Dissidents not Welcome; but Environmentalists Tolerated

Sunset on Lake Baikai (Source: http://soviethistory.msu.edu/1980-2/cleaning-up-baikal/cleaning-up-baikal-images/#bwg185/945)

With 20% of the world’s freshwater supply, more than the Great Lakes combined, Lake Baikal is the greatest freshwater lake on the Earth. The Russians who settled in Southeastern Siberia in the 1600s understood the sanctity of Lake Baikal and worked with the natives to keep the area unmarked. This continued for most of the 18th and 19th centuries and the beginning of the 20th century.

Along came the Soviet Union and her marvelous 5-year plans. With all of its natural resources Siberia was extremely attractive to Bolshevik planners, they devised plans to take full advantage of the prosperous land. Unfortunately these plans banked on the theory that Lake Baikal and the surrounding area were too big and too vast to be polluted by anything. This theory, while optimistic, was not grounded in any type of scientific fact was religiously cited by the Soviet Union.

From the time of the 5-year plans on the Lake Baikal area was built up into an industrial paradise. Included in this industrial buildup was the Baikal-Amur mainline, large-scale lumbering, and, most importantly, Baikal Pulp and Paper Plant. This plant was built in the late 1950s and continued its high rate of production throughout the 20th century.

“Ever since they built the chemical factory here, all the fish have been giving black caviar.” Source: http://soviethistory.msu.edu/1980-2/cleaning-up-baikal/cleaning-up-baikal-images/#bwg185/941

Dissent in the Soviet Union was never looked upon with loving, or even understanding eyes., but one of the few places in Soviet life which some opposition was allowed was in the environmental arena.  The subject essay in Seventeen Moments in Soviet History states this fact with certainty, “Environmentalism provided a forum for ideas that were otherwise unacceptable in Soviet discourse. In the republics, environmental issues allowed nationalists to organize; and in Russia, it let national conservatives give voice to their concerns.” Environmental causes allowed Soviet citizens to act like citizens of a democracy, well at least a mildly oppressive democracy.  The civil society created by this opposition was one of the few opportunities for Soviet citizens to publicly question their government, and it was all because of the beautiful land they inhabited.




Russia: A History

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Give Me Cheap Meat or Give Me Death!

Train from the Novocherkassk Electric Locomotive Works. Source: http://soviethistory.msu.edu/1961-2/novocherkassk-massacre/novocherkassk-massacre-images/#bwg163/871.

On June 2, 1962 thousands of workers from the Novocherkassk Electric Locomotive Works left their positions at the factory and marched through the town to the local Communist Party to protest nationwide meat and dairy price increases.  This huge crowd was raging near the Communist Party building until the troops stationed in and around the building shot into the crowd.  24 workers died in the gunfire while many, many more were wounded.  Along with the 24 workers who died in the hail of gunfire seven more were executed after being charged with committing “mass disorders” and “banditry”.

These price increases were nationwide, but the only reported violent riot was in Novocherkassk.  As is noted in the post on this topic in  Seventeen Moments in Soviet History there could be many reasons for this interesting fact.  The most likely, in my opinion, is the abrasiveness of the factory manager, who was overheard saying, “If there isn’t enough money for meat and sausage, let them eat pirozhki with liver.”  This insensitive comment certainly fueled the fire and combined with his overall image as a ruthless taskmaster probably helped lead the workers over the edge.

The massacre also occurred under 4 supposedly wise Politburo members who had flown to Novocherkassk to oversee the situation.  All they were able to do is stifle any news reports of the shootings from being spread around the Soviet Union (hence no primary source Soviet press readings).  The news eventually leaked out, it always did, and was reported by Radio Liberty.  There was not a report of it in the Soviet press until 1988.

This unfortunate situation could have been avoided but it shows some of the flaws of the Soviet system.  By implementing impersonal, nationwide prices and policies the Soviets were not really able to tailor anything to local situations.  Also their belief that no stories would ever get out was laughable at best.  Furthermore, the fact that their leaders, the Politburo, hurt rather than helped the situation says all that is necessary about that body.


Further Reading:

Russia: A History

Seventeen Moments


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The Dacha Life for Me

Six-hundred square meters and a structure better described as a hut than as a house.  The majority of Dachas were humble at best, but they were mansions to the Soviet citizens lucky enough to have one.  Life in the Dacha world was the life most mid-20th century Soviet citizens dreamed of.  The ability to be away from the world, to have a small vegetable patch, and to have a place that was, more or less, your own was the dream for many Russians.

Dachas Outside Moscow Source: http://soviethistory.msu.edu/1956-2/dachas/dachas-images/#bwg144/799


Under Stalin these prime pieces of real estate were only for party elites, but once the Khrushchev era dawned the privilege of inhabiting a Dacha was opened up to regular people.  The trade unions were each allocated a certain number of dachas and they distributed them to their members in varying ways.

The chance to escape the dirty city air was an exciting prospect in and of itself, so the couple hours long ride on electric trains out to Dacha country were definitely worth it to Russians.  They saved all their weekly effort to care for the Dachas that were not technically theirs.  The care and time spent on Dachas was only less than the care for their children.  Even though the state technically owned all Dachas the people who were lucky enough to have their own Dacha treated them like their most prized possession.

The Dacha mystique was so strong that even when someone was under suspicion there was hesitation from the trade unions to revoke the Dacha.  Perhaps if the Soviet Union had given their people more things to feel personal responsibility for they may have been more successful as a country.

Dacha Painting by Mikhail Kozell Source: http://soviethistory.msu.edu/1956-2/dachas/dachas-images/#bwg144/797


Further Reading:



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Metro By the People for the People (or for Publicity?)

The Moscow Metro is one of the crown jewels of public transportation.  Today, as in Soviet times, it is a prime example of Russian workmanship, architecture, art, and engineering skill.

Example of the architecture found in the Moscow Metro. Source: The Guardian, “Celebrate the Moscow Metro’s 8th Anniversary in Pictures,” http://www.theguardian.com/cities/gallery/2015/may/14/moscow-metro-80-anniversary-city-history-in-pictures.

The idea for a Metro system was first pitched to Tsar Nicholas II in 1902 and one of the main goals of the system was to match, and hopefully out-do, the subway systems in London, New York, and Paris.  The system was finally approved and began construction in 1932 with much fanfare.  Josef Stalin saw it as a way to show off the power and excellence of his socialist nation.

The construction efforts were lead by Lazar Kaganovich and future leader of the Soviet Union Nikita Khrushchev.  Their success or failure would dictate the future of their political lives, and possibly their actual lives.  The publicity campaign surrounding the construction ensured that Stalin and his minions pumped all the necessary resources into this project.  Obviously both of the men succeeded and Khrushchev went on to lead the USSR.

The first line opened in 1935 to great fanfare and eventually it grew to the 12 lines it has today.  Many times people have remarked that the metro system is the most efficient, best part of Russia.  Now that may be an exaggeration, but it is known as one of the finest mass transit systems in the world.

Source: http://soviethistory.msu.edu/1934-2/the-moscow-metro/the-moscow-metro-images/#

The metro system was ostensibly built to provide good, cheap transit for Muscovites but it also was a publicity stunt for the Soviet Union.  Josef Stalin saw this as an opportunity to show the world what a socialist society could do and he jumped at the chance.  No matter the cost in people, time, or money Stalin was only concerned with the restige of the SOviet Union.


Further Reading:




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Koup d’Etat or Not

Following the July Days, Russia was in shambles; conflict at home and abroad had shattered all necessary government and societal structures and left the Russian people desperate for a solution.  Aleksandr Kerenskii’s Provisional government still existed but it was in no position to quell the Petrograd Soviet, let alone to deliver food or water to its people.  Factories and other businesses were shutting down because they could not handle the increasing levels of violence exhibited by workers who felt wronged.  The political and economic leaders of Russia were praying for an answer; and they got one in Gen. Lavr Kornilov.

Gen. Kornilov was appointed Supreme Commander of the Russian Armed Forces on July 18, 1917 after having become somewhat of a hero for his actions in World War I.  Captured early on in the the conflict he managed to escape from his Austrian captors and eventually led the Petrograd Military District in the June 1917 Russian offensive.  The Petrograd district was the only successful district during the offensive campaign.

Leaders of the centrist and conservative parties joined with business leaders and key military leaders to back Gen. Kornilov, believing he was the only person capable of saving the Motherland.  Kornilov agreed with these political and economic leaders, calling the coup a preemptive move necessary to stop the Bolsheviks, “The Bolsheviks are planning to stage an uprising in Petrograd between August 28th and September 2nd. … I can see no other way out than to transfer the power of the  Provisional Government to … the Supreme Commander,” (Kornilov Affair).

On August 27, 1917 Gen. Kornilov ordered the “Savage Division” and the 3rd Cavalry Corps to attack the Petrograd Soviet.  The attack was a miserable failure; mostly because of the lack of understanding between Gen. Kornilov, his staff, and the common soldiers, but also because of the Soviet’s extremely effective mobilization of the workers and soldiers of Petrograd in defense of the revolution.

Kornilov and his associates were all arrested by August 31, 1917.  The failure of the coup completely destroyed the remaining authority of the Provisional Government and boosted the Bolsheviks.  Gen. Kornilov’s attempt to become military dictator of Russia was not to be, and his attempted coup most likely allowed the Bolsheviks to take power quicker than they otherwise would have been able to.


hammer and keyboard in star - proletariat by worker



Kornilov Affair


Chapters 8-9 of Russia: A History by Gregory L. Freeze

Eisenstein: The Savage Brigade (1928)

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Terrorism or Revolution?

The 1905 Russian Revolution was either a fight for the freedom of the workers and peasants, if you were a member of either of those classes or a member of the intelligentsia, or a terroristic uprising bent on destroying the great Russian Empire, if you were a member of the ruling class.  This is not a situation unique to the 1905 Russian Revolution, throughout history self-styled freedom fighters have been considered terrorists by the governments they are bent on overthrowing.

On August 27, 1906 revolutionaries in St. Petersburg executed a series of attacks against government and military officials.  Gen. Min, a notorious commander who was well-known for his brutal tactics against the revolutionaries, and Premier Stolypin, the Premier of the Russian Empire, were attacked.  The Premier managed to escape harm but the General was killed (New York Times).

These types tactics were common for the revolutionaries of 1905 and still are for today’s terrorists.  These types of tactics are what make the question of whether people fighting in a revolution are terrorists or freedom fighters.  This argument is fought today in news and social media and this has brought a new dynamic to revolutions.  Personally I think this argument is an extremely important one to try to understand, but in the end some people will be completely stubborn in their views.  For example, the Palestinians are bad and the Israelis are good, or vice versa.  These are fights which shape our world and shaped early 20th century Russia.  In order to study Revolutionary Russia we do not have to pick a side, but we need to understand the different feelings of each side.


Further Reading

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The Beginning of the End: The Russo-Japanese War

In the picture below there are stacks and stacks of swords in the Zlatoust Armory in Zlatoust, Russia.  This picture was taken in 1910, after the treaty ending the Russo-Japanese War.  These two topics are only slightly related as I found this picture and then embarked on a quest to learn about the Imperial Russian Army around the turn of the century.  I ended up learning more than I ever had before about the Russo-Japanese War and what it caused.

Stacks of swords in the Zlatoust Armory. Taken by the Tsar's photographer.
Stacks of swords in the Zlatoust Armory. Taken by the Tsar’s photographer. Prokudin-Gorskii Collection, LOC. Permanent record can be found here: http://www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/prok/item/prk2000000789/

The Russo-Japanese War was a coming out party for one empire and the beginning of the end for another.  At the start of the conflict Japanese victory would have seemed somewhat ridiculous, but by the end it was the Imperial Russian Military that embarrassed itself.

The war began in 1905 and pitted two imperial powers bent on expansion against each other.  The outcome of this war changed the fate of both nations, which in turn changed the fabric of the international community.

For the Japanese Empire, victory in this conflict proved that they could be successful on the world stage and maybe, one day, join the ranks of world powers.  For the Russians this war was quite a different story. There were many significant battles (political, military, and diplomatic) that were fought in this war, but the most important thing this war did was further weaken the Russian monarchy.  Losing to the upstart Japan helped cause the Russian Revolution of 1905. This revolution highlighted the labor and class issues in Russian society which continued to be prevalent until the overthrow of the monarchy by the Bolsheviks.

In the context of this class the Russo-Japanese War is important because it was one of the triggers of the Russian revolutionary period.  A good resource for understanding this war in a global context can be found here.

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