After Napoleon and Nazi Germany, Russia Lives with Paranoia of Conflict

A 1953 Russian propaganda poster showing Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin sold for $2,629 at a July 2016 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

Joseph Stalin died on March 5, 1953, after ruling the Soviet Union for 25 years and leading the country in its transformation into a major world power. Born Iosif Dzhugashvili in 1878, while in his 30s he took the name “Stalin” meaning “Man of Steel.” After studying at a theological seminary, he read the works of revolutionary socialist Karl Marx, which inspired him to join the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution.

He was a protégé of Vladimir Lenin and after Lenin’s death, Stalin earned a reputation as one of the most ruthless and brutal dictators in world history (“Ideas are more powerful than guns,” he once said. “We don’t let our people have guns. Why should we let them have ideas?”).

After an extended Cold War with the West, the Soviet Union started to unravel when its eighth and final leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, assumed control in 1988. He seemed eager to “destroy the apparat” – weaken the Stalinist structure of the Communist Party and the Soviet state. Only then could he take the bold economic steps to revamp a bankrupt system that was crumbling fast.

The West hailed Gorbachev as the tsar liberator, a political magician, or as Time magazine editorialized in January 1990: “The Copernicus, Darwin and Freud of communism all wrapped into one.” A year earlier, he was Time’s “Man of the Decade.” But in early 1990, Lithuania demanded outright independence and a crowd of 200,000 in the capital of Vilnius demonstrated to get the entire Lithuanian territory returned. This was quickly followed by an Azerbaijani Popular Front rally that escalated into a civil war along the Armenian-Azerbaijani border, with both sides clamoring for independence.

In August 1991, Latvia and Estonia declared restoration of full independence, followed by the Ukraine on Dec. 1. On Dec. 25, Christmas Day, Gorbachev resigned and the following day the Supreme Soviet voted itself and the Soviet Union out of existence.

I first met current Russian President Vladimir Putin in Saint Petersburg in 1992 when he was head of the Committee for External Relations, a group in the mayor’s office responsible for promoting international relations and foreign investment. We started shipping Lays potato chips from Warsaw and soon built a Frito-Lay plant near Moscow. I totally underestimated him and thought he was just another thug, a feeling that was reinforced when we started Pizza Hut in Moscow.

According to Henry Kissinger, Putin has always blamed Gorbachev for the dissolution of the Soviet Union due to his policies of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (reform). “The greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century.” It has always been a mystery to me why they gave up so much when the United States and others were willing to negotiate a softer landing. I haven’t read Putin’s autobiography, but I suspect the Russians will never be satisfied until there is an east-west buffer zone along the Ukrainian border.

After Napoleon and then Nazi Germany, there is an inherent paranoia that will only be exacerbated if Poland ever joins NATO. As philosopher George Santayana so wisely observed, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

McCarthy Exploited Vulnerabilities of Frightened Public by Simplifying Complex Issues

A copy of Joseph McCarthy’s McCarthyism: The Fight for America, 1952, signed by the senator, sold for $206.25 at an October 2013 auction.

By Jim O’Neal

It’s rather interesting to compare the 1930s with the late 1940s and the transition from the era of the New Deal – when liberal ideas were ascendant, and communism, while not popular, was hardly the abhorrent demon it would become.

To Whittaker Chambers (whose 1952 book Witness became a bestseller) and many other Americans, communism was more than a system of government. It had morphed into a campaign for control of the mind and the masses.

Too many Americans seemed to have fallen victim to the “Soviet Experiment” and were infatuated by its promise of egalitarianism, while ignoring the crimes of its authoritarian leadership. Chambers was a gifted intellectual writer, but the anti-communists were to find their most vocal champion by accident. And he was a buffoon.

Joseph McCarthy

Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin was a hard-drinking, coarse man who later said he knew so little about his crusade that he would find it hard to distinguish Karl Marx from Groucho Marx. In a May 1950 speech to Republicans in West Virginia, he claimed to have a list of 205 communists working in the State Department. He had no list, but in subsequent speeches the number grew to thousands and then four.

But, with self-aggrandizement being his real personal goal, he soon realized he was onto something big when reporters started asking for more information. He played along and became anti-communism’s most captivating spokesman. By suggestion, innuendo and diversion, McCarthy pointed his finger at labor and liberals, at America’s elite, its prominent educational institutions, and at FDR and the New Deal.

Soon, he was not the only one ruining careers and smearing reputations. Around the country, untold numbers of civil servants, schoolteachers and scientists were driven from their jobs by witch-hunts just as vicious as the Wisconsin senator’s. The hysteria included schools banning the tale of Robin Hood for its communist themes; the Cincinnati Reds changing their name to the Redlegs; and Mickey Spillane having his tough private eye going after communist subversives instead of gangsters. Jackie Robinson was called before the House Committee on Un-American Activities to testify about communism’s influence in the black community. Even Hollywood had its own “blacklist” of writers, directors and actors.

Only when McCarthy challenged the character of President Truman’s Secretary of Defense George Marshall did his public opinion begin to sour.

There were plenty of communist agents or sympathizers in America, but it is unlikely that McCarthy or his followers ever found any. What they did was exploit the vulnerability of frightened or insecure people by simplifying complex international developments into language that tapped into cultural divisions. McCarthy helped them find someone to blame.

Fortunately, it didn’t last long after the Senate censored him … twice. He died a hopeless alcoholic at age 48.

The 2005 movie Good Night, and Good Luck with David Strathairn and George Clooney does a terrific job of capturing the era of McCarthyism through the lens of TV journalist Edward R. Murrow’s experience. It’s among my top 20 favorite movies.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].