Streetwise Professor

May 30, 2010

A Cossack Bike–in St. Louis

Filed under: Military,Russia — The Professor @ 2:05 pm

When going for a hike this afternoon outside St. Louis, in the parking lot I pulled in next to a guy driving a Ural motorcycle, complete with sidecar.  It looked pretty old school, and I asked the owner when was it made.  He said “1999.”  I said “looks more like 1949.”  To which he replied: “Well, it’s based on a 1939 BMW design.”  Apparently the Soviets bought some German bikes in Sweden, smuggled them into the USSR, and reverse engineered them.  (La plus ca change.)  They were originally built in Moscow and Leningrad, but the factories were moved to Gorky in the Urals to escape the Germans in 1941.  All in all, this bike is a microcosm of the history of Soviet/Russian manufacturing; industrial espionage combined with the endurance of obsolete designs.

The subject of the Urals brings to mind another encounter, earlier this week in Houston.  (No grass grows under my feet.)

I met with a Russian guy I’ve known slightly for years.  He is a mathematician by training who has a pretty big job in a big bank’s commodity trading business.  Anyways, being interested in all things Russian, I asked him where he is from originally.  He said: “Siberia.”  I asked where in Siberia.  He said: “oh, a city you’ve probably never heard of, Yekaterinburg.”  I laughed and said I know a good deal about it, because I have a very dear friend from there, and know someone else who had spent a lot of time there while she was adopting her children.  He was quite surprised.  He told me of how his family–originally from Moscow–came to (then) Sverdlovsk  His dad was a ballistics engineer, and he was sent to help build one of the secret military factories in the Uralmash complex.  (Uralmash being famous today primarily as the home of the eponymous, and infamous, Russian mafia organization.)  He said that they lived in crude barracks during the construction.  Most of the laborers had been brought (against their will) from the countryside, and many brought some of their animals with them.  He said that for a kid it was wonderful to be around farm animals, but that his mother, a “refined Moscow woman” was understandably distressed.

His memories of Yekaterinburg/Sverdlovsk from Soviet times are somewhat harrowing.  He said that “Yekaterinburg suffered every disaster that was visited on the Soviet Union, from the murder of the Czar, to nuclear accidents (with leukemia being the leading cause of death in my era), to the anthrax release, and so on.”  He says he reflexively wears a hat in the rain to this day because he had to do that growing up because of the presence of nuclear and toxic fallout in the rain when he was growing up.

Two vignettes of Russia, in the middle of the ???.

And, to add to the experience, while writing this post I received an email informing me that “Soviet Russia” is now following me on Twitter.  That actually sounds a little ominous, LOL.

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  1. “Hitler was going to invade Poland in the Summer of 1939, Pact or no Pact.”

    What Hitler MIGHT have done WITHOUT the M-R pact…we DO NOT KNOW. But what we KNOW is that by signing the M-R pact Hitler DID avoid the same scenario of repeating that had let to the German ultimate Collapse in 1918, that is, two SIMULTANEOUS wars on TWO fronts against ALL MAJOR MILITARY powers.

    Comment by Dixi — June 4, 2010 @ 5:33 am

  2. Without Soviet involvement in such a pact, the Nazis before 1941 would’ve undoubtedly been in places like Vilnius, Chisinau, Lviv and Brest.

    In the often times cold world of diplomatic reality, Stalin’s willingness to do M-R had reason – said without enthusiasm. At the same time, it’s fair to conclude that he wasn’t so swift in picking up on the Nazi attack on the USSR in 1941. His earlier purging of the Red Army officer corps didn’t help the Soviet war effort. Somewhat akin to managing the Yankees, he had great resources to work with, to offset faulty decision making.

    Comment by Clayton — June 4, 2010 @ 5:43 am

  3. We “know” that Hitler and some of his allies eventually took over the Baltics and Moldova, along with a good chunk of territory further east.

    Comment by Clayton — June 4, 2010 @ 5:47 am

  4. “How is M-R to blame for Western passivity in September 1939?”

    BY September 1939 after the signing of the M-R pact, the Western democracies KNEW: 1. No hope of the second front AGAINST Germany in the East (in contrast to the the WWI) 2. Furthermore, the M-R pact had made the SU and Germany allies so that Germany could count on, at the minumum, Stalin remaining passive in case France and the UK would start a military campaign against Germany and, at the maximum, on the Russian material (or even military help?) in the case Germany asked for it in its potential military confrontation with the Western democracies. The situation had COMPLETELY changed…thanks to the M-R pact.

    Comment by Dixi — June 4, 2010 @ 5:48 am

  5. “We “know” that Hitler and some of his allies eventually took over the Baltics and Moldova, along with a good chunk of territory further east.”

    We also KNOW that the SU took more than half of Europe and HOLD it until its complete collapse.

    Comment by Dixi — June 4, 2010 @ 5:50 am

  6. Sorry,
    Meant, of course, “HELD it until it itself completely collapsed”

    Comment by Dixi — June 4, 2010 @ 5:53 am

  7. Again, Kuznetsov and Kirponos managed to avoid the disaster that befell Pavlovs forces…

    No, you still don’t get it. I will explain.

    Pavlov’s competence is merely part of the broader question, which is if, and to what extent, the utter catastrophe of the first weeks was caused not simply by the Wehrmacht’s overwhelming might, but by concrete mistakes of concrete individuals and low troops morale. Your and Stalin’s opinions on this seem to be quite different. Me? I’m not much into armchair generaling, but if I must, I’d side with Stalin here — except, of course, I’d point the finger higher up the ladder.

    Either way, I just can’t see how that theory of yours about what precisely would happen in 41 if history took a different turn in 39 could possibly be verified or falsified. In my book it’s called “not even wrong”.

    Comment by peter — June 4, 2010 @ 7:33 am

  8. Dixie- By your standard, we do not KNOW that Hitler would have refrained from attacking Poland if Stalin had refused Ribbentrops visit. In other words, your position contains no information at all.

    Peter, I agree that it is not possible to know definitively how Barbarossa would have gone with no M-R Pact. History does not permit repitition of the experiment.

    Comment by rkka — June 4, 2010 @ 8:49 am

  9. @ rkka

    “World Revolution was Trotskys propaganda, not Stalins.”

    Seriously? Haven’t you heard of the “Third Period” in the history of Comintern (1929-36 – pre-Popular Front) that advocated the aggressive stance towards both left- and right-wing Communist parties and impending class conflict followed by Soviet intervention. Read Dimitrov’s diaries, published by Yale U Press, for more details on how Stalin was an architect of this policy. Unless you suggest that in that time Comintern and its Moscow HQ were controlled by Trotsky 🙂

    “Kuznetsov and Kirponos managed to avoid the disaster that befell Pavlovs forces. I do not assume culpable incompetence on Pavlovs part.”

    2 Panzer Groups in Belarus vs. only one in Ukraine and Baltics might be the possible explanation…

    Comment by Denis — June 4, 2010 @ 10:55 am

  10. And Dixi- The Pact did cause a revolution in British foreign policy, but not the one you think.

    It was a revolution of opposition to Hitler.

    “For all the other acts of brutality at home and aggression
    without, Herr Hitler had been able to offer an excuse, inadequate
    indeed, but not fantastic. The need for order and discipline in Europe,
    for strength at the centre to withstand the incessant infiltration of
    false and revolutionary ideas – this is certainly no more than the
    conventional excuse offered by every military dictator who has ever
    suppressed the liberties of his own people or advanced the conquest
    of his neighbors. Nevertheless, so long as the excuse was offered
    with sincerity, and in Hitler’s case the appearance of sincerity were
    not lacking over a period of years, the world’s judgement of the man
    remained more favorable than its judgement of his actions. The faint
    possibility of an ultimate settlement with Herr Hitler still, in these
    circumstances, remained, however abominable his methods, however
    deceitful his diplomacy, however intolerant he might show himself of
    the rights of other European peoples, he still claimed to stand
    ultimately for something which was a common European interest, and
    which therefore could conceivably provide some day a basis for
    understanding with other nations equally determined not to sacrifice
    their traditional institutions and habits on the bloodstained altars
    of the World Revolution.

    The conclusion of the German-Soviet pact removed even this faint
    possibility of an honorable peace.”

    Lord Lloyd of Dolobran “The British Case” Eyre & Spottiswoode Limited.
    London, 1939, pgs 54-5, with a preface by Lord Halifax, the Foreign

    And Lord Lloyd was no isolated right-wing crank. Within months of his
    book being published, he was a member of Churchill’s Cabinet, the
    Secretary of State for Colonies.

    Comment by rkka — June 4, 2010 @ 5:57 pm

  11. “The conclusion of the German-Soviet pact removed even this faint
    possibility of an honorable peace.”

    Precisely, and the M-R pact guaranteed that Hitler/Germany would avoid the two-front war in the coming military concflict with the Western democracies. An so he/it also DID. But especially, after having signed the M-R pact, everything seemed to go Stalin’s and the World Revolution’s way, including that the capitalist class enemies (that is Germany on one and France and the UK on the other side) got entangled in a devastating war with each other. One would only need to sit back and wait that a new momentum for the World Revolution would (sooner or later) arise among war-weary Europeans (just like in Germany in 1919)… Only if the “un-Purged Western armies numbering over three million men” (as you yourself emphasize) would not have collapsed so soon (in contrast to the WWI)…

    Comment by Dixi — June 8, 2010 @ 6:12 am

  12. I’m glad we have come to agreement. You still seem to misunderstand Lord Lloyd’s point about the impact of the M-R Pact though.

    You see, the “honorable peace”Lloyd is talking about is peace between Nazi Germany and the British Empire. That is what the M-R Pact destroyed.

    You see, what Lloyd is saying is, without the Pact, the Russia-hating anticommunists making up the British government at the time, folks like yourself in other words, would have kept trusting Hitler. Therefore, there would have been no two-front war when Hitler attacked Poland, because the Brits would not have declared warin the first place. And the French government, terrified of acting against Hither without British support, would probably stayed out of it too.

    So you see, without the M-R Pact, hitler would have gotten his slendid little war against an isolated Poland, could have then occupied the Baltics, and could then launch Barbarossa against the 1938 Soviet border.

    Comment by rkka — June 8, 2010 @ 7:41 am

  13. Where exactly Lord Lloyd states that – there not being a M-R pact – attacking Poland would have been OK?

    Besides five months before the M-R pact, i.e. by March 31, 1939, both France and the UK had pledged themselves to guarantee Polish independence.

    ”… in the event of any action which clearly threatened Polish independence, and which the Polish Government accordingly considered it vital to resist with their national forces, His Majesty’s Government would feel themselves bound at once to lend the Polish Government all support in their power. They have given the Polish Government an assurance to this effect. …
    I may add that the French Government have authorised me to make it plain that they stand in the same position in this matter as do His Majesty’s Government.”
    (Statement by the Prime Minister (Champerlain) in the House of Commons on March 31, 1939).
    Therefore Stalin KNEW that after such a pledge both France and the UK would have no other choice than declare the war on Germany, if Germany attacked Poland. For anything else would have meant a Europe governed by Germany including, quite possibly, even France and the UK. Therefore for Stalin the M-R pact was like, quoting David Bowie, “…putting up a fire with gasoline…” , i.e., no threat of entering a two-front war for Germany any more. And, as we KNOW, Stalin WAS right…

    Comment by Dixi — June 11, 2010 @ 5:41 am

  14. I note that His Majestys Government also guaranteed the independence of Czechoslovakia.

    I’m sure you’ll be able to tell us all about how the Brits declared war on Nazi Germany when the Germans destroyed Czechoslovak independence in the spring of 1939.

    Comment by rkka — June 11, 2010 @ 11:38 am

  15. You see, what Lloyd is saying is…

    I think you are taking Lloyd’s words way out of context and proportion, but well, at least you stop short of calling the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact a “brilliant strategic coup” on Stalin’s part.

    So you see, without the M-R Pact, hitler would have gotten his slendid little war against an isolated Poland, could have then occupied the Baltics, and could then launch Barbarossa against the 1938 Soviet border.

    I’m curious how this jibes with your earlier thesis that “Conquering and looting France was a huge money-maker for the Germans, and without those resources a German war effort in the East quickly runs out of (financial, then actual) gas.”

    Comment by peter — June 13, 2010 @ 5:53 am

  16. Oh, Adolpf has lots of options after conquering Poland and occupying the Baltics. Getting support from the anticommunist Russophobe Brits running His Majesty’s Government for a crusade against the Bolshies is one. Taking out France is another. Taking a break to exploit his conquests is a third. Adolph has lots of options, and the freedom of action to exploit them.

    Comment by rkka — June 13, 2010 @ 2:47 pm

  17. The Pact wasn’t a brilliant strategic coup. It was about the least crappy of a set of options ranging from crappy to catastrophic.

    Brilliant would have been getting The Grand Alliance together in 38 or 39, as Litvinov offered and Churchill advocated. That would have prevented a six-year orgy of blood and horror killing forty million in Europe alone.

    The attitude described by Lloyd was the main impediment to that.

    Comment by rkka — June 13, 2010 @ 3:33 pm

  18. Brilliant would have been getting The Grand Alliance together in 38 or 39, as Litvinov offered…

    I think this simplistic Soviet narrative about the evil British rejecting Litvinov’s brilliant offers out of blind anticommunism and Russophobia is a bit, well, simplistic. The devil is in the details as they say, especially in diplomacy.

    The attitude described by Lloyd was the main impediment to that.

    Never attribute to attitude that which can be adequately explained by self-delusion — of which there was plenty on both sides. The stakes were very different though, and so was the eventual price of Stalin’s and Chamberlain’s delusions for their respective countries.

    Comment by peter — June 14, 2010 @ 3:16 pm

  19. I’d certainly like to see how an alternative interpretation of the triangular diplacy of the time could be supported.

    Got one?

    On the British side, there certainly was plenty of self-delusion to go along with their anticommunism, such as Halifax’s belief that the Poles were a militarily superior partner compared to the Soviets.

    I am not aware of a similar magnitude of delusion on the part of the Soviet government.

    Comment by rkka — June 15, 2010 @ 5:57 am

  20. Got one?

    One what?

    Comment by peter — June 15, 2010 @ 8:06 am

  21. Can you support an alternative view of the triangular diplomacy between the British, German, and Soviet governments from 1938 to 1939?

    Comment by rkka — June 15, 2010 @ 3:44 pm

  22. Can you support an alternative view…

    No, no, you are clearly the one with alternative views here, so the onus is on you to convince the rest of us that mainstream history got it all wrong.

    I can agree that Lloyd’s argument that the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was the last nail in the coffin of appeasement is fine as far as post hoc ergo propter hoc arguments go, but that’s not very far.

    As for the rest, I disagree with your entire approach. I told you already, never attribute to ideology that which can be adequately explained by botched realpolitik. Just as Munich before it, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was, to use Talleyrand’s words, worse than a crime — a mistake. For whatever reason, Stalin priced himself out of a deal with Britain and France, and it eventually cost his country 25 million lives.

    Comment by peter — June 16, 2010 @ 4:56 pm

  23. The point is, there was never any deal with the British to be had, in view of Chamberlains clear preference for a deal with Germany.

    This is indicated by Von Dirksen’s cable to Berlin of 24 July 1939:

    Here’s German Ambassador Dirksen, cabling Berlin from London on 24
    July, 1939, on the state of Anglo-German discussions:
    “General ideas as to how a peaceful adjustment with Germany could be
    undertaken seem to have crystallized…  On the basis of political
    appeasement, which in to ensure the principle of non-aggression and to
    achieve a delimitation of political spheres of interest by means of a
    comprehensive formula, a broad economic program is being worked out…
    About these plans entertained by leading circles, State Advisor
    Wohlthat, who, on British initiative, had long talks about them during
    his stay in London last week, will be able to give more detailed
    information.  The problem that is puzzling the sponsors of these
    plans most is how to start the negotiations.  Public opinion is so
    inflamed, that if these plans of negotiations with Germany were to
    become public they would immediately be torpedoed by Churchill and
    others with the cry ‘No second Munich!’ or ‘No return to appeasement!’
    The persons engaged in drawing up a list of points for negotiation
    therefore realize that the preparatory steps vis-a-vis Germany must be
    shrouded in the utmost secrecy.  Only when Germany’s willingness to
    negotiate has been ascertained, and at least unanimity regarding the
    program, perhaps regarding certain general principles, has been
    attained, will the British government feel strong enough to inform the
    public of its intentions and of the steps it has already taken.  If it
    could in this way hold out the prospect of an Anglo-German adjustment,
    it is convinced that the public would greet the news with the greatest
    joy, and the obstructionists would be reduced to silence.  So much is
    expected from the realization of this plan that it is even considered
    a most effective election cry, one which would assure the government
    parties a victory in the autumn elections, and with it the retention
    of power for another five years.
    …In conclusion, I should like to point out that the German-Polish
    problem has found a place in this tendency toward an adjustment with
    Germany, inasmuch as it is believed that in the event of an
    Anglo-German adjustment the solution of the Polish problem will be
    easier, since a calmer atmosphere will facilitate the negotiations,
    and the British interest in Poland will be diminished.”

    Zachary Shore “What Hitler Knew” Oxford University Press, 2003, pgs
    117-118, citing Dirksen’s report of 24 July 1939.

    You choose not to be convinced. You provide nothing but a smokescreen as to why.

    Comment by rkka — June 16, 2010 @ 9:19 pm

  24. The point is, there was never any deal with the British to be had, in view of Chamberlains clear preference for a deal with Germany.

    That’s another circularish argument. There is no easy way to know whether talks are going nowhere because parties involved have preferences elsewhere or it is the other way around.

    24 July 1939

    So what? Plan A out, plan B in. It’s open to debate whether it was by Stalin’s design or Molotov’s incompetence that the triple alliance talks degenerated into “bazaar haggling”, but it’s easy to pinpoint the moment when the British finally got fed up with it. 12 July, Halifax to Seeds: “I appreciate the fact that I am setting you an arduous task in instructing you to reject the two chief proposals which M. Molotov made to you at your last interview, but we are nearing the point where we clearly cannot continue the process of conceding each fresh demand put forward by the Soviet Government. Our patience is well-nigh exhausted.”

    Comment by peter — June 17, 2010 @ 8:58 am

  25. “It’s open to debate whether it was by Stalin’s design or Molotov’s incompetence that the triple alliance talks degenerated into “bazaar haggling””

    Oh yes, and a mistaken policy by the British is ruled out summarily, with no evidence or argumentation.

    And what was the “exhausting” Soviet “fresh” demand?

    Comment by rkka — June 18, 2010 @ 5:34 am

  26. The demand that the political and military agreements be signed simultaneously and a new definition of “indirect aggression”. I’m surprised you don’t know.

    Comment by peter — June 18, 2010 @ 2:15 pm

  27. Oh, and I did know.

    Now, what was so “exhausting” about those demands?

    Could it be that the Soviet government had learned from the experience of the Franco-Soviet alliance, where the French government, under HMG pressure, stalled on making a military staff agreement to put military meat on the bare diplomatic bones of that alliance?

    Could it be that the Soviet government had learned from the experience of Munich, where Anglo-British pressure had forced a change in Czechoslovakia’s policy in favor of Nazi Germany?

    I can well see that a British government intending to pull similar stunts again might well find these “demands” “exhausting”.

    Comment by rkka — June 18, 2010 @ 4:07 pm

  28. That’s “…Anglo-French pressure…”

    My apologies

    Comment by rkka — June 18, 2010 @ 4:09 pm

  29. Okay, and your point now being?

    Comment by peter — June 18, 2010 @ 5:36 pm

  30. In your opinion, were those unreasonable demands for the Soviets to have made?

    Oh, and if Halifax thought the demand for a military convention was a fresh demand, he wasn’t paying attention to Litvinov’s April proposal:

    “On 17 April the Soviets proposed a pact to the British and French consisting of three basic elements: an agreement between the three powers for mutual assistance in case of war; a detailed military convention; a guarantee of the East European states lying between the Baltic and the Black Sea. These proposals formed the core issues of the protracted negotiations between the USSR and the Western powers during the following months”

    Comment by rkka — June 18, 2010 @ 7:19 pm

  31. In your opinion, were those unreasonable demands for the Soviets to have made?

    No, they weren’t entirely unreasonable, they were unrealistic.

    Oh, and if Halifax thought the demand for a military convention was a fresh demand, he wasn’t paying attention…

    Err, that’s not at all what Halifax thought. Maybe it’s you who needs to pay attention.

    Comment by peter — June 19, 2010 @ 3:45 pm

  32. “No, they weren’t entirely unreasonable, they were unrealistic.”

    Why were they unrealistic?

    Comment by rkka — June 19, 2010 @ 4:46 pm

  33. Because Stalin wanted something for nothing.

    Comment by peter — June 19, 2010 @ 5:54 pm

  34. Shaposhnikov offered 120 divisions on an Eastern Front lasting more than a few weeks.

    British military types from CIGS Ironside on down seemed to understand that this was far from nothing.

    Comment by rkka — June 20, 2010 @ 5:53 am

  35. Shaposhnikov offered 120 divisions…

    136 to be precise, but what does it matter who offered what in mid-August, way after both sides had given up on each other? And what exactly does that have to do with Molotov’s demands of July 10? You seem to shift the subject or move the goal posts every time you post, can you please slow down a bit and try to formulate some sort of meaningful point?

    Comment by peter — June 20, 2010 @ 10:22 am

  36. Yes, you’re correct, 120 Rifle and 16 Cavalry.

    And Ironside, the one actually charged with waging the war that was coming, didn’t want to give up in July.

    Its not at all clear that Chamberlain hadn’t “given up” before the talks even got under way.

    Comment by rkka — June 20, 2010 @ 2:12 pm

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