Every year that I age, I have noticed that I have a growing appreciation for classic literature and the works of other authors that are no longer with us. James Baldwin (1924-1987) is near the top of my list of authors whose books are critical to American history and the current day state of affairs in the United States. The Harlem native who took his last breath in France, stands out as a commentator on race in America. His observations which he then put into words, were sharp, analytical and deeply profound. Baldwin lived what could only be described as an eventful but complicated life. He was a Black American and homosexual in a time in which both were considered to be crimes of the highest nature. America had yet to see the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and homosexuality was still considered a crime against nature in many states. Baldwin was both and carried himself with an aura of confidence and intellect that has remained impressive many years after his death. In this short but intriguing book, Baldwin comments on race in America based off of his experience and encounters with White Americans and even Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam. He never joined the nation but his account of his meeting with Muhammad is one of the highlights of the book. Racial discrimination is never an easy topic to discuss and many of us would prefer to discuss more pleasant issues. But Baldwin was a master of taking a explosive topic and relaying it to the reader in a way that forces one to do deep soul-searching if they are not African-American and reevaluate their own existence if they are.
Too often, it is assumed that books about racial inequality are attacks against White Americans. That is not Baldwin’s goal. In fact, Baldwin’s social circle was very diverse, consisting of White Americans, Black Americans, Europeans and Turkish individuals among others. In fact, in the book there is a part in which he feels conflicted about his White friends and his own social situation in America. His experience is not meant to demean or drive a wedge between friends but highlights the inner conflict that can engulf anyone. The key to appreciating Baldwin’s work is to remember that it was written in a time period that is much different from 2017. Jim Crow, voter suppression, poverty and class based war made life deplorable for minorities and poor White Americans. And before the courage of the Loving family, interracial marriage was illegal throughout the country. Every great movement needs voices like Baldwin, to remind of us where we come from and what we need to do in order to move forward. It is a shame that today, his voice has been largely forgotten by a generation that has no connection of one of the greatest writers in American history.
I truly wish Baldwin had completed more books before his death. His mind was uncanny and we are fortunate to have the works that he left behind. This book is not just for Black or White Americans, but for anyone who wishes to examined and understand America’s unpleasant history with racial equality. History is not always pleasant but the darkness in it, helps us not to make the same mistakes again but to try a different path that works and exemplifies what progress truly is. Baldwin does it again with another classic.
The Cuban Revolution has served as a blueprint as a successful campaign for independence from imperialism. Fidel Castro (1926-2016), Ernesto Che Guevara (1928-1967) and Raul Castro (1931-) became legendary figures in Cuba and around the world. Raul is remaining member of the trio and is currently the President of the Council of State of Cuba and the President of the Council of Ministers of Cuba following Fidel’s retirement in 2008. In March, 2016, United States President Barack Obama made a historic visit to the island in an effort to restore severely strained diplomatic relations between the two nations. Time will tell if Washington and Havana continue down that path.
When Fidel Castro died in December, 2016, he joined the ranks among the now deceased leaders from the Cold War Era. Raul remains carrying the Castro name and the torch of the revolution. As fascinating as the revolution is, there are many stories that have never been told. Che’s march in Santa Clara and Fidel’s triumphant march into Havana are typically referred to as the shining moments of the movement. But upon closer inspection as Michelle Chase shows us, a revolution took place within the revolution. Examining the importance of women and gender politics, Chase shows the revolution from the view of the female revolutionary and the struggle of women prior to and post-revolution. Admirers of the Castro brothers and Guevara might be tempted to believe that the Cuba became a glorious paradise following Batista’s overthrow. But the reality is that women waged their own battle to achieve equality and a voice in Cuban society.
When we think of the Cuban revolution, we often conjure up the image of the Barbudo, the bearded guerrilla fighter in the jungles of the small Caribbean island. In truth, behind the heroic figures, were women who saw the revolution as a chance to transform Cuban society and prove that they had just as much courage, will and goals as their male counterparts. To reinforce the importance of women in the effort, Chase revisits the events prior to Batista’s fall as young Cubans began to form resistance groups opposed to the tyrannical dictator supported by the United States. And interesting, the effort was far more widespread than the Twenty Sixth of July Movement which is the default resistance group examined in books, magazines and documentaries. Women participated in this group and many others in the effort to establish a free Cuba. Their voices and stories come alive in this book to enlighten even the most serious student of the revolution. I found the book to be significant for it touches of a largely unknown topic outside of Cuba.
Where the book shines is in its unfiltered examination of Cuba post-revolution. There is no glorification of Castro here. We see what was happening and the effect on everyday Cubans. And without women, there was no way Cuban society could have continued to function. Also highlighted in the book are the areas in which the revolution was failing its citizens. Even today, Cuba is still in need of much reformation but is still constrained under the banner of revolution. We can only guess as to what will happen after Raul Castro leaves office for the final time. Regardless of how or when he leaves office, it is imperative that we remember the lives and efforts of the Cuban women, who marched, carried signs, put their lives on the line and challenged the establishment. Today they are grandmothers and great grand-grandmothers. But there was a time in their lives where they took part in one of the 20th Century’s greatest events.
ISBN-10: 14 le69625008
Harlem, New York has been and still is crucial to New York City politics. The area that was home to the majority of African-Americans has been affected by the wave of gentrification that has reached nearly every major city across the nation. Musicians, actors, gangsters and politicians have found fame and fortune in the neighborhood with a storied past. And of all of the colorful characters to use Harlem as their base of activity, perhaps none is as famous as the late Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. (1908-1972) There is a street named in his honor in the area but sadly, the generation of today is largely unaware of his story and his contributions to American society. He has been described as flamboyant, stubborn, cunning and of great intelligence. He earned the affection of his congregation and millions of minorities and the wrath of presidents and senators determined to put an end to his career. Forty-five years have passed since his death on April 4, 1972. Cancer proved to be his biggest opponent, taking his life at the age of sixty-three. But who was the real Adam Clayton Powell, Jr? And why is he so important to the Civil Rights Movement and the African-American experience? Wil Haygood has researched Powell’s life and compiled this definitive account of the late congressman’s life.
Powell’s life was anything but ordinary and Haygood brings the past alive as we become more acquainted with Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. as we follow him through life as he attends Colgate University, succeeds his father as pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church and takes the plunge into politics. Legendary figures of the past make an appearance throughout the book, some of whom are still alive today. Some loved him and some hated him, but all can agree that there was no other like him. The Powell amendment, which mandated the withholding of funds to cities that refused to follow federal law mandating desegregation was a landmark piece of legislation and remains his crowning achievement. But for all of his highlights, there was also another side to the famed politician. And Haygood, as a biographer, does not avoid the darker parts of his life.
Several marriages, a playboy like lifestyle and a larger than life character are just some of the many dimensions that composed Powell. The revelations in the book are not easy to accept but they reinforce the notion that in life we do have to take the negative with the positive. And flawed as he was, he lived his life on his own terms and without compromise. Today, many would not blink an eye to the escapades of Powell but in his era, far more conservative than today, Powell was pushing the boundaries of acceptability at every turn. And for millions of young men and women of color, he became a source of pride and inspiration. His power allowed him to move through political circles but also earned him the wrath of powerful enemies who would come together as the cast of villains in the hearings that resulted in Powell losing his congressional seat which he eventually obtained again following a successful litigation campaign.
Life for Powell was fast and full of highs and lows. In hindsight, we can see the habits and decisions that led to his early death. And in death, he is remembered as one of Harlem’s greats. Powell’s is long gone but through this book, his memory to continues. The children of Harlem and across the nation today have no connection to Powell, but if he were alive, he would be fighting right now in their best interest. And for New York City residents, we should remember his life every time we drive down Adam Clayton Powell Blvd. This is his life, the story of a New York City legend whose legacy shall never fade. Haygood’s book is a welcomed addition to any library.
The death of Idi Amin Dada on August 16, 2003, caused a stir of emotions in Uganda, the country he once ruled with an iron fist. His name is infamous and the crimes of his regime are endless. He ranks high among the worst dictators in world history and is a case study of the rampant abuse of power by a malevolent tyrant. Actor Forest Whitaker brilliantly played the late dictator in the 2006 film The Last King of Scotland. The film was fictionalized in part, but Whitaker capture the essence of Amin’s character and his performance was nothing short of phenomenal. The real Idi Amin was far worse as we know and there is a chance that the true number of the crimes committed by him and his henchmen will never be known. The fates of hundreds of Ugandans remain a mystery with no sense of closure in sight. Nearly four decades have passed since Amin fled into exile but he is a permanent part of Ugandan history. In this book by journalist Andrew Rice, we take a different look at the Amin regime, not through his life but through the lives of those who served him. The lives and stories intersect around the murder of Eliphaz Laki, the former county chief of Ibanda, Mbarara. In 1972, he was apprehended by Amin’s enforcers, led by Yusuf Gowon, assisted and abetted by Nasur Gille and Mohamed Anyure. His murder was covered up until his son Duncan returned to his native country in a quest to find his father’s killers. Duncan emigrated to the United States, settling in New Jersey with his wife. Their union produced four children and Laki supports his family as a lawyer. But the laws of the United States are different from Uganda as we see in the book. This is his story and a step back into time as we revisit the Protectorate of Uganda under the all watchful eye of Amin.
Before you open this book, I recommend that you remove any pre-conceived notions about Uganda. Personally, I found that after reading this book, there was much about the African nation that I did not know. In contrast to the picture of Africa being a land of savages, the truth is that colonialism, tribalism and corruption combined to eliminate any semblance of a properly functioning society. As Rice follows Duncan on his mission to bring his father’s killers to justice, the complex web of jealousy and suspicion ignited by Amin’s paranoia becomes evidently clear. Tragically, what could have been a great country, seemed to regress upon finally gaining its independence. In the book, as each character is introduce, Rice retraces their history, explaining in detail why they’re relevant to the current story. Expectedly, former leader Milton Obote appears throughout the story as he and Amin end up on a collision course for control of the country. The book develops into a history lesson on Ugandan politics and is a social study of the issues that continue to plague it today. It should be pointed out that the book is not a biography of Amin. In fact, as Rice points out, Amin’s early life is highly obscure and his exact date of birth was never been attained. The focus instead is on Duncan’s investigation with the help of a local investigator, Alfred Orijado. Their investigation leads them to the three suspects who are arrested and interrogated before signing confessions explaining their role in Eliphaz Laki’s death. And similar to the former Nazi officials, the Nuremberg defense once again rears its ugly head.
The trial eventually reveals the many flaws in the Uganda system while highlighting the progress that had been made administratively under the direction of former President Yoweri Museveni. Along with Amin and Milton Obote, Museveni is a permanent fixture in Ugandan history with the distinction of having served thirty-one years as the ruler of Ugandan. He has been called a dictator and if he should move to change the law to exempt him from retiring at the mandatory age of seventy-five, the accusations will hold more weight. Nonetheless, he is a walking piece of history at the age of seventy-one, having witnessed Uganda’s darkest times first hand. His prominence is slowly slipping as younger Ugandans look towards a brighter future with change in a new direction.
Westerners may find it hard to relate to the events in the book. For those of us lucky enough to have grown up in the United States, a civil war is unknown to us personally and something we have read about in textbooks. But for immigrants from Uganda who remember Amin’s reign, the terror remains with them every day reminding them of how tragic their lives once were. And while the ending is not what the reader may expect, the book is invaluable is showing what life was like in Uganda during that era. In death, Amin has joined the ranks of Hitler, Stalin, Lenin and other dictators whose dark legacies continue to haunt the nations they once ruled. Uganda continues to heal and the story of Eliphaz and Duncan Laki, is just one of thousands to be told about the maniacal Idi Amin Dada.
The Dyatlov Pass incident has reemerged as one of the greatest unsolved mysteries of the world. On January 23, 1959, ten hikers set out on an expedition to Otorten Mountain in the Norther Ural Mountain range. One member of the group turned back and the remaining nine met their deaths at the Kholat Syakhl (Dead Mountain) under mysterious circumstances. Several theories have been put forth to explain what happened on the night of February 1-2, 1959, but each explanation seems to cast more doubt over the official explanation. There is a strong possibility that we may never know the truth about the incident but we do have a fairly accurate picture of the hiker’s last trip up until their deaths. Author Keith McCloskey has written several books and takes on the Dyatlov Pass in this investigative account of the mystery that puzzled investigators and sent chills down the spines of those who have studied the case.
While researching the book, McCloskey visited the Ural region and reviewed old case files and reports from other strange occurrences in the Ural region. There is no “smoking gun” here but where the book excels is the exploration of the theories that exists about their final moments. He leaves nothing to chance and considers everything in the effort to put together the most accurate picture of what really happened. And the result is a good look at the incident that is as equally well-researched and written as Donnie Eichar’s Dead Mountain: The Untold Story of the Dyatlov Pass Incident , released in October, 2013. Eichar also traveled to the former Soviet Union, befriending Yuri Kuntsevich, the head of the Dyatlov Foundation. Eichar does not present a “smoking gun” either but touches more on the personal side of the hikers. In fact, he met with Igor Dyatlov’s younger and only surviving sister and spoke to the tenth hiker, Yuri Yudin in person. Sadly, as McCloskey reports, Yudin died on April 27, 2013 and his final resting place is with his old friends.
Conspiracy theorist will be tempted to get caught up in the boundless theories that persist about the case. But McCloskey does a good job of separating actual possibilities from ideas that are nothing short of ridiculous. He addresses the concept of infrasound and one story in particular stands out, the “revelation” by Shimon Davidenko, who claims to have been the tenth hiker in the group. He claimed other things as well but it is highly unlikely that he is being completely truthful as the book reveals. When thinking about the incident, the word strange comes to mind quickly but is actually an understatement. Many bizarre events took place following the deaths of the hikers that have never been fully explained. And with many of the individuals involved in the search and subsequent investigation now being deceased, many of their beliefs and possible secrets are gone forever. Lead investigator Lev Ivanov, went to his grave convinced of a paranormal event. Was he correct or suffering from an overactive imagination? Perhaps we will never know. McCloskey and Eichar have done a great service to the memory of the hikers in preserving their memories through these two excellent books on a real life haunting. And as time goes on, I believe that the case will draw more interest and possibly result in classified Soviet files being released at some point. If you love a good mystery and have an interest in Soviet history, this is a great read to add to your library.
If you find yourself drawn into the case and want to learn more about the author of the incident, McCloskey has given several audio interviews online. One in particular that I did enjoy listening to, is a question and answer session that was published on February 15, 2017 by YouTube member DK Zealand. Below is the video for viewing purposes.
On January 23, 1959, Igor Dyatlov (1936-1959) and several of his classmates at the Ural Polytechnic Institute in the City of Sverdlosky, board a train as they commence their hiking expedition to the Otorten Mountain in the Northern Urals in Siberia. On February 12, they are expected to return from their trip but there is no sing of the explorers, some of whom are as young as twenty years of age. Eight days later, a formal search team is put together to find the missing hikers. Over the next several weeks, their remains are found and returned back home. Lev Ivanov is assigned to investigate their deaths and to this day, the official explanation is that they died due to some “unknown force”. The incident that has become known as the Dyatlov Pass, remains one of history’s darkest mysteries. Donnie Eichar, a film producer and author revisits the incident in this chilling look into a mind-boggling event that is nothing short of surreal.
As part of his research, Eichar traveled to Russia and re-traced the hikers route with the help of several knowledgeable individuals such as Yuri Kuntsevich, the leader of the Dyatlov Foundation. Leaving his girlfriend and infant son behind, Eichar exhausted his savings and pushed his body to the limit in the Siberian extreme as he searched for answers to a historical event that gains a greater aura of mystique as the years continue to go by. At first glance, some readers may be tempted to think that the book contains a smoking gun. In fact, it does not and nowhere in the book does Eichar insinuate such. What is contained in the book is a timeline of the events and a reconstruction of each day according to their journals and what investigators learned after their deaths. Towards the end of the book, he does put forth a plausible explanation as to what could have happened to them on February 2.
Rumors have surrounded the case for decades. And due to the puzzling locations at which the bodies were found and the post-mortem examinations, many trouble facts arose that caused more confusion for even seasoned investigators. Eichar lays out all of the most exclaimed theories behind their deaths, refuting each one with the evidence on hand. And through his own work he brings our attention to the concept of infrasound or low-frequency sound. The phenomenon can be caused by environmental factors such as wind, storms and even earthquakes. The revelation that some of the hikers had suffered internal blunt force trauma and had been exposed to high levels of radiation compounds the difficulty in solving the case. The theory is not an official explanation but is highly plausible and puts the event in a whole new light.
We may never know what happened to those nine hikers on the night of February 2, 1959, but today, many years later, we have enough evidence and testimony to know what whatever did cause their deaths, was something they were completely unprepared for. Eichar has done his part to bring the truth about their deaths closer to light. This is an interesting read about an even more interesting unsolved mystery.
And the Money Kept Rolling In (and Out) Wall Street, the IMF, and the Bankrupting of Argentina-Paul Blustein
On Tuesday, June 27, 2017, Argentine President Mauricio Macri of Argentina and Michelle Bachelet of Chile met in Santiago, Chile to discuss a trade agreement between the two South American nations. A trade agreement would be a boost to the economies of both nations and help the Argentine economy recover from years of devaluation of the peso and loans on which the country was forced to default. In three weeks I will revisit the Argentine Republic, landing in Buenos Aires, appropriately called the “Paris of South America”. As of today, the exchange rate between the United States Dollar and Argentine Peso is $1=16.4ARS. The peso continues to struggle to regain its value as the Macri administration continues its mission to reform the economy. Incredibly, between the late 1800s and 1930, Argentina was one of the richest nations on earth and boasted a high rate of exports. Changing world markets and political instability plunged the nation in dark times as the grip of Juan Perón (1895-1974) tightened over Argentina giving birth to the Peronist party. Even today, his influence and that of the late Evan Peron (1919-1952) continue to be felt in Argentine society.
Students of Argentine history will often ask the question, why did Argentina end up in a financial collapse in 2001? Paul Blustein (1951- ) tackles this questions and provides answers to help us understand how and why it happened. Blustein is former writer for the Washington Post and has written about economics for more than 35 years. It was during a post in Buenos Aires that he began the project that became this phenomenal book that tells the story of what proved to be the inevitable. As part of his research, he interviewed dozens of individuals who were direct participants in the events in the book and others knowledgeable about what really happened. And what he explains in the book is eye-opening and prophetic not just for Argentina but for every country across the globe that has to confront a rising deficit and possible financial collapse.
On April 1, 1991, Economy Minister Domingo Cavallo (1946- ) adopted the convertibility system which fixed the exchange rate at $1=1ARS. The new policy initially proved to be a blessing for the Argentine economy, allowing citizens to improve their quality of life, invest, improve savings and travel abroad. But behind the scenes the government was struggling to reign in spending and raise enough taxes to maintain the newly placed system which required banks to keep an equal amount of U.S. Dollars to Argentine Pesos. A pesos crisis in Mexico and changing world markets, set the ball in motion for what was to come in the next decade. As Argentina grappled with a looming financial disaster, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) became a prime player in the effort to save its economy. The Fund, created in 1944 in New Hampshire, engaged in protracted negotiations with Argentina to save the Republic even in the face of financial mismanagement and a severe inability to stimulate economic growth. The two would eventually reach an agreement that showed signs of being the saving grace needed to save the nation. Despite IMF intervention, a second agreement would be reached before the long feared collapsed occurred dropping the value of the peso completely. In fact, things got so bad that President Fernando De La Rúa (1937- ) escaped by helicopter after resigning along with Cavallo, who had previously instituted a zero deficit policy and enacted the corralito, the infamous rule that capped the amount of money citizens could withdraw from their bank accounts sending the public into a rage.
With the whole world watching, Argentina sank deeper into financial distress but in recent years has enjoyed a streak of years of political stability. Its economy still has a long way to go to reach pre-2000 levels and time will tell if the Macri administration can fully rebuild the country’s bank accounts while avoiding another financial catastrophe. For those in control, the lessons of the past will need to be remembered moving forward. What I did like deeply about this book is that not only does Blustein tell us the story but he helps us understand how the IMF works and the value of currency. And no matter where you live, your country has the potential to suffer the same fate as the Argentines if adequate controls are not placed on spending and taxation. For those seeking to understand the crisis that crippled Argentina, this is a good place to start. I highly recommend supplementing Blustein’s compendium with Luis Alberto Romero’s A History of Argentina in the Twentieth Century. Both books will give the reader tremendous insight of a country that has to be seen in person to be appreciated.
Dorothy, “An Amoral and Dangerous Woman”: The Murder of E. Howard Hunt’s Wife – Watergate’s Darkest Secret
On January 23, 2007, E. Howard Hunt died in Miami, Florida at the age of 88. Hunt is best remembered for his conviction as a result of his role in the Watergate scandal that helped end the presidency of Richard M. Nixon. Hunt was also a prime suspect in the murder of John F. Kennedy. His son St. John, spoke with his father prior to his death and their discussion is referred to as his deathbed confession about what he knew about the events in Dallas, Texas. In the years following his death, truths about his role in the Central Intelligence Agency and the events in Dallas disproving his claim to be just a ‘bench warmer” in the crime. Next to Hunt throughout the Watergate crisis was his first wife Dorothy who perished when United Flight 553 crashed on December 8, 1972 as it approached Chicago Midway Airport to make its landing. The NTSB attributed the crash to pilot error but researchers have long suspected sabotage in the crash and have alluded to a long number of disturbing facts surrounding the crash. On the surface, it seems to be just a tragic accident that killed a housewife en route to visit acquaintances. But upon deeper examination of the crash and her life as revealed by her son in this book, the real story of the life of Dorothy Hunt is nearly as intriguing as that of her husband.
St. John Hunt has made himself known in JFK assassination circles. His prior book. Bond of Secrecy: My Life with CIA Spy and Watergate Conspirator E. Howard Hunt, looks into the life of his father and the effects of his profession on their family. Here, the focus is on his mother and her untimely demise. No stranger to the world of covert operations, Dorothy also has a past with intelligence work, having been station in Europe on more than one occasion. Her marriage to the blossoming operative Hunt, was a bond between two intelligence assets deeply involved the back channels of Washington and tied to a president facing a dark fate.
The early parts of their lives reads like a great novel; two young adults, meet, fall in love, start a family and move from one country to the next as their father is reassigned from one post to another. Enter Watergate and the scandal that turned their lives upside down. It is at this point in the book that the rug is pulled right out from under our feet and the dark side of Richard Nixon and Washington politics is revealed. Those old enough to remember Watergate will not be surprised in what is contained in this book. In fact, the book is not a complete source on the investigation as St. John himself points out. This is purely what he saw his parents go through as his father faced criminal prosecution and the impact his mother’s dad had on his life and those of his siblings. What is evidently clear from taped conversations at the Nixon White House and St. John’s account, is that his father’s legal defense was being paid for by Nixon and the money was also intended to keep Hunt quiet. Following her death, Hunt ended up being convicted and served thirty-three months in prison for his role in the Watergate scandal.
The lives of St. John and his siblings would never be the same again. Fallout from Watergate and the loss of their mother caused splits between siblings as each struggled to put their lives back together and come to terms with what they had been through. I do not believe they will ever get over what happened but have learned to cope with it on a daily basis. It is clear that St. John, the first son of the family had a special bond with his mother. The heartache and grief he experienced is evident in the pages of this book. And through his words, her memory continues to live on.
At the conclusion of the book, there is a section on the crash itself and the investigation by Sherman Skolnick (1930-2006), a noted conspiracy theorist and activist who challenged the NTSB’s position of pilot error. This part of the book is an added bonus and reveals a ton of incredible and troubling information about the crash. And what was once believed to be an open and shut case is revealed to be far more complicated and sinister. While it is not inconclusively proven that Dorothy Hunt died as a result of homicide, there are dozens of deeply disturbing facts about the incident that should have raised the eyebrows of anyone investigating the crime. And next to 9/11, it is the only case I can think of where the FBI preempted an investigation by the NTSB, removing key evidence from the scene while preventing emergency personnel from completing their assigned tasks. The complete story of what really happened that day may never be known but what we do know is that many strange things were occurring that had nothing to do with pilot error.
JFK Assassination researchers may be looking for a smoking gun but it will not be found here. In fact, not much about Dallas is discussed. In St. John’s defense, that was not the purpose of the book. His intention was to bring his mother’s story to light which he succeeds in doing. And although he did get some factual information wrong, the story is still a good read about a family caught up in one of the greatest crimes in American political history.
Today, sixty-four years after his death in, Joseph Stalin (1878-1953) remains one of the most polarizing and studied figures of the 20th century. As the leader of the Soviet Union during the Second World War, he enforced the legendary Red Army as it fought off a German onslaught and helped the Allies put an end to Germany’s Third Reich. Following the war, tensions between the United States and the USSR escalated giving birth to the Cold War. In 1991, the USSR collapsed and today Russia is under the control of Vladimir Putin, undoubtedly one of the world’s most controversial figures. Stalin’s reign may seem to be in Russia’s distant past but it was less than one hundred years ago that Stalin ruled with an iron fist, striking fear into the hearts of not only his enemies but those closest to him. Rumors have surfaced over the years regarding everything including his love life, health, mental state and bungled policies. But who was the real Joseph Stalin? Born Ioseb Jughashvili in Gori, Georgia on December 18, 1878 to Besarion “Beso” Jughashvili (1850-1909) and Ketevan “Keke” Geladze (1858-1937), few could have imagined that the young child would grow up to rule an entire nation. His life in later years became mysterious to those inside and outside of Russia. Misconceptions and falsehoods have spread, causing even more confusion about the truth. Stephen Kotkin has takes on the late leader’s life in a multi-part definitive biography that is simply outstanding.
Kotkin’s compendium is extensive, totaling over seven hundred pages of text. And from what I have seen, the second volume, due to be released in November, 2017 will be slightly larger. But contained within the pages of this book, is the incredible story of the life of Joseph Stalin from his birth until the year 1928. The book was exhaustively researched and at times, is heavy on historical figures, places and dates. At first it may seem challenging to keep track but as the book goes on the, the figures reappear to remind us of their importance. The beauty in the book is that Kotkin deeply examines all situations that require explanation. And in his writing, he is neither for or against Stalin. He simply shows us his life and who he was, based on his own statements, transcripts of Party Congresses and documents that have survived from the era. For history lovers, this is nearly heaven on earth. History textbooks tell some of the story of the Russian Revolution, but here we have an inside look into the movement that catapulted Stalin, Vladimir Lenin (1877-1924) and Leon “Lev” Trotsky (1879-1940) to eternal fame and later condemnation. The subsequent Russian Polish War and escalation of tensions between Russian and it’s allies Germany and Britain following Lenin’s death, highlight the fractured foreign policy enacted employed by the Bolshevik party.
As Kotkin showcases, Stalin’s rise to power was based on fear, intimidation and deception. Even those closest to him, never truly knew what he was thinking or how to approach him at times. His first wife Yekaterina “Kato” Svanidze (1885-1907) died only a year into their marriage but his second wife Nadya Alliluyeva (1901-1932) witnessed first hand his unpredictable nature and abrasive moods. And for those that were enemies, they often face exile in Siberia, where Stalin himself was once confined to during the First World War. Trotsky, Grigory Zionviev (1883-1936) and Lev Kamenev (1883-1936) would find this out firsthand. His NEP or “New Economic Policy” was supposed to be the plan that saved Russian but instead propelled it towards disorganized collectivization intended to balance the economy as Stalin moved further to the left. But as we see in the book, the Bolsheviks had steep learning curves in many areas. The results of their shortcomings are tragic having resulted in the deaths of over seven million people. Famine spread like a virus forcing many to eat things unmentionable and unimaginable. And throughout the crisis that arise, Stalin comes off as a cold machine unaffected by anything and driven by ideology. As we re-live the past through Kotkin’s words, we see the deep level of seriousness and vindictiveness that composed the former Soviet dictator.
Stalin took with him to the grave, answers to many questions that have puzzled researchers for years. And although we have documents that have been graciously preserved, some parts of his life are lost for good. Perhaps some day in the future, more information about him may be discovered but with Kotkin’s work, we have the first part of what could be the best biography of Stalin to date. It is one of history greatest stories and filled with historical figures such as Pyotr Stolypin (1862-1911), Maria Spiridonova (1884-1941), Fanya Kaplan (1890-1918), Gavilro Princip (1894-1918) and Nicholas II (1868-1918) among others. Students of Russian history have been presented with a gift in this book and I am sure it will find its way to the bookshelves of many.
Ideas are more powerful than guns. We would not let our enemies have guns, why should we let them have ideas” – Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin
Although this blog is for book reviews, I felt it necessary to write this post about a series on Netflix that captured my attention and emotions. On a recommendation from a friend, I decided to watch 13 Reasons Why, the phenomenal show that explores the life of a teenager girl who commits suicide and the lives of those around her. The powerful messages in the show resonate long after its conclusion, an influx of emotions and revelations that brought me to tears. The creators of the show have stated that they believe this show has the power to change the world. Having finished it, I concur wholeheartedly. There are those who will watch the show and feel that the characters, in particular Hannah, might be “too sensitive” or “fragile”. The reality is the events that happen in the show have occurred for generations but were rarely ever discussed. It has been common practice to sweep things under the rug and pretend as if they do not exist. We as a society know far better.
The story begins with Clay Jensen (Dylan Minnette), a sophomore who receives a box of cassettes from his deceased friend, Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford) who has recently committed suicide. She recorded the tapes before her death and each tape is dedicated to an individual she encountered that is in some way responsible for her death. As Clay listens to the tapes, we are introduced to the main characters and the roles they played in the web of deceit and suspicion that has engulfed their school. The adults are largely clueless to what happens at the school and even the administrators are a loss as to why Hannah has taken her own life. But as the story progresses, we see the signs were all there and no one picked up on her plight. Her parents have sued the school and refused a paltry settlement. Each of the students known to associate with her are subpoenaed for depositions and give their side of the story. The severity of the lawsuit and the internal demons that plague the characters, cause them to unravel as each seeks to protect their own imagine while reconciling their feelings of guilt in another student’s demise. In death, Hannah is vindicated and the full story finally comes to light. due to the efforts of Clay, the lawyers and Tony, who serves as Clay’s guardian angel per Hannah’s instructions. In life, there are Hannah’s all over this world who suffer in silence and make the ultimate decision to end their lives. Our hope is that we can reach them before it is too late.
When he realizes how he failed to help Hannah, Clay makes a statement that is deep and is literally the problem throughout the show. He says “I cost a girl her life because I was afraid to love her”. As scary as it may sound, we all know or have known someone who could have been Hannah. The face may be different but the struggles can be similar. If there is anything we can learn from the story, it is that we should show and tell the people close to us that we love them when we can and be there for them in their time of need. Tomorrow is never guaranteed and as we see in the show, we never know what a person is going through.
All of us have faced bullies before in the schoolyard, in the neighborhood or even at work. But what took place in the show went far beyond bullying and is a reflection on the problems that continue to plague society. Behavior that is atrocious and inappropriate cannot be excused for kids being kids, boys being boys or just “locker room talk.” The women who are victims of sexual assault and harassment could be our sisters, mothers, aunts, nieces, cousins, spouses and friends. And for those of us who are parents, this could be your daughter. I do not have any children of my own, but if I did have a daughter, I would make it my duty to make sure that she knows the ugliness that people are crafty at hiding. But more importantly, listen to her and watch for signs that she is in trouble and reaching out. Often, we do not realize what once was until it is too late and hindsight is always 20/20. But perhaps we can adjust our vision to see what is right in front of us.
Hannah’s tragedy is fictional, but she represents what some of us will go through in life. Her life ended in a most tragic manner before she had a chance to fully live. And although she is a fictional character, that does not take away from the messages that the filmmakers and stars of the show are conveying to us. Robert F. Kennedy once said that tragedy is a tool for the living to gain wisdom, not by which to live. If you have yet to watch this show, do so and I guarantee it will reach you in ways you never imagined.
Suicide is never an issue to be taken lightly. If you or anyone you know has had thoughts about suicide or made an attempt to end their life, please be aware that there is help available. You do not have to keep everything inside, reach out and speak to someone at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. They are available seven days a week, twenty four hours a day for anyone that needs help.