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Is It Possible to Move Beyond this Century of Disaster?

The tale of the 20th century—from Stalin to Barbie Dolls.
 
 
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The Hiroshima Peace Memorial
Photo Credit: cowardlion/Shutterstock.com

 
 
 
 

To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the  latest updates from TomDispatch.com. The following passages are excerpted from Eduardo Galeano’s history of humanity,  Mirrors (Nation Books).

Stalin

He learned to write in the language of Georgia, his homeland, but in the seminary the monks made him speak Russian.

Years later in Moscow, his south Caucasus accent still gave him away.

So he decided to become more Russian than the Russians. Was not Napoleon, who hailed from Corsica, more French than the French? And was not Catherine the Great, who was German, more Russian than the Russians?

The Georgian, Iosif Dzhugashvili, chose a Russian name. He called himself Stalin, which means “steel.”

The man of steel expected his son to be made of steel too: from childhood, Stalin’s son Yakov was tempered in fire and ice and shaped by hammer blows.

It did not work. He was his mother’s child. At the age of 19, Yakov wanted no more of it, could bear no more.

He pulled the trigger.

The gunshot did not kill him.

He awoke in the hospital. At the foot of the bed, his father commented:

“You can’t even get that right.”

The Ages of Josephine

At nine years old, she works cleaning houses in St. Louis on the banks of the Mississippi.

At 10, she starts dancing for coins in the street. At 13, she marries.

At 15, once again. Of the first husband she retains not even a bad memory. Of the second, his last name, because she likes how it sounds.

At 17, Josephine Baker dances the Charleston on Broadway. At 18, she crosses the Atlantic and conquers Paris. The “Bronze Venus” performs in the nude, with no more clothing than a belt of bananas.

At 21, her outlandish combination of clown and femme fatale makes her the most popular and highest-paid performer in Europe.

At 24, she is the most photographed woman on the planet. Pablo Picasso, on his knees, paints her. To look like her, the pallid young damsels of Paris rub themselves with walnut cream, which darkens the skin.

At 30, she has problems in some hotels because she travels with a chimpanzee, a snake, a goat, two parrots, several fish, three cats, seven dogs, a cheetah named Chiquita who wears a diamond-studded collar, and a little pig named Albert, whom she bathes in Je Reviens perfume by Worth.

At 40, she receives the Legion of Honor for service to the French Resistance during the Nazi occupation.

At 41 and on her fourth husband, she adopts 12 children of many colors and many origins, whom she calls “my rainbow tribe.”

At 45, she returns to the United States. She insists that everyone, whites and blacks, sit together at her shows. If not, she will not perform. At 57, she shares the stage with Martin Luther King and speaks against racial discrimination before an immense crowd at the March on Washington.

At 68, she recovers from a calamitous bankruptcy and at the Bobino Theater in Paris she celebrates a half-century on the stage.

And she departs.

Photograph: Saddest Eye in the World

Princeton, New Jersey, May 1947.

Photographer Philippe Halsman asks him: “Do you think there will be peace?”

And while the shutter clicks, Albert Einstein says, or rather mutters: “No.”

People believe that Einstein got the Nobel Prize for his theory of relativity, that he was the originator of the saying “Everything is relative,” and that he was the inventor of the atom bomb.