The spy who danced through catastrophe

  • The Mystery of Olga Chekhova: Was Hitler's Favorite Actress a Russian Spy?
    by Antony Beevor, Viking, 2004, 300pp.

At the beginning of May, in 1919, a group of travelling performers from the Moscow Art Theatre set out on a tour of the provinces. The group’s director was the legendary Konstantin Stanislavsky; among its performers was the equally legendary actress wife of the late Anton Chekhov. Unfortunately, the tour was not a success. Although the group was billeted in an abandoned hotel in Kharkov which “still retained an air of pre-revolutionary elegance”, the city’s ambience was somewhat lacking. “Nobody had told them that the civil war had erupted again,” writes Antony Beevor in his description of this ill-fated trip. Within days, the troupe found itself cut off from Moscow, on the wrong side – the White side – of the front line in the bloody Russian civil war. Continue reading “The spy who danced through catastrophe”

Poets Under Surveillance

  • Moscow Memoirs
    by Emma Gerstein (translated by John Crowfoot),
    Harvill, 2004, 482pp.

Without a doubt, Moscow Memoirs is an extraordinary book, one of those literary memoirs that comes along once a decade. Emma Gerstein, in her nineties when she published it, has shed completely new light on some of the most important poets and writers of the 20th century, providing previously unknown biographical details, some of which will lead to new interpretations of their work. Continue reading “Poets Under Surveillance”

Pulling the Rug Out from Under

  • The Affirmative Action Empire: Nations and Nationalism in the Soviet Union, 1923-1939
    Terry Martin, Cornell University Press, 496 pp.

During the summer just preceding the collapse of the Soviet Union, I spent several days in Minsk, the capital of newly independent Belarus, in the company of a group of young people who called themselves Belarusian nationalists. One of them had recently converted to Orthodoxy, or rather to a new, “independent” branch of the Orthodox Church. Continue reading “Pulling the Rug Out from Under”

A bear with a sore head

  • Black Earth: A Journey Through Russia After the Fall
    by Andrew Meier, W W Norton & Co Inc, 2005, 516pp.

Anyone who has lived for any length of time in Russia during the past decade will instantly understand why Andrew Meier wrote this book. Meier, who worked in Moscow for Time magazine from 1996 until 2001, probably spent most of his time there doing what most other reporters do: covering news, chasing the things that editors back home consider important, and mentally storing up, for future use, all of the strange scenes, surreal situations and bizarre personalities that reporters rarely manage to squeeze into their stories about the former Soviet Union. Continue reading “A bear with a sore head”

Putin arrested Russia’s richest man as a warning to the others

I first met Mikhail Khodorkovsky several years ago, just after he had embarked upon his amazingly rapid conversion from shady, highly-suspect oil billionaire to famous, philanthropist oil billionaire. The location was the Moscow home of a Russian friend who might be best described as a democracy activist, and the occasion was Khodorkovsky’s first meeting with Richard Perle, a member of the Pentagon’s Defence Policy Board. Continue reading “Putin arrested Russia’s richest man as a warning to the others”