This Day In History, 1941: Operation Barbarossa Commences

On June 22, 1941, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union. It was a decision from which Hitler would never recover, though he was too dumb to know it at the time.

German soldiers in the Soviet Union, June 1941. Source.

In Hitler’s defense (I never thought I’d write those words!), maybe the Soviet Union didn’t look so strong. I know the Germans thought it would collapse like a house of cards. Plus, Stalin had purged many of the competent officers in the Red Army, so I suppose it may not have been so farfetched to think this. Still, Hitler must have thought himself immune to the problems Napoleon experienced when he attempted to invade Russia. (If you need a refresher, things didn’t go so well for Napoleon, either. His failure in Russia contributed to his eventual defeat.)

Most importantly, Operation Barbarossa opened up the Eastern Front of the war, which ensured Nazi Germany would be fighting a war on two fronts. Obviously, this didn’t work out so well for them.

In addition to a military operation, the Nazis also sent the Einsatzgruppen into the Soviet Union as well. The Einsatzgruppen were death squads who shot people—specifically, unarmed civilians—in cold blood. There have been many academic works on the Einsatzgruppen and they make for grim reading. Richard Rhodes’ Masters of Death is the one that immediately comes to mind for me.

This post wouldn’t be complete without mentioning Hitler’s notorious Commissar Order, which ordered the immediate execution of any Soviet political commissars captured. The order also called for any prisoners who were “thoroughly bolshevized” to be shot as well. This actually made the Soviets fight harder—often to the death—because they knew they faced certain death if they surrendered.

I’ll leave you with a recording of an old Soviet song called Двадцать второго июня, ровно в 4 часа [On the 22 of June at 4 in the morning]. This song is about the Nazi invasion of the USSR. The song is basically about the Germans invading and the Soviet arising to defend their homeland. Despite my love for all things imperial Russia-related, I quite like this song.

A Century After the Russian Revolution, Will Putin Bury Lenin?

So reads the headline of an article published at Royal Russia last week. Here are some choice excerpts:

The embalmed corpse of Vladimir Lenin, whose seizure of power following the Bolshevik Revolution sealed the fate of the Romanov dynasty and ushered in more than 70 years of communist rule, lies on view in a squat stone mausoleum just outside the Kremlin walls.

Amid intermittent calls from Russians to put Lenin in the ground, Putin — who is often described as pragmatic — may have been weighing the possibility for years. And 2017, the centenary of the revolution, would seem like the time to do it.

For one thing, burying Lenin could drive home the message that revolution is bad.

He criticized Lenin last January, accusing him of planting a “time bomb” beneath the state and sharply denouncing brutal repressions by the Bolshevik government. Putin went further when he denounced Lenin and his government for brutally executing Russia’s last Emperor along with all his family and servants. “Why did they kill Dr. Botkin, why did they kill the servants, people of proletarian origin by and large? What for? Just for the sake of concealing a crime,” Putin said during a meeting with pro-Kremlin activists.

Others have gone further. Natalia Poklonskaya, a Russian lawmaker and former prosecutor in the Russian-imposed government of Crimea, lumped Lenin together with Hitler and Mao Zedong as “monsters” of the 20th century. And ultranationalist Zhirinovsky has called for Moscow’s Leninsky Prospekt — Lenin Avenue — to be renamed after Ivan the Terrible.

In a reference to the Bolshevik Revolution during his state-of-the-nation address on December 1, Putin said that coups invariably lead to “the loss of human life, casualties, economic decline, and misery.” He warned against “speculating on tragedies that occurred in nearly every Russian family” as a result of the revolution — a warning, at least in part, not to try anything like it again.

There’s more to the article, so you can go read it if you want. Also note that the reference of Natalia Poklonskaya lumping Lenin with Hitler and Mao was discussed on this very blog last year.

As for my personal opinion, Lenin’s burial is long overdue. I’ve despised the man for years. They should cremate him and scatter his ashes in an undisclosed location as was done to Hitler’s body after his suicide in 1945. If that was good enough for Hitler’s remains, it’s good enough for Lenin’s.

(Do I think this is going to happen? Honestly, no. But I can hope!)

Book Review: The Billion Dollar Spy

The Billion Dollar Spy: A True Story of Cold War Espionage and BetrayalThe Billion Dollar Spy: A True Story of Cold War Espionage and Betrayal by David E. Hoffman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a really fantastic book that tells the story of Adolf Tolkachev, a Soviet engineer who spied for the CIA and gave the United States hundreds, maybe even thousands, of technical documents pertaining to Soviet radar, military planes, weapons, and much more.

The book briefly traces the history of the CIA in Eastern Europe. At the start of the Cold War, it was very hard to recruit and run agents within the Soviet Union itself. Most of the assets spying on our behalf were doing so outside of the Soviet Union and were diplomats or intelligence officers working abroad. Eventually, this changed, and the CIA was able to recruit in Moscow itself. There was a setback during Jimmy Carter’s presidency, as the director of the CIA during this time placed more importance intelligence gained through technical means as opposed to intelligence from actual humans.

This was the environment in which Tolkachev approached the CIA. It took the poor man about a year to get the CIA to actually respond to his overtures for contact—but once they did, he produced an impressive amount of material. Originally, he hand-wrote valuable intelligence, either from what he’d seen over his career as an engineer or from documents he memorized, but the CIA quickly realized this wasn’t feasible long-term, so they supplied him with miniature cameras to photograph documents.

It wasn’t easy and he ran the risk of being caught many times, especially when he took documents home to photograph them. At one point, his wife discovered his spying and told him to stop, not because she liked the Soviet Union but because she was worried about the potential consequences for their family. In fact, Tolkachev’s hatred of the KGB and the Soviet Union stemmed from Natasha, his wife. Her family was murdered in Stalin’s purges in the 1930s and she was briefly reunited with her father when she was eighteen. He was released from a labor camp in poor health and told her everything: how Natasha’s mother Sofia was arrested and shot because she dared go visit family living in Denmark, a capitalist country, and how he refused to turn against Sofia, which led to his long sentence in the labor camp.

Tolkachev spied for many years, asking for payment in an escrow account he would have access to upon defecting, and also asked for everyday items that were hard to come by in 1970s and 1980s Moscow, including Western music for his son Oleg.

Unfortunately, despite the CIA and Tolkachev’s efforts to evade KGB surveillance in Moscow, Tolkachev was arrested, tried, and executed. His capture was the result of an internal betrayal; both Edward Lee Howard, a disgraced former CIA trainee, and Aldrich Ames helped the KGB identify him. He was executed in 1986. His intelligence helped the United States well into the 1990s: thanks to him, the United States was able to fight Iraqi pilots during Desert Storm since the Iraqis flew Soviet aircraft. Hoffman also emphasizes that the Tolkachev case shows how valuable human intelligence is, as there was no way to have acquired all this intelligence without having a source like Tolkachev.

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A Fascinating New Website: ‘A History of Russia in Photographs’

This link comes from Paul at the excellent Royal Russia blog, one of my favorite websites to read since it combines two of my favorite things (history and imperial Russia). There is a new website available called “A History of Russia in Photographs.” Now, the site is in Russian and I don’t see an English option, but you can still look at it even if you don’t read Russian. The first time you go to it, there’s a button you have to click on a little pop-up window welcoming you to the site. The button is brown and says Перейти к просмотру and if you click on it, the site loads. You can click on a year on the timeline at the top of the page and see photographs from that year.

This site looks really cool and I can’t wait to explore it further once I have some time this weekend!

Wednesday Music: Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7

It’s still Wednesday where I live, so I feel justified in calling this a Wednesday Music post. I know a lot of my European and Asian readers will read this on Thursday, but better late than never, right?

I chose today’s piece, one I am not very familiar with, because of its historical significance. You see, today, June 22, is the day that Hitler invaded the Soviet Union with Operation Barbarossa. Though he did not know it at the time, it was the beginning of the end of Nazi Germany. At first, the Germans made great headway against the Soviets, but the tide eventually turned against them.

Anyway, enough history. Here’s a bit about the piece, Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7 in C major, Op. 60.

  • Initially, this piece was dedicated to Lenin, but Shostakovich decided to dedicate it to the city of Leningrad (modern-day St. Petersburg) after the war broke out. It was a very popular piece in the Soviet Union and became known as a symbol of resistance against the Nazis.
  • The piece is in four movements and is Shostakovich’s longest. It takes a whopping hour and fifteen minutes to perform. I’ll understand if you don’t want to listen to entire recording I have below. 🙂
  • The symphony is frequently played at the cemetery where victims of the Siege of Leningrad are buried. The siege lasted nine hundred days and over a million civilians died as a result.

And on that somber note… here’s a recording of the piece. As you can see, it is quite long!

Or click here to see on YouTube.

A Tsar In Imprisonment

Last week, I posted about a photo of Tsar Alexander III and his family. In the photo is Nikolai Alexandrovich, the tsar’s son who later became Tsar Nikolai II (more commonly known as Nicholas in English). The photo I want to talk about this week also has Nicholas in it, but many years later, towards the end of his life. (It should be noted that he was in pretty good health at the time of his death and probably wouldn’t have died for many more years, had he not been shot in the head by a firing squad.)

Click to see larger.
Click to see larger. Source. Courtesy of Beineicke Library at Yale University.

In 1917, Nicholas made the difficult decision to abdicate the throne. Originally, he was going to abdicate in favor of his son, Alexei (pictured above in the photo), but since Alexei had health problems (he had very severe hemophilia, which could not be treated at this time) and he feared that the boy would be separated from his family, he abdicated in favor of his brother Mikhail, who was next in line to the throne after Alexei. Mikhail wanted no part of being tsar, though, and so he refused to take the throne.* After ruling Russia for three hundred four years, the Romanov monarchy came to an end.
Continue reading “A Tsar In Imprisonment”

Happy Victory Day! / С Днем победы!

You know what today is, everyone? It’s Victory Day over in Russia! On this day, the war with Germany ended in an Allied victory. (Technically it was May 8 in my country, but that’s just a technicality, right?)

I know what I’m doing when I get home from work tonight. I’m watching the Victory Day parade that’s broadcast from Moscow every year. I’ll post a link to the video later.

victory day 2016

С Днем победы, друзья!