Portents

  • Reflections on the Revolution in Europe: Immigration, Islam, and the West
    By Christopher Caldwell
    (Doubleday, 422 pp., $30)

As its subtitle makes clear, this is a book about immigration, Islam, and the West. But at the same time this is also a book about a particular moral culture, a set of attitudes, habits, and beliefs that has developed in Western Europe over the past sixty years. There isn’t a good shorthand way to describe this moral culture. Sometimes it is called “political correctness,” though politics as such does not define it. Sometimes it is called “the culture of tolerance,” though at times it is not tolerant at all. Christopher Caldwell mostly winds up calling it the “European project,” which is not bad, since it implies that it is something that Europe is still building, an ongoing but incomplete enterprise, a “project” for the future. Continue reading “Portents”

1989 and All That

  • Uncivil Society
    by Steven Kotkin
    Modern Library, 240pp
  • There is no Freedom without Bread
    by Konstantin Plekhanov
    Farar, Straus and Giroux, 304pp

Everything comes around again, in the end; every debate needs to be held twice. For the past few years, the Russians have been conducting an extraordinary national argument about whether Stalin was bad, a question one would have thought was settled long ago. And now, to celebrate the 20th anniversary of 1989, we have two books, both by eminent historians, both seeking to start an argument about whether there was an anti-Communist opposition in Central Europe. Continue reading “1989 and All That”

Skeletons in the Cupboard

  • The Eitingnons
    Mary-Kay Wilmers
    Faber, 476pp, £20

Freudian analysis, Soviet communism and the garment industry: what do all of these things have in common? If your answer has something to do with central and east European Jews born at the end of the 19th century, you wouldn’t be far off. That generation formed an important part of the intellectual and mercantile elite of Europe, but not the political elite — which is partly why some of them wound up in the radical communist anti-elite instead. Continue reading “Skeletons in the Cupboard”

A Mad, Bad, and Brutal Baron

  • 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. Continue reading “A Mad, Bad, and Brutal Baron”

Now We Know

  • Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America
    By John Earl Haynes, Harvey Klehr, and Alexander Vassiliev
    Yale University Press, 2009, 637 pp

If one were trying to define the lowest point in the long and venerable tradition of American anti-communism, surely it came in 2003, with the publication of Ann Coulter’s Treason. Coulter’s “thesis” in this work of cut-and-paste-from-the-Internet history was that a straight line could be drawn between Americans such as Alger Hiss, who spied for the Soviet Union in the 1940s, and Americans such as Barack Obama, who criticized the war in Iraq half a century later. Continue reading “Now We Know”

Success at Last

  • Poland: A History
    by Adam Zamoyski
    Harper Press, 2009, 426pp.

A couple of years ago, Adam Zamoyski — who is, yes, a friend — told me that he was revising The Polish Way, a history of Poland he had published back in 1987. At first he had thought merely to shorten a few over-long paragraphs and check facts. But as he re-read his work, he decided it needed more dramatic changes. Continue reading “Success at Last”

Arthur at Camelot

  • Journals: 1952-2000
    by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr, edited by Andrew Schlesinger and Stephen Schlesinger
    Atlantic Books, 2009, 912pp.

Before sitting down with this hefty doorstopper of a diary, first ask yourself whether you agree — or can imagine yourself agreeing — with the entry Arthur Schlesinger, Jr made on 27 March 1950: ‘I adore sitting around hotel rooms with politicians and newspapermen exchanging gossip over drinks.’ Continue reading “Arthur at Camelot”

The Spectre of Spielberg

  • Searching for Schindler
    by Thomas Keneally,
    Sceptre, 2008, 312pp.

Which would you rather read, The Great Gatsby or F. Scott Fitzgerald’s day-by-day account of the whisky he drank and the cigarettes he smoked while writing it? La Comédie humaine or a list of the cups of coffee Balzac downed, between midnight and sunrise, while putting all of those words down on paper? Continue reading “The Spectre of Spielberg”

Deluded and abandoned

  • The Forsaken: An American Tragedy in Stalin’s Russia
    by Tim Tzouliadis, Little, Brown, 472pp.

Once, while travelling in an odd part of Siberia, I was told of a place called ‘the English colony’. A remote spot — it was said to be several hours from the nearest town, but trains were infrequent and roads non-existent — the ‘English colony’ was the site of a former Soviet camp: a small piece of the gulag where the prisoners had been British. Or so the story went. Continue reading “Deluded and abandoned”