Review of “The Silk Roads: A New History of the World” by Peter Frankopan

The principle thesis of Peter Frankopan’s thought-provoking history The Silk Roads is that westerners (Europeans and Americans) have greatly underestimated the influence on their own history of events occurring in Central Asia (along the “Silk Roads”). While the West tends to see itself at the apex of civilized peoples, in fact, it is the countries of the East that have been at the very center of history from the beginning: “It was here that Civilisation was born.” And it was at the intersections between east and west that great cities arose famed for their innovations that advanced and enhanced “the world’s central nervous system.”

Frankopan employs this thesis to organize and analyze significant time spans. He begins with Alexander the Great, but not by focusing on Alexander’s impact in Greece. Rather, he examines his influence on Asia Minor, Persia, and farther east where the successors to his conquests continued to rule for many years. One of Alexander’s captains, Seleucus, founded a dynasty of his own, the Seleucids, that ruled from the Tigris to the Himalayas for three centuries. During the reign of the Seleucids, long-distance trade of high value goods, from pottery to spices to horses, burgeoned.

Trade items going back and forth across both land and sea that had a great effect on the countries involved included furs, slaves, precious metals, and grains. But it was silk, primarily from China, Frankopan avers, that performed the most important role in the ancient world. Silk served as a reliable international currency as well as a luxury product, increasingly in demand by the rich and powerful as cities in the West prospered. Its importance guaranteed that the West would continue to seek interaction with the East.

For all that we in the West look to the Roman Empire as a seminal innovator, Frankopan points out that “Rome’s eyes were opened by the world it encountered in the east.” In Asia, the ancient poet Sallust observed, Roman soldiers learned “how to make love, to be drunk, to enjoy statues, pictures and art.”

Soldiers and traders not only had their own horizons expanded by the East. They in turn brought with them ideas and goods from the West that exerted a reciprocal influence. Moreover, regulation of markets by countries affected by trade, and the taxing of imports and exports, led to political changes in all the countries involved. And political leaders, covetous of the goods they saw from other places, began to think about the feasibility of conquest beyond their usual realms of interest.

Trade wasn’t the only impetus of increased contacts between east and west. Much of the history of the world from the fourth to the twelfth centuries C.E. was dominated by the spread, interplay, and conflicts among the religions of Judaism, Christianity, Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, and Islam. Christianity dominated the Mediterranean basin until the rise of Islam in the seventh century, but Judaism, Zoroastrianism, and Buddhism were contending for the loyalty of many more people farther east. The search for religious converts has always played a large role in the movement of peoples around the world, and religions in both east and west went through metamorphoses to capture the allegiances of rivals. Doctrinal conflicts served as tools to establish and/or solidify power (as well as in defining enemies, which is always helpful in fixing loyalties).

Spread of Christianity in the Middle Ages

Frankopan argues that Christianity would have been more successful in the East had it not been for Emperor Constantine I, who, by identifying his own empire with Christianity, anathematized that religion for his rival emperors of Persia and central Asia. By way of contrast, Frankopan attributes Islam’s early tolerance of other faiths as a key factor in its expansion.

Spread of Islam in the Middle Ages

Frankopan’s thesis of the importance of influence by Central Asia becomes less workable in the late 15th century when European powers made technological breakthroughs in ocean-going ship design and in weaponry. However, once petroleum became the world’s principal energy source in the early 20th century, countries in the Middle East once again began to influence if not dominate world history. As Frankopan concludes, “The silk roads are rising again.”

There is another way in fact that the “silk roads” are experiencing a renaissance, although it is beyond the historical purview of this book but relevant to its message. China is reviving the concept of “The Silk Road” to foster a new connectivity, as Huffington Post reports:

What Chinese President Xi Jinping means to convey is a renewed connectivity both within Asia and between Asia and Europe, both by land and by the sea, and both by means of strengthening traditional infrastructure and through building highways of trade, finance and cultural exchange to strengthen connectivity.”

China is already the number one trading partner of most Asian countries. With the U.S.’s withdrawal from international agreements, Asia is eager to increase it’s hegemony in world leadership. The so-called “Belt and Road” initiative is expected to funnel investments worth up to $502 billion into 62 host countries over the next five years.

Evaluation: This is a deftly-written book with intriguing insights that gives European and American readers a new coign of vantage from which to observe world history. Today, Frankopan observes, because of religious fundamentalism and sectarian violence in the East, we tend to forget that the countries that are now reviled as backward once served as bywords for “good taste in everything….” Frankopan shares fascinating stories from history to bring that important legacy back into focus.

Rating: 4.5/5

Published in the U.S. by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House, 2015


Review of “Over the Edge of the World” by Laurence Bergreen

In The European Discovery of America, Samuel Elliot Morrison described Ferdinand Magellan as “Tough, Tough, TOUGH.” Laurence Bergreen’s Over the Edge of the World reinforces that notion, and in addition, gives us a detailed portrait of the remarkable man who planned and led the first circumnavigation of the globe.

It had been 27 years since Columbus had first reached the New World when Magellan set out from Seville in 1519. Spain had reached what it still thought was the “Indies,” by sailing west, but had not turned its discoveries into a paying proposition since the Western hemisphere had few trade goods, and the gold and silver of South America had yet to be developed. Both Spain and Portugal were aware that the South American land mass was very large, and neither had found a route around it or through it to the very profitable Moluccas or Spice Islands. Portugal, in the mean time, had reached the Moluccas by sailing south and then east around Africa. [It still surprises many people to learn that Vasco da Gama did not reach the real Indies until several years after Columbus had reached the Caribbean islands.]

In 1494, Pope Alexander VI issued a papal bull dividing the world for new discovery between Spain and Portugal, ceding to Spain all the undiscovered land west of a line 100 leagues (about 400 miles) west of the Cape Verde Islands. Portugal was given all the undiscovered land east of that line. This compromise raised some very thorny questions. First, because at that time longitude was difficult to determine accurately, there was ample room for dispute about the actual location of the line. Second, the line was far enough west to cede part of what became Brazil to Portugal. (Later negotiation would fix the ultimate boundaries of that country.) Third, the line extended all the way around the globe through the poles, and no one knew where the line extended in the Eastern hemisphere. Thus, no one knew on which side of the line the Spice Islands were located.

Magellan was Portuguese by birth. He first tried to induce the King of Portugal to outfit an expedition to the Spice Islands by sailing west. Possibly because Portugal had already found an attractive route to the east, the king showed little interest in Magellan’s plan. In Charles I of Spain (later the most Catholic Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V), Magellan found a willing patron.

Ferdinand Magellan

Ferdinand Magellan

He obtained five well-provisioned and well-armed ships, but Magellan had a long way to go. For one thing, his efforts to provision the fleet became known in Portugal, and the Portuguese wanted to prevent him from finding an alternate route to the Spice Islands. In order to avoid the Portuguese, he first set sail along the coast of Africa before crossing the Atlantic. The crew might have inferred their destination from the name of the fleet, The Armada de Molucca, but Magellan kept their mission a secret for fear of mutiny. Moreover, the other ship captains disliked and distrusted him, perhaps because of his Portuguese background.

Magellan thwarted two serious mutinies from Juan de Cartegena, one of his captains. He merely demoted Cartegena after the first, but marooned him with no hope of rescue after the second.

Magellan endured horrible weather at various times during the voyages. He had to spend several months at the mouth of the Rio de la Plata before attempting to go farther south in search of the strait or cape leading to the Pacific. He was able to distinguish rivers from straits because they discharged fresh water. Finally, on October 21, 1520, more that 13 months after setting sail, they rounded the Cape of the Eleven Thousand Virgins and entered what later became known as the Strait of Magellan. Navigating the Strait was no mean task — it took 38 days to debouche into the Pacific. On the way, the captain of one of the ships of the armada decided it would safer to return to Spain, and snuck away instead of exploring the water ahead as Magellan had ordered.

No one at the time had any idea of just how immense the Pacific Ocean was. Nor did anyone with Magellan know the location or existence of hospitable islands. Once into the Pacific, Magellan headed west, with favorable winds, but still took 98 days to traverse 7,000 miles of open ocean and reach land (probably Guam) where he could obtain fresh water and food! During that stretch, he lost many of the crew to scurvy and malnutrition.

Magellan’s encounters with indigenous people, either in South America or the Pacific islands, were always fraught with danger and ambiguity. Some resulted in profitable trading and occasional sharing of native women, but several resulted in battles and mutual killing. The Spanish always had more advanced weapons and armor, but the natives were often lethal and always more numerous.

The armada made land fall in the Philippines on March 28, 1521. After impressing the natives with Spanish prowess in the form of guns and armor, Magellan made friends with a local war lord. Until that time he had been sagacious, disciplined, and prudent. But here, driven in part by a desire to convert the locals to Catholicism, he very unwisely offered his services as a military force to destroy the Mactans, who were enemies of his new best friend. The Mactans turned out to be tougher and more numerous that he had anticipated, and he and a few of his crew (mostly part of the Portuguese minority) were slaughtered in the surf while attempting an amphibious landing. Many of the crew watched his demise from the safety of their two remaining ships. Antonio Pigafetta, the chief chronicler of the voyage, implies that more might have been done to save him, but many of the remaining Spanish officers were jealous of Magellan and disliked him.

The surviving crew members still were a long way from home and had not reached the Moluccas. With the help of local traders, they reached the fabled Spice Islands and loaded their ships with the precious cargo. The return trip was nearly as harrowing as the outward voyage. One of the two remaining vessels decided to return by way of the Pacific in order to avoid the Portuguese navy and traders, who were present in the Spice Islands and in several settlements along the Indian and African coasts. They were never heard from again. The other ship, piloted by Sebastian Elcano, luckily slipped through the Portuguese and limped home along the better known route around Africa, arriving in Spain three years after leaving.

The voyage of the armada represented a tremendous exercise in heroic endurance and navigation. It did not pay off for Spain, however, which never developed a thriving trade in spices. Magellan’s route to the Moluccas was simply too long, dangerous, and costly. Spain’s fortunes were made by developing the New World.

Published by William Morrow, 2003

May 19, 1930 – Birth of Lorraine Hansberry

Lorraine Hansberry was a celebrated black playwright who was born in Chicago, Illinois, and died in New York City at the age of thirty-four from pancreatic cancer. Her most famous work, A Raisin in the Sun, was partially inspired by her family’s legal battle against racially segregated housing laws in the Washington Park Subdivision of the South Side of Chicago during her childhood.


In order to meet the needs of growing families in the small black ghetto of Chicago, Lorraine’s father Carl (a prominent real estate broker) purchased large, older houses vacated by white flight and divided them up into small apartments that became known as “kitchenettes.” For his own family, he purchased a house in an area restricted to whites. The Hansberry family was thrust, the playwright said later, into a “hellishly hostile ‘white neighborhood’” where “howling mobs surrounded” their home. Hansberry was nearly killed when a cement slab was hurled through a window.

Her father joined with the NAACP to initiate a legal challenge against the restrictive covenants that kept blacks out of all-white neighborhoods. This struggle led to the U.S. Supreme Court case of Hansberry v. Lee, 311 U.S. 32 (1940). The Court ruled in favor of Hansberry, although the ruling was made on technical grounds and did not invalidate all racial covenants.

The legal battle left Hansberry’s father embittered, and he died two years after the Supreme Court decision. Hansberry kept him alive however through her play, A Raisin in the Sun, set in the 1950’s on the Southside of Chicago. The Younger family is a poor black family living in one of the “kitchenette” apartments. When Lena, the mother of Walter and Beneatha, receives insurance money from the death of her husband, everyone argues over what to do with the money. Lena decides to use a part of the insurance money to buy a new house in a white neighborhood. The repercussions of this decision, resonating throughout the Younger’s microcosmic world as well as the world outside, propel the action for the remainder of the play.

A Raisin in the Sun has become an American classic, enjoying numerous productions since its original presentation in 1959. The Broadway revival in 2004 brought the play to a new generation, and earned two Tony Awards for individual performances.

Sydney Poitier & Claudia McNeill as Walter & Mama Younger

Sydney Poitier & Claudia McNeill as Walter & Mama Younger

Hansberry attended the University of Wisconsin at Madison. She became the first black student to live in her dormitory. She worked for the Henry Wallace presidential campaign and participated in the Young Progressive League, becoming president of the organization in 1949 during her last semester. While still in Madison, she was profoundly affected by a university production of Sean O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock. She was moved by O’Casey’s ability to universalize the suffering of the Irish and later wrote: “The melody was one that I had known for a very long while. I was seventeen and I did not think then of writing the melody as I knew it — in a different key; but I believe it entered my consciousness and stayed there.” She would come to sing that song as a Negro spiritual with her first produced play, A Raisin in the Sun.

In 1950 she left Madison and moved to New York City. In Harlem she began working on Freedom, a progressive newspaper founded by Paul Robeson. In 1952 she became associate editor of the newspaper, writing and editing a variety of news stories that expanded her understanding of domestic and world problems. The rich cultural and intellectual environment of Renaissance Harlem also stimulated Hansberry, and she began composing short stories, poetry, and plays.

In 1953 Hansberry married Robert Nemiroff, a white Jewish literature student and songwriter, whom she had met on a picket line protesting discrimination at New York University. Thereafter, she worked as a waitress and cashier, writing in her spare time. After Nemiroff gained success with his hit song, “Cindy, Oh Cindy,” Hansberry was able to devote herself entirely to writing. The working title of A Raisin in the Sun was originally The Crystal Stair after a line in a poem by Langston Hughes. The new title was from another Langston Hughes poem, which asked: “What happens to a dream deferred? / Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun, / Or does it explode?”

Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes

A Raisin in the Sun opened at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on March 11, 1959 and was an instant success with both critics and audiences. The New York critic Walter Kerr praised Hansberry for conveying “the precise temperature of a race at that time in its history when it cannot retreat and cannot quite find the way to move forward. The mood is forty-nine parts anger and forty-nine parts control, with a very narrow escape hatch for the steam these abrasive contraries build up. Three generations stand poised, and crowded, on a detonating-cap.” (New York Herald Tribune, March 12, 1959). Sidney Poitier played the role of Walter Lee. The film version of 1961, also starring Sidney Poitier, received a special award at the Cannes festival.

Hansberry became a celebrity overnight. The play was awarded the New York Drama Critics Circle Award in 1959, making Lorraine Hansberry the first black playwright, the youngest person, and only the fifth woman to win that award.

Lorraine Hansberry and Robert Nemiroff in the backyard of their home in Croton-on-Hudson

Lorraine Hansberry and Robert Nemiroff in the backyard of their home in Croton-on-Hudson

In 1960 the NBC producer Dore Schary commissioned Hansberry to write the opening segment for a television series commemorating the Civil War. Her subject was to be slavery. The result was The Drinking Gourd, a television play that focused on the effects that slavery had on the families of the slave master and the poor whites as well as the slaves. The play was considered too controversial by NBC television executives and, despite Schary’s objections, was shelved along with the entire project.

A Raisin in the Sun, however, continued to enjoy widespread popularity. In the wake of its’ extended success, Hansberry became a public figure and popular speaker. She declared “all art is ultimately social” and called upon black writers to be involved in “the intellectual affairs of all men, everywhere.” As the civil rights movement intensified, Hansberry helped to plan fund-raising events to support organizations such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).


Early in April 1963, Hansberry was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Despite the progressive failure of her health during the next two years, she continued her writing projects and political activities. She also completed a photo-essay for a book on the civil rights struggle titled The Movement: Documentary of a Struggle for Equality (1964).

In March 1964 she quietly divorced Robert Nemiroff, formalizing the separation that had occurred several years earlier. Only close friends and family had known; their continued collaboration as theater artists and activists had masked Hansberry’s homosexuality. Those outside their close circle only learned of the divorce when Hansberry’s will was read in 1965.


Throughout 1964 Hansberry’s hospitalizations became more frequent as the cancer spread. In May she left the hospital to deliver a speech to the winners of the United Negro College Fund’s writing contest in which she coined the famous phrase, “young, gifted, and black.” She also managed to complete The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window, which opened to mixed reviews on October 15, 1964.

Lorraine Hansberry’s battle with cancer ended at University Hospital in New York City. She was just thirty-four years old. The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window closed on the night of her death.


Hansberry left a number of finished and unfinished projects. In her will, she designated Nemiroff as executor of her literary estate. Hansberry’s reputation continued to grow after her death in 1965 as Nemiroff edited, published, and produced her work posthumously. In 1969 he adapted some of her unpublished writings for the stage under the title To Be Young, Gifted, and Black. The longest-running drama of the 1968 – 1969 off-Broadway season, it toured colleges and communities in the United States during 1970 – 1971. A ninety-minute film based on the stage play was first shown in January 1972.

In 1970 Nemiroff produced on Broadway a new work by Hansberry, Les Blancs, a full-length play set in the midst of a violent revolution in an African country. In 1972 Nemiroff published The Collected Last Plays of Lorraine Hansberry, which included Les Blancs, The Drinking Gourd, and What Use Are Flowers?, a short play about the consequences of nuclear holocaust. In 1974 A Raisin in the Sun returned to Broadway as Raisin, a musical, produced by Robert Nemiroff. Raisin won a Tony Award as the best musical and ran on Broadway for nearly three years.

In 1987, A Raisin in the Sun, with original material restored, was presented at the Roundabout Theatre in New York, the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, and other theaters nationwide. In 1989 this version was presented on national television. The year 2004 saw the first Broadway revival of the play. With the hip-hop star Sean “P. Diddy” Combs in the lead role of Walter Lee, the show attracted a large and diverse audience. For her performance as Lena Younger, Phylicia Rashad won the first Tony for best performance by an actress in a drama ever awarded to an African American woman. Audra McDonald won her fourth Tony for best featured actress for her role as Beneatha.


Nemiroff died of cancer at age 61 on January 17, 2009.

Hansberry made a significant contribution to American theater, despite the brevity of her theatrical life and the fact that only two of her plays were produced during her lifetime. A Raisin in the Sun was a turning point for black artists in the professional theater. One of the most popular plays ever produced on the American stage, it ran for 538 performances on Broadway, attracting large audiences of white and black fans alike. Her position on the political obligations of black writers continues to be an inspiration to her intellectual heirs.

Review of “Symphony for the City of the Dead: The Siege of Leningrad” by M. T. Anderson

To say that a soundtrack would be useful or, indeed, desirable, while reading this history is an understatement, because of the centrality of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony to the story. And yet, in some ways the symphony is only a “hook” to tell the story of the rise of Stalin and more specifically, the devastating Siege of Leningrad during World War II. (The book is subtitled “Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad.”). Still, the creation of the symphony was critical for citizens of Leningrad enduring the siege, and this book explains why. [In 1914, the name of the city was changed from Saint Petersburg to Petrograd, in 1924 to Leningrad, and in 1991 back to Saint Petersburg.]

The story of the Siege of Leningrad, part of Operation Barbarossa, as the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union was code-named, is remarkable indeed. The siege lasted 872 days (it is sometimes called “the 900-Day Siege”), and was the longest siege in the recorded history of warfare.

Invasion of the Soviet Union by the Nazis

Some 2.5 million were trapped in the city. When it was over, it is estimated that approximately one and half million had died – more than the total combined WWII casualties of both the Americans and the British. Quite a few of the deceased became food for the living (a fact not disclosed except in rumor until 2002). What caused the citizenry to persevere? The author posits two seemingly opposing motivations: (1) intense devotion – to country – “Mother Russia” – in general; to the city in particular; and to other family members; and (2) a deep hatred of the besieging German army. He later adds that it was not only nutrition that was essential to survival, but morale.

“In besieged Leningrad”. Leningradians on Nevsky Avenue during the siege.

In addition, there was the incentive for Leningraders to assert their humanity in the face of so many dehumanizing forces, first by Stalin, then by Hitler, each of whom attacked the citizens of Leningrad in ironically similar ways. Both of these psychopathic autocrats in effect issued a challenge to the people of Leningrad: will you do whatever it takes to survive by becoming like animals, or will you work together, trying to maintain normality, and continuing to aspire to greater things?

Here is where Shostakovich played such a great role, with the evocative music he continued to create in spite of all the hardships and barriers to doing so. At it’s heart, the author writes, this story is about “how music coaxes people to endure unthinkable tragedy . . . how it can still comfort the suffering, saying, ‘Whatever has befallen you – you are not alone.’” [It should be noted that in Russia, literature, poetry, folklore, music, dance, and art play a much more central role in people’s lives than is perhaps the case in the West. ]

Dmitri Shostakovich

Shostakovich was born in St. Petersburg in 1906, and always felt a deep love for that city. But the city was only a small part of a large country, and he grew up in a tumultuous era, when many Russians were disaffected with the tsar and the direction taken by the Russian Empire. They saw the West, but not Russia, moving toward modernity and more equality. Intellectuals were further inspired by the revolutionary writings of Karl Marx. The first revolution had taken place in 1905, after which the tsar felt compelled to issue the “October Manifesto,” granting Russians “fundamental civil freedoms.” But social unrest in Russia continued and grew. Astoundingly, as the author reports:

“In the first year and a half of Shostakovich’s life, roughly 4,500 government officials were injured or killed in assassination attempts by radicals. In his toddler years, the government recorded 20,000 terrorist acts across the empire, with more than 7,500 fatalities.”

Engagement in WWI brought more disruption and mass starvation to Russia. Two additional, more effective, revolutions in 1917 – one in February and one in October – resulted in the abdication of the tsar and the coming to power of the Bolshevik Party, initially led by Vladimir Lenin, and later by Joseph Stalin. After the February Revolution, the country was in an uproar, and the eleven-year-old musical prodigy Shostakovich was inspired to compose a “Funeral March for the Victims of the Revolution.” He got into the Petrograd Conservatory at the young age of 13, trying to focus on music while the rest of the country roiled in upheavals. St. Petersburg, now called Petrograd, “was wild with frenzied experimentation,” not only in politics but in the arts, and Shostakovich became a part of it. The “Futurist” art movement reflected these “times of hope and fantasy.”

Lenin tried to capitalize on the importance of art to the Russian people by insisting that artists reflect the party position. Lenin wrote: “The state is an instrument of coercion . . . We desire to transform the state into an institution for enforcing the will of the people. We want to organize violence in the name of the interests of our workers.” Art, including music, was to be a part of this coercion.

Vladimir Lenin

After Lenin’s death, the name of Petrograd was changed once again, to Leningrad – “Lenin’s City” – in honor of Lenin. Shostakovich was going through his own renaissance, having had his First Symphony performed in 1926, when he was only 19. He gained international fame after this. His Second Symphony in 1927 was written for the tenth anniversary of the October Revolution.

Meanwhile, the Soviet machine as directed by Stalin repeatedly sabotaged itself. Experts on factory production were removed from their jobs because they were seen as being “enemies of the common working people.” During the first Five-Year Plan, more than four million in the Ukraine alone (six million in total) starved as their food was taken from them to pay for foreign factory equipment. The “Great Terror” was launched in 1934 in reaction to the murder of Stalin’s friend Kirov, although Kirov’s murder was attributed to Stalin himself. About a million people perished. (Kirov was a staunch Stalin loyalist, but Stalin may have viewed him as a potential rival because of his emerging popularity among the moderates.)

Sergei Kirov

In 1935 Stalin announced children as young as 12 could be executed as adults, giving the secret police, or NKVD, even more leverage against their parents. In 1937, Stalin imposed quotas for arrests for each region in the USSR. The author writes:

According to this schedule, a total of 259,450 people had to be arrested and sentenced to slave labor in the camps; 72,950 had to be shot. It did not matter who they were; all that mattered was that each region fulfilled its quota.”

When the NKVD was finished purging others, Stalin had the NKVD purged. Stalin also turned against artists, and Shostakovich came under attack for “formalism,” or paying more attention to form than content. He was also accused of being “elitist” and “anti-people.” Anderson tells an astonishing story of how Shostakovich was saved from deportation to Siberia at best, or execution at worst, only when his would-be executioner got executed first!

Joseph Stalin, 1943

Most of the accused admitted “guilt” after extreme torture. Eventually almost all of the Bolsheviks who had played prominent roles during the Russian Revolution of 1917, or in Lenin’s Soviet government afterwards, were executed.

In a similar way from 1937-1938 some 60-70% of officers in the Soviet military were removed, including 90% of generals. While this may have made Stalin feel more secure about threats to his power, it proved to be exceedingly crippling with the onset of World War II. Soldiers were not any safer than officers. After the war began, Stalin had “blocking units” stationed behind Red Army lines to shoot any soldier who tried to run from the Germans. By war’s end, some 300,000 soldiers had been killed by their own army for attempted flight or desertion.

At the height of the Great Terror, roughly eight million had been arrested, and about two million died in camps from starvation, exposure, disease, and exhaustion: “It was a full assault on the nation by its own government.”

Leningraders endure the siege

Stalin’s purges had begun in Leningrad: “They were that city’s first siege.” Anderson’s detailed description of the second siege, during the Nazi encirclement, is jaw-dropping. He shares gripping stories of the fear and hunger that plagued the population. During the winter of 1941, the daily bread ration in Leningrad was only 125 grams per person. While there were arrests for murdering people in order to eat them, the consumption of those who were already dead was common and not as harshly sanctioned.

Shostakovich busied himself creating music for the troops to help build morale. As Anderson contends:

These musical efforts were important. The Soviets were fighting an enemy who considered Slavic culture to be inferior, even subhuman. . . . Shostakovich wrote in anger: ‘Russian culture is immortal and never will the Nazis succeed in destroying it.’”

Shostakovich began the Seventh Symphony in 1941 when he and his immediate family had been evacuated to the countryside in Vyritsa, outside of Leningrad. He later remembered, “I couldn’t not write it. War was all around. I had to be together with the people. I wanted to create the image of our embattled country, to engrave it in music.”

In the winter of 1942, the second winter of the siege, Leningraders finally got a lifeline when Lake Ladoga, surrounding Leningrad from the east, froze over. Anderson provides a harrowing account of how trucks and sledges braved the ice to get refugees out and supplies in. While almost a million people got out of the city that way, tens of thousands died in the attempt, by freezing while waiting, freezing on the way, or falling through the ice. (In the first two weeks alone, 157 trucks broke through the ice and sank.)

Horse-drawn sleighs were the first vehicles on the ice road. Starving horses had to pull goods and people along the treacherous snow-covered path. Not all managed to finish the distance.

When it came time to perform the Seventh Symphony in Leningrad that summer, approximately half the musicians in the local symphony were no longer alive. As one of the group observed: “The first violin is dying, the drummer died on the way to work, the French horn is near death.” Three more of the orchestral players died during rehearsals. Nevertheless, the Leningrad premiere of the Seventh Symphony took place on August 9, 1942. (This date was deliberately chosen since it was the date Hitler had boasted he would be celebrating with a feast in Leningrad’s Hotel Astoria.) The performance was broadcast to the city and reached radios in the Wehrmacht barracks.

Karl Eliasberg conducting the Seventh Symphony in Leningrad on August 9, 1942

[In 1992, on the 50th anniversary of that performance, the same orchestra came together to play the piece again. Only fourteen of them remained alive. Oboist Ksenias Matus remembered: “. . . that symphony has stayed with me the way it was that night. Afterwards, it was still a city under siege, but I knew it would live. Music is life, after all. What is life without music? This was the music that proved the city had come back to life after death.”]

The author explains that “one way to understand symphonies is to think of them as movie music without the movie. This is particularly apt in Russia, where composers were often explicitly trying to tell a story through orchestral music. . . “ This was part of a long tradition in Russian music. Furthermore, the “miracle of music” is that it becomes whatever the individual listener needs it to be. Shostakovich’s symphonies, the author writes, “meant different things to different people, but somehow it meant them all intensely.” The theme of the Seventh Symphony could be seen as much anti-Stalin as anti-Hitler: “A symphony is built not just by the composer, the conductor, and the musicians, but by the audience.”

Shostakovich meets original Leningrad conductor Eliasberg and players at a 20th anniversary performance in 1964

On January 14, 1944, the last of the German Army was finally forced away from Leningrad.

Americans are by and large unaware that the Soviets suffered 95% of the military casualties inflicted on the three major Allied powers (the U.S., the U.K., and the U.S.S.R.) and that 90% of Germans killed in combat in the war died fighting them. As Anderson observes, “This was a considerable battlefield contribution made through a very considerable sacrifice.” Part of the goal of the Russians in prioritizing the publication of Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony in the West was “to convince the Americans that they were not the rude, cold Communists of capitalist nightmare,” and “to stir up American sympathies” in order to increase the likelihood of American aid to the Soviets during the war. Thus, the this book begins in June, 1942, with the top-priority flight of the music’s score across several continents during wartime conditions to reach the United States. It was the best argument the Soviets had to offer.

2017 photo of grave of Shostakovich at Moscow’s Novodevichy Cemetary, with an abundance of fresh flowers

Note: This book contains a large selection of photos.

Evaluation: While the portions of the book on the life of Shostakovich weren’t as interesting to me as the war coverage, I consider the detailed account of the Siege of Leningrad to be essential reading for students of WWII.

Rating: 4.5/5

Published by Candlewick Press, 2015

Note: Literary Awards

National Book Award Nominee for Young People’s Literature (2015)
YALSA Award Nominee for Excellence in Nonfiction (2016)
Boston Globe-Horn Book Award Honor for Nonfiction (2016)

May 14, 1955 – The Warsaw Pact was Established

On this day in history, the Soviet Union formed a political and military alliance with several Eastern European countries as a counterbalance to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). NATO united the U.S., Canada, and Western Europe in a collective security alliance in 1949. The 1955 agreement was called the Warsaw Pact as it was signed at the Presidential Palace in Warsaw.

Soviet delegation at the signing of the Warsaw Pact May 14, 1955

The U.S. State Department history site explains:

The Warsaw Pact supplemented existing agreements. Following World War II, the Soviet Union had concluded bilateral treaties with each of the East European states except for East Germany, which was still part of the Soviet occupied-territory of Germany.”

The original signatories to the Warsaw Treaty Organization were the Soviet Union, Albania, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania, and the German Democratic Republic. Yugoslavia, the only European Communist state not included in the pact, was expelled in 1948 from Cominform, the Communist information agency, for refusing to acknowledge Soviet supremacy.

Warsaw Pact Countries

Soviet leadership determined that a unified, multilateral political and military alliance would tie Eastern European capitals more closely to Moscow.

The treaty was precipitated by the entry of the Federal Republic of Germany into NATO in early May 1955. According to the State Department site, the Soviets feared the consequences of a strengthened NATO and a rearmed West Germany and hoped that the Warsaw Treaty Organization could both contain West Germany and negotiate with NATO as an equal partner.

Green=NATO nations and Red=Warsaw Pact nations

The BBC reported at the time that in a speech at the beginning of the Warsaw talks, the Soviet Prime Minister, Marshal Nikolai Aleksandrovich Bulganin, warned that the USA, Britain and France were turning West Germany into “the principal hotbed of the danger of war in Europe” by allowing it to re-arm. He said allowing West Germany into Nato was “the major obstacle” to reunification of Germany.

He further suggested that Nato was encouraging countries in the Near and Middle East to form military blocs to plan attacks on the Soviet Union and its allies.

Nikolai Bulganin

In his concluding speech, Marshal Bulganin emphasized that of course the pact was inspired by the Leninist principle of peaceful co-existence between democratic nations and said they wanted to abide by the United Nations Charter.

The Warsaw Pact officially disbanded in March and July of 1991 following the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Prior to that date, however, some changes in the membership occurred. Albania was expelled in 1962 because the country’s leadership turned to Mao rather than to Khrushchev for Communist leadership and guidance. In 1990, East Germany left the Pact and reunited with West Germany; the reunified Germany then became a member of NATO.

The Role Incarceration of African Americans Has Played in Perpetuating Inequality

The NAACP furnishes statistics on the racial disparities of the American incarceration system:

  • In 2014, African Americans constituted 2.3 million, or 34%, of the total 6.8 million correctional population.
    African Americans are incarcerated at more than 5 times the rate of whites.
  • The imprisonment rate for African American women is twice that of white women.
  • Nationwide, African American children represent 32% of children who are arrested, 42% of children who are detained, and 52% of children whose cases are judicially waived to criminal court.
  • Though African Americans and Hispanics make up approximately 32% of the US population, they comprised 56% of all incarcerated people in 2015.
  • If African Americans and Hispanics were incarcerated at the same rates as whites, prison and jail populations would decline by almost 40%.

Drug Sentencing Disparities

  • In the 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, about 17 million whites and 4 million African Americans reported having used an illicit drug within the last month.
  • African Americans and whites use drugs at similar rates, but the imprisonment rate of African Americans for drug charges is almost 6 times that of whites.
  • African Americans represent 12.5% of illicit drug users, but 29% of those arrested for drug offenses and 33% of those incarcerated in state facilities for drug offenses.


Via Prison Policy Initiative

They also adduce evidence that these disparities are not because people of color commit more crimes. For example, African Americans represent 12% of monthly drug users, but comprise 32% of persons arrested for drug possession. In 2002, they report, blacks constituted more than 80% of the people sentenced under the federal crack cocaine laws and served substantially more time in prison for drug offenses than did whites, despite that fact that more than 2/3 of crack cocaine users in the U.S. are white or Hispanic.

The deleterious effects of incarceration create a self-sustaining system, and hamper efforts of African Americans to overcome disadvantages.

But this is not by any means a new phenomenon. Douglas A. Blackmon, in his outstanding Pulitzer Prize winning book, Slavery by Another Name, provides the history of how this system came into being.

He first analyzes why blacks did not rise in American society after emancipation until the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, answering those who juxtapose the lack of black achievement with the “bootstrapping” advancement of immigrant populations. Most importantly, he shows that long past the time of the Civil War, slavery was actually still alive and well in the South in all but name, with active support of the state and federal governments.

Here’s how it worked (and a vast record of documents unearthed by the author attests to this system):

“By 1900,” Blackmon writes, “the South’s judicial system had been wholly reconfigured to make one of its primary purposes the coercion of African Americans to comply with the social customs and labor demands of whites.” Thousands of random indigent black men were arrested for anything from unemployment, to not being able to prove employment at any given moment, to changing employers without “permission”, or even loud talk. In other words, they were arrested for being young black men. They were sentenced to hard labor, and bought and sold by sheriffs and judges among other opportunists to corporations such as U.S. Steel, Tennessee Coal, railroads, lumber camps, and factories. The prisoners who were sent to mines were chained to their barracks at night, and required to work all day – “subject to the whip for failure to dig the requisite amount, at risk of physical torture for disobedience, and vulnerable to the sexual predations of other miners – many of whom already had passed years or decades in their own chthonian confinement.” Hundreds died of disease, accidents, or homicide, and in fact, mass burial fields near these old mines can still be located.

Breaking rocks, 1930s, Unknown location

Blackmon charges that the desire to industrialize the South quickly was central to the restrictions put in place to suppress blacks, since these laws allowed for easy arrest and enslavement of workers. He avers:

Repeatedly, the timing and scale of surges in arrests appeared more attuned to rises and dips in the need for cheap labor than any demonstrable acts of crime.”

But also, and quite importantly, “these bulging slave centers became a primary weapon of suppression of black aspirations.” Millions of blacks lived in a shadow of fear that they or their family members would be taken into this system. It had a profound effect on their behavior and self-esteem.

Meanwhile, the whites in the North were impatient about blacks, and saw their lack of achievement as indicative of inferiority. An 1874 article in the Chicago Tribune asked:

Is it not time for the colored race to stop playing baby? The whites of America have done nobly in outgrowing the old prejudices against them. They cannot hurry this process by law. Let them obtain social equality as every other man, woman, and child in this world obtain it — by showing themselves in their lives the social equals of those with whom they wish to consort. If they do this, year-by-year the prejudices will die away.”

As Blackmon writes:

There was no acknowledgment of the effects of cycle upon cycle of malevolent defeat, of the injury of seeing one generation rise above the cusp of poverty only to be indignantly crushed, of the impact of repeating tsunamis of violence and obliterated opportunities on each new generation of an ever-changing population out-numbered in persons and resources.”

He insists that any consideration of the progress of blacks in the United States after the Civil War must acknowledge that “slavery, real slavery, didn’t end until 1945.” Thus the parents of today are the children of those who suffered under this egregious system, and so it can be expected that the repercussions continue to inform the expectations and attitudes of those who grew up with the stories and experiences derived from this very recent chapter in their family histories.

Evaluation: The story told by Blackmon is horrific. In spite of an abundance of evidence about what happened, history about the neo-slavery that survived after the Civil War is virtually non-existent. Moreover, it is clear from the records that these offenses against blacks were permitted by the nation. The legacy of terror and defeatism has had repercussions up to our present day.

Should it be read? Absolutely! But it’s a painful read, and the text includes some ghastly pictures. And yet, as Blackmon concludes:

Only by acknowledging the full extent of slavery’s grip on U.S. society – its intimate connections to present-day wealth and power, the depth of its injury to millions of black Americans, the shocking nearness in time of its true end – can we reconcile the paradoxes of current American life.”

Rating: 4/5

Published by Doubleday, 2008

Note: You can see many more photos, and watch a documentary on the facts presented by this book on a website, here.

Review of “The Vietnam War” by Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns

It was NOT the best of times — it was damn near the worst of times. The Vietnam war tore the fabric of American society asunder. Moreover, despite the loss of more than 50,000 American lives and more than 1 million Vietnamese lives, the war was nearly a total failure from the American point of view.

This book, informatively, if not cleverly, titled The Vietnam War, by Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns, vividly brings that unpleasant time back to life. It is accompanied by a film series by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick. The book follows fairly closely the narrative of the famous Pentagon Papers that originally appeared in the New York Times. Although it doesn’t have much if anything new to say about the war, what it says does so forcefully and graphically. The authors effectively employ the broad overview of an omniscient narrator intermixed with poignant asides from some of the “little people” most affected by the war, such as the grunts who fought, the surviving family members of those who did not return, and some Vietnamese from both South Vietnam (our allies) and North Vietnam (our enemy).

1965 photo by Horst Faas showing U.S. helicopters protecting South Vietnamese troops northwest of Saigon

Especially moving is the depiction of the final days of the South Vietnamese Republic. The North Vietnamese army was ineluctably closing in on Saigon while the American government was doing its best to rescue the few remaining Americans. But it had all but abandoned its former allies to their uncertain fate at the hands of their enemies.

1975 photo by Hubert Van Es showing U.S. citizens escaping from Saigon

Discussion: Some reviewers have criticized this book (and the accompanying series on PBS) for shifting attention away from the militarism behind for American intervention and focusing on sentimental stories of survival and perseverance. As U. Mass History Professor Christian G. Appy recently asked in an article for “The New York Times”:

Was America’s war in Vietnam a noble struggle against Communist aggression, a tragic intervention in a civil conflict, or an imperialist counterrevolution to crush a movement of national liberation? Those competing interpretations ignited fiery debates in the 1960s and remain unresolved today. How we name and define this most controversial of American wars is not a narrow scholarly exercise, but profoundly shapes public memory of its meaning and ongoing significance to American national identity and foreign policy.”

I don’t disagree with these criticisms. But the anecdotal approach taken by the authors to accompany the drier histories is not without merit, if accompanied by more rigorous analyses.

I do not agree, however, with the contention that America is still significantly divided over Vietnam. The country is divided over plenty, but I don’t see Vietnam at the top of the list. It would be more accurate, in my opinion, to say that America is still divided over the Civil War and the racism that informed both the conflict and its aftermath.

Civil War not yet over: Confederate flags at a rally on July 8, 2017

I also was disappointed that the authors did not give more attention to the use of Agent Orange by the Americans. Between 2 and 5 million Vietnamese people were exposed to the toxic chemical, which poisoned the soil, river systems, lakes and rice paddies of Vietnam, and entered the food chain. Large tracts of that land remain degraded and unproductive to this day.

Moreover, birth defects in those who were exposed have been extensively documented, both among the Vietnamese and the American pilots who disseminated the agent. As Propublica reported, “the odds of having a child born with birth defects were more than a third higher for veterans exposed to Agent Orange than for those who weren’t.” You can read more about harm to American veterans here and here. Needless to say, the profound lingering effects on the Vietnamese are even greater.

Planes spraying Agent Orange 20 miles southeast of Saigon in 1970. Credit Dick Swanson/The LIFE Images Collection, via Getty Images

This important “legacy” of the Vietnam War deserves as much attention as any other.

Note: There is a PBS website to accompany the book and television series which includes resources for veterans, a reading list, photos, videos, and music lists.

Evaluation: This book is a good introduction to the war for young people who did not live through those times and a decent, if sometimes unpleasant, reminder to those of us who did.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published in hardcover by Knopf, an imprint of Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2017

A Few Notes on the Audio Production:

I listened to the audio version of the book, capably read by Ken Burns, who excels at media presentations. Many of the interviewees are also featured in the recording, which added auditory interest.

Published abridged on 8 CDs (approximately 10 listening hours) by Penguin Random House Audio, 2017