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Russia's turbulent history through the eyes of Stalin's scientists and Soviet-era survivors

In the epic history SECONDHAND TIME: THE LAST OF THE SOVIETS (Text, $40), oral historian and Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich interviewed scores of Russians who lived through Soviet and post-Soviet times. They talk frankly to her because, in the words of an 87-year-old revolutionary, “Who else will tell you the truth? All that’s left are the archives … Paper lies even more than people do.”

In voices raw, impassioned, vivid, resigned or cynical, they talk intimately about the rigours of family life when food and money run out and secret police come knocking. They talk about thugs and thievery, cruelty and suicide, fear and deprivation, hopes for the future, longing for the past, ­piecing together an utterly ­authentic and often harrowing ­history of extraordinary times.

After the fall of Communism, the tales of people who adapted well have a surprising punch as they cope with a different type of gangster, capitalism’s opportunists. A few thrived; others found it to be a different day, the same struggle. As a cabbie observes, “We chased out one group of bastards and another group of bastards took their place.”

Beware despots riding hobbyhorses: that’s the moral of STALIN AND THE SCIENTISTS: A HISTORY OF TRIUMPH AND TRAGEDY 1905-1953, by Simon Ings (Faber, $55). The 1917 revolutionaries had big ideas about modernisation, but virtually no scientific infrastructure and little sustenance. During the famines of the 1920s, while a starving populace ate seeds instead of planting them, ­researchers focused on chicken genetics so they could legitimately eat their research topic. Advances were made but so were mistakes.

Stalin’s dream of seeing lemons growing all over Russia saw him backing so-called “citizen scientist” Trofim Lysenko. When Lysenko’s theories proved far outside the mainstream, Stalin created jobs and publications to lend him authority, jailing his rival, the great botanist Nikolai Vavilov. The leader’s yearning for the heroic story arc of barefoot peasant to visionary crop scientist led only to ignominy.

This article was first published in the January 7, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener. Follow the Listener on Twitter, Facebook and sign up to the weekly newsletter.