I wasn’t planning to make Yuri Slezkine’s The House of Government: A Saga of the Russian Revolution my lead review as I was reading it; it seemed overlong and somewhat scattered. But by the time I was done, I realized I had been badly mistaken: Slezkine knew exactly what he was doing, and the book was as long as it needed to be. An early chapter on the history of religion that doesn’t even mention communism until the end seemed superfluous until I realized it was providing the concepts and vocabulary he would use to analyze the entire history of the Soviet Union. It is, of course, a commonplace to compare communism to a religion; he begins the chapter by asking whether it is one, and says “it does not matter.” What matters is that it operated like a cult from the beginning, and he needs to show you what that means so you won’t dismiss it. Most reviews I’ve seen compare his book to an epic Russian novel, and I can see why: it’s long, tells gripping stories, and has a cast of hundreds. But that’s misleading, because novels have invented plots constructed so as to provide a satisfying outcome for the reader, whereas this tells the real stories of real people (most of them with photographs showing them at various stages of life, so they seem even realer), and the outcome is simply what happened. He gives extensive quotes from diaries, letters, and memoirs, arranged to provide an esthetic punch; I’m still haunted by the ending of Book II, a quote from the diary of the Aida-obsessed Lyova Fedotov. Slezkine has been working on this for a long time, and it shows; all the allusions, all the quotes, all the juxtapositions work, and the final chapter, on Yuri Trifonov (who grew up in the Government House and made it famous with his novel The House on the Embankment), ties everything together. The penultimate page quotes this passage from Trifonov’s Another Life: “Every contact with the past meant pain. Yet life is made up of such contacts, for the threads to the past are a thousandfold and each one must be torn out of living flesh, out of a wound. … Every object, every familiar person, every thought, every word—every single thing in the world was linked by some thread to him.” Slezkine’s (very Russian) ironic allusiveness is the perfect way to tell this multi-threaded story of a revolution gone wrong; it’s not so much a history as a book about how to understand history, and anyone interested in the fate of the Soviet Union should read it. (Since it concentrates on the people in the Government House, it necessarily represents a partial view of society; to supplement it, you can’t do better than Intimacy and Terror: Soviet Diaries of the 1930s, edited by Veronique Garros, Natalia Korenevskaya, and Thomas Lahusen, which excerpts the diaries of 10 very different people, from a grumpy farmer to a woman who can’t stop mourning her daughter.)
Peter C. Perdue’s China Marches West: The Qing Conquest of Central Eurasia is also long and multi-threaded, but rather than an interpretation of a well-known history, it’s an excavation of a forgotten one. In the 17th and 18th centuries, the region Perdue calls Central Eurasia was contested between Russia, China, and Zungharia; since the last-named (which, annoyingly, is also spelled Dzungaria, Jungharia, and Dzhungaria in English-language works) has fallen into oblivion, it’s exciting to see it brought back to life and the mutual interactions of the players in this early version of the Great Game explained. Perdue integrates sources from all the relevant languages and archives, takes account of all sorts of scholarly and nationalist interpretations, and puts together a convincing synthesis full of insights. Furthermore, he’s a better writer than most academics, with a knack for pithy summations (“Thus the great Qing historiographic juggernaut never entirely eliminated alternative voices. Far away on the Volga, visions of an independent people still survived”); the book has gorgeous color illustrations and maps, and it goes into all sorts of apparently recondite issues (like the maintenance of horse herds) that turn out to be both crucial and interesting. I never thought I needed a book on this topic, but I’m very glad I read it.
When I finished Dominic Lieven’s The End of Tsarist Russia, near the start of the year, it was going to be my lead review; I’ve read a lot about Russia’s role in WWI, and this is the best discussion I’ve seen. Mind you, the bulk of the book is not about the war but the period leading up to it, but it covers that period so brilliantly that you’ll never think about it the same way again. It requires some investment on the part of the reader, since in giving the Russian background Lieven introduces a great many people and their relationships, but it’s worth the effort. Like Perdue, he’s good at concise explanations; after saying that the unification of Italy and Germany “forged a new model for conservative statecraft by mobilizing liberal and nationalist support for the royal state,” he concludes: “No longer would nationalism primarily be an ideology on the left in European politics.” I liked it so much I’ll be happy to read anything Lieven chooses to write.
The other books I loved this year were specialized enough that I’ll just list them; if the titles intrigue you at all you should investigate further: Shattering Empires: The Clash and Collapse of the Ottoman and Russian Empires 1908–1918 by Michael A. Reynolds (especially if you have any interest in the Caucasus); Cartographies of Tsardom: The Land and Its Meanings in Seventeenth-Century Russia by Valerie Kivelson (a nice complement to the Perdue book); Border Crossings: The West and Russian Identity in Soviet Literature 1917-1934 by Carol Avins (a splendid work of criticism that covers writers as diverse as Mandelstam, Bulgakov, Shklovsky, and Platonov—it’s one of those books where even the footnotes are thought-provoking); Rescuing History from the Nation: Questioning Narratives of Modern China by Prasenjit Duara (a convincing and thoroughly researched attack on simplistic nationalistic accounts of history), and Paths in the Rainforests by Jan M. Vansina (about the Congo region in the precolonial period, with a focus on the complexity of the various subregions and the peoples who have lived there: “There is a political, social, and economic history to be recovered here, along with a history of ideas, values, and ideology”).
Oh, and every year there seems to be at least one book that I catch up with long after everybody else; this year it’s Zadie Smith’s White Teeth. I gave it to my wife and she loved it so much she made me read it, and it’s every bit as good as they say.