From a book review of History’s Greatest Heist: The Looting of Russia by the Bolsheviks by Sean McMeekin.
‘The knell of private property sounds’, wrote Karl Marx. ‘The expropriators are being expropriated.’ Nothing could have been more true. From the beginning, the Bolsheviks had embraced violence and terror: ‘A revolution without firing squads is meaningless,’ said Lenin. But he had also, since the early years of the twentieth century, used ‘expropriation’ – the Marxist-Bolshevist euphemism for bank robbery – to raise party funds: the planning and execution of a run of violent but daring heists was how the young Stalin had first won Lenin’s approval. When a worthy and prim comrade criticised this style of banditry, Lenin just laughed and said, ‘That’s precisely the type of man we need.’
So the use of the racy word ‘heist’ in this book is appropriate, andit was no surprise that once Lenin and his comrades had seized power inOctober 1917 they would continue their policy of expropriation on alarger scale. After all, they had to pay an army and fund a war – andthey found they possessed the vast treasure trove of Russia itself toachieve this. They used every means of financial skulduggery to do so,and indeed many of the key dealers, traders and middlemen were the verymen who had helped organise Stalin’s bank robberies and laundered theswag a decade earlier. Sean McMeekin is, as I have said, a scholar andmaster of the archives, but he rightly revels in this crew of shadycapitalists, humbugs, thieves, crooks and assassins. Indeed the scaleis eyewatering: more was requisitioned in eighteen months than theamount sent by the Nazis to Switzerland during the entire Second WorldWar.
It begins comically with the inept attempts of the new Bolshevikmasters to force Russia’s worldly and cosmopolitan bankers to hand overtheir banks along with the contents of their safes. McMeekin introducescharacters like Max Laserson, a top banker and industrialist who threwin his lot with the Reds as a financial expert. But the real anti-heroof the book is a Swedish banker named Olaf Aschberg, who, though asuccessful banker and arms-dealer during the First World War, was alsovaguely sympathetic to the Bolsheviks. This complex and highlyintelligent man was to do more to fund the Bolshevik revolution thanany other individual, and McMeekin’s book does a great service inunveiling his interesting personality.