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‘Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot’

February 13th, 2014

WORDS WILL BREAK CEMENT
The Passion of Pussy Riot
By Masha Gessen
Riverhead. 308 pp. Paperback, $16
What makes someone into a dissident? Why do some people give up everything — home, family, job — to embark on a career of protest? Or, to put it differently, why, on Feb. 21, 2012, did a group of young Russian women put on short dresses and colored tights, place neon-hued balaclavas over their faces, walk into the Cathedral of Christ the Savior and mount the altar? And why — although they knew that their compatriots would be indifferent and that arrest might follow — did they begin to sing:
Virgin Mary, Mother of God, Banish Putin
Banish Putin, Banish Putin! Read on »

Charles Moore’s biography of Margaret Thatcher

April 27th, 2013

Margaret Thatcher, The Authorised Biography
Volume One: Not For Turning
by Charles Moore
860 pp, Allen Lane, £19.20

In her first meeting with the press after defeating Edward Heath in February 1975, the new leader of the opposition modestly paid homage to her predecessors: “To me it is like a dream that the next in line after Harold Macmillan, Sir Alec Douglas-Home, Edward Heath is … Margaret Thatcher.”

Accidentally, she had voiced what many other people in the room also felt. As Charles Moore explains, “The fact that her election did indeed seem like a dream was a large part of her problem.” In and out of her party and across the country, many people found the ascent of Thatcher outlandish, even bizarre: “The oldest, grandest, in many people’s eyes the stuffiest political party in the world had chosen a leader whose combination of class, inexperience and sex would previously have ruled her out. And it was not obvious that it had really meant to do so, or that it was confident of its choice,” writes Moore. Read on »


Just Send Me Word

June 2nd, 2012

Just Send Me Word
By Orlando Figes
Allen Lane, 333pp, ££20

Anyone who has ever written a history book will feel a twinge of envy on reading the preface to Just Send Me Word:

We opened up the largest of the trunks. I had never seen anything like it: several thousand letters tightly stacked in bundles tied with string and rubber bands, notebooks, diaries, documents and photographs…

It was a unique family archive, the property of Svetlana and Lev Mishchenko, and it contained, among other things, packets of their love letters. Read on »


Vladimir’s Tale

April 26th, 2012

The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin
by Masha Gessen
Riverhead, 314 pp., $27.95

On November 20, 1998, Galina Starovoitova, a member of the Russian parliament, was murdered in the stairwell of her St. Petersburg apartment building. In the weeks that followed, obituaries, articles, and tributes to her life poured forth from all over the world. Starovoitova, almost everyone agreed, was different from the Russian politicians of the past and different from her contemporaries too. She spoke differently, moved differently, thought differently. She was frank, she was energetic, and she seemed genuinely interested in improving people’s lives. “Everything she said seemed fresh,” wrote The Economist. “Unlike others, she did not compromise her principles as the political winds changed; she did not mix business with politics,” wrote The Independent. Read on »


Thus do empires end

September 3rd, 2011

Moscow: 25 December 1991

By Conor O’Clery

Transworld, 423pp, £25

‘This book is a chronicle of one day in the history of one city.’ As first sentences go, that one is hard to beat — particularly given that the ‘one day’ is the last day of the Soviet Union, the city is Moscow and the author, an Irish journalist, was there and knew most of the principal actors. After reading the preface, I expected alatter-day Rashomon, the end of the USSR told from a dozen different angles: the ‘one day’ as experienced by the lady selling vegetables in the market, the foreign diplomat sending telegrams in the embassy, the KGB man looking for a job.   Read on »


A Far-Fetched War

October 30th, 2010

Crimea: The Last Crusade

by Orlando Figes

Allen Lane, 575pp, £30

First, a disclaimer: this review will not touch upon some recent, odd behaviour of this book’s author, Orlando Figes, because I can’t see that it’s relevant. The history of the Crimean war is far removed in time and in space from contemporary literary politics, and I think we should keep it that way. Read on »


The Worst of the Madness

October 28th, 2010

Bloodlands

by Timothy Snyder

Basic Books, 524pp, $29.95

Stalin’s Genocides

by Norman M. Naimark

Princeton University Press, 163 pp, $26.95

 

Once, in an attempt to explain the history of his country to outsiders, the Polish poet Czesław Miłosz described the impact of war, occupation, and the Holocaust on ordinary morality.  Mass violence, he explained, could shatter a man’s sense of natural justice. Read on »


Proscribed reading

July 17th, 2010

Politics and the Novel During the Cold War

by David Caute

Transaction, 403pp, £42.50

In 1948, Poland’s new communist government was badly in need of legitimacy and desperate for international recognition. So they did what any self-respecting left-wing government would do, back in those days, in order to win a bit of respect; they held a cultural Congress. Read on »


Angel Factories

May 21st, 2010

Children of the Gulag

By Cathy A. Frierson and Semyon S. Vilensky

Yale University Press, 496 pp., $55

Several years ago, a friend who helped me to find my way around the Russian State Archives in Moscow asked if I would like to meet another woman who was also working there. She was not doing research for a book, and she was not a scholar. Instead, she was indulging her curiosity and her nostalgia. Forty years earlier, she had worked as a baby nurse in a children’s home inside one of Stalin’s labor camps. Now she wanted to find out what had happened to some of the people she had known there, to jog her memory of names and dates. Read on »


Paranoia and Empty Promises

May 15th, 2010

The Betrayal

by Helen Dunmore

Fig Tree, 330pp, £18.99

It has taken more than half a century, but at last the Anglophone world has woken up to the fact that 20th-century communist history makes a superb backdrop for fiction. So extreme and dramatic were the Russian revolution, the arrests and the purges, Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union and the imposition of Stalinism on the eastern half of Europe that all you have to do is write down what really happened and it sounds like fiction anyway. Read on »


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