THIRTEEN DAYS IN SEPTEMBER by Lawrence Wright

(Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, President Jimmy Carter, and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin at Camp David Summit in September, 1978)

On November 19, 1977 Egyptian President Anwar Sadat made a momentous journey when he visited Jerusalem.  First, it led to the Camp David Agreement between Egypt and Israel, effectively removing Israel’s strongest enemy from the battlefield.  Second, it cost the Egyptian leader his life as he was assassinated by Islamic extremists on October 6, 1981.  Sadat’s removal from the diplomatic scene was a blow to the peace process from that point on.  Motivated by the needs of the Egyptian economy, poverty, and the condition of his military, Sadat, known for bold moves sought peace as a solution to his nation’s ills.   Because he chose peace at Camp David it precluded another round of war between Egypt, Syria, and Israel.  Not since William B. Quandt’s CAMP DAVID: PEACEMAKING AND POLITICS has the reading public been exposed to what happened over the two week period in the fall of 1978 when an Arab country finally made peace with Israel.  Lawrence Wright, a Pulitzer prize winning author for his work the LOOMING TOWER, has just completed THIRTEEN DAYS IN SEPTEMBER: CARTER, BEGIN, AND SADAT AT CAMP DAVID, a work of historical synthesis that tries to explain the origins and course of the Arab-Israeli conflict, and how the Camp David Accords fit into the diplomatic equation.  Wright is a marvelous purveyor of narrative history.  He has an excellent knack for integrating past history, be it, dealing with Biblical myths or recent political and military conflicts into his narrative.  The book is quite readable and he tries to untangle the web of inconclusive negotiations and wars between Israel and the Arab states dating back to World War II.  In so doing, he explores the Camp David process on a daily basis examining the personalities involved, the political landscape that each participant risked, the diplomatic minutia that Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat engaged in, and the effect that failure or success might have on the summits results.

The book ostensibly is the story of three flawed men who came together at the 140 acre presidential retreat that lies inside Maryland’s heavily wooded Catoctin Mountain Park sixty miles north of the White House.  Jimmy Carter “was fueled by his religious belief that God had put him in office in part to bring peace to the Holy Land,” and unlike previous American presidents he was willing to risk the prestige of his office to pursue his goal. (285) Carter had been warned by his former campaign manager, Hamilton Jordan of the domestic political consequences, particularly among American Jews, should it be perceived that he pressured Israel into making a settlement, but Carter was determined to make the effort.  Anwar Sadat realized how weak Egypt was becoming due to the state of their economy and his goal was to try and “supplant Israel as America’s best friend in the region”.  Peace was a highly desirable outcome as it would bring with it American economic assistance and European investment, but more importantly if the summit failed because of Israeli intransigence, it would boost Egypt’s standing with the United States.  Begin agreed to attend believing it was a necessity because of Carter’s personal invitation.  He believed it would only last a few days, and that nothing of substance would be accomplished other than the promise of future talks.  Begin’s main goal was to avoid being blamed for the summits failure, but as Wright accurately describes, the only way that could be achieved was making sure it succeeded.

Wright does an exceptional job locating information that was heretofore not commonly known.  An interesting example is the CIA’s profiles of Begin and Sadat that were requested by Carter as he prepared for the summit.  Based on Wright’s narrative of the tense and at times vitriolic negotiations, the CIA’s analysis of each was quite accurate.  Sadat “saw himself as a grand strategic thinker blazing like a comet through the skies.”  The CIA noted his penchant for publicity, terming it the “Barbara Walters Syndrome,” by the time the summit began; it was upgraded to Sadat’s “‘Noble Peace Prize Complex.”  Begin was seen as “secretive, legalistic, and leery of radical change.  History, for Begin, was a box full of tragedy; one shouldn’t expect to open it without remorse.”(9)  When under pressure Sadat resorted to generalities, Begin to minutiae, creating a situation Carter did not anticipate.  Carter had hoped to avoid interjecting an American proposal to discussions, and allow Begin and Sadat to talk face to face, expecting they would reach an agreement with American nudging.  This strategy was a failure, as Carter could not leave them alone in the same room.  What became clear by the sixth day of the conference was that the Begin-Sadat relationship, was at best “prickly,” and their interchanges were overly charged in dealing with things like who won the 1973 War and the amount of oil Israel was pumping from the Sinai.  If they argued bitterly over minor issues what would happen when territorial problems were discussed, the status of Jerusalem, and the Palestinian problem.  As Ezer Weitzmann, the Israeli Minister of Defense has related, “Anyone observing the two men could not have overlooked their profound divergence in their attitudes.  Both desired peace.  But whereas Sadat wanted to take it by storm….Begin preferred to creep forward inch by inch.  He took the dream of peace and ground it into the fine, dry powder of details, legal clauses, and quotes from international law.”(98)  After taking his guests for a visit to the Gettysburg National Battlefield, Carter shifted his approach from a facilitator to a catalyst in conducting the talks.  This change along with Carter’s doggedness and commitment are in large part responsible for the final success of the summit.

Wright provides the reader with brief biographies of each of the participants.  Based on Carter’s engineering mindset and the skills he had developed over the years he was able to parse the language of written documents and make them mostly acceptable.  His religious background drove him until he could achieve his goals.  Begin was a prisoner of his past, be it his imprisonment in Siberia, the Holocaust, fighting the British after World War II as the leader of the Irgun, as all played into his narrow world view.  From childhood onward, Sadat believed he was special and history had a place for him to accomplish great things, as he was open to all challenges whether allying with the Nazis during World War II, his own imprisonment, or unlikely political rise.  Wright separates his narrative by employing chapters for each day of the conference.  As he explains the daily events he integrates background history so the reader can understand the importance of each issue.  If the contemporary history is not enough, Wright then goes on to discuss the Biblical stories and explanations that pertain to each issue.  Wright also enjoys tackling different myths associated with the conflict, i.e.; he argues that Israel actually was not outnumbered by the Arab armies during the 1948 War; he also argues that David Ben-Gurion and the Haganah were involved with the bombing of the King David Hotel in 1947 killing 81 people and that Begin agreed to place the blame for the attack on the Irgun.

Egyptian soldiers firing on Egyptian President Anwar Al-Sadat in 1981.

Makaram Gad Alkareem  /  AFP – Getty Images, file

(Assassins posing as Egyptian soldiers fire on President Anwar Al-Sadat in Cairo on Oct. 6, 1981.)

Wright tells his story and makes his arguments in a very concise manner and the narrative is very readable and provides the basis for understanding a great deal about issues that remain unresolved today.  If there are areas that Wright could improve upon I would suggest he integrate greater use of primary sources into his work.  He relies overly on secondary sources.  I commend his command of these sources but at times he draws conclusions from the monographs he uses that are incorrect.   In discussing the Suez Crisis of 1956 he leaves out important points, i.e.; when Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal he makes it sound as if it came out of the blue, and there is no mention of the fact that he was reacting to the withdrawal of the American loan to build the Aswan Dam.  Further, I feel that at times the author gets bogged down in his repeated rendering of Biblical stories.  I would rather have had him delve further into the negotiations and provide his analysis which was for the most part excellent.

Overall, Wright’s contribution to the literature of the Arab-Israeli conflict is to be applauded.  The analysis he presents in his Epilogue is dead on as the summit papered over the Palestinian problem and it can be argued that this failure contributed greatly to recent events in Gaza.  What is also important as Wright points out is that Camp David took Egypt out of the equation and “without a powerful Arab champion, Palestine became a mascot for Islamists and radical factions who could only do further damage to the prospects of a peaceful and just response to the misery of an abandoned people.”(288)

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THE MARCO EFFECT by Jussi Adler-Olsen

 

 

(Copenhagen Police Headquarters)

The story begins in the remote Bantu village of Somolarmo during the autumn of 2008.  Louis Fon who was in charge of a Danish development project in the Dja jungle of Cameroon notices two men approaching; a white man, and Mbomo Ziem who was an errand boy for Danish government officials.  Later, Louis noticed that Mbomo was giving bags of alcohol to pygmy Bantu villagers, and that substantial sums of money were missing from the project he oversaw.  Shortly thereafter, Mbomo approached Fon with a machete, forcing him to flee.  As fast as he ran he could not escape, and as he was dying from his wounds he was able to send a text message on his cell phone.  This is how Jussi Adler-Olsen’s latest novel that employs “Department Q” of the Copenhagen police force entitled, THE MARCO EFFECT begins.  As in the four previous books in the series the reader’s attention is captured almost immediately.

The plot centers around Kannebaek Bank, one of Denmark’s leading financial institutions.  With the bank about to go under because of the 2008 economic meltdown, its chairman, Jens Brage-Schmidt along with two other bank officials hatch an embezzlement scheme involving the Danish Evaluation Department for Developmental Assistance to make the bank solvent.  Problems develop when a civil servant named William Stark is sent to Cameroon to investigate Fron’s sudden disappearance learns that his final text message read, “corruption dans l’aide de development Dja.”  This knowledge places a number of individuals, including Stark in grave danger leading to a series of murders.

As with all of Adler-Olsen’s “Department Q” novels there are a number of plot lines that eventually seem to merge together.  The current mystery is no exception as in addition to the Danish bank fraud, the author introduces the role of a gypsy type clan, and the remnants of an old case that still causes difficulty for Carl Morck, the head of Department Q.  Marco Jamison is a twelve year old boy who rebels against his clan leader named Zola, who is also his uncle.  The clan operates on a number of levels including murder, pick pocketing, injury scams, and other mechanisms to exploit the general population.  When Marco decides he no longer wishes to remain part of the clan, he runs away and hides from Zola’s henchmen.  While in hiding, Marco comes across a corpse buried on the side of the road.  Finally, Marco eludes Zola’s search party and wanders the streets of Copenhagen for over three years working and living with a gay couple who took him in off the streets.  Then out of nowhere, the clan caught up with him.  Due to the curiosity of Assad; a member of Detective Morck’s Department Q, who also seems to have been a Syrian intelligence operative before immigrating to Denmark, and Rose, who suffers from periodic episodes of multiple personality, the death of William Stark, the missing civil servant turns up on Morck’s desk.  From this point on the novel gains momentum as the author doubles down on his plot.

Adler-Olsen introduces a number of new characters into the series.  A number appear from previous books; Mika and Morten; a gay couple who lives in Morck’s house, and care for Hardy, a colleague of Morck’s who was paralyzed in a shootout investigating a previous case; Mona Ibsen, now Carl’s ex-girlfriend, who he had hoped to marry; and Lars Bjorn who is elevated to head the Homicide Division replacing, the now retired Marcus Jacobsen.  The major new character is an intern who was attending law school by the name of Gordon Thomas, who is also sexually obsessed with Rose, and becomes a thorn in Morck’s side.  The important characters that are unique to THE MARCO EFFECT include; Zola, the head of the gypsy type clan; Rene Eriksen, Head of the Danish Evaluation Department for Developmental Assistance; Teis Snap, manager of Kannebaek Bank; Jens Brage-Schmidt, Chairman of Kannebaek Bank; and Marco Jameson, who tried to sever all connections with the Zola’s clan and begin a new life.  The roles of Assad and Rose continue to develop as their insight and acumen involving the case places them in a position of importance as the plot unfolds.

Parts of the book fits the description of a thriller as those pages seem to drip with tension as different forces try and capture Marco.  At first, the repeated chases and escapes are effective, however, after what seem like repeated “Houdini type” escapes it seemed overdone.  Perhaps Marco’s plight could have been couched differently as the novel progresses.  As usual Adler-Olsen has a great deal to say about problems in Danish society be it Copenhagen’s underworld, issues dealing with immigration, corporate corruption, and civil servants who abscond with government funds. In all cases it is not difficult to ascertain the author’s viewpoint and he provides hints how these problems could be solved.

In conclusion, THE MARCO EFFECT measures up well to the previous novels in the series.  All the elements of an excellent mystery are present, including a rather unsuspecting ending.  If you have enjoyed Adler-Olsen’s previous work, his current effort will not disappoint.

THE PURITY OF VENGEANCE by Jussi Adler-Olsen

Udsigt til Oringe

(Oringe Psychiatric Hospital in Denmark)

THE PURITY OF VENGEANCE is the fourth installment of Jussi Adler-Olsen’s “Department Q” novels.  As with the first three this latest work draws the reader in almost immediately employing a complex plot line and a marvelous translation from the original Danish by Martin Aitken.  As is usually the case, the story line centers around the Copenhagen police detective Carl Morck, who permanently resides in the basement of police headquarters because of his ability to irritate his superiors. No matter how the officials upstairs at headquarters try and keep Morck away from major cases, he seems to outdo himself as he is able to crack cases that have been filed as “unsolved” for years.  The mission of Department Q, whose real name translates into “the Department of Cases Requiring Special Scrutiny,” is to reexamine old case files and ascertain whether he and his assistants; the ever surprising Assad; and Rose, whose personality can morph into her alter ego Yrsa, at any time.

The novel begins at a dinner honoring members of the medical community when suddenly, Curt Wad, a physician who heads the Purity Party, an organization that believes “that we ought not to prolong life in cases where it has not the remotest chance of becoming reasonably dignified,” (30-31) verbally abuses the spouse of one of the award recipients.  Wad accuses Nete Rosen of having had numerous abortions before she was married.  When her husband, Andreas confronts her later that evening while driving home she admits that Wad’s accusations are true.  Andreas decides to end their marriage and as he does, a distraught Nete jerks the steering wheel resulting in a crash that kills her husband.  With a window into the plot, Adler-Olsen introduces a number of other story lines into the narrative including an old case that Morck and company have resurrected involving Rita Nielson, a brothel owner whose disappearance in 1987 was deemed to be a suicide, despite the fact there was little evidence to support that conclusion.  As the author takes the reader back and forth from 1985 to 2010, the sister of former policemen, who also runs a brothel, has acid thrown in her face.  The last strand involves the resurfacing of a shooting that resulted in the death of one of Morck’s colleagues and the paralysis of another.  Out of the blue, Morck, who was also shot during the incident, finds his judgment questioned and there are hints that the death and paralysis of his colleagues was his fault.  It is interesting how Adler-Olsen introduces these strands and how they all seem to come together presenting Morck and company with a number of difficult tasks.

With her life destroyed, the partially crippled Nete takes back her maiden name of Hermansen and decides to get even with all the people that have treated her unfairly during the years leading up to her marriage.  She draws up a list of nine individuals, however, three are dead and she sets her sights on the remaining six, with the list headed by Dr. Curt Wad.  Interestingly people on the list begin to disappear, but each disappearance could be explained by suicide or an accident of some sort.  But, they all disappeared the same weekend in 1987, but it takes until November of 2010 for Rose and Assad to make the connection. The trail eventually leads top Nete Hermansen and her acts of revenge and the work of Dr. Wad.  Curt Wad fears that his life’s work will be destroyed and using a source within the Police Department works to get rid of Morck and his assistants after the investigation gets very close to him.  How the investigation reaches Wad reflects Adler-Olsen’s ability develop scenarios that seem unrelated, but then coalesce in a surprising fashion.  Once Wad realizes how close the police and a journalist named Soren Brandt are to uncovering his secrets he decides they must be eliminated.  Wad’s actions from this point drive the remaining third of the novel.

One of the most interesting developments for those who have read any of Adler-Olsen’s previous works is the development of the Assad character, as he seems to have gone  from a non-descript person who immigrated from Syria, to one whose past begins to emerge, a past that probably involved Syrian intelligence.  Other aspects of the book that impressed me was how the author portrayed his own feelings about the treatment of people who were deemed to be “untermenschen,” or “unproductive members of society” who did not have the right to live because they were also “morally deficient.”  People were categorized in such a manner by Wad’s Purity Party who promoted and conducted forced sterilization and abortions, but were also a political party that was close to achieving legitimacy as they were about to win seats in the Danish parliament as elections approached.  As Adler-Olsen introduces the views and actions of the Purity Party, it allows him to highlight the problems that people who are not accepted by society and treated inhumanly face.  As the plot begins to reach its climax it produces a very unpredictable ending.  If you are a fan of a really good “whodunit,” then the works of Jurri Adler-Olsen will not disappoint.

A CONSPIRACY OF FAITH by Jussi Adler-Olsen

(The canals of Copenhagen are wonderful!)

A CONSPIRACY OF FAITH by the Danish mystery writer, Jussi Adler-Olsen is the third in his Department Q series centered on police headquarters in Copenhagen that I have read and immensely enjoyed.  The lead detective remains Carl Morck, who is assisted by his somewhat eccentric sidekick, Hafez el-Assad (not to be confused with the former murdering dictator of Syria, who is the father of the current murdering dictator of Syria, Bashir el-Assad), and his administrative assistant, Rose/Yrsa Knudsen who seems to suffer from multiple personality disorder.  Department Q is located in the basement of Copenhagen’s Police Headquarters and its mission is to solve old cases that have not been closed.  Morck is an interesting character who is a superb detective who suffers from his own demons resulting in his banishment to the basement by the head of the Danish police.

The case Morck is presented with is extremely convoluted and complex.  The story begins with two boys tied up in a boat house, somewhere in Denmark, who fear for their lives.  The older of the two is able to loosen the rope around his wrists and write a message in his own blood on a piece of paper which he stuffs in a bottle and drops into the water.  After twelve years the bottle turns up and Morck and his cohorts begin to try and decipher, and then unravel what the significance of the note is.  After careful examination and excellent police work they are able to discern a good part of the message and learn of the disappearance of Poul Holt, a college student from Ballerup who is afflicted with Asperger’s Syndrome.  Poul is joined in captivity with his younger brother Tryggve, who later in the narrative plays a very important role.  After only a few short chapters Alder-Olsen has drawn the reader into the story and the investigation takes off.

In weaving his narrative, Adler-Olsen develops a second plot that finds a man twenty years senior to his wife who constantly disappears from home, for weeks at a time.  He is deranged serial killer who sets his sights on religious groups.  We find him stalking a particular family from a religious sect called “the Mother Church.”  His wife becomes fed up with him, and she grows suspicious which will almost cause her own undoing.  The primary and secondary plots come together as Morck learns that Poul was a Jehovah’s Witness.  The killer sticks to a routine and a plan for each murder that he follows meticulously.  After dinner with a family from the Mother Church he ingratiated himself with the parents under the pretext of taking their children to a karate tournament.  Once they leave the house the serial killer kidnaps the children, Samuel and Magdalena and locks them up in his boat house.  He would teach this family, as he had done with numerous others that “the evils of this world cannot be kept at bay with weekly devotions and renunciation of the good things of modern life.” (137)  The serial killer’s background explains a great deal of his twisted logic as he had grown up with a strict pastor for a father who was the center of the ultra dogmatic nature of his upbringing.  Adler-Olsen explores the psychosis of extreme religion very carefully as he integrates what appear to be his own feelings about religious zealotry.

The twists and turns in the plot keep the reader on the edge of their seat, and for me the book was very difficult to put down.  Adler-Olsen’s character development is wonderful, and his sarcastic humor through the mouths of Morck and Rose/Yrsa are very entertaining.  The conclusion of the story is difficult to predict as you read on and each scene is presented in vivid detail.  If you have not tried one of Adler-Olsen’s mysteries, this is the perfect opportunity to do so.  You do not have to have read the first two, and to the author’s credit he does not go over a great deal of information from those books.  Having been well satisfied by A CONSPIRACY OF FAITH, I cannot wait to tackle the next two in the series, one of which, THE MARCO EFFECT, was published last week.

FRAGILE EMPIRE: HOW RUSSIA FELL IN AND OUT OF LOVE WITH VLADIMIR PUTIN by Ben Judah

Vladimir Putin is shown. | AP Photo/RIA-Novosti, Dmitry Astakhov, Presidential Press Service

(Vladimir Putin, King of All Sports!)

As Vladimir Putin denies the Russian presence in the current Ukrainian crisis, but at the same time makes statements that he “could take Kiev in two weeks,” and that the world needs to remember that Russia is a nuclear power one wonders how we got here.  President Obama’s threats of further sanctions against Russia seem to accomplish little as European allies do not have the stomach to hit the Russians where it would hurt the most, their energy sector.  As Russian troops invaded eastern Ukraine and tilted the conflict in favor of the pro-Russian rebels, the west at last week’s NATO conference in Wales could not bring themselves to use the term invasion or maybe incursion, so I ask again how did we arrive at this impasse?  Ben Judah’s 2013 book, FRAGILE EMPIRE is a wonderful guide to understanding recent events in Ukraine and the state of Putin’s Russia domestically.  Had Judah published his book a year later he would have found further evidence to buttress his argument that Russia had fallen in and out of love with Putin and what the future may hold for a country that is overly dependent economically, socially, and politically on the price of oil; where corruption is the main tool for Putinism’s survival; and a social fabric that is being torn apart by emigration of many of Russia’s most talented people, a declining longevity rate, and a population that is decreasing each year.  Judah who is a superb reporter and political scientist has traveled to most areas of Russia and seems to predict that the weight of Putinism will eventually will lead to its collapse, however the current Ukrainian crisis has improved his popularity among the Russian people as he appeals to Russian nationalism and feeds the paranoia many in Russia feel when compared with the west.

(Obama and Putin at the G8 Summit, July 17, 2013)

Judah begins his study in explaining Putin’s background and rise to political power, concentrating on his main theme that he has written “a study of Putin’s triumph as a politician and his failure to build a modern state.” (2)  Putin was born in post-war Leningrad in 1952 and experienced a childhood of mostly poverty living in a cramped apartment with a communal kitchen and bathroom.  At the age of eleven he went to a local KGB office and asked to join and being politely rebuffed he grew obsessed with patriotic spy films and the martial arts.  The youthful Putin’s world view was a product of a double disaster.  At first he worked for the KGB in Dresden, East Germany, a failed authoritarian state.  He followed that experience as a senior official in St. Petersburg, in a failed democracy.  After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the winter of 1992 witnessed fears of hunger that had not existed in urban areas since Stalin’s reign as the Russian GDP had fallen by 44%, deeper than the United States in the 1930s.  Judah describes Putin as being from the lost generation of the 1990s.  Putin and his contemporaries had grown up under communist indoctrination; its collapse produced “a generation of cynicism as their world view.”  “Putin, like millions of Russians who dedicated their lives  to the Soviet state, found themselves irrelevant, mocked for having a ‘Soviet mentality;’ those in the KGB were shunned and told they had been the ‘enemy of the people’ all along.” (14)  It is from this environment that Putin emerged with St. Petersburg becoming his springboard to power.

According to Judah, the West liked the idea that Boris Yeltsin surrounded himself with young reformers, but in fact he brought the military and FSB into government.  Under Gorbachev they made up only 5% of government positions, by 1998 under Yeltsin it had climbed to 46%. (18)  Judah describes in detail how during Yeltsin’s reign the oligarchs emerged and ostensibly stole the Russian economy as ordinary Russians were losing their life’s savings.  With many feeling Russia was close to collapse the men around Yeltsin needed a protector who could win the next election.  This was the Kremlin that Vladimir Putin, then a young, impressive former KGB bureaucrat from St. Petersburg, first started to work in.  As Russian oil production declined by 50% and oil prices dropped by 60% state revenues were collapsing resulting in the default of Russian debt at a time when 40% of Russians were below the poverty line.  At the same time oligarchs threw money around resulting in an expansion of an urban middle class particularly in Moscow and consumerism that allowed politicians to reach their constituency.  A further stress on Yeltsin’s rule was the war in Chechnya as the election of 2000 approached.  The invasion of Chechnya catapulted Putin from a nobody into one of the most popular politicians in the country.  A series of domestic bombings furthered the need for a strong leader, who in this case was chosen by the Kremlin, Vladimir Putin, who “acted the part of a macho-savior in front of the cameras and his popularity exploded.” (33)  Putin was swept into power atop a shaky wave of nationalist fear and economic distress.

Putin’s first term was shaped by Yeltsin’s legacy and the problems he inherited, according to Judah he appeared as a “Sisyphean,” but it was Putin’s luck to take over just as an economic boom took off.  His first year in office saw a 10% growth rate thanks to a 75% lower exchange rate that fueled Russian exports and consumer spending.  In addition a tax reform program benefited business as did the recovery of the energy sector produced sustained GDP growth of 7% annually through 2008. (40-41)  At the same time as liberal economic reform was implemented the Kremlin clamped down on television, what Judah describes as the creation of a “videocracy” that projected Putin as a Russian hero and that Russia could never survive without him.  Putin would go to war with media oligarchs who he felt were a threat and by 2008 he controlled 90% of the Russian media.  According to Judah television created a cult of Putin as 98% of the population had no satellite or internet by 2008.  Telepopulism created a Putin majority and Putin was packaged as the “generous Putin” who paid for the “budgetniki,” people who were reliant on state salaries, pensions, and other benefits.  In a country where 53% of the people were on the state payroll in one form or another, Putin’s cult flourished.  In the midst of this process Putin turned more authoritarian as he imposed his version of consensus on the oligarchs, particularly in the energy sector, as oligarchs blocked any increase in taxes on oil profits.  Putin had little choice if he was to maintain his popularity through social spending as he needed the $2 billion in taxes that the oil oligarchs avoided paying.  A further threat to Putin was Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who in 2003 was considered the richest man in Russia.  When Khodorkovsky entered politics and railed against the corruption that was built into the Russian economic system (30% of the state budget was lost to corruption).  Putin viewed this as a personal threat and imposed his will on all oligarchs, and in particular private oil production would fall from 90% to 45%, and by 2005 83.9% of all oil company profit went to the state.  Putin’s message was clear; oligarchs should stay out of politics.  Russia saw itself as the northern energy super power and that energy would now be used for geopolitical goals, an effective strategy today as the European countries refuse to risk a Russian energy cut off if they push too hard over the “invasion” of the Ukraine.  By 2008 Putin’s “authoritarian project” was in place as all funds that oligarchs had used to oppose Putin where now part of state revenues.  Despite Putin’s political success, corruption, terrorism, and bureaucratic incompetence remained.

As described, Judah has done an exceptional job explaining Putin’s origins and how he rose to power.  Further, he allows the reader to understand that once in power Putin was able to crush any hope of liberal economic reform or political change.  Judah is correct that as long as the energy sector flourished the Russian economy would do well, but if a crisis developed, Russia and Putin would be in trouble. No matter what the short term economic success Russia experienced, the cancer of corruption would dominate the Russian economic model and undermine any successes.  2008 brought a foreign policy success that would rattle the West and be a precursor of current events in the Ukraine.  A crisis arose in Russian areas of Georgia that provoked Russian military action.  The underlying cause of Russian action as described by John J. Mearsheimer in his new article in Foreign Affairs, “Why the Ukraine Crisis is the West’s fault,” is that the United States and Europe by expanding NATO membership to Russia’s doorstep overstepped the bounds that Putin could accept.  After the Baltic States gained NATO membership, Georgia and the Ukraine were seen as next.  What the West failed to realize is that the birthplace of Stalin, Georgia, and the Ukraine have historically been part of Russia and those areas had been seen as vital since the Tsarist times.  Putin’s successful occupation of Georgian territory only enhanced Putin’s reputation and popularity.  At the same time Putin decided not to run for reelection and allowed Dimitry Medvedev to assume the presidency.  Medvedev grew up in the “Putin political family” and had no other politically meaningful professional experience.” (170)  As 2008 was coming to an end it appeared that Putin was in total control of Russia and despite the lack of freedom, he brought the stability that Russians cherished.

(2011 Moscow demonstrations after Putin announced he would replace Medvedev as President)

That stability was broken in September, 2008 with the collapse of Lehman Brothers in the United States and the resulting economic ripple that encompassed the world economy.  Russia’s situation was exacerbated because of the corruption that permeated Putin’s system.  Putin blamed the United States for Russia’s economic plight.  By 2009, the Russian economy had contracted by 8.9% as the Russian stock market lost 80% of its value, and oil prices temporarily declined by 70%. (175)  Medvedev identified Russia’s structural economic problems but could not do anything to modernize the system.  “By 2010 indicators showed that Russia was as corrupt as Papua New Guinea, with property rights of Kenya, as competitive as Sri Lanka.”  Russia was a society where everything had a price tag. (177)  Medvedev and Putin faced further problems when the government proved incompetent to deal with forest fires outside of Moscow.  What became Putin’s “Katrina,” highlighted a government that had “become a vertical of loyalty intertwined with a vertical corruption.” (185)  Putin’s sytem removed any incentive to be efficient and the government was unable to implement its policies beyond Moscow as it was over centralized.  On September 24, 2011 it was announced that Medvedev would not seek reelection and Putin would return.  This would spark a brief period of oppositional demonstrations who labeled Putin’s United Russia party as “the party of crooks and thieves.”  Though the slogan may have been accurate the newborn protest movement was “not ready to run into the Kremlin, as it could barely walk.  Without structure, without a policy plateform, it was not resistance ready to break through” and demand a recount when Putin was reelected by an inflated vote count of 15-20%. (248)

Judah provides a wonderful portrait of the Russian electorate and the different factions that existed.  As Luke Hardin wrote in The Guardian on June 27, 2013 “Moscow isn’t Russia: it is an affluent mega-city disconnected from the impoverished small towns where most Russians live.”  Judah feels that there is a degree of condescension in the opposition that helps explain their inability to gain support outside of Moscow.  Judah also includes a wonderful chapter entitled, “Moscow the Colonialist” where he describes in detail how Russians residing outside of their capital feel about their government and the lack of state resources that are afforded to them. Putin fought back with a conservative culture war.  Having lost the most advanced part of the nation, Putin would direct his energies to winning over the most backward part of the nation.  Judah describes Putin’s spending as that of a “Gulf Sheik,” as 53% of the country was on the state payroll as pensioners, state employees, factory workers, war veterans and bureaucrats, he had no choice but to meet their needs.  Pensions rose by 10%, $613 billion was allocated for a ten year military program, and another $160 billion worth of giveaways.” (261)  The question is how long can Putin maintain such a system when a drop in oil or gas prices could cripple the economy.  If one thinks of the current Ukrainian crisis as a vehicle to take people’s attention away from economic issues it makes even more sense.  Putin travels all over Russia visiting areas liberal politicians would never have thought of.  He has snuffed out “a not-quite revolution,” and sees little support outside Moscow for a move away from his program of economic stability.  Judah is correct in stating that the mass consent Putin enjoyed his first two terms as President is gone forever, but as Luke Harding has concluded, “Russians have fallen out of love with Putin but are unpersuaded that the opposition can deliver anything better.”  Judah concludes that sooner or later an earthquake may bring down the fragile Kremlin.  But then again, it might not happen at all.  If one wants to make some sense out of Putin’s reign, Judah’s marvelous work of political science is well worth a look.

IN THE KINGDOM OF ICE by Hampton Sides

Hampton Sides is a very engaging writer who has taken his readers through a number of diverse adventures.  Whether hunting down James Earl Ray for the assassination of Martin Luther King; detailing the mission of US Army Rangers in January 1945 behind Japanese lines in the Philippines; ; or exploring the role of Kit Carson in the American west, Sides has always been able to break down each topic to capture the attention of his readers.  His latest effort, IN THE KINGDOM OF ICE, is no exception as he tells the story of the USS Jeannette which set sail from San Francisco in July, 1879.  Sides describes the origins of the voyage and its place in navigational history and he produces what might be his finest book yet.

The narrative traces the development of the idea that there was a warm water path through the Arctic ice flows that would enable an expedition to reach the North Pole.  The story begins with the disappearance of the Polaris, a ship Captained by Charles Hall, that was sailing north off of Greenland in 1872 and the failed rescue mission that was attempted by the “Little Juniata,” a much smaller ship.  The rescue boat had traveled over 400 miles through large chunks of ice broken off icebergs and was Captained by George DeLong, an Annapolis graduate, who upon returning to New York explained to his wife Emma what he experienced and she realized that “the polar virus was in George’s blood to stay.” (10)    DeLong knew he was bitten by the “arctic fever,” and began to seek funding for a return trip to the Arctic region in search of a passage to the North Pole.  As Delong planned he came in contact with a number of important and colorful characters including James Gordon Bennett, Jr., the publisher, editor in chief and sole owner of the New York Herald, the largest and most influential newspaper in the world.  Bennett was also the third richest man in America and believed that newspapers should not merely report stories, but should create them.  His most famous involved sending a correspondent, Henry Stanley to Africa to locate Dr. David Livingstone, which took people by storm.  Bennett believed that an Arctic voyage would create even more interest and newspaper sales.  Another major figure was Professor August Heinrich Petermann, a German theoretician who concluded that the Open Polar Sea Theory was valid.  Petermann believed that “the ice pack as a whole forms a mobile belt on whose polar side the sea is more or less ice free.” (60)  Petermann also published numerous maps of the Arctic and Siberian region and was seen as the most reliable source of information for any polar excursion.  Much to DeLong’s chagrin later in the narrative, the German theorist’s ideas were all wrong resulting in disastrous consequences.  Once Bennett is convinced to finance a new voyage with DeLong in command the reader follows the preparation of a new vessel that is rechristened the Jeannette (named after Bennett’s estranged sister), the detailed planning, and the choosing and training of the crew.

As a back drop to the exploratory adventure, Sides reminds the reader of the major technical and scientific advances of the day by describing the 1876 Central Exposition in Philadelphia which was attended by the likes of George Eastman, Alexander Graham Bell, George Westinghouse, and Thomas Alva Edison (whose invention, arc lighting would be a total failure during the Jeannette’s voyage).  The author describes major new inventions and products including Heinz ketchup and Hires Root Beer as people came to observe from all over the world.  The US Navy, politicians and the business community all favored the expedition and it became a cause célèbre in the United States.

The ship departed San Francisco on July 8, 1879 under the command of George DeLong.  Its crew is made up of experts in all nautical fields and is very optimistic on departure.  As the USS Jeanette steamed north toward the Bering Strait, scientists and bureaucrats digested new data from ships returning from the Arctic region, and they discerned that Petermann’s ideas that DeLong was basing his path on did not exist.  “The portal DeLong was aiming for offered no real gate of entrance into the Arctic Ocean….the North Pacific Ocean, has practically speaking, no northern outlet; Bering Strait is but a cul de sac. (143)  By September, 1879, DeLong realized that the “thermometric gateway to the North Pole [was] a delusion and a snare.” (162). at this point on Sides describes how the Jeanette becomes imprisoned in the ice for almost a year, though because of the ice flow the ship does not remain stagnant.  The crew will remain in high spirits but ultimately when the ship is released from the ice the ship has to deal with loose chunks of ice and poor weather.  DeLong is not certain of his path and sends his chief engineer, George Melville on a dangerous reconnaissance mission when land is located.  While Melville is gone lead poison overtakes the crew.  By June, 1880 another ship is sent by the US Navy to learn what has happened to the Jeannette.   Captained by Calvin Hooper, with the naturalist John Muir as part of the crew, the USS Corwin is unsuccessful in locating the missing vessel.  Circumstances become dire for the Jeannette as it is encased in ice for another year and it finally will sink in June 1881.  The crew will escape and split up into three boats and make for Siberia to try and survive.

Sides is at his best as he describes the perilous journey as weather, unkind geography, and loneliness set in.  The author offers a unique and often amazing description of DeLong and his crew as they sail and trek across the ice, slush, and open water as they sought the Siberian land mass.  Details of the topography they dealt with, their physical strength and will power all place the reader among the crew as they tried to overcome the hand that Mother Nature had dealt them as each day became a separate battle for survival.  DeLong and his men were always up against the Arctic clock, when would the warm weather end?  By August 1881, DeLong had to burn the sleds that pulled his boats, making the remainder of their journey that more difficult.  By September 19, 1881 they were down to four days worth of provisions.  The remainder of the story is one of human will against the elements.  The three boats split up, never to be rejoined again.  DeLong sends his two best men ahead to try and reach a settlement to find aid.  It is when these two men reach Yakutsk, a Siberian village of 5000 people they are reunited with George Melville and a few men from the second boat.  It is with the aid of the Russian Governor-General, George Tchernieff who states that unlike today, “that Russia has your back.”  Melville launches an expedition to return to the ice to look for DeLong and his men and by March, 1882 he will uncover DeLong’s “ice journals,” maps, and other writings that were last dated in October, 1881.  Needless to say, shortly thereafter the bodies of these men were found.

The conclusion that Sides reaches is that courage and loyalty dominated the mission of the USS Jeannette under the leadership of Captain DeLong.  The capacity of George Melville’s commitment and identification with his captain and friend are compelling and explain his dogged determination to rescue DeLong and his crew once he reaches the safety of Yakutsk.  Sides goes on to describe Melville’s commitment to DeLong’s widow, Emma and the mission that he would carry to his grave.  Sides’ research and documentation is impeccable and there is little to question about his account as he has access to all of DeLong’s papers and other important materials.  He presents a work of history that reads like the best adventure fiction that I have read in a long time, and the book should spark interest for all who seek a story about the triumph and loss of the human spirit.