a casahistoria reading list - russia/ussr  

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 Reviews of Books on Russian & Soviet history


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   Scroll down the page to read about these and other books reviewed on Russian/Soviet history  

Robert Service: Trotsky: A Biography

The first thing that needs saying is that despite its 500 pages plus footnotes this is not a heavy write, full of the dialectics of marxism/leninism/trotskyism/stalinism and all the shades in between that the period produced. This will probably disappoint the theoreticans and activists of the left hoping for new insights into Trotsky. Rather it is an attempt to provide a readable account of who was undoubtedly one of the leading figures of the Russian Revolution, if not the key individual in its immediate survival. Service has produced a narrative, as it says on the tin, "a biography". No more, no less. So we get his family, early background, exile (Siberia), more exile (Britain), return in 1905, more exile (Austria, Switzerland, France, Spain, USA), return in 1917 - revolution - civil war - struggle inside the post Lenin party, banishment, exile (Turkey, Norway and finally Mexico); his assassination comes abruptly and without much fanfare.

In between all this Service weaves in his relations with the other revolutionaries and builds up the character of this itinerant revolutionary amongst the key stages in his passage through life. His relations with his entrepreneurial peasant father, the emergence of his obvious gifts as orator and writer (Service compares him in this respect with Winston Churchill), his role in the party schisms before 1917 and his apparent inability to win close, trusting friends within the party as a consequence of his arrogance and perceptions of self righteousness.

He gets closest perhaps to Lenin after mid 1917. But then of course Lenin dies and the bottom falls out of Trotsky's political world. Service shows clearly the misjudgements of Trotsky in this period - again down to arrogance. Stalin is despised and fatally underated as uncouth, brutal (this from the man who showed so little compassion to opponents in the civil war - even if they were card carrying communists), a non intellectual. as a result Trotsky is forced into exile again.

In reality Trotsky is remembered for his role in a mere 7 year period, 1917-24, of Russian history. The key events of this period are told clearly - but with Trotsky as the focus: in Oct/Nov, at Brest litovsk waiting for a German revolution, criss crossing the old tsarist Empire on his battle train to win the civil war, another example of politician turned highly professional (and brutal) military commander. This tends to reduce his influence on other internal policies, giving space to Stalin and also allowing the other Bolshevik leaders to fear him as a new Bonaparte: heir to a revolution and the head of an army.

Implicit throughout the second part of the biography is a comparison with Stalin, and the question: what if Trotsky had succeeded Lenin rather than Stalin? Unfortunately, despite all Trotsky wrote so eloquently about from outside the Soviet Union there would have been little difference. Trotsky had already shown he could ignore legal niceties and be ruthless when dealing with perceived opponents. His campaigns showed he had little inclination to spare the wealthier, kulak peasants. Nor despite later protestations in exile was he a believer in proletarian democracy. In reality Stalin's 5 Year Plans drew heavily from Trotsky's post NEP ideas. As for foreign involvement Trotsky was little concerned with foreign nations where Russian (revolutionary) interests were threatened shown by his keenness to go to war with Poland. The final chapter is a little more explicit in drawing out this depressing conclusion.

Perhaps the pace of change would have been slower, but little else would have been different.

The book is easily structured for students. Clear chapters on specific periods issues lend itself easily for dipping in and out of to get info. One especially valuable chapter is on his Jewishness. It does not figure prominently according to Service but for one key aspect: he argues that Trotsky believed despite not being a practicing Jew, he would still be seen as such by a Russia that was still highly antisemitic. He could never lead Russia as he would not be respected because of his Jewish background. This prevented him placing himself in a key leadership role until it was too late.

Trotsky deserves a new biography. The worthy Isaac Deutscher bio of fifty years ago that launched the thousands of 60's and 70's radicals is in need of supplementing by a post Soviet Union approach. For the radicals this biography will unhappily remove a great deal of the gloss, but for students of today it will get rid of much of the dross (especially on the internet) that has followed in the wake of the man who more than anyone else made the Russian Revolution happen. Lenin lead the revolution, Stalin made the revolutionary state a confident superpower that controlled half of Europe. But it was Trotsky who masterminded the events of October/November and enabled it to survive its birth, but in true Soviet fashion, at considerable human cost. July '10 (*****)


Tim Tzouliadis: The Forsaken: An American Tragedy in Stalin's Russia

The "Forsaken" are a small group of US citizens who move and settle in the USSR to escape the Depression and work in a society they believed promised more than the capitalist USA in the 1930's.

Within a couple of years all goes wrong as they get caught up (as dangerous "spies") in the 1930s Terror. One by one they disappear and this is where their tragedy begins. Innocents caught in Stalin's and then the NKVD's paranoia they are siezed off the street, tortured, forced to confess then shot or sent to the Siberian Gulags to be worked to death and vanish without trace. Just like the anything up to 20 million other Soviets that Tzouliadis includes in the narrative.

What is especially appalling about these US victims is that they are disowned totally by the US. The Embassy ignores appeals for help (In fact it fails to even protect its own employees from disappearance. One of its key figures in the 1930's is Kennan of the containment telegram fame. He also sees little point in pushing to help these US citizens, who are perceived by many in officialdom as pinks and reds linked to US unionism.  The lame response of FDR himself to the tragedy of the US citizens and the failure to perceive the true nature of the Stalin regime helps understanding of Churchills frustration with FDR-Stalin relations at the wartime meetings. It also provides a wider survey of the process of arrest, horrendous Gulag conditions, execution and disappearance during not one but three waves of Terror including US troops seized during and after World War II and how the process came to an end of sorts. 

"The Forsaken" is a valuable addition to the work on Stalin's Russia. Perhaps it will also start to show a wider audience that Stalin was no better than Hitler, in all probability much worse, in creating a society that dehumanised its members and eliminated millions. May ‘09 (*****)

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Ryszard Kapuscinski: Imperium

This is a volume of essays dating from 1939 to the fall of Gorbachev by the Polish journalist. In them, Kapuscinski writes clearly and shows a sharp sense of observation of the workings of the Soviet Empire as he finds it in his travels during the period. Although we are well aware now that the former USSR was not a monolith but made up of many different nationalities and Soviet Republics, his writing from the 1980's from the Soviet "stans" reminds us that this was also the case at a time when the west tended to consider the USSR as one uniform state. In many ways the best is at the start and finish - a masterly description of the 1939 Soviet occupation of eastern Poland from a boys account and an analysis from the time by an easterner of the fall of Gorbachev. Not quite history writing, but a good resource for historical study of the period. Oct' 08. (***)

  Frederick Taylor: The Berlin Wall: A World Divided, 1961-1989

An interesting narrative of the history of the Berlin Wall by the author of Dresden. Like that earlier work much attention is given to context (although the potted history of the pre 1961 Cold War period is perhaps too potted). The Wall remains the focus, especially in the 1960's highlighting as it does the hypocrisy and lack of will of the western powers and the federal republic to support their rhetoric with action towards the east (which was probably the wise course...) But the most satisfactory chapter is perhaps the final one with insights and perceptions available only to a writer with a genuine affection and knowledge of the east gained through personal association. Useful also to anyone seeking an accessible, and general history of the GDR. One final point - in my (hardback) edition there are a surprising number of typos, signs perhaps of too swift editing. But why? Dec '07 (***) 

  Jonathan Fenby: Alliance: The Inside Story of How Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill Won One War and Began Another

Meticulously detailed this looks exhaustively (at times perhaps too much so unless you are using this to research an essay!!) at the development of the WW2 alliance system. Several points emerge very clearly: that Teheran was probably the key meeting - Yalta was a case of formalising what had already been decided. Secondly, the emergence of Stalin as the main player with the support of FDR. Equally it is a surprise how many of the leading US & UK participants were in poor health, not just FDR but also many aides and military figures. As for Churchill he seemed unable to get Gallipoli out of his system, but was right in his postwar fears. For the publisher: why no maps? They would have been really helpful to envisage the logistics of the meetings. A false economy. June '07 (***) 

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  Simon Sebag Montefiore: Young Stalin

This has to be read by anyone who seriously wants to understand what made Stalin tick. The account of his youth and formative years (up to Oct/Nov 1917) clearly indicates the impact of growing up in the wilds of (still lawless and gangster riddled) Georgia and the Caucasus. Sebag Montefiore's account does more though - it explains perhaps the ease with which the USSR slid into oligarchy and lawlessness in the 1990's - because of a general underlying tradition of violence, but also the dangers of faith schools and the risks of encarcerating enemies of the state in similar places. Stalin? More educated and culturally rounded than I had thought, but presents as not a pleasant character at all - easy to understand his purges and ruthlessness as later USSR leader. Equally repugnant seemed to be his inclination towards impregnating teenage girls at least half his age - one of whom was only 13, (he was in his 30's......) Very readable nonetheless. May '07 (****)


Anonymous: A Woman in Berlin

This diary, written by a Berlin woman in her 30's during the fall of Berlin illustrates clearly and forcefully the real meaning of defeat. Interesting asides on the nature of the Russian conquerors: raised in a society where they received but could not choose they had little concept of "value", even of booty. Most of all it reveals the commonplace nature & acceptance of rape or of attaching oneself to an Ivan lover - for protection and survival. A very human diary of survival in year zero. Sept '06 (****)

Giles MacDonogh: After the Reich - from the fall of Vienna to the Berlin Airlift

Any modern writer of post war Germany who mentions the names of Hajo Holborn and Michael Balfour in the first few pages clearly has done their reading. This book fills in the gap left in many English language histories of postwar central Europe: from the actual end of war and its immediate impact to the outbreak of the Cold War. Covering not just the zones of Germany, but also Austria and the events of German speaking Europe elsewhere - the German Reich at its largest.The initial 100 pages or so are a harrowing account of the treatment of the

German speakers as they were invaded, occupied, looted, raped and for the millions in the east, moved westwards. The brutality by all concerned is meticulously documented - too much so in places - I wanted to skip on as it was so disturbing and relentless. The Red Army is well documented by others, less so the proportionately greater savagery of the Czechs on the Sudetenlanders (especially grim as MacDonogh makes clear the pre 1938 Sudetenlanders were ex Austrians, not Germans who had been unlawfully deprived of the chance at self determination after Versailles by a nationalist Czech regime.).

Another eyeopener is the evidence that all the allies used prisoners of war in ways similar to Speer in his use of slave labour (and often in the face of resultant deaths). The US was especially cynical in this matter announcing they had released all POW's in mid 1946 when in fact they released them to be handed over to other allies: Belgium and France, for manual work. The USSR was still returning POW's in the mid 1950's.

The early stance of the US was surprisingly tough. Outside the Soviet Zone, the US had and maintained the hardest stance to its prisoners and civilian population for the first 18 months. Torture seems to have been common initially amongst all the occupiers as they sought to do the necessary and root out Nazi's. However MacDonogh's examples indicate a direct line of war's dehumanisation that makes treatment of Iraqi prisoners seem minor.One issue with
After the Reich is caused by its heavy reliance on documentary sources, especially memoirs. This had meant a skew towards recounting the experiences of the better off, in particular the womenfolk of the German/Prussian nobility. At times this leads perhaps to a too unconsidered appreciation of the sometime self-serving motivation of the 1944 plotters, many of whom were close to the writers of the memoirs used.

The final sections takes a reader swiftly but clearly through the fog of the origins of the Cold War, only after 500 pages of the aftermath analysis what follows has a clarity lacking in the work of many other revisionist writers. Ultimately the emergence of the postwar west Germany is shown to be linked closely to the creation of the European community, with Adenauer consciously supporting a pro western & French future, even if it, as suggested, meant sacrificing the old historic Prussian, socialist and protestant eastern, (and at the time more slavic influenced) provinces of the old Reich.

Since the
Wende, this has been a topic occupying the history shelves of most German bookshops. MacDonogh has done English readers a service with this account. The underlying sentiment is that this book records the consequences of the far greater evil perpetrated on others by the Germans - a feeling that many of those recorded reflect, despite their misery. It is not surprising that with the opening of the east Germans have wished to document the period, nor is it surprising that Anglo-saxon writers have shunned it for so long. May '06 (*****). 

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