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In Soso's Web.


Author: 'Tatiana' (T.K.Breus and W.I. Axford)

Published by: Copernicus Publishers, Katlenburg-Lindau, Germany, 2004, 268pp, US$32.


This book, part of a planned trilogy on 'Scenes from Russian Life', is a vivid mix of personal and wider reminiscences. The author's complex family background (having both father and stepfather) is linked closely with names like Beria, Mikoyan, Landau and Sagdeev, prominent in Soviet/Georgian politics and science and with crucial events in the rise and demise of Soviet power in Moscow and Tbilisi ('Tiflis' in Russian). The publication might be viewed as a modest contribution to a great Russian tradition of 'political' memoirs going back to 19th century figures like the Westerniser Alexander Herzen and the anarchist Pyotr Kropotkin.

The author is also a hybrid, 'Tatiana' being the joint pen name of Dr Tamara Breus, a senior scientist at the Russian Space Research Institute (IKI) in Moscow and Sir Ian Axford, a former Director of the Max Planck Institute for Aeronomy in Germany, which Breus first visited in 1989. (Axford is also a former VUW Vice-Chancellor.) The exact division of labour in this authorship is not spelled out. However, the focus of the book is solely on Dr Breus's career and ethnically diverse family background; on her mother's and father's side she has Georgian, Armenian, Ukrainian and Polish ancestry--perhaps not surprising when she notes that of the 800,000 inhabitants of her hometown (Tbilisi) only half were Georgians in 1940.

This book will be of interest to New Zealand students of Soviet history, though it touches much less on international affairs as such. Amid details of her family life, there is much on the formation of Soviet republics in Transcaucasia in the early 1920s, and their subsequent impact (Georgia's in particular) on wider Soviet politics, culture and science. The figure of the most prominent Georgian--Stalin himself--is behind most of what is narrated; hence the title, 'Soso' being the Georgian equivalent of 'Joe'. Bolshevism's triumph in Tbilisi was particularly hard-won and savage, given the Mensheviks' long predominance in Georgia. Also, even more than in other parts of the Soviet Union, the Georgian party and KGB organs had a pronounced capacity to devour or oust their own leaders and officials, including Breus's own father, M.G. Aslamazov. Notable postSoviet victims have been Presidents Zviad Gamsakhurdia (an anti-communist) and Eduard Shevardnadze.

All this is discussed in, obviously, nothing aspiring to a definitive or scholarly account. Indeed sometimes important names and events can seem overwhelmed by family trivia and the endless parade of Armenian, Georgian, Mingrelian, Abkazian etc surnames. However, this perennial danger of any family memoir is mitigated by the book's clear, well-organised narrative, the presence of several useful family trees and the use of telling personal detail, to capture an era (see below). Furthermore, to avoid cluttering up the main narrative, Appendix 2 has comprehensive, short biographies of the major players and little known, but important, figures in Georgian Bolshevism like Makharadze and Mdivani.

The book's strengths are notably present in Chapter 15, discussing the plight of post-Soviet Georgia (compared to its relative prosperity in the decades before) and the rather sinister figure of its first President, Gamsakhurdia, whom Breus knew as a schoolboy, as she did one of Yeltsin's Prime Ministers, Yevgeny Primakov. Important, too, is her frank discussion of her career in astrophysics/radio astronomy, from the mid-1970s triumphs of the Sagdeev era at IKI to the failures of its Mars probes (the last in 1996); the author helped to design the radar equipment onboard, for examining the Martian terrain and subsurface. Declining state investment under Gorbachev and administrative chaos in the abrupt transition from communism were factors in the failures.

There are also telling details about changing times. By 1989 the author could visit a Western institute without a KGB escort, but back in Russia even at the height of so-called glasnost' she had to apply for photocopies from Western journals (often a three-day wait) while access to and from IKI was closely screened. Earlier (1953-56), as both a Georgian and one whose formative years were shaped by his rule, she remained loyal to Stalin's memory until disillusioned by Khrushchev's disclosures. A sign of more liberal times (1957) was the ending of separate male and female dormitories, under pressure from her and other Moscow State University students.

There are some drawbacks to this book. There is no bibliography, yet the footnotes give evidence of wide background reading, including William Taubman's definitive biography of Khrushchev. The generally sound historical background, especially on Georgia's pre-Soviet past (Chapter 1) does have some errors. Among them: the Georgian Social Democratic Labour Party did not first meet in 1901; rather it was the Tiflis branch of the Russian SDLP--so named to prevent 'ethnic factionalising' of the party. Three different months are given for Soviet Ambasador Dekanozov's presentation of his credentials to Hitler. 'Imperial Chancellery' sounds too Wilhelmine for the Nazi era. On the credit side, as a piece of self-publishing, this book is of high quality--with crisp typography and a multitude of well reproduced photographs, many in colour. Numerous section headings and a detailed list of contents make the narrative more accessible,

This book is to be commended to Western students of recent Georgian and Russian history (among its intended readership). It offers unique insights into the impact of its major events on the life and career of Tamara Breus, as a talented scientist with a well connected family--events like the Stalin Terror, the post-Stalin Thaw, the huge investment in science and technology during these and the Brezhnev years, finally, the promise and pitfalls of perestroika and the post-Soviet era.

Dr Tony Wilson is the author of a 2004 study of New Zealand-Soviet relations from 1950 to 1991.
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Author:Wilson, Tony
Publication:New Zealand International Review
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jul 1, 2008
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