Your WWII Knowledge is Inadequate if it Doesn’t Inlude the Eastern Front


For far too long in my life, even as I arrogantly assumed the mantle of a WWII history buff, I regrettably neglected the Eastern Front and possessed only a parochial, U.S.-centric view. Over the last few years, I have come to view any World War II, or really any 20th century history education journey, to necessitate deeper knowledge and understanding of the world shaping events that happened before, during, and after the Eastern Front.


For those of you who may be skeptical of my initial claim, consider the following as to why you need to dive into the “rest of the story,” as Paul Harvey was fond of saying, and the Eastern Front’s tragic and longstanding global impacts, along with some of my personal recommendations on books to read to begin the journey:


  • Combined U.S. and U.K. total casualties, soldier and civilian, were less than 1M. In comparison, Soviet casualties were more than 27 million. It is impossible to comprehend that scale of death and the impact on a society, but it is easy to understand that a 27X impact is going to leave a completely different indelible experience and impact on a society, especially one as closed and isolated as was the USSR of that time. For more on the Red Army and life within it and within the USSR in general, the book Ivan’s War is a good place to start. Vasily Grossman’s Stalingrad and sequel Life and Fate are magisterial historic fiction accounts that bring his experiences as a Red Army correspondent to life in gripping narratives.


  • Whereas U.S. generations view this war broadly within our culture as one of the relatively few just wars in our history and one fought by the “greatest generation,” the Russian view is more likely to be much more complicated and represent a range of simultaneous paradoxical views of both triumphal pride in a patriotic war of survival combined with a deeply ingrained view of the unmitigated horrors of total war on their homefront and the decades long costs born by the most “tormented generation,” of which this war was but a capstone in a long line of tragedies. This was a generation that not only suffered the death toll above and all its attendent horrors, but also suffered 20 million+ deaths that happened during the years between the Russian revolution and WWII, suffering and deaths that were a direct result of Stalin’s gulags, terrors and purging of the state and military, and his forcing of peasants onto collective farms that sparked mass arrests and caused horrific famines. For more on the history of Stalin, Stephen Kotkin has impressive and highly readable biographies split into three volumes (the third is still due to be published). Harvest of Sorrow by Robert Conquest is the most moving account I have read on the horrors and mechanisms and causes of the manmade famines. Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipeligo and Varlam Shalamov’s Kolyma Tales are the go-to sources of gulag literature.


  • The unfortunate Eastern European countries (Poland, Ukraine, Romania, Moldova, Lithuania) caught between Germany and the Soviet Union throughout WWII experienced their own horrors that are relatively neglected in the annals of World War II focus in western societies. The people within these nations suffered from both German conquest, and for these countries’ Jewish citizen- the Final Solution were the ultimate terror, as well as Soviet dominance, oppression, and ultimately the generations-long impact of Iron Curtain that are still with us today. Timothy Snyder’s tragic book Bloodlands is a seminal work on this topic.


  • The evil megalomaniac drama that unfolded between Hitler and Stalin leading up to the German invasion of the USSR is worth reading and understanding. The drama includes the non-aggression pact between both nations that bought time and needed resources for both dictators (Hitler time to attempt to knock out Britain and receive grain and commodities from the USSR and for Stalin to build military capacity and capability, mostly to repair his own self-imposed ravages and murders of military leaders, and to get military technology and kit from Germany) followed by years of high stakes maneuvering, drama, misunderstandings, paranoia, and intelligence and spying on a global scale that eventually ended in Hitler’s decision to invade coupled with Stalin’s inconceivable and tin eared miscalculation that Hitler was not going to invade (at least, not yet) that would have massive impacts on the human life toll. Kotkin’s biographies, particularly Volume II, handles this remarkably well, including fascinating ill omens such as Hitler codenaming the invasion “Barbarossa” after a Holy Roman Emperor who drowned during the Crusades because he allegedly wanted to prove his bravery and tenacity by crossing a river in full armor. Another interesting ill omen is brought out in Kotkin’s Volume II is the fact that a bust of Bismarck, that predecessor statesman who united the fragmented German lands through political craftiness and war and whose firm political beliefs was to never instigate a war with Russia, owned by Hitler, was cracked at the neck and hastily and shoddily repaired on the eve of the German attack on the USSR. Not that such omens mattered to Hitler nor would it have changed the outcome, but nobody bothered to tell the Fuhrer of the mistake.

Hopefully these few ideas on a complex and fascinating topic whets a few appetites.


Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Masterpiece – In the First Circle

I try to use the praise of “Masterpiece” sparingly, but Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s “In the First Circle” is worthy of the mantle. I have never read anything quite like it. Borrowing from a sentiment I once heard expressed regarding another powerful book, I am envious of those who may read it for the first time, as it is an experience I can never obtain again.
It’s theme is dark and tragic. The title itself is taken from Dante’s Inferno’s description of the first circle of hell. And yet, it is full of humor and irony. It will make you cry. It will make you laugh. It is polyphonic – meaning it has no singular character but captures the essence of the authoritarian prison-state of the Soviet Union through multiple and varied characters representing a wide range of backgrounds and current perspectives – everything from guards, diplomats, Secret Service officers, prisoners, wives separated from prisoners, non-communists, growing skeptics, committed communists, ex-soldiers, Christians, children of powerful men, powerful men thrown from power into prison, prosecutors, and more. It even spends significant text diving into the macabre psyche and motivations of Stalin. It is culturally and artistically rich, introducing well-placed quotes and references from Tolstoy, Turgenev, Hemingway, Liszt, Dostoevsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, to name a few. It is a spy-thriller, as the backdrop of the story that moves the narrative and connects many of the characters is related to the team of imprisoned engineers who are tasked with isolating the voice of a Soviet diplomat who attempts to reveal atomic bomb secrets to the Americans.
I have so many highlighted passages in my personal copy, but here is one snippet, in which one prisoner, who is awakened in prison to the hopeless evil of Communism, argues with one who still believes in the cause:
“Could you kindly explain these socialist ideals that you talk about? They’re nowhere to be seen at present. All right, maybe somebody’s botched the experiment, but when and where can we expect to see them; what do they amount to, eh? Socialism, of whatever variety, is a sort of caricature of the Gospel message. Socialism promotes only equality and a full belly, and that only by means of coercion…you’ll find equality and full bellies in any good pigsty! What a tremendous favor they have bestowed on us! Equality and plenty! Give us a moral society!”
A necessary book shopping tip is to make sure to get the full uncensored version In the First Circle as opposed to the author self-censored (in an attempt to get it past Soviet censors) The First Circle. I also recommend getting a physical copy, since the reader will appreciate the ability to flip back and forth to the notes on characters that begin the book.
Also – this EconTalk podcast is a great place to start to get a quick biography and background for the author as well as the historical context, meaning, and global impact and acclaim of the book at the time it started getting leaked to the West. The podcast also offers great practical tips for getting the most out of this rich and rewarding book. Perhaps most importantly, there are no spoilers in the podcast.

Quote of the Week – Living Life Amidst Terror


“It was as if we were living in the tale about Zmey Gorynych, the dragon that required  yearly tribute of twelve fair maidens and twelve young men. One might well wonder how the people in this tale could have carried on, how they could have lived with the knowledge that a dragon would soon be devouring the finest of their children. During those last days in Moscow, however, we realized that they too had been rushing from one little theater to another or hurrying to buy themselves something from which to make a coat or dress. There is nowhere a human being cannot live. With my own eyes I have seen sailors taking a man out onto the ice in order to shoot him – and I have seen the condemned man hopping over puddles to keep his feet dry and turning up his collar to shield his chest from wind. Those few steps were the last steps he would ever take, and instinctively he wanted them to make them as comfortable as possible.

We were no different. We bought ourselves some ‘last scrap’ of fabric. We listened for the last time to the last operetta and the last exquisitely erotic verses. What did it matter whether the verses were good or terrible? All that mattered was not to know, not to be aware – we had to forget that we were being led onto the ice.”

The quote is taken from the first chapter of Teffi’s account, Memories: From Moscow to the Black SeaTeffi, the pen name of Nadezhda Lokhvitskaya, was a well-known and celebrated humorist, satirist, and author in early 1900s Russia. Memories is her personal account of her last months spent in Russia and the Ukraine as she fled from the collapse of the Tsarist regime and the Bolshevik revolution, along with most other intellectuals and artists of the era. What makes the narrative unique is that Teffi is largely reticent on political statements and instead puts journalistic focus on the personal narratives and stories of everyone she meets during her harrowing journey. Along the way, she always believes she will make it back to Moscow within a matter of months, but that dream ends years later as she stays in exile in Paris. Memories is described by one reviewer as, “A vividly idiosyncratic account of the disintegration  – moral, political, strategic, – of Tsarist Russia after the Revolution, as alive to the farcical and the ridiculous as it is to the tragic.” I am just diving into the book myself and expect to pull many more such powerful and vivid depictions of what life must have been like for Russians in these perilous and harrowing times. Thus far, Memories is the indispensable book that I am currently reading that I can’t put down.


Modern Day Towers of Babel – Lessons from the Soviet Union Man-made Famines

Tower of babel

In the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel, mankind busied themselves with building a giant tower stretching up to heaven, united in a common goal of reaching high enough in the firmament to achieve the status of God. In order to prevent this prideful use of mankind’s time and talents, people are thrown into confusion through divine intervention forcing  people to grapple with different language barriers. This ended the quest to build the tower, which presumably required a great degree of communication and collaboration as well as coercion of others to lend their time and energy to the project. It is the latter point on coercion to achieve Utopia that I use as an analogy for something I have been reading a lot about as of late, which is the tragedy that is Russian history; in particular, the part of Russian history that was the quest to build a humanist utopia on earth in the guise of a workers’ paradise ideology of Marxist Communism.

Robert Conquest’s seminal work, The Harvest of Sorrow, provides a chilling narrative of Stalin’s mad and macabre drive to implement his five-year plan to force all peasants into state-owned collective farms. Having recently won a string of political and ideological battles in the wake of Lenin’s death, including the completion of transforming urban areas into economies based largely on state-owned factories, state ownership of the press, orienting the essential arms of the Communist Party under Stalinist control through the appointment of his own self-selected protégés into essential roles in the Party, achieving Stalinist dominance of the essential arms of the Government (Commissariat and Politburo), internal police (OGPU), and military, and with a dictatorship based upon a cult of personality largely established, Stalin opened the next front in the Communist revolution – consolidation of the farms along Communist ideological lines. It is remarkable that up into this point in the late 1920s, a full decade after the initial Bolshevik revolution, that the great mass of Soviet land, population, and largest sector of the Soviet economy, agriculture, was relatively untouched by the maiming and malignant arm of the Soviet state. Indeed, market forces were tolerated in agriculture for a relatively long duration of time under Lenin and subsequently Stalin under something deemed the “New Economic Policy”, or NEP, which was for a season a tactical retreat from an aborted attempt at crash collectivization launched in the early years of the revolution. Unfortunately for the peasants, this lifestyle under market forces was ultimately doomed to be short-lived as it was anathema to Marxist Communist ideology. Stalin is known as many things and has accumulated a wide degree of historical scorn and unflattering sobriquets that are warranted, but less discussed and known is the actual degree to which he truly was a fully committed Marxist more so than he was a practical tactician, which is the typical reputation historians grant to him. The degree to which peasants and farms continued undisturbed and living under market forces was irreconcilable with his dream of a unified and fully communist Soviet Union, and their destruction was always inevitable so long as Stalin had power.

There were largely two high level essential elements of the plan, if the crash and chaotic collectivization that ultimately ensued can be considered planned. The first critical element was fomenting class warfare and eliminating a class of so-called rich peasants. In Communist Party parlance, this class of peasants was pejoratively labeled “kulaks.” While there were numerous official central party attempts to define what a kulak was (tragically comic attempts to define them include the number of cows they owned, acreage tilled and owned, other peasants employed, etc.), in the chaos and opportunism of other peasants seeking to gain kulak assets, opportunism of career ladder seeking party members, internal police officers (OGPU, also know throughout the years as Cheka, NKVD, and KGB), party activists, and sycophants eager to prove their mettle and communist dutifulness, the reach and definition of who would be a kulak was ever-expanding and completely arbitrary and ultimately boiled down to who might be a leader that had the potential to cause trouble for the regime. Thus, “wealthy” peasants, middle class peasants, clergy, and village leaders all got caught into the snare of what occurs when humanity devolves into its most beastly and evil forms. The great irony is that many of the oppressors were far more handsomely paid from their official perches than were the wealthy peasants they were murdering, deporting, and sending off to the gulags of Siberia. The second critical element in the “plan” was to force the remaining peasants into collective farms. The ostensible utopian goal behind the collective farm was the theoretical notion that large industrial farms would produce much more efficiently than small landowners could and the centralized planning would align the needs of the country at large. More malevolently and cynically, the Soviet leaders knew that state collective farms would give them control of the all-important grain that they required to feed their core political base, the urban populations, and to export grain to obtain the needed cash for the state.

The predictable outcome of all of this state-induced crash collectivization was a massive decrease in agricultural production due to the massive deportation, imprisonment, and murder of the Soviet Union’s most productive farmers and ranchers who were mostly located in the Ukraine and the Central Asian steppes, respectively. The disruption that the oppression caused and the lack of incentives the new system created to produce anything more than what your family required were also significant contributing factors. What relatively little products did get extracted out of the peasants was more prone to rot on trains and in warehouses due to Soviet government incompetence than it was to get put into the mouths of Soviet citizens, further exacerbating the problems in a tragically ironic way. Needless to say, the offshoot was to further scapegoat ever-growing numbers of kulak saboteurs and calls from the central planners to extract more in the form of expropriated grain requisitions from the peasants, which often had the effect of not leaving families with enough grain to even feed themselves. At one point in this terror, the Soviet government relied upon newly deputized Communist activists that were largely city dwellers to descend upon the farms to discover grain wherever they could and forcibly take it from the peasants with the aid of OGPU officers.  These 25-thousanders, as they were called after the approximate number of them that were commissioned for the task, had little knowledge of agriculture, but what they possessed in abject ignorance they made up for in their fervent desire to do their part to build the workers’ utopia. They were easily whipped into a mob mentality frenzy based upon a notion that anyone that opposed them was an enemy of the state and inimical to the necessary changes that the revolution needed in order to complete its idealistic aims. One of their members, who would defect decades later, recounts a speech chronicled in Conquest’s book that was given to the 25-thousanders by a Party member who addressed them in order to provide direction on the terror that they were to unleash on the countryside.

The local village authorities need an injection of Bolshevik iron. That’s why we are sending you. You must assume your duties with a feeling of the strictest Party responsibility, without whimpering, without any rotten liberalism. Throw your bourgeois humanitarianism out of the window and act like Bolsheviks worthy of Comrade Stalin. Beat down the kulak agent wherever he raises his head. It’s war – it’s them or it’s us! The last decayed remnant of capitalist farming must be wiped out at any cost!

Secondly, comrades, it is absolutely necessary to fulfill the government’s plan for grain delivery. The kulaks and even some middle and poor peasants are not giving up their grain. They are sabotaging Party policy. And the local authorities sometimes waver and show weakness. Your job is to get the grain at any price. Pump it out of them, wherever it is hidden, in ovens, under beds, in cellars or buried away in back yards.

Through you, the Party brigades, the villages must learn the meaning of Bolshevik firmness. You must find the grain and you will find it. It’s a challenge to the last shred of your initiative and to your Chekist spirit. Don’t be afraid of taking extreme measures. The Party stands four-square behind you. Comrade Stalin expects it of you. It’s a life and death struggle; better to do too much and not enough.

Your third important task is to complete the threshing of the grain, to repair the tools, ploughs, tractors, reapers, and other equipment.

The class struggle in the village has taken the sharpest forms. This is no time for squeamishness or rotten sentimentality. Kulak agents are masking themselves and getting into the collective farms where they sabotage the work and kill the livestock. What’s required from you is Bolshevik alertness, intransigence, and courage. I am sure you will carry out the instructions of the Party and the directives of our beloved Leader.

Carry out the instructions of the dear leader is indeed what was done. According to Conquest’s research and analysis at the time, close to 5 million so-called kulaks and their family members were killed or sent to the Gulags where many, including wives and children, would go on to perish. As a result of the predictable subsequent man-made famine, another estimated 10 million would go on to die in the following years. What is striking is that at the time of Conquest’s forecasts and estimates (made in the 50s), Western media outlets lampooned the account as overly sensationalized and hyper-critical of Stalin and the Soviet system. As it turned out, once the Soviet archives were opened in their entirety decades later, Conquest’s estimates proved to be remarkably prescient.

My own interest in these accounts is that I am often fascinated, humbled, and terrified by the conditions that led to such a human created humanitarian crisis. The ultimate human paradox is the great good that we are capable of, but also the tremendous evil that we are equally capable of. I don’t get the sense that any culture, society, or ethnicity is immune to such deprivations.  While I don’t think the conditions are ripe for such a disaster in many Western nations and feel compelled to ward off charges of being an alarmist, it is still a valuable lesson of the arrogance of building utopias on the backs of oppressed and coerced individuals. Individual liberties and freedoms are essential elements that we should cherish dearly, even if it means we pass up some immediate expedient aim and benefit that would force us to give them up.  Conquest chronicles another party member and activist who participated in the actions against the peasants and who would go on to later write that,

We were deceived because we wanted to be deceived. We believed so strongly in communism that we were prepared to accept any crime if it was glossed over with the least bit of communist phraseology…confronted by something unpleasant, we compelled ourselves to believe that it was an isolated phenomenon and that on the whole the country’s state of affairs was just as the party described it…in other words, just as it was supposed to be according to communist theory.

This quote is classic and could be applied to any urge to participate in mob mentality and populist urges, either from the political far right or left. Oppression and catastrophe really take nothing more than a passionate minority that believes that all that stands in the way between them and a paradise on the other side is a smaller minority that deserves to be trampled, coupled with a largely complicit mass majority that stands silent while atrocities are committed in the vain hope that they won’t be touched. Evil can be whitewashed and rationalized by us all if it is deemed a necessary act to bring about a hoped for greater good or paradise.

The modern-day Tower of Babel is not a tower reaching up to the heaven, it is a belief that an institution of the state can create better conditions for all, even if it means destroying rights of the few. There are much less malevolent forms of this urge in the Western world today, but the same desire to build paternalistic utopian societies that aim hopelessly to improve the lot of the majority, even if it means expropriating the property and wealth of the minority, is still something that we should be extremely careful with and which we see as prevailing themes in much of the drive for proposed “free” goods in higher education and healthcare, to name just a couple of issues. To borrow from Milton Friedman, “Underlying most arguments against the free market is a lack of belief in freedom itself.”

Russian Government – a New Dog using Old Tricks


Whether from the hands of Comrades Lenin and Stalin or the modern day Tsar of a kleptocracy in Vladimir Putin, there has been one thing that has remained constant in Russian ‘justice’ over the last century, and that is the vicious and cynical tool of oppression of a political show trial. Putin has racked up several of these by now, including high profile cases of eventually jailed oil tycoon and would be politician Mikhail Khodorkovsky and the political activist  Alexei Navalny. These show trials are meant to create fictitious enemies so as to justify emergency and arbitrary rule by decree, intimidate potential enemies, whip up the fervor of the committed supporters, and distract the population of the corruption and ineffectiveness of the regime in improving the lives of its citizens. Show trials were perfected under Stalin, a topic I commented on in a recent post. While the outcomes may no longer result in a death sentence in the Siberian gulags, the underlying means and desired political outcomes under Putin are much the same as in Stalin’s day.

The recent case of a show trial of Ukrainian pilot Lieutenant Nadezhda Savchenko seems particularly pernicious, cynical, and captures my enhanced attention and respect. The entire story is equally horrifying for the banality of evil that Russia continues to treat as a normal course of action as well as the surface level laughability (if indeed it were a laughing matter) of the case against her – which involves accusations that she is responsible for killing two journalists by directing a mortar attack on them and that she illegally entered Russia. First of all, one does not direct a mortar attack in the way one points a gun, so any journalists killed, while certainly tragic, is an expected collateral casualty of war and the justice of the battlefield would not expect a combatant in a fight to be able to separate civilian from enemy troops when those civilians are embedded with the enemy force. One suspects the real Russian anger here is not over journalists killed but over the deaths of Russian soldiers the journalists were with and for which Russia denies are in Ukraine. As most media is under the thumb of the Russian state these days, I have to imagine that these journalists were there under Russian state direction in the first place embedded with the unmarked Russian soldiers (“little green men” as many in the region have taken to calling them) that have invaded and occupied Eastern Ukraine. The other incredibly hard to believe aspect of the story is that Lt. Savchenko would willingly cross into Russia. Far more likely is that she was abducted with the intention of holding her captive.

The other aspect of this story that I find fascinating is the the Russian evil revanchist menace contrasted with the defiant courage of Lt. Savchenko. She has brought international attention to her plight by going on hunger strikes, acting defiant in court, and more recently, singing a Ukrainian national song when her trumped up sentence was read out, forcing the judge to clear the courtroom. Add this to the fact that Lt. Savchenko was fighting on the front lines in Eastern Ukraine effectively as an infantryman of her own free will while not in use as a pilot makes her courage in defense of her homeland all the more remarkable.


Quote of the Week – Suicide Note of a Soviet Citizen

Show trial

“I know that if there’s a desire, one can accuse the innocent, such are the times. I do not want defamation, I do not want to suffer while innocent and have to justify myself, I prefer death to defamation and suffering.”

– Russian coal worker suicide note, Stalin: Volume I: Paradoxes of Power – Stephen Kotkin

The context of the suicide note is one that showcases the tyranny that can befall man once a government exists for its own sake and the rule of law becomes what that government arbitrarily decides the law is in order to increase and keep power. In Stalin’s Soviet Union, there was a typical cycle of increasing power grabs and more movements to a totalitarian and collectivist society that went something along these lines: Stalin, who was a true Communist ideologue and not simply a pragmatic totalitarian that he is often portrayed by historians to be, would have a grand design of moving the Soviet Union closer to the utopian dream of a collectivist “worker’s paradise.” In order to get the political capital required to move millions of people into this utopia, he would need to foment a pretext of class war in order to generate support of the “have nots” against the increasingly vanishing “haves.” Stalin had a firm grip on the secret police through his own self-appointments of men who depended on his patronage. During these times the secret police carried the name of OGPU, and Stalin could count on the complicity of the OGPU henchmen to drum up confessions whenever he needed them to. Then what would follow would be a show trial against class enemies that had the benefits of creating terror amongst and outside of the Communist Party, providing the cover Stalin needed to enact sweeping social and political change.

Such is the macabre script that induced the suicide note that serves as the quote of the week. Kotkin chronicles one such case in which Stalin’s overarching goal was to enact his biggest gamble yet as ruler – the mass removal of peasants from individual farms and communes into state-owned large scale collectivist farms. In the events leading up to the forced confiscation of farms, mass repression of so-called “kulaks” (wealthy peasants), and forced movement of peasants onto these large scale farms, Stalin needed a pretext of class warfare. He received such a pretext in gift from his North Caucasus OGPU leader, Yefim Yevdokimov, who presented fabricated evidence to Stalin of foreign agents and Soviet citizen collusion to sabotage production amongst industrial facilities and mines in Shakhty. What ensued was ever more repression and forced confessions through torture that culminated in a globally publicized show trial. The show trial set in motion a series of dual events that further entrenched Stalin’s power and provided the means necessary to reshape Soviet society. Firstly, Stalin was able to maneuver around his internal rivals and initiate the Great Purge. It is clear from Kotkin’s account that Stalin could tolerate no dissent and was a particularly vindictive person. Secondly, Staling was able to launch a broader Class War, in which anyone that stood in the way of forced collectivization of farms and industrial settings would be labeled various forms of epithets such as bourgeois, petit bourgeois, kulak, enemy of the state, or foreign agent. Stalin’s ultimate goal was collectivization of the farms, and the Shakhty trial gave him the pretext to neutralize, repress, and outflank members of the Politburo who were opposed to the forced collectivization of the farms as well as liquidate kulaks and force the migration of peasants to collective farms. The outcome was a tremendous famine in which millions perished due to predictable ensuing drastic decrease in agricultural production. That is a topic for which Kotkin indicates he will turn to once he publishes Volume II, which is currently in draft form.

The horrific stories one reads out of books, like Kotkins, that chronicle life in the Soviet Union (others that I have appreciated reading in the past include Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago  and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, and Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands) always give me a sense of great gratitude for having a tremendously comfortable life in the United States. More unnerving, I always question myself on how I would act in the face of interrogation and a show trial, in which I am being asked upon pain of torture and death to denounce and turn on family and friends. It is a sobering thought experiment.


The World Turned Upside Down


These days, I tend to read the rolling ticker tape of depressing global news like a dispassionate automaton. Inputs come in and update the ledger in my mind, and information is then stored away as bland factual data in the back shelves for whatever future use I might find. The world has been in a funk for quite some time. Between the financial crisis, the constant economic travails of the European Union – is Greece going to stay in or are they out? – the resurgence of a revanchist Russia, a defeatist Iranian nuclear deal, and the idealistic dreams of the Arab Spring crashing into a million broken pieces and spawning the rise of ISIS and millions of migrants pouring out across the globe. I could go on, but the long list is not the point of this post. The point is, geopolitics has given us plenty of reason for gloom in the last few years. Our existing leaders seem helpless, prostrate, and often hapless before such events. And yet, despite all of this, recent events and revelations seem to have finally shaken me from my desensitized slumber. Untypically, I find myself with emotions of angst and awe while learning about two world events this week: the Iranian release of American hostages and the bombshell revelation by a UK judge that based upon all of the evidence he had at his disposal, he believes it highly likely that President Putin ordered the murder of a former FSB officer residing in London.

When I first heard the news that five longtime American hostages were being released, I was elated and began to think, despite my long-held severe skepticism, that perhaps the Iranian nuclear deal might be causing a welcoming thaw in relations between America and Iran and that it just might begin to amend their insidious behaviors of the past. Alas, as the details of the hostage release started coming out, joy soon turned to anger at how the Obama administration with John Kerry as its clawless cat’s paw once again displayed shocking feats of feckless foreign policy. In return for obtaining five innocent victims of Iran’s churlish behavior, the U.S. agreed to drop charges against seven Iranians that were accused of flouting sanctions related to the Iranian nuclear program. In addition, Iran is to receive from America $1.7B in an out of court settlement related to a 1970s weapons sale worth $400M in which the Shah of Iran apparently wired the money to America for a weapons transaction but in which the theocratic revolution of Iran disrupted the actual delivery of the weapons. The $1.7B settlement is intended to be principal plus foregone interest on cash. I guess we should be thankful that this administration isn’t actually sending weapons, but the real question is what kind of moral hazards for the future have we set up with such a pusillanimous approach to Iran?

As much as we must celebrate the positive and join in the elation that five innocent people are going home to be reunited with their loved ones, we must also cringe at the pyrrhic price that has been paid. Economists use the term “moral hazard” for something in which short-term expediency and gains creates an incentive to perform dangerous acts in the future.  Hostage taking is what the Iranians do. It is the foundational act of their theocratic regime (for more on this topic, I highly recommend reading Mark Bowden’s Guests of the Ayatollah).  Thus, we have shown Iran that America will reward them for hostage taking in the future, so we should expect much more of these events to occur. Jumping back to the $1.7B,  the casual observer might be mistaken into thinking that this seems like appropriate justice. Iran paid for something that we never delivered. In addition,  the Obama administration has indicated that the timing of this is coincidental and not connected to the negotiated release of hostages. The counter argument is that one can’t add up the sum of money that could presumably be awarded out of justified lawsuits Americans have or could have pursued against Iran over the past thirty years as a result of highly justified complaints from the 60 Americans held for over 400 days at the outset of the regime, the Americans that have been held hostage in recent times plus those that are still being held (Robert Levinson and Siamak Namazi were not released in the swap), plus Americans that have been harmed or killed due to proxy terrorism funded by Iran, including the 1983 Beirut bombings and the 1996 Khobar Towers bombings. In essence, we have ceded billions of taxpayer dollars in a suit that could easily have been justifiably been dismissed or withheld in light of all other lawsuits or atrocities that Iran has never paid up on. The real challenge is negotiating with a pariah state. How exactly does one negotiate with a nation that funds terrorism abroad, takes hostages as a regular course of action, and which advocates for the annihilation of Israel? The answer is simple: one can’t, unless of course one is willing to make terrible foreign policy decisions that ensure that those same acts will continue to pay off for Iran going forward. Echoing Prime Minister Netanyahu, if Iran wants to be treated as a normal nation, then first make it act as one.

Another event that drew up less of a well of anger and more of awe and wonder was the recent revelation that President Putin most likely ordered the murder of a Russian living abroad in London. The 1950s-esque cloak and dagger saga has been years in the making, as the Litvinenko murder occurred back in 2006. What is new is news emanating from an inquiry in the UK by a British judge in which a decade long gathering and review of evidence makes the connection between the murder and the top of the Russian oligopolistic kleptocracy led by Putin irrefutable. Add this act to the growing list of the growing Russian government menace that spreads its poison both internally and externally: the apartment bombing in Chechnya that brought Putin to power that was later connected to FSB agents as the individuals who actually planted the bombs, the murder of journalists who investigated the Chechnyan bombings, the blatant murder in broad daylight of opposition politicians such as Boris Nemtsov, and the invasion of Ukraine, the critical aid being lent to prop up Bashar Assad in Syria. The depressing fact here is that America’s weakness and retreat from the global space has facilitated Russia’s rise and Cold War II. One can hope that this revelation wakes up Western powers to just who they are dealing with in Putin.

Finally and to add insult to injury, I read this morning a report that the American baseball National League is discussing in earnest a decision to implement the Designated Hitter as early as 2017. I guess the flip side of this is I will no longer have to bemoan my beloved Houston Astros recent move to the American League since both leagues will mirror one another. Still, I will go to my grave believing that baseball should be played on grass, in the open skies of daylight, and the pitcher should hit. The world has indeed been turned upside down this week.

As I wrote this, one bit of optimism peeped in when Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings 100 Days, 100 Nights came on my radio. It lifted the spirits after recounting these depressing global events. Give it a listen.


The Sublime in the Form of Music – Russian Liturgy

Achieving a sublime state is a result of witnessing something  so great, so awe-inspiring, so delightful or conversely so terrifying that it escapes the ability of mortal man to describe the true essence of the magnificence of the state. I find such a state of sublimity with much of the Russian Liturgical tradition. Chief amongst my life bucket list is attending a liturgical service in the Novospassky Monastery in Moscow with a performance by their wonderful choir.

As made evident by one of my favorite songs, “The Angel Cried,” Russian liturgy is deeply and spiritually rich in the power of its tone, vocal range, Orthodox lyrics, and often weaving in Russian icons and imagery. I am drawn to the traditional Russian proclivity for basing songs off of the Bass and Alto ranges as opposed to the more typical preference in romantic societies for a tenor/soprano locus. Have a listen and see if you agree.

Translated into English, the lyrics are:

The Angel cried to the Lady Full of Grace:
Rejoice, O Pure Virgin!
Again I say: Rejoice!
Your Son is risen from His three days in the tomb.
With Himself He has raised all the dead.
Rejoice, all ye people!
Shine, shine, O New Jerusalem,
The glory of the Lord has shone on you.
Exult now and be glad, O Zion,
Be radiant, O Pure Theotokos,
In the Resurrection of your Son!

Theotokus is the Greek name for Mary, mother of Jesus that is common parlance in Greek and Russian Orthodox liturgy.