Category Archives: USSR

Central Asia’s Land of Cotton

From Restless Valley: Revolution, Murder, and Intrigue in the Heart of Central Asia, by Philip Shishkin (Yale, 2013), Kindle Loc. 4701-4717:

Uzbekistan’s cotton troubles have a long history. In the nineteenth century, Russian imperial planners insisted the Uzbeks ramp up their cotton production to feed the commercial demands of the realm. At the time, Russia was importing a lot of cotton from the United States at a high cost. The newly conquered Central Asian plains, with their arid climate, provided an ideal setting for building a domestic cotton industry. Hundreds of cotton gins sprung up throughout the region. Deeming the local strain of cotton too crude, the Russians introduced an American strain whose longer fibers were better suited to producing fine clothes.

Aided by Russian financial incentives, cotton began to displace traditional food crops grown by local farmers and became the primary cash crop. A senior Russian colonial official “acknowledged bluntly that cotton was ‘the central nerve and main point of interest and concern of the local population. At the same time it is also the link connecting Turkestan with Moscow and the rest of Russia.’” Russian engineers built a railway line, in part to facilitate the cotton trade. The Russian push succeeded: in 1860, Central Asia supplied no more than 7 percent of cotton to Russian mills. By 1915, that figure had grown to 70 percent.

The Soviets continued the practice, and the obsession with cotton began to take its toll on the land. “Moscow turned Central Asia into a mega-farm designed to produce ever greater quantities of cotton. To this end irrigation kept being expanded beyond the capacity of Central Asian rivers, the soil exhausted by monoculture kept getting saturated with chemical fertilizers, the crops sprayed by clouds of pesticides and herbicides, and instead of fully mechanizing the production, cheap native labor was routinely used for harvesting the [cotton],” writes Svat Soucek, an eloquent chronicler of Central Asian history. In the waning years of the Soviet Union, fudging cotton-output figures gave rise to a wide-ranging corruption investigation that ensnared high-ranking officials both in Tashkent and in Moscow. The leaders of independent Uzbekistan continued the cursed agricultural model.

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Post-Soviet Status: “Respected Thief”

From Restless Valley: Revolution, Murder, and Intrigue in the Heart of Central Asia, by Philip Shishkin (Yale, 2013), Kindle Loc. 2402-25:

Kyrgyzstan is a very small country, so rumors and news have a way of traveling fast in the overlapping circles of the country’s movers and shakers who booze, gossip, and do business together. Out of that cauldron, Ibraimova fished out a troubling morsel of scuttlebutt: a contract to kill Sadyrkulov had already been placed with a notorious mobster named Kamchi Kolbayev, a baby-faced, thirty-seven-year-old Don Corleone of Kyrgyzstan.

Following a long Soviet criminal tradition, Kolbayev was the so-called respected thief, a crowned prince of jailhouse aristocracy now entrusted by his colleagues to rule a vast criminal empire according to an informal code of “understandings” that are ruthless but noble, as any bleeding-heart mobster will tell you. Respected thieves require official protection, or at least acquiescence, and Kolbayev’s rise up the criminal food chain coincided with the entrenchment of the Bakiyev regime and the elevation of [his brother] Janysh. Kamchi benefited greatly from the murder of a major competitor: Ryspek Akhmatbayev, the Robin Hood who once dominated the country’s criminal underworld, won a parliamentary seat, and died in a flurry of gunfire outside a mosque.

Kamchi fared much better. One November evening in 2008, crime bosses from across the former Soviet Union gathered in a fancy Moscow restaurant to discuss pressing business matters and anoint new respected thieves. According to a Russian newspaper account of the meeting, the guests included such colorfully nicknamed individuals as Basil the Resurrected, Hamlet, Railcar, the Ogre, the Little Japanese Man, and Granpa Hassan. Kamchi was there too, and his peers crowned the Kyrgyz as a “respected thief,” elevating him to the rarefied top rung of organized crime. The title, peculiar to the Soviet criminal underworld, denotes an eventful life lived according to a rigorous criminal code that prohibits any normal employment, prescribes utter disdain for law enforcement, and usually involves significant prison stints and elaborately coded tattoos. Very few criminals rise to the rank of respected thief, whose closest international equivalent might be the Italian mafia’s capo di tutti cappi. (The original Russian term, Vor v Zakone, is often translated as Thief-in-Law, which is confusing as it conjures a meddlesome mother-in-law.)

A couple of years after attaining the respected-thief status, Kamchi became big enough to land on the U.S. Treasury Department’s list of major transnational crime figures whose assets are subject to a freeze. The U.S. government identified Kamchi as a key member of the Brothers’ Circle (formerly known as Family of Eleven, and the Twenty), a multiethnic criminal group spread across the former Soviet Union and active in Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America. “The Brothers’ Circle serves as a coordinating body for several criminal networks, mediating disputes between the individual criminal networks and directing member criminal activity globally,” the Treasury Department says. Tagged by President Obama as “a significant narcotics trafficker” under the Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act, Kamchi serves as the Brothers’ Circle’s overseer for Central Asia, a principal staging ground for global trafficking of Afghan heroin.

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Presidential Transitions in Kyrgyzstan

From Restless Valley: Revolution, Murder, and Intrigue in the Heart of Central Asia, by Philip Shishkin (Yale, 2013), Kindle Loc. 2635-44:

The reign of President Bakiyev ended the same way it began, with a revolution and an exile. He fled, first to a large ceremonial tent in his home village in southern Kyrgyzstan, and then out of the country. Facing an irate populace, his brothers, sons, and cronies ran for the exits too, not all of them successfully. Bakiyev eventually settled in Belarus, at the personal invitation of the local dictator. The only two presidents Kyrgyzstan had known in its twenty years of independence ended up as outcasts and fugitives: one in Moscow teaching physics, the other in Minsk living in a forced retirement. Bakiyev, the hopeful product of the optimistically named Tulip Revolution, mutated into a villain so quickly that his allies didn’t know what hit them. “We got tricked like little kids,” Roza Otunbayeva, the perennial opposition leader who helped bring Bakiyev to power, told me shortly after she helped overthrow him. “He made all the right speeches back then.” During his five-year reign, nepotism and graft surpassed the excesses of the previous regime, while government opponents began to suffer suspicious deaths. In the words of Russia’s Vladimir Putin, the master of the one-liner, Bakiyev “stepped on the same rake” that had whacked his predecessor on the head.

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Eastern Troops Defending Normandy, 1944

From The Germans in Normandy, by Richard Hargreaves (Pen and Sword, 2006), Kindle Loc. 388-405:

Germany had suffered casualties nearing four million, three out of four of them on the Eastern Front. 1943 had been a punishing year in Russia. Since July alone, Germany had lost more than 1,200,000 men. The losses could not be made good. Even after stripping Italy and especially France, even after sending more than a quarter of a million men from the training schools, even after sending wounded men back to the front, the German Army in Russia still found itself more than 300,000 short.

Short of men in the east, short of men in the west, Germany turned to desperate measures to fill its thinning ranks. Hitler was convinced the rear areas, supply depots, offices and administrations would prove to be a rich source of untapped manhood. He ordered every division, every naval and Luftwaffe unit to comb out men who could be spared duties behind the lines so they could be sent to the front. But combing out the Wehrmacht could not solve all its ills. The losses had simply been too great. In 1943, the German military machine began calling up seventeen and eighteen year olds and relying more and more heavily on foreign ‘volunteers’: Volksdeutsche – ethnic Germans, born outside the Fatherland; Freiwillige – foreign volunteers sympathetic to the Nazi cause – and Hilfswillige or ‘Hiwis’ – auxiliaries, usually Russians or Poles pressed into military service from the occupied territories or recruited from the millions of prisoners of war wasting away in German camps. With the war turning against the Wehrmacht in the east, it was no longer safe to use anti-Bolshevik Russians on the Eastern Front. From the autumn of 1943 onwards, the High Command steadily began swapping German troops behind the Atlantic Wall for these so-called Osttruppen – eastern troops. By the spring of 1944, one in six infantry battalions along the Atlantic Coast was composed of Osttruppen and foreign volunteers – Russians, Poles, Italians, Hungarians, Romanians, Ukrainians among them. On the eastern coast of the Cotentin peninsula, 709th Infantry Division was typical of the second-rate divisions defending the west in 1944. One in five in its ranks was a volunteer from the east. Its commander, Karl Wilhelm von Schlieben, was sceptical. ‘We are asking rather a lot if we expect Russians to fight in France for Germany against Americans.’

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Defending “United Europe” on D-Day

From D DAY Through German Eyes – Wehrmacht Soldier Accounts of June 6th 1944, by Holger Eckhertz (DTZ History, 2015), Kindle Loc. 1032-49:

Did you have any personal animosity towards the Anglo-Americans?

My brother and cousin had both been killed in the East, at Kharkov, so my animosity lay more in that direction. Ironically, we had a large contingent of Russian troops with us on the Atlantic wall, who were defectors now serving in the German forces, but I had no real contact with them.

As for the English, my father had been in France in 1917 to 1918, and he confided to me that the English were surprisingly similar to us Germans in personal character, but that as a fighting force they were inconsistent, with many brave men but also a big element of shirkers and black market operators. Regarding the Americans, I think that most of us soldiers made a distinction in our minds between the American government, which we believed was a pawn of international finance, and the Americans as individuals. After all, we had all seen US films and magazines before the war, we had read about cowboys and heard jazz music, and all this was exciting and very attractive to us. But despite all this, we knew that the Americans too were intent on attacking France and destroying the unification of Europe under German protection that our leadership had achieved.

This is interesting. The phrase ‘Fortress Europe’ is still widely remembered today, I think, as part of Reich propaganda at the time, but you have reminded me that the phrase ‘United Europe’ was equally common.

Of course it was. Of course. ‘United Europe’ was a universal slogan. We should remember that both the Wehrmacht and the Waffen SS had huge recruitment campaigns in all the countries under Reich control, with the emphasis that people from all the countries of Europe should unite under arms and defend European unification. If we look at the Waffen SS, we see these very effective non-German units from all over Europe: the French, the famous Belgian-Walloon people under Leon Degrelle, the Dutch, Norwegians, the Croat Muslims with their ‘SS’ emblems on their fez hats, and so on and so on. There was a definite sense that Europe was united under the Reich, and an attack on France would be an attack on the whole structure.

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Projected World War II Casualties after Sept. 1945

From Tennozan: The Battle of Okinawa and the Atomic Bomb, by George Feifer (Ticknor & Fields, 1992), pp. 571-574:

American anticipation of the bloodbath [awaiting them when they invaded the main islands of Japan] was evident in the forty-two divisions they allotted to the invasion. Seven had fought on Okinawa.

The planners calculated the landing alone would cost a hundred thousand American lives. The full securing of the home islands was expected to cost ten times that number, or four times the combined losses of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. General MacArthur, whose estimates of casualties in previous battles had been uncannily accurate, made a careful study of the mainland operation at President Truman’s request and predicted one million men would be killed or wounded in the invasions of Kyushu and Honshu alone…. Final victory might easily cost more American casualties than in the entire war until then, in both the Atlantic and Pacific theaters.

The predictability of the [Okinawa] veterans’ renewed love of the bomb when they saw what it saved them from at mainland landing sites is no reason to dismiss arguments for its use. Of course it killed many people, but the equation, if there is one, must include the people it saved, to the extent that saving now seems likely and the number can be estimated. Although the American fighting men who cheered Little Boy and Fat Man did not care as much about others’ survival as their own, consideration of the larger issue must include possible Japanese losses.

The ratio of Japanese combat deaths to American was well over 10 to 1 on Okinawa. It might have been marginally different during fighting in the enemy’s heartland rather than on isolated islands, where Japanese garrisons were often cut off from reinforcements. Civilian deaths assuredly would have been much higher, if only because the mainland had many more civilians with a commitment to die for Emperor and country. The best estimates of probably total Japanese deaths in a mainland campaign are around twenty million; if civilian suicides and suicidal resistance had generated hysteria – a likely prospect in light of the experience on Guam [sic; Saipan?] and Okinawa – the toll would have been higher. The country would have been leveled and burned to cinders. Postwar life, including economic recovery, would have been retarded if Russia, a full Allied partner during the ground combat from 1945 to 1947 or 1948, would have insisted on dividing Japan like Korea and Germany.

Any estimate of lives saved by the atomic bombs must include hundreds of thousands of combatants and civilians in China, Manchuria and other territories still fought for and occupied, often viciously, by Japan. There would have been tens of thousands of British casualties among the 200,000 set to invade the Malay Peninsula – to retake Singapore – on September 9, a month after Nagasaki. Six divisions, the same number as at Normandy, had been assigned to that operation. It was expected to take seven months of savage infantry fighting, over half the time required to defeat Hitler’s armies in Europe.

The total number must also include European and Eurasian prisoners of the Japanese, chiefly from English, Dutch, and other colonial military and civilian forces. Okinawa was the most important prelude to the climax because its terrain most closely resembled the mainland’s, but non-Japanese elsewhere in Asia would have suffered even more during the new Tennozan. After the fall of Okinawa, Field Marshal Count Hisaichi Terauchi issued an order directing his prison camp officers to kill all their captives the moment the enemy invaded his southeast Asia theater. That would have been when those 200,000 British landed to retake Singapore, less than three weeks after the Japanese surrender. There was a real chance that Terauchi’s order would have been carried out, in which case up to 400,000 people would have been massacred. Even more were doomed to die soon after of “natural” causes. The Japanese treatment of their prisoners grew more brutal as the military situation worsened and their hatred swelled. Laurens van der Post, who had been a prisoner for more than forty months, was convinced that the majority of the half-million captives in the hellish camps could not possibly have survived the year 1946. Dying every day in droves throughout the summer of 1945, nearly all would have perished of disease and starvation in the months that followed.

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How Gorbachev Came to Power

From Revolutionary Russia, 1891-1991: A History, by Orlando Figes (Metropolitan, 2014), Kindle Loc. 4437-4453:

Who knows what would have happened if Andropov had lived longer. Perhaps the Soviet Union might have undergone a more gradual transition from the old command system, modernizing the economy without relinquishing political controls, as done by the Chinese, though one wonders if this could have been achieved given the extent of the Party’s opposition to de-collectivization, the key to China’s revival. As fortune would have it, Andropov became terminally ill with kidney failure only nine months after coming into power and died, at the age of sixty-nine, in February 1984. From his death-bed in hospital, he wrote a speech to be read out at the Plenum of the Central Committee recommending Gorbachev to succeed him. But the crucial paragraph was cut by the old guard in the Politburo, opposed to reform, who on his death voted to replace him with Chernenko. Within weeks of his appointment the 73-year-old Chernenko became terminally ill. The Bolsheviks were dying of old age.

Gorbachev bided his time—careful not to alarm the old guard by giving the impression that he might go on with Andropov’s reforms yet building his support in the Central Committee and increasing his prestige by trips abroad, where he impressed the British leader, Margaret Thatcher, in particular, on a visit to London in December 1984. Such impressions were important to the Soviet government, which needed Western credits and disarmament. They no doubt helped him make the deal with Gromyko, the Foreign Minister, by which Gorbachev agreed to promote him to head of state (Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet) if he supported him to succeed Chernenko as the Party’s General Secretary. It was the backing of Gromyko, a veteran Brezhnevite, that tipped the scales in Gorbachev’s favour in the Politburo vote on Chernenko’s death the following March. There was no battle for the leadership: the old guard simply stepped aside to let in a younger man.

The selection of Gorbachev was arguably the most revolutionary act in the history of the Party since 1917. Had the Politburo known where he would lead the Party in the next few years, it would never have allowed him to become its General Secretary. But at this stage Gorbachev’s intentions were still far from clear.

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