Sunday Salon

About a month ago the first time I took part in The Sunday Salon hosted by Deb Nance at Readerbuzz. So far it’s been a huge success and I’m striving to make it a regular feature. So here’s another post. 

Last week I finished both Yasmina’s Khadra’s The Attack and Karlheinz Deschner’s God and the Fascists: The Vatican Alliance with Mussolini, Franco, Hitler, and Pavelic. Hopefully, I’ll get my reviews up and posted by the end of the week. Since both are translated works I’ll be applying them towards The Introverted Reader’s Books in Translation Reading Challenge

After putting aside Jay David’s anthology Growing Up Jewish I started Lea Ypi 2022 memoir Free: Coming of Age at the End of History.  Ypi’s recollection of life in Albania during the implosion of that country’s oppressive communist regime is shaping up to be a winner. I also went back to reading Frank Blaichman’s Rather Die Fighting as well as Stuart Jeffries’s 2016 Grand Hotel Abyss: The Lives of the Frankfurt School

Listening. With the The National Commission to Investigate the January 6 Attack on the United States Capitol Complex proceedings (AKA the January 6 Commission) serving up a bombshell special session last Tuesday I once again dived into some of my favorite podcasts for helpful insight and commentary. With so much stuff out there it’s hard knowing where to begin but Deep State Radio’s “Showstopper” is a good place along with The Lincoln Project’s “The Emergency Hearing.” The Bulwark never ceases to satisfy so I’d recommend both “A Damning Witness” and “Mea culpa. Really.” Opening Arguments is a recent find of mine and the episode “Surprise Jan. 6 Hearing – Bombshells Within Smoking Guns Within More Bombshell” is definitely worth a listen. The Lawfare Podcast can get a bit dry and wonky but “The Jan. 6 Committee, Day Six” episode is good. During the Trump administration Vanity Fair’s Inside the Hive was my go-to source for place intrigue. I thoroughly enjoyed the recent episode “If You Bite the Head Off of the Snake, the Rest of the Snake Will Die”: Daniel Goldman on Prosecuting Trump.” If you wanna learn more about the assorted far-right militia groups in cahoots with Trump and his crones then check out the Fresh Air episode “Investigating The Far-Right Militia Groups Of Jan. 6.” Lastly, round things out with Talking Feds and “This is (Trump’s) America.”

Watching. Mr. Robot continues to entertain with its plot twists, great writing and superb acting. Last week we were treated to a special session of the January 6 Committee sessions which blew myself, and much of America, away. I look forward to watching more once they resume latter this month. I also caught an episode of Stranger Things. After a bit of a slow start it’s shaping up to be as dark and entertaining as I’d hoped. Like last week I checked out The Lincoln Project’s web series The Breakdown. Hosts Tara Setmayer and Rick Wilson (and special guest Harry Litman) did a fine job breaking down the last Tuesday’s bombshell January 6 hearing. It’s well worth your time. 

Everything else. Even though gas is damn expensive right now I did make a trip to my favorite area winery for some friendly discussion with my professor buddy. Weather-wise, after recently experiencing a mini heat wave temperatures have considerably moderated. 

Book Beginnings: Free by Lea Ypi

Not only does Gilion host the European Reading and TBR 22 in 22 on her Rose City Reader blog but also Book Beginnings on Friday. While I’m no stranger to her European Reading Challenge, only recently I decided to participate in Book Beginnings on Friday. This week I’m back with another post.

For Book Beginnings on Friday Gilion asks us to simply “share the opening sentence (or so) of the book you are reading this week, or just a book that caught your fancy and you want to highlight.”

MY BOOK BEGINNING

I never asked myself about the meaning of freedom until the day I hugged Stalin. From close up, he was much taller than I expected.

Last week I featured the 1969 anthology Growing Up Jewish edited by Jay David and the week before that it was Frank Blaichman’s 2009 Rather Die Fighting: A Memoir of World War II. This  week it’s the 2022 memoir Free: Coming of Age at the End of History by Lea Ypi.

After hearing great things about Free from Clair of The Captive Reader I finally borrowed a copy late last week. With my nose already in several books I’m not making much progress, but so far it’s living up to all the hype. While not one of my original 20 Books of Summer I’m looking forward to applying it towards Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge. After all, it’s not everyday you come across a coming of age memoir by an Albanian.

Highly praised and the winner of multiple awards, as soon as I knock out one of the several books I’m currently reading I’ll be giving Free all the undivided attention it deserves.

Sunday Salon

A few weeks ago for the first time I took part in The Sunday Salon hosted by Deb Nance at Readerbuzz. So far it’s been a huge success and I’m striving to make it a regular feature. So here’s another post. 

Last week I finished Ruta Sepetys’s 2022 historical novel I Must Betray You.  While it’s only June I’m betting it makes my year-end list of Favorite Fiction. I put aside  Blaichman’s Rather Die Fighting, Khadra’s The Attack and Margolius Kovály’s Innocence; or, Murder on Steep Street and started two new books. For Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge and Introverted Reader’s Books in Translation Reading Challenge I started Karlheinz Deschner’s God and the Fascists: The Vatican Alliance with Mussolini, Franco, Hitler, and Pavelic.  Originally published in 1966, it’s shaping up to be quite the polemic against both the Vatican and the Catholic Church in general. (Not sure if that’s what I originally bargained for. I’ll just have to see where the book goes.) The other is the 1969 anthology Growing Up Jewish edited by Jay David. One of my original 20 Books of Summer, since a number of the pieces are translated from Yiddish and German I’m hoping to apply this book as well to the Books in Translation Reading Challenge. 

Listening. With the The National Commission to Investigate the January 6 Attack on the United States Capitol Complex proceedings (AKA the January 6 Commission) continuing to be televised I once again dived into some of my favorite podcasts for helpful insight and commentary. With so much stuff out there it’s hard knowing where to start but I would begin with The Economist’s Checks and Balance episode “Insurrection Retrospection.” From there it’s pretty wide open. Deep State Radio’s “The Trial of Donald J. Trump” is particularly good as is The New Yorker’s Politics and More episode “What the January 6th Committee Uncovered This Week.” I’d also recommend Angry Planet’s “Proud Boys, January 6, and When a U-Haul Is a Clown Car.” Lastly, round things up with The Lincoln Project’s “The DOJ is Watching” with guest David H. Laufman and from The Bulwark “How the 1/6 Committee Could Succeed” with Denver Riggleman and “Why We Were Alarmed” with Bill Kristol. 

Watching. Mr. Robot continues to entertain, throwing head-spinning plot twists at me right and left. As I mentioned earlier, I’m knee deep into the January 6 Committee sessions and look forward to watching more once they resume next month. At long last I started watching the much-anticipated season 4 of Stranger Things. After a bit of a slow start it’s shaping up to be as dark and entertaining as I’d hoped. Finally, I decided to check out The Lincoln Project’s web series The Breakdown. Hosts Tara Setmayer and Rick Wilson did a fine job breaking down the last January 6 hearing. It’s well worth your time. 

Everything else. Even though gas is damn expensive right now I did make a few trips into town. I returned to my favorite an area winery to for a bit of friendly discussion with a couple of my professor buddies. Yesterday, while out running errands I dropped by one of my favorite watering holes to have a beer and read my Kindle. Weather wise, we’ve been experiencing a mini heat wave but temperatures should drop starting tomorrow. 

20 Books of Summer: I Must Betray You by Ruta Sepetys

Last week I mentioned I was surprised to realize how few books I’ve read about the Netherlands, novels set in the country or anything by Dutch authors. The same thing could also be said for Romania. Back in 2012 I read Haya Leah Molnar’s 2010 memoir Under a Red Sky: Memoir of a Childhood in Communist Romania and in 2018 it was 2016 Robert Kaplan’s In Europe’s Shadow: Two Cold Wars and a Thirty-Year Journey Through Romania and Beyond. Then a year later in 2019 it was Paul Bailey’s 2014 novel The Prince’s Boy. But despite my interest in Eastern Europe those are the only books about, or novels set in Romania I’ve featured on my blog.

Once I learned Ruta Sepetys, the Lithuanian-America author of the best-selling novel Salt to the Sea had just written a novel set in Romania during the waning months of Communist rule I went searching for it on Overdrive and placed a hold on I Must Betray You. Last week out of the blue a copy became available and after downloading it to my Kindle I burned through Sepetys’s 2022 historical novel in no time.

By 1989 Romania had become a hell-hole, far worse than any of its Communist neighbors. In hopes of paying off the country’s national debt dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu’s boosted exports of foodstuffs and fuel, leaving the population cold, malnourished and forced to wait in endless lines for handfuls of moldy produce or withered soup bones. Even in the capital Bucharest evening power outages were the norm, not the exception as residents navigated a decaying, darkened city where newborns froze to death in unpowered incubators and hungry feral dogs roamed the streets like some apocalyptic scene by Hieronymus Bosch. The oppressive regime ruled with an iron hand, aided by thousands of informants, ordinary citizens coerced into spying on their co-workers, neighbors and even family members.

And yet, in the midst of all of this things are looking up for Christian, the novel’s young protagonist. The pretty neighbor girl he’s secretly been crushing on has suddenly taken a liking to him, much to his pleasant surprise. Through his mother, who’s employed as a housekeeper for the American embassy, he’s recently made friends with the Ambassador’s teenage son. While the regime strongly discourages such relationships with foreigners it soon opens to Christian a much wider world of pop culture, bountiful consumer goods and notions of previously unimaginable personal freedom.

Then, one day at school he’s forced to meet with a member of Romania’s dreaded Securitate. Accused of illegal commercial activity with the Ambassador’s son he coerces Christian into serving as an informant, offering in return to supply his sick uncle with life-saving drugs. But as horrible as the situation is, what disturbs Christian the most is the sudden realization someone within his inner circle is an informer. But who?

Considered a “crossover” novelist since her books appeal to both teens and adults, Sepetys’s well-crafted novel is fast-paced and exciting with plenty of heart. I Must Betray You is easily one of the best novels I’ve read this year. Please consider it highly recommended.

Sunday Salon

A few weeks ago for the first time I took part in The Sunday Salon hosted by Deb Nance at Readerbuzz. So far it’s been a huge success and I hope to make it a regular feature. So here’s another post. 

Last week I finished Alexander Münninghoff’s 2020 family memoir The Son and Heir. I’m happy to report I was able to apply it to a number of reading challenges including the European Reading Challenge and the Books in Translation Challenge. With the European Reading Challenge in mind I started two additional books, one fiction and the other nonfiction. Ruta Sepetys’s 2022 historical novel I Must Betray You is quickly shaping to be one this year’s best works of fiction. Frank Blaichman’s 2009 Rather Die Fighting: A Memoir of World War II is a rare first-hand account of the life of a Jewish partisan fighting in German-occupied Poland during the Second World War. With my nose currently buried in Ruta Sepetys’s and Blaichman’s books I’ve been neglecting Yasmina Khadra’s The Attack and Heda Margolius Kovály’s Innocence; or, Murder on Steep Street. But I hope to get back to them as soon as possible. 

Listening. With the The National Commission to Investigate the January 6 Attack on the United States Capitol Complex proceedings (AKA the January 6 Commission) continuing to be televised I once again dived into some of my favorite podcasts for helpful insight and commentary. If you’re looking to follow my lead, start with recent Daily podcast “What the Jan. 6 Hearings Have Revealed So Far” and follow it up with The Bulwark’s episode “Mike Pence Must Testify.” The New Yorker: Politics and More episode “The Bombshell Moments at the Second Week of the January 6th Hearings” with Jane Mayer, Susan B. Glasser, and Evan Osnos serves up the great political insight you’d expect from that fine magazine. The Lincoln Project Podcast “The Second Hearing: The Rats are Leaving the Ship” with is worth it for the title alone. For an end of the week round-up with a panel of great journalists check out an audio version of last Friday’s Washington Week with the podcast episode “Jan. 6 Committee Lays Out Trump’s Efforts to Change 2020 Election Results.” Rounding things out, Molly Jong Fast and Andy Levy on The New Abnormal once again served up insightful and irreverent commentary on the hearings on the episode “Trump Lied, and Pence Could Have Died.” Lastly, for a great interview having absolutely nothing to do with the hearings check out Bulwark regular Tim Miller’s interview with Jamie Kirchick “When Homosexuality Was a National Security Threat” talking about his latest book Secret City: The Hidden History of Gay Washington. I’ve owned a Kindle edition of Kirchick’s earlier book The End of Europe: Dictators, Demagogues, and the Coming Dark Age for several years and maybe after hearing this interview I’ll finally read it. 

Watching. Mr. Robot continues to entertain, throwing head-spinning plot twists at me right and left. As I mentioned earlier, I’m knee deep into the January 6 Committee sessions and excited to see more. 

Everything else. With gas so damn expensive I’m trying to avoid driving into town but on Wednesday I traveled to an area winery to discuss a couple of chapters from Stuart Jeffries’s Grand Hotel Abyss: The Lives of the Frankfurt School with my impromptu book club. Of course just like last week I once again snuck out early on Friday and joined my buddy the semi-retired sociology professor for beers at a campus watering hole.

20 Books of Summer: The Son and Heir by Alexander Münninghoff

When it comes to Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge I was surprised to realize that over the years I’ve read hardly any books about the Netherlands, novels set in the country or anything by Dutch authors. While I’ve featured a history of Amsterdam, biography by a Dutch author and historical novel based on the life of Johannes Vermeer I’ve kinda neglected the Netherlands. Good thing then I included Alexander Münninghoff’s The Son and Heir as part of my 20 Books of Summer.

The Son and Heir is one of many free books I’ve downloaded over the last couple of years thanks to Amazon’s World Book Day. (Sadly, this year I forgot to take advantage of the annual giveaway.) Münninghoff, a Polish-born dutch journalist, died in 2020, the same year an English version of his family memoir The Son and Heir was released.

Münninghoff’s family history to say the least is a bit, um, complicated. During World War I his paternal grandfather got his start shipping goods (probably gun-running) across Northern Europe. After the War he invested the profits into factories and other commercial operations, setting up shop in the newly independent Baltic nation of Latvia, facilitated by his close relationship with the country’s autocratic leader. Settling in the capital Riga he married a former Russian noblewoman of Germanic ancestry and went on to father several children, including Münninghoff’s father Frans.

Heavily influenced by his Germanic mother and thoroughly immersed in the language and culture of Latvia’s ethnic German population, he strongly identified as German as opposed to Dutch or even Latvian. (Thanks to his mother’s influence, as well as that of his Russian emigre nannies he also developed  an admiration of pre-Revolutionary Tsarist Russia and with it, a hatred of the new Soviet government.)

Much against his father’s wishes, this love of Germany and antipathy towards the Communists inspired young Frans to join Germany’s Waffen SS. Serving as an interpreter, he was wounded serving on the Eastern Front  and later evacuated West to recuperate. During this downtime his son Alexander, the book’s author, was born in German occupied Poland. In the years following World War II his father’s military service was a little dirty secret his family sought to conceal. But on those few occasions when asked, his father stood proudly by his military record and steadfastly denied any participation in wartime atrocities.

Before the mid-20th century cataclysms of World War II, the Holocaust and Soviet oppression Europe was entirely different world. The Pre-War world described in The Son and Heir is one where individuals could move relatively freely across the Continent unhindered by the closed borders of Communism. Throughout the countries of Eastern European there was a diverse tapestry of ethnic minorities manifested in a cacophony of languages, cultures, religions and allegiances. By the late 1940s however the countries of this region had been thoroughly and forcibly homogenized through genocide, ethnic cleansing and the redrawing of national borders.

Unfortunately, the story of the author’s family is a near endless parade of tragedies, betrayals and infidelities. By the time you get to the end you’re kinda tired of all the drama. Just like you would with any family.

20 Books of Summer: The Invisible Life of Ivan Isaenko by Scott Stambach

This summer was supposed to be the summer I read only the books I’d selected for this year’s 20 Books of Summer. Sadly though I’ve already stumbled out of the gate by deviating from my plan. Last weekend at the public library I spotted a copy of Scott Stambach’s 2016 novel The Invisible Life of Ivan Isaenko. Once I read the jacket blurb it was all over. Set in Belarus it’s perfect for Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge. I mean come on; how often did you get to read a novel set in Balarus?

Born just 60 miles downwind from the horrible nuclear accident at Chernobyl, Ivan Isaenko’s genetic code was scrambled by radioactive fallout. Like a latter day thalidomide baby he’s forced to navigate life devoid of legs with only one arm and two fingers. An orphan confined to a wheelchair he’s lived all 17 years of his life at the Mazyr Hospital for Gravely Ill Children in Belarus. Despite his severe physical abnormalities and limited surroundings he’s a highly intelligent, yet cynical young man with an uncanny ability to read and manipulate others to achieve his own ends. Most his days are spent voraciously reading, keenly observing the foibles and machinations of the hospital’s staff, pitying the miserable plight of his genetically-ravaged fellow young patients while engaging in petty thievery, binge drinking and recreational masturbation.

But this routine is abruptly interrupted by the arrival of Polina. Young, pretty and unlike the rest of the patients doesn’t appear cursed with horrible birth defects or other afflictions like extreme autism. To Ivan it’s a mystery why she’s there and after seeing how the staff takes a liking to her he quickly grows jealous. While the words they exchange are few, it’s clear she doesn’t like him either. Refusing to show him the deference he feels due she has zero patience for his egotistical attitude, even stealing his books.

But at the apogee of their mutual dislike things begin to change. Ivan learns she’s battling Leukemia, a battle it appears she isn’t winning. Gradually, she allows him into her world, corresponding back and forth with him via her private journal she conveniently leaves out for him each day. Through their missives they learn they’re much alike: intelligent, well-read, orphaned (recently in Polina’s case) and somewhat kleptomaniacal. Before long this mutual respect blossoms into a kind of teenage romance that transcends the limitations imposed by Ivan’s severe disabilities and Polina’s ravaging illness.

The Invisible Life of Ivan Isaenko is one of those enemies turned lovers love stories but with a bittersweet leavening of dark humor and sadness. Pleasantly sick and wrong, it’s great reading if you enjoy the twisted and fiction of Chuck Palahniuk, Iain Banks or Gary Shteyngart. Yet another pleasant surprise to come my way, it’s a welcomed detour for my 20 Books of Summer.

Sunday Salon

A few weeks ago for the first time I took part in The Sunday Salon hosted by Deb Nance at Readerbuzz. So far it’s been a huge success and I hope to make it a regular feature. So here’s another post. 

Last week I finished up Kitty Veldis’s 2018 historical novel Not Our Kind  and like I mentioned earlier, if it doesn’t make Favorite Fiction list in December it’s a shoe-in for a future honorable mention. After putting A.C. Grayling’s Descartes: The Life and Times of a Genius on pause I dived headfirst into The Invisible Life of Ivan Isaenko. Scott Stambach’s 2016 dark yet hilarious novel is set in Belarus at the Mazyr Hospital for Gravely Ill Children. Pleasantly sick and wrong, it’s great reading if you enjoy the twisted fiction of Chuck Palahniuk, Iain Banks or Gary Shteyngart. Currently, I’m about half-way through Alexander Münninghoff’s 2020 family memoir The Son and HeirAn alternate for my 20 Book of Summer reading challenge it’s applicable to a number of others including the European Reading Challenge. I also started two other novels and it’s too earlier to tell how much I’ll end up liking them. Yasmina Khadra’s 2006 The Attack shows early promise. Since I’ve yet to finish the introduction to Heda Margolius Kovály’s 2015 Czech crime novel Innocence; or, Murder on Steep Street who knows if I’ll like it or not. 

Listening. With the The National Commission to Investigate the January 6 Attack on the United States Capitol Complex proceedings (AKA the January 6 Commission) at last being televised I dived into some of my favorite podcasts for helpful insight and commentary. On Fresh Air Terry Gross interviewed New York Times Congressional reporter Luke Broadwater on the episode “The Jan. 6 Insurrection: Understanding The Big Picture.”  Another must listen is the recent Daily podcast “The Proud Boys’ Path to Jan. 6.” Recorded the morning after Thursday’s opening session, Charlie Sykes and guests Sarah Longwell, Tim Miller, and Bill Kristol did a fine job on The Bulwark breaking things down with the episode “This Is What Democracy Looks Like.” Deep State Radio’s “A Life or Death Moment in the History of US Democracy” with guests Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute and Harry Litman of the Talking Feds podcast is also a must listen. Speaking of Talking Feds, recorded a few days before Thursday night’s session the episode “At History’s Edge” with guests Julie Zebrak, Josh Marshall and Rep. Ted Lieu also makes for great listening. Lastly, Molly Jong Fast and Andy Levy on The New Abnormal as expected served up insightful and irreverent commentary on the opening session. But what helps makes the episode “Liz Cheney Is Ready to Follow Donald Trump to the Gates of Hell” a true gem are the interviews they did with Pod Save America co-host Dan Pfeiffer, and my favorite thought leader Ian Bremmer.  

Watching. Mr. Robot continues to entertain me and has been a fantastic find. As I mentioned early, Thursday night I watched the opening session of the January 6 Committee and I’m excited to see more. 

Everything else. Like last week I once again snuck out early on Friday and joined my buddy the semi-retired sociology professor for beers and some pizza at a local watering hole. Yesterday on Saturday there was a break in the rainy weather so I snuck out again for another beer. On Wednesday I took part in a weekly Facebook group chat with two librarians from the New York Public Library. I’ve been doing this for months and it’s a great way to get book recommendations as well as learn about new books months before they’re officially released. 

Sunday Salon

Last week, for the just the second time I took part in The Sunday Salon hosted by Deb Nance at Readerbuzz. This week I’m back with another post. 

 Monday morning I finished up Helen Rappaport’s 2017 Caught in the Revolution: Petrograd, Russia, 1917 – A World on the Edge. I can easily say Caught in the Revolution will make my year-end list of Favorite Nonfiction. I took a chance on Kitty Veldis’s 2018 historical novel Not Our Kind and it paid off wonderfully.  If it doesn’t make my Favorite Fiction list in December it’s a shoe-in for a future honorable mention. This week I also started Descartes: The Life and Times of a Genius by A.C. Grayling. So far I’ve read around 30 pages so it’s too earlier to tell if I’ll like it. Well, it only took me a few days to deviate from my hastily put together list for this year’s 20 Books of Summer. I dropped by the library just to return a book and walked out a few minutes later with a copy of Scott Stambach’s The Invisible Life of Ivan Isaenko.  But really I had no choice. How often do you come across a novel set in Belarus? 

Listening. Last week I mentioned former conservative talk show host turned Never Trumper Charlie Sykes’s podcast The Bulwark and his recent interview with Peter Wehner “Christianity’s Generational Catastrophe” on the current state of American evangelical Christianity,  specifically the fallout surrounding the Southern Baptist Convention sex abuse scandal. The recently released independent report of the scandal is a gut-punch detailing decades of horrific abuse, cover-ups and public shaming of victims. Sykes’s follow-up interview “Russell Moore: The Southern Baptist Apocalypse” with the noted evangelical theologian and writer is also a must listen. Last week on the Fresh Air episode “Uncovering Abuse In The Southern Baptist Convention” Terry Gross interviewed Robert Downen, a reporter following the case. Lastly, Hemant and Jessica of The Friendly Atheist podcast recently discussed the findings of the report, as well as a host of other topics. 

Watching. Last week I hardly watched anything other than a few episodes of Mr. Robot Excellent writing combined with a sizable cast of up and coming young talent makes this pleasantly subversive series a winner. Hopefully this week I can resume watching the Canadian sitcom Letterkenny. 

Everything else. On Friday I snuck out early and joined my buddy the semi-retired sociology professor and a few of his cronies for beers at one of the campus watering holes. After having nice weather throughout the week yesterday was a parade of heavy showers. I spent most the day sitting on my porch reading with a large black cat either on my lap or at my feet. 

About Time I Read It: Caught in the Revolution by Helen Rappaport

I’ve always been interested in Russian history, specifically the Soviet and post-Soviet periods. But lately, I’ve become fascinated with the last hundred years or so leading up to the overthrow of the Romanovs. Why this sudden interest is a mystery to me. Maybe it’s the speculation Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine in hopes of recasting himself as one of the great expansionist-minded Tsars of the past. Or maybe it’s just a recent manifestation of my fascination with the 19th century. (It’s been over 20 years since I read Norman Davies, in his tour de force Europe: A History boldly make the claim the 19th century had a greater impact on our modern world than even the 20th.) Or maybe it’s something as simple as seeing the trailers and teasers for the Netflix series Shadow and Bone, with its pre-Revolutionary Russia-inspired Kingdom of Ravka.

But whatever those origins might be, it inspired me enough to borrow a copy of Helen Rappaport’s Caught in the Revolution: Petrograd, Russia, 1917 – A World on the EdgeOver the years Claire of the blog The Captive Reader has featured several of Rappaport’s books, speaking highly of the British historian’s work. I spent a good chunk of the Veterans Day weekend reading Caught in the Revolution and was duly impressed. Rappaport’s 2017 book is based heavily on first-hand accounts of Americans, Brits and other foreign nationals residing in Petrograd during the final years of World War I. Highly detailed yet readable, Caught in the Revolution is like an astute outsider’s inside look at the earth-shattering political upheaval occurring between the February Revolution and the subsequent Bolshevik coup nine months later.

By the winter of 1917 Russia was ripe for revolution, and those foreigners residing in Petrograd had a front row seat. The War was going poorly for Russia. Suffering defeat after defeat and its armies pushed back across Russian territory, casualties mounted and support for the war, especially among the impoverished peasantry and urban working class was evaporating. Residents of Petrograd faced, in what would be called in today’s terminology, serious supply chain issues. With the empire’s railway network barely functioning under the immense stress of Europe’s First World War combined with millions of young Russian men under arms and thus unavailable for industrial or agricultural work foodstuffs rotted in the fields leaving the cities hungry.

Had he been in the capital Petrograd, perhaps the Tsar could have seen firsthand how bad things were and authorize even a modest relief plan. But instead he was hundreds of miles away, trying to lead his troops to victory and failing miserably.  Ruling in his absence was a series of royal ministers, each one more reactionary and unpopular than the last. Cold, hungry and tired of seeing their sons, husbands and brothers sent to die in a lost war the women of Petrograd had had enough. Taking to the streets to protest, their movement quickly grew in both numbers and intensity until those forces tasked with making them to disband refused to follow orders. By then it was only a matter of time before the Romanov dynasty was overthrown, unleashing a political whirlwind Russia, and the world had never seen.

Those in Petrograd witnessing firsthand these seismic events, most if not all assumed the upheaval was unique just to Russia. But across Eurasia, the great land-based empires of Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman realms also were unable to withstand the onslaught of World War I. Financially exhausted and bled white by four years of unprecedented slaughter the once eager belligerents collapsed under the weight of unresolved political tensions, material deprivation and long-simmering ethnic yearnings. Even a victor like Italy would feel inadequately compensated territorially for the bloody sacrifices it suffered on the battlefield. In the years immediately following World War I a bitter, divided nation descend into political chaos only to have a Fascist strongman step into the political vacuum.

Tragically, within 20 years Italy, Russia, and so many other former kingdoms and their subject realms would be ruled by authoritarian regimes far more excessive and deadlier than the monarchies that preceded them.