All posts filed under: Eastern European History

A Concise History of Finland (David Kirby)

Who thinks much about Finland? During the Cold War, because of its buffer position, it was occasionally in the news. More recently, Nokia was prominent for a while. But I doubt if most Americans could name one famous Finn. Even expatriate Finns aren’t prominent—Eero Saarinen designed some famous structures, such as the Gateway Arch, and Matt Damon’s great-grandmother was Finnish, but really, what happens in Finland, stays in Finland. However, I read this book as background to my main focus, to come in another piece—the three-month Finnish civil war of early 1918, in which the country saved itself from Communism. To write that, I needed to first learn basic Finnish history, which it turns out, in the manner of most histories, is quite interesting.

The Captive Mind (Czeslaw Milosz)

We all like to imagine ourselves as heroes. We watch movies, and we instinctively put ourselves in the place of the hero, not in the place of the villain. We read the histories of twentieth-century tyrannies, and we assume we would be the resistance fighter, not the collaborator, informer, or toady to the new archons. Maybe we would be heroes. But probably not, if history is any guide. Czeslaw Milosz’s 1951 The Captive Mind explores, through the author’s personal experience, what motivates seemingly morally strong, thoughtful men to instead cooperate with, and often embrace, evil. Sadly, this question is as relevant today as seventy years ago, which makes this book very much worth reading for its insights into the future, as well as into the past.

Orbánland: How I Came To Understand Viktor Orbán’s Hungary And The Future Of Europe (Lasse Skytt)

I am in an odd position with respect to Hungary. Because I’m half Hungarian, speak the language (rustily now) and two decades ago spent nearly a year there, I know much more than most Americans. In fact, the first post-Communist prime minister, József Antall, was my grandfather’s first cousin. On the other hand, my knowledge of current Hungarian events is gleaned mostly from English-language media, which is almost all both grossly ignorant and grossly biased. Lasse Skytt, a Danish journalist resident in Hungary, has arrived to help me out, by offering an excellent neutral view of Hungarian politics, deliberately designed to be purely informative, rather than polemical.

Escaping the Russian Bear: An Estonian Girl’s Memoir of Loss and Survival During World War II (Kristina von Rosenvinge)

I am fond of pointing out that the safety and security we think we enjoy is, historically speaking, anomalous and ephemeral. This memoir, by the late Kristina von Rosenvinge, brings this truth to life. It is not a maudlin tale of woe. Instead, it is optimistic and grateful, even though the events it narrates, of her young life during World War II and immediately after, must objectively have been extremely trying. And since I am always looking for additional messages in books, aside from simple human interest, I found her story has much to tell us both about history, and about the future.

Trotsky: A Biography (Robert Service)

I continue to be fascinated by the Bolshevik Revolution, because in its success there are many lessons.  Unbiased history and biography of the Bolsheviks is a relatively recent phenomenon; prior to 1991, a combination of lack of primary materials and philo-Communism among Western historians meant very few objective books were published.  Since 1991, though, the balance has shifted, even if plenty of Communist-loving propaganda is still published by major historians, because the global Left has always, and continues to, fully support the goals and methods of Communism.  They mostly just keep it a bit more quiet in public than they used to.

Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland (Christopher R. Browning)

It seems to me that we in the West are like men in a cavern, out of which lead many paths, none signposted.  Some paths lead to bright futures, but other paths lead to terrible ones, among them those where, once again as we did not so very long ago, we slaughter each other over ideology.  And the way back is closed, so we must choose one path forward.  The service of this book is that it illustrates Solzhenitsyn’s dictum, that the line between good and evil runs through every human heart.  Thus, reflecting upon this book may help us choose the correct exit from the cavern, and to that end, it is worth bearing the unease that comes over us when we read books like this. This book, a staple of Holocaust studies for twenty-five years, has recently risen to fresh prominence due to repeated mentions of it by Canadian psychologist, and superstar, Jordan Peterson.  His focus on the book arises from his own decades-long study of evil regimes, and his thought on how …

The Russian Revolution: A New History (Sean McMeekin)

I am currently very focused on the ascent to power of Communism in Russia, not because it had anything to recommend it, but for the lessons it can teach us.  Some of those lessons are ones the author of this book, Sean McMeekin, wants to impart—the dangers of left-wing ideology, primarily.  Those are valuable lessons, certainly, but if we haven’t learned them after many decades of left-wing horror shows, we’re not going to learn them from this book.  The lessons I am seeking, therefore, are more dynamic:  how power can be grasped and used in fluid, chaotic situations, and by what kind of people.  And those lessons are also on full display in this book, even if I did not learn any new ones.

On Revolution (Hannah Arendt)

This is a book that rewards patience.  The problem is, I am not a patient man, nor do I think that the reward here would be commensurate with the effort.  Thus, I spent enough time, which was quite a bit, to grasp maybe half of this book.  I think the rest escaped me.  That’s partially my fault—but it’s also the author’s fault, since an elliptical writing style combined with frequent use of untranslated French phrases (even the educated don’t generally learn French anymore), along with scatterings of Greek, does not conduce to good communication.  And aside from foreign languages, Arendt’s thought sometimes is so obscure as to be ethereal, an odd trait in a book that (in this edition) features a clenched fist on the cover, which is really not truth in advertising.

The Mountain of Silence: A Search for Orthodox Spirituality (Kyriacos C. Markides)

In these days of changing ways, so-called liberated days, it is not only political beliefs that are getting a fresh look from a lot of people, but beliefs about all aspects of human life.  These include the beliefs of traditional Christians in America, whose options for Christ-centered communal worship within an organized framework narrow every day.  The Roman church is both corrupt and led by that man of perdition, Jorge Bergoglio; the degradation of ecclesiastical Protestantism is complete; evangelicals offer only Moralistic Therapeutic Deism or obeisance to Trumpian caesaropapism.  This leaves as the last institution standing the Orthodox Church, which shows no signs of trimming its sails to modernism and for whom Saint John Chrysostom might as well as have died yesterday.  Hence the recent surge in popularity of this 2001 book, a modern exposition of Orthodox spirituality, written by a man with a foot in both the West and the East.

The Power of the Powerless (Václav Havel)

This book was once famous, but was mostly forgotten when Communism died and so-called liberal democracy seemed ascendant.  It is increasingly famous again, and relevant, in these days of a new creeping totalitarianism, this time in the West itself.  Such timelessness is the signature of a classic work, so my goal today is to explicate Václav Havel’s thought, and to show why its time has come round again.