‘Heroes, hero worship, and the heroic in history’: so did one observer describe the essence of Edmund Wilson’s To the Finland Station (1940). A series of portraits of ‘great men’, the book culminates with Lenin’s arrival on a German train at Petrograd’s Finland Station in April 1917, shortly after the overthrow of Tsar Nicholas II. In six months, Lenin – against all odds, by dint of sheer will – would overthrow the provisional government and establish the world’s first communist state.

Seventy-four years later, one of Lenin’s successors would dismember that state, almost inadvertently. ‘Heroic’ is not a word often applied to Mikhail Gorbachev, certainly not in Russia, where polls rank Putin, Lenin, Stalin, and even Brezhnev, who presided over the ‘era of stagnation’, far higher than Gorbachev. He is disliked by two-thirds of Russians and viewed favourably only by about one-fifth. When he ran for office five years after being booted out, he received a humiliating 0.5 per cent of the vote. Although Gorbachev, now eighty-seven, lives in Moscow, his daughter moved to Germany partly to escape the vilification still routinely heaped on the man who lost an empire.

Additional Info

  • Free Article No
  • Custom Article Title Barbara Keys reviews 'Gorbachev: His life and times' by William Taubman
  • Contents Category Russia
  • Custom Highlight Text

    ‘Heroes, hero worship, and the heroic in history’: so did one observer describe the essence of Edmund Wilson’s To the Finland Station (1940). A series of portraits of ‘great men’, the book culminates with Lenin’s arrival on a German train at Petrograd’s Finland Station in April 1917, shortly after the overthrow of Tsar Nicholas ...

  • Book Title Gorbachev
  • Book Author William Taubman
  • Book Subtitle His life and times
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio Simon & Schuster, $49.99 hb, 877 pp, 9781471147968

It was the year an American presidential candidate declared: ‘We got too much dignity in government now; what we need is some meanness.’ Even without this call to arms, meanness was abundant. A prominent journalist, on live television, derided a rival as a ‘queer’ and harangued him for having written a novel about a transsexual. The mayor of Chicago screamed, ‘Fuck you, you Jew son of a bitch,’ at a senator. A leading Republican privately told a journalist to ‘ask a psychiatrist’ about one of his party’s candidates. Another Republican said the party’s presidential nominee could not lose unless ‘he committed rape in public’. The Republican vice-presidential candidate called a Japanese-American reporter a ‘fat Jap’.

Violence was plentiful, too, at home and abroad. The United States was mired in an unwinnable war and riven by political divisions that erupted into street battles and riots. The Democratic Party fissured between an establishment candidate and an insurgency rooted in a youth revolt. Media guru Roger Ailes orchestrated an election campaign that blurred the lines between politics and entertainment. An actor tried to be taken seriously as a national politician.

Additional Info

  • Free Article No
  • Custom Article Title Barbara Keys reviews 'Playing with Fire: The 1968 Election and the Transformation of American Politics' by Lawrence O’Donnell
  • Contents Category Politics
  • Custom Highlight Text

    It was the year an American presidential candidate declared: ‘We got too much dignity in government now; what we need is some meanness.’ Even without this call to arms, meanness was abundant. A prominent journalist, on live television, derided a rival as a ‘queer’ and harangued him ...

  • Book Title Playing with Fire
  • Book Author Lawrence O’Donnell
  • Book Subtitle The 1968 Election and the Transformation of American Politics
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio Penguin, $50.95 hb, 430 pp, 9780399563140

‘The long years we spent plunged in the Cold War made losers of us all,’ Mikhail Gorbachev lamented after the collapse of the Soviet Union. By then, Gorbachev was unequivocally a loser himself – out of power and soon to be Russia’s least popular former leader, with ratings far lower than Stalin’s.

Americans do not share the sentiment that the Cold War was a net loss. They experienced the fall of the Berlin Wall and the magical disappearance of their Soviet enemy as victory and vindication. Odd Arne Westad, however, eschews any notion of the Cold War as a triumph. A Norwegian-born historian whose recent appointment at Harvard was preceded by a long career in Europe, Westad has long been one of the most persuasive advocates of the view that the Cold War was a tragedy for much of humanity, above all for those in the unfortunate battlegrounds where millions of lives were lost.

Additional Info

  • Free Article No
  • Custom Article Title Barbara Keys reviews 'The Cold War: A world history' by Odd Arne Westad
  • Contents Category History
  • Custom Highlight Text

    ‘The long years we spent plunged in the Cold War made losers of us all,’ Mikhail Gorbachev lamented after the collapse of the Soviet Union. By then, Gorbachev was unequivocally a loser himself – out of power and soon to be Russia’s least popular former leader, with ratings far lower than Stalin’s ...

  • Book Title The Cold War
  • Book Author Odd Arne Westad
  • Book Subtitle A world history
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio Allen Lane, $69.99 hb, 720 pp, 9780241011317