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Knights of the Vine RUSSIA


By Stephen Dewar
Looking Ahead

Reviewing publishersí advance booklists for 2005 this year we are promised a bumper crop of publications, covering every conceivable topic of Russian interest: history, travel, politics, biography (including yet more biographies of Stalin, a mini-industry all on its own!). Given that this year marks the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II, or the Great Patriotic War, inevitably there will be a crop of books on that epic struggle.  There is also the Crimean War which took place from 1854Ė1856, best known to westerners for the famous Charge of the Light Brigade and Florence Nightingale; during this 150th anniversary period there are several forthcoming books on that bloody conflict. 

Some bestsellers from recent years are being republished in new paperback editions, including David Satterís Darkness at Dawn: The Rise of the Russian Criminal State (just out from Yale University Press), Andrew Meierís Black Earth: A Journey Through Russia After the Fall (due now from W. W. Norton & Company), Federico Vareseís The Russian Mafia: Private Protection in a New Market Economy (February, Oxford University Press), Chrystia Freelandís Sale of the Century: The Inside Story of the Second Russian Revolution (April, Little Brown) and Andrew Jackís Inside Putinís Russia (April, Granta). 

In particular, we are looking forward to former Russian Prime Minister and Soviet Foreign Minister, Yevgeny Primakovís Russian Crossroads: Toward the New Millennium (due any day now), the first English edition of Artem Tarasovís Millionaire: Confessions of Russiaís First Millionaire due out in May and Russia in Collapse, by Russiaís Grand Old Man of Letters, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, expected in March.

The Kursk Tragedy

The Kursk nuclear submarine sank during naval exercises in the Barents Sea in August 2000.  Award-winning American journalist Ramsey Flynn adroitly tells the story and agrees with the final official version, that the initial explosion was caused by an on-board accident with a poorly maintained, roughly handled torpedo, which in turn blew up the other torpedoes.  All 118 crewmen died, but 23 survived for some time.  Could they have been saved?  Probably not.

Those of us who followed the terrible events of those days on Russian television will not forget the dreadful scenes: not just the unfolding tragedy at sea but the other images ó the distraught widow of one sailor, at a news conference with the Russian Navy brass, being overpowered and forcibly injected with sedatives as she screamed accusations at the officers who lied to the world, and to the victimsí families, about what was happening. Then there were the mistakes made by President Putin; a suntanned and relaxed Putin on vacation at Sochi, surrounded by smirking sycophants from his entourage, being interviewed by reporters and appearing callously indifferent; Putin on Larry King saying tersely ďit sank,Ē when asked what had happened.  Putin learned his lesson then, in terms of PR, or perhaps not if we think about Beslan.

Although marred by some irritating hyperbole (the title of the book is an example), all the relevant issues and speculations are there, including the almost unbelievable fact that President Bill Clinton knew about the disaster a full day before President Putin.

Cry from the Deep: The Submarine Disaster That Riveted the World and Put the New Russia to the Ultimate Test, by Ramsey Flynn, HarperCollins, $17.13.


Siberian Stop-over

Veteran travel writer, Dervla Murphy, 74 this year, was on the way to Ussuriland in the Russian Far East, when she slipped on the wet floor of the toilet on the train from Moscow, recoiling from a baby that was vomiting over her.  Resting up by Lake Baikal till her ligaments had recovered and she could ride her bicycle ĎPushkiní (in Cameroon she rode a horse called Egebert and in Ethiopia a mule, but in most of her previous 18 books she uses a bike), she fell through the floor of an outdoor toilet and completed the damage.  The resulting three months of enforced recovery in eastern Siberia provided the material for this   book.

Fans of Murphy will know what to expect Ė lots of colorful impressions of individual people and places, interspersed with personal reminiscences (she missed her cats), and broader judgments on life in this most climatically inhospitable part of the world.  A bleak picture of drink, drugs, AIDS and crime is counter-balanced by marvelous hospitality, an almost spiritual account of swimming in Lake Baikal and much more.  If you already have Colin Thubronís magnificent In Siberia you donít actually need Murphyís offering.  But if you havenít or just canít get enough about this vast and desolate space or just enjoy anything by Dervla Murphy, then this is a must for your bookshelves.

Through Siberia by Accident: A Small Slice of Autobiography by Dervla Murphy, John Murray, $23.95.

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