Nov 072018

Today is the birthday (1879) of Lev Davidovich Bronstein who took the revolutionary name, Leon Trotsky. By coincidence, the Revolution that brought the Bolsheviks to power in Russia also occurred on this date in 1917  Trotsky was of Ukrainian-Jewish stock, born into a family of wealthy farmers in Yanovka or Yanivka, in the Kherson governorate of the Russian Empire (now Bereslavka, in Ukraine), a small village 24 km (15 mi) from the nearest post office. His parents were David Leontyevich Bronstein (1847–1922) and his wife Anna Lvovna (née Zhivotovskaya) (1850–1910). Trotsky’s father was born in Poltava, and later moved to Yanovka because it had a large Jewish community. The language spoken at home was a mixture of Russian and Ukrainian (known as Surzhyk). Trotsky’s younger sister, Olga, who also grew up to be a Bolshevik and a Soviet politician.

Trotsky initially supported the Menshevik Internationalists faction within the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, but joined the Bolsheviks just before the 1917 October Revolution, immediately becoming a leader within the Communist Party. He went on to become one of the seven members of the first Politburo, founded in 1917 to manage the Bolshevik Revolution.

During the early days of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR) and the Soviet Union, he served first as People’s Commissar for Foreign Affairs and later as the founder and commander of the Red Army, with the title of People’s Commissar of Military and Naval Affairs. He became a major figure in the Bolshevik victory in the Russian Civil War (1918–1922).

After leading a failed struggle of the Left Opposition against the policies and rise of Joseph Stalin in the 1920s and against the increasing role of bureaucracy in the Soviet Union, Trotsky was removed as Commissar for Military and Naval Affairs (January 1925), removed from the Politburo (October 1926), removed from the Central Committee (October 1927), expelled from the Communist Party (November 1927), exiled to Alma–Ata (January 1928), and exiled from the Soviet Union (February 1929). As the head of the Fourth International, Trotsky continued to oppose the Stalinist bureaucracy in the Soviet Union while in exile.

Trotsky was assassinated in Mexico City by Ramón Mercader, a Spanish-born NKVD agent. On 20th August 1940, Mercader attacked Trotsky with an ice axe and Trotsky died the next day in a hospital. Mercader acted upon instructions directly from Stalin and was nearly beaten to death by Trotsky’s bodyguards. He spent the next 20 years in a Mexican prison for the murder. Stalin presented Mercader with an Order of Lenin in absentia.

Trotsky’s ideas formed the basis of Trotskyism, a major school of Marxist thought that opposes the ideologies of Stalinism. He was written out of the history books under Stalin, and was one of the few Soviet political figures who was not rehabilitated by the government under Nikita Khrushchev in the 1950s. There are many “what ifs” that amateur historians like to indulge in. What if Stalin had been purged and Trotsky had been the next leader of the Soviet Union?  etc. etc. All an idle waste of time.

I am not going to wear you out with a lot of biography and political history. You can read it for yourself. Here, instead, are some salient quotes. The first is especially prescient:

England is nothing but the last ward of the European madhouse, and quite possibly it will prove to be the ward for particularly violent cases.

If we had had more time for discussion we should probably have made a great many more mistakes.

There are no absolute rules of conduct, either in peace or war. Everything depends on circumstances.

Life is not an easy matter… You cannot live through it without falling into frustration and cynicism unless you have before you a great idea which raises you above personal misery, above weakness, above all kinds of perfidy and baseness.

Learning carries within itself certain dangers because out of necessity one has to learn from one’s enemies.

From being a patriotic myth, the Russian people have become an awful reality.

The democratic regime is the most aristocratic way of ruling. It is possible only to a rich nation.

Everyone has the right to be stupid on occasion, but Comrade Macdonald abuses the privilege.

Not believing in force is the same as not believing in gravity.

Let a man find himself, in distinction from others, on top of two wheels with a chain – at least in a poor country like Russia – and his vanity begins to swell out like his tires. In America it takes an automobile to produce this effect.

Being an avid bicycle rider, I concur wholeheartedly with the last sentiment. I love riding my bike because I am its powerhouse; I am the master. On my bicycle I feel like king of the world.

Although not especially a Ukrainian-Jewish dish, gefilte fish is a popular favorite among easterm Ashkenazi Jews, and is such a popular favorite that it would be remiss of me not to include it one of my posts. This video is very detailed even though gefilte fish is not difficult to make. Even so, many cooks buy it readymade, but it is never as good as homemade.

Nov 072015


The October Revolution (Октя́брьская револю́ция,) known officially as the Great October Socialist Revolution, and commonly referred to as Red October, the October Uprising or the Bolshevik Revolution, was a seizure of state power instrumental in the larger Russian Revolution of 1917. It took place beginning with an armed insurrection in Petrograd traditionally dated to 25 October 1917 (by the Julian or Old Style calendar, which corresponds to 7 November 1917 in the Gregorian or New Style calendar). By coincidence today is also the birthday (1879) of Leon Trotsky, leading revolutionary and key figure in soviet government until ousted by Stalin. I’ll focus here on the revolution itself. Maybe next year for Trotsky.


The October Revolution is of some importance in the complex events of 1917 in Russia. Scholars still debate the course of events and significance of individual actions over the span of 1917, and histories have been deeply colored by political propaganda within and outside of Russia. Soviet history has changed a good deal with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 when many documents that had long been suppressed became public. When I studied the revolution in 6th-form history, the Western party line was that it was precipitated by the brutalities borne by the poor under the feudal system aggravated by the horrendous conditions on the eastern front in the Great War. I think this is still a reasonable assessment although a little simplistic. Now we would add other factors such as antagonism of the nobility towards the tsar, mismanagement of factories, and the like. What it was most definitely not was a vindication of popular Marxist ideology as it was codified – especially in Russia under Stalin. Russia was still primarily a rural, feudal economy in 1917. According to doctrinaire Marxism, the country was supposed to develop bourgeois capitalist industrialism, and only then should a mass people’s revolt have occurred. Lenin and Trotsky were both out of Russia in early 1917 and rushed back when the February Revolution broke out – in Lenin’s case it is reputed that he wanted to stop the revolution because the people were doing it all wrong. After Lenin’s return, the Bolsheviks wanted to shift events to better suit Marxism, but, despite their victory in 1917, they were not popular with the people and instigated a 5-year civil war to control the country. In the grand scheme of things, the October Revolution was of far less significance than it was portrayed as later by soviet propagandists.

I can’t do justice to the Russian Revolution in a short post. Here’s just some bare bones. You’ll have to read more elsewhere to get a more comprehensive picture.


The October Revolution of 1917 followed and capitalized on the February Revolution of the same year, which overthrew the Tsarist autocracy and established a provisional government composed predominantly of former nobles and aristocrats. During this time, urban workers began to organize into councils (“Soviets” in Russian) wherein revolutionaries criticized the provisional government and its actions. The October Revolution in Petrograd overthrew the provisional government and gave the power to the local soviets. The Bolshevik party was heavily supported by the soviets. After the Congress of Soviets, now the governing body, had its second session, it elected members of the Bolsheviks and other leftist groups such as the Left Socialist Revolutionaries to key positions within the new state. This immediately initiated the establishment of the Russian Socialist Federative Soviet Republic, the world’s first self-proclaimed socialist state.


The revolution was led by the Bolsheviks, who used their influence in the Petrograd Soviet to organize the armed forces. Bolshevik Red Guards forces under the Military Revolutionary Committee began the takeover of government buildings on 24 October 1917 (O.S.). The following day, the Winter Palace (the seat of the Provisional government located in Petrograd, then capital of Russia), was captured. This event was heavily propagandized as something akin to the storming of the Bastille, but it was nothing of the sort. Petrograd was mostly taken over peacefully and the storming of the Winter Palace was almost a farce.


The official Soviet version of events was that an assault led by Vladimir Lenin was launched at 9:45 p.m. signaled by a blank shot from the cruiser Aurora. (The Aurora was placed in Petrograd and still stands there now.) The Winter Palace was guarded by Cossacks, cadets (military students), and a Women’s Battalion. It was taken at about 2 a.m. More contemporary research with access to government archives significantly corrects accepted Soviet edited and embellished history. The archival version shows that parties of Bolshevik operatives sent out from the Smolny by Lenin took over all critical centers of power in Petrograd without a shot being fired. This was completed so efficiently that the takeover resembled the changing of the guard.

The capture of the Winter Palace was slightly more dramatic, with the Red Guards storming the Winter Palace at 2:10 a.m. on the night of 7–8 November [O.S. 25–26 October] 1917. The Cossacks deserted when the Red Guard approached, and the Cadets and the 140 volunteers of the Women’s Battalion surrendered rather than resist the 40,000 strong army. The Aurora was commandeered to then fire blanks at the palace in a symbolic act of rejection of the government. In fact the effectively unoccupied Winter Palace fell not because of acts of courage or a military barrage, but because the back door was left open, allowing the Red Guard to enter. The back door was left open !! Really ??? A Red Guard named Adamovich remembered gasping as he burst into the palace, as he had never before seen such luxury and splendor. A small group broke in, got lost in the cavernous interior, and accidentally happened upon the remnants of Kerensky’s provisional government in the imperial family’s breakfast room. The illiterate revolutionaries then compelled those arrested to write up their own arrest papers.


The Provisional Government was arrested and imprisoned in Peter and Paul Fortress after the ministers resigned to fate and surrendered without a fight. The stories of the “defense of the Winter Palace” and the heroic “Storming of the Winter Palace” came later as the creative propaganda product of Bolshevik publicists. Grandiose paintings depicting the “Women’s Battalion” and photo stills taken from Sergei Eisenstein’s staged film, “Ten Days that Shook the World,” depicting the “politically correct” version of the October events in Petrograd came to be taken as truth. Eisentstein later said that his filming did much worse damage to the Winter Palace than the events of the October Revolution. His extras’ gunfire broke every window in the palace.


The long-awaited Constituent Assembly elections were held on 12 November 1917. The Bolsheviks won only 175 seats in the 715 seat legislative body, coming in second behind the Socialist Revolutionary party, which won 370 seats. The Constituent Assembly was to first meet on 28 November 1917, but its convocation was delayed until January 5, 1918 by the Bolsheviks. On its first and only day in session, the body rejected Soviet decrees on peace and land, and was dissolved the next day by order of the Congress of Soviets. As the revolution was not universally recognized, there followed the struggles of the Russian Civil War (1917–22) and the creation of the Soviet Union in 1922. The totalitarianism of Lenin and later Stalin, was effectively masked by propaganda which sought to paint the revolution as a popular revolt and nothing more. The Russian Civil War had much more effect on the shape of the totalitarian regime that was to follow than the October Revolution.

Borscht seems like the obvious recipe to celebrate the day. It is a very old dish of peasant origin that was widespread throughout eastern Europe long before the modern era. Therefore, as with so many other dishes I have showcased here, it has as many “recipes” as there are cooks. You may have gathered some time ago that I find recipes for such dishes tiresome. So here’s my heuristic accounting of what I do. A more refined borscht involves blending the soup before serving, but that’s not to my taste. I prefer it hot in winter, but it can be served chilled as a summer soup. What is most definitely NOT borscht is the stuff referred to disparagingly as “beetroot water” by real cooks, is the stuff you find in jars in U.S. supermarkets. You can find my meatless version here I don’t like to repeat recipes, but these two are very different even though beets are the common factor.



Put 1 lb of bone-in stewing beef, a few whole peppercorns, a bay leaf, salt to taste, and some chopped fresh dill into a heavy saucepan and cover with water or light stock. Simmer until the meat is tender (about 2 hours). At this point I usually refrigerate the pot overnight to deepen the flavors and to make it easy to remove the fat in the morning.

Remove the congealed fat from the pot, and strain the broth, discarding the peppercorns and bay leaf. Remove the meat from the bone and cut it into chunks. Reserve the meat.

Peel and dice 3 medium beets. Sauté them gently in a little vegetable oil for about 3 minutes. Sprinkle with vinegar and let it evaporate. Set aside.

Return the broth to the stove and bring to a simmer. You need about 1 cup per person. Add 2 potatoes peeled and cubed, 2 carrots likewise, and 1 cup of chopped cabbage, plus a handful of chopped fresh parsley and the beets. Sauté an onion, peeled and chopped, in a little oil until transparent. Sprinkle with flour and stir over low heat. Whisk this mixture into the soup. Cover and simmer for about 30 minutes or until the vegetables are tender. If you wish, this is the time to blend or process the soup. Either way, add back the beef and heat through.

Serve in bowls with a dollop of fresh cream and a dill garnish.