Russia Posts

Of holy men like Rasputin

Douglas Smith’s Rasputin is a detailed and a fascinating biography of a holy man who was extremely close to Tsar Nicholas II and Empress Alexandra. It is a slow but satisfying to read for it describes Russia at the turn of the twentieth century, decline of the Russian empire, rise of Lenin and the Bolsheviks etc. Rasputin was also shortlisted for the James Tait Black Prize 2017. Here is an excellent review of the book in The Guardian.

Of all the lines in the book it was a description of him in the opening pages which are gripping since it could be a description of any other holy man in a different time, nation and culture. Read on:

Pokrovskoe was the home of the most notorious Russian of the day, a man who in the spring of 1912 became the focus of a scandal that shook Nicholas’s reign like nothing before. Rumors had been circulating about him for years, but it was then that the tsar’s minists and the politicians of the State Duma, Russia’s legislative assembly, first dared to call him out by name and demand that the palace tell the country who precisely this man was and clarify his relationship to the throne. It was said that this man belonged to a bizarre religious sect that embraced the most wicked forms of sexual perversion, that he was a phony holy man who had duped the emperor and empress into embracing him as their spiritual leader, that he had taken over the Russian Orthodox Church and was bending it to his own immoral designs, that he was a filthy peasant who managed not only to worm his way into the palace, but through deceit and cunning was quickly becoming the true power behind the throne. This man, many were beginning to believe, presented a real danger to the church, to the monarchy, and even to Russia itself. This man was Grigory Yefimovich Rasputin. 

Even before his gruesome murder in a Petrograd cellar in the final days of 1916, Rasputin had become in the eyes of much of the world personification of evil. His wickedness was said to recognize no bounds, just like his sexual drive that could never be sated no matter how many women he took to his bed. A brutish, drunken satyr with the manners of a barnyard animal, Rasputin had the inborn cunning of the Russian peasant and knew how to play the simple man of God when in front of the tsar and tsarita. 

Douglas Smith Rasputin Macmillan, London, 2016. Pb. pp. Rs 599

11 Sept 2017 

Sean McMeekin “July 1914: Countdown to War”

Sean McMeekin “July 1914: Countdown to War”

July 1914

When we studied about WWI as children, our school textbooks would dismiss in one sentence the assassination in Sarajevo of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary as being responsible for the war. In comparison Sean McMeekin’s July 1914: Countdown to War is a big fat book of nearly 470+ pages documenting the assassination, the aftermath in the month of July 1914, and the complicated politics. His account is packed with detail. It does not matter if one is unfamiliar with the nitty-gritties of the Habsburg Empire, the rising power of Russia etc. He makes the claim that the Great War  was “The War of the Ottoman Succession”. It will require a historian, especially of this period to do a scholarly critique of the book, yet it does make an important contribution to the avalanche of books being published in 2014–the centenary of World War I. 

July 1914: Countdown to War is packed with information without getting tedious, is strong on storytelling, making it very accessible to a lay reader too. It is worth reading. I found a print book useful to scribble notes in the margins but a book like this would do well to have a digital interactive edition.

Here are some links related to July 1914: Countdown to War and WWI literature. ( Now for similar articles from different parts of the world.)

http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2014/feb/06/greatest-catastrophe-world-has-seen/ A review article by R. J. W. Evans on NYRB on a bunch of WWI books, including two by Sean McMeekin. ( 6 Feb 2014 issue)

http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2014/05/27/the_house_of_habsburg_revisited_empire_nostalgia_austria_hungary_central_europe An excellent article on Foreign Policy by Simon Winder, “The House of Habsburg Revisited”. ( 27 May 2014.)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rOwaYNiJ6G8 In a discussion of his book, July 1914: Countdown to War,  historian Sean McMeekin reveals how a small cabal of European statesmen used the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand to initiate a long-awaited showdown among the Continent’s powers, ultimately leading to the start of World War I. In this talk he also says that many of the contemporary conflict flashpoints/battlefields are the same as those during WWI. (29 January 2014, The Kansas City Public Library. )

http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/new-titles/adult-announcements/article/62227-the-war-that-fractured-history-100-years-on-wwi-books.html#path/pw/by-topic/new-titles/adult-announcements/article/62227-the-war-that-fractured-history-100-years-on-wwi-books.html A round up on Publishers Weekly of books on WWI, but does not mention any of Sean McMeekin. ( 9 May 2014)

Sean McMeekin July 1914: Countdown to War Icon Books, London, 2013. Pb. pp. 470. Rs. 599

3 June 2014 

Anthony Horowitz “Russian Roulette”

Anthony Horowitz “Russian Roulette”

Russian RouletteWhen the Cold War raged, there were plenty of spy novels being written. With the collapse of USSR, the Berlin Wall, and the collapse of a polarised world even novelists who specialised in this genre were at a loss. In fact it was after many years that John Le Carre released a new book — A Delicate Truth— in 2013. ( My review http://www.jayabhattacharjirose.com/jaya/2013/06/01/a-delicate-truth-john-le-carre-june-2013/ ) But children’s and YA literature has continued to have an appetite for espionage fiction. The new Alex Rider novel, Russian Roulette, is a fine example of it. It is a “prequel” to the hugely popular Alex Rider series. It is about the young Russian man, Yassen Gregorovich who is sent to America to kill the fourteen-year-old spy, Alex Rider. While on the mission he reminisces about his childhood in the village of Estrov, his parents, the chemical warfare and his induction into becoming a lethal contract killer.

Russian Roulette required a fair amount of research especially for the Russian sections of the book. As he mentions in the book – ” So much changed between 1995 and 2000 — the approximate setting of the story — that I’ve been forced to use a certain amount of dramatic licence.” But Anthony Horowitz is a marvellous storyteller that he is able to tell the story with finesse. 

Anthony Horowitz Russian Roulette Walker India, Walker Books, 2013. Pb. pp. 410 Rs. 350

Masha Gessen ( from The Economic Times, 31 Oct 2013)

Masha Gessen ( from The Economic Times, 31 Oct 2013)

Masha Gessen, PutinLast year I read Masha Gessen’s book on Putin- The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin. It was a powerful book and well written. I recommended it to friends but never wrote a review of it. In today’s The Economic Times Ullekh NP has written a column about Masha Gessen, her books, including her forthcoming one on the feminist punk group, Pussy Riot – Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot. Here is the original url to the article:  http://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/news-by-industry/et-cetera/goodbye-to-vladimir-putins-russia/articleshow/24957553.cms but I am also c&p it below. )

Masha Gessen, who wrote a hard-hitting book on Putin and has another on Pussy Riot up her sleeve, now prepares to leave a homophobic Moscow

When several of his opponents began calling Russian President Vladimir Putin a “kleptomaniac” for allegedly looting the country’s wealth, writer and journalist Masha Gessen came up with an exotic term: “pleonexia”.

She didn’t find kleptomania — which refers to a pathological desire to possess things for which one has little use — apt enough to describe the characteristics of Russia’s most powerful man, she says. Pleonexia refers to an insatiable desire to have what rightfully belongs to others.

“That is the right term,” says Gessen, who chronicled Putin’s rapid rise from a low-level KGB operative to the country’s president, in The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin, published last year. When the book came out, well-wishers asked her to leave Russia — but she didn’t.

Don’t Want to Lose Kids

Gessen, who is now working on a book on the feminist punk band Pussy Riot, which captured world attention by protesting against Putin, confirms that now she has decided to leave Russia for good. It is not out of fear of retribution, but because Russian authorities are in the process of bringing in a law that could see same-sex couples lose custody of their children. She and her girlfriend will move to New York along with their children shortly.

“I don’t want to lose my children,” she says.

Gessen, author of books as stellar as Perfect Rigour: A Genius and the Mathematical Breakthrough of the Century, a riveting account of how Russian mathematician Grigori Perelman solved the complex Poincare Conjecture, is now highly pessimistic about the future of the Russian economy.

After three years of crackdown on pro-democracy protests in the country — the past one year was the worst — Gessen says she has lost hope about the largest country in the world getting back on track anytime soon. “On all fronts, there is failure,” she says, about the system which persecutes journalists and others who run afoul of the government. Her book on Putin offers a chilling account of, among others, the killing of journalist Anna Politkovskayaand the death of journalist-turned-FSB officer Alexander Valterovich Litvinenko, both in 2006.

Pussy Riot vs Putin

Gessen — whose books and articles have dwelt at length on why entrepreneurs such as Mikhail Khodorkovsky, former chief of Russian oil giant Yukos, often end up in jail in Putin’s Russia — says that none of them was punished for their excesses or shady business deals but, instead, for standing up against Putin.

“Khodorkovsky will stay in jail until Putin is removed,” she says, adding that an economic upheaval is necessary to effect a change in Russia. She, however, doesn’t see Putin’s “military-political project” getting derailed in the short term.

The 46-year-old says that she often had to chase her “sources” for years. One of them was St Petersburg-based politician Marina Salye who fled to the countryside after she received threats. According to Gessen, a probe led by Salye almost unearthed Putin’s alleged corruption deals before he was thrust to the prime minister’s post by Boris Yeltsin’s inner circle in 1999.

Gessen argues that the arrest of Pussy Riot members for protesting against Putin last February marked the beginning of the most oppressive era of post-USSR Russia. After five members of the feminist punk group staged a “protest performance” in a Moscow church, three of them were charged with hooliganism and two among them — Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina — were sent to jail for a two-year term. Gessen’s book on the band, Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot, will be out in February next year.

Ullekh NP

31 Oct 2013