The Struggle to Save the Soviet Economy: Mikhail Gorbachev and the Collapse of the USSR (The New Cold War History) – Chris Miller
On December 26, 1991, the world watched in shock as the Union of Soviet Socialists Republics (USSR) dissolved, splitting the once mighty Soviet Union into fifteen separate nations. I vividly remember watching the news broadcasts and seeing the flag of the Soviet Union lowered for the last time. It was the end of an era highlighted by the Cold War in which Washington and Moscow viewed each other as a threat to world peace. Paranoia, suspicion and espionage propelled the two to the brink of nuclear war on several occasions. In October, 1962, the world watched in gut-wrenching suspense as the Cuban Missile Crisis heated up and threatened to be the spark that ignited the next world war. President John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev (1894-1971) found their selves in a situation that could have resulted in the physical destruction of half the planet within a matter of minutes. Diplomacy eventually prevailed through the use of back door channels encouraged by the realization of figures in both governments that the looming showdown would produce no winners. Tensions between the two super powers cooled but never full subsided and as the dissolution of the USSR played out on television, Washington closely monitored the events while re-examining its global position as Russia emerged from the post-Soviet empire as the country to watch. Twenty-eight years later, the USSR is still recalled as one of the greatest powers in history. Its fall was earth shattering and left so many wondering, how and why did it happen?
Author Chris Miller is an Assistant Professor of International History at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. And here in this investigative report into the struggle to save the Soviet economy, he explores and explains why the USSR met its demise. The story is focused on the administration of Mikhail Gorbachev who is the head of an empire that is struggling financially. Failed Marxist policies and hard-liner policies have become anchors that are weighing the USSR down heavily. Its neighbor China, has found a solution that has allowed it to move away from the policies of Chairman Mao Zedong (1893-1976) known as the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution. Under a new leader, Deng Xiaoping (1904-1997), China chartered a new course that allowed more economic freedom to ignite the nation’s struggling economy. While never fully leaving its Marxist ideology, China does in fact go through an economic rebirth and in the process becomes part of the “Asian Tigers”, joining Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore. In the USSR many eyes were watching and Miller perfectly explains the resurgence of the Asian markets and how they have grown into the financial hubs they are today. But this story is about the USSR which found itself in a similar position as China and sought to emulate the success of its left-leaning ally.
As the author wades deeper in the scenes taking place in the Kremlin, we become witnesses to the struggle Gorbachev became engulfed in with his own government. Incredulously, he was not allowed to see the USSR’s budget nor was he privy to significant information held by the Soviet Army and the Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti (KGB). The hold over the country by the military and intelligence apparatus is strikingly clear and highlights the uphill battle that Gorbachev was forced to fight as he struggled to save the economy.
It is said that old habits die a hard death and in the case of the USSR, this was painfully true. Miller shows the stubbornness of the old guard who clung to ideology in order to maintain the status quo even as the country slid closer to implosion. The arguments that are put forth against Gorbachev are at some points mind-boggling and mind-numbing. Little by little, Gorbachev becomes a man on his own whose radical ideas fly in the face of what the hard-liners believed to be true Marxism. Unwilling to waver from their commitment to the memories of Karl Marx (1880-1883) and Fredrich Engels (1820-1895), they oppose Gorbachev at nearly every turn and the USSR becomes an empire at war with itself. To the west much of this was hidden until the very last-minute, but to those inside the USSR, signs that all was not well had been growing for decades. But officials in high positions continued to cling to the hope that the economy could miraculously be revived. Realists knew otherwise but life in the Soviet Union did not permit dissension. And those who went against the system sometimes paid the ultimate price. One of the true ironies in the book is the parallel between Gorbachev and the father of the Soviet Union, Vladimir Lenin (1870-1924).
At times the story is beyond shocking but the author’s clarity in explaining the mistakes consistently being made behind the scenes, is a concise step-by-step guide to show the inevitable fate that awaited Moscow. Gorbachev probably did not realize just how fierce opposition would be but when the failed coup took place in August, 1991, the realization that the left and right had lost their minds must have been crystal clear. The nation could not survive another period reminiscent of the era of Joseph Stalin (1878-1953) and the meltdown at Chernobyl was still fresh in the memories of many. To the Soviet Republics, these were more examples of Moscow’s growing incompetence and the urgency for independence. The Soviet Republics would play their own part in the fall of the USSR but for the most part, Moscow continued to make many mistakes on its own. Tragically, the Soviet Union could have and should have saved itself, but failed to take action that would have spared it from certain doom.
Today, the Soviet Union is an afterthought for many of us and for the younger generation, a relic of a time that existed before they were born. But we should never forget the role the USSR played in the events that changed world history over the past one hundred years. It no longer exist, but the ghosts of the former Soviet Union continue to haunt many. An empire that should have continued to dominate half a continent collapsed under its own weight and for reasons that will surprise and shock many readers. This is a relevant and informative account of the final years of the once mighty Soviet Union.
On February 13, 1961, United Nations Ambassador Adlai Stevenson (1900-1965) placed a call to President John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) and informed him that Patrice Lumumba (1925-1961), the first Prime Minister of the Independent Democratic Republic of the Congo, had been murdered a month earlier. The moment that Kennedy took the call was captured by a photographer and the image shows him with his hand covering his face in shock. The picture truly does speak a thousand words and Kennedy’s dismay resonated with millions of people around the world.
To a growing following, Lumumba represented hope for a new course to be charted by the continent of Africa. The Congo would lead the way and help other African nations achieve independence and change the world. As the leader of the Mouvement National Congolais (MNC), he stood at the front of the growing movement for independence which occurred on June 30, 1960. Nearly immediately after his historic election as Prime Minister, his enemies began plotting his elimination. Brussels became increasingly alarmed as its grip over the Congo became weaker with each day that passed. And before long, the decision to remove Lumumba became a priority for Belgium and other nations afraid of the rising Congolese star. In less than one year, he was dead and all hopes for a new Congo were shattered beyond repair. There are some people in the Congo who have never moved on from his murder. To this day, Lumumba remains a martyr in the African struggle for liberation from imperialism.
The first question to be answered is why was the Congo such a desirable location? Leo Zeilig has the answer to that question and many others. He explores the Congo’s past and in particular the actions of Henry Morton Stanley (1841-1904) and Dunlop Rubber. Their actions set the stage for the brutal Belgian occupation that ruled the Congo with an iron grip. Racism was a founding principle and enforced through strict segregation. It was into this world that Lumumba was born on July 2, 1925 in Onalua, located in the territory of Katako-Kombe. From the beginning, his life was anything but ordinary.
Zeilig did a masterful job at presenting Lumumba’s story so that we can see his development into an adolescent and then young man, forced to navigate a racist society whose goal was to reap enormous profits at the expense of Congolese men and women, often viewed by their occupiers as “savages”. Lumumba’s path to politics took many turns along the way and his personal life nearly rivaled his political life in intrigue. Zeilig pulls no punches, revealing any facades and clarifying any myths that might exist. Several wives, multiple children and a burning passion for knowledge were just some of the many sides to Lumumba’s life.
The book picks up speed after the election and granting of independence. Unsurprisingly, the Congo was plagued by tribal divisions which would later become problematic for any chance of unity. Those familiar with the events of that time will know very well the names of Joseph Kasa Vubu (1915-1969) and Moise Tshombe (1919-1969). Each would play a role in the removal of Lumumba and what is revealed will surely leave the reader in shock. Behind the facade of a coalition government, a deadly game of chess ensued, pitting critical figures against each other as the country slipped closer and closer to all out civil war in the wake of the Belgian exodus. Zeilig covers all angles and puts the pieces together as multiple nations soon join in the call for Lumumba’s removal. It is hard to put into the words how much of a threat he truly was to western powers. But Lumumba made several missteps along the way that helped open the door for the actions that resulted in his demise.
Suspense builds in the story and the effort to removal Lumumba kicks into high gear. The young leader is not unaware of opposing forces but believes he has the will of people behind him. One of the true ironies of his tragic story is that his fate was partly a result of the simmering Cold War between Washington and Moscow. His efforts at diplomacy are eerily similar to those of Ho Chih Minh and other revolutionary leaders who reached out to Washington and received no response. We can only ask what if questions today and ponder how things might have turned out different had President Dwight Eisenhower (1890-1969) given Lumumba the courtesy of a meeting. The actions of Washington pushed many nations toward the Soviet Union, which welcomed the new allies as it attempted to expand its reach beyond the Soviet Republics. In hindsight, we can see with clarity the many errors made by all involved as they sought to outsmart each other in a game of cat and mouse that could have reached catastrophic levels.
The author builds the tension just right as the pending doom in Lumumba’s life steadily approaches. I could not help feel overcome by a feeling of dread as I read through the sections leading up to the assassination. The writing was on the wall and I felt myself wanting to tell Lumumba to move faster and leave even quicker. However, his fate came to pass on January 17, 1961 in the town of Elisabethville. Unbeknownst at the time, his savage death was a premonition of the future chaos that engulfed the continent and highlighted that moment as the day when the Congo was lost.
I had always wondered what happened to his children and Zeilig followed up with them as he researched this book. Their experience during and after his death, adds another level of tragedy to an already gripping story. They join the long list of victims who have suffered following the murder of the person who Zeilig rightfully calls Africa’s lost leader. Lumumba’s story is told beautifully by Zeilig and stands out as a firm biography. This is the life and death of the late Patrice Émery Lumumba.
A subway ride through the underground portion of the New York City Transit system can reveal far more than most might anticipate. And if you find yourself on a train passing through lower Manhattan, you might pick up images of abandoned stations or long-lost passages through the windows of the subway car, forgotten with time as relics of the City’s storied past. The system itself is truly is a modern marvel that continues to be renovated and upgraded. But there are still many parts that remain hidden, known only to workers of the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) and possibly others who have dwelled in prohibited areas far removed from the sight of strap-hangers. In the 1980s, the City saw a rise is the number of people living beneath the sidewalks, in crevices, tubes and tunnels buried far below the surface. The total number of underground dwellers will most-likely never be known. But their existence is a telling sign of the extremes some people go to when living on the streets. Jennifer Toth, stepped into this world, largely unknown even to those that live in New York City. Some may call her foolish and others may feel that she was courageous. I believe that she had a mix of many things as she covered the lives of those she met as she explored a completely unknown and different world that could only seem to exist in fiction.
There is a section in the book where one city worker describes the dwellers as a CHUD or Cannibalistic Underground Humanoid Dweller. The name sounds ridiculous but was probably taken from the 1984 B-grade horror film of the same name directed by Douglas Cheek and starring the late John Heard (1946-2017) and a young Daniel Stern. In the film, a court injunction has prevented the removal of radioactive material currently sitting under New York City. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is unable to transport the material out of the City. The homeless soon become exposed to the toxic sludge and are transformed into cannibalistic monsters that come above ground at night to hunt. Highly imaginative and campy, the film is a fun ride for those who are aficionados of 1980s horror films and the movie holds a place in my own collection. The majority of the film is purely imagination but the people who lived underground was quite close to reality. And in this book, Jennifer Toth shows what the movie did not explore for obvious reasons.
Some of the people she interviewed for the book gave their real names while others preferred a pseudonym. Geographically, their locations were spread out across the city with the majority of the scenes taking place below Penn and Grand Central Stations. Seville, Black, Brenda, Blade and Bernard are just some of the many dwellers that Toth encountered in the course of her research. Other figures who cast a darker tone are mentioned briefly in passing sections. Shockingly, some of them came from good homes, graduated from college and possessed advanced degrees. Abuse, drugs and dysfunction at home proved to be the common link between many of them and fueled their decision to go underground where it was “safe” from above. In the interviews they are highly articulate, aware of their surroundings and should be productive members of society. And even more surprising, some of them preferred to live underground. But there also exist, another group of people, who ended up underground as an escape from lives that could be classified as hell on earth.
Each person has their own reason for moving underground but what emerges in the book, is an underground network of tunnels, caves and passageways akin to a city of its own where surface dwellers are not welcome and those who come down below are seen with the highest level of suspicion. It is a world many of us could never imagine living in, let alone raising a child in as can been seen in the book. The descriptions of the tunnels are graphic and those with a weak stomach will need a strong resolve to make it through some chapters. Life underground is gritty, dirty and beyond dangerous. It is not for the faint at heart. But miraculously, Toth was never seriously injured while conducting the interviews. She may have had someone watching over her combined with an unusual amount of good luck or perhaps she did on the one thing that many above ground could never do for the people below and that is to simply listen. Whether some of them embellished their tales is a strong possibility. Drug addiction and mental health issues are largely prevalent in many of them and could possibly have played a role in the accounts that they give. But what is accurate is the former existence of a large number of underground dwellers beneath the City.
The book was completed in 1993 and to my knowledge, there is no follow-up to the story nor would I expect there to be. Her experience with Blade as detailed towards the end of the book is beyond enough to make anyone think twice about returning. Some of the characters may still be alive today while others may have left the tunnels or died along the way. In recent years, I cannot recall any discussion of the mole people and most of them have probably been relocated by City officials as the tunnels were cleaned up and the underground squatters permanently removed. Some of them may still live underground, firmly hidden from prying eyes, but the number is probably far lower than the 1990s when the epidemic reached its height.
The book is revealing and sure to leave many readers in a state of shock. New Yorkers unaware of the mole people of the 1980s and 1990s will find this book to be eye-opening about the city they call home. The book shows the ability of humans to adapt to nearly anything and the lengths people will go to in their efforts to survive. This is a haunting look at life in a city beneath a city.
On March 13, 2018, Dr. William Hunter came home to find his eleven-year old son Tom and housekeeper Shirlee Sherman lying in pools of blood after having been brutally murdered by an unknown assailant. Police soon arrived on the scene and detectives began their investigation into two homicides that unnerved the quiet suburban enclave. Five years later on May 14, 2013, doctors Roger and Mary Brumback were shot and killed in their West Omaha home. The brutality of the murders shocked even the most seasoned investigators and left many wondering what how one person could commit such a grisly crime. Detectives Derek Mois and Scott Warner became the lead investigators and continued to examine the two murders, looking for any clues that would lead them to a suspect. A crucial link was soon discovered between the two victims and led investigators to take a closer look at the Department of Pathology at Creighton University.
Hunter and Brumback both worked at the famed institution and knew each other very well. As detectives began to learn more about the lives of the two doctors and their common employer, the more they realized that the killer must be someone they knew, who had a deadly vendetta against anyone who worked at Creighton. Authorities culled the personal files of all current and former employees, looking for anyone who might fit the profile of the killer at large. The records were voluminous but Sgt. Mike Ratliff soon found a folder that caught his attention and stood out from the rest. He brought it Mois’ attention believing that this was the person that detectives need to focus on. The name on the file was Dr. Anthony J. Garcia and the events that followed would develop into one of the Nebraska’s most infamous crimes and place Garcia on Nebraska’s death row.
Outside of Nebraska, Garcia’s story received limited coverage and if not for this book, his story might continue to go largely unknown. But authors Henry J. Cordes and Todd Cooper have ensured that Garcia will always live in infamy as a homicidal maniac that took the lives of four innocent people and may have killed more had he not been apprehended. Old-school detective work done by the book, proved to be the key factor that broke the case wide open. But there is more to the story than what has been reported officially. This is the true inside story of the effort to catch Omaha’s worst nightmare. Detectives raced against the clock as it became chillingly clear that anyone who worked with or above Garcia at Creighton might soon be a target.
The book reads like a good crime thriller and I found myself deeply immersed in the book, not wanting to put it down at all. The book is about two hundred fifty-eight pages and goes by quickly. But contained in the book is a story that is beyond shocking. Some may wonder how could that happen in Omaha of all places? Murder knows no bounds and location is irrelevant. What is relevant, is the mindset of those who have the ability and willingness to kill, possessed by what is in this case, called pathological rage.
Omaha natives may choose to pass on this book, as they have probably seen news reports on their locals stations from the time of Garcia’s arrest until his conviction and sentencing. For those outside of Omaha, this story of murder in the heartland, will cause you to rethink who we think to be capable of murder and who we assume to be the least likely to harm us. In fact, as Dr. Hunter points out in the book, he never suspected that Garcia was involved. Perhaps if their had been a suspect with whom Hunter had a far more explosive relationship, the doctor may have zeroed in on a possible suspect even quicker than authorities. And while he did give Garcia’s name to investigators, he made it clear that he did not think Garcia was a threat. The benefit of hindsight allows us to look in the past and see the critical clues that were missed but at the time, all involved went by what was solid evidence that would actually lead to a thorough and conclusive investigation.
True crime aficionados will welcome this thriller to their libraries and undoubtedly will be asking for more at the book’s conclusion. To be clear, the story is not a glorification of Garcia or his crimes. In fact, the book has the opposite effect and the barbarity of Garcia’s actions him home with profound force. But what is paramount is that we understand the motives and thought process behind pathological killers to understand what lies behind their decisions and actions. Murder is certainly not a new idea and has been part of society since the creation of humans. And while we cannot prevent all murders, perhaps we do stand a chance in preventing another killer like Dr. Anthony Garcia.
Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster – Adam Higginbotham
In the early morning hours of April 26, 1986, engineers at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Pripyat, Ukraine, began the process of conducting a test of Reactor No. 4. Unwilling to postpone the test another year, engineers pushed forward under questionable circumstances that proved to have deadly consequences. Within minutes, disaster struck as a thunderous roar and cataclysmic explosion were felt and heard throughout the facility. The eruption of the reactor resulted in a complete implosion and the propulsion of a radioactive dust cloud into the atmosphere. Instantly, Soviet officials set in motion an official coverup of the disaster in an attempt to keep the news of the reactor’s meltdown from reaching western news outlets. On the surface, the Politburo maintained the image of business as usual, but behind the scenes it was pandemonium. In the days and weeks that followed, the people of Pripyat looked death in the face as the reality of the nuclear fallout become terrifyingly clear. Within days, cross-winds moving across Europe carried the dust cloud across several countries, setting off alarm bells as radiation dosimeters showed readings that were literally off the charts. Before long, it became clear that a nuclear disaster had occurred and the most likely source was somewhere in the Soviet Union. Soviet authorities pulled out all the stops in denying anything was amiss but the truth began to leak out and forced Moscow to make troubling admissions. These events an those that followed have become known as the Chernobyl disaster and that story is told here again by author Adam Higginbotham who tells what is perhaps, the full story behind the world’s worst nuclear disaster.
More than thirty years have passed since the tragedy at Chernobyl and the names of those who responded to the emergency have faded over time. Some of them are still alive but many others are no longer here, having joined the long list of victims who lost their lives from exposure to radiation in the wake of the meltdown. Their stories are told here, showing the many sides of a tragedy that shocked the world. And by the end of the book, their names will become seared into the reader’s memory as the key figures that are forever tied to the legacy of Chernobyl. The author has done a great service in keeping their memories alive and in the process ensures that they are never forgotten as time passes and the world continues to move forward.
The amount of research that went into this book is staggering and Higginbotham was able to personally interview several individuals including the former director of Chernobyl, Viktor Brukhanov, who has publicly stated that officials covered-up the disaster for twenty years. Brukhanov was not there the night of the test but his position as director resulted in his conviction for negligence and a ten-year prison sentence of which he served five. His conviction was one of several obtained by officials as scapegoats became the focus of Moscow. The reality is that the meltdown was the result of a series of events that Higginbotham explores in detail leading up to that fateful night. And the true story is simply astounding.
Undoubtedly, the disaster itself is the focus of the story but the book is also a step back into the closed-door mindset of the USSR and its iron grip over the Soviet Republics. The policies of Mikhail Gorbachev were put to the test as old-school hardliners battled younger party members who saw the world through a different lens. Communism, the Cold War, deception and gross negligence all play a role in the story and will cause readers to stare in disbelief. Those of us who are old enough to remember the events as they played out will recall the events that transpired as news of the meltdown trickled out of the USSR. But as Higginbotham shows, the information that became known to western nations was only part of the story. And even former International Atomic Energy Agency director Hans Blix, did not know the full extent of the damage. Figures put forward by Moscow were often intentionally skewed in an effort to downplay the severity of the reactor’s destruction. The Politburo was determined to restrict as much information as possible and the fierce battles between party members highlights the system of dysfunction that existed, partly based on the belief in Soviet superiority over its U.S. counterpart.
From start to finish, I found myself glued to the book as the story continued to unfold. And although I vividly remember the story as it broke in 1986, I learned a significant amount of new information in the book. To help the reader, Higginbotham provides detailed explanations regarding radiation exposure which are crucial to understanding the severity of the recovery effort and the physical deterioration of those who directly participated in saving the plant. None of the workers and responders were able to completely recover and struggled in later years with failing health and painfully slow deaths. Thousands of men, women and children were exposed to radiation but the full number is probably far higher than Soviet officials were ever willing to admit. Incredibly, officials resisted calls to evacuate Pripyat, believing such an act would be an admission that the situation was grave. But as the truth became clear, officials were left with no choice and forced to evacuate the city which remains abandoned to this day.
Chernobyl has become the poster child for disasters involving nuclear disasters with its Ferris wheel and main building become bone-chilling landmarks from the city that is uninhabitable. Pripyat has become so embedded in pop culture that it served as the setting for one of the chapters in the hit game Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. Today, there are those who visit Pripyat as explorers curious to see the fallout of a nuclear disaster in person. And while the fourth reactor has been encased since 1986 in a protective shell to contain radiation, the surrounding areas still contains various amounts of contamination. Images and videos from visitors, show the dark and desolate landscape of a once thriving city. The sadness with which residents left Pripyat is captured by the author showing the multiple effects of the fallout, even to those who had not been exposed to lethal dosages of radiation.
Engineers have made significant advancements in safety procedures used to secure nuclear facilities. Nuclear power, when used correctly, is considered a clean technology. It emits no carbon dioxide in the atmosphere but a meltdown as shown here, would have devastating consequences. The average person has little reason to think about nuclear power, but less than forty years ago, the horror of a nuclear meltdown became frighteningly real and forced every nation that uses nuclear power to rethink its course going forward. The danger of another Chernobyl has not left us and a meltdown could once again happen at some point in the future. But I believe that if we remember the story of Chernobyl, re-told beautifully in this excellent compendium by Higginbotham, then we do have a high chance of preventing another Chernobyl before it has a chance to happen.
Towards the end of the book, the author also shows how the effects of Chernobyl played a role in the disintegration of the USSR as the Soviet Republics moved for independence. Ukraine’s struggle is well-known and to this day, Russia has continually tried to exert its influence over its smaller-sized neighbor. Chernobyl revealed a significant crack in the official facade of Soviet invincibility and changed the way the world viewed nuclear power. Those who want to know what really happened on the night of April 25, 1986, and in the months that followed, will find the answers they seek and more here in this well-written and highly informative account of an event that should never be forgotten.
My father recommended this book at the end of a conversation during one of my typical weekend visits. He commented that he had read the book during his late teen years and always remembered it for standing out as unforgettable. When I arrived back home, I went online to begin my search and quickly found it on Amazon. The book is fiction, which I rarely read, but my father generally has great recommendations on all types of media. And I am happy to report that once again, he did not let me down. I have already called him twice to discuss this short but powerful book by the late Samuel Eldred Greenlee, Jr. (1930-2014). The title alone is enough to raise eyebrows and at first glance, seems politically incorrect. But behind the cover page is a story that takes the ingredients of Washington, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Civil Rights Movement and Black militancy and combines them into tale that is sure to be remembered for years to come by all who have opened the pages of this book.
The story begins as Senator Gilbert Hennington is examining his chances for reelection. When his staff informs him that his polls numbers are down with the Negroes, there is a call to arms about the upcoming Senate race. His staff scrambles for ideas before he settles on the recommendation of his wife Belinda: accuse the CIA of racial discrimination. At the next committee hearing, the seasoned Senator takes the CIA Director to task on the noticeable lack of Negro special agents, and as a result he cruises to reelection in the fall. The CIA finds itself in a bind and commences a specialized espionage program aimed at hiring Negro agents to ward off any claims of racial discrimination. However, the CIA director is convinced that no Negroes will complete the program and soon enough things can get back to normal. But among the recruits is a standout, Dan Freeman, the unknown who became the spook who sat by the door.
Freeman finishes with marks higher than expected and is given an office position that entails endless meets and greets. He is not given the espionage position that recruits with his marks normally would have attained. But Dan is no ordinary office worker and is determined to change the system. His sharp intellect, acute observation skills and easy-going nature, allow him to enter circles normally off-limits to Blacks. Trips abroad, money, apartments and clandestine connections compose to the form the nexus of Freeman’s life. But there is a void to be filled and he eventually makes the decision to leave the CIA and resume his prior youth outreach activities in Chicago. Once he settles in, he sets his sights on the Cobras street gang but this is not about getting them to leave the life, Freeman has an entirely different mission planned, one that shakes the city to its core.
As the premier recruit in the CIA espionage program, Dan Freeman believed he was opening doors for Black Americans. But his time in the CIA gave him an inside look into the obstacles faced by African-Americans and the hypocrisy that is found all throughout the system. His eyes are opened and he becomes determined to make a statement. The Cobras proved to be just what he was looking for. And it is at this point in the book, that he takes the knowledge given to him by the CIA and formulates an uprising determined to uproot everything form of oppression there is. The second half of the book is bound to leave readers speechless and Greenlee masterfully composed this section, showing the complexity behind the lead character.
Although a work of fiction, there are many truths to be found throughout the novel. Freeman’s ideas and actions have as their base, the training and ideology from the very system which he now wishes to break apart. His training as a spook allows him to go undetected as he finds himself on both sides of the battle, weaving between both like the master agent that he should have been given the chance to be. He is a CIA creation, but one that has the intention of armed resistance and violence as a tool of change. His actions are undoubtedly questionable and to some readers, they will be unjustifiable. But to others like Dan Freeman, who are disillusioned with the system and the hypocrisy that continues to be used to keep the others in their place, he is a hero to the struggle. And this divergence of opinions is a reflection of the dark stain of racial discrimination in America’s past.
Greenlee speaks volumes about race in America and the Civil Rights Movement. Freeman channels all of the frustrations and disappointments that became regular occurrences in the lives of Black men and women. And in his dilemma of finding a way to give other Black Americans hope, he decides on a course of action that could only end up in one way. He is the underdog, hero and antagonist rolled into one in this classic that will never get old.
In 1974, the feelings of innocence and safety that were pillars of Icelandic society, eroded when two men disappeared and were later presumed dead. The crimes brought home the reality to thousands of Icelanders that even their nation could experience what was believed to only happen in other places such as America. On January 27, 1974, Gudmundur Einarsson disappeared after leaving a nightclub in the area known as Hafnarfjordur. Ten months later, Geirfinnur Einarsson disappeared after receiving a phone call from an unknown caller. He left home in a hurry and his car was later found abandoned by authorities. The bodies of both men have never been found. The cases would have remained cold if not for the arrest of a young couple for embezzlement. Erla Bolladottir and Saevar Ciesielski’s apprehension by police eventually set into motion a chain of events that resulted in the convictions and imprisonment of six people whose names continue to carry the stigma of Iceland’s worst killers. Kristjan Vidar Vidarsson, Tryggvi Runar Leifsson, Albert Klahn Skaftason and Gudjon Skarphedinsson joined Erla and Saevar as defendants in the cases that polarized an entire nation. At first glance, the story seems simple, two kids were caught committing a crime and then confessed to other crimes wherein they implicated previously unknown co-conspirators. But upon closer inspection, many problems arise with the official story and to this day, there are many unanswered questions. Anthony Adeane traveled to and from Iceland for several years conducting research for this book and what is contained in its pages has caused me to take an even deeper look at a case that had already caught my attention.
Netflix premiered a documentary of the crimes, also under the title of Out of Thin Air, in which Erla and Gudjon give interviews. Albert is still alive but has refused interview requests and as Adeane reveals, he was advised not to approach Albert at all for his own safety. The documentary is incredibly well-done and leaves the viewer with a feeling of confusion about the actions of investigators and the “confessions” of the accused. And while I enjoyed it immensely, I believe this book presents the story with even more emphasis on the controversial narrative maintained by the Icelandic Government. Similar to the documentary, Erla plays a central role as Adeane recounts their conversations during his many trips to the small Scandinavian nation in the Atlantic. The taint of the case is still alive and well causing Erla consternation in public to this day. But to understand why, it is necessary to understand Iceland and Adeane masterfully includes a simple but effective narrative on the critical points in Iceland’s founding and subsequent development. The book is not intended to be a compendium of the history of Iceland but a primer to show the reader how and why Iceland became the secluded nation that it did and why two murders which happen in other parts of the world, shook the country to its core. This primer by Adeane, sets the stage for the future public reaction to the horror two men who disappeared under suspicious circumstances.
Those familiar with Nordic culture will readily agree that Icelandic names can be quite tough for foreigners to pronounce correctly. At first it may be a bit confusing keeping up with everyone but as the book progresses it actually does become easier to keep track of the main characters. The author gives the reader a helping hand by explaining Icelandic surnames which I admittedly did not fully understand before reading the book. The names of the locations are equally as tongue-twisting but as the book progressed I was able to recall their names without much trouble. Some would say it is not necessary to remember all of the names of places. I do not believe most readers will but the information is there if needed. However, one of the keys to understanding the problems with the official timeline is the name and location of multiple places mentioned in the book. Readers who have visited Iceland or are Icelandic may be familiar with the physical layout making the book even more appealing. For natives, this book may not be needed as these two crimes are embedded into Icelandic society.
Similar to the documentary and the real story, the other major figure here is Saevar. He has been viewed as a Charles Manson type character with a powerful influence over others. But just who was the real Saevar? And was he the evil genius who imprisoned others under his powerful influence as authorities made people believe? Adeane covers his life and includes information that did not make it into the documentary. Saevar’s life is a tragic as the story at hand. The same can also be said for many of the other figures. I believe if the filmmakers had more time, perhaps they could have included more information about the two mysteries that become even more bizarre each time they are revisited. As the book progresses, Saevar emerges as the most tragic of the figures who was never able to move forward in life after seventeen years in prison. Sadly he is no longer here and if his name is eventually cleared, he will have no way of knowing or rejoicing in the fact that his life’s mission had been successful. For Tryggvi, it is also too late and the six hundred plus days that he spent in solitary remained with him until the day that he died. Gudjon is one of the few still alive but today is a shell of his former self and the image of a man who has carried a heavy burden for many years as a result of a case that destroyed many lives.
Some readers will wonder why did they confess if they had not committed the crime? It is a crucial question and Adeane explores that topic from an unbiased angle that I believe shows very plausible explanations. There are those who will come away from the book and believe that yes, there were in fact guilty and confessed as they should have. But others will become even more convinced that something went terribly wrong in the investigation by police and several young adults were “chosen” to take the fall for a crime that they could not have possibly committed.
More than forty years have passed since the events at hand occurred. Iceland is a very different country today with a large portion of its economy derived from the tourism that hardly existed at the time Erla and Saevar were hatching many of their get quick rich schemes. Several of the others had been in trouble with the law before but none had ever committed the crime of murder. There is a chance that history will absolve them and Anthony Adeane puts their plight is a very critical light ripe for further reexamination. The courts in Iceland have resisted efforts to reopen the investigations but someday the efforts by many, including the author, may prove to be what is needed to finally clear the names of Erla, Saevar, Tryggvi, Albert, Gudjon and Kristjan. And maybe someday the truth about the fates of Gudmundur Einarsson and Geirfinnur Einarsson will finally be known. This is a direct and fascinating look at the two cases that developed out of thin air.
In December, 1991, the unthinkable happened as the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) dissolved into fifteen separate countries. Known informally as the Soviet Union, the USSR seemed at times indestructible to those viewing the union from abroad. But within dissension had been brewing for many years in the wake of the tyrannical reign of Joseph Stalin (1878-1953). His successors embarked on a period of de-Stalinization that thrived under the administration of Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev (1894-1971). The Soviet Union remained a superpower and in direct competition with arch-rival the United States. It dissolution shocked the world and left the future of the former Soviet republics in limbo. In the aftermath of the monumental and historic collapse, the individual republics established their own rights to self-governance and in some cases, completely rejected Russian rule. Tensions between many of the nations continues to this day. Currently, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin serves as the President of Russia, and is as much of a controversial figure as many of his predecessors. His appointment by late President Boris Nikolayevich Yeltsin (1931-2007) gave many Russians hope that a new direction was in store for the beloved country. Today, as we look back at the time that has passed since he was chosen to lead Russia, we can see a tortured nation still suffering from systematic oppression and what is rightly described in this book as totalitarianism.
In 2017, Gessen was hired by The New Yorker magazine as a stiff writer and she continues to be a leading voice for LGBT causes in her homeland of Russia. She hails from Moscow and is acutely aware of the persecution that she and many others face because of their sexual orientation. In Russia, the government embarked on a crusade against the LGBT community that began to flourish in the 1990s with the passing legislation against “homosexual propaganda”. The change in society which gave license to open discrimination of LGBT citizens is nothing short of barbaric. The murder of Vladislav Tornovoy marked a point of no return and although outrage at the crime was widespread, homophobia continued to increase. There are many ugly truths to be told and this phenomenal book that reveals the dark side behind the Iron Curtain, we can see first hand how Russia missed its opportunity to move away from the iron grip of Leninism and embrace democratic ideas. Some Russians undoubtedly wish to return to the Soviet days while younger Russians wish to move forward and transform Russia into a country of which they can be proud. To understand life in the Soviet Union and in new Russian society, Gessen interviewed several individuals, each with their own story to tell that will prove to be riveting to readers. Their names are Lyosha, Masha, Seryozha, and Zhanna and they each devoted a year of their time to tell Gessen about the Russia they know and in some cases, have left. Zhanna may be familiar to some readers as the daughter of Boris Yefimovich Nemtsov (1959-2015) who served as the First Deputy Prime Minister of Russia under Boris Yeltsin.
Gessen takes up deep inside their lives in post-Cold War Russia as Perestroika becomes of the official policy of Moscow. It is cited as one of the reasons of the fall of the USSR and a major factor in the resurgence of totalitarianism. The debate will continue for years but what is clearly apparent is that life in the Soviet Union was one of hardship, poverty and the loss of hope. These stories should remove any illusions readers may have of a high quality of life for the average Russian citizen. This is a sobering look at the daily struggles Russians face and the relentless abolition of individual liberties. Homosexuals became easy scapegoats and in the book, we follow Lyosha and his struggle to maintain a stable life in the midst of fierce homophobia supported and encouraged by official government policy. Masha and Zhanna would later become voices for the opposition while Seryozha would come to learn about the privileges attached to his family’s residence in “Czar Village”. Each faced their own struggles and their anecdotes reveal the dark transformation of Russian society as the departing Boris Yeltsin hands over the reigns to the former director of the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation (FSB). Putin wasted no time as President of Russia and has placed the country in a vice grip, showing no signs of relinquishing his hold on power.
Where this book truly excels, is the author’s clarity in explaining the failures of Moscow post-Stalin and the importance of neighboring Crimea and Ukraine. Both territories have become hotbed issues during Putin’s presidency and increased tensions between Moscow and Washington, with the latter establishing punishing sanctions. The promise of hope, which existed for a brief time in Russia, seems to be receding on a regular basis as the Kremlin extends its totalitarian grip as far as it possibly can. Many have fled Russia, making a home in other parts of Europe and Brighton Beach, a small enclave in my hometown of Brooklyn, New York. As the author points out, Seryozha stopped responding to her messages in 2015, but the others have each made the tough decision to leave the places they called home in search of a better life, free from the grip of Putin’s regime. Slander, political oppression and even assassination, are hallmarks of Putin’s tactics to stifle the voices of perceived enemies of the state. Large numbers of expats will not return to Russia as long as Vladimir Putin remains determined to keep the men and women of their homeland held firmly in subjugation. Gessen has dared to speak out, risking persecution that has plagued other brave voices that have done their best to expose the facade created to cover the realities of Russian society. Opposition of any kind is not tolerated and the descriptions in the book of the actions towards those who dared to speak out have the markings of the classic police state.
Many misconceptions about Russia exist, mainly due to incorrect reporting and propaganda released by the Kremlin. But as we can see through Gessen’s work, life in Russia is quite different from the image the has been projected by officials. Persecution, oppression and famine are just some of the daily factors that make life in Russia a hard one to live. Deception and mistrust have become widespread and are eerily similar to the climate of suspicion created the Third Reich. The Soviet Union is long gone and in spite of Putin’s agenda, it will never again rise to the heights that it reached during the Cold War. And as the younger generation of Russians continue to find ways to make their voices heard, Russia will be faced again with a moment of monumental change. But in order for it to move forward, the people will have to ask what kind of Russia do they want for future generations? Do they want a true democracy or do they wish to endure several decades of rule by Vladimir Putin? The voices in the book have made their positions clear. It remains to be seen if anyone truly listens. They know the Russia that you and I have only read about. The Russia they know is a cold place, mostly closed off from the outside world and a nation that can never shake the ghost of Joseph Stalin and his mentor Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (1870-1924), known to the world as Vladimir Lenin. But if Russia chooses to listen, the message is loud and clear that the future is history.
Legends never die, that is an absolute fact. Some legends never live past fifty years of age, often leaving their mortal coil through tragedy or illness. For Alexander Fu Sheng (1954-1983), a single car accident was the cause of his demise and in the early morning hours of July 7, 1983, he died at the young age of twenty-eight. He left behind grieving parents, siblings and his widow Jenny Tseng, an accomplished Hong Kong singer who has also performed abroad. At the time of his death, he had risen to become one of the most popular stars to come out of the legendary Shaw Brothers Studio. Before ceasing film production in late 1985, Shaw Brothers had released several hundred films which had been locked away until Celestial Pictures bought the rights to the films and digitally remastered the majority of the collection. As a long-term fan of the martial-arts film genre, I had amassed a large collection of films which included all of Fu Sheng’s movies. My favorite is the film that catapulted him to international stardom, The Chinatown Kid (1977). Terrence J. Brady gave this biography the perfect finishing touch by included the name of that film in the title of this book. His exhaustive efforts have resulted in the only known biography of the late film star.
If you have no idea who Fu Sheng was, I do recommend that you watch some of his films, a full list of which can be found here. It should be noted that the list does not contain The Mark of the Eagle which was being filmed at the time of his death. The project was shelved permanently. Readers familiar with Black Belt Theater will feel a sense of nostalgia as memories of Saturday afternoons filled with Shaw classics then distributed by the World Northal Corporation. It truly is an era that we will never again see. Today, CGI and fancy camerawork has replaced the old-school method of filming that relied heavily on coordination, training and relentless stamina. Many Shaw Brothers stars are still alive, well into their 60s, 70s and even 80s. The Shaw studio is long gone, but the magic they created will last a lifetime. Fu Sheng was part of that magic and Terrence J. Brady has finally put together the true story of his short and extraordinary life.
The book is without question a biography, but the author did a great job of providing a tremendous amount of back-story for the topics at hand. In fact, throughout the book, snippets of Chinese military and literary history are included showing the link between China’s past and what the filmmakers had intended to capture on-screen. Undoubtedly, Fu Sheng is the star of this story and Brady carefully retraces his steps from film extra to superstar. And along the way, he was surrounded by cinema greats who became mentors, friends and mourners. Their stories and their relationships with Fu Sheng show the very personal side to the individuals who helped create the films that I and scores of others have come to cherish dearly.
His widow Jenny is also a central part of the story and I firmly believe Brady lays to rest any rumors that have persisted about their lives together up until the time of Fu Sheng’s death. And following his demise, Jenny has a surprise of her own which I had never known of. Her revelation, whether it is true or not, adds to the tragedy of his life. But what is evidently clear, is the love they had for each other, which the late Chang Cheh (1923-2002) showcased in his most eccentric film Heaven & Hell (1980). The film has been written off as Cheh’s most bizarre work but personally, I found it to be highly entertaining. In the film, the couple performs a duet that complements the prior act perfectly. But there was more to their singing partnership than many might have known or remember. Brady covers that as well here and his research provides a steady stream of incredible information about the couple during their several year courtship and subsequent marriage. Of note, Tseng never remarried after Fu Sheng’s death.
Fans of the Shaw Brothers will absolutely love this book. It is an insider’s look into how the studio created its hit films and a good reference guide for a quick background information on some of the biggest names to work there. In this story, nearly all of the legends make an appearance including Ti Lung, David Chiang and the late Lau Kar Leung (1934-2013). A who’s who of stars is put on display and as I read the book, I could feel the Shaw Brothers studio come back to life again during what could only be described as a classic era in the Hong Kong film industry. In fact, this book has encouraged me to revisit the Shaw classics, some of which I haven’t watched in nearly two years I still have my entire collection which started in 1995 when my father took me up to 42nd Street. There, I purchased my own VHS English dubbed copy of the Five Masters of Death. The original Hong Kong title is The Five Shaolin Masters. Fu Sheng had a starring role in the film and it was in this movie that I first became a fan. It is just one of many great masterpieces he contributed to during his storied career.
This book truly is a blessing and I am forever grateful for Brady’s monumental effort. Fu Sheng is long gone, having died nearly thirty-six years ago, but his memory and legacy live on not only in Hong Kong but across the world. During his time at the Shaw Brothers studio, he rightfully earned the nickname of the Chinatown Kid.
Deliver Us: Three Decades of Murder and Redemption in the Infamous I-45/Texas Killing Fields – Kathryn Casey
In spite of their infamous reputations, there is something about serial killers that compels society to revisit their crimes and re-live what could best be described as nightmares by the families of victims, survivors of the crimes and law enforcement who worked countless hours in their attempts to bring the killers to justice. Netflix recently premiered Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes, allowing viewers to hear Bundy in his own words as we continue to seek explanations for the actions of one of America’s most prolific serial killers. He is far from the only one and is joined in infamy both dozens of other killers whose actions revealed the extremely dark side of human nature. In the State of Texas, between Galveston and Houston, lies Interstate Highway 45 (I-45). Between the years 1971 and 1996, the bodies of 30 women were recovered in what became known as the Texas Killing Fields. Some of the murders were solved but the majority have remained unsolved and currently classified as cold cases. The barbarity of the crimes coupled with the mysterious circumstances surrounding the disappearances of the victims, have cast an ever darker cloud on some of Texas’ worst murders. Author Katheryn Casey has revisited the killing fields and this is her account of what she learned as she stepped back into time and explored the serious of murdered that rocked Texas and caused many to wonder if any young woman was safe.
On Thursday, June 17, 1971, Colette Anise Wilson was a typical thirteen year-old girl in Alvin, Texas, but she could not have known that it would be her last day alive. Her remains were found several months later in November of that year. Her disappearance and murder became a de facto script that would be played out over and over again as more young women met a similar fate, leaving families looking for answers that made sense and detectives under enormous pressure to solve crimes that had never before affected the towns along I-45. The grief that engulfed the families is captured movingly by Casey and reveals the innocence of the young women, robbed of a full life through a chance encounter that had deadly consequences. A common theme that I saw in the book and one that was to be expected, is that none of the families were ever the same again. Each surviving family member handled the grief in their own way with some becoming committed activists in helping other parents of murdered children and others sinking further into misery. In this book, Casey keeps their daughters’ legacies alive and gives the families a voice that needs to heard and remembered.
Readers who are sensitive to this type subject matter should beware that the descriptions of the crimes are graphic. Forensics is crucial to the murders and through Casey, we revisit the crime scenes in order to understand what detectives faced as they came to understand that a deadly epidemic had commenced on the I-45. At certain points in the book, I felt a slight chill come over me as I read the stories of the murders. And what was more chilling, is the anonymity of the killer(s). Authorities have long believed that many of the murders were the work of one person, a serial killer that had picked Texas as his killing field. In truth, we do not know for sure how many killers did in fact roam the I-45. It is quite possible that several claimed the lives of multiple women over the course of more than twenty-five years. Casey does not attempt to answer that question but the narrative does leave the question open.
Towards the end of the book, there was one section that stood out in particular in which Casey recalls a conversation with retired FBI profiler Mark Young. During their discussion about the I-45 murders, he remarked “at any one time, there are about six hundred serial killers in the U.S.. Of those, maybe half are active. The others have aged and stopped killing, or they’ve stopped for other reasons, like sickness, or they’re in prison for other crimes.” Considering the population of the United States is well above 300 million people, that does not add up to significant portion of the population. But I believe that even one serial killer is far too many. But as Casey explores in the book, how do we know who is a serial killer? By her own admission, she might have let Kevin Edison Smith come into her home if he had presented himself in a non-threatening manner. His conviction for the murder of Krystal Jean Baker highlights the fact that we do not know who among us has the capability to be a stone cold killer. Further, there is a chance that at least once in our lives, we have crossed paths with someone who has killed or has the ability to commit premeditated murder.
There is always the possibility that one or more of the I-45 cold cases will one day be solved. However, the passage of time and the loss of critical evidence may prove to be too much for even the most seasoned investigators. But for anyone who is making an effort to understand what did happen during that twenty-five year stretch when the Texas Killing Fields ran red with blood, a blueprint is needed to provide a map of where and when to look. Kathryn Casey has done that and more in this eye-opening and hair-raising account of serial murder in the Lone Star State.