Saturday, August 27, 2011

Reading about Russia

Lukacs, John. June 1941: Hitler and Stalin. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006

  Lukacs' irreverent style keeps this brief history of the months and days leading to Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union entertaining and a quick read. There are few people to admire in this turning point in Hitler's attempt to subdue all of Europe. Was Stalin's motivation to make and keep peace with Hitler motivated by his desire to stay out of a war for which Russia was ill prepared? Whether or not this was the case, Stalin's desire was so strong that he did not recognize Hitler's intent or chose to ignore all signs of the German preparations to invade. Lukacs points out that the many Communists suffering in Hitler's own prison camps would have lost all hope in support from Russia as this agreement was signed. As Stalin acted in good faith (seems incongruous to type Stalin and good faith so close to each other), sending to Germany promised trainloads of supplies along the railroads built by Soviet prisoners who were living in state imposed conditions of slave labor and starvation, Hitler made his plans to attack Russia. Because Stalin refused to acknowledge the many messages from not only his own ambassadors and diplomats, but from diplomats from Japan, England, and elsewhere, Hitler and his forces did not have to worry about operating in secrecy to secure a surprise attack. Germany was able to gather enough information to destroy the Soviet air force on the first day of their invasion. Lukacs delves into the psychology of Stalin and Hitler, comparing the two men and their rise to power and their shared need to do away with any any hint of opposition.

Frazier, Ian. Travels in Siberia. NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010.

 Frazier describes his growing desire to travel across the remarkable expanse that is Siberia. As a prelude to his own journey, he becomes familiar with all of the literature provided by earlier travelers, most significantly, George Kennan, a relative of the more famous George Frost Kennan, who not only crossed Siberia but became acquainted with the Russian Siberian prison system that predated the system that was greatly expanded under the Soviets.

He begins his travels in stages, first heading to Alaska, where he waits for the opportunity to fly across the Bering Sea to Chukotka, on  Russia's eastern edge, from Nome, Alaska, a town I that you can only fly into. There are no roads leading into (or out of) Nome. (I spent a lot of time with Google maps finding the Diomedes Islands, Nome, Chukotka and able to get close enough to see the remote station on Big Diomedes...).

When he finally begins his journey, which he will undergo by car, Frazier engages two men who have their own ideas about how to get across the great land mass. Their ideas continually clash with Frazier's and Frazier responds petulantly, with exasperation, and with some self-awareness of his own inability to manage with his own personal resources. As seems to happen, the fact that Frazier can not communicate with them on an intellectual level to which he is accustomed, leads him to assume to interpret their conversation and actions as commical. Yet, they are the ones with the skill, cultural knowledge, and where-with-all to make his trip a success.

Frazier is intent on exploring references in the literature and histories he has read. Much of it represents a darker history than either of his fellow travelers are comfortable uncovering. When Frazier refuses to accept his partner's demand that he not photograph a sensitive sight, they nearly part ways.

This books is fascinating from cover to cover in all of its aspects: geography, history, the many people Frazier meets over the long period of his interest and fascination with Russia, the travails and rewards of his travels, and his evolving relationship with his continental cohort.

If you read this book .... you may find yourself plotting how you might indulge in even a small portion of this travel--perhaps, though, by train.

Petkevich, Tamara. Memoir of a Gulag Actress. Translated by Yasha Klots and Ross Ufberg. Dekalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2010 (first appeared in Russia in 1993).

And here is the other side, not passing through, but inprisoned in various camps throughout the north for seven years. Petkevich was born into loyal revolutionary family, both mother and father. Her father was arrested in the 30s and sent away to camp. Petkevich became acquainted with young man while standing in lines to find out about her father's whereabouts. She eventually follows him to Frunze in Kazakhstan to marry him. Things begin their tragic course as first she hears of the Germana invasion, then the deaths of her mother and sister, her remaining sister sent to an orphanage. First her husband is arrested and then she herself is arrested under article 58, political crimes. It is 1943, Petkevich is 23. She is released at age 30 in 1950, having given birth to and lost her son to his free father. Traumatized but with strong ties to her fellow prisoners, the disaster begins again as one by one her friends are rearrested and once more sent away to exile and camps. Petkevich is heavily recruited to be an informer, but she decides that it is better to risk death than to cause others pain. Suddenly the pressure stops, and although there is no mention of a change in the government or in policy, the terror subsides (but does not disappear altogether).

Petkevich's memoir is a glimpse into prison society, the inhumane treatment, the exploitation of the imprisoned artists and intellectuals, the starvation of the body and the mind, and the amazing ability to survive and to retain spirit and integrity when there seems to be no hope, no joy, no future.

All of these books are available at a library near you!

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