The incredible incompetence of the Belgian medical profession as exposed by Covid-19

This evening’s edition of European news on BBC World has featured the medical disaster in the making in Belgium, to be more precise in the southern city of Liege and the Region of Wallonia to which it belongs. The reportage focused attention on the directives to medical staff in Liege “to keep on working even if they have coronavirus amid a surge in cases and hospital admissions.” The source of this information is the 10 hospitals in the city of Liege and the head of the Belgian Association of Medical Unions, who told the BBC that “they had no choice if they were to prevent the hospital system collapsing within days.”

The report offers the further quote from this high official in the profession that merits inclusion here for what it says about the ‘in the box’ thinking that prevails throughout this country and makes a mockery of the Hippocratic oath and the principle of ‘do no harm’:  “Dr. Philippe Devos acknowledged that there was an obvious risk of transferring the virus to patients.”

This is shocking in the extreme. At the same time the BBC reporter did not tweak out something bigger and damning in its own way, because it points to gross incompetence in a profession that is largely protected by guild walls and suffers no reproaches from laymen.  I have in mind precisely the fact that 25% or more of the Liege medical staff have caught the virus and are infectious.  Half a year after the start of the pandemic, after all that doctors in the medical world have learned about this insidious viral agent, after all that has been done to provide the Personal Protective Equipment that was so sorely lacking in March, the signs are that Liege doctors have not gotten the point any better than the insouciant youths. Have these doctors not learned the medical protocols of their PPEs? Or are they careless in their home lives? The evidence points in these directions. In some countries medical staff treating Covid are kept on the job isolated from friends and family; they live in hotels for this purpose.  And in Belgium?  While we are pulling back the scabs to look at the wounds, we may ask if our medical staff have finally learned how to work with respirators, which they clearly did not know back in March, judging by the massive loss of life among those in Intensive Care Units.

Belgians complain about incompetence in government at home, behind closed doors. There is very little stomach here for open discussion of the degree and causes of this incompetence, which evidently find full counterparts in the medical profession judging by the disastrous facts in the day’s news about Liege and Wallonia.

The source of incompetence is called corruption, and corruption is built into the political system here by the ultra-sophisticated practice of power sharing that enables the two nations of Belgium, French-speakers and Dutch speakers, to spare one another’s throats and enjoy the fruits of governing without concern over competence or popular will.  The problem is compounded by another ultra-progressive political principle built into the practice of governance – proportional representation, which encourages a proliferation of political parties, which in recent decades numbered already double what they had in the 1960s due to party organizations stopping at the linguistic borders. There is a constant search for a parliamentary majority through coalition building, where policy consistency goes out the window for the sake of nose-counting and finding bedfellows however ‘strange’ they may be.  Call it “Vivaldi,” call it “Swedish,” call it anything but decisive.

Belgium did not invent proportional representation, which is fairly common on the Continent. But it has suffered more than most other countries from its baleful side effects, such as the unreasonable time to form a government enjoying the confidence of parliament from the last general election in May 2019 to a couple of weeks ago.  It was under an acting government that the authorities first tried to cope with Covid.

The time to pay the piper has arrived in the person of Covid 19.  It is merciless with incompetence, and we, the people are paying the price. The mortality to population rate in Belgium during the first wave of Covid was one of the highest in the world. To all appearances, we cannot expect better results in Wave Two.

Despite the widespread expectation that a second wave would strike in autumn, the government never prepared dedicated hospitals to divert Covid patients away from the regular hospital services and preserve some quality of medical care for the non-Covid ill. Moreover, it did nothing to pool the expertise of practicing virologists and so raise the chances of successful treatment. Instead bean-counting methods were and evidently still are used to arrive at some notional fair distribution of Covid patients among the existing hospitals, whatever their degree of relevant expertise.

The curfew, closing of restaurants and bars, closing of museums, theaters and cinemas, closing of sports clubs and other curbs on personal liberty that were decreed in Belgium over the past week are good, though not enough to stop the virus in its tracks. That would take re-imposition of total lockdown and no one is yet prepared to take a step which is knowingly so destructive of the economy.  More to the point, the measures taken now are weeks if not months later than should have been. It took no insight of genius to understand that the street bars where Belgian youth were partying this past summer were very likely a cesspool of infection because whatever regulations on social distancing there were, you could not count on the young bar personnel to enforce them. Very likely thousands of good Belgian citizens will die as a consequence and no one, least of all the leaders of the medical profession and the political leaders in the previous and present cabinets will pay any price for their failure to act in a timely way.

As the current President of the United States, known for his way with words, would surely Tweet if presented with these facts:  “NOT GOOD!!”

Meanwhile, on the more hopeful note, the Belgian dailies Le Soir and La Libre Belgique this evening report on the appeal Wallonian medical authorities have made to The Netherlands to transfer there Covid patients who cannot find hospital beds and doctors where they live.  So far the Dutch have said they are taking the request under consideration as they remain uncertain how long their own excess capacity will last.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2020 

[If you found value in this article, you should be interested to read my latest collection of essays entitled A Belgian Perspective on International Affairs, published in November 2019 and available in e-book, paperback and hardbound formats from amazon, barnes & noble,, fnac, Waterstones and other online retailers. Use the “View Inside” tab on the book’s webpages to browse.]

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Letter to a friend in Seattle as Election Day approaches

hello, John

Thanks for your latest message, your thoughts and experiences as the plague year progresses.

Yes, sadly Europe is in the midst of a full-blown second wave.  Here in Belgium, and more particularly in Brussels, we are experiencing some of the Continent’s worst infection and hospitalization rates. Daily deaths remain a lagging indicator but are still ten times what they were in July.

As in the States, each of the three regions in this country imposes its own restrictions to deal with the problem. Yesterday the Brussels-Capital Region where we live imposed a 10pm to 6am curfew, ordered all stores to shut at 8pm, closed all museums, theaters and betting parlors (!), closed all sports clubs and amateur sporting events (professional football still going strong but in audience-less stadiums).  All restaurants and bars were closed for a month earlier in the week.

How does all this affect us?  Not really.  We were not among the partying and careless youth. We were among the crazed with fear overwhelming majority of adults who to a man or woman is now wearing masks, who try to enter and leave the tram by pushing the door opening button with their elbows, who make a big arc around one another on the sidewalks and engage in other silly, bizarre acts of self-protection.

As one big skull and crossbones going into the All-Saints Day holiday (no Holloween community rounds this year) in the past week we all read with horror that our acting prime minister who stepped down two weeks ago to become foreign minister when a proper cabinet enjoying confidence of Parliament was installed, our dear Sophie, aged 46 and with no known underlying health problems, is now in Intensive Care with Covid. Caught in the family, she supposes.  Fingers crossed that she gets out alive.

As I may have mentioned to you, we turned in our 14 year old Toyota back in March when lockdown hit, there was nowhere to go, and we decided to cut our unnecessary expenses, which were very heavy for a car that was used only to do 4,000 miles a year for more than a decade.    So we were carless!  The first step to restoring mobility was my purchase of a folding bike. Haven’t folded it up yet, because it sits in our front vestibule and I take it our 5 times a week to do heavy service – a15 mile circuit out to the forest bike lanes and back.   Then several weeks ago we discovered Zen, an hourly car rental company all done via an app on your smart phone.  And, surprise of surprises, the cars are all electric.  It has been a great pleasure to find the Renault and the BMW cars I have rented from them to be peppy, with excellent steering and braking properties, as well as the usual creature comforts you associate with BMW.  So, despite myself, I have truly gone Green.

Yes, the election day is approaching.  I imagine that you, like all civilized Americans have cast your vote for Uncle Joe and the Dems.   I have become a more consistent contrarian and voted by mail for The Donald, much as I detest him.  You, like 99% of Americans are surely focused on domestic policies where Donald is Satan incarnate.  I, living abroad, am scarcely affected by what the US does with healthcare, abortion, LGBTQ rights and the environment, whereas I am professionally and personally involved in foreign policy up to my neck.  And in that one domain, Uncle Joe is an ugly American Imperialist who would never get my vote. 

Of course, my Donald vote in New York changes nothing. And even that vote is cancelled in our family by our daughter’s vote for Biden.  Larisa sagely decided ‘a plague on both their houses’ and isn’t voting.

Finally, with regard to the plague:  Donald was very right when he said in the last debate that or was it in an interview just prior to the debate that “a lot of very smart people around the world are running countries which are not doing better than here in the USA.”  Sad but perfectly true. 

In a comparative sense, all of the West has gone down hard from Covid while the much more regimented East has done remarkably well.  I think of Schoenberg’s opera “Moses and Aaron” which highlights the dilemma of leadership, namely that the smartest leader cannot get too far out in front of his people or things go awry. They start worshipping the Golden Calf, whatever Moses says.   And I think also of an interview that Italian Prime Minister Conti gave to the BBC during the summer, when the Covid was at an ebb. Asked if he regretted how he managed the crisis in Lombardy back in March, when Italy became the epicenter of the crisis and lost more than 30,000 citizens in a matter of weeks.  Conti said yes and no.  “Had I imposed full lockdown then, everyone would have said Conti has gone mad.” Yes, he would have been deposed.  The people were not ready for hardship till 30,000 innocents were dead.   And so a Biden presidency would not have produced better outcomes in the States.  Still you have lower death to population ratios than here in Europe despite all the missteps and stupidities that you see all around you.

So, let’s continue to take what pleasure there is in the human comedy. Larisa and I have been drinking up more champagne than usual and have been quaffing all of the remaining 1996 and 1998 bottles of Bordeaux in the basement.  You can’t take it with you!

all the best – and good cheer

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2020 

[If you found value in this article, you should be interested to read my latest collection of essays entitled A Belgian Perspective on International Affairs, published in November 2019 and available in e-book, paperback and hardbound formats from amazon, barnes & noble,, fnac, Waterstones and other online retailers. Use the “View Inside” tab on the book’s webpages to browse.]

Charlie Hebdo and French anti-Muslim bigotry

Once again I am grateful to RT International for prompting me to get my mind around one of the top international news developments of the day and to respond to their interviewer on live television, which by its nature demands tight logic lest you appear to be a bumbler and lose your rights to the next invitation on air.

The phone call solicitation took place yesterday morning at  10.00am Brussels time and I was given 20 minutes to pull together a commentary on President Macron’s statement to the French nation on the brutal murder of a history schoolteacher in a suburb of Paris which I had noted briefly from the corner of my eye in my daily post-breakfast read through the Financial Times and New York Times newspapers on line, but had not read attentively.

Now, in preparation for the interview, I dutifully went straight to Le Figaro to see what middle of the road French elites were saying about the event.  Decapitation, as occurred in this case, would surely bring to the surface the emotions most relevant to the fundamental issues.

I was not disappointed. The editorial in yesterday’s Figaro was blunt and to the point: “Liberty versus Barbarism.”  Indeed, the whole tragic incident was cast in terms of a civilizational divide. The tone went well beyond defending the values of the French Revolution which still govern political thought in the country today, namely separation of state and religion, or secularism, the famous French laïcité.  Freedom of expression was, in American political parlance, being instrumentalized as the “dog whistle” to bring on popular outrage yet again against the Muslims in their midst. And who are they?  They are 15% or so of the general population consisting traditionally of 1960s arrivals from former French colonies in North Africa and their progeny, but more recently also of Muslim refugees from further afield, like Chechnya, the ethnic  origin of the Moscow-born assailant in Friday’s murderous attack.

For those who might question going into such a television interview on the basis of reading a couple of news bulletins, I hasten to add that the points I was about to raise had been on my mind ever since the bombing of the editorial offices of the irreverent, sarcastic and often outrageous French news rag Charlie Hebdo five years ago. I had kept my silence over that tragedy, though I had believed the editorial board had abused freedom of speech to publish images that would be knowingly deeply shocking and offensive to the Muslim faithful.  Quite without baiting, they are a population in France which is often highly resentful of the powers that be going back to the vicious treatment they received in the Algerian war of independence, which was topped up ever since by resentments over their economic hardships as an under-class in modern France. They live in gilded cages of social housing at the periphery of metropolitan areas like Paris where they are cut off from the economy and where integration into the broader culture is hindered.

Charlie Hebdo dared to poke Muslims in the eye because the editorial board was confident, and rightly so, that the anti-Muslim disposition of French middle classes and intellectuals would back them up. It was all about freedom of expression, adding to their laurels while attracting new readers and subscribers. Wrong!  It was crying “Fire!” in the midst of a cinema screening.

Allow me to dot the “i”:  my personal acquaintances from among respectable, intellectually sound French middle class people leaves me in no doubt that they are deeply prejudiced against their Muslim compatriots. Let me use a more pungent word:  they are bigoted. It shows up in their smirks when anti-Muslim jokes circulate at cocktail parties or when making small talk at table. Everyone can express wistful regret over the taxes being paid to support Muslim men, their harems, and numerous offspring at the expense of the French state.

My heart goes out to the family of the brutally murdered school teacher, Samuel Paty. We are told today that what he did to attract the attention of those now in detention who aided and abetted his murder was not very different from what many other schoolteachers across France have been doing in their classes ever since the Charlie Hebdo bombing of 2015: he presented to the class copies of the infamous cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed published in that weekly, with the intention to illustrate the topic of freedom of expression and secularism. Indeed, not only because of the shocking nature of the murder but also because of the generalized practices of their profession, schoolteachers across France are coming out onto the streets today to express their solidarity.

They are wrong.

Monsieur Paty knew well that there were in his class a goodly number of Muslim believers who could find the cartoons deeply offensive and he proposed that they leave the classroom to be spared the mental anguish. That is to say, he openly divided his classroom into Christians and Muslims and bade the latter to step out of the room.  Is that wise? Does that contribute to what we in “values driven” Europe like to call inclusiveness?  Without meaning to, he was tempting fate.

It is paradoxical that France can practice openly anti-Muslim policies and rhetoric under cover of secularism and freedom of speech at the very time when the United States is experiencing a paroxysm of political correctness whereby you can lose your employment for giving the slightest hint of offense to high visibility minorities such as LGBTQ or Blacks. Both extremes need corrective action so as to apply the rule of reason if we are to enjoy societies that are peaceful and also free.

As regards President Macron, whose address to the nation denouncing Islamic terrorism was the starting point of my talk on RT International, there was one point in his proposed remedial actions which I can freely support: introducing study of Arabic into the public schools so as to draw the Muslim youth away from the mosques and their radicalizing imams. It would be better still if he began to direct attention to the economic roots of Islamic radicalism in his country. Closer attention to immigration policy, in particular to the issue of family reunifications might also be very helpful in curbing the tendency for new immigrants to resist integration into the broader society.  This is another issue where Liberal values run straight into contradiction with common sense.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2020 [If you found value in this article, you should be interested to read my latest collection of essays entitled A Belgian Perspective on International Affairs, published in November 2019 and available in e-book, paperback and hardbound formats from amazon, barnes & noble,, fnac, Waterstones and other online retailers. Use the “View Inside” tab on the book’s webpages to browse.]

Nagorno-Karabakh and unrelenting, mounting US/EU pressure on the Kremlin

The fierce conflict in the Nagorno-Karabakh is not what it seems.  Least of all is this a civilizational struggle between barbaric Muslim Azeris and victimized Christian Armenians.  That is how it is being portrayed in the United States, in France and in other Western countries where there are substantial Armenian émigré communities which are and have long been politically active.  It is how the conflict is being portrayed by the Prime Minister of Armenia Nikol Pashinyan, who has raised the very emotive issue of “genocide” in speaking of what would happen to his people if the Azeris reconquer Nagorno-Karabakh, with the help of Turkish drones and jihadist mercenaries from Syria allegedly being introduced into the campaign by the Turks.

Given the succession of French, American and other resolutions in recent years recognizing the claims of Armenians to have been victims of planned genocide through forced relocations under the Ottoman rulers in the last years of their empire, this charge of intended genocide is calculated to win support in the West whatever the truth of who started the latest fighting and for what purpose.

Why is this occurring now?  The Azeris say that George Soros is behind it all. They accuse Pashinyan of taking Soros money and being caught in the Soros organization’s spider web of malign influence which in this instance would fit very well with plans in Washington as outlined below.  Pashinyan denies a tie-in with Soros, but why would the Azeris spin this out of thin air when there are so many other grounds for explaining what they say was an Armenian attack on their positions at the start the present armed conflict?

To be sure, it could be Turkish backing for the Azeris that lies behind the present fighting and a possible Azeri attack at the start of the exchange.  Why now?  Because Turkey’s president Erdogan is flexing his muscles in the region and would not mind appearing to be pressing on the Russian zone of influence in the Caucasus, which Armenia has till now represented. This would improve his standing in Washington even as it raises more hackles in Paris, which is staunchly pro-Armenian.   It would be treacherous in relation to the Russians, but then again Turkey and Russia are at odds in Libya and Syria, so one more bone of contention would not change much in a relationship that is driven purely by Realpolitik.

One may safely assume that the predisposition of the governor of California and of many members of Congress in favor of Armenia does not carry much weight with the Pentagon or the State Department. And a war between Azerbaijan and Armenia that potentially draws into the conflict Turkey, Iran and Russia would serve very handsomely the US policy with respect to all three states, most particularly policy towards Russia.

It is not for nothing that the Financial Times and other mainstream Western media were well prepared to explain the outbreak of violence in Nagorno-Karabakh as one more evidence of the Kremlin losing control over its “near abroad,” that is one more foreign policy failure of Vladimir Putin.  To their surprise and surely to their disappointment, the Kremlin did not go for this bait and Russia has so far remained neutral in the dispute so as to offer its good services to both sides as honest broker. Yes, Russia has a defense treaty and a military base in Armenia, but their pact excludes the Nagorno-Karabakh. Talks in Moscow last week arranged by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov brought about a truce which in latest reporting has proven to be less than perfect, but still has prevented the continuation of all out warfare in the region.

The fires burning at Russia’s borders in the Caucasus are an add-on to the disorder and conflict on its Western border in neighboring Belarus, where fuel is poured on daily by pyromaniacs at the head of the European Union acting surely in concert with Washington.

Yesterday we learned of the decision of the European Council to impose sanctions on President Lukashenko, a nearly unprecedented action when directed against the head of state of a sovereign nation. It signifies not a lever for negotiations but an end to negotiations, a step just short of outright declaration of war.  From this perspective, I conclude that the objective is not at all what it is proclaimed to be, that is to change the behavior of the country’s president and force him to negotiate with the one opposition recognized by the EU, Mrs. Tikhanovskaya.

She alone enjoys the unlimited support of the Baltic States and Poland. She alone has been received and been shown all courtesies appropriate to a head of government by President Macron of France and Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany. Lukashenko’s talks with imprisoned opposition personalities in Minsk in the past week to discuss constitutional reform which he says are precondition to any new elections evidently count for nothing in the eyes of the EU leadership which has its own very specific outcome of regime change in its sites.

 In any case, Mr. Lukashenko’s back was already against the wall even before the imposition of personal sanctions on him and there is nowhere for him to go except on a still tougher policy of arrests and police force against the ever more violent and radical street demonstrators. It is easy enough to see that the real intent of the sanctions is to put pressure on the Kremlin, which is Lukashenko’s guarantor in power, to compound the several other measures being implemented simultaneously in the hope that Putin and his entourage will finally crack and submit to American global hegemony as Europe did long ago.

The other pressure points are the phony poisoning of opposition blogger Alexei Navalny with Novichok which is laid before Vladimir Putin’s door explicitly by Navalny in an interview with Spiegel last week. The same is implicit in all the recriminations against Russia over its failure to satisfy EU demands for “clarification” of the poisoning. Here German Foreign Minister Maas has been doing the heavy lifting for his Chancellor.

Finally, there are the ongoing reckless American flights of B-52s armed with cruise missiles to the sea borders of Russia from the Black Sea, Baltic Sea, Sea of Okhotsk and elsewhere. As I mentioned in these pages a couple of weeks ago, these threatening maneuvers which have gone beyond surveillance and turned into mock war exercises come to more than 40 approaches a week, compelling the Russian Air Force to scramble to turn back the potential attackers.

Add to the mix, the steady flow of threats against all participants in the Nord Stream gas pipeline project coming from Washington.

Why are we seeing this unprecedented political, military and economic pressure on the Kremlin? Why now?

I have a couple of tentative explanations.

First, there is the belated reaction of US and Allied forces to the clear emergence of Russia as a step ahead of the West in developing and deploying cutting edge strategic weapons systems that are game changers.   I have in mind in particular the Avangard hypersonic missiles, which have received ample coverage in Russian media. With reference to Avangard, Vladimir Putin said a week ago when presenting an award to the long-time head of the factory that developed and is producing them, it represents the first time ever that Russia has pulled ahead of the USA in strategic weapons.  In the past, the Soviet Union was always playing catch-up to US advances in nuclear weapons, in delivery systems and the like. Moreover, there is additionally an entire panoply of new age weapons undergoing simultaneous testing and entry into serial production. These have the cumulative effect of providing Russia with invincibility against all currently deployed Western attack and defense systems.

Secondly, on the level of the Information War which the US has been waging against Russia ever since Vladimir Putin’s speech before the Munich Security Conference in February 2007, I see the present campaign of multiple threats against Russia as a push-back against the Russians coming out first with a Covid 19 vaccine. Moscow played up its achievement for all it was worth by dubbing the vaccine Sputnik V, in open reference to the shock and awe technical achievement of the Soviet Union in putting the first artificial satellite into orbit in 1957. Like the spectacular original Sputnik, Russia’s latest attention-grabbing vaccine puts to shame all Western developers and Western governments. Here we see the brilliance of Russian science highlighted, a fact which goes unnoticed in the usual metrics of achievement, namely the number of patents filed annually and number of peer-reviewed scientific works published annually.  More to the point, Russia’s political leaders have shown great boldness in moving to save lives and to save the livelihoods of their population threatened by lockdowns, all by overruling the kind of ass-covering bureaucrats who are running the health services elsewhere, particularly in the EU and the USA.

The anti-Russia full tilt ahead policy outlined above is going on against a background of the U.S. presidential electoral campaigns.  The Democrats continue to try to depict Donald Trump as “Putin’s puppy,” as if the President has been kindly to his fellow autocrat while in office. Of course, under the dictates of the Democrat-controlled House and with the complicity of the anti-Russian staff in the State Department, in the Pentagon, American policy towards Russia over the entire period of Trump’s presidency has been one of never ending ratcheting up of military, informational, economic and other pressures in the hope that Vladimir Putin or his entourage would crack. Were it not for the nerves of steel of Mr. Putin and his close advisers, the irresponsible pressure policies outlined above could result in aggressive behavior and risk taking by Russia that would make the Cuban missile crisis look like child’s play.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2020

[If you found value in this article, you should be interested to read my latest collection of essays entitled A Belgian Perspective on International Affairs, published in November 2019 and available in e-book, paperback and hardbound formats from amazon, barnes & noble,, fnac, Waterstones and other online retailers. Use the “View Inside” tab on the book’s webpages to browse.]

Lecture to the Brussels Dialogue Youth Forum, 09 October 2020

“Shared History and Common Future” Discussion platform No. 1: “History Lessons: facts and fakes”

Russian Centre for Science and Culture in Brussels

I would like to bring some general perspectives of historical science to this discussion. Let us take a brief walk through the history of history, what is called historiography. This can give us a proper context for considering what we all surely consider to be dangerous distortions in current accounts of World War II, its causes and aftermath, without being overwhelmed or greatly discouraged by what we see going on.

First, history is always being re-written. That did not start yesterday and it will not end tomorrow. In itself, this is not cause for concern. “Revisionism” is a natural phenomenon.  And it is not just the result of new facts coming to the surface as archives are opened and memoirs are written.

Each generation seeks in history narratives that are relevant to its problems, challenges, ambitions.

Once upon a time, history meant the study of dynasties, monarchs.  Once upon a time there was interest in great men who were assumed to have shaped the world we know.  Once upon a time there was a focus on diplomatic history.

Today, only a few specialists work in these areas.  Over the past forty or fifty years, history as a discipline moved into areas that the public has wanted to hear about:  social history, the history of women, the history of various minorities in multicultural societies, such as Black History in the United States.

These developments are all healthy and the natural evolution of history as a social science that answers questions of interest to the general public and not only to a few scholars.

It is also understandable that with the end of the Cold War and the emergence of new state structures in Central and Eastern Europe history has been enlisted and encouraged in each of these countries to assist in the task of nation building and establishing or reestablishing national identity.

The problem arises when the political leadership, when national elites encourage a propagandistic turn in the creation of national narratives, when these narratives are used to strengthen the hold on power of one or another faction within a given country and when historical grievances are used to justify flagrant distortions of fact, as is often the case today in how the Baltic States, Poland and even seemingly reasonable states distant from the front lines like the Czech Republic characterize the role of the Soviet Union – namely as conqueror, enslaver rather than as liberator from the scourge of Hitlerism or as initiator of the war with the same or even greater culpability than Berlin.

We all are aware of the destruction these past several years of monuments to the Red Army and its heroic soldiers in Estonia, Latvia, Poland and the Czech Republic, to name only the most egregious offenders.  However, this also did not start yesterday.  

As I was reading through my diaries in preparation for a book of memoirs that I will soon be publishing, I found notes from a visit I made to Prague on Sunday, 16 June 1991.

“We are unwittingly witnesses to the removal of the now famous ‘pink tank’ statue symbolizing the Soviet liberation of Prague in WWII. It has been defaced since the revolution and now is unceremoniously removed by cranes as Czechs gawk. “ 

Of course, the failure to pay due respect to the overwhelming contribution of the Soviet Union to the victory over fascism in WWII exists as well in Western Europe.  Here the distortions have a different basis: in the wish of the sponsors and leaders of European integration to put behind them the past murderous hatreds of French and Germans that devastated the Continent.  It is not for nothing that Angela Merkel was given all possible attention and respect at the various ceremonies marking the start of WWII whereas Vladimir Putin was marginalized. You could almost be confused over who was the winning coalition and who was the losing aggressor when watching Euronews coverage.

More generally, in Western Europe the murderous emotions of past conflicts over the centuries have made history a very dangerous subject.  Indeed, here in Belgium a couple of years ago very controversial changes were made to instruction of history in the public school system. The number of hours a week devoted to history in the classroom was sharply reduced in favor of other less controversial social sciences dedicated to the present and future.  Can you wonder then that the West European public does not know how to respond here to the awful lies being propagated by our friends in Poland, Lithuania, etc.

I can appreciate why in Western Europe history is a problematic subject for instruction when I think of our own family experience.  Our daughter was schooled here in Brussels and for a time when she was twelve or so was enrolled in the Lycee Francais.  Over dinner one day we asked her about what she was studying. She said they were reading about Napoleon, who was a very great man.  My wife objected: but Napoleon killed so many people.  Our daughter replied at once:  but they were only English! 

Such attitudes fostered in the Lycee Francais at that time go a long way to explaining why history as a discipline is avoided in our present age of political correctness.

Then let us look across the Atlantic to the United States where it would seem that history has no future as a discipline. Just a few months ago we watched on television how bronze and marble statues to generals of the Confederate Army in the South were being taken down in the presence of hostile mobs which were very emotional and were fired up by the Black Lives Matter movement.  At the same time we heard arguments discrediting the Founding Fathers of the United States. It was pointed out that George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and others were all slave-owners.  There were calls to rename the capital of the country to blot out Washington, D.C. 

These same historical revisionists published materials showing that the President who took the United States into World War I to “make the world safe for democracy,” Princeton professor Woodrow Wilson, had been a supporter of the Ku Klux Klan.  Princeton University administrators lost no time removing his name from what had been till now the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. Remember, this was the man who promoted a “values based” foreign policy that challenged the traditional “interests based” foreign policy of the Realist School of political science.   And though the decision of Princeton took place in the midst of great public uproar, just a few years ago, in much calmer times, when attending my 50th anniversary reunion at Harvard University, I heard administrators explain how they had changed the names of several old buildings in the Harvard Yard and had installed plaques to show in which buildings slaves had been quartered in the 18th and early 19th centuries.

I can point to a similar movement striking at ‘great men’ whose values of their day violate our values of today in the tearing down of monuments to great patrons and founders of charitable works in the UK, in Bristol, due to their association with the slave trade.  Here in Belgium there have been acts of vandalism against memorials to King Leopold the Second, for the atrocities committed in his name in The Congo.

The problem all these acts pose is what will remain of history in general if we apply the values of today to the distant past.  It is cheap populism to attack the memory of prominent people who lived hundreds of years ago and lived under different value systems.  Take care: our value systems of today also will not last forever and in time the descendants of the same champions we see in the streets today will expunge us from their past.

I argue that the brave and commendable thing to do is to fight for one’s values against today’s violators – something which you hardly see happen here in the West. If that were done we would have seen the trial for crimes against humanity committed in Iraq by former US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and former US Vice President Dick Cheney. Nothing of the sort happened.

Returning to the questions before our expert panel today, what can I recommend to youth to counter the propagandistic distortions of history surrounding World War II and in particular the vile accusations brought against the Soviet Union by politicians in the Baltics, in Poland and elsewhere in Eastern Europe?  My recommendation is to do your best to study the facts as they are set out in the archival documents that are freely available in your libraries, and from the best professional historians in Russia, in the United States, in the United Kingdom.  There is no way you will win an argument with the current generation of nationalists in Eastern Europe who care not at all for objective truth.  But with the passage of time, reason will return even in those countries now blighted by anti-Russian prejudice.

In support of this recommendation, I urge our local governments to do more to honor good teachers and to provide them with incentives.  History like other subjects can be dull or exciting depending on the instructor. A charismatic teacher who challenges young people by feeding their curiosity, by bringing them into the discovery of historical truth will be the best force for combatting the fake history put up by propagandists.  I urge history teachers to give their students source documents, archival documents to read and interpret already in secondary school.

One further thought in response to those colleagues who today expressed concern at the distortions and “fake news” over World War II that are being disseminated not by politicians and the third rate historians they hand feed but by private extremist portals and loudmouth bloggers in the social media: the notion that Facebook, Twitter and similar media should be enforcers of the moderate, irreproachable consensus and should prevent the ‘deplorables,” as Hilary Clinton so colorfully called them, from polluting the minds of our youth shows contempt for the right of free speech and complete misunderstanding of what education is all about. 

There always were and always will be those who advocate censorship to keep the population on the straight and narrow path. They are by nature elitists who fail to see the common sense so abundant in the overall population and so uncommon in their own midst.

The best protection against “fake news” in the social media is providing a solid education to youth.  The purpose of education is not a corpus of knowledge, though that is essential. The purpose is to support thinking for oneself, arriving at an internal compass and ability to scrutinize incoming information.  Those in possession of their own North Star and an ability to reason that is cultivated by discussion and debate will have no need of censors to protect them from the falsehoods disseminated in social media.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2020

[If you found value in this article, you should be interested to read my latest collection of essays entitled A Belgian Perspective on International Affairs, published in November 2019 and available in e-book, paperback and hardbound formats from amazon, barnes & noble,, fnac, Waterstones and other online retailers. Use the “View Inside” tab on the book’s webpages to browse.]

The Biden-Trump Debate, 29.09.2020

Thanks to a spot of insomnia, I awoke last night at about 2.30 am Brussels time and was able to catch the final third or so of the Great Debate.

The opinions aired on CNN and on BBC World just after the close of the debate were fairly uniform: that it had been ‘chaotic’ and the worst such event in living memory, though it reflected fairly the low level of political culture which the United States is presently experiencing. Most commentators agreed that the debate, such as it was, more like pig wrestling in the mud, will not change the minds of voters and will not influence the 10 or 15% of Americans who said they were undecided before the event. They did not see much discussion of the policies that the two sides plan to implement if they win the election, only a lot of name calling, heckling and interruptions.  Everyone felt certain that there will be no further debates this season, because this one was a dud.

There were, on the Biden side, commentators who said that the former Vice President had done well. He had not made any gaffes, he had held his own in 90 minutes against an aggressive and emotional opponent.

Of course, both CNN and the BBC are mainstream media that were against Trump in 2016 and have not gotten friendlier towards him over the past four years. Their remarks on how Biden performed have to be understood in that light.

My first thoughts from watching the debate live in its last third or so were very different:  during that entire segment Biden was flagging.  Yes, there were no gaffes. But there was no mental force, he was searching for words and even for concepts that were eluding him. This was beyond any doubt a man whose intellectual faculties are failing.  Not quite senile, but well on his way. And if this is how he performs before the election, then we can well imagine that he will be a wreck in two years’ time, not to mention by the end of his first term. Will this be the man to deal as an equal, nay as a superior being with other world ‘leaders’ on the international stage? 

That was a purely rhetorical question. The answer is flatly “no.” Calling Trump Putin’s “puppy” may sound clever, though it is absolutely false.  Whose ‘puppy’ Biden will be remains to be seen.

People close to Biden know and understand this fact.  It was not just a slip of the tongue when a month or so ago his vice presidential running mate, Kamala Harris spoke of a “Harris Administration” in answer to a journalist’s question before backtracking and changing that to a “Biden-Harris Administration.”

Trump is precisely correct when he suggests that Biden will be the plaything of people at his side. Trump thickens the paint when he says they will be radical left Democrats.  Surely, that is one possibility. Another is that he will be in the pocket of the US Intelligence Services, of the Pentagon, of the hacks still remaining in the State Department.  Even the obstreperous and often obnoxious Trump has had a hard time staying out of their grasp.

I concede that upon watching excerpts from the debate taken from the start, Biden appeared to be in  better shape than in the segment I watched live.  He delivered some punches, usually below the belt, calling Trump ‘a liar,’ ‘a clown’ and telling him repeatedly just ‘to shut up.’  Biden’s supporters regret that he was baited by Trump to stoop so low and speak in such an ‘un-presidential’ manner.  

Indeed, I recall how my mother, in her late 80s, a life-long Democrat, had spoken of Biden in 2012 as such a ‘gentleman.’  To whom was he a gentleman back then?  To white Social Security claimants like my mother. Not to the rest of the world.  To the world at large Biden was a vicious imperialist, an authoritarian who presumed to dictate to them how they should conduct their affairs.  In that guise he spoke before the Ukrainian and Georgian parliaments. In that guise in 2011 he instructed Vladimir Putin to abandon plans to return to the Russian presidency and instead to take up the chairmanship of the Russian Olympics Committee.  Could one possibly construe Biden’s past behavior as meddling in the internal affairs of other countries, something which the United States finds totally unacceptable when applied to its own political life?  Absolutely!

The world knows what Trump’s “America First” means.  It willingly has forgotten that Biden and the Democrats today are no less ‘in your face’ in pursuing national interest and denying the existence of national interest to every other nation state.  The difference between the parties and the candidates is only one of frank aggression (Trump) versus honeyed and deeply hypocritical words about ‘universal values’ (Biden).  Even in industrial policy, Biden last night managed to present a program that was stolen shamelessly from Trump’s playbook when he said he would promote a ‘buy American’ program that would be directly contradicting the WTO principles.

If Biden came on strong at the start of the debate and ended as a smirking but wordless mutterer, that tells you he lacks the staying power to put in a full day in the White House and master the challenges that come up daily.  Trump may be no smarter, no better read than the day he took the oath of office in 2017 but he is mentally alert and resistant to directives from the bureaucracy.  They can, with the assistance of the Congress, outfox him and outmaneuver him, but they cannot tame him. That is his saving virtue and the one fact that so far has prevented the United States from slipping into a one-party police state under the flag of  Democracy Promotion values.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2020

[If you found value in this article, you should be interested to read my latest collection of essays entitled A Belgian Perspective on International Affairs, published in November 2019 and available in e-book, paperback and hardbound formats from amazon, barnes & noble,, fnac, Waterstones and other online retailers. Use the “View Inside” tab on the book’s webpages to browse.]

From the personal archive of a Russianist, installment forty-three

Diary notes on the past week, visit to Warsaw, Tuesday – Friday, 8 – 11 December 1992

Following my boss’s indications that he wanted all due help for fixing the mess in Warsaw, I have turned my schedule inside out, gone over to Warsaw this week and cancelled my trip to Russia for next week so that I can return to Warsaw for yet another attempt to put all in some kind of new order.

I arrive to find that the operation is indeed a mess and that it requires considerably more than a quickie fix. The new airport cargo terminal where we have been operating since October is unsuitable to our needs and destroys our ability to deliver imports on day of arrival, even documents. We do not get access to our imports till 3 hours after the plane has touched down. In short, it is a typical airfreight operation.  The customs situation is indeed a mess, with graft and corruption getting out of hand. On January 1st there is a new customs law in effect requiring licensing as brokers for us to continue to serve our consignees, and it is unlikely we will get that license since our Service Partner has been unable to raise the $35,000 bank guarantee. I press for creation of a UPS subsidiary particularly to get the brokerage license.

Meanwhile the brokerage clerk I have sent in does a fine job of bringing order to the messy record keeping. But the bigger problem is the inability of our Partner to extend credit to consignees and to pay the customs duties on their behalf. Here is where the need for UPS to incorporate is acute.

In pursuit of incorporation, I meet with lawyers who explain that we can set up a wholly owned subsidiary in two weeks for legal fees of 12,000 DM and with ground capital of $4,000. Looks like Poland is the place to incorporate! Cheaper than elsewhere and no requirement exists for having any local staff.

That finding is further bolstered by the findings on banking in Poland. I visit the Citibank office, where I see a fully operational bank that is foreign owned. Poland has got to be the first country in Eastern Europe to have crossed that bridge, just as it was the first to introduce limited convertibility of the currency. This is a real plus.

Generally my impressions of Warsaw after an absence of nearly three quarters of a year are very positive. The clutter of street trading has been swept away and the shop fronts reveal heavy investment. Merchandise of all varieties is available here: no need to travel to Germany any more. And there is some taste and pretension. The facades are being reworked on major streets and assume a Western look. Even the PKO bank office at the intersection of Al. Jeruzalemske and Marszalkowska looks grand now that the window panes have been replaced and the whole structure is transparent.

New office complexes are opening all around the center. There are new hotels: I am now staying at the recently opened Jan III Sobieski owned and managed by the Viennese firm Rogner. Meanwhile older hotels like the Forum seem to have been given some cleaning up. There is a hustle in the air. Also a feeling of crookedness, quick profits. The same old officials now wear sportier clothes, improved eyeglasses, and better hairdos.

I fly back to Brussels Friday afternoon from the new terminal, which is typical German quality. Rather small, however, and it is hard to see how it will handle all the new traffic that is to come here. They have learned from the West how to skim off money: the snack concessions are priced like in New York’s JFK!

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2020

[If you found value in this article, you should be interested to read my latest collection of essays entitled A Belgian Perspective on International Affairs, published in November 2019 and available in e-book, paperback and hardbound formats from amazon, barnes & noble,, fnac, Waterstones and other online retailers. Use the “View Inside” tab on the book’s webpages to browse.]

From the personal archive of a Russianist, installment forty-two

Diary notes, trip to Moscow – St Petersburg, 6 – 16 October 1992

There’s an excitement, sense of greed in the air. You feel it at the power breakfasts in the Hotel Radisson-Slavyanskaya, where Americans are wheeling and dealing, smacking their lips over the billion dollar contracts awaiting completion. The consultants, real estate brokers, lawyers have moved in like locusts to serve the manufacturers, oil and minerals companies that are opening shop as Russian and CIS laws change in favor of foreign investment in primary as well as in hi-tech industries. Mostly these guys are going to stick their fishhook in one another’s ass. But for now they are hopeful carpetbaggers; they gladly show off their few words of acquired Russian in greetings in the lobby. They eagerly swap tips on where to find broads and rental apartments while sweating it out in the hotel sauna.

Out on the street the rampant commercialism is felt at every step – from the street beggars and kids ‘cleaning’ windshields at traffic lights, to the forest of kiosks at each metro station and along major boulevards like Kutuzovsky Prospekt and Novy Arbat.  The Old Arbat is one vast flea market onto which the flotsam of wrecked empire washes up. – from fur hats and Orenburg shawls, to Lomonsov factory porcelain, to oil paintings, to banners of Communism, old war and political medals of merit, icons, samovars, caviar and vodka, old pre-revolutionary bank notes and coins, false blank passes for KGB and Central Committee members! The black market has become the mainstream. Meanwhile state stores stock more and more imports. You can buy Philips consumer electronics for rubles. Fresh chicken is ubiquitous – better looking than anything I remember in the past and available at a price about 8 times cheaper than in West Europe.

The kiosks sell all sorts of cheap liquor from East Europe and most anywhere. Belgian beer turns up at 80 rubles per can. The exchange rate if 310 rubles / $1.00 at the bank. And the private hanks will convert the other way as well. Foreign goods tend to be cheaper in rubles than in currency.

The Moscow real estate market is really hot. Foreigners are scheming to get out of the overpriced hotels and into more affordable accommodations. I speak to the head of the Société Générale Bank rep office, Mr. Van Wemmel, who says some Belgian construction people are successfully doing renovation work on Moscow buildings for the sake of foreigners. The problem continues to be uncertainty over who really owns the land. No one is really impressed with the existing 99-year lease scheme. All await a decree from Yeltsin allowing full and clear title to land.  Van Wemmel himself spent time in New York and Belgium, and engaged  in real estate speculation. Says slyly, you’ve got to be ready everywhere to pay under the table to municipal officials to get permits to do what you want.

I take in a fair dose of culture: see an excellent production of Prokofiev’s ballet Romeo and Juliet at the Stanislavsky Theater in Moscow, notable for the positioning of the orchestra in mid-stage so that there are a foreground and background on which dancing takes place, and dancers pass from one to the other over ramps cut amidst the orchestra. Also see a terrible production of Don Carlos by Verdi at the Mariinsky Theater in St Petersburg.

Also buy a fine still life in oils by a contemporary St Petersburg academic painter. To avoid border hassle, I ship it home to Brussels on UPS. Surprisingly it arrives the next day in impeccable condition.

One curiosity of this trip is my meeting in Sheremetievo with former ITT colleague Luigi, who arrived on the same Austrian plane from Vienna. Looks the same as five years ago, only plumper and nearly bald.  The past weekend he was in Brussels for the regular get-together of ex-ITT managers. He is now preparing for a visit to Russia by Rand Araskog, ITT chairman.

The weather provides some surprises on this visit. October 11-12 we have full-blown snow storm. I leave the Mariinsky Theater in St Petersburg Sunday night to find 6 cm of fresh snow on the ground and a blustery wind. And it stays on the ground for a couple of days.

In StP I meet with the director of the House of Cinematography, our new landlord for the UPS office. He tells me about their project to do a film interview  with opera singer Galina Vishnevskaya (wife of cellist Rostropovich) and enactment of her biography. She agreed subject to their also filming an interview with family friend Alexander Solzhenitsyn.

Rumor has it that Solzhenitsyn is taking up residence in Moscow – his wife has been in town shopping for a townhouse.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2020

[If you found value in this article, you should be interested to read my latest collection of essays entitled A Belgian Perspective on International Affairs, published in November 2019 and available in e-book, paperback and hardbound formats from amazon, barnes & noble,, fnac, Waterstones and other online retailers. Use the “View Inside” tab on the book’s webpages to browse.]

From the personal archive of a Russianist, installment forty-one

Diary notes, 5 September 1992:   Group meeting of UPS Service Partners in E. Europe, taking stock

How wonderful to live two, three lives simultaneously. In effect that is what my crazy travel schedule confers on me. During the past week, there were four days spent in Prague at the UPS general meeting of Service Partners in Eastern Europe followed by three days in Lake Bled, Slovenia talking shop with customs officials from there as well as from Germany, Austria and elsewhere in Europe regarding the needs of the international express industry. 

The general Partners’ meeting was a get-together which I dreamed up and first implemented last year in spite of skepticism from some quarters. Well, we reconvened this year under the aegis of the same senior staff, who now find it very worthwhile, indeed essential.

Thanks to the split up of the ex-USSR and ex-Yugoslavia, and to my persistent efforts to adapt our organization to these new realities by rearranging agency ties, we had nearly double the attendance of one year ago: 12 country delegations and a greater number of district and region staff from the UPS side. A total of 33 participants.

They came from the ends of the earth, and everyone was there. Two Ukrainians (just signed up as agents the week before), one each from Estonia and Latvia, one each from Croatia and Slovenia, two each from Lithuania, Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria. Russia had two from Moscow and one from St Petersburg. Czechoslovakia had the two Bacigal brothers plus the new office manager in Prague, Mr. Hojsak. I am delighted that my colleagues can inspect all the new faces reflecting new contracts.

The team looks good. Everyone speaks English, some quite well. All look reasonably well dressed. There is a decided emphasis on youth. And an unusually high profile for women. Both owners (Kovacs for Hungary; Glab for Poland; Kriuchkov for Ukraine; Bacigals for CSFR) and working level people are present.

The time is divided between formal UPS presentations and workshops focused on the key problems before us: collections from shippers, computerization, rates and selling into competition. We hear a short presentation from each country around themes of macroeconomics, legal environment, competitive challenge, and plans for 93.

Region Manager Gerry McGuire joins us for the first couple of days. His presence gives weight to the proceedings and I know he comes away impressed by the quantity and quality of our E. European team.

In typical corporate fashion we have chosen one of Europe’s most beautiful cities for our venue and then settle ourselves 15 km out of town in a hotel on the highway. However, I do manage to schedule a walking tour of the old city for Monday night. And even the efforts of our unimaginative Gray Line guide (old line Communist) to show us the architecture of the past 20 years and skip the remote past does not prevent our doing the essentials: starting at the Hradciny and descending the Nerudova, where we tarry for a beer, then crossing the Charles Bridge, amidst the horde of American and other youth strumming their guitars and singing, over to the Klimentinum, then to a dinner at the U Fleku.

Yes, this was touristy, with a band playing mostly international tunes and only an occasional Czech piece. But we do get platters of heavy sausages, we do get duck and knedliky and kraut with caraway seeds, and we get the world’s best dark beer. My boss, Wolfgang, comes around and admits it was well worth doing. Tuesday we have his sports evening with bowling and tennis and swimming, and with part of our group stealing away to the town for shopping.

What did we achieve? An enormous amount of detail work. Decisions to extend revenue sharing to those countries still not enjoying it. The decision to introduce computers everywhere in East Europe before the end of the year. The chance to appreciate the talent in our midst. Sergei Kriuchkov from Vneshexpobisness makes an especially strong and positive impression, followed by our guy in Riga. As a result we will now have a separate contract with Riga.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2020

[If you found value in this article, you should be interested to read my latest collection of essays entitled A Belgian Perspective on International Affairs, published in November 2019 and available in e-book, paperback and hardbound formats from amazon, barnes & noble,, fnac, Waterstones and other online retailers. Use the “View Inside” tab on the book’s webpages to browse.]

From the personal archive of a Russianist, installment forty

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Diary notes on a three day visit to Kiev, Monday – Wednesday, 17-19 August 1992

A lightning visit to Ukraine to put in order UPS relations with new partners Vneshexpobusiness [VEB]and to close the door on our former agents Kievvneshtrans. Useful insofar as now the owners of VEB begin to appreciate the sophistication of our product, the market to be created and the immediate issues for success: release of our sacks at plane side at the airport, customs clearance at the downtown office, day of arrival delivery of documents , payment of customs during in advance on behalf of consignees to expedite customs release, etc.

I am put up in the Hotel Kiev, formerly the hotel of the parliamentarians, which is quieter than the Intourist hotels, but otherwise equally run down. The only fast moving and clever creatures are the roaches. One rascal escaped my plans for his destruction.

Other impressions from the visit [to Kiev] are not very positive. My walk around town, along the Kreshchatik reconfirm my impression of three months ago: the reforms are proceeding very slowly down here, well behind Moscow and St Petersburg. Privatization of apartments and property is moving along. But Western investment is still quite rudimentary despite the large number of business visitors. Very few Western products are on sale for local currency. Not too much is available for hard currency either. No Western boutiques to speak of.

Given the mess with introduction of ‘coupons’ to replace roubles earlier this year and continuing prevarication over intro of the hryvna as a genuine Ukrainian currency, it is not surprising nothing else is succeeding. Now the coupon is down to 300 to the dollar, while in Moscow the rouble is only at 180. Looks like the Ukrainians shot themselves in the foot.

It is amusing that everyone I run into, either at the business meetings or just on the street is speaking Russian, not Ukrainian. Now that may be a peculiarity of Kiev.

I manage to catch a press conference given by Kravchuk on TV. He behaves very well: sure of himself, giving the impression of a reasonable man who is above politics and just trying to serve the national interest. Very presidential.

On the business side of things, I get satisfaction from the knowledge that here in Kiev we, UPS have been the first of the big express companies to work directly on import and export not over Moscow. DHL and TNT and Fedex are thus well behind us. And now we are developing customs experience that none of the others have.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2020 [If you found value in this article, you should be interested to read my latest collection of essays entitled A Belgian Perspective on International Affairs, published in November 2019 and available in e-book, paperback and hardbound formats from amazon, barnes & noble,, fnac, Waterstones and other online retailers. Use the “View Inside” tab on the book’s webpages to browse.]