April 13, 1917 A Sealed Train

Leaving Zurich Station amid the jeers and the insults of 100 or so assembled Russians shouting “Spies!” “Traitors!” “Pigs!” “Provocateurs!” Lenin turned to a friend and said. “Either we’ll be swinging from the gallows in three months, or we shall be in power.”

The “War to End all Wars” dragged into its third dismal year in 1917, seeming as though it would go on forever.   Like two exhausted prize fighters, neither side could muster the strength to deliver the killing blow.  Many single days of the great battles of 1916 alone  produced more casualties than every European war of the preceding 100 years, combined.  At home, the social fabric of the combatant nations was unraveling.

WW1-Timeline-1917

By 1916 it was widely understood that the German war effort was “shackled to a corpse”, referring the Austro-Hungarian Empire where the war had started, in the first place.  Italy, the third member of the “Triple Alliance”, was little better.  On the “Triple Entente” side, the French countryside was literally torn to pieces, the English economy close to collapse. The Russian Empire, the largest nation on the planet, was teetering on the edge of the precipice.

The first of two Revolutions that year began on February 23 according the “Old Style” calendar, March 8, “New Style”. Long-standing resentments over food rationing turned to mass protests in and around the Russian capital of Petrograd (modern-day Saint Petersburg). Eight days of violent demonstrations pitted Revolutionaries against police and “gendarmes”, that medieval remnant combining military units with the power of law enforcement.

By March 12 (new style), mutinous units of the Russian military had switched sides and joined with the revolutionaries. Three days later, Car Nicholas abdicated the Imperial throne.

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German propaganda postcard depicting Russian peasants begging for food. With the size of the Russian empire and the difficulty in transportation, the propaganda wasn’t far from the truth.

Amidst all this chaos, Kaiser Wilhelm calculated that all he had to do was “kick the door in” and his largest adversary would collapse. He was right.

Following the overthrow of the Romanov dynasty, the more moderate Menshevik “Whites” vowed to continue the war effort. The split which had begun with the failed revolution of 1905 was more pronounced by this time with the radical Bolsheviks (“Reds”) taking the more extreme road. While Reds and Whites both wanted to bring socialism to the Russian people, Mensheviks argued for predominantly legal methods and trade union activism, while Bolsheviks favored armed violence.

March 8, 1917 A Political Plague

In 1901, Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov adopted the pseudonym “Lenin” after the River Lena, the easternmost of the three great Siberian rivers flowing into the arctic ocean. The middle-class son of a professor of mathematics and physics and the daughter of a well-to-do physician, Ulyanov became radicalized after the 1887 execution of his brother, for plotting to murder the Czar.Vladimir Ilyich Lenin

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Lenin

The man was soon convinced that capitalist society was bound to give way to socialist society with a natural transition to communism, not far behind.

Lenin was in exile when the war broke out, arrested and briefly imprisoned for his Russian citizenship. The radical revolutionary was released due to his anti-czarist sentiments when he and his wife, settled in Switzerland.

Lenin makes his way to the sealed train which would take him out of exile.

British historian Edward Crankshaw writes, the German government saw “in this obscure fanatic one more bacillus to let loose in tottering and exhausted Russia to spread infection”.

Lurching toward food riots of his own and loathe to unleash such a bacterium against his own homeland, a “Sealed Train” carrying Vladimir Ilyich Lenin and 31 dissidents departed from exile in Switzerland on April 9, complements of the Kaiser. Leaving Zurich Station amid the jeers and the insults of 100 or so assembled Russians shouting “Spies!” “Traitors!” “Pigs!” “Provocateurs!” Lenin turned to a friend and said. “Either we’ll be swinging from the gallows in three months, or we shall be in power.”

North through Germany and across the Baltic Sea, this political plague bacillus traveled the length of Sweden arriving in Petrograd on the evening of April 16, 1917. Like the handful of termites destined to bring down the mighty oak, this small faction inserted into the body politic that April, would help to radicalize the population and consolidate Bolshevik power.

Sealed Train

By October, Russia would experience its second revolution of the year. The German Empire could breathe easier. The “Russian Steamroller” was out of the war, and none too soon. With the United States entering the war that April, Chief of the General Staff Paul von Hindenburg and his deputy Erich Ludendorff could now move their divisions westward, in time to face the American Expeditionary Force.

On July 17, 1918, an assassination squad from the Ural Soviet of Workers’ Deputies murdered Czar Nicholas along with his wife and children, family physician, servants and dogs. The Romanov Dynasty was no more. It was the end of Czarist Russia. The death toll of human beings murdered by the totalitarian state which would rise to take its place, has been estimated as high as sixty million.

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Czar Nicholas II & family, colorized by the Russian artist Olga Shirnina, also known as ‘klimbim’

March 17, 1968 Pandora’s Box

“The god Prometheus stole fire from heaven to give to the human race, which originally consisted only of men. To punish humanity, the other gods created the first woman, the beautiful Pandora. As a gift, Zeus gave her a box, which she was told never to open. However, as soon as he was out of sight she took off the lid, and out swarmed all the troubles of the world, never to be recaptured. Only Hope was left in the box, stuck under the lid. Anything that looks ordinary but may produce unpredictable harmful results can thus be called a Pandora’s box”. – Merriam-Webster.com

On March 4, 2018, a father and daughter enjoyed a meal at the Zizzi restaurant in the cathedral city of Salisbury, ninety miles southwest of London. Two hours before sunset, the two took ill.  A passing doctor and nurse found the couple unresponsive, on a park bench.

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Sergei and Yulia Skripal

Sergei Skripal, age 66, and his daughter Yulia (33) were slipping in and out of consciousness, foaming at the mouth with eyes wide open, but entirely white.  The Skripals were weeks in intensive care before regaining consciousness. In a May 23 interview with CBS News, Yulia said “I don’t want to describe the details, but the clinical treatment was invasive, painful and depressing.”

Like the Russian State Security operative turned defector Alexander Litvinenko before them, Sergei Skripal knew his former boss had a very long reach. In 2006, Litvinenko took ill on the streets of England, poisoned by the radioactive element Pollonium-210, slipped into his tea. Skripal it turns out was a former Russian military officer and double agent for British intelligence. Twelve years earlier Litvinenko suffered a long and terrible death. Skripal and his daughter recovered. The former spy is rumored to be living in New Zealand, under an assumed name.

British Prime Minister Theresa May expelled 23 Russian “diplomats” following the 2018 incident. While Vladimir Putin’s government vehemently denies the charge, the Skripal matter has been classified as an attempted assassination using the military grade nerve agent, Novichok.

The terrifying history of nerve agents began in 1936, when the German biochemist Dr. Gerhard Schrader was working on pesticides.  Dr. Schrader first experienced problems with his eyesight, and soon had difficulty breathing. Symptoms included involuntary muscular spasms. Within days the scientist’s arm was fully paralyzed.

Dr. Schrader had discovered a class of chemical compounds known as organo-phosphates.

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Organo-phosphates are a class of organic chemical which block nerve signals to bodily organs. Nerve agents are generally clear to a golden amber in color, tasteless liquids which may be evaporated, into a gas. The Sarin gas used in the 1995 Aum Shinrikio attack on the Tokyo subway was odorless as was the VX used to assassinate the brother of Kim Jong-un, in 2017.

Symptoms of nerve agent poisoning begin with constriction of pupils and convulsions, leading to involuntary urination and defecation. Death follows within minutes caused by asphyxiation, or cardiac arrest.

In the 1950s, British chemist Dr. Ranajit Ghosh discovered the “V”series of organophosphate, sold as a pesticide in 1954 under the trade name Amiton. The stuff was soon judged too dangerous for safe use and taken off the market. British Armed Forces took control of the compound at Porton Downs and traded it to the United States in 1958, for information on thermo-nuclear weapons.

In 1961, the American military went into full-scale production of VX gas as a chemical weapon of war. The Soviet military developed an analog called VR in 1963 later developed into the Novichok group, including the most toxic molecules ever developed.

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Dugway Proving Ground

The Dugway Proving Ground near Salt lake City Utah was established in 1941 and used for hundreds if not thousands of open-air tests of nuclear, biological and chemical (NBC) compounds.

A 1994 the US GAO (General Accounting Office) reported:

“From 1951 through 1969, hundreds, perhaps thousands of open-air tests using bacteria and viruses that cause disease in human, animals, and plants were conducted at Dugway … It is unknown how many people in the surrounding vicinity were also exposed to potentially harmful agents used in open-air tests at Dugway”.

Skull Valley is a geologic formation bordering the Great Salt Lake Desert near Dugway, in the south of Utah. On March 17, 1968, the manager of a Skull Valley livestock company phoned the department of ecology and epidemiology at Dugway to report the unexplained death of 3,000 sheep.

The Dugway safety office compiled a count of 3,843 dead animals. Exact cause of death was at first difficult to determine, since “no other animals of any type, including cows, horses, dogs, rabbits, or birds, appeared to have suffered any ill effects, a circumstance that was hard to explain if VX had in fact caused the sheep deaths.”

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View of two farmers checking the corpses of dead sheep on a farm ranch near the Dugway Proving Ground in Utah. (Rolls Press/Popperfoto/Getty Images) H/T Smithsonian.com

Necropsies revealed the presence of VX nerve agent, as did grass and snow samples taken, some three weeks after the incident.  Total sheep fatalities were counted at 6,000-6,400 including those humanely euthanized.  With even a suspicion of VX nerve agent, the animals had no market value whatsoever either for meat, or for wool.

Military Accidentally Ships Anthrax To Labs In Nine States

A report which remained classified for thirty years blamed a faulty nozzle left open as the test aircraft, gained altitude.

Public backlash was vehement against the US Army Chemical Corps, and nearly lead to its disbanding.  President Richard Nixon ordered a halt to open air testing of “NBC” agents, in 1969.

Few nations possess stockpiles of nerve agents, a hellish weapon of war which may, with a mere puff of wind, turn on those who would use it. The use of such an agent would almost certainly lead to nuclear retaliation should any nation so attacked, possess the capability.

Today on the morning news we hear of “scum” and “insects” who must be “purged” from the Russian nation. These are the pronouncements of the dictator Vladimir Putin, words we haven’t heard since the days of the Third Reich or the terrible monstrosity of Stalin’s USSR, words directed this time at Putin’s own countrymen, objectors to the war of aggression being carried out even now, against their neighbors in Ukraine.

The nations of the world release statements but stand at bay, fearful of the horrors as yet locked away in the darkness, of Pandora’s box. Like the hideous three-headed dog Cerberus standing guard at the gates of hell we shrink in horror at that terrible and yet benign sounding term, NBC. We hold a wolf by the ears, desperately afraid to hang on yet unable, to let go.

January 12, 1913 Man of Steel

Historians differ as to the deaths brought about by this one man. Numbers range from several million to well over twenty million.

A story comes to us of one Josef Jughashvili, the only child of a laundress and an alcoholic shoemaker, to survive to adulthood. Walking along a rain swollen river a group of boys chanced upon a bleating calf, cut off by the torrent on a small and crumbling island. Taking off his shirt Jughashvili dived into the roiling waters and swam to the terrified animal. Turning first to be sure his buddies were watching Josef proceeded to break the defenseless animal’s legs, one at a time.

The tale may be apocryphal or it may be true but the narrative captures perfectly, the man he would become. One of the great beasts of a century which gave us, no small number of monsters.

In 1884 a bout with smallpox left him disfigured. The other kids called him “pocky”. Though smaller than his classmates he joined a gang and got into many fights from which he never, backed down. He was smart and excelled in academics. He also displayed talent in art, drama and choir. A childhood friend recalled he “was the best but also the naughtiest pupil”.

Police phot at age 23, 1902

He enrolled in the seminary in Tiflis but a life in the priesthood, was never meant to be. A voracious reader, the “Forbidden Book Club” filled young Jughashvili’s head with ideas forbidden, in Czarist Russia. Plato. Checkov. Tolstoy. Zola. So taken was he with the writings of Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx he attempted to learn German, to better appreciate the original text.

Jugashvili proclaimed himself an atheist and thus ended any future, in the Orthodox priesthood. Expelled from seminary before the turn of the century he was now a Marxist agitator, teaching classes in leftist theory from a small flat on Sololaki Street and entering a life of crime, in order to finance the Bolshevik party.

In 1912, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin appointed Josef to the first Central Committee of the Bolshevik Party, while still in exile in Switzerland. On this day in 1913, Josef Dzhugashvili signed a letter to the Social Democrat newspaper, “Stalin”. The Man of Steel.

By 1917, three years of total war had brought the Russian economy, to its knees. Kaiser Wilhelm calculated that all he had to do was “kick the door in” to destroy his adversary to the east. Thus did the famous “sealed train” depart Zurich bound for Petrograd in April, 1917 carrying Lenin, and 31 Marxist revolutionaries.

Kaiser Wilhelm was right. As WW1 continued elsewhere Czarist Russia descended into not one but two civil wars resulting in the triumph of the radical Bolsheviks over the more moderate Mensheviks and the murder of Czar Nicholas, his wife the Czarina and the couple’s children, servants and dogs.

The Union of Soviet Socialist republics (USSR) was officially founded in 1922. Lenin died in 1924. Throughout this period Stalin steadily grew his own base of support, outmaneuvering rivals for the top spot. By the late 1920s he was head of the communist state.

The “Glavnoe Upravlenie Lagerei” or Main Camp Administration system, began in 1919. By 1921 there were 84 such “Gulags”, but this hideous system really came of age, under Josef Stalin.

The Soviet Union was mostly agrarian when Stalin came to power, launching a series of five year plans to bring the USSR into the industrial age. Significant opposition came first from the Kulaks, the more prosperous of the peasant farming class who viewed Stalin’s “collectivization” efforts as a return to the serfdom, of earlier ages.

The ranks of the Gulags swelled to include the educated and ordinary citizens alike. Doctors, intellectuals, students, artists and scientists all disappeared into the Gulags, crude slave labor camps from which many, never returned.

Anyone so much as suspected of holding views contrary to the regime, anyone suspected of association with such persons were “disappeared”. Swept up in the night by Stalin’s terrifying NKVD security police and placed in conditions of such brutality prisoners were known to hack at their hands with axes or thrust their arms into wood stoves to avoid yet another man-killing hour, of slave labor.

“I trust no one, not even myself.

Josef Stalin

The early 1930s was a time of famine for the Kulaks of Ukraine, the former breadbasket of the Soviet Union. Continuing to resist Stalin’s collectivization, these “enemies of the state” were deliberately starved to death by their own government, their numbers running into the several millions in a period known, as “Holodomor“.

During the late ’30s, nearly 800,000 were summarily executed during the Great Purge, another two million shipped off to the gulags. Official paranoia rose to levels almost comical, but for their deadly consequence. Photo retouching became a cottage industry as former associates were simply…disappeared.

Much may be said of a man, by the company he keeps. Genrikh Yagoda, Nikolai Yezhov, Lavrentiy Beria, they’re not common names for those of us educated in American public schools but these are the men who carried out the Stalinist terror, as heads of the dread NKVD. Though we may not know their names these are beasts as loathsome as Nazi Police Official Reinhard Heydrich, SS Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler or Gestapo Chief Heinrich Müller.

By 1938, Stalin’s purges had crippled the Soviet Union. Entire swathes of the Soviet military, government and popu,ation, had ceased to exist. Head of the security state Nikolai Yezhov was himself outmaneuvered from his position, denounced and murdered by his successor, Lavrentiy Beria. Even Leon Trotsky, founding father that he was of the Bolshevik party was tracked down to his place of exile in Mexico on Stalin’s orders and murdered with an ice axe, in the top of his head.

Investigators display the ice axe used to assassinate Leon Trotsky

Major General Vasili Blokhin was handpicked by Stalin in 1926 as chief executioner, for the NKVD. To this day the man stands as the world’s most prolific executioner with tens of thousands dead, by his blood soaked hands. During the Spring of 1940 Blokhin personally murdered 7,000 Polish prisoners of war over 28 consecutive nights, each with a bullet to the back of the head.

The man literally kept a briefcase full of German made Walther PPK pistols, lest one of them overheat.

Major General Vasili Blokhin

Today, the 1940 episode is remembered as the Katyn Massacre, the murder of 22,000 defenseless prisoners of war primarily, Polish Army officers. For fifty years the atrocity was believed to have been carried out, by the Nazis.

The Molotov Ribbentrop pact of 1939 meant, at east for a time, an alliance between the two great monsters of mid-20th century Europe. That all changed on June 22, 1941. Operation Barbarossa. Adolf Hitler’s surprise attack, on the Soviet Union.

Some 30 million among an estimated 70 to 85 million killed during World War 2 died, on the Eastern Front. The number includes nine million children, killed in an out-and-out race war, Slav against Teuton, that is dreadful even by the horrendous standards of WW2. Order No. 27 became standard operating procedure, for the rest of the war. Between 1942 and 1945 some 422,700 Red Army personnel were executed by their own officers, as the result of Stalin’s order. “Ni shagu nazad”. “Not one step back”.

Josef Stalin went to bed sometime after 4:00am on February 28, 1953, with orders that he not be disturbed. 10am came and went, the usual time when the dictator would call for his tea. Morning turned to afternoon and into evening and yet, his terrified guards not wanting themselves to be purged, waited on. It was 10pm when a guard entered the room using as his excuse, the afternoon mail. The Soviet dictator was alive but helpless and unable to speak, laying in a pool of his own urine. His broken watch was stopped at 6:30pm.

The Man of Steel lingered in agony until March 5 as his own doctors languished in the Gulag and none assumed the authority, to make a decision about his care. Whether Stalin was murdered or simply left to die by those too terrified to do anything about it, is a matter for speculation.

Historians differ as to the deaths brought about by this one man. Numbers range from several million to well over twenty million.

Today, public imagination barely registers how fortunate we are that Adolf Hitler chose to turn from a defeated adversary on the beaches of Dunkirk to attack his erstwhile ally, in the east. Where we would be today had Little Boy and Fat Man had a swastika or a hammer and sickle painted on the side is a nightmare, too dismal to contemplate.

December 10, 1986 Toxic Sanctuary

Ironically, the threat posed by humans outside the exclusion zone is greater for some species than that posed by radiation, within the zone.

The accident began as a test. A carefully planned series of events intending to simulate a station blackout at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, in the Soviet Socialist Republic of Ukraine.

This most titanic of disasters began with a series of smaller mishaps. Safety systems intentionally turned off, reactor operators failing to follow checklists, inherent design flaws in the reactor itself.

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Over the night of April 25-26, 1986, a nuclear fission chain reaction expanded beyond control at reactor #4, flashing water to super-heated steam resulting in a violent explosion and open air graphite fire. Massive amounts of nuclear material were expelled into the atmosphere during this explosive phase, equaled only by that released over the following nine days by intense updrafts created by the fire.  Radioactive material rained down over large swaths of the western USSR and Europe, some 60% in the Republic of Belarus.

It was the most disastrous nuclear power plant accident in history and one of only two such accidents classified as a level 7, the maximum classification on the International Nuclear Event Scale.  The other was the 2011 tsunami and subsequent nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi reactor, in Japan.

One operator died in the steam-blast phase of the accident, a second resulting from a catastrophic dose of radiation.  600 Soviet helicopter pilots risked lethal radiation, dropping 5,000 metric tons of lead, sand and boric acid in the effort to seal off the spread.

Remote controlled, robot bulldozers and carts, soon proved useless. Valery Legasov of the Kurchatov Institute of Atomic Energy in Moscow, explains: “[W]e learned that robots are not the great remedy for everything. Where there was very high radiation, the robot ceased to be a robot—the electronics quit working.”

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Hat tip, Chernobyl Museum, Kiev , Ukraine

Soldiers in heavy protective gear shoveled the most highly radioactive materials, “bio-robots” allowed to spend a one-time maximum of only forty seconds on the rooftops of surrounding buildings. Even so, some of these “Liquidators” report having done so, five or six times.

In the aftermath, 237 suffered from Acute Radiation Sickness (ARS), 31 of whom died in the following three months.  Fourteen more died of radiation induced cancers, over the following ten years.

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Chernobyl “Liquidators”, permitted to spend no more than a one-time maximum of forty seconds, cleaning the rooftops of surrounding structures.

The death toll could have been far higher, but for the heroism of first responders.  Anatoli Zakharov, a fireman stationed in Chernobyl since 1980, replied to remarks that firefighters believed this to be an ordinary electrical fire.  “Of course we knew! If we’d followed regulations, we would never have gone near the reactor. But it was a moral obligation – our duty. We were like kamikaze“.

The concrete sarcophagus designed and built to contain the wreckage has been called the largest civil engineering project in history, involving no fewer than a quarter-million construction workers, every one of whom received a lifetime maximum dose of radiation.  By December 10 the structure was nearing completion. The #3 reactor at Chernobyl continued to produce electricity, until 2000.

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A plastic doll lies abandoned on a rusting bed, 30 years after the town was evacuated following the Chernobyl disaster. H/T Dailymail.com

Officials of the top-down Soviet state first downplayed the disaster.  Asked by one Ukrainian official, “How are the people?“, acting minister of Internal Affairs Vasyl Durdynets replied that there was nothing to be concerned about: “Some are celebrating a wedding, others are gardening, and others are fishing in the Pripyat River.

As the scale of the disaster became apparent, civilians were at first ordered to shelter in place.  A 10-km exclusion zone was enacted within the first 36 hours, resulting in the hurried evacuation of some 49,000.  The exclusion zone was tripled to 30-km within a week, leading to the evacuation of 68,000 more.  Before it was over, some 350,000 were moved away, never to return.

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Evacuation of Pripyat

The chaos of these evacuations, can scarcely be imagined.  Confused adults.  Crying children.  Howling dogs.  Shouting soldiers, barking orders and herding the now-homeless onto waiting buses, by the tens of thousands.  Dogs and cats, beloved companion animals, were ordered left behind.  Evacuees were never told.  There would be no return. 

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Two bumper cars lie face to face in the rusting remains of an amusement park in the abandoned town of Pripyat near Chernobyl

There were countless and heartbreaking scenes of final abandonment, of mewling cats, and whimpering dogs.  Belorussian writer Svetlana Alexievich compiled hundreds of interviews into a single monologue, an oral history of the forgotten.  The devastating Chernobyl Prayer tells the story of: “dogs howling, trying to get on the buses. Mongrels, Alsatians. The soldiers were pushing them out again, kicking them. They ran after the buses for ages.” Heartbroken families pinned notes to their doors: “Don’t kill our Zhulka. She’s a good dog.”

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View from an abandoned gym in the Prypyat ghost town, of Chernobyl. H/T Vintagenews.com

There would be no mercy.  Squads of soldiers were sent to shoot those animals, left behind.  Most died.  Some escaped discovery, and survived.

Today the descendants of those dogs, some 900 in number occupy an exclusion zone some 1,600 square miles, slightly smaller than the American state, of Delaware. They are not alone.

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In 1998, 31 specimens of the Przewalski Horse were released into the exclusion zone which now serves as a de facto wildlife preserve. Not to be confused with the American mustang or the Australian brumby, the Przewalski Horse is a truly wild horse and not the feral descendant, of domesticated animals.

Named by the 19th century Polish-Russian naturalist Nikołaj Przewalski, Equus ferus przewalskii split from ancestors of the domestic Equus caballus some 38,000 to 160,000 years ago, forming a divergent species where neither taxonomic group is descended, from the other. The last Przewalski stallion was observed in the wild in 1969. The species is considered extinct in the wild, since that time.

Today approximately 100 Przewalski horses roam the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone one of the larger populations of this, possibly the last of the truly wild horses, alive today.

In 2016, US government wildlife biologist Sarah Webster worked at the University of Georgia. Webster and others used camera traps to demonstrate how wildlife had colonized the exclusion zone, even the most contaminated parts. A scientific paper on the subject is linked HERE, if you’re interested.

Ironically, the threat posed by humans outside the exclusion zone is greater for some species than that posed by radiation, within the zone. Wildlife spotted within the exclusion zone include wolves, badgers, swans, moose, elk, turtles, deer, foxes, beavers, boars, bison, mink, hares, otters, lynx, eagles, rodents, storks, bats and owls.

Not all animals thrive in this place. Invertebrates like spiders, butterflies and dragonflies are noticeably absent, likely because of eggs laid in surface soil layers which remain, contaminated. Radionuclides settled in lake sediments effect populations of fish, frogs, crustaceans and insect larvae. Birds in the exclusion zone have difficulty reproducing. Such animals who do successfully reproduce often demonstrate albinism, deformed beaks and feathers, malformed sperm cells and cataracts.

Tales abound of giant mushrooms, six-pawed rabbits and three headed dogs. While some such stories are undoubtedly exaggerated few such mutations survive the first few hours and those who do are unlikely to pass on the more egregious deformities.

Far from the post-apocalyptic wasteland of imagination the Chernobyl exclusion zone is a thriving preserve for some but not all, wildlife. Which brings us back to the dogs. Caught in a twilight zone neither feral nor domestic the dogs of Chernobyl are neither able to compete in the wild nor are many of them candidates for adoption, due to radiation toxicity.

Since September 2017, a partnership between the SPCA International and the US-based 501(c)(3) non-profit CleanFutures.org has worked to provide for the veterinary needs of these defenseless creatures.  Over 450 animals have been tested for radiation exposure, given medical care, vaccinations, and spayed or neutered, to bring populations within manageable limits.  Many have been socialized for human interaction and successfully decontaminated, available for adoption into homes in Ukraine and North America.

For most there is no future beyond this place and a life expectancy unlikely to exceed a span of five years.

Thirty five years after the world’s most devastating nuclear disaster a surprising number of people work in this place, on a rotating basis. Guards are stationed at access points whose job it is to control who gets in and to keep out unauthorized visitors, known as “stalkers”.

BBC wrote in April of this year about the strange companionship sprung up between these guards, and the dogs of Chernobyl. Jonathon Turnbull is a PhD candidate in geography at the University of Cambridge. He was the first outsider to recognize the relationship and gave the guards disposable cameras, with which to record the lives of these abandoned animals. The guards around this toxic sanctuary had but a single request: “please, please – bring food for the dogs”.

November 23, 1932 Holodomor

At the height of the famine, Ukrainians starved to death at a rate of 22,000 per day. Almost a third of those were children ten and under.  How many died in total, is anyone’s guess.  Estimates range from two million Ukrainian citizens murdered through deliberate starvation by their own government, to well over ten million.

In 1928, Josef Stalin introduced a program of agricultural collectivization in Ukraine, the “Bread Basket” of the Soviet Union, forcing family farmers off their land and into state-owned collective farms.

Ukrainian “kulaks”, peasant farmers successful enough to hire labor or own farm machinery, refused to join the collectives, regarding them as a return to the serfdom of earlier centuries. Stalin claimed that these factory collectives would not only feed industrial workers in the cities, but would also provide a surplus to be sold abroad, raising money to further his industrialization plans.

Armed dekulakization brigades confiscated land, livestock and other property by force, evicting entire families. Nearly half a million individuals were dragged from their homes in 1930-’31, packed into freight trains and shipped off to remote areas like Siberia and often left without food or shelter. Many of them, especially children, died in transit or soon after arrival.

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Resistance continued, which the Soviet government could not abide. Ukraine’s production quotas were sharply increased in 1932-’33, making it impossible for farmers to meet assignments and feed themselves, at the same time. Starvation became widespread, as the Soviet government decreed that any person, even a child, would be arrested for taking as little as a few stalks of wheat from the fields in which they worked.

Military blockades were erected around villages preventing the transportation of food, while brigades of young activists from other regions were brought in to sweep through villages and confiscate hidden grain.

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Eventually all food was confiscated from farmers’ homes, as Stalin determined to “teach a lesson through famine” to the Ukrainian rural population.

At the height of the famine, Ukrainians starved to death at a rate of 22,000 per day. Almost a third of those were children ten and under.  How many died in total, is anyone’s guess.  Estimates range from two million Ukrainian citizens murdered through deliberate starvation by their own government, to well over ten million.

Millions of tons of grain were exported during this time, more than enough to save every man, woman and child.

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2,500 people were arrested and convicted, for eating the flesh of their neighbors. The problem was so widespread the Soviet government put up signs reminding survivors: “To eat your own children is a barbarian act.”

Stalin denied to the world that there was any famine in Ukraine, a position supported by the likes of Louis Fischer reporting for “The Nation”, and Walter Duranty of the New York Times. Duranty went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for such “coverage”, with comments like “any report of a famine in Russia is today an exaggeration or malignant propaganda”.  Such stories were “mostly bunk,” according to the Times.  Duranty even commented, “You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs.”

To this day, the New York Times has failed to repudiate Walter Duranty’s Pulitzer.

Like many on the international Left, Canadian journalist Rhea Clyman had great expectations of the “worker’s paradise” built by the Communist state where no one was unemployed, everyone was “equal”, and Everyman had what he needed. Unlike most, Clyman went to the Soviet Union, to see for herself.

Holodomor-Boys

To do so at all was an act of courage: a single Jewish woman who’d lost part of a leg in a childhood streetcar accident, traveling to a place where the Russian empire and its successor state had a long and wretched history, when it came to the treatment of its own Jews.

Virtually all of the international press preferred the comfortable confines of Moscow, cosseted in the heart of the Soviet propaganda machine and ignorant of the world as it really was.

In four years, Clyman not only learned the language, but set out on a 5,000-mile odyssey to discover the Soviet countryside. Duranty’s idea of “good-bye” was the cynical offer to write her obituary.

It is through this “Special Correspondent in Russia of The Toronto Evening Telegram, London Daily Express, and Other Newspapers“, that we know much about the government’s extermination of its own citizens, in Ukraine.

To read what she wrote about abandoned villages, is haunting.  And then the moment of discovery:

“They wanted something of me, but I could not make out what it was. At last someone went off for a little crippled lad of fourteen, and when he came hobbling up, the mystery was explained. This was the Village of Isoomka, the lad told me. I was from Moscow, yes; we were a delegation studying conditions in the Ukraine, yes. Well, they wanted me to take a petition back to the Kremlin, from this village and the one I had just been in. “Tell the Kremlin we are starving; we have no bread!”

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A tall, bearded peasant was spokesman. His two sons and the rest of the men and women nodded approval at every word. The little crippled boy stood with his right hand on his crutch, translating everything he said into Russian for me, word by word.

“We are good, hard-working peasants, loyal Soviet citizens, but the village Soviet has taken our land from us. We are in the collective farm, but we do not get any grain. Everything, land, cows and horses, have been taken from us, and we have nothing to eat. Our children were eating grass in the spring….”

I must have looked unbelieving at this, for a tall, gaunt woman started to take the children’s clothes off. She undressed them one by one, prodded their sagging bellies, pointed to their spindly legs, ran her hand up and down their tortured, mis-shapen, twisted little bodies to make me understand that this was real famine. I shut my eyes, I could not bear to look at all this horror. “Yes,” the woman insisted, and the boy repeated, “they were down on all fours like animals, eating grass. There was nothing else for them.”

“What have you to eat now?” I asked them, still keeping my eyes averted from those tortured bodies. “Are all the villages round here the same? Who gets the grain?”” – Rhea Clyman, Toronto Telegram, 16 May 1933

22,000 of these poor people were starving to death every day, and they still thought the Kremlin was going to help them.

Today, the province of Alberta is home to about 300,000 Canadians of Ukrainian Heritage. Alberta Premier Rachel Notley once explained “Holodomor is a combination of two Ukrainian words: Holod, meaning hunger, and moryty, meaning a slow, cruel death. That is exactly what Ukrainians suffered during this deliberate starvation of an entire people“.

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The Holodomor Memorial to Victims of the Ukrainian Famine-Genocide of 1932–1933 was opened in Washington, D.C. on November 7, 2015

Ukrainians around the world recognize November 23 as Holodomor Memorial Day, commemorated by a simple statue in Kiev.  A barefoot little girl, gaunt and hollow eyed, clutches a few stalks of wheat.

Here in the United States, you could line up 100 randomly selected individuals.  I don’t believe that five could tell you what Holodomor means.   We are a self-governing Republic.  All 100 should be conversant with the term.

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February 16, 1961 Mountain Home

As the most destructive war in human history unfolded between Nazi and Germany and Soviet Russia, an apocalypse known simply as the Ostfront, two more children were born in the wild. Dmitry in 1940 and Agafia, in 1943. The Lykovs missed World War 2 entirely without the slightest idea, of the outside world.

The Taiga occupies the high latitudes of the world’s northern regions, a vast international belt line of coniferous forests consisting mostly of pines, spruces and larches between the high tundra, and the temperate forest.  An enormous community of plants and animals, this trans-continental ecosystem comprises a vast biome, second only to the world’s oceans.

The Eastern Taiga is a region in the east of Siberia, a vast, unexplored wilderness more than half again, the size of the continental United States. With snows lasting until May and resuming in September, there are no nearby oceans or seas to moderate temperature. Extremes are capable of summertime highs over 100° Fahrenheit (40c) to a wintertime low of -80° (-62c).

For all its size the region is all but unpopulated. Outside of a few towns the Siberian Taiga is home to no more than a few thousand. Siberia is also the source of vast Russian wealth in the form of oil, gas and minerals. In a wilderness capable of swallowing whole phalanxes of explorers there is hardly a district which hasn’t been overflown, at least once.

Helicopters and fixed wing aircraft cross huge tracts of arboreal forest carrying prospectors, workers and surveyors to and from remote backwoods camps.

So it was in 1978, the chopper descending with its team of geologists. Looking for a place to land near some unnamed tributary of the Abakan river, that trackless waterway with a name derived from the Khakas word, for “bear’s blood”. Treetops swayed in the propwash as the pilot peered downward, looking for a place to put down. And then he saw it. 100 miles from the Mongolian border and a good 150 miles from the nearest settlement. If those weren’t signs of human habitation, they sure looked like it.

Circling back, the pilot took another pass. And another. The Soviet government had no record of anyone living out here but, there it was. The clearing, 6,000 feet up the mountainside. The long furrows of a large garden. Someone had been growing here, for a very long time.

The Lykovs’ homestead seen from a Soviet reconnaissance plane, 1980. H/T Smithsonian

Ten miles away a four-person team of geologists, was there to explore for iron ore. The scientists thought they’d check it out. Packing what small gifts they could think of the team set out to investigate. The Russian writer, traveler and ecologist Vasily Peskov had once written, “It’s less dangerous to run across a wild animal (in these parts) than a stranger.” Geologist Galina Pismenskaya knew as much, and packed a gun.

As the four approached the spot described by the helicopter crew, there began to be signs. A worn path. A log laid across a stream. A rough shed filled with birchbark containers, with potatoes.

Pismenskaya describes what came next:

The Lykovs lived in this hand-built log cabin, lit by a single window “the size of a backpack pocket” and warmed by a smoky wood-fired stove. H/T Smithsonian

“…beside a stream there was a dwelling. Blackened by time and rain, the hut was piled up on all sides with taiga rubbish—bark, poles, planks. If it hadn’t been for a window the size of my backpack pocket, it would have been hard to believe that people lived there. But they did, no doubt about it…. Our arrival had been noticed, as we could see.

The low door creaked, and the figure of a very old man emerged into the light of day, straight out of a fairy tale. Barefoot. Wearing a patched and repatched shirt made of sacking. He wore trousers of the same material, also in patches, and had an uncombed beard. His hair was disheveled. He looked frightened and was very attentive…. We had to say something, so I began: ‘Greetings, grandfather! We’ve come to visit!’

The old man did not reply immediately…. Finally, we heard a soft, uncertain voice: ‘Well, since you have traveled this far, you might as well come in.’

From the inside, the old man’s shanty was like something medieval. Dark, cramped and filthy, this was a single room under a roof propped up by sagging joists and a bare dirt floor covered with potato peelings, and pine nuts. Most astonishing of all this forest hovel out of a Grimm’s fairy tale turned out to be home, for a family of 5.

 As eyes adjusted to the darkness the intruders spotted two women. Hysterical, quietly sobbing with terrified eyes and sinking to the floor, one of them praying, over and over. ‘This is for our sins, our sins. This is for our sins, our sins. This is for our’ 

Agafia Lykova (left) with her sister, Natalia. H/T Smithsonian

This wasn’t working. The four scientists quickly backed out and regrouped at a spot, a few yards away. Sitting down to eat they waited. A half-hour later the door once again, creaked open. Wary but curious like some wild thing the three emerged, and sat down with their visitors. There were small offerings, jam, tea, and bread, but always the same response. A shaking of the head and waving of the hand. “We are not allowed that“.

The old man spoke haltingly. The two sisters spoke to one another, in a manner which sounded like some kind of “blurred cooing”.

The story that emerged that day and over several more visits became more astonishing, by the minute. The old man, his name was Karp Lykov, was part of an old, fundamentalist Russian Orthodox sect, worshiping in a style unchanged since the time, of Czar Peter the great. Things went from bad to worse following the Russian Revolution, for the “Old Believers”. As the atheist Bolsheviks took power, countless numbers of Old Believers had fled into the wilderness, to escape persecution. Sometime in the 1930s a communist patrol had shot Lykov’s brother while Karp knelt beside him, working.

Dmitry (left) and Savin in the Siberian summer H/T Smithsonian

The Lykov family numbered 4 in 1936: Karp, his wife Akulina, a boy nine-year-old Savin, and Natalia, who was only two. Karp Lykov had to do something. The family scooped up some seeds and a few possessions and fled, into the forest. Over the years the family moved ever deeper, into the Taiga.

As the most destructive war in human history unfolded between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, an apocalypse known simply as the Ostfront, two more children were born in the wild. Dmitry in 1940 and Agafia, in 1943. The Lykovs missed World War 2 entirely without the slightest idea, of the outside world.

Life in the Taiga stood forever, at the brink of starvation. Roots, grass, potato tops. Every year the family meeting, whether to eat or save some of what they had, for seed. Dmitri grew hard, hunting barefoot in winter and possessed of preternatural stamina, capable of running wild animals to exhaustion and killing them, with his bare hands. With neither bow nor firearm, this was their only meat.

It snowed in June in 1961, killing their vegetables and setting the course, for famine. That was the year Akulina starved to death, preferring that her children eat. A single grain of rye managed to survive which the family guarded day and night, lest some wild animal eat their only hope.

A Russian press photo of Karp Lykov (second left) with Dmitry and Agafia, accompanied by a Soviet geologist. H/T Smithsonian

Imagine. 42 years in that place without so much as a glimpse, into civilization. Nobody meant for it to happen but it was the outside world, which finally destroyed them.

Karp tried to keep it all, on the outside. The only gift he would accept was salt but, over time, the younger Lykovs gave in. Here a knife and fork and there an electric flashlight. None of them could take their eyes off the television, at the geologist’s camp.

The family went into decline. In the fall of 1981, three of the Lykov children died within days of each other. Savin and Natalia suffered from kidney failure, probably as the result of their harsh change in diet. Dmitri, the consummate outdoorsman who knew the Taiga in all her moods, succumbed to pneumonia, probably begun as an infection contracted from one of his new friends.

Karp Lykov and his daughter Agafia, wearing clothes donated by Soviet geologists not long after their family was rediscovered. H/T Smithsonian

They tried to call him a helicopter but Dmitry would not leave his family. “We are not allowed that,” he murmured, just before he died. “A man lives for howsoever God grants.”

The geologists tried to persuade Karp and Agafia to come out of the wilderness, to rejoin those of their relatives who had survived the purges, of the Stalin regime. The answer was always, “no”.

Karp Lykov died in his sleep on February 16, 1988. 27 years to the day from his wife, Akulina. Agafia buried him with the help of the geologists, on the mountainside, and then returned home.

Nothing lasts forever . There came that day when the visitors had to take their leave. One of the geologists, a driller named Yerofei Sedov, remembered: I looked back to wave at Agafia. She was standing by the river break like a statue. She wasn’t crying. She nodded: ‘Go on, go on.’ We went another kilometer and I looked back. She was still standing there.

Much of this tale comes from a 2013 article, in Smithsonian magazine. That’s where I got most of these images. At that time Agafia Lykova lived and perhaps yet lives, now approaching eighty, this child of the Taiga living alone, high above the Abakan.

The Lykovs’ graves. Today only Agafia survives of the family of six, living alone in the taiga. H/T Smithsonian

March 8, 1917 A Political Plague

British historian Edward Crankshaw writes, the German government saw “in this obscure fanatic one more bacillus to let loose in tottering and exhausted Russia to spread infection”.

The “War to End all Wars” dragged into its third dismal year in 1917, seeming as though it would go on forever.   Like two exhausted prize fighters, neither side could muster the strength to deliver the killing blow.  Many single days of the great battles of 1916 alone  produced more casualties than every European war of the preceding 100 years, combined.  At home, the social fabric of the combatant nations was unraveling.

WW1-Timeline-1917By 1916 it was generally understood in Germany that the war effort was “shackled to a corpse”, referring the Austro-Hungarian Empire where the war had started, in the first place.  Italy, the third member of the “Triple Alliance”, was little better.  On the “Triple Entente” side, the French countryside was literally torn to pieces, the English economy close to collapse. The Russian Empire, the largest nation on the planet, was teetering on the edge of the precipice.

The first of two Revolutions that year began on February 23 according the “Old Style” calendar, March 8, “New Style”. Long-standing resentments over food rationing turned to mass protests in and around the Russian capital of Petrograd (modern-day Saint Petersburg). Eight days of violent demonstrations pitted Revolutionaries against police and “gendarmes”, that medieval remnant combining military units with the power of law enforcement.

By March 12 (new style), mutinous units of the Russian military had switched sides and joined with the revolutionaries. Three days later, Car Nicholas abdicated the Imperial throne.

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German propaganda postcard depicting Russian peasants begging for food. With the size of the Russian empire and the difficulty in transportation, the propaganda wasn’t far from the truth.

Amidst all this chaos, Kaiser Wilhelm calculated that all he had to do was “kick the door in” and his largest adversary would collapse. He was right.

Following the overthrow of the Romanov dynasty, the more moderate Menshevik “Whites” vowed to continue the war effort. The split which had begun with the failed revolution of 1905 was more pronounced by this time with the radical Bolsheviks (“Reds”) taking the more extreme road. While Reds and Whites both wanted to bring socialism to the Russian people, Mensheviks argued for predominantly legal methods and trade union activism, while Bolsheviks favored armed violence.

In 1901, Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov adopted the pseudonym “Lenin” after the River Lena, the easternmost of the three great Siberian rivers flowing into the arctic ocean. The middle-class son of a professor of mathematics and physics and the daughter of a well-to-do physician, Ulyanov became radicalized after the 1887 execution of his brother, for plotting to murder the Czar.

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Vladimir Ilyich Lenin

The man was soon convinced that capitalist society was bound to give way to socialist society with a natural transition to communism, not far behind.

Lenin was in exile when the war broke out, arrested and briefly imprisoned for his Russian citizenship. The radical revolutionary was released due to his anti-czarist sentiments when he and his wife, settled in Switzerland.

British historian Edward Crankshaw writes, the German government saw “in this obscure fanatic one more bacillus to let loose in tottering and exhausted Russia to spread infection”.

Lurching toward food riots of his own and loathe to unleash such a bacterium against his own homeland, a “Sealed Train” carrying Vladimir Ilyich Lenin and 31 dissidents departed from exile in Switzerland on April 9, complements of the Kaiser. Leaving Zurich Station amid the jeers and the insults of 100 or so assembled Russians shouting “Spies!” “Traitors!” “Pigs!” “Provocateurs!” Lenin turned to a friend and said. “Either we’ll be swinging from the gallows in three months, or we shall be in power.”

North through Germany and across the Baltic Sea, this political plague bacillus traveled the length of Sweden arriving in Petrograd on the evening of April 16, 1917.  Like the handful of termites that brought down the mighty oak, this small faction inserted into the body politic that April, would help to radicalize the population and consolidate Bolshevik power.Sealed TrainBy October, Russia would experience its second revolution of the year. The German Empire could breathe easier. The “Russian Steamroller” was out of the war.  And none too soon, too.  With the Americans entering the war that April, Chief of the General Staff Paul von Hindenburg and his deputy Erich Ludendorff could now move their divisions westward, in time to face the arrival of the American Expeditionary Force.

On July 17, 1918, an assassination squad from the Ural Soviet of Workers’ Deputies murdered Czar Nicholas along with his wife and children, family physician, servants and dogs.   It was the end of the Romanov Dynasty, the end of Czarist Russia.  The citizens murdered by the totalitarian system of government which would rise in its place, has been estimated as high as sixty million.

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Czar Nicholas II & family, colorized by the Russian artist Olga Shirnina, also known as ‘klimbim’

January 28, 1959 The Mystery of Dead Mountain

Their bodies were found under a large Siberian Pine, broken branches up to thirty feet suggesting that someone had climbed the thing, to look around.  Or to get away from something.

In the world of mountaineering, climbers assign a grade to a boulder or climbing route, describing the degree of difficulty and danger, in the ascent. The group assembled in January 1959 were experienced Grade II hikers, off on a winter trek which would earn them a Grade III certification, upon their safe return. They were ten in number, colleagues from the Ural Polytechnic Institute in Sverdlovsk (now Yekaterinburg) Russia, bent on conquering Mount Otorten, in the northern Ural Mountains.3577059The Northern Ural is a remote and frozen place, the Ural Mountains forming the barrier between the European and Asian continents and ending in an island chain, in the Arctic Ocean. Very few live there, mostly a small ethnic minority called the Mansi people.

In the Mansi tongue, Otorten translates as “Don’t Go There”. 

No matter. This was going to be an adventure.5a171d0d4aff781d51541617f5a1479aThe eight men and two women made it by truck as far as the tiny village of Vizhai, on the edge of the wilderness.  There the group learned the ancient and not a little frightening tale of a group of Mansi hunters, mysteriously murdered on what came to be called “Dead Mountain”.

Nothing like a good, scary mystery when you’re heading into the woods.  Right?Dyatlov PassOn January 28, Yuri Yudin became ill, and had to back out of the trek.  The other nine agreed to carry on.  None of them knew at the time.  Yudin was about to become the sole survivor of a terrifying mystery.

The leader of the expedition, Igor Dyatlov, left word that he expected to return, on February 12.  The day came and went with no sign of the group but, no big deal.  It was common enough to come back a few days late, from the frozen wilds of the Ural Mountains.maxresdefault3By February 20. friends and relatives were concerned   Something was wrong.  Rescue expeditions were assembled, first from students and faculty of the Ural Polytechnic Institute and later by military and local police.

There were airplanes and helicopters, and skiers on the ground.  On February 26, searchers found an abandoned tent on the flanks of Kholat Syakhl.  Dead Mountain.

Mikhail Sharavin, the student who found the tent, described the scene: “the tent was half torn down and covered with snow. It was empty, and all the group’s belongings and shoes had been left behind.”  The tent was cut up the back from the inside, eight or nine sets of footprints in the snow, leading away some 1,600 feet until disappearing, under a fresh fall of snow.

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“A view of the tent as the rescuers found it on 26 February 1959: the tent had been cut open from inside, and most of the skiers had fled in socks or barefoot”.

Despite winter temperatures of -13° to -30° Fahrenheit, most of these prints showed feet clad only in socks.  Some were barefoot.  One had a single shoe.  Two bodies were found clad only in underwear, those of Yuri (Georgiy) Krivonischenko and Yuri Doroshenko, near the remains of a small fire.

Their bodies were found under a large Siberian Pine, broken branches up to thirty feet suggesting that someone had climbed the thing, to look around.  Or perhaps to get away?slobodin-passThree more bodies were found leading back to the tent, frozen in postures suggesting they were trying to return.  Medical investigators examined the bodies. One, that of Rustem Slobodin showed a small skull fracture, probably not enough to threaten his life.  Cause of death was ruled, hypothermia.

It took two more months to find the last four bodies, buried under twelve feet of snow some 75-feet away.  These were better dressed than the other five, indicating they were already outside when something went wrong.  frozen-bodyThe condition of these last four, would change this whole story.  There were unexplained traces of radiation on their clothes.  The body of Nikolai Thibeaux-Brignolles showed massive skull fractures, with no external injury.  Lyudmila Dubinina and Semyon (Alexander) Zolotaryov showed extensive chest fractures, as if hit by a car.  Again, there were no external injuries.  Both were missing their eyes.  Dubinina was missing her tongue, and part of her face.2-The-Dyatlov-Pass-Incident-With volumes of questions and no answers, the inquiry was closed in May, 1959.  Cause of death was ruled “A spontaneous force which the hikers were unable to overcome“.  Dead Mountain was ruled off limits, the files marked confidential.  Case closed.

A spontaneous force which the hikers were unable to overcome“.

Explanations have been offered from the mundane to the supernatural, but none made sense.  Mansi hunters had killed them for encroaching on their territory.  Except, there were no other footprints.  This was the work of a Menk, a mythical Siberian Yeti, or an avalanche, or a super-secret parachute mine exercise, carried out by the Soviet military.  There were reports of orange glowing orbs, in the sky. Some believe it was aliens.

How nine experienced mountaineers got caught out in a frozen wilderness or why their tent was cut from the inside, remains a mystery.  Missing eyes and tongues may be explained away by small animals.  Maybe.  The massive internal injuries suffered by three of the victims, defy explanation.  The place where it all happened has come to be known as Dyatlov Pass.  What happened in that place remains an enigma, to this day.1_mmE2n4cSrUIU8T_4kL4gMg

December 19, 1986 The Lost Dogs of Chernobyl

The devastating Chernobyl Prayer tells the story of: “dogs howling, trying to get on the buses. Mongrels, Alsatians. The soldiers were pushing them out again, kicking them. They ran after the buses for ages.” Heartbroken families pinned notes to their doors: “Don’t kill our Zhulka. She’s a good dog.”

It all began as a test.  A carefully planned series of events, intending to simulate a station blackout at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, in the Soviet Socialist Republic of Ukraine.

This most titanic of disasters, began with a series of small mishaps. Safety systems intentionally turned off.  Inexperienced reactor operators, failing to follow checklists. Inherent design flaws in the reactor itself.

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On the night of April 25-26, 1986, a nuclear chain reaction expanded beyond control, flashing water to super-heated steam.  Violent explosions shattered reactor and building alike as reactor #4 belched massive amounts of nuclear material into the atmosphere.  For the next nine days, intense updrafts created by the open-air graphite fire spewed vast quantities of radiation into the air, raining radioactive  particles over large swaths of the western USSR and Europe.  Some 60 percent of the stuff came down in the Republic of Belarus.

It was the most disastrous nuclear power plant accident in history and yet, this was 1986.  The Soviet government didn’t tell its own people for days, what was going on.  In the West, the first alert came not from the USSR, but from Sweden.

images (56).jpgAn estimated 4,000 to 93,000 died in the aftermath of the accident, many of whom, were children.

The death toll could have been higher but for heroic self-sacrifice, by first responders.  Anatoli Zakharov, a fireman stationed in Chernobyl since 1980, replied to remarks that firefighters believed this to be an ordinary electrical fire:

Of course we knew! If we’d followed regulations, we would never have gone near the reactor. But it was a moral obligation – our duty. We were like kamikaze“.

Work began within three weeks on the design and construction of a concrete sarcophagus, large enough to contain 200 tons of radioactive corium, 30 tons of contaminated dust and 16 tons of uranium and plutonium, trapped inside the twisted wreckage. It was the largest civil engineering project in history involving no fewer than a quarter-million construction workers, every one of whom received a lifetime maximum dose of radiation.  By this day in December, work was substantially complete.

A Chernobyl liquidator pushes a baby in a carriage who was found during the cleanup of the Chernobyl nuclear accident, 1986.jpgOfficials of the top-down Soviet state first downplayed the disaster.  Asked by one Ukrainian official, “How are the people?“, acting minister of Internal Affairs Vasyl Durdynets replied there was nothing to be concerned about: “Some are celebrating a wedding, others are gardening, and others are fishing in the Pripyat River.

As the scale of the disaster became evident, civilians were at first ordered to shelter in place.  A 10-kilometer exclusion zone was enacted within the first 36 hours, resulting in the hurried evacuation of some 49,000.  The exclusion zone was tripled to 30-km within a week, leading to the evacuation of another 68,000.

Before it was over some 350,000 were moved away, never to return.

c3a6c209f69a1fe061fc35ef7d9e4e09.jpgThe chaos of these forced evacuations, can scarcely be imagined.  Confused adults.  Crying children.  Howling dogs.  Shouting soldiers, barking orders and herding now-homeless civilians onto waiting trains and vehicles by the tens of thousands.  Dogs and cats, beloved companion animals and lifelong family members, were abandoned to fend for themselves.

The government didn’t bother to explain.   There would be no return.

chernobyl-cleanup-crew.jpgThere were countless and heartbreaking scenes of final abandonment, of mewling cats, and whimpering dogs.  Belorussian writer Svetlana Alexievich compiled hundreds of interviews into a single monologue, an oral history of the forgotten.  The devastating Chernobyl Prayer tells the story of: “dogs howling, trying to get on the buses. Mongrels, Alsatians. The soldiers were pushing them out again, kicking them. They ran after the buses for ages.” 0720-dogsfront.jpgThere was no mercy.  Squads of soldiers were sent to shoot the animals, left behind.   Heartbroken families pinned notes to their doors: “Don’t kill our Zhulka.  She’s a good dog.”  Most of these abandoned pets, were shot.  Some escaped notice, and survived.

vegan-plant-based-news-dogs-livekindly-Cropped-1-1-1068x601 (1).jpgLater on, plant management hired someone, to kill the 1,000 or so dogs still remaining.  The story is, the worker refused.

1424 (1)Today, untold numbers of stray dogs live in the towns of Chernobyl, Pripyat and surrounding villages.  Descendants of those left behind, back in 1986.  Ill equipped to survive in the wild and driven from forests by wolves and other predators, they forage as best they can among abandoned streets and buildings, of the 1,000-mile exclusion zone.  For some,  radiation can be found in their fur.  Few live beyond the age of six but, all is not bleak.

chernobyl-dogs-2Since September 2017, a partnership between the SPCA International and the US-based 501(c)(3) non-profit CleanFutures.org has worked to provide for the veterinary needs of these defenseless creatures.  Over 450 animals have been tested for radiation exposure, given medical care, vaccinations and spayed or neutered, to bring populations within manageable limits.  Most are released back to the “wild”.

ynimas0uSome have been successfully decontaminated and socialized for human interaction.  In 2018, the first batch became available for adoption into homes in Ukraine and North America, some forty puppies and dogs.

 

To this day, hundreds of dogs eke out a living, in the exclusion zone.  The work of rescue is ongoing.  A joint press release from the two organizations gives much-needed hope:  “This unprecedented event marks an important partnership with the Ukrainian government, which has been reluctant in the past 32 years to allow anything to be removed from the nuclear exclusion zone.”

Dogs of Chernobyl.jpgBelieve it or not there are visitors to the area.  People actually go on tours of the region but they’re strictly warned.  No matter how adorable, do not pet, cuddle nor even touch any puppy or dog who has not been through rigorous decontamination.

For those lucky few the search for good homes goes on, for the lost dogs of Chernobyl.2016_Chernobyl-NB-1-4.jpg

November 23, 1932 Holodomor

“THE worst memory I have brought out of Russia is the children,” observed American consultant and charity worker Whiting Williams after a tour in 1933. “There was one youngster I saw in Kharkov. Half-baked, he had sunk, exhausted, on the carriageway, with the kerbstone as a pillow, and his pipestem legs sprawled out, regardless of danger from passing wheels.”

In 1928, Soviet Dictator Josef Stalin introduced a program of agricultural collectivization in Ukraine, the “Bread Basket” of the Soviet Union, forcing family farmers off their land and into state-owned collective farms.

Ukrainian “kulaks”, peasant farmers successful enough to hire labor or own farm machinery, refused to join the collectives, regarding such as a return to the serfdom of earlier centuries. Stalin claimed that these factory collectives would not only feed industrial workers in the cities, but would also provide a surplus to be sold abroad, raising money to further his industrialization plans.

Holodomor_Novo-Krasne_Odessa_11_1932.pngArmed dekulakization brigades confiscated land, livestock and other property by force, evicting entire families. Nearly half a million individuals were dragged from their homes in 1930-’31 alone, packed into freight trains and shipped off to remote areas like Siberia and often left without food or shelter.  Many of them, especially children, died in transit or soon after arrival.

Resistance continued, which the Soviet government could not abide. Ukraine’s production quotas were sharply increased in 1932-’33, making it impossible for farmers to meet assignments and feed themselves, at the same time. Starvation became widespread, as the Soviet government decreed that any person, even a child, would be arrested for taking as little as a few stalks of wheat from the fields in which they worked.

pic_giant_110913_D-2Military blockades were erected around villages preventing the transportation of food, while brigades of young activists from other regions were brought in to sweep through villages and confiscate hidden grain.

Eventually all food was confiscated from farmers’ homes, as Stalin determined to “teach a lesson through famine” to the Ukrainian rural population.

no-nb_blds_01867-beskåret-1200x1278.jpgAt the height of the famine, Ukrainians starved to death at a rate of 22,000 per day, almost a third of those, children 10 and under. How many died in total, is anyone’s guess. Estimates range from two million Ukrainian citizens murdered by their own government, to well over ten million.

Millions of tons of grain were exported during this time, more than enough to save every man, woman and child.

Holodomor, children.png2,500 people were arrested and convicted during this time, for eating the flesh of their neighbors. The problem was so widespread that the Soviet government put up signs reminding survivors: “To eat your own children is a barbarian act.”

Stalin denied to the world that there was any famine in Ukraine, a position supported by the likes of Louis Fischer reporting for “The Nation”, and Walter Duranty of the New York Times. Duranty went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for his “coverage”, with comments like “any report of a famine in Russia is today an exaggeration or malignant propaganda”. Such stories were “mostly bunk,” according to the Times. Duranty even commented that “You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs.”

1um1ow.jpgTo this day, the New York Times has failed to repudiate Walter Duranty’s Pulitzer.

Like many on the international Left, Canadian journalist Rhea Clyman had great expectations of the “worker’s paradise” built by the Communist state, where no one was unemployed, everyone was “equal”, and Everyman had what he needed. Unlike most, Clyman went to the Soviet Union, to see for herself.

Holodomor-Great-Famine-Ukraine-emaciated-horse-1932-1933-Alexander-Wienerberger-photographer.jpgTo do so at all was an act of courage.  single Jewish woman who’d lost part of a leg in a childhood streetcar accident, traveling to a place where the Russian empire and its successor state had a long and wretched history.  Particularly when it came to the treatment of its own Jews.

Virtually all of the international press preferred the comfortable confines of Moscow, cosseted in a world of Soviet propaganda and ignorant of the world as it was.

In four years, Clyman not only learned the language, but set out on a 5,000-mile odyssey to discover the Soviet countryside, as it really was.

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Rhea Clyman

Duranty’s idea of “good-bye” was the cynical offer, to write her obituary.

It is through this “Special Correspondent in Russia of The Toronto Evening Telegram, London Daily Express, and Other Newspapers“, that we know much about the government’s extermination of its own citizens in Ukraine.

To read what Clyman wrote about abandoned villages, is haunting.  And then the moment of discovery:  “They wanted something of me, but I could not make out what it was. At last someone went off for a little crippled lad of fourteen, and when he came hobbling up, the mystery was explained. This was the Village of Isoomka, the lad told me. I was from Moscow, yes; we were a delegation studying conditions in the Ukraine, yes. Well, they wanted me to take a petition back to the Kremlin, from this village and the one I had just been in. “Tell the Kremlin we are starving; we have no bread!”

A tall, bearded peasant was spokesman. His two sons and the rest of the men and women nodded approval at every word. The little crippled boy stood with his right hand on his crutch, translating everything he said into Russian for me, word by word.  “We are good, hard-working peasants, loyal Soviet citizens, but the village Soviet has taken our land from us. We are in the collective farm, but we do not get any grain. Everything, land, cows and horses, have been taken from us, and we have nothing to eat. Our children were eating grass in the spring….” 

I must have looked unbelieving at this, for a tall, gaunt woman started to take the children’s clothes off. She undressed them one by one, prodded their sagging bellies, pointed to their spindly legs, ran her hand up and down their tortured, mis-shapen, twisted little bodies to make me understand that this was real famine. I shut my eyes, I could not bear to look at all this horror. “Yes,” the woman insisted, and the boy repeated, “they were down on all fours like animals, eating grass. There was nothing else for them.”  What have you to eat now?” I asked them, still keeping my eyes averted from those tortured bodies. “Are all the villages round here the same? Who gets the grain?”” – Rhea Clyman, Toronto Telegram, 16 May 1933

22,000 of these poor people starved to death, every day.  Even then, many they believed the government in Moscow, was going to help.  If only comrade Stalin knew…

Today, the province of Alberta is home to about 300,000 Canadians of Ukrainian Heritage. Alberta Premier Rachel Notley once explained “Holodomor is a combination of two Ukrainian words: Holod, meaning hunger, and moryty, meaning a slow, cruel death. That is exactly what Ukrainians suffered during this deliberate starvation of an entire people“.

holodomor-1.jpgThe Holodomor Memorial to Victims of the Ukrainian Famine-Genocide of 1932–1933 was opened in Washington, D.C. on November 7, 2015

Ukrainians around the world recognize November 23 as Holodomor Memorial Day, commemorated by a simple statue in Kiev. A barefoot little girl, gaunt and hollow eyed, clutches a few stalks of wheat.

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Here in the United States, you could line up 100 randomly selected individuals. I don’t believe that five could tell you what Holodomor means. We are a self-governing Republic. All 100 should be acquainted with the term.

 

 

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