A Year in Reading: Il’ja Rákoš

December 10, 2017 | 15 books mentioned 8 8 min read

One winter I came down with pneumonia twice in five months. The doctors, with my semi-conscious consent, were ready to try anything. One thing they did try was a technique “to warm up the lungs.” It involved a canvas corset that looked like it had been developed in a Victorian brothel and weaponized in a Soviet psychiatric hospital, ca. 1938. The nurses filled the thing with hot paraffin, strapped it on my naked torso, covered me up with furs and, pulling on their coats, left the room with promises to be back in 20-ish minutes.

Turns out there’s not much you can do for second-degree paraffin burns beyond trying to cool them down, keep them clean, and try not to pop the blisters. It’s astonishing how much pain you can stand when its infliction is gradual. It’s also astonishing to see how easy it is to forgive when beauty enters the equation. My nurses forgot me in that isolated exam room. They’d been outside, reveling in the season’s first snowfall. I imagine those two young women shivering in their great coats, arms linked, looking up at the sky and smiling. S pervym snegom! The dank caecum of the city where the hospital sat squat, prison-like, was getting its annual winter makeover. Given enough snow, even Soviet brutalist architecture assumes a certain charm.

Which is to say that winter is a sacred event in this part of the world. And given that it’s winter about half the year, that’s not nothing. It doesn’t mean, however, that eastern Slavs are incapable of viewing winter’s drawbacks pragmatically. Already treacherous sidewalks don’t become less so with the addition of ice. Municipal negligence of road maintenance, nightmarish driver noncompliance with traffic law, balky central heating—all exacerbated by the interminability of the season—are hardly exclusive properties of the West. The distinction in our perspectives of winter lies, it seems to me, in our arts: for Americans, November/December feels like a Robert Frost poem, for Slavs, a Tolstoyan reckoning or an Andrei Tarkovsky dreamscape, though that’s likely where the difference ends. This, too, is just a guess, but I figure that to all or most of us, East or West, by March, its romance wearing thin, winter feels as cold, dark, and endless as a Donna Tartt novel.

Yet, here in Slavic wonderland, despite the difficulties winter presents, when it hits we still rush to greet each other—s pervym snegom! with the first snow!—and are transformed en masse into 9-year-olds by the touch of the big, early flakes. Winter is romance, a chance at renewal, a purifier. We have trouble envisioning how the word “snowflake” could ever be used as a pejorative. Winter stopped Napoleon Bonaparte, Adolf Hitler, and whoever might try next. Winter is when the Leshy—the forest demons—go to sleep and finally leave us be: Anton Chekhov, Alexander Pushkin and 12 centuries of folklore don’t lie.

All of which came flooding back when I opened this—one of a half-dozen or so indispensable books I read this year—Alex Cigale’s lithe translation of Russian Absurd: Selected Writings of Daniil Kharms. Kharms was a Soviet writer who was not prolific, was a committed misanthrope, a friend of Kazimir Malevich and an admirer of Vladimir Mayakovsky.  He despised children, but was a talented and successful writer of children’s books.  A four-year-old I know laughs himself silly every time I read him Kharms’s poem “Bulldog and Dachshund.” In the end, Kharms would starve to death in a psychiatric ward during the siege of Leningrad. It seems his nurses forgot him, too.

The current collection, published by Northwestern University Press, assembles fragments of Kharms’s poetry, dramaturgy, prose, diary entries, literary criticism, private correspondence, largely arranged chronologically—a chronology that only gains in poignancy with a glance at the datestamp accompanying each entry. In 1936, with the Great Terror gunning its engine, Kharms wrote this in his notebook: 

I am incapable of thinking smoothly
My fear gets in the way
It severs my train of thought
As though a ray
Two or even three times each minute
My conscience is contorted by it
I am not capable of action.

If the prospect of reading a minimalist, absurdist, surrealist Russian intimidates, Cigale’s translation should help allay those fears. His agile rendering of Kharms’s work is as fine a representation in English as I’ve seen of the ambiguity, shading, and tense-shifting that typifies Russian prose, aspects that English translations too often muddle. If Jean-Paul Sartre, Samuel Beckett, and Albert Camus light your fire, or if your writing life, however difficult, seems like so much torture, or if you’re intrigued by what a story coming from a man experiencing “the existential nightmare of a decade lived under a suspended death sentence,” sounds like then, winter, that season of reflection, might be just the time to add this collection to your TBR pile.

coverKill All Normies: Online Culture Wars from 4Chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-Right by Angela Nagle
Twitter’s got you feeling toxic? TV news doesn’t offer any relief? You find yourself refreshing your website of choice to see whether Robert Mueller has handed down any more indictments? You wonder how it was that “contempt” became the default setting for our public discourse? Save yourself the time, the screen exposure, and the inevitable frustration and wrap your brain around this thesis that, among other matters, convincingly draws a line from Raskolnikov to the Alt-Right and describes the radical left as an “anti-intellectual online movement which has substituted politics with neuroses….” This book is terrifying, outstanding, required reading.

coverThe Body Hunters by Sonia Shah
An hour later, the nurses come back to my room, giggling, the tell-tale bite of cognac floating with them into the room. Beads of sweat streaming down my face I turn my head to the one I can see to tell her that “it really hurts.” The other one, behind me unpiling furs, fussing with the snaps on the corset says, “just a sec.” I hear a sharp intake of breath as she whispers, “Oh, my God,” and runs out of the room.

It’s probably a good thing that Sonia Shah’s exposé of Big Pharma sat on my shelf unread for so long. This immaculately researched, exhaustively referenced, and rage-inducing study chronicles the deeply disturbing abuse of the poorest of the poor in the service of reliable data for clinical drug trials. And, well, profits. I don’t know if I could have taken it when it was first published a decade ago. A bioethicist quoted in the book states succinctly the matter at the heart of the problem: “The data [guinea pigging the poor] is valuable either academically or commercially.” So what’s the good news? The book is 10 years old so perhaps the systematic and cynical targeting, dehumanizing, and embittering of the poor has decreased in its intensity. Or increased. It’s one or the other. Right?

coverRed Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine by Anne Applebaum
The Holodomor Museum is about a 15-minute bus ride from my flat. In 2004, Ukrainians took to the streets to protest a stolen presidential election. That was called “The Orange Revolution” because we all wore orange at the behest of a populist—and attractive—politician. I still have my orange down jacket. I slept in it in the tent city that went up downtown, shutting Kyiv—and effectively the country—down. Got pneumonia that year, too. Also got a new election with a different result and a president who promised to “put the bandits in prison!” but didn’t. He also promised to raise the issue of the Holodomor—the Soviet program of collectivization that killed millions of Soviet citizens, mostly Ukrainians, in 1931 to 33—at the U.N. He’d get them to call it “genocide.” He made good on that, though he accomplished almost nothing else in the remainder of his five-year term. Not one corrupt official went to prison, but we got a Holodomor Museum. Ukraine is Charlie Brown on Halloween: I got a rock.

A teaser from the introduction to Anne Applebaum’s lucid examination of the artificial (enforced) Soviet famines of the 1930s:  “Applebaum proves what has long been suspected: after a series of rebellions unsettled the province, Stalin set out to destroy the Ukrainian peasantry. The state sealed the republic’s borders and seized all available food. Starvation set in rapidly, and people ate anything: grass, tree bark, dogs, corpses.”

This is not a history for the faint of heart. It is the documentation of a crime: the premeditated, targeted murder by starvation of five million people in just over two years. A sobering investigation of the human capacity for evil, it also serves as an indirect indictment of that niche within Western academia that has labored to relegate the slaughter to the status of an historical footnote. Applebaum’s dependably lucid argumentation and nimble prose makes for a substantial, if deeply troubling, read.

coverThe Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics by Mark Lilla
I’m trying to figure out what I dislike about Lilla’s charge that the liberal cause has dismantled itself.  But it’s hard to resist an argument whose core tenet is “the common good,” a phrase that is found in one form or another on practically every page of this short book. To the oft-heard insistence that “there is no right or left any longer, just capital,” Lilla offers convincing proof that there is an American Right and it has a concrete image of society that it holds to. Contrast that with the Left, which has drifted demonstrably from its core message and abdicated “the contest for the American imagination.”  The upshot according to Lilla: it’s hard to envision a political entity as rudderless as the Democratic Party winning many elections for a good, long while.

And yet, one wonders. Would there have been any measure of the kinds of civil rights advances we’ve seen in the last 2- years if they hadn’t been championed by the Left? Lilla’s unclear about which “identities” he would rather the Left had left off its to-do list. The Once and Future Liberal is an excellent argument starter.

coverThe Given World by Marian Palaia
The thing about this debut novel is that it compels you to pay attention. It would be easy to get lost in prose this gorgeous, lives this palpable, and a story this heartbreaking, and end up at, “Pretty good. I liked it. Four stars.” But there’s a lot more going on under the surface. A word like verisimilitude isn’t enough to describe why The Given World works so well. It’s more than authenticity, there is an intimacy in the telling, as if you found yourself sitting down on the back porch with a friend of years, and she decides to tell you a story over beers. It’s a story about a young woman who seems to believe that the only acceptable alternative to shooting yourself in the foot is shooting yourself in the head, and yet, she makes her way. This is grown-up fiction that has not yet consented to leave me at peace. A haunting, formidable debut.

The books above were those that helped me get through the year. The purifiers. Books that managed to assure me that where evil abounds, grace abounds all the more.  Tyrants, robber barons, cynics, and cyber-bullies don’t stand a chance when confronted with intelligence fueled by grace. And grace takes work. Good news: winter is on its way. Lots of time to read, to prepare for spring, that awful season when the river ice breaks up and the bodies begin to surface.

Finally, what follows is a listing of every book that made good use of my brain and heart in 2017. I highly recommend every one.

Emperor of the Earth by Czeslaw Miłosz – Essays on life, society, art by the Nobel laureate

Ghost Moon by Ron Butlin – A Scottish girl’s fight to survive, set in Edinburgh.

A Spy Among Friends by Ben Macintyre – Kim Philby, deception in the spy game. Thrilling.

The History of White People by Nell Irvin Painter – Don’t let the title trigger you. Smart.

Human Acts by Han Kang – Political turmoil in South Korea. Outstanding.

But Beautiful by Geoff Dyer – If you love jazz. If you don’t, have you considered therapy?

Feral by George Monbiot – Could a romantic vision of the environment save the planet? Maybe.

The Trivium: The Liberal Arts of Logic, Grammar, and Rhetoric by Sister Miriam Joseph – Oh, the blessing of an old-style liberal arts education.

Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense by Francis Spufford – Can faith still work? Survey says: Yes!

The Dead Lake by Hamid Ismailov – Radioactive love from a banned Uzbek writer

Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder by Nassim Nicholas Taleb – Erudite, trenchant, and certainly right, Taleb makes a case for beneficial chaos, only he calls it “antifragility.”

Fortune Smiles by Adam Johnson – Short stories that are too good for anthologies. Outstanding, each one.

More from A Year in Reading 2017

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is a staff writer for the Millions. An American resident of the post-Soviet space for nearly 25-years, his work has concentrated on the cultural sphere of Eastern Europe, appearing in Russian and Ukrainian at cultprostir.ua and LB.ua. He is the author of an essay collection in Ukrainian, Os' Khristianska Vira. Kyiv is home.


  1. Surprised to see the Lilla book on here, as it is constructed upon a foundation so tenuous it crumbles the moment one stops to actually think about what he is saying. Like so many crusty old pundits who have long ago hammered their “opinions” into stone, to Lilla the phrase “identity politics” means “nonwhite identity politics”. The idea that the Right doesn’t indulge in “identity politics” is absolutely absurd. From Nixon’s Southern Strategy to Reagan’s Welfare Queen to Willie Horton to birtherism to Charlottesville both sides-ism to John Kelly’s “#actually the Civil War wasn’t about slavery”, identity politics is one of the three heads of nasty hydra that is the modern Republican Party (the other heads being Deference to the Ultrarich and Owning the Libs).

    The Democratic Party is a joke, but offering an alternative to the GOP’s white nationalism is not only the natural outcome of a binary political system like ours, but also simply good politics – 40% of this country isn’t white, you know, and despite Trump’s best efforts that number is only going to increase. So, sure, the Left won’t win elections on inclusiveness alone. But the GOP is going to eventually run into a demographics problem with their platform of plutocratic white nationalism. Or, you know, gain a rudder themselves.

  2. Thanks, toad.

    I’m nearly as surprised as you are, but found value in the thesis that, by my lights, was a critique of the issue you bring up: “the Left won’t win elections on inclusiveness alone.”

    Lilla’s perception is that it is precisely this species of *disproportionate* emphasis on identity that has hamstrung the DEMS, and thus, the demos, resulting in the imbalance of power that we’re stuck with at this juncture.

    I don’t know where you’re taking the idea from that Lilla absolves the Right of indulging in identity politics, his emphasis is, rather, that the Right has been – in stark contrast with the so-called Left – entirely consistent in its political expression, no matter how vile it may appear. The examples you cite only serve to underscore the assertion that this ‘platform’ is nothing new for the GOP.

    The book is, as I wrote, “an excellent argument starter”. QED. Yet I’d suggest caution in two areas:

    1) If the census data is trustworthy, that “40% isn’t white” is closer to 27%. A demographic shift is coming, just not as soon as we expect.
    2) The demographics problem is going to have more, in my opinion, to do with class than race. 99% v 1% – regardless of skin-tone – is unsustainable. “Plutocratic nationalism” is not restricted to the GOP. Or to white folks.

    Again, thanks for reading.

  3. il’ja

    Thanks for the response. To be honest I found Lilla’s book so intellectually thin and devoid of any research or evidence – “it is so because I say it is so” – that I had to turn elsewhere to figure out what the hell he was trying to say. In this interview, his positions become both clearer and more ludicrous:


    For example, his reluctance to admit that race was the catalyst for south magically switching from blue to red with the passing of the Civil Right Act makes it hard to take anything he says seriously. Blind punditry dressed up as academic intellectualism is loathsome.

    Re #1, I may be wrong on the 40% figure, I was using this census projection:


    “White alone, not Hispanic or Latino” checks in at 61%. But I see that there’s also a line for “white alone” at 77%…hm.

    Re #2, I totally agree with you on the class issue and this is something the Democratic Party has absolutely exacerbated. Unfortunately I think things are going to have to get a whole lot worse for a whole lot of people before that revolt begins…at which point it might be too late. Hell, it already might be too late. A seat in the House costs $10 mil, in the White House, a couple billion…

    Thanks for writing and responding.

  4. Hey, toad

    I’d be out of line to suggest that you’re misreading Lilla, because I don’t think you are given the articles you linked.

    But I think there’s some solace to be had in the one thing that I think he gets right, burdened as it is with his naiveté re racial tensions and their sociological/political consequences. Essentially, that exclusionary policy won’t be overcome with more and different exclusionary policy. His initial analysis in the NYTimes – right after the election – was directed at the language Hillary used during the campaign.His claim wasn’t that it was pandering (which it was), but that it arose from the presumption that white working class USA didn’t deserve a mention when she started itemizing who she was going to fight for.

    Replay the stump speeches. If I’d been a Polish-American GM line worker in Kenosha, she would have lost my vote, no matter how many generations my family had voted DEM.

    That was Lilla’s argument: that there are concrete ramifications when you make diversity itself divisive.

    And whether sociological study or political punditry (is there a distinction?) the fact that it’s “devoid of any research or evidence” is pretty much the industry standard these days. The speculative character of most of what passes for considered argumentation, the utter ignorance of how statistics do and don’t work, the contextual distortion, the ignorance of and thus, utter dependence on, logical fallacy, well, it’s all kind of heartbreaking.

    Now combine the above with the apparent GOP and Evangelical cognitive dissonance re pedophilia, rape, and the normalization of Nazi’s carrying semi-automatic weapons on the streets of Virginia etc. and I start to wonder what the hell they’ve been putting in the water over there.

    I agree, the situation is approaching critical mass, but it’s not there yet. An prof in radiophysics taught me something way back when, that I trust, empirically: a radioisotope will sluff off whatever it needs to reach stability. Never lose sight of the numbers: the true mass of the American isotope is its people and nothing else.

    Decay is inevitable, but conversations like this one will help keep our quarks balanced.

    There really is no other option.

    And this: try that Geoff Dyer book off my list up above. No better way to take your mind off everything that’s wrong than by entering a world where everything is right. Jazz.

    Thanks for the thoughtful take, but I gotta get some sleep.

    Peace to you and yours.

  5. Many thanks for this list and the wonderful way it is written. Much like last years list, I’ll doubtless be ‘adding to cart’. I’ll start with the Geoff Dyer so.

  6. Good chat il’ja. I’ll end by recommending a couple recent reads: Thomas Frank’s “Listen, Liberal” for a more compelling criticism of the modern Democratic Party, and “Selected Writings of Ruben Dario” for a beautiful respite from the 24/7 politics.

  7. Thanks, Karl.

    I’m glad it gave you something to chew on. The Millions is generally like that. I learn a lot here.

    And, yeah, the Dyer book is just so good. And if you like espionage at all, that Macintyre book on Philby is a thrill ride. Atmospheric spy stuff.

    Add to Cart and Away!

  8. Back at you, toad. I need to blow the stink of politics off me for a while, so I’ll likely go with the Dario, but I’ll keep the Frank title on the list for when my brain gets back from the cleaners.

    Always glad for recommendations. Cheers!

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