Angel Factories

  • Children of the Gulag
    By Cathy A. Frierson and Semyon S. Vilensky
    Yale University Press, 496 pp., $55

Several years ago, a friend who helped me to find my way around the Russian State Archives in Moscow asked if I would like to meet another woman who was also working there. She was not doing research for a book, and she was not a scholar. Instead, she was indulging her curiosity and her nostalgia. Forty years earlier, she had worked as a baby nurse in a children’s home inside one of Stalin’s labor camps. Now she wanted to find out what had happened to some of the people she had known there, to jog her memory of names and dates. Continue reading “Angel Factories”

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”

Polish plane crash: country has shown resilience since President Kaczynski’s death

By the time I met Ryszard Kaczorowski, he was an elegant, elderly man, with no air of tragedy or trauma about him. Yet at the age of 21, he had been arrested by the Soviet secret police – this was 1940, in Soviet-occupied Bialystok – and sent to Kolyma, one of the worst camps of the Gulag. Continue reading “Polish plane crash: country has shown resilience since President Kaczynski’s death”

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?”

Portents

  • Reflections on the Revolution in Europe: Immigration, Islam, and the West
    By Christopher Caldwell
    (Doubleday, 422 pp., $30)

As its subtitle makes clear, this is a book about immigration, Islam, and the West. But at the same time this is also a book about a particular moral culture, a set of attitudes, habits, and beliefs that has developed in Western Europe over the past sixty years. There isn’t a good shorthand way to describe this moral culture. Sometimes it is called “political correctness,” though politics as such does not define it. Sometimes it is called “the culture of tolerance,” though at times it is not tolerant at all. Christopher Caldwell mostly winds up calling it the “European project,” which is not bad, since it implies that it is something that Europe is still building, an ongoing but incomplete enterprise, a “project” for the future. Continue reading “Portents”

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”

Skeletons in the Cupboard

  • The Eitingnons
    Mary-Kay Wilmers
    Faber, 476pp, £20

Freudian analysis, Soviet communism and the garment industry: what do all of these things have in common? If your answer has something to do with central and east European Jews born at the end of the 19th century, you wouldn’t be far off. That generation formed an important part of the intellectual and mercantile elite of Europe, but not the political elite — which is partly why some of them wound up in the radical communist anti-elite instead. Continue reading “Skeletons in the Cupboard”

A Mad, Bad, and Brutal Baron

  • The Bloody White Baron:The Extraordinary Story of the Russian Nobleman who Became the Last Khan of Mongolia
    by James Palmer, Basic Books, 274 pp., $26.95

Like a contemporary reincarnation of Adela Quest, the heroine of E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India, James Palmer was both attracted and repelled by his first encounter with the grotesque, grimacing, wooden gods of Inner Mongolia:

“I entered the shrine of a gruesome god, his sharp teeth grinning and his head festooned with skulls. I wasn’t certain who he was, since the Tibetan pantheon inherited by the Mongolians is replete with such figures. In a small dark room, with incense burning and other gargoyles looming, it seemed capable of an awful, twitching animation; I felt it might lick its lips at any moment. Continue reading “A Mad, Bad, and Brutal Baron”

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”