….just another quick aside…..some Modern Russian History 101.

Lately I have received a few messages commenting that since beginning the Russian leg of this trip I seem to have developed a morbid fascination with the dark chapters of Russia’s story and am always writing about the USSR under Stalin, the workings of the GULAG, or the impact of the War.



It’s a fair comment on the face of it.



So let me explain.


Firstly the War:


It’s an important fact that Russia historically has been invaded by the French, the Prussians, the Lithuanians, the Turks, and the Swedes and since the late 19th century has fought against the British, the French, the Japanese, and even the Finns.


And thus apart from Russia having suffered the humiliation of foreign rule in the distant past, it has also been basically been whupped (to varying degrees) in every war it has contested in the modern age too.


That is until the Nazi invasion of 1941.

….until the defeat of the ideological enemy in the Fascists.

Until Stalin.


And even though between 20-22 million Russians perished and the western regions of Russia left as scorched earth and rubble.


It is THE defining event of modern Russia.


…and any Russian will tell you (which I believe has justification) that it was the Russians who saved the world from the fascism of the Nazis.


They believe that their western allies though supplying arms and aid largely left the Russians to do the fighting and the bleeding so as to weaken Hitler all the while refusing to open the promised second front in Europe in 1942….and then with the advent of the Cold War they feel that their former allies turned against them after they had bore the brunt of the war’s destruction.


So it is impossible to come to terms with the way Russians view themselves and the wider world without factoring in the effects of the war…..the memorials….the holidays….the propaganda….the wariness of foreigners…


Secondly there is Stalin’s Russia (1924-53) and the GULAG.


You’ve got understand that before the 1917-18 revolutions that all of Russia was basically a peasant nation mired in residue serfdom and beholden to the authority of the Russian Orthodox Church….there was no Industrial Revolution nor any cultural and artistic Renaissance here.


The Bolsheviks turned the world upside down as Lenin and his cohorts failed to instigate any type of workable transition to communism (due either to their failings, the inherent failings of the ideology, or perhaps the task was just too big).

Immediately there began a vicious Civil War after which repression, terror, violence, and general chaos became institutionalised as the Bolsheviks tried to establish their ‘workers paradise’.


Upon Lenin’s death Stalin slowly assumed control and from the 1930’s until his death Stalin (for better or for worse) became the sole architect of the USSR.


He inherited a country where (outside of Moscow and Leningrad) reigned a backward peasant society. A country where the State (USSR) and the Communist Party (CCCP) were both in administrative and operational chaos; a country feared in Europe, vilified in the capitalist west, in the grip of famine, unable to feed itself, and with a stagnate economy. A country which had yet to recover from its own Civil War yet as Stalin noted as early as 1932, was staring at a future war with a resurgent Germany under Hitler.


Stalin’s legacy is now viewed with some ambivalence. As if the repression, the show trials, the murders, the forced exiles, the mass deportations, and the GULAG were, in the eyes of many ordinary Russians, balanced by the victory of 1945, the rapid and complete industrialisation of Russia within a generation, its nuclear capability, its military strength, and its elevation to superpower status in the eyes of the world…all achieved under the fatherly guiding hand of Comrade Stalin.


And so even after he was denounced by his former acolytes in the CCCP, his national status diminished, his image, pictures, statues, and monuments removed from public view, and the history of his era largely re-interpreted if not re-written…Stalin invisibly permeates modern Russia.


The buildings of every major city and town, roads, ports, waterways, railways, the Moscow and St Petersburg metro’s, the electricity and communication grids…his DNA is in everything here.


…and how did he accomplish this?


Largely with the forced labour of the GULAG.


…and even if some things such as western technology or foreign goods had to be purchased…..it was purchased with gold mined in the harshest conditions of far eastern of Russia, in Kolyma and Kamchatka with GULAG labour.


The growth and expansion of Soviet Russian from agrarian peasant state to industrialised military superpower runs parallel to the growth and expansion of both Stalin’s rule and the GULAG system. That is not to say it could not have happened any other way….but that is the way it was done.


The foundations of today’s Russia have the same heritage…even the oil, chemical, and mining industries, which were privatised in the early 1990’s creating billionaire Russian oligarchs like Khardovsky, Abramovitch were derived from industries that originated in Stalin’s era by exploiting the forced labour of the GULAG system.


So, the unseen hand Stalin and the unseen hands of millions of prisoners of the GULAG are in much of what the visitor to modern Russia will see if they visit and will read about in the Russian section of the international financial press….but they will only comprehend if they look a little closer…..


….and unfortunately for some of you……I like to look close.



A perfect example:


The previous blog-entry (regarding my day out with the Moscow 4×4 Club) gave mention to a large abandoned church ruin we came across deep in the forest outside Moscow.


Apparently there are thousands of church buildings, far from modern day population centres left abandoned in the woods of Russia.




The church I saw was quite large; with a beautifully constructed brickwork dome and a tall bell tower….this was a wealthy church which must have had a prosperous congregation who would have lived in up to a dozen surrounding villages which would constitute what we would call its ‘parish’.


And yet today there is no sign of the village buildings nor any villagers remains, no remnant descendants, and no official history.


One explanation I was given was that when they built a road nearby, the village buildings being wood were deconstructed, moved, and rebuilt elsewhere. The church being sturdy brick was obviously not transportable so it remained here, abandoned, left to the ravages of the elements, the forest, and time.


But this site is a mere 7 miles from the nearest highway and there are innumerable villages in the Russia which stand that far off a main road….and for a Russian Orthodox congregation to abandon such a fine church? Believers of most faiths in most countries are usually quite attached to their church buildings and they are often the most lavish and grand structure in their midst……hard to believe they would just pack up and leave the church to rot……and this has happened all over Russia remember.


The ‘other’ explanation was that the surrounding villages were indeed relatively quite ‘well off’, which in the language of Stalin’s day meant they were ‘kulaks’ or rich peasants (now admittedly that could mean a peasant had 2 cows when most had only one but being considered a kulak was a relative judgement).


Stalin considered kulaks to be major enemies of the state and counterrevolutionaries as they stood to lose the most in the collectivisation of farms and the transfer of property to the State.


Individual kulaks, considered ‘class enemies’, often found themselves as forced labourers in the GULAG but entire families and villages were often deported en-masse to the far flung reaches of the Siberian steppe or to the plains of Kazakhstan as an exile punishment, part of  Stalin’s official policy which was an organised attempt to populate the empty regions of the USSR.


Exile and deportation could be ordered due to; class status (being considered a kulak); ethnicity (300,000 Chechens were deported to Kazakhstan, 50,000 Tartars to northern Siberia amongst countless others); or those suspected of being politically unreliable due to their ethnicity (thus hundreds of thousands of Russians with a Baltic, Ukrainian, or Polish name, whether or not they harboured nationalist sympathies, were deported far from their traditional homelands near the border regions.


So the ‘abandoned’ church, defiled, partly demolished, left standing as a ruin deep in the forest was a product of Stalin’s paranoid policies of the 1930’s while the surrounding communities were exiled to the wildernesses of Russia and forgotten, never to return.


So perhaps you can understand why I seem to mention Russia’s ‘darker chapters of history’ so often….


…….because I can’t even go for a Sunday drive in the forest without encountering the evidence.






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