Category Archives: economics

How Gorbachev Came to Power

From Revolutionary Russia, 1891-1991: A History, by Orlando Figes (Metropolitan, 2014), Kindle Loc. 4437-4453:

Who knows what would have happened if Andropov had lived longer. Perhaps the Soviet Union might have undergone a more gradual transition from the old command system, modernizing the economy without relinquishing political controls, as done by the Chinese, though one wonders if this could have been achieved given the extent of the Party’s opposition to de-collectivization, the key to China’s revival. As fortune would have it, Andropov became terminally ill with kidney failure only nine months after coming into power and died, at the age of sixty-nine, in February 1984. From his death-bed in hospital, he wrote a speech to be read out at the Plenum of the Central Committee recommending Gorbachev to succeed him. But the crucial paragraph was cut by the old guard in the Politburo, opposed to reform, who on his death voted to replace him with Chernenko. Within weeks of his appointment the 73-year-old Chernenko became terminally ill. The Bolsheviks were dying of old age.

Gorbachev bided his time—careful not to alarm the old guard by giving the impression that he might go on with Andropov’s reforms yet building his support in the Central Committee and increasing his prestige by trips abroad, where he impressed the British leader, Margaret Thatcher, in particular, on a visit to London in December 1984. Such impressions were important to the Soviet government, which needed Western credits and disarmament. They no doubt helped him make the deal with Gromyko, the Foreign Minister, by which Gorbachev agreed to promote him to head of state (Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet) if he supported him to succeed Chernenko as the Party’s General Secretary. It was the backing of Gromyko, a veteran Brezhnevite, that tipped the scales in Gorbachev’s favour in the Politburo vote on Chernenko’s death the following March. There was no battle for the leadership: the old guard simply stepped aside to let in a younger man.

The selection of Gorbachev was arguably the most revolutionary act in the history of the Party since 1917. Had the Politburo known where he would lead the Party in the next few years, it would never have allowed him to become its General Secretary. But at this stage Gorbachev’s intentions were still far from clear.

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High Oil Prices and the Brezhnev Era

From Revolutionary Russia, 1891-1991: A History, by Orlando Figes (Metropolitan, 2014), Kindle Loc. 4290-4335:

By the end of the 1970s, these small garden plots, which took up 4 per cent of the country’s agricultural land, were producing 40 per cent of its pork and poultry, 42 per cent of its fruit and over half its potatoes.

Brezhnev responded to the agricultural crisis by allowing larger garden plots to stimulate production. He might have improved the Soviet system’s chances of survival by doing what the Chinese were doing at this time: de-collectivizing agriculture and returning to an NEP-like system of cooperatives and household farms on contracts, with the state allowing them to sell what they produced beyond their quotas on the free market. Soviet reformers were not unsympathetic to these policy ideas, even if they stopped short of recommending them. Gorbachev, who at this time was in the Agricultural Department of the Secretariat, proposed giving more autonomy to enterprises and associations in deciding various production and financial questions in a memorandum to the Central Committee in May 1978 (an idea repeated by Andropov on becoming General Secretary in 1982). But the Brezhnev leadership would not accept these proposals—even as trial policies. The old guard was too committed to the Stalinist collective farm system which they had implemented as young men. The Party’s power was heavily invested in the direct management of the collective farms by thousands of officials in the localities. Perhaps, in any case, fifty years of collectivization (twice as long as in China) had destroyed any hope of bringing the Soviet peasantry back to life.

Relying on their tiny garden plots to feed themselves, the kolkhoz workers lived in squalid poverty. Many inhabited houses without running water or electricity. The ablest and most enterprising, mostly men of conscript age, ran away from the countryside, which became a ghetto of the old, the infirm and the alcoholic, who worked badly. Entire villages were abandoned or left to rot with only a few elderly inhabitants where once perhaps a hundred families had lived.

Alcohol consumption more than doubled in the Brezhnev years. People drank out of despair. By the early 1980s, the average kolkhoz family was spending one third of its household income on vodka—an official figure which does not include the moonshine made by kolkhoz workers in their homes (for every bottle bought from shops, they drank a bucket of moonshine). Alcoholism was the national disease. It had a major impact on crime rates (around 10 million people every year were detained by the police for drunkenness) and a bad effect on male life expectancy, which declined from 66 in 1964 to just 62 in 1980. The regime was unconcerned by the problem. It increased its vodka sales to extract money from the population which had little else to buy. Better to have people drunk than protesting against shortages.

Oil revenues rescued the regime from probable food riots and possible collapse. They gave a lease on life to the Soviet economy, which would have been in severe trouble without a five-fold increase in crude oil prices as a result of the 1973 crisis. The Soviet Union doubled oil production in the 1970s, mainly by developing new fields in Siberia. With its dollar earnings from the sale of oil and gas, the government was able to buy consumer goods and foodstuffs from the West. Before the revolution, Russia had been a major agricultural exporter. But within sixty years it had turned into the biggest food importer in the world. One third of all baked goods in the country were made from foreign cereals. Cattle production was totally dependent on imported grain.

High oil prices also allowed the Soviet Union to be more assertive in its foreign policy. They financed an eight-fold increase in military spending under Brezhnev’s rule. By 1982, the military budget consumed approximately 15 per cent of the country’s GNP. The rise showed the growing power of hardliners in the Brezhnev government, particularly in the KGB, the armed forces, and the defence and foreign ministries, who were committed at all costs to maintaining military superiority over NATO as the foundation of Soviet security.

Their confidence was boosted by the failure of NATO to respond to the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia to crush the reformist government of Alexander Dubcek in August 1968—an invasion that the Soviet Defence Minister, Andrei Grechko, had pledged to carry out ‘even if it leads to a third world war’. The Kremlin emerged from the crisis with renewed boldness. ‘The new correlation of forces is such that [the West] no longer dares to move against us,’ claimed Andrei Gromyko, the Foreign Minister.

Moscow justified its invasion and reinforced its grip on Eastern Europe by issuing the Brezhnev Doctrine, outlined in a speech by the Soviet leader to the Polish Communists in November 1968. When ‘forces hostile to socialism try to turn the development of a socialist country towards capitalism,’ Brezhnev warned the Poles, ‘it becomes not only a problem of the country concerned, but a common problem and concern of all socialist countries.’ In practice what this meant was that the Soviet Union reserved for itself the right to intervene in the internal affairs of any Warsaw Pact country if it deemed it necessary for its own security.

Revolutionary ambitions also fuelled the Kremlin’s military spending. While Brezhnev talked détente with the Americans, the hardliners in his government were increasingly directing Soviet arms in support of Third World socialist revolutions and anti-colonial movements. The Americans approached détente in the belief that the Soviet leadership was becoming more pragmatic and less ideological or revolutionary in its foreign policy—a rational approach allowing them to ‘manage’ and contain it through deterrents and rewards. A CIA report of 1969 maintained that the ‘USSR tends to behave more as a world power than as the center of the world revolution’. But this assumption soon proved wrong.

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Warlordism in Ukraine?

On 30 June, Walter Russell Mead’s blog at The American Interest carried a post on The Sad Status Quo in Ukraine, responding to “must-read” analytical reporting in the Wall Street Journal (behind a paywall). It suggests that Ukraine may be entering an era of Warlordism.

Focusing on the person of one Ihor Kolomoisky, the banking tycoon appointed as Governor of the Dnipropetrovsk region earlier this year. Kolomoisky is reportedly spending as much as $10 million a month to field a well-equipped fighting force a third the size of Ukraine’s own army, with his banking businesses looking to profit handsomely with European integration. His tactics are bare-knuckled, but effective: Dnipropetrovsk had some pro-Russian activism earlier this year, but it quickly dissipated …

In the Warsaw Pact and ex-Soviet countries that moved toward the EU and NATO, the gradual imposition of European law led to a process of state building. This has gone farther in some places than in others—Bulgaria, Romania and some of the ex-Yugoslav republics have made less progress than some others—but states have been built that, with corruption here and there, generally speaking work pretty well. But the farther east you go, the more another model was adopted: a single powerful person ends up establishing himself as the center of a new state. Some of the dictatorships in Central Asia are like this, and Putin has adopted a more advanced form of this in Moscow. Instead of oligarchs, there are autocrats or near-autocrats. Again, think feudal Europe, with a powerful ruler crushing the nobles and establishing firm central control.

Ukraine finds itself somewhere in the middle. There has not been a successful Western-oriented state-building process that creates the kind of institutions and political parties that a modern capitalist society needs. But at the same time, no single oligarch or strongman has broken the power of the rest, establishing himself as the Putin of Kiev….

Ironically, what Putin wants and the oligarchs want is probably similar now: enough Western support for rump Ukraine so it doesn’t fall completely under Russia’s control, but stopping well short of forcing major, deep reform on Ukraine. Putin can live with this because he has got Crimea and a lot of economic and political influence—and because the West will keep funneling enough cash to Russia to pay Ukraine’s gas bill. Ukraine’s oligarchs will once again have used West and East against each other to maintain a precarious independence. And Western leaders can tell themselves that they’ve achieved a glorious victory because they’ve kept Putin out of Kiev.

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Did Stalin Target Ukraine for Famine?

From Revolutionary Russia, 1891-1991: A History, by Orlando Figes (Metropolitan, 2014), Kindle Loc. 2532-2548:

The outcome of this wholesale seizure of the harvest—encouraged by exaggerated surplus estimates from local officials eager to win favour from Moscow—was widespread famine in 1932–3. The number of deaths is impossible to calculate accurately, but demographers suggest that up to 8.5 million people died of starvation or disease. The worst-affected areas were in Ukraine, where peasant resistance to collectivization was particularly strong and the grain levies were excessively high. This has prompted some historians to argue that the ‘terror-famine’ was a calculated policy of genocide against Ukrainians—a claim enshrined in law by the Ukrainian government and recognized in all but name by the United Nations and the European Parliament.

Stalin had a special distrust of the Ukrainian peasantry. He was more than capable of bearing grudges against entire nationalities, and of killing them in large numbers, as he would demonstrate during the Great Terror and the war. The Kremlin was undoubtedly negligent towards the famine victims and did very little to help them. If it had stopped exporting food and released its grain reserves, it could have saved million of lives. Instead, the government prevented people fleeing from the famine area, officially to stop diseases spreading, but also to conceal the extent of the crisis from the outside world. Perhaps it used the famine as a punishment of ‘enemies’. In the reported words of Lazar Kaganovich, who oversaw collectivization and grain procurements in Ukraine, the death of a ‘few thousand kulaks’ would teach the other peasants ‘to work hard and understand the power of the government’. But no hard evidence has so far come to light of the regime’s intention to kill millions through famine, let alone of a genocide campaign against the Ukrainians. Many parts of Ukraine were ethnically mixed. There is no data to suggest that there was a policy of taking more grain from Ukrainian villages than from the Russians or other ethnic groups in the famine area. And Ukraine was not the only region to suffer terribly from the famine, which was almost as bad in Kazakhstan.

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Nexus of War, Bureaucracy, Totalitarianism

From Revolutionary Russia, 1891-1991: A History, by Orlando Figes (Metropolitan, 2014), Kindle Loc. 1860-1883:

The totalitarian state had its origins in War Communism, which attempted to control every aspect of the economy and society. For this reason the Soviet bureaucracy ballooned spectacularly during the Civil War. The old problem of the tsarist state—its inability to impose itself on the majority of the country—was not shared by the Soviet regime. By 1920, 5.4 million people worked for the government. There were twice as many officials as there were workers in Soviet Russia, and these officials were the main social base of the new regime. This was not a Dictatorship of the Proletariat but a Dictatorship of the Bureaucracy.

Joining the Party was the surest way to gain promotion through the ranks of the bureaucracy. From 1917 to 1920, 1.4 million people joined the Party, nearly all from lower-class and peasant backgrounds, and many through the Red Army, which taught millions of conscripts how to think and act like ‘Bolsheviks’, the foot-soldiers of a disciplined revolutionary vanguard. The leadership was worried that this mass influx would reduce the Party’s quality. Levels of literacy were very low (in 1920 only 8 per cent of Party members had more than four years of primary schooling). As for the political literacy of the rank and file, it was rudimentary: at a Party school for journalists none of the students could say who the British or French leaders were, and some believed that imperialism was a republic somewhere in England. But in other ways this lack of education was an advantage for the Party leaders, for it underpinned their followers’ political obedience. The poorly educated rank and file mouthed the Party’s slogans but left all critical thinking to the Politburo and the Central Committee.

As the Party grew it also came to dominate the local Soviets. This involved a transformation of the Soviets—from local revolutionary bodies controlled by an assembly to bureaucratic organs of the Party-state where all real power was exercised by the Bolsheviks, who dominated the executives. In many of the higher-level Soviets, especially in areas deemed important in the Civil War, the executives were not elected: the Central Committee in Moscow simply sent in commissars to run the Soviets. In the rural (volost’) Soviets the executives were elected. Here the Bolsheviks’ success was partly due to the open system of voting and intimidation of voters. But it was also due to the support of the younger and more literate peasants who had left the village in the First World War and returned in the Civil War. Newly skilled in military techniques and organization, and well versed in socialist ideas, these were the peasants who would join the Bolsheviks, and dominate the rural Soviets by the end of the Civil War. In the Volga region, for example, where this has been studied in detail, two thirds of the volost’ Soviet executive members were literate peasant males under the age of thirty-five and registered as Bolsheviks in the autumn of 1919, compared with just one third the previous spring. In this sense the dictatorship depended on a cultural revolution in the countryside. Throughout the peasant world Communist regimes have been built on the ambition of literate peasant sons to join the official class.

One-party-dominated democracies always fighting a War on This and a War on That against their internal enemies display the same tendencies.

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The Mexican Republic’s First Century

From The Banana Wars: An Inner History of the American Empire 1900-1934, by Lester D. Langley (Univ. Press of Kentucky, 1983), pp. 77-79:

The Mexican republic that Wilson so desperately sought to reform commemorated in September 1910 the centenary of the grito de Dolores, the ringing of church bells in the village of Guadalupe signaling the revolution against Spanish rule. In the nineteenth century, the republic had been governed by savants and opportunists; by statesmen with visions of a peaceful society, where politics would be infused with reason; and by despots who ruled in the tradition of central authority inherited from the Spanish monarchy. American observers considered Mexico an arrogant nation misruled by such unscrupulous leaders as the “crimson jester,” Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, until the republic lost almost half of its territory in war with the United States. After that, many Americans, notably rising Republicans like Abraham Lincoln, thought of their neighbor as a ravaged society, wasted by internecine civil war or preyed upon by European interlopers. The one figure of nineteenth-century Mexico who conveyed a statesmanlike image was Benito Juarez, who in the 1850s fought the power of the church and military and in 1867 overthrew Maximilian’s monarchy. Yet Juarez, for all his dedication to political ideals Americans cherished, remained essentially an inscrutable Zapotec Indian with suspicion of anything foreign and harbored deep distrust of the rambunctious republic to the north.

Juarez, at least, made Mexico the example of a republic that threw off its European trappings. One of his lieutenants in the antimonarchial struggle, Porfirio Diaz, who became president in 1876, presented to the world a stable, prosperous republic. He began by convincing a skeptical American government that the border between the two countries must be secured against marauders, so that the American army would not have to cross the Rio Grande to chase cattle thieves, Indians, or bandits. Resisting American pressures to send patrols into the wastelands of northern Mexico, Diaz started policing it with rurales, who kept the peace and earned Diaz American plaudits.

In the 1880s, as he centralized his authority, Diaz opened the country to speculators, engineers, and promoters of all stripes. Mexico would be modernized with foreign technology and talent. The republic joined the list of “civilized” nations on the gold standard. Its foreign trade jumped markedly; its exports diversified. And its economic ties to the United States multiplied: In 1872, when Juarez died, Americans purchased 36 percent of Mexican exports; by 1890, 75 percent. American capital and technology poured into mining, railroading, and oil exploration. The American presence was fittingly symbolized in 1881 when the New York legislature incorporated the Mexican Southern Railroad and named Ulysses S. Grant as its first president.

And Diaz patronizingly protected the foreigner, removing legal obstacles to foreign concerns and assuring a ready supply of unskilled labor for their use. Privilege went to foreigners to such degrees that it was commonly observed that Mexico was the parent of aliens and the stepparent of Mexicans. By 1910, fully 75 percent of the mines and 50 percent of the oil fields belonged to Americans.

After 1900, as his power became more entrenched, Diaz grew increasingly apprehensive about the large American presence in Mexico. His Central American gestures on behalf of Zelaya were in part aimed at offsetting American influence, and he provided concessions to British oil interests as a way of countering the enormous amount of American capital invested in Mexican petroleum.

But it was not American capital that brought Diaz down eight months after the 1910 celebration. As he aged, he became mellower; his associates, uncertain about the succession, began maneuvering furiously behind the scenes. They became even more frantic after Diaz declared in 1908 in a famous interview with an American journalist, James Creelman, that he had guided Mexico into the twentieth century and the nation was now ready for democracy. His retirement would coincide with the centennial in 1910. In the aftermath of the interview with Creelman there was a flurry of political activity. New parties appeared, and angry voices, silenced by Diaz for thirty years, spoke harshly against the political system the dictator had created.

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Philippine Basques and World War II

From Basques in the Philippines, by Marciano R. de Borja (U. Nevada Press, 2012), pp. 109-111:

On March 31, 1937, Franco launched the military offensive against Bizkaia. The air force—whose core group was composed of German and Italian pilots—pounded the cities of Eibat, Durango, Gernika, Zornotza, Mungia, and Bilbao, causing hundreds of deaths. As depicted in the famous painting of Pablo Picasso, Gernika was razed. In fact, the town had no military installations and was not sheltering combatants. It became a prime target because it was the place where the fueros of the Basques were traditionally renewed by the Spanish monarchs. It was therefore a symbol of Basque autonomy. The destruction of Gernika was meant to crush the Basque spirit of resistance. The Basque residents in the Philippines were divided. Those from Bizkaia and Gipuzkoa loathed Franco, while those from Navarre backed him. In fact, Navarre was the first province in Spain to throw its support to Franco and supplied troops to the nationalist cause. One of Franco’s able military commanders, General Emilio Mola, was Navarrese.

When the Spanish civil war broke out in 1936, Basque exiles like Saturnina de Uriarte and Estanislao Garovilla settled in Cebu and established the most important fish-canning factory in the country, the Cebu Fishing Corporation. Uriarte was pre­viously a partner in Garovilla Hermanos y Compañia, a canning factory in Bermeo (Bizkaia). Basque philanthropists such as Marino de Gamboa and Manuel María de Ynchausti, and companies, like Aldecoa-Erquiaga and Company, extended assistance to Basque refugees.

Although the Basques in the Philippines were concerned about the Spanish civil war, they were more preoccupied with the imminent war in the Pacific. Japan had invaded China in 1939 [sic!; actually many times in many places, but full-scale warfare commenced in 1937—J.], and its relations with the United States had become antagonistic and bellicose. The Philippine Commonwealth government under President Manuel L. Quezon hired General Douglas MacArthur, the newly retired chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the U.S. Army, as field marshal to prepare the Philippine defense in the event of war.

On December 8, 1941, Pearl Harbor was attacked and destroyed by the Japanese Imperial Navy. Days after, Manila was declared an open city to spare it from destruction. The American air force bases in Clark (Pampanga) and Iba (Zambales) in central Luzon were destroyed. The Japanese forces entered Manila on January 2, 1942, without a fight. The combined American and Filipino forces defended Bataan in a last-ditch effort to halt the Japanese advances. On April 9, Bataan fell, and Japan became the new colonial master of the Philippines. But the resistance movement continued.

During the war, Spaniards, including the Basques, were viewed with suspicion and hostility by many Filipinos. Some Spaniards collaborated outright with the Japanese and openly rejoiced over the initial defeat of the Americans, believing naively that the Japanese would return the Philippines to Spain. All the castilas (Spaniards), therefore, became the target of resentment and were vilified as the “Fifth Column,” a derogatory term meaning opportunists, potential traitors, and outright collaborationists. In fact, assets of Basque families and companies, such as Aboitiz, Ayala, Elizalde, were frozen by the Philippine Commonwealth government, although they supported the American military. For instance, the vessels of La Naviera, a shipping firm partly owned by the Aboitiz and Company, were put at the disposition of the American forces. Aboitiz and Company was singled out because it had had a Japanese director on its board and exported large quantities of copra to Japan in the 1930s, obviously used to fuel Japan’s war machine.

The hatred against the Spaniards was further exacerbated by the fact that General Francisco Franco, the caudillo (supreme ruler) of Spain, sent a congratulatory message to the Japanese command immediately after the fall of Corregidor and Bataan. Spain was one of the eleven nations aligned with the Axis powers that recognized the puppet government established by the Japanese military forces in the Philippines.

Most Basques were fiercely opposed to the Japanese occupation. Many Basque families, like the Elizaldes, the Luzurriagas, and the Legarretas, contributed indirectly and directly to the Philippine guerrilla movement. Others, like the Uriartes, the Bilbaos, and the Elordis, joined the resistance movement in Negros and the Visayas region.

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Russian Economic Success before 1914

From Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War, by Max Hastings (Knopf, 2013), Kindle Loc. 757-815:

Russia boomed in the last years before Armageddon, to the dismay of its German and Austrian enemies. After 1917, its new Bolshevik rulers forged a myth of Tsarist industrial failure. In reality, the Russian economy had become the fourth largest in the world, growing at almost 10 per cent annually. The country’s 1913 national income was almost as large as that of Britain, 171 per cent of France’s, 83.5 per cent of Germany’s, albeit distributed among a much larger population – the Tsar ruled two hundred million people to the Kaiser’s sixty-five million.Russia had the largest agricultural production in Europe, growing as much grain as Britain, France and Germany combined. After several good harvests, the state’s revenues were soaring. In 1910, European Russia had only one-tenth the railway density of Britain or Germany, but thereafter this increased rapidly, funded by French loans. Russian production of iron, steel, coal and cotton goods matched that of France, though still lagging far behind Germany’s and Britain’s.

Most Russians were conspicuously better off than they had been at the end of the previous century: per-capita incomes rose 56 per cent between 1898 and 1913. With an expansion of schools, literacy doubled in the same period, to something near 40 per cent, while infant mortality and the overall death rate fell steeply. There was a growing business class, though this had little influence on government, still dominated by the landowning aristocracy. Russian high life exercised a fascination for Western Europeans. That genteel British magazine The Lady portrayed Nicholas II’s empire in romantic and even gushing terms: ‘this vast country with its great cities and arid steppes and extremes of riches and poverty, captures the imagination. Not a few Englishmen and Englishwomen have succumbed to its fascinations and made it their home, and English people, generally speaking, are liked and welcomed by Russians. One learns that the girls of the richer classes are brought up very carefully. They are kept under strict control in the nursery and the schoolroom, live a simple, healthy life, are well taught several languages including English and French … with the result that they are well-educated, interesting, graceful, and have a pleasing, reposeful manner.’

It was certainly true that Europe’s other royal and noble fraternities mingled on easy terms with their Russian counterparts, who were as much at home in Paris, Biarritz and London as in St Petersburg. But the Tsarist regime, and the supremely hedonistic aristocracy behind it, faced acute domestic tensions. Whatever the Hapsburg Empire’s difficulties in managing its ethnic minorities, the Romanov Empire’s were worse: enforced Russification, especially of language, was bitterly resisted in Finland, Poland, the Baltic states and Muslim regions of the Caucasus. Moreover Russia faced massive turmoil created by disaffected industrial workers. In 1910 the country suffered just 222 stoppages, all attributed by the police to economic rather than political factors. By 1913 this tally had swelled to 2,404 strikes, 1,034 of them branded as political; in the following year there were 3,534, of which 2,565 were deemed political. Baron Nikolai Wrangel observed presciently: ‘We are on the verge of events, the like of which the world has not seen since the time of the barbarian invasions. Soon everything that constitutes our lives will strike the world as useless. A period of barbarism is about to begin and it will last for decades.’

Nicholas II was a sensitive man, more rational than the Kaiser if no more intelligent. Having seen the 1905 Russo-Japanese war – which Wilhelm incited him to fight – provoke a revolution at home, the Tsar understood that a general European conflict would be disastrous for most, if not all, of the participants. But he cherished a naïve faith in the common interests of the emperors’ trade union, supposing that he and Wilhelm enjoyed a personal understanding, and were alike committed to peace. He was contradictorily influenced, however, by Russia’s recent humiliations – in 1905 by Japan’s forces, in 1908 by Austrian diplomacy when the Hapsburgs summarily annexed Bosnia-Herzegovina. The latter especially rankled. In January 1914 the Tsar sternly declared to former French foreign minister Théophile Delcassé: ‘We shall not let ourselves be trampled upon.’

A conscientious ruler, Nicholas saw all foreign dispatches and telegrams; many military intelligence reports bear his personal mark. But his imagination was limited: he existed in an almost divine seclusion from his people, served by ministers of varying degrees of incompetence, committed to sustaining authoritarian rule. An assured paternalist, on rural visits he was deluded about the monarchy’s popularity by glimpses of cheering peasantry, with whom he never seriously engaged. He believed that revolutionary and even reformist sentiment was confined to Jews, students, landless peasants and some industrial workers. The Kaiser would not have dared to act as arbitrarily as did the tsar in scorning the will of the people: when the Duma voted against funding four battleships for the Baltic Fleet, Nicholas shrugged and ordered that they should be built anyway. Even the views of the 215-member State Council, dominated by the nobility and landowners, carried limited weight.

If no European government displayed much cohesion in 1914, Nicholas II’s administration was conspicuously ramshackle. Lord Lansdowne observed caustically of the ruler’s weak character: ‘the only way to deal with the Tsar is to be the last to leave his room’. Nicholas’s most important political counsellor was Sergei Sazonov, the foreign minister. Fifty-three years old and a member of the minor nobility, he had travelled widely in Europe, serving in Russia’s London embassy, where he developed a morbid suspiciousness about British designs. He had now led the foreign ministry for four years. His department – known for its location as the Choristers’ Bridge, just as its French counterpart was the Quai d’Orsay – spoke scarcely at all to the Ministry of War or to its chief, Vladimir Sukhomlinov; meanwhile the latter knew almost nothing about international affairs.

Russian statesmen were divided between easterners and westerners. Some favoured a new emphasis on Russian Asia and exploitation of its mineral resources. The diplomat Baron Rosen urged the Tsar that his empire had no interests in Europe save its borders, and certainly none worth a war. But Rosen was mocked by other royal advisers as ‘not a proper Russian’. Nicholas’s personal respect and even sympathy for Germany caused him to direct most of his emotional hostility towards Austria-Hungary. Though not committed to pan-Slavism, he was determined to assert the legitimacy of Russian influence in the Balkans. It remains a focus of keen dispute how far such an assumption was morally or politically justifiable.

Russia’s intelligentsia as a matter of course detested and despised the imperial regime. Captain Langlois, a French expert on the Tsarist Empire, wrote in 1913 that ‘Russian youth, unfortunately supported or even incited by its teachers, adopted anti-military and even anti-patriotic sentiments which we can scarcely imagine.’ When war came, the cynicism of the educated class was evidenced by its many sons who evaded military service. Russian literature produced no Kipling to sing the praises of empire. Lack of self-belief, coupled to nationalistic aggressiveness, has always been a prominent contradiction in the Russian character. Nicholas’s thoughtful subjects were conscious of their country’s repeated failures in wars – against the British, French, Turks, Japanese. The last represented the first occasion in modern history when a European nation was defeated by an Asiatic one, which worsened the humiliation. In 1876 the foreign minister Prince Gorchakov told a colleague gloomily: ‘we are a great, powerless country’.

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Rapid Change before 1914

From Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War, by Max Hastings (Knopf, 2013), Kindle Loc. 554-577:

It is a conceit of our own times to suppose that we are obliged to live, and national leaderships to make decisions, amid unprecedentedly rapid change. Yet between 1900 and 1914, technological, social and political advances swept Europe and America on a scale unknown in any such previous timespan, the blink of an eye in human experience. Einstein promulgated his special theory of relativity. Marie Curie isolated radium and Leo Baekeland invented Bakelite, the first synthetic polymer. Telephones, gramophones, motor vehicles, cinema performances and electrified homes became commonplace among affluent people in the world’s richer societies. Mass-circulation newspapers soared to unprecedented social influence and political power.

In 1903 man first achieved powered flight; five years later, Ferdinand Count Zeppelin lyricised the mission to secure unrestricted passage across the skies, an increasingly plausible prospect: ‘Only therewith can the divine ancient command be fulfilled … [that] creation should be subjugated by mankind.’ At sea, following the 1906 launch of the Royal Navy’s Dreadnought, all capital ships lacking its heavy ordnance mounted in power-driven turrets became obsolete, unfit to join a fleet line of battle. The range at which squadrons expected to exchange fire, a few thousand yards when admirals were cadets, now stretched to tens of miles. Submarines were recognised as potent weapons. Ashore, while the American Civil War and not the First World War was the first great conflict of the industrial age, in the interval between the two the technology of destruction made dramatic advances: machine-guns achieved reliability and efficiency, artillery increased its killing power. It was realised that barbed wire could be employed to check the movements of soldiers as effectively as those of beasts. Much speculation about the future character of war was nonetheless mistaken. An anonymous 1908 article in the German publication Militär-Wochenblatt asserted that the 1904–05 Russo-Japanese experience in Manchuria ‘proved that even well-defended fortifications and entrenchments can be taken, even across open ground, by courage and cunning exploitation of terrain … The concept of states waging war to the point of absolute exhaustion is beyond the European cultural experience.’

Socialism became a major force in every continental state, while Liberalism entered historic decline. The revolt of women against statutory subjection emerged as a significant issue, especially in Britain. Across Europe real wages rose almost 50 per cent between 1890 and 1912, child mortality declined and nutrition greatly improved. But despite such advances – or, in accordance with de Tocqueville’s view that misery becomes less acceptable when no longer absolute, because of them – tens of millions of workers recoiled from the inequalities of society. Industries in Russia, France, Germany and Britain were convulsed by strikes, sometimes violent, which spread alarm and even terror among the ruling classes. In 1905 Russia experienced its first major revolution. Germany displaced France and Russia as the British Empire’s most plausible enemy. Britain, which had been the world’s first industrialised nation, saw its share of global manufacturing fall from one-third in 1870 to one-seventh in 1913.

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When Baseball Was Everywhere

From Color Blind: The Forgotten Team That Broke Baseball’s Color Line, by Tom Dunkel (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2013), Kindle Loc. 357-410:

There is no big bang theory of baseball. It evolved, like the blues and the miniskirt. Bat-and-ball games were being played in Massachusetts in 1735 and in Pennsylvania in 1831. The New York Knickerbockers put baseball rules down on paper in 1845, but nine innings weren’t the norm until 1857 and overhand pitches wouldn’t gain acceptance until 1884.

Through every modification, baseball’s popularity swelled. By the end of the Civil War, America finally had a pastime with mass appeal; somehow square dancing and rail splitting had never quite captured the public imagination. A pair of milestones marked the transition to commercialism. In 1869 the Cincinnati Red Stockings put ten players on salary, a luxury the team seemingly couldn’t afford, since the Stockings unraveled within two years. In 1876 the eight-team National League of Professional Base Ball Clubs began play; this was the first entity with the resources and the leadership to survive over time. (That’s the same National League still going strong today.) The 52–14 Chicago White Stockings won the 1876 championship, finishing six games ahead of the spunky Hartford Dark Blues and St. Louis Brown Stockings.

Poet Carl Sandburg grew up in Galesburg, Illinois, in the 1880s on a steady diet of Chicago sports pages, which fed his fantasy that he would someday wake up a big-league outfielder. “What is this fascination about making a hickory stick connect with a thrown ball . . . or running for a fly and leaping in the air for a one-handed catch?” he mused in his memoir Always the Young Strangers. “These questions have gone round and round in the heads of millions of American boys for generations.” Adulthood didn’t necessarily bring definitive answers to such questions.

The professional ranks expanded in 1901 with the spawning of an American League to compete with the National League, but their combined sixteen teams occupied only the top floor of what historian Harold Seymour referred to as the sprawling “House of Baseball.” There was plenty of action below and it wasn’t confined to schoolyards or playgrounds. Industrial and recreation leagues flourished. Grown men by the tens of thousands laced on spikes and lost themselves in takeout slides and doubles that split the gap. Indian reservations had hardball teams. Employees of coal companies, trolley car manufacturers, police departments, funeral homes, and local Communist parties took to the field together in off-hours. As baseball became the language of leisure, it collided with another cherished American tradition: the will to win. The result was predictable. Dollar bills got stuffed into uniform pockets, usually because a company or a town or some civic-minded pooh-bah had lost patience with losing. This semipro ethos infused the farthest fringes of the sport. Dwight Eisenhower earned spending money patrolling center field for a team in the Kansas State League in 1910, registering under the phony surname “Wilson” in order to protect his amateur status. Young Mr. Eisenhower had his eyes on an appointment to West Point and—who knows?—maybe a career in the military. On a summer day in 1915 an estimated 100,000 fans flooded Cleveland’s Brookside Park to watch a game between the White Autos and Omaha Luxers, two regional semipro superpowers.

The WPA Guide for Alabama made mention of “a semi pro team in nearly every town.” Some of the teams courted a broad audience. When Nashville, [Alabama Arkansas], hosted Dierks, [Alabama Arkansas], for a game in 1924, the Nashville News reported, “Ladies will be admitted free, as will one-armed and one-legged men and children under 6 years old.” Up north in New York, the Brooklyn Bushwicks installed lights on their field in 1930, five years before the Major Leagues took the plunge into night baseball.

Family-owned Bona Allen, Incorporated, of Buford, Georgia, had several thousand employees. It primarily produced shoes but also supplied the raw leather used to make baseball gloves. The semipro Bona Allen Shoemakers crisscrossed the Southeast with players earning a princely $300 to $400 a month. The company mounted a giant shoe on a Chevrolet chassis and an advance man would drive from town to town, handing out leather key chains to drum up interest before ball games. There was a standing offer: every member of an opposing team that beat Bona Allen received a free pair of dress shoes. The company didn’t give many away. In 1936, for example, the Shoemakers stomped to a 73–6 record, peeling off a 35–game winning streak. Their ballpark in Buford was a gem. Crowds turned out even when the Shoemakers weren’t there. In-progress summaries from important road games were relayed by Teletype to the Bona Allen plant. Somebody would read the updates over a loudspeaker while hundreds of fans sat in the stands outside cheering a deserted field.

Major League baseball held the line at just sixteen teams until 1961, but a crazy quilt of minor leagues got stitched together by independent hands. As far back as 1909 there were 246 minor league teams loosely tied to 35 leagues. These were rogue operators that sold their best players to the highest-bidding big-league club. In 1921 the Major Leagues chose to take more direct control of their destiny and adopted the farm system. American and National league teams were free to own and operate multiple minor-league affiliates that would feed talent up the organizational chain. Branch Rickey, then running the St. Louis Cardinals, was the visionary godfather of this new business model. The New York Yankees followed a few steps behind him. Those two teams set about assembling well-funded farm systems that would give them a competitive advantage for decades to come. Other teams dragged their feet and paid the price as the Yanks and Cards made regular trips to the World Series.

By 1932 the minor leagues had contracted to 102 teams and 14 leagues, but they were still a vibrant enterprise and still predominantly independent. However, the country remained largely rural and provincial. The automobile was duke, not yet king, of the culture. Fans wanted to cheer for a home team that was only a few blocks from home; all the better if they could walk to the ballpark. Since most major and minor league teams were many miles away, local semipro teams bridged that sports gap, although the definition of “semipro” was elastic. At the “light” end of the semipro spectrum, players received a token salary or passed the hat for donations during games. They’d often put in a full day’s work before slipping on their uniforms. At the opposite, “heavy,” extreme were generously subsidized clubs like the Bona Allen Shoemakers. They charged admission to games, the quality of play was high, the pay was excellent, and work obligations generally minimal. A player’s “job” might be to read the newspaper or to hopscotch bars at night chatting up fans. In 1930 the average minor leaguer earned about $65 a month. It was not unheard of for prospects to turn down a pro contract in favor of sticking with their company or town team. The money was likely to be better and there was the added security of year-round employment, no trifling consideration with the economy a shambles.

This book is far, far better by every measure than the very poorly written Barnstorming Hawaiian Travelers book I’ve just finished. I had to force myself to finish the last one. But once I began reading Color Blind, I couldn’t put it down. It reads well, but unfortunately appears to be very poorly fact-checked in places.

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