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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Doorway to Russia's Bloodiest Century

In his introduction to The Russian Century, poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko uses hemophilia as a metaphor for twentieth century Russian history. "In place of Tsarevich Alexis, socialism became the heir to the throne," Yevtushenko writes, "but inherited hemophilia along with it: the blood of the civil war, the blood of collectivization, and industrialization, and now even the blood of democratization."


One of the bibliographic events of 1994 was the publication of the original edition of "The Russian Century," a massive, devastatingly vivid collection of photographs that captured the essence of modern Russian history from the cannibals of the '20s to the cosmonauts of the '60s. The sepia images collected in that volume stare out at us, turning history into human experience, and attaching unforgettable faces to one gruesome statistic after another.


Now British journalist Brian Moynahan's unjustly overlooked text, which accompanied the photographs in the original volume, has been reissued as a paperback with a scant eight pages of illustrations to distract the reader from the fast-paced narrative. In just 272 pages, Moynahan catches not merely the substance of Russia's 20th-century history, but its flavor, colors and voices as well. While it is certainly not the last word on this vast subject, it is as engaging an introduction as one could ask for. From the last days of Nicholas and the horror of World War I to the attempted coup of 1993, Moynahan details Russia's terrible hemophilia, describing again and again a nation obsessed with self-mutilation.


Although Moynahan gives all the requisite statistics, the spirit of his essay recalls the album of photographs from which it sprang. He artfully weaves in excerpts from diaries, letters and other documents to remind us that this is the history of people. One soldier, for instance, watching troops march toward the front during World War I, notes bitterly, "They were not men who were going to die for their country, they were just men who were going to die."


"The Russian Century" is a captivating, if appalling read. It charges forward with a breathtaking description of the last days of empire and the coming of revolution. Then it descends as quickly as Russia herself did into the nightmare of civil war, Stalinism, collectivization, the camps. "Beat your own people," says one peasant, "and others will fear you." But the peasant was wrong: Next comes the invasion of Hitler, the blockade of Leningrad, the battle of Stalingrad and the worst horrors of war ever imagined.


Perhaps inevitably, Moynahan's essay loses its momentum in the postwar years. The banal evil of Khrushchev, Brezhnev and the rest seems almost idyllic by comparison with what came before. And the years since Gorbachev are still too close at hand for retrospection. Toward the end, Moynahan also loses his human focus, tending to leapfrog from one political event to the next. Nonetheless, "The Russian Century" opens the door of modern Russian history like no other book. It is not pretty, but it is a picture that everyone should face.





"The Russian Century" By Brian Moynahan, with an introduction by Yevgeny Yevtushenko. Pimlico Paperback, 272 pages, ?10 ($16.50)