All posts by Ben Wolfenstein

A Gangrenous Growth

A Soviet helicopter in Afghanistan



Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev called the conflict in Afghanistan a “bleeding wound which can result in gangrenous growth on the body of mankind” in a statement in 1988. Stagnant wars and conflicts are suffered by most aggressive world powers. Ancient empires such as Rome spread their resources so far that they could not control the outer edges of their empire and the focus on the wars with northern barbarians led to instability at home eventually ripping the empire apart. The British empire was stuck in a conflict with its American colonies for over 40 years until after the colonies had rebelled, won a war against the British, and formed their own state all the way until the War of 1812. The American Revolution inspired other British colonies to fight for their freedom and accelerated the governments shift toward constitutional monarchy. The U.S. lost international support during it’s extended war in Vietnam and again with the invasion of Iraq both of which (have) created unrest at home.

The Soviet Union’s foray into Afghanistan turned out much was similar to the above. In an attempt to conquer new territory, for socialism rather than previous empires quest for physical territory but the same as America’s goal of spreading democracy, the USSR got stuck in a war that nobody wanted a part of. The invasion of Afghanistan had no support internationally and was almost immediately condemned by the U.N. Soviet Secretary General Leonid Brezhnev and high Soviet officials wanted to stabilize a new socialist government in Afghanistan that was being attacked. That government had little support in the country and the Soviets found out that they were not welcome as the socialist revolution they thought was happening was not. Brezhnev would not back down from his goals in Afghanistan and the instability and leadership turnover after his death did not allow for the war to end.

A stagnant war with no victory in sight and goals that don’t directly affect people at home don’t end well. Soldiers always come home scarred physically or mentally, and many don’t come home at all, but the losses are accepted as necessary in a war that protects the homeland from invasion or destruction, such as WWII. But when young men die abroad, or come home missing arms, legs, and souls, asking ‘why are we fighting?’ and are answered with an ‘I don’t know’, those losses become unacceptable. The ‘I don’t know’ also doesn’t help with questioning why all the country’s energies and resources are being diverted to a war instead of helping citizens, the government loses support and dissenters creep out of the shadows. When Gorbachev rose to power, he knew this, and tried to figure out why the Soviets were stuck in Afghanistan and what the cost of the war was. As word came out of the intelligence misinformation and lack of any progress in nine years in Afghanistan dissent increased, assisted by Gorbachev’s policy of perestroika. Gorbachev pulled out Soviet troops in 1989, but the message had been sent: the Soviet Union was corrupt, mismanaged, broke, and could not take care of its citizens. In two years it would dissolve, caused by a combination of events, many that had a root in the invasion of Afghanistan.



Moscow to Sochi: The Legacy of the Russian Olympic Host



On February 7th, the Olympic Games will return to Russia for the first time since the 1980 Moscow Summer Games. Unfortunately, just like the Moscow Games, the Winter Olympics in Sochi Russia are surrounded with controversy. Amid the return of the Olympics, and some calls for a boycott, reminders of the boycott of the Moscow Games by 62 nations are everywhere.

On Christmas 1979, the Soviet Union went into Afghanistan in order to take control of a fledgling socialist government that “had little support from the population” (Invasion). The Soviets installed their own leader who executed the man he replaced. Because the socialist revolution in Afghanistan, headlined by secular policies, was not received well, neither were the Soviets, who rather than the stabilizing force Brezhnev believed they would be, were actually invaders who met aggressive resistance.

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was not taken well by not only the West, but also most of the Third World. In January, the U.N. condemned the invasion. And on January 4th President Carter threatened that if the Soviets did not leave Afghanistan the U.S. might not participate in the Olympics and on January 20th, on Meet the Press, he set a deadline of February 20th. If the Soviet military was still in Afghanistan at that time, the United States would boycott the Summer Games in Moscow. He proposed to the IOC that they change locations, postpone, or even cancel the Games, but if not, boycotting Moscow had support from most Americans. In April the decision came down from the U.S. Olympic Committee, under pressure from the Carter Administration, that the U.S. team would stay home for the summer. Carter hoped that more teams would join the Americans, de-legitimizing the Soviet government and their invasion of Afghanistan. Reminded of the legitimization that the 1936 Olympics gave Hitler, even with Jesse Owens win, the White House was joined in its push to boycott Moscow by British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. But the British Olympic Committee voted to go to Moscow against her wishes.

Among countries that joined the U.S. boycott were Canada, West Germany, Israel, Egypt, and Iran; although Britain, France, and Australia sent teams to Moscow. Pravda called the boycotting nations Olympic “enemies” asserting that Carter was holding the USOC and American athletes hostage to his politics while also blasting the organizational “failure” of the Lake Placid Winter Games earlier in the year (although they were probably just still bitter about Miracle on Ice). But the Moscow Games were not the success that the Kremlin had hoped. With the 62 abstentions, only 81 nations competed, and during the Opening Ceremonies 16 teams stayed in the Olympic Village rather than march in the Parade of Nations. The conflict in Afghanistan heightened security threats, leading to an Olympic village that felt more like “a prison camp than a residence for some of the world’s finest athletes” (Fimrite). In addition, two million Muscovites were forced out of the city and Soviet tourists were not allowed in for the duration of the Games. The Olympics usually bring massive foreign tourism to the host city and country, but less than half of the originally predicted tourists came to Moscow.

But the Games went on leaving only a slightly tainted legacy. Four years later the Soviet bloc would boycott the Summer Olympics in L.A. The Soviet military would remain a presence in Afghanistan until 1989, right before the USSR dissolved, making Carter’s goal of the boycott to get the Soviets out of Afghanistan a failure (possibly for the better since the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan was a significant factor in their downfall, then again it gave rise to the mujahideen). All the events sold out and athletes realized their dreams of representing their countries in the Olympics. Except for those of the 62 nations who boycotted, who worked their whole lives to compete in the Olympics and were not allowed to, leaving a ugly stain on the Carter Administration and the USOC.

This is what makes the possibility of boycotting the Sochi Games nonexistent. Criticism of the IOC on giving Sochi the 2014 Olympics is well founded. The city has a subtropical climate and the nearby mountains don’t get much snow, making the organizers jobs that much harder and this the most expensive Olympics of all time. But up to $30 billion of the $51 billion budget has mysteriously disappeared (organized crime is rampant in the former Soviet Union). And Sochi lies close to the Caucuses, people ethnically different from Russians but historically subjected to their governance, persecution, and invasive wars. The area has had a recent Islamic enlightenment that because of wars with Russia have led to a rising tide of extremism. The Olympics are a perfect target for terrorist attacks larger than the Chechen Tsarnaev brothers bombing at the Boston Marathon or the many attacks throughout Russia each year. The calls for boycott, however, stem from the recent anti-gay laws. Putin and the Duma have made it illegal to recognize “the mere existence of LGBT people in any public forum” and can give “two-week jail sentences for any tourist suspected of being gay” (Zirin). This follows a continuing national crackdown on the LGBT community and puts LGBT athletes(prominently gold medalist figure skater Jimmy Weir), coaches, administrators, and fans in actual mortal danger. How the IOC and Russian authorities will handle the imminent protests remains to be seen. Because the U.S. did not compete in Moscow, the protests of Soviet involvement in Afghanistan were limited, but the protests in Sochi could upend the Games, and in addition to all the other surrounding problems, these Olympics are shaping up to be a disaster that will make Moscow look like a model Olympics.


Sources: (list of non-participating countries)

No More Opium for the People


The Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow
The Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow


Marxism famously claims that “religion is the opiate of the people”. Communism was to have no religion. But while bringing Marxist theory into practice in Russia, Soviet leaders knew that the thin ice they walked on could break if they forced Soviet citizens to give up religion. Prior to the Soviet Union, Orthodox Christianity was an important part of Russian life. But by 1957, Khrushchev felt that the USSR was stable enough to take another step toward true communism.

The new policy, approved by Orthodox Patriarch Aleksii, attempted to merge existing monasteries together to bring the total number down, limiting their affect on surrounding regions. By 1959, 33 monasteries had been eliminated through mergers and another 29 were to be merged into other monasteries. During the second push of mergers, five Moldavian monasteries were to be eliminated. The first four were successfully closed, but when people in Rechulskii heard that the nuns were being forced out of the local monastery they revolted and prevented Soviet officials from transferring the nuns and closing the church for 11 days by surrounding the church armed with pitchforks. Eventually the monastery was closed and Soviet officials cited miscommunication for the holdup. But it showed that Khrushchev’s policy was not easy to enforce (Council for the Affairs)

Fears of increasing faith led to the 1961 law that took control of churches from priests and gave them to councils. The council were packed with communists who were able to force about 10,000 of the churches to close, about half of all existing Orthodox churches in the USSR. The campaign against religion heated up with the Party forcing priests to renounce their faith and made churches into museums and schools without warning. They also tried to replace the traditions and rituals of religion with “Soviet ritualism” and science. They replaced religious holidays such as Christmas and Easter with a celebration of Russian winter and Spring Day, respectfully. They also had picked certain personal milestones–such as first day of school, being drafted by the army, returning from the army, marriage, birthdays, funerals–to be celebrated in a Soviet way. Policy makers knew that these new traditions would not be accepted overnight, but by using new technology such as phonographs and TV, they could make these holidays and rites tradition for Soviet citizens in a few years.



Seventeen Moments: Fight Against Superstition.

Council for the Affairs of the Russian Orthodox Church, Report of mistakes committed in conducting measures to close monasteries.

Executive Committee of the Kostroma Regional Soviet, Secret. To all Chairmen of Town District Executive Committees.

Aleksandr Osipov, Letter to the Editor: A Rejection of Religion Is the Only True Path.

I. Kryvelev, An Important Side of Everyday Life.

The Arms Sprint



On August 29th, 1949 an explosion was watched by Lavrentii Beria and scientist Igor Kurchatov . The explosion, that of a Soviet engineered atomic bomb shocked the United States. Only four years before had the Americans revealed the results of the secret Manhattan Project. There was no way that the Soviets could have created a similar weapon so soon. In 1950, the trials of Soviet spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg,  David Greenglass, Harry Gold, and Morton Sobell began. The Soviet spy ring had given secrets of the Manhattan project to the Soviets allowing them to make themselves a nuclear power.

On August 12, 1953, just months after Stalin’s death, another massive explosion occurred watched by Kurchatov, Beria having headed the project before being removed from his post by Khrushchev and Malenkov. This explosion was 30 times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. And although the U.S. had tested a more powerful hydrogen bomb a year earlier, the Soviet bomb was of the original Soviet design of scientist Andrei Sakharov and Kurchatov. Known as the “Layer-Cake Bomb” it alternated layers of uranium and nuclear material to create an explosion much like the nuclear fusion that occurs inside stars.

The Soviet bomb was smaller than the American one and the U.S. answered it with more nuclear tests eventually dropping a H-bomb from an airplane over the Pacific in 1956. The nuclear arms race was in full sprint and the two superpowers could destroy human kind in a series of attacks. For the remainder of the Cold War, and most likely human history, nuclear proliferation remained, and will remain, a supreme diplomatic importance. Khrushchev conducted international affairs in this new world order and would put the world on the the brink of annihilation in the Berlin Crisis of 1961 and the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. The threat of a nuclear attack and the arms race would be defining parts of the Cold War.



Seventeen Moments in Soviet History:

PBS–Citizen Kurchatov Stalin’s Bomb Maker:

FBI–The Atom Spy Case:–This Day in History–Soviets Test “Layer-Cake Bomb”: –United States tests first hydrogen bomb –United States drops hydrogen bomb over Bikini Atoll




Communism was believed to be a worldwide revolution of the proletariat. This was something that was feared by capitalist countries and embraced by socialists. Lenin called for the workers of the world to unite, and expected capitalism in Europe to fall soon after the rise of the Bolsheviks. With this belief the new Soviet Union formed the Communist International, the Comintern, in 1919 which would organize communist revolutions around the globe. The Comintern made rules for communism that international communist parties would have to follow and set the communist platform.

The rise of fascism in the twenties and thirties garnered the attention of the Soviets and the Comintern rescinded it’s old decree that communists could not work with Social-Democrats and asked them to participate in any way necessary to defeat the fascists. Then Stalin signed the Non-Aggression Pact with Hitler and the Comintern was forced to change policy(Seventeen Moments). Upon the Nazi invasion of Russia in 1941, the Comintern went back to supporting the Allied war effort, but Britain and the U.S. were still wary of the Soviets.

In 1943 the Comintern was dissolved. It had lost popularity with its flip-flopping. And Stalin needed to gain the trust of Roosevelt and Churchill, which was impossible with a part of his government organizing a worldwide communist revolution (Freeze). In the official Comintern dissolution order, Communist Parties worldwide are asked to put all their attention into fighting the “Hitlerites” and frees them from the constraints of Comintern membership citing the different environments in each country that made it complicated to organize revolution from Moscow.

The implications of the dissolution of the Comintern are bigger than the dissolution itself. Stalin had preached communism in one country but the Soviets still ran the Comintern, showing their goal of worldwide communism. It led communist movements that would rise up from the workers in each country. Dissolving it implied that domestic communist revolutions were no longer a priority and set the stage for Soviet imperialism. After the war, Stalin formed the Communist Information Bureau, the Cominform, an organization of communist states. Designed to organize communist government’s policy against the West, it was dissolved after Stalin’s death (Seventeen Moments). Unlike the Comintern, it served as the basis for Kremlin control of puppet communist states.


Seventeen Moments: End of the Comintern.

Seventeen Moments: Presidium of the Executive Committee of the Communist International.

Seventeen Moments: Seventh Congress of the Communist International.

Seventeen Moments: Cominform and the Soviet Bloc.

Freeze, Gregory L. Russia: A History. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009. Print.

The Beginning of the Soviet Sporting Power

Soviet athletes march in May Day Parade
                               Soviet athletes march in May Day Parade


The Soviet Union was known for many things, one of which was elite athletics. While the Cold War raged, the Soviets and Americans did actual battle in the world of sports, mainly the Olympic Games where defeating capitalists in was a show of communist power and success. State sponsored athletic training in communist states was intense and created some of the world’s greatest athletes.  And this push for athletic excellence started with Stalin’s Russia in the 1930s.

In the 1920s-30s the Soviet Union insisted that its citizens be in great physical shape which would “increase labour productivity, prepare workers for defence, and inculcate habits of collectivism, good hygiene and discipline”(Keys). At first only non-competitive exercises, such calisthenics, were allowed because competition, and therefore competitive sports, were capitalist (Seventeen Moments).

But eventually the idea of competitive sports got a hold of Soviet leadership: “We compete everywhere possible. Why not compete in sport?” said Stalin (Keys). The communist order embraced competitive team sports as a way to show how collective groups working together could be successful. Sports clubs trained elite athletes and state sponsored spectator sports became popular. Soccer “commanded the throbbing hearts of mostly male fans” who rooted for teams affiliated with state entities, such as the Dynamo who were sponsored by the state police, then the NKVD and later the KGB(Seventeen Moments). FC Dynamo Moscow is still a popular Russian soccer team and the rivals of The Spartak Club, formerly sponsored by the meat packing industry. The rivalry is so heated that  in 1942 the NKVD chief sent the Spartaks three best players to a labor camp(Seventeen Moments).

The athletic achievements of Soviet citizens was extremely important to leadership and lauded in Pravda. As part of May Day athletes were celebrated as they marched through Red Square(Seventeen Moments). By 1934, the government had decreed that Soviet sport must defeat all Western bourgeois sport and the Soviets should hold all sports records. The state trained coaches, and brought in foreign experts, in order to be able to prepare their athletes. Soviet athletes competed against the best foreign athletes although they were not invited to the Nazi Olympics of 1936. And by 1937 the workers sports leagues had been superseded by the all important internationally competitive state athletics. The increased focus on athletics in the 1930s set the base for the “sports-race” of the Cold War and sports importance as a premier setting for Soviet patriotism(Keys).



Seventeen Moments

Barbara Key. “Soviet Sport and Transnational Mass Culture in the 1930s”.

The Tightfisted



Josef Stalin had a plan to end the New Economic Policy or the NEP. The NEP was not the socialism the October Revolution had promised. It was the safe bet in a time of transition and war, but it was based on capitalistic policies in industry and agriculture. Once Stalin took power, he vowed to change the direction of the communist state now a decade into its existence. This was known as The Great Turn and it was highlighted by Stalin’s pride and joy–The Five-Year Plan.

The Five-Year Plan ended the market practices of Russian industry that had continued under the NEP by centralizing distribution of goods to factories and controlling prices. Russian peasant agriculture was more difficult.  Since being freed from serfdom, land peasants had gone through some changes. Communal farming communities popped up but were followed by classification of peasants from the poor to the wealthy. The wealthiest of these, the kulaks, had their own land outside of the commune and hired others to work it. The wealth of these kulaks was not looked at too favorably by many–something Stalin would use to his advantage. But by the time of the implementation of The Five-Year Plan in 1929 the communal villages had mostly been dissolved and peasants owned their own land. Russia had trouble producing enough food however, because these small individual farms had limited access to technology. So Stalin collectivized the farms: taking all livestock, land, and machinery from the individual peasants and making them the collective farms property. Moscow would then introduce the new farms to more advanced farming technology in order to increase production.

This measure was good for the poor peasants, but the kulaks would have to give up all their wealth. They were already seen by the communists as class-enemies who saw themselves as higher than the rest of the peasants and workers and who were “exploiting” the rest of the peasants (Stalin). Stalin in his address to Marxist students said his goal was “eliminating the kulaks as a class”(Stalin). They had three choices: they could be moved to a house as part of their village’s collective farm, they could be moved to another collective  farm, or they could be put in a work camp(Freeze). The kulaks were resistant to the collectivization efforts but Stalin was determined to “break their resistance”(Stalin). The threat of being sent to work camps proved effective as did the executions of some kulaks that seemed a larger threat to the state. Because kulaks were so universally hated, Communist leaders labeled any resistant peasants as kulaks, thereby reclassifying them and turning the bulk of the country against those peasants while also threatening them with the work camps to force them to fall in line. Being labeled a kulak was such a terrible thing that Stalin’s war against individual farm owners was successful in the eyes of Communist leaders in Moscow although it wreaked havoc on those who were immediately impacted by it

Stalin address to Marxist students

Freeze, Gregory L. Russia: A History. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009. Print.

General Kornilov
General Kornilov

In August of 1917, famed Russian general Lavr Kornilov staged a military coup in the midst of World War I. Kornilov was upset at the Provisional Government, of which Alexander Kerensky had recently assumed power. The Provisional Government, lacking the authority to control all of Russia, had established a dual governance with the Petrograd Soviet. The country’s soviets, and citizens, were becoming increasingly radicalized and Bolshevik power was rising. In July a popular demonstration erupted led by workers and some soldiers that was beaten back by troops who were loyal to the Provisional Government. Public blame went to the Bolsheviks who supported the demonstrations but had not led them. Put that with the recent military revolt, and the unrest that was supposed to end with the abdication of the Czar hadn’t.

In step Kornilov, the Russian military’s commander-in-chief. To him the Provisional Government had become in danger of falling to the radical left. In a conversation with Kerensky it was implied that Kornilov should take power. But when Kornilov put a train full of troops on the way to Petrograd, Kerensky panicked and had the soviets organize a defense. The resulting armed workers were known as the Red Guard and they along with railway workers detained the train (as seen in this video excerpt . Within days Kornilov was in jail and the duality remained intact.

The derailment of his coup was only half of why the Kornilov Affair was a train wreck. The aftermath paved the way for the eventual October Revolution. Kerensky lost most of his power once it was found out the part he had played in Kornilov’s counter-rebellion. The formation of the Red Guard and their success in defending the government put power into the soviets hands like they had never had before. The soviets had a way to defend their vision by force which decreased the Provisional Government’s power even more. In the October Revolution, the Red Guard would be instrumental in seizing the Winter Palace and disposing of the Provisional Government and afterward defending the fledgling communist government in a civil war.




Seventeen Moments in Soviet History–1917: Kornilov Affair

Who was Father Gapon?

Father Gapon (wearing cross)
Father Gapon (wearing cross)

A blog post is not enough to answer that question, but I needed to find out some of the basics after hearing his name in class. I have studied Russia and the incident of Bloody Sunday multiple times since middle school, mostly in passing, but I had never heard that name until this past week. It seemed to me that in order to understand Bloody Sunday I needed to learn more about Father Gapon.

I read two New York Times articles one from August of 1905 entitled “Russia in Revolution–More Confessions of a Revolutionaire” in which featured an account of the events preceding January 22nd, 1905. According to records and witnesses, Gapon, who had been enlisted by the Ministry of the Interior to organize workers into peaceful meetings, had given into the rebellious voices in the workers meetings. He took a message to the Minister of the Interior requesting a meeting with Czar Nicholas II. When he went back to talk to the workers he told them that they would approach the palace peacefully but if need be fight the soldiers in order to speak to the Czar. He believed if it came to a fight many of the soldiers would take the protesters side and if the Czar would not see them that there would be a revolution.

How accurate is this account? According to Gapon he was not turned against the government at the very end. The New York Times published another article on February 18, 1906, more than a year after Bloody Sunday, “Gapon, the Hero of ‘Bloody Sunday'” a review of Gapon’s autobiography written when he was living in London. Gapon says he never was truly believed the current system in Russia worked. From the time he was a young priest he ignored the state controlled aspect of the Orthodox Church eventually causing the government to send him to a re-education camp. He was loyal to the Czar but wanted him to change the system. Unlike the account in the previous article, Gapon claims that he connected with the revolutionaries early on and organized them into a formidable group. This claim is matched in the Freeze text. Gapon’s account of the events of Bloody Sunday are interesting, including the fact that two policeman were shot trying to defend the protesters and the procession was led by a huge picture of the Czar, he stayed through several rounds of fire from palace troops, and it is common opinion that it is nearly a miracle that he got out alive. Through the bullets Gapon pleaded with his followers not to give up although many fled.

Any way you tell it, it is certain that Gapon’s actions led to the eventual demise of the Romanov dynasty and czarist Russia. A fitting quote from the review of Gapon’s autobiography that indicated the end for Nicholas II, after many shots were fired at Gapon’s peaceful procession the men around Gapon looked at each other and agreed “‘There is no longer any Czar for us!'”.




New York Times  “Russia in Revolution–More Confessions of a Revolutionaire”–


New York Times  “Gapon, the Hero of ‘Bloody Sunday'”–