Historical society learn of Stalin’s legacy

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The speaker for the Arran Historical Society’s August meeting was Robert Holmes LVO. He was born and educated in Belfast, and joined the British Foreign Service, later the Diplomatic Service, in 1957 at the age of 16, one of the youngest ever appointees, writes Norma Davidson.

He served in Moscow and Budapest in the depths of the Cold War, and afterwards in Santiago, Bonn, Tonga, Oslo, Chicago and Madrid. In 1988 the Queen appointed him a Lieutenant of the Royal Victorian Order (LVO). After retiring in 1994 with the rank of first secretary he did work with the University of Glasgow and consultancy work. He and his wife now live in Houston, Renfrewshire.

Joseph Stalin was effectively ruler of the USSR from 1925 to 1952. He eliminated all opposition, encouraged citizens to spy on each other and report perceived misdemeanours to the Party.  He instigated The Great Purge in the late 1930s and throughout his reign of terror between three million to six million were killed.

Lavrentiv Beria was head of the Secret Police, and had all the evils of Stalin.  After the war he was sentenced to death as a traitor. Ivan Serov had played a major part in the downfall of Beria, and was A Spy Like No other, which is the title of the speaker’s book.  He was living at the age of 12 at the beginning of the Russian Revolution of 1917.

He played a major role in the 1939 invasion of Poland, was instrumental in plots against Beria, and worked in Ukraine with Nikita Kruschev. Serov had a senior position in SMERSH, and worked to set up the STASI, (Secret Police) in East Germany. He was head of the KGB for four years and head of the intelligence service until his death in 1963. There were 1.5 million people deported or killed in this period.

By 1953 MI6 and the CIA were building the Berlin Tunnel, a means for tapping Soviet telecommunications. So by the time Serov visited the United Kingdom with Kruschev in 1956 the West was getting information. Serov proved to be so difficult to deal with he was banned from returning by the Foreign Office.

Although Kruschev had by this time turned against Stalinism, Serov did not. He went to Budapest to negotiate during the Hungarian uprising against Moscow’s control. There was no agreement reached, he reported to Kruschev, and subsequently force was deployed to crush the uprising.

Yuri Andropov, the Soviet ambassador in Budapest and Vladimir Kryuchkow, the secretary at the Soviet Embassy were supporters of Serov when he was promoted to head of GRU (Main Intelligence Directorate). In 1958 his post as head of KGB was filled by Alexander Shelapin, and together they helped to get Kruschev ousted.

Oleg Penkovsky was spying for the West at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.  He informed the CIA that Russia’s missile strength was considerably less of a threat than they boasted, enabling President John Kennedy to risk a face-up with the Soviets. Happily, the world breathed a sigh of relief when Kruschev backed down. A year later Serov disappeared, rumoured to  have killed himself, but in fact died of natural causes in 1990 in his 80s.

At this point the speaker introduced Lee Harvey Oswald into the picture. Oswald, an American, had lived for three years in Minsk under KGB supervision. After returning home to America he met three KGB agents in Mexico, one an assassination expert, on October 3 1963.

He attempted at a later date to shoot and kill a US general. While not successful it was a rehearsal for three weeks later when he assassinated President Kennedy.  Oswald himself was shot dead two days later by Jack Ruby, who acted on his own volition. It is not thought Serov was directly involved , and a later investigation by the KGB pronounced: ‘There was something fishy’ about it all.

Yuri Andropov was a proponent of extreme measures, and instigated the Prague Spring in 1968, and in 1979 invaded Afghanistan. He died in 1984.  His colleague, Vladimir Kryuchkov led a KGB coup against Mikhail Gorbachev. He was imprisoned for treason, but being a close friend of Vladimir Putin, was released, and died in 2007 aged 83.

Vladimir Putin rose to lieutenant colonel in the KGB, then entered local government in St Petersburg, being involved in property management. By 1996 he had moved to Moscow. Two years later Boris Yeltsin made him director of the Federal Secret Service, and in 1999 he became one of the three deputy prime ministers, an appointment to acting prime minister followed on the same day, and just one week later he became prime minister. Boris Yeltsin resigned, and Putin guaranteed an indemnity to the Yeltsin family against any charges.

In the last 10 years Putin has been implicated in much; the assassination of Litvinenko in London, the annexing of Crimea, the invasion of the Ukraine and the suspected denigration of Hilary Clinton during the US presidential election  of 2016, being just a few we all know of.

Sadly, Putin’s era appears to have taken Russia full circle and back to the militant, controlling isolationist state akin to the days of Stalinism.

The next speaker will be Iain Quinn, who will talk about The Clyde Steamers at War. This will take place on Monday September 18 commencing at 2pm in Brodick Hall.