Longform's Picks of the Week

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.


The Loneliness of Vladimir Putin, by Julia Ioffe, the New Republic

He crushed his opposition and has nothing to show for it but a country that's falling apart.

Putin's fist came down hard after that. On June 11, the homes of Navalny and other opposition leaders were searched. (That morning, Maria Baronova got a call from her terrified nanny, saying that detectives from the state's Investigative Committee had climbed onto the apartment's balcony and turned on an electric saw.) Then came the arrests. The CEO of VKontakte, Russia's version of Facebook, which had played a key part in organizing the protests, was summoned for questioning and was forced to temporarily flee the country in the spring of 2013. Non-loyal media outlets began to close, and others struggled, citing solvency issues that were not totally accidental. Two of Dozhd's biggest advertisers, owned by the same oligarch, tore up their contracts with the channel within ten minutes of each other. By the time I left Moscow in September, there were still a few opposition rallies, but they felt timid and flat. The old Russian fear that had so miraculously vanished that winter came creeping back.

This past December, I went back to Moscow to see what had become of the protest movement and the opposition leaders I had written about during those first heady days. Two Decembers later, Putin was firmly in charge, and Bolotnaya Square was empty. But the future was not quite as clear as it seemed: The opposition was in disarray, and Putin had won his battle against them. And yet, his position seemed even shakier than before.


Inside the Iron Closet: What it's Like to Be Gay in Putin's Russia, by Jeff Sharlet, GQ

On the eve of the Olympics, Jeff Sharlet embeds with the new enemies of the state.

I wanted to see what ordinary LGBT life was like in a nation whose leaders have decided that "homosexualism" is a threat to its "sexual sovereignty," that "genderless tolerance," in Putin's words, is a disease of the West that Russia will cure. The medicine is that of "traditional values," a phrase, ironically, imported from the West, grafted onto a deeply conformist strain of nationalism. In Russia, that means silence and violence, censorship, and in its shadow, much worse.

One of the first men I met was Alex, a gay police officer who'd recently quit his job rather than enforce Russia's new anti-gay law. He wasn't always so principled: One of Alex's early assignments on the force was snooping through a fellow officer's computer for evidence of homosexuality. "I was just lucky it wasn't my computer," Alex said one night at a café on Arbat Street, Moscow's main thoroughfare of consumer hipsterism.

His boyfriend wasn't as glib: "It's Germany in the '30s," he declared. "Hush, hush," Alex said. "Not so loud." It's not Germany in the '30s, he said; it's Russia now. And that's a subtler problem.


Dear America, I Saw You Naked, by Jason Edward Harrington, Politico Magazine

And yes, we were laughing. Confessions of an ex-TSA agent.

Most of my co-workers found humor in the I.O. room on a cruder level. Just as the long-suffering American public waiting on those security lines suspected, jokes about the passengers ran rampant among my TSA colleagues: Many of the images we gawked at were of overweight people, their every fold and dimple on full awful display. Piercings of every kind were visible. Women who'd had mastectomies were easy to discern-their chests showed up on our screens as dull, pixelated regions. Hernias appeared as bulging, blistery growths in the crotch area. Passengers were often caught off-guard by the X-Ray scan and so materialized on-screen in ridiculous, blurred poses -- mouths agape, à la Edvard Munch. One of us in the I.O. room would occasionally identify a passenger as female, only to have the officers out on the checkpoint floor radio back that it was actually a man. All the old, crass stereotypes about race and genitalia size thrived on our secure government radio channels.


Syria's Polio Epidemic: The Suppressed Truth, by Annie Sparrow, the New York Review of Books

A silent health crisis is brewing in Syria.

Once the most feared disease of the twentieth century, polio in most countries had long ago passed into the history books. Syria was no exception. Polio was eliminated there in 1995 following mandatory (and free) immunization introduced in 1964 after the Baath party took power. Yet wildtype 1 polio -- the most vicious form of the disease -- has been confirmed across much of Syria.

Ninety or so afflicted children may sound like a small number, but they are only a tiny manifestation of an enormous problem, since for each crippled child up to one thousand more are silently infected. Polio is so contagious that a single case is considered a public health emergency. Ninety cases could mean some 90,000 people infected, each a carrier invisibly spreading the disease to others for weeks on end.


Streetfighting Men, by Harriet Salem and Graham Stack, Foreign Policy

Is Ukraine's government bankrolling a secret army of Adidas-clad thugs?

But the practice of the government paying civilian muscle -- particularly sportsmen like Titushko -- to do its dirty work has a long history in the post-Soviet space. Ukraine's cult of sport originated during the cold war from fetishism of Olympic medals and was organized through local clubs. When the Soviet system collapsed, funding disappeared and hundreds of thousands of muscle-bound athletes, including boxers and wrestlers, were stranded with little to do. But they quickly found employment working as heavies in Ukraine's burgeoning shadow economy, controlled by the country's organized crime.

Despite attempts at reform following the peaceful Orange Revolution in 2004, the entrenched, symbiotic relationship between organized crime and the state has proved hard to dislodge. And since President Viktor Yanukovych took the reins of the country in 2010, there has been a rapid backward slide on corruption. Ukraine now ranks 144 on Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index -- tied with the Central African Republic, Iran, and Nigeria. "There is historically a very blurred line between the state, business, and criminal elements in Ukraine," says John Dalhuisen, Europe and Central Asia program director at Amnesty International. "That there are reports of connections between titushki and the state is extremely concerning."

David Goldman - Pool/Getty Images; ROBIN UTRECHT/AFP/Getty Images; Brad Graverson-Pool/Getty Images; LOUAI BESHARA/AFP/Getty Images; ARIS MESSINIS/AFP/Getty Images


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.

Ghosts of the Tsunami, by Richard Lloyd Parry, the London Review of Books

In the aftermath of a tsunami that claimed 20,000 lives, stories of unhappy spirits haunt Japan.

The tsunami did appalling violence to the religion of the ancestors. Along with walls, roofs and people, the water carried away household altars, memorial tablets and family photographs. Cemetery vaults were ripped open and the bones of the dead scattered. Temples were destroyed, along with memorial books listing the names of ancestors over generations. ‘The memorial tablets - it's difficult to exaggerate their importance,' Yozo Taniyama, a priest and friend of Reverend Kaneda, told me. ‘When there's a fire or an earthquake, the ihai are the first thing many people will save, before money or documents. People died in the tsunami because they went home for the ihai. It's life - like saving your late father's life.'

When people die violently or prematurely, in anger or anguish, they are at risk of becoming gaki, ‘hungry ghosts', who wander between worlds, propagating curses and mischief. There are rituals for placating unhappy spirits, but in the aftermath of the disaster few families were in a position to perform them. And then there were those ancestors whose descendants were entirely wiped out by the wave. Their comfort in the afterlife depended entirely on the reverence of living families, which had been permanently and irrevocably cut off: their situation was as helpless as that of orphaned children.

Thousands of spirits had passed from life to death; countless others were cut loose from their moorings in the afterlife. How could they all be cared for? Who was to honour the compact between the living and the dead? In such circumstances, how could there fail to be a swarm of ghosts?

Far from Home, by Cynthia Gorney, National Geographic

On the foreign workers of Dubai, who now make up more than 90 percent of the city.

Difficult living conditions for foreign workers can be found everywhere in the world. But everything about Dubai is exaggerated. The city's modern history starts just over a half century ago, with the discovery of oil in nearby Abu Dhabi, then a separate and independent sheikhdom. The United Arab Emirates was founded in 1971 as a national federation encompassing six of these sheikhdoms-the seventh joined the following year-and since Dubai had comparatively little oil, the city's royal family used its portion of the country's new riches to transform the small trading city into a commercial capital to dazzle the world. The famous indoor ski slope is only one wing of a Dubai shopping mall, which is not even the biggest of the city's many malls; that one contains a three-story aquarium and a full-size ice hockey rink. The tallest building on the planet is in Dubai; Tom Cruise was seen rappelling down its outer wall in one of the Mission: Impossible movies. Nearly everywhere the visitor looks, things are extravagant and new.

And because the men who conceived contemporary Dubai decided that their spectacular city would be assembled and serviced by workers from other countries-there were too few Emiratis to do it, and why would a newly wealthy nation expect its adults to wait tables or pour cement in 120-degree-Fahrenheit heat when it could afford to invite outsiders to perform these tasks?-they ended up doing this in exaggerated fashion too. Of the 2.1 million people in Dubai, only about one in ten is Emirati. The rest are the global economy's loaners, working on temporary contracts with the understanding that they will never be offered Emirati citizenship.

Twilight on the Tundra, by Julia Phillips, the Morning News

An adventure on the Beringia, a dog sled race stretching 685 miles over Russia's frozen tundra.

How do you see what the mushers see? You mush. Turn in an application to the Beringia, a dog sled race stretching over Russia's easternmost tundra. In 1991, the Beringia was awarded a Guinness Word Record for longest mushing trail ever. This year it covers 685 miles. Buy, borrow, or build a sled. Breed, beg for, or steal your dogs. These dogs are sometimes vicious. Their snouts carry pink-hooked scars. Shout at your team. Break up a fight and tear your hands open. In the beginning of March, make your way to the village of Esso, at the heart of the remote Kamchatka peninsula, nearly 5,000 miles from Moscow. Meet your competitors; lower your head so organizers can drape a yellow jersey over your shoulders; stand on a stage next to Kamchatka's governor; smile, wave; check your dogs' harnesses one last time and lift the toothed snow anchor that had been holding your sled in place; mush.

If you're not a musher, you can still make it across those 685 miles of snow. You just have to figure out how. Here's my advice: Live in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky. Kamchatka's capital, Petropavlovsk is a slowly shrinking settlement of 175,000 people supported by commercial fishing, summer tourism, and the military-industrial complex. Learn to love life there. Compose newspaper articles about the peninsula. Discover that you're the only journalist around who's working in the English language. Figure out where the Beringia headquarters is, show up every day, make coffee for the three men who organize the race, and wash their mugs. Be patient. One morning you'll find you're in the right place at, finally, the right time-the race leader says you can accompany them as a writer.

Secrets from Belfast, by Beth McMurtrie, the Chronicle of Higher Education

How Boston College's oral history of the Troubles fell victim to an international murder investigation.

To many academic observers the Boston College case, as troubling as it was, remains an oddity. Not many oral historians choose to interview members of paramilitary organizations. And few universities contract out such work.

But the case has had a chilling effect among scholars. Richard L. English, director of the Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at the University of St. Andrews, in Scotland, says he has heard from a number of researchers seeking advice about whether to pursue research on political violence if it includes interviewing those involved in conflict. "I think the fallout is much wider than Northern Ireland," he says. "There has been a shadow cast over this kind of research."

Clifford M. Kuhn, executive director of the Oral History Association, says the Belfast Project offers several lessons. Make sure you consult your legal team in advance, for one, and get the top administration on board. "Perhaps a word of wisdom is, if you have this kind of project," he adds, "don't open it up until all participants are deceased. At the very least, do your best not to publicize it."

The Littlest Boy, by Adam Rawnsley and David Brown, Foreign Policy

Twenty years after Hiroshima, elite American troops trained to stop a Soviet invasion -- with nuclear weapons strapped to their backs.

In the event that communist forces launched a limited, non-nuclear attack, the president would have to choose between defeat at the hands of a superior conventional force or a staggeringly disproportionate (and potentially suicidal) strategic nuclear exchange that would kill hundreds of millions of people.

To provide options between "red" and "dead," the United States soon embraced the concept of limited nuclear war, championing tactical atomic weapons designed for use in combat. If Warsaw Pact forces ever bolted from East Germany and Czechoslovakia toward Western Europe, the United States could resort to nukes to at least delay the communist advance long enough for reinforcements to arrive. These "small" weapons, many of them more powerful than the nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima, would have obliterated any battlefield and irradiated much of the surrounding area. But they provided options.

Cold War strategy was filled with oxymorons like "limited nuclear war," but the backpack nuke was perhaps the most darkly comic manifestation of an age struggling to deal with the all-too-real prospect of Armageddon. The SADM was a case of life imitating satire. After all, much like Slim Pickens1 in the iconic finale of Dr. Strangelove, American soldiers would strap on atomic bombs and jump out of airplanes as part of the opening act of World War III.