Showing posts with label russia. Show all posts
Showing posts with label russia. Show all posts

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Cleaning House-Peter the Great and Reforming Russia

Peter the Great served as the autocratic czar of Russia for more than 43 years. He inherited a medieval kingdom, and over the course of his reign dragged it kicking and screaming into the seventeenth century. He changed Russia on every level--religiously, culturally, administratively, militarily--and paved the way for the great reforming czars and czarinas of the eighteenth and nineteenth century, including our old friend, Catherine the Great.

Born Pyotr Alekseyevich in June of 1672, Peter ascended to the co-czardom at the age of ten. He was the son of Emperor Alexis and his second wife, Natalya Kirillovna Naryshkina. Alexis's heirs by his first wife were sickly and unfit to rule, but both were propped up by their sister, Sophia Alekseyevna, who served as regent until 1688.

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Peter the Great: 1672-1725
During this time, Peter and his mother were sent off to the village of Preobrazhenskoye, far from the center of power in Moscow.¹ Preobrazhenskoye was close to a German enclave, allowing Peter to be in contact with Westerners. It was in Preobrazhenskoye that Peter started to gain an interest in all that western Europe had to offer and to plot reform.

Russia, at the time, was a backwards and medieval nightmare. Strictly isolated from the rest of Europe, it still hadn't adopted the new technologies of ships and the Julian calendar. People dressed much the same as they had for hundreds of years, and the power of the country was in the hands of the boyars, or petty princes. The Russian economy relied on agriculture, which wasn't ideal for a country with such harsh winters. Compared to the rest of Europe, Russia was a dilapidated cesspit, and Peter wanted to change that.

However, to turn Russia around, Peter needed to educate the Russians, starting with himself. In 1697 he set out with 250 of his closest friends for the rest of Europe. Peter traveled incognito as one Sergeant Pyotr Mikhaylov. Peter used his relative anonymity to study shipbuilding in the Netherlands and to tour factories, schools, arsenals, museums, and Parliament. They trashed hotel rooms and hired master craftsmen to go back and work in Russia. Peter would have gladly extended his embassy, but in 1698 a rebellion broke out back home, and Peter reluctantly returned.

His visit to the rest of Europe made Peter even more eager to reform Russia, which he did, undertaking a reform process that would overhaul Russian society from top to bottom. This reform process would take Peter's entire lifetime, but to break it into easily listable paragraphs:

Military 

One of Peter's most urgent goals was obtaining more ports for Russia--ports on the White, Baltic, and Caspian Seas. Russia didn't have a lot of ports, and thus had no way to efficiently export Russian goods. While Peter did have his ports on the Pacific, the eastern part of Russia was mostly unoccupied. His one western port was very northerly and spent much of the year frozen over. To gain the western ports he desperately craved, Peter needed to do some conquering, which meant dealing with the formidable Swedish and Ottoman Empires.

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Peter was obsessed with ships from a young age. He built
a small fleet at his home in Preobrazhenskoye, which
came to be known as his 'toy navy'
Firstly, Peter set about obtaining a larger fighting force. Military service was extended to last a lifetime, and serfs were press-ganged into service. He imported export shipwrights from England and the Netherlands and set them to work building him a navy. They constructed a vast fleet in a short amount of time, and by 1703, Peter had a formidable seafaring force, equipped with all the latest technology, like steering wheels.

Because of his navy, Peter was finally able to hold his own on the world stage. He was finally able to kick out the Swedes and continue the proud Russian tradition of invading Ukraine. He took on the formidable Ottomans and won, gaining both the ports he took and a bit of Iran in the process.

Church

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Patriarch Adrian, the last patriarch until the
Patriarchy of Moscow and All Russia was restored
in 1917. There is still a patriarch, and, as of 2019
the holder of that office is Patriarch Kirill
Like Henry VIII before him, Peter wanted to take the clergy down a peg or five. In another example of Russia's medieval-ness, the Russian Orthodox Church still exercised an outsized amount of power, including over the czar. Many clerics were resistant to Peter's reforms and were leading voices of dissent. In order to get these uppity churchmen under control, Peter refused to appoint a new patriarch²  after Patriarch Adrian died in 1700. Instead, Peter appointed a "custodian to the throne of the patriarch," or an acting patriarch, who was counseled by a group of bishops. The custodian was later replaced by the Holy Synod, a group of churchmen who ruled the church under the authority of the czar.

As might be imagined, this wasn't a hugely popular move, especially among the churchmen. Monks in particular didn't like the changes, as it meant that they lost political power and monasterial lands. To quash this rebellion, Peter forbade monks to have pen and paper and started to bring in loyal churchmen from Ukraine to outnumber the dissenters.
Peter also set about educating the clergy, many of whom were practically illiterate. Every priest was required to attend a seminary where they learned Latin and Greek and were deeply immersed in church doctrine. This was successful in that it resulted in a better educated clergy, but this series of study neglected to teach the vernacular Russian and Church Slavonic, which made it difficult for clergy to communicate with their flock.

Culture

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Typical clothing of a pre-Peter the Great
boyar.
Not content to Westernize institutions and commerce, Peter imposed a series of laws that westernized the behaviors of the Russian people. Traditional Russian clothing was forbidden, and the nobility were required to wear French court dress. Noblemen were no longer allowed to have beards, and Peter would cut them off personally. To wear a beard or non-Western clothing would mean incurring a fine of 100 rubles³. Cultural customs were also taxed, and traditional activities like fishing and beekeeping were subject to a tax⁴.

Banning beards in particular was quite an inflammatory act. Beards were a religious thing for Russian men, and it was thought that a man without a beard was naked. By forcing men to be clean-shaven and to wear cold and impractical French style clothing, Peter was stripping away their old Russian identity.

Education

Peter was determined to have an educated populace, and to do this he secularized the school system, allowed the middle classes to attend schools (so long as they entered civil service), and founded several institutions of higher education. Like Caliph al-Ma'mun, he oversaw the translation of many Western books into Russian and encouraged his citizens to study abroad--whether they wanted to or not.

By wresting the schools away from the church, Peter strengthened his control over his people. After he appointed the Holy Synod, Russians were taught to fear the czar across the pulpit, but with state-controlled schools, Peter could teach it in schools too. Opening schools to middle-class children ensured that Peter would have a talented bureaucracy to run the swollen Russian Empire, something that would be very important when Peter changed the administrative boundaries of the country.

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Peter moved the capital from Moscow to St. Petersburg,
a European style city he had built near the Baltic.
A fan of higher education, Peter allowed (and forced) middle-class and noble boys to attend school in Europe proper. Like with the members of his Grand Embassy, these young men were expected to come back and use their skills for the benefit of Russia. However, Peter didn't neglect the native Russian institutes of learning. He established artillery and language schools in Moscow and St. Petersburg, along with colleges devoted to science. A short list of the institutions founded by Peter include:
  • School of Navigation and Math (1701)
  • School of Medicine (1707)
  • School of Engineering (1712)
  • School of Science (1724)
While education still wasn't open to girls or to the peasantry, Peter set Russia on the road to becoming an educated and enlightened nation.

Commerce 

One of the downsides to all of Peter's reforms was that they were expensive. After all, you can't get state-of-the-art naval vessels and a palatial European city at the Dollar Tree--it takes some serious capital. To get that capital, the tax system had to be changed.

Previously, Russia had operated on a "Hearth Tax" system, where the peasantry was taxed by the household. No matter how many people lived in the home, they paid the same flat rate. To avoid paying more tax, peasants would often move in together. In 1680, Peter introduced the "Poll Tax," a system that taxed each adult member of the household individually, no matter how many people lived there. Not only did this give Peter some of the capital he needed, but it also allowed him to gain the favor of his nobility by lowering their taxes.
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Peter the Great on 2 ruble coins.
However, not all of the expenses could be defrayed by taxes. After all, you can't get universities and top-notch cannons at the Dollar General. Peter picked up the rest of the slack by introducing high tariffs on imports, and creating state monopolies around salt, vodka, oak, and tar. Under this, Peter controlled the prices of Russia's most popular goods and encouraged people to buy products made in their own country. He also made sure revenues from those products went to the states, as merchants weren't allowed to buy goods from manufacturers until after the Russian government had had their pick. If there was any surplus after the government picked out the choicest goods, merchants could sell those, but it wasn't a good business model. Peter's policies ensured that not only would his citizens buy Russian, but that the profit from their purchases would go to the state.

Administrative Districts

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The areas in brown, purple, and red show the size of Russia
around the years of Peter's reign.
Because of its size, administering Russia was no small feat. Then, as now, Russia was the largest country on Earth in terms of land area. The population was heavily concentrated in the west of the country, leaving the east and frigid north sparsely populated. Prior to Peter, the Russian administration system was incompetent and antiquated. To change that, in 1708 Peter divided the country into eight governorates, who were ruled over by a royal governor and the Landrats, or eight to twelve civil servants assigned to help the governor. The governorates were later scratched, and the country was broken up into 50 provinces in 1719. Those provinces were later subdivided into districts.
Peter wasn't just interested in redrawing lines on a map. Under Russian law, towns were subject to rule from the military and local lords. Peter loosened the rules, and while towns were still subordinate to Moscow, they were allowed to elect their own leaders.

Class

Perhaps the biggest changes that Peter made during his reign were changes to the class system of Russia. He hit every level of society with a series of reforms that ensured that the Russian people would be more tightly under his control and loyal to him. 

Peasantry

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Serfs were allowed to continue to wear their traditional
clothing, but became even more firmly the property of
their lords.
Life did not get better for the peasantry under Peter--it got much worse. In addition to imposing harsher taxes, Peter also made it more difficult for serfs to leave their homes, essentially reducing them to slaves. Serfs had no rights and could be press-ganged into military service or municipal building projects at any time. Between 30,000 and 100,000 serfs died building St. Petersburg alone. 
Peter, like every other czar, saw the peasantry not as actual people but as another resource to be exploited. His treatment of the Russian serfs is damning and stains an otherwise brilliant career. It is for this that it's difficult to wholeheartedly support Peter the Great, and it's what makes him such a controversial figure.

Towns

For the middle classes, laws were enacted that said that any person in trade could settle in whatever town they wished, so long as they informed the proper authorities that they were there. Tradesmen were no longer tied to the land like serfs, and this allowed the spread of skilled manufacturing across Russia. 
Additionally, to structure town society, townspeople were put into one of two guilds: the regulars or the commons. The regulars were the skilled craftspeople and merchants who were their own bosses. They had rights to move around as they wished and be appointed to governing bodies. People who worked as hired labor were relegated to the commons, and they were little better than serfs.

Nobility

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A page from the Table of Ranks
In 1722, Peter introduced his Table of Ranks, which was a list of every rank of nobility, court, military and government. This table was essentially a how-to guide to gaining higher positions, and, theoretically, anyone (anyone being anyone noble) could work their way up by providing the required civil or military services. While some levels had to be approved by the czar himself, all ranks were achieved by service.
There were, of course, a few exceptions, mainly relating to the czar's immediate family, and once a person reached the eighth rank, their title did become hereditary. However, by doing this Peter deputized the idle rich into helping him run the country.

Government

As part of his efforts to bring Russia under an autocratic regime, Peter had to contend with the boyars and the Duma. The Duma⁵ was a collection of noblemen, civil servants, and wealthy landowners whose job it was to advise the king. In theory anyways. By the time Peter came around the Duma was a formidable governing body that controlled governance on every level. They stood between Peter and his goal of complete control, so in 1711 he dissolved the Duma and instead created a Senate. The senate had ten men, all of whom had been appointed by Peter personally and could not resign without an imperial decree. Some were noblemen, but there were also churchmen, scholars, and businessmen. 

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Peter the Great statue in St. Petersburg. This statue was
erected by Catherine the Great.
On the lower levels of public service, bureaucratic ranks became non-hereditary, meaning that to hold a job in public service, one had to be qualified. This also meant that any ambitious fellow with an education could technically work their way up to the senate. These bureaucrats displaced the boyars, and remained in power until 1917.

Make no mistake--Peter the Great isn't the fluffy bunny sort of guy you can feel comfortable having as a role model. He received plenty of pushback during his life, and anyone with a conscience is still side-eyeing him now. However, his determination to drag Russia kicking and screaming overall did the country a lot of good, even as it quashed individual freedoms. Peter was, out of all of the Romanovs and those that came before them, the most farsighted of Russia's monarchs, and his reforms, however brutally undertaken, ultimately changed Russia for the better.


¹While Preobrazhenskoye is now a part of Moscow, during Peter's time it was a prosperous, mid-sized town.
²Patriarch is the Orthodox version of a Pope.
³This rule did not apply to commoners or the clergy.
⁴I also remember reading once that under Peter the Great, any man found going to bed with his boots on could be killed. I've been unable to find where I read that, so treat that factoid with caution.
⁵The Duma of this time period is usually referred to as "Boyar Duma" to differentiate it from the Duma of Czar Nicholas II and the modern Duma.


Sources
Empire of the Tsars: Romanov Russia presented by Lucy Worsley

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Karl XII, the 'Alexander of the North' Has a Bad Decade

It's highly ironic that Karl (Often anglicized to Charles) XII¹ is referred to as the 'Alexander of the North', given that his reign saw the end of Sweden as an empire and significant global power. While Karl may have started out strong by conquering Denmark, Poland, and parts of Russia, he ultimately failed his country abroad and at home. A nickname that makes more sense is 'The Swedish Meteor'. Karl earned this nickname because of, you guessed it, his meteoric rise to power, and quick fall from grace.

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Karl on a horse
Karl was groomed to be king from a very young age. After his mother's death in 1693, Karl's father, Karl XI, took Karl with him everywhere, including him in royal progresses, meetings of the Riksdag, and other monarchical duties. Daddy Karl also saw to it that young Karl had the best tutors and religious mentors. When Karl XI died in 1697 the fifteen year old Karl was ready to assume the throne.²

When the power's abroad heard about Karl's ascension to the throne, many countries saw the Swedish Empire as ripe for the picking, especially after negotiations for a royal marriage between Karl and a Danish Princess broke down. Not wanting to waste the opportunity of a lifetime, Denmark, Poland-Lithuania, Russia, and Saxony banded together, and with promises from the Swedish nobility that they would start rebelling if a war started, this coalition started attacking Sweden from all sides.

However, young Karl was no dummy. He went on the offensive, and invaded Danish Zeeland, and at the Battle of Narva he took the Danes out of the war with one blow. It wasn't long before Karl's armies had driven the Russians and Saxons out of the Swedish provinces on the Baltic. With 3/4 of his enemies driven back, Karl turned his sights on the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

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Karl not on a horse.
Many of these early achievements cannot be attributed directly to Karl. He was still young, and he didn't have a great deal of war experience. However, he was smart enough to listen to the advisers and generals left to him by his father. As time went on Karl became better at battlefield strategy, and many of his advisers died. By 1702 Karl was almost entirely in charge.

It was this year that Karl invaded Poland. Poland was a deeply divided country, and they were no match for the united Swedes. Karl overthrew the reigning monarch, Augustus II, and installed Pole Stanisław Leszczyński as king. Safe in the knowledge that Stanisław would do what he was told, Karl made Poland his base for invading Russia.

Now, Karl had been doing very well up until then. He'd been at war for the entirety of his reign, but had still managed to help with administrative decisions back at home. Had Karl decided that enough was enough, and gone back home he might have been remembered as a hero King who conquered vast swathes of territory, and subdued Sweden's enemies. However, in 1706 Karl made a fatal mistake--he invaded Russia.

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The Swedish Empire
We've discussed Karl's invasion of Russia before, so I won't go into too much detail here. But here's a brief summary: Karl invades western Russia, and reconquers the Baltic provinces that Russia had taken. The Russian soldiers scorch the earth behind them, and attack the Swedish baggage trains, leaving the Swedes without supplies. When they lost battles, the Russians withdrew further into Russia. Though Karl made it all the way to Moscow, lack of supplies forced him to turn back, and a Russian victory at Poltava forced Karl to flee to Turkey.

Turkey was a seemingly good place to seek refuge. The Turkish sultanate was friendly to the Swedes, and the Turks also had a beef with Russia. The Turks agreed to jointly attack Russia. However, though Karl requested another army from Sweden it never arrived, and efforts to attack Russia petered out.

In 1714 Karl left Istanbul for good, and headed to the Swedish provinces in Pomerania. His five years in Turkey had shifted Karl's priorities from expanding Swedish territory and punishing his enemies to merely keeping his empire intact, and making peace. Karl decided that ceding pieces of land, either for money or treaties, was the only way to go. He ceded vast swathes of Swedish territories, and lost others to various German kingdoms. In 1718 Karl was shot through the head while fighting the Norwegians. He died, leaving no children to succeed him.

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Death mask of Karl XII, also not on a horse.
Karl was a king of Sweden, who didn't actually spend all that much time in Sweden. He was deeply religious, and a highly intellectual man. He didn't drink alcohol or have affairs with women. His close relationships with his fellow soldiers have lead many historians to speculate that he may have been homosexual. Towards the end of his life he was reviled by his own people, and rumors that he was shot by one of his own men abound.

Karl is heartily disliked by most modern Swedes. Not only do they blame them for the loss of their empire, but they also blame him for the enormous amount of money and lives that his wars cost. Additionally, Karl XII has become an icon for far-right Swedish Neo-Nazi groups, which certainly doesn't boost his posthumous reputation.

¹I refer to him as 'Karl' rather than 'Charles' in this post because it makes very little sense to refer to a King of Sweden by an English name.
²Karl XI had arranged for a regency should he die before Karl XII came of age. However, due to internal fighting within the regency, the Riksdag asked Karl to assume the throne early.


Sources
Charles XII- King of Sweden
The Blazing Career and Mysterious Death of 'The Swedish Meteor'

Friday, November 24, 2017

Damn, Girl--Catherine the Great

Czarina Catherine II was enlightened, and she was a despot, but she was not an enlightened despot, no matter what the stories say. Though she embraced the ideals of the enlightenment, her laws and reforms kept  Russia under her autocratic thumb. She strengthened the institution of serfdom, and conquered most of the Crimea region. That aside, she was one boss lady.

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Young Catherine
Born Prinzessin Sophie Friederike Auguste, Catherine was the daughter of a minor Prussian prince. Living in the principality of Anhalt-Zebst, Catherine was mainly ignored by her parents until she grew to a marriageable age. When Catherine was old enough to marry, her mother took her around Europe shopping for a suitable husband. In 1744 Catherine and her mother went to Russia, then ruled by the Empress Elizabeth. Elizabeth had a young heir and nephew, Peter, to dispose of, and she decided that Catherine would be an ideal bride.

Catherine had to give up a lot to be considered a suitable future czarina. She was required to convert from Lutheranism to Russian Orthodoxy, and learned Russian in order to fit in with her people better. She was successful, and in 1745 she and Peter were married.

Peter and Catherine were not a good match. Catherine was intelligent, vivacious, and ambitious, while Peter was immature, antisocial, and dim. Peter felt threatened by his wife, and was often cruel to her in private and public. It wasn't long after their marriage that Peter began to take lovers. Hurt, Catherine spent a lot of time reading, and took lovers of her own. During their entire marriage Peter and Catherine had two children--a son Paul and a daughter Anna. It is highly unlikely that either of them were Peter's child.

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The Malachite Room of the majestic Winter Palace--a residence
that Catherine had a large hand in building
In 1761 Empress Elizabeth died, leaving Peter in charge. Crowned Czar Peter III, Peter was a terrible leader. He pulled out of a war against Prussia, decided to invade Denmark, and made friends with Russia's long-time nemesis--Frederick the Great. He was widely unpopular among the nobility and the clergy, and it wasn't long before there were many groups plotting to overthrow him.

Fortunately for Catherine, she had an in with the Russian Guards. She and her lover, Grigory Orlov, had Peter quietly arrested, and Catherine proclaimed Empress. Catherine had planned to have Peter live out his life in imprisonment, but eight days after his arrest he was quietly strangled.

Unlike many other royal women who's husbands died before their heirs had reached majority, Catherine didn't even pretend to be a regent, she outright had herself proclaimed Empress, and only had her son Paul declared as her heir as an afterthought. She didn't much care for her son, and she didn't much care for a man to tell her what to do. Catherine had some very definite ideas about how she was going to run Russia, and she wasn't going to be stopped.

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An older Catherine the Great
Catherine was very fond of Enlightenment principles. She had read extensively, and was determined to be the model of an enlightened monarch. She believed that by applying the principles of the enlightenment to her rule in Russia she could make a nation where life would be fair and just for everyone. Catherine had a lot of ideas, and in 1767 she convened a commission of people to frame a constitution for Russia. The commission was comprised of people of all social ranks (except serfs), and representatives from all major and minor ethnic groups. Catherine had very firm instructions on how the commission was to proceed, and detailed them in a letter that was, reportedly, so scandalously liberal it was banned in France.

Despite all of her ideals, Catherine knew she couldn't do without the support of the nobility. The commission failed to produce a working constitution, and in 1785 Catherine released her 'Charter of the Nobility', which granted the nobility more powers than ever before, and essentially made all peasants into serfs. This act was especially damning, because Catherine had spoken out privately and publicly about the evils of serfdom.

When she wasn't reforming the laws of the land, Catherine was trying to get more land. Thanks to Peter the Great, Russia had a port on the Black Sea, but Catherine wanted to solidify her position there. Through three partionings, she gradually ate away at Poland, and took the entirety of the Crimea from the Ottoman Empire.

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Gregory Potemkin, Catherine's lover and
advisor
What Catherine is most known for is for her love affairs. As with almost all women of power, rumors of her intense sexual appetites have been grossly exaggerated, though in Catherine's case the rumors aren't entirely unfounded. While Catherine the Great didn't engage in bestiality, she did have some 12 lovers throughout her life, many of whom were quite a bit younger than her.

Catherine's memoirs reveal a woman who was lonely and desperate for love. However, in order to maintain her position Catherine couldn't remarry, and even if she could have it seems unlike that she would have. Catherine wrote in a letter to Gregory Potemkin, one of her most loved and longest lasting lovers, that her passions cooled quickly, and that as soon as a man was out of her site she forgot about him.

Though very popular, Catherine did inspire one of the largest uprisings in Russian history. In 1773 Yemelyan Pugachov, a former Cossack officer, started traipsing around claiming to be Peter III. According to Pugachov, Peter had not died, but had instead been in hiding, and he was ready to lead the serfs and peasantry to a better life, and to throw off Catherine's tyranny. He gained some 200,000 supporters, and marched down along the Volga river, slaughtering nobles along the way. He was within attacking distance of Moscow before he was finally captured, and his force dispersed in 1774.

At age 67, Catherine had a stroke and died in the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg. Though controversial, she is often regarded as one of Russia's greatest rulers, and as one of the greatest female rulers of all times. Catherine had lofty ideals and unbounded ambition. While she didn't manage to live up to her ideals, she brought Russia into an era of political stability and expansion that led to Russian prosperity in the 1800s.


Sources
Catherine II
Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia
When Catherine the Great Invaded the Crimea, and Put the Rest of the World on Edge
Catherine the Great: Biography, Accomplishments, and Death
Catherine the Great

Monday, October 16, 2017

The Milk War

The Russian-Belarusian 'Milk War' of 2009 lasted a little over two weeks, and during those two weeks no shots were fired. One of the pettiest wars of all time, the only victims were Belarusian wallets and Russian dairy consumers.

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Belarus and Russia are neighbors, and have traditionally
had good diplomatic relations.
This war started when Russia banned all dairy imports from Belarus, supposedly because Belarusian dairy didn't meet Russian health standards, but more likely because Belarus wasn't doing what Russia told it to. Russia has a history of banning imports from countries that make it made, and they were pretty upset with Belarus for a few reasons.

  1. Belarus refused to recognize the breakaway states of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Russia had assisted South Ossetia and Abkhazia in declaring independence from the country of Georgia. The only other country than Russia to have recognized those countries was the Central American country of Nicaragua. Russia wanted some support, but Belarus just wasn't there for them.
  2. Russia depends on a Belarus pipeline to pipe its oil to the rest of Europe. Russia tried to buy this pipeline from Belarus, but Belarus refused to sell.
  3. Belarus had become decided more pro European, releasing political prisoners, and trying to make good with the rest of Europe. This angered Russia, who isn't very friendly with Europe.
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Russian and Belarusian military marching together
on parade in 2011, two years after the end of the milk war
Belarus responded in a spectacularly mature fashion by imposing stricter border checkpoints on the Russia-Belarus border, and by refusing to attend the meeting of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a confederation of former Soviet states. The meeting had been to solidify a confederation wide military union. Belarus, formerly one of Russia's biggest supporters, not being present really infuriated the Russian government.

You can essentially envisage the Milk War as an argument between two particularly passive-aggressive teenage girls. Belarus won't give Russia what it wants, so Russia won't let Belarus bring its stuff over to Russia's house. This upsets Belarus, who decides that Russia can't come over to their house either. There had been a party planned for Russia, Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan, and a whole bunch of other people, but Belarus was still pissed off at Russia, so Belarus decided not to show up, which made Russia mad. A couple weeks later, they realize they need each other, and talk it out.
Today, dairy products pass freely through Belarus and Russia. Belarus still doesn't recognize South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and continue to make pro-European overtures. Russia isn't very happy about this, but for the sake of regional security, they bite their tongues.


Sources

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

General Frost vs. Europe

When making a 'Top Ten Places Not to Invade In The Winter' list, Russia inevitably comes in number one (with Greenland and Canada following close after.). There were multiple occasions in history, when European leaders thought it might be a good idea to poke the Russian Bear with a stick. Some, like the Mongols, were successful, most, like pretty much everyone else, were not.

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St. Basil's Cathedral, Moscow.
Russia's pretty big, which makes it difficult to defend and control. Russia's long history of internal conflicts (more recently in Georgia and Chechnya) prove this. However, Russia has a secret weapon-General Frost.

You've probably guessed this, but General Frost is a poetic name for winter. Russia is far north, and has some pretty gnarly cold spells. We're talking spit freezing before it hits the sidewalk cold. The winter snows cover everything, and the country more or less goes into hibernation. Nothing grows, and game isn't always plentiful. If you haven't prepared, you're dead. 

So, despite its size, Russia is pretty well defended. They have reasonable armies (and more recently nuclear weapons) to help the in the summer, and unlivable conditions in the winter. However, that hasn't stopped some people from trying to invade Russia in the winter.

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Charles XII
The Swedes were the first (as far as I can dig up) to try invading Russia in the winter. They were the first, so they get a bit of a pass. Sweden itself is northerly, and it's not like they had someone else's mistakes to learn from.

Although, quite frankly, even if there had been someone else's failed attempts to learn from, it is doubtful that that would have stopped Charles XII, the young, brash, and ridiculously successful King of Sweden. Charles was a genius military commander, and dangerous risk taker. He frequently dove into battles with forces that vastly outnumbered his own, and usually came out victorious. Charles was That Kid. You know, that kid in school who claimed to never study for a test, and then got full marks. Charles was the monarchy equivalent of that kid, and, quite frankly, the rest of Europe was a little sick of it.


See, Sweden at the time was something of a world power. They'd taken most of the land around the Baltic sea. The only things they didn't own was Denmark and Norway (Norway belonged to Denmark). This worried the Danes, as well as the newly minted Czar of Russia, Peter the Great. So, to combat the Swedish, the Danes, Russians, Poles and Saxons (part of modern Germany) all decided to gang up on Charles. They were banking on his youth and inexperience (Charles was only 18 at the time). Bad decision. Charles was not only something of a genius, but he had good advisers, ad he listened to them. When the Danes came for Sweden, Charles snck into Denmark, and took them down. Then he turned his eyes to Poland, and successfully installed a King favorable to Sweden. Done with Poland, he turned his eyes to Russia.

Charles had had great success with small armies that attacked quickly and unexpected. He adopted the same strategy in Russia. In 1700 he attacked Narva, a town in Modern Estonia. He was outnumbered about 3 to 1, and it was the middle of a blizzard. Remarkably, but also unsurprisingly, Charles won.

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Peter the Great, czar of Russia at the time
of Charles XII's invasion.
The Swedes continued across Russia like this, but the Russians, as per the usual, implemented a scorched earth policy, leaving nothing for the Swedes to eat. The Russians then cut off the Swede's supply lines. Despite all this, the war wasn't going too badly for the Swedes, until General Frost stepped in.

1709 was one of the coldest winters of that era. 2,000 Swedish soldiers died from cold in a single night. Northern Russia wasn't a good place to hang out, so, against the council of his advisers, Charles decided to winter with his buddy Mazeppa in the Ukraine.  

Ivan Mazeppa was a former Russian ally who wanted to get the Russians out of Ukraine. He told Charles of his plan to start an Ukranian rebellion, and invited Charles to invade. Never one to pass up new territory, Charles agreed.

Thing was, most of Charles' forces were very ill, and couldn't fight. Charles himself had been wounded. Additionally, the Russians found out about the planned uprising, and moved to quash it before it even began. So when Charles arrived in Ukraine he had much fewer Ukrainian troops than expected, and only the skeleton of an army.

Realizing the fight was already lost, Charles escaped with 2,000 of his sickest men, leaving the rest of the army behind. The Russians caught up with them, thoroughly defeating the 16,000 Swedish forces left behind.

Next up to the plate was the young French protegee, Napoleon. The year was 1812, and Napoleon had had it with Russia. Russia was supposed to be his ally. They were buds. They were part of the continental system, they had no reason to fight each other, and they promised each other that neither of them would trade with England. It was a good arrangement. For France.

What Napoleon failed to realize was that this arrangement wasn't helping out Russia very much. Russia needed trade with the English to bolster its economy, and France had done the unthinkable--they helped Poland.

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Napoleon Bonaparte, making sure
his ribs are still there.
Well, Napoleon couldn't handle that sort of betrayal, not from an ally, so he invaded Russia to teach Czar Alexander a lesson. He gathered some 450,000 men (give or take), the largest military force ever assembled in Europe to that point (probably). With his typical modesty, Napoleon named his forces the 'Grande Armee'

Now, I have absolutely zero historical evidence to back this up, but I imagine Czar Alexander's reaction to Napoleon's invasion was something like 'lol wut?', and he slipped on his shades, and watched the French armies confidently walk into his territory, just knowing that they wouldn't last a year in Russia.

As I mentioned, there's no historical evidence, but it's a pretty amusing picture.

What is fact, though, is that the Russians put up very little resistance to the French at first. Instead of standing to fight, they let the French take the towns of Vilna, Vitesbk, and Smolensk, virtually without a fight. Instead of fighting the Russians torched the cities and all surrounding crops, leaving the French to die of starvation, exposure, and sporadic attacks. This worked very well. Tens of thousands of soldiers died of starvation, exhaustion, and dehydration. Many more deserted.

The Russians didn't stand and fight until the French were just 75 miles from Moscow. The French and Russians were fairly evenly matched, and each suffered heavy losses. The Russians, however, decided not to stick around. They set fire to Moscow, all of Moscow's food storage, and left, leaving only a large amount of hard liquor behind.

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Czar Alexander I
So, while they French may have been merrily drunk, they were also starving. Napoleon had decided to stay in Moscow for a while, and wait for Czar Alexander to make peace, but Czar Alexander decided to sit back, and let winter take care of things. Eventually, Napoleon threw in the towel, and decided to head back to France, just as winter was approaching.


Now, this went as well as you might expect, which is to say, poorly. The Russians were determined that the French stay out, so they drove the remnants of the Grand Armee along the same route they came in on. If the food options had been picked over before, they were completely nonexistant on the way back. The Russians kept the French from ranging further afield to find further sustenance. Added to that was the cold. Many men froze overnight. Dead bodies were stacked up against walls to provide insulation, and tales were told of men slitting open their horses, and climbing inside them to keep warm. The French died in massive waves, and only 20,000 of them returned home to France.

Then there's Hitler. As I'm sure you well know, nothing good ever starts with Hitler, and this is no different. Stalin was in charge of Russia at the time, and both of these repugnant knaves should have studied their history. Had they done so, many lives would have been saved, because:

  1. Hitler would have known better than to invade Russia. 
  2. Stalin wouldn't have insisted that no city be surrendered, and instead adopted the scorched earth tactics that has kept Russia independent for so many generations.
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Adolf Hitler, looking unfriendly as usual.
Instead, Hitler and the Germans were the ones scorching the earth, and the citizens of the USSR were being attacked by not only the Germans, but their own government. Stalin ordered that deserters and suspected traitors be shot, not to mention his abhorrent policy of relocating ethnic minorities to Siberia.

Having conquered France, Hitler needed to get on with the rest of the world. Conquering the UK would be a difficult, and not entirely worthwhile endeavor, so he decided to go after his land and resource rich neighbor, the USSR. This was the start of 'Operation Barbarossa'. 

Germany and the USSR had signed a non-aggression pact two years before, but Hitler still considered communism a major threat to the German Empire he wanted to build. Because Nazi Germany didn't do anything by halves, Hitler planned to completely wipe out the communist population of the USSR, not just the Jews, Romani, Homosexuals, and political dissenters that he usually went after.  

Hitler started by forming a group of elite troops called the Einsatzgruppen. He sent these soldiers into Russia to murder Jewish males, communist leaders, and anyone who looked like they might start a resistance, en masse. He then gathered a force of more than three million soldiers, and stormed Russia's frontier. While Allied powers had repeatedly warned Stalin about a German invasion, Stalin had refused to listen, and was caught by 'surprise'. 

Unlike his predecessors, Stalin refused to give ground. He ordered that no city surrender or be abandoned. As a result of that three million USSR soldiers were taken captive in Kiev. Instead of evacuating the countryside, and torching all the crops, villagers were ordered to stay put, and anyone suspected of disloyalty or cowardice was shot. Because of this the Germans were able to subsist off the crops of the small Russian villages, and were able to penetrate further into USSR territory.

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Josef Stalin, committer of mass genocide
and luxurious mustache model.
Looking through the lens of history, Hitler has done far better than expected. However, according to Hitler and company, the invasion of the USSR was taking far longer than expected. Hitler had expected the invasion of Russia to go like the invasion of France, quick and relatively painless. But the Russians held out far longer than he'd expected. By the time the Germans were ready to head to Moscow, winter wasn't too far away.

And, in a move that will surely have you banging your head against the nearest flat surface, the Germans did not have any winter supplies. They hadn't expected to stay the winter, and so they were completely unprepared. They started to slowly retreat, but before they could get out of Russia entirely, war had flared up again in the west with the invasion of Normandy. 

Unlike previous invasions, the failure of Operation Barbarossa was not a decisive win for the Russians. Had another front not opened up Hitler would have most likely started the invasion up again in the spring. The German soldiers were able to subsist off the food they found in the countryside, all they lacked was warm clothing. Had Stalin stuck to the proven tactics of his forerunners, and set everything on fire, WWII may have gone much differently.

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