Afghanistan: What could possibly go wrong?

Soviet Troops

The Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan was one of those moments in history that we can look back at and wonder why they did it and even now it seems foolish. The Soviets entered the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan on Christmas Day 1979 to ‘liberate the people’ and restore the peace. However, the Soviets were conducting a power play that would tear the country apart. It was thought of as a quick fix to a political situation, but it would rapidly turn into a quagmire that would contribute to the fall of the USSR itself.

In 1978, their was a coup that overthrew the Republic of Afghanistan and replaced its non-aligned President with the Communist Party of Afghanistan. The new government was very progressive and promoted the equality of women in Afghan society and conducted massive land reforms. This centralized top-down approach to ruling led to the initiation of an insurgency against the central Communist government. Also the head of the DRA, Nur Muhammad Taraki created a cult of personality around himself that lead to the Alienation of many ethnic groups within the government. This tension within the government would lead to his overthrow by Hafizullah Amin in late 1979. This led to worsening relations between Afghanistan and the Soviet Union as Amin failed to maintain the wreck of the Afghan army and handle the growing revolt in the country. Their was also growing concerns of Chinese, Pakistani and Western interference in the country to try to overthrow the government and the Soviets were more than willing to go all the way to protect their interests in Afghanistan. When Soviet forces invaded Afghanistan, they immediately killed Amin and claimed they had been invited by the people of Afghanistan and installed Babrak Karmal as the leader of Afghanistan. This virtually caused detente to go up in flames practically overnight and tensions between the Soviets and the rest of the world deteriorated. The Soviet intervention also caused the insurgency in the country to grow, requiring even more Soviet resources and troops.

Communist Propaganda

For the next few years the economy of Afghanistan began to weaken and decline along with the Soviet economy. Ultimately, that is the greatest effect of the Afghan conflict, the economic decline of the Soviet Union. A war in Afghanistan is always expensive, just ask the US government, but in the planned economy of the Soviet Union, military resources going to a back water like Afghanistan meant that resources were going away from the already stagnant economy. The Soviets thought that their massive amounts of brute force could solve a political problem, but underestimated the fractured Afghan society and lack of unifying features. The Soviet Invasion would also have broader Geo-political consequences as it motivated the US to support Charlie Wilson’s war and support Islamic fundamentalist groups in the region against the Soviets who wouldn’t just go away after the war. The war may not have been a sudden strike to the Soviet system, but it was persistent and costly and that over time would contribute to the growing dissident movement in the USSR that would lead to its collapse. The Soviets got involved because of a perceived American interference in the country. Now that may have been true to some extent, but the American involvement would only balloon once the Soviets crossed the border and would lead to a souring between the two superpowers and come to help define the last decade of the Cold War.


Freeze, Gregory L. Russia: A History. 3rd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.

The Current Digest of the Russian Press.

Invasion of Afghanistan

The First Crack in the Iron Wall

Soviet Tanks in Budapest (1956)

The Hungarian Crisis was the first major threat to Soviet domination of half of Europe since the end of WWII. The Revolution began following several years of political infighting between different factions that led to the public’s grievances being ignored. Having seen some of the success that the Polish public had achieved in getting concessions and reforms, university students began to assemble and demonstrate in the center of the Capital, Budapest. Singing soon turned to militancy that led to the Hungarian Communist Party’s newspaper plant being destroyed and shots being fired in the streets all over Budapest. The liberal  Imre Nagy was reappointed Prime Minister in an attempt to quell the uprisings, but this had no effect as Hungarian Army units began to defect to the Revolutionaries.

The Hungarians began to organize local Worker’s Councils which was an attempt to set up interim local government for future reform which would not come. The Worker’s Council’s were meant to take control over the factories and address some of the longstanding issues and grievances that had led to the Hungarian Revolution in the first place. They also would start organizing local militias to help defend against the coming Soviet intervention.

The Soviets at this point decided to step in, but the revolutionaries had become well armed and the Soviet troops were forced to retreat. Nagy, saw the writing on the wall and decided to join the side of the revolutionaries and attempted to declared Hungarian Independence from the Warsaw Pact and USSR, but the Soviets ignored his attempts. Khrushchev and others decided enough was enough and sent in additional troops from across the neighboring Warsaw Pact borders and quickly crushed the insurgency in early November. Over 200,000 Hungarians fled to Austria as refugees as the Soviets and hard line Hungarians like Janos Kadar, who would rule Hungary for over thirty years.

This uprising was the first of many that would occur from Czechoslovakia to Tienanmen Square, eventually the people get tired of the inequality that always exists in the communist system and want a free chance for a better life. Yet, too often then not these uprising are crushed with the exception being at the end of the Cold War and Gorbachev refused to send in Soviet Troops to bolster the communist governments of Europe that relied on their support. It shows that the idea of self-determination was easy to forget about in the face of a cold war between rival factions where sovereignty, democracy and freedom meant nothing, for either side.



“Hungary: Workers’ Councils against Russian Tanks – International Socialism.” Accessed March 27, 2017.

Freeze, Gregory L. Russia: A History. 3rd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Kursk: The Battle that changed the tide of WWII

Kurkryniksy: I Lost My Little Ring (Hitler at Kursk) (1943)

Many believe that the turning point for WII in Europe can either be attributed to the Battle of Stalingrad or D-Day. However, the true turning point in the war was not either of them, but the Battle of Kursk. It wasn’t Stalingrad because even though the Germans lost a lot of men and material, they still maintained a significant fighting force and Kursk was their last chance to shift the momentum of the war in their favor. The Germans had lost a major battle, but they still maintained the capacity to launch an offensive military push against the Soviets. It wasn’t D-Day either because the Soviets were already pushing the Germans back across Eastern Europe were the Germans would suffer over 80% of their casualties.

Kursk was the result of a German retreat that produced a bulge in the German lines that could be good for both sides depending on the military outcome of the engagement. The Germans soon began massing troops in order to cut off the Soviet troops trapped in the bulge and annihilate them. The only problem, the Soviets already knew they were coming thanks to British code breaking efforts which allowed the allies to know what the Germans were thinking in real time. With the persuasion of General Zhukov, the Soviets decided to build up massive defensive fortifications along the Kursk bulge in order to repeal the impending German advance. The Soviets flooded their defenses with anti-tank guns which wouldn’t have a hard time finding targets with the shear number of Germans who would take part in the offensive.

The Battle was of epic proportions with over 2,000,000 troops, 6,000 tanks and 4,000 aircraft total. However, the massive numbers the Germans concentrated proved to be for nothing when the offensive was stopped after the Germans barely making it a third of the way through the Soviet defensive lines. It proved to be the decisive end to the Germans’ ability to go on the offensive on the Eastern Front and from now on they would be retreating back towards Germany until the end of the War. The Battle was likely a crushing psychological blow to the Germans as they threw the dice one last time and they lost. Hitler had started the war with the Soviets and nearly won, but due to a mess of different circumstances (besides not sending winter coats), the Germans would lose on their gamble. The next year the Allies would land in France, but that would only shorten the War, the defeat of Hitler and the Germans was already sealed on the plains of Ukraine.Map depicting the Battle of Kursk, 4 Jul-1 Aug 1943

Map depicting the Battle of Kursk, 4 Jul-1 Aug 1943



Freeze, Gregory L. Russia: A History. 3rd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Battle of Kursk


Humble Stalin’s Metro System

Viktor Deni: We have a Metro! (1935) Long live our great Stalin. There is no fortress that Bolsheviks cannot take – Stalin. Source: Lebedev, Artemii: Moscow Metro. 1996.

The Moscow Metro system began construction in 1932 after a massive publicity campaign around it and Stalin which caused the project to have priority on all the resources it needed. Many prominent people had their reputations tied to this project including Stalin’s successor,  Khrushchev.  It was built as one of the crowning achievements of the pre-WWII era and drew thousands of tourists from across the Soviet Union to marvel at the capital’s Metro system. The decision to construct and underground Metro instead of relying on the above ground trolley system would prove invaluable as it would serve as bomb shelters during the German bombardments of the city in WWII.

When construction started, the Soviets used German Metro construction techniques of open pit construction that both made construction easier, but faster as well. However, the downsides were that the Metro lines had to run along existing infrastructure instead of going straight from point A to B and that it massively disrupted the daily lives of Moscow’s citizenry.  Eventually, the Soviets adopted British techniques that allowed them to work deep underground without disrupting the lives of the people which I am sure they appreciated it as much we appreciate not having to go around construction. The British method required them to move construction deeper underground which forced the builders to scratch the elevators and install a new escalator system to move the massive amounts of foot traffic. The construction of the Metro system was plagued by a shortage of skilled workers, but those who did work were highly revered for decades to come. The manner of the construction of the Metro system allowed it to be easily expandable in the next decades that allowed it to reach the edges of the ever growing Moscow.

The first line opening in May 1935 to hundreds of thousands of passengers. The amount of passengers increased dramatically in its first months, increasing from 159,000 daily passengers in January to 261,000 daily passengers in February 1936. Over the course of the first year, the Metro system would average 360-400,000 passengers a day, surpassing the volume of the Paris Metro. It would carry an annual total of 110.7 million passengers for its first year and would continue to grow.

One fascinating part of the history is that different aspects related to it develop independently from the government. The Metro would be regarded as a palace to ordinary people would had never seen such marvels before that were buried deep underground. Underground children began to be picked up in the middle of tunnels during the nights and ferried across the city. The people of 20th Century Moscow faced the same problems we do like one man would tried to catch a train, but got his head stuck in the doors and was nearly killed when the train began to set off. Eventually, the Moscow Metro would serve as a meeting spot for young people to meet and fall in love.


Freeze, Gregory L. Russia: A History. 3rd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.

The Moscow Metro


1929: Make a ‘Great turn’ away from religion and into the factories

I’m Going Over to the Six-Day Work Week (1929) Heavenly Powers: Guards! They have a knife! Save me! Source: Bezbozhnik u stanka. Moscow: M.K.R.K.P.. 1923.

The Soviet disdain for religion had been well known in society when the crackdown began in 1929, but its efforts stretched back to even before the founding of the USSR. It didn’t help the Orthodox church that it was a central institutions in the Russian Empire and helped lend legitimacy to the Tsar. The Bolsheviks viewed the church with hatred and thus were staunch atheists and had no compassion for the church either as an institution or belief system.  The beginning of the crackdown on the church began in 1918 with the implementation of a new criminal code regarding religion that severally limited the power and scope of both the national institution, but also local parishes. However, it was not until 1923 and new Criminal codes designed to break the national organization of the church that really laid the groundwork for the mass persecutions of 1929 which were targeting local parishes and churches.

The persecutions of 1929 also had to coincide with massive economic reforms being put out by Stalin designed to ramp up industrial output. The central government did this by issuing new policies that rearranged the work week designed to keep machines constantly working. This policy lead to many malfunctions and breakdowns as is natural when running machinery 24/7, but in the short term this was seen a necessary and errors could be overlooked.  It is obvious why it would be necessary to attack the religion of the USSR in order to make the majority of people work on Sundays and religious holidays which would interfere with constant production. The central government also instituted a seven hour work day with a half hour break for lunch up from a six hour work day in order to keep pace with the desire for greater economic output.

Destruction of Church Bells (1929) For industrial reuse of metal (Mozhaisk 1929) Source: Corley, Felix, ed.: Religion in the Soviet Union: an Archival Reader. New York: New York University Press. 1996.

The persecution of the churches across the USSR lead to looting by the mobs and authorities in particular. They were after the religious objects which were clad in gold and once melted down and recast would dramatically increase the gold reserves of the Soviet Union which it desperately needed. Another set of objects that the churches had were their cast iron bells which the government wanted in order to use in industry. Why waste good iron that is just sitting there waiting to never be used since you’ve already ransacked the churches.  The church property was seized and the buildings became used as warehouses or schools while the extensive holdings the churches had were put to use by the state.

Yet, this mass assault on the Orthodox churches didn’t go over well with the masses of peasants who were still quite religious and wanted to preserve their churches. It is obvious that the local governments took a lot of leaway when it came towards the churches and could be quite harsh. Ignoring the populace and rolling ahead produced a large response in local villages with some individuals being quite bold.

The Godless Ones (1928) An antireligious demonstration in Krasnaia Presnia district of Moscow. Trotsky, Rockefeller and Ford on the cross. Source: Russian State Film & Photo Archive at Krasnogorsk. 2000.

Here is an anti-religious march in Moscow which occurred in 1928, one year before the mass attacks began. The main figures being held up and mocked are the effigies of Rockefeller, Ford, and Trotsky. I think that you can tell that a main point for the Soviets when they attacked the churches was that they are as bad as the Capitalists who led them to ruin while they were exploited. It is very interesting how at this point it is very obvious that Stalin was victorious in the power struggle that erupted following the death of Lenin and that Trotsky has been forced out of the government . Stalin’s efforts to de-legitimize Trotsky seemed to have completely worked at this point at the father of the Red Army is now considered as despicable to the Soviet people as the ‘Robber Barons’ of the capitalist United States. I think it is interesting how Rockefeller and Ford were so successful in business that they became the go to symbols of Capitalism and the west.



Freeze, Gregory L. Russia: A History. 3rd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Sistematicheskoe sobranie zakonov RSFSR (Moscow: Iurid. izd-vo NKIU RSFSR, 1929), text 353. Sobranie uzakonenii i rasporiazhenii, 1929, No. 35, stat’ia 353, reproduced with commentary in N. Orleanski, Zakon o religioznykh ob’edineniyakh RSFSR (Moscow, 193)

Sbornik zakonov S.S.S.R., No. 63 (1930), Art. 586.

Sbornik zakonov S.S.S.R., No. 2 (1929), Art. 30.

Neizvestnaia Rossiia, XX vek (Moscow: Istoricheskoe nasledie, 1992), Vol. I, pp. 34-35.

Trotsky’s Train: Railway to Victory

Image result for Leon trotsky's train

The Red Sotnia, which translates to Red One hundred was Leon Trotsky’s elite personal body guard and were the early twentieth century equivalent of the Secret service and manned what can be considered the early twentieth century equivalent of Air Force One. The train acted as an early version of a mobile Pentagon allowing Trotsky to go to where he was needed and to have an organization that was capable of carrying out his strategy.

One reason for the Bolshevik victory over white forces in the civil war was Trotsky’s decision to allow former imperial officers to command Red Army units which gave it the experience and knowledge to effectively combat the White forces. These former Imperial officers did not have to be persuaded too much and constituted nearly seventy-five percent of the Red Army officers at the start of the war and only grew as it progressed. There was also a fail safe by the Bolsheviks would installed political officers who would have to co-sign orders from officers. This decisions would have ramifications on the future of the coming Soviet Union as Stalin used this decision as ammunition against Trotsky during the power both before and after Lenin’s death. Trotsky made additional reforms including establishing the GRU which was the main intelligence arm of the Red Army. In addition from building an organizational structure from the former Red Guards, he also helped the Red Army to grow from ~300,000 in its initial stages to nearly 3,000,000 by the end of the Russian Civil War.

Trotsky instituted a new meritocracy within the Red Army where people who succeeded got promoted and those who did not faced the consequences regardless of social class. Trotsky’s efforts to reform the Red Army helped lay the foundation of it being the most important agency in the Soviet Union.

The railway was a crucial link that kept the Bolshevik forces from being overrun. Since the Bolsheviks kept control of central European Russia, it allowed them to have a compact enough territory to where they could easily transport supplies and troops where they were needed. Also, since they controlled the heart of the old Russian Empire, they had control over the network of railways that had first helped spread the revolution now allowed the Red Army to have a huge logistical advantage over the White Forces white were spread far and in between from the west, south along the Volga river and Siberia.

A main reason why the Bolsheviks were able to keep the various fronts well supplied and manned was because of the bureaucracy that they had developed to organize their resources. They effectively declared martial law and kept the populace under control with the work of the secret police or Cheka. The Cheka were also useful in curtailing the desertion among the Red Army ranks as those who did were severely punished in addition to keeping order in the diverse ranks.

Image result for Leon trotsky's train

Trotsky would travel to the various fronts to personally talk to the soldiers in order to both inspire and drive them to victory.  This was extremely important during the White push from the south that threatened to turn the tide of the war.  He was a larger than life figure who despite having little experience, organized the Red Army and can largely be thanked for helping to win the Russian Civil War. I think that is very interesting how a man so gifted in the conduct of war was not able to navigate the post-war politics of the Soviet Union that led to his exile and death. If he had lived, the USSR might have had a completely different history, but at least thanks to him it was given a chance to have one.


Freeze, Gregory L. Russia: A History. 3rd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Bloody Sunday: The Match that lit the Revolution

The massacre in early January 1905 did not begin as a riot or revolt, but simply an organized march by poor urban workers desperate to petition the Tsar who they loved for help. The march began a year earlier in 1904 following the breakdown of the Zubatov experiment, which were police-sponsored trade unions, but they failed to pass any meaningful reforms. An Orthodox priest named Georgii Gapon organized thousands of people into a group called the Assembly of Russian Factory Workers. As the group grew, some people who became Gapon’s closest aides were former Marxists themselves and exposed the workers involved to western labour movements and civil rights. Gapon’s group had in its infancy been sponsored by the police to provide a safe outlet for grievances that was not connected to the radicals. The march began when some Assembly member workers at the Putilov factory were let go with no justification and with it being very possible it was an attempt to limit the groups influence. A city-wide strike then occurred throughout St. Petersburg and a decision was made to hold a massive march to petition the Tsar himself.

The petition was crafted by former Marxists, but also had large input from the workers themselves. They wanted many new reforms that we today might think of as just and reasonable. They included civil reforms such as separation of church and state, equality under the law, universal and compulsory education, and government ministers accountable to the people. They also included economic reforms such as eight-hour work days, regulation of overtime work, wage regulation, progressive tax reform and freedom for trade unions. In an interesting point, they also requested the ability of the people to be able to terminate a war. This was likely included because Russia was fighting the Japanese in east Asia and were losing. The war had the effect of keeping many experienced Russian troops in the far east and away from the powder keg of European Russia.

When they began their march to the Winter Palace to address the Tsar himself, Nicholas II decided to not be in the city so they could not put forth their petition to him. The marchers were comprised of the workers, but also their wives, children and the old, many of whom were at the front of the march. They carried Orthodox crosses and icons and sang patriotic songs, which included songs praising the Tsar. When the marchers reached the gates of the Winter Palace, the chief of security police, Grand Duke Vladimir, the Tsar’s uncle, attempted to stop the marchers and then opened fired on the marchers killing at least 100 and injuring many hundreds more in the ensuing chaos.

Image result for bloody sunday russia

When word reached the rest of Russia, there was outrage and strikes and militancy sprang up, beginning in the industrial centers and was spread by the vast railroad connections throughout the country. This incident and the resulting Revolution of 1905 would lay the groundwork for the larger and far reaching Revolution that would bring down the Tsar.


Freeze, Gregory L. Russia: A History. 3rd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.,_January_9th,_1905_(Bloody_Sunday)

Bloody Sunday – What does it mean to America?

The Emir of Bukhara

The Emir of Bukhara, Alim Khan who ruled from late 1910 until 1920 when he was forced to flee into Afghanistan to escape the Red Army. Here he is pictured in 1911 by Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii who used a special process using several different color filters and sandwiching them together to create color images.

The Emir ruled over the the Emirate of Bukhara in Central Asia, much of it being in modern-day Uzbekistan. The Emir was an absolute monarch and had control over internal matters of Bikhara, but was a vassal of the Russian Empire since the Russian conquest of Samarkand in 1868. When Emir Alim ascended to the thrown, he originally was open to pursuing reforms, but became more interested with his own position and ruled as an autocratic until he was forced to flee to Afghanistan where he lived until his death in Kabul in 1944. He was the last Emir of the Manghit dynasty to rule the Emirate of Bukhara.

The story of the Emir Alim is similar to that of Nicolas II with both refusing to carry necessary forms and who both lost their positions of absolute monarchs to the tide of revolution.


Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii. The Emir of Bukhara, 1911. Digital color rendering. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, LC-DIG-ppmsc-03959 (5)