Reviews round-up

The critics' verdict on a new biography of Tolstoy, Saul Bellow's letters and Salley Vickers' short

Tolstoy: A Russian Life by Rosamund Bartlett

Last Saturday was the centenary of the great Russian novelist's death and has predictably been accompanied by a slew of new Tolstoy biographies and studies. Chief among these is Rosamund Bartlett's new biography.

Philip Heshner, writing in the Spectator, thinks Bartlett's life of Tolstoy is full of "knowledge, insight and aplomb", though is sceptical about her decision to look at the novels solely "within the context of historical trends." In the Guardian, Christopher Tayler is less than impressed with Bartlett's account of Tolstoy's life. Whilst he acknowledges that she does uncover new information on Tolstoy , he finds that "the dutiful potted histories and near-total lack of critical discussion sometimes make it hard to remember why you're interested."

Conversely, AN Wilson, a previous biographer of Tolstoy, is all praise for Bartlett in the Financial Times, judging that her study of his life "conveys Tolstoy to me more vividly than any biography I have read."

Saul Bellow: Letters by Saul Bellow, edited by Benjamin Taylor

Leon Wieseltier, Bellow's friend and sometime correspondent, writing in the New York Times, gives a slightly sycophantic review, in which he suggests that these letters constitute "one of Bellow's greatest books", whilst also finding the space to salute Benjamin Taylor's "elegantissimo" editing.

From the Guardian, John Banville is intrigued by Bellow's "prickliness" in the letters, though is disappointed to find that they are "not as exciting or stimulating as one would expect from this most incandescent and opinionated of writers", a fact perhaps due to Bellow's tendency "to relax the force of his personality" in his correspondence.

In the New Statesman, Leo Robson decides that "the existence of the collection is a cause for celebration, but there are shortcomings, especially in the provision of contextual detail" and gives Taylor lukewarm praise for his "almost-great service" as editor. Robson does, however, admit that he read the letters with "an overpowering feeling of joy."

Aphrodite's Hat by Salley Vickers

Michele Roberts' review, from the Financial Times, gently chides Salley Vickers for her prosaic style in her first collection of art related short stories, describing them as being "marred by cliché" and overly "genteel", whilst, contrarily, Frank Cottrell Boyce in the Guardian is overflowing with superlatives for Vickers, writing that "the emotional and technical range of this collection is both impressive and delightfully disorienting".

Michael Arditti, writing in the Telegraph, is more ambivalent about the stories, concluding that "although a couple of the stories are duds ... the collection is shot through with a gentle wit and a winning charm."

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The world has entered a new Cold War – what went wrong?

Peter Conradi’s Who Lost Russia? How the World Entered a New Cold War traces the accumulation of distrust between the West and Russia.

In March 1992 an alarmist “secret” memo written by Richard Nixon found its way on to the front page of the New York Times. “The hot-button issue of the 1950s was, ‘Who lost China?’ If Yeltsin goes down, the question ‘Who lost Russia?’ will be an infinitely more devastating issue in the 1990s,” the former US president wrote.

Nixon’s point was well made. At that time, Boris Yeltsin, who had acted as the wrecking ball of the Soviet Union, was desperately struggling to hold the splintering new Russian Federation together. An empire, a political system, an ideology and a planned economy had all been shattered in a matter of weeks. Western diplomats in Moscow feared that millions of starving people might flood out of the former Soviet Union and that the country’s vast nuclear arsenal might be left unguarded. Yet the West seemed incapable of rising to the scale of the historic challenge, providing only meagre – and often misguided – support to Yeltsin. Between 1993 and 1999, US aid to Russia amounted to no more than $2.50 per person. The Marshall Plan II it was not.

Even so, and rather remarkably, Russia was not “lost” during the 1990s. Yeltsin succeeded in stumbling through the decade, creating at least some semblance of a democracy and a market economy. Truly it was a case of “Armageddon averted”, as the historian Stephen Kotkin put it.

It seems hard to remember now, but for many Russians 1991 was a moment of liberation for them as much as it was for those in the Soviet Union’s other 14 republics. The Westernising strand of Russian thought briefly flourished. “Democratic Russia should and will be just as natural an ally of the democratic nations of the West as the totalitarian Soviet Union was a natural opponent of the West,” the country’s first foreign minister, Andrei Kozyrev, proclaimed.

When Vladimir Putin emerged on the political scene in Moscow in 1999 he, too, made much of his Westernising outlook. When my editor and I went to interview him as prime minister, there was a portrait of Tsar Peter the Great, who had founded Putin’s home city of St Petersburg as Russia’s window on the West, hanging proudly on his office wall. President Putin, as he soon became, was strongly supportive of Washington following al-Qaeda’s attacks on the United States in 2001. “In the name of Russia, I want to say to the American people – we are with you,” he declared. Russian generals instructed their US counterparts in the lessons they had learned from their doomed intervention in Afghanistan.

Yet the sediment of distrust between the West and Russia accumulated steadily. The expansion of Nato to former countries of the Warsaw Pact, the bombing of Serbia, the invasion of Iraq and the West’s support for the “colour” revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine had all antagonised Moscow. But Putin’s increasing authoritarianism, hyperactive espionage and propaganda activities abroad drove the West away, as did his interventionism in Georgia and Ukraine.

Given the arc of Russian history, it was not surprising that the pendulum swung back so decisively towards the country’s Slavophiles. As a veteran foreign reporter for the Sunday Times and former Moscow correspondent, Peter Conradi is a cool-headed and even-handed guide to the past 25 years of Western-Russian relations. So much of what is written about Russia today is warped by polemics, displaying either an absurd naivety about the nature of Putin’s regime or a near-phobic hostility towards the country. It is refreshing to read so well-written and dispassionate an account – even if Conradi breaks little new ground.

The book concludes with the election of Donald Trump and the possibility of a new rapprochement between Washington and Moscow. Trump and Putin are indulging in a bizarre, if not grotesque, bromance. But as both men adhere to a zero-sum view of the world, it seems unlikely that their flirtation will lead to consummation.

For his part, Conradi does not hold out much hope for a fundamental realignment in Russia’s outlook. “Looking back another 25 years from now, it will doubtless be the Westward-looking Russia of the Yeltsin years that is seen as the aberration and the assertive, self-assured Putin era that is the norm,” he writes.

But the author gives the final word to the US diplomat George Kennan, a perpetual source of wisdom on all things Russian. “Of one thing we may be sure: no great and enduring change in the spirit and practice of Russia will ever come about primarily through foreign inspiration or advice,” Kennan wrote in 1951. “To be genuine, to be enduring, and to be worth the hopeful welcome of other peoples such a change would have to flow from the initiatives and efforts of the Russians themselves.”

Perhaps it is fanciful to believe that Russia has ever been “lost” to the West, because it has never been fully “won”.

John Thornhill is a former Moscow bureau chief for the Financial Times

Peter Conradi appears at the Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the NS, on 23 April. cambridgeliteraryfestival.com

Who Lost Russia? How the World Entered a New Cold War by Peter Conradi is published by One World (384pp, £18.99​)

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times