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‚Ķ  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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