Leading American Scientists Endorsed False Soviet Denial of Anthrax Lab Leak

(p. A4) YEKATERINBURG, Russia — Patients with unexplained pneumonias started showing up at hospitals; within days, dozens were dead. The secret police seized doctors’ records and ordered them to keep silent. American spies picked up clues about a lab leak, but the local authorities had a more mundane explanation: contaminated meat.

It took more than a decade for the truth to come out.

In April and May 1979, at least 66 people died after airborne anthrax bacteria emerged from a military lab in the Soviet Union. But leading American scientists voiced confidence in the Soviets’ claim that the pathogen had jumped from animals to humans. Only after a full-fledged investigation in the 1990s did one of those scientists confirm the earlier suspicions: The accident in what is now the Russian Urals city of Yekaterinburg was a lab leak, one of the deadliest ever documented.

Nowadays, some of the victims’ graves appear abandoned, their names worn off their metal plates in the back of a cemetery on the outskirts of town, where they were buried in coffins with an agricultural disinfectant. But the story of the accident that took their lives, and the cover-up that hid it, has renewed relevance as scientists search for the origins of Covid-19.

It shows how an authoritarian government can successfully shape the narrative of a disease outbreak and how it can take years — and, perhaps, regime change — to get to the truth.

“Wild rumors do spread around every epidemic,” Joshua Lederberg, the Nobel-winning American biologist, wrote in a memo after a fact-finding trip to Moscow in 1986. “The current Soviet account is very likely to be true.”

Many scientists believe that the virus that caused the Covid-19 pandemic evolved in animals and jumped at some point to humans. But scientists are also calling for deeper investigation of the possibility of an accident at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

There is also widespread concern that the Chinese government — which, like the Soviet government decades before it, dismisses the possibility of a lab leak — is not providing international investigators with access and data that could shed light on the pandemic’s origins. Continue reading “Leading American Scientists Endorsed False Soviet Denial of Anthrax Lab Leak”

Communist Dictatorship Was Not Inevitable in Russia in 1917

(p. 14) A professor at Bard College, McMeekin argues that one of the seminal events of modern history was largely a matter of chance. Well-written, with new details from archival research used for vivid descriptions of key events, “The Russian Revolution” comes nearly three decades after Richard Pipes’s masterpiece of the same name.

. . .

Far from the hopeless backwater depicted in most histories, McMeekin argues, Russia’s economy was surging before the war, with a growth rate of 10 percent a year — like China in the early 21st century. “The salient fact about Russia in 1917,” he writes, “is that it was a country at war,” yet he adds that the Russian military acquitted itself well on the battlefield after terrible setbacks in 1915, with morale high in early 1917. “Knowing how the story of the czars turns out, many historians have suggested that the Russian colossus must always have had feet of clay,” he writes. “But surely this is hindsight. Despite growing pains, uneven economic development and stirrings of revolutionary fervor, imperial Russia in 1900 was a going concern, its very size and power a source of pride to most if not all of the czar’s subjects.”

Nicholas II — rightly characterized as an incompetent reactionary in most histories — is partly rehabilitated here. His fundamental mistake, McMeekin says, was to trust his liberal advisers, who urged him to go to war, then conspired to remove him from power after protests over bread rations led to a military mutiny. Even the royal family’s trusted faith healer Rasputin, the ogre of conventional wisdom, largely gets a pass for sagely advising the czar that war would prompt his downfall.

Although McMeekin agrees the real villains are the ruthless Bolsheviks, he reserves most criticism for the hapless liberals.

. . .

Having taken power, the Bolsheviks turned on the unwitting soldiers and peasants who were among their most fervent supporters, unleashing a violent terror campaign that appropriated land and grain, and that turned into a permanent class war targeting ever-larger categories of “enemies of the people.” Unconcerned about Russia’s ultimate fate, they were pursuing their greater goal of world revolution.

For the full review, see:

Gregory Feifer. “The Best-Laid Plans.” The New York Times Book Review (Sunday, June 11, 2017): 14-15.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date June 6, 2017, and has the title “A New History Recalibrates the Villains of the Russian Revolution.”)

The book under review is:

McMeekin, Sean. The Russian Revolution: A New History. New York: Basic Books, 2017.

Lenin, Not Stalin, Started “Severe Censorship” and “Terror Against Political Enemies”

(p. 15) With all the inevitable attention on the Bolshevik takeover in October 1917, when Lenin and Leon Trotsky seized power from the ill-fated provisional government, the extraordinary events of February and March should not be forgotten. It was then that unexpected riots over lack of food and fuel by thousands of people in the imperial capital of Petrograd and the ensuing mutiny by garrison troops compelled Czar Nicholas II to abdicate, ending 300 years of Romanov rule and handing political authority to a group of high-minded liberal figures. “Russia became the freest country in the world,” Merridale writes, “as the new government granted an amnesty for political prisoners, abolished the death penalty and dissolved what was left of the detested secret police.” (It also abolished the infamous Pale of Settlement, which had required the czar’s Jewish subjects to live within a defined area of the country; they were now made equal before the law.)

The provisional government inherited power from a discredited autocracy that had resisted any sensible move to establish a constitutional monarchy. Leaders like Alexander Kerensky, Paul Miliukov and Georgy Lvov tried in vain to establish a stable government and withstand the appeal of extreme forces. But the Romanov collapse was so sudden and so thorough that it left no credible institutions capable of governing effectively, let alone in the midst of widespread social turmoil, an imploding economy and the devastations of World War I.

. . .

. . . it was Lenin himself who made it clear that the Bolsheviks would reject democratic values. He “had not traveled back to join a coalition,” Merridale writes, but to undermine the provisional government and establish a dictatorship in the name of the proletariat. It was Lenin who instituted severe censorship, established one-party rule and resorted to terror against his political enemies. Stalin took these measures to further extremes for his own sinister purposes. Merridale is right to recall Winston Churchill’s famous observation about Lenin’s return. The Germans, Churchill wrote, “turned upon Russia the most grisly of all weapons. They transported Lenin in a sealed truck like a plague bacillus from Switzerland to Russia.”

For the full review, see:

Joshua Rubenstein. “Fast-Tracking the Revolution.” The New York Times Book Review (Sunday, June 11, 2017): 15.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date June 9, 2017, and has the title “Lenin’s Return From Exile Put Russia on the Fast Track to Revolution.”)

The book under review is:

Merridale, Catherine. Lenin on the Train. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2017.

Russia Approves Covid-19 Vaccine Before Completing Phase 3 Clinical Trial

(p. A6) MOSCOW — Russia has become the first country in the world to approve a vaccine for the coronavirus, President Vladimir V. Putin announced on Tuesday, though global health authorities say the vaccine has yet to complete critical, late-stage clinical trials to determine its safety and effectiveness.

Mr. Putin, who told a cabinet meeting on Tuesday [Aug. 11, 2020] morning that the vaccine “works effectively enough,” said that his own daughter had taken it. And in a congratulatory note to the nation, he thanked the scientists who developed the vaccine for “this first, very important step for our country, and generally for the whole world.”

. . .

If Russian scientists have taken an unorthodox route to the coronavirus vaccine, it would not be the first time. Back in the 1950s, a team of researchers tested a promising, and ultimately successful, polio vaccine on their own children.

For the full story, see:

Andrew E. Kramer. “Putin Says Russia Is First to Approve Vaccine, but Skepticism Abounds.” The New York Times (Wednesday, August 12, 2020): A6.

(Note: ellipsis, and bracketed date, added.)

(Note: the online version of the story was updated Aug. 11, 2020, and has the title “Russia Approves Coronavirus Vaccine Before Completing Tests.”)

”There Was a Great Marxist Called Lenin”

(p. C11) Robert Conquest (1917-2015) was what used to be called a Renaissance man. He was so good at everything he did—soldier, diplomat, historian and poet—that I wouldn’t be surprised to learn he also left behind a few sonatas and paintings in oil. His histories of the Soviet Union’s failures and atrocities include “The Great Terror” (1968) and “The Harvest of Sorrow” (1986), meticulously researched and humane investigations of a criminal state, surely among the major historical achievements of the 20th century. His television documentary series, “Red Empire” (1990), distills this work and makes grimly compelling viewing.

But Conquest first came to readers’ attention as a poet of sophistication and grace, . . .

. . .

”There was a great Marxist called Lenin,
Who did two or three million men in;
That’s a lot to have done in
But where he did one in
That grand Marxist Stalin did ten in.”

For the full review, see:

David Mason. “The Impervious Dream.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, Aug. 22, 2020): C11.

(Note: ellipses added; the limerick in quotation marks is by Robert Conquest.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date Aug. 21, 2020, and has the title “‘Robert Conquest: Collected Poems’ Review: The Impervious Dream.”)

The book under review is:

Conquest, Robert. Collected Poems. New York: The Waywiser Press, 2020.

“She Is Very Brave and Dedicated”

(p. A10) MOSCOW — Maria Kolesnikova, a prominent opposition leader in Belarus who vanished on Monday [Sept. 7, 2020] in what her supporters said was a kidnapping by security agents, reappeared overnight at her country’s southern border with Ukraine.

But an elaborate operation aimed at forcing her to leave Belarus came unstuck, according to opposition activists who were at the border with Ms. Kolesnikova when she destroyed her passport to make it impossible for Ukraine to admit her.

At a news conference in Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, on Tuesday evening, two Belarusian activists, Anton Rodnenkov and Ivan Kravtsov, told how they had been seized in Minsk, the capital of Belarus, on Monday and taken to the border with Ukraine, along with Ms. Kolesnikova, by masked security agents who warned that if they did not leave the country they would be jailed indefinitely.

After passing through a Belarusian border checkpoint, they said, Ms. Kolesnikova grabbed her passport and started shouting that she was not going anywhere. She tore the passport into small pieces and threw them out of the window.

Mr. Rodnenkov and Mr. Kravtsov continued onto Ukraine without her. “She climbed out of the car and started walking back toward the Belarus border,” Mr. Kravtsov said. “She is very brave and dedicated to what she is doing.”

. . .

President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, who has never warmed to Mr. Lukashenko but still sees him as an important bulwark against the West, announced at the end of August that he had formed a reserve force of Russian security officers to assist Belarus if “the situation gets out of control.”

In another sign of close collaboration between the two countries, Belarus announced on Tuesday that it would hold military exercises later this week with troops from Russia and Serbia. The exercises, called Slavic Brotherhood 2020, underscore an important propaganda point for Mr. Lukashenko, suggesting that he is not alone in his struggle for political survival but a sentinel for broader Slavic interests against the West.

For the full story, see:

Andrew Higgins. “Opposition Leader in Belarus Avoids Expulsion, Dramatically.” The New York Times (Wednesday, September 9, 2020): A10.

(Note: ellipsis, and bracketed date, added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Sept. 8, 2020, and has the title “Opposition Leader in Belarus Averts Expulsion by Tearing Up Passport.”)

When Khrushchev Voted With His Feet for Freedom

(p. A23) Sergei N. Khrushchev, a former Soviet rocket scientist and the son of Nikita S. Khrushchev, the Soviet leader during the Cold War of the 1950s and ’60s, died on June 18 [2020] at his home in Cranston, R.I.

. . .

“I’m not a defector,” Sergei Khrushchev told The Providence Journal in 2001. “I’m not a traitor. I did not commit any treason. I work here and I like this country.”

Still, he said, he felt that becoming an American citizen had given him a new lease on life. “I’m feeling like a newborn,” he told The A.P. “It’s the beginning of a new life.”

. . .

Americans had a close-up look at the Soviet leader and his family in 1959, when he visited the United States at the invitation of President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

. . .

Sergei Khrushchev said years later, in the interview with The Providence Journal, that during that trip his family felt as if they had landed on Mars, seeing things they had never imagined. “It was palms, cars, highways, everything,” he said. He took home movies of it all, including Times Square.

They were especially baffled by the concept of Disneyland, then four years old but already a top attraction in Southern California. When told that his family would not be allowed to visit the park out of concerns for their safety, the premier exploded in anger: “What is it? Is there an epidemic of cholera there or something? Or have gangsters taken hold of the place?”

For the full obituary, see:

Katharine Q. Seelye. “Sergei N. Khrushchev, 84, Rocket Scientist and the Son of a Former Soviet Premier.” The New York Times (Thursday, June 25, 2020): A23.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed date, added.)

(Note: the online version of the obituary has the date June 24, 2020, and the title “Sergei Khrushchev, Son of Former Soviet Premier, Dies at 84.”)

Low Quality Parts from Corrupt Contractors Endanger Russian Sailors in Deep-Diving Subs

(p. A22) OFF THE COAST OF NORWAY — There could hardly have been a more terrifying place to fight a fire than in the belly of the Losharik, a mysterious deep-diving Russian submarine.

. . .

A fire on any submarine may be a mariner’s worst nightmare, but a fire on the Losharik was a threat of another order altogether. The vessel is able to dive far deeper than almost any other sub, but the feats of engineering that allow it do so may have helped seal the fate of the 14 sailors killed in the disaster.

. . .

(p. A23) As for the accident itself, few expressed surprise that a jewel of the Russian submarine fleet might catch fire not very far from its home base — probably in water no more than 1,000 feet deep — leaving most of its crew dead. The Russians, some experts said, seem to have a greater tolerance for risk than the West.

. . .

Mr. Lobner, the former American submarine officer, said “we have nothing except unmanned vehicles” operating at such depths.

Still, while some see an engineering marvel, others see evidence that Russia may be unable to build the kind of sophisticated, autonomous underwater drones the United States appears to rely on.

“They would rather adapt existing systems, modernize them, and try to muddle through,” Mr. Boulègue said. “So, no wonder these things keep exploding,” he said. Mr. Boulègue believes accidents have been far more common than publicly known.

John Pike, director of the think tank GlobalSecurity.org, said the Losharik fire suggested that the Russian military was still contending with some longstanding issues: corrupt contractors, and problems with quality control in manufacturing, spare parts supply chains and maintenance.

“I assume that every other sub in the Russian fleet has similar problems,” Mr. Pike said. “I just think the whole thing is held together with a lot of baling wire and spit.”

For the full story, see:

James Glanz and Thomas Nilsen. “A Deep-Diving Sub, a Deadly Fire And Russia’s Secret Undersea Agenda.” The New York Times (Tuesday, April 21, 2020): A22-A23.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story was updated April 21, 2020, and has the title “A Deep-Diving Sub. A Deadly Fire. And Russia’s Secret Undersea Agenda.”)

American Food Aid May Have Prevented “the Collapse of the Soviet State”

(p. A15) Between 1921 and 1923, the United States, acting through Herbert Hoover’s American Relief Administration, supplied food and other aid to more than 10 million people caught up in the famine—created by war, revolution and the Bolshevik assault on the peasantry—then raging in the former Russian empire. The ARA operated, Mr. Smith tells us, “across a million square miles of territory in what was the largest humanitarian operation in history.”

Suspicious of, and embarrassed by, assistance from such a politically inconvenient source, the Kremlin accepted the ARA’s help only grudgingly and, once the crisis was over, “began to erase the memory of American charity,” Mr. Smith writes.

. . .

Mr. Smith argues that the ARA may “quite possibly” have prevented “the collapse of the Soviet state.” Did the decades of communist atrocity that followed cast a shadow over what was a very grand American gesture?

. . .

The ARA departed after the worst was past, but famine returned to the U.S.S.R. less than a decade later, a consequence of collectivization transformed, in Ukraine, to genocide. Millions died, but there were no calls for assistance from the Kremlin—only denials.

For the full story, see:

Andrew Stuttaford. “Feeding The Enemy.” The Wall Street Journal (Tuesday, December 17, 2019): A15.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Dec. 16, 2019, and has the title “BOOKSHELF; ‘The Russian Job’ Review: Feeding the Enemy.”)

The book under review, is:

Smith, Douglas. The Russian Job: The Forgotten Story of How America Saved the Soviet Union from Ruin. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019.

Global Warming Makes Magadan Less Bleak

(p. A4) MAGADAN, Russia — Like many young people in Magadan, a frigid northern Russian city more than 3,600 miles from Moscow, Dinat Yur is fed up with living in a place where winters drag on for six months and the average annual temperature is below freezing.

“I really dream of leaving this place,” said Mr. Yur, a 29-year-old cook. “I can’t wait.”

Born and raised in a city proud of its resilience against climatic and all other odds, Mr. Yur has for the moment found his calling in a defiantly contrarian occupation for a place so cold: He makes ice cream.

. . .

Aside from its bleak weather and even bleaker history, Magadan is, if truth be told, no worse — and in some respects better — than many provincial Russian towns. It has the same crumbling concrete apartment blocks, the same colonnaded theater building, the same central square formerly named after Lenin and the same street slogans celebrating victory in the Great Patriotic War, as Russia refers to World War II.

It also has three movie houses, two indoor public swimming pools, a well-deserved reputation for camaraderie and a huge new Orthodox cathedral with glittering golden domes, an indispensable feature of urban planning in the age of President Vladimir V. Putin.

Another plus is climate change, which is making winters somewhat milder. It did not start snowing heavily this year until late November [2019].

For the full story, see:

Andrew Higgins. “RUSSIA DISPATCH; Raising Fists and Hearts to Communism.” The New York Times (Wednesday, January 1, 2020): A4.

(Note: ellipsis, and bracketed year, added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Dec. 31, 2019, and has the title “RUSSIA DISPATCH; It’s 50 Below. The Past Is a Horror Show. You’d Dream of Escaping Too.” The online version says that the title of the print edition is “Where a Summery Swirl Just Isn’t Enough to Escape the Chill,” but the title of my National Edition print version was “RUSSIA DISPATCH; Despite Ice Cream, Dreaming of Escaping From Frigid Town.”)

Stalin’s “Despotism in Mass Bloodshed”

(p. A13) In the aftermath of Lenin’s death in January 1924, Joseph Stalin—already secretary-general of the Communist Party—emerged as the outright leader of the Soviet Union. “Right through 1927,” Stephen Kotkin notes, Stalin “had not appeared to be a sociopath in the eyes of those who worked most closely with him.” But by 1929-30, he “was exhibiting an intense dark side.” Mr. Kotkin’s “Stalin: Waiting for Hitler, 1929-1941,” the second volume of a planned three-volume biography, tracks the Soviet leader’s transformation during these crucial years. “Impatient with dictatorship,” Mr. Kotkin says, Stalin set out to forge “a despotism in mass bloodshed.”

The three central episodes of Mr. Kotkin’s narrative, all from the 1930s, are indeed violent and catastrophic, if in different ways: the forced collectivization of Soviet agriculture; the atrocities of the Great Terror, when Stalin “arrested and murdered immense numbers of loyal people”; and the rise of Adolf Hitler, the man who would become Stalin’s ally and then, as Mr. Kotkin puts it, his “principal nemesis.” In each case, as Mr. Kotkin shows, Stalin’s personal character—a combination of ruthlessness and paranoia—played a key role in the unfolding of events.

For the full review, see:

Joshua Rubenstein. “BOOKSHELF; The Turn to Tyranny; We may never know what degree of personal obsession, political calculation and ideological zeal drove Stalin to kill and persecute so many.” The Wall Street Journal (Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2017): A13.

(Note: the online version of the review has the date Oct. 31, 2017, and has the same title “BOOKSHELF; Review: The Turn to Tyranny; We may never know what degree of personal obsession, political calculation and ideological zeal drove Stalin to kill and persecute so many.”)

The book under review is:

Kotkin, Stephen. Stalin: Volume 2: Waiting for Hitler, 1929-1941. New York: Penguin Press, 2017.