Book Review: Project Zebra

Project Zebra:  Roosevelt And Stalin’s Top Secret Mission Mission To Train 300 Soviet Airmen In America, by M.G. Crisci in collaboration with Gregory Gagarin

[Note:  This book was provided free of charge by Books Go Social.  All thoughts and opinions are my own.]

Although I do not read books about World War II all that often [1], I tend to be greatly fond of unknown and obscure stories, and this was certainly an excellent book about an effort by the United States to train some 300 Soviet airmen in how to fly the Nomad, a large seaplane that was designed to help improve the logistics of the Allied War effort in the Arctic front.  This book is the sort of book that is filled with personal reminisces on the part of the lone survivor among the leaders of this effort, and while that makes the book a bit scattered and not entirely chronological in its basis, this is a book about a long-forgotten effort that deserves to be remembered and that demonstrates the abilities of ordinary soldiers (and extraordinary ones in the case of the princely Gagarin) to get along with those who are uncertain allies and future enemies in the recognition of common humanity and the way that governments (especially the Soviet one) have lied about others in an attempt to maintain social control.

This book tells a series of tales about how the Soviet Union faced extinction from Hitler and how the United States saved them, not only through supplying them with planes, tanks, and other materials but also through training.  Most of the book consists of a group of Americans and Russians in the small town of Elizabeth City, North Carolina, engaging in a delicate act of cultural communication.  We see this effort through a variety of perspectives, from the point of view of squabbling political elites who want to help the war effort but are engaged in a lot of political gamesmanship, officers seeking advancement and supporting a hierarchical relationship with often nameless enlisted men, the lure of American consumerism and the intense productivity of the American economy when compared with the Soviet one, and a struggle for communication and understanding and well-being that ends up working remarkably well despite some tragedies.  The author uncovers a lot of material that somehow makes the Soviet Union look particularly poor for being unable to accept its need for help, and yet this particular story may have had a great deal more importance than is often recognized, because the ability of America to succeed at providing guns and butter may have deterred the Soviets during the long years of the Cold War.

Whether or not that is the case, this story was kept hidden for far too long, and the book has a deeply bittersweet feeling about it, showing Russians engaged in an almost religious fervor at Kitty Hawk, showing a love of sexy Hollywood starlets in musicials, and trying to bring as much french perfume and other luxury goods to profit on the Soviet black market.  The book has at its core a set of people that includes a Russian officer looking to recover his reputation after having been a victim of Stalin’s brutal gulag archipelago, a Russian prince turned American naval officer and translator, and some resourceful Americans and talented Russians.  The book is good at showing the military significance of the efforts of trainers, translators, and logistics in the course of World War II, and the book does a good job at presenting Elizabeth City as a friendly town that was surprisingly discreet about the Soviet airmen that it hosted for several years.  The genuinely touching stories of romance, of family, of patriotism, of ambition, survival, tragedy, and friendship are framed in a sense of loss over the passage of the time and the way that the memorable sites discussed often no longer survive and neither do the people who trained here and learned that they had friends on the other side of the nascent iron curtain that was about to descend over the world.

[1] But see:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American History, Book Reviews, History, International Relations, Military History, Musings and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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