'Mao: The Real Story' and 'Former People'
Russian, Chinese lives lost in the rush to a new brotherhood.
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“People who had never been near a stove learned to cook,” wrote Alexandra Tolstoy, daughter of the novelist, who was turned out of her father’s estate. “They learned to do washing, to sweep streets ... what [else] was to be done?”Skip to next paragraph
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In China, tragic stories are as close as any thorough accounting of the life of Mao. Academics Alexander V. Pantsov and Steven I. Levine are the authors of Mao: The Real Story, the latest major biography of “the Great Helmsman” and the first to take advantage of the recent opening of Russian archives containing a massive collection of documents on the history of international communism.
In their introduction, Pantsov and Levine assure readers that their account of Mao’s life is more balanced than that found in the 2005 bestseller “Mao: The Unknown Story,” by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday, which charged Mao with more peacetime deaths than Hitler and Stalin combined.
Pantsov and Levine are not as unfailingly negative as are Chang and Halliday. They credit Mao with genuine leadership skills and at least some degree of idealism. But in the end, the personal picture that they paint of Mao from youth on up – “harsh, bitter, and headstrong” and generally oblivious to the suffering of others – coincides in many ways with that of “Mao: The Unknown Story.”
And when it comes to the most grievous of what Pantsov and Levine call Mao’s “numerous errors” – the massive Chinese deaths from starvation during the Great Leap Forward – they, like Chang and Halliday, suggest the death toll could be as high as 30 million or 40 million.
Both books end – like much of the communism itself – with ironic twists of fate. Pantsov and Levine’s biography closes noting that a granddaughter of Mao’s recently graduated from an American university with an MBA. Smith’s final pages are set in a Russian T.G.I. Friday’s, sharing chicken Caesar salad and bottles of Perrier with Nikolay Trubetskoy, the descendant of two prominent families of “former people.” Trubetskoy’s ancestors include a Russian count who – bravely? foolishly? – refused to abandon his country when the Soviets took power.
“We have no present,” Count Sergei told his son, “but we have a past and we must preserve it in the name of the future.” The patriotic aristocrat died shortly thereafter, but Trubetskoy – today a self-made executive – is that future.
Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor’s books editor.