Robin Knight on contemplating and curating bookshelves - Slightly Foxed Issue 25

Shelves of My Life

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There is a long shelf in our house with 66 books on it. Nothing unusual about that. But every one of these books has a powerful story to tell. Every one contains a memory. They speak to me on those evenings when I relax in a comfortable chair, with music playing in the background, and think back over the past forty years.

You see, all the books on this shelf are about Russia and the Soviet Union. I began collecting them at university but really got into full flow before, during and after a three-year spell in the late 1970s when I lived and worked in Moscow as a foreign correspondent for an American news magazine. A bit of a hiatus ensued after my wife and I left the USSR in 1979, but eventually perestroika prevailed, I resumed visiting what is now Russia in the late 1980s and continued doing so until quite recently – all the while adding to my book collection.

Right at the centre of the shelf are two books that defined my first period in Moscow – The Russians by Hedrick Smith and Russia by Robert Kaiser. Smith worked for the New York Times and Kaiser for the Washington Post, and the two of them were based in the Soviet capital in the same years in the early 1970s. Each day they competed against one another and then, when they left Moscow, they did so all over again through their books. Both were published in 1976, when I was struggling to learn Russian. They remain brilliant evocations of a lost era.

Of the two, Smith’s is livelier and more vivid, Kaiser’s darker and more nuanced. At the time they appeared, people were sharply divided over which one they preferred. Yet even today, more than thirty years later, I can remember the frisson I felt on a beach in Pembrokeshire in the scorching summer of 1976 as I read Smith’s brilliant and affectionate portrait of a people and country kept in thrall by a calamitous political system. Milovan Djilas, the Yugoslav dissident and one-time friend of Tito, d

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About the contributor

Robin Knight was a news magazine foreign correspondent for 28 years. Between 1976 and 1979 he travelled 50,000 miles in the Soviet Union but still was amazed when Communism collapsed within a decade of his departure. He says there is no connection.

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