I don’t usually comment on American politics. I rarely devote my time to reading about the place. The level of hyperbole and rhetorical inanity makes me want to vomit. Also, since I’ve been in Moscow, the US looks even crazier than it does when I’m there (the strange effect of this is that Russian politics looks downright normal). I’ve also totally shied away from US-Russia foreign policy issues. I used to. Not anymore. There are people out there who do it better, and frankly, the debate is so locked in Cold War binaries, I can’t help to find it all a bit boring, repetitive, and quite nauseating. So if you’re here looking for a treatise on START, ruminations on the Great Game, or how America is encircling Russia or how Russia is an empire “resurgent,” I suggest you point your mouse elsewhere.
BUT . . . a new article, “The Roots of Stalin in the Tea Party Movement,” by the eXiled‘s Yasha Levine on the ever wacky Tea Party Movement caught my eye. Roots of Stalin in the Tea Party?! No effin’ way! When I first saw this headline I figured with was yet another breakdown of the Stalinist/fascist mob mentality that drives the deranged passions of the baggers. Surprisingly, Levine reveals a much more interesting historical irony. Namely, the wealth of the Koch family, who is one of the main financial backers of the Teabaggers, originates not from capitalism, but with the centrally planned morass of Stalinist Russia. Writes Levine:
Stalin’s first Five-Year Plan was just kicking into action a nation-wide industrialization effort, and Soviet planners needed smart, industrious college grads like Fred Koch. The Soviet Union was desperately trying to increase its oil refining capacity, so oil engineers were especially in high demand — and well paid, too.
“We are the world’s greatest market, and we are prepared to order a large amount of goods and pay for them,” Joseph Stalin told an American journalist in 1932. Stalin wasn’t kidding. From 1926 to 1929, the Soviet oil industry bought $20 million worth of equipment. And Koch was about to get in on the action.
In 1929, after hosting a delegation of Soviet planners in Wichita, Kansas, Winkler and Koch signed a $5 million contract to build 15 refineries in the Soviet Union. According to Oil of Russia, a Russian oil industry trade magazine, the deal made Winkler-Koch into Comrade Stalin’s number-one refinery builder. It provided equipment and oversaw construction:
The first Winkler–Koch plants were set up in Tuapse in 1930. The cracking unit operated commendably, and would in the future be the type preferred by the heads of the Soviet Union’s petroleum industry when purchasing new cracking equipment. In 1931, two Winkler–Koch cracking units were launched in Baku, another two in Batumi, and six at once in Grozny; the last had a combined refining capacity of 900,000 tons per year. In 1932, a Winkler–Koch unit commenced operations in Yaroslavl.
At the time, the Soviet Union’s oil industry was a total mess. Equipment built by Western engineering firms was always breaking down or didn’t work at all. Western engineers were constantly being accused of espionage or sabotage, real or imagined, and booted out of the country. Soviet workers suspected of colluding with the foreigners were simply taken out back and shot. Winkler-Koch made sure it was running a tight, efficient operation. Unlike his Western competitors, Koch pleased his Soviet clients by ensuring top quality and helping the cause of socialism.
The Soviet oil planners were delighted with Koch’s refineries. The communists were so impressed they kept giving Winkler-Koch business and regularly sent Soviet engineers to train in Wichita. It was a sign of growing mutual trust.
By the time he got out in 1933, Koch earned $500,000, which was a ton of money for a kid fresh out of college. This nut of money served as the foundation for the family’s future assets, which Koch no doubt started acquiring at rock-bottom prices. After all, 1933 was one of the two worst years of the Great Depression — all assets were priced to go at 90 percent off. In the end, the capitalist-hating socialists ended up treating Koch fairly, way better than the monopolistic thrashing he got from his native land.
Upon returning to the States, old man Fred Koch turned on his Stalinist financiers in the 1950s when it became politically advantageous in McCarthyite America. Whether Koch experienced a political conversion (there is no indication that he was ever a communist) or turned on his Bolshevik comrades because of a fruitless business deal is unclear. Shortly after, however, he began bankrolling a chapter and bookstore of the anti-communist fanatic John Birch Society in his hometown Wichita and became a Chicken Little toward the looming Red Menace. Ol’Fred set the political tone for his heirs. The Koch family has been funding fringe free market and right-wing loonies ever since.
But my interest in all this is the connection to Uncle Joe. Thanks to Levine’s untangling of the Koch family’s financial history, we can pin one more political tragedy on Comrade Stalin. So, once again, thanks Koba. Your presence is truly world-historical.
People say that Stalin continues to cast a shadow over Russian politics and culture. But who would have ever guessed that the vozhd‘s silhouette haunted America’s political present? Unfortunately for us, especially those of you who currently reside in that political loony bin, it still does.