Charlotte Hobson

Distant voices, shattered lives

In 1990s Russia, war veterans were a bossy, even aggressive presence, upbraiding people in shops and pushing to the front in the trolleybus queue. Complaining about this at some point, I was struck and shamed by a Russian friend’s reaction: ‘Oh, but it’s sad… Imagine how hard their lives have been, to make them like

Little shots of sedition

In this handsomely illustrated book Tobie Mathew makes a case for the lowly postcard’s role in the politicisation of pre-revolutionary Russia. Cheap to produce, easily transported and hidden, and conveying a simple graphic message, picture postcards were ideally suited to anti-government agitation. Too dangerous to post, these little shots of sedition were preserved and shared

‘T’ is for Trotskyite

Varlam Shalamov’s short stories of life in the Soviet Gulag leave an impression of ice-sharp precision, vividness and lucidity, as though the world is being viewed through a high-resolution lens. His subject matter, as well as his complete lack of sentimentality, means that much of what is brought into focus is horrifying or pitiful. Yet

The dark side of the circus

In 2013 Tessa Fontaine joined up with the World of Wonders, a circus sideshow that travels around the United States each year displaying sword-swallowers, human-headed spiders, snake-charmers and fire-eaters to a marvelling/cynical public. Sideshows, as Fontaine writes, ‘are where people come to see public displays of their private fears’, and to probe their disgust reflexes

A brutal band of thieves

Mark Galeotti’s study of Russian organised crime, the product of three decades of academic research and consultancy work, is more than timely. In these days of ever more bizarre Russian attacks, it reads like the essential companion to a bewildering and aggressive new world, a world that is no longer confined behind Russian borders but

First signs of thaw

The Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party in February 1956 passed off entirely without incident. Speeches on the next five-year plan were applauded and Stalin’s pet agronomist Lysenko made his customary appearance to denounce bourgeois genetics. A visiting communist from Trieste, Vittorio Vidali, noted his envy of two Uzbek party members who sat reading short

Exit the Tsar

Helen Rappaport’s new book makes no claim to be a complete account of the Russian revolution. Instead it presents a highly readable and fluent description of the events of 1917 in the capital, Petrograd, as experienced by the city’s many foreign residents. Russia’s booming prewar economy had attracted every sort of business person and technical

All is not lost | 5 May 2016

Marina Lewycka’s latest happy-go-lucky tale of migrant folk in Britain takes a remark by the modernist architect Berthold Lubetkin as its epigraph: ‘Nothing is too good for ordinary people.’ In the vertical community within one of Lubetkin’s postwar blocks of flats in East London we meet hapless Bertie, resting actor caught on the hop by

Micro-managing the terror

‘Lately, the paradoxical turns of recent Russian history… have given my research more than scholarly relevance,’ remarks Oleg Khlevniuk in his introduction. Indeed, in Putin’s Russia Stalin’s apologists and admirers seem daily to become more vocal. The language of the 1930s is used in televised tirades against ‘internal enemies’ and ‘foreign agents’. Stalin himself is

Attack of the night witches

The name Lyuba Vinogradova may not ring any bells, but her ferrety eye for spotting a telling detail may already have impressed you. As Antony Beevor generously acknowledges in his introduction to this book, her work as his researcher in various archives played an important role in the creation of his triumphant Russian histories; she

How Putin turned Russian politics into reality TV

‘We all know there will be no real politics.’ A prominent Russian TV presenter is speaking off the record at a production meeting in 2001. ‘But we still have to give our viewers the sense that something is happening. They need to be kept entertained. Politics has got to feel … like a movie!’ When

Joy to the world

Patrick Gale’s new novel could be read as a companion work to his hugely successful Notes from an Exhibition, and in fact, in a satisfying twist, some characters and even objects slip from the latter into this novel. Notes from an Exhibition centred around the character of Rachel Kelly, whose mental instability and solipsistic devotion

The Russian connection

It’s impossible not to warm to the author of this book, a perky Turkish-American woman with a fascination with Russian literature and an irresistible comic touch. It’s impossible not to warm to the author of this book, a perky Turkish-American woman with a fascination with Russian literature and an irresistible comic touch. I began it