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].

Journalist John Reed Witnessed 10 Days that Shook the World

This original photograph of Tsar Nicholas II, dated May 20, 1910, realized $16,730 at an April 2008 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

On Oct. 25, 1917, U.S. journalist John Reed was staying at the Hotel Astoria in Petrograd – the former grand city of the czars, Saint Petersburg. At 10 a.m., he awoke to bells ringing and trucks racing up and down the streets.

The trucks belonged to the Bolsheviks, a small left-wing revolutionary party headed by Vladimir Lenin. They were filled with soldiers who plastered up proclamations stating, “To the Citizens of Russia! The provisional government has been deposed. State power has passed to the Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies … Long live the revolution of workers, soldiers and peasants.”

Actually, the provisional government of Alexander Kerensky had not been deposed, but an ever-impatient Lenin was partially right: That morning in Petrograd would change the face of a century – as the revolution “that shook the world” had begun.

The events of the next 10 days set in motion a seismic upheaval of an entire country and resulted in a massive communist empire. It should have been no surprise as the country had been ruled by omnipotent czars and governed by a corrupt and crumbling bureaucracy.

The bloodletting of WWI became the catalyst for the Russian Revolution as Tsar Nicholas II vainly tried to regain the prestige lost in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05 and to reunite the people. It backfired and by the winter of 1917, Russia had millions of soldiers as casualties, prisoners of war and deserters.

Deserters returned home and began seizing land from the wealthy. Food shortages were rampant, workers began to riot, and soldiers – instead of shooting them – joined them by tying red ribbons to their bayonets.

Tsar Nicholas was forced to abdicate in March 1917, ending the 300-year rule of the Romanov dynasty. He and his entire family were exiled and then executed. A moderate provisional government was set up with a Constitutional Assembly and led by the 36-year-old Kerensky.

However, Kerensky launched an offensive against Germany with disastrous results. Rebellious troops commandeered trains to return home and began murdering landlords and pillaging the great estates. Factories ground to a halt and food shortages quickly spread everywhere.

Kerensky was unable to regain control and this gave the two men who would end up leading the 1917 revolution, Lenin and Leon Trotsky, the opening they needed. Both had been in exile for years in Siberia and Europe.

Kerensky wisely fled to avoid capture.

John Reed’s book Ten Days That Shook The World describes the events in great detail, but even he was an extraordinarily controversial figure who ended up charged with treason, fleeing the United States back to Russia, where he died of typhus in 1920.

He became one of those rare Americans who is buried in the Kremlin.

Jim O'NielIntelligent 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].