Defending the Marxist citadel

  • The Soviet Century,
    by Moshe Lewin, Verso, 416pp.

In the last several years, English-speaking readers have been treated to a plethora of Soviet history books unlike others before them. The opening of Soviet archives has given us everything from Antony Beevor’s Stalingrad to Simon Sebag-Montefiore’s book on Stalin’s court, to new biographies of Rasputin, Lenin and Trotsky. Now, however, we have The Soviet Century, the work of a respected American academic. It is a book whose qualities are not easy to describe. Continue reading “Defending the Marxist citadel”

The Aviator

  • The Earth and Sky of Jacques Dorme,
    by Andrei Makine. Translated from the French by Geoffrey Strachan. Arcade. 206 pp.

To read the first page of this novel is to feel an odd and not altogether pleasant sensation of voyeurism. The scene is a house beside the railway tracks in central Russia, on the eve of the great battle of Stalingrad. A man and a woman are alone together, but they cannot quite shut out the rest of the world:

“The wall facing the bed does not exist, only gaps in the charred timbers, the havoc wrought by the fire of two weeks ago. Beyond this space, the purple, resinous flesh of the stormy sky swells heavily. The first and last May storm of their shared life.” Continue reading “The Aviator”

Siberia and Sobranies

  • From Siberia With Love
    by Geoffrey Elliott, Methuen, 2004, 300pp.

Perhaps because it is a lost civilisation, the Russian empire seems to exert an almost magnetic attraction on the children and grandchildren of the people who left. In recent years a notable number have traced their families back to Polish villages or Tsarist palaces, pieced together the histories of those places using family memoirs and old photographs, and written books which describe what, if anything, still remains of their ancestors’ past. Continue reading “Siberia and Sobranies”

A sinister sort of science

  • The Perversion of Knowledge: The True Story of Soviet Science
    by Vadim Birstein, Basic Books, 2008, pp. 512

In 1978 Bulgarian agents tried to murder Georgi Markov – a Bulgarian dissident then living in London – no fewer than three times. Once, they touched him “accidentally” with poisoned skin cream, designed to cause a heart attack within 48 hours. When that failed, they tried to slip chemicals into his drink. Finally, they came up with an unorthodox but ultimately succesful plan. Continue reading “A sinister sort of science”

Out in the Cold

  • Moscow 1812: Napoleon's Fatal March,
    by Adam Zamoyski, HarperCollins, 644 pp.

Certain historical events become so covered in myth and significance, so overlaid with patriotism and emotion, that over time many people forget what really happened and why. Napoleon’s fatal 1812 march on Moscow is one such event. Continue reading “Out in the Cold”

Unimpeachably unreadable

  • My Life by Bill Clinton, Vintage Books, 2005, 969pp.

It is rare, in a conventional book review, for the reviewer to begin by describing her purchase of the book in question, but in this case it really is part of the story. For I bought My Life, Bill Clinton’s memoir, in the very early hours of the morning at a Washington bookshop which had announced it would put the book on sale at the stroke of midnight, when the embargo ended. Continue reading “Unimpeachably unreadable”

Conjugal relations in Camelot

  • Grace and Power: The Private World of the Kennedy White House
    by Sally Beddell Smith, Ballantine Books, 2006, 686pp.

A week after her husband’s assassination in November, 1963, Jackie Kennedy gave an interview to the writer Theodore White. Passionately declaring that she didn’t want John F. Kennedy immortalised by “bitter” journalists who didn’t appreciate him, she told White that she had come up with her own metaphor for his presidency. She had chosen it, she said, from a line in a Broadway show song that her husband had loved: “Don’t let it be forgot that once there was a spot, from one brief shining moment, that was known as Camelot.” Continue reading “Conjugal relations in Camelot”

The spy who danced through catastrophe

  • The Mystery of Olga Chekhova: Was Hitler's Favorite Actress a Russian Spy?
    by Antony Beevor, Viking, 2004, 300pp.

At the beginning of May, in 1919, a group of travelling performers from the Moscow Art Theatre set out on a tour of the provinces. The group’s director was the legendary Konstantin Stanislavsky; among its performers was the equally legendary actress wife of the late Anton Chekhov. Unfortunately, the tour was not a success. Although the group was billeted in an abandoned hotel in Kharkov which “still retained an air of pre-revolutionary elegance”, the city’s ambience was somewhat lacking. “Nobody had told them that the civil war had erupted again,” writes Antony Beevor in his description of this ill-fated trip. Within days, the troupe found itself cut off from Moscow, on the wrong side – the White side – of the front line in the bloody Russian civil war. Continue reading “The spy who danced through catastrophe”