The hit Netflix series La Casa de Papel (Money Heist) tells the story of two spectacular robberies. One involved the seizure and occupation of the Spanish Mint (where paper currency is printed). The other took place in the Bank of Spain, where the country’s gold supply is kept.
The second heist story imagined the melting down of all the gold ingots stored in the Bank of Spain’s basement. These were then cleverly transferred to the group’s confederates miles away.
This story has a remarkable parallel to the real history of Spain — and the Soviet Union.
In 1936 when the danger of Franco’s rebel forces seizing control of Madrid became very real, the Spanish Republic’s only military ally — the Soviet Union — made them an offer they could not refuse. Let us take your gold reserve away for safe-keeping, Stalin said.
The gold was taken from the Bank of Spain, loaded onto lorries over the course of several days and driven to a port under the watchful eye of NKVD General Alexander Orlov.
Orlov is one of the dodgiest characters in 20th century history. A leading officer in Stalin’s secret police, he was responsible for the kidnapping, torture and murder of Andreu Nin, POUM leader and former close ally of Trotsky. Facing the certainty of death when he was ordered back to Moscow in 1938, Orlov defected to the West. There, he revealed much about the inner workings of the Soviet intelligence services, including in a best selling book he wrote in 1953. But he failed to mention the Cambridge spy ring led by Kim Philby — which he managed. In 1956, he published in Life magazine a preposterous account, supposedly told to him by his cousin, about the “true story” behind the Moscow purges. In the McCarthy era United States, Orlov was something of a hero.
Back in Spain in 1936, Orlov’s men loaded the gold onto several Soviet ships and it made its way to Odessa. Orlov had been ordered to give the Spanish no receipt for the gold he had taken. The arrival of the gold — worth hundreds of millions of US dollars — was a cause for celebration in the Kremlin.
“The Spaniards will never see their gold again,” said Stalin. And they didn’t.
The Soviet government told the Spaniards that they would be taking gold to pay for all the money that the USSR had been spending helping Spain resist the fascist rebels. The Soviet government even charged the Spanish for the expense of looting their gold reserve and shipping it to Russia. In the end, they claimed that there was no gold left, that it had all been spent as part of the Soviets’ “fraternal” support for Spanish democracy.
With no gold left in the Bank of Spain, the money printed by the Republic soon lost its value. Hyper-inflation followed and this was one the factors that led to the Republican defeat.
The real “money heist” of 1936 wasn’t carried out by a small group of attractive young men and women who were busy falling in and out of love as they melted the gold ingots. Instead it was robbery in broad daylight, carried out by a criminal regime that cared nothing for the Spanish Republic.
To this day, Soviet support for that republic is sometimes seen as a genuine act of solidarity, one of the few things Stalin did that seems decent in hindsight. Everyone remembers the heroism of the International Brigades. But few know anything about the crushing of the POUM (and other non-Stalinist left parties), let alone the theft of the Spanish gold reserve.
Eight decades later, it’s time to tell the true story of the Soviet role in Spain.
This article appears in this week’s issue of Solidarity.