Grappling With History's Greatest Gangsters

Thoughts on Timothy Snyder's Bloodlands

Lavrentiy Pavlovich Beria, author of the Katyn massacre. (Wikimedia)

In early 1940, the Soviet Union executed 22,000 Polish officers, intellectuals and others deemed problematic to Soviet rule. The author of this policy was Lavrentiy Beria, chief of the Soviet secret police. Beria was not simply a detached administrator of death, he was a serial rapist who employed the apparatus of the state to his ends:

The records contained the official testimony from Colonel R.S. Sarkisov and Colonel V. Nadaraia, two of Beria's most senior NKVD bodyguards. They stated that on warm nights during the war years, Beria was often driven slowly through the streets of Moscow in his armored Packard limousine. He would point out young women to be detained and escorted to his mansion where wine and a feast awaited them. After dining, Beria would take the women into his soundproofed office and rape them.

Beria's bodyguards reported that their orders included handing each victim a flower bouquet as she left Beria's house. The implication being that to accept made it consensual; refusal would mean arrest. In one incident his chief bodyguard, Sarkisov, reported that a woman who had been brought to Beria rejected his advances and ran out of his office; Sarkisov mistakenly handed her the flowers anyway prompting the enraged Beria to declare "Now it's not a bouquet, it's a wreath! May it rot on your grave!"

The woman was arrested by the NKVD the next day.

One of the men charged with carrying out Beria's orders (and Stalin's will) was Vasili Blokhin, arguably the most prolific executioner in modern history:

He had been one of the main killers during the Great Terror, when he had commanded an execution squad in Moscow. He had been entrusted with some of the executions of high-profile defendants of show trials, but had also shot thousands of workers and peasants who were killed entirely in secret. At Kalinin he wore a leather cap, apron, and long gloves to keep the blood and gore from himself and his uniform. Using German pistols, he shot, each night, about two hundred and fifty men, one after another.

Then the bodies were driven, in a truck, to nearby Mednoe, where the NKVD had some summer houses. They were thrown into a large pit dug earlier by a backhoe.

There are horrific scenes, perpetrated by seemingly awful people, all the way through Bloodlands, so much that a kind of nihilism eventually sets in on the reader. If I have one critique, it's that the sheer scale of death in the book works against one of its ostensible goals--to make us feel the great tragedy that swept through Ukraine, Belorussia and Poland. You move from narrative into something closer to chronicle.

Still I think Snyder frames the questions correctly--How can men commit such acts? The question is not answered by empty invocations of "evil" or vague invocations of "sociopathy." The question is not answered by memorializing victims (though this has its place) or the construction of national oaths (though that too might have its place.) On the contrary the question might best be answered, not by identifying with history greatest victims, but by identifying with its killers. This is in fact, as Snyder argues, the moral position:

It is easy to sanctify policies or identities by the deaths of the victims. It is less appealing, but morally more urgent, to understand the actions of the perpetrators. The moral danger, after all, is never that one might become a victim but that one might be a perpetrator or a bystander.
It is tempting to say that a Nazi murderer is beyond the pale of understanding. Outstanding politicians and intellectuals—for example, Edvard Beneš and Ilya Ehrenburg—yielded to this temptation during the war. The Czechoslovak president and the Soviet-Jewish writer were justifying revenge upon the Germans as such. People who called others subhuman were themselves subhuman. Yet to deny a human being his human character is to render ethics impossible. To yield to this temptation, to find other people to be inhuman, is to take a step toward, not away from, the Nazi position.  To find other people incomprehensible is to abandon the search for understanding, and thus to abandon history.   To dismiss the Nazis or the Soviets as beyond human concern or historical understanding is to fall into their moral trap. The safer route is to realize that their motives for mass killing, however revolting to us, made sense to them.
Vasili Blokhin was a particular man, handpicked for a particular duty.  Even the SS was purged in the last phase of the Final Solution, so that it could reduced to its most willing killers. But the point is not that all humans are interchangeable, so much as it is that game must recognize game.  Most of us may not be killers, but there is a killer in most of us. Much as there is a slaveholder in most of us.  It is enough to understand that mass murder made sense to Himmler. You have to get to the Himmler within.
I think that allows for a skeptical morality. I think that allows those of us on the socio-economic bottom to give up our righteousness, to understand that there is nothing super-moral, or blessed, or prophesied in being down here. The bottom is just the bottom. Can we truly say we'd be much different were we on top?
Perhaps we can--but not because of what is in our bones, but because of what is behind our questions. Once we can see the world from Stalin's end, perhaps we can push further and question, not just tactics, but goals. Perhaps we can see that the means by which we seek liberation--for ourselves and others--can not truly be separated from the ends:
It cannot be denied that mass starvation brings political stability of a certain kind. The question must be: is that the sort of peace that is desired, or that should be desired? Mass murder does bind perpetrators to those who give them orders. Is that the right sort of political allegiance? Terror does consolidate a certain kind of regime. Is that kind of regime preferable? Killing civilians is in the interest of certain kinds of leaders. The question is not whether all this is historically true; the question is what is desirable. Are these leaders good leaders, and these regimes good regimes? If not, the question is: how can such policies be prevented?