Sunday, May 19, 2019

Killing Alexander

Alexander Litvinenko

Londoners and particularly the London press love a good murder.  Hence the popularity of Killing Eve and so many other fictional programs focussed on murder.  One of the juiciest murders in recent history took place in London about a year after I moved here.  In the fall of 2006 Alexander Litvinenko was assassinated on orders from Putin's Kremlin.

Litvinenko was a former Russian spy who had worked for the Russian Security Service (FSB) and specialized in organized crime.  In 2000 he defected and sought asylum in the UK.  He was married (twice) and had three children.  He worked as a bodyguard and provided security services for Boris Berezovsky, a Russian oligarch who was also living in the UK.  Berezovsky was a former mathematician who made a fortune in Russia in the automobile business during the Yeltsin years.  He fled Russia after having crossed swords with Putin who viewed him as a potential rival.

Litvinenko was an outspoken and fearless critic of Putin.  In 2002 he co-authored a book (Blowing Up Russia: Terror from documenting the coup that brought Putin to power in Russia.  This book was published, appropriately enough, by S.P.I. books.  Apartment buildings in Moscow were blown up and civilians were killed to spread terror that led to calls for the imposition of a strong man who could restore order.

On November 1, 2006 Litvinenko began suffering from what he took to be severe food poisoning.  He had, in fact been poisoned that day by Polonium 210.  Polonium is is an extremely rare and radioactive chemical element that was first discovered by Madame Curie in 1898.  Trace amounts of it are used in the manufacture of smoke detectors.  The only two factories in the world that produce Polonium are in Russia.  The cost of the Polonium that killed Litvinenko has been estimated to have been around 20,000 pounds.  A very expensive poison indeed!

Alexander Litvinenko

Over the course of three weeks Litvinenko's health went into rapid decline.  He lost all his hair.  His body was, in effect, being microwaved from the inside out.  He died on November 23, 2006.  He was buried in a lead lined coffin in Highgate cemetery -- not far from the final resting place of Karl Marx.

I remember walking along the popular Piccadilly Road not long after the murder.  A popular sushi chain restaurant ( along Piccadilly was shuttered and blocked from public access with a wooden construction.  Rumors swirled about poisoned sushi having done him in.  These rumors were compounded by the revelation that an Italian lawyer with the surname of a Bond villain -- Scaramella -- had met Litvinenko at this Itsu location on November 1st.  Investigators found traces of Polonium at the restaurant.  This all proved to be a bit of red herring.

Jodie Comer of Killing Eve
She didn't do him in 
The Russian assassins of Litvinenko looked nothing like Killing Eve's Jodie Comer.  Instead they look like this...

Andrey Lugovoy

And this...

Dmitri Kovtun

Lugovoy had been staying at the Sheraton hotel on Piccadilly prior to the assassination.  Both Luguovoy and Kovtun were Russian intelligence operatives who met Litvinenko at the bar of the Millennium hotel on Grosvenor Square in London (  The hotel stood just yards away from what was then the American embassy in London.  The D-Day invasion was, in fact, planned in this very neighborhood during World War II (  Over the course of a brief twenty minute meeting Litvinenko sipped from a pot of green tea that was served in the Mayfair watering hole.  This was how he ingested the deadly polonium.  Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers or Phoebe Waller-Bridge could not have dreamt up a more bizarre plot.

One drop of Polonium or two...?

Even after learning of his rare diagnosis Litvinenko did not initially suspect Lugouvoy who had been his friend and colleague in the FSB.

Lugouvoy, however, had left behind a tell tale trail of polonium in three hotel suites, restaurants and even his seat in a soccer stadium.

Both Lugouvoy and Kovtun predictably returned to Russia and denied any responsibility.  Neither has set foot in the UK since the assassination.  A 2016 commission led by Sir Robert Owen concluded that Putin must have had foreknowledge of the attack on Litvinenko.  See the full inquiry

Villanelle in Killing Eve seems to be continually and literally getting away with murder.  Alas, Lugouvoy and Kovtun seem to have gotten away with murder as well.  Putin too, I fear.

It seems clear that the Kremlin sought to silence a harsh critic who, in their eyes, had become a traitor.  But why did they go to all the trouble of using Polonium?  Why did they kill Alexander in such a ghastly manner?

Under questioning Kovtun admitted that the assassination was "meant to set an
example".  Clearly the message was directed to the millions of Russians who live abroad.  Around 66,000 are estimated to be living currently in the UK alone.  The message was that the Western rule of law will not protect anyone who crosses Vladimir Putin.

In 2013 Boris Berezovsky died in suspicious circumstances in his mansion in Berkshire in the UK.  He had been found hanging by his bodyguard.  He died at age 67. 

Millenium Hotel
Mayfair, London
Surprisingly, the Itsu on Piccadilly and the Millennium Hotel in Mayfair have both bounced back!  You can purchase a California roll at Itsu on Piccadilly today.  Tourists to London can order tea or a martini at the stylish bar of the Millennium hotel.

I must leave the final words to Litvinenko himself who, sensing his approaching death, said, "You may succeed in silencing one man but the howl of protest from around the world, Mr. Putin, will reverberate in your ears for the rest of your life."

(Note: I am indebted for this article to Dr Barry of County Mayo and London Walks who guided me on a tour of London exploring the tragic fate of Alexander Litvinenko.  Here is their link...

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Wednesday, May 15, 2019

China in WW2

China's WW2

Today's headlines scream a warning about the current trade war between China and the USA.  A mutual misunderstanding seems to have placed two economic giants on a collision course while the world holds it breath and trembles.  It is, therefore, all the more important to remember a time when China and the US fought together as allies during the Second World War.

In order to understand the USA one must understand a bit about World War II history.  That is why all American high school students are taught about World War II.  The same is true for China as well.  In order to understand China today one must understand a bit about her experience in the Second World War.

China had a particularly long and brutal experience in World War II which can be explored in books, in films and even in computer games.

Madame Chiang
Song Meiling

Rana Mitter's Forgotten Ally (published in 2014 by Mariner Books) is an excellent work on China's war (  The war cost around 14 million Chinese lives, caused a massive refugee flight and led directly to Mao's Communist Party victory in 1949.  His book points out that there were three principal sides during the war.  First, there was the notoriously corrupt Nationalist government led by Chiang Kai-shek (who became known as "Cash my check").  Chiang was supported by his American educated wife Song Meiling (Madame Chiang) who spoke English with a Georgia accent.  Then there was the young Communist revolutionary Mao Zedong who led his forces in the mountainous region near Yan'an.  In 1941 Chiang declared that "Communism is a disease of the heart, the Japanese are but a disease of the skin."  Finally, there was a significant third Chinese group that did not really object to a mild skin condition.   This group favored collaboration with the Japanese invaders and was led by Wang Jingwei who formed a collaborationist or Vichy style government based in Nanjing from 1938.

World War II in China started early following the Marco Polo Bridge incident of 1937.  The Imperial Japanese army killed and raped its way through Nanjing in 1937 about two years prior to Hitler's September 1939 invasion of Poland.  In order to slow the Japanese advance through Chinese territory Chiang ordered the destruction of dams along the Yellow River.  The flooding caused by these demolitions (blamed falsely on Japanese bombers) seems to have claimed the lives of around half a million Chinese most of whom were civilians.

American sympathy for the suffering of the Chinese led to the imposition of economic sanctions on Japan.  This, in turn, led to the Japanese gamble of the Pearl Harbor attack.  The entry of America into the war brought men such as "Vinegar" Joe Stillwell and Claire Chenault (Flying Tigers) to China.  FDR, whose family had participated and enriched themselves in the China trade (including opium), insisted that China be represented at the Allied conference in Cairo in 1943. Roosevelt, more than Churchill, envisioned a major international role for China in the postwar world.

In April 1942 FDR authorized the bold Doolittle Raid that bombed Tokyo.  Following the attack, most of the B-25 crews that participated in the raid flew on towards bases in China with most of them crash-landing in eastern China (a few wound up in the Soviet Union).  The brutal Japanese hunt for the Doolittle Raiders and those Chinese that supported them cost the lives of over ten thousand Chinese civilians.  A romance between an American B-25 pilot and a Chinese war widow forms the basis of the 2017 film The Chinese Widow (aka In Harms  The luminously beautiful Crystal Liu plays the role of the Chinese widow (her husband was killed while fighting in the Nationalist army) who befriends the American captain played by Emile Hirsch.  While this film is a bit sentimental, it is mostly accurate and it does shine a light on Sino-American cooperation in World War II.  The Japanese forces even employed poison gas on the Chinese forces -- a barbarity unequalled by the Wehrmacht in the course of the war.

Arthur Chin
First American Ace of WW2

American Lend Lease supplied vast amounts of money, equipment and planes such as the P-40 to Chinese forces in the war.  Americans also sent pilots to fight in China.  In the China chapter of America Invades we noted the unusual tale of...

"Arthur Chin, a Chinese-American (Chinese father, Peruvian mother) from Portland, Oregon, volunteered for service in the Nationalist Air Force and became the first American fighter ace (five confirmed Japanese planes shot down) of World War II."

Paradox Interactive, a Swedish computer gaming company has created Hearts of Iron IV -- an amazing strategic simulation of WW2 in which players can control the destinies of every country (from the smallest to the largest) in the war (  Players research technologies in order to build armies, fleets and air wings that will bring victory to their side.  A 2018 expansion, Waking the Tiger, deepened the games' coverage of the Sino-Japanese conflict in WW2.

Playing Hearts of Iron IV as Nationalist China helps one to understand the tremendous historic challenges faced by Chiang Kai-shek.  The Chinese have no navy to speak of while the Imperial Japanese Navy, with its aircraft carriers and super heavy battleships, was one of the most formidable in the world at the time.  The Chinese player must guard his extensive coastlines from a Japanese attack from the sea in addition to worrying about Japanese strongholds in Korea and Manchuria.  The Chinese player has vast manpower but, in order to win, requires the technology and economic assistance that US Lend Lease can provide.  Players can even hire Madame Chiang as a political adviser to help lobby the Americans . -- the Wellesley College graduate really did address a joint session of the US Congress in January 1943.  The only detail missing from Hearts of Iron IV is a Chinese option to blow the dams of the Yellow River!

Books, films and even computer games can help us to remember the vast sacrifices made by China and US when they were allied in a war that led to the creation of our modern world.

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Thursday, May 2, 2019

Horatio Nelson: A Stark Reality

SPOILER ALERT: Contains Info from Avengers Endgame and Episode 3 of the 8th season of Game of Thrones.  If you don't wish to know plot details stop reading!

This past weekend movie-goers around the world spent $1.2 billion on tickets to see Avengers: Endgame in theaters (  This past week somewhere around a billion people around the world will watch the Battle of Winterfell -- the third episode of the final season of  Game of Thrones (  Both the film and the television episode featured messianic warriors named Stark.  Tony Stark (AKA Ironman), created a time machine and sacrificed himself in order to save the lives of billions and defeat Thanos in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU).  Arya Stark, the young assassin played by the English actress Maisie Williams, managed to shank the Night King in his icy heart, thereby destroying his army of undead White Walkers.

In the dark times in which we live (Notre Dame burnt, Christians slaughtered in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday, etc.) there is clearly a need for escape which is satisfied, in part, by blockbuster fantasy entertainment.  Heroic characters such as Tony and Arya Stark provide us with some measure of relief from our daily lives.  But, a the end of the day, they are merely fictional characters.

Linguistically, Tony and Arya's surname binds by a common Germanic root.  The word "Stark" means strong or strongly in German.   Ironman, without doubt, is an incredibly strong character.  Despite her youth and diminutive frame the young Arya, wielding her sharp needle, is a  strong character too.  But, a the end of the day, they are merely fictional characters.

Are there real historical figures that could have inspired the stories that unfold in Avengers and GOT?  Is there a kernel of fact behind the popular fictions that entertain us?

I would submit the life of Horatio Nelson as the strong Messianic Warrior par excellence.  Nelson was born in 1758, the 6th out of eleven children -- the son of a Methodist minister.  He grew up in Burnham Thorpe in Norfolk, a small town far from London.  He did not attend university or even high school.  At the age of twelve (two years prior to Maisie Williams' age when she joined the cast of Game of Thrones) he joined his uncle's ship in the Royal Navy.  The sea and the navy were his university.  He journeyed far afield visiting the Arctic and India.  His first significant combat experience took place in the Caribbean during the American Revolution.  Nelson's Landing can be found today in Antigua.

Arya Stark (Maisie Williams)

At 5'4" Lord Nelson stood a bit taller than Maisie Williams (5'1") and a bit shorter than Robert Downey Jr. (5'8").

Ironman (Robert Downey Jr.)
Arya, Ironman and Nelson were all unlikely heroes.  Arya Stark is young woman barely out of adolescence. Ironman is a self-obsessed businessman.  Horatio Nelson in 1805 was a one-armed, one eyed man who suffered from sea sickness.

After the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789, England would be at war with France for most the the next 26 years.  The Royal Navy played a tremendous role in fighting the French and Napoleon and Nelson was their greatest leader.  In 1797 Nelson experienced a rare defeat at the Battle of Santa Cruz de Tenerife where he was wounded by a Spanish canon ball and lost his right arm. At the Battle of the Nile in 1798 Nelson smashed the fleet that had transported Napoleon's army to Egypt marooning him in the desert.  At Copenhagen in 1800 Nelson turned a blind eye to commanding officer's order to withdraw and won a victory over the Danes.

Commander Kelly at Trafalgar Square, London
Many troops of La Grande Armée wore similar shakos

In the summer of 1805 Napoleon commanded the greatest army in Europe.  About 60,000 soldiers of La Grande Armée were encamped at Boulogne -- around twenty miles from the English coast.  Only the moat of the English Channel stood between Napoleon and a conquest of Britain.  Napoleon, however, had no Infinity stones.  The French soldiers may not have been White Walkers with supernatural powers but they were an existential threat to the British Crown and British liberty.  Had Napoleon managed to cross the channel his army would almost certainly have defeated the puny British army and captured London.

Horatio Nelson wounded at Santa Cruz de Teneriffe

All that stood in Napoleon's way was the Royal Navy.  And, of course, Horatio Nelson.

On October 21, 1805 the British fleet, led by Nelson, defeated the Franco-Spanish fleet led by Admiral Villeneuve.  The Battle of Trafalgar was a decisive British victory where they captured 21 enemy ships.  The butcher's bill, however, included Nelson himself who had been shot by a French soldier from the rigging of the Redoutable.   Nelson's funeral in St. Paul's cathedral in January 1806 was the greatest outpouring of public grief in England until the death of lady Diana in 1997.

Nelson's victory gave the British naval supremacy not merely for the duration of the Napoleonic Wars but for a century.  Trafalgar was not simply a victory for British liberty -- it was a victory for human liberty around the world.  A year after Trafalgar the British crown outlawed the slave trade -- a move that they would have been unable to enforce without Nelson's victory.

Nelson's death, Trafalgar Square
Note African sailor on left

The plaque depicting Nelson's death that can be found at Trafalgar Square in London features an African sailor.  African sailors did serve on board the HMS Victory that day.  Moreover, a South African child born in 1918 would later be christened "Nelson" in honor of the great admiral.  He would grow up to become Nelson Mandela.

Perhaps the greatest compliment ever paid to Nelson came from Napoleon himself.  After the Battle of Trafalgar he ordered all ships of the French Navy to display this sign: La France compte que chacun fera son devoir -- France expects that every man will do his duty.

The heroic aura of Nelson has been exploited by film makers many times.  In 1941 That Hamilton Woman, produced and directed by Alexander Korda, was a hit that became Winston Churchill''s favorite film. In 2015 the Disney company paid 24,000 pounds to have a light saber projected onto Nelson's column to promote a new Star Wars film.

Enjoy the escape that fantasy entertainment provides but don't forget the historical reality that inspires all great fiction.  Enjoy Black Panther but remember Nelson Mandela and Horatio Nelson too!

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