PUTIN’S PEOPLE: HOW THE KGB TOOK BACK RUSSIA AND THEN TOOK ON THE WEST by Catherine Belton

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during a campaign concert in March 2018

If you are following the war in Ukraine you are constantly bombarded with news stories concerning sanctions against Russia and Russian president Vladimir Putin’s oligarchs.  Frozen bank accounts, offshore investigations, the seizure of yachts, homes, the inability to access money or transfer funds, in addition to the loss of real estate, a soccer team and who knows what else are daily headlines.  The target of these actions are men who Vladimir Putin made rich by fleecing Russian mineral wealth, real estate, communications networks, weapons manufacturing, banking, highjacking the legal system, and of course the Russian people.  These men, many of which are former KGB operatives along with Putin, looted their country siphoning off billions of dollars out of state enterprises and moving their wealth to the west forming a second wave of oligarchs replacing those who accumulated extreme wealth under Boris Yeltsin. 

The west’s rationale for sanctioning Putin’s oligarchs is clear – destroy their wealth and lifestyle and they would pressure Putin to end his “special military operation” in Ukraine.  It is clear that the strategy has failed to move Putin to change course as the genocide in Ukraine continues.  Many wonder who these oligarchs are, how did they acquire their wealth, and what is their relationship with the Russian President.  Catherine Belton, an award winning journalist whose specialty was investigative reporting on Moscow has written PUTIN’S PEOPLE: HOW THE KGB TOOK BACK RUSSIA AND THEN TOOK ON THE WEST, an exceptional expose based on years of her own reporting and contacts in Russia and the west.

As Daniel Beer writes in his May 26, 2020, article in The Guardian, Belton is a renowned business journalist who spent years covering Russia for the Financial Times, Belton follows the money. She has an unrivalled command of the labyrinthine history of share schemes, refinancing packages, mergers, shell companies, and offshore accounts that lay bare the stealthy capture of the post-Soviet economy and state institutions by a coterie of former KGB officers, or siloviki. Belton combines this financial history with testimony from a dazzling array of Kremlin insiders, diplomats, intelligence officers, prosecutors, mobsters and oligarchs. The result reads at times like a John le Carré novel.”**  Belton’s approach and final product will amaze the reader for its depth of analysis and the disturbing picture she creates.

Putin shaking hands with Boris Yeltsin

(Vladimir Putin was appointed prime minister in August 1999 before taking over from Boris Yeltsin as president on 31 December)

Belton’s theme is clear and direct – Putin justifies bringing all levers of power including ending elections for governors, bringing the court system under the will of the Kremlin, taking over and reorienting the media towards the needs of the state, and destroying certain oligarchs and private companies in the name of stability, all to end the chaos of the 1990s that existed under Boris Yeltsin.  But, behind the patriotic fervor he encouraged a system whereby “Putin and the KGB ran the economy through a network of loyal allies now monopolized power and introduced a new system in which state positions were used  as vehicles for self-enrichment.  It was very different from the anti-capitalist, anti-bourgeois principles of the Soviet state they had once served.” 

The author dissects a number of important questions.  First, how did Vladimir Putin, a KGB operative in Dresden when the Berlin Wall collapsed end up the authoritarian presence in Moscow that exists today?  Second, who are the men who he manipulated allowing them to accumulate vast amounts of wealth and if they crossed him wound up in the Gulag?  Third, what mechanisms did Putin, and his coterie of sycophants employ to bring about the unequal and illegal distribution of wealth in Russia?  Fourth, why has the Russian leadership and their oligarchs been so successful in hiding their wealth in the west and penetrating the western political apparatus?  Lastly, what have been and are currently the implications for the system of “state capitalism,” or “state feudalism” that now exists in Russia?

As Belton methodically answers these questions she places events and actions in the context of Russian history and examines the different personalities and actions of Putin and his St. Petersburg KGB, and how they were able to overturn the corrupt oligarchical system which claimed to be mostly progressive under the reign of Boris Yeltsin.

The  key component to Belton’s narrative centers around Leningrad at the time the Soviet Union collapsed.  Leningrad, soon renamed St. Petersburg was the home a KGB faction which had a close relationship with the East German Stasi which was aware of the risks of a communist collapse and quietly launched “Operation Luch” to prepare for a potential regime change, particularly recruiting agents for a possible unification of Germany.  Putin, then stationed in Dresden was part of the process that smuggled millions of dollars out of East Germany to maintain their operations and create techniques that would become the model for Putin’s later Kleptocracy.

Putin and cabinet members observe a minute of silence in 2004 after the Beslan school siege

(Russia’s cabinet members observe a minute of silence in September 2004 after the Beslan school siege, in which militants killed more than 330 people)

Belton follows Putin’s biography pointing out the significant role played by Anatoly Sobchak, a key reformer on the Leningrad City Council who would be elected mayor, then enamored with Putin made him Deputy Mayor.  From this position Putin and his KGB compatriots had a base of power and the tools to implement their plan to replace Yeltsin’s oligarchs, men who took advantage of the collapse of the Soviet Union to line their own pockets and indirectly steal state assets.  Billions were siphoned from Soviet coffers – a process overseen by the KGB.  Front companies and banks were created to house this wealth and no matter what occurred, the 1991 coup, the raping of Russia under Yeltsin, the corruption of the Yeltsin family, and finally the choice by Yeltsin to first choose Putin as his Prime Minister, then resigning early so his protégé could be elected Prime Minister in his own right in 1999 – all linked to the KGB, men from the Soviet and post-Soviet period.

Belton’s detail is to be admired as she traces how Putin exercised power and destroyed men like Mikhail Khodorkovsky who was emblematic of former Komsomol officials who early on were cultivated by KGB progressives who would acquire enormous wealth under Yeltsin but would be destroyed by Putin.  The modus operandi to go after these oligarchs was charging them with personal and business tax evasion resulting in the seizure of their companies and dividing their assets between the St. Petersburg KGB types and organized crime who worked hand and glove with Putin in the past.  The agenda for Putin and these KGB loyalists was their belief that conflict with the west was not over with the collapse of the Soviet Union, so they created vehicles to funnel billions of dollars into the west to finance KGB intelligence operations against the United States and its allies.Volodymyr Zelensky, Emanuel Macron, Vladimir Putin and Angela Merkel in Paris in December 2019

(Talks resumed this month, five years after the start of the conflict in Ukraine, with President Volodymyr Zelensky, in a bid to end the fighting)

The privatization of state enterprises under Yeltsin using “loans for share,” and auction gimmicks quickly transformed ownership of the country’s wealth and created a class of oligarchs.  Men such as Khodorkovsky controlled Yukos Oil, Vladimir Potanin controlled Norlisk Nickel, Boris Berezovsky controlled Sibnet Oil to name a few who reaped the benefits of the new system that controlled over 50% of the country’s wealth, but once Putin arrived they had to kow tow to his whims and goals.  These men would become the target of the KGB who sought revenge because of their desire to control the country’s riches.  The St. Petersburg KGB forged relationships during the early 1990s through an elaborate system of barter and export deals that involved organized crime creating a model of how Putin’s Russia would be ruled in the 21st century.

Belton outlines how Putin and his cronies were able to become President pointing to a number of issues that Russia faced in the late 1990s.  First, Yeltsin and his family were crooks.  Second, the war in Chechnya which Yeltsin unleashed and Putin would use to raise his popularity for the 2000 election.  Third, The economy was on a roller coaster where market reforms led to a lowering of the standard of living for the Russian people.  With fears of a coup, the Yeltsin family decided they needed a strong KGB type who they could rely on to protect them from prosecution – that man was Vladimir Putin.  Yeltsin would resign early to facilitate Putin’s popularity and election victory.

Belton excels in describing the machinations of how Putin was able to consolidate power including a discussion of domestic terrorism blamed on Chechen terrorists.  This tactic appealed to the Russian people, but there is a great deal of evidence that FSB agents were behind the attacks creating the climate for Putin to crack down and re invade Chechnya.

Once in power Belton delves into Putin’s goal of creating an authoritarian system that he would control with an iron fist and how he accumulated billions in personal wealth which necessitated his own oligarchical system whereby fronts were created to limit any trace of wealth back to him.  Foreign bank accounts, real estate, a domestic banking system symbolized by Rossiya Bank, state control of the energy sector, threats, violence were all tools that were employed.

Putin shaking hands with US President Donald Trump

(US intelligence services say that Russia interfered in the 2016 US election)

There were those in the west that hoped to work with Putin in the early 2000s, but the influence of the St. Petersburg security men outweighed all other considerations.  Their world view was steeped in the logic of the Cold war, an ideology that would mold Putin.  They sought to restore Russia’s might and saw the United States as the main obstacle to achieving this.  For them, the economy was to be harnessed as a weapon first to restore the power of the Russian state – and themselves as leaders of the KGB and then against the west.

What saved Putin and the Russian economy from the outset was the rapid increase in the price of oil.  The leading Russian oil company was Gazprom, and the St. Petersburg KGB soon took over decision making.  Putin’s goal was to use possible oil and natural gas shutdowns as a vehicle to be employed in foreign policy as he did to Ukraine in 2004 and is currently doing so to Poland and Bulgaria.  More and more Putin evolved into a Tsar and he and his men would build a Russian fortress, presenting the country as under siege from an external threat.

Belton is correct that the key turning point was the 2003 trial of Khodorkovsky, his imprisonment, and exile to the Gulag for nine years.  It opened the way for Putin’s KGB men to take control of the country’s economy and created a precedent for the country’s judiciary to be an extension of Putin’s “security men.”  It also sent a message to other oligarchs that if they did not cooperate with shielding Putin’s wealth, laundering his money and protecting his power they could be next. The west did not realize that it was the beginning of the state takeover of the entire legal and political system leading to the accumulation of wealth that would be turned against them.  Throughout the process the hypocrisy of the west is evident as Belton points out the role and desires of western energy companies wanting to get their piece of the action with the Yukos and later Gazprom sell offs.  Further western hypocrisy is evident with oligarch investments in western real estate and banking, in addition to the role played by western banks such as Deutsche Bank, the Bank of New York, Danske Bank and others. 

Mikhail Khodorkovsky in Berlin, 22 December

(Khodorkovsky gave the first news conference after his release in Berlin)

Belton is able to unravel a process explaining how billions of Russian state assets were spirited to offshore accounts outside Russia – in 2012 alone, $49 Billion disappeared overseas.  Much of the wealth was invested in real estate particularly in New York, Miami, and London.  To create a mirage of legitimacy Roman Abramovich, an oligarch with strong ties to Putin was able to purchase the Chelsea Soccer Club, and others  invested in large real estate holdings in the United Kingdom fostering the nickname Londongrad.***  According to Belton, by the mid-2000s the British LLP (Limited Liability Partnership) was created as the money launderer’s vehicle of choice.  London would gain the reputation “as the world’s laundromat, washing hundreds of billions of pounds of dirty cash every year.”  Soon an awareness developed as to  the inroads the oligarchs made in the west and how they used its institutions to protect Putin’s wealth and as well as their own.  Interestingly, Putin and his men correctly predicted that western greed would outweigh any sense of morality when it came to western businesses’ approach to investing in and with Russia.

Belton’s exploration of Putin’s ideology focuses on the role of the Eastern Orthodox Church, the writings of White Russians dating back to the Russian Revolution, and recreating Russia’s imperial past.  In a sense Putin sees himself as a Peter the Great figure whose country should create a Eurasian empire whose destiny  was to counter the west as Putin forged a new Russian identity based on its imperial past.  In addition, Putin and his KGB cohorts sought revenge for the collapse of the Soviet Union, the economic chao of the 1990s, and the threat the west presented to their overall goals.

Ukraine plays a significant role in this process and from 2004 onward would become a training ground for Russia’s undermining western unity.  First, employing energy blackmail, “black cash,” then the outright invasion of Crimea took place in 2014 and the insurrection to create the Donetsk Republic.  The eastern industrial region of Ukraine would endure eight years of war conducted by Russian backed separatists until the recent invasion of the entire country.

From the outset the Kremlin took over control of the Russian media from the oligarchs and developed the message that Putin was as godlike as a Tsar and saved Russia from western encirclement.  As long as Russian incomes grew due to the increase in energy prices the masses did not worry about the increasing state corruption, the growing arbitrary power of the FSB, and the control of all businesses by law enforcement.  Putin and his minions could jail anyone they wanted as long as the emerging middle class was happy.

Belton explores how Putin, and his cronies employ “soft power” in a frightening chapter, “Soft Power in an Iron Fist.”  She describes how “black cash” was used in Eastern Ukraine, funding right wing parties in France, Italy, Hungary and elsewhere in Europe, and co opting western politicians such as Gerhard Schroeder former Chancellor of Germany, Jean-Marie Le Pen who lost the French presidential election last week, former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, and of course Donald Trump.  This strategy was in line with Putin’s goal of pushing a populist right wing agenda as a rebellion against the western liberal establishment which he views as a threat to his position as Tsar of all Russia’s.

Putin’s interference in western elections is well known as his support for the far right throughout Europe.  Former Kremlin insider Sergei Pugachev points out that Russia’s aggressive new tactics employing cyber, money though  out Europe to achieve his goals “is like a dirty atomic bomb.  In some ways it’s there, in some ways it’s not.  Nowadays it’s much harder to trace.”  PUTIN’S PEOPLE lay bare the challenge the west faces internally and now externally with Putin’s invasion of Ukraine in addition to offering a remarkable explanation of how Putin’s feudalistic state came into being and how it is evolving.

For an up to date view of what these oligarchs actually believe see Catherine Belton; Greg Miller, “Cracks Emerge in Russian Elite as Tycoons Start to Bemoan Invasion,” Washington Post, April 29, 2022.

**Daniel Beer “Putin’s People by Catherine Belton review – A Groundbreaking Study that Follows the Money,” The Guardian, 6 May 2020.

***For a discussion of how the oligarchs took London see Patrick Radden Keefe, “Do Stay For Tea,” The New Yorker, March 28, 2022.

Putin on a big screen announcing the annexation of Crimea

NOT ONE INCH: AMERICA, RUSSIA, AND THE MAKING OF THE POST COLD WAR STALEMATE by M.E. Sarotte

File:President George H. W. Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev pose for a photo during their meeting in Helsinki.jpg
(Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev and President George H. Bush)

As I am writing I am listening to the horrific news emanating from Ukraine.  The Russian invasion that began on February 24, 2022, continues to produce atrocity after atrocity with no end in sight.  By launching his “special military operation,” Vladimir Putin has ended the post-Cold War settlement in Eastern Europe in pursuit of his fantasy of an ethno-nationalistic Pan Slavic empire for Russia as he tries to recreate the old Soviet Union.  His stated goal was to block the NATO threat embodied by Ukraine, a country that seeks to join the Atlantic Alliance for protection against Moscow.  Putin’s actions were based on his perceived weakness of NATO countries and their lack of unity.  The result, instead of pushing NATO away from his border, Putin has reinvigorated NATO and brought the west closer than it has been since World War II.  Sanctions against Russia, arming Ukraine, financial aid, intelligence sharing, and humanitarian aid are all designed to help Kyiv overcome Putin’s rage as the war has not gone as he had planned.  Based on the Russian President’s comments, who knows how far he will push his war of choice and how it will end.  The question is how did we get to this point?  What can be done to mitigate the situation?  Lastly, what weapons will Putin employ as he hints about tactical nuclear weapons and chemical and biological warfare if Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy does not capitulate.

M.E. Sarotte, a history professor at Johns Hopkins University and a member of the Council of Foreign Relations has authored the perfect book to try and understand the background of the current crisis.  Her monograph, NOT ONE INCH: AMERICA, RUSSIA, AND THE MAKING OF THE POST COLD WAR STALEMATE is an excellent analysis of events, personalities, and decisions made by western European, American, and Russian leaders from the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 through the resignation of Boris Yeltsin as Russian president replaced by Vladimir Putin.

(President Bill Clinton and Russian president Boris Yeltsin)

Sarotte develops a thoroughly researched book that revolves around options faced by the west once the Soviet Union collapsed.  The choice was clear; either they could enable the newly independent states of Central and Eastern Europe including the Baltic states to join NATO regardless of its impact on Russia or promote cooperation with Russia’s fragile new democracy.  The move that made the most sense would have slowed the decision making process and proceeding carefully considering Russian sensitivities.  The west created an incremental security partnership open to European and post-Soviet states alike.  Potential NATO members could gain experience in working with the west and eventually gain Article 5 protection.  However, Boris Yeltsin’s decision to shed the blood of opponents in Moscow and Chechnya, the rampant inflation in Russia as it tried to transition to a market economy, bloodshed in the Balkans, and domestic political changes in the United States as Republicans took over Congress pressured the Clinton administration to push for NATO expansion all impacted the course of NATO enlargement.  As all of this evolved Vladimir Putting was rising through the Russian bureaucracy.

In breaking down her analysis into three parts, Sarotte tackles the 1989-1992 period dominated by President George H. Bush, Secretary of State James Baker and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev.  Her focus is on the “promise” offered by Baker that “not one inch” of former Soviet territory would be subject to NATO expansion.  This formed the basis of the Russian position, and as events evolved the United States and its western allies saw loopholes in any agreement that would allow them to offer NATO membership to Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary in the first wave of NATO membership and keep open the possibilities for further members including the Baltic states, Romania, and others.  Gorbachev who faced internal opposition, economic issues and other roadblocks to reform would face a coup and eventual replacement by Boris Yeltsin.

The second part of the narrative, 1993-1994 was dominated by the “Boris and Bill” show as Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin developed a strong working relationship which would eventually flounder due to events and decisions that ruined their camaraderie as the US pushed for rapid NATO enlargement.  By the third part of the book, 1995-1999 the situation in Kosovo, the failed Russian economy raped by oligarchs, and Yeltsin’s uneven and unpredictable personality heightened by his drunkenness would result in Moscow and Washington failing to create lasting cooperation in the thaw after the Cold war resulting in the rise of Putin and what the world would eventually face in Ukraine.

Late French President Francois Mitterrand and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl stand hand in hand

(The odd couple: François Mitterrand and Helmut Kohl link hands at the cemetery beside the battlefield of Verdun)

Sarotte covers all bases as she highlights negotiations between the west and Russia and delves into the motivations and policies of the main personalities.  As she draws the reader in she offers a number of insightful comments and vignettes.  Among the most interesting and almost laughable was the role played by the Lewinsky Affair and Clinton’s impeachment trial in finally expanding NATO in 1998.  Sarotte’s meticulous presentation of how German unification was achieved and the withdrawal of Soviet forces from East Germany are among her strongest sections of the book, particularly the role played by German Chancellor Helmut Kohl.  The nuclear problem was always present in the background.  Issues of Ukrainian nuclear weapons, the cost to destroy and relocate them, and Russia’s role were paramount.  In addition, the evolution of the situation in Ukraine is discussed further and Sarotte offers a number of historical keys that will play out and impact Kyiv which in the end will end up being invaded by Russia in 2014 in its seizure of Crimea and the recognition by Russia of two separate self-proclaimed republics in the Donbas region.

Sarotte’s work is impeccable, and I would recommend it strongly to anyone interested in a detailed presentation of the 1989-1999 period that resulted in the arrival of Vladimir Putin as the dominating figure in the Kremlin’s approach to the west and Russian expansion.  Sarotte delineates the lost opportunity for a more peaceful world with increased Russian, American and European cooperation and integration between 1989 and 1991.  Unfortunately, that opportunity has been lost and it will take many years for it to reappear, if ever.

Presidents Gorbachev and Bush hold a joint new conference at the White House to conclude the Summit meetings
(Gorbachev and Bush, Sr.)

THE WORLD: A BRIEF INTRODUCTION by Richard Haass

UN Headquarter - United Nations - New York, NY

(The United Nations building in NYC)

As the American presidential election seems to creep closer and closer it is difficult to accept the idea that a substantial part of the electorate remains ignorant when it comes to knowledge of American foreign policy, or is apathetic when it comes to the issues at hand, or believe that Donald Trump has led the United States effectively in the realm of world affairs.   It is in this environment that Richard Haass, the president of the Council of Foreign Relations, and author of a number of important books, including, WAR OF NECESSITY, WAR OF CHOICE: A MEMOIR OF TWO IRAQ WARS, and A WORLD IN DISSARAY: AMERICAN FOREIGN POLICY AND THE CRISIS OF THE OLD ORDER has written a primer for those interested in how international relations has unfolded over the last century, and what are the issues that United States faces today.  The new book, THE WORLD: A BRIEF INTRODUCTION may be Haass’ most important monograph as he is trying to educate those people who have not had the opportunity to be exposed to his subject matter in the past, and make them more literate followers of international relations in the future.

Haass states that his goal in writing his latest work is to provide the basics of what “you need to know about the world, to make yourself globally literate.”  At a time when the teaching of and the knowledge of history and international relations is on the decline, Haass’ book is designed to fill a void.  He focuses on “the ideas, issues, and institutions for a basic understanding of the world” which is especially important when the Trump administration has effectively tried to disassemble the foundation of US overseas interests brick by brick without paying attention to the needs of our allies, be they Kurds, NATO, the European Union, and most importantly the American people with trade deals that are so ineffective that $29 billion in taxpayer funds had to be given to farmers because of our tariff policy with China.  Perhaps if people where more knowledgeable the reality of what our policy should be would replace the fantasy that currently exists.

 

 

Xi Jinping with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on 28 September 2010

Haass has produced a primer on diplomatic and economic history worthy of a graduate seminar in the form of a monograph.  Haass’ sources, interviews, and research are impeccable from his mastery of secondary materials like Henry Kissinger’s A WORLD RESTORED: METTERNICH, CASTLEREAGH, AND THE PROBLEMS OF PEACE, 1812-1822 and Jonathan Spence’s THE SEARCH FOR MODERN CHINA.  Haass has created an educational tool that is a roadmap for those who would like to further their knowledge on a myriad of subjects.  Further, the author offers a concluding chapter entitled, “Where Do You Go for More” which augments his endnotes that should be of great assistance to the reader.

(Vladimir Putin)
Haass’ writing is clear and evocative beginning with chapters that review the diplomatic history of a number of world regions which encompasses about half of the narrative.  He returns to The Treaty of Westphalia which ended the Thirty Years War in 1648 as his starting point.  Haass then divides history into four periods.  First, the roughly three hundred years from the early seventeenth century to the outbreak of World War I in 1914.  Second, 1914 to the end of World War II in 1945.  Third, the Cold War, roughly 1945 to 1989.  Lastly, the post Cold War period to the present.  In each section he reassesses the history, major players, and issues that confronted the world community at the time drawing conclusions that are well thought out and well grounded in fact, the opinion of others, and documentary materials available.

A case in point is Haass’ analysis of China focusing on her motivations based on its interaction with the west which was rather negative beginning with the Opium War in 1842 to the Communist victory in 1949.  In large part, China’s past history explains her need for autocracy and an aggressive foreign policy.  Haass delves into the US-Chinese relationship and how Beijing unlike Russia embraced integration with the world economy stressing trade and investment in the context of a state-controlled economy that provides China with advantages in domestic manufacturing and exports.  A great deal of the book engages China in numerous areas whether discussing globalization, nuclear proliferation, trade, currency and monetary policy, development, and climate change.  A great deal of the material encompasses arguments whether the 21st century will belong to Asia, with China replacing the United States as the dominant power on the globe.  Haass does not support this concept and argues a more nuanced position that depending on the immediate political needs of both countries will determine the direction they choose.  The key for Haass is that the United States must first get its own house in order.

Haass carefully explains the fissures in US-Russian relations as being centered on Vladimir Putin’s belief that his country has been humiliated since the fall of the Soviet Union.  Haass’ argument is correct and straight forward as Putin rejected the liberal world that sought to bring democratic changes to Russia and integrate her economy into more of a world entity.  Putin’s disdain and need to recreate a strong expansionist military power has led to the undermining of elections in the US and Europe.  Putin’s “feelings” have been exacerbated by NATO actions in the Balkans in the 1990s and its expansion to include the membership of former Soviet satellites like Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia.  The end result is that Moscow pursued an aggressive policy in Georgia, the Crimea, and eastern Ukraine resulting in western sanctions which have done little to offset Putin’s mind set.

Haass is on firm ground when he develops the economic miracle that transpired in China, Taiwan, Japan, Singapore, and South Korea as the reduced role of the military in these societies, except for China have contributed greatly to their economic success.  Their overall success which is evident today in how they have dealt with the Covid-19 pandemic is laudatory, but there are a number of pending problems.  The China-Taiwan relationship is fraught with negativity.  Japanese-Chinese claims in areas of the South China Sea and claims to certain islands is a dangerous situation,  the current situation on the Korean peninsula is a problem that could get out of hand at any time.  Lastly, we have witnessed the situation in Hong Kong on the nightly news the last few weeks.

The Syrian situation is effectively portrayed to highlight the tenuousness of international agreements.  It is clear, except perhaps to John Bolton that the US invasion of Iraq has led to the erosion of American leadership in the Middle East.  American primacy effectively ended when President Obama did not enforce his “red-line” threat concerning Bashir al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons, and President Trump’s feckless response  to the use of these weapons in 2017.  The result has been the elevation of Iran as a military and political force in the region, as well as strengthening Russia’s position as it has supported its Syrian ally in ruthless fashion.  Haass’ conclusion regarding the region is dead on arguing that its future will be defined like its past, by “violence within and across borders, little freedom or democracy, and standards of living that lag behind much of the world.”

Map of Africa Political Picture

In most regions Haass’ remarks add depth and analysis to his presentation.  This is not necessarily the case in Africa where his remarks at times are rather cursory.  This approach is similar in dealing with Latin America, a region rife with drug cartels, unstable economies, and state weakness which is a challenge to the stability of most countries in the region.

One of the most useful aspects of the book despite its textbook type orientation is the breakdown of a number of concepts in international affairs and where each stand relative to their success.  The discussion of globalization or interconnected markets has many positive aspects that include greater flows of workers across borders, tourism, trade, and sharing of information that can help negate issues like terrorism and pandemics.  However, globalization also means that for certain issues like climate change borders do not matter.  Global warming is a fact and though some agreements have been reached the self-interest of burgeoning economies like China and India that rely on coal are a roadblock to meaningful change.  Interdependence can be mutually beneficial but also brings vulnerability, i.e., trade agreements can result in job loss in certain countries and increased unemployment, Covid 19 knows no borders, as was the case with the 2008 financial crisis.  Haass is very skeptical that mitigation of climate change will have a large enough impact, he also discusses the negative aspects of the internet, and the world-wide refugee problem adding to a growing belief that future international relations will carry a heavy load and if not solved the planet will be in for major problems that include global health.  Haass’ conclusions are somewhat clairvoyant as I write this review in the midst of a pandemic, which the author argues was inevitable.

Image of Map and Wallpapers: Asia Map

Haass shifts his approach in the final section of the book where he considers diplomatic tools like alliances, international law, and vehicles like the United Nations as governments try and cope with the problems facing the world.  In this section he focuses on the features of order and disorder or order v. anarchy to provide tools that are needed to understand both the state of play and the trends at the regional and global levels.   He breaks down issues as to their positivity and negativity as he does in other areas of the book, but here he makes a case for American leadership supported by military power as the best hope for stability and progress.  But even in making this argument, Haass presents certain caveats that must be considered.  For example, do nations have the right to interfere in a sovereign country to prevent genocide, can a country’s sovereignty be violated if they are providing resources and protection to terrorist groups, or does an ethnically like minded people deserve to have their own country based on self-determination.  Apart from these questions is the issue of enforcement.  Does international law exist since there is no uniform vehicle to force compliance, and what tools are available to convince nations to support decisions by international bodies or groupings.

All in all Haass has written a primer for his readers, but does this audience even understand the complexities of foreign policy and do they have the will to learn about it and then elect representatives who themselves have a grasp of issues to direct the United States on a well-reasoned path that can maintain effective global activism?  Only the future can answer that question, but for me I am not that optimistic in terms of the American electorates interest in the topic or its commitment to educating itself.

FILE - In this Sept. 18, 2007 file photo, the flags of member nations fly outside of the United Nations headquarters. In a move likely to upset Israel's government, the Palestinians are seeking to raise their flags at the U.N., just in time for Pope Francis' visit in September 2015. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer, File)

THE SPY WHO CHANGED HISTORY: THE UNTOLD STORY OF HOW THE SOVIET UNION WON THE RACE FOR AMERICA’S TOP SECRETS by Svetlana Lokhova

Image result for photo of joseph stalin
(Soviet leader Joseph Stalin)

In her first book, THE SPY WHO CHANGED HISTORY: THE UNTOLD STORY OF HOW THE SOVIET UNION WON THE RACE FOR AMERICA’S TOP SECRETS Svetlana Lokhova argues that in the early 1930s Joseph Stalin came to the realization that if the Soviet Union was to survive drastic measures needed to be taken to improve the state of Soviet technology visa vie the west.  The Russian dictator stated that “We are fifty or a hundred years behind the advanced countries.  We must catch up in ten years.  Either we do it, or they will crush us.”  Stalin feared that large numbers of enemy aircraft could easily release poisonous gases over Soviet territory resulting in the death of millions.  The Soviet dictator’s solution was multifaceted; starve millions of peasants to death through collectivization to acquire hard currency to assist in Russia’s industrialization, show trials/purges/murder of those who opposed him, and the institution of a spy system that could steal secrets from the west, the United States in particular.  Lokhova chooses to focus on the last component of Stalin’s strategy by dispatching two intelligence officers, one an aviation specialist, the other a chemical specialist to attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to acquire aeronautics, chemical research and other relevant information and bring it back to the Soviet Union.

In her book, Lokhova makes the case that the success of this mission allowed the NKVD (later morphed into the KGB) to develop a dependable source of western technology, particularly in aviation that would allow it to defend the Soviet Union from its enemies and eventually defeat Nazi Germany.  This operation would form the basis of later espionage against the United States that would allow Moscow to reach an equilibrium with Washington as both sides would develop a process that some refer to as “mutual assured destruction” or MAD.  As this process unfolds Lokhova points out that the United States became the source of a great deal of nuclear technology that fueled both sides of the nuclear arms race.

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(Author, Svetlana Lokhova)

According to Lokhova the Soviets’ long science and technology (S & T) mission remained a secret for over eighty years as both sides in the arms race decided to maintain their secrets.  Relying on previously undiscovered Soviet-era documents among many sources Lokhova tells her story through its first spy, Stanislav Shumovsky, the network of agents he created, the contacts in American aviation industry, in addition to other spies and important figures in the Soviet aviation community.

The author offers a brief biography of each of the characters she develops focusing most of her attention on Shumovsky whose family had been uprooted during World War I from their Polish home and moved to Kharkov located in southern Ukraine.  He completed five years of secondary education and was a gifted linguist that eventually included English.  He was an excellent math and science student and after witnessing the plight of Russian workers and peasant joined the Red Army at the age of sixteen.  Lokhova describes the Russian Revolution and the bloody Civil War that followed and its impact on Shumovsky creating the perfect candidate to enter the intelligence field.  His mission was to attend MIT and digest a technical education that would assist him in developing a network of sources and spies that would provide the data that he sought.  His success was beyond anything his handlers could imagine.  He would build a network of contacts and agents in factories and research institutions across the United States  According to Lokhova he would mastermind the systematic acquisition of every aviation secret American industry had to offer.  He worked with top aircraft designers and test pilots and the information he provided to men like Andrey Tupolev, an expert in reverse engineering, the Soviets were able to copy and create their own version of American planes, weapons, and other technological achievements including later, the atomic bomb.

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(Stanislav Shumovsky)

Lokhova does a nice job explaining how and why the United States became the target of Russian industrial espionage. American corporations had mastered, at first, under the tutelage of Henry Ford the model of mass production, and the country itself was urbanized with a high standard of living.  Stalin and Felix Dzerzhinsky, the Soviet Intelligence Chief and Chairman of the Supreme Economic Council believed that the United States was the world’s leading technological innovator and a role model that should be targeted.  As it became clear that the Soviet Union could not industrialize with heavy industry without foreign expertise, and later the looming threat of Nazi Germany and Japan, Moscow had to obtain technology by stealing it.  Dzerzhinsky would die in 1926, but the die was cast for Stalin to manipulate the United States for Soviet technological needs.

The most interesting aspect of this process Lokhova points out is that most Americans have no clue the important role the United States played in Russian industrialization.  The author is extremely thorough in explaining the development of foreign operations by the NKVD and the role of Artur Artuzov.  In 1931, 75 Russian students arrived in the United States to attend elite universities; their vocations were varied including specially trained spies.  The largest percentage of students would attend MIT with Shumovsky.  Stalin’s goal was to emulate and surpass the United States, but to achieve this he needed educated engineers who would become Soviet societal leaders.  To achieve his goal the American education model would be copied.

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(Stalin congratulating his favorite pilot, Valery Chkalov)

Shumovsky’s story reads like an early episode from the television series, “The Americans.”  Easily fitting into American society, he oversaw the education and acculturation of his cohorts to life away from Russia.  They would blend into American society targeting young, idealistic, and naïve Americans at universities and corporations.  At MIT, Shumovsky was able to develop the industrial contacts in performing his mission – a camaraderie of scientists that allowed him to build his network. He would spot classmates like Norman Leslie Haight, a radio engineer whose specialty was bomb sights who would remain a Soviet source for decades.

Lokhova concentrates her story on Shumovsky, but she also introduces a number of intriguing characters like Ivan “Diesel” Trashutin, who attended MIT and studied diesel engineering who contributed more to the Soviet victory in WWII than any MIT alumnus, with designs for T-34 and T-72 tanks.  His task was facilitated when Stalin dismantled Soviet factories and moved them east of the Urals after the Nazis attacked in June 1941, resulting in tanks that would power the Soviet Army to victory in Berlin.  Other important individuals include Mikhail Cherniavsky, a chemical engineer and intelligence officer, who was a Trotskyite linked to trying to assassinate Stalin.  Ray Epstein Bennett, a Jewish socialist recruited to spy for the Soviet Directorate served in Shanghai, Afghanistan, and would become the tutor for MIT students – a Pygmalion Project.  Gaik Ovakimian, who the FBI labeled the “Wily Armenian,” acquired plans for the Atomic Bomb and the B-29 Super Fortress.  Lastly, Semyon Semyonov, another MIT student who Shumovsky mentored discovered which scientists were working on the Manhattan Project and managed to establish firm contacts with physicists close to Oppenheimer, among a number of others.

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(Soviet spies, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg)

The author does an exceptional job explaining the process of Soviet recruitment and the infrastructure of how it was implemented.  By the mid-1930s with the rise and threat of Nazi Germany recruitment was ramped up leading to the recruitment of Brooklyn College chemistry professor William Malisoff who brought Julius and Ethel Rosenberg into the fold.  Once Franklin D. Roosevelt recognized the Soviet Union new avenues for intelligence gathering were created with what appears to be American cooperation as information was seized “in plain sight,” and relayed back to Moscow.   American naivete was apparent as the US embassy in the Soviet capitol had little or no security for decades and Stalin’s minions exploited the situation.

For Shumovsky, traditional spy operations were not enough to accomplish his mission.  The Soviet spy had an innate sense of how to create publicity and use it as a vehicle to improve American-Soviet relations which would lead to greater access to American corporations and their technology, i.e., Curtiss-Wright Aircraft, the largest company of its kind in the United States.  This would prove to be an effective strategy by ingratiating himself with aviation executives and engineers to obtain plans, research, and actual models.  A good example of how this played out was the flight of the Soviet ANT 25 over the North Pole with three pilots landing on the US Pacific Coast.  The three pilots would become heroes much like astronauts in the 1960s and 70s and were given access to practically any process or research they were interested in.

Lokhova’s approach is captivating as she draws out her story with the reader wondering how in detail the Russians accomplished their heists.  She answers this question and at times the narrative reads like a spy novel.  If there is a criticism of her work, it is at times her opinions do not necessarily match the historical record.  For example, she argues that the Great Purges of 1937 instituted by Stalin were caused by the Fascist victory in Spain.  According to Robert Conquest, a British historian and others the major reason was Stalin needed to blame individuals for the horrific results of collectivization that resulted in the starvation of millions and the need to protect himself from any opposition to his leadership.

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(Cambridge Five spy ring for the Soviet Union)

The advent of World War II brought about certain difficulties for Soviet intelligence.  The need for American planes in the Pacific after Pearl Harbor produced only leftovers for Moscow.  The upswing in the US economy because of the war left fewer targets to recruit.  Washington finally became security conscious.  The war resulted in in a dramatic increase in American patriotism.  Despite these difficulties, the Soviet Union was able to penetrate American and British security over the Manhattan Project employing the Cambridge Five in England, and the network and followers of Shumovsky to gather the necessary information, research, and plans for the atomic bomb.

According to Lokhova, Shumovsky’s success was his ability to adapt his methods to the changing circumstances and used America’s strengths and weaknesses and turn them to his advantage.  He was a talented student, a representative of a major aviation customer, and a skilled military advisor, skills which contributed to his success.  His successors would use his methods, and their contacts in the scientific community and factories brought the Soviet Union valuable intelligence on America’s developments in jets, rockets, and the atomic bomb.  It is fascinating that his accomplishments were pretty much conducted in “plain sight.”

Overall, Lokhova has written a fascinating account of Russian espionage and the role the United States played in the eventual success of the Soviet Union which would lead to the Cold War and the nuclear balance of power.  According to Frances Wilson in her Daily Telegraph review of June 24, 2018 entitled “The Spy who came into the lab – How the Soviets infiltrated MIT” it is interesting that certain elements in the Russian government tried to harass and discredit her to the point she was falsely accused  on “social media of being a Russian spy and of setting a ‘honey trap’ for Donald Trump’s former National Security advisor, General Michael Flynn.”  Despite the pressure she has been able to produce a groundbreaking account of Soviet espionage in the 1930s and 40s.  This is a remarkable book about amazing people and what is most astonishing is that our perception of the center of 20th century espionage has shifted “from Cambridge, England, to Cambridge Massachusetts.”

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(Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The town of Pripyat remains abandoned to this day

(Town of Pripyat remains abandoned even today)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

HOUSE OF TRUMP HOUSE OF PUTIN: THE UNTOLD STORY OF DONALD TRUMP AND THE RUSSIAN MAFIA by Craig Unger

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(Russian President Vladimir Putin and President Donald Trump)

When I began reading Craig Unger’s new book HOUSE OF TRUMP HOUSE OF PUTIN: THE UNTOLD STORY OF DONALD TRUMP AND THE RUSSIAN MAFIA, I did so with great anticipation.  Unger’s previous monographs, HOUSE OF SAUD HOUSE OF BUSH and THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF BUSH immediately captured my interest and developed themes that were strongly supported by documentary evidence and interviews.  In his newest effort, Unger has not totally measured up to preceding works.  First, if one has followed the news the last twelve months the material should be very familiar especially if one thinks about news accounts on cable television, newspaper articles, and exposes in magazines like The Atlantic.  Second, a good part of the book reads like excerpts from a Russian version of “Goodfellahs,” as Unger describes the development of Russian mob influence and wealth accumulation following the fall of the Berlin Wall, and tries to link Donald Trump to every Russian oligarch he has come across.  Third, the book promises to deliver the untold story of the Trump-Putin relationship, but it seems to rehash what is already in plain sight in the media.  Lastly, the book‘s focus is predominantly about the spread of the Russian mob, the rise of Putin and the Russian autocrat’s strategy to undermine the west, and though it presents a strong case for the Trump-Russian nexus Unger could have developed this component in greater depth.

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(Trump with Agas and Emin Agalarov)

Unger’s goal as outlined in his introduction is very bold and I thought that I was about to read a book that would replace Michael Isikoff’s and David Corn’s RUSSIAN ROULETTE as the preeminent work on Trump and his Russian connection.  Unger states he will tie Trump to 59 individuals with alleged ties to the Russian Mafia; the use of Trump’s brand to launder billions of Russian mob money; Trump’s providing an operational home to Russian oligarchs in Trump Tower; the significant role the Russian Mafia plays in the Russian government; Russian intelligence targeting of Trump as a possible source for over forty years; how the Russian mob used American groups such as K Street lobbyists to gain influence and intelligence; how Russia took advantage of Trump’s $4 billion debt to coopt him, whether willingly or unwillingly; a description of Trumps relationship with Russian mobsters like Felix Sater; and how Trump became an intelligence “asset” for the Russians.  This is quite an undertaking, a puzzle whose pieces do not always seem to fit, resulting in a narrative that too often does not make a concrete case. Everything Unger states may be accurate, but he does not present his arguments without raising a certain amount of doubt.   In Unger’s defense, at this point it would difficult for any author to write the definitive account of the Trump-Putin/Russian relationship.

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(Putin and Oleg Deripaska)

Unger develops his narrative on two parallel tracks.  First, he describes the development of the Russia Mafia (or Mob) and how they have made inroads in the United States and countries abroad.  He correctly points to the Jackson-Vanik Amendment in a 1974 Congressional Trade bill that called for allowing hundreds of thousands of Jews to leave Russia.  In doing so, the Kremlin let out many Jews, but also many criminals, rapists, and other unsavory characters.  Many of these Jews and their lesser types migrated to the Brighton Beach section of Brooklyn and set up the “new Odessa” as they turned the neighborhood into a Russian enclave.  This provided an area for the Russian Mafia to dominate, set up businesses to launder money, and carry out extortion and other nefarious activities.  Unger goes on describe how the Russian Mafia plundered and came to control much of their country’s resources and corporations after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and followed the trajectory of Vladimir Putin’s career.  Unger will detail the actions taken by numerous individuals like Semion Mogilevich, the “brainy don” of the Russian mob, worth billions derived from illicit trade in weapons, women etc. and Serge Mikhalov, the head of the biggest crime gang in Russia, and how their relationships with Putin, who employed his own cunning, and manipulation of earlier politicians allowed him to develop his own personal kleptocracy.

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(Roman Abramovitch)

The second track follows Donald Trump’s career dating back into the early 1980s when he was a target of interest for Soviet intelligence.  The story is a familiar one as Unger takes us through Trump’s trips to Moscow in the mid-eighties and nineties as he tries to put together a deal for a Trump Tower in Moscow.  Unger describes how Trump went from debt of $4 billion due to the collapse of his casino empire in Atlantic City to solvency as he learned to trade on his name, and brilliantly made his own name a trademark that Russian oligarchs seem to crave in business deals and high rise condos (a problem in that it provided the Russian mob a place to launder about $1.5 billion as they used shell companies to pay for condo apartments throughout Trump’s real estate empire).  Trumps relationships with men like Felix Sater and others comes to the fore as more and more Trump develops relationships with Russian oligarchs for investment capital, and business projects.  The author tries to unscramble the web of relations surrounding Russian oligarchs and mobsters with ties to Putin and Trump throughout the book, and in many cases the links are solid, and in other cases less so, but the arcane world he is describing is really difficult to totally nail down.  Unger will then take these two tracks which encompasses about two thirds the book and turns to their nexus – how the Russians used their investment in Trump to interfere in the 2016 election, and reap the rewards of a Trump presidency.

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(Putin with his oligarch colleagues)

Perhaps in Unger’s strongest presentation he develops the concept of non-linear warfare as a Russian strategy to overturn western gains that included moving the Ukraine closer to the European Union.  For Putin, this was a red line that could not be allowed.  The key to this new approach as put forth by Vladislav Surkov and Valery Gerasimov, the chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Russia was to create a false reality consisting of fake news and alternative facts for both within and without Russia.  Putin and his cohorts set out to destroy the truth and create a never ending conflict about perception that helped the Russian autocrat to control and manage his country.  Hybrid warfare and active measures were employed to weaken the U.S., Britain, NATO, and the European Union and roll back the gains they had made since the Cold War.  Money would be poured into pro-Russian parties in former Soviet states, as well supporting right wing candidates in the U.S. and Western Europe who wanted to dismantle the Western Alliance.  There were spies, hackers, and informational soldiers who carried out sophisticated attacks on social media.  The Russian Mafia was just one weapon in Russia’s arsenal.

Once the strategy was developed Russian intelligence zeroed in on Donald Trump who had years before established a relationship with the Russian mob.  The story of how Trump’s candidacy announced in June, 2015 gave Putin his candidate and allowed him to wreak the benefits of his penetration of K Street, white collar law firms, the Republican political establishment, and former justice and senatorial figures has been told elsewhere and Unger may strengthen details, but the overall storyline remains the same.  The Russian cyber warfare campaign against the U.S. and Hillary Clinton is now well known, but at the time the government did not seem to have a full grasp of what was actually occurring.

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(Tamir Sapir and Felix Sater)

Unger digs deep into the June 9, 2016 meeting at Trump Tower, analyzing who participated, and what agendas they represented.  It is clear that the Trump campaign was now in bed with the Russians, even if the Trump people did not realize how deep, or maybe they did.  Meetings between Trump officials and Russian diplomats and intelligence operatives abound in Unger’s account, as do the role of leaked emails receiving undo attention as opposed to warnings of Russian hacking and penetration of the American electoral process.  As disconcerting as Unger’s account is, we will have to wait until the Mueller investigations concludes to learn the truth.

In summation, Unger has done prodigious research into what is available, but much of what he uncovers is not new.  However, he has done a service by unraveling the role of Russian organized crime, the Putin regime, and its links to Donald Trump and his circle.

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A TERRIBLE COUNTRY by Keith Gessen

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(The Kremlin, Moscow)

At a time when Russia, Putin, conspiracy, and collusion dominate the news cycle it is wonderful to escape into a work of fiction that is absorbing, appealing to human emotion on many levels, and sadly, a comment on the reality of Russia today.  As useful and engrossing as Keith Gessen’s new book A TERRIBLE COUNTRY is, it creates the anxiety and frustration that one associates with Putin’s Russia.  Gessen is a Russian translator of poetry and short stories, but also of Nobel Prize winner Svertlana Alexievich’s VOICES FROM CHERNOBYL. Gessen like his sister Masha Gessen the author of A MAN WITHOUT A FACE: THE UNLIKELY RISE OF VLADIMIR PUTIN was born in Russia and raised in the United States, has an affinity for the Russian people who he believes are suffering from the Putin bargain, “you give up your freedoms, I make you rich.  Not everyone was rich, but enough people were making do that the system held.  And who was I to tell them they were wrong?  If they liked Putin, they could have him.”

Gessen, like his main character Andrei Kaplan seems to be in a permanent state of semi-exile, somewhat naive, and in search of something-an academic position, a sense of who he really was perhaps.  He writes in a somewhat John Updike style as he describes Andrei as a person who cannot seem to achieve the academic success that his peers have attained.  He has a PhD in Russian literature, but cannot earn a faculty position at the university level.  As a result he earns a living by teaches online courses, communicating through his blog.  Since the money is not sufficient to live in New York, and his girlfriend Sarah has just broken up with him he accepts his brother Dima’s request to return to Moscow to take care of their aging grandmother.  At the same time, Dima left Russia under strange circumstances for London, the reason of which becomes clearer later in the novel.

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(Vladimir Putin)

Upon his arrival in Moscow, Andrei learns that certain promises his brother had made were not true, but he resolves to try and learn as much from his grandmother, Baba Seva Efraimove Gekhtman about the Stalinist era as a basis for a journal article.  The scent of Stalinist Russia is put forth through his grandmother who suffers from dementia, much more so than Dima had let on, but despite this affliction the reader is exposed to aspects of Stalinist Russia and how it evolves into Putin’s Russia.  The same housing crisis that existed during Stalin’s regime remains.  We witness the uneven distribution of wealth and the Putin kleptocracy.  The FSB, much like the KGB in Soviet times seems everywhere among many examples.  It is interesting how Gessen uses the location of Baba Seva’s apartment, the center of Moscow, close to the Kremlin, Parliament, and FSB headquarters to explain the daily plight of Russians.

The novel takes place in 2008 as Andrei arrives at the time Russian troops are supposedly withdrawing from Georgia.  The 2008 financial crash is introduced and one can see how the Russians believe that the effect on Russia’s economy is the fault of the United States.  Andrei is miserable in this setting and his life seems meaningless.  He has no wife or children, he feels helpless in caring for his grandmother, he suffers from a lack of sleep and exercise, constantly searching to play in hockey games, and is forced to deal with the inane comments from students on his online blog.

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(Soviet style apartment complex, Moscow)

For Andrei Moscow seems quite boorish as he is rejected by women, fears FSB types, and a bureaucracy that results in long lines for himself and his ailing grandmother.  The transition from Stalinst tactics to that of Putin are clearly portrayed as his uncle has lost his life’s work as a geophysicist to Russ Oil, a conglomerate run by Putin’s cronies.  Russ Oil will also reappear as an enemy of Andrei’s brother Dima as they create a monopoly for gas station expansion on a new highway.  Putin’s mastery of the media emerges clearly.  “The world may see him as a cold bloodied killer, a ruthless dictator, a grave digger of Russian democracy.  But from the Russian perspective, well, he was our cold blooded killer, our ruthless dictator, our gravedigger.”

The book begins rather pedantically, and as the story develops the style grows from one of simplicity with little to challenge the reader mentally to a substantive view of Putin’s Russia, and the personal crisis that Andrei is experiencing.  This is accomplished as the author introduces a number of new characters; hockey goalies, oilmen, academics, and oppositionist writers.  However, the most important character remains Baba Seva who embodies the complex nature of Russian politics and society.  She lost her country home to capitalism, but received her apartment thanks to her work on a Stalinist propaganda film of course due to the removal of another family from their home.  Bab Seva had been a historian at Moscow State University, but as a Jew it appears she lost her position because of Stalin’s Doctor’s Plot in 1953.  Perhaps the best line in the novel is when Andrei refers to living in an apartment so close to the KGB/FSB, it “was like living down the street from Auschwitz.”

The question that Gessen asks through a female who rejects Andrei’s advances, is his main character really cut out to live in Russia?  The remark haunts Andrei as he tries to fit in somewhere in Russian society.  It seems he does so finally when he catches on to a losing hockey teams and plays games six nights a week.  More importantly he will make friends on the team.  Those friendships and the return of his brother Dima shift the focus of the story.

Andrei will finally acquire a subject to write a paper and publish, one of his motivating goals upon returning to Moscow.  The subject is in the form of Sergei an intellectual who has a theory concerning the development of capitalism in Russia and its links to Putin’s kleptocracy.  Andrei hopes an article might lead to an academic position.  He develops a strong friendship with Sergei, in addition to beginning a relationship with Yulia, another member of “October,” a small opposition group to Putin that Andrei has become part of.

Russia is a complicated topic. But Gessen combines sharp analysis with Updike type writing style.  This approach belies a deep knowledge of Russian history and literature.  The book is an important contribution as it allows its reader insights and a glimpse into a country that is very impactful for America and the world.  Election hacking has been occurring in the United States and Europe for at least a decade, as have killings of people who oppose Putin outside Russia, murderous actions in Syria, and the list goes on and on.  What is clear is that the United States must play close attention to Putin’s Russia, because their machinations are not going to end (particularly with the current administration in power) and we as a society must come to grips with that fact and pressure our government to take action to mitigate what has and will continue to occur.  Gessen’s contribution to this task is a wonderful novel that describes Russia as a country that constantly wore down its people as they went along with their daily pursuits.

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(The Kremlin, Moscow)

POGROM: KISHINEV AND THE TILT OF HISTORY by Steven Zipperstein

(Victims of the Kishinev pogrom, 1903)

At a time when American society is confronted with pictures of immigrants incarcerated at the US border with Mexico it is a good time to step back and try and understand why people choose to flee their homelands and come to America.  In the case of people arriving on our southern borders their motivations are diverse from economic hardship to fear of death.  These reasons are in a sense universal when examined from a historical perspective.  Earlier in American history we witnessed a flood of Jewish immigrants, roughly two million from Eastern Europe and Russia between 1890 and 1914.  This has had a tremendous impact on our history and growth as a nation.  This mass migration was due in large part because of the anti-Semitic policies of the Tsarist government that resulted in years of persecution, and violent acts against Jews.  Throughout the late 19th and early 20th century these acts, labeled “pogroms” seemed to occur on a regular basis fostering the need for Jewish families to begin a chain of migration to America and other areas of the world.  Perhaps the most famous pogrom occurred in 1903 in the provincial city of Kishinev located at the edge of the Russian Empire which is the subject of Steven J. Zipperstein’s fascinating and informative new book POGROM: KISHINEV AND THE TILT OF HISTORY.

The term “pogrom” enters the western lexicon toward the end of the 19th century in Russia as violence and scapegoating of Jews proliferates.  It would be invoked in numerous towns and villages reaching a crescendo between 1918 and 1920 as 100,000 Jews may have been victimized as they were thought to be Bolsheviks.  Jews were supposed to be wealthy, but the vast majority lived in poverty.  They were thought to be well educated and involved in commerce, but what the Russians resented the most was their secrecy and refusal to be absorbed into the larger society.

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The accusation against Jews that seems to have been the foundation of many pogroms was that of the “ritual killing of Christian children” during the Passover holiday under government sanction.  For an interesting novel that highlights this topic see Bernard Malamud’s THE FIXER which presents the major issues that Zipperstein discusses in a fictional format.

The Kishinev pogrom was seen as shorthand for barbarism, “for the behavior akin to the worst medieval atrocities.”  It would become the only “significant event embraced by all sectors of the severely fractured Russian Jewish scene.”  However, as the author argues throughout the narrative, though agreement was reached concerning the horrors that took place, it became an agreement wrought with myths, half-truths, and outright distortions.  The strength of Zipperstein’s presentation is the dissection of the myths and other components by explaining what occurred in the spring of 1903 in the Kishinev district.  The author carefully examines all aspects of the tragedy from its causes, the persons responsible, the victims and survivors, and the implication for Jewish history in the future.  Kishinev would become the epitome of evil in the west, a jarring glimpse of what the 20th century would hold in store.

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The theme of book rests on how “history is made and remade, what is retained and elided, and why.”  The author examines how “one particular moment managed to chisel onto contemporary Jewish history and beyond that it held meaning even for those who never heard of the town, know nothing of its details, and nonetheless draw lessons from it.”

Forgeries and myths surround the history of the pogrom that greatly impacted how people who participated and survived viewed what they experienced, what had actually transpired, as well as how it was perceived years later.  For example; there was supposedly a letter from the Russian Minister of the Interior, V.K. Plehve instructing the local authorities not to intercede once the massacre began.  This is untrue, no letter existed, though a forgery may have appeared.  Another example revolves around who wrote and was responsible for the dissemination of the PROTOCOLS OF THE ELDERS OF ZION which accused Jews of a worldwide conspiracy to dominate all people and their lives.  It was said to have been a creation of the Russian secret police, the Okhrana in 1897, when in fact it was most likely the work of Pavel Krushevan, a publisher, novelist and owner of the newspaper Bessarabets which made the scurrilous lies of the PROTOCOLS available to the public.

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Zipperstein’s sources have been mined thoroughly ranging from the literary works of Alexander Pushkin to Serge S. Urussov, the Governor-General of Bessarabia’s diaries.  The two most important sources are Hayyam Nahman Bialik, the Jewish national poet who wrote, “In the City of Killing,” describing the massacre; and Michael Davitt, an Irish revolutionary and a reporter for Randolph Hearst’s New York American, who would go on to write WITHIN THE PALE: THE TRUE STORY OF THE ANTI-SEMETIC PERSECUTIONS IN RUSSIA, published in 1903.  Zipperstein examines the lives of these two important figures, how they went about their research and who they interviewed.  Excerpts of their work dot the narrative as Zipperstein dissects what occurred hour by hour and both men reach a controversial conclusion that Jewish men were weak and cowards.

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Bialik’s poem, “In the City of Killing” has impacted Jewish history up until today and even Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has referred to it in his speeches.  Zipperstein argues that Bialik conflated his entire life experience, particularly his childhood with the plight of Jews – one of helplessness.  His “rage leads him to construct the Jews of Kishinev as abject, and in the process to reshape and reconstruct his own identity.”  The poem recreates the violence, rape, and plunder perpetrated against the Jews, but the core of the poem is a devastating conclusion concerning Jewish male cowardice.  The appearance of the poem would overshadow what had transpired as it focused on the moral failings of Kishinev’s men and soon it became “shorthand for the utter vulnerability of the Jewish people, their devastation of soul and body alike.” Zipperstein examines the poem line by line and concludes that Bialik’s approach is literary poetry, while Davitt ‘s account is accurate as a whole and is first rate journalism, in addition to being reliable history.

Zipperstein asks why did the pogrom occur in Kishinev, a town that was on the outskirts of the Russian empire.  He concludes that a number of events, thought processes, and socio-economic relationships are responsible.  First, though day to day relations among the population seemed amiable, the peasants felt exploited by Jews engaging in a significant amount of commerce.  Second, in the spring of 1903 agricultural prices were on the decline reducing the supply of money.  Third, right wing elements were obsessed with Jewish visibility in the town.  Four, the supposed “ritual killings” in Dubossary, a town near Kishinev a few months before the pogrom.  Five, the fanning of anti-Semitic flames by Pavel Krusheran and his newspaper.  Lastly, Pogroms were seen as a reasonable response to a pariah people as rumors of ritual killing swirled.  Keeping in mind that in 1897 the population of the Kishinev district was 280,000 of which 54.910 were Jewish; and of the city’s 39 factories, 29 were owned by Jews could help explain people’s exacerbated feelings reactions once the violence spread.

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Zipperstein also dissects the political implications of the pogrom.  He explores how it was used by different political factions for their own ends be they Zionists, socialists, Labor, Bundists etc. Many saw the pogrom as an opportunity to foster immigration to Palestine, others were resigned to trying to survive in Russia as they hoped the violence was spent.  The pogrom also touched off a nasty debate in American politics as the pogrom was compared to the lynchings of blacks in the south.  The American left used Kishinev as vehicle to make Americans aware of the treatment of blacks.  This also created a schism within the black communities because of its response to Kishinev and dealing with their own issues.  Interestingly, as Zipperstein describes at the end of the book, the uproar in the United States and its link to lynching’s helped push for the creation of the NAACP in 1909.

Overall the book is quite comprehensive and incorporates a great deal of information that is knew, i.e., Zipperstein’s acquisition of Krusheran’s teenage diaries among other sources.  If you would like to try and understand what occurred in Kishinev, with its historical implications, POGROM: KISHINEV AND THE TILT OF HISTORY is an excellent resource.

Chișinău  ~  Кишинев  ~  Kishinev

  Kehilalink Search

List of Victims of Kishinev Pogrom of 1903

The list below is the result of merging information contained in 2 published documents:

Within the Pale: The True Story of Anti-Semitic Persecutions in Russia, Michael Davitt, London, 1903

Davitt was an Irish journalist who visited Kishinev after the pogrom, and reported on it for two New York newspapers. The list there is an early one and is incomplete, but does have the genealogical benefit of often including the patronymic names.

Ha-Pogrom Be-Kishineff – Pesach 1903-Pesach 1963, Tel Aviv, 1963

This book, published on the 60th anniversary of the pogrom includes a copy of an original incomplete list (in Hebrew, awkwardly translated by a colleague and I).

Some of the other details here are either from Easter in Kishinev: Anatomy of a Pogrom, and excellent book written by Edward H. Judge (New York University Press, 1992; recently published in paperback as well) or from personal correspondence with Judge.


There were apparently 49 Jewish victim who died during or as a result of the pogrom (38 male, 11 females, including several children). According to the chief surgeon of the Kishinev Jewish Hospital, 37 were dead when they were brought to the hospital during the pogrom, 4 died at home following the pogrom, and 8 died in the hospital as a result of injuries received during the pogrom.

My list has only 46 people (including 6 females and one child of unknown gender). It is possible that I have listed someone as dead who was only injured, or that I have listed a single person twice due to a confusion of names. Clearly, not all those who lost their lives due to the pogrom are mentioned in the two lists I have located. Nevertheless it is a start.

I hope to get additional information from Prof. Judge and a colleague of his in Kishinev (now Chisinau, Moldova) who has done extensive pogrom research. If I ultimately have additional information, I will integrate it.

In some cases, the sources have additional information about how the person died (often a very ugly story).

Where the different sources yielded several names for the same person, I have included both (as in “Mordechai/Mottel”).

Alan Greenberg: alan.greenberg@mcgill.ca


I have added the 47th victim based on the article provided by Rosemarie Cohen (see article Morris Cohen Keeps a Promise)Ariel Parkansky


Kishinev 1903 Pogrom Victims

First Name(s) Surname Gender
1 Benja/Benjamin Shimenov Baranovitz M
2 Isaac/Yitschok Belitzkah/Byeletsky M
3 Itlia/Itel Berger F
4 Hosea/Joshua Abramovitz Berladsky M
5 Hirsch/Tsvi Chaimov Bolgar M
6 Aaron Isaacov Brachman M
7 David Abrahamov Charidon M
8 (sister – age 12) Chatzkalovitz/Chaskelevitz F
9 David Nissleov Chatzkalovitz/Chaskelevitz M
10 Abraham Router Cohen/Kogan M
11 David Drachman M
12 Chaia Sarah Abramovna Fanarzei/Fanarnei M
13 Eiss/Zusya Davidovitz Fanarzei/Fanarnei M
14 Simeon/Shimon Fishman M
15 Ben-Zion Leibov Galantor/Salapter M
16 (child) Golder ?
17 Chaim Leib/Leibov Goldiss M
18 Joseph Hirsch/Tsvi Danilov Greenberg M
19 Mordecai/Mottel Greenspoon M
20 Kopel Davidovitz Kainarsky M
21 Joseph Abramovitz Kantor M
22 Rose/Raiza Falikovna Katzap M
23 Kaela Kaza/Konza M
24 (husband) Keigelman M
25 Chaia Leah Keigelman F
26 Moshe Samuel/Tsvi Kiegel M
27 Beila Leiserovna Kodja? F
28 Idel/Jehudah Krupnik M
29 Isaac/Yitschok Krupnik M
30 Shmuel/Michel Shaev Lashkoff M
31 Hirsch/Tsvi Yankelev Liss M
32 Moses/Moshe Chaskelov Makhlin M
33 Mottel/Mordechai Davidovitz Menduk M
34 (man) Newman M
35 Chaim Nissinov Nissenson M
36 Isaac/Yitzshok Yankelov Rosenfeld M
37 Israel Leiserovitz Selstein/Shalistal M
38 Michel/Yachael Josiphov Seltzer M
39 Pinya Isaacov Spivak F
40 Jacob Elchunov Tounik M
41 Israel Yacoblewitz Ulmer M
42 Samuel/Shmuel Baruch Urrman M
43 Feiga Voulyar/Wouller F
44 Leinha/Simcha Voulyar/Wouller M
45 Abraham Yitschok/Router Weinstein M
46 Kalman Wolowitz/Volovitz M
47 (Rabbi) Mordecai Alpert M
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(Damaged Torahs used at funerals for Kishinev pogrom)

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FROM COLD WAR TO HOT PEACE by Michael McFaul

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(Russian President Vladimir Putin and President Obama)

Former Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul has chosen a crucial moment in our relationship with Moscow to write his part memoir, narrative history, and analysis of what has transpired over the last twenty-five years between the United States and Russia.  Today, it appears that relations between the two countries deteriorates each day as Russian President Vladimir Putin pursues his agenda, and President Donald Trump does nothing about Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.  However, McFaul argues in his new book, FROM COLD WAR TO HOT PEACE that by 2010 it appeared that American-Russian relations were improving as Presidents Barack Obama and Dimitri Medvedev had reached an important accord dealing with the reduction of nuclear weapons.  This optimism came to a quick close as Putin returned to the presidency after four years as Prime Minister.  The question must be raised – why did relations between Russia and the United States reach the depths of the Cold War seemingly overnight?

According to McFaul, the answer seems to lie in the reassertion of Russian power fostered by a new ideological conflict with the United States, one in which Putin’s autocratic government, “champions a new set of populist, nationalist, and conservative ideas antithetical to the liberal, international order anchored by the United States.”  This order is in decline as Russian military, economic, cyber, and informational capabilities have expanded.  Proxy wars in the Ukraine and Syria, and Russia’s audacious intervention into the 2016 election have created a situation that is not as dangerous as the worst moments of the Cold War, but certainly just as tense or more so.

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(picture captures well the Obama-Putin relationship)

In trying to explain this massive shift in US-Russian relations, McFaul is uniquely qualified to provide insights.  McFaul is a scholar of Russian history at Stanford University, in the past he worked with NGO’s that tried to create democratic institutions in Russia, he was a member of Obama’s National Security Staff, and finally was Ambassador to Russia.  McFaul’s unparalleled knowledge and experience provide the background for his important new book.

McFaul provides insights from his early career as he worked as a “community organizer” in Russia for the National Democratic Institute, an American democracy promoting institution that assisted Democratic elements in Russia going back to 1991, to his later career as Ambassador to Russia.  In between he offers an intimate portrait of the attempted evolution of Russian autocracy toward democracy, the ins and outs of developing national security policy, and the intrusive nature of being an American ambassador in Russia.  Along the way McFaul examines his personal life, how his career impacted his family, and how they adapted to constant lifestyle changes.  His portrait is a combination of his own world view, the theoretical approach of an academic, and the bureaucratic world of diplomacy.  He conveniently offers the reader an escape hatch, stating the book is written in such a way that if certain parts become boring, he suggests that one could skip certain sections and not lose the continuity of the narrative.

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(Russian President Dimitri Medvedev)

McFaul offers a series of meaningful observations throughout the book. For example, as the democracy movement took hold in Russia in 1991 under Boris Yeltsin, the Bush administration supported the more conservative Gorbachev.  Gorbachev would allow the Berlin Wall to come down, withdraw Soviet troops from Afghanistan, allowed the reunification of Germany, and did not oppose Operation Desert Storm against Iraq.  Despite this, Yeltsin garnered 60% of the popular vote, and Gorbachev position become mostly honorific. Another example is McFaul’s belief that the KGB was adamant that his work with the democracy NGO was a front for the CIA and helps explain Putin’s hatred of McFaul almost twenty years later.  Further, McFaul argues that the United States did not do enough to assist the Russian economy in 1993 and by not doing so contributed to the economic collapse which was then blamed on Russian proponents of democracy.

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(President Obama and former Ambassador to Russia and author, Michael McFaul)

Once the Obama administration took office in 2009 McFaul oversaw the new policy of a “reset” with Russia as a means of improving US security and economic objectives.   With President Medvedev in power strides were made, but even as progress occurred everyone was aware that Putin was still the “power behind the Russian throne.”  Throughout the book, no matter how intense the material becomes, McFaul does attempt to lighten the mood with humor and how his family was faring.  McFaul describes the almost tortuous detail that went into the preparation of American foreign policy, an approach that does not contrast well with President Trump’s “fly by the seat of his pants” approach.  Obama’s goal was to cooperate with Russia on issues of mutual interest, without downplaying our differences, a fine line to walk particularly after Russia invaded Georgia.

McFaul was always “in the room where it happened” in all the meetings between Obama and Medvedev, and later with Putin.  He was the “note taker” – the memorandum of conversation in all meetings and is a prime source that witnessed the collapse in relations.  Once Putin resumed the Presidency the contempt between him and Obama was readily apparent.  After Obama’s first meeting with Putin it was quite clear the “reset” with Russia was at an end.  Despite the downturn in relations Putin did go along with sanctions against Iran and UN action against Kaddafi in Libya.  But this cooperation was short lived when Kaddafi was captured and executed.  According to McFaul, the overthrow of Kaddafi was too much for Putin who argued he supported UN action to save the people of Benghazi, not regime change.

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(Russian troops in eastern Ukraine)

Perhaps McFaul’s most important chapter is “Putin Needs an Enemy-America, Obama, and Me.”  The chapter offers the underpinning of Putin’s disdain for McFaul and the United States in general under Obama.  This disdain would foster Russian actions during the 2016 presidential election as Putin hoped to elect Donald Trump who would then alleviate Obama’s economic sanctions against Russia.  Putin’s hatred of McFaul was unprecedented in that it led to overt harassment, sometimes becoming physical, a media campaign against him personally to disparage everything about him including his sexuality, and being followed and spied upon constantly.  McFaul’s overall theme rests on the idea that American policymakers hoped that Putin’s anti-Americanism would recede after the 2012 Russian elections.  Surprisingly it did not as there was a strategic shift in the Kremlin’s orientation.  It was launched in response to Obama’s actions, his belief that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was responsible for demonstrations against his rule, but more importantly, to increase his personal popularity as a means of weakening his western oriented opponents.

For Putin, the United States was an enemy, not a partner, he saw Washington as a promotor of regime change everywhere, including Russia, and he blamed the United States for everything bad in the US and Russia.  McFaul’s insights seem dead on as we watch Putin’s support for Bashir Assad in Syria, and the regime in Teheran.  For Putin any regime change of an autocratic leader is a direct threat to him.  The United States continued to try and maintain some semblance of the “reset” as McFaul recounts, but this policy was doomed because of Putin’s hardened attitude.

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(Russian bombers deployed over Syria)

McFaul spends a great deal of time on the Syrian quagmire that rages on to this day.  McFaul criticizes the Obama administration for not pushing harder for Assad’s ouster in 2011.  We could have armed the moderate opposition in a serious way just as soon as the political standoff turned violent. Obama’s refusal to enforce the red line over chemical weapons made the US look weak and the president allowed himself to be played by Putin who supposedly got Assad to get rid of 98% of his chemical weapons.  We seemed to have overestimated Putin’s influence over Assad, however, for Moscow, Chechnya was the model where Putin supported Ramzan Kadyrov’s brutal tactics in order to remain in power.  We continue to witness this approach in Syria on a daily basis.

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(Syrian President Bashir Assad and Vladimir Putin)

According to McFaul, thirty years of improved Russian-American relations ended in 2010 in part because of balance of power politics, American actions, some of which were in error, and Russia’s inability to consolidate democracy, integrate itself into the west, and reorient its own domestic politics.  No matter the cause of the end of the “reset,” we must deal with the offshoot of that policy in the Ukraine, Syria, and Russian-Iranian relations.  McFaul left Moscow with a feeling of incompleteness as his life’s goal of improving relations had to be put on hold, and it interesting that McFaul left Russia at the same time Putin annexed Crimea and moved into eastern Ukraine.

McFaul’s monograph is an important contribution to the plethora of material that has tried to explain US-Russian relations over the past three decades.  McFaul’s approach is clear, scholarly, and personal and should answer the questions surrounding the down turn in US-Russian relations that began in 2010, and the implications of the Trump presidency as we try and cope with Putin’s continued aggressiveness against American domestic and foreign interests.

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LENIN: THE MAN, THE DICTATOR, AND THE MASTER OF TERROR by Victor Sebestyen

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(Vladimir I. Lenin)

For many years historians have laid the blame for the oppressive and authoritarian regime that took root in Russia following its revolution on Joseph Stalin.  Names like NKVD, GPU or banishment to Siberia, political purges were all associated with the Russian dictator.  However, the credit for the darkness that pervaded the former Soviet Union first must rest at the feet of Vladimir I. Lenin.  In 1973 Alexsandr S. Solzhenitsyn published the first volume of his GULAG ARCHIPELAGO, and the famous Russian dissident argued that the origin of Soviet terror and the police state belong to Lenin.  This argument has been accepted by historians and in the latest biography of Lenin since Robert Service’s excellent monograph, Victor Sebestyen’s LENIN: THE MAN, THE DICTATOR, AND THE MASTER OF TERROR has taken that argument to a new level.   According to Sebestyen, in his quest for power, Lenin “promised people anything and everything.  He offered simple solutions to complex problems.  He lied unashamedly.  He identified a scapegoat he could label ‘enemies of the people.’  He justified himself on the basis that winning meant everything…..Lenin was the godfather of what commentators a century after his time call post truth politics.”  Anyone who has paid attention to our current political climate can easily recognize practitioners of this authoritarian approach.

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(Joseph Stalin, Vladimir Lenin, and Leon Trotsky)

Lenin’s greatest crime aside from creating the precursor of the NKVD, the Cheka or the Soviet secret police, is leaving a man like Stalin to assume the leadership of the Soviet Union upon his passing in 1924.  Lenin built a system that rested on the concept that political terror against any opposition was justified for the greater good.  It was perfected by Stalin, but the ideas were Lenin’s.  Sebestyen’s approach to his subject is a very personal one and he explores a number of issues in greater depth than previous books.  He delves deep into the relationship between Nadezhda K. Krupskaya, Lenin’s wife who was vital to her husband and the revolution.  She was in charge of regulating his explosive temper and at times erratic behavior.  Her role was to maintain his health and be a sounding board for his ideas and writing.  Next, the author explores Lenin’s relationship with his long time mistress, Inessa Armand.  For ten years before Lenin died they had an on-off love affair.  She was central to his emotional life, one of his closest aides, and was one of the best-known female socialists of her era.  The three, Lenin, Nadya, and Inessa formed a ménage etois that was accepted by the women involved who had their own strong relationship.

Further, what separates Sebestyen’s approach from others is how he constantly reaffirms that the tactics and system developed by Lenin dominated Soviet rule until 1989, and has reasserted itself in the last decade.  Lenin’s leadership traits seemed to have been handed down in succession from Stalin, in particular to Vladimir Putin.  Lenin set up the Cheka and over the decades be it the GPU, NKVD, KGB or currently the FSB its purpose did not change; “protect the Party and its leadership from any perceived threat of subversion and to dispense revolutionary justice.”

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(The Romanov royal family)

Not long ago Steve Bannon stated that “Lenin wanted to destroy the state, and that’s my goal too.”  The concept of deconstructing government that forms the core of Bannon’s political agenda rings very closely to that of Lenin.  The parallels are clear and in Lenin’s case, underneath the superficial sophistication and personal charm he periodically put on display, he was capable of acts of appalling evil.  Whether his approval of the use of firing squads to eliminate the opposition soon after coming to power the winter of 1917-1918, or his attitude toward the death of Russian soldiers against the Germans, his refusal to distribute land to peasants as promised and the creation of the Kulak class of land owners who he destroyed, the mass starvation that took place, and Lenin’s response to this terror, were all sacrifices that were acceptable in order to achieve the larger goals of gaining and maintaining power.

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(Nadya Krupskaya)

Sebestyen effectively reviews the spreading of revolutionary fervor in Russia among the bourgeoisie dating back to the Decembrist uprisings of 1825, the assassination of Alexander II, and the arrival of Marxism.  The Marxist ideology did not really apply to Russia because of its peasant economy and majority.  Lenin, brilliantly argued that Russia did not need to have an Industrial Revolution based on the working class as Marx argued, but could redefine Russian needs and developed through many books and pamphlets the justification of a revolution based on the peasantry.  It is interesting to note that Lenin had no great respect for the working classes who he proposed to make the revolution before turning to the peasants.

Early on Lenin was radicalized by the Tsarist police’s murder of his brother Alexander (Sasha).  From that point on he would work to overthrow the Tsarist monarchy.  Though he was brought up in a bourgeois family and periodically lived on estates Lenin had nothing but disdain for the Romanov dynasty.  Sebestyen’s analysis of Lenin’s personality, the courtship of Nadya, life in exile, be it Siberia, London, Paris, Geneva, the creation of the Bolshevik party, the role of Germany, the revolution itself and the years following may be well known, but the author’s insights, sources, and analysis separate his monograph from others.

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(Inessa Armand)

Sebestyen’s examination of the role of newspapers in the revolution is important as he explains how the creation of Pravda and other outlets allowed Lenin to write editorials, and articles, and through a wide circulation was able to disseminate his ideas.  Lenin had the ability to correct others and have them adopt his views as if they were his own, and the ability to inspire optimism and these traits enabled him to disarm the opposition and rally support among the masses.  The use of newspapers, apart from Tsarist incompetence was major factor in creating the conditions for revolution.

The author pays a great deal of attention to fighting within the parties and the development of a between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks.  The arguments between the factions were intense and brutal as Lenin did not suffer fools gladly when people disagreed with him.  Sebestyen also does a good job describing Nicholas II’s personality and reign.  The Tsar was a weak individual who was not cut out to sit on the Romanov throne.  “It is no exaggeration to say that every major decision Nicholas II took was wrong – from the choice of a wife, Alexandra, who compounded his own misjudgments, to his disastrous decisions on war and peace.”  It is fair to say that the Tsar did the most service in the cause of revolution!

Lenin believed from 1900 on that a war between the capitalist countries was inevitable.  When it finally came Russia was totally unprepared for a war of attrition.  Within two months 1.2 million men were killed, wounded, or missing.  This is a small sample of the disaster that would follow and led to the February abdication of the Tsar in favor of the Kerensky government and the final elevation of Lenin to power in October, 1917.  Sebestyen drills down deeply in presenting Lenin’s strategy and ability to overcome many obstacles as the revolution approached.  Once it did his willingness to work with the Germans to travel to Russia is brilliant as is his ability to overcome the opposition of Party members.  The chapters entitled; “The Sealed Train,” and “To Finland Station” are emblematic of Sebestyen’s assiduous research and master of historical detail as he describes the negotiations, reactions to the agreement with the Kaiser’s government, and its reception in Russia.  Sebestyen’s ability to integrate analysis into the flow of the narrative is an important aspect of his writing.  Another important component of Sebestyen’s style is the use of notes at the bottom of each page which are also a fountain of historical information and analysis.

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(Workers demonstrating during Russian Revolution)

It is clear that once the revolution took place Lenin laid the groundwork to rule by terror.  He was under no allusions when it came to the exercising of power to remain in control of the state.  Lenin’s arguments and promises to the masses and his political opposition immediately went by the wayside as he closed down press outlets, purged those who disagreed, set up the Cheka, and justified his actions to prevent counter-revolution.  At the Third Congress of the Comintern in 1921, Lenin argued that “We do not promise any freedom, or any democracy,” he did not disappoint and neither did his successor, Joseph Stalin.

The major figures of this period of Russian history are all presented, examined, and placed in their historical context.  Whether Sebestyen is writing about Leon Trotsky, Georgy Plekhanov, Yuli Martov, Lev Kamenev, Grigory Zinoviev, Yakov Sverdlov, Maxim Gorky, Nicholas II, Alexander Helphand (Parvus), a number of foreign diplomats and journalists, Joseph Stalin, and of course his wife and mistress we have a balanced account that lends to a greater understanding of the material presented.  Lenin is the key figure as he created the basis for a one man tyranny.  The terror that evolved was systematic and was not Stalin’s creation.

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A key to authoritarian rule was the creation of a “cult of personality.”  Stalin was an expert, Mao took it to even greater heights, but Lenin was the first.  After an assassination attempt where he was wounded three times, a “cult of Lenin” would emerge as he had survived.  This cult was used to rally support and further the Leninist agenda.

“The scholar Robert Service writes that “the forced labor camps, the one-party state…the prohibition of free and popular elections, the ban on internal party dissent; not one of them was to be invented by Stalin…Not for nothing did Stalin call himself Lenin’s disciple.”  But why blame Lenin and Stalin, the foundation and structure of the Russian police state had been established by Nicholas I in the 1820s.”* This is the theme of Sebestyen’s new biography of Lenin which is sure to become one of the standard works of one of the most important figures of the 20th century.

*Joffe, Joseph, “The First Totalitarian,” New York Times, October 19, 2017.

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(Vladimir I. Lenin)