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Solzhenitsyn’s cathedrals

In Russia, history is too important to leave to the historians. Great novelists must show how people actually lived through events and reveal their moral significance. As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn explained in his 1970 Nobel Prize lecture, literature transmits “condensed and irrefutable human experience” in a form that “defies distortion and falsehood. Thus literature . . . preserves and protects a nation’s soul.”

The latest Solzhenitsyn book to appear in English, March 1917, focuses on the great turning point of Russian, indeed world, history: the Russian Revolution.1 Just a century ago, that upheaval and the Bolshevik coup eight months later ushered in something entirely new and uniquely horrible. Totalitarianism, as invented by Lenin and developed by Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, and others, aspired to control every aspect of life, to redesign the earth and to remake the human soul. As a result, the environment suffered unequaled devastation and tens of millions of lives were lost in t…

Red Famine: Stalin's War on Ukraine

My landlord in the early 1960s, a Mr Nikolysyn, was a survivor of the Holodomor (‘killing by hunger’), the famine that Stalin’s policy of collectivisation and grain requisition inflicted on Ukraine, leading to the death from starvation of at least five million peasants and the imprisonment of millions of resisters in the Gulag. But Mr Nikolysyn didn’t blame Stalin or even the Russians: he identified his oppressors as communist Jews avenging the pogroms. When the Nazis invaded, he, like many Ukrainians, happily joined the SS to exact revenge. He was a kindly man, tolerating my pet hare stripping his wallpaper while he read his copy of the newspaper for Ukrainian SS veterans that circulated freely in Britain then, but he was as traumatised as all the survivors of the Holodomor.

Until recently, historians ignored the Ukrainian famine of 1932–3. Accounts compiled in the 1950s by Ukrainians living in Canada were discounted as nationalist propaganda, even though a few Western journalists, su…

The Radical Hopes of the Russian Revolution

Step into a respectable American bookstore today, and you’re likely to find a reflection of America’s version of the twentieth century. German and Russian history currently dominate history sections, but in very specific forms. Books like Andrew Lownie’s Stalin’s Englishman, Simon Sebag Montefiore’s Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar, Martin Kitchen’s Speer: Hitler’s Architect, Robert Jay Lifton’s The Nazi Doctors, Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin—some old, some new, many written for popular audiences—move between the century’s titanic mass-murderers, their motley henchmen, and their masses of victims. Holocaust history often provides a thematic accent and an explicit connection to the present, as with Snyder’s Black Earth: Holocaust as History and Warning. Taken together, these books seem to remind us that any account of the twentieth century that does not emphasize authoritarianism will be complicit in creating a new wave of victims.

One hundred years afte…

Svetlana Zakharova and Roberto Bolle in Swan Lake

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Svetlana Zakharova and Roberto Bolle
Bourmeister production of Swan Lake

Gorbachev: His Life and Times

It is one of the paradoxes of Soviet history that Mikhail Gorbachev, who did more than any other Kremlin leader to show his ‘personal’ side to a watching world, has eluded his biographers. Nobody before William Taubman has achieved an in-depth psychological portrait. Political accounts have been two a penny; economic and ideological studies have come at a discount. But what made Gorbachev tick, as a man and a leader, has always been hooded in speculation. Taubman has dedicated a dozen years to gathering first-hand evidence from the man himself. This cannot have been an easy task. When I met Gorbachev in the early 1990s I ruined my brief chance of getting him to open up by mentioning that I was doing research on Lenin. Gorbachev instantly closed down what he sensed might be an indelicate conversation. Taubman, by contrast, has gained Gorbachev’s full cooperation, even though the man himself warned him, ‘Gorbachev is hard to understand.’

Leaders who speak of themselves in the third perso…

Svetlana Alexievich: ‘After communism we thought everything would be fine. But people don’t understand freedom’

In conversations with Svetlana Alexievich, it quickly becomes apparent that she is more comfortable listening than she is talking. That’s hardly surprising: the Belarusian writer has spent decades in listening mode. Alexievich, now 69, put in thousands of hours with her tape recorder across the lands of the former Soviet Union, collecting and collating stories from ordinary people. She wove those tales into elegant books of such power and insight, that in 2015 she received the Nobel prize for literature.

In today’s Russia, Alexievich’s work is a Rorschach test for political beliefs: among the beleaguered, liberal opposition, she is frequently seen as the conscience of the nation, a uniquely incisive commentator on the disappointments and complexities of the post-Soviet condition. Mainstream opinion sees her as a turncoat whose books degrade Russia and Russians.

When I meet her in a cosy basement café in her home city of Minsk, the entrance nestled in an amphitheatre of imposing, late-So…

Was British spy Somerset Maugham sent to kill Lenin?

The author of Theatre, and The Razor’s Edge was an agent of the British Secret Intelligence Service during World War I, and he was entrusted with a secret mission to Russia, the true nature of which remains a mystery even 100 years later.

The trip to Russia in 1917 was not Maugham’s first experience as a secret agent for British Intelligence. By then he had already worked a couple of years for what later would be known as MI-6. After his first mission in Switzerland in 1915 he wanted to quit for personal reasons – he had divorced and his male lover had been sent out of Britain. However, according to one of his biographers, Maugham was intrigued by the life of a secret agent because he liked pulling strings from behind the scenes.

Nevertheless, when he was approached with the chance to go to Russia, he was uncertain. As he recalled afterwards, he thought that he didn't have the right qualities for the task. In the end, the desire “to see the country of Tolstoi, Dostoievski and Cheko…