38 percent of Russians show poor understanding of history

No less an authority than Alexander Solzhenitsyn understood that a considerable dissimilarity existed between Russia and the West. He lived in both, saw the good and bad in both and believed both had something to offer mankind.

What he wouldn’t have understood is that a sizeable percentage of Russians hold former Soviet dictator and mass murderer Joseph Stalin in high regard.

Russians have picked Stalin as the greatest figure in history, beating out President Vladimir Putin and poet Alexander Pushkin, according to a poll released today.

The poll, conducted in April by the Levada Centre, asked Russians to pick the greatest individuals of all time.

Stalin came out on top with 38 percent, while Putin shared second place on 34 percent with Pushkin, Russia’s beloved national poet.

Stalin’s predecessor Vladimir Lenin, Tsar Peter the Great and first man in space, Yuri Gagarin, came next in the list, with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in last place at 6 percent.

The list includes included just three foreigners: Napoleon Bonaparte, Albert Einstein and Isaac Newton.

Stalin is believed responsible for the deaths of as many as 25 million individuals, some executed during his political purges and many more dying in the Gulag, the vast prison camp systems, or through mass starvation such as the Holodomor.

Stalin was a monster on par with Hitler and Mao, and the fact that more than one-third of Russians consider him the greatest figure in history points out either great deficiencies in the Russian educational system, a voluntary myopia among many Russians regarding their past, or a combination of the two.

(Top: A cemetery for victims of the one of Stalin’s gulags in Vorkuta, in Russia’s Far North.)

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Soviet World War II hero dies in Chicago at age 94

Stepan-Borozenets

The only Hero of the Soviet Union living in the United States has died at age 94.

Stepan Borozenets, born in what was then the Soviet Socialist Republic of Kazakhstan in 1922, flew more than 100 missions during World War II, or, as it is known in Russia, the Great Patriotic War.

Flying an Ilyushin Il-2 Sturmovik, a ground-attack aircraft, he was shot down at least once and wounded on at least two different occasions.

Borozenets is credited with destroying great quantities of enemy equipment, as his unit destroyed tanks, locomotives, rail cars and vehicles, suppressed fire from dozens of antiaircraft and field artillery batteries, demolished warehouses and fuel and ammo dumps, and was credited with killing more than 1,200 Germans.

He was awarded the title of Hero of the Soviet Union on Aug. 18, 1945, for “exemplary performance of combat missions and for their heroism and courage,” according to the Russian news agency TASS.

Il-2 Sturmovik, similar to what Stepan Borozenets flew during World War II.

Il-2 Sturmovik, the model Stepan Borozenets flew during World War II.

Borozenets came to the US in 1995 for medical treatment and opted to remain in the States afterward, settling in Chicago, where he died this past Friday.

Despite spending more than 20 years in the US, Borozenets retained his Russian citizenship, according to TASS.

Borozenets was called up by the Red Army in April 1941, shortly before the Nazis began Operation Barbarossa – their invasion of the Soviet Union. After graduating from flight school, he was sent to the 2nd Belorussian Front in the fall of 1943.

The following July, Borozenets’ plane was shot down, but he managed to land the burning aircraft despite suffering serious injuries. In February 1945, while over Poland returning from a combat sortie, Borozenets was attacked by a group of German fighters and again wounded, but later returned to service.

Among other honors Borozenets received was the medal for the Capture of Königsberg, in recognition of participation in the battle to capture the East Prussian city of Königsberg from the Nazis in 1945.

Borozenets remained in the military service after the war, rising to the rank of colonel.

The US-Canadian Association of Veterans of the Airborne Troops of the Former USSR Countries has begun collecting funds for the erection of a monument to Borozenets in Chicago.

(Top: Stepan Borozenets in recent years, in a uniform with his many decorations.)

Memorial Day: Remembering three men from three wars

George Koon 2 cropped

It’s difficult to walk through any older Southern cemetery and not find gravestones identifying individuals who gave their lives for their country.

Even if one doesn’t include the hundreds of thousands of Confederate dead that dot cemeteries from Virginia to Florida, the Carolinas to Texas, there are many, many thousands who died in the line of duty, whether it was during the American Revolution, the War of 1812, the Indian Wars of the 1830s, the Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, or the other conflicts the US has been involved in over the past 240 years.

In a small church cemetery in the South Carolina Midlands rest the remains of three men who died during three major conflicts that the United States participated in during roughly the first half of the 20th century,

Each died in very different times under very different circumstances, yet all are buried in Old Lexington Baptist Church Cemetery within about 15 feet of each other.

Milton Wilkins Shirey was a private in Company B, 31st US Infantry Regiment who perished of pneumonia on Dec. 12, 1919, in Siberia, at age 19.

Gravestone for Pvt. Milton W. Shirey.

Gravestone for Pvt. Milton W. Shirey.

US involvement in Siberia is a little-known aspect of the Great War. President Woodrow Wilson sent several thousand troops to Vladivostok in 1918 following the October Revolution for a number of reasons, including aiding in the rescue 40,000 members of the Czechoslovak Legions, who were being held up by Bolshevik forces as they attempted to make their way along the Trans-Siberian Railway to the Pacific, where they hoped they could eventually make their way back around the world to the Western Front.

Also, Wilson wanted to protect large quantities of military supplies and railroad rolling stock that the US had sent to the Russian Far East in support of the prior Russian government’s war efforts on the Eastern Front.

Weather conditions made the Siberian experience a miserable one. There were problems with fuel, ammo, supplies and food, and horses suffered terribly in the sub-zero Russian winter.

Troops struggled, as well. During the American Expeditionary Force’s 19 months in Siberia, 189 soldiers, including Shirey, died.

It took four months for the US government to get Shirey’s body back home to South Carolina, where hundreds attended his funeral in April 1920.

Pvt. Ulysess S.G. Shealy, 23, was killed in action Sept. 27, 1944, in Italy. Details of his service, unit, and where he was killed are sketchy, but online records do show that Shealy’s remains weren’t returned to the US for burial until March 1949.

Gravestone for Pvt. Ulysess S. Shealy.

Gravestone for Pvt. Ulysess S. Shealy.

Given that 73,000 American dead from World War II are still missing in action, though, of course, presumed deceased, just the fact that Shealy’s body was returned to his home state was no small feat.

Finally there is the grave of Sgt. First Class George Walter Koon. Koon, 36, enlisted in the US Army in 1936 and served for nearly 15 years.

He was taken captive by Chinese forces on Dec. 1, 1950, after the Battle of the Ch’ongch’on River, a fierce conflict between Chinese and American troops.

Evidence shows he died of neglect, specifically malnutrition, gangrene and dysentery, while being marched from Kunu-ri to a POW camp along the Yalu River, military records show.

Sgt. Koon was one of 11 individuals whose bodies were found in a mass grave by US authorities, assisted by North Korean officials, in 2002. In 2005, Koon’s brother Carl gave a blood sample and the military was eventually able to match it with the remains.

A funeral service for Koon was held in May 2008 at Old Lexington Baptist Church Cemetery, 57 years after his death.

Three men, ranging from a 19-year old just out of high school to a career soldier nearly twice his age. Men whose causes of death ranged from illness, to wounds and neglect, to being killed in action. Men who died thousands of miles from their homes in the rural South. It was scene played out, of course, all across the United States.

Each, sadly, is a story that was repeated tens of thousands of times in the 20th century alone. It continues today.

There are those who believe war is wrong under all circumstances; it certainly is a terribly unfortunate occurrence.

This Memorial Day many in the US will give little more than a glancing thought – if that – to the sacrifice of those who gave their lives for their nation. There are many in other parts of the world, including South Korea and Italy, though, who still remember.

Bidding adieu to a century of history; holding on to memories

sigma-nu-maine 3 retouched

Sometime this summer the University of Maine will demolish the Sigma Nu fraternity house, a structure that has been a part of its campus for nearly a century. The fraternity chapter’s 99-year lease expires next year and the house is in need of serious repairs.

The university, in its ever-generous magnanimity, had offered to extend the lease by “seven or eight” years if the house were renovated or up to 15 years if it received a significant overhaul to bring it up to date. Costs for such renovation have been estimated at $1 million.

The fraternity, which owns the house but not the land on which the structure sits, will instead give the building, built during World War I, to the university, which will then raze it in order to create a parking lot.

I spent three years living in what we referred to as the “Great White Castle of Sigma Nu overlooking the placid Stillwater River in beautiful Orono, Maine.” (The structure was white and great, and the river placid, but I’m not sure how beautiful Orono, Maine, was – then or now.)

The chapter has been on the ropes of late: It was suspended for five years in 2012 for alcohol violations, and the house has been leased to another fraternity for the past couple of years.

And while there’s no question that the house is in need of renovation, it also offers the university a convenient excuse to do away with another vestige of the Greek system.

University officials around the nation and not a few in the mainstream media have had fraternities in their sights for some time, accusing them of elitism, classism and sexism, among other “isms.”

While there is no question that some fraternity chapters have committed serious improprieties over the years, lumping all fraternity members into the category of alcohol-abusing date-raping Neanderthals is simplistic and grossly inaccurate.

Image of Sigma Nu fraternity house, likely taken in 1940s.

Image of Sigma Nu fraternity house at University of Maine, likely taken in 1940s.

As a pledge, the worst hazing I was subject to was being “forced” to drink beer – lots of beer. (Yeah, it was hell.) There was no paddling, no humiliation and no weirdness.

My time at Sigma Nu was spent with a pretty good group of guys. Unlike the stereotype, none were rich – in fact, as far as I know, all were middle class, ranging from a small number of upper middle class to a small number of lower middle class. Most were somewhere in the middle.

Some were more into school than others, but most of us graduated. Some went on to become doctors and lawyers, others firemen and salesmen. In other words, pretty much like students from any college dorm.

And I don’t recall the police arresting anyone for a felony (not that there weren’t some very stupid misdemeanors committed).

A handful of things I recall about the house:

  • The third-story floor had thousands of tiny marks from fraternity members, in training for service in World War I, trying on their hobnail boots;
  • The time an aging fraternity member stopped by to visit and told of a fellow brother who, during World War II, while flying a B-17 bomber on a training mission from the air base at nearby Bangor, put his plane into a full screaming plunge at the house before pulling up at the last moment, than waggling the plane’s wings before heading back to the base;
  • The rats that lived in the basement. They had moved into the house through pipes in the mid-1950s when a neighboring fraternity house burned;
  • The awful paint schemes that existed throughout the house. It costs a lot of money to paint the interior of a 13,000-square-foot structure, so we were always looking for a bargain on paint, and stores don’t put their top-selling brands or colors on special. We must have got one heck of a deal on lemon yellow; and
  • The aging piano that sat in the living room. It was at least 40 years old in the late 1980s, and probably had had a thousand gallons of beer spilled on it over the decades, but it still worked. There was always someone with enough musical ability to play an intro to a rock song on it. One of my pledge brothers, for example, could knock out the start to “Home Sweet Home,” by Motley Crue.

Of course I’m disappointed that the university will knock down a structure that’s been around for two-thirds of the history of the 151-year-old school. But I also realize that given the environment we live in today, the days of fraternities in general are likely numbered.

It’s been at least 15 years since I’ve seen my old fraternity house and nearly as long since I’ve seen any of my fraternity brothers. When you live 1,200 miles from your alma mater – and the general area where most of your college buddies still reside – it’s tough to drop in for a visit.

But “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers,” will always be connected by our experiences in the grand old house of Sigma Nu, whether it’s standing or exists only in our memories.

Joe Medicine Crow, Last Plains Indian war chief, dies at 102

Obama honors joe medicine crow

Joe Medicine Crow, the last Plains Indian to earn the title “war chief” through military accomplishment, died Sunday at the age of 102.

Medicine Crow, an official Crow Indian Tribe historian who had written books about his heritage, was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor given to a civilian in the US, by President Barack Obama in 2009.

Medicine Crow, born on the Crow reservation near Lodge Grass, Mont., in 1913, was the step-grandson of White Man Runs Him, a scout for George Armstrong Custer and an eyewitness to the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

Medicine Crow began his warrior training at age 6, when his grandfather would wake him in the middle of the winter night and have him run around the cabin in the snow in his bare feet.

Medicine Crow said such training, which grew increasingly rigorous, came in handy when he joined the Army and served during World War II.

He had spent the latter half of 1942 working in the naval ship yards in Bremerton, Wash., before joined the Army in 1943 and becoming a scout in the 103rd Infantry Division.

When Medicine Crow went into battle, he would wear his war paint beneath his uniform and a sacred eagle feather beneath his helmet.

While serving in Germany, Medicine Crow, unbeknownst to him, completed the four requirements necessary to become a war chief: touching an enemy without killing him, taking an enemy’s weapon, leading a successful war party and stealing an enemy’s horse.

Medicine Crow managed to steal not just a single horse, but more than four dozen when one night he found a farm where German SS officers were lodged. Medicine Crow entered the barn and corral, mounted a horse and, with a Crow war cry, led the horses to the American side as the Germans took shots at him.

It wasn’t until Medicine Crow had returned home from the war and had detailed his actions to tribal elders that it was realized he had accomplished the feats necessary to become a Crow war chief, according to the Billings Gazette.

Medicine Crow, the last person to have heard direct oral testimony from individuals present at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876, attended Bacone College in Muskogee, Okla., earning an Associate of Arts degree in 1936. He then enrolled at Linfield College in McMinnville, Ore., and earned a bachelor’s degree in Sociology and Psychology in 1938, becoming the first Crow male to attain a college degree.

He then went to the University of Southern California where he obtained his master’s degree in Anthropology in 1939, thus becoming the first Crow Indian to earn a master’s degree. His master’s thesis was titled “The Effects of European Culture Contacts Upon The Economic, Social, and Religious Life of the Crow Indians.”

Medicine Crow had completed all coursework toward the doctorate at USC by June 1941, when he took a teaching position at the Chemawa Indian School in Oregon for a year. His graduate studies were then interrupted by World War II.

After serving in the Army, he returned to the Crow Agency. In 1948, Medicine Crow was appointed tribal historian and anthropologist, and served as a board member or officer on the Crow Central Education Commission almost continuously since its inception in the early 1970s.

In 1999, Medicine Crow addressed the United Nations. He received honorary doctorates from the University of Southern California, Rocky Mountain College and Bacone College.

Medicine Crow’s books include Crow Migration Story, Medicine Crow, the Handbook of the Crow Indians Law and Treaties, Crow Indian Buffalo Jump Techniques and From the Heart of Crow Country. He also authored a children’s book entitled Brave Wolf and the Thunderbird.

(Top: President Barack Obama presents the Medal of Freedom to Crow War Chief Joseph Medicine Crow during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House Aug. 12, 2009. Below, Medicine Crow’s World War II experience is detailed in a PBS clip.)

Tough-as-nails defenseman Gadsby dies at 88

gadsby howe

Former NHL defenseman Bill Gadsby died last week at age 88. Gadsby, who spent 20 years minding the blueline for the Chicago Blackhawks, New York Rangers and Detroit Red Wings, was tough as a two-dollar steak and representative of the robust, resilient players who skated in hockey’s pre-expansion era.

Gadsby not only tallied 130 goals and 438 assists, becoming the first defensemen to score more than 500 points during his career, but also notched more than 1,500 penalty minutes, while sustaining some 640 stitches and numerous broken bones while playing in the NHL between 1946 to 1966.

To say that Gadsby was a survivor would be an understatement.

As a 12-year old, he and his mother were aboard the British liner SS Athenia in early September 1939 when it was torpedoed and sunk by a German submarine. The pair spent several hours in a lifeboat before being rescued. Some 128 passengers and crew died when the vessel sank.

When Gadsby was 25, he contracted polio at the Blackhawks training camp and narrowly averted paralysis, according to the New York Times. He quickly recovered and went on to play in 68 games that season.

Gadsby retired in 1966, the season before Bobby Orr made his debut with the Boston Bruins and revolutionized defense. While Orr would obliterate scoring records for defensemen, hockey didn’t forget about Gadsby. He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1970.

Gadsby played long before the era of big money, yet, as the Times recounted, he found an interesting way to earn some extra compensation.

“When a local insurance man started offering players stitch insurance, I signed up immediately,” he once told the Hockey Hall of Fame. “Under terms of the $100 policy, I would receive $5 for every stitch I received that season.”

Soon afterward he incurred a cut that required 30 stitches to his lower lip.

“I had to laugh at the poor agent,” he said. “In less than two weeks I had paid for the policy. I had gotten back all my money, plus a $50 profit. I think they stopped offering that policy not long after that.”

(Top: Bill Gadsby, left, talks with teammate Gordie Howe, prior to a Detroit Red Wings game in 1963.)

Stalin: Bad, very bad. No, even worse than that …

gulag railroad

Tomorrow marks the anniversary of Joseph Stalin’s death in 1953. His demise did not end the Soviet internal reign of terror that had gripped the nation for decades, but it would eventually bring a lessening of the effects of the murderous regime.

A commonly accepted figure for the number of individuals Stalin murdered while in power is 20 million.

However, as Rudolph J. Rummel, the late professor emeritus of political science at the University of Hawaii, wrote a decade ago, that figure woeful undercounts the number of Soviets and foreigners who met their demise as a result of Stalin’s rule.

According to Rummel, the 20 million figure comes from a 1968 book by Robert Conquest, The Great Terror: Stalin’s Purge of the Thirties.

“In his appendix on casualty figures, (Conquest) reviews a number of estimates of those that were killed under Stalin, and calculates that the number of executions 1936 to 1938 was probably about 1,000,000; that from 1936 to 1950 about 12,000,000 died in the camps; and 3,500,000 died in the 1930-1936 collectivization. Overall, (Conquest) concludes: ‘Thus we get a figure of 20 million dead, which is almost certainly too low and might require an increase of 50 percent or so, as the debit balance of the Stalin regime for twenty-three years.’”

Part of the problem is that Conquest’s qualification adding another 10 million lives to Stalin’s total is rarely mentioned, although over the past 10 years this has happened a little more often.

In addition, Rummel, who spent his career assembling data on collective violence and war with a view toward helping their resolution or elimination, wrote that Conquest’s estimate was incomplete:

Conquest did not include labor camp deaths from 1922 to 1936 and between 1950 to 1953, executions between 1939 and 1953; the vast deportation of the people of captive nations into the camps, and their deaths 1939-1953; the massive deportation within the Soviet Union of minorities 1941-1944; and their deaths; and those the Soviet Red Army and secret police executed throughout Eastern Europe after their conquest during 1944-1945 is omitted. Moreover, omitted is the deadly Ukrainian famine, the Holodomor, Stalin purposely imposed on the region that claimed killed 5 million in 1932-1934.

Rummel estimated Stalin murdered about 43 million citizens and foreigners.

Hitler, by comparison, usually gets credit for about 30 million deaths, while Mao Zedong is said to have murdered 60 million.

Other well-known historical bad dudes include King Leopold II of Belgian, who was responsible for the deaths of approximately 8 million Congolese; Hideki Tojo of Japan, 5 million; Pol Pot of Cambodia, at least 1.7 million; Saddam Hussein, approximately 600,000; and Idi Amin of Uganda, as many as 500,000.

Consider that Chile’s Gen. Augusto Pinochet, reviled as a murderous despot, is said to be responsible for approximately 3,000 deaths, making him a mere piker by the standards of those listed above. That is, of course, small consolation to the families of those he made “disappear.”

And mere numbers, no matter how large, are an abstraction. For anyone wanting to get a fuller idea of the Soviet death machine in action, consider picking up The Gulag Archipelago; The Voices of the Dead: Stalin’s Great Terror in the 1930s; Stalin’s Genocides; and Gareth Jones: Eyewitness to the Holodomor.

(Top: A rail line being built through snow by Gulag prisoners, possibly from the Solovki prison camp, on the Solovetsky Islands in the White Sea .)