The Soviet Search For Immortality

Given the rumors, Russians often wish all those theories about our super-soldiers and X-Men skeletons were true. Alas, the Soviet Union only went as far as trying to make immortal politicians (not as cool – but still cool, right?)

Not long before the death of Vladimir Lenin in 1924, a clandestine society emerged in Russia. Its members would conspire to meet in safe houses where they summoned volunteers to take part in blood transfusions. Creepy, right? You may be forgiven for thinking this was a sect or a religious cult, but in fact, the organization was run by a very sane Bolshevik higher-up, Alexander Bogdanov (real name Malinovsky), close Lenin ally, co-founder of the party and noted scientist behind the Socialist Institute.

“The great visionary”, as he was called by followers, was trying to unlock the secret to immortality.

Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’ had found great favor with readers in the Russian Empire, including Nicholas II himself. This fascination carried over into Socialist times. The meanings of blood and sacrifice enjoyed mystical fervor in a country that had just lost two million people in a war the likes of which the world had never seen in scale or efficiency of brutality.

“Why couldn’t they just resurrect him?”, wrote many in army circles about the 1924 demise of Vladimir Lenin. The idea that a figure of such colossal stature could die was unfathomable.

Lenin appeared to have been worn down by stress, exhaustion and malnutrition – all leading to a whole bouquet of symptoms afflicting nearly every old-school ruling class Bolshevik barely in his mid-thirties. They haven’t even had time to properly start ‘emancipating the world from capitalist tyranny’. Something had to be done.

It is no secret that Russia at the dawn of the Bolsheviks was a highly experimental country. No stone was left unturned in the search for the perfect Russian – including the famous sex reforms.

Given blood’s mystical allure, some scientists of the time also theorized that the person’s entire personality, soul and immune system were contained in their blood.

Bogdanov was such a scientist. Not only that – he was a polymath and an avid stargazer with a deep fascination for Mars, which he envisioned as a sort of socialist utopian society of blood brothers. These ideas laid the foundations for his novel, ‘The Red Star’, about a scientist who travels to the Red Planet, and finds out that the Communists there had almost attained immortality, all thanks to this culture of blood.

Lenin was disappointed with Bogdanov’s preoccupation with fantasy and sci-fi, leading to a rift between the two, Lenin believing that Bogdanov was making people chase foolish dreams instead of focusing on the work of forging the Revolution. But Bogdanov was too useful at the time, being the second figure in the party – the man directed the Bolsheviks during Lenin’s exile.

Even so, their camaraderie could not have survived their differences: Lenin advocated for dialogue and cooperation, including participation in the Duma – Russia’s legislative body. Bogdanov wanted no part in it, leaning even further left than Lenin himself had.

Together with his friend, Leonid Krasin, Bogdanov set up a military wing under the RSDLP’s  Central Committee. Money from its expropriations would be distributed to the various organizations controlled by Lenin and Bogdanov. The latter was furious that more money seemed to be going to Lenin’s cause.

Bogdanov would soon be expelled from the Workers’ Party. The two were split on their interpretation of Marxism, and Lenin’s works had begun to reflect that, calling out Bogdanov for his “bourgeois” outlook. At that point, even Lenin’s family thought he could’ve taken it down a notch. But the Bolshevik was having none of it – even banning Bogdanov’s novels from being read in the household.

Bogdanov, on the other hand, thought of Lenin’s ideals as those of ‘absolute Marxism’ – “the bloodsucker of the Old World,” turning followers vampire, chief among them Lenin. Bogdanov had lost his party, his job and his credibility while exchanging literary jabs with people he considered his comrades.  

After the devastation of WWI, however, a glimmer of light had appeared: “science can do anything” was to be the mantra of the 1920s-30s.

Mikhail Bulgakov had then just published his brilliant piece of sci-fi satire – ‘A Dog’s Heart’, which talked about transferring a dog’s soul into a human subject, another telltale sign of the times. It became obvious that science was beginning to take inspiration from fiction. With Bogdanov as the main proponent.

Bogdanov cared not for what we know about blood today – from blood groups and the Rh blood system to a whole host of other factors. His science was fraught with danger, with him as the most frequent guinea pig.

The blood would be taken from patients, poured into a sterile container and mixed with an anti-clotting agent, before the transfusions took place. They would have to be fast as well, to prevent bacteria forming.

Bogdanov’s fan base grew as this borderline-mad experimentation began to show signs of progress: Bogdanov himself was said to have begun looking 5-10 years younger, while his wife’s gout also began showing signs of improvement. People couldn’t believe their eyes!

It wouldn’t take long before Stalin himself would be bitten by the science bug, leading him to call upon Bogdanov and his experimentation, even suggesting he join back with the party he was expelled from by his predecessor.

Stalin was certainly no Lenin, and believed he needed every edge if (when) the next World War was going to take place. No money was spared to find a military application for the transfusions.

The Institute for Blood Transfusion was set up in 1926 on the leader’s orders. Bogdanov becomes director. This fascination with the idea of blood brotherhood expressed in his Martian sci-fi novel would finally begin to bear fruit.

Tragically, the mad scientist and sci-fi Bolshevik had not had enough time to properly study the effects of his rejuvenation procedures. We had no idea about erythrocytes or plasma or any checks and practices in place today for a successful transfusion.

Bogdanov was very interested in whether a person’s entire immune defenses were also transferred through blood. It seemed that a young man suffering from tuberculosis was the perfect candidate to test that theory.

A liter of blood was exchanged between the patient and the ‘doctor’.

It didn’t help that Bogdanov had been comparing his own blood to that of Dracula – immune to human afflictions. That twelfth transfusion would become his last. In the space of three hours, both started to suffer a steady deterioration: fever, nausea, vomiting – all signs of a serious poisoning.

However, Bogdanov decided to keep the transfusion under wraps. On that excruciatingly painful day, he’d felt even worse than the poorly Kaldomasov – the tuberculosis sufferer. He refused treatment nonetheless in a vain attempt to understand what had happened.

Bogdanov’s kidneys gave out in 48 hours, resulting in death from a hemolytic reaction. His last words, according to Channel 1’s interview with close descendant and economist Vladimir Klebaner, had been “Do what must be done. We must fight to the end.” He passed on April 7, 1928, aged 54.

But what of the student? The 21-year-old had lived. The doctors couldn’t tell why, even after another last-minute transfusion had failed to save Bogdanov from death. It would later become apparent that this final procedure wasn’t the culprit (both he and Kaldomasov were type O) – but the 11 preceding ones had been, creating antibodies in Bogdanov to the degree that even the correct blood would have been rejected. That’s all we know.

Stalin was very angry. Having pledged tens of thousands of rubles toward Bogdanov’s blood institute, the Soviet leader began now to think that all scientists were charlatans and extortionists.

In the end, however, it was thanks to Bogdanov’s work that Soviet hematology got a much needed push forward.

The photo shows, “Ivan the Terrible and his son,” by Ilya Repin, painted in 1885.

The Mystery Of The Amber Room

The Amber Room is surely one of the most original and – since its disappearance in 1944 in the aftermath of the WWII – mysterious of the world’s works of art. The exquisite room made of several tons of the golden tree resin – the lightest gem in the world – is often referred to as the “Eighth Wonder of the World”.

The Amber Room was a series of large wall panels inlaid with several tons of masterfully carved high-quality amber, long wall mirrors and four Florentine mosaics. The amber, which covered three walls, was arranged in three tiers. The central (middle) tier consisted of eight large, symmetrical vertical panels. Four of them contained pictures made of semiprecious stones like quartz, jasmine, jade and onyx, executed in the 1750s in Florence using the Florentine mosaic technique according to designs by the artist Giuseppe Dzokki, and depicting five senses: Sight, Taste, Sound, Touch and Smell.

The distance between the large panels was occupied by mirrored pilasters. The lower tier of the room was covered in square amber panels. One of the corners contained a small amber table on an elegantly turned leg. The room’s furnishings consisted of inlaid wood commodes of Russian origin, and a vase of Chinese porcelain.

In addition, one of the most valuable collections of amber objects created in the 17th and 18th centuries by German, Polish and Russian masters was housed in the room’s glass-covered display cases.

The history of the Amber Room dates back to the very beginning of the 18th century, when Andreas Schluter, the chief architect of the Prussian royal court, had the idea of using amber, a material never before used for interior decoration, to complete one of the rooms of the Great Royal Palace in Berlin during the reconstruction under Frederick I.

The work started in 1701 and continued until 1713 with the help of the best German, Swedish, and Dutch amber masters, when the old king died, and the new Prussian King – Frederick Wilhelm I – came into power. He was not interested in the beautiful and exquisite Amber Room, the rumors of which had by that time reached Russia.

In 1716, Russian Tsar Peter I visited Berlin, admired the amber masterpiece, and Frederick Wilhelm I asked Peter the Great to accept the unusual room as a diplomatic gift. The Russian Tsar’s return present was no less original: 55 choice grenadiers. After a long shipping time and complex route (Berlin-Koenigsburg-Memel-Riga-St.Petersburg) the Amber Room finally reached its destination. The boxes were unpacked but the Russian masters did not manage to reconstruct the Amber Room, and it was for some time forgotten.

When Empress Elizabeth started reigning in the 1740s, she commissioned her chief architect, Bartolomeo Francesco Rastrelli, to use the amber for decoration of one of the rooms of the Winter Palace. The room was too large, and the architect used mirrored pilasters and painted additional panels in “fake amber”. In 1755, the Amber Room was transferred to the Catherine Palace in Tsarskoje Selo where the new room was to be constructed.

The room in the Palace was again too large for the Amber Study, and the amber parts were reassembled on the walls alternating with pilasters and mirrors. The places where the amber was missing, were painted in “fake amber” and afterwards replaced with real amber panels. By 1770 the Amber Room was complete. However the amber was damaged by the stove heating and temperature changes, and the room was restored three times: in 1833, 1865, and in the 1890s. The next restoration was to take place in 1941.

In the beginning of WWII it was decided not to evacuate the fragile Amber Room, and instead preserve the treasures on the walls of the Palace disguised by the paper, gauze and cotton. But is it possible to hide several tons of amber under paper? The German troops dismantled the panels and sent them to Koenigsburg, where the Room was displayed in one of the halls of the Koenigsburg Museum. In 1944, as the German Army retired, the Amber Room was dismantled again, and taken into the unknown direction. According to different resources, the Amber Room was (a) destroyed by the Allies’ bombing; (b) buried in a silver mine not far from Berlin; (c) hidden on the shores of the Baltic Sea.

Nothing has been found yet, though parts of the mosaics appeared in the 1990s in Germany. Thus, the 50-year-old mystery of Amber Room is still alive.

The estimated value of the vanished Amber Room is more than $100 million.

Courtesy of German Culture.

The photo shows the only surviving color image of the Amber Room. The image dates from 1917 and was made on autochromes by Andrei Andreevich Zeest.

Sergei Yesenin: Tragedy And Poetry

The prominent Silver Age poet was never far from controversy.

“My Russia, wooden Russia! I am your only singer and herald”

Sergei Yesenin was born in the village of Konstantinovo in Ryazan Region on Oct. 3, 1895. From the window of his house, he could see a church and the hilly bank of the Oka River – all of which he would often recall in his poems.

He began writing poems as a child, and when he left school, he headed to conquer the literary world of Moscow, where he published his first poems.

Soon, in search of fame, he moved to St. Petersburg, where he attended literary salons wearing traditional clothing, bast shoes or felt boots, with sheets of his poems wrapped in a rural headscarf.

The stunt – canny self-promotion in an age well before the PR industry – worked brilliantly, and the self-taught village poet with a mop of golden curls became incredibly popular. In 1916, he had the opportunity to perform to the family of Emperor Nicholas II.


“Infamy has come to me, / That I am an abuser and scandalmonger”

Yesenin also earned notoriety as a troublemaker. He was closely involved with the literary scene and often teased other poets. His best-known literary duels were with another famous poet, Vladimir Mayakovsky.

With his love of rural space, Yesenin did not accept his counterpart’s revolutionary and industrial poems. Mayakovsky, however, urged him not to waste his talent describing nature and dedicate it to Bolshevism instead.

During a public poetry reading Yesenin told Mayakovsky that he would not give “his” Russia to him: “Russia is mine! And you are an American!” To that, Mayakovsky replied sarcastically: “Take it, here you are! Eat it with bread!”

“Many women loved me, and I loved more than one, too”

Love is the second major theme in Yesenin’s work. A handsome ladies’ man, the poet had four children from his numerous affairs. His first common-law wife, Anna, gave birth to a son, Yuri, in 1914, but Yesenin left his family for St. Petersburg and only rarely visited the child.

In 1917, he married the beautiful actress Zinaida Reich, who gave birth to a daughter, Tatyana, and a son, Konstantin. The separated two years later, and Reich soon married the renowned director Vsevolod Meyerhold, becoming one of Moscow’s most famous actresses.

The poet’s second official wife was the American dancer Isadora Duncan. She was 18 years older than him and neither spoke the other’s language. Their marriage was full of endless scandals and lasted about two years. The poet accompanied Duncan on tour in Europe and America, where he would perform at parallel literary events.

Sofya, Yesenin’s third wife, was Leo Tolstoy’s granddaughter, Sophia Andreyevna Tolstaya. The poet married her a few months before his death, and this was also an unhappy marriage. “Everything here is too filled with the ‘great old man,’ it is choking me,” Yesenin complained while living in Sofya’s home. It is Tolstaya who did a lot to preserve his legacy and left memoirs about him.

“Silly heart, don’t beat …”

Yesenin greeted the 1917 Revolution with enthusiasm and the hope that Russia would be transformed, but he soon saw the hunger, destruction and terror in the country, and began describing apocalyptic scenes: “the garden of skulls” and “rabid glow of corpses.”

In his long poem, “Pugachev” – about the famous rebel and impostor who organized a mass revolt against Catherine II – Yesenin turns to the theme of confrontation between power and the people. The Land of Scoundrels, another long poem, would continue this theme.

In 1924, a year before his death, in the poem. “The Return Home,” he describes a ravaged village with its poor wooden houses and a calendar portrait of Lenin hanging instead of an icon. Seeing Yesenin as an ideological and cultural danger, the authorities harassed the poet, bringing arbitrary court cases against him.

In 1925, nervous breakdowns, alcoholism and pressure from the authorities landed Yesenin in a mental hospital. A month later he was found hanging from a pipe in the Angleterre Hotel in Leningrad (as St. Petersburg was known in the Soviet Union). The previous day, Yesenin had composed his final poem, “Goodbye, my Darling, Goodbye,” in blood:

Goodbye, my darling, goodbye
My love, you are forver in my heart.
This farewell was preordained
As shall be our reunion.

Goodbye. No handshake or fond word.
Let’s not have sadness furrow the brow.
There’s nothing new in dying now
And nothing new in living either.

The official cause of death was suicide, but many alternative versions have been put forward in the last decade. The most common is that the troublesome poet was murdered by the Soviet authorities.

Inna Parfenova writes about literature and culture for Russia Beyond.

The photo shows a portrait of Sergei Yesenin. Provenance and authorship unknown.

Russia’s Greatest General

The cruel and ruthless Russian winter often assisted Russian troops to hold and crush the advancing enemy. However, there were cases when the capricious “General Frost” turned its weapon against its ally.

This important Russian ally has many names: General Frost, General Winter, or General Snow. The harsh Russian winter was a powerful weapon Russia used against its enemies, who were pampered by the mild European winters.

The first time the name “General Frost” appeared was in 1812 in a British satirical cartoon dedicated to Napoleon’s catastrophic Russian campaign. The cheering British wrote: “General Frost shaving little Boney.” Since then the name has become iconic.

Napoleon’s generals wrote in their memoirs that the Russian winter was the main reason why the Grande Armée was defeated. But that’s a face-saving ploy. The French troops were in fact crushed by the Russian soldiers’ fortitude, the widespread partisan war and the clever tactics of the Russian command, which exhausted the enemy.

Nevertheless, “General Frost” did strike a deadly blow against the French. The severe frost took a dreadful toll on the ill-prepared Grande Armée on its way out of Russia. Only a few tens of thousands of soldiers out of 600,000 returned home, and winter played a not inconsiderable role in this.

True, “General Frost” showed itself a century before the name appeared. In 1708, during the Great Northern War between Sweden and Russia, the army of Charles XII spent the winter in Ukraine. There, it was struck by the coldest winter that Europe had seen in 500 years.

The harsh Scandinavian warriors were no strangers to the cruel cold, but definitely not for this one. Almost half of the Swedish soldiers and horses froze to death. This significantly helped Tsar Peter the Great in the decisive Battle of Poltava, when the Swedes were totally crushed.

“General Frost” was not always on the Russian side. During the Winter War, for instance, the advancing Soviet troops faced one of the cruelest winters of the 20th century. Entire divisions cut off and surrounded by the Finns froze to death in the deep snow. The Soviet Union won the war, but paid a high price with over 126,000 dead (the Finns lost 25,000).

Another case when the Russian winter could hardly be called a Soviet friend happened during the Battle of Moscow. Wehrmacht generals asserted that the severe cold of -30 and even -50C stopped their offensive. The weather data, however, showed that November of 1941 was rather moderate and conducive to an advance. It froze the ground and helped the German armored divisions to maneuver.

“The cold froze the swamps, and the German tanks and motorized units – the main enemy strike force – were freer to roam. We felt this immediately. The enemy command started to use tanks off the roads,” Marshal Konstantin Rokossovsky recalled in his memoirs.

Later, when the Soviet armies went on the counteroffensive in December-January, extremely cold weather set in. The attacking Soviet soldiers froze in the fields and sank in the deep snow, while the Germans clung onto their positions in the seized settlements outside Moscow.

On the whole, the Russian winter greatly helped the Soviets in defending the Motherland. The German troops did not have enough warm winter uniforms, and their military equipment often seized up in the biting cold. “General Frost” literally destroyed the surrounded 6th Army at the Battle of Stalingrad, which was a turning point in the whole war.

General Frost has a powerful ally – General Mud. For the advancing enemy, the Russian autumn was not much better than the Russian winter. Troops were forced to march knee-deep in lakes of mud caused by persistent rains. Bearing in mind the parlous condition of the roads back then, such advances deep into Russian territory turned into real nightmares.

Boris Egerov write on topics of Russian history and culture for Russia Beyond.

The photo shows, “Night Bivouac of Napoleon’s Army During the Retreat from Russia in 1812,” painted by Vasily Vereshchagin, ca. 1896-1897.

Richard Sorge – The Spy Betrayed By Stalin

The Soviet intelligence officer Richard Sorge was worth an entire army. His reports not only saved Moscow during WWII, but also significantly contributed to the victory over Nazism. However, Stalin had a peculiar way of “thanking” him, allowing him to be hanged by the Japanese.

In autumn 1941 the outcome of the whole Soviet-German war was at stake: Hitler’s troops were at the gates of the Soviet capital. However, after some brutal, exhausting clashes, the Soviet army went on the counteroffensive and drove the enemy back.

Victory became possible due to the arrival of fresh Soviet divisions, redeployed to Moscow from Siberia, where they had been awaiting a Japanese attack.

Stalin would never have allowed a weakening of the Soviet forces in the Far East if Soviet reconnaissance officer Richard Sorge had not reported that Japan was not preparing to attack the Soviet Union in 1941. Thus, one man saved the capital of the Soviet Union when all seemed lost.

Richard Sorge was born to become an intelligence officer. Smart, attractive and elegant, he was good at making useful acquaintances, which he exploited perfectly in getting vital information.

At the age of 29, young German communist Richard Sorge moved to the Soviet Union, where he soon was recruited by the Soviet intelligence service.

In 1933, Sorge was sent to Japan, where he successfully impersonated a German journalist. His whole future life was tied to this country thereafter, and it was there that he met his end.

His intelligent and amicable manner allowed Richard Sorge to easily befriend people. One of the most important among them was the German ambassador to Japan, Major General Eugen Ott, who had access to all the secrets of Nazi Germany.

Ott completely trusted Sorge, and in fact was the main source of all important information for the Soviet intelligence officer. Ott often shared info and asked Sorge’s advice, since he thought Richard Sorge worked for the German intelligence service, having no idea who Sorge’s real paymasters were…

Richard Sorge’s other major source was Japanese journalist Hotsumi Ozaki. An advisor to Prime Minister Fumimaro Konoe, he was a devoted communist and Sorge’s agent, who had access to the highest ranks of Imperial Japan.

Despite the important and useful information Sorge sent to Moscow, the Soviet leadership was very suspicious of their intelligence officer in Japan. A German, with a passion for women and alcohol, with such friends as Nazi Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop, Sorge was viewed by the Soviets as a double agent.

Still, to gain a spy net in such a closed country as Japan was no easy task, and the Soviet leaders had no choice but to keep Richard Sorge as their main source in the Land of the Rising Sun.

During the series of repressions in the USSR in the late 1930s, known as the Great Purge, Soviet intelligence was literally decapitated, with all its leaders executed, including close colleagues and friends of Sorge. He himself was summoned to Moscow for “talks.”

Afraid for his life, Richard Sorge refused to go, saying he had too much work to do in Japan. This enraged Stalin, who became even more suspicious of “that German.”

These suspicions remained despite the fact that Sorge’s reports significantly helped the Soviet troops to prepare and defeat the Japanese at the Battles of Lake Khasan (1938) and Khalkhin Gol (1939).

Despite being thousands kilometers away from Europe, Richard Sorge had perfect ties with German and Japanese high officials and was sometimes better informed about what was happening there than other Soviet intelligence officers in Europe.

Numerous times Richard Sorge warned his chiefs about German plans to attack the Soviet Union in late June 1941. Yet such reports were ignored.

When Sorge was arrested by the Japanese, he said during the interrogation: “There were days when I sent 3-4 encryptions to Moscow, but, it seems, nobody believed me.”

The attitude towards Sorge completely changed after the launch of Operation Barbarossa confirmed his words. Richard Sorge finally won Stalin’s trust.

On 14 September 1941, Sorge sent perhaps the most important message in his life. “According to my source, the Japanese leadership decided not to begin hostilities against the Soviet Union this year.”

This time Richard Sorge’s words were taken seriously. It is believed that this message finally convinced Stalin to order the redeployment of over a dozen fresh, well-trained divisions from the Far East in defense of Moscow, where they became game-changers.

On December 5, the strengthened Soviet troops went on the counteroffensive and threw the Germans back from the Soviet capital. The Wehrmacht suffered its first serious defeat in the war.

In October 1941, Richard Sorge and his entire group were arrested by the Japanese. At first, the Germans didn’t believe that Richard Sorge, who was proclaimed the best German journalist that year, was a Soviet spy. All their requests to free him were denied.

After Sorge’s work for Soviet intelligence was confirmed, the Japanese twice contacted the Soviets regarding his future fate. Both times the Soviet side answered the same: “We in the Soviet Union know nothing about any such person as Richard Sorge.”

Although it remains unknown as to the precise reason why the Soviets declined to exchange Sorge, it is believed that Stalin could not forgive him for acknowledging his work for the USSR under interrogation, something a Soviet intelligence officer should never do.

When Stalin abandoned his best intelligent officer, Sorge was doomed. As a taunt over the Russians, the Japanese hanged him on November 7, 1944, the 27th anniversary of the Russian Revolution.

For 20 years the name of Richard Sorge was forgotten in the Soviet Union. But in the U.S. and Europe, quite the opposite, his activity was well studied. In 1964, Nikita Khrushchev saw the French movie Who Are You, Mr. Sorge? and was shocked by what he saw.

When Khrushchev found out that Richard Sorge was a real person, he ordered the name and fame of the Soviet intelligence officer to be restored. Sorge was posthumously awarded the Hero of the Soviet Union.

 

Boris Egorov is a journalist writing for Russia Beyond.
The photo shows an East German first issue to honor Richard Sorge, from 1976.

Peter Kropotkin – A Curious Life

Peter Kropotkin was the father of Russian anarchism. He dreamed of a world without violence or government power. Today his ideas are just as relevant as they were in the 19th century.

As the father of Russian anarchism, Prince Peter Kropotkin (1842–1921) understood society as a voluntary cooperation of free people.

The word “anarchy” immediately calls to mind a black flag, skull and crossbones, drunk sailors and general lawlessness. Kropotkin preached nothing of the sort. He was a serious, learned man. He also hated violence with all his heart.

Like many other 19th-century Russian revolutionaries, he was born into a wealthy noble family and belonged to the elite. His father had more than a 1,000 serfs and three estates.

Kropotkin graduated from the Page Corps, the most privileged military institution in Russia. He was a personal chamber page to Tsar Alexander II. Brilliant professional possibilities lay before him — he could have become a general or minister.

Yet he disregarded all of this and joined the revolution. Having read illegal literature, he put an end to his career. He refused a prestigious post in the guards and set out for Siberia.

During his foray among the people, Kropotkin became convinced that all evil came from the government. In places where the government’s hand did not reach, people lived in poverty, but happily.

They organized themselves into communes and successfully existed without taxes and bureaucrats.

While he was in Switzerland, Kropotkin took note of how the watchmakers’ cooperative was set up. There was no boss above the workers, yet the workers’ cooperative functioned smoothly.

This was a true anarchic commune as Kropotkin understood it, a community of free people who work not by necessity but by their own will. In Switzerland he joined the First International, the same organization that Karl Marx joined.

Kropotkin returned from abroad as a confirmed revolutionary and started to disseminate revolutionary propaganda. He was a skilled conspirator, and for a long time the police could not capture him even though they knew about his activities.

He constantly disguised himself — for example, as a student or a peasant. He also frequently changed clandestine apartments. An elegant young man in glasses would enter a building, and a peasant in a print shirt and dirty boots would exit.

The transfiguration was absolute. But in the end he was, of course, arrested. He was imprisoned in the Peter and Paul (Petropavlovskaya) Fortress, one of Russia’s most dismal jails. He served out two years and escaped.

This is the only instance of evasion — only a reckless person dared to flee from the Peter and Paul (Petropavlovskaya) Fortress.

Kropotkin went abroad and continued his antigovernment activities. Indeed, anarchy is a rejection of government and the government machine.

He gathered many supporters; they distributed a newspaper with a defiant name, “Rebel,” spread propaganda and even carried out terrorist acts.

Kropotkin had no connection to the terrorist acts, but he was in the limelight and was too offensive a figure. Hence he was expelled from all the European countries.

In France he was even sentenced to five years in jail. However, Victor Hugo and other well-known figures came to his defense and Kropotkin’s sentence was shortened to three years. He served it in full.

No government — neither capitalist nor socialist — likes anarchists. When Kropotkin returned to Russia during the revolution, conflicts arose between him and the Bolsheviks.

The Bolsheviks’ brutality horrified the old anarchist. By nature he was softhearted and kind, and he could in no way recognize the red terror. He understood anarchism first and foremost as cooperation and solidarity. Yet a war of everyone against everyone was raging.

“And I have spent my whole life working on a theory of anarchy for this!” he lamented to Plekhanov, one of the oldest Marxists. Plekhanov said to Kropotkin, “Peter Alexeyevich, I too am in the same situation. Could I have thought that my advocacy for a scientific socialism would lead to such a nightmare?”

Kropotkin met with Lenin and tried to reason with him, asking him to stop the executions. Lenin laughed at him. At the time, no one took Kropotkin seriously.

Even the celebrated anarchist Nestor Makhno worshipped Kropotkin yet considered his ideas out of touch with reality and outmoded.

When Kropotkin died, the Soviet powers honored him as a fighter against the cursed Tsarist regime. They named streets and towns after him.

In central Moscow there is a subway station named Kropotkinskaya. For a while, there was also a Kropotkin museum. However, in the late 1930s it was closed. Kropotkin’s books also stopped being published.

The Soviet government was finding its footing and getting more and more powerful. Ideas of anarchy were entirely foreign.

Yet anarchism has turned out to be a surprisingly hardy trend. As long as a government exists, there will always be people fighting against its oppression.

The famous saying “Anarchy is the mother of order” is less absurd if anarchy is understood as Kropotkin meant it: a splendid utopia, an ideal arrangement of society, where thinking citizens work in one another’s interest and where authority, overseers and supervisors do not exist.

It is a marvelous picture, albeit a completely improbable one. But the great dreamer Kropotkin believed that one day, everything would be that way.

Yan Shenkman is a Russian journalist.
The photo shows a frontispiece portrait of Peter Kropotkin, ca. 1885.

Lenin: The Giant Mushroom

In 1991, just months before the collapse of the USSR, Soviet audiences witnessed a shocking scene on television program, Pyatoe Koleso (The Fifth Wheel). Two serious-looking men – Sergey Sholokhov, the host and his guest, an underground musician and writer introduced as “politician and actor,” Sergey Kurekhin were sitting in a studio discussing the October revolution of 1917.

Suddenly, Kurekhin offered a very interesting hypothesis – that Vladimir Lenin, the Bolshevik leader, was not a human being but a mushroom.

Kurekhin started with a rambling discourse on the nature of revolutions and his trip to Mexico where, in ancient temples, he had seen frescoes closely resembling the events of 1917. From there, he moved on to the author Carlos Castaneda who described the practices of Central American Indians of using psychotropic drinks prepared from certain types of cacti.

“Apart from cacti, Castaneda describes mushrooms as special products with a hallucinogenic effect,” Kurekhin continued and then quoted Lenin’s letter to leading Marxist Georgi Plekhanov: “Yesterday I ate many mushrooms and felt marvelously well”. Noting that Russia’s fly-agaric mushroom has hallucinogenic effects, Kurekhin assumed that Lenin was consuming these kinds of mushrooms and had some kind of psychedelic, mind-altering experience.

It was not only Lenin who dabbled in such fungi, but other Bolsheviks as well, Kurekhin claimed. “The October revolution was made by people who had been consuming hallucinogenic mushrooms for years,” he said with a poker face. “And Lenin’s personality was replaced with that of a mushroom because fly-agaric identity is far stronger than a human one.” Therefore, he concluded, Lenin became a mushroom himself.

After that sensational statement, the program went on for another 20 minutes, with Kurekhin and Sholokhov citing endless “evidence” of Lenin’s affinity for mushrooms, starting from his passion for collecting fungi and going so far as to compare a photo of an armored vehicle Lenin once posed on to fungal mycelium.

At some point, both couldn’t help but laugh after stating that the Soviet hammer and a sickle symbol was, in fact, combination of a mushroom and a mushroom picker’s knife. But even the laughter didn’t prevent thousands of people from taking the program seriously.

“Had Kurekhin been speaking of anyone else, his words would easily have been dismissed as a joke. But Lenin! How could one joke about Lenin? Especially on Soviet television,” Russian anthropologist Alexei Yurchak said to explain the gullibility of many Soviet viewers.. He emphasized that viewers didn’t necessarily believe that Lenin was a mushroom – but they treated Kurekhin as a serious researcher, calling the television and writing letters demanding that the station confirm or refute the idea of the Bolshevik leader being a fungus.

Sergei Sholokhov, who made the program together with Kurekhin, later said: “The day after the show aired, a delegation of old Bolsheviks went to our local Communist party boss who was in charge of ideology and demanded an answer – was Lenin a mushroom or not. She answered with a fierce ‘No!’ claiming that ‘a mammal cannot be a plant’.”

Both himself and Kurekhin were quite shocked by such an answer, Sholokhov notes. On the other hand, Sholokhov may have made the story up  – just like he and Kurekhin (who died in 1996) did with the TV show.

It was Kurekhin, a humorous hoaxer who came up with the idea. In the late 1980s and early 1990s the world of Soviet media was changing, and as journalists enjoyed more freedom, some of them were talking nonsense.

As Kurekhin’s widow Anastasia recalled, “Once we saw a TV show on the death of Sergey Yesenin (the Russian poet who committed suicide in 1925). The host built his “proof” that Yesenin had actually been killed on absolutely absurd arguments. They showed photos of the poet’s funeral and said: “Look, this man is looking this way and that man is looking the other way, so it means that Yesenin was killed.” Kurekhin saw it and said to Anastasia: “You know, you can prove anything using such “evidence”. And so he did.

Alexei Yurchak explains that the hoax and people’s reactions to it was a good illustration of how people, no matter where they live, tend to trust the media without checking facts. “If there’s something in the media, there must be something to it,” Yurchak wrote. Kurekhin’s provocation was a hilarious way to prove how easy it is to feed people with the most bizarre nonsense if you sound confident enough.

 

Oleg Yegerov writes for Russia Beyond, through whose courtesy this articles is provided.

Russia: A History of World War II Not Often Heard In The West

Every May 9th the Russian Federation celebrates its most important national holiday, Victory Day, den’ pobedy. During the early hours of that day in 1945 Marshal Georgy Konstantinovich Zhukov, commander of the 1st Belorussian Front, which had stormed Berlin, received the German unconditional surrender.

The Great Patriotic War had gone on for 1418 days of unimaginable violence, brutality and destruction. From Stalingrad and the northern Caucasus and from the northwestern outskirts of Moscow to the western frontiers of the Soviet Union to Sevastopol in the south and Leningrad and the borders with Finland, in the north, the country had been laid waste.

An estimated 17 million civilians, men, women and children, had perished, although no one will ever know the exact figure. Villages and towns were destroyed; families were wiped out without anyone to remember them or mourn their deaths.

Ten million or more Soviet soldiers died in the struggle to expel the monstrous Nazi invader and finally to occupy Berlin at the end of April 1945. Red Army dead were left unburied in a thousand places along the routes to the west or in unmarked mass graves, there having been no time for proper identification and burial. Most Soviet citizens lost family members during the war. No one was left unaffected.

The Great Patriotic War began at 3:30am on 22 June 1941, when the Nazi Wehrmacht invaded the Soviet Union along a front stretching from the Baltic to the Black Seas with 3.2 million German soldiers, organised in 150 divisions, supported by 3,350 tanks, 7,184 artillery pieces, 600,000 trucks, 2,000 warplanes. Finnish, Italian, Romanian, Hungarian, Spanish, Slovakian forces, amongst others, eventually joined the attack.

The German high command reckoned that Operation Barbarossa would take only 4 to 6 weeks to finish off the Soviet Union. In the west, US and British military intelligence agreed. Besides, what force had ever beaten the Wehrmacht? Nazi Germany was the invincible colossus. Poland had been crushed in a few days.

The Anglo-French attempt to defend Norway was a fiasco. When the Wehrmacht attacked in the west, Belgium hurried to quit the fight. France collapsed in a few weeks. The British army was driven out of Dunkirk, naked, without guns or Lorries. In the spring of 1941, Yugoslavia and Greece disappeared in a matter of weeks at little cost to German invaders.

Wherever the Wehrmacht advanced in Europe, it was a walkover… until that day German soldiers stepped across Soviet frontiers. The Red Army was caught flatfooted, in halfway measures of mobilisation, because Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin did not believe his own intelligence reports warning of danger, or want to provoke Hitlerite Germany.

The result was a catastrophe. But unlike Poland and unlike France, the USSR did not quit the fight after the expected 4 to 6 weeks. The Red Army’s losses were unimaginable, two million soldiers lost in the first three and a half months of the war. The Baltic provinces were lost. Smolensk fell and then Kiev, in the worst defeat of the war. Leningrad was encircled. An old man asked some soldiers, “Where are you retreating from?”

There were calamities everywhere too numerous to mention. But at places like the fortress of Brest and in hundreds of unnamed fields and woods, road junctions and villages and towns, Red Army units fought on often to the last soldier. They fought out of encirclements to rejoin their own lines or to disappear into the forests and swamps of Belorussia and the northwestern Ukraine to organise the first partisan units to attack the German rear.

By the end of 1941, three million Soviet soldiers were lost (the largest number being POWs who died at German hands); 177 divisions were struck from the Soviet order of battle. Still, the Red Army fought on, even forcing back the Germans at Yelnya, east southeast of Smolensk, at the end of August. The Wehrmacht felt the bite of the battered but not beaten Red Army. German forces were taking 7,000 casualties a day, a new experience for them.

As the Wehrmacht advanced, Einsatzgruppen, SS death squads, followed, killing Jews, Gypsies, communists, Soviet POWs, or anyone who got in their way. Baltic and Ukrainian Nazi collaborators assisted in the mass murders. Soviet women and children were stripped naked and forced to queue, waiting for execution. When winter came freezing German soldiers shot villagers or forced them out of their homes, dressed in rags like beggars, robbing them of hearth, winter clothing and food.

In the west those who predicted a speedy Soviet collapse, the usual western Sovietophobes, looked stupid and had to eat their forecasts. Public opinion understood that Hitlerite Germany had walked into a quagmire, not another campaign in France. While the British everyman cheered on Soviet resistance, the British government did relatively little to help. Some Cabinet ministers were even reluctant to call the Soviet Union an ally. Churchill refused to let BBC play the Soviet national anthem, “the Internationale,” on Sunday evenings along with those of other allies.

The Red Army still retreated, but kept fighting desperately. This was no ordinary war, but a struggle of unparalleled violence against a murderous invader for home, family, country, for life itself. In November the Red Army dropped a pamphlet on German lines, quoting Carl von Clausewitz, the Prussian military theorist: “It’s impossible either to hold or conquer Russia”

That was real bravado in the circumstances, but also true. Finally, in front of Moscow, in December 1941, the Red Army, under Zhukov’s command, threw back the spent forces of the Wehrmacht, in the south by as much as three hundred kilometres. The image of Nazi invincibility was shattered. Barbarossa was too ambitious, the blitzkrieg had failed, and the Wehrmacht suffered its first strategic defeat. In London Churchill agreed, grudgingly, to let BBC play the Soviet national anthem.

 

In 1942 the Red Army continued to suffer defeats and heavy losses, as it fought on nearly alone. In November of that year at Stalingrad on the Volga, however, the Red Army launched a counteroffensive, which led to a remarkable victory and the retreat of the Wehrmacht back to its start lines in the spring of 1942… except for the German Sixth Army, caught in the Stalingrad kotel or cauldron.

There, 22 German divisions, some of Hitler’s best, were destroyed. Stalingrad was the Verdun of the Second World War. “It’s hell,” a soldier said. “No… this is ten times worse than hell,” someone else corrected. At the end of the winter fighting in 1943, Axis losses were staggering: 100 German, Italian, Romanian, Hungarian divisions were destroyed, or mauled. The president of the United States, Franklin Roosevelt, reckoned that the tide of battle had turned: Hitlerite Germany was doomed.

It was February 1943. In that month there was not a single British, American, or Canadian division fighting in Europe against the Wehrmacht. Not one. It was sixteen months before the Normandy landings. The British and Americans were then fighting two or three German divisions in North Africa, a sideshow compared to the Soviet front.

Western public opinion knew who was carrying the burden of the war against the Wehrmacht. In 1942, 80% of Axis divisions were arrayed against the Red Army. At the beginning of 1943 there were 207 German divisions on the Eastern Front. The Germans tried one last hurrah, one last offensive against the Kursk bulge in July 1943. That operation failed. The Red Army then launched a counteroffensive across the Ukraine which led to liberation of Kiev in November. Further north, Smolensk had been freed the month before.

The spirit of the Soviet people and their Red Army was formidable. War correspondent, Vasilii Semenovich Grossman, captured its essence in his personal journals. “Night, Snowstorm,” he wrote in early 1942, “Vehicles, Artillery. They are moving in silence. Suddenly a hoarse voice is heard. ‘Hey, which is the road to Berlin?’ A roar of laughter.”

Soldiers were not always brave. Sometimes they fled. “A battalion commissar armed with two revolvers began shouting, ‘Where are you running you sons of whores, where? Go forward, for our Motherland, for Jesus Christ, motherfuckers! For Stalin, you whores!’…”

They went back to their positions. Those fellows were lucky; the commissar could have shot them all. Sometimes he did. A soldier volunteered to execute a deserter. “Did you feel any pity for him?” Grossman asked. “How can one speak of pity,” the soldier replied. At Stalingrad seven Uzbeks were found guilty of self-inflicted wounds. They were all shot. Grossman read a letter found in the pocket of a dead Soviet soldier. “I miss you very much. Please come and visit… I am writing this, and tears are pouring. Daddy, please come home and visit.”

Women fought along side the men as snipers, gunners, tankists, pilots, nurses partisans. They also kept the home front going. “Villages have become the kingdom of women,” wrote Grossman, “They drive tractors, guard warehouses and stables… Women are carrying on their shoulders the great burden of work. They dominate… send bread, aircraft, weapons and ammunition to the front.” When the war was being fought on the Volga, they did not reproach their men for having given up so much ground. “Women look and say nothing,” wrote Grossman, “… not a bitter word.” But in the villages near the front, sometimes they did.

In the meantime, the western allies attacked Italy. Stalin had long demanded a second front in France, which Churchill resisted. He wanted to attack the Axis “soft underbelly”, not to help the Red Army, but to hinder its advance into the Balkans. The idea was to advance quickly north up the Italian boot, then wheel eastward into the Balkans to keep out the Red Army. The way to Berlin however was north northeast. Churchill’s plan was a failure; the western allies did not get to Rome until June 1944.

There were approximately 20 German divisions in Italy fighting against larger allied forces. In the East, there were still more than two hundred Axis divisions, or ten times those in Italy. On 6 June 1944 when Operation Overlord began in Normandy, the Red Army stood on Polish and Romanian frontiers. A fortnight after the Normandy landings, the Red Army launched Operation Bagration, a huge offensive which stove in the centre of the German eastern front and led to an advance of 500 kilometres to the west, while the western allies were still held up on the Normandy Cotentin peninsula. The Red Army had become an unstoppable juggernaut.

It was just a matter of time before the destruction of Nazi Germany. When the war was over in May 1945, the Red Army had accounted for 80% of the losses of the Wehrmacht, and that percentage would have been far higher before the Normandy invasion. “Those who never experienced all the bitterness of the summer of 1941,” wrote Vasily Grossman, “will never be able fully to appreciate the joy of our victory.” There were many war hymns sung by the troops and the people to keep up morale. Sviashchennaia voina, “Sacred War” was one of the most popular. Russians still stand when they hear it.

Historians often debate about when the decisive turn of battle came in the European theatre. Some propose 22 June 1941, the day that the Wehrmacht crossed Soviet frontiers. Others point to the battles of Moscow, Stalingrad, or Kursk.

During the war western public opinion seemed more supportive of the Red Army than some western leaders, Winston Churchill, for example. Roosevelt was better, a more pragmatic political leader, who easily recognised the preponderant Soviet role in the war against Nazi Germany. The Red Army, he said to one doubtful general in 1942, was killing more German soldiers and smashing more German tanks than all the other allies put together.

Roosevelt knew that the Soviet Union was the linchpin of the great coalition against Nazi Germany. I call FDR the godfather of the “grand alliance”. Nevertheless, in the shadows lurked the usual haters of the Soviet Union, who were only biding their time before emerging again. The greater the certainty of victory over Nazi Germany, the more vocal and strident became the naysayers of the grand alliance.

Americans can be touchy about the memory of the Red Army playing the lead role in the destruction of the Wehrmacht. “What about Lend-Lease,” they say, “without our supplies, the Soviet Union could not have beaten the Germans.” In fact, most Lend-Lease supplies did not arrive in the USSR until after Stalingrad.

Red Army soldiers facetiously called the Lend-Lease food tins the “second front” since the real one was late in coming. In 1942 Soviet industry was already out-producing Nazi Germany in major categories of armaments. Was the T-34 an American, or a Soviet tank?

A polite Stalin always remembered to thank the US government for the jeeps and Studebaker trucks. They increased Red Army mobility. You contributed the aluminum, Russians famously replied, we contributed the blood… the rivers of blood.

No sooner was the war over than Britain and the United States started to think about another war, this time against the Soviet Union. In May 1945 the British high command produced Operation “Unthinkable”, a top secret plan for an offensive, reinforced by German POWs, against the Red Army. What bastards, what ingrates.

In September 1945, the Americans contemplated use of 204 atomic bombs to destroy the Soviet Union. The godfather, President Roosevelt, had died in April, and within weeks American Sovietophobes were reversing his policy. The grand alliance was only a truce in a Cold War which had begun after the Bolshevik seizure of power in November 1917, and which resumed in 1945.

In that year the US and British governments still had to contend with public opinion. The everyman in Europe and the United States knew very well who had carried the load against the Wehrmacht. You could not resume the old policy of hatred against the Soviet Union just like that without blotting out the memory of the Red Army’s role in the common victory over Hitlerite Germany.

So memories of the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression in August 1939 were brought out of the closet, although the memories of prior Anglo-French opposition to Soviet proposals for collective security against Nazi Germany and especially of the betrayal of Czechoslovakia were omitted from the new western narrative. Like thieves in the night, Britain and the United States burgled the true account of the destruction of Nazi Germany.

Already in December 1939, the British planned to publish a white paper blaming Moscow for the failure of Anglo-Franco-Soviet alliance negotiations during the previous spring and summer. The French objected because the white paper was more likely to persuade public opinion that the Soviet side had been serious about resistance to Nazi Germany while the British and French were not.

The white paper was shelved. In 1948 the US State Department issued a collection of documents attributing the blame for World War II to Hitler and Stalin. Moscow fired back with its own publication demonstrating western affinities with Nazism. The fight was on in the west to remember the Soviet Union for the non-aggression pact and to forget the Red Army’s preponderant role in smashing the Wehrmacht.

How many of you have not seen some Hollywood film in which the Normandy landings are the great turning point of the war? “What if the landings had failed,” one often hears? “Oh…, nothing much,” is the appropriate reply. The war would have gone on longer, and the Red Army would have planted its flags on the Normandy beaches coming from the east.

Then there are the movies about the Allied bombing campaign against Germany, the “decisive” factor in winning the war. In Hollywood films about World War II, the Red Army is invisible. It is as if the Americans (and British) were claiming laurels they didn’t earn.

I like to ask students in my university course on the Second World War, who has heard of operation Overlord? Everyone raises a hand. Then I ask who has heard of Operation Bagration? Hardly anyone raises a hand. I ask facetiously who “won” the war against Nazi Germany and the answer is “America” of course. Only a few students—normally those who have had other courses with me—will answer the Soviet Union.

The truth is uphill work in a western world where “fake news” is the norm. The OSCE and European Parliament put the blame for World War II on the Soviet Union, read Russia and President Vladimir Putin, as the subliminal message. Hitler is almost forgotten in this tohu-bohu of evidence-free accusations.

Behind the bogus historical narrative are the Baltic states, Poland, and the Ukraine, spewing out hatred of Russia. The Baltics and the Ukraine now remember Nazi collaborators as national heroes and celebrate their deeds.

In Poland, for some people, this is hard to swallow; they remember the Ukrainian Nazi collaborators who murdered tens of thousands of Poles in Volhynia. Unfortunately, such memories have not stopped Polish hooligans from vandalising monuments to Red Army war dead or desecrating Soviet war cemeteries. Polish “nationalists” cannot bear the memory of the Red Army freeing Poland from the Nazi invader.

In Russia, however, the west’s mendacious propaganda has no effect. The Soviet Union produced its own films, and the Russian Federation also, about World War II, most recently about the defence of the Brest fortress and of Sevastopol, and the battle of Stalingrad.

On 9 May every year Russians remember the millions of soldiers who fought and died, and the millions of civilians who suffered and died at the hands of the Nazi invader. The veterans, fewer each year, come out wearing uniforms that often do not fit quite right or threadbare jackets covered with war medals and orders. “Treat them with tact and respect,” Zhukov wrote in his memoirs: “It is a small price after what they did for you in 1941-1945.”

How did you manage, I wondered to myself observing them on Victory Day some years go, how did you cope, living constantly with death and so much sorrow and hardship?

Now, each year on Victory Day the “immortal regiment”, the bessmertnyi polk, marches; Russians in cities and towns across the country and abroad, march together carrying large photographs of family members, men and women, who fought in the war. “We remember,” they want to say: “and we will never forget you.”

Michael Jabara Carley is Professor of History at the Université de Montréal. He has published widely on Soviet relations with the West. This article comes to us trough the courtesy of The Strategic Culture Foundation.
The photo shows, “Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya Before Execution,” by Konstantin Nikitich Shchekotov, painted, 1947-1949.

Tattered Banners: A Review

A marvellous and deeply evocative book has just been rescued from obscurity and given an afterlife. It is Tattered Banners by Paul Rodzianko. Until this reissue, by Paul Dry Books, this was a difficult book to find. The few copies of the first edition (published in 1939) that came on the market tended to be rather exorbitantly priced. Money-issues aside, this scarcity also meant that few had access to the important account given in this often moving memoir.

The structure of the narrative is a classic one – a man caught in the vortex of destruction. It is also the story of Russia – from the splendor of a sophisticated and cultured age, to the slaughter of the First World War, the cruelty of the Revolution in 1917, and the ensuing Civil War.

The book begins with descriptions of the frivolities, the preoccupations and even the innocence of that pre-war era: the follies and pranks of drunken officers, extravagant revels, glittering ballrooms, and even one or two pretty courtesans, like the blonde Nadejda (Nadezhda). A lost world, long vanished, and often forgotten: “a world that hate and passion have swept aside.”

It is worth noting that the book was written in English, a testimony to that lost cosmopolitan world when men and women were expected to know French, German, and English, along with Russian. Rodzianko knew all four languages. And his writing style is fresh, light and evocative, without being ponderous or preachy. And his insights are often startling, for their enduring relevance: “Then, as now, [people] think what their newspapers told them to think. Whatever they read most often in the biggest type is what nations believe. The masses become indignant, hysterical or conceited, according to the propaganda handed out to them.”

Rodzianko’s canvas is large on which the slow, inexorable passage into tragedy is depicted. The book opens with the terrible calamity of Khodynka Field (the stampede on Tsar Nicholas II’s coronation day, in which 1300 people were trampled to death). Thus, the reign of the last monarch of all the Russias began with a bloodbath – and his reign also ended with one.

Then follows the Russo-Japanese War (another disaster for Russia), the failed Revolution of 1905, which was a warm-up to the real one a dozen years later.

Rodzianko very fairly describes how Russia blundered and fumbled its way into the First World War, by siding with Britain and France, against Germany. It would be a war that everyone knew was of no benefit to Russia, but this was the age of alliances, or what we would call honor.

Russia knew little about modern warfare, and Rodzianko describes the ruinous mishaps, the bad judgment, terrible logistics (lack of food, ammunition, shells), with regiment after regiment wandering about here and there, not knowing whether to attack or retreat, with inept generals issuing orders that contradicted those given earlier.

The saddest parts of the book are the feats of grand heroism shown by the Russian rank-and-file which were nothing other than a terrible waste of life: “…the country they died for was soon to crash; their sacrifice was in vain.”

Then comes the “crash” itself – the Revolution, an unmitigated disaster for Russia, followed by the chaos of 1917, the slaughter of the royal family, and the ensuing long and bloody civil war.

The memoir now becomes a chronicle, and the chronicle becomes an eyewitness account to the terrible and bloody birth of the modern age. What begins as a time of enchantment, lurches into utter horror.

But more than anything else, the book is a life remembered, and the life belongs to Paul Rodzianko, soldier, professional equestrian, and member of the Russian nobility whose childhood of great wealth and privilege was spent playing in palaces, and visiting heroic men, like his grandfather, the old Prince Stroganoff, whose memory reached back to Napoleon and the conquest of Paris by the Russians.

There are cameo-appearances by Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany, who agrees to be tossed about by drunken cavalry officers; there is the kindly Tsar Nicholas, the holy man Rasputin and his murderer, Prince Youssoupoff, the great singer Chaliapin, the brave but doomed General Kolchak, and even a revolting lunch of plover eggs with King George V.

In recounting his life, Rodzianko meditates upon the loss of his world: “…the flower of Russia riding as they would ride to their deaths.”

Interestingly, this republication also marks the hundredth anniversary of the murder of Tsar Nicholas II and his entire family (July 17, 1918).

Rodzianko was with the Whites (the anti-Red faction in the Russian Civil War), when they captured Ekaterinburg, where the royal family was being held captive. The Whites had hoped to free the Tsar. But the Bolsheviks were far cleverer, and had shot them all and carefully hid the bodies, which were not found until 1998 (they had been located in 1979).

Rodzianko meticulously describes the grisly week he spent, piecing together what he could, trying to locate the bodies of the Tsar and his family. He fails, for the Reds are too meticulous in their murder. What he discovers instead is the vast inhumanity that was the Civil War, for Ekaterinburg and its environs are thickly scattered with graves of hundreds, if not thousands, shot by the Reds – a harbinger of what lay in store for Russia under Stalin.

He digs up bodies that he is told might belong to the royals, but he finds nothing conclusive. But he does manage to find a survivor – the little dog that belonged to Alexei, the young tsarevitch. Perhaps as a consolation, Rodzianko adopts the lost dog, from a lost time, and eventually brings him back to England. The dog’s name, sadly enough, was Joy.

This book is an enthralling read and should be on the bookshelves of all who like to wander in lost realms and muse awhile on days long gone. It is a book filled with atmosphere, color and lively anecdote. The only regret is that Rodzainko should have written more about his life, for as he observes: “I myself cannot believe that I have lived through and witnessed such things.”

 

The photo shows a work by Vladimir Pervuninsky.