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Thomas Keneally recommends the best books on

Russia

Best selling author explains that the Cold War biographies couldn’t afford to say that Stalin was attractive, that Lenin was magnetic, but they were, because otherwise people wouldn’t have followed them

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    1

    A People’s Tragedy
    by Orlando Figes

  • 0140182853.01.LZ_

    2

    My Childhood
    by Maxim Gorky

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    3

    Young Stalin
    by Simon Sebag Montefiore

  • 4

    Red Cavalry and Other Stories
    by Isaac Babel

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    5

    Natasha’s Dance
    by Orlando Figes

Thomas Keneally

An Australian writer best known for his historical novels, Thomas Keneally portrays characters who are gripped by their historical and personal past, and decent individuals often at odds with systems of authority. At age 17, Keneally entered a Roman Catholic seminary, but he left before ordination. His best-known work, Schindler’s Ark, adapted into the film Schindler’s List, tells the true story of Oskar Schindler, a German industrialist who saved more than 1,300 Jews from the Nazis. It won the Booker Prize in 1982. His latest novel, The People’s Train, is partly set in Russia. Thomas Keneally on Wikipedia Interview with Thomas Keneally

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Thomas Keneally

An Australian writer best known for his historical novels, Thomas Keneally portrays characters who are gripped by their historical and personal past, and decent individuals often at odds with systems of authority. At age 17, Keneally entered a Roman Catholic seminary, but he left before ordination. His best-known work, Schindler’s Ark, adapted into the film Schindler’s List, tells the true story of Oskar Schindler, a German industrialist who saved more than 1,300 Jews from the Nazis. It won the Booker Prize in 1982. His latest novel, The People’s Train, is partly set in Russia. Thomas Keneally on Wikipedia Interview with Thomas Keneally

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Tell me about A People’s Tragedy.

Well, I’ve chosen this because, from what I remember, it’s the book I most admired while I was writing about Russia because it gives the tremendous overall sweep of the entire catastrophe up to the end of the civil war in 1922 and the famine. Figes has the capacity to focus on people you’ve never heard of and show them as representatives of ideologies competing for control of the Russian state, and he looks at it on an individual basis. He shows the human brutality and zeros in on the intimate experience of people in the civil war on both sides, everyone trying to requisition rations because there was nothing to eat. I think Figes is an academic who is liberated by his writing. He’s a Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, and he went to all the archives, to the original sources – the extent of his knowledge is very profound and this gives his writing great ease. If he wanted to face a slide in his income he could be a good novelist with his observations of people.
There is this idea of people struggling towards the light, which is what they were doing in the Revolution of 1917, a light that was very soon snuffed out. It’s a very human story but, like most Russian stories, also very tragic. Russia is not known for its stand-up comedy, but, on the other hand, this book is not like The Brothers Karamazov for oppressive Russianness. It’s too fast a river for that.

Moving on to Maxim Gorky.

Aah, Maxim Gorky is a wonderful writer, resister, speaker-outer. He speaks out about the various excesses of the Bolshevik uprisings, but later he lost his lustre because of his complicit attitude towards Stalinism. His early works, though, are infallible. Well, not infallible, but thoroughly illuminating about the life of an autodidactic peasant, which he was. The relationship with his grandmother in My Childhood is very touching and shows why Russian peasants of intellect would want to get out and change things. She suffered the usual male stuff – her husband would go to the pub and get pissed and then get upset with his missus about his own shortcomings. He shows the treatment of his grandmother and just the rapidity with which the blows are thrown. I was writing about the peasant revolutionaries who escaped from Russia and came, of all places, to Brisbane Australia and my book involves Russians of Gorky’s sort of background. The Russian bits of my book were all helped along by these writers I’m mentioning.

Have you been to Russia?

I’ve spent quite a bit of time there, but as my protagonist I use someone as dumb as me, someone who enters Russia not knowing the language, rather than spend three years there trying to crack the language code and failing. These books are a delightful aid to my laziness.

The Young Stalin?

Yes! This is an extensive picture of the pre-revolutionary Bolshevik at the tougher prison-going end of the spectrum, far removed from the leafiness implicit in the pictures of Lenin and Krupskaya in exile in Switzerland. It is a much harder experience that Stalin goes through. You can see in the young Stalin considerable signals that he is a very strange man of certain twitches, but a man of great charisma. I suppose the question that Sebag Montefiore doesn’t ask is whether Stalin’s imprisonments made him worse than he would have been otherwise. Stalin was a great bank robber, the Butch Cassidy of the Bolsheviks. He was not a hugely advanced thinker but he definitely had a sense of what was wrong with his time and place. As with Gorky, it was the behaviour of men towards women, in particular his own father, feckless and wife-beating, that made him support the Revolution. You know the Australian joke? What’s foreplay to an Australian man? Saying: Love, are you awake?< I’ll be strung up by my countrymen! But you’ve got the unjust father, the unjust grandfather and, on top of that heap, lies the Tsar. This gives Stalin the motivation he needs. The Cold War biographies couldn’t afford to say that Stalin was somehow attractive, that Lenin was somehow magnetic, but they were, because otherwise people wouldn’t have followed them. Stalin was never short of women willing to help him, particularly in exile and imprisonment. This book is an important piece of work because it addresses Stalin with the Cold War colder still, but the ideology has lost its sting and can show a Stalin we can believe in – a child of working-class parents, a seminarian monster.

The Red Cavalry?

This is largely the tale of a particular Red regiment of cavalry, bumbling through south-east Russia and the Polish countryside. They are supposed to be fighting the Poles but, like WWI, there is this endless advance and endless retreat and a lot of fascinating ideological ambiguity, the casual brutality of the Whites and Reds, the fact that it was absolutely taken for granted that obscene things would be done to prisoners and the execution of prisoners was the norm. He shows how war made everything absurd – these people engaged in war take on a different sense of what is normal and they become deranged. It’s a very human and fascinating book – an exceptional guide to the Russian Revolution and the feelings of the soldiers who don’t want the Tsar, who want the Poles to leave them alone and who have a basic peasant attitude to land. That’s what won the Revolution – No Tsar, No War, No Landlords.
It’s a brilliant guide to how the Tsarist army began to become the Red Army in February 1917 and it helps us to see how the soldiers felt on the eve of Revolution. It’s brilliant stuff. He has a calm, clinical, minimalistic style and he’s non-reactive. He’s not saying, “How horrifying!” He’s just calmly showing what it was like. He did serve himself – in 1920 he joined the Red Cossacks in a short war against Poland.

And, lastly, Natasha’s Dance, another Orlando Figes book.

And another brilliant work. He repeats many of the devices I mentioned in the first book. This is an extensive picture of Russian culture, putting culture in its place as inseparable from society. He shows the Russian mind, the cosmology of belief, daily life on a cultural basis. It’s enchanting. I don’t want to say it isn’t upbeat…but, then again, a third of Shakespeare’s plays are tragedies and we’re still reading them.

We love tragedy.

Well, this one is culturally fascinating, all the intimacies of Russian culture. He’s such a graceful writer. He talks about the significance of icons, dance, music, the various brands of Russian Orthodoxy and the way they impinge on the lives of the Russian villages or towns, the way the Russians give meaning to their lives through ceremonies. I read this before I wrote my book and understood that the Russian landscape is a God-struck landscape. Even the atheists are haunted. Figes touches on aspects of the sentimental agrarian socialists, the well-meaning intellectuals from cities who believed that the village commune was a social model out of which a greater social model could be made. They were greatly disillusioned, of course, when people started chucking sticks of dynamite at them. He shows the weddings, baptisms, burials, festivals, end of winter festivals, harvests and he shows them all with references to individuals, the salient detail all firmly rooted in specific characters. Wonderful.

November 1, 2009

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