We meet Lenin and Stalin and one of the most brutal regimes in history.
The Soviet Union: Russian and Ukrainian History – Part IV
And now a few thoughts from Vladimir Lenin, the Leader or the Bolsheviks and Founder of the Union of the Soviet Socialist Republics, also known as the Soviet Union:
“Give me a child for the first five years of his life, and he will be mine forever.”
“The way to crush the bourgeoisie is to grind them between the millstones of taxation and inflation.”
“One man with a gun can control 100 without one.”
“There are no morals in politics; there is only expedience. A scoundrel may be of use to us just because he is a scoundrel.”
“The press should be not only a collective propagandist and a collective agitator, but also a collective organizer of the masses.”
“Capitalists are no more capable of self-sacrifice than a man is capable of lifting himself up by his own bootstraps.”
“The goal of socialism is communism.”
As frequent listeners of this podcast know, I often like to begin with quotes to illuminate the figure with whom I am presenting or the historical point I am trying to make.
But these quotes seem to be particularly haunting. If one were to take out the name of Lenin and insert an array of prominent Democratic politicians, including Elizabeth Warren, Alexandra Ocasio Cortez, Bernie Sanders, Sheldon Whitehouse, or at times, even Joe Biden, the quotes would not be determined inaccurate.
Take just that first one where Lenin wants to control the mind and spirit of a child. Two goals of the current Democratic establishment are to remove parents from the determination of curricula in public schools while simultaneously creating a public pre-K option. The money aspect is evident in that creating more grades means more teachers. Thus more union dues go to democratic politicians. But the second culture part is even more insidious. In his failed bid for Virginia’s governorship, Terry McAuliffe gave the game away when he stated, “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.” Why else would the hue and cry over the Florida education law be so intense? The law is pretty straightforward in banning the teaching of sex and gender to 8-year-olds. But the left, including this president, makes it sound like the law is a gay ban. So they have to twist the meaning to justify their indoctrinations, and in this, they are wholly akin to Vladimir Lenin.
The late great movie critic Roger Ebert wrote many times that a movie is not about something but how it is about something. Action adventures, superheroes, romcoms, dramas, and documentaries cover the same ground. But instead, it is how the rom-com or action is portrayed and acted. Personally, if I have to see one more chase scene down a European street where the protagonist or villain does not get stuck in traffic, I will lose it.
This is why in many books about authoritarian or totalitarian dictatorships, George Orwell stands out. It is how his book is about government. America of 2022 is one that elected a Black president twice and boasts a current black Vice President, and now 22% of the Supreme Court is black.
Yet the Democrats, including President Biden, claim that we are in a Jim Crow 2.0. It is hard not to think of Orwell’s Ministry of Truth. The ministry, of course, was the propaganda arm of the regime ruling Oceania, thus the apparent twist. That was from his Masterpiece 1984, but another of his famous books, Animal Farm, is a parallel fictional tale of Russia in 1917.
In that book, an authoritarian farmer harshly rules over his animals. Ruing this regime, the Animals rise, but one of them, Napoleon, the Pig, proves to be even worse than the dictatorial farmer he replaced. The difference is that whereas the farmer was what he was, Napoleon couches himself in the style of beneficence. According to Orwell, the fable reflects events leading up to the Russian Revolution of 1917 and then on into the Stalinist era of the Soviet Union. Orwell, a democratic socialist, was a critic of Joseph Stalin and hostile to Moscow-directed Stalinism, an attitude that was critically shaped by his experiences during the May Days conflicts between the POUM and Stalinist forces during the Spanish Civil War. In a letter to Yvonne Davet, Orwell described Animal Farm as a satirical tale against Stalin, and in his essay “Why I Write” (1946), he wrote that Animal Farm was the first book in which he tried, with full consciousness of what he was doing, “to fuse political purpose and artistic purpose into one whole.”
I have said before that the Soviet regime was worse than the Nazis. This is true in terms of total mass murder but aside from the odd invasion of Finland and dicing up Poland with Hitler, the Soviets tried to stay within their borders. This does not mean that the 80-year history did not see those suborning regimes, but rather it was the somewhat subtle nature of their conquests.
The likes of Neville Chamberlain may have appeased Hitler, but this was in the service of avoiding another World War I. I am not letting Chamberlain off the hook, but history needs context, and in this case, after the greatest slaughter of humanity the world had ever witnessed just 20 years in the past, the desire for Peace was understandable. However, this was not history but something they had lived through for Chamberlain and his ilk. My point is that there was an understanding of Hitler and, of course, after 1939, a confrontation.
But there is a parade of individuals, including Americans, who genuinely thought the Soviet Union was not only a place with which to do business but a model for the United States. And this is not out of context.
We left our last podcast with the brutal murder of Nicholas II and his entire family, including several teenagers. But we will briefly touch on the Russian Revolution of 1917 or both of them.
The first occurred in March, with the overthrow of the Tsarist government, and the second of which placed the Bolsheviks in power in October. So why did the initial provisional government eventually fall to the Bolsheviks?
It is a complicated story, but a direct cause was that, due to pressure from the allies, including Britain and France, and more conservative elements of the new government, led by Alexander Kerensky, the provisional government decided that Russia would remain in World War I. And not just in the war, but launch a broad offensive in the summer of 1917, a move that would prove to be disastrous. The Russian Army, commanded by Gen. Aleksey A. Brusilov, attacked the Austro-German forces along a broad front in Galicia and pushed toward Lviv, a city now in Ukraine. At first, the offensive proved remarkably successful. The Austrians were driven back, and many prisoners and guns were taken. In just two weeks, however, any gains had been erased. A German counterattack shattered the Russian lines, and the Army fled in disarray. As Lenin said, the Russian soldiers had “voted for peace with their legs.”
Not only was the Russian Army destroyed, but Russia had effectively ceased to exist as a great power. While the Army was disintegrating, the Bolsheviks were making their first bid for power in the capital. Ever since his arrival from exile in Zurich, Lenin had been biding his time and maturing his plans. Six months from the beginning of the revolution, the new republic was rapidly disintegrating. Eventually, whatever support the provisional government under Kerensky had enjoyed, whether from the Army, the navy, or the peasants, shifted to the Bolsheviks, and by October 1917, support from most of the important constituencies had come to their aid. With the help of crucial subordinates such as Leon Trotsky and Joseph Stalin, Lenin became the leader of Russia.
The Russian Civil War was to tear Russia apart for three years – between 1918 and 1921. The civil war occurred because, after November 1917, many groups had formed that opposed Lenin’s Bolsheviks. These groups included monarchists, militarists, and foreign nations for a short time. Collectively, they were known as the Whites, while the Bolsheviks were known as the Reds.
Unlike the Reds, led by the charismatic and brilliant Trotsky, the Whites were made up of many factions that hated each other as much as they hated the Reds. Though on a map of Russia, it looked as if the Reds were being attacked from all sides, such attacks were disunited and dislocated. The fact that so many groups existed meant that no one person could be appointed to act as their sole commander. With no unified leadership, the Whites were much weakened.
It should be noted that the whites were directly supported by foreign auxiliaries, including the British and, for a time, a small American contingent. But with the end of World War I, enthusiastic support of the Whites from the allies subsided, and they were eventually defeated. The Treaty of Riga was signed with Poland on March 18, 1921. As a result of this treaty, about 10 million Ukrainians and White Russians were put under Polish rule. The Treaty of Riga ended the Russian Civil War, and within Russia, the Communist government under Lenin was now secure.
And here we come to the first of the American useful idiots, those who believed in the power of the Soviet Union, vis a vis a superior power then their native United States. Journalist and communist John Reed supported the Soviet takeover of Russia, even briefly taking up arms to join the Red Guards in 1918. He hoped for a similar Communist revolution in the United States, and co-founded the short-lived Communist Labor Party of America in 1919. He died in Moscow of spotted typhus in 1920. At the time of his death he may have soured on the Soviet leadership, but he was given a hero's burial by the Soviet Union, and is one of only three Americans buried at the Kremlin Wall Necropolis.
In his 2007 book entitled The Cossacks, historian Shane O’Rourke describes the fate of these peoples in the Russian Civil War. A little-known bid by the official Soviet government to exterminate the Don Cossacks is highlighted. The original secret document giving the order to eliminate the Cossacks was found amongst Moscow archives which have been opened up only in the last few years. It has subsequently been publicized more. The Soviet government had always denied issuing the order. The discovery of this order has helped illuminate what happened, “Ten thousand Cossacks were slaughtered systematically in a few weeks in January 1919. And while that wasn’t a huge number in terms of what happened throughout Russia, it was one of the main factors that led to the Cossacks’ disappearance as a nation. With the end of Imperial Russia, the Cossacks, who were spread across South-Eastern Russia, had begun to see themselves as a separate nation-state. The civil war of 1917-1920 was a vital part of this transition to a sense of national identity - the experience of Bolshevik rule, which they rose against, convinced any doubters. The Soviet government’s genocide order did not crush the Cossacks but prompted a desperate rising which threw the Bolsheviks out of the Don after a few weeks. It ushered in the key stage of the civil war, which, finally, the Cossacks lost. And later, ravaged by disease and collectivization, which broke up their farms and communities, they lost all sense of cohesiveness. There are very few people now who can claim to be Cossacks, although there were a million before the civil war destroyed their way of life.” The slaughter of the Cossacks was conducted under Lenin, but in his successor, Joseph Stalin, the Bolsheviks were just getting started.
Following the death of Vladimir Lenin in 1924, a power vacuum opened in the Communist Party. Various established figures in Lenin’s government, particularly Trotsky, who was instrumental in the rise and success of the Bolsheviks in the Russian Civil War, attempted to succeed him. However, Joseph Stalin, the party’s General Secretary, would outmaneuver political opponents and ultimately gain control of the Communist Party by 1928. Initially, Stalin’s leadership was widely accepted, and the doctrine of Socialism in One Country became enshrined in party policy. But one of his many blunders of Stalin was to change the agricultural focus of the Soviet Union, a cataclysmic mistake that would be repeated 50 years later by Mao in China, both to horrific effect.
The Soviet famine of 1930–1933 was a famine in the major grain-producing areas of the Soviet Union, including Ukraine, Northern Caucasus, Volga Region, Kazakhstan, the South Urals, and West Siberia. About 6 to 9 million people are estimated to have lost their lives. Joseph Stalin and other party members had ordered that kulaks were “to be liquidated as a class” and became a target for the state. The richer, land-owning peasants were labeled kulaks. The Bolsheviks portrayed them as class enemies, culminating in a Soviet campaign of political repression, including arrests, deportations, and executions of large numbers of the better-off peasants and their families from 1929–to 1932.
Major contributing factors to the famine include the forced collectivization in the Soviet Union of agriculture as a part of the first five-year plan, moved grain procurement, rapid industrialization, a decreasing agricultural workforce, and several severe droughts. As a result, some scholars have classified the famine in Ukraine and Kazakhstan as genocides committed by Stalin’s government, targeting ethnic Ukrainians and Kazakhs. In contrast, others dispute the relevance of any ethnic motivation, as is frequently implied by that term, and focus on the class dynamics between the land-owning peasants (kulaks) with a strong political interest in private property and the ruling Soviet Communist party’s fundamental tenets which were diametrically opposed to those interests.
It is not a coincidence that the great famines of the 20th century both occurred in communist nations. Nor that simultaneously, the United States, with a population of hundreds of millions, would become a net exporter of food.
As the brilliant writer Kevin Williamson of the National Review points out, when predominantly agricultural nations such as Russia, or China, convert to an industrialized society, it can appear as if this forced, swift transformation is a true sign of progress. The United States took 70 years, roughly from the 1850s to the 1920s, and spurred on by the Civil War and World War I to make this transition. Stalin tried to do it in five. And here we come to another to our valuable idiots. This was uttered by neither Lenin nor Stalin but rather by the great economist Ludwig von Mises to describe those used by Leninist propaganda. But the sentiment is resident in this Lenin quote, “When a liberal is abused, he says, ‘Thank God they didn’t beat me.’ When he is beaten, he thanks God they didn’t kill him. He will thank God that his immortal soul has been delivered from its mortal clay.”
One of these was Rexford Tugwell, a later architect and even later rejecter of the New Deal,
Although Tugwell never endorsed communism, there were multiple facets of the Soviet system that he admired. He appreciated the active role of the government regarding agriculture. Although Soviet farmers were still victims of the unbalance in the farmer/ industry relationship, the government concerned itself with these matters and attempted to do something about them. However, the most impressive to Tugwell was the Soviet villages. They were more cooperatively oriented than any New England town he had ever been to. The cooperation that Tugwell saw seemed to be naturally occurring, “Russia has accepted socialism in the form of communism,” he wrote, and “the result is at least worthy of serious consideration.” Overall, Tugwell argued that the Soviet system did not appear weak on the organizational side. “Activities are coordinated in the public interest,” and profit motivation is changed into the betterment of social welfare. Since 1930, there has been little unemployment, and the most accumulated wealth has been directed toward social welfare. Furthermore, “men are not greatly influenced by speculations as to which economic system does more,” as long as they believe they are better off with their system. However, if the Russian levels of living begin to “approach our own, the challenge will be a serious one,”
Robert Naimark, the Robert and Florence McDonnell Professor of Eastern European Studies and a respected authority on the Soviet regime, stated of Stalin’s power, “It’s a horrific case of genocide – the purposeful elimination of all or part of a social group, a political group.” Stalin had nearly a million of his own citizens executed, beginning in the 1930s. Millions more fell victim to forced labor, deportation, famine, massacres, and detention and interrogation by Stalin’s henchmen. “In some cases, a quota was established for the number to be executed, the number to be arrested,” said Naimark. “Some officials over fulfilled as a way of showing their exuberance.”
The Soviet Union introduced the collectivization of its agricultural sector between 1928 and 1940 during the ascension of Joseph Stalin. It began during and was part of the first five-year plan. The policy aimed to integrate individual landholdings and labor into collectively-controlled and state-controlled farms: Kolkhozes and Sovkhozes accordingly. The Soviet leadership confidently expected that replacing individual peasant farms with collective ones would immediately increase the food supply for the urban population, the collection of raw materials for the processing industry, and agricultural exports via state-imposed quotas on individuals working on collective farms. Planners regarded collectivization as the solution to the crisis of agrarian distribution (mainly in grain deliveries) that had developed from 1927. Many historians agree that the disruption caused by collectivization and the peasants’ resistance significantly contributed to the Great Famine of 1932–1933, especially in Ukraine, a region famous for its rich soil. This particular period is called “Holodomor” in Ukrainian. The collectivization era saw several famines, many due to both the shortage of modern technology in the USSR at the time and deliberate action on the government’s part. I quoted above at 7-8 million deaths, but the New York Times noted a major Russian newspaper featuring a number as high as 20 million. The number exceeds even that of the 6 million Jews murdered by the Nazis in the holocaust and is only surpassed by Mao’s Great Leap Forward in the 1950s. Of course, in both cases, the ruler imposed mass murder on their subjects, so it gets a slightly shorter shrift in history. However, the reality that two attempts at a Communist “solution” to agriculture resulted in the most significant death tolls in history should give every would communist or Marxist pause before embracing this hideous ideology in the same way that people abhor Nazism and Fascism.
By the early 1930s, party officials began losing faith in Stalin’s leadership following the disasters of collectivization and the limited success of the First Five-Year Plan. These policy failures led to Stalin’s rivals, such as Leon Trotsky, attempting to sway the party away from Stalin’s command. By 1936 Stalin’s paranoia reached a crescendo. The fear of losing his position, the potential return of Trotsky, and the rising threat of fascism from the West, goaded him into authorizing the Great Purge. The purges themselves were primarily conducted by the NKVD (People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs), the secret police of the USSR. However, the initial stages of the purges were targeted at the Soviet government itself. Scholars estimate the death toll for the Great Purge (1936–1938) to be roughly 700,000, and keep in mind; these were people within the border of the Soviet Union.
If there was one success of the Soviet Union, it was within the conflict with Germany in World War II. If the United States almost singlehandedly won the war in the Pacific against Japan, it was the Soviet Union that indeed won the fight against the Germans on the Eastern Front. As a junior historian in middle school and high school, I read about the Battles of El Alamein in Egypt, Patton in Sicily, and Eisenhower on D-Day. And, of course, the battle of the bulge. The German Army at El Alamein had 96,000 troops to put this into context. The Wehrmacht had between 2-3 million on the Eastern Front. Without the Eastern Front, North Africa, Sicily, Italy, and Normandy probably would not have been possible.
One of the more famous battles took place in 1942 at a city called Stalingrad (now Volgograd), in which a German Army of 250,000 was surrounded and forced to surrender. But for me, the battle of Kursk in 1943 was the turning point because, after this battle, the ability of Germany to stage offensives anywhere was decimated. If Stalingrad represented the first significant victory for the Soviets, Kursk mortally wounded the German Army.
Germany’s extensive losses of men and tanks ensured that the victorious Soviet Red Army enjoyed the strategic initiative for the remainder of the war. The Battle of Kursk was the first time in the Second World War that a German strategic offensive was halted before it could break through enemy defenses and penetrate to its strategic depths. Though the Red Army had succeeded in winter offensives previously, their counter-offensives after the German attack at Kursk were their first successful summer offensives of the war.
During Operation Citadel, the German name for the offensive, 54,182 casualties were suffered. Nine thousand thirty-six were killed, 1,960 were reported missing, and 43,159 were wounded. The 9th Army suffered 23,345 casualties, while Army Group South suffered 30,837 losses. During Operation Citadel, 252 to 323 tanks and assault guns were destroyed. By July 5, when the Battle of Kursk started, there were only 184 operational Panthers. Within two days, this had dropped to 40. Though the Soviets also sustained heavy losses, their ability to replace those losses, combined with allied victories in North Africa, Sicily, and Italy, meant the Germans could not replace theirs.
We noted in the previous podcast that it is probably a bad idea to start a land war in European Russia. Yet Hitler, flush from victories in Poland, Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium, and France, believed he could succeed where Sweden’s Charles XII and Napoleon Bonaparte had failed. He also knew that the Germans had fared extremely well against the Russians in World War I, and in 1941, there was no Western Front, no France, to concern him.
Finally, he wanted land for his master race of Germans and, thinking of Slavic peoples as inferior, settled on invading the Soviets. Yet Hitler, like his invading European forbears, missed a few things. First, the Germans in World War I were not trying to go all the way to Moscow. Instead, it was enough to destroy the Russian armies. And Hitler had not planned on a prolonged campaign, so the winter of 1941 was brutal. Nor was the logistics in place to support 3 million troops hundreds of miles beyond their supply depots. Finally, Hitler was a terrible strategist ordering his troops into untenable positions. The Stalingrad debacle might have been averted had Hitler allowed the Army to retreat before getting surrounded. Finally, and grudgingly, credit must be attributed to Stalin himself, whose iron grip has kept the Red Army in place despite horrific losses in the summer or fall of 1941. And yet, through the Soviet efforts ensured victory against Hitler, the lead-up to Germany’s invasion of Russia was slow, two years walk into disaster.
Rather than oppose or at least prepare for the invasion, Stalin used the opportunity to Join the Nazis in the carve-up of Poland and operated the West’s distractions to invade and conquer Finland. And in the spring of 1941, Hitler conquered Yugoslavia and Greece. Why these mountainous areas if not to protect the rear of his Army from a Soviet assault. The Russian people, the Red Army, and Stalin himself showed great fortitude and determination, but it need not have been as terrible with some foresight. Aside from Stalin’s willful ignorance of Hitler’s attention, the type of army leaders who might have minimized Germany’s earlier successes were dead, victims of Stalin’s purges.
Two terms emerged from the post-World War II era. The first is Iron Curtain, and the second is the Cold War. The Iron Curtain was a reference to Red Army forces that established the Soviet Union-friendly governments in all the areas of Eastern and Central Europe. It was if this entire region was segmented off from the rest of Europe, even the world, into a time of seclusion and mystery, behind the curtain of iron. These nations included East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania, and to a lesser extent Yugoslavia. The second term is the Cold War or “the state of political hostility between the Soviet bloc countries and the US-led Western powers from 1945 to 1990.” Stalin died in 1953 and was then succeeded by Nikita Khrushchev.