The End of Tsarist Russia


By David Michael Newstead.

The End of Tsarist Russia: The March to World War I & Revolution by Dominic Lieven offers a critical reassessment of events a century ago. It’s a story of empire, geography, and long festering social problems that destroyed many lives and reshaped history. Below, I offer select excerpts from the book.

From Page 2

Contrary to the near-universal assumption in the English-speaking world, the war was first and foremost an eastern European conflict. Its immediate origins lay in the murder of the Austrian heir at Sarajevo in southeastern Europe. The assassination of Franz Ferdinand on June 28, 1914, led to a confrontation between Austria and Russia, eastern Europe’s two great empires… It is true that victory in World War I was achieved on the western front by the efforts of the French, British, and American armies. But the peace of 1918 was mostly lost in eastern Europe. The great irony of World War I was that a conflict which began more than anything else as a struggle between Germanic powers and Russia to dominate east-central Europe ended in the defeat of both sides… Worse still, the Versailles order was constructed on the basis on both Germany’s and Russia’s defeat and without concern for their interests or viewpoints.

From Page 61

Autocracy survived in part through tradition and inertia, in part through fear that liberalization would release class and national conflicts that would tear the country apart.

From Page 343 to 346

Russia’s World War I went roughly as Petr Durnovo, Russia’s most intelligent “reactionary” leader, had predicted in his February 1914 memorandum (Read Here). The Russian army was inferior to the German and was defeated in a number of battles, most notably at Tannenberg in 1914 and Gorlice-Tarnow in 1915. In a number of areas, German superiority in material was important: most notably in heavy artillery, airplanes, and communications technology. Deeper-rotted problems of Russian personnel mattered more. The relatively small number of professional officers and noncommissioned officers in comparison to Germany proved a great disadvantage. Russian armies also usually had less competent commanders and staffs than their German enemies. But the British and French armies were also on the whole inferior to the German until the latter was crippled by General Ludendorff’s spring offensive in 1918. On occasion, Russian armies did defeat the Germans. They were in general superior to the Austrians, whom they defeated heavily in 1914 and 1916. The Russian army also outperformed the British in the war against Turkey.

By the winter of 1916-17, the Russian army was tired and had suffered heavy casualties, including high levels of surrender and desertion. In a few units, there were signs that morale and discipline were slipping… In the Russian case, it was the rear, not the front, that collapsed first and undermined the war effort… As Durnovo had predicted, the railways became a major problem with very serious consequences for military movements, food supply, and industrial production. Neither the railway network nor the rolling stock was adequate for the colossal demands of war, but in addition industry was diverted overwhelmingly to military production, with repairs to locomotives, rolling stock, and railway lines suffering as a consequence. Inflation too its toll on morale and discipline among railway men, as it did across the entire workforce. Durnovo was once again right in predicting that Russia would face great difficulties in financing the war.

From Page 351

The end of tsarist Russia came in the course of a few days in late February and early March 1917. A dynasty that had ruled for three hundred years departed almost overnight and with a whimper rather than a bang, because very few Russians were willing to defend it.

From Page 365

For Russia as for Germany, 1914 was year zero. The catastrophe of World War I led directly to other, even more terrible disasters. From war sprang revolution, civil war, famine, and dictatorship. Hopes in the 1920s that the revolutionary regime might in time become more moderate were dashed in the 1930s as an even greater wave of famine, terror, and revolutionary development engulfed the Russian people.

A Century of the Trench Coat

By David Michael Newstead.

I was reading over the winter and at some point I stumbled onto an intriguing historical fact: trench coats got their name from the First World War.

I quickly got online to confirm and I learned that the now obvious origins of the name had been staring me in the face for years. Trench coats were worn by British officers during the harrowing trench warfare characteristic of World War One. The coats shielded soldiers from the wind and rain. And they would go on to become very popular in peacetime thanks to their utility and style.

Today, a hundred years later, trench coats are more closely associated with businessmen or hard-boiled detectives. That said, they represent one of many enduring legacies of that Great War a century ago.

Stalin’s Barber: An Interview with the Author

By David Michael Newstead.

Recently, I had the opportunity to speak with Paul M. Levitt, author of the novel Stalin’s Barber. Our conversation is below and check out my review of Stalin’s Barber.

David Newstead: When did you first get the idea for the book? How did you think of it?

Paul M. Levitt: I guess you might say it’s been ruminating for a long time. My father was born in Ukraine. During my childhood, I often heard stories about Russia. The topic of Russia was always in the house with friends and family. The one story I never heard was why people were willing to confess to crimes they never committed, even without being tortured. Answer: for the greater good, namely, Socialism. I think my father and others like him found it difficult to think badly of the Russian Revolution, because it overthrew the despotic Czar. He could still remember pogroms against Jews committed by the Romanovs, so even though he knew Stalin was a monster, it was just different.

Then, the idea for the Turkish haircut and barbering came from a friend who had recently returned from Istanbul. Having had such a haircut, he described it to me. The moment he did, I knew that I had solved a major problem: how to get close to Stalin.

David: When did your father leave Ukraine? And what was his profession?

Paul: He left right before the Russian Revolution in 1917. He was a business man. Eventually, he started a cosmetics company that went under during the Great Depression. Later, he found success with other businesses. My father was a very generous man. Very kind man. I suspect that the memory of his experiences in Russia framed that kindness towards other people.

David: Can you describe the research you did to create the in-depth atmosphere of the story?

Paul: I actually spent seven years reading the fiction and non-fiction of the Soviet period, as well as numerous histories.

David: Have you visited Russia or conducted any interviews there in preparation for your book?

Paul: Yes, I have been to the Soviet Union, and yes, I spoke to friends in Leningrad, now St. Petersburg.

David: What challenges did you face while writing?

Paul: Getting information is always a challenge. There are still archives in Moscow that aren’t open to the public. I asked Soviet scholars various questions, but I knew their information was limited as well. To bridge that gap, I did things like read every memoir that’s ever been written about Solovki prison camp. I’ve never been there, but again, it’s about getting at the accurate information that does exist.

David: Did you learn more about your own family history in the process?

Paul: Shortly before my father died, I conducted a series of interviews with him that I taped. I did the same with my mother who came from a Polish family, so I got a lot of information from that. I often tell my students to interview their parents and older relatives and ask them important questions now, because your parents won’t be around forever. In my own house, we didn’t have an attic for old diaries or ledgers, so my parents had all this information from over the course of their lifetime.

My father was the youngest of eleven children. The first five didn’t like what the found in America, so they returned to Russia and ultimately didn‘t survive. Just to explain how certain aspects of Jewish immigration worked. My family benefited from the efforts of Baron Maurice de Hirsch who was a wealthy German-Jewish industrialist. He had made a fortune constructing railroads across Europe, then put a lot of those profits into assisting other European Jews, including financing their immigration to the Western Hemisphere. This was started around the late 1800’s. So it’s because of Hirsch that my father and other family members were able to start a life in America.

David: When did you first want to become an author?

Paul: I’ve been writing since an early age. My older sister was a theatre studies major in college and I used to read her stuff. I got my start writing plays. I wrote for the BBC for a number of years, but it all probably started in Junior High.

David: So returning to your novel, why Stalin? Why a Barber?

Paul: I wanted to understand the Soviet period. What better way to understand it than through Stalin? The barber enabled me to put someone close to Stalin, who was notoriously paranoid. One of Stalin’s actual barbers was a Jewish man named Karl who he had put to death, so there’s some basis in reality for the story.

David: You repeatedly mention Turkish-style Barbering and Hair Singeing. What made you want to include that so prominently in the book?

Paul: If Avraham Behar (The Main Character) was to find a position in the Kremlin, his barbering skills would have to be unusual.

David: There is a minor character named Benjamin Levitan, I couldn’t help noticing the similarity to your name. Any relation to you?

Paul: My father’s name was (Baruch) Benjamin Abraham Levitt. There was a famous Russian painter by the name of Isaac Levitan. I thought the similarity worth exploiting in the story.

David: Since the book’s publication, have any citizens of the former Soviet Union or historians commented on your depiction? If so, how?

Paul: Yes, the Soviet historian Suzi Weissman fact-checked the book for me.

David: Have you been paying attention to the current crisis in Ukraine?

Paul: Very much so.

David: What did you think when you visited the area?

Paul: Poor country. Lot of agriculture.

David: Considering your family background and your own research, what’s your opinion of contemporary Russia?

Paul: I think Putin’s a thug. I thought Gorbachev was one of the major figures of the Twentieth Century. I share some opinions with Stephen Cohen about the Crimea situation, but Eastern Ukraine is much different. For the moment, they’re all rallying behind Putin, because there’s a certain restoration of Russian greatness. But when they get the bill, that’ll virtually bankrupt Russia. Ukraine itself has been in a bad way for a long time: politically, ethically, financially. Then, Ukrainian Nationalism has historically gone hand-in-hand with Anti-Semitism as a way to get people riled up. We’re seeing some of that now.

Around that point, we wrapped up our conversation and I thanked Paul for his time. In the days that followed, I reflected on the constant stream of news coming out of Ukraine and how it related to historical context like the experience of Paul’s family. Many of the tensions now underway seem like a convergence of regular people, bad policies, and the unresolved legacies of men like Joseph Stalin. Paul’s novel illustrates those dark fingerprints on history. Moreover, it provides a view into the real-life circumstances of a region that’s perpetually waiting for a positive outcome. Unlike fiction, it’s an ending that still remains to be seen.

Read Stalin’s Barber 

Read my review of Stalin’s Barber 


Stalin’s Barber: A Book Review and Historical Comparison

By David Michael Newstead.

ImagePaul M. Levitt’s novel Stalin’s Barber is a social examination of the Soviet Union that opens a window onto the lives of its numerous and diverse characters. But each of these plots are anchored by the story of one man who eventually holds a razor to the throat of Soviet dictator, Joseph Stalin. Avraham Bahar is a Jew who leaves Albania in search of a better life in Communist Russia. But the paradise he has heard about is soon revealed to be a myth created by Soviet propaganda. In the earliest part of the novel, he is an eyewitness to famine in Ukraine and this portrait only grows darker and more complex as he moves eastward. Avraham and the other characters are threatened by government surveillance, widespread distrust, and the fear of being denounced as a traitor for any and all reasons. Throughout the course of the story, the reader peers into history through the lens of a Soviet typist, humble peasants, artists, mental patients, a religious believer, petty bureaucrats, secret agents, homosexuals, prison laborers, and a simple barber as the web of family and friendships entraps everyone in their associations with incriminating loved ones. In fact, sometimes the only crime is familiarity and in that environment no one is capable of being innocent.

The main character, Avraham Bahar, is an expert in his craft and overtime becomes the personal barber to Joseph Stalin. In that position, he can see the craters on Stalin’s face and smell the harshness of his breath, knowing that any nick or cut or misspoken comment could cost him his life. But as Avraham diligently works to trim and shave his all important customer, he’s left to wonder: what happened to Stalin’s last barber? And is the man that sits in front of him really Joseph Stalin or one of his many body doubles?

Strangest of all, Levitt’s novel draws attention to real intrigues that took place and often consumed the lives of Soviet citizens during that period. Stalin was a deeply paranoid man, fearful of plots against him. At home, he smoked and drank too much, played billiards, and loved Charlie Chaplin films. But he also forbid carpeting in his residences, because it prevented him from hearing people’s footsteps, especially a would-be assassin. His life was framed by a kind of unceasing belief that threats against him were around every corner. As such, arrests and purges were a ubiquitous occurrence. Millions were sent off to forced labor camps to die.

Tied to that paranoia, the Soviets did, in fact, deploy at least four men simultaneously to pretend to be Joseph Stalin, attend official functions, and, of course, to disrupt the effectiveness of assassination attempts. Although these body doubles never met one another, some of them are known to have trained under actor Alexei Dikiy, the man who played the role of Stalin in Soviet films (also sent to a forced labor camp). Among these four, only one ever went public about his experience in 2008 after decades of silence and after the expressed approval of the Russian government. His name was Felix Dadaev. He was a juggler, an actor, and an illusionist whose greatest performance began in 1943 when the NKVD Secret Police recruited him because of his strong resemblance to Stalin. Although he was only in his early twenties, the native of Dagestan took on the sixty-year-old leader’s precise characteristics under the watchful eye of the state security apparatus. This meant make-up, dying his hair, and learning the movements and minuet details of appearing to be Joseph Stalin. Felix would continue this work until the Soviet leader’s death in 1953. But during that long time span, he only met Stalin once in the early 1950’s. It was brief. The man said nothing and Stalin nodded to him. The end. Such limited recognition hides the fact that Felix had acted the part for years at great personal risk. He was a body double during the height of the Second World War. Furthermore, his family in Grozny had been told that Felix was killed by the German Army in the early 1940’s, and thereafter his entire life revolved around living in Stalin’s shadow.

If Levitt’s novel is about anything, it is about people living in the shadow of a dictatorship and the fear that can overwhelm their day-to-day existence. By showing the experiences of a common barber, Levitt offers a kind of unedited and conversational access to a tyrant who, in the course of a haircut, speaks freely, vents about his life, and asks about the barber’s family. Along the way, each characters’ actions highlight a different aspect of Soviet society, but in most cases, we’re reminded of the central fact that anyone who is in favor with a dictator eventually falls out of favor.

Another real-life example unfortunately reiterates this point. Italian Fascist Benito Mussolini was known for being clean-shaven and in the early years of his reign starting in 1922, he would pick up barbers at random to prevent any pattern from being established that could compromise his personal security and lead to assassination attempts (Note: there were numerous assassination attempts against Mussolini over the years). By 1939, however, Mussolini decided to select someone to be his regular and trusted barber. Luigi Galbani was a young Italian, skilled in his trade, and came from a prominent business family that owned much of Italy’s cheese industry (Gruppo Galbani still has a large presence in Italy’s cheese industry). Regardless of that status, Luigi was tested for the job by being forced to shave Mussolini at gunpoint. While those tensions naturally eased overtime, the barber was still a fly on the wall to war and world politics in the 1930’s and 1940’s, much like the main character in Levitt’s novel. And just as the novel aspires to reveal personal traits about Joseph Stalin, the barber Luigi was given private access to the man who ruled Italy. The most revealing of which, Luigi later told people, was that he overheard a phone conversation concerning Mussolini’s secret order authorizing the execution of his own son and his first wife, Ida Dalser, who Mussolini had married in 1914 and never officially divorced. Both had fallen out of favor and were killed by lethal injection.

While Stalin’s Barber serves as an interesting work of fiction, its real value is as a humanized portrayal of history that draws family members and friendships from what might otherwise be an impersonal ledger of atrocities. Stalin’s rule was so brutal and the statistics about his crimes are so vast that telling the story of an individual man among the millions who suffered can be a difficult feat. Paul M. Levitt does it successfully.

Read Stalin’s Barber

Read my interview with Paul M. Levitt


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.