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”

After the fall of the Wall

  • The Oligarchs: Wealth and Power in the New Russia,
    by David E. Hoffman, Public Affairs Books, 567pp.

Up to a point, the life story of Alexander Smolensky reads like a morally uplifting, even spiritually enriching rags-to-riches parable. With an absent father and a mother whose Austrian background qualifed her, in Stalin’s Soviet Union, as an ‘enemy of the people,’ Smolensky grew up in poverty. Refused entry to higher education because of his mother’s background, he worked, in the early 1980s, in the shadowy, black-market economy, printing bibles at night. Continue reading “After the fall of the Wall”