Occasionally cantankerous, but swift, erudite and easy to follow.




The author of numerous works on Russian cultural history races through the 300-year rule of the Romanovs (1613–1917), examining the rulers’ complicated relationships with creative artists.

Volkov (The Magical Chorus: A History of Russian Culture from Tolstoy to Solzhenitsyn, 2008, etc.) is not so much interested in specific works, but rather the choreography of artists and emperors. Although he occasionally devotes a few paragraphs to a major work (e.g., Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin), the author maintains focus on the personalities and political atmosphere. He begins at the premiere of Mikhail Glinka’s opera A Life for the Tsar in 1836; both Pushkin and Turgenev were in the audience awaiting the arrival of Nicholas I. Volkov then moves back to the beginning of the dynasty, to Peter I, whose view of the arts “was utilitarian”—a view shared by a number of his successors. The next major figure is Catherine the Great (the author dispels some of the more bizarre stories about her sexual appetites), who was a writer, a passionate art collector and a patron of the poet Gavrila Derzhavin. Volkov points out a tsarist pattern: Each new one endeavored to ignore the accomplishments of his/her predecessor and to forge a new sort of leadership. Nicholas I, a voracious reader, pulled Pushkin back from exile; other artists danced in and out of favor, as well. The author also tells stories of painters and musicians—sometimes expending pages on sexual speculations (why did the homosexual Tchaikovsky marry?) and with wicked asides about some notables (Tolstoy was “clumsy, ugly, and passive-aggressive”). Volkov often declares the obvious—Crime and Punishment is Dostoevsky’s most popular work, and to be fully appreciated, the novel should be read in Russian.

Occasionally cantankerous, but swift, erudite and easy to follow.

Pub Date: Feb. 24, 2011

ISBN: 978-0-307-27063-4

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Dec. 2, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2010

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The author's youthfulness helps to assure the inevitable comparison with the Anne Frank diary although over and above the...


Elie Wiesel spent his early years in a small Transylvanian town as one of four children. 

He was the only one of the family to survive what Francois Maurois, in his introduction, calls the "human holocaust" of the persecution of the Jews, which began with the restrictions, the singularization of the yellow star, the enclosure within the ghetto, and went on to the mass deportations to the ovens of Auschwitz and Buchenwald. There are unforgettable and horrifying scenes here in this spare and sombre memoir of this experience of the hanging of a child, of his first farewell with his father who leaves him an inheritance of a knife and a spoon, and of his last goodbye at Buchenwald his father's corpse is already cold let alone the long months of survival under unconscionable conditions. 

The author's youthfulness helps to assure the inevitable comparison with the Anne Frank diary although over and above the sphere of suffering shared, and in this case extended to the death march itself, there is no spiritual or emotional legacy here to offset any reader reluctance.

Pub Date: Jan. 16, 2006

ISBN: 0374500010

Page Count: 120

Publisher: Hill & Wang

Review Posted Online: Oct. 7, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2006

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For Howard Zinn, long-time civil rights and anti-war activist, history and ideology have a lot in common. Since he thinks that everything is in someone's interest, the historian—Zinn posits—has to figure out whose interests he or she is defining/defending/reconstructing (hence one of his previous books, The Politics of History). Zinn has no doubts about where he stands in this "people's history": "it is a history disrespectful of governments and respectful of people's movements of resistance." So what we get here, instead of the usual survey of wars, presidents, and institutions, is a survey of the usual rebellions, strikes, and protest movements. Zinn starts out by depicting the arrival of Columbus in North America from the standpoint of the Indians (which amounts to their standpoint as constructed from the observations of the Europeans); and, after easily establishing the cultural disharmony that ensued, he goes on to the importation of slaves into the colonies. Add the laborers and indentured servants that followed, plus women and later immigrants, and you have Zinn's amorphous constituency. To hear Zinn tell it, all anyone did in America at any time was to oppress or be oppressed; and so he obscures as much as his hated mainstream historical foes do—only in Zinn's case there is that absurd presumption that virtually everything that came to pass was the work of ruling-class planning: this amounts to one great indictment for conspiracy. Despite surface similarities, this is not a social history, since we get no sense of the fabric of life. Instead of negating the one-sided histories he detests, Zinn has merely reversed the image; the distortion remains.

Pub Date: Jan. 1, 1979

ISBN: 0061965588

Page Count: 772

Publisher: Harper & Row

Review Posted Online: May 26, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 1979

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