The Siege of Leningrad, one of the longest and most destructive sieges in history, began.
Nazi Germany’s Lebensraum foreign policy sought to secure living space for future generations of Germans in the ‘Thousand-Year Reich’. Hitler intended the fertile lands of the western USSR to provide food for his new empire, while the native Slavic population would be destroyed and replaced with ethnic Germans.
Leningrad, which is now known as Saint Petersburg, was a politically significant Soviet city due to its role in the Bolshevik Revolution. Furthermore it was a centre of industrial production, and had military significance as a base for the Baltic Fleet of the Soviet navy. Consequently, when Operation Barbarossa’s invasion of the Soviet Union began on 22 June 1941, the capture of Leningrad was a key strategic goal.
By September, Army Group North under the command of German Field Marshal Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb had reached the southern outskirts of the city whilst the Finnish army had approached from the north. Meanwhile, more than a million people from the civilian population of Leningrad prepared extensive fortifications to assist the approximately 200,000 Red Army defenders.
Although the city’s defences held, by the start of September Leningrad was almost entirely surrounded with its communication lines severed. The Germans attempted a final push but, unable to overcome the defensive fortifications, Hitler ordered that the city be starved into submission.
Over one million civilians died as a result of the ensuing siege that lasted for more than 870 days. The Red Army was eventually able to repel the German forces and lift the siege in January 1944.
On the 5th September 1698, Tsar Peter I of Russia – otherwise known as Peter the Great – imposed a tax on beards. The long flowing beards of Russian tradition, which were closely associated with Orthodox Christianity, were faced with a progressive tax that charged up to an eye-watering 100 roubles. In return, the wearer would receive a small copper token indicating the tax had been paid but which declared “the beard is a superfluous burden”.
Determined to modernise and westernise Russia following the death of his brother Ivan, with whom he had jointly ruled Russia until 1696, Peter returned from undertaking the Grand Tour and immediately began a series of dramatic reforms. Military, political, economic and social changes were imposed that were designed to catapult Russia into the modern world and place it amongst the great powers of Europe.
Peter’s war on beards began as soon as he returned to Russia. Meeting with numerous nobles and senior members of the government on his return from Western Europe, he is said to have begun shaving his guests with a barber’s razor. Only members of the clergy and peasants were spared the demand to have a clean-shaven face.
The move was unpopular, not only because it was a significant challenge to tradition, but also because shaving a beard was interpreted by some as being a sin. Although he initially ordered officials to shave anybody they found who did not comply with the new decree, Peter soon realised that taxing beards would take advantage of some of his subjects’ unwillingness to shave. The tax wasn’t abolished until 1772.
On 23rd August 1939, Vyacheslav Molotov and Joachim von Ribbentrop – the Soviet foreign minister and the German foreign minister – signed the Treaty of Non-aggression between Germany and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, otherwise known as the Nazi-Soviet Pact. Outwardly it was a guarantee that neither side would fight against the other in war, but a ‘secret protocol’ also outlined how Eastern Europe would be divided between the two countries. This agreement cleared the way for the Nazi invasion of Poland just nine days later.
Stalin’s Communist USSR distrusted Hitler’s Nazi Germany, knowing that ultimately Hitler intended to invade and annex Russia. Similarly, Britain distrusted Stalin due a fear of Communism. Although talks took place between Britain and Russia in early August 1939 regarding a possible alliance against Hitler, they were never taken seriously by the British government who sent their representative by a slow boat and gave him no authority to actually make any decisions.
Frustrated, Stalin’s government received Ribbentrop later that month. He proposed the Nazi-Soviet agreement which, in the face of continued British reluctance to form an alliance, was accepted. The Soviet government almost certainly knew that Hitler would break the non-aggression pact at some point and would invade Russia, but at least the pact delayed that and gave time to prepare.
The Nazi-Soviet Pact was broken less than two years after it was signed, when Nazi forces invaded the Soviet Union in Operation Barbarossa on the 22nd June 1941. All the territory gained by Russia under terms of the ‘secret protocol’ was lost in just a matter of weeks.
On the 19th August 1991 Mikhail Gorbachev, the President of the Soviet Union, was placed under house arrest in what is known as the August Coup. Opposed to Gorbachev’s reforms, the leaders of the coup believed that the new Union of Sovereign States, which had been approved in a union-wide referendum, threatened the complete disintegration of the USSR. A number of individual states had already declared their independence, but the New Union Treaty would devolve much of the Soviet Union’s remaining power to individual states.
It was while Gorbachev was on holiday in Foros, a resort in the Crimea, that the coup was launched. On the 17th August, the coup’s leaders met with Gorbachev and demanded that he either declare a state of emergency or resign. Although the specific details of the conversation are unclear, the outcome was that Gorbachev refused.
Gorbachev was placed under house arrest, and the leaders of the coup – known as the Gang of Eight – created the State Committee of the State of Emergency to govern the USSR due to Gorbachev suffering from an “illness”. The changes in government were announced on state media on the morning of the 19th but, having chosen not to arrest Russian President Boris Yeltsin, the coup faced a blow when he began speaking against it. Two days later, the military supporting the coup failed to take control of the Russian parliament building in the face of civil resistance.
The coup collapsed on the 21st August, but the USSR was left seriously weakened. Just over four months later the Soviet Union was officially dissolved.
The North Pacific Fur Seal Convention, the first international treaty that dealt with wildlife conservation issues, was signed.
Archaeological evidence indicates that seals have been hunted for their pelts, their flesh and their fat for over 4,000 years. By the end of the 19th century, however, industrialisation of hunting had brought a rapid decline in the seal population of the Bering Sea.
The USA had purchased Alaska and the surrounding islands in 1867, leading the American government to claim authority over the sealing industry in the region. This led to an increase in offshore or pelagic sealing that further reduced the seal populations.
Through arbitration Great Britain and the USA agreed to jointly enforce a series of hunting regulations designed to preserve the seal herds. It soon became clear that the terms of the agreement were not stringent enough to allow the seal populations to recover. Fearing the possibility of extinction if the situation was not dealt with, a joint commission of scientists from Britain and the USA advised on the creation of a new treaty.
Having been heavily influenced by the efforts of the young artist and environmentalist Henry Wood Elliott, the North Pacific Fur Seal Convention banned all pelagic seal hunting north of the 30th parallel in the Pacific Ocean. Management of on-shore commercial seal hunting within the region was also placed under the jurisdiction of the United States. As the treaty’s signatories, Britain, Japan, and Russia were guaranteed a payment or a minimum quota of seal furs in return.
The treaty stayed in place until the Second World War, but the restoration of peace saw the creation of new international agreements that regulated hunting in the interests of wildlife conservation.
The secret Sykes-Picot Agreement between Britain and France, formally known as the Asia Minor Agreement, was ratified.
The agreement was designed to deal with the future of the Ottoman Empire, which had been known as ‘the sick man of Europe’ in the preceding years due to its declining power. After the Ottomans joined the First World War on the side of the Central Powers, the Allies began discussing policy towards their territory.
Britain and France had already agreed to Russia’s claim to Constantinople and the Straits of Dardanelles by the time representatives from the two countries began discussing further questions of territorial control in November 1915. The British diplomat Mark Sykes concluded negotiations with his French counterpart François Georges-Picot in March 1916 and the agreement was ratified in May, having secured Russian assent at the end of April.
The Sykes-Picot Agreement carved up the Ottoman Empire into spheres of influence that conflicted directly with the promises Britain had made to Hussein bin Ali, Sharif of Mecca, to secure Arab support against the Ottomans. When the secret agreement was published in November 1917 following the Bolshevik Revolution, Sir Henry McMahon who had negotiated the Arab deal with Hussein resigned.
Over a century after its creation, the Sykes-Picot Agreement continues to be the focus of significant debate due to its lasting impact on the Middle East. It is often criticised for establishing ‘artificial’ borders in the region that ignored ethnic and sectarian characteristics, and which have caused almost continuous conflict in the region.
On the 11th May 1997, the IBM computer Deep Blue became the first computer to defeat a reigning world chess champion under tournament conditions when it beat Garry Kasparov 3½-2½ over six matches.
Deep Blue began life as a graduate research project at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Developed over 8 years by a team of eight computer scientists, it operated through brute force computing power. Ranked as the 259th most powerful computer in the world, Deep Blue was able to evaluate 200 million separate chess positions per second.
The Deep Blue team used records of Kasparov’s previous games to program the computer with his previous strategies. The programmers were also allowed to tweak the computer’s algorithm between rounds to take account of the last game. Kasparov, meanwhile, was playing blind since this model of Deep Blue hadn’t played any previous tournament games.
Kasparov was unnerved by the behavior of Deep Blue in the first match. Although the computer lost the match, Kasparov believed it showed ‘superior intelligence’ when it sacrificed a piece. However, IBM later claimed that the sacrifice was a result of a bug in the software resulting in the computer playing a fall-back move. However, this illogical move unsettled Kasparov and put him at a psychological disadvantage for the remaining games. He refused to accept the defeat, accusing IBM of human intervention which they strenuously denied. IBM also refused his requests for a rematch.
The Crimean War began in October 1853, having been triggered by disagreements between Russia and the Ottoman Empire regarding Russia’s right to protect the Orthodox Christian minority in the Ottoman-controlled Holy Land. Against a background of declining Ottoman power, Britain and France later joined the war to stop Russia gaining dominance around the Black Sea.
Having raged for two and a half years, with fighting mostly taking place around the Crimean Peninsula, the “notoriously incompetent international butchery” ended when Russia accepted preliminary peace terms after Austria mobilised with the opposing forces. The subsequent peace conference in Paris featured Russia on one side of the table and the alliance of Britain, France, the Ottoman Empire, and Sardinia-Piedmont on the other.
The treaty guaranteed the independence and territorial integrity of the Ottoman Empire, and sought to achieve that with the ‘neutralisation’ of the Black Sea. This denied military access to the waters and also restricted Russia and Turkey from building military fortifications on the coast. Furthermore, the Treaty of Paris restored the territory that each nation controlled to that which had existed before the war, while Russia was forced to abandon its attempts to protect the Ottoman Empire’s Christian subjects.
In reality the treaty only returned temporary stability to Europe. The Ottoman Empire failed to reform and so continued to crumble as nationalist sentiment grew. The larger ‘Eastern Question’ itself remained unsettled and, in 1877, Russia and the Ottoman Empire again went to war.
On the 13th March 1881, Tsar Alexander II of Russia was assassinated in a St Petersburg street by a member of the People’s Will revolutionary movement. Despite introducing a number of reforms such as the 1861 emancipation of the serfs and the abolition of capital punishment, Alexander’s government remained autocratic and after an assassination attempt in 1866 began to brutally repress those who sought political change.
Despite this, by the 1870s the government was coming under increasing pressure from liberals and radicals to introduce further reforms. Land and Liberty, a group of reformers who sought land reform, soon gave rise to the People’s Will which favoured terrorism as a way to achieve their aims. The Tsar became the focus for a number of attacks from 1879 onwards, but finally succumbed on the 13th March 1881.
Alexander was travelling close to the Catherine Canal when a bomb was thrown at his closed carriage by a member of the People’s Will. The blast killed one of the accompanying Cossacks and injured many others, but the Tsar was unharmed. Emerging shaken from his armoured carriage, however, another assassin threw his bomb which landed at Alexander’s feet.
Suffering from severe bleeding, the Tsar was taken to the Winter Palace where he died from his wounds. Somewhat ironically, Alexander had just that morning signed the Loris-Melikov constitution which would have established an elected parliament known as a Duma. However, this was rejected by his son and heir, Alexander III who instead further suppressed civil liberties through the Okhrana. Alexander II’s death therefore arguably slowed down, rather than sped up, the move to a parliamentary democracy.
On the 3rd March 1918 the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was signed between Russia and the Central Powers. The treaty ended Russia’s participation in the First World War and was negotiated by the new Bolshevik government.
By the winter of 1917 the Russian economy was in tatters as a result of the strain of maintaining the war effort. Tsar Nicholas II had abdicated in February, but the subsequent Provisional Government was overthrown in the Bolshevik Revolution later that year after they continued to fight alongside the Entente Powers.
The Russian Bolsheviks vehemently opposed the war and received some support from Germany in their efforts to seize power. For example they had allowed Vladimir Lenin to return from exile in Switzerland to lead the revolution against the Provisional Government.
After seizing power Lenin appointed Leon Trotsky as Commissar of Foreign Affairs, but peace negotiations with the Central Powers were fraught with difficulties: the situation was so bad that, in mid-February, Trotsky declared ‘neither war nor peace’. He intended Russia to stop fighting, but not sign a peace treaty: this incensed the Germans who responded by restarting their advance into Russia in Operation Faustschlag. Concerned by the speed of the German attack, Lenin threatened to resign if Russia didn’t accept the new peace terms delivered on the 23rd February.
The Treaty was a humiliation for Russia: she lost approximately one million square miles of land including fertile farmland, natural resources and industry, as well as approximately a third of the entire Russian population. The Treaty was cancelled as part of the Armistice with Germany on the 11th November 1918.