Gorbachev: His Life and Times by William Taubman review – the mysteries remain

A phenomenally researched life of the man who did more than any other to change Europe and the world in the last half of the 20th century

If Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, the same holds true for its most famous living citizen, Mikhail Gorbachev. From March 1985 to December 1991 he was under an unrelenting national and international spotlight as the Soviet Union’s leader. He wrote several autobiographical books while in power and has written more since retirement. At least a dozen associates have published memoirs in which he features prominently. Yet in spite of all this scrutiny, key questions about the man who did more than any other to change Europe and the world in the last half of the 20th century remain without clear answers.

How did a secret reformist get chosen by deeply conservative elders to be their country’s next ...

October by China Miéville review – a brilliant retelling of the Russian Revolution

Miéville returns to the dazzling reality of the events of 1917 and sees nothing inevitable about their eventual degradation
Gone are the days when visitors to the mausoleum in Red Square were forced to leave their cameras behind before being marshalled two-by-two in a tightly ordered queue that could take up to an hour to reach the cold cavern where Lenin’s body lies. Cameras are still not allowed inside but everything else is now different. A much smaller crowd ambles forward with big gaps in the line while stragglers pause to take selfies in front of the plinths that carry busts of former Soviet leaders. Having a snap of yourself beside Stalin is a particular favourite, whether out of respect for the dead dictator or because it is seen as an amusing thing to do. Solemnity has been replaced by casual curiosity, just one among many signs of the confusion ...

Insatiable by Stuart Sim review – neoliberalism and the greedocracy

Greed has always been with us, but now there is hardly a sector of public life where it is not a rampant influence. What can be done? Avarice is one of the seven deadly sins, and, as Stuart Sim points out in his lively survey of the phenomenon, the medieval church itself was not immune. Not only did it revel in extravagantly decorated buildings and rich costumes for its priesthood, it took money for pardoning sins while enjoying a lucrative income from the sale of allegedly holy relics, which were often based on false claims about their origin as well as their power to bring healing. So greed, as our more secular age prefers to call it, has always been with us. What is new? In Sim’s view it is greed’s all-pervasive visibility in our interconnected world where little remains hidden. While the extravagant fortunes that can be made in the ...

Caught in the Revolution review – Russia in 1917, 100 years on

Helen Rappaport’s lively digest of foreigners’ accounts of the Petrograd uprising is marred by use of tabloid clicheFor heaven’s sake, don’t send us any essays on the Russian soul,” her editor told the New York journalist Rheta Childe Dorr before she left for Petrograd in May 1917. “Everybody else has done that. Go to Russia and do a job of reporting.” It was brilliant advice and in Petrograd 1917 journalists had a story no intrepid correspondent could fail to be excited by: a once-powerful country losing a foreign war, millions being forcibly conscripted to an unpopular cause, massive flows of internally displaced populations, widespread malnutrition and disease, and a vacuum where the government should be. By the time Dorr arrived in the Russian capital, the tsar had already been forced to abdicate. Two other north Americans, Florence Harper, a Canadian reporter, and Douglas Thompson, a US photographer, had covered the ...

Enver Hoxha: The Iron Fist of Albania by Blendi Fevziu review – the People’s Republic tyrant

Hoxha proclaimed Albania the world’s first atheist state, and oversaw much economic progress, but adopted the practices of autocracy – purges, torture and executionsIn 1973, when Enver Hoxha’s dictatorship was at its peak, I slipped into Europe’s most isolated country masquerading as a university lecturer. Journalists were routinely denied visas and subterfuge had to be employed to get across the border. One of the more memorable experiences of our two-week bus tour was a visit to an open air cinema in the port city of Durrës. The main feature was a crackly version of Henry V, starring Laurence Olivier, preceded by a short comedy turn by Norman Wisdom. With his cloth cap at a jaunty angle, censors for the Party of Labour of Albania assumed he exemplified the uplifting struggles of a typical English working-class lad. The evening’s high point was the newsreel. It showed the opening ceremony of a ...

The Maisky Diaries review – Britain’s high and mighty in conversation with Stalin’s man in London

Ivan Maisky was Soviet ambassador to the Court of St James. His recently unearthed diaries featuring meetings with Churchill, HG Wells and others are of great historical importance For a man who once told his friend Beatrice Webb that he “disliked the profession of diplomacy”, Ivan Maisky was an unusually brilliant practitioner of the art of being an ambassador. Spending 11 years as Stalin’s representative in London, between 1932 and 1943, Maisky not only had his hands full in trying to follow the twists and turns of the political battles between Chamberlain and Churchill over appeasement, he also had to explain and justify Stalin’s U-turns in Soviet relations with Nazi Germany. All along he also had to worry about his own survival, given the purges that destroyed the careers, and often the lives, of dozens of Soviet ambassadors and other senior officials in their prime. Yet Maisky found time ...

88 Days to Kandahar: A CIA Diary by Robert Grenier review – US’s Afghan war shambles laid bare

A CIA station chief’s account adds considerable value to the historical record, despite its self-serving tone and defence of US torture practices

It is easy to forget that until he started criticising the Americans for bombing too many Afghan civilians and comparing them to “occupiers”, Hamid Karzai was Washington’s grateful servant. After all, US officials picked him to be Afghanistan’s first post-Taliban president, armed and financed him to launch an uprising against the mullahs after 9/11, helicoptered him away from imminent capture after one clumsy foray inside Afghanistan in mid-October, reinserted him a few weeks later to march on Kandahar successfully, and finally foisted him on the rest of the Afghan political class at the United Nations-sponsored conference in Bonn in December 2001 as the leader they could not afford to reject.

Robert Grenier’s fascinating book shows just how close the Karzai-US relationship was at that stage. As the ...