Category Archives: Eastern Europe/Balkans

In Wartime: Stories from Ukraine by Tim Judah

Probably the coolest thing about Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge is it makes a person read books set in, or about countries all over Europe. That’s always been fine with me. Over the years it’s discovered a ton of great books that who knows, had it not been for the European Reading Challenge I might never had read. And trust me, when is that ever a bad thing?

My quest to find yet another book to read for the challenge led me to Tim Judah’s 2015 book In Wartime: Stories from Ukraine. Until it was overshadowed by the tumultuous American election, the conflict in Ukraine seemed to always be in the news. So, when I found an available copy at my public library I helped myself. After a few fits and starts I eventually made my way through it, finishing it last night just before bed.  While perhaps not a page-turning, nevertheless it’s probably the best book out there when it comes to showing just how complex and, well, horribly messed-up the situation has been in Ukraine. Judah travels from one end of the country to another interviewing an almost endless series of people who’ve been involved in, or at least significantly impacted by the ongoing conflict. Like many wars, civil wars and combinations of both, the roots of today’s conflict go deep into the past. As Ukraine struggles define itself as a distinct nation state and plot a political trajectory somewhere between East and West, it must deal with a restive eastern population as well as a resurgent Putinist Russia that sees Ukraine as traditionally part of it homeland.

I’m a sucker for good, on the ground reporting like this. In Wartime reminded me of other books written about Easter Europe like Misha Glenny’s The Fall of Yugoslavia: The Third Balkan War, Lawrence Scott Sheets’ 8 Pieces of Empire: A 20-Year Journey Through the Former Soviet Union and last but not least Askold Krushnelnycky’s An Orange Revolution: A Personal Journey Through Ukrainian History. Of course, since I am a sucker for this kind of writing, you’ll be sure to see a more books like this featured on my blog in the coming year.

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Filed under Area Studies/International Relations, Current Affairs, Eastern Europe/Balkans, Europe, History

Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall by Anna Funder

Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin WallYet another book published well over 10 years ago I discovered only recently is Anna Funder’s 2003 book Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall. Even though it won the Samuel Johnson Prize and was shortlisted for several others I’d never heard of Stasiland until just recently when I found a copy through my public library. With my longtime interest in the former Soviet Bloc I could not resist Funder’s book. In the end, I’m glad I yielded to temptation. Stasiland is one of those books that took me forever to read, not because it’s boring but one I kept putting to down in order to read other things. However, slowly but surely I made my way through it. And even it took me a long time to read it didn’t leave me disappointed.

Instead of merely discussing the political system of the old German Democratic Republic (GDR) and how it collapsed, Funder spent time interviewing individual former East Germans and simply letting then tell their life stories. By doing so, she made the historical intimate and personal, and thus put a human face on history. I’m glad she was able to interview former Stasi agents and see how they’ve fared ten years after the Fall of the Berlin wall. (According to Funder, many Stasi agents, trained and well-practiced in the arts of persuasion and intimidating now spend their days not spying and harassing dissidents but selling insurance and financial services.)

Stasiland is also a sad book. Sad because even though many in the West thought East Germany was the most humane nation of the old Soviet Bloc, those living in the GDR lived under an oppressive and unforgiving regime. Individual hopes and dreams were severely attenuated and when that happens lives becoming meaningless. In some cases, perceived enemies of the state who were imprisoned and later died under mysterious circumstances had their bodies quickly cremated to hide the truth from their loved ones. It was also a regime that until the bitter end refused to step aside, even though its aging inner circle was so old some leaders disparately underwent experimental treatments in hopes of forestalling the aging process.

Stasiland is an excellent companion read to Anne Applebaum’s Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-1956 and Stephen Kotkin’s Uncivil Society: 1989 and the Implosion of the Communist Establishment.

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Filed under Area Studies/International Relations, Current Affairs, Eastern Europe/Balkans, Europe, History

Isaac’s Army by Matthew Brzezinski

Isaac's Army: A Story of Courage and Survival in Nazi-Occupied PolandAlan Furst is one of my favorite contemporary fiction writers and when he highly recommends a book, I take notice. One night while searching my public library’s online database I noticed there was an available copy of Matthew Brzezinski’s Isaac’s Army: A Story of Courage and Survival in Nazi-Occupied Poland. Since I already had a ton of library books in my possession I was a bit hesitant to borrow one more. But with Alan Furst giving Isaac’s Army a glowing recommendation, calling the book “a riveting account of the Jewish resistance in wartime Poland” how could I say no. After making my way through Isaac’s Army I can happily say Mr. Furst did not steer me wrong. Isaac’s Army is a superb book and probably one the best books on the Holocaust I’ve ever read.

Published in 2012, Brzezinski’s (yes, he’s related to President Carter’s National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski since he’s his nephew) book begins with Warsaw on the eve of German invasion. Cursed with having Nazi Germany on the West and Stalin’s USSR on the East, the country’s leaders  nervously and with overconfidence look to Britain and France to hold back the invading tide. Even though Poland’s right-wing authoritarian regime has been showing its antisemitic stripes of late, overall, the Jews of Warsaw are doing well. With half a million Jews calling Warsaw home, the Polish capital isn’t just one of the largest and most cosmopolitan cities in Eastern Europe, it’s a vibrant and populous Jewish mecca.

But then came the Nazi and Soviet onslaughts. After Poland’s crushing defeat Warsaw’s Jews were eventually exiled to the city’s newly created ghetto. Behind the Warsaw Ghetto’s walls parallel power structures and factions materialized, and some of its residence acting out of desperation, venality or naivety became informers, or even collaborators. Before the final round of deportations to the Death Camps, the ghetto’s last residents staged a furious uprising. Believing the Jews were cowardly and too timid to fight back, the Nazi’s were completely taken off guard. Although the rising was ultimately crushed, a number of brave, resourceful and lucky souls escaped death through the sewers. Some of these fighters went on to take part in another failed insurrection a year later, when the Polish Underground rose up against the Nazis in the Warsaw Uprising.

What separates Isaac’s Army from your typical books on WWII is this a book about individuals, not armies and generals. Through Brzezinski’s eyes you see their day-to-day struggles over a six-year period. Since they are presented as real people fighting a merciless and powerful enemy of demonic proportions, readers of Isaac’s Army are able to see them as flesh and blood individuals. Contrary to what Stalin would have liked the world to believe, they are human beings, not statistics.

Brzezinski’s book is incredibly researched and contains tons of detail without feeling dry or tedious. So impressed was I with Isaac’s Army that I’m pretty confident it’ll make my year-end Best of List. Just like I did in my previous post with Christian Caryl book Strange Rebels, consider this book highly recommended.

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Filed under Eastern Europe/Balkans, Europe, History, Judaica

Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century

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I’m probably not alone in assuming when people rebel against the establishment they’re usually thought of as progressives or modernizers. These individuals see the old order as being, well, old. Sick of dealing with antiquated governance and out of step leaders, such agents for change want to move forward by bringing about needed reforms or even wholesale revolutions. What then do you make of those who, when taking on those in power, look not to the future for inspiration but to the past?

That is the question asked and answered by Christian Caryl in his 2013 book Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century. It’s a book that’s been on my list to read for several years, ever since I read about it on Goodreads. I felt myself drawn to Strange Rebels because I came of age during this time. Of the many events he recalls, so many of them I watched unfold on the evening TV news. Not long ago my book group opted to read it and I couldn’t have been happier. I’m also happy to report it’s an excellent book.

To Caryl, 1979 was a pivotal year like few others. Britain elected its first female Prime Minister, an avowed conservative who moved the United Kingdom away kicking and screaming from a pro-union, Socialist-style system to free-market, Chicago School of Economics-oriented nation. On the other side of the globe, Deng Xiaoping sought to modernize China and raise living standards by bringing the nation into the global economy through embracing capitalism. In an age when many forward thinking intellectuals thought little of religion, especially conservative Catholicism, Pope John II believed the moral and intellectual strength of Christianity could bring about the end of Soviet oppression. Also in opposition to Soviet-sponsored oppression were the Mujahideen of Afghanistan, who had religious motivations of their own, drawing from their Islamic heritage. Lastly, in neighboring Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini and his fellow revolutionaries established the world’s first Islamic Republic. By doing so they abruptly ended the Shah’s attempts to make Iran a modern, Westernized (albeit authoritarian) nation.

Through Caryl’s eyes these strange rebels share striking similarities. Thatcher and Deng felt the only way their respective nations could prosper was to embrace free market reforms and lessen the state’s role in the economy. Khomeini, the Mujahideen and John Paul II all had religious motivations to replace the old order with one more in line with those beliefs. Both John Paul II and Khomeini’s religious views were shaped by their philosophical studies: John Paul II augmented his Christian beliefs with modern European philosophy while Khomeini was heavily influenced by Platonic thought, as well as the writings of the Red Shia Ali Shariati. Even though they were Sunnis and not Shias, the Afghan Mujahideen fought to defeat the Soviets and their Afghan allies and eventually set up their own version of an Islamic Republic. And just like Khomeini and his like-minded ruling clerics took inspiration from the Red Shia Shariati, the Mujahideen modeled themselves after the Muslim Brotherhood, which in turn shares similarities with Marxist vanguard parties.

It’s one thing to show what these leaders had in common, the hard thing is to convince the reader the things they did in 1979 in no small way shape our world. To his credit, Caryl pulls it off. Thanks to Deng’s reforms, China is now a world power, especially economically. The political/economic system of Britain looks nothing like the dark days of the early 1970s. (As an example, Tony Blair’s Labor Party was not your grandfather’s Labor Party.) ideological heirs to the Mujahideen like al-Qaeda, ISIS and Boko Haram fight to impose their will throughout the world as political Islam has become the dominant ideology for protest in the Muslim world, eclipsing Pan-Arabism, Arab Nationalism and Communism. Before 1979 Islamic Republic was an alien concept. Thanks to Khomeini, even many Sunnis find it an appealing one. (Even if they use the term Caliph.) An unwinnable war in Afghanistan led to the collapse of the USSR. It was the churches, both Protestant and Catholic, that provided safe places where dissidents and their allies could organize against the Communist regimes of Eastern Europe.

Strange Rebels is an excellent book. Consider it highly recommended.

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Filed under Afghanistan, Area Studies/International Relations, China, Christianity, East Asia, Eastern Europe/Balkans, Europe, History, Iran, Islam, Middle East/North Africa

About Time I Read It: The Bridge at Andau by James Michener

After a failed popular uprising against an oppressive regime, nightly newscasts and newspaper articles tell of 200,000 refugees flooding across borders and nearly overwhelming Europe’s ability to care for and house the desperate masses. Despite priding itself on being a nation of immigrants, as well as beacon onto the world of freedom and democracy, the United States agrees to accept a relative handful of refuges, fearing there are spies and evil doers secretly embedded among the displaced. Many ask why on earth America is so resistant in granting sanctuary to theses refugees since they are the creme de la creme of any modern society: the young, the educated, the highly skilled, the artistically gifted and the athletically talented. To any country willing to accept them, these displaced persons would be a huge boon, potentially enriching their new host nations beyond measure. But as the world’s leaders half heartedly debate, or even ignore the situation, the human crises in Europe drags on.

No, I’m not describing the current plight of Syrian refugees in Europe. Something similar happened once before in history. Back in 1956, after a decade of Communist tyranny the people of Hungary rose up against their Soviet-backed oppressors. Unfortunately, their freedom lasted only a week before the revolt was brutally crushed by Russian troops. For a brief period before the Communists were able to completely seal the borders, approximately 200,000 refuges made their way to neighboring Austria, leaving by way of a forgotten country bridge near the Austrian border village of Andau. During this crises, a Pulitzer-prize winning American author named James Michener happened to be living in Austria. Being relatively close to the action, he was able to interview a number of the Hungarian refugees, some of which actively participated in the attempted uprising. Those interviews served as the source material for Michener’s 1957 book The Bridge at Andau: The Compelling True Story of a Brave, Embattled People.

Like many readers of my generation, I’m no stranger to Michener. In high school, I was assigned to read two of his tomes, The Source and Centennial, and around the same time, on my own I read Caravans. But only recently have I read anything else by this once popular American author. Looking for something I could read for Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge, I found myself cruising my public library’s online catalog when out of the blue I remembered Michener had written a book decades ago on the failed 1956 Hungarian Uprising. Seeing copy of this book happened to be available I grabbed one. I’m happy to report a bit to my surprise I was not disappointed.

The Bridge at Andau is a very good book. At first I was scared it wouldn’t hold up well over the years but lo and behold it has, and as a result still makes for enjoyable and intelligent reading. The accounts of heroism and tragedy Michener chronicles in The Bridge at Andau will stick with a person long after reading this book. Pleasantly surprised by this sixty year old piece of nonfiction writing, I now find myself wanting to read more stuff by Michener. Therefore, don’t be surprised if you see a few more of his books featured on my blog.

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Filed under Area Studies/International Relations, Eastern Europe/Balkans, Europe, History

Pan-European Lives: Jabotinsky and Limonov

JabotinskyLimonov: The Outrageous Adventures of the Radical Soviet Poet Who Became a Bum in New York, a Sensation in France, and a Political Antihero in RussiaA Jewish novelist puts his successful literary career behind him to lead a Zionist movement that almost a hundred years later still influences Israeli politics. A Russian dissident, after allowed to leave the USSR and spending half a decade in New York City living as a vagrant, sexual libertine and finally butler to the rich and glamorous moves to Paris where he flourishes as a radical chic journalist. And if that’s not enough our adventurous Russian friend will trade the City of Light for the battlefields of the former Yugoslavia to fight with Serbian paramilitaries (and be accused of committing crimes against humanity). Upon returning to his native Russia, the new political party he helps create first attracts the attention, then wrath of Russia’s new authoritarian leadership which earns him a brief stint in prison, but also major political street cred.

Recently, I read two biographies of two very different men. Understandably, it’s easy to look at their respective lives and pick out all the things that are different. The funny thing is the more I reflected on those lives, the more similarities I saw.

Some might ask why a Gentile like me would want to read Hillel Halkin’s 2014 biography Jabotinsky: A Life. I would answer after seeing Jabotinsky’s name pop up time and time again in books on Jewish history and Israeli politics I could not resist reading it when I found an available copy through my public library. In spite of it’s relatively slim size, I’m embarrassed to say it took me forever to read it, but only because I kept getting distracted by everything else I was trying to read. That of course is a shame because Halkin has written a pretty good book. It’s detailed but not dry. I have to commend the author for producing a readable biography of what some might consider an obscure historical figure but an influential one nevertheless. (Jabotinsky’s legacy isn’t just political. Since his historical novel Sampson was adapted for the silver screen years ago, he’s probably the only founding Zionist to have an IMDB listing.)

If you’re me, and you’re lazily wandering along the shelves at the public library and you find a book titled Limonov: The Outrageous Adventures of the Radical Soviet Poet Who Became a Bum in New York, a Sensation in France, and a Political Antihero in Russia my goodness why would you NOT want to read it? Emmanuel Carrère’s “pseudobiography” (even after reading this book I’m not exactly sure what this term means) did not disappoint. Reading Carrère’s account of Limonov everything feels outrageous and larger than life, proving once again that truth is stranger than fiction.

Born 60 years apart, one a Jew and the other a Gentile, both men could not be more different in political views, personal behavior and overall character. With that in mind you might be asking how are these two men alike? Both men grew up in the Ukraine but left to following their dreams elsewhere, with both mens’ travels taking them across Europe (Italy and Switzerland for Jabotinsky and France for Limonov) as well as across the Atlantic to New York (where Jabotinsky died in 1940 and was subsequently buried and only recently was his body reburied in Israel). Perhaps foremost, both started out as journalists and later transitioned to writing books of fiction and nonfiction. Both men briefly spent time as soldiers. Lastly, both men founded political organizations that harkened back to an imagined glorious past. (Jabotinsky looked to the ancient kingdom of Israel as a model for his modern version. He was also inspired by Garibaldi’s unification of Italy and Ireland’s breakaway from the British Empire. Limonov’s National Bolshevik Party, should it ever take power would love to bring back to glory days of Stalin and dominate Eurasia. One could also argue the group has significant fascist overtones.)

There you have it, two good biographies of two very different men. Except maybe, just maybe, they’re really not that different after all.

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The Fifth Servant by Kenneth J. Wishnia

The Fifth ServantEven though I’ve read only two of his novels, I’ve recently taken a liking to the historical fiction of David Liss. His 2004 novel The Coffee Trader easily made my 2014 Favorite Fiction list while his 2014 offering The Day of Atonement not only made last year’s list but received my nod for best piece of fiction. Duly impressed with the novels of Liss, I hope to read more of his stuff in the near future.

Last week while searching my public library’s online catalog for books I could read for the European Reading Challenge I came across a listing for Kenneth J. Wishnia’s 2010 novel The Fifth Servant. After looking it up on Amazon, I saw The Fifth Servant had received a “starred review” from Publishers Weekly. As good an accolade as that might be, what really made me borrow a library copy was the praise it received from David Liss. “Whatever you are currently reading, I promise you it is not nearly as intelligent, witty, compelling, or entertaining as The Fifth Servant….Wishnia makes history come alive.” With a recommendation like that, how could I go wrong? After finishing The Fifth Servant earlier this morning down at my neighborhood coffee shop I’m happy to report Liss did not lead me astray.

Set during the 16th century in Prague, the novel begins when the body of a murdered young girl is found outside a Jewish-owned business. Given just three days to solve the murder, newly arrived shammes (a kind of custodian/gofer/low-level assistant for the local synagogue) Benyamin Ben-Akiva must navigate an array of hostile and reluctant personalities, both Jew and Gentile, if he’s to find the true killer before the city’s Jewish population is brutally punished. Fortunately Ben-Akiva is no mere flunky but instead a highly intelligent and educated individual who quickly blossoms into a brave man of action.

The Fifth Servant is an entertaining adventure with something for everyone: mystery, action, suspense, romance and even a little humor. Both mystery fans and fans of historical fiction will enjoy the novel. With much of it set in Prague’s Jewish Quarter and our heroic protagonist a brilliant Talmudist, I highly recommend The Fifth Servant to Jewish readers. Wishnia did a fine job painting a rich and vibrant picture of what the Jewish section of Prague looked like so many centuries ago. David Liss was right. This is a wonderful novel.

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Filed under Christianity, Eastern Europe/Balkans, Fiction, History, Judaica