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The Quick Version


Life is short. Here are summaries of all the stories on the Bright Review website by CHRISTOPHER OTHEN, author of 'FRANCO'S INTERNATIONAL BRIGADES: ADVENTURERS, FASCISTS, AND CHRISTIAN CRUSADERS IN THE SPANISH CIVIL WAR' (amazon.co.uk or amazon.com): 300 words or less, guaranteed. Amaze your friends with in-depth knowledge of Georgian militia groups, French bank robberies, corrupt South African policemen, and right-wing adventurers in the Spanish Civil War.





A Short History of Russian Roulette in Australia

Earless Gunmen, Vietnamese Gangsters, and a Pool Hall in Footscray c.1987

Despite its name Russian Roulette cannot be played for money. It's a suicidal gun game that appeals to drunk teens, show-off hardcases, and the mentally unstable. Only the truly crazy would try and turn it into a game. Which explains why Australian gangster Mark Brandon 'Chopper' Read found himself in a Footscray pool hall in 1987 about to play Russian Roulette. For money.

Read had been in prison for most of his adult life. He was, by his own admission, the mentally unbalanced son of a religious maniac and a drunk gun-lover. Behind bars he made a reputation as a man prepared to do anything to keep on top, even sawing off his own ears to get into the psychiatric ward. When he got out in the mid 1980s Albanian contacts in the Melbourne underword had a deal for him.

The Albanians had problems with local Vietnamese gangsters. A show down had been arranged in Footscray. The Vietnamese liked to gamble and they liked watching 'The Deer Hunter', the Oscar-winning American movie about the Vietnam war that features an iconic Russian Roulette scene. Read was promised AUS$6,000 if he took part.

Read agreed, showed up, pulled the trigger, and lived. He returned for several more visits, convinced he had the advantage by his perfectly-weighted gun. The theory was wrong but he survived. The world only found about the Russian Roulette game decades later when Read retired from crime and became a best-selling author. They even made a film about him.



The Day of the Mkhedrioni

How the Bank Robbing Playwright Jaba Ioseliani and His Gang of Mafia Paramilitaries Made Modern Georgia (1988-1995)

As the communist system started to fall apart in Georgia at the end of the 1980s Jaba Ioseliani, a playwright and professor, formed the nationalist Mkhedrioni militia group. Made up of tough young men with a taste for leather jackets and AK-47s, the Mkhedrioni played an important role in the transition to democracy, helping overthrow the country's first President, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, when he bowed to pressure from Moscow to roll back reform.

Ioseliani and his men soon proved to be more interested in organised crime than fair elections. The Mkhedrioni took over the Georgian capital Tblisi, extorting, thieving, and kidnapping, protected by Ioseliani who had become one of the most powerful men in government. No-one should have been surprised. Before his success as a playwright, the Mkhedrioni leader had spent decades in Soviet jails for a series of bank robberies.

Until 1995 Georgia seemed to be a mafia state where the criminals were untouchable. Then president Eduard Shevardnadze, a respected politician originally appointed by Ioseliani as a figure head, turned on the group after some high profile public assassination attempts.

Within weeks it was all over. Ioseliani went back to prison, where he wrote new plays, and the Mkhedrioni disbanded. But the group's legacy lives on in ethnic conflicts over South Ossetia and continuing rows about political corruption.



A Kidnapping in Poland

History’s Revenge on Bolesław Piasecki, PAX, and the Falanga (1957-58)

In 1957 the son of Bolesław Piasecki was kidnapped off the streets of Warsaw, communist Poland. A year later he turned up dead in a boarded-up basement toilet a few blocks north. He had probably been killed within hours of the original kidnapping.

The dead boy's father was an important man. Bolesław Piasecki ran PAX, a Catholic organisation that supported the communist state. His work was so vital the authorities allowed him to keep PAX's profits (a rare privilege in the Soviet Bloc), making him the richest man in Poland. Piasecki managed to be both a capitalist and a Stalinist. But the kidnapping uncovered a dark past.

Before the Second World War Piasecki had been leader of the Falanga, Poland's biggest fascist movement. Some have accused him of working with the Nazis, but the evidence is inconclusive. Even his enemies accept he lead a guerilla war against the Germans during the war. In 1945 the invading Soviets arrested him and offered the choice of a firing squad or collaborating with the new regime.

The kidnapping is still unsolved. There are four main theories on the culprits: 1) Polish criminals who wanted the ransom; 2) Polish communists angry Piasecki had retained his power following recent political liberalisation; 3) Soviet agents angry Piasecki had not stopped the recent political liberalisation; and 4) Polish Jews determined to punish Piasecki for his fascist past.

But no-one knows for sure.



The Man Who Invented Russian Roulette

The Forgotten Life of Georges Surdez (1900-49)

The origins of Russian Roulette are still a mystery, although there are accounts of the suicidal gun game being played as early as 1920. But its name was the invention of Georges Surdez, a Swiss-born and Brooklyn-based writer of pulp fiction stories.

Surdez came to America as a child but headed for French Africa in search of adventure as soon as he was old enough. He made friends with French Foreign Legionnaires and picked up a good store of tales about life in desert and jungle. Back in the US by 1920 Surdez turned his experiences into stories for pulp magazines. The pulps were cheap publications aimed at an audience who liked their fiction to be sensational, disposable, and escapist.

Surdez specialised in stories about the Foreign Legion. It was a precarious existence, living by the nickel keys of a typewriter, but he was a good writer, more subtle than many in the pulps, and made a name for himself. Then the 1929 Wall Street Crash wiped out many pulp magazines and Surdez went looking for new markets. For a few years in the mid-1930s the mainstream Collier's Magazine published his Legion stories including, in January 1937, one called 'Russian Roulette'.

Written as a letter from a legionnaire to his superiors, the story claimed Russian Roulette had started with Tsarist troops in Romania during World War One. More a psychological study than an adventure story, 'Russian Roulette' was the first to name the deadly revolver gamble and seems to have been responsible for its real-life growth in America over the next few decades.

Surdez never came forward to take credit for naming it. He died in 1949.



Whiter Than White

Robbing Banks in Apartheid Era South Africa with Police Captain Andre Stander and his Gang (1977-84)

In the late 1970s Andre Stander was a South African policeman, dealing with crime, riots, and apartheid. Pushed into the job by his parents, he rebelled by pulling a series of bank robberies. Suggested motives have ranged from anti-apartheid feelings to a psychopathic contempt for everyone around him.

Stander was caught and sent to prison, where he teamed up with car thief Patrick Lee McCall and troubled bank robber George Allan Heyl. The trio busted out in August 1983 and embarked on a crime rampage around Johannesburg, robbing banks under the noses of the police and living it up in an upscale rented house. Stander's sheer nerve made him a popular hero despite rumours about the rape of a young model.

Within six months the net started closing in. McCall died in a shoot-out with police, Heyl headed for Spain and eventual arrest, and Stander ended up on the run in Florida, USA. A police stop over a fake driving license put him in the spotlight and on 13 February 1984 Stander walked into a late night stake-out. After a struggle with an armed policeman the South African bank robber ended up face down in the road, bleeding to death.

He is still a hero to some South Africans.



Sewer Rats

The OAS, the French Underworld, and the 1976 Société Générale Heist

In July 1976 Albert Spaggiari led a gang of crooks and right-wing extremists through the sewers of Nice in the south of France. They broke through a wall, dug a tunnel, and emerged into the vault of the local Société Générale branch. The gang got away with at least 30,000,000 francs. It was the biggest bank robbery France had ever seen.

Hard work and good luck gave the police leads. In October Spaggiari, a Nice photographer well known to high society figures, was arrested. The forty-three-year-old army veteran and convicted thief had a background in the far-right. In 1961 he had even attempted to assassinate President Charles De Gaulle as revenge for granting independence to France's colonies.

The bank robber was a tough character who said little until March 1977 when he jumped out of a window and onto the back of a waiting motorcycle. That was the last French justice would see of him until he died in 1989 of lung cancer living under a fake name in Italy after twelve years of globetrotting.

Elements of the robbery are still mysterious: was Spaggiari the real leader? Was it connected to the August 1976 robbery of Société Générale in Paris? What happened to the money? And did Spaggiari really have contacts in the CIA?

Despite the questions Spaggiari remains well-known in France, not least because he wrote a book about the robbery while on the run in Argentina. He has joined the pantheon of French gangsters, like Jacques Mesrine or Pierrot le Fou, who mix politics, money, and guns. Even those who hate his politics admire his nerve.



Urga, February 1921

Baron Roman von Ungern-Sternberg, the Bolshevik Revolution, and the Birth of Modern Mongolia

During the Russian Civil War Baron von Ungern-Sternberg earned a reputation in Siberia as a sadistic warlord whose excesses did more harm to his own side than to his Communist enemies. When the anti-Bolshevik forces collapsed in 1920 the Baron took his men over the border to Chinese-controlled Mongolia. CHRISTOPHER OTHEN looks at the Baron's capture of the Mongolian capital Urga, the first – and last –step of a crazed attempt to build a Buddhist Empire stretching from Mongolia to Portugal.



What We Do Is Secret

Mind Games and Germs Burns with Los Angeles Punk Legend Darby Crash (1977-80)

A junkie singer, a fatal overdose, and a high school brainwashing programme. Los Angeles' Germs were the hottest punk band of the late seventies thanks to the charisma of their suicidal singer Darby Crash. Unable to decide if he wanted to be a music biz legend or a cult leader Crash fell apart under the pressure of his heroin fuelled lifestyle. CHRISTOPHER OTHEN examines how a fan of Charles Manson and L Ron Hubbard briefly became the most influential figure in the LA underground.



Armed Tourists

A Bare Bones Guide to FRANCO'S INTERNATIONAL BRIGADES - the Foreign Volunteers of the Nationalist Army during the Spanish Civil War (1936-39)

Crusading Catholics, foreign Fascists, and Muslims with a grudge. The Spanish Civil War set right against left when centuries of grievances erupted into a bloody settling of accounts in 1936. The left-wing volunteers who came from around the world to fight for the Spanish government are well known but more foreigners joined the other side. CHRISTOPHER OTHEN looks at the right-wing version of the International Brigades: the foreign volunteers who fought for General Franco.



Black Sheep


One Hundred Years of Bankrupt British Aristocrats, Corrupt Golden Youths, and Frankly Untrustworthy Remittance Men

No easy way to summarise this one. Essentially a long look at dubious, corrupt, or downright creepy upper-class British types from the twentieth century. Lots of text but it moves along at high speed. From Rupert Brooke to Simon Raven, Aleister Crowley to The Day of the Jackal. Closet door open, bones everywhere.

Plenty of links in the text to available books and films about the individuals discussed if you want to investigate further. I recommend you do.







General Franco's International Brigades Book Cover








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General Franco's International Brigades Book Cover





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