A slightly sidelong but illuminating view of the difficulties of writing recent history in a land still suffering from it.
Yale University Press editorial director Brent (co-author: Stalin’s Last Crime: The Plot Against the Jewish Doctors, 1948–1953, 2003) first traveled to Russia in the aftermath of the Soviet regime’s collapse, when it seemed everything was for sale. His goal was the acquisition of Soviet archives, including the personal archives of Stalin, with an eye to producing a series of books, Annals of Communism. To achieve it, he notes, he had to take up smoking and swallow endless shots of vodka. He had to spend money. He had to contend with corruption, anti-Semitism and the continuing apotheosis of a murderous dictator. He also had to develop a special kind of etiquette that, more than anything else, simply signaled respect for the apparatchiks, scholars and intermediaries he had to deal with. By Brent’s account, he did all these things—accomplishing the last by shaking off his press’s insistent lawyer and cutting deals in a rather free-form fashion as the situation dictated. Clearly Brent is sympathetic to the Russians. After all, he writes, he studied the language not just to read Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, but also to understand the lyrics sung by the Red Army Chorus (“People who could sing such songs, I thought, could not possibly be my enemy”). Just as clearly, he possesses the blend of scholarship and entrepreneurship that characterizes a good university-press editor, and any aspiring publisher will find much to learn by following his acquisition of the last tsaritsa’s personal diary and his wranglings with various hands-out souls (“Jonathan, I need money. I have no money. What will I do? What? I have no money”).
A welcome book, of particular interest to Russian historians and bibliophiles alike.