Planting Ideology

  • The Murder of Nikolai Vavilov
    by Peter Pringle
    Simon and Schuster, 384 pp.

Concentration camps, mass murders, wars, starvation: The history of the Soviet Union is not short of large-scale tragedies and crimes. But in cataloguing these events or counting up the dead, it’s sometimes easy to forget that the Bolshevik Revolution left more than physical damage in its wake: Continue reading “Planting Ideology”

The Blog of War

  • Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization
    By Nicholson Baker
    Simon and Schuster, 567 pp.


The ideal Gawker item,” Nick Denton, the owner of Gawker Media, wrote in an instant message, “is something triggered by a quote at a party, or an incident, or a story somewhere else and serves to expose hypocrisy, or turn conventional wisdom on its head.

“And it’s 100 words long.

“200 max. Continue reading “The Blog of War”

The Mystery of Condi Rice: Where did she learn how to play the game?

  • Condoleezza Rice: An American Life
    by Elisabeth Bumiller,
    Published by Random House, 2007, 400 pp.

Way back when George W. Bush was still a candidate and “Condi” was not yet an internationally recognized nickname, someone who had observed the present secretary of state in a previous incarnation told me to watch her carefully. “Everyone underestimates her, because they think she’s a token. Condi’s not a token. Condi plays the game better than anyone else.” Continue reading “The Mystery of Condi Rice: Where did she learn how to play the game?”

Memory speaks volumes

  • The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin's Russia
    by Orlando Figes Allen Lane, 784pp.

It’s a dangerous business, oral history, at least when you try it in Russia. Without oral history a complete history of the Soviet Union is almost impossible to write. Archival documents are dry, containing only the official point of view; memoirs, often written years later, are unreliable and frequently slide over important details. Continue reading “Memory speaks volumes”

Extraordinary champion of ordinary people

A Small Corner of Hell: Dispatches from Chechnya, by Anna Politkovskaya, University of Chicago Press, 224pp.

Some years ago, I went to visit the offices of a small Moscow newspaper, Novaya Gazeta.   Novaya Gazeta has always led a precarious existence — it is one of the few publications that has consistently opposed the Kremlin — and that day the editor was particularly distracted. Continue reading “Extraordinary champion of ordinary people”

How Life Imitates Chess

  • From chessboard to boardroom,
    by Gary Kasparov, Heinemann, 262pp.

If I were a leading venture capitalist, the CEO of a large company, or in any case a person in search of ways to win friends and influence people, then I would be in a much better position to judge the utility of How Life Imitates Chess, Garry Kasparov’s bid to convince business executives that there is much to be learned from studying the game of chess. Continue reading “How Life Imitates Chess”

What really destroyed the Hungarians in 1956?

  • Twelve Days: Revolution 1956 – How the Hungarians Tried to Topple Their Soviet Masters
    by Victor Sebestyen Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2006, 340pp.

Of all the great events of the Cold War, the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 is probably the one most in need of serious historical attention. In part this is because new archives have at last explained a number of mysteries: did Imre Nagy, the reforming communist and later national hero, really request Soviet ‘assistance’ in putting down the rebellion? Continue reading “What really destroyed the Hungarians in 1956?”

The day of the underdog

  • 1776: America and Britain at War,
    by David McCullough, Allen Lane, 386pp.

To a British reader who knows the subject, 1776 may seem pretty thin. To one who doesn’t, it may be confusing. It is an account of the military history of a single year of the American revolution, so the ambitions of the author are oddly limited. Continue reading “The day of the underdog”

The bigger the worse

  • Russia's Empires
    by Philip Longworth, John Murray, 2005, 398pp

At the beginning of Russia’s Empires, Philip Longworth announces that his intention is to “examine the phoenix-like nature of Russian imperialism and to expand our understanding of it”. He points out that over the centuries, no less than four empires have risen and subsequently fallen on Russian soil, beginning with Kievan Rus in the Middle Ages, continuing on through the reign of Ivan the Terrible, the long era of the Romanov dynasty, and followed by the relatively short Soviet regime. Continue reading “The bigger the worse”