New books on Putin, Lincoln and a vanished Polish town make for thoughtful diversion.
When the news gets too hard to digest, I console myself by reading books of history, and these days I have been reading a lot of it. Part of it is a primitive “if you think things are bad now, consider the chaos of 1916” sort of consolation. Then there’s that timeless principle that those who ignore the past are condemned to repeat it, an often ignored truth first advanced by the philosopher George Santayana.
Here are some recently published history books that have filled up some golden afternoons. Pour a cool drink, find a shady spot and prepare to take some deep breaths along the way:
“Putin: His Downfall and Russia’s Coming Crash” by Richard Lourie (St. Martin’s Press, 272 pp., $26.99) is a concise, clear-eyed, scary look at the Russian dictator whose greatest pleasure seems to be to humiliate America and other democracies. In this book, Lourie, a man who has spent decades studying and writing about Russia, gives his best shot at explaining what makes Putin tick.
Lourie ably covers Putin’s life story — his rise from a street-smart St. Petersburg kid to a KGB official foraging for intelligence in Germany to faceless St. Petersburg apparatchik to … suddenly, prime minister, then president of Russia. But the best bits are Lourie’s explanation of why Russia views the U.S. and its NATO allies as an existential threat. The NATO countries, with America as the big brother backup, almost completely ring Russia in an ever tightening encirclement, one big reason Russia sees Ukraine’s possible inclusion in NATO an intolerable proposition.
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Lourie believes Putin will fail, because he’s already failed Russia — during his tenure he has squandered opportunities to transform Russia’s economy into a more technology-base one, falling back on old standbys such as the sale of oil, gas and timber to keep bread in people’s mouths and order on the street. This enlightening book, a relatively short read, will shape your understanding of the news for months to come.
Moving back in time, “Lincoln and the Abolitionists: John Quincy Adams, Slavery, and the Civil War” by Fred Kaplan (Harper, 395 pp., $28.99) reshaped my view of our most revered president.
Most Americans remember Lincoln as a warrior against slavery and a martyr to the cause of its extermination, but Kaplan tells a more complicated story. Lincoln’s decision to emancipate the slaves came after a long, arduous struggle with the South’s slaveholding elite and his own evolving beliefs.
Kaplan compares Lincoln’s trajectory on the slavery question with that of John Quincy Adams, a truth-teller to Lincoln’s conciliator. As the slavery debate bubbled and steamed in Congress, Adams, a Massachusetts congressman who had already served as secretary of state and president, had nothing to lose. He spoke out against slavery time after time and was censured for it. (If you think rules in Congress are a twisted mess now, consider that in Adams’ era it was forbidden to even speak of slavery on the floor.)
By the early 1800s Adams already believed that slavery would end only with an American civil war, but Lincoln believed abolition would destroy the union and “set off a hundred years of volatile racism,” Kaplan writes. Only when he concluded that freeing the slaves would wreck the Southern economy and free up thousands of black men to fight for the Union cause did Lincoln set emancipation in motion. Kaplan, author of biographies of both Lincoln and Adams, tells this story with precision and eloquence.
Finally, “History of a Disappearance: The Story of a Forgotten Polish Town” by Flip Springer, translated from the Polish by Sean Gasper Bye (Restless Books, 318 pp., $17.99), is history told in miniature, the story of a small town in lower Silesia that literally disappeared.
A mountain town called Kupferberg when the Germans controlled it, and Miedzianka when the Poles moved in after World War II, from its medieval beginnings it was a mining town. From the first, it was roadkill in the path of the clashes and conflicts of Europe — in the 30 Years War, Habsburg troops burned it down and killed everyone they could find, a gruesome chapter in the story of a town that live and died by physical transformation and invasion.
For a brief, halcyon period in the 19th and early 20th centuries, Kupferberg became a destination, a place where tourists could drink in the superior beer brewed by industrious Germans and the mountain-ringed view. All the while, the mining went on, and on. The very earth underneath the village became riddled with tunnels. Nights in village houses were punctuated by ominous creaks and groans. The villagers stopped their ears.
Kupferberg weathered the first World War but in the 1930s the Nazis arrived and destroyed the benign rhythms of town life forever. The village leaders were replaced by party enthusiasts; the Jewish families disappeared. World War II came, and though Kupferberg was spared the bombs, when the vengeful Russians invaded, the terrified Germans fled before them.
Now the village belonged to communist Poland, was renamed Miedzianka and repopulated by Poles. They worked the mines at extracting uranium, and the Soviet-run management brutally suppressed any talk about the dire health impact.
This is a book of astonishing personal stories and appalling documentation of violence, looting and destruction. Today the town lies in ruins, with maybe 100 people living on the unstable ground. But here’s an odd thing — though Miedzianka no longer exists, after this book came out in Poland in 2011, a theater company produced a play based on its story, and investors have banded together to open a small brewery there. Another lesson in history, another turn of the wheel.