Canada Slim and the Inappropriate Statues

Landschlacht, Switzerland, 11 October 2017

Watching American politics these days is like being witness to a horrific traffic accident:

Flag of the United States

You want to look away but somehow….

You just can´t.

So much every day exploding or threatening to explode in the overly Excited States of America.

And yet it is this constant turmoil of emotion and endless, neverending, eternal debating that goes on unceasingly in America that is both the country´s primary weakness and the nation´s greatest strength.

Two issues that keep resurfacing in America, and should keep resurfacing, are the removal of Confederate statues and the refusal to stand like a statue during the playing of the national anthem during a sporting competition.

Because both of these issues, at first glance appearing as much ado about nothing, are focusing on the past and the future.

America needs to look at the wrongs it has done to others, both foreign and domestic, and it needs to create a future where America truly becomes a shining example to others, both foreign and domestic.

Black Americans want Confederate statues removed because those commemorated fought for the right to enslave African Americans.

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Above: Stone Mountain, Georgia

Colin Kaepernick refuses to stand up during the national anthem, because he believes that the flag, and the values it is supposed to represent – the ideals of equality and justice for all – has let down this generation of African Americans.

(Exactly when did nationalism need to be expressed during sporting events?)

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Above: Colin Kaepernick

Little progress has been reported on the removal of Confederate statues in Southern states, but when Trump told the National Football League (NFL) owners that they should fire the SOBs who kneel when the anthem is played, a unity between white owners and black players seems to be developing.

Above: Donald Trump, Huntsville, Alabama, September 2017

Granted that the owners are reacting not out of idealism but rather the President´s words affect their profits and they don´t like to be bullied by anyone even if he is the President.

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But the show of solidarity may help bring into focus the terrible injustice of white cops gunning down unarmed black folks and literally getting away with murder.

Perhaps White America that claims to espouse Christian values will once again be forced to acknowledge that America´s history of slavery and racism was not Christian nor Christ-like.

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Perhaps White America that claims to be following the practices of Christ will realise that God, should He exist, loves all the world and that those who profess to follow the Christian faith should love the world as well.

Yet there are 1,503 memorials dedicated to Confederate soldiers men who committed treason against their country – 718 of which are statues or monuments, and there are even 10 US military bases named after Confederate soldiers who fought against the US military.

(So far, at this time of writing, Austin, Baltimore, Birmingham, Bradenton, Columbus, Dallas, DC, Daytona Beach, Fort Warren, Gainesville, Helena, Kansas City, Lexington, Louisville, Lynchburg, New Orleans, Orlando, Reidsville, San Antonio, St. Louis and West Palm Beach are some communities who have removed their Confederate statues from public display.)

(Even in Montréal, Canada, a plaque in a Hudson´s Bay Company store recalling Confederate President Jefferson Davis´ brief stay – installed by the United Daughters of the Confederacy in 1957 – was removed after the Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville in August 2017 turned violent.)

Many in the South still believe that the Civil War was about states´ rights not about the preservation of the institution of slavery, despite written proclamations by these seceding states of their desire to struggle to perserve the right to own other people.

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Above: Scenes from the American Civil War (1862-1865)

“If white nationalists and neo-Nazis are now claiming this as part of their heritage, they have essentially co-opted these images and these statues beyond any capacity to neutralise them again.” (Eleanor Harvey, Smithsonian American Art Museum)

The history these monuments celebrate tell only one side of the story, one that is openly Confederate.

These statues were erected without the consent or input of African Americans, who remember the Civil War far differently and who have no interest in honouring those who fought to keep them enslaved.

Perhaps it is human for people to want to distance themselves from the unpleasant reminders of their history, but there is a danger of distorting the reality of that past the further we try to separate ourselves from the shadows of our dark heritage.

Though we are not personally responsible for what our ancestors did, we can´t ignore the heritage and the legacy that remains because of their actions.

And the timing of the raising of these monuments is also curious….

Most Confederate monuments were raised during the first two decades of the 20th century (a time of repressive laws against African Americans) and the 1950s and 60s when civil rights movements were struggling to be heard, as a means of intimidating African Americans and reaffirming white supremacy.

Above: Lowering of Robert E. Lee Monument, New Orleans, 19 May 2017

Statues send messages.

Statues glorify people.

President Trump argues that the removal of Confederate flags and monuments is liberals trying to take away America´s culture, America´s history.

Above: Planned removal of this Robert E. Lee scuplture in Charlottesville, Virginia, has sparked protests and counter-protests, resulting in three deaths.

(Six states, formerly Confederate states, have passed laws prohibiting the removal of monuments: Alabama, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia.)

“These laws are the Old South imposing its moral and political views on us forevermore.

This is what led to the Civil War, and it still divides us as a country.

We have competing visions not only about the future but about the past.”

(Stan Deaton, Georgia Historical Society)

And though there is a danger of judging historical figures by modern standards, keeping Confederate statues on public exhibit keeps open the sores of American history, gives approval to the Confederacy for its actions of treason against the nation in defence of an action that is immorally indefensible and is a constant reminder of the African American´s inequality in the past and continued acceptance of the African American´s inequality at present.

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Above: The Confederate Soldiers Memorial, Durham, North Carolina, pulled down by protesters, 15 August 2017

I was reminded of the problems that America has during my summer vacation this year, and not by reading Facebook or picking up a copy of the International New York Times, but by visiting the Cathedral of Como and remembering history.

 

Como, Italy, 2 August 2017

Como is an elegant town with a stunning lakeside location, a splendid and fascinating city full of history, situated at the foot of the west branch of the Lario River.

View from Lake Como. The tower which tops the hill on the right is the Castello Baradello.

Como was founded by the Romans in 59 BC with the name Novum Comum, and to this day is the site of a magnificent town centre and a pedestrian zone surrounded and protected by powerful walls.

Piazza Cavour is a modern square facing the water from where boats and ferries cut through the waters of Lago di Como to reach the lakeside towns.

A few steps away is the Piazza del Duomo, home to several interesting buildings, with the magnificent Duomo, the town cathedral, standing out.

Formerly the site of the early Christian Church of Santa Maria Maggiore, work on the Duono began in 1396.

It took nearly 400 years to complete this cathedral which encompasses elements of the diverse architectural styles that characterised four centuries: austere Gothic, elegant Renaissance, precious Baroque.

The white facade in marble is magnificent.

Many artists worked on the Duomo, but the Comoese consider the greatest contribution was made by the Rodari brothers.

These skilled scupltors are credited with the beautiful pair of podiums that frame the  statues of Pliny the Younger (on the left) and Pliny the Elder (on the right) both illustrious citizens of Como in Roman times.

But…. here´s the rub….

Though there was, and is, nothing unusual about having classical figures feature in Christian churches, the presence of these two pagans, seems somewhat….

Inappropriate.

Caius Plinius Secundus, better known as Pliny the Elder (23 – 79 AD), was the creator of the most extensive, industrious and unscientific product of Roman science.

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Above: Imagined portrait of Pliny the Elder

Though busy all his life as a soldier, lawyer, traveller, administrator and head of the western Roman fleet, Pliny the Elder wrote treatises on oratory, grammar, the javelin, a history of Rome, a history of Rome´s wars in Germany, and 37 books of natural history.

How he managed all this in 55 years is explained in a letter of his nephew, Pliny the Younger:

“He (Pliny the Elder) had a quick apprehension, incredible zeal and an unequalled capacity to go without sleep.

He would rise at midnight or at one, and never later than two in the morning, and begin his literary work….

Before daybreak he used to wait upon Vespasian, who likewise chose that time to transact business.

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Above: Bust of Vespasian (9-79 AD), 9th Roman Emperor (69 -79 AD)

When he had finished the affairs which the Emperor committed to his charge, he returned home to his studies.

After a short light repast at noon….he would frequently, in the summer, repose in the sun, but during that time some author was read to him, from whom he made extracts and notes….as was his method with whatever he read.

Thereafter he generally went into a cold bath, took a light refreshment, and rested for a while.

Then, as if it were a new day, he resumed his studies till dinner, when again a book was read to him, and he made notes….

Such was the manner of his life amid the noise and hurry of the town.

But in the country his whole time was devoted to study, except when he was actually bathing.

All the while he was being rubbed and wiped he was employed in Hearing some book read to him, or in dictating.

In his journeys a stenographer constantly attended him in his chariot or sedan chair.

He once reproved me for walking.

“You need not have lost those hours, ” he said, for he counted all time lost that was not given to study.”

Pliny the Elder´s one-man encyclopedia summarised the science and errors of his age.

“My purpose is to give a general description of everything that is known to exist throughout the Earth.”

He dealt with 20,000 topics and apologised for omitting others.

He referred to 2,000 volumes by 473 authors and admitted his indebtedness by name with a candor exceptional in ancient literature.

Pliny the Elder began by rejecting the gods.

They are, he thought, merely natural phenomena, that is, the sum of natural Forces, and that gods pay no special attention to mundane affairs.

He was not content with natural history.

He also wished to be a philosopher.

Throughout his pages, he scattered comments on mankind.

He thought the life of animals is preferable to man´s, for animals never think about glory, money, ambition or death.

They can learn without being taught and never have to dress.

They do not make war on their own species.

Life, in Pliny the Elder´s estimate, gives us much more grief and pain than happiness, and death is our supreme boon.

After death, there is nothing.

No God or gods, no afterlife….

Not very Christian.

Though in Pliny the Elder´s defence, his final actions alive were very Christlike, in that he sacrificed himself to save others.

On 24 August 79 AD, Pliny the Elder was stationed at Misenum, at the time of the great eruption of Mount Vesuvius, which overwhelmed Pompeii and Herculaneum.

He was preparing to cross the Bay of Naples to observe the phenomenon directly when a message arrived from his friend Rectina asking him to rescue her and Pomponianus.

Launching the galleys under his command to the evacuation of the opposite shore, Pliny himself took a fast sailing cutter.

As the light vessel approached the shore near Herculaneum, cinders and pumice began to fall upon it.

Pliny´s helmsman advised turning back, to which Pliny replied:

“Fortune favours the brave.

Steer to where Pomponianus is.”

They landed and found Pomponianus “in the greatest consternation”.

Pliny hugged and comforted him.

They could not find Rectina.

They loaded the cutter, but the same winds that brought it to Stabiae prevented it from leaving.

Pliny reassured his party by feasting, bathing and sleeping while waiting for the wind to abate, but finally they had to leave the buildings for fear of collapse and try their luck in the pumice fall.

Pliny sat down and could not get up even with assistance and was left behind.

His friends theorised that he collapsed and died through inhaling poisonous gases emitted from the volcano.

Above: Plaster casts of the casualities of the pumice fall, Pompeii

As he is described as a corpulent man, his friends left him because Pliny was already dead.

When Pliny the Elder´s nephew was born at Como in 61, he was named Publius Carcilius Secundus.

His father owned a farm and villa near the lake and held high office in the town.

Orphaned early, Publius was adopted and educated first by Virginius Rufus, governor of Upper Germany, and then by his uncle Caius.

This busy scholar made the boy his son and heir and died soon afterward.

According to custom, Publius took his adoptive father´s name, becoming known as Pliny the Younger (61 – 114 AD).

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Above: Statue of Pliny the Younger, Como Cathedral

At 18, Pliny the Younger was admitted to the bar.

Pliny enforced the law with the officiousness of an amateur.

In a letter to Trajan:

“The method I have observed toward those who have been denounced to me as Christians is this:

I interrogated them whether they were Christians.

If they confessed it I repeated the question twice again, adding the threat of capital punishment.

If they still persevered, I ordered them to be executed….”

To which Trajan replied:

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Above: Bust of Trajan (53-117 AD), 13th Roman Emperor (98-117 AD)

“The method you have pursued, my dear Pliny, in sifting the cases of those denounced to you as Christians is eminently proper….

No search should be made for these people.

When they are denounced and found guilty, they must be punished, but where the accused party denies that he is a Christian, and gives proof….by adoring our gods, he shall be pardoned.

Information without the accuser´s name subscribed must not be admitted in evidence against anyone.”

Should a killer of Christians be honoured outside the Cathedral?

 

Landschlacht, Switzerland, 12 October 2017

Why would the Cathedral honour the Plinys?

Because there weren´t enough Comoese of fame worth honouring?

Because the Cathedral wanted to remind people of the Church´s heritage stretched back to ancient Rome?

So should the Comoese petition the Cathedral to remove the statues?

Here is where America and Como share similar problems.

Argument 1: The statues are artistic masterpieces that should not be destroyed.

Fine.

Put them in a museum.

Argument 2: Where they are makes the landscape what it is.

Change happens.

Deal with it.

This is a generation that paves Paradise to put up a parking lot.

Argument 3: The events of the past have long passed and removal of the statues signifies to most people a destruction of their heritage and not an approval of all that was done in those days.

Yet those that know their history are reminded of the evil that was done by these supposedly good men being honoured by monuments.

Those who don´t know their history see these monuments and falsely believe that those being honoured must deserve to be.

Should we forget the pain, suffering and sorrow the South endured in its struggle to be free?

No.

But we must not forget that within the nation that presently exists these Southern good ol´ boys committed treason in the cause of the preservation of slavery.

Let us remember them in books and museums, but not as everlasting symbols approved as civic models in town squares or on the side of mountains.

Should we forget the achievements of Pliny the Elder as a writer and attempted saviour of the victims of Vesuvius?

Should we forget the achievements of Pliny the Younger as a lawyer and author?

No.

But let us not honour them as symbols of Christianity.

Black Americans do not deserve to be reminded of how they were once slaves and how inferior they were (and sadly often still are) made to feel by white Americans.

It is one thing to sadly recall the days of Christian martydom at the hands of the Roman Empire.

But let´s not put a non-believer in God and a persecutor of Christians in places of honour on a cathedral.

Let us remember history as it was, not how we wish it were.

Let us honour those deserving of honour and not honour those unworthy.

Sources: Wikipedia / Will Durant, The Story of Civilization: Caesar and Christ / Lonely Planet Italy / Rough Guide Italy

 

 

 

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Canada Slim and the Isle of Silence

Landschlacht, Switzerland,  8 October 2017

It may be the greatest of romances, the strongest of friendships, the warmest of families….

Yet travelling together will put these bonds to the test, for there will come a time when the trip is not ideal for all the travellers simultaneously.

For some travelling duos, these moments may be rare and short in duration.

For other travelling pairs, these moments can fracture the relationship permanently.

Simply put, one of you doesn´t want to do what the other one wants to do, so idyllic separate solitude is sacrificed for the travelling partnership, as one person compromises to the other for the sake of the relationship.

Sometimes the compromise turns out not to be so bad after all and the compromised finds him/herself actually feeling enjoyment despite all his/her expectations to the contrary.

Sometimes the compromise is bitterly regretted and the compromised hates both him/herself for making the compromise and the person who demanded the compromise.

I am reminded of the Eiffel Tower in Paris.

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My travelling companion and I stood directly beneath the arch of the Tour d`Eiffel, but she looked at the line-up and looked at the price, and adamantly refused to allow herself or me to join the queue and ascend the Tower.

I argued that this was an golden opportunity.

We did not know when, if ever, we would have the chance to do this again, and that, wait and expense be damned, it was well worth it to do so.

She would not budge.

I compromised.

I still have yet to ascend the Tour d´Eiffel and the uncertainty of life does not reassure me that I might ever have that chance again.

Thus there remains a sour feeling inside me and a source of great consternation everytime I think about it.

 

Lago di Como, Italia, 1 August 2017

We had a day ticket to cruise the Lago di Como and, to be fair, we could not possibly see everything that there was to see and be able to return back to the city of Como on the last returning boat.

But, despite the additional expense, would it have been so tragic had we visited the Isola Comacina, and then arranged passage from there back to the mainland then taken a bus back to Como?

She would not budge.

I compromised.

Prior to the great discussion regarding a visit to Isola Comacina, we visited the Villa Carlotta in Tremezzo and the Villa del Balbianello at Dossa d´Avedo.

The Villa Carlotta is a villa and botanical garden in Tremezzo, located on the lakeshore, facing the Bellagio Peninsula and the mountains surrounding the Lago di Como, which can be seen from the Villa windows or from the terraced gardens.

The Villa Carlotta is a place of precious beauty, combining both natural and manmade masterpieces in perfect harmony.

The Clerici family had risen from rural origins to become successful silk merchants.

Milanese Marquis Giorgio Clerici became a Senator in 1684 and six years later he decided to establish a country estate on ancestral lakeside land at Tremezzo.

The estate was complete in its initial form by 1695 and finally completed in its present form in 1745 by Giorgio`s great grandson Anton.

When Anton died in 1768, he had spent most of the family fortune building the Palazzo Clerici in Milano.

Anton´s daughter Claudia sold Villa Carlotta in 1801 to the banker/politician Giovanni Battista Sommariva.

Above: Bust of Giovanni Battista Sommariva (died 1826) by Bertel Thorvaldsen

Sommariva had risen from being a barber´s apprentice to a position of power in Napoleon Bonaparte´s government in northern Italy.

Portrait of Napoleon in his forties, in high-ranking white and dark blue military dress uniform. In the original image He stands amid rich 18th-century furniture laden with papers, and gazes at the viewer. His hair is Brutus style, cropped close but with a short fringe in front, and his right hand is tucked in his waistcoat.

Above: Napoleone di Buonaparte, aka Napoléon Bonaparte (1769-1821)

In 1802 Sommariva was a candidate to be the Vice President of the Republic of Italy, but Napoleon selected instead Francesco Melzi d´Eril for the post.

With his political ambitions thwarted, Sommariva retired from public life and devoted his time to collecting art.

Sommariva added balconies to take in the lake view, a large clock on the Villa facade, patronised a number of sculptors, constructed a domed family chapel and mausoleum, and transformed part of the property´s park into a romantic garden.

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When Sommariva´s eldest son, Emilio, died, fighting in Spain in 1811, and his second son Luigi´s sudden death in 1838, Sommariva´s declining fortune was divided between his wife, Emilia, and numerous relatives.

The property was sold in 1843 to Princess Marianne, the wife of Prince Albert of Prussia.

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Above: Princess Marianne of the Netherlands (1810 – 1883)

Marianne gave the property to her daughter Charlotte (in Italian, Carlotta), as a wedding present upon her marriage to Georg II, the Duke of Sachsen-Meiningen.

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Above: Princess Charlotte of Prussia (1831 – 1855)

Her parents´ marriage was unhappy due to Prince Albert´s several affairs, and was finally dissolved in 1849.

Marianne began to live with her former coachman Johannes von Rossum, with whom she had a son.

Albert married a former actress Rosalie von Rauch, who bore him two sons.

The custody of Charlotte and her siblings Albert and Albertine was given to their father.

However their childless aunt Queen Elisabeth of Prussia took care of them.

As a young woman, Charlotte was highly eligible for marriage, due to her mother´s Dutch fortune and her father´s Hohenzollern noble connections.

In Charlottenburg on 18 May 1850, the nineteen-year-old princess married Georg, Prince of Saxe-Meningen, who was 24.

Already Georg had led a battalion from Meningen in support of the Prussians in the First Schleswig War against Denmark in 1849.

The two shared many interests, particularly with the theatre, as they were both ardent attendees.

During their engagement, they had even acted in amateur court theatricals together.

Charlotte had a talent for music and was professionally instructed by great artists of the period, even writing a number of military marches, songs and piano pieces.

The couple spent much of their time in Berlin and Potsdam but resided in Meiningen for the birth of their children.

Charlotte, whose marriage was a love match, had only a short time to enjoy the Villa Carlotta, for she died of childbirth complications at the age of 23 in 1855.

Georg and Charlotte had, prior to her death and the death of their one-day-old son, three other children Bernhard (1851 – 1928), Georg (1852 – 1855) who died a few months before his mother did, and Marie Elisabeth (1853 – 1923).

Duke Georg would later marry two more times, outliving his second wife Feodora (1839 – 1872) who provided him with three sons before she died of scarlet fever and would be outlived by his third wife, former actress Ellen Franz (1839 – 1923).

The Sachsen-Meiningens used the property as a private holiday home.

In 1857, author Ludwig Bechstein wrote a description of the Villa, which was published as Villa Carlotta: Poetische Reisebilder vom Comersee und aus den lombardisch-venetianische Landen.

Above: German writer Ludwig Bechstein (1801 – 1860)

Duke Georg, who had a passion for botany, dedicated himself to the development and enrichment of the Villa gardens introducing a great variety of rare and exotic species.

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Above: Duke Georg II of Sachsen-Meiningen (1826 – 1914)

He died in 1914 at the outbreak of World War One.

Once Italy entered WW1 in May 1915 on the side of the Allies, the Villa, despite being owned by a German, was not confiscated by the Italian state, as were most other properties of other enemy aliens in Italy, but was placed under the management of the Swiss Consulate.

In 1921, the financial administrator of the Province of Como informed the owners of Villa Carlotta that the entire property was now the property of the Italian state, arguing that the Villa was of eminent national significance.

It was proposed in 1922 that the Villa would be sold at auction.

Local enthusiasts, led by Senator Guiseppe Bianchini and the Rotary Club of Milano opposed this, which lead to the Villa being entrusted to the Ente Villa Carlotta Foundation, constituted by royal decree on 12 May 1927.

This foundation is still responsible for the Villa.

The Villa consists of three floors, two of which are open to the public and serve as a museum, with art works by Antonio Canova (1757 – 1822), Bertel Thorvaldsen (1770 – 1844), Adamo Tadolini (1788 – 1863), Luigi Acquisti (1745 – 1823), Francois Hayez (1791 – 1882), Jean-Baptiste Wicar (1762 – 1834) and others.

Above: The Repentant Magdalene, by Antonio Canova

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Above: Mars and Venus by Luigi Acquisti

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Above: Palamedes by Antonio Canova

(Palamedes, the mythological inventor of chess, dice games and some of the letters of the Greek alphabet, was the only one, in Homer´s Illiad, who unmasked Ulysses´ deceit in pretending to be mad, thus forcing him to abandon his island of Ithaca and go fighting in the Trojan War.

Ulysses never forgave him and plotted against Palamedes who, for this reason, was killed.)

The botanical garden covers an area of about 8 hectares/20 Acres and is filled with cut hedges, orange and camellia trees, rhodendron and 150 varieites of azalea, cedars, palms, redwoods, plane trees and other exotic plants, and over 25 different bamboo species.

Fancy decadence.

Nice gardens.

Waitress at the Villa Café tells me “I love you.” after I give her a large tip.

Fickle woman tells the next tipper the same thing.

 

My wife and I then travelled onwards down the western shore of Lago di Coma to the tip of the small wooded peninsula of Dosso d`Avedo, not far from the Isola Comacina.

Yet another Italian Villa.

The Villa del Balbianello is reached by taking a stroll along the harbour of Lenno and through a park of skillfully pruned plane trees.

At the entrance to the FAI (Fondo Ambiente Italiano/Italian National Trust) property, we are greeted by a trio of young men who ask us to sign a petition and give a donation to assist those with drug addiction.

The views of the Lago di Como from here are breathtaking.

Unlike most of the grand villas on the Lago di Como, Balbianello was not initially built as the residence of an aristocrat.

A Franciscan monastery had existed on the grounds since the 13th century, and the two towers which still remain are the campanili of the monastery´s church.

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After failing in his attempts to buy nearby Isola Comacina, Cardinal Angelo Durini (1725 – 1796) purchased the property in 1785.

In 1787 Durini converted the monastery building into a villa for use during the summer and added a loggia, which would allow visitors to obtain two different panoramas of the Lago.

The elegant loggia, built at the highest point of the property, opens on two sides to take in the extraordinary beauty of the Lago.

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It has a central portico with two rooms on either side which Durini used as a library and a music room.

Cardinal since 1776, Durini dedicated himself to poetry and engagement with Lombardia literary circles, where he distinguished himself as a generous patron of the arts.

He was a great friend and benefactor of Giuseppe Parini, who dedicated his important ode La Gratitudine to him.

Giuseppe Parini, in a lithograph by Rosaspina.

Above: Italian poet Giuseppe Parini (1729 – 1799)

Sadly the Cardinal was able to enjoy Balbianello only for a short time, passing away at the estate in 1796.

After the Cardinal´s death, the Villa passed to his nephew, Luigi Porro Lambertenghi (born 1780).

Lambertenghi was a high profile figure in a group of Milanese republicans and a member of the Carbonari, who wished to liberate Italy from the Austrians, who after the end of the Napoleonic era were restored their former possessions but now acted more repressive than they had previously in policing their domains.

The Carbonari desired both the liberation and unification of the entire Italian peninsula and frequently met at Balbianello to discuss their plans.

In 1815 Lambertenghi hired the republican writer Silvio Pellico to tutor his children.

Above: Italian republican writer Silvio Pellico (1789 – 1799)

Pellico stayed for many years at Balbianello, which he recalled fondly in his Le mie prigioni (My prisons).

In July 1817, during a boating excursion from Como to Cadenabbia and Bellagio, Stendhal passed in front of Balbianello, where the oarsmen had difficulty in rounding the promontory, due to a sudden wind.

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Above: French writer Marie-Henri Beyle aka Stendhal (1783 – 1842)

The rocky shoreline reminded the Frenchman of Scottish lakes and the romantic allure of “that heavenly lake” inspired his first chapters of The Charterhouse of Parma.

In 1821, following the failure of an attempted insurrection, Lambertenghi – having caught wind of his imminent arrest – fled Milano to take refuge in Switzerland, remaining there in exile until 1840.

He was sentenced to death in absentia in 1882.

Pellico was sentenced to 15 years in prison.

Before leaving for Switzerland, Lambertenghi sold Balbianello to his friend Giuseppe Arconati Visconti (born 1797)

Visconti made improvements to the gardens and the loggia.

To this day the balustrade in front of the church bears the Visconti emblem of a serpent with a man in its mouth.

Shortly after acquiring Balbianello, Visconti was also accused of participating in revolutionary movements.

Visconti eluded capture by the Austrian authorities by fleeing to Gaasbeek, Belgium and taking refuge in his maternal uncle´s castle 15 km from Brussels.

Above: Gaasbeek Castle

In 1924, Visconti was sentenced to death in absentia.

Visconti and his wife Costanza lived in Gaasbeek until 1839.

During the period of Visconti ownership, the Villa hosted politicians and writers including republican poet Giovanni Berchet (1783 – 1851), novelist Alessandro Manzoni (1785 – 1873), republican politician Giuseppe Giusti (1809 – 1850) and Swiss artist Arnold Böcklin (1827 – 1901).

(I wonder…. did the view of Isola Comacina from the Villa del Balbianello inspire Böcklin´s painting “Island of the Dead”?)

Gian Martino Visconti (1839 – 1876), Giuseppe and Costanza´s only surviving son, was a restless youth who embarked on a career in the military while nourishing a dominating passion for travel.

He undertook many journeys in Europe and Egypt.

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His passion led him to undertake in-depth studies of Arabia.

In 1864, Gian was in Algeria, as documented by his book Viaggi a caso di un vagabondo – Gita ad Algeri (An Errant Vagabond – Out in Algeria).

Above: Pipelines across modern Algeria

In 1865, Gian embarked on his most ambitious trip – to the Arabian Peninsula via Cairo and Suez, crossing southern Arabia to Aqaba.

Above: Map of the Arabian Peninsula, 1720

He then went up the Wadi Arabah until he reached Petra, which was little known at the time.

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Above: Petra, Jordan

After leaving Petra and surviving the perils of Bedouin attacks, Gian took refuge in Jerusalem before returning to Europe.

His Diario di un viaggio nell´Arabia (Diary of a voyage in Arabia) was one of the last records of an individual journey through places that would soon be visited by organised tourism and amply described in Baedeker guidebooks.

In 1873 Gian married radical republican Frenchwoman Marie Peyrat, a free spirited, eccentric, beautiful young woman, in Paris, witnessed by Emmanuel Arago and Victor Hugo.

However, the marriage was short-lived.

In 1876, Gian died from a disease contracted during his travels.

Marie stopped going to Balbianello a few years after the death of her husband and for more than 30 years Balbiandello was left to fall into a state of neglect.

In 1904 during a boat excursion with some friends, US businessman/politician Butler Ames saw the Villa for the first time and was determined to own it.

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Above: Butler Ames (1871 – 1954)

Ames was immediately and irrevocably struck by the romantic beauty of Balbianello.

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It was until 1919 that he was successful in obtaining ownership.

After purchasing the Villa, Ames and his wife Fifi spent all of their summers there, with the exception of World War 2, until Ames´ death in 1954.

In these years, their guestbook contained the names of a great number of visitors, including “America´s Sweetheart” Canadian actress Mary Pickford (1892 – 1979), former US First Lady Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis (1929 – 1994) and US Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson II (1900 – 1965).

Ames´ will stipulated that his heirs could not sell Balbianello for 20 years after his death, but as soon as the period expired Balbianello was sold to Guido Monzino (1928 – 1988).

Monzino had admired and desired the Villa ever since he was young, when he used to spend his Sundays fishing with his father, who moored his boat near the Dosso d´Avedo promontory.

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A businessman and entrepreneur, Monzino had been Managing Director of Standa, Italy´s 1st large department store chain, but deep in his heart he was, like Gian Visconti, an explorer and dedicated much of his time to this pursuit, participating in or leading a total of 21 major expeditions over a twenty-year period to all corners of the world. including being the 1st person to climb the north face of the Torres del Paine in Chile, the first to climb Kanjut Sar (the 26th tallest mountain in the world) in Pakistan, and the leader of the 1st Italian Expedition to climb the tallest mountain in the world, Mount Everest.

Above: Mount Everest

At the end of his long career, Monzino threw himself wholeheartedly into the restoration and refurbishment of the Villa.

He died in 1988 at the age of 60.

Unmarried and without any direct heirs, Monzino bequeathed Balbinello to the FAI.

In keeping with his final wishes, Monzino is buried in the estate´s underground icehouse in the garden.

Today the Villa del Balbinello is the most visited among the FAI properties with over 90,000 visitors annually.

A number of feature films have used Balbinello for location shooting:

  • A Month by the Lake (1995), starring Vanessa Redgrave, Edward Fox and Uma Thurman
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  • Star Wars: Episode 2 – Attack of the Clones (2002), starring Natalie Portman and Hayden Christensen
  • Film poster. A young man is seen embracing a young woman. A man holds a lightsaber. In the foreground, there is a man wearing a suit.
  • Casino Royale (2006), starring Daniel Craig and Eva Green
  • The poster shows Daniel Craig as James Bond, wearing a business suit with a loose tie and holding a gun. Behind him is a silhouette of a woman showing a building with a sign reading "Casino Royale" and a dark grey Aston Martin DBS below the building. At the bottom left of the image is the title "Casino Royale" – both "O"s stand above each other, and below them is a 7 with a trigger and gun barrel, forming Bond's codename: "Agent 007" – and the credits.

 

Across from the Villa del Balbianello, there is a small wooded island in the gulf known as the Zoca de l´oli.

The island, which is home to many archaeological remains, is about 600 metres long and a perimeter of two kilometres.

Isola Comacina is a wild place where one can wander through the ruins of nine abandoned churches.

In the late 6th century was a remaining stronghold under Francio (legendary founder of the Franks), even though the Lago di Como surrounding the island was controlled by the Lombard tribes.

The island was besieged by Authari of the Lombards, with Francio captured and sent back to Ravenna.

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Above: King Authari of the Lombards (540 – 590)

The Lombards found the island to contain many riches left behind by local Roman loyalists.

A place once conquered by the Romans and then the Lombards became a refuge for the wealthy citizens of Como.

It developed into a centre of resistance, and in the turmoil of the Middle Ages, attracted an eclectic mix of dethroned monarchs, future saints and pirates.

Eventually it allied with Milano against Como, an unfortunate move, which led the Island to be sacked by the Comoese and razed to the ground.

The island was invaded in 1159 by Frederick Barbarossa and soldiers from the town of Como.

Above: Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I / Federico Barbarossa (1122 – 1190)

In 1175, Vidulfo, the Bishop of Como, cursed the island with the following words:

The bells will never ring.

The rocks will never be placed one over the other.

Nobody will do here the work of the publican (businessman), the punishment a violent death.”

Abandoned for centuries, Isola Comacina was bought by a local, Auguste Caprini, who outraged Italy by selling it to the King of Belgium.

In 1917 the island was bequeathed to King Albert I of Belgium, who donated it to the Italian government, and entrusted to the Academy of Fine Arts in Milano.

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Above: King Albert I of Belgium (1875 – 1934)

The Island is now administered by a joint Belgian/Italian commission.

Pietro Lingeri built three houses on the island in 1939.

His idea was to turn the island into a colony for artists.

The three artist houses were built in a rationalist style, made from local materials and without much decoration.

Since 1947 it has been home to an extremely exclusive restaurant, the Locanda dell´ Isola, whose clients have included English Lady Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York, and American singer Madonna Ciccone.

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Today the Isola Comacina consists of the three artist houses, a restaurant, a café and a collection of archaeological sites.

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My wife and I stood directly beside the landing dock of the Isola Comacina, but she looked at the line-up in front of the restaurant and looked at the price, and adamantly refused to allow herself or me to join the queue and ascend the stairs leading off the boat and above the island.

I argued that this was an golden opportunity.

We did not know when, if ever, we would have the chance to do this again, and that, wait and expense be damned, it was well worth it to do so.

I consider the personalities I have learned about today….

Princess Charlotte died young, limited travels;

Cardinal Durini died before his plans complete;

Gian Visconti, saw the world, died shortly after marriage;

Guido Monzino, saw the world, died alone.

Shakespeare once wrote:

“Gather ye rosebuds whilst you still can.”

One never knows if dreams unspoken will ever be realised, if places denied can ever be revisited.

Above: The Island of the Dead (1920) by Alfred Böcklin

Sources: Wikipedia / Facebook / Rough Guide to Italy / Lonely Planet Italy / Villa Carlotte / FAI, Villa del Balbianello

Canada Slim and the High Road to Anarchy

Landschalacht, Switzerland, 7 September 2017

Six nights ago the world was shocked and saddened when a lone gunman in a hotel room on the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Resort and Casino on Las Vegas Strip in Paradise, Nevada, shot into a crowd of more than 20,000 people, killing 60 and injuring hundreds.

The world has learned that the suspect, Stephen Paddock, was armed with at least 23 firearms, including long distance rifles used by the American military for the last half-century.

What we know – and I don´t want to give this monster more attention than he deserves – about Paddock was that he was a professional gambler, a real estate investor, a pilot and plane owner, a former employee of Lockheed Martin (a military contractor), a retired accountant and twice divorced.

Invading his home, police have discovered Paddock had a cache of over 63 weapons.

In plain and simple language, a civilian was armed with military grade firearms.

Those bearing arms in the US armed forces are analysed and supervised.

Civilian gun-owners in the US….

Not so much.

Thus there is a real danger that civilians will – unsupervised – acquire a stockpile of weaponry and that the unbalanced among them will use them.

And as events in Vegas and many other locations prior to Sunday night´s massacre have proven….

It is almost impossible to determine what will trigger these civilians to become unbalanced and unleash the unthinkable upon the unknowing.

Gun violence in the United States results in tens of thousands of deaths and injuries annually.

Flag of the United States

In an average year in America there are over 10,000 homicides, 20,000 suicides and 500 accidental deaths caused by civilian-owned firearms.

Over 1.5 million people in the US have been killed using firearms since 1968, equivalent to the population of a large American city.

Globally, it is estimated that there are over 875 million small arms in the hands of civilians, law enforcement agencies and armed forces.

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Of these, 75% are held by civilians.

US civilians account for over 270 million of this total.

The United States and Yemen are distinct from many other countries in that they consider civilian gun ownership as a right.

In most countries, civilian firearm ownership is considered a privilege because the legislation governing possession of firearms is more restrictive.

Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Eritrea, Somalia, the Solomon Islands and Taiwan prohibit civilian ownership of firearms in almost all instances.

In America it has been shown that the states with the strictest gun laws have lower homicide and suicide rates than those with the least restrictive gun laws.

States without universal background checks or waiting period laws have steeper homicide and suicide rates than do states with these laws.

But, of course, for every study proving that gun control does work, somehow studies emerge that gun control doesn´t work.

And the mindset in America is so pro-gun ownership that an American philosophy Professor Michael Huemer argues that gun control is morally wrong, because individuals have a right to own a gun for self defence and recreation!

In my homeland of Canada, rifles and shotguns are relatively easy to obtain, while handguns and semi-automatic weapons are not.

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So, though our gun laws may not have significantly reduced gun violence or firearm suicide rates, the ability and the frequency to murder masses of people at one time is significantly lower than our counterparts south of the border.

Gun control laws enacted in Australia, following mass shootings, have shown a dramatic decline in overall firearm-related deaths, especially suicides.

A blue field with the Union Flag in the upper hoist quarter, a large white seven-pointed star in the lower hoist quarter, and constellation of five white stars in the fly – one small five-pointed star and four, larger, seven-pointed stars.

Gun control laws passed in Austria, Brazil, New Zealand, Israel, Switzerland, Norway, South Africa and Colombia have all shown a resulting reduction in homicide and suicide rates.

The effectiveness and safety of guns used for personal defence is usually the argument given by gun ownership advocates.

Yet it seems in the US, out of 1,000 criminal incidents, guns are used for self defence in less than 1% of the time.

In most cases, the potential victim never fired a shot.

What is certain is that the likelihood that a death will result is significantly increased when either the victim or the attacker has a firearm.

Every year in America there are over 19,000 firearm-related suicides.

It has been shown that individuals living in a home where firearms are present are more likely to commit suicide than those who do not own firearms, because firearms are the most lethal method of suicide.

Every year on average there are over 10,000 firearm-related homicides in America, 75% of them using handguns.

The US has one of the highest incidence rates of homicides committed with a firearm in the world.

Of the victims of gun homicide in America, 55% of them are African Americans.

Of the white homicide victims, 84% are killed by white offenders.

Of the black homicide victims, 93% are killed by black offenders.

In 2015, there were 372 mass shootings and over 30,000 deaths due to firearms in the US, while, by comparison there were only 50 deaths due to firearms in the UK.

(A mass shooting is defined as four or more people shot dead in a public place.)

The rate of deadly mass shootings in the US keeps increasing every year.

Sadly, unbalanced individuals can become infected by the attention given other disturbed people who have become mass killers, resulting in more mass killing.

More people are typically killed with guns in the US in a day (on average, 85) than are killed in the UK in a year.

In the US, areas with higher levels of gun ownership also have higher rates of gun assault and gun robbery.

At least 11 assassination attempts with firearms have been made on US Presidents: four were successful (Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley, Kennedy).

Above: The assassination of President William McKinley, 1901

And throughout history, gun violence has played a major role in civil disorder.

But, let me be fair….

Most gun owners are not criminals and purchase guns to prevent violence, rather than for recreational use.

Debate over gun control remains a heated and controversial issue in America.

Firearms regulations are sets of laws or policies that regulate the manufacture, sale, transfer, possession, modification and use of firearms by civilians.

Much, albeit necessary, focus has been on the possession, modification and use of firearms.

Personally, I think there needs to be more focus and more restrictions on the manufacture, sale and transfer of firearms as well.

The fewer guns produced, the fewer guns can be purchased, legally or illegally.

If manufacturers are restricted to selling arms only to the military and the law enforcement community and private selling of arms to the public are reduced while the private purchase of arms is made prohibitively expensive throughout heavy taxation, then might the production and availability of new armament to the general public be reduced.

As for existing guns, limit ownership to one weapon, buy back or seize (should the gun owner refuse to sell) the remaining weapons and destroy them.

My argument is if the purpose of purchasing a firearm is recreation or self-protection, only one firearm is necessary.

If the purpose of owning a firearm is recreation or self-protection, then, like Canada, let that ownership be restricted to rifles and shotguns, banning the future purchase of handguns and semi-automatics.

As for the illegal purchase and sale of firearms, let the penalties be so harsh as to actively discourage the practice.

Those who read these words may accuse me of being a “gun grabber”.

They are right.

With great power comes great responsibilty.

Owning a gun is a great power – the power to end another person´s life.

Quite frankly, there are far too many civilians who don´t act responsibly, and though there are indeed many who do, it only takes a few to cause carnage as was witnessed on Sunday night in Paradise, Nevada.

And….

Enough with “thoughts and prayers”.

Offering condolences after a public tragedy, manmade or natural, is a poor substitute for preventing or preparing for these tragedies.

There is something deeply hypocritical about praying for a problem you are unwilling to resolve.

“What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works?

Can that faith save him?

If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them:

“Go in peace, be warmed and filled.”,

….without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?” (James 2: 14 – 16, The Holy Bible)

(Donald Trump, regarding Puerto Rico, take note.)

As well, we need to learn from history that shows just how irresponsible civilians can be once they get their hands on a firearm.

 

Petrograd (today´s St. Petersburg), Russia, Monday 27 February 1917

Events took a decisive turn in the early hours of the day, when the army, as many had predicted, began mutinying.

At 3 am, following the previous day´s example of the Pavlovsky rebels, the soldiers of the Volynsky Regiment´s barracks near the junction of the Moika River and the Ekaterininsky Canal, some of whom had been ordered to fire on the crowds on Sunday, decided to mutiny.

When the soldiers lined up for duty, some of them turned on their commanding officer and shot him dead.

They were unable, however, to persuade the rest of the Regiment to join them, so they headed off to incite other regiments, picking up a rabble of civilian supporters along the way.

They gathered at the Liteiny Bridge and headed to the depot battalion of the Preobrazhensky and Lithuanian Regiments as well as the 6th Engineer Battalion.

Liteyny Bridge Panorama.jpg

Above: Liteiny Bridge, today

Most of them soon joined the Volynsky rebels – with the Engineer Battalion even bringing their marching band – and, by the end of the day, would kill the commanders of a battalion of the Preobrazhensky and a battalion of the Volynsky as well as numerous other officers.

In those first few hours most of the rebellious soldiers were disorientated and numbed by the spontaneous decision they had made.

They had no sense of where to go or what to do, other than get other regiments to join them.

Such was the euphoria among the rebellious troops that many simply walked around shouting, cheering and arguing amongst themselves “like schoolboys broken out of school”.

Leadership of this motley mob of soldiers and civilians devolved into acts of sudden bravado or rabble-rousing on street corners, but they quickly realised that they needed to arm themselves.

It was a huge shock to Meriel Buchanan, daughter of the British Ambassador, arriving back in Petrograd at 8 o´clock that morning from a visit with friends in the country, to find there were no trams or carriages to transport her and her luggage back to the Embassy.

She was forcibly struck by how Petrograd had changed in her absence:

“In the bleak, gray light of the early morning the town looked inexpressibly desolate and deserted, the bare, ugly street leading up from the station, with the dirty white stucco houses on either side, seemed, after the snow-white peace of the country, somehow the very acme of dreariness.”

At 10 am, with Meriel Buchanan shut up and forbidden to leave the Embassy, the rebel group descended on the Old Arsenal at the top of the Liteiny, which housed both the Artillery Department and a small arms factory.

Above: Liteiny Prospekt, today

In a mad frenzy, they smashed in the Arsenal´s ground floor door and windows and looted rifles, revolvers, swords, daggers, ammunition and machine guns.

Around 11 am, they turned their attention to the hated symbols of tsarism – the nearby District Court and the Palace of Justice, together with an adjoining remand prison.

The prison was burst open, the inmates set free and handed weapons, and the prison set on fire.

The District Court was torched, thus destroying all the criminal records of all the freed convicts as well as valuable historical archives dating back to the reign of Catherine the Great (1762 – 1796).

American photographer Donald Thompson watched the violence on the Liteiny when suddenly he himself was arrested and hauled off to the police station.

He showed the police his American press pass, but he was locked in a suffocating small cell with 20 other people.

The mob broke into the police station, smashed the lock to his cell and suddenly people threw their arms around him and kissed him, telling him he was free.

In the front office, as Thompson made his way out, he “found a sight beyond description”: “women were down on their knees hacking the bodies of the police to pieces”.

He saw one woman “trying to tear somebody´s face off with her bare fingers”.

The Liteiny quarter was now a scene of “indescribable confusion”, ablaze from the fires at the District Court and the Palace of Justice, the air thick with the crackle of random shooting. (French diplomat Louis de Robien)

An abandoned, overturned tram was being used as a platform from which a succession of speakers attempted to harangue the mob, but “it was impossible to make heads or tails of the disorderly ebb and flow of all these panic-stricken people running in every direction.” (Louis de Robien)

When a group of still-loyal Senonovsky Regiment soldiers arrived, there was a pitched battle between them and a company of Volynsky mutineers – watched by groups of civilians huddled into side passages and doorways, many of them women and children tempted out by “the spirit of curiosity”, and who took enormous risks, “walking out calmly under a lively fire to drag back the wounded”. (Louis de Robien)

The wounded were carried off as fast as they fell, leaving behind “long trails of fresh blood” in the snow. (US Special Attaché James Houghteling)

In between bouts of fighting, civilians scuttled back and forth across the Liteiny, intent on carrying on shopping as normal, even lining up outisde the bakeries and dispersing only when they heard machine gunfire.

To many of the bewildered civilian population, the events swirling around them were unreal, “as though they were watching some melodrama in one of the cinemas.” (James Houghteling)

Such was the abandon with which weapons looted from army barracks, the arsenal, prisons and police stations were handed out to everyone.

Crowds of civilians, workers and soldiers were soon parading round gleefully, brandishing their weapons and firing them off at random.

“Here….a hooligan with an officer´s sword fastened over his overcoat, a rifle in one hand and revolver in the other.

There….a small boy with a large butcher´s knife on his shoulder.

Close by, a workman….holding an officer´s sword with one hand and a tramline cleaner in the other.

A student with two rifles and a belt of machine gun bullets around his waist was walking beside another with a bayonet tied to the end of a stick.

A drunken soldier had only the barrel of a rifle remaining, the stock having been broken off in forcing an entry into some shop.” (British engineer James Jones)

There was no safe haven for any officers seen walking the streets that day who did not immediately surrender their weapons when challenged.

By midday the rabble of weapon-toting civilians in and around the Liteiny had been joined by 25,000 soldiers from the Volynsky, Preobrazhensky, Litovsky, Keksgolmsky and Sapper Regiments.

The dense crowd jammed the street for a quarter of a mile, “carried on by its own faith in itself”. (Arno Dosch-Fleurot, New York World)

Everywhere, amidst the mighty roar of revolutionary excitement, the singing and cheering and shouting, the fighting colour of scarlet was in evidence – in crude revolutionary banners, in rosettes and armbands and in red ribbons tied to the barrels of rifles.

Throughout that terrifying day in Petrograd many observers became alarmed by the anarchy and violence of the mob.

This was no benign revolution, but rather “like watching some savage beast that had broken out of its cage”. (US entrepreneur Negley Farson)

Hardened criminals, bestialised by brutal prison conditions, yet released by the mob from prisons across Petrograd, proceeded to incite the crowds to violence, arson and mass looting.

It was dangerous for any foreign national to venture into the streets without wearing some token of sympathy with the Revolution – a red ribbon or an armband of some kind.

“It was a very easy time in which to be killed.” (Isaac Marcosson, Everybody´s Magazine)

Foreigners were constantly being stopped and challenged on the streets for being policemen or spies.

Some were killed if they could not produce proof of identity quickly enough.

That day “anybody could have a gun for the asking”. (James Jones)

With so many untrained and inexperienced people now in possession of them and not “having a care as to which way the gun was pointing when they tried it out for the first time“, indiscriminate firing led to many innocent bystanders being killed and wounded. (James Stinton Jones)

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All day long, people – mixed casualities of soldiers and civilians – flocked into hospitals from the streets, trying to escape the shooting.

A long overdue day of reckoning had arrived, as popular hatred was visited, with a savage vengeance, on the police.

During this February Revolution of 1917, there were far too many incidental acts of murder of policemen for any reliable record ever to have been taken of the numbers killed.

Nobody was immune to the experience of such savagery.

By late evening 66,700 men of the Imperial Army in Petrograd had mutinied.

Revolutionaries were now in charge of the whole city, except the Winter Palace, the Admirality and the General Staff – still guarded by loyal troops, as were the telephone exchange and the telegraph office.

Above: The Winter Palace, today

The whole day had been “a Revolution carried on by chance – no Organisation, no particular leader, just a city full of hungry people who had stood enough and were ready to die if necessary before they would put up with any more tsarism”. (US aviator Bert Hall)

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Above: The storming of the Bastille Prison, Paris, 14 July 1789

These events bring to mind the French Revolution of 1789 and Charles Dickens´ A Tale of Two Cities.

“Petrograd was flaring like the set piece of a colossal firework display.” (Canadian William J. Gibson)

“The prisons were opened, the workmen were armed, the soldiers were without officers, a Soviet (worker´s council) was being set up in opposition to the Temporary Committee (formed by the Duma´s moderate and liberal members) chosen from the elected representatives of the people.”

Petrograd “was already on the high road to anarchy”.

(UK Military Attaché Major-General Alfred Knox)

Above: A scene of anarchy, Thirty Years War (1618 – 1648)

As I have previously written, revolution or civil war is highly unlikely in America as there is great lack of cohesion amongst its citizens.

But should American citizens ever get it into their heads to revolt, their 270 million guns could create one hell of a state of anarchy and destruction.

I hope that day never comes, but a failure to address the problem of an overproliferation of guns is perhaps tempting fate one time too many.

Is it only a century that separates Paradise from Petrograd?

Man at bridge holding head with hands and screaming

Above: Edvard Munch´s The Scream

Sources: Wikipedia / Helen Rappaport, Caught in the Revolution: Petrograd 1917

 

Canada Slim and the Bloodstained Ground

Landschlacht, Switzerland, 2 October 2017

I have returned, refreshed and revitalised, from a weekend away in Freiburg im Breisgau, in Germany´s Black Forest, ready to write.

Above: Freiburg City Hall

I had forgotten some of my own rules, some of my own motivations, for writing, which two of my best friends in Freiburg reminded me of.

(Thanks, Reggie and Miguel!)

The first rule was to be true to myself, to not write what I think is politically correct but to speak my mind.

The second rule was to remind myself constantly of the old adage that the only way for evil to triumph is when good men do nothing, that I have a responsibility to use my words to show others the dangers of remaining complacent to the world´s injustices and inequalities.

The third rule was to be constant, to keep on keeping on, to write as often as possible, to write as if I am being read by millions rather than dozens, to believe in my abilities to write, to one day become a published author of distinction.

Of recent weeks I have been writing if two major themes: my travels and the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution(s) of 1917.

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I believe the second of these two themes is extremely important and relevant these days, for how a society claims for itself democracy and how it can lose that democracy in the desire for order and security is not only a recounting of the events of the Russian Revolution, but is as well a reminder of how fragile democracy is and how quickly it can be lost, even in the most stable of democracies, even in this most modern of times.

When I last spoke of the Russian Revolution….

(See Canada Slim and the Dawn of Revolution of this blog.)

….I wrote of how the Tsarist government had failed the Russian people and how a group of dissatisfied angry women triggered the events that would eventually lead to the Tsar´s abdication.

Day One of what would be later known as the February Revolution came and went in Petrograd (formerly and presently St. Petersburg).

Let´s look now at how the days that followed the women´s march that would bring down a Tsar and bring a revolutionary out of exile.

 

Petrograd, Russia, Friday 24 February 1917

It was dull and foggy with cold rain, but neither the weather nor the appearance on the streets of Cossack horsemen, heavily armed and grim, dampened the demonstrators´ zeal.

 

By late morning, nearly 75,000 workers from Petrograd´s industrial Vyborg quarter (2/3 of Petrograd´s workforce) had joined the strike.

This second day of mass demonstrations had seen more workers out on strike than at any time during the War. (WW1)

As the marchers approached the Liteyny Bridge, Cossacks were arrayed against them, the lines of horses and the glint of steel terrifying.

Liteyny Bridge Panorama.jpg

But these agents of the Tsarist government shared the workers´ frustrations.

For the first time anyone could remember, the Cossacks cantered through the workers´ lines, refusing to brandish their sabres or their whips.

Meanwhile, across the river in downtown Petrograd, further demonstrations filled the streets, bakeries were looted and food shops attacked.

The workers were now becoming violent.

General Khabalov ensured that many more machine gun placements were set up in the attics of mansions, hotels, shops, clock and bell towers up and down Nevsky Prospekt, and on the roofs of railway stations.

He had infantry and machine gunners in reserve and a huge stockpile of rifles, revolvers and ammunition, which, although designated for the front, had been retained for use in Petrograd, should the need arise and stored in the various police stations.

Nonetheless, the disturbance spread west to the dockyards and naval Engineering works of Vasilievsky Island.

Government ministers had yet to respond to events.

In the Tauride Palace, however Duma (Russia´s Parliament) members demanded to take control of the city´s food supply in a last-ditch attempt to address the most immediate economic woe: the shortage of food.

Throughout the night, there were occasional volleys of gunfire, but astonishly the social life of the city continued.

The Alexandrinsky Theatre was packed that evening for a performance of Nikolai Gogol´s (1809 – 1852) The Government Inspector.

The audience was in a lively humour at this satire on the political weaknesses of the mid-19th century.

Few seemed willing to believe that a greater drama was at that moment unfolding in real life throughout the capital.

The atmosphere of the city was like a taut wire.

Over at the French Embassy, First Secretary Charles de Chambrun wrote to his wife, pondering the news he had just heard that a general strike had been declared for the following day.

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Above: Charles de Chambrun (1875 – 1952)

More marches, more protests were coming, but what could a mob “without alcohol, without a leader and without a clear objective achieve?”

As night fell, Petrograd waited expectantly.

 

Petrograd, Russia, Saturday 25 February 1917

“Oh, this interminable Russian winter with its white roofs for so many long months and its slippery roads.”, French resident Louise Patouillet wrote ruefully in her diary, by now long accustomed to the kind of low grey sky that greeted the city with a new fall of snow.

National City Bank clerk Leighton Rogers, in contrast, struck an excited note in his own journal:

“What a day!

The general strike is on, all right, and trouble has begun.”

That morning, on their way to the Bank, Rogers and his colleagues had “found the streets thick with police, both afoot and mounted, no factories working, and the Nevsky a long line of closed shops, with here and there a boarded up door or window.”

Rogers had heard rumours that the first person had been killed the previous night when trying to break into a bread shop.

People on the streets seemed on the lookout for excitement, “like a crowd at a great country fair”, but Rogers “hated to think of what one shot would do.”

Had Rogers known the extent to which the strikers were now arming themselves for an inevitable street fight with the police, he might have been even more alarmed.

Across the city, embassies and legations were being warmed by telephone not to allow their staff to go out.

Violent protest was certainly the intention of the workers over in the factory districts that morning, as they gathered for a huge march on the city.

A large gathering of people outside, some holding banners

They ensured that they wore plenty of padding under their thick coats to ward off blows from police batons or Cossack whips.

Some even crafted metal plates to wear under their hats, to protect their heads from blows.

They filled their pockets with whatever metal projectiles and weapons they could lay their hands on in their factories.

The general strike had begun.

Among its leaders were members of the Mezhraionka (Soviet inter-district committees) and rank-and-file activists from various left-wing groups, including the Bolsheviks´ Vyborg Committee.

All had worked through the night to spread the message and bring people out.

The morning felt like the start of a holiday.

Trainloads of people, including families with children, streamed into the city from nearby industrial towns.

In Petrograd itself, working class districts hummed with earnest preparation.

The factories were silent.

There were no trams.

By 10 o´clock the streets rang with the sound of marching feet and voices singing revolutionary songs.

As the day went on, the strike spread across the city, bringing out everyone, from shop workers to waitresses, to cooks and maids and cab drivers.

Key workers in the supply of the city´s electricity, gas and water, as well as tram drivers, were also out in force.

Striking postal workers and printers ensured that there were no mail deliveries and no newspapers.

Over 200,000 people chose to march through Petrograd that day.

White collar workers, teachers and students joined the uprising, and as they passed the homes of the wealthy the marchers sometimes saw pale hands waving from upper windows.

The goal was Znamenskaya Square, where huge crowds had assembled by the early afternoon.

Red banners stretched above the sea of heads, many with slogans that demanded peace, immediate and longed-for peace.

Between the many speeches, some enthusiasts began singing the Marseillaise.

In wartime Russia, this was treason and a breach of martial law.

But, for most, the crowd felt like protection in itself, the sense of justice and community a shield in its own right.

A little after 3 pm, a mounted police officer, Krylov, told his men to prime their weapons and disperse the mob.

In the mêlée that followed, the Cossack horsemen charged the crowd, but then rode back and regrouped using their sabres on the police, not on the demonstrators.

Krylov himself lay dead.

The Cossacks had pulled Krylov from his horse, someone had grabbed the officer´s revolver and shot Krylov dead, while another had beat him in a rage with a piece of wood.

It was the first defining act of violence against the police that day.

For an hour or so, the people could believe in a forthcoming victory.

Bitter cold prevailed.

All the trams were stopped and many shops were closed.

People milled on Nevsky Prospekt, “eddying up and down in anxious curiosity”, a “curious, smiling, determined crowd…dangerous”. (Leighton Rogers)

Troops were out in force at the natural gathering points at major intersections, but like the Cossacks, they were unwilling to exert force.

The crowds appeared hopeful that that they had won them over.

The impromptu bread riots of women marchers had now exploded into a political movement, coloured by more and more acts of violence and looting.

Revolution came easily to a people already traumatised by wartime sufferings or, as soldiers, inured to violence.

But there would be other confrontations between crowds and troops that day and marchers and bystanders would be killed.

No one was certain of the facts.

There were neither newspapers nor public telephones.

There was still no outward sign of a systematic organised revolt.

The movement remained chaotic, leaderless.

“Is it a riot? Is it a revolution?”, asked Claude Anet, Petrograd correspondent of Le Petit Parisien, who – like other foreign journalists in town – had no luck in telegraphing the news back to his paper in Paris.

At Russian army HQ at Mogilev nearly 500 miles away, Tsar Nicholas II received news of the violent turn of events in Petrograd, although Interior Minister Alexander Protopopov failed to transmit the true gravity of the Situation to him.

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Above: Tsar Nicholas II (1868 – 1918)

Thinking firmer measures by police and troops were all that were needed, Nicholas did not see the necessity of returning to Petrograd.

Instead he telegraphed Major General Khabalov, Petrograd´s military governor, and ordered him to “quell by tomorrow the disturbances in the capital which are inexcusable in view of the difficulties of the war with Germany and Austria”.

His wife Tsarina Alexandra had written, dismissing the day´s events as no more than the workers blowing off steam, “a hooligan movement”, “young boys and girls running about and screaming that they have no bread, only to excite.”

Alexandra Fyodorovna LOC 01137u.jpg

Above: Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna (1872 – 1918)

Had the weather been colder, Alexandra felt that the protesters “would probably stay indoors”.

Besides, Alexandra had far more serious things to think about:  three of her five children were down with the measles.

Seeking some light relief from the day´s traumatic events, some Petrograders went that evening to the Mikhailovsky Theatre premiere of a French farce, L´ Idée de Francoise.

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The imperial boxes were empty and the grand dukes absent.

One of the company, actress Paulette Pax, found the whole performance unnerving – particularly the audience, with its profusion of jewels and sumptuous outfits – bearing in mind what had been going on outside all day,

Pax felt that none of the audience had taken much notice of the play.

Their minds were elsewhere, their applause half-hearted.

“What we were doing was ridiculous,” Pax wrote in her diary, “performing a comedy at such a time made no sense.”

Daily Observer journalist Arthur Ransome did not consider the situation as serious as Pax.

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Above: Cover picture of Arthur Ransome (1884 – 1967)

He noted how many of the theatre crowd were out simply to watch other people make trouble.

The “general feeling” was one of “rather precarious excitement like a Bank Holiday with thunder in the air.”, Ransome wrote in his despatch that evening.

Outside in the streets of Petrograd, restless photographer David Thompson was still in search of a story at 2 am, when he came face-to-face with mob violence.

A rowdy group of 60 people had taken two heads of slain policemen and had jammed them onto poles and were carrying them down the middle of the street.

Thompson had seen enough red for one day: red flags, red bloodstains on the snow and now severed heads.

He saw more bodies on his way back to the Astoria Hotel and he would later discover that a great many policemen were killed or seriously wounded by mobs that night.

All through Saturday night there was a great deal of screaming and yelling and incessant gunfire throughout the city.

 

Petrograd, Russia, Sunday 26 February 1917

There was an ominous stillness in the city on this beautiful, cloudless, sunny morning.

But overnight General Khabalov had resolved that draconian measures would have to be taken to keep the situation under control.

New placards posted across the city announced that all workers would have to return to work by Tuesday the 28th or those who had applied for deferment of their military service would be sent straight to the front.

All street gatherings of more than three people were forbidden.

At a meeting of the Council of Ministers that had gone from midnight until 5 am, Khabalov gave assurances that 30,000 soldiers, backed up by artillery and armoured cars, would be on the streets, with orders to take decisive action against the demonstrators.

Overnight, Khabalov had issued orders to turn Petrograd into a military camp.

At daybreak, the bridges were raised.

Armed police and troops had mustered at main junctions and squares, while Red Cross wagons waited to cart the wounded off to makeshift hospitals.

Flag of the Red Cross.svg

Khabalov´s orders were to fire on any demonstrator who defied his order to disperse.

Khabalov ensured that most of the troops on Nevsky Prospekt were training detachments from the guards regiments, brought in from the military academies.

They were all heavily armed with rifles and bayonets.

The assumption was that NCOs (non-commissioned officers) would be less reluctant to shoot, if ordered to do so.

It seemed that the whole city was out of doors that morning, and on foot – for there were no trams or cabs.

People were determined to get to church as usual or simply enjoy the fine weather for a promenade along Nevsky Prospekt.

Couples pushed their babies in prams.

Children skated on ice rinks.

Just like any ordinary Sunday.

But most of the shops and cafés were closed, with most of them with shutters closed or windows boarded up.

People were desperate for news and groups formed around those with any news to tell.

The predominating conversation was about how many had been killed or injured.

By midday Nevsky Prospekt was blocked with dense crowds.

A mob, waving red flags and singing the Marseillaise, gathered.

The police pulled a machine into the middle of the tram tracks.

Volley after volley rang out.

The dead were thick.

The wounded were screaming as they were trampled down.

Hell itself had broken loose on the Nevsky.

There was gunfire from every point, from the roofs of buildings and sweeping all around.

A little girl was hit in the throat by gunfire.

A well-dressed woman collapsed with a scream as her knee was shattered by a bullet.

All around people lay dead and dying in the snow.

Thirty dead in all, with far more women and chidren than men slain.

Everyone else was prostrate on the ground, hugging the pavement or lying in the snow, numb with cold, too frightened to move.

Ambulances appeared and started collecting the dead and the wounded.

But the bloodshed wasn´t over.

By noon, 25,000 troops had gone over to the side of the demonstrators.

The bulk of the available forces, however, simply stayed in their barracks as the mob took over the streets.

In the early evening, at Znamensky Square, a dense mass of people from the Nevsky converged with another crowd coming up Ligovskaya, the major thoroughfare to the south.

Local police leaders rode among the crowd ordering them to disperse.

The people refused to budge.

The commander of the 1st and 2nd training detachments of the Volynsky Regiment ordered his men to fire into the crowd.

The troop of Cossacks also positioned in the crowd turned and fired at the Regiment gunmen.

It was a veritable pandemonium, as with a great howl of rage, the crowd scattered behind buildings and into courtyards, from where some of them began firing at the military and the police.

More than 40 people were killed and hundreds wounded.

No one knew exactly how many had been killed by Sunday´s end.

Nobody was counting, but evidence of the day´s violence was everywhere to be seen.

Hundreds of empty cartridge cases littered the ground and the snow was drenched with blood.

After dark, when the crowds had been cleared from Nevsky Prospekt, the soldiers involved in the shootings at Znamensky Square and on the Nevsky, returned to their barracks, angry and upset that they had been forced to fire on the crowds.

100 of the Pavlovsky guards in their nearby barracks on the Field of Mars, hearing how earlier in the day members of the 4th Company had been ordered to open fire on crowds, decided to take action.

They attacked their Colonel and cut off his hand.

They set out for the Nevsky with a few rifles and ammunition, intent on dissuading their comrades from shooting on demonstrators, when they were confronted by mounted police.

Firing broke out, but the soldiers soon ran out of ammunition and were forced back to their barracks where they gave themselves up.

The 19 ringleaders were arrested and incarcerated in the Peter and Paul Fortress; the rest were confined to barracks.

There was an immediate clampdown on news of the mutiny, but soon the word was out.

Meanwhile, the much-anticipated party at Princess  Catherine Radziwill´s palace went ahead as planned, although the carriages bringing guests had been refused entry to the Nevsky and had to go the long way around.

Princess Catherine Radziwiłł.jpg

Above: Princess Catherine Radziwill (1858 – 1941)

French journalist Claude Anet noted how preoccupied the guests were, though everybody “tried to dance in spite of it”.

Anet watched as Grand Duke Boris Vladimirovich took to the dance floor.

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Above: Grand Duke Boris Vladimirovich (1877 – 1943)

Was he witnessing this scion of the Russian aristocracy dancing his “last tango”?

French Ambassador Maurice Paléologue was exhausted, having spent the whole day “literally besieged by anxious members of the French colony” wanting to get out of Petrograd.

Above: Maurice Paléologue (1859 – 1944)

He went out to dinner with a friend that evening rather than attend the Radziwill party, but on his way home he passed the palace and saw a long line of carriages and cars waiting outside.

The party was still in full swing, but Paléologue was not tempted to join in.

As he noted in his diary that night, Sénac de Meilhan, historian of the French Revolution, had written that there had also been “plenty of gaiety in Paris on the night of 5 October 1789!”

(On 5 October 1789, crowds of women began to assemble at Parisian markets.

The women first marched to the Hotel de Ville, demanding that city officials address their concerns.

The women were responding to the harsh economic situations they faced, especially bread shortages.

They also demanded an end to royal efforts to block the National Assembly, and for the King and his administration to move to Paris as a sign of good faith in addressing the widespread poverty.

Getting unsatisfactory responses from city officials, as many as 7,000 women joined the march to Versailles, bringing with them cannons and a variety of smaller weapons.

Twenty thousand National Guardsmen under the command of Lafayette responded to keep order, and members of the mob stormed the palace, killing several guards.)

As late night partygoers made their way home there was a terrible eerieness about the city.

Normally the squares would be full of activity – coaches, sledges and motor cars waiting to take passengers home, but that night the squares were completely empty and there was not a taxi or sledge to be had.

Baroness Meyendorff was obliged to walk home in the moonlight and the intense cold.

The silence was ominous and made the creaking of the snow under foot seem disproportionately loud.

Petrograd seemed like a dead city.

In the Tauride Palace, frantic meetings of the Duma took place all day.

A desperate Mikhail Rodzyanko, leader of the Duma, telegraphed the Tsar.

MijaílRodizianko--russiainrevolut00jone.jpg

Above: Mikhail Rodzyanko (1859 – 1924)

“The capital is in a state of anarchy.

The government is paralysed.

General discontent is growing.

There is wild shooting in the street.-

There must be a new government, under someone trusted by the country.

Any procrastination is tantamount to death.”

Reading the telegram in Mogilev, Nicholas dismissed it as panic.

“Some more rubbish from that fat Rodzyanko.”

However Nicholas did decide to put together a loyal force and despatch it to the capital, with he himself returning to his home, Alexander Palace at Tsarskoye Selo, 13 miles south of Petrograd.

Above: Alexander Palace, Tsarskoye Selo

That should settle matters.

The rebel soldiers were no more than an armed rabble that would never stand against proper front line troops.

Fearful of a coup within the Duma, Prime Minister Golitsyn stepped in and suspended the Duma from meeting.

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Above: Nikolai Golitsyn, 8th Prime Minister of Russia (1917)(1850 – 1925)

Rodzyanko was outraged.

The Duma was the constituted authority of Russia.

Its prorogation was a violation of Russian law.

He urged his colleagues to rally around and defend the Duma, and a temporary committee was hurriedly organised.

Revolution had now been officially declared: in the seat of government, by some of the guards regiments, and by the once fiercely loyal Cossacks.

Workers, outraged by the indiscriminate firing on crowds, formed their own militias and spent that night plotting not only to continue the strike and the demonstrations, but also to seize weapons and turn the protest movement into nothing less than an armed uprising.

American photographer David Thompson wrote his wife from his room in the Astoria Hotel that evening:

“Since 1 o´clock today it has been a bloody Sunday for Russia.

If this spreads to other regiments, Russia will be a republic in a few more hours.”

Everything would depend on how the disaffected troops would respond on Monday.

 

Landschlacht, Switzerland, 3 October 2017

Any Americans reading this blog today quite possibly believe the aforementioned bloody Sunday couldn´t happen in America, and I sincerely pray that they´re right.

Flag of the United States

But consider this.

Guns are everywhere in America and discipline is the thinnest veneer of a civilian population that possesses them.

Too many Americans have guns and some are as well armed as any soldiers that might be sent to face them.

What could compel the average gun-toting American to use those weapons against a government they feel as let them down?

In the case of the Russians, it took being on the losing side of a war and worries about the future to compel average workers and common soldiers to defy the authorities that had failed them.

Patriotism is well indoctrinated into the average American citizen for much of his life, but that very patriotism can easily be manipulated into serving the powerful.

Yet natural disasters, due to unchecked global warming, keep happening in America, and it is questionable whether Washington has the will or the means to protect or assist the population on the continental United States when national emergencies multiply, let alone lend help to any of its farflung territories like hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico.

Above: Aftermath of Hurricane Maria, which struck Puerto Rico on 20 September 2017

The Russian Revolution occurred spontaneously, beginning with impatient breadline women and factory workers and reaching into all quarters of society already discontented but now driven to force change.

Discontent is rife in America today.

What act of spontaneity could make everything unravel?

It seems the prevalence of guns and the discontent felt keenly by disturbed individuals has yet again caused carnage of an unthinkable, but sadly unsurprising, nature to happen this weekend.

Paradise, Nevada, 1 October 2017

Singer Jason Aldean was giving the closing performance of the third and final day of the 4th annual Route 91 Harvest Country Music Festival on a 15-acre lot behind the Mandalay Bay Hotel on Las Vegas Strip, with 22,000 people in attendance.

At 10:08 pm, someone began firing weapons from the 32nd floor of the Hotel into the Harvest crowd below.

With at least 60 fatalities (including the suicide of the alleged perpetrator) and over 500 injured, this incident is now officially the deadliest mass shooting in American history.

The shooter has been identified as 64-year-old Stephen Paddock, a wealthy retired accountant.

Police found 16 rifles and 1 handgun in the hotel room that Paddock had rented.

Stock prices of firearm manufacturers have already risen since the attack.

What drives a person to commit such an act of senseless violence?

And what is to prevent another such act from happening again?

A lone gunman fires into a crowd.

Just another day in America?

Seriously…
What can one say that hasn’t already been said?

Stephen Paddock, a white man probably insane, kills 60 and injures hundreds in Las Vegas.

Will he be branded a terrorist?

Probably not, because he is white, a good old boy.


Will many questions be asked as to how he got his hands on 17 guns?

No.

Too uncomfortable a question.

Might offend the gun lobbyists, victims be damned.

Will this incident change Americans’ minds about its easy access to firearms laws?

Don’t bet on it.

So, folks will tell you to pray for Las Vegas and not a damn thing will change.

Except folks who had a future now…. no longer do.

What they were, they are no more.

No matter how many die, the money must keep flowing in.

And corporations without a conscience will go on being protected by a government without guilt.

Blood on the streets…. children orphaned, wives and husbands widowed, romances wrecked, families destroyed….

With great power comes great responsibility.

Every time a nation allows folks to come to harm, the nation has failed the people.

Every time a gun is easily accessible, another human life is put at risk.

The mark of a great nation is not in its ability to protect its mighty and powerful, but rather its ability to protect the vulnerable.

America has failed the test yet again, for the lessons of unthinkable carnage never seem to be learned.

The lights of Vegas may briefly lose their lustre and flags will temporarily be flown at half mast and politicians will send their warmest condolences and sympathies to the families and the victims of this terrible shooting, this act of pure evil, this senseless murder….

Southern half of Las Vegas Strip at night with CityCenter construction on the bottom right, 2007

But the foolish game of profits over people will go on.

There will be no second American Revolution, no second Civil War, for there is no unity amongst Americans who will resolutely continue to feel discontent in the name of patriotism.

It is hoped that discontent does not lead to violence, but history has shown that it often does.

One man in a hotel room in Vegas destroyed the lives of hundreds.

60 dead.

Hundreds injured.

By one single solitary man.

With 17 guns found in the hotel room along with the assailant’s body, his life taken by his own hand.

Let that just sink in for a moment.

One man with a gun ended 60 lives in Vegas on Saturday night.

Awesome power.

One man was allowed to own 17 guns.

Seventeen!

Am I the only one who thinks that a person should not be allowed to own so much firepower?

True, he was a registered gun owner.

True, he was a licensed hunter and pilot.

True, Paddock was retired.

But what is normal about owning, and bringing into a hotel, 17 guns?

17 ways to kill.

And what exactly did his murdering of 60 people actually accomplish?

Nothing.

Nothing but pain and grief, suffering and sorrow.

Was he seeking fame as the biggest mass shooter in modern US history?

Don’t worry.

I am certainly there will be someone out there who will surpass Paddock’s kill record, just as Paddock surpassed the 2016 Orlando nightclub shooter’s record.

Exterior photo of Pulse gay nightclub and parking lot.

Above: Pulse Nightclub, Orlando, Florida, where security guard Omar Mateen killed 49 people and injured 58 on the evening of 12 June 2016

The ability to take a human life needs to be regulated.

My right to life should take precedence over another’s right to take my life.

There needs to be limits far greater than the ones that can allow a man, who was clearly psychologically disturbed, to obtain 17 guns.

There needs to be regular psychological testing of those who wish to bear arms, because of the incredible damage that can be done by a person with a gun.

A gun as a last defence?

OK.

A gun for gathering food, not sport trophies?

OK.

As a former urban Canadian and present resident in Switzerland, I am OK with only the police and the military having guns that are left at work.

I have never held a gun.

I have never had a desire to do so.

Killing a person who attacks my family may be justifiable but it is still murder.

Fighting for a country or a cause that condones war may be coached in honourable language and gift wrapped in a flag, but the taking of a life – the erasure of everything the slain person ever was or will ever be – is murder.

It should be with the greatest of reluctance and regret that a weapon should be drawn from its sheath or holster.

The itchy trigger finger has been too often seen in recent events.

Cops and soldiers should be seen as our protection not as a threat.

Maybe one day I shall be struck down by a gun.

But whether I am armed to the teeth or not, I cannot control the future.

Even the mighty and powerful have been victim to those with a weapon.

And being human ultimately means being mortal.

Rarely do we see death coming before it arrives, unannounced and unwelcome.

But until America learns to regulate itself better….

There will be blood.

There will be violence.

There are responsible gun owners.

Do we know how many?

Do we know how much firepower they possess?

Are we regularly and really sure that they are rational and responsible enough to keep their weapons?

Vegas should be a wake-up call.

Otherwise there will be more violence.

There will be more blood.

There will be other lone gunmen.

In Russia, a people united by violence would topple an empire once they were joined by those with weaponry to insist that armed might could “make things right.”

Revolución-marzo-rusia--russianbolshevik00rossuoft.png

History has showed again and again what is born in violence ends violently.

The February Revolution would see hundreds die.

The October Revolution and the ideology behind it would result in the deaths of millions.

Did the Tsar´s rule of Russia need to end?

Yes.

Could his rule have been ended non-violently?

Perhaps.

One hundred years separate the Russian Revolution from 2017, yet gunfire into crowds remains a constant.

Perhaps within all of us lies the potential to be violent.

But if I do not possess a weapon it reduces both the capacity and the opportunity to act upon violent urges.

How many lives have been ruined at the point of a weapon?

How many more will there be in future?

Sources: Wikipedia / Helen Rappaport, Caught in the Revolution: Petrograd 1917 / Tony Brenton, Historically Inevitable?: Turning Points of the Russian Revolution / Ekaterina Rogatchevskaia, Russian Revolution: Hope, Tragedy, Myths / Dominic Lieven, Towards the Flame: Empire, War and the End of Tsarist Russia / Catherine Merridale, Lenin on the Train

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Canada Slim and the Dawn of a Revolution

20 September 2017, Landschlacht, Switzerland

Let´s be blunt.

Things are truly horrible in many countries on the planet these days.

Especially in America.

Flag of the United States

And there are some folks who suggest that a second US Civil War is coming.

Which raises two important questions….

Could it happen?

Should it happen?

In political philosophy, the right of revolution is the duty of the people of a nation to overthrow a government that acts against their common interests and/or threatens the safety of the people without probable cause.

Above: A replica of the Magna Carta on Display in the rotunda of the United States Capitol.  The Magna Carta, the first constitutional charter of England, marks one of the earliest attempts to limit a sovereign´s authority.

Stated throughout history in one form or another, the belief in this right has been used to justify various revolutions, including the English Civil War, the American Revolution and the French Revolution.

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Above: The storming of the Bastille prison, 14 July 1789, has come to symbolise the French Revolution, where a people rose up to exercise their right of Revolution.

By definition, a revolution is a fundamental change in political power or organisational structures that takes place in a relatively short time when the population rises up in revolt against the current authorities.

Could Americans become so dissatisfied that they would choose to take up arms against Washington DC and the Trump Administration?

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Above: Donald John Trump (born 1947), 45th President of the United States (2017 – )

If it became clear that Trump and his posse was acting against Americans´ common interests (denial of universal health care, unequal taxation favouring the rich, etc) or was threatening the safety of the people without probable cause (threats to North Korea, denying conservation efforts, denying climate change, etc) then it could be argued that Trump and his gang of misfits should be removed from power.

But for a revolution to be effective, disgruntled Democrats and liberals cannot possibly win without greater support.

Without the overall consent of Congress against Trump -presently dominated by the Republicans…..

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Above: The United States Capitol building, Washington DC

Without the support of the military willing to refrain from answering their call of duty to the government and instead standing up to be counted as supporters of a different way than that being practiced today….

United States Department of Defense Seal.svg

Without the wealthy financially supporting the removal of the President….

Without the huge population of average workers that dominate the country statistically convinced that a change in the status quo will lead to a brighter and better tomorrow….

A revolution in America could not possibly succeed as things stand today.

Founding Fathers listen to the draft of the Declaration of Independence

Above: The presentation of the draft of the Declaration of Independence, 4 July 1776

As much as private individuals feel like taking force against their rulers because of malice or because they have been injured by the rulers, they cannot succeed without support from the body of the people – a broad consensus involving all ranks of society.

Private individuals are socially forbidden to take force against their rulers until the body of the people feels concerned about the necessity of revolution.

Impeachment of President Trump may be desirable by many people, but only possible if both houses of the American government – the elected officials in Washington – decide that they can no longer tolerate Trump as the helm.

White House north and south sides.jpg

For now, the Republicans, of whom Trump leads, are more concerned with keeping their privileged positions rather than actually serving their country´s best interests.

Republican Disc.svg

Above: The logo of the US Republican Party

The Democrats, at present, lack cohesion.

Above: The donkey, a recognised symbol of the US Democratic Party, though not an official logo

Despite the popularity of Senator Bernie Sanders, the Democrats continue to marginalise anyone too progressive or too anti-Establishment among their ranks.

Bernie Sanders.jpg

Above: US Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont

In this year 2017, a year where great change is desired but denied by circumstances, this year that marks the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, I think it might be interesting for those dissatisfied with the status quo to observe how within the span of a single week how a nation went from being an autocracy to becoming a republic.

The February Revolution was the first of two Russian revolutions in 1917.

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Above: Attacking the Tsar´s police during the first days of the February Revolution (23 February to 3 March 1917)

The Revolution centred on Petrograd (now known as St. Petersburg), then the Russian capital, where longstanding discontent with the monarchy erupted spontaneously into mass protests against food rationing, and armed clashes with police and military.

Above: Modern St. Petersburg.

(Clockwise from top left: Peter and Paul Fortress, Smolny Cathedral, Senate Square, the Winter Palace, Trinity Cathedral, and the General Staff Building)

Change should have begun within the Duma, the Russian Parliament.

Above: Tauride Palace, meeting place of the Duma and later the Russian Provisional Government

On 14 February 1917, after an extended Christmas break, the Duma assembled for another year.

At a time of mounting popular disturbance, and with several of its members engaged in covert plots to oust the Tsar, the session should have been a lively one.

Instead the deputies seemed to be wandering about “like emaciated flies.

No one believes anything.

All feel and know their powerlessness.

The silence is hopeless.” (A. I. Savenko)

The mood was sluggish and the speeches dull.

Outside the pompous meeting hall, the mood was no more positive among the leaders of the revolutionary underground.

“Not one party was preparing for the great upheaval.

Everyone was dreaming, ruminating, full of foreboding, feeling his way.” (Nikolai Sukhanov)

Across the water where the workers lived, the atmosphere was different.

The food crisis was now acute.

The wealthy could still have their fresh white bread in any restaurant, but families in the factory districts had begun to starve.

It was not just a question of inflation, although the price of everything from kerosene to eggs had multiplied beyond the reach of the hard-pressed.

The real problem in Petrograd, exacerbated by an overstretched railroad network in the provinces, was a shortage of grain.

The city´s wheat and flour stocks, already depleted, had fallen by more than 30% in January, leaving many without bread at all.

“Resentment is worse in large families, where children are starving and no words are heard except: peace, immediate peace, peace at any cost.” (Okhrana – Tsarist secret police – agent report, February 1917)

Even in 1917, Russia still produced enough food to feed itself.

The difficulty was to distribute it to the swollen population of the towns in Russia´s northern industrial regions and to the huge army concentrated in the Empire´s western borderlands.

The railway network had been geared in peacetime to moving grain surpluses from southern Ukraine and Russia´s southern steppe region not northward but to southern export outlets on the Black Sea.

As well there were problems with conflicts between the army, a number of civilian agencies and the local government bodies over how best to price and procure grain.

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The big estates, which marketed all their grain, were hardhit by labour shortages, with 15 million men called up into the armed forces.

Meanwhile, industry could notsimultaneously supply the army and produce consumer goods at a price and quantity that would persuade peasants to sell their grain.

Part of the problem as regards food supply was that the Russian government had a weak presence in the villages where food was grown and most Russians lived.

The First World War required the unprecedented mobilisation of society behind the war effort.

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Above: Scenes from World War I

This depended on a civil society with tentacles stretching down to every family and on a state closely allied to this society and capable of coordinating and co-opting its efforts.

To do this effectively, the state needed a high degree of legitimacy and the many groups and classes in society needed to have common values, confidence and commitments.

The Russian Empire entered the War deficient in all these respects.

The railways were a major problem with very serious consequences for military movements, food supply and  industrial production.

Neither the railway network nor the rolling stock were adequate for the colossal demands of war.

In addition industry was diverted overwhelmingly to military production, with repairs to locomotives, rolling stock and railway lines suffering as a consequence.

Inflation took its toll on morale and discipline among railway men, as it did across the entire workforce.

The war – World War I (1914 – 1918) – was not going well for Russia.

Nearly six million casualities – dead, wounded and missing – had accumulated by January 1917.

Mutinies sprang up often, morale was low and the officers and commanders were very incompetent.

Like all major armies, Russia´s armed forces had inadequate supply.

The desertion rate ran at around 34,000 a month.

In the summer of 1915, in an attempt to boost morale and repair his reputation as a leader, Tsar Nicholas II announced that he would take personal command of the army, in defiance of almost universal advice to the contrary.

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Above: Nicholas II of Russia (1868 – 1918), Tsar (1894 – 1917)

The result was disastrous.

The monarchy became associated with the unpopular war.

The monarchy´s legitimacy sank with every difficulty or failure in the war effort.

Nicholas proved to be a poor leader of men on the front, often irritating his own commanders with his intereference.

Being at the front meant he was not available to govern in Petrograd.

If Nicholas had departed for the front leaving behind a competent and authoritative Prime Minister to whom he had delegated full powers, this risk would have been worth taking.

He left the reins of power to his wife, the Tsarina Alexandra, who proved to be an ineffective ruler, announcing a rapid succession of different Prime Ministers and angering the Duma.

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Above: Alexandra Feodorovna (1872 – 1918), Tsarina (1894 – 1917)

“In the 17 months of the Tsarina´s rule, from September 1915 to February 1917, Russia had 4 Prime Ministers, 5 Ministers of the Interior, 3 Foreign Ministers, 3 War Ministers, 3 Ministers of Transport and 4 Ministers of Agriculture.

This ministerial leapfrog not only removed competent men from power, but also disorganised the work of government since no one remained long enough in office to master their responsibilites.” (Orlando Figes, A People´s Tragedy)

The Duma President Mikhail Rodzianko, Grand Duchess Marie Pavlovna and British Ambassador Sir George Buchanan joined calls for Alexandra to be removed from influence, but Nicholas refused.

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Above: Mikhail Rodzianko (1859 – 1924), Duma Chairman (1911 – 1917)

The Duma warned the Tsar of the impeding danger and advised him to form a new constitutional government.

Nicholas ignored their advice.

Nicholas saw concessions to pressure as both a confession of weakness and a surrender of power to parliamentary government, which in his opinion was certain to lead to the disintegration of authority and lead to social and national revolution.

By stubbornly refusing to reach any working agreement with the Duma, Nicholas undermined the loyalty of even those closest to the throne and opened up an unbridgeable gap between himself and public opinion.

The Tsar no longer had the support of the military, the nobility, the Duma or the Russian people.

By 1917, the majority of Russians had lost faith in the Tsarist regime.

Government corruption was unrestrained.

The inevitable result was revolution.

Meanwhile, refugees from German-occupied Russia came in their millions.

The Russian economy was blocked from the Continent´s markets by the War.

Though industry did not collapse, it was considerably strained and when inflation soared, wages could not keep up.

To help conserve scarce flour stocks, the Commissioner of Food Supply prohibited the baking and sale of cake, buns, pies and biscuits.

There were also new restrictions on the provision of flour to factory kitchens and workers´ canteens.

The move had little impact on the bread supply, but working people greeted it with rage.

Because few people even had a vote, the only thing they could do was join a protest or a strike.

There was comfort in the thought that the most obvious discontent was economic.

“Such strikes as might occur would be primarily on account of the shortage of food supplies, but it is not considered likely that any serious disorders would take place.” (Sir George Buchanan)

Above: Sir George Buchanan (1854 – 1924), British Ambassador to Russia (1910 – 1918)

But what Buchanan failed to understand was that bread itself was political.

In factories and engine sheds, in shipyards and workers´ barracks, socialist activists were using hunger as a means to start a conversation with the people.

Leaflets, speeches and slogans connected the food shortage to the War and the autocracy.

Bread might have been their immediate grievance, but once the people joined a protest they were swept on by rousing songs and revolutionary catchphrases.

On 9 January 1917, the 12th anniversary of the Bloody Sunday Massacre of 1905, the protests were explicitly political.

Above: “Bloody” Sunday 22 January 1905 protest, led by Father Gapon, near Narva Gate, St. Petersburg

(See Canada Slim and the Bloodthirsty Redhead for more details about the Revolt of 1905.)

When the Duma convened on 14 February, the Mezhraionka (the Socialist Inter-District Committee) and its allies called the workers out again, this time with slogans about peace, democracy and even a republic.

There had been large scale protests before, but these were new, and called for more from government than cake and buns.

Even an outsider could pick up the change of mood.

“I was struck by the sinister expression on the faces of the poor folk who had lined up in a queue, most of whom had spent the whole night there.” (French Ambassador Maurice Paléologue, Diary entry of 21 February 1917)

Above: Maurice Paléologue (1859 – 1944), French Ambassador to Russia (1914 – 1917)

The peace of Petrograd was depended on its civil governor, Major General A. P. Balk, on the police (a force of 3,500 in a city of two and a half million) and on the governor of the military district, Major General S. S. Khabalov.

In charge of the coordination of them all was Interior Minister Alexander Protopopov, whose team was divided by mistrust.

Alexander Protopopov

Above: Alexander Protopopov (1866 – 1918), Russian Minister of the Interior (1916 – 1917)

Balk declared Khabalov to be “incapable of leading his own subordinates”.

No one trusted the police chief, A. T. Vasilev, whose promotion was entirely due to his friendship with Protopopov, and the best that anyone could say for Balk was that he was good at his paperwork.

Incompetents were nothing new in Russian government.

None of this might have mattered if the troops Khabalov commanded had been the right men for their job.

There were about 200,000 garrison soldiers in Petrograd, quartered in barracks all around the city centre.

Most lived in terrible conditions.

“The only troops in the capital were the depot battalions of the Guard and some depot Units of the line, most of whom had never been to the front.

They were officered by men who had been wounded at the front and who regarded their duty as a sort of convalescent leave from the trenches, or by youths fresh from the military schools.” (British military attaché Colonel Alfred Knox)

“In my opinion, this man (a disaffected Russian general) had confided in November 1916, the troops guarding the capital ought to have been weeded out long ago.

If God does not spare us a revolution, it will be started not by the people but by the army.”

The General was wrong.

The army played a crucial role, but only when the people had already kindled a revolt.

The February Revolution started with a celebration.

The festival of International Women´s Day had been created just before the War by German socialist Clara Zetkin.

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Above: Clara Zetkin, German Marxist Feminist (1857 – 1933)

The event was planned in Petrograd for 23 February, but the comrades in the Russian empire were reluctant to make a special effort over Zetkin´s festival, disputing its propaganda value.

A march was planned, but it risked being small as well as mostly female.

“We need to teach the working class to take to the streets, but we have not had time.” (Alexander Shlyapnikov, letter to Lenin)

Back in December 1916, the Bolsheviks of Petrograd, the Petersburg Committee (they refused to adopt the Tsarist, more anti-German name of Petrograd) were raided by the Tsar´s secret police, the Okhrana, who not only arrested some of the Committee´s members but had captured its precious, costly and strategically vital printing press.

Without their precious printing press, the Bolsheviks could lead no one without a manifesto and a pile of pamphlets.

But other factions viewed the festival as a propaganda opportunity.

A leaflet from the Mezhraionka was crystal clear:

“The government is guilty.

It started the War and it cannot end it.

It is destroying the country and your starving is its fault.

Enough!

Down with the criminal government and the gang of thieves and murders!

Long live peace!”

Thursday 23 February 1916, Petrograd, Russia

If the weather had remained inhibitingly cold….

If Petrograd had received an adequate supply of flour….

If the workplace toilets had been heated to unfreeze the pipes….

The protests might have not been so large.

It was International Women´s Day and the embattled working women of Petrograd intended that their voices should be heard.

Hundreds of them – peasants, factory workers, students, nurses, teachers, wives whose husbands were at the front, and even a few upper class ladies – came out into the streets.

Although some carried banners with traditional suffrage slogans, most bore improvished placards referring to the food crisis.

“There is no bread.  Our husbands have no work.”, they shouted.

As columns of women converged on Nevsky and Litieiny Prospekts, more militant women in the Vyborg (the industrial section of Petrograd) cotton mills were in no mood for compromise.

Since mid-January hunger had been worse by the continuing subzero temperatures affecting the supply of fuel into the city by rail.

Rowing boats on the Neva River were chopped up for firewood and, in the dead of night, people slunk into cemeteries “to fill whole sacks with the wooden crosses from the graves of poor folks and take them home for their fires”.

Throughout Petrograd strikes and protests had become so commonplace that the Okhrana were taking no chances.

On Protopopov´s orders, machine guns had been secretly mounted on the roofs of all the city´s major buildings, particularly around Petrograd´s main square, the Nevsky.

“The Cossacks are again patrolling the city on account of threatened strikes – for the women are beginning to rebel at standing in bread lines from 5 am for shops that open at 10 am in weather 25° below zero.”

(J. Butler Wright, Witness to Revolution: The Russian Revolution Diary and Letters of J. Butler Wright)

Their Women´s Day meetings resulted in a mass walk-out.

As they headed for the Neva, the ladies called on other workers to march with them, including the men of the New Lessner and Erikson factories, the major metalworks and munitions factories.

A large gathering of people outside, some holding banners

By noon, about 50,000 people had joined the protest on Vyborg´s main street, Sampsonievsky Prospect.

“I was extremely indignant at the behaviour of the strikers.

They were blatantly ignoring the instructions of the party district committees.

Yet suddenly here was a strike.

There seemed to be no purpose in it and no reason for it.”

(Bolshevik party representative  and Erikson plant employee Kayurov)

They marched to the Liteiny Bridge to cross over to Nevsky Prospekt only to encounter police cordons on the Bridge barring their way.

The trams “stuffed full of workers” were surrounded by police when they reached the Liteiny Bridge.

Barging aboard, they checked every passenger to weed out those whose hands and clothes looked work-worn.

The idea was keep the poor where they belonged and make sure that their wretched protest could not interfere with decent life. (Alexander Shlyapnikov)

The more determined among them scrambled down onto the frozen river and made their way across the ice instead.

Others managed to get through the police block at the Troitsky Bridge only to be forced back by the police when they crossed the Neva.

On the Field of Mars, men and women were raised on the shoulders of others, shouting: “Let´s stop talking and act.”

A few women began singing the Marseillaise.

As the crowd moved off, heading for Nevsky Prospekt, a tram came swinging around the corner.

The marchers forced it to stop, took the control handle and threw it away into a snowbank.

The same happened to a second, third and fourth tram until the blocked cars extended all the way along the Sadovya to the Nevsky Prospekt.

Florence Harper – the first American female journalist in Petrograd – and her companion, photographer Donald Thompson from Topeka, Kansas, found themselves carried along with the tide of protesters.

Every policeman they passed tried to stop the marchers, but the women just kept on forging ahead, shouting, laughing and singing.

Walking at the head of the column, Thompson saw a man next to him tie a red flag onto a cane and start waving it in the air.

He decided that such a conspicuous position at the head of the marchers was “no place for an innocent boy from Kansas.”

“Bullets had a way of hitting innocent bystanders,” he told Harper, “so let´s beat it, while the going is good.”

That day, in response to increasing tension in the city, Khabalov had posters pasted on walls at every street corner, reassuring the public that “There should be no shortage in bread for sale.”

If stocks were low in some bakeries, this was because people were buying more than they needed and hoarding it.

“There is sufficient rye flour in Petrograd,” the proclamation insisted.

“The delivery of this flour continues without interruption.”

It was clear that the government had run out of excuses for the bread crisis – lack of fuel, heavy snow, rollling stock commandeered for military purposes, shortage of labour….

The people would not be fobbed off any longer.

Hunger was rife, fierce and unrelenting in half a million empty bellies across the working class factory districts.

“Here was a patent confession of laxity.

Whom was it expected to satisfy?

The Socialists who had already made up their minds for revolution, or the dissatisfied man in the street who did not want revolution, but pined for relief from an incapable government?” (Times correspondent Robert Wilton)

As the day went on, the rank of women marchers in and around the Nevsky swelled to around 90,000.

“The singing by this time had become a deep roar, terrifying, but at the same time fascinating….fearful excitement everywhere.” (Donald Thompson)

Once more the Cossacks appeared as if by magic, their long lances gleaming in the sunshine.

Time and again they attempted to scatter the columns of marching women by charging them at a gallop, brandishing their short whips, but the women merely regrouped, cheering the Cossacks wildly each time they charged.

When one woman stumbled and fell in front of them, they jumped their horses right over her.

People were surprised.

These Cossacks weren´t the fierce guardsmen of Tsardom whom the crowds had seen at work in 1905, when hundreds of protesters had been killed in the Bloody Sunday protest.

This time they were quite amiable, playful even.

They seemed eager to capitulate to the mood of the people, and took their hats off and waved them close to the crowd as they moved them on.

So long as they only asked for bread, the Cossacks told the marchers, they would not be on the receiving end of gunfire.

And so it went on, until six in the evening.

As the mob surged to the constant drumbeat calls for bread, the Cossacks charged and scattered people in all directions, but there was no real trouble.

Police rounded up anyone who attempted to stop and give speeches, but protestors otherwise walked the streets with their red flags all day long and had not been fired upon.

It was left to the tsarist police to finally disperse the crowds, who had largely gone home by 7 pm as the cold of the evening drew in.

Across the river, in the industrial quarters, acts of sporadic violence had erupted throughout the day.

Bakeries were broken into and raided.

Grocery stores had their windows smashed.

Later that evening, Major-General Alfred Knox met with the Duma industrialist Alexander Guchkov who described the food shortage as the worst catastrophe his government had faced to date, more crippling and more dangerous than any battlefield defeat.

Alexander Guchkov

Above: Alexander Guchkov (1862 – 1936), 4th Duma Chairman (1910 – 1911), Russian War Minister (1917)

Guchkov could already sense that trouble lay ahead.

“Questioned regarding the attitude of workmen in the towns towards the War, Guchkov conceeded that from 10% to 20% would welcome defeat as likely to strengthen their hands to overthrow the government.” (Alfred Knox)

Throughout the night strike committees in Petrograd and Vyborg were plotting to seize the moment.

A great many troops patrolled the city, for that day a disorganised and elemental force had finally been let loose on Petrograd.

The flame of Revolution had been lit among the hungry marchers on the Nevsky and the strikers across the river.

Revolution – so long talked of, dreaded, fought against, planned for, longed for, died for – had come at last, like a thief in the night, none expecting it, none recognizing it.

One week later Tsar Nicholas II would abdicate, ending the Romanov Dynasty, ending the Russian Empire, ending the chaos that had ensued in the days that followed the Women`s Day march.

Above: Nicholas II (seated) abdicating the Russian throne on 2 March 1917

A dynasty that had ruled for 300 years would depart within a week, with a whimper rather than a bang, because few Russians were willing to defend it.

Eight months later, the second Revolution in Russia in 1917, the October or Bolshevik Revolution would occur when the Bolsheviks led by Lenin – returned from exile in Switzerland – would seize control of the government established after Nicholas´ abdication and transform the liberated-from-autocracy democratic republic into a totalitarian regime.

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Above: Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, aka Lenin (1870 – 1936)

But Russia had, for the briefest of moments, a chance for democracy.

Creating a peasant-based democracy almost from scratch in a country as enormous as Russia was a daunting task.

A democracy begun spontaneously by a group of women tired of long bread lines, tired of hunger, tired of frozen toilets, tired of their men away on the front, tired of casualities.

Brave enough to face certain death by men armed to the teeth.

Maybe that is how change might come to America.

Spontaneously.

When enough Americans become tired of the way things are and brave enough to stand up to the powers that have abused them for far too long.

Perhaps things have to get even worse before spontaneous and united dissatisfaction can occur.

Perhaps darkness must fall before dawn can arise.

Before a true unity – undivided by religion, race, income or partisan politics, but united by a desire for equality of opportunity and respect – can arise.

All things change.

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Above: Cover of “Power to the People” single (1971), John Lennon and the Plastic Ono Band

Sources: Wikipedia / Helen Rappaport, Caught in the Revolution: Petrograd 1917 / Catherine Merridale, Lenin on the Train / Dominic Lieven, Towards the Flame: Empire, War and the End of Tsarist Russia

Canada Slim and the Apostle of Violence

Landschlacht, Switzerland, 14 September 2017

“History is little more than the register of the crimes, follies and misfortunes of mankind.” (Edward Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire)

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Above: Edward Gibbon (1737 – 1794)

“I believe that are monsters born in the world to human parents.

Some you can see.

And just as there are physical monsters, can there not be mental or psychic monsters born?

The face and body may be perfect, but if a twisted gene or a malformed egg can produce physical monsters, may not the same process produce a malformed soul?

Monsters are variations from the accepted normal to a greater or a less degree.

As a child may be born without an arm, so one may be born without kindness or the potential of conscience.” (John Steinbeck, East of Eden)

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Above: John Steinbeck (1902 – 1968)

History is a chronicle of the most evil characters and wicked crimes: six million Jews killed in the Holocaust, the murdered millions of the Congo, Rwanda, the Armenians, the Hereros of Namibia, the East Timorese, and many many others.

In naming and chronicling their murderers, we defy the wishes of the killers who hoped that posterity would forget their crimes.

“Who now remembers the Armenians?”, mused Hitler, ordering the Final Solution.

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Above: Adolf Hitler (1889 – 1945)

His comment shows why history matters, because Hitler found encouragement and solace in the forgotten Armenian massacres.

Past and present are closely linked.

“No one remembers the boyars killed by Ivan the Terrible”, said Stalin, ordering the Great Terror.

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Above: Joseph Vissariorovich Stalin (1878 – 1953)

In the colassally audacious, incredible scale of these crimes, these monsters found a diabolical sanctuary from comprehension and judgement.

“One death is a tragedy, but a million is a statistic.”, said Stalin.

The most disgusting of these crimes were committed in the 20th century when the corrosive all-embracing utopianism of insane ideologies dovetailed with modern technology and pervasive state power to make killing easier, quicker and possible on a gargantuan scale.

(Simon Sebag Montefiore, Monsters: History´s Most Evil Men and Women)

On my summer vacation with my wife, on our very first day of the vacation, we encountered the memory of such a monster.

Lake Como / Lago Como, Italy / Italia, 31 July 2017

Perhaps the problems of contemporary Italy are too disturbing and too difficult to understand.

Flag of Italy

Local political events have always seemed mysterious and negligible to the foreign visitor or resident expatriate.

Tourists don´t want to be reminded of a place´s dark heart or imperfect history.

The Italy for foreigners is mainly an imaginary country, for we often don´t really pay attention to or see clearly the Italy that Italians see.

We know too few natives and those we see are seen through a sunny haze too bright to understand Italians and their problems.

We meet hotel concierges, waiters, shopkeepers,  and tourist information providers, but we may never know the great mass of the Italians for we are as ignorant as children in these matters.

But no matter where you go, where humans are, one can find the desperate struggles for money and power if one takes the time and looks beyond the surface impressions.

This universal struggle demands its daily sacrifices, its regular victims.

Even when violent death is not lurking in the shadows, when things look pleasant and peaceful and life seems secure, prosperous and easy, competition at every level and in every field is intense, ruthless and without pause.

Fortune is notoriously fickle and history restless.

The day had begun well.

We drove across the Swiss border into Italy and were immediately charmed by the Italian province of Lombardy, for though Italy is about as large as California the inhabitants are incredibly numerous – over 50 million of them – one does not get the feeling of crowdedness in the Italian town first encountered over the Passo Spluga: Montespluga.

Part of Montespluga´s isolation is of course related to the Splügen Pass being closed in winter months and generally avoided throughout the year by those craving speed who take the San Bernardino road tunnel, opened since 1967, to the west.

There is not much about Montespluga to warrant the praises of most guidebooks.

After all the village consists of only three main streets (Via Dogana, Via Ferre, Via Val Longa), some small shops, a couple of hotels and restaurants.

But the plus side of this isolation lends both a warm welcome to the traveller determined to visit and an amazingly beautiful and tranquil landscape.

Here wild ponies graze in the fields, just outside the pizzaria windows, calm but vigilant when humans venture the paths that bisect their  territory.

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Through here the fit and adventureous hiker can follow the 65-kilometre Via Spluga from Thusis, Switzerland to Chiavenna, Italy, totally immersed in the splendour of nature, with some of the path the remnants of old Roman roads.

After a hardy lunch and a stroll in the pasture of ponies, we drove along the Reservoir, the Lago di Montespluga, through the town of Campodolcino (home to the poet Giosue Carducci and writer/journalist Don Abramo Levi, and a centre for winter skiing) and the village of San Giacomo e Filippo to the town of Chivenna.

Chiavenna, picturesquely on the right bank of the river Mera, 16 km north of Lago Como, formerly the Roman town Clavenna, is crowned by a ruined castle.

Townscape on the Mera

It was in this castle in October 1154 that the Hohenstaufen Emperor Frederick Barbarossa (1122 – 1190) met with his cousin Henry “the Lion” (1129 – 1195) and fell on his knees begging Henry´s aid against the cities of the Lombard League.

After all Frederick only wanted to impress the Pope and the Italians with his power, to plunder and raze city-states, to reward friends and allies and destroy enemies.

Isn´t that what rulers are supposed to do?

In the town is a statue of Peter de Salis (1738 – 1807), an Anglo-Swiss who resisted Napoleon, and was an extremely popular governor of the commune (1771 – 1773 / 1781 – 1783).

We did not linger in Chiavenna for my wife´s guidebook recommended a side trip to the Cascata dell´ Acquafraggia waterfalls, first recorded by Leonardo da Vinci in 1495 in his Codex Atlanticus.

Acquafraggia

This stream which flows from the Pizzo del Lago near the Swiss border then joins the Mera River at Borgonuovo, 5 km east of Chiavenna, imposingly descends into a series of waterfalls 170 metres high.

But the Cascata don´t feel like a tourist attraction as much as the local family picnic area and playground.

Somehow the waterfalls reminded me of the kind of setting that the original series of Star Trek might have used to film an alien paradise world.

Russian Poet Apollon Nicolayevich Maykov once wrote enthusiatically:  “Under that fiery sun, in the roar of a waterfall, inebriated you said to me: Here we can die together, the two of us.”

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Above: Apollon Nicolayevich Maykov (1821 – 1897)

We lingered bathing our feet in the stream that collected below the cascade.

We lingered too long.

Beautiful scenery, the stage setting for a peaceful dream, is suddenly cluttered by thousands upon thousands of men, women and children, Vespas and noxious automobiles, bright lights and intense noise, construction, constriction and complication.

For the western shore of Lago Como from Sorico all the way down to Como was crowded, traffic insane, a rush hour when commuters were unable to rush, bumper to bumper with no relief.

And it was in this spirit of impatience and annoyance that we discovered a monster.

Between the towns of Gravedona and Musso, 40 km/25 miles northeast of the city of Como, one can find the Comune Dongo, with its two main sights: the Palazzo del Vescovo (Bishop´s Palace) – home to the International Piano Academy where seven pianists, chosen annually from a worldwide field of over 1,000 applicants, including many prizewinners, have the opportunity of studying for a week with piano virtusos – and the Palazzo Manzi – the town administrative centre and the Museo della Fine della Guerra (Museum of the End of the War) with displays of partisan activity in Dongo and the north Lake Como area from the time of the Italian armistice in September 1943 up to the end of the Second World War in 1945.

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Above: The Palazzo Manzi

Why is this museum in this town?

Because it was in Dongo, on 27 April 1945, that Il Duce, Benito Mussolini (1883 – 1945), Prime Minister of Italy (1922 – 1925), Dictator of Italy (1925 – 1943), Dictator of the Italian Social Republic (1943 – 1945) and the founder of fascism, was, along with other fascists, fleeing from Milano towards the Swiss border, captured by Urbano Lazzaro and other partisans and held prisoner within the walls of the Palazzo Manzi for most of the night before  his last day alive.

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Ruthlessly suppressing any form of dissent in Italy, Mussolini, a greedy colonialist with delusions of creating a post-modern new Roman Empire, was directly responsible for the deaths of over 30,000 Ethiopians in his infamous Abyssinian campaign, as well as being complicit, through his alliance with Adolf Hitler, in the atrocities of Nazi Germany.

Mussolini was born on 29 July 1883 in Dovia di Predappio, as the son of a blacksmith and a schoolteacher, a profession he tried in 1901 but swiftly abandoned.

vernacular stone building, birthplace of Benito Mussolini, now a museum

Above: Birthplace of Mussolini, now a museum

In 1902 Mussolini fled to Switzerland to avoid conscription.

Flag of Switzerland

In Lausanne, Mussolini tried, once or twice, actually to become a member of the working class by getting a job as a labourer but discovered he didn´t like hard work.

He much preferred revolutionary literature and talking.

Mussolini preached indiscriminate violence to his Italian countrymen who were so impressed they elected him secretary of the bricklayers trade union.

Mussolini sought the company of other revolutionaries who were at the time mostly Russians who called him Benitushka.

Mussolini called himself an “apostle of violence”.

He never washed, seldom shaved and lived where he could.

The Swiss police watched him and arrested him several times for vagrancy.

Mussolini watched himself playing the great role he was inventing as he went along, hammering at it with gusto.

No earnest revolutionary in Switzerland at the time was as visibly frightening as he was.

Certainly not Lenin who resembled a little professor.

Above: Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, aka Lenin (1870 – 1924)

In his twenties, following in the footsteps of his father, Mussolini became a committed socialist, editing a newspaper called La Lotta di Classe (the class struggle), before, in 1910, becoming secretary of the local socialist Party in Forli, where he edited the paper Avanti! (forward!).

Mussolini also wrote an unsuccessful novel called The Cardinal´s Mistress.

Increasingly known to the authorities for inciting disorder, Mussolini was imprisoned in 1911 for producing pacifist propaganda after Italy declared war on Turkey.

Mussolini initially opposed Italy´s entry in the First World War, but, believing a major conflict would overthrow capitalism, he changed his mind, which saw him expelled from the Socialist Party.

Mussolini became fascinated with militarism, founding a new paper, Il Popolo d’Italia, as well as the pro-war group Fasci d’Azione Rivoluzionaria (the Revolutionary Fascist Party).

His own military service was cut short in 1917 following injuries sustained in a grenade explosion in training.

Mussolini was now a confirmed anti-socialist, convinced that only authoritarian government could overcome the economic and social problems endemic in postwar Italy, as violent street gangs (including his own Fascisti) battled for supremacy.

In March 1919, the first Fascist movement in Europe cristallised under his leadership.

His black-shirted supporters, in stark contrast to the flailing liberal governments of the time, successfully broke up industrial strikes and dispersed socialists from the streets.

Though Mussolini was defeated in the 1919 elections, he was elected to Parliament in 1921, along with 34 other fascists.

In October 1922, after hostility between left wing and right wing Groups had escalated into near anarchy, Mussolini – with thousands of his Blackshirts – staged the March on Rome, presenting himself as the only man who could restore order.

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Above: The March on Rome, 28 October 1922

In desperation, King Vittorio Emanuele III asked Mussolini to form a government.

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Above: Vittorio Emanuele III (1869 – 1947), King of Italy

Mussolini’s regime was built on fear.

By 1926, Mussolini had dismantled parliamentary democracy and stamped his personal authority on every aspect of government.

By 1928, Italy had become a one-party police state.

In 1935, seeking to make his dreams of Mediterranean domination and a North African empire, Mussolini ordered the invasion of Ethiopia.

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Above: Italian artillery, Tembien, Ethiopia, 1936

His use of mustard gas there (300 to 500 tonnes), followed by the vicious suppression of a rebellion against Italian rule, lead the League of Nations (the precursor to today´s United Nations) to impose sanctions on Italy.

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Above: Flag of the League of Nations, HQ in Geneva (1920 – 1945)

Increasingly isolated, Mussolini left the League and allied himself with Hitler in 1937, emulating the Führer in pushing through a series of anti-Semitic laws.

It soon became clear, however, that Mussolini was the minor partner in the relationship, Hitler failing to consult him on almost all military decisions.

After Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia in March 1939, Mussolini ordered the Invasion (7 – 12 April 1939) of neighbouring Albania, his troops easily brushing aside the tiny army of King Zog.

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Above: Italian troops in Albania

In May 1939, Hitler and Mussolini declared a Pact of Steel, pledging to support the other in the event of war.

Italy did not enter the Second World War until the fall of France in June 1940, when it looked like Germany was on course for a quick victory, but the Italian war was a total disaster.

For all the puffed-up militarism of his regime, Mussolini´s army was disastrously unprepared for war on this scale.

Following the Allied arrival on the shores of Sicily in June 1943, Mussolini´s fascist followers abandoned him and had him arrested, only for German commandos to rescue him from imprisonment and place him at the head of a puppet protectorate, the Italian Social Republic based at the town of Salo near Lago Garda in the north of Italy.

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Above: Flag of the Italian Social Republic (1943 – 1945)

By 1944, the Salo Republic was threatened not only by the Allies advancing from the south bit also internally by Italian anti-fascist partisans in a brutal conflict that was to become known as the Italian Civil War.

Slowly fighting their way up the Italian peninsula, the Allies took Roma and Firenze in the summer of 1944 and later that year began advancing into northern Italy.

With the final collapse of the German army´s Gothic Line in April 1945, total defeat for the Salo Republic was imminent.

From mid-April 1945, Mussolini based himself in Milano, taking up residence in the city´s Prefecture.

At the end of the month, the partisan leadership, the Comitato di Liberazione Nazionale Alta Italia (CLNAI) declared a general uprising in the main northern cities as the German forces retreated.

With the CLNAI´s assumption of control in Milano and the German army about to surrender, Mussolini fled the city on 25 April and attempted to escape north to Switzerland.

Above: Mussolini abandoning the Prefecture in Milan, 25 April 1945. This photo is believed the last photo of Mussolini alive.

On the same day as Mussolini left Milano, the CNLAI declared:

“The members of the fascist government and those fascist leaders who are guilty of having suppressed constitutional guarantee, destroyed the people´s freedoms, created the fascist regime, compromised and betrayed the country, bringing it to the current catastrophe are to be punished with the penalty of death.”

(CLNAI Decree, 25 April 1945)

On 27 April 1945, Mussolini and his mistress Claretta Petacci, together with other fascist leaders, were travelling in a German convoy near the village of Dongo.

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Above: Claretta Petacci (1912 – 1945)

A group of local communist Partisans led by Pier Luigi Bellini delle Stelle and Urbano Lazzaro attacked the convoy and forced it to halt.

The Partisans recognised one Italian fascist leader in the convoy, but not Mussolini at this stage, and made the Germans hand over all the Italians in Exchange for allowing the Germans to proceed.

Eventually Mussolini was discovered slumped in one of the convoy vehicles.

Lazzaro later said:

“His face was like wax and his stare glassy, but somehow blind.

I read utter exhaustion, but not fear.

Mussolini seemed completely lacking in will, spiritually dead.”

The partisans arrested Mussolini and took him to Dongo, where he spent part of the night in the local barracks in the Palazzo Manzi.

In all, over 50 Fascist leaders and their families were found in the convoy and arrested by the partisans.

Aside from Mussolini and Petacci, 16 of the most prominent of them would be summarily shot in Dongo the following day and a further 10 would be killed over two successive nights.

Fighting was still going on in the area around Dongo.

Fearing that Mussolini and Petacci would be rescued by fascist supporters, the partisans drove them, in the middle of the night, to a nearby farm of a peasant family named De Maria.

They believed this would be a safe place to hold them.

Mussolini and Petacci spent the rest of the night and most of the following day there.

On the evening of Mussolini´s capture, Sandro Pertini, the socialist partisan leader in northern Italy, announced on Radio Milano:

“The head of this association of delinquents, Mussolini, while yellow with rancour and fear and trying to cross the Swiss frontier, has been arrested.

He must be handed over to a tribunal of the people so it can judge him quickly.

We want this, even though we think an executive platoon is too much of an honour for this man.

He would deserve to be killed like a mangy dog.”

“Everyone dies the death that corresponds to his character.”

(Benito Mussolini, 1932)

Luigi Longo, a senior communist in Milano, instructed a communist partisan of the General Command, Walter Audisio, to go immediately to Dongo…

Above: Walter Audisio (1909 – 1973)

Go and shoot him (Mussolini)”.

Longo asked another partisan, Aldo Lampredi, to go as well because Longo thought Audisio was “impudent, too inflexible and rash”.

Audisio and Lampredi left Milano for Dongo early on the morning of 28 April to carry out Longo´s orders.

On arrival in Dongo, they met Bellini delle Stelle, the local partisan commander, to arrange for Mussolini to be handed over to them.

In the afternoon, Audisio, with other partisans, drove to the De Maria farmhouse to collect Mussolini and Petacci.

After they were picked up, they drove a short distance to the village of Giulino de Mezzegra.

So did we 72 years and 64 days later.

At the entrance of the Villa Belmonte on the narrow road XXIV maggio, Mussolini and Petacci were told to get out and stand by the Villa´s wall.

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Audisio then shot them at 1610 hours, with a submachine gun.

Above: The French-made MAS-38 submachine gun, used by Walter Audisio to shoot Benito Mussolini, National Historical Museum, Tirane, Albania

My wife was tired and impatiently wanting to get to Como and our B & B.

I took photos of the execution site.

We drove on.

In the evening of 28 April 1945, the bodies of Mussolini, Petacci and the other executed fascists were loaded onto a van and trucked south to Milano.

On arriving in the city in the early hours of 29 April, the bodies were dumped on the ground in the Piazzale Loreto, a suburban square near the main railway station.

The choice of location was deliberate.

Fifteen partisans had been shot there in August 1944 in retaliation for partisan attacks and Allied bombing raids.

Their bodies had then been left for public display.

The fascist bodies were left in a heap and by 2100 hours a considerable crowd had gathered.

The corpses were pelted with vegetables, spat at, urinated on, shot at and kicked.

Mussolini´s face was disfigured by beatings.

An American eyewitness described the crowd as “sinister, depraved, out of control.”

After a while, the bodies were hoisted up onto the metal girder framework of a half-built Standard Oil service station, and hung upside down on meat hooks to protect the bodies from the mob.

Above: Piazza Loreto, Milano, 29 April 1945. Mussolini (second from left), Petacci (middle)

At about 1400 hours, the American Military authorities, who had arrived in Milano, ordered the bodies be taken down and delivered to the city morgue for autopsies to be carried out.

On 30 April, an autopsy was carried out on Mussolini at the Institute of Legal Medicine in Milano.

Mussolini had been shot with nine bullets.

His body now rests at his place of birth in Dovia di Predappio.

A monster long dead, an apostle of violence long removed, the undignified deaths of Mussolini (age 62) and Petacci (age 33) linger in bad memory.

We hoped Como would find our smiles for us again….

Sources: Wikipedia / Luigi Barzini, The Italians / Simon Sebag Montefiore, Monsters: History´s Most Evil Men and Women

 

 

 

 

Canada Slim and the Evil Road

9 September 2017, Landschlacht, Switzerland

I am determined to not write myself into too predictable a rut.

There have been a number of themes running through the posts of this blog since I started it back on 18 May 2015.

I have written of many things: my travels in Switzerland and abroad, topics currently relevant at the time of writing, and occasional glimpses into the comedy that is everyday life.

I have started themes that have yet to be completed, like the Brontes and Brussels, my own solo travels prior to this blog, the crucial importance of Turkish politics and history, and, of course, the current political malaise that is the US Trump Administration.

After a long break from blog writing over the summer I have found two themes that interest me greatly: travelling in Italy, and the Russian Revolution and how it was shaped from Switzerland.

To keep both the reader´s attention and my creative juices flowing I have decided to alternate between these themes.

This is not to say that current events are not worthy of my attention….

They have it.

The monsoons in Bangladesh, the destructiveness of hurricanes in America, the reversal of DACA resulting in over 800,000 people forced to leave their homes in America and return to birthplaces they have never really known, the tragedy of Standing Rock and international indigenous peoples, the ongoing farce that is Brexit, the abyss of race relations in the US, world poverty, immigration and refugees, the relevance of the media in modern times, terrorism….

The list and the complexity of world events seems endless and daunting for a simple blogger such as myself to tackle.

But be patient, gentle readers, over time I shall try to weave these events and more into the ongoing saga that is the Chronicles of Canada Slim.

At present, I want to talk about a place that at first glance seems easy to ignore.

The Splügen Pass (Italian: Passo dello Spluga) is a 2,115-metre high mountain pass which marks the boundary between the Lepontine and Rhaetian Alps, respectively dividing the Western Alps from the Eastern.

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The pass road connects the Swiss Hinterrhein valley and the hamlet of Splügen in Graubünden Canton with the Valle Spluga and the town of Chiavenna in the Italian province of Sondrio, the road continuing on to Lago Como.

The Pass is the water divide between the drainage basins of the Rhine, which flows into the North Sea, and the Po, which flows into the Adriatic.

On the Italian side of the Pass is the small three-street village of Montespluga, which is cut off from both Italy and Switzerland during the winter.

Above: Montespluga in summer

So the best time of year to travel this quiet pass is June to October.

The Pass was already in use in the Roman era.

The route follows historic mule trails and was recorded in the Roman Empire´s list of arterial roads as it followed an almost dead-straight link between southern Germany and Lombardy.

Path and road construction, transport services and trading traffic, spiritual exchange and creative artistic power have influenced the landscape and settlements as well as improving living standards and broadening horizons for local farmers.

The name Splügen/Spluga is possibly derived from the Latin specula (lookout).

From 1818 to 1823 the modern road was built at the request of Austrian authorities then ruling the Kingdom of Lombardy-Venetia in the south.

In 1840, English author Mary Shelley (best known for her gothic novel Frankenstein) travelled through the Pass on the way to Lake Como with her son Percy Florence.

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Above: Mary Shelley (1797 – 1851)

This was not her first trip to Italy and one might wonder why she would return to a country that had seen her suffer great sorrow.

The threat of debtor´s prison, combined with their ill health and fears of losing custody of their two children, her husband Percy Bysshe and Mary left England for Italy in 1818.

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Above: Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792 – 1822)

They had no intention of returning to England.

The Shelleys then embarked on a roving existence, never settling in any one place for long.

They devoted their time to writing, reading, learning, sightseeing and socialising.

Their Italian adventure was blighted by the deaths of both their children:  Clara, in September 1818 in Venice; and William, in June 1819 in Rome.

These losses left Mary in a deep depression that isolated her from her husband.

For a time, Mary found comfort only in her writing.

The birth of her son Percy Florence, on 12 November 1819, lifted her spirits, though she nursed the memory of her lost children till the end of her life.

On 8 July 1822, her husband and Edward Williams set out on a return sailing journey from Livorno to Lerici with their 18-year-old boatsman Charles Vivian.

They never reached their destination.

Ten days after the storm that arose after they sailed from Livorno, their three bodies washed up on the coast near Viareggio, midway between Livorno and Lerici.

Mary eventually returned to England to raise her son.

In 1840, mother Mary (age 43) and son Percy (21), along with three of his friends, travelled together on the Continent.

This journey and a subsequent journey together in 1842 would result in the travel narrative Rambles in Germany and Italy.

Map showing routes of Shelley's European trips. 1840 trip begins in Brighton, proceeds to Dover, crosses the Channel to Calais, proceeds south to Paris, east Metz, north to Coblenz, east to Frankfurt, south to Freiburg, south to Milan, west to Lyons, and north to Paris and Calais. 1842–43 trip begins in Southampton, proceeds to London, crosses the Channel to Antwerp, proceeds southeast to Frankfurt, northeast to Berlin, south to Prague, Salzburg, Padua, Rome, and Naples.

Although her husband and her two children had died there, Italy had become for Mary “a country which memory painted as Paradise”.

From their home in north London, they travelled to Paris and Metz.

From Metz, they went down the Moselle by boat to Koblenz and then up the Rhine to Mainz, Frankfurt, Heidelberg and Baden Baden.

Feeling ill, Mary rested at a spa in Baden Baden.

Above: Baden-Baden

She had wracking pains in her head and convulsive shudders, symptoms of the meningioma that would eventually kill her.

(Meningioma is a tumor that attacks the brain and spinal cord.)

This forced stop dismayed Percy and his friends as it provided no entertainment for them, but because none of them spoke any German they were forced to remain together.

The group eventually travelled on to Freiburg im Breisgau, Schaffhausen, Zürich to arrive at the Splügen Pass.

She describes the Pass in her travel narrative, Rambles in Germany and Italy, published in 1844:

Chiavenna, Italy, Monday 13 July 1840

“At five in the morning we were in the yard of the diligence (stagecoach) office (at Chur).

We were in high spirits – for that night we should sleep in Italy.

The diligence was a very comfortable one.

There were few other passengers and those were of a respectable class.

We still continued along the valley of the Rhine, and at length entered the pass of the Via Mala (the evil road), where we alighted to walk.

Via Mala.jpg

It is here that the giant wall of the Alps shuts out the Swiss from Italy.

Before the Alp itself (the Splügen) is reached, another huge mountain rises to divide the countries.

A few years ago, there was no path except across this mountain, which being very exposed , and difficult even to danger, the Splügen was only traversed by shepherds and travellers of the country on mules or on foot.

But now, a new and most marvellous road has been constructed.

The mountain in question is, to the extent of several miles, cleft from the summit to the base, and a sheer precipice of 4,000 feet rises on either side.

The Rhine, swift and strong, but in width a span, flows in the narrow depth below.

The road has been constructed on the face of the precipice, now cut into the side, now perforated through the living rock into galleries.

It passes, at intervals, from one side of the ravine to the other, and bridges of a single arch span the chasm.

The precipices, indeed, approach so near, in parts, that a fallen tree could not reach the river below, but lay wedged in midway.

It may be imagined how singular and sublime this pass is, in its naked simplicity.

After proceeding about a mile, you look back and see the country you had left, through the narrow opening of the gigantic crags, set like a painting in this cloud-reaching frame.

It is giddy work to look down over the parapet that protects the road, and mark the arrowy rushing of the imprisoned river.

Midway in the pass, the precipices approach so near that you might fancy a strong man could leap across.

This was the region visited by storm, flood and desolation in 1834.

The Rhine had risen several hundred feet, and, aided by torrents from the mountains, had torn up the road, swept away a bridge, and laid waste the whole region.

An English traveller, a Mr. Hayward, then on his road to Chiavenna, relates that he traversed the chasm on a rotten uneven plank, and found but a few inches remaining of the road overhanging the river.

It was an awful invasion of one element on another.

The whole road to Chiavenna was broken up, and the face of the mountain so changed that, when reconstructed, the direction of the route was in many places entirely altered.

The region of these changes was pointed out to us, but no discernible traces remained of where the road had been.

All here was devastation – the giant ruins of a primaeval world; and the puny remnants of Man´s handiwork were utterly obiliterated.

Puny, however, as our operations are, when Nature decrees by one effort that they should cease to exist, while She reposes they may be regarded proudly and commodiously traversed by the antlike insects that make it their path.

We dined at the village of Splügen.

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Above: Splügen in summer

It was cold and we had a fire.

Here we dropped all our fellow travellers – some were going over the San Bernandino – and proceeded very comfortably alone.

It was a dreary-looking mountain that we had to cross, by zigzags, at first long, and diminishing as we ascended.

The day, too, was drear, and we were immersed in a snowstorm towards the summit.

Naked and sublime the mountain stretched out around, and dim mists, chilling blasts and driving snow added to its grandeur.

We reached the dogana (Italian customs) at the top and here our things were examined.

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Above: Spluga Pass, present day

The customs house officer was very civil – complained of his station, where it always rained – at that moment it was raining – and, having caused the lids of one or two trunks to be lifted, they were closed again and the ceremony was over.

More time, however, was consumed in signing passports and papers.

We then set off downhill, swiftly and merrily, with two horses – the leaders being unharnessed and trotting down gravely after us, without anyone to lead or drive them.

All Italian travellers know what it is, after toiling up the bleak, bare, northern, Swiss side of an Alp, to descend into ever vernal Italy.

The rhododendron, in thick bushes, in full bloom, first adorned the mountain sides, then pine forests, then chestnut groves.

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The mountain was cleft into woody ravines.

The waterfalls scattered their spray and their gracious melody.

Flowery and green, and clothed in radiance and gifted with plenty, Italy opened upon us.

Thus – and be not shocked by the illustration, for it is all God´s creation – after dreary old age and the sickening pass of death, does the saint open his eyes on Paradise.” (Mary Wollstonecroft Shelley, Rambles in Germany and Italy)

After Chiavenna, Mary and her travelling companions would spend two months at Lake Como and then go on to Milan.

In Milan, the young men left Mary to go back to their studies in England, while Mary slwoly made her way back home via Geneva and Paris.

Upon her return, she became depressed.

“In Italy I might live as once I lived: hoping, loving, aspiring, enjoying.

I am placid now and the days go by….and darkness creeps over my intellect.”

9 September 2017, Landschlacht, Switzerland

In 1843 the road was further expanded with a 312-metre/1,024-foot long avalanche gallery designed by Swiss engineer Richard La Nicca which today is out of use but largely preserved.

Above: Richard La Nicca (1794 – 1883)

Plans to build a railroad line across Splügen Pass were abandoned in favour of the Gotthard Railway opened in 1882.

The author Sir Dr. Arthur Conan Doyle as well as his beloved creation Sherlock Holmes, a creation that Doyle himself was not particularly fond of, are inextricably linked to Switzerland.

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Above: Sir Arthur Ignatius Conan Doyle, M.D. (1859 – 1930)

Doyle, who spent most of his childhood and youth in boarding schools, spent some time at Stella Matutina in Feldkirch, Austria.

On his journey back home to Edinburgh in 1876, Doyle had his first contact with Switzerland.

Many years later, 34-year-old Dr. Doyle came to Switzerland in August 1893 to give a series of talks in Lucerne.

Doyle was a sporty doctor.

He had seen skiing in Norway and imported one of the first pair of Norwegian skis to Davos.

Along with the Branger brothers, Doyle scaled the saddle of the Jacobshorn in the Albula range, now served by cable car and renowned for snowboarding.

They then tackled the 2,253-metre pass between Davos and Arosa, rising at 4 am, heading to Frauenkirch, crossing the Maienfelder Furka Pass and sliding down to Arosa.

Since 2008 this area has been added to the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites, traversed by the Rhaetian Railway and by “lads leaping about on planks tied to their feet”. (Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain)

Doyle predicted that “the time will come when hundreds of Englishmen will come to Switzerland for a skiing season”. (Conan Doyle, “An Alpine Pass on Ski”, The Strand, August 1894)

Time has proved him right.

Doyle would then travel on to Maloja and Caux with his wife.

On 6 November 1895, the Doyles left Caux for Italy.

Did he enter Italy through the Splügen Pass?

I have no information so far about his exact route.

After a few days in Rome, the family left Brindisi by ship to Egypt, where they would spend the winter in Cairo.

It remains a question of debate whether Doyle ever came back to Switzerland after his journey to Egypt and his subsequent return to his home in England.

Besides skiing, Doyle left his mark on Switzerland by setting the Holmes Story “The Final Problem” at Reichenbach Falls.

(See Canada Slim and the Final Problem of this blog.)

Splügen Pass is mentioned in Doyle`s “The Adventure of the Illustrious Client”, a Holmes story published in 1924.

“Both Holmes and I (Dr. Watson, the narrator) had a weakness for the Turkish bath….

On the upper floor of the Northumberland Avenue establishment, there is an isolated corner where two couches lie side by side, and it was on these that we lay upon 3 September 1902, the day when the narrative begins.

I had asked him whether anything was stirring, and for answer he had shot his long, thin, nervous arm out of the sheets which enveloped him and had drawn an envelope from the inside pocket of the coat which hung beside him….

…This is what I read:

“Sir James Damery presents his compliments to Mr. Sherlock Holmes, and will call upon him at 4:30 tomorrow….”

Sir James comes to see Holmes and Watson about his illustrious client´s problem.

(The client´s identity is never revealed to the reader, although Watson finds out at the end of the story, it is heavily implied to be King Edward VII.)

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Above: Edward VII, King of Great Britain (1901 – 1910), (1841 – 1910)

General de Merville`s young daughter Violet has fallen in love with the roguish and sadistic Austrian Baron Adelbert Gruner….

Damery: “…for we are dealing on this occasion, Mr. Holmes, with a man to whom violence is familiar and who will, literally, stick at nothing.”

I should say that there is no more dangerous man in Europe.”

Holmes: “….May I ask his name?”

Damery: “Have you ever heard of Baron Gruner?”

Holmes: “You mean the Austrian murderer?”

Damery: “There is no getting past you, Mr. Holmes! Wonderful! So you have already sized him up as a murderer?”

Holmes: “It is my business to follow the details of Continental crime.  Who could possibly have read what happened at Prague and have any doubts as to the man´s guilt?  It was a purely technical legal point and the suspicious death of a witness that saved him!  I am as sure that he killed his wife when the so-called “accident” happened in the Splügen Pass as if I had seen him do it….”

The Granada TV series (1984 – 1994), with Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes, is faithful to the original story as penned by Doyle, though it takes some artistic licence regarding the Bruner wife murder.

Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes.jpg

“The Illustrious Client” shows the fallen Baroness, to whom Gruner rushes to her side, accusing him with her dying breath of pushing her off the mountainside.

The viewer sees the scene is witnessed by a young boy, whom we are told by Holmes in his interview with Sir James that he suspected that Gruner had seduced his mother to poison the shepherd boy.

In “The View from Olympus”, the 18th episode of the 3rd season of the US modernised adaptation Elementary, with Holmes as a recovering drug addict who aids the New York City police accompanied by a female Dr. Joan Watson, Holmes mentions a previous case about a man who killed his wife on the Splügen Pass and tried to make her murder look like an accident.

Elementary intertitle.png

In this blog`s Canada Slim and the Lure of Italian Journeys, I wrote of how my wife (aka She Who Must Be Obeyed) and I travelled from our home by the Lake of Constance in Landschlacht to Chur.

“We leave the Autobahn and enter a wild land – a land of deep, narrow valleys, ancient forests, mountain torrents and villages that have seen little excitement or change since Roman times.

Past Rhäzüns and its isolated chapel of Sogn Gieri/St. George to the town of Thusis loomed over by threatening mountains and mysterious forests, the road, the Evil Road / Via Mala plunges into a narrow ravine, with sheer rock walls rising over 500 metres from the bed of the foaming Hinterrhein River.”

Above: The Chapel of Sogn Gieri, Rhäzüns

Via Mala, that ancient and notorious section of an abomination of a path along the Hinterrhein River between Zillis and Thusis in Graubünden Canton….

Via Mala, that narrow gorge that blocks the approach to two mountain sorties that defiantly declares that the traveller shall not pass….

Via Mala, so beautifully maleviolent and enchanting that the German director Werner Herzog filmed his 1976 psychological drama Heart of Glass there….

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(Heart of Glass is the story of an 18th-century Bavarian town with a glassblowing factory that produces a brilliant red ruby glass.

When the master glass blower dies, the secret to producing the ruby glass is lost.

The local Baron and factory owner is obsessed with the ruby glass and believes it to have magical properties.

With the loss of the secret, he soon descends into madness along with the rest of the townspeople.

The main character is Hias, a seer from the hills, who predicts the destruction of the factory in a fire.

During shooting, almost all of the actors performed while under hypnosis.

Every actor in every scene was hypnotized, with the exception of the character Hias and the professional glassblowers who appear in the film.

The hypnotized actors give very strange performances, which Herzog intended to suggest the trance-like state of the townspeople in the story.

Herzog provided the actors with most of their dialogue, memorised during hypnosis.

However, many of the hypnotised actors’ gestures and movements occurred spontaneously during filming.)

As I look into the gorge of the Via Mala, my heart grips tightly in fear….

As we navigate the climbing hairpin curves leading to the Paradise of Italy, my heart grips tightly in fear….

For my wife is driving.

She is mostly a fine driver but give her a challenging, cliff-hanging, narrow road and suddenly she becomes a Grand Prix Formula race car driver, a Maria Andretti or a Michaela Schumacher.

Of all the duties that are split between man and spouse, my wife has assumed the role of driver.

This has never bothered me, for I had never the urge to learn to drive and as a result I believe I am a great passenger.

Perhaps because ignorance is bliss, she could drive down a one-way pedestrian street knocking over a half dozen old ladies in the process and I would not react because I foolishly assume she knows what she is doing.

Now I have read statistics that say when partners are in a car together, the man is four times likely more to drive.

And perhaps I should feel more emasculated when she is driving, but she loves to drive and I make an excellent navigator (despite what the wife says).

But cliff hanging races and breakneck curves make me reassess my masculinity and I once again, especially on this trip, wonder if I will somehow survive my marriage (unlike Baron Gruner`s wife) or make it through the Evil Road of the shadow of Death to Italian Paradise (like Mary Shelley).

Sharing a car ride with my wife is a lot like being an unwilling participant in a hostage situation – you don´t know what´s going to happen and you hope you will survive the experience.

I am reminded once again of Canadian comedian Lorne Elliott´s comments on driving through the mountains:

Bildergebnis

“Not only can you fall down these mountain things, these mountain things can fall down on you!”

The climb up to Splügen reminds me of the lacing of a corset thrusting the hills into prominence.

Corsets?

How fear emasculates!

After 20 years together there are very few off-putting things we don´t know about one another, but I have learned, the hard way, that a little paranoia is a good thing in marriage.

Normally she does not want to kill her husband….

But my wife is driving.

I am not certain whether we will arrive in an Italy that resembles Paradise or in a Paradise that resembles Italy.

I will keep you posted….

Sources: Wikipedia / Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, “The Adventure of the Illustrious Client”, The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes / Nicole Glücklich (Editor), The Adventures of Two British Gentlemen in Switzerland: In the Footsteps of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes / Padraig Rooney, The Gilded Chalet: Off-piste in Literary Switzerland / Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Rambles in Germany and Italy