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review 2016-10-12 22:05
Vozhd
Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar - Simon Sebag Montefiore

Montefiore's history of Jerusalem happened to be the first book I reviewed on Booklikes and I was happy to revisit the author with another one of his works. It seems that every time I pick up a history book in a book shop it is endorsed by Montefiore, he's clearly very passionate in his pursuit of historical knowledge. 

 

This book centres around Stalin and his changing inner circle. It's an odd blend of details of dinner functions, Stalin's character in calm times and the chronicles of the terror and his political brutality. It's a fascinating glimpse into the sycophantic fervour he fostered amongst his magnates and the cunning, horrific nature of his paranoid mind. I've given it five stars, because probably fittingly, after Kershaw's Hitler this is simply the best biography of a historical leader that I have read. 

 

Anyone who harbours any romanticism or flirts with the hard left I advise to read this and recognise the dangers of unswerving idealism, the dangers of being an illiberal bent on realising a utopia for humanity in the future at any cost to the people of this life. I had always thought that Stalin wasn't overly ideologically motivated, yet this book seeks to dispel that notion comparing the avidity of Stalin's belief in Marxism to that displayed in radical Islamists. 

 

Something touched upon in the book and spoken about in debates by Christopher Hitchens is the idea that the Tsar in Romanov times was the voice of God himself, understand that and you may be able to understand the cult of personality that Stalin was able to engineer and take advantage of. The idea of a strong, powerful leader was ingrained into Russian society and it is an interesting feature of the revolution, that despite its attempts to turn society on its head with the ultimate goal of Communism, the aura of leadership remained steadfast. 

 

It fascinated me that the sons and daughters of some of those murdered and tortured beyond repair on Stalin's orders still regarded him as a great leader. It is unfathomable to me that it is possible to inspire such unswerving loyalty amongst people. This is ultimately what draws me to these immensely flawed and yet ridiculously charismatic characters. There seems to be men and women who pop up from time to time under varying banners of ideology, be it religious/political who manage to cultivate vast followings and impact the course of human history through their actions.

 

And so I came to the end of the book having lived within the court of the red tsar through the eyes of his vicious inner circle and I was struck again by the surreal nature of it all. How terrifying is it? If you place enough power into the hands of the wrong person you can end up with a society in which an innocuous comment could result in years of torture and imprisonment or a painful death. How is it that a man so well read and intelligent as Stalin, uses that intelligence to create a cut throat, savage society in which even those closest to him are not safe from assassination? 

 

I guess my curiosity will never be sated.

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review 2016-06-21 23:11
The Bet
The Bet - Anton Chekhov

Chekhov is my favorite 19th century Russian author, but this short story is not his best work. It is definitely interesting and would be a great read for discussion—but it ends way too abruptly. What do those present when the bet was made think now that it's over? Or was this story written to be a discussion piece?

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review 2016-05-27 21:04
The Tsar of Love and Techno
The Tsar of Love and Techno: Stories - Anthony Marra

Wow.

I love books that feature connected short stories. That said, I wish I had kept notes of the characters' names from the beginning, because so many reappear much later in the book, and it took me a bit to wrap my head around who was who. Because not everyone knows everyone else. I feel like maybe I missed some tidbits that would add even more to the story--but nothing major. I can see how this could be a 5-star read for many. I wonder, if I had kept a character list, would it have been so for me?

At the same time, though, the use of the painting to connect the characters bugs me just a touch. It smacks of one of my favorite books, The Girl in Hyacinth Blue by Susan Vreeland, published in 1999. If you liked this one, I highly recommend that one. Yes it's different, but you'll see what I mean!

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review 2016-01-09 22:49
Voices from Chernobyl
Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster - Swietłana Aleksijewicz,Keith Gessen

An excellent collection of oral histories. And an important collection of oral histories. Alexievich interviewed many people affected by Chernobyl—evacuated residents, re-settlers (largely the elderly who lived in the area their entire lives and ethnic Russians fleeing southern/eastern former USSR states), soldiers, doctors, liquidators, all sorts of people. I wonder what source material she has that she did not include in this collection—and I hope she has stored it well. This is a historical gold mine in so many ways.

What I found especially interesting is the idea, mentioned by many, that they were Soviets, raised in the USSR. When they were told to go, they went. When they were not given what they were promised, they worked anyway. They did their best. They took their certificates and medals. They did not shirk their duties even though they knew something wasn't right. They were easily bribed by seemingly small amounts of money. And for the most part they are not sad—at least, the survivors are not. The widows are angry. Some of those that had power and went with the party line feel extreme guilt. Even the Russians that fled wars in former USSR states are angry that this is the only place they are welcome. And now so much of what was left has been stolen and sold. Sold where? To whom? Will they be able t track this stuff simply be following leukemia or thyroid cancer concentrations?

I do wish that there were more context provided here. A map. Photos. A timeline of what is known. A timeline of symptoms/illnesses to be expected and that have occurred.

I am a little shocked that this sort of work won Alexievich a Nobel Prize in Literature. I can see history, or journalism. I do not even know what all of the categories are. But literature?

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review 2015-06-17 01:21
Stalin's Daughter: the Extraordinary and Tumultuous Life of Svetlana Alliluyeva
Stalin's Daughter - Rosemary Sullivan

Stalin's Daughter: the Extraordinary and Tumultuous Life of Svetlana Alliluyeva

by Rosemary Sullivan

Hardcover, 416 pages

Published March 30th 2015 by Harper

ISBN 0062206109 (ISBN13: 9780062206107)

 

Stalin's Daughter is not as overwhelming as I thought at 768 pages. Sullivan's writing is smooth and easy to read despite being heavy on research. A well written book that a history buff would love based on the amount of research that went into the book, but something that easily could be read by a non-scholar as well. Stalin's Daughter reads as if it were a novel, but it's not. Sullivan includes chapter notes, an index, and a list of characters in the book. Svetlana is definitely a different type of person than her father, and the book shows her struggles to get out from underneath the impression that the name Stalin first represents. I would definitely recommend this to others.

 

***this book was received from the publisher, Harper, through a Goodreads Firstreads giveaway.****

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