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No Foreseeable End – Vladimir Putin

President Putin

Vladimir Putin

Starting with my episode 170 podcast on Putin, I will be sharing my scripts with my audience moving forward. Hope you enjoy it.

Over the past nearly six years, I’ve covered a number of topics relating to Russian history. In the beginning, when I planned this podcast, I was going to spend a couple of years covering the people who ruled over the country my mother’s side of the family came from. Well that plan went out the window early on.

I fell in love with Russian history. My initial plan was to have around 60 or so episodes. Currently, this is the 196th one as some were not numbered.

About six months ago, I decided that it was time to end things. My professional life was entering a new phase with some amazing opportunities coming to reality. As the months went on I resigned myself to putting together a plan to wrap the podcast up.

Problem was, my family knew that this podcast and the tens of thousands of my listeners were now part of my life and who I am.

On New Year’s Eve 2015, my wife and youngest daughter convinced me to continue the podcast as long as I wanted which I will continue to do as long as there are topics to cover.

Since I made the announcement on Facebook that the show will go on, I’ve been overwhelmed by the positive response. Thanks for that.

So what will the next phase of the podcast be? I will go back to the beginning premise of the show except I’m going in reverse. I’m going to cover the Russian rulers all over again but differently.

Instead of recounting their lives, achievements and failures, I’ll give you my take, or opinion on their impact on history, on the people and the world. I will be a fair amount more opinionated in the forthcoming Rulers podcast series. When I get back to other facet of Russian history, I’ll go back to my more objective self. I feel like I’ve earned a few opinions and hope no one gets offended by them since that will not be my intention. Since I covered each of the Rulers, I’ve learned so much more about the history of Russia that I’ve developed a different point of view in many instances than I did initially. So, I’m going to start with Putin and work my way back to Rurik.

Of course, the most difficult will be Putin as his history has yet to be written and who knows what his legacy will be. Hence the title of today’s podcast, ‘No Foreseeable End.’ Neither this podcast or Putin’s leadership has any end in sight.

An example of what you might hear is a new take on the rules of Catherine the Great, which will not be all that flattering, and a new opinion of her son Paul, which will be way better than my original thoughts.

I’ll also try to do a better job of covering a couple of rulers I did a poor job of in the first instance such as Leonid Brezhnev and Vladimir the Great.

Now on to the last Russian ruler. Way back on episode 117 on May 13, 2013, we covered the life and rise of Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, the son of Vladimir Spiridovich and Maria Ivanovna Shelomova born on October 7, 1952.

He is the first post-Lenin leader who did not live through the reign of Joseph Stalin, actually only a few brief months as a baby. Putin didn’t have to go through the horrors of World War II as well. Vladimir grew up through the height of Soviet power and prestige while also experiencing its fall, collapse and breakup.

By the time he assumed power after the resignation of Boris Yeltsin on December 31, 1999 Russia was in a mess. It had lost its prestige on the global stage in the eyes of many, especially in the West. They did not lose their feeling of being a superpower in their own eyes which made the Russian people and certainly their government feel disrespected. It is something they are feeling to this day and I believe it effects their policies and actions since and into 2016.

Because of when he was born, Putin was indoctrinated in the Soviet way. As many of you know, the Communist Party had strict controls on what was taught, what the media was able to say and much of the social and political life of the country. Their rule was one done with an iron fist.

Recently, on the forum Quora, I answered a question as to whether today’s problems in Russia had anything to do with Soviet policies. My answer was that there wasn’t a whole lot different between the Tsarist bureaucracy and that of the Soviet Union except different people. Catherine the Great instituted and codified a bureaucracy that is so entrenched in Russian society and government that very little can get done unless you grease the palms of so many people that the cost of getting anything done is staggering. Case in point, the Sochi Olympics and their near $50-billion-dollar price tag.

Vladimir Putin inherited this system and it is entirely ingrained into the psyche of the people. Also, I believe that the only way to handle this level of corruption and stagnant behavior is through a strong leader. Yes, the ideal is to rid the country of the corrupt people but pray tell how do you do that without grinding things to a halt? My final line in my response to the question on Quora was that while my answer may not be satisfying, it would probably qualify as a dissertation question for a PhD candidate in Russian and Soviet history. It is that complex.

Back to Putin. Since the last podcast about Vladimir back in May of 2013, a lot has gone on in Russia as you might know. They annexed Crimea and had surrogates of theirs take control of parts of eastern Ukraine. Has there been direct involvement of Russian troops in the Ukraine? Undoubtedly. Has the Russian government acknowledged their involvement? Of course not.

Putin’s stance has been that this is internal to Russia and is no one else’s business. Of course the rest of the world didn’t buy that line so sanctions were put in place to make their point of view known. Putin dismissed the sanctions as he was making enough money as a major oil producer when prices were much higher, around $104 a barrel, so Russia’s economy was doing fine, money was flowing in and Putin looked like a genius.

But, we all know what has happened since then. As of January 17, 2016 the price has dropped below $30 a barrel. The ruble has crashed and the once vibrant Russian economy has come to a grinding halt. Putin was forced to cut tens of thousands of government jobs, cut back on much needed infrastructure repairs and expansions and things are looking pretty bleak. Of course, he blames the West and the sanctions and not his, in my opinion, very myopic economic policies.

Oil prices dropping are not the only problems his economy faces. Across the board, many resources the Russian’s supply to the world have dropped. Many precious metals can be found around the country but their prices have dropped below levels that make it economical to pull out of the ground. Until these prices rise, the Russian people and Putin’s image will suffer.

My fear at this point is whether a crisis will arise that will cause the price of oil to rise. A manufactured one may come about, who knows. All that is certain is that the Russian economy will not recover until the price of oil recovers. Even though Putin has a very high approval rating, estimate vary between 70-90%, this won’t last long if people don’t have jobs, food and other basic necessities.

I believe that the crisis in Ukraine was caused by the need to keep global tensions up which in turn would prop up the prices of commodities such as oil and minerals. What the Russians didn’t count on was Saudi Arabia’s idea that they could turn the spigots all the way on which created a glut on the market driving the prices down. That and the slowing of the Chinese economy was a double whammy on Russia.

As of January 17, 2016, Putin is, in my opinion, caught between a rock and a hard place. He put his economic chips in with the price of oil and now he is feeling the brunt of its drop in price. Where things go economically from here is anyone’s guess.

This is where I will stop with Vladimir Putin. In a few years, I will come back to him and see what he’s done and do a further assessment on his Presidency and impact on Russia.

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Stalin – #1 Worst Russian Ruler

Stalin

Joseph Stalin

My selection for worst ruler in Russian history is Joseph Stalin for a number of reasons. His barbaric rule, filled with paranoia and genocide, cost the lives of tens of millions of Russian and Soviet lives. The way Stalin handled his colleagues led to a group of men who, after his death in 1953, were unable to lead their country out of its morass. While he may have saved the Soviet Union from the forces of Nazi Germany, his brutality was unmatched except by a few.

Born, Joseph Vissarionovich Dzhugashvilli in 1879, the former Orthodox seminarian, became known in the revolutionary community as Koba before adopting the name Stalin. Arrested numerous times before the overthrow of Tsar Nicholas II, there are rumors of his being a double agent for the Okhrana (the secret police of the Tsarist regime). Any proof of this and anyone who knew about it was wiped out when he became head of the Soviet state.

When Lenin died in 1924, Stalin quickly consolidated his power base to take control of the USSR. Because he was a paranoid man, he found enemies in every corner and use the NKVD, led by Nikolai Yezhov to begin to systematically destroy anyone opposed to his rule. Time and again, numerous purges were carried out where tens of thousands of people were tortured, exiled or executed for real and more often, made up charges of treason. The show trials during the Great Terror of 1936-1939 purged all the Old Bolsheviks that Stalin believed could be threats to his reign. Only those who were totally subservient to him were allowed to live.

To his west, Nazi Germany was arming themselves and despite being warned that they intended to attack the Soviet Union, Stalin signed a non-aggression agreement with them in 1939. When Germany decided to break the agreement in 1941, Stalin’s policies of purging many of the upper echelon of the Soviet army caused a disaster at the front. The USSR was totally unprepared for the invasion and because of this, millions of people died. While he did rally the people and eventually crush the Germans, it was at an incredible cost.

Post World War II, when the Soviet people felt that their sacrifices would lead to a better life, Stalin kept them down trodden. Before his death, he planned another purge of his inner circle and potentially, another world war. Thankfully he died in 1953 before he could unleash another Great Terror. Unfortunately for the Soviet Union, he left a group of neutered men to try to run the country. This eventually led to the failure of the communist system and the dissolution of the USSR in 1991.

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Lenin – #4 Worst Russian Ruler

 

Lenin

Vladimir Lenin

Vladimir Ilyich Lenin (episodes 70-72), born on April 22, 1870 is, in my opinion the number four worst ruler in Russian history. The founder of the Soviet Union, Lenin started Russia on a path that would lead to the deaths of tens of millions of people. While his toppling of the corrupt Tsarist regime, his ruthlessness and his putting Joseph Stalin in a position of power that would lead to terrible consequences, places him on this list.

Born in Simbirsk, as Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov to a wealthy middle class family, he became disenchanted with the Tsarist regime early on. His radicalism became more fervent after his brother Sasha was executed during the reign of Tsar Alexander III. Lenin began to read more and more works of leftist writers like Karl Marx. The works that had the most influence on him were Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s novel What is to be Done? and of course Marx’s Das Kapital.

In 1894, he met the love of his life, fellow radical, Nadezhda “Nadya” Krupskaya. Lenin was introduced to other leftists who he debated with as to the methods of overthrowing the Tsarist regime. Some wanted to assassinate the Tsar, others, like Vladimir, called for patience, insisting on waiting for the right moment.

That moment happened in 1917 when Tsar Nicholas II abdicated the throne. Still the time was not right as the Provisional Government stepped into the void. Biding his time, Lenin returned from self-imposed exile in Finland to lead the Bolshevik’s to overthrow the government in November. Consolidating his position, he ordered the murder of anyone with ties to the old Tsarist regime. He approved the execution of the entire family of former Tsar Nicholas II.

The ensuing Civil War cost hundreds of thousands of lives due to the fighting and the ensuing period of famine. Lenin continued along the path of ruthlessly suppressing any dissent though the newly formed secret police, the Cheka. At the time, he was debating who to hand the power to after he died. The choice was either Leon Trotsky or Joseph Stalin. He unfortunately had place Stalin into positions that ultimately led to Joseph’s taking control after Lenin’s death in January of 1924.

Lenin’s brutality and his misguided vision wrapped in his ideal of Marxism-Leninism led to great suffering in Russia. It is for these reasons I place him as one of the worst leaders in Russian history.

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Gorbachev – #9 On the Worst List

Yuryi Abramochkin / Юрий Абрамочкин Photo of Gorbachev

Yuryi Abramochkin / Юрий Абрамочкин Photo of Gorbachev

Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev is considered by many in the West as being one of the most enlightened Soviet or Russian rulers of all time. In Russia on the other hand, he ranks at or near the bottom and for good reason. Despite the Nobel Peace Prize and the West’s glee at the end of communist rule in the USSR, his domestic policies were an unmitigated disaster for the people he was supposed to protect.

Born in Gorbachev was born in Stavropol Krai in Russia into a peasant UkrainianRussian family on March 2, 1931. His beginnings were humble and the work hard but young Gorbachev made do. He was considered quite a bright young man but schooling would have to take a back seat in 1941 when the Soviet Union was invaded by Adolph Hitler’s Nazi forces. While he claims in his memoirs that the Nazi’s planned to kill everyone in his village, he never was at risk for death in his lifetime until possibly the attempted coup in 1991.

When he took over as head of the Soviet state in 1985 as General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, he was handed a totally corrupt and rotting system. Despite that, he was very naive in how he handled the domestic issues with no clear cut plan on how to overcome the issues. At first he believed that simply by replacing and moving old time Brezhnev cronies and replacing them with younger and supposedly more idealist communists that things would rebound. Instead, things kept getting worse by the day.

Seeing this happening, Gorbachev decided on radical reform without truly thinking things out. Perestroika and Glasnost were his two guiding ideologies but they were only vague ideas that meant little economically to the people of the Soviet Union. When the country began to dissolve, his policies did little to reverse the suffering of the people as food and consumer good shortages were rampant. When the country finally was disbanded, hunger and misery were widespread throughout Russia.

When I initially began my research into Gorbachev, I was wearing rose-colored glasses as the media and the U.S. government painted a pretty picture of the man. As I delved further into his life and times, it became more and more apparent that his reign as head of the Soviet state puts him on the list of worst rulers of Russian or Soviet history.

 

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Khrushchev #10 – Best Russian Ruler List

Khrushchev

Khrushchev Nikita

Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev is in my opinion, #10 on the list of best Russian rulers. Many might disagree but he did some impressive things in his time following the terror that was the rule of Joseph Stalin. Khrushchev was in a tough position when he came to power and he tried as much as possible to reform a corrupt and broken system. While he ultimately failed, the fact that he tried as hard as he did was good enough in my humble opinion to make the good ruler list.

Born on April 15, 1894 to a peasant family, this unlikely man rose to the pinnacle of power in the Soviet Union in 1953. Khrushchev survived the Great Purges of the late 1930’s, the Great Patriotic War (World War II) and the intrigues following Stalin’s death to make the grab for power. While many condemn him for participating in Stalin’s purges, it was either that or face his own demise. He did what he had to to survive. But when he had the opportunity to expose the murderous era he did so with great bravery and put himself into a great deal of peril as well.

His administration and rule were marked by a lot of highs and lows. One of Khrushchev’s high points is the so-called Secret Speech where he exposes the abuses of Stalin. Of his lows, there is little doubt that the Cuban Missile crises is top of the list.  In between, he tried as hard as any Russian or Soviet leader to better the plight of his people. Reading his memoirs and studying his time in office, it is apparent that he truly tried to make the necessary reforms to raise up the standard of living in his country.

While erratic in his behavior, sometimes coming off as a buffoon, he was a man of conviction in a system that was corrupt at its core. Khrushchev stood far above any Soviet leader in my opinion and deserves a spot in the list of best rulers of Russia.

 

 

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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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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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Stalingrad Counterattack – Operation Uranus

The Battle of Stalingrad

Movements of both the Soviet Red Army and German Army Group South are followed here.

On November 19, 1942, Operation Uranus began under the generalship of Georgy Zhukov during the Battle of Stalingrad (Episode 83). It marked the turning point in the Great Patriotic War (World War II) where the Nazi’s began their torturous retreat back to Germany at the cost of millions of lives.

The Battle of Stalingrad was a fierce battle that began on August 23, 1942 and ended on February 2, 1943 with the destruction and surrender of the Wehrmacht Army Group Southled by Fredrick Paulus. The battle was one of the costliest in terms of life in human history with an estimated 750,000 German and allied troops being killed, wounded or captured and 1.1 million Soviet soldiers and citizens being killed or wounded.

The Soviet strategy once the Germans entered the city of Stalingrad was to “hug” their enemies by staying in as close of a proximity to them as was possible. This negated the superior German firepower, especially their air support and artillery. Despite these tactics, the Luftwaffe conducted thousands and thousands of sorties which caused massive destruction to the city and a great loss of life on both sides.

Three months into the fighting the Germans had occupied 90% of Stalingrad but could go no further. The rallying cry of the Soviet Red Army was “Not a Step Back!” and “There is No Land Behind the Volga!” Stalin had already sent out orders that anyone who retreated would be shot along with their entire family back home. The incentive to fight to the death was great on both sides.

Slowly but surely, the Red Army began to encircle the embattled German forces in the city which slowed then stopped supplies from reaching the now desperate men. With fall, then winter approaching, the Soviet military command knew that it was only a matter of time before they would emerge victorious. It was then on November 19th, that Operation Uranus began with flanking maneuvers and a over 18 battalions and numerous tank and motorized brigades began the attack.

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