About Time I Read It: The Future Is History by Masha Gessen

After reading tons of great things about Masha Gessen’s 2017 book The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia I decided to buy a Kindle edition last March after Amazon, much to my joy drastically dropped the price. Months later and needing something about Russia for Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge I began reading it. Like many outstanding books The Future is History blew me away from the beginning. Not only will it make my 2020 list of favorite nonfiction it’s also one of the best books I’ve read this year.

We all know Russia has reverted back its totalitarian self of old. The question is how did this happen. According to Gessen, in her National Book Award winning work of biography, history and political analysis the Fall of Communism, as earth-shaking as it was, didn’t transform Russia into a functioning democratic society. After a decade of political and economic disfunction under Boris Yeltsin, as corrupt oligarchs and murderous mobsters ran roughshod over the nation, Vladimir Putin, a former KGB officer assumed the reigns of power. After imprisoning, forcibly coopting or assassinating his rivals, seizing their assets and media outlets Putin and his old intelligence service colleagues consolidated their hold on Russia. To some, perhaps even many Russians at first things looked promising. The troublesome oligarchs were neutralized, told to either play ball with Putin or else. The sinking economy was righted. Nationalists rejoiced as Russia adopted a more assertive foreign policy.

This was all made easier, Gessen asserts because Russia, at its core is an authoritarian society. Thanks to 80 years of Soviet rule (building on hundreds of years of Tsarist supremacy) Russians have been conditioned into believing only a dictatorial regime, like that of the Soviets could deliver them material comfort, stability and national pride. Flawed elections, harmful deregulations and weak democratic institutions became synonymous with rampant crime, widespread corruption and a Third Word-like chasm between rich and poor and. Only a return to Russia’s authoritarian past could save the country.

Gessen weaves together the oral histories of four different Russians to show how this  happened, beginning  with the hopefulness of perestroika to the chaos of the Yeltsin years to today’s Putin era. Despite their respective promising beginnings by the end all four Russians are trampled by the heavy-handed Russian state. One, Lyosha finds himself the victim of state-sponsored homophobic bullying after Putin and his allies enact anti-LGBTQ policies. (Supposedly drafted to protect Russia’s children from predatory gays and lesbians, the new laws were designed to please social conservatives and others alarmed at Russia’s plummeting birthrate.) With the deck seemingly stacked forever Putin’s favor, Russia’s future looks bleak.

The Future Is History is an outstanding book, and a must read for anyone wanting to understand Putin’s Russia. Like Svetlana Alexievich’s Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets and Gal Beckerman’s When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry it will definitely make my year-end list of favorite nonfiction. Please consider it highly recommended.

About Time I Read It: Absurdistan by Gary Shteyngart

As 2020 continues to live up to its annus horribilis reputation, I find myself turning to fiction, especially humorous fiction as a much-needed escape. To fulfill this need, last week I used Overdrive to download an ebook of Gary Shteyngart’s 2006 novel Absurdistan, a book I’d been itching to read for years, ever since I spotted a paperback edition shelved in the “librarian’s choice” section at my public library. Like so many backlisted books I’ve featured on this blog, I enjoyed the heck out of it and cursed myself for not reading sooner.

325-pound Misha Vainberg, aka Snack Daddy, son of the 1,238th-richest man in Russia, proud graduate of Accidental University and luxury loft-dwelling New York City resident finds himself stranded in Russia and unable to re-enter the United States after his mobster father offs a visiting Oklahoma businessman. Homesick for the Big Apple and missing his Dominican girlfriend, his desire to go home only grows stronger after a rival mobster assassinates Misha’s father by flinging a landmine at his Land Rover in full view of tourists in St. Petersburg. (Only to be followed by Misha recklessly bedding his late father’s 20-something widow.) With his best friend Alyosha-Bob (née Robert Lipshitz an American-born Jew from “the northern reaches of New York State”, who, after settling in “St. Leninsburg eight years ago and was transformed, by dint of alcoholism and inertia, into a successful Russian biznesman renamed Alyosha, the owner of ExcessHollywood, a riotously profitable DVD import-export business, and the swain of Svetlana, a young Petersburg hottie”) and loyal manservant Timofey in tow flies to the former Soviet Republic of Absurdistan to purchase an illicit Belgian passport courtesy of a debased local diplomat. Rechristened as Belgium’s newest citizen, Misha sets his sights on a future life somewhere in the EU and thus one step closer to America.

But then things get weirdly complicated – and comical. Before Misha and his companions can depart a civil war erupts sealing the borders and grounding international flights. Right after his girlfriend dumps him via email for her Russian emigre literature professor “Jerry Shteynfarb” (author of The Russian Arriviste’s Hand Job and reputed lothario) he ends up falling in love with an American-educated local tourguide who Misha later learns is the cherished daughter of an Absurdistani strongman. Before he knows it he’s being feted like a future son-in-law and hired on as the war-torn country’s new Minister of Multicultural Affairs. Not bad for an obese, substance-abusing, anxiety-suffering, gangster rap-loving, $350-an-hour Park Avenue therapist-dependent son of a murdered Russian mobster.

The fictional, purportedly oil-rich Absurdistan Shteyngart has created bears a strong resemblance to Azerbaijan, with elements of Bosnia, Rwanda of the mid 1990s and Borat’s Kazakhstan. It probably resembles many former Soviet Republics bordering on Russia’s Southern flank, which after escaping Soviet domination, still hasn’t made the transition to full democracy and sadly, probably never will. Western consumer goods and other relatively luxurious amenities are available, but only to a small, largely corrupt well-to-do. Ruled by autocrats and plagued by perpetual ethnic conflict, life in the country resembles something akin to the Middle Ages as opposed the 21st century.

Absurdistan is funny as hell in a sick and wrong kind of way. Please consider it highly recommended.

About Time I Read It: Beautiful Animals by Lawrence Osborn

In July 2017 Fresh Air’s pop culture and critic-at-large John Powers reviewed Lawrence Osborne’s latest novel Beautiful Animals. Describing it as “a seductively menacing new thriller” combining “Graham Greene’s fondness for foreign soil with Patricia Highsmith’s fascination with the nastier coils of the human psyche” I was intrigued.  I grew more intrigued after Powers mentioned the novel’s setting on the Greek island of Hydra and how things get horribly complicated after two young tourists stumble across a Middle Eastern refugee who’s washed ashore. Alas, like so many books I’ve heard reviewed or read reviews of I quickly forgot about it. That is, until recently when, in search of something set in Greece for Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge I borrowed a Kindle edition through Overdrive. I’m happy to report Osborne’s dark novel is painful but at the same time nearly impossible to put down.

Naomi, a 28 year old Brit has been coming to Hydra with her family for years. A London-based lawyer, she’s opted to spend the summer with her wealthy art dealer father and Greek stepmother after being unceremoniously sacked by her employer. Attractive, intelligent, affluent and able to effortlessly manipulate others she spends her time days sunbathing and evenings drinking in local tavernas or partying with others her age. After becoming friends with Samantha, an American college student vacationing on Hydra with her mother, father and teenage brother it looks like the two young women have a promising summer ahead of them as besties.

But before they’ve had a chance to hit a party or two or experience a double date while out sunbathing one day they discover a bedraggled, long-haired man lying semiconscious at water’s edge. Feeling obligated to do something to address his plight they return later with food, water and other supplies. His name is Faoud and yes, as they assumed he’s a refugee from the Middle East. Fortunately for him, the two women are eager to help him, and thanks to Naomi’s easy access to her father’s wealth money is no object. But unfortunately, Naomi’s largess comes with a price. For too long she’s lived a life of privilege, gotten her way with people and never dealt with the consequences of her selfish actions. When her ill-conceived plan to help Faoud ends in disaster, it has the potential to wrecks the lives of her accomplices.

Soviet Spotlight: Journey into the Whirlwind by Eugenia Semyonovna Ginzburg

I’m guessing it was my love of both prison memoirs and Soviet history that inspired me grab a copy of Eugenia Semyonovna Ginzburg’s memoir Journey into the Whirlwind I found lying in the street, quite possibly while walking to the bus stop after enjoying a few pints of beer with friends at a local pub. After letting it sit on my bookshelf ignored and unread for the last five or so years last week I finally I began reading it. Like other good books from my personal library I’d been reluctant to touch I wish I’d read it sooner.

In 1934 Eugenia Semyonovna Ginzburg was a college instructor and newspaper editor in Kazan, Russia where both her and her husband were loyal Communists and true believers in the Soviet dream. The same year, that Soviet dream would become a nightmare for millions afterJoseph Stalin used the murder of Politburo member Sergei Kirov as an excuse to launch his infamous purges. Within a few years Ginzburg was arrested, interrogated, stripped of her Party membership, tried on trumped-up charges of belonging to a “counter-revolutionary Trotskyist group”, and sentenced to 10 years of imprisonment. After spending several years in solitary confinement she was shipped to the wilds of the Soviet Far East to labor in the forests of the Kolyma Valley where she would have died of malnutrition and overwork had a camp doctor not took pity on her and made her one his nurses.

Like the French Revolution preceding it, or the Iranian one that followed, the new Soviet state, now under Stalin’s despotic control began devouring the children of the revolution. At first her fellow convicts were devoted Party members like her, along with a few members of rival revolutionary groups who’d lost out to the Bolsheviks. Later, as Stalin’s paranoia intensified it drove up arrest quotas and combined with the widespread use of torture causing more and more of the accused to wrongly implicate their friends, colleagues and even family members the camps swelled with not just elite members of society like former military officers, Party leaders, and ironically, defrocked members of the dreaded secret police but also everyday working people and simple peasants. Foreigners from Italy and Germany who’d moved to Russia in hopes of building a worker’s paradise also found themselves slaving away in the Gulag along with tons of common criminals. At first, Ginzburg and true believers like her thought it had all been some sort of mistake, figuring they’d soon be released. Later, as time went by and the horror of incarceration took their toll they stopped believing in the goodness and infallibility of the Communist Party and cared only for their individual survival.

As grim as things get in Journey into the Whirlwind, it’s still a vivid, well-written and fast-paced account of one of humanity’s darkest periods. Not only does it make great follow-up reading to Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn’s epic The Gulag Archipelago Volume 2: An Experiment in Literary Investigation but also Anne Applebaum’s outstanding Gulag: A History. Journey into the Whirlwind is a great book and I definitely should have read it sooner.

Soviet Spotlight: Polar Star by Martin Cruz Smith

The day at the public library I picked up Martin Cruz Smith’s Wolves Eat Dogs I also grabbed his 1989 thriller Polar Star. Published decades ago, I can still remember when  it was released to much fanfare and touted as a sequel to Cruz Smith’s mammoth best seller Gorky Park.

Instead of set in Moscow and environs like its predecessor, Polar Star takes place in the Bearing Sea mostly aboard a giant factory ship. As part of an inaugural joint venture between the USSR and the United States a small fleet of American-owned fishing boats pass their fish-laden nets up to the Polar Star to be processed, frozen, stored and later sold with the two parties sharing the profits. With the USSR deep into glasnost and perestroika expectations are running high both teams can work together for the greater good.

Deep inside the bowels of the huge factory ship is former Moscow Militia Inspector Arkady Renko, knee deep in fish guts slaving away on the production line. When one of the Soviet crew is found dead, Renko is quietly pressed into service to determine how she died, and to do so as quickly and discreetly as possible lest her untimely demise derail the fragile commercial alliance. His task is daunting one, made even more difficult by those who would rather call it a suicide and cover things up. Before long he learns just about everyone onboard the small flotilla is shady, secretive and potentially criminal. Think of it as Murder on the Orient Express meets The Deadliest Catch.

Polar Star, while an older thriller still packs a punch. (Although thanks to its age it now reads like historical fiction.) I enjoyed it even more than Cruz Smith’s more recent Wolves Eat Dogs. After enjoying Polar Star I now wanna read the entire Arkady Renko series.

1947: Where Now Begins by Elisabeth Åsbrink

As I pointed out three years ago when I reviewed Victor Sebestyen’s 1946: The Making of the Modern World I love books about a single year in history. Some of my favorites have been 1959, 1968 and 1973. A few years ago I read 1945 in addition to not one but two books titled 1913. The latest of these kind of books to catch my eye is Elisabeth Åsbrink’s 1947: Where Now Begins. I’m not sure exactly when and how 1947 popped up on my radar but I’ve been wanting to read it, coming close to borrowing a copy from the library on several occasions. Two nights ago I found myself on Overdrive searching for a new book to read and saw a copy of 1947 was available. After downloading a borrowable copy I effortlessly burned through it in no time. Not only did this book greatly exceed my modest expectations there’s a good chance this lively and illuminating book will end up being one of my favorites of 2020.

Prior to reading this book if someone asked me if, and why 1947 could be a thought of as a seminal year in history my less than decent answer might mention India and Pakistan achieving independence or Arab and Jew battling for control of the soon to be former British Mandate of Palestine. If I’m lucky I might remember 1947 was the year the CIA was created and President Truman proclaimed the Truman Doctrine, pledging financial and military assistance to Greece and Turkey in hopes of blocking Soviet expansion into the Mediterranean. But really, that’s it.

Little did I know according to Åsbrink 1947 was one heck of a year. In arts, letters, entertainment and fashion ground-breaking things were going on throughout the year all over the world. Christian Dior would be both worshipped and hated by millions for revolutionizing the fashion world. George Orwell, disillusioned and haunted by totalitarianism in all its forms would pen 1984. Simone de Beauvoir, while on tour in the United States would fall madly in love with American author Nelson Algren, who in addition to showing her around the vice-filled bars of working class Chicago would introduce her to Gunnar Myrdal’s An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy providing  inspiration for her feminist classic The Second Sex. After hearing amazing things about an eccentric yet highly talented jazz pianist the founder of Blue Note Records Alfred Lion and his wife would pay visit to his apartment to hear him play. After he’s done Lion would award the musician, Thelonious Monk a record deal.

In science and technology, American computer scientist Grace Hopper would achieve lasting fame for not only pulling a short-circuiting moth out of an early mainframe (giving us the term “debugging”) but more importantly pioneer the concept of a machine-independent programming language, leading to  the development of COBOL, a language still used today. Meanwhile, in the Soviet Union a self-taught small-arms designer by the name of Mikhail Kalashnikov would give the world a sturdy, reliable and lethally efficient machine gun and the weapon of choice for countless armies, terrorist groups and insurgents.

As I expected, in the realm of politics Åsbrink covers the run-up to India and Pakistan’s independence. (As for its bloody outcome, she blames the British. Louis Mountbatten, the last Viceroy of India, in hopes of wrapping things up on a nice, tidy deadline rushed the partition process. The man he entrusted with drawing the new borders and putting millions at risk, Sir Cyril Radcliffe was a lawyer by trade and had never set foot in India prior to his arrival.) Again, as expected the author delves into the origins of the state of Israel, including what was happening among the Palestinians. ( Former Nazi collaborator and Grand Mufti of Jerusalem Mohammad Amin al-Husayni steadfastly refused to negotiate over the future of Palestine and urged his countrymen to do the same. Opting instead fight they’d be routed by the newly independent Israelis the following year.)

Among the other political developments discussed in 1947 the most surprising was the birth of the Malmö Movement headed by Swedish Fascist Per Engdahl to create a pan-European organization of former Nazis and their sympathizers. Anti-communist, anti-semitic and anti-democratic they sought to promote their views of a “white Europe”, replacing master race with “civilization” in hopes of making their extremist views more palatable. Those and others like them were instrumental in helping Nazi war criminal secretly escape to South America, especially Argentina.  Fast forward to today and European’s far right continues to draw inspiration from this deep well of hate.

Common among the above-mentioned books chronicling a single year in history is their authors’ tendency to argue based on the presented evidence the particular year in question has almost epic significance. My cynical side says you can make that argument for just about any year in history. However, when it comes to 1947 Elisabeth Åsbrink makes a compelling case.

About Time I Read It: Masquerade by Tivadar Soros

Over the years I’ve read books translated from a variety of languages including Russian, Arabic, Italian, Albanian and Greek but I’ve never read anything translated from Esperanto. Esperanto, for those who don’t know is an international auxiliary language created in the late 19th century by Polish ophthalmologist L. L. Zamenhof. Using the Latin alphabet with vocabulary borrowed from Romance and Germanic languages, combined with Slavic grammar Zamenhof hoped Esperanto would be so easy to learn and use it would become a universal second language, helping promote world peace and international understanding. While Esperanto might not have made the world a peaceful place it soon developed a kind of cult following among linguists, intellectuals and internationalists around the globe.

Thoughts of Esperanto were the furthest thing from my mind that day at the public library when I spotted Masquerade: Dancing Around Death in Nazi Occupied Hungary on the shelf. What caught my eye was the book’s author Tivadar Soros. Wondering if Tivadar was somehow related to billionaire philanthropist and human rights advocate George Soros I took a closer look at Masquerade and learned from its jacket blurb Tivadar was George’s father. I also learned Tivadar Soros’s 2001 memoir recalls the year he spent hiding under a false identity in Nazi occupied Hungary. Needing something set in Hungary something for Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge I grabbed Masquerade along with a few other books and headed to the automated check-out kiosk mere hours before my public library locked the doors in hopes of slowing the spread of COVID19.

I was pleasantly surprised by Masquerade. Initially I feared something translated from Esperanto might come across as wooden or clunky but kudos to Humphrey Tonkin for  crafting a translation that expertly captures the memoirist’s voice, one heavily ladened with Mitteleuropa charm, sophistication and, believe or not considering the circumstances, optimism. Tivadar comes across as a confident, urbane and intelligent man of the world, even if that world is crashing down around him.

Using the skills and connections he’d acquired over the years as a successful and respected Budapest attorney, he’s able to secure false identities and secret hiding places for himself as well as his wife and two sons. Wisely, the Soros family opts to live underground instead of registering with the local Jewish council, thus avoiding deportation to Auschwitz. Throughout his ordeal, Tivadar retains not only his humanity but also his refinement and sense of purpose. Perhaps for that reason alone Masquerade is a memoir worth reading.

About Time I Read It: Wolves Eat Dogs by Martin Cruz Smith

Right before our local public libraries closed their doors in an effort to halt the spread of the rampaging Corona Virus I secured a tall stack of books betting I’d probably be hunkered down for a while. Luckily for me, as a health precaution our libraries ordered us to not return any borrowed materials and as a result we get to keep our books until further notice. As the world battles the worst pandemic in a century at least I’ve got plenty to read.

One of the books I grabbed before our libraries suspended operations was Martin Cruz Smith’s 2004 whodunnit Wolves Eat Dogs. Over the last year or so I’ve been supplementing my diet of nonfiction with international thrillers, crime novels and the like and figured now was a good time to dive back into the fiction of Martin Cruz Smith, an author I haven’t read in decades. Set mostly in Ukraine, I could apply it towards Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge, making it hard to resist. I burned through Wolves Eat Dogs in only a few days and I must have enjoyed it because it left me wanting to read more of his stuff.

It looked like a simple suicide. One of Russia’s billionaires, deciding he couldn’t take it anymore and jumped out the window his Moscow luxury high-rise. A lesser Investigator would have closed the book the second he arrived on the scene but not Arkady Renko. Knowing from experience whenever wealthy and powerful Russian men are killed it’s never by their own hands Renko, over the protests of his superiors decides to dig a bit deeper. Before long his investigation takes him to Ukraine, specifically to Chernobyl and the Zone of Exclusion, an irradiated shadowland abandoned since the 1986 nuclear disaster now home to an assortment of squatters, animal poachers, scavengers and corrupt militia men. It’s here Renko suspects there’s some sort of connection between Chernobyl and the dead billionaire. But what is it?

Inspector Renko is one of those great characters you can’t get enough of. Smart as hell and honest, and because he’s been at it so long knows his stuff. After years of fighting crime in the USSR and the near lawless post-Communist regime that took its place, Renko’s left cynical and damaged, but amazingly still in possession of his humanity. He’s tough, level-headed and never reckless. Those occasions when he does need to kick some ass, he does it right.

Like I said above, I enjoyed Wolves Eat Dogs and I’m hoping to read more of Cruz Smith’s fiction in the future. With a little luck this won’t be my last blog post featuring the adventures of Inspector Renko.

About Time I Read It: The Butcher’s Trail by Julian Borger

It feel like I’ve been participating in Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge for years. During that time I’ve featured several  books about Bosnia. Back in 2012 it was Zlatko Dizdarević’s Sarajevo: A War Journal followed up a year later with Peter Maass’ Love Thy Neighbor: A Story of War. Then in 2014 it was Tim Butcher’s The Trigger: Hunting the Assassin Who Brought the World to War. Lastly, in 2017 I opted for a little fiction and featured Matthew Palmer’s novel The Wolf of Sarajevo. In addition, I’ve also reviewed three novels set in Croatia and a nonfiction piece about a Serbian warlord.  So I guess when it comes to books anyway I’m no stranger to the former Yugoslavia.

Julian Borger’s 2016 book The Butcher’s Trail: How the Search for Balkan War Criminals Became the World’s Most Successful Manhunt has been on my radar for the last three or four years but I never made any effort to read it until recently when I borrowed an ebook version of it through my public library’s Overdrive portal. I hesitate to declare a book about the search for notorious war criminals makes a great read but I found The Butcher’s Trail a surprisingly good book and wish I’d read it sooner.

When Yugoslavia violently disintegrated in the 90s Bosnia became a bloody horror show as Orthodox Serbs, and to a lesser degree Catholic Croats fought Bosnian Muslims for control of the newly independent nation. Armed to teeth with weapons once belonging to the former Yugoslav National Army Serb paramilitary forces besieged the capital Sarajevo assaulting it with artillery shells and sniper fire daily. Elsewhere in the country, Serb paramilitaries engaged in murderous ethnic cleansing against Muslim civilians killing tens of thousands. Finally, Western leaders had enough and the United States and NATO played hardball, forced the warring factions to agree to a peace deal to end the killing. But for years the Serbian architects and leaders responsible for the lion’s share of the slaughter were never brought to justice. Then, slowly over a period of time one by one they were located, apprehended and brought to stand trial at the International Criminal Tribunal in The Hague. The Butcher’s Trail is the story of how these wanted individuals were brought to justice

Many, if not most of these missions were done secretly, usually using elite forces trained in covert ops and anti-terrorism. (British forces, thanks to their years of experience apprehending IRA leaders performed quite well when it came to capturing Serbian war criminals.) Eventually, after successfully bagging a number of low and mid level targets the focus shifted to bigger fish, specifically the political leaders who ultimately responsible, men like Radovan Karadžić, Ratko Mladić and Slobodan Milošević. A difficult mission, but as Borger shows in his book ultimately not impossible.

This is an excellent book and easily one of the best I’ve read so far this year. I have no problem recommending The Butcher’s Trail.

About Time I Read It: Siren of the Waters by Michael Genelin

It’s not every day I get to read a novel set in Slovakia. Even if roughly half of Michael Genelin’s 2008 crime novel Siren of the Waters takes place in the what used to be the eastern half of the Central European nation of Czechoslovakia it’s still my first literary foray into that part of the world. (Keep in mind of course if its author Michael Genelin is an American, so it can’t be considered Slovakian literature.) Wanting something set in Slovakia for Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge I borrowed an ebook version through Overdrive and went to work reading it almost immediately. I burned through it quickly and generally enjoyed it. Like any good crime novel, it’s entertaining and filled with a number of plot twists, most of, if not all I never saw coming.

On a highway outside the capital Bratislava, Jana, a veteran commander in the Slovak police force and her partner are called to investigate a deadly automobile accident. Inside the smoldering wreck of a van they find multiple bodies and no survivors. After discovering the deceased passengers were all young women and the driver male (and probably from Ukraine) Jana suspects it’s a case of human trafficking come to a fatal end. Knowing the fire in the van was purposely set she sets off in search of the those criminal elements responsible. Her search takes her to first Ukraine and then France, where she takes part in a international conference on human trafficking. Every clue Jana uncovers along the course of her international journey leads to more questions, as well as additional violence.

Roughly over half of Siren of the Waters is set in Slovakia in the years preceding the fall of Communism.  Arranged chronologically in the form of flashbacks, they follow Jana’s life starting with her career as a young police officer employed by the authoritarian Communist government, her stormy marriage to her actor husband turned political dissident and ending with the collapse of the old Communist regime. I enjoyed this part of the novel and I credit the author for doing the research needed to give those passages their authenticity.

Like I said, it’s not every day I get to read a novel set in Slovakia. Luckily for me it also kept me entertained.