August 6, 1940 A Different Kind of Courage

By the siege’s end in the Spring of 1944, nine of them had starved to death, standing watch over all that food.  For twenty-eight months these guys guarded their seed bank, without eating so much as a grain.

In 21st century America, “diversity” is often seen as that overly PC tendency, leading the backdrop of every political speech and college recruiting poster to feature all those smiling faces, in just the right mix of race, sex and color.

In the world of plant biology, diversity can literally mean the difference between feast and famine.

The Irish Potato Famine of the mid-19th century resulted from the failure of a single crop. The direct cause was the water mold Phytophthora infestans, but the real culprit might have been the over reliance on a single strain of potato. A million Irish starved to death and another two million departed, never to return, in a country starting out with barely 8.4 million in 1844.

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Phytophthora_ nfestans (late blight) on tomato

The Irish potato famine was just one of 120 such calamities to afflict humanity in modern times, resulting in the starvation death of hundreds of millions. Blight, climate disruption and insects are but a few of the causes. Often, the only solution was having enough food-source variety that no single crop failure could lead to starvation.

Nikolai Ivanovic Vavilov was a Russian botanist and plant biologist.  Vavilov witnessed the death of millions of Russians in three such famines, and devoted his life’s work to the improvement of wheat, corn and other food crops necessary to sustain a global population.

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Nikolai Vavilov

Over a lifetime of study of phytopathology and plant immunity, Vavilov organized expeditions and collected plant specimens from every corner of the world. Traveling over 5 continents and 64 countries, “The world’s greatest plant explorer” taught himself no fewer than 15 languages so that he could speak with native farmers, collecting more seeds, edible roots, tubers and fruit specimens than any person in human history.

 

There is hardly any part of our modern day understanding of crop diversity, that doesn’t go back to the work of this one man.

Nikolai Vavilov was a man of pure science.  Not so his young protege, Trophim Denisovich Lysenko. The younger man was a political opportunist, an apparatchik and crackpot who rejected the natural selection and plant genetics of Gregor Mendel, in favor of a cockamamie theory which came to be called “Lysenkoism”.

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Trophim Lysenko

Lysenko placed great confidence in the pseudo-scientific theory of environmentally acquired inheritance, by which parent plants pass down to their offspring,  characteristics acquired through use or disuse during their life cycle.  By this theory, rye could transform into wheat, wheat into barley, and weeds somehow transmuted into edible food grains.

 

In 1928, the previously unknown agronomist from peasant background performed experiments in “vernalization“, claiming to triple or quadruple wheat crop yield by accelerating the life cycle of Autumn-seeded winter wheat varieties.

Intense exposures to cold and humidity including direct seeding into snow-covered, frozen fields were known since 1854 to produce marginal increases in crop yield, but nothing remotely similar to Lysenko’s claims.  Nevertheless, Lysenko was hailed as a hero of Soviet agriculture, particularly in light of the disastrous collectivization efforts of the late 1920s.

echist1As Stalin’s Soviet Union imposed the “terror famine” of 1932-’33, the deliberate starvation of millions of Ukrainian peasant farmers known as the Holodomor.

Lysenko dove into a variety of agriculture issues with “helpful” solutions such as plucking leaves from cotton plants, cluster planting trees and outlandish & unusual fertilizer mixes. A shameless sycophant and toady to Communist ideology, Lysenko gained status among party officials with one harebrained proposition after another, following one after another, far too quickly to be disproven by the patient observation of reputable scientific method.

At this time, the hottest ideas in plant genetics were emerging from biological studies of Drosophila melanogaster, the common fruit fly. Lysenko used his increasing influence in party circles to denounce such scientists as “fly-lovers and people haters”, denouncing the lot of them as “wreckers” who were purposely trying to bring about the downfall of the Soviet government.

Scientific research into plant genetics was dead in Stalin’s Soviet Union.

855c4322c0bca57a84dde41308bad993As director of the Soviet Academy of Agricultural Sciences, Lysenko put his theories to work, with unsurprisingly dismal results.  He’d force Soviet farmers to plant WAY too close together, on the theory that plants of the same “class” would “cooperate” with one another, and that “mutual assistance” takes place within and even across plant species.

There had to be a reason why Stalin’s agricultural program wasn’t working. There had to be scapegoats.  In a 1935 speech, Lysenko compared dissenting biologists to peasants continuing to resist Soviet collectivization policies, denouncing traditional geneticists as being “against Marxism”.  Josef Stalin himself was in the audience, and jumped up clapping enthusiastically, calling out “Bravo, Comrade Lysenko. Bravo.”

The gloves were now off. Lysenko and his chief ally Isaak Izrailevich Prezent savaged Lysenkoism’s opponents, including his former mentor, himself.  Over 3,000 mainstream biologists were fired, “disappeared” or even executed, among them Nikolai Vavilov.

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Botanist Nikolai Vavilov’s mugshot. Note the several deep scars on his right cheek, indicating severe beatings sustained by the scientist in prison

On August 6, 1940, Vavilov was on expedition in Ukraine, collecting specimens when he was snatched up and driven away in a black sedan, his staff helpless to intervene. Vavilov was sentenced to death in 1941 with sentence later commuted to twenty years.  It didn’t matter. In January 1943, this man whose scientific work was at least as important as that of Norman Borlaug, starved to death in a Soviet Gulag.

Nikolai Vavilov had collected some 220,000 specimens of edible fruits, seeds and tubers over the years, which now sat in a Leningrad basement. 120,000 additional specimens were added to the hoard from other collectors, bringing the entire cache well into the tons of edible plant material.

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‘Third Degree Interrogation’ from Drawings from Stalin’s Gulag Illustration: Danzig Baldaev

On September 8, 1941 the German Wehrmacht completed its encirclement of the city.  The siege of Leningrad lasted for twenty-eight months.  Hunger soon took hold and, before it was over, more than a million Leningrad residents starved to death.

Soviet authorities had ordered the removal of art from the Hermitage prior to the siege, but not these botanical specimens.  Scientists couldn’t know where their leader was, or even whether he yet lived.  They locked themselves in the basement with their trove and took turns standing guard, protecting future food crops and the survival of untold millions, yet unborn.

USSR-Stamp-1977-NIVavilovBy the siege’s end in the Spring of 1944, nine of them had starved to death, standing watch over all that food.  These guys had stood guard over their seed bank for twenty-eight months, without eating so much as a grain.

The verdict against Nikolai Vavilov was set aside in 1955, one of thousands of reversals of Stalin era death sentences. Vavilov’s reputation was publicly rehabilitated by the 1960s.  In time he would come to be seen as a hero of Soviet-era science.

 

Trofim Lysenko would outlive his benefactor Stalin, and retained influence into the era of Nikita Khruschchev.  Lysenkoism was officially renounced in 1964, the bureaucrat denounced by physicist and human rights activist, Andrei Sakharov. “He is responsible for the shameful backwardness of Soviet biology and of genetics in particular, for the dissemination of pseudo-scientific views, for adventurism, for the degradation of learning, and for the defamation, firing, arrest, even death, of many genuine scientists“.  The disgraced apparatchik died in 1976.  It took Soviet media two days to so much as mention his passing, with a small notice printed in the broadsheet, Izvestia.

In the funhouse mirror world of the Soviet Union, the future was always known.  It was the past, that was subject to change.

Still home to the largest collection of plant genetic material in the world, the N.I. Vavilov Institute of Plant Industry in St. Petersburg was scheduled to be razed in 2010, to make way for luxury housing.  Scientists from around the world petitioned Russian President Dmitri Medvedev to rethink the decision, and not destroy the largest collection of European fruits and berries in the world.  At this time, the decision is undergoing “further study”.

For all the good it did the institute’s namesake, long-since murdered by the malignant ideology he had spent his life’s work, attempting to serve.

But hell, he got himself a postage stamp, in 1977.

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Timeline of Genetics and Science in the Soviet Union
Feature image, top of page:  Soviet Propaganda, Arkady Alexandrovich Plastov Threshing on the collective farm
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July 13, 1908 The Event at Tunguska

The “Tunguska Event” was the largest such impact event in recorded history, but far from the first. Or the last. 

The first atomic bomb in the history of human conflict exploded in the skies over Japan on August 6, 1945. The bomb, code named “Little Boy”, reached an altitude of 1,900-ft. over the city of Hiroshima at 8:15am, Japanese Standard Time.

A “gun-triggered” fission bomb, barometric-pressure sensors initiated the explosion of four cordite charges, propelling a small “bullet” of enriched uranium the length of a fixed barrel and into a sphere of the same material. Within picoseconds (1/.000000000001 of a second), the collision of the two bodies initiated a fission reaction, releasing an energy yield roughly equivalent to 15,000 tons of TNT.

66,000 were killed by the effects of the blast, the shock wave spreading outward at a velocity greater than the speed of sound and flattening virtually everything in its path, for a distance of a mile in all directions.

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Thirty-seven years earlier, the boreal forests of Siberia lit up with an explosion 1,000 times greater than the atomic bomb dropped over Hiroshima. At the time, no one had the foggiest notion that it was coming.

The Taiga occupies the high latitudes of the world’s northern regions, a vast international belt line of coniferous forests consisting mostly of pines, spruces and larches between the high tundra, and the temperate forest.  An enormous community of plants and animals, this trans-continental ecosystem comprises a vast biome, second only to the world’s oceans.

The Eastern Taiga is a region in the east of Siberia, an area 1.6 times the size of the continental United States.  The Stony Tunguska River wends its way along an 1,160-mile length of the region, its entire course flowing under great pebble fields with no open water.

TunguskaOn the morning of June 30, 1908, the Tunguska River lit up with a bluish-white light.  At 7:17a local time, a column of light far too bright to look at moved across the skies above the Tunguska. Minutes later, a vast explosion knocked people off their feet, flattening buildings, crops and as many as 80 million trees over an area of 830-square miles. A vast “thump” was heard, the shock wave equivalent to an earthquake measuring 5.0 on the Richter scale. Within minutes came a second and then a third shock wave and finally a fourth, more distant this time and described by eyewitnesses as the “sun going to sleep”.

On July 13, 1908, the Krasnoyaretz newspaper reported “At 7:43 the noise akin to a strong wind was heard. Immediately afterward a horrific thump sounded, followed by an earthquake that literally shook the buildings as if they were hit by a large log or a heavy rock”.

Fluctuations in atmospheric pressure were detectable as far away as Great Britain.  Night skies were set aglow from Asia to Europe for days on end, theorized to have been caused by light, passing through high-altitude ice particles.

In the United States, lookout posts from the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory headquartered in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to the Mount Wilson Observatory in Los Angeles recorded a several months-long decrease in atmospheric transparency, attributed to an increase in dust, suspended in the atmosphere.

The “Tunguska Event” was the largest such impact event in recorded history, but far from the first, or the last.  Mistastin Lake in northern Labrador was formed during the Eocene era of 36-million years ago, cubic Zirconium deposits suggesting an impact-zone temperature of some 4,300° Fahrenheit.  Halfway to the temperature of the sun.

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“A bolide – a very bright meteor of an apparent magnitude of &−14 or brighter” H/T Wikimedia

Some sixty-six million years ago, the “Chicxulub impactor” struck the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico, unleashing a mega-tsunami of 330-ft in height from Texas to Florida. Superheated steam, ash and vapor towered over the impact zone, as colossal shock waves triggered global earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.   Vast clouds of dust blotted out the sun for months on end, leading to mass extinction events the world over.

The official history of the Ming Dynasty records the Ch’ing-yang event of 1490, a meteor shower in China, in which “stones fell like rain”, killing some 10,000 people.

In 2013, a twenty-meter (66-ft) space rock estimated at 13,000-14,000 tons flashed across the skies of Chelyabinsk, Russia, breaking apart with a kinetic impact estimated at 26-times the nuclear blast over Hiroshima.  The Superbolide (a bolide is “an extremely bright meteor, especially one that explodes in the atmosphere”) entered the earth’s atmosphere on February 15, burning exposed skin and damaging retinas for miles around.  No fatalities were reported, though 1,500 were injured seriously enough to require medical attention.

The 450-ton Chicora Meteor collided with western Pennsylvania on June 24, 1938, in a cataclysm comparable to the Halifax Explosion of 1917.  The good luck held, that time, the object making impact in a sparsely populated region.  The only reported casualty, was a cow.  Investigators F.W. Preston, E.P. Henderson and James R. Randolph remarked that “If it had landed on Pittsburgh there would have been few survivors”.

In 2018, the non-profit B612 Foundation dedicated to the study of near-Earth object impacts, reported that “It’s a 100 per cent certain we’ll be hit [by a devastating asteroid]”. Comfortingly, the organization’s statement concluded “we’re [just] not 100 per cent sure when.”

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If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

May 30, 1896 A Cup of Sorrows

When it was over, 1,389 people had been trampled to death, and another 1,300 injured.

On May 26, 1896 according to the Gregorian calendar, Tsar Nicholas II, known as Saint Nicholas II to the Russian Orthodox Church, was crowned Tsar of Russia.  The traditional celebration banquet was scheduled for May 30 at a large open space to the northwest of Moscow, called Khodynka Field.

697452_tsar-nicholas-ii-tsarina-alexandra-feodorovna_cardIt was customary that gifts be given to the guests of such a celebration. There were commemorative scarves and ornately decorated porcelain cups, bearing the ciphers of Nicholas and Alexandra opposite the double-headed symbol of the Imperial dynasty, the Romanov eagle.

There were food gifts as well, bread rolls and sausages, pretzels, gingerbread, and a cup of beer.  150 buffets and 20 pubs were constructed, to handle their distribution.

Revelers began to gather on the 29th.  By 5:00am on the 30th, the crowd was a half-million strong, and growing.

Khodynka Field

Khodynka field was a poor venue for such an event, the crowd far larger than could be safely handled. A military training ground, the plain before the speaker’s Cups of Sorrowspodium was pocked and lined with trenches and pits.

Rumors began to spread among the crowd. There wasn’t enough beer to go around.  Those enameled cups, already a great novelty for the time, each contained a gold coin.

The crowd became a mob and began to surge forward, as rumors grew and spread. An 1,800-man police force was inadequate to maintain order. The crush of the crowd grew into a panic, and then became a human stampede.

1,389 people were trampled to death in the rout, another 1,300, injured.

The new Czar and Czarina didn’t hear about the disaster at first but, when they did, the royal couple spent the rest of the day visiting their subjects in hospital.

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Nicholas thought it best not to attend a ball put on that night by the French embassy, fearing that it would make him appear insensitive to the suffering of his people. The Tsar’s advisers persuaded him to go, however, and later events proved him correct.

Khodynka, aftermath

There was great public indignation over the disaster at Khodynka field, despite generous subsidies paid to victims, by the Russian government.  Despite his best efforts, Tsar Nicholas became ‘Bloody Nicholas”, to the Russian people. For the Tsarina, that enameled coronation cup more closely resembled a ‘Cup of Sorrows “.

Mystics prophesied that Nicholas’ refusal to decline the invitation would lead to his doom.  J. Balmont wrote in 1905 that “Who started his reign with Khodynka, will finish it by mounting the scaffold”.

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Hat tip to the Russian artist known as ‘Klimbims’, for her work in colorizing these vintage images

Tsar Nicholas was murdered by order of the Ural regional Soviet in Yekaterinburg on July 17, 1918. The Tsarina, the couple’s five children, servants, dogs and a number of individuals who had chosen to accompany the Imperial family into imprisonment, were shot, bayoneted and clubbed to death.

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Great countess Maria Vladimirovna.

It was the end of the Romanov Dynasty, the end of Czarist Russia. The malignant ideology which arose to take its place, would murder more of its own civilians, than any system of government, in history.

 

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

January 10, 1869 The Mad Monk of Tobolsk

What the Tsar and Tsarina saw as a pious and holy man, the Russian nobility saw as a foul smelling, sex-crazed peasant with far too much influence on decisions of State. Alexandra believed Rasputin had the power to make her boy better. Many around her openly spoke of the man ruining the Royal Family, and the nation.

Traditionally, the line of succession to the Imperial Russian throne descended through the male line. By 1903 the Tsarina Alexandra had delivered four healthy babies, each of them girls.  Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia. In 1904, the Tsarina labored to deliver her fifth.

That August, the country waited and hoped for an heir to the throne. All of Russia prayed for a boy.

The prayers of the nation were answered on August 12 (July 30 Old Style calendar), with the birth of a son. The Tsarevich Alexei Nikolayevich. The happy news was announced with a 301-gun salute from the cannons of the Peter and Paul fortress, and all of Russia rejoiced.

Those hopes would be dashed in less than a month, when the infant’s navel began to bleed. It continued to bleed for two days, and required all the doctors at the Tsar’s disposal, to stop it.

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Alexei Nikolaevich, 1904

The child suffered from hemophilia, an hereditary condition passed down from his Grandmother British Queen Victoria.  She’d already lost a son and a grandson to the disease, both at the age of three.

The early years of any small boy are punctuated by dents and dings and the Tsarevich was no exception. Bleeding episodes were often severe, despite the never-ending efforts of his parents, to protect him. Doctors’ remedies were frequently in vain, and Alexandra turned to a succession of quacks, mystics and “wise men”, for a cure.

Born on this day in 1869, Grigori Efimovich Rasputin was a strange man, a Siberian peasant wanderer and self-proclaimed “holy man”, a seer of the future claiming the power to heal.  Rasputin would leave his home village of Pokrovskoye for months or even years at a time, wandering the countryside and visiting holy sites.  It’s rumored that he once went as far Athos in Greece, at that time a center of monastic life in the Orthodox church.

RasputinThe precise circumstances are unknown, but the monk came into the royal orbit, sometime in 1905.  “We had the good fortune”, Tsar Nicholas wrote to his diary , “to meet the man of God Grigori from the province of Tobolsk”.

Alexei suffered an internal hemorrhage in the spring of 1907, and Grigori was summoned to pray.  The Tsarevich recovered the next morning.   The royal family came to rely on the faith-healing powers of Rasputin.  It seemed that he alone was able to stop the boy’s bleeding episodes.

The Tsarevich developed a serious hematoma in his groin and thigh in 1912, following a particularly jolting carriage ride. Severely in pain and suffering with high fever, the boy appeared to be close to death. Desperate, the Tsarina sent a telegram, asking the monk to pray for her son.  Rasputin wrote back from Siberia, “God has seen your tears and heard your prayers. Do not grieve. The Little One will not die. Do not allow the doctors to bother him too much.” The bleeding stopped, within the next two days.

The British historian Harold Shukman wrote that Rasputin was “an indispensable member of the royal entourage”.

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Romanov family, colorized by the Russian artist Olga Shirnina, also known as ‘klimbim’

As the royal family became more attached to the monk Rasputin, scandals followed the peasant holy man like the chains of Jacob Marley.  Rumors abounded of sexual peccadillos, involving society ladies and prostitutes alike.  Gossip describing trysts between the “Mad Monk” and the Tsarina herself were almost certainly unfounded, but so widespread that pornographic postcards were openly circulated, depicting these liaisons.

What the Tsar and Tsarina saw as a pious and holy man, the Russian nobility saw as a foul smelling, sex-crazed peasant with far too much influence on decisions of State. Alexandra believed the man had the power to make her boy better. Those around her openly spoke of Rasputin ruining the Royal Family, and the Russian nation.

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Influential people approached Nicholas and Alexandra with dire warnings, leaving dismayed by their refusal to listen.  Rasputin was indispensable according to the Royal Couple.  He was the only man who could save the Tsarevich.

Rasputin_listovkaBy 1916 it was clear to many in the Nobility. The only course was to kill Rasputin, before he destroyed the monarchy.

A group of five Nobles led by Prince Felix Yusupov lured Rasputin to the Moika Palace on December 16, 1916, using the possibility of a sexual encounter with Yusopov’s beautiful wife Irina, as bait. Pretending that she was upstairs with unexpected guests, the five “entertained” Rasputin in a basement dining room, feeding him arsenic laced pastries and washing them down with poisoned wine. None of it seemed to have any effect.

Panicked, Yusupov pulled a revolver and shot the monk.  Rasputin went down, but soon got up and attacked his tormentors. He tried to run away, only to be shot twice more and have his head beaten bloody with a dumbbell. At last, with hands and feet bound, Grigory Efimovich Rasputin was thrown from a bridge into the icy Malaya Nevka River.

Police found the body two days later, with water in the lungs and hands outstretched. Poisoned, shot in the chest, back and head, with his head stove in, Rasputin was still alive when he hit the water.

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Poisoned, shot in the chest, back and head, with his head stove in, Rasputin was still alive when he hit the water.

In the end, the succession question turned out to be moot. A letter attributed to Rasputin, which he may or may not have written, contained a prophecy. “If I am killed by common assassins and especially by my brothers the Russian peasants, you, Tsar of Russia, have nothing to fear for your children, they will reign for hundreds of years in Russia…[I]f it was your relations who have wrought my death…none of your children or relations will remain alive for two years. They will be killed by the Russian people…”

The stresses and economic dislocations of the Great War proved too much to handle.  The Imperial Russian state collapsed in 1917.  Tsar Nicholas II abdicated the throne within three months of the death of Rasputin.   Members of the Ural regional Soviet shot, bludgeoned and bayoneted the Russian Imperial family to death:  Tsar Nicholas, his wife Tsarina Alexandra, all five children, the Grand Duchess Olga, the Romanov family physician, their footman, maid, and their dogs.

A coded telegram was sent to Lenin’s secretary, Nikolai Gorbunov.  “Inform Sverdlov”, (Communist party administrator Yakov Sverdlov ) “The whole family have shared the same fate as the head. Officially the family will die at the evacuation”.

August 23, 1942 War of the Rats

A German infantryman wrote to his family, “Animals flee this burning hell of a city. The hardest stones do not last for long. Only men endure”.

WWII could have ended differently, had two of the most homicidal dictators in history become allies. It actually started out that way, when the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression pact, in August, 1939. That would end two years later with “Operation Barbarossa”, the German surprise invasion of the Soviet Union, beginning on June 22, 1941.

We’re accustomed to thinking of World War II in terms of the European and the Pacific “Theaters”, but the most horrific casualties of the most destructive war in history, took place on the “Ostfront”, (Eastern Front).  95% of all German Army casualties between 1941 and 1944, and 65% of all Allied military casualties from the entire war, took place on the Eastern Front. The bloodiest battle of the Eastern Front, probably the bloodiest battle in all of history, began this day in 1942, in the city of Stalingrad.

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Photo by Nara Archives / Rex Features (2093505a) October 1942, Stalingrad – Soviet Guardsmen Fighting In The Streets Of The Stalingrad Outskirts

Soviet propagandists called it a “harvest victory”, when most of the cattle, grain and rail cars were shipped out of the city in advance of the German assault.

Most of Stalingrad’s civilian residents remained however, leaving the city short of food, even before the commencement of German attacks. Making things worse, the Luftwaffe bombed Volga River shipping, sinking 32 ships and crippling another 9 in the narrow waterway, cutting off this vital link in the city’s supply chain.

Wilfred von Richtofen, cousin of the famous “Red Baron” of WWI, opened up with his heavy bombers on August 23rd, dropping over 1,000 tons of high explosive on Stalingrad.

The Soviets suffered from extreme manpower shortages in the beginning.  The burden of the early defense of the city fell to the 1077th Anti-Aircraft Regiment, a primarily female unit of young volunteers who had no training and the wrong weapons to engage ground targets. These women were all alone at this point with no support from other units, but they traded shot for shot with the German 16th Panzer Division until all 37 AA guns had been wiped out or overrun. When it was over, 16th Panzer soldiers were shocked to learn they’d been fighting women.

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Stalingrad was quickly reduced to rubble, with the German 6th Army controlling 90% of the city.  Still, Lt. Gen. Vasily Ivanovich Chuikov’s army held on.  With backs to the Volga, they fought for the very sewers of the city, men and women alike reduced to a primitive level of existence. The Germans called it “Rattenkrieg”. “War of the Rats”. A German infantryman wrote to his family, “Animals flee this burning hell of a city. The hardest stones do not last for long. Only men endure”.

As many as 80,000 Red Army soldiers lay dead by the middle of October, 1942. Counting German losses and civilian deaths, the battle cost a quarter of a million lives up to this point, and the fighting still had months to go.Stalingrad

Ice floes in the Volga river further cut off the defender’s supplies, reducing them to cannibalism as a massive Soviet counter-attack was building on the German’s exposed left flank.

By November, General Georgy Zhukov had assembled over a million fresh troops, 1,500 tanks, 2,500 heavy guns, and three Air Armies for the assault on Stalingrad. The rumble of artillery, the “Great Soviet God of War” could be heard across the steppe as the Soviet counter-attack commenced in a blinding snowstorm on November 19th, 1942. It was now the Germans who were trapped.

German General Friedrich von Paulus asked Hitler’s permission to withdraw before they became surrounded.  The response was that he should fight “to the last soldier and the last bullet.”stalingrad1

German forward movement on the Eastern Front came to an end in February, 1943, when 91,000 freezing, wounded, sick and starving Germans were surrendered to the Red Army.

Even then, as many as 11,000 Germans refused to lay down their arms and continued to fight from the cellars and the sewers of Stalingrad, holding on until early March.

Disease, death marches, cold, overwork, mistreatment, and malnutrition would all take their toll on the prisoners.  Of the nearly 110,000 who went into captivity after the Battle of Stalingrad, fewer than 6,000 lived to return to Germany, after the war.

May 30, 1896 Beer Stampede

A rumor began to spread among the crowd that there wasn’t enough beer or pretzels to go around. At that point the police force of 1,800 wasn’t enough to maintain order

Nicholas II was crowned Czar of Russia on May 26, 1896, according to the Gregorian calendar. It was traditional to hold a celebration banquet, and the date was set for May 30 at Khodynka Field.

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Czar Nicholas II & family, colorized by the Russian artist Olga Shirnina, also known as ‘klimbim’

It was customary to give gifts to the guests of such a celebration.  In this case everyone was to receive a bread roll, a piece of sausage, pretzels, gingerbread, and a cup of beer.  150 buffets and 20 pubs were built for their distribution.

Khodynka FieldPeople began to gather on the 29th.  By 5:00am on the 30th, the crowd was estimated at half a million. A rumor began to spread among the crowd that there wasn’t enough beer or pretzels to go around.  At that point the police force of 1,800 wasn’t enough to maintain order. The crush of the crowd and the resulting panic resulted in a human stampede.  Before it was over 1,389 people were trampled to death, and another 1,300 injured.

The new Czar and his wife didn’t hear about it right away.  When they did, the pair spent the rest of that day visiting people hospitalized by the stampede. Nicholas thought it best not to attend a ball put on that night by the French embassy, fearing that it would make him appear insensitive to the suffering of his subjects. His advisers persuaded him to go, however, and later events seem to prove that the Czar was correct. There was great public indignation over the event in Russia, despite generous subsidies paid to the victims by the Russian government.

Mystics prophesied that Nicholas’ refusal to decline the invitation would lead to his doom.  J. Balmont wrote in 1905 that “Who started his reign with Khodynka, will finish it by mounting the scaffold”.

On July 17, 1918, communist forces under Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, better known as “Lenin”, assassinated Czar Nicholas along with his wife and children, in Yekaterinburg. It was the end of the Romanov Dynasty, the end of Czarist Russia.  The number of citizens murdered by the totalitarian system of government which took its place, has been estimated as high as sixty million.

April 16, 1917 The Sealed Train

The Kaiser calculated that all he had to do was “kick the door in”, the Russian Republic would collapse, and they would be out of the war. He was right.

The “War to End all Wars” entered its third year in 1917, seeming as though it would go on forever. Neither side seemed able to gain strategic advantage on the front. The great battles of 1916 seemed only yesterday, in which any single day’s fighting produced more casualties than every European war of the preceding 100 years, combined. At home, the social fabric of the combatant nations was unraveling.

WW1_DatabaseBy 1916 it was generally understood in Germany, that the war effort was “shackled to a corpse”, referring to Germany’s Austro-Hungarian ally. Italy, the third member of the “Triple Alliance”, was little better. On the Triple Entente side, the French countryside was literally torn to pieces, the English economy close to breaking. The Russian Empire, the largest nation on the planet, was on the edge of the precipice.

The United States had declared its intention to enter the war barely ten days earlier. While no American forces had arrived as of yet, both sides understood that the balance was about to shift. For Kaiser Wilhelm’s Germany, it was time to throw a knockout punch.

Imperial Russia had seen the first of what would be two revolutions back in February, when food riots led to the overthrow and exile of the Imperial family.  Full scale civil war broke out in 1918, resulting in the Bolshevik murder of the Czar and Czarina, together with their children, servants and dogs.

The Kaiser calculated that all he had to do was “kick the door in”, the Russian Republic would collapse, and they would be out of the war. He was right.

After the overthrow of the Romanov dynasty, the more moderate Menshevik “Whites” vowed to continue the war effort. The split which had begun with the failed revolution of 1905 was more pronounced by this time with the more radical Bolsheviks (“Reds”) taking Sealed Train Locomotivethe more extreme road. While Reds and Whites both wanted to bring socialism to the Russian people, the Mensheviks argued for predominantly legal methods and trade union work, while Bolsheviks favored armed violence.

In a small town in the northeast of Sweden, there is a train station.  A bronze plaque on a blue tile wall, proclaims: “Here Lenin passed through Haparanda on April 15, 1917, on his way from exile in Switzerland to Petrograd in Russia”.

Lenin was in exile, and Imperial Germany was at war with Russia at this time.  British historian Edward Crankshaw writes, the German government saw “in this obscure fanatic one more bacillus to let loose in tottering and exhausted Russia to spread infection”.

Not far from food riots of his own and loathe to inflict such a bacillus on his own homeland, a “Sealed Train” carrying Vladimir Ilyich Lenin and 31 dissidents departed from exile in Switzerland on April 9, complements of the Kaiser.  Leaving Zurich Station amid the jeers and the insults of 100 or so assembled Russians shouting  “Spies!” “Traitors!” “Pigs!” “Provocateurs!”,  Lenin turned to a friend.  “Either we’ll be swinging from the gallows in three months, or we shall be in power.”

North through Germany and across the Baltic Sea, the group traveled the length of Sweden, crossing at the border village of Haparanda into Russian-Occupied Finland.  The group arrived at Finlandsky Vokzal (Finland Station) in Petrograd on the evening of April 16, 1917. Like the handful of termites that brought down the mighty oak, that small faction inserted into the picture that April, would help to radicalize the population, and consolidate power on the Bolshevik’s side.

Lenin's Journey
Lenin’s Journey from Zurich to St. Petersburg, April 1917

By October, Russia would experience its second revolution in a year.  The Kaiser’s Germany could breathe easier. The “Russian Steamroller”, was out of the war. Chief of the General Staff Paul von Hindenburg and his deputy Erich Ludendorff could move their divisions westward, in time to face the American’s arrival.

Since the end of the Soviet era, Russian historians have come to believe that Vladimir Ilyich (Ulyanov) Lenin personally ordered the murder of the czar and his family, and that the Lenin era was every bit as bloody, as that of his successor Josef Stalin.

Lenin called for “Mass Terror” during the civil war of 1918, resulting in executions in the tens of thousands.  Historian Alexander Margolis had the last word on the subject if not the understatement of the century, when he said:  “If they had arrested Lenin at the Finland Station, it would have saved everyone a lot of trouble”.

Romanov
Czar Nicholas II & family, colorized by the Russian artist Olga Shirnina, also known as ‘klimbim’