(little, brown, 752 PP, £25)
Tablet bookshop price £22.50 • Tel 020 7799 4064
One thing that supporters and opponents of Stalin can agree about is the truth of his statement that “writers are the engineers of human souls”. This very long, very detailed and (often) very engrossing book is a collective biography of the literary foot soldiers of the Cold War, who laboured in that spiritual forging. Historically, it takes us from George Orwell’s neck wound in Spain to John Le Carré’s 1993 visit to a new Russia to talk with oligarchs.
The USSR saw literature as a threat, and banned it; the CIA saw it as a weapon to be disseminated, subsidising conferences, magazines (notoriously Stephen Spender’s Encounter) and organisations when even those in receipt of its largesse were unsuspecting for decades. Socialist realism – memorably characterised as “boy meets girl meets tractor” – was more about influencing those behind the Wall than convincing the West of the virtues of Communism.