PositiveHarpersWhile Stepanova’s poetry is crafted from the intangible relics and rubbish of language, In Memory of Memory curates physical remnants of the past, using them as the raw material for a family history. Here family is not only a matter of biology; it also encompasses writers and artists from the past, as well as relatively unknown historical characters such as Lyubov Shaporina, an artist who kept a Leningrad siege diary in which surprising lyrical moments appear ... The story of this influx of Russian women, many of them Jewish, into French medical schools, which began accepting women in the 1860s, is one of the book’s numerous fascinating asides ... The story of Lyodik...killed outside Leningrad...is one of the most moving in the book, as Stepanova uses other sources to piece together what Lyodik must have been experiencing on the front, and the horrors taking place in the besieged Leningrad for which he died ... By insisting on the value of idiosyncratic family remembrance, Stepanova refuses the dissolution of self that characterizes militarism and nationalism. For her, private commemoration, along with the contemplation of art, is a way of developing the kind of self-reflective, generous-minded citizenship necessary for a functional democracy. For American readers, Stepanova’s work is not a glimpse into an alien culture but a reminder that we have more in common with Russia than we’d like to admit.
MixedThe New York Times Book ReviewMuch of The Lost Pianos of Siberia consists of neat summaries of major events in Russian history ... This is not a book for readers already familiar with Russian history. Nor is it a book for music buffs. There are many pianos, but there is remarkably little about music. Roberts’s descriptions of landscapes are as lovely as fine embroidery, but when she searches for words to describe music she comes up empty ... Like Lenin’s corpse, a very old piano will have to be reconstituted from new materials if it is to persevere. But Roberts loves a relic ... This is the magical approach to objects that prevails in house museums, which rely on possessions as a kind of spirit medium. But a reader cannot finger the keys of these instruments or peep inside at the strings and hammers, touching the piano and communing with its former owner. A reader is reading, and words will have to do.
MixedThe New RepublicWith its concentric rings of self-scrutiny, Unfinished Business shows that Gornick’s commitment to altering consciousness—above all, her own—has only intensified with time ... Against the backdrop of a cascade of national and global emergencies, Gornick’s dedicated decades of self-scrutiny seem an almost impossible luxury. The American romance with communism was a failure. But today, the rift in the self seems less consequential than the rift between rich and poor, and our economic, political, and ecological crises cannot be confronted in solitude.
MixedThe New York Review of BooksYaffa understands compromise under state pressure as the defining experience of life under Putin ... Yaffa provides a gripping, cinematic description of a series of trips she took in an old ambulance ... Yaffa’s definition of the \'political\' is also overly narrow. War and authoritarianism are undoubtedly political, but so are homelessness, poverty, and lack of medical care...especially in a country flush with oil money ... Yaffa is good at using himself as a comic character, and I wished he’d done it more often ... It’s easy to write about other people’s compromises; it’s much harder to write about your own. Between Two Fires would have benefited from a reflection on the compromises made by an American journalist covering Russia at a time of rapidly escalating tensions between the two countries.
PositiveThe New York Review of BooksThough Floating Coast is billed as an environmental history, it could also be described as a meditation on a biosphere. Demuth includes lavish descriptions of the landscape she has been admiring since she first visited as a teenager, but relatively little in the way of straightforward political or economic history ... Demuth organizes her book thematically...which leads to chronological jumps that can be confusing, especially given the leaps between the American and Russian/Soviet cases and among different industries. Her prose is often portentous, and her frequent use of wordplay and inversion quickly becomes irritating ... But Demuth’s passion for her subject shines through on every page, and her account is enriched by her extensive personal experience in Beringia. Rather than treating the Arctic as a plein-air museum, she shows how death and destruction are essential aspects of life.
Vasily Grossman, Trans. by Robert Chandler and Elizabeth Chandler
PositiveThe New RepublicStalingrad shows a writer who was a less adamant critic of the Soviet project than a reader of Life and Fate might think. It also presents some of the finest examples of Grossman’s prose, an argument to read him not only as a fervent critic of totalitarianism, but as a deeply compassionate writer with an extraordinary gift for portraying psychological complexity and sensory detail ... like Tolstoy, he can paint a vivid picture of almost any sort of person ... Stalingrad is an extreme case of a \'loose baggy monster,\' but the lesser sections—for example, chapters on a wartime coal mine, added at the behest of editors—fade from memory quickly, while Grossman’s exquisite sensory details linger ... Stalingrad is, among other things, a testament to the human capacity to rally the bravery, altruism, and resilience needed to bring the world back from the brink of destruction.
PositiveThe New York Review of BooksKate Brown is interested in the aftermath of Chernobyl, not the disaster itself. Her heroes are not first responders but brave citizen-scientists, independent-minded doctors and health officials, journalists, and activists who fought doggedly to uncover the truth about the long-term damage caused by Chernobyl. Her villains include not only the lying, negligent Soviet authorities, but also the Western governments and international agencies that, in her account, have worked for decades to downplay or actually conceal the human and ecological cost of nuclear war, nuclear tests, and nuclear accidents ... asks a larger question about how humans will coexist with the ever-increasing quantities of toxins and pollutants that we introduce into our air, water, and soil. Brown’s careful mapping of the path isotopes take is highly relevant to other industrial toxins, and to plastic waste.
PanThe NationSnyder’s latest book, The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America, marks the next phase in his transformation from academic historian to political commentator; it is also the apotheosis of a certain paranoid style that has emerged among liberals in Trump’s wake ... But Snyder’s picture of Putin’s campaign to destroy America is unconvincing. Rather than building an argument based on evidence, he often cherry-picks news items to make a tendentious case, relying heavily on the kinds of leading phrases endemic to conspiratorial thinking ... Snyder is unwilling to make the slightest effort to imagine that Russia might have any strategic concerns that go beyond its plot against freedom ... The Road to Unfreedom offers a bleak vision of politics for future activists: one in which all change comes from above, and ordinary people cannot be trusted
PanThe NationAnne Applebaum’s Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine, a new history of the famine, illustrates the perils of using the past in the service of today’s politics. Drawing on archives opened after the fall of the Soviet Union, newly available oral histories, and recent scholarship, Applebaum provides an accessible, up-to-date account of this nightmarish but still relatively unknown episode of the 20th century. Her historical account is distorted, however, by her loathing of communism and by her eagerness to shape the complicated story of the famine into one more useful for the present: about a malevolent Russia and a heroic, martyred, unified Ukraine.
RaveBookforumLike many memoirs of the Stalinist period, Petrushevskaya's stresses the redemptive power of art. One of her brightest memories is of being allowed into the warm technician's booth at the Kuibyshev opera house and watching Rossini's The Barber of Seville, performed by the evacuated Bolshoi Theater ... Her memoir has the fairy-tale ending its plucky heroine deserves. She graduates from journalism school, specializing in humor writing, and joins other students on a trip to northern Kazakhstan to work as a laborer and learn about the lives of "the people." There, she meets the Moscow journalists who launch her literary career. We already know she'll become a famous writer, but may not have guessed that, in her sixties, Petrushevskaya will start a second career as a cabaret singer. Writers of fiction can afford not to draw too sharp a line between the realistic and the fantastical—not every memoirist is so lucky, or so deft. Petrushevskaya is blessed with good material, but it also helps that she was teaching herself how to reinvent it before she could walk.
PanThe New York Times Book Review...the 'untold' in the subtitle simply isn’t true. The story of Pasternak’s affair with Olga has been told repeatedly — for instance, in Olga’s own memoirs, which serve as a central source for Lara and are available in English, as are memoirs by several of Pasternak’s family members and friends ... In Lara, Anna Pasternak treats Doctor Zhivago as a romance, more or less interchangeable with the hit movie, and she displays minimal understanding of Pasternak’s literary achievement. (Though he is best known outside Russia for Doctor Zhivago, Pasternak’s most innovative and influential work was poetry.) Lara is poorly organized and larded with romantic clichés. Evgeny Pasternak, the poet’s eldest son, provides more insight in a few quoted lines than Lara manages to do in a chapter. Pasternak fans and incurable romantics will be better off sticking to Doctor Zhivago, or searching out the earlier memoirs that serve as this new book’s central sources.