Saturday, 31 July 2021

When Lawrence of Arabia came visiting

 In the early 1920s, Lawrence of Arabia took time off in Kerala at Trichur. The author digs up some interesting details of his visit

For most of us who have seen David Lean’s classic Lawrence of Arabia, Thomas Edward Lawrence, immortalised by Peter O’Toole, is the dashing British leader dressed in white and gold Arab robes. But the real Lawrence was not exactly the heroic character of the 1962 film. He was certainly one of the most colourful figures of the First World War, but Lawrence was also controversial with strange fetishes on whom studies continue even today, on whom reams are still being written.


The house in Thrissur where T E Lawrence stayed in 1920-21. Photo: K.K. Mustafah   | Photo Credit: K. K. MUSTAFAH 


The Kerala journey

Libraries across the world house comprehensive research and archival materials on Lawrence and much of his story is well known. What is not known and what the shelves in the libraries may not tell you is the record of a personal journey Lawrence undertook to Kerala sometime in 1920-21.


This trip was immediately after the War. Lawrence who played a leading role as adviser to Emir Feisal during the Arab revolt against Turkish rule (1916–1918) was clearly torn between his British and Arab sympathies. He suffered a huge setback, a stinging humiliation that plunged him into a phase of depression. To recover from this he accepted an invitation from K. Govinda Menon (Conservator of Forests, Cochin State), his classmate at Oxford, to travel to Trichur.


“He stayed for 21 days in Trichur for an elaborate Ayurveda treatment which was supervised by the famous Thaikkattu Moos. He went on his mandatory evening walks, ate home-made food and left a cheerful man. This must have been Lawrence’s only visit to India,” says V. N. Venugopal, grandson of Govinda Menon and the inheritor of those memories, rare photographs and an autographed book. They remain the only surviving link between ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ and Kerala.


Venugopal first came to know about Lawrence when he was studying for his Intermediate at Maharaja’s College, Ernakulam. “We had an essay on ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ by Winston Churchill from his book Great Contemporaries. When I read this essay aloud at home my father (P. Narayana Menon) who was listening asked me what I was reading. He showed me a book that was autographed by the same ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ and the other memorabilia connected with the man. I was stunned because I was reading about an icon and I come to know that my father knew this man, accompanied him on his evening walks when he came to stay at our ancestral home at Trichur. It was so surreal.”


It was Venugopal’s grandmother (Ammu Amma) who told him a lot about Lawrence’s Trichur visit. “She used to narrate stories graphically. One of them was about Lawrence. About how she and my grandfather travelled by the Boat Mail train from Trichur to Dhanushkodi and took a boat to Colombo to pick up Lawrence. He had reached there and the three of them travelled back to Trichur.”


Trichur was a small village in those days. A few Europeans had settled here, most of them planters. “There were rubber plantations at Pudukkad and Amballur managed by Europeans who used to stay at Trichur. They even had an English Club. So, Lawrence was not looked upon as a stranger here.”


On his return to England, Lawrence sent Govinda Menon an autographed copy of Letters of Lawrence. The book has a photograph of Lawrence with his four brothers and on one of the pages, yellowed by time, has the words, ‘In memory of happy days.’


Later, Lawrence gave up his colonial title, joined the Royal Air Force as a messenger boy and changed his name to T.E. Shaw. It was an effort to disguise his celebrityhood, an attempt at anonymity. Still hounded by the limelight, he planned to retire to his dream home, Clouds Hill, when he died in a motorcycle accident.


Venugopal treasures photographs of his grandfather and Lawrence shot during their Oxford days (1910-1913). “My grandfather was very close to the Lawrence family. He was almost like a member of the family. After Lawrence’s death his mother sent my grandfather the Bible she had probably gifted to her son, and his brother Montague sent him a copy of Lawrence’s seminal work Seven Pillars of Wisdom. They remain my most treasured possessions.”


(Source: The Hindu)

Wednesday, 28 July 2021

Did you know that a coronavirus epidemic hit 20,000 years ago?

Scientists say that a few dozen human genes rapidly evolved in ancient East Asia to thwart coronavirus infections. Those genes could be crucial to today’s pandemic.


Researchers have found evidence that a coronavirus epidemic swept East Asia some 20,000 years ago and was devastating enough to leave an evolutionary imprint on the DNA of people alive today.


The new study suggests that an ancient coronavirus plagued the region for many years, researchers say. The finding could have dire implications for the COVID-19 pandemic if it is not brought under control soon through vaccination.


“It should make us worry,” said David Enard, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Arizona who led the study, which was published on Thursday in the journal Current Biology. “What is going on right now might be going on for generations and generations.”


Until now, researchers could not look back very far into the history of this family of pathogens. Over the past 20 years, three coronaviruses have adapted to infect humans and cause severe respiratory disease: COVID-19, SARS and MERS. Studies on each of these coronaviruses indicate that they jumped into our species from bats or other mammals.


Over the past 20 years, three coronaviruses have adapted to infect humans and cause severe respiratory disease: COVID-19, SARS and MERS. (Photo: AP)


Four other coronaviruses can also infect people, but they usually cause only mild colds. Scientists did not directly observe these coronaviruses becoming human pathogens, so they have relied on indirect clues to estimate when the jumps happened. Coronaviruses gain new mutations at a roughly regular rate, and so comparing their genetic variation makes it possible to determine when they diverged from a common ancestor.


The most recent of these mild coronaviruses, called HCoV-HKU1, crossed the species barrier in the 1950s. The oldest, called HCoV-NL63, may date back as far as 820 years.


But before that point, the coronavirus trail went cold – until Enard and his colleagues applied a new method to the search. Instead of looking at the genes of the coronaviruses, the researchers looked at the effects on the DNA of their human hosts.


Over generations, viruses drive enormous amounts of change in the human genome. A mutation that protects against a viral infection may well mean the difference between life and death, and it will be passed down to offspring. A lifesaving mutation, for example, might allow people to chop apart a virus’s proteins.


But viruses can evolve, too. Their proteins can change shape to overcome a host’s defences. And those changes might spur the host to evolve even more counteroffensives, leading to more mutations.


When a random new mutation happens to provide resistance to a virus, it can swiftly become more common from one generation to the next. And other versions of that gene, in turn, become rarer. So if one version of a gene dominates all others in large groups of people, scientists know that is most likely a signature of rapid evolution in the past.


In recent years, Enard and his colleagues have searched the human genome for these patterns of genetic variation in order to reconstruct the history of an array of viruses. When the pandemic struck, he wondered whether ancient coronaviruses had left a distinctive mark of their own.


He and his colleagues compared the DNA of thousands of people across 26 different populations around the world, looking at a combination of genes known to be crucial for coronaviruses but not other kinds of pathogens. In East Asian populations, the scientists found that 42 of these genes had a dominant version. That was a strong signal that people in East Asia had adapted to an ancient coronavirus.


But whatever happened in East Asia seemed to have been limited to that region. “When we compared them to populations around the world, we couldn’t find the signal,” said Yassine Souilmi, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Adelaide in Australia and a co-author of the new study.


The scientists then tried to estimate how long ago East Asians had adapted to a coronavirus. They took advantage of the fact that once a dominant version of a gene starts being passed down through the generations, it can gain harmless random mutations. As more time passes, more of those mutations accumulate.


Enard and his colleagues found that the 42 genes all had about the same number of mutations. That meant that they had all rapidly evolved at about the same time. “This is a signal we should absolutely not expect by chance,” Enard said.


They estimated that all of those genes evolved their antiviral mutations sometime between 20,000 and 25,000 years ago, most likely over the course of a few centuries. It’s a surprising finding, since East Asians at the time were not living in dense communities but instead formed small bands of hunter-gatherers.


Aida Andres, an evolutionary geneticist at the University College London who was not involved in the new study, said she found the work compelling. “I’m quite convinced there’s something there,” she said.


Still, she didn’t think it was possible yet to make a firm estimate of how long ago the ancient epidemic took place. “The timing is a complicated thing,” she said. “Whether that happened a few thousand years before or after – I personally think it’s something that we cannot be as confident of.”


Scientists looking for drugs to fight the new coronavirus might want to scrutinize the 42 genes that evolved in response to the ancient epidemic, Souilmi said. “It’s actually pointing us to molecular knobs to adjust the immune response to the virus,” he said.


Anders agreed, saying that the genes identified in the new study should get special attention as targets for drugs. “You know that they’re important,” she said. “That’s the nice thing about evolution.”


By Carl Zimmer © The New York Times

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


(Source: CNA Lifestyle)

Thursday, 22 July 2021

This entire country is haunted

As we’re seeing more and more every day, this entire country is a real-life Indian burial ground—one that criminals parading as teachers, religious leaders and politicians took great care to cover up, writes Alicia Elliott.  

A mere 15-minute drive from where I now type this in Brantford, Ont., is the Mohawk Institute, one of the oldest residential schools in Canada. It’s a building whose purpose—which, in Sir John A. Macdonald’s words, was to withdraw Indigenous children “as much as possible from parental influence” so they could “acquire the habits and modes of thought of white men”—had been established for 36 more years than Canada as an independent nation had even existed. Remember this.


In 2016, I went to an art and performance installation on the grounds of the Mohawk Institute, otherwise known to the hundreds of Indigenous students who were trapped within its walls over its 139 years as “the Mush Hole.” They called it such because, despite the students working on nearby farms without pay as soon as school was done, thus furnishing the staff dining table with fresh, delicious produce, the children themselves had nothing more to eat than mush. Sometimes the mush had worms crawling in it. It didn’t matter. That was what they were fed. Remember this, too.


The Mohawk Institute Residential School, referred to by former students as ‘the Mush Hole’ (Photograph by Alex Jacobs-Blum)


The art exhibit was called The Mush Hole Project. Survivors of the school acted as tour guides, leading us through the still-standing building—the places where the children bunked, the places where they were “taught.” Our tour guide was a woman from my reserve, Six Nations of the Grand River. Her daughter and granddaughter were on the tour with us. This was the first time either of them had heard their mother/grandmother speak of her experiences. She spoke in few words about the physical and emotional pain of having her language beaten out of her. Her daughter later spoke of how she and her own daughter were learning Kanien’kéha. The woman who had attended the school said nothing. It was as if, along with English, she had been taught the Christian tradition of silence. These days, I’m recognizing it’s also a Canadian tradition.


As soon as the tour took us into the boiler room, I felt physically sick. My stomach dropped and my head started to hurt and I focused on the words coming from our tour guide’s mouth: that this was where many Indigenous children were taken by staff to be abused, because the sound of the boiler would better mask their screams. Don’t even bother trying to forget this.


Before that moment, I had always wondered whether ghosts were real. I’d watched horror movies about angry poltergeists slamming furniture around old houses and Ouija boards whose planchettes seemed to move by themselves, spelling out otherworldly knowledge. But there, in that room, as my chest got heavy with breath that felt barricaded in my lungs, I was certain: this place was haunted. The pain those Anglican priests and teachers caused those children—many from my rez—lingered thick in the air. Like the criminals they were, the priests and teachers found the room most likely to help them hide their crimes. Remember this most of all.


A building built on an Indian burial ground is a trope in horror movies. The protagonists in these films are always white families who are pure and innocent as the snow. They step into these houses or hotels unaware of the Indigenous blood that was spilled before they came. If they find out about the history of the land they’re settling, the haunting that colonialism has created, like in Pet Sematary, that doesn’t stop them from settling in and expecting uninterrupted colonial happiness. After all, this land was cleared for them to settle.


And yet, once the haunting starts, we’re not supposed to empathize with the nameless Indigenous people whose bodies were buried beneath these homes. We’re not supposed to even think of them. We’re supposed to empathize with the white families being terrorized—the very people who decided it was okay to build their lives atop Indigenous death.


The very people who thought that because they themselves didn’t commit the crimes that allowed them to have their homes on Native land, they were still somehow innocent.


As we’re seeing more and more every day, this entire country is a real-life Indian burial ground—one that criminals parading as teachers, religious leaders and politicians took great care to cover up. However, unlike the nameless, often nationless Indigenous people whose deaths are used to clumsily explain hauntings in the movies, the children whose tiny bodies have been unearthed on the grounds of residential schools across the country in recent weeks had names and nations and communities. They had families who ached for their return, who asked after them and were deliberately told nothing.


Just like those white families in horror movies, though, non-Indigenous people of Canada seem to believe they are innocent. If they don’t acknowledge the violence that’s been done historically on their behalf to Indigenous children via residential schools, if they don’t acknowledge the violence being done today to Indigenous children via the foster care system, then they can continue their lives, unencumbered by inconvenient guilt. They lean into the silence that’s expected of them, hoping that the nationalistic myth of Canada—polite, multicultural, consistently more tolerant and humanitarian than the United States—will overcome the gruesome facts of how this country was actually forged.


But the reality is this entire country is haunted by the violence enacted to create what we now call “Canada.” These acts were done on behalf of every non-Indigenous family who proudly calls themselves Canadians, because this is what its leaders deemed necessary to carve out this colonial, capitalist nation from the already occupied land it once was.


We can no longer ignore the human cost of creating this haunted nation. In fact, we must remember. The question is: what, if anything, will this country, its leaders and its citizens do to actually show that they’ve changed?


* Alicia Elliott is a Mohawk writer and author of the award-winning book A Mind Spread Out on the Ground.


(Source: Macleans)

Wednesday, 21 July 2021

Modhu Bose, the man who brought ‘Parallel Cinema’ to India

If we thought Parallel Cinema movement started in India in 1950s, well, then we are wrong. Much before Bengal and India produced world class directors like Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak, there was a filmmaker born in 1900 in Kolkata. He was Modhu Bose, at times known as the Renaissance Man of Indian cinema for the fresh ideas of parallel cinema that he brought almost a century ago.

Born into an illustrious family with Kamala Dutt as his mother, who founded Kamala Girls School and geologist Pramatha Nath Basu as his father, it was quite expected that Modhu Bose will do something different in life! He was schooled both in Darjeeling and in Santiniketan. Even Rabindranath Tagore was moved by his talent in performing arts and chose him to play a part in Valmiki-Pratibha. But before the play could be staged, Modhu Bose had to leave Santiniketan as his father got transferred to Ranchi. The family moved around the country often, which brought Bose in contact with people from different classes and backgrounds. This probably helped hint o develop a wider vision of the world and for a young curious creative mind, it acted as an elixir. 



After pursuing a series of desk jobs, Bose got his break in cinema after an accidental meeting with production designer Himashu Rai, who was in Jaipur working for legendary German filmmaker Franz Austen. Modhu landed up as an intern with Austen and diligently handled everything from production to marketing for Light of Asia, that turned to be a hit.


Himashu Rai was impressed with Bose’s work and he was invited to Emelka Studio in Munich, Germany that was one of the leading studios at that time. This was a big break for Bose. Here he met Alfred Hitchcock and became the first filmmaker from India to work closely with a director in a major Hollywood set-up. Returning to India, he concentrated on theatre and staged Prahlad at the Globe Theatre, written by his mother. Next came Alibaba, staged at the Roxy. 


With 1937’s Alibaba, Bose found international recognition. However, it was his wife Sadhana Basu who garnered the most praise for her performance in the musical. Later he also staged notable titles such as Dahlia (1930), The Court Dancer: Raj Nartaki (1941), Michael Modhusudhan (1950) and Bireswar Vivekananda (1956). He was praised for the out-of-the-box lighting concept for Tagore’s Manbhonjon.


Acclaimed actor-director Utpal Dutt credits his success in part to Bose. In an interview he once said: Modhu Bose taught me the difference between acting for film and on stage. If anyone is to be praised for Michael Modhusudhan, it is Modhu Bose, not me.” 


(Source: Get Bengal)


Tuesday, 20 July 2021

Really, here’s why you should read Proust

Marcel Proust's Biographer Makes the Case


In Search of Lost Time, like many great literary works, is a quest whose structure resembles that of a symphony. The novel’s major themes—love, art, time, and memory—are carefully and brilliantly orchestrated throughout the book. The opening pages, which Proust called the overture, state in a musical, intimate, and subtle manner the goal of the quest, which is to find the answer to life’s essential questions: Who am I? What am I to make of this life? As Proust’s title indicates, the main character, known as the Narrator or Marcel, is searching for his own identity and the meaning of life. As he tells his story, he speaks to us in a voice that is one of the most engaging and enchanting in all of literature.


I always tell anyone who might be intimidated by the many pages to be read that, although In Search of Lost Time is rich and complex and demands an attentive reader, the novel is never difficult. In spite of its length and complexity, most readers find it readily accessible. Vladimir Nabokov, who considered it the best novel of its era, described its major themes and effervescent, Mozartean style: “The transmutation of sensation into sentiment, the ebb and tide of memory, waves of emotions such as desire, jealousy, and artistic euphoria—this is the material of this enormous and yet singularly light and translucent work.” In spite of its “enormity” and complexity, Proust’s book has never been out of print and has been translated into well over 40 languages. In Search of Lost Time has not been kept alive by the academy. The work is seldom taught in its entirety in university courses, but maintains its presence among us thanks to readers all over the world who return to it again and again.




Over the years, I have received unsolicited testimony from many such readers who say that Proust changed their lives by giving them a new and richer way of looking at the world. In fact, rendre visible (to make visible) is Proust’s succinct definition of what an original artist does. In Proust’s case, I think he helps us to see the world as it really is, not only its extraordinary beauty and diversity, but his observations make us aware of how we perceive and how we interact with others, showing us how often we are mistaken in our own assumptions and how easy it is to have a biased view of another person. And I think the psychology and motivation of Proust’s characters are as rewardingly complex as are those of Shakespeare’s characters. Just as the Bard describes Cleopatra, many of Proust’s characters are creatures of “infinite variety.” Speaking of Shakespeare, Shelby Foote, in an interview, placed Proust in the top tier of writers he most admired: “Proust has been the man that hung the moon for me. He’s with Shakespeare in my mind, in the sense of having such a various talent. Whenever you read Proust, for the rest of your life, he’s part of you, the way Shakespeare is part of you. I don’t want to exaggerate, but I truly feel that he is the great writer of the 20th century.”


Great texts are those that involve the reader to an extraordinary degree. We find ourselves placed at the center of the action. In Proust’s case, because of the intimate, engaging first-person narrative, we become the hero’s companion as he seeks to discover the truth about the human condition. In order to discover the truth about our experience and depict it in a novel, Proust brought to bear his extraordinary powers of observation and analysis. Joseph Conrad saw this endless probing as the key to his genius: “Proust’s work . . . is great art based on analysis. I don’t think there is in all creative literature an example of the power of analysis such as this.”


And how does In Search of Lost Time continue to speak to generation after generation in a voice that seems fresh and vigorous? Far from being the culminating opus of decadent literature, as some early critics believed, this novel constitutes one of the most dynamic texts ever written. Its tremendous energy acts as a rejuvenating force. All its narrative elements—plot, characters, style—create, as Iris Murdoch said of its effect, “the most intense pleasure which one does take in great art.”


Here are a few of the outstanding features of this novel: It is arguably the best book ever written about perception. (Proust’s legendary hypersensitivity is obviously linked to his skills as a writer.) He was the first novelist to analyze and depict the full spectrum of human sexuality. There are even passages that might allow him to claim to be the founder of gender studies and a proponent of gay marriage. And his sense of humor allows him to create comic scenes that satirize the foibles and vanity of his characters, especially those of high society. Proust fits perfectly Gilles Deleuze’s definition of a great author: “A great author is one who laughs a lot.”


My favorite quote by one famous writer about another is Virginia Woolf’s description of her reaction to Proust’s prose:

Proust so titillates my own desire for expression that I can hardly set out the sentence. Oh if I could write like that! I cry. And at the moment such is the astonishing vibration and saturation and intensification that he procures—there’s something sexual in it—that I feel I can write like that, and seize my pen and then I can’t write like that. Scarcely anyone so stimulates the nerves of language in me: it becomes an obsession. But I must return to Swann.


Proust’s words have enchanted Virginia Woolf and many other writers, dramatists, filmmakers, and choreographers so that often his book becomes a central or significant element in their works. Here is one example: In Search of Lost Time and Albertine, one of its major characters, play a role in Iris Murdoch’s The Good Apprentice. Near the end of her novel, we find Edward, one of the main characters, resuming his reading of Proust:


“Oh—Proust—” Edward had been looking for the passage which had so amazed him . . . about Albertine going out in the rain on her bicycle, but he couldn’t find it. He had turned to the beginning. [Longtemps, je me suis couché de bonne heure.] What a lot of pain there was in those first pages. What a lot of pain there was all the way through. So how was it that the whole thing could vibrate with such a pure joy? This was something which Edward was determined to find out.


Although we do not know whether Edward found the answer, Murdoch’s tease at the end of her book is intended as an invitation for us to make our own investigation. This joy stems in part, I believe, from the compassion Proust shows for his characters, even those with whom he finds the most fault. He loves and wants to redeem them all, a sentiment that constitutes a powerful moral force, endowing his characters with life and making them seem real. Pamela Hansford Johnson, another British writer, sees this as his novel’s great lesson: “There is no novel in the world that changes its readers more profoundly . . . above all it teaches compassion, that relaxing of the mind into gentleness which makes life at once infinitely more complex and infinitely more tolerable.” And: “Proust makes the reader love [the Narrator] so that Proust himself, perhaps more than any writer except Shakespeare, becomes an intimate.”


In the closing pages, Proust urges each of us to comprehend, develop, and deploy our remarkable faculties. He intends his entire enterprise to persuade us that we are incredibly rich instruments, but that most often we let our gifts lie dormant or we squander them. The joy that so many readers feel at the conclusion of the book derives from the long-delayed triumph of the hero and the realization that we too can, by following his example, attempt to lead the true life. When the Narrator completes his quest, after many ups and downs and misunderstandings, the myriad themes—major and minor—beautifully orchestrated throughout, are gloriously resolved in the grand finale. This happy ending makes In Search of Lost Time a comedy of the highest order, one that amuses, delights, and frequently dazzles, as it instructs.


Shelby Foote, as a writer, had a unique relationship with Proust’s novel in that each time he finished one of his own novels or his vast history of the Civil War, he gave himself a special reward: “I’ve always given myself a reward when I finish something and the reward I give myself is always the same thing. I read A la recherche du temps perdu. That’s my big prize. C’est mon grand prix. I think I’ve read it nine times, now. It’s like a two-month vacation because it takes that long to read Proust. I like it better than going to Palm Beach.”


Why did Foote always give himself the same reward on finishing one of his own books? And why does he say that reading Proust is better than spending two months in Palm Beach? It is because he feels on each reading the rejuvenating power that we all experience in the presence of great art. In fact, Proust says that this is the seul bain de Jouvence, the only Fountain of Youth. All the labor and love that an author (or artist, or musician, or scientist—all examples illustrated by Proust) puts into such a creation has a powerful, rejuvenating effect on the reader. I urge anyone who loves books and who has not yet discovered Proust’s novel to pick up Swann’s Way and dive right in. I assure you that you will be richly rewarded.

(Source: Lit Hub) 

Monday, 19 July 2021

How Gorky’s adopted son became a French diplomat

 Zinovy Peshkov came from a poor provincial Jewish family, but thanks to his natural talents, he had a brilliant career and even became friends with Charles de Gaulle.

Zinovy Peshkov was a son of a Nizhny Novgorod craftsman, who became a French military commander and diplomat. He was a brother of the famous revolutionary Yakov Sverdlov, but an ardent anti-Bolshevik. A graduate of a provincial parish school, he spoke on equal terms with great writers, military leaders and politicians. Zinovy Peshkov had an amazing life story, full of unexpected twists and turns.  


Adopted by Maxim Gorky 

A future French legionnaire and friend of Charles de Gaulle, Zinovy Sverdlov was born in 1884 to the family of a Jewish craftsman in Nizhny Novgorod. The world famous Russian writer Maxim Gorky (his real name was Alexey Peshkov) came from the same city. Gorky knew the Sverdlov family and was particularly fond of Zinovy, an inquisitive and enthusiastic kid.




The young man soon joined the writer’s circle, where he met many rebellious intellectuals and developed an enthusiasm for revolutionary ideas, which even landed him in trouble with the police. They say that after Zinovy converted to the Russian Orthodox Church, his Jewish family renounced him and Gorky adopted him, giving the young man his name. 


Zinovy was very gifted artistically. He had a beautiful voice and a great ear for music and even considered becoming a professional musician. However, his life took a different turn. At the age of 20, Zinovy left Russia in search of adventure and interesting work. Another motive was to escape the watchful eye of the police...  


A friend of de Gaulle 

Canada, the U.S., New Zealand... Abroad, Peshkov worked as a loader at a brick factory, at a fur factory and in a printing house. He tried his hand at business, but went bankrupt. He had relative success working in a Russian publishing house in the U.S., before travelling to France, where he found himself caught in the outbreak of World War I. 

Unlike the revolutionaries he used to know back in Russia, Zinovy did not want Russia and its allies to suffer a defeat in the war. Without a second thought, he signed up as a volunteer. Since foreigners were not allowed to join the French army, he ended up in the Foreign Legion.


In 1915, in an attack near Arras, Peshkov was badly wounded in the arm. The orderlies thought there was no hope for him and wanted to leave him on the battlefield. However, Zinovy’s life was saved by a lieutenant named Charles de Gaulle, who insisted that the wounded soldier be evacuated from the field. Zinovy was then sent to an American hospital in Neuilly.


The arm had to be amputated, but the patient showed great perseverance and learned to manage perfectly well with one arm. That same year, under an order from Marshal Joffre, the Russian legionnaire was awarded the Croix de Guerre with palm at a ceremony in Les Invalides. As for his savior de Gaulle, the two men would become friends. And there was a new war awaiting them... 


An enemy with his brother 

At first, both Zinovy and his brother Yakov were quite taken with revolutionary ideas. However, in the end, different life paths led them to opposite sides of the barricades, turning them into ideological enemies. Zinovy did not accept the Bolshevik Revolution, with its violence and desire to seize and divide everything.


“With him, it was more about some romantic notions of revolutions, which were typical of the young generation at the time. It is for a reason that, after 1917, he never returned to Russia, although, without a doubt, he could have, had he wanted to. Peshkov had long developed different values and ideals. That is why in the Civil War he found himself on the side of the White Army,” says writer and journalist Armen Gasparyan, a member of the Russian Military Historical Society and author of numerous books on Russian military history. 


In the meantime, Zinovy’s brother Yakov became one of the leaders of the Red Terror, a mastermind of repressions against the Cossacks and one of the officials behind the decision to execute the royal family.Yakov publicly disowned his brother, who had become an “agent of the Entente”. In early 1919, Zinovy sent a telegram to Yakov: “Yashka, when we take Moscow, we will hang Lenin first and you second, for what you did to Russia!” But Yashka did not have long to live: in March 1919, he died of the Spanish flu, which was raging in Russia at the time. At least, that was the official version...


It was known that Lenin was not too fond of dangerous rivals.  


Russian-French agent 

His shrewdness and cunning, the ease with which he established contacts, his rhetorical talent and ability to win people over did not go unnoticed in certain circles in France. That was how Peshkov began his diplomatic career. He hit the ground running: very soon Zinovy was sent on very serious and sometimes secret missions to different countries. 


During the Russian Civil War, Peshkov was a member of the French diplomatic mission in the country. He took an active part in the famine relief effort, arranging deliveries of goods from Le Havre and Marseille. He also helped many compatriots to evacuate from war-ravaged Russia.


His next mission was a military one. Peshkov travelled to Morocco, where he was assigned command of a company. The writer André Maurois described him as follows: “…One of those commanders who know how to boost the morale of the humiliated and the insulted, inspiring them to join in the task that the Foreign Legion inherited from the legions of the Roman Empire - the task of serving civilization. When Zinovy Peshkov talks about the Legion, his eyes glint with emotion. He is an apostle of this religion.” 


Despite Peshkov’s anti-Bolshevik views, the French security services kept a close eye on him: After all, his brother was a prominent Bolshevik in Russia and his father was a writer favored by the Soviet regime. That aroused a lot of suspicion. However, today historians are convinced that those suspicions were totally unfounded. “Peshkov certainly did not work for the 7th Directorate of the NKVD of the USSR. Moscow had other sources of information in France. 

But the suspicions that arose are understandable. The papers at the time were full of articles exposing Bolshevik gangsters in Paris. Many emigrants were under suspicion, so it is not surprising that a striking character like Peshkov was, too. But, as far as I know, the Sûreté did not find a single fact indicating his possible ties with Moscow,” Armen Gasparyan said. 


Loyal to France to the last 

In 1940, Zinovy refused to recognize the power of the Nazi occupiers and to serve under the Germans’ command. He was arrested and sentenced to death by a military tribunal. But here, too, he was, once again, saved by his talent of a diplomat and his combat experience in hot spots: he managed to turn his guard, exchange the gold watch that Maxim Gorky had gifted him for a grenade, take the commander hostage, seize a plane and fly it to join de Gaulle’s forces. 


His old friend knew Peshkov’s talents well and entrusted him with serious assignments. Zinovy worked in South Africa to persuade the local authorities to side with the allies. Then, he became the head of the French mission in China and, later, in Japan. Finally, he was elevated to the rank of ambassador. 


During World War II, Zinovy Peshkov received numerous decorations and distinctions, becoming a brigadier general of the French army. He retired in 1950, a highly decorated officer, including with a Grand Cross of the Legion of Honor, and lived in Paris, on rue Lauriston. 


Zinovy died at the age of 82 in Paris and was buried in the cemetery in Sainte-Genevieve-des-Bois. The ceremony was attended by prominent French military figures and politicians. In line with his will, his tombstone carries a simple inscription: “Zinovy Peshkov, a legionnaire.”


(Source: Russia Beyond)

Sunday, 18 July 2021

‘He died in agony’: how mistaken identity led to a man’s execution

 Shocking documentary The Phantom, the story of Carlos DeLuna, an innocent man accused of murder, shines a light on the many problems with the death penalty


In the final minutes of The Phantom, Patrick Forbes’ shattering new documentary on the American death penalty, a prosecutor from Texas who possesses an uncanny resemblance to a grizzly bear shares with us his thoughts on crime and punishment. “The justice system’s about keeping people from killing each other,” Steve Schiwetz begins.


“Does it work perfectly?” he goes on, the faintest smile flickering disconcertingly across his face. “Of course not, nothing does. We’re humans.”


And then, in one of several jaw-dropping instances in the movie, he quotes Immanuel Kant. “The crooked timber of humanity, out of which nothing straight can be made. Right?”


The tableau leaves the viewer with so many bewildering questions. Is the prosecutor unaware of the booming irony of his comment that by sending people to the death chamber the state is trying to keep them from killing each other?


Carlos DeLuna is escorted by police. Photograph: Caller Times


What is a tough-as-steel criminal prosecutor in the violence-soaked city of Corpus Christi doing citing the German philosopher? Above all, can he not see the sickening implication of his reflection that we are all human, mistakes happen, when the context of his remark is the judicial killing of a death row prisoner?


Especially given that he, Steve Schiwetz, was lead prosecutor at the trial of Carlos DeLuna, a poor Hispanic Texan who was convicted of a murder that he did not commit and executed on 7 December 1989, aged 27, as an innocent man.


The Phantom, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival, is a journey into the heinousness at the heart of the US death penalty. Heinous not in the sense peddled by conventional true-crime documentaries with their psychopathic killer, blood-splattered crime scene and gruesomely murdered victim – though there is plenty of all that in this movie too.


But heinous in the sense that the death penalty itself is so often rotten to the core.


Forbes, an eclectic film-maker whose previous work includes documentaries on WikiLeaks and heart attacks, has never before strayed into the world of capital punishment. He emerged from the experience clearly shaken.


“At the end of the film I was angrier by far than when I started it,” he told the Guardian. “Everything in the Carlos DeLuna case that could go wrong did go wrong – there was no proper disclosure, the defense was completely underfunded, the appeal was rushed through. Not only was he killed an innocent man, the lethal injections didn’t work and he died in agony.”


Forbes’s curiosity in the story of Carlos DeLuna was piqued by a Guardian article from 2012 which reported on the discovery that the state of Texas had sent the wrong man to his death. The article was based on an exceptional piece of sleuthing by a Columbia law professor, James Liebman, and his students who had set out to prove something that advocates of capital punishment vehemently deny – that mistakes are made and innocent prisoners die.


The resulting book, The Wrong Carlos, provides a forensic deconstruction of a judicial screw-up of astronomical proportions. DeLuna, then 20, was arrested on 4 February 1983 for the brutal murder of Wanda Lopez, a young woman working at a service station in the coastal city of Corpus Christi on the Gulf of Mexico.


From his arrest until the day of his execution, DeLuna protested his innocence. Not only did he insist he wasn’t the murderer, he identified who was – his tocayo, namesake in Spanish, Carlos Hernandez. DeLuna said that on the night of Lopez’s murder he had stumbled on the scene at the service station and witnessed the other Carlos stabbing Lopez to death. DeLuna said he was terrified by what he saw and fled – only to be caught by police in Hernandez’s place.


The two Carloses not only shared the same name, they also looked remarkably similar, to the extent they were often mistaken as twins. Hernandez had a long criminal record, including numerous raps for violently assaulting women using exactly the same type of knife, a lock-blade buck knife, that killed Lopez.




He had been a suspect in the knife murder of another woman investigated by the same local prosecutor’s office, and may well have been a minor police informant in Corpus Christi known well to the authorities. Yet at trial, Schiwetz told the jury that Carlos Hernandez did not exist. He was a figment of the defendant’s imagination – “the phantom” of the movie’s title.


Forbes said that the instant he read the Guardian article, he was hooked. “I thought this is the most extraordinary story, it’s the stuff of drama. Not only was there an innocent man unjustly convicted, but it was a capital case and he went to his death.”

The film-maker said he was drawn to the narrative because it raised such vital questions about truth and preconceptions. 


“Initially, everybody believed one truth: Carlos DeLuna was guilty. He had a criminal record, he was found hiding under a truck close to the murder scene, and he concocted this ridiculous defense that the murderer wasn’t him but another guy called Carlos. Yeah, right.”


Over the eight years the documentary was in gestation, Forbes set himself two ambitions. First, he wanted to make a 360-degree picture. “I wanted everybody talking. That was key. I wanted everyone involved telling the story, not me narrating as the voice of God.”


The second ambition was to eschew the tired visual compromise served up by so many documentaries in which interviewees are plonked on a sofa in front of a bank of lights and statically recorded. “I thought, we can try harder than that. In a film, characters don’t sit still on sofas, they move from location to location. I wanted to capture them in the place where they were frightened, where they fell in love, where they did something terrible. That way the whole thing comes alive.”


The combination of these two goals led Forbes to some of the film’s most compelling content. We hear Schiwetz quoting Kant from the very courtroom where he told the jury that Carlos Hernandez was a “phantom”.


We hear from Margie Tapia, who is filmed inside the house where Carlos Hernandez, the phantom, kept her locked up and abused over months. She describes how he would beat and rape her, and threaten her, yes, with a knife.


We hear too from a woman called Dina Ybañez, crouching behind a curtain in fear even years later. She rented a room out to Carlos Hernandez. One day he came back from work and pulled out a lock-blade buck knife.


“He stabbed me,” Ybañez says, unbuttoning her shirt to reveal a scar running from below her belly-button to her breastbone. “I pulled the knife from me. He told me, the next time, he was going to make sure I die.”


Forbes said that was one of the most moving scenes he has shot as a documentary-maker. “It was so straightforwardly human. 


She was still traumatized. The almost childlike nature of the moment – ‘Look, I’m going to show you.’ I thought, that’s what living with a psychopath really involves, something awful can happen at any time.”


Forbes’s determination to capture voices in the actual location of the events they narrate not only generated dramatic energy for the film, it unearthed new leads in the DeLuna case. The most astonishing came when the crew was recreating DeLuna’s arrest on the night of Lopez’s murder.


They had procured a blue Chevy truck and parked it on the exact spot where the arrest took place, with an actor playing DeLuna crouching underneath it just as DeLuna did 38 years ago. Another actor then ran past simulating the fleeing of Hernandez after the stabbing.


As the cameras were rolling, neighbours from either side of the street came out to see what all the kerfuffle was about. One of them, Raymond Nunez, got chatting to a producer and explained that he had lived in the same house overlooking the scene of DeLuna’s arrest since the 1980s and remembered that night vividly.


He’d been watching Jaws on the TV and heard “a lot of ruckus outside”. Looking out of the window, he saw a Hispanic man running and ducking under the Chevy van.

Then about 30 seconds later he saw a second Hispanic man run down the street before disappearing.


Forbes was incredulous when he heard this account – Nunez must have read about the DeLuna case and was telling the film-makers what he thought they wanted to hear. But Nunez turned out to be a highly believable witness: he had no criminal record, was a respected hospital worker and, indeed, had lived in the same house since the 1980s.


Then one of the film crew had the inspired idea of checking the TV schedule for 4 February 1983. There it was on ABC’s guide for that night: Jaws.


It was the first eyewitness account ever obtained to have reported that not one but two Hispanic men fled from the crime scene. Remarkably, Nunez had never been interviewed by police.


Even more remarkably, it transpired that police had never, even in a case that would end in execution, carried out a house-to-house of the surrounding neighbourhood.


By the end of The Phantom, the discrepancies in the prosecution case are so legion that doubts about DeLuna’s innocence are obliterated. The crime scene was awash with blood, yet at his arrest DeLuna had no blood on him, not even microscopic traces.

Schiwetz had an office about 40ft away from that of another prosecutor who tells the film that he told Schiwetz about Carlos Hernandez when the name was invoked in Carlos DeLuna’s defense at trial. Yet still Schiwetz told the jury he was a phantom.


Forbes has come away from the intense experience of creating The Phantom with several burning lessons. For one, always question the truth. “Examine your preconceptions, because what you think is true may not be true,” he said.


Then there is race. The Carlos who was executed, the Carlos who got away, and the victim Wanda Lopez were all poor Hispanic people who counted for very little in the eyes of those with power.

Racial disparities continue to distort the death penalty in Texas to this day. In the last decade, over 60% of those executed by the state have been people of color.


Rene Rodriguez, a late lawyer who represented Lopez’s family in the case, describes on camera the prevailing attitude of prosecutors and police in Texas in the 1980s: “If it involves somebody of color, they just don’t give a shit. That’s one less Mexican. That’s the way it was back then.”


Above all, this is a story about the fallibility of justice, and what that means when a person’s life is at stake. It’s all very well for Schiwetz to quote Kant on the “crooked timber of humanity”, but that doesn’t bring Carlos DeLuna back from the grave.


Nor will it bring justice for Wanda Lopez, so brutally slain in the service station. The Phantom, Carlos Hernandez, was sentenced to 10 years in prison for the attack on Ybañez just two months before his namesake was executed and died of natural causes in 1999 while serving time for a further knife offence.


Forbes hopes that his movie will have significance in encouraging Americans to stand up and say no to a judicial system that kills innocent people. A petition has been launched in tandem with the release of The Phantom with the backing of the Innocence Project, Equal Justice USA and other leading campaigns to pressure President Biden to immediately end the US government’s practice of executions by commuting the death sentences of all 50 inmates on federal death row.


Last Thursday the US attorney general, Merrick Garland, announced a moratorium on federal executions while a review is conducted, in what campaigners hope will be the first step towards a permanent ban.


Carlos DeLuna won’t get his life back, but for Forbes it would at least be something. “His story shows that capital punishment has no place in a civilized society. If a mistake of this gravity can happen, there is no justification for the death penalty.”


(Source: The Guardian)

Saturday, 17 July 2021

The rise and fall of the world’s largest lake

 When continental plates smashed together about 12 million years ago, they didn’t just raise new mountains in central Europe—they created the largest lake the world has ever known. This vast body of water—the Paratethys Sea—came to host species found nowhere else, including the world’s smallest whales. Two new studies reveal how the ancient body of water took shape and how surrounding changes helped give rise to elephants, giraffes, and other large mammals that wander the planet today.

To build that timeline, paleo-oceanographer Dan Palcu of the University of São Paulo and his colleagues at the main campus assembled clues from geological and fossil records. At its largest, the body of water—which some scientists consider to have been an inland sea—stretched from the eastern Alps into what is now Kazakhstan, covering more than 2.8 million square kilometers. That’s an area larger than today’s Mediterranean Sea, they write this week in Scientific Reports. Their analyses further estimate the lake once contained more than 1.77 million cubic kilometers of water, more than 10 times the volume found in all of today’s fresh- and saltwater lakes combined.


At its largest, the megalake Paratethys (shown superimposed on modern geography) stretched from the eastern Alps to today’s Kazakhstan. DAN PALCU; NATURAL EARTH


But climate shifts caused the lake to shrink dramatically at least four times in its 5-million-year lifetime, with water levels falling by as much as 250 meters between 7.65 million and 7.9 million years ago. During that largest episode of contraction, the lake lost as much as one-third of its water and more than two-thirds of its surface area. That sent water salinity in the lake’s central basin—which closely matches the outlines of today’s Black Sea—skyrocketing, from about one-third as salty as today’s oceans to a level on par with seawater.


Those shifts wiped out many aquatic species, including numerous species of single-celled algae and other small free-floating organisms, the researchers report. Creatures that could survive the brackish water, including some mollusks, survived to repopulate the lake when it expanded during wetter times, Palcu says.


The Paratethys soon became home to a wide variety of mollusks, crustaceans, and marine mammals found nowhere else on Earth. Many of the whales, dolphins, and seals living there were miniature versions of those found in open seas, says evolutionary biologist Pavel Gol’din of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine’s I. I. Schmalhausen Institute of Zoology, who was not involved with the work. One species, the 3-meter-long Cetotherium riabinini—1 meter shorter than today’s bottlenose dolphin—is the smallest whale ever found in the fossil record. Such dwarfism might have helped these animals adapt to a shrinking Paratethys, Gol’din says.


The changes to the climate that triggered lake shrinkage also influenced the evolution of land animals, says evolutionary biologist Madelaine Böhme of the University of Tübingen. As water levels dropped, the newly exposed shorelines became grasslands—and hot spots for evolution, she notes.


The Paratethys Sea was home to many species found nowhere else, including Cetotherium riabinini (depicted with human for scale), the smallest known whale in the fossil record. PAVEL GOL’DIN; LENA GODLEVSKA/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS


Recently, Böhme and her colleagues focused on the geological record in western Iran, where sediments chronicle repeated long-term changes in climate. The fossil record shows that in areas north of the Paratethys, the ancestors of modern-day sheep and goats roamed side by side with primitive antelope. And in what is now western Iran, south of the lake, the progenitors of today’s giraffes and elephants thrived.


Four lengthy dry periods that occurred between 6.25 million and 8.75 million years ago likely drove those creatures to migrate southwestward into Africa, Böhme and her colleagues reported last month in Communications Earth & Environment. Here, they evolved to produce the diversity of creatures for which today’s African savanna is famous.


The Paratethys was destined for a sadder fate. It ceased to exist sometime between 6.7 million and 6.9 million years ago, when erosion created an outlet at the lake’s southwestern edge. This outlet—which is likely now submerged beneath the Aegean Sea—birthed a short river that eventually found its way to the Mediterranean. But the massive lake had one last hurrah, Palcu says: The water draining from it likely carved “an impressive waterfall” as it flowed down to the sea.


(Source: Science Mag)