Capitalist and Communist economies – episode 8 in’s Cold War series is out now..

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We look at the key trends in the capitalist and Communist economies up to the 1980s and set the scene for what was to happen in the final years of the Cold War.

Economic growth was key to the battle between the super-powers – more growth meant that they could spend more on the military in a sustainable way. But, military spending had to be traded-off against allowing people in these countries to have improved living standards. It would be the country that could keep their public happy and spend significant amounts on defence that would be in a much stronger position to win the Cold War...

Enjoy the podcast!

George Levrier-Jones

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AuthorGeorge Levrier-Jones

In this article we preview an article in the current edition of History is Now magazine


Looking back from today, the Soviet Union in the 1930s may not seem like a promised land, but in Depression-era America many US citizens migrated there. Perhaps the most interesting group who made this journey were African-Americans. In this article we look at the fascinating inter-relationship between Harlem, racial issues, the Great Depression and Communism, and how these factors combined to lead some African-Americans to move to Stalin’s brutal Soviet Union.

A glorified, almost saintly, portrait of Stalin, circa 1937. Alas, behind the surface, Stalin was far from being a saint.

A glorified, almost saintly, portrait of Stalin, circa 1937. Alas, behind the surface, Stalin was far from being a saint.

Looking back from today, the Soviet Union in the 1930s may not seem like a promised land, but in Depression-era America many US citizens migrated there. Perhaps the most interesting group who made this journey were African-Americans. In this article we look at the fascinating inter-relationship between Harlem, racial issues, the Great Depression and Communism, and how these factors combined to lead some African-Americans to move to Stalin’s brutal Soviet Union.


In 1917, Russia was a very unstable place. Against the backdrop of the extraordinary suffering that World War I was inflicting on the Russian people, major protests against the government soon produced an earth-shattering change. That change was the Russian Revolution, in which Lenin’s Bolsheviks gained power at the expense of the centuries-old Russian monarchy. After the Revolution, the Russian Civil War broke out, and some Western countries actively supported anti-Bolshevik groups.

One of the reasons for this Western intervention in the Russian Civil War was that the West feared the possibilities for social, economic, political and cultural revolutions that the new Russia brought with it; however, such sentiments were mirrored by the Bolsheviks, who thought that the West might be a territory in which they could expand and grow Communism, although such thoughts did not last.  By the end of the Russian Civil War, the hopes that some Bolsheviks harbored about the potential for exporting revolution across Europe were largely extinguished and the ‘revolutionary moment’ in the aftermath of World War I had expired by the end of 1919. Russia, through the medium of the international Communist group known as the Comintern, found America not to have much revolutionary potential at all, despite its revolutionary tradition.

There was one exception though. Through the filter of Marxist-Leninist discourse, America’s black communities appeared to be fertile ground for the Communist Party of the USA (CPUSA). Their experience of slavery, segregation and Jim Crow seemed to present the party and its leader, Earl Browder, with ideal recruits to the cause. This led to an unsuccessful project to develop an all-black Communist movement in America, and after that failed, an inter-racial party initiative to ‘raise the condition of the blacks’ began in the late 1920s. As we shall see, this initiative, as well as others, produced mixed results. This was no truer than in the place that could claim to be the center of African-American culture at the time, Harlem.


Communism in Harlem

The fact that in Harlem, as Mark Naison shows in Harlem Communists during the Depression, the party was largely unsuccessful in flourishing in a majority black neighborhood, would tend to suggest that while the Comintern looked to African-Americans to be their revolutionary vanguard, most African-Americans had at best mixed feelings towards Communism and the Soviet Union. One factor that played a role in reducing the influence of the CPUSA was that it had to compete with pre-existing, exclusively black organizations such as Marcus Garvey’s United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) and Thurgood Marshall’s National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

Naison’s history of Harlem Communism sees the party pass through several distinct phases; its inception, in the aftermath of World War One (the 1920s), the depression years (1929-34), the Comintern’s attempts at developing a Popular Front (1934-39), and the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact/war years (1939-45). In each phase, Naison shows how African-American Harlemites within and outside of the party transposed their interpretations of the USSR and Soviet Communism on to the challenges facing the black community. Looking internationally for solutions to racism and poverty in America was not a new phenomenon. Marcus Garvey’s UNIA had proposed the resettlement of African-Americans to Africa, after a hypothetical armed uprising had taken place to force out white European colonists. Some African-Americans in the South even looked to Japan to be the world leader of non-white people during the 1930s, given the challenge it presented to the British, French, Dutch and Americans in the Asia-Pacific region. The focus on the USSR as a multi-racial state free of segregation or racial persecution was attractive to a broad range of non-Communist Harlemites, although there is little evidence that the core tenets of Soviet Communism penetrated deeply into the black community.

The CPUSA generated great levels of support in Harlem prior to the Popular Front years when it gained a reputation as being an ally against discrimination. It was helped in this as it championed two high profile cases, the trials of the Scottsboro Boys and of Angelo Herndon. The Scottsboro boys were nine African-American teenagers accused of the rape of two white girls in Alabama on flimsy evidence and sentenced to death. The CPUSA persuaded the families to allow the party, not the NAACP, to represent them. Herndon was an African-American labor organizer sentenced to death in Georgia in 1932 under antiquated laws dating back to the pre-Civil War era that equated such activity with slave insurrection and sedition.

These endeavors from the CPUSA did not automatically translate in to more widespread support for the idea of Communism in African-American communities though.


Cyril Briggs

Naison describes the experience of Cyril Briggs, a West Indian journalist who had been fired from the Harlem Amsterdam News in 1917 for his anti-war stance. Briggs founded the Crusader, a broadly Nationalist magazine espousing ideas that were: “dedicated to a renaissance of Negro power and culture throughout the world.” Briggs was suspicious of Garvey’s dominant Nationalist movement, the UNIA, and despite a strong affinity with Garvey’s emancipatory views, he began to view him with mistrust by 1919 as the anti-Communist crackdown across America gathered pace and Garvey, dismissing key leftists from the UNIA, seemed to be cooperating. His initial Crusader editorials, according to Naison, were ‘strikingly similar’ to Garvey’s views, combining black liberation and Nationalism with anti-capitalism.

Naison identifies Briggs’ initial interest in the Bolshevik Revolution as being based largely on what he saw as the Soviet Union’s ‘anti-imperialist orientation’, which was consistent with his pan-African emancipatory Nationalism; the Soviet Union might not be able to do much to prevent lynchings in the Southern states or the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan, but it could potentially challenge European imperial dominance in Africa and Asia. Unfortunately for Briggs, Lenin’s interest in Africa was minimal. Beyond rhetoric and a small number of African students and revolutionary visitors to Moscow, the USSR was no threat to British, Belgian or French colonies in Africa. Briggs eventually joined the CPUSA in 1920, but his drift to the political left had begun as he moved away from the more accepted Black Nationalist positions of mass repatriation to Africa, and began to argue for a multi-racial, egalitarian America, one that could be achieved through revolution.


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This article is provided by Nick Shepley from, a site that has a wide array of history ebooks.

This article looks at the Komsomol, the fearless youth group of the Soviet Communist Party.


To my delight and surprise, Russia Profile (1)  continues to feature articles on Russian youth. “The Roads Not Taken” (2) by Dmitry Babich examines post-Soviet youth organizations as avenues for youth politics, instilling patriotism, and participation in social life. Babich is correct to note the important role youth played in putting pressure for reforms in the Soviet system; and he is right to place youth on the forefront for changes in Russia. As he notes, youth played a vital role in the Ukraine’s Orange Revolution. The protests during the Belarusian elections were mostly comprised of youth. There is a possibility, if not an anticipation, that Russian youth will play a similar role in the future.

If youth are slated to play such an important role in Russia’s present and future politics, it is important to get an idea about their history. The history of Russian youth organizations parallels the history of youth organizations globally. Fraternities, nascent youth groups and organizations began in Russia around the middle of the 19th century in universities. The first mass youth organizations like the Boy Scouts were founded in Europe, the United States, and Russia in the late 19th century. Adults like Robert Baden-Powell, the founder of the Boy Scout movement, began organizing youth out of fear of their corruption and the degeneration of the social body. Similarly, the German Youth Movement was a direct reaction to modernity and the perceived corruption of society. It looked to German tradition and nature as a way to purify the young body politic. Like many groups today, they also focused on cultivating mostly male youths into leaders and had a strong concentration of physical fitness, military preparedness, religious worship, nationalism, and morality. For this reason, 19th century youth organizations were primarily open to middle class youth. Working class and peasant youths tended to be excluded.


Komsomol members in Budapest, 1949.

Komsomol members in Budapest, 1949.

The February Revolution and Russian Youth

In Russia, this began to change with the February Revolution in 1917. There were small worker youth groups in the pre-revolutionary period, but these tended to be localized in factories. By May 1917, working class youths began to organize themselves into citywide groups that had aspirations for a national organization. In Petrograd there were two main groups: Labor and Light and the Socialist Worker Youth League (SSRM). In Moscow, youth politics was mostly dominated by the III International. SSRM and the III International were organized by young Bolshevik Party members along with other socialist parties. Labor and Light was more liberal based and despite having socialists as their organizers, the most famous was G. Driazgov who was a Menshevik, they shied away from class based politics. This led to it being overtaken by the end of the year by SSRM as the revolution radicalized. In mid-1918, SSRM and III International came together and formed the Russian Communist Youth League, or Komsomol. Despite the fact that it claimed to be an autonomous organization in its program, by the middle of the decade it was touted as the “helper and reserve of the Bolshevik Party.”

Determined to become a mass organization for worker and peasant youth, the Komsomol grew rapidly in the 1920s, becoming in some places in the country the only representation of Soviet power. By 1928, its membership was 2 million; in 1939 it reached 9 million. It wasn’t until the mid-1950s that the Komsomol made significant inroads into the Soviet Union’s youth population. In 1954, it boasted a membership of over 18 million.


Youth Violence

While I don’t disagree with Babich that the Komsomol became completely moribund by the 1970s, I am rather astounded by the following:

Semyon Charny, a Moscow historian who studied the social movements of the late Soviet period for the Russian State Humanities University (RGGU), thinks that the passivity displayed by the youth at the time can be explained by a lack of experience.

“I looked at the secret reports which were sent to the party bosses in the 1970s and 1980s on the hooliganism of soccer fans,” Charny said. “The party bosses, and even the KGB people, were shocked and talked about the ‘negative political implications’ of the fights between Russian Spartak Moscow fans and Ukrainian Dynamo Kiev fans. Why? Because soccer games were the only outlet for rowdy behavior in public that was even semi-legal. If even this small valve produced a semblance of mass riots, the party and the KGB saw it as an indicator of a sort of fever within society as a whole.”

I have no idea why they were “shocked”. Such reports were standard fair in the 1920s and I can present several examples of such and even worse behavior among Komsomol youth. In the countryside, for example, Komsomol mass meetings sometimes turned into mass brawls as “non-party” youth showed up from neighboring villages. Usually the cause of this had to do with, you guessed it, girls. Often youths from neighboring villages showed up to village parties (posidelki). Tensions between males would arise with the outsiders would begin hooking up with local girls. Drunken fights often ensued.

In fact, in 1926 the Komsomol leadership came up with a name to encapsulate misbehavior among its members: “sick phenomena” (bol’eznennie iavleniia). “Sick phenomena” meant hooliganism, drunkenness, and sexual perversity. The late 1920s saw an increasing number of expulsions for these offenses as the Komsomol tried to get a handle on the activities of its membership. Unfortunately for them, their efforts were to no avail. While many would like to perceive the Komsomol as some unified and totalitarian organization that had Russia youth in its grip, a quick glance at the newspapers from the period shows otherwise.


To the present

Yet, despite the problems, youth were and continue to be a main source for political cultivation and mobilization. However, as Babich points out, the state and political parties continue to treat youth as passive political players that are to be molded to adult’s whims:

The tradition of not listening to the “base” is still very much alive in Russia, and the strategy of some youth movements is built on fighting what they label an unresponsive and irresponsible state. One charge against the present regime is that it increasingly looks to the young to demonstrate their patriotism while offering little in return a criticism also heard in Soviet times. One example was the negative reaction on the part of opposition party youth groups to the publication of the Program for the Patriotic Education of Russian Citizens, signed into law in June 2005.

The program attempts to instill patriotic values through portraying national symbols in the media and arts as well as developing patriotic sports clubs and summer camps. The idea behind the program is that Russian patriotism can no longer be taken for granted, but must be reinforced by all segments of society that touch upon the lives of young people including the arts, education and business.

For some groups, however, the contents of the report were another opportunity to criticize the current government, and the presidential administration in particular.

It is telling though that the criticism of such patriotic initiatives is coming from liberal youth organizations, which are the ones that are stagnant in growth and political influence. However, the youth groups that are making any, albeit small, inroads in Russian society whether it be in raw numbers or generating controversy are Nashi and more radical Leftist and Rightist groups like the National Bolsheviks, the Eurasian Youth League, and skinhead groups. The political center that Yabloko represents has all but dropped out or is now taken over by Nashi. Babich quotes Ilya Yashin, the leader of Yabloko’s youth wing saying, 

“There is no place for the state in matters like believing in God or loving one’s motherland. As [19th-century Russian satirist Mikhail] Saltykov-Shchedrin said, if state officials start talking about patriotism, it means they want to steal something.”

However, such a view is in the minority among youth organizations. If the state supported Nashi is any indication, many politically organized youths believe that the state does and should have a role in these areas.

Finally, there is one story about youth organizations in Russia that is now starting to be told: the role of the Komsomol in perestroika and in planting the seeds for Russia’s capitalist economy. As Babich reminds us, many of the Oligarchs began their road to riches in Komsomol enterprises in the late 1970s and 1980s. Komsomol cooperatives in computer technology and construction became not only vehicles of economic reform (the Communist Party essentially flooded them with hard currency to buy computer equipment from the West to refurbish), when the system collapsed they were some of the few sectors of society that had reserves of Western currency. Many of the Oligarchs that we’ve come to know and love formally took control of those assets when the system imploded. This is a fascinating story that has yet to be fully uncovered, though I know a few people in Russia now working on it.


By Sean Guillory

Sean is the owner of Sean’s Russia Blog, available here. This article originally appeared on that site.

For more on the Soviet Union, check out our Cold War podcasts here.





Image: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-R78376 / CC-BY-SA 


AuthorGeorge Levrier-Jones
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The past is a mysterious place. From Ancient Egypt to 15th Century China, and the age of European colonization to the Russo-Japanese War, there are so many questions that remain unanswered. And even more questions to learn about..

I suppose that you’re reading this as you have an interest in history. Whether as somebody who served in a conflict and wants to understand how other wars were fought. Whether as somebody who is fascinated by how people lived before you. Whether as somebody who enjoys historic monuments, podcasts or books. Or, whether as somebody who is studying history and is here because they do not want to fail their exams.

Whether you are none, one or all of them, as long as you have an interest in history, read on to find out how we can help you understand the past.

But, why on earth should you listen to what we’re telling you?

Or, who are we?

We’re a group of friends, amateur historians, who have always been fascinated by and passionate about history. The lessons you can learn from it, the events that happened, the differences between different ages and countries. Understanding where we as human beings have come from. And it’s not just the big things, but the small things too. Thinking about Neanderthal man in his hunt for food or how Napoleon Bonaparte spent the evenings before major battles. Between us we have discussed and shared knowledge of a wide variety of historical events over the years.

In short, we love learning about the past, and have decided to take our passion one step further. So we have read far and wide to share our passion with people like you..

So, just how can we help you understand the past?

Well, when we decided that we wanted to share our knowledge, there were a number of options open to us. Like many other sites we considered developing a series of in-depth podcasts on one topic (like Ancient Greek History or World War I), but we realized that we have disparate interests and limited time. Then we thought that there is so much that we want to learn about the past – different conflicts, people, and centuries – that it would be better if we brought you introductions to history. This way we can get your shoots of curiosity going – introducing you to one subject so that you can go off and research it in more depth! Or move on to the next subject in history.. As we shall be doing!

That’s because our history podcasts will allow you to quickly and effectively learn about the past – in just 28 minutes (well, more or less!). What we’ve done is to take complex historical subjects and dissected them down to the key points. And we’ve taken the podcasts one step further by creating books on the subjects we cover.

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We’re now starting to write a (hopefully!) regular blog. And what we’re really hoping is that we will be able to get some experts to write for us occasionally. Then, if that works out, who knows? A magazine where we go into still more detail and start gathering controversial opinion on topics in history is the dream!

In short, we want you to understand the past with us, then come back and teach us. We don’t know everything.. Far from it! We want you to give us an introduction to history too.

Er, so what can we teach you about?

Our world is the past, but there are a few topics that we will be focusing on in the podcasts:

  • 20th Century history. That’s vague, we know, but as it is so relevant to so many of us, we want to focus on our ‘living past’ where we can. Indeed, one of the reasons why we started with our series on the Cold War was that people can ask their relatives about it and how it affected them. Another of our ‘generalist’ areas and one in which we have several series planned is the 19th Century. Just because.
  • Civil War. Civil wars always seem to be fascinating affairs. I remember learning about the English Civil War while at school, and my further reading on different civil wars, continues to intrigue me. As well as our series on the Spanish Civil War, we shall be looking at the America, Chinese, Russian and English Civil Wars, as well as the French Revolution.
  • The rise and fall of Communism. Both of the previous topics are related to this. The rise of Communism is an intriguing event in 20th Century history for so many reasons. The system came to dominate much of the world before falling away. We shall be looking at how it arose and what happened in Communist societies in more detail.
  • Colonialism. Colonialism is vital in understanding the modern world and world history. And it’s breadth is astonishing. I was fortunate enough to visit Ilha de Mocambique in Mozambique a few years ago. The place oozes faded colonial grandeur. And if you don’t know about ‘Ilha’, you soon will! On a larger scale, we plan to cover a number of major events in our history. The voyages during the Age of Discovery provided me with fascinating bed-time reading when I was younger and I hope that the tales will be enjoyable for you too. We also plan to cover the American Revolutionary War, the Boer War and British India among other colonial topics.

And that’s not all.. There may well be some special podcasts this year – stay with us for more information!

Finally, we’re not Wikipedia, but..

In the meantime, what we shall do is to provide you with (sometimes) humorous ‘117-second History’ introductions to the topics we mention above as well as many other topics in history*.

* - that’s the plan anyway, but as history teaches us, unexpected events can throw a spanner into the works of the very best plans (and we can’t claim that ours are the very best plans).

Now, over to you!

What else would you like to see us create podcasts and books about?

One of the reasons we created the Spanish Civil War History podcasts as our second major series was that it was suggested to us by a friend, so we will listen to you (well, some of you at least!).

George Levrier-Jones

This will be the first in a regular series of blog posts. Listening options for the History in 28-minutes podcasts are available by clicking here. The first episode in the latest series on the Spanish Civil War is below.