Why couldn't I just enjoy the summer and idle a bit? Maybe read a few entertaining thrillers? Not made that way.
I've had Russia on my mind of late. And though I've read a lot of 20th century history, particularly military history (every new Beevor a must, and the Battle of Stalingrad has haunted me for years), I felt compelled to read these two tomes this summer. I've had the Conquest on my shelves for years and just the sight of it winded me. But it was time.
Hell existed and it was a place that not even the mediaeval poets, painters and theologians could have imagined. I've waded through 1000 pages of encyclopaedic depictions of terror, cruelty, oppression, injustice and suffering, that is barely calculable to a modern Western mind (born postwar).
I stretched my comprehension but still only received little more than a ghastly impression of 20th century Russia. Swathes of the population dying horribly in a mere sentence. And it was hideous for most people before the revolution, and it's no picnic for most now. At times I could read no more than 30 pages of each book at a stretch, and I balk at nothing when it comes to reading. But these were best read in the sun, at the top of the garden.
12 million in the civil war, another 10 million + through Stalin's repressions ... though Conquest puts that figure as high as 20 million, will the exact figure ever be known? Bookended by nearly 3 million in WW1 and 20 million in WW2. And no one died easily. The details of torture during the civil war and purges are infernal in design and intent.
To top it all, the malignance of Stalin's state sponsored falsehood and terror, was an attempt to destroy the intellect and any possibility of opposition to him or the party. He drilled down that far. A broken, abused, imprisoned, half mad bear survived.
The answers to what is happening now lie in the past. I love Russian writers but it's hard to equate Russia's past with much beside perpetual suffering. A legacy affecting much of the world again, not least its immediate neighbours (the history of Ukraine from Tsarist Russia, through the Revolution and onwards explains a great deal).
Essential reads that rightly leave you feeling helpless, sad and a bit terrified. Despite it all, I'd love to see the country finally saved (from those who always seize power).
I move on now to Applebaum, more Solzhenitsyn and more Vassily Grossman ... though I am hoping for some light in Isaac Babel.
Ultimately, I'm grateful to have been born in England in 1969. And that is one of the great lessons that history teaches me: to feel grateful.
You're welcome.


  • I understand your point, Ark, concerning the difference between reality and fiction. But Beevor, Conquest, Applebaum, and Solzhenitsyn didn’t write fiction about 20th century Russia. And how can 21st century Russia not be affected by that legacy? We may not agree but thank you for appreciating my books.

    Adam Nevill
  • When I read your books, I have an impression that Britain is a gloomy slum full of sick unhinged people and lights working for just a few seconds before you need “to press the button” again. Thankfully, I have a good idea of what is fiction and what is not. Hopefully, you’ll have the same while reading things about Russia. From Moscow, with an appreciation for you work.


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