Tim Chamberlain is 29 years old. He studied Anthropology at University and has worked as a Museum Curator and Archaeologist, jobs which combine the practical and the academic, as well as the opportunity to travel. He is also an active campaigner for human rights with Amnesty International, and, in particular for Burma, with The Burma Campaign UK.
UNDER WESTERN EYES: TRAVELS IN A TIME OF CHANGE
“Write, he had said. I must write – I must, indeed!
I bought my copy of Under Western Eyes, a story of Russian Revolutionaries in Switzerland, sometime in late 1991. I can’t remember exactly when, although I can exactly remember doing so. I bought it in a bookshop in the uneventful suburb of London where I lived. I remember hesitating. It cost £3.99. Which for me at the time was quite a lot of money – pocket money to be precise, I was fifteen years old. I also remember hesitating because I already owned other books by Joseph Conrad. Other books which, as yet, remained on the shelves of my bookcase – unread. After some deliberation I finally placed the book on the counter and bought it.
I bought Under Western Eyes because it was by Joseph Conrad. Not because it was about revolution. I was a fan of Conrad rather than of revolution per se. Although the political climate of that very specific time, I’m sure, had something to do with it. Looking back it now seems an interesting thing to have done. I remember thinking to myself whilst deliberating over the expenditure that it would be a good way to learn something about revolution. An interesting notion when one remembers that if one wanted to learn about revolution a good way at that time was to turn the television on, around about six o’clock would do it. This was because the first two years of the 1990s were years of absolute revolution. After November 9th 1989 the map of Europe was changing quickly, by August 1991 the USSR no longer existed and, with the exception of the events in Tiananmen Square, the Cold War was finally over. It was a very strange time. Even from the comparitative safety of Great Britain there was an element of fear at first. We had grown accustomed to the arms talks, the summits between Reagan and Gorbachev, and we all knew and understood two new words from the Russian: Glasnost and Perestroika, but nobody really thought that they would herald the end of a fifty-odd year stand off and the threat of total Nuclear Holocaust.
In October 1991 I went to Germany for the first time. The BDR and the GDR were no longer distinct entities, there no longer were two Germanys, the country had reunified and whilst I was there I saw both sides of the former Iron Curtain. It was an amazing time to have lived through and an amazing time to have gone to Germany. The whole of Europe had a different feel to it. Europe felt new and it felt more real. And at fifteen the significance was not lost on us. We were heavily reminded that as foreign exchange students we were playing our part in the new future, we were effectively ambassadors our teachers told us. And it felt like that. The radio played songs about the Wind of Change. Carried on that wind of change was the spirit of freedom. Notions of freedom appeal to middle teens.
Given the tenor of those times it is of little wonder that this book, along with Gandhi’s Experiments with Truth, had a profound influence upon me. Under Western Eyes connected for two real reasons – the characters of Haldin and Razumov. They seemed like two split sides of my own personality. One a young man of ideals and action. The other a hard working soul who wants nothing more than peace and solitude. Fifteen is perhaps the age at which our individuality is beginning to strive out in search of itself, trying to establish its own temper, to find ease within its own character; yet bizarrely you are also experiencing someone else emerging from within, someone who is simultaneously familiar but, by the same token, just as unknown. One side of me was feeling a burgeoning of conscience, having seen news films of Pinochet’s Chile; reading about Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma; and now, watching a young man in China standing alone in front of a line of advancing tanks. A moment when the whole world held its breath. A defining moment. Something which would mark a generation, sadly – if only for a short time. Then there was also the side of me which wasn’t quite so sure of itself, the side that was having to deal with its own personal troubles and its education in particular. For me academic education is something which I have always understood the need for, but struggled intensely in the realisation and attainment thereof. School was a hell in all sorts of ways. And at this time too I had experienced my first love and loss therein. All of this was bundled together. It was a time of dramatic change. Everywhere.
I saw trains laden with military hardware rumbling slowly and very late at night through West German railway stations on their way across into the former GDR. The silent metamorphosis. The Occident moving towards Moscow. Not so very much later I went on another exchange, this time I stayed with a family in East Berlin. I flew through Check Point Charlie without a change in gear on several occasions. I saw the prison in which Erich Honecker had been held. And I learnt much that the television never told us; but I still believed in a world which was changing for the better. One love. One need. One life. I didn’t see it as progress or assimilation, I saw it as unity and above all – I saw it as freedom. A family member had gone out to the countries of Eastern Europe around the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Velvet Revolution, he’d given us fragments from the Wall itself, and I was also given some posters bearing the face of a man who would become another personal hero of mine. They were from Czechoslovakia. They read: Havel na Hrad.
Looking back, maybe it was naive optimism? Youthful idealism? The spirit of the moment? But looking back again I don’t think it was: if I search myself I still feel the same. And if I search myself hard enough I find that I still feel like Razumov. Caught in a changing world where my will and what happens to me are two things each ruled only by the unchanging fact that they are never truly mine alone. I do not exist in isolation. Just the same as everyone else caught in the everyday-to-day of greater things than ourselves. The world is an ever changing place. And we can change it for the better, so long as we believe in such a thing, so long as we believe in freedom. The only thing I can do which I feel is true, for me – the expression of freedom – is to write. Certainly. That’s why I am here. To understand this – is to lead the greatest of revolutions – to be the power.