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Destruction Myth – The rise and fall of the Romanovs

November 18th, 2016

Rasputin: Faith, Power, and the Twilight of the Romanovs
by Douglas Smith.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
848 pages. $35.

 

The Romanovs: 1613–1918
by Simon Sebag Montefiore.
Knopf.
784 pages. $35.

He is the mad monk, the holy fool, the man whose mystical powers enthralled the tsarina and cured the tsarevitch. It is said that he was a hypnotist, a rapist, a cultist, a charlatan, a seer. Allegedly, he was immune to poison; when his murderers tried to drown him, his body floated to the surface. In the century since his death, Grigory Yefimovich Rasputin, the Siberian priest whose relationship with Nicholas II and Alexandra, the last tsar and tsarina of Russia, helped bring down the entire Romanov dynasty, has been the subject of countless myths — so much so that it has become nearly impossible to disentangle the man from the legend. Read on »


The Victory of Ukraine

April 7th, 2016

The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine
by Serhii Plokhy
Basic Books, 395 pp.

 

“Tell Them We Are Starving”: The 1933 Soviet Diaries of Gareth Jones
edited by
Lubomyr Y. Luciuk
with an introduction by Ray Gamache
Kingston, Ontario: Kashtan Press, 275 pp.

 

Gareth Jones: Eyewitness to the Holodomor
by Ray Gamache
Cardiff: Welsh Academic Press, 241 pp.,
(distributed in the US by International Specialized Book Services)

In later years, there would be bigger demonstrations, more eloquent speakers, and more professional slogans. But the march that took place in Kiev on a Sunday morning in the spring of 1917 was extraordinary because it was the first of its kind in that city. The Russian Empire had banned Ukrainian books, newspapers, theaters, and even the use of the Ukrainian language in schools. The public display of national symbols had been risky and dangerous. But in the wake of the February Revolution in Petrograd, anything seemed possible.

There were flags, yellow and blue for Ukraine as well as red for the Communist cause. The crowd, composed of children, soldiers, factory workers, marching bands, and officials, carried banners—“Independent Ukraine with its own leader!” or “A free Ukraine in a free Russia!” Some carried portraits of the national poet Taras Shevchenko. One after another, speakers called for the crowd to support the newly established Central Rada—the name means “central council”—that had formed a few days earlier and now claimed authority to rule Ukraine.

Finally, the man who had just been elected chairman of the Rada stepped up to the podium. Mykhailo Hrushevsky, bearded and bespectacled, was one of the intellectuals who had first dared to put Ukraine at the center of its own history. The author of the ten-volume History of Ukraine-Rus’, as well as many other books, Hrushevsky had spent much of his life in Galicia, the Polish- and Ukrainian-speaking region ruled by the Habsburg Empire, in order to escape persecution at the hands of the tsarist police. Now, in the wake of the revolution, he had returned to Kiev in triumph. The crowd welcomed him with vigorous cheers: Slava batkovi Hrushevskomu!—Glory to Father Hrushevsky! He responded in kind: “Let us all swear at this great moment as one man to take up the great cause unanimously, with one accord, and not to rest or cease our labour until we build that free Ukraine.” The crowd shouted back, just as crowds would shout back at Kiev demonstrations ninety years later: “We swear!”1  Read on »


How He and His Cronies Stole Russia

December 18th, 2014

Putin’s Kleptocracy:
Who Owns Russia?
by Karen Dawisha
Simon and Schuster
445 pp.

For twenty years now, the Western politicians, journalists, businessmen, and academics who observe and describe the post-Soviet evolution of Russia have almost all followed the same narrative. We begin with the assumption that the Soviet Union ended in 1991, when Mikhail Gorbachev handed over power to Boris Yeltsin and Russia, Ukraine, and the rest of the Soviet republics became independent states. We continue with an account of the early 1990s, an era of “reform,” when some Russian leaders tried to create a democratic political system and a liberal capitalist economy. We follow the trials and tribulations of the reformers, analyze the attempts at privatization, discuss the ebb and flow of political parties and the growth and decline of an independent media. Read on »


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 »


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