Category Archives: Russia

Civilian Internments in Przemyśl, 1914

From The Fortress: The Siege of Przemysl and the Making of Europe’s Bloodlands, by Alexander Watson (Basic Books, 2020), Kindle p. 71:

KUSMANEK’S FIRST TWO tasks at the war’s start were to protect the Fortress from surprise attack and to prepare it for siege. The third, however, was inward-looking: to maintain internal order. Kusmanek possessed formidable powers to fulfill this objective. Galicia fell within the extensive “Area of the Army in the Field” declared on July 31, 1914, in which military commanders were placed above the civilian administration. On August 2, repressive martial law was imposed throughout this area. Unrest or rebellion, high treason, espionage, lèse majesté, and a host of other offenses detrimental to smooth mobilization were henceforth to be tried in military courts. Through the Fortress Command court, over which Kusmanek presided, passed a stream of civilian cases from the surrounding region.

The Fortress Command, like other military and civilian authorities in Galicia, acted preemptively to smash all possible resistance. Lists of potential traitors had been drawn up by district officials in peacetime, and across the province, over 4,000 people were arrested in the first days of war. The Russophile intelligentsia was the primary target, but through paranoia, denunciations, and the cynical exploitation of the emergency by some Polish officials to rid themselves of troublesome local opponents, many Ukrainian nationalists, for whom rule by the Tsar would be a catastrophe, were also taken into a Kafkaesque “preventive detention.” The Greek Catholic Church, to which most Ruthenes adhered, suffered particularly grievously. The similarity of its eastern rites to those of the Russian Orthodox Church, and the fact that a small minority of its priests were Russophile, all fueled suspicion. Its churches around Przemyśl had been built with Russian funds, went one rumor, as landmarks to help orientate an invading army. In the Przemyśl diocese, where 873 clergy had their ministries, more than a third of the priests, 314 altogether, were interned.

Leave a comment

Filed under Austria, Hungary, language, military, nationalism, Poland, religion, Russia, Slovakia, Ukraine

Russian vs. Habsburg Military Tactics, 1914

From The Fortress: The Siege of Przemysl and the Making of Europe’s Bloodlands, by Alexander Watson (Basic Books, 2020), Kindle pp. 37-38:

The Habsburg army displayed almost superhuman courage in this early fighting, but it was outnumbered and, crucially, heavily outgunned. Russian divisions fielded sixty guns to the Habsburg divisions’ forty-eight. Their artillerymen were more skilled, too. The Tsarist force had absorbed many lessons from humiliating defeat at the hands of the Japanese in the war of 1904–1905, among them the importance of combined arms operations. Its field regulations stressed the dominance of firepower in combat, and its artillery was expected to work closely with forward infantry to support any advance. By contrast, as Romer frankly confessed, cooperation between the Habsburg artillery and infantry was weak. The gunners chose their own targets, often with only vague knowledge of enemy positions. Much ammunition was wasted. The obvious superiority of the Russian gunners, who seemed everywhere capable of putting down accurate and heavy bombardments, was debilitating. As one staff officer of the 11th Division, fighting on the Third Army’s right, observed, the enemy’s shellfire “instantly caused a feeling of defenselessness, which grew from one battle to the next.”

The Habsburg army’s tactical doctrine exacerbated the problem. In peacetime, Conrad had enjoyed a reputation as a tactical genius, although his ideas about how to balance fire and movement, the most important military debate of the period, had barely developed since 1890, when he had first put them in print. Conrad, like most commanders of the day, was a firm advocate of the offensive, but he stood out for his uncompromising belief in the ability of sheer willpower to conquer the fire-swept battlefield. In Conrad’s conception, artillery was not needed to clear a way forward. His 1911 regulations asserted that physically tough, determined, and aggressive infantry could alone “decide the battle.” Within the professional officer corps, his subordinates thoroughly imbibed this mentality. Manic admonitions to act “ruthlessly” or “with utmost energy” were virtually obligatory in any order. At the outset, heavy casualties were not seen so much as a problem as proof of troops’ “outstanding feats of arms.”

This toxic combination of inadequate fire support and a tactical doctrine encouraging impetuous rushes directly at the enemy brought horrendous loss of life when it was tested on the battlefield in the autumn of 1914. Officers suffered catastrophic casualties, for they led from the front, pulling their peasant soldiers forward through their own exemplary courage. The professionals, in particular, were determined to display no fear; as critics scathingly observed, they behaved as though accurate, long-range rifles were never invented and refused to use cover. Russian snipers, ordered to take down anyone wearing officers’ distinctive yellow gaiters, reaped a grim harvest. The same mentality fostered a disdain for lifesaving digging. Regiments were quickly obliterated. On the first day of battle, August 26, units of the III “Iron” Corps, operating farther south from where Romer was fighting, lost between a quarter and a third of their men. Infantry Regiment 47, a mainly Austrian German unit, had 48 officers and 1,287 other ranks killed, wounded, or missing that day. Infantry Regiment 87, filled mostly with Slovenes, suffered 350 killed and 1,050 wounded in clumsy and fruitless attacks.

Leave a comment

Filed under Austria, education, Hungary, Japan, military, Russia, war

Multiethnic Przemyśl in 1914

From The Fortress: The Siege of Przemysl and the Making of Europe’s Bloodlands, by Alexander Watson (Basic Books, 2020), Kindle pp. 11-13:

The Przemyśl municipal authorities were keen to emphasize the Polish credentials of their city. This too was a mark of modernity, for nationalism was the new, exciting, and inspirational ideology of the late nineteenth century, promising the renewal of real and imagined past glories and a better, more efficient future. The reforms of the 1860s had placed Galicia in the hands of Polish conservatives and granted considerable powers of self-government to Austria’s municipalities. As in other Galician cities, Polish Democrats—more liberal and elite than their name might today imply—ran Przemyśl in the decades before 1914. Under mayors Aleksander Dworski (1882–1901) and Franciszek Doliński (1901–1914), the expanding city not only improved its infrastructure—building wells and drains, a municipal slaughterhouse, a hospital, and an electrical power station—but also asserted the Polishness of its public spaces. The most impressive new or rebuilt main streets were named after the most revered Polish poets, Adam Mickiewicz, Juliusz Słowacki, and Zygmunt Krasiński, or landmark events in Poland’s history, such as the May 3, 1791, constitution, or the medieval victory of Grunwald over the Teutonic Knights. Statues of Mickiewicz and the Polish warrior-king Jan Sobiecki III, funded by popular subscription, were raised by the old Market Square.

Przemyśl’s other ethnic groups were also caught by the new spirit of the late nineteenth century. The Greek Catholic minority generally had little opportunity to make much mark on the city in brick or stone beyond its historic churches. There was, however, one important exception: schools. Language issues, and the right to teach children in one’s mother tongue, were becoming central to identity and to political disputes across the Habsburg Empire, and Ukrainian-speakers—or Ruthenes, as they were known in this period—were no exceptions. In the late nineteenth century, elite boys’ and girls’ secondary schools teaching in Ukrainian were founded, augmenting existing primary provision and attracting pupils from far beyond the city limits. Ruthenes were deeply divided in their identity, and the fractures were reflected in their associations and in the press. “Ukrainian” at this time denoted a political stance: a conviction that Ukrainian-speakers were a distinct nation. The majority of the small clerical and intellectual elite adhered to this view. A lesser group, the so-called Russophiles, disagreed, regarding themselves culturally, and sometimes also politically, as a branch of the Russian nation. Though difficult to enumerate, a fairly large section of lower-class Ruthenes was mostly indifferent to the novel idea of the nation, and persisted in prioritizing the Greek Catholic faith as the foundation of their identity.

Przemyśl’s Jewish community displayed some similar divisions. Orthodox Jewry had long predominated, and though this was still true in the early twentieth century, the modern era had brought schism and change. There were four synagogues in Przemyśl by 1914. The oldest, situated in the Jewish quarter, and eight other smaller prayer houses were frequented by the traditionalist, Yiddish-speaking Hasidic Jews who so fascinated Ilka Künigl-Ehrenburg. They were instantly recognizable, especially the men, with their curly sidelocks, beards, black hats, and black kaftans. To attend synagogue with them was a profoundly spiritual experience. Künigl-Ehrenburg ducked under the low doorway of the Old Synagogue one Sabbath and climbed up to the women’s gallery to watch. The faithful filled every inch of space. Some sat, others stood, all pressed tightly together. From above, a stream of light pierced the darkness and shone onto the silver-edged Torah scroll displayed by the altar. Wrapped in their gray-and-white striped prayer shawls, the believers rocked back and forth murmuring their sacred devotions. To the Styrian countess, it was strange—“oriental”—but very moving. “Everything was full of atmosphere, harmonious,” she wrote.

Times were shifting, however. Beginning in 1901, the kehilah, Przemyśl’s Jewish communal council, dropped Yiddish and instead conducted its meetings in Polish. The city’s three other synagogues had all been built since the 1880s and catered to wealthy, educated Jews. Jews—some of them—had particularly prospered from Przemyśl’s rapid expansion, a fact that had not gone unnoticed by their Christian neighbors. The town’s credit institutions were nearly all in Jewish hands. The majority of new manufacturing concerns and almost all trading and services were as well. The most intense civic development in the final thirty years of peace had taken place to the east of the old town and in the suburb of Zasanie, north of the San River. In these districts, the housing stock had more than doubled, and it was to there that well-off Jews had moved. They had bought up property on the smartest strips; it was a mild irony that on Mickiewicz Street, named for Poland’s national poet, no fewer than 74 of the 139 buildings were Jewish-owned. The synagogues serving these communities, like the people who attended them, took inspiration from modern liberalism and nationalism. The “Tempel” in the old city was home to Jewish progressives keen to integrate into Polish culture. Faced with red brick, like synagogues in the west of the empire, it celebrated Polish holidays and had sermons and prayers in the Polish language. The Zasanie synagogue was popular with Zionist youth.

Leave a comment

Filed under Austria, Czechia, democracy, Germany, Hungary, language, nationalism, Poland, religion, Romania, Russia, Slovakia, Ukraine

Sweden’s Caps vs. Hats in 1700s

From Scandinavia: A History, by Ewan Butler (New Word City, 2016), Kindle pp. 166-167:

The death of Christian VI in 1746 and the succession of his son as Frederick V was welcomed by most Danes.

Meanwhile, in Sweden, effective government was exercised by Count Arvid Horn, celebrated as one of Charles XII’s most daring generals and, later, as a skillful diplomat. As president of the estate of nobles, Horn decided that war-weary Sweden needed a long period of peace, and he had to choose his allies with some care. In 1727, when Horn began his rule, Europe was divided into two rival camps. England-Hannover and France stood opposed to Austria, Spain, and Russia, and Horn finally linked the fortunes of Sweden with the Anglo-French combination.

For eleven years, Horn pursued a pacifist policy, much to the displeasure of a large number of young noblemen who were eager to follow a more aggressive course, an aspiration in which they were supported by many influential businessmen and burgesses. These aggressively minded young men nicknamed Horn’s party the “Nightcaps” or more usually the “Caps,” in tribute to their sleepy conduct of national affairs, and in consequence came to call themselves the “Hats.”

In the 1730s, the alliance between England and France broke up, and the French ambassador in Stockholm, well supplied with money, began to intrigue with the Hats. By the payment of large bribes, he managed to organize a campaign of ruthless agitation and abuse aimed at Horn’s government. In 1739, Horn was forced to resign and his supporters were expelled from the council. The Hats, generally men of the lesser nobility and the bourgeoisie, took over.

The aim of the Hats was to take revenge on Russia, with French help, and the outbreak of the War of the Austrian Succession in 1741 seemed to give them the opportunity that they sought. Beginning with a tripartite contest for the Austrian inheritance and the invasion of Austria by Frederick the Great of Prussia, it was to draw many European nations into the fray. France, Spain, Bavaria, and Sweden came to Prussia’s support, while Britain and Holland joined beleaguered Austria. Separately, Sweden declared war on Russia. The entire conflict, which was fought in many combinations and in many theaters, including the American colonies (where it was known as King George’s War), lasted until 1748.

Leave a comment

Filed under Austria, Baltics, Britain, France, Germany, military, nationalism, Netherlands, Russia, Scandinavia, Spain, war

Origins of Rus

From Scandinavia: A History, by Ewan Butler (New Word City, 2016), Kindle pp. 16-17:

While the Danes and the Norwegians were venturing southward and westward in their search for a better life, the Swedes looked toward the East. Already, Swedish Ruotsi, or rowing men, had made themselves the masters of much of the eastern coast of the Baltic and had established settlements in what would later be called Finland, Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia. But the Swedes were not content to remain on the Baltic coast. They rowed their longships down the gulf which leads to modern St. Petersburg and up to Lake Ladoga, that great inland sea. Thence, the Ruotsi, or “Rus” (as the Slav tribesmen they met corrupted the name), set the prows of their vessels toward the south, down the network of rivers that run to the Black and the Caspian seas. They were led, the Russian chroniclers tell us, by Rurik and two lieutenants, Askold and Dir, who were possibly his brothers. Rurik founded a “kingdom” south of Lake Ladoga and established the city of Novgorod, while his brothers, pressing farther south, set themselves up as kings of Kiev, on the Dnieper River. By the year 900, the two Swedish colonies were united as the lusty new state of Kievan Rus. Russia owes its name and its foundation as a nation to these Swedish oarsmen.

The purpose of the Swedes was not so much conquest, though that was an essential part of their plan, as trade. Swedish ships plied the river courses in such numbers that even Constantinople was threatened by the merchant-marauders. There, at the seat of the Roman Empire, the Swedes gathered goods from the East – gold, silver, carpets, tapestries, perfumes, leatherwork, dried fruits, precious stones, and many other things never before seen in their homeland. These treasures were shipped to Gotland, a large island in the middle of the southern Baltic Sea, which developed into a rich trading entrepôt. To it came merchants from the mainland of Sweden, Denmark, and countries as far afield as France and Holland. Modern research has unearthed in Gotland hoards of coins from every part of the world known to tenth-century Europe.

Leave a comment

Filed under Baltics, economics, language, migration, Russia, Scandinavia

Bush’s & Putin’s Response to the Coup

From Moscow, December 25, 1991: The Last Day of the Soviet Union, by Conor O’Clery (PublicAffairs, 2011), Kindle p. 146:

By Tuesday morning, August 20, George Bush, who initially had stopped short of condemning the coup committee—on Scowcroft’s advice he had called their action extra-constitutional rather than illegitimate so as not to burn their bridges with the coup leaders—had got a better idea of what was happening. He managed to get through to Yeltsin. “Boris, my friend,” cried the U.S. president. Yeltsin was overwhelmed. “I am extremely glad to hear from you!” he shouted in response. “We expect an attack, but your call will help us.” “We’re praying for you,” said Bush.

From a balcony at the Russian White House, protected by lead shields held by Korzhakov and another bodyguard, Yeltsin read out a second statement. In it he called on soldiers and police to disobey the orders of Yazov and Pugo but not to seek confrontation.

In St. Petersburg Mayor Sobchak confronted troop commanders and persuaded them not to enter the city. At his side opposing the putsch was his special assistant, KGB officer Vladimir Putin. “Sobchak and I practically moved into the city council,” Putin recounted years later. “We drove to the Kirov Factory and to other plants to speak to the workers. But we were nervous. We even passed out pistols, though I left my service revolver in the safe. People everywhere supported us.”

Putin was concerned that his behavior as a KGB officer could be considered a crime of office if the plotters won. He expressed this fear to his boss, and Sobchak called Kryuchkov on his behalf. Astonishingly the mayor was able to get the chief organizer of the putsch on the phone to discuss such a matter of minor consequence given the scale of events—that Putin was resigning from the KGB forthwith.

Kryuchkov by now seemed to realize his mistake in not securing the arrest of Yeltsin. Public opposition was consolidating around the Russian president. The emergency committee was falling apart. Pavlov and Bessmertnykh had disappeared. Yanayev was drinking himself into a stupor. The defenders of the White House now included many high-profile personalities, including Politburo veteran Alexander Yakovlev, the cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, the poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, and Sakharov’s widow, Yelena Bonner. Shevardnadze was also there, asking aloud if Gorbachev himself was implicated in the coup.

Leave a comment

Filed under democracy, military, nationalism, Russia, U.S., USSR

Arresting Gorbachev, August 1991

From Moscow, December 25, 1991: The Last Day of the Soviet Union, by Conor O’Clery (PublicAffairs, 2011), Kindle pp. 140-141:

Two hundred and fifty thousand pairs of handcuffs had been ordered from a factory in Pskov, and Lefortovo prison made ready for an influx of detainees.

The coup got under way the next day, Sunday, August 18, with the house arrest of Mikhail Gorbachev. A military plane provided by Yazov landed at the Belbek military base near Foros at 5 p.m. after a two-hour flight from Moscow. On board were Baklanov, Shenin, Boldin, and another enthusiastic putschist, General Valentin Varennikov. The four men represented the pillars of the Soviet establishment. Baklanov, with broad earnest face and furrowed brow, was head of the Soviet Union’s military-industrial complex. Shenin, prematurely bald with large domed forehead, was the Politburo member responsible for party organization. Boldin, besides being Gorbachev’s chief of staff, was a senior member of the Central Committee. Varennikov, in large rimless glasses with a thin moustache and lank hair combed over in Hitler style, was commander of Soviet land forces.

The delegation was driven by KGB officers in two Zil limousines to the state dacha with marble walls and orange-tiled roof, where the Gorbachevs were spending the last day of their two-week summer vacation. They were joined inside the compound gate by another plotter, General Yury Plekhanov, the stolid unsmiling head of the KGB’s Ninth Directorate, who represented a fifth pillar of Soviet power, the security organs. Plekhanov deployed new guards around the perimeter of the dacha, ordered the head of Gorbachev’s security to return to Moscow and put men with automatic weapons outside the garage so none of Gorbachev’s party could get to the cars or use the radio telephones in the automobiles.

The president was in his second-floor office dressed in shorts and a pullover, reading the text of the speech he would give to launch the new Union in Moscow in two days’ time. In it he had written a warning: “If we turn back now, our children will never forgive us such ignorance and irresponsibility.”

In a guesthouse on the dacha compound, Colonel Vladimir Kirillov, one of the two plainclothes officers in charge of the nuclear suitcase, was watching television when the screen went blank. An emergency light on the chemodanchik started blinking. This was it—a nuclear alert! He picked up his radio telephone with a direct link to government communications. He was told there had been an accident and not to worry. At 4:32 p.m. he lost contact with his controller in Moscow, KGB general Viktor Boldyrev. General Varennikov appeared at the door. “How are your communications?” he asked. “There aren’t any,” replied the colonel. “That’s how it should be,” said Varennikov. He assured him that contacts would be restored within twenty-four hours.

At 4:50 p.m. the head of Gorbachev’s bodyguard interrupted the president to say that a group of people had arrived to speak with him. Gorbachev was not expecting anyone. Somewhat alarmed, he picked up a receiver to call Kryuchkov in Moscow. The line was dead. All four telephones on his desk and the internal phone were no longer working. In an outer office Anatoly Chernyaev suddenly realized that his government line, satellite link, and internal telephone were all down.

He guessed immediately what was up.

Leave a comment

Filed under democracy, military, nationalism, Russia, USSR

Yeltsin’s Foreign vs. Domestic Popularity

From Moscow, December 25, 1991: The Last Day of the Soviet Union, by Conor O’Clery (PublicAffairs, 2011), Kindle pp. 106-108:

Fearful of the gathering momentum towards the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Gorbachev organized a referendum throughout the USSR to restore popular support for stability and a new union treaty. It asked for a yes or no to the question “Do you consider necessary the preservation of the USSR as a renewed federation of equal sovereign republics in which the rights and freedom of an individual of any nationality will be fully guaranteed?” (emphasis in the original). The referendum was held on March 16. Six of the fifteen Soviet republics had become so independent-minded they boycotted the poll, but in the remaining nine, 76 percent of voters responded yes. Gorbachev took this majority as a mandate to negotiate a new union treaty that would give republics a measure of sovereignty but preserve the Union of which he was president.

Yeltsin cleverly turned the plebiscite to his advantage. On the referendum paper distributed in Russia he added an extra question: Do you support the idea of a directly elected president for Russia? The voters gave their approval. The Russian congress agreed to hold the first free presidential election in Russia, on June 12, 1991.

Though his popularity swelled at home, Yeltsin found to his dismay that his high profile in Moscow did not impress world leaders. Dignitaries who arrived in Russia on fact-finding missions came with perceptions of an unstable and vodka-loving bully. On the other hand, they liked Gorbachev personally and felt protective towards him. When Yeltsin asked U.S. Secretary of State James Baker to call on him during such a visit to the Soviet president in mid-March, Baker saw it as an effort to “drive Gorbachev up the wall.” The American declined after consulting Gorbachev, who “naturally went through the roof” and raved about how unstable Yeltsin was and how he would use populist rhetoric to become a dictator. Gorbachev displayed similar childishness, forbidding his associates to attend a dinner Baker hosted at the embassy in protest at the presence of some of Yeltsin’s team.

The effete British foreign secretary Douglas Hurd took a dislike to the ponderous, blunt-talking nonconformist when they met in Moscow. He suggested to Ambassador Braithwaite as they left the meeting that the Russian was a dangerous man barely under control. Still, Braithwaite concluded that Yeltsin’s analysis was correct and that Gorbachev was by now “living almost entirely in cloud-cuckoo land.” Richard Nixon, visiting Moscow as an unofficial envoy of the White House, cursed the media for giving him the impression of Yeltsin as an “incompetent, disloyal boob.” Yeltsin might not have the “grace and ivory-tower polish of Gorbachev,” he reported to Bush on his return to the United States, “but he inspires the people nevertheless.”

Yeltsin went to France, where he believed he would at least be respected by the democratic parliamentarians of Europe. He got an unpleasant surprise. Le Monde lectured him that in Europe “only one Russian is recognized—Gorbachev.” He was greeted with an “icy shower” at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, where Jean-Pierre Cot, chairman of the group of socialists, reproached him publicly as a demagogue and an irresponsible politician for opposing Gorbachev, “with whom we feel more assured.” These remarks caused outrage among ordinary Russians—even Pravda called them an insult—and only served to increase Yeltsin’s popularity.

The Russian populist returned home chastened by the “terrible blow” of Western reaction. But there was a surprise in store for him. Gorbachev invited him to a meeting of the heads of all the Soviet Union’s republics at a dacha in the outskirts of Moscow, and what the Soviet leader had to say to him there, Yeltsin found, “exceeded all my expectations.”

Leave a comment

Filed under democracy, Europe, nationalism, Russia, U.S., USSR

Foreign Effects of Hard Soviexit, 1991

From Moscow, December 25, 1991: The Last Day of the Soviet Union, by Conor O’Clery (PublicAffairs, 2011), Kindle pp. 44-46:

Yeltsin’s team has already taken possession of the Soviet foreign ministry in Moscow, seized its bank accounts, evicted the last Soviet foreign minister of the Gorbachev era, Eduard Shevardnadze, and installed Yeltsin’s foreign minister, Andrey Kozyrev. Throughout the day, Soviet embassies in different time zones around the world receive a communique from Kozyrev informing them that they all are about to become the foreign missions of Russia. Non-Russian Soviet diplomats will have to set up separate embassies for their own republics, which is the privilege and price of their independence. The communique instructs the diplomats that by December 31 the Soviet flag is to be lowered for the last time on every embassy building around the world and the Russian tricolor hoisted in its place. Some envoys are anxious to declare their allegiance to the new order without delay. Already the white, blue, and red emblem is flying prematurely at the embassies in New Delhi, Teheran, and Kabul.

In Washington, DC, on Christmas morning the red flag with hammer-and-sickle emblem is hanging limply from the mast above the first floor of the Soviet embassy on Sixteenth Street. It is a still, mild day with the temperature 12 degrees above freezing. Inside, the three hundred staff are dividing themselves into ethnic groups and claiming temporary diplomatic space by putting up the names of their republics on office doors. There is considerable chaos, compounded by a shortage of cash. Senior diplomats have had to give up comfortable homes in Maryland and Virginia and move into rooms in the embassy compound because there is no hard currency available from Moscow to pay their rents. Ambassador Viktor Komplektov has been in office only nine months, and he knows that, unlike his counterpart at the United Nations, his days are numbered. He is not trusted by Yeltsin because of his failure to condemn the coup in August. For three days before it collapsed, he enthusiastically disseminated the press releases of the putschists to the American media and peddled their lie to the U.S. government that Gorbachev was ill and unable to continue his duties. The fifty-one-year-old ambassador decides to use the remains of his Soviet-era budget to hold the embassy’s first ever Christmas party as a “last hurrah” for the USSR.

With caviar, sturgeon, champagne, and vodka, the Soviet embassy in Washington goes down like the Titanic. “Enjoy yourselves,” Komplektov tells the four hundred guests. “This is the way we celebrate a grand occasion.” Afterwards the red flag is lowered, and the Russian colors are raised in its place, signifying it is now the Russian embassy. Komplektov is recalled within three months.

Perversely, in Israel a new Soviet mission opens this morning. As if nothing has changed in Moscow, the first Soviet ambassador in thirty-four years presents his credentials to President Herzog, and the red flag with hammer and sickle is hoisted over the ancient Russian Compound in Jerusalem. This anomaly arises from a promise Mikhail Gorbachev made two months previously, when he still had some authority, to his Israeli counterpart, Yitzhak Shamir, that he would restore Soviet-Israeli relations broken off at the time of the 1967 Middle East War. The credentials of the envoy, Alexander Bovin, are the last to be signed by a Soviet leader. Bovin’s destiny is to be Soviet ambassador for a week and then become ambassador of Russia, based in Tel Aviv, where he will remain in office for a further six years.

In Santa Cruz de Tenerife, the largest port of the Canary Islands, a Soviet cruise ship docks this Christmas morning. The passengers disembark for a day’s sightseeing. When they return they find that the hammer and sickle on the side of the funnel has been prised off by the Russian crew, and they sail away, citizens of a different country than when they boarded.

Leave a comment

Filed under Central Asia, democracy, Israel, nationalism, Russia, U.N., U.S., USSR

Russia’s Vote for Sovereignty, 1990

From Moscow, December 25, 1991: The Last Day of the Soviet Union, by Conor O’Clery (PublicAffairs, 2011), Kindle pp. 87-89:

There was a whiff of cordite in the air as the confrontation with Gorbachev sharpened. Yeltsin and his staff began acquiring weapons for personal protection, helped by sympathizers in the Soviet defense and interior ministries. Within a year, he later reckoned, his security directorate had collected sixty assault rifles, a hundred pistols, two bulletproof jackets, and five Austrian walkie-talkies.

Though leader of a country almost twice the size of the United States, Yeltsin had little power. He could not raise taxes. He had no army. He was unable to speak to the people on state television, which was still controlled by the Kremlin. Glasnost had not advanced to the point at which political opponents of the USSR leadership could command time on the airwaves. The Russian Supreme Soviet remained what it had always been—a decoration, part of a Soviet-era fiction that republics governed themselves, whereas in reality they had no control over people or resources.

Yeltsin and his deputies were determined to change that. They hoped to take some power away from the center and establish enough sovereignty to get Russia out of its economic crisis. He proposed that Russia’s laws should be made superior to Soviet laws and take precedence in the territory of Russia, a popular move even with the conservative Russian deputies. “There were numerous options,” Yeltsin recounted, “but we had only one—to win!”

On June 12, 1990, the parliament adopted a Declaration of Sovereignty of the RSFSR by a vote of 907 votes to 13 against and 9 abstentions. The vote was greeted by a standing ovation. The date would be celebrated in the future as Russia Day. Yeltsin would reflect in time that “as soon as the word sovereignty resounded in the air, the clock of history once again began ticking and all attempts to stop it were doomed. The last hour of the Soviet empire was chiming.”

All over the USSR in the weeks that followed, other republics took their cue from Russia and proclaimed their sovereignty in a wave of nationalism. In many republics the campaign for greater independence was supported not just by nationalists but by hard-line members of the communist nomenklatura, who fretted about Gorbachev’s reform policies and aimed to grab power for themselves.

Gorbachev’s perestroika had by now created a situation in which the USSR could be preserved only by a new union treaty or by military force.

The immensity of what was happening gave Yeltsin “a bad case of the shakes.” The system could no longer crush him openly, he believed, but “it was quite capable of quietly eating us, bit by bit.” It could sabotage his actions, and him. Gorbachev still controlled the KGB, the interior ministry, the foreign ministry, the Central Bank, state television, and other instruments of control. He was commander of the armed forces, the ultimate arbiter in a physical struggle for power.

But Gorbachev was losing the people. By mid-summer 1990, most Russians had stopped paying heed to his speeches. Life was not improving. After five years waiting for a “crucial turning point” that was never reached, people were dismissing his lectures as mnogo slov (“so many words,” “a lot of hot air”). Behind his back party secretaries were calling him Narciss, the Narcissist. (Gorbachev’s secretaries termed Yeltsin “Brevno,” or The Log, the Russian equivalent of “thick as a plank.”) The shops and liquor stores were still empty.

When Gorbachev made a typically long-winded address to the Twenty-eighth Congress of the Communist Party in the Kremlin Palace of Congresses on July 2, 1990, almost nobody was listening.

Leave a comment

Filed under democracy, economics, military, nationalism, Russia, USSR