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.

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July in Podcasts: Mostly Chiang Kai-shek

Last month there were two big podcasts for me to listen to: a new episode of Hardcore History from Dan Carlin, and When Diplomacy Fails’ Korean War podcast.  The two together almost simultaneously introduce me to a major historical figure that I had somehow escaped hearing about before – the Chiang Kai-shek of the title.

Dan Carlin takes on the extreme nationalism and militarism of the Japanese empire in the half  century or so before the Second World War.  It’s an interesting topic – and as ever Carlin, it’s possible to see relevance to modern political situations as the Japanese government is forced down a harder and harder line by the threats (and occasionally assassinations) of the hardcore minority.  The episode ends with Japan in China in the early stages of what would become World War Two – and hence my introduction to the struggles of the Chinese warlords.

Zack Twamley of WDF is slowly working his way through the Korean War (at the point I’ve got to, we’re only in the first few days of the war after twenty episodes of setup).  The focus is, as ever, diplomatic.  There’s also an extra set of provocative theses here: that Stalin engineered the war to pull Mao’s China away from the West; that elements within the US ignored the warning signs in order to justify military spending and strategy.  As presented these seem reasonable, the former even more so than the latter, but there’s a lot of diplomatic meetings and messages.  Setting these ideas up required a lot of background, particularly in China, much of which was new to me.

I don’t tend to read twentieth century history, and especially not that of World War Two, but both of these were very interesting – taking me to places that I don’t tend to go.  I look forward to reaching the conclusion of both, but I understand that will take a while for these two podcasters (for different reasons).

The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco

the-prague-cemetery-u-ecoIn the Prague Cemetery, Eco creates a rambling book of tangents and bluffs, with the slimy Italian Captain Simonini, who makes a living throughout the nineteenth century hoaxing and forging his way through political movements and intelligence agencies in the nineteenth century – eventually culminating in the anti-semitic Protocols of the Elders of Zion.  We learn all this from his diaries – confused and unreliable as they may be.

In research for the book Eco seems to have delved into all sorts of unsavoury sections of nineteenth century literature.  Some are obvious, some are more obscure, some are surprisingly mainstream (Alexandre Dumas, Disraeli).  He constantly seems to be saying “This actually happened.  Someone did this.  Someone wrote this.  People believed it.” and sometimes he lets his amazement overwhelm the story.  In this sense, he is at his best when he shows the borrowing, the twisting of old tropes for new audiences, the closed loops when a story is used to confirm itself.

He has covered conspiracies plenty of times before, but this does feel slightly different.  The stories feel grubbier.  The spectre of the Nazis, an eventually peak of anti-semitism, hangs over the book.  For me, it also called up Conrad’s Secret Agent with its murky world of spies, informers and anarchist bombs.  Fear of the Masons, Jesuits and satanists is there too.  All the lunatic fringes are present.  Although Eco does pull a surprise by largely steering away from The Dreyfus Affair.

At times the book can be funny, at times it can be interesting; but at other points it is difficult – it’s not just that it gets quite dry; but that it is an unpleasant read.  Some of these movements, some of these writings, feel lost in history and it’s easy to wish they would stay there.  Perhaps there’s a more general point than that, Eco’s russian agent Rachovsky (a real historical figure, most of them are in this book) sets out his case that his government don’t care for the truth of not of Simonini’s anti semitic rambling, they want to provide an enemy, a distraction.  People need someone to hate, and it is in the interests of the powerful to find groups to demonize.  Despite this gloom, I enjoyed it – it feels like one of Eco’s most purposeful books.

Russia by Martin Sixsmith

A 1,000 Year Chronicle of the Wild East

According to Churchill’s famous quote, Russia is “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma”. After reading this book things are slightly clearer – at least in certain areas. Published in 2011, to accompany a BBC Radio 4 show, this book is perhaps slightly out of date now with Medvedev being sidelined again and things in Ukraine having sparked off, but the theme of the book remains applicable (if anything it is only supported by more recent events).

Martin Sixsmith is perhaps most famous at the moment for his film and book Philomena, but he started out as a BBC’s foreign correspondent in Moscow. He then had a stint in the civil service, ending in the controversial Jo Moore email scandal. Following this, he began a career as a novelist and starting to write and broadcast on Russia again, using in experience and expertise. This experience gives him a great perspective on Russia (both past, present and future) and he uses this to great advantage in the book. It largely focuses on the twentieth century and is far from taking a neutral stance on the politics of the country. However, this slant is presented in a open and accessible style (even if the material is often fairly grim) and shouldn’t put anyone off.

Continue reading Russia by Martin Sixsmith