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Showing posts with label Vasily Grossman and Holodomor. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Vasily Grossman and Holodomor. Show all posts

Saturday 9 June 2012

Review: Vasily Grossman, Everything Flows & the Holodomor

Some time ago I read Vasily Grossman's A Writer at War 1941-1945, a book of extraordinary reportage from the Red Army front line. So when I saw Everything Flows in the bookshop, I bought it.

Written between 1955 and Grossman's death in 1964, but first published (in the Soviet Union) in 1989, it is part fictional story of a man just released, after many years, from the Gulag and part political essay about the Russian soul, about the Russian experience of serfdom, about Lenin as begetter of Stalin.

There are two chapters (14 and 15) which provide a detailed, precise and harrowing account of the artificial famine (the Holodomor) which killed millions in Ukraine in 1932 - 33. The narrative is written as if from the knowledge of a (female) eye-witness. I was astonished that Grossman knew so much about something which in the Soviet Union of the Khruschev years was still barely acknowledged. But then I discovered from the biographical notice that Grossman, who I had previously thought of as a Russian Jew, was in fact a Ukrainian Jew from Berdichev (its Jewish community was finally exterminated in 1941). And I guess as a major figure in Soviet literary life, people told him things.

Though there is ongoing and highly charged debate about the Holodomor (see the Wikipedia entry for example), these two chapters by Grossman astonished me as evocations of what it is like to die of starvation and in pinpointing details of what was involved in engineering it or allowing it to happen. I felt these chapters deserve to be read.

When I got to the end of the book and read the Afterword by Grossman's daughter, I found her saying "I have always thought that the two chapters about the famine...are the most powerful in all Grossman's work" (page 288). So now you have two recommendations.

Previously published on my Blog, The Best I can Do

Review: Timothy Snyder, Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin

This is not an easy book to read; it does not stray from the cataloguing and analysis of policies of terror, destruction and extermination between 1933 and 1945. But the analysis is new (to me)and there is much in the detail which I had simply not encountered before.

The analysis is new insofar as it places the Jewish Holocaust (six million dead) in the context of fourteen million dead from policies pursued by Hitler and Stalin in what Snyder calls "The Bloodlands" - Poland, Belarus, Ukraine and, to a lesser degree, the Baltic States.

Big numbers to the death tally are contributed by Stalin's deliberate creation of famine in 1932-33 Ukraine (3.3 million, page 411), with which Snyder begins his narrative. More big numbers are added by the German treatment of Soviet Prisoners of War, captured in vast numbers as the Nazis swept into the Soviet Union in 1941 and either shot or allowed to die of starvation in horrific conditions (3.1 million, page 184):

"In late 1941, when [Soviet] prisoners of war were very likely to starve to death, some of them survived by fleeing - to the Minsk ghetto. The ghetto was still a safer place than the prisoner-of-war camps. In the last few months of 1941, more people died at nearby Dulags and Stalags than in the Minsk ghetto" (page 230; see also the figures at page 179)

In this connection, Snyder clearly has no patience with the distinction between a "good" Wehrmacht (professional soldiers doing their duty) and the Nazis: in the Bloodlands, the Wehrmacht were enthusiasts for killing.

The tally increases hundreds of thousands at a time from other policies of Stalin and Hitler:

- Stalin's Great Terror of 1937 - 38
- Stalin's selective executions and mass deportations of ethnic groups from Soviet border areas where they were thought likely to sympathises with an invader
- Hitler's and Stalin's joint actions in exterminating Polish elites, military and civlian. The Katyn Massacre of the Polish Officer class is the most familiar. The Soviets were responsible but it could equally have been the Germans.
- Hitler's "Reprisal" killings of civilians, notably in Belarus and Poland. In Belarus there was quite a lot of Soviet inspired Partisan activity and in Poland, there was both the Home Army of the Polish government in exile and Soviet-directed Partisans. After the Warsaw Uprisings, all of Warsaw was razed to the ground.
- The advancing Soviet Army's raping and killing spree in 1944-45

Snyder's list is longer than this summary.

New to me was his emphasis on the fact that Hitler did not want either the people or the cities of the occupied East: he wanted a tabula rasa on which to start again: new inhabitants and new infrastructure. What seems to an outsider wanton destruction was almost always part of a policy. The same is true of Stalin's Ukraine Famine.

Snyder does not write about acts of individual humanity or resistance to horrific policy and behaviour. The book is unremittingly bleak. Nor does he look at the role of institutions which still existed to some extent independent of Nazi or Communist control. He says nothing about the churches, Roman Catholic, Orthodox and (in the Baltics) Lutheran. Some of them were complicit in murderous policies and that should be analysed. Some of them housed individuals who risked their lives for others.

Snyder does emphasise that the Western allies - the USA, the UK - took little or no interest in what was happening in the European lands fought over between Hitler and Stalin, and declined to act on what they did know. I quote one story which was new to me:

'Shmuel Zygielbojm, the representative of the [Jewish socialist] Bund to the Polish government-in-exile in London, knew that the [Warsaw] ghetto was going up in flames. He had a clear idea of the general course of the Holocaust from Jan Karski, a Home Army courier who had brought news of the the mass murder to the Allied leaders in 1942....In a careful suicide note of 12 May 1943....he wrote: "Though the responsibility fro the crime of the murder of the entire Jewish nation rests above all upon the perpetrators, indirect blame must be borne by humanity itself" The next day he burned himself alive in front of the British parliament...' (page 292)[* but see my Footnote below]

In the shadow and the wake of fourteen million dead people, there were also those who survived, often Displaced, often Deported, often in Exile and almost inevitably traumatised. Their contribution to the post-war world often demonstrated an extraordinary ability to triumph over adversity. At times, their contribution was not constructive - so much so that in his book Political Journeys Fred Halliday concludes that the role of diasporas in the politics of their homeland is always negative. But the world of the survivors is another book.

I am glad I read Snyder's extraordinarily broad and detailed work, cover to cover. I recommend it.

Footnote added 19 May 2012: In his 1944 autobiographical book, Story of a Secret State,Jan Karski gives a detailed and moving account of his meeting in London with Zygielbojm. But the suicide is described as having been committed at home, by turning on the gas (page 366 of the 2012 Penguin edition). The Wikipedia entry for Zygielbojm makes no mention of a public suicide. It does, however, say that Zygielbojm's body was cremated at the time in symbolic solidarity with Polish Jews and that because this was contrary to Jewish burial traditions, it posed problems for the interment of his ashes, when they were located in 1959, and which were not resolved until 1961.

Previously published on my Blog, The Best I can Do

Review: Alexander Etkind, Internal Colonization: Russia's Imperial Experience

Russia was an empire, but (except in the case of Alaska) no oceans separated its centres of power from its colonies - only marshes, steppes and desert. The colonies were on the periphery - Siberia, Central Asia, Transcaucasia, the Baltics - but also in the heartlands over whose Russian peasants their masters - though often of the same race and speaking the same language - exercised an uncertain dominion. Russia's colonial history in many respects reflects this specific and unusual geographical character of the Empire.

Alexander Etkind comes at this subject as a University teacher of Russian Literature and Cultural History.

In the past (quite distant now), his subject matter would have been fair game for writers and intellectuals receiving no specific state subvention for their work. They would have produced belles-lettres, sometimes idiosyncratic and unreliable. Professors aim for something different and so Etkind pays his respects to the theorists of cultural history who matter in his world - Edward Said, Homi Bhaba, Michel Foucault, Mikhail Bakhtin - though he largely spares us Derrida.

But having paid his respects, I am not sure that it makes much difference to what he writes. He starts from a Bibliography to die for (pp 257 - 82) and turns in some virtuoso performances, for example on the fur trade. But overall the book is a collection of sketches from an academic's album: seminar papers ("In this chapter, I will re-read these novellas together with two lesser known non-fiction texts by the same authors..." (page 214), biographical entries for little-known writers, "compare and contrast" literary essays,and - at worst - plot summaries and cabinets of curiosities. It is modern belles-lettres, with an academic cover story, and perhaps no worse for that.

On the other hand, Etkind does miss the opportunity for an integrated narrative of Russian colonial experience when he throws away a very interesting and important idea in just two pages (pp 143 - 144). He reprises this idea in his Conclusion:

"the Russian Empire demonstrated a reversed imperial gradient: people on the periphery lived better than those in the central provinces. The Empire settled foreigners on its lands, giving them privileges over Russians and other locals. Among all ethnicities in the Empire, only Russian and some other eastern Slavs were subject to serfdom..."(p 252)

This idea struck a lot of chords. Not so long ago I read Nicolas Breyfogle's Heretics and Colonizers ( 2005). He shows how religious heretics (schismatics) originally exiled to the Caucasus to keep them away from the Orthodox in the Russian heartlands ended up both enjoying very obvious privileges, such as exemption from military service, and being relied on by the Imperial administration to provide valuable services to the Empire, for instance maintaining postroads and post stations on the Imperial periphery. At one and the same time, the heretics were outcasts, privileged and indispensable.

The Caucasus was also home to communities of foreign (mostly German) sects - Wurttemburgists, Mennonites - who were allowed enough autonomy to put their energies to long-term productive use. In the settlement of [H]elenendorf (after 1914, Elenino / Eleneno) in predominantly Muslim Elisavetpol guberniya, Wurttemburgists - who had arrived as far back as 1818 - produced wine and marketed it through a company of some importance, Concordia. The community survived until 1940 when Stalin exiled these Germans to Kazakhstan. There were a score or more communities like Elenino.

In another direction,the striking fact that peasants in the heartlands lived worse than those in the "colonial" periphery could be seen as critical to understanding both the collapse of the regime in 1917 and later (1918 - 21) features of War Communism.

In relation to the collapse, it was workers and peasants in the Russian heartlands who disproportionately provided the manpower to fight the First World War and who bore the brunt of German assaults. They were on the sharp end of the failings of the Imperial regime, not least the class (Estates, Ranks) system which made officers completely foreign to their men.

In contrast, and by way of example,for almost the whole war period, Russian Poland was under German Occupation. The subjects of the Tsar got on with their lives under German Occupation and parts of the civil administration were devolved to them. In the East, the Germans were not defeated - and after the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, they took control of even more Imperial territory (the Baltic provinces, Ukraine).

The Bolshevik re-conquest of Russia in the East - Ukraine, the Don and Kuban,Central Asia, Siberia - which involved the defeat of all the opposing "White" forces by the end of 1920 - also deployed soldiers recruited primarily from the Russian heartlands from among poor workers and peasants. As the Red Army moved south and east, into areas richer in food and other products than the heartlands, so it requisitioned produce for the centre - for Petrograd and Moscow. And, at an individual level, soldiers looted or acquired on favourable terms food and other goods which they shipped back home by post. In a very crude and violent way, there was a redistribution from the wealthier periphery to the poorer centre.

Under Stalin, that redistribution from periphery to centre became larger and even more lethal, culminating in the Ukrainian Holodomor of 1932 -33 [ see my review of Vasily Grossman's Everything Flows in a previous Blog].

So I think that Etkind in the idea of the "Reversed Imperial Gradient" touched on something which could perhaps have been developed at much greater length and which might have integrated some of the disparate material in this interesting book.

Previously published on my Blog, The Best I can Do