The Sunday Book Review: A Brotherhood of Bolshevik Thieves

26523194Writing in the Literary Review Simon Sebag Montefiore, author of the novel Sashenka and the biography Young Stalin, reviews History’s Greatest Heist: The Looting of Russia by the Bolsheviks by Sean McMeekin.

This book can be read in three ways. First, it is a work of considerable scholarship and the fruit of much archival probing by a fine scholar of early Bolshevism – and much of it is fresh, exciting and overdue. Secondly, it is a study of how a new, radical and illicit government used all means possible to launder the money and treasures of Russia’s tsarist regime, sell them to the capitalists who hated the Bolsheviks, and use the ill-gotten gains to buy arms and fund the nightmarish, blood-spattered experiment of the Soviet Union. Thirdly, it has a contemporary relevance since it is the first study of illegal funding – or, as we would say today, sanctions busting – on a colossal scale.

‘The knell of private property sounds’, wrote Karl Marx. ‘The expropriators are being expropriated.’ Nothing could have been more true. From the beginning, the Bolsheviks had embraced violence and terror: ‘A revolution without firing squads is meaningless,’ said Lenin. But he had also, since the early years of the twentieth century, used ‘expropriation’ – the Marxist-Bolshevist euphemism for bank robbery – to raise party funds: the planning and execution of a run of violent but daring heists was how the young Stalin had first won Lenin’s approval. When a worthy and prim comrade criticised this style of banditry, Lenin just laughed and said, ‘That’s precisely the type of man we need.’ So the use of the racy word ‘heist’ in this book is appropriate, and it was no surprise that once Lenin and his comrades had seized power in October 1917 they would continue their policy of expropriation on a larger scale. After all, they had to pay an army and fund a war – and they found they possessed the vast treasure trove of Russia itself to achieve this. They used every means of financial skulduggery to do so, and indeed many of the key dealers, traders and middlemen were the very men who had helped organise Stalin’s bank robberies and laundered the swag a decade earlier. Sean McMeekin is, as I have said, a scholar and master of the archives, but he rightly revels in this crew of shady capitalists, humbugs, thieves, crooks and assassins. Indeed the scale is eyewatering: more was requisitioned in eighteen months than the amount sent by the Nazis to Switzerland during the entire Second World War.

It begins comically with the inept attempts of the new Bolshevik masters to force Russia’s worldly and cosmopolitan bankers to hand over their banks along with the contents of their safes. McMeekin introduces characters like Max Laserson, a top banker and industrialist who threw in his lot with the Reds as a financial expert. But the real anti-hero of the book is a Swedish banker named Olaf Aschberg, who, though a successful banker and arms-dealer during the First World War, was also vaguely sympathetic to the Bolsheviks. This complex and highly intelligent man was to do more to fund the Bolshevik revolution than any other individual, and McMeekin’s book does a great service in unveiling his interesting personality.

Next the Bolsheviks managed to seize the tsarist gold bullion – Europe’s largest strategic gold reserve, worth $680 million. Meanwhile Lenin ordered the setting up of an organisation – the Gokhran, or State Treasury for the Storage of Valuables – to plunder and collect the private treasures and wealth of the rich nobility. (He himself borrowed the two Rolls-Royces and Delaunay-Belville limousine from the Tsar’s garage, though amusingly the latter was actually stolen from him at gunpoint in 1918.) Part of the looting involved the murder of the entire Romanov imperial family: Yurovsky, the organiser of the killings, estimated that the jewellery secured by this slaughter was worth $300,000. The next stage was the nationalisation of all church property. Within weeks, the misguided writer Maxim Gorky, who was a member of the Gokhran, had helped fill countless warehouses with artwork, jewels, cutlery, silver, gold, furniture, books and other artefacts for sale abroad. The members of the committee posed with their swag in heaps – the warehouses sound like giant bandit’s treasure troves. By December 1921, the swag was worth $450 million, or $45 billion in today’s money.

Yet the Bolsheviks were desperate for guns and food to maintain their new state: all these treasures had to be sold abroad, but secretly, because the foreign capitalists of Britain, America and Western Europe were determined to crush the regime. The Leninist underground swung into action: Aschberg was the leading middleman, but an important figure on the Russian side was Leonid Krasin, a dapper People’s Commissar who had managed Lenin and Stalin’s campaign of heists and bombings between 1904 and 1907. He was one of those rare characters, a highly cultured and educated bourgeois who was as at home building a new bomb as he was negotiating with hauts banquiers in plush Western hotels. Krasin was assisted by one of the leading launderers of Stalin’s bank robberies, Max Wallach, who would become famed as Soviet foreign commissar Litvinov. The foreign trade commissar Anastas Mikoyan was also a key figure. He became one of Stalin’s senior magnates and survived at the top of the Soviet hierarchy; he both carried Lenin’s coffin and attended JFK’s funeral.

Soon Bolshevik operatives, some of them trusted veterans and others shadowy wheeler-dealers, brought back hundreds of millions in cash in suitcases. The climax of the book comes when the Bolsheviks and Ashberg set up a huge gold and treasure sale in Reval (Tallinn), a Baltic city that rapidly assumed ‘a wild west atmosphere, becoming a kind of Bolshevik boomtown’. The Hotel Petersburg was the Bolshevik headquarters, where a crew of Leninist ruffians and smooth operatives, Western adventurers and conmen, and the representatives of respectable American, French and British investment banks, bought the treasures of Russia. De Beers purchased £1 million worth of diamonds for £365,000 under Litvinov’s negotiations, but he did better later when he sold jewels worth $10 million to an English buyer. In less than two years, Lenin had raised, through gold sales, $353 million (£35 billion in today’s money).

The regime had survived the Civil War to oppress its own people and threaten the peace of the world, costing millions of innocent lives in its quest to create a workers’ paradise. This book is a superb work, easy to read and filled with new material. It manages to be both important and fascinating, half an adventure and half a tragic political parable. But two stories stay in the mind. In 1922, the Bolsheviks even robbed the grave of Catherine the Great, stealing her necklace. And, of course, American right-wing millionaires were the biggest buyers of the treasures prised from the hands of murdered Russian nobles: Armand Hammer’s famous travelling art fair in 1930 was characteristic. But it was the steel magnate Andrew Mellon who bought the best swag: $6.6 million of Old Masters including works by Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Rubens, Raphael and Titian. Ironically, he was also the Treasury Secretary in charge of enforcing America’s laws against Soviet dumping of tsarist treasures. This is far from the least of the grotesque ironies in this gripping story of the heist that really was history’s greatest.

One response to “The Sunday Book Review: A Brotherhood of Bolshevik Thieves

  1. The review did not mention Armand Hammer who was also a Soviet Sales agent, selling Icons in the West. In one respect, he did a service preserving many historical pieces that would have perished in the Bolshevik ash heaps.

    I think it is important to notice that the Bolsheviks promised and brought CHANGE and HOPE. Yet the people were worse off due to those empty words, and meaningless slogans, while their leaders stole from them. Some lessons in history are never learned and we are doomed to repeat them.

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