Another old school podcast – starting in 2010 inspired by long running podcast The History According To Bob, podcaster Mark Schauss’ personal family links to the country, and his old college professor Paul Avrich. This may sound like a backhanded compliment, but the best thing about this podcast is the short episodes. With episodes typically lasting fifteen minutes, this actually breaks down the hundreds of years of Russian history in something easier to digest (as a beginner to the topic).
Schauss tries to add variety to the show with an extra section at the end of each show – listing events on this day in history, or reading parts of a primary source. None of this really works. When he gets to the Soviet era, he goes with a short biography of a lesser figure of the time (Fritz Platten, Felix Dzerzhinsky). That works slightly better, but can still feel like a unnecessary break. Ultimately he drops it in the race to the end of the Soviet Union.
The reading is history focuses mostly on a chronological narrative (largely derived from a favourite set of sources – Robert Massie, Duffy and Ricci’s Czars, Mark Steinberg). Schauss’ delivery is fairly straightforward, but the script portrays the drama well. We get a little of a analysis seeping through over the whole series as Schauss identifies some of the bigger turning points in Russian history.
The show is a good take on Russian history for beginners (like me). I find Russian history to always have an agenda or a spin, and Schauss remains cautiously neutral: ignoring Yeltsin’s later career as too recent to comment on, and giving a bare set of facts on Putin. This is fine. But it could be a little more daring and a little more polished.
Subtitled The Secret Heart of Russia’s History
Catherine 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.
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).