The Destruction of Russia
By Ian Mitchell
Until the fall of Communism, the most popular version of Soviet history in the West was: ‘Lenin good (-ish), Stalin bad (no -ish)’. Communism was, many felt, a benevolent concept which was promoted by the idealistic, if occasionally thuggish, Lenin, but when he died it was turned into an unmitigated evil by Stalin, who was thuggish at all times and without any redeeming idealism.
Since 1991, with the partial opening of archives in Russia, it has become apparent, through the work of historians like Edvard Radzinsky and Dmitri Volkogonov, that Lenin was at least as bad as Stalin, in terms of his thuggery, and arguably less idealistic, since Stalin at least had the general goal of building up Soviet industrial and defensive power. Lenin destroyed everything and built nothing, whereas Stalin at least turned the socio-economic wreckage left by the Civil War and War Communism into a force which was capable, admittedly with Western help, of turning the Nazis out of the country after they invaded in the early 1940s.
Lenin did not have the apparatus of repression available to him which Stalin had. But the viciousness and violence with which he responded to even the slightest challenge to his authority seems to indicate that if he had had, he might well have used it as savagely (and counter- productively) as Stalin did. But that is speculation — at least it was until Sean McMeekin published the extraordinary book under review. In it he describes in minute detail how Lenin and his cohorts destroyed Russia in order to take power for themselves.
What is so interesting about Mc- Meekin’s approach to the subject is his primarily economic analysis — by their loots ye shall know them! This makes a refreshing change from tales of the Gulag and the Lubyanka. No one has yet made so careful a study of the Bolshevik’s economic crimes. Yet this story is central to any understanding of how the Communists killed Russia.
It is extraordinary to discover that Marxists, who operated on the axiom that economics determined everything, understood nothing whatsoever about the practical workings of an economy — any economy, whether capitalist or socialist. They really had no ideas in their collective head other than theft and destruction, plus arrest and murder for anyone who opposed them. If McMeekin drives one point home above all else, it is that the Bolshevik revolution was entirely negative. There was not a single redeeming aspect of idealism in the make-up of any of the major figures. Lenin was the worst of the lot.
Winston Churchill was one of the first to appreciate this. But even he, who wanted ‘to strangle Bolshevism in its cradle’, was only half right when he said of the Father of the Revolution: ‘His aim – to save the world; his method – to blow it up.’ The first part of that sentence, we now know, was nonsense. Lenin’s aim was to take power, keep it and to make sure the Russian people paid for everything he required in order to enslave them.
McMeekin starts by describing just how wealthy Russia was in 1914. Though a country with considerable economic problems, and burdened with a political regime which was medieval and inimical to progress, Russia nonetheless had the fourth largest industrial economy in the world, one which was growing at a rate of 8-9% per annum.
It was also the world’s largest exporter of food. It had Europe’s largest gold reserves — about 1,200 metric tonnes — due to running a continual trade surplus. The stock exchange was booming; agriculture was being modernized; and the arts and culture were all flourishing. It was a desirable place to be. McMeekin comments: ‘Russia in the last days of the tsars was a substantial net importer of both people and capital, a telling fact that, after 1917, would never be true again.’
In his Prologue, McMeekin poses the question his book aims to answer:
‘All this wealth taken together was the national patrimony of centuries… The riveting scenes of the Revolution, which saw desperate Russians selling priceless jewels and family heirlooms for food and fuel to survive the winter, would be repeated again after the collapse of Communism in 1991 — with one crucial difference. At the century’s end, in a crude measure of how badly the Bolsheviks had beggared the country, Russia’s dispossessed hawked not expensive jewellery, but ragged mittens and small handfuls of vegetables raised on dacha plots. It was an extraordinary fall: from world-famous opulence to subsistence agriculture in only seventyfi ve years. How did it happen?’
The short answer is that the Bolsheviks stole everything, then squandered it on armaments and their own comfort.
Lenin established a system whereby every item of value in the country was confi scated without compensation. This went from the gold reserves and the stock of rubles in the Central Bank, through to art treasures in public and private hands, and down to any items of value, like clocks, icons and silver spoons, which were held by individuals or the Church. Those family heirlooms sold on the streets were often disposed of simply in order to pre-empt the kommissars.
One of the most original parts of Mc- Meekin’s book is the long description of how all the money raised by selling this loot abroad was used for purchasing armaments with which to fight the people from whom it was stolen. Lenin made peace with the Germans at Brest–Litovsk in March 1918, then started trading with them, initially through sympathetic bankers in Stockholm. He bought pistols, machine guns, military uniforms, artillery, aircraft, trucks, field telephones, signalling equipment, locomotives and all the other apparatus necessary to wage war on his real enemy – the Russians.
Though the country was starving, the Bolsheviks bought food only for themselves — in fact considerable quantities of it. (Lenin also purchased spare parts for the Rolls-Royce he used, which can now be seen in the museum at Leninsky- Gorky.) The Red Army was the only well-fed group of people in the country, apart from the Communist leadership. The war, McMeekin says, was essentially a war for control of the food supply so that once the gold, roubles, art-works, jewellery and church silver ran out, the Communists could still feed themselves, courtesy of the now enslaved peasantry.
By this stage, even Lenin’s original power base in the urban factories had largely deserted him. McMeekin says that by the winter of 1919-20 only 2 percent of industrial laborers still belonged to the Bolshevik Party.
Why did the Germans co-operate? They did so because, McMeekin says, ‘they were blinded by anti-Allied rage and imperial greed.’ They had a dream of colonizing Russia with the aid of the Bolsheviks. Only Allied victory on the Western Front prevented that from happening.
Even after defeat, the Germans continued helping the Bolsheviks, right up to 1931. In that year, their government allowed the Soviet Union, now ruled by Stalin, to place orders worth $10 billion in today’s money for armaments to be used in the final showdown with the peasants during the collectivization of agriculture. The result was that ‘the Bolsheviks had imported enough German Mausers, machine-guns, and motorcars to ensure that resistance to Stalin’s collectivisation off ensive in the Ukraine could be suppressed with ease by army and secret police enforcers.’
Five months later, the Soviet Union, pleading poverty, defaulted on the bill for all of this, thereby getting it from impoverished Weimar Germany effectively for nothing, just at the time Hitler was emerging onto the political scene arguing that Bolshevism should be opposed rather than assisted.
Is it not legitimate to ask whether, in these circumstances, the Soviets themselves did not bear a small part of the responsibility for creating the public mood in Germany which made the Nazi revolution possible?
McMeekin’s extraordinary story perhaps explains something of the background to the fantasy thrillers written by Sergei Lukyanenko. Like many post- Soviet Russian authors, Lukyanenko sets his novels in a bleakly dystopian world — in this case an explicitly modern Moscow — where everyone in power is either a thief, a thug or someone with supernatural powers of the sort which are as far removed from ‘street’ reality of the other characters as the worlds of Lenin and Stalin were from the life of the toiling masses in the workers’ paradise.
Lukyanenko stared writing for money when he found that, after the collapse of Communism, he could not make a living as a child psychiatrist. Many critics think his experiences at the time helped to form his dark artistic vision. After publishing several books in the science-fiction and fantasy genres, he struck gold in 2004 when his book Night Watch, the predecessor of Day Watch, was made in to a film. It grossed over $16 million in Russia, a record at the time, and was later released in America.
Two years later, Day Watch was published in an English translation and a year ago, the film version was released by Fox Searchlight. It, too, has become a best-seller.
Sergei Lukyanenko, Arrow Books, 2007, paperback pp. 487, 625 rubles (Bukberi)
History’s Greatest Heist:
the Looting of Russia by the Bolsheviks Sean McMeekin, Yale University Press, 2009, hardback pp. 302, $29.64 (amazon.com)