Religion is more than opium

A review for the Telegraph: A Sacred Space is Never Empty: A history of Soviet atheism by Victoria Smolkin

On 12 April 1961 Yuri Gagarin clambered into Vostok I, blasted into space, and became the first human being to orbit the earth.

“And suddenly I hear: Man is in space! My God! I stopped heating up the oven, sat next to the radio receiver, afraid to step away even for a minute.” This is the recollection of a 73-year-old woman from the Kuibyshev region, published in the state newspaper Izvestiia a little over a month later.

“We were always told that God is in the heavens, so how can a man fly there and not bump into Elijah the Prophet or one of God’s angels? What if God punishes him for his insolence?… Now I am convinced that God is Science, is Man.”

The opposition between religion and science set up in this letter is charmingly naive — as though a space capsule might shatter the crystal walls of heaven! But the official Soviet attitude to these matters was not much different. Lenin considered religion “merely a product and reflection of the economic yoke within society.” Religion was simply a vicious exploitation of uneducated peoples’ urge to superstition. As socialism developed, superstitions in general would disappear, and religions along with them.

The art theorist Aleksey Gan called the constructivist Moscow Planetarium, completed in the late 1920s, “a building in which religious services are held… until society grows to the level of a scientific understanding, and the instinctual need for spectacle comes up against the real phenomena of the world and technology.”

The assumption here — that religion evaporates as soon as people learn to behave rationally — was no less absurd at the time than it is now; how it survived as a political instinct over generations is going to take a lot of explanation. Victoria Smolkin, an associate professor at Wesleyan University, delivers, but with a certain flatness of style that can grate after a while.

By 1973, with 70 planetariums littering the urban landscape and an ideologically oblivious populace gearing itself for a religious revival, I found myself wishing that her gloves would come off.

For the people she is writing about, the stakes could not have been higher. What can be more important than the meaning of life? We are all going to die, after all, and everything we do in our little lives is going to be forgotten. Had we absolutely no convictions about the value of anything beyond our little lives, we would most likely stay in bed, starving and soiling ourselves. The severely depressed do exactly this, for they have grown pathologically realistic about their survival chances.

Cultures are engines of enchantment. They give us reasons to get up in the morning. They give us people, institutions, ideas, and even whole planes of magical reality to live for.

The 1917 Revolution’s great blow-hards were more than happy to accept this role for their revolutionary culture. “Let thousands of us die to resurrect millions of people all over the earth!’ exclaims Rybin in Maxim Gorky’s 1906 novel Mother. “That’s what: dying’s easy for the sake of resurrection! If only the people rise!’ And in his two-volume Religion and Socialism, the Commissar of Education Anatoly Lunacharsky prophesies the coming of a culture in which the masses will wiillingly “die for the common good… sacrificing to realise a state that starts not with his ‘I’ but with our ‘we’.”

Given the necessary freedom and funding, perhaps the early Soviet Union’s self-styled “God-builders” — Alexander Bogdanov, Leon Trotsky and the rest — might have cooked up a uniquely Soviet metaphysics, with rituals for birth, marriage and death that were worth the name. In suprematism, constructivism, cosmism, and all the other millenarian “-isms” floating about at the turn of the century, Russia had no shortage of fresh ingredients.

But Lenin’s lumpen anticlericals held the day. Bogdanov was sidelined and Trotsky was (literally) axed. Lenin looted the church. Stalin coopted the Orthodox faith to bolster patriotism in a time of war. Khrushchev criminalised all religions and most folk practices in the name of state unity. And none of them had a clue why the state’s materialism — even as it matured into a coherent philosophy — failed to replace the religion to which it was contrivedly opposed.

A homegrown sociology became possible under the fourth premier Leonid Brezhnev’s supposedly ossifying rule, and with it there developed something like a mature understanding of what religion actually was. These insights were painfully and often clumsily won — like Jack Skellington in Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas. trying to understand the business of gift-giving by measuring all the boxes under the tree. And the understanding, when it came, came far too late.

The price of generations of off-again, on-again religious repression was not a confident secularism, or even a convulsive religious reaction. It was poison: ennui and cynicism and ideological indifference that proved impossible for the state to oppose because it had no structure, no leaders, no flag, no clergy or dogma.

In the end there was nothing left but to throw in the towel. Mikhail Gorbachev met with Patriarch Pimen on 29 April 1988, and embraced the millennium as a national celebration. Konstantin Kharchev, chair of the Council for Religious Affairs, commented: “The church has survived, and has not only survived, but has rejuvenated itself. And the question arises: which is more useful to the party — someone who believes in God, someone who believes in nothing at all, or someone who believes in both God and Communism? I think we should choose the lesser evil.” (234)

Cultures do not collapse from war or drought or earthquake. They fall apart because, as the archaeologist Joseph Tainter points out, they lose the point of themselves. Now the heavy lifting of this volume is done, let us hope Smolkin takes a breath and describes the desolation wrought by the institutions she has researched in such detail. There’s a warning here that we, deep in our own contemporary disenchantment, should heed.

 A History of Silence reviewed: Unlocking the world of infinitely small noises

The present, properly attended to, alone and in silence, reveals time’s awful scale. When we think about the past or the future, what we’re actually doing is telling ourselves stories. It’s in the present moment, if we dare attend to it, that we glimpse the Void.

Reading Alain Corbin’s A History of Silence (Polity Press) for The Telegraph, 3 September 2018

What’s the Russian for Eastbourne?

Reading Davies and Kent’s Red Atlas for the Telegraph, 13 January 2018

This is a journey through an exotic world conjured into being by the Military Topographic Directorate of the General Staff of the Soviet Army. Tasked by Stalin during the Second World War to accurately and secretly map the Soviet Union, its Eastern European allies, its Western adversaries, and the rest of the world, the Directorate embarked on the largest mapping effort in history, Too many maps have been lost for us to be entirely sure what coverage was attained, but it must have been massive. Considering the UK alone, if there are detailed street plans of the market town of Gainsborough in Lincolnshire, we can be reasonably sure there were once maps of Carlisle and Hull.

From internal evidence (serial numbers and such-like) we know there were well in excess of 1 million maps produced. Only a few survive today, and the best preserved of them, the most beautiful, the most peculiar, the most chilling, are reproduced here. The accompanying text, by cartographers John Davies and Alexander Kent, is rich in detail, and it needs to be. Soviet intelligence maps boast a level of detail that puts our own handsome Ordnance Survey to shame — a point the authors demonstrate by putting OS maps alongside their Soviet counterparts. You can not only see my road from one of these Soviet maps: you can see how tall the surrounding buildings are. You can read the height of a nearby bridge above water, its dimensions, its load capacity, and what it is made of. As for the river, I now know its width, its flow, its depth, and whether it has a viscous bed (it hasn’t).

This is not a violent tale. There is little evidence that the mapmakers had invasion on their mind. What would have been the point? By the time Russian tanks were rolling down the A14 (Cambridge, UK, 1:10,000 City Plan of 1998), nuclear exchanges would have obliterated most of these exquisite details, carefully garnered from aerial reconnaissance, archival research, Zenit satellite footage and, yes, wonderfully, non-descript men dawdling outside factory gates and police stations. Maybe the maps were for them and their successors. Placenames are rendered phonetically: HEJSTYNZ for Hastings and “ISBON” for Eastbourne on one Polish map. This would have been useful if you were asking directions, but useless if you were in a tank speeding through hostile territory, trying to read the road signs. The Directorate’s city maps came with guides. Some of the details recorded here are sinister enough: Cambridgeshire clay “becomes waterlogged and severely impedes off-road movement of mechanized transport.” Its high hedges “significantly impede observation of the countryside”. But what are we to make of the same guide’s wistful description of the city itself? “The bank of the river Cam is lined with ivy-clad buildings of the colleges of the university, with ridged roofs and turrets… The lodging-houses with their lecture-halls are reminiscent of monasteries or ancient castles.”

Though deployed on an industrial scale, the Soviet mapmakers were artisans, who tried very hard to understand a world they would never have any opportunity to see. They did a tremendous job: why else would their maps have informed the US invasion of Afghanistan, water resource management in Armenia, or oil exploration in India? Now and again their cultural assumptions led them down strange paths. Ecclesiastical buildings lost all significance in the Republic of Ireland, whose landscape became dotted with disused watermills. In England, Beeching’s cull of the railways was incomprehensible to Russian mapmakers, for whom railways were engines of revolution. A 1971 map of Leeds sheet not only shows lines closed in the 1960s; it also depicts and names the Wellington terminus station, adjacent to City station, which had closed in 1938.

The story of the Soviets’ mapping and remapping, particularly of the UK, is an eerie one, and though their effort seems impossibly Heath-Robinson now, the reader is never tempted into complacency. Cartography remains an ambiguous art. For evidence, go to Google Maps and type in “Burghfield”. It’s a village near Reading, home to a decommissioned research station of the Atomic Weapons Establishment. Interestingly, the authors claim that though the site is visible in detail through Google Earth, for some reason Google Maps has left the site blank and unlabelled.

This claim is only partly true. The label is there, though it appears at only the smallest available scale of the map. Add the word “atomic” to your search string, and you are taken to an image that, if not particularly informative, is still adequate for a visit.

Two thoughts followed hard on this non-discovery of mine. First, that I should let this go: my idea of “adequate” mapping is likely to be a lot less rigorous than the authors’; anyway it is more than possible that this corner of Google Maps has been updated since the book went to press. Second, that my idle fact-checking placed me in a new world — or at any rate, one barely out of its adolescence. (Keyhole, the company responsible for what became Google Earth, was founded in 2001.)

Today anyone with a broadband connection can drill down to information once considered the prerogative of government analysts. Visit Google Earth’s Russia, and you can find traces of the forest belts planted as part of Stalin’s Great Transformation of Nature in 1948. You can see how industrial combines worked their way up the Volga, building hydroelectric plants that drowned an area the size of France with unplanned swamps. There’s some chauvinistic glee to be had from this, but in truth, intelligence has become simply another digital commodity: stuff to be mined, filleted, mashed up, repackaged. Open-source intelligence: OSINT. There are conferences about it. Workshops. Artworks.

The Red Atlas is not about endings. It is about beginnings. The Cold War, far from being over, has simply subsumed our civic life. Everyone is in the intelligence business now.

Maths into English

One to Nine by Andrew Hodges and The Tiger that Isn’t by Michael Blastland and Andrew Dilnot
reviewed for the Telegraph, 22 September 2007

Twenty-four years have passed since Andrew Hodges published his biography of the mathematician Alan Turing. Hodges, a long-term member of the Mathematical Physics Research Group at Oxford, has spent the years since exploring the “twistor geometry” developed by Roger Penrose, writing music and dabbling with self-promotion.

Follow the link to One to Nine’s web page, and you will soon be stumbling over the furniture of Hodges’s other lives: his music, his sexuality, his ambitions for his self?published novel – the usual spillage. He must be immune to bathos, or blind to it. But why should he care what other people think? He knows full well that, once put in the right order, these base metals will be transformed.

“Writing,” says Hodges, “is the business of turning multi?dimensional facts and ideas into a one?dimensional string of symbols.”

One to Nine – ostensibly a simple snapshot of the mathematical world – is a virtuoso stream of consciousness containing everything important there is to say about numbers (and Vaughan Williams, and climate change, and the Pet Shop Boys) in just over 300 pages. It contains multitudes. It is cogent, charming and deeply personal, all at once.

“Dense” does not begin to describe it. There is extraordinary concision at work. Hodges covers colour space and colour perception in two or three pages. The exponential constant e requires four pages. These examples come from the extreme shallow end of the mathematical pool: there are depths here not everyone will fathom. But this is the point: One to Nine makes the unfathomable enticing and gives the reader tremendous motivation to explore further.

This is a consciously old-fashioned conceit. One to Nine is modelled on Constance Reid’s 1956 classic, From Zero to Infinity. Like Reid’s, each of Hodges’s chapters explores the ideas associated with a given number. Mathematicians are quiet iconoclasts, so this is work that each generation must do for itself.

When Hodges considers his own contributions (in particular, to the mathematics underpinning physical reality), the skin tightens over the skull: “The scientific record of the past century suggests that this chapter will soon look like faded pages from Eddington,” he writes. (Towards the end of his life, Sir Arthur Eddington, who died in 1944, assayed a “theory of everything”. Experimental evidence ran counter to his work, which today generates only intermittent interest.)

But then, mathematics “does not have much to do with optimising personal profit or pleasure as commonly understood”.

The mordant register of his prose serves Hodges as well as it served Turing all those years ago. Like Turing: the Enigma, One to Nine proceeds, by subtle indirection, to express a man through his numbers.

If you think organisations, economies or nations would be more suited to mathematical description, think again. Michael Blastland and Andrew Dilnot’s The Tiger that Isn’t contains this description of the International Passenger Survey, the organisation responsible for producing many of our immigration figures:

The ferry heaves into its journey and, equipped with their passenger vignettes, the survey team members also set off, like Attenboroughs in the undergrowth, to track down their prey, and hope they all speak English. And so the tides of people swilling about the world?… are captured for the record if they travel by sea, when skulking by slot machines, half?way through a croissant, or off to the ladies’ loo.

Their point is this: in the real world, counting is back-breaking labour. Those who sieve the world for numbers – surveyors, clinicians, statisticians and the rest – are engaged in difficult work, and the authors think it nothing short of criminal the way the rest of us misinterpret, misuse or simply ignore their hard-won results. This is a very angry and very funny book.

The authors have worked together before, on the series More or Less – BBC Radio 4’s antidote to the sort of bad mathematics that mars personal decision-making, political debate, most press releases, and not a few items from the corporation’s own news schedule.

Confusion between correlation and cause, wild errors in the estimation of risk, the misuse of averages: Blastland and Dilnot round up and dispatch whole categories of woolly thinking.

They have a positive agenda. A handful of very obvious mathematical ideas – ideas they claim (with a certain insouciance) are entirely intuitive – are all we need to wield the numbers for ourselves; with them, we will be better informed, and will make more realistic decisions.

This is one of those maths books that claims to be self?help, and on the evidence presented here, we are in dire need of it. A late chapter contains the results of a general knowledge quiz given to senior civil servants in 2005.

The questions were simple enough. Among them: what share of UK income tax is paid by the top one per cent of earners? For the record, in 2005 it was 21 per cent. Our policy?makers didn’t have a clue.

“The deepest pitfall with numbers owes nothing to the numbers themselves and much to the slack way they are treated, with carelessness all the way to contempt.”

This jolly airport read will not change all that. But it should stir things up a bit.