriloquism: Pound uses them to convey personal obsessions and ideals.

Canto 73 is more explicit. The poet is at the service of the regime. This time Pound invokes Guido Cavalcanti, the medieval Florentine scribe and associate of Dante, to recall a contemporary story of an Italian peasant girl who, raped by Canadian troops, takes revenge by leading them into a minefield. The tone is rapturous: an ecstatic martyrdom in the genre of fascist and Nazi iconography: kitsch, quasi-mystical. She is pictured singing with joy, “so brave a spirit”, holding two Germans by the arm, “singing of love.” This is camaraderie within the Pact of Steel, but the girl has “no desire for heaven”: she becomes “defiant of death” only after her violation by Allied soldiers, that “filthy pack.” These are the shock troops of “Roosevelt, Churchill, and Eden,” the pawns of Jewish bankers and arms dealers, rampaging through Italy, desecrating ancient temples and raping small girls. Her death is an instance of the fascist ideal, and her spirit the expression of its soul: “the child’s spirit/courageously/sang/sang…Glory of the fatherland!/Glorious, it is glorious/to die for one’s country/in Romangna.” This is propaganda, and Pound sells his lyric gift to do it: the poem is ugly, crude, tedious. It remains interesting as fascist and Nazi art, tapping into neo-pagan, neo-Romantic volk iconography of German National Socialism and the neo-classical, militaristic kitsch of Italian Fascism. By the middle of the war years, the divisions, separations and tensions within and between the fascist states and movements had become less distinct or important, and Pound’s poems convey this pan-fascist aesthetic, an ideal clarified by Romanian Iron Guard leader Horia Sima: “We must cease to separate the spiritual from the political man. All history is a commentary upon the life of the spirit” (9). These words could summarise Pound’s ultimate intention for The Cantos.

Pound’s supporters creep from defence of the poetry to absolution of the poet; they appear to take his recantations at face value and over-estimate personal relations. (For example, Zukofsky: “I never felt the least trace of antisemitism in his presence. Nothing he ever said to me made me feel the embarrassment I always have for the ‘Goy’ in whom a residue of antagonism to ‘Jew’ remains.”) I think Orwell was correct to hold the poet to account for his rhetoric and his opinions; he was also right to dismiss the plea of insanity that Pound would adopt to save his own skin. Pound’s broadcasts, wrote Orwell, “did not give me the impression of being the work of a lunatic”; the poet was a clever propagandist who knew exactly how to play to an isolationist and anti-Allied audience. At Pound’s trial, the Superintendent of St Elizabeths hospital, Dr. Winfrid Overholser, was asked to present his confirmation of Pound’s insanity; however, he did not reveal to the court that his own doctors disagreed with his conclusions and considered Pound to be “merely eccentric and wanted to see him tried and convicted” (10). To accept that Pound was simply “insane” when he composed his polemics, be they Rome Radio scripts or Cantos 72 and 73, is to some extent to accept that all of The Cantos are deranged doodles, a repository of crank conspiracy theories and junk verse, psychological case studies rather than art. Orwell, for one, considered Pound’s work to be “spurious” as poetry, although not because the poet was mad; Robert Conquest did his own forensic demolition job on Pound’s classical pretensions in an attempt to undermine the poet’s carefully cultivated authority.

For modern poetry, or what is left of it (if anything), The Cantos remain, as Delmore Schwartz described them, a touchstone. Or as Basil Bunting wrote: “you will have to go a long way round/if you want to avoid them.” You don’t need to reject the poetry along with the politics, or make weak attempts to minimise or separate the politics to redeem the poems. It is a fragmented, incomplete, incoherent epic that veers between intense evil and luminous insight, and because of this retains a unique tension and a tautness despite the diffuse elements and ranging references. Fascism and antisemitism are unavoidable forces in The Cantos that must be faced and understood. In the end they do not reduce or invalidate the poem, but complicate and deepen its power.

1) Quoted in Noel Stock, The Life of Ezra Pound (Penguin,1974), p.546
2) Quoted in William Cookson, A Guide to the Cantos of Ezra Pound (Anvil Press, 2001), p.144
3) Quoted in Stock, p.586-7
4) George Orwell, ‘A Prize for Ezra Pound’, Essays (Everyman Library, 2002), p.1363
5) Orwell, p.1362
6) Cookson, p.115
7) Orwell, p.1362
8) Denis Mack Smith, Mussolini (Paladin,1983), p.81
9) Quoted in George L. Mosse, The Fascist Revolution — Toward a General Theory of Fascism (Howard Fertig, Inc., 1999), p.12
10) Stock, p.538

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On Ben Jonson’s ‘Inviting a Friend to Supper’

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During an extended walking (and boozing) tour of his ancestral lands in 1618-9, Ben Jonson stayed at Hawthornden Castle as a guest of William Drummond. His host, a pompous, second-tier Scottish peddler of Petrarchan sonnets, scribbled down notes throughout this visit, later published with the title Ben Jonson’s Conversations with William Drummond of Hawthornden (what else?). These contain a rather biting pen-portrait of Jonson, who did not overly impress Drummond:

He is a great lover and praiser of himself, a contemner and scorner of others, given rather to lose a friend than a jest, jealous of every word and action of those about him (especially after drink, which is one of the elements on which he liveth), a dissembler of ill parts which reign in him, a bragger of some good that he wanteth, thinketh nothing well but what either he himself, or some of his friends and countrymen hath said or done. He is passionately kind and angry, careless either to gaine or keep, vindicative, but, if he be well answered, at himself.

This is meant to be a demolition job, it seems, but is undermined by its own ambivalence, as Drummond betrays an undertone of admiration in this litany of bad traits. All these flaws are (at the very least) half-attractive, double-edged. Drummond’s description adds nothing to our esteem of him, but we are not repelled or appalled by his subject, as he possibly thinks we should be. On the contrary: it is Jonson you’d want at the dinner table, not the self-important, saccharine Scot.

Jonson’s poems are smooth and urbane, choppy and charged; he draws on the Roman models of Catullus, Horace and Martial (“I know nothing can conduce more to letters than to examine the writings of the ancients,” he wrote in his Discoveries). They are more disciplined and conventional than Shakespeare’s sonnets and lack the ornate obscurity and startling naturalism of Donne’s early work. This is not always the case, of course, but holds true for the bulk of his Epigrams, the opening collection of poems in his first printed Folio. Jonson mastered “merry Martial”, solidifying the epigrammatic form for the English language, but he also learnt to stretch the convention thematically and structurally by studying the The Greek Anthology. His formidable and famous Classical learning gave him the edge on contemporary court hacks, who he dismissed: “thou hast seen/Davies and Weever/…mine come nothing like…” (Epigram 18).

And yet Jonson’s Epigrams are not all Roman grit and Greek grace: there is some of the bile and bite of his great stage comedies and satires in these pithy, perfectly formed poem-epistles. Throughout the edited collection you can trace Volpone’s abrupt and broken rhythms and feel the energy and irreverence of those dangerous theatre collaborations, The Isle of Dogs and Eastward Ho! (Jonson would be imprisoned for both of these plays, and face torture and possible execution; he was only rescued, each time, by good fortune and influential friends.) The poems savagely lampoon a gallery of Jacobean Court and Inns of Court characters, barely disguised by a series of sobriquets: Sir Cod the Perfumed, My Lord Ignorant, Court-Worm, Sir Voluptuous Beast and Prowl the Plagiary, to name a few. They also glorify Jonson’s Court allies and Country House patrons in extravagant terms. The poems serve a personal purpose here, and Jonson displays dual “modes” (in the Restoration sense): slanderer and scholar; satirist and sycophant. This was, simply, the way a successful poet lived through, or survived, the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras.

So there is a general and generous contradiction of character here that we can enjoy and that animate the poems; a “tough reasonableness” underlying lyric grace noted by T. S. Eliot in his 1921 essay on Andrew Marvell. Jonson, as described by Drummond, is abusive, vain, bad-tempered, badly behaved. He was in many ways the wrong sort: son of a brick-layer, convicted murderer (upon plunging a rapier into stage actor Gabriel Spencer), and Catholic convert; an unpredictable theatre-land trouble-maker with connections to the Earl of Essex and the Gunpowder Plot conspirators. This was to run just a few of the gravest risks in Elizabethan and Jacobean England. But he was, in the end, too canny, intelligent and talented to die; and, maybe more to the point, too well-connected. The scourge of Society aspirants, phoneys and double-dealers, Jonson was also one of the great buddies and raconteurs of English poetry, a loyal and bold-hearted bugger who could devise a mean masque and drink the King’s favourite under any table.

This stands out in his poem ‘Inviting a Friend to Supper’ (Epigram 101), the epicenter and great survivor of the Epigrams. Superficially (and formally) it is one of the least epigrammatic works in the collection, although it consciously draws on the “invitation poems” of Martial, Horace and Catullus (as well as the Greeks). It is within the tradition, relocating Rome and Athens in the gardens, houses and taverns of Jacobean England. Jonson invites a highly-esteemed acquaintance (“my grave friend”) to feast at his table, which over-flows with local produce; the appearance of this great guest will, alone, make the evening “perfect” rather than the delicious treats (“the cates”).

Jonson’s party promises colour and variety in its culinary and intellectual entertainment. The poem, in its rich variety and ease of cadence, is a celebration of conversation, friendship, liberty and learning. The correct company is, of course, crucial; “no Pooly, or Parrot” (spies, traitors, bad eggs) will be admitted into the home. Jonson lures his gang with extravagant enticements in the manner of Martial’s mock invitations: I will “lie” (he teases) “so you will come.” To the “olive, capers…some better salad,” the “mutton” and a “short-legged hen…full of eggs,” he adds an unlikely (yet feasible, and edible) menu of local fowl: “partridge, pheasant, woodcock,” “godwit, if we can:/knat, rail and ruff too.” This will be followed by “digestive cheese” and fruit, and (most importantly) “rich canary wine” from the famous Mermaid Tavern. Across this splendid spread they will share and recite a literary selection in line with the poet’s cherished Renaissance humanist ideal: “Virgil, Tacitus, Livy.”

Jonson presents an abstract ideal and an actual occasion, uniting public theme and private experience, the very art of the epigram. It has a social and personal function. It works and it has purpose. Jonson mastered this form better than the lesser Court Epigrammists because 1) his Classical learning far exceeded theirs, and 2) his “character” was already so dominant and to some extent artificial that private and public conflated in his very being, a psycho-social condition we now call celebrity. If he displayed distaste for publication and booksellers (circulation of elaborate manuscripts in private was the correct way to do things in the Elizabethan and Jacobean Courts and country houses) he was also one of the first of his contemporaries to arrange formal publication of his own work. He chose to display a lot of himself (on stage, on page, at Court and Oxford) and he mostly displayed big, glaring, attractive, forgivable contractions. His work may not have been loved in the same way or to the extent of Shakespeare’s, but there was, after all, ‘The Tribe of Ben’ whose influence was felt in living verse for decades.

T.S Eliot, in the Marvell essay, described an “alliance of levity and seriousness (by which the seriousness is intensified)” which characterised the poetic “wit” established and refined (in different ways) by Donne and Jonson. This tendency, or method, or skill, threaded through Marvell and the Caroline and Cavalier poets, to Dryden and Pope. (After this, according to Eliot, it was lost, fully eradicated by the Romantics.) In an earlier essay on Jonson, Eliot went a little further, to say: “his poetry is of the surface. Poetry of the surface cannot be understood without study; for to deal with the surface of life, as Jonson dealt with it, is to deal so deliberately that we too must be deliberate, in order to understand.” He distinguishes this, of course, from the “superficial” — a different thing altogether and associated here with Jonson’s pygmy stage rivals Beaumont and Fletcher. (Well, we could do with a Beaumont and Fletcher right now.)

The close weave of classical allusion and real life detail in ‘…Supper’ (“Tobacco, nectar, or the Thespian spring,/Are all but Luther’s beer, to this I sing”) is an elegant and easy example of Jonson’s complex surface art. The setting, the purpose, the tone and form are (now) rare and refreshing. This might explain the durability of certain Jonson epigrams, particularly this one: the rare quality and informal use of language in a now defunct formal role. There is something of it in the work of Frank O’ Hara, another singular voice whose influence was also wide but less rewarding than Jonson’s; in, for example, an elegy like ‘Poem Read at Joan Mitchell’s’, a piece composed for specific people on a particular occasion that nevertheless transcends its origin with self-conscious ambition and grace. Like Jonson, O’Hara locates and achieves a fine balance between public and private space and moment, the local and elemental, temporal and eternal. They can both, in these poems, transfigure the ephemeral and make the personal details of the day (of a life) speak for all time.

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Caspian Kitsch

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The European song contest is a big and beautiful holiday for some people but for others an occasion to organise political provocation. One must be prepared.
Mehriban Aliyeva, First Lady of Azerbaijan.

So, they built the Baku Crystal Hall on time. This austere-looking grey edifice, comprised of interlacing mesh-clad hexagons and overlooking the Caspian Sea, is about to host Eurovision 2012 after the victory, last year, of Anglo-Azeri pop duo Eldar & Nigar, aka Ell & Nikki. (Eldar Gasimov is Azeri cultural royalty: his great-grandmother was the People’s Artist of the Soviet Union in 1949 and his grandmother was named the People’s Artist of Azerbaijan two decades later. Nigar Jamal is from…Enfield.)

A hitherto convoluted visa regime has been simplified to ease entry for thousands of Euro-visitors and the anticipated tourist spill-over. Hustlers and courtesans have flocked from across the ravaged Eurovision continent and rich associated regions, flanked by sensation-seeking, scandal-scouring television hacks. Baku has been cleaned up, decorated, gentrified; its taxis sprayed purple and daubed with the Eurovision logo. American and English PR companies have pimped the Palace of the Shirvanshahs and the Petroglyphs of Gobustan in exotic magazine profiles and glossy advertising campaigns. Twenty years after violent secession from the Soviet Union and now awash with oil money and pulling levers on globally significant pipelines, the Azeri resurgence will be marked by Europe’s great festival of pop kitsch. This is their Chinese Olympics. So what’s going wrong?

The ruling family of Azerbaijan has a problem, a rather big and basic one: the Azeri population. This is because of how they rule — partly the method, but also the structure. There are many ways to describe the present day Azeri state, all accurate to a degree but without quite containing or defining the condition of this ex-Communist colony. It resembles a medieval feudal domain, sliced up by a pseudo-monarchic dynasty, regional money-clans and a parasitic class of bureaucratic administrators. It functions as a post-Soviet oligarchy: a “sovereign democracy” managed along Russian lines, utilising all the covert techniques invented and refined by Vladimir Putin’s regional election fixers. A one-dimensional oil economy, selling deep but dwindling reserves and spending massive windfalls with astonishing pace and great gluttony, it is like a Gulf Emirate of the Caucasus, or a Caspian Libya. It is an (ultimately) unstable kleptocracy, both dependent upon and terrified of its powerful neighbours (Russia, Iran) and playing dangerous games of seduction with their enemies (Israel, the UK). Finally, it conforms to a regional autocratic model: a secular security state keeping violent ethnic and religious furies at bay through force and bribery, a sort of soft-core Uzbekistan. All of this sums something (or some things) up, but without actually getting to the essential core of this alluring, tethered, tedious country.

All of the potential and variety, the wealth of detail, sound and vision, as well as actual mineral and monetary wealth, is locked up and locked away by one family and its cronies and agents and district allies. Everything is crushed by a flat and artificial personality cult that nobody believes in. As in North Korea, state ideology is an exercise in patriarchal necrophilia: the nation is dedicated, in servitude and as a sacral offering, to its former leader and alleged saviour, the current head of state’s dead Dad. This manifests itself, physically, as a soul-crushing and essentially silly routine of kitsch pageantry, enforced deification and camp authoritarianism. In a way, this makes Azerbaijan the perfect location for the Eurovision Song Contest.

Vast portraits and statues of Heydar Aliyev – the post-Soviet Azeri leader who rescued a ruined economy from warlords and gangsters and a vicious territorial scrap with Armenia – festoon street billboards, local shops, business offices and private homes. Avenues and museums, parks and transport terminals bear his name, resulting in endless duplication and constant confusion. In Baku region, it is a criminal offence to criticize Heydar or his descendants, a transgression that carries a stiff penal sentence (visitors are solemnly advised to stay off the subject). The anniversary of Heydar’s ascension is celebrated as a ‘National Day of Salvation’ and his birthday is a public holiday, marked by a blossom-strewn, firework-studded Flower Festival. The cult is mawkish, and compulsory: it defines political space and discourse and provides a central, artificial cultural identity, almost in opposition to art, ethnicity and religion.

There is an essential difference between the old reign of Heydar and the successor regime of Ilham, his son. Oil exports and pipeline realpolitik have given Aliyev Jr. a measure of power and prestige that would have sounded like rash fantasy to his father. The opening of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline in 2006 consolidated his power base, providing leverage and cover to curb opposition ambition and amass dizzying wealth. Whereas Heydar relied upon traditional clan networks, Ilham has cultivated the post-Communist Baku business class. This rising elite, brash but also urbane, has pioneered a new style of power in Azerbaijan: a sophisticated and ruthless mix of politics, industry, culture, commerce and crime. The woman Ilham chose to marry and her close relatives exemplify this new mode.

Mehriban Pashayeva – a qualified eye doctor, couture addict and Azeri parliamentarian — is an exquisite product of the Baku intelligentsia. Borne to a family of writers, diplomats and academics, she absorbed the unique ethnic clash and mix of Baku from a young age; she also obtained the patrician bearing of her wealthy and respected family name.  In the immediate post-Soviet Heydar era, the Pashayev colonised construction, tourism, insurance and banking, but stayed out of the energy sector and heavy industry. This was not simply a question of scale, but social style and regional demarcation: power and capital carefully partitioned between ruling families; state apparatus and infrastructure codified by clan. The Pashayev combined money with social and cultural prestige and looked, in this context, like liberals. Ilham Aliyev, in a strange way, married well.

Azerbaijan’s sumptuous First Lady is a complex, seductive, slightly deceptive, almost absurd figurine. Her constituency incorporates Heydar Aliyev International Airport and an enormous, deluxe shopping centre which sits alongside festering and destitute residential slums. The Heydar Aliyev Fund, which she runs, churns money into local charity and infrastructure projects, although the financial trail is hazy and the books are closed. UNESCO, perpetually up for sale, has designated her Goodwill Ambassador for Oral and Musical Traditions and awarded her the Mozart Medal “for strengthening Intercultural Dialogue.” She donated Fund money (rather stylishly) to renovation projects at Versailles and the Louvre, generosity that inspired Nicolas Sarkozy to award her the Legion d’Honneur for “outstanding service and loyalty to France.” Her own art collection forms the spine of the Baku Museum of Modern Art and she bank-rolled an expensive attempt to lure the Guggenheim Museum to the Caspian shore. In the lovely, verdant, lazy Canadian town of Niagra-on-the-Lake, there stands a Omar Eldarov bronze bust of the Aliyeva visage that bears the legend: “Divine Muse.” The Eurovision triumph was, itself, orchestrated through her wiles: having selected and promoted the winning entry, she then took executive control of the Baku 2012 organising committee. (Official Azeri culture, meanwhile, brooks no dissent.)

Mehriban’s extracurricular junkets and peripatetic activities are not incidental, but strategically central to Aliyev’s Western tilt. They burnish reputation and build prestige which, in turn, helps lure petrochemical investors and international financiers. It is not mere vanity and it is not (merely) politics, but big business. The building contract for the Crystal Hall, nominally awarded to a German construction firm, was subcontracted to a series of companies owned by Azenco, whose major share holders include Mehriban and her glorious daughters, Leyla and Arzu. The supposedly liberal, European, cosmopolitan wing of the regime is up to its neck in corruption, nepotism, money-laundering and embezzlement. Mehriban, so careful to publicise the schools she builds in rural slums, had no compunction in ordering the demolition of an entire neighbourhood (without compensation) to clear space for the ephemeral Eurovision spectacle.

The daughters, meanwhile, do their bit. Leyla is the family’s unofficial, roving cultural attaché, peddling their wares in Western Europe. A London-based associate of mixed Kensington fauna including Nat Rothschild, Giles Coren, Lord Mandelson and Prince Andrew, she prowls the gaudy Euro-elite interior, a doll-like Russian pop-star husband hanging onto her fragrant arm. A minor GONGO queen and sporadic Huffington Post scribe, she is full-time editor of Baku International, a fashion and lifestyle magazine funded by her father-in-law, the Russian retail mogul Aras Agalarov. This plushly-produced Condé Nast title features exotic fashion shoots and exclusive interviews with A-listers like Tom Ford and Bryan Ferry (the latter adorns the cover of the latest edition, looking windswept and debonair beneath a rippling Azeri flag). Her young sister Arzu is comparatively low-key, like a lynx next to a panther; Moscow-based and married to a minor oligarch, her business interests are less ostentatious, but as convoluted and as consequential. Both sisters (and their teenage brother) are partners in a holding company which owns every aspect of Azerbaijan Airlines. They possess multi-million dollar property portfolios in Dubai, major shares in Azeri telecom companies and co-own national banks.

This is raw accumulation — what we, outside Italy, call theft. Ferry flirting with Aliyeva fille or Prince Andrew lobbying British firms on behalf of the regime provides cover for a grand extortion racket in total control of a territory of such mineral wealth and geopolitical import that it triggered the Cold War. Azeris know (with clarity and a sense of urgency) that they are ruled by thieves, and the kitsch trappings and the glossy gifts cannot cover it. They will tell you, it cannot go on.

In the run up to Eurovision, the streets and squares of central Baku have been alive with the chaos and noise of street protest and opposition rallies, dissident masques and jamborees. An otherwise beaten and divided political opposition has been reignited and united by the Eurovision spotlight and by parallel protest movements convulsing Arab and Persian lands. Things have been stirring in the Azeri regions for the first time since 2005, when Aliyev eliminated his enemies at the polls. That campaign took place in the highly charged atmosphere that followed regime change in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan: Otpor and Pora tactics spread across borders, firing up Azeri activists and energising the opposition bloc. Ilham fought back with ruthless determination, deploying military police armed with batons and tear-gas to break up protests and employing bizarre tactics designed to undermine and intimidate his enemies. Democratic Party deputy Ehtiram Jalilov collapsed and died after drinking a suspicious cup of tea; national team athletes were ordered to attack the Popular Front Party of Azerbaijan’s central office; Yeni Fikir leader Ruslan Bashirli was caught in a sting operation that led to false charges of sedition and treason. Some of this looked desperate and amateur at the time, but proved effective, even terminal. The sinister hidden hand of roving Russian “political technicians” was clear and obvious; in all the poisonings and stitch-ups, you could detect their art and technique.

After the dismemberment of the opposition campaign, the parties were finally broken at the ballot box, with results safely rigged. A sanctioned protest was banished to a parking lot on the outskirts of town and the tent “city” erected by Yox! and Yeni Fikir stragglers was briskly, violently dispersed. After the last defiant activists returned home, the arrests and beatings began. (The Belarusian opposition would meet a similar fate three months later.) Until last April, it seemed like there was no effective opposition movement left standing: the election of 2008 was barely contested at all. Then, in the context of the Arab Spring and Eurovision, the atmosphere changed.  Opposition elders suspended their feuds, and formed The Public Chamber coalition with non-partisan activists, youth movements and NGOs. Authority had been rocked in neighbouring countries – most importantly in Iran (whose agents and proxies consistently meddle in Azeri affairs). Social media unlocked dissent. Mass protest returned to the streets of Baku with an unsanctioned rally held in Fountain Square, at the heart of the downtown shopping precinct. It was met with zero-tolerance tactics: a full arsenal of batons, rubber bullets, stun guns, tear gas and random detention. As winter set it in, party leaders and grassroots activists organised themselves for the new year and for Eurovision.

In the last couple of months, the largest rallies since 2005 have burst upon Azerbaijan. The latest unsanctioned demonstration picketed the mayoral office in Baku, before being broken up by riot police. Crucially, the state is soft-peddling, and will do so until the media spotlight dims once more – presenting both danger and opportunity for opposition voices. But the lesson remains: for the regime to realise its ambitions, it must learn to cope with visibility, scrutiny. Everything will be transparent; every street musician or rally organiser arrested or tied up and beaten for five hours straight will eventually speak to foreign journalists or international TV crews. The Aliyev regime is ultimately weak precisely because it relies on oil wealth and a vicious security apparatus to deliver its most cherished desire: to join the West, free from the exertions and interest of Russia and Iran.

Eurovision has exposed the complexity and fragility of their position, the central contradiction (and conflict) between their desires and the reality they have created. The only way to avoid stagnation or collapse is, as ever, to reform – a course that can only dilute power, and eliminate those who hoard it. Sooner or later, this weekend or next year, the Azeris will force the point they have been making since (at least) 2005: this cannot go on any longer.

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The Passion of Yulia Tymoshenko

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Judges, in general, are fuckers.
Leonid Kuchma, President of Ukraine 1994 – January 2005.

I: The Trial

The trial of Yulia Tymoshenko reached a plateau with her arrest for contempt of court in early August. This had been a long time coming, although it was difficult to tell whether the Judge, Tymoshenko or the Ukrainian masses gripped to their TV sets were satisfied or incensed by the course of proceedings. It had also become increasingly difficult to decide who was in control of events, or engineering them. Inside and outside the courtroom a grim media scrum ground out stock imagery of tent cities, government goons and broken eggs. At least part of this was inspirational, and part of it was sinister. But two separate sides were, after all, once more, clearly visible.

Tymoshenko has never been more vulnerable or (consequently) more powerful than she is at this moment, caught between courtroom and cell block. Throughout this vindictive political farce, she has been magnificently disruptive. Dressed in immaculate white with her famous crown of plaits pinned perfectly into place, her physical appearence has been an act of provocation in itself. From day one, she refused to recognise the authority of President Viktor Yanukovych’s annointed Judge, Rodion Kireyev. “I will not stand in front of you,” she declared, “because it would be like kneeling in front of the mafia.” From the dock, she scowled, laughed, hectored, feigned indifference; wielding her iPad, she uploaded scorn and savagery onto a suddenly hyperactive Twitter account. When Judge Kireyev was shown this tumbling satire he was, you might say, peeved, and submitted it as evidence for the prosecution.

From the stalls her supporters punctured the menace and mendacity of her accusers; cries of “shame” and “liar” echoed around the chamber walls. A government militia regularly evicted protestors from the building, where they joined burgeoning pro-Tymoshenko crowds in the square outside. Every day, growing numbers congregated with banners, portraits and loudspeakers, mobile phones, laptops and songs. Access to TV crews, social media and international journalists (notably the peerless RFE/RL team) proved to be a priceless asset in a country still trying to carve out liberated space, still fighting the fate of Belarus and Uzbekistan. A tent city erected by Tymoshenko activists supplied poignant echoes of 2004 and the Orange surge of outrage and optimism that first brought her to power. Finally, after two months of protest and pressure, Yanukovych and Kireyev lost patience and control. By August 8th, Tymoshenko was back in jail for the first time in ten years and the tents outside Pechyorsky Court had been demolished by riot police.

She had no choice, of course. She could not stay quiet. Martyrdom is not her style. Accepting the terms of her trial would only legitimize the charges and those making them. She would be at their mercy and, because the trial has been specifically designed to destroy her, they would be merciless. A strategy of maximum confrontation was her only recourse and, to an extent, it worked: her American and EU supporters were jolted into action by pictures of her being led out of court in chains. The Yanukovych regime is packed with powerful enemies, the same cartel of oligarchs, gangsters, and political henchman she defeated with Viktor Yushchenko in 2004. This is their revenge.

II: Bushchenko & The Gas Princess

Tymoshenko began her political career alongside Yushchenko, working for Leonid Kuchma; for as long as they lasted, they were the only effective and genuine reformers to ever work in his rogue administrations. In office, they directly challenged the political and business clans of Donetsk, an industrial oblast in the East of Ukraine represented by the Party of the Regions. This was the political bloc led by Kuchma and Yanukovych and supported by Putin and Medvedev, who viewed them as a vessel for Russian interests and influence. Yushchenko and Tymoshenko lost their first fight with this faction, with dramatic and far-reaching consequences. Yushchenko was swiftly dispatched into the political wilderness and recast as Bushchenko — the Western stooge with a suspicious Washington wife. However, Tymoshenko paid a heavier price. The Gas Princess from Donetsk, scourge of Gazprom and the Eastern energy oligarchs, was both too close and too hostile to Kuchma to survive. “Yulia must be destroyed,” he blurted out in a conversation recorded in March 2000, “we need a criminal case against her, to put her ass in prison.” Her first incarceration soon followed.

In origin and style, they were kin. She had been a rising star of the Dnipropetrovsk business clan, a minor energy oligarch from the same circles that supplied Kuchma with his closest allies. By declaring war on her, Kuchma transformed Tymoshenko into the most powerful and radical political reformer in the Republic. Eastern by birth, linguistically Russian, she became a leading member of an opposition bloc culturally and organisationally centred on Kiev. Her popular alliance with Yushchenko bore spectacular fruit in the freezing cold winter of 2004, when Ukraine stood at an existential crossroads and half a million Western Ukrainians filled Maidan Nezalezhnosti in defiance of the Donetsk cartel and their Russian fixers. To ride the wave of patriotic redemption and political resistance that she had partly inspired, she turned nationalist, learning to speak Ukrainian and refining her now iconic look: the couture vyshyvanka and halo of braids. It was a spectacular metamorphosis, both for Ukraine and for Tymoshenko.

Now, after the agonising and convoluted break up of the Orange coalition, she is in jail once more; the assailants are slightly different, the personnel shuffled, but the Party of the Regions state machine is intact, active, and intent on finally eliminating her. In fact the trial has been a double revenge. Ukrainians, whether glued to their TV sets or trying hard to avoid the extensive coverage, have witnessed the unsightly spectacle of the two Viktors, themselves sworn enemies, uniting to vanquish a mutual antagonist. Yanukovych is determined to finish her off, everybody knows this. The trial is, among other things, the prospective end of a long and deep political vendetta. This is just business as usual, rational bloodletting. But for the democrats of Ukraine, the appearance of Yushchenko as a witness for the prosecution has been a horror show.

Yushchenko’s testimony cut to the heart of the case against Tymoshenko, his allegations concerning the gas deal she brokered with Putin and Gazprom to end the 2009 gas war. Ukraine had been left without heating in the middle of a subzero December because of the dispute; at the time, Tymoshenko’s diplomatic deal was greeted with relief and applause by a grateful, cold nation. But in Yushchenko’s version of events, her negotiating tactics led to disaster, inadvertently committing Ukraine to ruinously high payments after Putin had offered her a deal for half the price finally agreed. “There was a complete breakdown in negotiations,” he claimed; the final deal “was a knife in the back”. His performance was met with contempt by Tymoshenko. “Let God be his judge,”she hissed, as Yushchenko’s Mercedes sped away from the centre of Kiev, pelted with eggs, to cries of “traitor”. The final collapse of the Orange compact was bitter and definitive.

For his part, Yanukovych has more in mind than mere vengeance; he seeks to outlaw her gas deal in Ukraine’s highest court. But, against a backdrop of increasing tension with Russia and personal animosity with Putin, the political cost is high. Their relationship disintegrated in the period after the 2004 election, when Putin had backed Yanukovych to the hilt and dispatched the Kremlin’s fabled “political technologists” to run his campaign and fix the voting rounds. In return for this assistance, Yanukovych agreed to tilt Ukraine back towards Russia, promising to raise the status of the Russian language and extend the lease for the Black Sea Fleet’s Crimean naval base. Last year, desperate to soften Putin and renegotiate the gas deal, Yanukovych extended the lease for 20 years. This won him a meagre discount, but no more.

The Russian Fleet is a highly emotive issue, a permanent challenge to Ukraine’s sovereignty. Russia, for instance, sent warships from Crimea to attack Georgia in August 2008, implicating Ukraine in a war it did not support or otherwise participate in. Ratification of the lease extension led to a furious brawl in the Rada; eggs, smoke bombs and wild punches were thrown around the parliamentary chamber. Tymoshenko led the charge against this betrayal of the national interest: “I don’t want to see our country fall under authoritarianism and controlled democracy,” she thundered from the floor of the Rada, adding with appropriate melodrama: “at stake is the future of Europe and the region.” (At stake, also, was the territorial boundary of Ukraine, as Crimean separatists felt encouraged to intensify their campaign for unification with Russia.) Her intervention was a pure expression of her style: audacious, definitive, rash, and tinged with hypocrisy. It was to be one of her last flourishes as a free woman and democratic politician; the gangsters from the Eastern oblasts were running things once more, and they had plans for her.

III: Mona Yulia

In captivity Tymoshenko’s health quickly and visibly deteriorated; led into court, she looked drained, physically frail, prematurely aged. “Bruises from broken blood vessels have appeared all over her body,” wrote her faithful deputy Oleksandr Turchynov, “her life is in danger.” In an urgent and dramatic statement to the court, Tymoshenko’s defense lawyer requested an independent medical examination and blood tests, but the appeal was dismissed by Kireyev — with suspicious force, some felt. Their paranoia was not unfounded; taking their cue from Russian secret service agents and election fixers, Yanukovych, Kuchma and their rogue SBU agents had tried to kill opponents before, sometimes successfully. Before the 2004 election, Yushchenko was fed lethal doses of dioxin at a secret dinner in the dacha of the deputy head of the SBU; luckily, he vomited most of the poison on the way home, but his face was left half-paralysed and permanently disfigured. He was fortunate to live; around the same time, the Kremlin’s enemies were being picked off with toxic chemicals and radioactive particles all over the post-Soviet sphere, and even in Western capitals.

But Tymoshenko — being no fool, as Kuchma correctly noted — knows that she no longer has to fear the Kremlin. Putin and Medvedev do not back Yanukovych with the old ruthless conviction because they are implicated in her plight now. It is not in their interest to see her ruined by this particular gas deal. She also knows, after Yushchenko and Litvinenko, what political damage has been caused by the botched assassination attempts of shady secret service agents. There are other factors in her favour too: Kuchma isolated Ukraine from the international community after the assassination of Hryhorii Gongadze in 2000 and the sale of radar equipment to Saddam Hussein on the eve of the Iraq war. After the Orange Revolution, with Russia pushing oil and gas levers at either end of his energy-less country, Yanukovych cannot make his mentor’s mistakes. Ironically, both for his political party and for the Donetsk mafia behind it, he can no longer afford to alienate the EU or rely on Russia.

Why do they fear and loath Yulia Tymoshenko? Her passion and provocation has driven them beyond rational politics already; this in a country with a notoriously irrational and corrupt political culture, where even angels are oligarchs and legality merely a matter of taste or expedience. Tymoshenko has her own shady secrets, an impure past that, in another country or a different political climate, she would be expected to account and atone for. But in Ukraine, in 2011, she is the last standing dissentient to the dictatorship of Donetsk. Unlike Yushchenko, she won’t concede or compromise. She understands her enemies, their tactics and mentality, from the inside, out. In the end, she was the lodestar of opposition to their mafia state. Kuchma knew this all along and Yanukovych has learnt it.

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GooGoosha’s Golden Globe

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I: The House of Guli

Guli Collections provided a minor if exotic diversion from the Donna Karan and Calvin Klein Spring Collections at New York Fashion Week last autumn. Gulnara Karimova piqued curiosity with a relaxed spin on ethnic tradition as she presented exquisite, hand-crafted products from her newly expanded fashion label. Guli’s tiered dresses and flowing skirts and harem pants had all been cut from traditional Central Asian textiles and fabrics that included warp ikats and organic silks, patterned madras and Tajik bekasam, knitted atlas and handmade shoyi. Each ensemble was accessorised with gold-embroidered and chain-stitched leather bags and deluxe items from the GULI jewellery line.

The collection reflected Gulnara’s split style, her dual personality: a self-conscious combination of Uzbek tradition and Western aspiration. Whether flogging ethnic fabrics to foreigners to feed a million dollar couture addiction or opening up Central Asia to the most elite fashion houses on the planet, her activities have not escaped controversy. This is partly due to who she is, the clan she belongs to. Her father, Islam Karimov, President of Uzbekistan, is notorious for boiling opponents alive and ordering the indiscriminate slaughter of rural protesters in broad daylight. He owns the entire state machinery of Uzbekistan and uses it to enrich and protect his relations and allies. The House of Guli is not exempt from state-size extortion and global nepotism, and operates against a background of extreme social exclusion and exploitation.

Gulnara Karimova began her fashion career designing exclusive pieces of jewellery for wealthy friends after training at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. She spent the early Nineties flitting between Manhattan and Harvard, collecting qualifications and avoiding her Afghan husband, a chauvinistic businessman based in New Jersey. After finally abandoning this dismal marriage, she returned to Tashkent with her children and concentrated on building GULI into a global luxury brand. Later, while working as Uzbekistan’s envoy to the UN Office at Geneva, she struck up an advantageous and lasting friendship with Caroline Gruois-Scheufele, then Vice President of Chopard. This close relationship resulted in a collaboration between GULI and Chopard that was due to be unveiled at the Basel Watch and Jewellery Trade Fair in 2008.

It never happened. Chopard bluntly withdrew on the eve of the show because of the growing controversy surrounding Gulnara and her father’s grisly regime. By 2009, a Chopard spokesman bluntly denied any connection to GULI, dismissing their earlier association as a one-off collaboration between Karimova and Gruois-Scheufele. Clearly, a venerable European luxury institution would not allow itself to be tarnished by unsavoury Central Asian ties, regardless of personal loyalties within the company. (Gulnara and Caroline remain close pals, cruising the same Swiss social circuit and attending each other’s parties in Cannes and Tashkent.)

Gulnara’s troubles actually began with UNICEF. The official, financial justification for her couture activities (still, she maintains, a mere “hobby”) is charity. All profits are fed straight into Gulnara’s youth projects and charity funds in the dirt-poor rural regions of Uzbekistan – in close cooperation, she claims, with the UN Child Fund. But this ‘co-operation’ has been exposed by UNICEF itself as non-existent, a lie: their offices in Tashkent and Geneva angrily deny any involvement with either Guli or Chopard. UNICEF, in fact, led a global campaign against forced child labour in the cotton fields of Uzbekistan, notably exposing Gulnara’s father. By the time Guli Collections debuted in New York, UNICEF had joined forces with Wal-Mart, Macy’s, Nike and hundreds of other fashion brands and retailers in boycotting Uzbek-sourced cotton. (On this point, Chopard also balked.) If the growing controversy had any affect on Gulnara, then she revealed nothing. Dining with fashion pals Sonia Rykiel and Oscar de la Renta while grabbing all the plaudits and contacts the fashion hacks and retailers had to offer, Gulnara sailed through New York Fashion Week and moved on.

On to Tashkent and her October fashion gala, Style.uz – with Oscar and Sonia and Valentino all following the glamorous, risqué Central Asian cash caravan. This is Gulnara’s prize event: an annual showcase that attracts world-class designers and entertainers, entrepreneurs and speculators. In past years, Rod Stewart, Julio Iglesias and Sting sang at gala concerts for million dollar fees, while fashion luminaries Kenzo and Guy Laroche and Revillon ran catwalk displays and workshops. In 2010, MaxMara stood out among the labels choosing to burnish Gulnara’s fashion credentials and flog her internal retail empire. Jose Carreras took to the stage at the Palace of International Forums to close the week’s cultural festivities. Money flowed through Forum Fund coffers. British Ambassador Rupert Joy proudly endorsed Gulnara’s endeavours (and fragrant personage) at a news conference that enraged human rights activists. When Sting was accused of hypocrisy, greed and idiocy for taking $2million to play the Tashkent Opera House in 2009, he sullenly defended himself by saying, “I have come to believe that cultural boycotts are not only pointless gestures, they are counter-productive” and “the concert was, I believe, sponsored by UNICEF.” One year on, and in even worse circumstances, the very notion of a cultural boycott looked more remote and meaningless than ever. Nobody even cared to mention UNICEF.

Meanwhile, Gulnara was proving to be an unstoppable, unreflective, dynamic, slightly unhinged and paradoxical regional force. She seemed, even, to exceed the remit of her father’s banal brutality. She looked good, and in the refined and hollow world in which she moved, this provided a passport to success and legitimacy. Recording songs with her pop star chum Julio Iglesias in New York City or clinging onto the arm of Nat Rothschild at Kensington cocktail parties, an atmosphere of irresistible danger hung around her – something unsavoury yet attractively outré. And this wasn’t just to do with Daddy boiling people to death in Jaslyk prison or sending soldiers to shoot down crowds in the Fergana valley. She had her own reputation, too.

II: Tashkent Wildlife

Buried deep within last year’s Wikileaks deluge was a series of diplomatic cables from the US embassy in Tashkent describing Gulnara as “the most hated women in Uzbekistan” and “a robber baron” who had acquired crude oil contracts “in a deal with a local mafia boss.” The cables, composed by junior diplomats who had toured Tashkent’s nightclubs and embassy parties, also focused on the social activities of Gulnara’s younger sister, Lola.

While growing up, Gulnara and Lola Karimova followed the young heiresses of Moscow and Paris in their search for role models outside the Central Asian brat packs. By their mid-twenties, they had learnt exactly how to exploit their father’s power structure and how to have a lot of fun doing it. With her particular appetite and ambition, Gulnara created a new (and extreme) template, while compact, pretty, precise Lola refined the model. More closely tailored to the efficient and patriotic Yulia Tymoshenko mode than couture groupie Guli, Lola kept business close to home. Like her sister, she set up GONGOs to educate orphans and save starving children and cloaked herself in UNESCO accolades, but she was, at heart, always a home girl. She took over Tashkent’s most exclusive and fashionable clubs, Barkhan and Basha, thereby snatching executive stakes in the city’s violent, vice-ridden nightlife.

Her clubs entertained a rough, rich mix of diplomats and foreign contractors, local gangsters and government officials, and remain the only venues in the city to openly sell illegally imported alcohol. The leaked US cables drew a vivid picture of Lola arriving in her Porsche Cayenne S Sports Utility Vehicle (“one-of-a-kind for Tashkent”) and after “taking her prominently reserved booth amidst all the action and protected by four bodyguards,” drinking and dancing until morning with her “thuggish-looking boyfriend.” In this swirling centre of political corruption and organized crime – the cables also highlighted the proximity of gangsters to politicians in Tashkent – Lola ruthlessly, and resourcefully, carved out her own territory through hostile takeovers and family contacts.

But Gulnara was the innovator in this sphere, and Lola looked contrite by comparison. Linking international social climbing to massive state corruption, mob tactics to fashion design, Guli pioneered a unique and unstable style. Inside Uzbekistan she built a fashion and retail empire, colonising Tashkent shopping space and Uzbek airwaves. Her TV and radio stations – again set up under the auspices of the all-embracing Forum Fund children’s charity with its fake UNICEF endorsement – pumped out the songs and videos of her alter ego, GooGoosha. Her magazine, Bella Terra, also peddled GULI and GooGoosha merchandise and printed her personal health, wealth and beauty tips.

In 2005, GooGoosha appeared like a glazed apparition out of the gun-smoke of Andijan. Already a self-described poet and designer, Gulnara’s brief detour into music was an impressively mad move in a country famous for its extravagant progressive rock scene and exquisite devotion to the lute. GooGoosha’s folky synthpop took control of the media channels, much as Ceca’s turbo-folk captured the Serbia of Milosevic, though with less popular licence. After cutting a gloopy duet with Julio Iglesias (something of a stalwart in the Guli saga), she released her first and so far only single (‘Unutma Meni’) complete with a promotional video that looked like a Roger Dean fantasy rendered in CGI.

This was, obviously, a stroke of genius: a wild move still unrivalled by any of her Central Asian or Russian contemporaries or competitors. But as TV-Markaz endlessly rotated GooGoosha’s one and only video, growing business interests and investments revealed a serious, hard-edged operator at work. “Most Uzbeks,” noted one US diplomat, “see Karimova as a greedy, power hungry individual who uses her father to crush business people or anyone else who stands in her way.” NGO reports and transnational lawsuits began to expose and confirm in some detail her brutal, break-neck accumulation of Uzbek real estate, media and industry. Gulnara, patron of the Arts and saviour of Uzbek youth, could, it turned out, give Russian gangsters and Ukrainian oligarchs a good run for their loot.

III: GONGO Queens & Gangster Capitalists 

The pace of events accelerated in 2005. It was the year of the Cedar and the Tulip, a time tinged Orange and Rose. A wave of defiance swept from Ukraine and the Levant into Central Asia and the Middle East; Mubarak and Lukashenko, Putin and the House of Saud, all felt its surge. In Kyrgyzstan, in March, armed crowds chased Askar Akayev and his thieving family out of the presidential palace in Bishkek; they fled, in a helicopter, to Kazakhstan.

Karimov had watched this drama unfold on live TV, so when revolt erupted in the Fergana Valley in the middle of May, he was ready. Army units quelled mass protest with machine guns in the desperate town of Andijan, killing hundreds. This was a gory threshold for the entire region and wrecked Uzbekistan’s strategic relationship with the US and most of Europe. It also exposed the brittle, unstable reality of Karimov’s rule, and the fragile security of his own family. With no obvious dynastic succession, and no guarantee of stability or security beyond excessive state violence or the indulgence of Chinese and Russian leaders, a secure “exit strategy” was suddenly required, some insurance against political and personal oblivion. Available solutions could only include more money, power and violence. Or, less obviously: a pop video, a contract with Chopard and a chain of couture boutiques.

Gulnara was already a prolific and eclectic empire builder; after 2005, she simply stopped being discreet about it. Dug deep inside her father’s state machinery, she extorted and threatened with the full force of corporate money and security muscle behind her. She grabbed what she wanted and terrorised business rivals, threatening them with “kidnapping, incarcerations, malicious prosecutions on trumped-up charges, sham trials, torture, sexual assaults, and possibly death,” according to lawsuit papers filed by a Texan loose tea company evicted from the Uzbek market by her machinations. Her ex-husband’s Coca-Cola bottling plant in Tashkent was another victim: charged with tax violations and assaulted by military police, he surrendered all internal assets to state authorities, leaving them in Gulnara’s hands.

Gigantic sums of money flowed through holding companies and commercial properties, to be transferred into family trusts and offshore bank accounts. These sums, their source and destination remained mysterious, although a Swiss business journal felt able to place Karimova among the world’s 300 richest people in 2009. “I have a lot of friends who have things like restaurants and hotels and who restore buildings,” she stated in a 2004 interview, “but that does not mean that these things are mine.” As they expanded and proliferated, her investments proved difficult to disguise. An omniscient media and retail empire puffed her profile and pushed her merchandise. She brought the country’s main mobile phone operator and a controlling stake in its biggest cement factory. She acquired a tourism company in Dubai, snatching commercial rights to all Uzbek travel to the Emirate (inviting unsavory and probably false accusations of sex trafficking). She acquired major shares in the oil, gas and textile industries and used the revenue to found a wealthy football club. A network of shadow companies advanced her interests, permeating almost every profitable sector of the Uzbek economy (including loose tea) and leading back to one intriguing Swiss conglomerate, Zeromax.

Founded in the lovely lakeside tax haven of Zug in 2001, Zeromax grew to be the single largest foreign investor in Uzbekistan. By 2005, it operated hydrocarbon pipelines, agricultural and textile plants, mined bentonite and gold, extracted oil and gas; it owned a chain of petrol stations and shares in national banks. Its proprietor and chief executive, Mirodil Jalolov, was a close business partner and confidante of Gulnara. Jalalov negotiated multi-million dollar deals on her behalf and oversaw her various vanity projects, including the construction of the Palace of the Forums and the FIFA ambitions of her football club, Bunyodkor. This duo, within a decade, almost colonised a country.

The power and methods of Zeromax at its peak – mob tactics with state backing – were clearly demonstrated by the partition of the British Gold mining firm Oxus. In 2006, regional tax and customs authorities charged Oxus with breaching Uzbek tax laws; the company allegedly owed $225 million in unpaid rates, customs duties, fines and penalties. Despite the enormous amount of money involved, all charges were dropped as soon as Oxus directors agreed to sell a substantial chunk of their Amantaytau Goldfield venture to Jalalov, who then joined their board. By acceding to this forced asset strip Oxus secured their Uzbek operations, but under conditions of state sufferance. Jalalov gained at their expense, with full state assistance, but even he would not escape the malignant intrigues of the Karimov clan for long.

The resource monopoly Zeromax enjoyed proved unstable and unsustainable; Uzbekistan’s oil and gas fields were just too tantalizing to be ignored by the big regional players. Russian energy giants Gazprom and Lukoil raged at Jalalov’s hegemony and relayed their anger to Karimov through the diminutive channel of Dmitry Medvedev. Gazprom Investholding’s chairman Alishar Usmanov – notorious thug, football financer, Uzbek ex-pat – already enjoyed good relations with the Karimovs. Charmed by Gulnara’s physical assets, he had paid her an $88 million dollar bribe to secure control of Uzbekistan’s natural gas reserves (an exchange first reported by ex-ambassador Craig Murray).

This deal established a financial and strategic partnership that redefined Uzbek geopolitics; with Russian money and diplomatic support, Karimov was able to expel US forces from their K2 military base in late 2005. This reversal was secured by Usmanov and Gulnara’s backroom transaction on behalf of Putin and Karimov; a diplomatic spat with Condoleezza Rice, in full Freedom March mode after the Andijan massacre, simply provided a political backdrop. Gazprom gained huge import contracts from Karimov and funded key investment projects in Uzbekistan, including exploration work in Ustyurt and a geological examination of the (rapidly receding) Aral Sea. The unholy alliance of Usmanov, Karimov and Jalalov reaped enormous rewards for all interested parties until rivalry, greed and incompetence finally blew the pact apart. Gulnara was at the centre of this drama; she was, to some degree, its central actor.

In the end, Zeromax could not pay back their loans or tax arrears. Prestigious building projects ground to a halt. Assets were seized by the National Security Service and several hundred employees were sacked. Jalalov was briefly detained by police before being released and scurrying back to his last remaining redoubt, the company office at Zug. Regime financiers transferred Zeromax shares to the state energy company Uzbeknettegaz and Gazprom’s major rival in the Uzbek energy market, Lukoil. The conglomerate had collapsed in on itself with debts topping $4 billion; those owed money included Gazprom itself, several German construction companies, Ukrainian oligarch Rinat Akhmetov, and the entire Bunyodkor football team. Karimova had embezzled large sums of this enormous debt in her offshore accounts and luxurious properties in Moscow, Geneva and Spain. The sheer scale of her theft debilitated Zeromax and crippled national energy production, provoking a severe fuel crisis that still afflicts the country today.

Zeromax was also undermined by a series of grandiose construction projects, all instigated by Gulnara. The prestige and scale of these buildings severely aggravated Jalalov’s predicament. The centre piece was to be a gigantic kitsch palazzo — the grandly titled Palace of the Forums — built to celebrate the 18th anniversary of Uzbek independence. The putative purpose of the building was to host charity events and political conferences, but it was a largely cosmetic edifice, arising from the narcissistic daydreams of Gulnara. Having agreed to an impossible completion date, Jalalov lived on-site, anxiously surveying the construction work from his caravan. As the doomed deadline approached, he was seen frantically thrusting money into the hands of the German construction workers, begging them to work overtime.

Their other great project – a 35,000-seater, open-air stadium for Bunyodkor – has yet to be completed. When Zeromax collapsed, the construction cranes simply stopped, steel beams swinging in mid-air. Bunyodkor FC is itself testament to Gulnara’s vulgar hubris and global vision; it is barely a legitimate football club at all, but a recent confection bankrolled by Jalalov and mentored by Gulnara’s chum, former FC Barcelona president Joan Laporta. Jalalov spent billions attempting to buy fixtures with top European clubs and scooping Rivaldo and Scolari with stratospheric wages. Referees showed routine bias towards Bunyodkor, known by weary opponents as “the team of the daughter of the President.” During one tense match against a rival Tashkent team, Jalalov was seen rampaging along the touchline waving a pistol at the players. Bunyodkor’s Superclub aspirations ended with the liquidation of Zeromax, although half a stadium still stands; the partnership with Barcelona departed with Laporta, and Rivaldo and Scolari both terminated their contracts once they realised there was no money left. There is a rumour going around Tashkent that the recent hike in traffic fines is designed to raise funds to finish the deluxe stadium – which is, after all, due to host the U-20 Women’s World Cup next year. But for now, the German construction firms remain unpaid, cranes are still motionless and weeds grow through the cracks.

In the end, the implosion of Zeromax, with all its personal and financial fallout, did not really affect Gulnara at all. As one former assistant candidly explained, “it accomplished its mission. It laundered the money.” After Zeromax had been dismantled, and the spoils shared, Karimov made an important speech in Tashkent, which concluded with some menace: “we will have no oligarchs.” Jalalov was expendable. Zeromax directors had subverted the state with their own illicit smuggling activities and made enemies at the heart of the regime. As her assistant indicated, “Gulnara doesn’t need this; she needs to look clean for European society.”

The aggressive seizure of state assets by Zeromax amounted to a desperate hording of wealth by the elderly Karimov; the realignment with Russia and Putin, via Gazprom, established strategic security after scares in Andijan and Kyrgyzstan. Gulnara paid a critical, and exorbitant, role in this illicit acquisition; she also, alongside Lola, helped disguise its sources and methods. Part of this involved Gulnara’s self-promotion in New York and Cannes and her ambassadorial dabbling in Geneva and Madrid; paying pinheads like Sting and Rod Stewart to play gigs in Tashkent was also part of the political camouflage.

Furthermore, the Karimova girls peddled a charity masquerade, presiding over an internal explosion of GONGOs. Gulnara was an indiscriminate charity maven, decorating projects with UN initials and lauding Fund Forum connections with careless abandon. The latter was used as an all-purpose vehicle to carry fashion shows and charity balls, sports tournaments and pop concerts, geopolitical seminars and diplomatic ceremonials. The Palace of the Forums, once completed, hosted her summits and catwalk galas, all in the name of her charities, which split and expanded, to incorporate women’s aid, cancer, sports programmes, an Uzbek symphony orchestra, and so on; she was photographed for an Uzbek society magazine dressed in couture finery amongst its white marble German interiors and neo-Speer colonnades. In the same year, she presented her diplomatic credentials to the King of Spain and published an academic paper on regional security in the journal of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. So at a certain point this blizzard of activity stopped making any sense. It did, however, serve to hide her as it promoted her, a paradoxical  and entirely suitable arrangement.

In fact, Lola was the more adept and committed GONGO queen. In this sense she was less of a riddle than Gulnara, but more of a mystery. Lola’s interests stayed limited and low-key, paying stable dividends. Her property portfolio cut into the dark heart of Tashkent nightlife, but her daytime employment remained impeccable. So impeccable, in fact, that she received glowing testimonials from the European Commission, UNICEF and UNESCO in a libel court case brought against the French magazine Rue89 earlier this year (she lost). The European Union Action Programme felt able to allocate E3.7million to Lola’s central charity, The National Center for Children’s Social Adaptation, with no notable qualms. Her strong links to EU institutions and UN endorsements paid testament to Lola’s canny, cautious style. She embezzled wealth on a minute scale in comparison to her sister, and built her reputation outside of Uzbekistan without courting controversy. She is now rumored to be the favored daughter, her father’s anointed successor.

Such are the latest rumors. Whatever the case, Gulnara’s mad decade of activity, her detours and crazes, grand larceny and mafia tactics, aesthetic exuberance and vaulting ambition, global racketeering and cultural transgression – all this has been exemplary and extreme, even amongst the raucous brat packs of the post-Soviet states. She’s led the way; minted a style nobody can quite match. The purpose of all of this is sometimes hard to gauge, often not; the effect is an impoverished and brutalised country that she has robbed blind in order to leave behind.

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Return of the Rajavi Cult

I: The Attack at Ashraf

At the beginning of April, as popular uprisings ripped through the cities of Yemen and Syria and NATO missiles pounded Gaddafi strongholds in Libya, a specially protected refugee camp was attacked by government troops in Iraq. Camp Ashraf is a gigantic settlement in the north-eastern province of Diyala that shelters 3,500 exiled members of the Iranian Mujahedin-e Khalq Organisation (MEK) and is protected under the Geneva Convention. On the morning of April 8th, Iraqi soldiers smashed through the perimeter fence, driving armored personnel carriers and bulldozers into buildings and crowds and attacking unarmed residents with grenades and tear gas and AK-47s. Around thirty residents died and hundreds more were denied medical aid at the local hospital in Baquba.

This was the latest in a series of incidents that have escalated in violence and scale since US troops withdrew from the camp last year. Their presence had saved the MEK from extradition back to Iran, where they face certain imprisonment and likely execution; this security quickly vanished once power was transferred over to the Iraqi authorities. The MEK and their Western proxy, the People’s Mujahedeen of Iran (PMOI), broadcast grainy footage on their satellite TV and YouTube channels showing Iraqi Humvees plowing through people and the flash of rifle fire from the center of swarming crowds.

There was no international outcry. Despite the violence of the Iraqi operation and despite (or perhaps because of) the regional ferment, the global response was marginalised and slow. Prominent MEK supporters in Europe and America, including US congressmen and senators and a clutch of British Lords and backbench MPs, condemned the assault on Ashraf in lobby meetings and local press columns. Human Rights Watch demanded an independent probe into the massacre and Amnesty International protested against the use of live fire against unarmed residents. Al-Jazeera – that media engine of Middle East and Arab Street protest – largely ignored Ashraf as it gazed upon besieged Benghazi and raucous Sanaa. The BBC filed a terse report on their website and quickly moved on. Eventually, columns in the New York Times and Guardian – plus as a rather spurious spread in the Daily Mail – began to leak details of Iraqi brutality and ask awkward questions about Nouri al-Maliki and his friends in Tehran. Finally, one long week later, details from the scene proved sufficiently gruesome to prompt Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, to conclude: “I am well aware that this is a contentious group, with a complicated history, but leaving them to fester in Camp Ashraf was never going to be a solution.”

II: Rajavi Cultists

Camp Ashraf is the only remaining MEK enclave in Iraq. It was once the central hub of a potent military apparatus and still serves as the seat of a self-appointed government-in-exile. It retains a parliamentary chamber and a large parade ground that, during the good years, hosted Soviet-style military displays. Residents would tend vegetable gardens and grow eucalyptus and poplar trees; they maintained sports facilities and organised film shows on Thursday evenings. The camp is decorated with beatific portraits of Masoud and Maryam Rajavi, the organisation’s absent leaders. This vast complex – as it stands today, under attack by the new authorities in Iraq – owes its existence to Saddam Hussein. It was Saddam’s security forces who first built camps to house the fugitive Mujahedeen as they fled Khomeini’s marauding Revolutionary Guard death squads; in return for shelter, the MEK operated as an arm of the Ba’ath security state. They fought for Saddam during the Iran-Iraq war and worked as mercenaries for him thereafter, assassinating Khomeinists and other regime officials, planting bombs in Iranian cities and mosques, and helping to suppress the Kurdish uprisings of 1991.

This was a dismal tale of military failure, ideological dissipation, and co-option by an alien and criminal regime. Rather than concede defeat, the Rajavis learnt a lesson or two from Saddam and Khomeini, transforming the MEK into a sinister cult of personality. This feat was achieved within the secret, hermetic world of the Iraqi camps, but eventually consumed the entire network of cadres and allies as far away as France and the US. The Rajavi method was psychologically warped, cruel, totalitarian. Their “ideological revolution” demanded dehumanising levels of commitment from their members, who were compelled to sever all personal relationships and take vows of celibacy. Conspicuous displays of devotion to the leading couple and self-flagellation in the Mao style became de rigueur. They retained devotion and conformity through techniques of intense mental and physical abuse; informers and enforcers demolished the individual will of members, kept them away from all outside connections and prevented them from leaving the organisation. During the 1990s, the Jonestown-like conditions intensified as hundreds of dissidents and deserters disappeared into the cells of Ashraf and Abu Ghraib. Facing a terminal collapse of morale after their failure to hurt or even rattle the hated Ayatollahs, the Rajavis had quickly turned to Ba’athist terror tactics.

Outside Iraq, they learnt the dark and fluid arts of political persuasion. Swapping their outdated Islamo-Marxist baggage for secular, democratic platitudes, the Rajavis contrived to obscure their modus operandi in Iraq and attract soft-minded and seducible politicians and lawyers to their cause. In this, they succeeded, and even excelled. By the mid-90s, they had built an extensive network of government contacts and media connections in Europe and America. These links proved critical when the US State Department designated the MEK a terrorist organisation in 1997. Without delay, a powerful alliance of senators, congressmen and lawyers endorsed and promoted their vigorous propaganda drive against proscription. Meanwhile, the Rajavis operated through proxy organisations designed to obscure operational connections to militants still bearing arms in Iraq. This tactic was breathtakingly transparent, but worked surprisingly well: the MEK remained on Saddam’s payroll until the second US invasion of Iraq, even as the PMOI and National Council of Resistance in Iran (NCRI) petitioned on their behalf in Western capitals.

III: MEK in the UK

The MEK lobby machine is low-key, semi-clandestine, but persistent and effective. It does not always declare itself openly, as such; it speaks for Iranian freedom and decries Western appeasement of the mullahs, appealing for action on behalf of the “real resistance movement of Iran” – and this final appeal, with its obscure partisan attachment, is the indicator, the code. Any reference to a “resistance movement of Iran” whether “real” or merely “legitimate” is suspect: it never refers to the diffuse, disorganised Greens, or to the lacklustre Monarchists or Los Angeles exiles, or even the persecuted trade unionists, but always and only the MEK. You can, therefore, learn to decode their statements and screeds quickly. In Parliament, or Congress, in the Western media and the courts of Europe, a relentless and obtuse campaign is at work, and can be traced.

Late last year, for example, Conservative MP David Amess presented an Early Day Motion to the House of Commons on behalf of the MEK. Motion 1143 – co-signed by 208 MPs, including such eminent parliamentarians as Charles Kennedy, Jon Cruddas, Simon Hughes and Frank Field – was, ostensibly, a protest at the conditions in Camp Ashraf. Amess duly condemned “the inhumane siege of Ashraf residents, in particular serious medical restrictions and their psychological torture with 140 loudspeakers.” However, the real focus of EDM 1143 turned out to be the legal status of the PMOI, and concluded with the preposterous demand that “the US administration follow the UK in de-listing the PMOI.” Amess, in other words, successfully exploited parliamentary procedure and the ignorance or naivety of fellow MPs to promote a narrow and dangerous sectarian agenda – an agenda occluded by the patina of human rights. How many MPs realised that they were signing MEK propaganda is impossible to know, as Amess and his Commons colleagues Brian Binley and Win Griffiths are dogged and crafty in their ideological allegiance. But there it was, on the parliamentray record: the raw, uncredited MEK script.

The exact basis of this allegiance, whether it be corruption or ignorance or romance or misplaced idealism is, in this case, quite mysterious. The MEK is relatively small and has no popular base in Iran; even the regime’s sternest internal opponents despise the MEK because of their appalling alliance with Saddam. Their principal front at Westminster is the British Parliamentary Committee for Iran Freedom, a cross-bench coalition of lackeys who seek to “shape [UK] policy on Iran in favour of a firm approach towards Iran’s theocratic regime and support […] their legitimate resistance movement”. The BPCIF lobby for political recognition and material support for the MEK from the highest levels of government to help Rajavi and her paramilitaries overthrow and replace the Ayatollahs. This vision is occasionally articulated by Con Coughlin and Christopher Booker, who both push pro-MEK policies in the Telegraph, and by Joshua Rozenberg, who publicised the PMOI’s battles in the British and European courts as the paper’s legal editor. Melanie Phillips, Rozenberg’s wife, is also a declared fan, having paid tribute to the “warm, attractive, and above all courageous” PMOI in the Spectator in 2008.

After the recent assault on Ashraf, the BPCIF hosted a special briefing for the PMOI in the House of Commons. Opening the meeting, Chairman Lord Corbett of Castle Vale accused the Iraqis of trying to “eras[e] the camp from the face of the earth” in “a Gestapo-style massacre,” before introducing a presentation by “medical practitioner” Hoda Husseini. Husseini, part of a small army of articulate and attractive female PMOI activists, dazzled and appalled her easy crowd with photographs of charred and mutilated corpses, the sickening result, she claimed, of “automatic Kalashnikov machine guns with live, tracer and armour-piercing bullets as well as sonic grenades [fired] directly at the heads and chests of the civilian population.” It was after attending a very similar PMOI-hosted Commons briefing that Melanie Phillips rallied to the cause in 2008. These briefings connect Lords, MPs, lawyers and journalists to the MEK, PMOI and NCRI hierarchies as well as the rank-and-file activists with their Rajavi vigils and desperate protests outside Iranian embassies across Europe. Through these connections and forums the MEK feed their propaganda material and bogus democratic platform to sympathetic columnists, parliamentarians and lawmakers, who then spread and recycle it through affiliated websites, syndicated or local newspaper columns, or on parliamentary record. In this way, the MEK campaign continues in all its persistence and obscurity, as the organisation notches up the necessary victories, slowly but surely.

IV: Fighting Through Law

“…a nasty terrorist organisation that has to be contained”
Jack Straw on the PMOI in 2005.

These victories have been legal victories. The PMOI was proscribed in the UK by Home Secretary Jack Straw in 2001 – a measure the dependable Lord Corbett, reaching for the obligatory Nazi analogy, described as “an act of appeasement not seen since the Munich Agreement with Hitler’s Germany.” The EU banned them a year later, freezing their assets across Europe. This provoked a war of attrition waged by legal proxies in European and British courts. Straw held the government line for as long as possible but it was a futile gesture, as the PMOI had already won the war of words (or legalese). The group achieved their first legal breakthroughs in October 2007, when separate rulings in the European Court at Luxemburg and the Proscribed Organisations Appeal Commission in London challenged the legal proscription of the PMOI in the EU and UK. Subsequent government appeals against these rulings, led by Jacqui Smith, were challenged and defeated by PMOI lawyers, and the group was finally de-listed in the UK in June 2008. The EU once more followed the UK precedent and unfroze their assets in 2009 – a sum worth $9 million held in French bank accounts alone.

The MEK won these cases for two reasons: defeat and reinvention. Their military capitulation was finally sealed by regime change in Iraq in 2003. US General Ray Odierno negotiated the surrender of all their weapons and personnel, neutralising the movement as a military force. Maryam Rajavi (Masoud has not been seen since 2003) turned this final physical defeat to her advantage and disarmament became an important component in the PMOI’s legal defence. It helped legitimise the ideological reinvention that they had tried to achieve through propaganda, lobbying and spurious academic publications (for example, Enemy of the Ayatollahs, written by NCRI director Mohammed Mohadessin and published by Pluto press in 2004). That they remained a totalitarian sect haunted by allegations of abuse and torture had no relevance to their legal status.

Victory in the courtroom has led to solvency and a shift in focus. The MEK remains outlawed in the US and its Iraqi base is vulnerable; the fate of Ashraf is now an urgent appeal as well as a propaganda coup. The opportunity to launch a human rights campaign as a reformist wave surges through the region, threatening both Saudi and Iranian dominance, is too good to squander. It is tempered, however, by the real possibility of their physical destruction in the Middle East if Ashraf is dispersed. Proxy MEK websites condemn Iraqi perfidy, report desperate protests outside Iranian and Iraqi embassies in Western capitals, and publish ludicrous peons to Maryam Rajavi, who can apparently mesmerise Western politicians as fully as her own followers. (The PMOI website quotes an unctuous Patrick Kennedy comparing Rajavi to Nelson Mandela, hailing her as “the mother of a free Iran” – a more appropriate comparison might be Willie, not Nelson, Mandela.)

But while Rajavi seduces officials and raises funds in European and American cities, her sacred cult continues to dominate MEK camps and cadres: in this, nothing has changed. One MEK escapee recently described conditions inside Ashraf to RFE/RL journalist Golnaz Esfadniart, detailing a familiar, grim litany of detention, death threats, enforced celibacy, a cult of martyrdom and devotion to the Rajavi leadership. “I haven’t had any contact with my family for 25 years,” he claimed, “My family thought I was dead. Using the telephone, mobile phone, internet, even listening to the radio is forbidden.” The MEK remains an organisation that is both dangerous and irrelevant. This should be obvious. But when John Bolton offers them support in front of Congress and receives applause and acclaim for it, the slow-burning, emotional efficiency and duplicity of their campaign becomes apparent. There is already a vast and heterogeneous grass-roots opposition in Iran and in exile; it does not advocate violence or employ totalitarian methods. It is huge and has time and technology on its side. Its colour is Green.

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