Winner of the Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction last year, ‘Chernobyl: History of a Tragedy’ by Serhii Plokhy is a comprehensive account of the worst nuclear accident in history. The small Ukrainian city will forever be associated with the explosion which occurred on 26th April 1986 after a failed safety test. It is now a key destination for “disaster tourism”, despite the 30-mile exclusion zone which is still in place around the site of the reactor which will remain unfit for human habitation for 20,000 years. The technical statistics are staggering – the radiation released by the explosion was equivalent to 500 Hiroshima bombs spreading rapidly across Europe – and the human cost of those affected by radiation sickness is incalculable. Continue reading
Tag Archives: Soviet Union
‘A Very Expensive Poison: The Definitive Story of the Murder of Litvinenko and Russia’s War with the West’ by Luke Harding outlines the chilling murder of a Russian dissident which resulted in the rapid deterioration of Moscow’s relationship with the West. Former FSB agent Alexander Litvinenko fled to London in 2000 with his wife and son after publicly criticising the Kremlin and later worked as a journalist and consultant for MI6. He was poisoned with polonium at the Millennium Hotel in Mayfair in November 2006 and the subsequent investigation into his murder has had a significant impact on Anglo-Russian relations over the past decade. Continue reading
‘The Noise of Time’ by Julian Barnes is a fictional account of the life of Dmitri Shostakovich, one of the most famous Russian composers of the twentieth century. The novel focuses on three key points in his life at twelve-year intervals. In the first part, Shostakovich is waiting by a lift shaft expecting the secret police to take him away and interrogate him at The Big House during the height of the purges in 1936. In the second part, he travels to the United States to deliver a speech on behalf of the Soviet Union in 1948. In the final part set in 1960, he is asked to become a party member under Khrushchev. Continue reading
When you have a reading list as long as mine and you don’t know what to choose next, sometimes it’s just easier to just start at the top. A book which had been lingering for a long time on my list was ‘The Master and Margarita’ by Mikhail Bulgakov, a fantastical satire about Soviet Russia widely considered to be one of the masterpieces of 20th century literature. Although difficult to summarise a plot as such, ‘The Master and Margarita’ is essentially a story about the devil in the form of Woland the magician who visits Moscow and wreaks havoc with his accomplices including Behemoth, a cigar-smoking vodka-drinking cat. Embedded in the story is another novel written by the unnamed Master who has been incarcerated for writing a book about the crucifixion of Yeshua Ha-Nozri (or Jesus Christ) while his former lover, Margarita, seeks help from Woland to be reunited with him. Continue reading
After reading two excellent novels in recent months about Soviet spies recruited at Cambridge University – ‘Sweet Tooth‘ by Ian McEwan and ‘Red Joan‘ by Jennie Rooney – I was intrigued by Ben Macintyre’s biography of Kim Philby, one of the Cambridge Five spies recruited by Arnold Deutsch in the mid-1930s. Philby worked for Britain’s secret intelligence service (SIS or MI6) during the Second World War and the early years of the Cold War before his activities as a double agent for the NKVD and KGB were finally uncovered in 1963.
I was born somewhere between the Berlin Wall coming down and the Soviet Union completely disintegrating so I have no memory of the Cold War divide that dominated the world for nearly half of the twentieth century, but even I realise that the publication of ‘One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich’ by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in 1962 in both the Soviet Union itself and Western countries was pretty significant to say the least. Based on Solzhenitsyn’s own experience of the gulag system, this short novella tells the story of a Soviet prisoner or zek, Ivan Denisovich Shukhov, who is in his eighth year of a ten year sentence for espionage for the Germans (a false accusation). This shattering depiction of life in the Stalinist-era labour camps won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970 – and got Solzhenitsyn permanently expelled from the Soviet Union a few years later. Continue reading