Friday, 30 March 2018

So I'm on my way to hospital, and I'm starting to laugh ...

I've had serious diarrhea for six days, and I'm doubled up in my seat, but not from the impact of my malady. I'm on the remote Tongan island of 'Eua and it's 30 degrees and 90% humidity. My ambulance driver, the lovely Seini, is weaving her way through the potholes on the road, with a majesty that seems to come naturally to 'Euan women. We're in a broken-down transit van with no windows, and mangled upholstery.

Tongan king's palace
My blood pressure is plunging through dehydration, but my spirits are rapidly rising.

On the local radio station, there is an item about the reception, in Moscow, of the new comic movie 'The Death of Stalin'. The Duma is outraged, and an international incident is in the offing.

The Kremlin accuses the UK writer / director Iannucci, of 'driving a wedge between the Russian people.' Yes, that's right, a nervy, Scottish comedy writer is threatening the very stability of the Motherland. He is unquestionably 'an enemy of the state'.

The officials at the premier in Moscow have walked out. As if relations between Russia and the West aren't at a low enough ebb anyway, after the election-hacking scandal, this new insult to the Motherland has not gone down well.

Sexy beast
I am laughing for several reasons. Firstly, according to the US intelligence services, the Russians generated ingenious fictions on a massive scale to scupper Clinton's campaign against Trump. Now the Russians have had their own defenses breached by a low-flying Scottish comedian. Next, the woman news reader, in a beautiful thick Tongan accent, is giving every last detail of the outraged Russian response.

I keep thinking: Why is this news on a remote Tongan island?

I'm also laughing with mad pleasure that someone has had the chutzpah to write a comedy about the death of the greatest tyrant the world has ever known. (Many Russians still revere him, and venerate his memory.)

I thought of the hilarious and terrifying play 'Master Class' by David Pownall, about a meeting between Stalin, Rachmaninoff, and Prokofiev, in which Stalin advises these geniuses on how to adjust their music to Soviet ideals. He sits at their piano and bashes out a couple of tunes. Unless they conform, they may be executed.

At the time of his death, Stalin was surrounded by various other tyrants - the police chief Beria, Molotov, Khrushchev ... all of whom were struggling for power. The events in this new film are based on the factual, farcical events that attended his sudden demise, with a bit of poetic license thrown in. (Fact: Stalin's cronies were too terrified to touch his corpse, so he lay in a puddle of his own urine, untouched for many hours.)

But I'm really laughing because I suddenly get the local interest.

The Tongans know a bit about capricious autocrats.

A line of Tongan kings have plundered the country's wealth and helped keep much of the population in poverty. The extent of this corruption is extraordinary (see link at bottom of this post). Beside the potholed track my ambulance is taking, people live in rusty corrugated iron shacks with dirt floors, frequented by wandering pigs.

In 2006, riots in Tonga's capital killed eight people, and struck a chill into the elite. In response, the king began to tamper with his feudal structure a little, and some 'commoners' were admitted to parliament.

King Tupou IV plus court jester Bogdonoff
Recent Tongan kings have been involved in a variety of scandals; including the employment of a court jester who ran off with the nation's super fund; the selling of Tongan passports to the highest bidders (including the Philippino dictator Marcos), and an expensive scheme to turn seawater into diesel. Yes, that's water into diesel. Forbes Magazine ranked Tonga as the third most corrupt nation on earth. The current king, hailed as a reformer, recently sacked the entire government, only to have those pesky commoners re-elect the same government.

The people who suffer, as always, are the ordinary folk.

And as the Guardian bureau chief in Moscow for four years, Luke Harding, shows in his brilliant recent book 'Collusion - How Russia helped Trump Win the White House', these are the very people who in Russia, will continue to suffer as their masters plunder the wealth of the nation.

For these kleptocrats, oligarchs and Kremlin apparatchiks to have flounced out of Ionucci's movie, is ... well, kind of funny. Even if you have serious diarrhea.

Postscript: For an account by journalist Michael J Field of some of the most bizarre incidents of royal corruption in Tonga click here 

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