Thursday, January 8, 2009

Jonathan Brent, Inside the Stalin Archives: Discovering the New Russia

I seem to have something of a literary fetish for Stalin. Odd coming from someone whose grandfather died in the gulag?

Young Stalin, Koba the Dread, Revolution on my Mind... Maybe it's just totalitarianism. Maybe there's something in me. Maybe there's something I imagine might be in Stalin to explain... what? Why we're so cruel? How it is that after millions dead we still act the way we do, in ways both small and large?

Not quite memoir, nor history, Jonathan Brent's Inside the Stalin Archives is a pleasing mix of both, with a strong dose of current events thrown in; perhaps to justify the "Discovering the New Russia" subtitle. I'm not sure there is any substantially new ground turned over in the work, but Brent is a good writer with some interesting stories and an eye for entertaining and telling detail (though he does, occasionally, overwork the latter).

The most telling detail, for me, is the story Brent repeats at least twice and which he closes the book with (a struggle with trying to understand what's happening in Russia; why the figure of Stalin, as a revered figure, persists; why anti-Semitism has exploded... again): Stalin chastising his son for taking advantage of his name -- "Stalin is Soviet power. Stalin is what he is in the newspapers and the portraits, not you, not even me!"

If I ever really understood that, could feel that, I would be dead to everything. But to try to understand that? Look around you: we have to try.

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