November 18, 2011

Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky and a Few Spies

Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky and a Few Spies

Tolstoy: A Russian Life
Rosamund Bartlett (Houghton-Mifflin, $35)

There are two very admirable things about this new biography.

First, given the astounding breadth of material available and the precedent set by recent publications of Sophia Tolstoy’s autobiography, among others, it is refreshing that Bartlett has contained this biography into so manageable a space. With just over 440 pages of text, it belies the expectation one might have of what it would take to profile a writer so prolific, so much larger than life.

And this might well make academics and purists quiver, ready to exclaim that such a “modest” work, not even broaching half a thousand pages, could possibly contain Tolstoy in all his contradictions and achievements. Well there will always be those who carp. In point of fact…

Second, Bartlett’s work is an eminently readable biography that is thorough without being overwhelming in detail. Beautifully written, it is nonetheless densely packed with fascinating details, especially the ways in which Tolstoy brought the experiences and characters from his life into his art. And yet this should not be surprising. For Bartlett is also a translator (her new translation of Anna Karenina will come out in 2012), and there isno more attentive reader of an author’s work than his translator, who cannot let a single word nor a single reference slip by, who must quite literally climb inside the author’s head, absorb his life and times.

“Only Russia could have produced a writer like Tolstoy,” Bartlett writes in her introduction, and she shows how this is true, walking us through the full expanse of his life, tracing his significant lineage and its effects on his craft, from his precocious youth to his apostate dotage. It is a fascinating journey and, at 440 pages or so, far from daunting.

8 Pieces of Empire
Laurence Scott Sheets (Crown, $28)

There is a reluctance to pick up yet another book about the end of the USSR, about the consequent civil wars and economic hardships. Why relive those times again so soon? The events hardly seem to have fallen off the edge of the present and into the past. Certainly we don’t need another retrospective historical survey.

Yet 8 Pieces is not that sort of book. Sheets offers a far more personal, intimate account. It is also not a rehashing of stories he did as a Reuters or NPR reporter. Instead, it is a journey behind the façade of his work output, to meet the people and places where he lived and traveled for a decade and a half, gathering the stories of imperial fallout.

Sheets’ sympathetic and often tragic account begins with some fun, self-deprecating episodes as a young student of Russian coping in a Petersburg kommunalka, but soon we are witnessing the USSR’s swift and nearly silent end, like steam whooshing out an opened door. And then we accompany Sheets to cover the wars in Chechnya and Georgia, the ethnic strife in Central Asia, in which he provides a profoundly revealing picture of what it takes – in blood and sweat – to deliver those 90 second bits of reportage we hear on the evening news.

Sheets takes readers on a journey filled with colorful characters, from budding young criminals to fearless photographers, with stories that range from vivid, nerve-wracking stories of war reporting, to more sedate, cerebral stories on things like the Romanov bones and the Ulta people on Sakhalin. The ride is not always pleasant, and the stories are often not those you would want to read before bedtime, but on the whole this is a profoundly important memoir and one that needs to be read by anyone seeking to understand what the end of the USSR really meant for those living there.


Sergei Kostin and Eric Raynaud (Amazon Crossing, $13.95)

Even though this spy story – which the book subtitles “the greatest spy story of the twentieth century – has been the subject of a movie thriller (L’Affaire Farewell, directed by Christian Carion) its content seems yet little known. Perhaps that is because the Soviet double agent – Vladimir Vetrov – defected to the DST (French intelligence) and not the CIA.

Vetrov was a senior operative in the KGB’s foreign intelligence arm charged with obtaining scientific and technical secrets from abroad, often from foreign businesses. What made Vetrov’s defection so significant however (aside from the fact that he provided nearly 4,000 secret documents, including the complete list of 250 KGB officers stationed under legal cover in Soviet embassies) was that he exposed the scientific gap between East and West and allowed the West to expand that gap by expelling technical spies.

Vetrov’s fate, alas, was far from victorious. Sent to prison for stabbing and killing a fellow KGB agent, he later revealed his defection and was executed.

Kostin and Raynaud’s book was originally published over a decade ago, but only in French. This new, updated version is its first appearance in English and it looks at the entire Farewell episode (Farewell was Vetrov’s code name) in incredible detail, recounting conversations and incidents with astounding versilimitude, giving an almost unparalleled look at what KGB service meant in the 1970s and 80s, at one of the most tense times of the Cold War.


The Insulted and Injured
Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Translated by Boris Jakim (Wm. B. Eerdmans, $24)

This is the first new translation in over three decades of the first novel Dostoyevsky wrote after returning from his Siberian exile. A melodramatic tale that features a semi-autobiographical hero struggling with the ideas of Utopianism and evil, it has always been more successful with the public than with critics. The Insulted and Injured shows us the young Dostoyevsky as gifted storyteller. Jakim’s fluid translation modernizes this suspense story and should help it reach those eager to read beyond the customary Dostoyevsky canon.

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