Posts Tagged ‘Joseph Stalin’

The Life and Death of Lenin

August 24, 2015

I am a fan of Isaac Asimov‘s science fiction stories, particularly of his Foundation series. In this series of books, a mathematician named Hari Seldon invents a way to predict the future through the mathematics of probability, which he calls Psychohistory.  It is not possible to predict the future actions of an individual person or even small groups of people. Psychohistory only works which large populations, entire worlds and nations. By using psychohistory Seldon learns  that the Galactic Empire, which has existed for thousands of years, is falling and the galaxy will enter into a dark age lasting for many millennia if nothing is done. It is too late to avert the fall of the Empire, but Seldon hopes to shorten the interregnum between the First and Second Galactic Empires to merely a thousand years by setting up two Foundations at opposite ends of the galaxy that will preserve the scientific knowledge that would otherwise be lost and to lead the way to the reunification of the galaxy.

Could there really be such a method of calculating the future as Isaac Asimov’s psychohistory? In order for something like that to work, history would have to be determined by great economic and social forces and the choices of individuals, even great generals and kings, would have to be inconsequential. Carlyle’s Great Man Theory would have to give way to Spencer’s theory that even great men are mere products of their environment.

For my part, I do not believe that psychohistory could really be possible. I think that great men, and women, really do alter the course of history. There are just so many ways in which history could have turned out very differently, if the personalities of the persons involved has been different. Imagine the American Revolution without George Washington or Germany after the First World War without a Hitler. Then too, there ware the completely unpredictable workings of nature. Climate change has had a greater effect on the rise and fall of empires than is generally recognized. Diseases like the Black Death can appear due to chance mutations of a virus or bacteria and kill half the population of a continent with little warning.

I could give many examples, but the one that I would like to consider is the life and death of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, the founder of the Bolshevik Party and the first leader of the USSR. Before the Russian Revolutions of 1917, there were many socialist factions seeking reform or revolution in Russia, some Marxist, some not. Among all these parties, Lenin’s party, the Bolsheviks were the most radically Marxist and the most given to violence and terrorism. Lenin and his lieutenants had no use for the kind of parliamentary reforms that more moderate groups wanted to bring to Russia, nor did he care for reforms to improve the conditions of the masses. Lenin and the Bolsheviks wanted revolution.When the Czar was overthrown in February, 1917 and a republican Provisional  Government set up, the Bolsheviks played almost no role in the great affairs. Lenin was still in exile and wanted his party to have no part in bourgeoisie elections. The party would seize power in a Communist revolution.

It is important to understand that this decision to seize power was entirely Lenin’s. None of the other leading Bolsheviks thought it was a good idea and properly speaking, as good Marxists, the Bolsheviks ought not to have led a revolution at all. Marx has very definite ideas on how Communism was supposed to come about. He believed that every society moved through stages, from the primitive socialism of savages to the great slave states of the ancient world, to feudalism,  capitalism, socialism, and finally communism. Since Russia was still emerging from feudalism into capitalism, Lenin ought to have waited until capitalism was fully developed in Russia before leading the revolution. Lenin, however, realized that the Bolsheviks would never have a better chance for power than while the Russian government and economy were in a state of collapse.



Lenin’s rule as the first leader of the Soviet Union was a disaster for the Russian people. All of the totalitarian aspects of the communist regime that are usually attributed to Joseph Stalin’s tyranny had their beginnings with Lenin. Lenin was the one who setup the Checka, the secret police and it was Lenin who established the Gulags and the use of terror to subdue the population. Yet, despotic as Lenin was, Stalin was far worse and it was doubly unfortunate for the Russian people that Lenin’s premature death in 1924 led to the assumption of power by Stalin.


In the year before his death, Lenin was increasingly uneasy over events in the Soviet Union. The great revolution did not seem to be leading to a communist utopia but had exchanged the tyranny of the Czar with the tyranny of the commissar. Lenin began to consider ways of making the Soviet state more representative of the workers it purported to serve. Lenin was also becoming aware that Stalin, while a good man to have around in a revolution, was wholly unsuited to wielding power after the revolution. Lenin decided that Stalin had to be relieved of his powerful position of Party General Secretary. If Lenin had lived a normal lifespan, it is likely that he would have succeeded in unseating Stalin.  It is less likely that he would have made the Soviet regime in any sense democratic. Lenin’s own autocratic personality prevented him from ever really seeing that the cause of the increasingly oppressive regime was his own reluctance to allow anyone outside the Communist Party from gaining any real independence from the rule of the Party. Still, if Lenin had not died, the rule of the Communist Party, while still despotic, would not have reached the insane level of repression as it did under Stalin. The history of the twentieth century might have been very different, depending on whether Lenin lived or died.

Lenin was only 53 when he died following a series of strokes over the previous year which progressively weakened him. After his death, an autopsy showed that he had advanced arteriosclerosis in his brain with some blood vessels completely calcified. The arteriosclerosis was far worse than might be expected in a man of Lenin’s age, especially as he had none of the risk factors that might be associated with the disease. Lenin did not smoke, was moderate in his diet, and exercised regularly. He was under a considerable amount of stress as leader of a nation in a civil war and which had to be rebuilt almost from the ground up. Still, such an advanced case of arteriosclerosis at Lenin’s age is unusual, particularly considering that the worst buildup of plaque was in the blood vessels of his brain. The blood vessels in the rest of Lenin’s body were no more afflicted by the disease than might be expected by a man of his age and habits. Something strange was going on.

Recently, researchers have discovered that a mutation in a single gene can cause a selective buildup of the plaque that causes arteriosclerosis in the legs. Could Lenin have suffered from a similar genetic disorder that caused such a buildup in the brain? Lenin’s father also suffered from cardiovascular disease, dying of heart disease at the age of 54. While it is not yet confirmed that Lenin himself suffered from a genetic defect that specifically targeted the blood vessels of the brain, it is clear that there was some sort of hereditary predisposition for cardiovascular disease.

Getting back to psychohistory, I do not see how any method of predicting the future could account for the life and death of Lenin. It would not be difficult to predict the fall of the Czar many years before it happened. It may not have been too difficult to predict that the most radical faction of the revolutionaries seeking the overthrow of the Czar would end up in control. Other revolutions have seen similar outcomes. But how could anyone predict that a small splinter faction would end up seizing power in a coup? Remember that Lenin was the only Bolshevik who thought such a coup had any chance of success. If Lenin had still been in exile, the October Revolution wouldn’t have happened and either some other Marxist faction would have gained power, or the Provisional Government would have had time to get things settled down enough to establish a more permanent government. Even if it were possible to account for the rise of the Bolsheviks, how could anyone predict in advance that their leader suffered from a genetic defect that would kill him prematurely and pave the way for a psychopath like Stalin to gain power?

I think that it is clear that it is individuals who make history, either by the decisions of the great ones, or the actions of millions of lesser people. The social and economic forces that historians like Spencer believe that drive the course of history are nothing more than the trillions of actions made by billions of people over time with considerable influence brought on by unpredictable natural events. Psychohistory will probably have to stay in the realm of fiction.


If D-Day Had Failed

June 9, 2014

I meant to write this on D-Day but with work and my own laziness, I procrastinated. Still, better late than never. There was an article which I read courtesy of Real Clear Politics, titled 5 Ways D-Day Could Have Been a Disaster written by Michael Peck  and published on D-Day in The National Interest. This article listed five ways in which things could have gone very wrong on that fateful June 6, 1944. Because the Allies did win World War 2, we are used to thinking that it was inevitable that they would win, but that is by no means certain. Launching an amphibious assault on the shores of Normandy was a terribly risky thing to do. Even under the best conditions sea-borne invasions are difficult and dangerous. The odds were against success No one knew that better than General Eisenhower. Before the battle he had written a brief statement to be released to the press in the event of failure. Eisenhower and his staff took extraordinary measures to keep the location of the invasion secret, even preparing a phantom army commanded by General Patton that seemed to be poised to land at Calais. If the Germans had discovered the location of the actual invasion and had troops ready to defend the beaches, the Normandy invasion would have been over almost before it began.

Reflection on D-Day

Reflection on D-Day (Photo credit: DVIDSHUB)

What would have happened if the Allied troops landing at Normandy had been defeated? The overall course of the war might not have changed all that much. Germany still would have lost. The destruction of the Sixth Army at Stalingrad the previous year ended any realistic hope of a German victory. The Soviet army would have continued to fight its way east. The British and Americans would have continued to fight in Italy. The invasion of southern France that took place in August might have gone ahead. Then again that invasion was successful because there had been a breakout from Normandy. Perhaps in the wake of a defeat it would have been deemed too risky.

There probably would have been another attempt to liberate France. The buildup for a second invasion would have taken time. It may be that the second attempt would not have been made until the following summer. World War 2 might have lasted for another year. If so the Soviets might have been able to move further west than they actually did. Maybe the meeting of the Allies would have taken place on the Rhine instead of the Elbe. Instead of a divided Germany, there would have been a united Communist Germany. That would have changed the balance of power in Europe in Russia’s favor. Maybe, with Soviet troops on their borders, the French and Italian Communists would have been more emboldened to seize power after the war. There is no way to know.

There are a couple of wild cards. Joseph Stalin was not a trusting man and he always suspected that the Allies were planning to fight Hitler to the last Russian.  This was why he agreed to the Ribbontrop-Molotov pact. He continually demanded that Roosevelt and Churchill open up a second front to relieve the Soviet Union. After a failure at Normandy, Stalin might have concluded that either the invasion was not really meant to succeed or that an invasion couldn’t succeed. Stalin might then have considered trying to negotiate an armistice with Hitler. Stalin wouldn’t have trusted Hitler, after Hitler had double crossed him by invading the Soviet Union and he certainly wouldn’t have forgiven him. Stalin, however, was patient and had often made strategic retreats in his rise to power in order to lull his enemies into complacency. Stalin might have decided to try for a separate peace until Hitler was engaged with the British and the Americans and then launched an attack.

I think this outcome unlikely, though. In 1944 the Red Army had the initiative and was steadily driving the Germans back. Stalin probably wouldn’t have wanted to slow or stop their momentum. Even if he had sued for an armistice, it is unlikely Hitler would have agreed. A Hitler who allowed the disaster at Stalingrad to take place and who ordered his army not to retreat one inch was not thinking very rationally.

Another wild card was the atomic bomb. The first atomic bomb was detonated at Alamogordo, New Mexico on July 16, 1945. By this time Germany had already surrendered. There was thus no question of using the bomb on the Germans. If the fighting was still going on, things would have been different. Since Truman authorized the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as much to deter the Soviets from post war aggression as to defeat Japan, the atomic bomb would have been used on Germany. Perhaps the first atomic bombs would have been dropped on Munich and Hamburg. I don’t think that Hitler would have surrendered, even then. By the end of the war, he had become nihilistic enough to prefer Germany destroyed rather than occupied. An atomic bombing of Germany might have sparked a coup among his top officials and generals.

If the first two atomic bombs had been dropped on Germany in August, 1945, what of Japan? We only had the three atomic bombs, so none would have been available to use on Japan. The Japanese were clearly defeated by then, but they had some hope that as long as an invasion of Japan itself was prevented there could be some sort of negotiated peace. Since the die-hard militarists did not surrender even when the first atomic bomb was used at Hiroshima in Japan, the use of the atomic bombs on Germany probably would not have convinced them. The Soviet Union declared war on Japan on August 8, just as the second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki and the war ended, so the Soviet Union did not have much influence on post war Japan. If the war had lasted longer, perhaps Russia and America would have invaded Japan  and the country would have been divided as Germany was. I don’t think the US would have attempted a landing on Japan after we realized that the atomic bomb was workable. I think that more bombs would have been rushed into production and the US would have intensified conventional bombing. I do not think that the Soviets had the capability to launch an amphibious assault on Japan.

Of course, there is no way to know what would have happened if D-Day had failed and maybe my speculations are not very realistic. I think it is obvious, however, that things could have gone very badly. World War 2 could have lasted longer and more men might have died. We all owe the brave men who fought at Normandy a debt of gratitude that we will never be able to repay.

D-Day 65th Anniversary

D-Day 65th Anniversary (Photo credit: The U.S. Army)

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Ilya Ivanovich Ivanov

August 26, 2013
Ilya Ivanovich Ivanov (biologist)

Ilya Ivanovich Ivanov (biologist) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A favorite character trope of science fiction and low budget horror movies is the mad scientist. The mad scientist is a scientist who is, well, mad, or at least eccentric. He works in his laboratory alone, or with a trusted minion. His researches are often considered beyond the bounds of respected science and he is either indifferent or oblivious of the moral and ethical implications of his discoveries. He could be evil, good, or amoral. The mad scientist is not always found in science fiction, however. There have actually been real mad scientists. Perhaps the maddest of these mad scientists was Ilya Ivanovich Ivanov. He was not mad in the psychiatric sense, but he was certainly willing to push the boundaries of scientific ethics. He is most famous for his attempts to create a human-ape hybrid. He was never successful, thank goodness, but that was not for lack of effort on his part.

Ivanov was born in 1870 in the town of Shchigry in Russia. He attended the University of Kharkov and graduated in 1896. He became a professor of biology at that institution in 1907. Ivanov was an associate of Ivan Pavlov. He also worked as a research veterinarian and his primary contribution to that science was the development of methods of artificial insemination which he could use on animals, especially horses. Ivanov was able to use the semen of a single stallion to impregnate 500 mares, far more that any stallion could manage naturally. Horse breeders from around the world studied his methods and he was put to work breeding fancy horses for the ruling Romanov dynasty. Ivanov was fascinated by the idea of creating animal hybrids from species that would never even consider mating with each other in the wild. He was able to create hybrids of antelopes and cows, guinea pigs and rabbits, and zebras and donkeys. The Czar and his court were fascinated by these hybrids and while the Russian Orthodox Church frowned on artificial insemination, at least in humans, Ivanov’s future seemed assured.

Unfortunately the Romanovs were overthrown in 1917 and the Bolsheviks seized control of Russia. The Bolsheviks did not have any use for fancy animals of any sort and Ivanov was out of a job. His troubles with the Orthodox Church seemed a recommendation to the militantly atheist Communists so he was able to find work at the State Experimental Veterinary Institute. At some point he had begun considering the possibility of making a human-chimpanzee hybrid. Chimpanzees were believed to be the animal most closely related to humans and he had managed to create hybrids from species farther apart, so the experiment seemed worth trying. He needed funding from the newly created Soviet government. Since the Soviet Union was just recovering from a devastating civil war, right after a disastrous experience in World War I, it might seem that the possibility of his getting the needed funds was remote. He somehow managed to persuade the Communists that a human-chimpanzee hybrid would show that man was nothing more than just another animal and its existence would serve to discredit religion and promote Communism and atheism. The Soviet government bought his line. The rising political leader Joseph Stalin was especially enthusiastic and in 1925, he got his funding.

There are no apes native to any part of Russia, so Ivanov had to go abroad to begin his work. By 1926 he had made arrangements to conduct his experiments at a primate research facility in French Guinea. The conditions there were not ideal. The chimpanzees had been captured by poachers  and half had already died of neglect. None of the females were sexually mature, so Ivanov had to wait, while trying to gather more chimps. By February the following year, two females had become mature and Ivanov could begin at last. The two female chimps did not appreciate being sexually assaulted by a man with a syringe and his first attempts were not successful. He tried again the following spring with a sedated chimp. This attempt was also a failure.

With his chimps dying faster than they could be replaced, Ivanov decided he needed to change his procedures. He decided to return to the Soviet Union. Earlier, Ivanov had helped to establish a primate research facility in Georgia, the southernmost part of the USSR and the only territory with a climate that apes could flourish. He also decided that since it would be easier to keep one male than several females, that he would use chimpanzee semen to impregnate a human woman. He tried to make arrangements to acquire a male chimpanzee from a Cuban woman who kept a private reserve for apes, but the Ku Klux Klan learned of their plans and threatened her into withdrawing her support.

Back in Georgia, most of the remaining apes fell ill and died. The only remaining ape was an elderly orangutan. Ivanov sought for volunteers to be fertilized with the old apes semen. They had to be volunteers since the Soviet authorities decided that it would be too capitalist or bourgeois to offer money. As amazing as it may sound, Ivanov actually managed to find a woman willing to undergo the procedure. Ivanov now had only to collect the semen from the orangutan. Unfortunately, he died before Ivanov could get a sample. He would have to get more apes.

Before he had a chance to continue, however, Ivanov was arrested by the NKVD. According to stories that may or may not be true, Joseph Stalin had had visions of invincible armies of apemen working in factories and farms and advancing the Socialist cause in the Red Army. Stalin was growing impatient with Ivanov’s lack of progress and he reacted in his usual way, arresting people and shipping them off to concentration camps. Ivanov was comparatively lucky. He was only exiled to Kazakhstan. He was old and his health had become fragile, so Ilya Ivanovich Ivanov died of a stroke just before he was due to be released.

His death was considered a great loss to science in some quarters and his old colleague Ivan Pavlov wrote his obituary. No one has ever tried to produce human-ape hybrids since his death and it is unlikely anyone ever will, at least I hope.

If you want to know more about Ivan Ivanovich Ivanov, as well as many other DNA related matters, I cannot recommend highly enough Sam Kean’s The Violinist’s Thumb.

  • Oliver the Humanzee ( He wasn’t really, but a lot of people thought he was.

Statue of Stalin Restored in Georgia

December 26, 2012

I waited until after Christmas to publish this post because, frankly, it is more than a little depressing. It would seem that the genocidal dictator and top contender for the title of most evil man in history, Joseph Stalin, is actually a hero in his native Georgia. Here is the story at Bloomberg News.

Villagers in Georgia have restored a statue commemorating Josef Stalin, with residents of his birth town of Gori also considering plans to rebuild a monument to the former Soviet dictator.

The statue, which was removed last year, was reinstated in a ceremony yesterday in Alvani, in the Akhmeta region north-east of the capital Tbilisi. Villagers gave speeches, recited poems and talked of “happier times” during Stalin’s reign.

Stalin remains a divisive figure in his birthplace, with Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili having denounced statues of the Second World War leader as a reminder of the Soviet Union’s control of Georgia. Saakashvili’s party was unexpectedly defeated by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili’s opposition coalition in October. Ivanishvili has expressed willingness to improve ties with Russia.

“Long live Stalin, he liberated us from fascism and improved Georgians’ lives, while Saakashvili’s government did nothing but destroy the economic glory of Georgia,” Grisha Oniani, an entrepreneur who is collecting Stalinist memorabilia, told a crowd in Alvani.

The Stalin statue was removed from Gori in 2010. Georgia’s parliament voted to ban Soviet symbols in 2011, 20 years after the country declared independence from the Soviet Union. Georgia and Russia fought a five-day war over the breakaway region of South Ossetia in 2008 and relations between the two countries remain tense.

It is not as if Stalin showed any particular favoritism towards his native land while he ruled the Soviet Union. I found an extensive history of Georgia under Stalin’s rule here. There is quite a lot there and I can’t do any more than give a few highlights. It is enough to say that the Georgians have no reason to honor Stalin. He was the worst thing to ever happen to that country.

To start with, Stalin took a harder line on the trans-Caucasian nationalities than Lenin or Trotsky did. Lenin wanted to avoid a bloody conquest of the region, even if it meant leaving the Bolshevik’s rivals, the Mensheviks in power. Stalin wanted to crush an independent Georgia in order to destroy his personal enemies there. Stalin ultimately got his way in this. Stalin was also in favor of the “Russification” of the Soviet Union, promoting the Russian language and culture at the expense of the other nationalities, including Georgia. Stalin’s collective farming campaigns hit Georgia even worse than Russia and the Ukraine, as did his purges. Many thousands of Georgian died and many more had little choice but to flee to the woods and mountains and try to fight for their lives. The selection ends with this assessment of the most famous Georgian.

Stalin’s death removed from the world stage the most formidable Georgian of all time, a man who combined almost superhuman tenacity and force of character with quite subhuman cruelty and criminality. He took over a Russia backward and divided, and pitchforked it forcibly into the twentieth century. By methods which cannot be condoned by any standards of human or divine morality, he fashioned the social and industrial springboard from which the Soviet Union today is leaping irresistibly forward as one of the two dominant world powers of our generation.

It is a strange and inverted world in which this monster has a statues raised in his honor anywhere in the world.

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