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Sunday, 17 May 2020

Comics Explained: Black Widow

Black Widow, thanks to her regular appearance in Marvel movies since Iron Man 2, has made her one of Marvel's best known heroes. Debuting in Marvel's soar to supremacy over the comics industry in the 1960s Black Widow has become one of Marvel's major characters - she's appeared in most major Marvel-wide events, been part of the Avengers, dated Daredevil, and even led SHIELD. Today we'll give an overview of the main Black Widow, Natasha Romanova, and some of her appearances. I would also highly recommend watching Variant Comics' video on her here for some recommended reading. 


Black Widow was co-created by Stan Lee himself in a story written by Don Rico, and drawn by Don Heck. Her original design was quite different from her now iconic design - she had black, middle-length hair instead of her long, red hair, and she wore dresses/cat-suits instead of her black costume with wristbands. Arris Quinones from Variant Comics has pointed out how her design bore a stark resemblance to that of Catwoman from the Batman TV show - this show was incredibly popular and had a major impact on comic books. As a result, Black Widow was a Catwoman-esque femme fatale, although sexism of the period meant that even if there was no Catwoman in Batman, she would likely have been created as a femme fatale. Black Widow debuted in 1964, during the Cold War, so the paranoia associated with the Cold War resonates in her story. Natasha Romanoff, later Natasha Romanova, first appeared in Tales of Suspense #52 in a story straight out of an Ian Fleming novel. Natasha Romanoff, the Black Widow, was sent by the KGB to capture industrialist Tony Stark, and to assassinate defector Anton Vanok, the first Crimson Dynamo. Allied with fellow spy Boris Turgenov, who had his own Crimson Dynamo suit, they got into Stark Industries. Natasha tried to seduce Stark as Boris went to kill Anton, but it went wrong. Stark realised the plot and used gas to escape from Natasha, while the Crimson Dynamo shot Boris's suit blowing it, and him, up. A few issues later, Tales of Suspense #57, she encountered the incredible archer, Clint Barton aka Hawkeye, who was wrongly accused of robbing a jewelry store. Teaming up they fought Iron Man, and this initial team-up would set the stage for a long history together. 


There have been several contesting origins for Natasha Romanova, which have actually been worked into her character. With a contested past which she herself doesn't fully know it very much fits into her whole character arc. Her original origin, from Daredevil #88 from 1972, has her being saved by a Russian soldier Ivan Petrovitch during the Battle of Stalingrad in 1942. Ivan raised the baby as his own daughter, that is until she is picked up by the Soviet authorities who trains her to be a super-spy and a ballerina. The KGB even got her married to another operative, Alexei Shostakov, until he became the new Red Guardian, and she was told that he 'died' so she wouldn't go after him. When Black Widow got another solo title in 2005 her origins were retconned; her original story was still quasi-canon, but it became consumed in the brainwashing which she experienced. A fire broke out in a house in Stalingrad in 1928, and a dying mother passed her baby daughter to Ivan Petrovitch. However, Petrovitch wouldn't be able to solely raise the young Natasha. Instead, she was taken and inducted into the 'Black Widow Program' where she and another 28 young girls were taken to the 'Red Room' to be trained. In the Red Room they would be brainwashed in order to become efficient spies, trained to become deadly fighters, and bio-technologically and psycho-technologically enhanced. This way her ageing was extremely slowed so, by the 2010s and 2020s, she still looked like she was in her thirties. These enhancements also made Natasha reach peak physically fitness that a human can have without being classed as a superhuman. During her training she also met Bucky Barnes, the Winter Soldier.

Joining the Avengers

After her debut Black Widow was an antagonist of several Marvel characters as she tried to take down Iron Man to win back favour with the KGB. Some of them had her fighting alongside Hawkeye, and fighting against Spider-Man. Her superiors brainwashed her again in Avengers #29 to use other villains to wipe out the Avengers, but in the next issue she shook off the brainwashing and helped her former foes. In Avengers #32-33 to prove herself to the Avengers, and to a reformed Hawkeye whom she started seeing, she helped the team fight a fascist group called the Sons of the Serpent. The Avengers were willing to accept her, but there was an issue. The Avengers had a no killing policy, something which has since changed to an extent, and, as she refused the have the same policy, Natasha was not made a full Avenger. Instead, she was made a 'reserve' Avenger - while affiliated and fighting alongside the Avengers Natasha was not a formal member of the team. While this was happening she continued having romantic interests with Hawkeye forming a 'power couple' in the media of the Marvel Universe. Imagine Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie just fighting aliens and robots. While part-time with the Avengers the head of SHIELD, Nick Fury, would approach her to become an agent of SHIELD. This began a long history of Natasha Romanova being a member of the super spy organisation, and at times she would even lead the group.

In The Amazing Spider-Man #86 from 1970, with her popularity increasing, Marvel decided to give her a costume re-design. Gone was the Catwoman inspired outfit. She now had her iconic long, red hair, and a black suit with accompanying wristbands. Called her 'Spider Bites' the wristbands could release tasers, tear gas pellets, explosives and knock out gas. Accompanying that, Natasha was still physically deadly being an expert marksmen, a master in various hand-held weapons, and knew various fighting styles ranging from jiu jitsu to sambo. Throughout the 1970s she would be a member of SHIELD taking missions to disrupt organisations, like Hydra, and allying herself with 'street-level' heroes, like Spider-Man. In 1970 she somewhat got the first of several solo titles - The Inhumans and Black Widow. This comic was split into two, with half focusing on stories about the Inhumans by Jack Kirby and the other half focusing on Black Widow by Marie Severin. However, the comic didn't last long. After the eighth issue Black Widow was dropped, and two issues later it was cancelled altogether. Meanwhile, she continued fighting for social justice issues. Writer Les Daniels, in 1971, noted how Marvel used her Left-wing upbringing to fight for oppressed people in the US. This was a greater reflection on how Marvel started moving away from the fairly conservative Comics Code Authority which restricted what comics could or could not write about. Among her adventures she helped Puerto Ricans fight against police brutality and hippies against organised crime.

Daredevil and the Champions

In Daredevil #81 in 1971 Black Widow started teaming up with Daredevil, this was during a time when he had started to become an alcoholic. She helped him start to recover, and the two formed a romantic relationship. They actually made comic book history by being the first romantic couple in comics, who weren't married, to cohabit. The Comic Codes Authority had frowned upon non-married couples living together, so, as soon as the Authority's influence started to wane, Marvel jumped at the chance to experiment with stories. It was during this period that Black Widow began helping oppressed people, part of which was facilitated by Daredevil. Although Daredevil has regularly become involved with the Avengers he is very much a street-level hero; with Natasha regularly appearing alongside Daredevil this gave her the chance to tackle real-world issues. Marvel also decided to tackle misogyny. Natasha became angered by how Daredevil kept on trying to protect her; quite ironic considering that she was a near-superpowered super-spy. As a result, in 1975 she left to go to the West Coast, and she co-founded the Champions in Champions #1. This was a smaller version of the Avengers, based on the East Coast, consisting of Black Widow, the former X-Men Iceman and Angel, the Spirit of Vengeance Ghost Rider, and the literal god Hercules. In their debut they teamed up to stop the Greek/Roman god of war Pluto from taking over Olympus. However, the team did not last long. They were bankrolled by Angel's fortune, and, unsurprisingly, funding a super team is expensive. Due to bankruptcy the Champions had to fold - in real life sales were low so Marvel canned it. Since then the Champions have occasionally reformed, and characters have regularly made fun of it. In the 1990s Iceman called it an embarrassment...

2000s - Marvel Heavy-Hitter

After the folding of the Champions in the 1970s Black Widow remained a big Marvel character, but it was largely through appearances alongside the Avengers, SHIELD, and Daredevil. That is until the 2000s. Black Widow, especially since the resurgence of her own title which began in 2004, has become such an important character in Marvel - she has played a major role in most of Marvel's universe-wide events. In her own title, her past came back to haunt her. After seeing her husband, again, (he was constantly believed dead and turning up alive), she retired to Arizona until the other Black Widows were soon being found killed. It was here that we found out her new origin. Natasha had to hunt down who are killing off the other Black Widows, and avoid being killed herself. In 1999 we were introduced to another Black Widow who was also trained in the Red Room - Yelena Belova. The two have since had a somewhat antagonistic relationship - while occasionally working together they have an intense rivalry. Later, she took part in the Secret War event. Supervillains had somehow been getting new, improved weaponry, and Nick Fury found out the new leader of Latveria was using the master engineer Tinkerer to fund American supervillains. She went on a covert mission with Fury, Luke Cage, Wolverine, Daredevil, Spider-Man, and Daisy Johnson to take her down. During the Superhero Civil War she sided with Iron Man, and when Norman Osborn (the Green Goblin) took over SHIELD she knew that he would use it for his own means. Osborn formed his own Avengers, and hired Yelena to be his version of Black Widow. However, it wasn't Yelena - it was Natasha. 

Death and Resurrection

In 2017 the Secret Empire event happened - you might remember it from the now infamous image of Captain America saying 'Heil Hydra'. For my sins as a comic fan I have still yet to read Secret Empire, so most of this next part is what I've learnt from later comics and general discussions. To basically summarise, Captain America has been replaced by a copy created by the Red Skull manipulating a Cosmic Cube - this version lived a life where he had been raised by Hydra. A fascistic Captain America helped Hydra take over the US, so many heroes formed a resistance called the Underground. Black Widow, however, was angry at the Underground for not adopting more direct, and lethal, methods. Following the events of Civil War II the new young heroes re-formed the Champions, and they followed Natasha with the hope to talk her out of killing Cap. She decided to train the Champions in order to fight, and they went after the fascist doppelganger. However, trying to protect Miles Morales she was killed by the evil Cap. Because comics there turned out to be a clone with all her memories. So, as usual, comics ended up reversing the emotional impact of death for characters and readers.

Thank you for reading. For other blog posts please see our Facebook or catch me on Twitter @LewisTwiby.

Sunday, 10 May 2020

Paleo Profiles: Spinosaurus

From the National Geographic Museum
A recent discovery, as of writing, has once again changed how we view the large, carnivorous dinosaur Spinosaurus. Every new discovery revolutionises how we see this dinosaur, and truly shows how diverse dinosaurs were as a group. While fairly accurate for its time of release, Jurassic Park III boasted that they were showing a carnivore larger than Tyrannosaurus, but since then new discoveries have completely changed how we see Spinosaurus. A new discovery could mean this blog could become quickly outdated. I also want to stress, the recent paper is still somewhat contested so bare that in mind while reading today.

Discovery and Fossils

Saying that Spinosaurus changed with each discovery is an understatement. The first fossils of Spinosaurus were discovered in the Bahariya Formation in Egypt in 1912, and was later formally described by German palaeontologist Ernst Stromer. He could tell from the fragmentary remains that it was a theropod, the bipedal carnivorous dinosaurs, but it had curious neural spines which formed a sail on its back. Due to this, Stromer named it Spinosaurus aegyptiacus, 'Spined Lizard from Egypt', and with the fragmentary remains he based the reconstruction on another, recently discovered, big theropod - Tyrannosaurus. Spinosaurus was reconstructed as being like a T rex with a sail on its back, but scientific knowledge of the 1910s meant that it was portrayed as dragging its tail along the ground. Stromer would discover many other dinosaurs from Egypt, but they are all sadly lost. An Allied bombing raid in 1944 destroyed the museum which kept Stromer's fossils, and the specimens were destroyed. As a result, a new reconstruction wasn't made until the 1990s! With the destruction of Stromer's specimens palaeontologists found it hard to identify which fossils belonged to Spinosaurus, however, new discoveries and other spinosaurids being found, such as the Baryonyx from England, allowed a new reconstruction. This one changed the skull from resembling a tyrannosaur, to the one we have today with an elongated jaw - this is the reconstruction used in Jurassic Park III. In 1996 a new find from Morocco indicated a possible second species, but that it still heavily debated with palaeontologists debating whether it is the same species as the first one discovered. Then, in the mid-2000s, it was discovered to have a small crest on its head, and in the late-2000s a well-preserved snout revealed a series of nerves. Isotope analysis, mixed with this, indicated that Spinosaurus was largely a fish eater - something long theorised which was now confirmed.
From 1915 to 2014 to 2020, from National Geographic
A 2014 paper, led by Nizar Ibrahim revolutionised how Spinosaurus has been reconstructed. This paper made the dinosaur a quadruped, semi-aquatic, and had a newly shaped sail, which was likely covered in some skin. This caused waves in the palaeontological community, albeit for some controversial reasons. Many agreed that Ibrahim's reconstruction, which utilised 3D modelling, offered a new insight into the life of Spinosaurus - palaeontologists had realised that it was top-heavy, but a quadrupedal lifestyle would solve that issue. However, as Ibrahim had combined several specimens together it was criticised, and the reconstruction shortened the hind legs of the Spinosaurus. It was seen as being a combination, and not an actual specimen, and the now shorter hind legs created issues with other spinosaurids. Baryonyx and Suchomimus, for example, had much longer hind legs, although the only specimens of these animals were juveniles. Others have theorised that younger spinosaurids had longer legs which ceased to grow at the same rate as the rest of the body as the animal aged. This brings us to 2020. Ibrahim and his team had discovered more tail bones of a Spinosaurus, something which had not been found before. Neural spines and chevrons were found on the tail, these spines were long, and did not overlap allowing flexibility. This means that the tail was adapted to an aquatic lifestyle - it has a resemblance to a crocodile's tail. Spinosaurus had gone from a sailed bipedal lizard which dragged its tail on the ground, to a fish-eating, aquatic or semi-aquatic dinosaur.

The spines at the National Geographic Museum
We've largely looked at the biology of the Spinosaurus in the discussion about the fossils discovered, so we'll go over it quickly here. The most iconic aspect of Spinosaurus is its 'sail'. Since the early-2000s it has been debated whether it was a sail or a hump - something which would heavily determine what type of lifestyle the Spinosaurus had. One theory, which is widely accepted regardless of whether it was a hump or sail, is that it could be used for display - bright and intimidating colours, including the sheer size of it, could be used to deter rivals or attract mates. When it was more accepted that dinosaurs were cold-blooded, a theory argued that the sail could be used for thermoregulation with the Spinosaurus basking in the sun to warm itself up. However, it has largely been found that dinosaurs, especially larger dinosaurs, were more warm-blooded than cold, with them likely being somewhere in-between. Consequently, this theory has largely gone out of favour. The hump theory argues that it is a fatty buildup to sustain the dinosaur while it was searching for new food reserves. Since 2014, it has generally been seen as some form of 'sail' with skin covering it. With recent discoveries revealing an increasingly aquatic lifestyle, a likely function was to aid in locomotion. Ibrahim's findings have revealed a much more streamlined animal making it more aerodynamic to cut through the water. The 'sail' would serve as a way to cut through the water more efficiently.
The new tail, from National Geographic
The new paper is still being debated - Mark Witton, for example, has argued that the tail bones may not be entirely suited to an aquatic lifestyle. However, we do see a lifestyle mostly suited for the water, maybe a semi-aquatic one like a crocodile. Ibrahim has reconstructed the dinosaur with webbed feet, for example. Before 2014 it was assumed to be a terrestrial animal which fed on fish - the long snout with crocodile-like teeth was suited to grabbing hold of fish, it had strong forearms to swipe at its prey, and its skull seemed adapted to standing for long-hours at the waterside. The BBC documentary Planet Dinosaur, for example, used this idea. This theory had Spinosaurus hunting like a heron or stork, largely based on the skull. The eyes and nostrils are high up the head while the snout was covered in nerves and receptors. The snout could be in the water to detect movement, while the nostrils and eyes could be out of the water, so it could see what it was hunting and it could still breathe. However, the recent discoveries has changed how this would work. Instead, Spinosaurus would hunt like a crocodilian - using its sensitive snout to find fish and turtles through the murky waters. With the nostrils and eyes high up the head, this would allow the Spinosaurus to poke its head out of the water while remaining submerged. The new shorter hind legs is part of the aquatic lifestyle - short but muscular to give propulsion to power the dinosaur through the water.

Finally, we have the size of the Spinosaurus itself. Until relatively recently many of the established sizes were estimates. Even today, the size of the Spinosaurus is still based on estimates. Back when Spinosaurus was thought to be bipedal estimates placed the dinosaur at over 4 metres in height (discounting its sail), but the recent findings have placed this as being around 3 metres (again discounting the sail). The original height placed it as being one of the most, if not the most, tallest carnivorous dinosaurs - taller than the Tyrannosaurus. Spinosaurus is still very big coming to a minimum length of 15 metres (about 49 foot), and its largest length is estimated to be around 18 metres (59 foot). Its skull was big coming to around 1.75 metres (5.7 foot) from snout to the back of the skull. It was full of teeth evolved to grasp hold of fish, these teeth could be over an inch in length.

When and Where 
Unfortunately for Jurassic Park III fans, Spinosaurus would never have met Tyrannosaurus. Not only is it found in an entirely different continent, but it lived several million years before the Tyrannosaurus came about. Tyrannosaurus evolved at the very end of the Cretaceous period being one of the last dinosaurs, whereas Spinosaurus lived in the early Cretaceous until the late Cretaceous. The oldest fossils date around 112 million years ago, and the most recent fossils have been dated to around 93 million years ago. This was a time when large, carnivorous dinosaurs became very diverse. There were the spinosaurids, abelisaurids, tyrannosaurids, carcharodontasaurids to name a few. Spinosaurus, meanwhile, lived in two areas - the Bahariya Formation in Egypt and the Kem Kem Beds in Morocco. As a result, both species are named in reference to where they have been found: Spinosaurus aegyptiacus and Spinosaurus maroccanus. However, as mentioned earlier, there have been debates about whether the Moroccan species is actually the Egyptian species. 

The World of Spinosaurus
From National Geographic, Art by Davide Bonadonna
Knowing that Spinosaurus was aquatic, or semi-aquatic, you may be wondering why the Spinosaurus lived in the arid regions of North Africa. However, back in the Cretaceous North Africa was a shoreline and a mangrove forest creating the perfect environment for a giant, crocodile-like dinosaur. Both sites where the dinosaur has been found are full of a diverse range of fish and aquatic life - sharks, sawfish, coelacanths, lung fish, ammonites, crabs, oysters, rays, and crocodiles. A mangrove swamp full of life with access to the sea proved to be the perfect habitat for the Spinosaurus. Other dinosaurs lived in the region including the giant sauropods (long-necked dinosaurs) Paralititan and Aegyptosaurus. However, the Bahariya Formation and Kem Kem Beds were full of giant carnivorous dinosaurs - these places have been described as possibly the most dangerous places to go on safari in history. Possibly the largest carnivorous dinosaur Carcharodontosaurus were found here, as well as many other big carnivores like Deltadromeus and Rugops being just the most well known. With so many carnivores around it is evident that they had to specialise to avoid competition, Spinosaurus could happily hunt the waves to avoid contact with a hungry Carcharodontosaurus. This does not mean there were overlaps in prey. The spinosaurid Baryonyx has been found to have preyed upon the herbivorous Iguanodon, so it is not too far-fetched that the Spinosaurus could prey on dinosaurs which went too close to the shoreline. Neural spines have been found with chunks taken out of them by a large carnivore, likely Carcharodontosaurus, indicating that at times clashes could have happened. 

The sources I have used are as follows:
-Michael Greshko, 'Bizarre Spinosaurus makes history as first known swimming dinosaur', National Geographic, (29/04/2020), [Accesed 08/05/2020]
-Jason Treat and Mesa Schumacher, 'Reconstructing a Gigantic Aquatic Predator', National Geographic, (29/04/2020), [Accessed 08/05/2020]
-'Spinosaurus',, [Accessed 08/05/2020]
-Ben G Thomas, 'The New Look of Spinosaurus', YouTube, (03/05/2020), [Accessed 08/05/2020]
-Trey the Explainer, '"New" Spinosaurus', YouTube, (30/05/2015), [Accessed 08/05/2020]
-Nizar Ibrahim, Simone Maganuco, Cristiano Dal Sasso, Matteo Fabbri, Marco Auditore, Gabriele Bindellini, David M. Martill, Samir Zouhri, Diego A. Mattarelli, David M. Unwin, Jasmina Wiemann, Davide Bonadonna, Ayoub Amane, Juliana Jakubczak, Ulrich Joger, George V. Lauder & Stephanie E. Pierce, 'Tail-propelled aquatic locomotion in a theropod dinosaur', Nature, 581, (2020), 67-70
-Nizar Ibrahim1, Paul C. Sereno, Cristiano Dal Sasso, Simone Maganuco, Matteo Fabbri, David M. Martill, Samir Zouhri, Nathan Myhrvold, and Dawid A. Iurino, 'Semiaquatic adaptations in a giant predatory dinosaur', Science, 345:6204, (2014), 1613-1616
-Thomas Holtz, 'Spinosaurs as crocodile mimics', Science, 282:5392, (1998), 1276-1277
-Simone Maganuco and Cristiano Dal Sasso, 'The smallest biggest theropod dinosaur: a tiny pedal ungual of a juvenile Spinosaurus from the Cretaceous of Morocco', PeerJ, (2018), 6
-Jan Gimsa, Robert Sleigh, and Ulrike Gimsa, 'The riddle of Spinosaurus aegyptiacus’ dorsal sail', Geological Magazine, 153:3, (2016), 544-547
-Planet Dinosaur, (2011), BBC, 14 September

Thank you for reading. For other Paleo Profiles we have a list here, and for other blog posts we have a Facebook or catch me on Twitter @LewisTwiby.

Sunday, 3 May 2020

World History: The Russian Revolution and early Soviet Union

Eric Hobsbawm characterised two events as beginning what he described as the 'Short Twentieth Century', or 'The Age of Extremes'. These were the First World War and the Russian Revolution. Last time on World History we discussed the First World War, and today we will be looking at the Russian Revolution. Perhaps one of the most important events in history, the Russian Revolution was an attempt to create a clean break from the old world and create a new one - very few events can claim the same, such as the Agricultural, Haitian, and French Revolutions. This controversial event still divides historians, so I have tried to draw from sources across the political spectrum - bare in mind I am a libertarian Marxist/anarcho-syndicalist so this will inevitably impact my analysis. Due to the scope of work which has been done, I want to remind readers that World History is not meant to be an in depth look - just an overview which zones in on some aspects of the past. We will not just be looking at the Revolution, we will be looking at the Stalin years as well.

Prelude to Revolution
Nicholas II and his family
When we last looked specifically at Russia it was during the empire's turbulent nineteenth century, a period of time which saw conservative reform to conservative backlash. Alexander II had tried to reform Russia following the disastrous Crimean War - serfdom was abolished, the press was given greater freedoms, and small-scale education was implemented across Russia. However, reforms were undertaken to keep the social structure intact, and to create a 'modern' nation Alexander began a series of attempts to 'Russify' the incredibly diverse empire. For example, since 1863 Polish was barred in education in favour of Russian. Following the assassination of Alexander II by the socialist group People's Will, these reforms ended - Alexander III and Nicholas II brought back unrestricted conservatism. Russia, though, was beginning to undergo great changes. Russia remained rural and disconnected for most of its history, but industrialisation was very slowly creating an urban workforce. The influx of liberal and socialist writings during the nineteenth century, many written by Russian exiles, created new opportunities to criticise the autocratic rule of the tsar. Domestically, various socialist groups began forming, although many resembled secret societies more than mass movements in keeping with a larger history of Russian resistance. The overbearing nature of tsarist rule meant that even anarchist societies had to remain small and insular to avoid the state instantly cracking down on them. Various Left-wing groups emerged in the Russian Empire ascribing to various ideologies, and national identities - among them included socialist and nationalist parties fighting for Polish or Lithuanian independence, the Jewish Labor Bund, the Socialist Revolutionary Party, and, most famously, the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP). The RSDLP would see many of the major figures of the Russian Revolution be members of it - Lenin, Zinoviev, Trotsky, Kollontai etc. In 1903 the party split over the issue of party membership between the Mensheviks, under Julius Martov, and the Bolsheviks, under Vladimir Lenin.
Opposition did not only take the form of socialists. Liberals, such as the Kadet Party, wished to have a form of parliament in a constitutional monarchy, as in Britain, or the more radical ones wanting a republic. There was even a small feminist movement, but it was extremely small, especially compared to movements in Japan, Germany, and other states. Members of the aristocracy could oppose the government for several reasons. The main ones were the Tsarina Alexandra and the famous priest Grigori Rasputin. A mixture of sexism and xenophobia meant that Alexandra received most of the abuse Nicholas II should have received - it was a taboo to blame the tsar himself. As the Tsarina had the opportunity to exercise some authority sexism meant that she was portrayed as the 'scheming woman', and as she was German she was accused of undermining Russia to support Germany. Although, she could exercise authoritarian ideas publicly - according to Leon Trotsky in his account of the revolution she apparently called for moderate socialist Alexander Kerensky to be hung. Rasputin was not well liked. A mystic he was brought into the tsarist court as it was believed that he could heal the heir Alexei of his haemophilia. He become popular with Tsar and Tsarina, and began influencing policy. Rasputin was accused of seducing Alexandra who would then get Nicholas to pass certain policies or fire certain officials at the mystic's whim. 

War, Revolution, and War

Russia kept on pushing eastwards building the Trans-Siberian Railway which was meant to be the crowning achievement of the empire. However, at the Siberian end of the railway Russian interests clashed with Japanese who were both trying to exert influence over Korea and Manchuria. This exploded into the 1904 Russo-Japanese War which proved to be a disaster for Russia. Nicholas personally took control so the ensuing mistakes he couldn't avoid. Russian soldiers were poorly supplied compared to the Japanese, and the navy was wiped out at the Battle of Tsushima. Russia lost the war, and revolution broke out. In January 1905 over 100,000 people, led by priest Georgy Gapon, and marched to the tsar's Winter Palace. While Gapon was opposed to some of the more radical demands, these demands were made. Workers' councils, called soviets, started emerging, and a young revolutionary Leon Trotsky encouraged workers to strike. 'Bloody Sunday' soon ensued - Cossacks charged into the crowd killing 1,500 men, women, and children. Across the empire sparks of protest emerged. Between January and May, 500 strikes broke out in Lodz, 90 in Warsaw, and the now famous sailors of Battleship Potemkin mutinied in May. Not all the uprisings, however, were done in solidarity against government repression. Antisemitic attacks swept across many areas of the empire - 41 Jews were murdered in Kishinev, Moldova in a period of 36 hours of massacres, in Zhitomir, Ukraine 400 were killed, and in Tomsk, Siberia saw antisemites lock Jews in buildings before setting them on fire.

Following the revolution, massacres, and strikes Nicholas formed the first parliament: the Duma of 1906. The Duma had a mixed existence. While being elected, allowing for debate about laws (which could only be passed by the Duma), and offering a way to challenge tsarist autocracy; at the same time it was incredibly weak. Nicholas made it clear that what he said goes, and repeatedly dissolved the Duma when it went against his wishes. Until his assassination in 1911, the Duma was dominated by Nicholas's personal ally Pyotr Stolypin - a conservative and monarchist who was keen to limit the spread of liberal democracy. Sheila Fitzpatrick had also emphasised how Stolypin further tried to curtail grassroots revolts through agricultural reform. 1905 was the largest peasant uprising in Russia since the 1700s, so Stolypin began a series of reforms to break this. Most peasants lived in a united community, called a mir, so Stolypin encouraged peasants to break off of the mir to become individual landowners, the eventual kulaks. Fitzpatrick has even stated that Lenin himself feared this reform, because if it had been as successful as Stolypin hoped it would have lost the urban proletariat a much needed ally. Stolypin was assassinated by a socialist while watching a play in Ukraine, although a conspiracy theory, echoed by novelist Alexander Solzhenitsyn, that the assassin was set-up by hard-right allies to the tsar who feared the minister's power. Meanwhile, the Duma sporadically continued. The Mensheviks used it, when they weren't in exile, to attack the tsar and aristocracy, but, as emphasised by Fitzpatrick, the workers were restless who started moving away from them. The Bolsheviks started taking advantage of this - using Lenin's idea of the vanguard party to join the workers in revolution in his 1902 work What is to be Done? - although this was difficult. Like the Mensheviks, many Bolsheviks were exiled. Then, in 1914, war broke out.
Russian troops in WWI
Russia entered the First World War immediately in August 1914 on the side of the Entente. Like elsewhere across the world, entry into the war created a wave of nationalism in the Russian Empire, although this was mainly in the Russian regions. As St Petersburg sounded too German it was renamed Petrograd, as an example. It is no coincidence, that when things went bad during the war, that the tsarina was blamed. Nicholas took personal control of the Russian military and it is partially his ineptitude which resulted in the disastrous war for Russia. Although Russia had some victories, such as wiping out an Ottoman army in the Caucasus, it was a disaster - by mid-1915 Russia had lost its Polish lands. Poor infrastructure hit the mobility of the army - when the February Revolution broke out it took until May for Siberians to hear about it. As always, big personalities got in the way. Nicholas's ego was immense, but his skill was lacking, so there was not a coherent war policy. General Brusilov's offensive in 1916 against Austria could have been a greater push, possibly even knocking out the rival empire by taking Vienna, but other generals refused to change strategies to help. Domestically, the tsarina and Rasputin exercised great influence with the tsar focusing on the war. This dislike of the duo was so intense that a cabal of aristocrats assassinated Rasputin in 1916. Military disasters, and losing important areas to Germany, caused mass desertion. Although soldiers regularly received food this was at the expense of civilians who experienced food shortages, especially after the fall of Poland. Advancing and retreating armies looted villages and towns - resulting in pogroms in Jewish regions. The revolution was about to begin.

The February Revolution

To avoid confusion it is important to note that, unlike the rest of Europe, Russia in 1917 still used the Julian calendar. It would only use the Gregorian calendar when the Bolsheviks took power. As a result, pre-Bolshevik dates are a month behind other dates consequently. On March 8 (February 23 in Russia) Petrograd Social Democrats on International Women's Day issued leaflets. Food production problems, rising inflation rates, and war setbacks had caused mass dissatisfaction with the regime, and the Social Democrats handed leaflets to women waiting in food lines. Their leaflets read:
The government is guilty; it started the war and cannot end it. It is destroying the country and your starving is their fault. The capitalists are guilty; for their profit the war goes on. It's about time to tell them loud: Enough! Down with the criminal government and all its gang of thieves and murderers. Long live peace!
Women started bread protests which inspired factory workers in the Vyborg District and the Putilov Factory. Activists joined the protests and protesters crossed the frozen Neva River where they clashed with the police beginning the revolution. Two days later Tsar Nicholas II ordered the garrison to put down the revolt but many units joined the crowd with a few killing their officers. Ships anchored in Helsinki and Kronstadt had sailors throwing their officers overboard, or into furnaces. The Duma urged Nicholas to implement immediate political measures but in response he dismissed the Duma. On March 12 the tsar's crack units, the Volynian Regiment, mutinied and joined the revolt. The same day two shadow governments were formed: the Provisional Government made of senior Duma members at the Tauride Palace, and the Petrograd soviet in another wing of the palace. The Provisional Government soon arrested some of the tsar's ministers although this was done to protect them from revolutionaries. With the monarchy losing all control on March 15 Nicholas II made this statement:
In agreement with the State Duna, we have thought it best to abdicate the throne of the Russian state and to lay down the supreme power. Not wishing to part with our beloved son, we hand down our inheritance to our brother, Grand Duke Michael Alexandrovich.
The tsar's brother was chosen as Alexei was seen as being too sick, still suffering from haemophilia, and still underage. Michael, however, reigned for just a day ending Russian monarchy which had ruled for a thousand years, four hundred years of Tsardom, and three hundred years of Romanov rule.

The Revolutionaries
Stalin, Lenin, and Trotsky
Before we get to October I want to quickly go over some of the leading revolutionaries of this period. Most famously, we have Vladimir Lenin. Born Vladimir Ulyanov he came from a family of socialist revolutionaries with his older brother being executed for his involvement in a plot to assassinate the tsar. Like many Russian socialists Lenin fled abroad, adopted a new name, and became involved in the various international leftist discussions. Lenin is primarily known for two contributions to Marxist theory: first, that imperialism was the final stage of capitalism so the end of capitalism requires national self-determination of oppressed peoples, and second, very much in line with Russian revolutionaries, that a vanguard party was required to guide the proletariat. Polish-Jewish Marxist Rosa Luxemburg vehemently disagreed with the idea of the vanguard party seeing it as a clique. Lenin became head of the Bolsheviks as his faction believed that the party should have restricted membership in contrast to the Mensheviks who disagreed. Speaking of Mensheviks, one of the key Mensheviks (who went over to the Bolsheviks after February) was Leon Trotsky. Born to a Ukrainian-Jewish family under the name Lev Bronstein he had a long history of political activism, being exiled to Siberia in 1899 due to it, and was influential in forming soviets during the 1905 Revolution. There was also Grigory Zinoviev, a Russian-Jewish Marxist who became Lenin's close ally; and also his future enemy Joseph Stalin. Born to a Georgian family, and originally destined to be a priest, he would become an editor for the Bolshevik paper Pravda. Finally, another revolutionary I want to mention is Alexandra Kollontai. Born to a Ukrainian-Cossack family, through her father, and a Finnish peasant family, through her mother. Kollontai would evolve from liberal to Marxist during a tour of Western Europe funded by her parents. Through political activism she would also be sent across Europe, where she played a crucial role in encouraging the feminist movement in Scandinavia. 
Alexandra Kollontai

February to October
The February Revolution was seen by many Marxists as the bourgeois revolution against the monarchy, a socialist one could therefore be possible. Many started returning from exile - Kollontai was greeted by cheering soldiers when she entered Finland, and Trotsky instantly returned all the way from New York. Due to poor infrastructure exiles in Siberia heard that 'something' had happened in Petrograd months later, so they left to see what happened. At first the new Provisional Government of Russia's first republic was hopeful - a variety of parties sat in the new parliament led by socialist Alexander Kerensky. Observers outside Russia saw it as the state embracing liberal democracy. However, from both a bottom-up and top-down approach to history we can see how weak and unpopular the government was. Kerensky based his legitimacy on a coalition consisting of socialists, liberals, conservatives, and monarchists leading to an unstable system. The people of Russia had formed soviets across urban areas - most famously there was the Petrograd Soviet forming 'dual power'. This is a key communist idea, Lenin particularly advocated this before 1917, states that grassroots workers' governments would exist alongside liberal democracies to offer alternate organisations to the state. Soviets quickly grew due to government unpopularity and scarcities caused by the war. Women were especially mad - they were the ones to have started the revolution but remained out of politics. The small feminist movement was keen to remind men about the betrayal. The Provisional Government controversially chose to continue the war exacerbating the inequalities in a state which had already been exacerbated by the war.
The July Days
During the February Revolution the Soviets had become powerful but the Government became distant from the Soviets; in early June soviets around the country sent representatives to Petrograd to the First All-Russia Congress of Workers' and Soldiers' Deputies. At the start of April Lenin presented his April Theses criticizing the apparent failures of the February Revolution and that power should lie with the soviets who should bring about socialism. Germany, wishing to disrupt Russia, smuggled Lenin into Russia via train from Switzerland most famously arriving in Finland. In April workers and soldiers protested in Petrograd due to the continuation of the war, and following another protest in July the state chose to brutally crush it and blame the Bolsheviks. Many Bolsheviks were arrested and Lenin had to go into hiding. The people were dissatisfied and started turning to the Bolsheviks seeing the moderate socialists as betraying them. A former soldier in Moscow said:
You [The Provisional Government] have the audacity to say that freedom has come. But isn't your current power over the people that the bourgeoisie delivered to you, based on coercion?...The bourgeoisie is striving for democratic forms of governance because in them it sees the most convenient method of oppression and exploitation.
Following the July Days Kerensky took over the government but anger at the government remained. Thanks to weakness he was willing to violence against deserters and protesters, such as sending troops to suppress the 'Tsaritsyn Republic' declared by radicalized soldiers and Bolsheviks. Then the Kornilov Affair happened. Commander-in-Chief General Lavr Kornilov wished to end left-wing protests, and some of his followers wanted him to seize power. However, he just wanted to hang soviet members and see order return to Petrograd. When Kerensky asked Kornilov to come to Petrograd to help restore order in September the general opted to purge the government, so Kerensky released Bolsheviks, including Trotsky's Red Guard, to stop him. Soldiers deserted Kornilov when the Red Guard infiltrated his army, and workers and railway workers went on strike disrupting his supply lines. In the end Kornilov's coup failed and there was a drastic swing to the left in the soviets and army. Thus the stage was set for October.


Following the July Days Lenin had been hiding in Finland where he had been advocating armed revolution. In October he returned, in secret, to Petrograd to plan a revolution. On October 23 the Bolshevik Central Committee voted 10-2 to oust Kerensky's government, and they formed a committee under Trotsky to organize the revolution itself. They were so confident that they didn't even bother concealing their plans so Kerensky actually knew some details of it! However, Kerensky's weak position and, the radicalization of the urban masses and army meant there was little he could do other than seize the Bolshevik press, which he soon lost control of. On October 25 armed forces occupied railway stations and military strongholds while at Kronstadt sailors announced their allegiance to the Bolsheviks. The next day the Provisional Government's headquarters, the Winter Palace, was seized and ten years later was mythologized in, what has been regarded as a cinematic epic, Sergei Einstein's October. American journalist John Reed, who also witnessed the Mexican Revolution, reported asking soldiers if they were with the government; the soldier just replied smiling and said 'The government is no more'. Despite popular depictions the seizing of the Winter Palace was not actually violent; often the October Revolution has been described as a bloodless revolution.  What came after was, instead, bloody. Thus history was made.

However, there is a deep historiographical debate about the October Revolution. Richard Pipes famously argued that it was a coup due to Lenin's emphasis on the vanguard party; through this it was a small clique who seized power instead of being a widespread revolt. Even democratic socialist George Lichtheim argued this, although he is far more sympathetic to Lenin than Pipes is. Really from the 1980s in the West, a 'revisionist school' emerged which aimed to look at Soviet history from the bottom-up. Sheila Fitzpatrick is a key figure in this arguing that by looking at social history we can see a mass movement emerged under the Bolsheviks. Workers and peasants took heart in Lenin's calls for 'Peace, Bread, Land' and aided the October Revolution. Fitzpatrick has particularly emphasised that there was such an influx of workers into the party that it was impossible to keep a disciplined vanguard party. Sarah Badcock has argue that, to an extent, Lenin and the Bolsheviks took a lot of their rhetoric from the peasantry themselves, they were in fact keeping up with what the people wanted.

World Revolution
As emphasised by Eric Hobsbawm, the Russian revolutionaries did not see itself as a national revolution but an international one. A key tenant of Marxist theory was the international liberation of the working-class, so exporting revolution was seen as a key tenant. The horrors of the Civil War meant that Bolshevik-style socialism only spread to Mongolia and Tannu Tuva, and even then only because of the Civil War, but there was a clear inspiration across the world. From 1917 to around 1923 a wave of revolutionary and Left-wing activity broke out across the world - Cuban tobacco workers formed soviets, Spanish anarchists rose up, revolutionary student movements broke out in Beijing, China and Cordoba, Argentina, and revolutionary Mexico placed Lenin alongside their murals of Zapata and Monteczuma. Ireland, the UK, France, Netherlands, Italy, China, Argentina, Mexico, India, Iran, Egypt, Australia, Hungary, and Germany were just some areas in the world to see revolutionary movement in some form. Most famously, and tragically, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht led the Spartacist Uprising in Berlin in January 1919. Brutally crushed it was one of several workers' uprisings in Germany. In the former Russian Empire various states separated themselves, (such as Finland, Ukraine, and Poland), and saw their own socialist risings - a civil war broke out in Finland, and anarchists under Nestor Makhno formed the Ukrainian Free Territory. In February 1919 the newly formed Polish Republic and the Bolsheviks went to war - the Bolsheviks hoped victory would pave a way to successful revolutions across Europe, while Poland wanted more land. However, the consequences of the Civil War, and the breaking of revolts worldwide, meant that 'Socialism in One Country' began to become Soviet policy. Although the Third International was formed, and a specific section was devoted to colonised peoples, 'the Toilers of the East', to continue revolution. After Lenin's death and Stalin's takeover internationalism became geared towards the propping up of the Soviet government.

Civil War and Terror
American troops in Vladivostok
The conservative and liberal forces were not happy about the Bolshevik seizure of power. The 'White Armies' were founded, and funded by various capitalist states like the UK and France, with the intention of ousting the Bolsheviks. In order to defend the revolution Trotsky reorganised the Red Guards into a Red Army with local party commissars becoming key figures in the new force. There was no guarantee of success. Support for the Reds were largely in the cities and conscription in the rural communities won them no friends - often the Red Army resorted to executions to enforce conscription. Eager to leave the war the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk with Germany stripped most of the former empire of its land leaving many citizens angered. Making matters worse key cities such as Warsaw, Vilnius, and Riga, and rich farmland in Poland and Ukraine, were lost depriving the Soviets of much needed industry and farmland. Often forgotten in the Civil War were the left-wing and peasant armies which were formed to resist both Bolshevik and White forces. It is easy to see why the Civil War was so destructive - Jeremy Smith has described how nine armies were on Ukrainian land at one time. Lenin formed the Cheka as a way to route out potential enemies - this resulted in the mass killing of Cossacks and prostitutes. Meanwhile, the White Armies massacred ethnic minorities, especially Jews who were seen as double-agents and Bolshevik allies. Many depictions of Trotsky in White propaganda emphasised his Jewish heritage to incite antisemitism. It has been estimated that somewhere between 7 and 12 million people lost their lives during the war; through a mixture of direct killing, disease, and starvation entire communities vanished. Alliances were formed and vanished. Lenin and Makhno eagerly worked together to knock out the Whites from Ukraine, but afterwards Trotsky used the Red Army to wipe out the Free Territory.
Nestor Makhno
Fighting dragged on until 1923 with the putting down of the Yakut Rebellion, and the Soviet Union came out of the ashes of war. A key reason why was the disunion of the Whites against the unity of the Reds. The generals Kolchak, Denikin, and Yudenich were key figures in the Whites, but were bitterly divided between them about who should have power. Other aspects of the Whites were united only behind their dislike of the Bolsheviks - some wanted a Romanov restoration, others wanted a constitutional monarchy, others a liberal republic. Late 1918 a Bolshevik officer took it upon himself to execute the royal family which deprived many Whites of the reason about why they were fighting. Lenin quickly moved to liquidate both the soviets, and the Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries, so the Reds had a united movement. This united movement also allowed Lenin to create War Communism. This policy would eventually merge into 'state capitalism' or 'bureaucratic socialism' which would characterise later Soviet economics - the state would nationalise and seize all industries to convert it for the war effort. 

Lenin's Rule

Following the destructive Civil War the newly formed Soviet Union was experimental. The Soviet government was keen to distance itself from the old Russian Empire, so there were attempts to not create another Russian state. Part of this was the name - the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). The new state was imagined as a series of Soviet Republics which were envisaged to be equal; within these Soviet Republics would be smaller republics and oblasts devoted to ethnic minorities, like Tatars and Chechens in Russia. Yiddish saw a revival and Jews managed to enter higher education in large numbers for the first time. Lenin swept away the old tsarist laws, and although he brought several authoritarian laws back including restrictions on the press and the death penalty, many laws were left discarded. Due to this, laws prohibiting homosexuality and abortion were reversed, although some Soviet Republics like Azerbaijan brought anti-homosexual laws back. Women's emancipation was mixed. Women were a clear minority in government positions, abortion could only be done by doctors leaving rural women unable to have them, and the Civil War reinforced concepts of masculinity. However, women managed to carve a place for themselves in society. Women used new laws to grant them equality in the workplace, for example, and used welfare to leave the household. Several women further managed to hold significant places within the Soviet government. Alexandra Kollontai made history by becoming the first woman to hold an official role in a cabinet becoming Commissar of Welfare. Kollontai started implementing an impressive welfare system which managed to survive most of the USSR's history, and wanted to challenge the family structure to create a libertarian child-raising system. Instead of the family unit raising the child, instead a community would raise the child together. Nadezhda Krupskaya, Lenin's wife, was incredibly important in the government, and was later Minister of Education. Finally, for a brief period of time we saw an explosion of new, creative culture. The burgeoning film industry was revolutionised by Sergei Einstein who produced historical movies including October, Battleship Potemkin, and Ivan the Terrible which aimed to tell a story where the masses were the protagonist. Einstein is now regarded as being one of film's greatest directors.
One important policy was the New Economic Policy (NEP). With the Civil War destroying the economy, cultivated land dropped by 62% during the war, Lenin needed a quick way to get it running again. Relying on several figures, like Nikolai Bukharin, the NEP was designed, in Lenin's own words, to be 'a free market and capitalism, both subject to state control'. He even allowed entrepreneurs into the newly formed Communist Party to lead the new economic system. If the soviets had been allowed to reform the NEP may not have needed to become so important to the USSR - the Catalonian anarchists during the Spanish Civil War showed the benefits of direct worker control - but Lenin intended it to only be a temporary policy. Maybe if Lenin had even lived longer it could have been temporary. From 1921 Lenin's health rapidly deteriorated, and in 1922 he experienced his first of many strokes. In January 1924 one last stroke killed Lenin, and with it the fate of the Soviet Union shifted.

The Rise of Stalin

One of the famous last things which Lenin wrote was a letter denouncing basically all his potential heirs: Trotsky, Zinoviev, Kamenev, Stalin, Bukharin, and Pyatakov. He also warned of a potential split in the party between Trotsky and Stalin, and that Stalin must be expelled from any authority. Stalin's aggressive attitude to other party members, especially Krupskaya, and violence in Georgia had turned Lenin firmly against Stalin. At the same time, several rank-and-file members, and some higher up members, criticised the bureaucracy in the party - especially Lenin centralising power in himself following the Civil War. The Politburo, a committee, was originally designed to managed the USSR; although not resembling worker rule it was seen as being better than one authoritarian ruler. A split emerged regardless - the 'Right' under Stalin, Zinoviev, and Kamenev, and the 'Left' under Trotsky. Trotsky was soon outmaneuvered due to his insistence solely on writing, and his recent entry to the Bolsheviks followed by a quick rise which made others view him as an opportunist. Meanwhile, the others could claim a long membership in the party, and for making sacrifices in the lead-up to October. By 1925 the Right had managed to demote Trotsky, but the cunning Stalin planned to centralise power into his hands. C.L.R. James in his often forgotten World Revolution has discussed how Stalin, at times clumsily, forced himself into a theoretician role to gain credibility in the party. While in 1925 Krupskaya managed to side with the Right to demote Trotsky, afterwards she threw her weight behind Zinoviev and Kamenev. Both of them had the support of the Petrograd and Moscow masses behind them. Stalin used cries of factionalism, and using antisemitism to create distrust towards Zinoviev and Trotsky, to pave his way towards becoming party leader in 1927. Stalinism had begun.

Stalinist Rule

Stalinism has often been characterised as being totalitarian - Sheila Fitzpatrick has contested this by stating that the state did not control every aspect of life in the USSR. The occasional purges, although caused by Stalin's own paranoia, indicated that there were some aspects of opposition despite the intense totalitarianism of the state. It is Stalin who reversed many of the progressive policies of the early-1920s - women's movement was restricted, abortion was made illegal, and homosexuality was criminalised across the USSR. Despite being Georgian, he brought back Russification policies; something which we'll discuss soon. A key part of Stalinist rule was the continuation of managed capitalism through rapid industrialisation, and the building of a cult of personality. Even before his formal seizure of power in 1927, he began instituting a cult of personality having cities named after him. The new anthem replaced L'Internationale with the famous Soviet anthem which praised himself; his image was placed in public places; and party propaganda portrayed him as creating the new 'Soviet Man'. However, he could not create this out of nowhere, so he created a cult around Lenin. Using the popular legacy of Lenin he could solidify his own image. Petrograd was renamed Leningrad; the ideology Marxism-Bolshevism was shaped to become Marxism-Leninism; and Lenin's writings were geared towards supporting his policies. While Lenin viewed the NEP and 'Socialism in One Country' as temporary policies, Stalin used them to create continuity with his own rule. Even the idea that Lenin intended one permanent leader came from Stalin's rewriting of history. The rapid industrialisation in the Five Year Plans did quickly industrialise the USSR, but it regularly fell short of expected designs. Naturally, this fact was hidden until the collapse of the USSR in 1991. 

Despite the absolute power which Stalin held, he had to ensure that he was supported by not only the party, but also the masses. The Five Year Plans intended to create a proletariat as a bulwark against a possibly reactionary peasantry, and welfare policies were ascribed to Stalin himself. The cult of personality was a way to ensure he had public support. Of course, if need be people were disappeared. From 1934 the NKVD was formed to 'liquidate' potential enemies through execution or imprisonment in the brutal gulags - if the guards didn't kill you the climate potentially could do so. Enemies were deposed of in various ways - often exile and then execution. Trotsky was expelled from the USSR and Zinoviev was exiled to Kazakhstan before their eventual deaths - Zinoviev after a 1936 show trial and Trotsky via an icepick in Mexico in 1940. Show trials were another way to build support - openly show enemies and scare others into silence. Especially between 1936 and 1938 these executions became known as the Great Purges - over 680,000 were killed. Like-minded individuals were promoted, Trosim Lysenko being one, the figure behind disastrous agricultural policies. Lysenko was a Stalin loyalist so was promoted despite his theories being seen as pseudo-scientific. The USSR had some of the best geneticists in the world, but Lysenko's opposition to genetics (calling DNA fictitious) meant that some were even purged for being 'traitors'. Arguing in favour of hybridisation and planting seeds extremely close together it caused mass crop failures.

Famine and Ethnic Cleansing

One of the darkest aspects of Stalin's rule was the Great Famine or Holodomor. This was a devastating famine which broke out in 1932 and 1933 in Ukraine and western Russia causing the deaths of around 3.5 million people. There have been intense debates about what caused the famine - ranging from weather to purposeful human actions. Part of it was associated with the new land reforms. Soviet officials had long pondered about land collectivisation - many desired it, although Trotsky did argue that it was 'useless', but many feared that forcing it would be a disaster. Stalin, however, pressed on the collectivising the farms of the kulaks. Those who resisted could face deportation with Neil Faulkner estimating that the gulag population rose from 30,000 in 1928 to 2 million by 1930 to 5 million by 1935. The forced collectivisation mixed with Lysenko's theories had the potential for disaster, and droughts ensured that it was. Ukraine is known as a 'bread basket' - a fertile land which can produce lots of food. For this reason, when a crop fails in a bread basket it is devastating. Consequently, millions starved, and human actions made it even worse. The richer peasants burnt crops and killed animals to stop the state seizing it, and the state also funnelled food to the cities; as a result rural areas had even less food. Especially Ukraine has argued that the Holodomor was a genocide; that Stalin purposefully denied rural areas of food in order to punish Ukrainian nationalism. We do not know if this was Stalin's aim, but it is clear how destructive it was for Ukrainians. 

Russificiation policies can also be seen as a form of cultural genocide; by enforcing Russian in schools and silencing non-Russian cultural forms it was an attempt to wipe out these cultures. This is a clear break in earlier Soviet policies it attempted to balance various nationalities, and it is no coincidence that de-Stalinisation of the 1950s saw a reversal of this policy. Part of this was to appeal to Russians in the non-Russian regions which gave increased rights to non-Russians at the expense of Russians. The 1930s and 1940s also saw various attacks on minorities deemed to be 'unreliable'. During the Purges antisemitism was used to attack Trotsky and Zinoviev - ironically capitalist states used antisemitism to attack the Soviet Union claiming it was ran by Jews. Although Stalin made antisemitism illegal, even punishable by death, it was still used as a dogwhistle to delegitimise opponents. Even the creation of the Jewish Autonomous Oblast was not an attempt to protect Jews - he imagined it as creating a loyal community near Manchuria to protect against an expansionist Japan. Many small national groups were expelled from their homes - 202,000 Crimean Tatars were given 15 minutes warning before their expulsion in 1944. It took until 1956 for them to be able to return home. 

The Statue of Lenin in Moscow
The October Revolution was one of the most important events in human history, seeing a clear attempt to break with the old order to create the first workers' state. Although it can be argued that the revolution was 'betrayed', regardless it inspired a series of mass movements both in the USSR and elsewhere to fight for a better world. While bogged down in bureaucracy, the USSR did offer access to housing, employment, education, and food which millions would be unable to otherwise. The collapse of the USSR in 1991, and the implementation of unrestricted capitalism was a demographic disaster for the average person. Like many things in history, the Russian Revolution and the early Soviet Union offers a contradictory and complex legacy.

The sources I have used are as follows:
-Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Extremes,1914-1991, (London: 1994)
-C.L.R. James, World Revolution, 1917-1936: The Rise and Fall of the Communist International, First Prism Edition, (New York: 2011)
-Slavoj Zizek, Lenin 2017, (London: 2017)
-Sheila Fitzpatrick, Everyday Stalinism: Ordinary Lifes in Extraordinary Times, Soviet Russia in the 1930s, (Oxford: 1999)
-Anita Kingler, 'Sarah Badcock on Russia’s revolutions from a provincial perspective', Centre for the Study of Modern and Contemporary History, (29/01/2020), [Accessed 01/05/2020]
-China Mieville, October: The Story of the Russian Revolution, (London: 2017)
-Ronald Grigor Suny, (ed.), The Cambridge History of Russia: Vol. III The Twentieth Century, (Cambridge: 2006)
-John Reed, Ten Days That Shook the World, 100th Anniversary Edition, (New York: 2017)
-Neil Faulkner, A People's History of the Russian Revolution, (London: 2017)
-Orlando Figes, A People's Tragedy: A History of the Russian Revolution, (New York: 1996)
-Leon Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution, Haymarket Books Edition, (Chicago: 2008)
-Sheila Fitzpatrick, The Russian Revolution, Second Edition, (Oxford: 1994)

Next time we will be looking at the horrors of Nazi rule, and one of the darkest parts of human history. For other World History posts we have a list here, and for blog updates please see our Facebook or catch me on Twitter @LewisTwiby.

Sunday, 26 April 2020

Left-Wing and the 'Other' History: The Australian History Wars

Whenever academic history and popular history intersect during a major shift in historiography we see intense debates about the study of the past. Often they become embroiled in a 'culture war' with Left-wing and Right-wing figures becoming associated with a certain viewpoint of history. For example, there were the volatile debates about 'truth' and 'accuracy' surrounding the testimonio of Guatemalan Maya activist Rigoberta Menchu; there were intense discussions in Poland on culpability in the Holocaust following the publication of Jan Gross's Neighbors in 2001, which detailed the Jedwabne pogrom; and, around the centenary of the start of the First World War there were debates in Britain over the war in British popular memory. One of the most famous examples of this clash is the History Wars in Australia. Especially prominent in the 1990s and 2000s academics and historians were split into two: those who argued that Australian identity is built on the backs of the genocide of Aboriginals, and those who argue this is an exaggeration. 

In World History we looked at the settlement of Australia, which you can read here, and reading it you can see which side of the debate I take. The 'History Wars' have had a long precursor, and what is most important to remember is that these debates were largely between white academics. Although, indigenous voices are present - especially in the accounts of the Stolen Generation resulting in a 1997 report - it is white academics and politicians who are making these debates. I want to emphasise this as Aboriginal Australians have been emphasising this aspect of Australian history throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In academia the seeds of the History Wars were planted in 1968 when anthropologist William Stanner used the term the 'Great Australian Silence' during a publicised lecture. He argued that a 'cult of disremembering' characterised Australian historiography and national identity, where the history of the Aboriginal peoples and Torres Strait Islanders becomes a footnote. Furthermore, the genocidal violence done against them, and the continued repression were forgotten, and a consequent result was that Australian history was 'incomplete'. Stanner's lecture was clearly inspired by two major changes rocking both Australia and the world: the New Left and subaltern rights. 
A portrayal of the Stolen Generation entitled The Taking of the Children on the 1999 Great Australian Clock, Queen Victoria Building, Sydney, by artist Chris Cooke
The 1960s, especially around 1968, saw a resurgence in libertarian Left-wing thought which has become known as the New Left. This was an umbrella term for a wide range of activists and political theorists - this ranged from the hippy movement, anti-Vietnam War activism, post-modernism, a new wave of anarchist thought, and a new wave of Maoist thought. Linked to this was increased activism from subaltern peoples worldwide desiring greater rights - this included African-American activism, the rise of Second Wave Feminism, the gay rights movement, and the birth of the West Papuan independence movement. In Australia, there was also a movement by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders to challenge racism and discrimination which they faced in society. Among the claims were for a return of stolen land, respect for indigenous rights, and justice for the 'Stolen Generation'. The Stolen Generation was actually a series of generations, technically beginning under British rule in the 1860s and ending in the 1970s, where indigenous peoples were forcibly taken from their families to be 'fostered'. This policy was not limited to Australia - America and Canada also had similar policies. The indigenous rights movement and Stanner influenced a new wave of historiography which aimed to tell Australia's history from below; it aimed to write indigenous communities back into history.

Beginning of the History Wars
In the 1980s and early-1990s the History Wars started to begin. By this time Australian Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders were pushing for the return of land, equal rights, and justice for the Stolen Generation, but now they were getting gains. As expected, any movement of a subaltern is met with a reactionary movement, and there were pushbacks against these developments. It took form in quite unusual ways as well - in Crocodile Dundee (1986) the titular character says that Aboriginals and whites are both 'fleas on the land' about the return of land. This created a false equivalency between the two parties. What really kicked off the History Wars was the government of prime minister Paul Keating (1991-1996). Keating wanted to move further away from Britain, such as wanting Australia to put less emphasis on ANZAC Day as an example. Part of this was Keating's intervention in history by supporting the new line of historiography and emphasising that Australia had to recognise the continued repression of indigenous communities. Among this, was the creation of an inquiry in 1995 about the Stolen Generation policy resulting in the Bringing Them Home report of 1997 which aimed to highlight the trauma and consequences of the policy based on oral testimony. Part of this was a genuine attempt by Keating to foster a sense of 'One Australia' by encouraging an embracing of multiculturalism. However, it was also a cynical political move. Keating's Labor party had a long history of involvement in the Stolen Generation, and the White Australia Policy - a virulently racist immigration policy. Unfortunately, Keating was using the trauma of indigenous peoples to distance Labour from its culpability in the past. However, his involvement is what sparked the History Wars.

The History Wars
In 1993 conservative historian Geoffrey Blainey wrote an article which attacked both Keating and the new historiography. His coining of the names for the two 'sides' has since became the common terminology during the History Wars, so I will use the terms here. Blainey said that Australia was moving away from the 'Three Cheers View', which emphasised a positive rendition of Australian history, to an unwarranted 'Black Armband' history, which emphasised the legacies of racism and colonialism. This began a series of heated debates, which translated into popular mediums like TV and paper opinion pieces, between the 'Black Armband' and 'Three Cheers View' of Australian history. However, it fully became a 'war' when Keating's successor, John Howard, intervened. Howard was from the conservative Liberal Party, so he opposed the re-evaluation of Australian history by the new historiography. Howard fiercely criticised the 'Black Armband' and used the typical tropes of a Right-wing culture war stating that 'soft-left' political-correctness was 'infiltrating' universities. His Labor successor, Kevin Rudd, further criticised the 'Black Armband' history stating that:
Time to leave behind us the polarisation that began to infect our every discussion of our nation's past. To go beyond the so-called "black arm" view that refused to confront some hard truths about our past, as if our forebears were all men and women of absolute nobility, without spot or blemish. But time, too, to go beyond the view that we should only celebrate the reformers, the renegades and revolutionaries, thus neglecting or even deriding the great stories of our explorers, of our pioneers, and of our entrepreneurs. Any truthful reflection of our nation's past is that these are all part of the rich fabric of our remarkable story ...
Two key topics surrounded the History Wars: the question of genocide and Stolen Generation. Conservative historians argued that allegations of genocide were either exaggerated or entirely fabricated by more Left-wing historians. One of the key figures in this was Keith Windschuttle who wrote two books entitled The Fabrication of Aboriginal History - the first calling the genocide of Tasmanians an exaggeration or an outright fabrication, and the second that the Stolen Generation was a myth. His main opponent in the ring was Robert Manne who ended up accusing Windschuttle of genocide denial. Among the claims by Windschuttle, Blainey, and other academics arguments was the the sources used to 'prove' a genocide happened. However, key historians showed how flawed Windschuttle's book Fabrication was - Henry Reynolds highlighted how Tasmanian settlers regularly used terms like 'extermination' in their diaries, and Lyndal Ryan has corroborated this by showing how there are many sites where massacres took place. What is particularly insidious, 'Three Cheers View', mainly social commentater Andrew Bolt, went as far as to call Bringing Them Home was an outright lie! Robert Manne tore Bolt apart with a basic point - Bolt never actually used sources to back up his claim. 

Since the 2000s
In 2016 the History Wars continue
The History Wars have continued to periodically plague discussions of history. At the end of the first peak of the History Wars in 2003 Stuart Macintyre and Anna Clark released The History Wars, a book which I used a lot in writing this post, to explain the debates. It is an understatement to say that the 'Three Cheers View' did not like it - Windschuttle accused it of making the 'Three Cheers' a 'caricature', while Greg Melleuish said the book comes from 'pro-communist polemics of the Cold War'. I would criticise Anton Froeyman's attempts to discuss the History Wars and German Historikerstreit, a series of debates on the Holocaust, who argued that the highly personal attacks by both sides in both debates meant that an 'objective' history could not be written. However, Froeyman does not acknowledge that this was not like other historical debates, such as whether the famous African Olaudah Equiano was actually born in Nigeria or the US, but about whether a genocide happened (in the case of the History Wars). This is especially a shame as his discussion on the History Wars is extremely insightful. An 'objective', meet-in-the-middle history cannot be written when one side was denying genocide. As Australia is facing a similar rise in xenophobia and Right-wing governments, the History Wars will still rage on. In settler societies the nation is always built upon the exploitation, and often the outright genocide, of the indigenous communities. Consequently, any history which wants to entirely portray the nation as spotless will result in the denial of genocide.

The sources I have used are as follows:
-Stuart Macintyre and Anna Clark, The History Wars, (Melbourne: 2003)
-Lorenzo Veracini, 'A Prehistory of Australia's History Wars: The Evolution of Aboriginal History during the 1970s and 1980s', Australian Journal of Politics and History, 52:3, (2006), 439-454
-Neil Levi, '“No Sensible Comparison”? The Place of the Holocaust in Australia's History Wars', History and Memory, 19:1, (2007), 124-156
-Anton Froeyman, 'The ideal of objectivity and the public role of the historian: some lessons from the Historikerstreit and the History Wars', The Journal of Theory and Practice, 20:2, (2016), 217-234

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