Category Archives: History

The New Russia – Mikhail Gorbachev

“You, M. Diderot, propose sweeping changes, but you write on paper, which is very durable, whereas I must write on human skin, and that is very sensitive.” – Catherine the Great, to Diderot

Gorbachev is a titanic figure in modern history. American stories of victory aside, it takes two to end a war peacefully, and Gorbachev played that role in the USSR. Without him the outcome, though possibly the same in the end, could have been much more violent.

In The New Russia, Gorbachev looks back on Russia’s recent history. His key message is the importance of dialogue and cooperation, the same notes that led to the end of the Cold War. Gradualism and a middle path, he suggests, are fundamental to achieving real, sustainable change, in contrast to the shock therapy in Russia in the 90s, or the Arab Spring today. He also emphasizes the cost to people: he quotes Catherine the Great above as a reason to be careful in making changes, least the changes hurt those who can handle it least.

He issues a clarion call for democracy: one built on the cultural characteristics, traditions, mentality and national character of the relevant nation, but one that also has certain basic features. He highlights regular honest elections, a stable constitutional order, a balance of power between the three orders of government, competition between political parties, respect for basic human rights, a just and impartial legal system, and a developed civil society as essential to a successful democracy, no matter where.

The New Russia underscores one of the fundamental tensions between the US and Russia today. Russia sees itself as a great power, one that should be consulted at every turn: indeed, for most of history it has been. In the last twenty years, however, it has not been, and its pride is deeply wounded. Were positions reversed, and the USA a declining power, I suspect it would feel identically. Unfortunately, this pride and belief in its own exceptionalism leads to a scrabble for power that, even when as in Syria it works, can be enormously costly to the world.

The only weakness for me was the limited discussion of Ukraine and Syria. Having written a book about the need for dialogue and cooperation, Russia’s interventions in both countries appear only at the end, and are not well discussed or analyzed. It would have been fascinating to hear his thoughts on both.

The New Russia is a little longer than it needs to be. Like many politicians, Gorbachev remains wounded by some hurts he took while in power, and he discusses them at more length than necessary, making parts of the book a bit slow. Still, given Russia’s recent surge in activity, a book worth reading.

Disclosure: I read this book as an advance reader copy. You can see more reviews here: The New Russia.

Aleppo: The Rise and Fall of Syria’s Great Merchant City – Philip Mansel

“What is left of Aleppo has become a city of bread queues, electricity and water cuts, rationing and road-blocks. Rubble and rubbish fill the streets…Aleppo had once carried a message: that different races and religions can coexist in the same city.”

When I visited Aleppo ten years ago, its citadel towered over the city, and the souqs below it sprawled in a fascinating adventure. It wasn’t a tourist hub, but perhaps for that reason people were tremendously friendly, as they were across Syria. All of that is effectively gone, and Syria is undergoing a heartbreaking loss of memory. For that reason, books like Aleppo are tremendously timely.

Aleppo is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world: humans have lived there since the 5th millennium BC. Standing as it does between the Middle East and Europe, it has served as a cultural melting pot for almost that long, prizing diversity as a means to trade. When one sultan was asked to expel the Jews, he responded that flowers were shown to best advantage when mixed with others of different colours, and refused.

Aleppo focuses on the history of the city under the Ottoman Empire, when it was a major economic hub. Camels and caravans from India, Iraq, Iran, the Gulf, Erzurum, Damascus, and the Arabian Peninsula stopped at Aleppo before heading to the Mediterranean and Europe, meeting merchants from Venice, England, France, and across Europe going the other way. Lawrence of Arabia would remember it as a place of coexistence, shaped by the civilization that had wheeled around it without being overtaken by them. Today, its population has fallen from two million to less than a quarter of that.

Having introduced the history in its first half, Aleppo’s second half is excerpts of travel diaries from travelers who visited it during the Ottoman period. I found these a bit disappointing, since a number of them are difficult to follow without considerable background knowledge. They do have highlights, however: there is a particularly thoughtful essay by Francis William Newman, younger brother of the future cardinal, and Gertrude Bell’s comments are also very good. The diaries do not shy from detail: one striking passage explains attempts to avoid Aleppo Button, which caused nasty boils, by taking a person already badly infected and taking some of the boil and injecting it into someone as a vaccination.

My favourite part, however, are the Aleppine proverbs the author shares, almost all of them trade-related. If you do business with a dog, you should call him sir; excess is obnoxious, even in religious worship; the piaster equips its owner with seven languages; the greatest blessing is in things concealed from view.

The book isn’t perfect, and its structure can be a bit hard to follow or absorb. It does, however, provide an important reminder of the happy and glorious history Syria has had, and for people interested in the city, it’s a fun and interesting read.

Disclosure: I read Aleppo as an Advance Reader Copy. It is released April 26th.

History’s People – Margaret MacMillan

“Our understanding and enjoyment of the past would be impoverished without its individuals, even though we know that history’s currents — its underlying forces and shifts, whether of technology or political structures or social values — must never be ignored.” – History’s People

In the 1980s, it was believed that stress caused ulcers. Dr. Barry Marshall, a relatively unknown internal medicine specialist in Australia, believed it was bacteria that caused ulcers and indeed most stomach cancers, but the medical establishment remained highly skeptical, as did the drug companies, which were making a considerable profit on antacids and antidepressants. To convince them, Marshall downed a mix made of bacteria from the stomach of one of his patients. He did indeed get ulcers. He took antibiotics and got better. And in 2005 he got the Nobel Prize for medicine. (He now works on flu vaccines).

Learning history by reading biographies is tricky; it is always hard to tell if the hero makes the times, or the times the hero. History’s People avoids that issue entirely, arguing that both clearly matter, but that regardless studying biography gives us insight into history in a way that more general studies can never do. She chooses 5 themes–leadership, hubris, daring, curiosity, and observation—and chooses a handful of figures from history, both Canadian and international, to illustrate and illuminate the idea.

MacMillan is one of the world’s preeminent historians, and as usual her writing is clear and compelling. History’s People is based on a series of radio lectures she gave (The Massey lectures), and rather than attempting to present full biographies, she introduces brief vignettes that give us a flavour of their lives and the trait she is trying to demonstrate. The method works very well, and manages to achieve both breadth and depth. This book won’t teach you history, but if you like history, you’ll relish reading it.

Bill Bennett: A Mandarin’s View – Bob Plecas

Bill Bennett was premier of BC (governor, for American readers) for eleven years with a majority government each time, and he managed the rare trick of retiring while he was still on top. His successor, Bill Vander Zalm, won the subsequent election, unlike Kim Campbell when she took over for Mulroney at the federal level, for example.

Bill Bennett oversaw Expo 86, which included a massive redevelopment of False Creek in Vancouver and the Skytrain; the construction of the Coquihalla Highway; chaired the premiers council while Pierre Trudeau was working on constitutional repatriation; and, most controversially, implemented a massive program of spending restraint, gutting a number of social services and labour laws in an effort to strengthen the BC economy, which was struggling in response to a crash in commodity prices.

He remains a controversial figure, but I suspect even his critics would admit that he truly believed in the policies he promoted, to the extent that he intentionally bore the blame for them so that his successor would not be tainted. He also implemented a number of lower-key reforms in an effort to achieve good financial management, and several of those have since become standard procedure among Canadian governments, including changing the role of the Treasury Board to oversee financial accountability, and using an external auditor to review provincial finances.

Whether you agree with his policies (and respect his legacy) depends on which side of the ideological divide you’re on – he is loathed by the left in BC, and respected by the right. His focus on financial accountability, however, is something that both sides of the aisle could learn from. Government spending, as Plecas rightly points out, is at the margin: politicians care about new programs and ideas, because that’s what gets votes. In order to afford new programs, though, you have to manage your current programs carefully. A lessons all governments could take to heart.

The Resilience Dividend – Judith Rodin

“Resilience building is a concept that can be learned and a practice that can be developed…Too often, however, resilience thinking does not really take hold until a galvanizing event or a major shock–such as Superstorm Sandy–brings the need into high relief.”

When we think of disaster response, we tend to think of infrastructure: levees in New Orleans, or rebuilding homes after an earthquake or tsunami. That’s fair, but it misses a key piece of the picture. Emergency response is in many ways about people. No one person (or almost no one) can have everything they need to weather a disaster, or rebuild after it. Networks have to come together to recover: communities, they used to be called. Rodin rightly highlights their importance, before and after, in ensuring the best possible response to crises.

Rodin practices what she preaches: as head of the Rockefeller Foundation, she has led disaster response programs in a huge number of regions. Urbanization, Climate Change, and Globalization, she points out, have each made the modern world potentially more vulnerable to volatile shocks, creating what Rodin calls a socio-ecological-economic nexus, where each creates problems that feed off the other two. Sadly, as a society we tend to ignore potential problems until they occur, at which point we often freak out and overreact, creating yet more problems.

The book sometimes feels poorly edited: it claims that Norman Borlaug retired in 1983 at age 65, then died 26 years later at the age of 95, for example. Even for Norman Borlaug, that’s tricky (he actually retired in 1979). It can also sometimes feel like a little brother to Taleb’s tremendous book on the same subject, Anti-Fragile. Rodin uses more examples, but doesn’t always seem to have thought issues through the same way Taleb has: she argues for centralized control of response without really considering alternatives, for example.

An important subject, and written by a hugely successful and important figure, but for me not perfect. It is important to highlight the essential role of people and communities in recovery, and the value of investing in them, but I would have liked to have seen it go a little farther, using some of the lessons from Anti-Fragile.

Secret Formula – Frederick Allen

Coke, wrote the future Pulitzer prize winner William Allen White, is “a sublimated essence of all that America stands for, a decent thing honestly made, universally distributed, conscientiously improved with the years.”

Coca-cola has aroused strong feelings throughout its history. At one point, French communists attempted to kidnap the daughter of Coke’s manager in France as a bargaining tactic – the manager in Vienna was dragged from his car and beaten.  It has waged countless regulatory and legal battles, some justified and some not. Despite being named for cocaine and the kola nut, both ingredients were removed almost immediately. It invented the modern Santa, and remains closely linked to the American dream.

Its history is also closely bound with that of a single man: Robert Woodruff, who played a key role in its development for sixty years. The son of a corporate raider who acquired the firm, he had no experience in the industry when he was appointed leader, but he would leave an indelible mark on the firm. In many ways, its story is not of a product but of a brand. It is marketing, not the product itself, that has forged Coke’s reputation.

Allen explores its history in depth, from family feuds over ownership to the war with Pepsi. It’s an interesting story, and Allen’s dry asides help make it compelling. It can also be painful; the bungling and total misunderstanding of what they were selling to consumers – a brand, not a taste – that led to New Coke are excruciating.

The book is interesting and enlightening, in many ways reflecting the history of the USA itself as Coke responded to wars, social trends, and changes in government. Allen is unabashedly pro Coke, but gives plenty of time to its failures, too. A bit oddly, though, the story ends in 2000. Perhaps that was all the access he could get given Coke’s desire for secrecy, but it makes it feel a bit truncated. Still, an interesting story of an American institution, one of the best known brands in the world, and a marketing triumph. I learned a lot reading it.

Disclosure: I read Secret Formula as an advance reader copy. You can see more reviews and order it when it is released Oct. 27th here: Secret Formula.

1493 – Charles C. Mann

“To the history of kings and queens most of us learned as students has been added a recognition of the remarkable role of exchange, both ecological and economic…Columbus’s voyage did not mark the discovery of a New World, but its creation.”

I found this book fascinating. I had no idea North America didn’t have earthworms before Columbus, and that soil was brought over as ballast for ships that would return full of tobacco, nor that much of the silver mined in the New World was actually sold to China, who had collapsed their currency repeatedly for several hundred years (they were the first to introduce paper currency, due to a lack of available  metals), and so were desperate for a precious metal they could use to stabilize it.

Mann’s thesis is that Columbus’ journey marked the beginning of true globalization, not because it marked the developed world discovering the new world (which isn’t really true anyway), but because it led to a worldwide mixing of ecologies and economies. Columbus himself may have been wrong about almost everything, but his voyage still had dramatic consequences, good and bad. The whole book is excellent, containing fascinating stories such as the evolution of potatoes from a poisonous plant that could only be safely consumed when eaten with clay (which bound the poison molecules to itself and could be excreted), to a worldwide phenomenon that allowed dramatic increases in population density across Europe and China and a (temporary?) escape from the Malthusian Trap. You can still buy the poisonous varieties in South America, complete with clay dust, by the way.

Ecological globalization wasn’t the only thing that happened around 1493, of course, and Mann is good about highlighting the complexity and agency of the peoples on both sides of the Atlantic before Columbus, something that is often neglected by European historians. In some ways he seems guided more by curiosity than anything else, omitting some things to focus on others he finds more interesting. Still, the ecological changes that resulted from the increased mixing have been dramatic, in ways we don’t notice because we don’t realize they could have been different. North American forests are very different with the presence of earthworms, because they decompose underbrush; today they are destroying terraces in Southeast Asia by making them spongy.

Highly recommended. Not perfect, and with such a wide scope details can sometimes suffer, but well worth the effort.

Winter King – Thomas Penn

“For it is a strange thing, that though he were a dark prince, and infinitely suspicious, and his times full of secret conspiracies and troubles…As for the disposition of his subjects in general towards him, it stood thus with him: that of the three affections which naturally tie the hearts of the subjects to their sovereign,—love, fear and reverence,—he had the last in height; the second in good measure; and so little of the first, as he was beholding to the other two.” – Francis Bacon, discussing Henry VII

Henry VII is one of the lesser known kings of England. He is wedged between two notorious monarchs, arch-villain Richard III and his son Henry VIII. His legacy has also been controversial: he founded the Tudor dynasty, passing on power to his son in the first untroubled succession in more than a century. Yet there was also a lingering sense of tyranny, a monarch who was greatly feared, dominating his subjects to an unheard of extent and driving many of them into bankruptcy, while making the crown one of the richest in Europe. Shakespeare forbore to write a history play about him entirely.

Thomas Penn has written in Winter King a phenomenal biography of the man, who went from a lesser prince with little claim to the throne to the richest monarch in Europe, waited on by other kings. The story itself is fascinating: Henry VII faced challenges that sound like fiction, including multiple attempts by his enemies to take random people – in one case, a boatman’s son – and raise them to look like lost princes with a claim to the throne. As a result, he was perpetually suspicious, and oversaw an enormous spy network: one never knew when you were speaking to one of his agents.

He also developed an elaborate financial network to ensure loyalty. As suggested by John Morton, Archbishop of Canterbury, taxes were assessed using a simple rule: if you led a high consumption lifestyle, you clearly had a high income, and so owed high taxes. If you were frugal, you clearly had a lot of savings, and so owed high taxes. Funnily enough, taxes were quite high.

In addition, he used a complex system of bonds and fines to ensure that any subject faced immediate financial destruction if they crossed him. If you did something wrong, you got a suspended fine, triggered if you disobeyed again: if you didn’t do anything wrong, you were asked to post a bond, usually more than you could afford, that you would lose if you did disobey.

The whole book is interesting, from Henry’s sophisticated use of financial instruments to the complicated politics he reveled in. It’s also probably something you know nothing about. Highly recommended!

Rome’s Revolution – Richard Alston

“The great truth of history, so often unspoken, is that for most of our ancestors the key issues were not those of political philosophy, the nature of freedom and the nation, but how to feed oneself and one’s children. History is about food.”

In March of 44 BC, Julius Caesar was murdered by 60-odd members of the Roman aristocracy. They believed that with him gone, everything would return to normal, as it had in the past. Instead, a revolution in Roman society culminated in the formation of the Roman Empire, ending the Republic. Why didn’t a restoration happen? And why was the old version of Roman society destroyed, an outcome totally unexpected by the participants in the events of 44 BC?

These striking questions are what Rome’s Revolution sets out to address, in a novel and fascinating perspective on the history of Rome. As Alston points out, the Rome is often presented with the veneer of inevitability: unlike more recent history, which has not lost its power to shock, the events of Rome are so far removed from us it can be hard to empathize with how people must have felt. Yet in many ways, the events of 44 BC are more comparable to the American or particularly the French revolution in terms of associated chaos and trauma for participants, and indeed the ideals of the Republic helped motivate those and other more recent events, such as the English Civil War.

Alston has a narrative he wants to tell – the Roman revolution as a struggle between groups, and that many participants had no idea what was going on. This isn’t wrong, but for me he overemphasizes it: it’s easy to think of the past in slow motion, with all participants just a little bit less clever than us, but I suspect the contemporary Romans were well aware of many of the trends we discuss in retrospect, such as the rise of private armies within Rome. It’s just not clear what they could have done about it, an explanation Alston doesn’t sufficient much time to. Still, a great perspective on old events.

You can also see more reviews of Rome’s Revolution.

Under Another Sky – Charlotte Higgins

“I wanted to discover the ways in which the idea of Roman Britain has resonated in British culture and still forms part of the texture of its landscape — not just through the sublime contours of the Northumberland hills, but in humbler urban and suburban tracts of territory.”

If you pull a pound coin out of your wallet (assuming you’re in the UK, or like carrying the currencies of many countries around with you), you’ll see the phrase Decus et Tutamen written on the edge of the coin. It’s from Virgil: Aeneas bestows some armour on one of his soldiers as prize for valour, and describes the cuirass as ‘an ornament and a safeguard’ – Decus Et Tutamen. Slightly more recently, Charles II put in on English coins. Why? The goal was to prevent milling: if thieves attempted to shave off bits of precious metal from the coins, they would destroy the phrase. Hence: ornament and safeguard. No longer quite so relevant with a modern coin, but kept for history’s sake.

The Romans have played what is in some ways an astonishingly pivotal role in much of history: long after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, children were taught Latin in school while their elders studied and argued over Cannae, the Gracchi, and the reasons for the fall. Higgins has written a book devoted to the Romans in Britain, or rather, how their presence has influenced and continues to influence the British.

The book ends up part travelogue, part history text, and part repository of interesting facts. It works because Higgins has a focus on beautiful imagery; as she discusses her trips to the extant sites of Roman Britain, she summons them up for the reader, before discussing how they affected later British generations. Despite being on the fringes of empire, England also has a lot to say: Constantine the Great, who turned the Roman Empire Christian, was crowned in York, and other emperors made repeated trips, both to visit and to build walls.

If you have no interest in Romans, I’m not sure this book will sell you on them: if you’re already a believer, this is a nice way to learn more about Roman Britain.