Russia and the Great Forgetting

In the summer of 1985, I spent two months in the city that used to be called Leningrad. Along with several dozen other American college students, I stayed in a shabby Intourist hotel. Sharp-eyed old ladies sat at the end of every corridor; curiously unemployed men hung around the lobby. Every day we went to Russian-language classes at the university, where we also assumed we were being carefully observed. But in the afternoons and evenings, we were free to wander the city and to attempt to make friends. Continue reading “Russia and the Great Forgetting”

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”

The Long, Lame Afterlife of Mikhail Gorbachev

In the most notable of the many photographs snapped at the gala held to mark his 80th birthday, Mikhail Gorbachev seems shorter and rounder than he did in his prime, back when he was one of the most important people in the world. He is inscrutable, only half-smiling; he also looks disheveled, and perhaps unsure of himself. Those impressions may of course be exaggerated by the fact that in this particular picture, the onetime general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union has his arm around Sharon Stone. Continue reading “The Long, Lame Afterlife of Mikhail Gorbachev”

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”

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?”

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”

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”