Karl Marx by Francis Wheen

51b23recqel._sx318_bo1204203200_I liked this biography of Marx (from about twenty year ago, but hardly out of date). Rather pleasantly, it doesn’t feel particularly ideologically driven. Wheen is more interested in Marx as a human and conjures up both his boisterous, argumentative side and his (surprisingly) gentle side. Family life plays a huge role here, and it helps to bring out the personal edge to his professional interactions. The politics and philosophy is covered too, but it’s not heavy going – there’s also an eye on keeping the book readable.

There have been more than a few previous Marx biographies (not that I’ve read them) and Wheen seems particularly pleased when he gets a change to offer a different interpretation of some aspect of the story. The two that stand out are Frederick Demuth, who Wheen places as Marx’s illegitimate son, and the interactions between Marx and Charles Darwin. Despite his faults, it’s hard to read the book and not end up with sympathy for Marx and his personal struggles (although the Telegraph seems to have).

Red Fortress by Catherine Merridale

Subtitled The Secret Heart of Russia’s History

916qf300rjlCatherine Merridale tells the history of Russia through the story of the iconic Moscow citadel, The Kremlin.  Or she tells the history of the fortress itself, and those who inhabited it.  It kind of swings between the two – a grand wide-ranging history, and something smaller and more focused.  I suspect the intention is the later, but it’s not really possible to do that without it becoming something a little more specialist.  I don’t think the general reader (myself included) has the background knowledge of Russia required to stick too closely to the location.  The problem with looking for a more general Russian history here is that at some of the most interesting times (much of Peter The Great’s career, Catherine The Great, today(!)) the action doesn’t really take place there.  But this is really just a problem of expectations – there is still plenty of interest here.

The author doesn’t delve too far into the buildings themselves, we get when they were built and why – but this isn’t a book on art and architecture.  The centre here is the stories and the people of the complex.  The highlight for me is really Napoleon.  The tactical surrender of the city to the French, the devastating fire and the subsequent recovery.  Despite its reasonable length of 400ish pages, it can actually be quite a dense book in places – this may be a cut down version of Russian history but Merridale has done some detailed research.

Most of the Russian histories that I have read have some sort of idea or theme projected through out the book.  In Martin Sixsmith’s volume, for example, it was democracy vs autocracy.  In Red Fortress, it is secrecy and plotting.  The Kremlin makes a beautiful and eerie setting for it.  Even her own experiences of writing and researching seem to be layered in a certain degree – forbidden areas and material abound.