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)

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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)

COLLUSION: SECRET MEETINGS, DIRTY MONEY, AND HOW RUSSIA HELPED DONALD TRUMP WIN by Luke Harding

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(the Kremlin, Moscow)

Each day it seems as if the American people are exposed to the drip, drip of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and the possible role played by the Trump campaign in collusion with the Putin government.  We hear about Christopher Steele’s “Dossier,” the link between Russian oligarchs and their ties to Putin, meetings with Trump officials, the role of Paul Manafort, a former Trump campaign manager facing indictment, the flipping of a Trump foreign policy advisor to the Mueller investigation, and the latest, a deal between Michael Flynn, Trump’s former National Security advisor and the special prosecutor.  The latest twist seems to be conservative House Republicans calling for a Special Prosecutor to investigate the Special Prosecutor.  If names like Orbis, Fushion GPS, Gucifer 2.0, GRU, FSB, Sergey Kislyak, Carter Page, Robert Goldstone, Natalia Veselnitskaya, and numerous other names boggle the mind then you might want to consult Luke Harding, a foreign correspondent for the Guardian, new book, COLLUSION: SECRET MEETINGS, DIRTY MONEY, AND HOW RUSSIA HELPED DONALD TRUMP WIN.

For those who are skeptical about Trump’s role in either obstruction of justice, or outright collusion with Russia they should consult Harding’s monograph.  In fact, as the confusion that surrounds the collusion becomes clearer and clearer one might say that Harding has done us all a service by preparing a handbook of all the characters, motivations, crimes, disingenuous behavior, outright lies/falsehoods, and other aspects associated with the topic.  Harding digs deep using his many sources based on a career that saw him posted to New Delhi, Berlin and as the former bureau chief in Moscow from 2007 to 2011, as well as his contacts in Britain’s MI6 and SIS, as well as the American intelligence community.  Further he has followed and written about the likes of Paul Manafort and his machinations in the Ukraine for Viktor Yanukovych long before Trump announced his candidacy, and was also able to interview Christopher Steele.  What results is almost a legal brief that points to the guilt of the Trump campaign and the President in collaborating with Moscow, and doing all it could to deflect any investigation of what actually occurred.

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(Putin and Trump)

Harding begins by providing the background for the “Dossier,” authored by former British intelligence operative Christopher Steele.  The famous “Dossier” grew out of Steele’s assignment to uncover the Kremlin’s innermost secrets as they applied to Donald Trump.  Steele’s investigation argues a number of points that anyone who has followed this story in any detail has heard numerous times before;  from Trump’s public call for Putin to hack Hillary Clinton’s emails, the Wikileaks leak of Clinton emails in June and October 2016, the hacking of Democratic and Republican National Committee computers, with only Democratic information leaked, Trump’s denigration of almost every politician domestic or worldwide, except for Putin who he constantly praises, the fact that Russian intelligence sources have been “cultivating, supporting and assisting Trump for at least five years,” how Trump and his inner circle have accepted a regular flow of intelligence from the Kremlin, claims that the FSB has compromised Trump through his past activities in Moscow sufficiently to be able to blackmail him, and a trail of money laundering and other acts that make one ask, what does Moscow have on Trump that he is afraid to criticize Putin, and constantly denies Russian involvement in the election, in addition to repeatedly interfering in the Mueller investigation?  All the answers to these questions are present in Harding’s narrative.

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(Christopher Steele)

The author takes the reader through the actions of Aras and Emin Agalarov, Paul Manafort, Carter Page, Michael Flynn, Trump’s lawyer, Michael Cohen, Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and a host others along with a short biographical sketch of each.  We learn their role in the collusion through their interest and relationship with the Kremlin.  Harding explores Vladimir Putin’s motivations and goals as they relate to his hatred of Hillary Clinton, the desire to create chaos and doubt in the American electoral system, and most importantly gain a reduction or lifting of economic sanctions imposed by the Obama Administration due to Russian actions in the Crimea, Ukraine, and the 2016 election.  In Donald Trump, Putin found an American politician who could allow him to achieve these goals.  The question Harding raises is how do we establish the trail between the two men?  The answer he argues lies in following the money.

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(Carter Page)

The entire scenario would seem unbelievable if it hadn’t occurred.  Trump and his supporters can scream “fake news” all they want, but indictments are facts and Trump’s behavior throughout points to someone with something to hide.  Harding provides an in depth analysis of the Trump-Kremlin tie that dates back to 1987 when the KGB looked on the New York real estate developer as a meaningful target.  Harding traces Trump’s relationship with certain Kremlin linked officials, and oligarchs.  What emerges is a clear picture of how the Kremlin developed its relationship with Trump that would lead them to support his candidacy for president.  Harding explores the role of Donald Trump, Jr. and the infamous June, 2017 meeting with Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya, former KGB officer Rinat Akhmetshin, and others who offered the president’s son dirt on Hillary Clinton.  At first, as in most cases with Trump associates, Trump, Jr. denied the meeting, then said it was about something else, then finally gave in and admitted he met with Russians and was favorable to receiving foreign dirt on Clinton.

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Harding follows his own advice and follows the flow of money.  Offshore shell companies, multiple bank accounts, tax havens, payoffs, Russian oligarchs, laundering of funds, money disguised as salary or real estate deals, the role of Deutsche Bank, Trump’s New York creditor are all included in Harding’s expose.   Harding relies a great deal on Steele’s research and conclusions and believes that roughly 70-90% of what is in the “Dossier” is true, that being the case, it is clear as to why Trump wants to shut down the Mueller investigation.  In fact, Harding provides so many plots and sub plots that at times it is hard to keep up with the flow of information, evidence, and characters discussed.  For the Trump people it appears that almost every day they have to put out some sort of brush fire that relates to the Mueller investigation be it the testimony of Donald Trump, Jr., Attorney General Jeff Sessions, or the investigative work of Congressional committees.  One thing that is clear from Harding’s investigative work – the Trump Organization has been laundering Russian money for years, and without Russian money the Trump Organization’s many financial issues would have proven disastrous.

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(Michael Flynn addressing the Republican National Convention)

Harding also explores the relationship between former FBI Director James Comey, the role of the Justice Department, and Trump’s attempts to bring Comey on board in dropping the investigation of Michael Flynn.  The author takes the reader through the Comey firing and its role in obstruction of justice which the president even admitted to NBC’s Lester Holt.  Harding has gone a long way in disentangling the web of Trump’s financial empire, a structure that appears to rest on a great deal of Russian state funds.

One wonders why certain Republicans have cooperated with Trump’s campaign of fake news and obstruction.  Perhaps it is the current tax bill that they are trying to ram through Congress might want to achieve corporate tax cuts and follow the orders of their donors.  Be that as it may, if you are interested in learning what Trump is afraid of you to consult Harding’s latest book.

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(the Kremlin, Moscow)

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

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

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

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(Nicholas and Alexandra, 1894))

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

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(Nicholas and Alexandra with their daughters)

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

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(the royal family)

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

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

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

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(Prince Felix Yusopov, Rasputin’s murderer)

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

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

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

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

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

** Figes.

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1956: THE WORLD IN REVOLT by Simon Hall

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(Montgomery, Alabama bus segregation, 1956)

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

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(Algerian Civil War independence movement)

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

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

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

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

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(Nelson Mandela, imprisoned in South Africa, 1956)

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

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

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(Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott, 1956)

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

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(Map of the Suez Canal)

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

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

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

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(French President Guy Mollet)

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

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

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

(President Eisenhower and Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser)

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

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

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

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

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(Map of the Suez Canal)