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review 2020-05-22 22:21
Bondage by Alessandro Stanziani
Bondage: Labor and Rights in Eurasia from the Sixteenth to the Early Twentieth Centuries - Alessandro Stanziani

I picked this book up with the hope of learning about how serfdom actually worked in 18th century Russia and eastern Europe, and I did learn from it, though as with a lot of academic books it seems to have been written with the expectation that only about 12 people would ever read it, all of whom are other researchers in the same or related fields. The writing is unnecessarily dense and there are a lot of unexplained references to authors that this one is apparently refuting.

 

That said, the author’s thesis is an interesting one: essentially, that in the early modern era, Europe wasn’t so much divided between states where workers were free and states where they were serfs, as on a continuum. Workers in England and France weren’t nearly as “free” as you might believe, and labor laws were actually getting stricter at the time. Workers were often required to sign long labor contracts (a year was common, much longer was possible), and there were criminal penalties for leaving before a contract was completed, with the result that “runaway” workers could be jailed, fined, or even in some rare cases, whipped. Meanwhile, Russian serfs had more freedom of movement than some sources have given them credit for, with some going back and forth between town and the estates, and some areas of the country not sending back runaway serfs at all. Serfs could also initiate lawsuits against landowners, and some won their freedom this way (generally it seems because the landowners as non-nobles weren’t actually qualified to own populated estates), though as always the poor winning lawsuits against the rich was quite rare.

 

As someone unfamiliar with the literature the author is responding to, I found the arguments related to England and France (and the general descriptions of forced labor in Eurasia and in certain Indian Ocean colonies of the European powers) more coherent than the arguments about Russia. In some places it seemed like Stanziani was being overly technical, as when he points out that the laws establishing serfdom were all really about establishing who could own populated estates rather than delineating serfdom per se. I’m unclear on why this is important. He also seems to gloss over a lot of abuses described in other sources – granted, my other reading on this topic involves popular rather than academic sources, and this book is much too technical to engage with works of that sort at all. But while he states that Russian serfdom was nothing like American slavery, he doesn’t provide much basis for this conclusion.

 

At any rate, I’m clearly not the intended reader for this book, but I did get some interesting ideas from it. I’d love to see a book on this topic that’s a little more accessible for the general reader.

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text 2020-04-24 18:40
Ebook on Sale $1.99 at major retailers
Russka: The Novel of Russia - Edward Rutherfurd

I bought my copy from Amazon due to several authors on Twitter revealing that NOOK isn't paying royalties from purchases in February 2020. I wanted to make sure this author got his money.

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review 2020-02-13 03:03
Not lacking in characters
Disappearing Earth - Julia Phillips

Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips had a great premise and sounded like it could be the Russian equivalent of Broadchurch which I found very excitingThe story opens with the disappearance of two little girls from a small community and the suspicion and unease which come about as a result. Unlike the TV series, the book introduces a cast of characters that did nothing to add or move along the narrative plot. [A/N: There's one character's story in particular that really made me question its addition. If you read the book you'll recognize her as the lady that visits the hospital. What was going on there?!] I can only guess that they served as a kind of backdrop for the area which the author took great pains to describe (and which I knew nothing about prior to reading this book). I can't fault Phillips' writing or ability to engage the reader because I was fully hooked by this story...that is until I realized (nearly at the end) that so many of these side stories (not to mention the main plot) had no real conclusion. I read quite a lot of mysteries and crime procedurals and my favorite part is generally the dramatic tying up of the loose ends of the case which you don't get with Disappearing Earth. Instead you get more questions than answers. (Why was Denis obsessed with aliens?!) So I'm afraid the overall rating suffered as a result and I can only give it a 6/10. (This hasn't stopped me from encouraging others to pick up this book though. I keep waiting for one of them to come back and rage at me because they're annoyed by the ending.)

 

Absolutely stunning cover. [Source: Amazon]

 

What's Up Next: The Hunting Party by Lucy Foley

 

What I'm Currently Reading: Round Ireland with a Fridge by Tony Hawks

Source: readingfortheheckofit.blogspot.com
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review 2019-12-11 23:47
It all started with Marx;: A brief and objective history of Russian communism, the objective being to leave not one stone, but many, unturned, to ... Stalin, Malenkov, Khrushchev, and others - Richard Willard Armour
It all started with Marx;: A brief and o... It all started with Marx;: A brief and objective history of Russian communism, the objective being to leave not one stone, but many, unturned, to ... Stalin, Malenkov, Khrushchev, and others - Richard Willard Armour

I finished this one and it took forever because I didn't like it. And then I more or less immediately started English Lit Relit. It could have been a bad choice: if I was just tired of Armour's sameness, then another would have been an awful idea.

But I'm really enjoying English Lit. Yeah, my degree is in English lit, so I know more about the topic, which probably helps some. That isn't the big difference though. The big difference, in my considered and re-considerd opinion, is that Armour doesn't know as much about communism and/or Russian history.

In Marx the jokes rarely rise above "he was short". So, not quality humor.That's both terribly obvious and not actually amusing.

English Lit, though, that's his specialty. So the jokes are more clever, more subtle, and for that matter, probably better auditioned and rehearsed. It's easy to imagine Armour the Professor lecturing on early English poets. You're plowing through a thousand years of literature in a semester, your text is a fat, heavy Norton Anthology printed on tissue paper to fit in as many pages a possible. Some of it is familiar, or stirring, or new to you, but much of it is just a tedious droning on and on about the same tired symbolism and such. You maybe get something three things that stopped being amusing a couple of centuries back, and once in the whole class if you're lucky there's something that really amuses you. In that setting a lighthearted lecture, or a throw-away line, can really wake you back up.

 

So, that was an interesting thing to realize.

 

Library copy

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review 2019-12-11 04:47
Catherine the Great by Robert Massie
Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman - Robert K. Massie

I enjoyed this book a lot: it’s an entertaining and accessible biography that is nevertheless serious and thorough, and with a fascinating subject to boot. Born a princess in a tiny German principality in the early 18th century, Catherine (actually named Sophia, until the then-Empress of Russia renamed her upon her conversion to Orthodoxy) was brought to Russia at the age of 14 to marry the heir to the throne. Unfortunately, her early friendship with her deeply damaged teenaged husband soon soured, and when he ascended the throne almost 20 years later, Catherine soon deposed him and took the throne for herself. She ruled for nearly 35 years, expanded Russia’s territory, attempted with limited success to bring Enlightenment ideas to the country, carried on lively correspondence with philosophers, patronized the arts, and had a lively love life that may or may not have involved a second, secret marriage but certainly included a succession of boy toys in her later years.

 

Massie gives each part of Catherine’s life its due, from her childhood through the end of her reign; once she takes the throne, he spends more time on the wars and policy issues than her personal life, while still giving space to the latter. Fortunately, many of Catherine’s letters survived, and she wrote a memoir (though hardly a complete one), which allows the author to integrate her own words into the text. It’s quite a history lesson – I learned a ton about Russia and about European politics at the time – but Massie’s writing remains highly readable and entertaining. I read this with as much enjoyment as if it had been a novel. Massie’s take on Catherine is admiring but not hagiographic; it’s clear, for instance, how some of her ideals fell by the wayside as she grew older.

 

Nevertheless, there are some issues. Massie cites sources only for direct quotations, leaving readers in the dark as to the provenance of his other information. This is particularly problematic when he writes about Catherine’s childhood, drawing distinctions between what she wrote in her memoir and how she “really felt” (how does he know)? While he doesn’t seem to be making any particular argument with the book, he also doesn’t highlight where his interpretation may differ from the mainstream: he may be entirely convinced based on his research that Catherine’s son and heir was fathered by her lover rather than her husband, but it appears this view is not as universally accepted as his treatment of it as uncontroversial fact might have you believe. Finally, he seems too forgiving of Catherine’s failure to do anything about serfdom, though to his credit he does describe its abuses in detail.

 

All that said, I think this is an excellent biography, both entertaining and educational. And I appreciated the sections in which Massie goes a bit beyond his primary subject: the French Revolution chapter has come in for criticism, but as someone who came into it not understanding how events proceeded there, I found it helpful. Other sections, like the mini-biography of John Paul Jones, seemed a little tangential but were still interesting and helped paint a fuller picture of the times. I would definitely recommend this book to those who enjoy popular history or biography.

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