Apocalypse, Soon: New Books on War, Plague, Famine, Demagogues, and the End of the World as They Knew It

FP staffers learn what really killed the Romans and why the 1930s should scare us to death.

Foreign Policy dove back into book reviews this summer, spurred by a flood of thought-provoking titles on all aspects of international relations. Now we’re back with a fresh installment featuring some of the top releases this autumn, just in time for a brand-new Armageddon.

The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease, and the End of an Empire — Kyle Harper (reviewed by Keith Johnson)

A Cold Welcome: The Little Ice Age and Europe’s Encounter With North America — Sam White (reviewed by Keith Johnson)

The Butcher’s Trail: How the Search for Balkan War Criminals Became the World’s Most Successful Manhunt — Julian Borger (reviewed by Dan De Luce)

The Empire Must Die: Russia’s Revolutionary Collapse 1900-17 — Mikhail Zygar (reviewed by Emily Tamkin)

Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine — Anne Applebaum (reviewed by Sharon Weinberger)

Gorbachev: His Life and Times — William Taubman (reviewed by Amie Ferris-Rotman)

Russia and Its Islamic World: From the Mongol Conquest to The Syrian Military Intervention — Robert Service (reviewed by Rhys Dubin)

Spy Schools: How the CIA, FBI, and Foreign Intelligence Secretly Exploit America’s Universities — Daniel Golden (reviewed by Jenna McLaughlin)

Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World — Laura Spinney (reviewed by Robbie Gramer)

Unbelievable: My Front-Row Seat to the Craziest Campaign in American HistoryKaty Tur (reviewed by Ruby Mellen)

The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease, and the End of an Empire

Kyle Harper, Princeton University Press, 440 pages, $35, October 2017

Keith Johnson

Rome, argues Kyle Harper in his sweeping retelling of the rise and fall of an empire, was brought down as much by “germs as by Germans.”

Unwittingly built on fragile foundations — Rome’s rise coincided with several centuries of warm, wet weather known as the Roman Climate Optimum — the empire expanded prodigiously from the Sahara to the fringes of northern Europe. Agricultural yields soared; North Africa and especially Egypt were breadbaskets. Alexandria was rainy year-round. But when that anomalous Roman warm period started to recede in the 2nd century and long-term global cooling resumed, so began the empire’s troubles.

Harvests failed, prices soared, and rural rents collapsed. The most devastating plague yet recorded in human history soon followed, decimating the army and hammering the economy; it may have killed a quarter of Rome’s imperial population.

More plagues were to follow, especially the bubonic plague that massacred the eastern Roman Empire after a massive climate upheaval in the mid-6th century. Cooler temperatures and the empire’s global connections allowed the plague to make the jump from Central Asia to European ports for the first time.

None of the plagues and famines wrecked the empire by themselves, Harper argues, but centuries of stress helped fatally weaken it before the final barbarian onslaughts in the West and the Islamic assault in the East.

A Cold Welcome: The Little Ice Age and Europe’s Encounter With North America

Sam White, Harvard University Press, 376 pages, $29.95, October 2017

Keith Johnson

If the vicissitudes of climate made it hard to sustain the Roman Empire, they also made it hard to start a new one. Sam White makes clear in A Cold Welcome how the Little Ice Age — an extraordinary period of cold climate from about the 14th century to the early 19th — directly shaped the early colonization of America.

Spanish explorers initially gave up on Florida and New Mexico, defeated by brutal winters and massive snowfalls. English settlers in Jamestown in the early 1600s had the misfortune to start a poorly planned colony in the middle of the coldest, driest decade in at least a thousand years. Failing harvests left little Indian corn to salvage the settlers and precipitated deadly conflict with the natives.

Ultimately, the Little Ice Age’s devastating impact on America (and parts of Europe) held the door open for latecomers like England and France to usurp Spain’s early lead in North America — and hold on to it. “Only during a window of climate-driven crisis starting in the 1590s” could London and Paris plant their own lasting colonies in Virginia, New England, and Canada, White writes.

Both these books underscore a point that is becoming painfully apparent with climate change today. Most of recorded human history has played out within a remarkably narrow temperature band; even well-known interludes like the Medieval Warm Period or the Little Ice Age were only about 1 degree Celsius above or below modern averages yet produced far-reaching and long-lasting impacts on population, agriculture, war, and disease.

Pushing global temperatures up by a couple of degrees, as the world is now set to do, will almost certainly bring in train its own unprecedented challenges, from falling agricultural yields and conflicts over dwindling resources to expanded reach for pathogens and plagues. Stresses like those had world-changing impacts before — and almost certainly will again.

The Butcher’s Trail: How the Search for Balkan War Criminals Became the World’s Most Successful Manhunt

Julian Borger, Other Press, 432 pages, $17.95, September 2017 (paperback)

Dan De Luce

Two decades ago, the world’s most advanced armies were afraid to hunt down scores of men charged with committing the worst atrocities in Europe since World War II. Many of those indicted war criminals of the former Yugoslavia were hiding in plain sight in Bosnia-Herzegovina, a country smaller than West Virginia, temporary home to 60,000 NATO peacekeeping troops.

But, scarred by memories of “Black Hawk Down” four years earlier in Somalia, the United States was reluctant to put its troops at risk, and Europeans were concerned that snatching war crimes suspects could spark a Serbian backlash.

Then a few determined individuals — prosecutors, investigators, and diplomats — shamed them into action. In the end, all 161 of those charged by the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia were either captured or handed themselves in to face justice in The Hague.

In Butcher’s Trail, Julian Borger, an award-winning Guardian journalist, tells the full story of the “world’s most successful manhunt” for the first time. He unearths stunning details about how it all came about and traces the pursuit of the Balkan butchers with film-worthy narrative flair. Written like a thriller, there are tragic and even comic moments — like when U.S. forces hoped to wear a gorilla suit to distract their quarry, or when British soldiers grabbed the wrong set of twins.

Lessons learned in the secret manhunt in the Balkans helped shape how Washington waged its war against al Qaeda, which would begin just a few years later. U.S. commandos in former Yugoslavia learned the value of drones and close cooperation with the CIA, and that “when it comes to tracking individuals, less is more.” Gen. David Petraeus, later in charge of America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, was in Bosnia at the time and boned up on night raids and snatch jobs, tools he would apply later to the fight against Islamist militants.

More than just a riveting tale, Borger’s book is a thoughtful reflection on the mixed legacy of the war crimes tribunal and the challenge of bringing even a semblance of justice to a land traumatized by ethnic conflict. Borger quotes the journalist Martha Gellhorn’s sobering observation at Nuremberg: “Justice seemed very small suddenly. Of course, it had to be, for there was no punishment great enough for such guilt.” 

The Empire Must Die: Russia’s Revolutionary Collapse 1900-17

Mikhail Zygar, PublicAffairs, 576 pages, $30, November 2017

Emily Tamkin

The 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution has brought a deluge of books about the event that changed the history of Russia and the world. But if you’ve got less time on your hands than the average revolutionary Narodnik, which one should you read?

The answer, at least for some, will be Mikhail Zygar’s The Empire Must Die, an immensely compelling work that transports the reader to the streets of St. Petersburg to see the early 20th century unfold for herself.

Zygar is a Russian journalist, author of the acclaimed look at Russian President Vladimir Putin’s rise and inner circle All the Kremlin’s Men, and overseer of Project1917, a sort of historical social network documenting the paper trail underlaying the revolution. And The Empire Must Die achieves something similar to Project1917 by examining events through the words of those who lived them at the time they lived them with all their imperfect understanding; only sometimes does Zygar give in and tell the reader that some seemingly inconsequential event will rock the world.

A journalist, Zygar approaches history like he’s interviewing it — listening to what those involved had to say and expertly putting that in context. The result is a riveting unfolding of history as it was being lived — and imperfectly understood — by those in the middle. How did Peter Struve and Pavel Milyukov become Russia’s most popular politicians? Why did Georgy Gapon hold such sway over workers? How did Prince Mirsky fair as interior minister? Did everyone hate working with Lenin back when he was Vladimir Ulyanov? (Just maybe.)

If you’re looking for deep historiography or grand theoretical constructs or a graveyard of footnotes, this is not the book for you. But if you want a book that that’s unlike the avalanche of other Revolutionary titles, that’s well researched and better written, that transforms bit players of history into people you feel you know, that lets you experience the death shudders of an era at a century’s remove, then The Empire Must Die must be read.

Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine

Anne Applebaum, Doubleday, 496 pages, $35, October 2017

Sharon Weinberger

At the heart of journalist Anne Applebaum’s book Red Famine is a question that has been debated for decades: Did the Soviets deliberately starve Ukraine in the early 1930s, or did their bumbling economic policies inadvertently create a man-made famine?

For the estimated 4 million who starved to death, intentions don’t much matter. But for the 44 million people who still live in contemporary Ukraine, the question goes to the heart of national identity. As the Russian-backed separatist war in eastern Ukraine approaches its fourth year, Applebaum’s book is both historical and deeply relevant to today’s politics.

In a tightly woven narrative, Applebaum argues that the Holodomor, as Ukrainians call the famine, was indeed intentional and directed specifically at Ukrainians. Not only was the famine man-made — a result of forced collectivization of agriculture and seizure of anything edible — but it also went hand in hand with Josef Stalin’s efforts to quash the Ukrainian nationalist movement.

Building on Robert Conquest’s seminal book Harvest of Sorrow, Applebaum incorporates new archival materials, including memoirs by survivors, to paint a harrowing portrait of desperate peasants dying in the streets, parents butchering their own children, and Soviet enforcers scouring houses for even a single hidden grain of wheat. Soviet records, which include extensive documentation of cannibalism, were sent back to authorities in Moscow.

While there is no single document that details a Soviet effort to engineer a man-made famine, Applebaum shows that there were a wealth of reports documenting the growing famine and plenty of opportunities for the Soviet authorities to reverse course. They never did.

Gorbachev: His Life and Times

William Taubman, W.W. Norton & Company, 852 pages, $39.95, September 2017

Amie Ferris-Rotman

Relations are now so fraught between Moscow and Washington that Mikhail Gorbachev’s tumultuous years as the last leader of the Soviet Union feel almost joyous in comparison.

Through meticulous research and years of interviews with Gorbachev, now 86, William Taubman paints a riveting portrait of the crusading reformer who became a darling of the West and an object of scorn in Russia, where he is widely blamed for breaking up the Communist superpower.

Taubman is the right chronicler of Gorbachev: He previously surveyed the life of Nikita Khrushchev, another Soviet leader purged after trying to reform an inefficient system moth-holed by corruption. And the biography could hardly be better timed, with the White House convulsed by Russia-linked scandals and amid growing indications that the Kremlin waded right into the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

And faced with modern Russia under Vladimir Putin, one can’t help but feel a tinge of nostalgia for the Gorbachev era. However chaotic and impoverished it was, the Soviet Union at its last gasp managed to hold some democratic elections and embrace some forms of dissent.

“Gorbachev was a visionary who changed his country and the world — though neither as much as he wished,” Taubman writes of the man who tried to “give Communism a human face” before the USSR collapsed.

The Gorbachev who emerges in Taubman’s tour de force is starkly different from most Russian and Soviet leaders. He had a sincere devotion to improving the system, instilled early on as a farm boy in southern Russia during the Great Terror of the 1930s. He knew Josef Stalin’s brutality first-hand: His two grandfathers were arrested, one of them severely tortured.

And he was distinctly unlike his fellow nomenklatura: He didn’t drink to excess, was an idealist, was incorruptible, and absolutely adored his wife and intellectual partner, Raisa.

Raisa’s health began to deteriorate just as the Soviet Union started to collapse — she eventually died of leukemia in 1999 — and Gorbachev connects the two, blaming himself for the stressful days of Boris Yeltsin’s would-be coup in the summer of 1991.

But for Gorbachev, the West — and especially the United States — proved the ultimate disappointment. He’d felt “entirely comfortable in the West” since his first time there, in Italy, in 1971. But when Russia most needed the funding and support that Washington had promised in order to hold together the imploding Soviet state, Gorbachev felt utterly abandoned.

Russia and Its Islamic World: From the Mongol Conquest to The Syrian Military Intervention

Robert Service, Hoover Institution Press, 128 pages, $19.95, August 2017

Rhys Dubin

Russia’s entrance in 2015 in the Syrian civil war on the side of Bashar al-Assad piqued plenty of public interest in the country’s involvement in the region. For an entire generation, if not more, Moscow had been missing in action in the Middle East. President Vladimir Putin’s relative success in leveraging Russian air power and bolstering Assad’s government, however, showed that Moscow was again capable of playing a significant and meddlesome role in a region that the United States had viewed as its prerogative since the end of the Cold War.

The default optic for evaluating Russia’s activities in the Middle East — or anywhere else, really — is good old geopolitics: the rivalry with the United States, say, or energy diplomacy in the Eastern Mediterranean. Robert Service uses a different prism, turning back hundreds of years to the beginning of Russia’s engagement with and immersion in “its Islamic world.”

Muscovy’s subjugation at the hands of the recently converted Muslim Golden Horde in the 13th century left a bitter mark; the Ivans’ later liberation of Moscow had a whiff of holy war. That template recurs again and again, as when Ottoman Caliphs held sway over Russia’s own Muslims, driving Russia to invoke its own religious authority as the voice of Orthodox Christians, or when in World War I, Istanbul declared jihad against the Entente Powers including Russia.

Russia’s involvement with the Islamic world encompasses a good deal of its history: the seizure of Crimea (both times); the battle for the Straits; endless adventures in the Caucasus; and a great-power game in Afghanistan, the Levant, and North Africa. For Service, Russia’s relations with its own Muslims, with Muslims in the former Soviet states, and with Muslims in the Middle East help define and condition that entire engagement.

As a partial example of that triad, Service highlights rumors that the Russian government shipped would-be jihadis from the North Caucasus through Turkey to Syria to fight with the Islamic State in the hope that they could preempt attacks on the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.

But as a guide to Russia’s modern-day forays in the Islamic world, and especially Putin’s adventurism since 2015, it’s a less tidy fit — though it does illustrate some potential pitfalls of Russia’s grand strategy. Traditional power politics in many cases seems to offer a better framework for understanding Russia’s behavior in the region.

Take Afghanistan. U.S.-backed mujahideen gave the Soviets a bloody nose in the 1980s. Russian-backed Taliban are doing the same to U.S. forces today. Though there hasn’t been a sea change in Russian attitude toward jihadis in the meantime — they are nominally at war in Syria to fight Islamist terrorists — Russia is still fighting the United States for ultimate influence in Afghanistan, where Moscow much earlier fought off British incursions. The common denominator is still realpolitik strategy, not religious-tinted conflict or foreign policy.

And it’s hard to see Moscow’s relationship with Islam really determining its foreign policy. Service notes that the Soviets favored Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt and Assad’s father in Syria precisely because they were secular — and the same could probably be said about Moscow’s support today for Egypt’s secular strongman, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, and the younger Assad. Moreover, the religious metric also does little to explain how or why Russia has moved closer to Islamist Sunni Turkey — or maintained a warm relationship at the same time with revolutionary Shiite Iran.

Ultimately, Service’s book offers an effective and comprehensive primer on Russia’s foreign and cultural policy throughout parts of the Middle East and the Caucasus. For those interested in better understanding Russia’s interaction with its own Muslim population and those in its “Near Abroad,” read on.

Spy Schools: How the CIA, FBI, and Foreign Intelligence Secretly Exploit America’s Universities

Daniel Golden, Henry Holt and Co., 352 pages, $30, October 2017

Jenna McLaughlin

College campuses are generally remembered as a jumble of classes and beer pong, Frisbees and fraternities (if not safe spaces and protesting speakers). But as Daniel Golden makes wonderfully clear, there’s a different college out there, hiding in plain sight: Behind every ivy-covered corner could be an American or foreign spy infiltrating academia, hoping to groom students, professors, or both for a career or side gig in espionage.

Spend a little time with Spy Schools, the ProPublica editor’s second book, and you’ll start asking questions about your own college years. Was the Iranian student in that electrical engineering class back in sophomore year a potential CIA target or asset? Was the foreign student in a friend’s scientific research project trying to steal ideas generated on American soil to make money off their own patents back home? Was the professor of Latin American studies actually a Cuban spy?

Golden’s deeply reported investigative book lays out some surprising facts and statistics about how often American intelligence agencies try to recruit foreign students in the classroom and vice versa. One-quarter of Soviet exchange students in the United States between 1965 and 1975 were identified by the FBI as spies, for example, while the University of International Relations in Beijing generates large numbers of Chinese intelligence and security professionals.

But Golden also treats readers to plenty of rich examples. There’s Dajin Peng, who nearly killed himself and then was recruited by the FBI to spy on China in exchange for clearing away his legal troubles. There’s an entire chapter on U.S. intelligence officials who planned fake academic conferences to lure Iranian nuclear scientists out of their hotels and onto U.S.-bound planes.

There’s a reason spies take aim at international students: As people who learn foreign languages and travel the world in search of knowledge, they’re ideal emissaries for intelligence services hoping to get insight into how allies and adversaries behave.

And students, unlike journalists looking for much the same information, are usually more approachable and a bit less jaded. Some students and professors are receptive, Golden notes, eager to do what they can for their adopted or native homes; others resist and refuse.

At any rate, spies in schools are here to stay, from a little college in the American Midwest with a connection to Chinese security services to Harvard University, where spies can study while still being employed by their respective agencies, sometimes maintaining their undercover status. And Golden is the ideal guide for that unsettling, if intriguing, journey.

Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World

Laura Spinney, PublicAffairs, 307 pages, $28, September 2017

Robbie Gramer

Sandwiched between the two World Wars that killed some 77 million is a small historical footnote that may have killed more than both wars together — the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 to 1920. Overshadowed in the history books by the wars, the Spanish flu was arguably a bigger global catastrophe. Some 500 million people were infected, and between 50 to 100 million died in what became the world’s deadliest — yet least-remembered — tidal wave of death.

In Pale Rider, Laura Spinney dredges up the forgotten catastrophe, shedding new light on why it is today so overlooked (the global pandemic was only experienced locally) and what  impact the flu had around the world. It’s a page turner that should easily satisfy armchair historians and epidemiologists and anybody who likes a good, if gruesome, yarn.

Spinney makes the case that “the flu resculpted human populations more radically than anything since the Black Death” razed medieval Europe. But she, unlike others who’ve chronicled the Spanish flu, doesn’t just stick to Europe. She follows the pandemic on its devastating march from big Persian cities to the streets of Rio to rural villages of China to eastern Alaska. Throughout, she draws a tidy portrait of those on the frontlines: The doctors, the nurses, the patients who fell victim, and those that survived the flu’s painful symptoms: severe nausea, pneumonia, and slow suffocation as their lungs filled with liquid. 

One can’t help but recognize the creeping hubris early 20th-century doctors felt before the flu swept across the globe — that science had tackled sickness, that humans could soon conquer disease. But in recent years, the world’s been rattled by new flu strains, the Ebola epidemic, a historic cholera outbreak, and the terrifying rise of antimicrobial resistance. Wars and nuclear brinkmanship may dominate headlines and nightmares, but man’s battle with microbes is far from over. 

Unbelievable: My Front-Row Seat to the Craziest Campaign in American History

Katy Tur, PublicAffairs, 304 pages, $26.99, September 2017

Ruby Mellen

If you’re sick and tired of hearing about the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Katy Tur is right there with you. As Tur, a highly visible and heartily attacked television reporter following Donald Trump’s campaign, makes clear, her time on the trail was anything but glamorous. Expecting a quick six-week assignment, she instead faced a 500-day marathon of fatigue, mental deterioration, nonstop cell-phone buzzing, and countless towns. And rallies.

For Tur, the 2016 campaign sounds less like Boys on the Bus and more like being embedded in a conflict zone. Except rather than being a bystander, she was often the target of attacks. If Trump made the news media a punching bag throughout his campaign, he took special delight in attacking Tur, or as he liked to call her — along with “dishonest” and “third-rate reporter” — “Little Katy.”

Unbelievable is fast-paced, thrilling, and scattered, much like the news coverage of the campaign itself. With chapters jumping from rallies on the trail to election night and back again, Tur doesn’t spare us any of the ugliness. Above all, the book is about covering Trump as a woman. Tur, who’d worked for about three years in London as a foreign correspondent for NBC, describes the rampant sexism she experienced at his rallies.

Trump supporters wore shirts reading, “I wish Hillary married OJ,” a reference to his Democratic opponent and to a football player tried for brutally murdering his wife. The real policy wonks wore shirts reading, “She’s a cunt vote Trump.”

Tur acknowledges the irony in the fact that her rise to stardom — she’s now a daytime anchor on MSNBC — was built on her antagonist’s unexpected election win, but she doesn’t really examine the role cable news may have played in his victory. And that’s a pity, because she had some insights into the disconnect between what mattered to the “incredibly loyal” Trump followers and what stories were getting play.

She recalls fighting for airtime to tell viewers that Trump voters didn’t care about the allegations of Trump’s sexual assault or his crude language or his unreleased tax returns. Tur describes one die-hard fan in a white tank top with “Trump can grab my…” written on it. “Below that,” Tur writes, “she drew a shaky arrow pointed down toward her crotch.” But she doesn’t ultimately address the broader TV news decision-making that gave Trump such a powerful soapbox far before he surged ahead in the polls.

In a crowded field, Tur’s book stands out for its details and its flavor; she’s not out to explain Trump’s victory or tell us what happened, just what it felt like while it was happening.

Déjà vu all over again

It’s not just new releases that speak to what is going on today; older titles often shed as much light on what’s happening now as what happened then. This section reaches back to the dusty shelves to highlight easily available older books that have suddenly become new again.

The Dark Valley: A Panorama of the 1930s

Piers Brendon, Vintage, 795 pages, $20, October 2000

Dan De Luce

The liberal world order is teetering, plagued by doubts and a paralyzing malaise. Demagogues exploit popular anger and frustration, blame economic troubles on scapegoats, raise tariffs, and start trade wars. At political rallies, mobs beat up protesters, and bombast replaces civil debate.

It’s not the era of Donald Trump or Viktor Orban, but that of Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, and the democrats who failed to answer their political challenge, brilliantly recounted in Piers Brendon’s classic history of the 1930s.

With faith in democracy reeling, with simmering civil strife tearing big countries apart, with xenophobia, protectionism, and populism getting a second wind on both sides of the Atlantic, it’s well worth picking up this eloquent and troubling account of the darkest of decades, published almost 20 years ago.

At the time, Brendon called his book a “case study of the global perils lurking at the heart of a major recession.” He was writing about the primitive forces unleashed during an economic slowdown; few foresaw that similar forces would burst forth again — but years after a Great Recession.

As Marx amended Hegel, history does repeat itself: the first time as tragedy and the second time, very much as farce.

FP Staff