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Books We Like

Published 4/9/2013 by James Sands

Books We Like

The Birth of the West: Rome, Germany, France, and the creation of Europe in the tenth century. By Paul Collins.The tenth century began in violence and disorder. Charlemagne’s empire was in ruins, most of Spain had been claimed by Moorish invaders, and even the papacy in Rome was embroiled in petty, provincial conflicts. To many historians, it was a prime example of the ignorance and uncertainty of the Dark Ages. Yet according to historian Paul Collins, the story of the tenth century is the story of our culture’s birth, of the emergence of our civilization into the light of day.

This book is a fascinating read throughout, with surprising - and often, disturbing - historical facts: the reformation of the Papacy (after the "cadaver synod" of 897, when Pope Stephen VI dug up his dead predecessor, Pope Formosus, and prosecuted him for perjury), the struggle towards a unified Germany played out by three German kings - all named Otto, the advent of the German-dominated Holy Roman Empire, and armed struggles all about. In the end, Europe was for the first time a place no longer invaded by others, and its population became settled. It began to cultivate its own identity. The West was born.

Former People The Final Days of the Russian Aristocracy. By Douglas Smith. This sweeping history of the fate of the Russian aristocracy after 1917 focuses primarily on two families, the Golitsyns and the Sheremetevs. They lived opulent lives in St. Petersburg, Moscow, and on various country estates, taking leading roles in the Tsar's government and in the military, patronizing artists and musicians, and travelling in private rail carriages, limousines, and the earliest airplanes. This charmed world came crashing to an end in 1917, with the overthrow of Tsar Nicholas II and the subsequent seizure of power by Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks.

Many nobles fled from Russia, while others died or were murdered during the Russian Civil War and the earliest days of the Soviet Union, but many survived and remained in their motherland, hoping that the turmoil would run its course and that some sort of return to the old regime would occur. Instead, things went from bad to worse as Lenin was succeeded by Joseph Stalin and the nobility, now known as "former people", became scapegoats for the new government as it struggled to create a socialist utopia. Counts and Princes were sentenced to long years of penal servitude in the gulag, often without ever being told what crimes they were supposed to have committed and their families eked out a bare living, sometimes in a corner of their old estates and palaces, sometimes in Siberian or Arctic exile.

When the Bolshevik Revolution came in 1917, the new order began transforming aristocrats into paupers, exiles and corpses. Although the author states that the aristocracy had, of course, flourished on the servitude of others, he tells such wrenching, emotional stories about his characters that it’s easy to forget who once held the power. Searches, arrests, firings, confiscations of property, internal exile, imprisonments, tortures, executions, desecration of graves—were all endured by the “former people”. Smith mentions significant historical events, but his intent is to show how these events affected his characters. He portrays how a new aristocracy—a political one—emerged to enjoy the benefits of living on the labor of others.

Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-rich and the Fall of Everyone Else. By Chrystia Freeland. This book takes you into the world of people who are fixated on their money and how to avoid paying taxes on it. They think differently, spend differently, and have different worries than most of us. It's frightening how many of them use their money to buy influence in the halls of Congress. There is definitely a wider gap today between the rich and those of more modest means.

The content is interesting but the book is not well written. Although the title suggests plutocrats are being contrasted with "everyone else," the author often seems more interested in the supposed fault lines between the merely rich and the super-rich, millionaires versus billionaires, and the plight of the "bottom of the top," those unfortunate, frustrated people who only manage to pull in a few single-digit millions a year. Connected to that is the phenomenon of how, once people reach a high level of wealth and therefore political/social influence, they almost instinctively begin to exert themselves to change the rules and tilt things even more in their favor.

Mostly, this book confirms the widespread belief that plutocrats have no loyalty to anyone but themselves, and, while they might associate with a particular country or two, are essentially countries and governments unto themselves. They have the means to be highly mobile, maintain their own army of security, and ways to circumvent taxes and economic politics. This is not to say that plutocrats are evil people, or that greed is only means that in a globalized environment, they care for no particular perspective other than their own. Even when generous with their contributions to worthwhile causes, they are more focused on protecting a personal empire and live very reclusive, contained lives. Their wealth gives them great power and influence, and also a tremendous amount of fear. But, somehow, I can’t feel sorry for them.