When the urge takes us, we will recommend books on the topics this site covers. For our inaugural post, I’d like to recommend five.
The definitive book on 1989, the year of the Velvet Revolution, has not yet been written (at least not in English), but Stephen Kotkin’s Uncivil Society: 1989 and the Implosion of the Communist Establishment, comes pretty close. The uprisings in Prague and Bratislava are not covered, but the remarkably non-violent popular movement in East German Leipzig is, as is the deeply weird Polish overthrow. Not to be missed is Kotkin’s description of the fall of Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, deservedly shot by his former underlings. Your humble scribe witnessed 1989 from the relative gloom of Leningrad, where even the liberals had deeply mixed feelings about the loss of empire, but he can say that Kotkin captures the sleazy corruption of latter day communism accurately. As a bonus, the Amazon page for this book, linked above, contains a delightfully negative review by embittered communist R. L. Huff, who denounces Kotkin’s “smug triumphalism” even as he praises the Chinese communists for Tiananmen Square.
Boris Pasternak won the Nobel, but for my money the preeminent Soviet novelist is Vasily Grossman, whose Life and Fate far surpasses Doctor Zhivago as the 20th century’s best Russian novel. While hardly sympathetic to Stalin, Life and Fate, long banned in the Soviet Union, explains well to unbelieving westerners how the Red Tsar managed to command the loyalty of so many ordinary Russians who had every reason to turn on the state at the outset of the Nazi invasion. An epic war novel, Life and Fate is a conscious answer to Tolstoy’s War and Peace, and doesn’t suffer by the comparison.
Like Vasily Grossman, Artyom Borovik made his name as a war correspondent, in a decidedly less glorious struggle, the Soviet Afghan invasion. Borovik’s remembrance of his days in Afghanistan, The Hidden War, is written from a soldier’s point of view and well portrays the reality of a war that could not be won. As the body bags pile up, with no end to the war in sight, the reader can sense the Soviet Union’s impending collapse. Perhaps America would have been better served if the authors of our present Afghan misadventure had read Borovik rather than Kipling.
Homage to Catalonia is George Orwell’s account of his years in the Spanish Civil War, first as a reporter, then as a soldier. Orwell’s most important work will always be 1984, but Homage is his triumph, and Spain was the fire that burned all impurities out the man, transforming him from a socialist muckety-muck into a being of pure gold. If you’re going to read one book on this list…
Finally, Thomas Sowell is known to most as a guy with a column in small-town newspapers or on Townhall.com, the one who prints collections of “Random Thoughts” that boil down to, “Get off my lawn, kid.” That’s Sowell’s secret identity. The real Thomas Sowell, that web-slinging Thomas Sowell, is to be found Sowell’s longer form work, where Sowell transforms from a cranky old man into a distinguished scholar of law and economics. And that Thomas Sowell is best found in Knowledge and Decisions, a book length essay on hubris. That man is forced to make decisions based on limited knowledge is a given. That all too often those who make the most important decisions seem least aware of such limitations is the tragedy that forms our world.