From Chris Rock to Barack Obama: Will electoral life imitate Hollywood art?

Barack Obama is finally confirmed as the Democratic Party’s candidate for President.

This week, while the Democratic Party convention was underway on the other side of the planet, I re-watched the 2003 Chris Rock movie Head of State – and realised how prescient it has been – in some respects.

For those who don’t know the movie, classified as a comedy, here’s the summary from Internet Movie Database: Mays Gilliam, a Washington D.C. neighborhood Alderman, is about to be red-lined out of his job. But after the untimely death of the party frontrunner, Gilliam is plucked from obscurity, and thrust into the limelight as his party’s nominee — for President of the United States. Read full summary and other trivia on IMDB.

Well, other men have gone from the log cabin to the White House, but there’s a significant difference: Mays Gilliam is black, socially underprivileged and broke. In the movie, he becomes the first black man to be nominated for President by a major party (the story isn’t explicit as to which party). Starting as the absolute underdog, and running against a serving, two-term vice president (middle-aged white male, a war hero and a cousin of Sharon Stone to boot), he works his way through a rocky campaign.

The odds slowly improve as Mays speaks his mind and talks truth to power — a refreshing change from the smooth-talking politicians rendering silky words written by their spin doctors. Mays goes on to become President. That wasn’t quite in the plan of Washington power brokers who nominated him – they had other, less noble, intentions. But once unleashed, there was no stopping Mays Gilliam, a self-styled young man who knows how the other half lives.

Someone has helpfully posted an extract from the movie on YouTube. This is the TV debate that Mays has with incumbent Brian Lewis:

Chris Rock, who wrote, directed and starred in the movie, says he got the idea from the 1984 Democratic presidential nominee Walter Mondale, who chose Geraldine Ferraro — a woman — as his running mate. The Democrats knew they had little chance of defeating incumbent Ronald Reagan, but Ferraro’s nomination allowed them to gain female voters, contributing to the eventual 1992 election of Bill Clinton.

This plot line becomes very intriguing with Republican contender John McCain just picking the little known Alaska governor Sarah Palin as his running mate for vice president.

The parallels between Head of State and Barack Obama can only stretch so far. Illinois Senator Obama is not exactly from an underprivileged background, and his education and credentials are much greater than Mays Gilliams’.
And there are some who never tire of reminding us that Obama is not even fully black.

But where life does imitate art is in how the Washington establishment conspires to keep a young, charismatic black man from ascending to the highest elected office. In the movie, deep rooted political party divisions are crossed as power brokers look for desperate measures to stop Mays Gilliam from marching to the White House.

Now why does that sound vaguely familiar with Obama’s own courageous and remarkable journey so far?

At one point in the movie, when things aren’t going well in his campaign, Mays is asked if he wants to quit. His answer: he can’t afford to quit. He’s not just running for himself, but for all black people. “If I quit now, there won’t be another black candidate for 50 years.”

Head of State may have been made made in 2003 as a comedy, but the US political landscape has changed much in the past five years. Suddenly, the scenario is not comic anymore…

Whatever the eventual outcome, the next few weeks in the run up to the Nov 4 US Presidential Election are going to be very interesting.

Will electoral life imitate Hollywood art? Watch this space….

Read my July 2008 post: Perhaps they don’t know that Barack means a blessing…

NPR asked in January 2008: Has Hollywood paved the way for Obama?

Free us from our addiction to oil: New PSAs from Al Gore’s climate campaign

In July 2007, we had an interesting discussion on this blog on the shrinking durations of nature and environment films and TV programmes. The moving images community is divided on this, with some purists holding out that to pack complex, nuanced messages into a few minutes is akin to dumbing everything down. Noted film-makers like Neil Curry disagreed.

But there’s no argument of the sheer power of well produced public service announcements (PSAs) to move people with a specific, short message. Nothing can beat them for the economy of time and efficacy of delivery.

During August 2008, Al Gore’s ‘We’ campaign for climate change activism released two new PSAs, both appealing to Americans to change their energy habits, especially their addiction to oil. This follows and promotes the challenge Al Gore posed to America in July 2008 “to commit to producing 100 percent of our electricity from renewable energy and truly clean carbon-free sources within 10 years”.

Make the Switch, Repower America

Real change can happen real fast. We can strengthen our economy, lower fuel costs, free ourselves from our addiction to oil, and help solve the climate crisis. We can do this by switching to clean, free energy sources like the wind and sun — and to do it within 10 years. Meeting this ambitious goal would create millions of new jobs, lead to permanently lower energy costs for families and help America lead the fight against global warming. William H. Macy narrates in this ad which premiered on network TV in the US during the 2008 Beijing Olympics coverage.

To Our Leaders: Give Us 100% Clean Electricity in 10 Years

We must save our economy, lower fuel costs, free ourselves from our addiction to oil, and solve the climate crisis. To do this, we must demand that we Repower America with 100% clean electricity within 10 years.

The We Campaign is a project of The Alliance for Climate Protection — a nonprofit, nonpartisan effort founded by Nobel laureate former Vice President Al Gore. Its ultimate aim is to halt global warming

Vulnerability Exposed: Micro films on how climate change affects YOU!

Vulnerability Exposed!
Vulnerability Exposed!

Never underestimate the power of moving images. Al Gore tipped the balance in the long-drawn climate change debate with his Oscar-winning film, An Inconvenient Truth. The rest is recent history.

Thanks to the film – and sustained advocacy of hundreds of scientists and activists – climate change is no longer a speculative scenario; it’s widely accepted. The challenge now is to understand how it impacts different people in a myriad ways.

Now the World Bank wants people to use their video cameras to capture how climate change may already be affecting their ways of living and working. The Bank’s Social Development Department has just announced the launch of a worldwide documentary competition that will highlight the social aspects of climate change as experienced and/or observed by the film-maker(s).

Called Vulnerability Exposed, the contest is open to anyone anywhere in the world who wishes to have their voice heard. The submitted films should innovatively illustrate the consequences of climate change through one of the following theme categories: conflict, migration, the urban space, rural institutions, drylands, social policy, indigenous peoples, gender, governance, forests, and/or human rights. The submission period ends on 24 October 2008.

Caroline Kende-Robb, Acting Director, Social Development Department, said, “There is a need to see climate change as an issue of global social justice. The rights, interests and needs of those affected by climate change must be acknowledged.”

Watch the Bank’s short video, where she explains further:

The contest has two award categories:
1) Social Dimensions of Climate Change Award (general category) – open to professional and amateur; and
2) Young Voices of Climate Change (youth category) – open to entries submitted by filmmakers under 24 years old.

Award winners will be chosen through a combination of public voting and a judging panel. The film with the most public votes in each theme category will receive honorable mention.

Judging process
Vulnerability Exposed film competition: Judging process

This contest indicates that the World Bank is slowly but surely opening up to the currently untapped communication potential of web 2.0 – the very point I made in a recent op ed essay.

There are several noteworthy aspects in this competition, some more positive than others. I offer this critique in the spirit of improving a commendable initiative.

Three cheers to the bank for accommodating both amateurs and professionals. It’s about time those who don’t video film for a living (some of who are no less talented in the craft) had more opportunities to showcase their products.

It’s good to see the preference for shorter films, in this contest defined between 2 and 5 mins in duration. This certainly resonates with TVE Asia Pacific’s experience with Asian broadcasters, many of who now prefer shorter films. Longer films have their place, of course, but shorter ones are clear favourites of 24/7 news channels and also online.

Most film contests are judged exclusively by an all-powerful jury (I’ve been on several over the years), but here the online public have a chance to vote for their favourite entries. Let’s hope the judges will consider the story telling power of entries as the most important deciding factor. (The examples in the YouTube film given above are misleading – they all seem extracts from expensively made documentaries.)

The big challenge for many aspiring contestants would be to relate climate change to daily realities in their societies. Despite global headlines and the development community’s current frenzy about it, climate change as a phrase and concept still isn’t clearly understood in all its ramifications. If science now knows 100 facts about the murky processes of climate change, the average public knows less than 25 and understands even less. So it will be interesting to see how entries relate the big picture to their individual small pictures.

I’m a bit disappointed that the World Bank is not offering any cash prize to the winners. Instead, “the winners will receive an all expenses paid trip to Washington, DC for a screening of their film and will have the opportunity to attend a series of networking and learning events organized by…the World Bank in December 2008.” This is all useful, but video – even at the low end – is not exactly cheap, and even labour of love creations cost money to make. We are currently running a comparable the Asia Pacific Rice Film Award – which seeks entries no longer than 10 mins on any aspect of rice – and despite being a non-profit, civil society initiative we have a prize of US$ 2,000 to the winner. And we wish we could offer more.

But my biggest concern is the unequal, unfair terms of copyrights found in the small print of the competition rules. This is where the lawyers have done their usual handiwork, and with the usually lopsided results. The World Bank wants all contestants to make absolutely sure that all material used is fully owned by the contestants, or properly licensed. That’s fine. But tucked away on page 7, under section 12 titled Entrant’s permission to the organiser, is a set of conditions which will allow all affiliated institutions of the World Bank group to use the submitted material for not just promoting this contest (a standard clause in most competitions), but for ‘climate change work program of the organiser’.

What this means, in simpler terms, is that without offering a single dollar in prize money, the World Bank is quietly appropriating the unlimited user rights for any and all the submitted material. These are the core materials in the moving images industry, and nothing is more precious to their creators.

I have long advocated a more balanced, equitable and liberal approach to managing copyrights and intellectual property by both the broadcast television industry and development community — especially where public funded creations are concerned. I have nothing but contempt for lawyers and accountants who often determine the copyrights policies in large broadcast and development organisations. They set out terms that may be justified in strict legal terms, but are totally unfair, unjust and, in the end, counterproductive to the development cause and process. It seems that while our friends in the social and communication divisions were not looking, the Bank’s lawyers have done their standard hatchet job.

While this doesn’t detract from the overall value of Vulnerability Exposed, it diminishes its appeal and potential. Many professional video film-makers who value their footage – gathered with much trouble and expense – may not want to sign future user rights away for simply entering this contest. And worse, the unsuspecting enthusiasts who don’t necessarily earn their living from making films – but are entitled to the same fair treatment of their creations – would be giving away material whose industrial value they may not even fully appreciate.

It’s certainly necessary and relevant for development organisations like the World Bank and the UN system to engage web 2.0. But they must be careful not to import or impose rigid, one-sided and outdated copyright regimes of the past on this new media.

I hope the Bank would consider revising these unfair copyright terms, and treat the submitted material with greater discretion and respect. If not, all entrants risk seeing their material popping out of bluechip films produced by top-dollar production companies in North America and Europe who have ‘mining rights’ to the Bank’s video archives.

Vulnerability Exposed can have more meanings than one. We’d rather not consider some.

Wanted: Development 2.0 to catch up with web 2.0!

i4d magazine August 2008 issue
i4d magazine August 2008 issue

Did anybody hear of the senior UN official who finally started blogging? He wrote perceptively and expressively – with some help from his speech writers – but a vital element was missing in his blog: no one could comment on his posts as he completely disabled that function.

Then there is the Red Cross chief who started her own Facebook account but remained completely ‘friendless’ for months – because she didn’t accept anyone seeking to join her social networking effort!

These are just two among many examples I have come across in recent months. They are all symptoms of a major challenge that development and humanitarian communities are grappling with: how to engage the latest wave of Information and Communication Technologies, or ICTs.

With these words, I open my latest essay, titled “Wanted: Development 2.0 to catch up with web 2.0” in the August 2008 issue of i4d magazine, published from New Delhi, India.

My thrust is something regular readers of this blog would be familiar with. In fact, in this essay I consolidate and expand on ideas that were initially discussed in various blog posts over the past many months.

The new wave of Internet, collectively known as Web 2.0, opens up new opportunities for us in the development and humanitarian communities to reach out and engage millions of people – especially the youth who make up the majority in most developing countries of Asia. But it also challenges us as never before.

This time around, it’s much more demanding than simply engaging the original web. It involves crossing what I call the ‘Other Digital Divide‘, one that separates (most members of) the development community from ‘Digital Natives‘- younger people who have grown up taking the digital media and tools completely for granted.

I have identified four key challenges involved in crossing the Other Digital Divide:
– Leave the comfort zone of paper
– Let go of control
– Invest less money but more time
– Recognise information needs and wants

I argue: “There are no authorities on this fast-changing subject: everyone is learning, some faster than others. Neither is there a road map to the new media world. From Rupert Murdoch and Steve Jobs downwards, every media mogul is working on this challenge. For those who get it right, there is potential to make corporate fortunes, and also to serve the public interest in innovative, effective ways.

I end the essay with a challenge to the development community: “To face challenges of web 2.0, we need to come up with development 2.0!”

Read the full essay on i4d magazine website

Olympics on TV: How the World is One

When Lopez Lomong led the US team into the opening ceremony of Beijing 2008 Olympics as its flag-bearer, he was completing a journey that started eight years earlier, on another continent. And under very different circumstances.

In September 2000, as a Sudanese refugee, he walked eight kilometers from a refugee camp in Kenya, and paid five Kenyan shillings, to watch the Sydney Olympics on a black and white television. There, he saw Michael Johnson win the gold medal in the 400 meters, and that gave him a dream.

Until then, he’d not even heard of the Olympics. From then onwards, he wanted to be an Olympic runner. In Beijing, he is competing as a 1,500-meter track runner. Just as important, he is a leading member of Team Darfur, an international coalition of athletes committed to raising awareness about and bringing an end to the genocide in Darfur, Sudan.

According to his website, at age 6 he was abducted from a Sudanese church by a militia faction that wanted to turn young boys into child soldiers. He eventually escaped the militia camp through a hole in a fence with three older boys who carried them on their backs as they walked for three days until they reached Kenya, where police arrested them and sent them to a refugee camp. He spent 10 years in the camp, living on one meal a day.

Read Lopez Lomong biography on his website

Read New York Times profile of Lopez Lomong, 2 July 2008

Through a combination of persistence, determination and luck, Lopez came to the United States through the help of Christian charities. There, he could pursue his dream – he became a naturalised citizen only about a year before the Beijing Olympics.

“I come here to inspire kids who are out there watching this Olympics, as I did watching the Sydney Olympics,” Lopez told the media in Beijing. “All the countries and all the nations are out there watching. I’m very honored to be here and I am very honored to lead the American team into the opening ceremony.”

Indeed, the summer Olympics have become one of the most widely watched events in the world. An estimated four billion people worldwide watched the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony on 8 August 2008. (Even if two complete spoilsports – Russia and Georgia – started a little war that very day, many news media outlets didn’t pay them much attention until the Beijing opening ceremony was over.)

And for the first time, that viewing was not confined to television alone: a small but growing number followed the event online, heralding the arrival of another distribution medium for this global event.

Olympic broadcasts go back to nearly half a century, when the 1960 Rome games became the first to be covered live on television. Olympic games have enjoyed a mutually beneficial relationship with television, with the medium popularizing the event to the point that the global audience is now counted in billions of viewers.

As I have commented in another blog post, this close relationship between the Olympics and television does have its downside. The medium’s showbiz driven demands for style over substance can and do sometimes distort reality and even threaten the integrity of the Olympics movement as a sporting event.

The International Olympics Committee (IOC) tries hard to strike a balance between revenue optimisation and safeguarding the Olympics ideals. This is why, for example, the IOC has often declined higher fee offers for broadcast on a pay-per-view basis or because a broadcaster could reach only a limited part of the population, as this is against Olympic Broadcast Policy.

As the IOC explains on its website: “This fundamental IOC Policy, set forth in the Olympic Charter, ensures the maximum presentation of the Olympic Games by broadcasters around the world to everyone who has access to television. Rights are only sold to broadcasters who can guarantee the broadest coverage throughout their respective countries.”

This is extremely important. It’s impossible to put a dollor or Euro figure to the inspirational value of television (and now online) coverage of the Olympics. For the couple of weeks that the summer Olympics are held, moving images from the host city captivate the world’s eyeballs in a way that few other events can.

Among the Beijing 2008’s billions of viewers might well be the next Lopez Lomong. We have no way of knowing that yet…but if not for the worldwide broadcasts and webcasts, the global event in Beijing will not be shared by most members of the Global Family.

Read more about Olympics and television

Blog post on 13 Aug 2008: Beijing 2008: So what’s a little fake for a cuter Olympics?

Blog post on 8 Aug 2008: Olympics 2008 Campaign: The Best of Us

Beijing 2008: So what’s a little fake for a cuter Olympics?

The world saw Lin Miaoke, right, sing at the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony - but actually heard the voice of Yang Peiyi, left.
The world saw Lin Miaoke, right, sing at the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony - but actually heard the voice of Yang Peiyi, left.

So now it’s confirmed: the spectacular Beijing Olympics opening ceremony – watched live on television by over a billion people worldwide – had been a little more than what it seemed.

What we saw was not what we actually heard. It turns out that the little girl in a red dress, who sang “Ode to the Motherland” as China’s flag was paraded into Beijing’s National Stadium, wasn’t really singing. Clever stage management and sound mixing just made us believe she was.

Beijing games organisers have confirmed that Lin Miaoke, aged 9, whom we saw on TV, was lip-syncing to the sound of another girl, 7-year-old Yang Peiyi, who was only heard but not seen — all because she was deemed not “cute enough”. And they just forgot to tell us there were two…

To refresh memories, here’s that moment from 8 August 2008, as captured by China’s national broadcaster CCTV:

Since the story broke a couple of days later, it has been covered very widely in print, broadcast and online media. There has been particularly good coverage in the New York Times.

An extract from that story:

“The Chinese government has taken great pains to present the best possible image to the outside world during the Olympics, and perfection was the goal for the dazzling opening ceremonies. The filmmaker Zhang Yimou, who oversaw the production, has earned international praise for staging a performance that many considered one of the most spectacular in Olympic history.

“But to achieve the spectacular, not only did organizers fake the song, but they also have acknowledged that one early sequence of the stunning fireworks shown to television viewers actually included digitally enhanced computer graphics used for ‘theatrical effect.'”

And here’s how CNN covered the news of the fake incident on 12 August 2008:

The blogosphere is teeming with discussions on this — and not just in English. It sure raises a number of concerns.

The Olympic motto is made up of three Latin words: “Citius, Altius, Fortius”, which mean “Faster, Higher, Stronger”. At the rate things are moving — with media images taking precedence over accomplishment — we might soon find ‘cuter’ being annexed to it. (Somebody please find the right Latin word.)

But let’s face it: this is not the first time that the world’s greatest festival has been carefully stage-crafted for the benefit of broadcast television, nor will it be the last. The pressure on host nations is immense to show their best face to the world. Perhaps our Chinese friends took that literally, and opted to showcase the supposedly cuter Lin Miaoke to the billion plus audience. (Apparently, a party official deemed that the face of little Miss Yang Peiyi wasn’t good enough – both look perfectly adorable to me…)

Not for a moment do I condone the trickery that Beijing tried to get away with. At the same time, let this be seen as part of a growing, disturbing trend: the broadcast television ‘tail’ has been wagging the Olympics dog for quite some time.

Since the summer Olympics were first commercially broadcast in Rome in 1960, both television’s technology and industry have advanced leaps and bounds. Today, broadcast rights are a very significant source of income for the International Olympic Committee (IOC), and the host countries/cities.

As the IOC official website says: “Increases in broadcast revenue over the past two decades have provided the Olympic Movement and sport with an unprecedented financial base.” And according to the most recent data available, theat revenue accounts for a little over half of all the income that Olympic marketing generates.

That’s all well and good — much of competitive sport today relies so heavily on corporate sponsorships, and television rights are a key part of sports financing.

However, we must worry when so much time, effort, creativity and money is being invested in staging ever more spectacular opening (and to a lesser extent, closing) ceremonies. Yes, it’s a time for the world to celebrate the best and the brightest of the Global Family. And there’s absolutely no harm in having a gala party. But should that extend to rolling out all the tricks of showbiz and make belief? With such a massive global audience following the games not just on television but now also online, where do the IOC and hosts draw the line?

As the world becomes more and more media saturated, these pressures are only set to increase. This year, for the first time, the IOC also allowed online video platform YouTube (owned by Google) to carry about three hours a day of exclusive content — summaries and highlights — from Olympic Broadcasting Services on a dedicated channel.

Let’s not kid ourselves: the world of broadcast television distorts reality on a daily basis. This is an industry that prefers and promotes those whom it considers more cute, pretty, good-looking and sexy. It makes no secret of choosing style over substance. And not just in pure entertainment, but in ALL areas of coverage, including news and current affairs. I have been pointing out how this also affects the coverage of issues like poverty, disasters and development. Even in such serious, factual coverage, many television producers would go with faces that they think are tele-genic, cute or at least particularly pathetic-looking…

Television audiences, by and large, have come to terms with all these ‘adjustments and improvements’ to the murky, messy and unruly real world (yes, some pockets of resistance are fighting a brave vanguard battle, but their numbers are no match for the uncritical couch potatoes).

The challenge is when the real world of Olympic sports tries to mix with the make-belief world of broadcast television to reach out to all those billions of eyeballs. Whose values, standards and rules would then apply?

While the IOC jealously guards time-cherished Olympic principles, it has been slow to modernise and keep up with the times. It must find ways to balance the Olympics integrity with media’s obsession for manufactured reality and feel-good, look-great extravaganzas. And if IOC thinks manging broadcast rights is tricky, just wait till they have to deal with the more bewildering and multitudinous online and mobile media platforms…

What happened in Beijing once again rekindles a long simmering debate. It goes much deeper than an overzealous host nation trying to picture-perfect its proud moment. It takes us right to the heart of the Olympics, and tests if the founding ideals can survive the corporate media realities of the twenty first century.

Olympics 2008 campaign: The Best of Us

It’s finally here. The calendar shows 08.08.08 — the date the Chinese hosts selected to open the 29th Olympic Games in Beijing.

All eyes and ears will turn to the opening ceremony and subsequent events in the Chinese capital for the next two weeks. We will be looking forward to the best of us competing for the noblest of ideals in the spirit of excellence, friendship and goodwill.

The build-up to the Beijing Olympics has seen a large number of television commercials and public service announcements (PSAs) using the Olympic theme. Some of them are quite clever, bringing out the best creativity of those who create moving image treats. Today, we feature one such campaign.

For the past year, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has been running a global promotional campaign, titled “The Best of Us”. Its aim was to communicate the key Olympic values of Excellence, Friendship and Respect to a global youth audience.

The theme of “The Best of Us” is a simple, powerful idea that transcends cultures and borders, motivating young people around the world to participate in sport by proving that sport can bring out their best.

The campaign was developed by the Voluntarily United Group of Creative Agencies (United), part of WPP. This first phase of creative development was led by Sra Rushmore/United, Madrid. The two PSAs are accompanied by a viral video as well as print and digital media items.

Here are the two PSAs:

Teens (above): The “Teens” television advert communicates that being an athlete can help teens overcome their insecurities – either real or those imposed by their peers. It aims to demonstrate how sport can play an important role in boosting young people’s confidence. The film features young athletes from across the world, including Armenia, Belgium, Brazil, China, Egypt, Germany, Ghana, India, Israel, Japan, Mexico, Russia and the United States.

Heroes (above): Legendary Olympic athletes including Roger Federer, Yao Ming, Laure Manaudou, Liu Xiang and Yelena Isinbayeva are among the stars of the International Olympic Committee’s public service announcement entitled “Heroes”. “Heroes” leverages the determination and performance of Olympic athletes to communicate the key Olympic values. The campaign also stars Kenenisa Bekele, Haile Gebrselelassie, Vanessa Ferrari and Carolina Kluft who, along with those mentioned above, star as superheroes seeking to achieve the seemingly impossible.

And finally, here are two of the seven print media posters that made up the Best of Us campaign:

More about the Best of Us campaign on IOC website

Alexandr Solzhenitsyn (1918 – 2008): Writer as a second government

image courtesy New York Times
Alexandr Solzhenitsyn: image courtesy New York Times

“For a country to have a great writer … is like having a second government. That’s why no régime has ever loved great writers, only minor ones.”

The great Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who died 3 August 2008 aged 89, made this remark 40 years ago, in The First Circle (written in the early 1960s, and first published in the West in 1968).

The mighty man, who stood up to one of the most tyrannical states in history – and outlived it by almost 20 years – was buried this week at the Donskoy Monastery, Moscow, as he had wished. That was a far more dignified and respectable departure than what the late, unlamented Soviet Union received when it disintegrated in 1989-90.

From the time his death was reported, post-Soviet Russia, and the rest of the reading and caring world, stood in solemn, grateful silence in awe of the living legend that Solzhenitsyn had become in his own life time. As a small-time writer of no consequence, I join them in my own personal salute.

As every writer – major and minor – who has ever heeded his or her conscience knows, standing up to governments is an extremely hazardous business, especially in a world where might often emerges as right, at least in the short term. In the twenty first century, governments may adopt more subtle methods of suppressing dissent, but their final effect is no less sinister than those brutal ones that Soviet Union followed at the height of the Cold War in the 1950s and 1960s.

I must admit here and now that I haven’t read any of Solzhenitsyn’s celebrated works. But that doesn’t diminish my admiration for him as one of the world’s best known writer-dissidents. Any man who stands up to Big Bad Governments defies all odds, and a man who employs only ideas and words in such a struggle is a greater hero in my mind than anyone else.

A high school teacher of mine, who was a great fan of Solzhenitsyn, once told us: “Never underestimate the power of well written and sincere words.” That was in the mid 1980s, when the writer was living in exile in the United States and the Soviet Union still seemed unshakable. But subsequent events have proved how prophetic those words were.

In a sense, many of us will never quite discover the true Solzhenitsyn. Unless we learn Russian at this stage in life, we can only read Solzhenitsyn through English translations — and as I have discovered this week by browsing widely online for writing by and about him, the quality of these translations vary considerably.

One of the more insightful, short autobiographical pieces is on the Nobel Prize website, where he talks about how he finally came to publish his writing:

“During all the years until 1961, not only was I convinced that I should never see a single line of mine in print in my lifetime, but, also, I scarcely dared allow any of my close acquaintances to read anything I had written because I feared that this would become known. Finally, at the age of 42, this secret authorship began to wear me down. The most difficult thing of all to bear was that I could not get my works judged by people with literary training. In 1961, after the 22nd Congress of the U.S.S.R. Communist Party and Tvardovsky’s speech at this, I decided to emerge and to offer One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.

“Such an emergence seemed, then, to me, and not without reason, to be very risky because it might lead to the loss of my manuscripts, and to my own destruction. But, on that occasion, things turned out successfully, and after protracted efforts, A.T. Tvardovsky was able to print my novel one year later. The printing of my work was, however, stopped almost immediately and the authorities stopped both my plays and (in 1964) the novel, The First Circle, which, in 1965, was seized together with my papers from the past years. During these months it seemed to me that I had committed an unpardonable mistake by revealing my work prematurely and that because of this I should not be able to carry it to a conclusion.”

Thus, the 1960s was the turning point when hitherto obscure Solzhenitsyn burst into the literary landscape of his native country, and his uncompromising stand against the suffering of his people brought him worldwide attention.

Solzhenitsyn’s open letter to the Fourth Soviet Writers’ Congress, on 16 May 1967, was particularly outspoken and expressive of his views of the social responsibility of writers and artistes:
“Literature that is not the breath of contemporary society, that dares not transmit the pains and fears of that society, that does not warn in time against threatening moral and social dangers — such literature does not deserve the name of literature; it is only a façade. Such literature loses the confidence of its own people, and its published works are used as wastepaper instead of being read.”

By then under siege by the entire might of the USSR, and having only his formidable guts and wits as his defence, he already had a strong sense of destiny. In the same open letter, he added: “I am of course confident that I will fulfill my tasks as a writer in all circumstances — from my grave even more successfully and more irrefutably than in my lifetime. No one can bar the road to truth, and to advance its cause I am prepared to accept even death. But may it be that repeated lessons will finally teach us not to stop the writer’s pen during his lifetime? At no time has this ennobled our history.”

Solzhenitsyn’s global stature in the world of letters was reaffirmed in 1970 when he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. But he could not receive the prize personally in Stockholm – he was afraid he would not be allowed back into the Soviet Union. He finally collected his prize only at the 1974 Nobel ceremony after he had been deported from the Soviet Union.

In his Nobel Prize Lecture (delivered to the Swedish Academy but never actually given as a lecture), I came across these words which epitomise the man and his views:
“Woe to that nation whose literature is disturbed by the intervention of power. Because that is not just a violation against ‘freedom of print’, it is the closing down of the heart of the nation, a slashing to pieces of its memory. The nation ceases to be mindful of itself, it is deprived of its spiritual unity, and despite a supposedly common language, compatriots suddenly cease to understand one another. Silent generations grow old and die without ever having talked about themselves, either to each other or to their descendants. When writers such as Achmatova and Zamjatin – interred alive throughout their lives – are condemned to create in silence until they die, never hearing the echo of their written words, then that is not only their personal tragedy, but a sorrow to the whole nation, a danger to the whole nation.”

Solzhenitsyn’s writing is studded with such gems that I’ve resolved to discover even if belatedly. After all, I’m now at the exact age (42) when he finally decided to start publishing his work — a monumental personal decision that has left its mark on history.

For now, my favourite Solzhenitsyn quote is one that resonates so well with my own current turmoils in life: “If one is forever cautious, can one remain a human being?

I think I know the answer.