Movie Nights with Stalin

Stalin, like all murderous totalitarian tyrants, was big on secrecy. It’s therefore probably a safe bet to assume that he would not have been best pleased had he learned that one day his personal papers would be searchable from anywhere in the world on a machine called a “computer,” and that a bearded Scotsman working out of a garden shed in Texas would seize the opportunity to take a look at his old school report cards. But he’s dead, and I did, so that’s that.
How did this peculiar state of affairs come about? Well, a decade or so back, the Russian state declassified the vast bulk of Stalin’s papers. Yale University Press then used a lot of these documents in its fascinating Annals of Communism series. One thing led to another until one day somebody suggested “Hey, why not digitize all of Stalin’s papers and make the archive searchable?”  Several years and half a million scanned documents later and lo! The Stalin Digital Archive was ready for business.

Review: Limonov by Emmanuel Carrere

In 1974, poet and dandy Edward Limonov left the Soviet Union to live in the United States. The bisexual, bespectacled son of a secret policeman was fond of the Ramones, fascinated by revolutionary violence, and, in his own words, a Russian punk — the antithesis of the bearded sage Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who went into exile at the same time.
This punk wrote some scandalous memoirs and became a literary celebrity in France. Then Limonov’s life changed direction radically: After fighting for the Serb side in Bosnia in the early 1990s, he returned to Russia, where he formed the neofascist National Bolshevik party, acting as a creepy, silver-haired Pied Piper figure to gangs of alienated youths. Led by Limonov, these “Natsbols” marched through Russian cities chanting “Stalin, Beria, Gulag!” while waving a flag identical to that of the Nazis — only the swastika had been swapped for a black hammer and sickle.

Review: The Romanov Sisters

The extent to which readers will enjoy Helen Rappaport’s The Romanov Sisters will most likely depend on one or two important factors.

First, it will help if you haven’t spent much time reading about the Russian Revolution, or if you have, that you enjoy hearing familiar details retold. After all, the tale of the last imperial family of Russia and their murder in Yekaterinburg in 1918 has not exactly suffered from a lack of exposure. The Russian Revolution, Tsar Nicholas II and his wife, Alexandra, and of course the “mad monk” Grigory Rasputin have been the subjects of countless books and numerous films.

Review: The Zhivago Affair: The Kremlin, the CIA, and the Battle Over a Forbidden Book

Nadezhda Mandelstam, widow of the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam, once noted a “remarkable feature” common to Soviet leaders: “their boundless, almost superstitious respect for poetry.”

Indeed, as Peter Finn, a former Moscow bureau chief for The Washington Post, and his co-author Petra Couvée point out in their new book The Zhivago Affair, in the Soviet Union a bad review could have lethal consequences. Some 1,500 writers were killed during the Stalin era.

Review: Foligatto by Nicolas de Crécy and Alexios Tjoyas

There are not many comics which feature bloated, castrated opera singers as the lead character.

In fact, it’s quite possible that there’s only one: Foligatto, by writer Alexios Tjoyas and artist Nicolas de Crécy, which was recently published by Humanoids. As you might expect, Foligatto is an extremely unusual work. In fact, it’s so unusual that it

Dictator Lit: The Poetry of Ayatollah Khomeini

Perhaps the most famous literary critic of the 20th century, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (1902-1989) was renowned for his vehement loathing of the work of Salman Rushdie. Indeed, the Ayatollah (or Imam, as he liked to be known) loathed the Satanic Verses so much that he called for Rushdie’s execution. Now Rushdie may be a bit smug, but I think we can all agree that that was going a bit far. And as a British subject and lapsed Sunni Muslim, Rushdie was not under the Iranian Shiite “Supreme Leader’s” jurisdiction by any stretch of the imagination. Nor had the Ayatollah actually read the Satanic Verses. No surprise there of course- ignorance of the offending material is a sine qua non for those who would burn books and kill their authors.

Incidents in the Night by David B.

Incidents-temp-01Last year Uncivilized Books expanded our knowledge of the enigmatic oeuvre of French cartoonist David B. by releasingIncidents in the Night. Although it is the most recent of David B.’s books to be issued in English, Incidents was initially published as three volumes between 1999 and 2002 and is thus older than everything American readers have seen so far except Epileptic, which he worked on more or less simultaneously. Like that more famous book, and indeed all of David B.’s work,Incidents is rich, complex, funny, dark—and very difficult to describe.
The opening at least is straightforward. David B.’s cartoon alter-ego dreams he is in a bookshop looking at paperbacks. He stumbles upon two books, part of a series entitled Incidents in the Night, a collection of fantastic stories based on news snippets of the 19th and 20th centuries. But the set is incomplete: he picks up volumes two and three and then finds the 112th issue. Upon waking, David B. starts scouring the bookshops of Paris for copies, eventually landing in the bookshop of Mr. Lhôm, which he says functions “like an archaeological dig.”
Thus dream gives way to “reality,” but only briefly, as Mr. Lhôm’s bookshop is a fantastical place. One of David B.’s strategies as a cartoonist is to take a verbal image and illustrate it literally, rendering the commonplace weird, funny, mysterious, or jarringly alien.

The Curious Russian Afterlife of Steven Seagal

A Kalder klassik, to coincide with Seagal's announcement he plans to run for governor of Arizona 
Long, long ago – for about 15 minutes – Steven Seagal was a big deal in Hollywood. His movie “Under Siege” made a lot of money. But that was pretty much it. Next came a string of big-budget flops followed by a lengthy and ongoing twilight spent in straight-to-video purgatory.
As for me, I don’t think I’ve ever made it all the way through a Seagal film. His stiff, tubby frame, extreme humorlessness and mystic posturing make it impossible for me to suspend disbelief. Here in the US he serves as a punch line, part of the flotsam and jetsam of trash culture. Steven Seagal – that’s the washed up ‘90s action movie guy who peddles an aftershave lotion named “Scent of Action,” right?