Home > Political Animal > Siberia, Chechnya and Sevastopol
Siberia, Chechnya and Sevastopol
By Jim Sack
Fort Wayne Reader
Latvia. March 1995.
I asked my hosts why all the Latvian flags draped with black crepe. My hosts said it commemorated the forced deportation to Siberia by Stalin during WWII of some 250,000 Latvian leaders. It was one of a score of major deportations Stalin directed after he took power in the 1930s. He deported Lithuanians, Estonians, Finns, Germans, Romanians, Chechens, Greeks, Tatars, Koreans, Poles, Jews and a dozen other peoples from their traditional lands to the frozen desolation of eastern Russia. Great numbers of deportees died along the way changing forever the way the world would look at that great expanse of tundra and taiga. In the process, Stalin encouraged ethnic Russians to resettle in the homes of the Latvians and Kalmuks, Finns and Romanians and thus earned the epithet, Breaker of Nations. My hosts were beneficiaries of his policies: they were two young Russians at the end of the Second World War who answered Soviet calls to "resettle the west." By 1995 they were stateless - Latvia had declared independence from the Soviet Union which itself collapsed in 1991. Their Soviet passports were useless and they were not much welcome in Latvia which by then was more Russian than Latvian.
Russia had been expanding since the times of Peter the Great and accelerated their expansion during the rule of Catherine the Great and continuing eastward in their version of Manifest Destiny. Countless wars were fought with European peoples to the west as well as the clans, tribes and peoples of the Caucasian Mountains, then later against the peoples of the Far East.
After the Russo-Turkish War of 1812 Romania soldiers returned home after fighting alongside the Czarist Russian Army only to learn that instead of gaining spoils from the victory the infant nation would be forced to cede a third of its lands to Russia. The Romanians were dumbfounded, but were powerless to stop the annexation of what was then Bessarabia and is now known as Moldova. The Russians wanted it, took it and the European powers merely stood by. Again, in 1878, after fighting once more with the Russians all the way to the center of Constantinople, Russia took more of Romania as a way of saying thanks. When Russia collapsed in 1918 Romania regained Bassarabia only to have it taken again by Stalin in 1940 who repopulated the area with Russians. Romania regained Bessarabia in 1941 and surrendered it to the Soviets again in 1944. Today, some 20,000 Russian troops are based in Moldova, only a day's tank time from Bucuresti, a NATO ally.
Into the valley of death rode the 600. Tennyson's poem was set just outside of the Hero City of Sevastopol on the Crimean. British cavalry were sent to ride into a horseshoe of Russian cannon which resulted in the slaughter of man and horse thanks to an officer's blunder. The Light Brigade charged up the valley until no more. They, in alliance with the French and Sardinians, were there to stop the southward Russian advance against the Ottoman Turkish Empire. The Russians wanted a warm water port for purposes of trade and expansion and they were prepared to take it by force of arms. For over one hundred years they had been pushing against the Ottomans. Between 1853 and 1856 Some 200,000 Russians died fighting for the Crimea. A hundred years later Sevastopol would gain Heroic City status in the Soviet Union for its "to-the-last-man" (and child) defense of the city against the Nazis. In the 1856 peace treaty the Crimea went to Russia and the Black Sea was demilitarized.
In a brutal war of conquest that last nearly 80 years Russian Czarist forces "conquered" the mountaineers of Chechnya only to find themselves in a simmering insurrection that lasts today. Russian troops made their reputation on summary executions, rape and theft. During WWII Stalin deported nearly every Chechen and replaced them with Russians. After the war many Chechens returned to their villages only to find their homes gone and Stalinist high-rises in their place. The guerrilla war quickly resumed and continues to this day with Chechen fighters striking into the heart of Russia and Russian soldiers using rape, murder and extortion as tools of war.
The Great Famine was started that year and over time resulted in some 7 million Ukrainians dying. It was Stalin's way of dealing with Ukrainian reluctance to join his system of collective farms. Crops and animal were confiscated, and a cordon strung around the fertile farming area to break the will of the Ukrainians. Again, he repopulated Ukraine with ethnic Russians to bring it closer to Moscow. Seven million.
Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt met in this Crimean resort town of palm trees and verdant hills to plan the war against Japan and the division of Germany. Churchill and Roosevelt also naively gave Stalin a free hand in Eastern Europe. Poland, Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria would be in the Soviet sphere of influence in exchange for a promise of free elections of the sort we just saw in Crimea. Hundreds of thousands were deported or shot.
A popular uprising forced out the repressive Communist government by dint of numbers. Within a few days columns of Russian tanks were streaming into the country and the molotov cocktail was born. Hungarian Freedom Fighters put up a very stubborn resistance and managed to kill thousands of Russian soldiers by either electrocuting them in their tanks with downed power lines or tossing the petrol bombs into the Russian vehicles. Thousands of Hungarians crossed the Bridge at Andau into Austria, but estimates suggest around 30,000 citizens were killed by the Soviets during and after the uprising. The West did nothing to help.
Prague Spring. Communism with a Human Face. Those were slogans used to describe a temporary end to the repressive Communist Czechoslovakian government supported by the Soviet Russians. Again, as the West quietly watched Russian tanks entered the center of Prague and other Czechoslovakian cities only to be met by peaceful protesters who argued with the tankers in Russian. Purges followed. The West did nothing.
The short of it is that the Russians are brutal in dealing with their neighbors and Putin is no different than the Czars or the Commissars of Soviet times. In eastern Europe no one really believes the NATO alliance will protect them should Moscow want to reimpose dominion over their smaller countries. The Russians are feared and hated at once and in Moldova, the Don Basin, Latvia and Belarus there is considerable fear that tanks will roll again and that no one in the West has the will or the stomach to face down Putin anymore than Chamberlain had the will to deal with Hitler. In short, everybody in Europe is nervous from Bucharest to Berlin to Birmingham. Everyone.