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Ukraine: What Went Wrong and How to Fix It
Ukraine: What Went Wrong and How to Fix It
by Anders Aslund
Edition: Paperback
Price: $20.69
28 used & new from $15.40

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Key to understanding, June 20, 2015
Published on 30th April 2015, and researched and written between July 2014 and January 2015, this is currently one of the most up to date books on the subject of Ukraine's Euromaidan Revolution, the Russian annexation of Crimea, and ongoing conflict in the Donbas. It has to be said too that, thanks to Anders Åslund's long association with Ukraine, it is also one of the best informed. (Åslund served as an advisor to President Leonid Kuchma as long ago as 1994, and since then has built-up contacts with a wide range of political movers and shakers in Ukraine.)

More up to date books will no doubt soon be along, but even as that happens this book will still be of value as it concentrates most heavily not on describing what has occurred in the past (that serves as background), but on policy prescriptions for the immediate future. And 'immediate' is the byword. Åslund is adamant that the moment of the crisis presented by the economic and military situations pertaining at the time he wrote his book must be seized, as it makes possible radical changes to institutional, legal and other structures that could not be achieved at other times.

Ukraine's great problem ever since independence in 1991 has been corruption. It assumed astronomic proportions during the Yanukovych presidency - and the Euromaidan's demand for an Association Agreement (AA) with the European Union was underpinned by the understanding that the conditions of the AA would progressively eliminate corruption - but corruption was at all times endemic and, most disappointingly of all, was scarcely checked by the 2004 Orange Revolution or the Yushenko presidency that followed. Åslund prescribes reform at the top and from the top, with wholesale removal of those who were entrenched in corruption in law enforcement and the judiciary, and in all areas of government administration.

'Political reform must come first' is one of his chapter headings, followed by 'Next comes reform of Ukraine's state'. Then he goes on to 'Achieving financial stability and sustainability', in the course of which he looks at taxation and banking. Then he turns to 'Cleaning up the energy sector', and finally 'Social policy cannot wait'. In the last he looks at pensions, healthcare, schooling and higher education.

In every area examined, Åslund makes detailed recommendations for reform. In some cases, especially at the top and in the judiciary, dispensing with recent office-holders will (already has) created a need for many suitably qualified replacements. Åslund hopes that some of the international Ukrainian diaspora and other foreign nationals might be attracted to fill the gaps.

Åslund has great respect for the clean-up of Georgian government and administration that was achieved under the 2004-2013 presidency of Mikheil Saakashvili, following the 2003 Rose Revolution. He notes with evident approval the appointment of the former health minister of Georgia, Aleksandre Kvitashvili, to the same position in Ukraine.

Since Åslund's book went to press there have been further Georgian appointments to senior positions in Ukraine, including Saakashvili himself, who is now the Governor of Odessa. It appears that much of what Åslund advocates is being implemented. His book is therefore key to understanding some of the most positive and constructive developments that are currently occurring in Ukraine.


Conflict in Ukraine: The Unwinding of the Post--Cold War Order (Boston Review Originals)
Conflict in Ukraine: The Unwinding of the Post--Cold War Order (Boston Review Originals)
Price: $14.74

4.0 out of 5 stars Well worth any interested person's attention, June 4, 2015
I was disappointed to find that, although published in January 2015, this book was completed by the authors more than three months earlier, in late September 2014. Thus it records the Minsk Protocol, or ceasefire agreement, of 5th September 2014, also that the agreement had little immediate effect on the carnage in Ukraine's Donetsk and Luhansk regions. But all the military, political, diplomatic and other exchanges that have taken place since late September 2014 (which include now the further 'Minsk II' agreement of 11th February 2015) readers must research elsewhere, and judge for themselves whether Menon and Rumer's analysis still stands in the light of further developments.

That being said, as a piece of desk research, bringing together the hundreds of reports and references that combine to describe the position as it was when the manuscript was finalised, and how that situation came about, the book is nothing short of exemplary. The background to the Euromaidan demonstration from November 2013 to February 2014, the annexation by Russia of Crimea, and the separatist movements in Donetsk and Luhansk, is very fully and clearly set out - reaching back to Catherine the Great; the original Novorossiya, the Second World War; the break-up of the Soviet Union and the history of independent Ukraine since 1991: 'the seeds of the crisis', Menon and Rumer write, 'had been planted decades before'.

Ukraine's relations with Russia, the European Union and NATO are very fully covered. The analysis of these areas is excellent; it being made clear, for instance, that right back to 1991 there have been no saints among Ukraine's senior politicians.

Menon and Rumer argue that President Viktor Yanukovych's turn away from an Association Agreement with the European Union in late autumn 2013 (triggering the initial Euromaidan demonstration) was, above all, an act of self- and system-preservation. Ironically, it ended up provoking a revolt that brought down him and his government. By reviving Ukraine's alignment with the West, it also undid gains Russia had made in its influence in and over Ukraine, precipitating the gravest crisis between Russia and the West since the Cold War.

Menon and Rumer are fully aware of the level of corruption in Ukraine before the Euromaidan revolution, and of the staggering scale of the kleptocracy of Yanukovych and those around him. They are somewhat vague, however, about the likely reasons for Yanukovych fleeing from Kiev exactly when he did (in the early hours of 22nd February 2014) and the timing of his decision to do so. They make no mention of a telephone conversation Yanukovych had with Vladimir Putin on the night of February 18th (unsatisfactory from Yanukovych's point of view), and seem unaware that the Russian infiltration of Crimea with 'little green men' began on 20th February (two days before Yanukovych fled) and that Russian preparations on the ground for that and the annexation that followed had apparently commenced around 14th February.

However, balanced against the total achievement that this book represents, my quibbles are relatively minor. They mainly serve to emphasize that, besides the Ukraine crisis being an ongoing situation, additional information about key events of a year or more ago is still coming forward. Ideally, this book will be just a first edition, with updates and extensions to follow to follow. Meanwhile, it is what we have, and well worth any interested person's attention.


My Struggle: Book Four
My Struggle: Book Four
by Karl Ove Knausgaard
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $13.37
55 used & new from $13.23

9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars So carefully structured it seems to fall out by accident, April 28, 2015
This review is from: My Struggle: Book Four (Hardcover)
It is not necessary to have already read the first three volumes of Karl Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle to get fully into this, the fourth volume. Published elsewhere as Dancing in the Dark, this volume can be read as a completely 'stand-alone' novel/memoir.

On page 3, Karl Ove (I will call the narrator that to distinguish him from Knausgaard the author, although it is not at all certain Knausgaard wants us to distinguish between them) lists 17 books that, as an 18-year-old, he liked. The best known among them, especially outside Scandinavia, are Jack Kerouac's On the Road and J D Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye. All of them, he writes, 'were basically about the same topic. [...] Books about young men who struggled to fit into society; who wanted more from life than routines, more from life than a family, in short, young men who hated middle-class values and sought freedom. They travelled, they got drunk, they read and they dreamed about their life's Great Passion or writing the Great Novel.'

It took a while for the penny to drop, but eventually I realized that this volume at least of My Struggle is intended as Knausgaard's contribution to that genre.

Or is it?

Certainly it tells us a great deal about a young man, Karl Ove, who has problems with himself, his family, others around him and with the formalities and conventions of the society in which he lives. He repeatedly drinks himself into trouble and (temporary) illness; he travels a certain amount; reads a lot (listens to a lot of music too); and dreams of writing a great novel. But I remain in doubt.

Does that matter? Not really.

In the first 124 and most of the last 180 pages Karl Ove is an 18-year-old employed as a temporary and entirely unqualified schoolteacher in a fishing village in northern Norway. It is so far north the sun never rises in the mid-winter months; at times of heavy snow the village is cut-off.

The middle 240 pages are mostly a retrospective on his last two years at school - in southern Norway. His parents have divorced; he lives with his mother, who struggles to meet the bills. His father, who is clearly well on the way to becoming an alcoholic, re-marries. Both sets of grandparents are a problem. Karl Ove is feckless with money, often hurts other people's feelings - sometimes willfully; he experiments with marijuana; and mentally ravages just about every young woman who crosses his path.

Why are so many of us still reading My Struggle, and likely to carry on doing so when the fifth and sixth volumes are published? In this fourth part we learn a lot about the differences between human behaviors and social norms in northern and southern Norway. As Karl Ove's drinking becomes more and more extravagant and his father lurches, through alcohol, further towards what we already know will be a premature end, we see a compare and contrast situation that is so carefully structured it seems to fall out by accident. And we are drawn into recalling and examining our own last years at school and first year away from home; the mistakes we made, and some of the stupid, thoughtless, hurtful things we did.

I first 'discovered' Knausgaard through his A Time for Everything, which I thought, and still think brilliant. It contains some really powerful writing. There isn't so much of that in My Struggle (which is a much easier and faster read), but it does have its moments. On page 252 of Dancing in the Dark, we find this description of the dawn:

'The countryside was like a tub filled to the brim with darkness. The next morning the bottom slowly became visible as the light was poured in and seemed diluted in the darkness. It was impossible [...] to witness this without feeling it involved movement. Wasn't Lihesten, the immense vertical wall of rock creeping closer with the daylight? Wasn't the grey fjord rising from the depths of darkness in which it had been hidden all night? The tall birches on the other side of the meadowland, where the fence to the neighbouring property was, weren't they advancing metre by metre?

'The birches: five or six riders who had kept watch on the house all through the night and now had to pull hard on the reins to curb the restless horses beneath them.'
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: May 29, 2015 10:18 AM PDT


The Little Tragedies
The Little Tragedies
by Aleksandr Sergeevich Pushkin
Edition: Paperback
Price: $23.40
62 used & new from $0.63

4.0 out of 5 stars Anderson is a better essayist than translator, April 22, 2015
This review is from: The Little Tragedies (Paperback)
Mozart and Salieri
The Miserly Knight
The Stone Guest
A Feast During the Plague (A Feast in Time of Plague)

Written as a series, and remarkably quickly - all four completed between 23rd October and 8th November 1830 - The Little Tragedies are Shakespearian in the situations and in the aspects of human nature that they address. In her essays about the plays, Nancy K Anderson writes:
'Each of the "little tragedies" is an examination of the type of single-minded, self-willed passion that blinds a person, so that the warnings of reason and conscience are equally powerless, and the path of self-destruction is deliberately chosen.' Elsewhere she backs that with: 'each play is the story of a great and gifted figure who could avoid his own self-ruin, and who instead freely chooses it.'

The length of all the plays is, however, well short of any of Shakespeare's (only 1390 lines in total) and the relative quality of the poetry, Pushkin's vs Shakespeare's, is no doubt a matter best left to their respective enthusiasts. For my part, I will say though, that, sadly, the product of Anderson's translation into English does not merit comparison with Shakespeare or any major English poet.

That is a pity, for in moments such as 'Your imagination/ Will fill in all the blank spots in a minute./ It works faster than a portrait painter.' taken from The Stone Guest and speaking of Don Juan with reference to an attractive woman, we certainly get a welcome glimpse of the authentic Pushkin.

Anderson's use (twice) of the term 'skirt-chaser' jars. (It is anachronistic in the late mediaeval contexts of The Miserly Knight and of The Stone Guest and has now again become very dated.)

Yet Anderson is critical of the use, by Nabokov and other translators who have gone before her, of the words 'harlot' and 'goose' (the latter as a characterization of someone lacking common sense). I disagree with her comments on those; the words may not much occur in contemporary everyday language, but both are familiar to literate readers - more so than her 'bimbo', 'tramp on the make' and 'some fool he's snowed'. (When did you last hear bimbo, tramp or snowed used in those ways?) However, I would concede that coupling the adjective 'silly' to 'goose' would make communication of its intended meaning more failsafe.

In summary: Anderson's essays are worth reading, but she is a better commentator than translator. Like so much of Pushkin, The Little Tragedies have yet to find the translator they deserve. It is untrue to say that a wholly satisfactory translation of Pushkin's poetry (especially outside of Eugene Onegin) is an impossibility, but they seem to have only begun to come forward in recent years. The trend towards greater acceptability of freer translations has certainly helped.


Ethics in Ancient Israel
Ethics in Ancient Israel
by John Barton
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $50.00
31 used & new from $38.38

4.0 out of 5 stars I gained a great deal from it, April 18, 2015
John Barton offers this book as a contribution to the history of ideas, ethical ideas in particular. He feels that history has hitherto been missing a chapter on Ethics in Ancient Israel; one that would stand alongside works on Greek, Roman and modern ethical ideas.

In the context of this book, Barton treats 'ethics' primarily as 'moral philosophy', as distinct from being equivalent to morals, but he does not entirely exclude consideration of the latter. And he emphasizes the importance of his book title being 'Ethics in Ancient Israel' rather than merely 'Ethics of the Old Testament'. He takes in all the relevant writings of the time that have come down to us, by no means restricting himself to those included in the Hebrew Bible, or the Old Testament familiar to modern Christians.

Another objective important to Barton is to persuade us that the texts are much more variegated and interesting than what he refers to as 'the stereotypes of slaughter of the Canaanites and unrelenting vengeance'.

Whilst setting the overall scene, I should also mention that John Barton represents himself as a modern Christian - as distinct from, among other possibilities, a modern Jewish scholar, or an atheist - and he occasionally makes reference to Christian New Testament teaching. To take one example (their number is not excessive); after a survey of the many attempts to reduce/condense/summarise the (reputedly) 613 mizvot (commandments) in the Torah - King David is said to have reduced them to 11 (principles); Isaiah to six; Micah to three ('to do justly, love mercy and walk humbly with God'); Isaiah, again, to two; Amos to one ('Seek ye Me and live'); and Habakkuk also to one ('But the righteous shall live by his faith') - it is surely entirely relevant and legitimate to refer also to the 'golden rule' attributed to Jesus: 'Do to others as you would have them do to you.'

Barton observes that Christian teaching is derived from late Israelite teaching, which is of course self-evident - except that St Paul seems to have also been aware of ideas attributed to Plato, and probably also Aristotle. (Barton in any case believes that much of what have traditionally been regarded as 'ancient' Israelite writings were at the very least re-worked - if not originated - in the Hellenic period, and that there are relationships arising from their contemporaneity.)

I digress, but in doing so give some idea of the sort of material treated here, and the thoroughness with which it is handled.

For the most part, the book is intended for, and will I think be best appreciated by those with a present or past academic relationship with theology, ethics or philosophy. For those already in the field there will be points to be taken up in debate - as John Barton uses the text of his book to answer some of his earlier critics.

Being merely an interested student of ideas, who was once much impressed by a public lecture given by John Barton, I lack the academic background and the book was for me no light read. Many pages of notes later (and having re-read extensive parts of Old Testament scriptures such as Job, Deuteronomy, Lamentations, Proverbs, Psalms....) and having looked-up Ptah-hotep, Amen-em-opet and other mysteries to those of us who haven't passed that way before, I can truthfully say I have gained a great deal from it.


Dancing in the Dark (My Struggle)
Dancing in the Dark (My Struggle)

13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars So carefully structured it seems to fall out by accident, March 5, 2015
It is not necessary to have already read the first three volumes of Karl Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle to get fully into this, the fourth volume. Dancing in the Dark can be read as a completely 'stand-alone' novel/memoir.

On page 3 of Dancing in the Dark, Karl Ove (I will call the narrator that to distinguish him from Knausgaard the author, although it is not at all certain Knausgaard wants us to distinguish between them) lists 17 books that, as an 18-year-old, he liked. The best known among them, especially outside Scandinavia, are Jack Kerouac's On the Road and J D Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye. All of them, he writes, 'were basically about the same topic. [...] Books about young men who struggled to fit into society; who wanted more from life than routines, more from life than a family, in short, young men who hated middle-class values and sought freedom. They travelled, they got drunk, they read and they dreamed about their life's Great Passion or writing the Great Novel.'

It took a while for the penny to drop, but eventually I realized that this volume at least of My Struggle is intended as Knausgaard's contribution to that genre.

Or is it?

Certainly it tells us a great deal about a young man, Karl Ove, who has problems with himself, his family, others around him and with the formalities and conventions of the society in which he lives. He repeatedly drinks himself into trouble and (temporary) illness; he travels a certain amount; reads a lot (listens to a lot of music too); and dreams of writing a great novel. But I remain in doubt.

Does that matter? Not really.

In the first 124 and most of the last 180 pages of Dancing in the Dark, Karl Ove is an 18-year-old employed as a temporary and entirely unqualified schoolteacher in a fishing village in northern Norway. It is so far north the sun never rises in the mid-winter months; at times of heavy snow the village is cut-off.

The middle 240 pages are mostly a retrospective on his last two years at school - in southern Norway. His parents have divorced; he lives with his mother, who struggles to meet the bills. His father, who is clearly well on the way to becoming an alcoholic, re-marries. Both sets of grandparents are a problem. Karl Ove is feckless with money, often hurts other people's feelings - sometimes willfully; he experiments with marijuana; and mentally ravages just about every young woman who crosses his path.

Why are so many of us still reading My Struggle, and likely to carry on doing so when the fifth and sixth volumes are published? In Dancing in the Dark we learn a lot about the differences between human behaviors and social norms in northern and southern Norway. As Karl Ove's drinking becomes more and more extravagant and his father lurches, through alcohol, further towards what we already know will be a premature end, we see a compare and contrast situation that is so carefully structured it seems to fall out by accident. And we are drawn into recalling and examining our own last years at school and first year away from home; the mistakes we made, and some of the stupid, thoughtless, hurtful things we did.

I first 'discovered' Knausgaard through his A Time for Everything, which I thought, and still think brilliant. It contains some really powerful writing. There isn't so much of that in My Struggle (which is a much easier and faster read), but it does have its moments. On page 252 of Dancing in the Dark, we find this description of the dawn:

'The countryside was like a tub filled to the brim with darkness. The next morning the bottom slowly became visible as the light was poured in and seemed diluted in the darkness. It was impossible [...] to witness this without feeling it involved movement. Wasn't Lihesten, the immense vertical wall of rock creeping closer with the daylight? Wasn't the grey fjord rising from the depths of darkness in which it had been hidden all night? The tall birches on the other side of the meadowland, where the fence to the neighbouring property was, weren't they advancing metre by metre?

'The birches: five or six riders who had kept watch on the house all through the night and now had to pull hard on the reins to curb the restless horses beneath them.'
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Apr 29, 2015 2:32 PM PDT


The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry
The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry
by Robert Chandler
Edition: Paperback
Price: $13.50

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Almost 600 pages: not one wasted, February 26, 2015
This book presents us with English translations of 376 Russian poems (or in some cases extracts from or fragments of poems) from 66 poets. The range is from Gavrila Derzhavin (1743-1816), who could be said to have 'discovered' Pushkin - and whose poetry directly influenced not just Pushkin but many another successor poet, including Mandelstam and Tsvetaeva - to Marina Boroditskaya (born 1954). It includes all the Russian poets most of us could think of, plus more than a few to whom we are now pleased to be introduced.

The order of presentation of the poets and their work is by date of birth, and they are further marshalled into sections titled The Eighteenth Century, Around Pushkin, Pushkin, After Pushkin, The Twentieth Century and Three More Recent Poets.

For each poet a short biography is provided, which serves also as an introduction to his or her poems. Robert Chandler explains in his Introduction that the number of pages given to a poet does not always reflect the editors' estimate of his or her importance. Their aim, he writes, has been to include only translations that work as poems in English. Given that we are turning to a volume that presents the poems only in English (very little Russian is found in the entire volume*), most of us will welcome that decision.

When it comes to Innokenty Annesky (1855-1909), however, we cannot help but share the regret of the editors that although they 'would have liked to do more to expand his readership, [he] is exceptionally hard to translate'. So we are pleased to settle, with them, for six complete poems.

Fortunately, most of the poets and their work are much more accessible. Perhaps the most accessible of all is Ivan Krylov (1769-1844). The 11 Krylov poems selected here, translated by Gordon Pirie, could readily occupy a whole, large-format book, lavishly illustrated, intended for the delight of children and the parents and other adults who might read the poems to them.

There are other fun poems too, although the overall tone, especially in the Twentieth Century section, is often heavy. The great hardships and injustices that followed the Bolshevik Revolution, capped by Stalin's Great Purge, the Nazi invasion, the Leningrad Blockade and the Gulag, feature strongly in both poems and biographies. Suicides, executions, days of queuing outside prison (in hope of being allowed to pass-in something to comfort a loved one), internal exile, escape and expulsion from the Soviet bloc are all present too. For the most part, Russia's poets have exhibited no lack of courage, either in their private lives or in their choice of poetic material.

Another striking feature is the linkage over time both between individual poets and between the poems they have bequeathed to posterity. One poet has been influenced by, encouraged by, even mentored by another: one poem (not just its theme) has been taken-up by another, even a series of other poets. And in the Gulag, in the face of suppression and for want of paper, they famously committed to memory huge amounts of their own and other poets' writing.

It is tempting to describe this book as encyclopaedic. In as much as it opens only in about 1780 and is able to cover a mere fraction of the work of a finite number of poets, of course it is not. But the great quantity and range of material that is included, plus the wonderfully informative Introduction, Bibliography and Notes do indeed take it a long way towards qualifying for that descriptor.

* The Editors provide a bi-lingual Table of Contents and the full text, in Russian, of most of the poems in the book not still in copyright on https://pbrp.wordpress.com


Ukraine Diaries
Ukraine Diaries
Price: $9.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Depressing, but valuable, February 17, 2015
This review is from: Ukraine Diaries (Kindle Edition)
Andrey Kurkov tells us in the Preface to this book that he has kept a diary for more than 30 years. This 234 page abstract covers just 154 days between 21st November 2013 and 24th April 2014. Kurkov lives within 500 yards of Kiev's Maidan Nezalezhnosti, Independence Square, or simply The Maidan, so his diary naturally contains extensive reference to the increasingly violent and destructive actions and reactions centered on the Maidan and surrounding streets during that period.

Kurkov records that on Sunday 8th December he spent some time in the Maidan and joined in the chanting, calling for the widely-despised Prime Minister, Mykola Azarov, to resign. For the most part, though, he skirts the action as he passes between his home, his office and various other points in the city. Nevertheless, he is extremely well-informed and deeply interested at the political level.

One of his most prescient remarks is, 'This country has never had such a stupid President before, capable of radicalizing one of the most tolerant populations in the world!' Not that Kurkov has any admiration either for Victor Yushchenko, the previous President and chief beneficiary of the 2004 Orange Revolution, or for Yulia Timoshenko, the former Prime Minister who, although imprisoned, clung to the hope of succeeding Yanukovich.

I have so far felt that there is an enduring question about Yanukovich's ultimate departure: - Why did he flee when he did (in the early hours of Saturday 22nd February), when an agreement to leave him in office for a further ten months had just been signed? Kurkov helps me towards an answer.

We have known for some time that Yanukovich's packing began on Wednesday 19th, and that many of his associates left Kiev on Thursday 20th. So the realisation that all was over evidently came on Wednesday 19th.

Kurkov reports, 'This night of warfare (Tues 18th - Wed 19th February) has transformed the city centre to ruins.' The Kiev Metro stopped running on Tuesday 18th and was still not running on the 19th. On Tuesday 18th, the Maidanistas set fire to the headquarters of Yanukovich's Party of Regions. The Berkutovsky (thugs used by the government as auxiliary police) invaded the Trades Union building - used by the Maidanistas as a dormitory and a hospital - and set that on fire. The Central Post Office and the Music School were occupied by the Maidanistas on Wednesday 19th. With minute-by-minute rolling headlines reporting events such as those, no wonder if those in power felt their time had come to its end.

Moreover, it is alleged that on the night of Tuesday 18th Yanukovich telephoned Vladimir Putin but failed to win his support. Putin effectively confirmed that (as early as Thursday 20th) when he said that he gave Yanukovich no advice - and that his earlier offer of a multi-billion dollar loan to Ukraine was now withdrawn.

So, on Wednesday 19th Yanukovich knew that for him it really was Game Over. He perhaps didn't know that the infiltration of unidentified Russian troops into Crimea was to begin on Thursday 20th, whilst he was still President and active in Kiev, an overlap of timing that Kurkov points out.

I found the book a depressing read. That is because of the many pointers to the mess that has ensued. Nevertheless, it is a valuable read, and definitely recommended if you want to know more of the background to EuroMaidan and the events that have followed.


The Diary of Lena Mukhina: A Girl's Life in the Siege of Leningrad
The Diary of Lena Mukhina: A Girl's Life in the Siege of Leningrad
by Lena Mukhina
Edition: Paperback
23 used & new from $11.30

4.0 out of 5 stars Like Anne Frank, Lena Mukhina has written herself into immortality, February 12, 2015
On the front of this book, four women are seen pulling a sledge, laden with what appears to be two cadavers. The ground is frozen, possibly re-frozen after a partial thaw, suggesting the photograph was taken in late March 1942, around the 200th day of the Nazi blockade of Leningrad. Just less than 100,000 people died in Leningrad that month, most from starvation. In each of the two previous months the number exceeded 100,000.

By chance, 15-year-old Lena Mukhina began her almost daily report on her life in Leningrad on 22nd May 1941. She was a very normal teenager. Her primary concerns were the end-of-year examinations at school and social relationships with her fellow pupils. She had a number of girlfriends, was on good terms with several boys, and considered herself in love with a boy named Vova. Vova was always polite, but unfortunately showed no real interest in Lena. Lena, of course, hoped to change that.

She writes interestingly, and is particularly good at dialogue. Some of the early pages of her diary could be transferred directly to a film or TV script.

Then, on 22nd June, Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa. Lena's diary entries include news of the invasion as it was conveyed to the Soviet population through Sovinformburo, and as it impacted herself, her circle of school friends and their city.

She was co-opted to help with trench-digging within the city limits and then, in mid-July, she and `Mama Lena' (Lena's late mother's sister) were conscripted for three days of trench digging 21 miles south of Leningrad. The logistics of 12 hours of overnight digging, with a ten minute break every hour, are carefully described. 'We learned that there wasn't any food but there would be soon.'

Air raids began in early July; food rationing quickly followed. On 8th September Lena wrote, 'there were nine air raids ... If we have nine air raids a day for ten days in a row, then I believe there will be considerably more lunatics than sane people left in the city.'

Gradually, shortage of food became a far greater concern than either air raids or artillery fire. In November, the bread ration for white collar workers, adult dependents and children under 12 was reduced to 125 grams a day (4.4 ounces).

For the most part, Lena remains remarkably optimistic and cheerful. For as long as they had the energy, Lena and Mama Lena chased around and queued as necessary to buy the little amounts of food to which they were entitled. They each brought home small quantities of food they were given at lunchtime at work and school and made soup of it with plenty of hot water. After eating two bowls of this soup, Lena would go to bed 'feeling full'.

The bread ration was eased a little on December 25th, and there was a further increase in late January. But it was still too little and the January increase came too late to save Mama Lena. After some days of becoming increasingly lethargic and incapable, she died on February 7th, leaving Lena alone in the besieged city. Lena sent a telegram to her nearest relatives, 700 miles away, asking for 'advice', but, most unfortunately, sent it to an old address. It was late April before she finally received the response 'come'.

But how to get out of Leningrad? And how to survive until that became possible? Lena details almost daily her further adventures and the many frustrations of securing a place on an evacuation train. Even when that is arranged, there are further delays.

By late May, Lena is recording definite signs that she is herself succumbing to starvation. Then the diary abruptly ends, exactly 368 days after it began.

If we had no other information, we would fear that Lena had become moribund and, after a few more days, died. But the editors of this excellent volume have managed to establish that Lena did finally leave Leningrad in early June and that she ultimately lived to be 66, in her later years working in Moscow as a commercial artist.

For some readers of this book, the day-by-day account of the very small amounts of food acquired and consumed may become tedious. Others, especially of Lena's own age, will deeply empathize with her, and strongly will her to remain optimistic and active - and survive. For anyone with an interest in Soviet Russia and the Leningrad Siege, there is a huge amount to be learnt from Lena's diary, and it will implant an indelible impression of that awful Leningrad winter. This text is an important find. Without having any idea that she was doing so, Lena Mukhina has written herself into immortality.


The Diary of Lena Mukhina: A Girl's Life in the Siege of Leningrad
The Diary of Lena Mukhina: A Girl's Life in the Siege of Leningrad
by Lena Mukhina
Edition: Hardcover
19 used & new from $16.19

4.0 out of 5 stars Like Anne Frank, Lena Mukhina has written herself into immortality, February 12, 2015
On the front of this book, four women are seen pulling a sledge, laden with what appears to be two cadavers. The ground is frozen, possibly re-frozen after a partial thaw, suggesting the photograph was taken in late March 1942, around the 200th day of the Nazi blockade of Leningrad. Just less than 100,000 people died in Leningrad that month, most from starvation. In each of the two previous months the number exceeded 100,000.

By chance, 15-year-old Lena Mukhina began her almost daily report on her life in Leningrad on 22nd May 1941. She was a very normal teenager. Her primary concerns were the end-of-year examinations at school and social relationships with her fellow pupils. She had a number of girlfriends, was on good terms with several boys, and considered herself in love with a boy named Vova. Vova was always polite, but unfortunately showed no real interest in Lena. Lena, of course, hoped to change that.

She writes interestingly, and is particularly good at dialogue. Some of the early pages of her diary could be transferred directly to a film or TV script.

Then, on 22nd June, Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa. Lena's diary entries include news of the invasion as it was conveyed to the Soviet population through Sovinformburo, and as it impacted herself, her circle of school friends and their city.

She was co-opted to help with trench-digging within the city limits and then, in mid-July, she and `Mama Lena' (Lena's late mother's sister) were conscripted for three days of trench digging 21 miles south of Leningrad. The logistics of 12 hours of overnight digging, with a ten minute break every hour, are carefully described. 'We learned that there wasn't any food but there would be soon.'

Air raids began in early July; food rationing quickly followed. On 8th September Lena wrote, 'there were nine air raids ... If we have nine air raids a day for ten days in a row, then I believe there will be considerably more lunatics than sane people left in the city.'

Gradually, shortage of food became a far greater concern than either air raids or artillery fire. In November, the bread ration for white collar workers, adult dependents and children under 12 was reduced to 125 grams a day (4.4 ounces).

For the most part, Lena remains remarkably optimistic and cheerful. For as long as they had the energy, Lena and Mama Lena chased around and queued as necessary to buy the little amounts of food to which they were entitled. They each brought home small quantities of food they were given at lunchtime at work and school and made soup of it with plenty of hot water. After eating two bowls of this soup, Lena would go to bed 'feeling full'.

The bread ration was eased a little on December 25th, and there was a further increase in late January. But it was still too little and the January increase came too late to save Mama Lena. After some days of becoming increasingly lethargic and incapable, she died on February 7th, leaving Lena alone in the besieged city. Lena sent a telegram to her nearest relatives, 700 miles away, asking for 'advice', but, most unfortunately, sent it to an old address. It was late April before she finally received the response 'come'.

But how to get out of Leningrad? And how to survive until that became possible? Lena details almost daily her further adventures and the many frustrations of securing a place on an evacuation train. Even when that is arranged, there are further delays.

By late May, Lena is recording definite signs that she is herself succumbing to starvation. Then the diary abruptly ends, exactly 368 days after it began.

If we had no other information, we would fear that Lena had become moribund and, after a few more days, died. But the editors of this excellent volume have managed to establish that Lena did finally leave Leningrad in early June and that she ultimately lived to be 66, in her later years working in Moscow as a commercial artist.

For some readers of this book, the day-by-day account of the very small amounts of food acquired and consumed may become tedious. Others, especially of Lena's own age, will deeply empathize with her, and strongly will her to remain optimistic and active - and survive. For anyone with an interest in Soviet Russia and the Leningrad Siege, there is a huge amount to be learnt from Lena's diary, and it will implant an indelible impression of that awful Leningrad winter. This text is an important find. Without having any idea that she was doing so, Lena Mukhina has written herself into immortality.


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