Tag Archives: Stalin

TIME TRAVEL WITH TWO BOOKS : Recent Reads #9


 

I’m cautiously dipping my toes into Penguin Modern Classics  Selected non-fiction by Jorge Luis Borges.  The jacket informs me that Borges is one of the twentieth century’s  greatest writers and the scope of his writing certainly is vast. Borges was born in Argentina, 1899, died 1986; he was awarded academic honours and literary prizes, and became Director of the National Library of Buenos Aires for nearly 20 years. His earlier writing deals with authors no longer so popular, H G Wells, and in particular  Wells’ famous story The Time Machine . Now despite modern advances in space exploration, we are still unable to travel through time, save through the imagination, and, as I have recently proved, via the dentist’s chair.  I know that one’s personal perception of time is very much tied to present events and that time spent in the dentist’s chair elongates to infinite aeons. Does this qualify as time travel, I wonder?  Conversely, we have all experienced time passing in a flash, usually due to experiences of heightened pleasure – ecstasy, even, brought about by sex, drugs or religion.  Ecstasy seems to fall within these general parameters but maybe we should include the long-distance runner’s  endorphins too.

So Jorge Luis Borges is providing plenty of food for thought as I wander through pages of articles on the classics, music, history, literature, politics, film and book reviews,  – Borges writes about everyone and everything. Again, the cover blurb sums up the contents succinctly:  Dizzying in scope and dazzling in execution …

On a much less elevated plane I have been greatly entertained by Craig Brown’s book One on One,  in which he has cunningly linked one-hundred-and-one  1001 word pieces about famous peoples’ meetings (in the case of Adolf Hitler and John Scott-Ellis a literal collision), each meeting leading neatly on to the next incident.  All the accounts are factual, with dates supplied .  For instance,  H .G. Wells “ has never met a more candid, fair and honest man than Josef Stalin” – the Kremlin, Moscow, July 22nd, 1934; this is followed by an account of Josef Stalin meeting Maxim Gorky – Moscow 1936 and preceded by  President Theodore Roosevelt “finding it hard to get a word in edgeways with”  H.G. Wells, at the White House, Washington DC, May 6th, 1906.  It’s fascinating: these glimpses of the famous and the notorious.  The most recent meetings are in 2005 and 2006, the earliest is 1876.  We meet writers, actors, royalty, politicians – as I said, the famous and the infamous.

One on One  consoled me after a particularly savage bout with the dentist.  I lay groggily on my bed, chortling feebly as I picked my way through the daisy-chain pieces.  I must say Chocolat was splendidly supportive throughout my recent ordeal.  She parked herself on my chest, purring agreeably, for hours on end, and only returned to her garden sunbathing once I was promoted to the walking wounded. Greater love hath no cat.

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RECENT READS #6 : RUSSIA


ARCHANGEL by ROBERT HARRIS

This thriller is set in a well researched  setting:  Russia.  The novel came out in 1997 and set in contemporary Russia.  In short, it posited the hidden existence of Josef Stalin’s son and the machinations of old-style Communists to use him to mount a coup against the government. The story whisked along and was entertaining and well-plotted. But for me, what was so interesting  was  the background detail about Stalin – the man was a monster directly responsible for the death of somewhere in excess of 20 million Russians and yet, according to the novel, a recent poll revealed that one in six Russians thought he was a great leader and would have him back in power tomorrow!  I saw similar very recent corroboration on the Dimbleby Russia  TV series, made mid-2000’s.  Did the Russians not know what Stalin did? Are they in denial? Or don’t they care?

Harris’description of the city of Archangel was very depressing. I’ve had Russia on my To Visit List  for years but now, having read this novel, I wonder why I would even contemplate visiting this a run-down, dirty, corrupt country with such a terrible past.  St Petersburg may be one thing, a glittering treasure house of art, but the rest of Russia does not have a glorious past – brutal and violent, more like it.

RUSSIA  by Johnathan Dimbleby

I read this mammoth tome (570 pages) whilst on holiday.
It took me a while, but was worth the effort. The book was a by-product
of the BBC TV programme on Russia. JD covered 10 000 miles and several centuries on his travels, moving not only West to East, but also North to South. What a vast and varied country Russia is!  The Black Sea in the South – warm and balmy; Siberia in the North with its frozen tundra and taiga; Vladivostok – a seaport on the Pacific ocean. I wish I hadn’t given away my copy of Colin Thubron’s Siberia. Too  late now.

The book highlights the terrible lot of the Russian peasant, both past and present :  their brutal lives, their fatalism, their alcoholism.

The statistics he quotes are mind-blowing, especially in the case of Siberia – it’s a treasure chest of natural resources : gems, oil, coal and timber.

A striking feature of the book was the attitude of the people he encountered.  They think the crypto-fascist Putin is a good leader, a strong leader and they just shrug off the oligarchs and the endemic corruption.  The younger generation  like Western clothes and music, but are nonetheless deeply proud to be Russian.

Dimbleby travelled through Russia clutching, and re-reading the Russian classics: Tolstoy, Dostoevsky et al. All I can say is, he must have had a generous weight allowance on the airlines because my holiday reading always has to be ultra lightweight, and it’s the one time I wish I owned a Kindle!

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