Poets Under Surveillance

  • Moscow Memoirs
    by Emma Gerstein (translated by John Crowfoot),
    Harvill, 2004, 482pp.

Without a doubt, Moscow Memoirs is an extraordinary book, one of those literary memoirs that comes along once a decade. Emma Gerstein, in her nineties when she published it, has shed completely new light on some of the most important poets and writers of the 20th century, providing previously unknown biographical details, some of which will lead to new interpretations of their work. Continue reading “Poets Under Surveillance”

A bear with a sore head

  • Black Earth: A Journey Through Russia After the Fall
    by Andrew Meier, W W Norton & Co Inc, 2005, 516pp.

Anyone who has lived for any length of time in Russia during the past decade will instantly understand why Andrew Meier wrote this book. Meier, who worked in Moscow for Time magazine from 1996 until 2001, probably spent most of his time there doing what most other reporters do: covering news, chasing the things that editors back home consider important, and mentally storing up, for future use, all of the strange scenes, surreal situations and bizarre personalities that reporters rarely manage to squeeze into their stories about the former Soviet Union. Continue reading “A bear with a sore head”

The Mouths that Roared

  • Treason: Liberal Treachery from the Cold War to the War on Terrorism
    by Ann Coulter, Three Rivers PR, 2005, 355pp.
  • The Death of Right and Wrong: Exposing the Left's Assault on Our Culture and Values
    by Tammy Bruce, Forum, 2003, 341pp.

To anyone who ever tried to understand why the political left has played such a large role in American intellectual life, or why the term “anti-communist” ever became an insult, or why so many allegedly clear-thinking people feared Joe McCarthy more than Josef Stalin, Ann Coulter’s new book will certainly prove thought-provoking. Continue reading “The Mouths that Roared”

Why the reds flagged

  • Comrades: the Rise and Fall of World Communism
    by Robert Harvey, John Murray, 2003, 422pp.

Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, Mao, Ceausescu, Ho Chi Minh, Pol Pot, Salvador Allende, Mengistu, Castro, Kim Il-sung: the list of murderous communist leaders is long, diverse and profoundly multicultural. Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Albania, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Romania, Vietnam, China, Cambodia, Laos, North Korea, Angola, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Nicaragua, Chile, Cuba: the list of countries that have attempted to create communist societies is equally broad. Continue reading “Why the reds flagged”

Speech Lessons: What Khrushchev’s famous “secret speech” can tell us about regime change.

  • Khrushchev: The Man and His Era,
    by William Taubman, Norton, 2004, 908 pp.

Because he has already been lauded for his extensive research and his psychological insight, I won’t heap further praise on William Taubman, author of a substantial new biography Khrushchev: the Man and His Era. Suffice it to say that he makes extensive use of newly opened archives, carefully parses the Cuban Missile Crisis, pays due attention to Khrushchev’s role in the terror of the 1930s, and includes a healthy sprinkling of the Soviet leader’s favorite insults (“Your view of Soviet power is from inside a toilet!”). Continue reading “Speech Lessons: What Khrushchev’s famous “secret speech” can tell us about regime change.”

An Oddball Miles From Anywhere

  • Regions of the Great Heresy: Bruno Schulz, A Biographical Portrait
    by Jerzy Ficowski, (translated by Theodosia Robertson)
    W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. 2004, 282pp.

Hot and silent, dusty and deserted, the town of Drohobycz seemed, during the few summer days I spent there some years ago, like a place forgotten in time. The houses had a certain faded, Austro-Hungarian glamour, but seemed to have been built for different people, in a different era. The central market square had a certain pleasing symmetry, but practically no business was conducted there. The peasant women who had carved small vegetable gardens out of the tangles of weed that passed for shrubbery looked up suspiciously when a stranger passed, and then looked quickly down again. Continue reading “An Oddball Miles From Anywhere”

The Gulag Argumento

Martin Amis swings at Stalin and hits his own best friend instead.

Judging by the reviews, Martin Amis’ new book, Koba the Dread, will produce an unusually wide range of reactions—but that is hardly surprising. Although Amis is best known as a novelist, Koba the Dread is a truly unique, not to say peculiar, work of nonfiction: a potted history of Stalin’s reign (“Koba” was Stalin’s nickname), plus a few random, mostly trivial vignettes from Amis’ own life, plus some less trivial but out-of-context ruminations on the deaths of Amis’ father and sister. Continue reading “The Gulag Argumento”

A Look in History’s Mirror

  • The Russia Hand: a Memoir of Presidential Diplomacy
    by Strobe Talbott, Published by Random House, 2003, 512 pp.

Dear Strobe,

I read your book as if it were a detective novel—I was unable to put it down until late in the night, picked it up again first thing in the morning, and didn’t stop until I had finished. This isn’t just because it is well-written (which it is) but because for 10 years I watched, and sometimes wrote about, many of the incidents you describe—albeit from the perspective of someone working in Russia, not someone managing U.S. policy to Russia. Reading your version of events felt like looking at the past in a mirror. Continue reading “A Look in History’s Mirror”

Stylishly but consistently wrong

  • The Last Empire: Essays 1992-2000
    by Gore Vidal, Doubleday 2001, 480 pp.

To describe this book as badly timed is an understatement. It isn’t just badly timed, it is atrociously badly timed, grotesquely badly timed, even obscenely badly timed. Although it is simply a collection of Gore Vidal’s essays, written between 1992 and 2000, and contains, among other things, entertaining portraits of Charles Lindbergh, Clare Boothe Luce and Al Gore, Jr, it does also have a larger theme, or rather a set of themes. Continue reading “Stylishly but consistently wrong”