Category Archives: economics

Persian Nader Shah vs. Moghul Empire

From A History of Iran: Empire of the Mind, by Michael Axworthy (Basic Books, 2016), Kindle Loc. 2997-3027:

Crowned shah, with his western frontiers secure and in undisputed control of the central lands of Persia, Nader set off eastward to conquer Kandahar. The exactions to pay for this new campaign caused great suffering and in many parts of the country brought the economy almost to a standstill. Nader took Kandahar after a long siege, but he did not stop there. Using the excuse that the Moghul authorities had given refuge to Afghan fugitives, Nader crossed the old frontier between the Persian and Moghul empires, took Kabul, and marched on toward Delhi. North of Delhi, at Karnal, the Persian army encountered the army of the Moghul emperor, Mohammad Shah. The Persians were much inferior in number to the Moghul forces, yet thanks to the better training and firepower of his soldiers, and rivalry and disunity among the Moghul commanders, Nader defeated them. He was helped by the fact that the Moghul commanders were mounted on elephants, which besides proving vulnerable to firearms were liable to run wild—to the dismay of their distinguished riders and anyone who happened to be in their path.

From the battlefield of Karnal, Nader went on to Delhi, where he arrived in March 1739. Shortly after his arrival there, rioting broke out and some Persian soldiers were killed. So far from home, and with the wealth of the Moghul Empire at stake, Nader could not afford to lose control. He ordered a ruthless massacre in which an estimated thirty thousand people died, mostly innocent civilians. Prior to this point, Nader had generally (at least away from the battlefield) achieved his ends without excessive bloodshed. But after Delhi, he may have decided that his previous scruples had become redundant.

With a characteristic blend of threat and diplomacy, Nader stripped the Moghul emperor of a vast treasure of jewels, gold, and silver, and accepted the gift of all the Moghul territories west of the Indus River. The treasure was worth as much as perhaps 700 million rupees. To put this sum in some kind of context, it has been calculated that the total cost to the French government of the Seven Years’ War (1756–1763), including subsidies paid to the Austrian government as well as all the costs of the fighting on land and sea, was about 1.8 billion livres tournois (the standard unit of account in prerevolutionary France). This was equivalent to about £90 million sterling at the time—close to the rough estimate of £87.5 million sterling for the value of Nader’s haul from Delhi. Some of the jewels he took away—the largest, most impressive ones, like the Kuh-e Nur, the Darya-ye Nur, and the Taj-e Mah—had a complex and often bloody history of their own in the following decades.

Nader did not attempt to annex the Moghul Empire outright. His purpose in conquering Delhi had been to secure the cash necessary to continue his wars of conquest in the west, for which the wealth of Persia alone had, by the time of his coronation, begun to prove inadequate.

Nader’s campaigns are a reminder of the centrality of Persia to events in the region, in ways that have parallels today. A list of some of Nader’s sieges—Baghdad, Basra, Kirkuk, Mosul, Kandahar, Herat, Kabul—has a familiar ring to it after the events of the first years of the twenty-first century. It is worth recalling that Persians were not strangers in any of the lands in which Nader campaigned. Although he and his Safavid predecessors were of Turkic origin and spoke a Turkic language at court, the cultural influence of Persian was such that the language of the court and administration in Delhi and across northern India was Persian, and diplomatic correspondence from the Ottoman court in Istanbul was normally in Persian, too. Persian hegemony from Delhi to Istanbul would, in some ways, have seemed natural to many of the inhabitants of the region, echoing as it did the Persian character of earlier empires and the pervasive influence of Persian literary, religious, and artistic culture.

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The Veil as Status Symbol

From A History of Iran: Empire of the Mind, by Michael Axworthy (Basic Books, 2016), Kindle Loc. 3561-82:

Traditional tribal costumes vary enormously across Iran even today, and are often colorful and eye-catching, with no veil in sight.

Of the remainder of the population, the majority were peasant farmers and laborers. But among these people, too, women had an essential economic role and some independence (insofar as anyone in the poorer classes could properly be thought of as independent). Women had to work hard in the fields and probably did the majority of the routine work—of all but the heaviest sort. Again, a veil of the enveloping chador kind was normally quite incompatible with that sort of activity.

Even in the towns and cities, the majority of people were relatively poor, and in those households most women would have had to work outside the home. And there were significant numbers of prostitutes, to whom the rules of respectability certainly did not apply. So the setup we might think of as typical—of heavily veiled women seldom leaving the home and even in the home kept apart from males who were not relatives—was in fact atypical before 1900. When it did occur, it was limited to middle-or high-class families in towns (precisely the class that looms large historically, being the book-writing, book-reading class—perhaps only four percent or less of families overall). But that arrangement was, or became, an aspiration for many men who could not afford to make it a reality. One could think of the heavy veil as a kind of elite fetish, similar to some of the fashions of nineteenth-century Europe that immobilized women, being wholly impractical and incompatible with work of any kind. For a man’s wife to be out of the house and out of his control, especially in the towns, perhaps partly because of the presence of prostitutes in the towns, potentially exposed him to derision and ridicule. But for her to be kept at home and to emerge only veiled was expensive and a sign of the man’s status. It would be easy to overlook or underestimate the significance and implications of this trope among men in Iranian society and elsewhere. Rather than being an outgrowth of traditional religion and society—there is little justification for it in the Qor’an or the earliest hadith, which originated in different social circumstances—it may largely underpin them. Possession of material goods had its patterns and its social consequences, but so also did the possession of women.

As the population later became steadily more urban and in some ways at least more prosperous, more women were more restricted, stayed in the home more, and wore the heavy veil. But we should not think of those arrangements as typical of pre-industrial Iran; one could accurately say that for the majority of Iranian women, they were a twentieth-century innovation.

An interesting comparison with foot-binding in China.

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Utility of U.S. Aid to Soviets, WW2

From Finland’s War of Choice: The Troubled German-Finnish Coalition in World War II, by Henrik Lunde (Casemate, 2011), Kindle Loc. 1676-90, 1702-16:

The most valuable aid may have been in the 1941–42 period when the Soviet war industry was moved to the Urals and beyond to keep it from falling into German hands. This was an achievement which contributed immeasurably to the ability of the Soviet Union to stay in the war and begin turning the tables on the Germans. However, production in 1941–42 was at its lowest and insufficient to meet the demands brought about by the enormous losses. Victor Kravchenko, who was involved in the Soviet armaments procurement industry during the war, claims that aid played a prominent role.

It may have been in the areas of logistics, transportation, food, communications, raw materials, and the more sophisticated equipment that the aid had its greatest importance. Bellamy points out that the Soviet armed forces had 665,000 motor vehicles at the end of the war but their own production between 1942 and 1944 was only 128,000. It is therefore obvious that most of them came from American factories and that they provided the Soviets with the capability to motorize their forces. The 436,087 vehicles, received mainly from the United States, enabled the Soviets to motorize their troops, their logistical support, and their command and control.

The 8,701 tractors, including half-tracks, provided by the US allowed the Soviets to motorize their artillery to keep up with the advancing troops. Without this the Red Army could not have kept its offensives rolling deep into central Europe. The accessories and spare parts provided to keep this vast transportation fleet running, for example, included 3,786,000 tires for the vehicles. In their final drive on Berlin the northern wing of the Soviet forces under Marshal Rokossovskiy crossed the rivers in East Prussia using General Motors Corporation DUKW six-wheel-drive amphibious vehicles.

Joan Beaumont believes that perhaps the most important contributions of the Lend-Lease program were in the fields of communications, command and control, and railway equipment. The program provided the Soviets with almost one million miles of telephone cable and about 247,000 field telephones. The US aid included half a million tons of railway tracks that were important in rebuilding the 65,000 kilometers of railway tracks and 2,300 bridges destroyed by the Germans. The aid in this area also included 1,155 railroad cars and 1,981 locomotives.

The Soviets have ridiculed the 2.67 million tons of petroleum received from the US in view of their own output of about 30 million tons per year. What is left out of their commentary is the fact that much of the US-provided petroleum consisted of high-octane aviation fuel, a type that was in short supply in the Soviet Union. The Lend-Lease program also provided much-needed raw materials, including about 75 percent of the aluminum and copper needed by Soviet industry between 1941 and 1944.

On the subjects of food aid and the provision of raw materials, Khrushchev writes:

In addition we received steel and aluminum from which we made guns, airplanes, and so on. Our own industry was shattered and partly abandoned to the enemy. We also received food products in great quantities…. There were many jokes going around in the army, some of them off-color, about American Spam; it tasted good nonetheless. Without Spam we couldn’t have been able to feed our army. We had lost our most fertile lands—the Ukraine and the northern Caucasus.

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Routes and Volume of Western Aid to USSR, WW2

From Finland’s War of Choice: The Troubled German-Finnish Coalition in World War II, by Henrik Lunde (Casemate, 2011), Kindle Loc. 1640-47, 1654-58:

What arrived in the Soviet Union via Murmansk was only part of the immense flow of aid from the Western democracies. Aid via the Persian Gulf began arriving in 1942 but the flow was small until 1943 when the railway system between Basra and the Caspian Sea area had been expanded sufficiently to accommodate the traffic. The supplies and equipment arriving by this route eventually amounted to about 25 percent of all aid to the Soviet Union.

The largest flow, accounting for about half the aid, came across the Pacific to Soviet eastern ports. The possibility that this route would be disrupted by the Japanese was taken into account and Stalin warned Japan not to interfere. Thus approximately 25 percent of the aid came via Murmansk and Archangel. The total tonnage shipped via the northern route was 3,964,231 out of a total of 16,366,747.

Between March 1941 and December 1945, the United States of America contributed to Russia: 14,795 aircraft; 7,537 tanks; 51,503 jeeps; 35,170 motor bicycles; 8,700 tractors; 375,883 trucks and lorries; 8,218 anti-aircraft guns; 131,633 submachine guns; 345,735 tons of explosives; 1,981 locomotives; 11,155 railway wagons and trucks; 540,000 tons of steel rails; in excess of 1 million miles of telephone cable; food shipments to the value of $1,312 million; 2,670,000 tons of petrol; 842,000 tons of chemicals; 3,786,000 tyres; 49,000 tons of leather; and 15 million pairs of boots. The total value of the above is said to be $11,260,343,603.

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Finland’s Losses in the Winter War

From Finland’s War of Choice: The Troubled German-Finnish Coalition in World War II, by Henrik Lunde (Casemate, 2011), Kindle Loc. 348-56, 406-30:

The Soviet Union attacked Finland on November 30, 1939, hoping for a quick victory. However, the attack bogged down with the Soviets suffering heavy losses. After regrouping and bringing up reinforcements, the Soviets resumed their offensive on February 1, 1940. It was to last for forty-two days. The Soviet attack on the Karelian Isthmus was backed by thirty infantry divisions reinforced by strong artillery and armored forces. After two weeks of ferocious fighting resulting in enormous Soviet casualties, the Mannerheim Line was breached on February 13 and by March 1 the Finnish right flank had been pushed back to the city of Viipuri. The situation for the Finns had become desperate. They were short of supplies and their troops were exhausted. The hoped-for—and promised—assistance from the West had not materialized. The total number of foreign volunteers in Finland numbered only 11,500 and 8,275 of these were from Scandinavia—mostly from Sweden. The volunteers also included 300 men in the Finnish-American Legion who received their baptism of fire in the last days of the war.

While the Soviet losses in the Winter War have never been published, most observers believe that more than 200,000 were killed and a much larger number wounded. The Finns lost 24,923 killed and 43,557 wounded. This was an enormous loss for a nation with a population of only 3.75 million.

The territorial losses resulting from the Winter War amounted to about 64,750 square kilometers or about 10 per cent of Finland’s total prewar area, containing about 12 per cent of the population. The Karelian Isthmus, including the province and city of Viipuri, and a large piece of territory north of Lake Ladoga were lost. The loss in resources and manufacturing capacity was devastating. The losses in agricultural lands, forestry, and production of forestry products were almost as severe.

Also lost were several islands in the Gulf of Finland, part of the Rybachiy Peninsula in the far north, and large segments in the Salla-Kuusamo area in the central part of the country. Finland was forced to lease Hanko and the surrounding area at the entrance to the Gulf of Finland to the Soviets for a period of 30 years. Hanko, along with Viipuri, had handled about a quarter of all Finnish exports.

Finland also had to agree to extend the railway from Kemijärvi (southwest of Salla) to the new frontier at Salla within a year. The Pechenga area which had been occupied by the Russians was returned to Finland, probably because of the foreign interests in the nickel mines.

The war left Finland with a monumental problem of having to move almost the entire population—between 400,000 and 500,000 people—of the lost territories to other parts of the country. While these included skilled and semi-skilled workers, a large portion consisted of independent farmers. The resettlement operation, which created new homesteads for the displaced farmers, also produced internal tensions. Much of the land on which these refugees were resettled was in the Swedish-speaking area of the country and this caused some difficult situations.

Finally, the ceded territories represented a crushing strategic blow as they “left the country” in the words of Mannerheim “open to attack and the Hanko base was like a pistol aimed at the heart of the country and its most important communications.” The border on the Karelian Isthmus and in the Lake Ladoga area was pushed back and had no fortifications. The war had demonstrated that the Finns did not have the manpower to adequately defend the central and northern area of the country. Acquisition of the Salla area and the demand that the Finns construct a railway from Kemijärvi to Salla where it would connect with a line being constructed by the Soviets was alarming. It created an opportunity for the Soviets to quickly penetrate the waist of Finland to the Swedish border.

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Weaponizing Famine in Ukraine, 1930s

From Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine, by Anne Applebaum (Doubleday, 2017), Kindle Loc. 194-221:

But the bourgeoisie had not created the famine. The Soviet Union’s disastrous decision to force peasants to give up their land and join collective farms; the eviction of “kulaks,” the wealthier peasants, from their homes; the chaos that followed; these policies, all ultimately the responsibility of Joseph Stalin, the General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party, had led the countryside to the brink of starvation. Throughout the spring and summer of 1932, many of Stalin’s colleagues sent him urgent messages from all around the USSR, describing the crisis. Communist Party leaders in Ukraine were especially desperate, and several wrote him long letters, begging him for help.

Many of them believed, in the late summer of 1932, that a greater tragedy could still be avoided. The regime could have asked for international assistance, as it had during a previous famine in 1921. It could have halted grain exports, or stopped the punishing grain requisitions altogether. It could have offered aid to peasants in starving regions—and to a degree it did, but not nearly enough.

Instead, in the autumn of 1932, the Soviet Politburo, the elite leadership of the Soviet Communist Party, took a series of decisions that widened and deepened the famine in the Ukrainian countryside and at the same time prevented peasants from leaving the republic in search of food. At the height of the crisis, organized teams of policemen and party activists, motivated by hunger, fear and a decade of hateful and conspiratorial rhetoric, entered peasant households and took everything edible: potatoes, beets, squash, beans, peas, anything in the oven and anything in the cupboard, farm animals and pets.

The result was a catastrophe: At least 5 million people perished of hunger between 1931 and 1934 all across the Soviet Union. Among them were more than 3.9 million Ukrainians. In acknowledgement of its scale, the famine of 1932–3 was described in émigré publications at the time and later as the Holodomor, a term derived from the Ukrainian words for hunger—holod—and extermination—mor.

But famine was only half the story. While peasants were dying in the countryside, the Soviet secret police simultaneously launched an attack on the Ukrainian intellectual and political elites. As the famine spread, a campaign of slander and repression was launched against Ukrainian intellectuals, professors, museum curators, writers, artists, priests, theologians, public officials and bureaucrats. Anyone connected to the short-lived Ukrainian People’s Republic, which had existed for a few months from June 1917, anyone who had promoted the Ukrainian language or Ukrainian history, anyone with an independent literary or artistic career, was liable to be publicly vilified, jailed, sent to a labour camp or executed. Unable to watch what was happening, Mykola Skrypnyk, one of the best-known leaders of the Ukrainian Communist Party, committed suicide in 1933. He was not alone.

Taken together, these two policies—the Holodomor in the winter and spring of 1933 and the repression of the Ukrainian intellectual and political class in the months that followed—brought about the Sovietization of Ukraine, the destruction of the Ukrainian national idea, and the neutering of any Ukrainian challenge to Soviet unity. Raphael Lemkin, the Polish-Jewish lawyer who invented the word “genocide,” spoke of Ukraine in this era as the “classic example” of his concept: “It is a case of genocide, of destruction, not of individuals only, but of a culture and a nation.”

Famine was also an effective weapon of mass destruction in Ethiopia during the 1980s.

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Sources of Lenin’s Red Terror, 1918

From Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine, by Anne Applebaum (Doubleday, 2017), Kindle Loc. 904-43:

Lenin’s turn towards political violence in 1918—a set of policies known as the Red Terror—to his struggle against his political opponents. But even before the Red Terror was formally declared in September, and even before he ordered mass arrests and executions, Lenin was already discarding law and precedent in response to economic disaster: the workers of Moscow and Petrograd were down to one ounce of bread per day. Morgan Philips Price observed that Soviet authorities were barely able to feed the delegates during the Congress of Soviets in the winter of 1918: “Only a very few wagons of flour had arrived during the week at the Petrograd railway stations.” Worse, “complaints in the working-class quarters of Moscow began to be loud. The Bolshevik regime must get food or go, one used to hear.”

In the spring of 1918 these conditions inspired Lenin’s first chrezvychaishchina—a phrase translated by one scholar as “a special condition in public life when any feeling of legality is lost and arbitrariness in power prevails.” Extraordinary measures, or cherzvychainye mery, were needed to fight the peasantry whom Lenin accused of holding back surplus grain for their own purposes. To force the peasants to give up their grain and to fight the counter-revolution, Lenin also eventually created the chrezvychainaia komissiia—the “extraordinary commission,” also known as the Che-Ka, or Cheka. This was the first name given to the Soviet secret police, later known as the GPU, the OGPU, the NKVD and finally the KGB.

The emergency subsumed everything else. Lenin ordered anyone not directly involved in the military conflict in the spring and summer of 1918 to bring food back to the capital. Stalin was put in charge of “provisions matters in southern Russia,” a task that suddenly mattered a lot more than his tasks as Nationalities Commissar. He set out for Tsaritsyn, a city on the Volga, accompanied by two armoured trains and 450 Red Army soldiers. His assignment: to collect grain for Moscow. His first telegram to Lenin, sent on 7 July, reported that he had discovered a “bacchanalia of profiteering.” He set out his strategy: “we won’t show mercy to anyone, not to ourselves, not to others—but we will bring you bread.”

In subsequent years Stalin’s Tsaritsyn escapade was mostly remembered for the fact that it inspired his first public quarrel with the man who would become his great rival, Leon Trotsky. But in the context of Stalin’s later policy in Ukraine, it had another kind of significance: the brutal tactics he used to procure grain in Tsaritsyn presaged those he would employ to procure grain in Ukraine more than a decade later. Within days of arriving in the city Stalin created a revolutionary military council, established a Cheka division, and began to “cleanse” Tsaritsyn of counter-revolutionaries. Denouncing the local generals as “bourgeois specialists” and “lifeless pen-pushers, completely ill-suited to civil war,” he took them and others into custody and placed them on a barge in the centre of the Volga. In conjunction with several units of Bolshevik troops from Donetsk, and with the help of Klement Voroshilov and Sergo Ordzhonikidze, two men who would remain close associates, Stalin authorized arrests and beatings on a broad scale, followed by mass executions. Red Army thugs robbed local merchants and peasants of their grain; the Cheka then fabricated criminal cases against them—another harbinger of what was to come—and caught up random people in the sweep as well.

But the grain was put on trains for the north—which meant that, from Stalin’s point of view, this particularly brutal form of War Communism was successful. The populace of Tsaritsyn paid a huge price and, at least in Trotsky’s view, so did the army. After Trotsky protested against Stalin’s behaviour in Tsaritsyn, Lenin eventually removed Stalin from the city. But his time there remained important to Stalin, so much so that in 1925 he renamed Tsaritsyn “Stalingrad.” During their second occupation of Ukraine in 1919, the Bolsheviks never had the same degree of control as Stalin had over Tsaritsyn. But over the six months when they were at least nominally in charge of the republic, they went as far as they could. All of their obsessions—their hatred of trade, private property, nationalism, the peasantry—were on full display in Ukraine. But their particular obsession with food, and with food collection in Ukraine, overshadowed almost every other decision they made.

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