Wednesday, 24 June 2015

                                   WAVING REBEL FLAGS
I've always painted straight from the gut, without worrying unduly about ambiguous interpretations that might interfere with my subconscious energy. I produced Gettysburg in 1997. It is also a self-portrait. I'm the guy riding the stuffed donkey on the left, alongside the charging Confederates. My hat is a paper sunshade advertising the Spanish liqueur Anís Tenís. My flag's battle honours read 'Shit Creek', as in the phrase 'up shit creek without a paddle', and 'Fraggle Rock'. Fraggle Rock was a manic children's cartoon series on British television in the 1970s. It was also underworld slang for the psychiatric wing of Brixton prison, where I was once held on remand for 14 days. 'Fraggle' had an alarming suicide rate among its inmates. It was wild. At the time, in 1976, I remember some of the screws wore neo-nazi National Front emblems on their uniform lapels and half the prisoners were black, proportionately over-represented in England as elsewhere.


Monday, 16 December 2013


Wilhelm Salzmann could not get used to life without his new Russian wife, Tatiana. His circle of friends in the Ruhr valley from the prison camp, such as Bruno Streich, still lived happily with the brides they had brought with them from the Great War. Shortly after Tatiana's departure, he decided to go and look for her. How my grandparents, first Tatiana and then Wilhelm following behind, managed to get back to her village near the remote Western Siberian town of Barnaul, all the way from Germany in 1923, remains a mystery. It can't have been easy. The country was now firmly in Soviet hands, from the Polish border to the Pacific Ocean.

Western Siberian Red Army Officers in 1924

Barnaul, south of the Trans Siberian Railway between Tobolsk and Lake Baikal

My grandmother Tatiana was horrified by the changes in her village of Lugovaya, on the river Ob north of Barnaul. It seemed to her that most of the decent people had disappeared and foul-mouthed drunkards had been promoted to positions of power by the Reds. Her former business associates among the Orthodox priesthood were in hiding, afraid for their lives. However, life was bearable because Lenin had replaced War Communism with his New Economic Policy. This form of 'State Capitalism' enabled enterprising Kulaks like her to survive and even prosper. A move towards total collectivisation had been postponed by Lenin to avoid further disruption while the war-torn country teetered on the edge of starvation. He envisaged gradual progress towards full communism over a decade or more, in the teeth of left-wing Bolshevik opposition. The radicals would have to wait for the time being. However, Lenin was dying, possibly of syphilis contracted in a Parisian brothel in 1904. The pockmarked Georgian gangster, Josef Stalin, quietly maneuvered behind the scenes, to eliminate any possible successors to the leadership. Stalin would soon prove to be much less squeamish about 'breaking eggs to make an omelette' than Lenin, especially if they were Kulak eggs. For now, Stalin concentrated on driving Trotsky, with his wild ideas of permanent international revolution, out of the country. This proved to be easier than he anticipated, due to the Red Army's defeat in Poland, Trotsky's arrogant 'Jewish' manners and illusions about his own invincibility. By comparison, Stalin could pose as a reasonable pragmatist.

Lenin died in 1924. While Stalin carefully prepared for power, he kept a beady eye on the economic situation in Western Siberia. An enterprising Kulak population of efficient pioneers posed a threat to his vision of a centrally organised peasant workforce, whose sole function was to feed the growing industrial urban proletariat. Kulaks like Tatiana would be on his hit list, as a class to be annihilated, once he was in undisputed control. He began to have the remaining revolutionary leaders killed, starting with the moderates. He'd show the radicals how left-wing he could be during the coming years, and eventually turn on them too. For now, the New Economic Policy continued as Lenin had planned, to prepare the conditions for 'Socialism in One Country'. This sounded suspiciously like 'National Socialism', and the final result was to be almost indistinguishable from a Fascist dictatorship. 
In Lugovaya, Shura, one of Tatiana's sisters, had married a rising young Communist. He would become the Party Boss in Alma Ata, capital of Kazakhstan, in due course. Another sister, Olga, on the right of the couple in the photograph below, could not adapt to the new regime and committed suicide.

Meanwhile, Wilhelm and Tatiana tried to make a go of it in the new Russia. However, it was clear that the vice was tightening. They noticed that many of Tatiana's former business partners simply disappeared. Trying to remain unencumbered, Tatiana practiced a traditional Siberian form of birth control by riding unbroken horses. In spite of this, a baby was born, prematurely, in temperatures below 40 degrees celsius, during the cold December of 1926. The little girl was incubated on the clay stove in the log cabin and fed warm chicken broth. She grew up to become my mother. The family poses in the picture below, which I copied in pen and ink from a 1927 photograph.


My grandparents tried to settle down under the new regime, but the vice was tightening. Tatiana's brother-in-law, as a local commissar, realised that she, and her German husband, would certainly be included in the death lists that were being prepared in advance of the compulsory collectivization campaign and the extermination of the Kulaks. She dug up the gold czarist rubles from their hiding places in the taiga and strapped them round Wilhelm's waist in a heavy money belt. He was told to go ahead to Germany and buy a house for the little family. As the months went by, he waited in Bochum, but began to despair of ever seeing his wife and child again. Then, suddenly, late in 1927, they appeared with what little remained of the gold. A new life began during the final years of the Weimar Republic. An even more dreadful war lay ahead, but, thank God, they couldn't know that.

Saturday, 16 November 2013


Wilhelm Salzmann before and after; thinner and wearing Russian clothes

The 1921 photograph below shows my grandparents in a group of returning German POWs from Siberia. The couple are third and fourth from the left, sitting on the ground. They have disembarked in a Baltic port and are ready to go home, to the Ruhr. By now, a few Germans had Russian wives and small children. Many spoke more-or-less fluent Russian. Rita Streich is the baby in white, in her mothers arms, on the right. They must have been apprehensive about what awaited them in the defeated country, but relieved to be out of the turbulent finale of the Russian Civil War.

During the previous year, the victorious Allies had insisted on collecting extortionate reparations from Germany as part of the peace treaty. Local authorities produced their own currencies in an attempt to keep their economies afloat. Communist uprisings and mutinies were suppressed by Freikorps volunteers and the new Weimar Republic's army. In 1920, marines under Corvette Commander Hermann Ehrhardt attempted a monarchist coup in Berlin; the so-called Kapp putsch. The Ruhr valley responded by raising a Red Army of roughly 50,000 armed Communist and Socialist workers, which included many war veterans. After the Kapp putsch failed, the Freikorps and Army invaded the Ruhr under General Oscar von Watter to crush the Red Army militia and execute thousands of captives without trial. Wilhelm and Tatiana must have arrived in Bochum in the bitter aftermath of these events. It is unlikely that they would have been greeted with enthusiasm in their distinctly Russian clothes. At least, judging by the photograph, the weather was warm at first.

However, the welcome from old Peter Salzmann was distinctly cold. He was not pleased to see that his oldest son was now apparently married to a Russian peasant woman who spoke no German, and proceeded to treat her like a barely-tolerated servant. He did not realise that Tatiana was, in fact, better-educated than anybody else in his family and had been a wealthy woman in her own right, with her own Siberian timber business. 

On the map of the Red Ruhr below, Bochum lay at the heart of the 1920 disturbances in the valley. Tatiana had fled from Trotsky's Red Army only to find herself among recently-defeated Marxist coal miners and steelworkers. Not only had the industrial proletariat of the Ruhr lost the Great War, but also the class struggle against Weimar's Reichswehr Army and the monarchist Freikorps. The new SPD government, although nominally socialist, had shown itself more willing to kill workers than unrepentant militarists. The situation may not have been quite as dangerous as in Siberia, but it was still desperate and uncertain. Wilhelm had never been particularly interested in politics, so Tatiana was forced to try and understand these confusing events alone, in an unaccustomed urban environment, thousands of miles from home and in an incomprehensible language. To her, German sounded like the grunting of pigs. Her father-in-law's hostility was the final straw. It was only a matter of time before she began to plan her return to Siberia, leaving her husband behind if necessary.

The map also shows the proximity of British, French and Belgian occupying forces on and beyond the Rhine, to the south and west of the Ruhr valley's coalfields. All in all, there were considerably larger numbers of heavily-armed troops in the vicinity than there had ever been in sparsely-populated Western Siberia.

Under the weight of the war reparations and social unrest, the German economy went into free-fall. The local emergency money, or Notgeld, was useless for larger transactions. The Reichsmark plummeted in value. The once-powerful industrialised German state suffered the most dramatic example of hyper-inflation in history. For the miserly Peter Salzmann, who had considerable savings, this was an absolute catastrophe. In 1922, he could have acquired enough property to set himself up for life. A year later, in 1923, he was, effectively, broke. A sum of money that could have bought, say, a house was suddenly barely enough to buy a packet of cigarettes. 

One could be a billionaire with a single, badly-printed, worthless banknote. The lower middle class, especially, saw all its hopes shattered and became the natural constituency for extreme, undemocratic parties. In the photograph below, Wilhelm, complete with Kaiser moustache, and Tatiana pose as a respectable, upwardly-mobile young couple before the Great German Inflation made this highly unlikely.

 Meanwhile, Adolf Hitler, in his comfortable prison after his failed beer-hall putsch, dictated 'Mein Kampf' to his boyfriend/secretary Rudolf Hess, with Jewish financiers like Tatiana's erstwhile role model, Baron Rothschild, firmly in his sights. He also linked his economic theories, which may have had a limited factual basis, to primitive tribal fantasies about blood and earth. The Jews were actually not human, but devilish vermin. The Slavs were, as their name implied, only fit to be slaves. The blacks were part of the animal kingdom. These ideas were not new, and not particularly German, but they were to become so increasingly after the Great Inflation, replacing the International Marxist solution with a unashamedly racist National Socialist program. As a Slav, already smarting under old Peter Salzmann's insults, Tatiana doubted whether she had a future in her new husband's country at all. Perhaps she would be better-off with the devil she knew, on home ground, in Siberia. The gold rubles had been well-hidden, giving her a springboard to Shanghai or San Francisco. Her sister, Shura, had married a prominent Siberian communist, which might come in handy. At this stage, before Stalin took over, it was still possible to dream that a stable, egalitarian society might emerge from the revolutionary bloodshed. The Salzmann family looked more and more like a bad-tempered trap within the bigger poverty-stricken trap of Bochum. Could she convince Wilhelm to come with her? When he, understandably, hesitated, she decided he wasn't up to the challenge. She scraped the fare together and began the long, perilous journey back to her Siberian village without him.

Hitler devoured the popular press, identifying bigoted views to serve his ambition