Right at the beginning of “History’s Greatest Heist: The Looting of Russia by the Bolsheviks,” Sean McMeekin reminds readers that on the eve of World War I Russia was a formidable power on the rise. It was the world’s largest exporter of food, especially grain, and, by 1914, it had amassed Europe’s largest strategic gold reserves. The Russian ruble was fully convertible, and personal savings were growing at a rapid rate. “Rather like China at the beginning of the twenty-first century, Russia at the start of the twentieth was turning heads in its seemingly inexorable advance in raw economic power,” McMeekin writes.
True, there were plenty of signs of troubles ahead and good reasons for social unrest: the lavish lifestyles of the super rich, starting with Tsar Nicholas II and the other Romanovs, hunger in the countryside despite bountiful harvests, harsh working conditions in factories and growing public and private debt. But McMeekin leaves no doubt that tsarist Russia in the early 20th century bore little resemblance to its portrayals in Communist propaganda later–and that, in fact, it was the Bolshevik Revolution’s destructive power that dragged the country down and condemned its people to decades of poverty and terror. Within a remarkably short time, Russia’s riches were plundered and seemingly evaporated into thin air.