The End of Tsarist Russia

The End of Tsarist Russia
Dominic Lieven

I thought this was a great account of Russia’s “march to World War I and revolution,” and would recommend it to anyone. It covers the terrain very well, emphasizing the importance of the Eastern front (“the war was first and foremost an eastern European conflict”) and providing interesting commentary on such matters as the reception of Ivan Bloch’s work in Russia and Russia’s nationalism/patriotism deficit (at least compared to the other major powers). I’m less inclined to the view that Russia solely or primarily collapsed from within in 1917 and was still holding steady on the front. That was the case only, I would say, where they were facing the fading Ottoman Empire. In terms of both will and material I think the Russian army was licked, even without a mutiny in the trenches. The collapse was general, leaving the Bolsheviks to, as Lenin put it, pick up power where they found it lying in the street.

The Horror! The Horror!

The Horror! The Horror!
Jim Trombetta

American horror comics, at least of the notorious pre-Code variety, didn’t have a particularly long run. All of the examples in this weighty survey, less an anthology than a exhibition catalogue, were published between 1950 and 1954, the terminal date being when the Comics Code Authority was established.

Despite their all-too-brief flowering, the place these comics have in pop culture is hard to overstate. Was the 1952 story “Dungeon of Doom!” from Chamber of Chills an inspiration for John Carpenter’s They Live? I think it might have been.

The commentary by Jim Trombetta is a bit random, drawing from figures as diverse as Northrop Frye and Melanie Klein to introduce the different thematic sections. But what’s said is of interest, sometimes in unexpected ways. I particularly liked Trombetta’s commentary on the trope of shrunken heads.

The real meat of the book, however, consists of the reproductions, which are beautifully reproduced in all their full-colour glory — albeit tending to be yellowy with age, and sometimes suffering from those chromatic shifts brought on by the sloppy production process used to create the originals. Not that I would want any of this cleaned up. This is a volume worthy of classic trash.

Surviving Autocracy

Surviving Autocracy
Masha Gessen

Near the end of this terrific assessment of where the United States, and the West more generally, is at politically Masha Gessen tells us that “Three years of Trumpism has extinguished whatever remained in American politics of the language of solidarity or the idea of public welfare.”

I don’t want to sound superior or blasé about this, because that’s not how I feel, but this ship sailed a long, long time ago. Lewis Lapham has tracked for decades the falling fortunes of the word “public” in our civic discourse, from signifying something noble and valuable to referring to anything corrupt and worthless. The same cynical transformation in Russian political language is described by Gessen, with Trump only left to mock such notions as democracy and moral principle as fit only for suckers and losers.

Gessen comes at the issue of Trump’s aspirational autocracy (or, more broadly, what I would call Republican oligarch envy) from different angles but I think what she has to say about the corruption of language by way of Trump’s mangled “word piles” is perhaps the most on target. We don’t have an honest language at hand anymore to describe what has been happening to Western democracy. We can speak the names of the crimes we are witnessing, but they’ve lost their meaning.

Hiding in Plain Sight

Hiding in Plain Sight
Sarah Kendzior

I appreciate Sarah Kendzior’s anger at the corruption and criminality of the Trump regime, as well as her perspective both as a Midwesterner (living in St. Louis, Missouri) and an expert on modern forms of autocracy. This broadside follow-up to The View from Flyover Country, however, doesn’t add much but passion and rhetoric to the bill of complaint against Trump, as well as a lot of self-congratulatory pats on the back for calling the 2016 election.

Much of Kendzior’s analysis seems accurate. The Republican mission is to “strip America for its parts” (she repeats this formulation several times), setting up a one-party state oligarchy along the lines of Russia or China. The Trump administration “is a transnational crime syndicate masquerading as a government,” or, when Kendzior is really wound up, “a white supremacist kleptocracy linked to a transnational crime syndicate, using digital media to manipulate reality and destroy privacy, led by a sociopathic nuke-fetishist, backed by apocalyptic fanatics preying on the weakest and most vulnerable as feckless and complicit officials fail to protect them.”

That such an assessment is more true than false is damning enough. But Hiding in Plain Sight is not a work of investigative reportage so much as an opinion piece. “As I write this in mid-2019, white supremacist movements are moving into mainstream Canadian politics while the country wrestles with financial corruption similar to that which weakened the US and UK economies before our respective collapses.” No notes are provided supporting this so I’m not sure what specifically is being referred to. I don’t think Canada is immune to anti-democratic politics, but I didn’t come away from this feeling newly or well informed.

Perhaps Kendzior thinks this is all obvious. Trump’s crimes and lies are, after all, well documented and “in plain sight.” But their public recitation can still serve some purpose. The biggest lies may be countered by a bigger truth.

Russian Roulette

Russian Roulette
Michael Isikoff and David Corn

Looking back, “collusion” wasn’t just a fair assessment but probably the best word to describe what was going on. It was cooperation, it was kept secret, and it involved behaviour that was found to be illegal.

Was Trump himself even aware of this though? Among the excuses put forward by his defenders would be the plausible idea that he was too stupid to collude with the Russians. That ignorance, however, would make him of some value as an asset. Carter Page, working with Team Trump, would be described by a Russian intelligence officer as a mere “idiot” who “wants to make a lot of money.” These were exactly the kind of people you want to cultivate.

None of this made any difference in the election. Voters’ minds were already made up. They thought Trump a joke but they hated Hillary, and it was hard to keep the different issues relating to e-mails separate in their heads.

Finally, is this still an issue? Just as much as in 2016. Though I suspect, given all of the subsequent enormities, it registers even less.

The Empire Must Die

The Empire Must Die
Mikhail Zygar

The centenary of the Russian Revolution led to a spate of books dealing with what Mikhail Zygar here describes as “an event on a planetary scale . . . the biggest manmade catastrophe in history.”

I don’t know if The Empire Must Die adds much to what was already known, but it’s told in an immediate, journalistic style that certainly freshens things up. The short sections read like present-tense dispatches from the various political fronts, an approach that underlines the contingency of these events. All of which leads to one of Zygar’s main conclusions:

The tragic culmination was in no way the only possible outcome. The idea of preordained karma — that it was the Russian people’s destiny — is currently in vogue in Russia. I hope that this book will cast doubt on that theory. Nothing is known in advance, nothing is 100 percent predetermined. History is one long blunder. The protagonists of this book are forever making plans and predictions, acting on the basis of what always seem to them to be careful calculation. But they almost always delude themselves.

This is the case with most revolutions. They rarely, if ever, have the results intended. When the wheel spins nobody knows where it’s going to stop.

An Oresteia

An Oresteia
Anne Carson

Is Aeschylus especially difficult to translate? Anne Carson’s version of Agamemnon is the best I’ve read, but that’s a relative judgment. I find the long-standard Richmond Lattimore translation, whatever its claims to accuracy, to be absolutely unreadable. And the other versions I’ve looked at haven’t been much better. Carson is the clear winner, though there are places, in particular Cassandra’s wails of woe, that I’m guessing need to be experienced in performance.

In making Agamemnon and the other plays used to put together this Oresteia (Electra by Sophocles and Orestes by Euripides) sound more natural, even colloquial, we also get a new slant on the plays. Carson’s Orestes in particular reads a bit like an ancient Rebel Without a Cause. And surprisingly it works.

American Breakdown

American Breakdown
David Bromwich

Most books on political issues have a short shelf life, but those dealing with the presidency of Donald Trump, who breaks news with every tweet, are quicker to expire than most. So of course some of David Bromwich’s judgements haven’t aged well in the two or three years since they first appeared in various publications. I had to smile, for example, at his description of Lindsey Graham as “among Trump’s most strident critics in the Republican Party.” And wince at how “It now [March 2019] seems likely that Mueller will produce overwhelming evidence of money laundering, as well as tax, business, and bank fraud.” I’m sure such evidence exists, but Mueller wasn’t looking for it.

Other, more general observations have fared better. Trump and indeed the Republican Party’s oligarch envy. Their cultivation of hate. A base defined more by its cynicism than its credulity. The naivety of the Democratic establishment (though I think many of us were just as guilty of this).

But what I find most depressing about the speed of the news cycle in the Trump Era is that, in hindsight, no immediate negative impression he’s made has had to be corrected. Instead, whatever conclusions arrived at based on the evidence at any particular time have had, inevitably, soon to be adjusted downward. Because this is how Trump’s manufacture of outrage works, as he’s forced into having to outdo himself in order to get his fix of being the center of attention and having people talk about him. And still Trump has always been worse than advertised, with always something worse to come.

First World War: Still No End in Sight

First World War: Still No End in Sight
Frank Furedi

This is a curious, somewhat meandering book that presents a new interpretation of the legacy of the First World War. In brief, that legacy is presented as a series of responses to the post-war breakdown in the authority and legitimacy of traditional political ideologies (liberalism, nationalism, capitalism, etc.). The old beliefs were shown to be hollow but there was nothing to replace them with. After much shuffling of the deck, we arrive at today’s culture wars and identity politics, which have resulted from a de-politicization of politics and a turning inward. I’m not convinced that much of this has any connection to 1914-18, but it does make for an interesting overview of a chaotic century.

Augustus

Augustus
Adrian Goldsworthy

The noblest Roman of them all? I don’t think anyone has tried to make that argument. Adrian Goldsworthy will, however, grant that Augustus was a mostly benevolent military dictator who, contra the adage about absolute power corrupting absolutely, actually mellowed as he ascended to divinity. Goldsworthy goes into most detail talking about Augustus’ rise to power, which is fitting given that it is the most complicated and remarkable part of his story. I’m still not sure how to explain it better than Shakespeare’s “There is a tide in the affairs of men. Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune.” He was the golden child.