– Timothy Snyder, “Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin” (2010)
While Vladimir Putin, Stalin’s spawn, ponders what to do with what remains of Ukraine, remember: Nine years before the January 1942 Wannsee Conference, at which the Nazis embarked on industrialized genocide, Stalin deliberately inflicted genocidal starvation on Ukraine.
To fathom the tangled forces, including powerful ones of memory, at work in that tormented place, begin with Snyder’s stunning book. Secretary of State John Kerry has called Russia’s invasion of Ukraine “a 19th-century act in the 21st century.” Snyder reminds us that “Europeans deliberately starved Europeans in horrific numbers in the middle of the 20th century.” Here is Snyder’s distillation of a Welsh journalist’s description of a Ukrainian city:
“People appeared at 2 o’clock in the morning to queue in front of shops that did not open until 7. On an average day 40,000 people would wait for bread. The waiting lasted all day, and sometimes for two. Somewhere in line a woman would wail, and the moaning would echo up and down the line, so that the whole group of thousands sounded like a single animal with an elemental fear.”
This was an engineered famine, the intended result of Stalin’s decision that agriculture should be collectivized and the “kulaks” — prosperous farmers — should be “liquidated as a class.” In January 1933, Stalin, writes Snyder, sealed Ukraine’s borders so peasants could not escape and sealed the cities so peasants could not go there to beg. By spring, more than 10,000 Ukrainians were dying each day.
Soon many Ukrainian children resembled “embryos out of alcohol bottles” (Arthur Koestler’s description).
Snyder, a Yale historian, estimates about 3.3 million Ukrainian deaths from hunger in 1932-33. He says that when “the Soviet census of 1937 found 8 million fewer people than projected,” Stalin “had the responsible demographers executed.”
Putin, who was socialized in the Soviet-era KGB apparatus of oppression, aspires to reverse the Soviet Union’s collapse, which he considers “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.” Herewith a final description from Snyder of the consequences of the Soviet system, the passing of which Putin so regrets:
“One spring morning, amidst the piles of dead peasants at the Kharkiv market, an infant suckled the breast of its mother, whose face was a lifeless gray. Passersby had seen this before that precise scene, the tiny mouth, the last drops of milk, the cold nipple. The Ukrainians had a term for this. They said to themselves, quietly, as they passed: ‘These are the buds of the socialist spring.’”
U.S. policymakers find Putin incomprehensible. He is a barbarian but not a monster, and hence no Stalin. But he has been coarsened, in ways difficult for civilized people to understand, by certain continuities, institutional and emotional, with an almost unimaginably vicious past. And as Ukraine, a bubbling stew of tensions and hatreds, struggles with its identity and aspirations, Americans should warily remember William Faulkner’s aphorism: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
Author’s note: I wish to apologize to The New York Times for inadvertently reproducing without attribution 12 words from an October 2007 Times story describing the 1971 Bon Vivant botulism and bankruptcy episode (published March 13 in The Star).