Aberration in Afghanistan

Mikhail Evstafiev: Soviet Withdrawal (1988). 

The Soviet Union’s intervention in Afghanistan is widely seen as one of the most costly and misguided military decisions made in the 20th century, and it is often cited as one of the biggest reasons the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991. In his book Russia: A History, Gregory Freeze notes that the “coup de grace for detente was the decision to intervene in Afghanistan in December 1979. Ever since a Marxist faction seized power in April 1978, Moscow had given strong support to the regime in Kabul and its social and cultural transformation” (445). Conclusively, this decision proved to be catastrophic in which the “Soviet Union found itself snared in a military quagmire that consumed vast resources, cost enormous casualties, and had a devastating effect on the Soviet Union’s international position” (Freeze, 446).

In his essay Invasion of Afghanistan, James von Geldern notes that the “war, fueled by and fueler of Cold War anxieties, operated on the law of unintended consequences. Plans for a minor palace coup did not consider the possibility of a long-term war between peoples.”  Further, the “war provided a divisive issue right when the dissident movement was at its peak, and diverted funding from the stagnant civilian economy as it ground to a halt. It destroyed the already ailing relationship with the western nations, and undermined Soviet relations with the Third World. Following the bizarre logic of the Cold War, in which the enemy of my enemy is my friend, it caused the United States, recently rocked by the Islamic revolution in Iran, to become an ardent supporter and arms supplying [sic] to the Islamic revolt in Afghanistan.”

Launching the Missile that Made History. 

In his article entitled Afghanistan: A DIFFICULT DECADEPolitical Commentator A. Bovin asks several rhetorical questions about the Soviet involvement in Afghanistan that ring eerily true in the context of American involvement in Afghanistan following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Writing in 1989, Bovin states that judging “from the information [he] had, the situation in the country was becoming increasingly critical. The same ‘damnable’ questions kept coming to mind. Why weren’t the people who seized power in April 1978 able to use that power, after securing the people’s and peasants’ support, to wrest Afghanistan out of its backwardness and to rebuild the society on a new and just basis? Why did the enormous and comprehensive assistance provided by the Soviet Union, including the dispatching of a 100,000-man army, fail to lead to a strengthening and stabilization of the post-April political regime?” It is truly a historical anomaly that a small, mountainous, disjointed country like Afghanistan was able to largely withstand the pressure of the two superpowers the world has ever seen; both nations learned a costly lesson that if you attempt to impose a way of life or government on a region that is not receptive to it, massive costs will result.

To conclude, I would like to link to a song entitled “In the Afghan Mountains” by Aleksandr Rozenbaum; this song expressed the misery and grim determination of patriotic soldiers fighting what they knew to be a senseless war. Just like the events that sparked Rozenbaum’s song, American involvement in the Middle East and Central Asia created a wave of songwriting in response to the events, with hits like Toby Keith’s “American Soldier” and Linkin Park’s “Shadow of the Day” expressing both the patriotism and contempt that Americans were feeling during their own time at war. While during both Russia and the United States’ conflicts in Afghanistan each country supported opposition forces, both countries’ citizenry experienced similar sentiments which shows the commonalities of war and the effects it has on populaces.

3lMw2tZrWGMe1N6l9-Jl8YPTVc4VNveseqQHh0DWvW6rl4ub8EhFa29ymcfgCtQHByRJat1BpjQTi3TE4YwvLpqpVN0n6OU7noT6rCj3Wk9u0FLqIIY0rhizI0cxD2sdeyF2jQMThis post earned a “red star” award from the editorial team.

Mankind’s Deadliest Weapon: The Hydrogen Bomb


In his essay Hydrogen Bomb, Lewis Siegelbaum states that on “August 12, 1953 the Soviet Union detonated a thermonuclear (“hydrogen”) bomb at the Semipalatinsk test site in northern Kazakhstan. Work on the super-bomb had begun in 1946, three years before the Soviet Union exploded its first atomic bomb.” To clarify, the difference between an atomic bomb and a hydrogen bomb is that atomic bombs use fission to separate atoms in a super-critical chain reaction, whereas in hydrogen bombs, nuclear fusion is used to create a chain reaction. Siegelbaum goes on to say that the “project was organized by the First Chief Directorate under Lavrentii Beria, Minister of State Security (MGB)” and that it “was headed by Igor Kurchatov (1903-60), a physicist who had been appointed scientific director of the Soviet Union’s nuclear project in 1943.”

As the Cold War developed and the arms race between the United States and Soviet Union intensified, the nuclear arms program was given highest priority by Stalin and was continued unabated by his successors. Further and interestingly, unlike “the first Soviet atomic bomb the development of which was hastened by espionage in the United States, the first Soviet hydrogen bomb was of an original design” (Siegelbaum). This provides valuable insight into the Soviet scientific community at this point, as they no longer had to rely on stealing research and development techniques from the United States but could instead rely on their own scientific ingenuity to come up with a more powerful weapon than what they had already possessed before.

Further, in The Current Digest of the Russian Press in an article titled “Government Announcement of Test of A Hydrogen Bomb in the Soviet Union,” it is revealed that one “of a variety of hydrogen bombs was exploded for experimental purposes in the Soviet Union within the past few days. Because a powerful thermonuclear reaction was created in the hydrogen bomb, the explosion was of great strength. The test showed that the power of the hydrogen bomb is many times greater than the power of the atom bomb.”This official government pronouncement was significant because it coincided with “The Thaw” that was occurring as Soviet society attempted to De-Stalinize. In Russia: A History, Gregory Freeze states that the new regime “cautiously began to dismantle the Stalinist system of repression and secrecy. Symbolically, in late 1953 it opened the Kremlin itself to visitors; during the next three years, eight million citizens would visit this inner sanctum of communist power” (412-413). With the opening of the new system and this announcement of a successful hydrogen bomb test came something for Soviet citizens to find hope and encouragement in, because as Freeze also states, “Without the contribution of the peoples of the Soviet Union, victory would not have been achieved at all” (388) referencing World War II, so as the Cold War began, there would need to be a new rallying point in which patriotism could take root.

To conclude, it is worthwhile to note where the arms race went from here. In this song entitled, “Do the Russians Want War?“, one picks up on the theme outlined by Siegelbaum when he writes that “In a speech of March 1954, Geirguu Malenkov… referred to the danger of ‘a new world war, which with modern weapons means the end of world civilization.'” Malenkov then reverted to the party line “that nuclear aggression by the United States would lead to the ‘collapse of the capitalist social system.'”We are left reminded that the production of nuclear weapons took us to a point where the United States and the Soviet Union could have ended the world as we know it, and the incessant arms race is one of the reasons that the Soviet Union ultimately collapsed.

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The Allies can Tank the Battle of Kursk for Turning the Tide of the War

The Kursk Front.

In his essay Battle of Kursk, James von Geldern states that this engagement “involved the largest tank battle of the Second World War,” and “was fought on the steppe of Kursk oblast between July 5 and August 23, 1943.” Furthermore, from taking a class on World War Two last Autumn, I know that this was and still is the largest tank battle in history, giving us an interesting anecdote on the mechanization of the Soviet Union and Germany during World War Two.

Geldern goes on to note that the battle “was initiated by the Germans who, in retreat after their spectacular defeat in the Battle of Stalingrad, concentrated 50 divisions, two tank brigades, three tank battalions, and eight artillery assault divisions comprising 2,700 Tiger and Panther tanks, some two thousand aircraft, and 900,000 men in all.”On the other side, the “Soviet forces, consisting of General K.K. Rokossovskii’s Army of the Center, General N.F. Vatutin’s Voronezh Army, and the reserve army of the Steppe Front under General I.S. Konev, number 1.3 million troops, 3,600 tanks, and 2,800 aircraft.”

In his work Russia: A History, Gregory Freeze notes that “German intelligence services also undercounted the Soviet tank park (by at last 50 per cent and grossly underestimated the scale, and productivity of the Soviet war economy” (383). Continued, Freeze says that the “Soviet Union was clearly winning the industrial war against Nazi Germany even as early as 1942. Although in that year Russia’s supply of steel and coal was only one-third that of Germany, it nevertheless manufactured twice the number of weapons. Simply put, the Soviets outproduced the Germans” (386-387). When supplied with these armaments, the Soviet Union found the wherewithal to fight and thus became the formidable opponent that Hitler and his General Staff had not anticipated. Further, it is fascinating to note the Soviet Union’s industrial superiority over Germany beginning in 1942 because that is before American lend-lease capital entered their economy, meaning the Soviet Union might have been every bit as much the sleeping-giant that the United States was.

Upon achieving this resounding victory, “the Soviet Red Army went on to liberate most of Ukraine in the autumn of 1943, marching into Kiev on November 6. Although Western historiography traditionally marks the beginning of the German downfall to the D-Day invasion of Normandy, the crushing defeat of Kursk makes a more likely turning point for the war” (Geldern). This video provides a captivating account of the battle, not because of what is said, but rather because it shows the sheer scope and size of the conflict with all of the activated mechanized units advancing against one another and the destruction that can be wrought using man-made weapons of war. To conclude, it is interesting to note two points of American pride during World War Two, lend-lease and the D-Day invasion, and how an argument can be made that both were after-the-fact compliments to results the Soviet Union had already reached.

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The Power of Patriotism


Forward for the Sake of the Motherland! 

According to Dictionary.com, patriotism is a “devoted love, support, and defense of one’s country; national loyalty.” Similarly, nationalism is a “devotion and loyalty to one’s own country; patriotism.” Ironically, patriotism is often seen as an admirable quality to possess because of the pride one feels for their country, whereas nationalism is often met with a negative connotation and equated with radical extremism. In my mind, the new patriotism the Soviet Union found in the late 1930s can just as accurately be described as nationalism because of the militant undertones it exuded.

In his essay The New Patriotism, James von Geldern states that though “most historians associate the notion of posthumous rehabilitation to the post-Stalin era, the practice was in fact launched in the late 1930s. The positive reevaluation of national heroes from the tsarist era had reached full swing by 1939. The most robust applause was reserved for long-deceased military heroes…” Viewed in the context of Stalinist Russia, the timing of the resurgence of past military heroes is not coincidental; in his book Russia: A History, Gregory Freeze notes that “the Great Purges continue to fascinate and appall. Emblematic of Stalinism, the ‘repressions’… of 1936-8 seem to have been so arbitrary in victimization, so elusive in motivation as to defy explanation” (364). Further, “most scholars assumed that Stalin was intent on eliminating any potential source of opposition, beginning with past opponents but eventually including any who might appear to be unreliable in the future” (365). Because Stalin did not trust anyone around him in the military high command, it would make sense for him to exhume the images of fallen national heroes so that their legacies would be associated with him and the public would be more likely to place their trust in him as a military commander.

This resurgent patriotism also manifested itself through posters, videos, and music.

Better an Honorable Death than a Shameful Life! 
There is No Power that can Enslave Us
Children of Chapaev

What is interesting about the propaganda posters shown above is that they all contrast the current, modern Soviet military and its capabilities to the armed forces of the past. Furthermore, they contrast dark and faded colors to bright red in order to catch the viewer’s eye. Also, one can see the progression in weaponry from the past to the present, with both swords and machine guns being pictured, and also in clothing and hair styles as all of the modern soldiers are clean-shaven with short hair and the past heroes have long hair and beards. The purpose of these posters is to show the populace that they are descendants from these great heroes, and therefore inspire them to act in the same fashion.

One famous film from the period was Alexander Nevskii directed by Sergei Eizenshtein, which covers the famous battle on the ice. According to Seventeen Moments in Soviet History, “Nevsky here is presented as a paragon of Russian nationalism and leadership, sentiments that would have been out of place in the thirteenth century, but were entirely appropriate to Stalin’s era.” Further, Geldern notes that Nevskii defended Novgorod against Swedes, Mongols, and in 1242, the Teutonic Knights. He also achieved sainthood in Russian Orthodoxy, and his example for the Soviets at the time was manifest “in the explicit identification of the thirteenth-century Teutonic knights that he defeated with twentieth-century German fascists (aka Nazis), highlighted by the similarity of their helmets.”

Lastly, patriotic music was revitalized during The New Patriotism era, with Life for the Tsar by Ivan Susanin serving as the first great nationalistic hymn.

What this period teaches us about Russian history is that all facets of culture, art, film, and music, came together to promote Stalin’s goals; he had complete control over Soviet society and used the great leaders of the past to make up for his own lack of ability and paranoia.

3lMw2tZrWGMe1N6l9-Jl8YPTVc4VNveseqQHh0DWvW6rl4ub8EhFa29ymcfgCtQHByRJat1BpjQTi3TE4YwvLpqpVN0n6OU7noT6rCj3Wk9u0FLqIIY0rhizI0cxD2sdeyF2jQM  This post earned a “red star” award from the editorial team.

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The Kornilov Conundrum


Image Source.

During the summer months of 1917, Russian Society was in the process of completely breaking down: workers frequently resorted to strikes and other disruptive behaviors that halted factory production, peasants seized land that did not belong to them, the upper class’s fears about chaos below them were manifested, and the government led by Kerensky seemed oblivious to the disastrous economic and social situation that they had inherited.

In the midst of all the disarray, General Lavr Kornilov emerged as Supreme Commander of the Russian Armed Forces and as Lewis Siegelbaum states in his essay entitled “Kornilov Affair,” “those who backed [Kornilov’s] candidacy for the role of military dictator included several key politicians from the conservative and centrist parties, top military personnel, and banking and industrial leaders associated with the Society for the Economic Rehabilitation of Russia and the Republican Center.” Sensing the fragility of the current political situation and overestimating the support he had from important actors, Kornilov ordered one of his subordinates, General Krymov, to lead a march with his loyal troops on Petrograd in order to dissolve the Soviet and reinstall discipline into the military. The attempted coup was a catastrophic failure for a number of reasons, but mainly because the Soviets effectively mobilized a defense to keep Kornilov’s forces out of the city. These makeshift defense units were composed mostly of armed workers organized into Red Guards, elements of the Petrograd garrison, and other workers who were able to keep forces from advancing because of the occupations they held. Shortly after his failed charge, Kornilov was imprisoned and several of the other key orchestrators were dead.

According to Seigelbaum, the main victor in the entire affair was the radical left, and particularly the Bolsheviks, who had long warned about the consequences of a counterrevolutionary movement. Furthermore, Kerensky’s authority was openly challenged and the way was opened for Lenin’s soviets to seize control. Freeze supports and expounds upon Seigelbaum’s assertions, noting that “the Kornilov affair, though a farce and fiasco, further eroded support for Kerensky’s government and facilitated the Bolshevik seizure of power, without, however, in any way pre-ordaining the methods or timing of the October Revolution” (288).

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Freeze, Gregory L. Russia: A History. 3rd ed. New York: Oxford UP, 1997. Print.

Kornilov Affair Seventeen Moments. 



The Road to Revolution is Paved with Massacres

Image Source.

On March 5, 1770, a unit of British soldiers opened fire on a group of protesting Americans in Boston, Massachusetts. This onslaught resulted in the immediate deaths of three persons and two later died from their mortally inflicted wounds. This incident, known as the Boston Massacre, served as a galvanizing event for the Patriots’ cause during the fight for American independence and gave the revolutionary cause the fire it needed to come alive in full force.


Image Source. 

Similar to the American Boston Massacre, Bloody Sunday  occurred in Russia on January 9, 1905 in which Freeze tells us that, “well over a hundred were [killed] and many more were wounded” (252). Leading up to this atrocity, an Orthodox priest named Georgii Gapon had mobilized thousands of workers, many of whom were unbeknownst to him ex-Marxists, to  create his “Assembly of Russian Factory Workers” that were marching on the Winter Palace to demand improvements to higher wages, shorter working hours, and a transition to a liberal political program that included a constitution and free elections with universal manhood suffrage. Tsar Nicholas did not appear at the palace to receive the petition, and to further public opinion against him, he authorized military units to open fire on the advancing marchers whose ranks were filled with women and children.


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The common theme over the course of the Revolution of 1905 was that the imperial government’s actions were too little, too late. The revolution found its members largely drawn from the peasant and working classes because they were the two sectors of society that had been continually manipulated and abused by those in positions of power. In September of 1905, a nation-wide general strike took place that originated in Moscow and found its central nervous system grow around the railway line from Moscow to St. Petersburg (for a discussion on railways in the revolution, you can read my last blogpost here). This Moscow strike led to similar events throughout the country in big manufacturing cities, and thus provided the avenue for working Russians to enter the revolution. On the other hand, September was also important for the peasants because of, “the absence of government troops–off fighting the Japanese on Russia’s eastern frontiers until the war ended in August, then slowly returning to central Russia on the politically inflamed railways–and the example of unpunished worker defiance that facilitated the appearance of peasant unrest” (Freeze, 253-254). When the peasants heard about the successful strike of the urbanite workers, they were inspired to believe that they could achieve a similar victory and win concessions from the government to improve the quality of their lives.

Image Source.

Finally, on October 17, Tsar Nicholas issued a manifesto containing a promise to create an elected legislative body as well as civil and religious liberties and the right to organize unions and political parties. However, this document still favored the elitist class and was largely unfulfilling to workers and peasants alike. I cannot help but think that if meaningful, sincere reforms had been introduced in Russia when the signs of discontent were running rampant throughout the providing classes, that Russia’s economy would have fully developed into a prosperous, capitalist system and thousands of lives could have been saved that were lost in the name of revolution.

3lMw2tZrWGMe1N6l9-Jl8YPTVc4VNveseqQHh0DWvW6rl4ub8EhFa29ymcfgCtQHByRJat1BpjQTi3TE4YwvLpqpVN0n6OU7noT6rCj3Wk9u0FLqIIY0rhizI0cxD2sdeyF2jQMThis post earned a “red star” award from the editorial team.


Freeze, Gregory L. Russia: A History. 3rd ed. New York: Oxford UP, 1997. Print.

The Development of Russian Railways

Steam Engine “Kompaund” with a Schmidt Super-Heater

Sergei Prokudin-Gorskii, “Steam Engine ‘Kompaund’ with a Schmidt Super-Heater” (1910). Permanent record.

Photograph Background

Sergei Prokudin-Gorskii made several trips around the Ural Mountains where he photographed railway installations and other urban scenes. Pictured above is a “Kompaund” (Compound) locomotive of the Ab132 type, meaning it was produced at the Briansk locomotive factory, today Russia’s largest locomotive enterprise, in 1909. These locomotives were some of the most powerful produced in Russia in the early 1900s and their top speed was 115 kilometers per hour which allowed them to cover Russia’s expansive landmass in reduced time. Although the exact location where this photograph was taken is unknown, it is estimated that it occurred on the Ural Railway Line somewhere between Perm and Yekaterinburg. Lastly, the yellow railway car seen in the back of the photograph is guessed to be Prokudin-Gorskii’s mobile development lab where he used his ahead-of-the-time color process to produce his vivid images.

Economic and Social Development

Before 1855, the only railway line in Russia ran between the two capitals of St. Petersburg and Moscow which meant that key resources, such as iron ore and coal, and markets could not be linked in an economically feasible manner. However, as statewide growth began to accelerate through the 1880s, transportation exploded. According to Gregory Freeze in Russia: A History, “the total of railway lines increased nearly thirteen fold (from 2,238 versus in 1861 to 28,240 versus in 1887)” (216).

This exponential increase in railways coincided with the rise of Alexander the Third’s rule, where he implemented the primacy of state leadership and autocracy. As Russia’s railways developed, it allowed the State’s economy to divest itself from its reliance on foreign technology and goods because supplies from the far reaches of the nation were able to be transported to previously inaccessible regions. Furthermore, as Freeze notes, the railway connected previously separated ethnic groups and Alexander the Third used this to his advantage; in his effort to “Russify” the Baltic Germans, he was able to connect them to St. Petersburg and demand that Russian be the language used in state offices and schools, that the imperial justice system be adopted, and that a German university be renamed. Lastly, the advent of the railway system in Russia was beneficial for military purposes; command and control issues had been rampant over the course of the Russo-Japanese War in large part because it was difficult to maneuver the large number of troops necessary in distant parts of Manchuria, but with increased interconnectedness came less stress on military commanders and supplies could be moved more efficiently.

Freeze notes further that in 1892, the “Witte Era” began which “were the years marked by the influence, if not full political dominance, of the controversial but eminent Minister of Finance, Sergei Witte (Vitte), the former railway executive whose provocative developmental economic policies raised the ire of so many gentry and caused so much friction within the government itself” (237). Further, a recession set in around 1900 which discredited Witte’s system but to Marxists, it was viewed “not as a sign of the weakness of Russia’s economy…but as further evidence that a capitalist Russia was now enmeshed in the international business cycle” (248), a necessary step if the country was to progress toward its final socialist end goal. Finally, when the 1905 strikes and revolution occurred, it originated with Moscow workers but then formed “its central nervous system along the railway lines of which Witte has been so justly proud, with the old Moscow–St. Petersburg line as the network’s spinal column” (253). As such, it is obvious that Russian railway lines and their founders played a contributing, and sometimes explicit, factor in the progression toward revolution which may have not been possible without them.

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Briansk Locomotives.

Freeze, Gregory L. Russia: A History. 3rd ed. New York: Oxford UP, 2009. Print.

Russo-Japanese War Facts. 

World Digital Library.