The perils of manipulation

Posted in European, Foreign Affairs, Islam, Reading, Russian by Alex L. on October 31, 2010

Tracks in the desert photoA Mosque in Munich: Nazis, the CIA, and the Rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in the West
by Ian Johnson.
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 318 pp., $27 (or free at your local library).

Most people in the United States know that the CIA supported and equipped the mujahideen to fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan during the 1980s. This, and the dangers of such a strategy, are now common knowledge. What most Americans don’t know and what journalist Ian Johnson has investigated and described in his book, A Mosque in Munich, for the first time, is that the US strategy of using Islam as a tool of foreign policy has an even longer history that stretches back to events surrounding the Second World War.

This story is one of harsh realpolitik with many covert operations conducted by the US, West Germany, and the Muslim Brotherhood that centered around a mosque in Munich during the Cold War. There are few relatable characters in Johnson’s book, but several of them led colorful lives of travel and geopolitical intrigue as they struggled to co-opt the religion of Islam for national or ideological purposes.

Kaiser Wilhelm II was perhaps the first modern European leader to engage in this kind of manipulation with the goal of undermining another Western power, England, in the diplomatic wrangling leading up to World War I (a book devoted to this topic, The Berlin-Baghdad Express: The Ottoman Empire and Germany’s Bid for World Power by Sean McMeekin, was published in September).

The Germans  picked up on this idea during World War II, when they realized that many Muslims living in the Soviet Union were embittered citizens and could be convinced to fight in Nazi uniform against the Soviets when they were captured. About 150,000 Soviet Muslim prisoners volunteered for service in the German army during World War II.


The surrealism of war

Posted in European, Reading, Russian by Alex L. on April 9, 2010

“Anything can happen in war”, writes Evgeni Bessonov in his memoir, Tank Rider: Into the Third Reich with the Red Army. This translation of a Russian soldier’s experiences fighting the Germans during World War II has been my recent reading staple. What does Bessonov mean when he writes that anything can happen in war?

What comes to mind for me when a veteran says something like that is something horrible about war: hand-to-hand combat, grenades blowing off limbs, losing friends in battle. But reading Bessonov’s memoir (and most other personal accounts of war) the reader encounters other stories which are equally surrealistic but not as gruesome.

Bessonov describes one instance when the Germans surprised his unit by attacking at night during a thunderstorm. His platoon retreated as they fought the enemy, but it was so dark that no soldier could tell whether the people around him were Russians or Germans. As rain poured over the forest, the darkness confused everyone and was only brilliantly interrupted by flashes of lightning, which clarified for the soldiers whether the man running next to him was a friend or an enemy. Both Russians and Germans ran through the woods in a kind of “cross country race” until they ran out of the forest and the Germans paused their assault (144-145).

In another encounter, Bessonov, who was a junior officer and only 21 years old at the time, describes getting an order from his superior officer to advance his platoon and attack the enemy. It was an altogether different day, sunny and warm, but Bessonov was exhausted from the night marches and daylight battles.

The sun started to warm us; it was quiet, one could hear only birds singing from the nearest forest, which was not yet occupied by our troops. I replied to the runner that I was about to start the attack; he left, and I again fell asleep. The runner from the company commander ran up again, with the same order and with threats from the company commander. I again replied that we would commence the attack any time soon and fell asleep again – such things had never happened to me before. The runner woke me up and again reminded me of the attack – this time, the company commander ordered him not to leave me before I started the attack. I slept under a bush on soft grass (I did not dig a trench), I had been dreaming about something peaceful and I really did not feel like dying in that quiet hour. . . I tried to think of death as little as possible, but at that moment I was merely overwhelmed by exhaustion and quietness and I really wanted to sleep. (139)

The poet Robert Frost famously likened death to sleep in his poem “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening“: “The woods are lovely, dark and deep / But I have promises to keep, / And miles to go before I sleep, / And miles to go before I sleep.” For Evgeni Bessonov in late August of 1944, the woods in front of his platoon where the enemy waited meant death. And sleep  for him then was not an embrace of death, but the flight from it.

My memories of the end of the Cold War

Posted in American, European, History, Russian by Alex L. on November 9, 2009

The Berlin WallIn the early 1990s, Russian-Americans joked that bananas were the national food of Russia, because newly arrived Russian immigrants to America would eat them zealously and in abundance. Of course, quite the opposite was true. Bananas were scarce in the Soviet Union so Russians who moved to Western countries were simply making up for lost time. My parents like to remember that shortly after our family’s arrival to the United States, I declared, “I will never get sick of bananas!”

That was the end of 1992, and I was seven years old. Since then, years of consuming banana slices with morning cereal or in cafeteria fruit medleys have eroded my—and perhaps most Russian-Americans’—enthusiasm for the fruit. Time heals all wounds and also dissipates all wonder. On November 9, 1989, the Iron Curtain was lifted, and for the first time in decades, East Germans crossed over the Berlin Wall, which would be dismantled in the weeks that followed. I don’t remember any of this, as I was only four years old. The only political events I remember appreciating while I lived in the Soviet Union were the inflation of the Soviet (then Belarusian) currency and Mikhail Gorbachev’s house arrest in August 1991. He graciously waved to me through the television screen in my grandparents’ living room and was worried, a journalist said, about his political enemies poisoning his food as they held the country hostage for four days. I was impressed by his calmness.

This is all I remember, though, of what the Economist recently described as the “most remarkable political event of most people’s lives . . . [which] set free millions of individuals and . . . brought to an end a global conflict that threatened nuclear annihilation.” I was young and years of living in the United States have made the Soviet Union, the Cold War, and Gorbachev memories from another lifetime. But this morning, twenty years to the day when the Iron Curtain fell, my father and I ceremoniously split a banana in two and each ate a half, savoring every bite.

This Day in History: Nazi Germany invades the Soviet Union

Posted in American, European, Russian by Alex L. on June 22, 2009

On June 22, 1941, Nazi German armies invaded the Soviet Union, catching the Red Army by surprise and destroying thousands of Soviet airplanes before they even had a chance to take off from the ground. The ensuing battle, known as Operation Barbarossa, lasted until the winter of that year and, according to Wikipedia, “remains the largest military operation, in terms of manpower, area traversed, and casualties, in human history.” I read a few articles (you can tell from which impeccably-reliable source) today about this event and learned a few interesting points.

The mainstream scholarly view of the invasion holds that the Germans caught Joseph Stalin completely by surprise, which explains the heavy Soviet casualties in the beginning of the campaign. A Russian author, Viktor Suvorov, has recently challenged this traditional view with a theory that the Soviets were actually planning an invasion of Germany in 1941 but were beaten to the offensive. This is an ongoing debate among scholars, especially since Suvorov’s theory is largely based on circumstantial evidence (for instance, that the Soviets were developing offensive technologies such as this ridiculous-looking flying tank). Another interesting scholarly controversy I encountered was why the conflict on the Eastern Front of World War II is not well known in America. A recent book, The Myth of the Eastern Front: The Nazi-Soviet War in American Popular Culture, tackles this question. Although my reading on the subject of Operation Barbarossa has been brief today, there are many interesting avenues for further study.

“Defiance” movie intermixes many stories

Posted in Film, Judaism, Russian, Storytelling by Alex L. on March 18, 2009

Defiance movie poster

A few days ago, I watched the movie “Defiance” with my parents. The plot was engaging, the acting was decent, and there were tasteful doses of action, romance, and philosophy throughout. What most captured my imagination about the movie, though, was a theme I mentioned a few days ago: storytelling. Defiance manages to tell, in one film, a Belarusian, Jewish, and American story. Those three happen to be my personal backgrounds (although I am an Eastern Orthodox Christian by faith, I am also ethnically Jewish) so I found myself drawn to all aspects of the film.

I think the overarching story is a retelling of the Exodus narrative: the Belarusian (technically, what is now western Belarus was eastern Poland at that time) Jews are in the wilderness, escaping from their pursuant enemies – the Germans rather than the Egyptians. Tuvia Bielski is a Moses figure and the film even has a modern rendition of the parting-of-the-Red-Sea tale. In addition to the Jewish theme, Defiance glorifies the heroes of the Great Patriotic War, a common Russian motif. Finally, these familiar narratives are packaged into a Hollywood product. I enjoyed this American take on a Russian story (although my friend Mike, also a Russian, loathed the movie for its American clichés). Russian movies are often tragic and lack the redemptive, life-affirming conclusions of American films. Defiance fits the latter mold and follows the Hollywood forumla in other ways too (such as the obligatory love story). All in all, the movie Defiance is an interesting study in how narratives from different cultures can be synthesized to tell a refreshing, if familiar, story.