Post-Stalin USSR: Resurrecting the figure of Brezhnev

Upon hearing the word “USSR” you would be forgiven for thinking purely of Joseph Stalin, the infamous Russian dictator. Stalin ruled communist Russia from 1922 until his death in 1952, and with infamous phrases such as ‘one death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic’ he is an un-ignorable presence in the history of the USSR [United Soviet Socialist Republic also commonly referred to as Russia, the ‘Soviet state’ or sometimes simply ‘the communists’].


However life continued on[ironically] after Stalin’s death and many of the rulers of the post-Stalin USSR are also well worth a mention. Directly after Stalin Nikita Khrushchev took control, then after a vicious coup, Leonid Brezhnev came to the forefront. Brezhnev is one of the more interesting characters of the USSR and controversy surrounds his eighteen year long rule, from this controversy appears two “Brezhnev” characters


The bad Brezhnev

Often the most common criticism of Brezhnev and his regime is essentially that nothing happened. Often Brezhnev is referred to as ‘dull’ and ‘grey’ in character. Much of the historiography on Brezhnev’s regime emphasizes his tendency to focus solely on maintaining stability and balance, a propensity which [according to some historians] resulted in him not actually doing anything. This coupled with the wider soviet context of economic downturn, dissatisfaction and disenchantment of the Russian people and rampant corruption paints a pretty damning picture. Essentially under Brezhnev the soviet system was in severe disrepair, meaning that Brezhnev has continually come under heavy fire for not instigating a more innovative and revolutionary reform program.

Add to this the slight [read massive] issue that by the end of his regime Brezhnev was severely ill and the situation appears even more dire. In the latter years of his rule there were continual jokes and comments made about his health. Primarily people seemed to be focused on actually confirming he was still alive, which again is not really high praise for his leadership style. [for a lovely visual of what Brezhnev was like think of an embalmed corpse and you’d be very near the mark] Due to his ill health during the latter years of his rule Brezhnev was undoubtedly of little use.


The Good Brezhnev

But it’s not all bad, in more recent years historiography has begun to re-evaluate Brezhnev’s impact on the USSR and therefore a more positive view can also be seen to emerge. Brezhnev is said to have had very good relations with his colleagues, this is primarily evidenced by the fact that he was not ousted from power like both his predecessors and his successors. He also had better luck with foreign policy and had a hand in resurrecting the USSR’s reputation upon the world stage through the early stages of his policy of détente. Additionally, unlike he successor Gorbachev he was able to maintain the stability and existence of the USSR.


Was Brezhnev good or bad then? – As research into the Brezhnev era evolves so does the view of his regime. Perhaps he was somewhere in the middle, just a man trying to reform and recover the badly damaged communist reputation of the USSR. But then this train of thought also begs the question of why didn’t he take more of a revolutionary approach? Brezhnev is certainly a subject to be investigated.


Monarchs under the Microscope: Henry VIII

Henry VIII has been made infamous for his multiple marriages and short temper, and alongside this it is often assumed that he was a great, all-powerful King. But when his reign is studied in finer detail this image starts to crack. Beneath the veneer of a totalitarian monastic reign actually laid a network of ministers whom Henry relied on to handle the day to day running of the country.


First the Worst; Cardinal Thomas Wolsey-

Wolsey began his association with Henry early on the Henry’s reign in 1515, by this time Henry was 21 years old and 4 years into his reign. As he was still a young man at this point it was understandable that he would rely upon his advisors to help him run England. However his relationship with Wolsey soon became imbalanced. Wolsey was an incredibly intelligent and ambitious man, and he aimed to gain as much power as he could as quickly as he could. After a short time Wolsey began to become indispensable to Henry. His vast array of tasks included organising wars [which England always won, giving Wolsey a irrefutably positive reputation], negotiating successful foreign relations and Wolsey even began to have designs to improve domestic policies in England itself. Wolsey was innovative and bright and his actions never failed to paint Henry in a good light and the duo ruled England successfully for many years.

—But did Henry actually rule??

With Henry still being a young man he was less interested in the daily running of the country and more interested in winning wars and perfecting his jousting and hunting skills, the space was left open for Wolsey to make his mark on the running of the country. Wolsey influence was so potent that he was often was referred to as the ‘Alter Rex’ [that’s ‘the other King’ for those of us who aren’t fluent in Latin]. This nickname for Wolsey should really have been a very worrying issue for Henry. Surely a King who was completely in control of his own country wouldn’t allow another man to take the name King even in jest? Yet it happened. It is indisputable that Wolsey had considerable influence over both Henry and the country.

Wolsey and Henry’s partnership came to a sharp end in 1529, mostly after Wolsey failed to secure Henry’s divorce from his first wife Catherine of Aragon [but also partly due the skillful manipulation of other political factions in Henry’s court who wished to see Wolsey fall from power]. Wolsey was accused of treason but died of illness before he could be executed.


Déjà vu; Thomas Cromwell-

After spending many years of his early career working under Wolsey in Henry’s court after Wolsey’s demise Cromwell took on the mantel of being Henry’s chief advisor. Much like Wolsey Cromwell was fiercely intelligent and knowledgeable. He had all the skills necessary to become a successful King himself– pragmatism, intelligence, ruthlessness, innovation, and vision. All he needed was the genetic claim to the throne, a minor detail he managed to dodge through his control over Henry. In many senses of the word Cromwell became the true leader of England. Cromwell thoroughly revolutionized the governmental system of England, stamping his influence on multiple processes from the tax system to the size of the privy council.

—But what of Henry? Surely Henry had some influence in this area too?

In answer to this all you need do is take a brief look at the time period after the fall of Cromwell in the 1540s. This time is often overlooked in historical study mostly because notable actions were few and far between. Essentially Henry made multiple unsuccessful conquests in France and managed to alienate most of his European neighbors with his heavy-handed approach to foreign policy. Most of the success of Henry’s reign were made during the tenure of either Cromwell or Wolsey… surely this is enough evidence to start t question the strength of Henry VIII’s leadership.


Germany’s Great Rulers: Otto Von Bismarck

Understandably whenever German leadership figures are mentioned people automatically think Adolf Hitler. But let me introduce you to a key predecessor to Hitler; Otto Von Bismarck. The man who created the Germany we recognise today.


Pre-Bismarck Europe:

The time period is the 1860s and the map of Europe looks very different. Below you can see the collection of German states that existed prior to German unification. The largest, and therefore most powerful state within this arrangement was Prussia, and this is where Bismarck originated.


Germany was finally united in 1871 after 3 wars of unification that started in 1862. All three wars were a tactical move by Bismarck to secure the territorial lines of the new German state. The first war was waged against Denmark on the North-Eastern border, next came the war with Austria. This war was more of an internal war because prior to this point Austria was actually one of the Germanic states, however as the main power rival to Prussia Bismarck needed to exclude Austria from the power dynamic of the new Germanic state. The last and most consequence heavy war was against France. The Germanic states won all three of these wars, and especially in the case of France this caused much resentment. But Bismarck had successfully realised his dream of a strong, united Germany positioned almost directly in the middle of Europe. [a pretty impressive feat really when you think about it]


Bismarck The Man:

Bismarck as a figure is somewhat of a puzzle. Often Bismarck’s reputation portrays him as an all-powerful dictator who acted as the puppet master of all the events in the newly unified Germany. Although this may be the initial impression technicalities dictate that in reality Bismarck was no all-powerful dictator.

Although Bismarck did hold immense power in his own right as the chancellor of Germany, he was ultimately answerable to the Kaiser [Wilhelm I in this case]. On the occasions when the Kaiser and Bismarck disagreed Bismarck would often threaten to resign until he got his way. [here we see the more childish aspects of his personality]

Also with hindsight it is easy to assume that Bismarck followed his own clearly defined plan, but again reality proves just the opposite. The evidence from this comes from Bismarck himself. On more than one occasion Bismarck has been quoted saying that in the realm of politics to have a set long term plan is actually very bad politics, which leads to all sorts of misfortune. Instead the key to politics for Bismarck was his ability to adapt and respond to the situations and issues he was presented with. It is this flavour of his leadership style that was most admirable. Whilst he did have non-negotiable long-term goals, the central one being to protect and secure the newly created Germanic state, he was able to chop and change his short-term goals in order to fit in with his current circumstances.

Now whilst I have only just skimmed the surface on the enigma that is Otto von Bismarck, I feel that this post is an adequate introduction to the subject and contains the essentials that should be known about Bismarck. I’ll leave a more in depth look at Bismarck for another post, watch this space.


Blame the climate! : Theories of Disease Circulation in British India

When the British began the colonization of India in the late 1700s they did not realise the Pandora’s box of disease they would encounter. Although disease epidemics were not unheard of in Britain at this time the topical diseases found in India were on another scale. A great many of the young British who emigrated to India never returned home, instead falling victim to a tropical disease- with cholera being one of the major hazards.


This then begs the questions why was there such a high morality rate in India?


Well now let’s adopt the mindset of the British in the 1800s; prior to the development of modern theories of contagion, bacteria and viruses medical theories of the early 1800s largely revolved around the idea of environmental causation. Essentially the Indian climate was seen as a breeding ground for the most nasty and dangerous of diseases. This idea was so strongly believed that India was often even labelled as the home, and natural breeding ground, of cholera. Bengal especially was singled out as a very dangerous environment, as it’s swiftly changing temperatures were believed to be the primary cause of disease.

map updated



The theory went as far as to dictate the health related hazards from every season; in the hot season Europeans could expect to suffer from elevated pulse rates and nervous excitability, during the rainy season this changed to the contraction of numerous fevers, and finally in the colder months hepatic diseases were the order of the day.


As the 1800s matured so too did the theories of disease causation, but the environmental theories stuck around well into the later decades of the 1800s.

Monarchs under the Microscope: Kaiser Wilhelm II

Wilhelm II was the last Emperor of the Germanic empire, was this mere coincidence or did Wilhelm destroy the German peoples’ confidence in their own monarchy? :


Beginning his reign in 1888 aged just 29, Wilhelm was one of the youngest rulers the German empire saw. In theory Wilhelm had the potential to be a successful monarch, upon his accession to the throne Germany was in stable condition and gaining strength and reputation within Europe. Also as the son of the daughter of Queen Victoria of England [confusingly also named Victoria] Wilhelm’s strong connections to Britain could have aided Germanic strength.


BUT in reality Wilhelm was a wild-card monarch. His personality is often described as unbalanced. Despite his ability to be sporadically charismatic, at times he was also childish, easily offended, and prone to erratic mood swings. Rumour has it Wilhelm was actually completely unfit to rule; throughout the entirety of his reign he was either unwilling or unable to undertake hard work. He was a compulsive traveller so having meetings with his advisors on a regular basis was practically impossible due to him hardly ever being in the country. Then when advisors did finally get face time with Wilhelm they were actually too scared of his erratic behaviour to tell him any bad news. In Wilhelm’s world Germany was doing splendidly, right up until the bombshell of the first world war landed in the Kaiser’s lap.


This therefore begs the question was he completely delusional??

He almost definitely had an inflated sense of importance. Wilhelm believed he was creating his own personal rule, and that he was in possession of more power than the monarchs that came before him. It was this sense of self-importance that led to him dismiss the infamous Bismarck from his role as Imperial Chancellor. [see more about Bismarck in another post] Wilhelm thought that Bismarck held too much power for a non-monarchical figure, on numerous occasions stating, “there is only one rule in the Reich and I will not tolerate another”, hence his dismissal of the man who single-handedly orchestrated the unification of Germany in 1871.


Reality Strikes: Wilhelm in 1914:

At the outbreak of the first world war, after being consistently ignored and overruled in military decisions [due to Wilhelm’s completely lack of knowledge and expertise] Wilhelm had a crisis of confidence and swiftly transferred his monarchical powers over to the military and civilian administration. He then fled Germany in search of safety, settling in the Netherlands.


Hopping down the timeline somewhat to focus briefly on the Treaty of Versailles- little known treaty facts: Wilhelm was actually saddled heavily with blame for the start of the First World War in the treaty. Article 227 called for Wilhelm to return to Germany to face a full-scale indictment [which of course he never did]

Overlooked Regimes: the Dictatorship of General Miguel Primo de Rivera

The setting is Spain in 1923. The country is in disarray, politics heavily factionalized and the government is unable to effectively run the country. The Spanish army, one of the largest pressure groups in Spanish politics at this time, is becoming restless and threatening a military coup. In order to avoid mass anarchy the King of Spain [Alfonso XIII], who is ruling by name only, invites Primo de Rivera to turn his hand to running Spain. Thus begins the dictatorship of General Primo de Rivera.


Primo de Rivera’s dictatorship; the key features:

Spain was put under the control of martial law, meaning that ordinary laws and regulations were suspended in favour of more intensive and strict rulings.

Enforcement of heavy censorship, most newspaper weren’t allowed to print

Creation of a new national party- the Union Patriotica [UP]. Mottos of the party included “Spain above all” and “Spain, One, Great and Indivisible”

Various attempts at revitalizing Spain’s failing economy by building roads and increasing steel and iron production.

Primo de Rivera’s cult of personality. Like most great dictators Primo de Rivera also created a heightened image of himself. Throughout his regime he was portrayed as the protective father of Spain and upon the start of his regime he was seen as the saviour of Spain. He was seen as brave and extraordinarily capable. Portraits of Primo began to appear in many public spaces.


The enemies of the regime:

Politicians: Primo de Rivera had an intense hatred of the Spanish political system and specifically the politicians in it. 1923-1926 was not a good time to be Spanish politician. However the disliked between these two groups was mutual, many Spanish politicians thought Primo de Rivera had no respect for law and order in Spain.

Students: some of the most active opponents to the Primo de Rivera regime were Spanish university students. In his crusade against some of his most vocal opponents Primo de Rivera had many students imprisoned. He even put the entire University of Madrid under the supervision of Royal Commissioners.


Throughout the years of his dictatorship Prime de Rivera continually claimed that his regime was a temporary measure, but time and time again he failed to hand back control. However his regime was such a disaster that by 1929 even the army [who were his biggest supporters in 1923] failed to support the regime, and consequently he was forced to resign.


Forgotten Figures: Nikolai Hartwig


Born: 1857
Nationality: Russian
Occupation: Russian ambassador to Persia and Serbia
Active period: 1906-1914 [Pre-First World War]
Points of interest:

  • Pan-Slavist Supporter: Hartwig is well known for being a supporter of the pan-Slavism movement. This movement aimed to unite all those people of “Slavic” origin [in general this includes many people; Russians, Serbians and Hungarians to name a few, essentially just search for Balkan countries and they will be included]
  • Creator of Dangerous Alliances: Heavily involved in the creation of the Balkan League in 1912. The Balkan league being an temporary alliance between Serbia, Bulgaria, Montenegro and Greece which was created in order to wage war on the Ottoman Empire. This league caused many problems for the atmosphere of Europe prior to the First World War and caused much tension and anxiety.
  • Dominant Influence in Serbian Government: Hartwig had immense influence in the Serbian government in the lead up to the first world war. After the murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand [heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne] Austria-Hungary issued the Serbian government with an ultimatum which threatened to start war if their demands were not met. Some suspect that it was Hartwig’s hardline influence in the Serbian government that caused Serbia to hold an aggressive stance in response to the Austrian ultimatum.
  • The mysterious death: Hartwig died of a heart attack on the 10th July 1914 [just a few days after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand]. The timing of his death was so suspicious that it was automatically assumed that his death was a deliberate murder by Austrian operatives. These suspicions however have never been confirmed nor denied.