Nov/Dec 2018 Current Moscow Time: 07:43:21
18 November 2018

  The world’s biggest country, in a magazine. Since 1956.

Sunday, July 01, 2018

Awful Augusts

by Tamara Eidelman

All around the world, August is a time for vacations, travel, and resorts, a time of school breaks, picnics, and swimming.

But somehow, in Russia, August has seen more than its fair share of mayhem and disaster over the past hundred years. 

In 1918, it was on August 30 that the young poet Leonid Kannegisser shot the brutal sadist Moisei Uritsky, the chief of the Petrograd Cheka who had presided over a program of arrests and executions. The writer Mark Aldanov, who claimed to have possession of Kannegisser’s diary and considered him to be a man of outstanding ability and exemplary moral qualities, produced an essay titled “The Murder of Uritsky” that included the following:


On August 29, he returned home, as usual, toward evening. After supper, he offered to read to his sister, as was their custom. They had been reading one of Schnitzler’s books and had not yet finished it. For this occasion, however, he had chosen another book: a multi-volume French edition of The Count of Monte Cristothat he had recently acquired from a second-hand bookseller. Despite his sister’s objections, he began reading from the middle. He selected some pages – perhaps at random, perhaps not. It turned out to be a chapter about a political murder that an elderly Bonapartist, the grandfather of one of this renowned novel’s female protagonists, had committed in his youth.

He read with enthusiasm until midnight. Then he bid his sister farewell... She did see him one more time, at a distance, from her cell on Gorokhovaya Street:* he was being escorted by guards to an interrogation. 

Lenin was in Moscow and was aware of what had happened in Petrograd when he addressed workers at the Michelson Arms Factory that same day. After his speech, he too was shot and severely wounded. This assassination attempt, which was carried out by the Socialist Revolutionary Fanny Kaplan, has been the source of countless conspiracy theories. Some claimed that Kaplan could not possibly have been the shooter because of her nearsightedness. Others said Kaplan, after she was apprehended, was not actually executed, as the authorities claimed, and had been sighted at various transit prisons over the years. 

What counts here is the shooting’s harsh aftermath. In response to Uritsky’s murder and the attempt on Lenin’s life, on September 5, 1918, the Council of People’s Commissars introduced what became known as the Red Terror – a policy of “deterrence,” which in fact was a program of ruthless and violent repression involving the killing of large numbers of “counterrevolutionaries” all across the country, specifically the elites of prerevolutionary society: tsarist military officers, entrepreneurs, priests, and members of the intelligentsia. In many parts of the country the Cheka took “hostages,” who were shot at the slightest sign of rebellion, or when an area was under threat from the White Army. 

The Red Terror was just one of many horrific episodes in the bloody Civil War, a surge in the violent repression that had existed before the Council of People’s Commissars voted to implement it, but that in this case was provoked specifically by those two late-August shootings. 


A decade later, in 1928, the situation in the country seemed to have settled down. The Civil War was a thing of the past, and the New Economic Policy had served to more or less stabilize the economy. Furthermore, some saw signs of liberalization. But in reality, those signs were figments of naive imaginations. 

By 1928, Stalin had outmaneuvered almost all of his rivals within the party. In January of that year, rival No. 1, Trotsky, had been exiled to Alma-Ata, and his supporters had been branded as “oppositionists” and were beginning to be arrested and killed. The following year, Trotsky was expelled from the country, a better fate than that enjoyed by his followers. Indeed, the addition of a T to the acronym for the standard charge of “Counterrevolutionary Activity,” making it “Counterrevolutionary Trotskyist Activity,” was enough to ensure that someone would have an exceptionally deplorable life in the camps, an outcast among outcasts who was given the most backbreaking work. 

1928 was also when the first Five Year Plan (announced October 1) was launched and the country bore the tremendous strain of building factory after factory. To achieve this, the country’s leaders decided that this burgeoning industrial might would require the collectivization of agriculture in the countryside. 

The worst horrors of collectivization still lay ahead, in 1929, “the year of the great break” (великий перелом), and in 1931-32, when the Soviet Union would descend into a horrific famine. 

But, once again, August was the month in 1928 that featured a particularly disastrous development: the August 1 issuing of the order “On the Organization of Large-Scale Grain Farms.” Under its guidance, the peasantry began to be forced into collective farms and to have their livestock confiscated. This theft was described with the euphemism “socialization.”

The years of the first Five Year Plan saw the elimination of all segments of society associated with a market economy and the first show trials of supposed “wreckers.” This paved the way for the Great Terror that loomed in the not-so-distant future. 


Moving ahead another decade, to August 1938, we find a country awash in blood. The preceding years had brought arrests, executions, and torture on a scale beyond Uritsky’s wildest dreams. Thousands of military officers were arrested (which truly did “wreck” the country’s military readiness in the lead-up to the Nazi invasion). The purges swept up a diverse array of executioners, heroes of the revolution and Civil War, faithful implementers of Stalinist collectivization and industrialization, keen-eyed ferreters of “wreckers,” and many officials who simply found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time. All these victims were soon followed by millions of people associated with them – friends, family members, and co-workers, along with anyone openly baffled by what was happening and exhibiting an inability to grasp how yesterday’s idols could suddenly become traitors and members of the Trotskyite-Zinovievite underground. 

But then, so the official “party line” had it, Comrade Stalin suddenly found out about all the injustices and saved the day. The head of the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs (the NKVD), Nikolai Yezhov, who had presided over the Great Terror, was removed and arrested. 

In August 1938, the NKVD was given a new chief, who, of course, would get to the bottom of past crimes and release the innocent. His name was Lavrenti Beria.

During the first months after his appointment, several thousand people actually were released from prison. “See that!” exclaimed the optimists, “Now things will be different.” The problem was that most of those released from the camps soon returned there, as repression washed over the country with renewed force. 

Then came World War II, and many, odd as it may seem, breathed a sigh of relief, since they no longer had to seek enemies among their friends, family, and neighbors. The enemy was clear, over there on the other side of the front lines. There was no longer a need to unmask anyone at dreaded party meetings. Now you were given a rifle and sent off to fight a true enemy. And when the war was over, life would be completely different – calm and cheerful. The fascists would be defeated and the capitalist countries would stop their scheming, since, after all, we were fighting on the same side. 

Alas, that hope evaporated soon after the war ended when, in August (of course) of 1946, the first of many ideological decrees was issued by the Central Committee, this one attacking the magazines Zvezdaand Leningradand, in particular, two of the country’s literary lights: the poet Anna Akhmatova and the satirist Mikhail Zoshchenko. The decree served as a sort of starting pistol signaling the race to unmask wreckers in every sphere of the arts and sciences. 


After the war, instead of improved relations with the West, the iron curtain slammed shut. The summer of 1948 saw the beginning of the Berlin Blockade and fears that World War III was right around the corner. This was also when the expression “rootless cosmopolitan” began to be applied to people who were seen as having questionable allegiance to the socialist motherland. For some reason, everyone seemed to know (without being explicitly told) that these cosmopolitans were, for the most part, Jews. But many peoples – entire peoples – were proclaimed criminals and traitors and sent into exile. 

Amid the postwar reversals of 1948, the month of August, again, stands out. That is when supporters of Trofim Lysenko attacked geneticists as representatives of “bourgeois” science and called the entire science of genetics a prostitute at a meeting at the Lenin All-Union Agriculture Academy. Not only did this campaign cause the closing of numerous laboratories, quash promising research, and put the brakes on Soviet scientific progress: it also, as might have been expected, resulted in countless arrests. 

Another decade later people in the Soviet Union began to see another glimmer of hope. In 1956, the country was rocked to its foundations by the 20th Party Congress and revelations that Stalin, our great father and teacher, had in fact made mistakes and that his “cult of personality” had led to violations of legality and the arrest and death of many perfectly innocent people. Hundreds of thousands returned from the camps and the innocent were rehabilitated, including people (although not all of them) who had been arrested during the Great Terror, and in 1938 and 1948. “The children of the 20th Congress” became a generation that believed with all its might in a bright future. 

Changes came in the fields of science and the arts. Three hundred scientists signed a letter to the Central Committee denouncing Trofim Lysenko, who was then removed as head of the Agriculture Academy. The Chechens, Kalmyks, Ingush, and Balkars who had been exiled en masse were allowed to return to their native lands. The iron curtain began to open ever so slightly. Western movies were shown, people got to see the paintings of Picasso and the Impressionists that had been seized after the Nazi defeat and kept under lock and key. In 1957 foreigners flooded into Moscow by the thousands to attend the World Festival of Youth and Students. How could you fail to believe that life was getting better?

True, Soviet tanks had rolled into Hungary in 1956. Also, in 1957 the novel Doctor Zhivago had been published in Italy in translation and in 1958 in the Netherlands, this time in Russian. Later that year Pasternak would be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, which sparked a despicable campaign by the Soviet authorities against the great poet.

Meanwhile, the Chechens who had been allowed to return from exile naturally wanted their homes back, but those homes had since been occupied by Russian settlers. The settlers, of course, were not eager to give them up, and were not really to blame, since they had uprooted themselves and moved without a clear understanding of whose homes they were being given. The situation grew increasingly tense, and in August 1958 a Chechen man killed his Russian drinking buddy in Grozny, sparking violent unrest. The funeral for the young Russian turned into an anti-Chechen rally and led to pogroms and demands that the number of Chechens in Chechnya and Ingushetia be limited. This powder keg was forced shut, only to erupt four decades later, causing intractable misery for all the ethnic groups living in Chechnya. 

But at the time, these looked like temporary setbacks, not reason to doubt the approach of a bright future. The fact that Lysenko was reappointed president of the Agriculture Academy in the sixties, and that Pasternak was hounded to death, and that the iron curtain was still firmly in place, and that rockets with nuclear warheads were sent to Cuba, prompting new fears of World War III – all that was just the result of “voluntarism,” as those who overthrew Nikita Khrushchev would call it after the fact. And at first it really looked that way: yes, that was voluntarism and random events, but now, under Brezhnev, there would be peace and stability. 

True, Soviet writers who dared to publish abroad were prosecuted, but next door, in socialist Czechoslovakia, the Prague Spring was building “socialism with a human face,” opening borders, allowing new political parties, and introducing economic reforms. 

Then, in August 1968, those optimistic signs vanished. Soviet tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia, and yet another generation saw their aspirations crushed, and the pall of hopelessness grew heavier. 

It began to be said that Comrade Stalin was not so bad after all, since he had “won the war.” It was as if the Terror had never happened, at least it was never mentioned. Yet another decade passed. 

In 1978, the main event for the Soviet population was the 1978 Soviet Cup soccer competition final, in which Kiev Dynamo faced off against Donetsk Shakhtyor (or Shakhtar, in the Ukrainian), a standoff between Ukraine’s west and east that now has its own eerie resonance. Kiev won, by the way. 

In less than two years the Soviet Army would enter Afghanistan, in five perestroika would get underway and the true scale of Stalin’s crimes would be revealed, and in 13, the Soviet Union would collapse. And those who lived that long would again be filled with hope for a better tomorrow. They would indeed see many good developments, but also many bad ones (notably the failed “August Putsch” of 1991). 

In more recent memory, August 1998 brought a financial crisis when the Russian government defaulted on its debt and devalued the ruble, sending the economy into freefall and bankrupting many newly emerged businesses. There was also the war in Chechnya, where blood was being spilled not just in August, but throughout the year. Ten years later, during August 7-12, 2008, Russia managed to have a short war with Georgia, when the two countries clashed over South Ossetia. 

What lies ahead for August of 2018, we of course cannot know. But we can hope that Russia will manage to avoid the August curse.

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