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Review: The Last Empire – The Final Days of the Soviet Union – by Serhii Plokhy

the last empire

When the Soviet Union ended and thus the Cold War ended on Christmas Day 1991, it was probably one of the biggest political events of my lifetime. This well-researched, detailed book, by Ukrainian author Serhii Plokhy, details the last 18 months of the Soviet Union’s existence. After USSR President Mikhail Gorbachev’s revolutionary policies of Glasnost and Perestroika were introduced throughout the Soviet Empire, the changing landscape of the union meant many things. Communism was in its death throes and there was a rise of democracy and nationalism and independence movements amongst the various states and peoples that populated the USSR. American influence became more important and after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, when Eastern Europe was surrendered to populist democracies and ceased to be part of the wider Soviet Empire, American pressure continues on the remaining state as the Baltics sought to continue the domino effect. Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia were supported in their independence by US president, George H.W. Bush and this undermined the Soviet Union as a whole. Rising stars such as Boris Yeltsin in Russia, Leonid Kravchuk of the Ukraine and other stars of independence in the EuroAsian nations of the Soviet Bloc, all were coming to the forefront. After a critical putsch, a military / KGB coup in August 1991 that sealed Gorbachev in his Crimea Dacha, these rising stars clubbed together to put down the Conservative hardliners who threatened the President, the Union itself and the status quo of the democratic freedoms they were enjoying. The Coup failed by Gorbachev was left irreparably weak and afterwards, especially the opportunist Yeltsin, capitalised on the successes of their newfound power and ultimately broke apart into a series of independent nations and states, finally managing to seal the death of the Party Centre and Union Centre itself with their creation of the CIS, Commonwealth of Independent States, that would inherit the remnants of the Soviet Union’s power system. The high point of this most excellent detailed political history of the Fall of the Soviet Union, was the detail of the August coup against Gorbachev. This Machiavellian power struggle was an amazing opening of doors and it is a surprise that the whole dismantling of the Empire didn’t erupt into a ‘Yugoslavia with Nukes’ scenario that many were fearing. The book focuses very much on the role of President Bush and his interactions with Gorbachev and…

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Review: A Spy Among Friends – Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal – by Ben Macintyre

a spy among friends

Telling the remarkable story of Kim Philby, who was probably the most effective spy in history, this book reads fast and furiously, a real page-turner. The book focuses on the dramatic relationship between two friends, both rising stars in the world of British espionage, Nicholas Elliott and Kim Philby. The intrigue of Philby is that he was working for the Soviet Union after being drawn to communism through his time at Cambridge University, from where a ring of five key defectors were recruited. Philby managed to infiltrate MI6 at a top level, ultimately serving as the liaison officer between US and UK secret services in Washington DC. He had access to information from leading CIA agents such as James Angleton and through his public schoolboy charm he was adept at getting colleagues to drunkenly reveal all their secrets, secrets that he discretely passed to the KGB centre in Moscow, from where he took his orders. Even after the fall of fellow Cambridge conspirators, Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, Philby managed to shake the tale of a particularly suspicious MI5 and continued to operate in the clandestine world of espionage. His ultimate confrontation with best friend Elliott, after the game was finally up, left the door open for him to finally defect to a relatively anonymous retirement in Moscow. He chose political ideology over loyalty to friends and the story of Kim Philby is one of ultimate treachery. In his wake he left much damage and must have throughout the Cold War caused the death of hundreds, even thousands of people who were involved in Western operations. The book tells a most exciting tale and its global spanning and most exceptional debauchery and intrigue make it a real life James Bond adventure. Certainly worth a read and proof that real life is often stranger than fiction. Five star rating.

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Review: Franco and The Spanish Civil War – by Filipe Ribeiro de Meneses

franco and the spanish civil war

This book is a nice, concise look at the Spanish Civil War. I used it for revision purposes, to remind myself of some of the details of heavier tomes that I have encountered on this subject. The author’s analysis of the causes of the War are precise and factual, without noticeable bias. The account of the war itself focuses on the political changes and has an underlying reasoned account of why events transpired and their implications on the outcome of the wider conflict. There is an inevitable tragedy to the Spanish Republic, with bitter infighting plaguing all their attempts at retaining democracy. The lurch to the left from within is seen as an inevitable result of the lack of full international support and the Republicans’ heavy reliance on Soviet Aid. Franco’s luck and expert conciliation of his own individual powers can be seen as gifted by not only the over Italian and German military aid but also the insistence on non-intervention by the Allied powers of Britain and France. The different policies of either side, especially in relation to the peasants and working classes and the depth of internal conflict and terror is a shock to any reader’s system. This book covers the principal details of the gruesome conflict that was the Spanish Civil War very well and is a good guide to the key events and a nice summary of the causes, conflict and its outcomes.

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Review: Franco and The Spanish Civil War

franco and the spanish civil war

This book is a nice, concise look at the Spanish Civil War. I used it for revision purposes, to remind myself of some of the details of heavier tomes that I have encountered on this subject. The author’s analysis of the causes of the War are precise and factual, without noticeable bias. The account of the war itself focuses on the political changes and has an underlying reasoned account of why events transpired and their implications on the outcome of the wider conflict. There is an inevitable tragedy to the Spanish Republic, with bitter infighting plaguing all their attempts at retaining democracy. The lurch to the left from within is seen as an inevitable result of the lack of full international support and the Republicans’ heavy reliance on Soviet Aid. Franco’s luck and expert conciliation of his own individual powers can be seen as gifted by not only the over Italian and German military aid but also the insistence on non-intervention by the Allied powers of Britain and France. The different policies of either side, especially in relation to the peasants and working classes and the depth of internal conflict and terror is a shock to any reader’s system. This book covers the principal details of the gruesome conflict that was the Spanish Civil War very well and is a good guide to the key events and a nice summary of the causes, conflict and its outcomes.

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Review: The New Cold War – by Edward Lucas

The New Cold War by Edward Lucas My rating: 4 of 5 stars This book is a study of Russia in the post-communist era. It documents the rise of Vladimir Putin and identifies the ‘new cold war’ that envelopes Russia’s relations with the outside world. I found the book to be detailed with information and I was surprised by many of the features of the new Russia. I hadn’t realised that under Putin the Russian economy had been growing really well nor had I an appreciation of his soaring approval rating with his people. The Russian dominance of the energy market, in particular, gas, is quite daunting. I really enjoyed the chapter that focussed on the actual way this energy market is structured. The new Cold War won’t necessarily be fought in terms of military might and arms races. The Russian military strength is very dilapidated and they spend 25 times less on their military budget than the US. The new war will be fought in the markets with hard-hitting Kremlin-supported oligarch cash and the high profits from the energy market. I was surprised at the overall effect how that, since 1989, Russia has reverted back to its old Iron Curtain Soviet ways, despite me imagining that it was all freedom and capitalism there now. ‘Sovereign Democracy’ has quite different values to the political system we understand. The author has done his best in this book to explain what makes Russia tick and how we can possibly overcome a dark new era of global hostilities. View all my reviews

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Review: The Battle for Spain: The Spanish Civil War 1936-1939

The Battle for Spain: The Spanish Civil War 1936-1939 by Antony Beevor My rating: 4 of 5 stars This is a definitive history of the Spanish Civil War. The book has been regarded by the Spanish themselves as one of the best-researched volumes on this dark period of turmoil in their country’s history. The breakdown of democracy saw the split of the nation and a leftist democratically elected government was forced to deal with the rise of a militaristic fascist rising headed by Franco. The precursor to World War 2, this civil war attracted the interests of the rising Fascist movement across Europe with the Caudillo’s forces being supplemented and supported by Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy. They got to test out their modern weaponry in the field of action and a lack of international support for the actual government left them with little alternative but to rely on the Soviet Union for their support. This led to the republicans being over-reliant on the Spanish communists who struggled to take over and erode democracy from their own angle, constantly infighting and vying for strength with the other elements of the Spanish left; the Anarchists and the POUM. This history details how all the events unfolded and describes how each of the key battles was won and lost. There was a ferociousness during this conflict which only civil wars attract. The horrors of modern war truly unfolded disasters such as Guernica only emphasised how critical air support had become. The German Condor Legion and their Meschersmitts, backed up by Italian Fiats, consistently demolished the Republican resistance and paved the way for an overall Nationalist victory. Poor military judgement, combined with Stalinist purges of even the more successful Russian generals, left the Republicans constantly making errors in their military tactics. The lack of proper international support (with the exception of the volunteer International Brigades), in particular from Britain led to the inevitable crushing of the elected government and their forces. Appeasement was in the air as Western politicians tried to avoid the inevitable European conflict that was brewing and the Spanish were sacrificed. It was a war of experimentation which left the Spanish people at the mercy of the violent forces which dominated the time. Franco consolidated his own power well and was relentless and unforgiving, not accepting any olive branch of peace when offered and pursuing an ultimate military victory so…

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Review: The Albanians: A Modern History

The Albanians: A Modern History by Miranda Vickers My rating: 4 of 5 stars Albania is one of those countries that have a colourful history and is a place that was a bit of an anomaly to me. I know that it is publicly perceived as a poor backwater of Eastern Europe but I wanted to read this well-written book to glean further information. After the fall of the Ottomans in the Balkans, Albania came into being as an independent entity. This came out of the back of several Balkan conflicts. The Albanians are one of the rainbow of ethnic tribes in the region, with their own language, culture and religions. The new country was plunged into a period of turmoil, facing the brunt of two world wars as it attempted to establish itself. The ancient ways of Ottoman times left a great deal of difficulty for any ruling power to modernise and Albania seemed destined to become isolated and a haven for political extremes, reaching a zenith under the charismatic tutelage of the communist dictator Enver Hoxha. His forty year rule paved the way for Albania to develop in its own unique way, relying at different times on the patronage of Russia, China, Yugoslavia and Italy. With the fall of communism in the modern era, a new democratic age was heralded, though the much anticipated improvements were not quite so instant with the country facing many political crises, the collapse of pyramidal banking schemes, the rise of organised crime and ongoing disputes about the ethnic Albanians in neighbouring countries. I found this book particularly enlightening in helping me to understand the Kosovo situation and all that it entails. As we move into the twenty-first century Albania holds Kosovo’s hand and makes inroads into its own emergence as a balkan power. It is now a member of NATO and has high hopes of full EU accession. The region is an interesting one and to understand Albania and its peoples this book is heralded as the cornerstone text for English-speakers. View all my reviews

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Review: Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea

Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick My rating: 4 of 5 stars This is a well-written gripping journalistic account of North Korean defectors, describing their lives in the DPRK. I have to question whether the accounts are completely truthful and genuine as so much information which emerges from North Korea tends to be biased. However, the accounts make good reading and describe a truly Orwellian culture that is very unlike our own Western lifestyles. To a romantic socialist, some of what may appear is idyllic, but as is often the case, the horrors of famine and gulags are all too apparent. There is much quaintness in many of the stories, of simple love, of familial ties, of the teaching of children. The emotions felt by North Koreans are just the same as elsewhere in the world. However, it seems as though the state control of all aspects of life is extremely strict. The failure of the food supply system and the healthcare that was a real high point of the earlier years of the DPRK, is all to evident as the communist world collapsed in the late 1980s. One of the most intriguing aspects of the book is the way in which the defectors adjust to their new lives in South Korea. If ever the two Koreas are united, there is a massive gulf between the cultures which I don’t think can be bridged too easily. Overall, the book is quite disturbing, but still very gripping. I think it should be studied in context alongside other texts on Korea. View all my reviews

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Review: Animal Farm

Animal Farm by George Orwell My rating: 4 of 5 stars This short book is regarded as one of Orwell’s key classics. It was written at a time when criticism of the USSR in Britain was not encouraged as they were critical wartime allies. Orwell got through the net and his revolutionary animals at ‘Animal Farm’ are his way of assessing Stalin’s Russia. From initial success in their revolution to overthrow the humans, the animals build up their community with new laws, a utopia is created, where they are free from their former masters. Through the subsequent rise of a dictator, the dissemination of propaganda, the purges, wars and rewriting of the laws, we see a community rise and fall to a point where the ruling pigs more or less merge with the humans they superseded. Animal Farm contains some great characters which one gets attached to. The revolution can be seen through varies eyes, from the bleating sheep to hardworking horses, from the rats to cunning pigs. If one has an awareness of the development of the communist Soviet Union, you can see how Orwell has built his tale. Even without any knowledge of the Russian Revolution, the book can be taken as a story in itself, without the subtlety of underlining politics, the book is a quaint tale of a fantastical overthrow of the rulers of the farm and how a new life of self-governance is created. I enjoy reading George Orwell and Animal Farm is a thoroughly decent book. Recommended. View all my reviews

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