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New books about revolutionary Russia, part 2 (2015-16)

Posted in Books, Russian, War by Alex L. on March 6, 2016

History off the Book header

After a hiatus, here’s finally the second part of the post I started in January, this time about the violence that befell Russia during and after the First World War. The books below are ones that sparked my curiosity; I have not read them yet.

The first is Joshua A. Sanborn’s Imperial Apocalypse: The Great War and the Destruction of the Russian Empire, which was published last November. This work is particularly important because it was Russia’s failures in WWI that opened the door for the Bolshevik Revolution and hence subsequent developments (the Soviet empire, the Cold War, etc.).

Next up is a book for the enthusiast and specialist, The Russian Army in the Great War: The Eastern Front, 1914-1917 by David R. Stone. This work is valuable because scholarship about the eastern front conflict during WWI is scarce, and it essentially seems like a monogram about Russian efforts in that theater of war. Undoubtedly some of the recent works that have been published about WWI–even about the more obscure topics–are because right now is the centennial anniversary of that conflict.

Finally we have The “Russian” Civil Wars, 1916-1926: Ten Years That Shook the World by Jonathan Smele, which came out last month. Speaking of obscure, the traumatic events of the Russian Civil War are not well known in the West, but they laid the foundation for Communist tyranny during the rest of the 20th century. The subtitle is a pun on the book, Ten Days that Shook the World, by reporter John Reed, a classic which sparked my interest as of late in the subject of the Russian Revolution after I read it a few months ago.

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New books about revolutionary Russia, part 1 (2015-16)

Posted in Books, Culture, Politics, Russian by Alex L. on January 12, 2016

History off the Book header

Today and tomorrow we’ll look at recent publications about one of my favorite periods in history: Russia at the time of World War I. Part 1 will focus on books about society at that time, while tomorrow I will preview works about the war and revolution themselves. I have not read these books and am merely sharing here what looks interesting to me in recent scholarship and why.

The first work is called Lenin and the Logic of Hegemony: Political Practice and Theory in the Class Struggle and is by Alan Shandro. One of the most fascinating historical turns in my mind is how in 1917 a grassroots movement dominated by workers councils turned on itself through the hands of the Bolshevik leadership and stripped rights away that were promised to the workers in the early days of the revolution. This new work seems to shed light on how this was seen as politically necessary by the nascent Soviet leadership.

Next up is Rebecca Mitchell’s Nietzsche’s Orphans: Music, Metaphysics, and the Twilight of the Russian Empire, published merely a week ago on Jan 5. The German philosopher had very interesting ideas about music, believing it to be the one form of art that most convincingly created a ‘new reality’ in the mind of a person (from what I remember of my readings of Nietzsche). Mitchell’s book shows how Russia musicians took this to heart and yearned to find in music a different vision of life in contrast to the chaos going on around them in society.

Finally, the “heavyweight” of the bunch is the work, The End of Tsarist Russia: The March to World War I and Revolution by Dominic Lieven. The author is a leading Russian history scholar, but unfortunately the reviews of the book on Amazon seem a bit mixed between praise for original research and complaints about the style of the work. Nevertheless, I think the new ideas may be worth the slog if you’re interested in fresh scholarship about these historical events.

Belarus and WWII remembrance

Posted in Russian, War by Alex L. on March 11, 2014

I’m taking a course this semester about the historical memory of World War II. Today we focused on Belarus in particular and how the Lukashenko government has fostered a constant remembrance of the war as a political tool. This topic is of particular interest for me as I myself am from Belarus.

The readings and discussion today made me realize my own biases about World War II, having first learned about it while growing up in the Soviet Union. The Lukashenko narrative of the war, which is similar to the former Soviet narrative, ignores the multiplicity of Belarusian experiences of the war – there were Soviet Communists but also Belarusian nationalists, ethnic minorities, Nazi collaborators, and people who were neutral during the war and were only trying to live through it.

These new perspectives are challenging for me because I grew up on the black-and-white, good vs. evil perspective about the war. But I’m coming to realize that especially in the “borderlands” of Europe – places like Belarus and Ukraine – the clash of nationalism with imperialism created a really messy set of choices and circumstances for the common people during the 1940s. And judging by recent events in Ukraine, the same general trend still seems to apply today.

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New history books (August-December 2012 edition)

Posted in Books, Reading, Russian by Alex L. on December 31, 2012

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Below are new books published in the second half of 2012 that seemed to me like really interesting reads in my favorite fields (ancient philosophy and military history). This is a condensed version of my typical monthly books post, but I hope to return to my usual reviews and previews again next month.

December

Churchill and Seapower. Christopher M. Bell. Churchill was a leading naval strategist in both the First and Second World War. This is the first systematic study of his role in naval affairs and should be an informative read.

Aviation (rarities)

A Higher Call: An Incredible True Story of Combat and Chivalry in the War-Torn Skies of World War II by Adam Makos and Larry Alexander

Operation KE: The Cactus Air Force and the Japanese Withdrawal from Guadalcanal by Roger Letourneau and Dennis Letourneau

The North African Air Campaign: U.S. Army Air Forces from El Alamein to Salerno by Christopher M. Rein

Viper Pilot: A Memoir of Air Combat by Dan Hampton

Blue Moon over Cuba: Aerial Reconnaissance during the Cuban Missile Crisis by William B. Ecker and Kenneth V. Jack

Notable mentions

Ships of Oak, Guns of Iron: The War of 1812 and the Forging of the American Navy by Ronald Utt

Demosthenes of Athens and the Fall of Classical Greece by Ian Worthington

The First Thousand Years: A Global History of Christianity by Robert Louis Wilken

(more…)

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New history books (April 2012 edition)

Posted in American, Books, Russian, War by Alex L. on June 5, 2012

History off the Book header

Below is a survey of books that were published in the past month or so and look to me like interesting reads (note: I have not actually read these books yet, and these are previews not reviews).

Russia

Book coverReaders of this blog may notice that my interests have lately been skewed toward the world wars (in particular the air and naval conflicts). When I was a boy my imagination was fired up by stories from my grandfather, who told me about his service as an aviator for the Soviet Navy during the Second World War. I suspect this was when I first became interested in history (I also remember my grandfather reading me a children’s book about the ancient origins of everyday objects, such as matchsticks and clothing irons). Stories about pilots during World War II were my Iliad and Odyssey: they helped me understand concepts such as friendship and courage when I was very young.

That’s why it’s particularly disappointing that there is hardly anything written in English about the air war on the Eastern Front during World War II. The struggle for dominance in the skies over Eastern Europe between 1941 and 1945 was the largest and longest air campaign in history according to amateur historian Christer Bergström (whose two sets of books about this conflict — Black Cross/Red Star and The Air Battle series — are some of the only comprehensive histories in English on the subject). That’s why I was eagerly awaiting the release in late March of a new book by Von Hardesty and Ilya Grinberg, titled Red Phoenix Rising: The Soviet Air Force in World War II. An overhaul of a previous work, Red Phoenix Rising will hopefully do justice to the drama and significance of this struggle (Bergström’s works, if meticulous, are admittedly dry to read). (more…)

New history books (February 2012 edition)

Posted in Asian, Books, Russian by Alex L. on April 6, 2012

History Off the Book header

Below is a survey of books that were published in the past month or so and look to me like interesting reads (note: I have not actually read these books yet, and these are previews not reviews).

Russia

Book coverNo one in the world was surprised that Vladimir Putin was elected President of the Russian Federation yet again this year.  News about Russian opposition movements — none too threatening to Putin’s grip on Russia — has been featured on the front pages of the Western press for the past couple of months. As that nation seems to be tragically slinking back into old habits of autocracy, historians have been looking to Russia’s past to find success stories when moderating forces opposed corrupt centralization of power. The primary question these historians seem to be asking is this: is autocracy inevitable in Russia?

A classic work of this type is Victor Leontovitsch’s The History of Liberalism in Russia, which was published in English for the first time this January (it was written in German and first released in 1957). In May of last year, Julia Berest published a biographical account of one of Russia’s early liberals during the Napoleonic era: Alexander Kunitsyn. A more recent contribution to the debate will be published in June of this year by the university press of my alma mater: the University of Wisconsin. Anton A. Fedyashin’s Liberals under Autocracy: Modernization and Civil Society in Russia, 1866-1904 utilizes the history of Russia’s primary liberal journal before the 1917 revolution, The Herald of Europe (Vestnik Evropy) as a lens into what he sees as a uniquely Russian brand of liberalism. (more…)

Memoirs of a Russian submariner

Posted in Books, Reading, Russian, War by Alex L. on January 22, 2012

Book coverIn high school English class, I was taught about the three general types of conflict that one may encounter in literature: Man vs. Nature, Man vs. Man, and Man vs. Self. Memoirs from combatants of the Second World War are often as exciting to read as literature because all three types of conflict figure into them on a grand scale. But there is a fourth type of conflict that we didn’t learn about in class but which, particularly for the men and women of the Soviet armed forces, added that extra dimension of drama: Man vs. Machine.

The nation that brought the world Lada and Zhiguli cars–which asked of their owners to spend nearly every weekend under their jacked-up chassis salving their ever-irritated metal bowels–produced submarines during WWII that would never quite pass muster in an American or German shipyard. This run-down state of submersible machinery can be fully appreciated by reading Victor Korzh’s memoir, Red Star Under the Baltic: A Soviet Submariner in WWII.

As the chief engineer aboard these subs, Korzh knew every nut and bolt and describes their mechanical failures with the technical detail befitting a master. But the inability of Soviet designers and shipyards to perfect submarine design is no stain on the reputation of the Russian sailor. On the contrary, the Russian submariners’ ability to not only survive but also sink many German merchantmen in the unforgiving seas of the Baltic is a testament to their boldness and technical ingenuity. (more…)

Love of art in the Siege of Leningrad

Posted in Academia, Art, Russian, War by Alex L. on January 7, 2012

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This first of a series of posts, called “In the Abstract”, are ideas for topics for new history books. Sometimes historians, I think, shoot themselves in the foot by framing their research projects in an uninteresting way. Others, though, do this masterfully and create history books that are engaging, relevant, insightful, and bring the characters and world of another age to life not only for the academic community but for the general public too. Often the path of success or failure begins in the choice of topic. In an effort to sharpen my skills in framing historical topics, I welcome your criticism and comments of my imaginary abstract.

ART is frequently seen as flourish to life for those that can afford leisurely activities. Love of art is something that supposedly dies in people when other, more basic, human needs are not being met. But to a select group of Russian writers, poets, artists, and musicians that lived in Leningrad during the siege of 1941-44 by the German army, the drive to produce new creative work did not vanish. Amid the base struggle for survival in that city under blockade, with starvation, violence, death, cannibalism, terror, and inhumanity permeating their existence, many artists in Leningrad later wrote that they experienced the strongest artistic drive of their lives. There has not been a book in English devoted to their stories. A book about the individuals, meeting places, and creative works that these artists produced (among them Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7–the “Leningrad Symphony”) under the most unpromising circumstances would be a testament to the basic importance of creativity in human life.

History off the press (December ’11 edition)

Posted in African, Books, Christianity, Russian, War by Alex L. on January 3, 2012

New history books header, December 2011

Below is a survey of books that were published in the past month or so and look to me like interesting reads (note: I have not actually read these books, and these are previews not reviews).

Africa

Book coverI’m currently reading William L. Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, and one of among many striking things about Nazi Germany is how easily a multitude of religious leaders in that country kowtowed to Hitler’s religious decrees (which needless to say were staggering in their impiety—replacing the Bible in pulpits with Mein Kampf, for instance). Religions like Christianity derive their power from writing and oratory. But if those mesmerizing words are not backed by deeds when the going gets rough (i.e. when the Gestapo will kill you if you continue practicing authentic Christianity) then such sermonizing appears in hindsight like idle chatter.

That’s why I can’t help but admire a guy like Sam Childers. After he converted to Christianity, he traded a life of drugs, motorcycle gangs, and chasing women in America to become a machine-gun armed protector of orphans and other destitute children in violence-ravaged Sudan. That’s some tough, in-your-face Christianity and not of the “Have you heard the Good Word? Here, take a pamphlet” variety. Childers has published a memoir of his experiences. (more…)

History off the press (November ’11 edition)

Posted in American, Books, European, Russian by Alex L. on December 2, 2011

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Below is a survey of books that were published in the past month or so and look to me like interesting reads (note: I have not actually read these books, and these are previews not reviews).

Russia

Book coverMy parents’ generation grew up in the Soviet Union reading and owning volumes of classical literature. Despite my parents’ polemics, my friends and I somehow found playing “Sonic the Hedgehog” on the SEGA Genesis video game console when we were younger more compelling than reading James Fenimore Cooper. Where did this cultural gap come from? A new book by Katerina Clark examines how the Soviet fascination with world literature began in the 1930s as Soviet leaders and intellectuals tried to cast Moscow as a cosmopolitan beacon of secular culture for the world. This mindset during the Stalinist era must have, it seems to me, influenced my parents’ generation to become voracious readers.

Soviet life is still a rich field for contemporary historical study and literature. But the Western imagination is more captivated by an earlier time in Russian history: the dynasty of the Romanovs. Robert K. Massie has just published a book titled Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman. His previous biography of a Romanov monarch, Peter the Great, won a Pulitzer Prize in 1981. Catherine continued the project begun by Peter of making Russia one of the preeminent nations of Europe and was friends with the likes of Voltaire, Frederick the Great, and even John Paul Jones. Massie’s new work about the most influential female ruler in all of Russian history will likely remain the definitive biography on Catherine for many years. (more…)