How and why the Soviets controlled kitchens

communal kitchen soviet union

One never ceases to be staggered by the lengths to which the Soviet Union went to in order to oppress its citizenry.

In the decades following the 1917 Russian Revolution, among myriad other indignities heaped upon the Russian populace, Soviet leaders embarked upon a concerted effort to root out, of all things, individual kitchens.

Soviet authorities considered kitchens and private apartments a threat to the regime because they were places people could gather to talk about politics, according to National Public Radio.

The kitchen represented something bourgeois, said Alexander Genis, a Russian writer and radio journalist.

“Every family, as long as they have a kitchen, they have some part of their private life and private property,” he said.

The effort to eliminate private kitchens was facilitated by the rapid urbanization that took place in the Soviet Union following the end of World War I, due in no small part to Soviet policy, according to the blog Russian Tumble:

“The demand for industrial workers in the cities exploded with the forced industrialization of the Five-Year Plans, while simultaneously the pressures of forced collectivization of agriculture, and its attendant chaos, violence and famine, gave those living in the vastness that was rural Russia all to more reason to move to the city.”

In addition, the Soviet Union, with its state-managed economy, offered no incentive for providing adequate housing or the amenities of life.

Continue reading

Italian cataclysm forged on Pact of Steel

pact of steel photo

The three main Axis powers of World War II made for an improbable combination. Imperial Japan seemed an unlikely partner for Nazi Germany, considering the latter’s focus on racial purity and the “master race.”

Both nations, however, were militaristic and bent on expansion, and both were at opposite ends from a common foe – the Soviet Union – so there was much in the union that made sense.

Germany’s alliance with Italy, however, was much less logical, at least from the Italian point of view.

Outside of being led by a pair of dictators who embraced fascism, there was actually a great deal of difference between Mussolini’s Italy and Hitler’s Germany when the Pact of Steel uniting the two countries was signed 75 years ago this month.

The two nations had fought on different sides in World War I, with Italy being a member of the victorious allies that laid down what Germans saw as the draconian terms of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919. And while Germany lost the First World War, it acquitted itself well while Italy’s performance was seen by many as less than spectacular.

Despite having invaded and captured Abyssinia (today’s Ethiopia) in the mid-1930s, assisted Franco in the Spanish Civil War and taken over Albania in 1939, Mussolini knew his country suffered from a number of military shortcomings.

It had relatively few tanks and those it did have were of poor quality; its artillery was of World War I variety; and the nation’s primary fighter was a biplane that was obsolete compared to monoplanes used by the other major countries. Also, while the Italian navy did have several modern battleships, it had no aircraft carriers.

Italy recognized its military inadequacies. Under terms of the Pact of Steel it was stipulated that neither country was to make war without the other earlier than 1943.

But recognizing his military was ill-prepared Mussolini declined to get involved when Germany invaded Poland in September 1939.

Italy finally joined the conflict on June 10, 1940, mostly because Mussolini, having seen the lightning speed with which Germany was dispatching its European foes, was afraid he’d get none of the spoils.

On June 17, 1940, the day France sought surrender terms from Germany, Mussolini ordered an Italian invasion of southern France.

Continue reading

Blast from the past has repercussions to present

La Provence

Ship disasters inevitably garner great attention, but not all disasters are created equal, it would seem.

Ask most Americans which peacetime shipwreck claimed the most lives, for example, and a significant number will assert the loss of the RMS Titanic in 1912. However, that catastrophe, which took 1,517 souls, doesn’t even make the top five.

Atop the list is the Doña Paz, a Philippine passenger ferry which collided with an oil tanker in December 1987 in the Tablas Strait. The resulting fire and sinking claimed nearly 4,400 individuals, nearly three times the loss of the fabled Titanic.

Likewise, ask a group of Americans to name the greatest wartime ship disaster and many will likely venture the RMS Lusitania, the British ship torpedoed by a German U-boat in the Irish Sea in 1915, taking 1,198 civilians and crew with it.

The Lusitania is among the best-known wartime ship disasters, but it’s not even close to being the worst in terms of fatalities.

In World War II alone, there were 15 separate sinkings which took the lives of 3,000 or more individuals, including the German transport vessel Wilhelm Gustloff, sunk by a Soviet submarine in 1945 with an estimated 9,400 deaths.

The Lusitania doesn’t even take top honors for World War I. There were three ships sunk in 1916 alone that resulted in more lives lost than the Lusitania: The SS Principe Umberto, a steamship sunk by an Austro-Hungarian submarine (1,926 deaths); the French troop transport SS Gallia, sunk by a German U-boat (1,338 deaths); and the British battle cruiser HMS Queen Mary, which exploded and sank during the 1916 Battle of Jutland (1,245 lives).

But as this year marks the 100thanniversary of the beginning of Great War, over the next four years it’s likely the Lusitania will garner the lion’s share of attention. That’s unfortunate because hundreds of ships were lost during the conflict, and each sinking created a ripple effect which touched thousands, if not tens of thousands of lives.

That’s not to say those who went down on the Lusitania don’t deserve to be recognized. The sinking served a propaganda coup for Allied forces working to convince the American public to side with their cause. But there were many other craft lost during the war that also deserve to be remembered.

One such vessel is SS La Provence, a former French ocean liner that had been converted to an auxiliary cruiser and was used to transport troops.

Continue reading

First British WWI death rife with sad ironies

Graves-of-the-first-last-British-soldiers-to-die-in-World-War-One-3101586

Several interesting facts stand out in a recent story by the British publication The Independent about the first British death of World War I, that of Pvt. John Parr, a bicycle scout who was killed by German troops in southern Belgium on Aug. 21, 1914:

Even more remarkable is that by the time Parr fell, tens of thousands of Belgian, German, Russian, Austrian and Serbian soldiers had already died, the first wave of death in a struggle that would claim more than 10 million lives.

Perhaps not surprising in a war in which hundreds of thousands of soldiers are still reported as missing in action nearly a century a later, Parr’s family didn’t receive confirmation of his death until after the cessation of hostilities more than four years later.

In fact, for many months, the British Army failed to report that Parr was dead or even missing, according to The Independent.

“His mother, Alice Parr … finally wrote a letter complaining that she had not heard from her son for months. The War Office replied curtly saying that it could not help,” according to the publication. “It was not until after the war that a soldier who had been on the same bicycle scouting mission finally confirmed the time and place of John Parr’s death.”

Continue reading

Remembering the notorious ‘Uranium Gulag’

Joachimsthal mine

One of the lesser-known aspects of the Soviet Gulag was the brutal slave labor camps located in the mountains of Czechoslovakia following World War II, where prisoners were exploited in order to provide uranium for the Soviets’ nascent atomic warfare program.

Shortly after the end of World War II, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin – recognizing the advantage the US had with its possession of atomic weaponry – sent the Red Army to capture one of the few areas then known to possess material that could be used in the construction of atomic bombs.

The Ore Mountains, which then marked the border between Czechoslovakia and Germany, first gained fame in the late 15th century as the site of a major silver discovery, with the Bohemian town of Joachimsthal taking on special significance as a source of the metal.

Also discovered around this time was pitchblende, a radioactive, uranium-rich ore, which early miners discarded as a waste byproduct.

Only at the beginning of the 20th century was it learned that pitchblende was a valuable commodity in and of itself. Within pitchblende, a variety of uraninite, Marie Curie discovered the element radium, and until the First World War Joachimsthal pitchblende was the only known source of radium in the world.

Also found within pitchblende is uranium. Like other elements, uranium occurs in slightly differing forms known as isotopes. The most common form of uranium is U-238, which makes up more than 99 percent of natural uranium found in the Earth’s crust.

However, another uranium isotope, U-235, while it is makes up less than 1 percent of the Earth’s uranium, is important because under certain conditions it can readily be split, yielding a tremendous amount of energy.

The atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in August 1945 derived its explosive power from the nuclear fission of uranium-235.

In late 1945 Stalin pressured the Czechoslovak government to sign a confidential treaty that would give Moscow the rights to material from mine, according to Tom Zoellner’s outstanding 2009 work “Uranium.”

Continue reading

Italian author, survivor of Russian Front, dies

italian prisoners of war on the eastern front

From the standpoint of the average soldier, there have been some pretty miserable military alliances over the past century.

The Australians and New Zealanders who ended up at Gallipoli in World War I at the behest of the British; Newfoundlanders cut down at the Somme, also fighting for the British; and most Arab soldiers who found themselves going up against Israelis between 1948 and 1973, would all have likely wondered what their nations had got them into.

But probably no group of Allies was more poorly served in the 20th century than those of Nazi Germany.

Hitler, who was only too happy to feed his own divisions into the seemingly endless maw of death that was World War II in his attempt to take over Europe, had absolutely no compunctions about frittering away the troops of collaborating nations.

Hundreds of thousands of Italian, Hungarian and Romanian soldiers, for example, perished in miserable conditions on the Eastern Front alongside their German partners.

One of the more striking accounts of this lesser-known aspect of the war was written by Eugenio Corti, an Italian officer who died earlier this month at 93.

Corti is best known for The Red Horse, a 1,000-page novel based on his experience during and after World War II. First published in 1983, it has gone through 25 editions.

But in his 1947 work Few Returned: Twenty-Eight Days on the Russian Front, Winter 1943-1943, Corti vividly described the utter hopeless of a soldier’s life on the Russian Front during the war.

Continue reading

Heir of last Austrian monarch: WWI inevitable

WWI_British_cemetery_at_Abbeville

The grandson of the last emperor of Austria-Hungary believes no one nation was responsible for World War I, and that if the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in June 1914 hadn’t triggered the conflict another event would have.

Karl Habsburg-Lothringen, grandson of Charles I, who ruled Austria-Hungary from 1916 until the end of the war two years later, told a group of European newspapers earlier this month that his family should not be blamed for causing the conflict that cost more than 10 million lives.

“If you were to simplify it, you could say that the shooting (of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary) in Sarajevo started the First World War,” he said. “But if there hadn’t been the shooting in Sarajevo, it would have kicked off three weeks later somewhere else.”

The fatal shooting of Franz Ferdinand, the heir to Austro-Hungarian throne, on June 28, 1914, by 19-year-old Bosnian Serb Gavrilo Princip is widely held to have begun a chain reaction that dragged much of Europe, including Russia, Germany, France and Britain, into war.

“It would be wrong to point the finger at one state,” Habsburg-Lothringen said. “If you do that, you would have to take into account that there were already significant tensions, especially between Germany and Russia, who had already started to mobilize their troops along the borders.”

Instead, Habsburg-Lothringen, 53, pointed to nationalism and militarism among the leading European nations as among the main causes for the war.

“Many were already in the starting blocks, waiting for the great conflict,” he said. “If you had to blame someone, then the greatest blame would lie with nationalism itself.”

Continue reading