Established in 1954 by a group of Russian émigrés in a house in west London, now located in Bloomsbury, Pushkin House has served for more than fifty years as a non-partisan meeting place for anyone interested in the open discussion of cultural, literary and political ideas pertaining to Russia.
Three years ago, the centre inaugurated an annual book prize to recognize significant contributions to the canon of literature on Russia and in 2014, Catherine Merridale, professor of contemporary history at Queen Mary, University of London, and a leading Russian historian, won the prize for Red Fortress: The secret heart of Russia’s history (Penguin Books).
This year, she is a judge, joined on stage by the Financial Times journalist Andrew Jack and Viv Groskop, the Festival’s Artistic Director (and one of the 2014 judges of the prize) to announce the shortlist.
It’s a lively and brisk run through of the six contenders with Groskop introducing each title, reading a short extract to give a flavour of the book in question and throwing open the discussion of its merits to her colleagues on stage.
First up is The Zhivago Affair: The Kremlin, the CIA, and the battle over a forbidden book by Peter Finn and Petra Couvée (Random House) which traces the story of Boris Pasternak’s novel, Dr Zhivago. Literary contraband, highly controversial for its failure to “conform to official cultural guidelines” it was smuggled out of Moscow in 1956, becoming a symbol of freedom and rebellion in the battle between East and West on its publication.
A Polish writer with a “well-seasoned liver”, in the mould of Ryszard Kapuściński, Jacek Hugo-Bader has written Kolyma Diaries: A journey into Russia’s haunted hinterland, translated by Antonia Lloyd Jones (Portobello Books). It’s a searing account of his trip to Russia’s bleak north, along the 2,000 miles or so of the Kolyma Highway. In this most remote region the descendants of prisoners sent to the forced labour camps of the Soviet Gulag do whatever it takes to make a living: scholars forage for mushrooms, miners excavate mass graves searching for gold, drug addicts rub shoulders with runaway sportsmen. It’s a beautifully written book, Jack says, about a part of the world that has been largely forgotten.
If Merridale’s prize-winning book captured the essence of Moscow, Catriona Kelly’s illustrated study St Petersburg: Shadows of the past (Yale University Press) does the same for its northern historic counterpart. It’s a social history, a comprehensive biography, that encompasses the city’s rubbish dumps and promenades, featuring a wide cast of characters from artists to politicians, addressing myths and truths, and exploring the impact of St Petersburg’s geographical location on its development, outlook and recent history.
Groskop struggles to hold the weighty tome that is Stalin Volume 1: Paradoxes of power, 1878-1928 by Stephen Kotkin (Penguin Press) in one hand. Thickly descriptive, the fruit of countless hours spent combing the archives for details, the book is rigorously academic and exhaustively researched. Not a light read in any sense of the word.
If you want to understand what’s going on in Ukraine today look no further than The Last Empire: The final days of the Soviet Union (Basic Books). Serhii Plokhii’s book on the events of 1991 when the Soviet Union began to unravel and Ukraine was never far from the diplomatic foreground could not have been published at a more auspicious time.
And lastly, to Nothing is True and Everything is Possible: The surreal heart of the new Russia by Peter Pomerantsev (Public Affairs). Pomerantsev’s background in television informs the filmic tone of the book and its urgent reportage. It’s a colourful, if frequently bleak, tale of the effects of oil wealth on Moscow over the past fifteen years: gangsters roam unhindered, über-expensive Maybachs glide down city streets, brash new architectural edifices mushroom.
And lastly, an honorable mention of an important book on Putin’s Russia. As Merridale observes: “If you want to know how to organize an international criminal network, Putin’s Kleptocracy by Karen Dawis is the manual.” Unfortunately, the book isn’t on the official shortlist due to legal implications. How very Russian.
The winner will be announced in May.
Claudia Pugh Thomas