Friday, June 11, 2010

Lincoln and Figes

I'm very sorry to bore readers with more random posts that are occasioned by my need to pack up my office before taking a new job. Even so, these posts help me to negotiate the sadness of departure that I have magically transferred into a sadness at putting books into deep storage. At the moment, I'm putting away books by Bruce Lincoln, one of the great narrative historians of modern Russia. Lincoln wrote most of these books while a professor at a neighboring college, Northern Illinois University. I regret that I never got the chance to visit him while he was in the area.

Lincoln's books, mentioned previously, are all great, and include The Conquest of a Continent: Siberia and the Russians... Have I mentioned that by taking a position as dean of arts and sciences at another college I was forced to surrender my participation in a Russia travel abroad program that might have put me in Yekaterinburg? Well, actually, it turns out the program was postponed due to the financial instability of the partnering Russian institution of higher learning. The cancellation, in turn, put me in touch with a professional historian of Russia, who I hope to persuade to become a second author of this blog. So everything does happen for a reason..

The other Lincoln books I've completed and am thus packing up are In War's Dark Shadow: The Russians Before the Great War, which was wonderful aside from the aesthetic history that Lincoln may have gotten right in a more recent book. And there's also Red Victory: A History of the Russian Civil War. It was suprisingly late in my academic and teaching career to have finally figured out the basic outlines of that civil war. And I needed Lincoln's clear account of a confusing military situation to straighten things out for me. But survey courses of Western Civilization or modern European History cover World War I, the Bolshevik Revolution proper, Stalinism, and World War II at the expensive of the Russian Civil War.

And by the way, have I ever discussed how interesting it is to see the ancient "ex libris" stickers from a previous generation of Russian history bibliophiles? Even better to find a Moscow metro station ticket tucked away as a book mark. The ex libris stickers point to the beautiful futility of collecting anything at all. It ends up in a basement crate, of course, and then re-sold at an estate auction years later. And rare is the book that appears to have been read more than a single time, if the lack of wear and tear on most of my used books is any guide.

I also have Passage Through Armageddon: The Russians in War and Revolution, 1914- 1918, in front of me. How does one man churn out so many 600 plus page books of near-perfect prose?

Bruce Lincoln may belong to an older generation of historian whose work is seen as solid but slightly old-fashioned or unfashionable. If this is so, Orlando Figes may be his natural heir. Figes seems to be cited by everyone, and deservedly so. He's capable of writing strong narrative history but with a sensitivity to culture and at least some appreciation for theory. His People's Tragedy: The Russian Revolution, 1891- 1924, is a sweeping account of a terrible epoch in Russian history. No doubt Figes previous work on the Ukraine made it impossible to emphasize anything other than pain and suffering in his account of the revolutionary era. Certainly his The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin's Russia continues a morbid account of the revolutionary tradition. (The horrible cover photo of a father's face scratched out in a family's personal family photo does justice to the sadness of the book itself).

But, like anybody writing in opposition to Red Propaganda, Figes may be overly sympathetic to the era of the tsars. Even so, Natasha's Dance: A Cultural History of Russia is a convincing argument of in favor of falling in love with the Russian people and their complex cultural tradition, notwithstanding the sadism of Russia's autocrats.

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