Category Archives: Eastern Europe/Balkans

Focus on the Eastern Front: The Retreat by Michael Jones

Before I finally started reading The Nazi Officer’s Wife: How One Jewish Woman Survived the Holocaust I figured it might be wise to first read The Retreat: Hitler’s First Defeat. You see, I’ve had the book for almost ten years and considering how much I’ve enjoyed other books on the Eastern Front I’m kinda amazed I let it set on my shelf unread for so long. So one Sunday morning I grabbed my copy of Michael Jones’ 2009 book and headed to the coffee shop. Before I knew it The Retreat sucked me in and had me wishing I’d read it years ago.

As 1941 drew to a close the German military looked invisible. After smashing the Polish, Dutch, Belgian, Norwegian, French, Greek, Yugoslav and British armies the Nazis stood masters of Europe. Germany’s only adversary was Great Britain, which after being driven from the Continent sat alone and beleaguered. So, in the summer of 1941 when Germany invaded the Soviet Union and appeared completely unstoppable in its drive to destroy the Red Army and capture Moscow many thought the Nazis were indeed superman destined to rule if not the world then much of Eurasia. But before long, in the dead of the Russian winter something unexpected happened – they were stopped. Jones’ The Retreat takes a close look and shows how and why Germany’s initial drive to conquer the Soviet Union ended in failure.

What struck me the most about The Retreat it’s not as much a “big picture” analysis of the Eastern Front but more a collection of accounts of German and Soviet soldiers who did the fighting. Much of this is based on original sources like the combatants’ journals and letters as well as interviews done after the war. The result is a readable “boots on the ground” look at the brutal fighting in the USSR.

Germany’s plan to vanquish the Soviet Union, if successful all depended on a quick push to Moscow and successful capture of the Soviet capital. However, despite Germany’s many early victories and impressive territorial gains by late 1941 the Nazi juggernaut began to slow. Logistically, the challenge of supplying such a massive invasion force thousands of miles deep in the heart of Russia became too great. With the onset of winter the German army found itself bereft of winter clothing as well as cold-weather impervious lubricants for its tank, truck and airplane engines. The Germans also underestimated the Soviet Union’s ability to rebuild its depleted armed forces both in men and material. (Also, once Stalin learned Japan was planning on striking South and attacking the Americans, British and Dutch and not the Soviet Far East he reinforced his armies defending Moscow with fresh Siberian-based troops.) Lastly, the Nazis underestimated the Soviet people’s will to resist a hated invader and once Soviet soldiers learned millions of their countrymen had died or where dying in POW camps fought even harder, preferring to die fighting than be captured.  (On the other hand, the Soviets committed errors as well, most notably engaging in costly frontal assaults against the Germans instead of attempting to encircle them.)

Fighting was savage on the Eastern Front but Jones’ includes a few accounts of shared humanity. One German soldier, after stumbling upon a Russian house with an impressive library including many books in German was told by the house’s Jewish owner to help himself since the whole place will end up getting torched in the end. Despite hearing reports of an impending Soviet attack, German forces occupying a Russian village went ahead with their impromptu Christmas Eve service . Before long local villagers flocked to the service, even though Christmas, in the Eastern Orthodox tradition isn’t celebrated until early January. Then, slowly and quietly assorted men begin to assembling at the back of the crowd. These were Red Army soldiers and partisans. In the end no shots are fired and quiet handshakes and well-wishes were exchanged between Germans and Russian fighters.

The Retreat is good book and it compliments rather well other books on the Eastern Front I’ve read like Katherine Merridale’s Ivan’s War: Life and Death in The Red Army 1939-1945 Willy Peter Reese’s A Stranger to Myself and Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin.

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Filed under Eastern Europe/Balkans, Europe, History

Books About Books: The Possessed by Elif Batuman

I’d been seeing Elif Batuman’s The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them at the library for the last few years but could never bring myself to borrow it, despite my life-long weakness for Russian literature going all the way back to my college years. Truth be told, in the end it was probably New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast’s cover art that made me wanna grab it. Published in 2010, and as its subtitle promises The Possessed is a look inside the world of classic Russian literature and its passionate devotees, especially academics. For good, bad or otherwise, The Possessed isn’t restricted to Russian literature since Batuman devotes two chapters recalling the time she spent studying abroad in the Central Asian country of Uzbekistan.

While I found the soap opera antics of Tolstoy’s dysfunctional family entertaining it was what Batuman had to say about Russian-Jewish writer Isaac Babel that stuck with me the longest. Come to find out, Babel has a kind of six degrees of separation connection of to the classic film King Kong. A decade before he co-directed King Kong, Merian C. Cooper flew as a volunteer for the Kościuszko Squadron, which supported the Polish Army in the Polish-Soviet War. During the war he was shot down by Soviet forces, captured and held prisoner for nine months. As a POW he was interrogated by Babel, who was serving in the Red Army. Later, Cooper escaped captivity, made his way to Latvia and eventually back to America. He would go on to make a number of classic films including King Kong. Another of those films, The Most Dangerous Game, featured an expat Russian count as its villain.

The Possessed is a pretty good book. Readers interested in Russian literature as well as literature in general shouldn’t be disappointed. For that matter, neither should lovers of Russian history. Down the road I’d like to follow-up The Possessed with her novel The Idiot since I’ve heard some good buzz about it of late. Might just have to give The Idiot a shot.

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About Time I Read It: Faith at War by Yaroslav Trofimov

Even though it’s been a decade since I read it I still find myself recommending Yaroslav Trofimov’s outstanding 2007 book Siege of Mecca: The Forgotten Uprising in Islam’s Holiest Shrine. Whenever someone asks me for a reading list of books about the Middle East I always include it along with other favorites like Kai Bird’s Crossing Mandelbaum Gate, Neil MacFarquhar’s The Media Relations Department of Hizbollah Wishes You a Happy Birthday and Thomas Friedman’s From Beirut to Jerusalem. Last Saturday, during one of my weekend visits to the public library I came across a copy of Trofimov’s first book Faith at War: A Journey on the Frontlines of Islam, from Baghdad to Timbuktu. Knowing full well I had  a sizable stack of library books next to my bed waiting to be read I still grabbed Faith at War, hoping I’d enjoy it as much as I did Siege of Mecca. Well, after happily burning through it in no time I’m happy to say Trofimov did not disappoint me.

Published in 2005, Faith at War is a collection of pieces recalling Trofimov’s travels across the Muslim world during the years immediately following 9-11. In his quest to better understand the challenges facing the world’s Muslims and with it the rage some have directed towards the West he interviewed clerics, government officials, dissidents and Islamic fighters. Trofimov traversed three continents, reporting from a host of countries stretching from Saudi Arabia to Mali to Bosnia. During the US-led invasion of Iraq he sped across the border from Kuwait in a rented SUV and then returned two years later to observe life under US occupation. In Afghanistan he spent time embedded with American Marines as they did patrols of remote villages searching for Taliban fighters, their allies and weapons. Lastly, Trofimov show us the surprising success story of Mali, a poor North African country at the time of Trofimov’s visit had embraced a home-grown vibrant democracy, perhaps in some ways made easier thanks to the laissez-faire interpretation of Islam practiced by most Malians. (Sadly, in 2012 this later day Belle Époque would come to an end, at least temporarily when the country was briefly overrun by Islamic fighters.)

Despite being published a decade ago, Faith at War holds up well. Yes, it’s a pre-Arab Spring and pre-ISIS world Trofimov writes about but his insights provide valuable backstory to what’s going on right now not just in the Middle East but also the wider Islamic world.

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Filed under Afghanistan, Arab World, Area Studies/International Relations, Eastern Europe/Balkans, History, Middle East/North Africa

2017 European Reading Challenge Wrap-Up

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I’m a huge fan of Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge. Over the years she’s encouraged us to read as many books as possible that are set in, or about different European countries or by different European authors. With one country per book and each book by a different author, over the course of the year participants find ourselves moving from book to book across Europe, like some post-modern armchair version of a Bella Époque grand tour of the Continent.

Last year was a bit of a down year for me since I read and reviewed only 13 books. At year’s end I vowed to do better and this year I’m happy to report I read and reviewed 18 books. Just like in past years, a variety of countries are represented, ranging from large counties like Russia and Germany, but also smaller ones like LatviaBosnia and even the micro-state of Vatican City. Looking back on the challenge, I read some quality books since three of those novels made my year-end best fiction list. One of those three novels, The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters (United Kingdom) ended up being my favorite piece of fiction from 2017. As for nonfiction, Margaret MacMillan’s Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World (France) and Anders Rydell’s The Book Thieves: The Nazi Looting of Europe’s Libraries and the Race to Return a Literary Inheritance (Sweden) both made my year-end best nonfiction list.

Like I said at the start, I’m a huge fan of this challenge and I encourage all you book bloggers out there in the blogosphere to sign up. Trust me, you won’t be disappointed.

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Filed under Eastern Europe/Balkans, Europe

In Europe’s Shadow by Robert D. Kaplan

Years ago during one of my visits to the public library a came across a copy of Robert D. Kaplan’s 2000 book The Coming Anarchy: Shattering the Dreams of the Post Cold War. Contained in this collection of essays on democracy, international relations and assorted global hotspots was a considerably pessimistic article originally written for The Atlantic magazine. In his lengthy piece, “The Coming Anarchy” Kaplan predicted a bleak future for the developing world. Already cursed with fragile governments and limited resources, these countries face a bleak future of overpopulation, resource depletion and explosive urbanization. Unable to cope with such challenges many of them will descend into anarchy while armed conflicts, flights of refugees and human misery become all more common. According to Kaplan the future looked grim. And it left me wanting to read more of his stuff.

Fast forward to 2011 when I read his 2010 book Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power finding it even more insightful and fascinating. According to Kaplan, the Indian Ocean region will continue to grow in importance as India and China rise, leading to an increase in global trade but also the potential for greater international rivalries and possibly even armed conflicts. I happily devoured Monsoon and had no difficulty including it in my year-end Best Nonfiction list.

So I guess it should be no one’s surprise once I learned Kaplan’s newest book was about the Eastern European county of Romania I immediately went about securing a copy from my public library. Even though  I took a six month break before starting it back up I found it excellent. As high as my expectations might have been, In Europe’s Shadow: Two Cold Wars and a Thirty-Year Journey Through Romania and Beyond did not disappoint me.

Much like Ian Frazier’s 2010 book Travels in Siberia In Europe’s Shadow is the end result of Kaplan’s many visits to Romania, going all the way back to the 70s when he was a young aspiring foreign correspondent. Until the early 90s, the Romania Kaplan visited was an impoverished Communist backwater ruled with an iron hand by the dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu. While other Warsaw Pact countries were ruled by drab Leonid Brezhnev kind of leaders Ceaușescu’s autocratic regime was a twisted mix of Stalinism, hard-core Romanian nationalism and North Korean-style cult of personality. After Ceaușescu was overthrown in a bloody uprising the country former Communist apparatchik Ion Iliescu became president. In retrospect Iliescu’s somewhat authoritarian rule served as a transition period between the dark days of Ceaușescu and the freer Western-style rule the country’s citizens enjoy today. A member of both the EU and NATO since 2007, Kaplan’s most recent trips to Romania show a country that despite the curses of the past eagerly desires to move closer towards the West, politically, culturally and economically.

Perhaps the biggest takeaway from In Europe’s Shadow is the understanding that depending how you look at it, Romania is blessed and cursed by geography. Throughout its history Romania has had to deal with Russians, Ottomans and Central Europeans (be they Germans, Hapsburgs or Hungarians) trying to impose their will. Traditionally, especially in modern times the solution has been for Romania’s leaders to play one powerful neighbor against the other resulting in varying degrees of success. Nevertheless, as these powerful empires have washed over Romania throughout centuries they’ve left indelible marks. While Romanian is a Romance language written in Latin script one can find influences from Hungarian, Turkish and assorted Slavic languages. Thanks to Byzantine and Russian influences the county’s majority religion is Romanian Orthodox. Depending on the region, years of Hungarian and Turkish rule have flavored everything from cuisine to native dress.

Just as I proclaimed Monsoon should be required reading for the politically engaged and globally minded I’ll do the same for In Europe’s Shadow. As Putin’s Russia continues to flex its muscle especially in Ukraine and the Middle East and Turkey asserts itself Romania navigates between East, West and South. That being the case, In Europe’s Shadow should be required reading.

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

Among the Living and the Dead by Inara Verzemnieks

Latvia is a small country. Nevertheless, over the last few years I’ve still managed to read a couple of books set in this tiny Baltic nation. For instance, last year I read Henning Mankell’s The Dogs of Riga and back in 2013 it was Agate Nesaule’s ward-winnng memoir A Woman in Amber: Healing the Trauma of War and Exile

Last September I came across a review in the New York Times of a recently published memoir by Latvian-American Pulitzer Prize-finalist and nonfiction writing professor Inara Verzemnieks. Intrigued by David Bezmozgis’ review, I placed a hold on Verzemnieks’ memoir with my public library and before I knew it, a copy became available. I’m happy to report I breezed through Among the Living and the Dead: A Tale of Exile and Homecoming on the War Roads of Europe in no time. Which of course based on my experience usually means I’d chosen a good book to read.

Like many children unlucky to be born to a pair of broken parents Verzemnieks was raised by her grandparents, both active members of a tight-knit community of Latvian émigrés in Tacoma, Washington. While growing up Verzemnieks took part in numerous activities like special summer camps, Latvian-langauge church services and folk dancing all meant to keep alive the culture and spirit of her relatives’ former homeland. Years later, she traveled to Latvia to interview those blood relations who stayed behind. Among the Living and the Dead is a beautifully written and fast-paced account of their lives, especially the hardships they endured living under not one, but two brutal regimes as well as suffering the ravages of war.

History has not been kind to Latvia. With the exception of the interwar period of 1918 to 1940 when the country briefly existed as an independent nation it’s been dominated by larger and mightier European powers. Only relatively recently with the collapse of the USSR has Latvia been able reclaim its independence. While the country as a whole was ruled by Russia (be it imperial or Soviet) individual Latvians, especially those in rural areas lived as serfs, laboring for their Germanic overlords. World War II brought immense suffering to the Latvians. Starting in 1940 the Soviet Union invaded and annexed Latvia, imposing Communist rule and with it forced collectivization, murder and deportation. (Verzemnieks’ great aunt Ausma was sent to Siberia.) The following summer the country would be invaded once more, this time by the Germans. After spending three years living under German occupation Latvia was invaded and annexed a third and final time by the Soviets.

In addition to invasion and annexation, depopulation is another recurring theme. Under the Soviets thousand of Latvians were either exiled to Siberia or sentenced to years of hard labor in the Gulag. Even after breaking free from the former Soviet Union, according to Verzemnieks thousands of Latvians have left and continue to leave in search of greener pastures in Western Europe and America.

The strength of this memoir is its writing. As I mentioned earlier Verzemnieks writes beautifully. Therefore, I have no hesitation recommending Among the Living and the Dead to anyone, especially readers interested in one the more overlooked countries of Europe.

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

The Shadow Land by Elizabeth Kostova

I’ve been participating in Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge for several years and based on my experience it’s easy finding books set in places like the United Kingdom, France and Germany. I’ve even managed to find books set in smaller countries like Bosnia, Austria and even tiny Vatican City. But when it comes to Bulgaria it’s been tough. Only once have featured a book set in that particular Eastern European nation. I’d almost given up when I learned author Elizabeth Kostova had recently written a novel set in Bulgaria. In spite of hearing this good news, I still didn’t run out and grab a copy of her latest novel The Shadow Land because I still remember a friend of mine calling Kostova’s earlier novel The Historian the worst novel she’d ever read. (Daunting too is the The Shadow Land’s length weighing in just a shade under 500 pages.) But knowing that novels set in Bulgaria are few and far between I took a chance, easily securing a copy from my public library. Much to my relief, The Shadow Land is not an awful novel. To my surprise, I rather enjoyed it.

The story begins with the novel’s 20-something American protagonist Alexandra Boyd arriving in the Bulgarian capital of Sofia to begin her new job teaching English at a local school. Immediately upon her arrival, due to a mix-up while entering a taxi she gets stuck holding an urn of human ashes meant for interment at a Bulgarian monastery. With the helpful assistance of a local cab driver she’s nicknamed Bobby Alexandra embarks on a search to reunite the cherished remains with its rightful owners. But much to her surprise, she quickly learns there are powerful people actively trying to stop her. But why?

On one hand, while I’m tempted criticize the author for her novel’s length, on the other hand I must praise her because The Shadow Land possesses so many of the elements one would expect from a quality novel. Readers of The Shadow Land will encounter exotic locations, heart-breaking loss, action, mystery, shifts in timeline as well as narration and even a bit of romance. And plenty of plot twists.

Who knows, after lucking out with The Shadow Land I might even give her other books including The Historian a chance. Don’t be surprised if I do.

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