H-Net Review [H-SHERA]: Gapova on Astrouskaya, 'Cultural Dissent in Soviet Belarus (1968-1988): Intelligentsia, Samizdat and Nonconformist Discourses'

Andrew Stewart

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Andrew Stewart

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Tatsiana Astrouskaya.  Cultural Dissent in Soviet Belarus
(1968-1988): Intelligentsia, Samizdat and Nonconformist Discourses.  
Historische Belarus-Studien Series. Wiesbaden  Harrassowitz Verlag,
2019.  245 pp.  $65.00 (paper), ISBN 978-3-447-11188-1.

Reviewed by Elena Gapova (Western Michigan University)
Published on H-SHERA (March, 2021)
Commissioned by Hanna Chuchvaha

In _Cultural Dissent in Soviet Belarus_, Tatsiana Astrouskaya tells
the story of the plight of nonconformist Belarusian intelligentsia
during the last decades of Soviet rule. She focuses mostly on writers
and literati who used to have a place of honor in Soviet society,
where they enjoyed the status of public intellectuals and judges of
truth and morality. This material has never been studied before; in
general, Belarus has been considered a "voiceless" Soviet republic in
terms of dissent (especially if compared with neighboring Ukraine and
Lithuania). This new research problematizes this point of view, to a
great extent demonstrating that the reason for this perspective might
have been lack of published work on unconventional thinking in
Belarus, not the absence of nonconformity. While one may not
subscribe to the interpretations offered in the book in their
entirety, much of what is said is compelling and sometimes even
revealing, bringing to light a whole new layer of Belarusian cultural
and intellectual history, and weaving together events, names, ideas,
texts, and social connections.

The book is a published doctoral dissertation (defended in 2018),
which shows in its structure and general makeup. In Europe, at least
in Germany, Sweden, and some other countries, there is an academic
tradition of publishing dissertations as (first) books, which makes
it possible to disseminate findings and insights as soon as they
become available. However, some (smaller) academic publishers, while
professional in dealing with oeuvres in their national languages, do
not have personnel and resources to prepare works in English, and
this is the case with the book under discussion. Errors in English
grammar and syntax are abundant and sometimes hamper making sense of
what the author means in a particular sentence. I am bringing this
technical complaint up front to have my hands free of it to focus on
the work's ideas and interpretations in the rest of the review.

The book has 1968--the liminal year of the Prague Spring--in its
title: in the former socialist bloc, the date symbolizes both the
hopes and the demolition of post-Stalinist liberalization. However,
Astrouskaya starts her story much earlier, beginning with the period
still under Russian imperial rule. Chapter 2 ("The Intelligentsia,
Official and Uncensored Publishing: A Historical Background"), which
follows the introduction (chapter 1) explaining research questions,
methodology, and sources, provides a much longer historical line. It
goes all the way from the partition of Poland of 1772 (when
Belarusian lands were first incorporated into the Russian Empire)
through the nineteenth century, the revolution of 1917, the Soviet
period, with a glimpse of Belarusian intellectual life in Western
Belarus (then a part of Poland) between the two world wars, World War
II, and the first decade after it. This historical background is
supposed to set the stage for what comes later, affirming the issue
of writing and publishing in the Belarusian language as the key form
of cultural dissent (more on this below).

Chapters 3 to 6 cover the post-Stalinist period. They present in some
detail the life trajectories of several outstanding national literati
born before World War II (Maksim Tank, Vasil Bykau, and Uladzimir
Karatkevich, to name the most prominent ones), pay special attention
to cultural politics during "developed socialism," and celebrate
initiatives and projects that surfaced during perestroika. The author
carefully considers samizdat and uncensored publications of the
period and casts a brief glance at intelligentsia's reaction to
anti-Semitism and the Chernobyl nuclear disaster of 1986. Eventually,
the story reaches the lifting of censorship and transition to free
media during perestroika. The book also includes appendices with
tables of relevant publications and lists of renowned intellectuals
belonging to several generations detailing their dates of birth,
social origin, education, Communist Party membership, and other
relevant data. This material will be especially important for future
researchers of Belarusian intellectual history.

The focus of the book is on cultural dissent. While no concrete
definition of "dissent" is provided, it can be adequately described,
with few exceptions, through the concept of _raznomyslie_ or "the
diversity of thinking." Introduced some fifteen years ago by the
Russian sociologist Boris Firsov (_Diversity of Thinking in the USSR,
1940s-1960s: History, Theory and Practices_ [2008]) in relation to
post-Stalinist Soviet intelligentsia, it denotes an array of
practices and forms of expression that should not be considered as
political protest acts per se but rather as the realization of
intellectual autonomy. In its discussion of _raznomyslie_, the book
follows two paths: on the one hand, it considers unconventional ideas
that penetrated official literature; and on the other, it analyzes
(attempts of) periodical and non-periodical samizdat (_samvydat_, in
Belarusian) and _tamizdat _(foreign publications), and some other
forms of nonconformist intellectualism. Astrouskaya intends to
demonstrate that dissident ideas did not spread unidirectionally from
the center to the periphery but to prioritize "the
multi-directionality of cultutal relationships" (p. 5).

However, socialist dissent--the topic (and the very word)--is a
charged subject. There is a certain tradition, a preconceived
context, coming out of the Cold War in which it originated, and its
preexistence may "tint" more current perspectives with connotations
that are not easy to disentangle. Thus, when writing about dissent in
the former socialist bloc there is a temptation to succumb to the
well-established and still popular binary paradigm of
"totalitarianism" versus "freedom." Astrouskaya seeks to embrace a
more complex approach by recognizing that one could be a part of the
system yet still have a critical view of it. Assuming that "the
meandering between collaboration and resistance" was characteristic
of socialist intelligentsia throughout the region, she excapes from
justapositions and arrives, wisely, at more nuanced interpretations
of relationships and "negotiations" between intellectual elites and
Soviet authorities (p. 2). She writes about the blurriness of dissent
and official belonging, or, in her own words, "paradoxical
compromise" (p. 89).

This compromise deserves some attention. Many recognized
intellectuals of the older generation (born before World War II) used
to be Communist Party members. Vasyl Bykau, the most prominent of
them, was in the 1980s a deputy of the Supreme Soviet and a recipient
of the Lenin Prize in literature, the highest Soviet award. His works
were translated into all (or most) national languages of the USSR and
were published extensively with print runs that would be unthinkable
in the current market economy. As a recognized writer and a Soviet
"envoy," he traveled the world. At the same time, intelligentsia
(rightly) considered him a "rebel," a person who "told the truth"
about the real human price of Soviet victory in World War II and
terrible choices one had to make in the war zone.

The question is how to explain this paradox (in the Weberian sense of
_verstehen_ or "interpretative sociology"), which, in the long run,
is a question about sincerity and truth. Being a part of the system,
did socialist intellectuals lie? Or could they sincerely believe in
what they were doing on behalf of the system? Questions like these
can have meaningful answers if one recognizes that socialism was not
necessarily "evil" (as it is often presented) in the eyes of the
people who were a part of it: Bykau's generation considered their
country to be on the "right side of history" in its anti-fascist
struggle and in some other historical events as well. Suffice it to
say that most Soviet Belarusian writers addressed the events of World
War II in one way or another in their work, as Belarusians lost
one-fourth of their population (the highest ratio in the world) in
that conflict. This background matters for any discussion of the
period. However, treating World War II (or, rather, the Great
Patriotic War, as it was known at the time) as the "Soviet-German
conflict" and avoiding any discussion of human casualties and
destruction not only excludes Belarusians as active agents from those
events but also implies that that there was nothing "right" about
fighting as partisans and as members of the Soviet military (p. 49).
To put it differently: the book sometimes ascribes post-Soviet but
also "anti-Soviet" (coming out of the Cold War) meanings and
interpretations to texts and actions that had a different meaning for
those who participated in them. To give another example: Astrouskaya
treats the satirical poem by Nil Hilevich "On the Bald Mountain"
("Skaz pra Lysaiu haru") as aiming at the very foundation of Soviet
rule. However, at the time of its appearance in the mid-1970s, the
poem, which was anonymous and was circulated widely among
intelligentsia, was perceived as grotesque satire of the mercantile
"instincts" of members of the Writers' Union, not the condemnation of
the Soviet system.

Another focal point of the book is the issue of the Belarusian
language, which is also charged. Relegated during the imperial period
mostly to uneducated peasantry, and with Belarusian nationalism
emerging quite late (in comparison to Ukrainian nationalism, for
example), the language was fully codified and entered schools, higher
educational institutions, and "official" literature only under Soviet
rule as a result of considerable and conscious effort. The process
was not unproblematic, as in the 1920s urban educated groups were
unhappy about being forced to switch to what they considered a "less
developed" language.[1] After several decades, though, Belarusian
almost went out of daily use among educated elites in the same way as
it had been initially "uplifted"; as with urbanization and
industrialization, Russian, a common language that the elites and
administrators all over the USSR could understand, allowed access to
social mobility, career opportunitites, and global culture. Following
her protagonists, intellectuals and literati, Astrouskaya equates the
issue of the Belarusian language (its going out of popular use) and
the "preservation of national culture" to that of "freedom," which
somewhat simplifies the problem. It is true that "cultural
dissidents," who are at the center of the book, made the issue of the
Belarusian language (and not "human rights" or "political freedom,"
as was the dissident case in the Soviet center) their "holy grail."
They perceived the decline of the Belarusian language (in which they
had an interest) as the degradation of national culture or, as Zianon
Pazniak, the head of the nationalist Popular Front, stated, a moral
and intellectual catastrophe. However, as the Byelorussian Soviet
Republic was becoming one of the most technologically advanced in the
USSR, the modernized and urbanized Belarusian society was not
interested in the Belarusian language to the same extent.[2] At some
point during perestroika the language issue was resurrected under the
guidance of oppositional elites (and Pazniak as their unquestionable
guru of the period). But with time, it subsided and the efforts of
anti-Alexander Lukashenko opposition to promote it never gained wide
support. For example, the current "Belarusian revolution," which
started in August 2020 in response to the tremendous election fraud,
is mainly a "Russian-speaking phenomenon," driven by educated
urbanites. While there is interest in the national past and the use
of national symbols, the revolution, which _is_ about political
freedom, does not equate it to language and culture.

However, disagreements regarding the interpretation of the material
are understandable taking into account its complex nature. In her
book, Astrouskaya narrates a story of Belarusian intelligentsia, and
the issues that she raises are important and often controversial.
While at times perspectives that the book suggests may be debatable,
its contribution to the scholarship and legacy of East European
socialist intelligentsia is undeniable. As far as Belarusian
intellectual history is concerned, this is a much-needed work.


[1]. See Per Rudling, _The Rise and Fall of Belarusian Nationalism,
1906-1931_ (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015),

[2]. See, for example, Elena Gapova, "O politicheskoi ekonomii
natsional'nogo iazyka v Belarusi," _Ab Imperio_ 3 (2005): 405-41.

Citation: Elena Gapova. Review of Astrouskaya, Tatsiana, _Cultural
Dissent in Soviet Belarus (1968-1988): Intelligentsia, Samizdat and
Nonconformist Discourses_. H-SHERA, H-Net Reviews. March, 2021.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons
Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States

H-Net Review [H-Buddhism]: Tam on Chau, 'Religion in China: Ties That Bind'

John Obrien


One can separate how one interacts with a person of faith belief, than discussions on Marxism and history, on a Marxist site.
And I did not suggest that Andrew S. or any comrade, be not allowed to post their views and concerns (just not proselytize religion).  
From my view, It is okay to disagree on politics and such spaces should be allowed to express them and consider, with of course being 
for socialism and not promoting capitalist interests and bigotry that divides and harms - that should always be rejected.  And the
posting of something that is not one's view, but just sharing for people to be aware of a document, group or effort, should also be
understood is not advocacy for - but just informing.  Perhaps that was what Andrew S. meant? and I jumped too soon after several
of the same themed postings by him.  If so, I apologize to the comrade if that was his sole intent. 

Sometimes subjects take a long time to reflect and evaluate, when especially more is known.  Many "immediate" events, often
get "hot button" reactions and responses, without the full knowledge behind such.   

I have been affected by just one view or limited information, to come to a conclusion, that later I learned more of the history 
and context on, to come to a different conclusion (such as the U. S. efforts to remove Ghadaffi that influenced me by what initially 
was shared, on this very site).     

When I personally was involved in the Civil Rights Movement, as other movements,  I participated in churches and temples and
listened through religious services and marched with people holding or wearing religious based images and writings, and
chose my battles and circumstances.   

However, there are times and places, that when a speaker is promoting hate speech, whatever the setting - that it should be
challenged.  Sadly, I have witnessed even recently, the acceptance of those promoting hate and bigotry - because some lives
matter - more than others.  And to make clear, that I am not equating when I state this - that I am referring to repressive forces
of the state or capital, should be viewed as lives "to respect".   

I am referring to ideology and organized religious forces (not individual non-harming belief), being used by the state and
capital, against workers struggles to oppose exploitation, militarism, racism, sexism, etc.  Also there were some very good
people among the SCLC ministers whom I knew, worked with and supported - who they understood and opposed ALL bigotry 
and hate and exploitation and militarism.

There was much difference between MLK, James Bevel, Walter Fauntroy, as among MLK's own children and many families of all           
identities and backgrounds, often influenced by reactionary religious thought.   Social Gospel, Liberation Theology, etc., whether from
earlier times of "the prophet" Elijah, Mehdi, Zhang Jiao, MLK, Ernesto Cardenal Martinez, Daniel Berrigan, Rev. William Barber, etc.
are and should be appreciated, as a moving force that motivated individuals and groups into action to oppose injustice. 
Karl Marx was an economist, writer and rebel to me, but not a "god" and from my view, organized religions leaders have "reasons"
to accept their privileges and reliance on state and capital and willingness to adapt and support a ruling class and circles of power.

btw - I am a founding member and been with for over two decades, a large U. S. labor union, that is comprised overwhelmingly 
of faith believer members.  I am openly Gay and so is that union's international president.   Hate speech, is not welcomed or
supported in that union.  And it remains a problem in many self-proclaimed socialist groups - that includes accepting misogyny
and patriarchal views and practices, etc.     


From: <> on behalf of Ken Hiebert <knhiebert@...>
Sent: Wednesday, March 17, 2021 5:19 AM
To: <>
Subject: [marxmail] H-Net Review [H-Buddhism]: Tam on Chau, 'Religion in China: Ties That Bind'
John Obrien says:
More religion proselytizing  - especially regular recently by Andrew S. on Buddhism - as "Inspiration and Miracles”

Ken Hiebert replies:
I took look a the article posted by Andrew Stewart.  I did not see any kind of religious proselytizing.  It’s a review at an academic study of religious belief and practice in China.  I have typically not read these articles posted by Andrew, not because I don’t think they belong here, but only because I do not have the time and energy to benefit from them.

I have usually read the messages posted by John Obrien.  And I have learned from them when he talks about his own experience or reminds us of the way that Bayard Rustin was treated by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.  
But what I don’t get from his messages is any guidance as to how we should respond to religious institutions and practice.  Knowing what we know now, how should the left have responded to the campaigns of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference?  Going to their actions we could be pretty confident we’d run into religious organization and religious figures.  How should we have responded to them?  I wonder how many atheists stopped singing when they got to the words “God is on our side?”  What should they have done?  Stopped singing?  Turned their backs on the podium?  Should they have brought leaflets and placards denouncing religion?  

This is not only a question of what we should have done in the past.  We need to figure this out for today.  I have never been in Alabama or anywhere near there.  But I am willing to guess that some of the workers now voting on whether or not to join a union are religious believers.  What do we have to say to them?  What should we say to them about their religious beliefs?


Louis Proyect

On 3/17/21 12:10 PM, Michael Meeropol wrote:

"Instead, it is Lula’s position as an independent actor who has consistently stymied US imperial ambitions in Latin America and beyond that is the real problem."

Obama wants Lula as next World Bank president, Brazilian magazine says


Michael Meeropol

Re: On grazing and land conservation again: Assessment of Allan Savory anyone?

hari kumar

Again - Thanks David W and Dave R for all the very thoughtful replies and comments. As to fitting into a materialism, I fully agree with that sentiment.
I apologise to all, I am trying to 'process' all this. Yet increasingly I seem not to know how to allocate my time... I thought then I retired from my 'day job' I would fit it all in...  
Thx to all, Hari

Myanmar in Struggle: Workers of the World Unite!

John Reimann

183 killed, 74 last Sunday, March 14, alone. 2,175 reported arrested, many facing charges that could mean execution. Yet tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, maybe millions continue to pour onto the streets. The killing of a 15 year old girl on Sunday has not stopped the youth, nor has the open fire with live rounds stopped striking workers, especially garment workers.

This is Myanmar today as it joins the ranks of countries that seem to be going up in flames. (Think: Belarus.) Yet today Myanmar and the entire region present the world working class with a huge challenge and a huge opportunity. What is the historical background and the future perspectives for this uprising and how does it offer opportunity for the world working class?
Read full article:

“Science and socialism go hand-in-hand.” Felicity Dowling
Check out:https: also on Facebook

West Bank hospitals reach full capacity as COVID-19 crisis worsens

Dennis Brasky

Next ICC prosecutor will hopefully just drop the case against Israel, says a Biden ally

Dennis Brasky

Dan Shapiro, Obama's former ambassador to Israel, continues to serve as a mouthpiece for the Israeli government with this laughable claim: "Israel... has a long record of conducting investigations of actions of its own military... it's quite professional."

TOMORROW | Jews + Palestinians in the late Ottoman Era

Dennis Brasky

On Wed, Mar 17, 2021 at 11:04 AM CPS Palestine <palestine@...> wrote:
View this email in your browser


12pm — 1:30pm NEW YORK /
6pm —7:30 pm PALESTINE

Join us for a conversation with Louis Fishman and Rashid Khalidi about Fishman’s recent publication, Jews and Palestinians in the late Ottoman Era 1908-1914, Claiming the Homeland (Edinburgh University Press, 2019).

Uncovering a history buried by different nationalist narratives (Jewish, Israeli, Arab and Palestinian) this book looks at how the late Ottoman era set the stage for the on-going Palestinian-Israeli conflict. It presents an innovative analysis of the struggle in its first years, when Palestine was still an integral part of the Ottoman Empire. And it argues that in the late Ottoman era, Jews and Palestinians were already locked in conflict: the new freedoms introduced by the Young Turk Constitutional Revolution exacerbated divisions (rather than serving as a unifying factor). Offering an integrative approach, it considers both communities, together and separately, in order to provide a more sophisticated narrative of how the conflict unfolded in its first years.

Louis Fishman is an associate professor at Brooklyn College, City University of New York

Rashid Khalidi is the Edward Said Professor of Arab Studies at Columbia University

Like what we do? Give today!
Copyright © Center for Palestine Studies 2019, All rights reserved.

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Re: On grazing and land conservation again: Assessment of Allan Savory anyone?


I think one element offered by Savoury needs to be taken on hesitantly: rotational grazing as a fix-it carbon sink. This is trumpeted elsewhere journalistically -- see Cows Save the Planet -- and a bone of contention among academics.
Each year the scientific study of soil improves greatly and the complexity of the ecological processes is awesome...But we cannot say that grazing can be the primary tool to sequester the carbon emitted worldwide.
Sequestration rates are so variable and volatile over time.
Although his figures are dated, Simon Fairlie in Meat: A Benign Extravagance has a good discussion about the statistics involved.
We are beginning to understand soil structures and microbiological templates that best sequester greenhouse gases but there is no absolute reliability vis a vis woodland, grassland, and brittle environments...anywhere in anyone's paddock.
For instance, back in 2014 -- in was Australian desert areas that sequestered carbon on par with the Amazon.
Because of this, besides its gross commodification of Nature, carbon trading is really a scam.
Ultimately, the key problem with Savoury's perspective is that it is just another bioengineering method that doesn't  tackle the political challenges  the environment faces. Even if millions of acres of land worldwide are grazed holistically the overall ecological challenge is still gonna be larger than any number of bovines stomachs.
So to sign up to the Cows-save-planet scenario is a huge mistake -- but that attitude is pervasive within the regenerative agriculture movement. Here, among glaziers in Australia a large sector insist that we can still have our fossil fuels cake because farmers can do such a great job burying emissions by just farming a different way.
In this sense, Holistic grazing and regen agriculture has also become a shibboleth for conservative agrarian forces among farmers.
The other problem is that like so many organic movements the adjustment to holistic framing (and even the name suggests the theme) is a spiritual and personal journey. So you get a ready idealisation -- one that, as John Bellamy Foster points out, resides in these currents as far back as Jan Smutts and Rudolf Steiner.
In that sense,  the fight for regenerative agriculture must ALSO be a fight for materialism because the shallowness of many of the arguments employed, panders to localism and consumerism. 
However, the irony is that the sort of human within nature intermesh argued by Marx and Engels -- and broken by commodifying processes like the Metabolic Rift -- is sustained in the outlook of indigenous peoples and some traditional farming systems. Despite the spiritual tradition, we need a scientific handle to explain this that does not fall victim to reductionism -- and reducing carbon sequestration to cows stomachs is still reductionism.

dave riley

Forrest Hylton | Lula Returns · LRB 15 March 2021

Louis Proyect

-Call for Papers for Marxism & Sciences: A Journal of Nature, Culture and Society.

Jim Farmelant

Helena Sheehan - "Here is a call for papers for a new journal Marxism & Sciences: A Journal of Nature, Culture and Society. I'm on the international advisory board (although I haven't done any advising so far). Most unusually, the website includes a musical composition - variations on themes composed by Friedrich Engels. "

Volume 1- Issue 1 Fall 2021 The Actuality of Friedrich Engels

BTW I notice that Patrick Bond is on the editorial board.

Honduras Amid the Maelstrom

Louis Proyect

Honduras Amid the Maelstrom

The Central American nation has become a terrifying case study in what results when climate change, government failure, gang violence, and natural disaster collide.

Wendell Escoto/AFP via Getty Images

The aftermath when the Chamelecon River burst its banks because of Hurricane Iota, La Lima municipality near San Pedro Sula, Honduras,
NY Review of Books, November 21, 2020

They had been told to look for the body in an abandoned lot that straddled an unmarked frontier between gang territories. The area sat on the southeastern edge of the city of San Pedro Sula, the industrial heart of northern Honduras. It was December 9, days after rivers and canals coursing through the city had twice burst their banks during back-to-back hurricanes in early November.

For about an hour, Pastor Daniel Pacheco, an evangelical minister, and Victor Ventura, his guide, had lurched through knee-deep mud, stopping to sniff the air for the telltale stench of decomposing flesh. But their noses were poor guides—everywhere in this barren field a smell of rot drifted over expanses of pooled floodwater, among the household detritus marooned in the brush—a burst mattress twisted against a tree stump, a soiled doll, the wooden skeleton of a chest of drawers.

Even for a country accustomed to violent death, it was hard to know whether the missing cadaver, unclaimed and unidentified, was a victim of drowning in the catastrophic floods that followed the hurricanes or of gang killing. In this sprawling sector of La Rivera Hernandez, the rival gangs Barrio-18 and MS-13, and at least two smaller criminal groups, staked out control block by block. The official national death toll from the hurricanes was just under a hundred, though the government acknowledged that this could be an underestimate (both because the post-disaster chaos made reliable data hard to collect and because widespread mistrust of the authorities meant people often avoided reporting disappearances). In comparison, the police registered 3,496 homicides in 2020; in previous years, at least a third of murders involved criminal groups, including gangs, according to Honduras’ independent National Observatory of Violence.

Ventura was a carpenter whose mud-blasted house and workshop across the road from the field looked like they had been dynamited. It had taken him fifteen years to build up his small business, to purchase his carpentry tools, while striving to keep his two children in school and out of the clutches of the gangs.

Since the waters had receded, he’d spent all his waking hours rummaging through the muck in his house for anything salvageable or scraping out bucketloads of filth from his elderly mother’s place, a few doors down. With no savings, he could not hope to even repair the car he’d bought his son months earlier, an investment to keep the boy fixed on a future at university. Ventura would have to break it down for parts. As for what to do next, “We’ll have to start from zero,” he sighed.

Next was not meant to include searching for the dead. The tip about a body came from a grocer, via a farmer, who’d stumbled upon it when fording the still partly flooded field to check on the sorry state of his corn crop.

No one had called the police. To call the police would invite calamity upon calamity, they all said. The gangs had their spies on every corner. “Hear nothing, see nothing, say nothing” goes the refrain in Honduran barrios. And despite huge recent purges of officers, many on suspicion of drug-trafficking and extrajudicial killing, no one trusted the force. As far as the residents of La Rivera were concerned, the local police were all too likely to “solve” a case by pinning the blame on the first available witness—meaning, often, the person who reported the crime.

Instead, Ventura phoned his friend Pastor Daniel, who, as a man of the church, enjoyed relative protection from both gangs and police. Between his Sunday sermons, Pastor Daniel was a neighborhood peacekeeper who had on occasion persuaded gang members to release a hostage. He surely would know how to honor unidentified dead souls, reasoned Ventura.

Hence this quest. Overhead, vultures circled, plunging in turns to pick at a dead dog. But so far, no human corpse.

Delphine Schrank

Pastor Daniel Pacheco following Victor Ventura in their search for a body in a waterlogged field near San Pedro Sula, Honduras, December 9, 2020


A mere thirteen days apart, Hurricanes Eta and Iota had slammed into the isthmus of Central America on near-identical paths last year. In a record-shattering Atlantic hurricane season, both Eta and Iota formed as tropical depressions in the Caribbean and strengthened with unprecedented speed before making landfall in Nicaragua and hurtling counterclockwise from Panama to Belize, causing enormous rainfall, deadly torrents, and landslides as they went.“They were some of the most rapidly intensifying hurricanes we’ve ever seen for any time of year,” said Jeff Masters, a meteorologist with the Yale Climate Connection.

Nowhere was the destruction more extensive than in the densely populated industrial and agricultural heartland of northern Honduras. On November 3, Eta’s pummeling precipitation soon overwhelmed waterways’ banks and levees in the region. The tributaries feeding the Sula Valley were already saturated from higher than usual rainfall since May—a stark turnaround after four years of drought, said Juan Jose Reyes, who heads the early warning section of Honduran disaster relief agency COPECO.

Muddy river water rushed through alleyways and across highways, sweeping away thousands of homes, whether wooden shacks or cinderblock houses. Weeks later, vast stretches of the city were still a wasteland. In street after street, the contents of homes lay in mud-slaked piles—the hard-earned assets of people who had already been struggling to subsist in a country with a poverty rate near 50 percent.

At 10:00 AM that day, in barrio Asentamientos Humanos, across the Chamelecon River from the San Pedro Sula airport, another evangelical pastor named Rosa Orbellina stood ankle-deep in her home, frantically trying to bail out the rising water with a kitchen pan. It took a daughter rushing in from her place down the road to rouse her from her panicked trance. They hoisted her bed as best they could and waded out as the waters rose to their knees, then hips, then chests. “If it had been night, we would have all died,” Orbellina told me later.

By 3:00 AM that night, in barrio Cruz de Valencia, Kenya Alcantar and Ismael Nunez had clambered with their two daughters, aged seventeen and fifteen, from their home on the edge of palm and banana plantations to the roof of a shack nearby. When the swirling waters threatened to carry that structure away, they climbed to the branches of a giant tamarind tree. They spent the rest of the night there with some fifty neighbors, yelling at intervals to prevent the community’s children from falling asleep and tumbling from the tree into the wild currents. Three children did plummet down—but with linked arms and adrenaline-fueled ingenuity, even using flotsam for rafts, the whole neighborhood managed to pull and push each other to higher ground. Three weeks later, after the waters had receded enough to allow Kenya and Ismael to return, all that was left standing of the home they’d saved for twelve years to build was the concrete foundation and a bright blue toilet.

Yoseph Amaya/Getty Images

Aerial view of the San Pedro Sula–Progreso Yoro highway flooded after Hurricane Iota, San Manuel, Honduras, November 20, 2020

The rescue teams had done their best. COPECO led the effort, together with the army, police, firefighters, and the Red Cross. But the currents were too strong for rescue boats in Cruz de Valencia. In Asentamientos Humanos, people said they never saw any. COPECO workers, blamed for their absences and suspected without evidence of stealing international aid shipments, felt it safer sometimes to remove their bright orange vests with the agency’s logo before heading out to help. Some received death threats. Even the more trusted San Pedro Sula firemen had only four boats to haul away people they estimated at tens of thousands. Via USAID, relief workers sent location coordinates of stranded communities to US military Black Hawk helicopters, which airdropped supplies of beans, rice, and cooking oil.

The most vulnerable—and worst hit—districts were settlements along the waterways themselves, populated mainly by trash pickers, tortilla vendors, mechanics, and part-time construction workers. Gangs had long ruled with impunity in these communities. Inevitably, a Barrio-18 crew held up one of the boats that first critical night, forcing firefighters to ferry to safety only their members and their relatives. “Sometimes,” a firefighter told me, “one cannot comment on this type of inquiry because [the gangs] investigate and dispatch you to the other world.”

Two weeks after Eta, as Iota was gathering over the horizon, tens of thousands of people were still sleeping around gasoline stations, several to a mattress in the homes of distant acquaintances, in makeshift tents down the highways, and, in one case, even among the coffins of a funeral parlor. Health officials sent medical teams to government shelters in schools and churches, aiming to isolate anyone with symptoms of Covid-19, but they later admitted that these efforts were largely in vain, as people resisted testing for fear of being removed and losing their chance of having secure shelter. When the second storm struck, the riverbanks, already gouged and breached, never stood a chance; whole districts that had just begun to reappear vanished underwater. Once more, scattered hamlets for miles around were cut off.

Carlos Madero, the minister charged with the government response, told me the two hurricanes constituted the most catastrophic event in the modern history of Honduras. Roving units of Doctors Without Borders reported encountering mass depression: people’s losses, atop the pandemic, atop the chronic violence, amounted to an “emotional bomb,” said the group’s northern Honduras project coordinator, Juan Carlos Arteaga. For some, it was a final sign that was there was nothing left for them in this country.

Orlando Sierra/AFP via Getty Images

People, unhoused by the floods, sheltering under a bridge, San Pedro Sula, Honduras, November 21, 2020

Even before this natural disaster, Honduras was most often the leading national source of people who told US asylum officers they feared returning home, according to monthly data from April 2018 through December 2019 from the US Citizenship and Immigration Services. It was from San Pedro Sula that the largest of the caravans to make international headlines during the Trump administration departed in October 2018, dubbed by its participants “the Exodus.” Since the floods, plans for new caravans circulated on social media and word of mouth among the fractured communities. The largest reached the border with Guatemala in January with an estimated seven thousand people, but Guatemalan security forces scattered its members with tear gas and batons before they ever neared the barricades of National Guard troops at the Mexican border. Hondurans say they will keep trying, in groups or alone—and their redoubled urge to abandon Central America and head north is already presenting a severe test of President Biden’s resolve to reverse his predecessor’s hardline border policies.

For Ventura and Pastor Daniel, as for so many others who lived in the areas savaged by the storms, the government’s capacity to help had always been limited and fallible. It was even worse now: untold numbers have had to rebuild their lives and livelihoods effectively from scratch. By COPECO’s tally, at least 90,0000 people remained in shelters a month after the storms, and the government was calling for international aid and admitting it was having trouble even assessing the full scale of the problem.

Orlando Sierra/AFP via Getty Images

A family setting off with the first migrant caravan of the year, fleeing floods, gang violence, and economic crisis, and heading north toward the United States, San Pedro Sula, Honduras, January 14, 2021


For Luis Da’ Costa, though, accountability for the failures exposed by the storm damage was urgent. Da’ Costa is a hydraulic technician at a small government agency called the Commission for the Control of Flooding in the Sula Valley. His job includes checking and maintaining the data from the early warning flood alert system, a system of telemetric stations that measure the flow and height of the water along the two great rivers, the Chamelecon and Ulua, that flow through San Pedro Sula city and the surrounding alluvial plain.

Recent glitches had compounded long-standing infrastructure problems. Of the twenty-nine alert stations meant to monitor water levels on the Sula Valley riverbank, only four were functioning when the first hurricane struck. Covid-19 restrictions limited field trips to check on them; they hadn’t been verified since the spring. And that, said Da’ Costa, had curtailed a perennial struggle against vandalism and robbery. The solar panel charging each alert station could serve for a car or a house. Its transmission device was worth around $16,000. The process of ordering spares from cash-strapped government agencies was byzantine—Da’ Costa had taken to chasing down parts himself.

But they did have accurate weather forecasts: “We knew the threat,” he told me. On October 31, three days before Eta made landfall, Da’ Costa sat watching his favorite YouTube meteorology channel as the hurricane approached. Since then, Da’ Costa has not been able to shake the guilty suspicion that others in the flood commission and senior government officials knew, too. Alerted by the meteorological reports, they had enough information to have warned people to evacuate, he said, and there should have been better coordination between his and other government agencies. He’d advised his boss about the threat, he said. He’d informed an engineer at the Cajon hydroelectric dam. He’d spoken to colleagues at the relief agency COPECO.

This was predictable: Honduran officials had long expounded, with the backing of scientific consensus, on how the country—with its Pacific and Atlantic coasts—was especially vulnerable to extreme weather events that climate change would accelerate or exacerbate. And the country had experienced disastrous hurricanes—notably with Fifi in 1976, and Mitch in 1998. “Everyone expected [another] within twenty years,” Da’ Costa told me.

But how had the Honduran government actually responded? Desperate to kickstart a tourism industry paralyzed by successive pandemic lockdowns, it encouraged people to celebrate the national holiday known as Morazanica Week by heading to the beach. “Right as a tropical storm was developing in the Caribbean,” said Da’ Costa, outraged. No one had wanted to hear bad news before Eta struck, said Marvin Aparicio, head of COPECO’s Incident Command System, noting that the agency had issued warnings as the first storm approached. “People were tired, fed up, saturated with the pandemic measures,” he said.

For Da’ Costa, that was no excuse. “The fact that one person dies, already that’s a failure,” he said. “It shouldn’t have happened.” He, too, had a home he’d been forced to abandon to the floods—in his case in La Planeta, another humble, low-lying district that the local government had long since surrendered to the rule of Barrio-18. His wife was on the verge of divorcing him, he said, for failing to take time off work to help his family rebuild.

Days after the flood, he trudged in rubber boots into the wreckage of his neighborhood, surrounded by the same waterlogged mess of household goods that had become a signature of the deluge: smashed television frames, short-circuited stoves, broken crockery. Incongruously, a child’s inflatable swim ring floated nearby. On one street, a private security guard in uniform stood watch, but the looting of anything electric and still functional began when residents who’d returned to clean up left again for their temporary shelters after sunset.

Encarni Pindado

Hydraulic technician Luis Da’ Costa checking the ailing Santiago River flood alert station, Honduras, December 2, 2020

Having started a family in his early twenties, Da’ Costa never finished his engineering degree but received certification under a USAID-sponsored program after Hurricane Mitch. Furious at his own agency’s failure over Eta, he had begun posting videos of the destruction and spoke up in meetings, risking a reprimand or firing. Over and over, he contemplated resigning. But he couldn’t leave: he still had a mortgage—on his flood-damaged home. A greater weight was his sense of mission. “We must go forward,” he said.

On another day, he drove his pickup down a bumpy road to one of the last four functioning alert stations, in a town called Santiago. The water level “goes down this hose, and the pressure that the water exerts is registered, decoded, and transmitted to a satellite and received worldwide,” he said, fiddling with a small black box next to the swollen Ulua River. But the floods had torn away the hose. For days, the Santiago station had been transmitting random data.

So now the flood commission was down to just three sensors—and meteorologists were predicting more rain. Anyone returning to dig out their homes faced the prospect of rebuilding next to burst riverbanks that no one had yet begun to fix. Because of cost, the levees had never been built to international standards. Instead of more resilient geotextile materials, the banks were mostly just compacted earth—far less resistant to erosion. Over time, informal settlement in areas long since mapped as no-go flood zones had further degraded them. In many places, people had taken to sowing and harvesting crops, including yucca, a root vegetable. Even as they dug for food, they were undermining the region’s already fragile flood defenses.

In Santiago, as elsewhere, when one river had overflowed, its waters swiftly merged with those of a nearby canal. During Eta, “this place, it was all one sea,” said Reynaldo Caballero, a water-level monitor at the Santiago station. As the rains thundered down that first day, he had waded through still-chest-high water to reach the site in time for his shift. One more heavy rainstorm and it could all be one sea again.


Yoseph Amaya/Getty Images

A family salvaging belongings from the floods that followed Hurricane Iota, San Pedro Sula, Honduras, November 21, 2020

The worst-hit house on one of the worst-hit blocks of barrio Asentamientos Humanos belonged to Pastor Rosa Orbellina. The barrio’s name means “Human Settlements,” and it, too, was built on a flood zone. Part of the crime-ridden Rivera Hernandez sector, it was home to between 15,000 and 25,000 people, according to two nonprofit organizations. Yet it was ignored by the local municipality, which failed to maintain the roads, provide any amenities that might offer alternatives for the district’s impoverished, gang-lured youth, or even lay a sewage system.

Pastor Orbellina had spent decades of her life here, at times appealing in vain to the local mayor’s office for basic services for the expanding community, as well as watching her children grow up and then helping to raise her grandchildren. She counted some forty members in her congregation. At least she had a receipt of payment for the patch of land that was hers.

After Eta, she was forced to take refuge uptown in a more expensive part of the city, sharing space on a giant mattress in a room that doubled as the kitchen with her daughter, her daughter’s husband, and their two children, and her son, his wife, and their two children.

There, too, her adored eldest grandson, now twenty, was hiding from MS-13, which had repeatedly threatened his life for deserting the gang. When the family’s temporary uptown lease ran out, Pastor Orbellina parted ways with him, weeping. Under threat of reprisal from the gang, he could not set foot in Asentamientos Humanos, nor any other of the patchwork of zones they controlled. That barred him from vast stretches of his own country, but his family could afford nowhere else.  

By the time their lease ran out, there had been no progress in repairing her house. She had no money to relay the floors, let alone raise the structure above river level. Her relatives, their livelihoods lost, were too busy hammering back together houses that had more hope of restoration to help.

For now, the weather had held, and the river was flowing within its banks again. “I’m not a knowledgeable person,” she said to me. “But I say that if the banks had been made of rock and cement, the water would not have broken through.” In the last hours before Eta, Orbellina’s relatives had joined neighbors in a desperate race to pack sandbags against the earthen levee, already fearing the worst.

On her first night back, Pastor Orbellina settled into her daughter’s two-room concrete-brick bungalow, her mattress occupying a rare dry spot on the mud-damp cement. Outside, her son-in-law was nailing together slats of tin roofing for a makeshift toilet to replace their destroyed outhouse. She sent her blessings to her congregants. “God was in control of our emotions to overcome all this grief,” she said. “He strengthens us when he tests us.”

Her deepest sorrow, though, she reserved for her now-absent grandson. A day earlier, as the rest of the family packed up to return to their wrecked homes in an MS-13-controlled district, the young man had extracted himself finally from his grandmother’s long, rib-crushing embrace, shouldered his backpack, and walked into his fugitive existence, alone.

Even close family who lived in relatively safer zones had refused her pleas to offer him shelter, terrified of harboring the wanted target of a powerful gang. Their rejection had cut her to the bone. “Because of the increase of wickedness, the heart will grow cold,” she said of them, quoting Matthew 24:12. “Many errors and defects, my grandson, but you cannot imagine how much I love him.”

He had tried to console her with the promise that he would somehow make his way to the United States. For days, they had talked of his joining a caravan. If he made it north, he would work hard and one day have enough to rescue her, too. The idea had become his motivating dream.

But privately, they both had doubts—all too aware that he was just as likely to end up among the lost, unclaimed in an abandoned field, one more in a category of countless disappeared in Honduras yet to be accorded the minimal dignity of becoming a statistic.

Orlando Sierra/AFP via Getty Images

A child’s toy caught on barbed wire after Hurrican Iota in the flooded municipality of La Lima, near San Pedro Sula, Honduras, November 20, 2020

“People can’t even afford to buy bulgur”: Discontent is on the rise as Syria’s economic crisis worsens | Middle East Institute

Louis Proyect

These conversations reveal that despair over the economic situation cuts across boundaries of political loyalty and even encompasses the regime’s base. Syrians, whether regime supporters, opponents, or apolitical, express anger toward those on top who are enriching themselves while people starve. Most Syrians do not trust the government’s ability to dig the country out of the current crisis, but just as many see little hope for an alternative or think the regime will collapse or reform due to economic pressure — the belief underlying the wide-ranging sanctions imposed by the West.

Re: What Frederick Taylor could only dream of

Jim Farmelant

As long as we're on the topic of the socialist calculation debates, it is interesting to note that Joseph Schumpeter had a different take on them than did either von Mises or Hayek. Like them, he was a product of the Austrian School, but unlike them, his thinking was more reflective of the early Austrian School which wasn't quite so dogmatic as the later Austrian School. Like von Mises and Hyaek, Schumpeter was opposed to socialism and preferred free market capitalism. However, he was convinced that socialism was feasible and he was well aware that socialism had many clever advocates including his teaching assistant, the young Paul Sweezy, who were perhaps just clever enough to make it work.

In his posthumously published book History of Economic Analysis  he presented the following critique of von Mises:

"The essential result of Barone’s or any similar investigation is that there exists for any centrally controlled socialism a system of equations that possess a uniquely determined set of solutions, in the same sense and with the same qualifications as does perfectly competitive capitalism, and that this set enjoys similar maximum properties. Less technically, this means that so far as its pure logic is concerned the socialist plan makes sense and cannot be disposed of on the ground that it would necessarily spell chaos, waste, or irrationality. This is no small thing and we are within our rights when we emphasize again the importance of the fact that this service to socialist doctrine has been rendered by writers who, since they were not socialists themselves, thereby victoriously vindicated the independence of economic analysis from political preference or prejudice. But, at the same time, this is all. We must not forget that, just like the pure theory of the competitive economy, the pure theory of socialism moves on a very high level of abstraction and proves much less for the ‘workability’ of the system than laymen (and sometimes theorists also) think. In particular, the proposition about the maximum properties of the solution that characterizes the equilibrium of a socialist economy is of course relative to its institutional data, and avers nothing concerning the question whether this purely formal maximum is higher or lower than the corresponding maximum of the competitive economy—especially if we refuse to go into the further questions, whether the one or the other institutional set-up is less exposed to deviations from its own ideal or more favorable to ‘progress.’ These questions are so much more important in practice than is the question of determinateness or ‘rationality’ per se, that it is sometimes not easy to tell whether the later critics of the socialist plan, especially von Mises, really meant to deny the validity of the Pareto-Barone result. For it is quite possible to accept it and yet to hold that the socialist plan, owing to the administrative difficulties involved or for any other of a long list of reasons, is ‘practically unworkable’ in the sense that it cannot be expected to work with an efficiency comparable to the efficiency of capitalist society as revealed by the index of total output. But although pure theory contributes little to the solution of these problems, it helps us to posit them correctly and to narrow the range of justifiable difference of opinion. We thus arrive at the same conclusion as in the case of nonsocialist planning; ever since Marshall, the theoretical possibility of improving the purely competitive mechanism by public policy should no longer be a matter of controversy; but it is of course still possible—as Marshall well understood—to criticize either particular measures or even the whole idea of planning on such grounds as lack of confidence in the political or administrative organs that are available for the task. (It seems as if Marshall had been alone in understanding this situation.)"

In fairness to von Mises, he did see significant administrative problems likely under socialism that could cancel out whatever efficiency gains that might otherwise be possible but it is also clear that he had little doubt concerning its practical feasibility.

The March Action and the Tragedy of German Communism

Louis Proyect

A hundred years ago today, the German Communists tried to spark a revolution, but their would-be uprising ended in disaster. In this extract from a recently discovered memoir, Rosa Luxemburg’s biographer Paul Frölich describes the failure of the 1921 March Action and its impact.

The watchdogs of imperialism and the Uyghur genocide slander | MR Online

Louis Proyect

MR Online continues its defense of forced assimilation, this time posting a link to an article by Stephen Gowans who is best known for his work absolving Bashar al-Assad of mass murder. Gowans's blog is so obscure that it doesn't even register on It is obvious to me that the imbecile behind MR Online has blinkers on that prevent him from being aware of any important writing outside his conspiracy theory cocoon.

Sperm whales in 19th century shared ship attack information | Whales | The Guardian

Louis Proyect

A remarkable new study on how whales behaved when attacked by humans in the 19th century has implications for the way they react to changes wreaked by humans in the 21st century.

The paper, published by the Royal Society on Wednesday, is authored by Hal Whitehead and Luke Rendell, pre-eminent scientists working with cetaceans, and Tim D Smith, a data scientist, and their research addresses an age-old question: if whales are so smart, why did they hang around to be killed? The answer? They didn’t.

Fascism and Analogies — British and American, Past and Present

Louis Proyect

NAVIGATING UNCERTAIN TIMES, it is tempting, and helpful, to search the past for precedents that might help guide understanding and action — inevitably with the risk of drawing false equivalences. Comparing Trumpism to 1930s fascism, especially, has struck some historians and political theorists as likely to blind us to the longer trajectories of Trump’s reactionary politics — his quintessential Americanness.

Columbia Graduate Workers Set to Strike on Monday | Left Voice

Louis Proyect

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