1961: When Leonid Rogozov, a member of the Soviet team at the Novolazarevskaya base in Antarctica, fell ill with nausea, a high temperature and abdominal pains, the diagnosis was straightforward: acute appendicitis. Evacuation by sea or air, in the middle of the polar winter, was out of the question; Rogozov would have to be operated on at the base. And since Rogozov was the team doctor, that meant he would have to operate on himself.
Tag archive: Soviet Union
1935: During a visit to Moscow, the French foreign minister, Pierre Laval, urged Joseph Stalin to improve the lot of Catholics in the Soviet Union. Stalin was utterly contemptuous of Catholics and the Vatican. “The Pope!” he snorted. “How many divisions has he got?” (To which the perfect riposte would have been: “The same number that Karl Marx had.”)
Source: Winston S. Churchill, The Second World War, I: The Gathering Storm (1950), p. 121
1986: The explosion of the Chernobyl reactor released 400 times as much radioactive material into the atmosphere as the Hiroshima atomic bomb.
Source: International Atomic Energy Agency, Ten Years after Chernobyl: What Do We Really Know? (1997), p. 8
1970: “Drink more, eat less,” advised the Russian writer Venedikt Yerofeev. Moscow Stations, his account of a drunken rail trip across the Soviet Union, included recipes for his favourite and most lethal cocktails. Spirit of Geneva: a mixture of Zhiguli beer, spirit varnish, White Lilac toilet water and sock deodorizer. The Tear of a Komsomol Girl: lemonade and mouthwash with smaller quantities of Forest Water eau de Cologne, lavender water, verbena and nail varnish, stirred for 20 minutes with a sprig of honeysuckle. And, “last and best”, Dog’s Giblets: Zhiguli beer and anti-dandruff solution combined with Sadko the Wealthy Guest shampoo, brake fluid, insecticide and superglue.
Source: Venedikt Yerofeev, Moscow Stations (1997), pp. 46–51
1961: From an American perspective, the middle of April was one of the lowest points of the Cold War. Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human to travel into space on 12 April, and this Soviet technological and propaganda triumph was followed, five days later, by the military fiasco of the American-backed invasion at the Bay of Pigs in Cuba.
Source: Jamie Doran and Piers Bizony, Starman: The Truth Behind the Legend of Yuri Gagarin (1998), p. 142
1924: Norway’s decision to extend diplomatic recognition to the Soviet Union was impelled, in part, by the need to find markets for the Norwegian herring catch. Twelve years later, herrings again played an unexpected role in bilateral relations. The Norwegian government, fearful that the Soviets would halt purchases of the fish, gagged the political exile Leon Trotsky, and then put him on board a ship to Mexico.
Source: Donald Rayfield, Stalin and His Hangmen: An Authoritative Portrait of a Tyrant and Those Who Served Him (2004), pp. 259–60, 261, 271
1921: Famine killed an estimated 5 million people in the Volga region of Soviet Russia. Among the starving refugees at Samara, the British journalist Arthur Ransome came upon “a silently weeping little girl” with a “wizened dead face, pale green”, and on the east bank of the Volga, “an old woman cooking horsedung in a broken saucepan”.
1986: The meltdown of a nuclear reactor at Chernobyl, in northern Ukraine, released a cloud of radioactivity that affected not only the nearby human population, but also, indirectly, the stork population. Storks hunted for beetles, grasshoppers, frogs and other small prey in cultivated fields and meadows. When the Soviet authorities ordered the evacuation of residents from a wide area around the power plant, the abandoned fields and meadows became overgrown with tall grass, bushes and saplings. These made it difficult for the storks to forage for food, which in turn led to a decline in their numbers.
Source: Bird Census News (2000)
1983: American President Ronald Reagan didn’t mince his words. The previous year, he had predicted that the West would consign Marxism and Leninism to the “ash heap of history”. In March 1983, he labelled the Soviet Union “an evil empire”.
Also in March, Reagan proposed the Strategic Defense Initiative, intended to protect the United States from attack by strategic nuclear ballistic missiles. In April, the United States Navy conducted a large fleet exercise in the northern Pacific. An important NATO exercise was planned for Europe in November, around the same time that Pershing II medium-range ballistic missiles were to be deployed in West Germany.
Viewed from Moscow, all this bellicose rhetoric and activity was highly alarming. Was it the prelude to a sneak attack on the Soviet Union?
1981: Alexander Haig announced that the United States was in possession of “physical evidence” that the Soviet Union was supplying its Southeast Asian allies with biological warfare agents for military use against their opponents. According to the Secretary of State, the Soviet Union was providing Laos and Vietnam with mycotoxins – poisonous compounds synthesized by fungi.
The “physical evidence”? Hmong villagers, refugees from fighting in Laos, had seen low-flying aircraft spraying what the Hmong called “yellow rain”, an oily liquid that left a residue of yellow spots on leaves, rocks and rooftops. Villagers caught in these chemical showers exhibited symptoms that included blurred vision, breathing difficulties and skin burns. Between 10 and 20 per cent of victims died.
1961: The most powerful nuclear weapon ever detonated was the Soviet Union’s Tsar Bomba hydrogen bomb. The device was tested on 30 October, producing an estimated yield of 50 megatons, roughly 3,000 times the size of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima at the end of the Second World War.
1957: In Edward Teller’s opinion, “All astronauts should be women because they weigh less and have more sense.” The United States ignored the nuclear physicist’s trenchant views and it was the Soviet Union that first sent a woman into space. Cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova orbited Earth for three days in June 1963; the first American female astronaut didn’t blast off until 1983.
Source: Bettyann Holtzmann Kevles, Almost Heaven: The Story of Women in Space (2003), p. 7
1945: “Command post moved to Potsdamer Platz station,” a German officer noted on 27 April as Soviet troops fought their way into the centre of Berlin. “Direct hit through the roof. Heavy losses among wounded and civilians. . . . Terrible sight at the station entrance, one flight of stairs down where a heavy shell has penetrated and people, soldiers, women and children are literally stuck to the walls.”
Source: Tony Le Tissier, Berlin Then and Now (1992), p. 226
1938: The eruption of Bilyukai, on the Kamchatka peninsula in eastern Siberia, produced huge amounts of lava. Rivers of it, which, as it flowed away from the volcano, cooled and formed a crust on its surface.
The volcanologists V.F. Popkov and I.Z. Ivanov, showing scant regard for their personal safety, decided that the only way to properly study the lava was to go out on to it.
They tossed rocks on to the crust to strengthen it, and then Popkov gingerly stepped on to the band of lava that separated the riverbank from the crust. “Without letting go of Ivanov’s hand, I put . . . one asbestos-shod foot on the incandescent lava,” he wrote. “I released Ivanov’s hand and made another step by resting my body on the iron rod which I used as a walking stick and which sank slowly into the plastic mass.”
1989: Spooked by the downfall of the Berlin Wall, Soviet officials at the KGB office in Dresden desperately destroyed records of agents and operations. They burned so many files, recalled one member of staff, Vladimir Putin, that “the furnace burst”.
Source: Vladimir Putin with Nataliya Gevorkyan, Natalya Timakova and Andrei Kolesnikov, First Person: An Astonishingly Frank Self-Portrait by Russia’s President Vladimir Putin (2000), p. 76
1988: The Stasi employed a work force of 102,000 to monitor a population of 17 million: one secret policeman for every 166 East Germans, compared with one Gestapo official for every 2000 citizens under the Third Reich and one KGB agent for every 5830 people in the Soviet Union. In addition, the Stasi had at least 174,000 regular informers among the population, 10,000 of whom were under the age of 18. There was one Stasi employee or regular informer for every 66 people; if part-time informers were included, the ratio of agents and informers to citizens may have been one to 6.5.
Source: John O. Koehler, Stasi: The Untold Story of the East German Secret Police (1999), pp. 8–9
Moscow by night, with Lenin’s mausoleum at the side of Red Square and the Kremlin behind, photographed by Andrew Shiva
1983: After years of arteriosclerosis, severe coronary disease, leukaemia and emphysema, the Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev died in November 1982 at the age of 75. Yuri Andropov was already seriously ill with chronic kidney disease and diabetes when he stepped into Brezhnev’s shoes, and died 15 months later. Andropov’s successor, Konstantin Chernenko, suffered from emphysema, cirrhosis and hepatitis, and survived only 13 months in the top spot.
In the summer of 1983, and perhaps indicative of the doddery health of the Soviet leadership, an escalator was installed in the Kremlin to help ailing elderly comrades cope with the short climb to the platform on top of Lenin’s mausoleum in Red Square.
Source: Dmitri Volkogonov, The Rise and Fall of the Soviet Empire: Political Leaders from Lenin to Gorbachev (1998), pp. 371–2
1956: Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev visited Britain, where he was charmed by Elizabeth II – “the sort of young woman you’d be likely to meet walking along Gorky Street on a balmy summer afternoon.”
Source: Nikita Khrushchev, Khrushchev Remembers, ed. Strobe Talbott (1971), p. 406
1909: Beginning at the age of 15, Nikita Khrushchev attended the local school for two winters. The education was rudimentary: reading, writing, arithmetic and religion. “After a year or two I had learnt to count up to thirty and my father decided that was enough of schooling. He said all I needed was to be able to count money and I could never have more than thirty roubles to count.”
Source: George Paloczi-Horvath, Khrushchev: The Road to Power (1960), pp. 12–13
Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in 1962 – a politician rather than a mathematician
1992: “Communism died this year,” proclaimed George Bush in his State of the Union address. One month earlier, the Soviet Union had formally ceased to exist. “By the grace of God,” the president told Congress, “America won the Cold War.”
1980: The gold medals in the men’s coxless pairs rowing event at the Moscow Olympics were won by identical twins, likewise the silver medals. Bernd and Jörg Landvoigt of East Germany finished in first place, with Nikolai and Yuri Pimenov of the Soviet Union in second.
Source: David Wallechinsky, The Complete Book of the Olympics (2004), p. 19
1960: On 5 October, radar at a missile early-warning station in Greenland showed enemy missiles heading towards the United States.
At North American Air Defense Command headquarters in Colorado, a “massive” Soviet ballistic missile attack appeared imminent, until someone realised that Nikita Khrushchev was actually visiting New York. It seemed very unlikely that the Soviet Union would launch missiles that might kill its own leader. Huge relief at NORAD headquarters, no doubt.
What the radar had in fact detected was a reflection from the moon, rising slowly over Norway.
Source: Eric Schlosser, Command and Control (2013), pp. 253–4
1942: As the battle for Stalingrad reached its climax, both sides hurled men and machines into the fray. West of the city, though, the German 22nd Panzer Division didn’t budge; its tank engines wouldn’t start. Not because of harsh weather, or Soviet sabotage, but because field mice had sneaked into the tanks and nibbled through the electrical insulation.
Source: Henry Metelmann, Through Hell for Hitler (2003), p. 114
1929: The diplomat Bruce Lockhart heard what he described as a “priceless story of Lenin and the death of his mother-in-law”. Without naming the source, Lockhart wrote in his diary: “Krupskaya tired of watching at death-bed asked Lenin to sit by her mother while she slept. He was to call her if her mother wanted anything. Lenin took a book and began to read. Two hours later Krupskaya came back. Her mother was dead. Lenin was still reading. Krupskaya blamed him: ‘Why did you not let me know?’ Lenin replied: ‘But your mother never called me!’ ”
Source: Sir Robert Bruce Lockhart, The Diaries of Sir Robert Bruce Lockhart, I: 1915–1938, ed. Kenneth Young (1973), p. 82
1925: On 21 December, Sergei Eisenstein’s The Battleship Potemkin was first screened at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow. Eisenstein had toiled for three weeks to edit the film in time, and was still putting the finishing touches to it on the opening night.
His assistant Grigori Alexandrov recalled, “I spent the evening riding on a motorcycle between the cutting room and the theatre, carrying the reels one at a time. When Eisenstein was finally happy with the last reel, he sat on the back of my motorcycle with the can of film under his arm. . . . but when we were in the middle of Red Square, and about a quarter of a mile from the Bolshoi, the motorcycle broke down. So we ran the rest of the way!”
At that time, films were shown with a break between each reel. “All went well, except that the break between the last two reels was nearly twenty minutes long!”
Source: Ronald Bergan, Eisenstein: A Life in Conflict (1997), pp. 111–12