The missile’s nine-megaton thermo­nuclear warhead — the most powerful ever deployed by the United States — was found, relatively intact, in a ditch 200 yards away from the silo.

via The Illusion of Nuclear Safety | Foreign Affairs.



‘Former People’


Former People: The Final Days of the Russian AristocracyFormer People: The Final Days of the Russian Aristocracy by Douglas Smith

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

View all my reviews

Recommended, mostly.

The thing you learn/are reminded of is that Russia was regularly convulsed by violence and insurrection in the decades before, you know, John Reed goes plotz with proletarian delight. This cycle of destruction and death is both backdrop and thread in “Former People,” giving gruesome context to the Bolshevik takeover and propelling countless landlords on midnight flights for their lives.

Particularly compelling are the galleries of photographs that rib the book; these flip past as a kind of tragic stop-motion animation, depicting the steep falls of lordly families in ways that words can’t describe. The despair in the faces is not unlike those mug shots of meth users that can be found on the Internet.

The Times saw in the “evocative photographs of counts and princesses” an eerie echo of Russia’s new, gilded wealth. The Telegraph found “admiration at the victims’ courage,” trudging to poverty or worse in deep snow. I was struck by a different, slightly sour note.

By concentrating on them Smith perhaps gives the unintended impression that the quality of their suffering was unique.

via Former People: The Last Days of the Russian Aristocracy by Douglas Smith – review | Books | The Observer.

(Wow. For once, a reviewer and I see eye to eye.)

Books, of course, have their focus, but because “Former People” is possessed with a pop-history quality — lots of breezy anecdotes, plenty of fudging about dates — its focus at times rang melodramatic. The Russian nobility never merely fled their stately homes, they did so with stoic determination, often with a well-bred blend of cleverness and elan. Which perhaps they did. But there are lots of excerpts from personal letters, and consequently lots of wistfulness for the good old days — which, it is worth remembering, were pretty terrible for nearly everyone else.

What the author does is perform a creditable job in illuminating the related outrages against the aristocracy, which have been relegated to sideshow status in the intervening years. “Former People” makes a readable companion to a history on the Russian revolution, and unlike most history books written today, neatly caps a glaring hole in the record. Just don’t be surprised if you roll your eyes now and then.

French are not only rude but crabby, too.


An entire nation guiding its children towards pessimism and distrust, generation after generation – it sounds like a scenario from the darkest corner of the Soviet bloc.

via Les Miserables: a nation trained in gloom | Les blogs.


‘Peter the Great: His Life and World’

Peter the Great: His Life and WorldPeter the Great: His Life and World by Robert K. Massie

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Consistently interesting, and well-supplied with context.


That I was reading this book prompted a slightly absurd discussion via e-mail with my mother, who apparently considers herself something of an expert on the subject, having once traveled to Russia. “Did you know,” she wrote, “he started a museum to educate the people and no one came and so he gave away free shots of vodka after they went thru museum.” The museum is not there anymore, she said, but there is a gift shop there that still hands out the booze.

I wrote her that I thought he was interesting. And I do. Peter the Great was very curious, and made it a project to learn new things, which made him unusual among his peers. He taught himself carpentry, shipbuilding and, even, minor surgery.

Peter in Holland

“Peter in Holland,” artist unknown, 18th century (Wikipedia).

Yes, surgery. My favorite tidbit was that when he was in Holland, when he wasn’t rubbing elbows with the louts at the shipyard, he started palling around with a doctor. And then started watching dissections. And then (eek!) started performing operations. The author said that members of his court were loath to mention they weren’t feeling well for fear that Peter would want to cut them open. He apparently carried a case of surgical tools everywhere he went for the rest of his life.

My mother replied, “He could be a very mean man.”

I wrote back, “I think all the tsars were mean.”

She said, “Peter was meaner than most.”

“Peter was mean,” I said, “I have no doubt. But there were lots of tsars, you know. One of them was nicknamed ‘the Terrible.’”

She said, “The idea of getting free vodka even hundreds of years later is his best redeeming feature.”

Over all, I think his only redeeming or “great” quality was his energy, and that was only good in the sense of comparing him to his peers. He certainly didn’t do anything to help ordinary Russians; of course, no kings at the time were. Unfortunately, a lot of this energy was directed at provoking his neighbors; for instance, he fights long war against the Swedes, who were meatball-sucking troublemakers enough as it was.

So, Peter the Great was not a “great” guy, and probably not even remarkable if you consider that any tsar would have been free to do some of those things.

But he was interesting.

View all my reviews

Peter the Great and the Lessers

“Marriage of Dwarfs at the Court of Peter the Great”

I am about 200 pages into Robert K. Massie’s biography of Peter the Great, which won the Pulitzer in 1981 and was adapted for an I-do-not-remember-it, Emmy-winning miniseries that aired on NBC in 1986. The book is quite readable, and though it has a few ungainly qualities (none of which I will discuss here) I would recommend it to fans of the era or the subject. One especially bright spot is that Massie leavens Peter’s story with multipage asides on relevant historical events and figures, so just as Peter opens Russia up to the West the reader, too, is allowed to brush the Oriental off his shoulders.

Massie also tosses in a lot of dwarf references. Peter the Great, if the Internet can be believed, was obsessed with dwarfs, which is probably part-nonsense and is, for sure, neither here nor there. But Massie addresses all of this only obliquely and, anyway, displays no irony or other affectation in bringing dwarfs up. Which I suppose is as it should be, but it makes for curious reading when only Russian dwarfs make the cut.

The first mention is that Peter, as a boy, and as already mentioned here, had as playmates a staff of specially trained dwarfs. Which leads me to wonder what those office parties were like. (“So help me, Bob, another week of ‘Hide the Thimble’ and I am joining the circus!”)

It says here that a man raised thusly, and without want, might be forgiven for being obsessed with dwarfs, you know, if that is what he was.

After that, in Massie’s book, dwarfs come up regularly, like the drumbeat of chapter headings. To name a few, they man Peter’s toy carriage (p. 25), which is pulled by four dwarf ponies and, according to Massie, was “a favorite sight on state occasions.” In the bloody uprising of Kremlin guards in 1682 (p. 46), court dwarfs were forced to help the insurgents find their victims, and I think one was fatally cleaved by halberds. And during his so-called Great Embassy, Peter, who traveled with his ambassadors in a kind of incognito as they toured Europe, insisted on bringing along “his favorite dwarf” when the group was to visit the Hague. When Peter was told the carriage was already too crowded, Massie writes (p. 198) that he replied, “Very well, then I’ll put him on my knees.”

I find it all perhaps unnaturally interesting because nowadays it seems that the teenage comedy film cannot be made without some kind of crude, dwarf-based humor. Really, we are standing astride the gawping head of a beastly line of fart gags and short jokes and such that stretches past people like Jason Acuna, of Jackass fame (2001), to Verne Troyer, the Mini-Me of “Austin Powers” (1997), and definitely earlier than that, though I am loath to contemplate who, what and when.

Peter, though, is not likely to have employed his playmates and favorites in humiliating circuses of bawdy humor. (Well, maybe he did.) Here we are talking about a head of state, raised in large part by a whole team of little people, snuggling with a dwarf in a crowded carriage before meeting a foreign king. He apparently arranged lavish weddings and funerals for his dwarfs, too, but more on that later.

And never mind the sable-fringed garments and his royal appurtenances, Peter’s profile would have been striking alongside a tiny retinue: all who met Peter commented on how tall he was.

Yin, Then the Yang

English: New York Mayor, Michael R. Bloomberg.

English: New York Mayor, Michael R. Bloomberg. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If I was a reporter, with a notebook (“Ho’d on, baby; let me get mah notebook!”), this is what I would dump out of it:

  • On the same day that the New York mayor Michael R. Bloomberg proposed taking away one freedom, through a ban on sugary drinks larger than 16 ounces, he signed a bill that provided another, allowing drivers to sell the remaining time on curbside parking receipts to other drivers.
  • To hear some people tell it, Spain’s “banks and government are intertwined in a financial tailspin.” Others say, No, they’re not. Here, though, is why Spanish problems trump Greek ones, whether they are solvable or not. Spain’s G.D.P. is five times bigger than Greece’s, roughly speaking; that is a difference comparable to how much bigger China’s economy is than Spain’s.
  • Outlets of the restaurant chain Just Salad in New York City also serve wraps and soup.


As a boy, Peter the Great of Russia had as playmates a staff of specially-trained dwarfs. (Trust me, it’s true.)

Use With Caution

…salvation is literally at hand, thanks to Rude Hand Gestures of the World, by Romana Lefevre, with photographs by Daniel Castro.

via The Worlds Rudest Hand Gestures – James Gibney – International – The Atlantic.

On Red Menaces

So let’s be honest, Russia isn’t a great power anymore. It’s not rising in any meaningful sense of that word in international relations theory.

via The Duck of Minerva: It’s Time to De-Russianize the BRICS.

Yet besides Pakistan, which depends on China for military and economic assistance, and which China supports mainly as a counterweight against India, Beijing has a shocking lack of real allies.

via The Loneliest Superpower – By Minxin Pei | Foreign Policy.

Turns Out It Did Not Add Up

We find a negative productivity effect on those mathematicians whose research overlapped with that of the Soviets. We also document an increased mobility rate to lower-quality institutions and out of active publishing and a reduced likelihood of producing “home run” papers. Although the total product of the pre-existing American mathematicians shrank, the Soviet contribution to American mathematics filled in the gap.

via The Collapse of the Soviet Union and the Productivity of American Mathematicians.