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19 November 2018

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Book Review

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My Fellow Prisoners

By Mikhail Khodorkovsky (Overlook, $20)

It is noteworthy that Mikhail Khodorkovsky, recently amnestied and exiled abroad after his long prison term in Siberia, chose as his first western publication not a long, political tract, but a diminutive sketchbook.

But do not be deceived. This little book’s power is inversely proportional to its size.

Chekhovian in its brevity (81 pages), it is a compilation of perceptive, respectful portraits of people whom Khodorkovsky met in prison, people whose principles set them apart – for good or ill. And since the greatest and worst aspects of human character are expressed in times of profound difficulty, the book offers a grim, hazy reflection of Russian society more generally (and much of humanity) – its apathy and despair, its courage and character.

But the author does not belabor this point, and one is only drawn to that equation by his harmless, almost technocratic questions at the end of each disturbing story, such as, “What sort of people are we, if we allow such a thing?”

Alexis in America

Lee A. Farrow (LSU Press, $45)

The storied visit of Crown Prince Alexis (third son of Alexander II and brother of Alexander III) to the US in 1871 came at a high point in US-Russian relations. Less than a decade after Russia had stood by the Union in the US Civil War and just after the sale of Alaska, US-Russian commerce and good relations were brimming with optimism.

Farrow presents a fascinating documentary of the flamboyant Romanov’s trip – including a still-famous buffalo hunting expedition with Custer and Cody, a visit to New Orleans during Mardi Gras, and countless balls and receptions, with every American town and city seeking to outdo the one before – while also offering excellent social and historical context, from Americans’ fascination with royalty, to the Washington scandal that almost sunk the visit.

In fact, Alexis’ visit, while it helped kickstart an American fascination with Russian literature, culture and history, may have been the last hurrah in US-Russian relations before a century of ill will and antagonism. Soon thereafter, Kennan and others exposed the dark underbelly of tsarism: the vast Siberian prison system. There followed the pogroms and emigrations, the failed 1905 revolution, renewed repressions. Yes, there was the warm hiccup of a World War alliance and a vaporous bourgeois revolution, but soon all things were overshadowed by the Bolshevik Thermidor, Civil War, Allied Intervention, and the purges.

We still have not recovered. One can’t help wondering if we ever will. So it is heartening to pick up Farrow’s history and step back to a time before resets, Cold Wars and summit meetings, to marvel at an era when the most exciting element of US-Russian relations was guessing at the significance of whom the Crown Prince had danced with during the previous night’s gala.

— Paul E. Richardson

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Reviewed in Russian Life: Mar/Apr 2015