Friday, May 16, 2008


The Book: George Kennan, RUSSIA AND THE WEST UNDER LENIN AND STALIN. Atlantic-Little Brown Books, 1961 (first edition). Missing dust jacket; spine is faded, boards show signs of wear. Previous owner's stamp ("James J. Lamb, 1808 Meredith Road, Virginia Beach, VA 23455) inside front cover; current owner's signature on front flyleaf.
First read: 1981
Owned since: 1984 (approximately)

This book was my father's textbook at the Naval Academy before it was my textbook (can't remember which class, but I think it was Professor Douglas's Marxism and the Marxist Tradition). I swiped it off my parents' bookshelves, rather than buying my own copy.

It remains essential reading for anyone interested in world politics, and current developments in the former Soviet Union show how relevant Kennan's observations still are. The book studies the evolution of the West's relations with the Soviet Union, beginning with the fundamental truth that the two countries have never been interested in exactly the same things. Much of the difficulty the United States and Russia have had with each other is rooted in the assumption that the two countries are pursuing the same or similar objectives, and Kennan's point is that this has never been the case, from 1917 on.

The Presidential candidates have all done a little saber-rattling in remarks about Putin's plans for Russia, but no one has discussed the issue at any length. It's hard to do that in the primary environment, but I am looking forward to hearing how Senator McCain and Senator Obama plan to deal with the Russian government.

The conservative website Human Events reported a year ago about the violent suppression of opposition rallies, writing: "Violent suppression of any democratic protest is the latest example of the deterioration of human rights under Putin, who has also re-centralized power, restricted free speech, and used increasingly repressive measures -- and not just in Chechnya." Things have only gotten worse since. Putin's ceding of the Presidency to his protegee, Dmitri Medvedev, means nothing, since Putin remains Prime Minister and Medvedev is an obvious puppet (Medvedev's the same age as I am, which alarms me. I'm not old enough to be a world leader; how could he be?).

I did wonder, when I heard President Bush's remarks on appeasement yesterday, how he reconciles those opinions with his close friendship with Mr. Putin.

What I Read (and Listened to) These Weeks

Julia Spencer-Fleming, I SHALL NOT WANT. Julia was nice enough to send me an advance copy of this book, which comes out next month; to say that it is eagerly anticipated would be an understatement. Millers Kill police chief Russ Van Alstyne is single at last, but the circumstances of his single-ness are almost more than he and the Reverend Clare Fergusson can bear. Once so close, they avoid each other, except when their paths are forced to cross -- as happens when the body of a migrant worker is found on Russ's sister's farm. Julia's kept these two apart for five books, and in this, the sixth, they finally find their way to each other -- sort of. It's beautifully done, completely plausible, and the crimes at the center of the book are believable. I SHALL NOT WANT ends with a turn that offers a world of new possibilities for the series -- which means I'm already waiting for the next book again.

Thornton Wilder, THE BRIDGE OF SAN LUIS REY. Not sure how I never read this book, which was on reading lists all through my high school years. The Peruvian monk Brother Juniper examines the lives of five who were killed in a bridge collapse, looking for evidence of God's plan. As the five stories come together into one, God's plan emerges as an inscrutable offering of the opportunity to love one's neighbor.

Christina Schwarz, DROWNING RUTH. Amanda Starkey, a wartime nurse, returns home to her family farm in upstate Wisconsin in the winter of 1919. Within a year her sister Mattie has died, leaving behind the three-year-old Ruth. Amanda raises Ruth as her own, and tells Mattie's husband, a wounded soldier, a story with far too many holes in it. The secrets Amanda keeps emerge over the next 20 years, as several characters tell the story. An impressive first novel that telegraphs many of its secrets early on, but still packs a punch at the end.

Doris Kearns Goodwin, NO ORDINARY TIME: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II. A portrait of a unique and rather tragic marriage, and how its dynamic -- Franklin at home in the White House, Eleanor everywhere but there -- shaped American domestic policy for decades, mainly for the better.

Michael Beschloss, THE CONQUERORS: Roosevelt, Truman, and the Destruction of Hitler's Germany, 1941-1945. Fifty years ago, no one could have imagined the peaceful, prosperous, progressive Germany of today. Its emergence owes a great deal to the plans for a post-war Germany hammered out in Quebec, Yalta and Berlin during and after the Second World War. While Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau envisioned a Germany reduced to nothing but farms, and Stalin wanted to commandeer all of Germany's industry as war reparations, the eventual compromise allowed Germany to repair itself and return to the international community.


JIM LAMB said...

It's interesting you should look at that book again after all those years. The point that they were trying to teach us in 1961 was the Russians, and today the Chinese or even the Indians and the French are not our friends. You can only deal with them where we have a common interest. One sided treaties like the Kyoto Accords is a primary case of what happens when our leaders forget that.

Not all enemy leaders are Hitler and Stalin. The English King and the Kaiser were cousins and friends. Bill Clinton and Putin seem to be nice guys and great companions while being really evil politicians.

I think that it was Kennan who pointed out that Lenin loved his wife and dog and was personnally horrified when he found out about some of the terrible crimes committed in his name by his subordinates. He did manage to rationalize them as being necessary after some arguement from those subordinates.

Stalin was pure evil who really only was interested in how the power of the Soviet state could add to his personal power and status.

In this way the current leaders in China resemble Lenin and the current leader in Iran resembles Stalin.

The chinese leaders really want what is best for their people, like the best of the old emperors. They are are riding the current economic bubble for the benefit of their people. When the bubble breaks, watch out! They have only limited legitimacy since they have destroyed so much of the cultural glue that held Chinese society together for so long.

I think that Obama is the same age that you are. Enough said.

I don't like McCain. Just once I would like to see an election at any level where I could vote FOR someone.

AnswerGirl said...

Barack Obama is four years older than I am. That doesn't count.