Daniel Kalder picks five books that get inside the minds of dictators

Stalin’s claustrophobic life at the Kremlin, Mussolini’s failed campaign against Mickey Mouse, and how Jean-Paul Sartre became one of Mao’s ‘useful idiots’

Although Stalin was for decades the supreme leader of the largest country on Earth, he saw little of his empire, rarely venturing beyond the walls of the Kremlin. Instead, he experienced the USSR primarily as a series of texts that landed on his desk each day. In Stalin’s World: Dictating the Soviet Order, Sarah Davies and James Harris reconstruct his claustrophobic, insular reality through a close study of his archive, shining a spotlight on the daily business of running a massive totalitarian state. It paints a portrait of the dictator as monstrous, paper-shuffling super-bureaucrat.

RJB Bosworth takes a very different approach in Mussolini’s Italy. Via an astonishing accumulation of detail, he immerses the reader in a reconstruction of daily life under the fascist dictatorship. The results are ...

Anthony Sattin’s best history books of 2017

How the Victorians acquainted us with our bodies, landmark studies of Stalin and the holocaust, and traitors laid bare

History books should give us insight and information, surprise and entertainment, and allow us to see the world, an incident or a character differently. Nicholas Shakespeare’s Six Minutes in May (Harvill Secker £20) delivers in abundance. It revolves around the prime minister Neville Chamberlain’s announcement to parliament, on 7 May 1940, of the British military defeat by German forces in Norway: 4,396 men had died. Few people expected Chamberlain to lose his post; fewer still thought that Churchill, architect of the Norway fiasco, could replace him. The machinations that led Churchill to power make for a great story; the wider context and its effect on the war give the story significance. Shakespeare shapes all with an historian’s thoroughness and a novelist’s flair.

The gory world of Victorian surgery is the subject ...

‘Why the response to the centenary is muted’ – the Russian Revolution and its legacy

One hunded years after the Bolshevik revolt, books by Masha Gessen, Serhii Plokhy, Yuri Slezkine and Stephen Kotkin shed light on Soviet socialism’s birth and death

There was a time, not long after the cold war ended, when it looked as though the vast investments the west had made in Kremlinology were about to be liquidated. Having failed to foresee communism’s collapse, the west’s Soviet experts faced grim prospects in a world that had apparently left them behind. How fast things change: today, Russia is back in the news, reprising for the internet era its familiar role as antihero to the freedom-loving west. Putin’s muscle-flexing has produced an old-fashioned territorial struggle in Ukraine and Crimea; the Kremlin’s newfangled cyberwar has generated a firestorm in the US and the results of the 2016 presidential election, far from calming relations between the two old superpowers, have made them tenser than they have ...

The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich review – ‘a monument to courage’

From the siege of Leningrad to the frontline, Soviet women recall their wartime lives in these epic first-person accounts, translated into English for the first timeFirst published in 1985, Svetlana Alexievich’s account of the second world war as seen through the eyes of hundreds of women is an extraordinary thing. It has been constantly growing and updated over the years and has sold more than 2m copies worldwide. Now, for the first time, it is published in English, bringing to life the world of soldiers, nurses, munitions workers and the women left behind, all of whom have been absent from the official Soviet narratives. This is a tough read, both emotionally and intellectually. But it would be hard to find a book that feels more important or original. There’s a visceral anger in Alexievich’s introduction that’s rare in any history book. Her message is: these stories deserve to ...

How did the Master and Margarita become Bulgakov’s title characters?

The Reading group hasn’t paid much attention to them thus far, since they are relatively marginal figures. But their presence in the title changes the whole book This is the third Reading group article about Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita and so far there are two characters who have barely been barely mentioned: the Master, and Margarita.
I’ve failed to mention the titular pair in either of my previous pieces – and while they have popped up in discussion, most of it has been about Woland and his diabolical crew. The first time I noticed the Master and Margarita themselves getting prominent mention was in the following complaint from MissBurgundy: “I felt there was no characterisation at all – Margarita never came to life for me, and I’ve even forgotten who the Master was.” Continue reading...

Reading group: The Master and Margarita is our book for June

Mikhail Bulgakov’s Soviet fantasia novel was chosen by several readers as our fiction in translation for this month – and the hat agreed. Let’s read! The Master and Margarita is this month’s Reading group choice. It was nominated by commenter Saorsa and seconded by several others, one of whom called it “one of the best novels ever written”. Certainly, it’s a book that has stood the test of time. In fact, as luck has it, this year marks the 50th anniversary of the first attempt to bring it to publication, following a tortuous gestation. Continue reading...

‘It needs more public-spirited pigs’: TS Eliot’s rejection of Orwell’s Animal Farm

Digitised for the first time by the British Library, Eliot’s rejection is now available to read alongside others including Virginia Woolf’s to James Joyce The letter in which TS Eliot rejects George Orwell’s allegory Animal Farm because “we have no conviction … that this is the right point of view from which to criticise the political situation” has been published online for the first time by the British Library, alongside a wealth of other material from 20th-century writers. Addressing the author as “Dear Orwell”, Eliot, then a director at publishing firm Faber & Faber, writes on 13 July 1944 that the publisher will not be acquiring Animal Farm for publication. Eliot described its strengths: “We agree that it is a distinguished piece of writing; that the fable is very skilfully handled, and that the narrative keeps one’s interest on its own plane – and that is something very few ...

On Stalin’s Team by Sheila Fitzpatrick review – Soviet bunglers and sadists

A superbly researched book details the incompetents and priapic murderers whom Stalin selected to carry out his atrocities Team” is not the definition I would use for a group of 40 to 50 people (almost entirely men) who, at their captain’s bidding, colluded in murdering over half their fellow members; nor does “team” fit men selected more for their incompetence than their ability as leaders, administrators or planners. In her introduction to this superbly researched, intelligent book, Sheila Fitzpatrick concedes this, inviting readers to substitute the word “gang” if they prefer. Even “gang” is too bland for these “scorpions in a jar”, as observers of the infighting put it. Perhaps “henchmen” is the word. Two myths lie behind Stalin’s rehabilitation in Russia. One is that he won the second world (or “great patriotic”) war – though many historians conclude that the Russian people, helped by generous US supplies, won despite Stalin’s vacillation between inaction and ...

My hero: Dmitri Shostakovich by Julian Barnes

Under lifelong pressure from the Stalinist state, being a coward was the only sensible choice My hero was a coward. Or rather, often considered himself a coward. Or rather, was placed in a position in which it was impossible not to be a coward. You or I would have been cowards in his position, and had we decided to be the opposite of a coward – a hero – we would have been extremely foolish. Those who stood up to power in those days were killed and members of their family, friends and associates were disgraced, sent to camps, or executed. So being a coward was the only sensible choice. He was Dmitri Dmitrievich Shostakovich who, more than any other composer in the entire history of music, felt the daily, yearly, lifelong pressure of power. He wrote his First Symphony in 1926 at the age of 19; it was a worldwide ...

Black Earth: The Holocaust As History and Warning review – evil explained in detail

Timothy Snyder’s examination of the Holocaust is chilling, timely and instructive

Doing justice to the phenomenon of mass evil poses a host of ticklish problems. You can get lost in a catalogue of numbers, losing the sense of individual lives being randomly terminated. Or, as has happened to novelists and film-makers, you can appear besotted by radical evil, ending by glamorising the perpetrators. As Martin Amis recently discovered, making extinction jokes is a high-risk strategy, and one probably doomed to failure.

To his great credit, the historian Timothy Snyder falls into none of these traps. This is a wholly readable and utterly persuasive attempt to get us to look at the Holocaust in a different light. I read it twice, aghast but gripped by the moral abyss into which I was plunged on each page. If there were an annual prize for works inducing lasting, world-shattering discomfort, Black Earth would ...

Stalin’s Englishman: The Lives of Guy Burgess by Andrew Lownie – review

Burgess, charming and often drunk, was a much more dangerous and effective spy than has been assumed. Here are the latest revelations about the Cambridge spy ring

Is there anything significant left to say about members of the Cambridge spy ring, Moscow Centre’s “magnificent five”? The answer, judging by this book, is a resounding yes. Guy Burgess is often dismissed as the least useful member. “No one has ever shown that Burgess did much harm, except to make fools of people in high places,” wrote Alan Bennett in the introduction to Single Spies and Talking Heads.

Andrew Lownie’s argument, and it is convincing, is that, far from being a relatively minor figure, an irritant and merely a source of embarrassment to Maclean, Philby, Blunt and Cairncross, Burgess for years passed on thousands of classified documents to Moscow, many containing extraordinarily useful information, including the west’s position on key issues and ...

Radiant State by Peter Higgins review – an exceptional fantasy

This triumphant conclusion to the Wolfhound Century trilogy channels the violence, mythology and poetry of Russian history

To those of us who stay intoxicated with the clutch of genres labelled “fantastica” or “speculative fiction”, where the author gets to mix at will what is, what was, what wasn’t and what may yet be, one of the particular joys is never knowing in advance what is possible. New books announce themselves not as recombinations of the familiar, but as revelations of what imagination is capable of. For instance, take this: “The wolfhound age springs at my shoulders / Though I’m no wolf by blood.” It’s the great Russian poet Osip Mandelstam, writing in March 1931, a man of incandescent lyrical gifts treated by Stalin with a kind of threadbare indulgence for a time, and then casually destroyed. Does it seem likely that Mandelstam’s rare, private, strange eye on his age ...