February 29 in Russian history. Not an everyday day.

Leap day is a problem. On the one hand, the probability of finding an event that a) would be interesting enough, and b) I would like to write about, is at least four times smaller than on usual days. On the other hand, I am not so self-confident as to postpone the article till 2012, since the chances of this blog to last that long do not look unquestionable. So, below is just a small roundup of events that took place on 29 February in different years, but either were not very interesting or simply did not fit my today's disposition of mind.


Grand duke of Lithuania Casimir IV publishes Casimir Code, the code of laws of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. The code was based on the local customs and (to a certain degree) on the norms of Russkaya Pravda. Casimir Code defined punishments for crimes (like theft), limited the responsibility of the members of the family of the criminal and prohibited the peasants from leaving the landowners, turning them into serfs.


The Red Army occupied Stavropol.


Finnish movement Lapua begins an attempt of a coup-d'état. Lapua started as an anti-communist movement but by 1932 it degenerated into an anti-democratic semi-fascist organization. The article from Wikipedia notes the reaction in the USSR:

In the Soviet Union, the Lapua Movement's actions were closely followed. Old deep-rooted perceptions of Finland as a threat and as a continuation of the ancient tsarist régime were enhanced — both among ordinary citizens and in the Bolshevist leadership — which further contributed to the conditions leading to the Winter War. In Leningrad, the old tsarist capital, the old concerns over the close proximity of the border were kept alive. Over that border, invasion armies had arrived right at the doorstep of the capital twice in the 1700s and again in 1918, immediately after Finland's independence, during the ongoing world war; the German enemy had been invited by Finland and threatened to bring the horrors of war to the civilians of Leningrad. Russian newspapers mirrored these fears, covering events in Finland and interviewing victims that had been deported to Russia by the Lapua Movement as telling examples of terror in capitalist countries.


Aeroplane IL-18D which flew from Krasnoyarsk to Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky crashed near Bratsk. The aeroplane suddenly descended from flight level 7,900 meters (FL260) to approximately 3,000 meters (FL100), then fell apart. There were 9 crew members and 82 passengers aboard. One of them survived. It was a soldier whose chair remained attached to a large piece of the fuselage. The cause of the crash was never discovered. Probably, it was the fuel leakage.


February 28 in Russian history. Birthday of Yuri Lotman.


86 years ago Yuri Lotman was born in Petrograd. Wikipedia writes about Lotman:

Yuri Lotman
Yuri Mikhailovich Lotman (Russian: Юрий Михайлович Лотман, Estonian: Juri Lotman) (28 February 1922 in Petrograd, Russia – 28 October 1993 in Tartu, Estonia) — a prominent Russian formalist critic, semiotician, culturologist. He was the founder of structural semiotics in culturology and is considered as the first Soviet structuralist by writing his book On the Delimitation of Linguistic and Philological Concepts of Structure (1963). The number of his printed works exceeds 800 titles, and the archive of his letters, now kept in the scientific library of the University of Tartu, which includes his correspondence with a number of Russian intellectuals, is immense.

I am not a philosopher, nor a specialist in semiotics or theory of literature, so, for me, Lotman is the author of three unbelievably interesting books on Russian literature and history: Novel "Eugene Onegin" by A.Pushkin. The Commentary, Pushkin. The biography of the writer and The Discussions of Russian Culture. Life and Traditions of Russian Nobility (XVIII-early XIX centuries). Unfortunately, none of them, as far as I know, was translated into English. The full text of these books is available online in Russian: The Commentary, Pushkin and The Discussions of Russian Culture.

Monument to Y.Lotman in Tartu, Estonia

What can we expect from the culture? Is the art a goal in and of itself? Do we have the moral right to spend the efforts and resources on art?

May times people replied: the humanity is suffering, it lacks the life necessities, it is undereducated, how can we write verses! The art is of minor importance. In ancient Greece the poets were mostly blind. And the realistically thinking scientists of the last century concluded: a blind man is useless, so he becomes a poet. Take Homer, for example. He cannot fight or trade or sail, so he sings. It seems logical for the man of the XVIII century, a positivist.

But for the ancient man the blind is the man who talks to God. And his human blindness is the higher vision for God. Like God talks through the saints, so he talks through the poets. That Homer is blind, does not mean that he is useless, he is destined for something higher, which will never be entrusted to those who can trade, is a good sailor or brilliantly brandishes his sword.

Let's imagine what would the world look like without art. From this point of view, an ideal example is the great antique philosopher Plato, who described the structure of a perfect society. In this society the art is treated as a dangerous weapon. The ancient Egyptians, says Plato, gathered the most authoritative people who selected the best ancient songs and forbade to write new ones. All their spiritual needs were satisfied with these ancient songs.

This is an attempt to replace the forward movement with the circular one. Plato does not object against movement, he just wants it to repeat itself, as the seasons of the year repeat themselves. There are eternal summer, winter and so on, there are eternal songs, they are always new, but still the same. Plato's heroes live in the circular world. And this cyclic recurrence, in Plato's opinion, would stop the humanity from the reckless movement to nowhere.

In the forward movement, every step is a loss. Once we went in a train and every time we went through a fork, a young boy asked his mother: will we go this way? Will we go that way? We will not take the roads we have crossed. But the escape is not in the cyclic movement. The art gives the experience of following the untraveled roads. Not only the experience of what has happened, but the experience of the unhappened. And the history of the unhappened is a great and important history. Only this history gives us a point of view from which we will be able to see if the humanity is going the wrong way and to steer clear. The humanity is not yet ready for this turn, but, probably, it will have time to do so. Probably.

Sorry for the lame translation :)


Other blogs: The Diary of An American Infantryman in WWI Siberia and Beyond

The author of The Diary of An American Infantryman in WWI Siberia and Beyond, whose name, unfortunately, I do not know, posts the records of his great-grandfather, George C. Voegeli.

George Voegeli was part of the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) in Siberia from 1918-1920. Approximately 8,000 men were part of this force which inlcuded the Amry's 27th and 31st regiments. The AEF was sent to Siberia in an attempt to maintain order after the Russian Civil War and to protect key military interests originally sent by the U.S. to support the previous Russian government's efforts in the Eastern front of WWI from the various local competing groups. The groups included the Cossacks, the Bolsheviks, and the Japanese among others. The AEF was also sent to rescue the Czeckoslovak Legions who had been fighting against the Austrio-Hungarian forces in behalf of Russia.

The blog was started this January and now is a good time to start reading it!

Thanks to Russian History Blog where I found a link to The Diary of An American Infantryman.


February 25 in Russian history. The big fire.

To the firemen of all countries, who save people and don't care about their citizenship.


In the evening of 25 February, the hotel Rossiya in Moscow, once the largest hotel in the world, was overcrowded. The restaurant on 21 floor of the hotel's tower was full and even the small banquet hall above the restaurant, on 22 floor, was occupied by the graduates of the MVTU (Bauman's Moscow Higher Technical College, on of the best engineering universities of Russia). On the 17 floor there was a VIP hall where another celebration was going on. Altogether, there were about 5,000 people in the hotel, including the guests and the staff.

At 21:24 the dispatcher of the fire security service of the hotel Sukhova received multiple signals of the fire alarm system. The signals were immediately confirmed by a call from the staff member Tikhonova, from the 13 floor of the Northern wing of the main building (the hotel had the form of a cross with four wings and with the tower rising above the main building). Sukhova reported the alarm to the sergeant of the Moscow fire department Nina Pereverzeva at the same minute, 21:24. Sergeant Pereverzeva sent the firefighters from the 47th detachment to Rossiya. In the next minute she received about fifty more calls with the reports of the fire in the hotel, both from the hotel and from the streets. This meant that in one minute the fire became so strong that it was seen from the outside. Nobody ever saw the fire to spread so fast. There were about 3,000 fire extinguishers in the hotel and the staff attempted to use them, but they were useless in this firestorm.

The first firefighter who arrives at the site has to assign the threat code to the fire, from 1, the least dangerous, to 5, extremely dangerous. Lieutenant Bukanov from the 47th firefighting detachment led that first group. From the very first minute he assigned code 5 to that fire. It was an extraordinary decision. Among other things it meant that the top commanders of the fire department had to arrive at the site as soon as possible.

81 firefighters and 14 fire-engines, including 3 water tanks and 5 fire-pumps were at Bukanov's disposal, but only one machine of the 14 had a ladder and that ladder reached only to the 7th floor. When general Antonov, the head of the fire department, arrived, he ordered to send all available firefighters of the department to Rossiya. In the end, there were more than 150 fire-engines and about 1,400 people. But it was only in the end.

By the time when the first firefighters saw the hotel, the floors from 5th to 12th were on fire. The people on these floors were already crowding near the windows and some of them even tried to descend on bedclothes tied together but fell down. Some jumped down in desperation. The upper floors were cut away by the fire. Some people tried to run down the stairways, but most of them suffocated, collapsed and died. Many of them could survive, if they did what they were taught in school. So, one army general, whose room was in the middle of the fire, blocked all holes in the room with soaked clothes and incessantly poured water onto the door, to keep it from catching fire. A group of Japanese tourists, when they saw that the corridors were filled with smoke, lay down, covered themselves with wet clothes and waited for the rescue. The firemen worked inside the building in pairs: one went forward while the second one cooled him with a stream of water. The smoke was so thick that sometimes they could only creep.

Soon, 24 more fire-engines came to Rossiya. Most of them had the same 30 meters long ladders. In 1977 in Moscow there were only two 52 meters long ladders and one 62 meters long. Firefighter Zhuravlyov invented a new trick to reach at least six meters higher. He climbed at the top of the standard ladder with a four-meters long ladder with hooks, held it up so that the hooks caught the window frame above and the people climbed down the ladder and slipped along Zhuravlyov's body onto the main ladder. Other firefighters followed his example.

The fire was at its peak when the fire department received a new signal: the building of the newspaper Pravda was burning. General Antonov ordered to send some fire-engines from the reserve to Pravda.

When the fire in the main building finally began to calm down, the firefighters learned that the fire reached the tower and began moving upwards. The tower was where the elite apartments were located. The elevators didn't work because of the fire and the corridors were filled with smoke. One of these elite apartments was occupied by Ivanov, the vice-minister of trade of Bulgaria. He made some calls to the security service, but soon understood that the rescuers will be late. Then he called once again and asked the fire security officer: "Offer me what to choose: to die of suffocation or jump from the window?" When the firefighters finally came to his room, he and two his assistants were sitting in the arm-chairs. They died of poisoning by CO2.

The tower was beyond the reach of the ladders. The corridors and the stairways were blocked by the poisonous smoke. Some groups of the firemen were moving upwards, but too slowly. The solution was found by lieutenant Kuldin. He offered to use smaller ladders with hooks. When attached to the windows, they formed a chain that gave a dangerous, but realistic way to escape. Half an hour later, two chains of ladders reached 14th and 17th floors.

The air in the restaurant on the 21 floor was getting hot. First, an aquarium on the floor cracked and fell apart. Then, the people started to climb onto the tables to escape from the smoking floor. When two firemen who went all the way up in the gas masks appeared in the restaurant, more than 200 people imagined that the way down was free and ran to the stairways. The firemen managed to stop the panic and organized the evacuation via the chain of ladders which by that time reached the 21st floor. More than 40 people were evacuated in this way. Then the smoke slihgtly dispersed and the other people were taken down along the main stairway.

When the news of the fire reached the top leaders of Moscow and the USSR, they arrived to the hotel: the first secretary of the Moscow committee of CPSU Grishin, minister of defense Ustinov, minister of the home affairs Shchelokov, chairman of KGB Andropov and even the chairman of the cabinet of ministers Kosygin. A group of KGB security service agents came a bit earlier and began to prepare the observation point for the state leaders. Vasily Lyashchenko, who commanded the fire service operations, recalled later that at one of the most busiest moments, when he dispatched the newly arrived teams of firemen and coordinated the actions of those who were already inside the building, a group of people in civilian clothes came to him and told him: "Move away, captain, the bosses are coming." They refused to listen to his explanations. Lyashchenko asked some firemen from the reserve for help and they joined their hands and simply pushed the KGB agents away, giving to Lyashchenko the chance to keep working. The giant crowd of people who surrounded the hotel, worried the Soviet leaders. According to some rumors, one of the generals ordered a regiment of paratroopers and even a tank detachment to enter the city. Fortunately, soon the generals calmed down and cancelled the order.

By 01:30 it became clear that the fire was successfully localized. The eastern and the western wings of the building were isolated from the fire. But the fire was completely extinguished only two hours later, at 03:30.

During the fire the firemen saved more than 1,000 people. 42 people died, including 13 firemen and 5 hotel workers. 52 people were hospitalized. The big fire took more lives than any other fire in Moscow in the XX century. The officially announced cause of the fire was that the radio engineers of the hotel left a switched on welder in their room, which started the fire at 20:40. The abundance of synthetic materials helped the fire to spread with very high speed. Another way the fire spead along were the ventilation channels. Two of the engineers were sentenced to 1 and 1.5 years in prison. The third engineer committed suicide and was found dead two days later

The conclusions of the experts are often questioned by the people who insist that it was an arson. And their doubts sometimes have very serious grounds. So, the architect of the hotel Vitaly Mazurin told that the synthetic materials were carefully chosen and were not easily inflammable. So, the synthetic carpets had some holes after the fire, but there were no traces of burning. The proponents of this theory also remind that since 1967 there were more than 100 occasions of ignition in the hotel. They were localized immediately and never caused any problems. They fire has never been so fast. Vasily Lyashchenko told that the fire detectors triggered simultaneously in three places on different floors. It is not clear why the detectors did not work for the 45 minutes while the fire was still spreading (if we accept the conclusions of the experts). Vitaly Mazurin said also that the 5th and the 12th floors were almost completely destroyed, the 11th was seriously damaged, but the 10th remained almost intact. In some places Mazurin noted a strange layer of oily soot. The witnesses told that they saw small streams of liquid fire flowing on the floor and Mazurin assumed that this oily soot was what remained of the strange liquid flame. Vasily Lyashchenko also wondered why the detectors worked at one moment in different places. Another fireman, Vladimir Zaitsev, concluded: "All my earlier experience of fire-fighting makes me exclude all versions but one — arson."

On the other hand, a good proverb says: never ascribe to malice what can be explained by human stupidity. Most probably, the liquid flames and the oily substance were the remains of the burning plastic, which turned out to be inflammable, after all.

This fire was not the worst fire in the world, it was not the fire at the tallest building and it did not cause the highest number of victims. On 6 August 1970, a fire started on the 33th floor of a 50-storey building in New York. Hundreds of people were poisoned by the smoke of a burning plastic. In December 1970 the fifth floor of a 49-storey building in the centre of Manhattan caught on fire. The smoke quickly spread to the top of the building. Many people were trapped and died in elevators. About the same thing happened in 26-storey Grand Hotel in Las Vegas, where more than 80 people died (some of them jumped out of windows) and about 500 were wounded. On 25 December 1971 in Seoul a fire started in a 22-storey hotel. Once again the poisonous smoke became the cause of death of many people. The firemen tried to evacuate the people through elevators, and when it didn't work, they tried to use helicopters, but the thick smoke was an obstacle that made this plan fail. During the 1974 fire in a tall building in Saõ Paolo many people died because the evacuation plan was based on the elevators which failed in the first minutes of the fire. In this row, the fire in Rossiya where only 42 people of 5,000 died, was a relatively successful operation. One of the firemen who commanded the operation in Rossiya, said: "Much more people could have died in the fire, but relatively few did, because we significantly cut the time of the localization of the fire. During analogous operations abroad the firemen usually suppress the hearths from the ouside and only when the temperature falls they enter the building. Sincerely respecting their efforts, I'll say that we chose another tactics: we extinguished the fire from the outside and went inside in large numbers. This gave us a chance to save many people who were in hopeless situations. Of course, the risk was much higher. But it justified itself."

Some years after the fire in Rossiya, the writer Vladimir Sanin wrote the novel The Big Fire (Bolshoy pozhar), based on these events. This thrilling novel is the best book about the firemen that I have ever read. In the foreword, he wrote:

If one day you'll meet a fire-engine on the street driving fast, watch it and tell them: "Good luck, guys," I will think I didn't write The Big Fire in vain.


February 22 in Russian history. Antarctic station Bellingshauzen.


The 13th Soviet Antarctic Expedition (SAE) opened the polar station Bellingshausen on the SW end of King George island (62° 11’ 59’’S, 58° 53’ 37’’W), in the bay Guardia Nacional, on Fildes peninsula. The construction began on 29 January. There were some wooden cottages for 20 explorers. In mid-1970s a powerful radio station was built there which serves the Russian fishing fleet, and the wooden cottages were replaced with aluminium ones. This is the northernmost Russian polar station and polar explorers often call this station "the resort". The average annual temperature is 4°C. In winter it may fall to -27°, but may rise even above zero. Now this is the smallest Russian station in Antarctica, there are only eight people in the winter plus five people who come in summer. Since 1968, three other Antarctic stations were built nearby: Chilean Escudero and Presidente Eduardo Frei Montalva and Chinese Great Wall.

Now the 52nd and 53rd Russian Antarctic Expeditions are working in Antarctica and, in particular, at Bellingshausen station. Today, on 22 February, the scientific ship Akademik Fyodorov has to arrive to Bellingshausen from Point Island bay. The tractor train SGP-1 is returning from Vostok station to Mirny, moving at speed 57 km per day. The tractor train SGP-2 has arrived from Vostok station to Progress. Their route was 1,500 km. On their way they drilled holes at 77°00'S, 97°51'E. At Mirny station a new aerological locator has been launched. New cottages are being built at Progress station. On 14 February a group of scientists from Germany, Norway, UK and Belgium arrived at Novolazarevskaya station on IL-76 aeroplane. The geological and geophysical research at Druzhnaya-4 and Soyuz stations are being finished. On 10 February the field camp Willing was closed. Joint Russian-Polish group finished working on lake Radok.


Another important anniversary celebrated today at the Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute is 75 years of the Northern Sea Route. Actually, the administration of the Northern Sea Route was established on 17 December 1932, but the international press conference took place in the Institute on 21 February.


February 21 in Russian history. Amateur astronomy.


In the evening, a 16 year old schoolboy from Kiev, Andrey Borisyak, was going home from school with his friend, A.Baranovsky. The weather was fine and the stars were bright. Andrey was an amateur astronomer and all these stars were familiar for him. No, not all of them. He stopped and stared at the non-familiarly looking constellation of Perseus. It's two-legged shape with Mirfak in the center and Algol and Atik in the "legs" was distorted by a new bright star. Had it happened today, he could think it was a flying saucer, but those were the better days ;). The two friends ran to the telegraph and sent a message to professor Glazenap. It was a very bright Nova star that reached the magnitude of 0.

Andrey Borisyak

Some time later it was established by the timestamps on the telegram that Andrey Borisyak noticed the Nova some hours earlier than the professional astronomers. His discovery was confirmed officially and he even became a member of the Russian Astronomy Society. Not that it was an achievement impossible for a mere mortal, but quite close. It was not a strictly professional society, but an amateur astronomer had to obtain five recommendations from members of the society. Emperor Nikolay II himself presented a Zeiss telescope to Andrey. Of course, Andrey decided to become a professional astronomer and entered the astronomy faculty of the university. But the twentieth century had already begun and the astronomy was already turning into what it is now: 99% of mathematics and 1% of observation. The talents of the young astronomer turned out to be insufficient to cope with the math and he left the university. I love astronomy, too, and sometimes I wish I became an astronomer. Alas, unlike Andrey, I didn't even try to. My math skills were enough to become an IT engineer, but not for the real science. Andrey Borisyak also found an alternative to astronomy. When he left the university, he entered the St.Petersburg conservatory. He became a known celloist, studied in Paris where the famous Pablo Casals was his teacher. Once again the astronomy reminded him of his hobby when none other than Camille Flammarion gave him a recommendation to the French Astronomy Society of which Andrey became a member. Borisyak became a music teacher and wrote the book "Cello school".

It's difficult to determine who was the first amateur astronomer in Russia. In the XII century a Kievan monk Kirik the Novgorodian wrote a chronicle where he scrupulously marked various astronomical events. He also developed a calendar. It will be better, though, to begin with the archbishop Athanasius (Alexey Artemyevich Lyubimov, 1641-1702), who lived in Kholmogory, near Arkhangelsk. By the way, Kholmogory is also the place where Mikhail Lomonosov, the father of the Russian science, was born. Archbishop Athanasius was a brilliantly educated man, who spoke 24 languages. In 1692 he founded a home observatory, where he designed and built the first Russian telescopes. Peter the Great was also an amateur astronomer. Being a royal one, among other things he founded the Academy of Sciences and invited many European scientists to Russia (Leonard Euler was one of the best known ones).

A merchant from Tver, Terentiy Ivanovich Voloskov (1729-?), a hobbyist clock maker, loved astronomy, too. He built telescopes good enough to discern mountains on the Moon. His widow told later that he once attempted to watch at the Sun and lost one eye. I.Yertov (1777-1828) was not familiar with the works of Kant and Laplace and developed his own theory of the formation of the Solar system. He wrote that the celestial bodies were formed when the protoplanets attracted comets. A teacher of singing from a small town, Ye.Bykhanov (1828-1915), on the contrary, criticized the theory of Laplace. Decembrist Nikolay Bestuzhev (1791-1855) who was exiled to Siberia researched the meteorites found near lake Baikal and even built a simple observatory in Selenginsk. Fyodor Alexeyevich Semyonov (1794-1860) from Kursk inherited a large factory, but preferred science. He built a 180-cm refractor telescope. He calculated the dates of the eclipses for 160 years, since 1840 till 2001 and was awarded the gold medal of the Russian Geographical Society. In 1914 teacher V.Zlatinsky discovered the comet 1914I (C/1914 J1 in the modern nomenclature). In 1916 a clerk from a remote factory in Nizhny Novgorod region Alexander Solovyov discovered his first variable star in Auriga. In 1947 he became the director of the Institute of Astrophysics. Nikolay Donich (1874-1953) was a fan of the Solar eclipses. He had his own observatory in Stariye Dubossary (Moldavia), but also travelled all over the world looking for the eclipses: from Spain to Sumatra. In 1905 he even headed the expedition of the Academy of Sciences to Spain and Egypt.

In 1908 the professional astronomers from Pulkovo observatory were looking for an observational site in Crimea when they suddenly saw two domes of an amateur observatory. It belonged to Nikolay Maltsov, who later presented his observatory to the profies. The Simeiz observatory still works in Crimea.

The end of the XIX century marked the rise of the amateur astronomy societies all over the world. The first of them was founded by Camille Flammarion in France in 1887. In Russia, the director of the Pulkovo observatory O. Struve opposed the foundation of an amateur organization, but the Solar eclipse that happened on 19 August 1887 (many years later Arthur C. Clarke called it "the Russian eclipse") gave such a surge to the interest to astronomy that soon the first such society appeared in Nizhny Novgorod. It was founded by two teachers, Shcherbakov and Shenrok, and the director of a local bank Demidov. Among the members of the society there were also peasants, like K.Kaplin-Tezikov, who built a telescope and organized a small circle of the astronomy lovers in his village. The society continued its work during the revolution of 1917 and the Civil war and even during the World War II. The amateurs from Nizhny Novgorod were well known in the world. So, in 1930 a group of Soviet scientists wrote a public letter to the Pope Pius XI, condemning the church for murdering Giordano Bruno and persecuting Galileo Galilei, and the Pope replied: "We know in the USSR only one group of astronomers from Nizhny Novgorod, who exchange the publications with the library of Vatican, and we are not aware of the group of people who call themselves Russian astronomers." Interesting that the society of Russian professional astronomers was founded only two years later, in 1890.

Bulletin of the Observing Corporation

In 1908 the Moscow circle of the amateur astronomers appeared. One of its members, painter Apollinary Vasnetsov painted the works like "The Solar eclipse near the Vyatskie meadows", or "The Solar corona (in Karadag)". In 1922 a group of active observers from the Moscow circle formed a special interest group called Kolnab (Kollektiv Nablyudateley, the Observing Corporation). They published a periodical named Bulletin of the Observing Corporation, partially in English (the first page of the issue 1, 1925 is on the picture). After the revolution, when all private initiative was frowned upon with suspicion, to put it mildly, many organizations were disbanded, like Russian Astronomy Society in 1928 or ROLM (Russian society of the amateurs of exploration of the world) in 1930. In 1932 the centralized VAGO (The All-Union Astronomical and Geodesic Society) united both amateurs and professionals. It has lost the "All-Union" part in 1992 and still works under the name of AGO.

The facts were taken mostly from the long article written by Sergey Maslikov for Sky & Telescope in 2001.


February 20 in Russian history

Today's article was written together with ExecutedToday.com. Below are some paragraphs from the full article published here:

1939: Georgy Nikolayevich Kosenko (aka Kislov), NKVD spy


Execution of Georgy Kosenko (also known as Kislov), a Soviet spy in China and France:

One thing about the first years of Soviet history that always puzzled me is how the Bolsheviks managed to create a wide and reliable network of foreign intelligence and counter-intelligence so fast. Below is a history of life and death of a typical spy from the early Soviet years.

In July 1938, Kosenko’s Spanish opposite number and sometime collaborator Alexander Orlov fled to the USA, guaranteeing his own safety (and that of the mother he left in the USSR) by threatening to reveal Soviet intelligence secrets if pursued. Orlov sent a letter to Trotsky warning him that a Soviet agent named Mark had penetrated his son’s circle, and that the NKVD was preparing the assassination of Trotsky at the hands of either Mark or an unknown Spaniard. (Trotsky thought the tip was a provocation, and fatefully ignored it.)

Stalin went mad. He ordered the new head of NKVD Lavrentiy Beria to punish all spies involved in the debacle. Kosenko was one of them. In November 1938 Kosenko received an order to return to Moscow and on 27 December he was put to the same jail where General Miller was still imprisoned. Kosenko was accused of participation in a counter-revolutionary organization and on 20 February he was sentenced to death. That same night of 20-21 February 1939 he was shot and his body was buried in an tomb without any name or date.

So, this story does not answer the question I asked in the beginning, but rather dismisses it by proving that the Soviet intelligence network was wide but far from reliable and that eventually these spies either eagerly got rid of each other or simply fled as far as they could.

Read the full article


Other blogs: two more blogs on history of Russia

Today I searched for "Russian history" at Google's Blogsearch and found two blogs on Russian history. The first one is Russian history, written by a US professor named Igor:

This is a blog for use in both of my HIS 241 and HIS 242 Russian history survey courses at Northern Virginia Community College.

The second blog is an old one, Russian History Blog. The blog was launched by John Potter in November 2005, but was abandoned in January 2006, right when I started this one. Now, someone under nom de guerre Translatorrus has picked the blog and already posted three new articles:

Hello dear Russian History Blog readers! My nickname is Translatorus and I will try to keep this blog up to date with interesting facts and stories about Russian history, Russian culture, Russian cities and towns. Russia is a very interesting country. And it's in its new historical cycle. So, we have a lot to discuss in the future. Please send me your comments and wishes on what you are interested the most and I will try to tell you all I know about a certain topic. Little bit about myself: I speak Russian — it's my native language. I grew up in a Soviet Union, but don't remember a lot about it, since I was 6 when the country disappeared from the map of the World. I went to college in a city called Novgorod, Novgorod Veliky. In my next post I will tell you about this beautiful ancient city. And once again, everybody is welcome to leave their comments.

Good luck, colleagues!

February 15 in Russian history


The Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR issued the decree "On prohibition of marriages between citizens of the USSR and foreigners". The law was adopted two years earlier than the South African Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act.

Until the revolution of 1917, there were limitations on marriages with people belonging to the religion other than Orthodoxy. After the revolution the marriages with foreign citizens were not directly prohibited, but were considered suspicious or scandalous, like the marriage of Sergey Yesenin and Isadora Duncan. The contacts between Soviets and foreigners were so severely limited in the 1930s that international marriages were almos impossible. However, after the war, when people from the allied countries came to the USSR and Soviet soldiers came to Europe (and stayed there), the number of such marriages grew. The decree of 1947 put an end to this. American professor Robert Tucker, who married a Russian woman in 1946, thinks that the roots of this decree were in the Stalin's growing xenophobia. He worked in the American embassy and she was a student. "During the war and in the first post-war years, some British and American diplomats who worked in Moscow married Russian women. One or two times every year the Kremlin issued exit visas to the wives of foreigners. Usually the visas were granted one or two years after the marriage. But after the law of 1947 Russians could not marry foreigners and even those who married earlier could not get the exit visa." The Tuckers could leave USSR only seven years later, after the death of Stalin.

In some cases, even those who married before the adoption of the law were punished. In 1946 Alvaro Cruz, a son of the Chilean ambassador, married Lidia Lesina. The ambassador, Cruz Ocampo, asked the Soviet government to issue the exit visa to Lidia and even asked the government of Chile to setlle the matter at the sitting of the United Nations. For some reason, the Soviets never allowed Lidia to leave the country. In 1948, señor Ocampo left USSR and his son, who refused to leave without his wife, stayed in Moscow (hats off to Alvaro Cruz!). Lesina attempted to expatriate, but was not allowed to in 1950. Alvaro and Lidia lived in the hotel National in Moscow. In 1951 the hotel demanded that he should pay the double price, but he refused and was accused of violation of the laws for the foreigners living in the USSR.

Number 184542

Top secret

Decree of the Council of Ministers of the USSR

On the exile of the citizen of Chile Cruz, Alvaro.

  1. To accept the proposal of the Ministry of the State Security of the USSR on the exile of the citizen of Chile Alvaro Cruz Lopez de Eredia, who violates rules established for the foreigners staying in the USSR.
  2. To charge the Ministry of Foreigh Affairs of the USSR with the job of documenting the violation of the passport legislation of the USSR.
  3. Concurrently with the exile of Cruz, arrest Lesina as a potentially socially harmful person.

January 1952

In August 1953, after the death of Stalin (once again I have to repeat these words), Lidia Lesina and Alvaro Cruz arrived to Santiago, Chile.

In 1947, a 16-year old German girl, Annemarie Krause fell in love with a Soviet soldier from Moldavia, Maxim Milik. In October 1947 their daughter, Werena, was born. Maxim wanted to stay in Germany and asked for demobilization, which was not granted. Instead, he was not allowed to visit his new family. Angry, he planned to flee to the West. In September 1948 the girl was arrested and sentenced to 25 years in prison. Her daughter stayed with Annemarie's mother. In 1954, after Stalin's death, Annemarie was amnestied. When she returned home, she heard that Maxim was shot. However, he was not. He was sent to the USSR. Years later, he married. When he tried to find his daughter, Werena, he was fired from his work. He died in 1990. After the fall of the German Democratic Republic a Russian TV company invited Annemarie and Werena to Moscow and made a program about their life. Annemarie and Werena visited the tomb of Maxim and met 11 Werena's stepbrothers and sisters.

The law was abolished in 1956. Currently, some countries still limit the marriages with foreign citizens. According to the legislation of Hungary, India, Iraq, Norway, Romania, Poland, Sweden and some other countries, a special marriage licence must be granted to their citizens (or some categories of them, e.g. students) who intend to marry a foreign citizen. American citizens were not allowed to marry Austrian and German citizens till 1946. In Saudi Arabia the state officials and the Saudi students studying abroad are not allowed to marry foreigners. The National Radical Party of Latvia (NSS) promises to ban the international marriages if they come to the power. They explain their position by the necessity of "deoccupation" and "decolonization" and promise to create a monoethnical state. In 2005, Russian populist political party LDPR came up with a bill proposing to denationalize and to exile the Russians who intend to marry foreign citizens.

Update @2008-02-20 12:53:27: I've found an article from Spiegel where the story of Annemarie Krause is told in more details (and in a better English :)). Read: Lost Red Army Children Search for Fathers (part 2).


February 8 in Russian history


The snowfall finally stopped at the German island of Usedom in the Baltic Sea. A group of ten Soviet prisoners from a forced labor camp was sent to repair the caponiers on the local military airdrome. During the dinner, when the German pilots and the technicians left to the canteen, they killed a watchguard and climbed to a Heinkel He 111 bomber. They kept an eye on this Heinkel for some months and they knew that it was fueled and ready for flight — even across the frontline. One of these ten Soviets was Mikhail Petrovich Devyatayev, a fighter pilot whose plane was downed on 13 July 1944.

He was captured near Lviv and sent to the Łódź concentration camp in Poland. Soon he was transferred to another concentration camp, called New Königsberg. He and a group of his fellow inmates began building an escape tunnel. They dug it with spoons and plates, but when only a few meters remained, the tunnel was found by the Nazi guards. Devyatayev and his friends were sent to the death camp Sachsenhausen. He had to die, but when he was in the quarantine barrack, another prisoner, local barber, saved him. The barber replaced Devyatayev's label ID that marked him as condemned to death with the label of man who was sentenced to forced labor, but was killed recently by the guards, teacher Grigory Nikitenko. In the end of October 1944 a large group of 1,500 prisoners of Sachsenhausen including Devyatayev was transferred to Usedom island. A village located on this island later became known world-wide. It's name was Peenemünde and Sturmbannführer of SS Wernher von Braun, the father of V2 rockets, was developing a new German Wunderwaffe there. He commanded a team of about 20,000 slaves who produced V2. Due to the secrecy of this program, of course, all of them had only one way to get out — through the crematorium furnace.

The Soviet prisoners began the preparations for the escape. They noticed that one He 111 bomber that was used for rocket test launches was always fuelled and ready for the flight. It was comfortably located at the edge of the airdrome and they decided that they could hijack it. The plan was thoroughly prepared and everyone knew his duties: one man had to free the wheels, another had to take away the clamps from the wings and so on. Devyatayev studied the controls of the German airplanes. His friends brought and translated the plates with the German inscriptions from the damaged airplanes lying around. Devyatayev even managed to get into these airplanes and learn the location of the controls and gauges. Once, when Devyatayev was watching from a safe distance a German pilot preparing for the flight, the pilot noticed him and performed the whole procedure demonstratively, showing to the stupid Russian the superiority of the Teutonic creative spirit.

The slaves were usually convoyed by one of the two Wachmanns, guards. One of them was very friendly and the prisoners didn't want to kill him. They even offered him to escape to the USSR with them. He refused saying that if he does, all his family, all his relatives will be executed. He did not betray them, though. The second Wachmann was a 200% Nazi. However, soon they had no choice. Some of the prisoners in the camp collaborated with the Nazis and they had a tradition called "ten days of life". The German officers or the guards chose a victim and that group of collaborators tortured the man for ten days and finally killed him. In February, Mikhail Devyatayev was chosen as the victim. Fortunately, on 8 February, they were escorted by the second Wachmann. When the pilots and the tech staff left the airfield, they set a small fire and when the Wachmann came closer, Ivan Krivonogov smashed his head. Pyotr Kutergin put the Wachmann's overcoat on and pretended that he was convoying the prisoners along the airfield. When they got to their Heinkel, Devyatayev climbed in. For the first time he saw the cockpit of He 111. He pressed the starter button, but it didn't work. Devyatayev recalled that there's a small knife-switch behind and turned it on. Pressed the button again and once again the engines did not move. There was no voltage in the network. Devyatayev wanted to plug the accumulators, but shocked to see that they were absent. Fortunately, the prisoners knew where the accumulators were stored and soon found them. Finally, he managed to launch the engines. Ivan Krivonogov released the brakes on the wheels and the airplane went forward. They were ready to move into the runway when a woman from the airfield staff raised the flags indicating that some planes were landing. A group of Junkers bombers were coming back. The hijacked Heinkel was standing quietly in the corner and waiting for the bombers to free the runway. Finally, they began the acceleration, but when the plane was ready to take off, Devyatayev found out that he cannot move the control column and the airplane will not take off. Fortunately, the runway was long enough and he managed to stop the airplane only some meters from the precipice at the end of the runway. Of course, the Germans noticed the unusual behaviour of the airplane and were already running to it.

There was no way back. Devyatayev began the second attempt in the opposite direction. Finally, he understood that the heavy bombers, unlike the fighters he was accustomed to, have trimmers on the wings. The trimmers had three positions: normal, landing and take-off. When they are in the landing position, they force the airplane down. Devyatayev did not know where the trimmer controls were located and he asked his friends to help him with the control column. By joint efforts, they moved it and the He 111 finally took off.

The Germans had no idea of what was happening — there were no pilots among the Soviet prisoners (Devyatayev was for them a teacher named Nikitenko) so what was happening? No matter what, they had to stop them. We don't know how many Messerschmitts and Fokke-Wulfs were sent after them. One FW found them and was quite near, but Devyatayev escaped in the clouds. Fortunately, but this time he had already found the trimmers controls. Later, after the war, they learned that that FW was returning from a mission and had no ammo at all. When flying over the sea, they noticed a sea convoy escorted by Messerschmitts, but the German fighters had their own orders and were not too interested in the lonely Heinkel.

One of the most difficult parts was, of course, the front line. The Soviet anti-aircraft guns attacked them immediately. They hit the airplane and the flight was over. Devyatov landed the Heinkel on the Soviet territory. When Sovet soldiers understood that they see the people who just escaped from a concentration camp, they immediately took them to the kitchen. The doctors warned the refugees that they can die if they eat too much, but they refused to listen and ate and ate and ate...

Here are the names of those ten people: Mikhail Devyataev, Ivan Krivonogov, Vladimir Sokolov, Vladimir Nemchenko, Fyodor Adamov, Ivan Oleynik, Mikhail Yemets, Pyotr Kutergin, Nikolay Urbanovich, Dmitri Serdyukov.

Sokolov was killed during the crossing of Oder. Urbanovich also was killed. Kutergin, Serdyukov and Nemchenko came to Berlin and were killed there. Oleynik fought against Japan in the Far East and was killed there. Adamov returned to his home in Belaya Kalitva. Devyataev, Krivonogov and Yemets spent the last months of the war in a hospital.

Wikipedia writes about what followed:

The NKVD did not believe Devyataev's story, arguing that it was impossible for the prisoners to take over an airplane without cooperation from the Germans. Thus, Devyataev was suspected of being a German spy and sent to a penal military unit. He was discharged in November 1945 and worked as a manual laborer in Kazan.

Soviet authorities cleared Devyataev only in 1957, after the head of the Soviet space program Sergey Korolyov personally presented his case, arguing that the information provided by Devyataev and the other escapees had been critical for the Soviet space program. On 15 August of that year, Devyataev became a Hero of the Soviet Union, and a subject of multiple books and newspaper articles. He continued to live in Kazan, working as a captain of first hydrofoil passenger ships on the Volga.

Devyataev was awarded the Order of Lenin, the Order of Red Banner twice, Order of the Patriotic War (first and second class), and many other awards. He became a honoured citizen of Mordovia Republic, the cities of Kazan, Wolgast and Zinnowitz (Germany).

He died in 2002 and is buried in an old Arsk Field cemetery in Kazan near a World War II Memorial.

There is a museum of Devyataev in his native Torbeyevo (opened on the 8 May 1975) and a monument in Usedom and Kazan. A small rocket ship (project 1234.1), serving the 166th Novorossian division, is named after him.

In 1968 Mikhail Devyataev came with his family to Usedom again and spent some weeks at a resort there.


February 7 in Russian history


Birthday of painter Vladimir Makovsky. Wikipedia writes:

Makovsky's work was defined by a perpetual humor as well as blatant irony and scorn. During the seventies his paintings dealt primarily with small-town folk. His pictures, "The Grape-juice Seller" (1879), "Fruit-Preserving" (1876) and "The Congratulator" (1878) depict various scenes where the mood is finely conceived and almost laughter-inducing. Other works of his, such as "The Benefactor" (1874) and "The Convict" (1878) are profoundly socially-conscious. In them, Makovsky either criticizes the false sympathy of the aristocracy towards the poor, or draws attention to the oppression and persecution of the tsarist gendaremrie. In 1878, he became an academician.

Makovsky is not as famous as, for example, Repin or Levitan, but he was definitely a very interesting painter. That "socially-oriented" painting gives us a way to look at the life of Russians in XIX century. Here are some links to the pages with his paintings. The names of the pictures are in the order in which they appear on the web-page:

Small Bay Gallery:

naholste.info Gallery:

And some more at Wikimedia:

I love Makovsky's abundance of details and his empathy to the characters of his paintings.

Here you can find more his paintings: Old postcards and More old postcards. The latter page also shows some illustrations by Makovsky for various books including The Sevastopol Stories by Leo Tolstoy.