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Russophile Book Review

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New book reviews are always listed first. (Page updated March 21, 1999)

TRANSLATING HISTORY by Igor Korchilov (1997) Mr. Korchilov was a translator for the General Secretary and other top officials of the FSU for thirty years. This book is his recollection of his time spent with Gorbachev and Western leaders; primarily Reagan and Thatcher.

One thing that is abundantly clear about this author is his admiration for Gorbachev and Reagan. But he remains objective, especially towards Reagan, noting some "shortcomings," but also defending him against some other well publicized criticisms. What is especially interesting (to Reagan admirers) is the chapter concerning Reagan's visit to Moscow after he had left office. Reagan appears before Gorbachev, Yeltsin, and the International Affairs Committee as a man on a mission. He preaches, persuades, and inspires to various audiences about the things that contribute to America's well-being.

Concerning Gorbachev, he sees him as a man consumed about progress, yet ordinary enough to consider the people around him. Korchilov is impressed by his memory of names, his concern for his staff's basic needs, and regard for them as people in general. These are qualities evidently missing from the era of Cold War dignitaries.

Korchilov sees himself as a man who has quietly held the vision the Gorbachev eventually introduced to the FSU. Probably because of the "enlightenment" he received by being allowed to travel abroad. He does not see Yeltsin as a successor of Gorbachev, but as an opportunist and populist without substance. His last chapter holds onto hope that Gorbachev may eventually return to power.

Other notes of interest include the role of translator in the world of politics. Korchilov mentions the zeal of past interpreters who translated not verbatim but in a manner that suited their political interests. This is really no secret, but what is surprising is how this developed over time. Gorbachev on several occasions was given a low level interpreter for high level functions. Korchilov firmly believes that protocol departments deliberately did this to discredit Gorbachev.

THE RUSSIAN CENTURY by Brian Moynahan (1994) This is a great historical story of Russia, written by a former editor of The Sunday Times. It isn't a dry commentary of history that plagues historical text. It is colorful, animated and spotted with quotes that makes this a very easy and enjoyable read. The book starts with the Romanovs and ends with aftermath of the 1993 coup. It spends considerable time documenting the terror of Stalin and the Russian role (both pro and con) in World War II, with lesser attention paid to the Breznev-Yeltsin years. I thought that this was the best history book I had ever read about Russia.

ZHIRINOVSKY: RUSSIAN FASCISM AND THE MAKING OF A DICTATOR by Vladimir Solovyou and Elena Klepikova (1995)

This biography does more than chronicle the life of this Russian “strong man.” It psychoanalyses him, focusing on his Jewishness and sexuality while describing what makes Vladimir Zhirinovsky who he is and what he wants to become. This is very Freudian and typical of Russian prejudice. (Although a recent article by William Safire says that the “Jewish factor” is now being dismissed by most people. He points to Yeltsin’s Cabinet as proof.) But this emphasis leaves me a little uncomfortable, even if there is truth to the assertions. Perhaps what bothered me most was that many of the details were described over and over throughout the book. It becomes monotonous and makes me want to skip ahead to future chapters.

But the book does move ahead as a biography should, and gives insider details on Zhirinovsky’s activities once he became leader of parliament. The ending chapter gives the impression that the Yeltsin government may be taking on some of Zhirinovsky’s views in hopes of avoiding another coup or a vote for dismissing the government. The authors, at the end of the book, give their opinion on how Zhirinovsky should be treated within the current government. Their advice to Yeltsin is to place him in a Cabinet position, perhaps as head of the Interior. Their conclusion is that Zhirinovsky has demonstrated some cold truths about the Russian desire for the “strong man” and should be taken seriously by members of the Russian government as well as Western leaders. (The authors admire Nixon’s visit with him and are critical of Clinton’s refusal to meet with him, even though Yeltsin rebuffed Nixon.)The conclusion is that he cannot be ignored, and that someone would take his place even if Zhirinovsky were eliminated.

USTINOV IN RUSSIA by Peter Ustinov (1987) This book is the companion volume to the PBS television series of the same name. The film and book were produced during the Gorbachev period, and was one of the first full-access, freely produced films about the Soviet Union. Ustinov’s book offers a great variety of high quality photos and stories about his journey. And while he does acknowledge the inefficiencies, and cumbersome mechanisms of the Soviet system, he offers no apologies for his love of this country and its people. In the first chapters, he offers a historical summary about “Russian expansionism,” and a critical assessment of her treatment through the ages by her “allies.” He also has great things to say about Gorbachev’s reforms and his effort to build a modern society while preserving the traditional Russian lifestyle and culture. It would be interesting to get his assessment of the current Russian way of life and government reforms now that the Gorbachev period has ended.

This is a great book to show off on a coffee table or to people who are unaware of the great architecture and artistry of Russia.


This can be a difficult book to read. It is a collection of random thoughts, writings and recollections surrounding the August 1991 and October 1993 coup attempts. The editor attempts some organization and fills in information President Yeltsin takes for granted. Each chapter begins with a brief description of what the president is writing.

It is a valuable recollection of events as a principle player saw them. I especially like the dossiers located at the end of the book about all of the people mentioned in the book. Also of interest are the excerpts from the General Secretary’s files regarding Lee Harvey Oswald and weapons shipments to the IRA. I won’t tell you who the KGB suspected of hiring Oswald to kill the president (Darth Vader is Luke’s father/Rosebud is a sled). But you have to wonder if the KGB actually knew more than American security forces or if the FBI just refused to pursue the investigation after Oswald’s death. (Plenty of material for conspiracy theorists.)

POLITIKA: (1997) If you are a Tom Clancy enthusiast, this book will live up to expectations. It is especially detailed about the non-lethal weapons used by a strike force employed b an American entrepreneur. But I am getting ahead of myself. The story is about the competing powers in Russia after the death of Boris Yeltsin. The main character, Roger Gordian, becomes involved in this conflict after his staff is murdered in Siberia.

Interesting points to Russophiles: The conflict between the three men who take control after Yeltsin’s death is very likely to be a reality, if Clancy’s political homework resembles his research on military operations. He also pays considerable attention to a Russian immigrant, who is an accomplished Mafia member in the United States. The interesting thing is that the criminal doesn’t arrive here as one, he just becomes one after being born in the US. It is a very good story, but unfortunately, most of the Russian characters are villains and there isn’t a lot of action on Russian soil, other than the climatic ending. The ending does have some irony. The Russian reformist ends the conflict in a very non-reformist fashion, but I can’t say that I blame him. Leave it to say that Russian reform must have its limits.

IN CONFIDENCE by Anatoly Dobrynin (1995) This book is written by the Soviet ambassador to the United States from the Kennedy to the Reagan years. It is an insides look at the diplomacy efforts between our two countries. A reader will come away with several different insights. One, American efforts at diplomacy, have varied not only in ideology but in method as well. The Nixon-Kissinger approach is well admired by both sides, yet American presidents are not always willing to recreate the famous “confident channel” employed during that period. Dobrynin, understandably, paints the Russian effort as entirely peaceful and extremely American focused. I am sure that is how it would look to a diplomat far from the internal workings of the Kremlin and with specific instructions on how to succeed. For example, when the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia and Afghanistan, Dobrynin does not attempt to justify Soviet position (in fact, he doesn’t always support it) but is only concerned with how to better US-Soviet relations in spite of it. His review of events is always summarized by an “opportunities missed for reconciliation” report.

Also of great interest is his analysis of the final days of the FSU. Dobrynin does not seem to be a fan of Gorbachev, particularly after his appointment as president. Dobrynin believes that the process of economic transition was too fast and left Russian vulnerable and neglected by Western self-interests. Certainly, he assertion that the pace of demilitarization outpaced the ability of the economy to absorb manpower was correct.

RUSSIA in Search of its Future (1995) ed. Amin Saikal & William Maley This book, a collection of works on various subjects, is based on a conference held at the Australian National University in 1993. It is mostly likely a college text book or graduate study book consisting of essays on post-Soviet Russia. Its topics include politics, economics, international relations and culture. If you are interested in post-Soviet material, this can be a good place to start, especially for facts, figures, and historical data.