family, home, musings, travel

When the prospect of “going home” makes me apprehensive…

I’m about to write a post that I think may resonate with a number of people. This is a post about “going home”, and how complicated it can be. I understand that for some people, home is where they want to be. I have friends who have never left the place they lived when we were children. They are perfectly happy living where they grew up. I’m not one of those people. I’ve had a number of “homes” in my lifetime, but only a few of them affected me so much that the idea of going back there makes me feel apprehensive.

In less than three weeks, I will be visiting a place that unexpectedly changed my life years ago. I won’t lie. I’m a bit nervous about our upcoming trip to Armenia. Sure, I am looking forward to going there and seeing how much it’s changed. I can’t wait to show Bill some of the places I’ve talked about for years. I worry that our trip might be too short, because there’s so much I could show him. And yet, I’m also feeling worried and nervous about this trip, more so than any other I’ve taken.

I first heard of Armenia when I was in the fourth grade, and my teacher, Mr. Almasian, told us about his heritage. At that time, it was 1981, and the United States was deeply entrenched in the Cold War. Armenia was then part of the Soviet Union, which was an enemy to the United States. I distinctly remember Mr. Almasian telling us about how Armenia was a Christian nation– the first in the world to adopt Christianity as its official religion. And yet, now it was part of the Soviet Union, which highly discouraged citizens to adhere to religions.

At that time in 1981, I never had a clue that one day I’d move to Armenia to live for two years. Back then, I assumed Armenia would always be out of reach, because it was behind what we knew as the Iron Curtain. I didn’t think that curtain would ever part for someone like me. But I also remember getting a kick out of how Mr. Almasian told us that most Armenians’ last names ended with “ian” or “yan”. I later found out that was true.

I also remember my teacher playing Jesus Christ Superstar for us. When I later moved to Armenia, I remember hearing all of the bootleg cassette tape sellers blasting music from Jesus Christ Superstar from their stereo systems. I ended up buying one of the tapes and listened to it long enough to memorize the songs. My parents actually had that album on LP at home, but I always refused to listen to it, because I didn’t like religion. It wasn’t until many years later that I came to appreciate religion more, although I’m still not a church attendee.

My two years in Armenia were difficult for me, but not in ways that a lot of people would have expected. I think a lot of my problems came from a lack of good communication, a lack of assertiveness on my part, and perhaps a lack of maturity on many people’s parts. I was ultimately successful as a Volunteer, but perhaps not in the ways I thought I should have been. When I left Armenia in 1997, I was really ready to go. I was bitter, burned out, and legitimately depressed to the point at which I needed medication.

And yet, every day, I think of the time I spent in Armenia and just how incredible the opportunity to live there was for me. It really did change my life on so many levels. I wonder if I deserved the opportunity I received… and I realize that I was extremely lucky on many levels. Other than some rather serious recurrent skin infections and moderate depression and anxiety, I finished my service relatively unscathed.

I’m now over double the age I was when I arrived in Armenia in June 1995. I was about three weeks from turning 23 when I got there. When I left, I was 25 years and 2 months old, almost to the day. I’m now 51, and this will be my first trip back there… the first time I’ve dared to go back. It’s changed so much since I was last there, but I know there are some things that haven’t changed at all. I wonder if I’m ready to face it.

When I’ve told people we’re going to Armenia, some have expressed concern because of the situation in Artsakh/Nagorno-Karabakh. I’m not that worried about that. I expect we might see protests and refugees, things I saw when I lived in Armenia in the 90s. I don’t worry about being in any physical danger, because we don’t plan to go anywhere near the dangerous areas by the borders. I suspect we’ll mostly stick to Yerevan. Maybe we can arrange a day trip somewhere outside of the capital, although this might not be the best time of year for that. I don’t think we’ll be physically unsafe, though.

I’m more worried about how I will deal with this visit in an emotional sense. Genealogically, I’m not Armenian at all, and yet I feel like it’s an intrinsic part of me now. I don’t know if this is a common response to Peace Corps service, but for me, it feels like this trip is akin to going “home”… and going “home” can be a very stressful undertaking. I feel somewhat less apprehensive about going back to Armenia than I’d feel about going “home” to Virginia. I love Virginia, as it’s my home and birthplace– but going there is always stressful, because it means confronting crap from the past. And that’s kind of how I feel about Armenia, too. There’s stuff from my time there that makes me feel worried… because it wasn’t all sunshine and roses.

In spite of what some people might have thought of me and my service in Armenia, it truly changed my life. Being there made me a better person and made me grow in leaps and bounds. Maybe going back to Armenia will be edifying and enriching, and my feelings of apprehension will forever abate, because I do think that ultimately, I did fine as a Volunteer. Or maybe there will be tension and unrest, like there sometimes is when I go home to my family of origin– people I will always love, but with whom I share a complicated and difficult past.

In 1997, I left Armenia feeling somewhat like I’d failed. I didn’t think many people liked me very much. I wondered if I’d wasted my time there. I now know that none of those things are totally true… and what was affecting my feelings had a lot to do with clinical depression and the anxiety I felt about going home to the United States. Put it this way… I do think there were a few people in Armenia who didn’t like me and thought I was a waste of space. But I don’t think that was how most people saw me. My feelings were highly magnified by depression, which always distorts things.

The truth is, most people’s feelings were probably either neutral or they simply didn’t care, because they had their own shit to worry about. Moreover, everywhere I go, there are people who wind up not liking me. For many reasons, I’m not always a very likable person. But not being likable doesn’t mean I’m not a “good” person, just like being likable doesn’t make someone a decent or honorable person. Plenty of likable people are perfect assholes underneath the facade. And plenty of unlikable people are actually really fine folks, if you just take the time to get to know them. But, when you’re not super personable or charismatic, you can feel like an outsider. That’s how I often felt in Armenia. I often feel the same way when I’m with my family, even though I love them.

I worry that going back to Armenia will make me feel like I do when I go home to my family. However, I feel like I have to go there. If I don’t go, I will regret it. And I worry that if I wait much longer, I might lose out of my chance to go when it still somewhat resembles the place I left more than a lifetime ago– as I am now more than twice the age I was when I left. I’m going to try to be brave and open-minded, and see Armenia with older, wiser eyes and a willing heart. Maybe, once I’ve done this trip to Armenia, I’ll find the courage to go back to Virginia.

I’m sure if I thought about this some more, I could come up with a more concise post that makes more sense. I think I’ve waited this long to go to Armenia because the idea of going back there made me feel anxious and stressed. I wanted to go back, just as I’ve wanted to go home to Virginia… and yet, just like going to Virginia, I feel like I’m going to dive into a conflict from which it’s going to take a long time to recover. Does that sound crazy?

You see? I really am deeper than I appear…

I took the featured photo from a window in the school where I taught English to children aged 7, 11, 15, and 16… It was a rare day when the air quality was good enough to see Mount Ararat. There was also a train coming. I don’t know from where. I probably took the picture sometime in 1996.

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book reviews, celebrities, narcissists, politics, sports

Reviewing Nadia Comaneci and the Secret Police: A Cold War Escape…

A couple of years ago, I became aware of a new book about legendary Romanian women’s gymnastics champion, Nadia Comaneci. The book, titled Nadia Comaneci and the Secret Police: A Cold War Escape, was written by Romanian author, Stejarel Olaru, and published in 2021. For a long time, it was only available in Romanian. I was very eager to read this book, because not only am I fascinated with old school women’s gymnastics, but I’m also intrigued by Cold War politics, particularly in Romania.

Although I haven’t yet visited Romania, I have read several books about the Ceaușescu era, and watched some really interesting films about Romania before the fall of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc states. So, the prospect of reading about Nadia’s experiences in Romania after she became a national treasure was very exciting for me. I was very pleased to see that the book was going to be translated into English (and other languages).

I just finished the Kindle English translated edition of Nadia Comaneci and the Secret Police: A Cold War Escape. Stejarel Olaru’s book was translated by Alistair Ian Blyth and made available in the US Amazon store this month. I had originally pre-ordered a print edition; that’s how much I wanted to read this book. I canceled that order when I realized I could get the Kindle edition sooner. As of just a little while ago, I have finished reading after a couple of weeks of effort. I’m glad to be finished with the book, which was very interesting, although less exciting than I had expected it to be.

I want to be very clear. This is NOT a book about Nadia’s life story. Elements of her life story and some information about her family are in the book, of course, as it’s not possible to deliver this story without those elements. But it’s important to note that this book is ultimately about the high price Nadia Comaneci paid when she made history at the 1976 Summer Olympic Games in Montreal. Those who read this book should also come with some knowledge of who Nicolae and Elena Ceaușescu were, and what their regime was like. Remember that until the former Romanian president and his wife were executed by firing squad on Christmas Day in 1989, Romania’s government was an oppressive totalitarian regime.

One month before the Ceaușescus were executed, Nadia Comaneci defected with several other Romanians. She did so out of desperation. She couldn’t take life as it existed under Ceaușescu and his Securitate (Secret Police) anymore. But Nadia was a “national treasure”, and as such, she was highly valued by the Romanian dictator’s regime. Nadia worked very hard to be able to achieve Olympic greatness, but after she reached that pinnacle, she was rewarded with constant surveillance at home… phone taps, interrogations, and constant pressure to maintain her physical prowess in a sport where it’s common to retire while still very young, especially at the elite level.

Olaru’s book begins in November 1989, when Nadia undertook her daring escape to Hungary with a group of more average citizens. The group fled across fields during a frigid night. The Romanian border guards missed them, but they were picked up by the Hungarians, who were shocked to find the famous gymnast among those who were fleeing. The Hungarians were going to let Nadia go, and send the rest of the party back to Romania. Nadia, being a team player, spoke up and said that she wouldn’t be going without the rest of the group.

Nadia in 1990, just after she left Romania. If she’d waited a month, she wouldn’t have had to defect.

Very soon after her illegal border crossing, Nadia was on her way to New York City. She lost a lot when she defected; the man she left with was a married man who abused her. A lot of Americans had a negative impression of her in the weeks after she defected. I remember reading a 1990 era Life Magazine article that really made Nadia out to be kind of lowbrow, implying that she was bulimic and a bit of a skank. The reality was, the man was basically holding her prisoner, beating her, and exploiting her for money.

Upon arrival in the United States, Nadia Comaneci requested and was granted political asylum. I remember watching Nadia in the news, as this was going on during my senior year of high school. I barely knew who she was, because I was only four years old when she won gold in Montreal, and lived in England at the time. I didn’t follow gymnastics until I was about 15 or 16 years old. Still, I remember very clearly the story in the news, and was fascinated by it, because although I wasn’t a gymnastics fan in Nadia’s day, I did grow up during the height of the Cold War.

I never dreamed, when I was a kid, that one day, that whole system would disintegrate within a couple of years. If there’s anything to learn from that era in history, it’s that things can change very quickly, forever altering or even ending people’s lives. That’s one reason why I get so worried about Trump and his admirers. History has shown us that things can change in a “New York Minute”, as Don Henley sang back in 1989.

Olaru’s book also offers a very negative and damning look at Bela and Marta Karolyi’s years as Romanian team coaches. As bad as some of the revelations have been from American gymnasts who have trained with them, they are even worse in this book, as Olaru writes about how the gymnasts were literally starved and sometimes physically beaten when they didn’t perform well. Securitate notes provided by alleged informants, such as Geza Pozsar, the choreographer who worked with the Karolyis, indicate that the gymnasts often wept because they were so hungry. As Nadia grew older, she and Bela had difficulties, because she was no longer as compliant as she had been. He could no longer “spank her bottom” when he wanted to, especially after she became famous.

I’ve watched Bela Karolyi for years when I’ve viewed women’s gymnastics on television. His public persona is that of a big bear, with lots of energy and enthusiasm. But, based on this book, and several others I’ve read by people who have trained with him and his wife, Marta, he is clearly an abusive coach on many levels. So far, I have not seen evidence that he sexually abused his gymnasts– thank God– but I have seen ample evidence that he was verbally, mentally, emotionally, and physically abusive to them. However, even the best gymnasts, like Nadia, got that treatment. At least he was somewhat “fair”, I guess.

When Bela and Marta Karolyi defected from Romania in 1981, the Securitate became even more intensive in their efforts to control Nadia Comaneci and protect their national treasure. Although she lived a relatively upscale life by Cold War Romanian standards, the reality was, she was more in a cage than her fellow Romanian citizens were. And the “lavish” privileges she enjoyed weren’t all that great. She did have a car and a seven room villa, for instance, but the villa was poorly insulated. Consequently, she slept in the kitchen so she could stay warm. And she didn’t necessarily have to stand in line to get food, like rank and file Romanians did, but the fact that she didn’t have to do that doesn’t exactly make for a luxurious lifestyle, as Romanian officials tried to indicate.

In many weird ways, reading about how Nadia and her family members were policed reminded me of reading about people trapped in cults or abusive relationships. The Securitate didn’t want Nadia to abandon Romania, so they were constantly looking and listening for indications of potential plans to leave. And they did things like tell her she couldn’t survive outside of Romania. They didn’t seem to realize that Nadia had already proven her incredible strength and resilience, not just in 1976, but in the years following that triumph, after she grew several inches and gained twenty pounds. For awhile, she was looking as washed up as John Travolta did throughout the late 80s. But, just like Travolta, Nadia Comaneci made a great comeback for the 1980 Moscow Games and came home with more medals. I don’t know why the Securitate didn’t see that she was capable of doing that again in 1989; she was only 28 years old when she left.

As I read this book and got some insight into Nadia Comaneci’s plight after her 1976 Olympic glory, it occurred to me why Nadia was known for never smiling. Based on Olaru’s accounts, backed up with actual notes from the Securitate, phone taps, interviews, and interrogations, it sounds to me like Nadia Comaneci’s life was a living hell. When she was being trained by Bela Karolyi, who has his own version of this story famously depicted in a movie about Nadia, she was evidently enduring a nightmare that we could never fathom. No wonder Nadia was willing to risk it all and leave for the West, once she retired from gymnastics.

Today, Nadia Comaneci is married to fellow Olympic gold medalist, Bart Conner, who won his medals in Los Angeles, back in 1984. They run their own gym in Oklahoma, and share a son named Dylan Paul Conner, who was born when Nadia was 44 years old. She still physically looks amazing, but I notice she smiles a lot more these days.

Overall, I think Nadia and the Secret Police is an excellent read for students of Cold War history, especially if they are interested in the Ceaușescu era and/or Romania. I will warn that this book is translated, and sometimes the translation gets a little mucked up. There were times, for instance, that the translator wrote names as they would be written in the Eastern Bloc or Soviet Union, with the last name first. Other times, he writes them as if they were in a western country. At times, the writing is also a little dry and formal, and there are some typos. I was surprised by the abrupt ending of this book, although I appreciated the many footnotes, notations, and photos.

Again, I cannot reiterate this enough. This book isn’t really for people who idolize Nadia or gymnastics and are looking for a life story. This is a book about history and politics. Nadia Comaneci just happens to be the subject, because she’s probably still the most famous Romanian in modern times. The focus is less on gymnastics, and more on world politics and intrigue. Yes, it’s useful for diehard Comaneci fans to read, but the focus is more on the oppressive government regime and less on Nadia Comaneci’s gymnastics prowess. I’m glad I read it. And I’m glad I’ve finished it, so I can move on to the next book.

As an Amazon Associate, I get a small commission from Amazon on sales made through my site.

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communication, complaints, condescending twatbags

Reading comprehension is an increasingly rare skill…

Happy Wednesday, everybody. I’m pleased to report that I feel a lot better today than I did yesterday at this time. My only complaint is the vague and annoying dyspepsia I’ve been dealing with for awhile. It’s probably an ulcer, and I probably should see a doctor about it. I probably won’t, though. Pepcid-AC and Barry Manilow for the win. 😉

“I wanna pull on your coat about something…” in the words of the fabulous Tom Waits.

I’m becoming convinced that people have lost basic reading comprehension skills. I’ve come to this conclusion by reading comments on the Internet.

Early this morning, I woke up needing to answer the call of nature. I couldn’t get back to sleep once I’d done the deed, so I decided to check in on the world. I noticed an op-ed in The New York Times written by Amy Silverstein (unlocked), author of the excellent book, Sick Girl, and its follow up, My Glory Was I Had Such Friends. I read the print version of Sick Girl when it was first published, in 2008 or thereabouts. I think I have the other book in my “to be read” queue.

I learned a lot from Sick Girl, which was about Silverstein’s experiences being the recipient of a donated heart. Her first donated heart, which she received in 1988, lasted an astonishing number of years until Silverstein had to have another transplant. She writes:

My first donor heart died of transplant medicines’ inadequate protection of the donor heart from rejection; my second will die most likely from their stymied immune effects that give free rein to cancer.

Silverstein’s fantastic and informative op-ed (which is also on her official Web site) is about how transplant medicine hasn’t evolved much during the time she’s been a patient. Most people are woefully ignorant about what it means to receive a transplanted organ. They believe that a transplant is a cure, not realizing that having a transplant means trading one medical problem for a host of others. Taking medications to suppress immunity means being vulnerable to every germ out there. It means having higher risks of diabetes and cancer. And yet, since 1988, the protocols haven’t changed much. Amy Silverstein has already lived an astonishingly long time, but she writes that she’s coming to the end of her longevity.

Plenty of people on Facebook felt the need to chime in without having read the article. Quite a few offered thoughts and opinions that were uninformed and completely irrelevant. Some complained about the paywall, apparently assuming that newspapers are charities or public services. Those who read the article were praising it for being informative, well-written, and moving. Others were just making noise. One guy wrote this comment, not realizing that Ms. Silverstein is still alive.

Why is an article like this behind a paywall? I hope the money is going to the author and her estate.

I’ve already complained about people who whine about having to pay for good journalism, so I will try to keep that to a minimum in this post. I do think that people expecting newspapers to provide free content is a major symptom of the main issue, though. People don’t value good writing. They expect it to be provided free of charge. A lot of the people who complain are also people who support capitalism and lament government “freebies”. They’re also often the same people who complain about the idea of having to buy insurance, but then use GoFundMe to pay for their medical care and funerals. Isn’t that interesting?

Anyway, I’m convinced that because these folks don’t want to pay for the stuff they read, they read a lot less. And what they do read, they don’t pay close attention to, so they miss the main ideas of what they’re reading. Then they share their crap with everyone. That problem extends, even when they’re reading other things, like books.

Consider this. I’ve been reading a newly published book that was originally written in Romanian. The title of the book is Nadia Comaneci and the Secret Police: A Cold War Escape. When I read that title, I don’t get the idea that I’m going to be reading Nadia Comaneci’s life story, per se. This is a book about her fame, and how it caused her to be constantly surveilled by the Securitate.

I read and reviewed Nadia Comaneci’s Letter to a Young Gymnast years ago. That’s her life story, expressed in her own words. The book I’m reading now includes elements of her life story, but the focus is on how she escaped Romania after having been a tool for the state. There’s a lot of discussion about Bela and Marta Karolyi, and their alleged abuses of the Romanian women’s gymnastics team members. The Karolyis were also closely watched by the Securitate, as was choreographer, Geza Poszar, who was allegedly an informant.

Nadia Comaneci and the Secret Police was published in Romanian a few years ago, but only very recently became available to those who wanted to read it in English. I’ve been eagerly awaiting this book, and would have jumped right in when I received it, but had to finish the book I was reading about Rosemary Kennedy. Below is the description of Nadia Comaneci and the Secret Police, as provided by Amazon.com.

Nadia Comaneci is the Romanian child prodigy and global gymnastics star who ultimately fled her homeland and the brutal oppression of a communist regime. At the age of just 14, Nadia became the first gymnast to be awarded a perfect score of 10.0 at the 1976 Montreal Olympic Games and went on to collect three gold medals in performances which influenced the sport for generations to come, cementing Nadia’s place as a sporting legend. 

However, as the communist authorities in Romania sought an iron grip over its highest-profile athletes, Nadia and her trainers were subjected to surveillance from the Securitate, the Romanian secret police. Drawing on 25,000 secret police archive pages, countless secret service intelligence documents, and numerous wiretap recordings, this book tells the compelling story of Nadia’s life and career using unique insights from the communist dictatorship which monitored her.

Nadia Comaneci and the Secret Police explores Nadia’s complex and combustible relationship with her sometimes abusive coaches, Béla and Marta Károlyi, figures who would later become embroiled in the USA Gymnastics scandal. The book addresses Nadia’s mental struggles and 1978 suicide attempt, and her remarkable resurgence to gold at the Moscow Olympics in 1980. It explores the impact of Nadia’s subsequent withdrawal from international activity and reflects on burning questions surrounding the heart-stopping, border-hopping defection to the United States that she successfully undertook in November 1989. Was the defection organised by CIA agents? Was it arranged on the orders of President George Bush himself? Or was Nadia aided and abetted by some of the very Securitate officers who were meant to be watching the communist world’s most lauded sporting icon? What is revealed is a thrilling tale of endurance and escape, in which one of the world’s greatest gymnasts risked everything for freedom.

Is there anything in that blurb that indicates that this book is solely Nadia’s life story? Hell, just reading the title tells me that this isn’t a book about Nadia’s family or career. However, below was what one reviewer wrote.

I’m left wondering if the above reviewer understood what the book’s subject matter was meant to be. This is a book about the Romanian government’s treatment of Nadia and her teammates and coaches, not Nadia’s life story. The title should have given the above reviewer a clue.

Moving on to the next example…

I subscribe to The Local: Germany, an online publication for English speakers in Germany. It offers information about local news and useful topics for us foreigners living in Germany. People constantly complain about the fact that the content is behind a paywall.

Yesterday, there was a link to a “free” article asking “What’s Life Like for Foreigners in Small-Town Germany”. Again, it’s free to read, because the editors want people to respond. And yet, once again, there was a complaint about how The Local doesn’t offer all of its content free of charge (do the complainers work for free?).

Perhaps if you aren’t so rigid with the subscription, we can make more meaningful comments.

The Local responded thusly:

Hi, the article is paywall free to encourage responses. And yes unfortunately we have no choice but to impose a paywall to allow us to exist.

You’d think that would be the end of it, but no… there were more complaints and unsolicited suggestions as to how The Local could offer its content for free. Below is a sampling…

there is always a choice -just look at other media…

I don’t even click the links anymore as it’s always pay pay pay, most other get advertisers to pay, not the readers… it’s a win win, the advertisers currently speak to the few, not the many… (does this person walk into stores and read the magazines for free?)

The Local responded:

I don’t think that’s true. Most media have paywalls and those that don’t well, as the saying goes, “if something is free then you are the product”. We’d rather be the product and not our readers. Media who get advertisers to pay, write articles for clicks. We’d rather be useful and write content for those willing to pay for it.We know our members value reading articles without annoying banner ads, which is one of the perks of membership, which we have kept as cheap as possible over the years.

Someone else wrote this:

Get a sponsor, the tourist board or NGO’s, or Think Tanks, maybe the federal German government or a regional one, or hit up some EU grant scheme. There is loads of money out there for media organizations. I assume you already sell as much user data as you can regardless of being a subscriber outlet instead of a free to user one… Atlas Obscura is free and has great articles and solid writers working for it, so can you.

I was glad to see the above commenter was taken to task by another reader:

your entitlement is baffling tbh. You don’t want to purchase a product – absolutely reasonable. Demanding that you’re being given the product for free or that someone goes out to do some fundraising and get someone else pay for the product you consume…that’s quite a step further. All throughout, it doesn’t even occur to you that no one owes you anything.

To which the first commenter wrote:

Hoch weilgeborhner Frau, your pompous accusatory attestation that I demanded this media product for free is a lie, I will demand that you reread my prior comment before you castigate me for having an opinion on subscriptions and offering ideas on financing a replacement model. Sünde.

Uh… who’s really being pompous? Wow. Maybe The Local doesn’t want a replacement model for the product they offer. Maybe if you don’t want to pay for their content, you could just keep scrolling, rather than offering unsolicited suggestions on how they can offer their product for free.

I felt moved to comment too, so I wrote this:

I don’t mind paying. Your content is useful, and writers have to eat, too.

And the Local offered this response to me:

This is the main point Jenny. It’s not even about us needing to get paid (although clearly it’s important to be able to attract talented journalists) it’s just that we know we have to be useful – or readers will not pay. It keeps us on our toes.

Right. And I don’t want to read content that is paid for by advertisers. I can get that by watching network TV or reading CNN. I sympathize with those who can’t afford to pay for journalism. I just don’t understand the whining about it. God forbid someone wants to be able to make a living by creating content that informs or entertains. You don’t ask your plumber or doctor to work for free, do you?

Whoops… I truly meant to avoid complaining about people who whine about paywalls. It’s hard to avoid it, though. I know I should avoid comment sections, but they are such a fruitful source of blog ideas.

It’s pretty amazing to see how eager people are to share their views when they haven’t even taken a minute to inform themselves about the subject on which they are opining. It reminds me of Republicans who complain about rainbows on Bud Light cans and decide to boycott Anheuser-Busch, not realizing that Anheuser-Busch donates a lot of money to the Republican Party. Also, the cans featuring Dylan Mulvaney aren’t even available to the public, and yet we have people self-righteously boycotting… They’re the same people who complain about cancel culture. Too funny.

I learned about the Bud Light conundrum by watching Beau. I try not to listen to anything the Trumps say. The above video is pretty entertaining.

Well… I probably ought to wrap up today’s post. I see I’ve gone on quite a lot, and time is getting away from me. I have a vacation to research, laundry to fold, a bed to make, a guitar to practice, and a dog to walk. So I’m going to quit ranting now. Hope this post offers some food for thought. I challenge you to take a moment to read for comprehension, especially if you feel like commenting. It might spare you a moment or two of foolishness.

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book reviews

Repost: Red Horizons, a book about the fall of the Ceausescus…

This as/is book review of Red Horizons was first written for Epinions.com on October 3, 2010. It was reposted on my original blog on June 16, 2014. It goes well with Ken Alibek’s book, Biohazard, which I also reposted today.

Comments from 2014

I’m reposting this review of Ion Mihai Pacepa’s Red Horizons because I found it as interesting as I did Ken Alibek’s Biohazard.  Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu were the extremely corrupt leaders of Romania until they were publicly executed on Christmas Day in 1989.  Of course, in Romania, it might not have been Christmas.  Maybe they celebrate on a different day…  I might be persuaded to look it up if I weren’t feeling so icky today.  Anyway, if you like reading about kooky, paranoid, and tyrannical leaders, you might find General Pacepa’s book as much of a page turner as I did.  I love reading about former Communist nations.

Review from 2010

Recently, I’ve been reading a lot of books about totalitarian regimes. A few months ago, I was on a North Korea kick, but soon found my attention turning to Europe. Somehow, I was alerted to Lt. Gen. Ion Mihai Pacepa’s fascinating 1987 book, Red Horizons: The True Story of Nicolae and Elena Ceausescus’ Crimes, Lifestyle, and Corruption. I ordered the 1990 reprint of this book in July and just now got around to reading it. Now that I’m finished with it, I’m left feeling somewhat stunned. It’s not so much that I’m surprised by the level of corruption and crimes committed by the Ceausescus. It’s more that General Pacepa has provided such a detailed, fascinating, and ultimately revealing image of the dictator and his wife and the tragedies they committed against their country and its people.

Who is Lt. General Ion Mihai Pacepa?

Ion Mihai Pacepa was born October 28, 1928 in Bucharest, Romania. Currently 81 years old, his father once worked in General Motors’ Bucharest factory and, through his work, developed a great love for America. According to Red Horizons, Pacepa grew up instilled with respect for the United States, yet he ended up becoming one of the highest ranking members of the Securitate, the secret service of Communist era Romania. At the time of his defection to the United States on July 28, 1978, Pacepa was a two-star Romanian general who held both the rank of advisor to former President Nicolae Ceausescu, acting chief of Romania’s foreign intelligence service, and state secretary of Romania’s Ministry of the Interior.

What qualifies Pacepa to write this expose of Communist era Romania?

Because Pacepa held so many roles in Ceausescu’s regime, he was in a rare position to observe the president and his wife, Elena. And in his book, Red Horizons, Pacepa doesn’t hold back. In captivating prose, Pacepa vividly describes what it was like to be Nicolae Ceausescu’s right hand man. He also offers an unflattering look at Elena Ceausescu, a selfish, contemptible, disdainful woman who fancied herself a scientist, but never quite delivered the goods to be a legitimate scholar.

What’s in the book…

With the literary grace of a novelist, Pacepa writes a lot about the Ceausescus’ oppressive leadership style, but he also reveals a lot about their limitations as people. The mighty former president, who demanded absolute loyalty from his people and had absolutely no qualms about executing anyone who dared to speak out about him (even if they were living abroad), was an unusually short man who stuttered whenever he got upset or nervous. He was so crippled with paranoia that whenever he traveled, he brought an entourage of staff and trunks of linens, towels, dishes, and food with him. He never ate any food that wasn’t prepared and seved by his own trusted personal chef and waiter.  Even when he stayed at fancy hotels in Washington, DC or New York, Ceausescu never relied on the services of hotel employees.  It was too risky.

Ceausescu’s clothes were made by a special Romanian staff. He wore a set of clothes exactly once, then had the whole set burned.  Every year, he wore and then destroyed 365 sets of clothes and shoes.   Elena occasionally cheated with the clothing rule; occasionally, she found clothes in Paris or London that she liked and would wear repeatedly.  These measures were taken in an effort to avoid being poisoned by anyone who would, quite understandably, want to see him dead.

Pacepa writes about how much the Ceausescus especially hated Jews and Hungarians and worked especially hard to see that they were especially oppressed in Romanian society.  His hatred for Jews extended to every Jew, according to Pacepa, who writes an almost comical account of a meeting Ceausescu had in New York City with former Mayor Ed Koch.  I won’t spoil the story by revealing it in this review; suffice it to say that by Pacepa’s account, if hard feelings could kill, Koch would have been a dead man.  In fact, any Romanian who threatened or angered Ceausescu was liable to end up the victim of an “unfortunate accident” or a severe beating, even if they no longer lived in Romania.  By Pacepa’s account in Red Horizons, it was not at all hard to make Ceausescu angry.

While the Romanian people suffered long lines for basic necessities, had one black and white television for every fifty houses, and were at one time legally required to have at least four children, the Ceausescus were demanding Rolls Royces, expensive jewelry, private jets and yachts, and even their own private hospital.  The Ceausescus were relentless in their attempts to suppress any dissent whatsoever within Romania.  At one point, typewriters were outlawed and anyone who had a typewriter had to register it.  Every citizen, even children, had to submit handwriting samples to the secret police.  And forget about privacy.  While the Ceausescus shamelessly bugged the homes of private citizens, even going so far as to listen in on one hapless couple’s late morning lovemaking session, Nicolae Ceausescu was famously paranoid about his own homes and offices being bugged and zealously guarded his privacy. The Ceausescus demanded accountability from every citizen, yet until they were tried for their crimes against Romania, refused to ever be held accountable themselves.

Pacepa’s account of all of this is written in shades of several different emotions.  He alternately writes with airs of disbelief, anger, sarcasm, derision, and even humor.  I don’t know if General Pacepa had any help from a ghostwriter. None are credited in my edition of this book. He writes as though he spent his whole life in America, with astonishing fluency. And while it’s impossible to know how much influence, if any at all, the Central Intelligence Agency had in the making of this book, I think this book will be very revealing to the average American reader, many of whom likely know next to nothing about the Ceausescus.

Pacepa includes a brief photo section. Pictures are in black and white and a few are a bit grainy. They’re still fascinating to look at. In the 1990 edition, there’s also a new preface as well as a transcript of the closed court hearings of the Ceausescus’ trial.

One possible drawback…

Although Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu were executed on December 25, 1989, this book doesn’t really have much information about that event. In fact, since Pacepa defected in 1978, there’s not much information about the society beyond that time. From what I understand, the 1980s are when things really went south in Romanian society. Those who want to know about that portion of Romanian history will need to consult a different source.

On the other hand, the day after the Ceausescus were executed, Truth, the Romanian daily newspaper, began printing excerpts from Red Horizons for all Romanians to read. I can only imagine how the Romanian people must have felt to have this sudden truth illuminated for them after so many years of oppression.  This is one book in which the truth may well be stranger and scarier than fiction.

Overall

I found Red Horizons enormously interesting reading. After finishing the book this morning, I found myself wanting to learn more about this particular chapter in history and read more of Pacepa’s writing. Fortunately, over the years, he has contributed a number of articles to The Wall Street JournalNational Review Online, and The Washington Times.

The very last speech.

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book reviews

Repost: Ken Alibek’s Biohazard… a book that scared the hell out of me.

Here’s another reposted book review. This one was originally posted on Epinions.com April 30, 2010, then reposted on June 16, 2014. I’m sharing it again as/is, because I think it’s an important and fascinating read. But it’s also very scary, especially during the COVID-19 crisis!

Comments from 2014 (I was very sick with a nasty virus when I wrote it):

Since Bill and I are now sick, I was reminded of a book I read a few years ago.  Biohazard was written by a former Soviet military officer and physician named Ken Alibek.  Having grown up during the height of the Cold War, I remember very well how scared many people were that the Soviet Union would one day invade the United States or launch a nuke that would wipe us out.  I’m sure most of us were blissfully unaware that besides nukes, the Soviets were working on a very sinister warfare program that was designed to make people sick.  While I don’t think this illness we have was intended as a bioweapon, I do take note that I got it at an Army party.  Anyway, I found Ken Alibek’s book fascinating, so I’m sharing my reposted review here for your reading pleasure…

Review from 2010

I vividly remember back in the fall of 2001, when post offices in the Washington, DC area were getting letters and packages laced with anthrax. For several weeks, Americans were terrified of the mail, worried that any white, powdery substance might be anthrax spores that would cause unpleasant and untimely deaths. If you’re like me, you might have wondered where bioterrorists got the idea to send anthrax in the mail. Now that I’ve read Ken Alibek’s 1999 book, Biohazard, I have a better concept of how biological weapons are produced and how, back in the 1970s and 80s, the former Soviet Union was leading the way in turning viruses and bacteria into deadly weapons of mass destruction against mankind.

Who is Ken Alibek?

Ken Alibek (Kanatjan Alibekov), who originally hails from Kazakhstan, was once one of the Soviet Union’s highest ranking military officers and scientists. A physician by training, Alibek ran a program called Biopreparat, where germs that cause incurable and horrifying diseases were being developed into powerful biological weapons. Alibek worked with the organisms that cause smallpox, anthrax, tularemia, Ebola, and Marburg on a regular basis. With ghostwriter Stephen Handelman’s help, Alibek explains how in the interest of the Soviet Motherland, he and his colleagues used animals to test these weapons and make them available should any country dare to attack the former Soviet Union.

Why I was interested in this book

I first became aware of Biohazard when I read the excellent Epinions reviews by texas-swede and bonnieleigh. I was interested in this book for several reasons. First of all, I used to live in the former Soviet Union. I moved there in 1995, not long after it fell apart, so I have somewhat of a concept of what life was like there. I was particularly interested in reading Alibek’s account of what happened after the Soviet Union dissolved. Secondly, I have a background in public health, so I’m interested in epidemiology and how diseases spread. Biohazard satisfied that aspect of my curiosity. And finally, I’m now the wife of an Army officer who was living in the DC area and working in the Pentagon when the anthrax attacks and 9/11 occurred.

Chilling aspects of this book

I found Biohazard to be a real page turner. For one thing, Alibek, who according to this book now lives in the United States and works for the U.S. government, really knows a lot about the old Soviet biological weapons program. And he’s unflinching when he relates the horrifying tale of a colleague who was working with the Marburg virus. The well-liked scientist was working under extreme pressure and failed to follow protocol. He accidentally stabbed himself with a needle that had been exposed to the deadly virus. It took him three weeks to die, with his fellow Biopreparat colleagues watching helplessly. Ever the stoic, the scientist meticulously kept track of his symptoms and experiences so that his death could be useful to the biological weapons cause.

Alibek’s involvement with Biopreparat came at a significant personal cost. For instance, he has lost all sense of smell and there’s a long list of foods he can no longer eat. He’s allergic to a broad range of things and, every day, must apply ointment to his face, neck, and hands because his body no longer manufactures its own natural lubricants. Because of his job at Biopreparat and the furious pace demanded by his superiors, Alibek missed out on a lot of family time. His children grew up not knowing him as well as they might have. Alibek had to struggle with the moral dilemma of having taken a physician’s oath to preserve life, yet still working in a field designed to destroy it. And though the Soviet Union no longer exists, Alibek is still considered a traitor by some powerful people who wouldn’t mind seeing him dead.

Overall

I would definitely recommend this book to anyone who is interested in biological weapons, the former Soviet Union, or people who just like a good story, particularly those that involve cloak and dagger stuff. I will warn, however, that while this book is thrilling and very well-written, it’s also a bit terrifying and potentially depressing. If you’d rather not think about how easily microbes can be used to end your life as well as those of your loved ones, you might want to pass on reading Biohazard. As fascinating as Alibek’s story is, it’s also a stark reminder that there are some truly evil people in the world. On the other hand, as Alibek points out, during the Soviet era, Soviets believed that the Americans were evil too.

Thanks again to texas-swede and bonnieleigh for reviewing Biohazard and inspiring me to read it. As scary and depressing as this book is, it’s also educational. I’ve passed it along to my dear husband, who is also finding it an incredible read. Hopefully, he’ll review it too!

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