Sunday, October 16, 2011

12 Who Don't Agree, by Valery Panyushkin

Europa Editions, 2011
originally published as 12 nesolasnych,  2008
translated by Marian Schwartz
259 pp

" live by your conscience, as the saying goes, you protest when you need to protest and you don't bow or grovel before the powerful. And one day you see that you have taught your little girl to protest."
Before I start on my thoughts about this book, I would like to thank Europa Editions for publishing it. Otherwise, I may never have picked it up and that would have been a shame. Keep it up, find more stories like this one, and carry on. Please!

In 12 Who Don't Agree, Russian journalist Valery Panyushkin gathers together the individual stories of  several Russian dissidents, linked together in various ways, especially as participants in the March of the Dissidents of 2007.  The first of these protest marches  was in held in Petersburg, and was only one of a series of planned events prior to the presidential election of 2008.  Their intention was to call attention to their opposition to the social, political and economic policies of then president Vladimir Putin.  During the first march, which was considered a "success" by its organizers (including Garry Kasparov, Russian dissident and former world-chess champion),  the authorities called out the OMON (a police special forces unit), who reacted with violence against some of the protestors, but before the march was over, according to one observer, a "crowd of 10,000 had broken through the police cordons onto Nevsky Prospect... a human river as far as the eye could see, ... friends and comrades in arms free, strong, and dissenting."  While much of the violence was officially blamed on the organizers, provocateurs hired by the regime took their place in the crowds, holding signs and stirring up trouble to make the protestors look bad.  And all of this after the fall of the Wall and the end of totalitarian rule. Supposedly.

Panyushkin's book offers the experiences of eleven people, who for their own reasons were affected by, or became victims of gradually worsening government policies and repressions.  For example, there's Marina Litvinovich, who worked at the Fund for Effective Politics, where she read and summarized the news each day.  By reading between the lines and by putting together all of the various information campaigns, she discovered how things really worked.  Eventually she figured out that she could help influence the "secret course of events," and began putting together a summary which ultimately became "Information Threats and Ways to Resolve Them," where she would give advice. Her job: navigating between the the personal interests of officials and the country's interests. She began attending meetings between her boss, Gleb Pavlovsky (who had once betrayed a comrade to the KGB on the basis of his "forbidden books") and Yeltsin's chief of staff Voloshin, offering advice on how to handle official publicity.  She drew up lists of topics for directors to cover on Ukranian television and even directed Putin's public appearances once he became the president.  And this is where the trouble began. During the Kursk incident of 2000, Putin was on vacation as men trapped in the sub were clanging out SOS signals against the sides and their wives and mothers waited for someone to do something.  Marina's advice was to go the see the families and offer some moral support.  But this tactic backfired -- instead of his presence offering assurance, they turned on him publicly, in the face of reporters.  This incident led to a change in policy: the president would from then on maintain silence during any disaster. When the hostage situation developed in the Dubrovka Theater in  Moscow  in 2002, Marina discovered she was no longer needed, especially after the Russian forces dealt with the situation by piping in some unknown chemical agent to subdue the militants but managed to kill over a hundred innocent people as well.   To handle the information situation, the NTV, the last independent political channel which  actually covered the Dubrovka incident, got a new director, and information began to yield to propaganda.  Her career was basically over, and she ran several campaigns (PR and political), but as she began to understand why it was that all of her clients were failing, that behind it all were the politics and underhanded policies of those in charge of the country, she'd had enough, and began to manage the campaign of dissident Garry Kasparov.

And then there was Beslan, 2004, and the terrorist occupation of a school where over three hundred teachers, parents and children were taken hostage, many of them killed as government forces launched an assault on the school.  That incident killed trust in the regime for a resident, Vissarim Aseyev, a deputy of the district legislative assembly. Vissarim (Visa) was the first civilian on the scene after hearing gunshots from the direction of the school. He worked tirelessly to help any of the families who had lost children or other relatives, and did what any human being would do in the situation. But he reached his breaking point during a protest by a grieving group of women calling itself the Mothers of Beslan along the highway.  They stood there with signs, demanding, among other things, an international investigation into the circumstances of the terrorist action and the response of the government, and they figured that the investigation such as it was was being conducted so that no one in authority would end up being held responsible for the deaths of their children.  It was cold outside; the women were freezing, and Aseyev, being a good citizen and understanding their grief, called a friend to have a tent sent over along with food and hot tea from different cafes. Soon others began to join the protest, but it was still on a small scale.  On day three, after being warned that the protest was illegal, the Deputy General Prosecutor, a "representative of Federal Power" came by and starting yelling at the moms to stop. Stating that it was "indecent" for the mourning women to be standing there holding signs, he also berated the men who had joined them, saying that if they wanted to sort things out, to go make war on the nearby people of Ingushetia.  Aseyev couldn't believe his ears -- was this official actually proposing a war? Things only got worse.  He was called to the Beslan prosecutor's office, who told him that he needed to take responsibility for this illegal protest, or his friend who had supplied the tent would get into trouble.  Criminal charges would also be brought against him.  As the author notes, "Now he was truly opposed to the state."

There are nine more stories along these lines, all of them dealing with the gradual erosion of freedoms, human rights violations, threats, and other events that made these protests necessary as these individuals (and others)  began to realize  that "...we had returned to the Soviet Union, to a life we knew. When, no matter who you were, you could not have any effect on the regime or rise to power."   These narratives also deal with the government's efforts to crack down on any form of public protest, as well as  measures taken to edge out any real political opposition to the Kremlin, including censorship of opposition viewpoints and changes in the election laws.  Did you know, for example, that in Russia, it's illegal to have more than one person picketing at a time? Add another person and you're violating the law, with jail time as a result. And did you know that there are people  hired by the Kremlin to come up and stand with a solitary picketer, which ends the picket and makes the picketer a criminal?  And now that another round of elections are coming up, and Putin is planning to run, well, the world should be watching.  And then what happens with the protests come to a halt altogether? 

If you are politically inclined or are interested in the state of human rights around the globe, this is a definite must-read that gets well beyond news stories we listen to with only half an ear (if at all, since it's not about us).  The book starts out a bit slowly, but as Panyushkin gets through the intrigue, the political plays, injustices and protection of oligarchical interests of the government,  he also gets into the hearts and minds of these eleven people as they try to find a vehicle for expression and change. He often exercises humor that doesn't belie the seriousness of what he's saying.  Sometimes the narrative gets a bit bogged down and I found myself going to the internet for dates, etc.,  but for the most part, it's easy to read and to understand.  And with what's happening around the globe, it's timely.  Definitely and most highly recommended.

Also posted at The Europa Challenge Blog

Monday, October 10, 2011

Death in the City of Light: The Serial Killer of Nazi-Occupied Paris, by David King

Crown Publishing, 2011
432 pp.

"The journeys begin and end at the rue Le Sueur."

First, a thank you to Crown for the ARC of this book, and an apology for taking so long to get to it.    This one definitely will get a second read and I'm buying a copy, so if anyone reading this wants the ARC gratis, it's yours. Be the first to leave a comment and it will be on its way to you this week.

On March 11, 1944, the air on the rue Le Sueur was filled with thick black smoke, smelling of "burnt caramel, burnt rubber, or a burnt roast of poor quality." The smoke had been coming out of a townhouse at number 21, and had been going for five days, but on that day, the heat made the smoke worse than it had ever been.  When firemen came to investigate, they came upon a horrible sight in the basement, to which  they had traced the origins of the smell.  They found piles of bones, arms and legs strewn about, and an overwhelming odor of decomposing and burnt flesh. But there were even more horrors in store for Georges-Victor Massu, the Commissiare of the Brigade Criminelle when he arrived -- the townhouse's courtyard hid a pit filled with "decomposing bodies of varying stages," whose numbers the Commissaire could only guess at.  One of the people joining the crowd before Massu's arrival identified himself as the owner's brother, and entered into a strange conversation with  the patrolmen at the scene:

" 'Are you good Frenchmen?' the man asked.
'What kind of question is that?'
'Then listen carefully. What you see there are the bodies of Germans and traitors to our country.' Discreetly he asked if the authorities had been notified...
'That's a serious mistake,' the man said. 'My life is at stake, as are the the lives of several of my friends who serve our cause'."

He went on to say that he was the leader of an organization in the French Resistance, that he had three hundred secret files and identification cards of other members of the Resistance, and that he needed to destroy them before the Germans could get them. Rather than detaining the man, the patrolman let him go.  Later, when he saw a picture of the owner of 21 rue Le Sueur, he was shocked to discover that this was the man he had talking to all along.  But that March night, the man vanished into the darkness, and became the focus of a manhunt that took several bizarre twists and turns as it progressed.

Death in the City of Light is the story of one of the most abominable yet unknown (at least to me) serial killers of the twentieth century, Dr. Marcel Petiot, a predator in every sense of the word. Some years prior to the discoveries at rue Le Sueur, authorities had already dealt with Petiot, who had been involved in the narcotics trade and fraud, and he came up on their radar when people associated with him began disappearing.  He had served as a mayor and a coroner, his careers ending in scandal.  Claiming to be part of a Resistance group that helped people leave Paris, Petiot had offered his services, at a rather hefty cost,  to assist Jews (among others) to get out of Paris, into France's Free Zone, and ultimately out of the country.  His activities captured the attention of two sections of the  Gestapo:  military security (IV E-3) got involved because of the escape of German soliders who would rather desert than face the possibility of  going to the Eastern Front, and the section involved in the Final Solution (B IV) was also interested due to the escape of Jews from Paris.   He was ultimately was picked up during a sting operation,  tortured and imprisoned by the Gestapo, but  strangely, via a ransom paid by this brother, Petiot was released from Gestapo custody just two short months prior to the discovery at rue Le Sueur.  Ransoming prisoners of the Third Reich was nothing new; the author discusses how even Jews deemed "low security risks" could be ransomed at the right price, but considering that two divisions of the Gestapo were investigating Petiot's organization, and the nature of his crimes, the question of why he was released is a big one, and serves as part of the foundation for the major question posed in this book:  who did Petiot really work for? Was he, as he claimed, a member of the French Resistance, helping people to their freedom and helping "fellow patriots escape the vengeance of the Germans,"  or was he actually working for the Gestapo? Or did he work for neither -- was there something else going on? The author lays out the probabilities for each scenario and ultimately comes up with his own conclusions. 

The author has done some very credible research, even gaining unprecedented access to police archives and files about Petiot that still remain classified.  His coverage of this most evil man is set against the backdrop of Paris during the Nazi Occupation, and includes background about the political and cultural life of Paris, the criminal underground of the city, and the hardships endured by Parisians during that time. He also takes the reader through the Liberation of Paris and the aftereffects of arrests, trials and executions of persons known to be collaborators.  The most active part of the case and the book as well, however,  is Petiot's trial, a lively judicial farce that allowed the defendant to hurl insults, allegations against the prosecutor, the civil attorneys, the police and witnesses and to make his own case through even the most damning of testimony while trying to gain sympathy from audience.  His defense: he killed only "Germans, notorious collaborators, Gestapo and agents provocateurs," but then how does one explain away a nine-year old Jewish child? The Epilogue allows King the opportunity to put forth his own theories about the case, and he uses one obscure but amazing source in particular from a survivor of the escape network as a basis for part of his hypothesis.

While most of the focus is naturally on Petiot, King's work also follows the work and career of Georges-Victor Massu, who was a friend of Georges Simenon and part of a composite model for Simenon's character Maigret.  After working so hard on the case, Massu was ultimately arrested as a collaborator after the liberation of Paris and never got the opportunity to question Petiot, even though he'd laid most of the groundwork for his arrest.  The evidence uncovered by this man should have led to an open-and-shut case at trial; sadly, because of legal maneuverings, Petiot's outbursts and other factors, Massu's hard work was largely glossed over, important points were missed or not picked up during questioning, and as the trial progressed, it was a toss up as to whether Petiot would walk or be found guilty. The forensics specialists' work is also among the pleasures of this book.

Death in the City of Light is an interesting book that presents a series of complex questions that may never be completely answered, but King has done a wonderful job tying together several threads of detail to produce a story that is so bizarre and so twisted that it could only be real. I highly recommend it. I'm not big on true crime, but this is so different than anything I've read, and it appeals to the historian in me.

I've noticed in several reviews that people have compared this book to Erik Larson's Devil in the White City, but don't even go there, and it's really unfair to make that comparison.  People have also written that the book was boring and unengaging; I found it to be the opposite. My only problem with this book is that in the ARC there are no maps or photos, and these would have been very helpful.  But all in all, what a bizarre case this was -- and King's writing, his attention to detail and his ability to sift through untold hours of research made this an interesting and very enjoyable read.