Mostly living away from their estates and unconnected to their serfs, Russian serfowners lacked both ability and motivation compared to Southern enslavers. The fact that Russian estates were, on average, orders of magnitude bigger than Southern estates likewise meant that Russian serfowners were less personally connected to their serfs, which made the conditions of serfdom different from the conditions of American enslavement, although this was not quite as big a difference for house serfs. It also mattered that the South was so much warmer and more agriculturally rich than most of Russia, capable of feeding and housing the average enslaved person better—though that capacity was not always exercised. Though both sets of owners endorsed concepts of their “people” as childlike, lazy, and incapable of self-governance, the conditions of life were systematically different. While Russian serfowners believed that their serfs were responsible for their own livelihoods and basically just owed money or work to their owners, Southern enslavers were highly likely to live among enslaved people and thus had more opportunity to beat, rape, feed, and provide medical care to them. Advice to enslavers was, for example, that allowing enslaved people to cook their own food “promoted excessive independence.” This distribution also differentially affected people’s ability to foment large-scale rebellion or collective resistance, which occurred many more times in Russia.
Because Russian serfowners were close to rentiers who mostly sought income from their estates, they also had less incentive to oppose emancipation if they could be kept economically superior; their lives wouldn’t have to change very much, compared to the lives of Southern enslavers, and indeed they secured generous compensation for emancipation. The fact that serfs shared a history with nobles contributed to the bureaucratic treatment of their petitions for help to higher authorities, which though rarely granted did exert some control over bad behavior by owners; the American ethos of individualism/lack of government intervention combined with racial exclusion to largely preclude any such potential for enslaved Blacks. Flight was far more common among both groups, though again the Russian serfs were more likely to move en masse.
Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass: Biologist tells the stories of plants and human relationships with them from a Native perspective, arguing that Native ways of knowing provide key insights for the appropriate relationship of gratitude for and engagement with the natural world.
John Harris, The Last Slave Ships: New York and the End of the Middle Passage: Though the US theoretically banned the slave trade in the early 19th century (and even made it piracy, thus technically an execution-level offense, as not even Britain did), in practice US shipbuilders and financiers in New York kept alive the trade to Cuba, especially, and elsewhere in the hemisphere. US policies prevented Britain from enforcing anti-slaving law at sea out of geopolitical self-interest.
David Grann, The Lost City of Z: History of Western attempts to find the amazing city they thought was hidden in the Amazon, up to contemporary anthropological understandings of how people might have been able to create complex societies in a place that is shockingly hostile to human existence. If you can’t deal with lots of descriptions of how people suffered and died, skip it, but I found it grimly fascinating.
Silvana Condemi & François Savatier, A Pocket History of Human Evolution: How We Became Sapiens: Short overview of our branch of the evolutionary tree, about how and when things like upright walking, throwing strength, language, and brain size developed and then influenced further developments.
David Schneider, The Invention of Surgery: Not really—more like a tour through the history of Western science, arriving eventually at the “implant revolution” where, because of antibiotics, we can have reasonable confidence that the body can safely be cut open and altered, including with replacement parts. A few interesting bits about things like the way that scientific understanding of nerves had to await the existence of dyes that could distinguish nerve tissue which was otherwise unseeable, but mostly too long.
Hallie Rubenhold, The Five: Biographies of Jack the Ripper’s victims with basically no details on the physical nature of their deaths; instead, Rubenhold tells us, as best as can be discerned, what they were like in life and more generally what it was like to be a poor or near-poor woman in Victorian London. I thought it was well-done.
Adam Tooze, The Deluge: The Great War, America and the Remaking of the Global Order, 1916-1931: Tooze retells some of the runup to WWI as well as the consequences of the peace, arguing that many of the things that set the stage for WWII were about responding to the rise of the United States as an unprecedented level of hegemon and the US’s simultaneous refusal to acknowledge its role. When the US demanded war debt repayment but didn’t promise France any help with ensuring its security against the Germans, for example, France occupied the Ruhr. Tooze also gives a fair amount of time to China and Japan.
Kate Brown, Manual for Survival: A Chernobyl Guide to the Future: Investigation of the ways in which the longterm health consequences of Chernobyl were hidden—hundreds of thousands of people were affected, and mushrooms and berries being sold all over Europe are still highly contaminated.
David McCullough, The Wright Brothers: They worked hard, had few structural barriers, and were very focused. They don’t seem to have been jerks; they just only wanted to make airplanes (and eventually one of them may have started to like the fame).
Richard White, Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America: Transcontinental railroads got built before there was a real economic demand from them other than the speculators seeking to be rich and the already-rich seeking to be richer, which really is the story of America.
Thomas Richards, Jr., Breakaway Americas: The Unmanifest Future of the Jacksonian United States: Really interesting history of a period in the 1840s when it seemed genuinely uncertain whether the United States would be a continental entity or whether there would be multiple mostly white American nations, each with a particular relationship to whiteness, patriarchy, and slavery. At roughly the same time, Texas, Oregon, California, the Cherokee Nation, and the Mormons were creating supposedly independent republics of varying credibility. And then, by 1846, more suddenly than most contemporaries thought possible, the US swallowed them all. I found it to be a fascinating way to approach the meaning of “American”: the Cherokee Nation sought to be a nonwhite, slaveholding nation; the others sought various versions of white supremacy either by entrenching slavery (Texas) or excluding Black people (Oregon) and subjugating Californios (California).
Brent Goldfarb & David A. Kirsch, Bubbles and Crashes: When do economic bubbles occur? The authors argue that there are key factors that determine whether market changes will lead to a bubble: (1) a bunch of naïve investors in the market; (2) genuine uncertainty about what will succeed—which parts of the business chain will make the money; (3) “pure play” possibilities, rather than existing firms with diversified interests; (4) lack of intellectual property protection, again making it uncertain which firms will control the ultimate market. It’s interesting though a little self-referential in that they only count things as bubbles when there are a bunch of naïve investors in the market in the first place. Implicitly, bubbles come because investors are always seeking to have a part of the ultimate monopolist; it is an interesting question whether robust antitrust law could change this dynamic as well.
W. Caleb McDaniel, Sweet Taste of Liberty: A True Story of Slavery and Restitution in America: A formerly enslaved woman sought and ultimately won damages for her (unlawful even then) reenslavement via deception and coercion. An interesting entry in “how was agency negotiated under coercion.”
Robert O. Paxton, The Anatomy of Fascism: What are the defining characteristics of fascism? This book argues that the question is difficult because fascism has different stages, including stages of cooperation with other right movements and then stages where it peels away. It was fine, though I’m not sure I advanced my understanding a lot.