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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 »

How to Succeed in Business

June 6th, 2013

Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead
by Sheryl Sandberg with Nell Scovell
Knopf, 228 pp., $24.95

The End of Men and the Rise of Women
by Hanna Rosin
Riverhead, 310 pp., $27.95

To begin with, a quiz. Who wrote the following sentences: Lee Iacocca, Jack Welch, or Sheryl Sandberg?

(a) When communicating hard truths, less is often more.

(b) It takes self-confidence, courage and a willingness to take the heat when you make the tough calls.

(c) Opportunities are rarely offered; they’re seized.

(d) Get your priorities straight and keep a hot list of what you’re trying to do.

(e) Seeking out diverse experiences is useful preparation for leadership.

(f) People used to ask me, “How could somebody as busy as you go to all those swim meets and recitals?” I just put them down on my calendar as if I were seeing a supplier or a dealer that day. Read on »

In the New World of Spies

October 25th, 2012

The Lost Spy: An American in Stalin’s Secret Service
by Andrew Meier
Norton, 402 pp., $18.95 (paper)

Spies and Commissars: The Early Years of the Russian Revolution
by Robert Service
PublicAffairs, 441 pp., $32.99

Stalin’s Romeo Spy: The Remarkable Rise and Fall of the KGB’s Most Daring Operative
by Emil Draitser
Northwestern University Press, 420 pp., $35.00

Deception: Spies, Lies and How Russia Dupes the West
by Edward Lucas
Bloomsbury, 372 pp., $26.00

To those who met them in Japanese-occupied Manchukuo in 1935, the Swiss businessman Charles Emile Martin and his American partner, Cy Oggins, must have seemed an enigmatic pair. Oggins was a distinguished-looking man with craggy features, well-made suits, and a penchant for silver-topped walking sticks. He seemed to know a great deal about Oriental antiquities, and sometimes described himself as an art dealer. Martin was more discreet, preferring plain neckties and gabardine overcoats, though his wife Elsa was fond of elegant handbags and furs. Both men were polyglots, with a wide if vague range of European connections. Working in concert with a Milanese businessman, they had come to Manchukuo to sell Fiat cars and airplanes to the Japanese.

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 »

The Worst of the Madness

October 28th, 2010


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. In normal times,

had he stumbled upon a corpse on the street, he would have called the police. A crowd would have gathered, and much talk and comment would have ensued. Now he knows he must avoid the dark body lying in the gutter, and refrain from asking unnecessary questions….

Murder became ordinary during wartime, wrote Miłosz, and was even regarded as legitimate if it was carried out on behalf of the resistance. In the name of patriotism, young boys from law-abiding, middle-class families became hardened criminals, thugs for whom “the killing of a man presents no great moral problem.” Theft became ordinary too, as did falsehood and fabrication. People learned to sleep through sounds that would once have roused the whole neighborhood: the rattle of machine-gun fire, the cries of men in agony, the cursing of the policeman dragging the neighbors away. 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 »

A Mad, Bad, and Brutal Baron

June 30th, 2009

The Bloody White Baron:The Extraordinary Story of the Russian Nobleman who Became the Last Khan of Mongolia

 by James Palmer, Basic Books, 274 pp., $26.95

Like a contemporary reincarnation of Adela Quest, the heroine of E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India, James Palmer was both attracted and repelled by his first encounter with the grotesque, grimacing, wooden gods of Inner Mongolia:

“I entered the shrine of a gruesome god, his sharp teeth grinning and his head festooned with skulls. I wasn’t certain who he was, since the Tibetan pantheon inherited by the Mongolians is replete with such figures. In a small dark room, with incense burning and other gargoyles looming, it seemed capable of an awful, twitching animation; I felt it might lick its lips at any moment. Read on »

Laughable and Tragic

October 23rd, 2008

The Red Prince: The Secret Lives of a Habsburg Archduke

by Timothy Snyder

Basic Books, 344 pp.

Perhaps it was the elaborate court rituals, perhaps it was the stiff manners of the royal family, or perhaps it was the swiftness of the final collapse: for whatever reason, even the most tragic tales of the latter years of the Austro-Hungarian Empire often lapse into black humor. Read on »

A Movie That Matters

February 14th, 2008

Katyn a film directed by Andrzej Wajda, written by Andrzej Mularczyk and Andrzej Wajda

The ruins of a Russian Orthodox monastery, 1939: paint peels from the walls, light filters in from the cracks in the ceiling, cigarette smoke whirls through the air. Primitive wooden camp beds are stacked up high, one on top of the other, for the monastery has been turned into a prison. The prisoners, soldiers in khaki-brown wool uniforms and black boots, are gathered in a large group. Craning their heads forward, they listen to their commanding officer make a speech. Solemn and tired, he does not ask them to fight. He asks them to survive. “Gentlemen,” says the general, “you must endure. Without you, there will be no free Poland.” Read on »

How Hitler Could Have Won

October 25th, 2007

The Greatest Battle by Andrew Nagorski
Simon and Schuster, 366 pp.
And: Moscow 1941: A City and Its People at War
by Rodric Braithwaite
Knopf, 398 pp.

Hitler invaded the Soviet Union at 0400 hours on June 22, 1941. By June 23, the Wehrmacht had destroyed the entire Soviet air force. By June 26, the Soviet commander of the Western front had lost radio contact with Moscow. By June 28, German troops had entered Minsk, the capital of Soviet Belarus. And on the morning of June 29—just a week into the invasion—Stalin failed to appear in the Kremlin. Read on »

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