A vivid, character-driven reconstruction of the period leading up to the overthrow of the Romanovs and the birth of modern Russia.
One-time TV host Zygar (All the Kremlin's Men: Inside the Court of Vladimir Putin, 2016) opens with a mild protest: he is a journalist and not a historian and so writes by the journalist’s playbook, “as if the characters were alive and I had been able to interview them.” Nonetheless, the author commands a powerful depth of historical knowledge and a novelist’s knack for sorting through the details to determine what is important and what’s ancillary. His book is long on meaningful storytelling in the service of finding out what went wrong in Russia’s brief moment of liberalism, an era that snapped shut a century ago. He adds that his characters, who range from rebels to royals, intellectuals to clerics, had no idea how their deeds would play out in history or how small events would turn into big ones. In some senses, the October Revolution began more than two years earlier, with anti-German riots that embraced the Empress Alexandra, “an ethnic German by birth.” The riots did not please Alexandra, still less the demands of the crowd that her confessor, Rasputin, be hanged, and still less the popularity of the general who restored order. In a narrative reminiscent of the best of Eduardo Galeano, Zygar raises all sorts of what-if questions in the reader’s mind: what if Alexander Kerensky had prevailed over Lenin? What if the old intelligentsia, civil service, and minor nobility had been able to integrate into Soviet society instead of being massacred by Stalin? What if the czarist state had been able to read the tea leaves better and accommodated the demands of the people for better food, better jobs, better government? The possibilities are endless—and endlessly fascinating.
An excellent complement to recent work by other Russian journalists who have turned to history, and to brilliant purpose.
The massive second volume of the author’s biography of the Russian dictator who went from “learning to be a dictator to becoming impatient with dictatorship and forging a despotism in mass bloodshed.”
Here, we follow Stalin’s murderous consolidation of power in the 1930s in tandem with the parallel rise of Hitler in Germany. Kotkin (History and International Affairs/Princeton Univ.; Stalin: Paradoxes of Power, 1878-1928, 2014, etc.) begins with an eerie literary portrait of a rather ordinary man suffering some physical deformities that made him self-conscious; he also displayed coarse manners from his peasant Georgian upbringing and voracious reading habits that drove him always to “better” himself. By 1929, this former seminarian and revolutionary had replaced God with the Marxist-Leninist doctrine and taken the helm of the Soviet state by both chance (“the unexpected early death of Lenin”) and “aptitude,” encapsulating his own personal paranoia within the country’s sense of “capitalist encirclement.” Building an entirely new world through class struggle and socialism was his historical mission, and he would achieve this through whatever means were required. His plan of forced wholesale collectivization involved the liquidation of the kulaks as a class: “These are the inevitable ‘costs’ of revolution,” he wrote in a letter to Maxim Gorky. The drought and severe food shortages of 1931-1933 caused mass flight and the starvation of millions, rendering the country vulnerable to Japanese invasion. By 1937, Stalin’s “obsession with menace,” both domestically and externally, spurred the Great Terror: mass arrests, show trials of “Trotskyites,” and murders of “enemies” far and wide, including the purge of his inner circle and officer corps. Kotkin emphasizes that there was no “dynamic” urging Stalin on, save his own plan “to approve quota-driven eradication of entire categories of people.” He left his military purged of experienced officers and completely unprepared for Hitler’s advance. In this monumental work of research, the author chillingly depicts Stalin’s methodical, “lucidly strategic” rise to murderous despot.
A well-written, finely detailed installment in a definitive biography—sure to receive many prize nominations this year.
A brilliant if somber look at modern Russia, a failed democracy, by prizewinning journalist Gessen (The Brothers: The Road to an American Tragedy, 2015, etc.).
First there were the serfs, and then “Homo Sovieticus,” the gloomily obedient men, women, and children who waited in bread lines and slaved in mines and factories. Are they the avatars of the good old days? With Vladimir Putin’s rise and increasingly absolutist rule, there may be something to the old saw that the Russian soul craves authoritarianism. Yet, as Gessen, who has written extensively on Putin, writes, that may flat out not be so. As she notes in this urgent chronicle, examining the Russian character through sociological instruments was frowned on, even banned, until the late 1960s, when Yuri Levada, who turns up at several points in this long narrative, began to look at how ordinary Russians thought about their society. For one thing, later surveys showed that although some wanted “rockers,” “hippies,” and “pederasts” (read: homosexuals) to be “liquidated,” a far larger number advocated tolerance, especially younger Russians. Those younger Russians are the focus of the author’s character-driven approach, a kind of nonfiction novel that compares favorably to the work of Svetlana Alexievich. One of Gessen’s cases in point, a still-youngish woman named Masha, has learned to work every angle thanks to a resourceful mother who, among other things, figured out ways to “teach Soviet Jews to beat the anti-Semitic machine.” By all rights, Masha, entrepreneurial and smart, ought to be in the forefront of Russian development, but having run afoul of Putin’s regime, she is effectively a nonperson, “a de facto political prisoner.” So it is with Zhanna, whose father, opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, was gunned down on a Moscow bridge in 2015, “with the Kremlin as the backdrop for the murder.” All Gessen’s players harbor the low-level dread on which totalitarian regimes thrive—and all, a refrain has it, believe that their country is dead.
A superb, alarming portrait of a government that exercises outsize influence in the modern world, at great human cost.
Not just another account of World War II, but a thoughtful overview of the battles that were “emblematic of the larger themes of how the respective belligerents made wise and foolish choices about why, how, and where to fight the war.”
According to veteran military historian and Hoover Institution senior fellow Hanson (The Savior Generals: How Five Great Commanders Saved Wars that Were Lost—From Ancient Greece to Iraq, 2013, etc.), the war began during the 1930s as a series of fairly straightforward border conflicts—e.g., Germany versus its neighbors, Japan versus China. Suddenly, in 1941, as the result of poor decisions around the world, it exploded into a global conflict that the so-far-victorious Axis Powers were guaranteed to lose. Beginning with its cause, Hanson dismisses the time-honored denunciation of the Treaty of Versailles, which was softer than the peace Germany imposed on France in 1871 or the Soviet Union in 1918. It was the humiliation that nagged. Neither Germany nor Japan was endangered or impoverished; both believed that their honor had been slighted and that their racially superior citizens deserved better than their decadent neighbors. “The irrational proved just as much a catalyst for war as the desire to gain materially at someone else’s expense,” writes the author. Four long chapters on weapons deliver a few jolts. Everyone knows that infantry wins wars, but Hanson maintains that strategic bombing probably persuaded Japan to surrender. High-tech weapons—the B-29, proximity fuse, and atomic bomb—unquestionably helped the Allies. Vaunted German technology (rockets, jet planes, guided missiles) merely wasted money. Unique in its 50 million to 80 million deaths—the great majority of which were civilians and included far more Allied than Axis soldiers—and worldwide extent, WWII broke no rules. Hyperaggression and ruthlessness win battles; resources and stubbornness carry the day.
An ingenious, always provocative analysis of history’s most lethal war.
A riveting study delves deeply into the conditions of the perfect storm that allowed Hitler and his Nazi party to seize and wield unprecedented power.
The Nazis, first and foremost, were opportunists. In this compelling narrative, historian Childers (Soldier from the War Returning: The Greatest Generation's Troubled Homecoming from World War II, 2009, etc.) begins with Hitler’s lackluster early life and sense of thwarted ambition, which took a sharp new direction after Germany’s crushing defeat in World War I. From Vienna, where he was first inculcated in virulent anti-Semitic influences, to postwar Munich, a hotbed of left-wing revolutionary turmoil, Hitler seized the two pillars of what would become Nazi ideology: anti-Semitism and anti-Marxism. He assumed leadership of one of the many small paramilitary parties that had sprung up before 1920 and rebranded it the National Socialist German Workers Party, complete with swastika symbol and thuggish paramilitary army, led by loyalist Ernst Röhm; the group was envisioned more as an ideological movement than a political party. From this point, Childers meticulously lays out the conditions that fed the growth of this objectionable group: Hitler’s talent for oratory, which won over rich donors; the conservative Catholic Bavarian base that was tolerant of “nationalist-Völkisch extremists of all kinds”; the shocking leniency meted out to him after the failed Beer Hall Putsch of 1923; the inspired choice of Joseph Goebbels to organize a Nazi propaganda machine, instigating the party rallies and Hitler cult that appealed to disenchanted voters and heavily influenced the breakthrough election of 1930; and, as the author emphasizes, the fatally misdirected backroom connivances by former chancellor Franz von Papen and others, which handed the chancellorship to Hitler in 1933. Once in power, the Nazis ensured with breathtaking rapidity that everything began to “fall in line,” with one edict after the other consolidating power and strangling the rights of Jews especially—all facing little resistance by Germans citizens or the rest of the world.
An elegantly composed study, important and even timely, given current trends in American and global politics.
A stirring history of the 1968 battle that definitively turned the Vietnam War into an American defeat.
On the first day of the Tet Lunar New Year holiday in 1968, Viet Cong and North Vietnamese forces attacked the ancient city of Hue, the one-time capital of Vietnam and the country’s third-largest city. American forces scrambled to relieve the U.S. garrison there, amazed, as Bowden (The Three Battles of Wanat, 2016, etc.) writes, to be in an actual city after experiencing only “air bases, rice paddies, and jungle.” The battle occasioned not just surprise on the part of the grunts, but also a change in behavior on the part of the attackers, who had orders not just to liberate Hue, but “to look and behave like winners.” The tactic, to say nothing of the heavy losses inflicted on American and South Vietnamese forces, did indeed shift perceptions. The author observes that after Hue, it was only a matter of time before America would leave Vietnam, and in the bargain, ordinary American citizens would never again trust their government. Bowden delivers a series of brilliantly constructed set pieces, beginning with a moment of proto-social engineering in which a young, pretty Viet Cong learned about American troop movements in the city by flirting with GIs outside their compound. Devotees of Vietnam movies such as Full Metal Jacket will see several scenes come into real-life focus, with a football hero as commander and companies of troops bearing names like Hotel and Echo rooting out snipers and enemy columns, occasionally violating orders to save themselves by letting loose ground-fired napalm (“They caught hell for that—the commanders were worried about setting the city on fire”) against a smart, entrenched foe. Building on portraits of combatants on all sides, Bowden delivers an anecdotally rich, careful account of the complex campaign to take the city.
One of the best books on a single action in Vietnam, written by a tough, seasoned journalist who brings the events of a half-century past into sharp relief.
Food historian Twitty, creator of the Afroculinaria blog, serves up a splendid hearth-based history, at once personal and universal, of the African-American experience.
The author accounts himself a citizen of the Old South, “a place where people use food to tell themselves who they are.” It is also, he continues, a fraught place where food controversies—whether to put sugar and not molasses in cornbread, say—pile atop controversies of history, all pointing to the terrible fact of slavery. Twitty’s book is not just about food, though it certainly covers the broad expanse of African-American cooking over the centuries and how it shaped the larger Southern American culinary tradition. The author delights in the “world of edible antiques” that his researches take him into, a world requiring him to think in terms of gills, drams, and pecks. Twitty also traces his own family history, beyond the eight or so generations that carry documents, to places all over the world: a white ancestor here, an Indonesian by way of Madagascar forebear there, Native Americans and West Africans and Anglos meeting in bloodstreams and at table. On all these matters, the author writes with elegant urgency, moving swiftly from topic to topic: on one page, he may write of the tobacco economy of the Confederacy, on another of the ways in which “the food of the Chesapeake grew legs as the culture of the Upper South was forced to branch out” beyond the Appalachians and Mississippi into new territories, such that “turkey with oyster dressing on a Maryland plantation became turkey with freshwater clam and mussel sauce on a slaveholding Missouri farmstead.” Drawing on a wealth of documentary digging, personal interviews, and plenty of time in the kitchen, Twitty ably joins past and present, puzzling out culinary mysteries along the way—e.g., “chickens got served to preachers because chickens had always flounced in the hands of African priests, and nobody remembered why.”
An exemplary, inviting exploration and an inspiration for cooks and genealogists alike.
Dispelling the assumption that concentration camps began and ended in Nazi Germany.
Pitzer (The Secret History of Vladimir Nabokov, 2013), the founder of the Nieman Storyboard at Harvard’s Nieman Foundation for Journalism, examines what she deems “the defining atrocity” of the 20th century. Drawing on memoirs, histories, and archival sources, she offers a chilling, well-documented history of the camps’ development. The precursor of concentration camps, she contends, arrived with the Spanish Empire, which pursued a policy of relocating and imprisoning native populations in the Americas. Later, in the American Civil War, the Andersonville prisoner-of-war camp was “a harbinger of the civilian concentration camps that were to come.” These burgeoned during the Boer War at the end of the 19th century, during which scores of camps held prisoners of war, civilians identified as enemies, and more than 100,000 black Africans. Dysentery, typhoid, and pneumonia coursed through camp populations. That model of incarceration was carried on by Germans in South Africa, who built camps at military posts to contain the despised Herero and use them for forced labor. Every man, woman, and child “wore stamped, numbered metal tags,” and some children became the personal slaves of German officers. Characterized by barbed wire, rotting food, and brutal, hierarchical supervision, the first decade of concentration camps presaged the proliferation of camps for enemy aliens during World War I. In 1914, combatant nations herded hundreds of thousands of civilians in networks of camps located far from the battlefield, “a deliberate choice to inject the framework of war into society itself.” The perception of civilians as a threat justified genocide such as the persecution of Armenians by Turkey and of Jews, homosexuals, and the disabled by Nazis. In grim detail, Pitzer portrays camps in Cuba, the Philippines, Russia, China, and North Korea as well as the rounding up of Japanese citizens in the U.S. She sees Guantánamo as a contemporary instance of “indefinite detention without trial,” which is “the hallmark of a concentration camp system.”
A potent, powerful history of cruelty and dehumanization.
A magnificent new history that tracks the gradual evolution of the Final Solution.
In this orderly, horrifying study, former BBC creative director Rees (Hitler's Charisma: Leading Millions into the Abyss, 2013, etc.) emphasizes that the creation and implementation of gas chambers in Nazi concentration camps did not occur overnight as a solution to the “Jewish problem.” Instead, the Nazi resolution to annihilate the Jewish population developed after a long process of ideological propaganda emerging from the top of the Nazi leadership—Hitler was making anti-Semitic declarations as early as 1919—and led to the trial-and-error installation of killing methods, beginning with the experimental gassing of disabled people in early 1940. Rees moves through these stages chronologically, building the “origins of hate” through the early Christian world and culminating in the “eugenics” movement of the turn of the 20th century. At the same time, the author warns against drawing “a straight line from the pre–First World War hatreds of the Jews to the Third Reich and the Holocaust.” Other factors compounding the toxic mix began to convince the German public that the Jews were an “enemy” and to blame for the loss of the war, the communist uprising, and the Weimar government and misery of hyperinflation. The early chapters, which delineate the conditions in which Nazism took root among a vulnerable people (beaten down by social and economic conditions), are especially instructive and chilling. The consolidation of Nazi power moved from public humiliation of Jews to the Nuremberg Laws, while political empire-building via the Anschluss resulted in an efficient “conveyor belt” of persecution and expulsion by Heinrich Himmler’s SS. The Nazi invasion of Poland in September 1939 inaugurated the “racial war” Hitler had prophesied, leading to more pragmatic solutions to “containing” the Jews, from ghettos to deportation to mass murder. Over the course of this increasingly grim narrative, Rees employs first-person accounts—from interviews he conducted during the past 25 years—to render palpable senses of humanity and context.
A thorough, concise, evenhanded work, essential for libraries and schools.
The Nobel laureate (2015) writes about “the wrong kind of war”: oral confessions from Russian women intimately involved with fighting for the motherland.
In her distinctive nonfiction style, a mix of her own reflections and transcribed, edited interviews with diverse Russians who have lived through decades of hardship, Alexievich (Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets, 2016, etc.) focuses on women who recounted to her amazing stories of their participation in World War II. Although first published in Russia in 1985, with an English-language version published in Moscow in 1988, this version features a sprightly new translation and a restoration—as the author notes in her introductory remarks—of material “the censors” threw out as being unheroic or unpatriotic. As Alexievich writes, war is traditionally known through male voices, yet Russian women, fired up by the urgency to push back the invading Germans, took up the military challenge and demonstrated enormous courage and ability. However, women were often silenced after the war, since assuming traditionally male military duties was seen as unwomanly—indeed, who would marry them? Alexievich writes movingly of how these extremely strong, now-elderly women had rarely been encouraged to tell their stories, but they eventually opened up under her gentle questioning and attention. Most often very young when recruited, the women reveal how they had to beg their male officers to allow them to get to the front line; once they mastered their tasks, the men were amazed at what they could do, and the Germans were horrified to learn that many of the snipers were women. Moreover, beyond their military prowess, of which they were very proud, the women offer touching, intimate details about their service—e.g., being assigned too-large boots and clothing, the shame of having to wear men’s underwear and managing their periods, finding love, and the ability to feel empathy for the starving German children after the war.
Essential reading full of remarkable emotional wealth.
An intense chronicle of “systematic drug abuse” in Nazi Germany.
Although the use of opiates and other drugs was pervasive in the Weimar Republic of the 1920s, the Nazis ostensibly opposed them, offering “ideological salvation” instead, writes German journalist Ohler in this nonfiction debut. In fact, the Third Reich depended heavily on drugs, notably cocaine, heroin, morphine, and methamphetamines, to sustain the fearless blitzkrieg attacks of its advancing armies and to keep Adolf Hitler in a euphoric, delusional state. Drawing on archival research in Germany and the United States, the author crafts a vivid, highly readable account of drug use run amok. He describes systematized drug tests conducted by Dr. Otto F. Ranke, a defense physiologist, who waged war on exhaustion with Pervitin, an early version of crystal meth. The fierce Nazi invasion of France, lasting three days and nights without sleep, was made possible by use of Pervitin: “It kept you awake, mercilessly,” recalls a former Nazi medical officer. Relying heavily on the diaries of Dr. Theodor Morell, Hitler’s personal physician (Hermann Göring called him the “Reich Injection Master”), Ohler writes at length about Hitler’s drug use throughout the war, which began with a “power injection” of glucose and vitamins before big speeches, then escalated to cocktails of hormones, steroids, and vitamins, and finally, in his last year, to the use of both cocaine and Eukodal, a designer opioid that even infamous heroin addict William Burroughs called “some truly awful shit.” With Morell treating him daily, Hitler spent his last weeks in a fog of artificial euphoria and “stable in his delusion,” and his veins had a junkie’s track marks. Because of Allied bombing of manufacturing plants, supplies of the drugs favored by Hitler dried up, his health deteriorated, and he entered withdrawal. He would fire his doctor before committing suicide in 1945.
Written with dramatic flair (Ohler has published several novels in Germany), this book adds significantly to our understanding of the Third Reich.
A scrupulous history of one of the darkest moments in American military history.
On March 16, 1968, troops from the United States Army entered a series of villages in South Vietnam, and what ensued has been called the “My Lai Massacre,” one of the most shameful events in the history of U.S. foreign affairs. Although the numbers remain in dispute, perhaps the most reliable indicate 504 dead, more than half of whom were under 20 years of age. The slaughter served no larger strategic or tactical purpose. It was murder in cold blood, and an out-of-his-depth 24-year-old soldier, William Calley, who was guilty of an array of crimes against humanity that day, would serve as the focal point of the criminal investigations that followed. Calley would be found guilty of murder and sentenced to life in prison. This book is part of the publisher’s Pivotal Moments in American History series, and the events of My Lai—indeed, all of 1968—certainly fit. “My Lai was a turning point for so many reasons,” writes Jones (Blue and Gray Diplomacy: A History of Union and Confederate Foreign Relations, 2010, etc.), “not least for the ways in which it tarnished the image many Americans had of their soldiers, and that the soldiers had of themselves.” The story of that day did not emerge, however, until 1969, primarily due to the investigative journalism of Seymour Hersh, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on My Lai. Jones is a versatile historian—his work has ranged from the nation’s founding era to the modern U.S.—and here, he successfully accomplishes two tasks: first, he provides as comprehensive a history of My Lai as we are likely to see for some time. Second, he thoughtfully probes the myriad ways that the My Lai story has been told.
Jones succeeds on all counts in a book that, due to its subject matter, is not pleasant to read but is powerful and important.
An examination of an infamous 1957 conviction of a young, black Army veteran for the murder of a white police officer that more broadly delineates the struggle for civil rights.
In addition to digging up significant details on this important but little-known case, Bass (History/Samford Univ.; Blessed Are the Peacemakers: Martin Luther King, Jr., Eight White Religious Leaders, and the "Letter from Birmingham Jail", 2001) seamlessly weaves in a larger history of civil rights. On July 12, 1957, when James “Cowboy” Clark stopped black motorist Caliph Washington in the excessively corrupt city of Bessemer, Alabama, a struggle ensued. Clark ended up dead, and Washington fled, soon to be captured in Mississippi. Did Washington intentionally shoot longtime officer Clark during a struggle over Clark’s gun, or could the struggle be considered self-defense due to Washington’s fear that Clark intended to murder him out of racial hatred? Since the Alabama court system wanted to display at least the veneer of justice to the outside world, Washington went to trial. However, he received second-rate lawyering and faced an all-white jury. While on death row, Washington won a new trial due to courtroom irregularities. A second jury convicted Washington, who returned to death row. Under normal circumstances in Alabama, Washington would have been executed quickly at that juncture. However, the newly elected governor, George Wallace, despite his renown as a segregationist, felt uncomfortable with the death penalty, so he granted Washington reprieve after reprieve, which led to a second overturning of the guilty verdict. A third jury, no longer all-white, also convicted Washington. Appellate maneuvering continued for years until, finally, a judge ordered Washington’s release in 1971. The state refused to drop the case, but a fourth trial never occurred, and Washington lived an exemplary life of faith and family until his death in 2001. Throughout a skilled recounting of Washington’s travails, Bass offers extended riveting passages about the broader battle for civil rights in Alabama.
A stirring book that explores numerous aspects of racism in Alabama and the nation as a whole.
How could a civilized nation have brought a self-professed racist and xenophobe to power and then stood by as millions were murdered? It’s not a mystery, according to this important overview of the Shoah.
It does not do, Hayes (Emeritus, Holocaust Studies/Northwestern Univ.; From Cooperation to Complicity: Degussa in the Third Reich, 2007, etc.) notes at the outset, to confront the Holocaust and its legacy of genocide and terror with words like “incomprehensible” and “unfathomable.” Such words amount to “an assertion of the speaker’s innocence—of his or her incapacity not only to conceive of such horror but to enact anything like it.” The German-speaking world was full of such supposed innocents, who protested that they knew nothing of it but enabled and participated in the system all the same. The Holocaust, writes the author, is eminently knowable: “it was the work of humans acting on familiar human weaknesses and motives: wounded pride, fear, self-righteousness, prejudice, and personal ambition being among the most obvious.” Proceeding from the provocative question, “why another book on the Holocaust?”—the entire book is a careful answer to it—Hayes examines precipitating events and conditions, such as a long European tradition of scapegoating and anti-Semitism given new weight by the horrors of World War I. He looks into the participation of sectors of society that normally are not singled out in such accounts, such as the collusion of the German pharmaceutical industry in developing the mechanisms for mass death, and he delves into some particularly thorny questions—e.g., the old saw, “Why didn’t more Jews fight back more often?” One answer: a civilized person is (too?) often inclined to follow orders, even at the risk of their own ruin, “in hopes of preventing them from getting worse.” Throughout, Hayes writes lucidly and with generous spirit.
“Beware the beginnings,” admonishes a German proverb. This noteworthy book is a chilling compendium of warning signs, past and present.
Greed, depravity, and serial murder in 1920s Oklahoma.
During that time, enrolled members of the Osage Indian nation were among the wealthiest people per capita in the world. The rich oil fields beneath their reservation brought millions of dollars into the tribe annually, distributed to tribal members holding "headrights" that could not be bought or sold but only inherited. This vast wealth attracted the attention of unscrupulous whites who found ways to divert it to themselves by marrying Osage women or by having Osage declared legally incompetent so the whites could fleece them through the administration of their estates. For some, however, these deceptive tactics were not enough, and a plague of violent death—by shooting, poison, orchestrated automobile accident, and bombing—began to decimate the Osage in what they came to call the "Reign of Terror." Corrupt and incompetent law enforcement and judicial systems ensured that the perpetrators were never found or punished until the young J. Edgar Hoover saw cracking these cases as a means of burnishing the reputation of the newly professionalized FBI. Bestselling New Yorker staff writer Grann (The Devil and Sherlock Holmes: Tales of Murder, Madness, and Obsession, 2010, etc.) follows Special Agent Tom White and his assistants as they track the killers of one extended Osage family through a closed local culture of greed, bigotry, and lies in pursuit of protection for the survivors and justice for the dead. But he doesn't stop there; relying almost entirely on primary and unpublished sources, the author goes on to expose a web of conspiracy and corruption that extended far wider than even the FBI ever suspected. This page-turner surges forward with the pacing of a true-crime thriller, elevated by Grann's crisp and evocative prose and enhanced by dozens of period photographs.
Dogged original research and superb narrative skills come together in this gripping account of pitiless evil.
An elucidating study of how Russia’s east was won—by hard labor.
Since the 16th century, Siberia has served as Russia’s repository for undesirables, much as the New World and Australia served for Britain. In this engaging study of Russia’s far-flung penal system, British academic Beer (History/Royal Holloway, Univ. of London; Renovating Russia: The Human Sciences and the Fate of Liberal Modernity, 1880-1930, 2008) reveals how the vast area east of the Ural Mountains was gradually settled by fur trappers, soldiers, fugitive serfs, mercenaries, and exiles, pacifying nomadic tribes already sparsely inhabiting the taiga to the north and the steppe to the south. Imperial banishment to Siberia for criminality served both to purge European Russia of “mutinous populations” and to populate the vast eastern expanse and harvest raw materials at key labor sites like the mines of Nerchinsk. Exile was severe and final, especially in the early centuries, with the victim given a “civil death” by a public ceremonial breaking of the sword over his head, flogging, facial scarring, and shaving of one side of the skull; malefactors were fettered together and marched over thousands of miles on primitive roads and many miserable months to reach labor camps. Wives and children were encouraged to accompany the men, although little did the women know of the harsh and dangerous conditions that awaited them (return was barred to them as well). Beer concentrates on political exiles, specifically the Decembrists, who, inspired by ideals of national liberalism, attempted to overthrow Czar Nicholas I in 1825. Many of them were educated aristocrats who used exile for fomenting republicanism, becoming martyrs to the causes of freedom and reform. Beer ably shows how these educated dissidents—including Fyodor Dostoevsky, whose House of the Dead lends its title to this work—transformed Siberia from a political wasteland into a crucible of the nascent Russian revolutionary movement.
An eye-opening, haunting work that delineates how a vast imperial penal system crumbled from its rotten core.