Nikolai Bukharin – a brief summary

On 15 March 1938, Nikolai Bukharin, one of the leading members of the post-Russian Revolution politburo, was executed.

Nikolai BukharinBorn in Moscow on 9 October 1888 to two primary school teachers, the 17-year-old Bukharin joined the workers’ cause during the Russian Revolution of 1905 and, the following year, became a member of the Bolshevik Party. Like many of his radical colleagues, he was arrested at regular intervals to the point that, in 1910, he fled into exile.

At various times he lived in Vienna, Zurich, London, Stockholm, Copenhagen and Krakow, the latter where he met Bolshevik leader, Vladimir Lenin, and began working for the party newspaper, Pravda, ‘Truth’.  In 1916, he moved to New York where he met up with another leading revolutionary, Leon Trotsky.

‘Favourite of the whole party’

Following the February Revolution of 1917 and the overthrow of the tsar, Nicholas II, Bukharin returned to Moscow and was elected to the party’s central committee. Bukharin clashed with Lenin on the latter’s decision to surrender to Germany, thus ending Russia’s involvement in the First World War, believing that the Bolsheviks could transform the conflict into a pan-European communist revolution. Lenin got his way, and the Treaty of Brest-Litovsky was duly signed in March 1918.

Bukharin was a thinker and produced several theoretical tracts, works that didn’t always meet with Lenin’s full approval. In Lenin’s Testament, in which he passed judgement on various members of his Central Committee, Lenin wrote that Bukharin was ‘rightly considered the favourite of the whole Party,’ but ‘his theoretical views can be classified as fully Marxist only with the great reserve, for there is something scholastic about him.’ (Lenin’s Testament was particularly damning of Joseph Stalin but, following Lenin’s death on 21 January 1924, was quietly suppressed).

‘Not a man, but a devil’

In 1924, Bukharin was appointed a full member of the Politburo. It was here, during the immediate post-Lenin years, that Bukharin became an unwitting pawn in Stalin’s deadly power games. Bukharin had opposed collectivization and believed agriculture was best served by encouraging the richer peasants, the kulaks, to produce more. In this he was supported by Stalin – but only in order for Stalin to marginalise then remove those he saw as threats, men such as Trotsky, Lev Kamenev and Grigory Zinoviev. Kamenev and Zinoviev soon caved in to Stalin. Trotsky, who did not, was exiled, first within the Soviet Union, then to Turkey and ultimately to Mexico where, in August 1940, he was killed by a Stalinist agent. Having defeated his opponents, Stalin then took their ideas and advocated rapid collectivization and the liquidation of the kulaks, criticizing Bukharin for holding opposite views.

Bukharin realised what Stalin was doing: ‘He [Stalin] is an unprincipled intriguer who subordinates everything to his appetite for power. At any given moment he will change his theories in order to get rid of someone.’

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Mikhail Gorbachev and the Cold War – a brief summary

Born 2 March 1931, Mikhail Gorbachev was the last leader of the Soviet Union. 

The Youngest First Secretary

Mikhail Gorbachev was an up and coming star in the Communist Party and, following the death of Leonid Brezhnev in 1982, became a protégé of the new Party leader, Yuri Andropov. But on Andropov’s death in February 1984, the post of First Secretary fell, not to Gorbachev, but to the ageing Konstantin Chernenko. However, Gorbachev spread his influence further so when Chernenko died after only thirteen months as leader, the post finally fell to him. Aged 54, Gorbachev was the youngest First Secretary in Soviet history, and the first to be born after the Russian Revolution of 1917.

His youth and progressive ideas alarmed the Communist hardliners and traditionalists, whose fears were confirmed when Gorbachev ushered in a reformist programme, and introduced into the political lexicon the words perestroika (reconstruction) and glasnost (openness). The Soviet’s system inept handling of the Chernobyl crisis highlighted the need for reform.

“I like Mr Gorbachev”

The international community welcomed the appointment of a man who seemed open and not ruled by cloak and dagger diplomacy and mistrust. Margaret Thatcher said of him, “I like Mr Gorbachev, we can do business together.”

Immediately on coming to power Gorbachev was proposing a reduction in the number of nuclear arms held between the superpowers. In November 1985 Gorbachev met US president, Ronald Reagan, for the first time. Reagan, who had referred to the Soviet Union as the “evil empire”, was also impressed by the new man in the Kremlin.

In January 1986 Gorbachev made what is known as his ‘January Proposal’ by proposing a radical strategy for removing all nuclear weapons by 2000. Another meeting with Reagan in October 1986 brought this deadline forward to 1996.

Through their several meetings Reagan and Gorbachev helped ease international tension. Despite their ideological and cultural differences, the two men build a rapport that was to have a real and lasting effect on the ending of the Cold War.

“We can’t go on living like this”

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Nadezhda Alliluyeva, Stalin’s second wife – a summary

Joseph Stalin married twice. His first wife, Ekaterina Svanidze, died in December 1907, aged 22, from typhus. His second wife, Nadezhda Alliluyeva, died, having shot herself, on 9 November 1932, aged 31.

As a two-year-old, Nadezhda, or Nadya, Alliluyeva was reputedly saved from drowning by the visiting 25-year-old Stalin. When staying in St Petersburg (later Petrograd), Stalin often lodged with the Alliluyev family. He may have had an affair with Olga Alliluyeva, Nadya’s mother and his future mother-in-law.

In March 1917, Stalin returned to Petrograd from exile to join the unrest following the February Revolution and the overthrow of Tsar Nicholas II. By then Nadya was 16 and she fell for the romantic revolutionary with his sweep of jet-black hair.

Mr and Mrs Stalin

Following the October Revolution of 1917, Nadya became Stalin’s personal assistant as he embarked on his job as the People’s Commissar for Nationalities and joined him in the city of Tsaritsyn during the Russian Civil War. They married in 1919 and had two children: Vasily, born 1921, and Svetlana, born 1926. (In 1967, Svetlana was to defect to the US, became known as Lana Peters and died in Wisconsin on 22 November 2011).

Nadya found life in the Kremlin suffocating. Her husband, whom she once saw as the archetypal Soviet ‘new man’, turned out to be a quarrelsome bore, often drunk and flirtatious with his colleague’s wives. A manic-depressive and prone to violent mood swings, Stalin’s colleagues thought her ‘mad’.

Chemistry student

In 1929, bored of being cooped up in the Kremlin, Nadya enrolled on a course in chemistry. She diligently went to university each morning by public transport, shunning the official limousine. Her new-found student friends, not realising who she was, told her horrific stories concerning Stalin’s collectivization policy. When she confronted her husband, accusing him of ‘butchering the people’, he reacted angrily and had her friends arrested.

Days before her death, according to her daughter, Nadya confided to a friend that ‘nothing made her happy’, least of all her children.

The Banquet

On the evening of 8 November 1932, Stalin and Nadya hosted a banquet to celebrate the fifteenth anniversary of the October Revolution. They often argued and this party was no different with Nadya accusing Stalin of being inconsiderate towards her. His response was to humiliate her in front of their guests by flicking cigarettes at her and addressing her ‘hey, you!’  Molotov’s wife chased after her and together they walked round the Kremlin grounds until Nadya calmed down and retired for bed.

The following morning, servants found Nadya dead – she had shot herself with a pistol given to her by her brother, Pavel Alliluyev, as a present from Berlin. (Pavel, who was there that morning and comforted his grieving brother-in-law, would die in suspicious circumstances six years later, aged 44. Most of the Alliluyev clan would suffer early deaths on the orders of Stalin. His daughter, Svetlana Alliluyeva, wondered whether Stalin would eventually have had her own mother arrested).

Reproach and accusations

Nadya had left a note for Stalin which, according to Svetlana, was both personal and ‘partly political’. Although she never saw it, Svetlana described it as being ‘full of reproach and accusations’. Stalin certainly took his Nadya’s death badly, believing that she had taken her own life to punish him. His anger and grief seemed genuine and he was unable to bring himself to attend her funeral or, later, visit her grave.

The public were told that Nadya Alliluyeva had died from appendicitis – as was her daughter, then aged 6. It wouldn’t have been good for Stalin’s image to have had a wife who had committed suicide. Svetlana found out the truth quite by accident a decade later.

On the day of her State funeral, Stalin muttered, ‘She went away as an enemy’.

The Savage YearsRupert Colley.

Gathered together in one collection, 60 of Rupert Colley’s history articles, The Savage Years: Tales From the 20th Century is now available.







Leon Trotsky – a brief outline

Born Lev Bronshtein on 7 November 1879 in the village of Yanovka in the Ukraine, Leon Trotsky, the son of a prosperous Jewish farmer, became involved in politics from a young age. Arrested in 1898, Trotsky was exiled to Siberia where he married and had two daughters, both of whom predeceased him. In 1902, he escaped exile using a forged passport bearing the name Trotsky, the name, he later claimed, of a prison guard he had met in Odessa. He made his way to London where, for the first time, he met Vladimir Lenin and joined the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party. Following the split of the RSDLP, Trotsky’s loyalty floated between the two factions, the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, often repudiating any party ties and holding a stance of non-allegiance. He opposed Lenin on many issues, a stance that was later held against him.

Following the outbreak of disturbances throughout Russia in 1905, Leon Trotsky arrived in St Petersburg and there joined its council of workers, or ‘Soviet’, becoming its chair until its forced break-up by tsarist troops in December. Trotsky, along with other leaders, was arrested and again sentenced to exile in Siberia. But en route, he escaped and made his way to London before settling in Vienna where he founded and wrote a newspaper for Russia’s workers, Pravda, ‘Truth’, earning the nickname, ‘the Pen’, for his writing. With the outbreak of war in 1914, Trotsky, as a Russian, was forced to leave Austria. He lived in Paris until, expelled for his anti-war writings, he emigrated to Spain and then New York, arriving in January 1917.


Trotsky returned to Russia and Petrograd (as St Petersburg was now known) in March 1917 and became, in effect, Lenin’s second-in-command as the Bolsheviks overthrew the Provisional Government and set up a new socialist order. (Trotsky turned 38 the day of the October Revolution.)

In forming the Council of People’s Commissars, Russia’s new government, Lenin initially offered the post of chair, in effect head of state, to Leon Trotsky but Trotsky declined the offer, fearing being a Jew could cause difficulties in a country that was still strongly anti-Semitic. Instead, Trotsky was appointed the People’s Commissariat for Foreign Affairs.

Following Russia’s withdrawal from the First World War, Trotsky was appointed War Commissariat, responsible for strengthening and injecting much-needed discipline into the Red Army. His use of former officers of the tsar’s imperial army caused much disquiet within the party, Joseph Stalin being particularly critical, and was another tool later used against him.

‘The most capable man’

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The Kitchen Debate – a summary

The Cold War and its ongoing ideological, political, cultural battle was encapsulated by two men, both seemingly polite, arguing in a showroom kitchen in what has become known as the ‘Kitchen Debate’.

The two men were Nikita Khrushchev, Soviet Premier, and Richard Nixon, the US Vice President. The occasion, on 24 July 1959, was the American National Exhibition in Sokolniki Park in Moscow, part of a cultural exchange between the two superpowers. Although in Moscow, this was an American exhibition and Nixon, for the benefit of Khrushchev, was its proud host.

Communism v. Capitalism

At times polite, at times restrained, mocking, jibing, or heated, the two men debated the relative merits of communism and capitalism, from nuclear weapons to washing machines, over several hours across many venues. At one point Nixon makes his point by jabbing his finger into Khrushchev’s chest whilst the Soviet leader listens, his bottom lip jutting out in anger.

But it was the image of Nixon and Khrushchev leaning on the railing in front of the model General Electric kitchen, surrounded by interpreters and reporters that captured the moment. The Cold War in a make-believe kitchen. Standing behind Nixon, looking somewhat distracted, is future Soviet premier and Khrushchev’s successor, Leonid Brezhnev.

The make-believe kitchen

The kitchen was part of a showroom house which, according to Nixon, almost any worker in America could afford. “We have such things,” said Khrushchev, adding that they had much the same for the Russian worker, but better built.

Nixon boasted of the processes and appliances available to the modern American housewife, “In America, we like to make life easier for women”. Khrushchev shot back, “Your capitalistic attitude toward women does not occur under communism”.

Khrushchev, exasperated and perhaps intimidated by the display of modernity, asked, “Don’t you have a machine that puts food into the mouth and pushes it down? Many things you’ve shown us are interesting but they are not needed in life. They have no useful purpose. They are merely gadgets.”

“We will wave to you.”

In one notable exchange Khrushchev asks Nixon how long America had been in existence, “Three hundred years?” he asks, making the mistake to emphasis a point. 150 years, Nixon corrects him.

Khrushchev’s answer captured the essence of the Soviet Union’s paranoia and jealousy of the USA: “One hundred and fifty years? Well then, we will say America has been in existence for 150 years and this is the level she has reached. We have existed not quite 42 years and in another seven years we will be on the same level as America. When we catch you up, in passing you by, we will wave to you.”

Of course it didn’t quite work out that way.

Rupert Colley.

Unforgiving SeaRupert Colley’s gripping new novel, set during World War Two, The Unforgiving Sea, is now available.

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Vera Inber – Leningrad Siege Diarist

Born 10 July 1890, Vera Inber was a Soviet poet and writer whose greatest legacy, Leningrad Diary, described daily the sufferings and deprivations suffered by the city during the 900-day siege of 1941 – 1944.

Vera Inber’s father, owner of a publishing house, was an older cousin to the future Bolshevik revolutionary, Leon Trotsky. As a nine-year-old, Trotsky lived in the Inber’s Odessa household at the time Vera was still a baby.

Inber worked as a journalist and lived in Paris and Switzerland before returning to the Soviet Union, first to Odessa and eventually settling in Moscow.

In 1941, with the outbreak of the Second World War in the Soviet Union, Inber joined the Communist Party. Together with her husband, Inber lived in Leningrad and recorded what she witnessed in a diary, published in 1946. In it, she wrote of the daily suffering of herself and people she saw around her. She described the hunger, the cold, and the struggle to survive. Inber, herself, came close to dying from starvation.

Being a party member, Inber never criticised the regime or the city authorities and, as a result, the diary is sometimes regarded as overly propagandist. Nonetheless, it’s a fascinating account of the siege which includes a memorable account of sharing her apartment with a starving mouse, the rodent struggling to find even a crumb. She describes people pulling their deceased loved ones on sledges to the cemetery, of a dead horse stripped within moments of whatever flesh it had left, of the frozen bodies piled on top of each other and left to fester in apartment block cellars. Her greatest fear, she wrote, was ‘not the bombing, not the shells, not the hunger – but a spiritual exhaustion.’

During the siege, she composed an 800-line poem, The Meridian of Pulkovo, and often broadcast her poems on the radio. Her wartime work was much hailed and in 1946, Inber was awarded the Stalin Prize for literature.

In June 1944, five months after the siege was finally lifted, Inber and her husband moved back to Moscow. The final words of Leningrad Diary reads,

‘Farewell Leningrad! Nothing in the world will ever erase you from the memory of those who lived here through this time.’

Vera Inber died in Moscow on 11 November 1972.

The Black MariaRupert Colley.

Rupert Colley’s chilling novel, set in Stalin’s Moscow, The Black Maria, is now available.







The Battle of Kursk – an outline

The Battle of Kursk, Germany’s last grand offensive on the Eastern Front and the largest ever tank battle the world’s ever seen, began 5 July 1943.

The industrial city of Kursk, 320 miles south of Moscow, had been captured by the Germans in November 1941, during the early stages of the Nazi-Soviet war, and retaken by the Soviets in February 1943. Now held by the Soviets, Kursk and the surrounding area comprised a salient, or a ‘bulge’, 150 miles wide and 100 miles deep, into German-held territory.

‘My stomach turns over’

Battle of KurskGerman Field-Marshall Erich von Manstein wanted to recapture Kursk as early as March 1943 by ‘pinching the salient’ from the north and south, thereby cutting it off from the rest of the Soviet territory. ‘Operation Citadel’ would also provide, argued Manstein, an immediate morale booster following the German humiliation suffered at Stalingrad, but Hitler wanted to have a new generation of tanks ready before doing so. The normally bellicose Hitler was unusually nervous about the planned offensive, confessing to his general, Heinz Guderian, ‘Whenever I think of this attack, my stomach turns over’. Three times he delayed the date of attack. The delays were to prove fatal.

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The Day Stalin Almost Had a Breakdown

During his thirty-year rule of the Soviet Union, Joseph Stalin succeeded in stifling all opposition. There was never a serious threat to his leadership. But there was one occasion, at the end of June 1941, when Stalin suffered what may have been a mental breakdown. When, after three days, his colleagues came for him, he fully expected to be arrested.

But they hadn’t come to arrest him, they’d come to plead with him, begging him to return and take control. Stalin had survived and was to remain in power until his death twelve years later. But what had brought about Stalin’s temporary collapse, and why did his Politburo colleagues fail to bring to an end his murderous rule?

We doubt the veracity of your information

On 23 August 1939, the Nazis and Soviets had signed a non-aggression pact. But both sides knew it was never meant to be more than a postponement of hostilities.

In September 1940, Joachim von Ribbentrop, Hitler’s Foreign Minister, invited the Soviet Union to join the Tripartite Pact, an alliance of initially three Axis powers (Germany, Italy and Japan) that was drawing more nations to its mast, including Romania, Bulgaria and Yugoslavia. In response, Stalin sent his foreign minister, Vyacheslav Molotov, to Berlin for talks. The talks failed dismally (Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s Minister for Propaganda, described Molotov and his companions as ‘Bolshevik subhumans’). Molotov returned empty-handed to Moscow whilst Hitler announced plans for the invasion of the Soviet Union.

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Tsar Nicholas II – a brief biography

On Sunday 13 March 1881, the 13-year-old Nikolay Alexandrovich Romanov, the future tsar of Russia, Nicholas II, was accompanying his father and grandfather on a carriage through the streets of St Petersburg. His grandfather, Tsar Alexander II, had been to see his routine Sunday morning parade, despite advice that there were plots to have him assassinated. The tsar insisted on keeping to his routine but on this morning would pay for his obstinacy. A bomb thrown by a member of a terrorist group called the People’s Will killed the tsar. It was, for the young Nicholas, a terrible scene to have to witness.

Alexander II had been a reformer and a liberal, introducing 20 years earlier the emancipation of the serfs and keen to introduce a raft of new reforms. In consequence of the tsar’s violent end, his son and the new tsar, Alexander III, undid much of Alexander II’s reforms, suppressed liberalism and brought back the full force of autocracy.

The new tsar intended to start teaching his son the art of statesmanship once Nicholas had reached the age of 30. But on 1 November 1894, aged only 49, Alexander III died of kidney disease. His son was still only 26. Thus, following the death of his father, Nicholas (pictured) was thrust unprepared into the limelight. Fearful of the responsibility that was now his to bear, he reputedly asked, ‘What will become of me and all of Russia?’

The Khodynka Tragedy

From the start the omens were not good. Four days after his coronation on 26 May 1896, Nicholas II and his wife of 18 months, Alix of Hesse, Queen Victoria’s granddaughter, attended the public celebration held in their honour in Khodynka Field, on the outskirts of Moscow. 100,000 people gathered to enjoy the coronation festivities but a stampede caused the death of 1,389. Many more were injured. In a state of shock, Nicholas wished to pray for the dead. But he was persuaded by his advisors to attend a planned gala at the French embassy, arguing that not insulting the ambassador was more important than praying for his subjects. His subsequent attendance may have soothed the ambassador’s vanity but it showed the new tsar in the worst possible light. He later visited the injured in hospital and donated vast sums to help the affected families. But the damage had been done.

Nicholas II ruled as his father had done. But whereas his father had been a physically domineering man, strong, brash and confident, Nicholas was slight, unsure of himself and prone to agree with whoever spoke to him last. Although aware of his own weakness, once describing himself as ‘without will and without character’, Nicholas II saw his rule as one sanctioned by God – ‘I regard Russia as one big estate, with the tsar as its owner’, he said in 1902. Nicholas could speak English with a refined accent and was known as the ‘most civil man in Europe’.

The Romanov dynasty had ruled Russia and its empire since 1613. Nicholas II would prove to be its last tsar. His wife, Alix of Hesse, was German, which caused considerable disquiet amongst his nationalistic subjects. Her attempts to become more Russian, changing her name to Alexandra and accepting the Russian Orthodox faith, did little to overturn their prejudice.

Bloody Sunday

The seeds of the tsar’s downfall began on 22 January 1905, ‘Bloody Sunday’, when he was held responsible for turning on his own people and gunning down unarmed, peaceful demonstrators. His half-hearted efforts to appease the masses by replacing his autocracy with a constitutional monarchy did little to ease the widening discontent throughout the empire. Nicholas, deeply anti-Semitic, was quick to blame Jews for the country’s discontent. During the strikes of 1905, he wrote to his mother, ‘Nine out of ten troublemakers were Jews’.

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Alexander II of Russia – a brief biography

Born 29 April 1818, Alexander II came to the Russian throne, aged 36, following the death of his father, Tsar Nicholas I, in February 1855. Although a believer in autocracy, the reign of Alexander saw a number of fundamental reforms. Russia’s disastrous performance during the Crimean War of 1853-56, in which Russia’s military inferiority, weak infrastructure and a backward economy based on serfdom, was exposed, confirmed for the new tsar the need to modernize his empire.

Alexander IIAlexander instigated a vast improvement in communication, namely expanding Russia’s rail network from just 660 miles of track (linking Moscow and St Petersburg) in the 1850s to over 14,000 miles within thirty years, which, in turn, aided Russia’s industrial and economic expansion.

Alexander’s reformist zeal restructured the judicial system which included the introduction of trial by jury. Military reform saw the introduction of conscription, the reduction of military service from 25 years to six, and the establishment of military schools. He expanded Russia’s territory in Central Asia, up to the borders of Afghanistan, much to the worry of the British government.

Emancipation of the Serfs

But reform only opened the eyes of what could be, thus came the demand for more, which brought about a number of active groups demanding greater reform and revolution. Thus, on 3 March 1861, Alexander II issued what seemed on the face of it the most revolutionary reform in Russia’s history – his Manifesto on the Emancipation of the Serfs. The edict freed 23 million serfs from their bondage to landowners, and the ownership of 85 per cent of Russia’s land was wrestled from private landowners and given to the peasants. The landlords, understandably, opposed such a sweeping change but were told by the tsar, ‘It is better to abolish serfdom from above than to wait for the time when it will begin to abolish itself from below’.

But the high ideals of Alexander II’s emancipation of the serfs fell very short of its ambition. The 15 per cent of land the landowners held onto was, invariably, the best, most sought-after, and the peasants had to buy back their land from the nobles, usually at an inflated price. Those unable to afford the cost, which was virtually all, were given a loan by the government, repayable at 6 per cent over 49 years. The peasant, freed from serfdom, was no better off and no happier. Continue reading