The Real Patriotic War

  • Ivan's War: Life and Death in the Red Army, 1939–1945,
    by Catherine Merridale, Metropolitan, 462 pp.
  • A Writer at War: Vasily Grossman with the Red Army,
    ed. Antony Beevor and Luba Vinogradova, Pantheon, 378 pp.

Once, during the 1980s, I visited the fortress of the city of Brest. Brest is now in Belarus, just east of the Polish border, but at that time Brest was a Soviet city, and its fortress was the city’s most important shrine to Soviet power. The entrance led through a vast slab of stone, into which had been cut an enormous Soviet star. Inside, the visitor’s eye was immediately directed to a vast, sorrowful human head, carved straight into an outcropping of rock. Continue reading “The Real Patriotic War”


  • The KGB File of Andrei Sakharov
    edited and annotated by Joshua Rubenstein and Alexander Gribanov
    Yale University Press, 397 pp.

Since becoming president of Russia, Vladimir Putin has worked hard to mold Russian memories of the Soviet Union into something more positive, or anyway more nostalgic, than they had been under his predecessor. His goal, it seems, is to make Russians proud of their country again, to find heroes they can once again worship. Continue reading “Hero”

The day of the underdog

  • 1776: America and Britain at War,
    by David McCullough, Allen Lane, 386pp.

To a British reader who knows the subject, 1776 may seem pretty thin. To one who doesn’t, it may be confusing. It is an account of the military history of a single year of the American revolution, so the ambitions of the author are oddly limited. Continue reading “The day of the underdog”

The bigger the worse

  • Russia's Empires
    by Philip Longworth, John Murray, 2005, 398pp

At the beginning of Russia’s Empires, Philip Longworth announces that his intention is to “examine the phoenix-like nature of Russian imperialism and to expand our understanding of it”. He points out that over the centuries, no less than four empires have risen and subsequently fallen on Russian soil, beginning with Kievan Rus in the Middle Ages, continuing on through the reign of Ivan the Terrible, the long era of the Romanov dynasty, and followed by the relatively short Soviet regime. Continue reading “The bigger the worse”