A Sea: A Sailor’s Story

Posted on by David Gelber

The sky was as black as ink and we could scarcely see the lights of the disappearing port. A chill, damp wind whistled, yet we felt stifled by the heavy rain clouds above us. The crew had trooped onto the lower deck to draw lots. Ribald jokes were exchanged to the accompaniment of loud, drunken […]

That Sinking Feeling

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

Robert Service, twice biographer of Lenin, reveals himself in this volume to be a writer of small things: of the anekdot, or joke, which larded Russian conversation in the Communist era, and does so still; of the revealing characteristics of leaders, such as Boris Yeltsin’s habit of playing spoons on the pates of bald underlings; […]

Open Season

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

Most political springs in Russia terminate in a sudden frost and the silencing of the songbirds. That of 1956 was one of the more dramatic examples: spring came in February, with Nikita Khrushchev’s so-called ‘Secret Speech’ (which was soon common knowledge among even the lowest ranks in any Soviet organisation) denouncing Stalin’s crimes, and ended, […]

Mothers, Daughters, Soldiers

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

In March 1945, with victory over Nazi Germany only weeks away, Pravda praised the nearly one million Soviet women who had fought the Germans and their allies. They had ‘proved themselves as pilots, snipers, submachine gunners. But they don’t forget about their primary duty to nation and state – that of motherhood.’ In accordance with the official policy of the state, women combatants were henceforth to lay down not only their arms but also their wartime identities.

Apetite for Destruction

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

When asked in 1972 about the significance of the French Revolution, Chinese premier Zhou Enlai reportedly quipped, ‘It’s too soon to tell.’ But while the meaning of the revolution in France could still be considered open to debate nearly two hundred years after it happened, the verdict on the Russian Revolution seems to be beyond […]

Trial & Terror

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

Stalin was more an arts man than a scientist. He knew his Shakespeare, lauding The Tempest, as might be expected of a Caliban who overthrew several Prosperos, and effectively banning Hamlet, as did Catherine the Great. He read Plato in the original (and plagiarised The Republic in his prescriptions for poets). He stopped writing poetry […]

Dancing on Thin Ice

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

Don’t be misled by the tabloid melodrama implicit in this book’s title. If it leads you to expect a shock-horror exposé and conspiracy theories involving the KGB and double-agent ballerinas, you will be disappointed. Simon Morrison is a respected musicologist based at Princeton and an expert on Prokofiev. He writes in clean and lucid prose […]

Romanov Retrospective

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

In 1873 an English traveller put his finger on the whole problem with Russian art. ‘Artists in St Petersburg live in comparative isolation,’ he wrote, ‘they are as a colony planted on the utmost verge of civilisation; they are as exiles or exotics, far away from the commonwealth of art, left to pine or starve […]

Setting the Wheels in Motion

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

The year 2016, the anteroom to the centenary of the Russian revolutions of 1917, has already brought us several books that, in various ways, speak to the epochal events that brought down a 300-year-old regime and ushered in the utopian experiment of the Soviet Union. Most notable of these are Simon Sebag Montefiore’s engrossing ‘The Romanovs’ and ‘Historically Inevitable? Turning Points of the Russian Revolution’, a collection of essays edited by Tony Brenton, a former British ambassador to Moscow. In ‘Lenin on the Train’, the distinguished historian Catherine Merridale provides one more look at this revolutionary year, retracing what she calls ‘a journey that changed the world’, the eight-day trek by rail and ferry in April 1917 undertaken by Lenin

Poetry of Love

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

In July 1915 Lili Brik’s younger sister, Elsa – who later married Andre Triolet and emigrated to France, where she became a writer and Aragon’s constant companion brought the twenty-two-year-old futurist poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, huge and ungainly, famous for his orange and black striped blouse and extravagant behaviour, to the Petrograd flat occupied by Lili […]

More than Mandelstam

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

English-speakers tend to assume that Russian literature is primarily a matter of long and very serious novels, but Russians themselves think otherwise. In a previous anthology for Penguin Classics I set out to show that Russian short stories are at least as lively, witty and thought-provoking as the Russian novel. In a new anthology, The […]

The Oligarchy Will Be Televised

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

Russia is at war, and the battlefield is the hearts and minds of ordinary Russians. Information is the weapon, journalists are the foot soldiers, Kremlin ideologists are the generals. Peter Pomerantsev’s perceptive and timely book Nothing is True and Everything is Possible tells the story of how the Russian state ‘weaponized’ information in grim and […]

The Big Freeze

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

If an international criminal court ever decides to throw the book at Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, then Karen Dawisha’s Putin’s Kleptocracy is the book the prosecutor might want to read. Dawisha has followed up every trace of Putin’s activity since the KGB was officially dissolved and gives, with varying degrees of certainty and assurance, the dates, […]

Living With Lev

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

The self-portrait with which Leah Bendavid-Val opens her introduction to Song Without Words: The Photographs and Diaries of Countess Sophia Tolstoy presents the photographer as two women. On one hand, she is mistress of her domain, a commanding and elegant matron; yet she stands at a distance, beneath a towering canopy of trees, which makes […]

Figurative V Abstract

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Under Communism this book could not have existed. Today the work of the Russian modern art pioneers it discusses is devoutly memorialised. Yet the change is still recent enough to make it easy to understand the warm critical reception Vitebsk (which largely concerns the period 1917–22) received in Russia and Israel in 2001, and the […]

The Russian Dispossessed

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

More needs to be written and read on the victims and perpetrators of deceit, cultural destruction, famine, enslavement and terror in Stalin’s Soviet Union, even though the literature in English, from Robert Conquest to Catherine Merridale, already fills a substantial bookshelf. The last witnesses are now dying off, and Russia’s archives are once again under […]

Spying Aces

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

MI6 has its origins in the Secret Service Bureau, which was established in 1909 under Mansfield Cumming to provide intelligence on the German naval build-up and an early warning of invasion. During the First World War the service formed close liaisons with the intelligence agencies of the other Allied powers, including the various competing services […]

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