Posted by Ed
The 2004 Pulitzer Prizes have now been announced, and two awards went to books in Soviet history: William Taubman won the Pulitzer in biography for Khrushchev: The Man and His Era and Anne Applebaum won the prize in general nonfiction for Gulag: A History.
I'm a little embarrassed to admit that I haven't read either book in its entirety. My sense is that a lot of Soviet historians aren't huge fans of the Applebaum book: I'm told that the middle sections are solidly written and researched, but that the opening and the conclusion frame the discussion in terms that most professional historians of the Soviet Union would object to. (Unfortunately, the more questionable theoretical sections of the book have arguably had a larger impact on understanding of Soviet history than the more empirical sections in between.) I've read about half of Taubman's book, which struck me--in general--as an excellent introduction to Khrushchev's life for the non-expert. Certain passages struck me as a little misleading about the current state of the historiography, but mostly in ways that a non-expert wouldn't notice.
Neal Ascherson reviewed Khrushchev in The London Review last summer, and his essay included one passage so delightful that I just have to repeat it:
His personality was horribly deformed; his crimes were unforgivable. And yet his lust for the new was disarming. I will never forget a story Taubman tells about his London visit in 1956. What, he asked his Foreign Office escort, was that odd 'oo, oo!' noise coming from the back of the crowd? The diplomat explained that people were booing, an expression of disapproval. Khrushchev grew thoughtful. In the back of the car, he said experimentally to himself: 'Boo!' And then again: 'Boo!' He liked it. For the rest of the day, he went around exclaiming 'Boo!' to all kinds of puzzled people. He had learned something.