Chemical weapons on the Eastern front in WW1

Russia used chemical weapons in WW1 for its decisive operation, the Brusilov offensive

Russia was slow to adopt poison gases during WW1. The first episodic uses were reported in the second half of 1915 using imported French chlorine. During the summer of that year, large-scale production of chlorine started in Donetsk area and some other places. The production of phosgene and chloropicrin started as late as the end of 1916, in the Poltava governorship.

The Russia-produced chlorine was first deployed on March 21, 1916 in the vicinity of Minsk. Up to 10,000 shells were fired, but the gas concentration was too low to incur considerable damage on the enemy,

Gas mask

In August 1915, a university professor in Moscow Dmitri Zelinski and engineer from St Petersburg (Petrograd) Mikhail Kummant, created the first universal gas mask with the use of carbon filters. It was what later became a classic composite of rubber and glass. They proved very effective. By spring 1917 the front lines of Russian troops in the east were fully saturated with the masks. Total losses from poisonous gases on the Russian side during WW1 were estimated up to 56,000 dead and 420,000 incapacitated.

Successful use

One of the most successful uses was during the last victorious battle of the Russian Empire, Brusilov Offensive., It became one of the most lethal offensives in history with 2.000.000 troops lost on both sides. On June 4, 1916, artillery shells with chlorine were fired towards the positions of the Central Powers. Then, Russian infantry attacked their positions wearing gas masks. According to the Russian HQ, the attack was a success.

According to HQ Commander of the 7th Army General Nikolai Golovin, only during May 22th and 23rd, 1916 the Second Army Corps delivered 3,500 chemical munitions to Austrian positions. There is also documented use of chemical shells by the 9th Army of Infantry General Lechitsky during the Chernovtsy offensive.

Russian soldiers in WW1 wearing gas masks
The Zelinski-Kummant gas mask from the Imperial War Museums

Putin, the best ruler in Russian history

Putin is a much better ruler than Peter the Great.

President Putin is the best ruler Russia has had, so far. I compare the standard of living of myself, my family and friends to how my Dad and Mom had it at my age. It’s heaven and earth.

Russia has never in its history been better off.

The windfall from sky-high oil prices has of course much more significance for this than Putin’s merits as statesman. Yes, most of the oil wealth was siphoned off to the West by Putin’s friends or wasted on their palaces and yachts.

Yet, in the grand scheme of things, this is an immensely more sensible use of money than trying to take Bosporus from Muslims or decimating Russians for the sake of the Communist utopia. Such waste would often be the top choice for many previous rulers.

Peter the Great, by the way, is a poor match for Putin. Peter built an empire by sacrificing at least a fifth of the population in the heartland of Muscovy and impoverishing the rest. Along the way, he stripped Old Russia of its medieval identity. Two centuries followed for millions of Slav, Turkic and Ugro-Finnish peasants, herdsmen, fishermen, and hunters under a quasi-colonial rule of bureaucracy and the military aristocracy. It all ended up in the bloodiest century of all.

Putin’s era brought much better outcomes at immensely smaller costs. Let’s hope Putin keeps it this way.

Edward Snowden is safe in Russia, so far

Snowden’s extradition is a trump card Putin will hold off for some serious package deal in a very distant future. Such a deal seems very unlikely.

American whistleblower Edward Snowden is stuck in Russia. It’s pretty unlikely he will be extradited as long as President Putin is calling the shots. Snowden’s extradition is a trump card Putin will hold off for some serious package deal in a very distant future. Which possibly never comes.

Firstly, Putin has a very strong sense of justice, in his particular Godfather way. Snowden struck a formidable blow to Putin’s enemies. Even if he’s not a spy, it’s only fair to keep the man out of harm’s way. What kind of signal would the extradition send to the enemies of America and friends of Russia?

I can only envision one purely theoretical scenario where Putin makes a sacrifice of Snowden. Think of some very high-level strategic transaction, something like President Trump ordering the withdrawal of American bases from Europe. How about a Russia-US Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation? So far, anything like this is pure alternative history.

It seems like everyone right now is comfortable with Snowden stuck where he is. It’s up to the defector to decide if he’s better off facing American justice than holed up in Moscow.

Putin makes corruption work for Russia

Corruption is a powerful tool of government in Russia. There’s close to no history of corruption-free rule in the country. President Putin makes sure to use it efficiently.

Common sense suggests that corruption is bad for rulers because it erodes the loyalty of their servants. If this is true, why are Russian rulers generally, and President Putin in particular, so cavalier about corruption?


To start with, corruption is a crucial lubricant in countries with dysfunctional bureaucracy. Well-tuned “deep state” run by politicians accountable to their constituency is a relatively recent invention. Before that, all great empires were run just the way Putin runs his bureaucracy. He walks a tightrope combining corruption at all levels with effective control where most lucrative positions are mostly occupied by people best suited for the job. Putin’s fascination with China stems from the brilliance with which the Chinese have been managing this since the dawn of time.

Political control

Corruption secures loyalty among Putin’s power base. It’s so much easier to reign in people with greasy palms. You get a lot of controls on the subjects if and when they get the wrong idea.


Russia has never been run in a corruption-free way. According to an old Russian saying, it’s inconceivable when people “stay thirsty standing at the stream”. We think that Westerners steal just like we do. They are just better at putting a nice face on it. Among the Russian elite to insist that their friends, associates and key assistants stay clean is kind of weird.

“What have I done to you that you keep me thirsty standing at the stream?” This is a question too awkward to ask, and even more awkward to answer. However, it’s bound to hang in the air if you call some of your employees to the carpet to discuss irregularities. Therefore, it’s safer to go the way of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Only when corruption starts posing operational problems, it’s time for plain talk. Even then, it’s often packaged in terms of work efficiency and personal loyalty.


Corruption is a powerful tool of government in Russia. President Putin makes sure to use it efficiently.

Stalinism: a nicer cousin of Nazism

Soviet totalitarianism is similar to Nazism but nicer. The Socialist concept of Statism and an individual serving the the collective will of “people.” But Communism is inclusive, while Nazism is exclusive, insisting on the “right” ethnicity and cultural roots.

Communism and Nazism share not only the same slot in the history of the 20th century. They have much common ideological ground. Many notice their striking similarity, while others insist that Communism — and its most successful form Stalinism — is the opposite of Nazism.


As a matter of fact, both claim that the collective takes precedence over the individual. Communism and Nazism insist on an unlimited right of inspired and enlightened leadership to exert their power. Both state their faith in a higher purpose that justifies any violence against their enemies.

And still, Communism is much more palatable to most people because it’s basically very inclusive. Truth to say, it makes a virtue of eradicating its opponents. But it talks about the sacred right of “98-percenters” that takes precedence over the blood-sucking, spoiled, parasitic minority.

Everyone’s welcome

Even if you come from the hated elite, you are still very welcome to join the ranks of the oppressed as a Communist. Atone for your misdeeds through sweat, blood, and tears. If your effort is honest, your sacrifice is noticed, and luck is on your side, the victorious proletariat will give you some slack when they prevail.

As a matter of fact, an absolute majority of Communist leaders in history come from affluent classes.

Blood and soil

Nazism, on the other hand, is very exclusive. It’s “us against the world”, through and through. Society for them is an extension of Nature. It’s about the survival of the fittest, no matter what liberals and Jews are telling the gullible world. The fittest, the best, the brightest must fight the myriads of losers who embark on our shores, take up our space and deplete our resources. Those who have the wrong ancestry, skin color, or deviate from the Nazi ideals of human perfection, are out — no matter how much sympathy they may have for the Nazi cause.

In comparison to Nazism, even the Islamic State and Al Qaeda come forward as a tolerant and life-affirming crowd.

Photo: Communism and Nazism both claimed the title as the only genuine movement of working people. This medallion was minted in memory of the May 1st celebration in 1934 by the Nazis, who even made their Reichsadler hold the proletarian sickle and hammer.

Vladimir Putin’s boring social life

The social habits of President Putin conform with his secretive, tightly protected lifestyle. He’s an introverted, back-office politician who is uncomfortable surrounded by too much publicity

The opposite of a party animal

The private tastes of President Putin and his daily routines are a highly guarded state secret. But from the news and insider accounts, it seems that Putin is the opposite of a party animal.

Contrary to Stalin, there are close to no tales from anyone among the Kremlin’s movers and shakers that start like “I remember how we once had a party with Khozyáin (“The Master”).

Putin follows a strict routine that keeps people without security clearance at a very safe distance from his food and drinks. The same is true for physical items that come in contact with him: chemical agents like Novichók do not discriminate. This routine, along with the heavy human perimeter that follows him everywhere, is not conducive to a clubby lifestyle.

The romantic life

His romantic life is subject to the same set of restrictions on public insight as his personal wealth. Star performers invited to closed entertainment sessions for the cream of the Russian elite mentioned on several occasions someone in attendance who enjoyed the show from behind a veiled screen. After his divorce a few years back, President Putin has forever been married to Russia, and cannot be seen in public hand in hand with a mortal woman.

The hobbies

President Putin is known to enjoy, are typical for someone who values a lot of personal space and quiet contemplation: swimming, working out, hunting, fishing, snorkeling, connecting with his pets, fishes and furry animals. Alpine skiing happens for Putin on the slopes, clinically swept up for anyone who may take aim at him or make a dangerous move in front of our President. Putin’s tours of the country, which surely make Fat Kim green of envy, are heavily managed power shows that leave little room for off-hand socializing.

Russia’s beloved introvert

President Putin is soon pushing 70. It’s only safe to assume he’s running through the last of his gregariousness if he ever had any.

Below, one of Putin’s photo-ops where we were told he was vacationing. It’s an accepted knowledge that President Putin finds the company of flowers, fishes, birds, and animals more satisfying than socializing with pesky, self-absorbed, noisy, attention-craving, egotistical human beings.

© РIA Novosti, Aleksei Drushinin

Khrushchev’s time in power: pros and cons

Khrushchev was good for a common man in the USSR. But the softening of Stalin’s version of Socialism ultimately led to weakening of the Communist project.

The main legacy of Khrushchev as a Soviet leader is rather straightforward. After the death of Stalin, Khrushchev continued supporting our Communist friends abroad. But despite the continued Cold War, Khrushchev took the Bolshevik concept of international Communist expansion (i.e. revolutionary wars) off the Soviet agenda.

The pros and cons of Khrushchev —  the man and his era — are all consequences of this fact. 

Post-Stalinist Thaw

Even before Khruschev’s famous secret speech, Stalin’s quasi-permanent state of siege was relieved. Some resources were redistributed from the military-industrial complex into the civil sector. Farmers had more freedom of movement. Some tensions with the West were defused.

As the subsequent development showed, from a Marxist point of view, it was plain wrong. In the longer term, Communism seems to have a chance only in a state of heightened economic and social mobilization. Communism also requires a recurrent rotation of elites through large-scale purges.

After the quick development in the 1950s, a gradual stagnation and decline in the USSR followed. It resulted in the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.

Good for commoners

While from the Communist point of view Khrushchev was a slow-working disaster, for a common man like me, Khrushchev’s rule was a good thing. He ended Stalin’s cycles of never-ending terror. Khrushchev was the first of Soviet leaders who gave precedence to making life better for the Soviet people, sometimes ahead of advancing the cause of Socialism.

Khrushchev seemed to firmly believe in peaceful competition between Socialism and Capitalism. Khrushchev introduced the buoyant optimism of the youthful 1960s. It was probably the happiest decade, full of hope and creative energies. This was not only the era of Gagarin’s 1961 space triumph, but for millions of families it was when they got their first ever home they didn’t need to share with anyone else.

Graph below: Residential building in USSR and Russia, 1918–2007, in sq.m. Blue: state-funded, brown privately funded.


Residential building in USSR and Russia, 1918–2007

G Graph below: Meat consumption in the USSR, kg/person/year


Meat consumption in the USSR

Graph: Soviet gold reserves (blue) and gold exports (red), in metric tons


Gold Reserves / Gold Exports

The best time of year to visit Moscow

Best weather for tourists in Moscow. Painting of Kustodiev illustrates the beauty of early autumn in Russia.

Nothing beats the Indian Summer as the best time for visiting Moscow. We call it “Babye Leto”, or “Woman’s Summer”. It’s awfully short. It’s a gentle, humane contrast to the humid, hot, bug-ridden summer in continental Russia. It smells like a girl’s hair wet from the rain.

The vacation is over, the Instagram glow of your summerly awesomeness is a memory no one cares about any longer, but the parks are still green, and Moscow is warm enough for romantic strolls, peripatetic discussions and several pints al fresco with little risk of catching a cold.

You miss it, you can catch a second chance in Moscow when the “Golden Autumn” comes, with leaves turning red and yellow in October. But then it gets a bit too melancholic, for my taste.

Picture: “Autumn in the province,” by Boris Kustodiev. Two ladies from the merchant class are relaxing on the back porch of a provincial house. Their clothes and hairstyle are from the 1920s. This is the era of a market-friendly New Economic Policy in the USSR, the last breath of everyday normalcy before the Stalinism spreads its steely wings. The ceramic tea kettle atop the samovar is used for brewing tea. Teacups are seemingly made of porcelain with lots of gilding for the exclusive look. The lady seated with her back to us prefers pouring her tea in her saucer before she drinks. The watermelon was usually served before tea drinking, waiting for water in the samovar to boil up.


How did the government distribute resources in the Soviet economy?

The USSR substituted market economy with a centrally planned distribution of resources.

Essential elements

Bureaucrats decided what, when, where and by who things should be produced, based on “scientific Marxist principles of economic planning”.

Other bureaucrats decided who and where should get these things, based on “guidelines and principles of directing the Soviet society”, formulated by the Communist party.

Most of the time, there was not enough of these things for everyone— much like in today’s Venezuela or North Korea. The reason for this was “particular errors in management”, or “deficiencies of people’s conscientiousness” (i.e. people consuming more than the system could deliver), or actions of “hostile class elements” (hoarding, stealing, speculating).

The universal solution to the deficit of nearly everything was ubiquitous lines: if you weren’t willing to wait for things long enough, you didn’t need it as much as others. The typical waiting time for a new Lada car was 5–10 years, for a larger apartment to your larger family 10–20 years.

Selective distribution channels

The scientific Marxist management of society required selective distribution channels for the most valuable members of society. For example, members of “nomenklatura”, or the positions that required personnel vetting by the Communist Central Committee, could purchase goods at so-called “section #200” where they had access to consumer imports and other things in limited supply.

Closer to power, better access

The closer to power, the better access to goods, also in terms of geography. Military-industrial centers like Sevastopol and Murmansk had a better selection of goods than smaller cities, we in Moscow had the best — or the least worst— supply of all.

Soviet union-economy-grocery-store
Photo: People standing in line before a grocery store in the Soviet province in 1950s. This is a restocking day, when many goods in short supply are available to those who show up early. Kids are a useful addition to the line, as many goods are limited for a certain number of items per customer.

How did WW2 contribute to the fall of the Soviet Union?

After the war, despite all the efforts, the USSR never managed to regain this level of strategic advantage over the West.

As a result of WW2, the Soviet Union lost the military supremacy we had built up on the eve of the war against Germany:

After the war, despite all the efforts, we have never since managed to regain this level of strategic advantage over the West.

As a result of WW2, the traditional American isolationism ended. The US took global leadership in preserving the new world order. The old Leninist strategy of “let them fight each other for us to pick the spoils” would no longer work. The USSR faced NATO, a global coalition of democratic countries possessing an economic and military muscle that we, in the long run, could not match. It was now the turn for our new Chinese friends to push for a nuclear US vs. USSR showdown in the hope of picking up the spoils in the after-war rubble.

History gave the USSR no new chance of running over Western Europe. Eventually, the Cold War bankrupted us.