The New Russia: Book Review

By David Michael Newstead.

Mikhail Gorbachev’s book, The New Russia, offers a glimpse at history from a decidedly rare point of view. Few Russian leaders have lived for so long after their time in office. So then, few others could ever provide the kind of perspective that Gorbachev gives as he reflects on the end of Communism and his last day in the Kremlin to the tumultuous years that followed and events right up to the present. Of those first years after Communism, he lists off a string of crises that plagued the nation as it transitioned to a new form of government.

  • The collapse of the Soviet Union; the rolling back of democracy in almost all the republics; chaos in the economy, exploited by the greediest and most unscrupulous, who succeeded in plunging almost everyone else into poverty; ethnic conflicts and bloodshed in Russia and other republics; and, finally, the shelling of the Supreme Soviet of Russia in October 1993.

The book is filled with letters, speeches, photographs, and interview excerpts from throughout these years. But in all, it shows a man trying to defend the decisions he made and watching from the sidelines at the people who came to power after him, for better or worse. He explores the war in Chechnya, the economic turmoil throughout the 1990s, the eventual rise of Vladimir Putin, NATO expansion, the rollback of democratic reforms, the war with Georgia, Ukraine, and more. As Gorbachev thought about the past as well as the present, two passages stuck out at me.

  • Already I was aware of just how deeply rooted the legacy of totalitarianism was, in our traditions, in people’s mindset and morality. It had seeped into almost every pore of the social organism. That deeply troubled me in those days and, more than 20 years later, still does.
  • We are living in the twenty-first century, a century of new technologies and new challenges. Conservative ideology has no answer to these. Traditional, conservative values do, along with others, have their place in society. But where have conservative policies taken us in the history of Russia? They have led, as a rule, to stagnation followed by upheaval. Sometimes the years of stagnation have been relatively prosperous, living off reforms carried through earlier and favorable external factors. Sooner or later, however, that energy runs out, the external factors change.

From NPR: Later That Same Life

Thinking about another year going by, this is a personal favorite from awhile back.

In 1977, an 18-year-old Peter “Stoney” Emshwiller filmed himself asking questions meant for his future self. Emshwiller tells NPR’s Ari Shapiro, “I was going through what I think a lot of 18-year-olds go through — where you’re leaving high school and you’re about to start sort of your real life — and felt like I wanted to ask somebody who knows. And of course there isn’t anybody, but I decided to pretend there was and sit down and talk to a blank wall asking every question I could think of and responding to every answer I thought I might get back.”

Thirty-eight years later, the writer and voice actor sat down to answer his young self’s questions. The result is Later That Same Life, a film cut together to look like one seamless interview.

Listen at NPR

The Most Famous Beard

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By David Michael Newstead.

Fidel Castro is interesting the way a time capsule is interesting, because his reign intersects with so many major events in world history: the Cuban Revolution, the Cold War, the Bay of Pigs Invasion, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the rise of Che Guevara, the Mariel Boatlift, and more. And how many other world leaders ruled through the entire period between President Eisenhower and President Obama, between Nikita Khrushchev and Vladimir Putin? Throughout the years, a caricature of Castro entered our culture and has remained a fixture for decades. He was a bearded revolutionary in green fatigues who gave eight hour long speeches, smoked Cuban cigars, and evaded multiple assassination attempts by the CIA. Outside of that portrait, of course, Fidel Castro was a highly polarizing figure with generations worth of criticisms leveled against him regarding human rights abuses, his communist dictatorship, and the perennial impoverishment of the Cuban people. With his passing, it’s hard to say what the future holds for a place John F. Kennedy called “that imprisoned island”. Over the last fifty years, Fidel Castro went from being a young revolutionary to a senior citizen. The Soviet Union collapsed. And the classic cars in Havana became mechanical reminders of life before the American embargo in 1960. When those cars will finally breakdown and when the ruling Communist Party will finally fall from power is anyone’s guess. But Castro once said that he never shaved his beard, because it saved him time throughout the year. As it turns out, time catches up to us all.

A Nation of Immigrants, Revisited

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By David Michael Newstead.

Before his presidency, John F. Kennedy wrote A Nation of Immigrants. The book discusses the different origins, motivations, and numerous social contributions of immigrants arriving at different points in U.S. history. It’s a short book, but a meaningful one since Kennedy himself was a descendant of Irish immigrants. What’s especially noteworthy though is that later in the book JFK advocated for more open immigration policies and an end to the discriminatory national quota system which had been put into place in 1924 to limit immigration in general and non-white immigration specifically. And while Kennedy would not live to see his proposals enacted, America today is much more diverse because of them.

I bring this up for several reasons. First, to underline that contributions to American society by recent immigrants have only continued since Kennedy’s time. Second, this increase in diversity going forward is an asset, not a curse. And third, the racial makeup of the United States was kept homogeneous for so long through means which were blatantly racist at the time and would be completely unacceptable today. This includes things like the Chinese Exclusion Act and as soon as such policies were abandoned, America became more multicultural.

The other reason I mention A Nation of Immigrants is that I have my father’s copy of it sitting on my bookshelf. He was an immigrant to the United States. And while there’s nothing harrowing about his story compared to Syrians and others, it makes it pretty hard not to sympathize with a group that practically everyone’s relatives belonged to once upon a time.

Abel Meeropol Remembered

By David Michael Newstead.

Today marks the 30th Anniversary of the death of Abel Meeropol. Meeropol passed away at age 83 in a retirement home in Massachusetts, having spent the last years of his life struggling with Alzheimer’s. Professionally, the songwriter is best remembered for his works Strange Fruit and The House I Live In, which have been performed by artists like Billie Holiday, Nina Simone, Frank Sinatra, Sam Cooke, Paul Robeson, and others. In his personal life, Abel and his wife Anne were famous for adopting the orphaned sons of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg after the couple was executed in 1953. Today, Abel’s legacy is rooted in having guided his adopted sons through the worst days of McCarthyism and in the enduring significance of the song Strange Fruit as America continues to grapple with violence and racism in our society. Abel Meeropol was born in New York City in 1903, the son of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. He is survived by his adopted sons, Robert and Michael Meeropol, four grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren.