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Gorbachev: His Life and Times by William Taubman

If Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, the same holds true for its most famous living citizen, Mikhail Gorbachev. From March 1985 to December 1991 he was under an unrelenting national and international spotlight as the Soviet Union’s leader. He wrote several autobiographical books while in power and has written more since retirement. At least a dozen associates have published memoirs in which he features prominently. Yet in spite of all this scrutiny, key questions about the man who did more than any other to change Europe and the world in the last half of the 20th century remain without clear answers.

How did a secret reformist get chosen by deeply conservative elders to be their country’s next leader? Gorbachev felt his country needed fundamental change, so why did he not quickly develop a programme of political and economic action once he had secured the top job? Why did he fail to foresee the rise of nationalist unrest that eventually led to the Soviet Union’s…

The great error - The bookishness of Bolsheviks

What more fitting monument to a millenarian movement could there be than a thousand-page “saga”? Yuri Slezkine’s guiding argument in this remarkable, many-layered account of the men (rarely women) who shaped the October Revolution is that the Bolsheviks were not a party but an apocalyptic sect. In an extended essay on comparative religion that constitutes just one of his thirty-three chapters, he puts Russia’s victorious revolutionaries in a long line of millenarians extending back to the ancient Israelites; in their “totalitarian” demands on the individual believer, he suggests, the Bolsheviks are cut from the same cloth as the sixteenth-century Münster Anabaptists and the original “radical fundamentalist”, Jesus Christ.

Slezkine is by no means the first person to draw the analogy between the Bolsheviks and sectarians (Lenin himself is reported to have taken an interest in the Münster Anabaptists and Cromwell’s Puritans as he pondered Russia’s revolutionary potential in the early twen…

The Nutcracker (1989) Bolsoi Ballet & Orchestra

Image
The Nutcracker
by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
on a story by E.T.A.Hoffman
The Bolsoi Theatre Orchestra
Conductor: Aleksandr Kopilov
Performed by the Bolsoi Ballet at the Bolsoi Theatre, Moscow 1989
Choreography by Yuri Grigorovich
Original choreography by Lev Ivanov
Clara: Natalya Arkhipova
Nutcracker prince: Irek Mukhamedov
Drosselmeyer: Turi Vetrov

Pushkin's pride: how the Russian literary giant paid tribute to his African ancestry

For Russians, Alexander Pushkin inhabits a space beyond taste, where nationalism has given subjective art the patina of fact. He is the undisputed father of their literature in the way Shakespeare is for Brits. Given the insular nature of contemporary Russian politics, it might be hard to imagine that the creator of Eugene Onegin was not only a proponent of multiculturalism and global exchange but an example of it: Pushkin was mixed race, and proud of his African ancestry. 

His great-grandfather, Ibrahim Petrovich Gannibal, was probably born in what is now Cameroon in 1696. Gannibal was kidnapped as a child and taken to Constantinople, where, in one of those confounding literary footnotes, one of Tolstoy’s ancestors “rescued” him (this is Pushkin’s own word – vïruchiv – in a 1824 note) and presented him to Peter the Great.

Gannibal exchanged one form of servitude for another, but as page, godson and exotic court favourite to the emperor, his new life was much more glamorous. Following…

Why Stalin Starved Ukraine

History is a battleground, perennially fought over, endlessly contested. Nowhere does this aphorism hold true more than in Russia. A majority of Russians recently voted Joseph Stalin the “most outstanding person” in world history (followed, naturally, by current President Vladimir Putin). No longer the monster of the gulags and purges that killed millions, Stalin now looms in the national consciousness as the giant who defeated the Nazis in World War II. Meanwhile, not only has Russia annexed Crimea and destabilized Ukraine’s eastern regions, its military adventurism has also extended to Syria. Putin, who once described the collapse of the USSR as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the twentieth century, looks determined to avenge the humiliations of Russia’s post-Soviet implosion. Integral to this endeavor is not just to flex the country’s geopolitical might in the present but to re-write its past.

It is this point that makes the historiography of the USSR—a subject worthy of …

Vladimir Nabokov's dream diary reveals experiments with 'backwards timeflow'

A 1964 diary in which Vladimir Nabokov recorded more than 50 of his dreams – ranging from the erotic to the violent to the surreal – is about to be published for the first time.

 “Intensely erotic dream. Blood on sheet,” the novelist writes on 13 December 1964. “End of dream: my sister O, strangely young and languorous … Then stand near a window, sighing, half-seeing view, brooding over the possible consequence of incest.”

Another entry sees him recording a dream in which he is dancing with his wife Vera. “Her open dress, oddly speckled and summery. A man kisses her in passing. I clutch him by the head and bang his face with such vicious force against the wall that he almost gets meat-hooked, on some fixtures on the wall (gleaming metal suggestive of ship). Detaches himself with face all bloody and stumbles away.”

The author, who struggled with insomnia all his life, began the dream diary after reading the British philosopher John Dunne’s An Experiment With Time, in which he advances a …

Writing Poetry Under Stalin: Samizdat And Memorization

At first, Anna Akhmatova, the Russian poet, worked on her poem in the usual way. She always composed by hand, writing out the lines on paper; then she would make corrections and perhaps read the lines aloud to see if they sounded right. Normally, she would produce a fair copy and send it to a magazine, or put it aside until a whole cycle of poems had emerged and then approach a book publisher. Before the Great War, she had published several volumes in this way, to great acclaim. She had become a celebrated poet in Russia while still in her early twenties, a dashing figure with her long shawls, black hair, and a bearing that betrayed her aristo­cratic heritage. In Paris, she had made the acquaintance of Amedeo Modigliani, a painter already confident of his future success, and he had fallen for her. Modigliani produced several drawings and paintings of the young Akhmatova that captured the elegant lines and distinct features of the poet whom critics would soon call the Russian Sappho.

Ak…