Tag: Soviet Union

RosemaryThe life of Joseph Stalin (1878-1953), former dictator of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republic (“USSR”), has been the focus of endless books, articles and documentaries.  His tyrannical reign over the Soviet Union resulted in the deaths of millions of Soviet citizens, persecuted for the slightest of offenses.  The Gulag known in English as a forced labor camp, was the place most were exiled to in particular the Siberian region known for its desolate geography and brutally cold winters. The very word itself caused fear and stroked paranoia across the USSR.  No one was safe, not even members of Stalin’s family, some of whom would find themselves banished to Siberia. This climate of distrust, violence and vengeance would cause a ripple effect that culminated with his daughter Svetlana Alliluyeva’s (1926-2011) defection to the United States in 1967.  Undoubtedly, the news was explosive and if her father had been alive at the time, he surely would have issued an order for her death no matter where on earth she would have attempted to find refuge.  When I saw the title of this book, I had to take a second look.  I knew of Stalin’s family but I did not know the life story of his daughter Svetlana.  In fact, in the books I had read that discuss him, his sons are mentioned but rarely his daughter.  Rosemary Sullivan has changed all of that with this biography that is simply outstanding.

The story begins on March 6, 1967 when Svetlana arrives at the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi.  At first, she is waived off by the night guard but after showing her Soviet passport, it is clear to the guard that this is no ordinary visitor and Washington will have to be notified.  A cat and mouse game develops to smuggle the new defector out of India before Soviet officials become aware of what was possibly the greatest defection in Soviet history.  The very opening of the book is riveting and sets the stage for the roller coaster ride that follows.  But before we can learn of her life post-defection, we must first go back and Sullivan acts as the driver, transporting the reader to the early days of Svetlana’s life while her father controls the USSR with an iron fist.  This part of the book is actually the most critical.  Svetlana’s childhood and the tragedy contained within, shaped her views and actions throughout her life.  Sullivan recreates the atmosphere at the dacha where Stalin holds court, surrounded by party officials trying to curry favor with the dictator.  The charade is not much different from meetings at the Politburo.  It is an insider’s look in Stalin’s family life and the climate of fear he created that resulted in a series of events.  Among them was the suicide of Svetlana’s mother Nadezhda Sergeevna Alliluyeva (1901-1932), which had a profound effect on her young daughter and permanently changed the relationship between father and daughter.

Some readers might find this section about the Stalin household to be quite shocking.  I could only shake my head in disbelief at the number of arrests that took place of family members.  Like a master puppeteer, Stalin pulled was pulling all of the strings behind the scenes, sometimes feigning ignorance of acts that he surely would have been privy too.  Those of us who are American may find that this part of the book reinforces many of the things we heard and saw growing up with regards to the USSR.  As a young student, I easily recall how I and my friends viewed the Soviet Union as a mysterious superpower that operated on secrecy and rigidness.  To say that we only knew part of the story would be an understatement.  Sullivan’s reconstruction of the time period between Nadya’s suicide and Stalin’s death in 1953, highlights just how treacherous life could be under his rule.   History buffs will certainly love this part of the book, I know that I truly did. But suffice to say, it is only a part of the story which is even more unbelievable as it progresses.

The book takes its expected turn as Svetlana is allowed to travel to India to spread the ashes of Brajesh Singh (d.1966), whom she had intended to marry in Russia.  Soviet rules prevented marriages between Russians and foreigners but in a cruel twist of fate, she was allowed out of the country to satisfy Singh’s request that his ashes be spread in the Ganges River.  While in India, she makes the difficult decision to defect to the United States.  For Svetlana, life would never be the same again and would soon take a number of twists and turns, resulting in her moving across several continents and having to confront the ghost of her father in her homeland once more.  Following her defection, a cast of characters enter her life as friends, business associates, U.S. officials and lovers.  Her fame becomes both a blessing and a curse but she is determined to survive and find her true purpose in life.  Her personal thoughts, conveyed in letters to friends and lovers, are resurrected by the author showing the intellectual and emotional side of Stalin’s daughter.

While in America, she has another child named Olga in addition to the children she left behind in Russia, Joseph and Katya.  Her life with Olga and attempts to reconnect and reconcile with her older children are some of the most heartbreaking moments in the book.  I cannot imagine how difficult it must have been to defect from the USSR knowing her children would be left behind.  Her relationships with her older children are clearly fractured and the times where they do have contact, are cloaked under the all knowing eye of the KGB.  Svetlana’s movements and actions did not escape the eye of Moscow.  Declassified cables and memos, upon which the author relies to tie the story together, show that even Moscow did not fully know what to do at times with its biggest defector.  She had become even too hot for Moscow to handle.  And many who met her soon realized that when crossed, she was in fact Stalin’s daughter.

Sullivan has done a masterful job of putting Svetlana’s life into a chronological narrative that starts off with a bang and never slows down.  The story is gripping and refuses to let the reader go. From the very beginning I found it hard to put the book down as I continued to learn more about life in the Stalin household and Svetlana’s growth into a young woman who comes to see the truth about her father.  I do urge caution for World War II buffs though and point out that this book is not about World War II.  The conflict is mentioned but only briefly so that the story does not stray away from its intended subject.  Those looking for a discussion of the war will not find it here for that was not Sullivan’s purpose in writing the book.  This is Svetlana’s story from beginning to end and it is far more than I could have ever anticipated.

As I read the book, I found myself thinking that there were probably millions of other women and men who thought of defecting but never did.  The collapse of the USSR in December, 1991, allowed the opening of Soviet archives that revealed many ugly truths.  Svetlana believed that the election of Vladimir Putin would take Russia back to its days under Stalin.  I would hard pressed to argue differently.  The daughter of the most infamous ruler in Russian history leaves behind a life story that shows the privileges we enjoy in the west that did not exist in the Soviet Union.  It also shows that people make life changing choices when confronted with realities that change the way they see their existence and the lives of others.  Great read.

ASIN: B00LEXL6VY

Biographies

dyatlovpass1The deaths of nine hikers in the Ural Mountains of Siberia in February, 1959, endures as one the world’s most bizarre mysteries.  The official explanation at the time was that their deaths were caused by an extraordinary force.  Exactly what that means was never fully explained.  As the hikers were found, autopsies were performed which revealed many disturbing facts and do not match the official explanation.  The remains of the tragic hikers were buried at the direction of party officials without much or any input from their parents. Almost from the start, Moscow stepped in and gave orders that were to be followed strictly with no deviation.  The official explanation still stands today but is that what really happened? Or was there a darker and more sinister reason for their shocking deaths?

Author and journalist Svetlana Oss has taken another look at the case to see what really did happen on the night of February 1, 1959.  There are no conspiracy theories here, her work is based on official records, statements from officials involved in the investigation and the diaries kept by the hikers up until their last days.  After reconstructing how the group was formed, the retraces their steps along the way to the Ural mountains. And it is here that things take a sharp turn.  To be clear, no one knows exactly what did happen to force the hikers out of their tent.   What is known is that they exited in a nearly orderly fashion and walked in the same direction.  And it appears from footprints and other evidence that they were attempting to make their way back to the tent before death set in.  There are many facts that will most likely never be known but the author here reveals a lot of things that did catch my attention.

This is not the first book about the incident.  I previously reviewed Donny Eichar’s ‘Dead Mountain: The Untold True Story of the Dyatlov Pass Incident and Keith McCloskey’s ‘Mountain of the Dead: The Dyatlov Pass Incident‘. Both books provide very good accounts of the incident but do not contain any “smoking guns”.  Eichar did put forth a good theory of infra sound but makes it clear in the book that it is only a theory and no concrete evidence exist to conclusively state that to be the cause of their deaths. McCloskey provides an equally good assessment but also makes no declaration of having solved the mystery. Oss takes a different approach in this book and focuses on details in the investigation files, highlighting the missteps taken by investigators and the strange behavior of Soviet officials.   Readers may begin to question whether there was ever an “investigation” in the first place. What Oss reveals will undoubtedly change what some readers familiar with the case have long believed to be true.

Towards the end of the book, Oss does provide her hypothesis of what she believed happened.  It is compelling and could possibly be the right explanation. Her conclusion is supported by sound evidence gleaned from the recovery of the hiker’s tent and their remains.  She does leave it up to the reader to reach their own conclusions but I believe that there is ample evidence that as more information is learned, the less of a mystery the case is.  And maybe Occam’s razor truly does apply and the simplest explanation is correct.  Only time will tell if Oss will be vindicated. Great read.

ASIN: B00V5B3PI2

Soviet Union

chernobylThe Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plan was supposed to be the pinnacle of Soviet innovation and a testament to the drive inspired by the spirit of Lenin & Stalin.   Its very construction was intended to be a statement that the western powers were no match for their Soviet counterparts.  But on April 26, 1986, a meltdown at the Number Four reactor changed all of that and the course of world history.  Moscow moved quick to suppress any information coming out of the Soviet Union.  Initially the damage control was somewhat successful but before long, nuclear engineers in neighboring countries and across Europe realized that something was terribly wrong and all indicators pointed towards the Soviet Union.   Officials were forced to issue a public admission regarding the incident, setting off alarm bells across the globe.  I remember watching the news of the disaster with my parents and being in complete shock.  My father could only watch and shake his head in disbelief.  No one knew what would happen next but it was clear that this accident was unlike any that the world had ever seen before.

All hands were on deck as Soviet troops, doctors, engineers and plant workers scrambled to contain the damage.   Massive amounts of gamma rays were escaping by the minute and those in the immediate vicinity of the reactor absorbed lethal dosages of radiation that would later wreak havoc on their bodies and decimate the number of relief workers.  Years would pass before doctors and scientists fully understood the lasting effects of exposure to radiation at the plant.  However, even today there is still much about Chernobyl that remains hidden.  The second sarcophagus that covers the reactor opened on July 3, 2019 and time will tell if it is a permanent fix to contain the deadly amounts of radiation found within the buried reactor.

I have always wondered what happened to ordinary people that lived in Pripyat and surrounding areas.   We know that those who worked in the plant or were assigned cleanup and rescue jobs close to it, developed numerous health conditions that often resulted in death.  Author Adam Higginbotham captured the plight of workers at the plant in his phenomenal book, Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster.  Svetlana Alexievich was born in the Ukraine and raised in Belarus, one of the many former Soviet Social Republics.  In 2015 she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature and is known for her criticisms of the Soviet Union.  In this eye opening collection of personal accounts of life post-Chernobyl, she allows ordinary men and women to tell their stories of how Chernobyl changed their lives.  The filter is off and the people interviewed here are frank and unapologetic.  I caution the reader that the subject matter is graphic and the stories may send a chill down your spine.  But they are not here to make people feel good, they are telling the truth about life following the worst nuclear disaster in modern history.   Importantly, the author does not coach any of the people, she gives the green light and lets them tell us what they know and feel.

I believe that it goes without saying that any reader who decides to choose to this book should have an overall knowledge of the Chernobyl story.   While it is not necessary to read any prior material on the disaster, doing so would give the reader an even greater sense of how misinformed people were regarding the plant and the effects of radiation.   As I read through the book, I found the stories to be tragic and at other times surreal.  There is without a doubt a genuine disconnect between what the people believe and the danger that actually existed.  I found it hard to reconcile and can only surmise that the source of the disconnect was the Soviet way of life which relied on the tight control of information and the use of propaganda.  But did this control of information cause more deaths than necessary?

The stories paint a dark picture in which millions of citizens are largely unaware of the danger posed by the reactor’s meltdown.   Some go on as if nothing has changed, oblivious to the mortal danger around them.  The true danger of the exposure to radiation would later manifest itself not just in those with direct contact but even unborn children.   The births defects that plague the babies of Chernobyl are some of the most heartbreaking moments in the story.  The mothers are conflicted by anger, sadness and regret.  They believed in the Soviet system and that everything would be okay.  It is what they were told by those they trusted and by Moscow.  And the inability to actually see radiation undoubtedly made it harder for many to believe that where they were living was contaminated.   Their ignorance is perhaps a glaring defect of the Soviet system:  a population drive by innovation was also hindered by the suppression of  information and a strict chain of command that did not permit freedom of speech.  The inability of lower level party members to sound alarms and take measures that could have changed things is yet another tragedy in the Chernobyl story.   And it is discussed here in several of the interviews.

Sadly, as time continues to move forward, more individuals that are known as “Chernobylites”, will succumb to the long lasting effects from their time near the reactor and living in the areas in and around Pripyat.  Children born to that generation will continue to live with their birth defects and struggle to understand the unfair hand that they have been dealt in life.  The Soviet Union is long gone and it is believed by some that Chernobyl helped to bring about its demise.  The disaster did damage the Soviet reputation and spread mistrusts across the republics but there were other factors involved that lead to the Soviet Union’s dissolution in December, 1991.  Chernobyl will continue to haunt Russia and Ukraine, serving as a reminder of a dark time in Soviet history.  The recent HBO show of the same name has renewed interest in the disaster but to accurately capture what really happened, in particular to those that lived through it, the voices here are invaluable.

ASIN: B016QMCBKM

Soviet Union

1The lone gunman theory remains the official position taken the United States Government with regards to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy (1917-1963).  The alleged assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald (1939-1963) was convicted in the court of public opinion before standing trial in a Dallas courtroom. His assailant, Jack Ruby (1911-1967) permanently silenced Oswald forever and prevented Americans from knowing more about the former Marine that had once lived in the Soviet Union.   The big question surrounding Kennedy’s death is who did it?  The crime is similar to a black hole, puzzling even the most hardened researchers.  The late Jim Marrs (1943-2017) once said that we know who killed Kennedy, we just have to look at the evidence.  Author John M. Newman has joined the group of assassination researchers and has produced this first volume in what will be a multi-volume set about the deadly events in Dallas, Texas on November 22, 1963.

In this first volume, Newman sets the tone for what will soon follow. In comparison to other books about the murder, this volume is not focused on Kennedy’s death.  In fact, the murder is only mentioned a handful of times.  The story that is presented here is of the revolution in Cuba, Fidel Castro (1926-2016) and Washington’s fears of  Soviet expansion.  As Fulgencio Batista (1971-1973) struggled to maintain control of Cuba,  the CIA was closely watching the events taking place in the streets of Havana.  Students, revolutionary groups and activists formed a nexus of opposition to Batista’s corrupt regime.  At first it might seem counterproductive to write about the Cuban Revolution if the book is about Kennedy’s murder.  But what is important to keep in mind is that Newman is slowly setting the stage for what would eventually happen in Dallas.   It is generally accepted by researchers that Kennedy’s death was by no means the actions of just one person.  In fact, the list of those who opposed the young president was long and for a good explanation of how many forces were conspiring against Kennedy, I strongly recommend Col. John Hughes Wilson’s JFK: An American Coup D’etat: The Truth Behind the Kennedy Assassination, which provides a clear picture of the looming threat to the occupant in the White House.

I strongly believe that to understand Kennedy’s murder, it is necessary to understand exactly what was happening in Cuba and how it played out during Kennedy’s presidency.   Newman’s focus is not on the mission in the jungles of Cuba by bearded revolutionaries.   His goal here is to uncover the actions of the CIA and finally reveal the characters involved and what purpose they played as Castro took power and led Cuba down the communist path.   Acronyms and code names become the norm but if we pay close attention, we come to realize that many of the figures are discussed in other books. However, there are two who stand out here and deserve special mention.  Newman goes into the complicated and mysterious stories of Catherine Taeffe and June Cobb (1927-2015).  The latter has been written about before and her story is still puzzling to this day.   Thousands of pages of records have been released giving us a better picture Cobb’s association with the CIA and Newman ties all of if together here providing a thorough back story as to who she really was.  Taeffe is yet another figure who has eluded scrutiny in many books but it is here that her importance to Washington becomes clear.  And by the time Newman is finished, the reader will surely realize that there was far more taking place in Washington with regards to Cuba than most Americans could have ever imagined.  To be even more frank, things in Cuba had heated up and it is truly a miracle that an all out invasion of the island never materialized.

There are many names in the book and it is easy to get distracted as the author moves through the story.  I do think that a quick primer on the crime will help readers make it through the subject matter.  As a rule, I always recommend Jim Marrs ‘Crossfire: The Plot That Killed Kennedy‘, which still remains one of the best-selling books on Kennedy’s death.  With that being said, Newman does an excellent job of focusing on one aspect of the matter and exploring it into exhaustive detail.   I am now on to the second volume and his multi-volume approach will undoubtedly change the way Kennedy’s assassination is viewed through the eyes of even the most ardent researchers.   What I also found to be exceptionally valuable is that Newman does not put forth conspiracy theories, his conclusions are based solely on the evidence that was released.  And it is that approach that makes the book an even more exciting read.

I admit that the Kennedy murder is usually not at the top of the list of books to buy for a majority of readers.  But the crime still remains one of America’s darkest moments.   Perhaps one day we will finally know what really happened that day but until then, we can only reveal the truth layer by layer.  If the author is consistent, the volumes that follow will be nothing short of exceptional.  Good read.

ASIN: B00X3VZED6

 

JFK

vlThe dissolution of the United Soviet Social Republics (USSR) remains one of the most important and world changing moments in history.  The lowering of the hammer and sickle on December 26, 1991, was the end of seventy-four years of Soviet dominance over Eastern Europe.  But the remnants of the Soviet Union can still be found today and the ghost of its founder,  Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (1870-1924), continues to haunt Russia. In Red Square, Moscow, Lenin’s corpse remains on permanent display and is maintained by a full-time staff of technicians.  To believers in the old-guard and Marxism, Lenin is the eternal leader of the Bolshevik revolution. To his detractors, he was madman who unleashed a wave of terror and was  outdone only by his successor Joseph Stalin (1878-1953). Undoubtedly,  Stalin ruled the Soviet Union with an iron grip built upon fear, intimidation and murder.  But those tactics were not new methods of operation, having been in use long before he took power.  During the reign of the Soviet Union, information regarding Lenin’s private life was kept secret and only the most privileged of researchers were able to see any official records.   The passage of time and change in attitudes had resulted in the disclosure of Soviet records that many thought would never be revealed.  The thaw which began with Nikita Khrushchev (1894-1971) has allowed the world to learn the truth behind the Iron Curtain.  Author Victor Sebestyen has taken another look at Lenin’s life in this well-researched and revealing biography of the iconic and infamous Soviet leader.

It is not a requirement but I do believe that basic knowledge of the former Soviet Union will make the book even more enjoyable to the reader.   There are many figures in the story, some of whom became pivotal figures in Soviet and world history.  From the start, the book is intriguing and the author’s writing style sets the perfect tone for the book.  Furthermore, at the end of each chapter are the footnotes which help aid the reader in following the narrative and developing a mental picture of the tense political climate that existed in Russia at the beginning of the 1900s.

Prior to reading the book, I had learned a significant amount of information regarding Lenin’s life but the story told here is simply astounding. Sebestyen leaves no stone unearthed, fully disclosing the sensitive parts of Lenin’s life including his marriage to Nadezhda Konstantinovna Krupskaya (1969-1939) and relationship with Inessa Armand (1874-1920).   And as the author points out, Nadezhda or “Nadya”,  was a supportive and valued voice in Lenin’s circle.  Her comments throughout the book shed light on Lenin’s very private side and her commitment to the revolution and Lenin’s ideology made her a celebrated figure in her own right.  She remained committed to Lenin after his death and up until her own in 1939.

Lenin’s early life is examined in through detail and reveals an interesting figure but highly unorthodox and complex.  Ideology becomes a major focus of his life and his series of odd jobs come to an end when he finds his true calling as the man destined to lead the Bolshevik Revolution. But his path to get there had many obstacles along the way and it is his time away from Russia that is just as interesting as his time in Russia.  As would be expected, his service as chairman is the crux of the book and Sebestyen delivers the goods.   Sensitive readers should be aware that there are very disturbing events that take place and in their graphic detail here, they may prove to be too upsetting for some.  But the author reveals them so that we may learn the truth about Lenin.  In the title of the book, the author refers to him as a “Master of Terror”.  I believe the title was earned and this book is proof of it. His deeds have been overshadowed by those of his successor but Lenin was a master in his own right and I have no doubts that Stalin took many notes.  Death, deception, lies and even pilferage are part of the Soviet story, serving as pillars in the foundation upon which Lenin and his party established their system of brutality.   Their acts were so surprising in some instances, that even after having finished the book, I am still shaking my head in disbelief.  And to say that anarchy ruled, might be an understatement.

Sebestyen carefully follows Lenin’s rise and the formation of the Soviet Government.  From the start, all was not well and cracks in the facade immediately began to form.  The fragility of the coalition is on full display, allowing readers to grasp the unstable nature of Soviet politics and how quickly friends could turn into enemies.  Jealousy, egos and diverging interpretations of true Marxism severed friendships, raised suspicion and helped create an atmosphere of distrust that remained with the Soviet Union for the next seventy years.  And even today,  Russia and the independent republics, sometimes struggle to to stand completely removed from the dark legacy of the USSR.

One subject which has always been up for debate is Lenin’s untimely demise at the age of fifty-four.  His condition at the time was somewhat puzzling to doctors but all agreed that it deteriorated quickly.   Sebestyen clears up a few rumors surrounding Lenin’s death but there is a slight chance that some details regarding Lenin’s death still remain hidden. However, I do believe the author presents a solid analysis of what contributed to his death based on facts and not mere speculation.  Readers who are expecting to find any evidence of a conspiracy will disappointed.  No such theories are presented or even acknowledged, keeping the book on track all the way until the end.

The existence of Lenin’s tomb is both a testament to his influence over Russia and his inability to envision a future without himself.   He could have never imagined the heights that the Soviet Union would reach over time nor could he have pictured its downfall.   I think he may have mixed feelings to know that today in 2019, people are still interested in his life, one that he was willing to devote to the success of the Soviet empire.  In death, he became eternally etched into the Soviet experience and he remains one of history’s most polarizing figures.  This biography is nothing short of excellent.

B06WLJZNBH

Biographies

SvoietOn 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.

ASIN: B01EGKZL80

Soviet Union

ChernobylIn 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.

ASIN: B07GNV7PNH

Soviet Union

GessenIn 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.

ASIN: B06XQZPVDD

Soviet Union

Ukraine

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.

ISBN-10: 0385538855
ISBN-13: 978-0385538855

Soviet Union

Doomsday machineBetween 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.

ISBN-10: 1608196704
ISBN-13: 978-1608196708

American History