Reading the Russian Revolution – Wrap-Up

All Power to the Soviets!

A year and a half ago I thought it would be fun to commemorate the centenary of the Russian Revolution by setting myself a challenge to read all about it. It’s a period I knew very little about, having forgotten what little I learned in school back in the dark ages. The plan was to read some history, some contemporaneous accounts and some fiction, both classic and modern. And I have to admit, at risk of sounding even weirder than usual, I thoroughly enjoyed the whole experience!

White propaganda poster – a happy worker in Soviet Russia

If you want to see the full list of the books I read, you’ll find it here. I decided against three of the books on my initial list of ten as I went along, and abandoned another too early to review. On the other hand, I added eleven – a combination of books that were published during the centenary year and books to which some other part of my revolutionary reading led me.

In total, then, seventeen books, of which seven are factual and ten fiction. I enjoyed the vast majority of them, with only a couple being quite disappointing. So to celebrate the end of this challenge, I thought I’d pick out what were the highlights for me – all books that I unreservedly recommend – and some of the images I used to illustrate my reviews.

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FACTUAL

A People’s Tragedy by Orlando Figes (1996)

Massive in scope and meticulously researched, this history of the Revolution is brilliantly written and well laid out, making it easy to read and understand despite the immense complexity of the subject, even for someone with no previous knowledge. It’s an exemplary mix of the political, social and personal, so that I came away from it understanding not just the politics and timeline of events, but how it must have felt to have lived through them. Should you ever be struck with a sudden desire to read an 800-page history of the Russian Revolution, then without a doubt this is the one to read.

Some animals are more equal than others…
Starving Russian children in the Volga region circa 1921 to 1922

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History of the Russian Revolution by Leon Trotsky (1932)

Trotsky’s own detailed account of the events of 1917 and analysis of what led to Russia being ripe for revolution at that moment. Dry and jargon-filled when discussing Marxist theory; sarcastic and even humorous when talking about Stalin or the bourgeoisie; angry and contemptuous when discussing the Romanovs and imperialists in general. But when he gets misty-eyed about the masses, describing a rally or demonstration or some other part of the struggle, he becomes eloquent and even inspirational, writing with real power and emotionalism, reminding the reader that he was a participant and passionate leader in the events he’s describing. Essential reading for anyone with a real interest in the period.

Trotsky addressing the Red Guard

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FICTION

The White Guard by Mikhail Bulgakov (1925)

It is 1918, and Kiev in the Ukraine is at the swirling centre of the forces unleashed by war and revolution. The three Turbin siblings are White Russians, still loyal to the Russian Tsar, hoping against hope that he may have escaped the Bolsheviks and be living still. But there are other factions too – the German Army have installed a puppet leader, and the Ukrainian peasantry are on the march in a nationalist movement. This is the story of a few short days when the fate of the city seems up for grabs, and the lives of the Turbins, like so many in those turbulent times, are under constant threat.

Great and terrible was the year of Our Lord 1918, of the Revolution the second. Its summer abundant with warmth and sun, its winter with snow, highest in its heaven stood two stars: the shepherds’ star, eventide Venus; and Mars – quivering, red.

A truly brilliant book that, while concentrating on one small city, gives a brutal and terrifyingly believable picture of the horrors unleashed in the wake of bloody revolution.

St Vladimir watching over the city…

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And Quiet Flows the Don by Mikhail Sholokhov (1928-32)

This Nobel Prize-winning novel follows the members of one family, the Melekhovs, through the upheavals of early 20th century Russia, casting light on those events from the Cossack perspective. It’s divided into four sections – Peace, the Great War, Revolution and Civil War. The book has the added fascination that we’re seeing how it all played out through the eyes of those at the bottom of the society’s power structures, rather than via the political actors and intelligentsia whose opinions are the ones we normally hear.

Very similar were all the prayers which the cossacks wrote down and concealed under their shirts, tying them to the strings of the little ikons blessed by their mothers, and to the little bundles of their native earth. But death came upon all alike, upon those who wrote down the prayers also. Their bodies rotted in the fields of Galicia and Eastern Prussia, in the Carpathians and Roumania, wherever the ruddy flames of war flickered and the traces of cossack horses were imprinted in the earth.

A wonderful book, one that fully deserves its reputation as a great classic of the Revolution, and of literature in general. To be able to tell such a difficult and complicated history while simultaneously humanising it is a real feat, and one Sholokhov has pulled off superbly.

A Cossack troop rides off to war c.1914

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The Commissariat of Enlightenment by Ken Kalfus (2003)

It is 1910 and a packed train makes its way into Astapov, a little village suddenly famous because Tolstoy is there, in the process of dying. Aboard the train are two men: Professor Vladimir Vorobev, a scientist who has developed a new method of embalming that can make corpses look strangely alive; and Nikolai Gribshin, a young film-maker attached to Pathé News. These two men will soon be swept up in events, as Lenin and Stalin create their Communist utopia…

According to secret reports from the Commissariat’s foreign agents, the movies had reached every burb and hamlet of America. This transformation of the civilized world had taken place in a single historic instant. Despite its rejection of Byzantium, the West was creating an image-ruled empire of its own, a shimmering, electrified web of pictures, unarticulated meaning, and passionate association forged between unrelated ideas. This was how to do it: either starve the masses of meaning or expose them to so much that the sum of it would be unintelligible.

The major theme of the book is about the development of propaganda techniques under Stalin, specifically using film. More widely, it’s about facts, presentation of facts, distortion of truth using facts, myth-making; and, as such, feels even more timely today than I suspect it would have done when originally published. Plus it’s brilliantly written and highly entertaining.

Soviet propaganda poster – Retreating, the Whites are burning the crops

(NB The three propaganda posters are from Russian Revolution: Hope, Tragedy, Myths edited by Ekaterina Rogatchevskaia – another excellent and recommended book.)

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The Man Who Loved Dogs by Leonardo Padura (2009)

The story of three men whose lives become intertwined across decades and continents: the Cuban narrator who tells the story, Trotsky living in exile in Mexico, and a young Spaniard, Ramon Mercader del Rio, who has been recruited by Stalin. The primary story is of Trotsky’s assassination in 1940. Its purpose runs deeper though: to look at the corruption and failure of the utopian dream of communism and to inspire compassion for the people caught up in this vast and dreadful experiment.

He [Trotsky] whistled, demanding Maya’s presence, and was relieved when the dog approached him. Resting his hand on the animal’s head, he noticed how the snow began to cover him. If he remained there ten or fifteen minutes, he would turn into a frozen mass and his heart would stop, despite the coats. It could be a good solution, he thought. But if my henchmen won’t kill me yet, he told himself, I won’t do their work for them. Guided by Maya, he walked the few feet back to the cabin: Lev Davidovich knew that as long as he had life left in him, he still had bullets to shoot as well.

Padura’s deep research is complemented by his intelligence, insight and humanity, all of which means that the book is more than a novel – it’s a real contribution to the history of 20th century communism across the world, looked at from a human perspective. My only caveat is that without some existing knowledge of the history, it may be a struggle to get through. But for anyone with an interest in the USSR, Cuba or the Spanish Civil War, I’d say it’s pretty much an essential read.

Ramon Mercader del Rio after the assassination

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So it’s a wrap!

Thank you for joining me on my journey and I hope you enjoyed at least some parts of my obsession with the Revolution – an obsession which I’m not sure has really ended yet, although the challenge has. The last word must go to Trotsky…

Suddenly, by common impulse – the story will soon be told by John Reed, observer and participant, chronicler and poet of the insurrection – “we found ourselves on our feet, mumbling together into the smooth lifting unison of the Internationale. A grizzled old soldier was sobbing like a child… The immense sound rolled through the hall, burst windows and doors and soared into the quiet sky.” Did it go altogether into the sky? Did it not go also to the autumn trenches, that hatch-work upon unhappy, crucified Europe, to her devastated cities and villages, to her mothers and wives in mourning? Arise ye prisoners of starvation! Arise ye wretched of the earth!”

White propaganda poster – Peace and freedom in Soviet Russia

PEACE, LAND, BREAD!

1917: Lenin, Wilson, and the Birth of the New World Disorder by Arthur Herman

Save me from the exceptional…

😐 😐

In 1917, the USA finally entered World War I after years of pusillanimous dithering, and Russia threw its revolution after years of poverty and imperialist wars. In this book, Herman looks at the two men who led those events, Woodrow Wilson and Vladimir Lenin, and suggests that out of their respective philosophies of power grew the 20th century and all of its horrors.

Normally, when reviewing a major history book, I find that even though I might not like the style or may feel the author hasn’t entirely convinced me with his or her arguments, I still feel at the end that I have gained enough from reading it to have made it worthwhile. Sadly, this is the exception. I have thoroughly enjoyed each of Arthur Herman’s books which I’ve read to date, so fully anticipated that this would be a great book to finish my Reading the Russian Revolution challenge. Herman is often biased, but usually openly, so that I feel the reader can allow for his bias in forming her own judgements. Here, however, his bias seeps into every analysis he makes and it seems as if he’s perhaps not even aware of it. American capitalism is good, Russian communism is bad. Wilson is an idealist, Lenin is a cynic. America is a shining beacon on the hill, the USSR is a blot on the escutcheon of history. I realise these are standard viewpoints on the other side of the Atlantic, and some parts of them would be accepted over here too, though perhaps less so after the last couple of years. But a history book with this level of bias teaches nothing, except perhaps that history should never be written by those with a dogmatic belief in the superiority of one particular nation or form of government.

It’s not that Herman is uncritical of Wilson and America – in fact, sometimes he’s almost sneeringly contemptuous of Wilson. It’s more in the language he uses. Some of his statements are simplistic and unnuanced in the extreme, and his facts are carefully selected to support his basic argument that both Wilson and Lenin were more interested in forcing their worldview on the rest of the world than in acting in their own nations’ self-interest. He speaks of “American exceptionalism” with a straight face, clearly believing the propaganda which has done so much damage in convincing so many Americans (but not many other people) that they are somehow intrinsically superior to other races, nations, etc. And yet this is exactly the kind of propaganda he condemns in his despised USSR. His conclusion, broadly summarised, is that everything bad in the 20th century comes from Russia, while America could have done better in the world, but did pretty well. An arguable stance, and I’d have appreciated an argument about it rather than it being presented as if it were an indisputable statement of fact.

Please don’t think I’m an apologist for the extreme communism of the USSR, nor the horrors carried out in its name. But nor am I an apologist for the extreme capitalism of the USA, complete with its own murky history of horrors. Unfortunately Mr Herman is, and appears to believe that America must stay engaged with the world to save it by exporting its form of capitalism to the rest of us. Personally, I think the world needs to be saved from all nations who think they have the right to force their views on other people and from all extremists who believe they are “exceptional” in any way. I find it difficult to recommend this one – the overwhelming weight of bias prevents it from adding any real insight into the subject.

PS Yes, I’m aware my own biases show here, but I’m not writing a history book. Nor am I advocating that the world should submit to the exceptional superiority of Scotland.

TBR Thursday 165… and Quarterly Round-Up

TBR Quarterly Report

At the New Year I added up the full extent of the horror of the TBR, including the bits I usually hide. So time for another count to see how I’m doing…

A spectacular reduction in the overall figure! Bet you’re gobsmacked! This is because, apart from review copies, I’ve been restricting myself to only acquiring books that are already on my wishlist, and I’m being brutally ruthless about culling that wishlist at the end of every month. If a book doesn’t sparkle brightly and sing my name, it gets thrown back in the pond. I’m a TBR Champion!

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The Around the World in 80 Books Challenge

Last check-in was in March, and I’ve had another exciting three months of travel since then…

I had lots of interesting detours again, starting with a trip to Toronto, Canada, where I spent some time with immigrants from Trinidad in David Chariandy’s wonderful Brother. In Appointment with Death, I accompanied Agatha Christie, Poirot and a group of deeply suspicious characters on a trip to the Rose Red City of Petra in Jordan. Damon Galgut took me to visit a disillusioned post-apartheid South Africa where I met The Good Doctor. I thoroughly enjoyed my trip to Lebanon where Najla Jraissaty Khoury regaled me with a host of traditional folk tales in Pearls on a Branch. I had a rather disappointing trip to Colombia with Juan Gabriel Vasquez streaming his consciousness and a lot of Colombian history at me in The Shape of the Ruins. And finally I visited one of the destinations on my Main Journey in the company of Valeria Vescina, whose wonderful story of the intensity of first love, That Summer in Puglia, took me to Brindisi and other locations in the beautiful heel of Italy.

To see the full challenge including the Main Journey and all detours, click here.

This is a map showing the countries I’ve visited so far. Some pretty big gaps there! Must start being selective…

52 down, 28 to go!

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The Classics Club

I’ve read seven from my Classics Club list this quarter, but so far only reviewed five. Still a little behind, but I’m slowly catching up…

24. The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg – 5 stars for this great Scottish classic, an entertaining mix of humour and horror, with some excellently satirical characterisation.

25. The First Men in the Moon by HG Wells – 5 stars for this science fiction classic. A great read with lots of humour and imagination,  and enough depth to make it interesting without feeling heavy – hugely entertaining.

26. Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell – unfortunately, this one didn’t work for me at all, and I abandoned it fairly early on. Just 1 star, I’m afraid.

27. Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman – sadly, the anti-man type of feminism I most dislike and, even more sadly, she forgot to put a plot in. 2 generous stars for this one.

28. The Dain Curse by Dashiell Hammett – 4 stars for this entertaining if somewhat silly and almost entirely incomprehensible novel, that is saved by the relentless pace and the snappy, hardboiled style.

I’ve also made a couple of changes to my list:

  • After the Gone with the Wind debacle, I decided to stop reading books with a race element, written by white American authors long ago. So I’ve replaced Uncle Tom’s Cabin with Go Tell it on the Mountain by James Baldwin.
  • Having been gifted a Scottish classic I wasn’t aware of when I made my list, I’ve removed one of my re-reads to make room for it. So Annals of the Parish is out, and Marriage by Susan Ferrier is in.

28 down, 62 to go!

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Reading the Russian Revolution

I’ve read the final three books for this challenge but have still to post my review of the last one. So just two this quarter.

15. The Commissariat of Enlightenment by Ken Kalfus – a great book from one of my favourite authors, this is an examination of the birth of the art of propaganda and myth-making, told with a great mix of light and shade. 5 stars.

16. And Quiet Flows the Don by Mikhail Sholokhov – the story of a Cossack family before and during the Revolution and the Civil War, showing how their way of life would be altered forever. This is a wonderful novel, one that fully deserves its reputation as a great classic of the Revolution, and of literature in general. 5 stars.

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Murder Mystery Mayhem

This quarter I’ve read four books for this one, but so far only reviewed three. Fewer than I intended – I need to stop being distracted by all the other vintage crime I’ve been reading, and focus! To see the full challenge, click here.

15.  Some Must Watch by Ethel Lina White – an insane serial killer is rampaging the countryside, murdering young women. Unfortunately the plotting in this one gets a bit silly and it’s too long for its content. Just 3 stars.

16.  The Red House Mystery by AA Milne – lots of humour and two likeable protagonists for this take on a locked room mystery. Well written, pleasingly devious, and above all, entertaining! 5 stars.

17.  The Dain Curse by Dashiell Hammett – despite the fact that the plot is nonsensical, episodic, and barely hangs together, this is oddly entertaining, largely due to the snappy, hardboiled style of the writing and the relentless pace. 4 stars.

17 down, 85 to go!

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5 x 5 Challenge

I’ve been struggling to fit this challenge in, though it should be easier now the Russian one’s coming to an end. But just one so far…

1. Fatherland by Robert Harris – In a world where Nazi Germany won World War Two, Hitler still rules and the people of Germany and the lands they conquered are in the grip of a totalitarian regime, Detective Xavier March must investigate a mysterious death. Great plotting in this excellent example of an alternative history novel. 5 stars.


1 down, 24 to go!

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A good quarter’s reading! Thank you for joining me on my reading adventures and…

Here’s to more great reading next quarter! 😀

I’m taking some time off now to watch Wimbledon and stuff, so don’t do anything exciting while I’m…

 

And Quiet Flows the Don by Mikhail Sholokhov

The human face of the Revolution…

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The Melekhov family own a farm in the small Cossack village of Tatarsk, on the banks of the Don. In this strongly patriarchal society, the adult sons remain at home, bringing their wives to join the family, while the adult daughters leave to go to the family homes of their husbands. Patriarch Pantaleimon Melekhov has two adult sons: Piotra, already married as the book begins, and Gregor, just reaching manhood. This Nobel Prize-winning novel will follow the members of the family through the upheavals of early 20th century Russia, casting light on those events from the Cossack perspective.

The novel is divided into four sections. The first section is Peace, which shows the traditional life of the Cossacks before war and revolution changed it for ever. The writing is glorious and, unlike most Russian literature of my experience, the translation by Stephen Garry flows naturally, without the clunkiness and frequent obscurity that so often makes the Russians hard work. Sholokhov paints an entirely credible, unvarnished picture of the lives of his characters – a harsh, physical life, where the women are expected to work as hard as the men, and often fill their roles on the farms when the men are off at their military camps, an important part of the Cossack tradition. Farming and horses are at the heart of life here, with the beloved Don providing water and fish. The landscape is beautifully described, while Cossack life is shown in all its brutality – a society where violence and rape are commonplace, but which nevertheless has a strong social order and strictly observed customs.

….Towards evening a thunderstorm gathered. A mass of heavy cloud lay over the village. Lashed into fury by the wind, the Don sent great foaming breakers against its banks. The sky flamed with dry lightning, occasional peals of thunder shook the earth. A vulture circled with outspread wings below the clouds, and ravens croakingly pursued him. Breathing out coolness the cloud passed down the Don from the east. Beyond the water-meadows the heaven blackened menacingly, the steppe lay in an expectant silence. In the village the closed shutters rattled, the old people hurried home crossing themselves. A grey pillar of dust whirled over the square, and the heat-burdened earth was already beginning to be sown with the first grains of rain.

Young Gregor has developed a passionate desire for Aksinia, the wife of a neighbour, and this storyline carries through much of the novel. However, although the blurb suggests this is a kind of love story in the vein of Doctor Zhivago, it certainly isn’t. To a large degree, Gregor’s and Aksinia’s relationship is there to allow us to see different aspects of life – how the patriarchy works, how custom and tradition play an important role, how violence is never far from the surface, how women are treated within this society, how lust and sex are a commonplace part of life, not hidden and repressed as in most societies. I found Sholokhov’s portrayal of the women in his story fascinating, although it isn’t the main focus. There’s an animalistic quality to the characters – they are driven by earthy, physical passions, the women as much as the men. In a society where young husbands are often absent on military duty, the women are shown as having strong sexual needs, leading to adultery being commonplace. But we also see that women are property and often treated with more cruelty and less respect than the Cossacks’ beloved horses. Sholokhov doesn’t shield his readers from the brutality of beatings and rape, some of the descriptions of which are graphic in the extreme. Despite their subordinate status though, these women are strong and opinionated, and play their full part in their society, and, some of them, in the Revolution also.

….Through the wattle fence Gregor saw Stepan getting ready. Aksinia, bedecked in a green woollen skirt, led out his horse. Stepan smilingly said something to her. Unhurriedly, in lordly fashion, he kissed his wife, and his arm lingered long around her shoulder. His sunburnt and work-stained hand showed coal-black against her white jacket. He stood with his back to Gregor; his stiff, clean-shaven neck, his broad, somewhat heavy shoulders, and (whenever he bent towards his wife) the twisted ends of his light-brown moustache were visible across the fence.
….Aksinia laughed at something and shook her head. Sitting as though rooted into the saddle, Stepan rode his black horse at a hurried walk through the gate, and Aksinia walked at his side, holding the stirrup, and looking up lovingly and thirstily into his eyes.
….With a long, unwinking stare Gregor watched them to the turn of the road.

Having thoroughly immersed the reader in Cossack society and the lives of the people of the village, in the remaining three sections Sholokhov shows the impact of the three phases that led the Russian peoples from the end of Tsarism to the beginnings of the USSR – World War I, the Revolution, and the Civil War. My recent fixation with the history of this period undoubtedly helped me to understand all the nuances of these sections, but Sholokhov does such a great job that I think the book acts almost as a straight history in its own right, with the added fascination that we’re seeing how it all played out through the eyes of those at the bottom of the society’s power structures, rather than via the political actors and intelligentsia whose opinions are the ones we normally hear.

A Cossack troop rides off to war c.1914

The Cossack view is particularly interesting because they were divided – some fell under the Bolshevik sway, others feared the Bolsheviks would destroy their way of life for ever. Sholokhov gradually shows every aspect, from the agitators sent out to the villages to try to win them over to the Bolshevik cause, to the dreadful conditions in the army leading to demoralisation and the gradual breakdown of discipline, to the eventual taking of sides and how that impacted life back in the villages. We see the divide between the elders who wanted to maintain the status quo, and the younger men who were more attracted by the new politics, and how this began to weaken the patriarchal stranglehold. But throughout all of this history and politics, Sholokhov remembers the importance of humanity and keeps the reader in touch with how his characters are affected and changed by their experiences. There is horrific brutality in the war scenes, told not for effect but because it is truth. Sholokhov doesn’t express his own views overtly but he makes it very clear that bloody war is not a great and glorious thing. Instead it robs people of their humanity, coarsening and brutalising them and then sending them, if they’re lucky, to try in some way to put their shattered lives back together again.

….Very similar were all the prayers which the cossacks wrote down and concealed under their shirts, tying them to the strings of the little ikons blessed by their mothers, and to the little bundles of their native earth. But death came upon all alike, upon those who wrote down the prayers also. Their bodies rotted in the fields of Galicia and Eastern Prussia, in the Carpathians and Roumania, wherever the ruddy flames of war flickered and the traces of cossack horses were imprinted in the earth.

As you have hopefully gathered, I think this is a wonderful book, one that fully deserves its reputation as a great classic of the Revolution, and of literature in general. It is by no means an easy read in terms of subject matter, with some images that will haunt me for a long time to come, but it’s so well written I found myself fully engaged and caring deeply about these people. To be able to tell such a difficult and complicated history while simultaneously humanising it is a real feat, and one Sholokhov has pulled off superbly. An outstanding finale to the fictional side of my Russian Revolution challenge – highly recommended.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

The Commissariat of Enlightenment by Ken Kalfus

The camera lies… 

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

It is 1910 and a packed train makes its way into Astapov, a little village suddenly famous because Tolstoy is there, in the process of dying. Aboard the train are two men: Professor Vladimir Vorobev, a scientist who has developed a new method of embalming that can make corpses look strangely alive; and Nikolai Gribshin, a young film-maker attached to Pathé News. In a little cottage close by, Lenin is holed up, using a pseudonym, and doing his best to manipulate events to inspire his long-awaited revolution. And there’s another man in the neighbourhood, known as the Caucasian – Stalin – who is intrigued by the new art of film-making, seeing its potential for truth-telling and, more importantly, for truth-creation…

This was Ken Kalfus’ first novel, published in 2003, although he had previously published collections of short stories. Kalfus lived in Moscow for some years in, I think, the ’90s and a lot of his work is about the USSR in one way or another. Regular visitors will know that I’ve loved everything of his that I’ve read, and so won’t be surprised to learn that I thoroughly enjoyed this. And how nice of him to write a novel that fits so neatly into my Russian Revolution challenge!*

The book is in two parts, subtitled Pre- and Post-. Gribshin emerges quickly as the main character, and the major theme of the book is about the development of propaganda techniques under Stalin, specifically using film. More widely, it’s about facts, presentation of facts, distortion of truth using facts, myth-making. Given our current obsession with “fake news”, it feels even more timely today than I suspect it would have done when originally published.

Comrade Astapov had gone soft, unsteeled by the violence and death he had witnessed. Recent events had demanded the loss of life on an imponderable scale. Whether the number of Russian dead concluded in five zeros or six was hotly debated in the domestic and foreign press, but the zeros were merely a human invention, a Babylonian bookkeeping trick. The deaths were made tangible only when you stopped counting them: Velimir Krikalev, the looter summarily executed at the outside wall of a foundry in Tsaritsyn; Sonya Khlebnikova, the red-haired girl who perished unfed in some unheated barracks in Kaluga; Anton Gribshin, who froze to death the previous winter on the Arbat while searching for bread.

The first part, Pre-, deals with the death of Tolstoy, though the great man is something of a bit player in his own demise. Instead, we see the media vultures circling, all wanting to get an angle on the story and to tell it in the way that suits their agenda. Meantime, Tolstoy’s family and literary agent are engaged in a battle to gain control of his literary legacy. Spurred on by hints from the Caucasian, Gribshin begins to recognise the power of the camera to present a story that may contain no direct lies, but which nevertheless presents a false narrative. As always with Kalfus, there’s a lot of humour – the scenes between Lenin and Stalin are particularly enjoyable, with Lenin spouting Marxist theory every time he speaks while Stalin the thug is more attracted to direct, violent action. But there’s also a lot of real insight into both the way humans behave and the history and politics of the period.

The second part, Post-, jumps forward to after the Revolution when the new USSR was in the process of being created. Gribshin is now working in the new Commissariat of Enlightenment – the State’s propaganda machine, where he is is responsible for making films showing events as the leaders want them to be interpreted. Kalfus shows us the reality of life at this period: the widespread starvation as the peasants withhold food from the cities; the ongoing civil war and its attendant atrocities; the State’s attempt to weaken the peasantry through the destruction of religion. Finally, this section takes us to another death-bed, this time Lenin’s, where all Gribshin’s learned propaganda skills are merged with Vorobev’s embalming skills to complete the creation of the cult of Lenin, a quasi-religion in its own right, complete with its own rituals and iconography.

According to secret reports from the Commissariat’s foreign agents, the movies had reached every burb and hamlet of America. This transformation of the civilized world had taken place in a single historic instant. Despite its rejection of Byzantium, the West was creating an image-ruled empire of its own, a shimmering, electrified web of pictures, unarticulated meaning, and passionate association forged between unrelated ideas. This was how to do it: either starve the masses of meaning or expose them to so much that the sum of it would be unintelligible. Wireless cinema loomed. A man’s psyche would be continually massaged, pummelled and manipulated so that he would be unable to complete a thought without making reference to some image manufactured for his persuasion. Exhausted, his mind would hunger for thoughtlessness. Political power and commercial gain would follow.

Ken Kalfus

If that all makes it sound like heavyweight politics, then I’ve done it a disservice. The actual Russian stuff is secondary to the examination of the art of propaganda and myth-making, and the story is told with a great mix of light and shade – the underlying darkness leavened by occasional humour and some mild but deliciously macabre horror around the death-bed and embalming scenes. The final chapter (which I won’t detail) showcases all Kalfus’ sparkling originality in storytelling, finding a unique way to show the reader how propaganda continued to be used to re-create the foundational myths to suit the requirements of different leaders of the USSR and beyond, as the twentieth century advanced.

I recommend it to anyone who has been fascinated by the recent corruption of truth by all sides in contemporary events on both sides of the Atlantic, or by the intervention of Russian propaganda in Western affairs. But more than that, I highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys an excellent story, excellently told.

*Actually, this isn’t mere coincidence. It was partly reading Kalfus’ short story collection Pu-239 and Other Russian Fantasies that initially sparked my interest in learning more about the period, and I’ve been saving this one as a reward to myself for all the mammoth history-reading I’ve done.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 154… and Quarterly Round-Up

TBR Quarterly Report

At the New Year I added up the full extent of the horror of the TBR, including the bits I usually hide. So time for another count to see how I’m doing…

Well, that’s pretty fabulous! Although the owned books have increased, the wishlist is dropping, due in part to my rigorous monthly culling. And considering I added approximately twenty books all in one go last month for my latest Five x Five Challenge, then I think it’s spectacular that the overall figure has gone down!

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The Around the World in 80 Books Challenge

Last check-in was in December, and I’ve been travelling non-stop since then…

780px-Around_the_World_in_Eighty_Days_map

I didn’t go to any of the locations on the Main Journey, but I had lots of interesting detours. First, William Boyd took me to study chimps and humans in the Republic of the Congo in Brazzaville Beach. Then I headed off with Angela Savage to look at the seamier side of life in Thailand in Behind the Night Bazaar. I had a harrowing but wonderful journey across the Antarctic under the leadership of Ernest Shackleton, in Alfred Lansing’s Endurance. I thought a little trip to Wales would be nicely relaxing after that, till Arthur Machen showed me the ancient evils hidden behind every Welsh rock in The Great God Pan and Other Horror Stories. Leonardo Padura took me on a mini-world trip in The Man Who Loved Dogs, on the trail of Trotsky’s assassin – we visited Cuba, the USSR, Mexico and Spain. After much thought, I’m declaring it for Spain, since I feel I learned most about that country from the book. Then off for a nice winter break in a resort town in New Zealand, only to get mixed up in a murder or two in Gordon Ell’s The Ice Shroud. And finally, murder reared its ugly head again when I fled to Gibraltar with Robert Daws for a bit of sun, sea and sand in The Rock. Phew! This travelling business isn’t very restful!

To see the full challenge including the Main Journey and all detours, click here.

46 down, 34 to go!

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The Classics Club

I’ve read five from my Classics Club list this quarter, but so far only reviewed four. Still a little behind, but I’m gradually catching up…

  1. Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens – 5 stars for this wonderful, typically Dickensian novel – one of his very best and a great way to start the year.
  2. Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith – just 4 stars for this influential psychological thriller, which I didn’t enjoy quite as much as I enjoyed Hitchcock’s film of the book
  3. The Code of the Woosters by PG Wodehouse – 5 glittering stars for this sparkling comedy from the master where, as always, Jeeves saves the day.
  4. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark – 5 stars for this novel in which Spark uses brilliantly barbed humour to skewer Edinburgh society of the between-the-wars years.

23 down, 67 to go!

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Reading the Russian Revolution

Getting very close to the end of this challenge now. This quarter, I’ve read three but so far only reviewed two. To see the full challenge, click here.

13. Rasputin: The Biography by Douglas Smith – I was a little disappointed in this one, which seemed to spend more time debunking myths about Rasputin than shedding light on the truth of the man and his life. Just 3 stars.

14. The Man Who Loved Dogs by Leonardo Padura –  a monumental novel about two men: Trotsky and the Spanish agent of Stalin’s USSR who assassinated him. Although it often reads more like a factual book than a fiction, the combination of great writing and thorough research make it a winner, and an essential read for anyone interested in the history of communism. 5 stars.

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Murder Mystery Mayhem

This quarter I’ve read five books for this one, but so far only reviewed four (yes, I’m way behind on reviews). To see the full challenge, click here.

11.  Quick Curtain by Alan Melville – this one claims to be “witty”, but wit is in the eye of the beholder. This beholder thought it was silly to the point of irritation and felt quite generous when she gave it 2 stars.

12.  The Four Just Men by Edgar Wallace – a novel about a group of self-appointed vigilantes who set out to right what they see as wrongs. This one has a surprisingly contemporary plot about foreign political agitators and what to do about them. 4 stars.

13.  Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith – one of the first “psychological thrillers”, which looks at the effects of murder on the minds of the murderers. An essential read for its influential status. 4 stars.

14. Bats in the Belfry by ECR Lorac – an excellent early example of the police procedural, with realistic detection, a strong plot, some appealing characters, humour and a nice touch of horror. A well-deserved 5 stars.

14 down, 88 to go!

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5 x 5 Challenge

Give me a break! I’ve only just started it…!

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A good quarter’s reading! Thank you for joining me on my reading adventures, and…

Here’s to more great reading next quarter! 😀

The Man Who Loved Dogs by Leonardo Padura

The assassin and his prey…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

The story of three men whose lives become intertwined across decades and continents, the book primarily tells of the assassination of Trotsky in Mexico in 1940. Its purpose runs deeper though: to look at the corruption and failure of the utopian dream of communism and to inspire compassion for the people caught up in this vast and dreadful experiment.

Iván is a failed writer living in Cuba under Castro. Having inadvertently crossed the regime in his youth, he has lost confidence in his ability to write anything worthwhile that will be acceptable under the strict censorship in force at the time. We meet him as his wife is dying, in the near present. He tells her of a man he once knew, the man who loved dogs, and of the strange story this man told him. His wife asks him why he never wrote the story, and the book is partly Iván’s attempt to explain his reluctance.

The story the man who loved dogs told Iván is of Ramón Mercader del Rio, a young Spaniard caught up in the Spanish Civil War, who is recruited by the Stalinist regime to assassinate Stalin’s great enemy, Trotsky. This introduces the two main strands of the novel which run side by side, with Iván’s story fading somewhat into the background. We follow Ramón through the Spanish Civil War, learning a good deal about that event as we go, and seeing the idealism which drove many of those on the Republican side to believe that the USSR was a shining beacon to the masses of the world. And we meet Trotsky just as he is exiled from the USSR, with Stalin re-writing history to portray him as a traitor to the Revolution.

Leon Trotsky (second right) and his wife Natalya Sedova (far left) are welcomed to Tampico Harbour, Mexico by Frida Kahlo and the US Trotskyist leader Max Shachtman, January 1937.
Getty Images/Gamma-Keystone

This is a monumental novel, both in length and in the depth of detail it presents. I found it fascinating although I felt that huge swathes of it read more like factual history and biography than a fully fictionalised account of events. As regulars will know, I’ve spent much of the last year immersed in the history of the Russian Revolution, and I felt strongly that without all my recently gained knowledge of the politics and personalities, I would have struggled badly both to understand and to maintain my interest in this. I did struggle a bit with all the various factions in the Spanish Civil War, although in the end I was rather clearer about this muddled period of history than I had been before. Once Ramón left that arena to become a tool of the USSR, I felt I was back on more solid ground, however.

Although Padura occasionally refers to some of the atrocities that were carried out by Trotsky or in his name, the overall tone of the book is rather sympathetic to him. This jarred a little – I do see the romantic appeal of Trotsky as a great thinker and orator and a fanatical idealist, but I’m not convinced that he would have been much of an improvement over Stalin had history played out differently and put Trotsky in power. There’s a distinct suggestion that Trotsky’s actions were forgiveable because they were carried out against enemies of the Revolution, whereas Stalin’s crimes were far worse because he turned on those who had fought alongside him to bring the Revolution into being. Firstly, I wasn’t convinced by the historical accuracy of this assessment as it related to Trotsky, and secondly… well, an atrocity is an atrocity, surely, however it’s justified.

Ramon Mercader del Rio after the assassination

Where the book excels, though, is in the pictures it paints of the lives of Trotsky in exile and Ramón being trained, or brainwashed, depending on how you view it, to be his assassin. The Trotsky strand feels very well grounded in truth, with a lot of references to documented events. Trotsky in the book comes over as a man still fixated on the idea of a Marxist revolution, and obsessed with proving his innocence of the charges of treason against him.

His assassin I know nothing about in real life, so can’t say if the same truthfulness applies there. But the Ramón in the book is a fascinating character. We are shown his childhood and relationship with his mother, whose early adoption of communism led her son to take up arms in the Spanish Civil War and introduced him to the Soviet agent who would recruit him. Then we see the brainwashing techniques employed by the Soviets, and Ramón’s life under different identities as a sleeper, waiting for the call to act. True or not, it’s all entirely credible and convincing.

The third story, that of Iván, felt extraneous to me – yet another excuse for a writer to write about the difficulties of being a writer, a subject which seems to be endlessly fascinating to writers but about which I personally have read more than enough. It does however cast some light on life in Cuba under its own communist regime and as such earns its place in the book, even if I sighed a little each time we ended up back in Iván’s company.

Leonardo Padura

The quality of the writing is excellent and for the most part so is the translation by Anna Kushner. There are occasional strange word choices though – sheepherders? Shepherds, surely? – and it uses American spelling and vocabulary – shined, rather than shone, etc. Padura’s deep research is complemented by his intelligence and insight, all of which mean that the book is more than a novel – it’s a real contribution to the history of 20th century communism across the world, looked at from a human perspective. My only caveat is as I mentioned earlier – without some existing knowledge of the history, it may be a struggle to get through. But for anyone with an interest in the USSR, Cuba or the Spanish Civil War, I’d say it’s pretty much an essential read and one I highly recommend.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Rasputin: The Biography by Douglas Smith

Saint or sinner…

🙂 🙂 🙂

Douglas Smith starts his biography of Rasputin by laying out the two competing claims about him that were current during his life and still rumble on today: that he was the ‘mad monk’, the ‘holy devil’, debauched and wicked, practising profane religious rites, and with an unhealthy grip on the Tsar; or, that he was a true holy man and visionary, so much so that some groups within the Orthodox church are attempting to have him made a saint.

He begins by telling us what little is known of Rasputin’s early years in a peasant village in Siberia. Smith shows how difficult it is to sift through the layers of later accounts to get to the truth, especially about someone who lived in a largely illiterate milieu. Some accounts describe him as dirty and uncouth, a thief and a horse-thief, but Smith says the original records don’t support these claims. What is true is that he married and had several children, of whom many died. In his late twenties, he took to going off on pilgrimages, apparently a common occurrence in the Russia of that time. However, he looked after his family in financial terms and continued to return to his home village throughout his life. He gradually acquired a reputation as a starets, a kind of religious elder sought out for spiritual guidance.

At this early stage, the book is very well written. Notes are kept out of the way at the back, so that the main text maintains a good flow without too many digressions into the minutiae of sources.

Smith then takes the tale to the Romanov court, giving the background to the marriage and relationship of Nicholas and Alexandra. He gives a fascinating picture of the various strange religious sects that grew up in late 19th century Russia, and how susceptible the Romanovs and high society in general were to the latest ‘holy man’ to come along. Rasputin was not the first visionary to be taken up by the Royal couple. But because of the timing, when the state was already cracking, war was on its way and revolutionary fervour was building, he became a focus of much of what people despised about the ruling class.

Rasputin with Tsarina Alexandra and children

Unfortunately, once these excellent introductory chapters are out of the way, the rest of the book gets bogged down in a morass of rather repetitive detail. It tends to take the format of Smith telling us about reports of some unsavoury episode in Rasputin’s life, and then going back over it to show that either it couldn’t be true or that it can’t be proven. As is always a problem with this period of Russian history, there’s a constantly changing cast of characters near the throne, so that names came and went without me feeling I was getting to know much about them. When the book concentrates specifically on the Romanovs it feels focused, and I did get a good impression of how detached they were from the Russian people’s opinion of them, especially Alexandra. But Rasputin himself felt ever vaguer as every story about him was shown to be at best misleading and at worst untrue. I felt I learned far more about who Rasputin wasn’t than about who he was. Maybe that was the point, but it made for unsatisfactory reading from my perspective.

There is a lot of information about the various efforts to persuade the Romanovs to give Rasputin up. For years he was under investigation and being tracked by the authorities, while the newspapers were printing ever more salacious details about his alleged debauchery. Again Smith goes into far too much detail; for example, on one occasion actually listing the names of the eight secret service men who were detailed to monitor him – information that surely should have been relegated to the notes if it is indeed required at all. And again, far more time is spent debunking false newspaper stories than detailing the true facts.

I found this a frustrating read. Smith’s research is obviously immense and the book does create a real impression of the strange, brittle society at the top of Russia and its desperate search for some kind of spiritual meaning or revelation. But the same clarity doesn’t apply to Rasputin – I felt no nearer knowing the true character of the man at the end as at the beginning; if anything, I felt he had become even more obscure. Smith often seems like something of an apologist for him, although he never openly says so. But when, for example, he treats seriously the question of whether Rasputin was actually a genuine faith healer, then I fear the book began to lose credibility with me. The question of whether Rasputin was a debauched lecher living off his rich patrons or a holy man sent by God to save Russia seemed relatively easy to answer, and I found the book tended to overcomplicate the issue in an attempt to portray both sides equally. A bit like giving equal prominence to climate change deniers as to the 97% of scientists who know it to be true.

Rasputin with his (mostly female) aristocratic acolytes

The book has won awards, so clearly other people have been more impressed by it than I was. I do think it’s an interesting if over-long read, but more for what it tells us about the last days of the Romanovs than for what it reveals about Rasputin. For me, the definitive biography of this uniquely intriguing life remains to be written.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

The Final Countdown 2017 plus Quarterly Challenges Report…

TBR Year-End Report

Last New Year I added up the full extent of the horror of the TBR, including the bits I usually hide. So, time for 2017’s final count to see how I did over the year…

Well, although the total has obviously gone up over the year, it’s not quite as bad as it looks. In August I started my new Murder, Mystery, Mayhem Challenge to read all 102 books listed in Martin Edwards’ The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books – or at least as many of them as I can acquire. There are currently 76 of these in the overall total, and I’m proposing to take around four years to complete this challenge. The same applies to the Classics Club which has another four years to run and accounts for roughly another 70 books. So the underlying TBR problem is actually a mere 279, which I think shows my book habit is not spiralling out of control…

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The Around the World in 80 Books Challenge

Last check-in was in September, and I’ve only been on a couple of trips since then…

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I sailed with Long John Silver and the crew to Treasure Island, crossing the Atlantic which is one of the locations on the Main Journey (the places Phineas Fogg visited or travelled through in the original book, Around the World in 80 Days). And then I took a detour across the Arctic with Frankenstein in pursuit of his monster.

Since it’s the end of the year, here’s how the Main Journey is going so far…

The Main Journey

  1. London  – Martin Chuzzlewit
  2. Orient Express – Travels with My Aunt
  3. France – The Sisters of Versailles
  4. Alps
  5. Venice – Titian’s Boatman
  6. Brindisi
  7. Mediterranean Sea
  8. Suez
  9. Egypt
  10. Red Sea/Arabian Sea
  11. Bombay – Selection Day
  12. Calcutta – A Rising Man
  13. Kholby
  14. Elephant Travel
  15. Allahabad
  16. Indian Ocean/ South China Sea – A Dangerous Crossing
  17. Hong Kong
  18. Shanghai
  19. Yokohama
  20. Pacific – Moby-Dick: Or, The White Whale
  21. San Francisco
  22. Sioux lands – Days Without End
  23. Omaha
  24. New York – Three-Martini Lunch
  25. Atlantic Ocean – Treasure Island
  26. Queenstown (Cobh) Ireland – Dead Wake
  27. London – The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

To see the full challenge including all the detours, click here.

39 down, 41 to go!

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The Classics Club

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So far, I’ve read nineteen from my Classics Club list – a little behind schedule, but not worryingly so. In this last quarter, I’ve read five…

  1. The Master of Ballantrae by Robert Louis Stevenson – 5 stars for this Scottish classic – an exciting adventure but also a great exercise in characterisation.
  2. Foundation by Isaac Asimov – hugely influential on the sci-fi genre but unfortunately showing its age a little – just 3 stars.
  3. Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley – 5 stars for this masterpiece of “mad science”.
  4. We by Yevgeny Zamyatin – 4 stars for one of the earliest dystopian novels that inspired many later classics like Brave New World and 1984.
  5. The Catcher in the Rye – review will appear next week, so I’ll keep you in suspense till then…

19 down, 71 to go!

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Reading the Russian Revolution

The original plan was to finish this challenge by the end of the year, but I still have a few books that I haven’t managed to read yet, so it will continue until spring. I’ve reviewed three this quarter, none of which were on the original list. I’ve also read a biography of Rasputin which I’ll be reviewing soon. To see the full challenge, click here.

10. The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich – this is a collection of oral histories from some of the women who served on the Soviet front line during WW2. While I do think this is a valuable contribution to the historical record, I had some reservations about the author’s bias affecting her methodology. 3 stars.

11. The Golden Sabre by Jon Cleary – I loved this wild ride in a stolen Rolls Royce across post-revolutionary Russia. It’s a rip-roaring adventure story first and foremost, but Cleary has clearly done his research about Russia at this moment in time, and there’s a lot of insight into the maelstrom and confusion that followed the Revolution. 5 stars.

12. We by Yevgeny Zamyatin – this dystopian novel looks at the destruction of the individual in increasingly regimented totalitarian societies. Written in 1920, it seems remarkably prescient and was the first novel to be banned by Soviet censors, remaining unpublished in Zamyatin’s native country until 1988, during the period of glasnost. 4 stars.

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Murder Mystery Mayhem

This quarter I’ve read and reviewed four books for my newest challenge. To see the full challenge, click here.

7.  Portrait of a Murderer by Anne Meredith – This is an “inverted mystery” where the bulk of the story rests on whether and how the murderer will be caught. It’s also a psychological study of the murderer and of all the other people in the house. 5 stars.

8.  Death at the President’s Lodging by Michael Innes – this is a variation on the country house mystery, this time in the enclosed environment of a University college. Unfortunately, the perpetual intellectual snobbery and failure to move the plot along meant that I abandoned it at the 40% mark on the “life’s too short” principle. 1 star.

9.  Pietr the Latvian by Georges Simenon – the famous Maigret’s very first outing. While not as strong as some of the later novels in the series, I found it interesting from the point of view of being able to compare this first glimpse of Maigret to the more rounded character he would later become. 3 stars.

10. The Eye of Osiris by R Austin Freeman – this features Freeman’s regular “scientific” detective, Dr Thorndyke, but the main character in this one is the first person narrator, Dr Berkeley. It’s laid out as a traditional mystery and is very well written, full of wit, and with a charming romance for young Dr Berkeley to give it warmth. I loved it. 5 stars.

10 down, 92 to go!

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A good quarter’s reading! Thank you for joining me on my reading adventures, and…

Here’s to another great year of reading in 2018! 😀

We by Yevgeny Zamyatin

The problem with happiness…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Our narrator, D-503, is a cipher in the utopian One State. He is the Chief Builder of the Integral, a rocket ship that is to be sent out into the universe, bringing uniformity and happiness to all alien species who may be out there still messily living with free will. All ciphers have been encouraged to prepare something for inclusion on the mission – poems of praise to the Benefactor who serves as a replacement for God in this society. D-503 decides to keep a journal of his daily life – this journal that we are reading – as his contribution. But D-503 is about to meet a woman – I-330 – who will disrupt his contented existence and lead him to reconsider just how utopian life in the One State really is…

First a word on translations. I started with the Momentum publication of this which as far as I can see doesn’t credit the translator by name. It’s dreadful – so bad I found it almost unreadable and was about to abandon the book completely at the 30% mark. However, I then changed to the Vintage Classics edition translated by Natasha Randall, which is excellent – like reading a different book. So if you decide to read this, make sure you check the translation first.

Even given the much better experience of the good translation, I’m afraid I can’t bring myself to be as fulsome in praise of this as I’d like. D-503 is a mathematician, so his narration is full of mathematical metaphors and everything is described in vaguely mathematical terms. It’s well enough done, but I found it tedious. Zamyatin also has a technique of leaving sentences unfinished and uses ellipses even more than I do… This gives a sensation of the speed of events, of the increasing confusion D-503 is feeling, but again I found it got pretty tiresome after a bit.

Book 18 0f 90

It also has an issue that I think may be really more my problem than the book’s, an issue I’ve found with other early dystopian fiction: namely, that I think the societies they describe sound considerably more attractive than the savage societies they hold up as the better alternative. What exactly is so wrong with being happy? I get it – I really do – that they achieve their happiness at the expense of free will, that their lives are unexciting because everything is decided for them, that art and literature have no real place in such societies; and no, I don’t aspire to that kind of society. But the flaw, if it is one, is that the characters are happy in their lives until they discover how much better it is to be miserable, chewed up by desire and jealousy, living lives that are nasty, brutish and short. In We, the savage society has reverted almost to chimp lifestyle – I don’t aspire to that either! Current dystopian fiction is much more likely to have the characters be fundamentally unhappy in their regimented societies, to be aware of how restricted and unfulfilling their lives are, and to have something more appealing to aim for. This works so much better for me. I had exactly the same issue with Huxley’s Brave New World when I read it at school – the characters liked their lives and were happy, until savagery burst in to make them realise what they’d been missing – unregimented sex, mainly, which is pretty much what sets D-503 off too…

This book, written in post-revolutionary Russia in 1920, has an eerie familiarity about it. This is because it has basically the same story as both Brave New World and Orwell’s 1984, both of which have borrowed so heavily from it it feels close to theft. Personally, I’m a bit baffled by the timing – I wouldn’t have thought Bolshevik Russia had reached anything close to this kind of society as early as 1920, while the civil war was still being fought. Zamyatin was either very prescient or he was writing as much about the general philosophical zeitgeist of the time as about the realities of his society – I suspect probably a bit of both. Marxism was on the rise, some authors were presenting utopian societies as a good thing, and Zamyatin references Taylorism more than once – something I wasn’t familiar with but which seems to have been an extreme form of regimentation within the workplace; what in my youth we called ‘time and motion studies’ – the desire of management to turn workers into unthinking, exhausted drones or human robots. (That’s not necessarily how management would have described it, but I was a worker bee back then… 😉 )

Yevgeny Zamyatin

The book therefore feels as if it’s arguing against philosophical ideas about utopias rather than reality, as does Brave New World from what I remember. 1984, on the other hand, while using the same basic story, is very specifically arguing against the actual rise of totalitarian regimes in the mid-20th century, and Orwell’s characters give no impression of being in any way “happy”. This makes it by far the more powerful book of the three from my perspective and it’s also much better written (though obviously Zamyatin is at a disadvantage with me on that score because I have to rely on translators). In fact, We feels to me much more like North Korean style totalitarianism than the Soviet version – both may have been aiming for the same, but possibly North Korea’s smaller size and more uniform population has enabled the Kim clan to more fully achieve and sustain a completely regimented society entirely dependent on the whim of its God-like “benefactor”. And I doubt anyone thinks the North Koreans are actually happy, however much they’re forced to appear to be.

Had I read this first, the ideas in it would have felt more original, as indeed they were when it was written. So although I didn’t find it the most pleasurable reading experience, I still highly recommend it as a classic that has helped to shape so much later literature. Maybe the secret is to read all the world’s literature in strict chronological order. Now isn’t that a nice dystopian thought to end on?

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

The Golden Sabre by Jon Cleary

A wild ride through post-revolutionary Russia…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Matthew Martin Cabell has been in the Eastern Urals carrying out a survey for the oil company he works for, and now wants to go home to America. But Russia is in the midst of the Civil War that followed the Revolution, and the local leader of the Whites, General Bronevich, sees an American citizen as a good opportunity to make some easy money. Eden Penfold is an English governess looking after the children of a local Prince who has gone to fight in the war. Eden has received a message from the children’s mother that she should bring the young Prince and Princess to her in Tiflis (now Tbilisi), but Eden is worried how she will make the journey safely in these dangerous times. When Bronevich attempts to rape Eden, Cabell kills him – and suddenly Matthew, Eden and the children are on the run through Russia in the Prince’s Rolls Royce… pursued by a dwarf!

The book was written in 1981 and is packed full of some cringe-makingly out-dated language and non-politically correct attitudes towards women and gay men, so if you find it impossible to make allowances for different times, this is probably one to avoid. That would be a huge pity though, because it’s a rip-roaring adventure yarn, full of excitement and danger, and with a nice light romance thrown in for good measure. And despite the outdated attitudes, it actually has a spunky leading lady in Eden, and Cabell gradually develops a good deal of sympathy for Nikolai, the gay servant who accompanies them on their journey. Partly it feels as though Cleary himself was struggling to get in tune with more modern attitudes (he would have been in his sixties at the time of writing) and partly he’s portraying what would have been the attitudes of society back in the early 20th century, so I was able to give him a pass and enjoy the ride.

And what a ride! As the Rolls Royce travels south to the Caspian Sea, then over into what’s now Georgia, our intrepid heroes have to negotiate their way through White Army factions, Bolshevik villagers, louche aristocrats holding out on distant estates waiting to see what the future holds, Muslim forces intent on redressing old grievances, mercenary ship captains, deserts, mountains… and did I mention the dwarf? The one thing all these people and places have in common is that they all want to kill the travellers, though for varying reasons. They’ve reckoned without Cabell’s strategic ingenuity, though, not to mention Eden’s dexterity at bashing uppity men over the head with her handbag! But even Cabell and Eden seem incapable of shaking off the implacable dwarf…

Jon Cleary

Although it’s a wild adventure story first and foremost, Cleary has clearly done his research about Russia at this moment in time, and there’s a lot of insight into the maelstrom and confusion that followed the Revolution. He doesn’t overtly take a side – he makes it clear the days of aristocratic rule had to come to an end, but he doesn’t laud the Bolsheviks either. All sides are shown as taking advantage of the chaos for personal gain, and he shows vividly the lawlessness to which the country descended – villagers holding kangaroo courts and carrying out summary executions; soldiers on all sides raping and pillaging as they rode through; aristos trying to get their valuables out of the country before they were confiscated by one faction or another. He also shows the anti-Semitic pogroms and the flight of Jews looking for their own promised land where they could live in peace. Again, Cabell recognises his own anti-Semitism, and learns over the course of the book to see the Jews as not just equals, but potential friends. Lots of stereo-typing, but also a good deal of recognition of the stereo-typing too – if one can bear the language, the messages are pretty good. Even the dwarf is treated somewhat sympathetically…

I loved this, despite my frequent cringing! Cabell and Eden are hugely likeable, and the young Prince and Princess become well developed characters over the course of the story too. The gay Cossack servant Nikolai might be clichéd, but he touched my heart nevertheless. And though he’s the baddie, Cleary’s depiction of the dwarf is nicely nuanced too, with a real level of understanding for his character having been distorted by the bullying and prejudice he’s faced throughout his life. I laughed, I sympathised, I held my breath, I shuddered and more than once I gasped in shock and surprise – what more could you ask for from an adventure story? Go on – stick your modern prejudices in a box for a few hours, and jump in the Roller… and keep an eye out behind you for the dwarf…

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich

A valuable but somewhat biased contribution…

🙂 🙂 🙂

During World War II, many women in Soviet Russia went off to war, not just in the traditional female roles of nurses, cooks, etc., but to take up arms themselves – to kill or die for their country. When they came home – those who came home – they were not lauded as heroines. At best their service was forgotten; at worst, they were seen as unwomanly, no longer suitable marriage material, sometimes even shunned by those around them. Decades later in 1985, as Soviet Russia was about to enter the period of glasnost (openess) under then President Gorbachev, Svetlana Alexievich published this collection of oral histories from some of the women who served. For her ground-breaking work, including this book, Alexievich, a Belarusian journalist, won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2015. This is the first time the book has been translated into English, by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, the current leaders in the field of Russian-English translation.

There is no doubt of the importance of this work in bringing a piece of the Soviet Union’s lesser-known history to light, and for giving a voice to many women who had been silenced by their society’s desire to forget their contribution. Many of the memories Alexievich records show the patriotism and courage of these women, while also giving an insight into their naivety as they set off for “the Front” – words that seem almost to have taken on an element of propaganda, as something glorious and heroic. The reality, of course, was brutal and barbaric. Alexievich tries to understand why so many women – girls, in many cases, often only sixteen or seventeen – were determined to cut off their cherished braids, learn to shoot or fly or bandage wounds, and set off for war.

I left for the front a materialist. An atheist. I left as a good Soviet schoolgirl, who had been well taught. And there . . . There I began to pray . . . I always prayed before a battle, I read my prayers. The words were simple . . . My own words . . . They had one meaning, that I would return to mama and papa.

The answers were as varied as the girls themselves. Some went against the opposition of their mothers, because they had lost a father or brother or lover and wanted revenge. Some saw it as a great patriotic duty. Some were more or less forced into it by parents who had no sons to send, or who had already lost their sons in the carnage. Some went simply because their friends were going. Some, and these were the saddest, saw it as an exciting adventure. Often the recruiting officers tried to talk them out of it, but the girls were determined to go – I formed the distinct impression it had simply become the ‘done thing’, a kind of macabre fashion statement. When they got there, the men they were to serve with often saw them at first as an annoyance – just another thing they needed to worry about. But many of these girls soon became vital cogs in an army that was losing men in almost unimaginable numbers. Alexievich lets us hear from snipers, girls who worked dragging the injured from burning tanks, women who flew war planes or manned their guns, surgeons who worked through extreme exhaustion to treat a never-ending stream of men and women with horrific injuries, nurses who tried to give some comfort to those in agony, waiting for death.

I had some reservations though, mainly around Alexievich’s intentions. Apparently she interviewed hundreds of women and received written accounts from many more. At the beginning of each section, she gives a little introduction telling the story of how she collected and selected her material, and it was these that made me wonder about her agenda. She becomes emotional to the point of mawkishness again and again, often inserting herself into the middle of a memory to show how deeply it has affected her. She admits immediately to being obsessed with death, and I felt it became clear quite quickly that she also had what felt like an unhealthy, voyeuristic obsession with suffering.

I listen to the pain . . . Pain as the proof of past life. There are no other proofs, I don’t trust other proofs. Words have more than once led us away from the truth.

I think of suffering as the highest form of information, having a direct connection with mystery. With the mystery of life. All of Russian literature is about that. It has written more about suffering than about love.

And these women tell me more about it . . .

She makes plain – though I’m not sure intentionally – that she dismissed memories that didn’t meet her criteria. So women who wanted to talk about pride in the eventual victory rather than suffering were dismissed, with it being signalled that they had been indoctrinated by men to think about the ‘man’s’ war rather than the ‘woman’s’.

Svetlana Alexievich
(Photo by Elke Wetzig)

I couldn’t help but feel that she was very close to distorting history to suit her agenda – to prove that women suffer more, have bigger hearts, more capacity for empathy, find it harder to kill. True? Perhaps. Or perhaps some form of reverse sexism. We live now in a world where women regularly serve on front lines – in some countries it has been the norm for decades, if not centuries – and I doubt if our female soldiers would relish being portrayed as somehow less fitted for war, or that the many men who live with ongoing emotional trauma are happy to be considered less feeling. I also felt that Alexievich’s sympathy for the women only lasted until it interfered with her work. I was particularly put off by one anecdote she recounts, when she sent a transcript to a woman she had interviewed. The woman scored out some personal stuff and said her son would be horrified to read it, since she had never told him. But Alexievich overrode the woman’s objections and printed it anyway, carefully including the woman’s full name. It felt as abusive as anything the society she is criticising had done to the women.

Some of the extracts are intensely moving, some so horrifying they are difficult to read. Others left me curiously untouched – repetition dulls the senses perhaps. Eventually I found I was having to force myself to pick the book up, so finally gave up at about two-thirds of the way through. I do think this is a valuable contribution to the historical record, but one that needs to be viewed with a certain amount of caution as having been too carefully selected to bolster the author’s viewpoint, rather than to give an unbiased and balanced platform for the memories of the women who served.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Penguin Classics.

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TBR Thursday 136… and Quarterly Round-Up

TBR Quarterly Report

At the New Year I added up the full extent of the horror of the TBR, including the bits I usually hide. So time for another count to see how I’m doing…

Okay, now, I know it doesn’t look good. But there are extenuating circumstances! I recently started my new challenge to read 102 Classic Crime novels, which meant adding roughly 80 books to either the TBR or the wishlist. (The other twenty are out of print at the moment.) So you see, if you strip those out, really the overall figure has gone down! It’s purely an optical illusion that makes it appear as if it’s gone up. It’s like when your government keeps telling you your taxes have gone down and yet you seem to keep having to pay more – it’s simply a quirk of mathematics.

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The Around the World in 80 Books Challenge

Last check-in was in June, and I haven’t travelled very widely since then…

780px-Around_the_World_in_Eighty_Days_map

I’ve had two trips to Moscow – a luxury stay at the Metropol Hotel in the company of Amor Towles’ A Gentleman in Moscow, and a rather more traumatic trip with Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago. Although I enjoyed the Towles more, Doctor Zhivago is by far the better book in terms of what it has to say about post-revolutionary Moscow, so it wins the slot on my detour list. My only other foreign trip was to the Sioux lands, one of the stops on the main list of places featured in Jules Verne’s original Around the World in 80 Days. This trip was made in the company of Sebastian Barry in his Days Without End, and sadly we spent most of our time at war with the Sioux. Perhaps one day I’ll go back and see if we can’t smoke the pipe of peace…

This challenge has fallen by the wayside a little recently because of my Russian challenge, but I’ll pick it up again properly in the New Year.

To see how I’m doing on the Main Journey plus all the detours so far, click here.

37 down, 43 to go!

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The Classics Club

classics club logo 2

Four off my Classics Club list this quarter, so still behind on this one but beginning to get into a rhythm that should allow me to gradually catch up over the remaining four years of the challenge. These have undoubtedly been some of my best recent reads…

11. The Gowk Storm by Nancy Brysson Morrison – 5 stars for this Scottish classic that has similarities to the writings of Jane Austen, but with a darker tone. Deserves a much wider readership than it has.

12. She Who Was No More by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac – 4½ stars. A fascinatingly dark study of a character whose own actions send him on a spiral into delusion, depression and perhaps even insanity. And a decent mystery too.

13. Cop Hater by Ed McBain – another 5 star read for this first in the long-running 87th Precinct series. The combination of noir and police procedural and the excellent quality of the writing make this a true classic of crime fiction.

14. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee – 5 stars, of course, for this classic story about poverty, justice and race in small-town America in the 1930s. Some of its attitudes may be outdated but it still has much to say about the problems facing contemporary America.

14 down, 76 to go!

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Reading the Russian Revolution

Another two reviews from the main list this quarter, one biography and one classic of fiction. I’ve also read another non-fiction from the original list, The Unwomanly Face of War, but not yet reviewed it. This challenge is drawing close to its end, and the list has changed a bit over the year, but I’m still thoroughly enjoying my revolutionary immersion and hope to fit in at least two or three more before I finish. To see the full challenge, click here.

6. Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak – a flawed work in terms of plot, structure and characterisation but with the saving graces of some fine descriptive writing and occasional insights into Russian society before, during and after the Revolution. I’d recommend it more in terms of its historical significance than its literary worth and, on that basis, I’m glad to have read it. 3 stars.

7. Lenin the Dictator by Victor Sebestyen – an approachable and very readable account, lighter in both tone and political content than some of the massively detailed histories of the period, but giving enough background to set Lenin’s life in its historical context. 4 stars.

I’m also adding two more that weren’t on the original list:-

8. Russian Revolution: Hope, Tragedy, Myths edited by Ekaterina Rogatchevskaia – issued to go alongside this summer’s British Library exhibition on the Revolution, this works very well as a substitute for those of us who weren’t able to attend. It’s beautifully produced and lavishly illustrated, and the balance between text and illustrations is excellent, making it a substantial history as well as a visual feast. 5 stars.

9. A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles – this tale of Count Rostov, sentenced to house arrest in the Metropol Hotel in Moscow soon after the Revolution, is an entertaining and enjoyable read for the most part, but in the end it feels oddly off-kilter, lacking any real profundity or depth. 3½ stars.

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Murder Mystery Mayhem

My brand new challenge, only started a couple of weeks ago, so I’ve only read 1 so far (as at 30th Sept) to add to the five I had already read and reviewed before I started. But I’m looking forward to making these classic crime novels a regular part of my reading diet. To see the full challenge, click here.

6. Verdict of Twelve by Raymond Postgate – I thoroughly enjoyed this – excellent writing, great characterisation, insightful about society, lots of interesting stories within the main story, and a realistic if somewhat cynical look at the strengths and shortcomings of the process of trial by jury. 5 stars and a great start!

6 down, 96 to go!

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A good quarter’s reading – I feel Darcy would be proud of me!

Thanks for joining me on my reading journeys! 😀

 

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

Harking back to the good old days…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

When Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov falls foul of the new Bolshevik regime in the Russia of 1922, they show him mercy because he had written a famous revolutionary poem back in 1913. So instead of killing him, they sentence him to permanent house arrest in the luxurious Metropol Hotel in Moscow. The book is the story of his life there and, through him, of life under communism in the USSR.

The basic tone of the book is light and entertaining. Rostov is a noble from a wealthy land-owning family but on the whole he’s happy to go along with the ideals of the new regime, even if he’s not terribly enamoured of its practicalities. The depth in the book comes from various scenes and anecdotes that shed light on the changing Russia. Rostov occasionally gets nostalgic over Tolstoyan-like memories of winter sleigh-rides in troikas and aristocrat-filled dances. Even in his new life, Rostov is privileged – still rich and the Metropol is still the haunt of the upper echelons, though now these are drawn from the party hierarchy rather than the nobility. Towles uses this to show that life under the communists soon grew to resemble life under the Tsar – only the elite had changed.

Rostov is soon befriended by a little girl, Nina, also resident in the hotel because of her father’s job being attached to the regime. Nina’s character didn’t work so well for me – she often speaks with a vocabulary and level of understanding well beyond her years. However, in reality she’s something of a plot device to give Rostov a connection to the world outside the hotel and an opportunity to pontificate on his philosophy of life.

My initial impressions of the book were very favourable. Towles’ prose is excellent, often intelligent and sparkling with wit. I suspect it’s also full of references to Russian literature that went over my head because I’ve read so little of it, but it isn’t done in such a way that I felt ‘left out’. Unfortunately, as I went on, I began to find it too much of a good thing. I found myself longing for him to say something plain, rather than being relentlessly whimsical or turning every phrase into a beautifully constructed bon mot. This verbal playfulness not only slows the thing to a crawl but verges dangerously on style over substance.

Metropol Hotel, Moscow

My other major issue with the book is that, whether he means to or not (I’m not sure), the impression is that in his desire to ridicule the Bolsheviks and the Soviet system, Towles seems to be giving a rather glowingly nostalgic view of life before the revolution. Since life under tsarism was at least as brutal for most of the population, this is an odd tone to take, especially for an American. Being anti-communist shouldn’t make one pro the tyranny of an absolute monarch, I wouldn’t have thought. Towles seems to favour the aristocracy as being more ‘gentlemanly’ than the Bolsheviks (a real consideration when you’re a starving peasant, I’d imagine). And he does things that seem to suggest that the Count, by birth, deserves special treatment. It’s not that the Count gets special treatment that I found odd – it’s Towles’ implicit approval that jarred.

Amor Towles

As the book goes on, the story becomes gradually less credible, and the device of Rostov being stuck in the hotel begins to feel restrictive of how much Towles can show of the world beyond the doors. The end indulges in yet more nostalgia for the good old days when aristocrats lived in luxury, and we are left sighing for the beautiful estates and days of civilised idleness (that a tiny percentage of pre-revolutionary Russians enjoyed at the expense of all the rest).

Perhaps reading the book at a point when I’ve been so steeped in reading about the real history of the tragedies of the Russian people may have coloured my view somewhat, but I think I’d have been just as critical of the book’s apparent message at any other time. It’s very well-written, amusing and entertaining. But it’s too light for its subject matter – too removed from the real world to say anything substantial about life under the Soviets. Towles wants, I think, to make points about denial of individuality, loss of personal freedom, loss of civilisation, but his choice to use a hangover from the old ruling elite makes the politics feel wrong. A few people may have lived privileged, intellectual, art-filled lives before the revolution, but most lived in appalling conditions in both towns and villages, without education, suffering real poverty and hunger. For them, perhaps communism didn’t work out the way they hoped, but I doubt they got overly nostalgic about the past either.

So I have mixed feelings – in the end it felt oddly off-kilter, lacking any real profundity or depth, but even so I did find it an entertaining and enjoyable read for the most part and, on that half-hearted basis, would still recommend it.

NB This book was provided for review by Amazon Vine UK.

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Russian Revolution: Hope, Tragedy, Myths edited by Ekaterina Rogatchevskaia

A picture paints a thousand words…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

To commemorate the centenary of the Russian Revolution, this summer the British Library held an exhibition discussing the causes and impact of the revolution and illustrating it with contemporary documents, propaganda, photographs and art. This book was issued to go alongside the exhibition, and works very well as a substitute for those of us who weren’t able to attend. It’s beautifully produced and lavishly illustrated, but it’s far more than just a coffee table book. The balance between text and illustrations is excellent, making it a substantial history as well as a visual feast.

The book starts with a very well laid out, lengthy timeline, running from about 1860 to the present day, though it bulges over the revolutionary period itself. It includes not only events in Russia, but also an indication of what was happening contemporaneously elsewhere in the world, in politics, science, etc.; and this gives a very clear picture of how comparatively backwards pre-revolutionary Russia was both culturally and politically. It also includes major events in the world of art and literature, and some fascinating statistics showing the rampant inflation that helped push the people into revolution. This is a great beginning – almost enough to be a pocket history of the revolution on its own, and it’s very well illustrated, with brief but clear and informative information about each image.

Curators Katya Rogatchevskaia and Susan Reed during installation of
Russian Revolution: Hope, Tragedy, Myths.
Photo by Samantha Lane

Each of the following chapters takes the form of an essay on one aspect of the subject, each written by a different author, expert in the field s/he is discussing. Together they follow the progression of events so that there’s a flow to the ‘story-telling’. Naturally, each author has his or her own style and some worked better for me than others. A couple of the chapters read as if perhaps too much is being crammed into the available space, giving a rather dizzying impression of names and events. Others take a more broad brush approach which, while it means they perhaps don’t contain so much detailed information, worked better for me as a casual reader. Overall, though, the standard is excellent – thoroughly researched and informative and only very rarely falling over the line towards being a little too academically presented for my taste.

White propaganda poster – a happy worker in Soviet Russia

The first chapter deals with the history of tsarism and the rise of the various parties and groupings that would participate in the revolution. Like the other chapters, it’s a necessarily brief account but it’s enough to give a clear and, as far as I can judge, accurate picture. The second chapter describes the events of February to October 1917 – the actual revolutionary period. Then there’s a chapter which takes us through the civil war that followed the revolution. Because I’ve been reading so much detailed history of the period this year, these chapters didn’t add much for me in terms of new information, but they provide a concise summary of events and the illustrations give an extra layer of interest. There are propaganda posters, newspaper headlines and extracts from articles, cartoons, paintings and extracts from important documents – and all placed where they’re relevant so that they enhance the text superbly. There are also little side panels containing extracts from contemporaneous writings of people involved in the events as either participants or observers.

Soviet propaganda poster – Retreating, the Whites are burning the crops

Personally I found the final chapters particularly interesting, since they covered the post- revolutionary period and subjects that I haven’t read so much about. The fourth chapter describes the beginnings of the Soviet state and its impact on society, culture and the arts. The rise in the use of propaganda is wonderfully illustrated, bringing it to life much more than words alone could possibly do. We are shown the attempts to destroy orthodox religion and the concurrent creation of the cult of Lenin, including the use of the same kind of religious symbolism the churches had used. And this chapter also covers the artistic response to the revolution, including the poetry of Alexander Blok and the futurist art of Mayakovsky.

White propaganda poster – Peace and freedom in Soviet Russia

Chapter five takes the story on through the early decades of the twentieth century, showing the spread of the Soviet Empire until it had recovered most of the old Tsarist empire. It also discusses the regime’s attempts to spread revolution throughout Europe via the Comintern, using propaganda and attempting to gain influence over the new socialist parties springing up in many countries between the wars. And finally, there’s an epilogue where the editor herself discusses the literary impact on and response to the revolution, from Tolstoy and Dostoevsky via Gorky, Bunin, Sholokhov, Pasternak, et al, through to the more modern dissidents like Solzhenitsyn.


Since I started this challenge to read my way through the Russian Revolution, several people have asked in relation to one book or another whether it would be a good place to start. In truth, this is the one that I would recommend as a starting point. It’s nowhere near as detailed as the major tomes like A People’s Tragedy or History of the Russian Revolution, but it gives a clear, concise overview of the main people and events, and widens the discussion out to look at the worlds of literature and art – designed to appeal to the bookish amongst us. And the wonderful illustrations make it an easier read, perhaps, giving opportunities to pause and visual prompts that help in absorbing the information. The illustrations also mean that this would be an interesting supplement for people who already know the history. An excellent book – highly recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, the British Library.

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Lenin the Dictator by Victor Sebestyen

The man behind the cult…

😀 😀 😀 😀

This new biography of Lenin concentrates on the personal, though with Lenin the personal can’t avoid being political. Sebestyen starts with a brief introduction in which he makes some comparisons between the events of 1917 and the rise of populist leaders today. He makes a direct comparison between the methods of Lenin and Trump, though he doesn’t name the latter – he doesn’t need to: he describes a man who lies for political gain, who makes simple and simplistic promises that appeal to a certain element of the people but which will never, can never, be kept, who rabble rouses by identifying individuals or groups as “enemies of the people”.*

Next up is a prologue in which Sebestyen tells of the night of the October revolution. This gives a flavour of the style of the book to come – it’s very readable but it’s written in a light kind of way that makes it seem almost farcical. The basic facts are the same as those in Trotsky’s and Figes’ accounts, but this prologue reads more like an Ealing comedy than a people’s tragedy. At this stage I was a little concerned the book may lack depth, but happily, although the book has a much lighter tone overall than those other tomes, as it progresses Sebestyen doesn’t shy away from or try to disguise the darker aspects of Lenin’s personality.

The book follows the conventional linear structure of biographies, starting with Lenin’s background and childhood and ending with the cult of Lenin which followed his death. We see him first as the son of a ‘noble’ – not quite the kind of aristocrat we would think of as a ‘noble’ in this country, but more what would pass as upper middle or professional class. As a child and youth he was intelligent, a voracious reader and rather cold emotionally to people outwith his family. Sebestyen suggests that it was the execution of his brother, for attempting to assassinate the Tsar, that instilled in the young Lenin an interest in revolutionary politics and a deep hatred for the bourgeoisie who turned their backs on the family after this scandal.

Much of the book is taken up with Lenin’s long years in exile, his personal relationships with his wife and later his mistress, and with those other budding revolutionaries in exile who would later become political allies or enemies. As Lenin’s life progresses, Sebestyen discusses his various writings, giving a good indication of the development of his own ideology and the methods he would employ when the revolution began. Lenin is shown as entirely dedicated to the cause, something of a loner, hardworking, and dismissive of many of the intelligentsia who talked a lot but did little to practically advance the revolutionary cause. However, he is also seen as ensuring he steered clear of personal danger, often writing furiously from his safety in exile to encourage those back in Russia to act in ways that would put them in extreme danger from the state.

Lenin is Proclaiming Soviet Power at the Second Congress of the Soviet by Vladimir Serov

(Spot the difference: the painting on the left is from 1947 when Stalin was in power and he is seen standing behind Lenin. The artist re-painted it in 1962, by which time Stalin was dead and out of favour, and he’s been painted over. How are the mighty fallen! I took this info from the fascinating Russian Revolution: Hope, Tragedy, Myths edited by Ekaterina Rogatchevskaia – review coming soon.)

In truth, I found the long sections about Lenin’s period in exile began to drag, but I feel that’s because I’m always more interested in the political than the personal. So I was glad to get back to Russia as the Revolution dawned. In this section, there’s quite a diversity in the depth of information Sebestyen gives. For instance, the account of the reasons for Russia going to war in 1914 feels incredibly superficial, as do the days between February and October 1917 – in fact, Sebestyen more or less skips right over the October Revolution. On the other hand, he goes quite deeply into the matter of Lenin’s return on the “sealed train” and the question of how suspicion of German support played out. Clearly Sebestyen has concentrated most on those events in which Lenin had a direct involvement, which makes sense since this is a personal biography of the man rather than a history of the period; and it’s actually quite interesting to see how absent he was during some of the major points of the revolution – that personal safety issue again. Overall there’s still enough information to allow the book to stand on its own, but a reader who wants to understand the ins and outs of the revolution will have to look elsewhere for a more detailed account.

The same unevenness is shown in the period following the revolution – some events are given more prominence than others. The murder of the Romanovs, for instance, is given in some detail and with a rather odd level of sympathy (terrible, perhaps, but no more so than the starving millions, the people driven to cannibalism, the widespread torture and the 7 million children left orphaned, surely). On the other hand, the account of the civil war is an unbelievably quick run through – it almost feels as if Sebestyen had rather run out of steam by the time he reached this stage. Sebestyen finishes with a description of the cult of Lenin and how his legacy (and earthly remains) were used by subsequent Soviet leaders to bolster their own regimes.

Victor Sebestyen

All-in-all, I found this an approachable and very readable account, lighter in both tone and political content than some of the massively detailed histories of the period, but giving enough background to set Lenin’s life in its historical context. And it undoubtedly gives an intriguing picture of the contrasts in his personality – a man who seemed to love and engender love from those near to him, but whose friendship could easily turn to enmity when he felt betrayed, and who could show great cruelty in pursuance of his political aims. So despite my criticisms of the superficiality of the coverage of some of the historical events, I feel it achieves its aim of giving us a good deal of insight into Lenin the man. Recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

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* Though it’s a comparison that can’t be taken too far: Lenin was an intellectual, well informed and had a clearly defined political ideology – three things of which no-one could ever accuse Trump. Lenin also succeeded in achieving his aims. But, of course, both were also accused of being the puppet of a foreign power, though this was unlikely to have been true in Lenin’s case. 😉

Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak

A candle burned…

🙂 🙂 🙂

Set to the background of Revolutionary Russia, this is a sweeping saga of doomed love. Separated from his family by war, Yuri Andreevich Zhivago is torn between his duty to his wife and family and his adoration of the lovely nurse Lara. Unfortunately, he seems to suffer from severe commitment issues alongside a healthy dose of narcissism but, fortunately, he’s such a wonderful, intelligent, incomparably talented poet and sensitive human being (we know this because he tells us himself) that all the people he abandons throughout his life still adore him – because they recognise his innate superiority to all other mortals. I think it was when Pasternak finally seemed to be trying to draw some kind of vague parallel between Yuri Andreevich and Christ that I really began to feel bilious.

I make it a general rule to try not to find out too much about authors because knowing about their lives tends to intrude on my feelings about their books. Unfortunately a couple of years ago I read The Zhivago Affair, an interesting (and recommended) book that tells the story of the publication of this book, and makes it clear that the parallels between Pasternak’s and Zhivago’s lives are so great that Yuri Andreevich can only really be seen as the author’s alter-ego. Pasternak himself moved his mistress in more or less next door to his wife and children and insisted on them all living in harmony, so he’s not up there on my list of favourite human beings. Therefore, I found Pasternak’s raptures over Zhivago’s character, intellect and poetic ability as nauseating as his justification of his adultery and treatment of his various women, all of whom simply adored him while recognising they really weren’t fit to shine his shoes.

….The night was filled with soft, mysterious sounds. Close by in the corridor, water was dripping from a washstand, measuredly, with pauses. There was whispering somewhere behind a window. Somewhere, where the kitchen garden began, beds of cucumber were being watered, water was being poured from one bucket into another, with a clink of the chain drawing it from the well.
….It smelled of all the flowers in the world at once, as if the earth had lain unconscious during the day and was now coming to consciousness through all these scents. And from the countess’s centuries-old garden, so littered with windfallen twigs and branches that it had become impassable, there drifted, as tall as the trees, enormous as the wall of a big house, the dusty, thickety fragrance of an old linden coming into bloom.
….Shouts came from the street beyond the fence to the right. A soldier on leave was acting up there, doors slammed, snippets of some song beat their wings.

Trying hard to put my antipathy to the author and main character to one side, there are some positives. Some of the descriptions of the freezing snow-covered landscape are excellent, as are the often poetic scenes of daily life in either city or country, and the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation serves them well. Pasternak assumes his readers will know the history of the period, so doesn’t tell it in any structured form. Instead, he gives sketches of various aspects of life – the breakdown of order in the cities, the drunkenness, brutality and hunger in the country, life as a forced conscript in the Red Army during the Civil War. In a sense, he uses Zhivago’s various women to illustrate or symbolise aspects of Russian society after the Revolution – those who emigrated, those who conformed as best they could to the new regime, those who were destroyed by it. There is an underlying, and largely underdeveloped, theme of individuality and art struggling to survive under first chaos and then growing state control of every corner of existence.

Zhivago and his lover, Lara

However, for me, the negatives outweigh the positives. The book is poorly structured, has no flow and relies far too heavily on increasingly ridiculous coincidences. There are parts where the author doesn’t bother to fictionalise at all, instead simply dumping factual information on the reader. The characterisation starts out fairly well but seems to fade as Pasternak becomes distracted, first by his vague and unsatisfactory forays into the political/historical aspects, and then by his increasing tendency to use Zhivago as a conduit to allow Pasternak himself to waffle on pretentiously about art and literature and indulge in a good deal of barely disguised self-adulation.

….Gordon and Dudorov belonged to a good professional circle. They spent their lives among good books, good thinkers, good composers, good, always, yesterday and today, good and only good music, and they did not know that the calamity of mediocre taste is worse than the calamity of tastelessness. . . .
….He could see clearly the springs of their pathos, the shakiness of their sympathy, the mechanism of their reasonings. However, he could not very well say to them: ‘Dear friends, oh, how hopelessly ordinary you and the circle you represent, and the brilliance and art of your favourite names and authorities, all are. The only live and bright thing in you is that you lived at the same time as me and knew me.’ But how would it be if one could make such declarations to one’s friends! And so as not to distress them, Yuri Andreevich meekly listened to them.

The extracts from Yuri’s journal, where – in the midst of war, with people around him starving to death, with an abandoned pregnant wife and an increasingly neurotic mistress – he takes time out to do a bit of lit-crit of earlier Russian authors, feel like the ultimate self-indulgence. And to top it all off, Pasternak gradually begins to incorporate a kind of religious symbolism into the story, but again without enough depth or direction to make it work.

Pasternak and his lover, Olga Ivinskaya, the inspiration for Lara

I admit I always struggle with Russian literature, partly, I think, because even good translations still leave them feeling clunky and partly because the Russian propensity for having a cast of thousands, each with four or five variations of their names, means I always find reading them a tedious slog. In this one, a character mentioned once hundreds of pages earlier will suddenly re-appear with no re-introduction, no reminder of who they are or what role they have played. If that happened in a modern novel, I’d criticise it as poor writing, so I reckon the same standards ought to apply to classics. My truthful feeling about this one is that it may have come to be seen as a classic not so much because of its quality, but because at the time of publication in the midst of the Cold War, its mildly unflattering portrayal of the communist regime, added to the romanticism of its having been smuggled out of Russia and printed in the West, may have fed into the Western intelligentsia’s support for artistic dissidents and led to it being lauded because of its very existence rather than judged on its literary merits.

In conclusion, then, a flawed work in terms of plot, structure and characterisation but with the saving graces of some fine descriptive writing and occasional insights into Russian society before, during and after the Revolution. I’d recommend it more in terms of its historical significance than its literary worth and, on that basis, I’m glad to have read it.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 126… and Quarterly Round-Up

TBR Quarterly Report

At the New Year I added up the full extent of the horror of the TBR, including the bits I usually hide. So time for another count to see how I’m doing…

Last time I mentioned that I had a new system for cutting back on review books – namely, that before I click request on NetGalley or Amazon Vine, I ask myself “Would you really rather be reading this than one of the books you already own?” This has actually been working well (though the figures don’t show it yet, mainly because so many publishers have been kindly providing me with books for the Reading the Russian Revolution Challenge, which I greatly appreciate). So I’ve now extended that principle to my wishlist which had got out of hand again, resulting in a massive cull of some of the many books on there that I can’t convince myself are must-reads. I’ll be culling even more deeply over the next few months…

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The Around the World in 80 Books Challenge

Last check-in was in March, and I’ve been on quite a few journeys since then…

780px-Around_the_World_in_Eighty_Days_map

I haven’t visited any of the places on the Main Journey this quarter but I’ve made a few detours to some less frequented parts of my fictional world. Anthony Marra’s The Tsar of Love and Techno told me stories of war and love in Soviet Russia and Chechnya, so I’m declaring it for Chechnya on the grounds that I’m more likely to visit Russia again. Then Kanae Minato took me to Japan to witness the after-effects of a murder in Penance. Off for a brief visit to Beijing in the company of Peter May for murder and strange traditions in The Ghost Marriage. Colm Tóibín transported me through space and time to ancient Greece in House of Names – more murders, not to mention human sacrifice! And to finish, a different war – Scott Turow’s Testimony is set partly in Bosnia and Herzegovina and partly in the Hague at the war crimes tribunal. Hmm, declaring it for Bosnia, I think…

Maybe next quarter I’ll try to do a trip that involves a little less death and mayhem and a little more sun, sea and sand…

To see how I’m doing on the Main Journey plus all the detours so far, click here.

35 down, 45 to go!

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The Classics Club

classics club logo 2

Four off my Classics Club list this quarter, making a total of 10 in the first year – getting way behind schedule now! But I have several of the shorter ones planned for over the summer, and then will get into some of the chunkier ones over autumn and winter…

7. The Cone-Gatherers by Robin Jenkins – 3½ stars for a tragedy that left me disappointingly unmoved even though I admired the prose.

8. The Island of Dr Moreau by HG Wells – 5 stars! Superbly written, I found the depth of the ideas it contained vastly outweighed the horror of the imagery.

9. The Valley of Fear by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – another 5 star read, taking us on a thrilling adventure in the Pennsylvanian coalfields where the infamous Scowrer gang control the valley through fear, intimidation and murder!

10. Lorna Doone: A Romance of Exmoor by RD Blackmore – 4 stars for this historical fiction about love and the infamous Doone gang in rural England. Coma-inducingly slow start, but worth it in the end…

I’m also making one change to my list. I’m removing William S Burroughs’ Naked Lunch – having read some reviews, I’ve gone totally off the idea. And I’m replacing it with We by Yevgeny Zamyatin, which a couple of people have recommended to me both as an excellent book in its own right and as relevant to the Reading the Russian Revolution Challenge.

10 down, 80 to go!

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Reading the Russian Revolution

Just two reviews from the main list this quarter, but since they’re the two massive histories, I’m quite satisfied with that. I’ve also finished reading Doctor Zhivago and Lenin The Dictator, but haven’t reviewed them yet, so they’ll be included in the next round-up. To see the full challenge, click here.

3. History of the Russian Revolution by Leon Trotsky – an extremely detailed and occasionally biased account of the events of 1917. A fascinating book, not by any means an easy read, but certainly an enlightening and worthwhile one. 5 stars.

4. A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution by Orlando Figes. This is an exceptional book – an exemplary mix of the political, the social and the personal. Should you ever be struck with a sudden desire to read an 800-page history of the Russian Revolution, then without a doubt this is the one to read. 5 stars.

I’m adding another book that wasn’t on the original list:-

5. The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra. Although this isn’t about the Revolution itself, it has much to say about the USSR and Russia from 1937, under Stalin, to more or less the present day, but this time in fictional form. Another great book – 5 stars.

Finally, I’ve decided I can’t face Solzhenitsyn’s November 1916, which I included on the original list. So I’m replacing it with a biography of Rasputin which I suspect will be much more fun.

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20 Books of Summer

But there’s still two full months to go, right? Ooh, look! A diversionary tactic!

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Thanks for joining me on my reading journeys! 😀

A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution by Orlando Figes

Exemplary mix of the political, the social and the personal…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

In order to tell the story of the Russian Revolution, Figes begins three decades earlier, in 1891, with the famine that could be seen as starting the journey towards revolution; and continues up to 1924, the year that the first dictator, Lenin, died. This is a huge work, massive in scope, meticulously researched and delivered with a level of clarity that makes it surprisingly easy to read and absorb, even for someone coming to the subject with no previous knowledge. It’s divided into four sections that thoroughly cover each period, looking at all the different parts of society and how they were affected at each point. It’s very well written, remains largely free of academic jargon and, to my joy, contains all the relevant information in the main body of the text, meaning no flicking backwards and forwards to notes. The notes at the back are mostly reserved simply to give information about the extensive sources Figes has used.

It was as if they saw the people as agents of their abstract doctrines rather than as suffering individuals with their own complex need and ideals. Ironically, the interests of ‘the cause’ sometimes meant that the people’s conditions had to deteriorate even further, to bring about the final cataclysm. ‘The worse, the better,’ as Chernyshevsky often said (meaning the worse things became, the better it was for the revolution).

The first part describes society as it was at the point where revolutionary ideas were still in their infancy. Figes describes the Romanov dynasty in some depth – Nicholas II’s autocratic style of rule, the influence on him of Alexandra and, through her, Rasputin, and the methods of government that were in force, with all power still concentrated in the hands of a relatively small class of nobles. He shows what life was like for the peasants, still nasty, brutish and short, but with some more liberal landowners making efforts to provide education for the young. He takes us into the new industrial centres, beginning to suck people in from the villages including those newly educated peasants – places which appalling working and living conditions made ripe for the revolutionary ideas beginning to circulate via the intelligentsia. The church, which Figes suggests never had a solid grip even on the peasant classes, was weakened further as people moved to the cities where there weren’t enough churches to serve the rapidly expanding population. The army, meanwhile, was becoming increasingly out of date – Nicholas loved to parade his cavalry and to see his officers in smart uniforms, but wasn’t terribly interested in the less romantic motor vehicles and new weapons being incorporated into the armies of the bordering nations, west and east.

Nicholas II and his cavalry

Part 2 covers the period from 1891 to just before the revolution proper began. Again Figes ranges widely, often using the stories of individuals to add a human face to the political history. The famine of 1891, due largely to failures in policy, eventually forced the Tsar to appeal for voluntary groups to provide aid to the starving masses. The liberal intelligentsia dived enthusiastically into this, and thus began some of the organisations which would become political protest movements. But still Nicholas rejected reforms, leading to increasing radicalisation of the disaffected. The 1904 war against Japan, which Nicholas expected to win easily, highlighted the weakness of the army, while the eventual loss was a national humiliation which further undermined the monarchy. The 1905 revolution arose from all of these factors, further aggravated by the brutal force used to disperse protest marches. Although this revolution failed, Figes shows how it hardened attitudes and consolidated the various factions which would play major roles in the years to come. Figes explains these factions well, including their various policy aims, which is a great help in understanding the confusion of personalities and groups that feature in the events of 1917. And finally this section takes us up to the early years of WW1, showing the terrible losses and huge hardships suffered by soldiers and civilians.

As the column approached the Narva Gates it was suddenly charged by a squadron of cavalry. Some of the marchers scattered but others continued to advance towards the lines of infantry, whose rifles were pointing directly at them. Two warning salvoes were fired into the air, and then at close range a third volley was aimed at the unarmed crowd. People screamed and fell to the ground but the soldiers, now panicking themselves, continued to fire steadily into the mass of people. Forty people were killed and hundreds wounded as they tried to flee. [Father] Gapon was knocked down in the rush. But he got up and, staring in disbelief at the carnage around him, was heard to say over and over again: ‘There is no God any longer. There is no Tsar.’

The third section concentrates on the revolutionary year – from February 1917 to the signing of the peace of Brest-Litovsk in March 1918. This is basically the period covered in Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution, and while Trotsky’s massive account is obviously more detailed, this one has the huge advantage for the reader that Figes has done the groundwork of explaining all the different groupings and factions. So where Trotsky lost me a little in the mid-section, Figes manages to keep a level of clarity throughout the confusion of this year. It seems to me that Trotsky’s history must have been one of Figes’ major sources for this section, and the two accounts complement each other well, I found. In retrospect, I suspect it would have been better to read them the other way round though – this one first, then Trotsky. Figes gives what feels like a less biased account, not unnaturally, dismissing the idea of the coup as ‘bloodless’ and showing some of the horrors that took place, along with an almost complete breakdown of any kind of social order. He also discusses the issues of Lenin’s return on the ‘sealed train’ and German funding of the revolution, suggesting that the Germans did indeed provide gold but that Lenin and his comrades were not at any point acting as German agents.

Lenin gives a speech

Part 4 tells the complex tale of the Civil War that followed the revolution – the various factions within the Whites, all fighting for different aims, and thus never really consolidating as a unified force; the former Allies, primarily Britain, providing support for the Whites in an attempt to destroy the Bolsheviks; the growth of the Red Army under Trotsky’s leadership to huge numbers of men, but without sufficient equipment to keep them supplied; the forced conscription, massive brutality and violent anti-Semitism inflicted by both sides.  Figes then goes on to describe Lenin’s regime after the war, including the huge rise in bureaucracy that allowed the major players in the regime to begin to form their own fiefdoms and power bases. He also shows the country in a state of ruin, the cities depopulated, the villages racked by famine and starvation, until eventually Lenin was forced to turn back towards a form of capitalism, prompting accusations of betrayal by those who were still fanatical about the ideals of the revolution.

Some animals are more equal than others…
Starving Russian children in the Volga region circa 1921 to 1922

Figes concludes that the people brought about their own tragedy. The country’s social and economic backwardness and lack of real belief in democracy meant that they opened the door for what was essentially a return to tsarism in a different form. And he warns, prophetically when you remember this book was first published in 1996, that the fall of the USSR would not necessarily lead to an embracing of democracy in the former states, or in Russia itself.

The book is generously illustrated with over a hundred plates. Some are the usual portraits of the main players, but many show the ordinary people of the cities and villages and, often, the real horrors they endured. Some are indeed upsetting – the ones relating to torture or cannibalism for instance – and while I found those pictures, and Figes’ vivid and unsparing descriptions of the events behind them, hard to take, I didn’t feel either were gratuitous or sensationalised – they are an essential part of the historical record, and that’s the way in which Figes presents them.

Orlando Figes

This is an exceptional book – one of the best broad scope histories I’ve read. It’s brilliantly written and well laid out, making it easy to read and understand despite the immense complexity of the subject. It is an exemplary mix of the political, the social and the personal, so that I came away from it understanding not just the politics and timeline of events, but how it must have felt to have lived through them. Should you ever be struck with a sudden desire to read an 800-page history of the Russian Revolution, then without a doubt this is the one to read. My highest recommendation.

NB This beautifully produced, special centenary edition of the book was provided for review by the publisher, Bodley Head.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Doctor Zhivago – Choosing the translation…

Here we go again – literal or liberal?

Months ago, in preparation for the Reading the Russian Revolution Challenge, I bought a copy of the Richard Pevear/Larissa Volokhonsky translation of Doctor Zhivago from Amazon. But, for reasons best known to themselves, they sent me a copy of the Max Hayward/Manya Harari translation instead. I’d probably not have been too fussed about this, except that I had also bought a copy of the audiobook to do a combined read/listen, so obviously it was important to have the same translation in each. So I acquired the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation too. (A sad footnote to this episode was when I discovered that the Audible audiobook, also listed as Pevear, is in fact the Hayward! It appears Amazon and Audible don’t really understand that different translations matter. They should be clearer now they’ve read my e-mails on the subject… 😉 )

So at the weekend I finally settled down to read. The Pevear/Volokhonsky is the most recent translation and my initial sketchy research had suggested they’re the go-to people for Russian translation at the moment. The Hayward/Harari is, I believe, the translation most people will be familiar with who read the book before 2010. I decided to read the first chapter of each and decide which I preferred. And that’s when it began to get complicated…

The Hayward/Harari seems to be generally recognised as a good but liberal translation, where they’ve kept the meaning but made changes to word order and vocabulary to make it read more naturally in English. Apparently they’ve also omitted the occasional bit and, from my own reading, have sometimes added a little extra to clarify something which might not be immediately obvious to a non-Russian. Pevear/Volokhonsky, however, is claimed to be a more literal translation, keeping not just the words but often the order, and striving to emulate the rhythms in the original. Here are some comparisons…

H/H – “There was a certain amount of unpleasantness, and there are certain consequences. For instance, I am banned from the civil service for quite a long time and I am forbidden to go to Moscow or Petersburg. But these are trifles.”

P/V – “There was some unpleasantness; it had its consequences. For instance, I can’t hold a government job for a long time. They won’t allow me in the capitals. But that’s all rubbish.”

In this one, H/H have clarified that the “capitals” are Moscow and St Petersburg. P/V have used “capitals” and then footnoted the explanation. On the one hand, this kind of thing makes H/H easier to read and simpler to understand on a superficial level. But on the other hand, it means that the reader is left unaware that the Russia of the time considered itself to have two capitals, an old (Moscow) and a new (St Petersburg), which, all my history reading of the last few months has led me to believe, is quite important to understanding the country and the revolution. P/V’s footnote clarifies this quite well. I’ve also never come across the term “civil service” in connection with government jobs in Russia – it’s a very British expression, I think.

P/V – A rain of clods drummed down as four shovels hastily filled the grave. Over it a small mound rose. A ten-year-old boy climbed onto it.

Only in the state of torpor and insensibility that usually comes at the end of a big funeral could it have seemed that the boy wanted to speak over his mother’s grave.

H/H – Clods of earth drummed on the lid like rain as the grave was filled hurriedly by four spades. A mound grew up on it and a ten-year-old boy climbed on top.

Only the numb and unfeeling condition which comes to people at the end of a big funeral could account for some of the mourners’ thinking that he wished to make an address over his mother’s grave.

Here, H/H have changed the structure of the sentences making them read more naturally and perhaps simplistically. P/V’s more literal translation follows the Russian structure, I assume, making it seem rather stilted and convoluted at points. On the other hand, I think P/V create a clearer image overall, and I prefer “torpor and insensibility” to “numb and unfeeling”.

Ooh, I say! Oops, I mean… Omar Sharif as the Doctor. Wonder if he does housecalls?

H/H – During the night the boy, Yura, was woken up by a knocking at the window. The dark cell was mysteriously lit up by a flickering whiteness. With nothing on but his shirt, he ran to the window and pressed his face against the cold glass.

Outside there was no trace of the road, the graveyard or the kitchen garden, nothing but the blizzard, the air smoking with snow. It was almost as if the snowstorm had caught sight of Yura and, conscious of its power to terrify, roared, howled and did everything possible to attract his attention, revelling in the effect it had on him. Turning over and over in the sky, length after length of whiteness unwound over the earth and shrouded it. The blizzard was alone on earth and knew no rival.

P/V – During the night, Yura was awakened by a tapping at the window. The dark cell was supernaturally lit up by a fluttering white light. In just his nightshirt, Yura ran to the window and pressed his face to the cold glass.

Beyond the window there was no road, no cemetery, no kitchen garden. A blizzard was raging outside; the air was smoky with snow. One might have thought the storm noticed Yura and, knowing how frightening it was, revelled in the impression it made on him. It whistled and howled and tried in every way possible to attract Yura’s attention. From the sky endless skeins of white cloth, turn after turn, fell on the earth, covering it in a winding sheet. The blizzard was alone in the world; nothing rivalled it.

This third example is a little more bothersome to me. I like both these passages and think both translations convey a vivid picture of the snowstorm – my preference is for P/V. But ‘mysterious’ and ‘supernatural’ have distinctly different definitions and I am left wondering which translation catches Pasternak’s meaning. I suspect ‘supernatural’ might be closer, since even this first chapter shows me that religious belief or lack of it is going to be something of a theme in the book. But, when I started looking for other opinions on the two translations, Ann Pasternak Slater (Boris’s niece) points out in this interesting Guardian article, that, when describing the moon in a later passage, P/V have chosen “blackish purple”, while H/H have gone for “crimson” which Slater, herself a Russian speaker, thinks is closer to the meaning in the original. So P/V’s literal translation may not always convey the author’s intention better than H/H’s liberal one. (Or, of course, Slater could be wrong – being a relative of the author doesn’t necessarily confer greater depth of understanding. And I can’t help feeling crimson moons are a little banal while blackish purple ones are dramatically poetic…)

Looks like the heating’s on the bung again…

My final example is the one that I find most discombobulating…

P/V – As they passed by the Gordons’ compartment, wrapping the corners of their shoulders in shawls and turning the narrowness of the corridor into a source of fresh coquetry, it seemed to Misha that they hissed, or, judging by their compressed lips, meant to hiss: “Ah, just imagine, such sensitivity! We’re special! We’re intelligentsia! We simply can’t!”

H/H – When, with a coquettish wriggle of their shoulders for which the narrow passage offered an excuse, they passed the Gordons’ compartment, it seemed to Misha that through their pursed lips they must be hissing: “Gracious, what sensitive plants! They think they’re a special creation! They’re intellectuals! All this is too much for them!”

It seems to me that, on the surface, these two translations mean entirely different things, though I think P/V’s translation actually leaves the meaning quite unclear (“we simply can’t” what?). H/H suggest fairly strongly that the women were being rather dismissively anti-Semitic towards the Jewish Gordons (or at least that Misha thought they were), while P/V reads as if they were boasting instead about their own superior aristocratic sensitivity. Either works, but what was Pasternak’s intention? Having read the H/H version, I can now see that the P/V version could also be read as a snide comment on the Gordons, but I don’t think it’s at all clear. I studied Russian a little at school and while I’m entirely unable to understand the text in its original form, I can just about tell the difference between “they” and “we”. When I look at the text in Russian it undoubtedly uses “we”. But I suspect H/H may have caught the actual meaning better, perhaps by interpreting some nuance of language or punctuation that P/V have too literally translated. But in truth I have no idea…

My Omar with Julie Christie. Huh! I bet she wouldn’t look half so beautiful without the hat…

I’ve decided to go with Pevear/Volokhonsky, because of that “capitals” thing, because overall I prefer their vocabulary choices, because the footnotes are good, and because they haven’t anglicised the Russian names quite so annoyingly as H/H (who use Nicky instead of Nika, for example). However, I’ll keep H/H to hand to help on those occasions that P/V leave the meaning unclear. But what do you think? Have you read either, or both, and if so what did you think of them? And if not, which do you think looks more enjoyable based on the examples?