RASPUTIN: FAITH, POWER AND THE TWILIGHT OF THE ROMANOVS by Douglas Smith

The other day I heard a talking head quip that Steve Bannon was Donald Trump’s Rasputin.  Recently I have brought myself up to speed on Mr. Bannon and there really does seem to be some similarities, i.e., access to a person with autocratic tendencies, belief in alternative reality and truth, but the rumors of debauchery do not really match up.  All in all I decided that a read of Douglas Smith’s new biography RASPUTIN: FAITH, POWER AND THE TWILIGHT OF THE ROMANOVS was in order.

Grigory Yefimovich Rasputin’s life has produced numerous myths concerning his influence on the Romanovs; his religiosity, or lack of it; his sexual prowess, and his mystical hold on large segments of the Russian population.  According to Smith these myths have been formulated and put forth in numerous biographies that have created an echo chamber for their constant retelling.  Therefore, the question must be asked, why another biography?  The year 1991 is the key in that the Soviet Union collapsed and as a result the Russian archives have become more accessible which Smith takes wonderful advantage of by uncovering a number of documents that reformulate many storylines in Rasputin’s vita.  Smith cleverly points out that there really is “no” Rasputin without all the stories about him.  Smith’s goal is to uncover and investigate the most important myths, and to a large degree he is remarkably successful.  In achieving his goal Smith has written an almost encyclopedic narrative that seems to cover all aspects of his subject delivering the final word on every scrap of evidence in newspapers and memoirs.  The book will become a wonderful research tool because of Smith’s prodigious research and facility with a number of languages.  In creating his narrative, at times, Smith goes a little overboard the result is a book that is “overlong, overcrowded with names and details, serious and earnest (there are a few jokes), but a valuable corrective to the more sensational and fanciful biographies available in English.”*

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(Nicholas and Alexandra, 1894))

The first thirty years of Rasputin’s life is like a black hole of which we know almost nothing, making it much easier to create myths.  Rasputin was never formally educated and remained illiterate until his early adulthood.  Up until the age of twenty eight, Rasputin appeared to be headed toward the life of a typical Siberian peasant; farming, church, and married with children.  In 1897 he seemed to have experienced some sort of vision and began a series of pilgrimages.  His religious quest appears sincere as local priests could not adequately answers his questions about God and religion.  He became a “Strannik,” a holy wanderer which was very common in Tsarist Russia.  Rasputin was atypical from most pilgrims in that he retained a home in Pokrovskoe, and was married with three children as he went about developing his own version of peasant religious orthodoxy.  According to Smith, Rasputin’s years of wandering were his university education and he developed a broad knowledge of the Russian social order and a strong understanding of human psychology, with a special talent for reading people.  Rasputin learned how to talk to people and he could “speak freely about Holy Scripture and the meaning of God in a way unlike the priests with their book learning.  His language was direct, personal, unmistakably alive, and earthy filled with references to daily life and the beauty of the natural world.” (27)  This talent goes a long way to explain how he developed his own personality cult.

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(Nicholas and Alexandra with their daughters)

Smith’s portrayal of Nicholas II and his German Tsarina, Alexandra is very perceptive and accurate.  One of Alexandra’s major shortcomings was that she needed to control her privacy and shut out everyone but her immediate family.  The feckless Nicholas could not get her to change her belief that the Russian people had an obligation to the Romanovs, not that the crown had an obligation to its subjects.  The royal couple had a long history of dealing with “mystical types” before Rasputin arrived on the scene.  The most important of which was Philippe Nazier-Vachot, or Monsieur Philippe a charlatan introduced to Alexandra by Militsa, who was married to a Grand Duke who was Nicholas’ cousin.  These two are just the tip of the iceberg of the characters who believed in mysticism and the occult that Smith introduces us to that influence how the Tsar governed his people. Nicholas had a firm belief in the medieval notion of the mystical connection between the Tsar and the masses.  Alexandra had been seeking a “holy man” before Rasputin arrived due to her own personal insecurity and perhaps awareness of her husband’s flaws which would undermine Nicholas’ power, prestige and effectiveness once Rasputin replaced Philippe.   Alexandra needed to have blind trust in a spiritual advisor who spoke of higher truths and prophecies that satisfied her inner religiosity, and help instruct Nicholas on how to rule.  This would lead to mistrust and machinations within the royal family, create intense gossip that tarnished the image of the monarchy, and repeated investigations into Rasputin life and actions as a number of people tried to open the Tsar’s eyes to what was transpiring right before his very eyes.Smith captures the intensity of Alexandra’s loyalty to Rasputin no matter what evidence investigations by the Duma (Russian parliament created by the October Manifesto during the 1905 Revolution) or the Ohkrana (Tsarist Secret police) produced.  Stories of lewdness, debauchery, rumors of unacceptable behavior on the part of Rasputin could not shake Alexandra’s confidence and dependence on her “friend.”  Historians have conjectured on how Rasputin was able to manipulate the Tsarina.  It has generally been accepted that it was due to his ability to help Tsarevitch Alexei who suffered from hemophilia.  It is agreed that Rasputin was able to calm the boy and get him to relax which allowed a decrease in capillary blood flow and aid the healing process.  There were a number of occasions when Alexei’s doctors made his condition worse by constant prodding, while Rasputin reassured the boy and calmed him.  However, Alexandra’s neurotic insecurity needs outweigh Rasputin’s calming effect on Alexei in explaining Rasputin’s hold on the monarchy.

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(the royal family)

Smith takes the reader through the intricacies of eastern orthodoxy and the characters it produced as some priests support Rasputin, but eventually most do not and see him as the devil and an anti-Christ.  The views of politicians and royal family members are examined and historical figures such as Prime Ministers Pytor Stolypin, Sergei Witte, and Vladimir Kokovstov are examined as they attempt to convince Nicholas of the effect Rasputin is having on the decline in popularity of his reign because of policy decisions that Alexandra’s “friend” influenced.  The narrative unveils numerous plots some perpetuated by Rasputin and some by former acolytes that have turned against him to the point that some of these stories could be from an FX cable channel drama.  The problem is many of them have a degree of truth and it reflects how low the Romanov dynasty had fallen in the eyes of its people.

Smith also delves into Rasputin’s battles with the press, the Duma and the Holy Synod.  He provides careful analysis of the strategies that were designed to separate Rasputin from the royal family and exile him to his home village in Siberia.  Official after official, religious leader upon religious leader, and family members all approached Nicholas about the damage that the rumors about Rasputin, including those linking him to an affair with Alexandra, were having on his reign, but he just brushed them off.  A number of high officials would lose their positions as Nicholas removed them upon the advice of Rasputin, and these battles would seal the break between the Duma and the Tsar.  Nicholas became increasingly frustrated as his officials could not control newspapers whose reporting was so damaging.  This problem was exacerbated once Russia was at war with Germany.  Once the war broke out Nicholas would leave St. Petersburg for the front a good deal of the time, leaving Alexandra alone under the influence of her “friend.”  As war news worsened, more and more rumors were publicized that Rasputin and the Tsarina were working with the enemy.  It wasn’t just peasants and soldiers who began believing these rumors as Smith points out but foreign diplomats who feared a separate peace between Russia and Germany, making a revolution against the Tsar a patriotic act.

Similar credence was given to the rumors of sexual scandals at court.  It was said that the Tsarina was the mistress of Rasputin and the lesbian lover of Anna Vyrubova, her lady in waiting, who took part in orgies with both of them.  Alexandra’s sexual corruption became a kind of metaphor for the diseased condition of the monarchy,” even though none of them had any bases in fact.**  Smith provides unparalleled detail in all areas that the narrative ventures, which separates his biography from all others.  But one must ask the question; is there too much detail, after all does the reader need to know the personalities, motivations, and actions of every scandal that existed?

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(Prince Felix Yusopov, Rasputin’s murderer)

The outbreak and conduct of World War I sealed the fate of Rasputin and the monarchy.  Perhaps Nicholas II’s worst decision was to replace Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich as Commander and Chief.  Rumors persisted at court that Nikolaevich was the center of a movement to replace the royal couple and they feared he was providing the enemy Nicholas’ movements at the front.  However, once Nicholas II took command he was away from Alexandra a great deal of the time providing Rasputin greater access and would have greater influence on decisions.  Smith argues against this premise as the malleable Nicholas would be under greater influence by his officers and staff who were critics of Rasputin and the Tsarina.  As these events unfolded during the spring of 1915 newspaper attacks against Rasputin reached new heights of absurdity and with it the reputation of the monarchy reached new lows. As to whether Rasputin dominated the crown and possessed unlimited power, Smith maintains a large degree of that power only “existed in the minds of others.” (440)

The final third of the book deals with plots to kill Rasputin.  Many believed and historians have conjectured as to whether Rasputin and Alexandra were German spies.  Smith, as he does with many the myths he debunks puts this one to rest also arguing that there is no concrete evidence that Rasputin and Alexandra were tools of the Hohenzollerns.  Smith then details more scandals and the ministerial merry go round that Nicholas’ government became during the war, as those who opposed Rasputin were replaced by people he approved of.  This aggravated a number of people, most prominent of which was Price Felix Yusopov who organized a scheme to assassinate Rasputin, and with his co-conspirators carried out the murder during the evening of December 16-17, 1916.

The book is brought to a conclusion discussing the investigation of Rasputin’s murder and setting aside the myths associated with it.  Further, Smith explores the collapse of the Romanov dynasty which resulted in a wave of propaganda depicting Rasputin as the incarnation of evil and that the Russian people were finally set free.  Smith is to be credited with the most comprehensive and up to date biography of Rasputin.  At times difficult to plow through because of its detail, however, if you seek knowledge pertaining to Nicholas and Alexandra’s special “friend,” Smith’s effort will satiate you.

PS.   Rasputin was not as mean spirited as Steve Bannon seems to be!

*Orlando Figes. “A Very Close Friend of the Family,” New York Review of Books, December 8, 2016.

** Figes.

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1956: THE WORLD IN REVOLT by Simon Hall

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(Montgomery, Alabama bus segregation, 1956)

During my forty two year teaching career my students repeatedly complained when I used the term “watershed date” in class.  There are certain dates in history that deserve that characterization, i.e.; 1648 the dividing line between the Medieval and the modern, 1789 the year of revolution and of course 1989 the collapse of the Soviet Union, among many others.  Often historians seem to come up with new dates, arguing its historical significance, and in Simon Hall’s new book 1956: THE WORLD IN REVOLT, the author chooses a year that probably qualifies as a “watershed date.”  The year 1956 witnessed a number of important events that include the Suez War, the Soviet invasion of Hungary, the Montgomery bus boycott in Alabama, the Polish uprising, the Algerian Civil War, Nikita Khrushchev’s destalinization speech, the independence of Ghana, and important events in South Africa, Cuba among many others.  Trying to write a complete history of all of these events is a daunting task that for Hall, falls a little bit short.  The author makes a valiant attempt by introducing the main characters through biographical sketches and goes on to explain what has occurred and why it is important.  The problem for Hall is carrying out his theme of anti-colonialism and the rise of independence movements, while trying to effectively link them all together globally, a truly difficult task.

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(Algerian Civil War independence movement)

Today we acknowledge the sixtieth anniversary of the Suez War and the Hungarian Revolution with a number of new books appearing particularly monographs by Michael Doran and Alex von Tunzelmann, which are narrower in focus than Hall’s work.  The author teaches at the University of Leeds and has published a number of works on civil rights and the protest movements of 1960s.  Hall sees 1956 through a much wider lens in which the European powers refused to fully relinquish their imperial ambitions, the so called “people’s democracies” of eastern Europe were confronted  by further Soviet oppression, and in the United States and South Africa white supremacists tried their best to retain racial control.  The book is broken down into a series of chapters that seem to jump from one topic to another with a closing paragraph that tries to create continuity with the next chapter.  This technique is very informative from a narrative perspective, but linking the history of Rock n’ Roll to civil rights and independence movements is a bit of a stretch.  At times this technique does work as the Algerian Civil War impacted other colonial struggles in Cyprus, Ghana and other areas.

Hall devotes a great deal of time to the Suez Crisis that resulted in war at the end of October into November 1956.  His narrative is spot on but he does not add anything new to historical analysis.  His discussion of Gamal Abdul Nasser, Guy Mollet, Anthony Eden, President Dwight D. Eisenhower and David Ben-Gurion are accurate and provide insights into how the drama unfolded and was settled.  Hall relates Suez to events in Poland and Hungary as the war provided cover for the Soviets to crush descent in its satellites.  It was able to avert a military incursion of Poland through threats, and in Hungary the Soviet army crushed the revolution with tanks and infantry.  Hall introduces Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, Wladislaw Gomulka, Imre Nagy, and the workers and intellectuals who stood up for their principles as best they could. These events were fostered by Khrushchev’s February 20, 1956 Speech to the Soviet Party Congress where he denounced Stalin and his “cult of personality” and argued that countries could take a different path to socialism.  The Soviets let the genie of freedom out of the bottle and throughout the Soviet bloc people began to call for greater rights.  As events in Hungary showed the forces of freedom went too far for Soviet tastes.   As Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawn stated “the October Revolution created a world communist movement, the Twentieth Congress destroyed it.” (381)

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(Hungarian people demonstrating against Soviet oppression knock down statue of Joseph Stalin in Budapest)

Hall makes many astute comments in the narrative.  His discussion of the strategy employed behind the scenes during the Montgomery bus boycott and the leadership of Martin Luther King and how he relates the strategy of non-violence pursued by civil rights leaders in America and its impact on events in Africa and Asia are important.  The strategies and ideology of the white supremacists blaming calls of integration and greater civil rights for all citizens as a communist plot, just played into the hands of Soviet propaganda as it was crushing the citizens of Budapest with tanks.  Hall is perhaps at his best when discussing the origin and the course of the Algerian Civil War. His explanation of how one million European settlers living in Algeria dominated a Muslim population of over nine million reflects the basic problem.  Of these one million Europeans, about 12,000 owned most of the industry, media and fertile land in Algeria.  Hall explains the creation of the Front de Liberation Nationale (FLN) and describes its leadership and strategy as the bloody civil war that Alistair Horne calls the “A Savage War of Peace” in his excellent study of the conflict progresses from its origin in November 1954 and would not end until 1962.

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(Nelson Mandela, imprisoned in South Africa, 1956)

Hall’s final chapter is very timely as he describes the rise of Fidel Castro and his 26 July movement.  It is especially relevant today as this morning we learned that Fidel passed away at the age of ninety.  Hall explores Fidel’s rise and how he created his movement with his brother Raul, Che Guevara and eighty Marxist guerillas, and why it was so successful, in addition to its impact in the western hemisphere and Africa.

Overall, the book is extremely well written, though it relies too often on secondary sources.  If you are looking for a general history of world events with a global perspective that seems to come together in the mid-1950s that impacts Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Americas for decades, then Hall’s effort might prove a satisfactory read.

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(Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott, 1956)

BLOOD AND SAND: SUEZ, HUNGARY, AND EISENHOWER’S CAMPAIGN FOR PEACE by Alex von Tunzelmann

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(Map of the Suez Canal)

Last week was the 60th anniversary of the 1956 Suez Crisis as well as the Soviet invasion of Hungary.  Both events had a tremendous impact on the geo-strategic balance in the Middle East and Eastern Europe.  The Eisenhower administration was confronted by overlapping crises that brought the United States in opposition to its allies England and France at a time when it seemed to President Eisenhower and Secretary of State John F. Dulles that allied actions in Suez had provided cover for Soviet tanks to roll in to Budapest.  The interfacing of these two crises is the subject of Alex von Tunzelmann’s new book, BLOOD AND SAND: SUEZ, HUNGARY, AND EISENHOWER’S CAMPAIGN FOR PEACE.  Von Tunzelmann has a unique approach to her narrative and analysis as she chooses certain dates leading up to the crisis, from October 22 to November 6, 1956 and within each date she explains events and delves into the background history of the issues that are raised.  In so doing she effectively examines how decisions were reached by the major actors, and the impact of how those decisions influenced the contemporary world order. The only drawback to this approach is that a sense of chronology is sometimes lost, and with so much taking place across the Middle East and Eastern Europe it can be confusing for the general reader.

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(British Foreign Secretary and then Prime Minister during Suez, Sir Anthony Eden)

Von Tunzelmann begins by providing the history that led up to British control of the Suez Canal.  She goes on to examine the major players in the conflict; Anthony Eden, British Foreign Secretary and later Prime Minister who despised Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser and basically “wanted him dead” as he blamed him for all of England’s ills, domestic and foreign. President Dwight Eisenhower, who had grown tired of British colonialism and its impact on American foreign policy, and provided the guidelines that Secretary of State Dulles implemented.  Gamal Abdul Nasser, the Egyptian President who rose to power in 1954 and was bent on achieving the removal of the British from the Suez Canal Base, and spreading his Pan Arabist ideology throughout the region.  It is fascinating as the author delves into the role of the CIA in Egypt and the relationship between Kermit Roosevelt, the author of the 1953 Iranian coup, and Miles Copeland with Nasser taking the reader into an area than is usually forbidden.  Other profiles are provided including Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, French President Guy Mollet, Imre Nagy, the leader of Hungary, and the troika that controlled the Kremlin.

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(French President Guy Mollet)

Each country had its own agenda.  In England neo-imperialist forces believed that “if they could no longer dominate colonies openly, they must try to foster a secret British Empire club….a powerful hidden empire of money and control,” this was apart from the “Commonwealth.” (23)  This was the overall strategy that revolved around access and transportation of oil.  An example of Von Tunzelmann’s approach is her March 1, 1956 section where she concentrates on Jordan’s King Hussein’s firing of John Glubb Pasha, a British serving officer who headed the Arab Legion.  For Eden, Nasser was the cause and his actions were a roadblock to achieve a Middle Eastern defense pact (Baghdad Pact), and Jordanian membership.  Eradicating Nasser became Eden’s life’s mission.  In her discussion of March, 1956 the author raises the role of American policy, but she only mentions in passing American attempts to bring about peace between Israel and Egypt, i.e.; Project Alpha and the Anderson Mission.  She presents a number of reasons why the US withdrew its offer to fund the Aswan Dam project on July 19, 1956, forgoing that Washington had already decided as early as March 28, 1956 that Nasser was an impediment to peace and the US launched Operation Omega designed to take Nasser down a peg or two, and once the presidential election was over more drastic action could be taken.  For the French, Mollet blamed Nasser for all Paris’ difficulties in Algeria.  When FLN leader Ahmed Ben Bella, a World War II hero in France left for Cairo it confirmed that Nasser was providing Ben Bella weapons and a safe exile.  To the author’s credit throughout the narrative she whittles down all of the information in expert fashion and she sums up the interests of all concerned as the crisis approaches.

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Von Tunzelmann provides many interesting details as she delves into individual motivations.  For Ben-Gurion, the Straits of Tiran were the key.  Many have speculated why Israel would ally with England under the Sevres Agreement, a country that had been a thorn in the side of Jews for decades.  The key was an oil pipeline that was to be built from the southern Israeli port of Eilat to Ashkelon in the north (Trans Israel pipeline or Tipline) that would bring Iranian oil to Europe.  In 1957, Israel brokered a deal with Iran, and the Suez Canal, by then under Egyptian control, would be bypassed.  This deal would also make the Jewish state a strategic ally of Europe.

The most important parts of the narrative deal with the October 23-24, 1956 dates.  It is during those few days that Von Tunzelmann provides intimate details of the negotiations between Israel, France and England at Servres.  All the important players from Eden, whose health is explored in relation to his decision-making; Ben-Gurion, who exemplifies  what she calls “muscular Judaism,” who wanted a preventive war before the Egyptians could absorb Soviet weapons; Guy Mollet, who agrees with Israel and promises aid in building a nuclear reactor for the Jewish state, and others.  Within each chapter Von Tunzelmann switches to the machinations involving events in Hungary and how precarious the situation has become.  As machinations were taking place Von Tunzelmann describes events that are evolving in Hungary.   With demonstrations against Soviet encroachment in Poland and the visit of the Soviet leadership to Warsaw to make sure that the Poles remained in the Russian orbit, the aura of revolution was in the air and it spread to neighboring Hungary.  With mass demonstrations led by Hungarian students, workers, and intellectuals, Moscow dispatched the head of the KGB, Ivan Seroy.  Von Tunzelmann examines the thinking of Soviet leadership, the role of Imre Nagy, hardly a revolutionary, but a reformist acceptable to the people, as the situation reaches a breaking point.  Finally, on October 24, 1956 Soviet troops and tanks roll into Budapest sparking further demonstrations allowing an excuse for Russian forces to crush the demonstrators.  The end results vary from 60-80 killed and 100-150 seriously wounded.  The proximity of Soviet actions with the Israeli invasion of the 29th would make Eisenhower apoplectic, in part because the CIA had a coup set to go in effect in Syria on the same day as the Israel attack.Image result for photo of Ben-Gurion and Nasser

(President Eisenhower and Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser)

One of the most conjectured part of this period is whether the United States was aware of the Sevres conspiracy and what was the role of the CIA.  Von Tunzelmann approach to these questions is fair and plausible.  After reviewing the available documentation she reaches the conclusion that Allen W. Dulles, the Head of the CIA, who destroyed his documentation knew about the plot in advance and kept the president in the dark because if Eisenhower had known he might have pressured England and France to call it off.  The CIA had so much invested in Nasser, with the relationship fostered by Miles Copeland and Kermit Roosevelt that they wanted to protect him, in fact according to the author the CIA warned Nasser that the British wanted to kill him.  According to Israeli historian and later politician, Michael Bar-Zohar the CIA was fully aware of what was going on and Allen Dulles informed his brother of the conspiracy.  For the CIA “plausible deniability” was the key.  Whatever the case it is clear that crucial information was withheld from Eisenhower.  However, the president was fully aware of the Anglo-American plot to overthrow Syrian leader Shukri al-Kuwatty, who was developing closer ties with the Soviet Union.  Explaining CIA and MI6 machinations is one of the strongest aspects of Von Tunzelmann’s work.  Reading about the British obsession to kill Nasser, reminded me how Washington pursued Fidel Castro few years later.

At the same time she discusses Suez, Von Tunzelmann shifts to Hungary and analyzes Moscow’s hesitancy to invade.  Her portrayal of Imre Nagy’s difficulty in controlling the uprising is solid as the demonstrations spirals out of control inside and outside of Budapest.  However, once Imre Nagy decides to withdraw Hungary from the Warsaw Pact and claims neutrality for his country it is a forgone conclusion in the Kremlin that despite some hesitation they must invade.  The Suez situation provided Moscow with excellent cover at the United Nations.  As the French and British dithered in delivering their forces to Egypt, Moscow became emboldened.  Von Tunzelmann does an excellent job following communications between Dulles and Eisenhower on the American side, Mollet and Pineau for the French, Eden and the Foreign Office, and within Imre Nagy’s circle in Budapest, as it is clear in the eyes of Washington that the allies really have made a mess of things.  The author’s insights and command of the material are remarkable and her new book stands with Keith Kyles’ SUEZ as the most important work on the topic.  What enhances her effort is her ability to compare events in Suez and Hungary during the first week of November shifting back and forth reflecting how each crisis was dealt with, and how the final outcome in part depended on the evolution of each crisis.

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(Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion with Israeli Foreign Secretary Golda Meir)

One of the major aspects of the Suez Crises that many books do not deal with which BLOOD AND SAND discusses is that once war was unleashed the Palestinian-Israeli conflict could only be exacerbated.  Israeli actions in Gaza stayed with those who were displaced and suffered and it would contribute to the hatred that remains today.  Once the crisis played itself out and Eisenhower forced the British and French to withdraw from Egyptian territory in early November, using oil and currency pressure; threatening the Israelis, who finally withdrew in March, 1957, it seemed that American standing in the Arab world would improve.  However, the United States gave away the opportunity to furthering relations in the Arab world with the introduction of the Eisenhower Doctrine which was geared against the communist threat.  Von Tunzelmann makes the case that Eisenhower was the hero of Suez, but within a few years his doctrine led to dispatching US troops to Lebanon and the overthrow of the Iraqi government.  By 1958 the Arab world began to view the United States through the same colonialist lens that they evaluated England and France, tarnishing the image of Eisenhower as the hero of Suez.

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(Map of the Suez Canal)

THE NEW TSAR: THE RISE AND REIGN OF VLADIMIR PUTIN by Steven Lee Myers

If you are seeking an explanation for Russian President Vladimir Putin policies, domestically and externally, you should consult Steven Lee Myers recent book THE NEW TSAR: THE RISE AND REIGN OF VLADIMIR PUTIN.  According to Myers it was the Ukrainian Presidential election of 2004, coming on the heels of the Beslan school massacre of September 3, 2004 that pushed Putin to recalibrate his plans.  When Chechen terrorists seized close to 1000 people on the first day of the school year, resulting in the death of 334 hostages, 186 of which were children, Putin was beside himself.  With repeated Chechen terror attacks inside Russia, and a war that was not going well, Putin resorted to his predictable stonewalling excuses.  Outside Russia events did not go Putin’s way either. Already resentful of what he perceived to be western encroachment in the traditionally Russian sphere of influence in the Baltic, along with the election of Viktor Yushchenko as the Ukrainian president, a man who favored NATO membership and closer ties to the west, the Russian leader was forced to face another uncomfortable situation fostering a drastic shift in Russian policy.  Myers, a New York Times reporter spent seven years in Moscow during the period of Putin’s consolidation of power, has written a remarkably comprehensive biography of the Russian president that should be considered the standard work on this subject.

The books title, “The New Tsar” is a correct description of Putin’s reign that even included a Tsarevitch, Dimitri Medvedev, as Putin’s handpicked successor as President of Russia in 2008.  For Putin the greatest catastrophe of the 20th century was the collapse of the Soviet Union, a belief that provides tremendous insight into his policies.  Emerging from the corruption and incompetence of the presidency of Boris Yeltsin, Russia by 1998 was in deep trouble economically and politically.  Yeltsin also hand-picked his successor, a former KGB operative, who was stationed in Dresden, East Germany in 1989, Vladimir Putin.  Meyers presents an objective approach to Putin’s life before the Berlin Wall came down.  Putin would grow up listening to stories of his father, Vladimir, fighting on the western front during World War II and being wounded by the Germans.  His mother, Maria survived the siege of Leningrad and escaped into the countryside.  The harrowing experiences of his parents left an indelible impression on the young Putin.  His father suffered with a limp after the war, and his mother was overly protective of her son.  Putin had a slight build as a child and turned to the martial arts to deal with bullies.  His success at Judo provided Putin with a certain toughness and a means of asserting himself.  Putin craved orthodoxy and rules, neither of which he found in religion and politics.

(People tearing down the Berlin Wall, November, 1989)

Myers stresses Putin’s education in economics and law school, but more importantly he points to Putin’s time in the KGB when he was stationed in Dresden.  While being posted to East Germany Putin was exposed to the Stasi and their practices.  Putin was involved in intelligence operations, counter intelligence analysis, and scientific and technical espionage.  The KGB’s goal in East Germany was to gather intelligence and recruit agents who had access to the west, especially individuals who had relatives near American and NATO military bases.  Putin was heavily involved in recruiting and running agents to determine East German support for the Soviet Union.  In 1987, Putin who was very popular with his superiors was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel and the Dresden Station Chief’s senior assistant, or enforcer.  Myers traces Putin’s actions as Mikhail Gorbachev instituted Glasnost and Perestroika and his reaction to events in November, 1989 as the Berlin Wall came down.  Two years later, the Soviet Union finally gave way after a failed coup against Gorbachev, and Yeltsin emerged as the dominant political figure in Russia.  Putin’s reaction to events led him to resign from the KGB.   The future “Tsar” was now cast adrift.

In contemplating Putin’s career one must ask, how he progressed from being a former intelligence operative to President of Russia in seven years.  Myers does an excellent job framing Putin’s behavior and beliefs following the collapse of the Soviet Union.  Rising to the position of Deputy Mayor of Leningrad he attached himself to the coattails of a former law professor at his alma mater, Anatoly Sobchak.  It was during Sobchak’s administration that Putin, because of his economics background negotiated no bid contracts with newly created corporations that involved numerous kickbacks and extensive fraud.  Leningrad’s treasury was almost empty and casino gambling was seen as a source of revenue.  This would lead to organized crime and the emergence of the new corporate oligarchs controlling the local economy.  Myers points to rumors of Putin’s involvement, but can’t make a definitive case.   It was at this time that a number of these new oligarchs that emerged under Yeltsin, businessmen like Yuri Kovalchuk and Vladimir Yakunin whose metal company received licenses to export aluminum and non-ferrous metals grew very close to Putin, and years later would become titans of Russian industry.  Putin’s role in Leningrad’s economy increased under Sobchak and more and more cronies from his KGB past were given prominent positions in the city’s government.  Myers refers to these men as the “St. Petersburg boys,” who would emerge as important players when Putin assumed power.  Sobchak’s goal was to make his city the friendliest to foreign investment in the entire country.  Putin’s goal was to help create a new “window to the west,” the first major transformation of its kind since Peter the Great.  Putin would operate in the background with no fanfare and little emotion.  He knew how to slice through the bureaucracy and Russia’s opaque laws and used his Leningrad experience as a primer on how to get things done.

(Russian President Boris Yeltsin)

Putin would remain in Leningrad until 1996 when Sobchak was not reelected mayor.  Putin was without a job, but Yeltsin would be his savior.  Yeltsin’s own support in the presidential election of 1996 were the bankers, media moguls, and industrialists who had acquired controlling interests in major industries in return for keeping Yeltsin’s government afloat.  Putin was appointed to the Presidential Property Management Directorate to oversee the legal issues as he was in charge of reasserting the government’s control over certain properties and dispensing with others.  Seven months later Putin was put in charge of investigating abuses of Russian property and restoring order, and ending the corrupt schemes that were destroying the Russian economy.  Putin’s work brought him into contact with the FSB (really a new KGB with another name!) and earned a graduate degree with a thesis focusing on Russia’s natural resources.  More and more Putin believed that the state had to reassert its control over its own natural resources that were being pilfered by “oligarchs.”  This belief would form the basis of Putin’s economic policy once in power as he would use Russia’s vast energy resources as a tool against the west and former Soviet republics that did not conform to his vision of Russia’s spheres of influence.

Putin had gained a reputation as a competent, hard-working individual who did not press a particular agenda on Yeltsin.  With the corruption in the FSB, the economy imploding, Yeltsin appointed Putin as the head of the intelligence agency, Putin had come full circle.  Myers description of Yeltsin’s reign as president is one of economic disaster, corruption on a scale not imagined by many in his inner circle, and navigating from one crisis to another.  Throughout it all Putin was loyal and conducted himself in a ruthless and efficient manner that made him essential to Yeltsin’s political survival and he rewarded Putin with the leadership of the Security Council in addition to his duties as Director of the FSB.

Myers successfully integrates the second Chechen war into the narrative on top of Yeltsin’s domestic troubles.  This occurred at the same time NATO was bombing Serbia because of its actions in Kosovo, and the Russian leadership was powerless to support its Slavic brothers and  greatly feared that the west could do the same in Chechnya.  Yeltsin could not run for reelection in 2000, so he needed an heir that he trusted.  He offered Putin the office of Prime Minister and then he would resign before the election, to provide the little publicly known Putin a leg up on the presidency.  Myers does a superb job describing these machinations that resulted in Putin’s elevation.  One of his first moves upon assuming office in September, 1999, was to send Russian forces back into Chechnya, after four attacks in and around Moscow that killed over 300 people, a move he would stand by for years despite negative results.

(Russian troops bring out the dead and wounded after their assault on the Moscow theater to free hostages from Chechen terrorists, October 23, 2002)

Myers discussion of Putin’s reign is sharp and focused and explains many of the problems that the United States faces today with the Russian leader.  Putin’s approach to government is his version of the “dictatorship of law” or “managed democracy,” which may reflect some of the trappings of democracy, but are fixed or manipulated to accomplish certain ends.  Putin was aided by the strong recovery in energy markets after his election in 2000.  With increasing funds in the Kremlin coffers, Putin prosecuted his war in Chechnya in a vicious fashion.  This would produce a series of terrorist attacks that would cost Moscow dearly.  When Putin’s leadership and tactics were questioned during terrorist attacks at a movie theater on October 23, 2002 in southeast Moscow that resulted in the death of 130 hostages, and the terrorist siege of a school in Breslan in North Ossetia, the Russian President stonewalled any explanations for his military responses.  This was Putin’s pattern in a crisis, as was evidenced earlier when the nuclear submarine Kursk sank in 2000 with the loss of 118 men.  Despite these disasters and the Chechen war that was turning into a quagmire, Putin’s popularity could not be questioned, in large part because reporters, commentators, or politicians who raised issues or made negative comments about Putin, tended to disappear.  Putin had a carefully crafted image supported by his media friends who would not pursue the truth concerning the assassinations of Anna Politkoyskaya, a journalist critical of Putin, Alexsandr Litvinenko, a former FSB operative who exposed corruption and bribery in the agency, among numerous others.

Myers does a commendable job explaining the second “rape” of the Russian economy, the first under Yeltsin that produced the first wave of oligarchs, the second under Putin.  Names like Yukos, Gazprom, Rosneft, and their CEO’s are explored in detail and the reader acquires an inside look at how Putin dealt with economic threats to his regime as he sought to recover the state’s assets.  However, at the same time he allowed many of the “St. Petersburg boys” access to new wealth, creating a second wave of “new” oligarchs.  The trial of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the head of Yukos, the largest oil company in Russia is emblematic as to how Putin operated.  The end result is that Putin gained control of all aspects of the Russian economy, and of course with the attendant corruption, his own wealth accumulated tremendously, estimated at about $40 billion by Russian journalists and the CIA.  As an editorial in Kommersant opined, “the state has become, essentially a corporate enterprise that the nominal owners, Russian citizens no longer control.”

(the nature of American-Russian relations is obvious from the faces of Presidents Obama and Putin)

When Putin first rose to power many hoped a strong relationship between the United States and Russia would result. Putin was very supportive following 9/11 and approved of American military bases in former Soviet republics to conduct the war against al-Qaeda and the Taliban.  After meeting Putin for the first time, President George W. Bush had a positive reaction as he said, “I looked the man in the eye, I found him to be very straight forward and trustworthy…..I was able to get a sense of his soul; a man deeply committed to his country and the best interests of his country.”  Bush was either naïve or uninformed about Putin and the course he pursued.  Putin grew angry at the United States when the Bush administration refused to alter provisions of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM), and the eventual American withdrawal from the treaty.  Further, Putin was against the American invasion of Iraq and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, and this was capped off with the Ukrainian election of 2004 where reformers and government protestors wanted to move closer to the west and become members of NATO.  Putin’s frustration and anger at the United States further increased when President Bush decided to negotiate with Poland and the Czech Republic for bases for a Missile Defense System.  This led to the February, 2007 Putin speech at the Munich Security Conference where the Russian president excoriated the Bush administration in what Myers describes as similar to Winston Churchill’s Iron Curtain speech.  With the economic collapse of 2008 and its effect on the Russian economy, Putin would only blame the United States.  Further, the election of Barrack Obama, the Russian invasion of Georgia, trade disagreements, events in the Ukraine and Crimea, and the current Syrian crisis, it is not surprising that it seems we are now witnessing a second Cold War.

Putin could not run for reelection in 2008, but as Myers points out, like Yeltsin he also had an heir, Dimitri Medvedev, a former head of Gazprom, and an individual who appeared to be easier to deal with.  However, with Putin as Prime Minister pulling the strings, Kremlin policy remained the same, accept with a softer face.  During his presidency Medvedev was consistently forced into the background be it the 2009 economic crisis, the Russian invasion of Georgia, and other issues-Putin just could not stay in the background.  Medvedev’s speeches were vetted by Putin and it was demeaning for the Russian president as he was now overshadowed by his Prime Minister.

After reading Myers’ book, the reader should have a handle of who Putin is and what he believes in.  I agree with Gal Beckerman’s description of Putin as a man who represents his country, represents stability, and “stands against the chaos of the street; one man who still believes in the unique power of the state personifies its sovereignty and its prerogative to defend its interests; one man who embodies calm, measured authority resists the emotional swell of undisciplined, angry people, and understands that the appearance of forcefulness and obstinacy can be as powerful as an actual show of force.”  After digesting Myers’ narrative of Putin moving from crisis to crisis, some self-created and some external to Russia, it becomes clear that he simply believes that “he’s the last one standing between order and chaos,” whether he is dealing with protesters challenging his return to the presidency during and after the 2012 elections, “Chechen separatists, E.U.-loving Ukrainian politicians or the West as a whole, working through nefarious pro-gay N.G.O.’s or NATO.” (New York Times, November 2, 2015)

(Demonstration against Ukrainian government in Independence Square, Kiev, February 2, 2014)

Putin’s greatest gamble according to Myers was his illegal seizure of the Crimea in reaction to the violence in Kiev on February 2, 2014.  Protestors had taken to the streets forcing Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych to flee the capitol.  Putin was presiding over the closing ceremonies of the Sochi Winter Olympics and saw events in the Ukraine as a western plot to deny Russia the accolades that it deserved because of the success of the games.  Incensed, Putin met privately with a few trusted advisors and planned to foster the breakup of the Ukraine by seizing the Crimea.  The Russian invasion began on February 27, 2014 negating the argument he employed against President Obama about unilaterally invading countries as the US had done in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya.  Putin correctly calculated that since that the west would not react as it had in 1990 removing Saddam Hussein’s forces from Kuwait, as it had not acted against the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008.  Putin’s fait accompli would not be reversed and his rationale of protecting “ethnic Russians” was domestically popular and would later be used to justify Russian military moves in Eastern Ukraine.  Even after the dubious referendums in Crimea, Donetsk, and Luhansk; in addition to the Russian shoot down of a Malaysian airliner, Putin was convinced the west would do nothing, and he would rally his country against the foreign conspiracy to isolate Russia politically, and hurt her economically with sanctions.  Not only did Putin not worry about western actions, it seemed he no longer cared as is evidenced by the current situation in Syria as Russian planes continue bombing to prop up the regime of Hafez el-Assad, as opposed to his public position of fighting ISIS.

Myers conclusion that Putin no longer cared to rule pragmatically as he had done during his first two terms in office, and would focus on reasserting Russia’s power with or without the recognition of the west, is correct.  Myers should be commended for his work and anyone interested in understanding, the “new tsar” should consult it.

DISCIPLES: THE WORLD WAR II MISSIONS OF THE CIA DIRECTORS WHO FOUGHT FOR WILD BILL DONOVAN by Douglas Waller

(William Donovan, the man who headed the Office of Strategic Services  during World War II)

At a time when people are concerned with government spying on its citizens, it is useful to examine how two world wars and the Cold War led to the creation of the Central Intelligence Agency.  Douglas Waller, a former correspondent for Time and Newsweek, and the author of WILD BILL DONOVAN: THE SPYMASTER WHO CREATED THE OSS AND MODERN AMERICAN ESPIONAGE has revisited the origins of the CIA by examining the men that William Donovan trained as intelligence operatives who went on to head America’s foremost spy agency.  In his new book, DISCIPLES: THE WORLD WAR II MISSIONS OF THE CIA DIRECTORS WHO FOUGHT FOR BILL DONOVAN, Waller follows the careers of Allen W. Dulles, William Casey, Richard Helms, and William Colby, and their interactions with Donovan as their careers  culminated in Langley, Va.  When I first picked up the book I was concerned that Waller would rehash a great deal of the same material he covered in his biography of Donovan.  To my satisfaction this is not the case.  There is some repetition, but the book can stand on its own merits as Waller has written a wonderful adventure story that weaves together the experiences of the “disciples.”  Based on archival material, the most prominent secondary sources, and pertinent memoirs the book is an excellent read for spy buffs and the general public.

Waller begins the book with short biographical sketches of each individual and the similarities in their backgrounds.  Waller points out that there was a common thread that ran through Dulles, Casey, Helms, and Colby.  Each was smart, intellectual, and “voracious readers, thoughtful, and creatures of reason….these were strong, decisive, supremely confident men of action, doers who believed they could shape history rather than let it control them.”  When one follows their careers Waller’s description appears extremely accurate.  Though their personalities differed; Dulles comes across with a much larger ego who rubbed many in power the wrong way; Casey, more of an introvert who worked behind the scenes and new how to navigate the bureaucratic morass of government; Helms and Colby, more adventurous and hands on, the result of which was they all would ascend the intelligence ladder at different rates to finally emerge as leaders in their own right.  All had important relationships with Donovan; some more testy, particularly Dulles who wanted Donovan’s job as head of the Organization of Strategic Services (OSS) during World War II, but in the end they worked together and laid the foundation for America’s post war intelligence operations.

(Allen W. Dulles, headed American intelligence operations against Germany during WWII and as CIA Director under Eisenhower launched numerous covert operations)

Waller traces the career of each of the disciples and what stands out is their roles during World War II.  Donovan was charged by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to create an espionage operation during the war by choosing him as the Coordinator of Information, a position that would morph into the head of the OSS.  Waller examines the rise of Allen Dulles first, tracing his career from World War I, his experiences as a diplomat at Versailles, and his relationship with his brother, John Foster, and their law firm Sullivan and Cromwell.  Dulles emerges as a self-confident individual who sought total control of all operations. Posted to Berne, Switzerland during the war, Dulles developed important sources though he was at times over the top with his predictions.  On a number of occasions he resented Donovan, but in the end went along with his boss.  William Casey’s education as a spy began as a lawyer in the 1930s where he became an expert on the tax code dealing with War Department contracts.  This attracted Donovan interest and he would recruit Casey for the OSS in 1943.  Casey, an organizational expert was sent to London where he worked under David Bruce, and implemented a management style that would lead him to oversee intelligence assets and commando operations in France and Germany.  Richard Helms joined the navy after Pearl Harbor and worked on strategies to deal with German submarine warfare.  By 1943 he was forced into OSS Psyops and by the end of the war he was sent to London to organize operations in Germany for the post war period.  William Colby, the most liberal of the four and a supporter of FDR, studied in France in the late 1930s, witnessed the Spanish Civil War, and developed a hatred for communism.  He would become a commando during the war and showed tremendous physical courage behind enemy lines in France and Norway.

(Richard Helms after a career in intelligence dating back to WWII became CIA Director in the 1960s and was eventually fired by President Nixon)

One of the most interesting aspects of the book is how Waller introduces individuals who interacted with the OSS, and in particular the “disciples” during the war.  FBI Head, J. Edgar Hoover despised Donovan seeing him as a threat and unleashed his own agents to spy on the OSS.  We meet Julia Child, later known as “the cooking guru” for woman in the 1950s.  Along the way Arthur Goldberg emerges as a link to European labor movements, who would later serve on the Supreme Court.  British spymasters come and go throughout the book, particularly William Stephenson who at one time had an office next to Dulles in Rockefeller Center.  Fritz Kolbe, the OSS’ most important agent who allowed Dulles to penetrate the German Foreign Office in Berlin and whose work saved the lives of many allied soldiers takes a prominent role.  These and many other individuals and their own stories lend a great deal to Waller’s narrative.

(William Colby was a trained commando during World War II and parachuted into France and Norway who later became CIA Director under Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford)

Waller does a nice job showing how the careers of the “disciples” intersected with Donovan during the war.  For example, Donovan’s visitations to commando training, witnessing Colby’s preparation for parachuting into France.  Dulles and Casey intersected as both were smuggling agents into France to link up with and supply the French resistance.  Casey was in charge of monitoring commando drops like Colby’s into France.  Casey also funneled Dulles’ intelligence reports to Washington, and in a number of cases felt that they were highly exaggerated. Helms finally left for London in early 1945 and was supposed to organize Dulles’ mission for Germany, but because of Hitler’s last ditch effort in France in the Ardennes, he never carried out the assignment and wound up with Casey overseeing agents in Germany.  In fact Casey and Helms shared an apartment in London at the time!   Colby and Casey would meet at General George S. Patton’s headquarters in September, 1944 as Casey became Donovan’s eyes in Europe and eventually would replace David Bruce as head of London operations, an appointment that Dulles greatly resented.  Donovan felt that Dulles was a poor administrator and lacked the leadership skills that Casey possessed.

Waller spends a great deal of time on the actions of American commandos behind German lines.  He describes Colby’s training in detail and takes the reader along with these men as they parachute into France and Germany, exhibiting courage and discipline as they try to reinforce the French resistance, and later gather intelligence in Germany to try and bring the conflict to a faster conclusion.  Waller also spends a great deal of time discussing the infighting among the “disciples” and their private lives.  By doing so the reader gains insights into each of these men and it helps explains how their post-World War II careers would evolve into directorships of the CIA.

The final section of Waller’s narrative focuses on American intelligence policies and actions during the Cold War as the OSS evolves into the CIA and focuses its attention on the communist threat.  Once President Truman forces Donovan into retirement Dulles takes over the newly created CIA and his reputation for mismanagement will result in what Blanch Wiesen Cook, in her book DECCLASSIFIED EISENHOWER, refers to as the “coup presidency.”  Dulles would launch covert operations in Iran, Guatemala, Cuba, and the disastrous U-2 Incident, all resulting in his eventual downfall.  Dulles was succeeded by Helms, who unlike his predecessor believed in tight organizational control.  His mantra was “that there should be no surprises on his watch” and he was very popular within the agency.  Helms would be fired by Richard Nixon in part because he refused to cooperate with break-ins and cover ups associated with Watergate.  Colby’s tenure as director is most remembered for his testimony before the Church Committee in 1974 as leaked CIA documents called for congressional action.  Colby was the most politically liberal of all the “disciples” and this played a role in his cooperation with Congress which he was vilified for by Helms and Casey.  But, as Waller correctly points out his testimony probably saved the CIA from a wholesale reorganization that would have ruined its effectiveness.  The last of the “disciples,” William Casey took over the agency under Ronald Reagan and he tried to create the atmosphere that existed under his hero, William Donovan, who like his mentor “kept the door open to all ideas for operations, even the wacky ones.”  Casey wanted to recreate the can do culture of the OSS from WWII for the 1980s, focusing on the communist menace instead of the Nazis.  This would result in repeated machinations in dealing with Afghanistan, Central America, and the Iran-Contra scandal in particular.

(William Casey was a successful “spy master” during World War II who became CIA Director under Ronald Reagan)

Waller has written a fascinating account of the men who followed Donovan as leaders in American intelligence, and current implications for some of the policies they pursued.   Today we are faced with the ramifications of Edward Snowden’s leaks and issues over NSA and other surveillance.  It would be interesting to speculate how these gentlemen would respond to these issues.

(Major General William J. Donovan who led America’s intelligence operations during World War II)

 

STALIN’S DAUGHTER: THE EXTRAORDINARY AND TUMULTUOUS LIFE OF SVETLANA ALLILUYEVA by Rosemary Sullivan

(Stalin and Svetlana during her early teens)

When one thinks about the demonic characters that dominated the twentieth century most people do not focus on the impact their lives have had on their offspring.  But with Rosemary Sullivan’s remarkable new biography, STALIN’S DAUGHTER: THE EXTRAORDINARY AND TUMULTUOUS LIFE OF SVETLANA ALLILUYEVA we have just such a book.  Sullivan’s narrative and analysis is thoughtful and reasoned and by the conclusion of her 623 page effort the reader will feel they have entered a surreal world that explored not only Stalin’s child, but the author of the cult of personality that dominated Russian history from 1924 until his death in 1953.  What emerges is a portrait of a child who is raised in the ultimate dysfunctional family.  Svetlana had to endure the suicide of her mother, Nadya in 1932, the erratic emotional roll a coaster that was her father, and the demands of being the daughter of a man who was responsible either directly or indirectly for the deaths of between 20 and 40 million people. This leads to a flawed adulthood that saw four marriages, countless love affairs, and a wandering nature that saw her abandon her own children when she first defected to the United States in 1967, later returning to the Soviet Union in 1984 and again in 1986, then traveling to England and finally dying in the United States in 2011.

Sullivan has done an extraordinary job in piecing together Svetlana’s life.  Relying on her subject’s own published writings and private papers, interviews, and other documents she has prepared an incredible story that would be difficult to imagine.  Sullivan begins by describing Svetlana’s defection to the United States which she correctly begins a pattern of escapism and the need to fill an emotional hole in her psyche that is repeated throughout her life.  From this point on Sullivan successfully transitions to a description of a childhood growing up in the Kremlin and her interactions with her mother, Nadya, a deeply flawed woman who finally succumbed to the pressures of dealing with an abusive husband by committing suicide when her daughter was only six.  What amazed me was Sullivan’s description of the environment which Svetlana was raised.  Stalin’s household mirrored that of Tsarist royalty that the Bolshevik revolution was designed to replace.  Nannies, special schools, summer homes, pseudo palaces, tennis courts were all part of the picture.  Svetlana spent little time with her mother, and Sullivan remarks that her father was more affectionate toward her than her mother.  The result was that Svetlana became an emotionally needy child, a state of mind that would dominate her actions for the remainder of her life.

Sullivan is able to weave the major events of the Stalinist regime into her biography.  Purges, collectivization, show trials of the 1930s, the Nazi invasion of June, 1941, the devastation caused by World War II, and the Cold War are all portrayed in detail through the lens of Stalin’s daughter and the effect they had on her life.  The disappearance of family members and others who made her childhood secure made it very difficult for Svetlana as she had no idea why things were happening.  Her mother’s suicide was especially difficult, and once she learned the truth as to what occurred during the war her view of her father radically changed and she began to perceive him as the monster that he was.  Stalin’s impact on his daughter’s emotional life was profound as he prevented her from pursuing certain relationships, forced her to attend Kremlin events with his cronies late at night in the Kremlin and perform for them, forced her to attend certain schools, but most importantly played a game of withholding his parental love on and off throughout her childhood.

(Svetlana defects to the United States in 1967)

It is not surprising that Svetlana evolved into a very confused and emotionally flawed individual prone to impulsive actions to fill the vacuum in her life.  “Her first love, the prominent screenwriter Aleksei Kapler, was sent to labor camps when Stalin learned of their courtship.  Her half-brother Yakov, with whom she was close, perished in a German P.O.W. camp after Stalin refused a prisoner exchange to save him.  Her remaining brother, Vasili, died of alcoholism two days short of his 41st birthday.” (New York Times, “Stalin’s Daughter,” by Rosemary Sullivan, by Olga Grushin, June 12, 2015) Svetlana married Grigori Morozov, a Jewish college student when she was eighteen.  Stalin hated Jews as he always believed that there was a Jewish conspiracy against him throughout his life.  There was no marriage celebration and Stalin did not meet him before the wedding.  By eighteen, Svetlana was pregnant.  As her marriage deteriorated and she went through three painful abortions she sought the emotional support of her father that was not there.  In this instance and others, Sullivan points out that Svetlana “grew disparate as she did not know how to be alone.  Alone she felt totally exposed.  She thought she would be safe if only she could entwine her life in another, but then, once she had achieved this, she would feel suffocated, a pattern that would take decades to break, if she ever succeeded.” (136)

When her father finally died in 1953, Svetlana’s unstable psychological profile produces feelings of guilt that she was not a good daughter and that she could have done more to help their relationship.  Grief can distort one’s feelings and true to her nature her own willful blindness distorted her view of reality.  Following her father’s death Svetlana disavowed politics and tried to keep herself as anonymous as possible.  However, this goal was constrained by the fact that she was deemed as “state property” by the new government.  People’s reactions to her would always be filtered by their view of her father.  A greater impact on her life was Nikita Khrushchev’s “DeStalinization Speech” on February 25, 1956 before the Twentieth Party Congress in which the Soviet leader laid bare Stalin’s crimes.  Svetlana was terrified that she would be identified with her father and hated, so as usual she withdrew into isolation.  By 1957 she would change her name from Stalina to her mother’s maiden name, Alliluyeva.  She would become a gossip target because of her failed marriages and sexual affairs, reflecting the contempt that developed in Soviet society for her father.  Svetlana suffered from a compulsive need to turn each love affair into marriage.  No matter how many bad relationships she suffered she always held on to the belief that marriage would provide a bulwark against inevitable loss.  Sullivan is correct in arguing that “at core she was an emotional orphan with a tragic frailty that always threatened to sink her.” (222)

Sullivan explores the most important aspects of Svetlana’s journey as she prepares her first memoir TWENTY LETTERS TO A FRIEND.  The book explores her “cruel bereavements,” disappointments and losses as she describes her childhood and personal relationships.  The book revealed no state secrets and had no political agenda apart from condemning the Stalinist regime.  The book would become her financial ticket for the future, especially after she falls in love with Brajesh Singh, an Indian raj who was chronically ill.  They would marry, and Svetlana’s desire to return his ashes to India after he died leads her to defect to the United States.  The author’s discussion of Svetlana’s defection to the United States after visiting India are fascinating.  The diplomatic machinations among the Indian, Italian, Swiss and US governments reflect the political dynamite she represented visa vie the Soviet Union.  The work of George Kennan, the esteemed American diplomat and historian, who oversaw Svetlana’s life for decades is accurately described as he locates a publisher for her work and deals with the fallout from her defection and the complexity of her plight.  Sullivan’s analysis of Svetlana’s psyche are credible as she describes all aspects of her journey from abandonment of her family in Russia, to her settlement in the United States , and the Soviet campaign to defame her as a capitalist who was playing on her father’s name to become rich.

(Svetlana speaks to reporters in New York in 1967, not long after her defection)

Svetlana’s journey throughout this period was rife with emotional and financial failure as she had no clue how to manage her life.  This inability to control herself would lead to numerous personal disasters that make the reader feel a great deal of pity for Svetlana.  Sullivan’s descriptions of Svetlana’s many love affairs from the prism of her constant anxieties and fear of loneliness is eye opening.  She examines each love affair whether with the Princeton historian Louis Fischer or her four husbands and their impact on her personality and self-worth.  The most devastating relationship was her marriage to William Wendell Peters, an architect who was tied to the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation at Taliesan located in Arizona, a communal situation controlled by a cult leader, Olgivanna Wright, the famed architect’s wife.  Svetlana’s marriage would result in financial ruin, a daughter, Olga, and divorce.  Svetlana’s life after Peters was dominated by how to raise her daughter which contributed to her wanderings that would eventually lead her to England, a return to the Soviet Union, back to England, and eventually the US.

Throughout the book the image of her father seems to dominate.  The author’s discussion of Svetlana’s second book ONLY ONE YEAR encapsulates her situation as she continued her struggle to maintain her reputation against Soviet attacks.  The book is more than a recapitulation of her voyage from India to the US.  She revisits her past as she excoriates her father’s actions and makes the argument that her father was solely responsible for events.  She lays part of the blame with those who cooperated without whom the events of the 1930s could not have occurred.  She commits the blasphemy in Soviet Communist Party eyes of linking her father’s behavior with Lenin, who she argues created the atmosphere for Stalin’s crimes to be carried out.  It is interesting to witness how the Soviet government’s attitude toward Svetlana evolves throughout the 1980s and 1990s as Mikhail Gorbachev tried to implement glasnost and perestroika.  Even as leaders of the Soviet Union devote less and less attention to Svetlana’s situation over time, she remains paranoid about what they might do to her to the extent that when she is approaching the end of her life she wants to make sure that the Russian government cannot take advantage of her demise.

(Svetlana at a roadside near her home in Wisconsin a year before she died)

Sullivan describes a woman who is caught in a cycle of emotional disasters throughout her life as she tries to establish meaningful relationships.  Svetlana rebounds from one crisis to another as her confidence suffers from extreme highs and lows.  Her impulsive nature and naiveté born of a need to fill the emotional abyss that dates back to her mother’s suicide appears to the underlying psychic motivation of her erratic behavior.  For Svetlana setting the historical record straight concerning her life’s story came to dominate her life once her marriage to Peters collapsed. In the end Svetlana’s perceptive nature in dealing with Russian history is offered as she correctly warns the west of who Vladimir Putin really is and what he hoped to achieve.  From her viewpoint, a restoration of Russian power by appealing to Russian nationalism, a prediction made in the late nineties and early two thousands that has come to pass.  In the end Svetlana Alliliuyeva’s life can be seen as a tragedy born of events and personalities that she could neither control nor understand.  Sullivan has written an exceptional biography dealing with another victim of Joseph Stalin’s reign of terror, his own daughter.

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.

THE BETRAYAL by Helen Dunmore

(The notorious Lubyanka prison in Moscow)

Helen Dunmore’s THE BETRAYAL brings to mind the works of Alexander Solzhenitsyn as she tells the story of a physician and nursery school teacher who get caught up in the Stalinist paranoia that existed in the Soviet Union following World War II until Stalin’s death in March, 1953.  The chronological parameters of the book are the Nazi siege of Leningrad during the war culminating in the Doctor’s Plot where Stalin and his henchman dreamed up a conspiracy of Jewish physicians who were bent on killing the Soviet leadership as these supposed Zionists worked with the CIA to destroy the Soviet leadership.  Thankfully Stalin died in the midst of this fantasy and many historians believe his death avoided a second Holocaust for the Jewish people.  The novel concentrates in the year 1952 with flashbacks to the World War II siege.  Immediately, Dunmore provides insight into the plight of the average Russian citizen following the war.  There are references to the lack of husbands reflecting the massive death toll of Soviet soldiers during the war.  Communal apartments reflect the lack of housing after the war due to the destruction from Nazi bombing.  The paranoia of the Stalinist state is rampant as anyone can be destroyed and no one is irreplaceable as “anyone can go out of favor in the blink of an eye.” (11) When Kolya, a sixteen year old boy eats his food he wraps his arms around the bowl, exhibiting the fear that someone will steal his supper as occurred during the siege.  Repeatedly as the story is developed characters express the fear that if one of them is arrested, the rest of the family is in danger as occurred during the “Great Purge” of the 1930s.

(Joseph Stalin)

In living our lives we believe in certain assurances; the sun will rise and set at the prescribed hour, we will not grow hungry; we will have shelter and be able to rest when needed.  What life does not prepare us for is to live in a state of suspended animation were by we lose all control of our freedoms.  In post-war Russia life is a riddle that the accused cannot solve.  Innocent people become prisoners of this riddle like Andrei, a physician, and his wife Anna, a nursery school teacher.  The riddle is played out as Andrei is manipulated into taking on a patient named Gorya, the son of a MGB officer named Volkov who is high up in the state security apparatus.  Gorya, a ten year old boy suffers from cancer and after his leg is amputated the cancer spreads and his father needs a scapegoat, a Jewish doctor.  Unaware of the coming Stalinist persecution of Jewish doctors Andrei, who is not Jewish gets swept up in the Soviet prison system, but first he has to untangle the riddle, a phone call he receives early in the morning from his hospital’s medical personnel, “I am to inform you that, with immediate effect, you are suspended from your duties, pending investigation of serious irregularities.  You are to hold yourself available for investigatory interview without notice.  You are not permitted to enter hospital precincts during the period of investigation.” (195)  Andrei’s journey through the Stalinist legal system begins with that phone call and will culminate in his imprisonment in the Soviet Gulag.  Along the way the reader becomes a member of Andrei’s family and a witness to Andrei’s imprisonment, interrogation, and beatings. The fears of his wife Anna and other characters are explored as we witness the world of Stalinist persecution that is right out of the works of Solzhenitsyn and the likes of the poet, Osip Mandelstam.  For Andrei and Anna what is worse; the experiences of the siege of Leningrad with its starvation and constant death during the “great patriotic war,” or the very real fear that the loud banging on the door in the middle of the night will result in a trip to the Lubyanka prison in Moscow.

(The siege of Leningrad, 1942)

Dunmore does a remarkable job developing her story and plotline keeping the reader fully engaged.  Her character development is impeccable and she posses a sound knowledge of Soviet history from the purges of the 1930s through Stalin’s death.  If you have read Solzhenitsyn’s CANCER WARD or THE FIRST CIRCLE, Dunmore’s work fits that genre.  If not and you are interested in reading a historical novel that you will become totally engrossed in and not be able to put down, THE BETRAYAL is an excellent choice.

(The Soviet Gulag and its victims)

I am listing a short bibliography for those who are interested in this period of history and might like to read further;

For books on Stalin see STALIN: THE COURT OF THE RED STAR by Simon Sebag Montefiore; STALIN by Adam Ulam; STALIN by Robert Service; STALIN by Edvard Radzinsky: STALIN AND HIS HANGMEN: AN AUTHOROTATIVE PORTRAIT OF A TYRANT AND THOSE WHO SERVED HIM by Donald Rayfield.

The purges of the 1930s see THE GREAT TERROR by Robert Conquest and EVERYDAY STALINISM, ORDINARY LIFE IN EXTRAORDINARY TIMES: SOVIET RUSSIA IN THE 1930S by Sheila Fitzpatrick;

For the Soviet prison system (Gulag) see GULAG: A HISTORY OF THE SOVIET CAMPS by Anne Appebaum; INTO THE WHIRLWIND and WITHIN THE WHIRLWIND both by Evgenia S. Ginzburg; THE TIME OF STALIN: PORTRAIT IN TYRANNY by Anton Antonov-Ovseyenko.

The Doctor’s Plot see STALIN’S WAR AGAINST THE JEWS by Louis Rapaport; STALIN’S LAST CRIME by Jonathan Brent and Vladimir Naumov.

For the siege of Leningrad consult LENINGRAD: STATE OF SIEGE by Michael Jones; 900 DAYS: THE SEIGE OF LENINGRAD by Harrison Salisbury; LENINGRAD: THE EPIC SEIGE OF WORLD WAR II, 1941-1944  by Anna Reid; THE FATEFUL SEIGE, 1942-1943  by Anthony Beevor; and Helen Dunmore’s previous novel, THE SEIGE.

for further reviews visit http://www.docs-books.com