BOOK REVIEW: Dead Mountain by Donnie Eichar

Dead Mountain: The Untold True Story of the Dyatlov Pass IncidentDead Mountain: The Untold True Story of the Dyatlov Pass Incident by Donnie Eichar
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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The Dyatlov Incident is one of the most fascinating mysteries of the 20th century. In 1959, a crew of nine seasoned hikers headed into the Siberian wilderness in late January for an intense but vigorous trek. When they didn’t return in early February as planned (and after a bit of prodding from family members) a search was conducted, and what the searchers found was so bizarre that it would be fodder for conspiracy theorists and readers of tales of the weird for decades. It wasn’t so much what killed the hikers, almost all of them died of hypothermia — though three of the members had severe blunt force trauma injuries that contributed in varying degree to the speed of their deaths.

Instead, it was that the bodies were found on the order of a mile from their tent, none of them was wearing boots or adequate attire. There were also a range of smaller anomalies, such as one individual wearing two watches, several of the team having shredded clothing, one of the hikers missing her tongue, and some of the hiker’s clothing testing positive for radioactivity. Lest one attribute the hiker’s strange and fatal behavior to drink or other mind and mood altering substances, the hikers were known teetotalers, and the little medicinal alcohol they had was all accounted for by the search party (who admittedly drank it.) So the question wasn’t what killed them, but what drove these skilled, sober, and well-led hikers out of the comfort of their tent improperly attired in the middle of the night on the night of February 1, 1959, and what explanation could account for this range of bizzarities?

I won’t get into Eichar’s well-developed and scientifically supported theory to avoid spoilers, but it’s fascinating to consider the range of theories that people came up with over the course of the investigation (and subsequent years) to explain the odd incident. The explanations run the gamut from the otherworldly (i.e. Siberian Demon Dwarves) to a range of theories that were less provocative but which also lacked explanatory power or were inconsistent with known data (e.g. avalanche or high winds literally blowing them off the mountain.) Of course, another fact played heavily into people’s conspiracy building and that was that this was the height of the Cold War Soviet Union. While life had eased a bit since the demise of Stalin (such a trek would have been prohibited under his rule) it was still an authoritarian state, plus the memory of Stalin was fresh. This led to the most widely accepted theories involving the hikers being killed because they saw a covert weapons test or stumbled into an area where the KGB was getting up to some shenanigans. (As a sign of the times, it seems that there was some attempt to thwart the investigation and /or limit the interest in the case from low-level party apparatchiks who probably assumed shadowy elements of the government were involved [though there seems to be no evidence that they were.]) Another theory proposed that the hikers were killed by a group of escapees from the Gulags that were numerous in that part of the country. (Of course, that assumes that the poorly fed and clothed prisoners would have survived the freezing temperatures better than the fit and relatively well-equipped college students.) As evidence mounted, however, it suggested outsider involvement less-and-less. For example, the side of the tent was cut open, but rudimentary forensic investigation readily proved that it must have been cut from the inside and not from the outside by a KGB agent, Gulag prisoner, local tribesman, or a Siberian dwarf claw.

The book intersperses accounts of the happenings in 1959 with chapters that describe the author’s trips to Russia to investigate, including his visit to “Dead Mountain” and the “Dyatlov Pass” in 2012. (The former name predates the Incident and has to do with the fact that the mountain is devoid of vegetation. The latter name, i.e. “Dyatlov,” is the last name of the leader of the group of hikers.) The penultimate chapter describes Eichar’s conclusion about what caused the mysterious incident and his visits to experts that lent it credence. The last chapter offers a retelling of events that takes into account both the evidence and scientific speculation about the cause of the hikers’ panicked flight from the safety of their tent into a desolate landscape on a sub-freezing night.

There are graphics throughout, mostly black and white photos from the cameras of the hikers, which were recovered and became part of the case file. Other than the photos, there is a graphic or two to help explain the theory put forth by Eichar and others. (It should be noted that there was a group of Russians simultaneously considering the same possibility.)

I was enthralled by this book and couldn’t put it down. The mystery was fascinating and the hypothesized solution was at least as much so.

I’d highly recommend this book to readers of nonfiction, though much of it has the taut structure of fiction.

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BOOK REVIEW: Rasputin by Maria Rasputin and Patte Barham

Rasputin: The Man Behind the Myth - A Personal MemoirRasputin: The Man Behind the Myth – A Personal Memoir by Mariia Grigor’evna Rasputina
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This was an impulse buy made at my local used bookshop. How could I not pick it up? There are few historic figures with as much swagger, and who are as steeped in mystique and myth, as Grigori Rasputin. This Russian mystic has been fictionalized as a villain by Disney and in the “Hell Boy” universe. If one knows anything about this holy man, it’s that he proved exceedingly hard to kill and that he is believed to have had great sway with the Tsar and his wife (i.e. the Tsarina) in large part owing to the apparently miraculous effect his presence had on the healing of their hemophiliac son, Alexei. (Skeptics will note that it’s widely believed Rasputin did – in fact – save the boy, but probably not through communion with a deity. Instead, he did it through a combination of luck in keeping the doctors from giving the boy aspirin [its blood-thinning nature wasn’t yet recognized], old folk wisdom [i.e. stressing the kid out with a dozen poking / prodding doctors is as likely have a deleterious effect on health as a positive one] and a placebo effect arising from the holy man’s larger-than-life charisma.)

It’s always hard to know what to expect with a biography written by a family member. In this case, the lead author is one of Rasputin’s daughters, Maria. While there is the same potential for bias in an autobiography, in a relative’s biography one never knows whether the writer will deify or vilify they subject – but one strongly suspects they will do one of the two. This is made all the more difficult in this book on the life of Grigori Rasputin because the author is at once exceedingly forthcoming about the man’s drinking and womanizing but simultaneously rails against Rasputin’s enemies and always holds that he was fundamentally virtuous and pious (outside of sleeping around, sousing it up, and taking bribes [which the author claims were redistributed Robin Hood style and which it’s further suggested didn’t result in promises to intercede with the Tsar / Tsarina that he wouldn’t have agreed to on the grounds of virtue and merit alone.]) It should be noted that there was a journalist co-author who may have rounded of the coarse edges of personal bias, though – as I suggested – Maria Rasputin comes across as being at ease with her father’s less godly proclivities.

The book begins in media res with a description of the night that Rasputin left his home and daughters never to return. This intro presents his daughter’s perspective as she experienced that night at the time – i.e. without any of the insight of later investigations and research that comes later at the book’s end. It’s a skillful set up for the book, and in general this book avoids becoming bogged down in minutiae of personal interest as is common in biographies. The book then proceeds chronologically from sparse coverage of Rasputin’s youth with particular emphasis on the events and indications that he wasn’t the typical farm boy through to the aftermath of his death. In between the book charts the rise of Rasputin from peasant farmer to personal friend to the royal couple who visited them freely while abandoning all the protocol that was required of others on visits to the Tsar’s court.

I did do a bit of research out of curiosity about how biased or neutral the book was. In general, it seems to be a reasonably accurate portrayal of events. While I did find information that seems to conflict with the author’s presentation, it doesn’t appear to be a matter of an attempt to propagandize but rather a result of differences of perspective. One type of bias revolves around the belief in supernatural powers that can readily be seen in the case of Tsarevich Alexei mentioned above. Maria Rasputin was clearly a believer that her father had powers, and so she presents the healing as being divine (though she does state that keeping the doctors away probably had a role and she says that her father never claimed responsibility for cures but always said thanks should be given to God.) Another example is the belief of the authors that Rasputin was still alive when he was thrown into the river that is based on abrasions on his wrists as if he was struggling in the water, but supposedly there was no water in his lungs. (With respect to the claim of Rasputin being hard to kill, after healing up from having been disemboweled with a knife, on the night of his assassination Rasputin was [allegedly] poisoned, shot multiple times, castrated, and then dumped into a frozen river. The author suggests it was the drowning that finally got him, but the more common view is that the gunshot to the head had already done the deed – and furthermore, the assassins probably in some way fouled up the poisoning because there wasn’t any posthumous evidence of it. It should be noted that the authors, too, suggest that the assassins must have gotten it wrong with the initial attempt to poison Rasputin because of the lack of evidence of poison – i.e. they make no supernatural claims on that issue.)

Concerns about bias aside, the book is highly readable. It is fascinating throughout and it complies with Elmore Leonard’s advice to novelists to “cut out all the parts people skip over.” The author captures the political intrigue as well as Rasputin’s mix of seedy and saintly sides that combine to make his story so fascinating. We see his ups and downs as he became immensely popular (always with powerful enemies) and then how he lost influence in World War I when his pacifism conflicted with the jingoistic outlook of the day.

I would highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in the life of Grigori Rasputin.

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Cash Cow Disease: or, I Hope The Americans Don’t Get Lost

AmericansTVIn political economy, “Dutch disease” is a term used to describe a situation in which a nation’s windfall successes in one sector lead to everything else going to crap.

Dutch disease reminds me of a phenomenon rife in television today. A series pilot is shown. It’s wildly successful. The writers came in with a clear overall narrative arc, but now the show is a cash cow and they have to extend it out indefinitely. This is a script-writing nightmare. Writers have to give the viewer a new puzzle piece each episode but they’ve got to end the episode with a cliffhanger and they’ve got to be able to tie up all their loose ends at some undefined point when the series becomes a train wreck.

I was aware of this phenomena, let’s call it “Cash Cow disease,” when Lost came on the air. I’d been through it with the X-files.  But damned if I didn’t go and get myself engrossed in Lost. Lost started out with such promise. It seduced me, and even when it became clear that the writers and director might not know where the ship was headed, they kept feeding me tasty bread crumbs.  Then the network said, “Get us off this crazy train, quickly.” So  it was that the show that began with an atomic bang ended with the whimper of one of the worst endings ever.

Having been hurt twice thusly, I’d given up on watching television serial dramas. Then I made the fatal blunder of watching the pilot of The Americans. Why did I do this? Ironically, I probably watched it because I assumed it would be bad. It was, after all, a Cold War show in a post-911 world. Oh, the thwarted expectations. Now, I’m hooked.

The Americans is about a man and wife who are Soviet sleeper spies during the early 1980’s. The couple lives in the suburbs of Washington DC with their oblivious kids, and appear to operate a travel agency (for young readers, there used to be people who booked one’s flights and hotel before the days of Kayak, Orbitz, and Travelocity.)  In reality, however, the couple are deep cover spies who are attempting to get information about America’s ballistic missile shield, Reagan’s “Star Wars”, and other strategic concerns. The show depicts the cat-and-mouse game of Cold War espionage with great tension.

In an act of coincidence that strains credulity (but which is no stranger than things that actually happened) an FBI counter-intelligence agent moves in right across the street from the couple. The KGB couple and the FBI man are working at cross  purposes without the FBI agent (played by Noah Emmerich) being the wiser. (Emmerich’s character has early suspicions that he dismisses as paranoia after a close call for the KGB couple.) The male lead KGB sleeper spy (played by Matthew Rhys) plays racket-ball with the FBI agent.  This apparent friendship is to the chagrin of the female lead (played by Keri Russell) because she’s not quite sure if her husband is working the FBI man (as he says), or whether he’s facilitating changing sides. Part of the tension of the series stems from the fact that Keri Russell’s character is a dyed-in-the-wool patriot of Mother Russia, but her husband is having second thoughts–he sees himself as a family man first and a patriot second and America is growing on him. This tension is made all the more complicated by the fact that she seems to be just starting to fall in love with him, though he seems to have loved her from the early days of their planned, forced, and in some sense fake relationship.

The signature trait of The Americans is that characters on both sides are sympathetic  but complicated. This is part of a “shades of gray” motif that informs the show. Emmerich’s character, the FBI agent, is a loyal patriot and family man trying to do his best under the pressures of a hectic and tense job. However, we see him torment and rob a suspected Soviet information trafficker. Rhys character, the KGB sleeper, is also quite likable and sympathetic. At one point we see Rhys’s character beat up a pedophile (what’s more likable than that.) Russell’s character is not so likable, but that’s good for the tension. She’s a cold, fanatical Communist, but we can see the outlines of humanity in her character. For example, despite her jingoistic nature, she refuses to report her husband’s second thoughts.   On the FBI side, the most unlikable character is the boss (played by Richard Thomas, aka John Boy.) He’s a rash hot-head who,  in last night’s episode, wrecked an operation through his knee-jerk reaction (or maybe he’ll turn out to be a mole.)

I can already imagine how the wheels may roll off. There’s a supporting character, a mole in the Soviet Embassy (played by Annet Mahendru), that I imagine they intended to kill off to add to the angst of the Emmerich character (the FBI agent cultivated her through “soft-blackmail” and acts as her handler.) However, she’s really an endearing character. In a field of patriots that sometimes approach zealotry on both the US and Soviet sides, she seems to just want to have a peaceful life, but she’s trapped. Despite being manipulated, she’s a strong character. I can imagine her becoming a more central role–not that that’s an inherently bad thing.

I’d like to recommend this show, but I face a dilemma. If fewer people watch, I think it’s more likely to end well.