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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 »


The Long, Lame Afterlife of Mikhail Gorbachev

July 1st, 2011

In the most notable of the many photographs snapped at the gala held to mark his 80th birthday, Mikhail Gorbachev seems shorter and rounder than he did in his prime, back when he was one of the most important people in the world. He is inscrutable, only half-smiling; he also looks disheveled, and perhaps unsure of himself. Those impressions may of course be exaggerated by the fact that in this particular picture, the onetime general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union has his arm around Sharon Stone. 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 »


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 »


Ghosts From the Soviet Past

April 21st, 2010

Molotov’s Magic Lantern

By Rachel Polonsky

Faber, 416 pp.

Above all, it is the inhuman scale of things which impresses the visitor to Moscow: the vastness of Red Square, the width of the uncrossable streets, the implacability of the traffic. The city’s history seems equally inhuman, haunted as it is by centuries of tyrants, millions of political prisoners, countless wars. Impossible to navigate and impossible to know, Moscow doesn’t exactly embrace the casual tourist. Read on »


Yesterday’s Man?

January 11th, 2010

Koestler: The Literary and Political Odyssey of a Twentieth-Century Skeptic
by Michael Scammell
Random House, 689 pp., $35.00

He began his education in the twilight of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, at an experimental kindergarten in Budapest. His mother was briefly a patient of Sigmund Freud’s. In interwar Vienna he wound up as the personal secretary of Vladimir Jabotinsky, one of the early leaders of the Zionist movement. Traveling in Soviet Turkmenistan as a young and ardent Communist sympathizer, he ran into Langston Hughes. Read on »


1989 and All That

November 9th, 2009

Uncivil Society

by Steven Kotkin

Modern Library, 240pp

There is no Freedom without Bread

by Konstantin Plekhanov

Farar, Straus and Giroux, 304pp

 

Everything comes around again, in the end; every debate needs to be held twice. For the past few years, the Russians have been conducting an extraordinary national argument about whether Stalin was bad, a question one would have thought was settled long ago. And now, to celebrate the 20th anniversary of 1989, we have two books, both by eminent historians, both seeking to start an argument about whether there was an anti-Communist opposition in Central Europe. Read on »


Now We Know

May 31st, 2009

Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America

By John Earl Haynes, Harvey Klehr, and Alexander Vassiliev

Yale University Press, 2009, 637 pp

If one were trying to define the lowest point in the long and venerable tradition of American anti-communism, surely it came in 2003, with the publication of Ann Coulter’s Treason. Coulter’s “thesis” in this work of cut-and-paste-from-the-Internet history was that a straight line could be drawn between Americans such as Alger Hiss, who spied for the Soviet Union in the 1940s, and Americans such as Barack Obama, who criticized the war in Iraq half a century later. Read on »


Russia’s Usable Past

December 8th, 2008

Inside the Stalin Archives

by Jonathan Brent

Atlas&Co., 2008, pp.304

Jonathan Brent arrived in Moscow, in the winter of 1992, bearing gifts: salami, biscuits, chocolates in the shape of the Statue of Liberty, bottles of Jack Daniels, stacks of $1 bills, cartons of Winston cigarettes. Read on »


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