Half Life: The Divided Life of Bruno Pontecorvo, Physicist or Spy by Frank Close

This is an interesting biography of Bruno Pontecorvo. He was a scientist who defected to the Soviet Union in the cold war. It’s not clear that he was a spy before. It was rather a tragic story.


Inside the Stalin Archives: Discovering the New Russia by Jonathan Brent

This describes Jonathan Brent’s experiences working in the Soviet archives from the early 1990s to the present day. It correlates this to development of the modern Russian state.

It has many interesting stories. I gave a Stalin anecdote I had not heard. In this two alternative architectural drawings for a building were submitted to Stalin for his approval. They were included on one diagram and Stalin signed his approval across both drawings making it unclear which he approved.  Consequently, the building was made with both architectural styles.

Another interesting point is that from 1917 to 1953 (Stalin’s death) was 36 years, and from 1956 (Krushchev’s speech) to 1991 (end of the Soviet Union) was 35 years. So the Soviet period falls into two equal periods with a time of transition.

The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker by Katherine J. Cramer

I read this partly to understand the election of Trump (though the book predates Trump). Also I was drawn since I had some familiarity with the political events, such as the recall election. I was interested in what it might say about modern populism such as the Brexit vote.

Wisconsin has some advantages for a study such as this since it is quite racially homogenous,  I think > 88% non-hispanic white.  This means that race plays a much lower role.


Spies: the Rise and Fall of the KGB in America by John Earl Haynes, Harvey Klehr, and Alexander Vassiliev

This is quite a long and detailed story,  based on archival research, of KGB spying efforts in the US. It concentrates on the period from the 1930s to the late 1950s.

The Fall of the Roman Empire: a New History of Rome and the Barbarians by Peter Heather

I’ve read this before and read it again.  I’m going to enjoy any book that uses lots of sources including archaeological evidence.

Heather suggests the main cause for collapse was the changing political systems of  the Germanic world.  By the 5th century AD this was increasingly large scale and able to deliver the disruption to the western Roman tax base. Once this had been disrupted sufficiently, in particular with the loss of North Africa, the state could not survive.

The eastern empire carried on for another 1000 years, but there was no successor to the western empire. For example, the Carolingian state only lasted for a few generations. The suggestion is that the Roman state had maintained a professional army which gave it more central cohesion, and once there was insufficient tax revenue to support this the empire died.

The division between the west and eastern empires is explained by bureaucratic necessity due to the poor communications of the times.  I’ve always wondered how this could be stable.  It also makes the point that in the 4th century a reigning emperor only visited Rome 4 or 5 times.

The Marne, 1914: the Opening of World War I and the Battle that Changed the World by Holger H. Herwig

This is a well written and well organized account of the Battle of the Marne. The type of events it describes are those which can be quite confused and hard to collect in a narrative such as this. It is interesting to compare these events with those of the Battle of France in 1940.