“Untangling the fateful web” – The Fall of the Ottomans by Eugene Rogan

This is my review of “The Fall of the Ottomans” by Eugene Rogan

The details of the Eastern Front during World War One are less well-known than the bitter battles in the trenches of France and Belgium, but are clearly important for an understanding not only of the fall of the long-established Ottomans and the later stages of the British Empire, but also of the formation of new Middle Eastern states which are the scene of so much instability and strife today.

This is one of those books which combines the forensic detail and analysis of an academic text with the anecdote and drama of a historical novel. Yet since the names of so many places and main players are unfamiliar to most readers and hard to keep in mind, it would have benefitted from more maps to show place-names and lines of attack for specific conflicts, with a time-line to summarise key events, and a “glossary” of the key people involved.

As a general reader, I reached saturation point with the logistics of the various battles, progressing from the icy winters of the Caucasus, through the exposed coastlines of the Dardanelles to the deserts of Mesopotamia and the Sinai peninsula, but no doubt the long-suffering soldiers, mainly colonials in the case of the British side, felt very much the same. Patterns emerge in all this, such as the courage, resilience and loyalty of troops in general, and the tendency for both the Turks and the British to suffer defeats through trying to fight on too many, or over-extended fronts, with inadequate troops and resources.

It is fascinating realise that the Turks only formed the alliance with Germany which dragged them into a protracted war to protect themselves from Russian designs on their territories in the Caucasus mountains and the shipping lanes through to the Black Sea. The Turkish advantages of familiarity with the terrain in say, Gallipoli or east of the Red Sea, together with the strong incentive to retain control of Istanbul should have been increased by the fact that most of the local inhabitants in the areas of conflict were Muslims, as were the Indian troops who found themselves shipped to Arabia. However, tribal Arab leaders were often tempted to revolt by what proved to be the ambiguous, even duplicitous promises made by the British, as in the “Husayn-McMahon Correspondence”, rather less well-known than the fateful, at the time secret Sykes-Picot agreement which (to simplify) planned to share former Ottoman lands of present-day Syria and Iraq between France and Britain. Representing the infamous Lord Kitchener, McMahon pledged “support for the independence of Arabia and its inhabitants”, but refused to discuss the crucial issue of boundaries, on the ground it would be premature during “the heat of war”.

The author makes frequent use of eye-witness accounts, for instance of an Armenian priest who survived against the odds to describe the horrors of a genocide due to prejudice brought to a head by the desire for revenge against suspected disloyalty in wartime, and ordered by high-ranking Turkish officials, some of whom were eventually sentenced to death for this crime.

As regards the lighter or more digestible anecdotes, we read how, after a chain of humiliating British defeats, the wily General Allenby ordered his men to construct life-size models of horses in wood and canvas, to mislead German pilots who were pioneering the use of aerial reconnaissance. When an Indian deserter “spilled the beans” about Allenby’s plan to breach Ottoman lines on the Mediterranean in a final crucial battle to gain Palestine, he was dismissed by the Germans (who were directing proceedings in the area) as a suspect source of deliberate misinformation. Anzac (Australian and New Zealand ) cavalrymen who had loyally endued hardships and defeats through the poor planning of their leaders and serious ongoing communication problems, defied the rules as regard leaving their precious horses for the local livestock markets or butchers, preferring to shoot the animals themselves before travelling home.

In the aftermath, the desire of the majority of Palestinian Arabs to be ruled as part of Faysal’s Arab kingdom, free from Zionist programmes of immigration, was ignored. Stripped of its former colonies, Turkey lost its Ottoman sultanate not at the insistence of its foreign victors, but through the uprising of the charismatic leader who became Ataturk (“father of the Turks”) who raised the revolt against the partition of Anatolia.

The Long Hangover: Putin’s New Russia and the Ghosts of the Past

This is my review of The Long Hangover: Putin’s New Russia and the Ghosts of the Past

With the chilling downward spiral back into Cold War politics, it seems more vital than ever to understand why the Putin regime operates as it does and most Russians accept it.

This impressively clear and insightful analysis gains authenticity from the journalist author’s fluent grasp of Russian, his study of the country’s history, and time spent living and travelling widely in the Former Soviet Union (FSU). He has sought a fresh perspective in his focus on “the ghosts of the past”, which in various ways cripple and distort the current state of society.

As a student, Shaun Walker saw first-hand the “poverty, widespread squalor and rampant exploitation” in Moscow a decade after the collapse of communism, which left many Russians feeling disoriented and rootless. In the vacuum created by the sudden break-up of the USSR, Putin was resolved not merely to stabilise the economy but to establish Russia in what he saw as its rightful place as a “first rank” global power.

Shaun Walker repeatedly returns to the “memory politics” which Putin has used to raise morale and forge a sense of unity: at the heart of this is the continued celebration of Russian victory in “saving the world from fascism” in World War Two, without any admission of Stalin’s tyranny, such as the mass deportation to remote labour camps of hundreds of thousands of ethnic minority villagers for alleged collaboration with the Nazis. Walker cites the headteacher in a rundown Irkutsk suburb where some families have had to cut back on food recently. “Patriotism is the most important thing” she declares, having reintroduced the old Soviet uniform for her pupils, to improve morale. The parents approve of Putin’s efforts to fight corruption, probably unaware of the extent of his own unreported wealth together with that of his cronies.

As suggested by these examples, Shaun Walker proceeds through a series of case studies mainly based on peripheral regions closer to Western Europe where there is more history and risk of uprisings: Georgia, the Ukraine and Chechnya. In the latter, generous investment for the reconstruction of places like Grozny combined with the desire for stability, have encouraged people to treat as “an inconvenient and ignored detail” the fact that their leader Ramzan Kadyrov’s father led Chechens to fight the Russians in the 1990s. Grozny’s central avenue has been renamed from “Victory Avenue” to “Putin Avenue”. The author writes of how Chechens “build walls around certain events in their lives, so that they can often only speak in half-memories and platitudes” and quotes Koestler: “If power corrupts, the reverse is also true: persecution corrupts the victim, though perhaps in subtler and more tragic ways”.

We are shown how Putin’s attitudes have evolved. Initially wishing to be a respected and reliable ally of the west, even suggesting that Russia might join the EU or NATO, he began to feel cold-shouldered and threatened by western support for rebels in Georgia and Ukraine. This pushed him towards a kind of continuation of the old tsarist empire, supported by a mixture of renewed religious Orthodoxy, political autocracy with a “window-dressing” of democracy and pride in nationality. A “natural state of confrontation” with external powers has now “won the day” as illustrated by the annexation of the Crimea, justified by the need to “right the wrong” of Krushchev’s relinquishment to Ukraine of an area which was historically Russian until 1954.

There is passing reference to the distorted reporting of foreign affairs and failure to investigate and bring to convincing justice the murderers of journalists who threaten to “rock the boat” by probing the system too deeply, but this grim legacy of a ruthless authoritarian past is not explored in great depth. Although fascinating, the analysis seems incomplete in its neglect of other major relevant aspects, like Putin’s suppression of true democracy in the form of Alexei Navalny, a potentially major opponent denied from standing for election on what sound like bogus charges of embezzlement. The same applies to the implications of the suspicious death in custody of the tax lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, alleged moves to undermine western democracy by influencing elections, and renewed assertiveness in bombing Syria.To be fair, Putin’s recent vaunting of “new weaponry he claims will render NATO defences completely useless” and the bizarre poisoning of the Skripals in Britain came too late for this book.