Category Archives: USSR

Evaluating Romania’s Antonescu

From In Europe’s Shadow: Two Cold Wars and a Thirty-Year Journey Through Romania and Beyond, by Robert D. Kaplan (Random House, 2016), pp. 139-141:

Who was Antonescu, really?

A French assessment of him in 1922, when Antonescu was forty and a military attaché to Paris, stated: “A well-tried intelligence, brutal, duplicitous, very vain, a ferocious will to succeed … an extreme xenophobia, [these are] the striking characteristics of this strange figure.” To read Deletant, Hitchins, and others, we can say that Antonescu was a realist, militarist, nationalist, and authoritarian, who had no use for parliamentary democracy. But neither was he strictly fascist: he purged the fascists from his regime early on and had a disdain for pageants and parades. He believed in order, but not as a prerequisite to freedom, only as an end in itself. His support for Hitler was heavily determined by the calamitous international situation he inherited from Carol II and Romania’s tragic position on the map between Nazi and Stalinist empires. Antonescu made the cold calculation that an alliance with Germany was simply the best option for regaining territories that Romania had lost to the Soviet Union. As Antonescu reportedly told journalists a few days after Pearl Harbor: “I am an ally of the Reich against Russia; I am neutral between Great Britain and Germany; and I am for the Americans against the Japanese. But at the same time, Antonescu could also say that “Europe has to be liberated once and for all from the domination of Free-Masons and Jews.”

If not a proponent of the Final Solution itself, Antonescu was among the twentieth century’s great ethnic cleansers. He spoke about the need to “purify” and “homogenize” the Romanian population, and rid it of “Yids,” “Slavs,” and “Roma.” (Antonescu’s deportation of the Roma people to Transdniestria—where some 20,000 died of disease, starvation, and cold—was not a result of German pressure, but something he had initiated on his own.) One of Antonescu’s ministers stated that the circumstances of German military successes provided Romania with a unique opportunity for a “complete ethnic unshackling.” Antonescu himself saw the Jews as a “disease” and as “parasites,” in Deletant’s language, “to be cleansed from the body of Romania.” The deportation of Jews from quasi-historical Romanian lands of Bukovina and Bessarabia to Transdniestria, a region where Romania had few historical claims, should be seen in this light.

And yet it cannot be forgotten that Antonescu kept, by some statistical reckoning, the largest number of Jews away from the Final Solution in Axis-dominated Europe. He did so in large measure because of “opportunism” and extreme nervousness as to his own fate, as the Soviets and Western Allies began to tighten the noose on Hitler’s war machine. The end to deportation and mass murder in Transdniestria and the decision not to send Romanian Jews from inside the country to death camps in Poland were all actions taken after the Nazi defeat at Stalingrad, when Antonescu began to realize that Hitler might not, after all, win the war. Radu Ioanid might refer to this as “opportunistic mercy.” Antonescu was more of a realist than a fanatical fascist, and so he was always sensitive to shifting geopolitical winds. There was also Antonescu’s own proud and autocratic character. The idea of the Führer ordering him from abroad to give up his Jews did not sit well with him. As someone in direct contact with Antonescu at the time observed, the Marshal “did not like receiving orders; he liked giving them.” There was also pressure brought to bear upon Antonescu from Romanian intellectuals, from the queen mother, Helen, and from the National Peasant Party leader Iuliu Maniu to save Romanian Jewry. Again, this all must be seen in the context of Soviet and American victories on the battlefront.

Antonescu was toppled in a palace coup on August 23, 1944, just as the Red Army was already marching triumphantly into Romania. He was tried by pro-Soviet Romanian authorities, duly convicted, and executed in 1946 by a firing squad at Jilava Prison near Bucharest. Antonescu was a mass murderer without strictly being a fascist. The fact that he kept an astonishingly larger number of Jews from death cannot erase the fact that he killed an astonishing number—in indescribable suffering. There is no moral ambiguity in that.

Georgetown University professor Charles King, an expert in these matters, remarked that the best thing which can be said about Antonescu is that he was a conservative anti-Semite, not a millenarian one like Adolf Eichmann or Alfred Rosenberg.

Upon Antonescu’s removal from power, the Romanians switched sides in the war. For the remainder of the war Romania contributed more troops—538,000— to the Allied cause than any other country except for the Soviet Union, Great Britain, and the United States. Romanian casualties against the Nazis in 1944–45 were some twenty-five times greater than those of Italy, another country that fought first for the Axis and then against it. Of course, Romania’s change of heart was a consequence of its need to regain all of Transylvania from Nazi-occupied Hungary. Self-interest dominates foreign policy thinking most of the time in most places. Yet rarely has national self-interest been applied so nakedly as by Romanian regimes during World War II, descending as it did to the level of sheer opportunism. It also bears repeating that the shamelessness of Romania evinced during the war was, in turn, partly a function of its impossible geographical position, especially after Munich, when Chamberlain abandoned Central Europe to Germany.

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Soviet Famine Humor, 1932

From The Invisible Writing, by Arthur Koestler (PFD Books, 2015), Kindle Loc. 844-882:

Officially the famine did not exist. It was only mentioned in the terms of veiled allusions to ‘difficulties on the collectivisation front’. Trudnesty—difficulties—is one of the most frequent words in Soviet parlance; it serves to minimise disasters in the same proportion as achievements are magnified. The Soviet citizen automatically understands that a ‘gigantic victory of the revolutionary forces in Britain’ means that the Communist Party has increased its vote by one half per cent, whereas ‘certain difficulties in the health situation in Birobidjan’ means that the cholera is raging in that province.

After a week, I had incorporated into my vocabulary some of the essential household words of Soviet life such as pyatiletka (the five year plan), komandirovka (official journey), propusk (permit), nachalnik (chief), remont (‘in repair’). I learnt that valuta (foreign currency) could buy one any otherwise unobtainable goods; that si-chass meant literally ‘at once’ but was in fact the equivalent of the Spanish mañana; that a kulturny choloveik, a ‘cultured person’ was one who did not spit and swear, who used a handkerchief, and could do sums without an abacus. I learnt that Soviet watches, gadgets and machines had to ‘go to remont’ every three months; I learnt to write on the coarse, grey sheets which served as writing paper, and to wash under a kind of samovar with a drip-tap, fixed to the wall. I learnt that no map or policeman could help you to find an address because all streets had new names but were called by their old ones; and that officials and employees were permanently being moved about the country as in a game of musical chairs. All this I learnt eagerly and with a great sense of exhilaration, for I knew that everything that annoyed me was the heritage of the past and everything that I liked a token of the future. Besides, I have always had a deep longing for the primeval chaos, a nostalgia for the apocalypse; and here I found myself in the middle of both.

One of my favourite pastimes was to walk through the streets trying to guess the meaning of the mysterious abbreviations by which every institution, office or shop, was called. Thus my co-operative store was called INSNAB; the organisation that looked after me, MORP; the Institute for which Alex worked, UFTI, which was a branch of NARKOMTASHPROM (People’s Commissariat for Heavy Industries), which depended on SOVNARKOM (the Government), and was controlled by GOSPLAN (the Government Planning Committee) jointly with the CKSP(B)CS (Central Committee of the Social Democratic Party, Bolshevist Fraction, of the Soviet Union). Most difficult to remember were the initials of my publishers in Kharkov because they were not in Russian but in Ukrainian. The abbreviation ran: URKDERSHNAZMENWYDAW, and meant: Ukrainian State Publishing Trust for National Minorities. The reason for this epidemic of initials was that enterprises could no longer be called after their proprietor or trade-name; it was a symptom of the depersonalisation so typical of Soviet life.

In trying to understand everyday life in a totalitarian state, one should beware of over-simplification. In the period preceding the murder of Kirov in 1934, which started the Terror, people in Russia did not live in permanent fear, but rather in a world of diffuse insecurity, of floating apprehension. An incautious remark did not, as a rule, entail immediate retribution. The citizen merely knew that his remark would remain on the record, and that the day might come, perhaps in a year, perhaps in ten years, when he would slip up on his job or get involved with a jealous woman or a neighbour coveting his flat, and on that day the G.P.U. would hold against him every dubious conversation and encounter of his past. In other words, the Soviet citizen was no more acutely frightened than a Catholic is of the Last Judgment—except that the G.P.U. operate this side of death, and that he had nowhere to turn for confession and absolution.

In 1932, it was still possible among intimate friends to pass on a joke that was politically off-colour. To understand the sample that follows, one must know that before he was exiled, Trotsky had advocated a harsh policy towards the peasants for the benefit of the industrial workers, whereas Bukharin had advocated concessions to the peasants at the expense of the workers. The story purports to list questions put to candidates for Party membership, and the correct answers thereto:

Question: What does it mean when there is food in the town but no food in the country?
Answer: A Left, Trotskyite deviation.

Question: What does it mean when there is food in the country but no food in the town?
Answer: A Right, Bukharinite deviation.

Question: What does it mean when there is no food in the country and no food in the town?
Answer: The correct application of the general line.

Question: And what does it mean when there is food both in the country and in the town?
Answer: The horrors of Capitalism.

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Denunciation as a Test of Loyalty

From The Invisible Writing, by Arthur Koestler (PFD Books, 2015), Kindle Loc. 1685-1693:

There is one aspect of time-travel in which science-fiction writers have never been interested, and which for a while interested me to the point of obsession. If a time-machine could be made, it would be possible to undo what one has done in the past.

Denunciation is an elementary duty of every Party member, and a test of his loyalty. During the Purges, women denounced their husbands, and boys were made to sign public statements demanding that their fathers be hanged. Denunciation is a scientifically fostered epidemic, the Party’s principal method of waging germ-warfare against the human spirit.

During my seven years in the Communist Party, the only person whom I denounced or betrayed was Nadeshda, and she was the person dearer to me than anybody during those seven years. It is no exaggeration when I say that I would have died for her readily and with a glow of joy. The Party to which I betrayed her I did not love; I had qualms and doubts about it, and moments of exasperation. But I was part of it, as my hands and my guts were part of myself. It was not a relationship; it was an identity.

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Central Asiatic Railway Towns, 1932

From The Invisible Writing, by Arthur Koestler (PFD Books, 2015), Kindle Loc. 1808-1830:

Soviet Central Asia was divided at that time into three Autonomous Republics: Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tadzhikistan. Among these Turkmenistan is the most desolate. Its borders are the Caspian in the West, Persia and Afghanistan in the South, the Amu Darya in the East and the Autonomous Kazakh Republic in the North. It is approximately the size of Germany, but its population in 1932 was less than a million. Its surface is almost entirely desert, only habitable on its fringes, where sparse water-courses make irrigation possible. The chief product of the irrigated areas is cotton.

There are few towns. One cluster of oases lies in the North, round the mouth of the Amu Darya, where it flows into the Aral Sea. This is the former Khanat of Khiva, which in 1932 was still something of a Shangri-la, inaccessible from the South except by camel-caravans. The remaining towns are strung in a single line along the Central Asiatic Railway which skirts the Kapet Dagh hills along the Persian frontier. In spite of their picturesque names, these towns—Kizyl Arvat, Bakharden, Geok Tepe, Ashkhabad, Merv—are not oriental in character but typical Russian garrison-towns. In fact, the main feature of the towns of Turkmenistan was that they were not inhabited by Turkomans but by Russians—government officials, railway workers, soldiers, merchants, artisans and colonials; the natives were left to their semi-nomadic existence. The change only started with the industrial revolution under the Five-Year Plan. The new factories drew native labour into the towns, and the creation of a ‘class-conscious native industrial proletariat’ became a declared aim of Soviet policy in all national republics. Even so, in 1932 the Turkomans were still a minority in the towns of Turkmenistan, including Ashkhabad, the capital.

The result was a complete absence of local colour and local architecture in these Czarist garrison-towns which cover like pockmarks the noble face of Asia. The Bolsheviks completed the process which Russian Imperalism had begun. The aim of Czarist colonisation had been to keep the natives in their state of semi-barbarism and ignorance—at the time of the Revolution there were less than one per cent literates in Turkmenistan. The Communist régime took an apparently opposite line which in fact, however, completed the tragedy. The natives were drawn into the towns, educated, Russified and Stalinised by the pressure-cooker method. The children of the nomads were brought to school, processed, indoctrinated, and stripped of their national identity. All national tradition, folklore, arts and crafts, were eradicated by force and by propaganda. Everywhere in Asia primitive tribes and nations were transformed into a nondescript, colourless and amorphous mass of robots in the totalitarian State.

With two exceptions—old Bokhara and Samarkand—I have almost no visual memory of the places I visited in Central Asia. In retrospect, Krasnovodsk, Ashkhabad, Merv, Tashkent, all dissolve in the same uniform dreariness of the Russian provincial small-town, except that they were even poorer and drearier.

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South Caucasus Just Waiting for Europe?

From Caucasus: An Introduction, by Thomas de Waal (Oxford U. Press, 2010), Kindle Loc. 4017-4050:

It seems an almost inbuilt problem of the South Caucasus that a positive development in one place causes alarm in another. Armenian-Turkish rapprochement angers Azerbaijan, which turns to Moscow. The “reset” American-Russian relationship is seen to damage Georgia. As soon as there was talk of the Armenian-Turkish border reopening, some Georgians were heard to worry aloud that the rerouting of trade would be bad for Georgia. Zero-sum thinking prevails.

The region suffers from a lack of inclusive thinking. Most of the big ideas and regional initiatives that have emerged in the last decade and a half have excluded either one of the South Caucasus countries themselves or a key outside power. Both Iran and Turkey have proposed “security pacts” for the Caucasus that have left out the United States and the European Union. The Commonwealth of Independent States is now without Georgia. GUAM excluded Armenia. For awhile, Moscow unsuccessfully promoted the idea of a “Caucasus Four” that included it and the three South Caucasus countries. Concentrating on a “Black Sea region” is to the detriment of Azerbaijan. Focusing on the Caspian leaves out Armenia. The metaphor of a “Silk Road,” pretty though it is, implies a return to a premodern world in which Russia did not exist. The idea of a “Great Game” unhelpfully casts Russia in a reprised role of a hostile nineteen-century power.

History has meant that there have never been any successful voluntary integration projects here. The plan for an independent Transcaucasian Federation in April 1918 collapsed after only a month. The only other unions have been colonial ones imposed from above, by the Persian, Ottoman, and Russian empires and by the Soviet Union. The Soviet project is hard to defend, but it did have the effect of bringing people together in a cohesive economic structure that many people still miss. In retrospect, the South Caucasian nationalists of the late 1980s lurched from one extreme to another when they took a bulldozer to the complex Soviet system. They exchanged suffocating integration for extreme disintegration, and you could say that they threw out the Caucasian baby with the Communist bathwater. Many of the economic and cultural links from those times are still there under the surface waiting to be reexploited.

The one neighbor that could be a facilitator for voluntary integration in the South Caucasus is the region that has itself accomplished such an integration, the EU. So far, unfortunately, the EU has been very slow to act in the region. One Georgian scholar says it is “too lazy and too late.” Most of its regional projects have been very modest. Transport Corridor Europe Caucasus Asia, a European program started in 1993 for the eight countries of Central Asia and the South Caucasus, has spent less than 200 million euros since then—far less than BP, Gazprom, or USAID has spent in the region, to name three other foreign actors. The Eastern Partnership project is another laudable idea but is hampered by several constraints; the six countries involved have no membership perspective for the EU, which does not provide a strong incentive for reform. Promises of trade privileges and visa facilitation are more promising but have been watered down by European governments.

There is a widespread perception in the South Caucasus that it is “waiting for Europe” to notice its problems and pay attention to them. In the EU itself, there is caution. Partly, the EU has enough other problems to solve without having to deal with the headaches of the Caucasus. Partly, there is a perception that the governments of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia need to show a stronger commitment to democracy and reform to deserve that stronger interest. So the current period may be one of less engagement and greater realism. If that is the case, it may not be all bad news. History has been unkind to the South Caucasus, but there is no shortage of experience or talent there. If the outsider powers step a bit further away, local people may remember that they also have the skills, fashioned by the centuries, to solve their own problems.

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The Karabakhi Soviet’s Domino Effect, 1988

From Caucasus: An Introduction, by Thomas de Waal (Oxford U. Press, 2010), Kindle Loc. 1889-1922:

When Nagorny Karabakh became the Soviet Union’s first dissident region in February 1988, it took almost everybody by surprise. Within the space of a week, the Karabakh Armenians had broken a series of Soviet taboos, staging public rallies, strikes, and effectively a public vote of no confidence in Moscow. Many Azerbaijanis have seen a high-level conspiracy in this. They argue that a remote province such as Karabakh could only have risen up and challenged the status quo on the critical issue of national borders after receiving strong positive signals from the top. This speaks to Azerbaijani fears about the power of the Armenian lobby—and Gorbachev did indeed have two Armenian advisers. Yet the fact that Gorbachev decisively rejected the Karabakhis’ demand suggests that there was no conspiracy—more a tangle of misunderstandings and mixed messages. The Karabakh Armenians and their Armenian lobbyists believed they had much more support than they actually had.

On February 20, 1988, after a series of petitions had been presented in Moscow, Armenian deputies in the local soviet voted to ask the central authorities to facilitate the transfer of the region to Soviet Armenia. Azerbaijani deputies abstained. The Politburo immediately rejected the request and said the soviet’s actions “contradict the interests of the working people in Soviet Azerbaijan and Armenia and damage interethnic relations.” The local soviet’s bold resolution had repercussions for the whole Soviet Union. Soviets, the basic building-blocks of the USSR’s system of government, had nominal power but were in practice supposed to be mere rubber-stamping bodies. Once the Karabakh soviet had challenged that consensus and dusted off Lenin’s concept of “all power to the soviets,” the system faced paralysis. It was the first shot in a “war of laws” between Soviet institutions—later Azerbaijan’s Supreme Soviet would reject the Karabakhi move, and Armenia’s Supreme Soviet would support it. The deadlock soon spread to Georgia and later to Russia in what came to be known as a “parade of sovereignties,” as autonomous entities across the Soviet Union tried to reinvest power in institutions that had been mere façades since the 1920s.

Gorbachev faced a dilemma in dealing with the Karabakh revolt. To have agreed to the soviet’s demand would have set a precedent he did not want to see. To have arrested the demonstrators would have been risky and against the spirit of glasnost he was trying otherwise to inculcate in the Soviet Union. In the event, he tried to smother the problem. The official media remained silent about it. A battalion of 160 Soviet Interior Ministry troops was sent to Karabakh, and a Politburo delegation traveled to the region to try and talk sense into the rebels. Appeals were made to the “brotherly solidarity” of the two peoples.

Gorbachev was far more liberal than any other Soviet leader before him, but his response revealed the limitations of the Soviet political system. Real political dialogue had effectively been banned in the Soviet Union for more than sixty years. “I had hundreds of conversations,” said a Moscow official who traveled between Armenia and Azerbaijan seeking compromise on the Karabakh issue in 1988. “I didn’t meet a single Armenian or a single Azerbaijani who held a compromise position on this question, from shepherds to academicians.” The expectation was that Moscow would rule decisively in favor of one side or the other. The party authorities in Baku never thought of inviting the Karabakh Armenians for talks on their demands—even if they had been allowed to—while the Karabakh Armenians traveled to Moscow, not Baku, to push their claims. Within months, dissatisfied with Moscow’s handling of the national issue, Armenians and Azerbaijanis were burning their party cards and openly defying the central authorities. Karabakh also exposed the weakness of the interconnected Soviet command economy. One of the first strikes in the Soviet Union in almost seventy years, at an electronic parts factory in the Karabakhi capital, Stepanakert, slowed or halted production in sixty-five radio and television factories across the Soviet Union. The overall effect was that as soon as the rigid, authoritarian Soviet system was challenged in a comprehensive way, it suddenly looked very brittle.

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Origins of the Soviet Ethnofederal System

From Caucasus: An Introduction, by Thomas de Waal (Oxford U. Press, 2010), Kindle Loc. 1329-1340, 1408-1429:

There has [been] much scholarly debate about the impact of the Bolsheviks’ decision to devise an “ethnofederal system” for the Soviet Union, which created autonomous territories on ethnic principles. In the Caucasus, scholars have observed, this preserved national divisions, which eventually fractured the Soviet state and turned into armed conflicts. It could be argued, however, that the Caucasus set the blueprint for the Soviet Union, not the other way round. In other words, the fragile situation in the Caucasus in 1921, still broken by numerous inter-ethnic conflicts, may have caused the Bolsheviks to invent the ethnofederal system under duress.

It was also a Caucasian, Stalin, who presided over this complex construction once it had been created. His approach was both ruthless and pragmatic. The primary aim appears to have been to build a system that would survive the shock of both internal and external threats. National interests were balanced out and could eventually be eliminated. Small nationalities would be modernized, with Russia the engine pulling them into the future. Lenin, who disapproved of Russian nationalism, might have been content to see Georgia detached from Russia, so long as it remained Bolshevik. Stalin believed that Russia, the center, and the Caucasus, the borderlands, needed one another. In 1920, he wrote, “Central Russia, the hearth of world revolution, cannot hold out long without the assistance of the border regions, which abound in raw materials, fuel, and foodstuffs.

The late 1920s were the heyday of what Terry Martin calls the “affirmative action empire,” with the implementation of the new ideology of korenizatsia (literally “rooting,” or “nativization”) sponsoring programs to modernize and assist the non-Russian Soviet nationalities. The Azeri, Abkhaz, Ossetian, and Lezgin written languages were all given a new progressive Roman alphabet. Huge numbers of people received an education for the first time in their native languages. The Communists declared that in the first ten years of Soviet rule in Georgia, half a million people had been taught to read and write. In 1940, Armenia claimed that the entire adult population was literate for the first time.

For years, scholars of the Soviet Union concentrated on its centralizing policies, and some called it the “prison-house of nations.” Only recently have scholars and commentators begun to analyze how, beginning with the korenizatsia program, the Soviet authorities actually defined and strengthened national identities. As the American Suny put it in 1993, “rather than a melting pot, the Soviet Union became an incubator of new nations.” The tsarist empire had categorized its people by religion, mother tongue, social class, and regional location. The Bolsheviks held that “nationality” was a useful transitional phase between the backward culture of small ethnic groups and an advanced state of socialism. But the national identities persisted, and the transnational socialist future never came. As Martin writes, “in order to implement affirmative action programs, monitor their success, delineate national territories, assign children to programs, the Soviet state constantly asked its citizens for their nationality.” So to be “Ossetian” or “Azerbaijani” acquired real meaning for the first time, and this category became a formal badge of identity when it was written into the first Soviet internal passports in 1932.

There was a hierarchy of nations. Two of the three main nationalities of the Transcaucasus, the Armenians and Georgians, were classified as “advanced” Western nationalities, alongside Russians, Ukrainians, Jews, and Germans, while Azerbaijanis fell into the category of nations in formation, requiring developmental aid. In practice this meant that, as in tsarist Russia, Armenians and Georgians could advance quickly up the Soviet career ladder. Two Karabakh Armenians from village backgrounds were cases in point. One, Levon Mirzoyan, served as head of the Communist Party first in Azerbaijan and then in Kazakhstan, the other; Suren Sadunts, served as first Party secretary in Tajikistan in 1935–36. Both were shot in Stalin’s purges. It would have been impossible for a Kazakh or an Azerbaijani to be given an equivalent post in Armenia or Georgia.

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