Album from Hell

  • Gulag: Life and Death Inside the Soviet Concentration Camps
    by Tomasz Kizny, Firefly Books, 2004, 496pp.

Yellowed, dusty, covered in thick cardboard, and held together with string, the Gulag photo albums stored in the Russian State Archive look, at first glance, like nothing more than old family albums kept too long in the attic. But even when opened, their true function isn’t immediately clear. Continue reading “Album from Hell”

The Worst of the Terror

  • Stalin's Last Crime: The Plot Against the Jewish Doctors, 1948-1953,
    Jonathan Brent and Vladimir P. Naumov, HarperCollins, 399 pp.

On August 7, 1948, Yuri Zhdanov wrote a letter to Pravda, the Communist Party newspaper. Yuri Zhdanov was not only the son of A.A. Zhdanov, a Politburo member and one of Stalin’s “favorites,” he was also Stalin’s son-in-law, and a Central Committee member in his own right. Nevertheless, the letter was an admission of grave error. Continue reading “The Worst of the Terror”

Speech Lessons: What Khrushchev’s famous “secret speech” can tell us about regime change.

  • Khrushchev: The Man and His Era,
    by William Taubman, Norton, 2004, 908 pp.

Because he has already been lauded for his extensive research and his psychological insight, I won’t heap further praise on William Taubman, author of a substantial new biography Khrushchev: the Man and His Era. Suffice it to say that he makes extensive use of newly opened archives, carefully parses the Cuban Missile Crisis, pays due attention to Khrushchev’s role in the terror of the 1930s, and includes a healthy sprinkling of the Soviet leader’s favorite insults (“Your view of Soviet power is from inside a toilet!”). Continue reading “Speech Lessons: What Khrushchev’s famous “secret speech” can tell us about regime change.”

A History of Horror

  • Le Siècle des Camps
    Joel Kotek and Pierre Rigoulot, JC Lattes, 805 pages.

Contrary to what might be expected, the first recorded use of the expression “concentration camps” did not occur in either Germany or Russia. Nor, even, was the term originally English, as many also mistakenly believe. In fact, as far as it is possible to ascertain, the first person to speak of concentration camps or, more precisely, to speak of a policy of “reconcentración” – was Arsenio Martinez Campos, then the commander of the Spanish garrison in Cuba. Continue reading “A History of Horror”

Dead Souls: Tallying the Victims of Communism

  • The Black Book of Communism,
    Edited by Stephane Courtois et al, trans. Mark Kramer and Jonathan Murphy,
    Harvard University Press, 1120pp.

Its pages were yellowed, its cheap binding broken, its typeface uneven: there was nothing imposing about the copy of Un Bagne en Russie Rouge – `A Prison in Red Russia’ – which someone once handed me as a curiosity. Nevetheless, the book, published in Paris in 1927, was one of the first to describe the Soviet Union’s earliest political prisons, located on the Solovetsky Islands in the White Sea. Continue reading “Dead Souls: Tallying the Victims of Communism”

A Dearth of Feeling

An essay about the absence of memory of communist crimes.

  • This essay was also reproduced in the anthology The Future of The European Past, ed. Roger Kimball and Hilton Kramer, Ivan R. Dee, Chicago, 1997.

Venice has the Piazza San Marco, Paris has the Eiffel Tower, and now Prague has the Charles Bridge: wide and pedestrianised, blackened with age – and suffused with the spirit of capitalism. There are buskers and hustlers along the bridge, and, every fifteen feet or so, someone is selling very much what one would expect to find for sale in such a postcard-perfect spot. Continue reading “A Dearth of Feeling”