May 18th 1896: Khodynka Tragedy

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Crowds surround a victim of the tragedy

 

On this day in 1896 during the festivities celebrating the coronation of new Russian Tsar Nicholas II, a mass panic on Khodynka Field in Moscow led to 1,389 deaths. A banquet was planned for the people which was highly anticipated due to rumours of free beer, pretzels and gingerbread. Thousands gathered early in the morning, but a rumour spread that there was not enough food for everyone and in the ensuing panic and crush, 1,389 were trampled to death and a further 1,300 injured.

 

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Coronation of Tsar Nicholas II

 

The new Tsar visited the injured in hospital but still attended a ball at the French embassy in the evening which many thought showed a lack of care for his subjects (Nicholas had not wanted to go but his advisors considered it an insult to France). The incident marked the beginning of a series of events which undermined faith in Tsar Nicholas II and led to his removal from power in 1917, making him the last Tsar of Russia.

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April 25th 1945: Elbe Day

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East meets West at the Elbe

 

On this day in 1945, during the Second World War, Soviet and American troops met at the River Elbe in Germany – the day is now known as Elbe Day. The event was a momentous show of unity of the Allied Powers as the war drew to a close while the Allies advanced towards Berlin. The first contact was between an American delegation led by First Lieutenant Albert Kotzebue of the 3rd Battalion, 273rd Infantry, 69th Infantry Division, who took his men across the river and were greeted by Russian Lt Col Alexander Gardiev, Commander of the 175th Rifle Regiment of the 58th Guards Division, 34th Corps. The two groups agreed on a formal handshake to be photographed the next day.

 

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Official, staged, picture commemorating the meeting on the Elbe. 2nd Lieutenant William Robertson (US) and Lt. Alexander Sylvashko (USSR) shake hands

 

Each side commended the other, with Moscow holding a gun salute and US General Omar Bradley praising the Soviet success in pushing the Germans back from Russia. A few days after the Elbe meeting, German Chancellor Adolf Hitler committed suicide and Germany soon surrendered – the war was finally over.

 

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Two soldiers pose during Elbe Day

 

“We meet in true and victorious comradeship and with inflexible resolve to fulfil our purpose and our duty. Let all march forward upon the foe.”
– British Prime Minister Winston Churchill

“This is not the hour of final victory in Europe, but the hour draws near, the hour for which all the American people, all the British people and all the Soviet people have toiled and prayed so long.”
– US President Harry Truman

“Our task and our duty are to complete the destruction of the enemy to force him to lay down his arms and surrender unconditionally. The Red Army will fulfill to the end this task and this duty to our people and to all freedom-loving peoples.”
– Soviet leader Joseph Stalin

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British newspapers celebrated the news of the end of the war in Europe – May 8th 1945

 

Elbe Day became a powerful symbol of unity between the East and the West as post-war relations between the former allies soured and descended into Cold War. Those who opposed the conflict between the communist and capitalist blocs (led by the Soviet Union and United States respectively), used this event as a reminder that both sides are just human, and do have the capacity to co-exist peacefully. If the ‘spirit of the Elbe’ persisted, the 1950s and 60s need not have been characterised by constant fear of nuclear annihilation by an ideological opponent, and perhaps even the bloodshed of proxy wars like Korea and Vietnam could have been avoided. Like the German and British troops playing football together on No Man’s Land on Christmas Day during World War One, Elbe Day is a potent reminder that humanity is inclined towards peace; what unites us is more powerful than what divides us.

March 28th 1854: Britain and France declare war on Russia

 

On this day in 1854 in a pivotal moment of the Crimean War, Britain and France declared war on Russia. This conflict originated in the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars when Europe tried to rebuild and ensure future stability. One of the concerns was the crumbling Ottoman-Turkish empire, known as the ‘sick man of Europe’. The Russians planned to carve up the European part of Turkey, but Turkey objected and eventually declared war. The war was also prompted by debates over the rights of Christians in the Holy Land, which was under Ottoman control. Britain and France, each with their own interests in the preservation of the Ottoman regime, also joined the war when Russian troops failed to withdraw from the Russo-Turkish border. The allies decided to land in the Crimea to assault the Russian naval base at Sevastopol in order to gain the Black Sea.

 

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Lithograph by William Simpson showing the conditions of sick and wounded during Crimean War. Florence Nightingale became famous for her nursing work during this war (source: Wikipedia)

 

The siege took far longer than expected, and made Crimea the primary front of the war. The Crimean war was characterised by poor military leadership on both sides and a failure to adapt tactics to modern weaponry. The Battle of Balaclava in October saw the infamous British ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’, a frontal assault against Russian artillery. Eventually Sevastopol fell, the Russians were defeated, and the war ended with the signing of the Treaty of Paris in March 1856.

 

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Map of the Black Sea area during the Crimean War (source: http://www.emersonkent.com/map_archive/crimean_war_1853.htm; credit: University of Texas at Austin. From Cambridge Modern History Atlas, 1912)

 

 

On the 160th anniversary of this event, the Crimean War has never seen so significant. Once considered an oddity, a blip, the war no-one remembers from history class, now it is all anyone can talk about. Russia’s annexation of Crimea, which until recently was an autonomous region of Ukraine, has sparked international tensions reminiscent of the Cold War era. The United Nations has recently declared illegal the vote Crimea took in favour of joining Russia, fuelling claims that the election results are suspicious, especially as Russia had troops stationed in the area. Russia has received international condemnation for the action, with many states claiming they have violated international law by invading a sovereign state. The G8 leaders have become the G7, suspending the summit which was planned to take place in Russia and shunning their once peer. The whole situation carries disturbing memories of the Cold War, with the Western and Eastern blocs watching each other warily as each expands their sphere of influence. The Crimea crisis is still developing, and it is a prime example of when understanding of the history is key to understanding the present.

March 5th 1946: ‘Iron Curtain’ speech

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Churchill making the speech in Missouri

 

On this day in 1946, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill made his famous ‘Iron Curtain’ speech at Westminster College, Missouri. The term had been used prior to 1946, but this was the most public use of it. In the ‘Sinews of Peace’ address, Churchill used the term ‘iron curtain’ to reference a Soviet dominated Eastern Europe. At the time, the West still saw the Soviet Union as an ally after the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War Two, but Churchill’s speech heralded the onset of the Cold War tensions between the capitalist West and communist Russia. As the Cold War took hold, the phrase became popular as a reference to repressive Communist domination of Europe which hid Soviet actions and set a clear divide in Europe.

 

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Cartoon showing the Soviet iron curtain

 

“From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic an iron curtain has descended across the continent”

 

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Churchill and Harry Truman

 

This speech can reasonably be argued to be the beginning of the Cold War which defined the European political landscape for the remainder of the century. There had been mounting criticisms of the communists prior to this, but Churchill’s speech was one of the first truly adversarial public speeches given by a major world leader targetting the Soviet Union. Churchill’s fiery rhetoric shaped the fear of communists which abounded in the Western bloc. People were convinced that there were communists in their midst, trying to create another iron curtain across their country. This fuelled the virulent anticommunism of America in the 1950s, led by Senator Joseph McCarthy (R – WI.). McCarthy and his peers sought to drive all communist influence out of the United States, often sacrificing the pluralist principles that had traditionally been a bedrock of American ideology. The House Un-American Activities Committee conducted a series of high-profile hearings where they questioned people with supposed links to communism. The discovery of Soviet spies such as Alger Hiss and the Rosenbergs only served to intensify fears. The ‘Cold War’ that Churchill helped set into motion had its ‘hot’ moments too. The Korean and Vietnam Wars were certainly ideologically driven and whilst not fought between the United States and Soviet Union directly, were still ‘proxy-wars’. The battle of the ideologies was also played out in other countries, where each side would try to prop up a leader who was friendly to their cause, often at the expense of democracy and civil liberties for the local people. This tense battle between two nuclear powers, who knew direct war meant unprecedented destruction, continued until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. There are even those who claim that the Cold War continues today, especially with the current tensions between Russia and Ukraine. Some see Russia’s military action there as Russia trying to reassert its communist-era domination of Eastern Europe. Therefore, Churchill’s iron curtain speech was a momentous symbolic event and paved the way for the Cold War, the influence of which is still felt today.

February 2nd 1943: Battle of Stalingrad ends

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Soviet soldier waving Red Banner in February 1943

On this day in 1943, German troops surrendered to the Soviet Red Army in Stalingrad, thus ending the 5 months of fighting. The Battle of Stalingrad is among the bloodiest battles in the history of warfare, with nearly 2 million casualties. The Germans had attempted to invade Russia and capture Stalingrad, but the Russians fought back and cut off and surrounded the German army. The Russian winter soon set in, with sub-zero temperatures weakening the German forces.

 

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Aftermath of the Battle of Stalingrad

Eventually, the remaining army surrendered, and 91,000 were taken prisoner (including 22 generals). The German failure at Stalingrad was a key turning point in the Second World War, as the army never recovered from their defeat. The Nazi invasion of Russia has become symbolic of the disorder at the upper echelons of the Nazi machine. It was a shocking miscalculation which perhaps cost Germany the war. It is often compared to Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812; both France and Germany had been doing well in the war until the disastrous attempt to invade Russia during winter. In these occasions, the motherland defended herself.

January 9th 1905: Bloody Sunday

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Soviet painting of the massacre

On this day in 1905, Russian workers were massacred by Tsarist troops in St. Petersburg, an event which became known as ‘Bloody Sunday’. The workers were staging a peaceful, unarmed march to Tsar Nicholas II’s Winter Palace to petition him. They were gunned down by the Imperial Guard. The massacre, and apparent disregard for the lives of Russian citizens shown by the Tsar undermined support for the government. It also set off the failed 1905 Revolution, and some have said gave impetus to the successful 1917 Revolution, when the Bolsheviks seized power and created the Soviet state. By the Julian calendar, which was used at this time, the massacre occured on the 9th January. By the modern Gregorian calendar, it would have fallen on January 22nd.

 

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Father Georgy Gapon (1870 – 1906)

“There is no God anymore, there is no Tsar”
– march leader Father Gapon as he saw the massacre

December 20th 1917: Cheka established

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Vladimir Lenin (1870 – 1924)

 

On this day in 1917, Russian leader Vladimir Lenin issued a decree that founded the Cheka, a secret police force. Lenin appointed the feared Felix Dzerzhinsky as head of the organisation, which soon became infamous for its brutality. The Cheka was created to deal with enemies of the regime. The organisation ran forced labour camps, put down rebellions and riots, tortured and executed political opponents. The Cheka was known for its cruel methods, such as stripping people in the middle of Russian winter and hosing them with cold water and leaving them to freeze.

 

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1922 Cheka badge

Lenin’s creation of the Cheka has led some to claim that he really was no better than the tsarist regimes he replaced, and have hailed him just a ‘Red Tsar’. This debate, and the concept of Lenin as a ‘Red Tsar’, is a common feature of Russian historiography, though the title is usually bestowed on Stalin. The Cheka began the long line of infamous Soviet state security organisations, which culminated with the KGB. Most attention is usually focused on the later instances of Soviet brutality under Stalin, through the vehicle of a secret police, but we must remember that the Soviet secret police was in fact around since 1917.

December 18th 1879: Joseph Stalin born

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Stalin in 1902, aged 23

 

On this day in 1879 the future leader of the Soviet Union, Joseph Stalin, was born in Georgia. In his youth Stalin read works by Marx and became active in the revolutionary movement against the Russian Tsar. After the 1917 revolution by the Bolshevik Party, Stalin quickly rose through the party ranks, becoming general secretary in 1922. After the death of Vladimir Lenin in 1924, Stalin established himself as dictator of the Soviet Union. Under his rule, millions died due to his forced collectivisation policies and his ‘purges’ of political rivals claimed thousands of lives. He worked with the other Allied powers to defeat Nazi Germany in World War Two. Stalin died of a stroke in 1953.

 

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Stalin in the 1940s, aged in his 60s

 

Stalin is a major figure in world history, and on his birthday we remember the impact he had on the world stage and the thousands who died under his brutal regime. Stalin’s dictatorship  ranks among the deadliest in history, along with the likes of Adolf Hitler and Mao Zedong.