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”

A Movie That Matters

  • Katyn
    a film directed by Andrzej Wajda, written by Andrzej Mularczyk and Andrzej Wajda

The ruins of a Russian Orthodox monastery, 1939: paint peels from the walls, light filters in from the cracks in the ceiling, cigarette smoke whirls through the air. Primitive wooden camp beds are stacked up high, one on top of the other, for the monastery has been turned into a prison. The prisoners, soldiers in khaki-brown wool uniforms and black boots, are gathered in a large group. Craning their heads forward, they listen to their commanding officer make a speech. Solemn and tired, he does not ask them to fight. He asks them to survive. “Gentlemen,” says the general, “you must endure. Without you, there will be no free Poland.” Continue reading “A Movie That Matters”

How Hitler Could Have Won

  • The Greatest Battle
    by Andrew Nagorski, Simon and Schuster, 366 pp.
  • Moscow 1941: A City and Its People at War
    by Rodric Braithwaite, Knopf, 398 pp

Hitler invaded the Soviet Union at 0400 hours on June 22, 1941. By June 23, the Wehrmacht had destroyed the entire Soviet air force. By June 26, the Soviet commander of the Western front had lost radio contact with Moscow. By June 28, German troops had entered Minsk, the capital of Soviet Belarus. And on the morning of June 29—just a week into the invasion—Stalin failed to appear in the Kremlin. Continue reading “How Hitler Could Have Won”

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”

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?”

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”