Just Send Me Word

  • Just Send Me Word
    By Orlando Figes
    Allen Lane, 333pp, ££20

Anyone who has ever written a history book will feel a twinge of envy on reading the preface to Just Send Me Word:

We opened up the largest of the trunks. I had never seen anything like it: several thousand letters tightly stacked in bundles tied with string and rubber bands, notebooks, diaries, documents and photographs…

It was a unique family archive, the property of Svetlana and Lev Mishchenko, and it contained, among other things, packets of their love letters. Continue reading “Just Send Me Word”

Vladimir’s Tale

  • 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. Continue reading “Vladimir’s Tale”

Thus do empires end

  • Moscow: 25 December 1991
    By Conor O'Clery
    Transworld, 423pp, £25

‘This book is a chronicle of one day in the history of one city.’ As first sentences go, that one is hard to beat — particularly given that the ‘one day’ is the last day of the Soviet Union, the city is Moscow and the author, an Irish journalist, was there and knew most of the principal actors. After reading the preface, I expected alatter-day Rashomon, the end of the USSR told from a dozen different angles: the ‘one day’ as experienced by the lady selling vegetables in the market, the foreign diplomat sending telegrams in the embassy, the KGB man looking for a job.   Continue reading “Thus do empires end”

A Far-Fetched War

  • Crimea: The Last Crusade
    by Orlando Figes
    Allen Lane, 575pp, £30

First, a disclaimer: this review will not touch upon some recent, odd behaviour of this book’s author, Orlando Figes, because I can’t see that it’s relevant. The history of the Crimean war is far removed in time and in space from contemporary literary politics, and I think we should keep it that way. Continue reading “A Far-Fetched War”

The Worst of the Madness

  • 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. 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. Continue reading “The Worst of the Madness”

Proscribed reading

  • 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. Continue reading “Proscribed reading”

Angel Factories

  • Children of the Gulag
    By Cathy A. Frierson and Semyon S. Vilensky
    Yale University Press, 496 pp., $55

Several years ago, a friend who helped me to find my way around the Russian State Archives in Moscow asked if I would like to meet another woman who was also working there. She was not doing research for a book, and she was not a scholar. Instead, she was indulging her curiosity and her nostalgia. Forty years earlier, she had worked as a baby nurse in a children’s home inside one of Stalin’s labor camps. Now she wanted to find out what had happened to some of the people she had known there, to jog her memory of names and dates. Continue reading “Angel Factories”

Paranoia and Empty Promises

  • 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. Continue reading “Paranoia and Empty Promises”

Ghosts From the Soviet Past

  • 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. Continue reading “Ghosts From the Soviet Past”

Yesterday’s Man?

  • 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. Continue reading “Yesterday’s Man?”