“Take Care of Russia”: Thomas Fasbender’s Biography of Vladimir Putin, Part 1Michael Walker
Part 1 of 3 (Part 2 here)
Wladimir W. Putin: Eine politische Biographie (Vladimir Putin: A Political Biography)
Neuruppin Landt Manuscriptum 2021, 565 pp.
“Beregitje Rossiju” (“Take care of Russia”) are the words quoted on page 249 of what Thomas Fasbender calls his “political biography,” addressed by the outgoing President Boris Yeltsin to his successor, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin. Fasbender’s new biography gives the impression that Yeltsin’s departing admonition — Fasbender holds an unfashionably favorable opinion of Yeltsin — has served as Putin’s lifelong lodestar.
Fasbender’s is the second German-language biography of Putin after Alexander Rahr’s, published in 2000 (or third, if we count Boris Reitschuster’s Putins Demokratur, published in 2014). The Russian-language Putin biography by Natalja Timakowa, Ot pervorgo lica (At First Hand), has been published in German, and Fasbender makes good use of it, but like Rahr’s book and Fasbender’s own biography, it is unavailable in English. Interest in and knowledge of Russia is traditionally stronger in Germany than in the English-speaking world.
In a personal questionnaire recently published in the German publication Junge Freiheit, Fasbender was asked, “What would motivate you to drop anything you were doing and go and do something else first?” His response: “To understand something which needs to be understood”. His biography is a quest to understand Putin; to disclose, as free from bias as can reasonably be expected, what motivates Putin. But is it possible in 2021 to write and publish a successful biography of Putin which is genuinely free of constraint? In Western countries a very negative view of Putin in a biography is a precondition of favorable reviews, beneficial publicity, promotion, and high sales, whilst an overly critical study may not be without risk if the author has interests or investments in Russia.
Fasbender’s work, while critical of Putin, may not be critical enough to be successful. The fact that it has been published by a small conservative publishing house (which uses a smaller than standard font size, making the reading of this biography more strenuous than it need be) points to this. The work has achieved little resonance, probably because the European mainstream media, deeply hostile as they are towards Putin, have decided to give Fasbender’s biography the “deadly silence” treatment.
Fasbender’s own biographical trajectory is unusual. He graduated in Business Studies, followed by a course in law, then a course in philosophy, at the end of which he graduated with a doctoral dissertation on Thomas Carlyle. He visited Moscow in 1992, decided to stay, and soon had work there restructuring and/or winding down ex-Soviet companies. He was subsequently employed by a Russian subsidiary company to oversee and expand its production facilities. Fasbender’s success as a foreigner in Russia in such roles and at such a time is remarkable and suggests that he boasts a combination of social, cultural, and technical skills to a high degree. In 1999, still in Russia, Fasbender became self-employed and acquired a stake in a spinning factory; for a time, he also ran a car fleet in Moscow. He returned to Germany in 2015.
Fasbender is therefore familiar with Russian politics and is fluent in Russian. He is a thorough, cautious, and competent biographer, but his style is low key, even wooden. Because he speaks and reads Russian fluently, he can avail himself of Russian-language sources, notably two works by the Russian journalist Oleg Blozkij: Wladimir Putin, Istoria zhisni (Vladimir Putin, Life Story) and Putin: Doraga k Vlacti (Putin: The Road to Power). Both works are only available in Russian.
It is not clear whether Fasbender ever met Putin or members of his close entourage, but it seems likely. In fact, Fasbender is overall very discreet about his likely personal relations with figures of importance in Russia during the time that he lived there. The downside to this lack of sensationalism and self-promotion is that the biography lacks the kind of color which one would expect from first-hand experience. Fasbender is neither a journalist nor a writer by profession, a fact reflected in his wooden and mostly unemotional style. One only has to think what use a Tim Shipman or James Cameron would have made of the resources and knowledge which Fasbender had at his disposal to realize what is lost. Be that as it may, Fasbender has provided a largely dispassionate, detailed, and informative account of the career to date of a very powerful, very controversial politician.
Putin’s grandfather on his father’s side, Spiridon Putin, was born into a family of newly-emancipated serfs in the village of Pominowo. Genealogists have traced Putin’s ancestors back to the seventeenth century. Fasbender writes that the house, which has been renovated, is “the archetype of the Russian Isba, the low-lying modest Russian house built in millions and which can be seen in abundance from the Urals to the Pacific” (p. 17).
Like tens of thousands of other hopeful young men, Spiridon Putin moved to the rapidly expanding city of Saint Petersburg sometime around 1895. There he worked first as a waiter, subsequently as a cook, and finally as a chef. Fasbender quotes Russian sources, which themselves quote Putin, saying that Spiridon was born in St. Petersburg, but that account does not tally with the genealogical records, which indicate that Spiridon was born in Pominowo. After marrying a woman from there, he became a waiter, and then a cook, and ultimately was a restaurant chef in St. Petersburg.
What Fasbender describes as “a puzzle in the life of grandfather and grandson” is the rapid rise of both men to positions of importance from humble circumstances without apparent outside support. A curious fact of Putin’s background is that whilst he and his grandfather became people of importance, Putin’s father (1911-1999) led an unglamorous life as a factory worker who served as a ryadovoy, a private, and was twice wounded during the siege of Leningrad. He bore grenade splitters in his leg for the rest of his life.
Somehow — the manner is a subject of controversy; one story is that he trained as a cook in London — Spiridon rose from being a waiter in St. Petersburg to becoming a qualified chef in first-class restaurants, a position he held when the Russian Revolution brought his career to an abrupt halt. On November 9, 1917 the Bolsheviks decreed the abolition of private real estate property, meaning that every house in Russia, every piece of land, and every business, including stock as well as hotels and restaurants, was no longer owned by an individual or group of individuals, but henceforth “belonged to the people.” Fasbender calls that revolutionary decree “a prelude to the 70-year ride into the nightmare of Communist utopia” (p. 13).
For most restaurant owners and their employees, the state sequestration without compensation of all private property spelt ruin, but not apparently for Spiridon Putin. The Putin family moved back from the newly-named Petrograd to Pominowo in 1918. Fasbender says that they had no discernible source of income or support, yet the Putins did not seem to suffer extreme want. Within a short time Spiridon had been appointed to the post of official cook for the new rulers of state. According to Putin himself, his grandfather was personal cook for both Lenin and Stalin. This apocryphal claim is frequently made, but there is no record to corroborate it. Fasbender is himself skeptical, only conceding that Spiridon certainly cooked for Bolshevik bigwigs, since he was appointed official chef in Ilinskoje at the end of the 1930s. Ilinskoje was a complex of 18 buildings about 20 miles from the Kremlin which had been taken over by Moscow’s Bolshevik city administration and put at the exclusive disposal of party leaders for consultations, seminars, and meetings. Spiridon continued to cook there up to 1959, finally retiring at the age of 79.
Whilst his having cooked for Lenin and Stalin is not confirmed, Fasbender cites official Russian sources which do confirm that Spiridon cooked for Khrushchev and Khrushchev’s mother. Whoever held Spiridon’s position had to be not only a skilled cook, but ideologically irreproachable. He must have been considered politically sound to hold the position he did, all the more given the threats made to party leaders and the enemies surrounding them. The Cheka, the first iteration of the Soviet secret police, had most probably vetted Spiridon thoroughly before his appointment was approved.
Putin’s mother was 42 years old when he was born in 1952 in the maternity ward of the Leningrad Clinic. He grew up an only child in the back streets of Leningrad in a tough and humble environment. Fasbender cites from Blozkij’s biography a somewhat ambiguous and quirky account of Leningrad’s atmosphere during Putin’s boyhood:
The courtyard was Putin’s window on the world, and what a courtyard it was: hooligans and more hooligans. The atmosphere was terrible: unshaven, filthy figures reeking of cheap port and cigarettes; binge drinking, debased language, fights. And Vladimir in the middle of all the punks, although he didn’t really belong there. It’s worth saying that nobody touched him. (p. 30)
Putin’s relations with his father do not seem to have been close. Again from Blozkij’s biography, Fasbender mentions that a friend from Putin’s youth, Borisenko, remembers Putin’s father as a devoted Communist whose devotion to the party line could be compared to the devotion of a pious Christian: “I had the impression that his relation to the very terms party, KGB, and state were earnest and deeply felt” (p. 31).
While still in fourth grade at school, Putin, to the surprise of his classroom teacher and apparently against the express wishes of both his parents, insisted on joining the school’s German language club and became in time entirely fluent in German, which he later said he preferred speaking to English. The reason for his desire to learn German has never been explained, although Fasbender hints that there is a concealed admiration for the Wehrmacht among many Russian patriots. To have defeated the German military machine might be seen as more glorious the more imposing their military machine had been. The notion of a concealed, unspoken admiration for the German army and German history on the part of many Russians is an interesting one, a notion which unfortunately Fasbender does not develop. Fasbender also fails to explain how a very young Putin was able to overcome his parents’ lack of enthusiasm and even likely opposition to his decision. Joining the German language club looks like an early indication of a Putin character trait: getting his way when he is determined.
Putin was pugilistic from the start. Fasbender says, interestingly, that his KGB trainer attested to his lack of proficient risk assessment and self-control (p. 65). Putin was involved in a serious fight at the age of ten and his last personal physical punch-up was when he was 30, in the Leningrad metro station, when his arm was broken. Fasbender records that Putin was very worried that this misadventure (Fasbender does not say what the fight was about) might spoil his career prospects in Soviet intelligence, but his willingness to throw a punch at the age of 30 does not seem to have fazed them.
At the age of ten or 11, Putin took up boxing, as a result of which he soon boasted a broken nose. In 1965 he joined a fighting club specializing in judo and sambo. He relished these sports and was to be awarded a black belt. His judo instructor was evidently something of a substitute father to him, as he has only wept in public once, at his judo instructor’s funeral. The club had the earnest name Trud, which means labor. Trud, Fasbender tells us in one of the anecdotal asides which lighten this biography, was located in the Jussupow Palace on the Moika river, the pre-revolutionary residence of Prince Felix Yusopov, who murdered Rasputin there.
Putin freely acknowledged in later life that he took up martial arts in order to not be picked on, for he was short and might have been an easy target for classroom bullies had he not known how to look after himself. The adult Putin measures only about five-and-a-half feet — “smaller than most north Europeans,” notes Fasbender. That one remark is the nearest the biographer gets to commenting on Putin’s ethnicity, for Fasbender nowhere points out the obvious fact that Putin has Oriental traits. Those traits are very common among European Russians and are a legacy of centuries of Mongol occupation. Presumably Fasbender does not mention his subject’s mixed ethnic genealogy out of deference to a Zeitgeist which dictates that a person’s ethnicity is irrelevant, if not invisible, and that anyone who draws attention to ethnicity is probably “racist.” Perhaps for the same reason Fasbender ignores the oft-made claim that Putin’s mother was Jewish.
Putin was clearly determined from boyhood onwards not to be regarded as anyone’s pushover. The determination to stay tough, not to yield, the readiness to fight, and the will to win a fight and to get his own way is a feature of Putin’s character which many have ignored at their cost. We learn from Fasbender of another side to Putin’s character, too, one which emerged in his early years: a streak of puritanism. According to old friends, Putin as a student as well as later in his life rarely drank alcohol and never smoked, although the impression this gives of a puritan nature is attenuated by his preference for sleeping in whenever duty did not compel him to rise early. Putin did not seek to shut himself off from the Western world, however. He was catholic in his artistic tastes, wearing jeans and listening to the Beatles, but he appreciated Russian music as well. According to Rahr, Vladimir Wyssozki’s music inspired Putin to learn to play the guitar. Fasbender also writes that the young Putin was popular with the other sex.
As he approached manhood, Putin had already expressed the wish to join the KGB, as he put it himself, “out of a romantic attraction to the world of spies.” There is no suggestion from any source that Putin sought to serve the cause of Communism, and there is no evidence from what he has said or done that Putin had ever been ideologically attracted to Marxism, nor that he ever rebelled against it. Indeed, nothing in this biography points to religious, ideological, or intellectual commitments of any sort, unless devotion to homeland and state are seen as such. If any political theorist serves as a touchstone for Putin’s thoughts and action, it is Machiavelli and not Marx.
When he learned that he would need a high school certificate to even try to join the KGB, Putin applied himself energetically to the task of getting one and he succeeded. His best subjects in his leaving exam were history, sport (which in the Soviet Union ranked as a subject on an equal footing to any academic subject), and German. On the basis of his school leaving results, he was accepted by Leningrad University to study law. Fasbender wonders if Putin’s admission might have been facilitated by the KGB, but there is no evidence for this. Nevertheless, it is more than likely that the KGB would have made good note of this earnest, energetic, and ambitious young man.
It is not known how or exactly when Putin joined the KGB, but we know it was not later than 1975. Fasbender recounts that in the summer of 1975, Putin invited his old school friend Borisenko to a meal in a Georgian restaurant, where to Borisenko’s astonishment the normally abstemious Putin downed successive glasses of cognac. Putin explained to his friend that they were celebrating the acceptance of his application to join the Committee for State Security (KGB).
Putin studied surveillance and interrogation techniques for six months in a KGB training center, where recruits had no contact with the outside world. In the summer of 1967, he was promoted to the rank of lieutenant and moved, according to Fasbender (the account is disputed), to the “number two” KGB headquarters, which specialized in counter-espionage.
Putin advanced steadily but unspectacularly. In 1979, he married at the age of 27 after a three-year relationship. He had had an earlier long-standing relationship which he broke off without warning just before the wedding day, after the ring and bridal gown had already been bought. Fasbender notes that Putin’s steady relationship prior to marriage and the fact that he married in his late 20s, which was late by Soviet standards, points to cautiousness and planning so far as long-term commitments are concerned. Fasbender even wonders if Putin’s decision to finally marry when he did may not also have been the result of a political/career-based calculation more than personal passion: “The readiness to marry in 1983 might have been owing to the fact that the KGB did not put unmarried agents on foreign assignments” (p. 52).
Putin’s foreign assignment was to the German Democratic Republic (the DDR, or East Germany), an obvious choice given his fluent German. He was sent to Dresden in August 1985, where he worked until the collapse of the DDR in February 1990. For the Putin family, the flat in a six-story building at Angelikastrasse 4 in Dresden was their very first private residence. There were ten Soviet families in the building and immediate surroundings, all the other residents of the building being members of East German State Security (STASI). The KGB headquarters in Bautzner Strasse was less than a ten-minute walk from where the Putins lived. It had been the residence of the conductor Karl August Leopold Böhm (not to be confused with his son, the actor Karlheinz Böhm) until 1943.
An anecdote related by Fasbender relating to this time in Putin’s life concerns alcohol. Part of the newly-appointed President Gorbachev’s plan to reform the Soviet Union and save socialism was an anti-alcohol drive. The East German leadership was not in favor of it and did not enact anti-alcohol legislation, as was urged by the Soviets. Amusingly, Fasbender states that the refusal to do so was “one of the few popular decisions ever made by the East German government”! Forbidding KGB officers from drinking alcohol while their German colleagues could tipple freely of course provided openings for blackmail and a pretext for stymieing the careers of unloved comrades if they were known to have violated the rule. Fasbender hints strongly that the abstemious Putin might have exploited an advantage here, but as with so much concerning Putin, it is uncorroborated speculation.
The general impression Fasbender gives of the time spent by the Putin family in Dresden is that it was one comparable to that of British families in the days of the British Empire who were appointed to a colonial outpost. Fasbender writes that Soviet families in their free time were expected to keep to themselves and avoid mingling with German “natives.”
Fasbender wryly notes that there was little in Putin’s life at this point which could be described as answering to the life of adventure which he claimed had initially drawn him to “the world of spies.” Nevertheless, the atmosphere was kept tense among KGB operatives in Dresden by the suspicion — subsequently proved to be true — that there was a Western mole working in the KGB’s Bautzner Strasse headquarters. The mole was a female agent with the codename Balkon. Balkon befriended Putin’s wife who, Fasbender says, plausibly enough, was feeling lonely and neglected in Dresden. Balkon reported that Putin’s wife alleged that her husband used violence against her and chased other women.
Did Putin beat his wife and chase other women? To believe he did we have to accept that Putin’s wife, as reported by a double agent, really made the allegation, and that even if she had made the allegation, it was in fact true.
What exactly were Putin’s tasks in East Germany? Again, there is more speculation than hard evidence based on fact. According to David Hoffman in an article published in The Washington Post in 2000, Putin was assigned to KGB Section S, which was responsible for illegal espionage and surveillance. Dresden certainly offered several fields of activity for East German and Russian intelligence, one being the recruitment of agents in the West for the surveillance of American units across the border, notably the Green Berets.
Fasbender judges that spying on the Green Berets was of very modest success, possibly owing to warnings sent out by Balkon. Putin’s department was also responsible for copying documents addressed to German scientists in the East from the West. Was this a Russian action against their East German comrades? Fasbender does not make it clear. Probably more significant was their use of East German computer technology giant Robtoron and optics manufacturer Zeiss. Both companies had close ties to the West and received many Western visitors at the annual Leipzig trade fair. Fasbender hints darkly, if somewhat obscurely:
Money, sex, adventure. A marketplace for recruiting, siphoning, blackmailing. Manipulative conversational tactics there were worth their weight in gold. (p. 69)
Another important activity, legal in this case and one which seems to be bearing fruit today given Russia’s growing influence in Africa, is the forging of good relationships with African students, who studied in large numbers in East Germany.
Fasbender cites claims that Putin supported and assisted the Red Army Faction (RAF) terrorists when they crossed into East Germany. That allegation does not come from an impartial source, however. It is a weakness of this biography that it fails to comment on the impartiality or otherwise of the copious sources to which it refers. An example is precisely the claim of an RAF connection. Fasbender quotes Masha Gessen, who describes an interview conducted — so Gessen claims — with a former RAF terrorist “who wishes to remain anonymous,” who confirmed Putin’s personal involvement in support of RAF terrorists. Fasbender omits to mention to the reader that Gessen is a Jewish transsexual who refers to him/her/itself as “they” and who is a committed anti-Putin, anti-Trump activist that spends a considerable part of her/his/its/their time attacking Putin in the media.
The collapse of the DDR in 1990 meant of course that Putin’s job there came to a sudden end, and the KGB itself ceased to exist a year later. In November of 1989 a massive burning of documents began in the Dresden KGB headquarters. According to Putin’s own account, he burned so much secret service material that the oven exploded! (p. 84) Putin was the highest-ranking officer defending the building when it was besieged by a boisterous mob out for blood in December. Uncomfortable memories of the Hungarian uprising of 1956 might have come to KGB minds, when Hungarian secret service members were killed in the streets of Budapest during the Hungarian uprising. Putin was angry that neither help nor orders came from Moscow. He was nevertheless able to calm the crowd and prevent an occupation of the building on that occasion.
Masha Gessen gloats that with the collapse of the DDR, Putin felt at a loss and that his “dreams were shattered,” presumably meaning his Communist dreams or illusions were shattered, but in fact there is no sign that Putin cared much about the fall of Communism as such. He evidently did care about Russia’s loss of authority and prestige. The collapse of the DDR and the Soviet Union may not have been so much the “shattering of dreams” as a challenge to restore Russia’s prestige in the world. This would explain his oft-quoted statement in a speech in 2005 that the collapse of the Soviet Union constituted “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century.”
Fasbender describes the ensuing years in Putin’s life in some detail, and it is hard not to be impressed by the energy and determination which empowered Putin at a time when many in a similar position abandoned all political ambition. Marxist doctrine, the very raison d’être of the Soviet Union for 70 years, was being discarded; soon the organization which had employed him ceased to exist. Putin showed no signs of being daunted by any of this.
Did Putin already aspire to the presidency at that time? Who can say? The impression given by this biography is probably that he did not and that he remained someone whose guiding principles, working for the prestige of the state and nation, were clear, but whose long-term intentions were not, perhaps not even to himself. Putin might be described, from what we learn of him in this biography, as a “fanatical opportunist.”
An early mentor for Putin in the years following the collapse of the Soviet Union was Anatoly Sobchak. As Mayor of Leningrad, Sobchak organized the referendum which changed the name of Leningrad back to Saint Petersburg. Sobchak “expressed monarchist sympathies,” according to Fasbender, and ensured that the great-grandson of the murdered Tsar Alexander II would be laid to rest in the city. By 1990, Putin had become Sobchak’s personal advisor. Fasbender spends pages discussing who it was who assisted whom to place Putin in this prestigious and powerful post, but for all his detail and sources, he fails to explain how Putin managed to reach the positions he did.
Time and again the reader asks himself, “How does Putin do it?” “How did Putin win the trust of this or that important and influential person?” Whatever might be the special recipe, Putin put his social skills, organizational talent, energy, extensive networking, and willingness to work extremely hard to good effect. He also possessed the ruthlessness to do what was necessary to survive in a brutal and corrupt environment.
Some people say that Putin was working as Sobchak’s “bag collector” for the protection rackets which then flourished, feeding on the multifarious start-ups of post-Communist Russia, an allegation Fasbender sidesteps, neither denying nor confirming it. During the summer of 1991, recalls Fasbender, portraits of Lenin were going down in administrative offices everywhere, mostly to be replaced by pictures of the new President, Boris Yeltsin, but Putin chose to hang a picture of Tsar Peter the Great instead.
Fasbender states, I think correctly, that Putin had never been interested in or committed to Communism (p. 104). His loyalty was to Russia and to the state, and whatever economic system best served them. Such a combination of pragmatism on the one hand and idealism on the other constitutes a worldview which for many Western observers is hard to grasp, still less to empathize with. Putin’s way was clear, although he probably faced a conflict of duty once in his life, namely during the 1991 KGB coup attempt against the newly-elected President, Boris Yeltsin. On the one hand Putin must have felt drawn to support the plotters, who came out of the higher echelons of the KGB and whose principal aim he shared: the restoration of a strong state. Their plan was to arrest Gorbachev, depose and arrest Yeltsin, and then restore the Constitution of the USSR, abolish the private ownership of the means of production, and return Russia to Communism.
Putin owed another loyalty, a personal one, to Sobchak, the man who had given him a career and opportunities for amassing private wealth, who trusted him and brought him into a position of immense influence. But he also owed a debt of loyalty to his President. Fasbender notes, in a droll twist of the common expression “in retrospect”:
In retrospect the operation appears to have been doomed from the start. The truth, however, is that the outcome was uncertain. On the first night of the putsch, the number of people guarding the White House (the Russian parliament)” was negligible. (p. 106)
And Putin? While recognizing that the conspirators had “noble intentions,”
“Putin was among the opponents of the putsch from the start” (p. 109).
Fasbender describes the manner in which Putin left the KGB — “if he really did leave it,” he adds cryptically — as “complicated.” Fasbender is making the point here, almost against Putin himself, that Putin did not withhold support for the putsch merely on his practical calculation that it was going to fail. Fasbender does not consider Putin as cynical as that.
Throughout his life, although ruthless and remorseless, Putin has exercised a remarkable level of personal loyalty to others and expected similar loyalty in return. As Putin once said himself, the one unforgivable crime in his eyes was disloyalty. Disloyalty was, to speak in religious terms, his version of the “sin against the Holy Spirit.” If that is true, Putin’s conflict of loyalties during the attempted putsch must have tormented him. Whether out of personal loyalty or cold calculation, or perhaps both, Putin chose to remain loyal to Sobchak and Yeltsin. Putin handed in his resignation from the KGB “immediately.” How “immediately”? Before or after the putsch collapsed? Putin insisted that it came before, but like so many claims made by and about Putin, Fasbender writes that this is disputed.
Soon after the failed coup, Boris Yeltsin issued a decree banning the Communist Party, nationalizing its property and condemning its activities, yet not penalizing or persecuting individual members, and curiously, not even outlawing membership. The party was reestablished and relegalized in a revamped version in 1993. Fasbender makes an interesting and telling contrast between Yeltsin and Sobchak’s resignations from the Communist Party in the wake of the putsch and Putin’s. In the case of the two former men, departure was made “theatrically.” Party membership for Yeltsin and Sobchak was “of existential character,” whilst for Putin it was just “the admission ticket to the apparatus of the state,” and resignation was not an emotional event.
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