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.
The Plot to Hack America: How Putin’s Cyberspies and WikiLeaks Tried to Steal the 2016 Election-Malcolm Nance
The 2016 presidential election remains an event that bordered on the surreal and shocked not just American citizens but people around the globe. Donald J. Trump, the political outsider and least likely candidate to win, secured the Republican nomination and the electoral votes needed to become the 45th President of the United States of America. As we begin 2018 we can look back on his first year and office and reach various conclusions depending on our political outlook and beliefs about the state of the nation. What is certain, is that from the start, his administration has been plagued with allegations of collusion with nefarious figures hailing from Russia. Prior to his election, he often showed admiration for Vladimir Putin and since taking office, has taken a passive stance on the country that is believed by intelligence experts to have interfered in the elections of several nations. Former FBI Director Robert Mueller has been appointed Special Counsel to investigate the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia and as of today, the investigation is still ongoing. And while there is no fire yet, there is a lot of smoke.
Malcolm Nance, a former U.S. Navy senior chief petty officer in Naval Cryptology with over thirty years in intelligence and counter-intelligence decided to put together a short book that puts the known pieces of the Russia hacking scandal together giving us a clear and concise picture of what did happen and when. The book is not a smoking gun linking Trump directly to any Russian hackers and Nance does not imply such. However, there is a lot of potentially incriminating evidence and we know today that at least four people of Trump’s inner circle have pleaded guilty to charges of lying to the Federal Bureau of Investigation and money laundering. The recent news of the publication of Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury in which he interviews former Chief Strategist Stephen Bannon has added more fuel to the fire and has mad the future grim for the 45th Commander-In-Chief. But what exactly did happen prior to November 8, 2016? And what did authorities know for certain? Further, Nance reveals a lot of interesting information, but how much more is there that is still unknown?
Nance takes us back to the beginning when officials realized that the servers of the Democratic National Convention had been hacked. Unlike Watergate, there were no intruders with flashlights who would later stand trial and attempt to extort the White House. This was all done through cyber warfare and the fallout would be staggering. Some may even say there is still more to come. As an IT Administrator (IT), I have experienced cyber threats on several fronts and can say with certainty that if the average person knew just how many cyber threats there are in existence, they would be scared nearly to death. To read the book, you do not need a background in Information Technology, Nance presents each topic in an easy to read format for the layman to follow. If you do have experience in IT, then you will nod your head at many of the things that he discusses. Regardless of your technical aptitude, what is revealed in this book should open the eyes of every American that cares about our electoral process.
Supporters of President Trump may be quick to dismiss the book as fake news or left-wing smear tactics. However, Nance does not take any sides politically and makes no direct accusations against Trump. What he does declare is that without a doubt, Russian hackers interfered with the 2016 presidential election and there is strong evidence that the orders came from Putin himself. At first it sounds like a very bold statement but Nance supports his conclusions with sound evidence that is thoroughly explained. And throughout the book, he reminds us that more investigations are needed to see if there was in fact direct collusion and/or espionage between Trump’s team and Russia operatives. According to Bannon, the answer is yes. But before we accept the proclamations of an individual that is as cunning as they come, it is imperative that a full investigation is conducted. We may not like what we find and the truth is rarely pleasant. No matter which party you belong to or how you voted in the election, what transpired prior to November 8, 2016, should be of grave concern to you for if it happened once, there is the fear that it could happen again. Nance gives us a dire warning imploring us not to make the same mistake again and to proactively fight cyber attacks in the future. But with a Commander-In-Chief who doesn’t believe in cyber attacks or seek to understand them, how safe will we be?
The title of the book sounds like it could be a television special or motion picture. But I assure you it is not fiction, this is a real as it gets. The United States and its democratic institutions were attacked and the depth of the crime is something that many people still do not fully understand. But with books such as this one by Nance, a clear picture emerges that can be used as a reference guide in understanding what really was the plot to hack America.
A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East-David Fromkin
Ideology is sometimes as powerful of a tool as violence and in some cases has been the direct cause of violence. In the Middle East, ideology has maintain a stronghold as it finds itself on a crash course with modernity. Those who live outside the Middle East are at times confused and mystified by the traditions and events that occur throughout the Arab nations. In fact, many of us here in the United States do not know how the modern-day Middle East came into existence. To them, I say that the key to understanding the Middle East is to retrace its history to see why and how it developed into what we know it to be today. David Fromkin lends us a helping hand in this incredible historical investigative account of the fall of the legendary Ottoman Empire and the creation of a region that would never truly know peace.
I find it a bit ironic that the title is called A Peace to End All Peace because when the reader has finished the book, he or she will see that is far from what happened. But the question is why not? To find that answer, we revisit Constantinople, headquarters of the empire, prior to the outbreak of World War I. Iraq and Jordan (formerly Transjordan) had yet to be created. Iraq was then known as Mesopotamia and Jordan was still part of Palestine. The Zionist cause was still in its early stages and it would be several years before the signing of the Balfour Declaration. Regardless, these nations were caught in the middle of a bitter conflict as Britain and Russia took on the German Republic for control of the Ottoman Empire. But as casualties mounted and victories were won, what was really transpiring behind the scenes? And who were the major players? As we step back into time with Fromkin, we are re-introduced to long-lost figures such as the famous Winston Churchill (1874-1965), former Prime Minister Lloyd George (1864-1945), U.S. President Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924) and Thomas Edward Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia)(1888-1935). Lawrence has been transformed throughout the years into a larger than life character but Fromkin provides a good biographical sketch of him and investigates his true role in the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the British goal of conquering the Middle East. However, as Fromkin shows us, the heart of the entire stories lies in the Sykes-Picot Agreement, the secret pledge between Britain, France and Russia to partition the Ottoman Empire after the defeat of Germany in World War I. The agreement shaped relations between the nations for decades to come.
The story is an incredible from start to finish and after you have completed the book, you will better understand why the Middle East is the way it is today. You will further understand how the Zionist cause for a homeland grew in strength due in part to the actions of the British Government. The story of Palestine is especially important for the effects of the actions then are still being felt today. Fromkin has done an excellent job of researching the topic and it is evident in his writing. The book reads like a historical novel full of intrigue, mystery and ultimately tragedy. Further, the relationship between Russia and the nations of the U.S.S.R. are examined highlighting the cultural diversity that once encompassed the Soviet Union. The Bolshevik revolution is discussed but not at great length. Vladimir Lenin (1870-1924) and Joseph Stalin (1878-1953) make appearances but their story is only discussed regarding its relevance to the current topic. And throughout the book, developments in other nations are mentioned but the author never strays off topic. Like a master professor, he keeps us on course throughout a critical time in the history of the world that was complicated to say the least.
The book ends before the rise of Adolf Hitler and the start of World War II. And it would not be until 1948 that the nation of Israel was formally created. Readers may be surprised to reach the end of the book only to find that the story does not continue in the next decade. But the reality is that was never the intention and is irrelevant to the story at hand. True, the events in this book would affect the future in many different ways but that is a topic for another discussion. For those who wish to understand how an Empire came crashing down, the development of the modern-day Middle East and how several nations underestimated the power of the Islamic faith, this is a great place to start. And for others who have an active interest in the Middle East, this book is a much welcomed addition to any library.
“To the victor belongs the spoils” – New York Senator William L. Marcy