(Clean up at Chernobyl nuclear disaster, 1986)

Recent newspaper headlines and reports on cable news have pointed to the threat of a nuclear disaster in the war in Ukraine.  It appears that the Russians have seized the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, the largest in Europe.  They have forced Ukrainians to operate the massive complex and have turned it into a military base to fire missiles at enemy positions.  The Russians know full well that using the plant as a “shield” would preclude the Ukrainian army from firing its own missiles at the plant or even trying to retake it.  Western powers have requested that the International Atomic Energy Commission investigate, and finally after obfuscating for days the Kremlin has agreed to let inspectors into the plant today.  As the situation evolves it has placed Ukraine, Europe, and even Russia in a precarious position if a nuclear accident occurs.

In this environment Serhii Plokhy, the author of numerous historical works including THE GATES OF EUROPE: A HISTORY OF UKRAINE, LOST KINGDOM: THE QUEST FOR EMPIRE AND THE MAKING OF THE RUSSIAN NATION and THE LAST EMPIRE: THE FINAL DAYS OF THE SOVIET UNION has authored a timely narrative in his latest work, ATOMS AND ASHES: A GLOBAL HISTORY OF NUCLEAR DISASTERS.

Plokhy, the Director of the Ukrainian Research Institute at Harvard University examines the dramatic history of Three Mile Island, the Chernobyl disaster, and most recently the Fukushima catastrophe in addition to three others.  In so doing Plokhy has provided careful and informative details of each event discussed zeroing in on the planning of nuclear tests and building of nuclear reactors, their implementation, the disasters that evolved, and concludes with a telling analysis of who was responsible.  Today a debate exists over the utility of solar and wind technology.  As this debate rages, Plokhy takes a fresh look at the history of nuclear accidents trying to understand why they have occurred, how impactful they were, and what we can learn from each event.

Plokhy states from the outset that he “examines not only the actions and omissions of those directly involved, but also the ideologies, politics, and cultures that contributed to the disasters.”  After each disaster, a commission was created to examine what occurred and what steps could be taken to prevent future accidents.  The problem is that these accidents keep happening and Plokhy tries to lay out the process and offers suggestions to maintain safety for all of humanity.

One of the strengths of Plokhy’s remarkable narrative is explaining the scientific information associated with nuclear testing, the quest to build hydrogen bombs, the development of nuclear power programs, and the catastrophes involved in a clear and concise manner that allows the laymen the ability to understand what normally very complex information is.  The author begins his presentation with a discussion of American nuclear testing in the South Pacific at the Bikini Atoll in March 1954.  Plokhy points out that nuclear testing in the 1950s was very dangerous no matter what governments said.  Scientists had little control over the power of explosions, the direction of wind at various levels of the atmosphere, and which direction fallout might travel.  The events of March 1954 involving “Operation Castle Bravo” were no exception particularly once American officials realized that their testing had gone awry there were no contingency plans for evacuations and the weather forecast relied upon was incorrect, despite these “warnings” they continued with further testing even though the first did not go as planned.  Of course, the American Atomic Energy Commission investigated and tried to reassure everyone there was nothing to worry about, a common theme in all incidents.  Further, secrecy and the need to keep as much information from the public and adversaries in the dark as to what occurred also dominates each incident.  In Castle Brava, many islanders felt they were “guinea pigs” for human radiation experiments and the American response was to throw money at them to deal with medical, social, and economic issues that beset survivors.  Problems that emerged included the possibility of future cancers, irradiated food sources, and retarding the growth of children.

(Three Mile Island near Harrisburg, PA)

Nuclear events in the Soviet Union seem to dominate Plokhy’s narrative.  First, the Kyshtym accidents, and the meltdown at Chernobyl.  In both cases even though the events are 42 years apart the same Soviet scientists had tremendous impact.  Nikolai Dollezhal developed a model of a graphite-moderated and water cooled reactor first used in Hanford, WA in 1944.  However, Dollezhal along with his colleagues changed the design of the reactor, impacting the future of the Soviet nuclear program and later nuclear industry which became a contributing factor to the Chernobyl disaster.  Plokhy takes the reader inside the Maiak nuclear complex and the repeated accidents between 1950 and 1955.  He carefully explains what went wrong and the mistakes those in charge made as an explosion at the complex created what one witness described as a “radioactive northern lights.”  The key here and Chernobyl in March and April 1986 were nuclear reactor design issues and who would be “blamed” for what transpired in both instances. 

“Blame” was the game that was part of the Soviet managerial culture which kicked in immediately in both cases.  Scapegoats were needed as upper management knew how to play the game and escape responsibility.  Interestingly Yefim Slavsky, the former chief engineer at the complex will reappear at Chernobyl over 40 years later.  Secrecy dominated at Maiak as Lavrenti Beria, in charge of developing a hydrogen bomb to match that of the United States pressured the Soviet scientific community to deliver a nuclear device.  In 1986, Mikhail Gorbachev took his time in dealing with the reactor meltdown looking for scapegoats which of course centered on operators and engineers at the site.  The Cold War dominated 1986 as it had in 1954 and Gorbachev and his cohorts kept information from his domestic audience and the international community which were desperate for information as evidence of radiation began to permeate the atmosphere across Europe.  Authorities saw no reason to publicize what occurred as “radiation was harmful but invisible,” and one could pretend nothing happened – of course until an explosion occurred as in Chernobyl; which blew off the protective cover over one of the reactors.

Windscale: 1957 Calder Hall and  Windscale
(Calder Hall and Winscale power stations)

Anglo-American relations play an interesting role in at least one nuclear accident.  British Prime Minister Harold MacMillan desperately sought to maintain the United Kingdom as a major power.  Since the passage in Congress of MacMahon Act in 1946 the United States was no longer allowed to share nuclear secrets with the British, therefore London had to go it alone in developing a hydrogen bomb to show the US that they were worthy of cooperating on nuclear issues.  In 1957, fresh from the disaster of the Suez War and the collapse of the Eden government, MacMillan pressured British nuclear scientists to develop and test a hydrogen bomb.  At first, the bomb appeared to have had a successful test at Winscale, the US Congress rescinded the MacMahon Act, and MacMillan seemed to have implemented a successful strategy.  However, when it appeared that one of the reactors caught fire and was leaking radiation, MacMillan kept it quiet as possible so as not to endanger nuclear cooperation with Washington.  As in Kyshtym, Chernobyl, Bikinii Atoll, radiation levels in food and milk made it difficult to keep the accident from the public.  Plokhy correctly reminds us that Cold War pressure on the US and United Kingdom dominated the period as on October 4, 1957, the Russians successfully launched Sputnik causing fears of a nuclear armed missile with a warhead  reigning down on them.

The US had its own disaster on March 27, 1979 ,with the accident at Three Mile Island in central Pennsylvania.  The event which saw a meltdown of a nuclear reactor was difficult to accept by American leaders, because of all the safeguards built into the system.  As in all cases contradictory information dominated.  In this case Metropolitan-Eddison who owned the complex, Lt. Governor William Scranton III, the point man for Governor Richard Thornburg, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission could not agree on what had occurred and how dangerous the situation was.  I remember standing outside my house in Northern Virginia testing which way the wind was blowing once the accident went public.  The final report heavily influenced by Navy Captain Ronald  Eytchison who was the only member of the investigating committee with extensive nuclear knowledge blamed the accident on human error, not simple equipment failure.  The problem was that a reactor at the Davis Besse Nuclear Power Plant suffered an event in September 1977 that manifested the same problem that triggered the melt down at Three Mile Island meltdown in March 1979.  Eytchison states “the dynamite was that no manager or operator of the similar reactor at the Three Mile Island Plant had ever been informed about the Davis Besse accident.”

(The site of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, 2011)

The last and most recent major accident that Plokhy discusses occurred on March 11, 2011, when the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant was hit with a 9.1 Richter scale earthquake followed by a level three Tsunami which flowed over all retaining walls flooding the plant.  As in all cases Plohky’s research is impeccable presenting the background of the Japanese nuclear industry, what went wrong, and what should have been learned from the accident.  In 2002 safety violations at the plant were falsified and TEPCO who owned and operated the plant would not institute the overall seismic safety measures for the entire complex.  The Japanese always build their nuclear facilities near water sources to save money in the cooling process.  With Fukushima located in Okuma, Japan on the Pacific Ocean, it was a disaster that was waiting to happen.

The Fukushima disasters present two aspects which Plokhy points out that are interesting.  First, is the major difference between Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan who invested himself in the crisis to a degree unprecedented for any leader under similar circumstances.  Eisenhower, MacMillan, Gorbachev, and to a lesser extent Carter all passed responsibility to others focusing more on withholding information and the domestic and international ramifications over what to do next.  Second, is the comparison between Chernobyl and Fukushima.  “Despite different levels of meltdown of reactor cores, no Chernobyl-type explosion of a reactor occurred at Fukushima-the result of the superior design of BWR reactors over RMBK type and the self-sacrifice of Japanese crews who worked overtime for days and weeks to supply water to the reactors.”  Further, fewer people died and were irradiated causing deaths years later at the Japanese site than Chernobyl.  Mortality at Fukushima rests around 10,000, while at Chernobyl the number reaches close to 50,000.  The refugee issue is also different.  Fukushima produced around 150,000 displacements, the Russian site 500,000.  An ancillary result from these catastrophes has been the decline in support of the nuclear industry spurred on by anti-nuclear protests in Japan, the United States, and Germany in particular.  However, the geo-political world, i.e., Russian invasion of Ukraine has called a halt somewhat in nuclear plant shutdowns because of the need for fossil fuels.  In Germany and Japan, we have seen a reversal and nuclear plants that went offline since 1986 and 2011 are now going back online.

(Fukushima nuclear disaster, 2011)


In the end I agree with  Jennifer Szalai who writes in  her May 18, 2022, New York Times book review that ATOMS AND ASHES shows how the nuclear industry requires vast amounts of trust in the establishment — in scientific experts, government officials and corporate figures, a number of whom didn’t exactly acquit themselves well in the dismal examples recounted here. Part of this has to do with the real limits of knowledge; for all the confident pronouncements and safety guarantees, the awesome power of nuclear energy doesn’t always behave in ways that are predicted. Not to mention that the effects of radiation exposure can vary wildly.” “The existing nuclear industry is an open-ended liability, Plokhy writes. With catastrophic climate change bearing down on us, nuclear power has been promoted by some as an obvious solution, but this sobering history urges us to look hard at that bargain for what it is.”

(The Chernobyl disaster a few week after it occurred)


(Russian President Vladimir Putin)

The preparation and writing of biography are truly an art form which Philip Short the author of works on Pol Pot and Mao Zedong has mastered.  In his latest effort, PUTIN; HIS LIFE AND TIMES he has written another important biography of his subject based on intensive research drawing on almost two hundred interviews conducted over eight years in Russia, the United States and Europe and on source material in over a dozen languages.  The publication of PUTIN: HIS LIFE AND TIMES comes at a propitious moment in history with the events that are transpiring in Ukraine as the Russian autocrat has placed the world on edge with his illegal invasion that has played havoc with the world price of energy and supply of grain and other foodstuffs, in addition to the destruction and casualties inflicted on Ukraine.  At the present moment this war of attrition does not appear to be anywhere near a conclusion as Putin is adamant that Ukraine is not a country and is part of what he hopes to be a reconstituted Russian Empire.  Short has done a service for anyone trying to understand Putin’s actions as he delves deeply into his personal life, career, how he rose to power, why he pursues the policies that affect the Russian people in addition to those living outside of Russia and evaluating what the reign of this autocrat will be like in the future.

Short’s work builds on Steven Lee Myers THE NEW TSAR: THE RISE AND REIGN OF VLADIMIR PUTIN published in 2015 in addition to the works of Masha Gessen, Fiona Hill, Robert Service, Catherine Belton, among others.  Short’s work is the most important biography of the Russian autocrat written to this point and presents a comprehensive picture of Russia during Putin’s life in addition to integrating the roles of prominent figures such as Boris Yeltsin, Anatoly Sobchak, Alexei Navalny, a host of Russian oligarchs, and Russian politicians and military personalities. As the narrative gains steam it is clear that Short believes that the United States is in large part responsible for what Russia has become and how Putin has evolved into an autocrat who controls all the levers of power in the Kremlin.

A class photo of Vladimir Putin in St. Petersburg, then called Leningrad, circa 1960.
(Putin, circa, 1960)

The biography begins with a discussion of the political situation in Russia in 1999.  Boris Yeltsin who has survived two heart attacks and surgery was under attack for corruption and a myriad of other fraudulent actions.  With the presidential election set for March 2000, Short speculates whether the FSB launched a series of false flag terrorist attacks in Russia which were blamed on Chechen terrorists to deflect criticism away from Yeltsin.  After careful analysis, Short concludes it was Chechens and not the FSB.  The prologue that Short sets forth has implications later as Putin is a candidate for the presidency and attacks continue with Putin’s opponents questioning a possible role for the FSB.  In addition, once Putin is in office, the tactics used by the FSB will be questioned in Chechen terrorist attacks at the Dubrovka Theater in Moscow that killed 125 Russians, and the Breslan School massacre that resulted in 335 dead hostages, 186 of which were children.  These attacks and the FSB response received great media coverage which Putin disdained leading to a crackdown on the media and eventual state control of television and newspapers in Russia shortly thereafter.

What separates Short’s work from others is that he tackles many of the myths associated with Putin – as it is hard to discern myth from reality.  He mentions alternatives, then what appears to be the truth.  For example, the death of Putin’s brother during infancy in Leningrad during World War II, the role of possible FSB attacks in 1999 to create support for Boris Yeltsin, Putin’s enormous wealth, reasons behind Russian aggression against Ukraine etc. 

Short’s presentation of Putin’s childhood is important as he does so without the psychobabble that a number of writer’s conjecture.  Putin had attention issues in school and was a very aggressive child who would never back off from a fight.  Putin was home schooled for his early education and had difficulty adapting to formal schooling once enrolled.  It is important to remember that Putin was raised in Leningrad, a city that suffered over 750,000 deaths at the hands of the Nazis who starved the city resulting in extreme cannibalism as the city was blockaded for over two and a half years.  You do not have to be a practitioner of psychology to understand the impact of growing up in an environment that was still in recovery in the late 1940s and early 1950s.  This approach is part of Short’s attempt to place Putin’s life story in the context of Russian history.  Putin’s early teen years witnessed the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the deposing of Nikita Khrushchev, replaced by Leonid Brezhnev and the impact on his life should not be discounted.

(The Putins)

As a boy Putin always wanted to be different and when not behaving as a hooligan he seemed to be an introvert, keeping his distance and thoughts to himself.  These traits come to the fore later when he assumes certain roles in Russian politics, governmental positions, head of the FSB, and then President of Russia.  He would learn to be social when needed, but this was not his forte. 

Putin was always enamored with the life of a spy as he was a risk taker by nature and would try to volunteer for the KGB as a teenager.  His path was clear as KGB minders had their eye on him and he was offered a position in 1975 as a Junior Lieutenant.  At the time Yuri Andropov was the head of the KGB and believed in “stamping out dissent,” who wanted to derail the west’s ability to weaken the Soviet Union – a mantra Putin would follow his entire career.  Short’s description of how Putin was recruited, trained, and integrated into Russian counterintelligence was indicative of the author’s point of view and how he had unearthed essential details that contributed to his narrative.  Short raises an important question – did the KGB create Putin or were his character traits already in place before he was recruited?  His character fit the kind of work the KGB did.  He liked to stay in the background and observe others, and not attract attention to himself.  He was disciplined and pragmatic and was able to concentrate on whatever the priority was at the moment, and never let his emotions dictate his behavior or thought pattern. 

putin sobchak
(Anatoly Subchak and Putin)

The watershed moment for Putin as he has stated many times was his KGB posting in Dresden and watching helplessly as the Berlin Wall collapsed in 1989 with no guidance from Moscow.  This would create a formative memory that proved to Putin the overriding importance of maintaining a strong state and the dangers that an angry population could pose to a previously entrenched regime.

The most important figure in Putin’s rise to power was Anatoly Sobchak, a former law Professor at Leningrad State University, a liberal reformer in parliament, who became mayor of the second largest city in Russia.  In 1990, Putin was assigned by the KGB assigned to surveil Sobchak as an assistant vice-rector at the university.  As Putin gained Sobach’s trust he was placed in charge of trade negotiations which were highlighted by barter deals that allowed him to enrich his KGB colleagues and set a pattern as to how Putin would operate in the future.  Most importantly, Putin’s relationship with the KGB and organized crime in the city was a training ground and a source of compatriots when he himself assumed power later on.   During this time period the 1991 coup against Mikhail Gorbachev that saw Boris Yeltsin emerge as a hero, according to Short, saw Putin’s as playing a “none role” in these events.  But Putin had learned how to make himself indispensable which is a major reason for his success.

A key chapter that Short offers is entitled, “The Gray Cardinal” which delineates the corruption and crime that was endemic in St. Petersburg in the 1990s.  The borderline between the criminal world and legitimate business was tenuous at best.  To conduct business bribery was a standard practice and it was a situation that benefited Putin greatly based on his position, though in an ode to objectivity Short argues that many anecdotes of Putin accepting bribes are fabricated.  In this, among many other cases Short gives Putin the benefit of the doubt.  Putin learned a great deal from Sobchak, and it provided him with an education for him to apply later.

apho via Getty Images)

Grozny, Russia besieged by the Russian army in August, 1996.
(Fighting in Chechnya)

The concept of “Near Abroad” was key for Putin’s foreign policy ideology developed while being in charge of foreign affairs under Sobchak.  He began thinking about the former Soviet republics, particularly Ukraine, the key to “Near Abroad” which he felt precipitated the collapse of the Soviet Union when it declared its independence.  He could not accept that Crimea, the home of the Black Sea fleet, was gone, 1.8 million Russians lived in Crimea, in addition to the massive debt that Ukraine owed Moscow gnawed at him.  These beliefs would stay with Putin, and we can see the results today with the current war of attrition.  While serving in St. Petersburg Putin’s ideas about NATO, relations with the west, Russia as a bridge between Europe and Asia, the need for a strong centralized government which would unify the country were all reinforced.  By the time he assumed the presidency in 2000 his mantra was set. 

Putin’s assumption of the presidency is spelled out by luck, skill, and the ability to ingratiate himself after Sobchak’s political career ended with Boris Yeltsin.  Short dives deeply into this process and in the end Putin provided a need that Yeltsin craved, loyalty to Yeltsin as well as his family.  Putin would rise in importance in Yeltsin’s eyes over a five year period culminating in his appointment as the head of the FSB and shortly thereafter as Prime Minister.  Once he was head of the FSB in 1998 he would purge the organization and bring in his cronies from St. Petersburg.  When Yeltsin decided not to run for president in 2000 he chose Putin as the candidate to replace him.  Yeltsin decided not to run because the war in Chechnya was not going well, charges of corruption abounded, and he knew Putin would protect him.  What Short does not discuss was how the Yeltsin family was caught up in the corruption and how Putin’s perceived loyalty would protect them.

A Georgian man cries as he holds the body of a loved one after a Russian bombardment on August 9 in Gori, Georgia, near the border of the breakaway region of South Ossetia.
(Russian invasion of Georgia, 2008)

Once in power Putin had to deal with Chechnya which he did in a way we have come accustomed to as we watch events in Ukraine.  He would botch the Kursk submarine disaster as well as terrorist attacks within Russia.  He would learn that public information needed to be regulated leading to state seizure of media and television.  Putin would learn from his errors to a point but his overriding beliefs that anything that made Russia look weak was a boon for the west.

In presenting Putin, Short tries in most cases to see events from Putin’s viewpoint.  He is correct that the arrival of the Bush administration in Washington presented an excellent opportunity to improve post-Cold War relations with the United States.  It is clear that Short believes that Bush blew an important opportunity particularly after 9/11 with the policies he chose.

Short is very careful to juxtapose Putin’s points of view on a myriad of topics relating to the Bush’s foreign policy between 2000-2004.  At first Putin offered a number of fig leaves to the Bush administration and in return Bush made his “look into his soul” remark that many thought went overboard.  After 9/11 Putin threw his support behind the United States by sharing intelligence, military over flights, and bases in Central Asia.  Putin saw the US as an ally in the war on terror but felt his overtures were not being reciprocated as Bush canceled the ABM treaty which Putin abhorred; the US invaded Iraq when Russian intelligence which had a decades long relationship with Saddam knew better than the CIA that WMD no longer existed in Iraq.  Issues of NATO expansion, anger that the US and the west did not see the war on terror extending to Chechnya, and hawks in Washington carrying on as if the Cold War was total victory.  Further the US insisted on military bases in Poland and the Czech Republic and in 2008 the west recognized the independence of Kosovo. 

Russian special forces without identifying insignia seized key government buildings in Crimea in late February 2014.
(Russian seizure of Crimea, 2014)

By Bush’s second administration relations deteriorated even further as Gazeprom cut energy deliveries to Ukraine, the 2006 assassination of Alexander Litvinenko in London, and the Bush Doctrine which states that America can treat all countries that support terrorists against the U.S. as enemies. It also asserted the right that the U.S. can take preemptive action against nations that it felt might pose terrorist threats.  Russia’s response was clear in Putin’s message at the Munich Security Conference as he railed against American unilateralism and the pursuit of global domination.  Russia’s position economically improved as oil prices had increased markedly allowing Moscow to pay off its foreign debt depriving the west of leverage resulting in Putin’s popularity rising to 70% – it is no wonder that from this point on Putin felt the US was his enemy and became increasingly aggressive leading to the 2008 invasion of Georgia.

Putin admitted Russia lost the Cold War and resented the Americans lording it over them.  Events in Ukraine, particularly the Orange Revolution where Putin believed the west prevented Kremlin-backed candidate Viktor Yanukovych from stealing the Ukrainian presidency and made possible the election of his reformist rival, Viktor Yushchenko angered the Russian autocrat.  Further, Putin was exorcised over American interference in Gazprom’s attempt to take over Yuganskneftegaz, the main production complex for the Yukos oil company which he believed showed how far American tentacles could reach.  What was clear was that by 2008 the rift between Russia and the US was too deep to heal.

Short is clear that Putin’s mindset is fraught with errors and lies, but it is important for him to criticize Putin further and not blame the US and the west for many of the choices Putin made.    Short does present the American viewpoint surrounding violations of human rights and support for anti-democratic regimes abroad as well as in Moscow, the clampdown on the Russian media, the failure to curb corruption, and atrocities in Chechnya, and the American defeat of the Taliban, a gain for Russian security.  However, one gets the feeling that no matter what course of action Putin pursued it was the fault of the West for the deterioration of relations with Russia.

(George W. Bush and Putin)

At times Short goes overboard in trying to attain objectivity.  He argues that “Russia was no longer trying to export its ideology and value system.  Instead, America was.”  Perhaps, but Short should examine Russian actions toward Georgia, Crimea, eastern Ukraine, and Ukraine as a whole before he makes such statements.  According to Short, the expansion of NATO by the west is responsible for Putin’s aggressive foreign policy in large part because of broken promises in the first Bush administration.  However, it is clear from Putin’s own words that the greatest tragedy of the twentieth century was the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and his goal is to restore the Russian imperial system – this is Putin’s ideology and that has led to the invasions chronicled above.

Even in discussing the source and amount of Putin’s wealth, Short takes his objectivity a bit too far as he cannot accept any evidence like the Panama Papers or Paradise Papers that document the scale of multibillion dollar corruption that exists in Russia.  Despite the fact that Putin oversees a system whereby Russian oligarchs hold large sums of money with strong connections to Putin, in addition to billions in offshore accounts reserved for the Russian autocrat, Short refuses to believe any evidence that is contrary to his own mindset.

‘Putin understood exactly what was being said’ … Presidents Obama and Putin in Normandy, France, 2014.
(President Obama and Putin)

Short commentary on Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is not as well developed as his narrative was completed as the war was beginning.  I agree with Angela Stent’s comments in her Washington Post review that “Short correctly identifies two of Putin’s major mistakes when he invaded Ukraine. First was his failure to understand that Ukrainians and Russians are distinct Slavic nations, both with a powerful sense of national identity, and that people defending their homeland have an advantage over those seeking to conquer it. His second mistake was to overestimate the capabilities of the Russian military, which was unable to take Kyiv in the first days of the war. Perhaps because he concluded this book before the full scope of Russian atrocities was known, he implies that Russia is acting differently in Ukraine than it did in Chechnya or Syria, where it destroyed Grozny and Aleppo. So far Russia has leveled MariupolSeverodonetsk and parts of other cities, turning them to rubble, and has indiscriminately targeted civilians.”*

Despite Short’s approach to historical objectivity which seems to lean against the West and the United States and accepting Putin’s rationale for certain actions he has authored an important book that should be read carefully and dissected by the reader.  But we should remember what New York Times reporter Peter Baker states that Short absolves Putin of several crimes especially, his explanation for his unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.**  I wonder whether he is watching the same war that plays out on the news each evening as I am.

*Angela Stent, “A Biography that Gives Vladimir Putin the Benefit of the Doubt,” Washington Post, July 22, 2022.

** Peter Baker, “Who is Vladimir Putin,” New York Times, August 1, 2022.

Russian President Vladimir Putin — Stock Photo, Image

SAFE HOUSES by Dan Fesperman

Deustchland Berliner Mauer Westberlin
(Berlin Wall, circa 1979)

It’s been a few years since I have read a Dan Fesperman novel which is an obvious oversight since I greatly enjoyed his previous works LIE IN THE DARK, THE PRISONER OF GUANTANAMO, and THE WARLORD’S SON.  All novels met expectations for creativity and Fesperman’s ability to create realistic scenarios that maintain historical relevance is one of his many strengths.  Therefore, his work was an obvious choice for my current read, SAFE HOUSES which did not disappoint.

In true Fesperman fashion, SAFE HOUSES is a complex novel that develops a multi-faceted plot involving a number of characters that are difficult to sort out.  The main character, Helen Abell pursues a life that is a dichotomy.  In the late 1970s she was employed by the CIA in West Berlin in charge of maintaining and operating four safe houses for agents and the German sources they handled.  After overhearing a classified conversation and witnessing a rape by an important CIA operative Abell finds herself in a compromised position.  She decides to report the assault on the German source, but her station chief, Ladd Herrington, a rather misogynistic pompous individual wants no part of any investigation and would like nothing better than to get rid of her. 

View of Chesapeake City from the Chesapeake City Bridge, Maryland
(Maryland’s eastern shore)

Fesperman deftly flips the script as he turns to 2014 and Maryland’s eastern shore in developing a second plot line as Helen Abell and her husband are murdered.  The police and public believe the murderer is their son Willard Shoat, a psychologically disturbed young man.  Willard’s sister, Anna, cannot believe he has the capacity to engage in such violence and in seeking answers hires Henry Mattick, a private investigator who in the past held positions in the White House, Congress, and the Justice Department.  Mattick is an interesting character as he also working for an operative named “Mitch” who wants him to keep on top of the events surrounding the murder and making sure that Willard is found guilty.  The problem that surrounds the murder is that while Abell was in the CIA from 1977 to 1979 where she made an enemy out of Kevin Gilley, a CIA agent who resented her in the past and always wanted to remove her as an obstacle to his career.

Fesperman carefully manipulates his dual plot as the reader wonders how events in 1979 are related to the 2014 murder.  As the link is established, suspense dominates as Gilley, the high priest of the CIA’s darkest arts operated by his own rules with a propensity to go rogue and had a history of attacking women with no consequences because of the male dominated structure of the CIA.  Fesperman is a master at throwing out a series of hints to guide the reader, but then will shift the focus of the novel to a new path which is totally surprising.

The novel is an ode to persistence and hunting down a rapist and possible murderer while you are being hunted yourself.   The story revolves around “the sisterhood” made up of Abell, Clair Saylor, a clerk at Paris station, and Audra Vollmer who will support Abell and assist her in challenging the misogynistic way in which the CIA operated risking their careers and their lives to bring about justice for the many women who have been violated.  The key for Anna and Mattick is to unravel the life and career of Helen Abell and determine what really occurred in West Berlin and why she and her husband are eliminated thirty-five years later.

(Writer Dan Fesperman pictured in his home).

A series of important characters dominate the story.  Apart from Abell is her lover and mentor in West Berlin, Clark Baucom, an aging CIA type who tries to control Helen and one wonders whose side he is really on.  Kevin Gilley, code named “Robert” lives by his own rules and is difficult to control.  Anna, in her early thirties had left the family years before, but she wanted to save her brother and learn her mother’s true history.  Henry Mattick, an operator in his own right, falls for Anna, but can he be trusted.  Larry Hilliard, an archivist at the National Archives who guides Abell in trying to understand “the Pond,” a clandestine intelligence organization spun off from the CIA. The members of the “sisterhood” within the CIA, a group made up of Claire  Saylor who supported Abell and helped her conduct her clandestine mission, Audra Vollmer who turns out to be deeply involved with “the Pond,” which was supposed to be disbanded in 1955 and was not, and of course Helen Abell.  Other characters appear with important roles and all point to Fesperman’s inventiveness and imagination in fitting the novel together as assassinations of politicians, intelligence assets and others have been arranged or carried out by Gilley in 1979, 1998, 2000, and possibly 2014.

Fesperman’s “Safe Houses” have a number of implications.  The houses are designed for agents to meet in private and carry out their missions, but the houses contain hidden listening devices and traps for female agents.  Helen Abell is the key to the story, and it is fascinating how she evolves from an employee who lacks confidence in herself to one who refuses to be cowed by the CIA leadership infrastructure. “Safe Houses” is an amazing thriller both on the international and domestic scene, particularly the #MeToo slant.  After reading SAFE HOUSES, Fesperman’s latest novel, WINTER WORK is now near the top of my pile of books on my night table!

(West Berlin, circa 1979)

The Quaker by Liam McIlvanney

Gorbals back court between Camden Street and Florence Street.
(Glasgow, Scotland in the 1960s)

What could be better than a Scottish noir with the authentic ring of its slang as a major component of the characters vernacular?  In the present case of Liam McIlvanney’s first attempt at the genre in THE QUAKER, very little as the complex and creative mystery moves along on a straight path, presents a number of forks in the road and settles into a marvelous whodunit.  The novel focuses on the search for a serial killer who has already claimed three women as his victims.  After a yearlong investigation, the Marine Flying Squad of the Glasgow Police Department have reached a dead end and are searching for closure.  The problem that arises is that a fourth victim turns up, but an individual who is charged with all four murders has nothing to do with the first three which authorities do not want to hear or accept.   What could be the motivations of the powers that be?  A commander who has reached a retirement age and wants to go out with a major success.  A police department that wants to put the crimes behind them and move on or for some other nefarious reason.

The scenario that McIlvanney has laid out becomes quite frustrating for the main character, Detective Duncan I. McCormack who is brought in from another department to bring the case of the first murders to some type of conclusion.  McCormack is instructed to investigate the Marine Flying Squad and determine what went wrong and why the police have failed in trying to solve the case.  McCormack is not accepted by his colleagues that he is overseeing, and he receives little cooperation which does not stop him from conducting his due diligence and concluding that the Marine detectives have conducted a thorough investigation but relied too heavily on a particular witness and that other avenues of inquiry were overlooked.  As he was tasked McCormack advised that the investigation be wound down, especially since there had not been another murder for over a year, and it was logical to assume that the perpetrator was no longer at large in the Glasgow area.

Bringing it all back home
(Author, Liam McIlvanney)

The original murders centered on three woman, Jacquilin Keevins, Ann Ogilvie and Marion Mercer who had gone out dancing and wound up raped and murdered.  McCormack was against investigating the investigators as he wanted to concentrate on putting away John McGlasham, the biggest crime boss in Glasgow.  In conducting his reinvestigation McCormack comes across important characters who his colleagues reject.  As the author lays out the noir he provides an intimate portrait of Glasgow in the late 1960s focusing on run down parts of the city and a program to renovate the city’s many decaying tenements.  In addition, by relying repeatedly on Scottish slang for dialogue the conversations between characters present a high degree of authenticity.

There are a number of important characters that are developed.  McCormack’s partner, Derek Goldie is a big mouth blowhard of a detective who seems cocksure about everything.  DCI Angus Flett, McCormack’s boss is the Commander of the Flying Squad who tries to keep McCormack aboard, and DCI George Cochrane in charge of the first failed investigation, among others.  McIlvanney has the unique ability to develop clues that appear far-fetched but in the end become important.  Esoteric discoveries like the role of Mary Queen of Scots and her four women in waiting seem to be important, leading McCormack to brush up on his history through renowned historian Antonia Fraser’s biography.  Evidence hidden in abandoned tenements abound, Scottish poetry, and a series of songs sung to McCormack by his grandmother when he was a child. Another interesting touch is how McIlvanney gives the murder victims their own voice as he has them recount their own murders from their perspective – very eerie!

As the noir focuses on the serial murders, McIlvanney introduces a second story line which at first centers around the planning and conducting of a robbery of the Glendinning Auction House.  The robbers are led by Stephen Dalziei who brings in an outside safecracker from London, Alex Paton.  The robbery is a success until Paton is arrested for the fourth murder as he was hiding in a tenement in which the body was found.  There are certain elements of the police force that are desperate for a conclusion and charge him as the serial killer even though the evidence is rather incomplete – the question is why.

(Glasgow Police Headquarters, 1969)

Once McCormack completes his report he wants to return to fight organized crime but refuses to let go.  Higher ups are angry because of his tenacity which becomes the deepest mystery of all.  Why do they want to convict an innocent man and who is the Quaker? 

McIlvanney has structured an at times frustrating scenario.  First, and foremost he lays out the crimes, the investigation, the re-investigation, and the fake scenario of an alternative murderer to cover for the real Quaker.  Second, was the Quaker arranging a set up for Alex Paton who was innocent of murder to be found guilty even after a fourth murder takes place.  For McCormack what was really happening and what could he do to solve the crime against the wishes of others.

My only suggestion for the author is to develop the personal lives of his main characters more.  There is a hint of the private lives of McCormack, Goldie, Cochrane, Flett, Levein, apart from the Quaker which could have enhanced the story line and drawn the reader closer to the characters.  Despite this slight drawback, the author knows how to capture the reader’s attention and create a nail bitter that has a powerful ending.  Further, the noir concept can at times be formulaic, but in the author’s hands he reminds us of what an enduring approach to murder mysteries it is.  McIlvanney’s first effort produced a number of awards and I look forward to reading his latest just released, THE HERETIC.

Nuclear Defence Plan - crowds gather round a shop window in Sauchiehall Street.
(Glasgow, Scotland in the 1960s)


Victory Day Parade in Moscow
(Victory Day – World War II celebration in Russia, May 2022)

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 produced tremendous corruption, poverty,  lawlessness, food and other consumer goods shortages, among many other negative occurrences.  These aspects that are normally discussed when dealing with decade of the 1990s, however, there is another major circumstance that needs to be stressed, the loss of identity.  Former Soviet citizens and soldiers immediately lost their affiliation to the only country they had known and asked themselves, “who are they?”  Since 1991 people were required to reformat their view of national ideology, the geopolitical balance, and for over 250 million people their psychological makeup.  The result people was that were ripe for manipulation to fill the void of their loss of identity with the passing of the Soviet Union.  Shaun Walker’s book THE LONG HANGOVER: PUTIN’S NEW RUSSIA AND THE GHOSTS OF THE PAST explores how Vladimir Putin attempted to fill that void and “forge a new sense of nation and purpose in Russia.”

As the Moscow correspondent to the Guardian holding a command of the Russian language, Walker has the sources and language skills to present a concise and searing argument that will allow the reader to acquire a true understanding of the underpinnings of Putin’s propaganda when applied to the February 24, 2022, invasion of Ukraine.  Though written in 2018, the narrative presents a clear argument that is difficult to find fault with.  The focal point of Walker’s book centers around Putin’s strategy of turning the Russian people toward World War II, the Great Patriotic War as a means of reuniting the Russian people and gaining support for his imperial ambitions.  In order to accomplish this Putin, Walker argues, must eradicate certain historically factual events from the pre-war and war periods that do not reflect very highly on Joseph Stalin and the former Soviet Union.  The need to create “willful amnesia” among Stalin and Putin’s victims was required.  In Walker’s account the concept has been applied extensively and effectively.

Vladimir Putin at Victory Day
(Putin attends Victory Day for the Great Patriotic War)

Walker clearly describes the tableau of the 1990s concluding with Boris Yeltsin’s resignation in December 1999 and the failure of the “decade of democracy.”  As people lost their savings and pensions, dealt with the Chechen war and terrorism it created a yearning for stability and normalcy.  Despite the fact that oil prices increased in 2004 resulting in a promising standard of living in the major cities, the vast majority of people living in towns and the countryside across Russia’s Eurasian land mass, poverty, drugs, addiction, and disease remained pervasive.  Putin believed that the poverty and divisions were a symptom of a broader malaise.  For Putin, the health of the state was most important and if Russia’s station in the world could be regained, people’s well-being would automatically improve.  Putin was tapping into the long held Russian political creed that fetishized the strength of the state and sovereignty.

In all of Russian history there has been only one event that could catalyze Russian unity and create the foundation to bring the country together – the victory in World War II.  Walker concludes that “pride in the defeat of Nazism transcended political allegiance, generation, or economic status, and had been used by later Soviet leaders to cement the regime’s legitimacy.  Putin would once again draw on the war victory as the key to creating a consolidated, patriotic country.”

Map of Kherson, Ukraine

From the outset Putin had to deal with the “truths” about the pre-war and war periods unleashed by Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika.  With archives opened people began questioning certain events; i.e., the Nazi-Soviet Pact and its side agreements to seize half of Poland and other areas; Stalin’s purges of the 1930s which included the officer class reducing the effectiveness of the Soviet military at the outset of the war which led to disaster throughout 1941; admission to the Katyn Forest Massacre of Polish officers; and the massive deportations that took place in the east.  Nationalities like the Kalmyks, Chechens, Crimean Tatars, ethnic Germans and other smaller groups were deported to central Asia and Siberia.  This involved thousands of soldiers when the war was not going well, but it was a priority for Stalin.  If Putin’s narrative of the Great Patriotic War was to be accepted, many of Stalin’s actions and the plight of the deported nationalities had to remain unexplored and forgotten.

The rhetoric Walker describes reflects an amazing campaign of misinformation and warnings about what was to be believed and what was to be whitewashed.  Even the meaning of “Victory Day” was altered as “under Putin gradually but inexorably the day became less about remembering the war dead and honoring the survivors, and more about projecting the military might of contemporary Russia.  The message was one of unity, around the idea of a resurgent victorious nation,” especially after the successful invasion of Georgia in 2008.

In describing how this was achieved Walker travels throughout the Gulag and interviews survivors of the prison system and family members who know what happened to relatives.  Interviews and travel with people like Olga Gureyva who spent years in the island prison of Kolyma, arrested at 17, spent over a decade in captivity working in freezing tin mines; Petr Nechiporenko, a Professor at Kiev State University who fought for the Bolsheviks in the Civil War but was arrested and accused of being a fascist terrorist who was turned in by colleagues and killed; Eveniya Ginzburg, the Russian writer and Gulag chronicler is arrested and sent to prison as a supposed Nazi terrorist for over a decade, just scrape the surface of the thousands upon thousands imprisoned and died in the Gulag.  But people like Walker’s guide, Ivan Panikarov who built a museum in his own home describing the Gulag argued that Stalin’s crimes may have been necessary to industrialize and defeat the Nazis.  Many of the people who Walker interviewed wanted to forget the past and move on as it just hindered the development of a strong Russia.  Walker’s description of what they wanted to forget is in line with historians like Robert Conquest and Amy Knight, along with Russian writers Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Vasily Grossman. 

(Stalin’s deportations from Estonia during WWII)

Walker mentions an interesting point that although Nikita Khrushchev’s De Stalinization speech of February 1956 created hopes of a more liberal Russia, he focused on the crimes of the Communist Party, and the vast network of camps was never discussed publicly.  Walker also asks an important question; was everyone guilty in perpetuating the system?   He concludes that there “were many varying shades of guilt and innocence. But almost everyone was at least partially a victim, almost everyone was at least partially a perpetrator.”

Putin’s strategy helped create a feeling of victimhood and martyrdom which would be offset by his perception of a successful Winter Olympics at Sochi, coming to terms with the Chechens after two wars and numerous terrorist attacks, and the successful invasion of Georgia in 2008 when Ukrainian president Mikheil Saakashvili decided to join the European Union and turned down a trade arrangement with Moscow, and the annexation of Crimea in 2014.  Western media attacks assisted Putin in creating the narrative that the west wanted to blunt any attempt by Russia to return to greatness.  Putin turned loose his domestic media to carry his message and the FSB and company made sure that protest and the wrong mind set would not get out of control.

The latter half of the narrative focuses on the evolving conflict in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region in 2014.  He zeroes in on Kyiv’s Euromaidan protests, the annexation of Crimea, and the eruption of further conflict in the industrial Donbass region.  The developing conflict between Ukrainian and Russian identity is presented within an excellent historical perspective and analysis.

(Joseph Stalin)

If one examines Putin’s justification for invading the Ukraine on February 24th of this year it is clear he is turning to the Great Patriotic War as he accused the Kyiv regime of being made up of Nazis that had to be rooted out, and Ukraine was not a country because it was part of Russia and wanted to be reunited with its countrymen.

Walker has written a well-researched, provocative, and insightful book whose arguments seem accurate.  He uses the voices of authentic everyday Russians to tell his story.  He is careful to avoid viewing the west as morally superior.  Further, he provides a clear picture of Putin’s mindset and how he recaptured the faith of the Russian people in the state as well as in his leadership.  In Putin’s mind he has created a mindset for a whole new generation of Russians who will continue to influence the collective Russian psyche long after Putin finally leaves the Kremlin.  In the final analysis it is clear that though Walker authored his book in 2018, he foresaw the events of 2022 which are playing out in front of our eyes.

(Victory Day – World War II in Russia, May, 2022)