When Joseph Stalin (1878-1953) died on March 5, 1953, the Soviet Union embarked on a change of course under its new leader Nikita Khrushchev (1894-1971). While the majority of government policy remained in effect, a “thawing” took place where the old ways of Stalin were slowly repealed. However, many secrets remained buried as the Politburo sought to maintain its public facade of a progression under communist ideology. Among those secrets was the deadly famine that engulfed the Ukraine between the years of 1932-1933. In history courses, the famine is not discussed and it remained a hidden secret to the west for decades after it ended. The death count stands at a minimum of three million people. The true number may never be known. But what is certain is that the famine was no accident and the product of disastrous and delusional planning from Moscow.
Anne Applebaum, a Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist and author, dives into the tragedy of the Ukraine famine head first with an accurate and riveting account of how and why the famine developed. But before the reader can understand the famine, it is first necessary to understand the complicated history between Russian and the Ukraine. It is a history of violence, distrust and the animosity was on full display in 2014 when Russian military units invaded the small nation. Russia, has never relented in its quest to reclaim the Ukraine, once part of the U.S.S.R. The history of Ukraine in the story at hand begins with the Russian Revolution of 1917. The new found political spirit did not end in Russia but crossed the border into the Ukraine as Ukrainian Bolsheviks launched their own cultural revolution. The culture, language, laws and traditions of the Ukraine were blacklisted and criminalized as the Bolsheviks sought to erase all traces of the Ukrainian way of life. Their seizure of the country set the stage for the deadly path of destruction the Soviet government would later embark on.
What I noticed as I read through the book was how much of a premonition the famine was for later communist governments that made the same mistakes. Stalin’s policy of collectivization, embraced by both Chairman Mao and Fidel Castro, was an utter failure just as it was in the latter mentioned regimes. Moscow’s refusal to change the policy, even in the face of reports coming back from the field, is horrific and ultimately mind-boggling. Malnutrition, distrust, resentment and crime evolved out of the doomed policy and reduced the people of Ukraine to a mass of bodies pushed to the extreme. Millions did not survive and for those who did, they carried the mental and emotional scars from a famine that could have been handled if not for a ruler dogged by paranoia and drunk on power.
Applebaum tells the story the way it should be told with the reasons and methods used to rid the Ukraine of those intellectuals who had the potential to lead it in a new direction. The smear campaigns and murders approved by the OGPU, predecessor to the KGB and FSB, removed anyone who Moscow believed to be a threat to its supreme rule. The common people, often referred to as the kulaks, suffered immensely and trust between neighbors and acquaintances became rarer than a solid meal. Like puppets on strings, Moscow played with the lives of millions of Ukrainians, doomed by their culture and religion as antisemitism and anti-Ukraine sentiments prevailed.
Today there are many sources of information about the famine that was once firmly hidden behind strategically placed propaganda. But not everyone was fooled. In fact, Nazi Germany was firmly aware of it as it invaded Ukrainian territory during World War II. The German occupation is a topic for another book as Applebaum mentions but it highlights the despair and hopelessness that Ukrainians found their selves subjugated to. Following the war, things were far from improving and it would not be until the administration of Mikhail Gorbachev that the truth began to come to light. His policy of glasnost, helped repeal the curtain of secrecy in the Soviet archives. The door became slightly ajar but authors such as Anne Applebaum have now kicked it wide open with the full story of one of the world’s deadliest famines. This book is key to understanding the tragedy and the tense relationship between Russia and the Ukraine.
Between August 5 and August 9, 1945, the United States Air Force changed the course of history when the B-29 pilots dropped atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Today, more than seventy years later, the debate regarding whether President Harry Truman (1884-1972) was right to give the final order to drop the bombs rages on. The images taken in Japan following the bombings are still shocking even today and upsetting for many viewers. And for many others, the concern remains that the world could once again see a nuclear weapon used in warfare. It is commonly believed that August, 1945, was the only time atomic weapons had been used in combat. But what actually constitutes “use”? That is a question Daniel Ellsberg addresses in this chilling and eye-opening account his time as a nuclear war planner. Some readers may be familiar with Ellsberg’s name due to his surrender, trial and the dismissal of all charges related to the Pentagon Papers which revealed the mistakes and poor judgment that allowed the United States to go to war against North Vietnam. In fact, Ellsberg’s papers were the target of the crew of burglars that would go on to be discovered at the Watergate Complex. Their arrest and the cover-up by Washington helped lead to the resignation of Richard Nixon. Incredibly, Ellsberg has outlived many of the major figures from that era and what he has accomplished, learned and ultimately disclosed are facts that should concern and be known to every American.
You might be wondering, what on earth is the doomsday machine? It is quite frankly, the system of devices that are interconnected allowing for a nuclear attack or counterattack that would result in nearly this entire planet being obliterated in minutes. Knowing what we do today about war, we could rightly say that the next world war could very well be the last world war mankind engages in. The nuclear weapons of today are more power and in more abundance than what was used to force the Japanese to surrender. And should there be an attack today, the fallout could be unlike anything we have ever imagined. But how did we get here? To answer that question, we must go back in time with Ellsberg retrace the history of the development of atomic weapons.
The story of J. Robert Oppenheimer (1904-1967) and the project at Los Alamos is one that has been told more than once and it well-known to students of history and aficionados of World War II. But what may not be known is the instigation of the Cold War from the west and the role that nuclear weapons played in the decisions and actions in Washington. As Ellsberg reveals, the key to understanding the severity of nuclear warfare is the Cold war and the Joint Strategic Capabilities Plan (JSCP). This very document served as the crux of the U.S. policy towards the Soviet Union and any nation found to be its ally. What Ellsberg reveals about that plan and the approval it received from the White House will send chills down the spine of even the most hardened readers. As an employee of the Rand Corporation and a member of high clearance personnel at the Pentagon, Ellsberg found himself in an intimate position to access even the most secretive of documents that were deemed too important to national security to be revealed publicly. Among these documents was annex c to the JSCP, the Single Integrated Operational Plan(SIOP). Just as frightening as the JSCP, this plan was another document that Ellsberg introduces to us so that we can digest its meaning and how dangerously close the Unites States came to nuclear war with the Soviet Union. And as the late Robert McNamara (1916-2009) said in the 2003 Errol Morris documentary The Fog of War “Cold war? Hell it was a hot war.”
There is far more information included in this book than I could ever review here. But there are a few questions the reader can ask before starting the book for the answers are contained inside: Was Hitler really building a bomb? How many nuclear weapons did the Soviet Union have following World War II? Is the president really the only person to authorize an attack? Was it truly necessary to drop the atomic bombs on Japan? Just how many presidents threatened to use nuclear weapons to end subsequent conflicts? What are the chances of a false flag due to a random error? And what can we do to reduce the risk of nuclear warfare?
I vividly recall my father telling me about the Cuban Missile Crisis and how he was required to participate in air raid drills in October, 1962 as a student in grade school. He very frankly said those thirteen days were the scariest he can recall and everyone was filled with the fear that nuclear war would erupt with the Soviet Union at any moment. The conflict was eventually resolved but sadly Kennedy was assassinated the following year and Khrushchev was removed from power in 1964. Their determination to avoid conflict removed the world from the brink of a nuclear war that might have had very few survivors if any. And that threat still exist. Error in judgment, egos and thirst for power could combine to form a deadly nexus producing another missile crisis. If we are to prevent a nuclear holocaust, it is our duty to study the past, heed these words by Ellsberg and actively work towards dismantling the doomsday machine.
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