Reviews

1917: War, Peace and Revolution

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By 1917 all sides in the First World War were at a stalemate. The Battle of the Somme had already led to huge casualties on all sides. By January 1917, having lost a million men either killed, wounded or captured, France needed to end the war. Similarly, Russia was on its knees, with 4.5 million killed, wounded or sick, food shortages and inflation.

Listening to a Pogrom on the Radio

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Michael Rosen’s latest collection of poetry for adults is wide ranging but at its heart displays a profound anti-racism and a fury at ruling class hypocrisy. In “Migration” he writes, “Our banks migrate billions/ but they don’t call that migration./ We say no to blaming migrants”.

For socialists who enjoy poetry this collection is an essential read for now, dealing as it does with some of our key political priorities including anti-racism, solidarity with refugees, Corbyn, privatisation and the attacks on education and the NHS.

Yemen in Crisis

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One morning last December I opened the newspaper to read that “today marks 1,000 days since the beginning of the war in Yemen, a country which is now suffering from the largest humanitarian crisis in the world.”

By mid-2017 Yemen faced its worse famine since the 1940s and the world’s worst cholera epidemic. The war between Saudi Arabia and Houthi rebels has claimed at least 10,000 lives. The former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh had switched sides before being killed and wider imperialist tensions drive the conflict.

The Essential Fictions

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For a man who died aged only 45, Isaac Babel had a prodigious output. He was born in 1894 into a reasonably well-off Jewish family in the port of Odessa, currently part of Ukraine but then in Russia. As a young man he was prevented from entering university, as Tsarist Russia placed quotas on the numbers of Jewish students allowed to enrol. Nonetheless the young Babel showed himself to be adept with words and languages, coming to the attention of writer Maxim Gorky in 1915.

The Skull of Alum Bheg

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This is a remarkable work of historical detection. A skull found in a pub in Kent in 1963. A handwritten note inserted in an eye socket: “Skull of Haviladar Alum Bheg 46th Bengal N Infantry who was blown away from a gun. He was a principal leader of the mutiny of 1857 and of a most ruffianly disposition.”

Kim Wagner, who had been writing and researching colonial executions, is alerted to its existence and “found myself standing at a small train station on a wet November day with a human skull in my bag.”

We Were Eight Years In Power

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is currently one of the most sought after black writers in the US. He is a national correspondent for The Atlantic magazine and his previous book Between the World and Me (see November 2015 SR) won the National Book Award for Non Fiction. He has also turned his hand to fiction, writing a series of Black Panther books for Marvel Comics. More importantly, his work brought him to the attention of Barack Obama and he became one of a group of journalists invited to a series of off the record sessions during the latter’s presidency.

Vladimir Ilyich Lenin

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“The time has come./ I begin/ the story of Lenin”. So opens Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky’s astonishing 3,000-line poem written shortly after Lenin’s death in 1924. The poem articulates the grief and shock of Lenin’s passing; “On the worker/ bent at his gears/ the news pounced/ and bullet-like burned”. It also pleads for Lenin not to be idolised: “I’m anxious lest rituals,/ mausoleums/ and processions,/ should/ obscure/ Lenin’s essential/ simplicity”.

Cosmic Shift

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The centenary of the Russian Revolution has seen some excellent publications on the subject, but very little of it from Russia itself. Conceived as the first anthology of Russian art writing outside of Russia, Cosmic Shift is, in the words of curator Elena Zaytseva, “a collection that explores the aesthetic and moral legacy of the Russian Revolution in the field of contemporary art”, bringing together a vast array of artists, curators, writers and the philosophers in a shared task on an epic scale. The results are discursive and idiosyncratic in their treatment of the subject.

Nagasaki

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On 9 August 1945, three days after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, the United States dropped a second atom bomb on Nagasaki, a small port city on Japan’s southernmost island. An estimated 74,000 people died within the first five months, and another 75,000 were injured.

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