Tuesday, November 15, 2011
How the Bolshevik Revolutionaries Looted Russia
How the Bolshevik Revolutionaries Looted Russia In the years before the Revolution, the Bolsheviks would fund their activities by holding up banks and stealing gold. By James Marson Published: февраля 25, 2009 In the years before the Revolution, the Bolsheviks would fund theiractivities by holding up banks and stealing gold. As Sean McMeekindemonstrates in his new book, after seizing power in November 1917these leopards didn't change their spots. "History'sGreatest Heist" is a comprehensive guide to the Bolshevik'sappropriation of state and private assets, their subsequent launderingby Swedish bankers and use as security to fund purchases of arms toenforce their will on a starving population. Academic in its depth andexecution and cinematic in its scope, McMeekin's work takes us throughthe first four years of Bolshevik rule, describing how a band ofrevolutionaries managed to establish rule over all of Russia. Thestory begins in pre-Revolutionary Russia, portrayed by McMeekin as aburgeoning capitalist state, industrializing and modernizing at a fastpace. That may well have been the case, but he brushes over moreuncomfortable elements of political suppression and massive economicinequality. (Sound familiar?) After the Bolsheviks first seizedpower in November 1917, they needed cash fast, "if only, at first, topay the Red Guards ... who had staged the coup." When State Bankofficials refused to recognize Bolshevik authority and cooperate withdemands for money, they were replaced with an incompetent financialteam who, as one later confessed, "entered the enormous corridors ofthis bank as if we were penetrating a virgin forest." McMeekinhas little time for the Marxist ideology that drove the Bolsheviks'economic ideals, their bookish theories that led them to disregard thepossibilities of economic reality. When a Swedish banker warned thatthe cancellation of all foreign debt obligations in February 1918 wouldruin Russia's creditworthiness, Mechislav Bronsky, the Bolshevik tradecommissar, laughed in his face. At the same time the "loot thelooters" campaign was being carried out to transfer the wealth to thenew regime under the guise of returning to the workers what wasrightfully theirs. In reality, "property nationalizations" meantanarchy and "were carried out by whoever wished to loot and rob theirneighbors." McMeekin recounts the murder of the Romanovs inYekaterinburg in gory detail, with locals tearing jewels off the deadbodies. As late as the 1930s, the Cheka found $1.6 million of imperialjewelry in the area. Yale University Press Whena state committee -- Gokhran -- was set up in 1920 to organizeconfiscations, its amateurish work systematically destroyed Russia'swealth and cultural heritage as its workers stripped down historicalobjects to their raw materials. Not only did the Bolsheviks manage toseize the tsar's gold bullion, Europe's largest reserve, but they alsotook jewelry, silver cutlery, artwork and books from homes andsafe-deposit boxes across the country. At times, McMeekin takesan overly romanticized view of some of the dispossessed. The idea of aprince stuffing "two Rembrandts ... [and] many family jewels" into hisluggage as he flees the country is a little hard to swallow given whatwe know about Russia's widespread poverty. The picture of an idealizedpre-Revolutionary Russia certainly gives us very clear heroes andvillains, but it also provides an excessively one-dimensional view ofthose in whose hands Russia's patrimony was held before the Revolution.This is not to justify the Bolshevik's looting but rather to provide amore textured view. The Bolsheviks' nationalization campaign wasnot only driven by ideological fervor but also by desperation formoney. Faced with resistance by peasants, workers and soldiers, thevery people in whose name they made the Revolution, they maintainedauthority by their monopoly on the means to violence. McMeekindemonstrates how the money, surrendered under slogans such as "Turngold into bread," was primarily spent on arms and military equipment tocement their rule by force. But after their repudiation offoreign debts, no one would deal with the Bolsheviks -- no one, thatis, apart from bankers and businessmen driven by greed. Swedish bankerswere happy to help the Bolsheviks melt gold down and recast it with theSwedish stamp. The German authorities were concerned that the moneyflooding into the country from Russia was fuelling propaganda for aworld revolution. In fact, it was securitizing massive arms andindustrial deals. Shady middlemen -- both Bolshevik veterans andwheeler-dealers -- fanned out across Europe with suitcases stuffed withmoney. Reval (Tallinn) started to resemble a Wild West boomtown whereadventurers and representatives of reputable firms struck deals inreturn for the Swedish gold. The Bolsheviks -- belying theirclaims to represent the workers -- also wanted to live the high life.McMeekin is particularly irked by Lenin riding around in a Rolls Royce.Money not spent on equipment for the Red Army was spent on food -- notgrain to feed the starving population suffering from famine, butSwedish herring, German bacon and French pig fat. Of the manyforeign villains in the book, no one is more harshly criticized thanBritish Prime Minister Lloyd George. In November 1919, he gave up onarmed intervention against the Bolsheviks, saying "Russia isquicksand," and called off the blockade of the Baltic Sea. Under acutedomestic economic pressure, his decision to sign an Anglo-Soviet Accordin 1921 effectively accepted the Bolshevik's claim to the gold aslegitimate and assented to their refusal to fulfill debt obligations. Bythe end of 1921, the riches procured by the Bolshevik's looting hadhelped them to achieve the unthinkable: grudging legitimacy fromWestern governments and the means to defeat their opponents withinRussia. McMeekin concludes that the greedy capitalists, such asU.S. steel magnate Andrew Mellon, who acquired a number of paintings byOld Masters, were directly responsible for funding the Red Terror andthe Bolshevik's war against the peasants. Adapting Lenin's phrase,Western capitalists sold the Bolsheviks the rope not with which to hangthem, but to hang millions of Russians. "The saddest part of theentire sordid story of the looting and laundering of Russia's nationalpatrimony is that so few people know the first thing about it,"McMeekin laments. His excellent book, with its copious research andabsorbing narrative, should go a long way to changing that.