Ukrainian wheat once again changes the course of history
Jhe forty-mile convoy that was blocked between Prybirsk and the airport northwest of kyiv is a metaphor: for inattentive tank maintenance, for battalions dependent on artillery, and for an ill-planned Blitzkrieg. These tanks and supply vehicles – now scattered and sinking in the mud – suggest that all human endeavor relies on supply lines that can only be seen by satellite. Vladimir Putin’s desire to control Ukraine’s flat grasslands above the Black Sea is not just prideful. Russia’s most productive wheat land is directly north of Ukraine, and much of its grain goes south through Odessa to overseas markets. The Soviet Union (1917-1991) and the Russian Empire before it (1721-1916) built an empire in part by taking control of the flow of Ukrainian wheat that used these routes to reach the rest of the world. Putin hopes to restore it.
Peter the Great envisioned a Russian empire in 1721, but Catherine the Great realized it from 1768 by sending invasion forces south into the steppe region we now call Ukraine. The route was the same as the current path through kyiv. In a series of near-continuous wars between 1768 and 1856, she and the czars who followed her seized much of modern-day Ukraine and learned to tax the roads that carried vital grain to the Black Sea. . Without this bounty, without these roads, Russia would have remained in the shadow of Sweden and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth whose timber and grain supplied Europe and whose armies and navies dominated the Baltic Sea.
Russia needed to invade south. No one understands this better than Vladimir Putin. But in his quest to take over Ukraine, he ended up hurting Russia’s grain economy, with exports now stuck on Black Sea freighters unlikely to reach their intended markets until the end. war or the lifting of sanctions. This, as much as the sanctions, will condemn this attempt to reconquer Ukraine.
The medieval Ukrainian term for these travel corridors is chorni shlyakhyy (the black paths) and Imperial strategists understood that these paths could feed an empire by selling grain to a starving world. The person who understood this better than anyone was a grain trader and communist intellectual named Israel Alexander Helphand. His pen name was Parvus, and he is the most important intellectual of the 20th century that you have never heard of. As a young man in the 1870s, he worked on the docks of Odessa, watching the grain leave its port for London, Liverpool, Antwerp and Amsterdam. His neighbours, mostly Jewish merchants, entered into long-term contracts to buy grain and load it onto caravans of thirty oxen that made their way from the fertile plains of Russia and Ukraine to deep ports of London, Liverpool, Amsterdam and Antwerp which he called cities of consumer accumulation. These ports would turn enough grain into flour and bread to feed a growing working class in the grain-hungry countries of Italy, Germany, Britain and France. Since the 1850s, cheap Ukrainian grain and the cheap bread it produced fed new factory workers moving from the European countryside to its booming cities. It is not widely understood that industrialization in Europe depended on an annual dose of around one million tons of cheap Ukrainian grain.
Read more: Ukraine’s Growing Crisis Will Cause World Hunger
Helphand witnessed the deadly pogroms that began in Odessa in 1873, most led by the Orthodox Church and directed against Jews like him, his family and friends. In 1881, the brutal rule of the tsars, their local governors and the Orthodox Church led him to embrace communism, although as a grain trader he found himself at odds with significant parts of the Marx’s doctrine. His revision of Marxism stemmed from his understanding of how the grain trade had changed in the decade before he arrived in Odessa. By 1881, all traders knew that the world’s premier grain market had become the American behemoth that had emerged during the American Civil War. By 1863, the Union Army had created a new system of purchasing—the futures contract—and supply, with four competing grain railroads transporting wheat from the American plains to port cities like New York on the Atlantic Ocean.
Although Parvus didn’t quite understand how America did this, he did know that between 1863 and 1873 cheaper American grain, sold by telegraph before it even reached Europe, had nearly replaced Russian grain in most European ports. What Helphand saw was a financial downturn that began in Ukraine in 1872 and spread to the rest of Europe in what we call the Panic of 1873. Parvus understands trade as invisible lines across the plains and the oceans, lines of power that have reshaped the world. . As patterns of grain trade changed, new ports were built and old trading relationships crumbled. Parvus saw an invisible force in these dark paths that he was sure could be used to overthrow the Russian Empire and replace it with something else: the Russian Revolution.
In 1919, German communist politician Rosa Luxemburg talks to Russian revolutionary Dr Alexander Helphand (nicknamed Parvus)
ullstein bild via Getty Images
Parvus knew that the paths of the Ukrainian plains south of the Black Sea and north of Moscow and Petersburg were as fragile as reservoirs in spring mud. In 1900, he founded a newspaper called iskra (the spark) in his apartment in Berlin. At that time, he was on the run from Russian security agents called the Okhrana who drove him out of every town in Germany. His associates are better known. Vladimir Ulyanov (Lenin) had become convinced by the writings of Parvus that a revolution in Russia was possible; Rosa Luxemburg (Junius) discovered the power of the mass strike and an international capitalist world order. She revised and expanded the story to reach a wider reading audience of German workers. She used the Invisible Lines of Parvus to create a new way of understanding trade that we now call World Systems Theory.
Lev Bronstein (Trotsky) joined Parvus in Petersburg in 1903. In 1905, the two saw that Russia’s war against Japan would never succeed. They went to foment a workers’ revolution in Petersburg by forming the first Soviet, a union of workers’ deputies. This revolution failed and Parvus and Trotsky had to break out of prison to avoid execution. They learned over the next twelve years by watching a nation form in Turkey how to create a fighting force combining education and military service that would come to be called the Red Army.
Istanbul, Parvus understood, was also key to victory over Russia once World War I began. By then Parvus had decided to side with Turkey and Germany against Russia, France and Britain. Bottling Russian wheat exports in the Black Sea, Parvus reasoned, would prevent Russia from supplying France and Britain through its ports. (At this time, German U-boats prevented America from feeding Europe.) Parvus helped secure the guns that would defend Turkish Gallipoli.
Read more: Putin’s war on Ukraine shows the terrible power of history
In a fateful alliance, Parvus persuaded the German government that the way to stop the war on the Eastern Front was to give it tens of millions of German marks to fund a grain smuggling operation on the Baltic Sea. Moreover, Germany only had to send a sealed train of Bolsheviks and Mensheviks to the Finnish station in St. Petersburg. Parvus would use the proceeds from grain sales to pay for Bolshevik newspapers that would convince Russian soldiers and sailors that the war was fruitless and that revolution was the only solution.
After the start of the Russian Revolution in 1917, the Bolsheviks interfered with the Liberal government’s plans to feed Moscow and Petersburg from Ukraine. They did this by infiltrating Russian railway unions who helped block the roads that would supply the cities. Poverty sharpened anger against the liberal government and allowed the Soviets to take power in major Russian cities. It took nearly five years and millions of deaths in the Russian Civil War. Even then, Russia was too small and too far from the Black Sea to manage on its own. The Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic became the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) including Ukraine and Georgia as semi-independent states. Years later, Josef Stalin would eliminate Ukraine’s independent status with a punitive artificial starvation in the 1930s.
Since the Russian forest fires of 2010, grain exports from Ukraine have quadrupled, making Ukraine the world’s fifth-largest supplier of wheat. As Ukraine has returned to its 19th century glory days, it threatens to overthrow Russia as the leading grain exporter on the Black Sea. The invasion may still succeed, but Putin’s plan to fully integrate Ukraine into Russia is as flat as the tires of so many vehicles sinking deeper into the black path to kyiv. Russia and Ukraine have depended on each other for centuries, but those days are over.
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