Thursday 2 December 2010

Out of the shadows

There are many periods in history, malevolent periods, when one simply would not wish to have been alive, if any choice was offered. There are many places one would not wish to have lived, if any choice was offered. To have been born in, say, 1920 and to have lived between the eastern border lands of Germany and the western fringes of the Soviet empire is high among the worst times and the worst places. There the mills of Hitler and Stalin ground fast and exceeding small, killing millions in a mere fifteen year period between 1930 and 1945.

My book juggling at the present includes the recently published Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin by Timothy Snyder. It’s something of a tour de force, a first class piece of writing and research, casting all the more light because the author draws on sources not previously used by western historians, including those in the Polish archives.

The raw facts are known, the bleakness of the facts; deaths so numerous and so unnecessary it’s almost impossible to comprehend: death by deliberate starvation, by mass deportations, by shooting, by gassing- millions and millions of people, from impoverished peasants to cultured intellectuals. They died not for what they did but who they were, ‘kulaks’ or 'sub-humans', it really makes no difference what terminology is used. In the end death does not discriminate.

History and time should bring closure. So far as the Nazi state is concerned it has simply because it was defeated in war, because the enormity of what it achieved in a mere six years was open to the world, open to those with means of seeing and wit to understand. But the Soviet state, the Stalinist state, with crimes as great as if not greater than the Nazis, obscured its criminality.

Some attempt was made to come to terms with the past after the death of Stalin. Still it’s as well to remember that, even at the height of the sc-called thaw, Khrushchev only ever condemned his predecessor for his crimes against the Communist Party, not against the people at large. It was left to writers and poets like Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Varlam Shalamov, Vasily Grossman and Anna Akhmatova to bring home the full horror in simple, honest words. The state itself, in its shame, closed the door, going so far in Soviet and even in post Soviet days partially to rehabilitate Stalin in his monstrosity.

But change happens, even if by the smallest of degrees. Take the example of Kaytn Wood, where thousands of Polish officers and intellectuals were murdered in the spring of 1940 on the orders of Stalin. For years after the fiction was maintained that this was the work of the Nazis, though the full truth was finally acknowledged in the 1990s. Vladimir Putin attended a joint Russian and Polish commemoration this year, though there was still an attempt to take distance on the issue, that it was an ‘error of the past’, an ‘error’ accompanied by continuing attempts to whitewash the architect of the crime.

Now the Duma, the Russian parliament, has at last condemned Stalin by name for the massacre of Katyn in the face of opposition from the Communist deputies, the moral and practical equivalent of the Nazis. “Published documents”, the Duma declaration makes plain, “…not only revealed the scale of this horrific tragedy, but also showed that the Katyn crime was carried out on the direct orders of Stalin and other Soviet officials.” The document goes on to call for the massacre to be investigated further in order to confirm the list of victims. Attention is also drawn to the thousands of Russians murdered in the same place during the Great Terror.

There will be no trial; it’s too late for that. But some justice, even late justice, is better than no justice at all. It’s certainly encouraging to think that, under the guidance of President Dmitry Medvedev, Russia is at last opening to the full truth of its past; that a new way is possible, a new way out of the shadows cast by Lenin, Stalin, and Brezhnev, the shadows cast by the lie of communism


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  2. China throughout the 20th century was probably the shittiest place to live. Jap invasion, civil wars, earthquakes, floods, famines, disease, invasion of Tibet, Great Leap Forward, Cultural Revolution, more earthquakes, floods . . . things only really began to improve in past 20 years.

  3. Yes, Calvin, I know, one of the reasons I don't envy China's present prosperity. No country has deserved it more.

  4. What chills me, Ana, is that none of the many young Chinese I have met know their own nation's history. The past is a blank.

  5. Calvin, Yun Yi, a American Chinese blogger who contributes here occasionally, offered an explanation for this, I think on my blog about Mao's Great Famine. She said there was a deep sense of shame among Chinese people over past humiliations. With shame comes a desire to forget.