- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 28, 2008

With the incoming Obama administration bent on a multibillion public works program, despite a national Treasury filled with more red ink than cash, this is perhaps not the time to put ideas into anyone’s head. So be forewarned that the schemes described in Sean McMeekin’s History’s Greatest Heist: The Looting of Russia by the Bolsheviks (Yale University Press, $38, 302 pages), despite a short-time success, ultimately ended in a national disaster for the USSR.

Mr. McMeekin demonstrates how the Bolsheviks, who seized control of Russia 1917-1922, resorted to outright banditry to finance their resistance to domestic and foreign enemies and become a European power. The role of law, of course, was nonexistent; the Bolsheviks ruled by revolutionary decree and force.

Thus, when employees of the state bank refused to open their vaults to looters, officers were seized and held hostage until they handed over the keys. Within a few months, banks were simply abolished and their holdings declared to be the property of the new Bolshevik state.

One especially draconian decree directed that “all holders of safe deposit boxes are under obligation to appear at the bank upon notice, bringing the keys to their … boxes.” Anyone who did not appear within three days “will be considered as having maliciously declined to comply with the law of search.”

The manager of the Russian and English Bank of Petrograd, reporting to his London superiors about the various confiscatory decrees, wrote, “I could continue this list of interesting financial experiments for some time yet, but this may be sufficient to show you that we find ourselves in a lunatic asylum…”

The confiscation soon was nationwide. As Mr. McMeekin writes, “… armed detachments fanned out across Russia … breaking open safe deposit boxes in ‘nationalized’ banks, withdrawing hundreds of millions of tsarist rubles from other people’s saving accounts, looting landed estates, churches and monasteries, and prying precious stones and other valuables from the bloodied bodies of anyone who dared resist Bolshevik confiscation.”

Given that the Bolsheviks repudiated foreign debts, Western nations initially were cool towards recognizing the new regime. But greed prevailed. Some Western central banks initially balked at receiving gold ingots bearing the stamp of Imperial Russia, not wishing to deal in what one banker called “stolen property.” No matter. Sweden agreed to melt down the gold and recast it into ingots with a special stamp.

In Britain, the war minister, Winston Churchill, was perhaps the most adamant foe of recognizing the communist government, declaring, “One might as well legalize sodomy as recognize the Bolsheviks.” But Prime Minster David Lloyd George was more complacent, realizing that British businessmen were eager to satisfy Soviet orders for steam locomotives and other machinery and coal and wool valued in the billions of dollars. Lloyd George even turned a blind eye to Soviet inflammatory propaganda in Britain and elsewhere. He ultimately signed an accord that “sealed the transformation of the Bolshevik regime from a beleaguered conspiracy of political activists into a wealthy criminal oligarchy which could draw on Western capital markets to fund its war with its own people.” In short order, the Soviets were ordering military aircraft and other tools of war.

America was not blameless. The steel magnate (and treasury secretary) Andrew Mellon alone paid millions of dollars for Old Masters paintings looted from the Hermitage. This stolen property is now displayed for tourists in the National Gallery in Washington.

Richard Pipes, the Soviet historian at Harvard, rightly terms Mr. McMeekin’s book “the financial history of the Bolshevik revolution.” An intricate read that requires some attention, but an important part of the Soviet story.


That a book such as “History’s Greatest Heist” exists is due in large part to the Yale University Press, which negotiated rights to publish long-secret Soviet documents in its Annals of Communism series. To date, 25 volumes have been published (including Mr. McMeekin’s work) and many more are in the pipeline. How Yale gained access to these files is the subject of Jonathan Brent’s ” (Atlas & Co./W. W. Norton, 304 pages). Mr. Brent founded the Annals project in 1991 and is the editorial director of Yale University Press.

His book commences with his arrival in Moscow in 1992 to compete with publishers from many nations eager to take advantage of Boris Yeltsin’s order that previously secret archives of the Soviet state and party should be opened. Mr. Brent immediately whetted the interest of archive bureaucrats by saying that Yale would pay equal sums to Russians and Americans working on the project; his mention of the word “royalties” was the key to his success. His patience in negotiating with suspicious and lethargic officials is the heart of the story. Volumes in the series are published in both English and Russian language editions.

Of perhaps equal interest is his depiction of daily life in Moscow after the collapse of communism. He begins with the “sour, sullen stench” of the Moscow airport, where the ventilation system has not worked for days, and the omnipresent aroma of gasoline and grease. Overpowering all is the “smell of Moscow - flat, unwashed, sour - an accumulation of fifty years without sunlight or cleansing breeze.”

During repeat visits to Moscow in succeeding years, Mr. Brent noted that the wealth of Putin-era plutocrats has not trickled down to the masses. Property values are higher even than in New York but “outside the center [of Moscow] one feels the oppressive weight of years of destitution and neglect in the unkempt squares and shabby high-rises whose inner courtyards are lined with graffiti-covered doorways, where neglected children’s play equipment rusts amid broken glass and twisted wire…” Racism is rampant, especially anti-Semitism. Crude images of the “international Jew” are common in publications.

And, even more sobering, many Russians retain fond memories of Stalin and his era - seemingly oblivious to the documented evidence that he bears responsibility for more than 20 million deaths. Mr. Yeltsin’s goal in opening the archives was to present the Russian people the truth about his atrocities. Apparently the message has gone unheeded. A book on white supremacy by David Duke, the Louisiana Klan figure, is sold in the lobby of the Russian State Duma. None of the Russian-language works in the Annals series are seen.

One note: The title is a trifle misleading, for Mr. Brent gives only a cursory look at the “Stalin archives.” The meat of the material from his archives is found in various Annals volumes, which are listed on the Yale University Press Web site.

Other reading about the period

• Richard Pipes, “Russia Under the Bolshevik Regime,” Vintage Books, 1995.

• Simon Sebag Montefiore, “Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar,” Knopf, 2004.

• Robert Conquest, “The Great Terror,” Macmillan, 1968.

• Harvey Klehr, John Earl Haynes and Fridrikh Igorevich Firsov, “The Secret World of American Communism,” Yale University Press, 1995.

Joseph C. Goulden is writing a book on Cold War intelligence. His e-mail is [email protected]

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