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url 2018-08-31 17:37
Podcast #117 is up!
The Industrialisation of Soviet Russia, Volume 7: The Soviet Economy and the Approach of War, 1937–1939 - Professor Mark Harrison,Stephen G. Wheatcroft,Oleg Khlevniuk,Robert William Davies

My latest podcast is up on the New Books Network website! In it I interview Mark Harrison and Stephen Wheatcroft about the book they co-authored with R.W. Davies and Oleg Khlevniuk on the Soviet economy in the late 1930s (which I reviewed here). Enjoy!

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review 2018-08-23 16:29
An economy shaped by terror and war
The Industrialisation of Soviet Russia, Volume 7: The Soviet Economy and the Approach of War, 1937–1939 - Professor Mark Harrison,Stephen G. Wheatcroft,Oleg Khlevniuk,Robert William Davies

During the late 1930s life in the Soviet Union was defined by terror, as a series of purges orchestrated by Joseph Stalin and carried out by his secret police apparatus gutted the nation. More than a million people, from Communist Party leaders to government officials to wealthy peasants, were arrested and either imprisoned or executed. While the purges secured Stalin's domination of the country, it came at the cost of innumerable lives destroyed and the county's development hobbled in ways that nearly proved fatal during the Second World War.

The disruptive impact of the purges on the Soviet economy is a major theme of the final volume of the "Industrialisation of Soviet Russia" series. In it its authors — R. W. Davies, Mark Harrison, Oleg Khlevniuk, and Stephen Wheatcroft — analyze the effects of the arrests on a Soviet economy still processing the collectivization of Soviet agriculture and the efforts to develop the industrial sector. Though the commissars and other managers arrested may have lacked the stature of the Part leaders of the marshals of the Red Army, their removal measurably slowed the growth of the Soviet economy. In some areas this slowing actually had the effect of feeding the purges, as the decline in growth and the failure to achieve the targets set by economic planners was attributed to sabotage, requiring the identification and arrest of suitable scapegoats.

Yet the purpose of the authors' book is not to describe the impact of the purges on the Soviet economy, but the Soviet Union's overall economic development during this period. As they note, the purges played less of a role in agriculture, where factors such as the weather were more important in determining output. Even more important than environmental conditions, though, was the international political scene. Here the authors place their analysis of the Soviet economic policy into a broader context, showing how the wars in Spain and China, as well as the increasing tensions within central and eastern Europe forced economic planners to readjust their plans to focus more on developing light industry and increasing the production of consumer goods. The result was an economy that by the start of 1939 was already gearing up for war, with even the purges ended in the face of the growing threat.

This volume brings to an end a series that has its origins in Edward Hallett Carr's The Bolshevik Revolution first published nearly seven decades ago. It is a fitting point at which to conclude it, for as the authors explain in their final chapter, it was during this period that the basis of the economy that would defeat Nazi Germany and establish the Soviet Union as a superpower for the 45 years afterward was established. To understand how this was accomplished and the terrible cost paid for it by the Soviet people this book like its predecessor volumes is indispensable reading.

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review 2017-01-21 06:02
The struggle for hearts and minds
Cinematic Cold War: The American and Soviet Struggle for Hearts and Minds - Tony Shaw,Denise J. Younglood

In most histories of the era the Cold War is portrayed as a struggle of superpowers using spies and proxy wars to check the advance of their foe. Yet as Tony Shaw and Denise Youngblood point out in this book, the United States and Soviet Union also waged though the cultural medium of movies. Through a selection of key films from throughout the period they demonstrate the evolution of the conflict, from the villainization of the other side during in its early years to the softer effort to champion values during the 1960s and 1970s, to the harsh tone of the revived Cold War in the 1980s and the effective concession of the argument by the Soviets at the end of the decade. The authors do a good job of analyzing the movies and situating them within the respective film industries of the two countries, and the films they select to make their arguments contain some surprising choices (such as Roman Holiday and Bananas for "Cold War films") that make for sometimes provocative interpretations, though it is interesting to speculate how their conclusions might have been different had they focused on other flicks. Nevertheless, this is a fascinating comparative study that demonstrates the manifold ways in which the Americans and Soviets clashed for dominance.

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review 2016-06-18 12:33
The Tragedy of Unrequited Love
The Seagull - Anton Chekhov,Michael Frayn

Russian literature seems to have a very bleak undertone to it, though I must admit that the only Russian authors that I have read are Dostoyevski and Chekhov, and the only other author that I know of (and do intend to read one day) is Tolstoy. I guess when you are swamped with the plethora of English writers, then writers from other nations really have to stand out to be noticed, but then I suspect that that is also the case in England.

 

I am not sure if Russian literature developed in the same way that English literature developed, but as I have mentioned previously Russia was pretty much thrust into the modern age where as the countries of central Europe gradually developed, and I suspect that this sudden rush had an effect upon the national consciousness. Russia never experienced a reformation and at the turn of the 20th century was probably the only country in Europe that operated under a feudal system of government. However, ideas had been filtering in for the last hundred years, and revolution was boiling under the surface.

 

However, the Seagull is not about revolution or the backwardness of Russia, but rather it is a play about unrequited love that is played out among a group of artists who are trying to define themselves through their art. We have a novelist, an actress, and a playwright, and each of them have their own ideas of who they are and their own ideas of how they desire to express themselves. The playwright is an interesting character in that his plays are simply non-traditional and also play out in the existential role. The problem with that is that nobody actually understands what is going on but him, which in a way leaves him feeling that he has failed as an artist.

 

Then there is the idea about unrequited love. In this play it is not simply one person pursing another but I believe up to four people who are all pursuing each other, and getting nothing in return. Unrequited love is a very painful experience to go through, and I ought to know because I have been through it too many times to count, and it is not simply me pursuing a woman who does not want to return my affections, but being blind to another woman that wants me to show affection to her. I guess the other problem is that I am what is known as a hopeless romantic. I want romance in a world where romance is dead and only the physical matters. Okay, people are still romantic today, but I have in the past got so caught up in a passionate desire for a romantic relationship that I have blinded myself to what is really going on.

 

Hollywood has a lot to answer for with regards to unrequited love though because, unlike this play, these love triangles all end up working themselves out. Take the Big Bang Theory for instance. For two seasons Leonard is chasing Penny but getting nothing in return, and all of the sudden it works out in the third season (but not for long, though by the sixth season they are back together again). In real life this really does not happen, or at least in my real life this does not happen. Instead, I have ended up moping around my house pining for a woman that I can simply never have, yet as I look back on it now I see how foolish I have been. In fact, a part of my life I almost felt that I was not complete unless I had a woman to pine over, and in fact the pining was more desirable than the relationship itself. In the end though, I have come to feel content with my singleness , but I still don't know how long that will really last (the singleness that is, not the contentment).

Source: www.goodreads.com/review/show/728229379
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review 2016-06-14 09:14
The Rise of the Soviets
Russia In Revolution - John Robertson

It is always difficult to write a book covering an historical period when there are generally so many events leading up to one event and so many repercussions radiating out from the said event. It is even more difficult when one is writing a book for highschool students. This particular book was recommended by our year 12 history teacher since she believed that it covered most of the topics that we would be looking at during our topic on Russian History. However, while it touched on the events before 1905, it finishes off around 1920 after Lenin introduced his New Economic Policy.

 

 

Russia had always been a backward country, the Reformation had not reached its borders nor had the democratic revolutions of the 19th century. Out of the European powers Russia was one of the last countries to industrialise. While many of the Western European states had become industrial powerhouses by the turn of the 20th Century with a rising middle class, Russia was still an autocratic state with a substantial peasant population with a rigid class structure. There was really no upwardly mobile middle class and the reigns of government was tightly held by the Tsars.

 

 

That is not to mention that there were no reforms, serfdom had been abolished (though this was relatively late) and factories were beginning to appear in many of the major cities, but the backwardness of the country was ripe for a revolution. Throughout the late 19th century numerous left wing groups (such as the anarchists and the nihilists) were agitating for change, and this agitation lead to the assassination of one of the Tsars. The response was a brutal crackdown on these extreme groups. Obviously the boiling point came in 1905 when the country collapsed into revolution, and the most famous event of this period was the mutiny on the Battleship Potemkin where the sailors (which I believe was the pride of the Russian fleet at the time) rebelled and took over the ship.

 

 

The revolution was quickly crushed, but Tsar Nicholas did institute some reforms introducing the Dumas, which was their form of parliament. However the Duma was quite weak and Russia was still very much an autocratic state. While tensions still mounted through the period, when war broke out in 1914 Russia quickly joined the side of Britain and France. In their mind the defeat of Napoleon still loomed large and they believed that nobody could take Russia (they had forgotten the embarrassing defeat during the Crimean War, a war which they should have won). However things did not work out as they planned. Germany did not invade Russia, but rather they would launch strike missions against their lines, but did not go deep into Russian territory as Napoleon had done. This meant that when the Russian troops pulled back, scorching the earth as they went, they were causing more damage to themselves than to the Germans.

 

 

To say that the war went badly for the Russians is an understatement. It went so badly that in February 1915 the country once again collapsed into revolution and this time the Tsar was deposed as a parliamentary democracy was established. However this did not last long. The country was still at war, the war was still going badly, and the lot of the people had not changed much at all. This was what Lenin and his Bolsheviks needed, and in a coup in October 1915 seized control of the important institutions of Russia and established the Soviet Union.

 

 

Now a couple of things we need to remember: Russia was never meant to become a communist state at this stage; this is not what Marx had envisioned. The communist state was supposed to come about through a workers revolution, where the workers rise up enmass, overthrow the Bourgeoisie employers, and establish a series of communes. The idea was that the concept of the management structure was to be disbanded and the workplace was to run along democratic principles. We see echos of this idea today with the union movement, though many people look down on the unions as being under the control of the employers that they are supposed to stand against, though this is a debate for another time (or corrupt, militant, and incredibly dangerous).

 

 

Secondly Lenin's following was quite small. The Bolsheviks were the more radical of the groups, with the Mensheviks being supportive of Marx's ideas but somewhat moderate. However, the Bolsheviks won, and with control of the government structure of Russia, proceeded to execute the royal family (so that they could not seize control - oe method is establishing control in a coup is to kill the previous leaders for as long as the previous ruler is still alive there is always a chance that they will rally support and make another tilt at the throne). He then pulled Russia out of the war (which upset the allies no end, and resulted, after the conclusion of hostilities in Western Europe, in a civil war in Russia).

 

 

It is interesting to speculate as to whether it was withdrawing from the war was the cause of the rift between the Bolsheviks and the west, or was it more on ideological lines. We see that during the 20s there was a growing rift between the communists and the capitalists, but then the ideological differences between the two was always going to lead to conflict, particularly since the communists in Russia were agitating for a world wide communist revolution (which never came).

 

 

The tipping point was during the Great Depression, and shortly after the end of World War II. In 1933 Germany was divided between the two extremes of Facism and Communism, and the Facists won (with a little help from the Americans) and the West then sat back hoping that Germany and Russia would destroy each other in a war of attrition. This never happened, particularly since Hitler and Stalin signed a peace treaty. However I am getting way ahead of myself.

 

I will finish off with the New Economic Policy. This was pretty much a response to the fact that Lenin's extreme version of communism pretty much failed. Granted, Russia had been economically devastated by World War I, and was now facing pressure from the White Russians and their allies in the west. A completely state run economy was not working, so Lenin, while maintaining control of the means of production (that is agriculture and industry), he allowed small business to flourish. As with the civil war he didn't need to do all that much. The West was sick of war and did not want to continue the fight against Russia, and the White Russians were pretty weak without them, so the whole war collapsed leaving the Soviet Union to dominate world politics for the next 70 years.

 

Finally the means of production. The truth is, who owns this? Modern Russia (under Putin) has seized back control of Russia's oil and gas wealth, which was taken out of government hands during the rise of the oligarchs in the 1990s. Russia now uses its energy wealth as a very powerful bargaining chip to force her neighbours to heel (though this has since change with the collapse in the price of oil). However we see the struggle between public and private interests all the time. It is my position that all mineral wealth in a country is owned by the people of that company, so foreign (especially foreign) miners who want to come in and mine these minerals need to pay for them like everybody else. It is like walking into a shop, paying a flat fee to the store owner for being in the store, and then taking what you like. I have to pay to take something out of the store, so why don't the miners pay for the minerals that they want to take (as China is doing by restricting the sale of Rare Earth Elements into the market). Granted, it may cause fluctuations with the price of the commodity, but hey, all of that iron ore up in the Pilbara belongs to us Australians and that should be remembered.

 

Source: www.goodreads.com/review/show/235130199
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