In Defiance of Fate (Part One) -The Republic of One Day: Carpatho-Ukraine

On March 15, 1939, the sun rose on the eastern slopes of the Carpathian Mountains, in the land known as Subcarpathia. A new day was about to dawn both literally and figuratively. For the eight hundred thousand-odd people living in Subcarpathia at the time, it would be their last day ever as part of Czechoslovakia. The area was about to experience an identity crisis of historic proportions. This remote land, a forgotten backwater, began the day as an autonomous region of Czechoslovakia. At lunchtime it was a newly independent nation, known as the Republic of Carpatho-Ukraine. By the next morning it was part of Hungary. Independence was fleeting, it did not even last the night. In just twenty-four hours, the population had been part of three separate nations. If given a choice, the majority of the populace would have preferred independence, but history was not on their side. The story of this land and its people’s geo-political situation over the past century is filled with fits and starts, false hopes and lost dreams. Independence turned out to be a dead end, but in the process, due more too historical accident rather than design, by the end of the 20th century, the region had received the next best thing, virtual autonomy. Through it all, in defiance of fate, the majority Rusyn population of the area retained a distinct identity.

Carpatho-Ukraine in March 1939

Carpatho-Ukraine in March 1939

Playground of the Powers: Great & Small
Carpatho-Ukraine is a beautiful, bucolic land. It contains the foothills and smaller mountains of the Carpathian range. The Carpathians are well known in Europe, but not the small slice that is part of Ukraine. The majority of the Carpathians lie further south in Romania, famous as part of Transylvania. This is a forgotten land, relatively unknown, with a modern history that is complex and confusing. Ukraine, roughly translated means borderland, and Carpatho-Ukraine, is the ultimate borderland in a border country. A quintessential frontier, it has been an appendage of empires and nation-states from time immemorial. In the last one hundred years it has been the playground of a withering array of political entities. These have included the Austro—Hungarian Empire, the Hungarian Red (Communist) Republic, Romania, the West Ukrainian People’s Republic, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, the Soviet Union and the Ukraine. It has been conquered and occupied, as well as autonomous and independent. Presently it is a province of Ukraine, but has a coat of arms and flag that is almost an exact replica of the one that was used when it declared independence.

The idea of an independent republic that could not even last a day seems to be an historical absurdity. Was Carpatho-Ukraine unworthy of nationhood? Was this an attempt to take advantage of a specific geo-political situation? This slice of the sub-Carpathians failed as an independent nation in 1939 because it was crushed by powerful geo-political entities carving up Europe to suit their own interests. Paradoxically it was only because of power politics that Carpatho-Ukraine was able to gain its independence, if only for one day.

Occupying force - a Hungarian soldier in Khust  (Credit: fortepan.hu)

Occupying force – a Hungarian soldier in Khust (Credit: fortepan.hu)

History As Opportunism: The Disintegration of Czechoslovakia
To understand, the situation Carpatho-Ukraine found itself in, one must understand what was happening to Czechoslovakia, the nation-state it was part of from 1919 to 1939. Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany first began to dismember Czechoslovakia by occupying the Sudetenland to “protect” the German population from the Czechs. Hitler and his henchmen were not the kind of geo-political players who could ever be appeased. It was not long before the Nazis wanted all of Bohemia and Moravia, the traditional homeland of the Czechs. In addition, Hitler had allowed Hungary to take the southern part of Slovakia, with its large Hungarian population. Meanwhile the rest of Slovakia had declared autonomy. Because of this, Czechoslovakia was being divided or perhaps more to the point, hyphenated. Its name was actually changed to Czecho-Slovakia, reflecting the virtual separation of Slovakia from the Czech portion of the state. Forgotten in the unfolding of this historical tragedy was a third, bit player.

The far eastern quarter of Czechoslovakia was known as Trans-Carpathia. It was neither Czech nor Slovak. Neither was it Hungarian, even though it had been part of the Hungarian portion of the Austro-Hungarian Empire prior to World War I. It contained a smattering of Slovaks, Germans, Hungarians and Jews, but two-thirds of the population was Rusyn or Ruthenian, a people who were akin to the larger Eastern Slav population of Ukraine. Eventually, perhaps inevitably they would come to be called Ukrainians and the land they inhabited as the Carpatho-Ukraine. Following World War I Ukraine as a political entity had failed. Thus, Carpatho-Ukraine was attached to Czechoslovakia in 1919. Fast forward two decades, with Czechoslovakia disintegrating, Carpatho-Ukraine declared autonomy on October 11, 1939. Five months later, on March 14th, as the Germans stormed into Bohemia and Moravia, and Slovakia about to become an independent nation, a Carpatho-Ukrainian parliament convened in the city of Khust. There they voted to become an independent republic.

Panorama of Khust, Ukraine - the capital of the Republic of Carpatho-Ukraine (Credit: Власна робота)

Panorama of Khust, Ukraine – the capital of the Republic of Carpatho-Ukraine (Credit: Власна робота)

No Man’s Land – Oppressors and the Oppressed
Within a few hours of this declaration the leaders of Carpatho-Ukraine fled into exile. The reason, Hungarian troops were already crossing the border. By the evening of March 15th a Hungarian force the size of two army divisions had invaded Carpatho-Ukraine. The new republic’s defense force, known as the Carpathian Sich, consisted of only 5,000 troops. By the next morning, Carpatho-Ukraine ceased to exist. It was now part of Hungary, despite the fact that less than ten percent of its population was ethnically Hungarian. Why did the Hungarians want this region? It allowed them a strategic wedge between Romania and Czechoslovakia (which ironically now ceased to exist). These states had dismembered “Historic” Hungary in the aftermath of World War I. Now the Hungarians were reconstituting their former domains. Amidst this geo-political morass were the Carpatho-Ukrainians. Their incipient state vanished into oblivion, their autonomy was gone. Nonetheless, a historic seed had been planted.

The Hungarians would come to regret their land grab. Although the Republic of Carpatho-Ukraine lasted less than a day, Hungarian rule over the area was also fleeting. Only five years later, in 1944, the Soviet Army came roaring out of the east. Many of the Hungarians and virtually all Germans in the area were either deported to the Gulag or murdered. Carpatho-Ukraine now became part of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic which was part of the Soviet Union. Thus, Carpatho-Ukraine became a constituent of a constituent republic. Interestingly, the idea of a Republic of Carpatho-Ukraine did not end on that fateful Wednesday of March 15th, 1939. It has had an intriguing after life, one that will be discussed in a coming blog post.

 

 

The Soviet Union: Fifteen Uneasy Pieces

With all the talk about Vladimir Putin trying to reconstitute the Soviet Union, it is only fitting that this effort to reverse engineer history comes from Russia. Many believe Russia was the Soviet Union and the Soviet Union was Russia. Those who confuse the two are both right and wrong. It is difficult to distinguish between the two entities. Perhaps it is best to say that without Russia there would have been no Soviet Union.  There still could have been a Soviet Union without a Ukraine or Belarus, the Baltics or Central Asian republics, but it would have been inconceivable without Russia. Even so, the Soviet Union beyond Russia was incredibly diverse and difficult to stereotype. The people and lands of these regions were integral to the Soviet state, so much so that they eventually helped bring this first communist empire to its knees.

Vladimir Putin & Mikhail Gorbachev - both products of the Soviet Union

Vladimir Putin & Mikhail Gorbachev – both products of the Soviet Union

A Soviet Jigsaw Puzzle
The Soviet Union was a multi-cultural state whose dominant majority was Russian, but it included a withering array of ethnic groups. This is to be expected from a nation that covered a large part of the Eurasian land mass, extending across eight different time zones. Most of these minorities lived in what were known as the Soviet Republics, though not all. For example, the Chechens, a Turkic people of Muslim faith, lived in the Russian part of the Soviet state.

Thus, even though the Russian Federative Soviet Republic (RFSR) contained 51% of the Soviet Union’s population, some of the 147 million people living in that republic were not ethnically Russian. To further confuse matters, there were no less than twenty-six Autonomous Republics at one time or another within the RFSR. One of the more significant achievements of the Soviet state was keeping all these disparate republics united under a single entity. This was mainly done through a highly centralized state utilizing violence and fear. Though this bonded the state together for a time, it turned out to be unsustainable in the long run. Nowhere was this truer than in the constituent republics of the Soviet Union.

Successor states to the Soviet Union - once republics, now nations

Successor states to the Soviet Union – once republics, now nations

Russia as the Soviet Union – A Geo-Political Oxymoron
Violence and fear could only go so far when it came to the fourteen other republics that made up almost half the Soviet Union. The majority ethnic groups in these republics were almost never Russian (Belarus being a notable exception), but their leadership largely was. For instance, future Soviet premiers such as Nikita Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev cut their political teeth running the Ukrainian and Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republics. Neither belonged to the majority ethnic group in the republic they were leading. Then again, Josef Stalin was a Georgian leading a majority ethnic Russian state. This shows that Russia as a pseudonym for the Soviet Union was always something of an oxymoron.

The fourteen other republics of the Soviet Union – besides Russia – made up 49% of the population. Some of these contained large ethnic Russian populations who were transplanted into the Baltic and Central Asian republics to Russify the population and counter balance nationalistic sentiments. One of the republics where this policy played a prominent role was Latvia. Prior to its incorporation in the Soviet Union during the Second World War, Latvians made up three-quarters of the population. By the time of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Latvians were a bare majority in their own land.

Lithuanians rally for independence in January 1990

Lithuanians rally for independence in January 1990

Little Lithuania Shatters the Soviet State
The Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia were the smallest of the Soviet republics and the last to be incorporated in the Soviet Union. One of them, Lithuania, started the chain of events which brought the Soviet system to its knees. Following the liberalizing reforms of the administration of Mikhail Gorbachev in the late 1980’s, an anti-Communist independence movement was voted to power in the Supreme Soviet of Lithuania.  In March of 1990, the representatives of this movement voted to re-establish the state of Lithuania. This was nothing more than a declaration of independence. The Soviet Union, led by Gorbachev, declared the Lithuanian’s actions illegal.

A Soviet economic blockade and sporadic violence followed. Nonetheless, this failed to halt the Lithuanian movement towards freedom and democracy. The Soviet Union finally recognized Lithuanian independence in September 1991. Tiny Lithuania had set the precedent, other republics soon followed. By the end of that same year the Soviet Union had vanished. 15 republics became 15 different nations. The map of Eastern Europe and Central Asia would soon be re-drawn. New lines cut across ethnic and geographical fault lines. A geo-political Pandora’s box had been opened. The yearning for freedom shattered the Soviet state into fifteen uneasy pieces.

The Dustbin of History – The Future of the Soviet Past
The gigantic Soviet state, the largest nation in the world at the time and one of the biggest empires in human history, was brought down by one of its smallest members. The big, bad empire had been felled by the forces of nationalism and democracy. There was nothing the Russians could do, because at the time they wanted the same thing. Only later would nostalgia grow for the Soviet Union. The nostalgia has mostly been a creation of Putin-led Russia. It is notable that despite the fact that Putin wants to reconstitute the Soviet Union, not one of the 14 former Soviet republics which became nation states has united with Russia. Nostalgia is not the quite the same as reality.

The differences between the Soviet Republics were much greater than their similarities. What would a Turkmenistani have in common with a Russian, let alone an Estonian? Would Moldovans have any interest in Kirghiz affairs? The dissimilarities were, as they still are today, seemingly endless. The fact that the Soviet Union existed as long as it did shows the unifying power of the Communist ideology. Once Communism lost its allure the Soviet Union was no longer able to defy logic. The Soviet state was relegated to the dustbin of history. It is likely to remain there.

 

The Mongols, Mohi & Hungarian History: Precursor & Predictor of the Future

You are unlikely to find the Battle of Mohi in any European History textbooks. Even in Hungary, where the battle resulted in cataclysm, it has fallen out of the historical consciousness. This is unfortunate because it was a defining historical event for the Kingdom of Hungary. The battle and its aftereffects were the beginning of several historical trends that would reoccur in Hungarian history. The battle itself was an unmitigated disaster. The Mongol Army under the command of Batu Khan used their mobile calvary to rout the Hungarian forces. Following the battle, the Mongols rampaged across the Carpathian Basin causing destruction on a tremendous scale. Yet within a year and a half they withdrew. Their legacy of conquest was short lived. The same could not be said for other conquerors of Hungary who in future centuries would set down deeper roots.

The Battle of Mohi - Historical Print

The Battle of Mohi – Historical Print

Mohi – Precursor & Predictor of the Future
The battle does not fit easily within the traditional Hungarian historical narrative. The early Middle Ages are ancient history to Hungarians. Prior to the Mongol Invasion, Hungary had experienced three centuries of successful state building in the Carpathian Basin. The Arpad Dynasty produced good rulers who created a regional power respected and feared by its neighbors. It looked as though Hungary might become the great power of Eastern Europe. This is largely forgotten due to invasions and occupations which further shaped Hungary.  Including the Ottoman Turkish occupation, Habsburg Absolutism, the dismemberment of historic Hungary at Trianon and Soviet imposed Communist rule.

Hungary as a successful flourishing state – which is certainly what it was before the Battle of Mohi – goes against the grain of today’s popular Hungarian historical narrative. Hungarians now understand their history as moments of greatness followed by luckless defeat. This was not really the case until the Battle of Mohi. The battle began a historical trend that would reemerge in the ensuing centuries: an ascendant Hungary cut down before it fully takes flight. Mohi is an illuminating event because it is reflective of Hungarian history.

Burial Site at Mohi In Eastern Hungary (Credit: Sebastian Mrozek)

Burial Site at Mohi In Eastern Hungary (Credit: Sebastian Mrozek)

Division & Conquest
Trend # 1: Political turmoil leads to disunity
In the years leading up to Mohi, the Kingdom of Hungary was rocked by divisions between the nobility and the king. In 1235, King Bela IV ascended the throne. Almost immediately he began to reverse the privileges that had been granted the nobility by his father King Andrew II. These privileges had included donations of vast estates to the nobles. They had also been given greater political rights which increased their power and weakened the throne. Once he took power, Bela IV began to re-confiscate the land which the nobles now saw as rightfully theirs. The nobles also tried to challenge the king’s authority, but Bela limited their political rights. They were not even allowed to petition him in person, they had to send written petitions instead. Bela had moved the Kingdom toward autocratic rule. He might have been able to get away with this, but as the Mongol threat grew on the eastern horizon, Bela IV suddenly needed the nobles to provide forces to protect the Kingdom, but they were now ambivalent. Their indifference would prove costly. This type of divisive political turmoil has been a hallmark of other Hungarian historical disasters.

Second Class Citizens – The Coming of the Cumans
Trend #2: Failure to assimilate foreigners
The Cumans were a tribe of nomadic warriors who had been pushed westward into the Carpathian Basin by the Mongol advance. The Cumans were good warriors. They were willing to fight with the Hungarians against the Mongols as long as they could settle in the country. Bela IV realized this was to his advantage. He allowed them to settle within the lands of the Kingdom. They were Christianized as well. Despite this, the majority of the populace would not accept them. This led to riots and infighting. Bela supported the integration of the Cumans since they bolstered his power. The nobles were embittered by his favoritism towards what they saw as nothing more than primitive nomads. This furthered the division and disunity prior to battle. The situation with the Cumans is indicative of the Hungarian attitude throughout their history towards foreigners in general. Other peoples may be allowed to live within the Kingdom (see the nationalities prior to World War I), but they were second class citizens. This us versus them mentality towards outsiders would have disastrous consequences not only at Mohi, but many more times for Hungary in the future.

King Bela IV - barely survived the Mongol Invasion and then led the rebuilding of Hungary

King Bela IV – barely survived the Mongol Invasion and then led the rebuilding of Hungary

The Second Founding
Trend #3: Victory From Defeat
Following defeat at Mohi, the Kingdom of Hungary was reduced to a wasteland by marauding Mongol forces. One-fifth of the population was killed and sixty percent of the settlements were destroyed. The Kingdom lay in ruins. Bela IV fled all the way to the Dalmatian Coast. He barely escaped with his life and throne intact. It could have meant the end of Hungary, but it led to a new beginning. Bela IV put a vast amount of resources into building fortified, hilltop castles. In a ten year period of rebuilding that began after the Mongols withdrew from Carpathian Basin in 1242, over forty castles were constructed. The Hungarian army was reorganized with heavy armored Calvary. The next attempted Mongol invasion met with defeat. The Kingdom recovered and was soon flourishing once again. This was an incredible achievement, so much so that Bela IV is now seen by many historians as the second founder of Hungary. His reign would last for thirty five years.

Rising From The Ashes
This type of recovery would be repeated several more times by Hungarians. The Ottoman Turkish occupation, the heavy hand of the Habsburgs and the imposition of Communism by the Soviet Union all changed the history of Hungary for the worse. Nonetheless, Hungarians have always found a way to make the best of a bad situation. They have managed to overcome invasion and occupation.  Even in disunity and defeat, they rise from the ashes and recreate their kingdom, their nation and their history.

 

The Quiet Concubine – Valentina Istomina: Stalin’s Housekeeper

Valentina Istomina was a quiet witness to history.  “Valechka” was the housekeeper for Joseph Stalin during his final eighteen years. Stalin, the prototypical totalitarian leader of the 20th century had few really close, personal acquaintances. This was by design. Stalin had overseen the arrest, imprisonment and murder either directly or indirectly of the majority of those close to him. Being “friends” with him was a lethal enterprise. He was brutal, cruel, controlling and highly suspicious of everyone he came into contact with, either via his professional (i.e. political) or personal life. His behavior and beliefs touched the lives of everyone from the lowest Russian peasant to immediate family members. He is most often portrayed as a malevolent, paranoid, mass murderer. That is most certainly true.

Valentina Istomina - Housekeeper for Joseph Stalin

Valentina Istomina – Housekeeper for Joseph Stalin

Invisible Woman – Always There, Hardly Noticed
There is at least one notable exception to the common portrait of Stalin. At least one individual was intimately familiar with his private affairs. A different perspective on Stalin comes from his relationship with Valechka, who dutifully served him for many years. She would remain a part of Stalin’s intimate circle up to the final moments of his life. A biographical sketch of Valentina Istomina is difficult. Though she was present in Stalin’s life throughout the most notable historical events in the Soviet Union during the final two-thirds of his reign – the Great Terror, the Great Patriotic War, Yalta and Potsdam – she seems to be almost invisible. Always there, but hardly noticed. This was most likely the main reason she was able to serve Stalin for so long without fail.

Valechka did not involve herself in politics in any way. She was never a member of the Communist Party. Her personality was submissive and simplistic. She knew her role and kept to it. Her looks were typical of a Russian woman from the countryside, plump, but not fat, busty, but not voluptuous, a woman not a diva. From all accounts she was pleasant, practical minded and good natured. She blended in well, almost to the point of anonymity. Her presence was rarely noted and even less discussed. She was less concubine and more of a companion. She asked for nothing while being left to do her job. This she did well.

Kunstsevo - home of Joseph Stalin from the 1930s until the end of his life

Kunstsevo – home of Joseph Stalin from the 1930s until the end of his life

Loyalty Above All Else – In The Service of Stalin
Valechka first served the Stalin household as a maid beginning in the early 1930’s. In 1938 her career received its biggest boost when she was made head housekeeper at Stalin’s home in Kuntsevo. This is where Stalin would spend the majority of his time outside the Kremlin in the later years of his life. Here Valechka would take care of his clothes, meals and private quarters. She also took care of his physical needs as well. Little if anything is known about any romantic interactions between them. Here was Valecka’s greatest quality, to always remain not so much behind the scenes, as part of the scene.

One can only imagine the conversations she overheard, but never divulged. Secrets were something to be ignored. They would get in the way of her duty, which was day after day of unfailing loyalty to this terrible man’s private affairs. Did she understand what Stalin was up to, the extent and scale of his crimes? Did she silently and tacitly commiserate? This was blind loyalty to the point of ignorance. She was privy to thousands of secrets that never passed from her lips. We do not know, we will probably never know, what she thought, felt or believed during all those years.

Interior of Kuntsevo Dacha - just as Valechka liked it

Interior of Kuntsevo Dacha – just as Valechka liked it

As In Life, As In Death – Tears of Sorrow
We do know what Valechka felt when Stalin died. In her autobiography, Stalin’s daughter Svetlana tells how when Valechka “came in to say good-bye. She dropped heavily to her knees, put her head on my father’s chest and wailed at the top of her voice as the women in villages do. She went on for a long time and nobody tried to stop her.” This horrible dictators’ life was over, but Valechka represented a feeling that was experienced across much of the Soviet Union. She was heartbroken, as were millions of others. This is hard to believe, but that makes it no less true. He was a monster, a horrible man, but he was their monster. For Valechka he was her beloved. In his life, Stalin had caused countless tears of sorrow among his enemies, real or imagined. In his death, he caused tears of sorrow, to the one who had known him best. Everything with this man, including his most private affairs was a tragedy.

Accidental Subversion: The Awakening of Svetlana Stalin

The control of information is critical to any totalitarian society. Propaganda plays a large role in shaping the views and prejudices of the populace. Nowhere was this truer than in the Soviet Union. The Soviet citizenry was bombarded with highly suggestive images, text and sound through a variety of methods. These included art, television and radio that warned about “enemies of the state” both internally and externally. The people were brainwashed into believing that anything other than Communist orthodoxy was subversive.  Just as important as the creation of ideological conformity within the state, was the need to keep out information from abroad.

Joseph Stalin with his daughter Svetlana in the 1930s

Joseph Stalin with his daughter Svetlana in the 1930s

A State of Paranoia – The Soviet System
This could be highly dangerous to the ruling clique. It might possibly show the Soviet people that their society was not nearly as advanced as professed by its own propaganda. Even worse, it might shed light on the backwardness of communism. They were supposed to be creating a new society, not a degenerate one. Nonetheless, the lack of free expression, the sublimation of the individual to the state and a capricious system of justice was enough to make even the most unthinking person feel that something must be wrong. The Soviet Union was highly paranoid, and for good reason. It rested on an uneasy foundation, of control, disinformation and terror. This was most apparent in the hardline Stalinist system that ruled the nation from the late 1920’s up through the early 1950’s. Fear and terror were critical for system cohesion. It was a world where justice was turned on its head, wrong was right and everyone was a possible enemy. Any Soviet citizen could find themselves in prison, the Gulag or even worse if they so much as said the wrong thing or were found with subversive materials in their possession.

For those who lived in free and democratic societies, the paranoia engendered by the Communist system seemed absurd. What in the world would it matter if someone had an English language book or expressed a dissenting opinion? If Communism was so mighty why was it threatened by subversion, especially subversion from the relatively mundane? Yet the hardline communist would have told them that ideas matter, that knowledge truly is power and both must be subject to total control. No one believed this more than Joseph Stalin. He set up the prototypical totalitarian system and then ruled over it for twenty five years. Thus it is quite ironic that Stalin, try as he might, ended up having one of the great secrets of his family life exposed by the failure to control information from abroad. The influence of the foreign was something he guarded the entire Soviet Union against, yet he could not keep such an influence from his own daughter.

The unhappy couple - Joseph Stalin & Nadezhda Alliluyeva

The unhappy couple – Joseph Stalin & Nadezhda Alliluyeva

A Turn For the Worse – The Suicide of Nadezhda Stalin
Stalin’s daughter, Svetlana was the product of his second marriage to Nadezhda Alliluyeva. During her youth in the 1930’s, he displayed a warmth and love for Svetlana that he had scarcely, if ever shown to anyone else in his life, including Nadezhda. Svetlana was the one ray of light he allowed into the world of darkness he had created and dominated. Yet as with everything else with Stalin, darkness loomed on the horizon. This darkness was the suicide of Nadezhda, which had occurred in November of 1932. Svetlana was only six years old at the time. No one, especially her father ever told Svetlana that her mother had died of suicide. The official announcement claimed that the death had been caused by appendicitis. In truth, Nadezhda had shot herself with a pistol.

As the story goes, on the fateful night when Nadezhda killed herself, she had been insulted by her husband. He had spoken to her in a very harsh manner, humiliating her in front of friends and colleagues. To make matters worse, he also flirted with another woman. This sent Nadezdha over the edge. She had always been fragile, moody and given to wild swings in emotion. Armchair psychologists believe she may well have been bipolar. Whatever the case, she exacted an eternal revenge on Stalin by killing herself. Reports from those closest to him, state that he was in shock for months afterwards. His behavior in the years that followed became even more brutish and cruel than before. Despite the shock to his system, he continued to pour adoration on Svetlana for the rest of her adolescent years. He would continue to treat her with loving kindness. It was only during the latter part of her teenage years that their relationship took a turn for the worse.

Nadezhda & Svetlana - Love and Fate

Nadezhda & Svetlana – Love and Fate

Accidental Subversion – The Awakening of Svetlana Stalin
One of the most significant turning points in Svetlana’s life occurred in 1942. She was only fourteen at the time. As with all the Communist elite’s children, she was heavily involved with school.  They were given first class educations. This included access to information and creature comforts that the rest of the Soviet Union could only dream about. Part of such an education included learning a foreign language. For Svetlana this meant courses in English. To supplement her studies, as well as out of curiosity, she would read magazines in English. This would have been unheard of for any other Soviet citizen. Even having such a publication in your possession could result in a sentence to the Gulag. This was subversive literature full of dangerous ideas. No one knew this better than Joseph Stalin, who sat at the top of the Soviet hierarchy. He was the master of control, except for, in this case, control of what his daughter read. While reading one of these publications, Svetlana and her world, changed almost instantly.

As she recounted in her autobiographical book, Twenty Letters to a Friend, “I made a terrible discovery that winter. I used to read English and American magazines like Life, Fortune and the Illustrated London News, both for the information they contained and to practice reading English. One day I came across an article about my father. It mentioned, not as news but as a fact well known to everyone, that his wife, Nadezhda Sergeyevna Alliluyeva, had killed herself on the night of November 8, 1932. I was shocked and couldn’t believe my eyes….The whole thing nearly drove me out of my mind. Something in me was destroyed. I was no longer able to obey the word and will of my father and defer to his opinions with questions.”

The Limits of Control – The Truth (Eventually) Comes Out
Here was the beginning of a precipitous decline in the relationship between father and daughter. It would eventually leave them estranged for long periods of time. Stalin had been correct. There was subversive literature in the west. It was subversive because it told the truth, in contrast to his lies and evasions, the silences and secrets he kept from everyone, including Svetlana. Of course, it was not just Stalin who had kept the truth from Svetlana, it was also family and friends. Nonetheless, ruling over all of them, just as he ruled over the Soviet Union was Josef Stalin. He controlled their lives, but there was a limit to even his mighty control. This was a man who engendered fear and also lived in fear. He feared that the truth would be told. Eventually Svetlana stumbled upon the truth and her discovery changed the relationship between daughter and dictator forever.

Deep In the Woods of Lithuania – Plokstine Missile Base: A Secret History

One of the most iconic symbols of the Cold War was the nuclear missile. These sleek, space age weapons could carry mass destruction to an enemy within a matter of minutes. Nuclear missiles were the protector and potential destroyer of not only the United States and Soviet Union, but a divided Europe as well. West of the Iron Curtain, the United States placed nuclear weapons in Germany and several other NATO nations. East of the Iron Curtain, the Soviet Union placed hundreds of nuclear weapons aimed at Europe in their constituent republics. These Soviet Socialist Republics, such as Ukraine and Belarus, ended up inheriting many of the weapons placed on their soil by the Soviet Union after the Cold War ended. Other former Soviet republics that did not inherit nuclear weapons, but had once been host to nuclear missiles, were left with the detritus, scars and residue from the weapons complexes of a most recent past. Today, one of these is now a remote and fascinating tourist destination.

Plokstine Missile Base from above

Plokstine Missile Base from above

A Secret History – Paranoia for the Sake of Paranoia
Deep in the woods of northwest Lithuania is the former Plokstine missile base. It was the first underground nuclear missile base ever installed by the Soviet Union. The site was so secretive and well concealed that it only fifteen years after it was completed did the United States actually learned of its existence. By that time the site was on the verge of deactivation. In the years that followed, the site fell into disrepair, was looted for metal and slowly, ever so slowly, decayed. That was prior to Lithuania regaining its independence. In the wake of nationhood, followed by membership in the EU and NATO, the Lithuanians looked to preserve this piece of notable and highly secretive history. This led to the Plokstine missile base being reimagined as a Cold War Museum that includes guided tours taking visitors into the very bowels of a nuclear weapons complex.

Incredible as it may seem, the relatively peaceful dissolution of the Soviet Union has led to an historical amnesia when it comes to recalling how secretive and forbidding nuclear missile complexes such as Plokstine once were. All a tourist has to do today is call or e-mail ahead of time to schedule a guided tour of the former missile base. This is in stark contrast to when the site was operational. From the early 1960’s until the late 1970’s no one other than authorized personnel was allowed anywhere close to the site. This included local villagers who had been paid 4,500 rubles to relocate from the immediate area. They were not told why they needed to relocate, they were just told to do it. The truth is, they were lucky to even get a payment for their trouble. They certainly were not allowed to ask questions. If a military convoy was traveling through one of the towns on their way to or from the base, those who lived in the general vicinity of the site were told to close the curtains and turn off lights in their homes. This action is baffling. How exactly could light bulbs and nosy neighbors compromise the site’s security or secretiveness? It seems more like paranoia for the sake of paranoia.

Plokstine - Into the Unknown

Plokstine – Into the Unknown

Fear As Security – The Balance of Terror
The townspeople in the general vicinity must have been at least a little bit suspicious after 10,000 soldiers – the majority of which were ethnically Estonian – came into the area where they constructed the base. It took an enormous amount of sweat equity to create Plokstine. Labor was greatly in demand, the entire underground apparatus was excavated by hand. This included four missile silos. The mass of men labored amid the serene, cloistered forest for three years. Much of the initial work was done by hand shovels. Over two years later, on New Year’s Eve of 1962, the site was finally completed. As the New Year began, the Soviets declared operational the first of what would eventually be hundreds of underground nuclear missile complexes which would spread across the western portion of the Soviet Union. These would house enough mega-tonnage to destroy Western Europe several times over. Plokstine’s four silos held R-12 Dvina, liquid fueled Intermediate Ballistic Missiles. These could strike targets as far afield as London and Istanbul, Athens and Amsterdam.

The onsite personnel were almost entirely devoid of ethnically Lithuanian Soviet soldiers. In a system that was built on a foundation of mistrust and paranoia, Lithuanians were considered suspect. Three hundred security police guarded the complex every minute of every hour of every day. Underground officers from the strategic rocket forces waited on a launch command that never really came close to arriving. The only time that the site went into a higher state of alert was during the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. The years passed, the seasons changed and the front lines of the Cold War stayed more or less the same. Plokstine only existed, like all the other nuclear weapons during the Cold War, to assure an opponent’s destruction if they dared to attack with their own nuclear arsenal. The threat of such a cataclysm kept the balance of power between East and West roughly equal.

Plokstine has now spent more years in ruin than operation

Plokstine has now spent more years in ruin than operation

Nuclear Novelty – Vanished Empire
Unknown, nearly invisible, hidden in a rural backwater of the Soviet Union and only to be used in the most extreme circumstances, Plokstine was most notable for its inactivity. In retrospect, the base can be seen as nothing more than a giant waste of time, money and human capital. The same might be said of most nuclear weapons. On the other hand, just the knowledge that weapons like the ones at Plokstine were lurking out in the vastness of the Soviet Union kept the west at bay. Strangely enough, this allowed the Soviet Union enough time to implode from within.

Plokstine did not make it to the end of the Cold War. It did not even make it to the end of the 1970’s. A few days before the summer solstice, as daylight carved most of the night away, the base was shut down forever. For over thirty years it stood dormant and decaying. Finally it was decided that Plokstine would make a fitting monument to the Cold War. Beyond its cachet as the relic of a vanished empire, or as a nuclear novelty, Plokstine’s true value may well be as a symbol of secretiveness, paranoia and fear. The Soviet Union was scared of the west, scared of its own people and more than anything, scared of itself.

The End of the Beginning – Tsar Nicholas II’s Abdication & Pskov

Just after 9:00 p.m. on March 15, 1917 at a railroad siding in the city of Pskov in western Russia, two men entered the Imperial train of Russian Tsar Nicholas II. These men had come to ask for Nicholas’s abdication from the throne. Soon after they began speaking, Nicholas intervened. In a calm and stoic manner he stated, “I have decided to renounce my throne today.” Not long after these words left his lips, Nicholas removed himself from the room in order to write an abdication manifesto. When he returned over an hour later, Nicholas handed over a document which said among other things, Internal popular disturbances threaten to have a disastrous effect on the future conduct of this persistent war… In these decisive days in the life of Russia, we thought it our duty of conscience to facilitate for our people the closest union possible and a consolidation of all national forces for the speedy attainment of victory. In agreement with the Imperial Duma, we have thought it well to renounce the Throne of the Russian Empire and to lay down the supreme power.”

Pskov Railway Station - point of abdication

Pskov Railway Station – point of abdication

From Autocracy to Anarchy –From Witness To Experience
Since that time, much has been made of the fact that Nicholas’s abdication brought an end to over three hundred years of Romanov rule over Russia. While that is certainly true, of even greater consequence was that the abdication sent Russia into a spiral of chaos, lurching wildly from autocracy to anarchy. It took five epically violent years for the chaos to subside and solidify into a communist dictatorship. This was not the end though, greater catastrophes were to follow. At the time, Nicholas’s abdication manifesto struck an official and patriotic tone – a version that the Provisional Government saw fit to suppress. Meanwhile, remarks Nicholas made in his private diary at the end of that same night would turn out to be much more prescient. He scrawled, “All around me I see treason, cowardice and deceit.” What Nicholas saw was his recent past, but he might as well have been predicting the future of Russia. Ironically, this sentence by Nicholas could have been written by its forthcoming leaders, the ultimate ideologue, Vladimir Lenin and the ultimate dictator, Josef Stalin.

In retrospect, of all the words in Nicholas’s abdication manifesto, “the speedy attainment of victory” was the one phrase furthest from what actually occurred. In the decades following the abdication, Russia experienced an unfathomable degree of loss. One of the places where the loss was greatest, happened to be where Nicholas abdicated, Pskov. Pskov’s brush with one of the most important historical events of the 20th century was brief. Nicholas’s train moved out that night, never to return. The last Tsar might as well have taken peace with him. The city had unwittingly been a silent witness to history. It would now move from witness to experience. Historical forces would transform the area over the next thirty years, leaving wounds that irreparably scarred Pskov and from which it has never quite recovered. With the fall of Tsarism, a violent array of competing armies, nationalities and ideologies spent the following three decades passing through, occupying or attempting to destroy Pskov.

Soviet soldiers surrendered all across Belarus, including Pskov, as the German Army swept through the area

Soviet soldiers surrendered all across Belarus, including Pskov, as the German Army swept through the area

Birthrights to Blood Rites
The Soviets left the most lasting impression, but not before they vanished and reappeared on multiple occasions. It was a historical act worthy of magic, black magic. They fought revolution, civil war and two world wars in the streets of Pskov. They just could not leave it alone. Neither could many others. To be on this eastern borderland of Europe was to be constantly vulnerable. Pskov was not so much a birthright as a blood rite. Consider the life of a Pskovian born in 1914. By their thirtieth birthday they would have experienced three foreign occupations, two World Wars and one of the deadliest dictatorships in human history. Rather than give medals to anyone surviving this endless succession of cataclysms, many got the Gulag instead. Pskov was too close to the enemy without and within.

Twice during the 20th century the German Army occupied the area. The first occupation, following the end of the Great War on the Eastern Front, was relatively benign. This iteration of Germanity was more interested in extraction than execution. Pskov happened to be on one of the main rail routes the German Imperial Army used to ferret out men and material from the east. It was all done in vain, supporting an army fighting towards defeat on the western front. Less than a quarter century later, the experience was different, not by degrees, but by extremes. In the intervening years the German Army had morphed into a juggernaut. Pskov and its surroundings were soon overrun. In the army’s wake came the virulent ideological strain of Nazism.

From July to July, 1941 through 1944, the city’s inhabitants experienced thirty six months of pure hell. This time the occupier’s war aims were both ideological and racial. They wanted to cleanse and purify Pskov as well as the vast lands beyond of both Slav and Jew. The latter were all but executed by any means available. The former suffered horrible excesses, but reappeared with a vengeance three years and tens of thousands of lives later. Pskov was never the same again. It had lost a huge proportion of its population. In the aftermath of the war, the Soviet’s poured in resources to the rebuilding effort. The Stalinist architecture was soulless, an attempt to reshape the city in forms of concrete. Pskov never returned to the prosperity it had enjoyed before the thirty years of catastrophe which had engulfed it. Eventually with the collapse of communism and the Soviet Union it went back to its distant past, as a border city. Today it is just a fifteen minute drive from the Estonian border, but in a larger sense it is a world away. It belongs to Russia and for better or worse always has. As shown by its calamitous 20th century history it probably always will.

Plaque at the Pskov Railway Station - noting Tsar Nicholas's abdication

Plaque at the Pskov Railway Station – noting Tsar Nicholas’s abdication

The End of the Beginning
Today, on a wall of the Pskov Railway station a historical plaque has been mounted which states that the Last Tsar, Nicholas II abdicated at here in March 1917. That is an interesting fact, but does not do justice to the importance of the event. What that plaque does not say is that the Tsar’s abdication at Pskov was not really about the end of something, but instead the beginning of much worse. The importance of Pskov in the historical drama of Russia’s 20th century is not just what happened here, but what was to come.

To Be Held Against Us – Russia’s First World War & The Process of Unforgetting

To mark the 100th anniversary of World War I, Russia is trying something totally different. They are actually erecting monuments commemorating their involvement in the war. The first ever national monument for the war on Russian territory has just been dedicated in Kaliningrad. This is rather astonishing. After all, more than nine million Russian men were killed, wounded, missing or taken prisoners of war. That total was greater than the entire population of such wartime belligerent nations such as Canada, Australia, Serbia, Romania and Belgium. Despite their suffering, Russian soldiers did not get a single national monument to memorialize their sacrifice.  This was a direct result of the Russian Revolution and creation of the Soviet Union which followed. The Bolsheviks would not allow any commemoration of the conflict which they termed a capitalist war. Conveniently they ignored the fact that the war caused dissension, bitterness, political upheaval and starvation which led directly to the Revolution.

The First Russian National World War I Monument in Kaliningrad

The First Russian National World War I Monument in Kaliningrad

Held Against Us – The Russian World War I Experience
How the Russian experience of the war would be viewed was accurately predicted by at least one officer during the conflict. In the dark days of December 1916, just months before the first revolution took place, a Russian General told his soldiers, “I have a feeling that, after all this is over, we are not going to be thanked for all the hardships and privations which we are going through now. Rather, that this is all going to be held against us.” Those words predicted both the immediate and long term remembrance of the First World War in Russia.

As Catherine Merridale states in her classic work Night of Stone: Death and Memory in Twentieth Century Russia, “It (World War I) shaped the way even the revolutionaries saw their world, colored their view of death, brought millions of their future subjects into contact with violence and fear for three long years before they came to power and brought it to an end. It claimed not tens, but millions of lives. Because it was not commemorated after 1917, however, it vanished from the Bolshevik foundation myth. Few stories illustrate the power of social memory more clearly. There is no Soviet National Monument to the First World War.” The vast and dramatic effect of the war on Russia and what would become the Soviet Union are not in dispute. It is hard to imagine that without the cataclysm of World War I, Russia would have had the type of revolution that brought the Bolsheviks to power. Russia may well have had a revolution anyway, just not one that would turn out to be as radical and deadly. The war had set the precedent for what was to come.

Russian Troops marching toward the front - gone and nearly forgotten

Russian Troops marching toward the front at the start of World War I – gone and nearly forgotten

Konigsberg to Kaliningrad – The Prize & Price of War
It is fascinating that the first Russian national monument to the war has now been placed in Kaliningrad (Konigsberg, East Prussia during the war). Ironically this was a place the Russians were never able to occupy during the war. Early on, they attempted to besiege the city, but their effort was short lived. The Battle of Tannenburg further to the south destroyed the entire Russian Second Army. The First Army, which was given the job of investing Konigsberg then found itself in a fight for its existence. It soon gave up a siege which had barely begun. Soon the Second Army lost the First Battle of Masurian Lakes, causing a Russian retreat from Prussian soil. They would not return again until exactly 30 years later, now as the Soviet Army, during one of the final campaigns of World War II. Once again they found themselves on Prussian ground and this time they made sure it was the last. Within a year of their arrival, Prussia ceased to exist. Konigsberg was soon renamed Kaliningrad. Even after the Soviet Union crumbled, the Russians kept this exclave of territory as a lasting prize from the Second World War. Konigsberg had been the seat of power for Prussian kings throughout the centuries. It was said to be the heart of Prussian militarism, a scourge that had scarred Russia and the Soviet Union badly in each of the two wars. By imposing Soviet style communism on it, they eradicated nearly every lasting vestige of its former Prussian self.

A remnant of Konigsberg still exists with the Old Cathedral - Kaliningrad looms in the distance

A remnant of Konigsberg still exists with the Old Cathedral – Kaliningrad looms in the distance

The Process of Un-Forgetting
The brand new, eleven meter high monument in Kaliningrad now stands as a testament to both the various groups who sacrificed so much during the war and also a process of un-forgetting that is slowly taking place. Three soldiers are portrayed: a nobleman officer, a peasant and a third who represents governmental workers and lower court officials. It suggests commonality, a shared unity among all three groups that must have been present to a greater or lesser degree throughout the first two and a half years of the war. That unity eventually frayed as the empire suffered one catastrophe after another. It is hard to imagine how any other state could have stayed together under the circumstances. Considering the millions of lost lives, it is even harder to imagine how it lasted as long as it did. The eleven meter high monument is one of several that will be dedicated this summer. The piece de resistance will be unveiled this August in Moscow. These monuments can never make up for lost time, but at least do a bit of justice to the memory of millions who lost their lives.

Ukraine & Nuclear Weapons – An Assurance That We Guarantee Nothing

Assurance – A strong and definite statement that something will happen or that something is true

Guaranteea promise, especially one given in writing, that attests to the quality or durability of a product or service

The biggest what if of the Cold War involved the question of nuclear war. What if the United States and Soviet Union had been unable to resolve their differences by any other means than a hot or shooting war? What if the conflict degenerated into a nuclear war? The consequences would not only have been disastrous for the American and Soviets, but indeed for everyone on the planet. One shudders to think what life might be like today (or not be like) if the catastrophe of a global thermonuclear war had taken place.

The Counterfactual as Doomsday Device
In 1989 the Berlin Wall fell, a couple of years later the Soviet Union dissolved. Many believed that the threat of a large scale nuclear conflict had passed into history. The world’s attention turned from the East-West divide in Europe to the threat of nuclear terrorism by rogue organizations. While this is certainly a concern, the recent tension over Ukrainian territory that has pitted Russia against the European Union and United States has brought the threat of a large-scale nuclear war back from the shadows. Commentators have remarked that the situation in Crimea and the Eastern Ukraine could eventually lead to NATO and Russia stumbling into a nuclear conflict. While this seems implausible, it is certainly not impossible.

An overlooked aspect of this crisis is another what-if scenario. Specifically, what-if the Ukraine had not given up the nuclear arsenal it inherited from the Soviet Union in the early 1990’s. What-if the Russians had then still tried to take over Crimea? What-if the Ukraine had responded by threatening the use of nuclear weapons? What if the Russians had done the same? What if the Ukraine-Russia conflict went nuclear? Nuclear weapons have a way of opening a Pandora’s box of imaginative what if’s, counterfactuals as doomsday device.

Just Trust Us - Bill Clinton, Boris Yeltsin & Leonid Kravchuk in Budapest, 1994

Just Trust Us – Bill Clinton, Boris Yeltsin & Leonid Kravchuk in Budapest, 1994

A Dangerous Game of Self Interest
Fortunately, the Ukraine-Russia situation will probably never lead to a nuclear conflagration. Hopefully it will never even come close. That is because twenty years ago representatives from the United States, Great Britain, Russia and the Ukraine met in Budapest. They negotiated what became known as the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances. The memorandum, in effect, stated that the Ukraine would give up its nuclear weapons in return for assurances of its territorial integrity. The problem is an assurance is very different from a guarantee. An assurance is a statement that can be more or less definite, a guarantee is a promise. Think of guarantees as treaties that commit the signatories to certain actions. Assurances are based more on words than actions and as we all know, actions speak louder than words.

It would not be wrong to view the Budapest Memorandum as having given the Russians an opening they could expose. Ironically, it also gave the United States and Great Britain an opening. They did not have to guarantee Ukraine’s security. This was by design. A guarantee could have brought both of them into armed conflict with Russia one day. Neither was prepared to go to war with Russia over the Ukraine and certainly not a nuclear war. That was true twenty years ago, as it is true today. Nonetheless, that did not stop the Americans and British from involving themselves in the Russian sphere of influence. It is said that after the Soviet Union dissolved and the United States and its western Allies began to incorporate several former Soviet Republics into NATO, that the elder intellectual statesmen of the Cold War, George Kennan said that this was a terrible idea. He believed with some justification that if push came to shove, the alliance had no intention to defend with force such nations as Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. He also thought the alliance’s action risked provoking Russia. In the future, Russia might not be so weak. NATO could conceivably end up in a no win situation. That seems more and more possible. After all, there were many who wanted Georgia and Ukraine to join NATO. This would have led to yet another scary what-if scenario. Does anyone really believe that the western world would have risked nuclear war to protect either of these nations from Russia? It is extremely doubtful.

For the time being, Ukraine remains a sovereign state. It will likely continue as such in some form or fashion, but there is a possibility that it could be dismembered or fall apart. If there had been no Budapest Memorandum the situation would have even come this far. This raises the question: What if Ukraine still had those nuclear weapons? It would almost certainly have ensured the long term survival of the nation. Nuclear states rarely disappear. They may ossify or thrive, but rarely do they disappear (the Soviet Union being the one notable exception). Nuclear weapons are the ultimate guarantor of national security, but international insecurity.

Ceremony at dismantled nuclear missile silo in Pervomaysk, Ukraine in 1996

Ceremony at dismantled nuclear missile silo in Pervomaysk, Ukraine in 1996

Back From the Brink, Back to the Brink – The Ukrainian Arsenal
And what, one might ask, did the Ukraine give up for those security assurances in the Budapest Memorandum. In 1994, it held one-third of the former Soviet Union’s nuclear arsenal. This included over 1,900 strategic and 2,500 tactical nuclear weapons. At the time, it was the world’s third largest nuclear stockpile, more than the nuclear arms of Britain, France and China combined. The arsenal was greater than the amount of nuclear warheads deployed by both the American and Russian militaries today. It seems incredible that the Ukraine could be convinced to part with these weapons for a series of assurances. If they could do it all over again, things would almost certainly be different. Then again, Ukraine still has a large nuclear infrastructure that they might use to create their own weapons. As a member of the Ukrainian Parliament, Mustafa Dzhemilev recently said, “each country that has… capacity to acquire its own nuclear weapons will be aspired to go down that path, and Ukraine is no exception.”

Sometime in the future Europe could be threatened with a nuclear armed Ukraine. This would bring the post-Soviet, Ukraine-Russia dynamic full circle. No one could have ever imagined such a thing when both were integral parts of the Soviet Union. Back then the future seemed so certain, but as the cliché goes the only certainty is uncertainty. Perhaps uncertainty is the only thing that really can be guaranteed in this part of the world. Another series of nuclear what-ifs may well loom on the horizon. This time they may be a bit further to the east, but that makes them no less dangerous.

A Temporary Form of Insanity: Viktor Ilyin & the Attempted Assassination of Leonid Brezhnev

It was freezing cold in Moscow on January 22, 1969. The long, hard Russian winter was at its peak. Just outside the gates of the Kremlin a crowd of people stood in the bone chilling cold. They were waiting for the arrival of a motorcade carrying Soviet cosmonauts who had just completed the first ever manned to manned docking of space vehicles in history. The cosmonauts would be traveling from the airport to the Kremlin for a ceremony celebrating their achievement. In the early afternoon, as the sun began its slow descent toward the horizon, the motorcade suddenly appeared. It was supposed to include not only the cosmonauts, but also the leader of the Soviet Union, Leonid Brezhnev. Standard operating procedure was for Brezhnev’s vehicle to be the second in line. This time though, the second car, a black Zil limousine was filled with cosmonauts.

Borovitsky Gate - one of the entrances to the Kremlin

Borovitsky Gate – one of the entrances to the Kremlin

Guns in Both Hands
Standing just outside the Kremlin walls, at the Borovitsky gate, was a man dressed in a policeman’s uniform. The man’s name was Viktor Ilyin. He had been in the area for over an hour, figuring out the best place to stand. Strangely, the uniform he wore was a summer one. He must have been freezing. As the cars began to pass, Ilyin suddenly pulled out two Makarov pistols, with one in each hand he let lose a stream of gunfire. The second car was his intended target. Its driver was killed almost instantly, several other passengers were wounded. Reports say that somewhere between eight and sixteen shots were fired. None of these came anywhere near the intended target, Brezhnev was not in the vehicle. His car had taken a different gate into the Kremlin. Ilyin’s shooting spree had done quite a bit of damage, but not to the man he wished to assassinate. A guard on a motorcycle spotted the assassin and ran him down. Ilyin then proceeded to have a seizure. The incident was over in a matter of minutes.

A photo of the Brezhnev assassination attempt made just seconds after it happened

A photo of the Brezhnev assassination attempt made just seconds after it happened

A Monopoly On Violence
One barely noticed, but notable aspect in the history of the Soviet Union was that none of its leaders was ever assassinated. Despite the Soviet state’s history of violence and suppression (or perhaps because of it) every one of its leaders died of natural causes. The lack of an assassination may have been largely due to the fact that the state had a monopoly on violence. For instance, during the period of Stalin’s rule, when state controlled terror was rampant, tens of millions of Soviet citizens were killed. Conversely, there was only one known assassination attempt on Stalin that came even remotely close.

Some of the most dangerous times for the seven men who led the Soviet Union took place in the years before they gained supreme power. The tsarist regime imprisoned or exiled both Lenin and Stalin. A more energetic state security apparatus would never have allowed either of them to see the light of day again. Especially after multiple arrests for conspiracies to overthrow the government. Rather than receiving the death penalty (as Lenin’s brother did) they were shipped off, either to Siberia or forced into foreign exile. Lenin was almost assassinated after he came to power in the chaotic early years following the revolution. A 1918 attempt by a female socialist came close, but failed. Khrushchev and Brezhnev escaped Stalin’s purges by helping carry them out. In this way, they saved themselves from the fate of thousands of other fellow Communist Party members. Andropov and Chernenko also managed to avoid the various Stalinist purges during their early years in politics. As for Gorbachev, he came late enough to the scene that the worse excesses of the system were a memory.

Leonid Brezhnev - the target (Credit: Bundearchiv)

Leonid Brezhnev – the target (Credit: Bundearchiv)

The Limits of Dissent
It seems that a state such as the Soviet Union would have executed anyone who had attempted an assassination of its leader. This would certainly have been true during Lenin and Stalin’s time, but by the time Brezhnev had come to power the system of repression was more benign. The state now committed dissidents to mental institutions. This would be Ilyin’s fate. Only a few hours after his attempt on Brezhnev’s life, Ilyin was interviewed by the head of the KGB and future Soviet leader Yuri Andropov. The upshot of Andropov’s interrogation was that Ilyin was declared insane. Whether Ilyin was insane or not is open to question yet he did have a logical line of reasoning that supported his action. He had been conscripted into the Soviet army against his will in 1968. That same year Brezhnev made the decision to send Soviet troops into Czechoslovakia to put down the Prague Spring and voices calling for greater freedoms. Ilyin vehemently disagreed with this decision. He ended up deserting the Soviet army, then then making his way from St. Petersburg to Moscow where he would carry out the assassination attempt.

A Temporary Form of Insanity
Whether or not Ilyin’s attempt on the life of Brezhnev was insane is subjective, but one of his ideas was definitely crazy. Ilyin believed that once Brezhnev was dead, that he, Viktor Ilyin, would lead a new moderate government. Obviously this never occurred. Instead he was sentenced to twenty years of solitary confinement in a mental asylum. In 1990, a Supreme Court ruling took place in Ilyin’s bed chamber, he was soon a free man. He is still alive today, living in a small flat in his hometown of St. Petersburg. The apartment was provided by the government since Ilyin is considered disabled. He also receives a small pension. His situation today is so normal that it almost defies believability.

How can a man who tried to murder one of the most powerful people in the world, the leader of the world’s prime totalitarian state at the time, eventually be set free? Many people disappeared in the Soviet Union for lesser crimes, even during Brezhnev’s day. Chalk up Ilyin gaining his freedom to the insanity plea. Also by 1990 the Soviet state was much milder due to Gorbachev’s reforms. Ilyin may or may not have been insane, perhaps it was temporary. The truly insane thing is that Viktor Ilyin became a free man and would outlive not only his oppressors, but also the oppressive Soviet state.