Archive for the ‘Russia’ Category


The Cancer Ward by Alexander Solzhenitsyn

2 February 2010

I have had this book for quite some time now — a lucky find in a library book sale — but I freely admit that the title was intimidating enough to keep me from really attempting to read it until a few months ago. I still need to get my hands on a copy of First Circle at some point.

The Cancer Ward by Alexander Solzhenitsyn

Shortly before Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s novel The Cancer Ward was banned from publication in 1966, Solzhenitsyn attempted to respond to criticisms that he had written the novel as a deliberate attack on the Soviet regime. ‘There are too many medical details for it to be a symbol,‘ he said, adding that the manuscript was ‘about cancer…not as it is written about in literature devised to entertain people, but as it is experienced every day by the sick.’ Although One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Solzhenitsyn’s novella about the Soviet labour camps, and the short stories ‘An Incident at Krechetovka Station’ and ‘Matryona’s House’ had been approved for publication during the political thaw that followed the death of Joseph Stalin and the rise of Nikita Khrushchev, Solzhenitsyn’s latest work pushed the boundaries of appropriate literature in a post-Khrushchev USSR. And in spite of Solzhenitsyn’s protests that the intent of The Cancer Ward was to show a more realistic depiction of the physical and psychological sufferings of cancer patients, he made little attempt to disguise the fact that the pain he was writing about went beyond that of tumours and treatments: the cancer, in fiction and in real life, was the Soviet system itself.

The Cancer Ward is set in the men’s cancer treatment ward of a provincial hospital in the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic, present-day Uzbekistan, a few years after the death of Stalin. The patients on the ward are a mixed lot, young and old, Russians and non-Russians, and range from a former political prisoner in permanent exile to an officious ‘personnel director’ who actively resents being treated in such a shabby hospital with the poor and the indigent. The doctors, nurses, and technicians who staff the hospital do the best that they can in spite of their own set of problems — oppressive bureaucracy and politically motivated meddling, incompetent colleagues who cannot be removed or demoted, and the constant grind of working too many hours with too many responsibilities — that hamper their professional abilities. But as the treatments progress and the patients improve or worsen, bits of strange news begin to filter in from outside the hospital. Why are so many of the old guard Party members, the stalwarts of Stalin’s day, resigning their posts or being replaced in their positions? What is this rumour that thousands of prisoners — people who surely must have done something wrong, since they confessed to all manner of crimes against the State — are to be released and rehabilitated, even allowed to return to their old homes? Something seems to be eating away at the old order bit by bit, and even those who have no love for the Party are forced to wonder whether, in this instance, the cure might be worse than the disease.

The extended allegory of Stalinism-as-cancer makes it very easy to read The Cancer Ward as an anti-Soviet polemic from start to finish. However, Solzhenitsyn himself was a cancer survivor whose illness went untreated until it was almost too late, and his writing brings out the dread, isolation, and uncertainty experienced by cancer patients, who can never be certain whether their discharge from the cancer ward means complete recovery or imminent death. For those who have experienced cancer firsthand, whether their own or that of a loved one, The Cancer Ward will be a painful book to read at times. Yet Solzhenitsyn’s story is not merely a roman à clef or political protest — it celebrates the determination of the human spirit, the desire to live and love and hope and enjoy life in any way possible, whether in the shadow of cancer or in the shadow of the gulag. And even though The Cancer Ward is less well known than One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich or the breath-taking Gulag Archipelago, it deserves to be more widely read.


Publications: Scope Book Review

26 June 2009

The June 2009 issue of the online film studies journal Scope contains my review of What Have They Built You to Do: The Manchurian Candidate and Cold War America by Matthew Frye Jacobson and Gaspar González. It’s a bit longer than my usual reviews, but I do tend to go on a bit when it comes to Cold War film studies.


The Human Factor by Graham Greene

28 September 2008

I keep meaning to read Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana, but I’ve had a difficult time finding it in the library of late. I picked up this other espionage-based work of his in its place, and I found it to be a more than acceptable (if rather less humourous) substitute.

The Human Factor by Graham Greene

Maurice Castle, to all outward appearances, leads a life that is so well-ordered that it might easily be described as boring. He takes the same train to work every morning, eats the same lunch in the same pub that he has frequented for years, arrives home around the same time each evening, drinks the same amount of whiskey (rather too much, but not enough to prevent him from functioning in the morning) before bed, and starts his next workday with the same routine. Even his work for British intelligence, monitoring the trickles of information that come from scattered agents and observation posts in southern Africa, is far from exciting. The only real colour in his life, so to speak, comes his wife Sarah and son Sam. Castle had met Sarah in South Africa almost a decade ago, when he was stationed there, and both of them had fled the country barely a step ahead of BOSS, the South African intelligence service — because Sarah is black, and their relationship had violated South Africa’s race laws. Castle had hoped that returning to England would mark the end of his and Sarah’s troubles, but his escape had come at a terrible price, and not all of his debts had been paid in full. So when Castle’s superiors suspect that someone in his department has been passing information to the Soviets, and the calm and orderly life that he has tried so hard to protect is in danger of crumbling around him, Maurice Castle takes the greatest risk of his life in a frantic, last-ditch effort to salvage his marriage, his family, and what little remains of his freedom.

Graham Greene’s The Human Factor is based on Greene’s experiences in British intelligence during World War II, as well as his travels to remote locations in British colonial outposts in Africa and elsewhere in the 1940s and 1950s. In his introduction to the book, he states that had hoped to write a novel that depicted intelligence work as a normal and relatively mundane working world, one which deliberately contradicted the popular image of espionage as violent, glamourous, and full of action. His other purpose in writing The Human Factor was his interest in exploring the various contradictions present in international relations, which in the book take the form of British intelligence’s collaboration with the South African security services. The hypocrisy of officially denouncing apartheid while simultaneously working with the South Africans against Communist influence and black African nationalism is a constant theme. Castle’s struggle with the paradox of his work, as he is ordered to grit his teeth and work with the same South African intelligence officer who had threatened to imprison both him and Sarah, provides much of the driving force of the plot.

Greene builds the story slowly and methodically, ratcheting up the tension by careful and agonising degrees as Castle gradually realises the depth of the trap he has laid for himself. The climax culminates in a sickening plot twist that somehow manages to be both unexpected and oddly inevitable, and gives The Human Factor a frustrating but nonetheless realistic ending. Much like his earlier novel The Quiet American, Greene’s primary thematic interest lies in the effects of international politics on the lives of individuals — particularly those who are drawn into the game against their will. And even if one or two moments within the story push at the edges of the reader’s suspension of disbelief, The Human Factor does a very thorough job of stripping the intelligence community of its glamour and reducing it to the cold logic of its outcomes. It feels very plausible, which makes Maurice Castle’s fate all the more sobering to consider after the fact.


The Struggle for Europe: The Turbulent History of a Divided Continent by William I. Hitchcock

3 September 2008

I tend to review very specialised, subject-specific books, mostly because I am often dissatisfied with a lot of the broader survey books that are out there. So when a good example of a well-written survey book lands in my reading pile, it’s that much more enjoyable to review.

The Struggle for Europe: The Turbulent History of a Divided Continent by William I. Hitchcock

Attempting to write a good general history book about Europe after World War II presents any number of challenges to a prospective author, the most common of which tends to be the prominence of the Cold War in that postwar history. Cold War-era histories cannot help but dwell on the roles of the superpowers, and depending on the author’s own nationality, many promising books on postwar European history end up giving the United States or the Soviet Union too much ‘screen time’ at the expense of their actual subject. A book that is able to keep the focus squarely on the European experience is worthy of note — and history professor William Hitchcock’s The Struggle for Europe: The Turbulent History of a Divided Continent manages this feat with alacrity.

The Struggle for Europe works hard to balance the little details and the broader themes of postwar European history, and as a rule it does not dwell too long on one subject, country, or historical figure. Both sides of the Iron Curtain are represented, and the often neglected countries of southern Europe — Spain, Portugal, and Greece — have a separate section devoted to the history of their respective transitions from right-wing authoritarianism and military governments to democratic participation in the European Union. Individuals like Margaret Thatcher and Charles de Gaulle, who can easily overwhelm historical writing by the sheer force of their presence, are prominent but kept in proportion — most often, in proportion to the amount of trouble they caused their neighbours. One of the more notable sections of the book is Hitchcock’s comprehensive coverage of events in the Warsaw Pact countries during the 1980s and 1990s, from the Solidarity strikes in Poland to the gruesome execution of Nicolae Ceaucescu and his wife in Romania, which avoids treating the end of the Cold War as a fait accompli in the way that so many other Cold War history books do. This leads nicely into an overview of the breakup of Yugoslavia and the Bosnian wars, as good a place as any to bring a history of postwar Europe to a close.

Hitchcock’s writing style is smooth and flowing, not exactly conversational but nonetheless free from the stiffness that might make it sound too much like a straight classroom lecture. There’s little in the way of social history or commentary on demographic and other trends, which might make the history seem a little dry for some yet manages to prevent the narrative from meandering off on random tangents. (Personally, I would have liked a little more structure to the end-notes, but I know that some readers find end-notes off-putting and Hitchcock clearly has taken this segment of his intended audience into account.) Overall, The Struggle for Europe hits all of the right points that a basic, general survey history book should have. Those who are looking to brush up on the events they lived through and never appreciated, or learned about in school and never understood, likely would find it a very useful place to begin.


We Never Make Mistakes by Alexander Solzhenitsyn

10 August 2008

When I read about Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s death a few days ago, I decided to take the opportunity to rummage through my bookshelves to select a few of his works to revisit. I left A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and both volumes of The Gulag Archipelago on the shelf, not because I didn’t want to read them but because I thought it would be better to read ones that I’m less familiar with. So I took my copies of Cancer Ward and the book below, and I intend to pick up a copy of The First Circle if it’s available from my local library.

We Never Make Mistakes by Alexander Solzhenitsyn

We Never Make Mistakes is a pair of short stories written by Alexander Solzhenitsyn and published in the Russian literary magazine Novy Mir in 1963. Solzhenitsyn had made his publishing debut in Novy Mir earlier in the previous year with his groundbreaking story A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, the first major work to thoroughly describe the Soviet prison camp system known as the gulag. Although the gulag never fully appears in either of the short stories in this book, its shadow hangs over both of them, as it did over much of Solzhenitsyn’s work. That undercurrent of uneasiness, of horrors left unspoken and worries and fears that cannot be mentioned, provides much of the mood for both stories and constantly reminds the reader that these stories were written in a time when the fundamental beliefs that had supported the structure of the Soviet Union for several decades were first beginning to come into question.

The first story, ‘An Incident at Krechetovka Station’, is set during the early weeks of the German invasion of the Soviet Union during World War II. The plot focuses on an upright, vigilant, and devotedly Marxist army officer named Zotov, the station commander at Krechetovka railway station. Zotov carries out his duties as best he can in the chaos and confusion of wartime, and when a lost young soldier appears at his station, Zotov considers it his task to reunite the young man with his unit. Yet after a seemingly casual remark made by the soldier gives Zotov cause to think that the young straggler might be a German spy, his faith in the infallibility of the Soviet system is shaken by the thought that doing his duty might mean condemning an innocent man to prison — or, more likely, to a bullet in the back of the head. The second story, ‘Matryona’s House’, is told from the point of view of a man who has been released from the gulag and has found a job teaching mathematics at a tiny school in one of the backwater villages dotted throughout Russia’s interior. (Solzhenitsyn himself found similar employment as a secondary school teacher after his release from the gulag.) Upon his arrival, the narrator takes up residence in the home of Matryona, an elderly peasant woman who lives in desperate poverty in a dilapidated, vermin-infested hut with only a scrawy goat and a lame cat for company. Matryona’s long-suffering patience in the face of hunger, cold, and chronic illness, and her exploitation by greedy relatives and unsympathetic local officials, gradually makes an impression on the unemotional narrator, but only when a serious accident befalls Matryona does he realise exactly what she has come to mean to him as a symbol of his country and his people.

Both stories are rather pessimistic in tone, something which did not go over very well with the Soviet authorities at the time of their publication. Solzhenitsyn’s careful attention to storytelling detail shows through best in his account of the day-to-day miseries and deprivation of the average Soviet citizen, doing for rural farmworkers and harried military officers and worn-out old women what his Ivan Denisovich did for inmates of the Soviet penal camp system. The translation in my particular edition is the original English translation drafted by Paul Blackstock — it includes a short glossary of terms for a handful of words that need further explanation in English or are otherwise left untranslated in the text, but otherwise attempts to keep the translation as simple and literal as possible. So even though they are not as well known as some of Solzhenitysn’s other fiction and nonfiction works, the two short stories in We Never Make Mistakes provide an calm, unflinching, and at times semi-autobiographical perspective on life in the Soviet Union, shining a harsh light on the flaws and failings of a country that was still recovering from the ravages of Stalinism.


Orwell and Politics (edited by Peter Davison)

17 June 2008

The fourth and final review of the Penguin Press editions of selected writings by George Orwell, following on from Orwell in Spain, Orwell and the Dispossessed, and Orwell’s England.

(On a fun note, a friend of mine sent me a link to Kate Beaton‘s marvellous comic strip about George Orwell, which I simply have to share.)

Orwell and Politics (edited by Peter Davison)

The main text in Orwell and Politics is Animal Farm — not 1984, which is what one might expect as the text of choice for a book that focuses primarily on Orwell’s political writings. Either book works, in whatever context, and the choice to look at Animal Farm allowed editor Peter Davison to bring in some letters that deserve to be reprinted in connection with the text. But both books were written relatively late in Orwell’s life, not many years before his death. The bulk of his other political writings deserve just as much attention, if for no other reason than the fact that the essays, review articles, and letters contained in this volume illustrate the formation and development of the ideas that eventually found their expression in his two best-known novels.

Several of the selections in this book explore incidents from Orwell’s time in Burma, serving as a member of the police force that kept colonial rule firmly in place in this outpost of the British Empire. Orwell’s experiences in Burma provided a strong foundation for his interest in socialism and eventually found their way into print in his book Burmese Days. Orwell and Politics also contains the second and third parts of ‘The Lion and the Unicorn’ — the first part of which was reprinted in Orwell’s England — which look at how a uniquely ‘English Socialism’ might form a socialist identity free of the ideological weight of Soviet-dictated communism. (Rather interesting that the ‘Ingsoc’ of 1984 would have its roots in a perversion of this idea.) ‘Why I Write’ and ‘Politics and the English Language’, two of Orwell’s finest essays on the uses and abuses of language and political writing, are a notable part of this volume. Several other articles included come from Orwell’s regular column in the left-leaning Tribune newspaper. A number of letters to friends and colleagues round out the book.

One final thing deserves to be mentioned. Towards the end of Orwell and Politics is a particularly fascinating little fragment of writing, penned in May 1949 when Orwell was lying ill with tuberculosis. On it were the names of three dozen writers and artists who he considered to be ‘crypto-communists’ or ‘fellow travellers’, and therefore unsuitable for any work having to do with the creation of anticommunist propaganda. Orwell had written the list for his friend Celia Kirwan, who worked at the Foreign Office — it is now available at the National Archives at Kew in file FO 1110/189. (This New York Review of Books article by Timothy Garton Ash provides more information on the list itself and the circumstances surrounding its creation.) The little snip of information provides a fitting conclusion to Orwell and Politics, a glimpse of one man’s attempt to practise the beliefs he wrote about with such passion and consideration.


The Crown Jewels: The British Secrets at the Heart of the KGB Archives by Nigel West and Oleg Tsarev

3 January 2008

More books on espionage? Just the one left for the moment — this one’s nonfiction, at least.

Shortly after I’d first read Miranda Carter’s excellent biography of Anthony Blunt, I decided it would be a good time to return to this book, which I’d started several times but hadn’t managed to finish. I assumed that my sluggish reading pace came because I simply wasn’t devoting proper attention to it to make the reading experience worthwhile. So when I picked it up again at a point when I had more time, I ended up re-evaluating my initial reaction to the book — albeit not necessarily in the book’s favour.

The Crown Jewels: The British Secrets at the Heart of the KGB Archives by Nigel West and Oleg Tsarev

Having returned to this book, I concluded that my lack of interest seems to spring from the book’s rather misleading subtitle. The Crown Jewels seems to me to be less about the actual secrets found in the archives than about the people who put those secrets there in the first place. Unfortunately, the writing style of the book doesn’t make this different topic nearly as interesting as it could be.

The Crown Jewels seems to hint that the book will be about the specific kinds of secrets passed to Soviet intelligence by various British spies and Soviet agents over the years. There are certainly enough British intelligence secrets present in the pages, but the presentation of the material is done in an awkward, jerky style that buries the secrets themselves in a hodgepodge of confusing and ill-defined codenames and often goes off on any number of tangents. Specific events of spying and theft, some were quite crucial to the expansion of the Soviet network in Britain, are picked up and dropped into the text and never really explained. Perhaps the authors presume that the reader already has some background knowledge of the history of Soviet espionage in Britain. I understood a good deal more of this book’s material on Anthony Blunt because I’d read Carter’s biography, but if I had tried to pull the information from West and Tsarev’s book and then apply it to the biography then I’d be very confused indeed. I do know that Carter consulted The Crown Jewels in the writing of the Blunt biography, and yet I have a feeling that the consultation was more for fact-checking and date-confirming purposes than for any other reason.

The best sections of this book include archival materials from formerly unaccessible KGB files — the documents are found in the appendices and block-quoted in the text itself. In my opinion, if this book was about two hundred pages longer, then it could be a remarkably impressive study of Soviet espionage in Britain from Bolshevik days until about 1960. As it is, the book reads as if it has been pared down by an overly ruthless editorial process and some less-than-careful revisions on the part of the authors. Much of the tasty meat of the spy game has been removed, leaving a jumbled heap of the bare bones of names and dates that don’t truly satisfy. A pity, really — it’s plain that there’s quite a lot of interesting information out there for those who are interested in the history of Soviet espionage in the United Kingdom.


Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; The Honourable Schoolboy; and Smiley’s People by John le Carré

23 December 2007

I was going to post these three books in separate reviews, but putting them all together feels like a neater package. I have several other John le Carré book reviews in the queue, so I’ll likely be posting them fairly soon.

On a side note — one thing I’ve always noticed when reading John le Carré’s books is that I often feel as if I happened to be reading a book in translation. There’s a certain carefulness to his word choice, a very deliberate precision that I don’t often detect in books that haven’t been translated from another language. I still don’t quite know what to make of that sensation, but it’s one of the reasons why I truly enjoy reading the le Carré canon.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

‘Tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor, rich man, poor man, beggarman, thief….’

Although the title of this book comes from the words of a children’s counting rhyme, John le Carré places these simple words at the heart of a darkly sinister tale of high Cold War espionage. The book opens in an already tense atmosphere, an unsettled time for those who work in and for British Intelligence. The high-profile failure (and subsequent exposure) of an important operation in Czechoslovakia has led to a massive shake-up in the service, and those who have managed to keep their jobs want nothing more than to put the failure behind them. But one of the most senior Intelligence officers, who had lost his place and was forced into ‘early retirement’, believes that there is something far more sinister behind the operation gone wrong. George Smiley, the officer in question, believes that there is a traitor concealed somewhere in the highest levels of the service — a Soviet mole who bears the ultimate responsibility for countless betrayed agents and blown operations. Since he has nothing left to lose, Smiley decides to use all of his old contacts and intelligence tricks to unearth the mole…and in the process, he must confront past mistakes and interrogate old rivals and friends, all the while aware that one of those friends might be the traitor he intends to destroy.

John le Carré’s world is really a classic image of the old-school spy novel: more tame than Ian Fleming, more down-to-earth than Tom Clancy, but gripping nonetheless. He deals in all in shades and variations of grey, from the grey skies of London to the grey buildings in Cambridge Circus (the home base of the British Intelligence network) to the grey areas of morality where his characters always seem to dwell. George Smiley, though fantastically clever, is a rather faded character — as if years and years of working on Her Majesty’s Secret Service had washed all the colour out of him. The story is crafted carefully enough to make the reader second-guess most every first impression of the characters as the tale spins itself out and the story become more intricate. The story has a resolution, not a happy ending, but then again a happy ending would likely feel somewhat out of place in le Carré’s world.

The Honourable Schoolboy

In Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, George Smiley manages to discover the identity of the Soviet mole who had infiltrated the highest echelons of British intelligence — and also finds out that the man in question had been sleeping with his (Smiley’s, that is) wife. So The Honourable Schoolboy opens onto the essential wreckage of Smiley’s personal and professional life. But Smiley is determined to clear up the mess that has landed in his lap, and so he sets out on the track of his oldest enemy — Karla, his counterpart in Soviet intelligence. His weapon of choice in this round is the Honourable Jerry Westerby, a brilliant but erratic agent who is set on Karla’s trail through Hong Kong and Cambodia against the backdrop of the end of American involvement in Vietnam. By the end of the novel, it might seem as if Smiley and the reader are no closer to Karla than they were before, but the stage is set for the final showdown in the final book of the trilogy.

The Honourable Schoolboy is another of Le Carré’s terrifically convoluted tales of Cold War espionage. The action keeps flashing back and forth from Smiley, stuck in London and trying to hold the fort against the criticisms and attacks from Whitehall and the American ‘cousins’, to Westerby, running all over the Far East and delving deep into the urban jungle of colonial Hong Kong. And whereas Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy introduces the reader to George’s Smiley’s secret world, it’s in The Honourable Schoolboy where the deeper contradictions of that world begin to show. One of Smiley’s colleagues reflects on the strain of intelligence work and how it is clearly beginning to affect his superior’s view of the world:

…one of two things will happen to George. He’ll cease to care, or the paradox will kill him. If he ceases to care, he’ll be half the operator he is. If he doesn’t, that little chest will blow up from the struggle of trying to find the explanation for what we do.

And while in some respects it’s apparent that this book is the second of a planned trilogy, a bit of a stop-gap between Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smiley’s People, it is still a cracking good read in its own right.

Smiley’s People

Smiley’s People was initially published in 1980, and in some ways it definitely reads like a lament for the ‘good old days’ (such as they were) of the Cold War. George Smiley, the hero (or at least the protagonist) of the previous two books, is still bogged down in the bureaucratic war that the intelligence services are always fighting with Whitehall. Most of his old colleagues have faded away, and his purpose is becoming more and more difficult to justify to himself. And when one of his ‘people’, an elderly exile from a country now behind the Iron Curtain, is found murdered in a manner that unmistakeably points in the direction of Moscow Centre and Karla, Smiley must pick up the chase again and track his quarry to ground. In doing so, though, he cannot help but reflect the far simpler and more straightforward past — a past that, like Smiley and his people, is on the point of becoming irrelevant.

The final book of the Smiley trilogy is a good deal bleaker than the first two, which is saying quite a bit for Le Carré’s style of writing and the nature of the story itself. Perhaps it’s the knowledge that this really is the final chase — and Smiley himself is aware that if he succeeds in catching his nemesis, he will only do so by exhausting his own ability to function in the secret world to which he has devoted his life. In his old age, Smiley finds himself questioning the very methods he has to use to track Karla. If he uses Karla’s methods, the same methods he has simultaneously admired and deplored for so long, can he really savour the final victory if and when it comes?

In the conclusion to the Smiley trilogy, Le Carré proves once again that he is a master of classic espionage fiction. His world isn’t flashy and seductive or gung-ho and full of technology. It’s a world that is worn at the edges, tired but serviceable and yet certain to vanish the next time some high-flying civil servant takes it into his head to ‘re-evaluate’ or ‘prioritise’. Le Carré knew it well enough at one point, and in this particular book he gives it something approaching a Viking funeral — dignified, certainly, but not quite so pleasant to watch.


Bobby Fischer Goes to War by David Edmonds and John Eidinow

25 November 2007

After reading about the arrest of Garry Kasparov at a protest rally in Moscow, I was reminded of this review that I’ve been meaning to post for some time now. Chess-related, understandably.

Bobby Fischer Goes to War by David Edmonds and John Eidinow

David Edmonds and John Eidinow co-authored Wittgenstein’s Poker, an analytical study of an altercation between the philosophers Ludwig Wittgenstein and Karl Popper (allegedly involving the brandishing of a fireplace poker). As might be gathered from this book’s title, Bobby Fischer Goes to War is about more than just a single incident — it’s the story of the 1972 World Chess Championship match played in Reykjavik, Iceland, between reigning chess champion Boris Spassky (of the Soviet Union) and challenger Bobby Fischer (of the United States). At the time, and even into the present day, the championship was touted as yet another Cold War confrontation between the US and the USSR, the plucky young American wunderkind standing up to the Soviet chess machine. Edmonds and Eidinow do their best to pick apart that Cold War myth by setting out the history of the players, the modern chess tournament system, and a near play-by-play account of the match itself.

Edmonds and Eidinow also do a marvellous job at explaining chess in terms that even non-chess players can understand. But the chess comes almost secondary to their description of the events surrounding the match itself, particularly the insane antics of Bobby Fischer. Some accounts of the match claim that Fischer’s constantly changing demands and prolonged temper tantrums over nearly every single aspect of the tournament were in reality a carefully planned psychological attack on Spassky…but reading Edmonds and Eidinow’s account, there seems to be very little question that Fischer’s behaviour was unsporting, uncivilised and just plain bizarre. Complaints about the lighting and the presence of television cameras seem understandable, but when Fischer refused to use the handcrafted marble chessboard made expressly for the match because he claimed that minute imperfections in the stone would distract him during match-play, it is difficult to feel anything but sympathy for anyone who had to spend more than five minutes in Fischer’s presence. Spassky definitely comes out as an unfortunate victim in Bobby Fischer Goes to War, conducting himself with good grace as best as he could — and then returning to the Soviet Union to face an official enquiry as to why he had lost to the brash young American.

My copy of Bobby Fischer Goes to War is subtitled ‘How a Lone American Star Defeated the Soviet Chess Machine’. The subtitle might better read ‘How a Deranged American Star Bullied His Way to Victory’. The book is definitely a gripping account, thoroughly entertaining and well-paced. I certainly came away knowing more about chess and chess play than I ever thought I could learn from 300-odd pages. The book could be made into a fantastic feature film — and if it ever is, I will definitely be there on opening night.


The First Guide to Prisons and Concentration Camps of the Soviet Union by Avram Shifrin

8 November 2007

I was looking for a suitable book to post to commemorate the 90th anniversary of the beginning of the October Revolution, but it seems that I’ve already gone through and posted most of my previously written USSR-related book reviews…except for this one. And since I don’t have my copy of my perennial favourite title, Will the Soviet Union Survive Until 1984?, with me at the moment, this book is the next obvious candidate.

A bit of backstory on how I acquired it: When one of my undergraduate history professors retired, he invited those of us who were taking his class on modern Russian history to come to his office and take anything we wanted off his bookshelves. He’d already gone through and cleared out all the books he had room for and wanted to keep, and he figured that it would be a lot easier for his students to clear off the shelves for him before he took the rest of the books to be recycled or donated….and no, I didn’t actually trample anyone in my haste to get to his office once the lecture had ended. That said, one of the books I made off with was this one.

The First Guide to Prisons and Concentration Camps of the Soviet Union by Avram Shifrin

As the title says, it’s a guidebook, first published by a Soviet dissident in the early 1980s. And by a guidebook, I mean that it gives general (and sometimes quite specific) locations of Soviet prisons and labour camps, the remaining substance of the gulag, broken down by area and region and type of prison. The guidebook even goes so far as to mention the type of labour that is done or thought to be done at each prison, whether in heavy industry or manufacturing…or the ‘special’ camps where prisoners worked to mine radioactive materials (without adequate shielding) or performed tasks that can only be described as murderous (such as cleaning the nozzles on nuclear submarines). Also included in the guidebook are the location of politico-psychiatric facilities where prisoners were often held, generally with no attempt made to separate political prisoners from the actually insane. And since the book is written and edited by a man who spent several years in the prison camp system, based on research he compiled with others who had fallen foul of the Soviet justice system, there’s an authenticity to it that has to be seen to be fully understood.

This book is almost certainly out of print, and probably only available in used bookshops if anywhere. I only managed to get my hands on a copy by chance. But it’s absolutely chilling to read, because it shows the depth and breadth of the prison camp system in the USSR years after Stalin’s death. When you look at the book and think that every little dot on the map represents anywhere from two dozen to several hundred human lives, many imprisoned for their dissenting opinions or even their well-meaning attempts to reform their political system…well, it wasn’t so long ago, historically speaking. Shifrin’s guidebook manages to bring home the reality of the gulag in a way that few purely academic texts can hope to emulate.