Clare Sheridan’s Secret Life

If Winston Churchill was a vehement opponent of Soviet Russia, his cousin Clare Sheridan, on the contrary, was one of its biggest supporters. That in Britain was unforgivable.

“I am not a Bolshevik. But I have tried to understand the spirit of Communism and it interests me overwhelmingly,” wrote Winston Churchill’s cousin Clare Sheridan in her diary, published as Russian Portraits, during a trip to Soviet Russia in 1920.

The British counterintelligence agency MI5, however, was not so sure. They believed that this relative of one of the most influential people in Britain was a Bolshevik spy.

Being the cousin of War Minister Winston Churchill was not Clare Sheridan’s only accolade. She was a famous sculptor in her own right, and it was her professional activities that took her to the capital of Soviet Russia.

Having met with representatives of a Soviet trade delegation in London in 1920, Clare admitted to having a lifelong love for Russian literature, music, dance, and art; she was promptly invited to visit Russia.

However, at the time it was very difficult for a British subject to do so. The Entente’s intervention in Russia had only just ended, and some British troops remained in Crimea, the last stronghold of the White armies. Moreover, Britain itself, despite opening trade talks, was in no hurry to officially recognize Soviet Russia.

Visiting the land of the Bolsheviks was viewed as utter madness, but Sheridan cared little for public opinion. Via Stockholm and Tallinn, “this wild cousin of mine” (as Churchill put it) set off for Moscow.

Clare was greeted in Russia as an honorary guest. For two months she lived inside the Kremlin, strolled around the streets of Moscow, visited theaters, observed the lives of ordinary people, and marveled at what she saw: “Why am I happy here, shut off from all I belong to? What is there about this country that has always made everyone fall under its spell?”

“Why are these people, who have less education, so much more cultured than we are? The galleries of London are empty. In the British Museum one meets an occasional German student. Here the galleries and museums are full of working people. London provides revues and plays of humiliating mediocrity, which the educated classes enjoy and applaud. Here the masses crowd to see Shakespeare,” she wrote in her diary.

Clare talked a lot to Muscovites, took pictures, and made notes: “Now for the first time I feel morally and mentally free… I love this place and all the people in it. I love the people I have met, and the people who pass by me in the street. I love the atmosphere laden with melancholy, with sacrifice, with tragedy. I am inspired by this Nation, purified by Fire. I admire the dignity of their suffering and the courage of their belief.”

Nevertheless, she didn’t forget why she had come to the Soviet capital in the first place. Sheridan’s sculptural portraits of Bolshevik leaders included Zinoviev, Kamenev, Dzerzhinsky, Trotsky, and, of course, Lenin.

She even got to have a private conversation with the “leader of the Russian revolution.” Vladimir Lenin jokingly reproached her for being related to “the man with all the force of the capitalists behind him.” In response, Clare remarked that her other cousin was a member of the Irish left-wing party Sinn Fein. Laughing, Lenin replied: “That must be a cheerful party when you three get together.”

At home in Britain, Clare was greeted with a coldness verging on hostility. She effectively became persona non grata in high society, and even Churchill refused to communicate with her, at least temporarily.

Despite Sheridan’s protestations that she was far removed from politics, the British were outraged by her unprecedented trip, friendship with the Bolsheviks, and support for Russia.

MI5, in particular, paid close attention to the British war minister’s cousin. The agency could not overlook Clare’s ambiguous remarks about Russia and Russians: “I should like to live among them forever, or else work for them outside, work and fight for the Peace that will heal their wounds.”

Under intense public scrutiny, Sheridan was forced to leave Britain. She set off on an incredible round-the-world trip, which included an affair with Charlie Chaplin in the US, meeting Mussolini in Switzerland, and hearing the speeches of the young Hitler in Germany. Everywhere she went, MI5 agents followed on her heels.

In 1925 field operatives discovered that Sheridan had handed over details of a conversation with Churchill (then Chancellor of the Exchequer) about foreign policy to Daily Herald editor Norman Ewer, who was believed to be a Soviet agent.

Shortly thereafter, according to MI5, Sheridan’s finances quickly improved, suspiciously so. After a decade of money trouble, she went to Algeria, having paid off all her debts. British intelligence suspected a Russian hand in it.

“In view of the facts regarding her financial position [we] are strongly of the opinion that Clare is in the pay of the Russians and that she has been sent to North Africa to get in touch with the local situation and to act either as a reporting agent or possibly as a forwarding agent,” read the MI5 report.

MI5 repeatedly shared its suspicions about Sheridan with Churchill, but he always chose to ignore them. More than that, with WW2 now in play, Clare and Winston finally reconciled their differences, letting bygones be bygones.

Clare Sheridan passed away in 1970 at the ripe old age of 84. No case was ever brought against her.

Boris Egorov writes for Russia Beyond.

The photo shows a portrait of Clare Sheridan by Emil Fuchs, painted in 1907.

Count Friedrich von Schulenburg

In September 1939, Count Friedrich-Werner von der Schulenburg, a 63-year-old German diplomat serving as ambassador to the Soviet Union, couldn’t have been happier. Germany and the USSR had just signed a non-aggression treaty known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Schulenburg strongly believed that peace with Russia was crucial for Germany’s well-being.

“This is a diplomatic miracle… I hope that no circumstances will ruin the situation, which is just fine now. At least, we [the diplomats] fulfilled our task… I hope something good will come out of this!” he wrote emotionally to a friend after the pact was signed.

Unfortunately, nothing good was to come out of it in the end. On June 22, 1941, Nazi Germany would violate the treaty, attacking the USSR with all its might, and all of Schulenburg’s efforts to prevent such an outcome were in vain. But why did such a man serve under Hitler in the first place

Schulenburg would likely have agreed with something Joseph Stalin’s said during World War II: “’Hitlers,’ they come and they go and the German nation will remain.” Schulenburg’s diplomatic service began in 1901, long before the Nazis came to power. A descendant of an old noble family, he worked as a diplomat his entire adult life with just one break to fight in World War I, for which he received an Iron Cross for bravery. Governments changed, but Schulenburg worked professionally with all of them.

He served as ambassador to Iran from 1922-1931 and then to Romania from 1931-1934, but the real challenge for him came when he was appointed to Moscow in 1934. While Schulenburg was no Russophile, he did share Otto von Bismark’s belief that in order to preserve its strength and abundance Germany must stay at peace with Russia.

“He attached a lot of importance to German-Soviet and German-Russian ties… For him, there was no alternative to the fruitful co-existence of those two great countries at peace,” Rüdiger von Fritsch, the German ambassador to Moscow, wrote in an article for Novaya Gazeta in 2014. However, since the Nazis were in charge of German foreign policy from 1933, maintaining good relations between Moscow and Berlin proved extremely difficult.

“No one else could represent Germany in the USSR in those hard times so sophisticatedly, with such caution and dignity, as Schulenburg,” noted Gustav Hilger, a German diplomat who worked in the Soviet embassy during the 1930s. Schulenburg did his best to reduce tension between the two countries in 1938-1939, as they were teetering on the brink of war.

In 1938, he reached an agreement with Maxim Litvinov (the Soviet foreign minister from 1930 – 1939) that the two countries would refrain from lambasting one other in the press. He also helped to prolong the trade treaty of 1938. But, as with any diplomat, Schulenburg couldn’t go beyond fulfilling orders from his government, and this is why he was so supportive of Germany and the USSR signing a non-aggression pact.

The thaw between the USSR and Nazi Germany was to be short-lived. In 1941, as new tensions emerged when Moscow rhetorically supported Yugoslavia following its invasion by Germany, new rumors of war filled the air. Schulenburg tried to address Hitler directly, writing him a note on how dangerous a Soviet-German war would be.

Hilger wrote the following in his memoirs: “On April 28, 1941, while on a work trip to Berlin, Schulenburg met Hitler in person. The ambassador saw his note lying on Hitler’s table, but he couldn’t tell if Hitler had read it. However, while saying goodbye, Hitler, pointed, unrelatedly to the previous conversation: ‘One more thing, Schulenburg. I am not going to go to war with Russia!’”

He lied. Schulenburg, though a de jure member of the Nazi Party, wasn’t a true Nazi and so Hitler didn’t trust him. As Joseph Goebbels, the German propaganda minister and Hitler’s close associate, would later write in his diary: “Our ambassador to Moscow had no idea Germany was going to attack… He insisted that the best policy would be making a friend and an ally out of Stalin… There is no doubt that not informing diplomats about our real intentions is the best policy possible.”

On June 22, 1941, Schulenburg came to the Kremlin to inform Vyacheslav Molotov, Litvinov’s successor as foreign minister, that war had begun – by this time, German troops had already stepped on Soviet soil without any declaration of war. The ambassador himself had just received the order from Berlin and felt absolutely crushed. While talking to Molotov, he “raised his hands towards the sky with an expression of powerlessness on his face,” Hilger remembered.

Schulenburg had to leave Moscow once the war broke out. He served in the foreign ministry in Berlin from 1941-1944, leading the Russia Committee, a formal post without any political influence. Not surprisingly, he was dissatisfied with Hitler and his policies.

This dissatisfaction led the old diplomat to join the ranks of the German anti-Nazi resistance. In 1944, by which time it was clear Germany was losing the war, several high-ranking officers and officials hatched a plot to assassinate Hitler. Schulenburg’s participation in the plot was minor, but he could have played an important role had it succeeded – several sources named him as possible foreign minister. The assassination attempt was not successful, however, and Schulenburg, like many other conspirators, was executed.

Although Schulenburg’s career was abruptly terminated, his wisdom and principles were praised in post-Nazi Germany. As Ambassador Fritsch writes, “If you visit Germany’s embassy in Moscow, you will meet Ambassador Schulenburg: His monument stands in the chancellery and his portrait hangs in the ambassador’s residence, next to the portrait of his great predecessor Otto von Bismark… Schulenburg’s personality and his principles serve witness: He deserves such a memory.”

Oleg Yegorov, writes for Russia Beyond.

The Gulag In Five Books

One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich

Any conversation about the Gulag would be unthinkable without Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, for he was the first in the USSR to introduce the topic to the public.

The risky publication of his short novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich in the literary magazine New World in 1962 became a bombshell. Previously, the topic of Stalin’s camps had not been raised in public although it had – of course – touched almost every family in the country.

In One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, the protagonist, a peasant, recalls how he went to fight the Germans, was captured, escaped, and was immediately sent to the camps. That was how the Stalinist regime treated anyone who had fallen into German captivity: they were viewed as spies or deserters. The book also offers vivid descriptions of the hardships of everyday life in the labor camps.

Those who want to study the topic more deeply and get a broader picture of the scale of Stalin’s camps should read Solzhenitsyn’s magnum opus The Gulag Archipelago, which he himself called an experiment in artistic research. 

Kolyma Tales

Varlam Shalamov foresaw the appearance of a large number of memoirs and non-fiction works about this terrible period of Soviet history. He believed that authenticity would become the main strength of the literature of the future. In a dry and succinct manner, as if through the eyes of a documentary filmmaker, Shalamov writes about prisoners’ backbreaking work, awful and scant food, beatings and the terrible cold of Kolyma. Behind these daily observations, there are the writer’s ruminations about human beings and the value of life. His bleak writing style penetrates deeply into readers’ consciousness and this document about the Gulag may turn out to be more affecting than any work of art.

“Backbreaking work inflicted irreparable wounds on us, and our life in old age will be a life of pain, endless and varied physical and mental pain.”

Here are some excerpts from Shalamov’s short stories…

From, “The Carpenters”

“But the cold kept up, and Potashnikov knew he couldn’t hold out any longer. Breakfast sustained his strength for no more than an hour of work, and then exhaustion ensued. Frost penetrated the body to the ‘marrow of the bone’ — the phrase was no metaphor. A man could wave his pick or shovel, jump up and down so as not to freeze — till dinner. Dinner was hot — a thin broth and two spoons of kasha that restored one’s strength only a little but nevertheless provided some warmth. And then there was strength to work for an hour, and after that Potashnikov again felt himself in the grip of the cold. The day would finally come to a close, and after supper all the workers would take their bread back to the barracks, where they would eat it, washing it down with a mug of hot water. Not a single man would eat his bread in the mess hall with his soup. After that Potashnikov would go to sleep.

He slept, of course, on one of the upper berths, because the lower ones were like an ice cellar. Everyone who had a lower berth would stand half the night at the stove, taking turns with his neighbors in embracing it; the stove retained a slight remnant of warmth. There was never enough firewood, because to go for it meant a four-kilometer walk after work and everyone avoided the task. The upper berths were warmer, but even so everyone slept in his working clothes — hats, padded coats, pea jackets, felt pants. Even with the extra warmth, by the morning a man’s hair would be frozen to the pillow.

Potashnikov felt his strength leaving him every day. A thirty-year-old man, he had difficulty in climbing on to an upper berth and even in getting down from it. His neighbor had died yesterday. The man simply didn’t wake up, and no one asked for the cause of death, as if there were only one cause that everyone knew.”

From, “In the Night”

“Are you a doctor?” asked Bagretsov, sucking the wound.

Glebov remained silent. The time when he had been a doctor seemed very far away. Had it ever existed? Too often the world beyond the mountains and seas seemed unreal, like something out of a dream. Real were the minute, the hour, the day — from reveille to the end of work. He never guessed further, nor did he have the strength to guess. Nor did anyone else.

He didn’t know the past of the people who surrounded him and didn’t want to know. But then, if tomorrow Bagretsov were to declare himself a doctor of philosophy or a marshal of aviation, Glebov would believe him without a second thought. Had he himself really been a doctor? Not only the habit of judgment was lost, but even the habit of observation. Glebov watched Bagretsov suck the blood from his finger but said nothing. The circumstance slid across his consciousness, but he couldn’t find or even seek within himself the will to answer.

From, “Quiet”

We tried to work, but our lives were too distant from anything that could be expressed in figures, wheelbarrows, or percent of plan. The figures were a mockery. But for an hour, for one moment after that night’s dinner, we got our strength back.

And suddenly I realized that that night’s dinner had given the sectarian the strength he needed for his suicide. He needed that extra portion of kasha to make up his mind to die. There are times when a man has to hurry so as not to lose his will to die.

As usual, we encircled the stove. But today there was no one to sing any hymns. And I guess I was even happy that it was finally quiet.

From, “Dry Rations”

We were all tired of barracks food. Each time they brought in the soup in large zinc tubs suspended on poles, it made us all want to cry. We were ready to cry for fear that the soup would be thin. And when a miracle occurred and the soup was thick, we couldn’t believe it and ate it as slowly as possible. But even with thick soup in a warm stomach there remained a sucking pain; we’d been hungry for too long. All human emotions — love, friendship, envy, concern for one’s fellow man, compassion, longing for fame, honesty — had left us with the flesh that had melted from our bodies during their long fasts…

“Just imagine,” said Savelev. “We’ll survive, leave for the mainland, and quickly become sick old men. We’ll have heart pains and rheumatism, and all the sleepless nights, the hunger, and long hard work of our youth will leave their mark on us even if we remain alive. We’ll be sick without knowing why, groan and drag ourselves from one dispensary to another. This unbearable work will leave us with wounds that can’t be healed, and all our later years will lead to lives of physical and psychological pain. And that pain will be endless and assume many different forms. But even among those terrible future days there will be good ones when we’ll be almost healthy and we won’t think about our sufferings. And the number of those days will be exactly equal to the number of days each of us has been able to loaf in camp.”

From, “A Child’s Drawings”

We finished the work, stacked the wood, and waited for the guards. Our guard was keeping warm in the building for which we’d been chopping wood, but we were supposed to march back in formation, breaking up in town into smaller groups.

We didn’t go to warm up, though, since we had long since noticed, next to a fence, a large heap of garbage — something we could not afford to ignore. Both my companions were soon removing one frozen layer after another with the adroitness that comes from practice. Their booty consisted of lumps of frozen bread, an icy piece of hamburger, and a torn pair of men’s socks. The socks were the most valuable item, of course, and I regretted that I hadn’t found them first. “Civvies” — socks, scarves, gloves, shirts, pants — were prized by people who for decades had nothing to wear but convict garb. The socks could be darned and exchanged for tobacco or bread.

From, “The Red Cross”

The evil acts committed by criminals in camp are innumerable. The unfortunates are those from whom the thief steals their last rags, confiscates their last coin. The working man is afraid to complain, for he sees that the criminals are stronger than the camp authorities. The thief beats the working man and forces him to work. Tens of thousands of people have been beaten to death by thieves. Hundreds of thousands of people who have been in the camps are permanently seduced by the ideology of these criminals and have ceased to be people. Something criminal has entered into their souls for ever. Thieves and their morality have left an indelible mark on the soul of each.

The camp administrator is rude and cruel; the persons responsible for propaganda lie; the doctor has no conscience. But all this is trivial in comparison with the corrupting power of the criminal world. In spite of everything, the authorities are still human beings, and the human element in them does survive. The criminals are not human.

The influence of their morality on camp life is boundless and many-sided. The camps are in every way schools of the negative. No one will ever receive anything useful or necessary from them — neither the convict himself, nor his superiors, nor the guard, nor the inadvertent witnesses (engineers, geologists, doctors), nor the camp administrators, nor their subordinates.

Every minute of camp life is a poisoned minute.

What’s a Human Being Worth?

Female authors who went through the camps are less well known. One of the more notable is Eufrosinia Kersnovskaya: she accompanied her memoirs with drawings – simple, child-like images, but for that reason even more terrifying.

Kersnovskaya possessed incredible strength, both physical and mental, and asked to be given men’s work – she even worked in a mine. Her story is amazing: she managed to escape and survived in the taiga when her only food was a frozen piece of horse-meat.

She describes, without embellishment, the most terrible things that were going on in the Gulag, the lowly position occupied by women prisoners and what many of them were prepared to do in order to survive.

The title of her book reflects her attempts to understand under what conditions a person can lose their essential humanity.

Now exhibitions of Kersnovskaya’s drawings from the camps are held all over the world. 

The Monastery

Present-day writers too turn to the topic of the Gulag. For example, one of Russia’s leading authors, Zakhar Prilepin, sent his hero to a camp on the Solovetsky Islands – the very same Gulag archipelago.

This major novel is based on thorough archival research. The author made numerous trips to the Solovetsky Islands, working in the archives there. He offers an extremely accurate depiction of the head of the camp, as well as the entire camp structure – from prison cells made out of former monastic cells and wooden bunks in churches to punishment cells set up in remote monastic retreats.

Prilepin also portrays different groups of inmates – political prisoners and ordinary criminals rubbed shoulders in these camps.

Zuleikha

This is another contemporary novel on our list, the debut novel by writer Guzel Yakhina, which became a bestseller in Russia and has already been translated into 10 languages. It tells not so much the story of the Gulag itself as of the Stalin-era repressions, namely the dispossession of Tatar peasants and their deportation to Siberia.

The book’s heroine, together with a group of prisoners, finds herself in the middle of the taiga under the escort of one officer. They have to dig their own dugout, forage for food and fend off the cold. But, strangely, in these circumstances, she feels a freer person than when she was when oppressed by her husband and mother-in-law.

Although this is a work of fiction, but Yakhina studied archive materials about deportations to Siberia in Stalin’s times. In addition, her grandmother was among those dispossessed in the 1930s, and when depicting the everyday life of her characters, the author relied on her grandmother’s recollections. 

Alexandra Guzeva writes for Russia Beyond.

The photo shows, “Magadan Hills,” by Nikolai Getman.

The Battle Of Berlin

The Battle of Berlin was the final large-scale military operation to take place in Europe during World War II. The British and American allies did not participate in this offensive, leaving the Soviet army to conquer the city alone.

The Battle of Berlin was one of the largest battles in human history. It began on April 16 in the outskirts of the city. By April 25, Soviet troops had entered the Third Reich’s capital. About 3.5 million soldiers from both sides participated in the fight with more than 50,000 weapons and 10,000 tanks.

Soviet troops stormed Berlin while the rest of the Allied army remained more than 100 kilometers outside the German capital. In 1943, U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt declared that “the U.S. must obtain Berlin.”

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill agreed that the Nazi capital must not fall into Soviet hands. However, in the spring of 1945, these Allied forces did not make any effort to take possession of the city. British historian John Fuller called it “one of the strangest decisions ever made in military history.”

However, this decision had its motives. In an interview with RBTH, Russian historian Andrei Soyustov said that there were at least two reasons for this decision.

First, according to preliminary agreements, including the accords made in Yalta, Berlin was located in the zone of Soviet military operations. The demarcation line between the USSR and the other Allied forces went along the Elbe River. “Rushing into Berlin for the sake of status, could have, at minimum, backfired and may have resulted in a USSR decision not to fight against Japan,” explains the historian.

The second reason for not storming the giant urban center was that the Allies had been fraught with casualties as the end of the war approached. In the period between the Normandy landing and April 1945 the Allies “were able to avoid storming large cities,” Soyustov notes.

Soviet casualties in the Battle of Berlin were indeed very high with 80,000 injured and at least 20,000 killed. The German side suffered just as many losses.

Berlin was captured by Soviet troops on three fronts. The most difficult task fell to the soldiers from the First Belarus Front, commanded by Georgy Zhukov, who had to charge the well-fortified German position in Seelow Heights on the outskirts of the city.

The attack began during the night of April 16 with an unprecedentedly powerful and coordinated artillery barrage. Then, without waiting for morning, tanks entered the battle supported by the infantry.

The offensive was conducted with the help of floodlights, which were set up behind the advancing troops. Even with the use of this clever this tactic, several days were needed to seize Seelow Heights.

Initially, almost one million German servicemen were concentrated around Berlin. However, they were met by a Soviet force that was 2.5 times greater. At the very beginning of the Berlin operation, Soviet troops succeeded in cutting off the majority of the German units from the city.

Due to this, the Soviet Army encountered only a few hundred thousand German soldiers in Berlin itself, including the Volkssturm (the militia) and the Hitler Youth. There were also many SS units from different European countries.

Hitler’s troops worked desperately to defend themselves with two lines of defense organized in Berlin. Many homes were equipped with bunkers and these houses, with their thick walls, became impregnable strongholds.

Of particular danger for the advancing Soviet troops were the anti-tank weapons, bazookas and hand grenades since Soviet forces were heavily reliant on the use of armored vehicles during the attack. In this environment of urban warfare, many tanks were destroyed.

Following the war, commanders of the Soviet operation were often criticized for relying so heavily on the use of armored vehicles.

However, as emphasized by Soyustov, in such conditions the use of tanks was justified: “Thanks to the heavy use of armored vehicles, the Soviet army was able to create a very mobile unit of support for the advancing troops, which helped them break through the barricades into the city center.”

The tactics used in the Battle of Berlin built on experience from the Battle of Stalingrad. The Soviet troops established special assault units, in which tanks played a critical role.

Typically, maneuvers were carried out in the following manner: The infantry moved along both sides of the street, checking the windows on both sides, to identify obstacles that were dangerous for the vehicles, such as camouflaged weapons, barricades and tanks embedded in the ground.

If the troops noticed such impediments up ahead, the Soviet infantry would wait for the arrival of their self-propelled tanks and self-propelled howitzers, known as “Stalin’s sledgehammer.”

Once this support arrived, the armored vehicles would work to destroy German fortifications at point-blank range. However, there were situations where the infantry could not keep up with the armored vehicles and consequently, the tanks were isolated from their cover and became easy prey for the German anti-tank weapons and artillery.

The culmination of the offensive on Berlin was the battle for the Reichstag, the German parliament building. At the time, it was the highest building in the city center and its capture had symbolic significance.

The first attempt to seize the Reichstag on April 27 failed and the fight continued for four more days. The turning point occurred on April 29 as Soviet troops took possession of the fortified Interior Ministry building, which occupied an entire block. The Soviets finally captured the Reichstag on the evening of April 30.

Early in the morning of May 1, the flag of the 150th Rifle division was raised over the building. This was later referred to as the Banner of Victory.

On April 30, Adolf Hitler committed suicide in his bunker. Until the last moment, Hitler had been hoping that troops from other parts of Germany would come to his aid in Berlin, but this did not happen. The Berlin troops surrendered on May 2.

Calculating the losses involved in the Battle of Berlin at the end of such a bloody war, some historians doubt whether the Soviet attack of the city was necessary.

In the opinion of historian and writer Yuri Zhukov, after the Soviet and American troops met at the Elbe river, surrounding the German units in Berlin, it was possible to do without the offensive on the Nazi capital.

“Georgy Zhukov… could have just tightened the blockade circle on an hourly basis… But for an entire week, he mercilessly sacrificed thousands of Soviet soldiers… He obtained the surrender of the Berlin garrison on May 2. But if this capitulation had occurred not on May 2 but, let’s say, on the 6th or the 7th, tens of thousands of our soldiers would have been saved,” Zhukov continues.

However, there are other opinions that contradict this view. Some researchers say that if the Soviet troops had just besieged the city, they would have lost the strategic initiative to the Germans.

Nazi attempts to break the blockade from the inside and outside would have resulted in just as many losses for the Soviet Army as the attack, claims Soyustov. It is also not clear how long such a blockade would have lasted.

Soyustov also says that delaying the Berlin operation could have resulted in political problems between the Allied forces.

It is no secret that towards the end of the war the Third Reich’s representatives tried to negotiate a separate peace deal with the Americans and British forces. “In these circumstances, no one would have been able to predict how a blockade of Berlin would have developed,” Soyustov is convinced.

Alexey Timofeychev writes for Russia Beyond.

The photo shows, “The Storming of the Reichstag by the Red Army, 1945,” part of a diorama in the German-Russian Museum in Berlin-Karlshorst.

Who Was Lavrentiy Beria?

That corpulent man wearing a pince-nez remains one of the most symbolic faces of Joseph Stalin’s era. Lavrentiy Beria was calculating and vicious, hard-working and hedonist – and people feared him so much that it led to his downfall.

Just like his boss Joseph Stalin, Lavrentiy Beria (1899 – 1953) was born and bred in Georgia. An ethnic Mingrelian (a small nation closely-related to Georgians), during the Russian Civil War (1918-1921) he specialized in spying and undercover operations for the Bolsheviks in neighboring Azerbaijan. Later, Beria returned to Georgia to work for the Soviet secret police, known as the Cheka – the Extraordinary Commission.

He made a great career in Georgia: in the 1930s, after Stalin got rid of the old Georgian Communists, Beria led the republic. “Beria had no values, was always ready to discard ideology or personal relations – and Stalin liked that about him,” historian Lev Lurie writes. 

Plus, Beria was indeed a good manager. “During his reign in Georgia, the republic became the main supplier of tea, grape and citrus for the entire USSR… the republic that was among the poorest turned into the most prosperous,” Lurie notes.

Cunning Beria established excellent personal relations with Stalin, who visited Georgia many times during his vacations. That helped him a lot – Beria was one of only two heads of Soviet republics ( there were 15) who survived the purges of 1937. Moreover, Stalin took Beria to Moscow, appointing him chief of the NKVD, the notorious secret police.

In Russia, it is common to associate Beria, the longest-sitting head of the NKVD during Stalin’s era, with mass repressions. In fact, it was Beria’s predecessor Nikolai Yezhov who ran the secret police during the height of the terror, 1937-1938. As far as Stalin was concerned, appointing Beria to head the NKVD was a way to scale back the extent of the executions.

“Stalin was a violent yet clever man who was well aware of the fact that further repressions would lead to the failure of his power,” wrote Sergo Beria, Lavrentiy’s son, in his memoirs. “He needed a man of a different kind [from Yezhov] to lead the NKVD.” Sergo’s objectivity can be disputed, but his father did alleviate the violence: in 1938 (the last year of Yezhov’s tenure as head of the NKVD), 328,000 people were sentenced to death in the USSR; in 1939, with Beria in charge that figure was 2,600.

Certainly, that doesn’t mean Beria was a bleeding-heart liberal: like everyone else in Stalin’s government he was always ready to spill blood if there was an order. For instance, it was Beria’s NKVD that sentenced 14,500 Polish war prisoners to death in 1940 (the infamous Katyn massacre).

Stalin appreciated Beria’s organizational skills enough to put him in charge of the manufacture of armaments, aircraft and aircraft engines during World War II – which was in addition to his duties in state security that included both coordinating the work of spies and the infamous deportations of ethnic groups accused of collaborating with the Germans – Chechens, Crimean Tatars and so on.

When the war ended, the USSR faced new challenges – the nuclear arms race, with Washington ahead of Moscow. Stalin had no doubt who could supervise the Soviet atomic project: Beria headed the Special Committee on Creating Nuclear Weapons in the shortest time possible.

The ruthless minister spent 1945 to 1949 providing Soviet scientists with everything they needed. Ninel Epatova, an engineer who used to work on the atomic project, saw Beria periodically, and she recalled: “Back then, Beria always looked exhausted… with red eyes, bags under them… It seemed he didn’t care about anything except work.”

That work consumed Beria, and historian Oleg Khlevniuk writes that: “Soviet nuclear testing could result in his triumph or, in case of failure, the end of his career or even life.” But testing was successful: in 1949, the USSR became a nuclear power, and Beria was among those who made it possible.

“Stalin’s attitude towards Beria was special. He was the only one among the top members of the Communist Party not to have an apartment but a mansion in Moscow all to himself,” Lurie states. Today, this mansion on Malaya Nikitskaya Street in the Moscow center hosts the embassy of Tunisia and… is rumored to be haunted.

There are dark legends surrounding Beria: allegedly he was something of a sexual maniac, having young girls delivered to his house, raping and (sometimes) murdering them, while his guards helped him get rid of the bodies. Nevertheless, there is absolutely no proof for this urban legend, and most historians suppose it was Beria’s posthumous bad publicity that led to such rumors.

What has been proved is that Beria had, in addition to his wife, an ‘unofficial’ one – Valentina Drozdova, who was a 16-year-old schoolgirl when they met in 1949. Their relations lasted until Beria’s death in 1953. Later, Drozdova claimed that Beria raped her, but it’s unclear if it was true or whether she wanted to distance herself from Beria’s legacy.

When Stalin died on March 5, 1953, Beria became one of the most influential people in the USSR, forming a ‘triumvirate’ with two other leaders – Nikita Khrushchev and Georgy Malenkov. In that ‘collective ruling’ system Beria was in charge of state security, which, along with his dark reputation, resulted in Khrushchev and Malenkov fearing Beria and a possible plot against them.  

So, they decided to strike first. In June 1953, Beria was detained, denounced as the architect of repressions and a British spy (a fabricated accusation) and executed the same year. Beria was Stalin’s only secret police chief to outlive his boss, but not for long.

Oleg Yegorov writes for Russia Beyond.

The photo shows a Soviet poster of Lavrentiy Beria, from the 1953.

How Many Russians Died In WWII?

It is clear that during the most horrendous war in the history of mankind, the USSR suffered greater losses than any other country – but the exact number of victims remains disputed.

In 1946, reacting to Winston Churchill’s Fulton speech that marked the start of the Cold War, Joseph Stalin mentioned the Great Patriotic War (how Russians refer to the war with Nazi Germany) and stated that “as a result of the German invasion, the Soviet Union irrevocably lost… around 7 million people.” That was the first ever official Soviet stance on war casualties. And it was fake news.

“In fact, Stalin had knowledge of the other statistical data: 15 million casualties. This number was contained in a report delivered to him in early 1946, by the commission led by The State Planning Committee’s president Nikolai Voznesensky,” Professor Viktor Zemskov of the Institute of Russian History notes. Zemskov supposes that Stalin was eager to hide the real scale of losses from both the Soviet citizens and the world – in order not to show the USSR as a state weakened by the war.

Nevertheless, the official 7-million estimate of casualties didn’t last long, as most Soviet people believed that number to be too low. In 1965, Nikita Khrushchev, who succeeded Stalin as USSR’s leader, mentioned a higher number: 20 million. Essentially, this is the number that became the official evaluation for the rest of the Soviet era – Leonid Brezhnev adhered to it too, but added “more than” to the 20 million casualties.

Both Khrushchev and Brezhnev used the phrase “the war cost the country…” to lump everyone together, not separating those who died in the battlefield, victims of German occupation, those who starved to death, etc.

After the dissolution of the USSR, the estimate grew again. According to the latest statements that Russian authorities officially acknowledge, overall losses (both among soldiers and civilians) amounted to 26,6 million people. That’s the official evaluation of the losses today (in 2019) – at least, it’s the number Russian state officials mention on Victory day, commemorations and so on.

While dealing with those numbers, they didn’t take the whole World War II into account, but rather only the war between the USSR and Nazi Germany between 1941-1945, excluding the Soviet operations between 1939-1941 (the invasion of Poland and the Winter War with Finland) and the Soviet-Japanese war of 1945. 

Another important nuance is that the official estimate, given by the Ministry of Defence in 2015, separates the number of losses (26,6 million people) into the two following categories:

– Around 12 million soldiers were killed in the battlefield, captured (not having returned) or gone missing.

– The rest (approximately 14,6 million people) were civilians who died in the occupation zones, were forcefully moved to Germany (and did not come back) or lost their lives to starvation, illnesses and so on. 

The 26,6 million estimate of losses clearly is official (as of now), but far from being the only one. Though the Great Patriotic War ended almost 75 years ago, the war of numbers still goes on, with different historians proposing different ways to measure the number of losses. 

On the one hand, from time to time occurring versions suggest even bigger losses than the official estimate. For instance, in 2017, Nikolai Zemtsov, Deputy of the Russian State Duma, stated that “the USSR irrevocably lost almost 42 million people due to [the Great Patriotic] war factors.” That version, however, is very doubtful – Zemtsov included in that enormous number not only people who actually died, but children who were not born due to the war – which is incorrect, as professional demographers state. 

On the other hand, there are opinions that suggest 26,6 million is already an overestimation. In his 2015 article, Viktor Zemskov suggested that the estimation of war casualties (11,5 – 12 million) is correct, but the number of civilian losses due to war factors includes too many people: “Such statistics include the increased mortality in the Soviet home front because of malnutrition, overburdening work and so on… I disagree with such an approach.” 

According to Zemskov, it is too hard to distinguish between deaths caused by war and natural reasons in this case – so to be more precise, historians should have only included in the number of civilian deaths caused by war, i.e. those killed directly by Germans, by bombardments, those who died during the Siege of Leningrad – that amounts to 4,5 million victims. Combined with actual war casualties, that gives us 16 million people. Nevertheless, official statistics embrace a larger number of people.

While the argument on the evaluation methods can go on forever, one thing is undeniable: during the Great Patriotic War, the USSR lost a great number of people – strong and passionate men and women in their prime – but it saved the world from German Nazism. The price of victory was terrible, but the price of defeat would have been unthinkable.

Oleg Yegerov writes for Russia Beyond.

The photo shows, “A Nameless Height,” by Alexey and Sergei Tkachev, painted latter part of the twentieth-century.

Failure Of Socialism In Russia

There are a few indisputable reasons that led to the decline of the socialist state – and its subsequent fall.

At the dawn of the USSR, hopes of the imminent global rule of communism soared high among leftists of the world. But in a few decades, it became clear that the socialistic ideals of Lenin had failed. How did this come to happen?

“It is important to distinguish socialism from communism,” says Elena Malysheva, dean at the Division of Archival Studies at the Institute for History and Archives. “While socialism was the formal type of state administration of the USSR, communism was the ruling ideology. The project of the socialist state was initially utopian and populistic.”

Rudolf Pikhoia, Doctor of historical science and the former State Archivist of Russia, argues in his paper ‘Why did the Soviet Union dissolve?’ that the main characteristic of the Soviet state was the unity of government organs and the Communist Party. The Soviet Constitution of 1977 defined the Party as “the core of the political system”. What did it mean in practice?

Lenin argued that the Soviet – the elected organs of local self-administration – was a direct democracy, so there was no need for parliament or the separation of powers (legislature, executive, and judiciary). Everything would be cared for by the members of the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union, which comprised of electees from local Soviets. But the elections of the Soviets were a sham. All officials were appointed by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, and its Central Committee was what really governed the state. All military men, civil servants, the police and the secret services belonged to the Party. State security was ensured by an army of KGB agents – in a recent interview, General Philipp Bobkov (1925 – 2019), former Deputy head of the KGB (1983-1991), estimated that in every region, there were about 300-500 undercover KGB agents, with up to 1,500-2,000 in major regions.

In such conditions, the discordant and the rebellious were intimidated with jails and labor camps. The horrible GULAG system had over half a million in camps in 1933; since 1936, there were over a million convicts, reaching numbers of 2,5 million by the beginning of the 1950s. The atrocities of the system were obvious, especially for foreign onlookers.

“The Soviet project contained elements of what we now call ‘a social state’: social mobility, civil society institutes, social support, free health services, etc. But, because of the utopian nature of the project, this all couldn’t be implemented in full,” says Elena Malysheva. “Non-separation of powers, self-administration of the people – all this demands high social responsibilities that Soviet society didn’t have.”

Indeed, Lenin and his comrades might have believed that all Party and Soviet officials would be fair and honest and wouldn’t bribe, steal or abuse their official status. Unfortunately, the reality was far from the truth. Even at the beginning of the Soviet state, the Bolsheviks would use inhumane methods to extract grain from peasant farmers who produced it. They met with strong civil resistance, sometimes bursting into rebellions like the Tambov rebellion of 1920-1921, where over 50,000 peasants were interred and tens of thousands were killed by the Red Army.

Meanwhile, people who didn’t fit in the ‘new world’, most of all, former bourgeoisie and landlords, were also to be destroyed: “Merciless extermination is necessary,” Lenin wrote. “On foreigners, don’t rush with expulsion. Maybe a concentration camp is better,” he argued. It was obvious Lenin was trying to build an idealistic state of social justice and equality, but with atrocious methods.

Eventually, to crush the peasants’ resistance, the state declared the nationalization of private property, and collectivization of land and means of agricultural production. Now, the peasants’ land, cattle, and agricultural tools belonged to kolkhozes – collective farms. Peasants were almost deprived of money. They worked for “day of labor” and were paid with natural products for the number of days worked. If historians talk about the abolition of serfdom in 1861, it had a revival in 1932-1937, when peasants were banned from leaving the kolkhoz they were assigned to.

The collective farming system led to a sharp decline in grain production. Provision had to be bought abroad. Once one of the world’s leading exporters of grain (as of 1913), Russia became one of its leading importers. Rudolf Pikhoia presents the statistics that in 1973, the USSR imported 13.2% of the amount of grain it was using, and in 1981 – already 41,4%.

And in 1987, only 24% of the country’s production was consumer goods: the state had boosted its unprecedented militarization at the expense of its own people.

But where did the income come from? From 1970 to 1980, oil production in Siberia increased 10 times (from 31 million tons to 312 million tons) while gas production increased from 9,5 billion cubic meters to 156 billion cubic meters. And this oil and gas were being exported to the West – the only lifeline for the declining Soviet economy.

“The Party apparatus and the state apparatus had merged on all levels: executive, administrative and communicative level,” Malysheva says. “In case of any crisis in either one of them – the other one would go into decline, too. So, when democracy started to develop in the late 1980s, the Party couldn’t hold the power. Although the Communist ideology in itself had the capacity for survival, the merging with the state apparatus doomed Communism.”

The Chernobyl catastrophe showed that the executive branch was rotten to the core. After Mikhail Gorbachev started social and political reforms, the unstable equilibrium of the Party and the State fell apart. After the introduction of real elections, the peoples of the Soviet republics showed a strong inclination for sovereignty and the opportunity to make their own decisions.

Meanwhile, the old Party apparatus mostly resigned: in 1986-1989, 90% of local Party officials in all republics resigned, and eventually, the Union fell apart. Unable to reform itself along with the demands of the era, the Soviet system proved to be unsustainable.

Georgy Manaev writes for Russia Beyond.

The photo shows, “The Search” by Nikolai Getman, painted ca. 1990s, which depicts the cruelty of the Gulag.

Granny Was A Spy

Nobody among the residents of Bexleyheath, south-east London, could ever have imagined that their nice neighbor – the charming old lady Melita Norwood – was in fact one of the most important Soviet spies in Great Britain.

Courtesy of Melita Norwood, Stalin was better informed about the construction of the British nuclear bomb than most members of the UK Cabinet.

For almost 35 years, Mrs Norwood copied and transferred to the Soviet Union hundreds of secret documents on the British nuclear program.
Due to her socialism-oriented parents, Melita Sirnis (after marriage – Norwood) was a devoted Communist since childhood. In the 1930s she secretly joined the British Communist Party.

At the same time, she was hired as a secretary at the British Non-Ferrous Metals Research Association, which was developing Britain’s nuclear technology.

The British overlooked the Communist among their ranks, but the Soviets saw a great opportunity. In 1937 Melita was recruited by Soviet intelligence and started to work for “the cause of the World Revolution.”

“I did what I did not to make money, but to help prevent the defeat of a new system which had at great cost given ordinary people food and fares which they could afford, good education and a health service,” recalled Melita many years later.

Norwood had direct access to all the details of the British nuclear program, codenamed “Tube Alloys.” Her boss, G. L. Bailey, was a member of its advisory committee. Completely trusted, Melita had access to Bailey’s two safes: one at the office, the other at his London home.

Top secret correspondence, scientific reports, analyses, etc. were photographed by Norwood and handed over to the Soviets. This information significantly helped them in developing their own nuclear technologies.

Melita Norwood, known as “Agent Hola,” was highly praised in the Soviet Union, even more than the more famous Kim Philby. She was characterized as a “disciplined and devoted agent, who does everything that she can to help Soviet intelligence.”

Twice, in 1945 and 1965, MI5 counterintelligence service raised suspicions about Norwood’s true identity, but both times they did not have enough proof. So it was that in 1972 she quietly retired from her job at Non-Ferrous Metals, and hence from the Soviet secret service.

Disclosure came only 20 years later, when former KGB officer Vasili Mitrokhin defected to Britain and exposed a huge number of files on Soviet agents, including Melita Norwood.

However, due to her old age “Agent Hola” was neither arrested, nor interrogated. The British government decided nothing was to be gained from sending the “granny spy” to prison, and Mrs Norwood was left in peace at her home in Bexleyheath.

Until her death in 2005, Melita Norwood never regretted what she had done. Working for the Soviet Union was a matter of principle for her. She even declined a secret lifelong pension from the Soviets, but gladly received the prestigious Order of the Red Banner.

“I did not want money. It was not that side I was interested in. I wanted Russia to be on equal footing with the West,” Mrs Norwood used to say.

The photo shows a famous poster of “Agent Fifi,” from World War Two.

Mystery Bouffe And The Start Of Soviet Censorship

Despite being a revolutionary and futuristic masterpiece by Mayakovsky, Meyerhold and Malevich, Mystery Bouffe was the first victim of Soviet censorship.

On a warm day one hundred years ago a small group of friends heard the first-ever play by a Soviet dramatist. Poet Vladimir Mayakovsky was reading Mystery Bouffe to a group that included the Commissar of Enlightenment, Anatoly Lunacharsky, and the famous theater director, Vsevolod Meyerhold.

The play was an aggressive piece of Bolshevik propaganda, opening at the Petrograd Conservatoire in 1918 for three performances, with stage decorations and costumes designed by Kazimir Malevich. This first piece of Soviet theater seemed to be pure brilliance, with three giant radical artists celebrating the Revolution’s first anniversary. But it didn’t turn out well.

The creative process was all but sabotaged, and the audiences indifferent. Lenin called it “hooligan communism.” But why such hostility to a show that seemed so in line with the times?

Things started ominously. A few days after the October Revolution, Lunacharsky as the Commissar of Enlightenment convened a meeting to discuss revolutionary approaches to art in the new era. Hundreds of artists were invited, but only five showed up, among which were Mayakovsky and Meyerhold.

Why such a low turn out? These were still deeply uncertain times, and even though all theaters were under Lunacharsky’s control, many artists were not sure about throwing their lot in with the Bolsheviks. But these five did. Meyerhold’s biographer, Edward Braun, called this “a hazardous act of faith.”

Mystery Bouffe is by any standards a strange play, written in Mayakovsky’s trademark energetic and tumbling verse. The story is the Biblical parable of Noah’s ark transplanted into the industrial age. The flood is the Revolution, cleansing the world of the bourgeoisie. The ‘new common man’ leads the proletariat to a mechanized paradise, where tools and even food obey humans.

The play’s cast was huge, with over 70 characters acting in a declaratory and rhetorical style. The conservative Actor’s Union labeled it “futuristic,” which according to Mayakovsky’s biographers Ann and Samuel Charters, is the “word they gave to everything they didn’t understand.”

We are certainly very far away from the living rooms of Chekhov, Mayakovsky says as much in the Prologue. Other theater gives you:

“Uncle Vanya
And Auntie Manya
Parked on a sofa as they chatter

But we don’t care
About uncles or aunts:
you can find them at home – or anywhere!”

He did not want the play to imitate observable reality. This was also Malevich’s approach to the design, as he said: “I saw my task not as the creation of associations with the reality existing beyond the stage, but as the creation of a new reality.”

The play opened with actors coming onstage and ripping up posters of popular performances of that time. It was a declaration of war on Imperial-era theater.

The Petrograd Conservatoire was less than cooperative, and they refused to sell copies of the script. The doors to rehearsal rooms were boarded shut. Nails for the set were kept under lock and key. Actors were very suspicious of the project, and most refused to be involved. An advertisement was put in the paper: “Comrades! It is your duty to celebrate the great day of the Revolution with a revolutionary show.” In the end they had to use students, and Mayakovsky had to play several key roles himself.

Tellingly, most critics did not think the play worthy to be reviewed. Later, however, theater director Vladimir Solovyov wrote that, “it didn’t get across to the audience. The witty satirical passages…[were greeted] with stony silence.”

An outdoor performance was canceled, and the Futurists were banned from participating in forthcoming May Day celebrations. Bolsheviks worried that this style would put off the proletariat.

In retrospect, the experience suffered by this show anticipated the subsequent careers of Mayakovsky, Malevich and Meyerhold. Within 12 years of Mystery Bouffe they’d all be dead, and not from old age. Mayakovsky’s suicide in 1930 was no doubt largely due to mental health issues and his complicated relationship with Lilya Brick. But his constant struggles with the authorities had a huge impact on his inability to live and create.

Malevich’s artwork was banned and confiscated for being abstract and “bourgeois,” and he was imprisoned in 1930 where he developed cancer. He dabbled in figurative art in the early 1930s, but then died in 1935.

Meyerhold suffered the most: his performances were banned, his theater was closed, he was tortured, murdered and rewritten out of history. What began with the locked rehearsal rooms of 1918, ended in the inner chamber of Lubyanka prison in 1940.

Indeed, the optimism of the Revolution gave way to paranoia, censorship and murder in the 1930s. This is mostly attributed to Stalin’s personality and his insistence on promoting the stifling official ideology of Soviet Realism. This certainly played a huge role, but perhaps the truth is more subversive. The immediate reaction to Mystery Bouffe in 1918 was not unlike later arguments against the Avant-garde art in the purges; that it would not be immediately accessible to the common man and was therefore on the side of the bourgeoisie.

As Lunacharsky said of Mystery Bouffe, it was “incomprehensible to the new world.” The history of the play shows that Bolshevism and art had a troubled relationship from the very beginning. Even when they seemed to be toeing the ideological line, these artists were too independent and radical even in the supposedly experimental and revolutionary atmosphere of a hundred years ago.

Oliver Bennett contributes regularly to Russia Beyond. Courtesy of Russia Beyond.

The photo shows a sketch for Mayakovsky’s Mystery-Bouffe at the Rustaveli Theatre, 1924, by Irakli Gamrekeli.