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Scientific American

Russians Plot Attack on Constantinople (In a Few Years)

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Scientific American

The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that killed millions and set the continent of Europe on the path to further calamity two decades later. But it didn’t come out of nowhere. With the centennial of the outbreak of hostilities coming up in August, Erik Sass will be looking back at the lead-up to the war, when seemingly minor moments of friction accumulated until the situation was ready to explode. He'll be covering those events 100 years after they occurred. This is the 105th installment in the series. 

February 8th to 21st: Russians Plot Attack on Constantinople (In a Few Years)

In the years leading up to 1914, Europe’s Great Powers became embroiled in an arms race driven by French and Russian fears of German strength on land and British fears of German ambitions at sea. While there were occasional moments of sanity moderating the pace, these always seemed to be offset by new rivalries around the European periphery, including the naval contest between Russia and Turkey in the Black Sea. In February 1914, the Russian Council of Ministers agreed on a naval buildup in preparation for an attack on Constantinople and the Turkish straits (pictured above)—but not until 1917.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Sazonov had set the meeting three months earlier, when Russian interests seemed threatened by the appointment of a German officer, Liman von Sanders, to command the Turkish First Army Corps protecting Constantinople. The Russians applied diplomatic pressure, supported to varying degrees by France and Britain, and the Germans eventually caved. In December 1913, the Liman von Sanders Affair was resolved by some diplomatic sleight of hand (von Sanders was basically “kicked upstairs” through a manipulation of seniority in the German and Turkish armies).

But the damage was done: Although they didn’t want war, Sazonov and his colleagues were increasingly paranoid that another Great Power would wrest control of Constantinople and the Turkish straits, threatening Russian foreign trade and security. Germany wasn’t the only problem. The Russians weren’t too thrilled about the British naval mission to Constantinople, or the construction of two dreadnoughts, the Reshad V and Sultan Osman I, for the Turkish navy by the British arms manufacturers Vickers and Armstrong (Russia and Britain might be on the same side when it came to containing Germany, but the Brits didn’t want the Russians gaining access to the Mediterranean and had no intention of giving up lucrative arms sales). In fact, the Russians believed the delivery of these massive ships, beginning in mid-1914, would totally change the balance of power in the Black Sea, making an amphibious assault on Constantinople impossible.

Per the current plan, adopted in August 1913, Russia would mount an invasion of Constantinople with 128,000 troops within 15 days of mobilization (M+15). The provisional plan called for mining the Bosporus and then landing an army corps in Constantinople to secure the straits from landward; it also required commandeering 115 civilian ships for transport duty. But the new British-built Turkish warships would outgun the biggest Russian warships, leaving the unarmed troop transports at their mercy.

On January 13, 1914, a war council decided that while Russia land forces were ready for war, the Black Sea fleet couldn’t carry out an amphibious assault on Constantinople anytime soon. According to Sazonov, he and his colleagues “considered an offensive against Constantinople inevitable, should European war break out,” but also admitted “We did not posses the means to take swift and decisive action, and that years would elapse before we were in a position to execute the plans we had in view.”

That didn’t mean it was off the table—quite the opposite. It was imperative to expand the Black Sea fleet, as “The formidable symptoms of Turkey’s approaching disintegration, which Germany had foreseen, and was ready to take advantage of—obliged Russia to consider the measures to which she might at any time have to resort in defense of her own safety” (here Sazonov conveniently ignored the fact that Russia’s own policies were contributing to Turkish instability). The removal of the moderate premier Kokovtsev on February 13, at the behest of the court intriguer Rasputin, only served to encourage a more aggressive stance among the remaining ministers.

At a second conference from February 8 to 21, 1914, Sazonov emphasized that “should events result in the Straits slipping from Turkey’s control, Russia could not permit any other Power to establish itself on their shores. Russia might thus be compelled to seize possession of them.” The Council of Ministers duly agreed on a naval buildup including four new dreadnoughts, two new light cruisers, and a number of smaller vessels including submarines, minesweepers, and destroyers for the Black Sea fleet. The program would also boost the land forces available for an amphibious assault, extend military railways in the Caucasus for a flank attack from the east, and improve coastal defenses.

Most important, the date for the amphibious assault was moved up from fifteen days after mobilization (M+15) to just five (M+5)—a clear indication that the Russians envisaged an offensive plan centering on a “first strike” to seize Constantinople before any of the other Great Powers could act. The ministers agreed with the assessment of Yakov Zhilinsky, the chief of general staff, that “the struggle for Constantinople would hardly be possible without a general European war,” which they still hoped to avoid; the only question was if another Power forced Russia’s hand by going for Constantinople first.

The Tsar approved the plan and the Russian Duma voted 100 million rubles to fund the fleet expansion with the March 1914 Naval Program. But crucially the buildup would take at least three years; the first of the new dreadnoughts wouldn’t be ready before 1915 at the earliest. Ironically the plans for a naval buildup in the Black Sea, like the Great Military Program approved by the Tsar in November 1913, succeeded in alarming Russia’s rivals without adding appreciably to Russian security.

It also cast yet another gloomy shadow across an increasingly anxious continent. Far from the Black Sea, on February 18th the Russian ambassador to Britain, Count Alexander Benckendorff, wrote that “absolutely no one wants war or adventure but over the last few months the feeling that war is inevitable has... grown in all classes."

See the previous installment or all entries.

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WWI Centennial: Bolshevik Coup Attempt Fails
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Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 282nd installment in the series.

JULY 16-18, 1917: BOLSHEVIK COUP ATTEMPT FAIL

Far from enhancing the prestige of Russia’s Provisional Government as hoped, the disastrous outcome of the Kerensky Offensive in July 1917 put the new regime on the defensive with its own people as well as the enemy. Within weeks, its already fragile authority faced a grave internal threat, as Lenin’s radical Bolsheviks staged their first coup attempt. Although the communist uprising failed, the “July Days” made it clear to all that the Provisional Government was living on borrowed time.

While the moderate socialists who formed the majority of the Petrograd Soviet were content to cooperate with the Provisional Government under the ineffectual idealist Premier Lviv, at least for the time being, Lenin had never concealed his ambition to overthrow the “bourgeois” liberals and seize power for the Soviet – which in reality meant the Bolshevik Central Committee.

The debacle on the Galician front seemed to present an ideal moment for the coup, as military morale plunged to new lows and popular support for the Provisional Government dwindled. An opportunist first and last, Lenin seized on another (supposedly) unexpected event – a military mutiny – to make his bid for power.

Mutinous elements, never far from the surface during this unsettled period, began bubbling again when the Provisional Government ordered a number of units from the Petrograd garrison to the front. The Bolsheviks depended on disaffected soldiers from their ranks as a big part of their power base, and were determined not to lose this leverage: a sudden blitz of propaganda excoriating the “imperialist” Provisional Government helped push troops from one unit, the 1st Machine Gun Regiment, over the edge into open rebellion (it’s unclear exactly how much Lenin knew about the event beforehand, but the fact that he went to Vyborg, Finland, not far from Petrograd, for a “restful holiday” a few days before the mutiny suggests he knew what was coming).

On July 15, two leading Bolsheviks, Lev Bronstein (better known by his nom de guerre, Trotsky) and Anatoly Lunacharsky, addressed thousands of troops from the 1st Machine Gun Regiment, demanding the Provisional Government hand power to the Petrograd Soviet and encouraging the soldiers to refuse to obey any orders until this happened. The next day the regiment heard even more inflammatory speeches by anarchist agitators allied with the Bolsheviks, who openly called for rebellion, and in the afternoon of July 16 the mutiny began as the troops elected a revolutionary committee. One of their first actions was to send representatives to recruit support from rebellious sailors stationed at the naval base of Kronstadt, who quickly convened their own soviet and voted to join the rebellion; they were soon joined by workers from the Putilov factory complex (below Bolsheviks address workers).

With thousands of soldiers and sailors rallying to the banner of revolution, a handful of Bolshevik leaders, including Grigory Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev, tried to engineer a parliamentary coup in the Petrograd Soviet by calling an emergency meeting of the workers’ section and presenting a resolution calling for the Soviet to seize power and overthrow the Provisional Government. The Bolsheviks were opposed by rival socialist parties, including the Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries, but simply passed the resolution themselves after the latter walked out in protest.

L-R: Trotsky, Lunacharsky, Zinoviev, Kamenev
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

By the late evening of July 16 a large crowd of soldiers and factory workers had gathered outside the Tauride Palace where the Soviet met, calling for the delegates to join the Bolshevik coup attempt and overthrow the Provisional Government (which was seemingly unable to intervene to stop these events, revealing how powerless it really was). In another strange twist, the Petrograd Soviet now found itself in the same position as the Provisional Government in March, with power being thrust on it by unruly mobs – practically at gunpoint.

On July 17 the mutinying soldiers in Petrograd were joined by the sailors from Kronstadt, who arrived and helped take over most of the city, using commandeered automobiles and trucks. Alexander Kerensky, the charismatic war minister who had so far managed to keep the Soviet and Provisional Government united (and who would soon replace Lviv as prime minister), was forced to flee the capital, narrowly escaping a kidnapping attempt. Pitrim Sorokin, a moderate socialist member of the Soviet, recalled the scene as chaos spread throughout the city:

“Come as soon as possible,” we were urged, “a new Bolshevist riot has broken out.” Without any delay we started. On Sergievskaia Street all was serene, but as soon as we turned into the Liteiny we saw a number of heavy motor trucks, full of armed soldiers and sailors and fitted with machine guns, being driven furiously in the direction of Tavrichesky Palace. Private automobiles were being stopped and seized by the rioters. We saw a mutinous regiment crossing the Liteiny Bridge and near at hand we head the crack of rifles. Revolution was hungry again and was calling for human sacrifice.

As Sorokin noted, the column of rebellious sailors and civilians came under rifle fire from some unknown assailants, perhaps supporters of the Provisional Government, in the “bourgeois” Liteiny neighborhood of Petrograd, causing them to briefly scatter before resuming their march (top, the column disperses). They joined the 1stMachine Gun Regiment and over ten thousand workers from the Putilov factories in front of the Tauride Palace, where the crowd was growing increasingly threatening to the Soviet – the same Soviet they were supposedly supporting against the Provisional Government – while inside the Bolshevik leaders tried to persuade the other socialist parties to seize power. Later that day Sorokin described the weird situation:

Meanwhile, the crowd outside grew into a dense throng. Bolshevist speakers urged the throng to break down the doors of the palace and to disperse the Soviet. My head bursting with excitement and the close atmosphere of the room, I went out into the yard of the Duma. In the gray twilight of the July night I saw a perfect sea of soldiers, workmen, sailors… Here and there cannon and machine guns pointing at the Palace, and everywhere red banners floating and incessant firing. It was like a madhouse. Here was the mob demanding “All the Power to the Soviets” and at the same time training cannon on the Soviets, threatening it with death and extinction.

The drama was about to take an even more bizarre turn thanks to the Provisional Government’s minister of justice, Pavel Pereverzev, who decided the only way to head off the coup attempt was to discredit the Bolsheviks – specifically by releasing secret police documents indicating that Lenin was in the pay of German intelligence. The gambit worked, as even most radical revolutionaries still loathed the foreign enemy, and viewed any cooperation with them as treason.

As suddenly as it had arisen, the popular support for the Bolshevik coup collapsed, allowing military units loyal to the Soviet to enter the Tauride Palace, rout the Bolsheviks, and free the other members of the Soviet, who had effectively been held hostage by the mob in their own building. Sorokin recalled the moment when an officer leading loyal troops arrived in the chamber to restore order:

The explosion of a bomb could scarcely have produced such an effect. Wild, joyous applause on the one hand, shrieks, groans, maledictions on the other. As for Trotzky, Lunacharsky, Gimmer, Katz, and Zinovieff, as one of my colleagues expressed it, they “shriveled like the devil before holy water.” One of them did make an effort to say something, but was instantly howled down. “Out of here! Away!” shouted the Soviet, and with their partisans at their heels they left.

Discredited by the allegations of German support and sought by the police along with many others of the party’s leaders, Lenin was forced to flee Russia in disguise, clean shaven to look like a Finnish peasant (below, Lenin in August 1917). Many observers understandably assumed that the Bolsheviks were finished. But the Provisional Government neglected to ban the party, and the socialist members of the Soviet remained more sympathetic to their Bolshevik brethren – who in the opinion of many were just overzealous in their advocacy on behalf of the Soviet – than the “bourgeois” Provisional Government, now under the increasingly dictatorial Kerensky.

Vladimir Ilyich Lenin
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Indeed, the coup had also served several purposes, allowing the Bolshevik leaders to assess both the vulnerability of the Provisional Government and potential support for their program in the Soviet, and above all also acting as a huge publicity stunt for the small, previously obscure party. Rank and file members could continue organizing, and unlike their peers in other parties, they focused on the “big picture,” long-term goal of establishing an independent power base from the Soviet. Eduard Dune, a young Latvian Bolshevik, recalled that even immediately following the failed coup, the situation seemed far from hopeless:

People of all walks of life cursed the Bolsheviks, yet at the same time there was growing interest in us. What did we want? What were we proposing? Delegates from small factories, dozens of kilometers away, visited us at the factory… This was the time when the Bolsheviks were being persecuted, so there was heightened interest in our speakers from all quarters. Political differentiation became noticeable even at our factory. The Mensheviks sweated over purely practical work and agitated against the organization of a Red Guard, which none of them joined. The newspapers spoke of the Bolsheviks losing their influence on the masses, but in fact we noticed that it was growing, at least to judge by the number of those wishing to join the Red Guard detachment.

See the previous installment or all entries.

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Natural History Museum
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Animals
London's Natural History Museum Has a New Star Attraction: An Amazing Blue Whale Skeleton
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Natural History Museum

In January 2017, London’s Natural History Museum said goodbye to Dippy, the Diplodocus dinosaur skeleton cast that had presided over the institution’s grand entrance hall since 1979. Dippy is scheduled to tour the UK from early 2018 to late 2020—and taking his place in Hintze Hall, The Guardian reports, is a majestic 82-foot blue whale skeleton named Hope.

Hope was officially unveiled to the public on July 14. The massive skeleton hangs suspended from the hall’s ceiling, providing visitors with a 360-degree view of the largest animal ever to have lived on Earth.

Technically, Hope isn’t a new addition to the Natural History Museum, which was first established in 1881. The skeleton is from a whale that beached itself at the mouth of Ireland's Wexford Harbor in 1891 after being injured by a whaler. A town merchant sold the skeleton to the museum for just a couple of hundred pounds, and in 1934, the bones were displayed in the Mammal Hall, where they hung over a life-size blue whale model.

The whale skeleton remained in the Mammal Hall until 2015, when museum workers began preparing the skeleton for its grand debut in Hintze Hall. "Whilst working on the 221 bones we uncovered past conservation treatments, such as the use of newspaper in the 1930s to fill the gaps between the vertebrae," Lorraine Cornish, the museum's head of conservation, said in a statement. "And we were able to use new methods for the first time, including 3D printing a small number of bones missing from the right flipper."

Once restoration was complete, Hope was suspended above Hintze Hall in a diving position. There she hangs as one of the museum’s new major attractions—and as a reminder of humanity’s power to conserve endangered species.

"The Blue Whale as a centerpiece tells a hopeful story about our ability to create a sustainable future for ourselves and other species," according to a museum press release. "Humans were responsible for both pushing the Blue Whale to the brink of extinction but also responsible for its protection and recovery. We hope that this remarkable story about the Blue Whale will be told by parents and grandparents to their children for many years to come, inspiring people to think differently about the natural world."

Check out some pictures of Hope below.

 “Hope,” a blue whale skeleton suspended from the ceiling of Hintze Hall in London’s Natural History Museum.
Natural History Museum

“Hope,” a blue whale skeleton suspended from the ceiling of Hintze Hall in London’s Natural History Museum.
Natural History Museum

“Hope,” a blue whale skeleton suspended from the ceiling of Hintze Hall in London’s Natural History Museum.
Natural History Museum

“Hope,” a blue whale skeleton suspended from the ceiling of Hintze Hall in London’s Natural History Museum.
Natural History Museum

[h/t Design Boom]

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