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21 November 2018

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Moscow 1937

Karl Schlögel (Polity Press, $35)

This monumental, thorough study considers what Schlögel calls a “fault line of European civilization.” The casualties involved are now more or less known: in 1937 alone, Moscow saw 2 million arrests, 700,000 murders, 1.3 million deported to camps. “Language fails to do justice to the monstrous events of the age,” Schlögel writes. Yet nonetheless one must try.

And so he begins with a literary overture, a superb discussion of the relevance and significance of Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita to understanding this horrific place and time.

It was a time of show trials, expansive economic growth, cultural and artistic revolution, murky foreign threats and mortal political rivalries. Life was almost phantasmagorical: anything could happen; people disappeared without warning. And Bulgakov showed it all: “the utter confusion, the blurring of clear distinctions, the shockwaves created by the irruption of unknown, anonymous forces into the lives of ordinary people, the fear and the despair.”

Approaching the subject from multiple angles, with macroscopic accounts of everything from jazz to architecture to the Spanish Civil War, Schlögel places the reader inside the swirling maelstrom of this other age, one all the more horrific, as the author puts it in his epilogue, because we know that just three years later, this tragedy will disappear “in the shadow of an even greater tragedy,” WWII.

— Paul E. Richardson

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Reviewed in Russian Life: May/June 2013