Kabul: City Number One - Part 7

Friday 29 January 2010, 16:06

Adam Curtis Adam Curtis

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Afghanistan didn't just defeat the Soviet army. It reached out and corrupted and corroded the Soviet Union's faith in itself. Above all it destroyed what was left of the dream that communism was the future universal model for the world.

The fascinating question now is whether Afghanistan is beginning to do the same to us in the West. Bit by bit, as we accept torture, corruption and rigged democracy, is our faith in the universalism of our European idea of democracy beginning to falter? And with it our power.

This is the story of two individuals who tried to save their countries from terrible crises caused by their involvement in Afghanistan. They did this through radical extreme projects that they were convinced would change the course of history. But their actions were to have the most unexpected and terrible consequences. They would find themselves still haunted by Afghanistan, and both would die sad, untimely deaths.

Both were children of powerful dynasties who had shaped the destinies of their countries.

One is Yegor Gaidar who was the architect of Shock Therapy in Russia. The other is Benazir Bhutto who helped to create the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Yegor Gaidar's grandfather was one of the heroes of the Russian Revolution. He was called Arkady Gaidar. In private he was haunted by the terrible memories of how at the age of 14 in the Red Army he had brutally killed people in the civil war as he suppressed anti-communist rebels. He wrote in his diary:

"I dream about the people I killed when I was young, in the war"

So he decided to write children's books.

His most famous was called "Timur and his Squad". It is about Timur who gathers a group of children who come to help familes whose fathers have gone off to war. Arkady wrote it at the end of the 1930s - convinced that another terrible war was coming. Here are some pages and a photo of Arkady Gaidar.

In 1941, Arkady Gaidar volunteered to fight the Nazis. But he was killed in the first few weeks. "Timur and his Squad" became the most popular children's book in the Soviet Union ever.

Arkady's son was called Timur. He grew up as part of the revolutionary aristocracy. Timur Gaidar was taught that he was part of an elite who were transfoming the world - they could create a new kind of future. Here is a bit from a Soviet promotional film of the 1950s. It gives a sense of that optimistic vision, but it also has a mood of the strange and artificial feeling of life in the Soviet Union during that time - as young men and women at a New Years Eve dance in Omsk in 1960 are watched through a two-way mirror.

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Timur became a defence correspondent for Pravda. He reported on the Bay of Pigs in Cuba in 1962. Yegor grew up travelling the world with his father and meeting all sorts of famous people.

Yegor believed in the Soviet system. It was good to him and his family. But then the Gaidars became friends with the Strugatsky brothers. Arkady and Boris Strugatsky were Russia's most famous Science Fiction writers.

Although James Cameron denies it, many Russians believe that much of the story and many of the ideas in Avatar are taken from the Strugatskys' "Noon Universe" sequence of novels that they wrote in the 1960s. Even down to the planet name - Pandora - and the humanoid race called the Naves.

But the novel that fascinated Yegor Gaidar was "Roadside Picnic" written by Arkady Strugatsky. It is about a strange and enormous place called The Zone. It is a magical area that has been created on earth by an alien visitation. Inside the Zone among the ruins are alien artifacts that have dangerous powers - and daring individuals called Stalkers go into the zone to get the artefacts.

The Zone is ambiguous. On the one hand it is coded criticism of the Soviet experiment - a ruined empty world that no one understands any longer. And it opened Yegor Gaidar's eyes to a new and critical way of looking at the world around him.

But on the other - somewhere at the centre of The Zone - is a Golden Sphere which if found will grant the deepest desires of the person who discovers it.

Roadside Picnic was turned into a film - Stalker, directed by Andrei Tarkovsky in 1979

Benazir Bhutto was the daughter of Pakistan's most famous and charismatic politician, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto.

In 1967 Bhutto formed the Pakistan Peoples Party. He challenged the military who ruled Pakistan and their slavishness to America. He wanted to create a new kind of socialist society.

His slogan was "Islam is our faith, democracy is our policy, socialism is our economy. All power to the people."

Here is Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto at the UN in 1971. You can get a sense of his power and charisma. He is trying to stop the UN recognising the breakaway East Pakistan as an independent Bangladesh.

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In 1971 Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto became President and set out to transform Pakistan into a planned socialist society. And Benazir became an international princess.

And behind her was the power and confidence of one of the great feudal dyansties of the Sindh province. This is her grandfather Sir Shahnawaz .

But then it went wrong. Many of Bhutto's reforms failed. His government was riddled with corruption. To hang on to power Bhutto rigged the next election, and amid mass violence his favourite general, General Zia, took power in a coup.

Zia then sentenced Bhutto to death. And Benazir Bhutto began to change. Here she is describing the moments before her father was hanged. It is followed by the moment her two brothers - Murtaza and Shahnawaz - come out of her family house early in the morning to announce their father has been hanged.

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The Bhutto family vowed revenge. Benazir stayed in Pakistan and was held under house arrest. Her two brothers - Murtaza and Shahnawaz - fled to Kabul. The communist regime in Afghanistan gave them one of the old Royal Palaces. Murtaza put a sign outside saying "Pakistan Peoples Liberation Army" - although he and his brother, three of their friends, and Murtaza's alsatian dog called Wolf were the only members.

Here is Murtaza and his sisters, Sanam and Benazir on a plane in happier times.

Then Murtaza created a terrorist wing called Al Zulfikar. They let off some bombs in Karachi, and in March 1981 they managed to hi-jack a PIA plane (only because the X-Ray machines weren't working at Karachi airport). The plane landed at Kabul when everyone was away in Moscow at the 26th Communist Party Conference in Moscow.

The plane sat on the runway. Murtaza played the passengers a cassette tape of "revolutionary songs". One of the other hi-jackers described the effect.

'I can't express to you what effect these 'revolutionary songs' had on the passengers. Forget the passengers, I myself developed a headache after listening to them. In all my life, I've never heard such crude, unmusical, off-beat, mindless drivel. All of us had to undergo this tuneless torture day after day. At the end of the hijacking I asked Murtaza where these cassettes had come from, but he refused to answer'

The songs had in reality been written and recorded by his brother - Shahnawaz.

Here is a fragment taken over a satellite feed of the hi-jack

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Finally Murtaza gave up waiting and ordered a young Pakistani officer on the plane to be shot. General Zia then released some political prisoners and the hi-jack ended. But the Afghan government were fed up with the Bhutto brothers and asked them to leave. They were also fed up with Murtaza because when Wolf went missing he demanded that the whole Afghan intelligence service search the Kabul area for him.

Murtaza and Shanawaz left Afghanistan with two new wives. They were sisters, daughters of a member of the Afghan Foreign Ministry.

The leadership of the struggle against Zia passed to Benazir. Here is part of an interview with her in 1981. She has not only become radicalised, but she can also see clearly how General Zia's support of the mujaheddin resistance in Afghanistan was going to corrupt Pakistan. Benazir Bhutto is looking into the future and seeing the terrible dangers that were coming - the danger of allying with America and the Islamists, in the name of democracy, in their struggle with the Soviet Union.

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As Benazir spoke, and Murtaza looked for Wolf in the streets of Kabul, Timur Gaidar was also in Afghanistan. He was the leading reporter for Pravda, and he was reporting on the Red Army's struggle.

Yegor Gaidar is quiet in his memoirs about his father's role in Afghanistan. Whatever he thought politically, Timur believed in the Red Army. By all accounts he wrote pieces announcing the Red Armies "successes" against the insurgent Islamists. Like his father, Arkady, and millions of other Russians Timur saw the Red Army as the guardian not only of the people but of the noble ideals of the revolution.

And the Soviets, as well as fighting the mujahedin, were trying to transform Afghanistan into a version of that revolutionary dream that had begun in Russia. Here are some extracts from a brillant film made in Afghanistan in the mid 80s. It is shot by a man I consider a genius. He is called Erik Durschmied. He has a wonderful eye and in my opinion is the best cameraman the BBC ever had. It begins with the Afghan President, Babrak Karmal, visiting a factory. Watch his face - and know that within a year the Soviets would remove him.

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But as Timur Gaidar faithfully reported the Red Army "victories" against the mujahedin, his son, Yegor Gaidar, was becoming radicalised. He was turning against the Soviet system.

Yegor had studied economics in the 1970s at Moscow University. Then he met again the daughter of Arkady Strugatsky, the science fiction writer. They fell in love and married. And as the caption says above the photo in Gaidar's memoir - it was one of the happiest marriages ever.

But Yegor had decided that all of Russia and its empire had now become The Zone.

It is difficult to convey just how weird and alien-like the Soviet system had become by the mid-80s. Nothing was real. Brezhnev would take foreign leaders on fishing trips while underneath the boat Soviet frogmen would place already captured fish on their leader's fishhook. At the same time the giant economic plan had created an absurd and fictitious world. Here is a bit from a film I made for the series "Pandora's Box" just as the plan was collapsing in 1991. It begins with one of the heads of GOSPLAN, the central control for the whole Soviet Plan, showing us round the HQ in Moscow. Within months of the filming it was going to be closed down - in part by the actions of Yegor Gaidar

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In the face of this many of the children of the communist elite retreated from the absurdity that political ideology had created. They tried to create worlds that were free of politics.

Here are two extracts from a series called "Comrades" made in 1985. Its about a group of experimental musicians grouped around the noise artist Sergey Kuryokhin. I think the noise that Kuryokhin creates is wonderful. Here is a bit of him conducting his band called "Mechanical Pop". You can see where Beyonce stole many of her moves from.

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And here is Kuryokhin playing with a friend's band. They are children of the Soviet elites playing in a house that had been given to one of their familes personally by Lenin. It is Prodigy before Prodigy - and just wonderful, especially the song "Exterminator"

As one of them says - people both in Russia and the West try and force music to have something to do with politics. I don't think music has anything to do with politics he says.

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Kuryokhin was going to become one of the central figures in the new Russia in the early 90s. As was Yegor Gaidar.

And like Kuryokhin, Gaidar was also retreating from politics. He was beginning to dream of a new type of economic system that would function efficiently and automatically - free from the corruption of power.

In the early 80s Gaidar joined the All Union Institute for Systems Research. It was modelled on the RAND corporation in Santa Monica, and it was full of young technocrats who sensed that a giant crisis was coming - and were trying to create a radical new idea to save Russia.

Here are a couple of shots of Yegor in the 80s - along with his fried Anatoly Chubais, who was also going to become central to the Shock Therapy project.

At the same time Shahnawaz Bhutto was found dead in his apartment in Cannes on the Riviera. It was where he and his Afghan wife Rehana Fasihudin had gone after being thrown out of Kabul.

Here is Benazir arriving in Cannes for the Coroner's hearing.

Rehana said Shanawaz had committed suicide by eating a cynaide pill left over from his terrorist operation. But Benazir Bhutto didn't believe her. According to Benazir there were signs of violence and his papers had been searched and Rehana seemed to have done nothing to help him. Benazir was convinced he had been assassinated and she speculated that Rehana might actually be an agent for the Pakistan Secret Intelligence Agency, the ISI.

Three months later Murtaza divorced Rehana's sister Fauzia and moved to Damascus with his young daughter Fatima.

A few months later Benazir Bhutto came back to Pakistan. She sensed that Zia's power was weakening. It was an extraordinary arrival. Millions came out to see her - and she promised Pakistanis a new kind of democracy. Here is the extraordinary journey she made in 1986 - from Bradford to the streets of Lahore.

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Then, in 1988, General Zia's plane mysteriously crashed and in the election that followed Benazir was elected Prime Minister. But to be a politician she had to be married. So she accepted the Zardari family's offer of an arranged marriage with their son Asif.

Here is Benazir at the wedding. The music is from Shostakovich's ballet The Bolt.

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Benazir came to power in a country whose political system and large parts of its society had been completely corrupted by the war in Afghanistan. Senior members of the army were smuggling heroin. The country was awash with weapons. And much of Pakistan's foreign policy was now in the hands of the mysterious intellgence agency, the ISI who along with the Americans had backed the Islamists fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan.

But something else had happened which few people noticed at the time.

General Zia had brought in an Islamic tax - a Zakat. It was a levy to help the poor - and large amounts went to fund religious schools across the country. They were the madrassas - run by the Deobandi movement - and by the late 1980s there were thousands of these schools producing masses of students - many of them Afghan refugees - for whom the pashto word is "talib".

Most "terror experts" conflate Islamists like bin Laden with the Taliban. That is completely wrong. The Deobandi ulemas who ran the madrassas were traditionalists and believed that modern Islamism was a dangerous corruption of Islam and they condemned it.

The founders of modern Islamism, Qutb and Mawdudi, had tried to fuse Islam with modern politics to create a new kind of modern, revolutionary society. The ulemas in the Pakistan madrassas wanted to do the very opposite - to go back into the past. They wanted to retreat completely from the corruption of politics and create an idealized version of an old Islamic society.

Then in 1988 the Soviets gave up and left Afghanistan. As they watched the Islamist mujahedin groups tear each other apart, the young Taliban leaders realized their teachers had been right about the corruption of power.

As the Red Army came home the revolution they had protected and guaranteed collapsed. The Soviet Union was destroyed. And in 1991 Yegor Gaidar was given the task of producing a new reform plan by President Yeltsin. He realised this was his chance to create a new world.

Gaidar gathered a group of idealists around him and they set out to create a utopia that would also be completely free of politics. But his was like a science fiction vision of the future. He was going to create his Zone - a pure and idealised version of American capitalism but without any state or political control. Every state control was going to be removed and the system would find its own order.

Many of the left argue that the 1990s reforms were brought into Russia by Western free-marketeers, and that people like Gaidar were simply western puppets. Whilst it is true that Western bankers, accountants and politicians did all pile in, the more you look into the roots of the shock therapy project it is clear that much ot its strange, innocent simplicity came from Gaidar and the other young idealists.

It was their utopian dream that they created inside the isolated bubble of the decaying Soviet Union in the 1980s.

Here is Gaidar at a press conference announcing the start of his plan. All price controls would be removed overnight. And all state enterprises woud be privatized. It is followed by a bit from an interview with Gaidar the day the scheme began. He is aware of the irony that he and Yeltsin were going to use harsh political powers in order to destroy the power of politics in Russia.

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Here are some extracts from a brilliant series called Russian Wonderland that recorded Russia during that time in wonderful detail. These extracts give a sense of Gaidar's vision as it began to spread. I really want to know what happened to the young girl.

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And Afghanistan was about to get its own utopian experiment.

In 1990 Benazir Bhutto was forced out of power by the army. But in 1993 she returned triumphantly to power. To do this though she had done a deal that was going to change the fate of the world.

She had allied her father's party, the PPP, with another party called the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam. They represented the Deobandis. Although the Deobandis hated politics they still knew they needed to be represented - and this deal brought them into the corridors of power.

Benazir Bhutto then decided to use her new allies to bring order to Afghanistan. Many of the Deobandi students were Pashtuns and Bhutto was convinced she could create a new force that would bring order to the country. It would also restore Pashtun power.

At the end of 1994 she and her interior minister, General Babar, unleashed the Taliban, backed by vast amounts of Pakistani arms and money. Within months the "students" had taken Kandahar and were advancing on Herat.

And as the Taliban took control of the cities they began their experiment. All they cared about was morality so the only organisation they created was called - "The Organisation for the Commanding of Good and the Hunting Down of Evil". Otherwise they had no interest in any social or political institutions. They just got rid of them all.

And as they did so the Taliban experiment began to look strangely like Gaidar's utopian experiment further north. Because by removing all state control the Taliban allowed the purest and most basic form of commerce and capitalism to emerge. And as it did so merchants, dealers, and transporters in the old bazaars became rich, uncontrolled by any taxes or regulations.

Here is some footage from rushes directed by the brilliant producer Tom Giles in 1996 as the Taliban approached Kabul. First driving from Kabul towards the Taliban lines. And then some long hand held shots on the streets of Herat as the Taliban take over. Holding it long really gives you a sense of the tense and strange mood of that time.

The music is from Stalker.

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But things weren't going to work out the way either Bhutto or Gaidar thought.

The force that Benazir Bhutto had helped create would mutate and in the end kill her. While Gaidar would find himself haunted by the political force that had been defeated in Afghanistan - the Red Army. It had defined his family's life for 80 years and it would return to destroy his dream.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    Wonderful, just wonderful, but very depressing at the same time. I agree wholeheartedly with you on the "Karzai" issue; it amazes me how almost no one else in the media has commented upon the fact that we're effectively propping up a corrupt dictator. The politicians don't want to know this either, and Gordon Brown is prepared to meet with Karzai to talk over the Taliban problem and whatnot. These people truly believe that it's just a matter of sending the right equipment or buying off the right people, while the biggest problem that Afghanistan faces today is staring them right in the face and shaking their hand, smiling all the while.

    There's also Iraq and the election turmoil that has been festering over the past few months. It is very hard to find any kind of news on the situation in Iraq; almost all references to the country deal with OUR problems and fear: Oil prices, political issues that indirectly inpige on this beleaguered nation, etc. And for some reason the Chilcot Inquiry affair pops up whenever I type "Iraqi news" in to the search engine. We're turning a blind eye to Iraq and Afghanistan because, perhaps, we're afraid of what might stare back. And like you say, this is going to have a corrupting effect on our democracies. I truly fear for the future if this is the shape of things to come.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    Yo, Mr. Curtis, being dying to ask you question. It has nothing to do with Afghanistan (or does it?) but I'll give it a go anyway.

    After watching The Trap for approximately the fifth time I sort of zoomed in on the interview you did with Philip Mirowski. I can't really remember why it stood out but I decided to buy his books. So, I looked around, spent a small fortune (they're not exactly best-sellers) and read them.

    Wow! Just, wow! These were some of the most interesting books I've ever laid my eyes on. They're not a light read (to say the very least) but boring they are not.

    So my big question: Is The Trap based on Mirowski's work, especially Machine Dreams? I'm dying to know - sad as it may seem this is the kind of thing that keeps me awake at night. If so, how did you come across his work? If not why did you decide to interview Mirowski in particular?

    I'm guessing you probably don't post comments on your own blog - that would be, in Yankese, majorly "lame" - so maybe drop me an e-mail or something. If you don't I may die of sleep-deprivation and then you'd feel really bad and stuff.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    Honestly can't agree with you in the Beyonce thing...

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    Ah, Afghanistan -- the barren graveyard of world's empires...

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    Very few commentators seem to have considered the fiscal implications of the US/UK 7-Years War. Was the USSR's belief in itself decayed by Afghanistan? I'm not sure that would be the case, given that most of its citizens would probably not have had the faintest idea of what was going on there. Perhaps rather it is just that unending and unendable war seriously debilitates any State, or combination of States, financially.
    It could be argued, and no doubt has been, that the USA financed its (worthwhile and gratefully-received) contribution to WW2 by utilising the assets of the British Empire as collateral. What of the present collapse of the Western financial system? Is it pure coincidence? Hardly, to my mind. I was reading/hearing some statsitic the other day which said that, left to itself, the GDP of Aghanistan was $1.5B a year and the USA was curently spending at a rate of some tens of Billions per year. Factor in whatever the colossal costs of Iraq were, and it's hardly surprising the Capitalist System has been having a monetary melt-down, just as the Communist one did.

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    @Moor Larkin

    You definetely have a point about the financial implications of the war(s). But I don't think that the present financial collapse has anything to do with war spending. These collapses have been a long time coming. I got my hands on some interesting stats the other day.

    In 1952 the US financial institutions were valued at approximately 400% of GDP (seems like a lot, but having lots of cash to invest sloshing around is the norm). This stayed pretty stable through the US's "Golden Era" (1950ish - 1970ish). By 1982 it was approximately 420% of GDP.

    Now fast-forward through the crazy 80s and the loony 90s - in 2007 it was approximately 1100% of GDP!!! That's a near threefold increase.

    All the while the profit-rate for non-financial companies has been in decline. In 2006 it reached its second lowest point in the post-war years, 5.5% or so (the lowest point was after the dot-com crash when it dropped to just under 4%).

    Capital investment in the non-financial sector has also bombed. It was at about 6% (% of GDP) in 2007 - its lowest point since 1960 (the post-war period of reconstruction was a shaky period for capital investment - the difference being that profits back then were rising).

    Finally consider the fact that real wages in the US have stagnated since around 1979. So non-financial companies are getting cheaper labour than they were in the "Golden Era" but there profits are... down?

    I think that these trends account for the increased investment in finance. There's less money to be made in non-financial investment. The financial meltdown seems to have been a structural problem.

    Although war-spending is undoubtadly going to speed-up the crash of the US empire, this crash was inevitable. How is this connected to the Soviet experience in Afghanistan and the Union's collapse? Frankly, I think history is just having a bit of a joke with us...

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    Amazing stories and some incredible footage.

    I enjoyed the film of Benazir Bhutto on breakfast TV, was she talking to Selina Scott? I loved the way the camera moves to Micheal Fish, who is wearing an appalling jumper and makes some quip about how she should be pleased to leave the UK because of the bad weather coming up. I can't imagine seeing anything like this on TV today.

    The film of Afghanistan in 1996 is fascinating too, you get the feeling that it is an incredibly chaotic country. Fighting and winning a war there seems near impossible.

    Keep up the good work Mr Curtis.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    Fascinating, as always. It also feels increasingly surreal to me as your reportage moves into the time periods in which I myself was around to experience events (I was only born late 70's, so a lot of the earlier considerations really have been 'history' to me). But I vividly recall events like the fall of the USSR being reported as it happened, and was brought up within the 80's media environment, and it is always bizarre and remarkable at the same time to learn more about what was *really* going on during the era - whilst retaining some sense of the peculiar concerns of the era (I can still recall, even from my time as a small child, the obsession with nuclear dread that the 80's manifested throughout, but which is now so alien to our current sensibilities, for instance). I also remember coming across references to the Taliban for the first time in about 1996 when I went to university, mainly focusing on their involvement in the opium trade.

    I was especially interested (as a lifelong sci-fi fan) in your quoting the Strugatsky brothers (and their link to Gaidar). 'Roadside Picnic' is a masterpiece, in my opinion (and 'Stalker' is no mean film either). Although I felt a couple of the analogies in the details above were, perhaps, a little stretched, I think you are absolutely right to say that 'Roadside Picnic' effectively conjures up something very deep rooted, and peculiar, about the Russian psyche under Communism - there is a nihilism and bleakness at its heart that could never have been replicated in the US science fiction of the time. It seems that the analogies run deep in Russian sensibilities - I recall reading an astonishing article about the Chernoybl area in the present day, which is still so badly irradiated that it now exists as a kind of mid 1980's Pompeii, a lasting 'time capsule', because no one dares enter the area for fear of radiation poisoning. Or rather, a very few bohemians migrate to the edges to explore on day trips driven by curiosity. They often refer to the area of the irradiating as 'the Zone', and they see themselves in the guise of 'stalkers' reclaiming the lost legacy of a fallen empire.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    ...and another thing.

    I'm just wondering: the band Kuryokhin plays with...who are they? I think they mention the name of the lead singer at the beginning of the clip but I'm not familiar with the Russian language so I'm afraid that the pronunciation went over my head. I would really like to know because they sound like an excellent band; "Exterminator" in particular is, as you say, a wonderful song. If anyone else here can tell me what I want to know it would be very helpful.

    Besides that, I just want to point something out: when detailing Gaidar's rise and fall you make him responsible for the "Shock Therapy" policies that were implemented in Russia following the fall of the Soviet Union. Isn't that a reversal of your previous position on the matter? I believe it was in one of your documentaries, "The Trap" IIRC, where you laid the share of the blame at the hands of select cadre of neo-conservatives. I'm not accusing you of hypocrisy, I just want to point out that you had previously made the same argument as those "in the left", as you describe them. It's something that jumped out at me when I re-read the blog.

    Anyway, excellent work as always, and I look foward to the concluding part of this fascinating story.


    I think he's just being humorous... ;)

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    Just a message to say thank you. I always enjoy your posts on here.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    @Phiiip Pilkington

    I certainly would not attempt to fathom the way big money flows work. As the Financial Times once wondered aloud about Money, in its advertising, "What would happen if you tried to spend it all?" Maybe that is exactly what we are seeing. War used to be an easily replenished resource - Human software was cheap and available. Nowadays the first-world version of war relies entirely on very expensive hardware and all the resources needed to keep that hardware serviceable. The Soviets found that Hardware is much more difficult to finance than Software.

    As an aside, I was reading Pervez Musharraf's memoir and he makes exactly the same point about Zia and the madrassa schools, as in this blog.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    Thanks Adam, really fascinating views. Not as funny as Train of Terror, but hey.....

    Just out of interest, has anyone here's read Obama's book - 'The Audacity of Hope'?

    Not as high brow as some of the things that get suggested on here, but I started reading it recently and felt there was a some crossover between the book and the topics covered by AC, which is something I did not expect I must say.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    To Juan Neira: I have sort of changed my mind about shock therapy. So you are sort of right - the more I have researched this area the more I have realised that while the American economists and other free-market utopian theorists were very important, people like Gaidar and the ideas they developed in the 1980s were equally important in beginning the whole project.

    I will look in more detail at the role of the Americans in Russia in the next part of the story. But in this part I wanted to pull Gaidar forward - plus others like Anatoly Chubais - to counter what I think is the simplification of blaming it all on the Americans. I may be pushing this a bit too far - it is such a complicated story that it's difficult to sort out responsibilities - but Gaidar's ideas were really important.

    But the most important thing about the Americans involved in the Russian experiment in the early 90s is that they were NOT neo-conservatives. In reality they were the very opposite. Neo-conservatives believe passionately that societies can only cohere if there are central ideas and moral beliefs.

    Those behind the shock therapy believed that all you had to do was take away most of the state controls and you would get a new, stable society (although there would be some initial pain)

    And in response to Phiiip Pilkington. I think Philip Mirowski is a brilliant historian. His ideas did influence a lot of the Trap. He was on to something very early - that I notice a number of historians are now getting interested in. It is the question of whether the "neo-liberalism" that emerged in the west in the 1980s was a strange version of capitalism that massively simplified and distorted the original ideas of Adam Smith.

    Above all the neo-liberals discarded all the ideas about "moral sentiments" and instead re-cast capitalism as a kind of cybernetic system in which human beings are like parts of a self-regulating machine. Mirowski's argument if that this owes as much to engineering and systems theory as it does to any more sophisticated capitalist ideas. Which means that it was a kind of technocratic project born out of the cold war - and its odd fusion of electronic engineering and paranoia.

    Philip Mirowski is also a very nice man.

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    Comment number 14.

    Quickly, though I'm sure the readers of this blog will have picked it up: 'Illustrious Corpses' is the title of a superb political thriller from the mid 1970s by Francesco Rosi. Well worth trying to track down, as is the same director's 'The Mattei Affair'. These marvellous films have been a long time away from our tv screens and are largely forgotten, but will repay your effort.

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    Comment number 15.

    Adam, or anyone else for that matter, what do you think were the factors behind the emergence of this narrower neoliberal philosophy?

    Did the horror of WW2 challenge what Smith wrote about "moral sentiments" and only leave the type of ideas that more greatly characterise The Wealth of Nations? I can't help but feel that the war had an enormous and still has a widely pervading effect on how we view ourselves, more than we realise.

    Likewise neoconservatism, was this the opposite reaction to the same event, or is this much too simplistic? It's as if something polarised and radicalised people in the West and I wonder this force was?

    I'm not sure how to explain the point I'm trying to make here, but it's as if Pearl Harbour happened, and the Holocaust happened and the A-Bomb happened, and in the face of that extreme horror extreme philosophies became widely accepted. Is this true?

    It seems to make sense that neoliberalism could have been influenced by 'engineering and systems theory '. But the type of ultra-rationality that this influence implies is also what seems to be examined throughout The Trap with regard to the neocons and Cold War strategy, Blair and Performance Indicators, psychiatry etc. So is the wider point that our entire culture has been become one with an over reliance and an wildly undue faith in mathematical solutions to human social problems?

    I think I've said this before but a lot of AC's work seems to suggest we've become convinced of our ability and our righteousness in trying to control things. Perhaps it's human nature, or specific events or technological advances......I don't know. I don't know whether it really suggests, because it doesn't overtly advocate to my eyes, any political idea. My best guess at the mo, with all this talk of Smith is maybe we need to reexamine the kind of stuff going around in the Enlightenment, which was moderate and rational and encouraged a type of serious discourse and compromise and examined structures of power that didn't allow it to be centralised.

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    Comment number 16.

    It is hard to convey the hatred for Gaidar amongst the older generation in Russia. My taxi driver in Moscow gave a stream of invective on the subject.

    I have never managed to see the Comrades series of 1985. I know that the Comrades series was followed up about 10 years later. I like you watched the Winter Wonderland series asking myself where are they now.

    I would watch this as well


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    Comment number 17.

    In response to Alex's comment, I'm not sure about the details either. But as regards the long - term impact of the Enlightenment experiment...

    It is fair to say that the 18th century Enlightenment developed a variety of discourses surrounding a more rational manner of structuring European (and, by extension human) society, as it was understood to function in the 18th century (it is worth recognising that this model of society remained essentially fedual, and had been in force since at least the Dark Ages. If you wish to extrapolate, you could argue it had been the basic model for most human societies the world over since the first attainments in urban civilization about 3500 BCE).

    One of these discourses was about the perfectibility of the human organism (alongside others advocating e.g. a primitivist return to natural spontaneity abandoning the detritus of material civilization - essentially Rousseau- and a general scepticism and cynicism about the improvement of anything -essentially Voltairean. There were discourses on technological-scientific improvement, political reorganisation of hierarchies in order that better rulership would enshrine accountability and so on). The Marquis de Condorcet, for example, in 1794, was one of the first to write a treatise in which he asked the question of whether human society could be understood, in effect, in mathematical and statistical terms, and, if so, whether societies could be built in which the sum of human happiness might be increased by following scientifically deduceable procedure.

    It is interesting that, although many of the French Revolutionaries paid much lip service to the values of Enlightenment, they tended, in practice, to avoid restructuring society in mathematically coherent ways. Although there were rationalisations in the early part of the revolution (concerning government adminstration and land reform mainly), the later instigators of the Reign of Terror were too driven by a combination of base expediency and Romanticising idealism to institute anything on the systematic scale of modern 'social engineering'. The Terror was, in this sense, an ad hoc phenomenon, and comparisons with the Russian Revolution (with which the French has much in common, and for which it served as a model) break down when one considers the systematisation with which Lenin intended to restructure the whole basis of the Russian state.

    It was actually, I believe, in the 19th century, after the 'aberration' (or so it then seemed) of the French Revolution was over, that a European fascination with 'social engineering' became paramount, heralded initially by thinkers like Malthus, Bentham and Saint- Simon. Although it is difficult to identify the precise origins of the trends that would result in so much catastrophe in the 20th century, these ideas appear to have gained currency hand in glove with the development of industrialisation, emerging as both a response to the increased socio-economic problems of societies which were, in political terms, rapidly becoming enfranchised, and because the ability to control and dictate the behaviours of masses of people went in tandem with this. For much of the 19th century these ideas were distinctly subversive and liberally minded in political terms, as they were upheld as positive remedial responses to a continued conservative reliance on outmoded forms of (essentially) feudal governance. By the end of the 19th century, these scientific and reformist forces had triumphed and were taking the cultural ascendancy throughout Europe, and influencing the behaviour of the rest of the world into the bargain.

    It seems to have been the case that the 'crashing of empires' occassioned by mass wars in the 20th century acted as further catalysts for 'social engineering' solutions - peoples grown desperate to abandon morally, financially and politically bankrupt modes of governing and desperate to refound their societies on principles that might induce a scientifically determinable 'success' embraced the ideas of 'guided planning' with mad abandon in the wake of WWI. They did it, in effect, once more in the wake of WWII. I have read somewhere the contention that the reaction after WWI was boundlessly pessimistic (as if the world had ended, and there was little left to mourn) and that after WWII boundlessly optimistic (as if the world must refound itself in order that the horrors it had just experienced should never be countenanced again), but the end result seems to have been similar. I think the idea of the West becoming obsessed with ultra-rationality has therefore been a long, long time coming. It characterised the entirety of the 20th century, and was exported by the West across the world. It seems to have gone through stages of development, with the sort of blunt and brutal channelling of human resources that characterised the 1930's dictatorships and the Depression years giving way during the Cold War to much more intricate conflicts that played out at economic, psychological, and societal levels. In some ways, it is remarkable that the Cold War was, in some sense, less about the actual physical brinkmanship displayed between the US and USSR on the ground, and more about the way in which those societies (and the societies they controlled and influenced) learnt to consistently 'regulate' and 'surveill' themselves, whether this was in terms of measuring their peak performances, their psychological predispositions and fallibilities, their economic efficiencies, and so on. It was a form of war that was waged internally, and on the very basis of the culture - an eternal vigilance that was demanded for fear the enemy would prove more vigilant yet, and acculturate its own citizenry better - and this is often the impression of the Cold War I get (unintentionally or otherwise) from Adam's work. We don't seem to have lost the practice even though the war seems over.

    Elsewhere in the world, anti-colonial, fundamentalism and rebel tendencies have seemingly risen up violently in reaction to this form of Western self-policing, and reasserted societal mores that appear more spontaneous and less 'contained'. And yet, very often, they too have initiated movements on the basis of Western influenced notions of redefining the nature of their state and the people, of ensuring that they too can make societies that function in 'traditional' manners whilst operating at a modern level of 'efficiency' and 'productivity'. And if some of these movements sometimes appear to be abandoning the heritage of 200 odd years of socio-political development, it is probably because that is what, indeed, they are eager to do.

    As Adam said in part three of 'The Trap' this is, in many ways, a contest between the values of 'negative' and 'positive' liberty. But whilst he came to the conclusion that over-reliance on ideas of 'negative liberty' appears to have stunted modern Western society, whether or not 'positive liberty' as it had historically been practiced offers the solution remains to be seen.

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    Comment number 18.

    This is totally not connected to anything about Afghanistan, it probably is a bit in the sense that everything is more connected than we think at first glance, which is one of the things that looking at the contents of this blog demonstrates again and again. Anyway I ve just been doing some very basic research into land ownership in the UK, Kevin Cahill wrote an excellent book called "Who Owns Britain", demand that your libraries get a copy immediately. This book demonstrates how little who has owned the land has changed over the last 500 years or more, and how these big land owning aristocrats are getting away with not paying tax on their lands whilst at the same time receiving subsidies from UK and EU taxpayers. Our own royal family are among the biggest landowners in Britain, immensly wealthy but pay only very little tax, I know to a lot of people this isn t news. Anyway, apologies this is way off topic, but I was just putting out there as an appeal to Mr Curtis, please do some digging and a documentary into our own sick class system and the way people forget how messed up and imbalanced it is.

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    Comment number 19.

    Hi Ed, re your comment #18....

    I haven't read Kevin Cahill's book but I have heard it referred to as a good read.

    I believe Anthony Sampson's book 'Who Runs This Place?:The Anatomy of Britain in the 21st Century' republished in 2004 as an updated version of earlier work/s written through the early 1960s to early 1990s is also worth having a look at although again I haven't read it - all the way through.

    If you want an AC genre type of entertainment, easy flowing, I would recommend, if you haven't already done so of course, 'Fantasy Island' by Larry Elliot & Dan Atkinson published by Constable in 2007. The strap line : "WAKING UP TO THE INCREDIBLE ECONOMIC, POLITICAL AND SOCIAL ILLUSIONS OF THE BLAIR LEGACY".

    NOW,In answer to the question in your last sentence : Someone, cleverly,
    has uploaded, an AC produced documentary,shown in 1984, "Inquiry : The Great British Housing Disaster." Originally broadcast on Channel 4 I think.

    AC is not in this. He produced it. You will need to search the www video channels. But it is on the net in parts, on video google???. I haven't found a continuous run as yet....

    Anyway, it's an answer of sorts, something at least!!, and I hope will placate your curiosity..and arouse your curiosity.

    Welcome to Mr Adam Curtis's disciples. I hope we all don't become too radicalised in the process of following AC's blog. How ironic that would be..

    love to all X. Love and Peace.etc

    Have a holiday Adam. It's a game. It's a game....It's a game..You will make money from it...What is the bloody point?????

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    Comment number 20.

    One of the premises of your work is the notion that “ideas have consequences”. You are interested primarily in the power of ideas and particularly in the way ideas fail in reality. But your work seems to lack the opposite approach – how material circumstances (or perceptions of how circumstances can change) shape ideas. Take neoliberalism. Hayek, arguably its founding father and also an aristocrat, believed with a Blair-like conviction that his world was under material threat from political ideas such as the welfare state. He did not just pluck these beliefs out of thin air; they were a response to a world in which he thought he would quickly find himself if he did not act. The crisis in self-belief of the West that began in the 1960s (the Paris events of 1968, ‘postmodernism’, the rise of the counterculture, etc) were as much a response to the economic difficulties of the end of the post-war boom in the late 1960s as they were some strange set of new ideas, and the principal actors were the baby-boomer generation that had been the young beneficiaries of that boom. Crucially, ideas require fertile ground in order to gain mass acceptance. It was the subsequent economic meltdown of the late 1970s that prepared the way for the mass acceptance of the radical neoliberal reforms that Thatcher would make to Britain. There are historians like Robert Brenner who show in epic detail (e.g. in his book The Economics of Global Turbulence) how it was the emergence of production centres like Japan that caused of the end of the post-war boom in the West, and how all the ideas about countering that development, including forty years of neoliberalism, have failed – witness also the rise of China etc -- culminating in the material crisis of neoliberalism that we are enduring right now. (Brenner of course believes that the financial turbulence is really just a reflection of much deeper economic problems.) It is not Afghanistan that will undo the West in this view; it is events that occurred almost fifty years ago on what was then the periphery – not the straightforwardly colonial periphery of the Belgian Congo or central Asia, but the emerging production centres of East Asia.


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