Maquina Lectora

Notes of a curious mind

Category: Biography (Page 2 of 3)

The New Russia by Mikhail Gorbachev

On 9 August 1999, Yeltsin announced the appointment of Vladimir Putin as acting prime minister and named him as his successor. It was then that the ‘Putin Era’ of post-Soviet history began. Putin, had assumed the presidency in very difficult circumstances and during his first years in the presidency, Gorbachev gave him, his “not unconditional but unwavering” support.  He was truly convinced that Putin was committed to democratic governance and had no intention in establishing some kind of authoritative regime. His conviction didn’t last long.  In 2004, in Putin’s second term, it was already clear that Russia was becoming an authoritarian country.

cover80474-mediumIn this last book, The New Russia, Mikhail Gorbachev argues that with the abandonment of Perestroika, the policy of shock therapy brought about an abrupt polarization of society in Russia. There was a sudden privatization of 225,000 or so state-owned businesses, a sudden release of price and currency controls, withdrawal of state subsidies, and trade liberalization, which provoked the rise of Russia’s oligarchic class.  The rise of Putin in power, Gorbachev claims, has further corrupted the achievements of perestroika and created an authoritative and corrupted political system which offers no future for Russia.

Since the late 1980s, Gorbachev has been trying to develop and apply to the conditions of a rapidly changing world. A New Thinking that “incorporates the important principles of international cooperation” is what is needed, he argues. New Thinking made possible to put an end to the Gold War, and it is exactly that that kind of thinking that the world still very much needs today.

“We need a new model of development”, says Gorbachev. “Our world is in a major transition to a new symbiosis of peoples” and this gives rise to pressing and perplexing global problems, such as poverty and inequality, terrorism and the elimination of nuclear weapons, and climate change.  He also provides an insight in regional problems, including the Ukraine conflict, Egypt and Syria, and Russia’s relations with Japan.

“History is not always fated”, says the optimist Gorbachev. There are “always alternatives, alternative solutions”, that can be found to the atmosphere of dialogue and cooperation.

Gorbachev has provided us an insightful analysis of the profound changes in the Russian society over the past 25 years. The New Russia includes letters, interviews, articles and publications, published in the past 20 years, material useful not only to the historians, but also to any concerned citizen.

The New Russia by Mikhail Gorbachev, Polity Press, 400 pages.

net galleyDisclaimer: Maquina Lectora received  a free uncorrected digitised proof from the publisher via NetGalley. No other compensation was received for this review. All images appear here by courtesy of the publisher or NetGalley.

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

“Here is what I would like for you to know: In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body – it is heritage” says 40 year-old journalist at the Atlantic, to his teenager son. Enslavement was not merely the antiseptic borrowing of labor. Enslavement must be casual wrath and random manglings, the gashing of heads and brains blown out over the river as the body seeks to escape. “It must be rape so regular as to be industrial.”

Between the World and Me is an open letter, addressed to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ son, Samori. It is a powerful and emotional journey that starts with the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, an 18-year-old black man by a white Ferguson police officer. Learning that Brown’s killers would go free, Samori went to his room and cried.  Ta-Nehisi did not try to comfort him, he told him what his parents tried to teach him when he was growing up in a West Baltimore neighbourhood dominated by violence and drugs: that this “is your country, that this is your world, that this is your body, and you must find some way to live within the all of it.”


He tried to tell Samori how one should live within a black body, with in a country lost in the Dream, where the Dream is associated with the “other world” of suburbia, where people who think they are white live in “perfect houses with nice lawns. …. The Dream smells like peppermint but tastes like strawberry shortcake.”

Coates recalls Prince Jones‘ death, a friend of his when his was a student at Howard University, a historically black college in Washington, D.C., at the hands of an undercover police officer. He recalls the fear, the rage he felt, “the old gravity of West Baltimore, that condemned [him] to the schools, the streets, the void.”  It was this gravity and awareness that left him cold and unmoved, when in Prince’s funeral the people asked for forgiveness for the officer.  Forgiveness is irrelevant, Prince “was not killed by a single officer so much as he was murdered by his country and all the fears that have marked it from birth.

This premise, that the blacks in America are living in permanent fear, is the underlying idea of Coates’s story. It is a “bodily fear that lies at the heart of the daily lived experience of racism, and the mind-trick” people play by saying that the racism isn’t real.” (1) There are two  great divisions in America, he says, and they are not the rich and poor, but white and blacks. And the former, the poor as well as the rich, belong to the upper class, and are respected and treated as equals.

A blurb from Toni Morrison declares the book, “required reading” and Coates, the heir to James Baldwin. Following James Baldwin’s steps, Coates also went to Paris. Like Baldwin, he does not see Paris as an escape, as one cannot escape from what the “whole society has decided to make you, a nothing”.

With extraordinary, beautiful prose, Coates exposes America’s racial dilemma. He shows us just how much the country’s racist past is still very much alive today, and how much it affects the way the black Americans think about themselves and their lives. That does not mean that one must see them as permanent victims. As James Baldwin said  in an interview in the Paris Review “…it seemed to me that if I took the role of a victim then I was simply reassuring the defenders of the status quo; as long as I was a victim they could pity me and add a few more pennies to my home-relief check….”

Ta-Nehisi Coates warns his son that he has “been cast into a race in which the wind is always at  your face and the hounds are always at your heels. And to varying degrees this is true of all life.” But he wishes for him to feel no need to constrict himself to make other people comfortable.  He would have him to be a conscious citizen in this terrible and beautiful world”.

Γαμήλιο Ταξίδι ή ένας εκούσιος εξοστρακισμός;

Όποιος νιώθει απόλυτα σίγουρος για την ορθότητα της πολιτικής του δεν θα μπορούσε ποτέ να δει πέρα από τη μύτη του. (p 124)

Είναι Οκτώβριος του 1921. Το Aquitania, ένα από τα πιο γνωστά υπερωκεάνια της εποχής, σαλπάρει από το λιμάνι του Southampton με προορισμό την Νέα Υόρκη. Ανάμεσα στους επιβάτες της πρώτης  θέσης, βρίσκεται και ο πρώην πρωθυπουργός της Ελλάδας, Ελευθέριος Βενιζέλος, με την σύζυγό του ‘Ελενα Σκυλίτση-Βενιζέλου. Ο γάμος τους είχε γίνει στις 15 Σεπτεμβρίου στο Λονδίνο και αυτό ήταν το γαμήλιο ταξίδι τους. Eνα ταξίδι που θα κρατήσει επτά ολόκληρους μήνες.

Με μια συναρπαστική περιγραφή, ερευνώντας πλήθος εγγράφων και ιστορικό υλικό, ο Μίμης Ανδρουλάκης, περιγράφει στο νέο του βιβλίο Ταξίδι Μέλιτος (εκδόσεις Πατάκη), το άγνωστο αυτό ταξίδι των επτά μηνών και μια ημέρα. 12 Μαρτίου 1936, η ημέρα που ο Βενιζέλος, μετά από ένα θυελλώδη καυγά με την γυναίκα του Έλενα, παθαίνει ένα σοβαρό εγκεφαλικό και πεθαίνει.

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Ecology or Catastrophe – The Lfe of Murray Bookchin by Janet Bookchin

The owl of Minerva, takes flight at dusk


Ecology or Catastrophe is not just a biography of Murray Bookchin, the founder of social ecology and  the one who developed the doctrine of libertarian municipalism. It is also a memoir.

The author Janet Biehl was Bookchin’s lover, editor, researcher, and, finally, nurse for about two decades. In this well documented biography, she invites the reader to traverse the full arc of Bookchin’s life from his earliest days to New York City, his Marxist education and his participation in the revolutionary Left to his transformation into a green libertarian anarchist, and to his latest and isolated days to Burlington, Vermont.

2016-03-05 12.31.56After the death of his grandmother Zeitel, a “strict and strong” Russian émigré that first “groomed him to become a Russian revolutionary”, in 1930, Bookchin entered, at the age of nine, the international Communist movement as a member of the Young Pioneers of America, the Communist children section. “It was the Communist movement that truly raised me”, he would recall. ….. “They [the Communist movement] taught him to subsume his personal distress into an intense devotion to Communist Party, the Soviet Union and the coming revolution. …..The Communist movement became, in effect, his home”, they educated him, “they provided him with stability and validation.”

In the 1950s, under Joseph Weber’s influence, (Weber was an intellectual and heterodox communist from Germany and Bookchin’s mentor) and especially, after reading Fairfield Osborn’s Our Plundered Planet and William Vogt’s The Road to Survival, Bookchin had started to rethink the impact of chemicals to the environment and food. He realised that the subject had enormous implications, that “the adulteration of food was part of ‘the misuse of industry as whole.’ ……. Chemicalization was part of the instrumentalization of food production, which commodified both farming and gustation. Capitalism as a system, it turned out, was harmful to human health and well-being. The very concept, Bookchin recognised, was explosive.”

Bookchin was also moved by Lewis Munford’s The Culture of Cities (1938) that culminated that gigantic cities, corrupted by capitalism and authority, are organised for power and money. The “small, close-knit European cities”, Munford had written, “had been human in scale, ….. attractive, communal and traversable on foot. In their many green spaces, people could gossip, trade, pray and politic face to face.”

Inspired by both Marx and Mumford, Bookchin concluded that the “possibilities of the cities are exhausted” and proposed that eco-decentralisation “could open magnificent vistas for individual and social development”. He said that they would have to break up the giant metropolises into small, highly-integrated, “humanistic in scale and appearance” free communities of [people] whose “social relations are blemished neither by property nor production for exchange.”

Hierarchical society could be replaced by a society of small-scale, organic, renewable – energy powered, self-governing communities. Against all things impersonal, anonymous, authoritarian, and commodified, Bookchin championed the cooperative, mutually responsible, libertarian and ethical. Authoritarian approaches to reason, science, technology, and ethics would be overturned in favour of libertarian ones. And this transformation not only could but must happen, because the ecology crisis affected everyone, giving rise to the need for a general social revolution. Such was the basic argument of the book that, written in fits and starts over the following years, would be called The Ecology of Freedom (p144-145).

Bookchin was a dynamic thinker and produced a huge amount of work. It was Murray Bookchin’s book Our Synthetic Environment (1962), which was published six months before Rachel Carson’s book The Silent Spring, that signalled the beginning of the modern ecology movement in the U.S. In this book, Bookchin presented a comprehensive account of environmental contaminants, pesticides, food additives, and X-radiation as sources of human illness, including cancer, while he also indicated the social and economic interests that underlay these contaminants.

In the early 1980s, Bookchin developed the doctrine of “libertarian municipalism” a vision of a political system based on the idea of direct democracy on a local level, formed by confederated municipalities and councils of recallable delegates with policy mandates on higher levels. ‘The potential for social freedom’ Bookchin argued, ‘still reposes in the municipality. …. existing municipal governments, with their city managers, mayors, and councils, are states-in-miniatures, but popular democratic struggle could rework them into citizens assemblies.’ He presented these ideas and arguments, in their fullest form in The Rise of Urbanization and the Decline of Citizenship, published in 1986.

Delving into the anarchist history to find support for his movement, Bookckin mounted a veritable and unsuccessful campaign to try to persuade anarchists to adopt libertarian municipalism. He became pivotal figure in the history of anarchism, but anarchists will never participate in elections. Municipalism is statism, it is parliamentarism, they said. Bookchin, had finally broken with anarchism considering it as fundamentally individualistic.

Biehl met Bookchin in 1986. She was mesmerised  by him. It was she was a mess but gradually the “hyperanxious, underachieving drifter-through-life” gave way to a competent and creative woman”, transformed by Bookchin’s “extraordinary affection”. She, finally, broke with social ecology and reverted to the political identity she had before meeting Bookchin, a liberal Democrat.

Ecology or Catastrophe is in  an insightful, but rather incomplete  biography of a radical and complicated person that lived a fascinated life. Janet Biehl tells a personal tale, at the same time, she vividly captures the most relevant environmental and social movements of the 20th century.

The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World

‘With Knowledge comes thought and with thought comes power’

Alexander Von Humboldt

This a wonderful book about one of the most greatest polymaths and inter-disciplinarians of all time. Alexander von Humboldt is a forgotten hero of science, an exceptional man, a restless explorer, “a man who sought to see and understand everything”, a passionate scientist who could speak to the soul of people.

Ralph Waldo Emerson described him as ‘one of those wonders of the world, like Aristotle, like Julius Caesar… who appear from time to time, as if to show us the possibilities of the human mind’, and Simon Bolivar said that Humboldt ‘has done more good for America than all her conquerors’. His name lingers everywhere, there is the Humboldt current that flows north along the west coast of South America from the southern tip of Chile to northern Peru, there is the Humboldt penguin, the Humboldt’s lily, Lilium humboldtii, a perennial herb that is native to California. There are mountains, parks, and rivers named after him.

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V.S. Naipaul – The Middle Passage

The Middle Passage (1962) is V.S. Naipaul’s first work of travel writing. It is an account of his returning journey to five Caribbean “post-colonial” societies, Trinidad, Guyana, Surinam, Martinique and Jamaica.

The Middle Passage, Naipaul takes the title of his book from the name for the route travelled by the slaves as they were transported from Africa to the colonies of the West Indies, is a highly personal book. Naipaul is continuously confronted with his feelings, the fear of returning to tropical Trinidad, the fear of remembering. Not surprisingly, emotions make him unconsciously biased toward the people of his native country and the other post colonial Caribbean countries. He lucks that kind of stimuli, the rigour and the emotional curiosity of a traveller.

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