soviet union

Actually Missing the Soviets

Nikolay Cherkasov as Ivan the Terrible

Every once in a while at classically educated, we take a few minutes to think about stuff.  It generally isn’t our first choice of activities, but we can be bludgeoned into it.  One such episode happened when viewing one of Eisenstein’s classic films from the 1001 movies list: Ivan the Terrible.

The film itself is a two-part, four-hour monster, but it passes reasonably quickly despite that.  It has war, murder, betrayal, intrigue and all the good things that a movie needs in order to be a good piece of entertainment (talk about living in interesting times), and the Ivan the Terrible character reminded us a LOT of Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow.  It is a historical film packed with a heck of a lot of actual history.  And history, if you happen to be viewing five hundred years later as opposed to being in the middle of it, is quite diverting.

So the movie went past quickly, with a “highly recommended” verdict on the side.  You’d be hard-pressed to find CE giving Eisenstein that kind of a rating normally as his masterpieces, Battleship Potemkin and October, though innovative and respected are terrible as entertainment – propaganda films generally are.  But this one deserves the descriptor “eminently watchable”.

However, it’s what’s behind the film that makes one think.

Sergei Eisenstein

To me, Eisenstein’s life epitomizes life of Soviet citizens.  Being essentially himself, he was constantly in and out of favor as the political fads changes in the party.  His films were critical successes until they were criticized because they weren’t popular enough (a crime that, in the communist paradise, could entail an appointment with a firing squad).  The first part of Ivan the terrible won him a Stalin Prize, the second was suppressed until after Stalin’s death and garnered its creator a severe reprimand.

He was allowed to go on tour in the west for a brief period – but then had to face the distrust of his peers.

Ah, the Soviet Union…  We miss it.

Anyone who remembers the 20th century will be well aware that, back then, the Soviets were no joke.  They were a big, influential power that effectively dominated a good chunk of Asia and Africa, as well as Eastern Europe.  They had a big army, lots of very destructive atomic bombs and an utter lack of a sense of humor.  So it might seem that the world is much better off without it.

But after the fear-ridden years of the cold war, Communist Russia has not aged well.  Casual observers looking back are already beginning to scratch their heads and ask themselves: did anyone take these clowns seriously?

Yes, we did, but there’s plenty of reason for the wonder, and we have to admit that, had they not been so well-armed, we would have appreciated just how entertaining the Soviets were:

1) Minor points in doctrine, impenetrable to most outsiders, could get you turned from a hero of the Soviet Union into a traitor to the Soviet Union before you could blink.  Most people would look at communism and say “simple enough, no one owns anything, but everything belongs to everyone” possibly adding “let me know how that works out for you”, but not the Soviets.  They regularly killed each other over invisible shades of gray.  Killing Trotsky with a hammer in Mexico has to be counted among the more entertaining episodes of the 20th century.  That combo of brutality and style has to be admired.

2) They were insistent that everyone was happier there in the west, and that the walls they had to build to keep their population in were actually there because the leaders knew better than the people and were doing them a favor.  Also, shooting people attempting to flee was a favor: death was clearly a happier place than capitalism.  Like Cuba today pretending to be a socialist paradise, that took chutzpah, and one cannot help but admire them.

Soviet Union Monarchy

3) They had established a monarchy but barefacedly told the world that the proletariat weren’t just politburo serfs.  I can only imagine the kind of laughter that echoed in the halls of the Kremlin when they heard that some western activists wanted to align themselves with communism to gain “freedom” for the masses.  Hats off to them for the sheer barefaced humor.  The best practical jokes are always the ones where you wonder whether they might actually be serious.

The truth is that no major government in the world today would dare do the things that the Soviets did in the name of “human rights” and of “equality”.  Yes, there are some clown states like Venezuela or North Korea (although I think the North Koreans have long since given up any pretense of Marxism), but no one who gets taken seriously on a worldwide level.  The Chinese seem to have found an excellent balance between communism and capitalism in a difficult situation, and Western countries generally seem to vote socialist for a few years before realizing that losing even more personal freedoms and having your economy destroyed isn’t worth the supposed benefits in increased equality that are eternally just around the corner.

Today, you’ll only find that kind of lip service to obscure utopian principles in niche cultural areas.

But back then, the USSR waved its missiles around and acted like what it was doing was perfectly normal.  Since, by all accounts, the leaders of the country were reasonably stable hardened politicians, one must conclude that they were laughing at the rest of the world the whole time (well, except for Stalin.  Anyone with a mustache like that has to have been batshlt insane).

And if you didn’t like it?  They’d boycott your Olympics*!

Yeah, we miss them.

Operation Barbarossa

Battle of Stalingrad

Once more, we have been able to secure a post from the immensely knowledgeable Stacy Danielle Stephens.  This one is also a WWII issue, moving east in this case, and we’re delighted to present it!   As you will see, it’s also part of a work in progress – and a fragment of the “Barbarossa” chapter at that!  But it does induce thought, in and of itself, and we loved it for that reason.


When the German attack began, it was not yet midnight in New York, and only a quarter past eight on the West Coast.  The majority of Americans heard about it on the radio before going to bed on Saturday night, and didn’t read about it in the papers until Monday morning.

The United States Joint Chiefs of Staff advised President Roosevelt that the Red Army could be depended upon to resist the Germans for at least four weeks, although it would ultimately be destroyed, certainly within thirteen weeks, and more probably sooner than that.  Other than Joseph Davies (the former U S ambassador to the Soviet Union) and journalist Vincent Sheean, virtually no one outside the Soviet Union believed, in the summer of 1941, that the Red Army would survive the war, let alone that the Soviet Union would emerge from it victorious, becoming a world power in the process.

The consensus was that the Red Army had inadequate transportation and communication capacities, and was both poorly led and poorly equipped.  This assessment was drawn entirely from the events occurring on the Finnish frontier in November and December of 1939, when the Red Army’s amphibious assault on the south coast of Finland failed, while a million Soviet soldiers, bogged down in mud and lost in persistent fog, were unable to advance against the substantially outnumbered Finns, who were not only able to ski into the midst of Soviet formations, but able to ski out again within moments of inflicting very heavy casualties with very light weapons.  In addition, many Finns were wily enough to misdirect Soviet supplies to their own depots, and to draw rations from Soviet field kitchens.  But by the end of January, Finland was seeking peace terms, and by March, both the winter and the Winter War were over.

By and large, the presumption was that Stalin had forced the  Finns to sue for peace by pouring everything he had against them.  A more accurate observation was that expressed by German Lieutenant-General Dittmar.  The typical Soviet soldier was unusually resilient, and the Red Army had learned–and learned quickly–from its mistakes.  If these facts were brought to Hitler’s attention, he must have considered them irrelevant.


* * *

himmler's BMW

     Reichsfuehrer Himmler, speaking casually at an informal gathering of some higher-ranking Nazis, had recently quoted a Wehrmacht report in his typical pretentiously off-handed manner, explaining that the real object of Operation Barbarossa was to eradicate thirty million Slavic persons from the face of the Earth[1].  Himmler’s purpose in mentioning this was most probably to steel himself and his cohort for the work that lay ahead[2].


* * *


Although it was not reported at the time, Stalin went into something like a mild state of shock when he fully grasped the reality of the German attack.  Feeling that he had, in his own words, “fucked up,” he secluded himself for more than a week, finally offering his resignation to the Politburo.  Rather than have him arrested and executed, as he expected, they refused his resignation.  When he wondered aloud if he were able to lead the nation to victory, they insisted that he must, that no one else among them could.  With this, he began to recover, returning to his Kremlin office the next day.

On July 3rd, he addressed the nation.  Speaking softly and setting aside the usual Party claptrap, he simply reassured his people by calling on their love of country.  Strangely, perhaps miraculously, they responded.  It is, of course, preposterous to suggest that our world owes its existence to a sociopath directly responsible for more deaths then can be attributed to Hitler himself, and yet it is absurdly true that with nothing more than his pluck at the right moment, Stalin wrested the world from Hitler’s grasp, as had Churchill before him[3].



[1] The actual number of Soviet Citizens who died in the course of the war is believed to be twenty-seven million.  The precise number cannot be known.  Unlike the US Army, the Red Army did not collect identity information of battlefield casualties, and among the civilian population, it was customary to say nothing whenever a neighbor disappeared for any reason.  However, extrapolating from those instances in which precise losses can be documented will establish that twenty-seven million is an accurate estimate, and it can be ascertained that of the one-hundred-ninety-three million Soviet Citizens whose whereabouts were known in June of 1941, twenty-seven million–fourteen percent of them–were nowhere to be found by May of 1945.  While this figure cannot be meaningfully comprehended, it can be dramatically and effectively visualized by spelling out the word “RUSSIA” with Scrabble tiles, and then removing one of the tiles.

[2] The resettlement of ethnic Poles from Upper Silesia, West Prussia and Warthegau–portions of Imperial Germany unilaterally conferred upon Poland by the Versailles Treaty, then occupied by Germany in 1939 during the invasion of Poland and annexed into the New Reich–into the central swath of western Poland, in order to implement the repatriation of ethnic Germans from Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Bessarabia–regions that had arbitrarily come under the auspices of the Soviet Union, also in 1939–made it increasingly evident that Adolf Eichmann’s proposal that the Jews of Nazi Europe be corralled in the Easternmost area under the authority of the Third Reich–the western portion of central Poland–would be unworkable.

[3] On Saturday, October 25, 1986 at Shea Stadium, in the tenth inning of game six of the 1986 World Series, the Boston Red Sox were one strike away from defeating the New York Mets and winning the series.  In the bottom of the tenth, with two out, two on, and two strikes, Ray Knight hit a single, allowing Gary Carter to score.  Minutes later, again with two out, two on, and two strikes, Kevin Mitchell scored the tying run when a wild pitch to Mookie Wilson bounced away from catcher Rich Gedman..  A few minutes after that, still two out, two on, and two strikes, Wilson hit a grounder to first which bounced under Bill Buckner’s glove.  This error allowed Knight to score the winning run, forcing a seventh game, played on Monday night because of rain on Sunday.  The Mets won game seven, eight to five.

In essence, Stalin’s radio address of July 3rd was a base hit at a crucial moment.  There would be another forty-six months of war in Europe, and the first nineteen of those months would involve ceaselessly hard and desperate fighting for the Red Army and the Soviet Union.  But Hitler would never again be one strike away from retiring the Red Army.