Insight into post-Communist Russia

Red Notice: A True Story of High Finance, Murder, and One Man’s Fight for Justice, by Bill Browder

This book was hard to put down, for sure. Bill Browder gives fascinating insight into the crime & injustice of post-Communist Russia and is a hero for becoming a human rights activist. Below are just a few quotes from the book that give insight to the state of Russia after the fall of Communism. I hope these pique your interest, as I highly recommend this book!

Seventy years of communism had destroyed the work ethic of an entire nation. Millions of Russians had been sent to the gulags for showing the slightest hint of personal initiative. The Soviets severely penalized independent thinkers, so the natural self-preservation reaction was to do as little as possible and hope that nobody would notice you. This had been fed into the psyches of ordinary Russians from the moment they were on their mothers’ breasts.

Instead of 150 million Russians sharing the spoils of mass privatization, Russia wound up with twenty-two oligarchs owning 39 percent of the economy and everyone else living in poverty.

…by the year 2000 the richest person had become 250,000 times richer than the poorest person. This wealth disparity was created in such a short period of time that it poisoned the psychology of the nation. People were so angry that they were ready to spill their guts to anyone who wanted to talk about it.

Going after information in Russia was like hurtling down the rabbit hole. Ask a question, get a riddle. Track a lead, hit a wall. Nothing was self-evident or clear. After seventy years of KGB-instilled paranoia, Russians were careful to guard their information. Even inquiring after a person’s health could feel like asking someone to reveal a state secret, and I knew that asking about the condition of a company would prove exponentially more difficult.

Also, I love details on spy techniques. Browder describes meeting an informant while wired. When listening to the playback, “we heard a burst of white noise that drowned out everything.” They estimate they were in the presence of some kind of high-pitched jamming equipment. Truth is stranger than fiction.

His final thought on the dangers of becoming a human rights activist, and therefore an enemy of Putin:

But what I’ve discovered about fear is that no matter how scared I am at any particular moment, the feeling doesn’t last. After a time it subsides. As anyone who lives in a war zone or who has a dangerous job will tell you, your body doesn’t have the capacity to feel fear for an extended period. The more incidents you encounter, the more inured you become to them.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer, Annie Barrows

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society was highly recommended to me by several readers. I love history and was surprised to find the story had a very creative way of describing the occupation of Guernsey island in the English Channel during WWII. The characters were drawn together by their love of books, and the resilience of the survivors shines through their personal letters that deliver this story. Here are my favorite quotes!

Arrayed in her finest frock and spotless white gloves, the girl made her way to the school, stepped over the threshold, took one look at the sea of shining cadet faces before her—and fainted dead away! The poor child had never seen so many males in one place in her life. Think of it—a whole generation grown up without dances or teas or flirting.

Apropos of my new dress and no new shoes—doesn’t it seem shocking to have more stringent rationing after the war than during the war? I realize that hundreds of thousands of people all over Europe must be fed, housed, and clothed, but privately I resent it that so many of them are Germans.

Friends tell me that Europe is like a hive broken open, teeming with thousands upon thousands of displaced people, all trying to get home.

My worries travel about my head on their well-worn path, and it is a relief to put them on paper.

I argue myself all the way to one end of the question and back again several times a day.

I have been reading an article by a woman named Giselle Pelletier, a political prisoner held at Ravensbrück for five years. She writes about how difficult it is for you to get on with your life as a camp survivor. No one in France—not friends, not family—wants to know anything about your life in the camps, and they think that the sooner you put it out of your mind—and out of their hearing—the happier you’ll be. According to Miss Pelletier, it is not that you want to belabor anyone with details, but it did happen to you and you cannot pretend it didn’t. “Let’s put everything behind us” seems to be France’s cry. “Everything—the war, the Vichy, the Milice, Drancy, the Jews—it’s all over now. After all, everyone suffered, not just you.” In the face of this institutional amnesia, she writes, the only help is talking with fellow survivors. They know what life in the camps was. You speak, and they can speak back. They talk, they rail, they cry, they tell one story after another—some tragic, some absurd. Sometimes they can even laugh together. The relief is enormous, she says.

I hope, too, that my book will illuminate my belief that love of art—be it poetry, storytelling, painting, sculpture, or music—enables people to transcend any barrier man has yet devised.

As the members of the Literary Society found during their ordeal, companionship can help us surmount nearly any barrier, imposed, self-imposed, or imagined.

The Hours

The Hours, by Michael Cunningham

The Hours follows 3 women either directly or indirectly affected by depression. You’ve maybe seen, or hear about, the movie version of Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, where Nicole Kidman won an Oscar for her portrayal of Virginia Woolf. The movie is great; I also recommend reading the book as it expresses the depths of the pain depression brings so beautifully.

Below are the quotes I found powerful.  You will see, and hopefully begin to understand, the delicacy with which mental illness must be handled. One minute may be fine, the next has crossed a threshold into suffering.

He says, “I don’t know if I can face this. You know. The party and the ceremony, and then the hour after that, and the hour after that.”

“You don’t have to go to the party. You don’t have to go to the ceremony. You don’t have to do anything at all.”

“But there are still the hours, aren’t there? One and then another, and you get through that one and then, my god, there’s another. I’m so sick.”

It could be a good day; it needs to be treated carefully.

It seems possible (it does not seem impossible) that she’s slipped across an invisible line, the line that has always separated her from what she would prefer to feel, who she would prefer to be. It does not seem impossible that she has undergone a subtle but profound transformation, here in this kitchen, at this most ordinary of moments: She has caught up with herself. She has worked so long, so hard, in such good faith, and now she’s gotten the knack of living happily, as herself, the way a child learns at a particular moment to balance on a two-wheel bicycle. It seems she will be fine. She will not lose hope. She will not mourn her lost possibilities, her unexplored talents (what if she has no talents, after all?). She will remain devoted to her son, her husband, her home and duties, all her gifts. She will want this second child.

She has learned over the years that sanity involves a certain measure of impersonation, not simply for the benefit of husband and servants but for the sake, first and foremost, of one’s own convictions.

She can feel the headache creeping up the back of her neck. She stiffens. No, it’s the memory of the headache, it’s her fear of the headache, both of them so vivid as to be at least briefly indistinguishable from an onset of the headache itself. She stands erect, waiting. It’s all right. It’s all right. The walls of the room do not waver; nothing murmurs from within the plaster. She is herself, standing here, with a husband at home, with servants and rugs and pillows and lamps. She is herself.

I am alone, Virginia thinks, as the man and woman continue up the hill and she continues down. She is, of course, not alone, not in a way anyone else would recognize, and yet at this moment, walking through wind toward the lights of the Quadrant, she can feel the nearness of the old devil (what else to call it?), and she knows she will be utterly alone if and when the devil chooses to appear again. The devil is a headache; the devil is a voice inside a wall; the devil is a fin breaking through dark waves. The devil is the brief, twittering nothing that was a thrush’s life. The devil sucks all the beauty from the world, all the hope, and what remains when the devil has finished is a realm of the living dead—joyless, suffocating. Virginia feels, right now, a certain tragic grandeur, for the devil is many things but he is not petty, not sentimental; he seethes with a lethal, intolerable truth. Right now, walking, free of her headache, free of the voices, she can face the devil, but she must keep walking, she must not turn back.