Saturday, January 05, 2008

From Russian History

Joshua and I have completed our recent round of books on Russian history. Josh and I read extensively from Russian history during the summer of 2006, and we returned to this subject late in 2007. All of the books we just completed reading were published in 2006 and all were 2006 Christmas gifts.

Michael Occleshaw’s “Dances In Deep Shadows: The Clandestine War In Russia, 1917-1920” is primarily an examination of the efforts of Britain’s intelligence service to influence events in Russia during the period in which the Revolution had taken firm hold in Russian cities but in which large swathes of the countryside remained in play among various factions. Occleshaw’s research is taken from recently-opened British archives, and the author does a fine job of presenting the fruits of his research. However, this is a specialist’s study, as well as largely a British study, and it is of minimal interest to anyone not keen on plowing through pages and pages of discussion of old foreign dispatches. Published as recently as June 2006, “The Clandestine War In Russia” is already out of print in the United States. A mere 360 pages, Occleshaw’s book is too long.

By contrast, Rodric Braithwaite’s “Moscow 1941: A City And Its People At War” is, at 416 pages, too short. “Moscow 1941” is one of many excellent books about the war on the Eastern Front that has appeared in recent years. Since the 1980’s, Western historians have devoted increasing attention to the war in the East, and this emphasis has been enhanced with the ongoing (but highly selective) release of Russian archives.

Braithwaite was Britain’s ambassador to the Soviet Union from 1988 to 1992. During his years in Moscow, he obviously developed a deep affection for the Russian people, whom he clearly admires.

Braithwaite argues that the Battle Of Moscow was the crucial showdown of the Eastern Front and the most important battle of the entire war, a claim that, on both counts, must certainly be dismissed. Although fought on the largest possible scale (seven million participants were involved in an area of operations the size of France), the Battle Of Moscow was the first crack in the armor of the Nazis and demonstrated, for the first time in the war, that the Germans were not invincible. As such, it had great symbolic importance, but the battle had no lasting strategic significance whatsoever. It was at Kursk and at Stalingrad that the Germans lost the war in the East, not in Moscow.

Braithwaite traces the outline of the battle, but his real concern is with the day-to-day fabric of life for Moscow’s citizens during this period. Relying upon old newspaper accounts, journals, diaries and interviews, Braithwaite tells us how Muscovites of all
social and political stripes engineered their way through this period and saved the city from German occupation (and certain destruction). It is a gripping story, well told, and this volume should have received far more attention and acclaim in the U.S. than it did (in the U.S., the book was largely ignored; in Britain, it was reviewed everywhere and became a bestseller).

Braithwaite is an interesting character, a type of man produced in great quantity in the United Kingdom but seldom produced in the United States.

His father was a conductor at Sadlers Wells, the forerunner of English National Opera. Braithwaite himself worked in military intelligence—he was stationed in Vienna—in the immediate aftermath of World War II. A member of the diplomatic service for over forty years, he had postings throughout Europe, Asia and North America. After retiring from the diplomatic corps, Braithwaite has served as Governor of English National Opera, Chairman of The Royal Academy Of Music, advisor to numerous corporations and not-for-profit enterprises, and has been a regular contributor to the Financial Times, The Guardian, The New Statesman and the Moscow Times. His advice and counsel have been sought by a bewildering array of entities: artistic, financial, political and charitable. Do we have anyone comparable in the U.S.?

Kenneth Slepyan’s “Stalin’s Guerrillas: Soviet Partisans In World War II” is an examination of The Soviet Partisan Movement, a people’s army of irregulars fighting behind enemy lines, engaging in raids, sabotage and intelligence, all on their own initiatives, unprompted and uncontrolled by the Stalinist regime. These insurgents were comprised of civilians (many of whom were women and ethnic minorities) and stranded Red Army officers, all determined to undermine the German war effort in occupied territories.

This tale of the Russian equivalent of the French Resistance should be bewitching reading, but this book is dull and dry, and reads like the doctoral thesis it was. Further, the book’s title is misleading, as the book’s focus is upon sociology, not history. Its examination of The Soviet Partisan Movement is presented strictly through a sociological lens. A more accurate title would have been “Women And Minorities Behind Enemy Lines And Their Path To Socialization: Journeying From Disaffection With The Soviet Regime To Collaboration With The Germans To Resistance”. This book is a dream come true for anyone looking for sociological cant, but it has no value as a presentation of history. It also offers incontrovertible proof that current standards in the world of American academia are depressingly low. Slepyan’s writing is so poor and his powers of analysis so feeble that he could not succeed in getting a header note published in the lowliest law journal at America’s worst law school. His book was a complete waste of our time.

“Khrushchev’s Cold War: The Inside Story Of An American Adversary” is a joint project of Alesandr Fursenko, a Moscow professor about whom I know nothing, and Timothy Naftali, a Canadian native with a flamboyant and checkered career who has worked practically everywhere in the U.S., in a veritable roundtable of successive positions that have taken him hither, thither and yon—everywhere from far too many universities to mention to the 9/11 Commission to the Richard M. Nixon Presidential Library (where he was appointed, not by the Board Of Trustees, but by the National Archives), always leaving a trail of critics in his wake.

Based, in part, on selective Soviet archives declassified in 2003, “Khrushchev’s Cold War” examines Soviet foreign policy from the Russian perspective during the Khrushchev years of the Cold War.

Although in no way a Khrushchev hagiography, the authors present Khrushchev as a far more appealing individual than the historical record warrants. According to the authors, Khrushchev was “misunderstood”, a figure benignly helping the Soviet Union in its “search for national identity”. Anyone familiar with the standard biographies of Khrushchev must easily dismiss such cantankerous, albeit trendy, foolishness.

An even more absurd claim is the assertion that Khrushchev, in ordering nuclear missiles to be placed in Cuba, had no desire for war and was simply trying to offset U.S. advantages in nuclear weaponry elsewhere. Further, according to the authors, Khrushchev hoped to use the presence of nuclear missiles situated only ninety miles off the U.S. mainland merely as a tool of intimidation in negotiating with an inexperienced John Kennedy.

Such astonishing claims are profoundly wrong-headed, and based upon a twisted and decadent view of realpolitic, foreign policy and balances of power during the Cold War. While Fursenko and Naftali may find Khrushchev to have been benign, the members of the Politburo during the Cuban Missile Crisis certainly did not—they forced Khrushchev from power not much more than a year after the Crisis (a previous attempt to remove him from power had failed), believing him to be both dangerous and inept. I have seldom come across a more bizarre book, filled with more bizarre claims. Other scholars in the field, working from the same archives, are destined to issue sharp and stinging corrective readings of the events in question. In the unlikely event that Putin’s Russia ever releases all archives from the Cold War period, Fursenko’s and Naftali’s assertions will be completely demolished.

The fundamental lesson the reader learns, unintentionally, in “Khrushchev’s Cold War”, is that the United States—and the world—was fortunate indeed to have had a seasoned old pro occupying the White House during the first eight years Khrushchev was in power. Dwight David Eisenhower, during his time in office, was smart enough to discount most of Khrushchev’s most belligerent threats, committed enough to continue Harry Truman’s policy of containment, stern enough to provide adult supervision to the British, French and Israelis when they most needed it (Suez), wise enough not to provoke the Soviets when he had no realistic means to influence events outside the immediate area of American interest (Hungary), and patient enough to apply gentle but continuous pressure on the Soviets, worldwide, for eight years. Eisenhower was the perfect president for this perilous period, and that is the overriding theme readers glean from this book, despite the strenuous, misguided efforts of the authors to portray Khrushchev as a simple man of peace.

“Thank God For Dwight David Eisenhower” is the unspoken mantra running through their book, but authors Fursenko and Naftali are too obtuse to realize it.


  1. Hey, Andrew. I'm glad you are keeping busy reading those books.

    I'm doing the same on this beautiful Chicago Sunday. 60 degrees!

    Hello, Joshua!


  2. Enjoy your books, J.R., and enjoy the nice weather while it lasts, and enjoy "Thais", too.