Posts Tagged ‘Oxford University’

Carmen Bugan’s book on Romania – both heart-warming and spine-chilling

July 20, 2012

Carmen Bugan had an idyllic childhood in the Romanian countryside, relishing home-grown food, unspoilt nature, a benevolent climate and quaint old country customs. Her new book Burying the Typewriter in this respect reads like memoirs from elsewhere in Europe in the early 20th century.

Except that Carmen is in her early forties, and it comes as a shock to realise that this is Romania in the 1970s and 1980s – a land held back in cruel backwardness by the misguided tyranny of Nicolae Ceausescu. If electricity is scarce, that’s not because it has only just been invented. It’s because the regime cares nothing for the wellbeing of its people.

Shock number two comes as a teenager when Securitate police burst in on her when she’s alone at home, interrogate her for weeks, wire the house up with listening devices, come in and out at all times of the day and night, stop her going to school, and make her life a torment for year after year.

Unbeknown to the family, her father had paraded ostentatiously through the centre of Bucharest with protest banners against the communist regime. He was in prison, and the family from then on were pariahs. Only when the mother agreed to divorce her husband did the school allow Carmen to return to classes.

One or two people discreetly showed the family solidarity. But the majority of those around her had no scruples in ostracising them. So shock number three is that these collaborators in her persecution now carry passports of the European Union, despite having shamefully betraying the principles it stands for.

Carmen finally dared to contact the U.S. Embassy to ask for asylum for the family. As she crossed the square to the Embassy, Romanian guards converged to try to stop her while a female diplomat she’d alerted headed out of the gates to meet her. The diplomat reached her first. When she left to return home, the guards seized her and berated her as a treacherous whore. But the diplomat had told her she should say she was under the protection of the United States. It worked and they let her go.

Then followed emigration to the U.S. and scholarships to study at Oxford University. Surprise number four is how exquisitely Carmen writes. From her earliest youth, she immersed herself in the great authors of European literature. When the stress of persecution became intolerable, she wrote quatrains to relieve her despair.

Now, at little more than 40, she lives in Geneva with an Italian physicist husband and two small children. She has come far in a short time.

Burying the Typewriter is a masterpiece of refined expression and a moving story of the victory of light over darkness. Read it.

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Russian editor heckled at Oxford University

May 20, 2012

A senior Russian editor attracted a large audience at Oxford University today to hear her view of Putin’s Russia as seen from London, but found herself harangued by a couple of Russians with decidedly anti-British and pro-Putin views.

Irina Demchenko, Deputy Editor-in-Chief and UK Bureau Chief of RIA Novosti news agency criticised anti-Putin coverage of British media as superficial. But she herself was clearly none too enthusiastic about the prospect of another 12 years of Putin either. “Maybe he will still be there when I am taking my teeth at night and putting them in a glass,” she remarked gloomily.

She recalls the collapse of Communism when she was 30, and the subsequent years when she and her peers put politics aside and devoted themselves to ensuring a good education for the children with the possibility to meet people from other nations.

Now the young Russian intellectuals (average age 31) are out on the streets against Putin demanding political reform. He needs them to modernise Russia, but they have gone into opposition against him. “The government can’t do anything with them, nor without them,” she says.

When it comes to questions, up jumps a Russian with a speech about how well Russia is doing, how viciously anti-Russian the British government is, and how British newspapers editors are given orders about coverage by MI6 – the spy agency.  What was the question? Not much. Shortly afterwards, another Russian in the audience delivered a similar diatribe.

The atmosphere grew a little tense, and one participant asked Irina if she felt at risk because of her views about Putin.

An apt question. The wild allegations and latent menace in the interventions of the two Russians reminded me of my time as a Reuters correspondent in East Berlin and Prague before Gorbachev. I asked a question too, for which I was berated by one of the visitors as “a Cold War dinosaur.”

When somebody asked them who they were, they replied that they were research fellows. Mmm.


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