A Setup for Failure – Russia After Putin (The Russian Invasion of Ukraine #139)

The question of who will eventually succeed Vladimir Putin as the leader of Russia has resulted in a great deal of speculation. Because there is no handpicked successor that raises the possibility for conflict among the competitors for Putin’s position and the potential for civil war. The possibility of an internal conflict is a serious concern. There is historical precedence for this. While often forgotten, it was exactly a century ago that Russia was at the tail end of an extremely violent civil war that resulted in millions of deaths due to warfare, famine and disease. The stakes could not have been higher, with the Red and White Armies battling for control of Russia. It was a choice between communism and a return to Tsarist autocracy. The communists won out with major ramifications for Russia and the surrounding states which were to become part of the Soviet Union. It is doubtful that the same type of ultra-violent conflict will ensue in a post-Putin succession crisis, but this being Russia, anything is possible. Since there is no anointed successor in place, various factions will be vying to place their preferred choice in the presidency.

Setup for failure – Vladimir Putin

Beyond Putin – The Struggle For Survival
Putin’s total control of the country gives a false sense that Russia is united. The truth is much messier. Russia’s conservatives have factions representing ultra-nationalists, relative moderates, those who would like for the war in Ukraine to end tomorrow and those who counsel the use of nuclear weapons. There are economic nationalists, statists, and free marketeers. There is even a warlord, Ramzan Kadyrov, who is bound to make like difficult for anyone who threatens his fief in Chechnya. Take Putin out of the equation and the infighting is almost certain to begin. His control over Russia extends not just to repression of those who disagree with his regime, but also to forces on the right that would threaten to overthrow a weaker president. Whoever follows Putin will struggle to survive if they are not a strongman.

The western world usually focuses on the main liberal resister to the Putin regime, Alexei Navalny, as offering an alternative to the hardline rule that now grips Russia. Navalny has next to no chance of getting control of the government. The best he can hope for is an early release from prison. That is unlikely while Putin’s prodigies fight for control of the country. While the succession for Putin’s replacement is widely discussed, much less talked about is the situation his successor will inherit. There seems to be the opinion that anyone is better than Putin. A successor could hardly be more hostile to the west, but that does not mean they will be much better.

Whoever takes over leadership of Russia will be defined as much by the situation Putin leaves behind, as they will by any personality trait or power base. Putin is setting up his successor for failure, which will be a recipe for internal unrest. Chaos in Russia could bleed over into its near abroad with unpredictable consequences. Imagine the criticism of any Russian leader who does not project strength. A show of weakness, such as ending Russia’s misguided military adventure in Ukraine, could lead to upheaval at home. At some point, whether it is Putin or the person who follows him as president, the war with Ukraine will conclude. That is when the most intractable problems for Russia will begin.

Frozen conflict – Vladimir Putin with military officers

Negative Effects – A Loss of Influence
Imagine Russia after the war with Ukraine ends. The country will almost certainly be under international sanctions, external economic activity will be proscribed so that Russia can only sell its most valuable commodities, oil and gas, to China, India and a long list of third world countries. The days of flooding Europe with natural gas and oil will be at an end. Both China and India will be able to drive down prices (as they are now doing) for their energy purchases. Russia has lost its leverage by alienating European nations. Trustworthy customers such as Germany and Italy will be hesitant to ever again be held hostage to Russian energy. Going back to the status quo that existed prior to the war will be impossible. This presents an array of problems for the Russian economy which has been stagnating since Putin reassumed the presidency in 2012.

The economy will continue to ossify. Russia does not have a dynamic internal market. Competition inside the country is held back by corruption. Rent seeking is the norm and reform is a dirty word, one that carries the connotation of dissent, something that the Putin regime cannot afford to allow. Any successor is likely to continue along these lines. Growing the Russian economy while the nation is increasingly isolated in a globalized world will be extremely difficult. Their one reliable source of revenue, oil and gas, will drop precipitately. The outlook for the Russian economy is bad. It is likely to be stuck in recessionary mode for an indefinite time.

The heir to Putin will also inherit a security situation that offers major challenges on all fronts. While Russia’s situation with Europe has taken a turn towards the disastrous, its situation vis a vis China is almost as dire. The supposed “friendship without limits” that Putin and China’s leader Xi Jinping declared in early February has been transformed by Russia’s poor performance in the war with Ukraine.
China can demand whatever concessions they want from Russia without many consequences. In Central Asia, countries such as Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are wary of dealing with Russia after seeing what happened in Ukraine. As for Europe, Russia faces a doubling in length of its border with NATO now that Finland will join the alliance. Even with a ceasefire, the situation in Ukraine will be fraught with danger. Russia could expend a fortune it does not have trying to hold on to its limited gains. No European nation is likely to trust Russia while a Putin inspired regime rules the country.

Keeping an eye on the future – Vladimir Putin

Future Shock – Increasing Isolation
Any post-Putin leader of Russia will be faced with constant difficulties and tough decisions. There are no easy answers for Russia’s political and economic problems. The more Russia withdraws from the world, the worse its problems will get. The opportunities for wider engagement with the world are minimal, while the risk of increasing isolation has grown. Putin has left a huge mess for his successor to clean up. It is unlikely they will be able to make the situation much better, without making it worse. Russia’s future looks bleak, with or without Putin.

Click here for: An Exercise in Futility – Russia & Ukrainian Grain Shipments On The Black Sea (The Russian Invasion of Ukraine #140)  


Targeting Civilians – The Shopping Mall at Kremenchuk (The Russian Invasion of Ukraine #118)

On day one of the Group of Seven Summit at Schloss Emlau in Bavaria, the focus was less on the leaders of the free world and more on the message Vladimir Putin sent by renewing missile attacks on Kyiv. The damage in this attack was relatively light, but the message was clear, Putin’s forces could strike anywhere in Ukraine at any time. Tragically, Putin did not stop with Kyiv. Not long after the G7 began its second day of meetings, horrific reports of another Russian strike on a civilian area in Ukraine made the news. This time a couple of two-thousand-pound Soviet missiles hit a shopping mall in Kremenchuk, a city of 217,000 situated along the Dnipro River in central Ukraine. Kremenchuk is in an area that Russian ground forces have not come close to occupying. That does not mean Kremenchuk is safe. As countless examples have shown, distance is no obstacle to Russian missile strikes on Ukraine.  

Smoked out – Shopping mall in Kremnchuk on fire after Russian missile strike

The Death of Innocents – Collateral Damage
The first four months of the Ukraine-Russia War have proven that Russia will rain terror down on innocent civilians. This is what happened when hundreds of Ukrainians became unwitting targets inside the shopping mall in Kremenchuk. The Russian missile strike was no accident. Instead, it was by design. A terror tactic to wreak maximum havoc in a provincial city that was thought to be safe. Some of those injured in the attack had moved to Kremenchuk from other areas in eastern Ukraine hoping to get outside the line of fire. The Putin regime considers the areas frequented by civilians to be high value targets. Footage taken after the strike shows dark clouds of smoke billowing forth from the burning structure. The morning after the attack, 18 people were reported dead and at least another 60 wounded. Counts of the dead are likely to grow as investigators, firemen, and the police continue sifting through the rubble.

The shopping mall in Kremenchuk now joins an infamous list of places across Ukraine where civilians have suffered mass murder due to Russian artillery and missiles strikes. The most notable of these incidents include civilians killed while waiting for a train in Kramatorsk, queueing in line for bread in Chernihiv, and the horrifying strike on the theater in Mariupol as women, children and the elderly sheltered from the fighting. These are just a few of literally thousands of murderous attacks on civilians that Russia has carried out with hardly a second thought to the collateral damage they cause. It might even be said that collateral damage is the goal of such attacks.

Everyone in Ukraine has become a target, whether they are Ukrainian or Russian speaking, elderly or children, male or female. Individuals are caught in the crossfire and viewed by Russian forces as moving targets. Civilian casualties have gone from hundreds to thousands to tens of thousands and will run into the hundreds of thousands if the war continues at its current pace. Every one of the civilian casualties adds up to a clear conclusion, this war is genocidal. Vladimir Putin and the Russian forces that do his bidding are committing war crimes.

Before the firestorm – Shopping mall in Kremnchuk

Quick Strikes – Slow Sanctions
The strike in Kremenchuk stole some of the headlines from the G7 summit. That is just the way Vladimir Putin wants it. The regime he leads has proven capable of doing almost anything to garner attention on the world stage. While G7 leaders meet to coordinate sanctions against Russia, boost European security, and bolster military support for Ukraine, Putin reminds them that he can and will order his forces to attack non-military targets to stoke maximum outrage. Putin is showing through these actions that he can do whatever he wants in Ukraine and there is nothing that can be done about it. While that is not true, the western world’s responses to Russian aggression are logical, rational, and calibrated to cause long term pain. This is mainly being done in the form of sanctions.

Such actions, while highly commendable, are very slow to take effect. This is frustrating for those who want to help Ukraine resist aggression. Any delays in getting support to Ukraine costs lives. The slower response from Ukraine’s allies also allows Putin to control part of the narrative through spectacular acts of pre-meditated mass murder. The strike on Kremenchuk was a public relations stunt. The regime believes that any publicity is better than none. This helps Putin stay relevant on the world stage, no easy feat for a man that most of the world wants to see either disappear or be put on trial for crimes against humanity.

For their part, the Russians rationalized the shopping mall strike in Kremenchuk by stating that there were military assets being stored nearby. According to one of their spokespeople, the Russian strike targeted weapons storage units which were close to the shopping mall. When the missiles hit these, they caused explosions which led to mass casualties. Ukraine responded that there were no places or structures of military significance within five kilometers of the shopping mall. This has only led to greater outrage at the Russian’s killing and maiming of civilians inside the mall. Oddly, the greater the outrage, the more likely Russia will be to continue these attacks.

Missile attack – Freeze frame image of Russian missile just before it struck the shopping mall in Kremenchuk

Cultivating Fear – Striking Back
It was impossible for leaders at the G7 to ignore the attack on Kremenchuk. Vladimir Putin knows this and that is why he looks to continue cultivating fear. It is not certain what the strategic or tactical ideas are behind such strikes. Is it to get the western world to cry mercy and push Ukraine to negotiate a settlement with Russia? Is it to engender a sense of hopelessness in the Ukrainian population to the point that they also cry for mercy? Or is it to kill as many Ukrainians as possible in acts of genocidal murder which will ethnically cleanse much of eastern Ukraine? The answer is all the above. Yet despite these actions, the sides are as far apart from a negotiated peace as they have been since the war began.
With neither side anywhere close to negotiating, the chance that the war will drag on for many more months is certain. The chance that the war could go on for years is increasing. This can only mean that more civilians will be targeted. The shopping mall strike in Kremenchuk will be forgotten when Russia commits even greater atrocities.

Click here for: Putin’s Nightmare – Finland & Sweden In NATO (The Russian Invasion of Ukraine #119)

The Rule of Law Strikes Back – The Montreux Convention & the Ukraine-Russia War (The Russian Invasion of Ukraine #68)

During my years at university, I took many classes on International Politics. The few moments from these that I remember have little to do with the subject matter. That was because the lectures were often dull and the assigned readings even duller. Countless hours were spent talking about theories and systems that have never survived contact with human nature. One of my professors, a small man with probing eyes who had more hair growing out of his ears then on his head, would spend three hours each week curing our class of insomnia while offering up lectures on the finer points of obscure treaties. He never failed to find an opportunity to raise the topic of his personal favorite, the Kellogg-Briand Pact. This forgotten international agreement became a mainstay of his lectures. Named after the United States Secretary of State Frank Kellogg and French Foreign Minister Aristide Briand, the pact was signed in 1928.

There is a reason not many are familiar with a pact that attempted to outlaw war. In an ideal world this would have been a great idea, but it was bound to fail during an interwar period seething with tensions. For me, the Kellogg-Briand Pact has become synonymous with well meaning and meaningless international agreements. Perhaps that was why after I recently learned that the Montreux Convention was being invoked because of the Ukraine-Russia War I had to suppress a roll of the eyes. Conventions and Pacts can help untangle messy international affairs when you have like minded nations involved. Unfortunately, these agreements usually do not last the test of wartime. The Montreux Convention has turned out to be different. Not only is it in force, but it is having a pronounced effect on the military situation in one of the most important theaters of the war.

Closing time – Turkey has shuts the Dardanelles and Bosporus Straits to warships under the Montreux Convention (Credit: Weston Jones)

Closing Time – No Go Zone
The Montreux Convention is an international agreement negotiated and signed in 1936 at the Montreux Palace in Switzerland. It settled the question over who would control access to the Bosporus and Dardanelle Straits in Turkey that leads between the Mediterranean and Black Seas. The convention guarantees safe passage for all civilian vessels through the straits. This has greatly helped facilitate trade in the Black Sea. The Convention also regulates warships using the straits and entering the Black Sea with the most rights reserved for the littoral nations, including Ukraine and Russia. Other nation’s access is more heavily regulated. The convention’s importance to the Ukraine-Russia War lies in the fact that it allows Turkey to close access to the straits when any of the littoral countries are at war. That is just what the Turks have done much to the detriment of Russia.

While the Russians have a sizable force of twenty ships in the Black Sea at this time, its fleet suffered a devastating blow when Ukrainian Neptune missiles struck their Black Sea flagship, the Moskva. The ship later sunk while being towed back to its base in Sevastopol. The Moskva was integral to coordinating Russian strikes on the mainland. While the Russians have other ships that could act as a replacement for the Moskva, none of them are in the Black Sea. With the Straits closed for what looks like the duration of the war, the Russians will not be able to send another similar warship into the Black Sea. If that was not bad enough, there were reports today that the Russian frigate Admiral Makarov had been struck by Neptune missiles causing major damage to the ship. This would be another in what is fast becoming a litany of losses for Russian watercraft in the Black Sea. At last count, no less than 12 Russian watercraft have been lost in the war. The Russian Navy’s performance is becoming another yet example of military incompetence.

The peaceniks – French Foreign Minister Aristide Briand speaking at negotiations for the Kellogg-Briand Pact (Credit: GaHetNa – National Archief NL)

Habitual Offender – The Russian Rule of Lawlessness
The Montreux Convention’s effect on the war is a striking example of how the rule of law can be used to harm the Russian military effort. Vladimir Putin’s Russian regime is diametrically opposed to the rule of law. Laws in Russia can be (and often have been) changed to suit the whims of Putin. The rule of law is conceptual rather than concrete in Russia. Putin has made a habit of working outside the law in Russia, thus it is little wonder that he would try to do the same thing in international affairs. The fact that he was allowed to get away with it in the taking of Crimea only added to his arrogant disdain for anything approaching a rules based international system. The Ukraine-Russia War has completely exposed Putin’s disregard for agreed upon international norms. He and those closest to him must have been shocked that Turkey would trigger their right to halt military traffic in the straits under the Montreux Convention. This is a greater blow to the Russian war effort than some might imagine.

The Russians would dare not try to force a warship through the Straits since Turkey is a member of NATO. Any Russian attempt to breach the closure by Russia might trigger a military situation that could bring the entire alliance into the war. Furthermore, the Turks have an impressive and well-prepared military that the Russians would not be able to handle in a war. This leaves Russia with dwindling options in the Black Sea. At best, they hope to keep their ships afloat while continuing to blockade the Ukrainian coastline. This has severely crimped the Ukrainian economy. Since the Ukrainians cannot get their goods to distant markets by sea, this has also had knock on effects causing distress around the world. This is most apparent in the grain trade, or at this point the lack thereof as Ukrainian wheat cannot be shipped out. Bread prices have soared in the Middle East and North Africa, among other regions.

Pinch points – The Dardanelles & Bosporus straits (Credit Interiot & Thomas Steiner)

Self-Defeating – Holding The World Hostage
The Russian blockade of the Ukrainian coastline in the Black Sea is another one of Putin’s tactics where he tries to hold the larger world hostage. How long this will last is hard to say. While the Russian blockade of Ukrainian ports has been one of their few successes, it is self-defeating. It keeps what looks like an unwinnable war going. While the war continues, the Montreux Convention will be in effect. Russia’s ability to control the Black Sea will be increasingly threatened. The rule of law is being enforced and there is nothing that Vladimir Putin can do to stop it.

Click here for: Turning In On Itself – Russia & Victory Day Scenarios (The Russian Invasion of Ukraine #69)

The Long War – Russia Versus The West (The Russian Invasion of Ukraine #60)

I am beginning to feel like the western world has one foot in the grave and one in the future. This sounds ominous, but the situation is not nearly so dire as that of Russia which has both feet in the grave. As the noose gets ever tighter around the neck of Russia, Vladimir Putin tries to loosen the knot through the bizarre stratagem of escalating to de-escalate. This is having the predictable effect of bringing all parties involved in the Ukraine-Russia War that much closer to a reckoning. The threat of a World War grows by the day.

A partnership forged in war – European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky

Aggressive Instincts – A Dreadful Spector
Today, President Biden proposed a $33 billion dollar package of assistance to Ukraine. Meanwhile, Great Britain is sending loads of weaponry to Ukraine which it says can be used to not only defend the country, but also attack logistics areas in Russia. Poland, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, and the Baltic States are doing everything they can to provide Ukraine’s military with weaponry. Their reasoning is that Russia must be stopped in Ukraine or one of them will be attacked next. Other NATO members, everyone from Denmark to Italy to Spain (Hungary being the notable exception), have increased their support. The European Union continues to provide a plethora of assistance. Even the Germans are sending armored vehicles. You know the situation has escalated to unprecedented levels when the Germans decide to provide military assistance. To paraphrase Winston Churchill’s famous quote on Americans, “the Germans will do the right thing, after they have tried everything else.”

News headlines are now stating the obvious, that many world leaders fear the war will continue to spread. If journalism is the first draft of history, then this draft came in way overdue. The war already has spread well beyond the borders of Ukraine. Meanwhile, Russia is creeping closer and closer to full mobilization. This is the fight Vladimir Putin has wanted for years, Russia against the West. Have no doubt, it is an angry and isolated Russia that now looks like it will take on all comers. The West, led by the United States, now realizes they must take a stand against Putin’s aggression. At the beginning of the war, western military involvement was limited. Leaders were careful about how much support they promised Ukraine and particularly about what kind. Humanitarian assistance trumped military support. The Russian military’s attacks of Ukrainian civilians began to alter the equation. Tales of torture, kill lists, summary executions and mass graves raised the dreadful specter of war crimes and genocide. The destruction of Mariupol only further exacerbated matters. The malevolent allure of war began to have a magnetic attraction for those who wanted to right these wrongs or at the very least put a stop to them.

End of the Affair – Dismembered Ukraine-Russia Friendship statue in Kyiv

Digging In – An Unimaginable Peace
Members of NATO and the European Union know that if they allow the kind of behavior exhibited by the Russian military and promoted by Vladimir Putin to continue, it could lead to grosser injustices and an even greater war. It might lead to one anyway or it might be more appropriate to say that it has led to a larger war because that is now where the situation stands. There is also a dirty little secret that no one bothers to mention though it is glaringly obvious to anyone who knows the history of relations between Russia and the West. The latter now has a golden opportunity to possibly destroy Vladimir Putin’s regime and Russian aggression for at least a generation, and maybe longer. Many have been waiting for an opportunity to deal a grievous blow to the authoritarian model. The question is whether the risk is worth the reward. Or to put it in more specific terms, is chancing a nuclear conflagration worth it to inflict a decisive defeat upon Russia. No one can say for sure. That question will loom largest in the coming months.

Not since World War II has Europe stood this close to the brink of a full-scale war. No one ever thought it would come to this. The transformation from the war’s beginning until now is astonishing. At its start, logic held sway over emotion for NATO and the EU. It was the other way around for the Russians with disastrous consequences. Now emotion rules over logic on both sides. Cooler heads will not prevail in this conflict because the war in Ukraine has heated up to the boiling point. To understand just how far gone the situation is, consider what it would take for the combatant nations to make peace at this point in the war. Ukraine would want all Russian troops off their territory including Crimea, plus security guarantees backed by NATO members. Russia would want the Donbas permanently to be part of their sphere of influence plus guarantees of neutrality for Ukraine. Such proposals are non-starters from the standpoint of negotiations. Peace is unimaginable until one side or the other is either a decisive victor or completely exhausted. Neither of these results look possible anytime soon. Thus, it is in the best interests for both sides to dig in while preparing for a much longer war.

Ready for war – Ukrainian soldiers

Inexhaustible Supplies – Outgunned Versus Outmanned
The beginning of that longer war is now upon us. The war’s expansion bodes ill for its conclusion anytime soon. Ukraine is being resupplied by the west which has a seemingly inexhaustible supply of weaponry. What western countries and alliances cannot provide at this time will likely be available quite soon. Ukraine could end up being able to outgun Russia, an incredible turn of events. Meanwhile, Russia’s movement towards a war footing will provide them more cannon fodder in the form of conscripts. Whether or not they can manufacture or procure the weapons they need to fight for a prolonged period will depend upon if they can navigate sanctions. Russia has few allies with the means to provide them the support they will need for a longer war. The one thing Russia does have is a ruthless dictator who will do anything he thinks would help him achieve his goals. Putin will try every trick he knows to keep the Russian public supporting the war. The Russian military effort in Ukraine will continue while Putin is in charge. That could be a long time which means only one thing, a very long war.

Click here for: Back To The Trenches – Donbas As The Western Front (The Russian Invasion of Ukraine #61)

Gambler’s Error – Putin’s Urge To Win At Any Cost (The Russian Invasion of Ukraine #40)

My entry point for understanding modern warfare was World War I. Even after years of reading numerous books and countless articles there was one aspect of the war that was still hard for me to understand. I could never quite figure out why the powers involved did not cut their losses by pulling out of the war. At a certain point victory seemed indistinguishable from defeat. To be sure, the situation was different for France and Russia which had foreign armies occupying parts of their territory. They had little choice but to continue fighting. On the other hand, the British could have decided that enough was enough especially after the Battle of the Somme. The same goes for the Germans who went almost nowhere on the western Front after the opening months of the war. The war would prove disastrous for both Britain and Germany.

While Britain found itself on the winning side, they ended up bankrupt. The British Empire never recovered from the war. As for Germany, it ended up losing both the war and the peace. In the long run, their defeat led to the rise of Nazism. Could things have been different if either France or Germany had ended their involvement sooner? We will never know, but it is hard to believe that the result could have been much worse. Of course, at the time neither Britain nor Germany felt it could pull out of the war. Now after watching Russia’s abysmal performance in their war with Ukraine, I think I understand why. Abandoning a lost cause threatens a public outcry, calls into question the actions of those who led the war effort and can lead to a change in leadership. This is the situation that Vladimir Putin and Russia could face if they decided to leave Ukraine.

Flaming out – Destroyed Russian tank in Ukraine

Between Slim & None – Back To The Front
I raise these bits of past and present history because something similar is now playing out with Russia’s involvement in their war with Ukraine. No matter how one cares to look at it, the Russian invasion has been a disaster. Militarily, the campaign has been a failure up to this point. Economically, Russia has been hit with ever worsening sanctions. Diplomatically, they have become a pariah state. War crimes and senseless destruction have become the newest hallmarks of the Russian campaign. Every time it seems like their actions cannot get any worse, they manage to achieve a new low.  It is inconceivable how Russia will manage to repair their reputation.  The best decision for Russia would be to end this debacle rather than risk yet another setback. The chances of that happening are somewhere between slim and none. It is worth considering why?

The short answer is that what is in Russia’s best interest, is not in Vladimir Putin’s interest. Putin sees himself as a sort of modern Russian Tsar who has a historical mission to restore the greatness of Russia by regaining territory it has lost. Ukraine is the most prominent of these “lost lands.” Controlling Ukraine has been a long term goal of Putin’s, one that he has been unable to achieve. He first tried creating a puppet regime in the form of Victor Yanukovych as president. Then Putin tried subterfuge by supporting so called “people’s republics” in Donetsk and Luhansk. Neither of these worked according to plan, so Putin decided to try a military invasion. This was a case of if at first you don’t succeed, try, try, and try again. Much to Putin’s surprise, the current military campaign has achieved very little success. One thing it did do was create an impossible situation for Putin and by extension Russia.

Back to the front – Russian soldiers carrying their dead away in Ukraine

Vicious Cycle – An Impossible Plan
At this point, retreat for the Russian forces is not an option. The reason is paradoxical. The more the Russians lose, the harder it becomes for them to quit the war. Putin is like a gambling addict, he keeps thinking that if he plays long enough, eventually the tide will turn and he will win. In the face of all evidence, Putin believes that a victory can cover for all the losses Russia has incurred. The longer the war goes on, the greater the losses, which means any victory will have to be that much greater. It is an impossible plan for recovery. At a certain point, one would think that Putin might be forced to declare bankruptcy. The creditors who would foreclose on his risky strategy would have to be either disgruntled elites or the Russian people, perhaps a combination of both. Right now, that does not feasible.

Even those Russians who have lost fathers, sons, and brothers during the fighting in Ukraine might be hesitant to turn against Putin’s regime. A victory in Ukraine will never replace what they have lost, but it might salve their wounds. The elites have also lost a great deal and stand to lose much more as sanctions continue to bite. They will want something to compensate for their losses. A victory in Ukraine would at least allow them to rationalize that the sacrifices were worth it. The ability to rationalize also acts as a survival instinct because most would rather not oppose Putin since it could cost them their livelihoods and/or their lives.  

Doubling down – Vladimir Putin

Risky Business – Doubling Down
When it comes to the war in Ukraine, Putin is showing the signs of a condition known as gambler’s error. This is where an individual believes that a certain event is more or less likely to occur based on the outcome of a previous event. Putin might believe that a Russian military victory is likely to happen, because it did before in Chechnya, Georgia, and Crimea. The problem with gambler’s error is that it works and works and works until one day it doesn’t. Judging by his prior failures in Ukraine, perhaps Putin should not put too much stock in this strategy.

On the contrary, Putin is doubling down on the war in Ukraine with the belief that eventually Russia will emerge victorious. The amount of losses Russia has sustained should give Putin pause, instead they fuel his desire to find ultimate success. Only then will all the previous losses vanish. This kind of magical thinking is delusional. It also allows Putin to continue the war when it is inadvisable to do so. Gamblers are masters of the art of self-deception, it is a psychological mechanism that allows them to overcome their losses. That is up until the point that they lose everything. Putin and Russia are close to that point.


“She Belonged To The All-Time Greats” – Zsuzsa Kormoczy: The Improbable Champion (Part Two)

On my bookshelf I have a wonderful volume called Eminent Hungarians. In it the author, Krisztian Nyary, tells the stories of Hungarians from all walks of life who became heroes through extraordinary acts of courage and perseverance. A few of these eminent personages were from the sporting world and several were Jewish. As I began to research the exploits of the Hungarian Jewish tennis star Zsuzsa Kormoczy I would not have been surprised to find a chapter dedicated to her in Nyary’s book. Her story was not included in the book, but it would have been a worthwhile addition. Kormoczy came from a tiny rural village in a relatively impoverished part of the country. She was a Hungarian Jew who managed to survive a time when they were being murdered on an industrial scale.

This petit woman, who would come to be known as “Suzy K”, excelled in a bourgeoisie sport despite playing under the watchful eyes of a Stalinist regime that considered anything formerly associated with the upper classes tantamount to treason. Kormoczy first learned to survive, and later to thrive at an advanced age, achieving tennis stardom. She did all this despite the adversity life had presented to her. Another school of thought might say her accomplishments were a product of the will and determination she had developed in overcoming numerous obstacles. After years spent overcoming discrimination, ideological conformity and injuries she found herself in the spring of 1958 on the cusp of greatness. The crowning achievement of a career which had been shadowed by so much darkness came in the City of Light, Paris.

Zsuzsa Kormoczy - In action

Zsuzsa Kormoczy – In action

Courting Greatness – A New Level Of Focus & Fitness
Coming into the 1958 French Open, Zsuzsa Kormoczy’s play was nearing its peak. She had already won two clay court tournaments along the French Rivera earlier in the spring. Now Kormoczy turned her attention to the game’s only Grand Slam event played on her favorite surface, red clay. Her past results at the French were promising. The year before she had been unlucky in having to face top seeded Brit Shirley Bloomer in the quarterfinals. Kormoczy was blown off the court, first by high wind gusts and then by Bloomer, managing to only win two games. She hoped 1958 would be different. Her preparation, specifically with fitness, was much more extensive than in the past. Kormoczy’s coach, Joszef Somogyi, worked her into prime shape with a training regime focused on running and gymnastics. Her fitness level would be crucial to success.

She breezed through the early rounds without any problems. Her first tough match came against Ann Haydon of Great Britain in the quarterfinals. Kormoczy was sick with a cold while the left handed Haydon’s game made her suffering worse. The Brit’s game was unorthodox, a contradictory combination of looping, topspin forehands and sliced backhands. Kormoczy came from 0 -2 down to win six of the next seven games and the set. She quickly fell behind in the second set 1-4. Her strategy of throwing Haydon’s rhythm off by drawing her into the net led to a quick turnaround. Kormoczy swept the final five games to take the match 6-3, 6-4. Her semifinal match against South African Heather Segal looked like it would be a grind after it took Kormaczy ten minutes just to win the first game. This turned out to be an aberration as Kormoczy surrendered only one game the entire match, easily moving onto her first Grand Slam Final where she was to play Bloomer, the woman who had blown her out the year before.

Zsuzsa Kormoczy - 1958 French Open

Zsuzsa Kormoczy – 1958 French Open Champion

Peak Performance – Springtime In Paris
Kormoczy may have been the underdog in the final, but she had one major advantage. In advancing to the title match she had yet to surrender a set. On the other hand, Bloomer had come from a set down three consecutive times just to make the final. She had to be suffering from fatigue after this trio of close calls. Once again Bloomer fell behind as Kormoczy took the opening set 6-4. Oddly enough, in the second set Kormoczy was the one feeling fatigue. As she related many years later in her autobiography, it may have been due to tiredness from nerves. Instead of expending what energy she had left in a likely losing battle in the second set, Kormoczy changed her tactics. She would cede the second set to Bloomer, but at the same time run her as much as possible in the hopes of tiring her out. The tactic worked as Kormoczy won the first five games of the deciding set. Bloomer fought back to 5-2.

In the next game, Kormoczy raced to a 40-15 lead and on her second match point she forced a long return from Bloomer. Game, set, match and French Open Championship to Zsuzsa Kormoczy. After playing international tennis on and off for two decades while surviving periodic bouts of tumult and terror she finally had reached the pinnacle of women’s tennis. At the time of her title, she was 33 years and 8 months old, making her the oldest French Open Women’s Singles Champion up to that point in history. This is a record that she still holds today. Kormoczy was a well deserving if highly improbable titlist. Self-belief carried her through all the ups and downs of a career that mirrored her life, periods of tumult followed by brilliance. In the process she became the only Hungarian female to win a Grand Slam singles title. A feat that has never been matched.

One of the All Time Greats - Zsuzsa Kormoczy

One of the All Time Greats – Zsuzsa Kormoczy

New Beginnings – Always A Champion
The 1958 French Open was not the end of Kormoczy’s career, but yet another beginning. Later in the summer she would advance to the semifinals at Wimbledon. The next year she once again advanced to the French final. She fell short in her quest for back to back titles, but went onto play several more years at the highest level, adding another title at Monte Carlo and also winning the prestigious Italian Championship. After retiring, she became a coach at Vasas, the same club where the Hungarian men’s great Balazs Taroczy played. She also led the Hungarian National Tennis Association. Kormoczy lived to the age of 84, a beloved and revered figure off the court just as much as she had been on it. After she died, Andrea Temesvari, Hungary’s second greatest female player of all time paid Kormoczy the ultimate compliment, saying “She belonged to the all-time greats.”

The Little Princess & The Fat Policeman – Budapest: A Little Bit Less Than Serious

Budapest can rightfully be called a city of statues. No matter where one goes there seems to be a statue or sculpture occupying a prominent place on a street corner, sidewalk or public square. Green spaces in the Belvaros (inner city) are as much a breeding ground for statuary as they are for green grass. Show a Hungarian official an open space in a public area of the city and they are quite likely to say, “This is a good place for a statue.” Show them an area of national importance, such as the grounds of parliament, then they are likely to say, “this is a good place for several statues as well as sculptures.” Past heroes are not hard to find in Budapest.

Lightness & Levity - The Little Princess in Budapest

Lightness & Levity – The Little Princess in Budapest (Credit: misibacsi)

An Ideological About Face – Lightening Up
Events as well as people are commemorated, including rather obscure ones that did not turn out the way Hungarians might have hoped. The one that immediately comes to mind is the lion sculpture in Buda on the south side of Margaret Bridge. It commemorates the Siege of Przemysl during World War One in which Hungarian forces played a prominent and ultimately futile role. The overwhelming majority of the statues are quite serious in subject matter, style and tone. They usually commemorate politicians, military figures and cultural icons who left their mark on Hungarian history. Two statues stand out in my mind for bucking this trend. They are uniquely light hearted, adding a bit of levity to the pervasive intensity of Hungary’s most famous figures immortalized in stone. Neither of these statues commemorates a specific person which makes them that much more memorable.

When the Iron Curtain collapsed in 1989, Hungary was a nation in serious need of some light heartedness. While many Hungarians were elated with their newfound freedom, the economic legacy of communism meant the country was in for a tumultuous ride on the road to capitalism. Part of the transition from communism to democracy was cultural, which meant statues of apparatchik icons were out. In many cases these were to be replaced by statues which had been hidden away for decades and re-imposed in public spaces. An ideological switcheroo was soon underway. The end of communism in Hungary also meant that statues exuding a less serious side could now be more prominently seen in public, one of the first of those to appear would become rightfully famous.

Catching A Ride - The Little Princess & Tram 2 in Budapest

Catching A Ride – The Little Princess & Tram 2 in Budapest (Credit: Mister No)

Model Arrangement – A Fairy Tale Come True
In 1972 the sculptor Laszlo Marton had an idea for a statue that would be unlike anything seen in Budapest at that time. There would be no grim looking bureaucrats or militaristic theme, no idealized workers marching toward a nonexistent utopian paradise. Instead Marton would portray childlike frivolity and playfulness with “The Little Princess” (Kiskirálylány in Hungarian). The model for this statue was Marton’s five-year old daughter Evike, who often dressed as a princess while on the playground in Buda. Her outfit was homemade, including a crown made of newsprint.  This inspired Marton to use Evike as a model in the family’s back garden for “The Little Princess”. The statue portrays a child wearing a robe and pointy crown. In 1990, the statue was placed atop an iron railing. The Little Princess sits on the rail relaxing, looking like the very definition of cool just a stone’s throw from the Danube. The tracks for tram line #2 run just past the statue. Across the Danube, Buda Castle rises above the city.

The Little Princess has her back turned on this dramatic scene with not a care in the world. The statue’s novelty is also part of its power. Rather than gravitas, the Little Princess portrays levity. This is the last thing a visitor would expect to see in one the most stunning settings the city has to offer. It seems entirely fitting. The Little Princess acts as a counterpoint to the usual expressions of seriousness portrayed by so many other statues in Budapest. The princess’s look of serene happiness coupled with a willful nonchalance to her surroundings makes the statue positively delightful. Perhaps She seems to be communicating a message to passersby, enjoy the moment as well as the city. The Little Princess quixotic presence has made her more than a statue, she has also become a symbol of Budapest, a city that can sometimes seem like a fairy tale.

An Old Friend - The Fat Policeman in Budapest

An Old Friend – The Fat Policeman in Budapest

The Golden Belly – For Luck & Levity
The Little Princess is not the only statue that showcases the lighter side of Budapest. Within sight of the neo-classical splendor of St. Stephen’s Basilica, stands a statue known as The Fat Policeman. He jovially guards the intersection of Oktober 6 and Zrinyi Miklos utcas (streets) with his plump, protruding belly polished to a golden bronze. His golden belly is the product of tourists hoping to glean a bit of good luck by giving The Fat Policeman a lucky tummy rub. The policeman is all but impossible to miss for those strolling up and down the street. Throngs of tourists often crowd around the statue to get their photos taken with everyone’s favorite Budapestian policeman. The Fat Policeman is warm and friendly, with his upturned mustache and peaked cap he looks the opposite of a stereotypical cop.  The sculptor of the statue, Andras Illyes, is said to have modeled it after his grandfather who must have had a very pleasant demeanor by the looks of his look-a-like. The statue was installed in 2008. Since that time, it has become a must see, as well as a must rub.

The Little Princess and The Fat Policeman are memorable precisely because they are so unlike most statues in Budapest. In a city where it seems like almost any statue is fraught with meaning, both political and personal, it is nice to see a few that reflect a more pleasant side to the city’s persona. While the statues do not pay homage to any specific historical figures, nor do they express an ideological point of view, their most revolutionary aspect is happiness. Maybe that is why they are viewed with such fondness. They remind visitors that for all its grandeur and glitz, Budapest is also the kind of place where a princess and policeman prove that above all else, levity reigns supreme.

A Walk In The Dark – The End of the Line: Bedtime In Belgrade (A Balkan Affair #26)

In a fit of complete exasperation my mother once said that the problem with me was all I ever wanted to do was spend my life having fun. She followed that statement up by saying that life wasn’t always fun, neither was it meant to be. A failure to take life seriously seemed to be my main offense. Of course, I disagreed at the time and still do twenty-five years after she made that comment. Back then I disagreed because of my rebellious nature. Now I disagree for a very different reason.

Over the years I have come to realize that what I really wanted out of life was not to have fun, but to have an adventure. The search for adventure was how I found myself at the age of 48 wondering through the freezing cold of a Serbian mid-winter’s night. Marching down abandoned tram tracks in a remote part of Belgrade was not exactly a life goal. It was strangely fascinating. Doing this while lugging a huge suitcase for almost a mile in search of a hotel was an added benefit. Life at that moment was the opposite of fun, but it was an adventure! And like the best adventures it had elements of danger and mystery that I could never have imagined before I set off on a walk in the dark.

End of the Line - Destination Belgrade

End of the Line – Destination Belgrade

False Assumptions – From Darkness To Danger
In planning my arrival in Belgrade, I figured the best bet would be to find accommodation close to Topcider Station, which was being used as the terminus for the Bar to Belgrade railway since the latter’s main station had been closed while a newer, more modern central station was being built. My only other alternative would be to take a tram ride from the station into the city center, then get off and walk through busy streets to a hotel or apartment. I rightly assumed that after eleven hours in a train my only impulse would be to get where I needed to go as soon as possible. Prior to leaving on my journey, I made sure to have specific directions to the hotel I booked. The one I selected got good reviews and was said to be only a short walk away from the station.

A map I downloaded to my phone showed the hotel within reasonable distance of the station. I thought this would be a short, refreshing jaunt, allowing me to stretch my legs after a long journey. Because the former royal palace of Beli Dvor (White Palace) was not far away and Google Maps showed surrounding woodlands, I imagined little more than a walk in the park. All my assumptions would turn out to be wrong. When I walked past Topcider Station, I noticed that everyone else who had been on the train was going either to a taxi or walking towards the tram stop. I was the only one who made a turn to the right. After a hundred or so paces, I was walking on a narrow stretch of sidewalk beside an empty road in almost total darkness. The only thing I could see was my breath materializing before me in the frigid air.

I was able to sense that forests surrounded both sides of the road and could also hear traffic coming from further up the road. My suitcase would barely fit on the sidewalk, but there was not enough space to comfortably drag it behind me. With no traffic on the road, I decided to walk on the tram tracks with my suitcase in tow. Though it was much smoother than the sidewalk, I began to get worried the closer I got to the road’s intersection with Bulevar Patrijarha Pavla (Patriarch Paul Boulevard). I noticed an alarming number of cars roaring along the Bulevar. Trying to traverse it could prove more dangerous than I might have imagined.

A Walk on the Wild Side - Abandoned tram line in Belgrade

A Walk on the Wild Side – Abandoned tram line in Belgrade

Fear of Abandonment – Tracking An Old Tramway

When I arrived where the two roads intersected, I noticed there was hardly any sidewalk to speak of. I now had one of two choices, either walk on the road while dodging traffic or follow an abandoned tram line. I decided to do a little bit of both. The old tram line did have a suitable width of pavement, unfortunately it also had parts of the old rails and the tracks trams once followed. Weeds were growing between the rails and cracks in the pavement. This made dragging the suitcase alongside me quite difficult at times. Every few yards, the wheels would hit a patch of weeds or piece of rail which impeded progress.

When these obstructions became too irritating, I would wait for a break in traffic then move over to the road where I would walk until the next oncoming car approached. I did this for what seemed like an interminable amount of time. I began to wonder which would happen first, arrive at the hotel or be run over on this stretch of roadway. At one point while walking on the old tram tracks, I stopped long enough to snap a photo. This would make a great story, but only after I arrived at the accommodation. Later while studying this photo, I noticed that it looked like something out of a horror film rather than a personal adventure.

The walk to the hotel was both annoying and exhilarating. This was my idea of an adventure. At times I doubted whether I would make it to the hotel at all. This looked like just the place for a throng of Balkan tough guys to jump me for my wallet and a suitcase full of dirty clothes. The saving grace was that no self-respecting robber would bother waiting on an abandoned tram line for a foolish tourist who refused to take a taxi just to save a handful of dinars. I was perfectly safe, as well as freezing cold.

Night shift - Topcider Station

Night shift – Topcider Station

An Exhausting Adventure – Travel Is Like Life
I finally found my way to the hotel after navigating what seemed to be a major construction site. The proprietor was waiting on me when I arrived. A stocky, man with a warm grin and even warmer personality, he welcomed me by stating that it was Christmas and as such I should have a shot of schnapps. He was a bit crestfallen when I told him that I did not drink. All I wanted was my room for the night. He apologized for the mess along the roadway. Construction was in progress, but once finished his business would boom as the highway was being rerouted. He led me to my room, showed me around and then disappeared. This was the end of my Bar to Belgrade Railway adventure. I was exhausted and at the same time ready for more. Travel, much like life, is an adventure. It may not always be fun, but it is worth every bit of effort.

Poet-Warrior – The Transcendence of Petar II Njegos-Petrovic (A Balkan Affair: #4)

Inside the mausoleum of Petar II Njegos-Petrovic was a towering granite statue of the great man himself. Somewhere beneath where we stood, the man deemed by his countrymen as the greatest Montenegrin was buried beneath the rocky soil of Mt. Lovcen. After spending a couple of minutes contemplating the penetrating silence of this austere tomb, Luka and myself walked around the mausoleum to a circular viewing platform which offered spectacular views. The scenery was breathtaking. Luka pointed out the Bay of Kotor where I would be headed in a few days. It was hard to believe that one of the most famous tourist towns in the world was only a few miles away.

Hidden behind mountains and great chasms of rock that tumbled down to the sea, Kotor could hardly have seemed more distance. The same could be said for Italy, which Luka reminded me was on the other side of the Adriatic. I would later learn that on a clear day, Italy can sometimes be seen from this vantage point. Much closer was a village that I spotted down in a valley. I asked Luka the name of this village. He said “Njegusi.” That’s where Petar was born.” The fact that we were at the great poet-warrior’s end and could see his beginning was impressive. His life had not quite come full circle. Instead it was more a rise to greatness from humble origins. It left me wondering just who was this man that had conquered the hearts and minds of Montenegrins.

Mountain Mausoleum - Tomb of Petar II Petrović-Njegoš on Mt. Lovcen

Mountain Mausoleum – Tomb of Petar II Petrović-Njegoš on Mt. Lovcen

The Making of Montenegro – State Building In A Star-Crossed Land
Anyone referred to as a “poet-warrior” demands a closer look. The title sounds more like an oxymoron than it does an honorific. It is hard to imagine that at a time when Montenegro was considered rebellious, violent and primitive, this star-crossed land would produce a one-man modernizing force. That is exactly what happened during the first half of the 19th century with the ascension of Petar to the most powerful position in the land. Known as the Vladika or Prince-Bishop, vested within this position was both spiritual and temporal power in Montenegro. The only problem was that prior to Petar the idea of centralized control was based more on theory than reality. Montenegro was a land of tribes, powerful chieftains and blood feuds. Add in the persistent threat of the Ottoman Turks and the upshot was a land beset by violent lawlessness. State authority was weak at best.

Enter Petar, whose family was part of the powerful Petrovic clan. He was not an obvious choice to lead Montenegro. Petar only gained the throne after one of the heirs died before he could assume power and the other ended up joining the Russian Imperial Army. Once Petar took power, rival claimants were ousted in ruthless fashion. Once firmly ensconced in power, Petar not only managed to keep the Ottoman threat contained, he also began to modernize the country. His most controversial reform involved the raising of taxes in order to fund projects that would improve the lives and livelihoods of all those who lived under his rule. Tax collection made Petar many enemies, inciting revolt on several occasions. Nevertheless, Petar was a wily operator who managed to outmaneuver those who opposed his policies.

Veneration - Tomb of Petar II Petrović-Njegoš

Veneration – Tomb of Petar II Petrović-Njegoš

Poetry In Motion- The Mountain Wreath
Once the treasury began to build up tax revenue, Petar used much of this to modernize what had been an impoverished and backward country. Roads were built, a police force was created that managed to tamp down on blood feuds and the capricious violence that had been endemic to the countryside. Petar also fostered the creation of a senate that lessened the power of clan leaders. Education was improved as well, which helped diminish illiteracy. The effect of Petar’s farsighted reforms was the first period of modernization in Montenegro’s history. At the same time, Petar was a brilliant poet. Though he had not learned to read until he was twelve years old, he eventually studied at several monasteries and fell under the tutelage of Sima Milutinovic, a Serbian poet who introduced Petar to some of the greatest bards in western literature. The upshot was that Petar wrote The Mountain Wreath, which has become the greatest epic poem in Montenegrin history and one of the most famous in South Slavic literature.

The Mountain Wreath is based on a fictionalized early 18th century incident where an ultimatum was issued to Montenegrins in the Zeta Plain who had converted to Islam. They could either reconvert to Christianity or face execution. Many suffered the latter in what was termed the Montenegrin Vespers. The meaning is clear, defections to the Ottoman side would never be tolerated. The highest price is to be paid for disloyalty. The ends justify the means when the honor and existence of Montenegro is at stake. While the poem is now much loved, the same could not be said about Petar during his reign.
He was a controversial figure in his day. That is easy to understand when one considers the historical context of those times. Montenegrins saw themselves as less of a specific group and more a collection of clans and tribes who fought as much with one another as they did with the Ottomans.

The Greatest Montenegrin - Petar II Petrović-Njegoš

The Greatest Montenegrin – Petar II Petrović-Njegoš

The Defining Quality – History In Harmony With Nature
Petar’s greatest achievement was his ability to create the foundations of a modern state despite the fractious political and social environment he inherited. His ability to do so speaks volumes about his leadership skills. It is also the main reason why he has been deified by his countrymen. The mausoleum plays a large role in that deification. Petar wanted it this way. He was the one who decided that his remains would be buried on Lovcen. When he died of tuberculosis just two weeks shy of his 37th birthday, plans were made to construct a chapel Petar had designed. When it was completed in 1855, his body was reburied there. The chapel was eventually superseded by the grandiose mausoleum that stands on the mountain today. Both monuments are testaments to his enduring accomplishments, but the greatest monument of all is Lovcen. It only makes sense that Montenegro’s greatest mountain would be the final resting place for its greatest son. This is history in harmony with nature, the defining quality of Montenegro.

Click here for: A Romance In Ruins – Fort Kosmac: To The Greatest Extent (A Balkan Affair: #5)

Seeing Double – The Enver Hoxha Hoax: Two Faces In The Mirror

The Oxford English Dictionary defines dystopia “as an imagined state or society in which there is great suffering or injustice, typically one that is totalitarian or post-apocalyptic.” It is hard to argue with the OED, which acts as the ultimate reference work on the English language. Nevertheless, I feel one corrective is necessary. Rather than “an imagined state or society”, what about a real one. A prime example immediately comes to mind: Albania from 1944 – 1985. These dates delineate the reign of Enver Hoxha, a man who crafted a state that was the very definition of dystopia. There were collective farms so unproductive that they led to malnutrition and near famine. Widespread shortages of almost everything except for concrete bunkers. The range of communal activities included mass purges and labor camps. Scores of crumbling apartment blocs, a nightmarish reminder of an existence characterized by bleakness and blight. Hoxha’s Albania was an ideological apocalypse on a national scale.

Albania’s dystopian society also produced its fair share of mad tales. How could it not? The system inverted human nature and created a logic all its own, infecting everyone and everything with Hoxha’s own peculiar brand of sinister paranoia. Suspicion was the driving force behind the government’s actions and Hoxha was the driving force behind the government. His actions were spectacularly malevolent. Hoxha went through Ministers of the Interior the way King Zog went through cartons of cigarettes. Hoxha, once an instructor of morals at a Tirana Gymnasium, shuttered churches and persecuted priests with a demonic virulence that would have made Stalin proud. It was Hoxha, or perhaps it was his double, who smiled and waved at the Albanian people he treated with complete contempt.  It was also Hoxha’s double, or the lack thereof, which became the most spectacular story to leak out of the country following communism’s collapse.

Double Vision - Enver Hoxha

Double Vision – Enver Hoxha (Credit: Adam Jones)

Extreme Makeover – A Twin Killing
While doing research on Enver Hoxha a few weeks ago, I was perusing entries found under his name in the index of Robert Carver’s insightful travelogue, The Accursed Mountains: Journeys in Albania. Thumbing through the pages, I soon came across a story so startling that I read and reread it multiple times. According to the book Hoxha had a double (sosi in Albanian), a man who impersonated him in public to ensure the chronically paranoid dictator’s safety. His job included more than just handing out awards, attending parades and celebratory events. The double had also been forced to give up any pretense of his former life. His wife and daughter were no longer allowed to see him. He underwent cosmetic surgery that transformed his face into a mirror image of Hoxha’s. He was given intensive training so he could speak and act like Hoxha. He was force fed a daily diet of the same food, in the exact same quantities that Hoxha ate. Those who had helped transform the double into a mirror image of Hoxha were sworn to eternal secrecy by being placed in a bus and driven off a cliff into the Adriatic Sea.

Perhaps the most horrifying part of this tale was the double’s life after the real Hoxha died in 1985. His first instinct was to go searching for his wife and two daughters. The double’s family had been the one hope left in his life during decades of forced servitude. Tragically, he was told by his handlers not to bother since they had been murdered a week after he was forced into servitude as Hoxha’s double. As if his life could not get any worse, it soon did.  Wherever the former double went, he was either feared or despised. He was nearly hounded to death by irate Albanians, being either attacked by those who loathed Hoxha or shunned by those who ran away frightened. It seems the only place he could find respite was in a labor camp surrounded by prisoners who had never seen Hoxha’s likeness. Eventually he attempted to flee Albania by entering the West German embassy, but other Albanian refugees attacked him with barely disguised hatred. Left to his own dismal devices, the double mutilated himself to alter his looks once again. With his raison d’etre long since stripped from him by fate and misfortune the double returned to the labor camp where he lived out his life.

Biografi: a traveller's tale - Lloyd Jones

Biografi: a traveller’s tale – Lloyd Jones

Too Bad To Be True – A Traveler’s Tale
The story was so intriguing that I forgot it might be too bad to be true. I began to research other sources that would support the tale of Hoxha’s double. Instead, I was soon doing a double take. The story turned out to be an infamous fit of fiction courtesy of New Zealand novelist/travel writer Lloyd Jones. I should have known better since Hoxha and hoax go together quite well. The fabulous Mr. Jones had concocted a story from a kernel of truth that fit the ambitions he had for “Biografi: a traveller’s tale”. While traveling around Albania for work on the book, Jones had heard about Hoxha’s double. He supposedly spent a great deal of time hunting him down. He finally found the double, a former dentist by the name of Peter Shapallo, then interviewed him at length. This resulted in the core story of Biografi, which was picked up by publishers in several major markets. Only when reviewers and publishers began to question the veracity of his tale, did Jones come clean. Well sort of. He stated that the book was a combination of fiction and fact. He left the reader to decide which was which. This did little to derail Jones’ career and may have given it an added boost. As for Shapallo, he most likely never existed.

Picture perfect - Enver Hoxha

Picture perfect – Enver Hoxha

Did Enver Hoxha have a double? Almost certainly and probably more than one. A man as paranoid and suspicious as Hoxha would be especially attuned to his personal safety. Whether or not Peter Shapallo ever existed seems beside the point. The fact that such a story could come out of Albania and be taken as the truth is a telling sign. The dystopian world of Enver Hoxha’s Albania was one where the real and imagined interbred. The incestuous relationship between fantasy and reality, fact and fiction made one indistinguishable from the other. The fictional Peter Shappalo was the product of this relationship, so was the real Enver Hoxha.