Lest We Regret

30 May 2019
Lest We Regret - Featured image

This article by David Cragg first appeared in the April 2019 edition of the IPA Review. David Cragg is a Life Member of the ALP, and a Trustee of the Victorian Trades Hall & Literary Institute.

Anne Applebaum is probably the most renowned Sovietologist writing today. Bursting out of academia with the publication in 2003 of Gulag – A History, which won a Pulitzer Prize the following year, she followed up in 2012 with Iron Curtain, describing the crushing of democracy in Eastern Europe after 1945, and most recently in 2017 with the wonderful and awful Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine.

If you know anyone under the age of 40 who expresses naïve thoughts about the ethical merits of communism, put a slab of Anne Applebaum urgently on his or her reading list (after, I guess, explaining to them exactly what a “Sovietologist” is). Anyone concerned with Marxist crimes against humanity should have all three of these volumes in their library.

The peasant famine deliberately orchestrated by Soviet Russia in the early 1930s is now well known, after having been denied for some half-century. The pioneer Sovietologist Robert Conquest wrote The Harvest of Sorrow in 1986, which confirmed the worst fears of an outside world. The Ukrainian émigré community, especially active in Toronto, Canada, coined a new word “Holodomor” (kill by famine).

The Ukrainian Holodomor and the Jewish Holocaust are now the two most intensely documented genocides in human history, but people have been increasingly sensitised to the steady stream of mass murder accounts slowly but surely emerging from all parts of the world over the course of the 20th century.

Anne Applebaum’s Red Famine updates Conquest and adds deep colour to political and cultural life in Ukraine before, during and after the Holodomor. The book could not have been written if an independent Ukraine state did not exist today, and it gives a solemn and grim background to today’s strife between autocratic Russia and a besieged Ukrainian democracy. Call no country lucky until you’ve seen who its neighbours are!

Applebaum’s book is useful, providing a neat overview of Ukrainian nationalism slowly emerging in the late 19th century as Tsarist Russia swung indecisively between liberal reform and administrative fear. In the revolutions and civil war 1917-1920, Ukraine could quite plausibly have won and secured its independence. The victory of the Bolsheviks over a series of formidable local opponents seems unlikely at first but is down to luck, persistence and bloodlust.

Stalin and his cronies in particular never forgot how close the Soviet federation came to losing its second prize, the bread basket of the empire possessively known as “Little Russia”. Moscow’s relentless hatred of Ukrainian separateness is evident from the start, and Applebaum sets the 1932-33 famine as simply the culmination of more than a decade of Soviet policies crushing the peasant farmer, their families, their culture and their church.

Towards the end of the civil war in 1920, “poor peasants committees” were organised by the Party to redistribute food in response to a crop failure. This early famine is noteworthy for Lenin’s public admission of the fact, and for the acceptance of international aid, especially from the US, coordinated by future President Herbert Hoover. It was early enough in the regime’s existence for some honesty to still prevail, but lessons learnt on the ground laid the foundations for the genocide to come.

The poor peasants committees targeted their “wealthy” neighbours, the kulaks, who were systematically dehumanised over the course of a decade’s agitation and propaganda, and Applebaum notes that some 1920 pioneers of class hatred featured again in the 1932-33 final round. If anyone thinks genocide is now impossible, this is a grim lesson in how human beings can be incrementally turned over time into non-humans, or even anti-humans.

As the Soviet experiment “progressed” through the 1920s, and Stalin consolidated his personal control, no faults in state policy could now be admitted. Any failures were obviously due to saboteurs and other assorted enemies of state power.

Starting in 1929, the “Twenty Five Thousanders”—party activists from the towns—went out into the countryside to proselytise the joys of farmers moving from their private holdings to new, modern collective farms where tractors would replace horses (and men). The message was singularly unsuccessful in Ukraine, and small farmers stubbornly held onto their traditional village life. In the short term, the Party accepted this recalcitrance, but a price was imposed.

The private farms would be required to make their contribution towards feeding the cities, by way of a quota of foodstuff. On 7 August 1932 the Communist Politburo approved a new law on the “theft of state property”. If a farmer did not have the food to meet the quotas set for collection, they were obviously wilfully withholding the produce with malice aforethought. In the last five months of 1932, more than 100,000 farmers were sentenced to 10-year prison terms for “refusing” to meet their quotas.

Mortality rates in the Gulag prison system, already high, went through the roof, as the new prisoners were already half-starved to death. As word went around, anyone with a relative anywhere outside Ukraine volunteered to go into exile as soon as possible (as you weren’t likely to be coming back, the local Party apparat happily approved the exit), but this possibility of internal exile did not apply to towns or cities within Ukraine. To linger in your ancestral homeland mean an agonised and dehumanised slipping away from life into death.

Some 1100 “activist brigades” were sent to the Ukraine in 1932-1933; not to collect quotas but to confiscate all food, as a penalty for previous missed levies. Brigades would be largely made up of Russian Komsomol (young communists), but usually with a few Ukrainians as token leaders, and with a heavily armed police escort. The brigades stole all the food they could find in the first three months of 1933. By the second quarter of 1933, the brigades were largely assigned to collecting bodies and dumping them into mass graves.

The leading questions from brigades revisiting villages by this time was, “Why are you still alive? Where are you hiding food?” It was not uncommon to find whole families dead together in bed, having shared their last warmth.

Other regions of the Soviet Union suffered similar horrors under Stalin, with more to come from Stalin and his new police chief Beria during the Second World War and after, which has led some migrant communities in their own grief to question the deliberateness of the Ukrainian Holodomor. Applebaum may have found a “smoking gun” in twin resolutions of the Politburo adopted in Moscow on 24 December 1932: a condemnation of cultural and linguistic “Ukrainization” as reactionary and anti-working class, and a separate decision to especially accelerate the achievement of “food quotas” in Ukraine and the (Ukrainian-speaking) North Caucasus. Little Russia had been singled out for “special treatment”.

That today large chunks of Ukraine have substantial populations of ethnic Russians is attributable to a solid 20-year campaign by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union to decimate the agrarian culture of the Ukraine. Stalin really wondered, with the promised glories of collective farms and technology improvements, whether the Soviets actually needed all those Ukrainian farmers!

A little postscript on the 1937 Soviet Census. The previous 1934 census recorded 168 million Soviet citizens, and statisticians cautiously predicted an advance to 170 or 172 million. When the figures came in at a disappointing 162 million, Stalin was not amused—his regime appeared to have “misplaced” 6-10 million citizens. But facts shouldn’t worry a Marxist dialectician. Stalin abolished the census and had the statisticians, “contemptible enemies of the people”, shot. By the 1939 Party Congress, Stalin was pleased to report that a new census had found a total of 170 million well-fed and contented Soviet citizens. Oh joy, the missing farmers and their families had been restored to life … on paper.

This is a solid slab of nauseating and deadening history. But before we strain ourselves to face the horror of 80-90 years ago, there’s an immediate and contemporary message in this history—the independence of the Ukraine is important, and no one should doubt the evils of revanchist Russian militarism today, maybe skipping the empty rhetoric of “shirtfront” bravado.

The 38 Australian passengers murdered on international flight MH17—along with 260 other souls—over Eastern Ukraine on 17 July 2014 were the victims of Russian “hard men” (murderous gangsters), as were millions of Ukrainian peasants starved by the hard men (and women) of the Komsomol brigades expropriating grain and livestock some 80 years earlier.

Maybe we are fortunate enough to live in a post-genocide world? Rising standards of living offer hope to a majority of the world’s population, and the free transmission of knowledge and opinions hopefully makes it harder for ideologues to mislead communities, and easier for communities to challenge and hold their leaders to some account.

Describing the mechanical detail of genocide is unfortunately straightforward; trying to understand it is infinitely harder. Genocide is identified most readily with the Jewish Holocaust driven by the insane “racial purity” Gothic horror-science of the German Nazis, eugenics set to machine guns. Applebaum notes that a further one million Ukrainian Jews were murdered in the 1940s Holocaust, to ravage the land even further. The German dehumanising of Jews is an extraordinary echo of the Russian dehumanising of “kulaks” a decade earlier.

Following the Second World War, international tribunals in the 1950s and 1960s debated many times the appropriate definition of genocide, a term first used by Raphael Lemkin in 1944. Originally the term was defined broadly, to allow the inclusion of persecution of social classes, but Soviet vetoes were exercised to narrow the definition to more specifically ethnic persecution. It is assumed the Soviets were uneasy that their concept of class war might be included.

Anne Applebaum is an intriguing mixture of academic and public figure. She is a dual citizen American-Pole who teaches at the London School of Economics. Her husband Radosław Sikorski is a former Polish Minister for Foreign Affairs. Applebaum is a stalwart board member of the US National Endowment for Democracy (NED), established by US President Ronald Reagan in 1983 and still headed by the formidable Cold War social democrat Carl Gershman.

I have written previously in the IPA Review (Issue 67-1, February 2015) that the threat to democracy today in places such as Ukraine and Hong Kong asks for a committed and well-organised response from the West to articulate the case against authoritarianism. If not a new Congress for Cultural Freedom which answered the call in 1950, maybe as a start Australia should commit to funding its own National Endowment for Democracy for the Asia-Pacific Region?

As anti-democratic regimes pour billions of dollars into winning influence around our immediate region, what are we doing? Do we have the self-confidence in our own moral framework to win over converts to democracy?

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