Saturday, November 28, 2015

Travels in the time of communism

For some time, I have followed Anne Applebaum, and her husband Radek Sikorski. Anne is a journalist/historian who has written about Eastern Europe.  Here (, she tells of how the time she spent studying in Leningrad in 1985 helps her to understand the modern world. Like Anne, I spent time behind the "Iron Curtain" in the time of communism. And, like Anne, I think it has had a long term effect on my life. However, I am only now starting to write about some of those topics.

I grew up in the US, but, during my teens and twenties, my father made several trips for scientific exchange visits to various countries in Eastern Europe. My mother and I were fortunate to accompany him on several trips. My mother had the advantage of being fluent in Polish. I came to learn some Polish, and also improved my German. I learned to read Cyrillic on one trip to the Soviet Union when I was handed a map in Russian and learned the road signs were in Russian. I was the navigator. We were given a deadline by which time we had to arrive at our hotel or else... So, I quickly learned to match the letters on the map and the signs, and we arrived on time. Later, I studied Russian in school.

That is one of many stories of my travels in that era. I came to realize that the people in the various countries of Eastern Europe were no different than the people at home, with one major difference, they were very cicumspect about what they spoke about in public, or until they knew they could trust you. Very few had been allowed to travel abroad. And, often they had trouble believing that Americans could travel as we did.

Those travels taught me, too, about life under communism. Even though I never saw the worst of communism. That I got to hear about from relatives, both in Europe and from Europe. From relatives who had survived gulags and made it to the West, and from relatives in Poland who were still hiding a cousin who had spoken out against the Soviets and so had an execution order hanging over his head. I wonder if I would have spoken and written these stories sooner if I, too, had not internalized the censorship.

So, like Anne, I see frightening comparisons in some of the propaganda and actions of Russia now. I see the suppression of Memorial, and know that there is an effort to again forget those who suffered in gulags and labor settlements. I see the attempt at rehabilitating Stalin, regarding him as a great leader and again showing his portraits. And, I, too, see the invasions of the little green men and weaponry to help Russian speakers in Ukraine. And, now, Russian forces shoring up the regime of Assad in Syria. I agree with Anne Applebaum that these events are reminiscent of the past. And, so, these actions concern me with what they might mean for the future.

Monday, November 16, 2015

City of Lights

On Friday, there were coordinated attacks in Paris killing more than 100 people (, following attacks in Beirut killing more than 40 people on Thursday ( Apparently, ISIS has claimed responsibility for both these attacks, as they did for the apparent bombing of the Russian airliner (

These attacks show how we cannot simply say that the war is "over there," but must realize that we are at risk, no matter where we live or what we do. They seem to be to show us in the West that the war has come to us. But, the people continue to flee the war zones in the Middle East, since it is not safe to live there. They are making their choices with their feet, leaving the place that has been home for generations to try to make a life elsewhere. 

As I see what appears to be the spreading of war, I think back to my youth. and remember a slogan of the peace group, Another Mother for Peace, "War is not healthy for children and other living things." Especially with a "war on terrorism," I have difficulty understanding how war reduces terrorism and safeguards the population. Instead I see war as causing people to fight for their homeland. These people may be seen as heros or villians, depending on one's viewpoint.

Unfortutunately, terrorism is not easy to fight. It is a hydra. Cutting off one head simply allows another to take over. It even encourages others, since many feel suppressed. So we have seen one terrorist group after another. Each is worse than the last.

So what is the solution. I think it must be addressed at the base. Why is it that youth are disaffected? Why do they choose to join radical groups?  I would extrapolate from what I saw in the inner city. Youth are disaffected if they see no hope for the future. Then, they choose what they see as another path to success. Their anger can easily lead to violence. So, vulnerable youth  must be shown another path. They must be convinced that they can succeed and that their families can succeed.

Governments can't simply suppress, but must support the springs of hope. I think of the option given on Homeland of sending in not just soldiers, but also doctors and teachers.
The second option of more destruction is only cutting off a head of the hydra.

We need to change our strategy and address the causes. Or new heads will simply appear.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

What can the plane reveal?

It has been over five years since a crash which killed the Polish President and numerous other Polish political figures, and the wreckage of the plane has still not been returned from Russia. Poland is now planning to sue in the European Court of Human Rights ( and

The investigation was long since settled by Russia as showing pilot error and weather as the cause. But, other groups say this doesn't quite fit. Conspiracy theories abound. Immediately after the crash, "the plane’s black boxes, laptops, sensitive documents, mobile phones, address books, telephone numbers, correspondence, and the top-secret military, NATO and diplomatic codes on board were salvaged from crash site immediately by the Kremlin’s operatives in what was a “coup for Russia’s intelligence service” according to retired CIA analyst Gene Poteat. What Nowaczyk calls “years worth of work for security services” was completed in a single day by Russia’s OMON Special Purpose Police, which were immediately deployed to the site." (

An engineer from the University of Akron, Wieslaw Bienieda, did simulations which suggest that crash could not have happened the way it was described by the Russians ( He reported that a large debris field and no crater would be unlikely if the plane clipped a birch tree 30-40 meters (100-130 feet) in the air. In addition, he thought that many of the passengers in the midsection would have survived a fall into soft soil.

A Danish scientist, Glenn Joregensen, also was left with several questions which were not explained by the official report (

I have no way of knowing what the truth is. The Dutch investigation of the MH-17 crash showed how detailed an investigation could be, and led Poles to ask if the Smolensk crash should be further investigated ( So, I do think that returning the plane to Poland where it can be subjected to a full investigation is appropriate. It's time to clear the air. Unless there is something to hide.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Civilian victims

Civilians are increasingly the victims of the more targeted wars of the last one hundred years. And now, NGOs which have offered help have been attacked, whether accidentally or on purpose (See recent blog Kunduz and; Now, MSF and the World Food Program have been kicked out of parts of eastern Ukraine ( More recently, another hospital in Yemen was hit (

These attacks, whether physical or simply ejecting NGOs serve to undermine the already weak infrastructure needed by civilians in order to survive. This compounds the attacks on civilians in many of the world's war zones, causing many to see few options but to flee their homes.

Syrian refugees and others fleeing North Africa are leaving in such numbers as haven't been seen since WWII. They suffer significant risk in trying to make the journey. Large numbers die in transit and may wash up on the beaches. A fellow student in an online class reported that she and her son were walking along the beach in Malta when they found the torso of a woman recently. She said that up to 150 bodies may wash ashore on a single day.

Top ten countries of origin (red) and asylum (green) of refugees worldwide at the end of 2014, according to UNHCR data (which exclude Palestinian refugees under UNRWA mandate).[32]
According to the UNHCR, the number of forcibly displaced people worldwide reached the highest level since World War II. At the end of 2014, 59.5 million people were refugees. ("The Global Refugee Crisis, Region by Region"The New York Times. 26 August 2015.) 

Resources of neighboring countries, and of countries more distant, are increasingly strained. Several European countries have tried to restrict the flow to their countries.

The scale of the refugee crisis adds to my concern for the future. I don't believe people flee their homes unless they see no other choices. Especially, taking the perilous routes that are the only ones available to them, and risking their lives and those of their children.

Despite having grown up during the Cold War, and experienced both sides of the Iron Curtain, I worry that the world is working its way up to another global conflagration. I hope and pray that is not the case, but...

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Rehabing the Gulag

Prisons are in theory supposed to rehabilitate prisoners. Yet, in reality, few do. Many criminals, for whatever reason, repeat their crimes. Except for crimes of passion. Or where the state feels wronged--political crimes. Here in the US, we have only had short forays into punishing people for political crimes. Joe McCarthy comes to mind here. And, yes, there is a story there. But, that is for another day. Today, the issue is rehabilitating the prisons.

"The fence at the old GULag in Perm-36" by Gerald Praschl - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons -

Russia is attempting to rehabilitate the past, including the history of the gulag ( It has persecuted Memorial, an organization founded to remember the victims ( It has forced the Museum of the Gulag at Perm to close (

My grandfather's second wife and her family were some of the victims of the gulag. They were taken from a town in the Kresy (eastern Poland) in 1940, in compliance with the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact (, which allowed for the start of WWII and divided East Central Europe, in particular Poland, between the signatories.

The family of husband, wife (my grandfather's second wife) and two sons were taken by train from their home in winter. Both sets of grandparents had said they were too old to travel, and so were shot. The remainder of the family was loaded onto a cattle car and shipped east. Many of the people from the town were taken.

In the middle of the taiga near Arkhangelsk, the train came to a stop. The people were offloaded. They asked, "Where do we live?" The answer was, "There are trees, you can build houses." The people asked, "What do we eat?" The response was, "There are rabbits."

Of the 4 members of the family to arrive in the taiga, only 2 made it out of the Soviet Union. Only 3 people from the town survived. I am uncertain why my grandmother's first husband died. What I have found online suggests he survived to be freed. The younger of the two children was only 3 years old when he was sent to the taiga. According to family, he was "just too young to live." The older child was eleven when he was taken from his home. He survived this and joined the Anders army, a Polish army organized under the British. Despite his young age, he fought with them during WWII. See an earlier blog, from 2012, on Child Soldiers.

Timothy Snyder was asked a few years ago whether Hitler or Stalin was worse ( He approached the question by telling the history and letting the reader decide. I won't presume that I can answer the question any better. I know that I can't.

Both Hitler and Stalin were evil dictators who each killed millions. Each believed that their philosophy justified the killing. And, like memorials for the victims of the Holocaust, there should be memorials for the victims of the gulags. And, not just in Moscow or Perm. Their deaths should not, again, be denied to the world. They should be remembered, so that such crimes are never repeated.


Last weekend, a Russian passenger jet crashed in the Sinai. Despite ISIS claims of shooting the jet down, the Russians reported otherwise. But, today, there was an article ( that makes me wonder. If a British jet had to avoid a rocket, perhaps the Russians were not so lucky. Thus, the British decision to suspend air travel to Sharm El Sheikh makes sense. It makes sense that the American government is also raising the suspicion of a terrorist attack. It suggests that the Russian crash may not have been an accident, but an attack. And, not an isolated one at that.

And then, there is a statement that the rocket was part of Egyptian military exercises ( This is also very puzzling. Why would a military hold exercises near flightpaths to a civilian airport? They should know the flightpaths and schedules since they are public.

And, Sputnik asks a stranger question (, suggesting the British would attack a Russian jet. If they had, why would they stop their own passenger traffic? There would be no need, since their people would be safe. But, asking such a question can only further inflame tensions between Russia and the West.

The official investigation has not shown evidence of a terrorist attack ( But, what then? Why would the plane crash? And, then, the Russians also suspend flights after evidence of an explosion (

As I write this, friends are on their way to Israel. I worry for their safety, not just from the stabbing attacks in Israel, but, now, also from attacks at 30,000 feet. The answer is unclear what happened to the Russian passenger jet, but a terrorist attack is certainly a possibility.