Uncovering Soviet Disasters: Exploring the Limits of Glasnost (1988)

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“A disturbing aspect about the Soviets’ reaction to revelations of their secrets was the insistence that any Western attempt to explore these secret mishaps had to have been inspired by malice, not by an understandable interest in the truth. Even during the period of glasnost the ancient and strident Russian paranoia toward foreign curiosity about their failures is very evident.”

– James Oberg, Uncovering Soviet Disasters

One of my favorite “mysteries” is the conspiracy of the lost cosmonauts. Basically, it’s a theory that claims that “The Space Race” may have been built upon the corpses of many forgotten heroes lost to both time and Soviet censorship. These so-called “lost cosmonauts” have been proven to be usually more fantasy than fact, and I don’t actually believe in many of the stories that have been circulating for upwards of sixty years. But all one has to do is listen to the chilling Judica-Cordiglia brothers audio recordings from 1962 that claim to be the last words of a handful of such cases, and think “what if…” I was looking for a book on this subject and was shocked to see that there really aren’t many that aren’t conspiracy nut garbage, so I broadened my net and found a series of books written by James Oberg during the Cold War. There is a chapter in here about lost cosmonauts, both factual and mythical, and information on the narrative that makes a conspiracy like this so hard to shake – if the USSR lied and covered up so much stuff, what don’t we know about?

The Purpose of Uncovering Soviet Disasters by James E. Oberg is to explore the USSR’s new (at the time) government policy of open discussion, or Glasnost (openness in Russian). The USSR had routinely covered up almost any bad news pertaining to not only government affairs but personal tragedies for so long that many were living in a dream-world of sorts for many years. This book is an attempt to “level the playing field” and expose a lot of these blatant misuses of censorship. Oberg does this by organizing everything into a series of articles each covering a different Soviet Era disaster that had been in some way wiped from public records or covered up.

Oberg usually presents many sides to each story, and since most of his “experts” were going off of eye-witness testimony or professional gut-feelings, many of the theories were vastly different from one another. For example, chapter one talks about a suspected anthrax epidemic in the early 80’s that caused dozens of deaths, but was almost unheard of until the fall of the USSR within the country itself. Some experts chalked it up to being a case of tainted meat, others blamed it on a misplaced vaccine that somehow got out of a medical facility. Since this book is so old (it was published in 1988), it was fun to look up many of the incidents listed to get an update of what really happened (since all of this info has largely been unclassified since). After the fall of the USSR it was revealed that, according to Wikipedia, that the USSR did in fact violate a biological weapons ban and produce Anthrax like many suspected, and the whole ordeal was caused by a miscommunication between workers in said weapons facility rendering a vent system offline for a few days allowing anthrax to escape unfiltered into the town. Now the whole ordeal is called “Biological Chernobyl” and is pretty infamous.

Some of the stories are a bit “tainted”, I suppose, with American Cold War era propaganda – many Soviet “characters” are described in a less than flattering manner. In many instances, the reader is presented with the narrative that The USSR was always up to no good as if populated entirely by mustache twirling Bond Villains, or reactionary morons that were only trying to protect themselves in the face of disaster. while this wasn’t too over-the-top, it colored an otherwise well-done book. He does go to great length to talk-up the heroism and toughness of many everyday Russians in an almost “noble savage” sort of way, leaving you to admire their resolve. If anything, I REALLY wish there was a later edition of this where Oberg went back and updated everything, but alas the entire book would have to be basically re-written, and he is now in his 70’s.

All-in-all this is a good read despite the age and political motivation. I will need to look into reading more of Mr. Oberg’s work.

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The Monday Meme: Columbus Day

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As many of you know, today was Columbus Day – a holiday set aside to honor the legend of Christopher Columbus – the man that “discovered America.” I say “LEGEND” as many have wised up to the way the Victorians romanticized the man, his actual motives, his actual deeds, and more importantly, the fact he is honored for things he never did. I frequently get angry people taking jabs at me because I refuse to honor the man, as there were many other European explorers that didn’t say things like: ” I could conquer the whole of them with fifty men, and govern them as I pleased.” We need to actually have a discussion about what Columbus Day actually means, because I don’t really see anything other than an excuse to have a day off from work.

I understand the importance of setting aside a day for Italian Americans to be proud of themselves and their heritage, but perhaps we should find another role model.

Horrific Historical Photo of the Day

doctor-who-empty-children-historicalBackground of the photo:

“The age old adage home is where the heart is finds its true meaning in Miyakejima, a small island located in southeast Japan. Despite the high level of volcanic activity that causes poisonous gas to leak from the earth that forced the 3,600 island residents to evacuate in 2000, the citizens just won’t stay away. Thus, the self-appointed gas mask town rose from the, very literal, ashes.”

Read more here, there are some more creepy pics

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Timeslip: The Time of the Ice Box (1970)

“What is a Time Bubble? You can’t see it, of course, but it might help you visualize it to think of a balloon… Supposing some little patch of information – some little patch of history – gets slowed down, and instead of flashing backwards and forwards it floats, gently, as if in a bubble… Supposing you could get into that bubble – that bubble of history – and travel with it. Then you could move forwards and backwards in time at will…”

— One of the many introductions before the episodes

Note: Man, it sure has been a while since I talked about Timeslip! In fact I think I did the review for The Wrong end of Time way back in 2011! This was of course when I wasn’t exactly sure what to do with this blog and the quality was pretty poor to be honest. I think I “summed” up the first six episodes of the show in four paragraphs without really saying anything! The original method to my madness involved being as vague as possible so as to not reveal spoilers, and to give things ratings from one to five. The problem with this was that my reviews were not that engaging on an entertainment basis and multiple reviews from the same show started to have similar content and ratings. Also, let’s face it, if somebody is reading a Doctor Who review the day after it airs, they are most likely fans of the show and have already watched it. Back on topic, now! Since I didn’t write a whole lot then, I have expanded this review/synopsis to cover a brief bit of the first Timeslip serial as well just to cover the bases, but will concentrate on the second serial.

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As I noted in my earlier review, I had never heard of Timeslip prior to a chance encounter I had with it on Netflix. I used to rent DVDs on there as this was back in the “glory days” before they attempted to mess up their own company. You guys remember that mess? Netflix’s stock crashed because the CEO decided the best course of action was splitting it in two (thankfully shareholders stopped that one!) and doubling the prices. And since I’m off topic, it’s time to reign it back in. I recall scanning through one of their immensely over-specialized genre sections and found Timeslip amongst other cult UK television that I was unfamiliar with. I randomly rented the first serial and was intrigued by the hard science approach to a children’s science fiction show. Most shows like this are basically adventure shows with a dash of science fiction pinched in, but Timeslip is the exact opposite.

The previous serial, The Wrong end of Time, told the story of two kids – a boy named Simon Randall and a girl named Liz Skinner.  Simon is traveling with Liz’s parents to keep his mind of off his mother’s recent death. Simon and Liz end up wandering too close to an old decommissioned war-time naval base and get sucked into some sort of time rift. Without warning, they are knee deep in Nazis that want a prototype laser weapon that is housed within the base. It seems that this base was briefly commandeered by Nazi soldiers in 1943. The kids meet up with a younger version of Liz’s father (who worked at the base in 1943) and helped him subvert what could have been a turning point in the war for the wrong side. They beat the Nazis with help from Liz’s psychic mom in the present time and try to go home by going back into the portal. Problem is, instead of returning to St Oswald in their time of 1970, they find themselves in an icy wilderness.

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This Icy wasteland is none other than Antarctica in the way off future time of 1990 (LOL). After succumbing to the cold, our young time travelers are rescued by employees of the International Institute for Biological Research, dubbed the “Ice Box”. The head honcho of “The Ice Box” is a man named Morgan C. Devereaux, you can immediately tell that something is not quite right with him as he trusts the computer systems far too much despite numerous errors, and generally acts erratic. He oversees tests on a longevity drug called HA57, something that purports to be a cure for aging and possibly death. The series continues its use of the idea that the kids see past and future versions of people they know in the present in these episodes as well. If you recall, the kids worked alongside a younger version of Liz’s father during World War II, and this time we see them working with a 1990 version of Liz’s mother and even Liz herself! Beth (Liz in the future) has somehow become a heartless, nearly emotionless husk of her former self much to Liz’s horror. From here on, the serial seems to be another look at how people misuse technology, this time dealing with the way that folks trust machines assuming them to be infallible.

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My only real quibble (but a big one) with this particular group of episodes is that Liz and Simon have the ability to jump into the future or the present at will using the portal; in fact they do this almost immediately when Liz throws a hysterical fit realizing her mother is there. The first serial saw the kids trapped at Nazi gunpoint, and unable to escape, thus putting them in peril; here any sense of danger is squashed. To me this would be like the show Quantum Leap allowing Sam the ability to return home after each mission, it would kill any drama and make the show bland – and that’s what we got here. This is compounded with the way Charles Traynor becomes some sort of spymaster, talking the kids into leaping back into the portal to find out why Devereaux is there. He wants to know because Traynor knew Devereaux, and he supposedly died in 1969! For how traumatic the time traveling seemed, the kids seem far too excited to leap back into the dangerous situation in Antarctica. I preferred how Traynor and Liz’s parents could oversee the whole thing via telepathic link (as silly as that sounds) than this whole hub world motif.

While the first serial looked pretty decent with the historical World War II setting, and the ability to use existing sets and such, The Time of the Ice Box falls into the same trap a lot of 1970’s science fiction does – it looks cheap and dated by today’s standards. When we first see someone scoop Liz up to take her to safety, the man in question is donning a costume that doesn’t really suggest “really warm coat for Antarctica” it suggests “Ziggy Stardust in a motorcycle helmet”. I try not to pick on stuff like this, but had they just jumped the time frame up to a more distant time, this episode could have been a bit less silly. Interior shots are actually pretty nice, but exterior shots of Antarctica are obviously on a set full of cheesy fake ice blocks and wobbly set pieces that make Doctor Who blush. Thankfully, most of this serial is in black and white due to the color versions being lost like many TV programs of the time. I feel that this sort of ”masks” the garishness of the future clothes to the point where they aren’t so bad. One episode, in fact the only one left in the entire show, is in color and it sadly makes everything wrong with the effects stand out more.

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The cast is fairly decent considering that most of the people involved are relatively unknown. Simon is played by Spencer Banks and Liz is portrayed by Cheryl Burfield, neither of which did a whole lot outside of the 1970’s sadly. One of the more prominent actors involved is John Barron (Morgan C. Devereaux), who is most famous for TheFall and Rise of Reginald Perrin, where he played the titular character’s overbearing boss C.J. One of the better casting choices was Mary Preston as “Beth”. Even though the actress that played Liz was over eighteen at the time of filming (the character is fifteen though), one could conceivably see “Beth” being the same person as Liz twenty years later. She really nailed all the mannerisms and such, just with a darker nature.

I enjoyed Timeslip: The Time of the Ice Box, but found it less compelling than the first part. There were some plot issues, and it definitely felt padded out just a tad, but one has to concede that this was a kid’s show.  I try not to be too hard on stuff like that if it wasn’t meant for an adult market. I used to work for a gaming website a few years back and was always confused when people reviewed children’s games as if they were designed to compete with the latest Call of Duty game! Despite the garishness, it was nice to see one color episode in the bunch; and while I joked earlier that I was happy these were not in color, it’s actually a shame that they are lost. I wonder where the portal will take Liz and Simon next time? Let’s hope I write about it sooner than two years from now!

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If you would like to purchase Timeslip, check this out:

Timeslip: The Complete Series