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Hard Choices

August 3rd, 2014

HARD CHOICES
By Hillary Rodham Clinton
Simon & Schuster.
656 pp.
Even while Hard Choices was still wafting its way across the Atlantic Ocean— and long before it landed on my desk in central Europe, an entire twenty-four hours after the official publication date—Hillary Clinton’s account of her State Department years had already led several news cycles, inspired thousands of megabytes of commentary, and left its subsequent reviewers with serious literary and philosophical dilemmas. Read on »

An escape to the country that became a struggle for Poland’s soul

April 12th, 2014

The White Lake John Borrell
Charles Glass Books
pp.248, £15
ISBN: 9780704373327
A review of John Borrell’s ‘The White Lake’. An escape to the country for Borrell turned out to be a struggle for the soul of Poland
In 1993, John Borrell, a longtime foreign correspondent with no permanent home, decided to abandon journalism. Tired of writing about wars and violence — he had been in Beirut, Rwanda and Nicaragua — he determined to throw himself into European rural life. But instead of a year in Provence, he chose 20 years in Kaszubia, northeast Poland. Borrell, originally from New Zealand, had married a Pole. They bought an exquisite piece of land beside a pristine lake, and there they built a boutique hotel. Read on »

‘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 »

Secrets of the Kremlin

December 14th, 2013

Red Fortress
By Catherine Merridale
Allen Lane, pp.505, £30
ISBN: 9781846140372
Catherine Merridale’s Red Fortress gets behind the facade of Russia’s most famous building
A building bearing testimony to the power of eternal Russia; a timeless symbol of the Russian state; a monument to Russian sovereignty. To the modern eye, the Kremlin fortress seems as if it had always been there, as if it had never changed and never will.
All of which is utter nonsense, as Catherine Merridale’s fascinating history reveals: the story of this famous compound is not one of continuity, but of construction, destruction and reconstruction. Every reincarnation of the Russian state over the centuries — and there have been many — has been accompanied by a corresponding reincarnation of the Kremlin. Its history is thus a metaphorical history of Russia, as Merridale understands very well. ‘If states have trademarks,’ she writes, ‘Russia’s could well be this fortress, viewed across Red Square.’ 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 »


Poland in the Darkness of World War II

December 20th, 2012

The Eagle Unbowed: Poland and the Poles in the Second World War
By Halik Kochanski
Harvard University Press, 734 pp., $35

The Auschwitz Volunteer: Beyond Bravery
By Witold Pilecki translated by Jarek Garliński
Aquila Polonica, 460 pp., $34.95

ONCE, THE Allied history of the Second World War—the Anglo-American history of the Second World War, the Victors’ history of the Second World War—was the only one we thought mattered. In school, in movies, and in political speeches we learned of a war between Britain, France, and America on the one hand, and Nazi Germany and Japan on the other; of Pearl Harbor and D-Day; of Monty and Ike, Churchill and Roosevelt; of Hirohito’s surrender and the liberation of Bergen-Belsen. Good triumphed over evil in the Anglo-American version of history, because our war ended happily. Hitler killed himself, De Gaulle marched into Paris, the Holocaust was over, and justice caught up with the worst perpetrators at Nuremberg. 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 »


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