Category Archives: USSR

Lenin’s Siberian Exile

From A Journey into Russia, by Jens Mühling (Armchair Traveller series; Haus, 2015), Kindle Loc. 2435ff:

Moscow, 23 February 1897. At the Kursk train station a young man is waiting for the Trans-Siberian railroad. Ahead of him lies a two-month journey that will end in Shushenskoye. The train compartment is cramped, but not half as cramped as cell 193 of the Petersburg detention centre, from which the young man has just been released. For the crime of disseminating revolutionary literature, Vladimir Ulyanov is to serve the remaining three years of his sentence in Siberian exile.

Compared with the subsequent nightmare of the Soviet camps, the tsarist system of exile is relatively comfortable. Members of the upper classes – Ulyanov comes from a land-owning family – can organise their lives in Siberia more or less freely. The young man takes up residence in a medium-sized country house. He receives mail by the bundle from revolutionary comrades, and he sends back equally large bundles. He buys a hunting rifle and an Irish Setter named Shenka. His neighbours regularly see the two stalking through the surrounding woods. In summer he bathes twice a day in the Shush, in winter he impresses the small town residents with the elegant momentum of his ice skating. ‘When he would skate over the ice with his hands buried in his pockets,’ recalls an admiring witness, ‘nobody could catch up with him.’

On the side, the young man finds time to complete a book that is later adopted into the canon of the holy scriptures of the Soviet Union: The Development of Capitalism in Russia, published in 1899 under the pseudonym Vladimir Ilyich Lenin.

The skates hang on the wall as if Lenin had just hung them up to dry. A great man with small feet, I think involuntarily. It is a quiet day in the former home of the revolutionary. There are six of us: the tour guide, a Russian family and me. The hunting rifle hangs on the bedroom wall, above the two beds in which Lenin and his wife slept. Nadezhda Krupskaya was arrested shortly after Lenin’s departure. When they banished her to the West Siberian city of Ufa, she asked to be relocated with her betrothed. The authorities gave their consent, but, as Lenin wrote to his mother, ‘under a tragicomic condition: if we do not get married immediately, she has to return.’

The wedding ceremony took place in Shushenskoye, in a small church that was demolished after the Revolution. Apart from the church, every single stone in the city has been preserved, even if Lenin so much as walked past it. On his centennial birthday, in 1970, the entire historical town centre was freed of inhabitants and turned into a pilgrimage site. Millions of workers were then herded through their redeemer’s place of exile.

Today, with the stream of pilgrims having subsided, the museum has a discernible public relations crisis. Self-consciously they have renamed the site an ‘Open Air Museum for Siberian Village Culture at the Turn of the Century.’ It is a curious place: a pilgrimage site which hides its saint so that the absence of pilgrims is not as noticeable.

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Who Gets Free Train Rides in Moscow

From A Journey into Russia, by Jens Mühling (Armchair Traveller series; Haus, 2015), Kindle Loc. 1585ff:

While I waited for the elektrichka back to the city centre, I read the announcements on the platform. My eyes were caught by a lit glass box with a notice inside: ‘Categories of citizens entitled to free and discounted transport on suburban trains.’ I read the list, read it again, read it a third time. What was hanging there under a flickering neon light was a compressed history of the Soviet Union.

– Heroes of the Soviet Union (free)
– Heroes of Socialist Labour (free)
– Participants of the Great Patriotic War (free)
– Family members of deceased participants of the Great Patriotic War (free)
– Former underage inmates of concentration camps, ghettos and other places of forced detention, with or without disability status (free)
– Persons awarded decorations and medals of the USSR for self-sacrificing work behind the frontlines between 22 June 1941 and 9 May 1945 (50% discount)
– Persons awarded the distinction ‘Residents of besieged Leningrad’ (free)
– Persons exposed to radiation as a consequence of the disaster at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant (free)
– Rehabilitated victims of political repression (100% discount)

For a long time I thought about the riddle that seemed to link the first category with the last: Soviet heroes rode the elektrichka free of charge, Soviet victims with a 100 per cent discount. I could not make sense of this nonsensical difference.

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Chornobyl, 988-1986

From A Journey into Russia, by Jens Mühling (Armchair Traveller series; Haus, 2015), Kindle Loc. 705ff:

The Yakushins were a family of priests. Nicholas’s great-grandfather had served in the Church of Saint Ilya, Nicholas’s grandfather as well. Then the Bolsheviks came. They hammered on the church door and cried: stop praying, Father; man has no soul. The grandfather did not agree: man, he said, most certainly has a soul, and it is immortal. The Bolsheviks detained the grandfather. When he was released, he was old. That was his good luck. He died early enough to escape Stalin’s terror, which hardly any clerics survived. The grandfather’s son, Nicholas Yakushin’s father, did not become a priest. The times were not right.

Nicholas was nevertheless baptised, secretly, at home, the way most Orthodox were. Those who baptised their children in the church had to reckon with work-related harassment. When Nicholas was born, shortly after the end of the war, the church was closed anyway; the local kolkhoz used it as a grain silo. Thus Nicholas got to know his forefathers’ church: filled to the dome with wheat. On the ceiling a besieged Christ faded away, his hands spread over the grain as if in self-protection, not in blessing.

The town of Chernobyl, or Chornobyl, in Ukrainian, is old, ancient, even if it does not look it anymore. None of the original buildings are left. First the Mongols razed the city; later came Lithuanians, Poles, Bolsheviks, finally the Germans. Today there are only a few wooden houses standing between the concrete blocks, none of them older than two centuries. But Chernobyl was founded at the same time as Kiev, and when prince Vladimir had his subjects baptised in the year 988, the citizens of Chernobyl were amongst the first Christians of the Slavic world.

To those for whom this past was still present – despite the futurist ecstasy of the Soviet period – it was no surprise that here, in Chernobyl, 1000 years after the Slavs’ baptism, time should come to an end, just as it had been proclaimed in the Book of Revelation:

The third angel sounded his trumpet, and a great star, blazing like a torch, fell from the sky on a third of the rivers and on the springs of water. The name of the star is Wormwood. And a third of the waters turned bitter, and many people died from the waters, because they had been made bitter.

This John wrote in Chapter 8, verses 10 and 11. But in Ukrainian ‘wormwood’ means: Chornobyl [lit. ‘black stalk’, Artemisia vulgaris ‘common mugwort, wormwood’, to distinguish it from the lighter-stemmed wormwood A. absinthium].

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Fate of Crimean Karaites

From Troubled Water: A Journey Around the Black Sea, by Jens Mühling (Armchair Traveller series; Haus, 2022), Kindle pp. 274-276:

History had taught the Karaites that it was better if the world didn’t find out too much about them. Tiriyaki took my pen and drew a tree in my notebook, its trunk forking into three branches.

‘Those,’ he said, pointing to the roots, ‘are the commandments.’

‘These’ – the three branches – ‘are the New Testament, the Talmud, and the Qur’an.’

‘This’ – the trunk – ‘is the Torah. Our only scripture. Karaites believe in the Jewish faith as it was when Jesus Christ was born and before other things were subsequently added.’

The Karaites had never accepted the Talmud. This had isolated them from all other Jews, who had never really known what to make of the Karaites. This had worked to their advantage in the Russian Empire – unlike other Jews, the Karaites had not been subject to restrictions on the professions they could pursue. A few of them had made large fortunes, especially in the tobacco trade. This wealth was visible in the old kenesa – the Karaite synagogue in whose hall I was sitting with Tiriyaki, a sumptuous religious complex with vine-draped colonnades, marble tombs, carved wooden interiors, and warm stained-glass windows.

When the Nazis invaded Crimea in the war, they didn’t know what to think of the Karaites either. Were they Jews? The Nazis commissioned an assessment by a Polish Jewish historian who, against his better judgement, declared the Karaites to be non-Jews, clearly to spare them the fate he would later suffer himself: he perished in the Warsaw Ghetto. His scheming paid off, however. The Nazis murdered the Crimean Jews but they spared the Karaites, whom they classified as a Turkic people.

Not long afterwards, the Karaites had a second stroke of luck. Their lenient treatment by the Germans could well have been a good reason for Stalin to have them deported alongside the Tatars, especially as the two minorities spoke very similar languages. Yet this cup too passed over them. For Stalin, the Karaites appeared to be Jews.

The kenesa in Yevpatoria had been closed down after the war, just like Crimea’s churches, mosques, and Jewish synagogues. The historic religious complex had been converted into a ‘museum of atheism’, and the outbuildings were used as grain silos. The community hall had become a nursery, which Tiriyaki had gone to as a boy, knowing full well that his grandmother had still been praying in the kenesa only a few years earlier.

There were now only a few hundred Karaites living in Crimea. Many had emigrated to Israel in the 1990s. The devout core of his community, Tiriyaki said, consisted of forty people.

We had been talking for less than half an hour when the old community leader began to give me signals that he’d said everything he was prepared to say. ‘If you have no further questions …’

But I do, I longed to cry, hundreds of them. Yet Tiriyaki’s expression was so forbidding that I confined myself to the central question whose insolubility had saved the Karaites’ lives twice. Where were they from? Were they a Turkic people that had converted to Judaism in the distant past? Or were they Semitic immigrants who had only become Turkicspeaking in Crimea? I knew that this matter was controversial among the Karaites too.

Tiriyaki stared at me impassively. His face was hard to read – not so much as the twitch of a muscle.

‘Origins are a card that politicians love to play. They are of no consequence to the faithful.’

He stood up and offered me his hand. I was already halfway to the door when he uttered a few final words as a send-off.

‘The Karaites lived here under the Tatar khans, under the tsars, the Soviets, the German occupiers, the Ukrainians, and now the Russians again. No one could drive us out. We are still here. That is all that counts.’

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Fate of Meskhetian Turks

From Troubled Water: A Journey Around the Black Sea, by Jens Mühling (Armchair Traveller series; Haus, 2022), Kindle pp. 34-36:

When he revealed to me on our first taxi journey that he was a Turok – that is to say, a Turk – I studied his face somewhat quizzically from the side. The skullcap; the pointy, hawklike face; the salt-and-pepper moustache; the gold teeth.

‘A Turk?’ I asked. ‘You mean, a Tatar?’

‘A Turk.’

‘Really? Türkçe konuşuyor musunuz?’

His answer in Turkish was fluent, unlike my stammered question about his language skills. Having taken a Turkish course in Berlin a few years earlier, I’d been capable of ordering a kebab quite fluently ever since. Pasha, on the other hand, had grown up in the language.

It took me a few taxi journeys to understand that he and his parents were Meskhetian Turks. That is, Georgian Turks – or Turkish Georgians, depending on your point of view. The Meskhetian Turks had lived on the southern margins of Georgia, close to Turkey, since the sixteenth century. Where they originally hailed from remained an unresolved matter that only attracted their neighbours’ interest when the Turks and Georgians along the border discovered nationalism. In Turkey, they were henceforth regarded as Turks who had emigrated and assimilated to Georgia, whereas to the Georgians they were Georgians who had adopted Islam and the Turkish language under Ottoman influence. And so, both the Georgians and the Turks claimed the Meskhetians as their own while also viewing them as a bastardised, second-class people of mixed heritage. In this sense, Pasha’s ancestors shared a fate with countless ethnic minorities in the regions bordering the Black Sea. They fell through the cracks in the mosaic of emerging nation-states, and it was not they themselves but rulers in distant capitals, irked by this melee of peoples on the margins of their supposedly pure nations, who decided to which state they should belong.

One aggravating factor for the Meskhetian Turks was that Ioseb Jughashvili – aka Joseph Stalin – though no fan of nation-states, was a partisan of good old Russian-style imperialism. Scenting an opportunity to annex border areas of Turkey during the Second World War, the Soviet dictator pre-emptively expelled the Meskhetian Turks from their homeland. In light of his plans, they suddenly struck him more like Turks who might just, who knows, feel more loyal to the enemy than to the Soviet motherland. Stalin was an advocate of simple solutions. Justifiably or not, the Meskhetian Turks were a headache. No more Meskhetians, no more headaches. They had to go.

Pasha’s parents were newlywed at the time. His father was twenty and his mother eighteen when, out of the blue, one winter’s day in 1944, soldiers came pounding on their door in the southern Georgian village of Zarzma. Along with over 100,000 other Meskhetian Turks, they were herded into cattle wagons that rolled eastwards from Georgia and only came to a halt several thousand miles later. Roughly a third of them died during their deportation or shortly afterwards from hunger, thirst, hypothermia, disease, or a broken heart. Ultimately, Stalin’s planned expansion into Turkey came to nothing, but the ‘leader of peoples’ had managed to purge his mind entirely of one.

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Greek Travails, 1949-2009

From Adriatic: A Concert of Civilizations at the End of the Modern Age, by Robert D. Kaplan (Random House, 2022), Kindle pp. 272-274:

The end of World War II brought not peace but a civil war lasting until 1949, between the Communists and the ultimately victorious right-wing loyalists, which resulted in 80,000 dead and 700,000 internal refugees. Because of the brutality on both sides, particularly against civilians, Greek politics would remain polarized for decades, divided between parties of the hard Left and the hard Right, so that a modern liberalism and a modern conservatism would find little room to emerge. Thus did Greece, abetted by its geography—as close to Moscow as to Brussels—become an ideological battleground of the Cold War.

Greece’s Cold War years were marked by weak governments as well as deep, internecine political divisions, which were further aggravated by the independence struggle on Cyprus, with its consequent calls for Enosis (or union) of the island with Greece. (Of course, this itself was an echo of the Great Idea.) In 1967, junior officers staged a coup, toppling the Greek government in Athens. This led to a particularly brutal seven-year military dictatorship in which the Athens “Regime of the Colonels” bore greater similarities to those of the Third World than to any government in Western Europe. The Colonels’ regime dissolved in 1974 after their failed political intervention in Cyprus led to a Turkish invasion and occupation of the northern part of the island.

It was only with the reestablishment of democracy in July 1974 under the conservative politician Constantine Karamanlis (who had returned to Greece from exile in France) that Greek politics began slowly—for the first time in history—to stabilize and achieve a modern, Western character. Greece, the birthplace of the West, finally reentered the West. This process was helped by the country’s admission to the European Economic Community (later the EU) in 1981.

Like membership in NATO, membership in the EU and Greece’s subsequent admission to the Eurozone represented purely political decisions on the part of the Western alliance. In fact, neither Greece’s bureaucratic institutions nor its economy was ever up to the standards of core-Europe and the West. Yet, it was felt (if never publicly admitted) that leaving Greece outside European institutions, given the country’s vulnerable geographical position and its long history of instability, would pose a greater threat to the West than bringing Greece inside them. As it turned out, the Greek variant of the Great Depression, in which the country was brought to its knees beginning in 2009 by widespread poverty, a dramatically declining GDP, and mass unemployment—leading to a far-left-wing government initially close to Moscow—was directly related to the country’s abject lack of preparedness for the rigors of the Eurozone. The Byzantine and Ottoman legacies of underdevelopment, while not determinative and always able to be overcome, still counted for something in Greece in the second decade of the twenty-first century.

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USSR vs. Japan, 1945

From When the Shooting Stopped: August 1945, by Barrett Tillman (Osprey, 2022), Kindle pp. 118-120:

The Far East blitz represented the acme of Russian military operations in the Great Patriotic War. An American historian properly described the Manchurian offensive as “a post graduate exercise for Soviet forces, the culmination of a rigorous quality education in combat begun in Western Russia in June 1941.”

Red Army losses in the 25-day campaign were 35,000 overall with 11,000 killed, while naval components added 1,400 casualties. In the Kremlin’s hard-eyed accounting, it was nearly a bloodless conquest of an immense, productive area.

Overall in the Far East, the Soviets captured 594,000 Japanese troops, including 143 generals and 20,000 wounded. Almost certainly the astonishing bag of general officers would not have occurred a month before, suicide being the preference.

Postwar Western figures placed Japanese losses at 674,000 including 84,000 dead. American intelligence estimated that the Soviets captured 2.7 million Japanese, two thirds of them civilians. Eventually some 2.3 million were repatriated to Japan, with 254,000 known dead and 93,000 presumed dead.

Of some 220,000 Japanese farmers established in Manchuria, about 70 percent reportedly perished, including perhaps 80,000 in the severe winter of 1945–46. More than 10,000 were thought killed by outraged Chinese, or had committed suicide. Presumably the surviving 140,000 eventually returned to Japan.

The Russians dismantled much of Manchuria’s industrial plant within three weeks of the war’s end, ceding the territory to the Communist Chinese. Thus, without realizing it, Moscow had set the stage for the next war, only five years downstream.

* * *

In the vacuum attending Japan’s defeat, Soviet forces entered Korea in mid-August, advancing southward to the designated 38th Parallel that would mark the boundary between Soviet and American occupation zones. The Russians lost little time exploiting their control over the area, especially since many Koreans welcomed an end to 40 years of Japanese rule.

In the north, Korea already possessed two military organizations: Kim Il-sung’s guerrilla force and the Korean Volunteer Army headquartered in China. The Soviets established headquarters at Pyongyang and almost immediately founded an air force academy.

Meanwhile, the Americans – thin on the ground in the south – planned to retain many Japanese for continuity of government. The reaction among South Koreans was stridently vocal, leading to a quick reversal by the U.S. administrators. However, frequently they consulted their Japanese counterparts, who naturally recommended Koreans who had cooperated with Tokyo. Two distinct Koreas were emerging and battle lines, however unwittingly, were already drawn for the coming Cold War.

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December 1941 Turning Points

From World War II at Sea, by Craig L. Symonds (Oxford U. Press, 2018), Kindle pp. 208-209:

None of the celebrating pilots aboard the six Japanese carriers could possibly have known that just the day before, on the other side of the world, Marshal Georgy Zhukov had directed a counterattack of half a million Russian soldiers against German forces outside Moscow. Before the winter was over, the Russians would push the Germans some two hundred miles to the west. Japan had joined the war at almost the precise moment that the German juggernaut was exposed as vulnerable after all.

However tactically successful, the Japanese raid on Pearl Harbor stands alongside Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union as one of the most reckless and irresponsible decisions in the history of warfare, and along with the Russian counterattack outside Moscow marked a decisive turning point in the Second World War. It brought the United States and its vast industrial resources fully into the conflict and galvanized American public opinion in such a way as to ensure not only an eventual Allied triumph, but what Roosevelt in his December 8 speech to Congress called “absolute victory.”

In view of that, it is easy to overlook the fact that the raid on Pearl Harbor was only one element of Japan’s grand strategy. In fact, the Japanese began to seize the southern resource area—the actual target of all their planning—at virtually the same moment their aircraft were crippling the American battle fleet. On December 4 and 5, as Nagumo turned his carriers to the southeast (and Zhukov assembled his divisions outside Moscow), Japanese invasion flotillas left Hainan Island, in the South China Sea, and Cam Ranh Bay, in Indochina, to steam southward into the Gulf of Siam. Even as the first plane lifted off from Nagumo’s carriers, a Japanese invasion force of twenty-one transports, escorted by a light cruiser and four destroyers, began landing soldiers on the north coast of British Malaya at Kota Bharu, just below the border with Thailand (formerly Siam). Ninety minutes later (as Fuchida’s planes were lining up for their attack run on Battleship Row), a second invasion force of twenty-two transports, escorted by a battleship and five cruisers plus seven destroyers, began landing soldiers at Singora Beach inside Siam, 130 miles up the Kra Peninsula.

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Latin America’s IMF Era

From The Penguin History Of Latin America, by Edwin Williamson (Penguin, 2010), Kindle pp. 576-577:

Essentially, Latin America faced an acute problem of governance after the debt crisis of the 1980s. The IMF had defined the main objectives of policy, which were to curb inflation, deregulate and privatize the economy, and service the foreign debt. But if the goals were clear, the means of achieving them were not. The crux of the problem was finding effective authority to see through the IMF reforms, but effective authority depends on legitimacy, which rests, in turn, on a consensus as to the founding principles of the state. And, as we have seen in this book, the inherent weakness of the state in Latin America lay precisely in a chronic inability since Independence to establish a lasting national consensus of this kind (see Chapter 9, pp. 374–7). All the same, the IMF required governments in these weakly based states to slash public spending and lay off huge numbers of workers in societies that were already the most unequal in the world. Even so, where one might have expected a return to the kind of revolutionary struggles or military dictatorships that marked the 1960s and 1970s, democratic politics endured in virtually all the republics throughout the 1990s and beyond.

The persistence of democracy was due more than anything to the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe in 1989–90, and then in the Soviet Union itself in 1991, bringing to an end the Cold War between the USSR and the USA. As a result of this collapse, Marxism lost its ideological force – Cuba was not regarded as a viable model in the 1980s and 1990s – but it also weakened the extreme right, which could no longer block social reform by inviting the US government to intervene in order to prevent Soviet infiltration into its ‘backyard’. Internal and external events thus drove Latin American politics towards a vaguely defined centre ground, but if the result was democracy, this was democracy that rested on a consensus of despair, for there was nowhere either for the left or the right to go but to the ballot box in order to try to fix the problems of the wrecked economies.

The question was how to induce electorates to swallow the medicine prescribed by the IMF. Governments had to consult the people to win some measure of consent, and electorates grown weary of inflation, violence and disorder did tend to consent to free-market reform in the 1990s. Voters were fed up with the empty promises and corrupt deals associated with traditional parties, so they tended to elect new or independent candidates to the presidency, as in Brazil, Peru, Colombia, Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, and even in Mexico after the ruling party had been forced to give up rigging elections. Many countries reformed their constitutions. In a few cases, such as Colombia or Chile, it was to strengthen democratic institutions by improving representation and accountability. In most others it was to maintain continuity of reform by allowing a president to serve additional consecutive terms. In others, notably in Peru (1993), it was to move towards authoritarianism, or even veiled dictatorship. ‘Democracy’ was still a fairly malleable concept in Latin America, too often permeated by more traditional practices such as patronage and clientship, caudillo-style personalism and electoral manipulation (see Chapter 9, pp. 346–9). Thus, in a few republics such as Peru, Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador, there emerged what has been termed ‘delegative democracy’, a new version of the old tradition of caudillo populism, whereby executive power was ‘delegated’ to a charismatic leader via the ballot box, giving him a mandate to override the institutional checks and balances represented by the legislature or judiciary.

The quest for effective authority was shaped by the complexion and recent history of individual republics, but problems of governance were critically affected also by the ebb and flow of the globalized economy, over which nation states had little control. During the years of international expansion – roughly from 1992 to 1998 – governments were able to carry out liberalizing reforms with considerable public backing, but the Thai devaluation crisis of 1997, followed by Russia’s default in 1998, created a backwash that spread unrest through Latin America until about 2002, cutting growth and overwhelming governments, some of which fell to furious protestors. (The period 1998–2002 became known as ‘the lost half-decade’.) However, when world trade expanded from 2002, most Latin American countries experienced an extraordinary boom in exports of oil, minerals and agricultural goods to the developed world, and especially to China, so problems of economic management tended to ease once again. Then in late 2008, the globalized economy lurched into recession once more after a massive banking crash in Wall Street and London, with consequences for political stability and liberal democracy that were hard to foresee.

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Chiang Kai-shek’s Soviet Bombers, 1938

From Storm Clouds over the Pacific, 1931–1941, by Peter Harmsen (War in the Far East, Book 1;  Casemate, 2018), Kindle pp. 116-118:

In January 1938, Russian pilot F. P. Polynin was still only a recent arrival in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, the de facto capital after Chiang Kai-shek had left Nanjing, and the Japanese invaders had still not got used to the idea that now they also had to fight the mighty Soviet Air Force. The 31-year-old officer’s squadron of high-speed, twin-engine Tupolev SB bombers was part of the Soviet aid that was beginning to trickle into China. On a cold morning shortly after New Year, his unit was put to the test with a difficult and dangerous mission into the heart of enemy country.

Polynin’s plane took off from the airfield before dawn, followed by 25 other bombers. Only they and a few other military personnel knew where they were heading: a Japanese air base near Nanjing, where a large number of aircraft had been assembled for a planned offensive. Secrecy among the Russians and Chinese had been tight, due to an all-pervasive fear of spies. The briefing of the crews had taken place behind closed doors protected by armed guards, to make sure no one was listening in.

The bombers crossed the Yangtze River under the dim light of the moon and reached their target just as dawn was breaking. The attack came as a total surprise to the Japanese. “Apparently they were still sleeping, because nothing was moving on the airfield,” Polynin wrote in his memoirs. “The Japanese aircraft were lined up as if for a review. Soon the bombs started falling. Fires broke out, and people were running back and forth among the flames.”

The operation went completely according to plan. Intelligence later showed that 48 Japanese airplanes had been destroyed in the raid. It was just one of many successes scored by the Soviet pilots assisting China in its desperate war against Japan. The aviators, part of the military aid to China promised in the wake of the bilateral Sino-Soviet agreement of the year before, had started making an appearance on the battlefield during the autumn 1937, and by 1938 their presence was of such a scale that it made up for some of Japan’s crushing superiority in the air.

A few weeks later, Polynin and his fellow airmen took part in an even more daring raid. This time the target was Formosa, a Japanese colony that the Chinese referred to by the old name of Taiwan. A total of 28 Tupolev SB bombers took off from Wuhan and crossed the narrow Taiwan Straits heading for the ocean north of the island. Once the aircraft had reached that area, they abruptly changed course due south, in the direction of Taiwan’s main city, Taihoku [= Taipei], and its military airport. Once again, Polynin was struck by the lack of preparation by the Japanese. “We could clearly see two lines of airplanes next to the hangars,” he wrote. “The enemy had done nothing to conceal the area. Obviously, he felt completely safe.” Polynin was in the lead plane, and releasing his bombs, he saw to his satisfaction one explosion after the other unfold like flowers in the middle of the airfield. The other planes followed suit, dropping a total of 280 bombs. Japanese anti-aircraft batteries opened up, but too late. All Soviet aircraft returned safely.

As time went by, Soviet pilots came to play a pivotal role in Chiang Kai-shek’s war effort. “We depended on the Russians,” a Chinese general said later. “Our pilots had been too brave at Shanghai. Our air force had been dealt too severe a blow.” The Russians were known for their courage and their devotion, spending most of their days in their cockpits, ready for take-off at seconds’ notice. Wherever they showed themselves in the big cities, they were treated as celebrities. In the countryside, they could not count on the same level of recognition. On the back of their jackets, Chinese characters stated: “I am a Russian. I am here to help you fight Japan.” It was a safeguard, perhaps even a life insurance, if they were shot down and parachuted down among suspicious Chinese peasants.

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