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  • E.G. Maladroit

'The Odd Man Karakozov' - my Book of the Year

Verhoeven’s book, ‘The Odd Man Karakozov’, is a brilliant insight into the birth of terrorism and one of the most overlooked yet seminary characters of Russian history. The book interrogates the attempted Tsaricide of 1866 and the figure of its perpetrator – Karakozov. Beyond this, Verhoeven achieves in spectacular detail an investigation of every implication of the attack, looking into its reception by the media, the public and even the capitalist market – it is hard to do credit to how much she covers in such a short summary. Verhoeven is entirely convincing in the emphasis she puts on Karakozov, who is so often elsewhere under-emphasised for his failure to actually achieve his goal of killing Alexander II. Aside from its greatness historically – she achieves a level of detail which defies any feeling of speculation, despite the nature of the topic being somewhat necessarily speculative – it is also simply an engrossing text, which makes for an almost escapist read (correctly praised as ‘an extremely well researched detective story’ by the Slavic and East European Journal).

I enjoyed Verhoeven’s writing style – I would perhaps label it as more academic than most books I’ve accessed thus far (as but a lowly student), but it is not pretentious or inaccessible. I would say it lends itself more so to reading in long chunks rather than picking up and down – it always took me a while to get back onto what was being said when reading it at short intervals. However, when allowing sections of time to read uninterrupted I found it lacked any ambiguity or confusion – her writing has a beautiful flow that really keeps your attention entirely on what is being said throughout. This, alongside the aforementioned amount of detail, makes the book impossible to put down. Everything is considered, down to the minutia of what books were being reviewed at the time, and what they show about the political climate – it is hard to emphasise the thoroughness with which everything is sourced and pursued. I particularly enjoyed the passage on Kommissarov – the figure who supposedly save the Tsar (it is up to speculation wether or not his heroic feat was an invention for Tsarist propaganda), as Verhoeven details the commercialisation of his image and the amazing extent to which his portraits were capitalised on, as they were mass-marketed to the public. Similarly, the close analysis of all clothing conventions and fashions from the period illustrates the extent of what is covered in the book.

Verhoeven’s point that this event was ‘the birth of terrorism’ comes across very successfully. I found the conclusion to be one of my favourite parts for this reason – it is allotted perhaps the least time, but she completely debunks the opposing arguments and clearly asserts her reasons for why the case of Karakozov was different to all before. It drew attention, for me, to the slightly flippant meaning Terrorism has acquired in contemporary society and media, and I was very drawn to Verhoeven’s description of it (paraphrasing) as not just any act of violence towards a powerful person, like the assassination of Kennedy, but really an act of violence against a regime. It was enlightening to see the traditional portrayal of Karakozov as an anti-Alexander II figure (which is often assumed due to the public discontent levelled at the Tsar for his underwhelming emancipation of the serfs) subverted in favour of a much truer portrayal – of Karakozov as desiring an end to Tsardom altogether, hoping his Tsaricide attempt would assist that. The emphasis on terrorism as a ‘new world’ and a new ‘word’ is also incredibly striking, as in a post 9/11 society it seems almost an expected fixture. Verhoeven perfectly illustrates the sheer shock and panic that accompanied an event that was, up to its happening, unimaginable to most people – and the ways in which people attempted to rationalise it to what they could understand. It draws somewhat entertaining parallels to contemporary events of unprecedent natures, and the continued attempts to demystify them through bigotry.

I have already mentioned the cultural scrutiny the book undertakes – though I would also mention the beautifully written analysis of the literature surrounding the events, especially that of Dostoevsky’s works. Despite it being somewhat speculative, as all analysis of literature is, Verhoeven is neither presumptive nor reaching, rather it is yet another enlightening front from which she covers the events. Chernyshevsky is similarly covered in a refreshing manner – unlike the traditional caricature of the book ‘What is to be Done’ as an awfully written guide to being a revolutionary, she highlights its status as an ethic, and emphasises the blame is on whoever chooses to read it as an exemplar – they misinterpret its point.

Overall, my enjoyment of the book is obvious. It puts the birth of terrorism and its implications into a sharp relief, doing so in a way that is both clear and engrossing. The topic itself is incredibly fruitful, and my review notes (from when I was reading it) are full of somewhat useless (in the context of writing a review) comments on how interesting each subject she covered was. I would highly recommend it - it is the most continuously engrossing historical book I've read all year.


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