Our late and much-loved friend Christopher Hitchens liked to speak of places that produced more local history than they could consume: Cyprus and Ireland were two of them and Crimea is most certainly another. The news stories this week from Ukraine bring back again the surplus stock of war and deportations, sullen minorities, mythic heroism and the mess made by all those distinguishing right from wrong from a distance. The TLS leaves news to others but there are twentieth-century echoes this week in the letters of the American poet, critic and Stalinist sympathizer Malcolm Cowley, reviewed by Marc Robinson. Cowley was “a dedicated fellow traveller but never a Communist Party member”, an artist who saw himself both near to and far from the camps, the famines and the show trials. The letters, “sensitively compiled and annotated by Hans Bak”, return compulsively to the question of his loyalties, the paralysis of his inaction and the “normal instinct” for comity with Russia. Our Commentary explores the poetry of Varlam Shalamov, the author of Kolyma Tales, generally recognized by Russians as “the greatest work of literature about the Gulag”. His poems, unpublished before perestroika and bowdlerized since, are about writing, reading, religion and a distance from the external world. Influencing Tomorrow is a book co-edited by Douglas Alexander, the man who may be dealing with Moscow if Labour wins the British election next year. Charles King notes “the combination of hubris and timorousness that is the stock-in-trade of the foreign policy establishment in Western democracies”.
Kathleen Burk reviews “a convincing and important contribution to national and international history” by Richard Roberts, noting the decisive response by David Lloyd George to the little-remembered financial crisis of 1914. David Watkin praises an unusual account of the colours that have come to be typical of Rome over the centuries, four of which appear on our cover this week. The Renaissance past, it seems, was paler than we might expect. The deluxe edition of John Sutcliffe’s book contains nine essential pigments for producing the more familar effects at home.