Monday, March 14, 2011

Bloodlands: This was the triumph of Stalin’s law and Stalin’s state

I’m listening to Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin by Timothy Snyder during my commute as well as re-reading portions of it when I get home in the evening. While many of the parts are familiar to anyone with a passing interest in history, Snyder pulls the disparate and related strands together on the 14 non-military million deaths “in a zone of death between Berlin and Moscow” between 1932 and 1945. Instead of a comprehensive write-up I thought I would provide quotes from chapters as I progress.

Chapter 1 is on the Soviet famines, particularly in the Ukraine starting with 1929, temporarily put on hold with collectivization’s suspension, then returning with a vengeance in 1932 and 1933. As I said, it’s a story that is (should be?) well known, but that doesn’t diminish the power of reading about it. From the Ukraine in 1932:
Watchtowers went up in the fields to keep peasants from taking anything for themselves. In the Odessa region alone, more than seven hundred watchtowers were constructed. Brigades went from hut to hut, five thousand youth organization members among their members, seizing everything they could find. Activists used, as one peasant recalled, “long metal rods to search through stables, pigsties, stoves. They looked everywhere and took everything, down to the last little grain.” They rushed through the village “like the black death” calling out “Peasant, where is your grain? Confess!” The brigades took everything that resembled food, including supper from the stove, which they ate themselves.

Like an invading army the party activists lived off the land, taking what they could and eating their fill, with little show for their work and enthusiasm but misery and death. Perhaps from feelings of guilt, perhaps from feelings of triumph, they humiliated the peasants wherever they went. They would urinate in barrels of pickles, or order hungry peasants to box each other for sport, or make them crawl and bark like dogs, or force them to kneel in the mud and pray. Women caught stealing on one collective farm were stripped, beaten, and carried naked through the village. In one village the brigade got drunk in a peasant’s hut and gang-raped his daughter. Women who lived alone were routinely raped at night under the pretext of grain confiscations—and their food was indeed taken from them after their bodies had been violated. This was the triumph of Stalin’s law and Stalin’s state.

The perversity of Soviet Russia was there from the start:

The Ukrainian musician Yosyp Panasenko was dispatched by central authorities with his troupe of bandura players to provide culture to the starving peasants. Even as the state took the peasants’ last bit of food, it had the grotesque inclination to elevate the minds and rouse the spirits of the dying. The musicians found village after village completely abandoned. They they finally came across some people: two girls dead in a bed, two legs of a man protruding from a stove, and an old lady raving and running her fingernails through the dirt.

As history shows, propaganda proves to be important in muddying the water and casting doubt on what is actually going on (Anne Applebaum’s Gulag: A History and Samantha Power’s A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide show how sowing doubt can provide cover to avoid taking decisive action). Snyder proves to be simultaneously harsh and sympathetic on this topic:

Though the journalists knew less than the diplomats, most of them undersood that millions were dying from hunger. The influential Moscow correspondent of the New York Times, Walter Duranty, did his best to undermine [Gareth] Jones’ accurate reporting. Duranty, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1932, called Jones’s account of the famine a “big scare story.” Duranty’s claim that there was “no actual starvation” but only “widespread mortality from diseases due to malnutrition” echoed Soviet usages and pushed euphemism into mendacity. This was an Orwellian distinction; and indeed George Orwell himself regarded the Ukrainian famine of 1933 as a central example of a black truth that artists of language had covered with bright colors. Duranty thought that “you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs.” Aside from Jones, the only journalist to file serious reports in English was Malcolm Muggeridge, writing anonymously for the Manchester Guardian. He wrote that the famine was “one of the most monstrous crimes in history, so terrible that people in the future will scarcely be able to believe that it happened.”

In fairness, even the people with the most obvious interest in events in Soviet Ukraine, the Ukrainians living beyond the border of the Soviet Union, needed months to understand the extent of the famine. Some five million Ukrainians living in neighboring Poland, and their political leaders worked hard to draw international attention to the mass starvation in the Soviet Union. And yet even they grasped the extent of the tragedy only in May 1933, by which time of the victims were already dead.

Snyder relates the visit of the French politician Édouard Herriot to Kiev in August 1933. The Potemkin village-like presentation put on for Herriot reminded me of several episodes within Solzhenitsyn’s In the First Circle:

Herriot believed what he saw and heard. He journeyed onward to Moscow, where he was fed caviar in a palace. The collective farms of Soviet Ukraine, Herriot told the French upon his return, were well-ordered gardens.

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