Category Archives: 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.

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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.

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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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Operation Yo-Yo, Korea, 1950

From On Desperate Ground: The Marines at The Reservoir, the Korean War’s Greatest Battle, by Hampton Sides (Doubleday, 2018), Kindle pp. 71-72:

The troopships of X Corps departed Inchon in mid-October and sailed down the coast through the Yellow Sea. The convoy of more than seventy vessels passed Kunsan and Mokpo and rounded the peninsular horn, swerving through a confusion of coastal islands and then turning into the Korea Strait. From the railings, off the port side, the men could see the liberated siege grounds of Pusan, site of so much brutal fighting only a little over a month earlier. Then the transports turned into the stormy Sea of Japan and worked their way up the east coast, past Yeongdeok and Samcheok, past Donghae and Yangyang. Finally they crossed into North Korean waters and steamed for Wonsan, a port city of 75,000 people tucked into a large bay a little more than a hundred miles north of the thirty-eighth parallel.

But as they approached Wonsan, to the men’s consternation, the ships turned around and started sailing back down the coast for Pusan. No one seemed to know why. Had their orders changed? Was the war over? Were they going home? Then the ships turned around once again, resuming their northward crawl—only to be followed by yet another turn. The Marines and soldiers of X Corps, crammed into their vessels, didn’t understand what was happening.

Eventually the word sifted through the ranks: The North Koreans, working with Russian experts, had mined the waters off Wonsan. Having anticipated that the U.N. forces might land here, they had gone out into the harbor in diverse local craft—barges, junks, tugboats, fishing sampans—and sown the waters with explosives, mostly Russian-made. The harbor was infested: Thousands of contact mines and magnetic mines bobbed just beneath the surface.

So American minesweepers, along with teams of Navy frogmen, were brought in to clear the approaches to the harbor. More than two dozen of these peculiar vessels went to work, often with helicopters buzzing overhead to serve as spotters. Minesweepers had elaborate wire structures, extending far out from the bows, that were equipped with various floats, depressors, and cutters strong enough to sever the steel cables that often moored mines to the seabed. The sweepers plied the harbor, clearing one long channel at a time, even as North Korean artillery shelled them from shore.

It was tedious but also perilous work: On October 10, two American minesweepers missed their quarry and were blown apart. Twelve men died in the explosions, and dozens more were wounded. A week later, a South Korean minesweeper was also destroyed. The men found one mine—also Russian-made—that had a particularly diabolical design. A dozen ships could pass over it without incident, but the thirteenth ship would cause it to detonate. “It took a curious sort of mind to come up with a notion like that,” wrote one Marine, wondering if the number thirteen had a “sinister connotation for Russians as it did in the States.”

Given the dangers in the harbor, the X Corps landing obviously would have to be delayed until the sweepers had completed their painstaking task. And so the troopships churned back and forth along the coast—changing direction every twelve hours. The Marines dubbed this endless backtracking the “Sail to Nowhere” and “Operation Yo-Yo.” For nearly two weeks, they remained at sea with little to do but watch the dull landforms slide by. As food supplies dwindled, the galleys served mustard sandwiches, glops of fish-head chowder, and other highly dubious fare. Joe Owen, of the Seventh Marine Regiment, called it an “ordeal of misery and sickness, malaise and dreariness. The holds stank of unwashed bodies and sweaty clothes.” As one Marine account put it, “Never did time die a harder death.”

What made their seaborne imprisonment more difficult to take was their discovery, by radio, that Wonsan had already been pacified. Republic of Korea troops, working their way overland from Seoul, had arrived in Wonsan and quelled all enemy resistance there. The First Marine Air Wing had set up shop at a nearby airfield, and planeload after planeload of men and supplies had safely landed. The zone around Wonsan was deemed so peaceful, in fact, that the entertainer Bob Hope had already dropped in to perform one of his USO comedy routines for the aviators—during the show, he boasted of how he and his dancing girls had beaten the famed leathernecks ashore.

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Fake News in Spain, 1937

From Churchill and Orwell: The Fight for Freedom, by Thomas E. Ricks (Penguin, 2017), Kindle Loc. 1153-70, 1262-68:

On the afternoon of May 7, some six thousand additional government troops arrived, and the fighting ended. Again, Orwell was impressed by how well these rear-area units were equipped, compared with his front-line unit. To his disgust, the government blamed all the fighting on POUM, because it was the weakest of the leftist factions.

Watching all this, Orwell arrived at some conclusions that clashed with leftist conventions of the era. At a time when leftist solidarity was considered mandatory, the right thing to do, Orwell began to harbor suspicions. Observing the fighting in Barcelona between different antifascist factions, he noted, “You had all the while a hateful feeling that someone hitherto your friend might be denouncing you to the secret police.”

In effect, the events in Barcelona forced him to examine the left as he once earlier had scrutinized imperialism and capitalism. He concluded, “The Communist Party, with Soviet Russia, had thrown its weight against the revolution.” It was determined to systematically wipe out the anticommunist parts of the left—first POUM, then the anarchists, and then socialists.

But to say this in public was a form of modern heresy. Orwell realized, with shock, that the left-wing newspapers did not report the situation accurately, and did not want to. Rather, they willingly accepted lies. “One of the dreariest effects of this war has been to teach me that the Left-wing press is every bit as spurious and dishonest as that of the Right,” he wrote. This set him on his life’s work, to push continually to establish the facts, no matter how difficult or unpopular that might be.

On May 10, 1937, he left Barcelona to return to the front, where the POUM was still deployed, despite being suppressed back in Barcelona by the government whose territory it was defending. On May 11, the POUM was denounced in the Daily Worker as “Franco’s Fifth Column.” Posters appeared on Barcelona walls with the headline TEAR THE MASK, showing a face marked POUM, and a fascist face underneath it. It was classic “big lie” propaganda.

The POUM soldiers at the front there had not been told that they were being denounced in Barcelona, and the newspapers from the city remained quiet about the purge.

From Spain on, his mission was to write the facts as he saw them, no matter where that took him, and to be skeptical of everything he read, especially when it came from or comforted those wielding power. This became his faith. “In Spain, for the first time, I saw newspaper reports which did not bear any relation to the facts,” he wrote a few years later. He continued:

I saw great battles reported where there had been no fighting, and complete silence where hundreds of men had been killed. I saw troops who had fought bravely denounced as cowards and traitors, and others who had never seen a shot fired hailed as the heroes of imaginary victories; and I saw newspapers in London retailing those lies and eager intellectuals building superstructures over events that had never happened. I saw, in fact, history being written not in terms of what happened but of what ought to have happened according to various “party lines.”

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Cold War: Ransoming Emigrants

From The Great Departure: Mass Migration from Eastern Europe and the Making of the Free World, by Tara Zahra (Norton, 2016), Kindle Loc. 3613-27, 3658-74:

The profile of migrants transformed in the 1970s, as dissident intellectuals and celebrity defectors began to take center stage. There had always been a place in the West for intellectual and cultural luminaries from Eastern Europe. The “ideal” East European emigrant throughout the early Cold War had not, however, been a scientist, doctor, or novelist. He or she was a farmer, a miner, a domestic servant, or a factory worker—someone willing to work hard for low wages and fuel booming postwar economies in the West. That image subtly shifted in the late 1960s and the 1970s. In part, the sociological profile of actual emigrants changed, as the refugees who fled Czechoslovakia and Poland in 1968, in particular, tended to have a higher education. Western economies were also transforming. The 1970s brought oil shocks, growing restrictions on immigration in Western Europe, and the rise of technology and service-based industries. The “ideal” refugee from Eastern Europe—the least threatening immigrant—was now an engineer, intellectual, or tennis star, not a factory worker who would compete for ever scarcer manufacturing jobs.

Then, in the 1970s and 1980s, several Eastern bloc governments introduced reforms that attempted to “normalize” relations with the West and with emigrants abroad. These initiatives did not reflect a change of heart regarding emigration in Eastern Europe. Rather, they represented efforts by desperate governments to raise foreign currency. Socialist regimes were searching for new ways to placate dissatisfied citizens in the 1970s and 1980s. Consumer goods—everything from televisions and washing machines to blue jeans and automobiles—were powerful currency in this quest for legitimacy. East European governments largely financed the shift to a consumer economy with loans from the West. Repaying these loans was possible only with a continuous influx of foreign currency, which flowed into the country along with tourists and visitors from the West, or in the form of remittances from migrants working abroad.

Whereas socialist governments had once bitterly denounced the “human traffickers” who lured their citizens to the West, they now willingly brokered a trade in migrants for their own purposes.

Romania also ransomed Jews and Germans for profit. The exchange of Romanian Jews for money and agricultural products had begun covertly after the Second World War. A Jewish businessman in London named Henry Jacober served as the middleman between private individuals in the West and the Romanian secret service. Jacober traded briefcases full of cash, typically $4,000 to $6,000 per emigrant (depending on the individual’s age and educational status), for exit permits to the West. When Israeli intelligence officials got wind of the deals, they decided to get in on the scheme, with the approval of Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion. At Khrushchev’s insistence, the Romanians began to demand agricultural products instead of cash. Soon Romanian Jews were traded for everything from cattle and pigs to chicken farms and cornflake factories. The ransom of Jews continued under the rule of the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu after 1969. The price of exit could go up to $50,000, depending on the migrant’s age, education, profession, family status, and political importance. Israel refused to pay for young children and retirees.

Selling Jews was so profitable that the ransom scheme expanded to include ethnic Germans, who were sold to West Germany for suitcases stuffed with U.S. dollars. Germans, like Jews, were priced on the basis of their educational attainment and ransomed for rates ranging from $650 for an unskilled worker to $3,298 for an emigrant with a master’s degree or equivalent. Romania also received interest-free loans from West Germany in exchange for releasing Germans. In the mid-1970s, Ceausescu famously boasted, “Jews, Germans, and oil are our best export commodities.” Around 235,000 Jews and 200,000 Germans escaped Romania through these deals. During Ceausescu’s regime alone, an estimated 40,577 Jews were ransomed to Israel for $112,498,800; West Germany made payments of at least $54 million in exchange for exit permits for German emigrants.

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Utility of U.S. Aid to Soviets, WW2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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