Review of “American Kompromat: How the KGB Cultivated Donald Trump, and Related Tales of Sex, Greed, Power, and Treachery” by Craig Unger

Craig Unger is an investigative journalist, writer, and analyst on national security. American Kompromat is a follow-up to his 2018 book, House of Trump, House of Putin, in which he made the case for Russian collusion. Kompromat, he explains, is the Russian term for compromising information which can be used in blackmailing, discrediting, or manipulating someone, typically for political purposes. It forms the basis for Russian intelligence control of human assets.

This book begins in October, 2020 with an examination of the leadership of Donald Trump before looking backward in time. Unger writes:

To most of the country, he was vulgar and vile, a misogynistic, racist firebrand, a buffoon who knew only his own pecuniary interests and prejudices and would stop at nothing to satiate them. He was clownish and repellent. But as the election approached, it became increasingly clear that he was far more dangerous than that suggested, that his buffoonery masked real demagoguery, that he was a tyrant who had mesmerized tens of millions of people, and that it didn’t matter to them what he said or did.”

And he wrote this even before the insurrection of January 6, 2021.

The author then goes on to present a wealth of material to establish that Donald Trump was cultivated and used by Russian intelligence to further their aims. Trump’s awareness of their efforts to control him was not necessary to the process. Unger writes:

From the KGB’s point of view, the most appealing quality about Trump was probably that he had a personality that was ideal for a recruit – vain, narcissistic, highly susceptible to flattery, and greedy.”

. . .

“Trump was a dream for KGB officers looking to recruit an asset…. Everybody has weaknesses. But with Trump it wasn’t just weakness. Everything was excessive. His vanity, excessive. Narcissism, excessive. Greed, excessive. Ignorance, excessive.”

Upon the collapse of the Soviet Union, there was an influx of Russian Mafia and oligarchs into the U.S. who needed to launder billions of dollars, “a need that could best be filled by a wealthy real estate developer who had loads of luxury condos to sell and was willing to look the other way when it came to the source of the money.” This was a perfect set-up for the “perpetually bankrupt Donald Trump.”

Trump, Unger suggests, was compromised through “lucrative money-laundering schemes, sycophantic flattery, pie-in-the-sky Trump Tower Moscow projects, extravagantly well-paid franchising projects, and more.”

More critically, he details, “Russian intelligence had essentially hijacked Trump’s foreign policy in plain sight and nobody noticed,” especially because there was nothing explicitly unlawful about what they did. (The author quotes journalist Michael Kinsley’s observation: “The real scandal isn’t what’s illegal; it’s what is legal.”)

The author also discusses the ways in which it appears as if Donald Trump, Jr., Rudi Giuliani, and Trump’s Attorney General William Barr had also been compromised. With regard to Barr, the author goes into details of some of the shadier activity of Opus Dei,, the secretive, extremist right-wing Catholic organization. Barr’s affiliation with Opus Dei, the author avers, has influenced him to endorse an ideologically-driven understanding of religious liberty that reviles secularism, and a belief in extensive executive power, both of which helped further Trump’s autocratic and anti-liberal agenda.

As for deceased sex-trafficker Jeffrey Epstein, he is included because he supposedly was in possession of the most kompromat of anyone, even more than the Russians. So far, however, what Epstein had or didn’t have has not been revealed, but even the threat of its existence is powerful. Epstein’s contact list was extensive, and included of course, Donald Trump.

At the very least, what this book shows us is that electing a president with Trump’s weaknesses was a foolhardy proposition – he would never even have received low-level security clearance for government work in normal circumstances.

Evaluation: This book is disturbing and scary, even without written confirmation of its conclusions. They are based on an overwhelming compilation of circumstantial evidence and bizarre behaviors, particularly with respect to Russia, that are not otherwise explainable.

That mystery aside, Unger’s book is effectively argued and riveting in its detailed description of the unseemly side of spy craft.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Dutton, an imprint of Penguin Random House, 2021

February 15, 2013 – Chelyabinsk, Russia is Hit by a Large Meteor

On this day in history, a meteor exploded 20 to 50 kilometers above the southern Ural region of Russia, specifically over Chelyabinsk Oblast. As scientist Lisa Randall explains in her book Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs:

It generated about 500 kilotons of TNT’s worth of energy [26 to 33 times as much energy as that released from the atomic bomb detonated at Hiroshima] – most of which was absorbed by the atmosphere – though a shock wave carrying some of the energy hit the Earth several minutes later too. The event was triggered by an asteroid of about 15 to 20 meters across that weighed about 13,000 tons and descended with an estimated speed of 18 km/sec – about sixty times the speed of sound.” (p. 130)

The light from the meteor was brighter than the Sun, visible up to 100 km (62 miles) away. It was observed over a wide area of the region and in neighboring republics. Some eyewitnesses also felt intense heat from the fireball. The intense light from the meteor led to over 180 cases of eye pain, and 70 people subsequently reported temporary flash blindness. Twenty people reported ultraviolet burns similar to sunburn, possibly intensified by the presence of snow on the ground.

About 1,500 people were injured seriously enough to seek medical treatment, but mostly from secondary consequences such as broken glass from windows that were blown in when the shock wave arrived. Some 7,200 buildings in six cities across the region were damaged by the explosion’s shock wave, and authorities scrambled to help repair the structures in sub-freezing temperatures.

Location of Chelyabinsk within Russia

It is the largest known natural object to have entered Earth’s atmosphere since 1908, when an asteroid or comet burst in the sky near the Tunguska River in Siberia. That explosion destroyed 2,000 square kilometers of forest with a shock wave that would have measured about 5.0 on the Richter scale. (Randall, p. 128)

The Chelyabinsk object was undetected before its atmospheric entry. The earlier-predicted and well-publicized close approach of a larger asteroid on the same day, the roughly 30 meters (98 feet) Duende, occurred about 16 hours later; the very different orbits of the two objects showed they were unrelated to each other.

Chelyabinsk, formerly a military-industrial center a thousand miles east of Moscow , is known for being one of the most polluted places on the planet. Chelyabinsk had been a center of nuclear power research during the Soviet regime, and the Soviets were inclined to sacrifice safety in the interest of rapid progress. A number of accidents occurred, and there were hundreds of incidents of radiation sickness. Few if any of these events were admitted at the time by the government or reported in the news. (Horrifying accounts are now available; you can read about them here.) Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the successor state has made progress in cleaning up the environment, but is still very secretive about any problems that occurred in the past or that continue to exist.

Chelyabinsk monument to Igor Kurchatov, a Soviet nuclear physicist and the director of the Soviet atomic bomb project.

November 30, 1939 – Soviet Union Attacks Finland during World War II

At the beginning of World War II, the USSR feared a Nazi offensive through Finland, and thus launched a surprise attack on this date in history, sending approximately half a million Soviet troops to invade Finland. The Soviets believed they could achieve victory by December 21, Josef Stalin’s birthday. Although they did eventually win “the Winter War,” it was no easy defeat, taking months of freezing cold combat – temperatures in Finland dropped below minus 40 degrees during the war.

A Red Army tank rolls in Finland. This and other great photos from the Winter War at https://www.rferl.org/a/finlands-winter-war-with-the-soviet-union/30280490.html

In the end, however, the Soviets had overwhelming numbers, and also deployed Incendiary cluster bombs against Finnish settlements made of wood.

In March 1940, as Soviet troops entered the suburbs of Vyborg, 81 miles to the northwest of St. Petersburg, the Finns had little choice but to accept harsh Soviet terms for an armistice, which cost Finland 11 percent of its territory.

The Moscow Peace Treaty stipulated the transfer of Vyborg and the whole Karelian Isthmus — emptied of their residents — to Soviet control. It became the Karelo-Finnish Soviet Socialist Republic on March 31, 1940. [Since World War II the entire isthmus remains in Russian hands, divided between the city of Saint Petersburg and other Russian administrative districts.]

The Winter War left almost 26,000 Finns dead. The Soviets lost close to 127,000 soldiers.

Just over a year after the Winter War ended, Finland decided to join the Nazi invasion of the U.S.S.R.

September 22, 1941 – Hitler Releases Secret Directive for Erasure of City of St. Petersburg

On this day in history Hitler issued a directive expressing his goal of wiping the city of St. Petersburg from the face of the earth. He also decreed that, should there be a request for capitulation from either St. Petersburg or Moscow, the Germans should deny it.

Furthermore, he stipulated that no German soldier was to enter these cities:

By our fire we must force all who try to leave the city through our lines to turn back. The exodus of the population through the smaller, unguarded gaps toward the interior of Russia is only to be welcomed. Before the cities are taken, they are to be weakened by artillery fire and air attacks, and their population should be caused to flee.

All commanding officers shall be informed of this will of the Fuehrer.”

As a result of these orders, as reported at the Nuremberg trials:

. . . . 8,961 household and annexed buildings, sheds, baths, et cetera, with a total volume of 5,192,427 cubic meters were completely destroyed, and 5,869 buildings with a total volume of 14,308,288 cubic meters were partially destroyed. Completely destroyed were 20,627 dwellings, with a total volume of 25,429,780 cubic meters, and 8,788 buildings, with a total volume of 10,081,035 cubic meters were partially demolished. Six buildings dedicated to religious cults were completely, and 66 such buildings partially, destroyed. The Hitlerites destroyed, ruined, and damaged various kinds of institutions valued at more than 718 million rubles, as well as more than 1,043 million rubles’ worth of industrial equipment and agricultural machinery and implements.”

A street after a German artillery raid during the Siege of Leningrad by Vsevolod Tarasevich

Documents further establish that the Germans “bombed and shelled, methodically and according to plan, day and night, streets, dwelling houses, theaters, museums, hospitals, kindergartens, military hospitals, schools, institutes, and streetcars, and ruined most valuable monuments of culture and art. Many thousands of bombs and shells hammered the historical buildings of Leningrad, and at its quays, gardens, and parks.”

Bronze Horseman camouflaged from German aircraft during the Siege of Leningrad

You can read more about this directive from the Nuremberg Trial Proceedings, online here.

May 26, 1972 – Nixon and Brezhnev Sign First Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty

During the late 1960s, the United States learned that the Soviet Union had embarked upon a massive Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) buildup designed to reach parity with the United States. Moreover, the Soviet Union had begun to construct a limited Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) defense system around Moscow. The development of an ABM system could allow one side to launch a first strike and then prevent the other from retaliating by shooting down incoming missiles.

President Lyndon Johnson, as a State Department history site recounts, called for strategic arms limitations talks (SALT), and in 1967, he and Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin met at Glassboro State College in New Jersey. Nothing was resolved, however.

Johnson’s successor, Richard Nixon, also believed in the importance of arms limitations, and on November 17, 1969, his administration began formal talks with the Soviets in Helsinki, Finland and in Vienna, Austria. The negotiations lasted until May of 1972.

On this day in history, May 26, 1972, American President Nixon and Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev signed the first strategic arms limitation treaty. The landmark “SALT I” accord limited nuclear defense systems and froze the number of missiles on each side. (SALT stands for Strategic Arms Limitation Talks.) It also provided for the addition of new submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) launchers after the same number of older intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) and SLBM launchers had been dismantled. You can read a summary of all the provisions here. They also signed the “Interim Agreement Between The United States of America and The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics on Certain Measures With Respect to the Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms.” (You can read the text here.)

President Nixon shaking hands with Brezhnev after the signing of SALT; Photo via Richard Nixon Foundation & Library

The State Department site claims that SALT I is considered the crowning achievement of the Nixon-Kissinger strategy of détente. But a number of important issues were not addressed and negotiations for a second round of SALT began in late 1972.

Although SALT II resulted in an agreement in 1979, the United States Senate chose not to ratify the treaty in response to the Soviet war in Afghanistan, which took place later that year. The Soviet legislature also did not ratify it. The agreement expired on December 31, 1985 and was not renewed.

January 27, 1944 – Official End of Siege of Leningrad in World War II

January 27, 2019 was the 75th anniversary of the lifting of the siege of St. Petersburg, then called Leningrad. The siege is thought to have been the deadliest in history. An excellent history of the siege is provided by M. T. Anderson in Symphony for the City of the Dead: The Siege of Leningrad.

To say that a soundtrack would be useful or, indeed, desirable, while reading this history is an understatement, because of the centrality of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony to the story. And yet, in some ways the symphony is only a “hook” to tell the story of the rise of Stalin and more specifically, the devastating Siege of Leningrad during World War II. (The book is subtitled “Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad.”). Still, the creation of the symphony was critical for citizens of Leningrad enduring the siege, and this book explains why. [In 1914, the name of the city was changed from Saint Petersburg to Petrograd, in 1924 to Leningrad, and in 1991 back to Saint Petersburg.]

The story of the Siege of Leningrad, part of Operation Barbarossa, as the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union was code-named, is remarkable indeed. The siege lasted 872 days (it is sometimes called “the 900-Day Siege”), and was the longest siege in the recorded history of warfare.

Invasion of the Soviet Union by the Nazis

Some 2.5 million were trapped in the city. When it was over, it is estimated that approximately one and half million had died – more than the total combined WWII casualties of both the Americans and the British. Quite a few of the deceased became food for the living (a fact not disclosed except in rumor until 2002). What caused the citizenry to persevere? The author posits two seemingly opposing motivations: (1) intense devotion – to country – “Mother Russia” – in general; to the city in particular; and to other family members; and (2) a deep hatred of the besieging German army. He later adds that it was not only nutrition that was essential to survival, but morale.

“In besieged Leningrad”. Leningradians on Nevsky Avenue during the siege.

In addition, there was the incentive for Leningraders to assert their humanity in the face of so many dehumanizing forces, first by Stalin, then by Hitler, each of whom attacked the citizens of Leningrad in ironically similar ways. Both of these psychopathic autocrats in effect issued a challenge to the people of Leningrad: will you do whatever it takes to survive by becoming like animals, or will you work together, trying to maintain normality, and continuing to aspire to greater things?

Here is where Shostakovich played such a great role, with the evocative music he continued to create in spite of all the hardships and barriers to doing so. At it’s heart, the author writes, this story is about “how music coaxes people to endure unthinkable tragedy . . . how it can still comfort the suffering, saying, ‘Whatever has befallen you – you are not alone.’” [It should be noted that in Russia, literature, poetry, folklore, music, dance, and art play a much more central role in people’s lives than is perhaps the case in the West. ]

Dmitri Shostakovich

Shostakovich was born in St. Petersburg in 1906, and always felt a deep love for that city. But the city was only a small part of a large country, and he grew up in a tumultuous era, when many Russians were disaffected with the tsar and the direction taken by the Russian Empire. They saw the West, but not Russia, moving toward modernity and more equality. Intellectuals were further inspired by the revolutionary writings of Karl Marx. The first revolution had taken place in 1905, after which the tsar felt compelled to issue the “October Manifesto,” granting Russians “fundamental civil freedoms.” But social unrest in Russia continued and grew. Astoundingly, as the author reports:

“In the first year and a half of Shostakovich’s life, roughly 4,500 government officials were injured or killed in assassination attempts by radicals. In his toddler years, the government recorded 20,000 terrorist acts across the empire, with more than 7,500 fatalities.”

Engagement in WWI brought more disruption and mass starvation to Russia. Two additional, more effective, revolutions in 1917 – one in February and one in October – resulted in the abdication of the tsar and the coming to power of the Bolshevik Party, initially led by Vladimir Lenin, and later by Joseph Stalin. After the February Revolution, the country was in an uproar, and the eleven-year-old musical prodigy Shostakovich was inspired to compose a “Funeral March for the Victims of the Revolution.” He got into the Petrograd Conservatory at the young age of 13, trying to focus on music while the rest of the country roiled in upheavals. St. Petersburg, now called Petrograd, “was wild with frenzied experimentation,” not only in politics but in the arts, and Shostakovich became a part of it. The “Futurist” art movement reflected these “times of hope and fantasy.”

Lenin tried to capitalize on the importance of art to the Russian people by insisting that artists reflect the party position. Lenin wrote: “The state is an instrument of coercion . . . We desire to transform the state into an institution for enforcing the will of the people. We want to organize violence in the name of the interests of our workers.” Art, including music, was to be a part of this coercion.

Vladimir Lenin

After Lenin’s death, the name of Petrograd was changed once again, to Leningrad – “Lenin’s City” – in honor of Lenin. Shostakovich was going through his own renaissance, having had his First Symphony performed in 1926, when he was only 19. He gained international fame after this. His Second Symphony in 1927 was written for the tenth anniversary of the October Revolution.

Meanwhile, the Soviet machine as directed by Stalin repeatedly sabotaged itself. Experts on factory production were removed from their jobs because they were seen as being “enemies of the common working people.” During the first Five-Year Plan, more than four million in the Ukraine alone (six million in total) starved as their food was taken from them to pay for foreign factory equipment. The “Great Terror” was launched in 1934 in reaction to the murder of Stalin’s friend Kirov, although Kirov’s murder was attributed to Stalin himself. About a million people perished. (Kirov was a staunch Stalin loyalist, but Stalin may have viewed him as a potential rival because of his emerging popularity among the moderates.)

Sergei Kirov

In 1935 Stalin announced children as young as 12 could be executed as adults, giving the secret police, or NKVD, even more leverage against their parents. In 1937, Stalin imposed quotas for arrests for each region in the USSR. The author writes:

According to this schedule, a total of 259,450 people had to be arrested and sentenced to slave labor in the camps; 72,950 had to be shot. It did not matter who they were; all that mattered was that each region fulfilled its quota.”

When the NKVD was finished purging others, Stalin had the NKVD purged. Stalin also turned against artists, and Shostakovich came under attack for “formalism,” or paying more attention to form than content. He was also accused of being “elitist” and “anti-people.” Anderson tells an astonishing story of how Shostakovich was saved from deportation to Siberia at best, or execution at worst, only when his would-be executioner got executed first!

Joseph Stalin, 1943

Most of the accused admitted “guilt” after extreme torture. Eventually almost all of the Bolsheviks who had played prominent roles during the Russian Revolution of 1917, or in Lenin’s Soviet government afterwards, were executed.

In a similar way from 1937-1938 some 60-70% of officers in the Soviet military were removed, including 90% of generals. While this may have made Stalin feel more secure about threats to his power, it proved to be exceedingly crippling with the onset of World War II. Soldiers were not any safer than officers. After the war began, Stalin had “blocking units” stationed behind Red Army lines to shoot any soldier who tried to run from the Germans. By war’s end, some 300,000 soldiers had been killed by their own army for attempted flight or desertion.

At the height of the Great Terror, roughly eight million had been arrested, and about two million died in camps from starvation, exposure, disease, and exhaustion: “It was a full assault on the nation by its own government.”

Leningraders endure the siege

Stalin’s purges had begun in Leningrad: “They were that city’s first siege.” Anderson’s detailed description of the second siege, during the Nazi encirclement, is jaw-dropping. He shares gripping stories of the fear and hunger that plagued the population. During the winter of 1941, the daily bread ration in Leningrad was only 125 grams per person. While there were arrests for murdering people in order to eat them, the consumption of those who were already dead was common and not as harshly sanctioned.

Shostakovich busied himself creating music for the troops to help build morale. As Anderson contends:

These musical efforts were important. The Soviets were fighting an enemy who considered Slavic culture to be inferior, even subhuman. . . . Shostakovich wrote in anger: ‘Russian culture is immortal and never will the Nazis succeed in destroying it.’”

Shostakovich began the Seventh Symphony in 1941 when he and his immediate family had been evacuated to the countryside in Vyritsa, outside of Leningrad. He later remembered, “I couldn’t not write it. War was all around. I had to be together with the people. I wanted to create the image of our embattled country, to engrave it in music.”

In the winter of 1942, the second winter of the siege, Leningraders finally got a lifeline when Lake Ladoga, surrounding Leningrad from the east, froze over. Anderson provides a harrowing account of how trucks and sledges braved the ice to get refugees out and supplies in. While almost a million people got out of the city that way, tens of thousands died in the attempt, by freezing while waiting, freezing on the way, or falling through the ice. (In the first two weeks alone, 157 trucks broke through the ice and sank.)

Horse-drawn sleighs were the first vehicles on the ice road. Starving horses had to pull goods and people along the treacherous snow-covered path. Not all managed to finish the distance.

When it came time to perform the Seventh Symphony in Leningrad that summer, approximately half the musicians in the local symphony were no longer alive. As one of the group observed: “The first violin is dying, the drummer died on the way to work, the French horn is near death.” Three more of the orchestral players died during rehearsals. Nevertheless, the Leningrad premiere of the Seventh Symphony took place on August 9, 1942. (This date was deliberately chosen since it was the date Hitler had boasted he would be celebrating with a feast in Leningrad’s Hotel Astoria.) The performance was broadcast to the city and reached radios in the Wehrmacht barracks.

Karl Eliasberg conducting the Seventh Symphony in Leningrad on August 9, 1942

[In 1992, on the 50th anniversary of that performance, the same orchestra came together to play the piece again. Only fourteen of them remained alive. Oboist Ksenias Matus remembered: “. . . that symphony has stayed with me the way it was that night. Afterwards, it was still a city under siege, but I knew it would live. Music is life, after all. What is life without music? This was the music that proved the city had come back to life after death.”]

The author explains that “one way to understand symphonies is to think of them as movie music without the movie. This is particularly apt in Russia, where composers were often explicitly trying to tell a story through orchestral music. . . “ This was part of a long tradition in Russian music. Furthermore, the “miracle of music” is that it becomes whatever the individual listener needs it to be. Shostakovich’s symphonies, the author writes, “meant different things to different people, but somehow it meant them all intensely.” The theme of the Seventh Symphony could be seen as much anti-Stalin as anti-Hitler: “A symphony is built not just by the composer, the conductor, and the musicians, but by the audience.”

Shostakovich meets original Leningrad conductor Eliasberg and players at a 20th anniversary performance in 1964

Americans are by and large unaware that the Soviets suffered 95% of the military casualties inflicted on the three major Allied powers (the U.S., the U.K., and the U.S.S.R.) and that 90% of Germans killed in combat in the war died fighting them. As Anderson observes, “This was a considerable battlefield contribution made through a very considerable sacrifice.” Part of the goal of the Russians in prioritizing the publication of Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony in the West was “to convince the Americans that they were not the rude, cold Communists of capitalist nightmare,” and “to stir up American sympathies” in order to increase the likelihood of American aid to the Soviets during the war. Thus, the this book begins in June, 1942, with the top-priority flight of the music’s score across several continents during wartime conditions to reach the United States. It was the best argument the Soviets had to offer.

2017 photo of grave of Shostakovich at Moscow’s Novodevichy Cemetary, with an abundance of fresh flowers

Note: This book contains a large selection of photos.

Evaluation: While the portions of the book on the life of Shostakovich weren’t as interesting to me as the war coverage, I consider the detailed account of the Siege of Leningrad to be essential reading for students of WWII.

Rating: 4.5/5

Published by Candlewick Press, 2015

Note: Literary Awards

National Book Award Nominee for Young People’s Literature (2015)
YALSA Award Nominee for Excellence in Nonfiction (2016)
Boston Globe-Horn Book Award Honor for Nonfiction (2016)

October 4, 1957 – The USSR Launches Sputnik

The world’s first artificial satellite, Sputnik, was about the size of a beach ball. It was a heavy beach ball, however, weighing in at 183.9 pounds. It took about an hour and a half to orbit the Earth, traveling at 18,000 miles per hour. According to NASA’s website:

That launch ushered in new political, military, technological, and scientific developments. While the Sputnik launch was a single event, it marked the start of the space age and the U.S.-U.S.S.R. space race.”

‘The sound that forevermore separates the old from the new’
– NBC news (on Sputnik’s “beep-beep” chirp), 4 Oct 1957

When the news of Sputnik was broadcast, suddenly science became a popular subject. As “The New York Times” wrote on the occasion of Sputnik’s fiftieth anniversary,

For many, Sputnik was proof that American education, particularly in science, had fallen behind. Scientists and engineers warned Congress that the cold war was being fought with slide rules, not rifles. In response Congress passed the National Defense Education Act in 1958, providing, among other things, college scholarships and other help for aspiring scientists, engineers and mathematicians.”

Unfortunately, this science enthusiasm didn’t last long, especially once the Cold War ended. But as Natalie Angier observes in her excellent book, The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science:

Scientists are hardly alone in their conviction that America’s scientific eminence is one of our greatest sources of strength. Science and engineering have given us the integrated circuit, the Internet, protease inhibitors, statins, spray-on Pam, Velcro, Viagra, glow-in-the-dark slime, a childhood vaccine syllabus that has left slacker students with no better excuse for not coming to class than a ‘persistent Harry Potter headache,’ computer devices named after fruits or fruit parts, and advanced weapons systems named after stinging arthropods or Native American tribes.”

Sputnik stayed in orbit for 57 days. It was completely destroyed when it reentered the atmosphere on January 4, 1958. The U.S. launched its first satellite into orbit not long afterward, on February 1, 1958.

So have some cake today for Sputnik’s anniversary, and think about taking “A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science” with Natalie Angier in her entertaining book!

Prize-winning Sputnik cake by Mommabuda on cakecentral.com

August 6, 1675 – Russian Czar Alexis Banned Foreign Haircuts

Peter Alekseevich Romanov, more commonly known as “Peter the Great” was born in or near Moscow on Thursday May 30, 1672. While Peter is revered for opening up windows to the West, his father, Alexis, was not quite so open. According to Lindsey Hughes, the late Professor of Russian History at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University of London and author of Russia in the Age of Peter the Great (Yale University Press, 2000):

. . . foreigners were still in Russia on sufferance, tolerated as a necessary evil. The building of the new Foreign Quarter in 1652 was actually an attempt to concentrate foreigners and their churches in a restricted locality, away from the city centre, where they had lived previously.”

Alexis I of Russia, and father of Peter the Great

Furthermore:

Russians were still clearly differentiated from Western Europeans by their dress, although a number were tempted by Polish influence to don Western fashions in private.”

To keep distinctions clear, Tsar Alexis decreed on this day in history:

Courtiers are forbidden to adopt foreign, German, and other customs, to cut the hair on their heads and to wear robes, tunics and hats of foreign design, and they are to forbid their servants to do so.”

As Professor Hughes explains, the “courtiers” to whom this edict was directed formed the upper echelons of Russia’s service class. They were sometimes loosely referred to as “boyars” and were roughly the equivalent of the Western aristocracy. They enjoyed the “privilege” of attending to and advising the tsar, who wanted to see no foreign influences in his midst.

Alexis had reason to worry about foreign influence. With the First Northern War (1654-60), Russia entered the wider sphere of international relations. Moreover, historically, Russia felt keenly the desire for unimpeded access to the Black Sea, which meant continuing interactions with the West by both diplomatic and military initiatives.

Peter the Great

When Peter first became Tsar, he did not have much interest in ruling, and the forces of conservatism and anti-foreign initiatives continued to prevail. As Hughes reports however:

. . . . Despite the Church’s dire warnings about the dangers of contamination by heretics, Peter himself was spending more and more time in the company of foreigners. . . . “

During 1697 and 1698 Peter travelled around Europe in disguise to learn about Europe firsthand. Fascinated with the foreign customs he encountered, he returned to Russia bringing with him some aspects of European culture.

Peter the Great biographer Robert K. Massie wrote that at a reception thrown in Peter’s honor following his return from Europe, “Peter suddenly produced a long, sharp barber’s razor and with his own hands began shaving off [the boyar’s] beards. [They] “were forced, one by one, to submit until every boyar present was beardless and none could laugh and point a shocked finger at the others.” (p. 234)

Peter the great shaves a beard. Painting by Dimitry Belyukin, 1985

Massie continued: “The scene was remarkable: at a stroke the political, military and social leaders of Russia were bodily transformed.”

In addition, and further defying the early legacy of his father, Peter issued an edict in 1698 that decreed that all Russians except the clergy and the peasants must shave. Eventually Peter relented a bit, allowing those who wanted beards to keep them if they paid a tax, graduated by social class. They were given a small medallion to wear around their necks that declared TAX PAID.

As for Peter, he continued to bring his razor with him to any ceremony, and as Massie recounts “those who arrived with beards departed without them.” (p. 235)

More westernizing changes followed, including a decision to follow the Julian calendar then in use in England. Unfortunately, England soon adopted the Gregorian calendar, but Russia refused to make a second change until 1918.

Nevertheless, as Mario Sosa, writing for St. Mary’s University, observed of Peter:

He played a crucial role in westernizing Russia by changing its economy, government, culture, and religious affairs . . . By doing all of this, Russia was able to expand and become one of the most powerful countries in the eastern hemisphere.”

July 30, 1937 – The Great Purge is Ordered by Stalin

On this day in history, Stalin imposed quotas for arrests for each region in the USSR. NKVD Order 00447 entitled “About repression of former kulaks, criminals, and other anti-Soviet elements” was signed by Nikolai Yezhov (known as “Stalin’s loyal executioner”) and approved by Politburo during the Great Purge.

Kliment Voroshilov (Soviet military officer), Vyacheslav Molotov (Soviet politician and diplomat), Joseph Stalin and Nikolai Yezhov

While the document outlined which groups would be subjected to “punitive measures,” how they would be carried out, and provided execution and arrest quotas for every oblast and autonomous republic, it did not indicate who would fill the ranks of these quotas. The regions could submit further lists. This decision was left up to local authorities. As M. T. Anderson writes in Symphony For the City of the Dead:

He didn’t provide names of people to be arrested: he provided numbers. According to this schedule, a total of 259,450 people had to be arrested and sentenced to slave labor in the camps; 72,950 had to be shot. It did not matter who they were; all that mattered was that each region fulfilled its quota.”

The document split those subject to “punitive measures” into two categories. The document reads:

1 “To the first category belong all the most active of the above mentioned elements [kulaks, former Whites, criminals, Mensheviks and other anti-soviet parties, fascists, religious sectarians, etc]. They are subject to immediate arrest and, after consideration of their case by the troikas, to be shot.

2 To the second category belong all the remaining less active but nonetheless hostile elements. They are subject to arrest and to confinement in concentration camps for a term ranging from 8 to 10 years, while the most vicious and socially dangerous among them are subject to confinement for similar terms in prisons as determined by the troikas.”

Quotas for the first category totaled 50,950 and ranged from 100 (in Komi ASSR and Kalmuk ASSR, for example) to 5000 (in Western Siberia, Moscow oblast, and Azov-Black Sea). Estimates for the second category, to total 167,200, ranged from 300 (again in Komi and Kalmuk) to 30,000 (Moscow).

NKVD document issued sentencing blind “Ukrainian pensioner bandurist” Ivan Kucherenko to execution by shooting.

As Paul R. Gregory explains in Terror by Quota: State Security from Lenin to Stalin (2009), given that no crime had been committed, traditional criminal courts were ill-equipped to handle the type and quantity of prosecutions required by large-scale operations.  The solution to this problem was the troika.  These three person tribunals were composed of a member of the party, a member of the local bureaucracy, and a member of NKVD, or state security.  In practice, these “trials” were held without testimony or even the presence of the accused.  Troikas and the use of confessions made it possible to issue as many as 1,500 death sentences per day without any noticeable increase in the number of state security agents.

According to figures released by the Russian Government in 1995, troikas handed down 688,000 sentences or 87% of all criminal sentences in the USSR in 1937 and 75% in 1938. A total of 681,692 people were sentenced to be shot in 1937-38, with 92.6% of those sentences handed down by troikas.

Obviously anyone could be designated as a “hostile” element, including local rivals of the troika members. It was later determined that most of the victims of this blind terror were “regular” people, most without any political connections at all.

Simon Sebag Montefiore observed in his history Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar:

Once this massacre had started, Stalin almost disappeared from public view, appearing only to greet children and delegations. The rumour spread that he did not know what Yezhov was doing. . . .The writer Ilya Ehrenburg met Pasternak in the street: ‘He waved his arms around as he stood between the snowdrifts: ‘If only someone would tell Stalin about it.’ ” The theatrical director Meyerhold told Ehrenburg, ‘They conceal it from Stalin.’”

(As Montefiore points out, while Stalin was open about the need to “finish off” “enemies” of the Party, and while he was the mastermind, he was far from alone: “Indeed, it is neither accurate nor helpful to blame the Terror on one man because systematic murder started soon after Lenin took power in 1917 and never stopped until Stalin’s death.”)

The families of people selected to fill the quotas needed to be “taken care of” as well. As Molotov, a leading figure in the Soviet government noted, “They had to be isolated, otherwise they’d have spread all kinds of complaints.” [In an interesting side-note, Molotov was unable to prevent the December 1948 arrest of his own wife Polina for “treason” (she was Jewish) although Molotov was reportedly heart-broken over it. Polina was kept one year in Lubyanka, the notorious KGB prison, and then exiled for three years to a far-off city. She was freed only after the death of Stalin.]

Vyacheslav Molotov (left) with Joseph Stalin (right)

On July 5, 1937, even prior to enacting the quota system, the Politburo ordered the NKVD to “confine all wives of condemned traitors . . . in camps for 5–8 years” and to take under State protection children under fifteen: 18,000 wives and 25,000 children were taken away. On August 15, Yezhov decreed that children between one and three were to be confined in orphanages but “socially dangerous children between three and fifteen” could be imprisoned “depending on the degree of danger.” Almost a million of these children were raised in orphanages and often did not see their mothers for twenty years.

You can read more about these secret orders, discovered in the Soviet archives of the NKVD in 1992, here.

June 22, 1941 – Operation Barbarossa Launched by the Nazis Against the Soviet Union

On this day in history, the largest invasion force ever assembled in European history, Operation Barbarossa, was launched by the Germans against the Soviet Union, catching the Soviets unprepared. As M.T. Anderson explains in his book Symphony for the City of the Dead: “It was named after a medieval German emperor, Frederic Barbarossa, who, according to legend, would rise from an aeon-long sleep beneath a mountain to reclaim his empire.”

The operation was designed to meet both strategic and ideological aims of Nazi Germany: to conquer the western Soviet Union so that it could be repopulated by Germans; to use Slavs as a slave-labour force for the Axis war-effort; and to seize the oil reserves of the Caucasus and the agricultural resources of Soviet territories.

There was yet another aim: the forces of the Wehrmacht were preceded by the Einsatzgruppe, whose mission was to murder Jews. The German Army was well aware of the massacres. But Hitler’s chief adjutant, Colonel Rudolf Schmundt opined: “Soldiers should not be burdened with these political questions – it is a matter of necessary cleaning-up operations.”

Colonel General Erich Hoepner, the fifty-five-year-old cavalryman commanding Fourth Panzer Group, said:

The war with Russia is a vital part of the German people’s fight for existence. It is the old fight of German against Slav, the defence [sic] of European culture against the Muscovite-Asiatic flood, and the repulse of Jewish Bolshevism. This war must have as its goal the destruction of today’s Russia — and for this reason it must be conducted with unprecedented harshness. Every clash, from conception to execution, must be guided by an iron determination to annihilate the enemy completely and utterly. There is to be no mercy for the carriers of the current Russian-Bolshevik system.” (Source: Leningrad: State of Siege by Michael Jones)

Anderson explains:

Invasions of Russia had failed in the past due to the harshness of the northern Russian winter. Hitler therefore decided that he would launch his attack in early summer 1941. By the winter months, he calculated, the USSR would have fallen. Moscow would be flooded and turned into a reservoir. Germans would settle Ukraine and farm there. The Slavs would be slaves.”

The operation looked like it would be successful. The Soviets were unprepared for the attack; Stalin put great faith in the non-aggression pact signed with Germany in 1939. Thus within only a few hours, 1200 Soviet aircraft had been destroyed by the German Luftwaffe. By noon on the first day, the Germans had destroyed more planes than they did in a whole year of their air assault on Britain. Over the course of the operation, about four million Axis personnel, the largest invasion force in the history of warfare, invaded the western Soviet Union along an 1800-mile front.

Russian men and women rescue their humble belongings from their burning homes, said to have been set on fire by the Russians, part of a scorched-earth policy, in a Leningrad suburb on October 21, 1941.

But despite the initial Axis successes, the German offensive stalled in the Battle of Moscow and winter arrived to help the Soviet troops. The Red Army forced the unprepared Germans into a war of attrition.

As “The Atlantic” reports:

. . . when the notorious Russian winter (nicknamed “General Winter”) set in, German advances came to a halt. By the end of this, one of the largest, deadliest military operations in history, Germany had suffered some 775,000 casualties. More than 800,000 Soviets had been killed, and an additional 6 million Soviet soldiers had been wounded or captured. Despite massive advances, Hitler’s plan to conquer the Soviet Union before winter had failed, at great cost, and that failure would prove to be a turning point in the war.”

Historians such as David M. Glantz and Jonathan M. House in When Titans Clashed: How the Red Army Stopped Hitler (1996) maintain that the attack affected not only Stalin but subsequent Soviet leaders, coloring their strategic mindsets and instigating the creation of “an elaborate system of buffer and client states, designed to insulate the Soviet Union from any possible future attack.”