Archive | December, 2012

Winter Palace Catches Fire

Winter Palace Fire

The fire at the Winter Palace in 1837

On December 17, 1837, the Winter Palace caught on fire. The official home of the Tsar’s of Russia, it was first built starting in 1711 commissioned by Tsar Peter the Great. The first Winter Palace was designed by Domenico Trezzini, a Swiss-Italian architect. Trezzini’s most famous work that still stands today is the Peter and Paul Cathedral.

Peter I, as he was want to be, soon grew tired of the building and commissioned a second one to be built. This time he switched architects to Georg Mattarnovy. It was in this version of the Winter Palace that Peter was to die in 1725.

Peter II, decided in 1727 to redo the building his grandfather had begun. This time he brought back Trezzini who decided to make it a far grander palace. The third version of the Winter Palace was completed in 1728 but Peter decided to move the court to Moscow. With his death in 1730, Anna I decided to move the court back to St. Petersburg. She wanted a more grandiose palace so she called in  Francesco Bartolomeo Rastrelli to make it so.

It was under Elizabeth I that the palace really took shape. At a cost of over 2.5 million rubles, it was truly spectacular. But under Catherine the Great, things really became extravagant. Incredible art pieces were installed throughout. The Hermitage was built adjacent to the Winter Palace by Catherine in 1764 to hold the overflow of art.

More art poured into the Winter Palace after taking many masterpieces from Napoleon’s ex-wife Josephine. Alexander I and Nicholas I continued to upgrade things with the latter being responsible for the rebuilding after the fire in 1837. It now contains 1,500 rooms, 1,786 doors and 1,945 windows which is staggering to say the least.

Because of its size, after the assassination of Alexander II, it was deemed to be too big to protect the last two Tsar’s. The the Palace of Gatchina was now the primary home, some 40 miles from St. Petersburg. Nicholas II decided that this didn’t suit him and his family and moved them to  Tsarskoe Selo.

Under Soviet and current rule, the Winter Palace is part of the overall Hermitage museum. It attracts over 3.5 million visitors each year. It is a marker for the decadence of the Russian Tsar’s and a monument to incredible art. Hopefully, in the not to distant future I will be able to visit the Winter Palace which I understand was not very far from where my ancestors lived.

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Denikin – White Russian General

Anton Denikin

General Anton Denikin

On December 16, 1872, the son of a one time serf, Anton Ivanovich Denikin was born in Szpetal Dolny. This small village in what is now Poland, was once a part of the Russian Empire. This unlikely leader was part of anti-communist movement during the Russian Civil War (Episode 71).  He was to commit numerous atrocities, especially against the Jewish population. His push towards Moscow during the summer of 1919 almost toppled the Bolshevik’s but ultimately his army was defeated.

Anton Denikin was the son of a former serf, Ivan Efimovich Deniken who was forced into a 25 year tour of military service started in 1833. Eventually he would become an officer in 1856, retiring as a major. His father’s patriotic feelings towards the Tsar and the Russian Empire inspired Anton to go into the military himself. Another ideal that Denikin was to take from his father was his deep seated hatred of Jews.

Living in extreme poverty, Denikin began to take courses at Kiev Junker School in 1890.  He graduated in 1892 and applied to the General Staff Academy in 1895. Unfortunately, Denikin could not meet the academic requirements in his first two years there. He continued to try and seemingly had made it only to find out that they changed the rules. He plead his case to the Grand Duke who made him an offer to enter that Denikin felt was an insult to his integrity.

Over the following years, Denikin continued to move up the ranks. In 1905, the Russo-Japanese War began and by now he was a colonel. By the time World War I began, he was now a major general. It was here that Denikin began to show his mettle.

While he had the cushy job of being named Quartermaster General Brusilov‘s 8th Army, he wanted to go to the front. He was given his wish when he joined the 4th Rifle Brigade. He was to serve brilliantly. During the Brusilov Offensive he was to help win the last Russian offensive during the war.

With the onset of the Russian Revolution in 1917, he joined the staff of  Lavr Kornilov. Not liking what they saw with the Provisional Government, Denikin participated in the  Kornilov Affair. He was arrested in September 1917 but escaped in October.  Denikin joined Grand Duke Nicholas, Kornilov and other Russian officers to mount opposition to the Bolshevik’s.

When Kornilov was killed, Denikin took over as Commander-in-Chief. His mission was to capture Moscow and in the summer of 1919 he almost accomplished it. The city and the Bolshevik revolution was saved by a deal made between Leon Trotsky and Nestor Makhno‘s anarchist Black Army. Makhno would later be betrayed by the communists but he served his purpose.

While in retreat, Denikin’s army began its legacy of atrocities against the Jewish population. Over 100,000 were murdered in the pogroms. By now, international pressure and support forced Denikin to resign. He eventually fled to France but ended up in the United States in 1945, dying there in 1947. Initially buried in France, his remains were brought back to Russia in 2005 at the behest of his daughter. He is now buried at the  Donskoy Monastery in Moscow.

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Persian Interactions with Russia

One of the greatest praises one can get is when someone takes your idea and runs with it. Mike Rakshan did just that with his new podcast, The History of Persia. His obvious passion for the subject is likely due to his being of Persian descent like mine being because of my Russian descent. You can tell in his voice that this is a project that comes from the heart which makes it a great listen. Also, thanks for the shout out at the beginning of the podcast. Much appreciated.

Interactions between Russia and the Persian’s (present day Iran) have persisted from the time that people inhabited the land of the Rus until present day. Through Persia the Russians were exposed to the religion of Islam and it is thought that Persian emissaries came to the court of Vladimir the Great to present their religion to him although some believe it was Bulgarian Muslim’s who made the presentation.

Persian merchants were major trading partners with the Kievan Rus back in the late 10th and early 11th century. While Constantinople was the biggest partner, Persians were not far behind. Through the time of the Samanid dynasty 819 – 999, Ghaznavids 963–1186 and the shared invasion of the Mongols in the 13th century trading continued.

Now under the thumb of the different Mongol Hordes, there was still some trade going on but because of how devastated the Persian population was, it went down to a trickle. As both countries struggled to shake off the domination, they began to evolve in different ways. But they did have a common enemy, the Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman-Persian Wars were fought from about 1514-1823.

The Russians began to come into conflict with the Ottoman’s as they began their expansion south, beginning with the ascension to the throne by Peter the Great. His Great Embassy through Europe was to gather allies in his fight to take Ottoman territories (Episode 31)  like the base at Azov. When he saw the threat of the Swedes under Charles XII he signed a treaty with the Ottoman’s much to the dismay of the Persian leaders who were themselves were fighting wars with the Ottomans.

Moving to the more recent dealings,things between the USSR and the Shah of Iran were cool. Under Gorbachev, better relations with Iran were tried as a buttress against American influence in the Middle East. With Putin, conflicts arose between the Persian Iranians and Russia die to conflicts in the Caspian Sea. Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, former members of the USSR were developing their independent energy resources which was opposed by Iran.

I look forward to hearing more about Persian history from Mike as it seems to be a long and interesting one.

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Chechnya and the First Chechen War

Chechnya, is a country found in the southeastern part of Europe in the Northern Caucasus mountains. It was annexed by the Russian Empire in the 1870’s. It was later joined with Ingushetia to form the autonomous republic of Chechen-Ingushetia in the late 1930s as a member state in the USSR. Its time as a member state of the Soviet Union was not a good one as we shall see.

What is remarkable about Chechnya is that it is home to one of the earliest known human settlements, dating back to 125,000 BCE. Ever since the 1400’s, Chechnya has been in constant strife trying to remain independent of foreign rule. Unfortunately for them, they were stuck between two great empires, the Ottomans and the Russians. They converted as a people to Sunni Islam so they were more closely allied to the Turks as opposed to the Russians. This was not to prove to be a viable alliance as the Ottoman Empire began a steady decline while the Russians were expanding. Chechnya was eventually absorbed into Russia in 1875.

The deal with the Russians was due to constant raiding by the Turks and Persian despite the common Sunni religion. The merger though was not popular with the people. So whenever turmoil hit Russia, the people of Chechnya revolted as they did during  Russo-Turkish War, the Russian Revolution of 1905 (Episode 64), the Russian Revolution of 1917 Episode 67), and the Russian Civil War (Episode 71).

This history of rebellion did not sit well with Joseph Stalin as you might imagine. The NKVD, under orders from Stalin, began mass deportations of millions of Chechens and Ingush peoples. The were sent to the Kazakh SSR and Siberia in 1944. This was supposed punishment for helping the Nazi’s during the Great Patriotic War. While under Nikita Khrushchev, they were gradually allowed to return to their homeland. Although the program of Russification was kept in effect. This was to cause a festering hatred of the Russians.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 an independence movement was founded called Chechen National Congress. This group was led by former Soviet Air Force General and new Chechen President Dzhokhar Dudayev. Then Russian President Boris Yeltsin was opposed to the independence of the country and tried to send a military force to invade the country and subdue it on December 11, 1994.  For two years the two countries fought but like Afghanistan, the mountainous regions within Chechnya proved impossible to control. On August 31, 1996, a peace treaty was signed and hostilities for the moment were over.

A second war in Chechnya was begun in 1999 and lasted over nine years with Russian victory at a grave cost. Rebels continue to harass Russian troops and on occasion terrorist attacks have taken place on Russian soil.

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Kiev Captured by the Mongols

Viking Arriving in Russia

On December 6, 1240, a Mongol invasion force led by Batu Khan, captured the city of Kiev. It has generally been acknowledged as the end of the era of Kievan Rus. Once a flourishing mecca whose rulers children married into the houses of many European leaders, it would be centuries before it would regain its luster.

While this was the death blow to Kiev as a center of Russia it was already in a state of decline. The reasons for the decline are numerous but some were more important that others. The first reason was the appanage system of the passing of lands to multiple sons following the passing of their father. It caused a splintering of the lands, especially in Kiev as brothers battled brothers for control of the countryside. Civil war was common after the death of the last unifying Grand Prince, Yaroslav the Wise in 1054.

After the Grand Prince’s death, Iziaslav I took over but he was overthrown a few years into his reign in 1068. With the help of the Polish Army, he retook Kiev in 1069 but was thrown out again, this time by his brothers in 1068. Returning in 1076 he only lasted two more years until he was finally killed in battle in 1078. All this warring was wearing down the people and caused a general financial recession to hit the region.

Subsequent rulers kept Kiev as the main city of Russia but its influence was slowly eroding to other cities especially Novgorod but another issue was causing it to lose its economic strength and that was the deterioration of it main trade partner the Byzantine Empire. Constantinople was losing its power as attacks from the Crusaders and pressure from the Muslims were shrinking their territories. Since Kiev was a main center of trade to the Byzantines from the Vikings in the north a slowing economy meant that the Varangian traders went looking for other more lucrative areas. Gradually, Kiev began to slide downward in influence and prestige.

The next near fatal blow was delivered by Prince Andrei Bogolyubsky of Vladimir when he sacked Kiev in 1169. This caused Kiev to lose its perception as the center of the people of the Rus. By now cities like Vladimir-Suzdal had surpassed Kiev. Then as if to just heap more misery on the once bustling town, the Mongols arrived and destroyed what was left of Kiev. It was not to be until the 19th century, during the Industrial Revolution that the city was to thrive again. Today it is a thriving and vibrant city of 2.8 million inhabitants in the Ukraine.

 

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Tsar Mikhail Romanov?

Grand Prince Mikhail Romanov

Presumptive Tsar Mikhail Romanov

On December 4, 1878, Mikhail Alexanderovich Romanov, the last Tsar of Russia was born. He was the youngest son of Tsar Alexander III and brother of Tsar Nicholas II. He was the first, but not the last, Romanov to be murdered by the Bolsheviks.

Born into royalty, when he was born he was fifth in line to the Romanov dynasty. When his grandfather Tsar Alexander II was assassinated in 1881, he moved up to fourth. With the death of his father Tsar Alexander III in 1994 and the ascension of his brother Tsar Nicholas II, he became second in line behind his brother George. George died in an motorcycle accident in 1899 which made Mikhail the next in line. When Nicholas’s son Alexei was born, he was no longer next but because of the boys delicate health, having hemophilia, he was regarded as the likely heir should anything happen to his brother.

While most would think that being born into a family as wealthy as the Romanov’s would mean a life of luxury, it was not so with Mikhail and his siblings. Tsar Alexander III believed that the children should live a spartan life, sleeping on hard beds, and washing themselves in cold water. Still, life for them was far better than the majority of Russians of the time. Life changed dramatically for Mikhail as his father died when he was just 15 years of age. He was quickly enrolled in military school to prepare him for the potential to take over as Tsar should it come to that.

His love life began in controversy as he fell in love with his first cousin, Princess Beatrice of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. Their proposed marriage was denied by both the Russian Orthodox Church as well as his brother, Tsar Nicholas II. He reluctantly ended the relationship. Next up was a relationship that horrified the Tsar’s family as Mikhail fell in love with a commoner, Alexandra Kossikovskaya. Dina as she was known was never accepted by the family as they had her followed constantly by the Russian secret Police, the Okhrana.

Eventually, he met someone Natalia Sergeyevna Wulfert, the wife of a fellow military officer. The Tsar’s family was once again aghast at Mikhail. Eventually she would divorce her husband to marry Mikhail but much to the chagrin of his family, she gave birth to a boy George, before the divorce was finalized. The Romanov’s back dated the divorce to avoid further embarrassment.

When World War I began, Mikhail asked to return to Russia with his wife and child to help with the war effort. He served bravely in the war but he felt that it was a tragedy for the people. With the war going so poorly for the Russians, he was further dismayed when his brother Tsar Nicholas II decided to take over as Supreme Commander. His countless mistakes caused great suffering and terrible casualties among the brave Russian soldiers.

Mikhail believed that the people were beginning to oppose his brothers reign and told him so in a letter in 1916. By March 15, 1917, Tsar Nicholas II abdicated, first giving his son Alexei the throne but after careful thinking, he changed his mind and gave up his throne to brother Mikhail. He wrote, “We have judged it right to abdicate the Throne of the Russian State and to lay down the Supreme Power. Not wishing to be parted from Our Beloved Son, We hand over Our Succession to Our Brother the Grand Duke Mikhail Aleksandrovich and Bless Him on his accession to the Throne.”

Mikhail was not told of the decree until the next morning. After careful deliberation and pressure from the Provisional Government, Mikhail conditionally declined the offer, effectively ending the Romanov Dynasty. Nicholas was very disappointed but had little choice in the matter.

On August 21, 1917, Mikhail was put under house arrest and while later released, the Bolsheviks, now in power, rearrested him. On June 13, 1918, Mikhail Alexanderovich Romanov, would become the first of the royal family to be murdered. It was an ignominious death of a man so close to the pinnacle of power as the presumptive last Tsar of Russia.

 

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Napoleon and the Battle of Austerlitz

Napoleon at the Battle of Austerlitz

Napoleon at the Battle of Austerlitz

The Battle of Austerlitz, fought on December 2, 1805 was a brilliant win for French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. The convincing victory, also known as the Battle of the Three Emperors, successfully ended the Third Coalition and caused the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire. Armies from Austria under Francis I and Russia under Alexander I faced off against the La Grande Armée near the town of Austerlitz now known as Slavkov u Brna in the present day Czech Republic.

The French army numbered 72,000 while the Russo-Austrian fielded 85,000. Napoleon was uncertain of victory but he had a plan to sucker in his enemies and deliver a smashing defeat. He was certain that the Allies would try to attack his southern flank which would play right into his plans. Napoleon was assured that he had some of the finest Generals as well the best trained army on the continent.

The Russians were led by aristocrats who often times bought their positions instead of being given their commissions due to merit. Soldiers were poorly trained and often times abused. Loyalty though of the men was unquestioned and they fought hard. The Austria army was in disarray as a major reorganization was ongoing without the appropriate training for the officer corp. It was a setting ready for disaster.

Emperor Francis I and overall commander General Mikhail Kutusov both felt that caution would be the best battle plan but Alexander I and his nobles pressured for an attack. This was falling right into Napoleon’s hands which he took advantage of.

The battle itself was marked by poor coordination and slow movements by the Allies which not only allowed Napoleon to attack the center of the Allies,  but to repulse the thrust at his southern flank. The fight was brutal and often hand to hand but gradually, Napoleon’s men wore their opponents down. By the end of the day, the Allied troops were in full retreat and in panic.

Losses for the allies was catastrophic. They lost fully 37% of their army compared to 13% of the French army. On December 4th, the Austrians signed a truce with Napoleon, followed by the Treaty of Pressburg which effectively took Austria out of the war.

While Tsar Alexander I blamed the outcome on Kutuzov, he also must have realized that Kutuzov had recommended a pull back instead of an attack. If anyone was to blame for the defeat, it should have been Alexander yet his ego wouldn’t allow it. Years later, in 1812, he listened to Kutuzov who successfully defeated Napoleon by harassing the French Army when they invaded Russia instead of directly confronting him.

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Kirov Assassinated

Sergei Mironovich Kirov

Head of the Leningrad Party, Kirov was the chief rival to Joseph Stalin

Sergei Mironovich Kirov was assassinated on December 1st 1934, likely by orders from his rival Joseph Stalin. Charismatic, good looking, and well liked, Kirov was a definite threat to Stalin who was trying to consolidate his power at the time. At the 1934 party congress, Kirov received only 3 negative votes whereas Stalin received far more. Unfortunately for Kirov, Stalin controlled the vote tally and he was elected instead of Sergei.

Born on March 27, 1886 as Sergei Mironovich Kostrikov, Kirov was orphaned at a young age and was sent to an orphanage at the age of 7. His education was paid for by wealthy benefactors which allowed him to graduate from an industrial school in Kazan where he received an engineering degree. He quickly became a Marxist as Russian society faced the crises of the early 1900’s.

After being arrested during the 1905 revolution, Kirov joined the Bolshevik party. He fought with the Bolsheviks in the Civil War as a commander in Astrakhan. According to Montefiore, “During the Civil War, Kirov was one of the swashbuckling commissars in the North Caucasus beside Sergo and Mikoyan. In Astrakhan he enforced Bolshevik power in March 1919 with liberal blood-letting: over four thousand were killed. When a bourgeois was caught hiding his own furniture, Kirov ordered him shot.”

In 1921 Kirov took a managerial post in the Communist Party in Azerbaijan as a loyal ally of Joseph Stalin. For this he was awarded the position as head of the Communist Party in Leningrad. Together with Sergo Ordzhonikidze, Kirov sought to soften Stalin’s harsh treatment of those who dared disagree with him. Because of this stance, he became increasingly popular much to the chagrin of Stalin.

It was clear that Kirov had to go, so it is likely that Stalin ordered his murder. The head of the secret police, the NKVD was Genrikh Yagoda. He arranged for Kirov to be assassinated. The man who was hired to carry out the deed was one Leonid Nikolaev, a erratic man who held a grudge against the Party leadership.

On December 1st, the guards protecting Kirov was shuffled and not as tight as was normal. This planned change allowed  Nikolaev to get to Kirov who shot in the back of the neck. Nikolaev was captured and executed in secret. Stalin for his part used the Kirov assassination to begin his Great Purge.

Not only was Nikolaev executed but so was most of his family and a number of his friends. Stalin blamed the murder on his rivals like Grigory Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev, both of whom were eventually tried and executed. While there is no direct evidence that Stalin was complicit in the murder, there is little doubt that he ordered it. Everyone involved in the assassination of Kirov, like the guards around Kirov and Yagoda were dead by 1937. As author Boris Nikolaevsky wrote “One thing is certain: the only man who profited by the Kirov assassination was Stalin.”[

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