“The New Tsar: The Rise and Reign of Vladimir Putin” – by Steven Lee Myers

It has been a while since I have reviewed a book on my blog but I felt the timing was good and the book was worth it.  It seems Russia has come back in our media and politics. Resurrected from its cold war hangover and reborn by one man, Vladimir Putin.  The book is well written and researched by Mr. Myers taking us from Putin’s childhood in St Petersburg, through his time as a KGB agent to his eventual rise to power..

What we learn about his early years is this was a young man who did not stand out.  He was not an academic genius.  He was a typical kid who showed no great ambitions.  Like many it was film that inspired him and the Soviet spy thrillers that influenced him to want to be a KGB foreign spy.  He would never get the job in the west having to settle for a posting in Dresden, East Germany, where the KGB kept check on the Stasi.  He would be there until the collapse of East Germany.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union,like many at the time he was a drift. A life that seemed so structured was no longer.  That lack of structure was a very difficult issue for Putin. He would work for people in St Petersburg,  on local campaigns  and what you learn about Putin is he was loyal to whomever he worked for and he worked hard for those people he reported to.  Loyalty and structure would drive him moving forward and define his personality.

He eventually found himself in Moscow working in the Boris Yeltsin apparatus  Again he worked very hard until he started to get noticed by Yeltsin.  After many Prime Ministers came and went under Yeltsin, Putin was eventually offered the role. He was picked by Yeltsin to become President once Yeltsin stepped away, primarily for health reasons.  It is really amazing this unexpected rise, but all of a sudden a former KGB man is leader of Russia.

The biggest influence in Putin’s first term were two-fold: terrorism and Chechnya.  They went hand in hand and Putin did as he was trained he came down on those who threatened Russia with force.  During this early time as the crisis unfolded he also took steps to reign in the media and put them under state control.  The oligarchs who had made billions were also brought in line.  Those who did not fall in line were brought to trial and sent to Siberia (Yukos Oil).  The people who really made out during Putin’s first eight years were old fiends from Petersburg, KGB etc..Corruption was contained but it was also alive and well in Putin’s Russia

The biggest event that lead to Putin’s break with the west was the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2004.  After this point Vladimir Putin changed.  He became the man to resurrect Russia as a major player on the global stage.  The book covers his time where he stepped back for 4 years as Prime Minister, while Medvedev was his appointed President. During this time primarily managing the corrupt Sochi Olympics and being a power broker behind the scenes.

There is a lot covered in this book by Mr.Myers and I just touched on some, but why you would admire Vladimir Putin is a mystery to this reader and I think to Mr. Myers as well. As Angela Merkl told President Obama, “Putin is in his  own world”  The Russia Putin believes in is based on history, history of a great past that is pre-Soviet.  It is a fascinating account of what makes up a man who has created a cult of personality.  He will be a major player for some time, through the 2018 elections (there is no competition in Russian elections…as we learn they are not Democratic).  Read the book. It is a great read and will make you feel uneasy about the future.

Good Night and Good Luck

Hans Henrik Hoffmann December 28, 2016



Execution by Hunger

A recommendation to me by my former soccer coach and an excellent one at that.  The book “Execution by Hunger” by Miron Dolot, details a human atrocity behind the iron curtain of the Soviet empire, specifically Ukraine.  You can divide the book up into two pieces.  The first being the process of collectivizing the farms by the Soviet Union.  Having read quite a few books of life under Stalin, this was new and a welcome surprise.  For those who do not dare tackle Alexsandr Solzhenitsyn’s  “The Gulag Archipelago”, this is a much shorter and riveting route to understanding the terror of life in the Soviet Union under the Stalinist regime.

Set in a small rural farming village in the Ukraine the first half of the book start’s in 1929 detailing the process of collectivizing farms.  Collectivizing meant handing over your family farm to the state. This was because in a communist paradise everyone worked for the greater good and thus there was no need for people to have private property. The first part of the book deals with getting the farmers to “buy” into the new systems.  What one comes away with is the system put into place to essentially bully the farmers into voluntarily joining the system.  They would divide each section of farms into communal organizations and force them to attend nightly propaganda meetings.  The point being to indoctrinate the people and if they did not sign up things would only get worse.  One instance was the “Path Treaded” where if a farmer did not sign up they would be told to take a note to another commune.  Once there they would essentially be questioned once again.  the paths in the snow that were created would become known as the “Path Treaded”.

As time passed the efforts made to get people to collectivize would become more severe.  Coming to homes and confiscating items.  Those who would not join, well some would be arrested and sent away.  They would be referred to as “Kurkuls” (in short, private farmers) and based on the propaganda machine they were “enemies of the people”.  Most of these men perished in the gulag.  What is most impressive and horrifying is just how organized and well run these propaganda machines were.  They were like a well run American Corporation, but the end results were not a product just brainwashing.

When all the arm shad been collectivized it was time to get ready to plant and harvest.  As part of the communist five-year all wheat was transported to Russia little food was left for the villagers.  During the harvest they received a small stipend, but when winter set in they were all on their own.  It was important for the Soviet Union to show the world how productive they were, that communism was leading to a new world order.  In this case it would just lead to death.

During the two winters the villagers were locked up in their homes.  Many of the men were gone, locked up and removed to the remote regions of Russia, leaving just the woman and children to fend for themselves.  Many would die mercilessly in their homes as first the child would die and then the mother.  Sometimes by freezing to death and sometimes by suicide.  The pain endured by these people is unmentionable.  They became just corpses frozen until the spring thaw.  Those who ventured out would be found on the road side in a field.  Some not appearing until the snow melted.

In one chapter the mother and son venture to the village, walking for miles in the bitter cold.  As the approach the village they come across a garden of grotesques statues.  The statues however are not marble but human bodies lining the road into the village as if to warn strangers from venturing closer.  As they enter the village things only become more horrific. At one point the son turns the corner to see a pile of human corpses reminiscent of what we would later see in the Nazi Holocaust.   The son says it is a site etched in his memory.  With all the horrors he has seen it’s amazing he could differentiate.

Hunger may be one of the cruelest struggles humanity has to face and luckily for most of us we never face it.  In this case it was forced upon farmers not to teach a lesson but to simply destroy what vestige of humanity was left.  Hunger also leads to insanity. So in the end, it is no surprise, that in the harsh winters it led to cannibalism.  Our main character and his younger brother confront his wretched disease.  What amazed me in the writing is as horrific as the incident was there was no bitterness towards the man as it was just a sad result of human suffering.

If there is one character I admire it is the mother.  Her strength throughout the book is awe-inspiring.  Whether confronted bu the communist machine or in the face of hunger she alway protects what is left of her family.  She even takes others in when possible.  During the period of the iron curtain I imagine there are probably a thousand stories of courage that took place similar to this mother.  Most of which we will never know or hear about, just passages in the sands of time. Blown quickly away, never noticed never seen.

Good Night and Good Luck

Hans Henrik Hoffmann June 7, 2011

The Rape of Nanking

I do a lot of reading. and in particular history, in part because as I read I find references to other books that capture my interest that I should read.  I just love the journey reading takes me on.  Thus far I have shunned doing too many book reviews but as part of my journey I recently read “The Rape of Nanking” by Iris Change.  It is a powerful and disturbing book.  The events covered take place in Nanking, China in 1937 and covers one of the worst war atrocities in the  history of mankind.  Unfortunately to most of the western world it is one that has been largely forgotten in the passage of time.  At the same time when you hear about hostility between China and Japan in the media, this historical event helps explain a lot of the animosity between these two global economic powers.  A note to readers I will try to be delicate as possible when discussing what took place in Nanking, but in some instances to portray history that may not be possible. Consider this your reader beware notice.

Japan at the time wanted it’s place on the global stage as a word power.  The conquest of China was a primary objective of the Japanese empire, though we often think the second world war started when Hitler invaded Poland in 1939 te reality was war was already waging in other parts of the world.  Following the fall of Shanghai the Japanese marched onward towards the ancient Chinese capital of Nanking.  At the time it was also the capital for the Chinese nationalists led by Chiang Kai-Shek.  Despite an overwhelming superiority in numbers the Chinese would flee and surrender rather meekly to their conquerors.  There was no valiant last stand, no great battle,if they had known what was to follow they would have fought until the last man stood. The date was December 12, 1937 when Nanking fell.  Many people fled the city, however their were still over 600,000 people left in Nanking.  When all was said and done after 6 weeks only half of them would survive to live another day.

When the Chinese surrendered it meant a great many Chinese soldiers were left to surrender to their Japanese conquerors.  In some descriptions it created both logistical and  budgetary issues and the Japanese were not willing to own up to  this new responsibility.  So they decided to forgo the Geneva convention, deciding that mass execution would be the easier route to go. The captured soldiers by all accounts had no idea what was going to take place. At first the Chinese soldiers were separated into smaller more manageable groups. They were then taken to a smaller more private setting where they were executed and dumped into the Yangtze, mass graves etc..It was all very systematic at first but along the way a certain madness seemed to take hold of the Japanese Military and it seemed to become more sport as they would have “games” to see how fast they could decapitate a human.  We have all probably seen photo’s of military personal practicing on human dummies, but in Nanking the practice was horrific in its reality.  Bayonet practice was a game where you would tie up a prisoner and let the soldier repeatedly use their weapon on a live human being.  Other events were decapitation.  How fast could a Japanese soldier decapitate a Chinese prisoner.  As bodies littered the streets and rivers of Nanking, the city became literally a sea of red.  A blood lust had overcome of the Japanese military stationed in Nanking.

The woman endured perhaps the worst having to be subjected to repeated rapes by groups of Japanese soldiers.  They hid, they were found, they were raped, and then either butchered or left for not.  Age did not matter, nor if they were pregnant. It did not matter where or who was present.  Adolescent girls were raped until they could not stand.   Old woman would die as their withered bodies could only withstand so much. There was an international safety zone in Nanking where they could  be in peace, but that did not last long as Japanese soldiers were constantly trying to break in and drag off woman.  The people leading the safety zone were being woken at all times of both day and night, having to rescue Chinese woman from being dragged off by Japanese soldiers.  Nanking is believed to be the second largest case of mass rape in human history, behind the rape of Bangladesh woman in 1971.

There was one savior in all this madness.  It leads to one of those odd paradoxes in history.  It was a German named Jonathan Rabe, besides being German, he was a staunch supporter of the Third Reich and Adolf Hitler.  As events occurred he would lead the International Safety Zone in Nanking.  He would confront the Japanese who tried to remove or simply take Chinese citizens from the compound.  He used the fact of the burgeoning relationship between Germany and Japan to try to stop the savagery that was taking place but it would only slow the Japanese, but it would not stop them. He was on call 24/7 and would stay during the duration of the massacre.  The noted German Oscar Schindler saved thousands of Jews from Auschwitz. It is estimated that Jonathan Rabe saved the lives of over 250,000 Chinese men, woman and children.  When he returned to Germany he tried to get an audience with Adolf Hitler to discuss the atrocities in Nanking.  He was unsuccessful and would fall into poverty in Germany.  Years later when his plight was discoverer din Nanking, the people of Nanking sent food, clothes and whatever else they could get to help their patron saint, Jonathan Rabe.

Following the war the greatest criminal act was the lack of historical recognition in Japan and not owning up to the incidents that occurred in Nanking.  Many of the war criminals, in fact most never stood trial.  They would go home to Japan and live out the rest of their lives in peace and harmony, with only their conscience to confront.  There would be no Simon Wiesenthal to continue the fight for justice, because most of the world did not know.  If you do not know you do not care, in the case of Nanking that is an insult and tragedy to those lost and those who survived.

Why tell this story?  Because though there are genocides we know of such as the Holocaust,the Killing Fields, the genocide of Rawanda, there are many that get lost in the passage of time.  It would almost be nice if it were just the ones we knew about but man is not that kind.  For every murder we hear about there are a thousand that go unnoticed in our daily lives.  The same can be said for genocide.  The massacre of Armenians by the Turks in the first World War.  The purges of Stalin behind the iron curtain that would cost the lives of millions of people in the Soviet Union.  Ruthless dictators like Idi Amin, the Shah of Iran, Mao Tse Tung etc..all in the name of what?  The people?  It was never about them, but a few men who decided the fate of millions.  As we move forward in this young century we have not seen the mass genocide of years gone take root yet, but we do see madness in our societies.  Small pockets festering and being reported each and every day.  Where will that lead us?  As Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel said, “To forget a holocaust is to murder twice”,  This is why Nanking is still important and why its history should continue to be shared.  Otherwise the murderers will not be those who commit, but those who forget.

Good Night and Good Luck

Hans Henrik Hoffmann April 19, 2011

9/11 at Microsoft

“Our envy of others devours us most of all.  Rub you eyes and purify your heart and prize above all else those in the world who love you and wish you well.  Do not hurt them or scold them, and never part from them in anger”

– Alexander Solzhenitsyn

In my journal  on Sept 16th I wrote those words as they seemed to help cope with those tragic events of September 11th, 2001.   I find the Russian writers heavy hand a good way of dealing with life’s lower points.  I cannot add much to a day that so many of us experienced in so many ways.  This is just an account of my day, which was just another day in which I was going to work at Microsoft.

The morning started like so many.  I had two young boys at the time.  One was 2 and the other was nearly 6 months old.  I woke up with the oldest and my wife soon followed with the youngest.  He was hungry so she fed like many mothers do, child to breast.  It was Tuesday and I had to go to work.  It was also the day my parents took care of my older son.  Luckily my parents lived not more than 2 minutes from the Microsoft campus so it was convenient.  That day I was attending an internal conference at the new conference center on campus. 

Before I went to work I needed to fill up my 1994 four-wheel drive Ford Ranger with gas.  I was dressed and ready to go so I took my two-year old and we hopped into the Ford Ranger and drove over to Costco to fill up the truck.  As usual I was listening to Fisher and West on 103.7 the Mountain.  They were playing music and providing traffic updates.  A small news item was about a small aircraft that had hit the World Trade Center.  As we drove and Fisher and West spoke we neared Costco.  It was then Fisher said, “another plane has hit the World Trade Center”.  As Fisher and West continued to talk Fisher abruptly said, “I have got to leave for a second and check this out”.  It was at that moment I knew this was no accident.  These two DJ’s had been on the air for a long time and were true professionals, for Fisher to suddenly leave on air  for a moment to watch the television told me something was not right in the world.

I filled up the truck and raced home as the news was starting to filter in that a United Airlines Jet had hit  the World Trade Center and it was believed the first plane was a jet as well.  I got home jumped out of the truck, ran round to the other side and pulled my two-year old out the passenger door of the truck and raced into the house.  As I launched myself through the door I put my two-year old down and raced into the living room.  My wife heard me and saw me running to the television and was asking, “what’s going on?”.  I replied, “A plane hit the world trade center”.  Then I turned on the television to Channel Five and the Today show.  And then there it was, a Boeing 767 flying directly into the World Trade Center.  Before our eyes, as a look of horror overcame our faces, we had just watched at least 300 and probably more people die.  Fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters would not be coming again, ever.

As we watched the news reports we had to get ready for the day.  I got my son in the truck and we drove off to Redmond.  As I drove south on I-5 and then merged west bound onto 520 the reports were streaming across the radio.  Many reports were unconfirmed.  Car bombs in Washington DC, planes hi-jacked but how many?   The reports kept coming in.  What was happening was our entire nation had become unsettled and no-one, not even the “freedom of the press” knew what was going on.  It was a moment unlike any in US history.

When I got to my parents they of course were watching.  I asked them not to watch TV as I did not want my son watching, since he was at that age where he was beginning to take in and absorb everything he saw.  This was one event I did not want him to absorb.  For the first time in fatherhood I found myself saying that old cliché, “he is only a child”.  It just was not so cliché anymore.  With that I said my goodbye’s and I got back in my Ford Ranger and drove off to the Microsoft conference center.

When I got to the conference center I walked in to the new facility with its new rooms and tables set with breakfast items.  I walked into room we were scheduled to be in which was a large room that held around 100 people with a big movie size video screen.  But rather than Powerpoint’s today we had the news on and the site of the World trade Center’s twin towers on fire.  People from offices all over Microsoft North America.  It was to discuss some new Partner Programs as far as I remembered, but who cared. It was a dazed audience as we just all sat and stared at the big screen . It was as if no one was comprehending what was going on.  We just watched.  Then at 9:59 am the South Tower fell.  There were screams in the audience.  We were so far removed yet so close.  Who could do such a thing? Why?  We sat another 30 minutes until 10:28 when the North Tower fell.  The screams and yell came again and then it was over.  What had started as a quite morning had produced a horror that no one could envision. 

After the North Tower fell news began to filter in.  The skies were closed.  Anyone who had a flight out of Seattle would not be going home anytime soon.  When I went out into the hall people were already in planning mode.  I heard of some guys from Detroit who had rented a car and were driving home.  Confusion was everywhere.  I was just in a daze.  I went back into the room and it was apparent the people who had organized  the meeting were trying to figure out what to do.  At 11:30 they decided to move forward with the presentations.  They started and I listened and watched.  Some people were actually engaged and asking questions.  I couldn’t.   The event was just too great for to me and many people in the audience to ignore.  I thought it was a poor decision and around noon I just left and decided to go home. 

 I left and went to pick up my son a couple of miles away at my parents house.  As I left for the drive home my mind was filled with anger and confusion over the events that I had seen that day.  Even though the day was only half over I was tired.  As I drove over the 520 bridge on Lake Washington and saw Seattle before me I realized how beautiful the day was.  It was similar to New York in that regard.  The sky was clear blue and the water on the lake was very calm and soothing.   It seemed like the flames of hell were in my mind but the beauty of my hometown was captivating and I could not reconcile the two.  I crossed the bridge and decided to go to the church where I was married, Blessed Sacrament.  I needed peace.  I needed to turn the radio off.  I needed to turn the TV off. I needed to turn the media off. 

To my surprise when I got there and went into the parish.  My son and I were the only two people there.  I sat in thepews and bowed my head.  Looking.  Searching.  Trying to understand and find reason in a world I did not understand anymore. My son was jumping and running around the pews in a joyful kind of play.  It was a paradoxical sort of moment, that maybe only a child could provide.  In its own way it was as real as life could be.  I went home and the rest of the day has fallen from memory.  Probably because I turned the TV on.  The one thing I remember is the sky was quiet, except for the occasional fighter jet that flew over head.  It was frightening.

In the coming days many acts of heroism would come to light and there were people at Microsoft who did their part.  Kim Daley the GM for the Microsoft Ney York office did her part in working with Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s office.   I knew Kim having worked with her before, she was a very hard working dedicated Microsoft employee and it did not surprise me she rose to the occasion.  I am sure there were many employees not just at Microsoft but many other companies in corporate America who rose to the occasion. It was just what had to be done.  The Microsoft human resources department, on a global scale, communicated throughout the week and kept every employee informed on what we as a company were doing and what people could do to help.  It was great work ,it was impassioned work.

The events of 9/11 caused many Americans to do things just because it was the right thing to do.  because it was what was needed at the time.    As a country we came together because things needed to be done.  Imagine what we could accomplish if we thought that way all the time.  Unfortunately that is not the way things work.  But in any case lets just pause and maybe, just maybe let’s imagine what could be.

A month later the season of Fall had settled in.  I love fall above all other seasons.  I love the changing of colors.  The change in temperature to a coolness greeted with warmth in the afternoons.  I looked forward to raking the leaves from underneath the large maple tree in our yard.  It was kind of magical experience.  On this day on October I was with my eldest son, he with his little leaf rake and me with my man rake.  As we sat there under a bright blue sky a jet plane flew over head.  Leaving a jet stream in its wake.  then my son uttered words that caused all the blood in my veins to freeze, “Daddy, Daddy, plane fall down, plane fall down…plane fall down….”.  Then I wept.

Good Night and Good Luck

Hans Hoffmann September 11, 2010

Book Review: “The Prize” by Daniel Yergin

I have read a number of books on the oil industry while I have had time off. It seemed every book I read referred glowingly back to “The Prize” as a book of epic proportions. Having read this book I can say those reviews are justified.  Yergin takes one through the history and evolution of the oil industry.  Most importantly you will understand the relationship between the public and private sector.   I think anyone who reads this book will come away with a valuable and unique understanding why the oil industry plays such a vital role in our lives, beyond the obvious.  Beyond a great book I think Yergin has accomplished an important book, one that will live on for a long time.