Review: The ReDistricting Game (2007)

Today, I thought I would review an old web-browser game I have always been quite fond of: The ReDistricting Game – which somehow manages to make political gerrymandering into entertainment. Thankfully, this sort of partisan gerrymandering is rare in this part of the world, due to electorate boundaries being drawn by an independent commission, but it is a very real concern in the United States, where boundaries are generally drawn with political implications in mind.

The game itself was developed by the University of Southern California as a primarily educational tool, but they ended up producing something that functions as a worthwhile game unto itself. It’s a crying shame that they never got around to adding more (and more complex) scenarios, and that the idea has largely been left to sit for over a decade now. Oh well.

The premise is that you get to play a redistricting consultant/map-maker in a series of fictional American states. There are five scenarios:

  • Scenario One: Achieve population equality in a “safe” state.
  • Scenario Two: Partisan gerrymander a state in order to favour your party.
  • Scenario Three: Bipartisan gerrymander a state in order to protect the incumbents.
  • Scenario Four: Redistrict in accordance with a fictional version of the Voting Rights Act, where you have to create an African-American district (as a Democrat) or a Cuban-American district (as a Republican).
  • Scenario Five: Redistrict in accordance with the so-called Tanner Proposal.

There are two levels for each scenario: Basic and Advanced. The latter means you have to deal with more undecided voters.


+ There is a substantial amount of replay value. Most of this, I think, comes from the fourth scenario, which is easily the most complex, and hence the most interesting. Trying to achieve a 4-1 gerrymander in favour of your party, while ensuring the VRA restrictions are met is not easy, especially on Advanced mode.

+ The game teaches the basic gerrymandering principle of ‘packing’ (putting all the other side in one district), as well as the potential for Evil VRA interpretations (you can screw a party by packing the African-Americans/Cuban-Americans in Scenario Four, under the pretence of achieving minority representation).

+ The mechanics of the game are very simple: you are simply dragging lines to rearrange districts.

+ There is copious humour, in the politicians’ names (Mark Etz, Val Hughes), and in their personalities.

+ The game is not partisan: there are Democratic and Republican options, and both are treated equally.


-The Tanner Proposal in Scenario Five basically comes across as annoying (it is easily the least playable scenario), especially when you accidentally cut an incumbent’s home out of their district. It’s enough to put you off the Proposal altogether, though seeing as the game is a decade-old now, I strongly suspect that it has been largely forgotten anyway.

-If packing is well-covered, the other gerrymandering tool of cracking (splitting communities to dilute them) is neglected.

-While the courts will helpfully tell you if a district is non-contiguous, the in-game court’s opinion on compactness makes utterly no sense.

-There are a couple of minor bugs, neither of which affect actual game-play:

(i) Since all you need to achieve Scenario Four is to keep your existing incumbents safe, and create an African-American/Cuban-American district, there is nothing to stop you giving the minority district to one of the existing incumbents – whereupon you can use the extra district to create a district for the other party. This means you can create a 3-2 gerrymander for the other team – but your party still signs off on it.

(ii) If you gerrymander Scenario One to create an opposition party district (not a trivial task), the opposition party will still accuse you of shutting them out, and vote against your proposal.

By the way, here are some of my own gerrymanders:

Screenshot (10)

This one is an opposition party gerrymander to create a Republican district in a safe Democratic state. As mentioned, the Republicans still won’t thank you.

Screenshot (9)

This one is a 4-1 pro-Democrat gerrymander, meeting the VRA restrictions, in Scenario Four – and all the four Democratic districts are at least 51%. Despite the map being utterly hideous, and making no sense except in terms of naked partisanship, the courts will actually sign it off as not violating their compactness rules. As I said, compactness in-game makes no sense.

Screenshot (11)

Another “compact” map, this time a bipartisan gerrymander on Scenario Three. The most marginal district is a 59%-34% one.

Screenshot (12)

This map is an amusing one: while creating genuinely compact districts under the Tanner Proposal, it still manages to preserve the 3-1 Republican gerrymander. Scenario Five generally results in a 2-2 map, but not this time… Bizarrely, the Democrats in the state legislature will sign off on it too – suggesting that the developers didn’t intend this.

All in all, a fun diversion for political geeks. One only wishes there were more maps to play around with.


The Greens are Bloody Muppets [New Zealand Politics]


Our Green Party has decided to gift its quota of parliamentary questions to National.

As a bit of background, we currently have a coalition government between Labour and New Zealand First, which relies on the support of the Greens to stay in office. So while the Greens aren’t formally part of The Government(TM), they are on the team, and do have Ministers outside Cabinet. New Zealand, as a Westminster democracy, has a Question Time session of Parliament, where the different parties get to ask questions of the Ministers. Unsurprisingly, this means that Government MPs ask questions that make the Government look good, while Opposition MPs ask questions that make the Government look bad.

The Greens have decided that asking ‘patsy’ questions to make Labour and New Zealand First look good is pointless, so have gone and given their share of questions (some 42 a year) to the opposition National Party. Their reasoning for hurting the left-wing Government they claim to support, and helping the right-wing Opposition they claim to oppose? Supposedly, the Government needs held to account, even when they support it.

In short, New Zealand’s Green Party are a bunch of naive muppets.

If ‘patsy’ questions are pointless, then so are the ‘gotcha’ ones the Nats will be firing across. All this does is give the National Party more airtime and more visibility, and if Labour and New Zealand First are being “held to account” under this decision, it will only be from the Right, not the Left. One could, for instance, ask questions about trade deals, climate change, or inequality – but the Nats won’t be doing that. Their questions will be about areas of concern to the Right.

Now it may be argued that the Greens asking any sort of critical question might lead to destructive speculation about a rift between Labour and the Greens – only National can safely ask a critical question. To which I would note that the distinction between ‘patsy’ and ‘attack’ questions is not a binary thing: one can construct a question that clarifies what the Government is doing without making it seem like the Greens are about to bring everything crashing down. These guys are politicians, for goodness sake: fudging wording is what they do.

But if the Greens are still so terrified of the dreaded media spin (“OMG! Greens attack Labour!”), the obvious solution is to do what Jeremy Corbyn did in Britain, and ‘outsource’ questions to the public. That way, one can safely ask critical questions of the Government – and hold them to account – while hiding behind a cosy veneer of impartiality (“these are not our questions; they’re the public’s!”). Easy. As it is, there will be media spin from this decision, playing up the possibility of a future deal between National and the Greens – which will only hurt the Greens. Meanwhile, Labour can be forgiven for preferring another deal with New Zealand First after 2020, if parliamentary numbers stack up, with zero concessions to the Greens.

The cherry on top of this cake of stupidity? The Greens have Ministers outside Cabinet – but those Ministers can still be asked questions. So the Greens aren’t just giving National space to attack Labour and New Zealand First – they are giving National space to attack the Greens too.

As I’ve said, the Greens are a bunch of naive muppets on this issue. They will be bloody lucky to get back into parliament after the next election at this rate.

The Mystery of the Nineteen Bells – published

My short (as in 850-word) campanological fantasy, The Mystery of the Nineteen Bells, is now out, as part of Wild Musette Journal #1801: Medusa at the Morgue. The Journal is available, both from the magazine’s website, and Amazon.

Wild Musette Journal will also publish the individual piece online on 13th August, 2018.

The Peal of Bells, St. Paul's Cathedral, 1878.

I have updated the Bibliography section accordingly.

(Fun fact: this is my first published story with a female point-of-view character).

An Adventure in Youtube

I decided to try something vaguely creative, and ended up making a half-hour Youtube video, on the subject of defending J.R.R. Tolkien against the Far-Right. This represents my first ever attempt at video-making, so it’s not exactly quality visuals.

(Warning: occasional crudity)

I have the vague idea of using this new Youtube channel for more political and contentious (i.e. dodgy and uncouth) commentary, leaving this blog for more respectable content. The Youtube channel is under an alias, not because I am trying to hide my identity, but because I want to keep my stuff there at arm’s length from my material here. Even small-scale authors have a reputation to maintain.

Rape in Tolkien’s Middle-earth (Part II)

Following on from my previous post on this topic, we continue our look at portrayals of rape in Tolkien’s Middle-earth.

(5) Elmar and Buldar

Pinnath Gelin, the "green hills", stood in what became western Gondor.

This one is comfortably the most obscure example on the list, and is found in Tolkien’s unfinished “perspective-flip” story, Tal-Elmar (H.O.M.E. XII), where the native people of Middle-earth confront Númenórean imperialism.

During the Second Age, the locals of Agar defeat another people (who look Númenórean, without actually being so). Elmar, one of the defeated folk, is forcibly married to Buldar, a local; her youngest (and most loved) child is one Hazad Longbeard, who in turn has seventeen sons. The youngest (and most loved) of Hazad’s sons, Tal-Elmar looks very much like his grandmother, and is the protagonist – until the story cuts off. I have seen suggestions that Tal-Elmar is, in fact, an origin story for the Witch-King, but we shall never know.

So, basically, what we have here is another example of forcible marriage (i.e. rape) arising from a battle situation. Unlike Aerin and Brodda, however, the non-consenting relationship between Elmar and Buldar leads to children, and then grandchildren: Tal-Elmar himself being the product of this. Also, in contrast to Aerin and Brodda, there is no narrative punishment for the marital rapist – Buldar comes home with “a wound, a sword, and a woman,” and that is that. Very amoral and grimdark, with a gritty flavour of the sort associated with the darker moments in The Children of Húrin. The sole exception is that Elmar curses the people of Agar to weaken and die out – as the story cuts off when Tal-Elmar meets the evil Númenóreans, we never see the circumstances under which the rape-victim’s curse manifests itself.

(6) Ar-Pharazôn and Míriel

Shyangell - Ar-Zimraphrel.jpg

In yet another case of marital rape, we encounter the case of Ar-Pharazôn taking Míriel in order to usurp the throne of Númenor. Míriel, if you recall, is the heir to the throne, but her cousin essentially launches a coup, reducing her to the status of helpless by-stander.

Tolkien generally devotes little time to Míriel: his focus is much more on Pharazôn, and we really do not know the level of agency the Queen has in this situation. However, I would note two things:

(i) Their marriage is childless. This is interesting (and rarely noted) – the only other childless monarch of Númenor is Tar-Telperiën, the Second Ruling Queen. But Telperiën has an heir in the form of her nephew. Who is Pharazôn’s heir, other than Míriel herself? We do not know. There is the thematic element that Ar-Pharazôn is the King who wants to live forever, so of course he does not care about such issues – but in terms of in-universe rationalisation, it is potentially an indication that Ar-Pharazôn has little interest in his wife’s reproductive potential (cue fanfiction with a homosexual Pharazôn…). His interest in Míriel is as a pathway to power, not as a woman – which potentially suggests that after an initial unwilling consummation, he largely lets her be.

(ii) Tolkien wrote an alternative version where Míriel is head-over-heels in love with the charismatic charmer Pharazôn, and yields the throne willingly. This, of course, would completely nullify the notion that this is a case of marital rape – though it means the lack of children likely has to be explained via lack of fertility on Míriel or Pharazôn’s part (or perhaps the King really does prefer men?). Regardless of the storyline, I do wonder about the extent to which the wave sweeping her away as she climbs Meneltarma is a comment on Míriel’s culpability in her husband’s activities.

(7) Saruman’s Orcs and the Dunlendings

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The origin of the orcs is both murky and unpleasant – having initially floated the idea that Melkor captured Elves and then subjected them to prolonged and unspeakable acts, Tolkien never came to a fixed conclusion.

We can, however, make some reasonable (if nightmarish) inferences about how Saruman created the Uruk-hai, the peculiar strain of large, sun-resistant orcs:

It is a mark of evil things that came in the Great Darkness that they cannot abide the Sun; but Saruman’s Orcs can endure it, even if they hate it.  I wonder what he has done?  Are they Men he has ruined, or has he blended the races of Orcs and Men?  That would be black evil!

Yes, Treebeard, it is – and the manner in which he does the blending is an even blacker evil. Saruman has access to both a pool of orcs (those of the Misty Mountains), and a pool of men (the Dunlendings). Consensual sex between orcs and humans seems far-fetched, but one does not need to stretch one’s imagination to concoct a scenario whereby Saruman disappears Dunlending women, and has them raped by his orcs in the dungeons beneath Isengard. Rinse and repeat, until he has his genetically modified servant race – and if Isengard suddenly resembles a giant concentration camp, you would not be far wrong. Not that the Dunlendings themselves seem to have noticed or cared – Saruman was promising to give them their land back, and sticking it to the Forgoil was more important than a few of their women disappearing in the night.

Note that Peter Jackson’s solution of making the Uruk-hai into pod-people is significantly less dark than the implication of the source material. This is perfectly understandable: showing what Tolkien was implying would have destroyed the movies’ PG-13 rating.


I have now looked at several examples of rape, or potential rape, in Tolkien’s stories. But the matter does not end there: there are several additional examples where Tolkien characters are quite clearly countenancing it, but (thankfully) do not have the opportunity to act on it.

(1) Morgoth and Lúthien

Image result for morgoth luthien

At the culmination of the Quest for the Silmaril, Beren and Lúthien come face-to-face with Morgoth himself, in the very depths of Angband. Lúthien seeks to beguile him through song and dance, whereupon:

“Then Morgoth looking upon her beauty conceived in his thought an evil lust, and a design more dark than any that had yet come into his heart since he fled from Valinor.”

In earlier versions:

“Nay,” saith Melko, “such things are little to my mind; but as thou hast come thus far to dance, dance, and after we will see,” and with that he leered horribly, for his dark mind pondered some evil.” (H.O.M.E. II)

“Then Morgoth laughed, but he was moved with suspicion, and said that her accursed race would get no soft words or favour in Angband. What could she do to give him pleasure, and save herself from the lowest dungeons? He reached out his mighty brazen hand but she shrank away. He is angry but she offers to dance.” (H.O.M.E. III, Commentary).

“And she beguiled Morgoth, even as his heart plotted foul evil within him; and she danced before him.” (H.O.M.E. IV).

In contrast to Aredhel’s story, this appears to be a case of Tolkien ramping up the unpleasantness over time. Tolkien never goes into specifics, but by the time we reach the “evil lust” line of the published Silmarillion, I cannot read this as anything other than Morgoth thinking about raping Lúthien. Morgoth has done terrible things since he arrived back in Angband, and has done horrific things to captives – what could he do to Lúthien that he has not already done to, say, Maedhros? Along the lines of the Arien story, I would also suggest that his motivation here was not a “taking to wife” or the begetting of offspring, but to pervert and taint this most beautiful of Elves, to ruin her as he would ruin the world itself. Morgoth does not create, remember. Morgoth pollutes, corrupts, and destroys.

(2) The Sons of Feanor and Lúthien

Image result for celegorm luthien

Morgoth is not the only one with designs upon Lúthien. While Beren and Finrod are held prisoner in Sauron’s dungeons, Lúthien comes to the rescue. But first she runs into the Sons of Feanor:

“[Huan] brought her to Celegorm, and Lúthien, learning that he was a prince of the Noldor and a foe of Morgoth, was glad; and she declared herself, casting aside her cloak. So great was her sudden beauty revealed beneath the sun that Celegorm became enamoured of her; but he spoke her fair, and promised that she would find help in her need, if she returned with him now to Nargothrond. By no sign did he reveal that he knew already of Beren and the quest, of which she told, nor that it was a matter which touched him near.
Thus they broke off the hunt and returned to Nargothrond, and Lúthien was betrayed; for they held her fast, and took away her cloak, and she was not permitted to pass the gates or to speak with any save the brothers, Celegorm and Curufin. For now, believing that Beren and Felagund were prisoners beyond hope of aid, they purposed to let the King perish, and to keep Lúthien, and force Thingol to give her the mightiest of princes of the Noldor.

In short, Celegorm becomes enamoured by Lúthien’s beauty. He lies to her, and once he gets her in a position of vulnerability, strips her of any protection, either physical or emotional. Celegorm and Curufin then try to force Thingol to give up his daughter’s hand in marriage.

Sex = marriage in Tolkien (save for Morgoth…), so Celegorm forcing Lúthien into marriage means he intends to rape her. That he and his brother are so hung up on forcing Thingol to sign off on the arrangement is almost darkly comic – Curufin is upset when Eöl takes his cousin without permission, yet is perfectly fine with presenting Lúthien’s family with a fait accompli. Neither know Thingol very well if they think he will meekly approve, and neither could care less about Lúthien’s own feelings.

I would further note a couple of things:

(i) Celegorm and Curufin’s actions cause real headaches for Laws and Customs. One could imagine Morgoth not knowing or caring that raping Lúthien would cause her death, but the Sons of Feanor – who are lusting after both Lúthien’s bodily form, and the power she represents – certainly would know and care. Yet they go ahead with their plan regardless – which either implies they think they can persuade Lúthien to go willingly (and even these two are not that stupid), or Laws and Customs does not apply. Lúthien is unmarried, but a Law that only applies to married Elves is so offensively specific that it carries no moral weight. Hence my continued preference to discard it altogether.

(ii) There is a significant contrast between the lust of Morgoth and Celegorm/Curufin, and the love expressed by Beren and Huan. That is not to say that Beren is not sexually attracted to Lúthien – he is – but in his case, there is a genuine emotional connection with another being. Morgoth and Celegorm are, by contrast, merely trying to possess Lúthien as an object – the former because destruction is what he does, the latter so he can fulfil his own selfish desires. It is a case of what Terry Pratchett would later write: evil begins when one starts treating others as things.

(Huan meanwhile is pursuing courtly love, a la Gimli and Galadriel: love as a pure emotion, devoid of any sexual element. The Tale of Beren and Lúthien really does represent an extended thematic discussion of Love).

(3) Maeglin and Idril
Image result for maeglin idril
After the death of Aredhel, Maeglin stays in Gondolin with his uncle, Turgon. He also develops feelings for Turgon’s daughter (and only child), Idril. But he runs into two problems: firstly, he’s her first cousin on his mother’s side (which is a bit close for Noldorin tastes), and secondly, she does not return his affections, seeing a darkness within him. Maeglin’s frustrations at sexual rejection become further aggravated when Idril falls for Tuor, a mortal man. Later, under torture from Morgoth, Maeglin gives the location of Gondolin, and in return is promised both the throne and Idril. During the ensuing battle, Maeglin tries to seize Idril, and kill her young son, Eärendil, but is killed himself by Tuor.
Maeglin is a terrifyingly realistic portrait of a certain type of would-be rapist, one which is more common than generally thought. In contrast to Morgoth or Celegorm, who are simply thinking in terms of brutish animal lust, or Pharazôn, who merely sees Míriel as a path to the throne, Maeglin is the epitome of the Creepy Nice Guy. He genuinely wants Idril as a person – though she is a path to the throne, incidentally – and he gets thoroughly bitter and twisted when she refuses (the incest thing, I think, is convenient authorial short-hand to make it clear there is something not quite right about Maeglin). He’s also a Creepy Nice Guy who loses out to the stereotypical Square-Jawed Hero in the form of Tuor: one can very much imagine a modern Maeglin on the internet, writing hateful screeds about women. I do not think Maeglin sees himself as a rapist either – he endures serious torture in Angband before betraying Gondolin, and (in my reading of him), I believe he thinks he is doing Idril a favour under the agreement (“Morgoth is going to win anyway, but at least we’ll be together, and you’ll see how Nice I really am” – all while trying to kill her son).
As for how all this fits into Laws and Customs, it is a mess. Part of the problem is that the only full version of the Fall of Gondolin was written in 1916, decades before the Laws and Customs essay, but does anyone really believe Maeglin’s story could ever be rewritten to fit? That Maeglin himself likely does not consider his actions attempted rape (Idril and Tuor certainly do) is neither here nor there. It is still an example of an Elf, in violation of their supposed “nature”, spitting on the sacred institution of consensual marriage to the point where he tries to kill the child of the marriage in question. Elves like Celegorm and Maeglin simply don’t conform to the cosy Catholicism of Tolkien’s ideal.
Then there is the extent to which Maeglin’s actions vis-a-vis Idril are a psychological shadow of Eöl and Aredhel. Thankfully Tolkien never resorts to the offensive nonsense of J.K. Rowling, where Rowling suggests Voldemort’s inability to love is derived from the nature of his conception – Maeglin may be a child of rape (and a child, also, of the Cursed Noldor), but in Tolkien’s Free Will universe, he is free to make his own choices. I wonder, however, when Aredhel was telling her son of the circumstances under which she and Eöl met, whether Maeglin’s formative ideas about acceptable romantic behaviour took a wrong turn. With Aredhel (at least in the revision) clearly rationalising some attraction to Eöl, it is not hard to imagine her sugar-coating things for her son – and Maeglin picking up the idea that desire and opportunity can work as substitutes for consent.

(4) Forweg and Andróg

Image result for forweg outlaw

In what might be the most stereotypical grimdark moment in The Children of Húrin, Túrin interrupts a pair of men chasing a desperate woman. He kills one, only to see it is Forweg, the leader of his own outlaw band – the other is Andróg, a fellow outlaw. Túrin quips sarcastically that perhaps they were just protecting the woman from orcs. Andróg, who does not grasp Túrin’s sarcasm, defends himself by saying “outlaws know no law but their needs”. Túrin then takes the woman off him, which Andróg wrongly interprets as Túrin wanting the woman for himself. As for the victim:

Then the woman rose to her feet and laid her hand on Túrin’s arm. She looked at the blood and she looked at Túrin, and there was delight in her eyes. ‘Kill him, lord!’ she said. ‘Kill him too! And then come with me. If you bring their heads, Larnach my father will not be displeased. For two “wolf-heads” he has rewarded men well.’

There is more than a hint of the sexual about what she is offering Túrin, and Andróg certainly takes it this way. Cue his utter confusion when Túrin rejects her. Andróg cannot comprehend someone who, having already killed one man, would decline to kill the other if it means money and sex. He concludes that Túrin must have held a personal grudge against Forweg.

Apart from serving up some black comedy in the form of Andróg’s stupidity, the scene shows an interesting discrepancy between Túrin’s innate nobility and the altogether grittier and more cynical setting in which he finds himself – a setting where everyone takes what they want, and cater only to their own animal desires. Túrin, of course, is himself deeply flawed as a person – he is quick-tempered, arrogant, and extremely judgemental – but his flaws exist on a more glamorous and legendary plane than Andróg’s: someone like Túrin exists in a fantasy world where dragons and Dark Lords roam the earth, whereas Andróg, Forweg, and the woman (who sees sex as a means of reward) may have walked out of any grimdark novel you care to name. The cynical assumptions of dark mundanity are contrasted with something more noble and fantastical; the only comparison I can think of in Tolkien is The Scouring of the Shire.

Because this scene was written by J.R.R. Tolkien (pessimistic idealist), and not George R.R. Martin (pessimistic cynic), it is Túrin’s view which carries the day. Martin’s version (perhaps with Sandor Clegane?) would have had the main character rejecting the offer, not out of a moral code, but because he would be too jaded even for this.


My long-ago rant about lazy use of rape in fantasy literature made several caveats: while I still dislike it as a character motivation device, it can be handled appropriately. I suggested three scenarios:

  • Stories where the author takes the time to explore the psychology of all involved.
  • Black comedy.
  • Stories where the characters exist on a moral plane divorced from our own.

What can we say about Tolkien’s portrayal of rape here?

I would suggest that Aredhel/Eöl, and Maeglin/Idril fall into the first category: these stories do actually have a degree of psychological depth, even in a work as terse as The Silmarillion.

Túrin’s outlaw story does contain black comedy – but not about the rape itself. Nor does it really exist to explore psychology. Instead it exists to explore theme. As such, I think my earlier criteria needs modification to add a fourth category – situations where rape does not exist to drive the plot or characterisation, but where it forms part of a wider thematic whole. Aerin and Brodda, I think, also fits into this new fourth category, though there is the caveat that it motivates Túrin to do something destructive. Morgoth/Lúthien, insofar as it features in a story that it is very much about exploring Love, fits here too.

Saruman’s treatment of the Dunlendings rather exists in a different vein to the other examples, since we are dealing with a system, rather than characters. Had Tolkien explicitly described it, I think the story would suffer, but fortunately Tolkien has a good enough grasp of horror to let our minds connect the dots.

Tal-Elmar cuts off before we can say much about it.

Of the more problematic examples:

Morgoth/Arien tries and fails to fit into the third category. Morgoth, as Tolkien’s Satan, may think he operates by a different set of rules, but he is not Zeus or Odin: his attempt on Arien is not amoral but immoral. Without the amoral mythological basis one sees with the Greek gods, and without any sort of psychological or thematic depth to the story, I think this idea was not one of Tolkien’s finer moments. Luckily, Christopher preserved the Tale of the Sun and Moon for us instead.

Celebrían’s story, I think, is the most clichéd of the portrayals. Regardless of whether or not this was actually rape, inventing a character whose only role is suffering, and whose suffering exists solely to explain why another character is single, is something I would expect from lesser authors. Never mind the “motivation bonus” for the Sons of Elrond.

Ar-Pharazôn and Míriel has the makings of an interesting psychological study, but unfortunately Tolkien does not develop it fully enough. He, like Pharazôn himself, is much more interested in what the King does on the throne than what he does in the bedroom.

Celegorm/Lúthien is not badly written, and to be fair, it does exist as part of a story thematically focused on Love. However, I feel it is more problematic than Morgoth/Lúthien (which achieves much the same thing, in terms of portraying animal lust), because it makes Celegorm and Curufin look like complete idiots. I could buy this with Celegorm, who is short-tempered and a bit thick generally, but Curufin is supposed to be crafty and devious. Meanwhile, I dislike how the episode turns Lúthien into a hapless female victim straight out of a pulpy E.R. Burroughs novel – at least with Morgoth she actually has agency. Nothing against E.R. Burroughs, of course, but Tolkien is a better author than that.

Part I of this essay.

The First Film Hobbit (1966)

I have previously taken a look at a couple of obscure Tolkien adaptations: the Soviet Hobbit (1985), and the Finnish Hobitit (1993). Time to complete the set with the earliest, the shortest, and easily the oddest Tolkien film adaptation of all, the 1966 Hobbit, produced in Prague by American William L. Snyder:

This one requires a serious explanation – which can be found here. For those who just want a potted summary: Snyder had got his hands on the film rights for a trivial sum in the early 1960s, and set to work making a full-length adaptation. This fell through, and the project was discarded – until a month before Snyder’s hold on the rights were due to expire, The Lord of the Rings exploded in popularity via the Ace Paperback Controversy, and those unused film rights suddenly became valuable.

Snyder took a look at the contract, and realised that he could extend his hold on the rights if he made a film – any film – in the next month. So he made this one, then sold the rights back for $100,000, a tidy sum for 1966. The result is a 12-minute film, made for purely mercenary purposes, and which has absolutely nothing to do with the book Tolkien wrote. It’s a strange enough backstory to warrant a short film of its own.

But enough about the context – what of the film itself, the only screen adaptation made in Tolkien’s own lifetime? It is… different.

Basically, the dragon Slag[sic] destroys the town of Dale, leaving only three people left alive – a Princess, a Guard, and General Thorin Oakenshield (Thorin’s human, and there are no dwarves, because that’s the way this film rolls). They are told by Gandalf the Grey that the hero destined to save them is Bilbo Baggins, the hobbit. So they turn up at Bilbo’s residence, and guilt-trip him into helping. From there, they head to the Lonely Mountain (minus Gandalf, who just watches). Bilbo pulls the voice-imitation trick on troll-replacements (creatures called Groans who turn into dead trees in sunlight), and (minus a riddle-game) picks up a Ring of Power from Goloom[sic] after falling down a hole. He then steals the Arkenstone from Slag’s hoard, and uses it as a gigantic arrowhead to kill the dragon. Bilbo marries the Princess(!) and goes back home. THE END.

So, yes, it’s The Hobbit with no dwarves, elves, spiders, eagles, or goblins. There is no Beorn, Lake Town, or Battle of Five Armies. It has trolls-that-are-tree-creatures, a misspelt dragon, and Goloom instead. As I said, it’s different.

Ignoring the daftness of the adaptation, it’s actually not bad when viewed entirely on its own terms as a surreal 12-minute child’s adventure. The Czech animation isn’t a patch on the 1977 Rankin-Bass adaptation, but it has a certain harmless charm, and there is at least some character arc for Bilbo: from comfortable homebody, to using cunning against the Groans and Goloom, to being brave in stealing the Arkenstone. This humble hobbit emerges with a Princess, no less – which makes absolutely no sense, either in or out of story, but which is a legacy of Hollywoodising (adding pointless love interests was not invented by Peter Jackson). Bilbo’s the hero, right? That must mean he gets the girl.

My biggest issue with the thing is actually thematic (because I think themes are important) – it rather irritates me that Bilbo, an odd little gentleman with a bit of resourcefulness and a functioning moral compass, is turned into the Big Chosen Hero, when he is anything but. Tolkien’s Bilbo isn’t some sort of Destined Saviour or Aragorn figure – he’s just a very ordinary guy, in a very strange world, and by making him Special, the 1966 film anticipates the downside of the 1980s fantasy genre (i.e. the infamous Farm Boy becomes King trope). Film-Bilbo does have to work for his victory though, and at least the adaptation does not take itself too seriously. And Goloom is appropriately creepy.

I think had this film been much longer, it would have outstayed its welcome. As it is, it manages well enough as a silly 12-minute fairy tale that has nothing to do with J.R.R. Tolkien. And, of course, it succeeded in its true goal of giving William L. Snyder a massive financial windfall for minimal work.

Rape in Tolkien’s Middle-earth (Part I)

In the early days of this blog, I had a series of posts on tropes I disliked. One of those posts, written back in May, 2016, expressed my distaste for rape as a plot device. My opinion on that still stands, but today I thought I would look at how the subject is treated in Tolkien – because, notwithstanding accusations of Tolkien shying away from such material, it is in there. It’s just that Tolkien doesn’t rub the reader’s nose in it. This essay will consider an often-quoted “rule”, followed by actual examples from the texts.

[Warning: unsavory subject matter].

(0) Laws and Customs

As a preamble, there is a passage from Tolkien’s essay, Laws and Customs of the Eldar (Morgoth’s Ring):

“There is no record of any among the Elves that took another’s spouse by force, for this was wholly against their nature, and one so forced would have rejected bodily life and passed to Mandos.”

This would appear to be straightforward. However, there are three problems with it:

(i) This reflects Tolkien’s views on the matter at the time he wrote the essay – but only that. Trying to actually apply the Laws and Customs essay to anything else runs into problems: there are numerous discrepancies between the essay and the rest of Tolkien’s material.

(ii) As we shall see, the passage is technically true – no Elf in Tolkien rapes another’s spouse – but in a broader sense, it is highly misleading in practice. I have mentioned before that there is the occasional discrepancy between Tolkien’s devout Catholic beliefs and the demands of story, and I feel this is one of them: the idea that Elves die, rather than submit to rape, is much more questionable. At least in the case of Eöl, we have an Elf acting like something out of folklore, rather than out of Laws and Customs. A nastier version of Tam Lin, perhaps.

(iii) That old bugbear of “show, don’t tell.” There are no examples of what the essay describes in any of Tolkien’s stories.

Now let us consider the examples (or potential examples) of rape in Middle-earth:

(1) Aredhel and Eöl

File:Eol and Aredhel.gif

Aredhel, sister of Turgon, becomes lost in the forest of Nan Elmoth… whereupon Eöl the Dark Elf finds her. He uses magic to force her ever deeper into the forest, until she arrives at his home. Once there, he renders her completely dependent on him. He forbids her from contacting her family, or even going out in sunlight. As for rape… in the earliest version of the story, the matter is quite explicit:

“[Eöl] took her to wife by force: a very wicked deed in the eyes of the Eldar.”

As sex = marriage in Tolkien, forcibly taking to wife is a euphemism for rape. Later, the story is amended to read:

“It is not said that Aredhel was wholly unwilling, nor that her life in Nan Elmoth was hateful to her for many years.”

In both cases, Aredhel stays with Eöl, bears a child (Maeglin), then subsequently flees back to Gondolin while the Dark Elf is otherwise distracted. It ends badly for all involved – there is even a touch of the Freudian, with Aredhel getting impaled on Eöl’s poisoned javelin.

There is the sense that Tolkien rewrote this scene to better fit with his own moral sensibilities. Aren’t the Elves so noble in their commitment to consent? Hooray for Laws and Customs! Well, no. There remains so much implied coercion that any modern reader would consider Aredhel’s consent rather moot. The degree to which Eöl is an abusive bastard may not break the letter of Laws and Customs, but it certainly defies the spirit – a race for whom “forcing another’s spouse” is “contrary to their nature”, yet who remain perfectly capable of magically entrapping the unmarried into sex, seems have a peculiarly specific nature. It is (scarily) reminiscent of real-world rapists who do not believe their actions morally constitute rape because they did not jump out of the bushes with a knife. Never mind the question of why this “nature” only applies to married Elves, and not singles like Aredhel.

To be fair to Tolkien, I do not think he represents Eöl’s actions as anything other than “very wicked,” even in the revised version, and, if I may offer an alternative hypothesis, the amendment also allows for better characterisation of Aredhel. Having Eöl simply take her by physical force begs the question of what on earth kept Aredhel in Nan Elmoth without dying (a la Laws and Customs) or at least attempting to run off earlier (this is a woman who defied the King of Gondolin himself in asserting her freedom to leave). A more psychological rape, taking the form of implied threats and mind manipulation, is every bit as disturbing, but permits Aredhel to (falsely) believe in her own consent, at least at first – and hence why her attempt at freedom is so delayed. The fact that Aredhel did, eventually, flee, and did it behind Eöl’s back (even the Feanor/Nerdanel estrangement had face-to-face negotiation), testifies to how inherently rotten and unnatural the relationship was: so much for cosy eternity between a married Elven couple.

As an interesting note to this story, when Eöl chases after Aredhel, he encounters Curufin, her cousin. Neither likes the other very much, but when Eöl invokes his wife’s status, Curufin responds with:

“Those who steal the daughters of the Noldor and wed them without gift or leave do not gain kinship with their kin.”

This is a very tribal, very ancient, and very pagan view: consent is a matter that pertains to the group. Eöl’s actions against Aredhel are against her as an individual, as far as the reader is concerned, but for Curufin, this Dark Elf has wronged the Noldor as a whole. I would suggest that this creates yet another discrepancy between the Catholicism of Laws and Customs (where marriage is a unique and eternal bond, created by two Elves having sex), and the Germanic nature of the story Tolkien is telling.

(2) Celebrían

Līga Kļaviņa - Celebrian.jpg

Celebrían is the daughter of Galadriel, and the wife of Elrond. As per the appendices of The Lord of the Rings, orcs capture her during a crossing of the Misty Mountains, and she is taken prisoner. Until rescue, she is subjected to torments (rape is certainly possible, if not outright stated), and after rescue, she is afflicted with a poisoned wound. She subsequently goes over the Sea.

Now, the nature of what the orcs did to Celebrían is left unspecified, but that has not stopped readers from guessing. Invariably, when the subject is raised, people will argue that the rule of Laws and Customs implies she cannot have been raped – though if we are making exceptions for Aredhel on the (bizarre) basis that she was unmarried, one could (just as bizarrely) make exceptions for Celebrían, on the basis that this was at the hands of orcs, not a fellow Elf. More realistically, one could concoct the explanation that the reason she does not die is because she is determined to be reunited with her family again – though once this is achieved, she realises, like Frodo Baggins, that greater healing is needed, hence her decision to depart for Aman. This explanation (which I tend to subscribe to myself) would void Laws and Customs – but as I have said above, I take that essay with a significant grain of salt.

I would mention that if ever there were an opportunity for Tolkien to demonstrate the rule of Laws and Customs, this would be it. In contrast to Aredhel, who must remain alive for the sake of story, Celebrían is a mere entry in the appendices. She has no story outside this episode of victimhood, and only exists to explain what happened to Elrond’s wife. Nor does Celebrían have to be raped on-screen, or anything disgusting of that nature – having her sons kill the orcs, only to find her dead on rescue, would have been enough. As it is, Tolkien has Celebrían afflicted with a mysterious wound, then take ship. While there is certainly the symbolism of death present in her departure from Middle-earth, just as there is with Frodo, Tolkien stops at symbolism. There is no passage to Mandos.

Against this, it has been noted that possible rape is an issue for Celebrían and only Celebrían. After all, multiple Tolkien characters are taken prisoner by orcs – Frodo, Maedhros, Gwindor, Húrin, et cetera – and the readership (outside some of the more risque Maedhros-Fingon fanfiction) never raises the possibility that any of them were sexually violated. Given that Celebrían is the only female prisoner on this list, is there not a degree of sexist reader assumptions about this? That rape only becomes an issue because she is female? Perhaps. One could argue that Tolkien would have been even less likely to countenance homosexual rape than heterosexual rape in these stories, but as he never details specifics, this is a matter for reader, not author. What I would point out is how unusual Celebrían’s behaviour is afterwards. With the sole exception of Frodo (who might well be termed a case of psychological rape by the Ring), none of the other prisoners are as broken in spirit as she: almost as though she has suffered something they have not. But that, ultimately, is a matter of interpretation.

(3) Melkor and Arien

Related image

In later ideas for his mythos, ones that never made it into the published Silmarillion of 1977, Tolkien floated the idea that the Sun had existed from the beginning of Arda (essentially scrapping the old mythological Tale of the Sun and Moon). This naturally caused merry hell with the Silmarillion stories, which is why Christopher Tolkien omitted it, but one idea that Tolkien Senior had when envisaging this alternate storyline was that Melkor/Morgoth attempted to rape Arien, the Maia of the Sun.

The story goes thus: Melkor wants Arien for a wife, she refuses him, so he attempts to rape her. In the closest we actually see to a Laws and Customs scenario (though Arien is neither married nor an Elf), Arien then departs the Sun as a spirit, leaving it without a guide – a mythological explanation for seasons. Suffice to say, I prefer the older story, and not just because it fits better with the rest of the mythos: the story of the Sun as a fruit is simply aesthetically better. Divine rape is incredibly common in real-world myths (especially Greek), but here it feels out of place.

Even with this revised story, Tolkien ran into problems. If sex = marriage, and marriage in this setting revolves around reproduction (Catholicism), how does that gel with his notion that Melkor cannot reproduce? Tolkien’s own note about this read:

“Melkor could not ‘beget’, or have any spouse (though he attempted to ravish Arien, this was to destroy and ‘distain’ her, not to beget fiery offspring.)”

There is resonance here, both in terms of Morgoth’s destructive motivations, and in terms of his corruption entering creation itself. In terms of sexual violation, however, this is a bit different from the Tolkienian standard. Eöl’s actions are motivated by creepy lust. Celebrían’s fate at the hands of the orcs is, of course, kept deliberately vague. Melkor’s treatment of Arien is an explicit example of what might have happened implicitly to Celebrían – rape is portrayed as an act of cruelty in and of itself, rather than an attempt to hijack reproductive potential. As such, for all that “taking to wife” is a common sexual euphemism in Tolkien, this is one explicit circumstance where it would be falsely applied, even in forcible circumstances. Which is presumably why he uses the descriptive term “ravish.”

(4) Brodda and Aerin

File:Turner Mohan - Aerin.jpg

The circumstances of Aerin provide yet another variant in the portrayal of rape in Tolkien. In this case, Aerin, a woman of the House of Hador, is forcibly married to Brodda the Easterling in the aftermath of the Nirnaeth Arnoediad. In contrast to Eöl, there is not even the pretence of seduction here: Aerin and her womb are basically the spoils of war for Brodda, property to be taken along with lands and hall. This is also the first example we have seen in Tolkien of serial marital rape. Whereas Aredhel in the revision was “not unwilling,” once Eöl had ensnared her, Aerin presumably suffers Brodda every night.

Note that there was no such thing as marital rape in English law during Tolkien’s lifetime – the official legal position until 1991 was that marriage implied conjugal rights. Tolkien writes several marriages where the partners became estranged (at which point the sexual intercourse stops), and he never writes a consenting marriage followed by non-consenting sexual activity (Erendis complains Aldarion is not performing his bedroom duties, but she never forces him). But Aerin is not in a consenting marriage – she is in a forced marriage via rape. Did Tolkien (whose view already differed from the law in that he considered sex = marriage) regard the on-going abuse of Aerin as rape? We don’t know, though he does have Túrin kill Brodda (Aerin objects, not because she feels any loyalty to her husband, but because she fears for how the Easterlings will react). We also have Curufin’s earlier criticism of Eöl. From this, one can safely conclude that Tolkien thought of Aerin as a victim in the story – though as for what he would have called the on-going marital rape, we get into very murky waters.

Essay continued in Part II.

Not a Reading Challenge: February (+ Writing Update)

Just the one book completed for February:

  • Krabat, by Ottfried Preussler

Again, for whatever reason, the last six months I have simply not been reading enough. Ugh. I am starting to wonder if my mood has something to do with it – I’ve been a bit gloomy and distracted in recent times.

Writing continues to be much better: this month I have completed a 3600-word horror piece, A Christmas in Bohemia. It’s easily the most icky thing I have ever tried to write seriously, to the point where even sending it out makes me feel uncomfortable. Think of it as a thoroughly depraved retelling of the Good King Wenceslas story.

English artist Ethel Larcombe (1876-1940), 'Good King Wenceslas,' Restrike etching by G.E. after a picture by Larcombe.

Review: Papers, Please [Film] (2018)

In 2013, an independent game developer by the name of Lucas Pope put out Papers, Please, a self-described “Dystopian Document Thriller,” where you get to play a border checkpoint official in the fictional authoritarian state of Arstotzka during late 1982. The objective of the game is to let people with correct paperwork in, keep the forgers and crooks out, and navigate your way through some murky moral dilemmas with terrorists and the secret police breathing down your neck. Oh, and you have a dependent family to feed too.

Anyway, as of this weekend, the game has spawned a short film adaptation on Youtube, and it is this I am reviewing today.

Spoilers for film and game.

The film is Russian language, with English subtitles.

Considering that the entire film is a mere ten minutes, the thing does an excellent job at distilling the essence of the game: the interface between the demands of faceless bureaucracy and the needs of living, breathing humans. The protagonist inspector, who has a family of his own, must process a line of desperate people, with families of their own – with all the associated sob stories. I think this is a theme that might actually be better suited to film than game format: I personally find there is a much greater emotional toll when you are screwing over an actual human than if you are screwing over a collection of pixels. Confession: in my first win with the game, I went to the extraordinary step of deliberately letting all but one family member die, just to minimise daily costs. That sort of monstrous behaviour doesn’t fly the moment you introduce real people.

The film’s first sob-story is a man whose permit expired three days earlier, but who has (or claims to have) been trying for a job for four months, with a family. The inspector rejects him, of course, but as the man walks out, we see the official’s face reflected in the glass, staring back at him in the booth – a visual comment of “there, but for the grace of God go I.” We are then treated to a series of approvals/denials in quick succession, reaffirming that the inspector is Just Doing His Job, and that he has become quite desensitised to the process, even if there are very real consequences for the people on the other side of the glass.

This cold, bureaucratic calm runs head-long into the second dilemma, where the inspector rejects the lover of one of his guard friends. This is played for full drama: Sergiu the guard had earlier begged the inspector to approve Elisa – but, as it turns out, she lacks the necessary papers.  Our inspector rejects her, as per the rules, only to receive a heart-locket he is to pass onto Sergiu. It is here that the protagonist’s guilt catches up with him, and we are treated to a scene of his own silent self-recrimination (he puts the locket next to the photograph of his own family). Excellent stuff, though potentially a bit more black-and-white than the game equivalent, where Sergiu’s request is actually accompanied by a similar one from an arsehole supervisor to let his girlfriend past. Who gets to bend the rules here?

Another series of passport stamping ensues, with some nice shout-outs to the game’s black comedy figure of Jorji Costava, the loveable middle-aged drug-dealer who never gives up, and who is unfailingly cheerful, even as he is being taken away by guards. It’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment in the film, but it’s there: Jorji is listed as female (or 1234-OKOK), with a passport from a fictional country in-universe (Cobrastan), two different birth places (Enkyo or Mergerous, depending on the document), and a description of “Good look”, “Blue Yeis,” and “Wery toll.” Dear old Jorji: a ray of sunshine in a pitch-black nightmare.

The inspector’s earlier guilt about Sergiu/Elisa comes back to bite him in the climax, where he inadvertently lets through a pair of Kolechian terrorists posing as husband and wife, even though the wife’s name is spelt incorrectly. The inspector would be fully within his rights to deny her, but his earlier experiences have now soured him on enforcing bureaucratic technicalities, and he chooses to believe the woman’s story. This introduces another important idea to the film – that these rules may be cruel, but that does not mean they are wrong – these sob-stories may well be lies made by people with ulterior motives. The question is whether or not you choose to believe these stories (or whether you hide behind rules to escape moral responsibility). If anything, this actually represents an improvement on the game, where terrorist attacks happen regardless of what one does.

I have been singing this thing’s praises at some length – are there any issues with it? Nothing of any real significance: the acting is good, the pseudo-Eastern European aesthetics are appropriately gloomy, with greys and browns everywhere, and as I have said, the film distils the essence of the game very well. If there is an issue, it’s that I wish the film were longer: there is certainly enough material from the game to work with. I can think of two potential areas for expansion:

(1) Rejecting someone based off the rules may appear heartless, but the game has a system whereby the inspector is fined for errors: if you bend the rules to help someone, you are literally taking away food from your own family. In the film, the inspector’s family photo urges him towards humanitarianism, whereas in the game, the situation is much more bleak. Corruption then actually becomes a moral choice – a bribe might make the difference between your wife and child aving a roof over their head, or being out on the street. What does one do here?

(2) The issue of what, exactly, the inspector is going to do about his own relationship to Arstotzka. The nature of the state itself is cut from the film, but the game makes it clear that this is a decidedly unpleasant authoritarian hell-hole (there’s actually a geeky debate about whether Arstotzka is communist or fascist. I think it is neither – there is too much private enterprise and nationalism for communism, and too little xenophobia towards foreign workers for fascism). The inspector basically has a choice to keep his head down and work for the rotten system, co-operate with those trying to overthrow it (who may or may not be worse), or to try and flee. It is a difficult decision.

That said, I really only see these questions as potential themes for a hypothetically longer film – they are interesting enough to warrant discussion, but I am not going to fault this adaptation for cutting them, and preferring to focus on the “legality vs morality” question.

All-in-all, a good way to spend ten minutes of your time.

In Soviet Russia, Deck Shuffles You (Part II)

Last month, I posted an excerpt from my tongue-in-cheek Alternate History, In Soviet Russia, Deck Shuffles You. Essentially it’s the real-life General Secretaries, but in a different order, with radically altered personalities, and with copious irony and silliness added.

It’s time for Part II:

Konstantin Chernenko


The Iron Fist


Few historical figures have wielded power on the scale of Konstantin Chernenko, a name that still sends shivers down the spine. This was a man who ruled with brutal efficiency and effectiveness over a full eighteen years – a longevity surpassing all others, save for Malenkov himself – and whose creative Machiavellian cynicism sent the Soviet Union hurtling down a new and altogether darker path. If the Year of the Priest bent the cause of international Communism, Chernenko was the one who shattered it, confirming nearly all the traditional Western stereotypes about a dictatorial Soviet Union. In doing so, Moscow abandoned all pretence at idealism, preferring to hunker down behind a newly created Iron Curtain, while purging all who would not follow its orders. Not even the Party itself escaped the new and terrible Red Tsarism, a new and more personalised system of government that it had never before seen, yet would be destined to see again.

Konstantin Ustinovich Chernenko was born in 1911 in Bolshaya Tes, Southern Siberia. His family was large and impoverished; his mother was occupied in farm work, while his father worked in local copper and gold mines. He took up smoking at the age of nine, a lifelong habit that he insisted was good for the health. Many stock photos of the Great Dictator during his rule featured Chernenko with a cigarette in his hand.

Young Chernenko’s route to power was through the Department for Agitation. Set up during the Khrushchev years to control and regulate the flow of information from Government to the people, the Department offered much in the way of opportunity for someone of Chernenko’s admitted talent. Propaganda was always Chernenko’s great strength: the ability to reformulate concepts in order to express a particular narrative. In some respects, he was ground-breaking: Khrushchev had no mode beyond honest bluster, Ulyanov would sooner bore someone to death with trivial detail than lie to them, Malenkov was witty, charming, and clever, but rarely deceitful, and dze Jughashvili considered anything but truth a mortal sin. But we are getting ahead of ourselves.

Chernenko’s political mentor was NKVD chief, Beria, who gave the younger man an insight into What Might Be in terms of information collection and enforcement of authority. Chernenko’s great advantage over Beria, however, was his creativity and youth. So while the long Malenkov years dragged on, Chernenko was prepared to watch and wait. His opening came with the assassination of Ioseb dze Jughashvili: Beria had always been somewhat loose in expressing his distaste for the Georgian Patriarch, though the holy man himself had never done anything about it.

Barely a couple of minutes after the murder, Chernenko was on-hand, with police, in order to have the trio arrested. Trotsky, by now well over 80 years old, had a fatal heart attack in custody, but Kamenev and Beria were put on trial for the murder, found guilty, and shot. Chernenko later had their families shot too, just to make sure. Amid the turmoil in the Kremlin, there was now only one logical choice for the new General Secretary.

Chernenko gradually phased out the religious elements of his predecessor’s rule, while always continuing to praise him. Dze Jughashvili’s embalmed body was put on public display in a specially built mausoleum, so the faithful could pay their respects to the great man. In 1956, however, Chernenko delivered what subsequently became known as the Secret Speech to the Communist Party Conference: the stunning revelation that Ioseb dze Jughashvili had been secretly plotting to restore the exiled (and now very elderly) Tsar Nicholas II from his London base. The audience was shocked and outraged, but Chernenko and his allies distributed documents (now widely thought forgeries) linking the Georgian with the deposed Tsar. From there, Chernenko had free rein to dismantle the Red Priest’s legacy, and in light of the security situation, to dismantle much of Khrushchev and Malenkov too. The retired leaders tried launching a protest, but the master of propaganda in the Kremlin was able to effectively silence the pair, if not actually discredit them. It is now thought the death of Khrushchev in 1971 was really a secret poisoning, perhaps reflecting Chernenko’s fear that the founding father of the Soviet Union was attempting a comeback (Kaganovich, of course, had died in the Great Patriotic War, so was no longer an issue). Malenkov, meanwhile, was made manager of a hydro-electric plant in a remote corner of Kazakhstan.

In terms of economics, Chernenko largely left the Malenkov planning system intact, with an additional degree of centralisation in order to marginalise the regional and Supreme Soviets. In terms of foreign affairs, however, he abruptly shattered the post-war status quo with his announcement that henceforth the Soviet Union would enjoy a unique sphere of political influence in Eastern Europe, to be enforced by nuclear weapons if need be. This led to a dramatic cooling of relations with the West, to the extent that media began talking of a ‘Cold War’. But as Chernenko was playing the stalwart defender of Soviet interests against perfidious foreigners, few at home were greatly disturbed by the new direction.

Healthy and active, Chernenko often said that he had no intention of retiring. It was widely speculated that he might well lead the Soviet Union into the 1980s or even 1990s. His sudden death in 1972 accordingly came as an immense shock, with suggestions of Western involvement.

Yuri Andropov


The Soviet Nero


The fifteen year rule of Yuri Andropov remains a source of endless historical controversy. Was he a monster, who launched a genocide in Georgia to purge any last surviving supporters of the Red Priest, or was he the greatest friend of art and culture the Soviet Union has ever known? Was he someone who, like Ulyanov before him, simply gave up on the Soviet economy as “too difficult” an issue (and there is strong evidence that by the 1970s, the Malenkov-Chernenko model of economic development was starting to show cracks), or was he a man of broader horizons than the bean-counters around him? To read the copious literature on him (much of it written by the man himself), Andropov was all these things, and many more: a profoundly complex figure, who has almost become a sort of political Rorschach Test, in that people see what they want to see. His supporters argue that his calm diplomatic efforts during the Harold Wilson crisis of 1975-1977 helped soothe tensions, while when South Korea shot down an Aeroflot aeroplane in 1983, Andropov arguably prevented nuclear war breaking out on the Korean peninsula. Certainly, one dreads Chernenko’s reaction to such provocation. On the other hand, one continues to wonder what exactly a Soviet aeroplane was doing so far off-course. Nevertheless, one thing is for certain: Andropov was the last of the conventional leaders of the Soviet Union, for after him the country would never be the same again.

Yuri Vladimirovich Andropov was born in 1914 in Nagutskaya. Orphaned at thirteen, he spent his teenage years working in a telegraph office and other such mundane tasks, before pursuing a technical education at Rybinsk. He graduated in 1936, whereupon he promptly relocated to Petrozavodsk in search of greater opportunities. As such, he was just in time to experience the surprise Finnish attack on an unprepared Soviet Union in the winter of 1939. The interwar period had seen dramatic economic growth in Finland, and the right-leaning regime in Helsinki had made a point of plowing its newfound wealth into military development. Despite this, the Soviets had never expected a full-scale invasion, the so-called Winter War theatre of what became the Second World War. Andropov spent several years in a Finnish concentration camp, being forced to listen to non-stop recordings of Sibelius’ music for days on end. The Finns expected it to drive the prisoners insane, and in some cases it did. In the case of Andropov, however, it instilled in him a great love of classical music, and inspired him to try his own hand at composition after the war.

After completing further University studies, Andropov found an employment opportunity open up at the NKVD. Initially ambivalent about the Year of the Priest, his ambivalence turned to outright anger when his immediate superior within the security service reported his poetry as being “unchristian”. Few things angered Andropov more than attacks on his poetry or his musical compositions, and with the rise of Chernenko, the Kremlin found few more loyal atheists than Yuri Andropov. Indeed, so successful was he at rooting out enemies of the new regime, that he received a reassignment to Moscow – partly as reward, partly reflecting a not-unreasonable fear among his colleagues that Andropov was perhaps a little too enthusiastic about his job. Once in Moscow, he soon came to the attention of Chernenko, who was looking for a trusty lieutenant. Someone who could help him turn the Soviet Union into a tightly-knit country that respected authority. Someone not scared of enforcing the new Soviet sphere of domination in Eastern Europe. Needless to say, the two men got along very well, with Andropov proving an able and surprisingly non-ambitious hatchet man.

Then came the autumn of 1972, and Chernenko and Andropov were attending a Communist Party function, specifically one marking the 55th anniversary of the Revolution. A very famous conversation, cited endlessly in Andropov’s own works took place:

CHERNENKO: “What is that horrible racket? It sounds like a cat being sick!”

ANDROPOV: “It’s music, Konstantin Ustinovich.”

CHERNENKO: “Then turn it off!”

ANDROPOV: “But it’s my own composition, Kontantin Ustinovich.”

CHERNENKO: “I don’t care. It’s awful.”

Chernenko dropped dead a week later, in mysterious circumstances. The Americans were initially suspected, but Andropov was able to pin the blame on Georgian partisans. Within a month, Andropov was the new General Secretary.

His first act was to completely overhaul the Soviet education curriculum. Science and engineering, which had always played a key role in Soviet schools, was downplayed in favour of an emphasis on literature and music. Nor was it specifically centred around Russian art: every Soviet school child was expected to read Don Quixote, and listen to Sibelius. At the urging of colleagues, Andropov’s own compositions were made compulsory study too, despite his own personal hesitance about subjecting them to such a wide audience. NKVD midnight visits took care of anyone who dared to snigger. Andropov was very proud of his cultural achievements, even going so far as to suggest that everyone ought to spend a few years in a concentration camp now and again.

Then, in 1979, the Georgians made an unauthorised alteration to their curriculum. Poetic works by a certain Anonymous had been added in place of Andropov’s own. The General Secretary, who was listening to American Jazz radio at the time, is reported to have nearly choked on his single-malt whisky. Further investigations showed that this Anonymous was none other than Ioseb dze Jughashvili himself. Andropov, never one to shirk from crushing dissent, immediately browbeat his Politburo colleagues into launching a full-scale invasion of Georgia. The international reaction was predictable: United States President Jimmy Carter, initially confused about which Georgia was being invaded, condemned the attack, and called for a boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics.

The war proved surprisingly long and costly for the Soviet Union, even with the significant increase in military expenditure during the Chernenko years. It also served to widen the cracks appearing in the Soviet economy, though contrary to popular belief, Andropov did not entirely ignore that department: he cracked down on corruption and alcoholism, and suggested that Beethoven be played in all workplaces. The success of his reforms was, however, somewhat mixed.

By the time Andropov died from kidney failure in 1987, the Soviet Union was in a precarious state. Military adventures and creaking economy had rapidly pushed the (well-read and culturally sensitive) leadership towards a sense of crisis. A change was needed, and what a change that would be.

Leonid Brezhnev

The Fast-living, Car-crashing, Old Man in a Hurry​



Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev was never meant to be a party leader. The longest serving Politburo member in Soviet history, he had served without distinction under Malenkov, dze Jughashvili, Chernenko, and Andropov: a good three and a half decades of being passed over and ignored for all but the most mundane tasks. As his one-time mentor Chernenko once unkindly remarked, it was unfair to say that Brezhnev’s day had come and gone, because that would be to suggest that he had a day to start with. Between purely menial paper-shuffling, Brezhnev indulged his pet interests of wartime memorabilia (by the 1970s, his medal collection was said to rival the official collections of several National Museums), and car-racing. Brezhnev’s one great achievement prior to achieving office was to have arranged a free trade deal with the West, allowing importation of high-class automobiles. That, and managing to put United States Vice-President Spiro Agnew in a wheelchair after a joyride at Camp David went wrong in 1973. His legacy once in office, however, is a whole other matter.

Brezhnev was born in Kamenskoye in 1906, the child of a metalworker. He graduated from the local Technicum in 1935, becoming a metallurgical engineer. This background in the Ukraine’s iron and steel industries would later earn him the political nickname of ‘Stalin’ (meaning ‘man of steel’), though it was rarely applied with affection. He joined the party during the Malenkov era, and came to the attention of local authorities for always fulfilling his quotas, and being something of a flattering brown-noser towards superiors. This ability to curry favour with those above him ensured his longevity in the years that followed – whether it be Uncle George or Konstantin Chernenko, Brezhnev was somehow able to evolve to fit a particular niche. It also typecast him as a man somewhat devoid of ideology, but by the time he arrived at the Politburo in 1951, he was considered both harmless and competent. Leaders came and went, but Brezhnev did not.

The death of Andropov in 1987 opened up the General Secretary position. Unfortunately, with the country appearing to drift towards crisis, there were multiple ideas on solutions. Multiple ideas meant multiple factions, and apparent political gridlock. Finally, out of frustration, the party leadership decided on a compromise candidate: the 80 year old Brezhnev. As a comparative non-entity, he would not alienate anyone, and as he was so elderly, he provided a perfect stopgap leader. The real candidates could try again in a few years. In the meantime, the octogenarian could shake hands with world leaders between naps. If only they had remembered the precedent of Pope John XXIII in 1958, the orthodox party-liners would have been more careful. Brezhnev really did have ideas, and had been waiting decades for this moment.

No sooner than he had been elected than the new Soviet leader announced what he called the Brezhnev Doctrine: a strict policy of non-interference in the affairs of other countries. The resulting collapse of the Chernenko-Andropov Iron Curtain was as sudden as it was unexpected, but Brezhnev argued that the country could not afford the expense of an external Empire. The persecutions of Georgians and the Orthodox Church came to an end, as the figure of the Red Priest was revived as a recognised part of Soviet history, and Andropov’s eccentric academic curriculum was phased out. For the first time since the Malenkov era, it became possible to publicly disagree with the regime. Westerners were stunned, the hard-liners among the Communist Party leadership were outraged. But Brezhnev had even more up his sleeve, ironically taking full advantage of Chernenko-Andropov autocracy to ram through an agenda that would have been impossible to achieve otherwise.

Disappointed at the quality of local automobile manufacturing relative to that of the United States and Japan, Brezhnev invited and encouraged foreign firms to set up factories on Soviet soil. This soon broadened beyond automobiles to other areas of production too, until the old state factories felt themselves suddenly squeezed by foreign competition. And then in July 1991, Brezhnev dropped a further bombshell: the Communist Party would be lifting its monopoly on power, and permitting other parties to stand against it in free elections, to be held in the middle of 1992.

Autocratic power structures or not, this was too much for even the more liberal members of the Politburo. There were dark mutterings about forcibly retiring the now 84 year old leader. Then, in August 1991 the internal opposition to Brezhnev went beyond mere mutterings…

Mikhail Gorbachev​


The Man Who “Saved” the Soviet Union​


On 19th August, 1991, regular television and radio programming was interrupted to deliver a shock announcement: Leonid Brezhnev, the 84 year old leader of the Soviet Union, had been overthrown in a coup d’etat. At first there was some uncertainty about who, if anyone, was now in control of the Kremlin, but by the end of the evening it appeared that a shadowy band of hardliners, the State Committee of the State of Emergency, had seized control in a sudden and well-planned move against the Government. The leader of the putsch was one Mikhail Gorbachev, a party underling with a long-standing grudge against Brezhnev and his reform programme, and within a few days, the Politburo (at gun-point) formally anointed Gorbachev the new General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev was born in Stavrpol, in 1931, which makes him the first Soviet leader born after Khrushchev’s Revolution. After pursuing a degree in law, he joined the Communists in the hard-line atmosphere of the early Chernenko era, which seems to have shaped him profoundly. He was the quintessential party hack, but in contrast to the often-ignored Brezhnev, was well-regarded by the hierarchy. He attracted praise from (pre-leadership) Andropov, ideologist Mikhail Suslov, and Foreign Affairs Minister Gromyko, who remarked of Gorbachev that ”this man has a nice smile, but he has iron teeth.” Gorbachev’s star, however, stalled its rise during the late Andropov era, and despite being an outside conservative suggestion for the leadership in 1987, his lack of Politburo experience was fatal. He and his band of “back to Chernenko” hard-liners were increasingly marginalised and demoted under Brezhnev, something that Gorbachev seems to have taken very personally.

The humiliation of the loss of the Soviet Union’s East European Empire sparked Gorbachev to explore ways of removing the aged reformist leader. He found a ready ally in another frustrated conservative, Boris Yeltsin. Together, they sought to slowly play on discontent with the Brezhnev regime, discontent that was becoming increasingly common as the Old Man pushed the country ever further down the path to capitalism. The final straw was the July announcement of elections: to a traditionalist like Gorbachev, this was anathema to Marxist thought, for how could a Dictatorship of the Proletariat ever seek to surrender power back to the bourgeoisie? Clearly, Brezhnev was a secret reactionary, or worse, an American. Something needed to be done, and something would be done.

On 19th August, Brezhnev was kidnapped, with support of the army, and placed under house-arrest. Gorbachev, a competent organiser if nothing else, made sure that the coup plotters rounded up all potential opposition to their plan. Nevertheless, there were mass protests throughout Moscow and Petrograd, demanding that Brezhnev be returned: the people took heart from the great East European protests a mere few years earlier, and kissed pictures of the man known as ‘Stalin’. Sadly, Gorbachev had a more “Chinese” solution in mind, and on 22nd August, the army opened fire on student protesters in Red Square. To this day, it is uncertain how many were killed, and it remains a forbidden topic of discussion in the Soviet Union. But while this shocking act of brutality caused outrage around the world, it achieved what Gorbachev wanted: it solidified his power, and in the words of apologists, enabled him to save the Soviet Union as a functioning political entity.

Gorbachev’s 1991-1993 rule would have been enough to raise the hair on Chernenko himself. Amid a full-scale purge of anyone suspected of reformist sympathies, together with a massive increase in security spending, the regime in Moscow seemed hell-bent on outdoing the Iron Years of the 1960s. Brezhnev himself was never seen again. But just as Gorbachev’s harsh rule was a response to the excessive liberalism of his predecessor, so Gorbachev too sparked discontent with his extreme reaction. Angry rumblings were said to have reached the Politburo itself, though in the secretive environment of the post-coup world, no-one was prepared to even hint at disloyalty to the Great Leader.

But opposition there was, and it came to a head in 1993.

Part I