Tag Archives: books

Serhii Plokhy’s The Gates of Europe – A Great Introduction to Ukraine

I wanted to do a short post that was positive for a change, so I thought the book review I’d been planning to write for months would naturally be the most appropriate.

Some months ago I finished Serhii Plokhy’s The Gates of Europe – A History of Ukraine, and it is absolutely masterful. It’s strongest features? First, it is written by a Ukrainian historian. No, I’m not saying this like Viatrovych fanboy who says “Ukrainians should write Ukrainian history!” But when studying a country it helps to spend some time reading the work of that country’s historians to get their point of view. While outsiders’ detachment may help free them from potential biases, that same detachment can also cause them to miss or devote less time to those things in the country’s history which don’t necessarily catch their interest. A native historian can give you an idea of what local people find significant about their country.

Secondly, Plokhy strikes a good balance between detail and pacing. One thing about general histories is that they can sometimes be either too light, not delving deep enough into some important events or phenomenon and lacking crucial nuance, or they do the opposite, forcing you to slog through excruciatingly-detailed descriptions of sometimes minor events over the course of centuries. Naturally when I saw the book opens with the region of Ukraine during Antiquity I feared it would be the latter. Yet the author moves at a lively pace, moving more quickly over those parts which aren’t as crucial in the history of Ukraine. And speaking of crucial parts in Ukraine’s history, the book is also very recent, giving the reader key details about events such as the Maidan “Revolution of Dignity,” the Russian annexation of Crimea and the invasion and occupation of the Donbas region.

Having deliberately saved the best for last I can now tell you the greatest feature of Plokhy’s book- it truly brings the Ukrainian people, stretching back to the ancient Rus, to life. It does this by properly reclaiming Ukrainian historical figures whenever they lived, even if they died long before the ethnogenenis of the Ukrainians. Plokhy shows the Ukrainian people, particularly from the early modern era onward, as a coherent nation even though it lacked its own state.

Another great aspect of this portrayal is agency. For much of my life I’ve noticed the tendency of some Ukrainians or well-wishers to portray Ukrainian history as one of victimization and domination. In Plokhy’s history, different groups of Ukrainians act, and sometimes it doesn’t go well for them, but they are responsible. They are not simply acted upon. Even in the Soviet era, a period of Ukrainian history that some nationalists like to declare totally invalid, Plokhy shows that Ukrainians could be both victims and perpetrators, ruled and rulers via their dominance of key cadres after the Stalin era. Rather than treating the centuries of foreign domination in Ukraine as a black hole in which Ukrainians were simply objects and not subjects, he presents the long march toward Ukrainian statehood in a progressive way, from possessions of the Commonwealth and the Russian Empire, to a short-lived series of states in the revolutionary interwar period, to a unified Soviet republic and founding member of the UN, to an independent state suffering from Russian neo-colonialism, and finally to a state up in arms to overcome that neo-colonialism. Regardless of nation state status, Plokhy’s Ukraine has never died.

If I had to note some flaw I could say the book does skimp a bit when it comes to pointing out the role of the OUN-B nationalists and their role in the Holocaust (it does, however, clearly mention the ethnic cleansing of Poles), but if you look at the actual amount of text dedicated to those nationalists in general this is not particularly surprising or egregious. I think sometimes some of my Ukrainian readers infer that I insist every mention of interwar Ukrainian nationalists must necessarily include the laundry list of atrocities committed by some nationalist groups. I suspect this is because of the legacy of Soviet propaganda plus the Yanukovych administration, which often put up monuments to “victims of the Banderites” in places where no Banderites or any other nationalists even operated, such as the Crimea. This is simply idiocy.

Beating the dead nationalist horse is not my aim at all; I don’t really see them as being very relevant to Ukraine today. I’m far more opposed to the whitewashing, glorification, double-standards, and pseudo-history concerning the OUN and UPA. I’m sick of seeing them shoehorned into Ukrainian politics and Ukrainian history whether as heroes or villains. Thus Plokhy’s book truly shines because he gives the nationalists exactly the amount of text they deserve for a movement which never attracted more than a minority of Ukrainians as a whole, many of whom joined only under duress and not out of ideological fervor. The legend of the nationalists, which has been inflated by Soviet and Russian propaganda on one hand and the Bandera cult on the other, gets deflated to its proper place in Ukrainian history by Plokhy. So in the end, the one “flaw” really isn’t a flaw at all, or at least it is a totally defensible one.

In conclusion I highly recommend The Gates of Europe as an essential introductory general history of Ukraine. I think any Ukrainian or person of Ukrainian heritage reading this book would be proud to see that Ukrainians made important contributions in the history of the region and even globally despite lacking a nation state for much of their history.

 

The Lost Art of Awesomeness, reborn in Russia

Do you remember a time when movie posters weren’t just blue and orange? Remember when movie posters and video game boxes were awesome? What do I mean by awesome? See below:

exterminator

That, dear readers, is the art of awesomeness. Where do I even begin to describe the sheer insanity of this masterpiece? Alright first of all we’ve got a guy who clearly does not give a fuck. Massive explosion behind him. Zero fucks given. The beautiful woman who is mildly concerned about the explosion clinging to his shoulder? Nope. Still reading 0.0 on the Fuck-o-meter. Why is he so nonchalant? There are some mysteries man is not yet ready to know, but I think it has something to do with that gun.

I mean look at that weapon! It is as far beyond our most modern firearms as they are beyond the first matchlock muskets. It spits in the face of all known knowledge of firearms engineering. It literally feeds from three magazines at the same time, and seems to consist of a double-barrel shotgun, an assault rifle, a grenade launcher, and two who-the-fuck-knows-whats on the bottom. I don’t care how many Magpul after-market parts you put on your AR-15; it will never achieve but a fraction of this awesomeness.

Of course in America, the other source of artistic awesomeness was to be found on the cover of home video games, such as those for the NES, Sega Genesis (Mega-Drive for you Europeans out there), and SNES. Let’s take a look at a couple of examples.

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You picked the wrong day to break out of your glass tube, Mr. Giant Scorpion!

That there is the box art for the first release of a Contra game on the Nintendo Game Boy. Now I can tell you from personal experience that prior to this release, nearly all Game Boy games were puzzle-games, typically variations on Tetris. That ended with Operation  C, and the very box itself seems to proclaim just that.

Just look at that! Drink it in. We’ve got a massive mutant scorpion that’s just clawed its way out of a glass tube in some kind of lab, but just before it can turn and claw our hero to shreds he starts pumping round after round into its thorax with what appears to be some kind of futuristic assault shotgun.

Hell, back in my day, even silly-looking games had incredible box art. Just look at this clusterfuck:

amagon

What’s going on in that picture? Well let me rephrase that so we won’t be here all night: What’s not going on in that picture? You’ve got everything. First we’ve got the contrast: despite very Mario-style cartoony graphics, our happy ginger hero is blazing away with what is clearly meant to be an M16A2 (yeah I know it’s ejecting from the wrong side, gun nerds). Virtually everyone around him is terrified by this. That weird lizard thing by his left leg, that skull, and even the metal Wehrmacht bird behind him. The dinosaur just looks kind of pissed, but then again there’s a fuckin’ dinosaur in this picture! Then you’ve got the evil crab. The evil grab isn’t impressed. He’s about to sink one of his claws into our hero’s leg to see what happens, but something tells me he’s only going to end up getting his shell perforated by about a half dozen 5.56x45mm rounds.

This box art has everything. There’s an undead sentient skull, a weird blue lizard, a goddamned dinosaur, a UFO, an evil crab, a blazing firearm, a dude on steroids, the official seal of Nintendo… Oh and if you think this game’s a joke, go ahead and run it in an emulator. I’m betting you’ll get a game over half way through the first level.

Of course just like movie posters, game art has declined over the years. This is what the covers of our hit games look like now:

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Oh wow! Look at that angsty, brooding hero. This could just as easily have been an album cover for Staind. No surprise that the games are easier too. There’s no “Press F to win the game” in Operation C or Amagon.

Luckily, however, the art of awesomeness has not been lost. It has survived in a new medium, specifically the cover art of Russian sci-fi and alternative history fiction. In the past I’ve shared a few examples of such art, but today I’ve got a much larger haul. Let us experience and evaluate some of the finest specimens of Russian fiction book covers.

american

The first example is from the book The American: Path to the North by Roman Zlotnikov and Igor Grinchevskiy. This piece resonated with me because it’s called “The American” and in fact this image captures exactly what it’s like to be an American in Russia. I mean that might as well be me on the cover there. Alright I don’t have hair like that, but the lab coat, the pocket watch, the scientific laboratory with firearms and ammunition- it’s basically as if you compressed my nearly-ten years in Russia into one image. I’m sure other American expats and former expats would feel the same way about this image.

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There’s plenty of modern Russian art depicting WWII scenes, but how many of them have a Red Army soldier wielding dual TT33’s John Woo style, shooting an Estonian Waffen SS man? The answer is I have no idea, but this book cover sure does. Had to take points off for the cuffs on SS-man’s tunic, however.

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Look, I’m the first person to say that the whole zombie genre isn’t just getting old- it’s been old for at least five years by now. But if Hollywood is going to give us Pride & Prejudice & Zombies, we might as well have a zombie apocalypse set in the early Soviet Union. And if we have Stalin armed with a hammer and decapitating zombie Trotsky with a sickle well, so much the better.

bookcover

Tsar Nicholas II and his father Alexander III blazing away with machine guns designed in the state which overthrew their regime (and killed the former). What else can I say about this? I can’t help but notice this book has three authors. The only thing that could make this novel more awesome is if neither of them ever spoke to one another until after the work was published.

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Okay this book, entitled A Conversation With the Leader, posits one of the most simplistic alternative-history premises I’ve ever seen. What if, at the battle of Brest fortress in 1941, one of the defenders had a cell phone and could call Stalin with it? How would this change the course of history? One hopes that in addition to giving our hero a cell phone, the author also remembered to give the USSR a functioning cellular network as well. Otherwise this phone would be reduced to a mere distraction device to confound the German besiegers.

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Young Andrei Ivanov was always getting trouble at school. The bigger kids picked on him. His teachers said he’d never achieve anything. His parents yelled at him. He thought he was a loser…until one day. Now Andrei has been transported back to the battle of Prokhorovka in 1943! But does he have what it takes to go from zero to hero and liberate his Motherland from the fascist invaders? There’s only way to find out! Master the Russian language so you can read this novel.

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Trotsky becomes a Ukrainian nationalist and attacks Stalin, who defends himself with a portrait of Lenin. I really don’t know what to say here. My thought process has ground to a halt.

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Alright let’s start with the obvious- that’s a Nazi SS man wielding the M41A pulse rifle from Aliens. No, it doesn’t just look like it, it is the pulse rifle, full stop. Beyond that this cover turns it up to 88 with Hitler, flying saucers, and what I can only assume are snow panzers. The only question is- can allied agents manage to survive long enough to organize a resistance movement among the Antarctic penguins and end the Nazi occupation once and for all? I think we all know the answer is: You’re goddamned right they can!

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Okay so we’ve got a WWII era Red Army soldier equipped with late 30’s era German sub-machine gun killing a 1920’s Civil War era Bolshevik commissar of some sort, ostensibly to save the Russian emperor. How is this not going to cause a time paradox?  Imagine that- renegade Red Army soldiers team up with the Nazis to travel back in time and save the Russian empire from the Bolsheviks. Then, as soon as they rescue the Tsar’s family and kill their captors, each member of the time-traveling assassination squad suddenly realizes that he is illiterate, and dressed in traditional Russian peasant clothes. Oh yeah- their kids all died before they reached the age of five.

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If only there had been Putin’s Russia instead of the Soviet Union during the Second World War! Driven on by love for their glorious leader, the ethnically homogeneous Muscovite Russian army would have easily defeated the entire Wehrmacht with knives instead of wasting precious bullets. Who needs that Red Army anyway? It was so full of Ukrainians it might as well have been the UPA!

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All I have to say about this cover is that my wife is very lucky this young woman doesn’t actually exist.

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So this cheerful novel is called Death to Britannia, and the cover is a depiction of what Anne Applebaum believes will immediately happen to the UK should it exit the European Union. Of course the comparison isn’t 100% accurate, because like many of those other books, this novel is alternative history. In this case we’ve got contemporary Russian paratroopers descending on what appears to be late Victorian Britain (the rifle appears to be inspired by the Martini-Henry). Of course just to make it “fair,” our Russian heroes are using PPS machine pistols from the WWII-era. There’s no sport in it if there’s no challenge, right?

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Saving the best for last, we have a Russian police officer magically transported to a fantasy world. Noting that the brave mounted knight may in fact Central Asian in appearance, our hero detains him with his sword.

“I bid thee halt, good citizen,” officer Kuznetsov said, saluting with his new found blade.

“Wherefore did thou stoppest me, officer?” asked the rider in a clearly foreign accent.

“I must see thy documents if thou wishest to pass!”

Hanging his head in exasperation, the rider reached into a saddle bag and produced the desired item- a scroll of vellum wrapped in hemp twine. He handed it to Kuznetsov with a sigh.

Kuznetsov looked over the strange writing and frowned.

“Thou hast not the proper seal on thy document, good rider, I fear that this carries a penalty of four hundred gold coins!”

The rider rolled his eyes.

“Perhaps, dear officer of the law, there is some way I could pay this penalty…here and now?”

Kuznetsov nodded. The rider reached into his saddle-bag again and tossed a small but heavy sack into Kuznetsov’s waiting hand.

“Methinks thou will find all the proper seals on those documents, sirrah!”

Kuznetsov felt the weight of the bag in his hands and peered into the opening at the top. Gold sovereigns, fifteen or twenty at least.

“Indeed, good rider, these documents have the proper seal. I dare say everything is in order. Thou art allowed to pass.”

And thus the rider saluted and went on his way. Kuznetsov pocketed the gold and began walking along the road toward a small town. Hopefully it would have an inn that could offer him both victuals and lodging for the night, for the next day he would set off on his true quest- the Dark Fortress Morthian at the foot off Dragonskull Mountain. There he would either wrest the Amulet of Wisdom from the corrupted elf-mage Q’alla’dain or he would perish like so many others who came before, their bones piled high about that cursed land!

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Thus concludes our brief survey of the art of awesomeness in Russia. I look forward to feedback from the reader, as well as other examples of awesome art from around the world.