Category Archives: history

Viking Russia, Land of Barbarians

Alexei Bayer, writing in the Moscow Times:

The origins of the Russian state and its early history help explain the country’s modern political makeup.

According to the Kievan Primary Chronicle, compiled around 1110, Slavic tribes invited Scandinavian prince Rurik to rule over them in the 9th century. But the history of the Viking expansion in Western Europe suggests that an “invitation” was hardly necessary. In the West, the Vikings began by raiding settlements, pillaging them and dragging their inhabitants off to slavery. They set up outposts to collect tributes, gradually becoming feudal lords. They adopted the local language and customs and eventually melded with the local population.

The Norsemen followed the same pattern in Britain, France and Sicily. The Varangians, as they were known in Russia, became feudal lords and the name of their tribe, the Rus, gave Russia its name just as Normandy was named after the Normans.

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Andrei Zubov, Russophobe

Standpoint reports:

“Why do you hate your own country so much?” This was the angry reaction of one Russian who had just listened to a devastating critique of everything that Communism had done to his country between 1917 and 1990. The event was a seminar at the Moscow School of Political Studies and the speaker who had provoked this outburst was Andrei Zubov, one of Russia’s most brilliant — and most controversial — historians.

Zubov, who is the editor and co-author of a two-volume history of Russia in the 20th century, has a burning desire to make Russians face up to the realities of the Soviet era. He used his talk (which I attended as a participant in a later seminar) to describe in relentless detail the way in which all that was good in Russia’s past — not least the flowering of culture that took place in the second half of the 19th century — was destroyed by Lenin, Stalin and their associates. But his remarks about today’s Russia were no less striking.

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Learning About Russia from the Songs of its Slaves

Amanda Bellows, writing on the New York Times Opinionator blog (click the link for an audio comparison of American and Russian slave songs):

Frederick Douglass spent much of his life speaking about the hardships of slavery — but even he, at times, realized that words were not enough. Instead, he turned to music: “The mere hearing of [slave] songs,” he said, revealed the “physical cruelties of the slave system; for the heart has no language like song.” Today, spirituals like “Go Down, Moses” and “God’s Going to Trouble the Water” continue to convey American slaves’ anguish, frustration and hope.

Less familiar to Americans, however, is the music of Russia’s serfs, who were emancipated in 1861, on the eve of President Lincoln’s inauguration. Although the slaves and serfs were separated by vast distances and significant historical experiences, each group endured years of bondage by turning to song. Likening the songs of Russian serfs to those of American slaves, early 20th-century actor and slave descendent Paul Robeson observed that both groups had “an instinctive flair for music … [a] faculty born in sorrow.” But their musical traditions have striking differences, too — differences that help us understand the contrasts between the two systems.

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What’s Wrong with the Russians?

Russian film director Andrei “Russophobe” Konchalovsky, writing on Open Democracy:

“Cursed be those who express our thoughts before us!”

– Aelius Donatus, Roman grammarian and teacher of rhetoric

Donatus, living in ancient Rome, was fortunate – he wanted to be the first to express a seditious thought. If I, living in today’s Russia, wish to express an opinion that someone might find offensive, I need to attribute it to some recognised authority, ideally an eminent Russian thinker. Otherwise I will be accused of every sin in general, and of hatred of everything Russian in particular.

So, here are my thoughts.

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Russians Spit on their Own Fellow Citizens, History

Simon Shuster, writing for Time magazine’s website:

Alexander Smirnov has never gotten over the euphoria of August 1991. He was a college student in Leningrad at the time, lanky and pale with Coke-bottle glasses, and on the morning of Aug. 20, 1991, he walked out onto the central square of the city to find a sea of people taking part in one of the largest demonstrations Russia had ever seen. The day before, a military coup had begun.

The heads of the KGB, the army and police, along with a few other obdurate communists, had seized control of the Soviet Union from President Mikhail Gorbachev, and ordered tanks into Moscow to impose a state of emergency. In response, hundreds of thousands of people went onto the streets across the empire to stop the return of the bad old days of the Communist state. “We were prepared to lay down in front of the tanks,” Smirnov says. And in Moscow a few of them did. Only three days after the military junta began, the civil resistance defeated it. On Aug. 22, the coup leaders were arrested, and the Soviet Union never recovered. Four months later, on Christmas Day, it was dissolved.

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Remembering the Last Iron Curtain as the New One Descends

Vladimir Kara-Murza, writing on his blog Spotlight on Russia, remembers the end of the old Iron Curtain as the new one descends across the continent:

Just the same, no simpler
Are the tests of our times:
Can you come to the square?
Dare you come to the square?
Can you come to the square?
Dare you come to the square?
When that hour strikes?

— Alexander Galich, St. Petersburg Romance (1968)

On August 19, 1991, Muscovites awakened to the sound of tanks. In a fitting conclusion to the decades of Soviet tyranny, the tanks that once rolled on the streets of Budapest, Prague, and Vilnius, came to the heart of Russia. By mid-morning, Moscow was occupied by troops. Television channels were broadcasting Swan Lake, interrupted only by pale-faced news anchors who read out decrees by self-proclaimed “acting president” Gennady Yanayev declaring a state of emergency, suspending most constitutional rights, shutting down newspapers and radio stations, and announcing the formation of a new governing body—the “State Committee on the State of Emergency” (known by its Russian acronym, GKChP), composed of the top Communist leadership, including the vice president, the prime minister, the minister of defense, and the chairman of the KGB. Their objective: to save the rapidly crumbling Soviet dictatorship

If history was any indicator, the coup was bound to succeed.

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Duma Deputy: Russia will not Last to 2020

Sergei Petrov, a Russian State Duma deputy from the Just Russia party and founder of Rolf Group, writing in the Moscow Times:

Strategy 2020 — the question of where Russia will be in 2020 — hangs in the air. There are a variety of scenarios being offered by leading economists, political scientists and other analysts, but one thing is clear: There will be no miracles in the next nine years. The prospects for a country mired in archaic institutions, an oil- and gas-dependent economy, systemic corruption, unprotected property rights, corrupt courts, fraudulent elections and an apathetic population can only be dim at best.

I’m almost certain that Russia will not be able to survive in its current borders through 2020. This is not an exaggerated, sensational prognosis taken from the blogs of radical liberals or anarchists, but a clear-headed, objective analysis based on the Kremlin’s flawed policies over the past decade.

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Neo-Sovietizing Boris Nemtsov

Top Russia blogger Vladimir Kara-Murza reports:

For Yuri Andropov, who headed the KGB from the 1960s to the 1980s, suppressing political dissent was a top priority. “Every such act represents a danger,” he told his colleagues in 1979, “The struggle against them must be decisive, uncompromising, and merciless.” The regime tried different approaches. Dissidents were convicted to long sentences for “anti-Soviet agitation”—an offense under Article 70 of the penal code—and sent away to prisons and labor camps alongside real criminals. Often, they were labelled “insane,” committed to special psychiatric prisons and subjected to torturous “treatment.” Both of these practices—criminal convictions and “punitive psychiatry”—met with worldwide condemnation and ultimately proved too costly for the Kremlin’s international image.

Then Andropov had an idea.

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EDITORIAL: Russian Ignorance, Unbound

EDITORIAL

Russian Ignorance, Unbound

“One of our professors talked about him in a lecture.  But I don’t really remember now exactly what he said.”

Those were the words of 17-year old Russian law student Maria Danilyants.  The “him” she was referring to was Andrei Sakharov, and she was being asked about him by Michael Schwirtz of the New York Times because his wife Yelena Bonner had just passed away.

If you think Ms. Danilyants is an ignorant buffoon, think again. She’s by far the brightest person in her law school class, because not a single one of her classmates could place the name “Sakharov” at all.  This is very much the same as if a class of American law students in New York City turned out to have no idea who Martin Luther King was.  That is, if America had collapsed and been replaced by another country because it didn’t listen to King.

Cynics on Russia though we may be, we continue to be utterly stunned by the extent of Russian barbarism and ignorance.  It is truly not inaccurate to refer to Russia as “Zaire with permafrost” and it is truly breathtaking that Russians can look at any other country and think themselves even remotely erudite.

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EDITORIAL: Welcome to the Horror of Neo-Soviet Russia

EDITORIAL

Welcome to the Horror of Neo-Soviet Russia

When you click the jump, you will see an image of the leather trench coat that was worn by officers of the NKVD, the organization that became the KGB and is now the FSB (the organization has twice been required to change its name to try to ward off its disgraceful past).  The NKVD, like their successors, were responsible for  horrific crimes against the people of Russia and were a legion of goons that terrorized the country in order to support the Stalin dictatorship.  They were integral in carrying out one of the most infamous crimes against humanity in world history, the Katyn massacre in 1940 Poland.

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Putin Moves Russia From Authoritarianism to Totalitarianism

Pavel Felgenhauer, writing on the Jamestown Foundation’s Eurasia Daily Monitor:

A group of 14 acclaimed Russian intellectuals, including human rights activists, artists, film directors, writers and aides of the late President Boris Yeltsin have published an open statement condemning the present regime for “completely destroying the institution of democratic elections in Russia.” Election results are shamelessly falsified by the authorities, while opposition parties and activists are “unconstitutionally” denied registration to run in elections under cooked up pretexts.

As a result, subjects of the Russian state are disfranchised from the political system rendering it illegitimate. The statement describes as “vicious” the so called “vertical of power”—a system of personalized authoritarian rule the prime minister and leader of the ruling United Russia Vladimir Putin has been building since 1999. This “vertical of power” has created a rubberstamp misrepresentative parliament, a “paralyzed Dmitry Medvedev presidency” and dysfunctional regional and municipal authorities.

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Putin Carries on Hitler’s Work

The Other Russia reports:

As Russia celebrates the 66th anniversary of the Nazi’s capitulation in World War II, 83-year-old veteran Anton Karavanets describes his life like this: “I live the life of a pauper, I feel redundant in my own country, the country I once risked my life for. Yet another anniversary since the end of the Second World War is approaching, and there are fewer and fewer of us, war survivors, left.”

Despite repeated promises from the Russian government to ensure a good life for its veterans, Karavanets is not alone in his sentiments. Feeling abandoned, some have returned their medals as they literally struggle to survive in abysmal conditions.

As United Civil Front leader Garry Kasparov argues, Russia’s ruling regime has offended its veterans in the worst possible way: by essentially carrying out the work of the Third Reich.

Occupier Day
By Garry Kasparov
May 11, 2011
Kasparov.ru

In Brezhnev’s time, Victory Day began to be actively used to strengthen the ideological basis of the Soviet system. Victory in the Great Patriotic War became not just a symbol to bring society together, but a central element of Soviet propaganda, justifying growing socio-economic problems and all the crimes of the Stalin era. Naturally, the real history of the Great War was sacrificed for a semi-official myth that worked to their advantage.

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EDITORIAL: Get it Straight, Russia Lost World War II

Advertisement for a World War II party in Moscow. The message reads: Thank you Granddad for the victory we had!

EDITORIAL

Get it Straight, Russia Lost World War II

Three were killed.  No, four.  Wait a minute, it was seven.  No, no . . .  eight!!

You could be forgiven if you were somewhat perplexed reading the news out of the Caucasus on May 8th. Each different media outlet you turned to seemed to have a different figure for the number of “militants” and “rebels” Russia had killed in its latest confrontation, though in each case they insisted only one member of the Russian armed forces had perished in the exchange.

As you can well imagine, if you could’n’t even get the number of militants, it was pretty darned impossible to find out anything about who they were or why they had been killed.  Russians lack real information about such events, just as they lack real information about World War II, a conflict they lost but foolishly believe they won. 

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EDITORIAL: The Horror of Russian Cowardice and Lies

EDITORIAL

The Horror of Russian Cowardice and Lies

The nuclear reactor in Power Unit No. 4 at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station exploded at 1:23 am on Friday, April 25, 1986 — twenty five years ago this month.

It immediately generated a cloud of radioactive vapor ten times more toxic than the Hiroshima nuclear bombing.

But the 50,000 residents of the neighboring town of Pripyat, USSR, were not told to take protective measures, such as staying indoors with the windows shut, for a full twelve hours following the blast, when it was announced that they faced “an unfavorable radioactive atmosphere.”  Unfavorable indeed! They were not told they would be evacuated until late in the evening the next day, Saturday April 26, and they were not actually evacuated until 2 pm on Sunday, April 27. By that time, many had incurred lethal or life-altering doses of radioactivity.

Residents were not permitted to take their personal property with them. Patriotic Soviet citizens soon swarmed in and looted them to the bare walls.  Today, Pripyat is a ghost town.

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The Fetid Smell of Russian Feburary

The heroic Yulia Latynina, writing in the Moscow Times:

The smell of February is lingering in the air — February 1917, that is.

I am not talking about the revolutions in the Middle East but about Russia’s extraordinarily weak leaders and the growing contempt that the leading public figures and ordinary citizens are showing toward them.

Look how quickly the seemingly ironclad vertical power structure can evaporate into thin air. For example, Bolshoi prima-turned-celebrity Anastasia Volochkova had no qualms about publicly thumbing her nose at United Russia when she quit the party after revealing that she was “tricked” into signing a group letter in support of prosecuting former Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky. In the 1970s, no Soviet citizen would have even thought about snubbing the Communist Party.

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Nazis and Russians, Birds of a Sordid Feather

A movie review in The New Yorker shows the horrifying similarity of behavior between Russians and Nazis during World War II. In fact, it’s easily arguable that the Nazis were not as a bad as the Russians when it came to murdering innocent people in Eastern Europe:

Claude Lanzmann’s “Shoah,” the shattering nine-hour documentary about the Holocaust, which was first shown in New York in 1985, has, on its twenty-fifth anniversary, reopened here and will soon appear in museums, universities, and select theatres across the country. Back in 1985, the film left me bruised and sore, moved by its clarifying passions and its electrifying rhetoric, and amazed by its revolutionary form. Lanzmann, a French filmmaker and intellectual journalist, omitted photographs, newsreels, and documents (all the usual historical materials), and, instead, reconstructed the past from what remained of it in the present.

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Can Craven Russians face up to their Past?

Maxim Trudolyubov, opinion page editor of Vedomosti, writing in the Moscow Times:

At least 70 years after millions of people fell victim to political repression, Russia has yet to come to terms with the crimes of its Soviet past. In fact, it even seems as if nobody really wants to discuss the subject and that it has been imposed on us by some overly clever person or ill-intentioned foreigner.

But it is increasingly rare that foreigners are interested in this topic. And with so many conflicting emotions involved, many Russians continue to feel that the issue divides rather than unites society. This is not because there are so many hard-core supporters of former Soviet leader Josef Stalin, but because a significant portion of the population believes that condemning the crimes of the Soviet regime somehow reflects negatively on themselves, their parents or the older generation, and places a dark cloud over more positive memories from that period. Another factor is the traditional mistrust that some members of society feel toward the educated class, “liberals,” “reformers” and human rights activists who are typically associated with this subject.

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Brezhnutin? Putizhev? Disturbing and Bizarre, but True

Another indispensable post from the brilliant Russian-watchers at the Power Vertical, one of our favorite Russia blogs:

A new leader comes to the Kremlin in a time of chaos, replacing a bumbling and erratic predecessor. He loves to hunt and drive fast cars. He ushers in an era of stability and relative prosperity, thanks largely to high oil prices. People see the first decade or so of his rule as a golden age.

This could easily be a description of Vladimir Putin. But it also applies to another Russian leader — Leonid Brezhnev, who ruled the Soviet Union from 1964 until his death in 1982.

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EDITORIAL: Russia is an Uncivilized Monstrosity

EDITORIAL

Russia is an Uncivilized Monstrosity

An exhibit opened last week in Berlin, Germany, whose purpose is to confront the people of Germany directly with the active support — indeed, adoration — given by their ancestors to the maniacal regime of Adolf Hitler.  The New York Times reports:

As artifacts go, they are mere trinkets — an old purse, playing cards, a lantern. Even the display that caused the crowds to stop and stare is a simple embroidered tapestry, stitched by village women.  The household items had Nazi logos and colors. The tapestry, a tribute to the union of church, state and party, was woven by a church congregation at the behest of their priest.

The same exact thing, of course, was true of Russians during the time of Stalin, and Stalin ended up murdering far more people than Hitler ever dreamed of doing.  But instead of facing up to their hideous past as Germans are doing, Russians prefer to rewrite their past with absurd lies and misdirections, and now Russians are weaving new tapestries of exaltation to Stalin and his ilk. Indeed, they’ve even elected a proud KGB spy from the Brezhnev era as their “president.”

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EDITORIAL: The Lenin-Stalin-Putin Continuum

EDITORIAL

The Lenin-Stalin-Putin Continuum

Last week, once again, Vladimir Putin’s Russia was awash in appallingly bad economic news.  Inflation was roaring and consumer confidence was plummeting.  The stock market was bouncing around like a yo-yo, helplessly enslaved by world raw materials prices.  A Russian defector won a Nobel prize and then ruthlessly condemned the state of neo-Soviet science.  Once again, Russia pathetically flailed about seeking WTO membership like a beggar, and retail giant IKEA announced it was halting investment in the the land of Putin (IKEA has spent more on Russia than the Kremlin is planning to spend on the Sokolovo “Russian Silicon Valley” project).

All this leads Russians to look elsewhere for investment opportunities, of course.  Capital flight has always been a main hallmark of the despotic Putin regime.  So last week, Putin revealed his “solution” to that problem:  He simply won’t let Russians access foreign markets.

Who can be surprised that Putin, a proud KGB spy and a relic of the failed Soviet past, would adopt a neo-Soviet authoritarian response to the inconvenience of the marketplace? Who can expect his results to be any better than those of his Soviet ancestors?

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There is no Russia

Paul Goble reports:

The dismissal of Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov highlights the fact that “there is no Russia,” a Moscow analyst argues. Instead, “there is only a Sovietoid copy which has been converted into the RF Corporation,” something everyone involved needs to recognize in order not to continue to pay a high price for making a mistake on this point.

In an essay posted on the Folksland.net portal, Aleksey Shornikov says that “the Russian Federation is not a state, although it dresses itself up in the clothes of a power. The RF is instead a commercial company or as it can be expressed in terms familiar to us, ‘RF Inc.’”

According to Shornikov, “the various European East Indian companies” prefigured the form that RF Inc. has taken since 1991. The most famous of these was the British one in India, a public-private partnership chartered by the king that performed many of the functions of a state but was organized and acted like a corporation pursuing profit.

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EDITORIAL: The Eternal Russian Mystery

EDITORIAL

The Eternal Russian Mystery

Russia has been famously described as a riddle wrapped in mystery surrounded by an enigma.  And the fundamental question foreigners are always left with having dealt with Russians is:  “Is it dishonesty, or stupidity?”

Which one, for instance, would make Vladimir Putin say “that Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected president of the U.S. four times in a row, and that didn’t damage the U.S. Constitution.”  Is Putin really such an ignorant ape that he doesn’t know Americans immediately changed their Constitution after FDR passed from the scene, concluding his bid for power was outrageous and dangerous?

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Pigs, Dogs and Sheep in Putin’s Russia

Alexei Bayer, writing in the Moscow Times:

George Orwell’s anti-utopian novel “1984” enjoyed a revival during the presidency of George W. Bush. Even though Orwell’s totalitarian future is now more than a quarter-century out of date, the book read like a collection of newspaper headlines. The current government in Washington also pays homage to “1984.” The recent U.S. withdrawal from Iraq can be described in Orwellian newspeak, “peace is war.”

Orwell’s other masterpiece, “Animal Farm,” is a wickedly funny look at the Bolshevik Revolution and Stalinism. But since communism has collapsed and its hypocrisies and evils have been condemned by most thinking persons inside and outside Russia, there seems little point in revisiting this work.

Not so. Published in 1945, “Animal Farm” satirizes Soviet history through World War II but also takes it far into the future. With extraordinary prescience, it paints a picture of post-Communist Russia that is extremely accurate even for our own times.

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OP-ED: What Putin Learned from Stalin

What Putin Learned From Stalin

by Paul R. Gregory

Professor Paul R. Gregory

Show trials, mysterious deaths in prisons, thought crimes, intimidation of political opponents, and control of the media are reminiscent of Stalin’s Russia, but they are mainstays of Russia under Putin.

Unlike Stalin, Putin uses these instruments of power and intimidation behind a façade of democracy. Unlike Stalin, they are used selectively against a few citizens. Those who “mind their business” are left alone. While Stalin held power, even those who played by his rules were at risk. Modern dictators have learned that mass repressions are not necessary; selective intimidation works just as well.

Putin has created the very system that Stalin feared most: A KGB state unconstrained by any other source of power. Stalin was constantly on guard with respect to his secret police. If they and their leaders became too powerful, he had a simple solution: Kill them. Putin’s KGB state – which controls much of Russian industry, finance, and trade – has no Stalin or Politburo to rein them in.

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Lenin was Evil

If only there were more Russians like Andrei Zubov, a professor of philosophy at the Moscow State Institute of International Affairs, writing in the Moscow Times (good luck trying to find this kind of thing in the Russia press):

In the small town where my dacha is located, the main street is called Soviet Army, and an iron statue of Lenin stands right in the middle of it. Although the children love to play around the statue, it is a terrible place for games. The children’s parents, however, have another opinion. “Let the kids play around Grandfather Lenin,” they say. “Who is he bothering? After all, he is a funny man.”

There is nothing funny about the hundreds — perhaps thousands — of Lenin statues and memorial plaques with his profile still adorning Russia’s cities, towns and villages. As soon as my eye catches a Lenin image, I turn away in disgust. I flinch every time I am on the metro and hear the words over the loud speaker: “Next stop: The Lenin Library.” As a historian, I know all too well what crimes Lenin committed, how much blood was shed as a result of his direct orders, how many millions were killed or suffered from hunger and disease when Lenin and his comrades unleashed the Civil War and Red Terror.

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