Daily Archives: 12 July 2014

Catherine the Great Greek Wannabe

From The Crimean War: A History, by Orlando Figes (Metropolitan, 2011), Kindle Loc. 333-351:

More than any other Russian ruler, Catherine identified with the Greek cause. Under the growing influence of her most senior military commander, statesman and court favourite Prince Grigory Potemkin, Catherine even dreamed of re-creating the old Byzantine Empire on the ruins of the Ottoman. The French philosopher Voltaire, with whom the Empress corresponded, addressed her as ‘votre majesté impériale de l’église grecque’, while Baron Friedrich Grimm, her favourite German correspondent, referred to her as ‘l’Impératrice des Grecs’. Catherine conceived this Hellenic empire as a vast Orthodox imperium protected by Russia, whose Slavonic tongue had once been the lingua franca of the Byzantine Empire, according (erroneously) to the first great historian of Russia, Vasily Tatishchev. The Empress gave the name of Constantine – after both the first and the final emperor of Byzantium – to her second grandson. To commemorate his birth in 1779, she had minted special silver coins with the image of the great St Sophia church (Hagia Sophia) in Constantinople, cruelly converted into a mosque since the Ottoman conquest. Instead of a minaret, the coin showed an Orthodox cross on the cupola of the former Byzantine basilica. To educate her grandson to become the ruler of this resurrected Eastern Empire, the Russian Empress brought nurses from Naxos to teach him Greek, a language which he spoke with great facility as an adult.

It was always unclear how serious she was about this ‘Greek Project’. In the form that it was drawn up by Count Bezborodko, her private secretary and virtual Foreign Minister, in 1780, the project involved nothing less than the expulsion of the Turks from Europe, the division of their Balkan territories between Russia and Austria, and the ‘re-establishment of the ancient Greek empire’ with Constantinople as its capital. Catherine discussed the project with the Austrian Emperor Joseph II in 1781. They agreed on its desirability in an exchange of letters over the next year. But whether they intended to carry out the plan remains uncertain. Some historians have concluded that the Greek project was no more than a piece of neoclassical iconography, or political theatre, like the ‘Potemkin villages’, which played no real part in Russia’s foreign policy. But even if there was no concrete plan for immediate action, it does at least seem fairly clear that the project formed a part of Catherine’s general aims for the Russian Empire as a Black Sea power linked through trade and religion to the Orthodox world of the eastern Mediterranean, including Jerusalem.

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The Russian Empire as Orthodox Crusade

From The Crimean War: A History, by Orlando Figes (Metropolitan, 2011), Kindle Loc. 276-288:

More than any other power, the Russian Empire had religion at its heart. The tsarist system organized its subjects through their confessional status; it understood its boundaries and international commitments almost entirely in terms of faith.

In the founding ideology of the tsarist state, which gained new force through Russian nationalism in the nineteenth century, Moscow was the last remaining capital of Othodoxy, the ‘Third Rome’, following the fall of Constantinople, the centre of Byzantium, to the Turks in 1453. According to this ideology, it was part of Russia’s divine mission in the world to liberate the Orthodox from the Islamic empire of the Ottomans and restore Constantinople as the seat of Eastern Christianity. The Russian Empire was conceived as an Orthodox crusade. From the defeat of the Mongol khanates of Kazan and Astrakhan in the sixteenth century to the conquest of the Crimea, the Caucasus and Siberia in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Russia’s imperial identity was practically defined by the conflict between Christian settlers and Tatar nomads on the Eurasian steppe. This religious boundary was always more important than any ethnic one in the definition of the Russian national consciousness: the Russian was Orthodox and the foreigner was of a different faith.

Religion was at the heart of Russia’s wars against the Turks, who by the middle of the nineteenth century had 10 million Orthodox subjects (Greeks, Bulgarians, Albanians, Moldavians, Wallachians and Serbs) in their European territories and something in the region of another 3 to 4 million Christians (Armenians, Georgians and a small number of Abkhazians) in the Caucasus and Anatolia.

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Reactions to Russia Annexing the Crimea, 1783

From The Crimean War: A History, by Orlando Figes (Metropolitan, 2011), Kindle Loc. 403-410:

The Russian annexation of the Crimea, in 1783, was a bitter humiliation for the Turks. It was the first Muslim territory to be lost to Christians by the Ottoman Empire. The Grand Vizier of the Porte reluctantly accepted it. But other politicians at the Sultan’s court saw the loss of the Crimea as a mortal danger to the Ottoman Empire, arguing that the Russians would use it as a military base against Constantinople and Ottoman control of the Balkans, and they pressed for war against Russia. But it was unrealistic for the Turks to fight the Russians on their own, and Turkish hopes of Western intervention were not great: Austria had aligned itself with Russia in anticipation of a future Russian-Austrian partition of the Ottoman Empire; France was too exhausted by its involvement in the American War of Independence to send a fleet to the Black Sea; while the British, deeply wounded by their losses in America, were essentially indifferent (if ‘France means to be quiet about the Turks’, noted Lord Grantham, the Foreign Secretary, ‘why should we meddle? Not time to begin a fresh broil’).

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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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Stalin’s Great Terror and Its Mitigation

From Revolutionary Russia, 1891-1991: A History, by Orlando Figes (Metropolitan, 2014), Kindle Loc. 3100-3114, 3297-3309:

But the Great Terror was more than a bloodletting among Bolsheviks. It was a complex series of repressions involving many different groups. The striking thing about it, compared to other waves of Soviet terror, is that such a high proportion of the victims were murdered. Of the 1.5 million people arrested by the secret police (and we do not have the figures for arrests by the regular police), 1.3 million were sentenced, and more than half of these (681,692 people) were executed by a firing squad for ‘counter-revolutionary activities’. At the height of the Great Terror, between August 1937 and November 1938, on average 1,500 people were shot each day. The population of the Gulag labour camps meanwhile grew from 1.2 to 1.9 million, a figure which conceals at least 140,000 deaths within the camps themselves.

The sheer scale of the Great Terror makes it all the harder to explain. The types of people caught in it were so diverse. Some historians have maintained that it is best understood as a number of related but separate waves of terror, each one capable of being explained on its own but not as part of a single phenomenon. There was certainly a complex amalgam of different elements that made up the Great Terror: the purging of the Party, the great ‘show trials’, the mass arrests in the cities, the ‘kulak operation’ and ‘national operations’ against minorities. But while it may be helpful to analyse these various components separately, the fact remains that they all began and ended simultaneously, which does suggest that they were part of a unified campaign that needs to be explained. To begin to understand it, we must look at the Great Terror, not, as some have argued, as an uncontrolled or accidental happening, a product of the chaos and infighting of the Stalinist regime, nor as something driven by social pressures from below, as argued by ‘revisionist’ historians, but as an operation, which we now know from studying the archives was masterminded and controlled by Stalin directly in response to the circumstances he perceived in 1937.

At the rate the arrests were going on, it would not be long before doubts spread. How many ‘enemies of the people’ could there be? By 1938 it was becoming clear that unless the arrests came to an end the terror system would be undermined. The terror was getting out of control. In January Stalin warned the NKVD not to carry on arresting people solely on the basis of denunciations without first checking their veracity. He spoke against ‘false vigilance’ and careerists who made denunciations to promote themselves. Yezhov’s power was gradually reduced. In November he was replaced by his deputy, Lavrenty Beria, who immediately announced a full review of the arrests in Yezhov’s reign. By 1940, 1.5 million cases were reviewed; 450,000 convictions were quashed, 128,000 cases closed, 30,000 people released from jail, and 327,000 people let out of the Gulag’s labour camps and colonies. These releases restored many people’s faith in Soviet justice. They allowed those with doubts to explain the ‘Yezhov terror’ as a temporary aberration rather than as a product of the system. Their reasoning went like this: the mass arrests had all been Yezhov’s doing, but Stalin had corrected his mistakes, and uncovered Yezhov as an ‘enemy of the people’ (he was shot in 1940), who had tried to undermine the Soviet government by arresting so many innocent people and thus spreading discontent. People now accepted that anybody not released by Beria, and everyone arrested under him, must be guilty of the crimes for which they stood accused. The belief system had been stabilized, allowing rule by terror to go on.

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