Heisting Russia

The Bolsheviks, led by forty-seven-year-old Vladimir Lenin, took control of Russia on this day in 1917 (November 6-7 New Style, October 24-25 Old Style). Crippled by massive strikes, armed protests, and bankruptcy fears, the nation was so near collapse that the Bolsheviks had a relatively easy time — much easier than the Marxist myth makers would claim, for example in Sergei Eisenstein’s famous film October: Ten Days That Shook the World, first screened on the Revolution’s tenth anniversary. Eisenstein’s reenactment of “The Storming of the Winter Palace” shows fierce combat and carnage; in actuality, with the tsar long gone and Alexander Kerensky, leader of the Provisional Government, just fled, the Palace Guard, reduced to a few hundred military cadets, offered little resistance.

Despite the ensuing five years of civil war, the Bolsheviks recognized that their greatest obstacles would be more economic than military or ideological, and they immediately began to obey Marx’s call to “expropriate the expropriators.” Over its first two decades, the socialist government sold Russia bare by laundering gold bullion from the state banks, seizing rubles from private bank accounts, and fencing on the international market trainloads of antiques, jewels, and artwork stripped from the nation’s churches and estates.

It was a bold attempt, as a recent collection of scholarly essays puts it, to turn Treasures into Tractors; it was History’s Greatest Heist,as Sean McMeeken puts it in his recent account of “The Looting of Russia by the Bolsheviks.” In his Epilogue, McMeeken notes that Andrew Mellon was among the wealthy crowd that lined up to buy Russia’s wealth:

In a curiously sinister twist, Mellon was Treasury secretary at the time, responsible for enforcing American antidumping laws against the Soviet Union. Far from regretting this stunning display of hypocrisy, Mellon claimed his Soviet art purchases as charitable deductions on his income tax returns for 1931.
In one of the most grotesque ironies of Communism, it was Western fat-cat capitalists like Mellon who inherited the greater part of Russia’s patrimony, while the Russian proletariat received only the lash. It is hard to imagine a better program for destroying a country’s wealth than by robbing and murdering its most successful wealth-producers and shipping their riches out of the country. In this way the Russian people were robbed not only of their cultural past, but of their economic future as well.

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.