Saturday, June 4, 2011

Steven A. Barnes

Steven A. Barnes is associate professor of history and director of the Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at George Mason University. He is part of the group behind the Russian History Blog.

Barnes's new book is Death and Redemption: The Gulag and the Shaping of Soviet Society.

Last month I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
I’m always reading a number of different books—books for the history courses I teach at George Mason University, books for my own research on the history of the Soviet Union, books read aloud with my elementary school daughters and popular novels as guilty pleasures before falling asleep each night. I have just finished reading Ian Buruma’s Murder in Amsterdam: Murder in Europe, Islam, and the Limits of Tolerance, the final assigned reading for my course on the history of Europe since 1945. The book explores the circumstances surrounding the murder of Theo van Gogh, the Dutch film director, columnist, talk show host, author, and actor. Van Gogh loved to create controversy and fatally did so when he made the film Submission with Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The short film raised the relationship between Islam and violence against women and did so by provocatively displaying verses from the Koran on naked, battered, female bodies. The film raised the ire of many Muslims in the Netherlands and one, Mohammed Bouyeri, a Dutch citizen of Moroccan dissent, shot and killed van Gogh on an Amsterdam street in November 2004. Bouyeri then used a knife to attach a letter to the chest of the dead van Gogh.

The book is fascinating and important for my students, as it brings up issues of racism, Islamophobia, radical Islam, immigration, and anti-immigrant sentiment in contemporary Europe. In particular, I urged my students to think through the ramifications of the murder for a Europe and especially a Netherlands that prided itself on its multiculturalism and tolerance. How, I ask my students, do people address the potential conflicts between multiculturalism and a creed that professes “no tolerance for intolerance?”

The latest scholarly Russian history book on my reading list is Kristin Roth-Ey’s new book, Moscow Prime Time: How the Soviet Union Built the Media Empire That Lost the Cultural Cold War. Roth-Ey is one of the brightest young historians working on the post-Stalin Soviet Union. I’m only part way through the book, but she shows quite interestingly how Soviet citizens consumed new Soviet mass media in the form of radio, television, and movies and thereby created something like Western mass culture. This was a major cultural shift from the Stalin era when Soviet life began to revolve primarily around the new single-family households emerging from the massive campaigns to build the separate apartment and the related campaigns to create entertaining media content to be consumed in these living spaces.

With my kids, we just finished reading The Red Pyramid, Rick Riordan’s Kane Chronicles series which follows his enormously popular Percy Jackson and the Olympians series. In the Kane Chronicles, the two main characters, Sadie and Carter, learn that the blood of the Pharaohs runs in their veins as they try to prevent the god Set from enveloping the entire world in chaos. We read all five Percy Jackson together, and now await the arrival of the second Kane Chronicles novel that should arrive in our mailbox in the next few days. I have loved reading these books aloud with my daughters, who are particular fans of the various strange voices I create for the various characters.

My guilty pleasure reading of the moment is Daniel Silva’s The Confessor, book three of a series of international espionage thrillers surrounding the character Gabriel Allon, an assassin for the Israeli secret service and the finest restorer of paintings in Europe. This book and others like it constitute my escapist reading on my bedside table that allows me to draw a line between work reading and sleep.
Learn more about Death and Redemption at the Princeton University Press website.

The Page 99 Test: Death and Redemption.

--Marshal Zeringue