TThe forty-mile long convoy between Prybirsk, Kyiv’s airport, was stuck because of inattention tank maintenance and artillery dependent battalions. It also symbolizes a badly planned Blitzkrieg. Those tanks and supply vehicles—now dispersed and sinking in the mud—suggest how every human endeavor relies on lines of supply that can only be seen by satellite. Vladimir Putin’s desire to control Ukraine’s flat prairies above the Black Sea is not just hubris. Russia’s most productive wheat lands are directly north of Ukraine, and much of its grain passes south through Odesa to foreign markets. Both the Soviet Union (1917-1991), as well as the Russian Empire (1721-1916), created an empire by seizing control over Ukrainian wheat traveling across those roads to reach the rest of Europe. Putin wants to bring it back.
Peter the Great imagined a Russian Empire, and Catherine the Great began to realize it in 1768 with the sending of invasion forces into the steppe area we now call Ukraine. It was exactly the same route as today’s path through Kyiv. She and the tsars that followed her took much of the modern-day Ukraine in a series of near continuous wars. They learned how to tax roads which carried the life-giving grain to and from the Black Sea. Russia wouldn’t have been able to withstand the bounty of Sweden without these roads. They were the ones who controlled the Baltic Sea and supplied timber and grain for Europe.
Russia had to move southward. Vladimir Putin is the best person to understand this. But in his quest to take Ukraine he has ended up harming Russia’s own grain economy, with exports now stalled on cargo ships on the Black Sea, unlikely to reach their intended markets until the war ends or sanctions lift. As much as the sanctions will be a hindrance to any attempt at retaking Ukraine, this too is a fatal flaw.
This is the medieval Ukrainian name for these travel corridors. Chorni shlyakhyyThe black paths), and imperial strategists knew that these paths could provide food for an empire through the sale of grain to hungry people. Israel Alexander Helphand was both a grain trader as well as a communist intellectual. He understood it all better than any other person. Parvus is his pen name and you’ve never heard of him. In the 1870s, he was a young man who worked at the Odesa docks, watching the grain depart its port to London, Liverpool and Antwerp. His neighbors, mostly Jewish merchants, made long-term contracts to buy grain and load it onto thirty-ox caravans that wended their way from the fertile plains of Russia and Ukraine to the deep ports of London, Liverpool, Amsterdam, and Antwerp which he called consumption-accumulation cities. These ports were able to turn grain into flour, bread and other necessities, sufficient for a growing working class living in France, Germany and Britain that were consuming a lot of grain. Cheap Ukrainian grain, and its cheap bread, have provided food for new workers in Europe since the 1850s. It’s not widely understood that industrialization in Europe depended on a yearly dose of approximately one million tons of cheap Ukrainian grain.
Read More: Ukraine’s Growing Crisis Will Cause Global Hunger
Helphand was present at the pogroms against Jews that started in Odessa, 1873. Most of them were led by the Orthodox church and targeted Jews such as himself and his family. By 1881 the brutal reign of the tsars, their local governors, and the Orthodox Church led him to embrace communism, though as a grain trader he found himself disagreeing with important parts of Marx’s doctrine. The understanding of the changes in grain trade in the decade prior to his arrival in Odesa led him to reconsider Marxism. By 1881 every trader knew that the world’s leading grain market had become the American juggernaut that had emerged during the American Civil War. In 1863 the Union Army had created a new system of purchase—the futures contract—and of supply, with four competing grain railroads that carried wheat from the American plains to port cities like New York on the Atlantic Ocean.
Parvus was unable to understand how America could do this. However, he did realize that American grain had been cheaper and more widely available in Europe between 1863-1873. This was before the telegraph arrived. Helphand noticed a financial slump that started in Ukraine 1872 and spiralled to Europe in the Panic of1873. Parvus see the trade as invisible lines that cross plains and across oceans. Lines of power that have reshaped the globe. New ports were created and existing trading relationships fell apart as grain trade patterns changed. Parvus saw an invisible force in those black paths that he was sure could be used to topple the Russian Empire and replace it with something else—the Russian Revolution.
Rosa Luxemburg (1919, German communist politician) talking with Dr. Alexander Helphand (nicknamed Parvus).
ullstein bild via Getty Images
Parvus was aware that the routes from the Ukrainian Plains to the Black Sea and to Moscow and Petersburg were fragile, as well as the roads to Moscow and Petersburg. His newspaper, “The Daily Telegraph,” was founded in 1900. IskraBerlin apartment where he found the spark. At that time, he fled from Russian security personnel called the Okhrana He was pushed out of every German city by those who fought for him. These are his associates. Vladimir Ulyanov (Lenin) had become convinced by Parvus’s writings that a revolution in Russia was possible; Rosa Luxemburg (Junius) learned about the power of the mass strike and an international capitalist world order. The story was rewritten and expanded to appeal to a wider audience of German workers. She used Parvus’s invisible lines to create a new way of understanding trade that we now call world systems theory.
Lev Bronstein, also known as Trotsky, joined Parvus in Petersburg on 1903. In 1905 the two saw that Russia’s war against Japan was never going to succeed. By forming the First Workers’ Revolution in Petersburg they were able to create a new generation of workers. soviet, a union of workers’ deputies. To avoid being executed, both Trotsky and Parvus had to be released from prison. Over the following twelve years, they learned from watching Turkey form a nation how to build a fighting force which combined military service and education. This would become the Red Army.
Parvus knew that Istanbul was the key to victory over Russia after World War I. Parvus decided then to support Turkey and Germany over France, Russia and Britain. Parvus reasoned that Russia would be unable to feed France or Britain by bottling its wheat exports into the Black Sea. (At the time, America was prevented from feeding Europe by German U-Boats. Parvus secured weapons that could defend Turkish Gallipoli.
Read More: Putin’s War on Ukraine Shows the Dreadful Power of History
Parvus convinced the German government to grant him tens or millions of Deutschmarks in order to finance a Baltic Sea grain-smuggling operation. This was a tragic alliance. Germany needed only to send a sealed train full of Bolsheviks & Mensheviks from Germany to St. Petersburg’s Finland Station. Parvus planned to use grain sales proceeds to buy Bolshevik newspaper that would persuade Russian soldiers and sailors of the futility of the war and the need for revolution.
After the Russian Revolution started in 1917, Bolsheviks interfered with the liberal government’s plans to feed Moscow and Petersburg from Ukraine. Infiltrating Russian railway unions, they obstructed the routes that would supply the cities with food. Poverty sharpened the anger at the liberal government and allowed the Soviets to take over in Russia’s major cities. In the Russian Civil War, it took almost five years and many millions of people died. Russia was far too small to be independent and far enough from the Black Sea. By including Ukraine and Georgia, the Russian Socialist Federative Soviet Republic was transformed into the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Years later Josef Stalin would eliminate Ukraine’s independent status with a punishing artificial famine in the 1930s.
Since the Russian wildfires of 2010 Ukraine’s grain exports have quadrupled, turning Ukraine into the world’s fifth largest supplier of wheat. Ukraine is returning to the glory days of 19th century Ukraine, and it could challenge Russia’s position as major Black Sea grain exporter. The invasion may yet succeed but Putin’s plan to fully integrate Ukraine into Russia are as flat as the tires on so many of the vehicles sinking deeper into the black path that leads to Kyiv. Russia and Ukraine were dependent on each other for centuries. But those days are long gone.
Here are more must-read stories from TIME