Thursday, June 10, 2010

Odds and Ends

Here are a few more snippets from random Russian books that I'm putting away. I didn't have a blog when I read them, so I doubt whether I posted anything at all about the majority of them. The reader will have to forgive me if I am sometimes forced to rely on the book covers to stimulate my memory about the contents of the books.

First, there's Richard Pipes' The Degaev Affair. This, sadly, is my only foray into Pipes' work, despite his massive contribution to the scholarship of the Russian Revolution. According to the book jacket, Pipes wrote or edited no fewer than 23 books, including Communism: A History, Russian Under the Old Regime, The Russian Revolution, and The Unknown Lenin. Pipes, a Harvard historian and consistent critic of Bolshevism, is cited by everybody in the field. This short book describes an act of terror in Tsarist Russia called the Degaev Affair, wherein Degaev killed a leading government anti-terrorist and then escaped to America. Pipes main concern is describe the complexity of Russia's war against terror, avante la lettre. Degaev (who later escaped to America and led a quiet life at a Midwestern university) had complicated and conflicting loyalties to both the People's Will and their governmental opponents. Indeed, the two sides of the war on terror seemed, almost, to be actors in the same play. In the end, Degaev stands guilty of betraying both the People's Will and the Tsarist policy, and also of supporting each of these secretive forces.

Second, I've got Litvinov's putative memoir, Notes for a Journal. This book is allegedly the journal of Stalin's master diplomat, pro-western alliance, Maxim Litvinov, but apparently modern historians, on balance, rejected the book's claims to be authentic. I have no dog in this fight, nor any information beyond what I discovered by a causal Google search. However, it's always interesting to read something that may be one of two things: either an essential historical document of the 1930s, or a fake and a forgery. How does one evaluate the information in such a source? Is it possible to split the difference and call something useful to historians in the way that a historical novel may be useful as a creative illustration of otherwise dry and lifeless facts? I remember reading the journal, which is often critical of Stalin's decisions in China, and wondering how this book could be authentic: who could have braved the NKVD in the midst of the purges by putting pen to paper? And yet, it seems that many writers did criticize Stalin, if this often took the form of allegory. Mandelstam even wrote a poem about Stalin's savagery, and then recited on multiple occasions to friends.

Third, there's Alan Moorehead's The Russian Revolution. I think this was one of my first primer's on The Russian Revolution, at least in the current phase of my obsession, now four years old. Morehead was an old-fashioned historian, more of a storyteller than professional academic. His books--Galipoli, the White Nile, etc-- are adventures. Thus his The Russian Revolution is straightforward, chronological, and simple.

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