Russia's brutal past laid bare - Times LIVE
Tue May 30 05:35:22 SAST 2017

Russia's brutal past laid bare

Andrew Donaldson | 2016-01-27 00:33:44.0
Andrew Donaldson

Hopefully those who believe that the robust defence of free speech should include increasing qualifications will get the message.

An apt polemic

Trigger Warning: Is the Fear of Being Offensive Killing Free Speech? by Mick Hume (William Collins) R180

Published last year but shortly to be released in paperback, this superb and furious work should come as a welcome affront to those in an increasingly whining world who take great offence at the drop of a hat - and pretty much everything else. Hopefully those who believe that the robust defence of free speech should include increasing qualifications will get the message.

The issue

The revelations about the fatal polonium poisoning of Alexander Litvenenko, whose criticism of Vladimir Putin allegedly sealed his fate, provides a chilling context of sorts for Simon Sebag Montefiore's forthcoming The Romanovs: 1613-1918 (W&N). Russia, it seems, can never escape its brutal and violent past.

Montefiore is the author of acclaimed works on Stalin and Catherine the Great, and his new work has been praised for its revealing portraits of all 20 Romanov tsars, as well as their spouses, mistresses and senior advisers. Writing in the Financial Times, Antony Beevor summed it up thus: "A story of conspiracy, drunken coups, assassination, torture, impaling, breaking on the wheel, lethal floggings with the knout, sexual and alcoholic excess, charlatans and pretenders, flamboyant wealth based on a grinding serfdom, and, not surprisingly, a vicious cycle of repression and revolt."

Another terrific new history is Lara Feigel's The Bitter Taste of Victory: In the Ruins of the Reich (Bloomsbury). It's a perhaps familiar story - the early years of post-war Germany's reconstruction - but told from the perspective of those artists, writers and film makers who visited the country after the war for the reconstruction which, after all, was a cultural as well as a political programme.

They included Rebecca West, Evelyn Waugh, Ernest Hemingway, Martha Gellhorn, Marlene Dietrich, George Orwell, Lee Miller, Stephen Spender, Billy Wilder and Humphrey Jennings. Given the egos involved, it was inevitable that some saw in their mission an opportunity for self-promotion, and seemed more interested in themselves than in the suffering around them. None more so than the poet WH Auden who toured a devastated Frankfurt like a conquering emperor, accompanied by Hans, a young German he'd commandeered as his personal chef. Every night, he retired to bed with a bottle of looted wine while thousands around him starved.

Crash course

Caitlyn Jenner is working on a memoir with Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Buzz Bissinger, who told the New York Times that, as a self-described "cross-dresser with a big time fetish for women's leather", he could relate to certain aspects of Jenner's experience.

The bottom line

"[The placebo effect] isn't trickery, wishful thinking or all in the mind. It is a physical mechanism, as concrete as the effects of any drug." - Cure: A Journey Into the Science of Mind Over Body by Jo Marchant (Crown Publishers)


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