History’s Greatest Heist: The Looting of Russia by the Bolsheviks, by Sean McMeekin (Yale University Press, 336 pp., $38)
Since 2006, visitors to the NeueGalerie, the boutique museum of German and Austrian art in New York City, have had the chance to view one of Gustav Klimt’s most celebrated paintings—his seductive, gold-spangled portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer. For the 70 years before that, however, you would have had to go to Vienna’s Austrian Gallery to see Klimt’s masterpiece. That’s because the painting, along with four other Klimts the Bloch-Bauer family owns, was stolen by the Nazis after the Anschluss, and retained by the Republic of Austria after World War II ended. It took another six decades for the Austrian courts to rule that the Klimt had to be returned to Adele Bloch-Bauer’s rightful heir, who was 90 years old when she finally reclaimed her family’s property and sold it to the NeueGalerie. The wheels of justice ground very slowly in that famous case, but in the end—thanks in part to increased public awareness of Nazi looting—justice was done.
At the National Gallery in Washington, DC, however, the masterpieces on the wall have a different story to tell. When visitors marvel at the jewels of that collection—Jan van Eyck’s Annunciation, Botticelli’s Adoration of the Magi, the five Rembrandts—they are benefiting, unwittingly in most cases, from a historical crime that puts even the Nazis’ looting to shame. The core of the National Gallery’s collection was bequeathed to the nation by Andrew Mellon, the industrialist and Treasury secretary who helped to start the museum. But Mellon’s masterpieces started out on the walls of the Hermitage in St. Petersburg. They were stolen, along with an incalculable quantity of other art objects, religious icons, jewels, silver plate, bonds, and cash, by the Bolsheviks who seized power in Russia in November 1917. And they made their way to the West, along with the rest of the nation’s accumulated treasures, thanks to European middlemen, who laundered Soviet loot as surely as the Swiss banks laundered Nazi gold.
That’s the powerful and surprising argument that Sean McMeekin makes in History’s Greatest Heist, his careful tally of the world-historical theft that Lenin and his followers carried out between 1917 and 1922. The surprise consists in McMeekin’s relentless insistence on a historical truth still not automatically accepted: the moral equivalence of the Nazi Party and the Soviet Communist Party. Yes, in the abstract, most thoughtful people would acknowledge that Lenin’s and Stalin’s crimes rivaled Hitler’s, that the Gulag was as evil as the concentration camp. But while Nazism is treated as a crime whose effects ought to be reversed, Communism is granted the grudging respect we give a historical fait accompli. In other words, no one is about to sue the National Gallery to demand that the Rembrandts go back to Russia.
As McMeekin shows in his formidably documented, morally impassioned book, the Russian Revolution benefited from the beginning from such Western acquiescence. The Bolsheviks could never have survived their first years in power without the connivance of Western European governments, industrialists, and financiers. That’s because their first act on seizing power, in a coup widely opposed by the Russian people, was deliberately to destroy Russia’s economy, leaving the regime wholly dependent on foreign financing. McMeekin shows that, for all their expertise in dialectical materialism, the Bolsheviks had not the slightest idea how a modern economy or financial system worked. With the decree of December 27, 1917, abolishing private banks and repudiating government bonds, they effectively destroyed the nation’s wealth, along with any incentive for investors to invest or workers to work. “We find ourselves in a lunatic asylum,” wrote the manager of the Russian and English Bank.
The result was wholly predictable: Russia went from being the world’s largest exporter of grain to the brink of mass starvation, a crisis averted only thanks to the American Relief Administration of Herbert Hoover. The population of Petersburg fell by 80 percent; the streets of Moscow were not cleaned for three years. “If the principal function of most governments is to cultivate law and public order,” McMeekin writes, “that of Lenin’s was precisely the opposite: to eradicate all existing law and institutions and to encourage class war.”
With the nation’s economy wrecked and its banking system abolished, however, the Bolsheviks had no way to raise funds except by selling whatever they could confiscate to foreign buyers. Accordingly, they acted less like a government than like a gang of thieves, but not especially competent ones. They could not, for instance, manage to open the safe-deposit boxes in most Russian banks; they were reduced to issuing a decree commanding box owners to turn over their keys—that is, to help the government rob them.
What they did manage to confiscate—from banks, churches, and private owners, most notably the Romanovs—they could sell only in the way thieves fence their loot: surreptitiously and at a huge discount. McMeekin’s book bristles with the names of Soviet emissaries who sneaked into Sweden and Switzerland with suitcases full of cash and jewels. The Swedish mint worked overtime melting down Russian gold and restamping it so that it could be sold in London and New York. And while the Entente powers officially banned such sales, they effectively did little to prevent them; there was too much money to be made. If Swiss banks are now held in contempt for their role in World War II, McMeekin argues, many Swedish banks ought to be just as ashamed of their role in the post-Versailles period.
McMeekin’s chief Western villain, however, is David Lloyd George, the English prime minister, who decided to lift the Royal Navy’s blockade of Russia just as the Civil War seemed to be turning against the Reds. (During the same period, Lloyd George’s impetuous decision first to back, then to abandon, Greek aggression in Turkey led to a near-genocide there.) Even the Conservative leader, Andrew Bonar Law, asked, “What is the use of our saying that we won’t do trade” with the USSR? Only Winston Churchill remained steadfast, refusing to meet with the Soviet trade delegate when the rest of the Cabinet welcomed him.
It was the logic of capitalism at its worst, and an excellent demonstration of how capitalist priorities can undermine democratic ethics. Someone was going to make money selling weapons and supplies to the Soviets, European statesmen reasoned, so it might as well be us. The Germans reached the same conclusion, signing the Treaty of Rapallo with the USSR in 1922, just a year after the German Communist Party had tried to overthrow the Weimar government. History’s Greatest Heist is filled with vivid images of theft and spoliation, of warehouses full of jewels and briefcases stuffed with rubles. But the real value of the book is that it shows just how well the West lived up to Lenin’s cynical prophecy: “The capitalists will sell us the rope with which to hang them.”