Wednesday, January 18, 2017
The first book I read on politics was New Czar: Rise and Reign of Vladimir Putin by Steven Lee Myers. This long, thorough book traces the entire life of Putin and the improbable path to his present place at the among the top world leaders. He has been on top of Russian politics for all of this century, all the more amazing because he was truly as another biography calls him The Man Without a Face by Masha Gessen. Masha Gessen's book is on my list for 2017.
Boris Yeltsin picked Putin for leadership in 1999 partly because Putin was the only man in Yeltsin's government who was not on the take. The year before, Putin's house burned down. While it was burning Putin ran back in the house to get a briefcase with 5,000 rubles in it. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, many top government officials were taking millions from the failing economy for themselves. If Putin would risk his life for just 5,000 rubles, he could not have millions stashed in Switzerland. But the corruptions of power corrupted Putin as power corrupts everyone. And now Russia is ruled by an authoritarian government keeping some appearance of democracy. Putin now is reputed to have more than $30 billion stashed in overseas accounts.
In the spring I re-read The Prince by Machiavelli. I just got a new translation and will be writing about that later in the context of military leadership. I use the Prince to keep score on the leadership of Presidents. In a few months it will be interesting to compare Presidents Obama and Trump on how they followed (or not) Machiavelli's council.
In the Fall as it began to look as if Trump had a chance to win, I re-read Why I Write by George Orwell. In the main essay of this short book, Orwell says that everything he writes will be to bring about Democratic Socialism in Great Britain. Orwell lived only a few years after this essay was published in 1946, and his dream never came pass. At the end of this volume is "Politics and the English Language" Orwell's most famous essay describing the language used by "Big Brother" in Orwell's book 1984. The whole text of the essay is here. In the past 30 years since I first read the essay, I heard echoes of Newspeak in many political statements. But now, the time of Newspeak has fully arrived.
Which brings me to A World Split Apart, the dual-language edition of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's address at Harvard in 1978. Solzhenitsyn had recently come to America, exiled from the Soviet Union for his books chronicling the horrors of Soviet life. Yet his address is not a grateful refugee basking in freedom after a decade in a Soviet GULAG after heroic service in World War II. Solzhenitsyn says the west has sold its soul for materialism and crushing its own soul for comfort and wealth. He lived in seclusion in Vermont for almost 20 years, then returned to Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union.
This year, I will be reading Machiavelli and a biography of Putin as I noted above. I will also be reading about the years leading up to The Holocaust. Every genocide begins when some minority is declared non-persons by the majority. All through history mass murder and deportation begin with revoking rights, then revoking citizenship. I will be looking for that in 2017, because that is where the next war will follow.