The Tragedy of Russia’s Reforms: a survey of Russia under Boris Yeltsin’s leadership in the 1990s

Leo Mattei, Johnny Miller, “The Tragedy of Russia’s Reforms” (PressTV, 2017)

Made for the Iranian news channel PressTV, this measured documentary turns out to be a detailed survey of the period of Russia’s transition from a Communist society to a capitalist one under President Boris Yeltsin (1991 – 1999) and the neoliberal economic reforms carried out under the guidance of the so-called Harvard Boys (US economists with Harvard University backgrounds tasked to assist the transition). These reforms privatised most state-run industries including the major energy industries and enriched a small number of well-placed people, many of whom were former Soviet government apparatchiks looking out for Number 1, while the vast majority of people in the new Russian Federation became impoverished. Living standards and life expectancies fell as people lost jobs and fell into despair; many turned to drink and dangerous drugs, and in parts of the country, the rates of new HIV / AIDS infections skyrocketed alarmingly. As discontent against Yeltsin’s policies became widespread, in 1993 the Russian parliament impeached Yeltsin who then dissolved the parliament; the stand-off resulted in military units ordered by Yeltsin storming the parliamentary building and the national TV station centre, killing nearly 190 people and wounding nearly 440 others. Yeltsin became a more dictatorial leader and economic “reforms” continued to devastate the country’s economy, especially its manufacturing industries, sending more people into poverty as jobs were lost. The country’s financial situation became dire and Russia was forced to rely on IMF loans which in turn tied the country even more to neoliberal economic policies, placing it on a downward spiral into more economic and financial destruction and instability, and with that political corruption and escalating levels of crime, including gang warfare and homicide.

Through interviews with people who were close to Yeltsin, such as his former bodyguard Alexander Korzhakov and former Soviet Deputy Prime Minister / founder of centrist Yabloko Party Grigory Yavlinsky, or observers of the period, such as sociologist Boris Kagarlitsky and historian Alexander Tarasov, the documentary follows the career of Yeltsin as President starting with a tour of the Yeltsin Center and its museum in Yekaterinburg. This is a strange and sinister place: it whitewashes Yeltsin’s career and encourages not only uncritical hero worship but rewrites Russian history in the 1990s. The interview with Korzhakov who wrote a book of his experiences dealing with Yeltsin in 1997 is an excellent remedy: Korzhakov is frank about the impact of Yeltsin’s leadership and the deeply corrupt and despotic nature of his government. Kagarlitski, Tarasov and other interviewees discuss the economic policies of advisors and ministers such as Yegor Gaidar and Anatoly Chubais who favoured “shock therapy” privatisation. Ordinary people are also interviewed: they speak of how the Soviet aircraft industry, built up over decades, was effectively destroyed by the “reform” policies, and how the corruption in Yeltsin’s government (from which Yeltsin family members benefited financially) and among the country’s new rich elites, known as “oligarchs”, permeated Russian society generally, encouraging the growth of criminal gangs and other criminal activity across the country. Most disturbingly, photographer Alexander Poliakov, interviewed about the 1993 constitutional crisis, implies in his statements that the events of the crisis may not have transpired as reported in official accounts.

In the mid to late 1990s, the most significant events in Russia were the outbreak of war between Russia and the breakaway republic of Chechnya (the causes of which Yeltsin himself must bear some responsibility for) and Yeltsin’s re-election as President in presidential elections held in 1996, for which Yeltsin needed US help in creating a marketing campaign playing on voters’ insecurities and fears, and the results of which (in some regions such as Ossetia) were likely tampered with or made up to help get Yeltsin back into power. Once returned as President though, Yeltsin gave himself over to the demon drink and allowed his government to fall into the hands of others. Powerful oligarchs meddled openly in Russian politics by buying up influence over politicians. The looting of the Russian economy continued with some oligarchs amassing tremendous fortunes reckoned in the billions of dollars. Corruption and crime were rampant throughout the country. Just when people could see no hope out of their predicament, Yeltsin surprised everyone by resigning as President in 1999 and nominating Vladimir Putin to succeed him as caretaker President. The following year, Putin won the presidential elections and since then has been President (with a 4-year break from 2008 to 2012).

The documentary flows smoothly and well, and does an excellent job in following the impact of Yeltsin’s leadership and his disastrous policies on particular sectors of the Russian economy, the social fabric and day-to-day life for many Russian people. The film notes the insidious role the Boris Yeltsin Center plays in whitewashing the politician and the impact he had. Just as insidious though is how the film gives little credit to Vladimir Putin in ending oligarch meddling in the nation’s politics (by making an example of crooked businessman Mikhail Khodorkovsky by jailing him for 10 years when he refused to give up interfering in the political process) and reviving the Russian economy, and insinuates that high global prices for oil in the early 2000s were mainly responsible for the Russian economic resurrection. As leader of a centrist, socially liberal party, Yavlinsky is not likely to have a neutral or positive opinion of Putin, and as a dissident academic, neither is Kagarlitsky.

The film ends on a warning note about how undertaking “wrong” economic reforms can ruin economies. This is an incorrect reading of what was done to Russia by neoliberal economic policies during the Yeltsin years: far more correct is that these policies were intended to destroy Russian power and break up the country so its resources could be seized by foreign corporations and elites, and so they were the “right” policies. Attempts by the Yeltsin Center and others to portray Yeltsin as a saintly leader and decision-maker are to be seen in a similar light, parallel to how other major world leaders who also introduced neoliberal economics in their countries have been sold to the public as wise or capable, even as their economic policies sent thousands or millions into unemployment, poverty and despair.

Nazi Quest for the Holy Grail: a pseudo-scientific project with sinister consequences

Tom Barbor-Might, “Nazi Quest for the Holy Grail” (2013)

Of the mish-mash of strange and bizarre ideas, beliefs, pseudo-science and superstitions that were subsumed into Nazi German ideology and helped justify Nazi German war crimes and genocide against various groups (Jews, Roma, Slavs, prisoners of war, people with mental or physical defects among others), few can have been more bizarre than the project delineated in a set of documents apparently found in a cave in southern Germany by American soldiers in 1945: a project to discover the supposed lost Aryan civilisation from which the Nazis believed the German people were descended. To that end, the project (driven by Heinrich Himmler, Reichsfuhrer of the Schutzstaffel) was to be realised in three missions: the search for the lost island of Atlantis, believed to be where the original Aryan civilisation had been based; the search for survivors of the original Aryan master race in Tibet; and the recovery of the Holy Grail in southern France, site of the mediaeval Cathar civilisation. All these missions were related by their ultimate goal (recreating the Aryan civilisation and its creators), by the way in which they selectively used facts and fiction alike to bolster and justify Himmler’s beliefs and assumptions, and in how they corrupted actual research in Cathar history, traditions and culture. Above all, these missions, and the people who took part in them, were used to justify and condone war crimes against Jewish and other victims, and had the potential to discredit science and history, and the methodologies used in scientific and historical research.

Through interviews with historians and a journalist, and using historical film footage and photographs, the documentary carefully and leisurely builds up its narrative in which Himmler, obsessed with his racist beliefs and occult topics, attempted to create a religion to rival Christianity: a religion selectively built upon pagan Germanic beliefs and mythology, a weird cult of ancestor worship that venerated the SS, and a search for religious relics and artefacts thought to have occult power, such as the Holy Grail and the Spear of Longinus. We meet some deluded characters such as the scholar Herman Wirth who worked on the Atlantic project and believed that after Atlantis sank, Aryan survivors went out across the globe to found various civilisations in the Middle East and Central and South America; Otto Rahn, whose research on the Cathars was usurped by Himmler and the SS, and who ultimately paid for his collaboration with the Nazis with his life; and the sinister anthropologist / ethnologist Bruno Beger who participated in the anthropology trip to Tibet in 1938, collecting physical measurements of the Tibetan people, and who later (in the 1940s) was involved in selecting and measuring 100 Jewish prisoners in Auschwitz as part of a project to collect their skeletons: this meant that these prisoners had to be killed, though Beger was to claim later that he did not know the prisoners whose measurements he took were to be killed.

The documentary flows smoothly from one topic to the next, though we never really find out whether the information collected during the 1938 trip to Tibet satisfied Himmler, nor whether Wirth fared all that well with his bizarre ideas about Atlantic civilisation after the Second World War. The film says very little about the information Beger collected on the Tibetans and their culture and traditions, and where that information and any artefacts he brought back might have ended up. (One can believe such findings could have fallen into the hands of those intent on using them later against the People’s Republic of China when that nation incorporated Tibet into its territory.) The music soundtrack is annoying and unnecessary but apart from this, the film’s technical details and pacing are very good.

The sobering message from the film, as one historian interviewed puts it, is that beliefs, ideas, mythologies and narratives can and do have dangerous consequences that can result in the violent deaths of millions of people and destroy entire nations and cultures, particularly when such belief sets have enormous power and compliance behind them. The pursuit of science and history can be corrupted by personal beliefs and ideologies, to the extent that research in those areas most affected by such corruption can be held back decades, often to the detriment of people’s lives and health. This is a warning we would all do well to acknowledge in the current hysterical climate of Russiagate, the March 2018 poisoning of the Skripals (and the supposedly related poisoning death of Dawn Sturgess in July of the same year) in Britain, and the continuing mystery of the July 2014 shoot-down of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17.

Global hi-tech as the handmaiden of the military and intelligence agencies in “The Secrets of Silicon Valley: What Big Tech Doesn’t Want You to Know”

James Corbett, “The Corbett Report (Episode 359: The Secrets of Silicon Valley: What Big Tech Doesn’t Want You to Know)” (July 2019)

Dense with information, presented chronologically and in a way most people will find easy to follow, this documentary tells the history of how Silicon Valley came to be the metonym for the digital technological industry complex and how its transformation from a centre of horticulture in California into the global centre of digital technologies was cultivated by American intelligence agencies and their backers with the intent to capture every single bit of information about human behaviour and actions, even in real time, all the better to predict and thus control people’s thinking and actions, and ultimately to direct society into particular paths that would serve the interests of a small transnational elite. “The Secrets …” puts forward a credible narrative that the capture and control of information about people and their thoughts and behaviours have always been the main goal of the development of the hi-tech industry and the companies associated with it – companies such as Oracle Corporation, Sun Microsystems, Microsoft and Apple – right from the time the Stanford Research Institute was established in 1946 by Stanford University trustees to promote innovation and economic development in northern California. Ubiquitous technologies such as the Internet are revealed to have had their origins in Pentagon or intelligence agency research to discover technologies that could be used to control and command targeted populations or to wage war against them.

The early history of Silicon Valley’s development, starting with electrical Frederick Terman (the son of educational psychologist Lewis Terman who popularised IQ testing) returning to Stanford University as dean of its School of Engineering and turning the department into a centre of excellence, is easy enough to follow. From the outset, the university and the industrial park that grew up around it and spread outwards depended heavily on military spending and connections with the US Department of Defense, popularly known as “the Pentagon”. As Terman himself fades from the scene, and the Pentagon and US intel agencies invest more monies into research in other areas of information control and surveillance technologies, the narrative becomes more complex, its direction more arbitrary, as the voice-over narration skips from the origins of Oracle Corporation and Sun Microsystems to the foundations of search engines like Google and social media platforms like Facebook, and how they are all ultimately linked to one another and to US government departments and agencies. Viewers may find they’ll need to watch the documentary a few times to digest everything but the general theme behind it is clear.

Once viewers are aware of this secret history behind the development of Silicon Valley and the Internet, they will realise that many apparent anomalies about aspects of information technology and cyberspace start to make sense: the laxity in security in many databases, especially databases of banks and other financial institutions that people depend on to make money transactions, can be explained if such laxity enables spook agencies and others to spy on money transfers and track them. If databases are prone to hacking, that is because they are intended to be so.

The conclusion to this episode of “The Corbett Report” may be despairing – it does not recommend specific actions viewers might take to protest and stop US government intrusion into their lives, nor does it suggest cyber-based alternatives to the Internet and related technologies that cannot be corrupted and undermined by the military and surveillance organisations and their masters – but at the same time, the knowledge that Big Tech is a willing hand-maiden to Western governments can serve as one weapon out of many that we the people can use against those who would try to control us.

A celebration of a major art and social utopian movement in “Bauhaus Spirit: 100 Years of Bauhaus”

Niels Bolbringer and Thomas Tielsch, “Bauhaus Spirit: 100 Years of Bauhaus” (2018)

Celebrating the 100th anniversary of the founding of the artistic / aesthetic movement by Walter Gropius in Weimar-era Germany, this documentary explores both the history and the impact of the movement on art, music and dance, interior design, architecture and urban planning over the decades. The Bauhaus movement was born in a school with the aim of creating a new type of society, one that stressed the full development of the human individual’s physical, mental and artistic capacities in a socially conscious collective environment. Through such development, the ills of early 20th-century Western society that had led to global war, poverty and inequality could be eliminated and a new, better society could result. Artists and intellectuals from across Europe came to study or to teach at the school. The school barely survived the Great Depression and the collapse of Weimar Germany before being shut down by the Nazi Germany, its teachers and students forced to flee overseas.

The early history of the Bauhaus school and movement zips by somewhat confusingly, flitting from dance to painting and to the Swiss architect Le Corbusier’s works and vision – Le Corbusier was not really part of the Bauhaus movement so why the film devotes so much attention to him is puzzling – and viewers can easily get lost in the slew of images and information that whiz by. It’s only once the film starts exploring the Bauhaus impact on architecture, furniture and interior design, and urban planning in Germany and the poor neighbourhoods, known as barrios, of Medellin in Colombia that it becomes focused and its aim of revitalising Bauhaus as an inclusive social utopian movement becomes apparent.

The best part of the documentary is when it shifts to those barrios and the architects bringing Bauhaus principles to the people there analyse the needs of the people living in the slums and adapt the Bauhaus vision to fulfilling those needs. In bringing a communal gym to one slum neighbourhood – which also does multiple duty as a meeting place, child care centre and more besides – the architects encourage a sense of community among the slum dwellers who in turn come to identify more and more with their neighbourhoods and are prepared to support and defend them. The architects look at the issue of transport within overcrowded barrios climbing up the sides of hills and mountains, and come up with the brainwave of building escalators and a cable car system that take commuters up and down hills with minimal disruption to communities and an efficient use of the available land. The added bonus of the cable car system is that it is fun to ride and affords riders incredible views of Medellin and the surrounding mountains.

The Bauhaus approach is contrasted with other rational approaches to urban planning in Paris (here is where Le Corbusier has been influential) which have resulted in a very divided city where the more pleasant (and tourist-oriented) areas are in the middle, industry is banished to one side and housing estates into which immigrants from all corners of the globe have been tossed together with no thought as to how they’ll all get along spread endlessly outside the city with inadequate and inefficient public transport links to the industrial areas where they have to work. Many of the social problems that bedevil France – the annual youth riots in summer, the isolation and alienation of migrant youngsters that encourage their radicalisation by terror organisations – surely have their origins in this form of urban planning. The Bauhaus vision on the other hand is to work with the people and their needs, and the limitations of the physical and social environment in which the people live, and create and develop solutions particular to that context; as a result, no two communities where Bauhaus principles have informed their planning will be the same.

Unfortunately the film says nothing about how and why the Bauhaus movement declined in influence in the later half of the 20th century; surely that decline coincided with significant political, economic and social trends during that period. The movement’s utopian ideals would surely have clashed with the aims of neoliberal capitalism across most parts of the world. The film’s failure to locate the Bauhaus movement, its aims and aesthetic ideals within the political, social and economic ideologies prevailing across the world most certainly accounts for why the documentary seems vague on the Bauhaus movement’s later history.

The Untold Story – “Korean Empire”: a testament to Korean determination in reclaiming lost history

Park Jeong-woo and Park Hee-joo, “The Untold Story – ‘Korean Empire’ ” (Arirang TV, 2013)

A symbol of the Korean people’s desire for freedom and independence and their first contacts with the West of their own initiative in the late 19th century, the Korea Legation Building at Logan Circle in Washington DC was for a long time lost to Koreans as their embassy in the United States from 1910 to 2012. Built in 1877, the building was purchased by the Joseon kingdom then ruling Korea in 1891 to be used as its embassy in dealing with the United States. At the time, King Gojong had ambitions and plans for modernising Korea along Western lines, against the objections of his Qing Chinese overlords. Unfortunately, geopolitical events beyond the Joseon kingdom / later Korean empire’s control led to the building passing under Japanese control in 1905, after that nation defeated China and then Russia in two wars. Japan later sold the building in 1910 for $10, having bought it from Korea for $5: an insulting gesture to the Koreans if ever there was one. Through the efforts of the Korean-American community in raising the money to purchase the building and keeping the issue alive among their own members, the Legation Building was finally relocated with the help of the US National Archives and bought back by the Koreans in 2012, with the intention of using it as a cultural and educational centre.

Using archived photographs and animation (often in combination) and interviews with Korean-American academics and Korean diplomats, the documentary is a handsome and highly visual presentation of a little known period in Korea’s history when the Joseon kingdom declared itself independent of China in 1897, with King Gojong as its first emperor, and attempted to conduct its own diplomacy with the West free from interference from China, Japan and Russia. However – and the film does not make this very clear – the Koreans may have put too much faith in the United States as a trustworthy ally: while the documentary acknowledges that President Theodore Roosevelt in the first decade of the 20th century saw Japan as much more important and modern than Korea, it is silent on American ambitions to be a dominant power in the affairs of East Asia and how the US co-operated with Japan, looking away when that nation occupied Korea and made it a colony. The film also treats much subsequent Korean history from the early 1900s on in a superficial way. Nothing is said of what happened to King Gojong and his son Prince Sunjong after their empire is gobbled up by Japan, and some viewers may find this omission a major fault of the documentary.

By making a film about the Korea Legation Building and its complicated history, Arirang TV pays tribute to the people who tirelessly sought to locate it and try to buy it back. The film’s narrative demonstrates the determination of the Korean people to remember and reclaim a vital part of their history as an independent nation navigating its way through a treacherous and dark period in its life.

Abandoned Soviet Fairground Ride in Transnistria: where the mundane becomes exotic in a real country not supposed to exist

“Abandoned Soviet Fairground Ride in Transnistria” (Bald and Bankrupt, 2019)

During his travels in Moldova in early 2019, the English vlogger known as Bald and Bankrupt (Arthur Chichester to his bank manager) is intrigued that apparent breakaway state Transnistria (known as Pridnestrovie to its people) boasts its own government, armed forces and national emblems, yet is unrecognised by the United Nations and the European Union. BB drives off to Tiraspol and Bendery where he finds both cities rather dowdy and a bit quaint and eccentric in appearance and presentation, but certainly nowhere near as decrepit and dejected as Kishinev. He steps into various shops, cafes and restaurants to chat to people and finds that not only are they happy to talk about their lives, they also take pride in being part of a nation that everyone else in the world politely ignores. Moreover, they revel in their Soviet heritage even though they know that that part of their history will never return.

In his quest to imagine the Soviet past, BB goes out of his way to visit a forlorn and derelict fairground where he goes for a pendulum-type ride on one of the aged and rusty fairground rides. Simulating the machines on which Soviet cosmonauts trained for trips into space, the contraption spins him round and round on an axle that also turns upright, spinning BB on a vertical plane. Good thing BB is bald or his hair would have transformed into a brilliant shock of white! After the ride, our host is all smarmy “it didn’t scare me” and thanks the elderly woman who sent him on the wildest ride of his life.

For quieter stimulation, BB goes into a worker’s cafe that has barely changed over the last half-century or so and eats a homely lunch of borsch, salad and fruit juice. Feeling well nourished, he trots off to a bookshop where he is amazed to see the lady in charge use an abacus instead of a cash register or a calculator to work out his change.

Armed with his selfie stick and mobile phone, filming as he goes, BB’s film, like his other films on Moldova that I have seen so far, immerses the viewer in ordinary everyday incidents that together make up an exotic adventure in the places where he travels. The mundane becomes unique and coming across ordinary babushkas shopping for groceries to prepare paskha cakes for Easter with wonky carriers turns into an opportunity to broaden and educate one’s mind on foreign culture and customs. Every time BB takes a step somewhere, a new adventure seems to beckon. Along the way, BB treats his hosts with dignity and respect and they readily warm to him and open up with personal stories, information and recommendations on where to go next.

Nobody Visits This Country … Find Out Why: a UK tourist finds out why in the ruin and decay of Kishinev

“Nobody Visits This Country … Find Out Why” (Bald and Bankrupt, April 2019)

Bald and Bankrupt is the nom de plume of an English traveller who makes short videos of his travels to little-known and neglected parts of the world for his Youtube channel of the same name. The fellow certainly is bald but bankrupt in generosity and conviviality he most certainly is not. This video which he filmed himself on his mobile phone was taken during a trip to Chishinau (I prefer using the old Kishinev), the capital of Moldova, a country sandwiched between Romania and Ukraine in southeastern Europe bordering the Balkan region. Initially Bald and Bankrupt – we’ll call him BB for the sake of convenience – visited Moldova on a jokey trip as he had heard that the country was the least visited place in Europe and that fewer people visit Moldova in a year than visit his local Tesco store every day!

In the space of just over 16 minutes of edited footage taken on his mobile phone, BB reveals the alarming extent of the neglect of public facilities in Kishinev: stairs leading from the street into the graffiti-covered tunnels to the subway are broken and dangerous to use, the wheelchair access is unusable; a large hotel is derelict and its fountain is empty save for rubbish; an observatory is falling into ruin. BB talks to pensioners in the streets and all independently agree that life under the Soviet Union before 1991 was better and cheaper.

Walking around city neighbourhoods, BB sees some election posters and reels off the names of various politicians and describes them as thieves or embezzlers. He sees pensioners selling personal possessions on the street and is shocked to see an advertisement from someone willing to buy people’s hair: a sure sign that people are desperate and will sell anything of theirs to supplement meagre incomes and buy food. BB mentions that pensioners are paid 40 euros every month.

At the end of his video, BB tells viewers something of what Moldova was like when it was part of the USSR: it was a holiday destination for Soviet tourists, it offered a good life for its citizens. Since independence, the country has been ruled by corrupt oligarch politicians who have looted the national wealth and impoverished the citizenry, even though it is supposedly moving closer to the European Union which is dangling the prospect of EU membership and a surefire path to the sort of prosperity that countries like Latvia and Lithuania are currently enjoying … not.

BB is a likeable narrator, very knowledgeable about Moldova’s politics and history, who resembles fellow Brit, the journalist Graham Phillips who himself fearlessly sallies into countries that mainstream Western news media would rather not know about, in appearance and open manner. His video on Kishinev is the first of a number of videos on life in Moldova.

An entertaining introduction to a remote country in “Paraguayans: World’s Weirdest Latinos”

Masaman, “Paraguayans: World’s Weirdest Latinos” (2018)

In an entertaining short film of just under 13 minutes, viewers are treated to a fascinating survey of one of Latin America’s least known yet quirkiest countries. Founded by Jesuit priests who established missions in the country to convert the indigenous Guarani-speaking people to Catholicism and to teach them farming and submission to the Spanish crown, Paraguay has a culture with a definite Hispanic foundation and flavour but its people (mostly of European descent) speak two languages, Guarani and Spanish. Being a country of the sub-tropical savanna interior with no sea-coast, Paraguay initially was part of the Spanish-American empire’s Viceroyalty of Peru with its capital in Lima, before coming under the Viceroyalty of the Rio de la Plata with its capital in Buenos Aires.

Gaining independence in 1811, Paraguay came under the rule of dictators, starting with Jose Gaspar Rodriguez de Francia who destroyed the power of the old Spanish elites and created a communal society under conditions of political isolation from other countries. Francia forbade the elites from marrying only among themselves, forcing them to marry local people, and the country became self-sufficient in foodstuffs and manufacturing. Carlos Antonio Lopez succeeded Francia as dictator and ran the country as his personal kingdom though also continuing its economic development. Lopez was followed by his son Francisco Solano Lopez whose ambitions brought Paraguay into a war against its neighbours Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay in the 1860s, a war that utterly destroyed the country, killing 70 – 90% of its adult male population and completely ruining its society and economy. The occupying victors carved out choice territories and reduced Paraguay to its current small size. After foreign occupation ended in the late 1870s, Paraguay tried to rebuild its population by inviting migrants across the world to establish settlements: hence, a number of utopian and sometimes experimental socialist settlements were set up by migrants from Australia and migrants from Germany led by Elizabeth Nietzsche (the racist sister of Friedrich Nietzsche) and her husband among others.

The film does a good job tying such quirky facts as a mostly European people speaking a native American language, the extreme shortage of adult men in Paraguay in the late 1800s and Paraguay’s reputation for odd (and slightly sinister) utopian colonies together to the country’s unusual history and how that history was influenced by its geography, its lack of a coast-line and the original peoples of the area watered by the Parana River and its tributaries. After the late 1800s, the film more or less neglects Paraguay’s history and recovery after the devastating wars of the 1860s, and how that recovery impeded its political and economic evolution. Not much is said about how Britain viewed Paraguay as a threat to its economic domination of Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil through its investments in land and railway construction, and furnished those countries with money and armaments. (Can’t Perfidious Albion keep its nose out of other countries’ affairs?!)

The film uses maps, historical materials and photographs of city and farm life to create an attractive tapestry celebrating the country’s people, and their languages, culture, history and diverse origins. There isn’t much information given about the country’s contemporary politics or its current state of development; one would love to know how it compares with its neighbours in economic development and the standard of living enjoyed by its citizens. Needless to say, there’s nothing about what Paraguayans think of their country’s future prospects. The film serves as a good general introduction to a country as existentially isolated from the rest of the world as it is physically.

Biological Weapons & Experimentation on Humans (Frank Olson): echoes of 1953 death of CIA scientist still reverberating today

Egmont R Koch and Michael Wech, “Biological Weapons & Experimentation on Humans (Frank Olson)” (2002)

Recent news of the death of Chinese physicist Zhang Shoucheng, supposedly through suicide by falling from a building, on 1 December 2018, the same day Sabrina Meng Wanzhou, chief financial officer of telecommunications / electronics company Huawei, was arrested by Canadian authorities in Vancouver at the bequest of the United States on vague charges jogged my memory of having read about the death of a CIA scientist more than a century ago in similar circumstances. (Zhang was supposed to have attended a dinner with Meng at the G20 summit in Buenos Aires.) I had forgotten the name of the CIA scientist but remembered he had been drugged with LSD by fellow CIA researchers without his consent some time before his death. Armed with those details, I did a search on DuckDuckGo and Google and very quickly found what I wanted: information on the death of Frank Olson in November, 1953, in circumstances eerily similar to those in which Zhang died – in Olson’s case, falling through a window on the 13th floor of a New York City hotel and onto the pavement below.

More than 20 years later, in 1975 the Rockefeller Commission released some of the details of the CIA’s notorious MKUltra project, a series of experiments aimed at mental manipulation of human subjects to weaken their resistance to questioning, and the US government admitted that Frank Olson had been doped with LSD. The Olson family pushed to sue the CIA; instead the US government offered them $750,000 and the then President Gerald Ford and the CIA apologised to them. In 1993, Frank Olson’s body was exhumed and an autopsy (the second one done on him; the first had been done soon after his death) determined that, in contrast to the results of the first autopsy, no cuts were present but instead Olson’s head and chest had suffered blunt-force trauma severe enough to have killed him before his body was tipped through the window. In 1997, the CIA inadvertently declassified the 1953 edition of its notorious assassination manual which, among other things, suggested that … The most efficient accident, in simple assassination, is a fall of 75 feet or more onto a hard surface …In chase cases it will usually be necessary to stun or drug the subject before dropping him …”. With this information, the Olson family sued the CIA in 2012, without success.

Koch and Wech’s documentary investigates the circumstances in which Dr Olson was drugged and killed, and traces his career as a biological researcher at the US Army Biological Warfare Laboratories and then with the CIA. This work took him through some very murky activities with both employers: Olson worked on the US bio-weapons program, experimenting with anthrax among other disease-causing agents, and later was drawn into the CIA’s Project Artichoke program (which investigated interrogation methods that could force people to confess and which included the use of LSD, forced morphine addiction and withdrawal, and hypnosis) and Project MKUltra. Olson became troubled by the direction the research was going into – the research included drugging people and subjecting them to painful physical and psychological torture – and wanted out. His superiors realised he had become a security risk and plotted to get rid of him. The film then starts to jump back and forth between 1953 and 1993, comparing the results of the second autopsy with those of the first, and discrepancies between them being observed. The film details Olson’s last overseas trip to Berlin where he appears to have done some private research on past CIA activities in Germany during World War II and Soviet methods of interrogation. This trip took place against the background of the Korean War, during which the CIA tortured POWs by injecting or threatening to inject anthrax – the very bacterium Olson had experimented on years before – into them. From this point on, the documentary follows the way in which the US government continued (and still continues) to lie about Olson’s death and avoid admitting responsibility and paying proper compensation to his family.

If one compares the circumstances surrounding Zhang Shoucheng’s death – like Olson’s death, also recorded as a suicide caused in large part by depression (which in Olson’s case could have been brought on by LSD ingestion) – one finds they are also quite suspicious. A tenured physics professor at Stanford University, Zhang was noted for his work in quantum physics (with applications for the global semiconductor industry) and was predicted by some to be a future Nobel Physics Prize laureate. He was also a founder of Danhua Capital aka Digital Horizon Capital, a venture capital fund investing in early-stage and growth-stage technology start-ups in Silicon Valley. Danhua Capital itself is funded by Zhangguancun Development Group, an entity owned by the Chinese government which invests in technology innovations. This background and connection to the Chinese government might have been enough to put Zhang onto the radar of a US government agency suspicious of any secret  Chinese attempts, whether real or imaginary, to steal American cyber-knowledge and codes and transfer these to China through Chinese nationals like Zhang working and teaching in the US.

At the same time, the US government is irked that Huawei, being based in China rather than the US, is less amenable to communications ranging from suggestions to requests to threats that it allow US intel and military agencies to gain access into the software in the IT equipment it sells to gather information that could be later used by the Americans to blackmail people or generate disinformation. To this end, the US has persuaded its Five Eyes partners Australia and New Zealand, and Japan as well, to ban Huawei from supplying equipment for their 5G mobile networks. With Canada now having arrested Meng on charges relating to Huawei trading with Iran (under US economic sanctions), one expects that she will be used as a hostage in China-US trade talks by the US to pressure China to force Huawei into accepting back-door links into its equipment. Such extraordinary behaviour is the kind of sordid horse-trading expected of head-chopping takfiris terrorising civilians in parts of the Middle East.

Incidentally on the same day that Meng was arrested and Zhang died, a factory owned by Dutch tech company ASML, specialising in extreme ultraviolet lithography technology (used in the production of the next generation of semiconductors by Chinese, US and South Korean tech manufacturers), caught fire. This led to ASML advising of delays in supplying this technology to its customers in early 2019. One of these customers is semiconductor maker SMIC which is partnered with Huawei, Qualcomm and Belgian company IMEC to build China’s most advanced integrated circuit research and development programme.

The very strange occurrence of three seemingly unrelated incidents, their connections only becoming clear once the background context to them becomes known, on the same day, and one of these incidents bearing an uncanny resemblance to a death whose causes are still unsolved 65 years after it occurred, is sure to spark off conspiracy theories speculating on who or what may be responsible for them. It is likely that just as Frank Olson’s death continues to be the subject of controversy and his family continues to struggle for justice and closure, so too Zhang Shoucheng’s death will be shrouded in speculation and disinformation. The consequences of what transpired on 1 December 2018 are likely to be very far-reaching, not least because Meng’s arrest alone raises issues of sovereignty for the Five Eyes Anglocentric nations and their ability to control their own political, economic and other relationships with other countries and foreign entities without interference from a third party. Citizens from China, Russia or from any other country with which the US has poor relations or which has been targeted for regime change, will certainly think twice about visiting Canada, Australia or any of the other Five Eyes nations, or indeed any other Western nation; and employers may consider seriously taking away their business from those countries where their employees could be arrested, imprisoned and extradited to the US on false charges.

Servant or Slave: how Aboriginal people were exploited for their labour in conditions of virtual slavery

Steven McGregor, “Servant or Slave” (2017)

Few Australians have very little appreciation of the apartheid-style society that exploited Aboriginal people, Torres Strait Islanders and even Melanesians imported from abroad for their labour to clear land for pasture and plantation crops like sugar cane, establishing in the process the foundation for Australia’s agricultural wealth. But to understand how generations of Aboriginal children were taken away from their families for most of the 20th century, put into institutions that trained them to perform menial work or heavy labouring jobs for very little money (or even none), and how not just their employers but also Australian federal and state governments and their agencies benefited from such an institutional phenomenon, we need to know the social, political and economic context, and the ideology underpinning this context. The fact is that the Australian nation was founded on the exploitation of its resources – land, water, plants and animals, and ultimately even its native peoples – along with the exploitation of the convicts, migrants and others who came to the country after European settlement began in 1788, for geopolitical reasons that favoured a small English (and later British) elite. This exploitation was part of a vast imperial structure that encompassed lands in several continents (notably in Africa and southern Asia) and impoverished millions, destroyed their cultures and traditions, forced them to work and even to fight for their colonial masters in wars in distant countries, and allowed them to starve during periods of famine.

The value of “Servant or Slave” is not just to document how thousands of Aboriginal girls and young women were kidnapped or taken from their families and forced into institutions by the Australian government that trained them for domestic service, but to show how this arrangement was deeply embedded in Australian society and how the exploitation of Aboriginal people’s labour, through domestic service and other forms of employment, benefited the government and the people and companies who employed Aboriginal people in menial jobs or heavy physical work. The five indigenous women sharing their stories of how they were kidnapped by government agents from their families, put into institutions where they were beaten, sexually abused, brainwashed into believing they were inferior and taught not to trust their own people, and then later employed as full-time housekeepers, maids and unpaid baby-sitters, are very brave in reliving their experiences and traumas in interviews. They speak of the long-term psychological traumas and other harms they and their families (both their birth families and the families they later had themselves) suffered. These women’s experiences were typical of the experiences other Aboriginal girls (and even boys) had to undergo. Through interviews with historians and academics, we learn that Aboriginal people were never adequately paid for the work they did as domestic servants or rural agricultural workers and that as a result they could not amass and pass on any material wealth to their children and grandchildren, which helps to explain why so many Aboriginal families in many parts of Australia still live in poverty. Even more horrifying is news that the money that should have been paid to Aboriginal workers was instead used to fund even more predation of Aboriginal children and to support the institutions that trained them for lives of servitude.

The documentary uses re-enactments of the interviewees’ experiences to emphasise the fear they felt, their desperation and their isolation from help. While the re-enactments are tastefully done and are even poetic in style, they do tend to distance the audience from what is being shown on screen and don’t fully convey the horror of the abuse being portrayed or the victims’ immense suffering.

While the women interviewed reveal strength, determination and even pride that they endured such dreadful lives, and managed to find love through their children and grandchildren, the documentary ends on a fairly pessimistic note in observing that the monies owed to generations of Aboriginal people for their labour have either not been paid at all or are being dished out to them in ways and under conditions that are highly insulting and patronising towards them. It seems that the exploitative mind-set and ideology that dominated whitefella thinking and behaviour towards Aboriginal people from the mid-nineteenth century on still infects Australian politicians and bureaucrats, and still influences federal and state government policies that affect indigenous people’s lives. As Australia continues to follow the United States, Britain and other Western capitalist nations on a downward trajectory into more economic austerity, greater social inequality, lower standards of living and more financial and economic instability, the situation for Aboriginal people as a highly vulnerable group is likely to get worse.

Additional material that was not included in the original documentary focuses on the colonial exploitation of Melanesian people from the Solomon Islands and other Pacific island nations from the late nineteenth century as indentured labourers in sugar cane plantations in Queensland and other rural work that required much physical exertion in hot tropical or semi-tropical conditions.