Engrossing examination of the role of ex-Soviet air crews in post–Cold War smuggling and global instability.
London-based BBC Radio reporter Potter deftly summarizes the impact of the Soviet military’s sudden dissolution, which left a stockpile of useful military equipment at the disposal of black markets. One of the most significant was the Il76, “one of the biggest planes on the planet.” Ever since, these aging yet rugged planes, and the men trained to fly them, have been instrumental in facilitating both globalization of capital and brutal discord, particularly via their unique capacity for smuggling. His intermittent travels with “Mickey” and crew, veterans of the Soviets’ Afghan war, form the book’s overall structure. In Potter’s opinion, these hapless and evasive yet stoic and skilled aviators provide a ready metaphor for what happened to the world geopolitically after the USSR’s dissolution—as Mickey puts it, “we flew [an Il-76] down to Kazakhstan and, you might say, rebranded.” When faced with sudden privation, these ex–military men began transporting goods ranging from disaster aid and soldiers to drugs, weapons and blood diamonds all over the world, particularly in Africa and Asia. Potter is fascinated by Mickey’s shadowy existence, which is both dangerous—there have been numerous suspicious crashes of Russian aircraft—and a key component of the so-called “grey market,” in which legitimate entrepreneurs and aid organizations interact with the transnational criminal syndicates that grew with the breakup of the Soviet Union. Potter shadows Mickey’s crew through Afghanistan, Iraq, Yugoslavia, Central America, the Congo and Uganda, at once entertained by the exploits and keyed in to their relevance to profound crises. The book reads more like a novel than straight journalism. The personalized narrative is taut and funny; Potter’s prose strains, often successfully, to be ornate and haunting in portraying the doomed, absurdist lot of the airmen—though he tends to repeat these tropes.
An exciting yet disturbing look at a dark corner of current geopolitics.