Longform’s Picks of the Week

The best stories from around the world.

Every weekend, Longform highlights its favorite international articles of the week. For daily picks of new and classic nonfiction, check out Longform or follow @longform on Twitter. Have an iPad? Download Longform's new app and read all of the latest in-depth stories from dozens of magazines, including Foreign Policy.

Boris Berezovsky, 1946-2013
Keith Gessen • n+1

The life and legacy of the world's first oligarch.

He may not have been the best of this generation, morally speaking, but he may well have been one of the brightest (for a Jew of that generation to have made it as far as he did in Soviet academia was a tremendous accomplishment), and in certain important ways he believed what they believed: that capitalism was virtuous; that because capitalism was virtuous, those who succeeded at capitalism were the elect, and those who failed at it were the damned; that, politically speaking, all that was required for the liberation of the Russian people, after three hundred years of oppression, was to open the windows and let the free market in. What all this led to, in fact, was the enrichment of a very few and the immiseration of the populace, the reduction of life expectancy for Russian males by nearly a decade, and, as of last year, nearly a million suicides. And now it seems possible that Berezovsky is one more.

Cate Gillon/Getty Images

Of Mammoths and Men
Brook Larmer • National Geographic

In Siberia, the lucrative trade of mammoth tusk ivory has turned many residents into hunters of the ancient creatures.

Nobody, not even Gorokhov, imagined that mammoth tusks would become an economic lifeline for a region that had been largely abandoned after the shuttering of Soviet-era mines and factories. (The population of Yakutiya's Ust-Yanskiy District, which covers a swath of tundra three times the size of Switzerland, has dropped from 80,000 to just 8,000 in the past five decades.) Now hundreds, if not thousands, of Yakutiyan men have become tusk hunters, following their ancestors' routes, enduring the same brutal conditions-and chasing the same Paleolithic beasts.

As primitive as it may seem, the tusk rush is driven not by ancient callings but by powerful modern forces: the collapse of the Soviet Union and the ensuing frenzy of frontier capitalism, the international ban on trading elephant ivory and the search for alternatives, even the advent of global warming.

Tim Boyle/Getty Images

The Dwarves of Auschwitz
Yehuda Koren and Eilat Negev • The Guardian

How the Ovitzs, a family of Jewish dwarves from Transylvania, survived Auschwitz.

On the night the Ovitzs arrived, Mengele was asleep in his room at the nearby SS headquarters. All the troopers on duty at the ramp, however, knew well of his passion, of his collector's mentality. To gain favour with the freak-hunter, they were always on the lookout for new specimens to enrich his "human circus". While a lone dwarf did not provide reason enough to knock on Mengele's door in the middle of the night, seven dwarves, along with their tall siblings, seemed good cause for disturbance.

While the SS were brutal towards the newly arrived, they were cheerful with the dwarves. Realising this, two families from the Ovitzs' village approached and told the officer they were related. The Ovitzs kept silent and did not prove them wrong. Now they were 22. Mengele hurried out to see his new acquisitions. He was delighted: "I now have work for 20 years," he exclaimed.


Welcome to Cocainebougou
Yochi Dreazen • Foreign Policy

Mali's drug trade illustrates why fully defeating the north-ruling Islamists seems almost impossible.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime estimates that more than $1.25 billion of cocaine, hashish, and other drugs bound for Europe travel along smuggling routes which pass through Mali and other West African nations each year, and former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo described northern Mali earlier this year as "a den of drug trafficking, extremism, and criminality." Even a tiny sliver of the drug money which pours through the region each year would be more than enough for a local kingpin to build a nice house in Cocainebougou.

And there are many here. But now, mostly, they sit empty. The Arabs who owned and lived in many of the mansions in Gao fled a few months ago, when French forces ousted the Islamist fighters who had controlled the city, fearing reprisals from locals who saw them as de facto allies of the extremists.

During a recent visit to the neighborhood I asked my translator, a sweet-natured soccer fanatic named Ibrahim, what would have happened to the Arabs if they had stayed.

"They'd have been killed, of course," he said matter-of-factly.


Afghanistan After the War
Ahmed Rashid • The New Republic

An argument for making peace possible in a country that has been at war for over 34 years.

The debate in Washington about troop numbers is misplaced. It has nothing to do with the major issues facing Afghanistan, which require a transition to a peace plan rather than an exit. The first part of such a plan is the urgent need for talks for a negotiated cease-fire between the Taliban, the United States, and the Afghan government, so that NATO troops can exit with dignity and the horrendous levels of violence can be reduced. Afghanistan cannot be stabilized by fighting to the very last day. And this first negotiation needs to be followed by further talks between the Taliban and Kabul over a political power-sharing arrangement that will enlarge the space for the cease-fire, integrate the Taliban into state structures, and produce an ultimate political agreement to end the conflict.

Aref Karimi/AFP/GettyImages


Gay in the USSR

The forgotten history of gay cruising in Moscow.  

Russia is not an easy place to be gay. Though homosexuality is no longer outright illegal -- and has not been considered a mental disorder since 1999 -- a stubbornly homophobic strain of nationalism persists, as evidenced most recently by an anti-homosexual "propaganda" bill that is gaining momentum in the State Duma.

Russians are at least talking about homosexuality today in a way that wasn't possible during the Soviet period -- a silence that left a gaping hole in Russia's historical record. Today, however, that history has begun to take shape. Artist Yevgeniy Fiks, a Russian-American artist who immigrated to New York in 1994, has pieced some of it together visually for the first time.

In his latest work, Fiks unveils a particularly well-hidden piece of that history: gay cruising under communism. The artist's new book, Moscow, is an evocative but unembellished meditation on gay cruising in the capital city, featuring photographs of the public toilets near the Hermitage Gardens; the stairs to the riverside embankment by Moscow University; the Bolshoi Theater; and many other iconic locations.

Fiks said much of his research comes from historians who wrote about gay life in the Soviet Union from the 1920s to the 1970s. "About 30 percent came from me knowing the places," Fiks said in a Skype interview. "Some of them were common knowledge in Moscow but photographing them was not something people would do. You would not make them into monuments." But that's essentially what Fiks did with his haunting images.

In Russian, a gay cruising site is called "pleshka," which literally means a "clear area." (It also refers to bald spots on the top of the head.)  Toward the end of the Soviet period, the statue of Karl Marx on Sverdlov Square (now Theater Square) was known as "director of the Pleshka."

"This was typical Soviet humor," said Fiks. Gay men and women were poking fun at Marx by turning him into their own gay icon. Similarly, statues of Lenin in regional city centers were known in gay parlance as "Aunt Lena" and men arranged dates in code by saying, "Let's meet at Aunt Lena's.

Moscow, published by Ugly Duckling Presse in 2013, is a mood piece that features the no longer visible, the once furtive. The slim volume showcases lonely streets and empty parks, slick with rain and devoid of people. The result is sad and commemorative.  Released a few weeks ago, the book is just making its way to gay activists in Moscow, Fiks said. "They are accepting this project with interest, but it's still a new concept."

Fiks recalls that many homosexuals were drawn to the promise of Marxism. There was a certain tolerance and even gay liberation in the early years of the Soviet Union, before homosexuality was re-criminalized in 1933 and the community went back underground.

"Gay Soviet history almost doesn't exist," said Fiks, sitting at a desk in New York's Winkleman Gallery on a windy Sunday in February. "The older generation didn't do a lot of talking."

The Brooklyn-based artist, who studied at the College in Memory of the 1905 Revolution and the V.I. Surikov Institute in Moscow, said he researched this project for about two years. "I thought it was important to document the Soviet story. But I left Moscow in 1994. I am a New Yorker already, so it's not organic for me to talk about [gay life] in Russia now. This book is more of a tombstone, mourning those generations who couldn't speak for themselves."

Fiks' third show at New York's Winkleman Gallery, which ran through March 23, showed a more playful and ironic side of the artist cum sociologist, highlighting his roots in the sardonic Sots Art movement.

Fiks plucked the title for his exhibit, "Homosexuality Is Stalin's Atom Bomb to Destroy America," from a 1953 article by Cold War pundit Arthur Guy Matthews. "In the U.S., I really think that the anti-communist and anti-gay crusades coincided and overlapped. The two emerging crusades would reinforce the other," Fiks said. The artist's exhibition took aim at the marriage of anti-communism and homophobia in the United States, finding a wealth of material to work with. In particular, Fiks delved into the "Red" and "Lavender" scares during the McCarthy era, when government officials saw conspiracies everywhere. The federal government and the communist party were both purging homosexuals, fearing security risks. Anti-gay sentiments began to fuse with anti-communist rhetoric.

Two installations focused on one historical figure named Harry Hay, a communist activist who was forced out of the Communist Party and later became one of the founders of the gay rights movement in the United States. In what Fiks calls "a whim of historical irony," Hay appropriated writings of the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin; he used Stalin's definition of national minorities to come up with the idea that gay men and women both constitute a minority.

Fiks depicts an era that no longer appears to exist -- at least in the United States. These days, the two countries are going in very different directions when it comes to gay rights. As of 2013, nine U.S. states and Washington, D.C., recognize same-sex marriage. In Russia, lawmakers recently passed a preliminary version of the gay "propaganda" bill, which activists fear could be used to outlaw homosexuality once again, by a vote of 388 to 1.

Fiks's New York show also puts a fresh lens on the Soviet Union's first nuclear test, an event Americans called "Joe 1." Quotes from Cold War-era figures are at the center of the photographic prints, creating ironic connections between the atom bomb and homosexuality. The exhibit includes prints of gay cruising sites in Washington, D.C., with a cardboard-cutout of a "Joe 1" mushroom cloud placed somewhere in each photograph. "I'm definitely trying to create a parody of the anti-Soviet and anti-gay witch-hunt, where a gay person is represented by a nuclear cloud, six feet tall, and equated with an atom bomb. It's supposed to show this person as a dangerous evil that has to be dealt with," Fiks said.

Likewise, the artist's "Security Risk Map of Manhattan" pinpoints the locations of gay cruising sites and communist meeting places in New York from the 1930s to the 1950s. The map is a kind of geographical commentary on gay and communist connections made in the United States during that time.

From the 1930s until the 1980s, persecution of homosexuals "was the only thing the two superpowers agreed on," said Fiks, who has become increasingly interested in what he calls "less convenient" truths. "They agreed they didn't want gay people and each tried to blame their existence on each other....I definitely wanted to show the grotesque nature of this game."

Yevgeniy Fiks