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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 »

The Real Patriotic War

April 6th, 2006

Ivan’s War: Life and Death in the Red Army, 1939–1945, by Catherine Merridale, Metropolitan, 462 pp. And: A Writer at War: Vasily Grossman with the Red Army, ed.  Antony Beevor and Luba Vinogradova, Pantheon, 378 pp.

Once, during the 1980s, I visited the fortress of the city of Brest. Brest is now in Belarus, just east of the Polish border, but at that time Brest was a Soviet city, and its fortress was the city’s most important shrine to Soviet power. The entrance led through a vast slab of stone, into which had been cut an enormous Soviet star. Inside, the visitor’s eye was immediately directed to a vast, sorrowful human head, carved straight into an outcropping of rock. Read on »


October 20th, 2005

The KGB File of Andrei Sakharov
edited and annotated by Joshua Rubenstein and Alexander Gribanov
Yale University Press, 397 pp.

Since becoming president of Russia, Vladimir Putin has worked hard to mold Russian memories of the Soviet Union into something more positive, or anyway more nostalgic, than they had been under his predecessor. His goal, it seems, is to make Russians proud of their country again, to find heroes they can once again worship. Read on »

Album from Hell

March 24th, 2005

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. Read on »

Pulling the Rug Out from Under

February 12th, 2004

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. Read on »

The Worst of the Terror

July 17th, 2003

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. Read on »

After the Gulag

October 24th, 2002

For list of books reviewed,

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In 1955, the Russian writer Yuri Dombrovsky returned home to Moscow after twenty-five years in Soviet camps and exile—twenty-five years “out there”—to discover that he had not, after all, been completely forgotten. He was handed a rehabilitation document, given a grudging pension, assigned a single room in a communal apartment. Although few of his works would ever be published again, he was allowed to rejoin the Writer’s Union. Most of his colleagues there shunned him. Read on »

A History of Horror

October 21st, 2001

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. Read on »

Inside the Gulag

June 15th, 2000

What we know now that we didn’t know ten years ago.

To some Russians, the memory of a first encounter with Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago is as much a physical memory–the blurry, mimeographed text, the dog-eared paper, the dim glow of the lamp switched on late at night–as it is one of reading the revelatory text itself. Read on »

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