Boning up on the Balkans

Has a history book influenced the president? Also: Khrushchev's granddaugher skewers Solzhenitsyn.

Published April 23, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Last Sunday, the New York Times reported an exchange about books between Joseph Biden and President Clinton that could have far-reaching repercussions.

Two months earlier, before the Balkans War had escalated, the president and the junior senator from Delaware were on their way to Mexico, and the president wanted to discuss Kosovo. "All the way down on the plane I was reading a book about the Balkans and he saw me reading it," Biden told the Times. "And you know how he is. He asked me to give it to him to read. And I said, 'No, get your own copy.' And I'll lay odds that he eventually got it and read it."

The book was "The History of the Balkans," a 1983 Cambridge University Press publication by Barbara Jelavich of Indiana University. While the White House press office won't confirm that the president has read it, Biden -- who is also the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee -- seems to have advised his boss well. "It is a solid survey which is widely used. I use it myself," says Ivo Banac, a professor of history at Yale and one of the world's foremost authorities on the Balkans, whom Salon Books tracked down in Zagreb. Banac describes Jelavich, who died four years ago, as "a good California girl who was a serious diplomatic specialist in south Slavic history," and as for her book, "There is nothing better and too many things that are worse."

One of those things, in Banac's opinion, is Robert D. Kaplan's "Balkan Ghosts: A Journey Through History." Many think it was Kaplan's "ancient hatreds" paradigm that dissuaded the bookish occupant of the White House from getting involved in the former Yugoslavia back in the early '90s, when the Serbian army and paramilitary units were starting to bulldoze their way through the region.

While Banac concedes that over the centuries the Balkans had as many religious skirmishes as their European cousins, like the rest of Europe, the region had years of peaceful coexistence, too. Banac says he "felt very sad" when he first heard that "Balkan Ghosts" had influenced the president. "It is a silly book. The man knows nothing at all about the Balkans. He is simply reliving the travels of Rebecca West and John Reed. It is a simple thesis -- that everybody in these parts hated each other. The whole answer depends on what you call ancient: ancient as in 100 years, or ancient as in 400 years?"


Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn may not have been much persecuted while Nikita Khrushchev was in charge of the Soviet Union, but in an odd twist of history, Khrushchev's granddaughter has denounced him. In the May 3 issue of "The Nation," Nina Khrushcheva attacks the Nobel-winning author of "The Gulag Archipelago" in her review of "The Red Wheel/Knot II," the latest volume in his epic "November 1916."

The ad hominem drive-by begins right in the first paragraph: "At the age of 80, Aleksandr Isaevich has become a living shell for his former artistic and political splendor. For a writer with real gifts, such a fate is tragic indeed." If this comment seems evenhanded, take a look at the next-to-last paragraph, which brings up the author's failed radio and television shows: "To tell the truth, his public appearances were boring, declamatory and uninformative. After 'Ivan Denisovich,' 'The Gulag Archipelago' and 'Cancer Ward,' the great man had lots of words but nothing to say."

William Taubman, an Amherst history professor who is at work on a biography of Khrushcheva's grandfather for W. W. Norton, explains that on the surface, at least, there was no bad blood between the bearded novelist and the bald premier. "Solzhenitsyn was ambivalent about him, but he was grateful. On the one hand, Khrushchev was a liberal reformer. On the other hand, Solzhenitsyn was aware of the terrible things Khrushchev had done."

Back in 1945, Stalin had sent the writer, who at that time was an officer in the Soviet army, to the gulag for referring to him as "the boss" in criminals' argot. ("Pakhan" was the offending word.) Khrushchev allowed him to come back from Siberia and was enthusiastic about the publication of "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch" in 1962. That book helped win the author the 1970 Nobel prize for literature, but by then the government leadership was in transition, and Solzhenitsyn was not allowed to accept it.

"In Russia, once you are 'god' (a martyr, a czar, a president), you remain so forever," writes Khrushcheva, a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute of New York's New School for Social Research. How will the "god" react? He is a veteran of countless vilifications; no doubt he will survive this one, too.

By Craig Offman

Craig Offman is the New York correspondent for Salon Books.

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