Sunday, May 12, 2019

The Whispering Past

One of the things that intrigues me about genealogy are the little glimpses of history. There are so many things we take for granted, never considering that at one time they were discoveries or innovations that affected the future, our present. Even past kindnesses create future impacts. The past and our present frequently rub shoulders and because I do genealogy research for others, I stumble across these encounters with greater frequency. 

 I’ve had two recent encounters that arose from my genealogy research for clients. In one I was recently contacted by a gentleman with a complicated family history, but not a Jewish one. While I do some research outside of Jewish heritage, I was surprised that he contacted me. I soon learned that there was a connection to a Jewish family for which his grandfather worked. We weren’t sure if the relationship went deeper, but there seemed to be a suggestion that it did. 

Part of my research for them was to trace the path of the Jewish family as we followed the connections between them. All we knew of them was that the husband was in card manufacture. We weren’t quite sure what that meant when we started. I was picturing those old greeting cards that one often finds in antique shops.  As I worked my way back through the 1800s, I discovered that this was a family business that he inherited from his father who also had inherited it from his father. It began with his grandfather Lewis Cohen who was born in Pennsylvania in 1800. Lewis was an inventor. And those cards were playing cards. Lewis Cohen ran a stationary business based in NY and that business seemed to drive his inventions and improvements. 

In 1833, a fair was held for new inventions. It was discussed in a mechanics journal which lauded a New York company for their "beautiful specimens of ornamental borders for cards and other purposes." They noted that it was an art that was popular in England, but just recently introduced to the US. They then proceeded to diss Cohen by stating, "Mr. Cohen, of William street, also exhibited some, but we think much inferior to Wright & Co." 

That must have irked Cohen who had printed his first deck only a year before. It is interesting to see how the tides shifted. In 1835 he invented a four-color press which allowed him to print in four colors with one pass. That enabled him to take over the market for playing cards and build a business which lasted for many generations until it was dissolved in a merger in 1962.

In addition to the four-color press, he is credited with bringing the lead pencil to America as well as the steel point pen. So, what did that steel point pen replace? Why the quill of course. A sense of history settled around me with that realization. Why it was just a short time before that quills were used to sign our founding documents. 

Sometimes the past has nothing to do with building the family fortune, at least in terms of monetary measures. Kindnesses too can reverberate through history. One such discovery arose out of our travels to Lithuania last year. It was my first visit back in almost ten years since I had attended the Vilnius Yiddish Institute. This time I was bringing my husband along to introduce him to this town filled with memories of deep friendships and intense study. 

I had been wandering around the airport and upon my return was surprised to find my husband, a rather reserved man, in conversation with some other passengers, two brothers who were waiting for the same flight. I learned they were on a bit of a roots trip. We enjoyed our conversation, proceeded to catch an Uber together and later met for dinner. As we moved on in our travels, we kept in contact by text. Upon our return, I checked in with them and they asked me to research their family. They had discovered they lacked the information to do a meaningful roots trip and learned of my work as a genealogy consultant. My efforts proved successful and I was able to tie them back several generations into Lithuania. They were interested in history, but also connections with living relatives, so I began to work forward and across their tree to cousins. Through those efforts, I connected with a family of like name in New Orleans and learned the following story.

Louis Armstrong was born in 1901 and lived in New Orleans. He became close to a Jewish family named Karnofsky which had five boys, some close in age. As a child he was hired to ride on a rag truck belonging to Mr Karnofsky. His job was to blow a whistle to let people know they were in the area. Louis found a horn in a pawn shop for sale and the story is that Mr. Karnofsky either bought it for him or advanced him the money.  That was his first horn and it launched a legend. 

Armstrong was very close to the family and frequently shared meals with them. They encouraged him to sing as well as to play. Armstrong talked of how the Karnofskys instilled in him "singing from the heart." He developed a taste for Jewish food and later in life wore a Star of David around his neck and had a mezuzah on his door. Who wouldn't want that story in their family history?

I'm a fan of time travel literature in which a common theme is that if you go back in time and take even the slightest action, you can make changes that reverberate through history. If that is indeed true, it also means that actions taken today may affect the future just as Mr Cohen and Mr Karnofsky once did. The past whispers around us, but we need to listen carefully. 


Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Where Paintings Come From

The Heartbeat  2019  Susan Weinberg
Do you ever wonder where paintings come from? Well, sometimes so do the artists. Lately my own work seems to be veering off into new directions and I trace its evolution, fascinated by the process itself.

 I was recently tasked with a project that is a partnership between Israeli and U.S. artists. We are each to develop an image based on a theme of exploring the intersections between art, science and Judaism. We then react to our partner’s artwork, each then creating a new image. I’ve written of the first effort, now I am at the reaction piece. In this case I had a starting point, my response to my partner’s image. Now I am somebody who always has a lot to say about my artwork, witness this blog.  My partner represents the alternate school of thought, she tells me that she doesn’t name her paintings because she wants people to see whatever they see in them. 

I had a clue though, she told me that a particular image related to the Weizmann Institute, an Israeli scientific institution that has harbored and trained many scientists. We visited it on our last trip to Israel and I was blown away. The way in which ideas were communicated was extraordinary and effectively bridged the distance to nonscientists.

 My partner’s piece had collage-like elements artfully composed. The one that particularly drew my attention was composed of two larger figures each pointing in opposite directions, sending smaller figures off in different directions. I later learned they were scientists, but they reminded me of refugees. That in turn reminded me of a book I had read by Katie Marton called The Great Escape: Nine Jews Who Fled Hitler and Changed the World. It had traced the journey of nine Budapest Jews who fled the Holocaust, finding their way to the United States and Great Britain. Many of them were in fact scientists, all were pivotal in their field. Each brought their expertise with them, benefiting their new country with their creative work and discoveries. 

 I began to explore Jews in science which led me to the Nobel prize list, 20% Jewish versus .2% in the general population. Most Jews can quote those figures as it is a source of deep pride. So, what causes this preponderance? Clearly there is a Jewish connection and I theorize that the questioning nature of the religion and the outsider status of Jews is a contributing element. To create you need to question and to be able to see the world through fresh eyes, to be a bit of a renegade and not accept the conventional wisdom. Creation is living on the edge, not knowing exactly where you’re going to end up. Both science and art draw upon a creative process as they find their way into the unknown.

I began to explore discoveries by those of Jewish heritage. It is a long list, spanning many disciplines. I noticed that many inventions related to the heart: pacemakers, defibrillators and even the first practical system of electrocardiography were attributed to those of Jewish heritage. The Torah looks to the heart as the seat of wisdom with over 900 mentions. Jews have certainly expended a lot of energy and wisdom towards keeping it beating.

Heart and defibrillator
polio virus and vaccine
In painting I began with a Star of David, not static, but flying into space, almost dancing. A heart sits in the middle of it, the beating heart of Judaism, defibrillation paddles on either side lest it falter. Collaged in are symbols of scientific discoveries by Jews, nuclear chain reaction, quantum mechanics, computer technology, the polio vaccine and the virus it was to conquer. Many discoveries spread out across the world to nations with greater freedom and less bigotry as Jews fled antisemitism.   
Scientists as refugees
What were the sources that fed my iconography? I’ve mentioned the book which caused me to think of refugees, spreading their discoveries around the world. I took the small figures from my partner’s painting and reproduced and reassembled them. Her scientists became scientists as refugees. 

canary in the coal mine

 Antisemitism came to mind as I’ve been working with a friend who is a Holocaust survivor on a presentation on that theme. We talked of the role that long-standing antisemitism played in the Holocaust and its reemergence today. That led me to think of the canary in the coal mine, Jews are targeted whenever bigotry is on the rise. A canary flew into my image, landing on the star. 

 The heart reminded me of a heartbeat. As I considered how to show one, an EKG came to mind. In fact, a man of Jewish heritage was important in its development. The refugees echo the line of the EKG, rising and falling.

 Another subtle influence was the home I lived in for a month in Lithuania when I attended the Vilnius Yiddish Institute. It was an artist’s home and his large canvases filled the walls. The dominant color was white, but not plain white. White over other colors, small iconography showing through. His work spoke to me and the power of white obscuring, but allowing a glimpse, stayed with me.
Some happy accidents came in as well. The original background was a reddish iron oxide, but a heavier application of white on one of the collaged images caused me to imagine the entire background in white. It is always a bit scary to paint over what you have, fearful that you will destroy it and there are always some unintended consequences. The star became more dominant. Just as in cooking, I found I needed to add something to counterbalance.  I collaged in some decorative papers to soften the line and realized that if I let it float above the star it created greater depth.

There is a back-and-forth movement. I draw from reading, writing, discussion and research. I am influenced by my visual surroundings, the images of science and a bit of free association. I may not know exactly where I’m heading, but I gauge my direction as I go, experimenting as I step into the unknown.

Friday, April 5, 2019

Turning Folklore to Fact

“I often get thrown out of archives and museums at closing time,” I remarked. I was at the local Family History Library with a genealogy client as we watched closing time quickly approach, too quickly.

“Most people say that about bars,” he quipped. 

I burst into laughter. Yes, I thirst for information and art! The places we don't want to leave are indeed telling.

We had come to the local Family History Library (FHL), a small room with computers housed in a Church of Latter-day Saints, a satellite library to the mothership in Utah. I had begun my own genealogy research almost twenty years ago in a similar room at one of the local churches, venturing hesitantly into what felt like a foreign environment. Then it was filled with microfilm readers. That part at least had felt familiar.  I had once distributed microfilm reels in my job at the college library research room. Many years had passed between that early job and that first visit to the FHL and not much had changed.There has, however, been a sea change since I began my genealogy quest twenty years ago, most of it as more records become available on-line.

I recalled an early visit when I curiously studied a microfilm reel of Polish vital records, trying to make sense of the language. It took me yet further back to a childhood memory of studying a book before I could read, the letters just curious marks that I desperately wanted to decipher. I’ve been trying to break codes and solve mysteries ever since.

Soon I had taken the next step of going out to the Utah Family History Library with a group of Jewish genealogists. The library is a large multi-story building across a wide avenue from the Mormon Tabernacle. There I would spend a week happily glued to a microfilm reader from early morning until dusk when they ushered me to the door.  I cranked through the records of the Polish town of my grandfather, no longer intimidated by those foreign records. 

That first visit felt both foreign and familiar.  Looking back, it was when I first re-entered the Jewish community. I had grown up in a Jewish home but done little in that community since. Married to a non-Jewish spouse and without children, I had little to connect me to my Jewish heritage. Family history drew me back in and ironically to the place of my birth, Salt Lake City. My father had been the only non-Mormon professor in his department at the university. My parents spoke fondly of their time there and of the Jewish community. I had no memories of it having left as a toddler. Years later, genealogy took me back to the town of my birth, a Jewish kid born at Holy Cross Hospital in Mormon country. How fitting that I should be exploring my roots where I began. The group of Jewish genealogists felt oddly familiar, like I knew them from somewhere. Many became good friends over time. Less familiar were the people who staffed the library, helpful Mormons who called each other brother and sister. 

Twenty years later the library and its satellites have changed dramatically as they are scanning all those films and moving to digital. No longer do they send microfilm to church libraries across the country. The tradeoff is that many records are indexed by name and the original records are often available on-line at their site familysearch.org. The transcription is more complete than what you’ll find on Ancestry.com. For example, marriage records will often also provide the additional information of parents’ names, a particularly valuable piece of data.

My client’s family folklore was that family had been part of agricultural communities established by Baron de Hirsch. Baron de Hirsch was an important figure in Jewish history. An extremely wealthy man, he established a fund in 1891 to help settle Jewish immigrants in the US and Canada through agricultural colonies and trade schools. We had found a newspaper mention of a family member as an early settler so we were optimistic in our search.

Most people go to familysearch.com and click on the first item in the dropdown, Records. This allows them to search by a family member’s name.  But not all the records are indexed and listed by name so they are only finding a portion of what is available. I wondered if I could access a broader universe by another door. I recalled how I used to access information in those long-ago visits at the Utah library. As it wasn’t then available by an individual’s name, I had searched for the original source by town and then sought an index within the document to lead me to the record.



I went to Search and then to Catalog. There I could search by place. I put in the town and up popped land records. When I pulled it up, an icon came up.

A reel icon means microfilm which is generally not accessible outside of large libraries or the the main one in Utah. If you are lucky, a camera image appears which allows you to search a series of images taken from the film. Sometimes a key shows up over the camera. That means you can only access the record at the FHL. 

The land records were among them and we were there that day in search of those records. An alphabetical index was available. We could barely contain our excitement when those familiar names appeared in the index. We moved to the actual record where we found that they had a wide variety of spellings even within the same record. Vs and Bs and Ws were all interchangeable. We found the first purchases in 1893 by his great-grandfather, just two years after the fund began. The actual record showed the buyer and seller, a description of the land, the purchase price and who was present. 

But there was a surprise. Family folklore was that his great-great grandmother had also come to America and later gone to Israel. She flitted ghost-like through story, but we had found nothing to verify her existence. There her name was listed along with his great-grandfather as the first buyer of property in the family. We know she was there because the record indicates that she was present. And to tie it with a bow, one of the purchases was actually from the Baron de Hirsch fund. 


Thursday, March 28, 2019

In Our Image

Today I arrived at my studio to find a post-it tacked to my door from a fellow artist. Was I available to help with a spreadsheet problem? I was grateful for a task I knew how to do. In truth it felt like a much easier undertaking than writing a blog or doing a painting, my original mission for the day. 

Soon I had found an easy fix to her dilemma and had her spreadsheet humming. After that bit of fruitful procrastination, I sat down in my studio to tackle my more difficult task, writing this long-neglected blog post on a topic on which I've been feeling my way.

As my artwork contains stories, I have to be able to share the underlying story or concept succinctly. I’ve been wrestling with how to explain a difficult concept that underlies a painting.  It is one thing to paint, another to create a story that stays with the viewer.  Usually I am much more facile at such tasks, but this time I seem to be a bit stumped, in part because it is in science, a realm that is not my natural environment. 

So here's the project: Together with an Israeli artist as my partner, I was to address the theme of Judaism, art and science. We each create one piece of art on the theme and then share it digitally with our partner. We then modify and re-interpret our partner's artwork, creating a new work of art. While I have tackled many disciplines over time, science is most decidedly not my area of expertise. I began in my usual fashion, doing some research. In addition to Internet research, I read a book called Judaism, Physics and God by Rabbi David Nelson. Well that isn't exactly how it worked. First I carried the book around for a month hoping I would absorb it by osmosis, a scientific concept that unfortunately didn't work in this case. Did I mention that the topic both intrigues and intimidates me?

In Our Image
The book is an exploration of science as metaphor by a non-scientist. Metaphor is often the material of artwork, so I knew I was in the right realm. Nelson explores such topics as the big bang, quantum mechanics, chaos theory, relativity and string theory. With his training as a rabbi, he relates them to Judaism as metaphor, the other part of the equation. 

I was soon captivated by one theme in particular, fractals. Fractals are a fairly recent concept, having been identified in 1975 by Benoit Mandelbrot, a European-born Jewish mathematician. They rose to greater visibility with the advent of the computer which allowed a level of modeling previously not available. They can be used to explain things that can't be defined by Euclidean geometry because of their complexity and variation. As Mandelbrot once said, "Clouds are not spheres, mountains are not cones, coastlines are not circles and bark is not smooth, nor does lightning travel in a straight line."  Fractals allow for the complexity in the world. 


A fractal has a pattern of irregularity that is consistent throughout. It is as if you took a head of cauliflower and broke off a section. It would have a pattern that echoed the original. They call this "self-similarity." Think of them as irregular, repeating and essentially infinite as you can keep repeating the same form on smaller and smaller levels. Fractals also make use of chaos theory. What we used to think of as chaotic, may actually be part of a larger pattern.  Fractals are reflected in nature and in the human body. You will find them in lightening and in the branching of rivers, trees and clouds. In the human body you will find them in the bronchi of the lungs, the blood vessels and nervous system. With computers we can create fractals by formulas that govern such elements as branching.
Fractals are often beautiful images in their own right. I became intrigued with turning paintings into fractals using some on-line software. I dropped my painting into it and came up with the image below.
Fractal of painting
The study of fractals allows us to examine concepts that often appeared irregular and unpredictable but have an order and logic of their own. They have been used to study such diverse ideas as the growth of bacteria, traffic patterns and the stock market.

And so I began to paint. I decided to stay with the natural world and weave together three fractal images, trees, rivers and clouds. Within the tree you will find a fractal formula for branching. The clouds are modeled on an actual image somewhat stylized. 


So where does the Judaism piece come in? Look in the middle of the spiral and you will find a passage from the Bible that reads "Let us make man in our image after our likeness." Apparently God speaks in the royal we. I am intrigued with the way the universe has an internal logic that is repeating and reflected throughout many forms, from trees and clouds to the human body. I am also drawn to the idea that what appears random and chaotic may not actually be. 

I can't claim to understand fractals in all their nuances, certainly not through a scientific lens. And yet as someone who is always trying to understand the world, they do speak to me as a metaphor for life, recognizing complexity as part of a larger pattern that echoes throughout the world. On a more personal level we begin to see the patterns that repeat within our own life and the unexpected turbulence that moves it forward. And if it is all part of a larger pattern, perhaps we need a bird's eye view to fully see what surrounds us.

If you'd like to learn more about fractals, here are a few sites with additional information.

The Man Who Reshaped Geometry -great piece on Mandelbrot
Make Fractals of Images  -software to convert an image using fractals

Saturday, February 16, 2019

Loosening the Reins

This is the time of year when I inevitably assess whether I am going to maintain this blog. I suppose it is a form of writer’s block that strikes with the regularity of a winter cold. This year feels particularly significant as I began the blog in 2009 so have completed ten years and over 400 blog posts. Who knew I had so much to say? 

 While many blogs seek to have one theme to find their audience, I have to confess that one theme would bore me. As my life is multi-faceted, so is this blog. If one topic doesn’t interest you, hopefully another will. Over the past decade I have traced my travels through 13 countries and reported on 140 of my favorite books. I introduced you to my artwork, my various projects, my genealogy research and my exploration of my Jewish heritage. I’ve explored my life as I redesigned it post-career, dealt with aging parents, their ultimate loss and the reframing of my world in their absence. Just when I think I’ve said everything I have to say, the world tilts and new things appear on the horizon.

This blog began with six weeks in Eastern Europe where I went to study Yiddish. I wrote every day thinking it would be a travel journal as I explored the language of my ancestors and the Holocaust in Eastern Europe. I had done a travel journal before when we spent a month in China, but it wasn’t public. This was my first time putting it before a wider audience and I was a bit shy about it. You know the phrase “dance like nobody’s watching?” Well I was writing like nobody’s reading. I must confess that I’ve often been surprised when people know unexpected details about my life because I forgot people were reading.

When I came home from Eastern Europe, I realized that I really loved the thoughtfulness that regular writing engenders. It deepened my experience. To cease writing would have left a hole in my life.

I remember reading a book by Barbara Kingsolver years ago. One of her characters in her internal dialogue beautifully captured a thought of mine. It was an odd moment of recognition, of being understood by someone who didn’t know me, yet expressed what was apparently a shared thought, that I had until that moment thought was unique to me. When I write, I hope that I will strike that chord in someone else.

When I first started doing life drawing, I began going to several drawing coops each week. It changed the way I saw the world. If we were speaking together, you might have wondered about how intently I seemed to be watching you. I was mentally drawing you, studying the shadows and lines, the nuances that made you who you were. When  I no longer went to the drawing co-op, that way of seeing receded. Writing regularly is a bit like that too. In the normal course of our days we observe small details that make us think, passing thoughts that might spark curiosity and a desire to contemplate them further. If we don’t write, they slip away into our busy lives. Writing causes us to dig a little deeper, to explore the underlying meaning and maybe have an insight that draws the world into greater clarity.

Up until last year I had been very disciplined about writing, targeting four blogs a month. Then I consciously abandoned some of my discipline and cut that in half to make room for other things in my life. I think we all need to learn different things in life and usually it is the opposite of what we know. As a highly disciplined person, at least in some spheres of my life, I half-jokingly called it laziness and sloth. In truth, I do need to loosen the reins. I’m still finding this new rhythm and balance, the necessary intensity to see the world differently yet make room for other things within my life.  I know if I said I’m closing it down, the next week I’d have some fabulous insight I’d want to share. So, you’ll continue to see this blog periodically when the spirit moves me. I hope you’ll stay tuned.


Saturday, January 19, 2019

Common Threads


Each year I write about my notable reading from the prior year. While reading on Russian topics dominated my reading last year, I wanted to share three additional books that were unusual and thought-provoking. It was not until I began to write about them that I realized they have many threads in common.  See if you can find them. 


I read In the Dark Room by Susan Faludi because she was coming to town and I was planning to attend her lecture.  I was intrigued by the intersecting themes, a difficult father, with a Holocaust history, who returned to Hungary where he grew up and then became transgender in his 70s. The author explores her relationship with this difficult man turned woman. Faludi is a bit of a detective in her approach as she explores Budapest, its history and that of her family, and of course her father and the complex and changing relationship between them. As a feminist who writes about the female experience, as well as the male experience, she brings a thoughtful and often compassionate lens to that exploration. 

The Last Palace by Norm Eisen took me from Faludi’s Budapest to nearby Prague where he views its history through the lens of a house. There is another lens as well, also a parent. Eisen’s mother, a Holocaust survivor from Czechoslovakia, is interwoven throughout the book, the voice in the back of Eisen’s head.  Now this is not just any house, but a palace erected by Otto Petschek, a Jewish coal and financial baron, who built the home after WWI to express his artistic vision. Vision became obsession and the house ultimately took seven years to build and nearly bankrupt him. Petschek didn’t get to enjoy it for long, dying just three years after completion. His family then fled Czechoslovakia in 1938  as the Nazis came to power.  The next occupant was a German general who was captivated by the building. The Nazi ownership is still found in a small swastika beneath a table marking their presence. The palace became a home for US ambassadors, including Eisen, who takes us through the residents and the history, from Soviet domination to democracy. My favorite scene in the book involves Shirley Temple Black who was in the country during the time of the 1968 Prague Spring and witnessed its destruction by the Soviets. She returns in the late 1980s as the ambassador where she witnesses the shift to democracy through the “Velvet Revolution.” Black gathered her staff together and solemnly announced that she was only going to do this once. She then proceeded to sing and dance “On the Good Ship Lollipop” in joyful celebration.


I’ve read a lot of Holocaust literature over time, but as you can see, it often rears its head unexpectedly.  A third book also took me into those who were touched by the Holocaust. I was heading off to Warsaw for the International Jewish Genealogy conference. I noted on the schedule that Glenn Kurtz was speaking about his book Three Minutes in Poland and decided to read it in preparation for his talk. Kurtz found a film of his grandparent’s trip to Europe in 1938. Within it are three minutes that capture an ancestral town in Poland, on the cusp of destruction. Kurtz begins to explore the people and the place captured within those three minutes. A woman recognizes her grandfather in the film footage as a young boy. He looks amazingly the same. He connects to another survivor of the town and the networking begins.

 Now I found this personally interesting as I had a similar story on an ancestral town but had explored it in a different fashion. I do the website for Jewishgen on the town of Radom, Poland, home of my paternal grandfather.  In building the website I had run across a film of the community from 1937. I put stills on the website and then decided to do a series of paintings called a Hole in Time based on that imagery. I was asked to exhibit it in my grandfather’s town, coming full circle. I had searched for the story behind it and was initially unsuccessful in finding the owner. Ultimately the niece of the photographer found me and told me the occasion of the film was two family weddings. She still has the original film which has since been digitized.

So, what were those common threads? Each author brings investigative skills, a parent or grandparent plays a significant role and the history of their ancestral town is a presence as well. As each author has Jewish heritage, the Holocaust has become interwoven with their personal family history. In each book, layering complex themes with an unusual entry point results in a textured and interesting story.

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Between the Pages: Reading on Russia

Each year I write a post on my reading from the prior year. Often, my reading focuses on specific topics and this year Russia took center stage. My Russia reading was in preparation for a trip we took there through the Museum of Russian Art. Our group included two authors, R.D. Zimmerman (Robert Alexander-pen name) and Douglas Smith. Zimmerman writes historical fiction and Smith writes about history in a manner that feels like an engaging novel. Their books had been recommended to me so I was quite delighted to learn that they would be accompanying us. They each brought a perspective to our experience in Russia that was especially meaningful, and you will note their books on my list. 

For anyone who is interested in traveling to Russia or just understanding this complex and often puzzling country, here’s the background reading that prepared me for our travels.


The Czars
I began with the Czars and particularly Catherine the Great who began the art collection now held at the Hermitage. I was surprised at how easy it was to relate to her as a person. She was intellectually curious, strategic, thoughtful and passionate about both learning and art. German-born, she stepped into Russian culture and accepted it as her own. I was also struck by the complexity of Russia, the enormous land mass and cultures within it, the economic and cultural divide between nobility, peasants and serfs. It was not an easy country to govern and Catherine, while initially idealistic, brought a steady hand and a realistic appraisal of the dangers it presented. 

Massey’s Catherine the Great is a good foray into this period and introduces the reader to Catherine and her evolution from a young girl in a troubled marriage to a powerful and respected Czar.  The Pearl, by Douglas Smith, explores the love affair and marriage between the richest Russian noble of the time and his serf, something which was unthinkable at that time in history.  In doing so, it paints a picture of what life was like as a serf. Serfdom encompassed 23 million Russians when it was eliminated in 1861. Its history created a fault line within Russia that may still reverberate today. Both of these books are nonfiction but read like a novel.

The Russian Revolution
Catherine lived from 1729 to 1796. Her husband was the grandson of Peter the Great and was a Romanov by birth. The Romanov reign concluded with Nicholas II, their 3rdgreat-grandson.  Nicholas was born in 1868 and murdered along with his family by the Bolsheviks in 1918 after the Russian revolution. Three books paint the picture of this era. The non-fiction Nicholas and Alexandra, by Massey, explores how the Russian revolution came about and the actions of Nicholas and his wife that contributed to that destabilization. The Kitchen Boy, by R.D. Zimmerman, is a fictionalized account, beginning at their imprisonment and telling the tale up until their deaths. Former People, by Douglas Smith, takes a look at the fearsome losses suffered by Russian nobility who were lucky to escape with their lives.

These books took me up to and through the revolution, but it was in a book of historical fiction that I began to get the flavor of what it was like to live in a totalitarian regime, particularly as an artist. The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes takes you into the mind of the composer Shostakovich in Soviet times. He is alternatingly feted and condemned by Stalin. Shostakovich struggled to use his talents in a totalitarian regime that dictated what was acceptable, offering rewards if he conformed and terror if he didn’t. How he strikes this difficult bargain is the material of his life and this book.

Also in this category, I would recommend a prior-year book that I've previously written about by one of my favorite authors, Masha Gessen, Ester and Ruyza: How My Grandmothers survived Hitler's War and Stalin's Peace.

The Fall of the Soviet Union
At first, I found myself thinking in terms of two Russias, Czarist Russia and Soviet Russia, forgetting that there is yet another Russia, the one that exists today after the fall of the Soviet Union. Two books help to paint the picture of the Russia today, one from the perspective of an American-born British financier, the other from that of an ex-pat Russian.  You may have heard of the Magnitsky Act, legislation that can freeze assets of human-rights offending individuals and prevent them from coming to the United States. Basically, this law closes off the avenues by which they can hide or enjoy their often stolen money. In retaliation, Russia forbade adoption of Russian children, the purported subject of the Trump Tower meeting. See, it all connects to politics. Author Bill Broder was the key person lobbying for this act after his lawyer was imprisoned and murdered by the Russians following the theft and looting of Broder's investment fund by the Russian oligarchs. His retelling of this saga in Red Notice is a gripping story.

The other book that rounds out the picture is by Masha Gessen who was born in Russia, but has since moved to the United States. Gessen does a thoughtful exploration into totalitarianism through multiple lens in her National Book Award winner, The Future is History. She follows the lives of several protagonists who were born at the time of Gorbachev's reforms as their search for personal autonomy collides with the political environment. I learned that many Russians, viewed the collapse of the Soviet Union as a loss, weakening their place in the world and creating instability in their life, hence the broad support for Putin. At the conclusion of the book, Gessen explores totalitarianism and I found myself reflecting on today’s push towards totalitarianism in the US.

The Art of Russia
I rounded out my reading with two books focused on art in Russia. The Empress of Art by Susan Jacques looks at the various collections that entered the Hermitage under Catherine’s reign. While interesting background for scholars, it was a lot of detail that I found challenging to retain. What I found more interesting was the book My Hermitage by Mikhail Piotrovsky, the director of the museum, which explores collections, but adds the most important element, images of the actual work.

You will find a listing of these books below. Stay tuned for other books that I recommend from my past year of reading.

The Czars
Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman, by Robert Massey
The Pearl: A True Tale of Forbidden Love in Catherine the Great’s Russia, by Douglas Smith

The Russian Revolution & Soviet Rule
Nicholas and Alexandra by Robert Massey
Former People by Douglas Smith
The Kitchen Boy by R.D. Zimmerman
The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes
Ester and Ruyza: How My Grandmothers Survived Hitler's War and Stalin's Peace by Masha Gessen

The Fall of the Soviet Union
Red Notice by Bill Broder

The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia by Masha Gessen


Art of Russia
The Empress of Art: Catherine the Great and the Transformation of Russia by Susan Jaques

My Hermitage: How the Hermitage Survived Tsars, Wars, and Revolutions to Become the Greatest Museum in the World by Mikhail Piotrovsky