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The History He Lived
by Merrily Weisbord

In my lifetime, the last of the people born before the Russian Revolution will die. My father is the very last of that generation, aged four in 1917, just old enough to remember the bayonets glinting like glass below the window of the house in Petrograd on the morning the soldiers stormed to the Duma and said they had had enough of hunger and war. Michael Ignatieff The Russian Album WHEN GEORGE IGNATIEFF died of a heart attack at 75 this past summer, newspapers paid homage to one of Canada's most distinguished diplomats: member of the Department of External Affairs for over 30 years, first foreign-born Canadian ambassador, Canada's representative to NATO and ambassador to the United Nations in their formative years, president of the United Nations Security Council. William Epstein, the retired director of the U.N. disarmament secretariat, spoke of Ignatieff's courtliness, scholarship, and strong principles. His son Michael, guarding the embers of life, not myth, told a reporter his father was "the Jewish mother of the family, always phoning you up to see if you had your chicken soup." In 1928, when the steamship Montrose sailed from Southampton to Montreal carrying George, his brother, Lionel, his mother, Countess Ignatieff and one trousseau trunk with all their possessions, it was 15-year-old George who held his mother in his arms to stop her from crying. Forty-four years later, it was George who reconciled Walter Gordon and Mike Pearson shortly before Pearson died. And George who, in the last years of his life, fought ferociously for peace and cared exquisitely for Alison, his wife of over 40 years. At five, fleeing the carnage go of the 1917 Russian Revolution with his three brothers, mother, and father (minister of education in the last Tsarist government), he stood on a siding and saw a freight car full of dead and dying men, and remembered ever after "one man whose emaciated arm seemed to be stretched out toward me as though pleading for help..." The London Blitz, which he experienced as third secretary at Canada House, reinforced in him the horror of war he first felt as a child in Russia. In the postwar years, as he saw the military become more powerful and independent of government, he warned that since modern warfare does not distinguish between civilian and military targets, civilians should be involved in national defence decisions: "No incineration without representation." I went to see George Ignatieff in 1985, in his chancellery at the University of Toronto, after reading his memoir, The Making of a Peacemonger. A Rhodes scholar and friend of Isaiah Berlin at Oxford, Ignatieff was, as Christina McCall aptly put it, "superbly educated, deeply versed in international affairs, unusually attractive in his demeanour, and well connected at home and abroad." He had written that the 1946-8 period "was probably the last time when an agreement on nuclear arms control might have prevented the arms race that was to follow." I wanted to talk to him about that forsaken postwar moment when global, rather than national, security seemed possible. And I wanted to know what, if anything, he had learned from the history he had lived. Somehow Ignatieff warmed up that immense room with his burnout and his grace. He told me he deeply regretted his own role in Canada's entanglement in the American nuclear web. In hindsight, he said he had taken the wrong position in supporting the U.S. resolution on the control of atomic energy at the crucial 1947 U.N. Security Council meetings. He had seen his hopes for an international control agency evaporate in the heat of American power diplomacy. "But I've always regretted it, and this accounts for the fact that with this hocus pocus they're playing now with Star Wars, I feel incensed -- we really have to part with them. This wretched apparatus in the sky is supposed to trigger automatically if a Soviet missile takes off anywhere. Any abdication of human responsibility for something which involves our very survival is, I think, so fundamentally immoral that this is really acceptance, by some dulling of one's wits and sense of conscience, of responsibility for mass murder. It's a horrible, horrible strategy." Star Wars outraged everything Ignatieff believed. He believed that the only way the human race is likely to survive is "little by little you keep moving toward the respect for human and world rights that we committed ourselves to under the (United Nations) Charter." He worried that we face a decline in our civilization because we've lost or are losing the sense of community and responsibility that saves us from "the law of the jungle." Yet, despite intimate experience with war and increasing concern about individual and "state terrorism," he believed that most people have a basic decency and deserve to be treated with decency. "One of the only things that makes life worth living is civility and humour in human relations. As he grew older, Ignatieff's personal relationships took on a greater importance, as did his sense of satisfaction from the community around him. He knew himself in a way he had not had time for in his pressured diplomatic life. And that knowing brought him "a certain peace." George Ignatieff was not only one of the last of the generation born before the Russian Revolution. He was, also, one of the very last of the idealistic, independent Ottawa men who thought Canada could make a difference in the councils of the world. All his life he was engaged in the vital issues of our times. He lived his final years speaking his mind, close to the family he loved, peaceful within himself.

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