April 16, 2014

Russia’s long and brutal relationship with Crimea

Filed under: Europe, History — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:39

In History Today, Alexander Lee talks about the historical attitude of Russia toward the Crimean peninsula and some of the terrible things it has done to gain and retain control over the region:

… Russia’s claim to Crimea is based on its desire for territorial aggrandizement and – more importantly – on history. As Putin and Akysonov are keenly aware, Crimea’s ties to Russia stretch back well back into the early modern period. After a series of inconclusive incursions in the seventeenth century, Russia succeeded in breaking the Ottoman Empire’s hold over Crimea with the Treaty of Küçük Kaynarca (1774), before formally annexing the peninsula in 1784. It immediately became a key factor in Russia’s emergence as a world power. Offering a number of natural warm-water harbours, it gave access to Black Sea trade routes, and a tremendous advantage in the struggle for the Caucasus. Once gained, it was not a prize to be willingly surrendered, and the ‘Russianness’ of Crimea quickly became a cornerstone of the tsars’ political imagination. When a spurious dispute over custody of Christian sites in the Holy Land escalated into a battle for the crumbling remnants of the Ottoman Empire in 1853, Russia fought hard to retain its hold over a territory that allowed it to threaten both Constantinople and the Franco-British position in the Mediterranean. Almost a century later, Crimea was the site of some of the bitterest fighting of the Second World War. Recognising its military and economic importance, the Nazis launched a brutal attempt to capture the peninsula as a site for German resettlement and as a bridge into southern Russia. And when it was eventually retaken in 1944, the reconstruction of Sevastopol – which had been almost completely destroyed during a long and bloody siege – acquired tremendous symbolic value precisely because of the political and historical importance of the region. Even after being integrated into the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic and – later – acknowledged as part of an independent Ukraine after the fall of the USSR, Crimea’s allure was so powerful that the new Ukrainian President, Leonid Kraychuk, claimed that Russia’s attempts to assert indirect control of the peninsula betrayed the lingering force of an ‘imperial disease’.


The non-Russian population of Crimea was to suffer further even worse under the Soviet Union, and between 1921 and 1945, two broad phases of persecution devastated their position in the peninsula. The first was dominated by the fearsome effects of Stalinist economic policy. In keeping with the centralised aims of the First Five-Year Plan (1928-32), Crimean agricultural production was collectivised, and reoriented away from traditional crops such as grain. On top of this, bungling administrators imposed impossibly high requisition quotas. The result was catastrophic. In 1932, a man-made famine swept through the peninsula. Although agronomists had warned their political masters of the danger from the very beginning, the Moscow leadership did nothing to relieve the situation. Indeed, quite the reverse. As starvation began to take hold, Stalin not only prosecuted those who attempted to collect left-over grain from the few remaining collectivised farms producing grain, but also hermetically sealed regions afflicted by shortages. He was using the famine to cleanse an ethnically diverse population. A true genocide, the Holodmor (‘extermination by hunger’) – as this artificial famine is known – killed as many as 7.5 million Ukrainians, including tens of thousands of Crimeans. And when it finally abated, Stalin took the opportunity to fill the peninsula with Russians, such that by 1937, they accounted for 47.7% of the population, compared to the Tatars’ 20.7%.

The second phase – covering the period between 1941 and 1945 – compounded the terrible effects of the Holodmor. On its own, the appalling casualties caused by the savage battle for Crimea would have decimated the peninsula. Some 170,000 Red Army troops were lost in the struggle, and the civilian population suffered in equal proportion. But after the Soviet Union regained control, the region was subjected to a fresh wave of horror. Accusing the Tatars of having collaborated with the Nazis during the occupation, Stalin had the entire population deported to Central Asia on 18 May 1944. The following month, the same fate was meted out to other minorities, including Greeks and Armenians. Almost half of those subject to deportation died en route to their destination, and even after they were rehabilitated under Leonid Brezhnev, the Tatars were prohibited from returning to Crimea. Their place was taken mostly by ethnic Russians, who by 1959 accounted for 71.4% of the population, and – to a lesser extent – Ukrainians.

February 13, 2014

“Minimize your therbligs”, or Taylor versus Gilbreth

Filed under: Business, History, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:05

Sippican Cottage makes a strong case for Frank Bunker Gilbreth being the greatest man ever produced by Maine (republishing an older post from 2012):

Frank Gilbreth was born in Fairfield, Maine, in 1868. He never went to college except to teach at Purdue eventually. He’s famous, in a way, and anonymous in another. He’s the father portrayed in the original Cheaper By The Dozen, using a stopwatch to figure out how to make his family more efficient. That was his thing — efficiency.

He was a bricklayer. Built houses. He got to wondering if the repetition of laying one oblong slug of fired clay atop two others in a bed of mortar could be improved by observing the motions of skilled persons, breaking these exertions down into their component movements, and eliminating the wasted motions in the routines. It can, and he did. I’ve been a hod carrier and mason tender, and I can tell you that working off the ground or a platform the same height as your feet would be backbreaking and slow way to assemble masonry. We always used the footing form boards and leftover planks to assemble ad hoc shelves just lower than waist height behind the mason so that they could turn and pick up a brick and some mortar and go back to the next slot in the wall. I had no idea Clifton Webb, er, Frank Gilbreth came up with the idea less than a century before. It would be literally impossible to calculate how much time, money, effort, and how many worker’s backs Frank Gilbreth (and his wife, who was his partner and carried on after his early death) saved anonymously. His method is now universal and uncontroversial. How many people are incalculably useful to their fellow men?

I first heard of Gilbreth in my first college semester, and while the biographical detail is new to me, the basic idea is the same as my (post-strike replacement) instructor described. So who’s the “Taylor” of my title?

Frederick Taylor is the progenitor of so many things that are in the common language today that he deserves to be discussed with the most influential people of his time. That’s not necessarily a good thing. Almost all the fruit of Taylor’s tree is rotten.

Taylor is the guy standing behind dehumanized workers with a stopwatch, keeping track of bathroom breaks, and generally treating all work as a series of unrelated steps that any unskilled human could do, and constantly finding new ways of measuring it and subdividing it to harangue a little more out of the continually less and less skilled worker. “Scientific Management,” they called it. The Soviet Union loved it. They thought all people were just cogs in a big machine anyway. Most of the terms for malingering in dead-end jobs come from Taylorism. Goldbricking. Dogging it. Taylor observed that when normal people are in a group and everyone has the same duties, it is human nature for everyone in the group to devolve and perform at the level of the least capable and energetic member. His solution was a big expansion of management. He is the busted idol of micromanagement, and by extension, big government.

I have a lovely leather-bound copy of Taylor’s The Principles of Scientific Management that I’ve never actually opened … it was on the used book charity fundraising table at my local bank branch, so I paid $1 for it. From Sippican’s description, I may not bother to read it, as I think I’ve encountered most of the content in the working world.

Minimize your therbligs until it becomes automatic; this doubles your effective lifetime — and thereby gives time to enjoy butterflies and kittens and rainbows.

That’s Robert Heinlein in his “Lazarus Long” character voice. What the heck is a therblig, and why is it in this post? Therbligs are Gilbreth’s basic motions of physical work; the essential parts of any manual task. Minimize them to make the work more efficient. The name is derived, as my college instructor put it, by spelling Gilbreth sideways.

November 5, 2013

Camelot? Not so much…

Filed under: Government, History, USA — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 16:38

Gene Healy thinks that after fifty years, it’s time we stopped pretending that John F. Kennedy was a great president:

In a December 1963 interview, the president’s widow gave a name to the Kennedy mystique, telling journalist Theodore White of Jack’s fondness for the lyric from the Lerner and Loewe musical about King Arthur: “Once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment, that was known as Camelot.”

Much more than a “moment,” Camelot has proven an enduring myth.

JFK places near the top 10 in most presidential ranking surveys of historians, and in a 2011 Gallup poll, Americans ranked him ahead of George Washington in a list of “America’s greatest presidents.”

Kennedy’s murder was a national tragedy, to be sure, but an honest assessment of his record shows that our lawless and reckless 35th president was anything but a national treasure.


Indeed, JFK rarely let legal specifics deter his exercise of presidential power. At his behest in 1961, the Internal Revenue Service set up a “strike force,” the Ideological Organizations Project, targeting groups opposing the administration.

In 1962, outraged that American steel manufacturers had raised prices, he ordered wiretaps, IRS audits and dawn FBI raids on steel executives’ homes.

In 2011, Pulitzer Prize-winning national security journalist Thomas E. Ricks opined that JFK “probably was the worst American president of the [20th] century.”

In foreign policy, Ricks said, “he spent his 35 months in the White House stumbling from crisis to fiasco.”

True enough, after being buffaloed into the disastrous Bay of Pigs operation by the CIA, Kennedy helped bring the world to the brink of thermonuclear war in the Cuban Missile Crisis — not because Soviet missiles in Cuba altered the strategic balance of power (they did not), but because, as former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara later admitted, the missiles were “politically unacceptable” for the president.

Moreover, Kennedy’s aura of vitality and “vigah” depended on deliberate lies about his medical fitness for office: “I never had Addison’s disease … my health is excellent,” JFK told a reporter in 1961.

As Kennedy biographer Richard Reeves notes, JFK, who “received the last rites of the Catholic Church at least four times as an adult,” was “something of a medical marvel, kept alive by complicated daily combinations of pills and injections,” including a psychiatrically dangerous cocktail of painkillers and amphetamines regularly administered by celebrity physician Max “Dr. Feelgood” Jacobson.

Update, 6 November: Nick Gillespie assigns the blame (for the still-going hagiography) on the boomers in a piece titled “JFK Still Dead, Baby Boomers Still Self-Absorbed”

Indeed, by the early 1970s, what American over or under 30 didn’t agree with the sentiments expressed in a 1971 New York Times Magazine story on youth politics co-authored by Louis Rossetto, the future cofounder of Wired magazine? “John F. Kennedy, one of the leading reactionaries of the sixties, is remembered for his famous line, ‘Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country,’” seethed Rossetto and Stan Lehr. “Today, more and more young people are instead following the advice of [author] David Friedman: ‘Ask not what government can do for you… ask rather what government is doing to you.’”

But boomers were so much older then, they’re younger than that now, right? Despite the raft of revelations not just about governmental abuses of power generally but those involving JFK specifically, boomers just can’t quit him (or their airbrushed image of him) as their own mortality comes into focus. Here’s Vanity Fair’s James Wolcott, known for an “artful nastiness that’s long disappeared from his peers’ arsenal,” still going weak in the knees for Jack:

    I remember the light at the end of the school hallway reflecting off the floor as word went round and the weight in the air the days after. For kids my age, it was like losing a father, a father who had all of our motley fates in his hands…

As Splice Today’s Russ Smith — himself a boomer old enough to remember where he was when Kennedy was shot — notes, this is pure overstatement: “It wasn’t ‘like losing a father,’ and to suggest so is an affront to all the children who actually did lose their own father at a tender age.” Smith, who as the founder of the Baltimore and Washington City Papers and The New York Press knows a thing or two about reader appetites, is “betting that most of these books bomb, mostly because for most Americans those tumultuous days in 1963 are ancient history. Kennedy’s assassination might as well have occurred in the 19th century. Save for ascending and budding historians, where’s the audience for yet another encore of Camelot?”

September 27, 2013

The day World War III didn’t happen

Filed under: History, Military — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:59

In The Register, Iain Thomson takes us back to the depth of the Cold War, when it nearly turned very hot indeed:

Computer problems are an annoyance for us all, but thirty years ago a fault in the Soviet Union’s ballistic missile early warning system very nearly caused nuclear war, if not for the actions of Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Petrov of the Soviet Air Defense Forces.


in the early hours of the morning on the September 26, there was panic when the Soviet early warning system Oko, a monitoring system of geostationary satellites and ground stations designed to spot ballistic missile launches, reported that the US had fired off a missile against the Soviet Union. Then four more launches were reported by the system in quick succession.

“An alarm at the command and control post went off with red lights blinking on the terminal. It was a nasty shock,” Petrov told Moscow News in 2004. “Everyone jumped from their seats, looking at me. What could I do? There was an operations procedure that I had written myself. We did what we had to do. We checked the operation of all systems — on 30 levels, one after another. Reports kept coming in: All is correct.”

Petrov, then the officer in command of the Oko system at a bunker near Moscow, had the responsibility of informing the Soviet high command in the event of a US missile launch. Although he didn’t have launch control of the USSR’s huge nuclear arsenal, he was the first responder, and given the scant minutes available in the event of a surprise attack, his word would most likely have been accepted by the Soviet leadership.

But Petrov didn’t make the call. He knew that the Oko system, which had only gone live the year before, was buggy. He also later described how logically such a move made no sense. While a first strike by the US wasn’t out of the question, if the capitalists were to do so they’d launch everything they had, not a few missiles at a time, he reasoned.

August 15, 2013

MI5 – more Maxwell Smart than 007

Filed under: Britain, Government, History — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 00:01

Britain’s counter-intelligence service, MI5, comes in for some unkind words on the BBC website from Adam Curtis:

The recent revelations by the whistleblower Edward Snowden were fascinating. But they — and all the reactions to them — had one enormous assumption at their heart.

That the spies know what they are doing.

It is a belief that has been central to much of the journalism about spying and spies over the past fifty years. That the anonymous figures in the intelligence world have a dark omniscience. That they know what’s going on in ways that we don’t.

It doesn’t matter whether you hate the spies and believe they are corroding democracy, or if you think they are the noble guardians of the state. In both cases the assumption is that the secret agents know more than we do.

But the strange fact is that often when you look into the history of spies what you discover is something very different.

It is not the story of men and women who have a better and deeper understanding of the world than we do. In fact in many cases it is the story of weirdos who have created a completely mad version of the world that they then impose on the rest of us.

I want to tell some stories about MI5 — and the very strange people who worked there. They are often funny, sometimes rather sad — but always very odd.

The stories also show how elites in Britain have used the aura of secret knowledge as a way of maintaining their power. But as their power waned the “secrets” became weirder and weirder.

They were helped in this by another group who also felt their power was waning — journalists. And together the journalists and spies concocted a strange, dark world of treachery and deceit which bore very little relationship to what was really going on. And still doesn’t.

And no retelling of MI5′s hits and misses is complete without the time they accused their own chief of being a Soviet spy:

The small group in MI5 now became convinced that their organisation was not just penetrated by the Russians, it was actually run by a Soviet agent. They knew they had to get the truth out somehow even if it meant breaking the law. So they found a friendly journalist called Chapman Pincher and told him the hidden truth.

Here is Chapman Pincher being interviewed on the Wogan programme about what then happened. Up to this point Pincher had been the Defence correspondent on the Daily Express. He was successful for getting “scoops” from “inside sources” — although the historian EP Thompson said that really Chapman Pincher was:

    “A kind of official urinal in which ministers and intelligence and defence chiefs could stand patiently leaking.”

What the dissident MI5 agents now told Pincher was like super high-grade piss. Or, as he puts it in the Wogan interview, “it was like walking into an Aladdin’s Cave”. But what Pincher wrote was going to open the floodgates to a new kind of conspiracy journalism that still holds sway over large parts of the media imagination.

Have a look at him and decide yourself — high grade toilet or investigative journalist? Or maybe often they are the same thing?

August 5, 2013

Memories of the Alexandr Pushkin

Filed under: Randomness — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:18

Elizabeth sent me this link, saying “this video kind of gives a feel to the whole experience”. I asked her to write a bit about her trip on the Pushkin:

I’ve never visited a communist country but I got a real feel for it while travelling on this ship. I was twenty-two and going to live in England for a year.

Before embarking, I was given labels to put on my baggage. Cabin luggage was to be marked “Cabin” and other stuff was to be marked “Storage”. As I already had my storage stuff delivered earlier in a steamer trunk, the only luggage I had was marked “Cabin”. Imagine my surprise to find no luggage in my cabin. A tiny cabin with a small toilet/shower and handbasin with a porthole blocked by a ruddy great North American car. I went down to the Purser’s Office to enquire on where my luggage was. A grim looking pair were managing the booth and after checking the records the conversation went thus:

Them: “Your luggage is in hold”

Me: “But I had it marked ‘Cabin’”

Them: “No, it marked ‘Storage’”

Me: Can I have it delivered to my cabin?”

Them: “Is impossible”

Me: “Why?”

Them: “Hold cannot be opened when ship is sailing”

Me: “All my clothes are in there”

Them: (shrug)

Me: “What am I going to wear?”

Them: (more shrugs, waves me off)

I spent nine days wearing two sets of clothing and three pairs of underwear. Luckily, a kind young lady at the same dining table lent me a sweater and spare underwear and even more luckily I had a washroom in my cabin to handwash through the clothes I had just worn (most cabins didn’t have attached washrooms).

The ship was full of students going to Europe to study. The crew of the France had gone on strike and had forced many of the students to take the Pushkin instead. The crew hated us. We were a ship full of under-thirties who drank, played cards and liked rock’n’roll music — everything the Russian crew were not allowed to do. Three days out on a nine-day journey, the booze ran out. As the students were not real heavy drinkers and still getting their sea legs (the smell of vomit on the lower decks was awful), I suspect the crew or the senior officers had absconded with the alcohol.

We had a “talent” night where we had to listen to the crew perform Russian dances and folk songs. When it was the students turn, four or five had brought their guitars with them and started playing rock music. The audience was getting right into it singing along, clapping and dancing to the music when the Russians stomped onto the stage with “enough!”, “no more music”, and shut the performance down.

While playing pinochle one day, I met a young Scotsman from Long Niddry. He had just spent the last five years in the lumber camps of B.C. and to prove to his father that he wasn’t a layabout, he was bringing his car back to Scotland as a trophy of his success. Yes, it was his huge North American car strapped to the deck outside my porthole. How he proposed to drive it around the streets of Edinburgh, I have no idea.

And so, we spent nine dreary November days going from Montreal to L’Havre and then to the Tilbury docks in London. If the students had had rotten fruit they would have thrown it because on docking at L’Havre we were berthed alongside the France. The boos and catcalls were loud and I’m sure the people on the pier were wondering what the problem was.

This is my personal recollection of sailing on the Alexandr Pushkin. So much for the “queen of the Russian cruise ships”.

June 29, 2013

1948 and the “Black Friday” of cryptanalysis

Filed under: History, Technology, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:05

In Salon, Andrew Leonard looks at the early years of the NSA:

On Oct. 29, 1948, the Soviet Union suddenly changed all its ciphers and codes. What later became known as “Black Friday” delivered a huge shock to the two U.S. intelligence agencies that had conducted the bulk of American code-breaking efforts during World War II and its immediate aftermath. Before Black Friday, the Army’s SIS and the Navy’s OP-20-G complacently assumed that they had acquired the keys to most of the world’s encrypted communications. But with a flip of the switch the U.S. was once again in the dark — just as the Cold War was heating up.

“One of the gravest crises in the history of American cryptanalysis,” writes historian Colin Burke, led directly to the 1949 merging of the SIS and OP-20-G into the Armed Forces Security Agency. Three years later, another bureaucratic shuffle transformed the AFSA into the National Security Agency. A sense of panic induced by the “Soviets’ A-Bomb, the Berlin Blockade, the forming of the satellite bloc in Eastern Europe, the fall of China, and the Korean War” — all of which “were not predicted” by the intelligence agencies — encouraged the U.S. government to authorize the NSA to spend tens of millions of dollars on computer research, in the hope that technological advances would help crack the new Soviet codes.

Colin Burke is the author of It Wasn’t All Magic: The Early Struggle to Automate Cryptanalysis, 1930s-1960s. Burke completed his history in 1994, but until last week, his volume of crypto-geekery had only a handful of readers. Part of a series produced by the NSA’s Center for Cryptological History, It Wasn’t All Magic was considered classified material until May 2013, and was only made available online on June 24.

Nice timing! With the NSA currently occupying its highest public profile in living memory, a look back at its early history is quite instructive. It is useful to be reminded that the mandate to spy and surveil and break codes was absolutely critical to the early growth and evolution of computer technology. Some things never change: The immense effort required to crack German and Japanese codes during World War II are an early example of the intimidating challenges posed by what we now call “big data.”

It’s actually quite surprising that it took the Soviets until 1948 to change their codes: from 1942 or so, Britain and the US were sharing their Enigma decryptions of top-secret German messages with the Soviet Union. Even if the information was provided without the original text, the Soviets were fully aware that this was the fruit of decryption, not human spy reports. At the end of World War 2, that Anglo-American expertise would obviously have been redeployed to other ends … and reading Soviet message traffic clearly would be one of the more interesting sources of data.

QotD: Orwell on nationalism and the world state

Filed under: History, Military, Quotations — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 00:01

What is the use of pointing out that a World State is desirable? What matters is that not one of the five great military powers would think of submitting to such a thing. All sensible men for decades past have been substantially in agreement with what Mr. Wells says; but the sensible men have no power and, in too many cases, no disposition to sacrifice themselves. Hitler is a criminal lunatic, and Hitler has an army of millions of men, aeroplanes in thousands, tanks in tens of thousands. For his sake a great nation has been willing to overwork itself for six years and then to fight for two years more, whereas for the common-sense, essentially hedonistic world-view which Mr. Wells puts forward, hardly a human creature is willing to shed a pint of blood. Before you can even talk of world reconstruction, or even of peace, you have got to eliminate Hitler, which means bringing into being a dynamic not necessarily the same as that of the Nazis, but probably quite as unacceptable to ‘enlightened’ and hedonistic people. What has kept England on its feet during the past year? In part, no doubt, some vague idea about a better future, but chiefly the atavistic emotion of patriotism, the ingrained feeling of the English-speaking peoples that they are superior to foreigners. For the last twenty years the main object of English left-wing intellectuals has been to break this feeling down, and if they had succeeded, we might be watching the S.S. men patrolling the London streets at this moment. Similarly, why are the Russians fighting like tigers against the German invasion? In part, perhaps, for some half-remembered ideal of Utopian Socialism, but chiefly in defence of Holy Russia (the ‘sacred soil of the Fatherland’, etc. etc.), which Stalin has revived in an only slightly altered from. The energy that actually shapes the world springs from emotions — racial pride, leader-worship, religious belief, love of war — which liberal intellectuals mechanically write off as anachronisms, and which they have usually destroyed so completely in themselves as to have lost all power of action.

[. . .]

Mr. Wells, like Dickens, belongs to the non-military middle class. The thunder of guns, the jingle of spurs, the catch in the throat when the old flag goes by, leave him manifestly cold. He has an invincible hatred of the fighting, hunting, swashbuckling side of life, symbolised in all his early books by a violent propaganda against horses. The principal villain of his Outline of History is the military adventurer, Napoleon. If one looks through nearly any book that he has written in the last forty years one finds the same idea constantly recurring: the supposed antithesis between the man of science who is working towards a planned World State and the reactionary who is trying to restore a disorderly past. In novels, Utopias, essays, films, pamphlets, the antithesis crops up, always more or less the same. On the one side science, order, progress, internationalism, aeroplanes, steel, concrete, hygiene: on the other side war, nationalism, religion, monarchy, peasants, Greek professors, poets, horses. History as he sees it is a series of victories won by the scientific man over the romantic man. Now, he is probably right in assuming that a ‘reasonable,’ planned form of society, with scientists rather than witch-doctors in control, will prevail sooner or later, but that is a different matter from assuming that it is just round the corner. There survives somewhere or other an interesting controversy which took place between Wells and Churchill at the time of the Russian Revolution. Wells accuses Churchill of not really believing his own propaganda about the Bolsheviks being monsters dripping with blood, etc., but of merely fearing that they were going to introduce an era of common sense and scientific control, in which flag-wavers like Churchill himself would have no place. Churchill’s estimate of the Bolsheviks, however, was nearer the mark than Wells’s. The early Bolsheviks may have been angels or demons, according as one chooses to regard them, but at any rate they were not sensible men. They were not introducing a Wellsian Utopia but a Rule of the Saints, which like the English Rule of the Saints, was a military despotism enlivened by witchcraft trials. The same misconception reappears in an inverted form in Wells’s attitude to the Nazis. Hitler is all the war-lords and witch-doctors in history rolled into one. Therefore, argues Wells, he is an absurdity, a ghost from the past, a creature doomed to disappear almost immediately. But unfortunately the equation of science with common sense does not really hold good. The aeroplane, which was looked forward to as a civilising influence but in practice has hardly been used except for dropping bombs, is the symbol of that fact. Modern Germany is far more scientific than England, and far more barbarous. Much of what Wells has imagined and worked for is physically there in Nazi Germany. The order, the planning, the State encouragement of science, the steel, the concrete, the aeroplanes, are all there, but all in the service of ideas appropriate to the Stone Age. Science is fighting on the side of superstition. But obviously it is impossible for Wells to accept this. It would contradict the world-view on which his own works are based. The war-lords and the witch-doctors must fail, the common-sense World State, as seen by a nineteenth-century Liberal whose heart does not leap at the sound of bugles, must triumph. Treachery and defeatism apart, Hitler cannot be a danger. That he should finally win would be an impossible reversal of history, like a Jacobite restoration.

George Orwell, “Wells, Hitler and the World State”, Horizon, 1941.

June 12, 2013

Corey Robin refutes David Brooks, “The Last Stalinist”

Filed under: Government, History, Liberty, Politics — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 13:03

David Brooks wrote a column the other day that got lots of applause from the communitarians on both sides of the aisle for blaming Edward Snowden’s atomistic individualism and his “inability to make commitments and connections”. At Jacobin, Corey Robin explains why:

This is an old argument on the communitarian right and left: the loss of social bonds and connections turns men and women into the flotsam and jetsam of modern society, ready for any reckless adventure, no matter how malignant: treason, serial murder, totalitarianism.

It’s mostly bullshit, but there’s a certain logic to what Brooks is saying, albeit one he might not care to face up to.

In the long history of state tyranny, it is often those who are bound by close ties of personal connection to family and friends that are most likely to cooperate with the government: that is, not to “betray” their oaths to a repressive regime, not to oppose or challenge authoritarian rule. Precisely because those ties are levers that the regime can pull in order to engineer an individual’s collaboration and consent.

Take the Soviet Union under Stalin. Though there’s a venerable tradition in social thought that sees Soviet totalitarianism as the product of atomized individuals, one of the factors that made Stalinism possible was precisely that men and women were connected to each other, that they were in families and felt bound to protect each other. To protect each other by cooperating with rather than opposing Stalin.

Nikolai Bukharin’s confession in a 1938 show trial to an extraordinary career of counterrevolutionary crime, crimes he clearly did not commit, has long served as a touchstone of the manic self-liquidation that was supposed to be communism. It has inspired such treatments as Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s Humanism and Terror, and Godard’s La Chinoise. Yet contrary to the myth that Bukharin somehow chose to sacrifice himself for the sake of the cause, Bukharin was brutally interrogated for a year and he was repeatedly threatened with violence against his family. In the end, the possibility that a confession might save them, if not him, proved to be potent.

[. . .]

Back to David Brooks. Brooks likes to package his strictures in the gauzy wrap of an apolitical communitarianism. But Brooks is also, let us not forget, an authority- and state-minded chap, who doesn’t like punks like Snowden mucking up the work of war and the sacralized state. And it is precisely banal and familial bromides such as these — the need to honor one’s oaths, the importance of family and connection — that have underwritten popular collaboration with that work for at least a century, if not more.

Stalin understood all of this. So does David Brooks.

H/T to Radley Balko for the link.

June 6, 2013

D-Day 1942 or 1943

Filed under: Britain, Cancon, Europe, History, Military, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:17

At Military History Now, there’s a look at a few of the allied plans for invading France before the actual June 6, 1944 operation:

Almost as soon as America entered the war with Nazi Germany, generals Dwight Eisenhower and George Marshall were both lobbying for a strike across the English Channel into France. One plan foresaw a joint British and American assault on either of the French port cities of Cherbourg or Brest as early as the fall of 1942. The operation, codenamed Sledgehammer, would see a force of just six divisions attack, capture and hold either one of the two strategically-vital, deep-water harbours. The force, which likely would have totalled no more than 60,000 men, would have been expected to withstand the inevitable Nazi counterattacks until spring when more reinforcements could arrive. Despite the fact that the Germans would have been free to throw as many as 30 divisions at the invaders, the U.S. Joint Chiefs (as well as the Soviets) endorsed Sledgehammer wholeheartedly. The American commanders seemed to favour any plan that would bring U.S. forces into action in Europe quickly, while Stalin was thrilled at the prospect of an Allied offensive in Western Europe — anything to divert German forces away from the Russian front. Oddly enough, while the mission called for the heavy use of American air and sea power, at the time there was still only a handful of combat-ready U.S. Army units in England. As such, the ground portion of the invasion would be left entirely up to the British military. Cooler heads, namely Prime Minister Churchill, convinced Eisenhower to shelve Sledgehammer – Britain was already stretched thin in Egypt and America still had yet to fully mobilize for the war in Europe. An invasion of France would simply have to wait.

Later in 1942, the Allies roughed out a second plan to put troops ashore in Western Europe the following spring. This operation, dubbed Roundup, called for 18 British and 30 American divisions to hit a series of landing zones along a 200 km stretch of coastline between Boulogne-sur-Mer near Calais and the port of Le Harve. Overhead, more than 5,700 Allied aircraft were to sweep the skies of the Luftwaffe clearing the way for a series of airborne drops. D-Day was set for some time in April or May of 1943. The British, already strained by three years of total war against the Axis, were understandably reluctant to throw their army headlong into the teeth of Germany’s Channel fortifications. They pushed instead to attack Sicily and Italy – what Churchill called the “soft underbelly of Europe” — by way of North Africa. A sober appraisal of British and American fleet strength, air assets and manpower ultimately convinced the Allied high command that no invasion could be mounted until 1944 at the earliest. For one thing, American factories had yet to manufacture enough of the landing craft needed for such a massive undertaking. Washington and London turned their attention instead towards a late 1942 invasion of Tunisia – Operation Torch. The rest is, as they say, history.

As any Canadian military historian would probably have said to either of these proposals … I have two words: Operation Jubilee.

The Dieppe Raid, also known as the Battle of Dieppe, Operation Rutter and, later, Operation Jubilee, was a Second World War Allied attack on the German-occupied port of Dieppe. The raid took place on the northern coast of France on 19 August 1942. The assault began at 5:00 a.m. and by 10:50 a.m. the Allied commanders were forced to call a retreat. Over 6,000 infantrymen, predominantly Canadian, were supported by a Canadian Armoured regiment and a strong force of Royal Navy and smaller Royal Air Force landing contingents.

The objective of the raid was discussed by Winston Churchill in his war memoirs:

    “I thought it most important that a large-scale operation should take place this summer, and military opinion seemed unanimous that until an operation on that scale was undertaken, no responsible general would take the responsibility of planning the main invasion…

    In discussion with Admiral Mountbatten it became clear that time did not permit a new large-scale operation to be mounted during the summer (after Rutter had been cancelled), but that Dieppe could be remounted (with the new code-name “Jubilee”) within a month, provided extraordinary steps were taken to ensure secrecy. For this reason no records were kept but, after the Canadian authorities and the Chiefs of Staff had given their approval, I personally went through the plans with the C.I.G.S., Admiral Mountbatten, and the Naval Force Commander, Captain J. Hughes-Hallett.”

Objectives included seizing and holding a major port for a short period, both to prove it was possible and to gather intelligence from prisoners and captured materials, including naval intelligence in a hotel in town and a radar installation on the cliffs above it. Although the primary objective was not met and secondary successes were relatively few, some knowledge was gained while assessing the German responses. The Allies also wanted to destroy coastal defences, port structures and all strategic buildings. Due to the failure to secure Dieppe this objective was not met in any systematic sense. The raid had the added objective of providing a morale boost to the troops, Resistance, and general public, while assuring the Soviet Union of the commitment of the United Kingdom and the United States.

A total of 3,623 of the 6,086 men (almost 60%) who made it ashore were either killed, wounded, or captured. The Royal Air Force failed to lure the Luftwaffe into open battle, and lost 96 aircraft (at least 32 to flak or accidents), compared to 48 lost by the Luftwaffe.[2] The Royal Navy lost 33 landing craft and one destroyer. The events at Dieppe later influenced preparations for the North African (Operation Torch) and Normandy landings (Operation Overlord).

Operation Jubilee clearly showed that the plans for both Sledgehammer and Roundup would have been bloody failures.

April 1, 2013

QotD: The Social Democratic Moment

Filed under: Europe, Government, Quotations — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 00:01

The 1960s saw the apogee of the European state. The relation of the citizen to the state in Western Europe in the course of the previous century had been a shifting compromise between military needs and political claims: the modern rights of newly enfranchised citizens offset by older obligations to defend the realm. But since 1945 that relationship had come increasingly to be characterised by a dense tissue of social benefits and economic strategies in which it was the state that served its subjects, rather than the other way around.

In later years the all-encompassing ambitions of the Western European welfare state would lose some of their appeal — not least because they could no longer fulfill their promise: unemployment, inflation, ageing populations and economic slowdown placed insuperable constraints upon the efforts of states to deliver their half of the bargain. Transformations in international capital markets and modern electronic communications hamstrung governments’ capacity to plan and enforce domestic economic policy. And, most important of all, the very legitimacy of the interventionist state itself was undermined: at home by the rigidities and inefficiencies of public-sector agencies and producers, abroad by the incontrovertible evidence of chronic economic dysfunction and political repression in the Socialist states of the Soviet bloc.

Tony Judt, “The Social Democratic Moment”, Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945, 2005

March 17, 2013

Celebrating 60 years of being Stalin-free

Filed under: History — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 11:19

In Reason, Cathy Young looks at the bloody legacy of the Soviet dictator and his startling popularity in modern day Russia (and the west):

The 60th anniversary of the death of one of history’s most murderous tyrants has passed with relatively little notice. Yet the shadow of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, who died on March 5, 1953, still hangs over post-communist Russia — and has yet to face proper judgment in the West. This is one bloody ghost still waiting for its final exorcism.

During the years of his absolute rule over the Soviet Union from 1928 to 1953, Stalin was responsible for the deaths of at least 20 million people. They included victims of state-engineered famines, particularly in Ukraine, intended to starve the peasantry into submission to collective farming; people from all walks of life shot on trumped-up charges of subversive activities; and others sent to the Siberian labor camps known as the gulag, never to return. Untold millions who survived lost years of their lives to the gulag. (Among the latter were my own paternal grandparents, who were arrested in 1947 and released after Stalin’s death; ironically, unlike most of their fellow prisoners, they were actually guilty as charged — of “betraying the motherland” by trying to escape the Soviet Union and go to Palestine.)

If there was ever a true devil in the flesh, Stalin was one of the prime candidates for the title. A tyrant with a deeply sadistic streak, he reportedly howled with laughter when told about the final moments of a former associate who had been promised clemency in exchange for a false confession and vainly begged his executioners to “please call Comrade Stalin” and clear up the misunderstanding. He jailed the wives of several men in his inner circle, presumably just for the pleasure of seeing his underlings squirm and showing them who’s boss.

Yet four years ago, this monster came close to being chosen as history’s greatest Russian in a nationwide Internet and telephone vote. Though the voting was not representative, actual polls also yield discouraging results. In a survey conducted last month by the Levada Center, a respected independent polling firm, almost one in 10 Russians said that Stalin’s role in Russia’s history was “entirely positive” while another 40 percent saw it as “mostly positive.” Fewer than a third believed it was entirely or mostly negative, while the rest were not sure.

January 12, 2013

The Cuban Missile Crisis, 50 years on

Filed under: Americas, History, Military, USA — Tags: , , , , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 00:01

In The Atlantic, Benjamin Schwarz looks at the myths and realities of the standoff between the Soviet Union and the United States over Cuba in 1962:

On October 16, 1962, John F. Kennedy and his advisers were stunned to learn that the Soviet Union was, without provocation, installing nuclear-armed medium- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles in Cuba. With these offensive weapons, which represented a new and existential threat to America, Moscow significantly raised the ante in the nuclear rivalry between the superpowers — a gambit that forced the United States and the Soviet Union to the brink of nuclear Armageddon. On October 22, the president, with no other recourse, proclaimed in a televised address that his administration knew of the illegal missiles, and delivered an ultimatum insisting on their removal, announcing an American “quarantine” of Cuba to force compliance with his demands. While carefully avoiding provocative action and coolly calibrating each Soviet countermeasure, Kennedy and his lieutenants brooked no compromise; they held firm, despite Moscow’s efforts to link a resolution to extrinsic issues and despite predictable Soviet blustering about American aggression and violation of international law. In the tense 13‑day crisis, the Americans and Soviets went eyeball-to-eyeball. Thanks to the Kennedy administration’s placid resolve and prudent crisis management — thanks to what Kennedy’s special assistant Arthur Schlesinger Jr. characterized as the president’s “combination of toughness and restraint, of will, nerve, and wisdom, so brilliantly controlled, so matchlessly calibrated, that [it] dazzled the world” — the Soviet leadership blinked: Moscow dismantled the missiles, and a cataclysm was averted.

Every sentence in the above paragraph describing the Cuban missile crisis is misleading or erroneous. But this was the rendition of events that the Kennedy administration fed to a credulous press; this was the history that the participants in Washington promulgated in their memoirs; and this is the story that has insinuated itself into the national memory — as the pundits’ commentaries and media coverage marking the 50th anniversary of the crisis attested.

Scholars, however, have long known a very different story: since 1997, they have had access to recordings that Kennedy secretly made of meetings with his top advisers, the Executive Committee of the National Security Council (the “ExComm”). Sheldon M. Stern — who was the historian at the John F. Kennedy Library for 23 years and the first scholar to evaluate the ExComm tapes — is among the numerous historians who have tried to set the record straight. His new book marshals irrefutable evidence to succinctly demolish the mythic version of the crisis. Although there’s little reason to believe his effort will be to any avail, it should nevertheless be applauded.

[. . .]

The patient spadework of Stern and other scholars has since led to further revelations. Stern demonstrates that Robert Kennedy hardly inhabited the conciliatory and statesmanlike role during the crisis that his allies described in their hagiographic chronicles and memoirs and that he himself advanced in his posthumously published book, Thirteen Days. In fact, he was among the most consistently and recklessly hawkish of the president’s advisers, pushing not for a blockade or even air strikes against Cuba but for a full-scale invasion as “the last chance we will have to destroy Castro.” Stern authoritatively concludes that “if RFK had been president, and the views he expressed during the ExComm meetings had prevailed, nuclear war would have been the nearly certain outcome.” He justifiably excoriates the sycophantic courtier Schlesinger, whose histories “repeatedly manipulated and obscured the facts” and whose accounts — “profoundly misleading if not out-and-out deceptive” — were written to serve not scholarship but the Kennedys.

January 4, 2013

North Korea adopts maskirovka to conceal rocket preparations

Filed under: Asia, Military, Pacific — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:09

Strategy Page on the most recent North Korean hoodwinking of western intelligence agencies:

Western intelligence agencies are a bit embarrassed that they were not able to predict the exact day that North Korea recently launched a long-range rocket. Even though North Korean announced the two week period during which the launch would take place last December, and several nations had photo satellites flying over the launch site regularly, the actual launch came as a surprise. The North Koreans apparently took advantage of the regular schedules of these spy satellites to move equipment around the launch site at the right time to conceal just how close the rocket was to takeoff. Many intel analysts had not seen this sort of thing at all (if they were young) and the older ones had not seen it done to this degree since the 1980s, when the Soviet Union was still around and using their maskirovka (“masking”) agency to carry out large scale deceptions of photo satellites. The Russians taught the North Koreans many things, and maskirovka was apparently part of the curriculum.

In addition to concealing weapons, their performance and movements, the Soviets also used satellite deception to mislead the west on how their troops would operate in the field. Several times a year, the Soviets would hold large scale maneuvers. Each of these exercises would involve many divisions, plus hundreds of aircraft and helicopters. Satellite photos of these maneuvers were thought to reveal tactics the Soviets were going to use in future wars. But the Soviets knew when American satellites were coming over and sometimes arranged displays of tactics they had no intention of using. Naturally, this made it more difficult for the Western intelligence analysts to figure out exactly what the Soviets were planning. This, of course, was the sort of confusion the Soviets wanted to create with these little deceptions.

November 20, 2012

50 years later: Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

Filed under: History, Media — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 12:04

It’s being called “one of the most significant books of the 20th Century”, and it was published 50 years ago this month:

The character was fictional. But there were millions like him — innocent citizens who, like Solzhenitsyn himself, had been sent to the Gulag in Joseph Stalin’s wave of terror.

Censorship and fear had prevented the truth about the camps from being published, but this story made it into print. The USSR would never be the same again.

“We were absolutely isolated from information, and he started to open our eyes,” remembers writer and journalist Vitaly Korotich.

[. . .]

It was Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev who had sanctioned publication of Solzhenitsyn’s novel nearly a decade after Stalin’s death. Allowing a book on the Gulag, he thought, would help debunk Stalin’s personality cult. However, one story sparked many more.

“After it was published, it was impossible to stop it,” Korotich recalls. “Immediately we received a lot of illegal publications. A lot of people who were in prison started to remember how it was.

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