June 22nd 1941: Operation Barbarossa begins
On this day in 1941 during the Second World War, the German invasion of Soviet Russia (codenamed Operation Barbarossa), began. Over three million German troops, armed with 3,000 tanks, 2,500 aircraft and 7,000 artillery pieces, crossed the border, making it the largest invasion in the history of warfare. The operation, pushed for by German Chancellor Adolf Hitler, was driven by the Nazi leader’s fears of the Soviets (with whom the Nazis had made a non-aggression pact in 1939) joining forces with Britain and her allies. The invasion and the tactic of blitzkrieg was initially successful, allowing the Germans to take hundreds of miles of land and decimate the Russian military forces. Russia was taken by surprise by the invasion and unprepared for war, with a vast but unorganised army and a lack of coherent leadership as Stalin had purged 2/3 of senior army officials during the 1930s. However the Soviets reorganised and the Germans began to lose, most famously at the Battle of Stalingrad where German soldiers froze in the sub-zero temperatures lacking winter clothing. Thus ultimately the Axis powers failed, and Allied victory was effectively secured. Barbarossa is remembered as a major turning point of the war but also as one of the largest military operations in history.
"When Barbarossa commences, the world will hold its breath and make no comment"
- Adolf Hitler
April 25th 1945: Elbe Day
On this day in 1945, during the Second World War, Soviet and American troops met at the River Elbe in Germany - the day is now known as Elbe Day. The event was a momentous show of unity of the Allied Powers as the war drew to a close while the Allies advanced towards Berlin. The first contact was between an American delegation led by First Lieutenant Albert Kotzebue of the 3rd Battalion, 273rd Infantry, 69th Infantry Division, who took his men across the river and were greeted by Russian Lt Col Alexander Gardiev, Commander of the 175th Rifle Regiment of the 58th Guards Division, 34th Corps. The two groups agreed on a formal handshake to be photographed the next day. Each side commended the other, with Moscow holding a gun salute and US General Omar Bradley praising the Soviet success in pushing the Germans back from Russia. A few days after the Elbe meeting, German Chancellor Adolf Hitler committed suicide and Germany soon surrendered - the war was finally over.
"We meet in true and victorious comradeship and with inflexible resolve to fulfil our purpose and our duty. Let all march forward upon the foe."
- British Prime Minister Winston Churchill
"This is not the hour of final victory in Europe, but the hour draws near, the hour for which all the American people, all the British people and all the Soviet people have toiled and prayed so long."
- US President Harry Truman
"Our task and our duty are to complete the destruction of the enemy to force him to lay down his arms and surrender unconditionally. The Red Army will fulfil to the end this task and this duty to our people and to all freedom-loving peoples."
- Soviet leader Joseph Stalin
March 5th 1946: ‘Iron Curtain’ speech
On this day in 1946, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill made his famous ‘Iron Curtain’ speech at Westminster College, Missouri. The term had been used prior to 1946, but this was the most public use of it. In the ‘Sinews of Peace’ address, Churchill used the term ‘iron curtain’ to reference a Soviet dominated Eastern Europe. At the time, the West still saw the Soviet Union as an ally after the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War Two, but Churchill’s speech heralded the onset of the Cold War tensions between the capitalist West and communist Russia. As the Cold War took hold, the phrase became popular as a reference to repressive Communist domination of Europe which hid Soviet actions and set a clear divide in Europe.
"From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic an iron curtain has descended across the continent”
February 2nd 1943: Battle of Stalingrad ends
On this day in 1943, German troops surrendered to the Soviet Red Army in Stalingrad, thus ending the 5 months of fighting. The Battle of Stalingrad is among the bloodiest battles in the history of warfare, with nearly 2 million casualties. The Germans had attempted to invade Russia and capture Stalingrad, but the Russians fought back and cut off and surrounded the German army. The Russian winter soon set in, with sub-zero temperatures weakening the German forces. Eventually, the remaining army surrendered, and 91,000 were taken prisoner (including 22 generals). The German failure at Stalingrad was a key turning point in the Second World War, as the army never recovered from their defeat.
December 20th 1917: Cheka established
On this day in 1917, Russian leader Vladimir Lenin issued a decree that founded the Cheka, a secret police force. Lenin appointed the feared Felix Dzerzhinsky as head of the organisation, which soon became infamous for its brutality. The Cheka was created to deal with enemies of the regime. The organisation ran forced labour camps, put down rebellions and riots, tortured and executed political opponents. The Cheka was known for its cruel methods, such as stripping people in the middle of Russian winter and hosing them with cold water and leaving them to freeze. Lenin’s creation of the Cheka has led some to claim that he really was no better than the tsarist regimes he replaced, and have hailed him just a ‘Red Tsar’. The Cheka began the long line of infamous Soviet state security organisations, which led to the KGB.
November 1st 1894: Nicholas II becomes Tsar
On this day in 1894, Nicholas Romanov became the new Tsar of Russia after his father Tsar Alexander III died; Nicholas was aged 26. Nicholas felt unprepared and inexperienced to lead his country. His rule saw Russia’s defeat in the Russo-Japanese War and began Russia’s disastrous involvement in World War One. He was known for violent suppression of protests. He ruled Russia until his abdication on March 2nd 1917 following the Bolshevik revolution. He and his family were then imprisoned and eventually executed by a Bolshevik firing squad in 1918.
September 26th 1849: Pavlov born
On this day in 1849, the famous Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov was born. He is best known for his research into classical conditioning. He experimented with dogs and how they would salivate in response to being fed. Each time he fed them he rang a bell, and noticed that soon the dogs would salivate upon the sound of the bell even if they were not being fed. Pavlov was thus a pioneer in the field of conditioning responses. Pavlov won the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1904. He died in Leningrad in 1936 aged 86.
July 17th 1918: Romanovs murdered
On this day in 1918, Tsar Nicholas II of Russia and his family were murdered by the Bolshevik secret police, the Cheka. The Tsar abdicated in 1917 after the Bolshevik revolution, led by Vladimir Lenin, toppled his regime. Nicholas, his wife Alexandra, his son Alexei, his four daughters (Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia) and several of their servants, were murdered in Ipatiev House in Yekaterinburg. They had been roused early in the morning and taken to a basement room where a firing squad shot them. The women, due to their jewel-encrusted clothing, survived the bullets and so were stabbed with bayonets and shot at close range in the head. The bodies of most of the family were found in 1979 and the bodies of Alexei and Anastasia were found in 2007. He and his family were canonized as martyred saints by the Russian Orthodox Church.
May 18th 1896: Khodynka Tragedy
On this day in 1896 during the festivities celebrating the coronation of new Russian Tsar Nicholas II, a mass panic on Khodynka Field in Moscow led to 1,389 deaths. A banquet was planned for the people which was highly anticipated due to rumours of free beer, pretzels and gingerbread. Thousands gathered early in the morning, but a rumour spread that there was not enough food for everyone and in the ensuing panic and crush, 1,389 were trampled to death and a further 1,300 injured. The new Tsar visited the injured in hospital but still attended a ball at the French embassy in the evening which many thought showed a lack of care for his subjects (Nicholas had not wanted to go but his advisors considered it an insult to France). The incident marked the beginning of a series of events which undermined faith in Tsar Nicholas II and led to his removal from power in 1917, making him the last Tsar of Russia.
March 28th 1854: Britain and France declare war on Russia
On this day in 1854 in a pivotal moment of the Crimean War, Britain and France declared war on Russia. This conflict originated in the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars when Europe tried to rebuild and ensure future stability. One of the concerns was the crumbling Ottoman-Turkish empire, known as the ‘sick man of Europe’. The Russians planned to carve up the European part of Turkey, but Turkey objected and eventually declared war. The war was also prompted by debates over the rights of Christians in the Holy Land, which was under Ottoman control. Britain and France, each with their own interests in the preservation of the Ottoman regime, also joined the war when Russian troops failed to withdraw from the Russo-Turkish border. The allies decided to land in the Crimea to assault the Russian naval base at Sevastopol in order to gain the Black Sea. The siege took far longer than expected, and made Crimea the primary front of the war. The Crimean war was characterised by poor military leadership on both sides and a failure to adapt tactics to modern weaponry. The Battle of Balaclava in October saw the infamous British ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’, a frontal assault against Russian artillery. Eventually Sevastopol fell, the Russians were defeated, and the war ended with the signing of the Treaty of Paris in March 1856. This war has been the subject of much recent discussion due to Russia’s controversial annexation of Crimea, which was previously an autonomous region of Ukraine.
160 years ago today
February 11th 1916: Emma Goldman arrested
On this day in 1916 the anarchist Emma Goldman was arrested for lecturing about birth control. She had become well known for her powerful speeches on philosophy, labour relations, atheism, sexuality and feminism. She and her peers also engaged in militant anarchism. Goldman and her husband plotted to assassinate industrialist Henry Clay Frick, and President William McKinley’s assassin Leon Czolgosz claimed to have been inspired by her. Goldman was an early advocate of free love and supporter of homosexual rights. She was arrested in 1916 for her lectures on birth control, under the pretense that she had been disseminating lewd and obscene literature. Emma Goldman spent her life in and out of prison, including some time for lecturing on contraception and opposing conscription during World War One. She was deported in 1919 and spent some time in Europe, including in Bolshevik Russia and Civil War Spain. In 1940, Goldman died in Canada aged 70.
"I could never in my life work within the confines of the State"
January 9th 1905: Bloody Sunday
On this day in 1905, Russian workers were massacred by Tsarist troops in St. Petersburg, an event which became known as ‘Bloody Sunday’. The workers were staging a peaceful, unarmed march to Tsar Nicholas II’s Winter Palace to petition him. They were gunned down by the Imperial Guard. The massacre, and apparent disregard for the lives of Russian citizens shown by the Tsar undermined support for the government. It also set off the failed 1905 Revolution, and some have said gave impetus to the successful 1917 Revolution, when the Bolsheviks seized power and created the Soviet state. By the Julian calendar, which was used at this time, the massacre occured on the 9th January. By the modern Gregorian calendar, it would have fallen on January 22nd.
"There is no God anymore, there is no Tsar"
- march leader Father Gapon as he saw the massacre
December 18th 1879: Joseph Stalin born
On this day in 1879 the future leader of the Soviet Union, Joseph Stalin, was born in Georgia. In his youth Stalin read works by Marx and became active in the revolutionary movement against the Russian Tsar. After the 1917 revolution by the Bolshevik Party, Stalin quickly rose through the party ranks, becoming general secretary in 1922. After the death of Vladimir Lenin in 1924, Stalin established himself as dictator of the Soviet Union. Under his rule, millions died due to his forced collectivisation policies and his ‘purges’ of political rivals claimed thousands of lives. He worked with the other Allied powers to defeat Nazi Germany in World War Two. Stalin died of a stroke in 1953.
October 17th 1905: October Manifesto
On this day in 1905 Russian Tsar Nicholas II issued the October Manifesto. The manifesto was mainly the brainchild of Count Sergei Witte as a response to the Russian Revolution of 1905. The ‘revolution’ was a period of mass unrest against the government and due to general frustration with working conditions and poverty. The tsar’s manifesto promised civil liberties and an elected Duma (parliament). However, the provisions were not enough for many and civil liberties were still limited. This contributed to the success of the 1917 Communist Revolution.
August 20th 1882: 1812 Overture debuts
On this day in 1882, the Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s '1812 Overture' made its debut in Moscow. The piece commemorates Napoleon’s failed 1812 invasion of Russia. It was first performed under a tent near the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, which was still under construction. The piece was conducted by Ippolit Al’tani. The 1812 Overture is frequently played during fireworks displays.