When historians fall out

Richard J Evans squares up to Timothy Snyder.

In this week's London Review of Books, the first four letters are devoted to discussing Richard J Evans's damning review of the American historian Timothy Snyder's recent book, Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin. In one of the missives, the distinguished historian of Poland, Norman Davies, writes that Evans's review had treated Snyder as "an egregious interloper fit only to be chased from the parish", while in another letter a leading historian of the eastern European Jewry, Anthony Polonsky, argues that "Evans attacks Snyder for overemphasising the sufferings of the Poles at the hands of both Stalin and Hitler, but Snyder's figures for Polish casualties are lower than those usually cited, and they reflect the most recent research."

In his review of Snyder's book published in the 4 November issue of the LRB, Evans berated Snyder for his focus on the geographical area (Belarus, Poland, Ukraine, the Baltic States and Western Russia) that gives the book its title, Bloodlands: "By focusing exclusively on what he calls the 'bloodlands', Snyder also demeans, trivialises or ignores the suffering of the many other Europeans who were unfortunate enough to fall into Nazi hands." Evans went on in his review to list Snyder's apparent omissions from his account of Nazi and Soviet mass extermination, and accused him of writing with a geographical and historical myopia: "The fundamental reason... for the book's failure to give an adequate account of the genesis of the Final Solution, is that Snyder isn't seriously interested in explaining anything. What he really wants to do is to tell us about the sufferings of the people who lived in the area he knows most about."

In another of the letters in this week's LRB, Charles Coutinho points out that the particularly caustic criticism given by Evans in his review, may in part be due to a similarly disparaging critique of Evans's most recent book, The Third Reich at War, written by Snyder and published in the New York Review of Books in December 2009. Evans admits as much in his response to the letters (published alongside them), though is far from being apologetic:

Charles Coutinho does indeed put his finger on one of the many reasons Snyder's book made me so cross, which is that Snyder devoted all of what was meant to be a review of The Third Reich at War in the New York Review of Books to making erroneous and unsubstantiated claims about my supposed ignorance of Russian and Eastern European history. At the time I wondered what made a supposedly serious historian fall into such egregious error. After reading his book, I now know: it's Snyder, not me, who has an incorrigible desire to drive out fellow historians he sees as "interlopers" from what he considers to be his own "parish".

This debate will no doubt continue, with further salvos of letters from eminent historians addressed to eminent journals to be published in the future. The only thing that seems certain in this academic maelstrom is that, even if the historical veracity or value of Snyder's Bloodlands is questionable, the historiographical impact of its publication is not.

Read David Herman's New Statesman review of Bloodlands here.

Show Hide image

Ukrainian cooking shakes off the old Soviet fur coat

Forget the stereotype: Ukranian cuisine is about more than just borscht, as a new cookbook shows.

“Potatoes,” Olia Hercules fumes. “Everyone thinks I’ve written a book about bloody potatoes.” It must be said that there is the odd spud in Mamushka (Mitchell Beazley), her surprisingly colourful celebration of Ukrainian food (after all, how could you have an eastern European cookbook without borscht?), but potatoes are far from the only thing to thrive in the country’s famously fertile black soil.

In fact, Hercules – young, slightly built and rarely seen without a slick of dangerously red lipstick – bears as much resemblance to the archetypal babushka as her homeland does to the bleak, grey landscape of the popular imagination. Born close to the Crimean border, she spent many holidays at the beach by the Sea of Azov, “the shallowest in the world”, where the kids ran around smothered in kefir to soothe their sunburn and everyone feasted on mountains of home-made apricot doughnuts.

Southern Ukraine, it turns out, is a land of plenty – during its long, hot summers anyway. There are prickly cucumbers picked straight from the vine, “aromatic and warm from the blistering sun”, sour cherries that “just drop off trees in the streets in June”, and the best watermelons you’ve ever tasted: “huge, firm, stripy beasts”, Hercules says.

What isn’t eaten straight from the garden will be preserved carefully to see the household through the region’s mild winters. The conserves include some rather intriguing fizzy fermented tomatoes that promise to blow your mind and your taste buds. In Ukraine, she says, “Tomatoes are king!” Fresh curd cheese and barbecued catfish, warm, flaky pumpkin bread and saffron-spiked rice all sound a blessedly long way from that old Soviet favourite, herring in a fur coat.

Nevertheless, this sunny childhood was still spent under the rule of Moscow, with its power cuts and queues, and Hercules retains to this day a nostalgic fondness for margarine, a legacy, she says, of the USSR’s “perpetual credit crunch”. A family favourite of slow-cooked goose brings back memories of bribes her surgeon uncle received to grease the creaking wheels of an ageing Soviet health system, while the home-made silky egg noodles underneath were a necessity, at a time when the local shop stocked only the occasional packet of grey macaroni.

The Soviet Union can also take some credit for the diversity of Hercules’s family, and hence the food on which she grew up. When you have a Siberian grandmother, aunts from Armenia, an Uzbek father and relatives in Azerbaijan, impossibly exotic asides such as “My grandmother picked this recipe up when she lived in Tashkent” just come naturally.

In answer to my geographic puzzling, Hercules snorts that “Ukraine basically is eastern Europe”, but the country’s culinary horizons stretch far further – there’s even a significant Korean population in the south, which, in the absence of Chinese cabbage for kimchi, has contributed a pickled carrot dish to her book.

For most of us, thanks to long memories for those tales of endless queues and dismal canteen cooking, the curtain is yet to rise on the culinary delights of the former Soviet bloc. The television producer Pat Llewellyn, the woman who discovered Jamie Oliver and was
food judge for the 2015 André Simon Awards, described it as “a much-underrated food culture” when praising the shortlisted Mamushka (the author’s childhood nickname for her mother, which has come to signify, she says, “strong women in general”).

It’s anyone’s guess whether that means we’ll get to see Hercules, resplendent in one of her signature knotted headscarves, showing off her Moldovan giant cheese twists on screen any time soon. But we’ll be seeing a lot more of her beloved “mamushka cooking”, one way or another. Just don’t mention the P word.

Next week: Richard Mabey on nature

Felicity Cloake write the food column for the New Statesman. She also writes for the Guardian and is the author of  Perfect: 68 Essential Recipes for Every Cook's Repertoire (Fig Tree, 2011) and Perfect Host: 162 easy recipes for feeding people & having fun (Fig Tree, 2013). She is on Twitter as @FelicityCloake.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle