Donald Rayfield

Philosophers & Murderers

Black Wind, White Snow: The Rise of Russia’s New Nationalism

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Yale University Press 360pp £25 order from our bookshop

A Very Expensive Poison: The Definitive Story of the Murder of Litvinenko and Russia’s War with the West

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Guardian Books and Faber & Faber 424pp £12.99 order from our bookshop

Charles Clover is an award-winning reporter, but he also writes like a conscientious academic. The first half of his book describes a century of Russian political philosophy, from Nikolai Danilevsky’s Russia and Europe of 1869 to Lev Gumilev’s ‘Ethnogenesis and the Biosphere of Earth’ (1989), while the second half draws on recent memoirs and interviews with many of the main actors in contemporary Russian skulduggery (though not with Vladimir Putin). Both halves, even though they demand slow, careful reading, are thought-provoking. If there is a problem with the book, it is the difficulty of relating political actions (for instance, the crushing of Chechnya or the snatching of Georgian and Ukrainian territory) to the philosophical writings that appear to justify such deeds. Hitler may have read Nietzsche, and Stalin might have read Machiavelli and Marx, but it is very likely that they would have acted in the same way had they read nothing at all. Political philosophy allows acolytes and propagandists to justify a leader’s actions post hoc; it seldom inspires them.

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