This week’s book is too big for my scanner, so I have had to cut off the edges. It is also the last book on the shelf above my desk. That means that with this, the Friday book feature comes to an end. I will try to think of an alternative to decorate Fridays with something pictorial. All suggestions are gratefully received.
Today’s book is Dominic Lieven’s history of the struggles between Russia and France, 1807-1814. Lieven, who comes from a distinguished family of Baltic German nobles, is an excellent scholar. His journalist brother Anatol is one of the saner voices to comment on Russian affairs in the Western media.
This week’s book is Arkady Babchenko’s memoir of his experiences as a Russian soldier in the first and second Chechen wars. As one might imagine, it does not show the Russian army in a particularly positive light.
This week’s book examines the fate of Americans who went to work in the Soviet Union in the 1930s to help industrialize the country, and who in many cases ended up in the Gulag – a tragic story of betrayal and misplaced idealism.
The Friday book series returns this week with Catherine Merridale’s examination of the lives of Soviet soldiers during the Second World War. History in general tends to be more top down than bottom up, and this is particularly true of studies of Soviet history. So this is a useful corrective.
This week’s book was published in England in 1902. The author, Henry Norman, was at that time the Liberal MP for Wolverhampton South. A former journalist, he became Assistant Postmaster General in January 1910 before losing his seat in a general election a few days later. In December 1910, he returned to Parliament as MP for Blackburn, but never held ministerial office again. I wonder if there is anyone in British history who has been a minister for a shorter length of time.
Given that we are just a few days away from the hundredth anniversary of the February Revolution, which overthrew Tsar Nicholas II, Norman’s conclusion is interesting, if only as an example of the perils of making predictions about Russia. I suspect, though, that many modern Russians may agree with the final paragraph. Norman wrote:
I am no believer in any revolutionary upheaval, though, of course, the possibility of social disorder cannot be overlooked. … She [Russia] may, of course, fall upon war with an equal Power, and this would be to her the greatest of all calamities at the present stage of her development. But I am certain that it is her ruler’s fixed resolve to ‘seek peace and pursue it’. Certain minor and distinct difficulties undoubtedly await her. … My own conviction, however, is that these and other difficulties and dangers are small in comparison with Russian strength and resources. No one who can remember the past can doubt of her future. … The character and aims of the Tsar himself warrant the happiest auguries.
Russia is going ahead – that is my conclusion. It is foolish and unscientific to judge her solely by the foot-rule of our older and different civilisation. She should be measured by a standard deduced from her own past, her own period, and her own racial character. Then it will be clear that she stands, so far as virtue and vice go in a national development, very much where the rest of nations do. … It must be clear that the twentieth century must count Russia as one of the greatest factors in the movement and development of human society.
PS. There will be no Friday book next week, as I shall be travelling.
I am indebted to former British Ambassador to Russia Roderic Braithwaite, who wrote a nice blurb for the cover of my book Aiding Afghanistan. I am therefore happy to return the favour by recommending his Moscow 1941, which is this week’s Friday book.
I bought this week’s book while working in the Hoover Institution Archives at Stanford University as part of the research for my doctoral dissertation. I was particularly interested in the chapter by Leonid Heretz entitled ‘The Psychology of the White Movement’. The Whites, Heretz argues, thought in ‘religious categories’ and ‘did not fight for a restoration of the prerevolutionary order, nor indeed for any mundane political goal, but rather for the mythical “Holy Russia”,’ which the Bolsheviks had defiled. ‘The Whites’ struggle’, says Heretz, ‘was an attempt to cleanse and purify Russia by means of self-sacrifice’, which they imagined in terms of ‘redemptive suffering.’
In this week’s book, Michael Kellogg examines the impact of Russian émigrés on the development of Nazism, focusing particularly on an émigré organization known as ‘Aufbau’. Kellogg concludes that ‘The National Socialist movement developed primarily as a synthesis of radical right German and Russian movements and ideas. … White émigré Aufbau members significantly influenced Hitler’s political, military, and ideological views.’ This is an interesting thesis, but I think that it greatly exaggerates Aufbau’s importance. After all, Aufbau believed in Russo-German cooperation against ‘Jewish Bolshevism’, but Hitler never showed any interest in cooperation with Russians, even those who were willing to cooperate with him.
Civil wars begin in many ways, but one is when a radical minority seizes power by force and seeks to impose its agenda on a largely unwilling population. Most people aren’t interested in politics and just want to get on with their lives. But in such circumstances, some will be found who decide to fight back. So it was in Russia between 1917 and 1921. In this week’s book, Geoffrey Swain puts the blame for the Russian Civil War firmly on the shoulders of Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin. As Swain says:
The Russian Civil War was an unnecessary war. It was a war brought about by Lenin when he wrecked the Railway Workers’ Union talks on 4 November 1917. … [He] realized that in the absence of an international civil war he would have to impose his views through a civil war in Russia, and could do so by relying on the greed of the German imperialists.
That seems a fair conclusion to me, but no doubt the Leninist sympathizers among my readers will disagree.