Grappling With Holodomor

Thoughts On Timothy Snyder's The Bloodlands
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A few days ago, I listened to a chapter in Timothy Snyder's The Bloodlands on famine in Ukraine during the 1930s.  The famine was man-made--the result of Stalin making war against his own citizens in Ukraine. I listened (I have the book in MP3 format) to about 90 percent of the chapter before I just had to cut it off. I generally have a strong stomach when it come to reading about evil, but this was too much:

Survival was a moral as well as a physical struggle. A woman doctor wrote to a friend in June 1933 that she had not yet become a cannibal, but was “not sure that I shall not be one by the time my letter reaches you.” The good people died first. Those who refused to steal or to prostitute themselves died. Those who gave food to others died. Those who refused to eat corpses died. Those who refused to kill their fellow man died. Parents who resisted cannibalism died before their children did.

That people were starving to death in Ukraine, and that this was a political act, not an act of God, was hidden from the world. And then sometimes the world just looked away:

Throughout the following summer and autumn, Ukrainian newspapers in Poland covered the famine, and Ukrainian politicians in Poland organized marches and protests. The leader of the Ukrainian feminist organization tried to organize an international boycott of Soviet goods by appealing to the women of the world. Several attempts were made to reach Franklin D. Roosevelt, the president of the United States.96 None of this made any difference.

The laws of the international market ensured that the grain taken from Soviet Ukraine would feed others. Roosevelt, preoccupied above all by the position of the American worker during the Great Depression, wished to establish diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union. The telegrams from Ukrainian activists reached him in autumn 1933, just as his personal initiative in US-Soviet relations was bearing fruit. The United States extended diplomatic recognition to the Soviet Union in November 1933.

In August of 1933, French politician Édouard Herriot came to Kiev to see the socialist spirit. Instead he got a show. Food--meant for display not consumption--was put in the shops. Party activist were brought in to make it seem as though the town were bustling. The healthiest of the starving children were trotted out and coached to give pre-approved answers. Herriot was then chauffeured on to Moscow where supped on caviar. He would later praise Soviet actions for honoring both "the socialist spirit" and the "Ukrainian national feeling."

Somewhere between 5.5 and 8 million people died during the famine. "The classic case of Soviet genocide," Rafal Lemkin would call it. But at the time, men like Authur Koestler dismissed the dying as "enemies of the people preferred begging to work." I don't write to condemn Koestler or even the West. I keep thinking back to the long argument I got into with some members of the Horde over communism and Eric Hobsbawm, which was a low point for this blog.

The Soviet Union pitched itself in opposition to the racism of Nazi Germany, and even America. There's a Stalin-era film, which I'm dying to see, in which the American heroine gives birth to a black child and finds peace in the Soviet Union. But it is hard not to look at Ukraine, or look at dekulakization, or look at the Polish operation, or the Latvian operation, and not see--if not racism--a lethal ethnic bias. I've yet to see the argument that Poles were inferior by blood, but I have seen this:

The Soviet Union was a multinational state, using a multinational apparatus of repression to carry out national killing campaigns. At the time when the NKVD was killing members of national minorities, most of its leading officers were themselves members of national minorities. In 1937 and 1938, NKVD officers, many of whom were of Jewish, Latvian, Polish, or German nationality, were implementing policies of national killing that exceeded anything that Hitler and his SS had (yet) attempted. In carrying out these ethnic massacres, which of course they had to if they wished to preserve their positions and their lives, they comprised an ethic of internationalism, which must have been important to some of them. Then they were killed anyway, as the Terror continued, and usually replaced by Russians. 

The Jewish officers who brought the Polish operation to Ukraine and Belarus, such as Izrail Leplevskii, Lev Raikhman, and Boris Berman, were arrested and executed. This was part of a larger trend. When the mass killing of the Great Terror began, about a third of the high-ranking NKVD officers were Jewish by nationality. By the time Stalin brought it to an end on 17 November 1938, about twenty percent of the high-ranking officers were. A year later that figure was less than four percent. The Great Terror could be, and by many would be, blamed on the Jews. 

To reason this way was to fall into a Stalinist trap: Stalin certainly understood that Jewish NKVD officers would be a convenient scapegoat for national killing actions, especially after both the Jewish secret policemen and the national elites were dead. In any event, the institutional beneficiaries of the Terror were not Jews or members of other national minorities but Russians who moved up in the ranks. By 1939 Russians (two thirds of the ranking officers) had replaced Jews at the heights of the NKVD, a state of affairs that would become permanent. Russians became an overrepresented national majority; their population share at the heights of the NKVD was greater than their share in the Soviet population generally. The only national minority that was highly overrepresented in the NKVD at the end of the Great Terror were the Georgians—Stalin’s own.

We are taught that World War II was a battle between good guys and bad guys. I came out of that notion some years ago. But there's a difference between feeling something to be generally true, and being confronted with it in all the detail. It really is chaos out there. It's always been chaos out there.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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