History's Greatest Heist
The Looting of Russia by the Bolsheviks
(Yale University Press)
US: Dec 2008
Awareness of the atrocities of the Third Reich are widespread; Hollywood movies continue to be made analysing and deriding the Nazi regime, particularly in relation to the Holocaust. Some of these treatments are interesting and nuanced, whilst others portray a somewhat cartoonish and stereotypically evil German stereotype.
In television, certainly in Anglophone cultures, history programming has for years mined this era for subjects, focusing not only on the military or genocidal acts of the Nazis, but also on their advances in the use of mass propaganda, a devotion to eugenics, as well as the pilfering of works of art. Investigations of the question of so called “Nazi gold” have been undertaken—how members of the German army at the time, as well as high ranking officials, stole gold from the homes of wealthy captured civilians, then stashed them for future financial appreciation.
But what of similar pilfering by the Bolsheviks? Why is there such a popular knowledge of and interest in only the ills of the Nazis, whilst few consider or seek to investigate the behaviour of Lenin and co.? Indeed, why are their little cinematic accounts of Soviet labour camps, or other historically documented ills ordered by the upper echelons of the Communist party in (especially) the first half of the 20th century? Academic author Sean McMeekin seeks to address one key aspect of this slantedness in this new book, which recounts the early part of the Russian revolution, the gradual political takeover initiated by the Bolsheviks led by Lenin, and what followed: as he views it, a systemic looting of the nation’s coffers.
When the Bolsheviks seized power in Tsarist Russia in early 1917, they sought to implement what they saw as the necessary steps to achieve socialism according to Marxist doctrine. Widespread nationalisation and state control, realigning the civil service’s power structure and so on took place, but the nationalisation of the banks was the toughest aspect.
Bankers, stubborn in the face of the revolutionary ideals of the Bolsheviks, did not want to give in to malcontents and sacrifice their enterprise to those they considered as usurpers. Indeed, as McMeekin points out, some members of the Red army that sought to seize bank assets were in fact disgruntled former employees, eager to get one back on their bosses. There follows a detailed account of the systematic appropriation of Russian assets (a more polite word!) by the new regime, from church to civilian to monarchical holdings. Paintings from the old Dutch masters, previously in the possession of moneyed Russians, were sold on covertly to finance “the revolution”. Conflicts between the Kerensky led moderates and the more hardline ideologues on Lenin’s side underpin this – mirroring the contemporary society—as well as international pressure to secure payment of loans given to Russia and to maintain a sense of stability in the European financial environment.
The book is well researched, and McMeekin has clearly dug deep in his field of interest. There is a distinct cynicism about the iconoclastic impulses of the revolution; he is inclined to characterise some of the players as chancers, looking for an easy way to exploit and revel in the destruction of the older, aristocratic social order under the cloak of moving towards egalitarianism.
McMeekin has a certain creative writer’s flair in his presentation also – the book includes at its close a dossier on the major players of the time (the “dramatis personae” as he terms them), written in a detective fiction-like fashion. Indeed, this style comes through in much of the text; he does not couch his analysis in academically dry tones, and this makes the work flow.
Definitely written from a politically conservative point of view, McMeekin moves away from a more adolescent fascination with the excitement of revolution and points towards a more pragmatic, exploitative side; as an alternative and unromantic account of a society undergoing radical change. It’s worth a close look.