Hello, and welcome to What We’re Reading. Episode 1: “Revolutions”
A few weeks ago, my colleague Xander Snyder reviewed “The Storm Before the Storm,” Mike Duncan’s accounting of the political tribulations in ancient Rome that paved the way for the fall of the republic. The timing was fortuitous because I was just a few episodes away from finishing “The History of Rome,” the award-winning podcast that put Duncan on the map. (Let the record show I politely asked Xander not to spoil the ending. He refused. He will go down in history as a tyrant of the worst sort.)
Now, before I delve too deeply into my current review, it’s worth highlighting the things that made“The History of Rome” so great in the first place. The podcast traces the empire’s rise from the early legends of Romulus and Remus to the fall of the west, making it pretty similar to other accounts of the same era. What makes the podcast remarkable – besides, you know, the content itself – is Duncan’s mastery of exposition and concision. He’s a historian, sure, but, always more concerned with the stories history tells and the lessons it imparts, he keeps things broad enough to propel the story forward but not so broad that he loses track of the narrative. That’s extremely important for a subject that covers several centuries’ worth of political, military, economic and demographic history. And it works beautifully. Really, I couldn’t recommend this podcast highly enough. It’ll take you just south of 100 hours to start and finish, but it’s well worth the time.
Duncan brings a similar ethos to his second podcast venture, “Revolutions.” As the name implies,“Revolutions” tells the tales of, well, revolutions. Using his trademark narrative style, he is quick to point out that the word “revolutions” has been a bit bastardized over the years and so has lost some of its meaning – if it had any meaning at all. Historians and political scientists disagree on what constitutes a revolution and what doesn’t, he explains, but most of them agree that true revolutions are rare affairs. (I’m reminded of the Arab Spring, which was heralded at the time as the democratic revolution of our generation. But as many on our staff were quick to point out, these democratic revolutions were neither democratic nor revolutions, and indeed the power structures in many of the countries in which they occurred are still very much in place.) It’s a bit of a conceit, but it’s a conceit that allows Duncan to concentrate on the honest-to-god revolutions of the past 500 years that have taken place and to give them their due.
The podcast begins with the English Civil Wars, which comprise about 20 half-hour episodes, and though I’ll probably listen to them eventually, I initially skipped ahead to the American Revolution. It’s a little nearer and dearer to my heart. Here again, Duncan distinguishes himself by painting pictures not just of the events themselves but the context in which they occurred, and he enriches these pictures by profiling some of the men and women who lived through the times. Naturally, this list includes America’s Founding Fathers, but Duncan never fails to describe Britain’s high military and political officials in London – what motivated them, what their politics were, who their enemies in parliament were – to show how their actions affected the colonies and then, eventually, the war effort. But before he does any of that, he economically and politically profiles all of the original colonies to explain their constraints and compulsions throughout the independence process.
Duncan has a unique ability to explain something you didn’t know while making it seem like something you already knew. Which is not to say I didn’t know much about the American Revolution. It’s just that the U.S. public education system tends to sanitize it a bit. So most of us find out how extensive Benjamin Franklin’s contributions to American independence were before we find out how extensive his sexual exploits were. With that in mind, here are some observations from the podcast that tend to be overlooked or underreported in American civics classes:
- There were a surprising number of colonial sympathizers in the British government.
- The 13 colonies agreed on almost nothing. That they ratified anything at all, let alone documents of substance, is nothing short of a miracle.
- Benedict Arnold was kind of a badass, and if things had turned out slightly differently, he would have been among the most celebrated figures in American history. Instead, he is (rightly) remembered as a traitor. History is funny like that.
- Virginians were really good at being in debt.
- Many Founding Fathers were really good at getting drunk.
- Slavery, and the concomitant extermination of Native Americans, was and will always be a blight on the American experiment.
Next time, we’ll take a look at the French Revolution. I say next time because there will be a lag between when I write my next review and when I finish the podcast itself. Suffice it say, the French Revolution will be a much bloodier and bellicose affair, one that would change the course of Europe, and therefore the world, in some pretty significant ways.
Cole Altom, managing editor
This short book by Dmitri Trenin, a Russian political scientist and director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, quickly sets out to answer the question posed in its title. At 140 pages, it doesn’t take long to read, but for anyone who wants to study Russian behavior in this volatile region, it is an excellent place to start.
Russia isn’t especially active in the Middle East, at least not compared to some of its peers. It is, however, much more active than the Soviet Union was. Its activity is marked by diversity, with a tendency to cooperate with virtually any country, however temporarily, without completely alienating the others. In this way, it has cultivated relations with Iran and Turkey, simultaneously interacting with Israel, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt.
The book includes a description of some of the regional events that affected Russia, and it reflects on the interests Russia pursued in various regional conflicts. Here the book’s small size works against it – Trenin doesn’t have the real estate to provide full studies of every event – but it does well to address contemporary conflicts such as the Syrian civil war and to survey Russia’s relations with Turkey and Egypt.
The book is divided into four chapters: History, War, Diplomacy and Trade. (They’re about exactly what you think they’re about.) In the first chapter, Trenin covers the Soviets’ participation in the Arab-Israeli wars, the Iranian revolution and the invasion of Afghanistan. Later on, when Trenin turns his attention to trade, you discover how involved Russia is in the arms, energy and grain trade, as well as how important tourism is.
It’s difficult to disagree with some of the conclusions Trenin comes to. For example, he notes that Russia lacks a coherent grand strategy for the Middle East but that it’s as important as ever for Russia to involve itself in the region. But the fact remains that the author shows that the power of Russia is limited not only by its own ambitions but also by its economic and financial resources.
Ekaterina Zolotova, analyst