Stalin’s “Despotism in Mass Bloodshed”

(p. A13) In the aftermath of Lenin’s death in January 1924, Joseph Stalin—already secretary-general of the Communist Party—emerged as the outright leader of the Soviet Union. “Right through 1927,” Stephen Kotkin notes, Stalin “had not appeared to be a sociopath in the eyes of those who worked most closely with him.” But by 1929-30, he “was exhibiting an intense dark side.” Mr. Kotkin’s “Stalin: Waiting for Hitler, 1929-1941,” the second volume of a planned three-volume biography, tracks the Soviet leader’s transformation during these crucial years. “Impatient with dictatorship,” Mr. Kotkin says, Stalin set out to forge “a despotism in mass bloodshed.”

The three central episodes of Mr. Kotkin’s narrative, all from the 1930s, are indeed violent and catastrophic, if in different ways: the forced collectivization of Soviet agriculture; the atrocities of the Great Terror, when Stalin “arrested and murdered immense numbers of loyal people”; and the rise of Adolf Hitler, the man who would become Stalin’s ally and then, as Mr. Kotkin puts it, his “principal nemesis.” In each case, as Mr. Kotkin shows, Stalin’s personal character—a combination of ruthlessness and paranoia—played a key role in the unfolding of events.

For the full review, see:

Joshua Rubenstein. “BOOKSHELF; The Turn to Tyranny; We may never know what degree of personal obsession, political calculation and ideological zeal drove Stalin to kill and persecute so many.” The Wall Street Journal (Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2017): A13.

(Note: the online version of the review has the date Oct. 31, 2017, and has the same title “BOOKSHELF; Review: The Turn to Tyranny; We may never know what degree of personal obsession, political calculation and ideological zeal drove Stalin to kill and persecute so many.”)

The book under review is:

Kotkin, Stephen. Stalin: Volume 2: Waiting for Hitler, 1929-1941. New York: Penguin Press, 2017.

“Advanced” Russian Robot Praised on Russian Government TV Had Human Inside

(p. A11) MOSCOW — Russian state television hailed it as “one of the most advanced robots,” showing a tall, white android dancing clumsily to a catchy tune. It seemed so human.
There was a good reason:It was just a man in a robot costume.
In the television report, the robot, called Boris, spoke slowly with a very synthetic voice.
“I know mathematics well, but I also want to know how to draw and write music!” Boris said in a report broadcast on Tuesday [December 11, 2018] by the state-owned Rossiya-24 news channel. His eyes flashed mysteriously.
Boris danced in front of a crowd of children, who had gathered at a youth forum designed to help them choose their future professions.
“It is quite possible one of them could dedicate their lives to robotics,” the journalist Arseny Kondratiev said in his report. “At the forum, they had the opportunity to see one of the most advanced robots.”

For the full story, see:

Ivan Nechepurenko. “‘Look, Kids: It’s a Robot. But Wait! It’s Alive!.” The New York Times (Friday, Dec. 14, 2018): A11.

(Note: bracketed date added.)
(Note: the online version of the story has the date Dec. 13, 2018, and has the title “A Talking, Dancing Robot? No, It Was Just a Man in a Suit.”)

Chernobyl Was Due to “Bureaucratic Incompetence,” Not Due to Technology

(p. C6) Dr. Medvedev’s study of Lysenko was not approved for official publication in the Soviet Union, but samizdat, or clandestine, copies circulated among the intelligentsia. In 1969, the book was translated into English and published as “The Rise and Fall of T.D. Lysenko.”
Dr. Medvedev was fired from his job at an agricultural research laboratory, and within a few months was summoned to a meeting with a psychiatrist, on the pretext of discussing the behavior of his teenage son. Instead, Dr. Medvedev was taken to a holding cell, where he managed to pick the lock and walk away.
Soon afterward, on May 29, 1970, as Dr. Medvedev recounted in his book “A Question of Madness,” he was confronted at his home by two psychiatrists accompanied by several police officers.
“‘If you refuse to talk to us,’ one of the psychiatrists told Dr. Medvedev, ‘then we will be obliged to draw the appropriate conclusions . . . And how do you feel yourself, Zhores Aleksandrovich?’
“I answered that I felt marvelous.
“‘But if you feel so marvelous, then why do you think we have turned up here today?’
“‘Obviously, you must answer that question yourself,’ I replied. “A police major arrived. “‘ And who on earth might you be?’ Dr. Medvedev asked. ‘I didn’t invite you here.’ ”
“He protested, to no avail, that the homes of Soviet citizens were considered private and inviolable to the forces of the state.
“‘Get to your feet!” the police major ordered Dr. Medvedev. ‘I order you to get to your feet!’ ”
Two lower-ranking officers, twisted Dr. Medvedev’s arms behind his back, forced him out of his house and into an ambulance. He was driven to a psychiatric hospital.
The preliminary diagnosis was “severe mental illness dangerous to the public,” and Dr. Medvedev was repeatedly warned to stop his “publicist activities.”
Meanwhile, his brother, Sakharov and other activists for greater openness in the Soviet system sent telegrams and published open letters calling for Dr. Medvedev’s release. One of his friends, the novelist Alexander Solzhenitsyn, then still living in the Soviet Union, condemned Dr. Medvedev’s detention with a bold and blistering statement.
“The incarceration of freethinking healthy people in madhouses is spiritual murder,” he said. “It is a fiendish and prolonged torture . . . These crimes will never be forgotten, and all those who take part in them will be condemned endlessly, while they live and after they’re dead.
“It is shortsighted to think that you can live constantly relying on force alone, constantly scorning the objections of conscience.”
Solzhenitsyn received the Nobel Prize for Literature later that year.
. . .
In 1990, Dr. Medvedev wrote an account of the 1986 nuclear disaster at Chernobyl, which he considered inevitable, with the Soviet Union’s history of scientific and bureaucratic incompetence.
“In the end, I was surprised at how poorly designed the reactor actually was,” he told the New York Times in 1990. “I wanted to write this book not only to show the real scale of this particular catastrophe, but also to demolish a few more secrets and deliberate misconceptions.”

For the full obituary, see:
SCHUDEL, Matt. “‘Scientist exposed agricultural fraud and Soviet incompetence.” The Washington Post (Sunday, Sept. 6, 2018): C6.
(Note: ellipses between paragraphs, added; ellipses internal to paragraphs, in original.)
(Note: the online version of the obituary has the date Sept. 4, 2018, and has the title “‘James Mirrlees, Whose Tax Model Earned a Nobel, Dies at 82.”)

The books by Zhores Medvedev that were mentioned above, are:
Medvedev, Zhores A. The Rise and Fall of T. D. Lysenko. New York: Columbia University Press, 1969.
Medvedev, Zhores A., and Roy A. Medvedev. A Question of Madness: Repression by Psychiatry in the Soviet Union. London: Mcmillan London Ltd., 1971.
Medvedev, Zhores A. The Legacy of Chernobyl. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1990.

Floating Nuclear Power Plants May Be Cheaper, Greener, and Safer

(p. B5) MURMANSK, Russia — Along the shore of Kola Bay in the far northwest of Russia lie bases for the country’s nuclear submarines and icebreakers. Low, rocky hills descend to an industrial waterfront of docks, cranes and railway tracks. Out on the bay, submarines have for decades stalked the azure waters, traveling between their port and the ocean depths.
Here, Russia is conducting an experiment with nuclear power, one that backers say is a leading-edge feat of engineering but that critics call reckless.
The country is unveiling a floating nuclear power plant.
Tied to a wharf in the city of Murmansk, the Akademik Lomonosov rocks gently in the waves. The buoyant facility, made of two miniature reactors of a type used previously on submarines, is for now the only one of its kind.
Moscow, while leading the trend, is far from alone in seeing potential in floating nuclear plants. Two state-backed companies in China are building such facilities, (p. B5) and American scientists have drawn up plans of their own. Proponents say they are cheaper, greener and, perhaps counterintuitively, safer. They envision a future when nuclear power stations bob off the coasts of major cities around the world.
“They are light-years ahead of us,” Jacopo Buongiorno, a professor of nuclear engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said of the Russian floating power program.
Rosatom, the Russian state nuclear company, has exported nuclear technology for years, selling plants in China, India and a host of developing nations. But smaller reactors effectively placed on floats can be assembled more quickly, be put in a wider range of locations and respond more nimbly to fluctuating supply on power grids that increasingly rely on wind and solar.
The Russian design involves using submarine-style reactors loaded onto vessels, with a hatch near the bow to plug them into local electrical grids. The reactors will generate a combined 70 megawatts of electricity, or enough to power about 70,000 typical American homes. Rosatom plans to serially produce such floating nuclear plants, and is exploring various business plans, including retaining ownership of the reactors while selling the electricity they generate.

For the full story, see:
Andrew E. Kramer. “Drifting toward the Future.” The New York Times (Monday, Aug. 27, 2018): B1 & B5.
(Note: the online version of the story has the date Aug. 26, 2018, and has the title “The Nuclear Power Plant of the Future May Be Floating Near Russia.” The online version says that the title of the New York edition version was “Rocking the Nuclear Boat.”)

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.

Russian Movie Director Bravely Criticizes Putin

(p. A8) MOSCOW — While shooting “Loveless,” an Oscar nominee this year for best foreign film, Andrey Zvyagintsev repeated virtually every scene again and again — 12 takes on average, according to his cinematographer, sometimes as many as 28.
The differences between takes often proved undetectable to others, said the cinematographer, Mikhail Krichman — even to the core crew that has worked on all five of his films. But the director sought some fleeting “magic.”
It might be several leaves fluttering off a tree in the background, Mr. Krichman said, or the angle at which snowflakes struck a window. “These kinds of things deliver the magic of the scene, and he uses them to decide to take it or not for the movie,” Mr. Krichman said of Mr. Zvyagintsev. “That makes him very different from other directors.”
. . .
His role as social critic, . . . , is another reason the art-house crowd tends to respect Mr. Zvyagintsev. He is one of the few high-profile artists still brave enough to openly criticize the Russian government.
He has disparaged the recent crackdown on the arts, including the house arrest of a prominent theater director and the use of censorship for the first time in years to ban a foreign movie, “The Death of Stalin.”
“We believed that in 1991 that we were present for the burial of the C.P.S.U.,” he said referring to the one-party state of the Soviet Union. “The burial did not take place. Instead, the corpse rose from the coffin and is walking around and frightening us once again.”

For the full story, see:
NEIL MacFARQUHAR. “A Master of Depicting Russia’s Underbelly on Film.” The New York Times (Saturday, Feb. 24, 2018): A8.
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the story has a date of Feb. 23, 2018, and has the title “A Russian Master of the ‘Dark Side’ in Film.”)

How Communism Hurt

(p. 8) In an episode near the end of her thoughtful and eloquent memoir, “Among the Living and the Dead,” Inara Verzemnieks accompanies a cousin on her mail route in rural Latvia. They stop at a crude mailbox nailed to a tree. The mailbox belongs to an old woman who has elected to live alone, deep in the forest. Verzemnieks is drawn to the mystery of this woman and imagines seeking her out to pose the question that infuses her book: “How to live with this hurt?”
. . .
. . . the hurt Verzemnieks refers to is not directly her own; rather it is something she has imbibed and inherited from the paternal grandparents who raised her, ethnic Latvians who settled in America after World War II. It is the pain of their exile, the yearning for family left behind and the burden of memories from the war itself — her grandmother’s long, perilous flight across Europe from the Soviet forces, and her grandfather’s service as a conscript for the German Army, about which he does not speak.
. . .
Her family’s true home was in the region of Gulbene, in the northeast of Latvia, not far from the Russian border. More specifically, it was at her grandmother’s ancestral homestead, called Lembi. When the Soviet Union collapsed, her grandparents succeeded in returning once. After they died, Verzemnieks went as well, spending parts of five consecutive years living with her grandmother’s younger sister, Ausma, one of the last surviving members of her grandparents’ generation. The book interleaves stories from her grandparents’ past and from Ausma’s, along with Verzemnieks’s impressions of life in present-day rural Latvia, governed by its traditional rhythms, intricately and spiritually fused with the natural world. She is there to experience this life, to connect with her family, but also to gain Ausma’s trust so as to elicit her story. That story is the complement to her grandparents’, the two together constituting the Latvian national wartime narrative: those who suffered the pain of leaving and those subjected to the pain of staying — which meant life under the Soviet yoke, collectivization and, often, expulsion to Siberia. Ausma shared this fate. In 1949, she, her mother and her invalid brother were stripped of their beloved farm and sent into the taiga. They survived largely because Ausma withstood grueling physical labor and dreadful privation. For her great-niece’s sake, she recounts this past, even though it often brings her to tears.

For the full review, see:
DAVID BEZMOZGIS. “Homeland.” The New York Times Book Review (Sunday, September 17, 2017): 8.
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the review has the date SEPT. 15, 2017, and has the title “A Writer Visits Latvia in Search of Her Roots.”)

The book under review, is:
Verzemnieks, Inara. Among the Living and the Dead: A Tale of Exile and Homecoming on the War Roads of Europe. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2017.