Friday, December 21, 2018


Happy solstice, everyone!

I have not been very consistent this year about writing in this blog, despite my resolution last year. After a flurry of posts in January (Flattery at the Money Cage, Stalin as Reviewer #2, Democracy Data, Updated, and Charisma and Representation), I only wrote one other thing - my piece Against Renaming Victoria. (About which - the no change position won, at least for now; and I’m proud to have been an early participant in the “stick with Vic” campaign). The “Charisma and Representation” piece was the most popular of these posts; and I’m currently working on a more academic version of the arguments there. Thank you all for reading!

I also published a paper of potential interest to this blog’s readership: “Two Models of Political Leader Cults: Propaganda and Ritual” (ungated version here); but my other research projects took a bit of a beating at the hands of increased administrative responsibilities. (Still, more is coming - and perhaps will be previewed in this blog if I can find the time next year).

In the spirit of the holiday season, here are some reading recommendations:


  • Possibly the best book I read (or rather, finished reading) this year was Yuri Slezkine’s The House of Government. It’s not an easy book – it’s more like 3 or 4 books in one, including an essay about the Bolsheviks as a millenarian sect, an interpretation of pre-WWII Soviet literature, a history of the private lives of the residents of the “House on the Embankment” told through their letters and personal reminiscences, and a tribute to Yuri Trifonov’s work – but for readers with some background about the history of the period the overall effect is magnificent. I’ve been mulling over writing a long post about it, which will probably never get written.
  • Slezkine’s work also led me to read some of Trifonov’s novels – The House on the Embankment and Another Life, both of which I found powerfully moving in their reflections about memory and identity. I also finally read The Master and Margarita, a book that I finally feel I understand a bit. (I had tried reading it years ago, and never got past about the halfway point). Lots more “serious” literature this year than last! Perhaps I enjoyed these now only because I could understand some of their background better; and yet I still feel like I barely know anything about Soviet society. (This is how historians must feel all the time).
  • I did lots of other communist-related reading this year, including A. James McAdams’ Vanguard of the Revolution: The Global Idea of the Communist Party (a sort of global history of communist parties - I learned a lot from this!); Kevin Morgan’s International Communism and the Cult of the Individual (a history of communist leader cults in the West); Wang Shaoguang’s Failure of Charisma: The Cultural Revolution in Wuhan (a really interesting analysis of what I might call the “irrelevance of charisma” in the Cultural Revolution, written by a former Red Guard turned political scientist). If I had some time, I would write more about all of these; though these books are primarily for specialists, they are all quite interesting…
  • I finally took a crack at Leszek Kolakowski’s Main Currents of Marxism; I found volume I really useful in thinking about what was utopian in the communist projects of the 20th century. (And the fact that I had to give a public lecture on Marx spurred me to actually read it).
  • Lest you think I actually have any taste, I also read I lot of sci-fi. I enjoyed Ada Palmer’s Terra Ignota series, though I thought the third volume flagged a little. And I always enjoy anything by Charles Stross - this year’s Dark State and The Labyrinth Index were great fun. (I’m a fan of the Cthulhu+bureaucracy genre that Stross has perfected).

Other Stuff Online

As usual, there’s a lot more worth sharing, but this is probably enough for now. Happy summer solstice / winter solstice / Christmas / Festivus / Yule / Newtonmass / Toxcatl to all!