Communism Is “the Greatest Catastrophe in Human History”

(p. A17) Armed Bolsheviks seized the Winter Palace in Petrograd–now St. Petersburg–100 years ago this week and arrested ministers of Russia’s provisional government. They set in motion a chain of events that would kill millions and inflict a near-fatal wound on Western civilization.
. . .
The victims include 200,000 killed during the Red Terror (1918-22); 11 million dead from famine and dekulakization; 700,000 executed during the Great Terror (1937-38); 400,000 more executed between 1929 and 1953; 1.6 million dead during forced population transfers; and a minimum 2.7 million dead in the Gulag, labor colonies and special settlements.
To this list should be added nearly a million Gulag prisoners released during World War II into Red Army penal battalions, where they faced almost certain death; the partisans and civilians killed in the postwar revolts against Soviet rule in Ukraine and the Baltics; and dying Gulag inmates freed so that their deaths would not count in official statistics.
If we add to this list the deaths caused by communist regimes that the Soviet Union created and supported–including those in Eastern Europe, China, Cuba, North Korea, Vietnam and Cambodia–the total number of victims is closer to 100 million. That makes communism the greatest catastrophe in human history.

For the full commentary, see:
David Satter. “100 Years of Communism–and 100 Million Dead; The Bolshevik plague that began in Russia was the greatest catastrophe in human history.” The Wall Street Journal (Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2017): A17.
(Note: ellipsis added.)
(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date Nov. 6, 2017.)

Culture Percolated Over Coffee

(p. A15) Shachar M. Pinsker, a Hebrew scholar at the University of Michigan, believes that cafés in six cities created modern Jewish culture. It’s the kind of claim that sounds as if it might be a game-changer, and there are enough grounds and gossip in “A Rich Brew” to keep this customer engrossed from cup to cup, . . .
Mr. Pinsker gets percolating at Signor Fanconi’s establishment in Odessa, an Italian café where women were unwelcome and Jews periodically excluded. The young Sholem Aleichem, arriving penniless from Kiev in 1891, found a marble table in the corner and started writing short stories that become the bedrock of Yiddish literature. What else went on in a Black Sea café? They “talk politics day and night . . . read newspapers from all over the world . . . and speculate on currencies and stocks,” writes Mr. Pinsker, drawing on letters of the cafe’s habitués. Isaac Babel found Fanconi’s “packed like a synagogue on Yom Kippur.” It got shut down by Lenin’s commissars.

For the full review, see:
Norman Lebrecht. “BOOKSHELF; A Remarkable Cultural Infusion; Sholem Aleichem found a table and wrote stories while all around him customers drank coffee, read newspapers and talked politics.” The Wall Street Journal (Friday, June 29, 2018): A15.
(Note: ellipsis at end of paragraph, added; ellipses internal to paragraph, in original.)
(Note: the online version of the review was last updated June 28, 2018, and has the title “BOOKSHELF; ‘A Rich Brew’ Review: A Remarkable Cultural Infusion; Sholem Aleichem found a table and wrote stories while all around him customers drank coffee, read newspapers and talked politics.”)

The book mentioned above, is:
Pinsker, Shachar M. A Rich Brew: How Cafés Created Modern Jewish Culture. New York: NYU Press, 2018.

“Books Were Systematically Burned”

(p. 12) Vandalizing the Parthenon temple in Athens has been a tenacious tradition. Most famously, Lord Elgin appropriated the “Elgin marbles” in 1801-5. But that was hardly the first example. In the Byzantine era, when the temple had been turned into a church, two bishops — Marinos and Theodosios — carved their names on its monumental columns. The Ottomans used the Parthenon as a gunpowder magazine, hence its pockmarked masonry — the result of an attack by Venetian forces in the 17th century. Now Catherine Nixey, a classics teacher turned writer and journalist, takes us back to earlier desecrations, the destruction of the premier artworks of antiquity by Christian zealots (from the Greek zelos — ardor, eager rivalry) in what she calls “The Darkening Age.”
. . .
Debate — philosophically and physiologically — makes us human, whereas dogma cauterizes our potential as a species. Through the sharing of new ideas the ancients identified the atom, measured the circumference of the earth, grasped the environmental benefits of vegetarianism.
To be sure, Christians would not have a monopoly on orthodoxy, or indeed on suppression: The history of the ancient world typically makes for stomach-churning reading. Pagan philosophers too who flew in the face of religious consensus risked persecution; Socrates, we must not forget, was condemned to death on a religious charge.
But Christians did fetishize dogma. In A.D. 386 a law was passed declaring that those “who contend about religion … shall pay with their lives and blood.” Books were systematically burned.
. . .
. . . she opens her book with a potent description of black-robed zealots from 16 centuries ago taking iron bars to the beautiful statue of Athena in the sanctuary of Palmyra, located in modern-day Syria. Intellectuals in Antioch (in ancient Syria) were tortured and beheaded, as were the statues around them.
. . .
Nixey closes her book with the description of another Athena, in the city of her name, being decapitated around A.D. 529, her defiled body used as a steppingstone into what was once a world-renowned school of philosophy. Athena was the deity of wisdom. The words “wisdom” and “historian” have a common ancestor, a proto-Indo-European word meaning to see things clearly. Nixey delivers this ballista-bolt of a book with her eyes wide open and in an attempt to bring light as well as heat to the sad story of intellectual monoculture and religious intolerance. Her sympathy, corruscatingly, compellingly, is with the Roman orator Symmachus: “We see the same stars, the sky is shared by all, the same world surrounds us. What does it matter what wisdom a person uses to seek for the truth?”

For the full review, see:
Bettany Hughes. “‘How the Ancient World Was Destroyed.” The New York Times Book Review (Sunday, June 10, 2018): 12.
(Note: ellipses between, and at the start of, paragraphs, added; ellipsis internal to paragraph, in original.)
(Note: the online version of the review has the date June 8, 2018, and has the title “How Christians Destroyed the Ancient World.”)

The book under review, is:
Nixey, Catherine. The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018.

How Precision Metalwork Was Required for Industrial Revolution

(p. 16) In “The Perfectionists,” Simon Winchester celebrates the unsung breed of engineers who through the ages have designed ever more creative and intricate machines. He takes us on a journey through the evolution of “precision,” which in his view is the major driver of what we experience as modern life.
. . .
This expert working of metal is traced back to James Watt and his development of the steam engine. The first prototypes leaked copious amounts of steam and weren’t very efficient. The problem was that the piston didn’t fit exactly in its cylinder — small imperfections in the surfaces of both allowed pockets of air to escape. Watt enlisted the help of John “Iron Mad” Wilkinson, so called because of his expertise (even obsession) with metal. Wilkinson had previously patented a way to bore out precise cylinders for more accurate cannons, and he suggested the same method be applied to Watt’s ill-fitting system. It worked, and the improved engine allowed the conversion of energy to movement on an unprecedented scale. The Industrial Revolution, Winchester declares, could now begin.

For the full review, see:
Roma Agrawal. “Perfect Fit.” The New York Times Book Review (Sunday, June 17, 2018): 16.
(Note: ellipsis added.)
(Note: the online version of the review has the date May [sic] 14, 2018, and has the title “Under Modernity’s Hood: Precision Engineering.”)

The book under review, is:
Winchester, Simon. The Perfectionists: How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 2018.

Entrepreneur Mackay Deserved to Be Dealt Four Aces

(p. C9) One evening sometime in the 1850s, John Mackay, a prospector, was playing poker with his fellow silver miners in Virginia City, Nev. The wagering was furious, and Mackay was playing well. In one hand, he was dealt an improbable three aces. The man next to him was “betting like a cyclone,” when Mackay drew the astonishing fourth ace, whereupon he laid down his cards and walked away without picking up the pot. “Leave me out, boys,” he said. He didn’t need it. At this point in his life, he had more money than he could ever spend.
. . .
With not a cent to his name, Mackay began swinging a pick ax for subsistence wages on other peoples’ claims, eventually working his way up to mine supervisor. “Mackay tried to cast his imagination into the rock,” Mr. Crouch says, “looking for clues that would lead him to a greater understanding of what wealth lay underground.” By 1865 he had acquired enough cash to buy a stake in a promising mine called the Kentuck. At first the investment looked to be another bust, but it suddenly hit big, paying out $1.6 million of the “precious needful,” as miners called valuable ore, over the next two years.
. . .
The author saves for last an account of the delicious comeuppance Mackay delivered to the American businessman Jay Gould –“the most hated man of the age.” Gould had secured a monopoly on trans-Atlantic telegraphy. Without competition, he gouged users, prompting Mackay, a believer in private enterprise, to lay his own undersea cable, thus breaking Gould’s stranglehold and winning public admiration on both sides of the Atlantic.
Mr. Crouch clearly admires his protagonist, at times nearly to distraction. He portrays Mackay throughout this well-written and worthwhile book as a man of high principle–kind, charitable and fair, dependably doing the noble thing. Strong and silent, he is the Gary Cooper of the sagebrush set. It ever so lightly strains credulity, however, to believe that Mackay didn’t harbor a little larceny in his heart, like nearly everybody on the Comstock during the mad rush. But readers may well want to take the author’s word that a man of such humility and generosity was exactly that. Nowhere will you read John Mackay’s name among the robber barons of his era. Some men who are dealt four aces in life deserve them.

For the full review, see:
Patrick Cooke. “‘The Man Who Hit the Mother Lode.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, July 7, 2018): C9.
(Note: ellipsis added.)
(Note: the online version of the review has the date July 5, 2018, and has the title “‘The Bonanza King’ Review: The Man Who Hit the Mother Lode.”)

The book under review, is:
Crouch, Gregory. The Bonanza King: John Mackay and the Battle over the Greatest Riches in the American West. New York: Scribner, 2018.

Lenin “Sought to Destroy” Russian Peasants

(p. B14) A forceful, stylish writer with a sweeping view of history, Professor Pipes covered nearly 600 years of the Russian past in “Russia Under the Old Regime,” abandoning chronology and treating his subject by themes, such as the peasantry, the church, the machinery of state and the intelligentsia.
One of his most original contributions was to locate many of Russia’s woes in its failure to evolve beyond its status as a patrimonial state, a term he borrowed from the German sociologist Max Weber to characterize Russian absolutism, in which the czar not only ruled but also owned his domain and its inhabitants, nullifying the concepts of private property and individual freedom.
With “The Russian Revolution” (1990), Professor Pipes mounted a frontal assault on many of the premises and long-held convictions of mainstream Western specialists on the Bolshevik seizure of power. That book, which began with the simple Russian epigraph “To the victims,” took a prosecutorial stance toward the Bolsheviks and their leader, Vladimir Lenin, who still commanded a certain respect and sympathy among Western historians.
Professor Pipes, a moralist shaped by his experiences as a Jew who had fled the Nazi occupation of Poland, would have none of it. He presented the Bolshevik Party as a conspiratorial, deeply unpopular clique rather than the spearhead of a mass movement. He shed new and harsh light on the Bolshevik campaign against the peasantry, which, he argued, Lenin had sought to destroy as a reactionary class. He also accused Lenin of laying the foundation of the terrorist state that his successor, Joseph Stalin, perfected.
“I felt and feel to this day that I have been spared not to waste my life on self-indulgence and self-aggrandizement but to spread a moral message by showing, using examples from history, how evil ideas lead to evil consequences,” Professor Pipes wrote in a memoir. “Since scholars have written enough on the Holocaust, I thought it my mission to demonstrate this truth using the example of communism.”
. . .
In “The Russian Revolution,” he wrote:
“The Russian Revolution was made neither by the forces of nature nor by anonymous masses but by identifiable men pursuing their own advantages. Although it has spontaneous aspects, in the main it was the result of deliberate action. As such it is very properly subject to value judgment.”

For the full obituary, see:
William Grimes. “Richard Pipes, Historian Of Russia and Adviser To Reagan, Dies at 94.” The New York Times (Friday, May 18, 2018): B14.
(Note: ellipsis added.)
(Note: the online version of the obituary has the date May 17, 2018, and has the title “Richard Pipes, Historian of Russia and Reagan Aide, Dies at 94.”)

The early Pipes book, mentioned above, is:
Pipes, Richard. Russia under the Old Regime. revised 2nd ed. London, England: Penguin Books, 1997 [1st ed. 1974].

The later Pipes book, mentioned above, is:
Pipes, Richard. The Russian Revolution. revised 2nd ed. New York: Knopf, 1990.

We Underestimate How Entrepreneurial the Americans Were in the 1800s

(p. C6) Jim DeFelice’s “West Like Lightning,” a history of the Pony Express, begins with an anxious young rider waiting to take the news to California that Abraham Lincoln had been elected president. The delivery service lasted only about 18 months, but its revolutionary speed left an indelible mark on the country. Many, including Mark Twain, marveled at riders’ courage and the spectacle of their switching horses every 10 miles or so for a fresh burst of speed.
. . .
In what way is the book you wrote different from the book you set out to write?
Historians, God bless them, they do a lot of debunking of legends. They can sometimes come off as schoolmarms. The reality is, those legends are fun. They’re the exciting part. I separate fact and fiction, but I love those stories — and underneath them, there’s a much deeper truth. There’s a reason we value these 19- and 20-year-old kids pushing themselves against the elements.
I knew there would be some debunking involved. What I didn’t know was how true a lot of those stories turned out to be. If I were a Pony Express rider, I’d be bragging about how fast I made it. These guys didn’t brag about that — they bragged about how far they went. They were bragging about endurance and dealing with the elements. That impressed me, the resilience.
I also think sometimes we underestimate — and I’m guilty of this — just how entrepreneurial and into technology people were in the past. We think we’re cool because we can fly somewhere and be there tomorrow. But for these guys, 10 days was huge. If you gave them something in downtown New York, it would be in San Francisco two weeks later. At the time, that would be like going from dial-up to the fastest speeds we have today.

For the full interview, see:
John Williams, interviewer, ” Making Good Time and Even Better Tales.” The New York Times (Monday, May 21, 2018): C6.
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the interview has the date May 20, 2018, and has the title “Tell Us 5 Things About Your Book: Making Good Time With the Pony Express.” The first paragraph and the bold question are John Williams. The paragraphs following the bold question, are Jim DeFelice’s answer.)

The book discussed in the interview quoted above, is:
DeFelice, Jim. West Like Lightning: The Brief, Legendary Ride of the Pony Express. New York: William Morrow, 2018.