Category Archives: Russia

Gorbachev Begins His Last Day in Office

From Moscow, December 25, 1991: The Last Day of the Soviet Union, by Conor O’Clery (PublicAffairs, 2011), Kindle pp. 8-10:

Known by the security people as the wolfichantze (wolfs lair), the presidential dacha is serviced by a staff of several cooks, maids, drivers, and bodyguards, all of whom have their quarters on the lower floor or in outbuildings. It has several living rooms with enormous fireplaces, a vast dining room, a conference room, a clinic staffed with medical personnel, spacious bathrooms on each floor, a cinema, and a swimming pool. Everywhere there is marble paneling, parquet floors, woven Uzbek carpets, and crystal chandeliers. Outside large gardens and a helicopter landing area have been carved out of the 164 acres of woodland. The surrounding area is noted for its pristine air, wooded hills, and views over the wide, curving Moscow River.

For more than half a century Soviet leaders have occupied elegant homes along the western reaches of the river. This area has been the favored retreat of the Moscow elite since the seventeenth century, when Tsar Alexey Mikhailovich expressly forbade the construction of any production facilities. Stalin lived in a two-story mansion on a high bank in Kuntsevo, closer to the city. Known as Blizhnyaya Dacha (“nearby dacha”), it was hidden in a twelve-acre wood with a double-perimeter fence and at one time was protected by eight camouflaged 30-millimeter antiaircraft guns and a special unit of three hundred interior ministry troops. At Gorbachev’s dacha there is a military command post, facilities for the nuclear button and its operators, and a special garage containing an escape vehicle with a base as strong as a military tank.

Every previous Soviet leader but one left their dachas surrounded by wreaths of flowers. Stalin passed away in his country house while continuing to exercise his powers, and those who followed him—Leonid Brezhnev, Yury Andropov, and Konstantin Chernenko—all expired while still in charge of the communist superpower. Only Stalin’s immediate successor, Nikita Khrushchev, a reformer like Gorbachev, had his political career brought to a sudden end when he was ousted from power in 1964 for, as Pravda put it, “decisions and actions divorced from reality.”

Today Gorbachev will suffer the same fate as Khrushchev. He will depart from the dacha as president of the Soviet Union. When he returns in the evening, he will be Gospodin (“Mister”) Gorbachev, a pensioner, age sixty—ten years younger than Khrushchev was when he was kicked out.

At around 9:30 a.m. Gorbachev takes his leave of Zakharka, as he fondly calls Raisa (he once saw a painting by the nineteenth-century artist Venetsianov of a woman of that name who bore a resemblance to Raisa). He goes down the wooden stairs, past the pictures hanging on the staircase walls, among them a multicolored owl drawn in childish hand, sent to Raisa as a memento by a young admirer. At the bottom of the stairs was, until recently, a little dollhouse with a toboggan next to it, a reminder of plans for New Year’s festivities with the grandchildren, eleven-year-old Kseniya and four-year-old Nastya; the family will now have to celebrate elsewhere. He spends a minute at the cloakroom on the right of the large hallway to change his slippers for outdoor shoes, then dons a fine rust-colored scarf, grey overcoat, and fur hat, and leaves through the double glass doors, carrying his resignation speech in a thin, soft leather document case.

Outside in the bright morning light his driver holds open the front passenger door of his official stretch limousine, a Zil-41047, one of a fleet built for party and state use only. Gorbachev climbs into the leather seat beside him. He always sits in the front.

Two colonels in plainclothes emerge from their temporary ground-floor lodgings with the little suitcase that accompanies the president everywhere. They climb into a black Volga sedan to follow the Zil into Moscow. It will be their last ride with this particular custodian of the chemodanchik, the case holding the communications equipment to launch a nuclear strike.

With a swish of tires, the bullet-proof limousine—in reality an armored vehicle finished off as a luxury sedan—moves around the curving drive and out through a gate in the high, green wooden fence, where a policeman gives a salute, and onto Rublyovo-Uspenskoye Highway. The heavy automobile proceeds for the first five miles under an arch of overhanging snow-clad fir trees with police cars in front and behind flashing their blue lights. It ponderously negotiates the frequent bends that were installed to prevent potential assassins from taking aim at Soviet officials on their way to and from the Kremlin. Recently some of the state mansions have been sold to foreigners by cash-strapped government departments, and many of the once-ubiquitous police posts have disappeared.

The convoy speeds up as it comes to Kutuzovsky Prospekt. It races for five miles along the center lane reserved for official cavalcades, zooms past enormous, solid Stalin-era apartment blocks, and hurtles underneath Moscow’s Triumphal Arch and across the Moscow River into the heart of the Russian capital. The elongated black car hardly slackens speed as it cruises along New Arbat, its pensive occupant unseen behind the darkened windows.

The seventh and last Soviet leader plans to explain on television this evening that he dismantled the totalitarian regime and brought them freedom, glasnost, political pluralism, democracy, and an end to the Cold War. For doing so, he is praised and admired throughout the world.

But here in Russia he is the subject of harsh criticism for his failure to improve the lot of the citizens. Few of the bleary-eyed shoppers slipping and sliding on the dirty, compacted snow outside food stores will shed tears at his departure from office. They judge him through the prism of empty shop windows.

Gorbachev knows that. He has even repeated to foreign dignitaries a popular anecdote against himself, about a man in a long line for vodka who leaves in frustration, telling everyone he is going to the Kremlin to shoot Gorbachev, only to return later complaining, “There’s a longer line there.”

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Notable British Consuls in Kashgar

From The Emperor Far Away: Travels at the Edge of China, by David Eimer (Bloomsbury, 2014), Kindle p. 59:

Kashgar’s consulate was the most remote of Britain’s diplomatic outposts in Asia, a three-week ride on horseback from India. The people who passed through included some of the most remarkable figures from the colonial past. The half-Chinese Sir George Macartney, whose same-named ancestor was Britain’s first ambassador to China in the eighteenth century, served as consul here between 1890 and 1918. Sir Percy Sykes, who effectively ran Persia during the First World War, relieved Macartney briefly in 1915.

Great Game players, both legendary and unsung, were regular visitors. Francis Younghusband stayed a winter. He went on to lead a British invasion of Tibet in 1903–4, only to experience an epiphany on the roof of the world that transformed him from an empire-builder into a soldier-mystic. In 1918, Colonel F. M. Bailey was at the consulate en route to an extraordinary series of adventures in central Asia. They included helping to propagate the revolt among Muslims which resulted in so many Kyrgyz crossing into Xinjiang after the Russian Revolution.

Bailey was such an effective spy that he was recruited by the Cheka, the forerunner of the KGB, to hunt himself, the British agent who was stirring up the peoples of central Asia against their new communist masters. He was also a noted naturalist, just as Sykes and Eric Shipton, the last British consul in Kashgar, were part-time explorers. In the days of empire, it was possible to serve your country and collect rare butterflies on the Tibetan plateau, conquer unclimbed mountains or cross unmapped deserts.

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Russians in Outer Manchuria

From The Emperor Far Away: Travels at the Edge of China, by David Eimer (Bloomsbury, 2014), Kindle pp. 279-281:

In 1858, the Treaty of Aigun formalised the division of Manchuria. Everything north of what the Russians call the Amur River and the Chinese the Heilongjiang, or Black Dragon River, was assigned to Russia. Two years later, more Manchu lands went north under the Treaty of Peking. In all, Russia acquired a million square kilometres of Outer Manchuria. It is a massive area. Stretching from the present Sino-Russian border to the shores of the Sea of Okhotsk, it includes what are now the major cities of the Russian Far East – Vladivostok, Khabarovsk and Blagoveshchensk – yet the tsar’s army barely had to fire a shot to attain it.

Faced with internal rebellions and in the midst of the Second Opium War with the British and French, the Qing dynasty was so enfeebled by the late 1850s that Russia was able to take Outer Manchuria simply by threatening Beijing. The once mighty Manchu, who had expanded China’s frontiers in the west and south-west, conceded the territory in the bitter knowledge that they were now unable to defend even their own homeland.

With the western colonial powers establishing themselves in China’s major ports in the aftermath of the Opium Wars, Russia’s takeover of northern Manchuria was supposed to be the prelude to it conquering all of Dongbei. The extension of the Trans-Siberian Railway, first to Harbin and then south to Port Arthur, now known as Lushun, was another step towards that goal. From 1897, Russian workers started arriving in Harbin, then not much more than a fishing village on the Songhua River, to build the new rail line. So many Russians came over the border that they dominated Harbin for the next couple of decades.

Russia’s dreams of turning Dongbei into a colony were dashed by its defeat in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–5. Instead, it would be Japan which occupied Manchuria from 1931 until the end of the Second World War. But Harbin remained primarily a Russian city. Like the Koreans who escaped the Japanese occupation of their country by moving to Yanbian during the same period, Russians sought refuge in Harbin from the chaos at home.

Well over 100,000 White Russians arrived after the Russian Revolution of 1917, joining 20,000 or so Russian Jews who had fled tsarist pogroms a decade earlier, making Harbin the largest community of Russians anywhere outside the old country. Far outnumbering the Chinese population, and with the new rail link boosting the local economy, the Russian residents, known as Harbinets, created a city which imitated distant St Petersburg and Moscow.

Harbin’s main shopping street, Zhongyang Dajie, offers an architectural history lesson. Art Nouveau hotels and department stores sit alongside baroque-style buildings, and once grand houses with large arched windows and iron balconies line the streets running off it. Former Russian Orthodox churches, as well as synagogues with window frames in the shape of the Star of David, are scattered throughout the city.

Along with other Chinese cities which have an extensive foreign heritage, such as Shanghai and Tianjin, Harbin is ambivalent about its cosmopolitan past. The buildings, even the crumbling houses which have been chopped into apartments, are much more distinctive and impressive than anything built in the communist era. Yet they are also evidence of how Harbin was more Russian than Chinese until 1949. To admire them is unpatriotic, and locals claim to be indifferent to structures like the former St Sophia Cathedral, regarding them only as unique backdrops for wedding photos.

Most Harbinets returned home after the Second World War or emigrated to the west. By the 1960s only a handful remained, although Harbin’s last Russian resident didn’t die until the early 1980s. But the city attracts many tourists from across the frontier – enough for the Chinese to assume that any foreigner in town is Russian. They come on shopping trips from Khabarovsk and Vladivostok, in search of a far wider and cheaper range of products than are available in the Russian Far East. There are also many Russians studying Mandarin, the language which may one day be the lingua franca of the former Outer Manchuria. Others arrive in search of work, prompted by the slump in the Far East’s economy that was precipitated by the break-up of the old USSR in 1991 and continues today.

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Japan’s POW Policies, 1894–1905

From The Anguish of Surrender: Japanese POWs of World War II, by Ulrich Straus (U. Washington Press, 2005), pp. 19-20:

During the Sino-Japanese War of 1894–1895, Japan stated that it would abide by the Brussels Declaration on prisoners of war, the first such international effort to regularize and humanize the reciprocal treatment of POWs. In that conflict, the Japanese captured 1,790 prisoners, while only one Japanese soldier was taken prisoner by the Chinese. Japan treated its prisoners humanely.

The Hague Convention of 1899 on the treatment of POWs was operative during the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–1905 and was generally observed by both sides. At the end of the war the Japanese held 71,802 prisoners, while the Russians had captured 1,626 Japanese soldiers and sailors, including 26 officers. The Japanese government of that time, unlike the one during World War II, acknowledged the existence of Japanese prisoners in enemy hands, including a regimental commander. Japan even sent a request through the U.S. government, which represented Japan’s interests in Russia during the war, asking that conditions be improved for Japanese POWs in Russian prison camps. It also facilitated the sending of letters and packages to Japanese POWs through international Red Cross channels. In line with this willingness to acknowledge the status of its captured military personnel, a regulation of Japan’s POW Information Office at that time stipulated that the name, rank, and other information of each POW would be published when received. (This regulation was voided on December 27, 1941.) Japan and Russia also agreed to several exchanges of prisoners while fighting was still going on.

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National vs. Imperial Emigration Priorities

From The Great Departure: Mass Migration from Eastern Europe and the Making of the Free World, by Tara Zahra (Norton, 2016), Kindle Loc. 388-410:

In part, the preoccupation with maintaining population in imperial Austria was linked to the explosive growth of popular nationalist movements at the end of the nineteenth century. In the nationalist battle for supremacy, numbers mattered. Beginning in 1880, when citizens were first asked about their “language of daily use,” the imperial census escalated into a high-stakes campaign for citizens’ allegiances, as the number of Czech-speakers, German-speakers, Polish-speakers, or Ruthene-speakers counted came to be seen as a measure of national strength. Increasingly, numbers determined how state resources were allocated, where schools were built, and in which languages children could be educated.

It follows logically that nationalists would mobilize to prevent the emigration of members of their own national community and encourage the exodus of national rivals. The Hungarian government, which operated somewhat like a nation-state within the Dual Monarchy (sharing only a common foreign policy and military with Austria), did just that. As of 1904, two-thirds of the emigrants leaving the Hungarian half of the monarchy were not native Hungarian-speakers. A secret memorandum from the Hungarian undersecretary of state to the Hungarian prime minister explained, “For the institution of national statehood it is absolutely necessary that the ruling race . . . become the majority of the population. . . . Providence . . . has granted another population factor which has significantly raised the proportion of the Hungarian element at the expense of the nationalities. . . . This important new factor is the mass emigration of the non-Hungarian population.”

In Russia as well, imperial authorities began to encourage Jewish emigration in the 1890s, while restricting the emigration of nationally “desirable” citizens. The Russian government allowed the Jewish Colonization Association (JCA) to set up branches across the empire beginning in 1892, effectively legalizing Jewish emigration, even though emigration remained illegal for non-Jewish Russians. The JCA had established four hundred offices throughout Russia by 1910, providing migrants with information about opportunities to emigrate and assisting with the burdensome paperwork.

In Vienna, by contrast, imperial authorities officially mourned the loss of all the kaiser’s subjects equally. In 1905, out of 111,990 emigrants from Austria to the United States, 50,785 (45 percent) were Polish-speakers, 14,473 (14 percent) spoke Ruthene (a language later known as Ukrainian), and 11,757 (10 percent) were Czech-speakers. In contrast to their proportion in the emigration from imperial Russia, where anti-Semitic persecution was much more severe, Jews were not heavily overrepresented among emigrants from the Dual Monarchy. Out of a total of 275,693 emigrants from Austria-Hungary in 1905, for example, 17,352 emigrants (6 percent) were Jewish, only slightly more than the percentage of Jews in the total population in 1900 (4.7 percent in Austria, 5 percent in Hungary).

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How Many Slavic Languages vs. Dialects?

From Lingo: Around Europe in Sixty Languages, by Gaston Dorren (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2015), Kindle Loc. 2006-26:

Whether they’re from the Baltic port of Kaliningrad or from Vladivostok on the Sea of Japan, there’s little difference in the way Russians speak. In Poland, the same holds true: North Poles and South Poles can chat away effortlessly to each other, as can West and East Poles. Even people speaking different Slavic languages can often communicate without much trouble. Bulgarians can converse with Macedonians, Czechs with Slovaks, and Russians with Belarusians and Ukrainians. And, for all their political differences, there is no great language barrier between Croats, Bosnians, Serbs and Montenegrins. In fact, as the eminent nineteenth-century Slovak scholar Ján Kollár suggested, the Slavic world could, with no great effort on the part of its citizens, adopt just four standard languages: Russian, Polish, Czechoslovak and, lastly, what you might call Yugoslav or South Slavic.

There is one language, however, that wouldn’t so easily be absorbed into Kollár’s scheme: Slovene, also known as Slovenian. Admittedly, this is the language of a very small nation. Its entire territory fits no fewer than twelve times into the area of the UK (which is itself not large) and the population, at just over two million, is just a quarter of that of London. And yet, when Slovenes speak their local dialects, many of their compatriots can make neither head nor tail of what they are saying. So just imagine how these dialects would bewilder the members of some of the other nations that Kollár lumped together as ‘South Slavic’, such as the Bulgarians.

How come? Why does Russian span more than four thousand miles from west to east with next to nothing in the way of dialect diversity, whereas the Slovene language area, measuring just two hundred miles from end to end, is a veritable smorgasbord of regional varieties? Which in turn raises the question: how do dialects come about in the first place?

One school of thought, or rather thoughtlessness, holds that dialects are corrupted forms of the standard language – as, for example, in the view that ‘Scouse is just bad English’. This might be one’s automatic reaction, but it’s in fact the wrong way round: dialects come first, and tend to be at the root of any standard language, which is always an artefact. It would be nearer the truth to claim that standards are ‘corrupted’, ‘unnatural’ or ‘perverted’ dialects. For any other variation of any language, regional or otherwise, develops in a largely unselfconscious way, influenced chiefly by its degree of isolation and contact.

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Population, Industry, and World War I

From Russia’s Last Gasp: The Eastern Front 1916–17, by Prit Buttar (Osprey, 2016), Kindle Loc. 169-95:

A combination of industrialisation and major improvements in public health in the second half of the 19th century led to large increases in the population of Europe, rising from about 200 million in 1800 to double that figure by 1900. The experiences of war during the 19th century resulted in most large nations adopting systems of national service followed by a variable period as a reservist; as a result, when the continent plunged over the precipice into war in the summer of 1914, all the Great Powers had the ability to field forces on a scale that dwarfed anything that had gone before.

The same industrialisation that helped increase the population of Europe also provided arms and munitions on a scale to match the huge armies that were sent into battle. Yet despite the enormous stockpiling and production of guns, bombs and shells, all armies found themselves struggling to cope with the huge consumption of resources that followed. Every army that fought in 1915 was forced to moderate its military ambitions to live within the limitations imposed by ammunition shortages, and it was only at the end of the year that all sides could begin to look forward to a time when they might have sufficient matériel to cope with the demands of modern warfare.

In the west, the terrible irony of the ‘mobilisation’ of 1914 was that hundreds of thousands of men were left facing each other in almost static front lines, subjecting each other to bombardments and assaults that left huge numbers dead or maimed without any prospect of ending the war. In many respects, the fighting on the Eastern Front was very different, with the front line moving back and forth as the vast spaces of Eastern Europe allowed armies to exploit weaker areas. However, the very space that allowed for such movement also made a conclusive victory almost unachievable. As early as October 1914, the Germans had correctly calculated that it was impossible for armies to maintain operations more than 72 miles (120km) from their railheads, and both sides rapidly realised that there were few if any strategically vital objectives within such a radius. Consequently, although there were major advances by all sides, it was not possible to advance sufficiently far to force the other side out of the war.

The Great Powers entered the war with a clear idea of how they intended to win. Germany wished to avoid a prolonged two-front war, and opted to concentrate most of its strength against France, intending to send its victorious armies east after defeating its western opponents. Russia believed in the irresistible might of its vast armies, and anticipated a steady advance that would roll over the German and Austro-Hungarian forces, while the armies of the Austro-Hungarian Empire calculated that their best hope was to draw the full weight of the tsar’s armies onto themselves, giving the Germans every opportunity to win the war in the west before the Russians could put enough forces into the field. When these initial plans failed, senior commanders struggled to come up with alternative strategies, trying usually without success to learn from the errors of the opening campaigns. To a very large extent, the one shining victory of the opening phases of the war – the German triumph at Tannenberg in September 1914 – left commanders on all sides attempting in vain to recreate the great encirclement. They repeatedly saw the endless stalemates as anomalies; the reality was that it was Tannenberg that was the anomaly, achieved at a time when there was still open ground between formations, allowing corps and armies to be outflanked – by the time they became aware of German movements, it was too late for the Russians to react. As the war continued, the density of troops prevented any such advantage being achieved.

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Austria-Hungary’s Military Incompetence in WWI

From Russia’s Last Gasp: The Eastern Front 1916–17, by Prit Buttar (Osprey, 2016), Kindle Loc. 251-74:

Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf, chief of Austria-Hungary’s general staff, had been a hugely important figure in the years before the war, with a hand in almost every aspect of army training and doctrine. During the years in which he dominated the training of staff officers and the drafting of manuals for the infantry, artillery and cavalry, he preached the supremacy of offensive operations, and the need to press home attacks at close quarters. The use of artillery and infantry fire to suppress defences was often ignored or minimised, and attacks were to be carried out repeatedly against the enemy’s forces in order to break their will to fight. Retreat was something to be avoided at all costs, and if an enemy attack gained ground, it was vital that this ground was recovered with counterattacks as soon as possible, so that the enemy did not gain any advantage in terms of morale from his success. The importance of morale was something that Conrad repeatedly stressed – it was the currency that determined how long an army could continue offensive operations.

It was a huge tragedy for the kaiserlich und königlich (Imperial and Royal, usually abbreviated to k.u.k., a reflection of the arrangement by which Franz Joseph was Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary) Army that Conrad was wrong in almost every respect. In their attempts to turn their chief’s visions into reality, the commanders of Austria-Hungary’s armies squandered hundreds of thousands of lives in the opening battles of the war, and then steadfastly failed to learn from their mistakes in the months that followed. By the end of 1915, the Germans were convinced that their ally was incapable of mounting any operations unless there was substantial German involvement, and the Russians too were aware of which of their opponents was the weakest.

The problems of the Austro-Hungarian Empire extended beyond the disastrous errors of Conrad’s planning and doctrine. There was no clear war plan, other than to tie down large numbers of Russian troops until Germany could turn east in strength. Conrad repeatedly called for a grandiose pincer attack against Warsaw, with Austro-Hungarian troops advancing from the south while German forces pressed down from East Prussia in the north, but the Germans never agreed to such a plan before the war, and its implementation once hostilities began was beyond the limited resources available. Although the ruthless mobilisation of reserves and the shortening of basic training to an absolute minimum allowed the k.u.k. Army to recover its numerical strength after the crippling losses of 1914, the delicate structure of the regiments and divisions was lost forever. The multi-lingual and multi-national empire had organised its regiments along national lines, with officers speaking the same language as their men; as reserves were poured in to refill the depleted ranks, it proved impossible to maintain this arrangement. With growing alienation between officers and men, the forces of Austria-Hungary were already showing signs of war-weariness by the first winter of the war, and by the end of 1915 there were persistent concerns about the reliability of many formations, particularly those made up of Czech and Ruthenian (Ukrainian) personnel.

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U.S. Role in Ukraine Famine, 1922

From Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine, by Anne Applebaum (Doubleday, 2017), Kindle Loc. 1517-53:

But in one extremely important sense this first Soviet famine did differ from the famine that was to follow a decade later: in 1921 mass hunger was not kept secret. More importantly, the regime tried to help the starving. Pravda itself announced the existence of famine when on 21 June it declared that 25 million people were going hungry in the Soviet Union. Soon after, the regime sanctioned the creation of an “All-Russian Famine Committee” made up of non-Bolshevik political and cultural figures. Local self-help committees were created to assist the starving. International appeals for aid followed, most prominently from the writer Maxim Gorky, who led a campaign addressed “To All Honest People,” in the name of all that was best in Russian culture. “Gloomy days have come to the country of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Mendeleev, Pavlov, Mussorgsky, Glinka,” he wrote, and called for contributions. Gorky’s list of Russian luminaries conspicuously left out the names of Lenin and Trotsky. Extraordinarily—given how paranoid they would become about the diaspora in the years that followed—the Ukrainian Communist Party even discussed asking for help from Ukrainians who had emigrated to Canada and the United States.

This public, international appeal for help, the only one of its kind in Soviet history, produced fast results. Several relief organizations, including the International Red Cross and the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (known as the JDC, or simply “Joint”), would eventually contribute to the relief effort, as would the Nansen Mission, a European effort put together by the Norwegian explorer and humanitarian Fridtjof Nansen. But the most important source of immediate aid was the American Relief Administration (ARA), which was already operating in Europe in the spring of 1921. Founded by future president Herbert Hoover, the ARA had successfully distributed more than $1 billion in food and medical relief across Europe in the nine months following the 1918 armistice. Upon hearing Gorky’s appeal, Hoover, an astute student of Bolshevik ideology, leapt at the opportunity to expand his aid network into Russia.

Before entering the country, he demanded the release of all Americans held in Soviet prisons, as well as immunity from prosecution for all Americans working for the ARA. Hoover worried that ARA personnel had to control the process or aid would be stolen. He also worried, not without cause, that Americans in Russia could be accused of espionage (and they were indeed collecting information, sending it home and using diplomatic mail to do so). 30 Lenin fumed and called Hoover “impudent and a liar” for making such demands and raged against the “rank duplicity” of “America, Hoover and the League of Nations Council.” He declared that “Hoover must be punished, he must be slapped in the face publicly, for all the world to see,” an astonishing statement given how much aid he was about to receive. But the scale of the famine was such that Lenin eventually yielded.

In September 1921 an advance party of ARA relief workers reached the city of Kazan on the Volga, where they found poverty of a kind they had never seen before, even in ravaged Europe. On the streets they met “pitiful-looking figures dressed in rags and begging for a piece of bread in the name of Christ.” In the orphanages they found “emaciated little skeletons, whose gaunt faces and toothpick legs…testified to the truth of the report that they were dying off daily by the dozen.” By the summer of 1922 the Americans were feeding 11 million people every day and delivering care packages to hundreds of thousands. To stop epidemics they provided $8 million worth of medicine as well. Once their efforts were underway, the independent Russian famine relief committee was quietly dissolved: Lenin didn’t want any Russian organization not directly run by the Communist Party to gain credibility by participating in the distribution of food. But the American aid project, amplified by contributions from other foreign organizations, was allowed to go ahead, saving millions of lives.

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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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