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Why Stalin Starved Ukraine

History is a battleground, perennially fought over, endlessly contested. Nowhere does this aphorism hold true more than in Russia. A majority of Russians recently voted Joseph Stalin the “most outstanding person” in world history (followed, naturally, by current President Vladimir Putin). No longer the monster of the gulags and purges that killed millions, Stalin now looms in the national consciousness as the giant who defeated the Nazis in World War II. Meanwhile, not only has Russia annexed Crimea and destabilized Ukraine’s eastern regions, its military adventurism has also extended to Syria. Putin, who once described the collapse of the USSR as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the twentieth century, looks determined to avenge the humiliations of Russia’s post-Soviet implosion. Integral to this endeavor is not just to flex the country’s geopolitical might in the present but to re-write its past.

It is this point that makes the historiography of the USSR—a subject worthy of …

Vladimir Nabokov's dream diary reveals experiments with 'backwards timeflow'

A 1964 diary in which Vladimir Nabokov recorded more than 50 of his dreams – ranging from the erotic to the violent to the surreal – is about to be published for the first time.

 “Intensely erotic dream. Blood on sheet,” the novelist writes on 13 December 1964. “End of dream: my sister O, strangely young and languorous … Then stand near a window, sighing, half-seeing view, brooding over the possible consequence of incest.”

Another entry sees him recording a dream in which he is dancing with his wife Vera. “Her open dress, oddly speckled and summery. A man kisses her in passing. I clutch him by the head and bang his face with such vicious force against the wall that he almost gets meat-hooked, on some fixtures on the wall (gleaming metal suggestive of ship). Detaches himself with face all bloody and stumbles away.”

The author, who struggled with insomnia all his life, began the dream diary after reading the British philosopher John Dunne’s An Experiment With Time, in which he advances a …

Writing Poetry Under Stalin: Samizdat And Memorization

At first, Anna Akhmatova, the Russian poet, worked on her poem in the usual way. She always composed by hand, writing out the lines on paper; then she would make corrections and perhaps read the lines aloud to see if they sounded right. Normally, she would produce a fair copy and send it to a magazine, or put it aside until a whole cycle of poems had emerged and then approach a book publisher. Before the Great War, she had published several volumes in this way, to great acclaim. She had become a celebrated poet in Russia while still in her early twenties, a dashing figure with her long shawls, black hair, and a bearing that betrayed her aristo­cratic heritage. In Paris, she had made the acquaintance of Amedeo Modigliani, a painter already confident of his future success, and he had fallen for her. Modigliani produced several drawings and paintings of the young Akhmatova that captured the elegant lines and distinct features of the poet whom critics would soon call the Russian Sappho.

Ak…

Solzhenitsyn’s cathedrals

In Russia, history is too important to leave to the historians. Great novelists must show how people actually lived through events and reveal their moral significance. As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn explained in his 1970 Nobel Prize lecture, literature transmits “condensed and irrefutable human experience” in a form that “defies distortion and falsehood. Thus literature . . . preserves and protects a nation’s soul.”

The latest Solzhenitsyn book to appear in English, March 1917, focuses on the great turning point of Russian, indeed world, history: the Russian Revolution.1 Just a century ago, that upheaval and the Bolshevik coup eight months later ushered in something entirely new and uniquely horrible. Totalitarianism, as invented by Lenin and developed by Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, and others, aspired to control every aspect of life, to redesign the earth and to remake the human soul. As a result, the environment suffered unequaled devastation and tens of millions of lives were lost in t…

Red Famine: Stalin's War on Ukraine

My landlord in the early 1960s, a Mr Nikolysyn, was a survivor of the Holodomor (‘killing by hunger’), the famine that Stalin’s policy of collectivisation and grain requisition inflicted on Ukraine, leading to the death from starvation of at least five million peasants and the imprisonment of millions of resisters in the Gulag. But Mr Nikolysyn didn’t blame Stalin or even the Russians: he identified his oppressors as communist Jews avenging the pogroms. When the Nazis invaded, he, like many Ukrainians, happily joined the SS to exact revenge. He was a kindly man, tolerating my pet hare stripping his wallpaper while he read his copy of the newspaper for Ukrainian SS veterans that circulated freely in Britain then, but he was as traumatised as all the survivors of the Holodomor.

Until recently, historians ignored the Ukrainian famine of 1932–3. Accounts compiled in the 1950s by Ukrainians living in Canada were discounted as nationalist propaganda, even though a few Western journalists, su…

The Radical Hopes of the Russian Revolution

Step into a respectable American bookstore today, and you’re likely to find a reflection of America’s version of the twentieth century. German and Russian history currently dominate history sections, but in very specific forms. Books like Andrew Lownie’s Stalin’s Englishman, Simon Sebag Montefiore’s Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar, Martin Kitchen’s Speer: Hitler’s Architect, Robert Jay Lifton’s The Nazi Doctors, Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin—some old, some new, many written for popular audiences—move between the century’s titanic mass-murderers, their motley henchmen, and their masses of victims. Holocaust history often provides a thematic accent and an explicit connection to the present, as with Snyder’s Black Earth: Holocaust as History and Warning. Taken together, these books seem to remind us that any account of the twentieth century that does not emphasize authoritarianism will be complicit in creating a new wave of victims.

One hundred years afte…

Svetlana Zakharova and Roberto Bolle in Swan Lake

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Svetlana Zakharova and Roberto Bolle
Bourmeister production of Swan Lake