Category Archives: Russia

Central Asia’s Land of Cotton

From Restless Valley: Revolution, Murder, and Intrigue in the Heart of Central Asia, by Philip Shishkin (Yale, 2013), Kindle Loc. 4701-4717:

Uzbekistan’s cotton troubles have a long history. In the nineteenth century, Russian imperial planners insisted the Uzbeks ramp up their cotton production to feed the commercial demands of the realm. At the time, Russia was importing a lot of cotton from the United States at a high cost. The newly conquered Central Asian plains, with their arid climate, provided an ideal setting for building a domestic cotton industry. Hundreds of cotton gins sprung up throughout the region. Deeming the local strain of cotton too crude, the Russians introduced an American strain whose longer fibers were better suited to producing fine clothes.

Aided by Russian financial incentives, cotton began to displace traditional food crops grown by local farmers and became the primary cash crop. A senior Russian colonial official “acknowledged bluntly that cotton was ‘the central nerve and main point of interest and concern of the local population. At the same time it is also the link connecting Turkestan with Moscow and the rest of Russia.’” Russian engineers built a railway line, in part to facilitate the cotton trade. The Russian push succeeded: in 1860, Central Asia supplied no more than 7 percent of cotton to Russian mills. By 1915, that figure had grown to 70 percent.

The Soviets continued the practice, and the obsession with cotton began to take its toll on the land. “Moscow turned Central Asia into a mega-farm designed to produce ever greater quantities of cotton. To this end irrigation kept being expanded beyond the capacity of Central Asian rivers, the soil exhausted by monoculture kept getting saturated with chemical fertilizers, the crops sprayed by clouds of pesticides and herbicides, and instead of fully mechanizing the production, cheap native labor was routinely used for harvesting the [cotton],” writes Svat Soucek, an eloquent chronicler of Central Asian history. In the waning years of the Soviet Union, fudging cotton-output figures gave rise to a wide-ranging corruption investigation that ensnared high-ranking officials both in Tashkent and in Moscow. The leaders of independent Uzbekistan continued the cursed agricultural model.

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Post-Soviet Status: “Respected Thief”

From Restless Valley: Revolution, Murder, and Intrigue in the Heart of Central Asia, by Philip Shishkin (Yale, 2013), Kindle Loc. 2402-25:

Kyrgyzstan is a very small country, so rumors and news have a way of traveling fast in the overlapping circles of the country’s movers and shakers who booze, gossip, and do business together. Out of that cauldron, Ibraimova fished out a troubling morsel of scuttlebutt: a contract to kill Sadyrkulov had already been placed with a notorious mobster named Kamchi Kolbayev, a baby-faced, thirty-seven-year-old Don Corleone of Kyrgyzstan.

Following a long Soviet criminal tradition, Kolbayev was the so-called respected thief, a crowned prince of jailhouse aristocracy now entrusted by his colleagues to rule a vast criminal empire according to an informal code of “understandings” that are ruthless but noble, as any bleeding-heart mobster will tell you. Respected thieves require official protection, or at least acquiescence, and Kolbayev’s rise up the criminal food chain coincided with the entrenchment of the Bakiyev regime and the elevation of [his brother] Janysh. Kamchi benefited greatly from the murder of a major competitor: Ryspek Akhmatbayev, the Robin Hood who once dominated the country’s criminal underworld, won a parliamentary seat, and died in a flurry of gunfire outside a mosque.

Kamchi fared much better. One November evening in 2008, crime bosses from across the former Soviet Union gathered in a fancy Moscow restaurant to discuss pressing business matters and anoint new respected thieves. According to a Russian newspaper account of the meeting, the guests included such colorfully nicknamed individuals as Basil the Resurrected, Hamlet, Railcar, the Ogre, the Little Japanese Man, and Granpa Hassan. Kamchi was there too, and his peers crowned the Kyrgyz as a “respected thief,” elevating him to the rarefied top rung of organized crime. The title, peculiar to the Soviet criminal underworld, denotes an eventful life lived according to a rigorous criminal code that prohibits any normal employment, prescribes utter disdain for law enforcement, and usually involves significant prison stints and elaborately coded tattoos. Very few criminals rise to the rank of respected thief, whose closest international equivalent might be the Italian mafia’s capo di tutti cappi. (The original Russian term, Vor v Zakone, is often translated as Thief-in-Law, which is confusing as it conjures a meddlesome mother-in-law.)

A couple of years after attaining the respected-thief status, Kamchi became big enough to land on the U.S. Treasury Department’s list of major transnational crime figures whose assets are subject to a freeze. The U.S. government identified Kamchi as a key member of the Brothers’ Circle (formerly known as Family of Eleven, and the Twenty), a multiethnic criminal group spread across the former Soviet Union and active in Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America. “The Brothers’ Circle serves as a coordinating body for several criminal networks, mediating disputes between the individual criminal networks and directing member criminal activity globally,” the Treasury Department says. Tagged by President Obama as “a significant narcotics trafficker” under the Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act, Kamchi serves as the Brothers’ Circle’s overseer for Central Asia, a principal staging ground for global trafficking of Afghan heroin.

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Nationalist, not Moralist, Conflict in Asia

From Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific, by Robert D. Kaplan (Random House, 2014), Kindle Loc. 322-333, 585-592:

There is nothing romantic about this new front line. Whereas World War II was a moral struggle against fascism, the Cold War a moral struggle against communism, the post-Cold War a moral struggle against genocide in the Balkans, Africa, and the Levant, as well as a moral struggle against terrorism and in support of democracy, the South China Sea shows us a twenty-first-century world void of moral struggles, with all of their attendant fascination for humanists and intellectuals. Beyond the communist tyranny of North Korea, a Cold War relic, the whole of East Asia simply offers little for humanists. For there is no philosophical enemy to confront. The fact is that East Asia is all about trade and business. Even China, its suffering dissidents notwithstanding, simply does not measure up as an object of moral fury.

The Chinese regime demonstrates a low-calorie version of authoritarianism, with a capitalist economy and little governing ideology to speak of. Moreover, China is likely to become more open rather than closed as a society in future years. China’s leaders are competent engineers and regional governors, dedicated to an improving and balanced economy, who abide by mandatory retirement ages. These are not the decadent, calcified leaders of the Arab world who have been overthrown. Rather than fascism or militarism, China, along with every state in East Asia, is increasingly defined by the persistence, the rise even, of old-fashioned nationalism: an idea, no doubt, but not one that since the mid-nineteenth century has been attractive to liberal humanists.

Truly, in international affairs, behind all questions of morality lie questions of power. Humanitarian intervention in the Balkans in the 1990s was possible only because the Serbian regime was not a great power armed with nuclear weapons, unlike the Russian regime, which at the same time was committing atrocities of a similar scale in Chechnya where the West did nothing; nor did the West do much against the ethnic cleansing in the Caucasus because there, too, was a Russian sphere of influence. In the Western Pacific in the coming decades, morality may mean giving up some of our most cherished ideals for the sake of stability. How else are we to make at least some room for a quasi-authoritarian China as its military expands? (And barring a social-economic collapse internally, China’s military will keep on expanding.) For it is the balance of power itself, even more than the democratic values of the West, that is often the best preserver of freedom. That also will be a lesson of the South China Sea in the twenty-first century—one more that humanists do not want to hear.

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Religious Cleansing after the Crimean War

From The Crimean War: A History, by Orlando Figes (Metropolitan, 2011), Kindle Loc. 7351-7390:

To encourage the Christian settlement of the Crimea, the tsarist government introduced a law in 1862 granting special rights and subsidies to colonists from Russia and abroad. Land abandoned by the Tatars was set aside for sale to foreigners. The influx of new Christian populations during the 1860s and 1870s transformed the ethnic profile of the Crimea. What had once been Tatar settlements were now populated by Russians, Greeks, Armenians, Bulgarians, even Germans and Estonians – all of them attracted by promises of cheap and fertile land or by special rights of entry into urban guilds and corporations not ordinarily available to newcomers. Armenians and Greeks turned Sevastopol and Evpatoria into major trading centres, while older Tatar towns like Kefe (Theodosia), Gözleve and Bakhchiserai fell into decline. Many of the rural immigrants were Bulgarian or other Christian refugees from Bessarabia, territory ceded by the Russians to the Turks after the Crimean War. They were settled by the government in 330 villages once occupied by the Tatars, and were helped financially to transform mosques into churches. Meanwhile, many of the Tatars who had fled from the Crimea were resettled on the lands abandoned by the Christians in Bessarabia.

All around the Black Sea rim, the Crimean War resulted in the uprooting and transmigration of ethnic and religious groups. They crossed in both directions over the religious line separating Russia from the Muslim world. Greeks emigrated in their tens of thousands from Moldavia and Bessarabia to southern Russia after the Crimean War. Moving in the opposite direction, from Russia into Turkey, were tens of thousands of Polish refugees and soldiers who had fought in the Polish Legion (the so-called ‘Ottoman Cossacks’) against Russia in the Crimea and the Caucasus. They were settled by the Porte on Turkish lands in the Dobrudja region of the Danube delta, in Anatolia and other areas, while others ended up in Adampol (Polonezkoi), the Polish settlement established by Adam Czartoryski, the leader of the Polish emigration, on the outskirts of Constantinople in 1842.

On the other side of the Black Sea, tens of thousands of Christian Armenians left their homes in Anatolia and emigrated to Russian-controlled Transcaucasia in the wake of the Crimean War. They were fearful that the Turks would see them as allies of the Russians and carry out reprisals against them. The European commission appointed by the Paris Treaty to fix the Russian-Ottoman border found Armenian villages ‘half inhabited’ and churches in a state of ‘advanced decay’.

Meanwhile, even larger numbers of Circassians, Abkhazians and other Muslim tribes were forced out of their homelands by the Russians, who after the Crimean War stepped up their military campaign against Shamil, engaging in a concerted policy of what today would be defined as ‘ethnic cleansing’ to Christianize the Caucasus. The campaign was largely driven by the strategic demands created by the Paris settlement in the Black Sea, where the Royal Navy could freely operate and the Russians had no means of self-defence in their vulnerable coastal areas where the Muslim population was hostile to Russia. The Russians focused first on the fertile lands of Circassia in the western Caucasus – territories close to the Black Sea coast. Muslim villages were attacked by Russian troops, men and women massacred, farms and homes destroyed to force the villagers to leave or starve. The Circassians were presented with the choice of moving north to the Kuban plains – far enough away from the coastal areas for them not to be a threat in case of an invasion – or emigrating to the Ottoman Empire. Tens of thousands resettled in the north but equally large numbers of Circassians were herded by the Russians to the Black Sea ports, where, sometimes after weeks of waiting by the docks in terrible conditions, they were loaded onto Turkish boats and taken off to Trebizond, Samsun and Sinope in Anatolia. The Ottoman authorities were unprepared for the mass influx of refugees and several thousands of them died from disease within months of their arrival in Turkey. By 1864 the Muslim population of Circassia had been entirely cleared. The British consul C. H. Dickson claimed that one could walk a whole day in formerly Circassian territories and not meet a living soul.

After the Circassians, it was the turn of the Abkhazian Muslims, at that time settled in the Sukhumi – Kale region, where the Russian campaign to clear them off their lands began in 1866. The tactics were essentially the same as those employed against the Circassians, except this time the Russians had a policy of keeping back the able-bodied male workers out of fear for the economy, and forcing out their women, children and the elderly. The British consul and Arabic scholar William Gifford Palgrave, who made a tour of Abkhazia to collect information on the ethnic cleansing, estimated that three-quarters of the Muslim population had been forced to emigrate. Overall, counting both Circassians and Abkhazians, around 1.2 million Muslims were expelled from the Caucasus in the decade following the Crimean War, most of them resettling in the Ottoman Empire, and by the end of the nineteenth century the Muslims of these two regions were outnumbered by new Christian settlers by more than ten to one.

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Pirogov’s Surgery Innovations in Crimea, 1855

From The Crimean War: A History, by Orlando Figes (Metropolitan, 2011), Kindle Loc. 5191-5224:

Born in Moscow in 1810, Pirogov began his medical studies at Moscow University at the age of just 14, and became a professor at the German University of Dorpat at the age of 25, before taking up the appointment of Professor of Surgery at the Academy of Military Medicine in St Petersburg. In 1847 he was with the Russian army in the Caucasus, where he pioneered the use of ether, becoming the first surgeon to employ anaesthesia in a field operation. Pirogov reported on the benefits of ether in several Russian-language publications between 1847 and 1852, though few doctors outside Russia were aware of his articles. Apart from the relief of pain and shock through anaesthesia, Pirogov emphasized that giving ether to the wounded on arrival at the hospital kept them calm and stopped them from collapsing so that the surgeon could make a better choice in selecting between those cases requiring urgent operation and those that could wait. It was this system of triage pioneered by Pirogov during the Crimean War that marked his greatest achievement.

Pirogov arrived in the Crimea in December 1854. He was outraged by the chaos and inhuman treatment of the sick and wounded. Thousands of injured soldiers had been evacuated to Perekop on open carts in freezing temperatures, many of them arriving frozen to death or with limbs so frostbitten that they had to be cut off. Others were abandoned in dirty barns or left by the roadside for lack of transport. There were chronic shortages of medical supplies, not least because of corruption. Doctors sold off medicines and gave their patients cheaper surrogates, exacting bribes for proper treatment. The hospitals struggled to cope with the enormous numbers of wounded. At the time of the allied landings, the Russians had hospital places for 2,000 soldiers in the Crimea, but after Alma they were overwhelmed by 6,000 wounded men, and twice that number after Inkerman.

Conditions in the Sevastopol hospitals were truly appalling. Two weeks after the battle of the Alma, the surgeon from Chodasiewicz’s regiment visited the naval hospital:

He found the place full of wounded men who had never had their wounds dressed from the day of the Alma, except such dressings as they could make themselves by tearing up their own shirts. The moment he entered the room he was surrounded by a crowd of these miserable creatures, who had recognized him as a doctor, some of whom held out mutilated stumps of arms wrapped up in dirty rags, and crying out to him for assistance. The stench of the place was dreadful.

Most of the surgeons in these hospitals were poorly trained, more like ‘village craftsmen’ than doctors, in the estimation of one Russian officer. Practising a rough-and-ready surgery with dirty butcher’s knives, they had little understanding of the need for hygiene or the perils of infection. Pirogov discovered amputees who had been lying in their blood for weeks.

As soon as he arrived in Sevastopol, Pirogov began to impose order on the hospitals, gradually implementing his system of triage. In his memoirs he recounts how he came to it. When he took charge of the main hospital in the Assembly of Nobles, the situation was chaotic. After a heavy bombardment, the wounded were brought in without any order, those who were dying mixed with those who needed urgent treatment and those with light wounds. At first, Pirogov dealt with the most seriously wounded as they came in, telling the nurses to transport them to the operating table directly; but even as he concentrated on one case, more and more seriously wounded men would arrive; he could not keep up. Too many people were dying needlessly before they could be treated, while he was operating on those patients too seriously wounded to be saved. ‘I came to see that this was senseless and decided to be more decisive and rational,’ he recalled. ‘Simple organization at the dressing station was far more important than medical activity in saving lives.’ His solution was a simple form of triage which he first put into practice during the bombardment of Sevastopol on 20 January. Brought into the Great Hall of the Assembly, the wounded were first sorted into groups to determine the order and priority of emergency treatment. There were three main groups: the seriously wounded who needed help and could be saved were operated on in a separate room as soon as possible; the lightly wounded were given a number and told to wait in the nearby barracks until the surgeons could treat them; and those who could not be saved were taken to a resting home, where they were cared for by medical attendants, nurses and priests until they died.

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French vs. British Military, 1854

From The Crimean War: A History, by Orlando Figes (Metropolitan, 2011), Kindle Loc. 3181-3217:

The French army was superior to the British in many ways. Its schools for officers had produced a whole new class of military professionals, who were technically more advanced, tactically superior and socially far closer to their men than the aristocratic officers of the British army. Armed with the advanced Minié rifle, which could fire rapidly with lethal accuracy up to 1,600 metres, the French infantry was celebrated for its attacking élan. The Zouaves, in particular, were masters of the fast attack and tactical retreat, a type of fighting they had developed in Algeria, and their courage was an inspiration to the rest of the French infantry, who invariably followed them into battle. The Zouaves were seasoned campaigners, experienced in fighting in the most difficult and mountainous terrain, and united by strong bonds of comradeship, formed through years of fighting together in Algeria (and in many cases on the revolutionary barricades of Paris in 1848). Paul de Molènes, an officer in one of the Spahi cavalry regiments recruited by Saint-Arnaud in Algeria, thought the Zouaves exerted a ‘special power of seduction’ over the young men of Paris, who flocked to join their ranks in 1854. ‘The Zouaves’ poetic uniforms, their free and daring appearance, their legendary fame – all this gave them an image of popular chivalry unseen since the days of Napoleon.’

The experience of fighting in Algeria was a decisive advantage for the French over the British army, which had not fought in a major battle since Waterloo, and in many ways remained half a century behind the times. At one point a third of the French army’s 350,000 men had been deployed in Algeria. From that experience, the French had learned the crucial importance of the small collective unit for maintaining discipline and order on the battlefield – a commonplace of twentieth-century military theorists that was first advanced by Ardant du Picq, a graduate of the École spéciale militaire de Saint-Cyr, the élite army school at Fontainebleau near Paris, who served as a captain in the Varna expedition and developed his ideas from observations of the French soldiers during the Crimean War. The French had also learned how to supply an army on the march efficiently – an area of expertise where their superiority over the British became apparent from the moment the two armies landed at Gallipoli. For two and a half days, the British troops were not allowed to disembark, ‘because nothing was ready for them’, reported William Russell of The Times, the pioneering correspondent who had joined the expedition to the East, whereas the French were admirably prepared with a huge flotilla of supply ships: ‘Hospitals for the sick, bread and biscuit bakeries, wagon trains for carrying stores and baggage – every necessary and every comfort, indeed, at hand, the moment their ship came in. On our side not a British pendant was afloat in the harbour! Our great naval state was represented by a single steamer belonging to a private company.’

The outbreak of the Crimean War had caught the British army by surprise. The military budget had been in decline for many years, and it was only in the early weeks of 1852, following Napoleon’s coup d’état and the eruption of the French war scare in Britain, that the Russell government was able to obtain parliamentary approval for a modest increase in expenditure. Of the 153,000 enlisted men, two-thirds were serving overseas in various distant quarters of the Empire in the spring of 1854, so troops for the Black Sea expedition had to be recruited in a rush. Without the conscription system of the French, the British army relied entirely on the recruitment of volunteers with the inducement of a bounty. During the 1840s the pool of able-bodied men had been severely drained by great industrial building projects and by emigration to the United States and Canada, leaving the army to draw upon the unemployed and poorest sections of society, like the victims of the Irish famine, who took the bounty in a desperate attempt to clear their debts and save their families from the poorhouse. The main recruiting grounds for the British army were pubs and fairs and races, where the poor got drunk and fell into debt.

If the British trooper came from the poorest classes of society, the officer corps was drawn mostly from the aristocracy – a condition almost guaranteed by the purchasing of commissions. The senior command was dominated by old gentlemen with good connections to the court but little military experience or expertise; it was a world apart from the professionalism of the French army. Lord Raglan was 65; Sir John Burgoyne, the army’s chief engineer, 72. Five of the senior commanders at Raglan’s headquarters were relatives. The youngest, the Duke of Cambridge, was a cousin to the Queen. This was an army, rather like the Russian, whose military thinking and culture remained rooted in the eighteenth century.

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Russian Grievances vs. Europe, 1853

From The Crimean War: A History, by Orlando Figes (Metropolitan, 2011), Kindle Loc. 2418-2459:

The Tsar’s notes in the margins of a memorandum by Pogodin reveal much about his thinking in December 1853, when he came closest to embracing the pan-Slav cause. Pogodin had been asked by Nicholas to give his thoughts on Russia’s policy towards the Slavs in the war against Turkey. His answer was a detailed survey of Russia’s relations with the European powers which was filled with grievances against the West. The memorandum clearly struck a chord with Nicholas, who shared Pogodin’s sense that Russia’s role as the protector of the Orthodox had not been recognized or understood and that Russia was unfairly treated by the West. Nicholas especially approved of the following passage, in which Pogodin railed against the double standards of the Western powers, which allowed them to conquer foreign lands but forbade Russia to do the same:

France takes Algeria from Turkey, and almost every year England annexes another Indian principality: none of this disturbs the balance of power; but when Russia occupies Moldavia and Wallachia, albeit only temporarily, that disturbs the balance of power. France occupies Rome and stays there several years in peacetime: that is nothing; but Russia only thinks of occupying Constantinople, and the peace of Europe is threatened. The English declare war on the Chinese, who have, it seems, offended them: no one has a right to intervene; but Russia is obliged to ask Europe for permission if it quarrels with its neighbour. England threatens Greece to support the false claims of a miserable Jew and burns its fleet: that is a lawful action; but Russia demands a treaty to protect millions of Christians, and that is deemed to strengthen its position in the East at the expense of the balance of power. We can expect nothing from the West but blind hatred and malice, which does not understand and does not want to understand (comment in the margin by Nicholas I: ‘This is the whole point’).

Having stirred the Tsar’s own grievances against the West, Pogodin encouraged him to act alone, according to his conscience before God, to defend the Orthodox and promote Russia’s interests in the Balkans. Nicholas expressed his approval:

Who are our allies in Europe (comment by Nicholas: ‘No one, and we don’t need them, if we put our trust in God, unconditionally and willingly’). Our only true allies in Europe are the Slavs, our brothers in blood, language, history and faith, and there are ten million of them in Turkey and millions in Austria … The Turkish Slavs could provide us with over 200,000 troops – and what troops! And that is not counting the Croatians, Dalmatians and Slovenians, etc. (comment by Nicholas: ‘An exaggeration: reduce to one-tenth and it is true’) …

By declaring war on us, the Turks have destroyed all the old treaties defining our relations, so we can now demand the liberation of the Slavs, and bring this about by war, as they themselves have chosen war (comment by Nicholas: ‘That is right’).

If we do not liberate the Slavs and bring them under our protection, then our enemies, the English and the French … will do so instead. In Serbia, Bulgaria and Bosnia, they are active everywhere among the Slavs, with their Western parties, and if they succeed, where will we be then? (comment by Nicholas: ‘Absolutely right’).

Yes! If we fail to use this favourable opportunity, if we sacrifice the Slavs and betray their hopes, or leave their fate to be decided by other powers, then we will have ranged against us not one lunatic Poland but ten of them (which our enemies desire and are working to arrange) … (comment by Nicholas: ‘That is right’).

With the Slavs as enemies, Russia would become a ‘second-rate power’, argued Pogodin, whose final sentences were three times underlined by Nicholas:

The greatest moment in Russia’s history has arrived – greater perhaps even than the days of Poltava and Borodino. If Russia does not advance it will fall back – that is the law of history. But can Russia really fall? Would God allow that? No! He is guiding the great Russian soul, and we see that in the glorious pages we have dedicated to Him in the History of our Fatherland. Surely He would not allow it to be said: Peter founded the dominion of Russia in the East, Catherine consolidated it, Alexander expanded it, and Nicholas betrayed it to the Latins.

No, that cannot be, and will not be. With God on our side, we cannot go back.

To get him to embrace his pan-Slav ideology Pogodin had cleverly appealed to the Tsar’s belief in his divine mission to defend the Orthodox as well as to his growing alienation from the West. In his November memorandum to his ministers, Nicholas had declared that Russia had no option but to turn towards the Slavs, because the Western powers, and Britain in particular, had sided with the Turks against Russia’s ‘holy cause’.

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