Four dangerous visionary writers

‘The production of souls is more important than the production of tanks… And therefore I raise my glass to you, writers, the engineers of the human soul.’ The quote is usually attributed to Stalin, though the phrase ‘engineers of human souls’ most likely came from someone else. Who’s to argue? Purges, executions, deportations – what’s a little light plagiarism in comparison? Whoever coined the phrase, it certainly struck a chord and indeed continues to ring various alarm bells whenever one comes across writers who deliberately set out to influence politics and ideas – and not just the big beasts, the Nobel Prize winners, say, or the shopfront-filling non-fiction authors hawking

In search of utopia: Chevengur, by Andrey Platonov, reviewed

It has been a long journey into the light for the greatest Russian modernist most people have probably never heard of: Andrey Platonov. Born in 1899 in Voronezh, he started professional life as a mechanic and land-reclamation engineer, making him one of those rare writers with an affinity for both people and machines. In the mid-1920s, he was branded an ‘anarchic’ spirit by Maxim Gorky, who nevertheless admired his work. His great early novels were openly critical of the Soviet policy of ‘total collectivisation’ – which, in Platonov’s nightmare scenarios, tends to collectivise people to death. The best and longest, Chevengur – now available in a handsome translation, with an

‘We cannot turn back’ from the League of Nations, said Woodrow Wilson – but did just that

It was a vision that President Woodrow Wilson could not resist. The Treaty of Versailles, and the League of Nations founded during the negotiations, were meant not just to end the first world war but all future wars by ensuring that a country taking up arms against one signatory would be treated as a belligerent by all the others. Wilson took his adviser Edward ‘Colonel’ House’s vision of a new world order and careered off with it. Against advice, Wilson attended Versailles in person and let none of his staff in during negotiations Against advice, he attended Versailles in person and let none of his staff in with him during

In seven years, Lenin changed the course of history

The upheavals convulsing the Russian empire in 1917, Victor Sebestyen argues convincingly, were the seminal happenings of the past century. From them directly stemmed the second world war, the Cold War, the collapse of European imperialism and the dangerous world we inhabit today. There are many weighty modern accounts of these epochal events by historians such as Richard Pipes, Robert Service and Orlando Figes, and it is these that Sebestyen chiefly relies on in this brisk, well-informed and chilling account. He makes no pretence of original research. How did Trotsky’s childlike vision become a nightmare system, dependent on evil, oppression and violence?  ‘The Russian Revolution’ is something of a misnomer

Lies about the Katyn massacre added insult to the horror

On 5 March 1940, as the USSR stamped its authority on a Poland it had partitioned with Hitler, Stalin signed a decree to murder 14,700 Polish officers in the woods by Katyn. These ‘hardened, irremediable enemies of Soviet power’ were not informed of their sentence and simply shot in the back of the head, a form of execution favoured by the secret police, the NKVD, for whom this method was just part of bureaucratic procedure. NKVD forgers changed the dates on the documents found in the dead officers’ pockets at Katyn When the Nazis turned on the Soviets in 1941 and marched east, they found the mass grave. Goebbels was

The nondescript house that determined the outcome of the second world war

Sometimes the struggle for a single small strongpoint can tip the whole balance of a greater battle. One thinks of the closing of the gates of Hougoumont farm at Waterloo, or the bloodless German seizure of Fort Douaumont at Verdun – an error it took an estimated 100,000 French lives to reverse. According to Iain MacGregor, this role at Stalingrad was played by a non-descript four-storey building in the city’s central district, codenamed ‘the Lighthouse’, but subsequently known as ‘Pavlov’s House’, after one of its garrison’s leaders, Sergeant Yakov Pavlov. MacGregor’s meticulously researched narrative of the titanic battle that was the turning point of the second world war focuses on

Nothing is certain in Russia, where the past is constantly rewritten

Enforced brevity focuses the mind wonderfully. And when the minds in question are two of the West’s most interesting historians of Russia, the result is a distillation of insight that’s vitally timely. Sir Rodric Braithwaite was Britain’s ambassador to Moscow from 1988-92 during the collapse of the USSR (where he was the boss of Christopher Steele, of Trump dossier fame), then chaired the UK’s Joint Intelligence Committee. He went on to write the brilliant Afgantsy, a history of the USSR’s disastrous Afghan war and its impact on the Soviet Union’s collapse, and Moscow 1941, a people’s history of the heroic Soviet fight against Nazism. Sheila Fitzpatrick is an Australian historian

Playing until her fingers bled: the dedication of the pianist Maria Yudina

The 20th century was an amazing time for Russian pianists, and the worse things got, politically and militarily, the more great pianists thrived, despite the extreme danger and discomfort in which they lived and in which some of them died. If we think immediately of Richter, the greatest of them all, and Gilels, there are at least 20 more that we could add without exaggeration. One of the most important was without question Maria Yudina, born in 1899, who astonishingly survived until 1970. She was not just a sovereign artist but an eccentric of the kind and degree that only Russia seems able and willing to supply. Reading a biography

A macabre meditation on psoriasis

Obsessed with purity and pain, the boundaries of blame and innocence, Skin is a fascinating meditation on psoriasis, the long-lasting chronic skin condition. Sergio del Molino, a Spanish writer and journalist, slowly guides us into his world of intense physical discomfort (most treatments of psoriasis only deal with its symptoms, rather than healing its immunological causes), but combines this private hell with provocative reflections on fellow sufferers. It’s a surprise to learn that Stalin shared something with Cyndi Lauper, John Updike, Pablo Escobar and Vladimir Nabokov. The result is by turns macabre and compelling, with Del Molino using his affliction to put himself in the shoes of his pantheon of

Dark days in the Balkans: life under Enver Hoxha and beyond

For many in the West, Albania remains as remote and shadowy as the fictional Syldavia of the Tintin comics. The country came into existence only in 1912, with the decline of the Ottoman Empire. Its first ruler, King Zog, was ousted by Mussolini when he invaded in 1939. Hitler used Albania as a springboard for the Nazi invasion of Greece. The national resistance against Italy and Germany was led by the Albanian partisan supremo Enver Hoxha (pronounced ‘Hodger’). After expelling the hated occupiers, in 1946 the artful Hoxha proclaimed himself head of a newborn socialist republic. With his dangerous wife Nexhmije (the ‘Lady Macbeth of the Balkans’) he turned Albania

A divided city: the Big Three fall out in post-war Berlin

When did the Cold War start? Not when the second world war ended. There were many differences between the Soviet Union and its western allies, but they did not then seem insuperable. It was not obvious that the post-war world would be divided by ideology. On the contrary, the victorious United Nations hoped for an era of peace. The Americans planned to pack up and leave Europe as soon as possible. The future of Germany had been decided before a single Allied soldier had crossed onto German soil. Meeting at Tehran in November 1943, the Big Three — Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin — had agreed that defeated Germany would be

Why did Hitler’s imperial dreams take Stalin by surprise?

The most extraordinary thing, still, about Operation Barbarossa is the complete surprise the Wehrmacht achieved. In the early hours of 22 June 1941 the largest invasion force in history, ultimately some three million men, struck at the Soviet Union on a front of nearly 2,000 miles. When Stalin was woken with the news, he wouldn’t believe it. It couldn’t be Hitler’s doing, he insisted; surely just sabre-rattling by Wehrmacht generals? Hours passed before he would accept his calamitous misjudgments and issue a general order to fight back by every means. Hitler’s strategic challenge in the late 1930s had been essentially the same as the Kaiser’s in 1914: how to make

‘I’m not interested in moral purity’: St Vincent interviewed

St Vincent — Annie Clark, a 38-year-old singer-guitarist of prodigious gifts — spends a lot of time confounding people. She confounds them with stage shows that are less gig than theatre, ostentatiously choreographed and fabulously provocative (though not in any crude sense). She confounds them with an image that morphs from album to album (for her sixth, Daddy’s Home, she has adopted the dissolute Cassavetes-heroine look). She confounds them by, in a puritan age, placing sex squarely within her work, though usually in a plausibly deniable way (the title Daddy’s Home refers to her father’s release in 2019 from prison after serving nine years for his part in a stock-manipulation

Churchill’s enigma: the real riddle is why he cosied up to Stalin

Dresden. Tonypandy. Gallipoli. Bengal. Winston Churchill’s reputation has withstood an array of charges, made by each generation with their own prejudices. Whereas in the 1970s it was Richard Burton and Jim Callaghan accusing him of a vendetta against the Welsh miners, today it’s racism, imperialism and white supremacy. The words ‘Was a Racist’ were scrawled on his statue in Parliament Square during last year’s Black Lives Matter demonstrations. Earlier this week police protected the statue at a rally as protesters chanted ‘Protect women, not statues’. Last month Cambridge academics held a panel on ‘The Racial Consequences of Mr Churchill’, in which the country’s wartime leader was attacked for his ‘white

Riveting: Dear Comrades! reviewed

Andrei Konchalovsky’s Dear Comrades! is based on a true event and set in 1962 in the Russian city of Novocherkassk where the local factory, the Novocherkassk Electric Locomotive Plant, went on strike. This doesn’t sound especially sexy, I know, but it is superbly acted and so rivetingly told my concentration did not waver for an instant which, given how hard it has been to concentrate lately, is high recommendation indeed. (It wouldn’t be fair to list the films I couldn’t concentrate on, as the problem is likely mine, but… Mank!) Konchalovsky certainly has a wild CV. He has worked with Tarkovsky. He made the wonderfully hypnotic The Postman’s White Nights,

The brutality of the Gulag was totally dehumanising

‘It was a gray mass of people in rags, lying motionless with bloodless, pale faces, cropped hair, with a shifty, gloomy look.’ Julius Margolin’s first encounter with Soviet prisoners takes place in August 1940 on the way to a labour camp in the north of Russia. Four years later, waiting at another transit point, he sees ‘semi-cripples, former, present and future invalids’, ‘bony shadows with hands and feet like sticks, in smelly tatters and dirty rags’. He has another year of horror ahead. A Polish Jew stranded in the USSR at the beginning of the second world war, Margolin refused to take Soviet citizenship and as a result was sentenced

Diplomatic daughters go behind the scenes at Yalta

From Downing Street to Pennsylvania Avenue, history’s powerful inter-family influencers, whether spouses or children, have long operated behind weighty political front doors. With an unerring eye for the revealing detail, Catherine Grace Katz has uncovered a fascinating generational back-story to the Yalta summit of February 1945. The three varyingly spirited daughters of Churchill, Roosevelt and Averell Harriman who accompanied their world-leading fathers to the freezing bleakness of the Crimea to thrash out terms for ending the second world war all played their crucial role. As Churchill and his second daughter Sarah crossed the Crimean steppe to the sulphurous muddy peninsula in the Black Sea they drove through countryside where ‘nearly

‘I was frightened every single day’: the perils of guarding Stalin

In Russian, the proverb ‘Ignorance is bliss’ translates as ‘The less you know, the better you sleep’. For those who experienced the worst of the Soviet Union’s terrors, this is not just a throwaway adage but a strategy for self-preservation. As Alex Halberstadt’s father — the son of one of Stalin’s former bodyguards — attests: ‘There is no more to be gained from sifting through the past than through cigarette ashes.’ Halberstadt, a Soviet-born American writer, doesn’t agree. Aged nine, soon after leaving Moscow with his family and defecting to the West, he began having a recurring nightmare in which he was chased by a ferocious bulldog, a dream that

History may hold the secrets of statecraft – but not the secrets of business leadership

‘How can one person lead one hundred?’ That was one of the questions in my Cambridge entrance exams back in 1981, and although I can’t now recall whether I tried to answer it in the three hours we were given, it has fascinated me ever since. So when I was given the splendid opportunity of delivering nine Lehrman Institute lectures on military history at the New-York Historical Society three years ago, I used them to try to answer it, at least in terms of war leadership. What became apparent was what a total waste of time and effort most of the modern ‘leadership skills’ industry is whenever it tries to

The beauty of Soviet anti-religious propaganda

Deep in the guts of Russian library stacks exists what remains — little acknowledged or discussed — of a dead and buried atheist dream. The dream first took shape among Russian radicals of the mid-19th century, to whom the prospect of mass atheism seemed the key to Russia’s salvation. When Lenin seized power in 1917, the Bolsheviks integrated it into their vision of heaven on earth. To the extent that people in the West have heard of this atheist dream, it has come to them mainly through the voices of its enemies. In 1983, Ronald Reagan put Lenin’s rejection of religion at the heart of Soviet unfreedom in his ‘Evil