The Politics of Food: Modern Sumptuary Law?

The politicisation of food by Boris Johnson’s government has proved to be a highly controversial issue. Whilst the necessity of what has been described as an “obesity crackdown” has been supported by Public Health England, there has been backlash surrounding the government’s strategy. In particular, the lack of meaningful support for the most financially-disadvantaged have led to accusations that the government is tone-deaf in its approach. The abandonment of this group of people by food policy is far from a new phenomenon, and the parallels with early modern sumptuary law is compelling.

A family watching British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s coronavirus address. (Credit: AFP.)

Sumptuary law is defined by Black’s Law Dictionary as, “Laws made for the purpose of restraining luxury or extravagance, particularly against inordinate expenditures for apparel, food, furniture, etc.” These laws impacted everyone in society and were considered vital for maintaining the social hierarchy in the face of increased social mobility. They had a strong moral element: it was believed this hierarchy was mandated by God; refusing to adhere to this was therefore defying Him. Therefore, these laws were seen as essential for the good of society, just as the current government policy regarding obesity aims to lessen the impact of Covid-19 and the strain on the NHS. 

Whilst sumptuary laws set limits upon all, just as we are all to be affected by this new health drive, it was – and is – the financially disadvantaged who experience the greatest restrictions. Legislation and poverty meant the poor of Tudor England were allowed no more than pottage, vegetables, and bread. With the rigours of life at that time, the number of calories that needed to be consumed was much higher than the recommended 2000-2500 today, though even this would be out of reach for many. 

Today, the converse seems to be true, and it is far easier to over-consume on a lower budget. According to the statistics, half of the 10 worst areas for childhood obesity in the UK are also the 10 poorest. Yet the government seems to think the solution is as simple as signposting the healthy options and restricting those high in calories, going so far as removing multi-buy offers. The government does not seem to recognise that choice and control over diet is often a privilege. As Kieran Morris writes in The Guardian, the ability to eat healthily and exercise needs “time, money and space”, all of which have been have become increasingly inaccessible. 

Elizabeth I wearing the “superfluities of silks, cloths of gold, [and] silver” many were not allowed to. (Credit: the ‘Darnley Portrait’, Public Domain.)

Annunziata Rees-Mogg typified this privilege in her tweet on July 27, in which she stated “Tesco 1kg potatoes = 83p, 950g own brand chips = £1.35”. What the daughter of Baron William Rees-Mogg fails to recognise is that it is not ignorance or laziness that is the problem. According to the Trussell Trust, between April 2019 and March 2020, 1.6 million people were estimated to have used a foodbank, which are only able to provide non-perishable, carbohydrate-heavy foods. The average full-time employee in Britain works an average of 42 hours a week, which the TUC claims is “robbing workers of a decent home life and time with their loved ones”. To claim that personal choice is the sole reason behind the obesity epidemic ignores this. 

So, just like sumptuary law, we are all being asked to do our bit for the good of the nation. But this policy, just like the legislation 500 years ago, will disproportionately affect the poorest in society. Whilst we do need to tackle obesity, the government needs to provide support for these people, rather than remove and criticise their already limited choices.

Georgia Greatrex

Do Belarus’ Protests Suggest a Chance for Change, like the 1989 Revolutions in Eastern Europe?

This article will use Russian spellings of Belarusian names for the sake of consistency.

When comparing the situation in Belarus today to the revolutions of 1989, we have to note that each country experienced a different revolution. Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians in the Baltics were trying to reverse the fifty-year long annexation of their nations since the Nazi Soviet Pact of 1939. The Baltic protest movement also saw an emphasis on salvaging national cultures – particularly language. Poland’s revolution was the result of a more long-term protest movement that began in the shipyards of Gdansk in the early 1980s under the helm of Lech Walesa. Romania saw the violent overthrow of the maverick megalomaniac dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. 

What we are seeing in Belarus is a combination of all three. The protest movement is fundamentally against a long-serving authoritarian dictator whose foreign policy modus operandi is to play east off west, like Ceausescu. As in Poland, the Belarusian protest movement is spearheaded by striking workers. Finally, there is an element of the movement that campaigns for the revival of Belarusian national customs in favour of the more ‘Russified’ and ‘Sovietised’ ones pushed by the incumbent system. Opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya seems to suggest a blend of these three aspects in her interview with the independent Russian news site Meduza.

It must be said that Tikhanovskaya is not Lech Walesa, Lukashenko is not Ceausescu and Belarus is not the Baltic States. Nonetheless, we still see aspects of 1989 permeate the Belarusian protest movement. 

Belarusian protestors holding old Belarusian flags in support of the opposition, Minsk, August 25, 2020. (CreditL Sergei Grits, via The Associated Press)

The one aspect that is very different to 1989 is Moscow’s willingness to intervene in Belarus. In the late 1980s, Mikhail Gorbachev rescinded the Brezhnev Doctrine – the idea that if a country in the Warsaw Pact tried to break away the USSR, other Warsaw Pact nations would intervene to quell the political dissent. In an interview with Russian state television on the 27th August, Vladimir Putin essentially came up with his own version of the Brezhnev Doctrine. He said that Russian police forces would come into Belarus in the event that “extremist elements, using political slogans as cover, overstep a certain boundary.” The fact that Putin publicly admits that Russian forces could be used in Belarus is a reassertion of the Brezhnev Doctrine in a more subtle form – in contrast to Russia’s intervention in Eastern Ukraine where the Russian government denies that its military is present. Putin’s initiative is very bold and risky but if that is what it takes, in the view of the Russian leadership, to keep NATO out of Belarus, then so be it. 

Russian support is the best chance Alexander Lukashenko has got if he is to survive. Beyond the security services and the highest echelons of the Belarusian leadership, Lukashenko has little or no support in wider Belarusian society. The price that Lukashenko will pay for keeping himself in power, thereby protecting his own security and finances, is by outsourcing more of his nation’s sovereignty to Russia. 

Belarus’ protest movement does have some similarities with the 1989 revolutions in Eastern Europe if we look at some of its aims and the demographics of the opposition. However, Russia is more willing to intervene in the post-Soviet sphere than it was in 1989. Therefore, it is highly likely that instead of moving away from Moscow’s sphere of influence, Belarus may end up much nearer to it.

James Meakin

Book Review: Han Kang’s ‘Human Acts’

Han Kang’s novel ‘Human Acts’ details just that: the experiences of a range of individuals suffering from the actions humans inflict on each other. The narrative flows through different times and places, centred around one boy, Dong-ho. 

The first UK edition cover of ‘Human Acts’. (Credit: Portobello Books Ltd, via Amazon.)

Dong-ho is revealed to be based on a real child who the author was distantly connected to and one of many massacred in 1980 in Gwangju, a city in South Korea. 

At the end of 1979, South Korea’s military strongman Park Chung-hee was assassinated. Having been in power since his coup in 1961, he had increased repressive measures to create a de facto dictatorship, declaring martial law in response to demonstrations throughout the country’s south. 

His assassination saw Park’s protégé Chun Doo-hwan gain power. Chun was nicknamed his adoptive son, and his measures reflected their surrogate familial connection. By May, Chun expanded martial law to the entire country, and had introduced a range of restrictive measures, banning political activities, limiting freedom of the press, and closing universities.

In response, student demonstrations sprung up in Gwangju on May 18. The government reacted to the students from Jeonnam University by shooting and beating them. Outrage saw the protests spread as citizens took to the street in solidarity, opposing the lack of democracy and protesting the harsh conditions workers endured during South Korea’s rapid industrialisation. Paratroopers were sent in against civilians, schoolchildren were shot as they tried to surrender, people were beaten, raped, and tortured by government troops, with the fighting in the city finishing on 27 May.

Official figures, which remain unchanged, suggest around 200 died, whereas some foreign press reports estimated 2,000. The death toll is hard to fully ascertain – many bodies were thrown in unmarked graves, Chun worked to suppress discussion of the Uprising, and the brutalities resulted in suicides which cannot be directly attributed. 

Only foreign press were allowed to cover the uprising and Chun Doo-hwan blamed the rebellion on Communists sent from North Korea. With authorities trying to suppress memories of the event, it was only in 1997 a day of commemoration was created. The Uprising has yet to be confined to history; as with Japan’s use of Korean “comfort women” in World War Two and Chun Doo-hwan’s Samchung re-education camp, the event remains raw. Regional hostilities against people from South Jeolla, Gwangju’s province, created by the dictatorship to minimise the protests continue and the Uprising is still contested by certain right-wing groups. 

A May 18th memorial in Gwangju, South Korea. (Credit: The May 18 Memorial Foundation)

Kang’s book is an attempt to grapple with this history, offering an attempt to reconcile the cruelty shown to people by their own nation. Kang was born in Gwangju, moving to Seoul aged 10, and the final chapter of the book presents her own experience with the Uprising – seeing her parents trying to hide it from the children, opening a book of photos showing a woman shot in the face – and the need to tell the story of the voices left. The focus on scenes outside the traditional dramatic scenes of tanks arriving allows the novel to act almost as a range of historical sources, guiding you through the effects of history.

The novel was published in South Korea in 2014, the year after Park Chung-hee’s daughter’s presidential inauguration. Park Geun-hye’s ascent to the highest office of Korea motivated Kang to write a book discussing part of Korea’s traumatic past which is rarely spotlighted. It is hard for a country to admit to shooting its civilians – think of Kent State, where in 1970 the Ohio National Guard killed four unarmed students protesting American involvement in the Vietnam War. Kang’s questioning of why Gwangju residents sang the national anthem as corpses were wrapped in the Taegukgi (the national flag) demonstrates how such wounds can fester, changing a person’s identity. The narration of a corpse reminds how people’s suffering cannot stay in the grave, especially when not given a proper burial.

The book’s strength is in its ability to offer a range of perspectives from the event. Historical literature’s merit is often limited by a narrow focus, single scope, and distorting historical facts. Through Kang’s use of the Korean literary tradition of a linked narrative, the reader is connected to Dong-ho throughout the novel but can see the effect of the Uprising from a multiplicity of perspectives. Giving the narrative to the unionised women who drove the pro-democracy movement, the survivors, and even a corpse, creates a novel which can educate about the event and how people experienced it. The detached tone adopted in all Kang’s work allows for a lack of sensationalisation or didacticism as literal torture is presented to the reader. 

The novel reminds us that history remains in our present politics and all spheres of life. Novels and other works of literature offer an opportunity to act as a historical source, presenting people’s responses to events, and as a way to expose ourselves to areas of history unknown. Human Acts forms part of history and has continuing political significance.

Ellie Williams-Brown

Europe’s Hidden War: How Ukraine Struggles With Post-Soviet Nationalisms

13,000 fatalities. 3,300 dead civilians. These are the casualty numbers of a European war that seems like it could have taken place in the nineteenth century; nevertheless, it is de facto a war of the twenty-first century, and the numbers date from 2019. The war in Eastern Ukraine, sparked in 2014, continues to this day. Yet, it has been largely forgotten by West European media coverage, particularly in this year of social and political upheaval caused by the global health crisis. 

The last time this conflict received major international attention was when the passenger plane MH17 was accidentally shot down over Ukrainian territory in 2014 through the military activities there. Yet after this tragedy, the fight between the Ukrainian army and volunteer forces, and the separatists who aim for the autonomy of the two oblasts, Donezk and Luhansk, remains at the obscure margins of political news. The continuation of this war, however, should again receive more attention from the rest of Europe. Not merely because it is a war that takes place right on Europe’s borders – which in itself should be a strong incitement for international action – but, more importantly, because it is a disquieting sign of post-Soviet nationalisms that foster a conflictive political climate in Eastern Europe and particularly in the countries along the Russian borders. 

Ukrainan rescue servicemen looking through the remains of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, July 20, 2014. (Credit: Rob Stothard, via Getty Images.)

To expand on this thesis, it is vital to examine Ukraine’s Soviet and pre-Soviet past more closely in order to shed light on present-day tensions between the new countries that emerged from the Russian-dominated Union. National movements that demanded Ukrainian independence were present during the final decades of the Tsarist Empire, which broke apart after the February Revolution of 1917; in 1918, the Ukrainian People’s Republic was founded – the first independent Ukrainian state in history. Yet its existence was as brief as it was revolutionary: between tensions with Poland and the newly-founded Russian Soviet Republic, Ukraine was incorporated into the Soviet Union in 1922. With the regime change under Josef Stalin, the Ukrainian territory began to be exploited for its agricultural riches; the infamous collectivization of agricultural produce, a Soviet concept, led to what is now known as Holodomor, a famine that took the lives of several millions of Ukrainians in the 1930s. Historians nowadays consider this event as man-made and potentially even as a Stalinist way of intentionally weakening nationalist independence movements in Ukraine. 

In 1991, Ukrainians voted for their independence from the shattered Soviet Union. At the time, the country was struggling with its re-orientation as an independent nation between the East and West, and this post-Soviet burden cumulated into tensions which were released in the 2013 Revolution. The chaos of the Maidan, and the years of corruption and destabilization of the state under President Viktor Yanukovych, provided the Russian-backed separatist movements in eastern Ukraine with a convenient opportunity when the Crimean peninsula was annexed by Russia and the fighting for independence from Ukraine ensued. Although Russia itself continues to deny its military involvement, it is difficult to interpret the annexation of Crimea in any other way than Russian interest in territorial expansion hidden behind nationalist narratives – Ukrainian territory is sometimes claimed to be the birthplace of the “true” Russian nation – and widening of Russian influence under Putin. And while it would be too speculative to argue that Russia is actively intending to recreate some of the former greatness of both the USSR and the Tsarist Empire, it cannot be denied that having politically weakened neighbours seems to be in its interest, and potentially even leads to cases such as the annexation of the Crimean peninsula. Neo-nationalisms on both sides, however, aggravate the problem, and the concrete issue of the ongoing military conflict will thus hardly find a swift conclusion. After all, it not only depends on Ukraine’s decision on which way to go in its position between East and West, but also if, and how, Russia manifests its – at times provocative – foreign policy.

Cristina Coellen

Book Review: ‘The Locust Effect: Why the End of Poverty Requires the End of Violence’ (2013) by Gary A. Haugen and Victor Boutros

This book has blown my mind. Honestly and truly, this is not an overstatement. The title itself encapsulates the purpose of the book, one which evidently drives every chapter. Gary Haugen, the book’s main author, is the founder of the International Justice Mission; a mass organisation that seeks to end the global injustice of human trafficking. The Locust Effect is an in-depth account as to why violence is the predominant hindrance to ending poverty in the developing world.

The metaphor, indicated by the title, The Locust Effect, which is not addressed until the third chapter, refers to the plaguing effect of violence (the locusts) to the well-intended humanitarian work built-up in small communities (the harvest). Haugen uses this chapter to emphasize his point and does not grow shy of arguing that violence devours progress as easily as a swarm of locusts ravish a harvest. 

He evidences the main argument throughout the book, but most emphatically demonstrates this through an intimate and horrifying example portrayed in the powerful first chapter. This case details the pathetic masquerade of ‘justice’ after the murder and rape of an 8 year old Peruvian girl called Yuri. Haugen describes, through the rural surroundings, how Yuri’s family had tried so hard to provide a life for her that transcended that of their past, particularly through education. Yuri’s murder had been at the hands of a local oligarchical family, who hired a lawyer to protect their murderous son, and destroyed all evidence that would allow justice to prevail on behalf on Yuri.

The cover of Haugan’s ‘The Locust Effect’. (Credit: Oxford University Press)

Thus, we come to the conclusion of this book; in too many developing countries in the world, justice is a commodity the poor simply cannot afford and are in fact consistently victimised by. A reason this is the case is fully investigated in the chapter entitled ‘Colonial legacies and a failure that makes sense’. This chapter is one of the most profound examples of history working in politics today that I have come across. Through his observation of justice systems in the developing world since 1994, Haugen ascertains that these systems are so ineffective because they have had next to no reform since colonial years. In an interview with former Punjab Director- General of Police in India Kirpal S. Dhillon, it is stated that the colonial Indian Police Act of 1861 still governs India up to the publication of the book. The Police Act specifically protected the ruler and not the citizens of the country.

Other examples are used by Haugen to establish how entrenched colonialism and oppression still is in these legal systems. In Malawi, a former British colony, the legal system is still conducted in English, a language which only one percent of the country speaks. This means millions of people are stuck in the legal system often without trial and are unable to defend themselves. Often, the poorest people are randomly picked and abused as scapegoats for the crimes of the wealthy.

Without a functioning legal system that posits democratic justice, efforts to assist the poor in the form of schools and food supplies will not have their full and well-intentioned effect if, for example, girls are too susceptible to becoming victims of violence to be able to walk to school. The need for reformed justice systems in the developing world and a rejection of imposed colonial manifestations of history in these legal systems, cries out from every page of this book. For me, it is a perspective shattering insight.

Haugen’s book is well evidenced by both statistical and case study evidence. Through this convincing argument, the book concludes by stating that although there are huge injustices in the legal systems in the developing world, there are successes from sustained efforts to reform them. One example of this is the huge success of a collaborative legal efforts against child prostitution in the Philippines. Thus, the book ends on a charged yet positive note: there is possible success working with the representatives of justice in the developing world, but a sustained global effort has never been tried to reform these systems wholesale. Therefore, it has never failed.

I would recommend this book to anyone passionate about social justice, a topic which I feel is deeply cloaked in the implications of history in politics.

Anna Shepherd

The Decolonisation of Mauritius Is Incomplete, It Must Now Come at All Costs

In March 1968, the Republic of Mauritius gained its independence from the United Kingdom. Despite the jubilation which ensued in the small Indian Ocean island nation, the coming of independence brought with it the territorial dismemberment of what was once Mauritius, a moral and legal injustice which still stands today. The decolonisation of Mauritius remains incomplete, the violation of its territorial sovereignty persists; the people of its former territories suffer continuing discrimination and the imbalances of geopolitics weigh heavily upon it. Britain must right these wrongs and end its colonialism in the Indian Ocean.

Supporters of the Chagos Islanders in Westminster following following the Law Lords judgment over the decision of the British government to stop the Chagos Islanders going home. (Credit: Fiona Hanson, via PA, PA Photos)

Three years prior to the granting of independence, the British government had agreed with Mauritian representatives that the Chagos islands were to be detached from Mauritius and retained by the British government in exchange for £3 million in compensation. In an era of growing Cold War paranoia, the British had been convinced of the geostrategic significance of the Chagos islands (later renamed the British Indian Ocean Territory or  the ‘BIOT’ by the British) by the United States, given their proximity to the Horn of Africa, the Arabian peninsula, south and southeast Asia. The result of this purchase was the construction of a British-American joint military base on the largest of the Chagos islands, Diego Garcia, and the arbitrary expulsion of roughly 1400-2000 Chagossians from their homeland. 

The islands’ depopulation began with the extermination of the islanders’ dogs. Roughly 600 were seized from their owners and gassed with exhaust fumes. This mass extermination was considered by many Chagossians to be a thinly veiled threat, that should they refuse to leave they too may be killed. This fear drove the islanders to leave their homes, families and livelihoods and board ships carrying them to Mauritius and the Seychelles. Their new lives were extremely difficult. Being immediately homeless and jobless, the Chagossians were forced into crushing poverty, with many resorting to slum-dwelling and subsistence living. The psychological impact of their dispossession and new situation, made worse by the frequent discrimination they faced in their new homeland, was immense, with several reportedly related suicides. 

The expulsion of the Chagossians to clear the islands for British-American military operations has drawn increasing moral condemnation since the 1960s. Approximately 3000 Chagossians now reside in the UK, many having been actively involved in high profile legal cases regarding their expulsion. The apex of this campaigning was the 2000 ruling of the British High Court that the Chagossians should be allowed the right to return to all islands other than Diego Garcia. The eventual nullification of this ruling in the House of Lords in 2008, following a near decade-long battle between the High Court and Parliament, typifies the systemic discrimination still faced by Chagossians at the hands of the British government. Many are forced to reside in the UK illegally and are unable to work after having been continually denied citizenship and the right to legal residency by the state which arbitrarily exiled them from their homeland.

Far more successful have been the challenges mounted by Mauritius against the process of their own decolonisation on the international stage. The main grievance of the Mauritian state is the means by which their territory was dismembered before their independence, contending that the seemingly wilful removal of the Chagos islands from Mauritius in 1965 was in fact done under duress as a prerequisite for the granting of independence. This stance has found support in several resolutions of the African Union, and in 2017 the UN General Assembly voted to seek the advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice on the issue.  The ICJ’s advisory opinion, released in 2019, strongly condemned the dismemberment of Mauritius, suggesting that no binding international agreement could be made between the British government and Mauritian representatives still under colonial rule, and called on Britain to end its continued colonial occupation of the Chagos islands. In response, the UN General Assembly voted overwhelmingly to demand that the UK end its colonial activity in the BIOT and to cooperate with the state of Mauritius in resettling the Chagossians. The 6-month deadline given to the UK to abide by this resolution passed on the 22nd of November 2019 with no action undertaken.

The privileged position of the British and American governments as permanent, veto-holding members of the UN’s Security Council has largely prevented further action on the international stage despite near-unanimous global condemnation of their joint imperialism. With 2016 seeing the British and American governments agreeing to continue their military presence on Diego Garcia for another 20 years, no immediate end is in sight. The toxic British reliance on the ‘special relationship’, made more intense by its withdrawal from the European Union, has left the spectre of its colonialism to cast a long shadow. While the British government now concedes that the means by which it expelled the Chagossians from their islands was immoral, its outright refusal to abide by international law and allow their right to permanent resettlement demonstrates that their disdain for a people once described by a colonial official as “some few Tarzans or Men Fridays” remains very much the same.  

Joseph Callow

Trapped in History: The Plight of Lebanon

The explosion that ripped through Beirut on the evening of the 4th August 2020 is estimated to have had one tenth of the power of an atomic bomb. It immediately left over 300,000 people homeless, and destroyed or damaged more than 70,000 buildings.

By the next morning, the main fire caused by the explosion was mostly extinguished, and a desperate attempt to locate the missing in the ruins of the city was well underway. Scores of people were physically trapped in the rubble of collapsed buildings. Metaphorically, most of the country faces a similar snare, trapped under the rubble of a history of broken government and corruption. 

An aerial view of the port destroyed after the explosions in August. (Credit: Hussein Malla via AP)

The cause of an explosion of such magnitude can be traced back to a history of negligence and corruption. Some 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate, used in explosives and fertilisers, had been stored in a warehouse by the port for over six years, and a fire triggered the substance to explode. Only six months earlier, inspectors had warned that the ammonium nitrate could “blow up the whole of Beirut”. Between the ammonium nitrate being seized from a boat heading to Mozambique and the explosion, six letters were sent from the director of customs to a judge warning of the dangers of the substance and asking for instructions on how to handle it. Both Lebanon’s prime minister and president were informed of explosives at the port in July. 

Prime Minister Hassan Diab called the storage of such a substance ‘unacceptable’, and President Michel Aoun has insisted an investigation will take place whilst at the same time rejecting an international inquiry. It is clear that, whoever the blame eventually lands on, the government will not be the culprit. 

The neglect and dismissal of such concerns could be expected in a government with a history of serving its own interests over that of the population. In theory, the political system, a product of colonial rule, represents all religious groups within the government. However, in practice, it causes much divide and delays over decision making, and is well suited to political patronage and money laundering. This system traps those it claims to serve in economic hardship, and only benefits those directly connected with the government. 

Colonial rule contributed to the formation of Lebanon along the lines of various people groups, and its Civil War 1975-1990 gave military warlords a hold on government that has never truly been severed. Once combined with external influence that remains prominent in Lebanon, from Iran and Palestine to Israel and the United States, it is clear the people of Lebanon are trapped in a history that offers them next to no priority or say. 

The Lebanese government is just as aware of these trappings – and can exploit them for their own purpose. The rebirthing of the same corrupt government under a different face has been occurring for years. In February 2005, when the former prime minister Rafik Hariri was assassinated, hope for a new political government was quickly dashed. Similarly, in October 2019 when the former prime minister resigned following mass protests over a newly introduced tax on WhatsApp, there were promises within the government of change, that came to nothing. Such occurrences reaffirm that the recent resignation of the cabinet will do nothing to free the country from corruption – the same members of government will stay on in caretaker form and find new roles within a new government they can still control, whilst making promises that change is coming. 

Lebanon is now facing a great humanitarian and economic crisis, with 25% of the country in extreme poverty, and the failed state having defaulted on its loans in March. The government is aware that they can keep a hold of power, and the people are aware they are trapped. Protests are already thinning and the cycle continues.

Maddy Burt

Orcadian Identity

Having recently returned from the Orkney Isles, one thing that struck me was the strength and uniqueness of Orcadian identity. The people on the island do not identify as Scottish, but rather relate their belonging to ‘the Mainland’. This is not the Scottish mainland, which is a mere fourteen miles away, but the most populated group of islands in the archipelago which are now connected by a series of barriers. The power of this identity is such that upon noting how the prehistoric village of Skara Brae was free to enter due to coronavirus to a B&B owner, she replied that she may visit having previously never done so. Her reasoning for this was that Orcadians should not have to pay Scottish Heritage to visit ‘their’ monuments. 

The cliffs at Marwick Head and the Kitchner Memorial tower on the west coast of the Orkney Islands. (Credit: Martin McCarthy, via Getty Images)

The rich history of Orkney is very tangible. As well as Neolithic archaeology, the islands had a strong Norse influence during the Middle Ages. The Orkneyinga Saga, similar to other Viking age sagas like Heimskringla which were produced at the same time, provided a comprehensive history and sense of nationalism to Orcadians. The story of the Earls of Orkney continues to have a cultural legacy on Orcadian identity today. The unprecedented conservation of sites relating to it, as well as other archaeology, as Basu (2001) correctly notes, results in a strong sense of belonging that is rooted almost exclusively in history. In Orkney, it is undeniable that ‘ancestral places… are part of the living fabric of the community’ as modern crofts sit on top of the brochs of previous settlers. The people of Orkney are therefore trapped in their history through a tangible connection to ancestors which is rare elsewhere.

This connection to the past provides a potential explanation for why the B&B owner was reluctant to buy a ticket to visit Skara Brae. If history is such an inextricable part of culture and identity, and this history does not come from Scotland, then it makes sense for an uneasiness around modern geography dictating conservation and custody of sites. This is particularly true when it is considered that the significance of many sites has only been identified relatively recently. Skara Brae for example, a Neolithic settlement older than Stonehenge, was left completely unprotected from its accidental discovery in 1850 to 1927, and it only gained UNESCO status in 1999. Prior to modern conservation schemes, Orcadians were free to explore and children used sites as playgrounds, attaching to it an emotional significance as well as a historical one. As many sites have been accessible almost exclusively to Orcadians for so long, it links that there is a difficulty in distancing and letting them be conserved by external agencies.

Finally, it is worth considering the implication that the existence of such a uniquely tangible past has on the future, particularly the identity of young Orcadians. In 1999, a ‘homecoming’ of 150 Canadians of Orcadian descent took place. Looking at the accounts of participants, the sense of excitement to visit the crofts still situated in the same place their families lived previously, and therefore the durability of Orcadian identity, is clear. The isolated nature of the islands means that beyond the growing tourist industry, very little has changed for crofters. For this reason, it can be said that for Orcadians whose families have lived on the island for generations particularly, the strong identity provided by the archaeology that surrounds them means they are trapped in history. How long this will continue for however I am not sure.

Isobel Hine

Through the Lens of Stolypin: Understanding Vladimir Putin’s Personal Politics through his Historical Idol

Few pictures hang on the walls of President Putin’s office, but the portrait of the third Prime Minister of Russia, Pyotr Stolypin is more prominent than the rest. Putin has publicly praised Stolypin on multiple occasions and he has become commonly known as the President’s idol. 

The President of Russia, Vladimir Putin, in 2019. (Credit: the President of Russia’s website)

Following recent constitutional reform to keep Putin in power until 2036, and growing crises caused by COVID-19 and mass protests, the historical example of Stolypin may offer a way to understand Putin’s current conception of power and corresponding strategies of control for the near future. 

2012 marked the 150th Anniversary of Pyotr Stolypin’s birth. The same year, Putin ordered his own cabinet ministers to donate a month’s wages to build a statue of his historic mentor. In following speeches, Putin referred to Stolypin as ‘a real patriot and a wise politician’ who ‘displayed personal courage and a willingness to load himself with the entire burden of responsibility for the state and country’. Further expressed was that the guidance of Stolypin had put ‘Russia on a healthy path’, with his assassination in 1911 marking a first step to Revolution and chaos. 

Stolypin’s zenith certainly alludes to why Putin upholds his legacy. Both leaders’ political climates and foundations of power appear similar. Following Revolution in 1905, Stolypin fundamentally quashed dissent and partially ignored democratic process to will reform in whichever direction he saw fit. Throughout the Third Duma, Article 87 was introduced to constitutionally change fundamental laws, and bypass the Duma itself. Subsequently, Stolypin could personally control mass agrarian reform whilst commanding immense power to suppress opposition. At the pinnacle of the Stolypin years, the hangman’s noose became colloquially known as ‘Stolypin’s Necktie’. 

As readers may already be noticing, Stolypin’s doctrine of reform and repression bears similarities with the political climate of the past decade in Putin’s Russia. Much like his idol, Putin has faced what his government deems as liberal dissent. The base of Putin’s power rests upon the centralised image of a man who can reform Russia to bring it back to an assertion of glory. To secure that position Putin has personally driven overhauls in economic, political, and foreign policy. But as much as he follows Stolypin’s approach of individually guided change, Putin understands the necessity of repression to maintain his position. Harassment of journalists, a secret police, and state sponsored assassinations are just as much a part of Putin’s Russia as they were Stolypin’s. 

Due to recent events, we are likely to see the guidance of Stolypin once again rear its head in Putin’s mind. The President is now facing a climate of crisis unparalleled in his political career so far. Failures in navigating the COVID-19 crisis are currently undermining his personal image. Unprecedented mass protests in Khabarovsk in the Far East mark a new era of anti-Kremlin dissidence, with tens of thousands on the streets and no great response from Putin. Upon this, regional dislike for the Kremlin is growing and local government increasingly becoming favoured. 

Already, Stolypin-esque responses can be seen in the aforementioned constitutional change that was pushed through in July. Through the extension of his term, Putin is already bolstering his personal power and looks set to take a hand in new conservative reforms to channel loyalty. Respectively, it is not far fetched to suppose that once he has gained a grip on the pandemic, Putin’s gaze shall turn to suppressing growing anti-government fervour. 

Much like his icon, Putin believes in his personal ability to guide Russia upon ‘a healthy path’. To do so he follows Stolypin’s appreciation of the need to repress and reform in order to captain the Russian behemoth, through the storm posed by the unpredictable political climate that varies abruptly across each region of the nation. Putin faces growing damage to his reputation. The guidance and example of his historical mentor may be key to understanding Putin’s next step to recuperate his popularity and reputation. 

Henry Kilding

Endless Conflict: Azerbaijan and Armenia

It is almost a yearly tradition: since 1994 tensions between Azerbaijan and Armenia, both formerly part of the Soviet Union, have regularly exploded into brief military conflicts, leaving soldiers and civilians on both sides wounded and dead. The most recent clashes erupted in July 2020. With about a dozen casualties on both sides so far, peace still is not in sight. The fighting usually centres on the region of Nagorno-Karabakh, a landlocked strip of mountains and forests that factually belongs to Azerbaijan. However, it is easy to see why the area is problematic – it is the home of a predominantly Armenian population and claims political autonomy as the Republic of Artsakh, which still awaits international recognition from most countries. This combination of ethno-political factors lies at the heart of the conflict, despite the region´s geography making it economically unimportant. Instead, it is a clash between the mostly Christian Armenia and the dominantly Muslim Azerbaijan, between the respective allies´ interests (Russia on Armenia´s side and Turkey in support of Azerbaijan), between two different languages, ethnicities, and ideologies. Foremost, it is the result of a long and complicated historical process of domination, the struggle for autonomy and nationalism. 

Anyone who looks back into history will quickly recognize this conflict extends much further back than 1994. The Transcaucasus has long been a region of ethnic tension, with claims to the territory from Georgians, Armenians, Azeris and bigger forces such as the Russian or the Ottoman Empires. The fight for Nagorno-Karabakh first escalated into a series of conflicts from 1918 to 1922. With the creation of the Soviet Union and the incorporation of both nations into the union, the conflict seemed to subside for the next decades. However, it could be argued that this situation in fact had a negative effect on the relationship between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

A security guard walking an Azeri flag (left) and an Armenian one at talks in Geneva, Switzerland, 2017.
(Credit: Denis Balibouse, via Reuters)

In an article on the Nagorno-Karabakh problem, the historian A. N. Yamskov identifies different scenarios of ethnic conflict in the region, notably ‘territorial-status conflicts that have flowed from the national-state structure of the U.S.S.R’. He associates these with the fight for Nagorno-Karabakh. In most of his definitions, Yamskov includes a struggle against governmental structures as a factor, which in this context of course refer to the Soviet regime that in many instances suppressed national and individual ethnic struggles for independence. Thus, the decades of Soviet rule merely masked the conflict and even amplified it. This is exemplified by the fact that, after the fall of the Soviet Union, the clashes turned once more into a war, which lasted for six years and took an estimated 30,000 lives.

It would perhaps be over-simplistic to argue the Soviet past of the Transcaucasus is the only root cause of all its current problems; other factors and events, both historical and modern, also influence the conflict. The Armenian Genocide, for instance, perhaps plays into this situation to a certain extent. It was the Ottoman Empire – now mostly modern-day Turkey – that murdered and displaced approximately 1.5 million Armenians during the First World War, an event of which both Azerbaijan and Turkey remain in denial, despite it being recognized by the majority of nations. The fact that Azerbaijan is continuously being supported by Turkey in the conflict therefore does nothing to ease the tension, especially not with the most recent clashes, in which Russia has so far maintained silence, and while Turkish politics contribute to anti-Armenian sentiments, as the German newspaper Die Zeit found. 

Whether it is in 1994 or in 2020, it seems ultimately unlikely that peace will be achieved any time soon. The ethnic struggles in the Transcaucasus will continue until the region has come to terms with its heavy historical burdens. 

Cristina Coellen