Summer Reads from Aspects of History
At the top of my favourites list of recent historical books is Leanda de Lisle´s The White King. Although non-fiction, the book reads like a sweeping historical novel, with fascinating characters brought to life by Leanda´s extraordinary research. Less than forty years after the Elizabethan golden age England is at war with itself, split between loyalty to the Crown and Parliament. Family is set against family, friend against friend in bloody civil war. At the head of this disintegrating kingdom is the figure of Charles I.
In this groundbreaking biography never before published royal letters and newly uncovered manuscripts reveal a king who is principled, radical and brave, but also fatally blinkered, his maligned queen Henrietta Maria, a warrior and political player as impressive as any Tudor consort. Here too are the heirs to a fatal Tudor inheritance who befriend and betray them: the peacocking Henry Holland, whose brother engineers the king’s fall; and the powerful last Boleyn girl, Lucy Carlisle.
This is a story for our times, of populist politicians and religious wars, of a new media and the reshaping of nations. For Charles it ends on the scaffold. Condemned as a traitor and murderer, yet also heralded as a martyr, the death of the White King will sow the seeds of a new Britain and a new world.
As a fan of 18th and 18th century naval adventures, I also recommend the prolific James L. Nelson´s Revolution at Sea series. I have just finished his By Force of Arms, and found it both compelling as a story as well as historically accurate (and much better than his Viking series set in Ireland).
The Flame of Resistance, by Damien Lewis, is part biography of singer Josephine Baker and part history of the Secret Services in World War Two. The book focuses on the intelligence war fought across French North Africa, painting both a romantic and brutal portrait of the war. Lewis strikes a finely tuned balance between telling Baker’s incredible rags to riches story and the intelligence war she took part in.
Where God Does Not Walk is the fourth of Luke McCallin’s Gregor Reinhardt Novels, but is the first in a new series of prequels. The novel relates Reinhardt’s experiences as a nineteen year old stormtrooper in the dying days of World War One, before he joined the Berlin Police. This is a complex and utterly compelling novel with Lieutenant Reinhardt setting out to prove the innocence of one of his men, accused of murdering a group of officers. Reinhardt’s investigation leads him from revolutionary plots to a conspiracy at the heart of the German establishment.
Spymaster: The Man Who Saved MI6, by Helen Fry is a fascinating biography of Thomas Kendrick. Kendrick helped pioneer modern intelligence operations in the Boer and First World Wars; in the Inter War period he ran intelligence networks across Europe from Vienna, where he also helped Austrian Jews escape. However it was in the Second World War that Kendrick came to the fore, establishing facilities where information could be gleaned from listening to enemy prisoners, Rudolf Hess. Fry gives some tantalising insights into the Hess mystery, but leaves it one of the greatest enigmas of the war.
The Life of Crime by Martin Edwards is a hefty tome – an analytical history of crime writing from its beginning with William Godwin’s Caleb Williams, through the nineteenth Century, the ‘Golden Age’ up to the modern age. Perceptive, detailed, and fascinating reading for writers and readers of crime.
Nicola Upson chooses the writer, Josephine Tey as her ‘detective’ who works with Detective Chief Inspector Archie Penrose. In Dear Little Corpses Josephine’s Suffolk village is to be the home for children evacuated from London. A child goes missing. A superbly plotted story, heart-breaking in parts, with a poignant twist at the end.
Stage Fright by Christine Poulson is a gripping story set in Cambridge and the Fens where academic, Cassandra James finds herself involved in directing a dramatized version of the nineteenth century novel, East Lynne, from which the leading actress disappears, leaving her beloved little daughter behind.
The Silkworm Keeper by Deborah Swift is not a crime novel though crimes are committed. Set in Renaissance Italy, this second book continues the dramatic story of Giulia Tofana – in history, a notorious poisoner. Richly detailed and there’s never a dull moment.
Give Unto Others is Guido Brunetti’s 31st case. Wonderful – as always.
The Covid pandemic is history. Recent history, I grant you, but already the data and facts are there to be sifted through by brave souls attempting to show us what on earth just happened. The Real Anthony Fauci by Robert F. Kennedy Jr is one such book. Highly recommended for anyone minded to draw the threads together. Shocking, revelatory and with the added frisson of knowing you’re reading a book “they” tried to suppress.
Is Atheism Dead? by Eric Metaxas – sounds like a polemic but is actually a fascinating history of three parts examining the eternally relevant question: does God exist? It looks first at the history of the scientific evidence and debate pertaining to the question up to present day. The second part is filled with stories of archaeological discovery which makes Indiana Jones look like a Sunday school picnic. And ends with a section on the philosophy of meaning, visiting a host of well-known thinkers through the last two centuries, some of which – Camus and Sartre, in particular – are rather unexpected. Illuminating and inspiring.
A couple of lighter reads: The Secrets of Sainte Madeleine by Tilly Bagshawe – a new direction for this author into 20th century historical fiction. A rollocking and at times heart-rending family saga set in French Provence and spanning two world wars. And finally, a favourite author of mine, Matthew Harffy’s journey into the Old Norse heart of darkness, A Night of Flames – for the sheer joy of epic storytelling.
Agatha Christie, A Very Elusive Woman, Lucy Worsley. I love Worsley’s crisp, lucid biographies and her pending autumn release of Agatha Christie is pitch perfect. A Very Elusive Woman exquisitely evokes the era; here the conflicts faced by a wife, mother and emerging celebrity writer are dealt with in clean incisive lines. “Agatha would describe the dreary women who talked for hours of nothing but ‘themselves and their children and the difficulties of getting good milk…they were stupid!’’’ but felt guilty about leaving her own toddler behind when on a world tour with her husband. No emotion or extraneous event is wasted – Worsley assures us “everything Agatha experienced became copy”, and then proceeds to expertly unpack the crime writer’s shrewd sideways glance at life. Here at last is a three dimensional Agatha Christie. I assure you this book is worth the wait. September isn’t far away.
In Search of Romania, Dennis Deletant. I loved this autobiographical twist on Romania’s complex past. Deletant had long been one of the region’s leading academics whose professional and personal life straddles East and West with a career that’s endured through communist and capitalist convulsions. The chapter on the Republic of Moldova, invidiously sandwiched between Russia, Romania and Ukraine, is a fascinating timely reminder of the fledging country’s majority ethnic Romanian population that was for decades compromised by Soviet Russification. Lest there is any question that the West might escape retribution, Deletant is quick to remind us of our own political hypocrisy. Not so long ago Vice President George H Bush wasn’t alone in hailing Romania’s notorious dictator Nicolae Ceausescu as “one of Europe’s good Communists.” A gross misjudgement perhaps worth bearing in mind during the current coverage of the conflict in Ukraine.
The must-read book of the year so far is Douglas Murray’s The War on the West. It’s all too relevant and perspicacious, I’m afraid to say. Teachers and students alike should read it (not that the book will turn up on many university reading lists soon).
For the medievalists out there, I can recommend The Normans, by Judith Green. Whether the reader will be familiar with the period or not, the book has plenty to offer. Similarly, if you are interested in the 18th century, The Georgians by Penelope Corfield duly entertains and informs.
If you are looking for a beach read to take on holiday, there are a number of bestsellers from last year which have recently been published in paperback. I can highly recommend the following. Powers & Thrones, by Dan Jones. The SBS, by Saul David. Army Girls, by Tessa Dunlop. Checkmate in Berlin, by Giles Milton.
The War Lords and the Gallipoli Disaster, by Nicholas Lambert. Few military campaigns of either of the two world wars have attracted more attention and controversy than the doomed attack on the Dardanelles. The Gallipoli operation cost the Allies over a quarter of a million casualties and its failure led to the downfall of Britain’s last Liberal government. Although only partially responsible for the catastrophe, Winston Churchill shouldered most of the blame for it, and amid a public outcry at the scale of the losses, defended the venture as a ‘legitimate war gamble’.
Churchill’s plan to seize the Dardanelles – a narrow stretch of water separating Europe from Asia — was aimed at breaking the deadlock on the Western Front, knocking Turkey out of the war and restoring access to Russia’s ports in the Black Sea. But as the late historian Michael Howard observed, it was “a major enterprise undertaken with minimal examination of the operational problems involved.”
Rather than concentrate on the various military failures of the campaign, which was abandoned at the end of 1915 — ironically, the venture was sealed by a brilliantly executed retreat — Nicholas Lambert’s new book, The War Lords and the Gallipoli Disaster, focuses on the controversy’s tangled and complicated origins. Why was the Gallipoli adventure approved, he asks, when the War Council might easily have dismissed it as another of Churchill’s “hare-brained schemes”? As Lambert’s study shows, this is no straightforward question. For a start, framing the analysis in this way shifts blame and attention away from Churchill. His influence, Lambert argues, has been over-stated, for it was the War Council, chaired by the Prime Minister Herbert Henry Asquith, that collectively agreed the plan. And at the start of 1915, what concentrated the minds of the British decision-makers was not just the ghastly stalemate on the Western Front or Russia’s plea for assistance against the Ottoman Empire, but the rising price of grain. With Russia’s stores locked up at the ports, and with other major exporters braced for poor harvests, economic Armageddon loomed. Wheat prices were expected to quintuple, fuelling fears in Westminster that the hardship caused by soaring food prices would spark civil unrest and corrode public support for the war. Although the “cataclysm failed to materialise”, the decision-makers acted on ‘the perceived potential threat’.
Lambert is not the first to emphasise the importance of the global grain trade to the conduct of the First World War, nor is he the first to chart the connection between “wheat and the Dardanelles campaign”, but his fascinating study highlights how political, economic, social and psychological considerations all contributed to an appalling military blunder.
There are no neat conclusions to Lambert’s analysis. His objective is to build up a picture of the complexities confronting Asquith’s government so as it becomes clear why the “Dardanelles operation might have seemed the least bad option to policymakers.” Inevitably, in the context of Russia’s war on Ukraine, these dilemmas no longer appear remote; on the contrary, the fears and anxieties over the blockade of the Black Sea ports, and the concerns over spiralling commodity prices are all too grimly familiar.
Surveying our garden, my eye is instantly been caught by a profusion of rambling pink and white roses whose prolific blooms denote disproportionate gratitude for a single dose of rose feed earlier this spring. My two suggestions for summer reading offer fertile and vibrant combinations of horticulture and history. Closest to my garden view is Rebecca Solnit’s Orwell’s Roses which quotes George Orwell’s assertion that successful planting of a hardwood tree ‘will far outlive the visible effect of any of your other actions, good or evil’. For Solnit, Orwell’s decision to plant roses at his Hertfordshire home in 1936 provides a richly creative jumping-off point for expansive musings on, inter alia, Orwell’s political values, the natural world and Englishness.
In Napoleon. A Life in Gardens and Shadows, Ruth Scurr depicts the deposed emperor, incarcerated on St Helena, musing that ‘man’s true vocation is to cultivate the ground’. Bemused by Napoleon’s determination to install fountains, irrigate roses and relocate mature oak trees, the island’s British governor, Sir Hudson Lowe, ‘wondered, in a completely paranoid frame of mind, if a political message was being communicated’ when haricots verts were harvested in the vegetable garden, given that green was the Bonapartist colour. As the current conflict in Ukraine threatens to extend into the autumn and beyond, an eerie resonance attaches to Solnit’s suggestion that ‘if war has an opposite, gardens might sometimes be it’.
It’s not been a great year for history publishing – perhaps a consequence of lockdown – but some outstanding books have bucked the trend. First, Lucy Ward’s The Empress and the English Doctor: How Catherine the Great Defied a Deadly Virus. Timely in its account of the life-changing impact of vaccination, it is also beautifully written and conceived. A remarkable debut, which is hopefully the first of many.
Jessie Child’s The Siege of of Loyalty House: A Civil War Story has garnered universal praise and it’s not hard to see why. Moving, surprisingly funny in parts, and deeply profound, Basing House, the site of one of the bitterest sieges of the War of the Three Kingdoms, takes on an almost anthropomorphic presence in its pages, a life all its own.
Finally, there is Barbara Stollberg-Rilinger’s Maria Theresa: the Habsburg Empress in Her Time. The near-definitive biography of a brilliant, complex woman at the heart of European affairs is a work of the highest scholarship. But don’t let that put you off. The English translation (by Robert Savage) is a gem.
I tend to read two or three books a week for pleasure: my work-related book reading is on top of all this. I read a lot of books. When looking back over the last year to ask myself what had made the greatest impression on me The Nine, by Gwen Strauss, immediately stood out. She professes not to be an historian, but this is superb history. It is deep, rich and personal. The book is a brilliantly written account of the survival of nine women – six French, two Dutch women and one Spanish – who escape a death march from Leipzig in the closing days of the war in April 1945.
Gwen’s great aunt was one of the nine women who, starving and ill-treated, decide to take their future into their own hands by escaping the long, shuffling straggle of half-dead humanity. What a story it is! We learn much about the nine as individuals and as a group, as well as about the Germans whom they encounter, both good and bad, along the 10-days of their journey to the Mulde River at Colditz, and safety with the United States Army. Only by luck do they survive. It’s a harrowing story, but the love and comradeship they shared with each other kept them alive. As the book develops we also learn of how Strauss uncovered the story of these women and their lives. We know that millions were horribly mistreated and murdered by Germany during the war, but somehow in the survival of these nine women, all strangers before they met in Ravensbruck, comes the idea that even in hell there is hope.
Hot off the press and straight into the bestseller lists, The Escape Artist by Jonathan Freedland is a truly eye-stretching tale of survival and escape. It tells the story of Rudolf Vrba, a Slovak Jew, who was sent to Auschwitz in the summer of 1942.
Surviving against the odds, Vrba witnessed killing on an industrial scale. He vowed to inform the world about the liquidation of Europe’s Jews and began compiling a mental report of everything he saw, from the arrival of Jewish transport trains to the horrors of the gas chambers.
He would eventually escape – the first Jew to make it out alive from Auschwitz – and reveal his story to a sceptical world. Dark, harrowing and inspiring, The Escape Artist is a first class read.
Recently published in paperback, Daughters of Yalta by Catherine Grace Katz tells the little-known story of three daughters of diplomacy: Sarah Churchill, Anna Roosevelt, and Kathleen Harriman – bright, glamorous, and perceptive young women who accompanied their famous fathers to the Yalta Conference with Stalin in the final months of World War II.
Sarah Churchill, a former actress, adored her brilliant father: he, in turn, relied upon her for sensible advice. President Roosevelt’s daughter, Anna, was there to help her father through the pain of the illness that would soon kill him. Kathleen Harriman, a glamourous socialite (and daughter of Averell Harriman, the US Ambassador), acted as aide and translator. A fascinating portrait of those who sought to shape the future of Europe and the West.
For Second World War enthusiasts, there is a clutch of recently published must-reads that will keep you glued to your deckchair. They include the bestselling SBS: Silent Warriors by Saul David; Robert Lyman’s A War of Empires and Peter Caddick-Adams’s Victory in the West: 1945.
For those wishing for a dash of fiction into their holiday reading list, Richard Foreman’s Turpin’s Prize – the story of legendary highwayman, Dick Turpin – will keep you turning the pages.
Joan by Katherine J Chen. Joan of Arc needs no introduction as an historical character. A 15th century girl from a peasant family who heard holy voices telling her to lead the French army against the invading English forces. Brave, unshakeable in her convictions, she confronted the French King Charles VII, persuading him to allow her to lead his campaigns. Blessed, or cursed, with visions, she followed her destiny to fight for the disputed French crown, even at the cost of her life at the hands of the English.
This sweeping novel breathes life into the shadowy and often unrealistic image of Joan. Ms Chen has excelled in writing a bold and intriguing account to resurrect the real historical figure from the mythical creature of saint and martyr. This masterly portrait creates a convincing three-dimensional character for the young peasant woman, taking the reader into her painful upbringing which had such an influence on her future life. We follow her through her duplicitous meeting with King Charles at Chinon, and then onto the campaigns, ultimately to the momentous victory at Orleans. We experience the glorious celebration, to be followed by the anguish of defeat when, captured a year later, Joan was put on trial and burned to death by the English as a heretic.
Joanis full of lively characters with all the texture and atmosphere of medieval France, beautifully written, and compulsively gripping. A highly immersive read.
The Amir, by Elizabeth R Andersen is the third book in her The Two Dagger series set in thirteenth-century Palestine. It’s a thoroughly engrossing read. I’m not a stranger to what happened during The Crusades, but in The Amir, the author has chosen three main characters who can provide an interconnected and unique perspective on what it must have been like for those affected by the fall of Acre. This is not a story of kings and queens but of the people on the ground, affected by the fallout of what occurred in Acre.
I found the reimagining of Egypt and Sidika’s story thoroughly engrossing. At the same time, poor Henri, travelling to a land he’s never visited, seems incapable of doing anything right. With a collection of relatives who wish him harm, I felt for him, even while he frustrated me. Both Henri and Sidika, while one is a nobleman, and one an enslaved person, are genuinely trapped by the events that have befallen them in their lives.
It is Sidika and her experiences that thrilled during the novel. She’s a powerful character, and I can’t wait to read more of her story as The Two Dagger series continues.
An engrossing story, and one I thoroughly enjoyed and highly recommend, especially for those readers looking for a story that doesn’t focus on kings and queens and the higher politics of the period but rather on the day-to-day people.
Argo, by Mark Knowles. The legends of Greece don’t often cross my mind when I’m thinking of stories to read, but I read a wonderful retelling of the legend of Troy last year, so I was intrigued to read Argo by Mark Knowles. And I’m so pleased I did.
Argois a rich retelling of the journey to retrieve the Golden Fleece, populated with a cast of characters with names even I recognised. Some of them leap from the page more clearly than others, as is to be expected with such a large cast, and the ship, Argo itself, is one of the clearest for even someone such as me to imagine. Reading the author’s bio, it’s easy to see why the ship is such an essential part of the story.
I was swept away by the tale and intrigued to know how it would end. I should probably have known, but I didn’t.
The story is rich in descriptions, the journey told in great detail, the stops along the way, and the people the Argonauts interact with. It certainly builds in tension so that the book’s last quarter went by in a flash. This truly is a wonderful reimagining of the legends of Jason, the Argonauts and Argo. I’m already reading book 2, Jason.
We all know about the Charge of the Light Brigade at the Battle of Balaclava, but Martin Sheppard’s, The Charge of the Heavy Brigade points out that the successful charge of its sister brigade two hours earlier was much more strategically important. This well-researched book doubles as a biography of the Heavy Brigade’s fine commander General Sir James Scarlett. Sheppard manages to convey the excitement of the charge within a scholarly context, and Scarlett comes over as an unjustly-neglected figure who would probably have had far greater prominence as a Victorian hero if Tennyson had not immortalised the Light Brigade in his poem instead.
Robert Temple’s Who Killed the King? is a work of truly astonishing academic quality, and the product of a lifetime’s painstaking work. It sets out to state everything worth saying about Charles I’s regicides, as defined by their having signed the execution document, and especially the very close ties of education, religion and blood kinship between them. With great scholarship and minute attention to detail, Sheppard reveals the regicides as essentially a large interlocking cousinage of highly politically motivated Puritan gentry. It’s as though the Bolsheviks all had the same great-great grandmothers.
For King and Country: The British Monarchy and the First World War, by Heather Jones. The Queen’s recent Platinum Jubilee is a reminder of Elizabeth II’s remarkable longevity. She was nine when her grandfather, King George V, died, so she must have clear memories of ‘Grandpa England’, as the young princess called him. George V was king during the First World War, and Heather Jones’s recent book is a fascinating analysis of the monarchy during this critical period. In the revolutionary year of 1917 George was afraid that the monarchy would go the way of that of Russia, and consciously remodelled it. The King and Queen visited factories, towns and hospitals, and their Germanic surname was changed to the very English ‘Windsor’.
As a result the monarchy became more accessible and relevant, and more popular than ever. But it wasn’t all about modernisation. As Professor Jones shows, the war reinforced the religious and even spiritual role of the Royals. The monarchy was placed at the centre of the cult of remembrance of the dead which emerged at the end of the war. Arguably, it remains there to the present day. Certainly the British monarchy under Elizabeth II owes a great deal to its reinvention under George V.
For King and Country is a fascinating book, deeply researched and very readable. Royalists and Republicans alike, not to mention those in the middle, will enjoy reading it.
I’ve recently finished Jane Ridley’s largely sympathetic biography, George V: Never a Dull Moment, which argues that there was far more to the man than an obsession with stamp-collecting and a mania for slaughtering partridges on an industrial scale. Here he emerges as the king who did much to invent our modern notion of constitutional monarchy, while helping to guide the country safely through a traumatic quarter-century. He skilfully used royal tradition to prop up national stability. But he also knew when to adapt and modernise. It says much for him that he presided cheerfully over the first ever Labour government, and that his favourite prime minister is said to have been Ramsay MacDonald.
The Georgians is Penelope Corfield’s lively and authoritative account of the social and cultural history of the long eighteenth century, and it makes fascinating reading. The book is organised thematically, though, and non-specialist readers might hanker for a stronger sense of chronology.
Retreating to the seventeenth century, Simon Thurley’s Palaces of Revolution is a scholarly account of the palaces of the Stuarts. They were designed to function as homes and government offices, as well as to make architectural statements about the grandeur of the dynasty. It’s interesting stuff that reveals much about lives and aspirations of their owners.
Finally I was fortunate enough to read an early proof of S.G.Maclean’s The Bookseller of Inverness, which is set shortly after the failure of the 1745 Jacobite rebellion. It’s a wonderful tangle of conflicted loyalties and adventure with a beautifully realised setting that’s almost a character in its own right. There are shades of R.L.Stevenson here, and you don’t get much better than that.
My current reading is Simon Turney’s fascinating Agricola, Architect of Roman Britain. Naturally, the IXth Hispania features regularly – and that brought to mind my favourite book of last year, Simon Elliott’s Roman Britain’s Missing legion: What Really Happened to IX HISPANA? This fascinating book deals with one of the most famous mysteries of Roman history as Dr Eliott sets out to discover what really happened to the IXth. He tells several interwoven stories – not simply that of the possible fate of the legion which seemingly disappeared from York to vanish into thin air during the early AD 100’s He examines the archaeological theories from their earliest iterations, through the 1950’s when Rosemary Sutcliffe wrote the immensely influential Eagle of the IXth, then pursues them right up to the present day. In order to aid the reader’s better understanding of the problem, he examines the construction of the legions post Marius and post Augustus. He examines in detail the situation in Britannia and the wider Empire during the time of the IXth’s deployment and, after their removal from the historical record. He looks into a range of possibilities that take him from the north-western outposts of the Empire in Scotland via London and its possible destruction during Hadrian’s reign, to the military outposts along the Waal River at Nijmegen, the Danube and all points east into the deserts of Judaea and Parthia.
The story alone would be enthralling, but Simon Elliott is the perfect guide to take us through the pages of history and along the roads of Empire. He is deeply knowledgeable, rigorously sceptical and quite happy to present his own ideas and then knock them down in favour of better ones. His style is at once academic and erudite. He uses the classic thesis-construction of: This is what I’m going to do; here I am doing it; and looking back, this is what I have discovered/proved/argued most convincingly. This acts like a compass as he accompanies us through truly vast speculations, every point supported by a reference to the work of other academics.
It would be unfair of me to reveal his conclusions .Much of the great enjoyment the reader finds in this book, which the author himself likens to a detective story, is to be reminded of the manner in which the legions were organised and deployed though a huge range of theatres of war – and the place of the IXth within them. Then to observe Simon Elliott’s forensic analysis of theories past and present as to their disappearance; of contemporary records presented on paper and in stone; and of archaeological clues as vast as a river-valley full of severed skulls and as minute as a legionary stamp on a roof-tile.
Editor of Aspects of History
The Treaty by Gretchen Friemann is a gripping account of the 1921 negotiations that led to independence for Ireland. ‘The freedom to achieve freedom’ as Michael Collins said, the agreement was also his death warrant. Friemann includes many fascinating examples of interaction between the interlocutors, including Lloyd George, Arthur Griffith, Winston Churchill and Erskine Childers. Interestingly Lord Birkenhead and Collins got on rather well.
Jeremy Paxman’s Black Gold: The History of How Coal Made Britain is a brilliant account of the fossil fuel that drove the British Empire. From the early 19th century up to the 1984/5 Strike, Paxman tells the miner’s story with a respect and sensitivity that opened my eyes to the sacrifice of the aristocrats of the trades union movement.
Conn Iggulden’s Lion features Pericles and Cimon as the heroes of Athenian expansionism post the Greco-Persian Wars. Gripping but light-hearted, the story has it all, from wily Persian foes, frustrating Spartans and the great double battle of Eurymoden.
The Russian Tradition, by Tibor Szamuely. This book may not be ideal reading for the beach and not quite the ticket for anyone hoping to get away from it all. But there is a war going on, and it is imperative we understand what makes the other side tick. And there is no better guide than Szamuely, who was born in Moscow and graduated through service in the Soviet Army, studies at Moscow University and hard labour in the Gulag before defecting to this country in the 1960s.
In clear language free from jargon he explains how, beginning with the Mongol invasion of the thirteenth century, the city states of European Russia were transformed from principalities differing little from their counterparts in western Europe into a universal empire based on a distinct ideology. This demanded that everyone, rich or poor, committed to working for the common good in unqualified submission to the Khan with the aim of spreading its pattern of social organisation throughout the world. Over seven centuries this produced a society entirely dependent on the state and subservient to its head. The almost total lack of any autonomous social or civic institutions facilitated the total acceptance of absolutism, which characterised the opposition as much as those it wished to overthrow. This is why the role of the khan could be seamlessly taken over by the tsar, then the first secretary of the Communist Party, and subsequently whoever ruled in Moscow. An extraordinary tale, beautifully told.
Summer Reads from Aspects of History