THE BORDER by Don Winslow

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(The US-Mexico border)

After completing THE FORCE, the second installment of Don Winslow’s THE POWER OF THE DOG trilogy that encompasses the narco-drug world that resides in Mexico, but also a symbiotic relationship with areas of the United States, I looked forward to seeing how his fictional account with elements of fact would resolve itself.  The concluding volume, THE BORDER has just been released and it will not disappoint as it maintains Winslow’s breadth of knowledge of the purveyors of the drug trade, the intricacies of how it operates, the violent battles among the cartels, the relationship between the Mexican and American governments, and how corruption and death pass back and forth over the Mexico-United States border, themes that seem to overlay each chapter.

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(Mexican border with El Paso, TX)

Art Keller is once again the main protagonist and he maintains his ability to make enemies among key characters in the cartels, as well as members of the American government whose job it is to create and enforce drug laws.  In THE FORCE Keller’s ability to create enemies reaches new heights as he manages to alienate his own Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), the United States Senate, the Mexican drug cartels, and the President of the United States.  It seems Keller has triggered a scandal that results in an investigation that spreads from Mexican poppy fields to Wall Street, all the way to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.  Keller has been fighting the drug war for decades, but his focus was across the border in Mexico.  When he shifts his strategy the war on drugs will be impacted inside the United States as it rolls up several interesting individuals.

The key event takes place in Guatemala on November 1, 2012 at a supposed peace conference involved rival cartels, the Zeta and Sinaloa.  However, instead of peace it turns into a bloody shootout that results in the death of the Zeta leadership, and Adan Barrera, the head of the Sinaloa cartel, a man whose history with Keller goes back decades and as delineated in the first two books of the trilogy.  Barrera’s death cannot be confirmed for over a year, but once it conclusive the question that dominates Keller’s mindset is who will replace him, how that individual or individuals will carry on the cartel’s drug empire, and what are the implications for a drug trade with the United States that sees the volume of drugs arriving in the United States expanding, and the resulting explosion of deaths from drug overdoses.

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(The wall that separates El Paso and Juarez)

Keller’s imprint on the events in Guatemala are a well-kept secret, an operation that was rogue within American drug enforcement, though it had the President’s approval.  Keller, who will be appointed the head of the DEA because of the machinations of Texas Senator Ben O’Brien wants to radically change the DEA’s approach but he must deal with Washington’s bureaucracy, an assistant head of the DEA who opposes him and wants his job, and a presidential candidate for the 2016 election who wreaks of Donald Trump.  Further, the prison system in the United States  has a privatization component, therefore if policy is changed it could cost people in high places billions.  For years the American approach was to try and deal with the drug problem inside of Mexico.  Since the Mexican government was in bed with the cartels, with Washington’s pseudo cooperation, in order to maintain political stability, it is not surprising that the DEA and other agencies made little headway.  Keller’s new strategy is to focus on what was occurring inside the United States which leads to numerous roadblocks and an approach that had not really been implemented previously.

As in all of Winslow’s books there are layers to the overall story, and THE BORDER is no different.  Once the cartels decide to shift their export focus to heroin resulting in a major increase in drug related deaths Keller decides to do something to curtail demand in the United States and make it unprofitable for Americans involved in the trade.  The key for Keller is how does the cartel launders its drug money which leads Keller’s investigation to Wall Street.  Keller’s work is further complicated by the upcoming presidential election, an operation designated “Agitator” that calls for an undercover agent penetrating America’s finance system at a high level, and trying to implement much of his strategy in secret, away from elements in the DEA and other agencies who have a separate agenda from what Keller is trying to achieve.

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(Don Winslow, author)

As Winslow unveils his diverse plot lines characters from previous books reappear, but he also creates new ones who have a major impact on the course of the novels.  First, Dr. Marisol Cisneros, badly wounded in a previous cartel attack and the love of Keller’s life; Ignacio Esparza, Barrera’s brother-in-law; Elena Sanchez Barrera, Adan’s sister; Sean Callan and his wife Nora, Sean a former hit man for Adan Barrera and Nora his mistress; Raphael Caro, a Sinaloa god father figure who wields a great deal of influence and other narco types from the two earlier books.  Next, we meet John Dennison, who might as well be Donald Trump, candidate for president; Jacob Lerner, the second coming of Jared Kushner who is Dennison’s son-in-law who has major real estate investment issues.  The cartel figures abound, Tito Ascension, known as El Mastin who at one time was head of Esparaza security and now heads the New Jalisco cartel; Belinda Vatos, La Fosfora, in charge of security for the Nunez faction of the Sinaloa cartel; Ricardo Nunez, the head of the Sinaloa cartel; “Little” Ric Nunez, Barrera’s godson who tries to step into his empty shoes; Damien Tapia and the Renterias brothers who also try to take advantage of Adan Barrera’s death; and Darius Darnell, a black ex-con who is trying to carve out his own nitch in the drug trade centered in New York.  Keller’s allies include; Hugo Hidalgo, the son of a murdered DEA agent and assistant to Keller; Brian Mullen and Bobby Cirello, NYPD detectives working on Operation Agitator; and Admiral Roberto Orduna, Mexican Special Forces, an ally of Keller.   Chandler Clairborne is a different type of character, white collar, a syndication broker for the Berkley Group, who has links to money laundering; and Denton Howard, assistant head of DEA who supports Dennison and wants Keller’s job, among many others who impact the story.

Winslow repeatedly brings out the inequities in the war on drugs and changes that are needed as a disproportionate number of poor Hispanics and African-Americans get ensnared by the mandatory minimums endemic to the legal system.  Winslow’s views are brought out through Keller’s appearance before a Senate Committee and other avenues.  The number one reason for the increase in the heroin trade that has reached epidemic proportions is the poverty in the United States that has moved from large urban areas to small towns and rural regions. Keller, a.ka. Winslow argues the real source of the opiate problem is on Wall Street.  Corporate America ships out shops overseas, closes factories, which destroys people’s hopes and dreams resulting in pain for significant numbers of Americans.  For Winslow what is the “difference between a hedge fund manager and a cartel boss?”

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Winslow provides numerous descriptions and insights into the narco culture as he describes family life, education, funerals etc.  He takes the reader inside the US prison system and explains the daily existence of inmates  and the socio-economic hierarchy that exists and how the cartels are run from prison and how the narco types outside the prison influence what happens behind its walls.  Winslow creates characters like, Jacqui as an example of how a little girl grows up to be an addict, providing gruesome details of her acquisition of and use of drugs.  This is played out in Staten Island, NY, not Mexico.  He also creates the characters of Nico Ramirez and Flor, a nine and ten-year-old who escape Guatemala and make their way through Mexico to the US border.   The entire political culture of the cartel’s places Keller in a double bind situation.  The Sinaloa cartel is the key to the heroin trade.  If he destroys the trade the Pax Sinaloa for Mexico will end resulting in chaos and instability in the daily lives of Mexicans.  However, if he does not destroy the trade, the heroin epidemic in the United States will continue to explode.  Further the US bureaucracy is split on how to deal with the situation; the CIA and State Department collude with the Mexican government in dealing with the drug trade, while the DEA, Justice Department want to take the cartels down.

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The back story that exists throughout the novel apart from Keller’s war against the cartels are the cartels themselves.  Once Adan Barrera is dead the wars to control the Mexican drug trade recommence and the results are brutal as individuals try to make a name for themselves, and others try to recapture reputations and territory that they had previously lost to Barrera’s cartel.

The degree of financial and moral depravity described by Winslow is beyond the pale.  The inroads of the cartels into American politics and power is how the author derives his title.  The financing of the drug trade was usually in Mexico, now it has crossed the border.  By reading Winslow’s trilogy, three books in quick succession made me feel I was partaking in a penetrating journey – a voyage to many dark places that produce horror, depravity, disgust, and shame.  But the trip is one of necessity as Winslow has educated the reader, and at the same time he has produced a narrative that is a compelling view of reality even though it is supposedly a work of fiction.

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(US-Mexico border [El Paso and Juarez])

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SAY NOTHING: A TRUE STORY OF MURDER AND MEMORY IN NORTHERN IRELAND by Patrick Radden Keefe

 

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(The funeral of Dolours Price)

In reading Patrick Radden Keefe’s new book, SAY NOTHING: A TRUE STORY OF MURDER AND MEMORY IN NORTHERN IRELAND one has the feel they are inhaling a novel, a work of fiction that is drawing them into a complex plotline where it is hard to discern what is fact and what is fiction.  But Keefe’s work is not fiction, but a recounting of the brutal events that are part of the history of Northern Ireland from the 1960s onward that includes extreme violence, personal heroism, ideological commitment, individual growth, ideological evolution, and the last vestiges of colonialism.  The ongoing struggle between Catholics and Protestants; the Provisional Irish Republican Army and Protestant Unionists; the British army and its occupation are all played out from the “Time of Troubles” to an acceptable peace settlement.  Keefe is a terrific storyteller who has created a true story of murder and memory in the context of the larger struggle that is and was Northern Ireland.  Keefe accomplishes this by providing novelistic quality and pace which is the key to creating history that reads as if it is fiction.

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(The Price sisters, Marian and Dolours in prison)

When asked in a New York Times podcast how he came to write the book, Keefe describes how he was reading the Times obituary of Dolours Price on January 23, 2013 and was attracted to the former IRA member and decided to dig further into her life story.  As he became engrossed in her biography he came across Jean McConville, a Catholic mother of ten who was kidnapped, and whose fate would be buried for decades.  The connection between the two women is a major theme of the book as it pulled together victims and perpetrators during the “Time of Troubles.”

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Keefe focuses on a few important individuals as his protagonists.  Within this context are several families that come to the fore.  The story unfolds as Jean McConville, at the age of 38 is kidnapped and seized in front of her children to be murdered by unionist thugs.  Next, is the Price family that produced two daughters, Dolours and Marian who would experience the brutal unionist attack against a peaceful Catholic march on January 1, 1969 from Belfast to Derry.  This would turn the sisters from their socialist and civil rights beliefs into joining the IRA.  Radden reviews the history of Catholic v. Protestants, including important political, religious and socioeconomic points of view to place the reader in the moment as the “Time of Troubles” is about to commence.  The British response to the violence is key as Catholics assumed that British troops were being sent to Belfast to protect them from Protestant violence, but in short order it was clear that their mission was to support the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) and B-Specials (anti-Catholic Unionist Auxiliary police).

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(Gerry Adams, Sinn Fein leader)

The history of the period is seen through the eyes of the McConville children as they have to cope with the loss of their mother, the separation of siblings into orphanages and other institutions, and living on the streets; the Price sisters who become key members of the violent wing of the IRA and carry out their operations until after years of imprisonment and hunger strikes they are released from prison and turn against the violence; and paramilitary leader turned politician, Gerry Adams and his alter ego, Brendan Hughes.  In addition to these individuals’ other major characters impact the story.  Reverend Ian Paisley, a radical Protestant preacher who calls for “religious cleansing” of Catholics; British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher who does not have an empathetic bone in her body when it comes to the Irish; and Frank Kitson, a British officer who excelled an counter-insurgency in putting down the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya and was assigned to Belfast along with 30,000 troops to Northern Ireland to institute his theories in crushing a civilian led rebellion.  In introducing his characters Keefe provides a mini-biography of each that is insightful and allows the reader to understand their role and place in history.  What is amazing is how Keefe takes each character and deals with their emotional burdens.

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(Gerry Adams and Brendan Hughes)

Keefe analyzes the strategies and tactics used by all sides in the conflict.  He explores the creation of MRF by Kitson, an elite squad that infiltrates the IRA and carries out “interrogation in depth,” rather than “enhanced interrogation,” or just torture.  The planning and implementation of Provisional bombings carried out, i.e.; in central London in 1973 and the trial that followed are investigated in depth as are several other operations.  The conflict within the IRA between the Old Guard and the Provo’s is carefully dissected.  The imprisonment, particularly of the Price sisters is examined carefully, in addition to the overall effect of Provo, Unionist, and British actions taken to achieve their agendas.  But the main mystery that clouds the entire story surrounds the abduction of McConville.  It will eventually take decades to learn what occurred that night, well into the 1990s when the children learn the truth and finally break their silence.

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A key to Keefe’s success as an author is his ability to integrate aspects of Irish history throughout the narrative be it the Great Famine, the Easter Rebellion of 1916, etc.  As he tells his story Keefe weaves a few threads very effectively.  Keefe concentrates on one aspect of his story, the plight of the McConville children, then switches to the Dolours Price planning a bombing operation, to the arrests and escapes of Gerry Adams and Brenden Hughes, or the hunger strike of Bobby Sands, elected to Parliament, but allowed to die in prison from a hunger strike.  The components of the story seem diverse and unconnected, but Keefe can mesh the disparate elements for the reader which in the end come together.

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(Jean McConville and three of her ten children)

A key development in the history of the conflict is the supposed evolution of Gerry Adams from a paramilitary leader to a politician.  Adams would come to realize that violence alone would not achieve his goals and believed a political component to the IRA strategy was called for.   Adams believed that a political movement was needed to run parallel with the armed struggle, the Provo’s would carry out the armed strategy, the Sinn Fein the political as he is elected to parliament.  It is fascinating how Adams can carry out his metamorphosis as the provisional IRA was illegal, and its political wing, the Sinn Fein was not.  Keefe is correct in emphasizing the importance of how Adams successfully develops the IRA from a revolutionary cadre to a retail political outfit.

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(Northern Ireland during the Times of Troubles)

Keefe is very careful as he confronts the war’s strange ending.  Adam’s negotiates, but at the same time is planning and carrying out paramilitary operations.  The split between the former “partners” Adams and Hughes is thoughtfully portrayed as is the split between Adams and Dolours Price.  Keefe digs deep into their relationships as Adams seemed to suffer from amnesia concerning his role in the IRA, but for Hughes and Price he was their commanding officer who ordered them to carry out nasty operations.  The result was Adams denied it all, and Hughes and Price passed away by 2013.

Keefe’s approach is comprehensive and tries to uncover as many secrets as possible that are buried, bringing many to the attention of the public.  Keefe has done all those involved in “The Troubles” a great service as his efforts lays out the past and hopefully it should help those involved to achieve some type of closure.  Further, he describes the creation of the Belfast Project, an oral history of the “Time of Troubles” that is archived at Boston College which contains interviews that include Brendan Hughes that sparked a great deal of controversy and intrigue.  However, when you approach the history of Northern Ireland from 1969 to the present one must remember that the civil war was so vicious that closure may be something to aspire to, but difficult to achieve.  One last tidbit that Keefe brings up in the last pages of the book; wouldn’t it be ironic if Ireland is finally unified after all these years because of the Brexit vote, if so, the “Time of Troubles” needed have taken the course that it did – just a thought.

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(The funeral of Dolours Price)

MIDNIGHT IN CHERNOBYL: THE UNTOLD STORY OF THE WORLD’S GREATEST NUCLEAR DISASTER by Adam Higginbotham

An aerial view of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, the site of the world's worst nuclear accident, is seen in April 1986, made two to three days after the explosion in Chernobyl, Ukraine. In front of the chimney is the destroyed 4th reactor.
(Chernobyl a few days after the explosion at Reactor #4)
These are the front pages of four British morning newspapers reflecting the nuclear accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the Ukraine, Soviet Union.

March 28, 1979 was an overcast day in Woodbridge, Va. when news arrived of a nuclear accident at Three Mile Island Unit 2 reactor near Middletown, Pa.  Feeling totally in the dark when it came to information about the accident, my neighbors and I gathered outside our homes and immediately began testing to see which way the winds were blowing, and should we pack up and head in the opposite direction.  Living about two and a half hours from the reactor which would eventually partially melt down, we were scared.  Up to that time this would be considered the greatest nuclear accident in history being unaware of the Kyshtym Disaster which was a radioactive contamination accident that occurred on September 29, 1957 at Mayak, a plutonium production site in Russia for nuclear weapons and a nuclear fuel reprocessing plant in the Soviet Union.  After reading Adam Higginbotham’s new book, MIDNIGHT IN CHERNOBYL: THE UNTOLD STORY OF THE WORLD’S GREATEST NUCLEAR DISASTER, an excellent account of the explosion and meltdown at Chernobyl the evening of April 25-26, 1986 and the ramifications of that disaster, memories of that March day flashed before my eyes.

Firefighters with protective gear wash a West German car near the East German border after it arrived from Poland with radioactive fallout from the Chernobyl nuclear plant disaster,  May 3, 1986

(East German-Polish border, decontaminating a car after Chernobyl explosion)

Higginbotham has written the most informative and insightful description of events and analysis of the meltdown that has yet to appear.  It replaces Harvard historian, Serhii Plokhy’s CHERNOBYL: A HISTORY OF A NUCLEAR CATASYTROPHE as the most comprehensive and detailed work that has been written.  In dealing with events such as Chernobyl one must ask: What happened, why did it happen, and could it happen again?  Higginbotham, a journalist and his research partner Taras Shumeyko interviewed numerous eyewitnesses and conducted a prodigious amount of research that included a small number of declassified documents available, and argues that the fanatical view among Soviet bureaucrats and leadership to maintain secrecy, (for example, information about what occurred at Mayak was kept from the public for thirty years) was the reason the accident was so devastating, but also not surprising that it occurred.  Higginbotham recreates the disaster providing a history of Soviet nuclear development, including numerous accidents; the planning and building of Chernobyl; the accident; attempts to remediate the situation after it occurred, the trial of the operators who were blamed for the disaster; and other aspects of the aftermath.  The book reads in part as narrative history, but also a terrifying account of an event which could easily be repeated today.

The plan to build Chernobyl was hatched in February 1970 as a means of catching up to the west and meet Soviet electricity needs.  The Soviet Union would engage in a crash program to build nuclear reactors, but the problem was that the project began during a period of economic stagnation with material and resource shortages everywhere.  The reactor was to be completed by 1975 which was totally unrealistic due to the approach taken by the Soviet bureaucracy, party elites, and engineers that did not consider shortages, safety needs, and planning for possible future nuclear accidents.  The result is that corners were cut in terms of material, training, design flaws, “cooking the books,” and the stubborn nature of the Soviet bureaucracy in charge of construction.  As Higginbotham discusses this aspect of the project, he provides the reader an interesting history of the development of radiation, nuclear development, and their affects on people and society.  The author’s approach to complex scientific information and jargon is such that it is very easy to understand for the lay reader as he describes how reactors are supposed to be constructed.

Galsjo Forest elk hunters fill a quarry in Northern Sweden with carcasses contaminated with radioactivity, September 18, 1986

(Animals killed in Northern Sweden in May, 1986 from radiation)

According to Higginbotham there were design flaws dealing with a high-power channel reactor labeled RMBK.  These flaws would dog designers who would pay little attention to test results because of pressure from the Communist Party and the bureaucracy that flowed from it.  This made disaster possible because no one knew how the reactor would react in case of an accident.  The reactors colossal size made start up and shut down the most demanding and treacherous stages of RMBK operation.  The author follows RMBK’s development and its flaws as it went into production, particularly the AZ-5 emergency protection system whose design took too long to respond in an emergency which came home to roost on April 25, 1986.

A similar plant in Leningrad experienced an accident on November 11, 1975 resulting in the release of radiation into the atmosphere over the Gulf of Finland.  However, Sredmash, the Soviet agency in charge of production and construction of nuclear reactors covered up the investigative findings of design flaws related to the accident.  On September 9, 1982 there was a partial meltdown at Unit 1 at Chernobyl which took eight months to repair, but the KGB instituted a gag order, and the following year a similar accident took place in a Lithuanian reactor and one in Armenia.  But the world knew nothing of these accidents.  Further exacerbating Soviet nuclear reactor building was the shoddy workmanship that plagued Soviet industry in general, and that carried over to the construction of Chernobyl.

The town of Pripyat remains abandoned to this day

(Town of Pripyat remains abandoned even today)

A major problem that arose once Reactor #4 at Chernobyl exploded is that many of those in charge were unprepared to deal with what occurred and succumbed to wishful thinking and self-delusion in approaching how to deal with what had transpired.  Higginbotham describes in detail the lethargic Soviet bureaucracy and their response to disaster.  Soviet Prime Minister Mikhail Gorbachev was not notified as to what had occurred until the afternoon of April 26, 1986.  The author narrates the debates inside the Commission that was set up to oversee the crisis.  He relates the personalities involved and their debates on how to respond and their final decision making, many of which were out of some sort of fantasy.  An excellent example apart from how to cool the reactor was whether they should evacuate the city of Pripyat and its 50,000 residents who were in danger of radiation exposure which took until April 27th to accomplish.  As the radioactive cloud blew over Scandinavia, Swedish, Finish, and Danish diplomats lodged complaints to Moscow once it was realized where the radiation originated resulting in the Soviet government stonewalling.  It would take until April 28th at 8:00pm for Moscow to come clean and announce that “an accident had taken place at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant.…One of the atomic reactors has been damaged.”  Soviet citizens were used to this type of response as it was a continuation of the way the state had covered industrial accidents for decades.

Higginbotham descriptions of helicopter pilots flying low dumping sand and boron on the reactor are harrowing.  The author’s approach as he carefully describes how officials, academics, scientists, fire fighters, guards, and others and what they went through is chilling, especially as he brings the reader to Hospital #6 in Moscow created to treat victims of nuclear accidents and war.  The ultimate fear was the “China Syndrome,” the further devastation that would occur if the reactor’s foundation exploded and nuclear material leaked into the earth.  Even though Moscow TV announced on May 11, 1986 that the primary threat of explosion was over, scientists remained skeptical.

The Central Committee of the Politburo decided against Gorbachev’s new policy of Glasnost and followed the traditional approach and blamed “bourgeois falsification….propaganda and inventions” as its immediate reaction, in addition to dishonesty and declining help from the west.  This approach would backfire in terms of containing the accident but also hindering Gorbachev’s hope of nuclear disarmament talks with the United States because how could one negotiate with someone who was so untrustworthy.

The sarcophagus of Chernobyl reactor 4 which exploded after a power surge and dispersed radioactive material into the air in 1986

The sarcophagus of Chernobyl reactor 4 which exploded after a power surge and dispersed radioactive material into the air in 1986

Higginbotham spends a great deal of time describing what the victims of the disaster experienced.  He follows the medical care that victims received and for far too many their ultimate deaths.  He recounts the bravery of so many who fought to contain the toxic results of the explosion, and countless men who returned to build the sarcophagus that was designed to seal reactor #4 for at least a hundred years.

The narrative of how the newly created refugees, numbering over 116,000 from the exclusion zone is told with sensitivity and insight into their future plight.  The scapegoating that dominated the investigation by Soviet authorities was appalling as was the propaganda machine that worked overtime to find blame and paint the accident in the best light as possible.  The stories are often poignant and provide a true picture of what can happen on a personal and societal level from a nuclear disaster.

 

Perhaps one of the most destructive results of Chernobyl was the beginning of the end of the Soviet Union.  Gorbachev realized that even his own nuclear bureaucracy was rotten to the “core” and as was most of the Soviet state.  The launching of perestroika opened debate among Soviet citizens that had been dormant, but slowly the issues of Afghanistan, drug addiction, the abortion epidemic, and the horrors of Stalinism emerged.  The Russian people began to realize that they had been lied to for decades and as Higginbotham successfully argues they “faced the realization that their leaders were corrupt and that the Communist dream was a sham.”

If wonders if a major nuclear accident could occur in the future remind yourself of Fukushima.  In 2011, the Tokyo Electric Power Company’s nuclear plant underwent a process identical to Chernobyl; the loss of coolant that provoked a meltdown.  As to what remains of Chernobyl itself, it is part of an “exclusion zone” of 1,000 square miles, a radioactive Eden for new wildlife and vegetation.  Higginbotham has done the public a favor by exposing the events of April-May 1986 and give us pause as to how we should approach nuclear power in the future.

FILE - in this Nov. 10, 2000, file photo The shattered remains of the control room for Reactor No. 4 at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, Ukraine. We reached the old control room, long and poorly lighted, with its damaged machinery, the place where the Soviet engineers threw a power switch for a routine test on that doomed night, and two explosions followed. The Chernobyl nuclear power plant explosion was only about 60 miles from photographer Efrem Lukatsky's home, but he didn’t learn about it until the next morning from a neighbor. Only a few photographers were allowed to cover the destroyed reactor and desperate cleanup efforts, and all of them paid for it with their health. I went a few months later, and have returned dozens of times.
(Remains of Chernobyl operations facility after the explosion)