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What We’re Reading: March 13, 2018

  • Last updated: March 13
  • Total word count: 859 words

Below you will find a list of books that members of the Geopolitical Futures team are currently reading. It highlights insightful and relevant books from around the globe and the reasons we chose them.

Toward a U.S.-Mexico Security Strategy: The Geopolitics of Northern Mexico and the Implications for U.S. Policy

By David J. Danelo

Before jumping into a discussion of Danelo’s book, I’d like to address the purpose behind Geopolitical Futures’ book reviews and how it relates to foreign-language book selections. As part of analysts’ regular professional development, we are expected to maintain a self-guided reading program to deepen our understanding of a region, conflict, theme or geopolitical theory. The book reviews let us share this journey with our readers. That said, there will be some books that are not available in English. These selections are never meant to exclude the reader; rather our intention is to take advantage of any language skills an analyst may have in order to broaden the scope of learning about a topic. For example, a Mexican perspective of their national history will be different from a Mexican history written by an American or other foreign author. As analysts, we must draw our knowledge from many sources for breadth and depth in our understanding of the world.

Now, back to Danelo’s book. Though brief, his work presents a critical view of how to think about Mexican territory bordering the United States. While generalizations have their uses, in looking at the U.S.-Mexico border, there is the potential trap of assuming uniformity across the 1,900 miles. Danelo’s division of the border into three distinct geopolitical regions helps break down the strategic value or threat posed at different points along the way. The mountainous and desert region along the Sonora and Chihuahua states, for example, is the hub for illicit activity and security risks to the United States. Danelo explains how the varying strategic values and threats within a region require different strategies by the Mexican government, rather than one solution for all regions.

The other engaging component of this book is how it reflects the debates concerning Mexican drug trafficking and potential spillover at the time of publication in 2011. This time frame has some parallels with Mexico’s current reality. Last year set a record for the number of homicides in Mexico. Before 2017, the highest recorded number of intentional homicides was in 2011. In other words, the thoughts and commentary presented in the book reflect a time of similar intensity of drug-related violence and crime. The book offers an opportunity to compare Mexico’s response and institutions then with today’s resurgent violence and proposed responses. It also shows that the policy options that seemed viable in the past – such as permanent border cooperation and partnership – are not necessarily the proposed solutions most discussed or circulated today. Geopolitics is all about understanding time and place, and this quick read helps the reader do both with respect to U.S.-Mexico border security.

Allison Fedirka, senior analyst


The House of the Dead 

By Fyodor Dostoevsky

This book is devoted to a phenomenon in Russian history – katorga, a system of forced labor in prison camps in Siberia and far eastern areas. This semi-autobiographical book was a revelation in its time – before Dostoevsky no one had ever written about the life of convicts in these camps.

Dostoevsky himself was sentenced to four years of labor at a Siberian prison camp. In 1850, he arrived in the Omsk fortress, which was built in 1716 to protect the empire against the steppe nomads, not far from the Irtysh River. His book describes the life of prisoners in this labor camp.

Throughout Russia’s history the government sent prisoners – both citizens of the Russian Empire and foreigners – to camps far from the main cities for temporary or life-long forced work. One of the traditional punishments for serious criminal and political crimes was imprisonment in these penal labor camps. At the end of the 19th century, the government tried to concentrate these camps in eastern Siberia, where there was a need for labor.

The book gives little idea about geographical features of the area. The narrative, like the convicts themselves, rarely goes beyond the prison. The story follows the path of Alexander Gorianchikov, a nobleman who was sentenced to penal labor for killing his wife. The prison camp is referred to as “The House of the Dead.”

The book has no integral plot, but rather is comprised of the notes of the prisoner. Dostoevsky describes life in the prison camp in detail – the conditions in which prisoners lived, what they ate and drank, what was allowed, what was forbidden, and how they were punished. He also describes the customs and traditions – how they celebrated the holidays, learned new skills, earned money and wasted it, what kind of work they had to carry out. There were up to 200 people in one prison, all from different parts of Russia and different societies. Here the nobles mingled with the peasants and the poorest men; examples of individual heroes are recounted; and Dostoevsky draws psychological insights from their plight.

Ekaterina Zolotova, analyst