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History's Greatest Heist

History's Greatest Heist: The Looting of Russia by the Bolsheviks

Copyright Date: 2009
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 336
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  • Book Info
    History's Greatest Heist
    Book Description:

    Historians have never resolved a central mystery of the Russian Revolution: How did the Bolsheviks, despite facing a world of enemies and leaving nothing but economic ruin in their path, manage to stay in power through five long years of civil war? In this penetrating book, Sean McMeekin draws on previously undiscovered materials from the Soviet Ministry of Finance and other European and American archives to expose some of the darkest secrets of Russia's early days of communism. Building on one archival revelation after another, the author reveals how the Bolsheviks financed their aggression through astonishingly extensive thievery. Their looting included everything from the cash savings of private citizens to gold, silver, diamonds, jewelry, icons, antiques, and artwork.

    By tracking illicit Soviet financial transactions across Europe, McMeekin shows how Lenin's regime accomplished history's greatest heist between 1917 and 1922 and turned centuries of accumulated wealth into the sinews of class war. McMeekin also names names, introducing for the first time the compliant bankers, lawyers, and middlemen who, for a price, helped the Bolsheviks launder their loot, impoverish Russia, and impose their brutal will on millions.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-15279-1
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. A Note on Transliteration, Names, and Translation
    (pp. xi-xi)
  5. A Note on the Relative Value of Money Then and Now
    (pp. xii-xv)
  6. Prologue: The Patrimony of Imperial Russia
    (pp. xvi-xxii)

    Although Soviet propaganda later succeeded in convincing much of the world that the Communist program of central planning was essential to Russia’s rise to world-power status, even a rudimentary glance at the historical evidence shows this claim to be largely hollow. To begin with, of course, Germany did not launch a preemptive war with Russia in 1914 because her leaders saw a weak eastern neighbor ripe for the plucking: the leitmotif of paranoid policy discussions in Berlin that fateful summer was, rather, the unstoppable Russian juggernaut. As Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg famously remarked as the crisis heated up in July, “the...

  7. Introduction to Bolshevik Gold: The Nature of a Forgotten Problem
    (pp. 1-8)

    IN THE MID-1990s, a series of sensational reports appeared on the subject of looted Nazi gold laundered in Switzerland during the Second World War. Helped along by the war’s fiftieth anniversary, a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed by the World Jewish Congress, and nationally televised hearings on Holocaust survivors’ claims against Swiss banks chaired by U.S. Senator Alphonse D’Amato, “Nazi gold” became front-page news. “The greatest theft in history,” proclaimed the BBC. TheNew York Timesdenounced the “Goblins of Zurich.” Ambitious journalists turned out books with sensational titles likeHitler’s Secret Bankers: How Switzerland Profited from Nazi Genocide....

  8. I. The Heist

    • 1 The Banks
      (pp. 11-34)

      THE BOLSHEVIK NATIONALIZATION of Russia’s banks in 1917 came right out of the playbook of theCommunist Manifesto. “The proletariat will use its political supremacy,” Marx had instructed, “to wrest, by degrees, all capital from the bourgeoisie.” Such a program “cannot be effected,” he emphasized, “except by means of despotic inroads on the rights of property,” including the “centralization of credit in the hands of the State, by means of a national bank with State capital and an exclusive monopoly.”¹ Lenin, continuing this line of thought, had written earlier in 1917, “The big banks are that ‘state apparatus’ which we...

    • 2 The People
      (pp. 35-53)

      THE LOOTING of Russia’s rich began long before the Bolshevik seizure of power. The transfer of the nation’s patrimony into the hands of “revolutionaries” was effected almost immediately after the February Revolution in Petrograd, when the tsar’s many palaces were requisitioned by the Petrograd Soviet. Kerensky famously installed himself in the Winter Palace in July, sleeping in the bedroom once used by Tsar Alexander III, and further helped himself to a Rolls Royce “requisitioned” from a rich foreigner.1 Peasant-soldiers returning to their villages from the front began dividing up estates owned by absentee landowners long before the Bolshevik land decree...

    • 3 The Gokhran
      (pp. 54-72)

      THE REGIME LENIN began erecting on the ruins of the tsarist empire was, as he himself never tired of repeating, no ordinary government. If the principal function of most governments is to cultivate law and public order, that of Lenin’s was precisely the opposite: to eradicate all existing law and institutions and to encourage class war. As no government of this kind had existed before, it is not surprising the Bolsheviks struggled to define the roles of various governing bureaucracies. Having dissolved the elected parliament (Duma) and defanged the worker soviets (where the Social Revolutionaries remained strong) by spring 1918,...

    • 4 The Church
      (pp. 73-92)

      EVER SINCE THE Emperor Constantine established the legal position of the church in the Roman Empire, churches, convents, abbeys, and monasteries have served as storehouses for the vast spiritual and material wealth of the Christian community. Whether nationalized or simply carted off en masse by ravenous armies, the rich silver, gold, and artistic wares of the church have often enticed looters in times of revolutionary upheaval, from the Vandal sack of Rome in the fifth century to the Crusader sack of Constantinople in the thirteenth, to the appropriation of the English monasteries in the 1530s by Henry VIII, to the...

    • Gallery
      (pp. None)
  9. II. Cashing In

    • 5 Brest-Litovsk and the Diplomatic Bag
      (pp. 95-116)

      THE PROPER FINANCIAL HISTORY of Bolshevism begins in the last week of March 1918, with the breaking of the winter-long bank strike (see chapter 1). Absent reliable income, the sovereignty Soviet Russia had achieved by signing the Brest-Litovsk Treaty with Germany earlier that month was nominal at best. While the bank strike persisted, the Bolsheviks subsisted by printing rubles backed by nothing but the paper they were printed on, which lost value by the hour. There were simple party dues, augmented since early February by small quantities of gold and silver coin stolen from private citizens as part of Lenin’s...

    • 6 Blockade
      (pp. 117-136)

      ALTHOUGH THE BOLSHEVIKS later placed the Allied intervention in Soviet Russia from 1918 to 1920 at the heart of their civil war mythology, the truth is that none of the Entente powers that deployed troops ever sought seriously to overthrow the Communist government, with the possible exception of Great Britain for a few months in summer 1919. The earliest Allied deployments, involving small contingents of American, French, and British soldiers sent ashore at Murmansk, Archangel, and Vladivostok in spring 1918, were actually made at the behest of Trotsky, the Soviet war commissar, to protect war stores in these port cities...

    • 7 Stockholm
      (pp. 137-167)

      AS SPRING DAWNED in 1920, the Bolsheviks’ overall strategic position seemed more secure than at any point since the October Revolution. The armies of Denikin and Yudenich had disintegrated, removing the White threat to Moscow and Petrograd. Kolchak, along with more than $200 million worth of imperial gold ingots from the Kazan reserve, had been turned over to Bolshevik custody by the departing Czechoslovak legion in Irkutsk.¹ Kolchak was shot the night of 6–7 February 1920, his body pushed under the ice of a river. With the British giving up the fight and the Tartu peace with Estonia quieting...

    • 8 London
      (pp. 168-198)

      DAVID LLOYD GEORGE and Leonid Borisovich Krasin made for a very odd couple, but in some respects the two men complemented each other perfectly. Lloyd George was both resented and admired for his skill in balancing seemingly irreconcilable positions held by his cabinet members, as in his halfway intervention in Soviet Russia, followed by his sudden abandonment of the intervention, with no prior notice of a change in policy. As Richard Ullman writes of Lloyd George, “The master of compromise and temporizing, . . . he did not commit himself until he sensed the direction and strength of the political...

    • 9 Rapallo
      (pp. 199-215)

      AS RUSSIA’S GOLD RESERVES began running down in winter 1921–22, it became increasingly clear to the Bolsheviks that there was no way to rob and loot their way out of their financial crisis. Trotsky’s church confiscations initiative could go only so far in restoring temporary liquidity in gold and silver bullion: in the long run the Soviet regime would not survive without being able to import weapons on credit. It was significant that the Politburo established a special foreign bond commission in October 1921, alongside the crisis gold commissions. Its task was not easy: the Bolsheviks, on the verge...

  10. Epilogue: From Stockholm to Sotheby’s
    (pp. 216-222)

    TAKEN TOGETHER, the Anglo-Soviet accord of 1921 and the Rapallo Treaty of 1922 washed clean the stolen loot the Bolsheviks had previously had to launder, on the sly, in Estonia and Sweden. Although Krestinsky and Aschberg remained somewhat cautious at first in auctioning off the Gokhran treasures in Germany, the periodic auctions at Rudolf Lepke’s on Potsdamer Straße inevitably excited public interest in the phenomenon of Bolshevik art and antique dumping. By 1928, when the first major Soviet sales of paintings by European Old Masters began, Lepke’s auction catalogue was selling out in London, Paris, Vienna, and New York, despite...

  11. Dramatis Personae
    (pp. 223-232)
  12. Notes
    (pp. 233-272)
  13. Selected Bibliography
    (pp. 273-285)
  14. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 286-290)
  15. Index
    (pp. 291-302)