The Russian Revolution in Articles

Patrick Stewart as Vladimir Lenin

By David Michael Newstead.

Today marks the centennial of the February Revolution of 1917, which ended the rule of Czar Nicholas II. Here’s a clip of Vladimir Lenin learning of the downfall of the Czar as portrayed by actor Patrick Stewart.

Russia Past & Present with Richard Pipes

By David Michael Newstead.

The Washington Post once called Richard Pipes one of America’s great historians. Pipes served on the National Security Council in the Reagan administration and did analysis for the CIA. Now a professor emeritus at Harvard University, his books include Russia Under the Old Regime, Russia Under the Bolshevik Regime, and Communism: A History. Today, Richard Pipes joins me to discuss the upcoming centennial of the Russian Revolution and the unusual state of U.S.-Russia relations in 2016.

David Newstead: How do you think the hundredth anniversary of the Russian Revolution should be marked?

Richard Pipes: Of course, there were two revolutions in 1917. I would mark the February-March one with great ceremony, but I would totally ignore the October-November Revolution. The February Revolution was a democratic revolution accomplished by the population at large. And the October Revolution was a conspiracy and a seizure of power.

David Newstead: Is the world still feeling the impacts of that seizure of power?

Richard Pipes: For almost three quarters of a century the world felt it very, very powerfully. The Twentieth century was very much dominated by the Soviet Union and its actions. Today, no. Today, it’s pretty much history.

David Newstead: So, do you feel there’s any significance to Russian President Vladimir Putin being a former agent of the KGB?

Richard Pipes: Yes. He is not fit to be a democratic leader. A democratic leader listens to the population and does what the population commands. He is still mentally and psychologically very much of the Soviet mold.

David Newstead: What do you think is often misunderstood about the October Revolution that people should remember today?

Richard Pipes: People should remember that the Cold War and a great deal that happened in the Twentieth century was due to that. And it was all evil. And the only good thing about the Bolsheviks was that they created a regime that could resist the Nazis when they invaded them. And that was one great solid achievement of Bolshevism. Otherwise, I see nothing but evil.

David Newstead: In light of that, do you think Vladimir Lenin’s body should still be on display in Moscow?

Richard Pipes: No, he definitely should be removed.

David Newstead: You’ve also done a great deal of research on Russia under the Tsar. I’m curious what you think Tsar’s legacy is a hundred years after his downfall?

Richard Pipes: It’s ancient history, of course. But the legacy of the Tsars and of all previous Russian governments was that democracy was not good for Russia. And that Russia needs a strong ruler, even if he rules in an autocratic manner. And that is very deeply ensconced in the Russian political culture.

David Newstead: You were in the Reagan administration for a time. Do you feel the Reagan administration offers any lessons on how America should deal with Russia today?

Richard Pipes: No, because the situation is very different. When Reagan was in the White House, the Cold War was on. There’s no Cold War today. I mean, our relations with Russia are not terribly good, because of Putin and the administration. But it is not as dangerous as it was then.

David Newstead: I’m curious if you have any views on the alleged Russian interference in the U.S. presidential election right now?

Richard Pipes: Well, yes. They are participating in it. In my view, the Russians are friendly to a very bad candidate. Trump, if he’s elected, would be a disaster. And Trump is friendly to Putin and Putin is friendly to Trump and that’s not good. I hope that Russia changes its attitude to the rest of the world – that it becomes more cooperative and less hostile. But I am not very optimistic that this will happen.

David Newstead: It seems like Russian politics have been going in a bad direction for some time now…

Richard Pipes: It goes back to authoritarianism and hostility to the rest of the world. I’m afraid it is so. And I hope it will change, but I’m not very optimistic.

Read Part One

Vlad Men, Part Three – The Thaw

Part 3 - The ThawBy David Michael Newstead.

“This is Radio Moscow! The news, read by Yegor Burlatsky on Wednesday April 17, 1963. First, the headlines. Today, Premier Khrushchev announced a series of reforms to encourage—”

Danik switched off the radio.

He stood up from his desk and stretched, checking his watch. Absently, he pulled a pack of Belomorkanal cigarettes from his pocket. He lit one and inhaled the strong Soviet tobacco – filling his lungs, then emptying them again. Cigarette in hand, he stared down intently at a large sheet of paper. When he smoked, Danik was able to clear his head, shutting out distractions, so that there was only the paper in front of him and the cigarette fuming between his fingers.

He exhaled again.

A moment passed. The cigarette burned slowly, while he tried to think of a new design. Then, Danik picked up his pencil and began to work.

Around him, the art room was a flurry of activity. Teams of illustrators huddled together in two’s and three’s, hunched over their work stations as assistants ran between rooms. The entire department was busy as deadlines loomed over their respective projects. Nationwide May Day celebrations were in two weeks and the Minister of Culture had demanded a wave of newly commissioned propaganda art to commemorate the event. For the artists, this meant hours of grueling labor. And in short order, their office had become a mess, covered with red tinted posters on every available wall. Each piece was analyzed and corrected as needed before being sent to the Censorship Board for final approval.

Until then, Danik realized he was surrounded by official slogans everywhere he looked.

A TRIUMPH OF PRODUCTION, read one poster boasting of increases in industrial outputs.



Danik glanced over the artwork and smoked his cigarette. His coworker, Sergei, arrived late that morning, stomping up to the desk and complaining about housing construction along Peace Avenue.

“My bus was behind a bulldozer for an hour,” he said. “It was awful!”

Danik Drapushko offered Sergei a Belomorkanal.

“That’s progress for you…” Danik grinned.

Outside their office window, Moscow was visibly mired in construction cranes and a rising skyline of new, pre-fabricated Khrushchyovka apartment blocks. It was warm and clear out and Danik saw that the trees were already turning green.

Sergei groaned and lit his cigarette.

“We have a busy schedule,” he said. “All the poster submissions are due and I can’t spend the whole morning in traffic! Not today.”

“I started on the agricultural drafts,” Danik told him. “The collective farms… The air force recruitment posters are done. The cosmonaut posters are finished. But we still have work to do on the Komsomol, the Olympic qualifier postings, and the Moscow subway posters. Ruslan also wanted a few pieces with Vladimir Lenin if we have time. Old favorites like that.”

“I can draw Lenin with my eyes closed!” Sergei replied. “But we don’t have enough time for that. The ministry deadline is tonight and our assigned project submissions will already take hours to complete. We have to reach the new quotas!”

“Finish your cigarette,” Danik said to his friend. “Gennady across the hall made tea for everyone and somebody’s wife cooked pirogis. There’s a bundle of them in the break room. You sketch and ink and I’ll color. Then, we’ll switch after lunch, alright? I promise this won’t take as long as you think. There’s time.”

“You’re right. You’re right,” Sergei conceded, beginning to relax.

He hung up his coat and pushed the spent Belomorkanal into an ashtray. Then, the pair of them sat down to create new propaganda, one poster at a time.




As they worked, Danik would become totally fixated on their assignment, attempting to perfect how he drew the hands of a particular worker or the shading around Lenin’s moustache. He kept at this for hours until he abruptly realized it was already the afternoon.

Danik sat up and rubbed his eyes.

“I’m going to walk around some,” he informed Sergei. “Do you want anything from the break room?”

Sergei spoke without looking up from his desk. “Yes. See if there are any of those pirogis left. And how are we for cigarettes?” he asked with great concern.

Danik checked their dwindling supply – half a pack between the two of them for the rest of the day and that evening.

“We’ll have to ration, I think. But we can make do,” he replied.

Around the office, Danik saw other artists at various stages of their craft. Some teams laughed together and smoked, having fulfilled their quota earlier in the day. Others drew frantically in silence, trying to meet the ministry’s deadline. Their department director, Ruslan Strelnikov, could be seen walking the halls and discussing the whole process with a handful of bureaucrats. In fact, Pyotr Kamkin was among them, having gained a minor and fairly meaningless promotion the year before. Pyotr was eager and stood next to Strelnikov, but the director ignored him completely.

When Danik walked by, he and Pyotr traded cold, hateful stares.

That little bastard, Danik thought.

At the end of the hallway, he found the break room abandoned. Danik discovered that the food had long since been devoured and that the area had practically been ransacked by hungry artists throughout the day. Instead, he poured two cups of tea. And just above the stove, he noticed another poster on display. Standing there, Danik’s silhouette was framed by the red background of the propaganda and he briefly became enthralled with the artwork.

COMMUNISM IN TWENTY YEARS, it declared in dynamic typeface. The images were of a prosperous and idyllic future filled with happy people.

Walking back to his desk, Danik lingered on the thought and, in his mind at least, he couldn’t help inserting himself and his family into that positive vision of things to come. It was beautiful to him.The Thaw in the Middle

By the late afternoon, the office had mostly cleared out with only a few teams remaining in the building to finish up their work – Danik and Sergei included. But it wasn’t until their last cigarettes and their fourth draft of a Nikita Khrushchev portrait that the discussion started. No one was around to hear them anymore.

“What do you think of the boss anyway?” Sergei said, while his hands hurriedly added color to their leader’s face.

“Khrushchev?” Danik replied. “I don’t know if I know anymore. Maybe it doesn’t matter.”

“Certainly, he’s an improvement,” Sergei thought aloud. “Though I suppose that’s not saying much.”

Danik grimaced. That poster of Joseph Stalin that he’d grown up seeing every day in school and at the orphanage flashed through his brain. The thick moustache, the dark eyes.

“I like Khrushchev,” Danik said finally. “There’s been a lot of improvements in the last few years. More openness and artistic freedom! He’s instituted some necessary reforms in our country. It’s just…” And he paused.

“After I heard about the Secret Speech… After Khrushchev denounced Stalin’s legacy and his cult, I was very optimistic. They started releasing people from the gulags not long after that. And I don’t know,” Danik said. “I just had never known for sure what happened to my parents – whether they survived imprisonment or not. You know, there was no way to be certain when Stalin was still alive. Years later, I half expected my mother and father or even my uncle to just reappear after all that time.”

“But they didn’t,” Danik concluded and turned back to his drawing.

“Did you ever visit the American Exhibition a few years ago?” he asked a moment later.

“In Sokol’niki Park?” Sergei said. “I stopped by. I remember thinking it was interesting enough. Home appliances. Consumer goods. That sort of thing. Why do you ask?”

“It was fascinating to me. It was this opportunity to see how people live elsewhere, even if it was being presented in the most favorable light. I don’t know how to explain it. Just the idea that things could be different,” Danik admitted.

Sergei considered it for a few seconds, then stubbed his cigarette into the ashtray.

“I think people are the same everywhere, unfortunately. Everything else is just propaganda,” he said.

The two of them finished their last poster and handed it in at the main office. Sergei caught a bus home and Danik began walking to his apartment, lost in his own thoughts. He kept picturing that bright future he’d seen on the wall of the break room and he wondered if it would become a reality. He thought about his two children, Masha and Boris, as well as his loving wife, Elizaveta. Danik reflected on the pace of progress under Khrushchev and the technological innovations driven by the Space Race. There were cosmonauts now, rocket ships, missiles that could cross entire continents in minutes.

So much was changing, it was difficult to know what the future would be like. Yet, Danik asked himself this question over and over again.

When he passed the Kremlin that evening, he noticed a small, sandy haired boy looking up at it. The child wore a blank expression devoid of joy or any emotion at all really, but he stared at the towers of that iconic structure with a quiet intensity that was striking to Danik, even at a distance.

“Come along, Vladimir…” The boy’s parents called to him.

Danik watched as they headed in the opposite direction, then he continued on his walk home.

He was exhausted when he finally reached the sixth floor of his building. It had been such a long day. He breathed and stood outside his apartment for a minute to collect himself. Danik waited before going inside, still worrying about his wife and his children and all the possibilities that lay ahead of them. Just then, he saw that a sliver of paint was chipping away from the door to his home. A crack had formed at the base of the door frame and it caused a growing imperfection. He glanced down at the small patch of chipped, white paint and sighed.

A moment later, he turned the doorknob and went in.

“Yay! Papa is home!” exclaimed his two children, instantly encouraging him.

Danik Drapushko smiled wide and leaned down to hug them. All at once, he felt hopeful about the future.

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Part 3 - Thaw

What Happens When a Dictator Shaves?

By David Michael Newstead.

When a man shaves his face, he looks in a mirror and at himself. What’s reflected back is then filtered and viewed through the lens of his psyche. And for many people, that picture is a fairly accurate portrait of reality. Oh, you might delude yourself into thinking you have more hair on your head or less belly fat. But a clear mirror and a rational mind can only reasonably stretch the truth so far. But when the worst men in history shave, what do they see reflected back in the mirror?

The answer is likely colored by their own inflated egos, possession of near absolute power, and the legions of frightened, but adoring Yes-Men that surround the typical, everyday tyrant. Although we don’t usually imagine dictators beyond the uniformed orators that they’re depicted as in a news clip, they’re very human. They eat and sleep and shit and shave their faces like everyone else. For instance, the idea that Adolf Hitler spent every morning of his adulthood combing an exacting part into his hair, trimming his perfect Toothbrush moustache, and then dressing up like some satanic Boy Scout would be comical if it wasn’t deranged. But it’s these private details that might say a lot about a man: a self-image so warped that shaving is like looking into a funhouse mirror.

First Case: The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (Also known as North Korea). It’s been reported that North Korean president, Kim Jong Un, cuts his own hair, owing to his fear of barbers. The rumor is that this is due to an unexplained childhood trauma, but it’s just as likely for legitimate security reasons. Paranoia runs so deeply among that country’s leadership that in 2013 Kim had his own uncle, Jang Song-Taek, purged, tried, and executed for treason. Jang was accused of plotting a coup against his nephew and whether this was real or imagined, he and his entire entourage died for it. One of them was even supposedly executed with a flamethrower. It is in this turbulent environment that receiving a shave and a haircut from a barber could just as easily leave a person vulnerable to being murdered, especially a man like Kim Jung Un. Therefore, a unique hairstyle was born with the young and pudgy Kim as its model. State media in that country has dubbed this bad, self-inflicted haircut to be the “Ambition” style, heaping praise onto a man who already resides in a delusional cloud of propaganda and personality cult. Even by autocratic standards, North Korea is absurd. Kim’s birthday is a national holiday. He supposedly shot 11 hole-in-one’s on the golf course. And at age 31 with no combat experience, he’s also been labeled a military genius. No matter how over-the-top, the praise he receives never ceases, even for his cartoonish hair. Agents from the North Korean embassy in London recently showed up at an unsuspecting hair salon to demand that the business removes a satirical advertisement, mocking Kim’s hair. Yet this tale of crimes against fashion is rounded off with an ironic twist for the world’s most totalitarian regime. The “Ambition” haircut is not included on the list of 28 government-approved hairstyles for North Korean citizens. But whether this behavior ultimately stems from the traumatic childhood of a North Korean boy, from fear of assassination, or from a twisted combination of both is just another question on a long list about the strangest dictatorship in our time.


We do know, however, that similar fears motivated the Iraqi strongman, Saddam Hussein, albeit manifesting themselves quite differently. Throughout his reign, Saddam employed an unknown number of body doubles to confuse and deflect any assassination attempts from his long and ever increasing list of enemies. In that nightmarish situation, the same grooming style and wardrobe were copied each day by a small army of men as they sought to impersonate the original. Every morning, they would sit and silently prepare themselves for the possibility of a violent death all while their own identities were stolen from them and replaced with the mask of a sociopath.

And while the fate of Saddam’s duplicates is not known, there is one survivor from that time period with a story to tell. Latif Yahia was forced into service to act as a body double for Saddam’s oldest son, Uday, during the Iran-Iraq War. He would eventually escape in 1992 and later went on to write a book that became a movie, The Devil’s Double. As a conscripted decoy, Latif was first tortured, then threatened, endured plastic surgery, and faced strict scrutiny in his efforts to emulate the appearance and mannerisms of another man. Despite all that, however, the hardest part of his ordeal seemed to be dealing with Uday Hussein: a petulant man-child who was raised in the shadow of his cruel father. He placed no value on human life and was prone to violent mood swings that could be inflicted on absolutely anyone in Iraq. Uday was also a known rapist and murderer. In fact, Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak once called him “a psychopath” after he witnessed Uday stab someone to death at a birthday party in Cairo. Not surprisingly then, Uday also beat, tortured, and shot Latif Yahia, a man essentially employed to save Uday’s life. And although Latif somehow survived his tenure as a body double, one can only speculate as to the bizarre psychology at play in that situation; a man who habitually mistreated others, while also gravely mistreating an identical copy of himself.

What really highlights the difficulty for body doubles like Latif Yahia in perfecting their craft is the nuanced oddity of many dictators; their unusual behaviors and a sense of style personalized to a man who has been unchecked in any practical way for years. Examples from the recent past like Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo), and Uganda’s Idi Amin would be hell to impersonate with their outlandish clothes and animated, bombastic gestures. But in terms of eccentric personal grooming specifically, Hitler’s trademark moustache is now an iconic symbol all on its own. Actually originating in the late ninetieth century, the Toothbrush moustache was considered a more sleek and orderly fashion alternative to the gaudy, waxed handlebar moustaches of the day. The famous British actor Charlie Chaplin began wearing a Toothbrush moustache in 1914, while Hitler supposedly acquired the same style as a soldier in World War One. The use of mustard gas on the Western Front forced soldiers to wear protective gas masks, which can be obstructed by longer facial hair, preventing them from being securely sealed. For that reason, Hitler trimmed his regular moustache around 1919, forever linking a specific facial hair style with history’s worst despot. Adolf liked the new look so much he kept it that way for the rest of his life. However, while that is an interesting back-story, there is no apparent reason why the current, longtime ruler of Zimbabwe (Robert Mugabe) has shaved a slender version of this same moustache into place on his upper lip. This underlines just how unusual a person can become after having been in charge of a country for decades; he copies a style only associated with Nazi’s and Charlie Chaplin. But in Zimbabwe at least, who would risk telling the president-for-life that he’s wrong?

In a dictatorship, citizens are trapped in a grand projection of one man’s subconscious priorities. The leader’s official portraits decorate every office and doorway, every postage stamp and dollar bill. Their face is mass produced and deified, groomed and photo-shopped to perfection. The Soviet propaganda machine was known to airbrush away Stalin’s substantial wrinkles in photographs, leaving only Hollywood good looks instead of the harsh reality. Today, Russian President Vladimir Putin is something of a master at photo-ops and staged public relations stunts that would likely make Stalin envious. In that respect, a dictator’s self-image is reflected back on every conceivable surface. They become the pinnacle of national achievement by virtue of suppressing everyone else’s. And the dark corridors of their paranoia and personal inadequacies become the blueprint for the society they rule, the policies it administers, and the mood forced down onto their besieged people.

History shows that these political intrigues can manifest themselves in any number of ways. Before his rise to power in Russia, Vladimir Lenin was known for his distinct goatee. Shedding this recognizable look was, in fact, key to a major turning point in world history. Long unresolved issues in Russia along with the deteriorating strain of the Empire’s participation in World War One were causing irrevocable changes. The Russian Czar had been toppled in the February Revolution of 1917, but the Provisional Government that replaced him was weak and made the unpopular decision to continue their country’s involvement in the war. Despite growing opposition, it appeared that the conflict would drag on and that the death toll would continue to climb. But the Germans, recognizing the feeble position of their enemy, set out to destabilize the situation and permanently remove Russia from the war. To do so, German authorities under Ludendorff launched a clandestine operation to support the anti-war Bolsheviks and assist the revolutionary exile, Vladimir Lenin. Having lived in Switzerland for years, Lenin had to make his way back to Russia to capitalize on the chaotic atmosphere following the fall of the Czar. To do so, he completely shaved his face, donned a shaggy wig to conceal his notable baldness, and took on the alias ‘Vilén’ with false papers provided to him by the Germans. He then secretly traveled in a sealed train car from Switzerland through Germany and arrived in Russia in April 1917. His disguise had allowed him to successfully evade detection by provisional authorities. Once in Petrograd (Now St. Petersburg), he began to dramatically call for an end to Russian participation in the war and for the overthrow of the government. ‘Bread and Peace’ was the slogan of the day and disgruntled Russian crowds listened intently, eager for change. The October Revolution of 1917 soon followed and Lenin went on to lead the Bolsheviks to victory, his usual facial hair now restored.

It’s worth noting, however, that Vladimir Lenin died of a stroke in 1924 and that his corpse has been on public display for propaganda reasons in Moscow ever since. After being embalmed, his body has been groomed and washed daily by technicians for almost a century, undergoing regular and fairly complex chemical treatments to keep it from decomposing. As a result, that same goatee exists today resting on his chin, having lasted substantially longer than Lenin himself, the Soviet government he founded, and several generations of Russian citizens.

When a dictator grooms himself, it is magnified far beyond his own face and the confines of his bathroom mirror. He’s really sculpting his grandiose ego onto society, deciding what statues of himself will look like, imagining heroic murals, the front page of the newspaper, and ominous propaganda posters. He’s designing the picture that will appear in textbooks and sketching his narcissism across the gulf of history. And it is that massive ego that saturates many things. It outlines national policy. It launches wars and touches the lives of millions of people for years to come. Ralph Waldo Emerson once said that “An institution is the lengthened shadow of one man” and if there’s any truth to that quote, then whole countries in the world today still live in the shadow of terrible men, past and present.