Category Archives: USSR

Soviet Reinvention of Siberian Exile

From The House of the Dead: Siberian Exile Under the Tsars, by Daniel Beer (Knopf, 2017), Kindle Loc. 7532-7558:

It is one of the ironies of 1917 that the revolution should have overwhelmed the exile system that the autocracy had for so long wielded as a weapon against subversion. Warders, exile officials and guards suddenly found themselves stripped of their authority and vulnerable to the vengeful retribution of their former captives. What little semblance of order remained in Siberia’s exile and prison system by the end of 1917 was torn up by the civil war that engulfed the continent between 1918 and 1920. Exiles, prisoners, their families and officials were sucked into a maelstrom of battles, refugee columns, famine and epidemics. It was a fittingly ignominious end to a system that had achieved so little at such a colossal expense.

Yet Siberia surrendered its prisoners only temporarily. After 1917, exile and penal labour would be reinvented and punishments would be revamped for an age of science, rationality and industrialization. The Bolsheviks did not inherit a functioning penal system from their tsarist predecessors, but they did inherit a very similar set of practical dilemmas: how to extract the vast and valuable mineral resources from the far-flung frozen expanses of the taiga and tundra and, also, how to contain crime and subversion within the Soviet state. After 1917, the Bolsheviks rose to meet these challenges with a zeal and a brutality all their own.

No longer would deportation to Siberia be primarily about the enforced isolation and penal settlement of criminals and dissenters, with forced labour reserved for a particularly dangerous minority. It would now involve the ruthless exploitation of convict labour on an industrial scale justified by the need for a “purification of society” and by the prospect of “individual rehabilitation.” Far-flung tsarist-era exile settlements such as Sredne-Kolymsk and prisons like Omsk were expanded into major centres of forced labour. The Gulag was celebrated in the press as a workshop of the new citizenry, and its camps were hailed as “curative labour camps.”

As part of the Bolshevik Party’s cultural campaigns to consolidate its own legitimacy and to sanctify the October Revolution, state publishing houses in the 1920s and 1930s produced a stream of hagiographical texts commemorating the martyrdom of pre-revolutionary political prisoners. Memoirs, historical studies and archival documents established an inspiring genealogy of tsarist oppression and revolutionary heroism—a genealogy that stretched back in time, linking the Bolsheviks with their revolutionary forebears and representing the victory of Soviet power as the culmination of a century-old struggle with tyranny. The experience of Siberian exile formed an important thread of continuity linking the new rulers of the lands of the Russian Empire with cohorts of illustrious radicals from the 1860s like Nikolai Chernyshevsky, and, ultimately, with the Decembrists of the 1820s. The Society of Former Political Penal Labourers was established in 1921 and began to publish a journal, Penal Labour and Exile, devoted to recording the experiences of political exiles and penal labourers. Yet ironically, at the very moment when the Bolsheviks were emphasizing the martyrdom of Siberian exiles and the cruel tyranny of the tsarist state, they were casting their own rivals, dissenters, and the human detritus of the ancien régime into forced labour camps on a scale that would have defied the imagination of tsarist penal administrators.

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Afghanistan as “University of Jihad”

From Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century, by Christian Caryl (Basic Books, 2014), Kindle Loc. 6410-6454:

The mujahideen struggle against the Soviets—a struggle that ultimately ended with a humiliating retreat for the forces of Moscow—filled Muslims around the world with pride. This glorious victory seemed to many a confirmation of what the Islamists had been arguing all along: with God’s help, anything is possible. (The Quran is replete with verses promising victory to those who are faithful to God.) The triumph of the Afghan jihad inspired Muslims in a general way, but it gave particular impetus to the more militant strains of Islamist thought. The full psychological impact is hard to quantify, of course. One of the most concrete effects can be seen in the later journeys of the non-Afghans who personally participated in the war against the Soviets. Garlanded by their participation in the glamorous Afghan jihad, the Afghan Arabs and their fellow Islamist internationalists personally embodied the message of armed resistance to the infidels and the apostates. Not for nothing would Afghanistan in the 1980s come to be known as the “University of Jihad.”

Inevitably, however, Azzam’s very success as a leader and religious thinker inspired competition. Another Arab who made the pilgrimage to Peshawar was Ayman al-Zawahiri, who arrived in Pakistan in 1985. Trained as a doctor and a religious scholar, he was an alumnus of the Muslim Brotherhood who had been imprisoned after the killing of Anwar Sadat in 1981. Though professing eagerness to help the Afghans in their jihad against the Soviets, he spent much of his time in Pakistan on Egyptian affairs. He soon became the leader of a new group of Egyptian radicals that dubbed itself the Egyptian Islamic Jihad. Azzam was soon complaining to his associates that the Egyptians were gaining influence over his protégé Bin Laden, who was already becoming a lodestar of the jihadi movement. There is much speculation, indeed, that Zawahiri and his confederates orchestrated the killing of Azzam as part of a plot to take over control of his organization.

But the nascent al-Qaeda and Egyptian Islamic Jihad were not the only ones bent on extending the Afghan war to the rest of the world. Another group of Egyptian radicals, mercilessly persecuted by the government at home, set up operations in Peshawar and in the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad in the mid-1980s. This was al-Gamaa al-Islamia, the Islamic Group, which had engineered the assassination of Sadat. One of the group’s most prominent figures in its exile was Mohammed Shawki Islambouli, the brother of Sadat’s killer. Its religious leader was Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman, known as the “blind sheikh,” who had also studied under Azzam and ultimately played a key role in the MAK after Azzam’s death. He established close relations with Bin Laden and Hekmatyar. In 1990 Abdel-Rahmen traveled to the United States, where his preaching inspired a group of young Muslim radicals to bomb the World Trade Center in 1993. Later in the 1990s, al-Gamaa al-Islamia launched a series of assassinations and terrorist attacks across Egypt that culminated in the Luxor attack of 1997, in which the group’s operatives massacred 62 people (mostly foreign tourists).

After Azzam’s death, Bin Laden and Zawahiri—the latter often characterized, with some justification, as the “brains” of al-Qaeda—presided over a remarkable expansion of global jihadist aspirations. Afghanistan-trained holy warriors dispersed to the four winds. They fought in Bosnia and Chechnya and lent support to the Islamist regime in the Sudan (where members of the Islamist camp had first joined the cabinet back in 1979). Muslim Filipinos returned home from the training camps in Afghanistan to found a revolutionary jihadi organization of their own, which they called Abu Sayyaf.

In Indonesia a veteran of the Afghan jihad named Jaffar Umar Thalib founded Laskar Jihad, a terror group that aimed to form an Islamic state in a far-flung corner of that sprawling country. Another Indonesian by the name of Riduan Isamuddin arrived in Afghanistan in 1988, where he also sought close ties to Bin Laden. Under the nom de guerre of Hambali, he later gained notoriety for his work as the operations chief of the Jemaah Islamiah, Indonesia’s most prominent militant Islamist organization. Aspiring to create a caliphate unifying the Muslim populations of Southeast Asia, he orchestrated a series of terrorist attacks that included the notorious Bali nightclub bombing of 2002, which took the lives of 202 people. Veterans of the conflict in Afghanistan also played an incendiary role in the brutal Algerian civil war that scourged that country in the 1990s, after the secular government annulled the results of an election won by Islamists. As many as 200,000 Algerians died in the fighting, which dragged on for years.

In Central Asia, still other alumni of the “University of Jihad” joined forces with the Islamists in the former Central Asian republic of Tajikistan, fighting on their side against ex-Communist secularists in another bloody civil war that tore that country apart in the 1990s. One of the men who participated on the Islamist side in that conflict went by the nom du guerre of Juma Namangani. Born in the Soviet Central Asian republic of Uzbekistan, he had fought in an elite paratrooper unit on Moscow’s side during the war in Afghanistan. The experience had radicalized him, transforming him into a zealous holy warrior. He was among the founders of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, arguably the first transnational Islamist guerrilla group to emerge from the former USSR. His soldiers fought on al-Qaeda’s side in post-9/11 Afghanistan. In this way, too, Moscow’s 1979 intervention in Afghanistan unleashed surprising demons.

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Media Manipulation, Poland, 1979

From Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century, by Christian Caryl (Basic Books, 2014), Kindle Loc. 4181-4218:

The Polish secret police, the SB, and its Politburo masters created a special operation called LATO ’79. (Lato means “summer.”) As archbishop of Kraków, Wojtyła had already spent nearly twenty years as the focus of a considerable intelligence-gathering effort by the SB as well as, intermittently, the KGB, the East German Stasi, and other East-bloc secret services. LATO ’79 drew most of its operational intelligence from seven moles who had served in the archbishop’s immediate entourage over the years. They included both priests and laymen; one of them, code-named JUREK, was a member of the church organizing committee. Every possible measure to limit the effects of the pope’s visit was considered. Tens of thousands of police would be deployed in the course of the nine days. The SB informants who were involved in trip planning were advised, for example, to express worries about safety wherever possible (in the hope that this calculated disinformation would reduce the number of pilgrims). No effort was spared. In the event, 480 SB agents were deployed during the four days the pope spent in Kraków during the visit.

Presumably because a large number of East German Catholics also expressed a desire to see the pope, the East German secret police, the Stasi, deployed hundreds of its own agents to cover the event. The East Germans even set up a special headquarters post on the Polish border to coordinate their operations. The famous Stasi master spy Markus Wolf had planted his own mole inside the Vatican, a German Benedictine monk whose identity was not even known to the Stasi man in charge of the operation.

The apparatchiks were especially intent on managing the media coverage. In the weeks leading up to the visit, official media issued a stream of warnings. People should stay away from the pope’s events, the government urged: chaos and hysteria were sure to reign, and spectators could almost certainly count on being trampled to death. Foreign reporters were charged exorbitant accreditation fees, which excited a great deal of angry complaint and undoubtedly boosted the country’s desperately needed hard-currency reserves. But it doesn’t seem to have kept many journalists away. Domestic reporters were easier to deal with. The party issued reams of carefully considered guidelines and talking points. TV cameramen attended special training sessions. Their instructors told them to avoid shots of large crowds. Instead, they were supposed to point their cameras toward the sky while leaving a few people at the bottom of the frame. Shots of elderly people, nuns, and priests were to be preferred; young people, families, and laypeople should be avoided. The idea was to make it appear as though the pope’s supporters were a marginal, backward bunch, and certainly nothing like a cross-section of society.

Meanwhile, the party was taking no chances. In the weeks before John Paul II’s arrival, the Polish police arrested 150 dissidents—including Adam Michnik and Jacek Kuron, one of the founders of KOR [Workers’ Defence Committee]. (A few weeks earlier a gang of toughs had attacked Kuron on the street and beaten him badly. No one was charged in the assault—a fact that suggested the complicity of the security services.) Another one of those detained was a Catholic activist named Kazimierz Switon, who was sentenced to a year in jail for the peculiar crime of attempting to set up an independent trade union. This was an intolerable offense in a country that claimed to be run with the interests of the workers at its heart. Surely, the dictatorship of the proletariat obviated the need for any new labor movements outside of the state.

But appearances were deceptive. In fact, by the end of the 1970s, the essential schizophrenia of life was firmly established. Publicly, officially, there was the Poland of Communist Party rule: a place of grandiose slogans, lockstep marches, and central planning. This nation coexisted with an alternative Poland defined by opposition-organized “flying universities,” underground publications from dissident groups like KOR, and the parallel moral universe embodied by the Catholic Church, long linked with the struggle to assert Polish nationhood. Poles of this era had grown up in a society were life was split into two parallel realms, the public and the private, each with its own versions of language and history. As in so many other authoritarian states, citizens of the People’s Republic of Poland learned from early on to parrot their allegiance to official ideology in public while keeping their real opinions to themselves and their families. Communist rule depended on ensuring that people persisted in paying public tribute to the official version of truth, thus preventing them from seeing how many of them actually rejected it. But what would happen when they were allowed to make their private feelings manifest, on a mass scale?

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Afghanistan in the 1970s

From Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century, by Christian Caryl (Basic Books, 2014), Kindle Loc. 997-1035:

Afghanistan in the 1970s thus offered a textbook example of what the economists like to call a “rentier state”—one that lives by exploiting the advantages of good fortune (natural resources or favorable strategic position) rather than capitalizing on the talents and skills of its people. There were deep-seated historical reasons for this. Afghan rulers had long governed according to a somewhat minimalist philosophy, dictated, to some extent, by the country’s bewildering ethnic diversity and its fantastically rugged terrain. Roads were few and far between. The high mountains and deep valleys fragmented the population, exacerbating differences of language and custom. When the Soviets finally completed the Salang Tunnel in 1964, the world’s highest traffic tunnel at the time, they supplied the missing link to a road that connected the northern and southern halves of the country for the first time in its history. The Americans, meanwhile, had already built the first east-west highway, from Kabul to Kandahar. This new infrastructure transformed Afghanistan’s economy and dramatically simplified the government’s ability to communicate with the interior.

Even so, the average Afghan’s dealings with Kabul remained shallow and infrequent. The primary function of the local administration was less to provide people with public services, few of which were available in the countryside to begin with, than to prevent them from organizing opposition. Most people correspondingly regarded officials as a remote and somewhat unnecessary presence, better avoided than engaged. American anthropologist Thomas Barfield, who conducted field research in Afghanistan in the mid-1970s, noted that, for most Afghans in the countryside, “government” meant not a concept but a place, namely, the local government compound. “On passing out its front gate, and particularly after leaving the road that led to it, ‘government’ ended,” he wrote. (And this, in turn, helps to explain why literacy rates in the country were so shockingly low. In the 1970s, only 10 percent of the population could read or write—and only 2 percent of women.)

The real power in most communities came from traditional leaders, usually tribal notables or landowners. The local khan might provide jobs, adjudicate disputes, or allocate resources (especially water, that scarce but vital commodity for this overwhelmingly rural population), and his authority rippled through the intricate networks of kinship that structured most of society. The leader’s followers judged his legitimacy in part according to his success at distributing wealth. In the old days, that might have meant the booty from battle, but in the 1960s and 1970s, this often translated into access to a cushy government job or a place in the university in Kabul. Afghanistan is often described rather loosely as a “tribal society,” but the reality is more complex, given the fantastic ethnic and social diversity of the place. The word Afghans use for the defining characteristic of their society is qawm, which can refer not only to networks of blood relationships but also to linguistic, religious, and geographical traits that shape the group to which an individual belongs. A Turkic-speaking Uzbek might define himself above all by the dialect that he speaks, a Persian-speaking Tajik by the district that he hails from, a Pashtun by his tribal affiliation.

If anything could be said to unite them all, it is religion. Virtually all Afghans are Muslims, most of them Sunnis. (The most prominent exception are the Hazaras, an ethnic group, descended from the Mongols, who happen to be Shiites.) Even in the 1960s and ’70s, observers often remarked upon the simple piety of the people in Afghanistan. All activity stopped whenever the call to prayer sounded from the local mosque. References to God and the Prophet punctuated everyday speech. Public figures were expected to invoke the supremacy of the Almighty at every turn.

Yet this did not mean that religion and politics seamlessly overlapped. Throughout their history, Afghans had known rule by kings, not religious leaders. Village mullahs, who performed a variety of religious services in exchange for fees, were often regarded as corrupt or buffoonish, the butt of jokes rather than figures of respect. There were, of course, some religious figures who enjoyed privileged status—Islamic scholars, perhaps, or pirs, Sufi spiritual leaders. But none of these individuals had any clearly defined institutional power over the others. The diffuse quality of Afghan Islam was also a product of practices that many other Sunni Muslims would have regarded as heterodox—such as the veneration of saints, whose graves, beflagged and decorated, were treated as holy places. In Iran, the Shiite religious elite presided over a clearly defined hierarchy, which greatly increased the power of the clerics. In Afghanistan, there were no central religious institutions to speak of. Islam was flat, localized, and fragmented.

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Sino-Soviet Pact, 1937

From Nanjing 1937: Battle for a Doomed City, by Peter Harmsen (Casemate, 2015), Kindle Loc. 546-565:

The Soviets had good reason to be circumspect. The alliance with Chiang was not based on ideology but was born out of a convergence of strategic interests. China was looking for a new source of overseas assistance, as Germany, its main foreign backer up until then, had shown itself to be an unreliable partner, gradually moving closer to Japan. The Soviet Union, on the other hand, saw a cynical benefit in supporting China’s war, as it would keep Japan too preoccupied to threaten its eastern borders.

This marriage of convenience had manifested itself in a Sino-Soviet non-aggression pact, signed in August 1937. The Chinese had wasted no time, and had sent a wish list of 350 planes—and pilots—to Moscow even before the agreement was inked. At the end of the day, the Soviet leaders opted for less ambitious aid, agreeing to 200 planes, in return for Chinese delivery of minerals essential for war production, such as wolfram and tungsten.

The Sino-Soviet friendship received support from a very unlikely source—British politician Winston S. Churchill. The Soviet envoy to the United Kingdom described how in a meeting Churchill “greatly praised our tactics in the Far East: maintenance of neutrality and simultaneous aid to China in weaponry.” This was for the best, he thought, since a more open backing of China would raise the specter of an expansionist Soviet Union, a lingering fear among many powers, thus making the situation easier for Japan and complicating the establishment of “a grand alliance” directed against Germany, Japan and other regimes. Intriguingly, even at this early stage, Churchill saw such an alliance as “the only means of saving mankind.”

Indirect aid didn’t mean an absence of risk. Russians would still be put in harm’s way and Rytov knew that. Later on the same day that he was told he would be going to China, he met up with another member of the coming mission, Pavel Vasilievich Rychagov, who had recently returned from a successful tour as a fighter pilot in the Spanish Civil War and had been awarded the Lenin Order twice for his service there. Together, they were briefed by Yakov Vladimirovich Smushkevich, the deputy commander of the Soviet Air Force. “The Japanese armed forces are technically superior to the Chinese,” said Smushkevich, who was also a veteran of the Spanish conflict. “The Chinese Air Force is a particular concern. Soviet pilots who have rushed to China’s aid are currently in Nanjing. They are fighting valiantly.”

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China’s Hopes for U.S. or Soviet Intervention, 1937

From Shanghai 1937: Stalingrad on the Yangtze, by Peter Harmsen (Casemate, 2015), Kindle Loc. 2002-2015:

At a deep cognitive level, there was a reason why Chiang Kai-shek and others around him wanted to believe that not just Soviet aid, but also direct Soviet participation in the hostilities was imminent. This was how they expected a war with Japan to pan out. The Chinese General Staff’s War Plan A, drafted in 1937, was based on the premise that a conflict with Japan would soon set off a larger conflict between Japan and either the Soviet Union or the United States. Therefore, the key aim for China was to hold out against the superior Japanese until it could be relieved by the arrival of a much more powerful ally, whether Russian or American. This plan was not as naive as it might seem, but was based on the calculation that neither Moscow nor Washington would want to see Japanese power grow too strong on the Asian mainland.

Some of Chiang’s commanders believed that it was partly in order to hasten outside intervention that the Chinese leader decided to make Shanghai a battlefield. It was true that Shanghai offered tactical advantages that the north Chinese plain did not, an argument that had been decisive in getting Chiang’s own generals to accept opening a new front there. However, these advantages would seem to be a small reward considering the risk involved in luring the enemy to occupy China’s most prosperous region. Much more crucially perhaps, Shanghai was an international city and a key asset for the world’s most powerful economies, who would not allow it to become Japanese territory, or so he believed. According to Li Zongren, one of China’s top generals, Chiang expanded the war to Shanghai because the importance of the city might lead to “mediation on the part of the European powers and the United States or even to their armed intervention.”

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Germans & Hungarians vs. Czechs & Slovaks in Siberia, 1918

From Dreams of a Great Small Nation: The Mutinous Army that Threatened a Revolution, Destroyed an Empire, Founded a Republic, and Remade the Map of Europe, by Kevin J. McNamara (PublicAffairs, 2016), Kindle Loc. 4818-4863:

WELL BEFORE THE revolt of the Czecho-Slovak Legion, on March 24, 1918, Secretary of State Lansing had warned Wilson that if reports of “German” POWs taking control of Irkutsk and other cities in Siberia are true, “we will have a new situation in Siberia which may cause a revision of our policy. . . . With the actual control by the Germans of so important a place as Irkutsk, the question of the moral effect upon the Russian people of an expedition against the Germans is a very different thing from the occupation of the Siberian Railway in order to keep order between contending Russian factions. It would seem to be a legitimate operation against the common enemy. I do not see how we could refuse to sanction such a military step.” Seen only as German or Hungarian, these POWS were believed to be affiliated with the Central Powers. Of course, the POWs were actually serving the Bolsheviks.

The size, composition, and combat role of the Internationalists were underestimated not only by contemporary observers in Siberia, but even later by scholars like George F. Kennan. His otherwise highly valuable work on revolutionary Russia downplays the role of the hundreds of thousands of Austrian, Hungarian, and German POWs fighting for Moscow, a result of his effort to dispel rumors that the POWs were being armed by Berlin. Kennan says, “there could not have been more than 10,000” armed Central Powers POWs and makes much of the fact that “there were relatively few Germans.” Basing his assessment on a flawed report by two hapless officers given the task of assessing the extent of the POW threat, British captain W. L. Hicks and American captain William B. Webster, Kennan concludes that “relatively few of these prisoners were ever armed and used,” which has since been disproven by much original documentation and by numerous other scholars.

The presence and influence of the German, Austrian, and Hungarian POWs astounded even high-level German officials in Berlin. In a December 5, 1917, report to Kaiser Wilhelm II, a German agent reported on the situation in Siberia following the Bolshevik coup:

Quite a number of different, independent republics have been formed. The latest of these, however, are the German Prisoners’ Republics. In various places where there are large prisoner-of-war camps, the German prisoners, finding that all order had broken down around them, took the business of feeding and administration into their own hands and now feed not only themselves, but also the villages around. The villagers are extremely satisfied with this state of affairs and, together with the prisoners, have formed something like a republican administration, which is directed by the German prisoners. This could surely be called a new phenomenon in the history of the world. Russia, even more than America, is the land of unlimited possibilities.

Captain Vladimir S. Hurban, an officer on the first legion train to cross Siberia, observed: “In every Soviet, there was a German who exercised a great influence over all its members.” On July 4, 1918, the US consul at Omsk, Alfred R. Thomson, had reported to Lansing, “In most places the chief strength of [Soviet] armed forces consisted in armed German and Magyar prisoners,” citing Soviet military leaders or entire Red units that were, in fact, Austro-Hungarian or German POWs in Omsk, Ishim, Petropavlovsk, and Irkutsk. Large Internationalist Brigades were established throughout Russia, particularly along the Trans-Siberian Railway.

The Danish ambassador was quoted in a Russian newspaper on April 19, 1918, saying, “The report that war prisoners in Siberia are being supplied with arms is not subject to doubt. The number of men thus armed is very considerable and the Siberian authorities compel them to go into action.” The many congresses of Internationalist POWs that were held in cities across Russia might have provided additional evidence of a mass movement of prisoners enlisting in the Red Army.

Admiral Knight at Vladivostok reported on June 26 that Major W. S. Drysdale, US military attaché in Peking (Beijing), “fully confirmed” reports of twenty to thirty thousand armed POWS fighting the legionnaires on behalf of soviets in Siberia. “Drysdale, who has heretofore minimized danger from war prisoners admits they have now gone beyond [the] control [of the] Soviets,” Knight telegraphed Washington. The threat posed by the POWs was relayed to Lansing by William G. Sharp, US ambassador to France, as early as April 11, 1918. However, historian Donald F. Trask notes, “The United States government tended to discount this argument after receiving reports from American observers in Russia which indicated no immediate threat of such activity.”

To the legionnaires it made no difference whether Berlin, Vienna, or Moscow was somehow arming the POWS. The hostility that Austrian and Hungarian POWs felt toward the Czechs and Slovaks preceded—by centuries—the hostilities that broke out between Moscow and the legionnaires. While the Internationalists were not under Berlin’s command, there were significant numbers of German, Austrian, and Hungarian POWs that did not merely menace the legionnaires, but actually fought and killed them. By May 1918 it hardly mattered to the legionnaires which government was arming their avowed enemies.

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